Ambitious shows and messages on the decline

HOLLYWOOD AND WASHINGTON share numerous parallels — power, money, creative sex scandals — but the presidential race’s preoccupation with demographic-based voting has made the similarity even more striking. That’s because the debate surrounding Barack Obama’s campaign needing to dumb down the message and messenger to appease the masses has a longstanding precedent in television.

In both spheres, well-educated millionaires agonize over how to engage Joe Six-Pack, as voters increasingly split along clear demographic — as opposed to geographic — lines: The young, college educated and African-Americans lining up behind Obama, while older, blue-collar and white voters have preferred Hillary Clinton.

Only in showbiz and politics, however, is “smart” a perceived insult. As the Democratic primaries slog onward, Harvard law alum Obama has been pilloried for elitism. While his oratorical eloquence has drawn comparisons to the bygone days of Robert Kennedy, opponents hammer at perceptions that he alienates key voting blocs. On CNN, Democratic strategist Paul Begala disparagingly described Obama’s coalition as “eggheads and African-Americans.”

Yet there’s already a template for precisely that combination of constituencies: HBO’s brilliant crime drama “The Wire,” which Obama, not incidentally, has identified as his favorite TV show.

GQ approached this issue years ago in a piece about the Harvard mafia’s sitcom invasion, titled “Smart people, dumb TV,” which wondered why the Ivy League elite migrated to Hollywood. Turned out it’s for the same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks — because that’s where the money is.

Unlike politicians, cable networks can focus on narrower niches. Broadcast networks, by contrast, remain in the mass-market retail business, which explains why they develop smart shows but usually possess little faith in the great unwashed mob to embrace them.

THE LATEST EXAMPLE IS “SWINGTOWN,” which CBS will premiere in June. Like AMC’s “Mad Men,” the intriguing pilot ruminates on a not-that-long-ago period — in this case, spouse-swapping suburbia during the pre-AIDS 1970s — but the scheduling suggests the network’s feet grew chilly when presented with a show that lacks a dead-body count.

Hopes for a network television renaissance probably peaked with ABC’s “Lost,” which continues to be so incredibly dense and uncompromising as to inspire masters-degree-level analysis. The show’s surprising success threatened to usher in an age of high-IQ TV, before most programs that copied it fell by the wayside and the series itself receded to more earthbound ratings. Throw in the failure of Aaron Sorkin’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” and it’s easy to retreat to not trusting the audience to “get” ambitious projects.

To their credit, the networks are still taking selected shots with challenging fare, such as ABC’s planned adaptation of the U.K.’s time-bending cop drama “Life on Mars.” Yet despite general consensus that the old formula of “least-objectionable programming” doesn’t work in such a wildly competitive era, there’s still scant upside in producing TV’s next low-rated critical darling.

So consider this a plea to those who desire intelligent TV (and candidates): Please vote early and often — unless you want four more years of shows that seem fun to drink a beer with but don’t have much going on upstairs.

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AS FOR THAT OTHER endless campaign, the Screen Actors Guild faces a position no performer relishes — playing out the final act of a show that’s dragged on well past the audience’s tolerance level.

SAG’s steadfast support of the Writers Guild reflected well on the leadership, but the strike’s lingering bruises have prompted labor fatigue — especially since there’s little reason to believe actors can wheedle substantially greater concessions from studios than their brethren.

Although the strike clearly hurt the networks — even if their corporate parents were big enough to absorb the pain in the short term — writers and actors paid a price as well in inflicting that damage. Mediocre ratings for scripted programs since their return doesn’t bode well for penny-pinching studios investing as heavily in them, a body blow already felt in the diminished number of pilots (and thus jobs) this spring.

Having talked tough, SAG’s leaders appear to feel obligated to fight until the bitter end. Good luck with that. But at this point, it’s a bit like waiting for applause when the crowd can’t wait to bolt for the exits.

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