Many of television’s worst infestations – newscasters with hairpieces; reality shows with “Extreme” in the title; commercials featuring talking lizards, cats or infants – began quietly. Early attention or government action might have stopped them, but then ubiquity set in, and suddenly they were a fact of life.
So let’s look at some nascent TV trends that may or may not be trends. Perhaps they’re mere coincidences, but it’s never too early to stamp out a possibly phantom problem.
• She’s Black, He’s White, They’re Weird: Interracial couples have been common on television for a while, but one particular blend is looking suspect. Conspiracy theorists, begin taking notes now.
On “The Neighbors,” a new ABC sitcom about a neighborhood inhabited by space aliens, the lead extraterrestrial couple, played by Toks Olagundoye (who is of Nigerian and Norwegian descent) and Simon Templeman (a very white British guy), are not exactly normal. They cry through their ears; he bears the children; and now and again they transform into their true bodies, which look like something from the “Star Wars” bar scene.
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Over at “666 Park Avenue,” another new ABC series, Gavin and Olivia Doran, owners of a possessed New York apartment building named the Drake, are played by Terry O’Quinn and Vanessa Williams.
And let’s not even mention how often the government has almost been brought down on yet another ABC show, “Scandal,” by hanky-panky between the white president (Tony Goldwyn) and his black damage-control consultant (Kerry Washington). Subliminal message received, ABC.
• Bladder Humor: A year ago television comedies were reveling in their ability to say “penis” and “vagina.” Lately there’s a new brand of crotch humor in town: urine gags.
On the season premiere of “New Girl” on Fox, the torch was passed, as it were, from organ to fluid in an exchange between Jess (Zooey Deschanel) and Schmidt (Max Greenfield), a character who has just had a cast removed from his penis and has arranged a party to celebrate:
Schmidt: “Tonight is about one man’s functioning penis.”
Jess: “I wouldn’t say functioning. I saw what you did to the toilet seat.”
References to urinating in the shower seem to be staples of shows like “The League” on FX. Urine testing got a shout-out on the “Animal Practice” premiere on NBC . Even CBS’ venerable “Big Bang Theory” succumbs. (Sheldon, after regretfully putting out a flaming marshmallow in a glass of liquid: “Aw, it took me a gallon of urine to make that water.”)
Yes, urine happens, but is it really hilarious enough to be in seemingly every episode of every television comedy? Shouldn’t all those 13-year-olds apparently working as Hollywood writers be in school or something?
• Batty Old Broads: Twice recently I’ve been struck by crazed portrayals of older women by well-regarded actresses. First there was Ellen Burstyn in the A&E mini-series “Coma,” who gave a very good but disturbingly unhinged performance as the woman in charge of a sinister medical institution for comatose patients. Then came Ellen Barkin in the NBC comedy “The New Normal,” on which she plays an old gal whom even Archie Bunker would find offensive.
NBC also has the awful “Betty White’s Off Their Rockers,” a geriatric “Candid Camera.” Grandma already has a bad-enough reputation, what with her dubious driving and her tendency to mix up her own children’s names. Stop, please.
• Crawling For Dummies: A friend who recently logged weeks in the hospital with not much to do but watch television pointed this one out: What’s with the crawls that remind you what show you are watching at that moment? Crawls – those streams of words marching across the bottom of the screen – can be useful for warning viewers about approaching tornadoes or late scheduling changes. But it’s dismaying to think we have become so zombielike that we need to be told what show we tuned in.
If we can’t eliminate these intelligence-insulting crawls, at least we should make them more useful. Instead of “You are watching ‘White Collar’ on USA,” it ought to be, “You are watching ‘White Collar’ on USA, but you should be outside jogging because, frankly, you’re flirting with diabetes.” Or perhaps, “You are watching ‘White Collar’ on USA, but it’s not one of the better episodes; there’s a documentary over on PBS that would be a better use of your time.”