Sitcom Politics

With TV writers on hiatus during the Corona Virus pandemic and the criteria for acceptable political opinions changing day by day even as an election approaches, it is worthwhile to pause and to look back at a few recent short-lived sitcoms.  Such reflection might enable TV writers to tackle political and social issues with a humor that is engaging to people of different opinions.

CBS’s two-season Superior Donuts series (2017-2018) addressed race relations and the dangers faced by African American youth in American cities.   It also dabbled a bit in the conservative-liberal political divide. With a sympathetic cast and above average writing, it could have offered a healthy exchange of ideas. But it fell short.

The promising pilot episode was written by the show’s creators, Bob Daily, Neil Goldman and Garrett Donovan. Seventy-five-year-old Jewish curmudgeon donut shop owner Arthur Przybyszewski (Judd Hirsch) is a recent widower who had escaped from Communist Poland with his parents as a child. His Chicago neighborhood has suffered from factory shutdowns and increasing crime but is now becoming gentrified and self-consciously multicultural.  

Arthur is proud of the donuts and coffee he’s been making for over 40 years but is seeking a young helper. Enter Franco Wicks (Jermaine Fowler), a young African American graffiti artist (or “social commentary artist” as he prefers to be called), who has a lot of fresh ideas. Upon seeing the place, he quips, “This is a donut museum.”

Franco gets right to work, immediately adding some eye-catching wall art. Arthur advises him that he ought to think about attending art college. 

In the first episode we meet the principal frequenters of the shop. One is a super politically correct, affluent white female college student who says she “has to live” with her white privilege “every day of my life.” Had Superior Donuts not already been cancelled, it would have been targeted by the current cancel culture for mocking the now dominant (just months later!) worldview.

Other regulars include Fawz (Maz Jobrani), the outspokenly conservative and politically incorrect  Iraqi-American real estate hustler who is buying up property in the neighborhood and is not a believer in business ethics; Tush (David Koechner), a laid-off factory worker, affable but somewhat creepy; and Officer Randy DeLuca (Katey Sagal), a woman cop who put her daughter through medical school.

For diversity and plot reasons, the white female college student was replaced in season two by a young Colombian-American woman, also into identity politics, whose food truck might be a threat to Arthur’s business.

In the pilot, the topic of racism is, of course, raised, but is linked to anti-Semitism. Arthur tells Fawz not to keep referring to Franco as “the black guy,” that this is like calling Arthur “The Jew.” But then Arthur suddenly realizes, “O my God. You call me that, don’t you?” Fawz gently explains, “I’m not so good with names.”  I’ll leave it to Muslim critics to evaluate the depiction of Fawz, who gloats that he plans to purchase Arthur’s shop some day at 30% of its market value.

The issue of police violence against black youth is raised in that first episode, when Franco jokes to Randy that he trusts her enough to turn his back to a cop. “I’m not going to shoot you,” she quips back. “I got my body cam on.” By the second episode, Randy and Franco have bonded enough so that she can joke more threateningly: “Don’t make me plant drugs on you.”

The series dealt more effectively with police treatment of young black men in a well-written episode by Peter Murietta, in which a damning video emerged of Randy cuffing one of Franco’s friends. Arthur reminds Franco that Randy has always had his back, but Franco wants to see for himself how she polices, and gets Arthur to drive him around in order to avoid a “black man driving a car he doesn’t own [borrowed from Arthur], trailing a cop” situation. Arthur and Franco witness Randy being shot by a criminal, but the reactions to her shoulder injury make it even more difficult for Franco to give her a pass. Fears of ethnic profiling were well (and pithily) highlighted when each protagonist hoped aloud that the shooter not be black, Muslim or Latino. At the end Franco and Randy agree: “We’re both trying to get through a day in Chicago without getting… shot.” But the episode avoided any discussion of policing methods.

The series was well-equipped, both in writing and in acting, to deal with some serious issues with effective, thought-provoking humor. A naturally expressive and affecting actor, Jermaine Fowler was charming in his role as Franco. The program’s humor was embedded in the foibles and even off-putting traits of the principals, with Franco designated as the idealistic and good-natured one here. But still, it tried to keep all the banter and even tensions positive and pleasant.

For me, the pleasantness ended in the show’s first weeks in an episode about conversations regarding race, written by Robb Chavis. When Franco rhetorically asks Arthur if he ever had the “talk” with his dad (meaning the talk at eight years of age about how to behave around cops who might regard blacks as bad guys), Arthur responds from his gut: “Which talk? Birds and the bees, or shiksas [a derogatory term for non-Jewish women] are for practice?” The episode that was supposed to open dialogue about racism decided to have its Jewish main character demean non-Jewish women. It also had an Asian police officer take a stolen baseball from a black kid, thus stereotyping blacks as petty thieves and Asians as more devious (cleverer?) thieves!

In many ways, Superior Donuts showed TV writers what not to do if they want healthy “ethnic” or “social justice” comedic banter in a sitcom. Most of the jokes about violence in Chicago were macabre rather than constructive or insightful. The gentlest and most memorable was a line about the “beauty of living in Chicago” being the availability of very specific get-well cards: “Sorry you got shot -- in the shoulder.” But the macabre set in completely with lines like Randy’s protest: “I’m not going to deal with some stupid food truck. This is Chicago, murder capital of the world. Call me when there is a head in her deep freezer.” Elsewhere, there’s a joke about a head found in one place, a torso and an ear in other places -- like a “Bloody Mr. Potato Head,” as Randy puts it.  

One-liners are not enough to raise awareness in a meaningful way. Some lines, like Franco’s recollection, required more plot or dialogue context: “At my school we had a chalk outline of a guidance counselor. She was murdered. We had nobody to talk to about it.” 

One of the more creative episodes was about a flour salesman named Murray who mouths stereotypes about African Americans that are offensive to Franco. When Arthur allows Franco to fire Murray for a time, other distributors are tested in the shop, but they each have off-putting ideologies (to some), including a woman whose identity politics are described as “the reason Trump won.” The humanity of this episode resides in all the possible and contradictory gray areas of insensitivity, if not bigotry. But it loses comedic tension when it allows the comment about Trump to go unanswered.

Indeed, the political jokes in the series were literally throwaway lines. When Fawz had trouble getting back to Chicago after visiting Iraq, Randy chided, “You’re the one who voted for him [Trump].” Fawz shrugged, but the scene might have cheered up our polarized society with a clever comeback.

Also, in an engaging episode written by actor/writer Fowler, a curmudgeonly elderly baseball Negro League veteran was given a provocative line: “White people got so mad at having a black president that they elected an orange one. So orange is the new black. They gave us one just to shut us up.”  Turning that line into witty banter would have impressed viewers of opposing views with skillful authentic back-and-forth.

Two vintage series, known for their one-sided political one-liners, returned for what turned out to be short second runs: CBS’s Murphy Brown (1988-1998, 2018), and NBC’s Will and Grace (1998-2006, 2017-2020).

Murphy Brown, whose tone was set by producer Diane English, showcased a cantankerous female TV reporter (Candice Bergen). When I first reviewed it thirty years ago, I hoped that its talented writers and actors would create meaningful dialogue between opposing points of view. But that never happened.  Both in its first incarnation and in the 2018 reboot, it was characterized by nasty one-liners about Republican presidents and vice presidents and policies.

In its final episode (12-20-18), at least four writers inserted a nasty, gratuitous remark about Ted Cruz; and had reporter Corky Sherwood (Faith Ford), its Evangelical Christian character, insist that as a “God-fearing Christian woman,” she wants to interview Vice President Mike Pence in order to find out why he won’t have one-on-one lunches with women. Corky mouths the unfounded theory that this personal policy keeps women from advancing professionally but does not mention that it is common to orthodox Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc. and was followed by the Rev. Billy Graham.

Though the Murphy Brown revival understandably lasted for just one season, the Will and Grace reboot plodded around for three.

The show’s mainstreaming of gay characters was greeted with a yawn the second time around, and its political “commentary” was entirely predictable. Mainly, it took swipes at President Donald Trump and his family through the character of Karen Walker (Megan Mullally), the show’s wealthy boozing worker-exploiting wise-cracking conservative-of-sorts, who was accepted and even glorified because of her fun one-liners and sharp-tongued demeanor.

Karen was portrayed as a Trump friend and supporter. There was even a joke about Melania Trump trying to fix up newly divorced Karen: “I’m not sure we really trust her taste in men.” (2-21-19, writers John Quaintance and Adam Barr).  The Melania jokes were particularly nasty. On an airplane Karen pipes up: “Row Three. That’s where Melania puts Tiffany.” (2-6-20)

The problem, of course, was that such one-liners rendered those shows at least as divisive and nasty as they wanted to depict Trump as being. Those lines also overwhelmed the gentler humor which could have made for some interesting banter, had Karen’s character been utilized more thoughtfully. Karen’s advice regarding a wedding could have been more pointed, for example, with some kind of comeback acknowledging the enthusiasm of Trump’s base and the reasons for that support (acknowledging mistakes on the part of Democrats?): “Just do what you did for Donald’s inauguration, but we’re expecting a few more people.” (3-14-19, Adam Barr)

Instead, this show’s three reboot years were stuffed with political insults that grew repetitive and tiresome, including nasty one-liners about Paul Ryan, Jeff Sessions and Jared Kushner that will be dated in future reruns. But then again, Will and Grace always insulted Republican politicians and thus can hardly blame “divisive” current leaders for its approach. In an episode of almost two decades ago about lead character Grace Adler (Debra Messing) about to make a typically bad and dishonest decision, in this case to have an affair with a married man, Grace says, “I’m just going to close my eyes and do what I want. O, hey, hello, I’m George Bush.”

Once, it did appear for a moment that some thoughtful satire might contribute to necessary national dialogue. I refer to an episode (3-15-18, Suzanne Martin) in which Karen’s order of a MAGA (“Make America Great Again”) cake is rejected by a baker (Vanessa Bayer) who is uncomfortable with that assignment.  (There are always shopkeepers who will be personally or culturally or politically offended by something, and is that not their right?) Would this plot twist lead to the consideration of the rights of other bakers, say, Evangelical Christians (or perhaps orthodox Muslims and Jews), not to undertake a job that is incompatible with their religious beliefs? Would there be some discussion about live and let live? Rather than fostering dialogue and understanding, writers Jordan Reddout and Gus Hickey (11-14-19) followed up with the premise that just by placing the order, Karen was responsible for turning the bakery into a “hub for Neo Nazis” and for getting it closed down “because it was officially designated as a hate space.”

Like a lot of the “political” commentaries imposed on sitcoms which are becoming more and more short-lived because of such “commentaries,” the scenarios and one-liners are not funny. Television writers and producers should consider this during the time that social distancing allows much time for introspection and self-reflection.

With TV writers on hiatus during the Corona Virus pandemic and the criteria for acceptable political opinions changing day by day even as an election approaches, it is worthwhile to pause and to look back at a few recent short-lived sitcoms.  Such reflection might enable TV writers to tackle political and social issues with a humor that is engaging to people of different opinions.

CBS’s two-season Superior Donuts series (2017-2018) addressed race relations and the dangers faced by African American youth in American cities.   It also dabbled a bit in the conservative-liberal political divide. With a sympathetic cast and above average writing, it could have offered a healthy exchange of ideas. But it fell short.

The promising pilot episode was written by the show’s creators, Bob Daily, Neil Goldman and Garrett Donovan. Seventy-five-year-old Jewish curmudgeon donut shop owner Arthur Przybyszewski (Judd Hirsch) is a recent widower who had escaped from Communist Poland with his parents as a child. His Chicago neighborhood has suffered from factory shutdowns and increasing crime but is now becoming gentrified and self-consciously multicultural.  

Arthur is proud of the donuts and coffee he’s been making for over 40 years but is seeking a young helper. Enter Franco Wicks (Jermaine Fowler), a young African American graffiti artist (or “social commentary artist” as he prefers to be called), who has a lot of fresh ideas. Upon seeing the place, he quips, “This is a donut museum.”

Franco gets right to work, immediately adding some eye-catching wall art. Arthur advises him that he ought to think about attending art college. 

In the first episode we meet the principal frequenters of the shop. One is a super politically correct, affluent white female college student who says she “has to live” with her white privilege “every day of my life.” Had Superior Donuts not already been cancelled, it would have been targeted by the current cancel culture for mocking the now dominant (just months later!) worldview.

Other regulars include Fawz (Maz Jobrani), the outspokenly conservative and politically incorrect  Iraqi-American real estate hustler who is buying up property in the neighborhood and is not a believer in business ethics; Tush (David Koechner), a laid-off factory worker, affable but somewhat creepy; and Officer Randy DeLuca (Katey Sagal), a woman cop who put her daughter through medical school.

For diversity and plot reasons, the white female college student was replaced in season two by a young Colombian-American woman, also into identity politics, whose food truck might be a threat to Arthur’s business.

In the pilot, the topic of racism is, of course, raised, but is linked to anti-Semitism. Arthur tells Fawz not to keep referring to Franco as “the black guy,” that this is like calling Arthur “The Jew.” But then Arthur suddenly realizes, “O my God. You call me that, don’t you?” Fawz gently explains, “I’m not so good with names.”  I’ll leave it to Muslim critics to evaluate the depiction of Fawz, who gloats that he plans to purchase Arthur’s shop some day at 30% of its market value.

The issue of police violence against black youth is raised in that first episode, when Franco jokes to Randy that he trusts her enough to turn his back to a cop. “I’m not going to shoot you,” she quips back. “I got my body cam on.” By the second episode, Randy and Franco have bonded enough so that she can joke more threateningly: “Don’t make me plant drugs on you.”

The series dealt more effectively with police treatment of young black men in a well-written episode by Peter Murietta, in which a damning video emerged of Randy cuffing one of Franco’s friends. Arthur reminds Franco that Randy has always had his back, but Franco wants to see for himself how she polices, and gets Arthur to drive him around in order to avoid a “black man driving a car he doesn’t own [borrowed from Arthur], trailing a cop” situation. Arthur and Franco witness Randy being shot by a criminal, but the reactions to her shoulder injury make it even more difficult for Franco to give her a pass. Fears of ethnic profiling were well (and pithily) highlighted when each protagonist hoped aloud that the shooter not be black, Muslim or Latino. At the end Franco and Randy agree: “We’re both trying to get through a day in Chicago without getting… shot.” But the episode avoided any discussion of policing methods.

The series was well-equipped, both in writing and in acting, to deal with some serious issues with effective, thought-provoking humor. A naturally expressive and affecting actor, Jermaine Fowler was charming in his role as Franco. The program’s humor was embedded in the foibles and even off-putting traits of the principals, with Franco designated as the idealistic and good-natured one here. But still, it tried to keep all the banter and even tensions positive and pleasant.

For me, the pleasantness ended in the show’s first weeks in an episode about conversations regarding race, written by Robb Chavis. When Franco rhetorically asks Arthur if he ever had the “talk” with his dad (meaning the talk at eight years of age about how to behave around cops who might regard blacks as bad guys), Arthur responds from his gut: “Which talk? Birds and the bees, or shiksas [a derogatory term for non-Jewish women] are for practice?” The episode that was supposed to open dialogue about racism decided to have its Jewish main character demean non-Jewish women. It also had an Asian police officer take a stolen baseball from a black kid, thus stereotyping blacks as petty thieves and Asians as more devious (cleverer?) thieves!

In many ways, Superior Donuts showed TV writers what not to do if they want healthy “ethnic” or “social justice” comedic banter in a sitcom. Most of the jokes about violence in Chicago were macabre rather than constructive or insightful. The gentlest and most memorable was a line about the “beauty of living in Chicago” being the availability of very specific get-well cards: “Sorry you got shot -- in the shoulder.” But the macabre set in completely with lines like Randy’s protest: “I’m not going to deal with some stupid food truck. This is Chicago, murder capital of the world. Call me when there is a head in her deep freezer.” Elsewhere, there’s a joke about a head found in one place, a torso and an ear in other places -- like a “Bloody Mr. Potato Head,” as Randy puts it.  

One-liners are not enough to raise awareness in a meaningful way. Some lines, like Franco’s recollection, required more plot or dialogue context: “At my school we had a chalk outline of a guidance counselor. She was murdered. We had nobody to talk to about it.” 

One of the more creative episodes was about a flour salesman named Murray who mouths stereotypes about African Americans that are offensive to Franco. When Arthur allows Franco to fire Murray for a time, other distributors are tested in the shop, but they each have off-putting ideologies (to some), including a woman whose identity politics are described as “the reason Trump won.” The humanity of this episode resides in all the possible and contradictory gray areas of insensitivity, if not bigotry. But it loses comedic tension when it allows the comment about Trump to go unanswered.

Indeed, the political jokes in the series were literally throwaway lines. When Fawz had trouble getting back to Chicago after visiting Iraq, Randy chided, “You’re the one who voted for him [Trump].” Fawz shrugged, but the scene might have cheered up our polarized society with a clever comeback.

Also, in an engaging episode written by actor/writer Fowler, a curmudgeonly elderly baseball Negro League veteran was given a provocative line: “White people got so mad at having a black president that they elected an orange one. So orange is the new black. They gave us one just to shut us up.”  Turning that line into witty banter would have impressed viewers of opposing views with skillful authentic back-and-forth.

Two vintage series, known for their one-sided political one-liners, returned for what turned out to be short second runs: CBS’s Murphy Brown (1988-1998, 2018), and NBC’s Will and Grace (1998-2006, 2017-2020).

Murphy Brown, whose tone was set by producer Diane English, showcased a cantankerous female TV reporter (Candice Bergen). When I first reviewed it thirty years ago, I hoped that its talented writers and actors would create meaningful dialogue between opposing points of view. But that never happened.  Both in its first incarnation and in the 2018 reboot, it was characterized by nasty one-liners about Republican presidents and vice presidents and policies.

In its final episode (12-20-18), at least four writers inserted a nasty, gratuitous remark about Ted Cruz; and had reporter Corky Sherwood (Faith Ford), its Evangelical Christian character, insist that as a “God-fearing Christian woman,” she wants to interview Vice President Mike Pence in order to find out why he won’t have one-on-one lunches with women. Corky mouths the unfounded theory that this personal policy keeps women from advancing professionally but does not mention that it is common to orthodox Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc. and was followed by the Rev. Billy Graham.

Though the Murphy Brown revival understandably lasted for just one season, the Will and Grace reboot plodded around for three.

The show’s mainstreaming of gay characters was greeted with a yawn the second time around, and its political “commentary” was entirely predictable. Mainly, it took swipes at President Donald Trump and his family through the character of Karen Walker (Megan Mullally), the show’s wealthy boozing worker-exploiting wise-cracking conservative-of-sorts, who was accepted and even glorified because of her fun one-liners and sharp-tongued demeanor.

Karen was portrayed as a Trump friend and supporter. There was even a joke about Melania Trump trying to fix up newly divorced Karen: “I’m not sure we really trust her taste in men.” (2-21-19, writers John Quaintance and Adam Barr).  The Melania jokes were particularly nasty. On an airplane Karen pipes up: “Row Three. That’s where Melania puts Tiffany.” (2-6-20)

The problem, of course, was that such one-liners rendered those shows at least as divisive and nasty as they wanted to depict Trump as being. Those lines also overwhelmed the gentler humor which could have made for some interesting banter, had Karen’s character been utilized more thoughtfully. Karen’s advice regarding a wedding could have been more pointed, for example, with some kind of comeback acknowledging the enthusiasm of Trump’s base and the reasons for that support (acknowledging mistakes on the part of Democrats?): “Just do what you did for Donald’s inauguration, but we’re expecting a few more people.” (3-14-19, Adam Barr)

Instead, this show’s three reboot years were stuffed with political insults that grew repetitive and tiresome, including nasty one-liners about Paul Ryan, Jeff Sessions and Jared Kushner that will be dated in future reruns. But then again, Will and Grace always insulted Republican politicians and thus can hardly blame “divisive” current leaders for its approach. In an episode of almost two decades ago about lead character Grace Adler (Debra Messing) about to make a typically bad and dishonest decision, in this case to have an affair with a married man, Grace says, “I’m just going to close my eyes and do what I want. O, hey, hello, I’m George Bush.”

Once, it did appear for a moment that some thoughtful satire might contribute to necessary national dialogue. I refer to an episode (3-15-18, Suzanne Martin) in which Karen’s order of a MAGA (“Make America Great Again”) cake is rejected by a baker (Vanessa Bayer) who is uncomfortable with that assignment.  (There are always shopkeepers who will be personally or culturally or politically offended by something, and is that not their right?) Would this plot twist lead to the consideration of the rights of other bakers, say, Evangelical Christians (or perhaps orthodox Muslims and Jews), not to undertake a job that is incompatible with their religious beliefs? Would there be some discussion about live and let live? Rather than fostering dialogue and understanding, writers Jordan Reddout and Gus Hickey (11-14-19) followed up with the premise that just by placing the order, Karen was responsible for turning the bakery into a “hub for Neo Nazis” and for getting it closed down “because it was officially designated as a hate space.”

Like a lot of the “political” commentaries imposed on sitcoms which are becoming more and more short-lived because of such “commentaries,” the scenarios and one-liners are not funny. Television writers and producers should consider this during the time that social distancing allows much time for introspection and self-reflection.