Bravo is on the right track with this ambitious documentary analyzing the relationship between television and the culture at large, but as for execution, hold the applause. Although interesting enough, the opening two hours of this five-part series (airing on consecutive nights through Wednesday) really don’t address the most fundamental chicken-and-egg question — namely, the extent to which TV leads or follows society. Instead the filmmakers appear content to provide little more than a chronological study of the topics at hand, a sort of Cliffs Notes version of TV history.
Credit the producers with selecting the right targets, at least, though the introductory chapter — subtitled “Out of the Closet,” detailing TV’s handling of homosexuality — feels a bit self-serving, allowing the channel to revel in its recent breakthrough “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”
While perhaps fine for students, then, this stroll down memory lane is something of a bland eye for the media guy — from “All in the Family” (where all roads seem to lead) in the early 1970s to “That Certain Summer,” “Soap,” “An Early Frost,” “thirtysomething,” “Ellen” and “Will & Grace.”
Various producers, actors and academics weigh in along the way. “Will & Grace” co-creator Max Mutchnick suggests that for all the bitching about Will’s nonexistent love life when the show premiered, “The much bigger win” was to keep a likable gay character on the air.
The second part, meanwhile, focuses on TV’s depiction of women, from the liberation movement (“Things were changing very fast in the ’70s,” observes producer Norman Lear) through the jiggling “Charlie’s Angels” phenomenon and into the anti-liberation backlash implied by “Ally McBeal.”
Given the number of contradictory messages TV has conveyed regarding women over the years, there’s perhaps too much to cover with any depth in the allotted time — a challenge that will likely apply to the remaining installments, dealing with sex, race and violence, in that order.
Both Bravo and soon-to-be-sister network Trio have found fertile ground in exploring TV as a cultural medium — channels about television itself being the inevitable byproduct of networks devoted to virtually every other pastime. And hey, it certainly beats “Inside the Actors Studio.”
Still, in terms of bringing any freshness or real insight to the subject, even TV aficionados are probably safe to let this “Revolution” start without them.