November 18, 2004,
One of the election lessons for Democrats is that while the Left doesn't understand the Right, the Right can't help but understand the Left, because the Left is in charge of pop culture. Urban blue staters can go their entire lives happily innocent of the world of church socials and duck hunting and Boy Scout meetings, but small-town red staters are exposed to big-city blue-state values every time they turn on the TV.
A disappointed Kerry voter asked me in frustration the other day whether I'd rather people with red-state values be in charge of Hollywood content. Of course not! I don't want George Bush writing sitcoms any more than I want Sean Penn writing foreign policy. But if Penn and company don't want someone like Bush elected next time, they might try skipping those fact-finding trips to Baghdad and visit Middle America instead.
But actually, TV programming these days isn't all bed-hopping, Friends-style singles, or Desperate Housewives seducing wide receivers on Monday Night Football promo spots, even though it sometimes may seem like it. There is such a thing as enjoyable red-state TV, and here are four of my favorites:
Blue Collar TV (Fridays, 9:30 P.M., WB). This new sketch comedy show, a franchise of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour movie starring comedians Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall, Ron White, and Larry the Cable Guy, was roundly panned by critics when it premiered on the WB in August. It's also one of the season's few breakout hits, and the network quickly expanded its original scant eight-episode order to a full 22.
Executive producers Fax Bahr and Adam Small are best known for creating the long-running Fox comedy MADtv, and Blue Collar TV sometimes suffers from similar misfires of horrible taste. But also like MADtv, when it's on target like in last week's bit imagining The Apprentice with Larry the Cable Guy instead of Donald Trump it's hilarious.
There's also something especially impressive about those who make you laugh even when they come from a completely different world. My favorite Blue Collar Comedy Tour standup is Ron White, who unlike the other three is not a regular on the TV show, although he does guest star occasionally. I hadn't expected to appreciate this guy from a small town in Texas, whose "Drunk In Public" schtick involves never appearing onstage without a glass of Scotch and a cigarette. But for some reason, I really relate to his line about being thrown out of a bar and tangling with a policeman on the sidewalk: "I had the right to remain silent, but not the ability."
I also like the way the Blue Collar guys manage to tick off sensitive souls even when they're not on stage. Larry the Cable Guy got in big trouble the other week with American Idol fans after he appeared on The View and made a joke about being on the Clay Aiken diet: "That's where you pop in a Clay Aiken CD and try to keep food down." And I heard a little tsk-tsking from a feminist colleague at the Blue Collar TV press conference this summer, after someone jokingly asked Larry what it's like being a sex symbol.
"There was a girl beatin' on your door last night at four in the morning," noted Foxworthy.
"Yeah," said Larry, "but I got up and let her out."
American Dreams (Sundays, 8 P.M., NBC). What do you get when you mix American Bandstand, unwed mothers, housewives with the-problem-that-has-no-name, Vietnam, the mid-'60s civil-rights struggle, Catholic school taught by actual nuns, schoolgirls who organize protest rallies, and current pop idols (like Kelly Clarkson) guest starring as Bandstand icons (like Brenda Lee) all together in a one-hour family drama?
You get a big, fun, engrossing show with a lot of heart that manages to indulge baby-boomer nostalgia about their protesting youth while at the same time showing unusual respect for Vietnam-era patriotism. My favorite character is J.J., the family's enlisted son who was reported M.I.A. a couple of weeks ago and this Sunday...well, you'll just have to tune in to see what happens. I'd still like to know why J.J.'s bum ankle lost him his college football scholarship but didn't keep him out of the Marines, but never mind. American Dreams has managed to win over even an almost complete cynic like me.
King of the Hill (Sundays, 7 P.M., FOX). This acutely observed animated comedy about Texas blue-collar suburbia has been my favorite half-hour show since it premiered almost eight years ago, sometimes even beating The Simpsons in that coveted young male 18-to-34-year-old demographic. Who'd have thought that Mike Judge, previously best known for Beavis and Butthead, would come up with such a deeply humane family sitcom as King of the Hill?
Even when the perennially exasperated paterfamilias Hank Hill is being ridiculous, the writers' sympathies are clearly with him especially when he's running up against wan, New Agey schoolteachers or vegetarian hippie chicks (complete with underarm hair inked in at the last minute) protesting at a campground. And the show regularly takes potshots at Hollywood dilettantes who venture into rural red states for the scenery.
"Hey, there's an old white-haired fella to the north who looks like he's spent some time working outdoors," said Hank in the season premiere, trying to round up help for a cattle drive while visiting his wife's family's ranch in Montana.
"Larry David?" snorts a cowboy. "Good luck."
The Simpsons (Sundays, 8 P.M., FOX). The cartoon family became the longest-running primetime series in TV history with its 300th episode last year, surpassing even Bonanza and Ozzie & Harriet. It continues to add to the pop-culture lexicon, especially on the right, although I'm sure that was not the intention of its lefty creator, Matt Groening. The show's description of the appeasing French as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" was quickly picked up by war-hawk bloggers. And Ben Stein once told me, when I asked him about conservatives in Hollywood, that The Simpsons was a breakthrough statement against leftist pieties because it "was the first show that said if you're a loser, it's your own fault."
Some episodes are better than others, but the show hasn't grown stale, and still has wonderful throwaway touches for those who pay attention like Mr. Burns flipping through Premiere while waiting for his Fantastic Voyage-style surgery a couple of weeks ago. Naturally, there are some overly involved Comic Book Guy-like viewers who have misty, water-colored memories of the early years. Groening once predicted rather wearily that The Simpsons will still be on in the year 3000. But there will be "fans on the Internet complaining that the last 500 shows haven't been as good."
Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy's World. She is an NRO contributor.