Glee is Hardly Pussy Riot: The Myth of the Left Wing Conspiracy on Television

A recent New York Magazine story entitled “The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy is on Your Screen,” posits that the current film and, in particular, television landscape has morphed into precisely the liberal mouthpiece the right has been railing against for years. Upon first glance at the shows promoted for this fall, that assertion rings true; many of the new offerings constitute what the aforementioned piece would call “a 30-minute-long Dan Quayle aneurysm.”

But whether or not the fall schedule would induce a medical emergency in our former vice president is, I would argue, immaterial. The entire culture wars debate is implicitly based on a fallacy, the shared assumption that narrative television is central in the formation of people’s opinions. We welcome characters into our living rooms for hours upon hours, sometimes for years, creating an intimacy that is hard to match. It feels like it should matter. Perhaps in the information vacuum of pre-internet rural Brazil it does. But if television is pervaded with liberal ideology, it is ultimately not a reflection of how these shows hope to change us but how we have already changed them.

TV — network, basic cable, and even premium cable — is an inherently reactive and commercial medium. You keep things on because people watch them and you put things on because you think they might. It is the purest, baldest intersection of art and commerce we have, a reality often lost in the echo chamber of recaps, live blogs and college courses on Lost. You might point out that we are, as members of the industry often remind us, in a golden age of television, full of daring auteur and narratives of unprecedented craftsmanship and complexity. I do not disagree. But it is important to remember Joan Didion’s advice to film critics: “To understand whose movie it is, one needs to look not particularly at the script but at the deal memo.” In other words, business plays a much larger role in the final creative output than any of us would like to think.

Hollywood’s service of any ideology is, therefore, generally incidental. The industry imperative is to tell a compelling story that as many people as possible want to watch. Shows are products, as much as any iPod or oilrig, and no product is released without a fair level of confidence that there will be a market for it. To think that a growing acceptance of LGBT Americans is a direct result of seeing them represented favorably on TV is to mistake correlation for causation. Opinions change not just through our viewing habits, but also through countless quotidian interactions, often far uglier than those we see on our screens.

By sanding away the sharp edges of our real culture wars, the real anger and compromise and change that occur every day in this country, these supposedly radical shows offer little in the way of anything provocative enough to alter our views. Art matters most, politically, when it is shocking and fall TV seems in danger of shocking no one. Glee is hardly Pussy Riot.

In this month’s Vogue, a profile of Ryan Murphy, Glee’s creator, asks, “Is America Ready for The New Normal?” The question is, obviously, rhetorical. The answer is, of course we are. Otherwise they wouldn’t have spent so much money on billboards.