Mediator: Politics, It Seems, Has Jolted Even the Idiot Box Awake

2017-05-15 16:47:02

 

Mediator: Politics, It Seems, Has Jolted Even the Idiot Box Awake

The Idiot Box is wising up. But is it waking up?

The idea is catching fire.

In discussing her lead role in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Hulu’s powerful new series about a dystopian future of female subjugation and male hegemony, the actress Elisabeth Moss recently suggested that the show was “woke” — as in, socially awake.

“This Is Us,” which The Los Angeles Times recently described as a show that “captures the simmering rage of a successful black man in white America,” has been likened to a “woke ‘Thirtysomething.’” (Hat tip: Jake Tapper of CNN).

There’s debate over whether the new Netflix show “Dear White People” is “woke” or, as Jason Johnson wrote last week in the The Root, “faux woke” — a show for white people disguised as a comedy for black people.

There’s zero debate about whether the Pepsi commercial that made Kendall Jenner the face of an apparent Black Lives Matter protest was a textbook case of attempted-woke-gone-wrong.

And then there’s Jimmy Fallon, who Newsweek declared “Late Night television’s least woke comedian,” because his slap-happy buddy act is making him “ever more irrelevant” — unlike Stephen Colbert, whose politically engaged comedy is helping him supplant Mr. Fallon as No. 1 in late night.

As the big broadcast networks and ad buyers descend on Manhattan this week for the start of the annual advertising sales season known as upfronts, that Colbert-Fallon role reversal says everything you need to know about the political charge that’s shaking up the television world.

A year ago, the television-world chatter was all about how Mr. Colbert had played second fiddle at the CBS advertiser presentation to the dancing, singing and absolutely joyful comedian who follows him in the late night schedule, James Corden.

The thinking at the time had it that people wanted a party-like-it’s-1999 late night experience, which Jimmy Fallon and Mr. Corden offered and Mr. Colbert, then struggling in the ratings, presumably did not. Now, as Alexander Nazaryan wrote in the Newsweek piece on Mr. Fallon’s new standing, “Americans want rage.”

Actually, it seems, a good subset of them want “woke.”

It’s tempting to declare this the age of “Woke TV,” but that seems to tread too close to Pepsi/Kendall territory.

“Woke,” after all, gained prominence as a hashtag in the early days of the Black Lives Matter movement, signifying that “you’re down with the historical fight against prejudice,” arising from “a specific context of black struggle,” as my colleague Amanda Hess wrote in The New York Times Magazine last year.

Its meaning broadened so that when MTV registered it on its new slang list, it defined it as “being aware,” which is one reason a blog post on the Oxford Dictionaries’ website concluded in November that “‘woke’ has been racially sanitized for a mainstream audience.”

When applied to television, both usages are in play. And, given that they’re often referring to television that appeals to people distraught over the Trump presidency, perhaps the genre should be referred to as “Resistance TV.”

Whatever you call it, it’s not for everyone. There’s no concurrent surge in scripted television shows capturing the pro-Trump zeitgeist, though there would seem to be an audience for one (“alt-TV?”).

“There are people out there who are very disconnected from the popular culture,” Lionel Chetwynd, the writer and executive producer who has made a career of being the rare conservative in Hollywood, told me last week. “There is a restless throng that can become a market if you speak to them in the language they can hear.”

He says he’s working on a new show that will do that.

Also, as André Brock, a professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan, told me last week, “For every ‘woke’ TV show, there are seven sitcoms about whiteness,” adding, “they just rebooted Baywatch.” (Mr. Brock was using the original ‘woke’ definition but said he was fine with its broader usage in the current political climate.)

Resistance/Woke/Whatever-You-Want-to-Call-It TV didn’t dominate the Top 10 shows this television season. According to Nielsen, among the most-watched shows were the sitcom “The Big Bang Theory,” which has an average audience of 14 million people on CBS; the zombie thriller “The Walking Dead,” the second-most watched show, with an average audience of more than 11 million people on AMC; “The Voice” with more than 10.6 million people on NBC; and “This is Us” with nearly 10 million people tuning in on NBC.

That speaks to a semblance of parity in television’s emerging cultural divide, as my colleagues at The Upshot captured late last year. Combing through Facebook likes, they found that “The Walking Dead,” for instance, was among the most popular shows in rural areas and “The Big Bang Theory” was among the most popular shoes in urban ones.

The audience for the new streaming hit “The Handmaid’s Tale” may pale in comparison, given that Hulu had 12 million users at the last official count. (Netflix counts nearly 99 million.)

But something’s going on for sure, considering that Hulu says the show’s premiere a few weeks ago was the biggest in the company’s short history.

Based on the Margaret Atwood novel of the same name, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is about once-modern women forced into indentured servitude to bear children. The production team’s embrace of the political moment is extraordinary by historical television standards.

Hulu happily accepted Planned Parenthood’s promoting the program’s premiere, which came a couple of weeks after Mr. Trump signed legislation to cut off federal funding to the group. Planned Parenthood promoted the show’s debut with a statement calling it “a terrifying cautionary tale about a future without reproductive rights” and including a plea from Ms. Moss as well.

Hillary Clinton picked up the theme a week later at Planned Parenthood’s 100th anniversary gala, warning, “We didn’t look up from our phones until it was too late.”

“We think that Planned Parenthood is an essential part of the fabric of this country and we don’t want to back away from having an association,” said the show’s executive producer, Warren Littlefield.

Mr. Littlefield probably wouldn’t have been so quick to sign off on that kind of overtly political cross promotion in the job he’s best known for, the former president of NBC Entertainment.

His own career progression says it all. He helped preside over NBC’s rise to the top of the broadcast television ratings, drawing audiences of tens of millions with hits like “Seinfeld.” That was “a show about nothing,” the perfect subject for those carefree days before September 11.

Now he’s the executive producer of a (so-far) niche show, on a newer streaming network, about a cataclysmic backslide for women that critics credit for having resonance today. What both “Seinfeld” and “Handmaid’s Tale” have in common is that they’re good, and smart.

That brings me to the key ingredients in all of this: television’s nichification and a leap into original programming by the streaming services, which, led by Netflix and Amazon, took spending on original programming to almost $50 billion last year, according to Boston Consulting Group.

In this Peak TV era, there’s room for everything, especially shows that hit the political moment. That doesn’t mean being merely topical or overt. “The idea of, ‘Hey, be politically aware, deal with the politics of the moment’ — good,” David Nevins, the Showtime chief executive told me. “‘Be politically correct’ — the caricature of lefty identity politics — not so interesting.”

Quality has to be part of the equation. The money is there to do it, and the market is there for it. And this is where the idiot box’s self-improvement comes in.

You could argue that with the rise of television “much of our public discourse has become dangerous nonsense,’’ as Neil Postman wrote in his brilliantly prescient 1985 book “Amusing Ourselves to Death” about how television was turning everything, including news and politics, into entertainment. The shift from print to video as the dominant media, he warned, would produce a population “distracted by trivia,’’ making “their public business a vaudeville act.”

That raises the question: If television got us here, can it get us out?

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