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…