Thursday, April 27, 2006

Duke, duke, duke duke of Earl

My Name is Earl is in my current top picks, partly because it's funny, but also because it manages to pull off the trick of being simultaneously the most and least preachy American sitcom I've seen since M*A*S*H.

The main thing that differentiates American sitcoms from every other country's sitcoms, as far as I can see, is that there always has to be a moral lesson somewhere in the episode. If you don't realise how unusual this is, try comparing a Canadian or British sitcom to any American sitcom of your choice, and you'll see what I mean: while some non-American sitcoms do involve moral messages (Corner Gas is pretty heavy on "don't underestimate people just because they're poor/uneducated/not from Toronto"), it's generally pretty understated and also isn't necessarily a requirement for every episode, whereas even Frasier is given to delivering explicit homilies right after the climactic scene.

Now, by its very premise My Name is Earl is set up explicitly as a series dealing with moral lessons. After all, its titular character is a small-time con-artist who has reformed and is trying to make up for his crimes, and each episode revolves around him atoning for some past crime and usually learning some sort of related lesson-- gay people are human too, paying taxes supports public services, stand up to big business, own up to your mistakes, etc.-- so you'd think it would be the comedic equivalent of a Baptist Sunday School class (and one from the sort of Baptist church that frowns upon gospel singing and Getting The Spirit). However, the very fact that the central characters are deeply amoral allows them to get away with it: when Earl makes some kind of climactic speech about how he's just learned he should be nicer to his brother, you can genuinely believe that it's only just now occurred to him that there is value in doing this, and the series' simple the-good-do-well-and-the-bad-suffer setup also allows the series to deliver rewards and punishments to its characters without incurring a "c'mon, that's unrealistic" reaction-- if anything, having had the setup, you're just waiting for the moral payoff.

I compared it to M*A*S*H above, and it occurs to me that the earlier sitcom also managed to get away with its periodic moral lessons for precisely the same reason. Everybody in the surgical unit was as morally bankrupt as the characters in Earl (with the arguable exception of Radar, but he had the innocent-who-does-as-much-harm-as-good thing going, which leads to similar results), and so you could actually believe in them, if not learning from their misdeeds, at least providing a non-preachy example to others through them. So the lesson is, if you don't want your sitcom to come across as a prissy lesson in family values, make your characters as vile as all get out.

Now, if they'd only manage to pull off this trick with Will and Grace, maybe I'd actually be able to watch more than five minutes before switching off in disgust.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

A planet where liberals evolved from conservatives?

The other thing I'm digging on television at the moment is Planet of the Apes (the 1970s TV series), because I can't figure out if it's a work of genius or a piece of trite sub-Starsky Seventies action television. On the trite side, the characters are cardboard (with the arguable exception of Galen the chimpanzee), the acting variable, and the plot premises are so cliched that Alan and I have taken to shouting out the ending of the story in the first five minutes. But on the genius side, there's actually an astoundingly subtle understanding of politics in the stories which emerges from all that.

Case in point, a recent episode in which Galen breaks his leg and the protagonists are forced to find shelter with a sharecropping family who are the ape equivalent of Southern white trash, with all manner of racist preconceptions about humans. You just know how it's going to end: the humans will win the racist apes over, and the now-no-longer-racist apes will end up saving them from the authorities. But it wasn't quite as simple as that.

The initially racist apes were gradually won over by the humans' showing them how to use their farmland, tools and oxen with greater efficiency, essentially demonstrating to them that tradition is not sacred and they didn't have to stay poor sharecroppers all their lives. But opposition was staged by the elder son of the family-- because under the traditional system, the oldest son is given a bull calf and goes off to set up his own farm upon reaching maturity, and, while he initially objects on the grounds that the humans might "curse" the cow and cause it to bring forth a heifer calf, it rapidly becomes clear that he's also afraid that the humans' challenge to tradition might result in him losing his chance at independence-- indeed, three-quarters of the way through, his younger siblings, noting that the sky hasn't fallen when they changed their traditional ploughing or watering systems, begin to question why the eldest should automatically get the calf. So what could have been a dull and worthy lesson on racism turned into an exploration of how people contribute to their own oppression by buying into the small benefits the system allows them-- the son is willing to be oppressed if that means he gets a calf, rather than reject the system and maybe not get a calf. Worth thinking about, even today.