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Focusing on the Wrong Things?

Here is a headline from some place or other. “”Friends’ co-creator Marta Kaufman regrets show’s lack of diversity, says ‘she bought into systemic racism.'”

Well, I never watched “Friends,” I rarely watch comedies on television. I know that the show was very popular. A fellow attorney in my office said then that he thought it was the greatest show ever, at which I mentally scoffed, but who knows? It is still quite popular in reruns. I read that Lisa Kudrow, of whom I am a fan, made something like $60 million a few years ago just on the residuals of the reruns. So it has a very large and appreciative fanbase.

I didn’t read the article where Kaufman said this, and who cares?–except that to me, it reflects a dichotomy. While the Far Right is attempting to literally destroy this country, make the planet uninhabitable, ban every woman’s right to an abortion or birth control, allow everyone to buy as many weapons as they want, and take them on mass transit, airplanes, to movie theatres, ballgames; the “Left” is awash in what used to be called “liberal guilt.”

Now, I know that these things are not related, that the article I quoted is just a bit of entertainment gossip, but it does bother me. Kaufman feels guilty because “Friends” did not have any Black people in it. Not only that, she said that it was because of her underlying systemic racism, whatever that means in a personal context. She can’t be happy and rich because she tapped into the geist and helped produce a wildly popular show. She actively regrets not having Blacks or other minorities on the show.

As if this would have somehow fixed the world, or even made it better, having a Black character or couple on the show? Not to mention Latinx, Asians, Native Americans, because they are all minorities as well. Were there any Jewish people on the show? Muslims? Hindus?

Why does every show now require this commitment to “diversity?” They only mean diversity of race, and sexual orientation. They do not mean diversity of philosophy, or economic status, or favorite authors. It is essentially saying that “we need more minority ethnicities in every show.” Now, if you want to value that because minorities have historically been underrepresented in entertainment shows, that is understandable. But to castigate oneself for not putting the obligatory minority couple in every show, is embarrassing. It is like an endless rite of expiation that now goes on in the world of entertainment.

When I used to watch “The Simpsons” years ago, there was a funny episode about the popular “Itchy and Scratchy” cartoon show, which was in itself “The Simpsons” writers’ satire on over-violent cartoons; here a cat and mouse spent the entire cartoons beating and blowing each other up. The producers of the cartoon decided that they needed to spice up the format, and so they added a new character, a dog named Poochy, who had attitude, and cracked jokes.

For the first few episodes, Poochy was a big hit, but then it became obvious that he had nothing to do with the gist of the show, he was just in there for newness and variety, and the ratings dropped. So the producers wrote an episode where Poochy was shot into outer space on a very long mission, and thus was off the show. I am sure that “The Simpsons” writers did not write this story as a parody of the diversity issue, but it does have some comparative value.

Again, I don’t watch TV shows, at least very few. From a viewing perspective only, I don’t really care who they put in there, or what their storylines are. But is it a sin to have a show with all White characters? There are some with all Black characters. This all strikes me as entertainment being written from the outside in. You get your diversity cast, and then you try to make a show around them. Further, you must never show a minority figure in a bad light, as a foil, or as not very intelligent, or as a bad person. This is because you don’t want to be accused of doing it deliberately, and having your show sued and taken off the air. So this “diversity” is really not that diverse. It ultimately is not different from the Italian Commedia dell’Arte, or the French sex farces, of earlier centuries.

Those had a standard cast of stock characters. There might be the cuckolded husband, the clever seducer, the, pompous religious figure, the lusty wife, the ingenue. The audiences liked these characters, liked the predictability of them. So though many of these plays were quite amusing, they were mostly the same, there were no surprises. And comedy can be about predictability, more than drama can. But what I think we are seeing now is an effort, well-meaning though it may be from one perspective, to compartmentalize the stories, to have them as predictable as possible so as not to risk offending anybody.

Off the subject just a bit, I remember a fanfare about the mystery series “Broadchurch.” It was British, but I think they eventually did an American copy of it. It involved the death of a pre-adolescent boy in a small town; and a troubled male detective from another area, working with the town’s female officer to solve it. It was a popular show; and actually the Brits, who will put odds up about anything, offered a chance to bet on the identity of the murderer, at various odds.

I thought that the show became boring, it was overrated, even though I love a good mystery. But I would have won money on it, if they allowed betting on it in this country. And not through much in the way of deduction of plot or motive, mostly just due to guessing the politically correct constraints. There was one Black character, a young man who was the hidden boyfriend of the daughter of the couple whose boy was killed. There was no way that they were going to make him the murderer on this show. There was a vicar who was an alcoholic. They were very unlikely to take the one religious figure and make him the killer, not these days.

I thought it was almost impossible that the culprit was a woman. This had to be a story of a killing of a boy by a man. The father was possible, but I didn’t think they would have him kill his own son, he was legitimately anguished over the death. There was an older man who apparently had gotten in trouble for having some kind of relationship with a female teenage student of his; the town turned against him, and ultimately hounded him to his death. I never thought he was the villain.

So ultimately, going into the last episode, with odds being offered on several characters, I was sure that political and social correctness as currently exhibited on entertainment shows, meant that it could only be one of two men. And I just picked the more unlikely of the two, and sure enough, that was the murderer; although there was an issue as to intent for the next season, which I did not watch.

My point is simply that too many shows and movies have become very predictable, because one knows that they will take the easy way out, and never write anything which some minority group might object to. To me, that predictability ruins drama.

Ms. Kaufman helped produce an immensely popular show. But she now feels compelled to apologize for it, saying that she was guilty of “systemic racism.” Of course, she can say and feel anything she wants. But the reason this bothers me, is that it seems that “our side” is busy feeling guilty about things, while the other side is destroying our rights and our planet. Does this mean that people in the entertainment world cannot keep flagellating themselves for not being “pure” enough? No, but it just becomes dreary.

Would a “Friends” with a few Black and other minority main characters have been better? No. It would just fulfill the current requirements. I see so few shows, but when I turn one on for a few minutes, I am struck by how they sometimes seem to put in minority characters just to have them there. As if they are not only fulfilling requirements, but somehow attempting to create cultural norms.

If you do a show about a crime unit, or a hospital staff, of course there should be minorities, to reflect the realities. But a comedy about six people does not require an obligatory minority person in there, as part of the group. And for someone to castigate herself for producing the show with the six White people, does not do very many people any good.

And of course it easily falls into the theme of “wokeness,” which the Christo-Fascist Right have discovered is a very good bogeyperson to run against. Obviously there are many more important things to worry about; but to me, at least, this falls into the general theme of focusing on the wrong things while the planet is burning. Put another way, if every single show had 50% minority characters, we would still have the Radical Right rolling over us, while some Hollywood people wanted to feel guilty about something else.

Here is another new headline from the world of entertainment: “The Full Monty’s Hugo Speer removed from Disney’s reboot series following allegations of ‘inappropriate conduct.'” I don’t know whether that was warranted or not,, or how “inappropriate conduct” is defined, but it provides a nice distraction for some people in the industry, as they try to wean out the systemic racism in their own shows, and the inappropriate behavior which besets us. When all of this is over, I wonder who the winners will turn out to be. I don’t think that the people passing fascist laws worry about any of the above. They are good at keeping their eyes on their main prize.

6 Responses

  1. Propertius, your interesting comment went into moderation, probably because of using the “r word” one time. Unfortunately, I cannot rescue the rare one which goes there, but I did read it. You are probably right about the demographic they were shooting for, though I am naive enough to not think about that too much with regard to movies or shows, As to how they could afford that high-end place, I guess that went with the fantasy. Anne Marie of “That Girl,” who had no regular job, as she was trying to start an acting career, made about ten costume changes per show, all high-end clothes by Cardinale.

    My thought was that not every show has to appeal to a diverse demographic. I skip all of the NCIS shows, because while I like mysteries, I don’t like plumbing the psyches of psychopaths or serial killers. But the shows are watched by a large audience across cultures, it seems, so I guess it is not open to the same criticisms. If you try to make sure to avoid one thing, you likely will get something else which is not ideal, whether or not you escape censure for it.

  2. Friends is a nearly 30 year-old show. Talking about it now is like talking about Leave It To Beaver in the 1990s.Things have changed a lot since then. There are a lot more shows, thanks to the proliferation of subscription and streaming channels. Many of those show are not being written for ad-supported media at all, so they don’t adhere to the traditional ad-supported TV format (although some subscription services have an ad-supported tier, e.g. Paramount+, so the scene breaks etc. are designed to permit insertion of commercials) and they’re not subject to the whims of sponsors. It’s a different world now, and I assume that if Friends were to debut today the format, characters, and story lines would be quite different (particularly if it were on, say, HBO rather than a traditional broadcast network).

    • Well, the producer seems to feel guilty that she didn’t have more minority characters even back then. There are so many networks and shows, that I think it is fine that they do all sorts of things, unless something is blatantly prejudiced or insulting. I don’t see why someone feels she wants to apologize for producing a show where the six main characters are all Caucasian.

      This is what bothers me, this counting up, and people so eager to demand that every show have a certain formula, as if they were doing first grade teaching. I’m waiting for someone to complain that “Perry Mason” did not have a minority secretary.or maybe that would have been demeaning in itself; so how about the D.A, but then he never won, so we couldn’t have that, unless we let him win some, and Perry lose. And weren’t all the weird-looking bad guys in “Dick Tracy” comics, of the same ethnicity? Any way you go, you are apt to upset the morality arbiters. And it’s only our side which continues to worry about this.

      • Well, there isn’t a whole lot of creativity to be had in the entertainment industry these days (if indeed there ever was). If you really want to be diverse, how about some diverse *stories* and diverse *characters*, rather than just rebooting the same stale stories but pretending you’re being innovative by expanding the casting. I’m all for expanding opportunities for actors of every description, but for God’s sake give them new stories to tell.

  3. I actually thought Perry Mason pulled of the casting rather well – certainly better than a lot of shows. So they made Paul Drake black – it’s not historically unreasonable (the first Black officer joined LAPD in 1885) and it gave them an opportunity to give him an interesting story: he’s a beat cop who has the investigative skills to be a top-notch detective but will never get the chance because it’s 1920s LA. He can walk a beat (but only in a Black neighborhood) and be talked down to and marginalized by lesser talents or he can go to work for Mason. Still a difficult choice for both of them, but interesting character development.

    Yeah, they made both Della and Burger gay, but it’s the 1920s so they’re closeted. Della is obviously the smartest person in the room, but she’ll only get so far.

    All in all, I think they pulled it off quite successfully (while maintaining a beautiful “modern noir” atmosphere to the whole show). I think the reason why it had such appeal to me is that they used the modified characters to bring added depth to the story, rather than just tacking them on like they were satisfying a checklist. I hope the second season doesn’t end up being a COVID casualty.

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