UPDATE (July 2018): The Waltons is now available on Prime! I just watched the first three episodes and they hold up remarkably well. Go figure!
Where were you the evening of February 28, 1983? Chances are if you were alive and owned a television, you were watching the final episode of M*A*S*H along with 106 million of your fellow Americans. Still the most-watched television show in history, M*A*S*H’s finale has only been eclipsed by recent Super Bowls (and that has more to do with the number of TV sets than actual humans… the Super Bowl that aired January 30, 1983, only had 82 million viewers).
Today the thought that more than half the country would be united in a single pursuit is unfathomable. When is the last time 60 percent of Americans agreed to anything, let alone gathering for a cultural moment?
This is not a post lamenting the past coated in false nostalgia. Societies evolve and there’s no way to curb forward momentum. The present is always here, but the fact that we as a nation seem unable (or at least unwilling) to come together is certainly rooted in our viewing habits (New York Magazine recently published a mea culpa series on the creators and shapers of the modern Internet and how much it is to blame for a rising tide of hatred paired with the downward spiral of democracy).
I have seen both sides of this nation’s citizens become more extreme and the results are dramatic, if not catastrophic. Instead of being united to solve problems together, we are now living in a wedge issue world whereby compromise can never even be considered. One side is consumed by intolerance (I’m looking at you sister liberals) and the other by sheer and utter hatred (conservatives, own your anger, if you please). We are all simultaneously wrong in our righteousness.
Which brings me back to television and the network CBS, which originally ran M*A*S*H from 1972 to 1983. In the wake of Vietnam, the Civil Rights era, the women’s movement and so much societal seismic activity, we somehow or another could all agree to share something that spoke to us. The Columbia Broadcasting System might as well have been named the Collective Broadcasting System.
Sure, NBC owned the whole “Must See TV” of the 1990s, but CBS has always been diverse and representative. Going way back to Archie Bunker and his neighbor George Jefferson, there has always been room under the CBS awning for Americans of all types, shapes, sizes and beliefs. No one is excluded from the table that offers a plethora of options.
I grew up in Middle America watching The Waltons. Granted, I haven’t seen that show in about four decades, but I remember the warmth of this family, their generosity and kindness to each other and to those who were not “family.” The idea that someone might not be valued is anathema to everything John Boy, Mary Ellen and the rest of the Walton clan believed. They “walked the walk,” as it were.
Perhaps it is no surprise then that I am a huge fan of Blue Bloods, which has recently been renewed for a ninth season—practically unheard of in the modern era. I have written before when I felt this show was off-kilter, but for the most part the writing is excellent and the characters’ chemistry is what keeps this show on the air. The patriarch played by Tom Selleck is less “true blue” than “true red” in terms of his conservatism, which dovetails nicely with the actor’s true beliefs (Selleck is a staunch Republican, also a rarity in Hollywood). The family prays together and stays together. When actress Amy Carlson recently decided to leave the show, they killed her off: The writers no doubt knew that Linda (her character) and Danny (Donnie Wahlberg) would never in a million years divorce. While I am not religious, I love the way Catholicism is a part of the Regan household and a constant in the series in an unobtrusive or preachy way.
However, CBS doesn’t only create content that plays to the red state watchers. In fact, somewhat surprisingly, two other NYC-based shows were on the network’s recent renewal list: Elementary (a show that pairs a recovering addict with an Asian-American Watson—a fact that did not go over well when the series was launched in 2012—and gives Holmes an African-American cop partner) and Instinct (which had its mid-season premiere a couple months ago).
Instinct stars Alan Cumming as Dylan Reihart, an openly-gay former CIA operative. Oh, and it airs at 8PM on Sundays. Much as with the religiosity of Blue Bloods, the LGBTQ-ness of Instinct is not really played up. Dylan’s husband is a supportive and supporting character. The fact that Dylan is gay never mattered to his colleagues at the CIA. It’s so much a non-issue that I’m not surprised it took a network like CBS to bring this character to life (on NBC’s Will & Grace and ABC’s Ellen, the characters’ sexuality was—in the case of the latter, belatedly—a plot point). I am thrilled that CBS has renewed this all-inclusive series and look forward to watching future episodes. (I feel that the show was a bit wobbly but now that Dylan’s character is more fleshed out and the procedural elements are tighter, it’s turning out to be a show I really like.)
Of course, I realize the one thing many of these shows have in common is that they are procedurals rather than straight-up dramas. That makes the backstory less important: All we really want to know is whodunit on these shows. However, Blue Bloods and Elementary have been around so long in large part because we care about these characters. We want them to be successful and fulfilled… not just because they caught the bad guy.
When I was in journalism school (that bastion of liberalness) in South Carolina (a bastion of states’ rights conservatism), one of my favorite professors said something quite shocking during a lecture before a room of about 80 students. He said, “Look around. Whatever you think about abortion, you are right… and so is the person sitting next to you.”
Whoa! That was a revelatory moment bordering on epiphany. If everyone could be right about an issue as divisive as abortion, then we could move beyond the issue to work together on matters that truly needed to be addressed: our crumbling infrastructure is never going to be a wedge issue… I think every American would agree that safe bridges, paved roads, clean water are all worthy of our attention.
Can we ever as a society agree to stop fighting long enough to address the issues that every person in this country—be she, he, they brown, black, pink or a combination, fully abled or not, straight or not—sees as vital? I don’t know. But if we would come together as human beings with respect and love and a willingness to breathe the same air, I do know that we could solve most of the problems that our current leaders (on both sides of the aisle) seem unwilling to do.
It may be silly to consider the compromised world of CBS would be able to change minds, but they’re pretty darn good about changing hearts. Just ask Archie Bunker.