Last night, the Emmy Awards honored my two favorite television programs, Modern Family and Homeland. I have the deep impression that we (people) intersect with art (and I include television in my definition of “art”) to learn about ourselves. So, we choose to watch things not only to be entertained, but to try on feelings and to come to terms with difference in a safe way. All in the Family worked that way. At a point in time when the world was changing, Archie Bunker’s war with his meathead son-in-law let us all look at where we were in the comfort of laughter. Archie was ridiculous; he was also who we had been.
If I am right about that, then we should not only celebrate the artistry of last night’s winners, but wonder a little about what they say about where we are and where we are headed. Celebration first — both shows are terrifically written and acted. Modern Family gives us three different nuclear families headed by a father (in a second marriage) and his two children (one of whom is a gay man in a committed relationship raising a child). All three of the families illustrate the challenges of romantic relationships and child-rearing. The actors are great — the families seem real, and the show will make you laugh very hard. Our family is “modern,” by any standard and every week we all sit down and laugh together at this wonderful program.
If Modern Family’s genius is its reflection of the world of a family, Homeland helps us access our political world and its mystery. Artistry first; the show is terrifically acted. Claire Danes’s portrayal of a CIA agent struggling with bi-polar disorder is a singular achievement. If you haven’t seen it, you should (and it is a shame that is on Showtime and so less accessible). The show imagines a terrorist threat from the inside and a terrorist (the amazing Damien Lewis) so hard to spot that as a viewer, I am still not fully convinced of his willingness to do the country harm. The show moves with electric pace — it’s like 24 with better acting and writing. In our house, we sit on the edge of the couch clutching our pillows and hoping for the best.
Enough about how much I like these shows. What does their winning say about where we are as a country? Some have said that Cameron and Mitchell’s relationship on Modern Family (they are the gay couple) is the reason that a majority of us are now comfortable with marriage equality. I don’t doubt it. Watching them you see both the reality of a long-term romantic love between people of the same sex and the degree to which same-sex couples can easily co-exist with heterosexual couples. Cam and Mitch’s relationship adds to the richness of the television family; it does not denigrate Phil and Claire’s traditional marriage at all. When we watch and laugh, I think our worldview expands. Our affection for this show reveals our collective aspiration.
Homeland — loved by President Obama and Elizabeth Warren — says something different. First, it lets us face our fear of terrorism in the safety of our living room. Watching what scares us helps us feel safer, I think (it’s why kids love horror movies). But there’s more to Homeland — we are urged to care for and trust a mentally-ill heroine. Here’s what I think: watching Claire Danes’s Carrie, we are forced to see the pain of invisible illness and the complexities it causes for friends and colleagues. Sure, it is on a grand scale, but accepting mental illness and learning how to respond to it is one of our cultural challenges. Part of Homeland’s appeal is the degree to which it gets that and helps us see and feel more completely.
That Modern Family and Homeland won says a lot that is good about where we are headed. Not only are they flat-out great television, but they show our willingness to engage with things that are hard and important. As much as I care about such issues, I really just can’t wait for the new seasons to start. The premieres are just days away . . ..