It is fashionable, in certain circles, to claim that television is a lowbrow form of entertainment not worthy of time and attention. I beg to differ.
There are execrable shows, for sure, but I have been impressed in recent years at writers' and producers' willingness to integrate commentary on social issues as subtext to the main plot without making it feel like a lecture or public service announcement.
Back in January, I wrote about an episode of Law and Order that dealt with the difficult issue of age-related memory decline and possible dementia when a judge is caught deciding issues from the bench by reading messages on a laptop written by an aide seated elsewhere. Also, in a nice, little scene at the end, DA Jack McCoy – who is getting up there in years - complains of having difficulty reading in his office ever since the City replaced incandescent bulbs with CFLs. I've had the same problem.
Earlier, a couple of years ago, I recounted this scene from The Closer between Commander Taylor and Chief Johnson (played by Kyra Sedgwick) about an old man named Baxter who is trying to report a murder:
TAYLOR: Gordon found Baxter uncooperative. In fact, the old guy was more interested in asking questions than answering them. So Detective Gordon dumped his complaint in the round file. You know, Chief, we get this kind of stuff all the time. It’s hard enough staying on top of the crimes we find much less the ones people make up.
JOHNSON: (perusing file) I know exactly what happened. Mr. Baxter is old and difficult and because of that he was just dismissed out of hand. [I know] that’s what happened because that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do to him myself.
The scene isn't much longer than 30 seconds, but it is moments like this, repeated in popular media, that help change attitudes.
Another good one turned up this week, again on The Closer, in an episode titled “Make Over.” When the conviction in a past murder case is thrown out due to tainted evidence, Chief Johnson's unit must try to discover new evidence to keep the criminal in prison. One of the detectives, Lt. Provenza (played by G.W. Bailey) – the oldest member of the unit - had closed that case seven years earlier with his then-partner, Detective George Andrews (played by Beau Bridges) who is called out of retirement to help.
Surprise! When former Detective Andrews arrives at the train station he is, to Provenza's shock, now Georgette, having undergone transgender surgery.
Neither Provenza nor the rest of the men on the squad can get comfortable with Georgette's transformation and one bursts forth with a question about what happened to her penis. She answers, clinically, that it has been inverted which is almost too much for Provenza. Georgette further disturbs Provenza by calling him by his first name, Louis, which Provenza apparently dislikes and when she reveals that she still prefers women, it nearly sends Provenza around the bend.
As the investigation proceeds, Georgette proves to be the accomplished detective she had been when still on the police force and by the time they have solved the case, Provenza comes to accept “the best partner I ever had” as she is now.
I have a friend, a man who once worked for me, who has undergone transgender surgery. I flatter myself that I am more accepting of what and who people are than Provenza was at the beginning of the episode but it wasn't easy, when we visited for a long weekend, changing my definition of my friend to woman.
What I discovered is that we unconsciously ascribe different attributes to people depending on whether they are men or women, and we behave differently with each in subtle, nuanced, almost subliminal ways I had never seriously thought about until this experience. Assumptions I had about my friend, based solely on gender, no longer applied and I felt off kilter for awhile.
Having, like Provenza, been there and done that, I believe the show rang true.
After seeing off Georgette in a congenial farewell at the train station bar with Provenza, his current partner Flynn asks, “Are you ready to go, Louis?”
“Call me that once more,” says Provenza, “and Georgette won't be my only ex-partner without a penis.”
Good exit line (for about three or four reasons), and the entire script is well done.
Gays and lesbians have, in the past decade or so, become almost staples on television where they were once invisible. Transgender people not so much, so this program was an important step toward understanding among us all. That it was accomplished without taking anything away from a compelling police procedural is even better.
Television at its best is not only entertaining, it can help nudge attitudes toward more enlightened positions, and we shouldn't be snooty about it.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, pokadot22: The SPCA and Me