The entertainment awards season is upon us and, with rare exception, cable channels and streaming services swept the television prizes at the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild Awards over the past month.
No surprise there. They’re attracting movie stars and incredible actors like Matthew McConaughey, Kevin Spacey, and Jessica Lange to star in their productions, and giving audiences gritty, gory, sexy, intelligent shows that have become the “must-see TV” of our day.
But while Netflix, HBO, and FX are transforming television, one network is trying to transform society. That network is ABC.
That’s right, ABC. The network that has been such a disappointment in primetime programming that it does not have a single show in the top half of TV Guide’s 60 Best Series of All Time. It’s never dominated television like CBS did in the 1970s with shows like “All in the Family,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and “M*A*S*H.” Or like NBC did in the 1980s and 1990s with “The Cosby Show,” “Seinfeld,” and “Friends.”
But, ABC has finally found its footing with shows that convey a vision of a society where, as Tolstoy famously wrote, “All happy families are alike.” Differences in race or religion or sexual orientation are simply amusing rather than “threatening.”
They’re doing so with programming that could be called “We’re-Just-Like-You Wednesday.”
The lineup includes “Modern Family,” “Black-ish,” “The Goldbergs,” and now “Fresh Off the Boat,” which has a double premiere tomorrow night. These shows make gay and black and Jewish people and immigrants “safe” for the general public by presenting characters who feel familiar and comfortable. They’ve got mainstream American hopes and dreams, get themselves into and out of wacky, heartwarming sitcom-ready situations, and, most importantly, place family above all else.
Studies show familiarity doesn’t breed contempt, it breeds acceptance. And acceptance can lead to important changes in social policy.
A 2013 Pew Research Center survey, for one, shows that, among the general public, roughly two-thirds, or 68 percent, of those who know a lot of people who are gay or lesbians favor same-sex marriage, compared with just 32 percent of those who don’t know any gay people.
“Knowing” television characters is admittedly not the same as knowing real people, but if you watch “Modern Family,” you feel like you know Mitchell and Cam. These are men who love each other, love their parents and siblings and extended families, and love their daughter, Lily, whom they lovingly adopted from Vietnam. Who doesn’t love love?
Thirty-six states currently have marriage equality, and later this year the US Supreme Court could issue a landmark ruling that would make it legal to marry in any state. “Modern Family” obviously isn’t solely responsible for these stunning developments, but it — and TV predecessors like “Will & Grace” — surely deserve some credit.
And now ABC is bringing us “Fresh Off the Boat,” a show based on a memoir by chef Eddie Huang about a Chinese-American family in the 1990s who moved from Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown to suburban Orlando, Fla. In a bid to assimilate and pursue the American dream, hip-hop-loving Eddie’s father opens a Western-themed restaurant named Cattleman’s Ranch Steakhouse. Culture shock, family drama, and hijinks ensue.
Can “Fresh Off the Boat” do for immigrants what “Modern Family” has done for the LGBT community?
Let’s hope so. In this year’s State of the Union address, President Obama only passingly referred to the ideals of immigration and made no call to action to Congress to pass immigration reform, as he had the previous two years. Maybe the experiences of the semi-fictionalized Huangs will help place the issue front and center again.
Of course, there is a cost to the “we’re just like you” message. The Disneyfied world (and let’s not forget that ABC is owned by Disney) where these shows take place is mostly upper-middle class — or aspiring to be — and relentlessly suburban. Huang has even made his disgust with executives over the “whitewashing” of the dialogue and the use of stereotypes in some of the social media promos for “Fresh Off the Boat” highly public.
And so fictionalized life is as messy as real life. ABC nonetheless deserves credit for learning the ABCs of producing television that makes a difference.