Politicized Television

NYT: TV Shows Take On Bush, and Pull Few Punches

Galvanized politically in ways they have not been since the early 1990’s, Hollywood’s more liberal producers and writers are increasingly expressing their displeasure with President Bush with not only their wallets, but also their scripts.

In recent weeks, characters in prime time have progressed beyond the typical Hollywood knocks against Washington politicians to calling out the president directly or questioning his policies, including the decision to go to war in Iraq, the support of the antiterrorism law and the backing of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

On the NBC show “Whoopi,” the hotelier played by Whoopi Goldberg delivered an anti-Bush screed when the president, played by a lookalike, appeared at her establishment to use the facilities. “I can’t believe he’s in there doing to my bathroom what he’s done to the economy!” she said.

One of the wise-cracking detectives on the NBC show “Law & Order,” played by Jesse L. Martin, referred to the president as the “dude that lied to us.” The character went on to say, “I don’t see any weapons of mass destruction, do you?” His cantankerous partner, played by Jerry Orbach, retorted that Saddam Hussein did have such weapons because the president’s “daddy” sold them to a certain someone “who used to live in Baghdad.”

But the season finale of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” on HBO arguably best conveyed the growing sentiment. On that episode, the main character, played by the comedian Larry David, backed out of a dalliance sanctioned by his wife after noticing that his prospective paramour had lovingly displayed a picture of Mr. Bush on her dresser.

Certainly, the politicization of television isn’t new. Overtly, it dates at least to the debut of Norman Lear’s “All in the Family” in 1971. What does strike me about these examples, though, is how amazingly hamhanded they are. “All in the Family,” while unabashedly liberal, was superbly written and was entertaining first, with the political message merely a backdrop.

Aside from just an overall decline in class that marks the popular culture, this is almost certainly a reflection of the transformation of network television to what has been termed “narrowcasting.” While shows like “All in the Family” had to appeal to a wide audience to survive, shows like “Whoopi” can survive appealing to a tiny niche–one that presumably share’s the star’s crude sense of humor and political persuasion.

Indeed, there are shows on now that manage to be both political and compelling. ABC’s “The Practice” is a good example:

Robert Breech, an executive producer of “The Practice” on ABC, said his show was trying to spark debate and entertain while presenting both sides. In one episode, a lawyer gave an impassioned speech to a jury in which she referred to the use of a “free speech zone” that kept protesters away from Mr. Bush. “What is happening to this country?” the lawyer asked.

“We’re really just inviting people to think about these things,” Mr. Breech said. “How far is too far in seeking security?”

I often disagree with the politics expressed on the show, but I seldom feel like I’m being beat over the head with the producer’s viewpoints. Plot and character development take first priority. Most of the characters are liberals and passionate in their views. Frankly, that not only makes for better politics but also would seem a much more effective way of getting one’s point across. Preaching to the choir has to get old at some point.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Boyd says:

    With the diffusion of viewers across a wide expanse of television channels, both broadcast and cable, and the draining of viewers to video tapes/DVDs, Internet, etc., the impact of today’s television shows has certainly diminished from 30 years ago.

  2. Well, I can’t object to the Law and Order quip. It seems like something that would come up in conversation on the job. In other words, its believable. Law and Order doesn’t do this on a regular basis, from what I’ve seen. I would catagorize it with the Practice.

    The Whoopi one, on the other hand, is aimed at the President, and is a contrived situation.

    The other one wasn’t much better.

    All in all, I agree. Culture has sunk down quite a few notches.

  3. Leo says:

    I, and admittedly I’m only drawing from a personal knowlege of several thousand cops, don’t know anyone who liked Clinton or Gore. In Mass, where I work, I don’t know anyone who isn’t wholly wrapped up in the union movement who likes Kerry. If the actual changes in the FLSA are correct, I am afraid I would be against President Bush as well, as they seem to support anyone who tells anyone else what to do to get no overtime at all.

    Kerry has spoken at a number of conferences I have been to, and his theme has been the ban of cop-killer bullets. Er, yes, but I haven’t heard anything as the existence of these things don’t actually exist. Whatever.

    But what do I know, eh? I do recall the Clinton appearance where the secret service (who I hugely respect, though how they got credit card fraud, I don’t know) pulled all the POLICE OFFICER’S guns from their holsters for the photo op.

    I was a more than a bit incredulous. I mean, does anyone here think that a sworn police officer would be a danger to the President of the United States of America? Even if you didn’t like him? Probably not many, I think a check on threats would be it, in my recollection, there have been citizens, veterans, and POs who have put themselves in harm’s way to protect a president.

    I’m rambling rambling rambling here, obviously…