I cannot claim to be a particularly avid watcher of television. Like most other busy college students, I have a few shows that I watch religiously, including “How I Met Your Mother” and “Community”, but pretty much everything else passes me by. Still, even with my limited consumption of TV, it’s not hard to keep abreast of popular trends in primetime programming. After all, the formula hasn’t changed much in the past thirty years or so. Whether it’s a drama or a sitcom, twenty minutes long or sixty, most television consists of beautiful, hetero-normative, and relatively wealthy (or at least not economically burdened) people accomplishing a variety of activities. That’s not to say that every single character conforms to this stereotype, but it’s common enough that it still causes a slight media ripple whenever a mainstream show features, say, a same-sex sexual experience. And though an African-American playing a leading role rarely turns heads anymore, not a single one of the top rated twenty shows in the Neilsen ratings for last week features one. I know, it’s the off season. But still. It says something.
Now I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. Even though I’m at the notoriously politically-correct Wesleyan, I am not constantly contemplating the inherent prejudices (physical, racial, sexual, economical) of television programming when I tune in. But when I do happen to notice that a network is breaking the norm (and I’m not talking about “Glee”…that’s a different story altogether), I can’t help thinking, “Good for them.” Oddly enough, I am bestowing this, er, honor upon a network I don’t watch regularly—ABC Family.
The network first grabbed my attention back in the summer of 2008, when “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” a show about a high school freshman who gets pregnant and then decides to keep the baby, became a hit. It was accompanied by one of those freak media storms that any show tackling somewhat controversial subject matter endures. The attention soon died down—it was hardly the first time such a topic was addressed on television, but the show’s consistently high rankings in the summer line-up is a bit more unusual. After all, teen pregnancy is usually the focus of one episode, or the concern of a minor character, rather than a main one. Who knew that the plot line could carry an entire show? I wish I could speak more about whether or not the plot of the drama also encompasses the expected clichés of mainstream television (from the promos, all the actors seem at least reasonably attractive, and you know, there are cheerleaders involved, so that’s something), but I can’t. I’ve never really watched it. I do know, however, that the show at one point depicted abortion, a topic that is controversial no matter how you look at it, as a valid and respectable option for pregnant teenagers. Still, if ABC Family’s risqué behavior ended there, I suppose it wouldn’t be that remarkable. It was the show that followed up, “Secret Life,” which really made it seem like the network was doing something radically different than other television stations.
My interest was next piqued when “Huge” premiered in the summer of 2010. Rather than simply putting typical television characters in an atypical television scenario, as “Secret Life” did, this show went all-out in going outside the norms: fat kids at fat camp. Furthermore, it wasn’t a comedy a la 1995’s “Heavy Weights,” it was a drama. It was also a teen drama. The show was filled with as much sex, gossip, heartbreak, and rivalry as “Gossip Girl” (well maybe not quite as much as GG, but there was boob grabbing). Unlike with “Secret Life,” I actually watched this show, and I was pretty into it. My respect for the network continually grew as they presented me each week with out-of-the-box characters—gay boys, girls who didn’t want to be thin, and LARPers (awesome)—but I was pretty stunned when a character, Poppy, one of the counselors, played by Zoe Jarman, came out as asexual. I have never, ever, before or since, seen any asexual character presented on a television show. This was a voice for a whole other faction of sexually confused teenagers. Sadly, there was little opportunity for these fascinating characters to develop much—the show was canceled after only one season.
The cancellation must have left me a bit bitter, because I admit that no show ABC Family has produced since “Huge” has seemed enticing to me. However, since that summer, I have been paying attention to their somewhat non-traditional approach to characterization and narrative. From 2007-2009, they ran “Lincoln Heights,” a show about an African American cop who moves back to the rough neighborhood where he grew up, and features an interracial couple as two of the main characters. Just this past summer, they premiered “Switched at Birth,” a program with an admittedly kitschy premise that nevertheless stars a deaf girl (Daphne, played by Katie Leclerc) and presents the economic gap between rich and poor as a polarizing factor in the plot, breeding resentment and misunderstanding. From what I can tell, it seems to have been pretty successful—Leclerc recently scored a stint on CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory.”
It’s not HBO, it’s not Showtime (both known for stretching the boundaries of TV), and sure, they’ve still got their shows filled with pretty rich white people. Hell, it’s even in the title “Pretty Little Liars”—perhaps an apt description of the package television moguls are selling us in the first place. They’re certainly not telling the truth. But that’s beside the point. The point is that a network available in most basic cable packages, one with “Family” in the name, is putting new kinds of characters and environments into their primetime shows. All I have presented to you may seem like meager evidence, but I’m hoping that it may be a slight indicator of change to come. In the 80s, homosexuality was taboo for TV, whereas now it is fairly common (at least the character stereotype). That’s a pretty quick change. I admit that I possess only a layman’s view of the situation. I haven’t taken any classes about race relations, economic tensions, the presentation of self in the media, a single thing under the FGSS umbrella. I can only speak as a casual viewer of television–but that’s ABC Family’s intended audience. And if I notice what they’re doing and appreciate it, I can only hope that other people will too.