I was pretty enthusiastic about last week’s episode of Girls (“I Get Ideas”) for two reasons. First, I have a rather sizable man-crush on Donald Glover, so to see the rapper/actor/comedian on one of my favorite TV shows was pretty satisfying. Second, I was pleasantly surprised to see creator/star Lena Dunham cast Glover as Sandy, an unapologetic Republican law school student. I thought the antagonism that pitted Sandy against Dunham’s character, Hannah, and her roommate, Elijah (Andrew Rannells), brought a level of social consciousness that the show has skirted thus far.
When I logged onto the Twittersphere after the show to congratulate @LenaDunham on a job well done, I was shocked at the vitriolic speech of those commenting about the episode and Dunham’s decision to write a character who was not ashamed of his right-leaning political beliefs. The fact that Sandy was written as level-headed and considerate while Hannah and Elijah were judgmental and dismissive must have escaped the Twitter mob’s attention. Dunham was clearly making a point with the addition of the Sandy character. (The backlash was reminiscent of actress Stacey Dash, a black woman, publicly declaring her support for Mitt Romney via Twitter.)
Girls is not alone. Prior to last November’s presidential election, The New Normal focused an entire episode (“Obama Mama”) around the very combative relationship between Democrats and Republicans. While the show’s matriarchal, conservative grandmother Jane Forrest (Ellen Barkin) is typically characterized as simply a bigoted elitist, the episode forced main characters David (Justin Bartha) and Bryan (Andrew Rannells, again) to defend their liberal ideologies, something neither was able to articulate clearly. Even more surprising was the character of Clint (Sterling Sulieman), a black man, admitting to his sister that he votes Republican and isn’t embarrassed about it. Once again, a very liberal-leaning television series was featuring Republican characters who, though their opinions may be unpopular, are able to justify their beliefs against less informed, more judgmental Democrats.
This got me thinking about the rising number of Republican characters I have seen pop up on TV series lately and how that might reflect the changing attitudes of Hollywood studios. The most famous TV Republicans have always been the cartoonish caricatures of the GOP, like Archie Bunker, Alex P. Keaton and Carlton Banks; none of which serve as anything except punching bags. Stephen Colbert’s persona as a die-hard Republican is the most egregiously slanted view of the “other side” as racists, sexists and elitists. But lately, Republican characteristics have shifted.
Take, for example, Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) on 30 Rock, perhaps the most staunchly conservative archetype of all time. Jack stands for capitalism, big business and the 1 percent. But, how many times has his objective stance on matters served to contradict Liz Lemon’s (Tina Fey) more emotional, less well-reasoned decision-making? You can’t accuse Jack Donaghy of being an evil Republican because he is clearly a good friend and mentor to Liz.
Aaron Sorkin’s latest TV project, The Newsroom, premiered last summer and featured a lead character who is, like the other examples I’ve cited, an unabashed, registered Republican. Now, Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) is a Republican in Name Only (RINO) to be sure, but the idea that a “conservative” character would be a show’s protagonist was pretty unheard of only a few years ago. The same can be said of President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn), a Republican commander-in-chief, on Scandal. According to producer and co-creator Shonda Rhimes, the decision to make the character a Republican was at least in part a way to comment on the divisions within the party. Goldwyn, who plays Grant, even admits that the president is more John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama than Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush.
Regardless of how authentic these characters are, their presence still signals a paradigm shift in television. Easily the biggest breakout character on NBC’s Parks and Recreation is Libertarian Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman). Straddling the line between Democrats and Republicans, Libertarians are typically as socially conscious as liberals, while being as fiscally responsible as conservatives. Swanson may only work as a government employee to slow the wheels of its bureaucracy (as he sees it), but, again, the fact that he is anything but a Democrat is stills major progress on the part of TV executives.
So what does this all mean? I have no idea. Maybe it means that television is finally beginning to reflect the very divided population of our country. No one side should be featured more than another. Didactic pandering is the most surefire way for a TV series to become monotonous very quickly. Hopefully this means that the television landscape is evolving and maturing, eschewing the political blinders it has fostered for decades. If nothing else, it has gotten people talking. For now, the chatter consists of insults being hurled via Twitter, but perhaps in the near future the dialogue will be elevated to a reasonable and educated discourse about political differences.