It’s rather startling how much of the culture is exploring moral issues in increasingly traditional terms. As is perhaps most evident in ABC’s Dirty Sexy Money, an ever-more common approach among producers of TV fiction series is to take flamboyant story material and apply it to intensely moral ends. An important aspect of this trend, also highly evident in DSM, is the notion that the rich are a good deal more morally suspect than the middle classes.
Hence it should hardly surprise us that not one but two new shows on the CW this year are based on the premise that life among the wealthy in Manhattan is so bad that even self-imposed exile is better.
Interestingly, the point of both shows is that the moral weakness and decadence of the New York wealthy is what makes life there really rather miserable.
The villains in Gossip Girl (Wednesdays at 8 p.m. EDT) exemplify this premise. Based on a highly popular series of young-adult novels, the show deals with the problems of wealthy prep-school teens on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
The villains are spoiled teens Blair Waldorf and Chuck Bass. Chuck tries to seduce a freshman girl at a party, using alcohol and smooth words as his weapons of choice, and when they fail he resorts to physical assault. Fortunately, his intended victim was smart enough to send a text message to her brother, who arrives in the nick of time to dispatch Blair’s brother with a solid punch in the nose.
The only difference between this and a late-nineteenth-century stage melodrama is the hero’s having neglected to say, "Unhand her, you brute!" before laying fist to beezer.
Blair, the other villain, is the typical socially dominating high school queen we’ve seen im many such dramas. Blair, however, does have a pretty decent reason to be bitter. Her boyfriend, Nate, cheated on her with Blair’s best friend, Serena. Serena left town and exiled herself to boarding school in penance, and her return for the subsequent school year sets a chain of new disturbances in motion.
In Life Is Wild, a "blended" family moves from New York City all the way to South Africa in order to remove a particularly vile and narcissistic son from the self-indulgent and thoroughly unproductive life he has fallen into there. The father is a veterinarian, who is going to help cure animals in a native village, and the mother is a divorce lawyer who is going to help restore the family’s tourist lodge (owned for years by her husband’s family) and get it running again.
Although naturally suffering some trepidation about the job ahead and the conditions in which they’ll be living, she’s glad to get away from the troubles to which she’s been party as a divorce attorney. The children understandably have some trouble adjusting, and the writers and performers make each one’s difficulties unique and based on their personality and family history. It is very well done in that regard.
In the pilot episode, the troubled oldest son actually made a bit of progress and got past his own whims for a moment, which was presented in a plausible and psychologically realistic manner without becoming smarmy or pat.
Clearly the show raises important questions about how we learn morals and develop personal character, and is intensely interested in the idea of redemption, if only in earthly terms. This emphasis on moral issues in TV dramas appears to be a serious trend and a real concern for the people who make these programs and put them on the air. That’s good news for all of us.