Politics and Television in the 2010s: How Sitcoms Reveal America's Deep State of Division
A Brief History of Politics in Popular Television
Political content infused into the fabric of popular scripted television is not a new phenomenon. In the 1970s, American sitcoms like All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, M*A*S*H, and Good Times were well known for using comedy, and sometimes bits of stark drama, to shed light on the political issues and social crises of their day. In the 80s, we were introduced to sitcoms like Family Ties, a show that put a generational reversal twist on political discourse with the parents being more liberal and the kids being more conservative, a hallmark of life during the Reagan era.
Fast Forward to the decade that fell between 2010 and 2019, a time period in which America became more bitterly divided than it had been since the Reconstruction period that followed the American Civil War (1861-1865), and you'll find that the scripted television of this period found itself diving deeper into the waters of political fodder in the most obvious and unabashed of manners.
Of course there were the intentional political shows...
The 2010s saw a general uptick in fictional political TV shows across the board, they ranged from satirical comedies to soap opera-style dramas. Shows like Scandal, Designated Survivor, House of Cards, and Veep all seem to portray politicians as deeply flawed narcissists who put the pursuit of power, and the abuse of that power, above all else. It should be noted that all of these TV shows predate the unprecedented moment when America, in real life, elected a former reality TV star to the position of President of the United States, and these shows had to adapt to this rather strange shift in the political landscape. Perhaps because of that very fact, these intentional political shows are not a great place to look for the underlining causes behind America's great divide. Truly it was the sitcoms of this era that painted a more accurate picture as to how and why America went down the political road it did.
First, there was Last Man Standing...
When discussing political content baked within a 2010s sitcom, one doesn't have to look much further than Last Man Standing, Tim Allen's ABC series that later found a home at FOX following its abrupt cancellation. Allen of course gained widespread fame and acclaim in the 1990s for his hit ABC sitcom Home Improvement, which often rivaled Seinfeld as one of the most popular sitcoms of the 90s. But if you were looking to find the masculine yet lovable tool man in this new series then you are out of luck. For in LMS, Allen plays Mike Baxter, the staunch conservative outdoors man who has become popular for his series of internet vlogs that mostly spout the talking points of the Republican Party. Allen's character is neither subtle nor really even that clever as he constantly expresses his dislike of President Obama, Michelle Obama, and of course that dragon lady Hillary Clinton.
I assume that this series was an attempt at making a modern version of All in the Family in which Allen was to be like an Archie Bunker and his oldest daughter along with her son's father on the show were to be like a Mike Stivic. And to his credit, Allen's character doesn't come off nearly as racist, sexist, or clueless as TV's first real anti-hero Archie Bunker did. But the true difference here is the more obvious agenda that is at play. Bunker was played by Carroll O'Connor and the actor in real life did not agree with Archie's worldview. Mike Baxter differs in the sense that he is played by Tim Allen who is a real life conservative and this makes it feel as if his character is simply a mouthpiece for Allen to express his fierce grievances with the current state of American politics. The talking head "vlog" segments make this fact even more apparent.
When this series was cancelled by ABC in 2017, Allen vented in a interview with Norm Macdonald that there was "nothing more dangerous than a funny, likable conservative character." He complained that in Hollywood's current far left political environment, opposing views were simply not allowed and he blamed this rigid approach to beliefs as the main reason why Last Man Standing was cancelled despite having good ratings. In actuality, the show was produced by 20th Century Fox Television and ABC was tired of paying additional shooting costs for a show being produced outside its normal Disney-driven distribution chain. This explains why Fox picked up the series for a 7th season while ABC when on to bet on an even more conservative replacement with the revival of Roseanne (more on that debacle later). But ultimately, Allen's misleading frustrations with why ABC axed his series and the fact that it was picked up just weeks later by another network illustrates some of the key issues with strained political discourse in America. This example also points to the media's desire to capitalize off political strife, driving an even larger wedge between the many facets of American society.
Now on to Black-ish...
While Last Man Standing details the frustrations of conservative, white Americans, Black-ish seems to serve as the exact opposite in the form of a sharply written series about an upper-class, left leaning African American family airing on the same network. Black-ish also differs from LMS in the sense that I wouldn't classify this as a "liberal TV show" even though most of this TV family does lean in favor of the Democratic Party and there is even an episode where parents Andre and Rainbow Johnson find fault with their oldest son attempting to join the Republican Party. Partisan politics aren't pushed nearly as hard on this series, but Black-ish reflects more on a growing racial divide in America and how that divide has spilled over into our political system.
The most interesting thing about the overall tone of Black-ish is the show's need to put such a glorified emphasis on skin color and the cultural differences that come with it. African American sitcoms of the 1980s, 90s, and even the 2000s were able to display a strong sense of pride in black culture without having to remind the audience every two seconds that the majority of the cast in these shows were indeed black. The fact that black father Andre Johnson insists on reducing nearly every issue his family faces to their skin color, along with the fact that the white characters on this series sound more like unrealistic caricatures rather than real individuals, shows that African Americans are feeling more and more that there has simply not been enough positive, real change in American race relations.
Finally, the Climax of Roseanne
When the original Roseanne series premiered in the late 1980s, it was unlike anything else on TV at the time. Roseanne displayed a white, working class, Midwestern family that was constantly living barely above the line of poverty. This contrasted greatly with the number one TV show of the 1980s, The Cosby Show, which displayed an African American family living the exact opposite lifestyle. Ironically, the two shows shared the spot for most popular TV show during the 1988/89 season. So obviously, people were ecstatic to hear that Roseanne was coming back to air in 2018 with the entire original cast. Unfortunately, that meant bringing back Roseanne Barr herself.
Anyone who had been playing close attention to the social media rants of Barr over the last few years could have easily guessed she would be a major liability. But with Last Man Standing gone, ABC needed a show that would connect with more conservative audiences. Enter the Roseanne reboot. Within the first few minutes of the first episode of the return, Roseanne's character strongly and loudly proclaimed her love for President Trump in the most flamboyant of ways. Her sister Jackie and daughter Darlene heavily protested this but the back and forth seemed more like a poorly scripted political debate than an honest family disagreement. This was further proof that politics was becoming inescapable in 2010s entertainment.
No longer could families sit down and watch a TV show aimed at entertaining all. Celebrities and the writers behind them just couldn't seem to help themselves and decided to interject their political beliefs and opinions in as much of television as humanly possible. Still, many viewers agreed with Roseanne's standoffish stand on the President and her series received great ratings for most of its return. That is until Roseanne herself threw it all away by making insensitive tweets at the expense of a political official. Sadly, this led to Roseanne being killed off her own show and spawn the spin-off series The Conners, which hasn't been able to match the reboot in terms of ratings. The example of Roseanne, more so than anything else from the 2010s, shows us the extremely divisive nature of political content in this decade's sitcoms. It also shows us the inevitable result when polarizing political entertainment spills over into the real world.
Disclaimer: The author does not belong to any political parties, groups, or movements nor is he a proponent of either side of America's political spectrum. The author is merely an independent writer who is approaching these political issues from an objective and analytical standpoint.