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  • Writer's pictureVal Agnew

The New World of Television

Lately I have been thinking a lot about creators dealing with all the myriad of things that have emerged or erupted in the last few months. Television shows that unceremoniously shut down filming in March have re-animated like Rip Van Winkle, and each has had to reckon with the lost time, the events of the past few months, and the changed tenor of the country and the world they are emerging into. Even shows that don't deal directly with things like policing or race or medicine are going to have to address the unimaginably large elephant in the room in some way.

I've always been an avid television watcher. As an only child latchkey kid, the relationships I built with the characters in the shows I watched, and still do, were and are truly meaningful for me. They guided me through awkward moments growing up and showed me a myriad of ways to live one's life. From those fictional friends, I learned about everything from love and courage to despair and fear. I still look to television to help me process the complicated feelings that come with life. Sometimes I just appreciate a good distraction. And more recently, as I've studied film and television, I have also come to appreciate the work more clinically, enjoying the different approaches of varying networks and showrunners. Needless to say I'm rooting for all of the creators who make an effort in any way, to endure this difficult period.

While of course the most accolades and well wishes should go toward those at the front lines of the terrifying battles we are fighting right now. Those who work in hospitals and have essential jobs. The people who are most at risk, but still have volunteered to work at polling places during an important election or who have participated in protests to stand up for what is right. However we shouldn't forget the contributors to the shows we love. First of all, what has gotten most of us through this time more than the entertainment we consume? Secondly, to make a non-animated film or show right now requires the work of huge crews of people who are exposing themselves to the risks of Covid just like hair dressers and waiters, simply so we can sit on our couch and be entertained.

I have also always thought media, and television most of all, had this added responsibility of reacting to and shaping public opinion and perception of the world. In more subtle ways like casting people who look or live differently than most of the viewers. To more overt storylines that address difficult topics.

As much as this era is absolutely a challenge for the shows as they resume filming, I see it also as an opportunity to help make the world a better place. I think an episode of NCIS can, in many ways, be more impactful than a speech by our President-Elect and almost certainly more than a documentary or well-written article on a topic. So how will these shows deal with the new world and their place in it? I was curious to find out.

I have kept up with any number of shows that more discerning palettes would likely judge me for (read: most CBS dramas). And right now I'm especially glad of that because I can compare the different ways these shows and franchises address the more complicated world, both in front of and behind the camera. I watched the first episode or two of some of the shows that have resumed and it was remarkable how each approach truly felt different and had some merits and some challenges.

Originally I had this whole system and evaluated each episode on certain topics/metrics, but it was too much. So instead, here's the summary version of what I found:

Dick Wolf shows, characteristic for their gritty realism, struggled A LOT to address Covid and racial justice and the new relationship the nation has with police in a realistic, even-handed way. From a practical standpoint, dialogue was incredibly heavy-handed and expository. The mask wearing was so inconsistent I found myself distracted through entire scenes trying to discern what the rules were in this universe. Narratively, there was an overall sense of agitation in the police shows (SVU & Chicago PD) in how having to play by the rules and having people mistrust the cops made it harder to do their jobs. This made attempts at reckoning with how racist policing makes it harder for people of color to live their lives (or live at all) feel cheapened by "both-sides-ism," regardless of whether or not it was accurate. Every single episode of these four shows felt like they were trying to cram in half a season's worth of plot and by the end I was exhausted.

The CBS show SWAT surprised me. They always have clunky dialogue so that didn't bother me as much when it returned to explain what was happening. They chose to start their first episode just before the pandemic really took hold and before the most recent reckoning on race and policing. It allowed them to seem almost prescient doing an episode showing that these uprisings and reflective moments are part of a larger pattern and not something novel or even a sign of actual progress. Instead of holding up moments of white leaders reckoning with their complicity in racism, they actually allowed Black characters to scoff at it. It was meta-commentary on the idea that just realizing one is part of the problem is only one step of many, rather than, like SVU did, concluding on that realization as the final step of self reflection.

Lastly, Grey's Anatomy & Station 19 comparatively performed magnificently. First of all, the events of the last few months feel like a plot for Grey's Anatomy, so their incorporating it into the show felt pretty organic. They also have been acting through masks for decades so no missed beats there. And bizarrely, they got away with not directly addressing race or policing. I hesitate to use the word post-racial, but this show does kind of exist in its own universe where race and gender do not impede people in the ways they do in the real world. They opted to address more specific ideas like humanizing the incarcerated, providing dignity to non-binary folks, and de-stigmatizing mental illness. And they did all of this while making me laugh and cry. I was genuinely impressed.

As I think more about the varying levels of success these shows had in dealing with their return to the airwaves I also wonder how much of that was a factor of the showrunner/creative team. While Grey's is no longer technically a part of Shondaland, her DNA will always run through it. And it remains overseen by a female showrunner. SWAT has a black man at the helm. Conversely, the Dick Wolf shows all have teams of white dudes making the calls. I'm not saying it's the only reason why they maybe struggled more, but it could certainly be part of it.

Why does any of this matter? Who cares if a show about cops gets this moment right? It's just a fictional universe. Maybe it doesn't matter. But I think about how many people I know who are out of touch with what is happening in the world right now. They don't feel the need to wear masks on the regular. They aren't witnessing or experiencing racial injustice. They only see stories that vary from their own when they flip on their TV. Perhaps because I learned so much from my fictional friends, I have always felt there was a responsibility of those creating television to slowly chip away at the ills of the world with great storytelling and character development. I would contend it is even more imperative now. Directly trying to engage people on these topics is proving nearly impossible in a world so divided. But maybe a few can be swayed by a compelling story on a show they've been watching for years. A lot of people trust Agent Gibbs more than they trust Rachel Maddow. So let's capitalize on that.

How do we address the elephant in the room? One episode at a time.

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