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Suburbia in TV land (and God-talk)

The NY Times posted an interesting article Sunday: Car in Every Garage, Sitcom in every cul-de-sac by David Carr, who observes that “sitcoms, hour-long dramas, reality shows and all the rest of it have taken up residence at a safe commuting distance from the cities.” TV shows and their characters, according to Carr, are abandoning the subways of urban life (and its “youthful possibilities of new job, new guy, new apartment”) for the picket-fences of suburbia (and “grown-up obligations of mortgages, braces and college tuition”).

Carr sees the shift not only in location but also attitude:

During the subway years, invoking the suburbs became a way to show that a show (or a movie) was in on the joke — that it didn't really believe all that white-picket-fence fairy-tale happy-family nonsense about life amid the crabgrass. . . . Situating The Simpsons in Springfield, the same town in which Father Knew Best, was a way of commenting on Springfield — or Springfields, generic towns with generic names in generic states. On Married ... With Children the title itself was a sarcastic joke — something that was once supposed to sound appealing, repurposed as a code phrase for "kill me now."

The joke was on those boring, homogeneous suburbs, and the people in the city were telling it in the glamorous cocktail lounges, penthouses and private jets where of course all real city dwellers spend their free time.

Yet today no one's snickering — certainly not network executives — at prime time's predominance of well-groomed lawns.

So, why is TV making the migration? Carr asks TV execs, and the bottom line is because you and I (most likely) live there:

"I think it is really important that [The Sopranos] takes place in the suburbs," said Carolyn Strauss, the president of HBO, who was talking on a cellphone right after dropping her kids off. "Tony is an aspirational guy who was approaching 40 and his business was troubled. He has problems with his kids and his marriage, everything that many people go through in America — except he was a mob boss."

National demographics have played an important role. Locked in S.U.V.'s waiting for a familiar exit to loom up out of the sea of brake lights, half the country now lives in suburbs. Small wonder that they might respond to exaggerated versions of themselves in weekly rotation. "With the suburbs," Ms. Strauss added, "there is a sort of shorthand that goes with it."

It doesn’t hurt, Carr points out, that it’s also true for “the people who write it.” But the “most important factor may turn out to be creative ennui:”

"Between Ally McBeal, Frazier and Sex and the City, " said Marc Cherry, executive producer and creator of Desperate Housewives, "it seemed like the whole urban thing had been done. It's only natural that writers wanting to do something fresh would turn their attention elsewhere. Why not do something about the suburbs?"

As Robert Greenblatt, president of entertainment of Showtime Networks said, "we all once believed in the bucolic ideal.

"I think we know by now that a lot of things went on behind those manicured lawns."

Now, is it just me, or is this article saying that no one actually thinks there might be something valuable in and of itself in the "white-picket-fence fairy-tale happy family nonsense" in suburbia, only that it’s no longer boring? If so, I think that leads us to God-talk in open spaces. How? Well, follow this rabbit trail and I’ll get you there:

If I'm right, then Carr’s observations (in particular, the shows and TV exec musings he focused on) reflect both a truth and a prevalent but hazardous attitude towards that truth in our culture. The truth? There are often empty, painful and desperate families in those houses behind those picket fences. The attitude? Since the ideal doesn’t exist, then neither perhaps can the good marriage or happy family.

Do I think it's wrong to bring dysfunctional lives to the small screen? Heck, no. I think we need to strip away façades wherever they exist. Plus, TV shows--including those listed in Carr's article--come through with incredibly good illustrations of relationships that work (at least until sweeps or ratings need a boost). No, my concern lies with the underlying pessimism and disillusionment with marriage and family itself that articles like this reflect.

There’s a whole side of TV-suburbia-land only hinted at in this article which deals with marriage and family in a much-less cynical manner. With his focus on the “suburbia gothic,” it's understandable that Carr doesn’t include any of this wide variety (like 7th Heaven, Smallville, Home Improvement, and Everybody Loves Raymond). But, while situations faced by families in these shows are just as exaggerated as the ones listed by Carr, they nevertheless present a look behind suburbia’s picket fences—a far less dark and empty look, at that.

But, ultimately, these shows—no matter how great their insights (and they can have them, believe me)—fall short of delivering the real thing. There’s another way to live life that brings peace, joy, reconciliation and good relationships no matter what the situation. And God is a God who can heal, transform and fill our lives with love that spills over into our marriages, families and neighborhoods. But, in the end, I’m not sure talking about that way of life is the best way to combat our culture's disillusionment with family and marriage. I think, first and foremost, we have to live it.

(Image by i am jae at flikr.com)

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