Since its inception, TV has demonstrated the power to enact positive social change — from political elections to humanitarian crises and beyond. Today, with the medium ballooning in prevalence and an ever-expanding slate of programming available to audiences all over the world, television has arguably become the mightiest arbiter of pop culture and society at large.
To that end, the eighth annual Television Academy Honors, held May 27 at the Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills, has chosen to celebrate six programs that best exemplify the facility of the smallscreen to inspire, educate and raise awareness of social injustices: “Black-ish” (“Crime and Punishment” episode from ABC); E:60 Presents “Dream on: Stories of Boston’s Strongest” (ESPN); “The Normal Heart” and “Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert” (both HBO); “Transparent” (Amazon); and Netflix’s “Virunga,” exec produced by Leonardo DiCaprio.
“People need to be reminded of the power that we have to do good,” says TV vet and “The Comedians” player Dana Delany, who’s hosting the event for the seventh time. “Once people in the television world know that this honor is out there — and I think people are aware of it now — they actually start creating programming thinking in terms of this. They create programming that does some social good. Every year the show is different, and it reflects the times. And I find that fascinating because you get a sense of the types of themes that are really resonating in the world and how we choose to tell those stories.”
While each program deals with a particular theme — from AIDS and gay activism in the early 1980s (“The Normal Heart”) to determination in the face of terrorism (“Dream on: Stories of Boston’s Strongest”) to family values (“Black-ish”) to protecting endangered species in the Congo (“Virunga”) — a common thread woven throughout is that of protesting the status quo, says Dede Gardner, executive producer of “The Normal Heart.”
“When I think about all of these shows as a whole, the theme of protest keeps coming up,” she says. “Because protest is not glamorous, and it’s often very unpopular and very lonely, and you can spend years without finding an audience and without a groundswell beneath you. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t (protest), because it’s not about a popularity contest. It’s about having a voice and using it — regardless of whether or not you have an audience.”
That “The Normal Heart,” which won two primetime Emmys and a Golden Globe in 2014, is still registering on the TV industry’s radar is something for which Gardner is “incredibly grateful,” she says.
“To be recognized by your peers and by the governing body of the medium in which we made the film is very moving and we are all incredibly appreciative. The fact that (the film) has got staying power and has remained in people’s minds and hearts is what you hope for when you make something like this.”
Perhaps no other show has sparked more profound conversation than “Transparent,” Jill Soloway’s semi-autobiographical account of the Pfeffermans, a broken but loving Jewish family whose patriarch (a beautifully nuanced Jeffrey Tambor) comes out as transgender.
“ ‘Transparent’ is a show about giving voice and protagonism to characters who would normally be the ‘other’ on another show,” says Soloway, who’s at work on season two of the Golden Globe-winning series. “All the Pfeffermans are different from the norm in one way or another: there’s Maura’s transness, sure, but Josh is a love addict, Sarah is queer and Ali is a wildly questioning artist and dreamer. The things that make these characters different — their Jewiness, their gender identity, perhaps their age — are the things that make their experiences so specific and also, ultimately, so universal.”
Since “Transparent”—maybe even partially because of it—gender transition has gone from taboo sidebar to front page headlines, fostering a sense of belonging and encouraging people in the transgender community to assert their gender identity where before they were choked by fear (would there have been a Bruce Jenner interview had there been no “Transparent”?). The series has also provided a learner’s guide for the majority of Americans who had no idea what being transgender really even meant.
“The world has changed so much in just one year,” says Soloway. “We no longer have to do the Trans 101 kinds of storylines — the world has caught up. The fact that the TV Academy is honoring our show I find so heartening because to me, it heralds a broader shift in the way we are making and consuming television. I believe it’s high time that those of us in the television industry start using our media powers for the good of the revolution — and I am thrilled that I can potentially lead the charge in some way.”
Sheila Nevins, president of HBO documentary films and executive producer of “Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert,” is hoping the awards will shine a brighter spotlight on the millions of uninsured, working-class Americans struggling to make ends meet and getting sick in the process.
“It will mean a lot to Katrina that she’s being recognized by such an austere and commendable group,” says Nevins. “Because, ultimately, what this award does is show respect for the audience and it gives power to the people — the people on the screen and the people off the screen — the anonymous people, the unknown people. This is what the film is about: people matter.”
While all six of the celebrated programs possess inherent entertainment value — “Black-ish,” for example, has proven a hit comedy for ABC — the purpose of the awards is not simply to fete the “acting and directing and look and feel of each program, but about making a powerful social statement about change and growth and the human condition,” says TV Academy Honors Committee chair Lucia Gervino.
“What makes each of these honorees so compelling is just the raw universal humanity that each one portrays,” she says. “They’re all about healing in some way. They’re all about standing up to, and not shirking away from, difficulties. They’re about facing it, walking through it, healing — and coming out even stronger.”