Thursday, April 17, 2008

Marriage on TV

I watch television. I have friends who don't, and I applaud them for it. But I myself find that TV can be just as much as worth my time as good cinema can. At the same time, it's not hard to spot some of the more glaring trends that vex TV. Indeed, some of the more austere sects either prohibit or strongly discourage the viewing of TV. Chasidic Jews, Amish and Old Order Mennonites, and Lefebvrist Tertiaries don't.

The other day, I found myself watching an hour of According to Jim. It's a fairly standard domcom featuring Jim Belushi as the husband and father in a family. I found myself enjoying the fictional family's antics, and I suddenly realized why that was.

The characters of Jim and Cheryl don't hate each other. They often have the same petty conflicts that drive sitcoms, but it's always done in good humour. In this respect it's antithetical to Everybody Loves Raymond, which I hate, precisely because, well, everyone hates each other. The husband is a stock character of the thoughtless, self-centred, boorish husband. The wife is the nagging, hard-done-by crank. The mother-in-law is obnoxious, condescending, and domineering. To me, this is not a recipe for comedy. I can't laugh when all of the characters are so unsympathetic and angry. (Note that I don't say they aren't "nice" or "good people". That's not necessary - witness Arrested Development and Curb Your Enthusiasm).

Watching According to Jim, I'm not left wondering why the couple ever married in the first place, as I so often am with other television comedies. It this respect, it's like Family Guy, in which the heads of the family clearly love each other - even though Peter Griffin is in many ways a meta-joke about sitcom husbands.

How we portray people and institutions in popular media says something about our values. I remember watching comedies on TV while on holiday in Florida as a child, American programmes that we didn't get at home. My mother, I recall, glanced mournfully at the TV set and asked: "Why are all the Black characters stupid?"

It seems to me that it's worth asking the question of whether we value marriage as a society, and if so, why we seem to treat it with such scorn in our media. Judging from TV sitcoms and the monologues of stand-up comedians (who are even worse in this respect), it's a wonder to me that anyone chooses to be married at all. It's true that we only camp the things we love, but most such comedy isn't camp, and isn't loving in its treatment of marriage. Perhaps it's not surprising that the frequency of divorce is so high in a culture that views marriage as ours appears to.


Davis said...

American sitcoms represent the lowest tabloid forms of entertainment, sadly. This seems to be emulated worldwide now.

Malcolm+ said...

I've just found your blog via a link to an older post regarding liturgy and young people, following on a thread of Fr. Haller's blog.

I have to disagree with you slightly on Everybody Loves Raymond. The characters didn't hate each other. They hated things about each other - Raymond's insensitivity, Robert's self-pity, Marie's need to control.

But when push came to shove, it became obvious that they did love each other - very much if not very well. The otherwise crusty nature of the exchanges served to emphasize the tender moments that usually occured at least once to an episode.

In that regard, it was a slightly upscale of Rosanne which, for all it's sarcasm, showed a realistic working class family who cared deeply for each other.

But then, in gvstibvs, non est dispvtandem.

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