From Lucille Ball to Larry David, How TV's Greatest Disrupters Have Pushed the Envelope (Guest Column)

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Longtime cultural critic Ken Tucker pays respect to the creatives who pushed the envelope (consciously and otherwise).

This story first appeared in the Aug. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

TV being, in Marshall McLuhan's once-famous phrase, a "cool medium," disruption can occur in subtle, indirect, unthreatening ways. Television is a sneaky devil. There are disruptive acting styles, visual styles, methods of writing and producing; there is subject matter, tone, content (language, violence, sex) that upends the status quo, causing controversy or condemnation or wild praise. It took 50 years for television to cease being underrated as an art form. Now it looks like the most ceaselessly restless, inventive medium available.

Traditionally, staging a revolution in America's living rooms had to be planned and plotted shrewdly, lest the public switch the channel. I'd argue, for instance, that Lucille Ball injected anarchic female power into the TV industry both in front of the camera (as the wildly atypical housewife Lucy Ricardo in I Love Lucy) and behind it (as an early auteur who controlled much of her own destiny by forming Desilu Productions at a time when the networks and movie studios oversaw the means of production). Her influence echoes down the decades to today: You can bet that, in very different ways, Girls' Lena Dunham and the two broads of Broad City know their Lucy.

Other early disruptions included Julia (a mild little sitcom about a single working mom who also was the first black female lead on a TV show: the more-luminous-than-her-nurse-whites Diahann Carroll), and Jodie Dallas, TV's first regular gay character, genially portrayed by Billy Crystal in Soap. In both cases, inroads were made by creators and producers mindful of not alienating a mass audience that had a mere three networks to choose from.

By contrast, some disrupters arrived on TV with intention to provoke, with red-hot energy and copious advance publicity. Either before these shows' premieres or in the weeks that immediately followed, everyone was talking about the meaning of programs as various as All in the Family (ridiculing bigotry could be fun!), Hill Street Blues (big, chatty ensemble cast, multiple simultaneous story arcs -- why, Steven Bochco had out-Altmaned Robert Altman!), Twin Peaks (David Lynch and Mark Frost introduced surrealism to the murder mystery!), The Simpsons (hey, we thought cartoons were supposed to be silly and ephemeral, not wittily vulgar and endlessly quotable!) and The Sopranos (it's not The Godfather, it's HBO: A vicious gang boss spends many weekdays in a therapist's office, altering our fundamental definition of TV protagonists!).

Some shows disrupt accidentally. Presenting Mary Tyler Moore as a single working woman was novel in 1970, but Moore and producer Grant Tinker probably didn't imagine she'd end up a force for feminism in the workplace -- The Mary Tyler Moore Show was primarily out for laughs, not social commentary. And Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David wanted to hatch a show about nothing more than "nothing," yet in so doing nurtured an ongoing culture of catchphrases and arch irony.

More frequently, though, disruption proceeds with canny calculation. In 1972, Norman Lear and Bea Arthur constructed the title character in Maude to be so indestructibly strong-willed that her choice to have an abortion withstood any manner of viewer protest with an ease that even now is startling for being so rare. MTV, having forged its first revolution in how music was presented by programming one mini-movie song after another, devised a new way to showcase human behavior with The Real World, conjoining non-actors in a domestic setting. If Real World's precursor was the Loud clan in PBS' An American Family, its legacy is Big Brother and various Real Housewives -- and for that we can agree to mourn.

Fox News is an entire channel conceived to be a disrupter. Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes took Ted Turner's CNN 24-hour news cycle, traduced the tradition of CBS' all-knowing anchors (Ed Murrow, Walter Cronkite) and added polemics, sex and jeremiads that would make Network's Howard Beale seem like a timid mouse. Fox inadvertently also gave birth to two rebellious children who'd come to stand for everything it did not: Hello, Jon Stewart and your new David Letterman, Stephen Colbert.

Current disruption is located less in content than in form -- delivery systems that alter viewing habits and desires: on demand, streaming, online business sites that have become homes for original programming. But disruption works in mysterious ways, its motives known to few, transcending Nielsen live-plus-7 and the whims of the 18-to-49 demo. Ultimately, entertainment rules: That tough, funny bird Lucille Ball would have fit right in with the Orange Is the New Black gals, trading quips for hair dye and maybe finally winning an Emmy as part of a cutting-edge broadcast on a new platform.

Ken Tucker has been writing about TV, film and music since the 1970s for such publications as Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone and The New York Times. He also is a reviewer for NPR's Fresh Air With Terry Gross.

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