TV is constantly changing and evolving, which is why shows are now in color and sitcom parents no longer burden their children with the name "Beaver." Even programs from not that long ago, in the 21st century even, seem weirdly out-of-step with our modern sensibilities. Let us take you on a journey back in time to when TV shows featured ...
Television today obviously still has a big representation problem -- for example, there are far too few shows featuring LGBTQ characters, and far too many featuring Tim Allen. One area in which TV has improved somewhat has been in the inclusion of bisexual characters; from Rosa on Brooklyn 99 to Callie from Grey's Anatomy to the lead character of the show literally called The Bisexual.
Even in the recent past, when TV shows began to incorporate more gay-friendly storylines, they did so at the expense of even just the mere suggestion of bi-sexuality. Take Buffy the Vampire Slayer. We get that this the least of that show's problems right now, but the character of Willow had several, meaningful relationships with men she was seemingly totally into -- but in season four she fell in love with Tara and was suddenly "gay now."
It's fine that Willow was gay, but the show never seemed remotely interested in exploring the the possibility that she might be bi; as if falling in love with a woman some kind of sexual nuclear launch switch from which there was no return. Why? Because according to Joss Whedon the show wasn't "ready for that." Even weirder was the episode of Sex and the City in which Carrie dates a guy who's bisexual and casually dismisses his orientation as a "layover on the way to Gaytown." Even Samantha chalks bisexuality up to "experimentation."
Carrie wasn't an electrician or a marine biologist, she was a goddamn sex columnist but still got totally freaked out by the idea that sexuality is a spectrum. Really, Carrie? That's like being an Ikea employee who doesn't recognize that bookshelves are a thing. And while we're on the topic of otherwise likable characters being casually crappy about bisexuality (looking at you, Liz Lemon) ...
30 Rock was obviously chock full of wacky rapid-fire gags, some of which have become iconic, such as "Werewolf Bar Mitzvah" others are, well, horrible. The premiere episode of the show's fifth season, "The Fabian Strategy" began with Pete proudly telling Liz that his newfound free time allowed him to have sex with his wife -- oh and she was "still asleep" so he "didn't have to be gentle." Yeah, we know. Even worse, Liz Lemon then envisions this scene and viewers are forced to watch. Unlike the show, we'll include a warning that the following clip contains a depiction of sexual assault.
Even in the unenlightened far-off year of 2010, a lot of people were pretty upset by this moment. This isn't even the only scene that references Pete's offscreen sex crimes; an earlier episode included a joke about how he may have gotten into some hot water while working as a high school math teacher ...
30 Rock played with a lot of taboo subjects, but including a throughline where Pete is a literal rapist is grosser than the green room at MILF Island.
Product placement continues to be a thing even in the age of streaming television, hence why Stranger Things so often pauses its paranormal mysteries to highlight the importance of ice cream and Eggo waffles. Then there was the time Community centred an entire episode around the Honda corporation.
But the most daringly awkward attempt to contort a show's narrative into a glorified commercial came in the second season of Fox's Empire, which quickly pivoted from a critical darling into the crazy show in which Chris Rock played a goddamn cannibal. Pepsi became the official sponsor of Empire which meant, not just product placements, but also a three-episode arc in which Jamal (played by famed performance artist Jussie Smollett) records a new song for a Pepsi commercial, which he also stars in. It's a commercial for Pepsi about the making of a commercial for Pepsi, in what amounted to basically the Inception Pepsi commercials.
The storyline opens with a fake Pepsi commercial and eventually culminates with Jamal's spot, in which he convinces a subway car full of strangers to dance with wild abandon, using only a bottle of brown sugar water.
Pepsi reportedly paid $20 million to bend the storyline of Empire to its promotional whims. In retrospect, maybe we should just be glad that Empire wasn't approached by HeadOn or something. (Actually wait, that would've ruled.)
Apart from that video of him dramatically falling off of a stage in Disneyland, the greatest thing Kelsey Grammer ever did is the acclaimed sitcom Frasier. But as brilliant as the show may be, there's one consistent element that feels flat-out gross today: the treatment of Roz Doyle. Throughout the course of the entire series neither Frasier, nor his brother Niles, pass up the opportunity to ridicule their friend Roz for merely being a single woman with an active sex life. Whether it's saying that her bedroom is "easier to get into than a community college" or that she meets men by slingshotting her "panties across the street" or even random Christmastime putdowns.
Which is extra crappy because A) Frasier is literally Roz's employer, and B) Frasier himself is constantly dating women, yet his social behavior is never questioned. And between the two, Dr. Crane's sex life is the one that is actually disturbing; he tries to take a photo of his sleeping girlfriend without her permission, dates a woman who looks exactly like his mother, and the less said about the time he had an affair with a married children's entertainer and ended up losing his pants and was forced to dress up like a giant baby and perform for an audience full of minors the better.
If the much-discussed Frasier reboot ever manifests, maybe Frasier could give Roz a break and examine his own twisted compulsions instead.
In the early 2000s, TV comedies were constantly pushing the envelope, which often resulted in beloved characters being super-racist. Take Michael Scott, the man-child manager of Dunder Mifflin in the iconic TV series/your best friend throughout 2020, The Office. For example, Michael regularly busts out his "Ping" character, the most galling impression of an Asian person this side of Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's.
Obviously the joke is that Michael is clueless, and the intended effect, to make all of us cringe, is ultimately successful. But today, when America's problems with white supremacy have been pushed to the fore, it's disquieting to see this kind of bigotry played for laughs, as if TV writers thought racism had magically been relegated to the status of an eccentric quirk we could all ultimately shrug off. Similarly, Jenna Maroney on 30 Rock routinely spouted horrible anecdotes, including flat-out racist garbage, but the show kept plugging along with zero acknowledgement of the crap she just said.
Of course, that's just the tip of 30 Rock's iceberg of cringiness. Similarly there was Lucille Bluth's casual cruelty on Arrested Development, and Pierce Hawthorne's bigotry on Community -- which was way less funny knowing that Chevy Chase was pulling that crap behind the scenes as well. Again, clearly the intended targets of these bits were always the racists themselves; what dates these shows is breezy nonchalance with which they tackled America's deep-rooted prejudices. It's hard to have your character be the lovable racist when we're coming off of a banner year for hate crimes.
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