TV creativity flourishes amid criticism

By Cynthia Littleton

HOLLYWOOD (Variety) - At a time when TV fare is under fire on many fronts, the industry's top artists are arguing forcefully (and persuasively) that the medium is as innovative and rewarding as it was in the ``Golden Age'' of television in the 1950s.

While many in the biz acknowledge that less-inhibited cable outlets have raised the bar creatively, the scrutiny from pressure groups on everything from violence to sex to segregation may also have contributed to the flowering.

``It's good that TV is under fire. It should constantly be under fire, and people shouldn't stop firing,'' said Aaron Sorkin, a feature scribe who moved into TV last year with the much praised comedy ``Sports Night.''

Sorkin added that TV writers and producers should be aware of the messages they send through a mass medium like TV, but these concerns should still take a back seat to storytelling.

``It's important as a writer to be thinking about all of that, except at the very moment when you sit down to write,'' Sorkin said. ``Then, you forget about everything else and be true to what you want to say in that story.''

There's a palpable tension in the TV business right now between two forces: creatives who are working to expand the boundaries of what's acceptable for primetime, and network executives who feel the need to demonstrate ``responsibility'' amid hammering from Washington and elsewhere.

Writer-producer David Chase, whose HBO series ``The Sopranos'' led last week's Emmy nominations with 16 nods, says nobody should mandate the nature of television programs.

``Television just gets used for all these social-engineering purposes,'' Chase said. ``My job is to do the most engaging, emotionally involving show I can. ... That's the only obligation I feel I'm trying to achieve.''

This claim doesn't wash with culture vultures, who were joined last week by former U.S. presidents Carter and Ford in issuing ``An Appeal to Hollywood,'' which essentially claimed that sex and violence have run amok in showbiz, particularly on the home screen.

In their appeal, the group cited the ``growing public appreciation of the link between our excessively violent and degrading entertainment culture and the horrifying new crimes we see emerging among our young.''

How does this bleak image square with the sleeper success of a family-friendly comedy like the Emmy-nominated ``Everybody Loves Raymond,'' created by Phil Rosenthal?

``Ours was always meant to be a show about a family, and for families'' to enjoy together, Rosenthal said.

Indeed, what galls TV creatives most is the broad brush that rabble-rousers use to paint all of television as a vast wasteland of prurience.

These pronouncements make little distinction between the thoughtful treatment of headline issues on shows like ``NYPD Blue'' and ``Law & Order'' and, say, the car chases and fight scenes of escapist fare like ``Walker, Texas Ranger.''

And even then, why should producers be taken to task for delivering the small-screen equivalent of popcorn movies? Are viewers really looking for enlightenment at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night, when ``Walker'' airs?

``With entertainment programs, your purpose is to entertain. When your purpose becomes other than that, you're proselytizing,'' said Jeffrey Kramer, a co-executive producer on David E. Kelley's ``The Practice'' and ``Ally McBeal,'' both of which earned a passel of Emmy nominations last week.

Cable networks, chiefly HBO, have upped the content ante for the broadcast networks, as cable doesn't face the same regulatory restrictions or advertiser issues as broadcasters.

``Sopranos'' creator Chase was free to heighten the realism of the show by having his New Jersey goodfellas spout four-letter words, and by showing considerable skin in scenes set in a strip club run by the mobster family.

For Chase, whose credits range from ``The Rockford Files'' to ``Northern Exposure,'' the recent uproar over TV violence is too ``simplistic'' a response to real-life social ills.

It may seem surprising to compare the tumultuous TV scene today to its 1950s heyday. But live dramatic anthologies of that era, written by such greats as Rod Serling and Paddy Chayefsky, provided a prism for the social ills of the day while reflecting the medium's growing pains.

The same is true of TV today, and many creatives are aware of their responsibilities.

``We always ought to be asking ourselves, 'What can I be doing better? What are young people going to be taking away from this?''' Sorkin said.

The writer earned a comedy series Emmy nod for ``The Apology'' episode of ``Sports Night,'' in which a TV anchor is pressured into making an on-air apology after a magazine quotes him as saying that he's in favor of the legalization of marijuana.

The anchor turns the tables on the network by delivering a heartfelt apology to his younger brother, who died at the age of 16 after emulating his older brother's recreational drug use.

On another battlefield, civil rights groups are loudly protesting the dearth of minority actors featured in primetime series. Organizations, including the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, accuse the industry of tolerating racial segregation on both sides of the camera.

While the Emmy nominations only provide a small part of the picture, this year's drama series nominations would seem to belie these charges: Four out of five nominees -- ``NYPD Blue,'' ``ER,'' ``The Practice'' and ``Law & Order'' -- feature integrated casts.

Yet the fact is that most TV offerings, such as sitcoms, made-for-TV movies and miniseries, are racially segregated (and hiring statistics of various Hollywood guilds back up the charge that minorities are underrepresented).

But the issues raised by the NAACP lead observers to wonder how much responsibility creatives take in making decisions.

TV's elite drama series are ``a very accurate reflection -- without being a knee-jerk response to protests -- of the ethnic and religious makeup of this country,'' said ``Law & Order'' creator Dick Wolf.

``It's not done as window dressing. It's done because that's the world we live in,'' Wolf said, adding that minority actors comprise two-thirds of the ensemble cast of the upcoming spinoff ``Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.''

``Ally McBeal'' trouper Lucy Liu, a supporting actress Emmy nominee and one of the few Asian-Americans seen in primetime, said she understands why advocacy groups mount protests, but she's also wary of putting too much emphasis on an actor's race.

``You start putting people in categories that way. Your work should be your work,'' Liu said. ``What makes the nomination so much more of an honor to me is that it's not about race, it's about what you bring to the table.''

But the casting lineups of shows in other Emmy categories back up the claims of segregation, particularly in comedy series, TV films and miniseries: these Emmy races reflect a separation of races.

By talking with TV creators, and scanning the list of Emmy nominees, it seems clear that the medium is in the midst of a creative renaissance. But surfing through dozens of channels at 3 a.m., one often gets a very different picture. So it raises the question: Does society judge an artistic medium by the best of what it has to offer, or the worst?