On TV: The Postnuclear Family | Essay | Chicago Reader

On TV: The Postnuclear Family 

Apparently the mood of the country has shifted. Fox TV thinks we're ready to enjoy the wacky misadventures of six wisecracking survivors of nuclear annihilation.

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Do you remember the time--it wasn't so long ago--when nuclear holocaust was generally considered a scary thing? Now the subject is terribly passe, what with the collapse of the Evil Empire and all, but back in the 1980s nuclear terror was everywhere. People wrote (and, in large numbers, read) somber political tomes on the "unthinkable" subject; political circles were filled with talk of the nuclear freeze and disarmament; radicals organized protest marches against World War III, promising "No Business as Usual" until the danger was averted. Jonathan Schell's terrifying account of the "republic of insects and grass" that would follow nuclear destruction, The Fate of the Earth, hovered on the top of the best-seller list. The melodramatic TV movie The Day After traumatized Americans across the country. The TV room in my dorm was filled to overflowing with anxious students the night the show aired; we sat watching it together in a kind of awed silence, and when the bombs finally hit, some of my friends had to be led from the room in tears.

Apparently the mood of the country has shifted: the producers at Fox TV have decided that the world is ready for nuclear-war humor. Woops!, a half-hour sitcom now airing on Sunday nights on Channel 32, features the wacky misadventures of six wisecracking survivors trying to get along in reduced circumstances. Sound familiar? These mismatched characters were tossed together by nuclear devastation. The ragtag crew--ranging from a self-important (former) yuppie to a self-consciously feminist (former) bookstore owner--have all somehow escaped the apocalypse, finding themselves in a small farmhouse in a valley that is oddly immune to the effects of blast and radiation. All six are, miraculously, unscathed; the only effect of the tragedy on them, physically or psychologically, is mutant streaks of blond in their hair. They're as chipper as any sitcom family--a postnuclear family for the postnuclear age. (I'm waiting for the show to hit upon that one.) Next to the late-night faith healers on Channel 38, Woops! is probably the strangest thing on TV--though unlike the healers it's not at all funny.

It's a show that would have been unimaginable a decade ago, but this year its arrival in the fall lineup occasioned no discernible public reaction whatsoever. (It's doubtful that the show has attracted many viewers either, but that's another story.) It shouldn't be surprising, really, that the mood has shifted so quickly. As historian Paul Boyer has observed, periods of intense concern about the bomb--the aftermath of Hiroshima, the height of the 1950s cold war, the early-1980s cold-war revival--have alternated with long periods of apathy and disinterest. I, like many others, suffered nuclear nightmares (literally) in the early 80s, but I haven't exactly been losing sleep lately worrying about the end of the world. Perhaps I should be. Though the cold war, in its classic form, is over, nuclear weapons continue to proliferate in a world filled with injustice, civil wars, and squabbling nationalities. In The Bomb's Early Light, his account of America's initial reaction to the atomic bomb, Boyer notes that periods of apathy often have little to do with the reality of the threat. The highly abstract nature of the threat and the complexity of the issue both tend to create an illusion of safety that is perhaps not justified by the facts. The very familiarity of the threat mitigates the effectiveness of seemingly hysterical doomsday warnings.

But still--a sitcom? It's not just that we, back in the cold-war glory days, worried about missiles falling from the sky--we treated the subject of our possible extinction with a kind of horrified reverence. As cultural historian Lane Fenrich has suggested, the rhetorical response of writers and artists to the nuclear threat when it made its debut at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was to describe the new horror as literally indescribable, beyond the capacity of human language to comprehend. Many struggled to find the proper literary form to present the unthinkable. Of these, the science fiction writers and filmmakers have been the most successful; on a more earthbound plane the only nuclear-war "classic" has been John Hersey's deliberately understated Hiroshima. Many writers have simply thrown up their hands in frustration or despair. "They asked me what I thought of the atomic bomb," Gertrude Stein wrote in 1946. "I said that I had not been able to take any interest in it. . . . What's the use, if they are really as destructive as all that there is nothing left and if there is nothing there [is] nobody to be interested and nothing to be interested about." At least Gertrude Stein knew when she was beat. That's more than I can say for the writers at Fox.

If realistic representation has been difficult, nuclear humor has always been a hit-or-miss affair. The best attempts have been frankly and bitingly satirical, with a strong political edge--Dr. Strangelove is still a disturbing and dystopian masterpiece, a brilliant satire of the deadly logic of preprogrammed confrontation. Those who have attempted to simply joke about the subject have almost always fallen flat. Bob Hope ushered in the atomic age with a pathetic little love poem: "Will you be my little geranium / Until we are both blown up by uranium." (It doesn't even scan.) Woops! has no political edge whatsoever, and this is probably one of the reasons it has precious little humor.

Like a macabre re-creation of Gilligan's Island (without, alas, that show's peculiar charm) Woops! concerns an incongruous group of exiles living on their wits--surprisingly comfortably, at that, considering how little they have in the way of wits. Along with the yuppie and the feminist, the series features a succession of cliches "for the 90s": a smart but sarcastic homeless man (nuclear war was good for him: he's got a roof over his head), a smart but sarcastic doctor (the Professor, only he's an African American), a smart but sarcastic "normal" guy (the hero), and a vapid-but-beautiful former manicurist (a lot like Ginger). The dialogue is deliberately moronic: "How did you survive the missiles?" "I was in a Volvo." "Oh. Good car!" Maybe you laughed, but that's about as good as it gets.

None of the characters in the show are particularly perturbed that civilization has vanished without a trace. They're worried about how their everyday routines have been, well, disrupted. Like true children of the television age, they respond to everything with ironic sarcasm and petulant narcissism. Dr. Ross worries endlessly about the lack of artificial sweetener. Jack, the homeless man, attempts to amuse himself and everyone else with endless bad jokes. Curtis Thorpe, the show's smug yuppie, attempts to weigh the costs and benefits of nuclear war: he's upset that he doesn't have a cellular phone any more, but rather glad that there's no more capital gains tax. (Ho ho!)

Despite the show's premise, the writers of Woops! have expunged almost everything about the show that might be considered disturbing or offensive, and have turned human annihilation into little more than a running gag. ("It was a day that began like any other, except for that little nuclear misunderstanding.") By the third show, the only reminder of that "misunderstanding" was an occasional mention of the comic-strip character "Nukey" in the newspaper Mark the normal guy tries to start. Once in a while the references are a little more, well, pointed: Suzanne, the show's resident bimbo, is momentarily upset that she has hurt her "dialing finger." Then she remembers that she has no one to call. "Lucky for me everyone's dead," she says, perky as ever, "or else they'd think I was really rude." After the day after, apparently, life is happy enough. The cheerful, peppy, and (for the most part) blandly attractive characters have an endless supply of food and electricity, and all the consumer goods they could want. It's the end of the world as we know it, and they feel fine.

Of course, the world of the sitcom has always been almost by definition bland, wholesome, devoid of real conflict. When issues intrude, and problems arise, they are generally solved within the half hour. Indeed, even the most "controversial" sitcoms--the politically charged Norman Lear productions of the 70s, for example, or Roseanne--have always had their reassuring side. As Barbara Ehrenreich has argued, even All in the Family, with its roiling arguments "between Archie and his liberal, professionally oriented son-in-law" may have suggested to viewers worried about the real social and political divisions in America that "this unaccustomed political turmoil was still "all in the family."' Sitcoms are, whatever their premises, relentlessly domestic, centered around the everyday foibles of families--whether the family is "real," as in, say, Leave It to Beaver, or constructed, as in, say, M*A*S*H, where the inhabitants of the army medical camp constituted a kind of family of their own.

Sitcoms seem to thrive on bizarre premises; take Mr. Ed, Alf, My Mother the Car (please!). Indeed, as media critic David Marc has suggested, the 1960s saw the rise of a style of sitcoms he calls "magicoms," in which strange and fantastic elements found their way into the domesticated realm of the suburban family: Bewitched, My Favorite Martian, I Dream of Jeannie come immediately to mind. In two shows from the early 60s even the horrors of war were transformed into the subject for the blandest of comedies. "Relaxed domesticity is a state of mind, as casually effected at the front in World War II as in a single-unit detached dwelling on a suburban lane," Marc notes. "The crew of McHale's Navy, bearing the mythic baggage of the cast of the film Guadalcanal Diary, spends the war water-skiing behind its PT boat. . . . Hogan's Heroes, set smack in the middle of the European theater of war, imagines a World War II devoid of Nazis and Jews: a bit of Teutonic high jinks doomed to failure at the hands of a bunch of fair-minded, fun-loving guys from the Allied countries who just can't wait to get the darned thing over with and get on with the Marshall Plan, NATO, and the baby boom." Hey--if fascism can be funny, why not the apocalypse?

It's a trick question, of course; neither is a bit funny. Who came up with this show? Certainly it can't really be simply what it appears to be, just a bad sitcom about nuclear horror. It it somehow, I wonder, an allegory for the decline of American culture in the years of permanent recession? Perhaps. Thorpe, the yuppie, does seem to represent all the worst traits of the self-absorbed 80s. Nuclear war has been (despite the lack of capital gains taxes) bad for his career, the ultimate comeuppance. (It's not a very profound allegory, but what do you expect from a sitcom?) Or is it meant to be satire of our preoccupation with doomsday and the cold war? If so, it's less a satire than a kind of apolitical, ahistorical gloating.

I wonder, though, if it's not really a sitcom about nuclear war, but a meta-ironic, postmodern comment on the very notion of a sitcom about nuclear war? Is the real joke the idea of making nuclear war into a joke? To some degree I suspect this is the case; the show is about as postmodern as it comes, and much of the humor is not only dumb but deliberately dumb--almost a parody of real humor. But in a way the writers are taking the easy way out. Pulling off real satire takes intelligence, and "intelligence" is a word that's hard to apply to the makers of Woops! By winking at the audience (letting everyone know that they too realize that the show is incredibly dumb) the writers are really just evading the issue, telling us all that it doesn't really count. (It's not funny? Hey--we didn't mean it!)

What's next? Will the networks take advantage of the current "compassion fatigue" to present the lighter side of starvation on "Those Silly Somalians?" Or the wacky fun of incest and bondage on "Family Tied?" I shudder to think. TV programming, like nuclear war, is too horrible to contemplate.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Grecco.

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