Stray Thoughts on Stereotypes in Television

I don’t always write up casual viewing, but recently the past several months of accumulated background noise has got me thinking about TV stereotypes. The trigger for this train of thought was Terriers, which I recently had the pleasure of re-watching. If you have Netflix, by all means go watch TerriersLike, right now. Shawn Ryan’s brilliant blue-collar P.I. drama is just as great the second time around, full of witty banter, intricate plots, finely tuned characters, and an inspiring regular-joes-take-on-the-system vibe.

But something I noticed that slipped past the first time through: the main characters, Hank and Britt, occasionally drop these overly macho one-liners, or make casual, jokey remarks about their imaginary homosexual relationship. They’re off-the-cuff and funny lines, of course, tailor-made for the F/X “guy TV” sensibility. It’s hardly the most offensive dialogue you’ll hear on television. And in the case of Terriers, the comments generally don’t come across as unconsciously mean-spirited; the writers seem to know where they’re making off-color remarks, and they’re even-handed about giving it back to the guys. Even so, these occasional moments of Overtly Straight White Guy Behavior got me thinking about my weakening tolerance for sterotypes on television.

I grew up straight and white in a place where, outwardly anyway, most people were straight and white. Most TV back then was really straight and white. It appalls me to imagine the kinds of sexist, racist behavior I witnessed on TV as a kid that didn’t even cause me to bat an eye. It’s taken a lifetime of de-conditioning to get to the point where recognizing casual Hollywood stereotypes has become second nature, has started to feel wrong.

Some of that de-conditioning may have started with NYPD Blue, an old warhorse from the nineties that I’ve been revisiting recently. In some ways, I think Terriers is a direct descendant of NYPD Blue; without Andy Sipowicz*, you might not have Hank Dolworth. The language and subject matter of this classic cop series, edgy and groundbreaking when it debuted, occasionally strikes me as quaint compared to what happens nowadays. Back then, I think it was so rare for shows to even discuss issues of race, gender, addiction, and sexuality, that they tended to pat themselves on the back while they did it. Blue is definitely guilty of that, but it’s interesting to look at as a transitional show, one that didn’t always have a handle on its stereotypes, but usually had its heart in the right place. It’s that clash of good intentions and unconscious error that makes Blue interesting to look at now; this might be the show that got me questioning these things, way back when. Of course, some of the mistakes were pretty big; the corners Justine Miceli, Andrea Thompson, and Charlotte Ross were written into were all pretty bad. But it also gave us some steely, well conceived female characters (especially Sharon Lawrence as Sylvia Costas), and even a sympathetically portrayed gay character (Bill Brochtrup as John Irvin) at a time when there really weren’t any gay characters. (Yes, the side plots involving “Gay John” were usually more about Andy Sipowicz growing as a person than about John himself, but still.) NYPD Blue often wrestles with its political correctness, but for all its sins, they’re mostly forgivable when viewed in light of its era. It may have laid the groundwork for more progressive thinking in today’s shows.

Not that today’s shows are all perfect. Far from it. Which takes me to the three sitcoms I follow casually every week: The Big Bang Theory, Modern Family, and Up All Night.

The Big Bang Theory hooked me early with its performances, snappy ensemble chemistry, and its welcome introduction of geek culture to mainstream audiences. But lately it’s started to piss me off. What started as playful fun-poking at geekery (and, in Penny’s case, extreme non-geekery) has gotten increasingly mean-spirited, if not downright hateful. Watching Leonard, Sheldon, Howard, and Raj bash on each other, and on themselves, has gotten harder and harder to take, mainly because it’s not the characters you hear reciting the lines, but the unsympathetic writer’s room, gleefully concocting ways to humiliate the nerds again. Meanwhile, the show’s last remaining sympathetic character, Penny (Kaley Cuoco), descends inexorably into promiscuous drunkery, which is evidently the only way to differentiate a hot, non-geeky female from four brainy dorks. I feel like a sucker for having watched this one: like I was lured in thinking it would be a celebration of geek culture, and maybe, eventually, about bridging the gaps between people, when it’s really just a diabolical, systematic plan to keep the geeks in their place. Bleh.

Then there’s Modern Family, a brilliantly performed and often cleverly scripted comedy that also has its share of stereotyping issues. The group chemistry in this family sitcom is so polished and effective, and the mission of the show so innocuous, that it’s often easy to overlook some of its stereotypes: Cameron’s flaming drama queen, for example, or Claire’s bitchy-mom control freakism. The difference, of course, is that Modern Family actually likes its characters, even respects them, and inevitably brings them together for a group hug after twenty-odd minutes of sniping conflict. It may pick fun at peoples’ differences, but in the end it accepts them, and that’s something, at least**.

Up All Night, meanwhile, isn’t quite as compulsively watchable, but it’s pleasant, fun, and refreshingly absent of obvious typism. I still think the premise — two former partiers, played by Christina Applegate and Will Arnett, adjust to life with a new baby — is thinner than a communion wafer.  But the show deploys its cast well, and I like that the characteristically goofball Arnett skillfully plays the straight guy this time, while both Applegate and Maya Rudolph get to cut loose a little as neurotic class clowns. It’s hardly earthshattering art, but it has a nice light touch, the obvious gender roles are reversed, and the stars are terrific.

The only other current show I’ve made any effort to keep up with is Person of Interest. I’m finding the title of that show to be increasingly, ironically inaccurate. This one’s done a pretty good job of wasting its premise, its cast, and its potential, mainly by being profoundly dull and lacking any personality whatsoever. Its attempts at season-long lorebuilding have been unimpressive, and run subservient to its cold, clinical, episodic neatness. Person of Interest is not really relevant to the theme of this post, except maybe as an extreme counterpoint: it’s hard to stereotype your characters when your show doesn’t have any.

I’m not sure exactly what I’m getting at with all this; the “thesis statement” here is mainly just a rickety framework to discuss a bunch of TV I’ve been watching recently. I guess maybe it’s that TV is still a media that shapes mindsets, that reinforces ideas. As a younger viewer, I was pretty oblivious to sociological subtext, but now I can’t stop seeing it. That feels like growth, a little. But I still have a long way to go — and so, obviously, does the entertainment business.

* Side note: He was always overshadowed by the flashier Dennis Franz, but boy am I man-crushing on Jimmy Smits while watching these old episodes. He’s so utterly convincing as Bobby Simone that you hardly notice he’s acting. Brilliant.

** Side note: It’s hard to pick a favorite performer on Modern Family, but I have to send a shout-out to Manny (Rico Rodriguez), a one-of-a-kind “boy-man” character who always kills me.

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