“I am everyday people.” Sly Stone
We don’t hear much from Norman Lear anymore. He’s in his nineties and still trying to get another sitcom going before he breathes his last. Lear created “All In the Family” with Bud Yorkin back in the 70s.
It was supposed to be a reflection of American thinking, but nobody got that. Archie Bunker wasn’t like us at all. He was a bigot and a racist. People probably identified more with Edith, his wife. She was pretty clueless, but a good person at heart.
The show drove the networks and sponsors crazy. They gave Lear and Yorkin no end of grief, but the ratings kept going up. As Lear explained, “At the end of the day, it’s all about ratings.”
“Golden Girls” was just the ticket to show how anyone could be stifled in Hollywood. Bea Arthur got stifled big time.
As obnoxious as Archie was, and dumb as Edith was, they struck a discordant note. They shocked on one hand and made people care on the other.
Networks didn’t like the sound of that at all. Next thing you know, audiences would start questioning authority — which they did. They impeached the president.
Eventually, though, the networks were able to steer viewers back with shows like “Golden Girls.” Bea Arthur was an interesting choice, since she’d caused so much controversy with “Maude,” another Lear/Yorkin creation.
Throwing her together with three other retired women in Florida seemed to stifle Arthur, much the way Archie tried when she first appeared in “All In the Family” as Edith’s cousin. “Golden Girls” was just the ticket to show how anyone could be stifled in Hollywood. Arthur got stifled big time.
Aaron Spelling was a network’s dream. Shows like “90210” were supposed to reflect teenaged lives, but the cast were all Hollywood brats. Everyone knew they were brats, but we liked the conflict and drama. It was realistic and ridiculous at the same time. It was an ocular myth.
“I think there are two ways to depict a family,” Spelling explained. “One is what it’s really like, and one is what the audience would like it to be. Between you and me, I think the second one is what I would prefer.”
We like the clothes, the situations, the camaraderie, but if any of the cast in “90210” went down to Watts, they wouldn’t be brats anymore.
“Dynasty” followed a similar path to “Dallas,” showing families together, fighting, making up, displaying loyalty and deception at the same time. These shows weren’t what we necessarily “preferred,” but it gave us a curious sense of detachment. Women watched “Dynasty” just for the clothes. As Spelling explained, “I think we made our designer a millionaire.”
It’s a strange dichotomy of thought, but it shows our boundaries. We want a certain amount of realism, but not too much. We like the clothes, the situations, the camaraderie, but if any of the cast in “90210” went down to Watts, they wouldn’t be brats anymore. They’d be Bea Arthur.
We can’t really explain why we like situation comedies. Shows like “Friends” and “Two And a Half Men” were about as phony as a two-headed coin, but we preferred them to our own lives. Somehow they represented an ideal where you could carry on a discussion about your love life in a supermarket.
Reality television has it all wrapped into one. “The Jersey Shore” gave us an inside look at mostly Italian Gen-Xers, whooping it up in a tourist town, working in a t-shirt concession and living in a common house. It was real and unreal, silly yet they took themselves seriously.
Downing eight Jell-O shots doesn’t exactly make you accountable. It was Lady’s Night afterall.
In Spelling’s language, it was something we could want in our lives, if being a goof didn’t bother us so much, or passing out drunk in a roommate’s bed didn’t embarrass us so much.
Even a bit of innocent girl-on-girl kissing wasn’t the end of the world, since downing eight Jell-O shots doesn’t exactly make you accountable. It was Lady’s Night afterall.
The high ratings were a bit disturbing, but watching from a four-bedroom split level in Westchester made it okay. We weren’t doing stupid stuff or, if we were, it wasn’t as bad as Snookie and The Situation.
In 2010, the cast made Barbara Walter’s 10 Most Fascinating List, which gives you some idea of what passes for fascinating these days.
“Survivor” showed us that deception is fine if you get to hold a wooden statue. “Modern Family” reminded us that parents can be clueless, much like Al or Peg Bundy in “Married With Children.” Gloria and Jay are more like us than Al and Peg, but we’re still left wondering how a shoe salesman or a real estate agent could afford the homes they do.
At least they have (or had) jobs. They go to work, come home, enjoy a certain amount of high jinx, then go to bed. If it wasn’t for the high jinx, their lives would be just like ours, which is comforting and disturbing at the same time.
We don’t have Berta saying “I ain’t cleanin’ that up,” or a young Sheldon trying to order yellow cake online. We come home hoping life’s more exciting in the sitcom world. As J.K. Simmons once pointed out, “There’s a kind of numbness, a sameness, a lack of motivation in a ‘good job’ culture.”
If you have a good job, what more do you need? Why put yourself out there, trying to be something different? As one woman explained to me: “You get a career, marry, have kids, get them through university, job done.”
“There’s something about sameness people like,” George A. Romero noted. “That’s why I make zombie films different.”
Obviously, the social awareness Norman Leer brought to television is gone. “All In the Family,” “The Jeffersons,” “Good Times” were period pieces. They made us care, they made us laugh, but they also made us uncomfortable. Spelling probably had it right. We prefer watching lives we’d like to lead rather than questioning the state of the world.
“There’s something about sameness people like,” George A. Romero noted. “That’s why I make zombie films different.” Maybe they’re unreal or too real. A thousand zombies walking the streets in “Walking Dead” looks pretty much like 32nd street at 5 o’clock. People fall off curbs looking at their smartphones. Zombies don’t. Maybe they have better balance.
We’re seeing life the way we “prefer” it. Maybe that doesn’t make us aware, but it doesn’t make us bad people, either.
If we’re all sitcoms, it’s our own fault. We like name-brand convenience. We like knowing everything’s fine, even if it isn’t. The news is supposed to tell us it’s not, but we change the channel, we hit the “mute” button. We can switch over to “The Big Bang Theory” or “Game of Thrones.”
That’s probably why Norman Leer isn’t going to get another sitcom. We’re not interested in being aware. We’ve got our shows. We’re seeing life the way we “prefer” it.
Maybe that doesn’t make us aware, but it doesn’t make us bad people, either.
At least we’re not Al Bundy.
Robert Cormack is a novelist, children’s book author and blogger. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” is available online and at most major bookstores (now in paperback). Check out Yucca Publishing or Skyhorse Press for more details.