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Commentary : Maintaining The Fantasy Politics Of Tv

May 18, 1986|LILA GARRETT | A writer, producer and director of TV series and made-for-TV films, Garrett is a two-time Emmy winner and a member of the Hollywood Women's Political Committee. With Women for a Meaningful Summit, a group of 35, she went to Geneva to present President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev with 1 million signatures for peace. This article originally appeared in the Caucus Quarterly, a publication of the Caucus for Producers, Writers & Directors.

When I first came to town, "Bewitched" was the hot show and Samantha was the prototype of the perfect TV heroine. Beautiful, wise, generous, married, she used her magical powers only under duress.

The last thing she wanted to do was upstage her husband. When she had a baby she did it the "human" way, but she was never identified as being pregnant. I wrote a number of those shows,and the word pregnant was not just a no-no for witches. It was off limits for all mothers.

What we TV writers couldn't say then was voluminous. As recently as eight years ago, a network made me substitute the word pure for virginal. The word orgasm was cut altogether, and I received a sharp reprimand. Anything that went on below the waist was explained by the generic wink .

Of course, marital infidelity was punished by at least syphilis (except on daytime soaps, where it was rewarded), and premarital sex almost always resulted in "pregnancy." But since you couldn't use the word, you'd settle for destroying the life of the unwed mother.

Early TV also had its own brand of apartheid. Except for Uncle Toms, janitors and chauffeurs, there simply were no blacks. I remember working for a show called "Made in America," which featured self-made American millionaires who told their Horatio Alger stories. The idea was to inspire the audience.

I booked Eddie Anderson (Jack Benny's Rochester) for the show. The network was horrified and ordered us to cancel Anderson at once. They insisted the audience would never accept a "Negro person" representing an all-American success story.

Then Sheldon Leonard put "I Spy" on the air. Bill Cosby played a government agent with a white partner, Robert Culp. And it all changed. It's hard now to believe what a breakthrough that was, but it's another indication of how hypocritical we were in the "good old days."

Today, of course, black is not just OK; thanks again to Cosby, it's great. Asian is good, too; Italian and Irish are terrific; WASP goes without saying, and they're still trying to make a Hispanic show work.

But where in this glorious ethnic TV mix are the Jews? When that question comes up, people answer with: What about "The Goldbergs," "Bridget Loves Bernie" and "Rhoda"? Those shows, safely tucked away in the past, were hits. Still, their success doesn't seem to alter the fact that a family with a Jewish last name is conspicuously missing from the current line-up.

Ten years ago a director friend explained the unspoken law of our business as "write Jewish, cast Gentile." This did not mean that Jewish actors didn't work. They did, and they do. Then they played Indians; now they play Italians. But when will we see a private eye named Ginsburg? A girl on her own in the big city named Cohen? And where, but on television, have there ever been so few Jewish doctors?

The subtle message TV seems to be giving out is it's acceptable to be a WASP or black if you're upper middle-class. But it's not acceptable to be Jewish.

And lately it's not acceptable to be poor either.

Which brings us to the thorniest subject of all: Politics.

What goes on TV reflects the attitude of any current administration, and until recently there was administration sympathy for the poor. So "All in the Family," "Sanford and Son," "Laverne & Shirley" . . . were big shows. Rich was out. "Bring us blue collar," the networks cried.

Now we have Reagan, and it's "in" to be rich or upper middle-class, but it's "out" to be poor. The fact that there are more poor people than ever in our country appears irrelevant. They are simply not tolerated by the Reagan Administration. (Remember our President's claim that people are sleeping in the streets because they like the fresh air?)

What we do see more of on TV (aside from rich folks) is the elected official. The last couple of years have given us a mayor, a governor, and even a female President. It's refreshing to have these politicians on TV and it would be even more refreshing if they talked about politics. But mostly they don't . . . not really.

Let's say "His Honor the Mayor" has the problems of a real mayor. There are thousands of homeless wandering his streets. That's the first half of the truth. Try to go on from there and say that massive federal cuts have closed the housing that sheltered these people. That's the second half of the truth . . . the first thing to be cut from the script.

And how do you create a President whose priority is to put more money into the quality of living than into instruments for killing? How do you do that without seeming to insult the real President? The answer is: You don't, not if you want to get on the air. The unspoken first commandment of the Prime-Time TV Bible is: "Thou shalt not criticize the current Administration."

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