Looking for the American Revolution on TV
(This note contains significant spoilers on The West Wing, United States of Tara, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and 30 Rock.)
Today, I’ld like to continue my series on Gouverner l’Amérique (Governing America), the book I’m writing on US televised political fiction for Vendémiaire, at the invitation of Ioanis Deroide. In a previous post I’ve already talked about how challenging writing on such a subject can be in the midst of a presidential election. In that post, I suggested it’s helpful to look at cultural trends in the long run, rather than to focus solely on the most contemporary context of current televised dramas. For instance, I’ve mentioned Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as an important millstone in the history of American political fiction. Actually, my take on what would be to proper span for the historical context of American TV series is much wider than going back to the 1940s, and that’s why I’ll have a look at the American Revolution.
Although the American Revolution is certainly, with the Civil War, the most important set of events of the United States history, it seems to have attracted little attention from TV writers and producers. Indeed, if we turn our attention to the list of series about the American Revolution curated on Wikipedia, with the exception of TURN, we find only miniseries or short-lived attempts of a longer format. When I first started working on my book, based on the rise of interest for historical fiction on TV in the past two decades, I expected more significant material for the American Revolution. But does the lack of unequivocal historical fiction dedicated to the early modern days of the United States mean that the American Revolution is almost absent from television? As I researched the first chapter of my book, on the place of the Constitution in political fiction, I was led to a different conclusion.
Some series do indeed make a lot of references to the American Revolution, the Founding Fathers, and the Constitution. The West Wing is perhaps the program where one would be most likely to find them. After all, isn’t Zoe Bartlet, the daughter of President Bartlet, a Daughter of the American Revolution? Isn’t Jed Bartlet himself named after real-world Josiah Bartlett, signatory of the Declaration of Independence for the state of New Hampshire? As The West Wing also features a number of stories linked to the United States Supreme Court, the theme of the Constitution and the intent of the Founding Fathers is also often at the forefront of the drama. In season 1, episode 9, « The Short List », aired in 1999, when a seat opens, the senior staff, prospective judicial nominees, and the President discuss the right of privacy, and how it may be expressed in the Constitution. Toby Ziegler, the Director of Communication, and Sam Seaborn, his deputy, as if often the case thorough the series, are proponents of a contextualized reading. The latter says the Founding Fathers « just fought a Revolution [and that] they had no question of their freedoms », in response to an argument, made by a short-listed judge, against a right of privacy based on constitutional grounds. In season 6, episode 14, President Bartlet compliments Lawrence Lessig, a constitutional scholar whom he meets as Lessing is working with a Belorussian delegation to draft a new Constitution, calling him a « Founding Father for hire ».
But if one is to grasp the full importance of the American Revolution for contemporary television, it is perhaps worth the while to look beyond explicit references. It is for instance difficult to watch the Star Wars: The Clone Wars series, without wondering to what extend the war between the Confederacy of Independent Systems and the Republic is not only an obvious reference to the American Civil War, but also to the war for independence. By and large, science-fiction series such as Stargate SG-1, Star Trek, and Firefly, to say nothing of Kripke’s well titled Revolution, are rooted both in the Civil War and in the American Revolution mythologies. Yet, although the Frontier theme is well identified in contemporary American TV fiction, little attention is given to the actual historical context of the long, nation-building era between the 1770s and the late XIXth century. In fact, in collected essays with very promising titles, such as Goodrum’s and Smith’s Firefly Revisited, which opens with an article by Willis on « Frontier Fiction », and Wilcox’ and Cochran’s Investigating Firefly and Serenity: Science Fiction on the Frontier, there’s not even much about the Frontier, beyond what is too often an academic exercise in postmodernism from the Buffy Studies circles.
Sometimes then, it may seem hope lies more with historians than television scholars. In a text about the use of pop culture references when teaching history classes, posted in The Junto, a group blog of early America historians, Benjamin Park, whose personal blog can be found here, seems more eager to unearth historical references in popular television than television scholars themselves. Works such as Fiona Hobden’s paper on Doctor Who serve to show how important are the contributions of historians to the field of television study, but these are too often reserved to historical fictions. We are led to believe that that contemporary television fictions are divided in two types: historical fictions for historians to analyze, on the hand, and on the other post-modernist fictions, burdened by their specific post-modernist problems, with no historical depths.
Yet, it seems obvious that 30 Rock, Tina Fey’s satirical sitcom where we follow a late-night comedy show crew, have something to say on nation building, with its two episodes on Abraham Lincoln (« Idiots Are People Two! » and « Idiots Are People Three! ») and its storyline about Tracy Jordan/Morgan being a descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. These are two of the many instances where Tina Fey suggests, in 30 Rock, that the racial problem of contemporary America has something to do with the silencing of Black history from the Revolution to the Civil War. Of course, American history is not the only way in which 30 Rock adresses racial issues, but it is surely an important one. I would like to take another example on how American Revolution can be unexpectedly relevant on TV.
From 2009 to 2011, Showtime aired the comedy drama United States of Tara. Despite being the masterpiece of Toni Collette‘s television career as an actress, the show has not been granted a lot of attention by academic critics. United States of Tara, created by Diablo Cody, best known for being the screenwriter of Juno, follows Tara Gregson, a painter from Kansas City, and her family, composed of Max, her loving husband, and their two children, Kate and Marshall. Tara suffers from an extreme dissociative identity disorder, and exhibits several alternate personalities: Alice, the 1950s bigoted housewife, Bryce, a violent, sadistic male adolescent, Buck, the Vietnam veteran who’s lost his penis in battle, Chicken, a few years old little girl, Gimme, the embodiment of her primal instinct to pee on other people, Shoshana, a 1970s Jewish feminist psychoanalyst, and T, the hormone-driven teenaged girl. Tara, as well as many secondary characters, offers complex depictions of genders, sexualities, mental health, and social roles, but also a metaphorical portrait of contemporary America.
It is quickly established that Tara’s condition has been caused by an unknown traumatic event from her childhood, which has taken place, as we learn after many failed attempts at a therapy, during the 1976 Bicentennial commemorating the American Revolution and the birth of the Republic. It is thus suggested that the mental illness of the United States as a country is grounded in an unsaid original trauma of violence and division, which national celebrations of identity and cultural coherence fail to overcome. The divided states of Tara find no solution in the bigotry embodied by Alice, in the violent patriotism of Buck, in the consumerism of T, nor in the upper-class elitist intellectualism of Shoshana, because they’re all designed to escape, rather than to address, the violence history has left unspoken. In this overarching metaphor, the place reserved to the American Revolution is very small indeed, a little more than a cryptic allusion, but it is nevertheless very significant.
American televised fiction offers a wide variety of meditations upon the American Revolution, either explicit or implicit, easy to interpret or more indecisive. From the Black Jefferson of 30 Rock to the metaphor of Tara, from the « Pangs » (season 4, episode 8) of Buffy, where a British librarian fight with an American Jewish teenager over Thanksgiving while under siege by the spirits of Native American warriors, in front of a Scandinavian ex-demon, to President Bartlet asking if he could have taken Washington in a war (« Six Meetings Before Lunch », season 1, episode 8), the American Revolution is everywhere to be found, if not at once seen, on television. It is to hope, then, that historians of early America find a way to work with television scholars to provide us with a comprehensive cultural understanding of contemporary fiction.