God Friended Me, pictured, is an example of a TV series that has characters operating “with a code of conduct and a conscience.” Photo by David Giesbrecht/CBS

Camera finally points at civility

By  Johanne Brownrigg
  • May 23, 2019

I paused the PVR and looked at my husband: “Did you notice what a big deal they were making about a first kiss?” 

We were watching God Friended Me. The 20-something stars were falling in love slowly. It was an old school, get-to-know-you-as-friend relationship that morphed into a romance. The sweet reaction from friends and family over hearing about a first kiss warmed my heart. 

That same week, Marni Soupcoff wrote an article in the National Post in which she reminisced about two films celebrating the 20th anniversary of their release: The Last Days of Disco and Office Space. “The delicacy involved in creating these fictional works — where conflict is created without incivility and where laughs are elicited without chipping away at the characters’ integrity — should not be underestimated,” she wrote.

Amen.

Hollywood may be deaf, but TV might be changing. You don’t watch God Friended Me for theology. Many, however, would appreciate it for the kindness of the characters and their earnestness to do good. The three main characters operate with a code of conduct and a conscience. When they let someone else down, they let themselves down. 

The show is not a throwback. It isn’t resurrecting a 1950s vibe. The good-looking heroes are aimed at today’s audience and they have scored with them. The CBS show captures about eight million weekly viewers in the 18-to-49 age range, impressively outperforming shows with much bigger star power. That’s why the celebration of a first kiss, and not a first romp, is so shocking, and so sweet.

ABC’s runaway success, This is Us, also flies in the face of many family dramas served up for the last 25 years. It revolves around the love and loyalty of a family set today, not during the Depression or the Second World War. Frailty isn’t glamourized or glossed over, but neither is it portrayed in ways to make the characters resemble hypocrites. This is us indeed. 

In Canada, Kim’s Convenience has also hit a home run. Its self-deprecating humour shows family and friends at their best. It rarely misses a laugh and never betrays the love mom and dad have for each other and their two kids. It does so not with perfection, but with a Korean twist. 

Then there’s the unfortunately titled Schitt’s Creek, which depicts the Roses unmoored after losing their vast sums of money. But, as a result, they find their humanity. Again, mom and dad love each other, plainly and unabashedly.

Is Soupcoff’s longing for pleasant storytelling from Hollywood, and my hope to see it on TV, just wishful thinking? Perhaps. Or are we on the cusp of change in entertainment because the culture is changing?

Polling indicates that the consumption choices of young adults are more like their great-grandparents’ than their parents’. It seems that conspicuous consumption and brand loyalty are giving way to thrift shops and Walmart. Does that trend indicate changes are coming in entertainment choices? 

In The Power of Glamour, Virginia Postrel suggests that glamour is a powerful form of “non-verbal rhetoric.” She says “glamour is an illusion, known to be false but felt to be true which focuses and intensifies a pre-existing but previously inchoate yearning.” 

“What people find glamorous suggests something about who they are and what they find absent in their lives. In the movies of the ’30s, divorce was exotic and glamourous. Marriage was for most people a lifetime commitment and at times a loveless prison. … Now divorces are commonplace, a quarter of American children live in single-mother households and fatherly advice is glamorous.” 

The iconography of glamour reflects our deepest desires. It changes with the times. The object of that desire has to be unfamiliar for it to have a hold on us. It is aspirational. It lures us. We long for it because as she said, it is absent from our lives.

Asked what is glamorous today, Postrel pointed to fathers. She predicted the depiction of dads to change in advertising and elsewhere. And so it has.

Postrel is right, but I would go further. We are craving changes in tone. What is appealing in some of the most popular shows are scripts which lack malice. 

This too may be aspirational in a time when many people feel unmoored in a world with diminishing civility and fewer guarantees of family. Survival of the fittest and looking out for number one wear on you.

Depicting family love, gentleness and caring is clearing the fog that darkened programming for years. Some writers are rediscovering humour without enmity, cruelty or vulgarity and entertainment is becoming all the sweeter for it.

(Brownrigg is an Ottawa writer.)

 

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