Do the attitudes on TV drama reflect or create public opinion? Let’s compare a scene in Kojak and Law and Order.

While riding my exercise bicycle the other day, channel surfing brought me to Kojak, a police series starring Telly Savalas popular in the early 70s.  A very short scene employed a standard convention of police dramas, the lineup, and the dramatic moment focused on the reaction of a witness to the lineup process.  Coincidentally, one of the shows from which I had clicked away was a Law and Order episode circa 2002-2005, and it had the same scene with the same approach.

Being able to see these two scenes side by side reminded me of how much writers/artists/creators use details to express ideology in a piece of art, entertainment or propaganda (and much art and entertainment is propaganda, from Virgil’s Aeneid to “Sarah Palin’s Alaska”).

In the Kojak lineup scene, the foreign-accented witness says (and I may not have the words exactly right), “I can recognize the guy who did it and I’m ready to help get this killer off the streets,” with a kind of earnestness and enthusiasm whose subtext is, “I’m meeting my responsibility to my community.”

In the Law & Order lineup scene, the witness first expresses reluctance, makes a tentative ID of the one who turns out to be the killer and then backs down because he fears for his safety despite police assurances.

As it turns out, we see neither witness again and neither is crucial to the narrative.  Both flesh out the story with detail and attitude.  So in both, the handling is completely arbitrary. 

Now it’s only a detail, but doesn’t idealistically wanting to help the community sound like the 60’s and early 70’s?  And isn’t being so concerned about the self that one forgets or neglects community a basic premise of the current era?  I have often labeled our current epoch, “The Age of Reagan,” because Reagan was the earliest national leader to symbolize the turn from public concerns to selfish ones, from building up public assets such as schools and mass transit to privatization, from tax and economic policies that equalized wealth to those that lead to a nation of rich and poor.

The question is, of course, do these scenes promote ideas about our role in society or do they merely reflect the actual situation? 

One of my basic theories of communications is that it is in the arbitrary detail that ideology is revealed.  While all art, even of the abstract variety, reflects reality to some degree (as Aristotle, Stendhal and others have noted throughout the ages), art never conveys every detail of a reality, not even those tedious Warhol movies of mundane activity like sleeping or the “Sekundestyl” German prose writers of the late 19th century who tried to capture every detail of a second.  Artists consciously select the details they will use and those they will not; or to close this paragraph of critical allusions, “what to leave in, what to leave out,” as Bob Seger puts it in his rock anthem, “Against the Wind.”

My point is that while the character traits of a minor character may reflect our current attitudes towards civic duties, they also help to create and promote those values.  Since the action of the narrative did not pivot on witnesses not coming forward, the writer and director had the option of giving any number of salient traits to a minor character, whose only purpose in the narrative is to provide a moment of “local color” to the proceedings.  They could have created a character with some interesting twitch or used the character to reference current events.  They could have created a character that did not understand the lineup procedure.  They could have, as Kojak used to do, use the opportunity to gently and lovingly make fun of a New York type.  They could have even created two characters—one who was too frightened to make an ID and one who recognized that we all must stand up to criminals and bullies.  Or the characters could be a husband and wife who argue like cats and dogs.  All of these would have deepened the narrative and provided audiences with entertainment, while maintaining the serious dramatic tone.

What the Law and Order writer and director chose, however, was to make the character self-centered and frightened enough by the world to forget his social responsibility.  In doing so, they gratuitously presented a model for irresponsibly selfish behavior. 

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