Sunday, April 30, 2006

The New Archie Bunker?

One thing that used to strike me about modern TV is that it hadn't really produced an Archie Bunker figure -- a TV character who was both a flawed-but-sympathetic character and a symbol of broader cultural conflicts. Archie was like that, and so in a different way was Alex Keaton on "Family Ties": they were a symbol of cultural trends that their creators didn't like, but at the same time they were three-dimensional characters, and basically sympathetic people. There aren't a lot of characters like that today; if a creator wants to use a character to make a statement about trends he doesn't like, he'll usually pick a villain or at least an antagonist -- he won't put that character front-and-center and he certainly won't confuse the issue by showing that that character is basically a good person underneath.

You could sort of make an argument that Stephen Colbert is the closest thing we have now to a successor to those characters. The character Colbert plays on his show -- the blowhard, self-absorbed talk-show host who believes in "truthiness" and is suspicious of actual facts -- is obviously a satire (though, as with Archie and Alex, there's a sort of sub-trend of viewers who don't get that the character is supposed to be a satire). But if you watch enough episodes, the Colbert character starts to become oddly sympathetic: he's a guy trying to seem like he knows everything when he knows nothing, and the strain of trying to look infallible seems to be wearing him down. As with Archie Bunker, he's really not a bad person, just a guy who doesn't really understand the changes in the world, and deliberately closes his mind to anything that might make him nervous.

Incidentally, here's what Colbert (sort of in-character) told a clearly hostile Washington Press Corps last night, a reminder that the primary satirical target of shows like "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" is not politicians, but the media:

Over the last five years you people were so good. Over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn't want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out. Those were good times... as far as we knew.

But listen, let's review the rules. Here's how it works: The President makes the decisions - he's the decider. The Press Secretary announces those decisions, and you people, the press, type those decisions down. Make, announce, check. Just put 'em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you've got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration? You know, fiction!


Anonymous said...

Jaime -

No new Archie Bunker? I beg to differ! Tony Soprano is, in addition to being a lovable bigot (and murdererous adulterer, etc.), the center of a scathing satire on both suburban consumerism and the breakdown of the 'traditional family'. The forces of Italian-American Catholic traditionalism are constantly buffetted on that show by this or that secular danger, and the problems generally resolve themselves through the power of purchasing. To raise the dramatic stakes, the old Mafia omerta code gets the same treatment, and its rapid decay - summed up by the shift from the characters wanting to be Michael Corleone to quoting and acting like the schmucks from Goodfellas, itself a movie about the Mob in decline - plays out parallel to the end of Tony's daddy-knows-best authority at home.

Top it off with a heavy critique/embrace of psychoanalytic therapy-speak and play it for a combination of unsettling violence and relieving laughter, and you have a show that in dramatic effect is quite close to All in the Family in a number of ways.

You could make a similar argument about Simon Cowell, the British judge on American Idol, but I've never seen the show and would have to kill myself if I did. So we'll take a pass for now. :)

MichaelRbn said...

Might not Steve Carrell's boss in The Office be a version of this type of character? A combination of just about every bad characteristic of the early 21st century boss