The Defenders
Courtesy of CBS

Abortion. Alcoholism. Pedophilia. Slumlords. Assisted suicide. Civil rights. Criminal justice reform.

These are all timely topics for television drama in 2017. But they were also tackled, with gritty realism, more than a half century ago on two landmark CBS series: “The Defenders” (1961-65), starring E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed as crusading father-and-son defense attorneys, and “East Side/West Side” (1963-64), featuring George C. Scott as a New York City social worker, with Cicely Tyson as his able secretary. Tyson’s series regular role, coupled with the fact that she appeared with her natural hair, was groundbreaking in a fraught period of civil rights struggles.

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TV Gets Woke: How Scripted Series Are Confronting Social Issues Like Never Before

The New Frontier era ushered in by President John F. Kennedy’s election marked a moment when the networks made room for “prestige” narrative series that dealt with weighty social issues. The appetite for serious fare was stoked by the May 1961 declaration by Kennedy’s FCC chairman, Newton Minow, that most of television was a “vast wasteland” of lowbrow programming.

Then and now, however, the mix of entertainment and polarizing political and cultural topics is a high-wire act that few producers manage to pull off with equal parts critical and commercial success.

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Fox is wading into the tinderbox of police shootings and the Black Lives Matter movement on March 22 with the limited series “Shots Fired.” But for all of the expansion of TV boundaries in recent years, the broadcast networks have generally been on a down cycle when it comes to giving divisive subjects a showcase in primetime entertainment programming.

Just like the nation’s political climate, the pendulum for programmers on broadcast TV swings back and forth. Narrative TV played a big part in shaping the political and cultural response to thorny social issues addressed in anthology in the 1950s, TV movies in the 1970s and ’80s, and drama series ranging from “Lou Grant,” “Hill Street Blues,” “St. Elsewhere,” and “Cagney & Lacey,” to later shows including “Law & Order,” “Homicide: Life on the Street,” “The Practice,” and “The West Wing.”

The impact of a story that can connect with hearts and minds is unrivaled. A generation ago, in a less cluttered media landscape, the ubiquity of ABC, CBS, and NBC was a formidable weapon during the heyday of the made-for-television movie.

“We felt like, because we were using the public airwaves, we had an obligation to do important stories that would elevate the level of discussion about important issues,” says Steve White, who headed TV movies for NBC from 1982 to 1986.

On ABC, Hal Holbrook and Martin Sheen offered a sensitive portrayal of a gay couple in 1972’s “That Certain Summer.” Carol Burnett and Ned Beatty exposed Vietnam-era military shortcomings in 1979’s “Friendly Fire.” The potential for nuclear apocalypse was dramatized in 1983’s “The Day After,” adding fuel to the arms-control movement during the last lap of the Cold War. The 1984 Ted Danson-Glenn Close starrer “Something About Amelia” forced an uncomfortable conversation about sexual abuse of children, even those from seemingly stable homes. On NBC, “An Early Frost,” which aired in 1985, was an early look at the AIDS crisis — a movie that the network, under the leadership of chairman Grant Tinker, backed in the face of advertiser defections and a pressure campaign by anti-gay organizations.

Producer-director Robert Greenwald was stunned by the response to 1984’s “The Burning Bed,” starring Farrah Fawcett. Overnight, law enforcement and social service agencies around the country were asked to do more to aid victims of domestic violence.

“That film helped light a match that set off this cultural explosion that led to real impact in the way women were treated,” says Greenwald, now an accomplished documentarian. “Without any plan or organization, we started getting calls from women’s groups and legislators. People started to understand that there needed to be a far better system in place to help these women. Farrah and I often talked about how amazing and rewarding it was.”

Norman Lear’s comedy “Maude” addressed real-world concerns such as abortion.
CBS-TV/REX/Shutterstock

Heavy drama isn’t the only means of holding a mirror to society. Norman Lear became a household name by weaving real-world concerns into the dinner-table conversations on his 1970s stable of comedies, including “All in the Family,” “Maude,” and “Good Times.” That spirit is flickering again in such sitcoms as CBS’ “Superior Donuts” and NBC’s “The Carmichael Show.”

For Lear and his producers, the issue-oriented episodes were born out of writers’ room brainstorming rather than a conscious effort to push an agenda. When Maude Findlay had an abortion in 1972, a year before the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, it was because women her age had faced the dilemma of surprise pregnancies.

“The issues came out of the lives we were leading and the lives we saw around us,” Lear says. “It came out of the reality of living, and nothing more. What was more interesting to us — ‘Oh no, the roast is ruined, and the boss is coming to dinner,’ or ‘Edith is facing menopause, and Archie has no patience for it’? We were interested in the reality of life.”

Getting the “Maude” abortion storyline approved by CBS wasn’t a huge battle. For balance, the writers made a point of including the perspective of a friend of Maude’s who was unexpectedly pregnant with her fifth child but would never consider terminating the pregnancy. (A decade earlier, “The Defenders” broke ground on abortion with an episode in which the firm defends a doctor found performing the procedure, a decision he makes after his daughter died from a botched abortion.)

Moreover, the subject matter didn’t have to be incendiary to make an impression. Lear recalls an early episode of “Good Times” inspired by a newspaper article about the high risk of hypertension among African-American men. The story involved John Amos’ patriarch James Evans being tested for the condition. After the initial airing, phone calls from viewers poured in to CBS affiliate stations — so many that a toll-free information line was added for repeat airings.

“The issues came out of the lives we were leading and the lives we saw around us.”
Norman Lear

Of course, the more polarizing the material, the greater the risk of turning off viewers. Drama series that subsist on a steady diet of social issues have tended to have a short shelf life. Critics howled, but “East Side/West Side” was axed by low ratings after one 26-episode season.

Among the notable exceptions was NBC’s “The West Wing,” which ran from 1999 to 2006. Star Martin Sheen was able to connect the dots of his career as an actor and as a social activist with the 2000 episode “Take This Sabbath Day,” which featured an emotionally charged debate about whether Sheen’s President Bartlet should stop a death-row execution. One of the lawyers seen arguing for the commutation was Joseph Cosgrove, Sheen’s longtime personal lawyer and a respected anti-death-penalty advocate.

As perhaps the ultimate example of life imitating art, Cosgrove’s inspiration to pursue a legal advocacy career came one night in 1974, when he was a teenager in Wilkes Barre, Pa. After watching Sheen’s moving performance in the NBC movie “The Execution of Private Slovik,” about the execution of an accused World War II deserter, Cosgrove dedicated himself to fighting the death penalty — and guiding Sheen through arrests and trials for his social-justice activism.

“That’s one guy who [TV] really had a remarkable impact on,” Sheen says. “Just to think of the impact we had on the dialogue about the death penalty through Joe — it was so worthy.”

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