Frasier and Friends are about to finish. Sex and the City is over. The defining programmes of the Clinton years are ending. From the first series of Friends, when Phoebe, Rachel and Monica were delivered George Stephanopolous’s pizza by mistake, the Clinton White House and the new wave of US television shows had a lot in common. Their hearts beat with the same liberal values. Smart and irreverent, they spoke to the same young, professional, urban constituency, while also winning over middle America.
The history of US television has been a battle between two very different visions of America. Usually, these have managed to coexist. You can see The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie, say, jostling in the top 15 with more liberal shows such as M*A*S*H and Rhoda. But there are particular moments when this coexistence breaks up and a new group of programmes or genres breaks through. This usually reflects a larger shift in America, and coincides with a political turning-point.
American television came of age during the Eisenhower years. The dominant mood was feelgood. Comedy shows were largely slapstick and variety, their stars drawn from vaudeville and radio: Jack Benny, George Burns, Red Skelton. None were black, most were men and Jews stayed firmly in the ethnic closet. One of the most popular genres was the family sitcom, with shows like Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver, full of warm, homey values, set in all-white midwestern towns with names like Springfield (later, not coincidentally, the home town of The Simpsons). Shows like Gunsmoke, Cheyenne and Wagon Train represented another dominant genre: by the 1958-59 season, seven of the top ten series on US television were westerns. The central figure in these 1950s programmes was the reassuring father, whether sheriff, quizmaster or family doctor; the setting was rural or suburban. The great "urban" shows of the time were very different: either smart Jewish humour (Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows) or serious new drama (Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty). Either way, it was highbrow and marginal.
The turning-point came in the mid-1960s, with shows that played with television conventions and parodied other genres. Get Smart and The Man From U.N.C.L.E spoofed James Bond, Batman had fun with comic-book heroes and television graphics, and The Munsters and The Addams Family moved the old 1930s monsters into the suburbs. By the late 1960s these gave way to more political kinds of comedy, introducing overtly liberal sitcoms like All In The Family and M*A*S*H. The emergence of black stars in prime time began with Bill Cosby in I Spy, The Flip Wilson Show and later sitcoms such as Sanford and Son and The Jeffersons. New women characters appeared in comedies such as The Carol Burnett Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Around this time, you also get the first prime time Hispanic show, Chico and the Man, and the first overtly Jewish sitcom character for almost 20 years, Rhoda.
These new shows never displaced the old middle American favourites. Through the 1960s and 1970s you had All In the Family cheek by jowl at the top of the ratings with Gunsmoke, and M*A*S*H just behind The Waltons. Nixon’s landslide in 1972 belies a more complicated picture of two Americas: one glued to images of pastoral, all-white communities, the other to smart parody.
This uneasy coexistence ended abruptly in the late 1970s. Three new genres emerged. Fantasy shows like Charlie’s Angels and The Love Boat; hugely successful nostalgia shows (Happy Days, The Waltons); and new soaps about big money set in the midwest and south (Dallas, The Dukes of Hazzard, Dynasty). Escapism, rural nostalgia and big sunbelt money were all in place before Reagan was elected. You didn’t need to be a pollster to figure that something was up.
Then the mid-1980s saw the dramatic rise of new comedy shows like Cheers and The Cosby Show. East coast cool was back. Roseanne, The Cosby Show and Seinfeld were the three top comedies of the next decade. The main characters were black, blue collar or Jews. This was Democrat television.
Throughout the 1990s, urban comedy ruled the ratings. Rural America was a place you went only if you had to. The nuclear family took a beating in Roseanne and The Simpsons. Friends and Will and Grace both began with a woman walking out on her wedding – one to live with a group of twentysomething New Yorkers, another with her gay best friend.
The pattern is clear. When America is relaxed and ready to laugh, it’s ready for a Democrat. When it’s anxious, and needs father figures or traditional, rural values, it votes Republican.
The 1990s hegemony is now under attack in the ratings by reality television and escapism. In Bush’s America, clever comedies are struggling against Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, American Idol and Survivor. Yet ER is in seventh place. Friends (eighth) and Will & Grace (tenth) still pull in over 13m viewers. Even the West Wing clings on at 31st place. The ratings look more like a checkerboard than the decisive shift that preceded the election of Reagan or Clinton. The view from the sofa gives Bush an advantage in November’s election, but it won’t amount to an ideological watershed.