Why TV's quasi-conservatives do liberals a disservice: How can we understand -- and debate -- opposing views when primetime's right-wing characters keep going soft?

By Mark Harris
Updated February 28, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST
Credit: Isabella Vosmikova
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Why TV’s quasi-conservatives do liberals a disservice

Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: I would like to see more conservative Republicans on TV. Fictional ones, that is. As a member of the self-deluding Eastern liberal politically correct media elite (so my reader mail tells me), I would like to learn more about the opposition. The problem is, they keep going soft on me. Last fall, TV promised us two conservatives: Kitty Walker on ABC’s Brothers & Sisters, and Harriet Hayes on NBC’s now-shelved Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Kitty was supposed to be a brash, Ann Coulter-like firebrand in a family of whole-grain blue-staters, and deeply religious Harriet was going to redress the injustices done to people of faith by godless showbiz types. As each series has unfolded, both women have been portrayed as multidimensional, sensitive human beings. Not incidentally, they seem to be turning into liberals.

In the case of Studio 60, it’s not surprising. Aaron Sorkin, the show’s creator, is a liberal. As a West Wing fan, I already knew that, but I didn’t realize he was so liberal that he would harvest ex-girlfriend Kristin Chenoweth’s stem cells and clone a fictional version of her to make a point. Harriet (played by Sarah Paulson) is the comic center of Studio 60‘s show within a show. She is also a devout Christian in an industry that, we are constantly told, mocks belief in God. It must be true, because poor Harriet is forever saying things like ”My faith is important to me and I don’t apologize for that!” before going on to defend free speech, gay rights, and a sketch making fun of fundamentalists.

The problem with Harriet is that she exists only to disprove an argument that nobody made in the first place. Sorkin has set up a straw man — the idea that ”liberals” hate ”Christians” — and then given us a spanking by creating a Christian character so open-minded that only a fool would oppose her. When the writers on Studio 60‘s version of SNL are working on a Christmas sketch, one complains ”Christmas is a sham!” and we’re supposed to realize, ”We liberals just don’t get it.” But what if Harriet actually said aloud that gay people are immoral, that abortion is murder, that illegal immigrants should be deported, or even that she’s for school prayer? What if she espoused positions that some viewers find intolerant? We’ll never know, since Harriet isn’t permitted to say anything potentially offensive. She’s just there to remind us all to play nice.

Hungry for nastiness, I turned to Brothers & Sisters and Calista Flockhart. Now, I understand why the show’s writers couldn’t make Kitty too Coulteresque; digital bat-wings and gargoyle horns are way too expensive to use in a series every week. Early on, Kitty did sound conservative. She said things like ”I am tough on crime, America first, old-fashioned, and in-your-face” (as opposed to, I guess, weak on crime, America last, newfangled, and shy). Since then, her politics have, shall we say, evolved. When Kitty learned her baby brother was about to be sent to Iraq, she tried to pull strings to keep him from going, then apologized on TV for supporting the war in the first place. Recently, another brother — the gay one — has fought Kitty’s decision to work for a Republican senator (Rob Lowe). The senator voted for the anti-gay marriage amendment. Of course, he’s sorry he did: He supports gay civil unions and voted the party line only so he’d save his education bill.

Civil unions? Education bill? Wow, what an…unusual Republican senator. Congratulations to the voters of the great state of Nevergonnahappen for electing him. Lowe would have made a great running mate for The West Wing‘s Arnold Vinick, a Republican so moderate that as soon as he lost, he joined the Democrat’s cabinet. But aside from the senator, Brothers & Sisters is, I think, pulling off an excellent liberal spin on conservatism, systematically demolishing Kitty’s beliefs by depicting her as a right-winger who has never confronted the human side of her arguments. When she does — when the endangered soldier or the homosexual whose rights are denied is in her own family — politics becomes personal, and she becomes more ideologically flexible. Dick Cheney would call that fighting dirty; I would call Brothers & Sisters a really fun way to make Dick Cheney mad.

Conservatives might argue that creating faux Republicans does a disservice to real conservative beliefs. That’s true, but the characters do an equal disservice to liberals by refusing to articulate the beliefs that make some of us so furious. Conservatives might also argue that if you want to see a real conservative, don’t look to shows created by liberals. Fair point, but when I checked in with 24, whose co-creator Joel Surnow is so hardcore GOP that he gave money to Rick Santorum, its vision of conservatism doesn’t seem much stronger; this year, the civil-rights-shredding White House loon (Peter MacNicol) is even scarier than the Arab terrorists that the show is always insisting might live right next to us. When even 24 can’t produce a coherent conservative worldview, where’s the fun? Who’s a liberal supposed to fight with if, suddenly, everyone is on my side?

Brothers & Sisters

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