Television reflects modern society

'30 Rock,' 'Dexter' capture post-millenial zeitgeist

How many people haven’t had the urge to murder one or two bad guys. Sell some marijuana to make ends meet. Or behave like a bad boss. There’s a little Dexter Morgan, Nancy Botwin and Jack Donaghy in everybody. Today, couch vigilantes get their kicks out of watching shows like “Dexter,” “Weeds” and “30 Rock,” not to mention seven other WGA-nommed TV shows.

“Television is catching up with American life in many ways,” says Dr. Drew Pinsky of “Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew.” “We are looking more realistically at our family structure and our pathology. Fifty years ago, the mirror that is television had us watching ‘The Flintstones’ as a reflection of our family life. Now it’s ‘The Simpsons.’ ”

Dexter Morgan is the serial killer with charm. “People believe that the system has failed them,” explains celebrity divorce attorney Raoul Felder. “And they’re hailing somebody who takes the law into his own hands. He’s like Charles Bronson in ‘Death Wish’ and people are cheering.”

“People are looking to vent,” adds TV shrink “Dr. Phil” McGraw. “It’s a safe outlet for them to live vicariously. They don’t have to do anything bad. They don’t have to sacrifice their morality. They can sit on their couches and quietly urge this guy on.”

“Weeds” portrays both ends of the moral spectrum. “We have a widowed housewife on one end. Your heart goes out to her,” Felder observes. “And, at the other end of the spectrum, she’s a marijuana dealer. From illegality to conventional tragedy, there’s a lot to be sympathetic about.”

When people look back at the 2000’s, they’re also going to remember “Lost,” “Mad Men” and “Friday Night Lights” and muse about our cultural evolution.

“These are the programs that engrossed the people,” says Revision3 executive Ron Richards. ” ‘Lost’ is people that you can relate to: It’s a doctor, it’s a thug guy, it’s a fat guy. It’s people who reflect our society. The show really tickles the desire or hope for something exciting to happen in their lives. Nobody wants to be stranded on an island in the South Pacific and have horrible things happen to them, but for an hour it’s fun to go there.”

“I think audiences expect a level of depth that they didn’t when there were just only three television networks,” says “Diggnation’s” David Prager. “Younger generations of storytellers are having to cope with audiences that are interested in being impressed by a level of depth.”

“Entourage” touches upon our fascination with celebrity. Everybody wants to be in the cool kids club, and the show gives us entree.

“There’s a lot to attract people,” Felder says. “You see what’s going on behind the camera. It then makes you feel that celebrities have feet of clay, too. Makes you feel good when you watch it.”

What accounts for some of “30 Rock’s” success is its nudge-nudge, wink-wink that this is really “Saturday Night Live.”

“To set ’30 Rock’ behind the scenes of a show that we have known and loved for years, a show that has been the center of cool, is to build a base that people can relate to,” Richards says. “It’s building off, hey, this cool environment that we would love to be part of, and now ’30 Rock’ is letting us do that.”

Nearly countless cable channels, plus the Internet, have made even children very savvy viewers.

“We’ve sophisticated our audience up so many ratchets,” McGraw says. ” ‘The Partridge Family’ simply would not work today because there’s knowledge and awareness. And for television to work, it has to be relevant. When we see Homer Simpson act out with Bart, I think everybody knows that’s a characterization of what parents feel; that’s why it resonates.”

In the past, television did not look realistically at the nuances of human behavior. Somebody was either all good or all bad.

“We have become more accepting of who we really are, rather than trying to be someone we are not,” Pinsky says. “We look at ourselves and say, ‘We’re OK.’ I think it’s reflective of healthier attitudes. And, rather than insisting on a one-dimensional, propagandistic version of what we’re supposed to be, we’re accepting of a broad range of the human experience in the American media. It’s healthy.

“The character in ‘Weeds’ is so sick, but I love her. I really appreciate the human struggle that this woman has. And ‘Dexter’ is a good example of the fact that people who do really bad things really only do them under certain circumstances. Not everyone is an ax murderer all the time.”