If this feels like an addendum to my earlier piece about separating art from the artist, that’s because fate has taken a twist in that direction over the last couple of days. Roseanne, ABC’s successful re-launch of the hit 1980’s/1990’s sitcom starring Roseanne Barr as the matriarch of a middle-American family, has been cancelled after the star herself wrote a horrendously racist tweet about former Barack Obama aide Valerie Jarrett which rightly drew derision from all quarters. ABC’s entertainment president Channing Dungey swiftly responded with this brief statement:
Roseanne’s Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values.
While many have applauded Dungey and ABC for such a swift and decisive rejection of racist rhetoric by a star on their network, some such as Kathryn VanArendonk have made the point that the damage has already been done, that ABC don’t have a spotless record in terms of positive portrayals of race recently, and while Roseanne started as a huge hit upon its return, she subsequently had shed almost 10 million viewers by the season finale. Perhaps ABC found the excuse they’d been looking for to can the show.
Regardless of the reasons, Roseanne Barr’s banishment to the nether regions of disgraced celebrities is, without doubt, a long-time coming. While being a pro-Trump supporter for many would be condemnation enough, Barr has often gone one step further in promoting wild, divisive conspiracy theories which further suggest she has extremist views in line with many right-wing individuals who have taken Trump’s Presidency as a sign that their rhetoric has been validated. It should already have been clear that the gift of a revived TV sitcom career was misjudged and highly inappropriate.
By now you no doubt have heard about how the Season 5 launch of Arrested Development has been a bit of a ‘fustercluck’ all-round.
The accusations of sexual harassment and abusive behaviour against star Jeffrey Tambor which led to his firing from Transparent, a questionable interview with the New York Times which landed Jason Bateman in particular in hot water, and now presumably trying to head off any more corrosive media troubles, Netflix have cancelled the U.K. press tour ahead of the Season 5 premiere on Tuesday. It’s all just a bit of a mess all round, tinged with the whiff of scandal concerning the key issue rocking the entertainment industry this year – inappropriate behaviour of male actors against their female co-stars, in a variety of ways. It does, however, lead to an important question we haven’t yet achieved the distance to answer.
Does the personal fall of artists compromise the art they have worked on itself?
So imagine you’re in a pitch meeting with a major studio (in this case ABC). You have all your ideas stacked up ready to go and then one of the studio heads says “you know what we really want? A mash up of The West Wing and 24. Politics! Action! Conspiracy! Bills! Sounds cool, huh?”. Of course, because you’re a writer who wants to put food on the table, you say: “uh, sure…”. And there you have it: Designated Survivor is born.
Now, let me be clear: that’s not how Designated Survivor, which has just been cancelled by ABC in what is fast becoming an infamous ‘Cancel Friday’ where several well-known, fairly long-running shows have been axed, came to be. I think. I’m pretty sure David Guggenheim, the creator, didn’t have to be talked into developing a hybrid of Aaron Sorkin’s erudite look at Democratic politics in the White House, and the pulse-pounding, 9/11-reactive action madness of 24 – especially not for an actor as engaging and charismatic as Kiefer Sutherland. Nonetheless, of all the shows given the axe in this latest cull (including Lucifer and Brooklyn Nine-Nine – until it was saved last minute by NBC), Designated Survivor is by far the weirdest and, honestly, probably the most deserving.
Alias arrived at a fascinating point when it came to television. The year was 2001 and a lot was changing in the ether around it. JJ Abrams, at this point best known as the writer of Harrison Ford weepie Regarding Henry, Michael Bay blockbuster Armageddon and show-runner of late 90’s teen hit drama Felicity, was nowhere near the producing and directing Hollywood totem he would become. His production house, Bad Robot, had not yet become the nascent Amblin of its generation. And, just nineteen days before the pilot, ‘Truth Be Told’, aired… 9/11 happened.
Abrams’ spy series already had some interesting cache behind it. Alias was a show that emerged on ABC with the intention of riding into the 21st century with a fresh storytelling model. The most successful and important TV shows of the 1990’s had almost all built their success on an episodic, network model of storytelling; 22-26 episode seasons with plenty of stand-alone stories which would serve the show well in syndication. In everything from Quantum Leap through to The X-Files, show-runners moving from the 1980’s into more of a Golden Age of television, in which some of the most key writers in both TV and cinema of the next few decades would emerge, had cleaved to the way it had been done for years.
It would immediately strive for an aesthetic which would tap into a deep reservoir of retro-futurism, both aesthetically and in terms of production. Abrams and his staff came out of the gate leaning heavily into the kind of serialisation most shows in the 1990’s just didn’t do, bar a few trend-setting exception we’ll return to. The concept was both high and complex – female super-spy Sydney Bristow would find herself learning the covert CIA branch she had been working for, SD-6, was in truth the arm of a worldwide crime syndicate, and would work as a double-agent to bring down the enemy from within. Episodes would end on a cliffhanger every week and fold into each other. A surfeit of character and narrative mysteries would propel Syd’s journey along, not to mention a curious central, underlying occult and arcane mythology which tipped the show away from action-thriller and more toward science-fiction.