It’s an age-old debate: does art imitate life or does life imitate art? When NBC announced its fall lineup this May it added more fuel to the debate. With only two new comedies on the schedule, it is clear that the network sees dramas as the place to boost ratings. How does that artistic decision relate to life today? Why does NBC think dramas are more appropriate for bringing in ratings? More significantly, what is it about the specific topics that the shows explore which make them socially relevant?
There are two new comedies in the lineup. The first is Tina Fey's 30 Rock, a behind the scenes look at what goes into producing a comedy sketch show. The other is 20 Good Years where John Lithgow and Jeffrey Tambor are two old buddies who realize that they are at a point in their lives where they have only 20 good years left to live so they decide to live them to the fullest. Along with the 4 new dramas, that brings the fall lineup to a staggering 10 dramas, 4 comedies, 1 reality show, 1 news magazine, and 1 game show (Deal or No Deal will be on twice a week next fall).
What is it about our current cultural climate that insists on a dramatic overload? In a time where the country is in a “blue state” of mind, people are not interested in purely escapism entertainment. Americans have brought President Bush’s approval rating to an all time low, the support of the war in Iraq is plummeting and it seems that there is an overall feeling of national uncertainty as to where our country is currently heading. It took a while for that morale to seep into the media, but now that it is here, it has come full on. This past Oscar season was overwhelmingly morose and reflected a certain sense of political discomfort. It was only a matter of time for television to follow that trend.
During the upfronts, NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly remarked that NBC needs to “bulk up” in the drama department. The network executives recognize that dramas are where the ratings are. But again, the question is, why? To truly understand the cultural relevance of the dramatic inclination, it is necessary to delve into each one and see what they are about. The supernatural drama, Heroes heads up the fall lineup on Monday night. This show is about ordinary people who wake up one morning to find they have acquired extraordinary powers. This show is a twist on the American dream, which states that anyone can do anything or be anyone they want if they try hard enough. In an uncertain time, this show seems to be sending a hopeful yet paradoxically futile message. These people start out as regular, everyday folk, but because of no effort of their own, they have become powerful. On the one hand, Heroes is saying that things will get better and that hope is on the way. However, at the same time it is relaying the idea that the only way for our situation to improve is with special, out of the ordinary heroes. Furthermore, no matter how hard people work their lives are predestined to a certain extent; there is no need to work hard at something because one’s destiny is not dependant on his or her effort. Similarly, the national ethos is one that says that unless something extraordinary happens then there is no way to change the political situation.
Following Heroes on Monday night is Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. This is a behind the scenes look at a failing late night sketch comedy show. This show is similar to the comedy, 30 Rock. It will be interesting to see in which venue the storyline thrives – comedy or drama. The cultural relevance is interesting here because with Sunset 60, they’ve taken a possibly comedic situation and made it serious. This is saying that there is drama in all situations no matter how potentially comedic they might be.
Tuesday night’s new drama is Friday Night Lights. This is a show about the culture of football in Texas, where the sport is much more than just a game. The show centers on in the head coach and his attempts to “mold these boys into champions and encourage them to be better men,” according to the NBC website. What does it mean to be a “better man”? Is it to embody the ruggedness of the stereotypical male character? Is it to exemplify that American need to be the best of the best? This is a topic the media has been debating for decades and recently reached new heights with this year’s Oscar season, especially with Brokeback Mountain (a film put out by Focus Features, a division of NBC Universal). Moreover, this show is attempting to strengthen the American morale by tapping into the success of so many successful sports movies, and more specifically football movies. “Sports” is something that binds Americans together; it is something in which everyone can participate and enjoy. In a time where there is such a division in America, here is one thing upon which where everyone can agree. In addition to the cultural significance, this show is perhaps a way to promote Sunday night football, which is coming to NBC in the fall.
Finally, the last new drama on the fall lineup is Kidnapped, on Wednesday nights. This show revolves around the Cain family whose fifteen-year-old son is kidnapped. The NBC website explains that, “desperate to reclaim their son, they enlist the help of an expert named Knapp who is known for his dangerous, yet effective, high-profile rescues.” This family does not trust the police to rescue their son; rather they hire a private investigator with less than conventional and possibly questionable tactics. The police cannot be trusted; the government is the enemy. Does that sound familiar? This seems to be a sharp criticism on our political leadership. Especially coming off of the recent NSA wiretapping scandal, the American people have such a great distrust of authority and now misgivings are being transferred onto the small screen.
Overall, the fall lineup seems promising with a slew of new television shows that are very much culturally relevant. People deal with real life problems all day long; when we turn the TV on, we want some sense of escapism, but one that is rooted in reality. Scripted shows, unlike reality TV, allow the possibility of everything working out in the end and therefore there is a sense of optimism wrapped into the drama. This, in some sense, can allow people to retain hopefulness for the future political and social situation. Network executives believe that the best way to achieve that is with dramatic shows, which reflect many aspects of the current American social climate. It seems that David Sarnoff’s prediction about television continues to be applicable until today: “It is a torch which shines like a torch of hope in a troubled world.” As long as political and social unrest continues to exist, television will reflect that tension and possibly imbue a sense of hope for the future.