Thursday, September 27, 2007

Brothers and Sisters

So, Sally Field won an Emmy for some television show that I had never heard of called "Brothers and Sisters." Given that this is the golden age of television and that I liked her work in "ER," I decided to give it a try. Ouch, big mistake.

I can't remember the last time I so much talent in the service of such mediocre writing. Oh, wait, I guess I can, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip."

Like "Studio 60" this show suffers from having a main character representing beliefs that the writer(s) don't share but who we are expected to accept as sympathetically and accurately portrayed. In Aaron Sorkin's show, that character was an Evangelical Christian whose views were continually mocked and undercut but who we were supposed to understand was loved by those around her (and who created her) because they were fiercely loyal to her. Of course, personal loyalty and respect are not the same, and it is always irksome to have some straw-man representative of yourself or your arguments paraded before others and then watch those who caricaturize you congratulate themselves smugly on how tolerant and fair they are.

In "Brothers and Sisters" the divide is political rather than religious. Calista Flockhart plays a pundit supposedly sufficiently famous to have her own "Crossfire"-like television show where she represents the red states...but her reasons for supporting the Iraq war are that she was close to the Towers on 9/11 and saw people jumping out buildings.

Television at its worst, particularly melodrama, has a tendency to be reductive. Let's reduce complex arguments to single positions, each represented by a particular character, so that an issue can be resolved in 40 minutes by creating a hierarchy of values or positions. When one infertile brother asks another to donate sperm and the other objects, the entire issue is handled in one episode which essentially reduces the conflict to fear vs. familial loyalty. Familial loyalty trumps personal concerns, therefore he should do it. The character is given one brief speech in which he alludes to a lawyer he has seen kids messed up by non-traditional arrangements and as a gay man he has concerns about brining a kid into the world who might be alienated (rightly or wrongly) while growing up. What strikes me as telling is that this speech is designed to make the character more sympathetic in that his reasons are not entirely selfish, but it is not designed to make the issue more complex. The answer is still that he is wrong, and no attempts are made by the other characters (or writers) to address those concerns and understand them--only to dismiss them as being less relevant or important than his brother's desire for a child who shares his family's genetic material.

One has to feel a bit of sympathy for the Catch-22 being presented to the (sure seems to me) liberal writers of the show. Intro to creative writing says "write what you know" but then the cultural audience turns around and says, "Why are there no [fill in the blank] characters on your show?" As a result, many of these shows feel either idealized (the family's absolute loyalty to one another comes across as an attempt to paint what a family should be rather than that of an actual family dealing with actual conflicts) or condescending (fairness is allowing a stock character to sound bite the other side before the "right" argument wins out).

I remember taking a class in undergraduate school with James Farmer as a visiting professor, and many of the same issues were raised regarding race. It was one thing for whites to include black characters in their shows, but it was (and is) quite another for blacks to tell their own stories from their own points of view.

The bizarrely grating thing about "Brothers and Sisters," though, is that it doesn't even work as propaganda. Like "Left Behind" the execution is so sloppy, the thinking so fuzzy, that the slanted nature of the rhetoric contained within the narrative serves only to invite the deconstruction of the priviliged position within the narrative rather than the embrace of it.

When the family is fighting over the dinner table about whether or not war is an appropriate response to the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers (nobody ever mentions the plane that crashed into the Pentagon for some reason), the father offers this gem:

The world outside this house, we can't control. Not with bombs...not with diplomacy...and not even with love. We know that now.

Oh, I see. What we know "now" (i.e. after 9/11) is that we can't control the world outside us with love. We can't control it with bombs either or diplomacy. This is such a curious message and speech on several levels. On the surface it appears to be entirely fatalistic. Neither guns, diplomacy or love will work, so what's to choose between them? I get the sense, though, that the entire arc of the series' argument is that since nothing will work, let's not do the war since it has human costs and won't work. But I digress. The rhetorical linking of "we know that now" with this fatalism creates the implication that all three approaches have been tried (and exhausted) and that the attacks of 9/11 were an equal response to and rejection of (or indifference towards) all three responses. I'm picturing some suppressed Al-Qaeda video with Osama Bin Laden boldly proclaiming, "We will show the infidel he cannot control us with his love!"

Now, I might be inclined to cut the writing some slack if the show or the characters in it evidenced any awareness of the inanity of this argument, but all the trappings of the narrative (music, climactic pacing, response shots), indicate this speech is meant to be taken entirely in earnest and accepted (by the liberal and conservative children alike) as a wise and definitive interpretation of the events that have traumatized them AND of the events that caused or led up to it, which makes no sense. Surely the liberal "kids" would complain that 9/11 is not evidence that diplomacy can't work in Iraq just as Flockhart's character would almost certainly respond that military intervention in Iraq to attempt to find and destroy WMDs (the scene takes place during the period where reports questioning the sincerity of "evidence" that said Iraq had not yet been widely reported) and disrupt terrorist training by state sponsors of terrorism is being touted as a RESPONSE to 9/11, not the cause of it. [I imagine she would also say that while we may not be able to "control" the world through military intervention we might be able to influence it, and that the logic that since we can never be 100 percent successful at eliminating terrorism we should not try to limit it is pretty asinine.]

My point here is not that "Brothers and Sisters" is a wretched show because of its ideology. I actually share some of the values and positions I think it priviliges. Rather, my point is that a half-baked, smug assertion of one's moral and ethical superiority in the face of one's straw-men adversaries is more likely to engender resentful scorn than thoughtful persuasion. One only needs to listen to any random 20 minutes of Rush Limbaugh or Fox News to experience the reverse and recall how incredibly irritating it is to have self-serving card stacking arguments championed as the hallmark of our morally superior fair and balanced approach to complex and potentially divisive issues.

Later Edit:
Regarding the sperm donation episode, one give away that the cards are stacked is that the arguments of those who say the brother should donate the sperm (his siblings) do not change after they hear (some of) his reservations. That is, his concerns are dismissed rather than answered. This is remarkable, if you think of it. It is hard for me to not read into this fact an attitude not just that his reservations are wrong, but that they are worthless. It is one thing to say that another's argument has not persuaded one; it is quite another to say that another's argument has not caused or forced you to modify, reconsider, tweak, or otherwise clarify your own position. But that is what we get, a simple reassertion of the "correct" position, which the gay brother eventually accepts. What a powerful indicator that the writers/series has no real interest in an exchange of views or dialog but only provide the alternative view (or a character making it) in order to give the illusion of fair time/consideration.

I mentioned "Left Behind" in my post and I see two parallels worth teasing out. In the sperm donation episode another brother who served in the military volunteers to donate his sperm and is initially rejected. After he shares an emotional story, his brother relents and lets both him and the gay brother donate sperm. I found it interesting that all parties involve know that the military brother is struggling with alcohol and drug addiction. Putting aside questions of whether or not research indicating that a predisposition to these behaviors can be genetically passed on, there is absolutely no indication that anyone in the family, amongst friends, at the fertility clinic suggest that he ought to be physically evaluated to see if he is healthy much less asked to undergo any kind of screening for whether or not the involvement in such a process would be mentally healthy for him. The three brothers agree and bam, next scene they are in the waiting room with their cups of sperm to give to the bank. What this tells me is that the writers of "Brothers & Sisters" like those of "Left Behind," appear to have a profound disinterest in the characters they have created as people and in the implications of the situation they have created. It's all a vehicle or context to make an ideological speech about values, thus we can't really do much research into how the process actually works.

In what I can only assume is meant to be ironic reversal, the republican pundit sister is the one who convinces the gay brother to donate sperm by telling him that what the sterile brother wants is the essence of "family values." I was reminded of the scene in "Left Behind" in which we are told that the Pope has been raptured but (lest the fundamentalist audience fear the authors are being ecumenical) he has frustrated some Catholics by adding reforms to the church to make it more protestant. The surface message here is, "Hey, I'm not prejudiced, I took a high profile Catholic and had him raptured," but the metamessage is "I'm not prejudice because I don't hate all Catholics, I only hate the Catholics who ACT Catholic." In the same way, Flockhart's character on "Brothers and Sisters" is supposed to be this token "good" republican to show, "Hey we are not prejudiced against all conservative republicans just the ones, you know, who believe what conservative republicans believe." You can call yourself whatever you want as long as you hold to our values.

One could, I suppose, give the show credit for being secretly ironic if it had the courage to, say, demonstrate the contradictions between the values she says she espouses and the values she demonstrates when shown in a good light. One might ask, for instance, how and why a good conservative, red state, republican Christian might be against stem cell research or the morning after pill but be so strongly in support of in-vitro fertilization in which (if I have my facts straight) eggs are fertilized, frozen and implanted one by one and those "left behind" are often discarded or destroyed.

I'm not saying this as an argument against in-vitro, per se. What I am saying is that it seems ludicrous to me (and indicative of a deep disinterest on the part of the creators of her character in being fair rather than just sounding or appearing fair) that this character neither seems particularly bothered by these implications of the practice she is urging her brother to participate in nor, perhaps, particularly aware of them. Were we not told so often that she was so good at her job, I could explain away these huge disconnects between what we are told she is and how she actually comes across as evidence that she is meant to be a satire of a hypocritical republican rather than a portrait of a good one. Because that reading doesn't appear available to me, the most logical conclusion I can come to is that the writers were uninterested in or unwilling to actually create a character who was a conservative republican to represent the republican point of view.

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