If you want entertaining TV insights into work, school, and the American culture of popularity and success, three shows on the FOX network are worth watching: 24, Glee, and American Idol. I’ve blogged about all three of them previously, but they deserve encore mentions.
The clock is ticking on 24, as Jack Bauer and Co. are in their final season of a successful nine-year run. Kiefer Sutherland has enjoyed a career-defining role as agent Jack Bauer, whose on-again, off-again employment relationship with the (thankfully fictional) Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU) is the centerpiece of the series.
Why “thankfully fictional”? Though treated by Presidents as part of America’s national security bulwark, over the years CTU has proven to be one of the most inept agencies imaginable, often led by feckless, indecisive directors and hiring individuals who later turn out to be in cahoots with the bad guys. (So much for the CTU HR office!) This season’s foul-ups included (1) hiring a data analyst who had changed her name to escape a sordid past and been recruited by Russian terrorists to spy on CTU, and (2) allowing a car planted with an explosive device to drive right into CTU’s pick-up-and-go lane, resulting in an explosion that temporarily shut down the agency.
Ultimately, it’s often up to take-charge renegades like Bauer and attitudinal technology geeks like Chloe O’Brian (brilliantly played by Mary Lynn Rajskub) to save America’s backside while navigating around the bureaucratic bumblings of their bosses. CTU may be fighting terrorist plots around the U.S. and the world, but if it reminds you of the absurdities of your own workplace, then you have discovered 24‘s most significant sub-theme.
Set in the fictional William McKinley High School in Ohio, the musical comedy/drama Glee has become a phenomenon in less than a full season. Lead characters include teacher and glee club director Will Schuester (Broadway actor Matthew Morrison), ruthless cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester (the scene-stealing Jane Lynch), glee club diva Rachel Berry (emerging star Lea Michele), and clueless jock/singer Finn Hudson (Canadian film actor Cory Monteith), but overall it’s an ensemble cast with many characters getting their occasional star turns.
For those of us who study bullying and organizational behaviors, Glee is a weekly casebook. You see bullying of the glee club members by fellow students, and bullying of the glee club by Sue Sylvester and the school administration. You see peer pressure, office relationships, and family baggage. You see issues of race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation handled with a mix of irreverence and sensitivity.
In sum, the show captures the culture of many a modern American high school. Glee is still discovering and shaping its voice, so to speak, but already it has demonstrated moments of pure brilliance.
If media commentary is any indication, American Idol is struggling a bit, but it continues to deliver a weekly dose of making and breaking dreams of hitting the big time. The early season episodes are built around snippets of promising and not-so-promising auditions, crowd shots and interviews, and heart-tugging stories of rags-to-riches and overcoming adversity. The heart of the season is devoted to weekly performances by finalists before the panel of judges, led by the oft-caustic and sometimes bullying Simon Cowell.
Once the group is narrowed down to 12 finalists, the viewers get to vote on who stays and goes. Here we also see the results of too much democracy and pure market opinion, with viewers sometimes making some truly bad choices. This season, the young “tween” vote apparently has saved a couple of young male performers who probably should never have been finalists in the first place.
American Idol serves up a post-modern Horatio Alger story, promoting the idea that a combination of undiscovered talent, hard work, and the right breaks can lift someone into fame and fortune. But it also buys into our winner-takes-all culture, not unlike a drawn out collegiate basketball tournament where one team is crowned the champion. The better reality, perhaps, is that performing a song, just like playing basketball, can be a source of fulfillment for the artist and one of pleasure for an audience.