TV: The Bush Legacy

Entertainment invariably reflects its social and political times. Movies and television shows are products of their generation. When Clinton was in office there was a flood of movies depicting the US President as an action hero –something writers could never have done while crusty old Ronnie Reagan or George Bush Snr were in power. The West Wing also emerged under the Clinton reign.

So as George Dubya Bush now steps down and makes way for a change in the US, what is his television legacy?

What television shows were a response to his two terms in office?

Here in no particular order are some of the key programmes which we will likely always trace back to The Bush Years (January 2001 – 2009).

24 (2001 –)
It was September 11 2001 that changed the world as we know it and by November Jack Bauer had hit the screens. While the project was clearly in production before the attacks, the war on terror completely validated the show and America cheered every move by its non-stop new hero. Storylines featured Middle Eastern terrorists, and the White House (which has seen several presidents) is always a key player in its events. Ironically, David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) was television’s first African-American President, foreshadowing what was to unfold in the real world.

K-Ville (2007)
After Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans and America unleashed its fury on Bush’s slow rescue, FOX greenlit a cop show set against the backdrop of the city’s recovery. Filmed in conjunction with the NOPD the production emphasized the “good work that the men and the women of the Police Department performed after Katrina, which was not portrayed by much of the media.

Commander in Chief (2005 -2006)
With Dubya in power for a second term, America was beginning to need a new hero –this time a woman. Geena Davis played a too-perfect President, managing to play caring mother and caring leader without batting an eyelid. Significantly, her character was an independent so as to avoid party lines amongst the audience. In the first episode President Allen faced a crisis when a terrorist group resembling Al-Qaeda attempts to launch an attack in the United States. Produced by Disney’s Touchstone it was entertaining enough (especially with Donald Sutherland as her smiling nemesis) but a tad hard to believe crises could be so soundly resolved each week. The show ended after difficulties maintaining show runners.

Over There (2005)
Steven Bochco’s FX Network drama looked at a unit of the United States Army’s Third Infantry Division on its first tour of duty in Iraq, and chronicled the War’s effects on the soldiers’ families in the United States. It was the first scripted television series set during an ongoing military action involving the United States. While America debated its involvement in the war, the series took a neutral role in criticising or supporting the country’s role. Either way, viewers just didn’t want to see it on their News and as entertainment.

Brothers and Sisters (2006 -)
America was ready for a new nuclear family and ABC’s all-star clan fit the bill. Amongst the children to the tearful Nora Walker (Sally Field) were Republican Kitty Walker (Callista Flockhart) who co-hosted a political TV talk show, soldier Justin (Dave Annable) who suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after serving in Afghanistan and gay-rights advocate Kevin (Matthew Rhys). Rob Lowe also played Senator Robert McAllister a Republican who was in the race for the Presidential job. But it lost its creator Jon Robin Baitz, who complained bitterly about creative differences including being unable to depict Justin in Iraq and Kitty being truly political.

True Blood (2008-)
Alan Ball’s series about outcast vampires co-existing in Louisiana serves as a metaphor for a number of social groups left out by the years of the Bush Administration. Like the X-Men, they strive for acceptance amid prejudices just because they are a little bit different. Launching late in the Bush years, it will be interesting to watch how the show develops now that change has swept the country and an African-American family can now call the White House home.

Sleeper Cell (2005- 2006)
The tagline for Showtime’s first season was “Friends. Neighbors. Husbands. Terrorists” and the tagline for the second season was “Cities. Suburbs. Airports. Targets.” The plot saw Darwyn Al-Sayeed, a 30-year-old African-American undercover FBI agent who is also a practicing Muslim, assigned to infiltrate a terrorist sleeper cell planning an attack in Los Angeles. In a move away from stereotyping, the cell members, included a white European woman, a Latino-American man and, in a first for American television, a gay Muslim man.

Lost (2004 – )
Another series with a multi-racial, multi-religious cast of characters. It opened with a plane crash, but was it terrorism? As far as we know, no, but in the Lost world who knows? They could turn the tables on what we know about Oceanic Flight 815 with the stroke of a pen. Amongst the cast are Sayiid (Naveen Andrews) from the Iraqi Republican Guard, notably given qualities of heroism and a dash of sexual appeal too.

The Simple Life (2003 – 2007)
If there is one show that epitomises the materialism of America’s last few years it is the show that took an heiress and her celebrity pal out of their wealthy world and onto a hokey farm. We loved watching Paris and Nicole getting down with the cows –well, at least the first season. A reality version of Green Acres, was it also just a coincidence that Bush himself has two teenage daughters living the good life?

The Amazing Race (2001 -)
CBS’ reality travel show premiered in the USA just six days before the September 11 attacks. It’s hard to imagine what hurdles and red tape the show must have gone through in the ensuing period of air marshalls, security, and the perils of international travel. The show also had to wipe several hotspots off its destination map as a result. So while America rejected foreign travel it seemed happy to do so from the safety of its couch. Oddly, its eighth season chose to stay predominantly within the US, including visiting New Orleans just before Hurricane Katrina, but it was the show’s weakest season. Diverse casting on this show also saw Muslims, gays and lesbians, Christian fundamentalists, war veterans and a whole lot more…

The Unit (2006 – )
CBS action drama starring Dennis Haysbert sees a bunch of top-secret military men jetting off to international hotspots to resolve conflicts or terrorist cells. Indonesia, Spain, Beirut, Afghanistan, it’s all in a day’s work for these heroes. War on terror or war on frequent flyer points?

Desperate Housewives (2004 -)
While the world spiralled in chaos and fear America flooded back to the perfect picket fences of Wisteria Lane, which with its insular neighbourhood and Oprah wives seemed, at least on the surface, to offer a safer haven. Underneath there were far greater threats including murder, suicide, deception, blackmail and lies. And there was Bree van der Kamp (Marcia Cross) a Republican and card carrying member of the National Rifle Association. Like Carol Brady before her, she can fix just about anything with an apple pie even if it leaves a somewhat bittersweet aftertaste.

American Dad (2005 – ) Stan Smith is a comic shell of Jack Bauer. A gung-go CIA man who swears allegiance to the flag, the good ol US of A and especially Ronnie Reagan -all without any of the finesse. He despises Susan Sarandon, Jane Fonda and Michael Moore as well as foreign foods. He profiled his new neighbors, Bob and Linda Memari as terrorists because of their Iranian heritage and had to learn another neighbour was not just Republican by choice but gay as well. All this despite the fact his resident house guest, an alien from Area 51, was modelled on gay actor Paul Lynde from Bewitched. And as if to bring some sense of closure to this piece, Stan just loves 24 and Lost. How will he fare under a new Commander in Chief?

16 Comments:

  1. I would say with 134% certainty that the Lost writers don’t have terrorism in mind, it’s scope goes a little deeper /broader.
    Good call re: Generation Kill Matt, that was a solid show courtesy of the genius David Simon

  2. Matt, don’t worry American Dad does well. It actually often out rates the Simpsons in the USA.

    With generation kill.. btw it is awesome… I think the list avoided the directly based on bush areas.

  3. I actually think that the West Wing is a valid tv show to place in the legacy of the Bush Administration… Yes, It was a show that began in 1999 at the end of the Clinton Administration. Behind the scenes, the show was littered with Clinton staffers as consultants (Dee Dee Myers) But with the fall of Gore in 2000, a lot of commentators argued that NBC’s huge hit would become increasingly irrelevant under the Bush Era. I disagree. The fantasy government of Josiah Bartlett was the administration a lot people wished the United States had. It was like peering into an alternate universe of what might have been (even if the last five minutes of every episode are so soaked in Red, White and Blue pride it can be a bit tough to swallow). The West Wing was the fairytale. An escapism from the reality of a Bush Administration.

    I also second the Generation Kill recommendation

    Also worth pointing out.. Arrested Development. Ok, i know this one sounds a bit strange, but if you go back and watch it again, you’ll soon realise that it is perhaps one of the most wonderfully complete statements about the Bush era. From George Bluth’s ‘light treason’ in Iraq, To Buster’s easy acceptance into the Army (thanks to lower standards), Heather Graham ‘loving Saddam’, the Steve Holt riding the evangelical vote to win Class President the whole show embodies the era perfectly. The show wears its politics on its sleeve, without heavy-handedness, and its always spot on (except that whole Charlize Theron subplot, which was just stupid)

  4. Generation Kill.

    Easily the best thing made about the Iraq nonsense. Although we have yet to see it down here…I don’t think.

    American Dad is one of the most underrated toons on the box. Family Guy gets all the plaudits, but is far too inconsistent to rival AD. Will be interesting to see in which direction AD goes in the future…if there is a future.

  5. All the same I remember that moment from the Lost pilot when Hurley found out Sayid was in the Republican Guard, they didn’t even need to mention Iraq, I reckon that simple line got a reaction out of everyone who watched it.

    Interesting Topic, shows wedded to their era – definitley agree on 24 and The Unit and also American Dad. Interestingly the other show I view as a response to a Presidential term was Murphy Brown which surfaced around the same time George Bush Sr was elected. You’ll note that after Clinton was sworn in – the show lost a lot of its steam.

  6. Boston Legal’s final season, which we have yet to (officially) see in Aus, talks about the Obama-McCain election in almost all of the 13 episodes, and how Obama was needed to sort out what W had done. And they did it pretty much in real-time. The episode before election day made reference to the election coming up, and the episode after talked about the results. Very clever!

  7. Very interesting. I remember reading somewhere once that Bush also killed shows like X-Files – at least genre-ly. When Bush came in the only thing the government was exposed as was incompetent! Hardly able to pull off elaborate conspiracies. But also after September 11 there were real villains to deal with. We didn’t need aliens, or to some extent, shadow governments anymore. We needed heroes, as you said.

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