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America In Primetime

(PBS; US DVD: 17 Jan 2012)

“Television is a writer’s medium and an actor’s medium. Directors, executives, you know, they make a difference, but it’s really about developing those characters. And when it’s really well done, it provides the most depth.”
—Ron Howard


America In Primetime is a PBS documentary series focusing on television archetypes and the ways in which they have developed throughout the years. The series is divided into four episodes, “Man of the House”, “The Independent Woman”, “The Misfit”, and “The Crusader”, all with input from actors, writers, directors, and television executives detailing characters that exemplify each category.


By dividing the series into these four archetypes, America In Primetime has a context around which to discuss general television trends with some specificity and with examples that go beyond the classic television roles cited time and time again, such as Ralph Kramden or Lucy Ricardo.  Although these do get mentioned, more current series and characters are the real focus of the documentary.


For example, in “Man of the House”, while there is mention of the early ‘50s television father, it quickly morphs into the more modern portrayal of a man struggling to find his role in life. Just as it’s no longer acceptable for the man to simply be the breadwinner in today’s society (and these days, the woman in a heterosexual relationship is just as likely to be the breadwinner in the household), television reflects those same questions and insecurities. The contrast is obviously most apparent in discussing early television programs, but even in contrasting ‘70s blustery, opinionated Archie Bunker with the ambivalent men of Thirtysomething or Men of a Certain Age, the difference is striking, while they are nevertheless still linked by their flaws.


In “The Independent Woman”, a great deal of credit is given to Mary Tyler Moore, both as Laura Petrie in The Dick Van Dyke Show and in her iconic role as Mary Richards in The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Unsurprisingly, Roseanne Barr is especially honest in discussing the portrayal of women in television. Her anger is real and her convictions are obviously deeply held, so when she talks about playing a character so close to herself, there is no doubt that she has encountered many of the same roadblocks as other independent women have. The struggle of identity in wife, mother, and career roles are fresh eyes with newer examples such as Desperate Housewives’ Lynette’s reluctance and complex feelings revolving around motherhood.


“The Misfit” is perhaps the broadest definition of an archetype as it encompasses everything from the nerd to the socially inept to the plain outrageous. Examples include Louie in Taxi, Dwight on The Office, the casts of The Munsters, The Addams Family, Seinfeld, and Arrested Development, just to name a few. But perhaps no series could be better placed in this category than the aptly named Freaks and Geeks.  By essentially focusing on the outcasts and the fringes of society, television has been able to give them more complete characterizations than any other medium.  As television offers characters the opportunity to grow over time, they often show other sides to themselves that may otherwise be sacrificed in favor of quirk.


“The Crusader” is one of the more interesting archetypes in that it covers characters as diverse as MASH’s Hawkeye Pierce, The X-Files’ Mulder and Scully, and The Wire’s Omar Little. It’s a group with little in common on the surface, yet they all share an unwavering belief system that drives everything they do. While the series was able to get David Milch on to discuss Homicide, there was a real missed opportunity to talk about his masterpiece series,  Deadwood, particularly as it relates to this archetype. 


In one of the more revealing moments of the series, David Simon speaks about The Wire’s Omar. In discussing Omar’s life as surrounded by violence and in turn, the bleakness and finality of that violence as an inescapable part of his character, Simon contrasts the necessary violence depicted in The Wire with the lighter, more idealized version in Dexter. His refusal to find any redeeming qualities in a series that glorifies violence speaks to an honest approach in discussing the creative process that is sometimes lacking with the more perfunctory and often all-around positive opinions usually given in these productions.


The frankness of the participants in these episodes is certainly its best quality.  Whether David Chase is discussing David Lynch’s brilliance in using dream sequences, or a fine line is drawn between Homer Simpson and Raymond Barone, or female friendships are given fuller treatments on Sex and the City and Grey’s Anatomy, the series touches upon critical and commercial darlings with equal weight. 


America in Primetime is a celebration of television but without empty platitudes and praise, rather it achieves its goal through thoughtful analysis and intelligent conversation. In fact, the series leaves the viewer thinking about and interested in further possible episodes on even more archetypes.

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J.M. Suarez has been a contributing writer at PopMatters since 2008. She's happy to talk about TV any time, any place. Really.


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