Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Glee Model: How to present social issues on TV without everyone running in terror

So in this year's Emmy's, Glee was nominated for 19 awards - the most nominations for any comedy series at this year's ceremony. Truthfully, I haven't watched Glee but I hear it's a good show: it's funny, has great music, and, most importantly, does a good job of both capturing the life of a high schooler and tackling social issues. Glee was one of the first shows in years, drama or comedy, to heavily feature social issues and get recognition from the Emmy voters - but why?

Other shows that received lots of nominations this year (Mad Men, Breaking Bad, etc) and in years past (The Sopranos, The West Wing, etc) don't necessarily approach social issues in the same way, if at all. The Sopranos, The West Wing, and Breaking Bad are all about the characters and the story. Mad Men does tackle social issues, but they are social issues from the 60s, when milk was delivered to your door step and you could smoke and drink while pregnant and no one gave a shit (ahh the good old days).

In addition, Glee is a comedy. While 30 Rock and The Office have ruled the comedic roost for the past few years, neither go deep, and are more celebrated for their goofiness (30 Rock) or absurdity/awkwardness (The Office). Shows in the past that have been well-received by critics that also spoke about issues were generally not well-received by Emmy voters. Friday Night Lights comes to mind, which similarly to Glee - it's about high school - effectively depicts the life of a high schooler, and presents social issues (racism, ethics, teen drinking, etc.). But not only does Friday Night Lights not get a lot of viewers (probably because the smart guys at NBC actually aired it on Friday nights - a cool idea given the shows title but a shitty one considering no one watches TV on Friday nights) but it doesn't get much love from the Emmy's either. But the most glaring example of the Emmy's not being down with socially substantive shows has to be the The Wire.

The Wire, which was praised by some critics as being the best show on TV while it was on the air, was the show that best tackled pertinent social issues over the last decade. It was a powerful show, hailed by critics and loyal viewers as some of the best TV ever produced. Despite all of this, the show received only 2(!) Emmy noms in 5 seasons of being on the air, and they were both for writing. None for directing or acting, not to mention, Best Drama Series. That's like if an NFL player had one of the best statistical seasons of all time and didn't receive a single MVP vote (oh wait?).

So why didn't The Wire get the recognition it deserved? It could have to do with any number of things, but this blogger believes it had to do with the way the information was presented. First, let me say that I wouldn't change a thing about The Wire. I don't really care if the show won any Emmy's, it's still a great show, and frankly I can't imagine the creators of The Wire care much either. But maybe the reason they didn't do it up at the Emmy's each year was because it was too real.

Glee presents social issues, but filters them through song, dance, and best of all comedy. These things draw people in because they are all very non-threatening. Once people are enjoying the jokes and musical portions, the show can present its viewers with its primary objective: portraying hot-button issues of American high school life (dating, sex, teacher ethics, being gay/lesbian in high school, bullying, etc). In comparison, The Wire did not filter the issues it brought to light (corruption, crime, terrible inner-city school systems, the media, etc). It addressed them in the most brutally honest way possible. They were basically saying "Here is whats going in Baltimore, and other similar urban areas in the US, right now." This may have been too much for the American public, sort of similar to the one-back rule my man prez posted about recently - it may have hit a little too close to home. The Wire may have been better off having singing and dancing police officers and drug dealers (and maybe even Jane Lynch as the no-nonsense mayor) to mask the show's true message.

Overall what I'm trying to say is that though the American public might want to be confronted with the issues in the shows mentioned in this post, we want to do so on our own terms. We might not want to see what's currently going on in Baltimore because it's frightening that a major American city is in that condition.

It's a lot easier to present controversial or jarring content when you've already entered the subject's comfort zone and made them feel more at ease. Even though my man Frank Reynolds says otherwise, the classic business tactic of "drop the bomb, then soften the blow" doesn't always seem to work. Regardless, go watch The Wire if you haven't already, and let your world be rocked. It'll be good for you.


ThatGirl said...

40 years ago (!) there was another comedy with music that presented social issues-- The Partridge Family. They tackled subjects like the war in Vietnam (Danny got drafted) the Women's Movement, Nixon, and numerous other issues of the time and it all went down with middle America because it was disguised as bubblegum pop.

Lloyd Decker said...

Um. Okay. . .so, I'm all about using comedy to address social issues, but boy do you have Glee wrong. The show is silly and wildly inconsistent and, other than a little solid interaction between Kurt and his Dad that might speak to what it's like to be a gay teenager, almost entirely without substance. Every "social issue" the show brings up is a fancy excuse for a certain song, and it's forgotten by the characters before the next commercial break. Dramatically, dramatically different from Friday Night Lights. And as to Glee portraying realistic high schoolers. . .? I'm so flabbergasted at the suggestion that I don't have the slightest response. All the characters on Glee are cartoons. Every single one. Some are simply drawn a little better than others.

Penny said...

Hum. Are you really analyzing how important issues are presented in a TV show that you actually never have watched?