When Tom Wolfe was working on his blockbuster novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, he was terrified that someone else would write it first.
How could a city full of writers, he wondered, miss what was right in front of them? New York City in the 1980s was a baroque, over-the-top carnival of Page Sixers, crack dealers, lifetime criminals, and nightlife-trash socialites. Wolfe hurried uptown every day to the Bronx courthouse to catch the gloriously unhinged matinee, and each day he was gripped by anxiety. He was convinced that he was about to be scooped. Surely there was an author around—someone younger, with more energy—working the same angle. Surely there was a New York writer who realized all you needed to do to write a juicy bestseller was walk around the city and write down what you see?
Turns out, there wasn’t. Wolfe’s book was a singular smash. He worried needlessly. While he was taking the Uptown 4 or 5 to the courthouse and teaching himself the rudiments of bond trading, most other New York novelists were busy writing novels about New York novelists working on their novels in New York.
Which made sense, because at the time literary critics and professors were caught in the thrall of a literary theory called “Deconstruction,” which teaches (among other nonsense) that the text refers only to itself, that it deconstructs in the reading, that it isn’t really there at all. And if that’s true, why bother leaving the apartment?
From the vantage point of 2021, of course, the 1980s are a sleepy Golden Age. Compared with a worldwide pandemic, Capitol Hill riots, Trump, QAnon, China, Black Lives Matter, and TikTok, the Bonfire era seems like very thin material. A fun and lively story that captures the richly insane Brueghel painting that is America, Autumn 2021 would be a big fat moneymaker.
“Capturing the moment” is television’s job, although it takes its time. Television writers and executives, like Wolfe’s fellow New York writers, are often loath to leave the apartment.
In the 1960s—which still wears the gold in the Crazy Decade Olympics—the top television programs were rural comedies or Westerns. In 1968, after three major assassinations, riots in the streets, and the faltering Vietnam War, the top television programs were: Bonanza, Mayberry RFD, and Gomer Pyle, USMC.
Laugh-In, for the record, was the number-one show that year, which is about as real as television was willing to get. Laugh-In was to the prevailing youth culture what Gomer Pyle was to the Vietnam War: a fun and sanitized repackaging of what was actually some pretty bad news.
On NBC prime time, Goldie Hawn was a ditzy hippie chick in buckskin and go-go boots. On NBC News, that part was played by Squeaky Fromme, the Manson chick.
On CBS, it was the same. Gomer Pyle was a cheerful, friendly, upbeat hick from North Carolina who managed, somehow, to remain happily stateside while his comrades were shipped off to Da Nang. Mayberry RFD—a spinoff of the hugely successful Andy Griffith Show—was a rosy-hued look at southern rural America that somehow managed not to depict any of the things 1960s-era Americans associated with southern rural America, such as racism and terrifying sheriffs.
The bulk of the soft-edged country comedies were on CBS, and by the late 1960s, the network’s programmers knew that the audience was looking for something a little more real. So writers and producers began pitching contemporary, “relevant” shows to the network about the world around them: a world in which families were hotbeds of internal political struggles (draft dodgers and Nixon voters were living under the same roof) and single women were out of the kitchen and into the workplace.
The result was an astonishing cascade of comedy hits—All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Maude—that depicted the broad, unruly canvas of the time. Even M*A*S*H, which was technically about the futility and pointlessness of the Korean War, spoke to an audience contending with the futility and pointlessness of the Vietnam War.
As the CBS brass in 1968, and Tom Wolfe 20 years later, discovered, there’s a fortune to be made in telling it like it is. Television executives in 2021, though, are still in their apartment. “Do you have anything,” my agent asked me a few weeks ago, “that might fit into a Ted Lasso–ish category?”
Ted Lasso is a brilliantly funny, upbeat comedy from Apple TV that has been nominated for dozens of Emmys and is the current heartthrob of every executive in the television business. The show is a joyful delight. It tells the story of an American football coach, played by Jason Sudeikis, who finds himself in the UK coaching an English soccer team. With his homespun wisdom and southern twang, there’s more than a hint of Andy Griffith in Sudeikis’s Ted Lasso. Like the famous Sheriff of Mayberry, Ted Lasso doesn’t raise his voice or get in your face—he coaches lightly and gently and with real feeling for his players.
Everyone wants a Ted Lasso on his schedule. If you’re tasked with figuring out what the audience wants, it’s a smart move to assume that what they want is something nice. The world right now seems so contentious and furious at itself. A few remote clicks away, on cable news, everything seems so calamitous and urgent. Every new story is a Fox News Alert, every few minutes there’s a breathless CNN report about COVID deaths or climate change. On MSNBC, there’s a regular rotation of “experts” who will insist that many of the nation’s governors are guilty of infanticide.
So, sure, Ted Lasso. And Schmigadoon!—also on Apple TV—a funny and offbeat revamping of the musical Brigadoon, which is as winning and charming as Ted Lasso and also manages to clear all of the bad things out of your head. There’s a reason why these shows are popular and why executives all over Hollywood are trying to replicate their feel-good success.
On the other hand, someone is right this minute getting on the 4 or 5 uptown to take a look at what’s really going on. There are some writers in Hollywood who are trying to capture the moment.
A friend of mine pitched this show to me last week: He and his wife are both working, and child care is expensive. So his mother-in-law helps out during the day to take care of his young kids. For free. Which is terrific.
Except: He and his wife are deeply committed Santa Monica progressives and his mother-in-law is a passionate Trump supporter, so every night they need to reprogram their children from believing that Donald Trump is still, secretly, the president and Hunter Biden is working for the Chinese Communist Party and that the COVID vaccine will turn you into a robot.
“You know,” he said, “she may be crazy—but the price is right.”
Let me clarify: My friend didn’t pitch this to me as a show. He just told me what’s really happening in his house, and I suspect he’s not unique. We all have someone in our family who may watch too much cable news, of either stripe.
I’m the one who turned it into a pitch, even in these Ted Lasso days. I’m the one who thinks—and I’m probably wrong, or too early—that what’s happening in the real world, in all of its gaudy, lurid glory is pretty great material.
I’ll let you know if it sells.
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