Skip to main content
john doyle: television

The news that U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden is a fanboy for Will & Grace is worth noting.

Biden was on Meet the Press the other day and, while rambling and waffling about the issue of gay marriage (he endorses it, in a waffly way), suddenly turned TV and pop-culture pundit. "When things really began to change is when the social culture changes," Biden told Meet the Press host David Gregory. "I think Will & Grace probably did more to educate the American public than almost anybody's ever done so far. People fear that which is different. Now they're beginning to understand."

Way to go, Joe. Me, I've been saying for years that even the most seemingly innocuous TV can help kick open the shutters in a closed society. Now the U.S. VP seems to acknowledge that TV's teachable moments are not actually confined to that bit at the end of a formulaic drama where the serial killer is caught and viewers can go to bed, safe in the knowledge that bad guys get arrested. Mind you, it's also worth noting that Will & Grace began airing on NBC in 1998 and ran until 2006. Joe Biden is not exactly hip to the beat of the contemporary culture.

Biden's comments also come at a time NBC's once-mighty "must-see TV" schedule, of which Will & Grace was a part, is under some scrutiny. Warren Littlefield, the former NBC Entertainment boss, has just published a book, Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV, which is part insider account, part oral history and a lot of bragging about Littlefield's triumphs. Those triumphs were ER, Seinfeld, Friends and, yes, Will & Grace. A decade ago, on Thursdays, 20 or 30 million Americans were watching those shows. These days, with far more cable competition, on-demand services and PVRs allowing people to watch when they choose, most network shows are lucky to get a third of those viewers.

Littlefield is interesting on Will & Grace. In the book he says that in the early 1980s when he was an executive developing comedy shows for NBC he'd floated the idea of a comedy he summarizes as "gay guy, straight girl, best friends," but Brandon Tartikoff, then head of NBC, swore at him and told him to get out of his office. In a recent interview about the book, Littlefield says that in 1998 the reaction wasn't much different, "Management said, 'What the hell are you doing? Why are you developing Will & Grace?' It's network television, and we have advertisers to answer to. Advertisers are not ready to embrace, at the core of a show, a relationship between a gay man and straight woman. What are you doing?" As I looked at the world, we lived in a world where I saw that relationship all the time. It was this gap. Television had ignored it."

That's a telling point. On the one hand, it seems to point to a fundamental weakness in network TV, up to and including today's programming. The first impulse is to please advertisers and the main anxiety is that advertisers will fear being associated with a show that might reflect the reality of contemporary life but offend some people. Everything is about second-guessing.

On the other hand, Littlefield persisted with Will & Grace and such was the show's charm that any controversy evaporated. This is television giving life to unspoken hopes, attitudes and dreams simply by presenting images and voices from beyond the closed shutters. Sometimes, television's ubiquity means that it can hold the key to the dream life of the entire human culture. It links us, it illuminates and, yes, educates us. Even silly sitcoms with canned laughter and glib one-liners can do that.

We tend to forget that impact when we look at commercial TV night after night. We see only shallowness in the slick but empty entertainment created and manipulated to deliver viewers to advertisers. And it's not that commercial TV is intellectually rigorous, but it is informative about the human condition and opens up closed minds.

If there is greater tolerance in the Democratic Party and among U.S. voters toward gay marriage, it seems that a goofy sitcom on NBC some years ago played a part. Now, that's what you call a teachable moment, isn't it?