Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Over the River and Through the Woods

... to Grandmother's house we go.

May you all have a joyous Christmas.

See you in the new year -- I have a big series planned, starting January first.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Anna Karenina Problem: Why There Are So Few Happy TV Marriages

Recently one of my most faithful readers, Edith OSB, asked " I've pondered what it would take to have a TV show with a happily married family who goes to Church each week - the data support the link with stable marriages - and I don't think it's going to happen." Earlier this year I lamented the dearth of good marriages on television, and nominated the DuBoises of "Medium" as the best TV marriage. In response to Edith OSB's specific question, a clear case of a church-going family were the Camdens of "Seventh Heaven," in which the father was pastor of the church. They had a wonderful marriage.

The problem with television as a place for happy marriages is that happy families are not dramatic enough for a domestic show. The Camdens illustrate this perfectly: while the marriage was strong and the children were well-raised, the writers put the children, and later the father, in increasingly contrived scrapes in order to keep the plot going.

Tolstoy famously begins Anna Karenina with this claim: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." I long puzzled over that. It seemed to me that happy families were truly free to do anything they want to. It was the unhappy families, locked in dysfunctional rituals of addiction and miscommunication, that seemed much like one another. The mystery of Tolstoy's meaning was cleared up for me by, of all things, Jared Diamond's excellent Guns, Germs, and Steel. He cites the "Anna Karenina Principle" not in relation to marriage and family life, but as the rule governing which kinds of animals can be domesticated. The problem, Diamond explains, is that for an animal to be domesticated, it requires a list of characteristics, each of which is necessary, and none sufficient by itself. A relative handful of animals have all the qualities on the list, while many animals have most, but not quite all. This is why horses could be domesticated, but zebras cannot.

Happy families are alike in that they have the whole list of characteristics in the right balance. They are bounded but flexible, firm but adaptive. Happy families don’t have big, tv-friendly dramas based on miscommunication or self-destruction for the very same reasons that they are happy families in the first place.

The better role for happy families on television is to support the work of the family members. The DuBois marriage is secondary to her crime solving (and, secondarily, to his engineering work, of which we see little). The Huxtables of the legendary "Cosby" show had their work as doctor and lawyer to attend to, which their quite functional marriage and family life supported. The Bartletts of "West Wing" had the minor business of the presidency in the foreground to attend to – and even then they neglected their children. I wish we could have seen President Santos' family adapt to the White House, though I expect the writers would have felt obliged to mess them up, too.

Shows that foreground dramatic work, like cop shows, routinely show the job shredding the family. Shows that foreground the family, as most sit-coms do, usually make the family dysfunctional. "Gilmore Girls," one of the Gruntled family's favorite shows, is running on the rocks in its final season as it tries to turn its highly functional single-mom family into a pair of competent marriages. This is more of a problem in television world than in real life.

What I want is a show that foregrounds the work, but with a continuous backstage life of a happy, supportive family.

Monday, December 18, 2006

I'm the Person of the Year! (No, I'm Not)

Time magazine has named you (all of you/us) Persons of the Year. They reason that digital democracy, such as YouTube, MySpace, and your humble blog, have made ordinary content providers the biggest influencers of events this year.

I think they copped out. The problem arose because the leader of the World's Only Superpower was clearly not leading events, but mostly running from them. But he is so powerful that he makes it hard for anyone else to be as consequential. We are now all waiting for a leader to emerge in the United States.

My nominee for Person of the Year: Hu Jintao, head of the Chinese government, for allowing capitalism to develop in the People's Republic of China – which I think will eventually lead to democracy, though of a peculiar form – and for once again not conquering Taiwan, even though there is not much we could do about it in our current embarrassed condition.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Calling Out Donald Wildmon (Not for the Last Time)

I want sensible religious leaders of other faiths to condemn the violent, radical, and just extreme actions and pronouncements of their fringe elements. This entails that I do the same thing with the Christian extremists. Which brings us to Don Wildmon, head of the American Family Association, and his latest silliness about television.

On the CBS show "Two and a Half Men," Charlie Sheen plays an irresponsible womanizer who writes and sings jingles. On a recent show Sheen's character altered familiar Christmas carols to celebrate what he hoped would be an imminent sexual encounter. To Wildmon and AFA, this means that Sheen, Hollywood, and CBS are mocking Christ, Christians, and Christmas.

Let us regain some perspective here. Charlie Sheen is an actor. He does not write the show. He did not invent the character. He did not create the premise of the show. Moreover, his character is not supposed to be admirable or a role model – the whole point is that he is a skunk. And the point of the songs was to celebrate the skunk's hope of sex. They were not about Christ, Christians, or even Christmas. Don, get a grip.

Wildmon recently slammed Rosie O'Donnell (and CBS again) for saying on "The View"'s 9/11 anniversary show, "Radical Christianity is just as threatening as radical Islam in a country like America where we have a separation of church and state. We're a democracy here." I say O'Donnell is mostly right, though the issue is more the violence of radicals than their connection to the state.

I am not saying that Don Wildmon and the American Family Association represent violent, extreme, or even very radical Christianity. I think Wildmon represents fusspot Christianity. And representing Christ, Christians, and Christmas as fusspots truly invites mockery.