Television shows have been an integral part of our growing age, either fed to us by our families, or on a recent account, by the most happening social media. Television shows meant for the general public were aired first in the late 40s. Those shows brought about a new era of television, as they introduced some extremely beloved characters and iconic roles that have survived till this date. Till the early 60s, this time period was referred as the “Golden age of television”. Though the era was called golden, gender roles and representation of people weren’t often from diverse ethnic backgrounds. The characters portrayed as ‘good’ were of those who belonged to an upper strata of society, with model families and characteristically ‘obedient’ traits, while the people from different backgrounds were generally an exaggerated form of their stereotypes.
Television transformed itself into a form of home entertainment during the 1950s. It also became a major tool for influencing public opinion during the decade, which was both, a virtue and a flaw! Following the Second World War, technology further improved, which led to the introduction of colour broadcast, which was the beginning of a new age in television.
Though the quality of television shows evolved slowly in the 70s, but when television breakthrough shows like ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ debuted, the role of women and ethnically diverse characters slowly gained attention. Gradually, both genders were represented nearly equally in the leading roles, and the characters portrayed by women had more depth, and weren’t side-lined as pretty faces without any aspirations, except to be the hero’s damsel in distress. People from different racial demographics were featured in some programmes as well and the shows weren’t as racially biased as they were before. But although there was a trial, it was hard to shake off the typecasts set by the television of the past.
Media initially tried to incorporate ethnically different backgrounds. A series of popular sitcoms, predominantly featuring black actors, appeared in the 1970s, like ‘Good Times’ and ‘The Jeffersons’. However, these sitcoms are now criticized as they had helped to perpetuate a belief, that black and white cultures were so different, that their integration was unworkable. In the 1980s, sitcoms such as ‘The Cosby Show’ and ‘A Different World’, challenged stereotypical portrayals of people of colour, but were still criticized for being racially skewed. The real breakthrough came when television really pushed the limits of what could be shown by promoting subjects like poverty, racism, abortion, rape and abuse. Almost every genre, like comedy, drama, romance and thrillers were released during the 70s.
As for the situation happening closer to home, India being a fairly new market for television, here the soap opera industry didn’t start functioning until the late 1970s. India’s first soap opera, ‘Hum Log’ created on the lines of a Mexican television series, ‘Ven Conmigo’ (1975), using the education-entertainment methodology, told the story of Basesar Ram and his family, and was telecast in 1984. The audience immediately connected with the serial and the show became a major hit, addressing social issues like family planning, alcoholism and women education. The mid 80’s was also the golden period of Indian television, which was initially synonymous with the government run educational- Doordarshan. This was where the concept of one family, one nation, one channel and one culture was first conceived with little umbrellas suddenly sprouting all over the roofs.
The one nation concept which is perhaps realized now-a-days, only during India- Pakistan match, was acknowledged heavily back then, when Ramayana and Mahabharata went on air in the late eighties. Every Sunday, streets in cities across the country would grow deserted at the approach of 9 am. In rural areas, people cycled tens of kilometers to the nearest house with a television set and neighbours crowded-in together to watch these epic shows, which paved the path for future television series, as this gave an insight to the producers as to what kind of television the general public preferred.
It is evident that television has changed significantly since the 90s. From having a few programs aired at specific times on television sets, to having websites launch their own shows; the industry has come a long way! Very few shows like ‘F.R.I.E.N.D.S’ still remain the favourite of multiple generations, though the newer shows do try to keep up with the changing times. Speaking of the evergreen though over-hyped series ‘F.R.I.E.N.D.S’ , a show revolving around the lives of six friends living in Manhattan, didn’t however begin with a great critical review; but with time, critics praised the series for having a persistent comic script and good chemistry. One of the most negative critical reviews was given by the Parents’ Television Council (PTC), which called it ‘the raciest sitcom’. They claimed that all six characters were shown as extremely sexual and the dialogues also contained vulgarity. Monica’s approval of Chandler’s fondness for porn and that of Joey’s several sexual partners became the target. The PTC, in fact, called the show as one of the worst in US television, referring to its sexual content and vulgar language. The show does seem to enforce their typical white middle-class lifestyle status, from beginning to end, and it is because of these examples that this show, ‘F.R.I.E.N.D.S’, can be considered to be just a little racist and misogynistic in its undertones.
After ‘F.R.I.E.N.D.S’, the television in 90’s seemed to have had airbrushed. From the gorgeous 28-year-old high school drama in ‘Beverly Hills 90210’ to the forlorn teenagers trying to survive on their own, in ‘Dawson’s Creek’, the settings were truly picturesque and breath-taking. In ‘Party of Five’, the world’s hottest sibling orphans fought to make it alone. Apart from social dramas, cop shows came in the limelight during this time. ‘Law and Order’ and ‘NYPD Blue’ were the mainstays of 90s cop shows. All hell broke loose with the debut of FX’s ‘The Shield’. The rules were broken, cases were not solved in an hour, and the heroes were antiheroes at the same time.
The 90s also gave us ‘Freaks and Geeks’ and ‘My So-Called Life’. Today we have ‘Sons of Anarchy’, ‘Breaking Bad’, and ‘The Walking Dead’. Biker gangs, meth dealers, and zombie killers are the new heroes in all these genres. However, these shows have been criticized for their portrayal of crime, drugs, sexual content and violence. The show ‘Breaking Bad’ has shot to fame relying heavily on these narratives, in which a struggling high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer together with his former student Jesse Pinkman, turns to a life of crime by producing and selling crystallized methamphetamine to secure his family’s financial future. It has received widespread critical acclaim and has been praised by many critics as one of the greatest television shows of all times, with 100% ratings on Rotten Tomatoes for season 2, 3, 4 and 5. Entertainment Weekly critic Ken Tucker stated “Breaking Bad is a superlatively fresh metaphor for a middle-age crisis: It took cancer and lawbreaking to jolt Walt out of his suburban stupor, to experience life again—to take chances, risk danger, do things he didn’t think himself capable of doing. For all its bleakness and darkness, there’s a glowing exhilaration about this series; It’s a feel-good show about feeling really bad.”
The 90s in India gave way to the urban dramas, with television serials like ‘Tara’ and ‘Hasratein’. The show revolved around Tara, who portrayed the modern Indian woman and her friendship with her contemporaries. ‘Hasratein’ was about Savi, who had an extramarital affair with a married man. Shows such as these were progressive, portraying strong women in the lead, and were way bolder and ahead of their time. On the other hand, comic shows like ‘Dekh Bhai Dekh’, ‘Hum Paanch’ and ‘Family No. 1’ were full of rib tickling humour. The late 90s saw the Indian television shift from daring urban dramas, to the K-serials in early 2000s of the joint Hindu ‘parivar’; where the “ideal woman” was the one who religiously adorned herself in jewels and heavy brocade saris at all times of the day and put the needs of everyone in the family before her own. This period witnessed a transient shift to the typical ‘saas- bahu’ theme that seemed to appear overnight across channels, after Indian producer Ekta Kapoor struck gold with ‘Kyunki’, ‘Kahani’ and ‘Kasautii’.
Apart from these dramas, reality television was a thing which gained immense popularity, as producers realized how much people loved watching other people’s dirty secrets being revealed. From ‘The Bachelor’ to ‘Here Comes Honey Boo Boo’, we’ve crossed a line from fake “reality” to freak show loving voyeurism. Sitcoms too have changed, with the exclusion of the fake laugh track. New Girl, Happy Endings, Modern Family etc. are single-camera documentary style shows, often satirical and based on popular stereotypes.
Today, cable owns television originality. Because of HBO, Showtime, FX, CBS, and AMC, to name a few, cable scripted series having given network shows a run for their money. Cable shows have the ability to incorporate more edge and brutality. Hence the rise of shows like ‘Game of Thrones’, ‘Two and a Half Men’, which have sexual content and violence. An excellent example is ‘Game of Thrones’, which has gained some of the best critical acclaims along with accolades and awards in the fantasy genre. Although ‘Game of Thrones’ was initially dismissed by some critics before it began, its success has been credited with an increase in popularity and fantasy themes carefully crafted into politics. ‘Game of Thrones’ has often been criticized for its use of nudity and violence. ‘The Atlantic’ said the series had a “tendency to ramp up the sex, violence and- especially- sexual violence of the source material”. However it remains HBO’s most popular series till date with a dedicated fan base. Along with that, HBO’s ‘Two and a half men’ is an American television sitcom that aired for twelve seasons. The series was about a hedonistic jingle writer, Charlie Harper; his uptight brother Alan and Alan’s troublemaker son Jake. Throughout its run, the show received mix reviews from critics; while some described it as “solid, well-acted and occasionally funny”, others reviewed it as “creepy, misogynistic comedy”. Though all these television shows were widely critised, they have still managed to remain the top voted series of all times, which speaks a lot about the public to which television caters to.
The 2000s was the beginning of a new era of youth oriented television, with Channel V shifting from its music oriented self to teenage dramas like ‘Humse Hai Life’,’ Sadda Haq’, ‘Dil Dosti Dance’,’Suvreen Guggal-Topper Of the Year’ to name a few. in terms of reality television, India saw its first ever reality based show in 1992 via ‘Bournvita Quiz Contest’ hosted by Derek O’Brien featuring on Zee TV; followed by ‘Antakshari’ in 1993. ‘Sa Re Ga Ma Pa’ was first introduced in the year 1995. SET India came up with the India’s first dance reality show ‘Boogie Woogie’, a favourite among Indian audience. The year 2000 witnessed Star Plus airing ‘Kaun Banega Crorepati’ hosted by Amitabh Bachchan, the popularity of which still remains unmatched. Though every once in a while, Indian television seeks to shift its way out of the typical “saas-bahu” serials with shows like mahi way, or shows that speak up about topics that the general public tries to avoid, however, it is unlikely that it will ever unroot the fondness for the stereotypical television programs.
In terms of gender equality, it was disheartening to find that male characters outnumbered females in 79% of programs, a trend that extended across broadcast, cable and streaming channels. Overall, women accounted for 41% of speaking parts on broadcast television. The medium with the longest history as the basis for comparison – virtually unchanged from a decade ago. A similar lack of movement or “stagnation,” as Martha Lauzen, executive director of SDSU’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, said, applied to women behind the scenes. Only 20% of series creators and 25% of executive producers were women, the study found, virtually unchanged from the previous year. However, there has been a noticeable change as the number of shows featuring women as the protagonists have increased. Be it Supergirl, Game of Thrones, Girls and many more, powerful and central roles are offered. The popularity of these shows further shows a positive trend for increase in role of women at par with their male counterparts. Along with reinforcing positive gender roles and breaking stereotypes, the industry has manged to reach out and influence a wide generation of individuals. With social media constantly berating television for stepping out of line, the industry is forced to keep a strict watch on what it says and what it shows on screen. It is evident that the television has become a rapidly increasing and politically aware industry and has changed a lot since the golden years, so as to say. As we step further into the new age where digital media on the rise, this is definitely one industry to watch out for.
Article by- Alaap Bannerjee, Anchita Parna, Anmol Singla, Ananya Mehtras.
Editor- Shubhangi Das, Achirava Raha.