The Capital of Loneliness

The advent of television has long been associated with the beginning of the end
of the "good old days." Historians, sociologists, filmmakers, and yes, even TV
shows (think Brooklyn Bridge and The Wonder Years) have explored
this relationship. In his 1990 film Avalon, Barry Levinson heartbreakingly
rendered the effects of TV on three generations of an immigrant family in
Baltimore, Maryland, as frequent family gatherings were replaced by solitary TV
dinners and aching loneliness. I was 20 years old when Avalon came out.
The irony of watching it on video, alone in my parents' basement, didn't escape
me. The experience left me feeling more palpably than ever before that I had
missed out by not being part of the pre-TV, sing-around-the-piano generation.

I thought of Avalon again while I was reading Bowling Alone: The
Collapse and Revival of American Community,
Robert Putnam's recent book
analyzing the role of television in society. Putnam argues that there is a strong
correlation between the rise in television watching and the decline in civic
engagement over the past 30 years. We are, at the dawn of the twenty-first
century, a society lean on what Putnam calls "social capital," the complex
network of human interactions and community connections that lead to "mutual
support, cooperation, trust, institutional effectiveness"--in short, the stuff
that makes society work. Putnam emphasizes that while TV is certainly not the
only factor in social disengagement, those who consider TV their main form of
entertainment are less involved in everything else--from community projects to
socializing with friends to giving blood. And, he argues convincingly, watching
TV isn't just what we do instead; it actually helps to make us isolated,
uninvolved, and even cynical.

Without equating TV with reality (it's not), I think it's fair to say that
television programs of the past two decades have reflected a society in a
social-capital crisis, even if they've simultaneously helped to cause that
crisis. Workplace dramas--from LA Law to Hill Street Blues to the
world according to David E. Kelley (The Practice and Boston Public)
depict characters that exist almost entirely at work and seem disconnected from
any community larger than the office.

Putnam suggests--and he may be right--that our exposure to so many social
problems on TV deflates any hope that we could actually make an impact. Perhaps
this is the message to take from the popularity of sitcoms like Friends
and Seinfeld, which--while appearing to suggest community in the form of
friends hanging out in one another's apartments and in local restaurants--really
portray a social-capital wasteland in which the world beyond a small group of
sidekicks in a big, anonymous city barely exists. Can the benefits of talking
about Friends around the water cooler undo the costs of time spent sitting
home watching it?

Through the years of Seinfeld and Kelley, there have been a few shows that
seem aware of the need for social capital--shows I'd call "family values" TV.
Most prominent among these is CBS's popular Touched by an Angel. But even
this series, with its emphasis on the intervention of angels, reinforces the idea
that we are isolated and misguided and need outside help.

Over the past two seasons, though, a new trend has emerged: television characters
don't necessarily see a solution to the disjunction of society in terms of their
jobs (workplace dramas) or religion or two-parent families (family-values TV)
but, rather, in social-capital terms. Just as The Waltons and Little
House on the Prairie
presented a pre-TV good-old-days in which society
brimmed with social capital, programs like NBC's Providence and Ed
and CBS's Judging Amy and That's Life present characters at least
in search of a contemporary version of connectedness. These shows don't promise
overnight solutions to society's ills, but their characters do seem to fulfill
the prerequisites of social capital by returning to and participating in their
communities.

The social-capital trend began in January 1999 with the premiere of
Providence. The show features Dr. Syd Hansen (Melina Kanakaredes), a
strikingly attractive, thirty-something plastic surgeon in Los Angeles who, after
the death of her mother, moves back to her hometown of Providence, re-establishes
ties with her family and friends, and takes a job working at a clinic for
low-income patients. Considering the program's weak dialogue and silly supporting
characters, it's a surprise that this show has been so popular. Can it have
anything to do with the premise mirroring our own longings? From the anonymity
of the big city (where, Putnam says, significantly fewer people are actively
engaged in community activities), Syd returns home to a smaller city where she is
part of a complex web of social relationships, both formal and informal. Her
father (played by Mike Farrell) is a pre–baby boomer veterinarian--a member of
the generation that was, according to Putnam, the last truly civic-minded
one--with strong personal ties to his clients. Through her work at the clinic,
Syd is suddenly a community activist, chasing down at-risk patients and calling
in favors to get them treated. What sets Providence apart from
family-values TV is that it doesn't promote a particular type of
connectedness--only the importance of being connected. Syd's younger sister is a
single mother who also lives at home, and the adult children regularly sit down
to dinner--and breakfast--with their father.

While the multigenerational television family of the All in the Family
era lived together for economic reasons, the likes of Syd--and her CBS
counterpart Amy Gray (played by Amy Brenneman) in Judging Amy--have
actually given up inflated incomes in exchange for something less tangible:
emotional support and a sense of belonging. Judging Amy premiered in the
fall of 1999 with the heroine, divorced Manhattan corporate lawyer Amy Gray,
moving herself and her daughter back into her widowed mother's home in Hartford,
Connecticut, and accepting an appointment as a family-court judge. While the
scripts and the characters are much smarter than Providence's, the shows'
similarities in content are striking. Amy's mother (Tyne Daly) is a social worker
and, like Syd's father, a community-minded representative of the pre–baby boomer
generation. In more than one episode, Amy talks of wanting her own daughter to
have a "normal life," a vision she equates with her own childhood, which included
a dog and a close family. At work she makes decisions for other children who have
been deprived of this kind of life.

These shows tell us that people who are ensconced in smaller cities and tied to a
community are happier, do more good for others, and find themselves participating
in civic causes in ways that TV viewers, apparently, are not. Certainly this is
the case with That's Life, which takes place in a blue-collar New Jersey
town and follows the plight of thirtysomething Lydia, who breaks her engagement
to be married in order to fulfill her dream of going to college. As the show has
developed, Lydia's civic life has moved more and more to the forefront. That's
Life
really went Putnam in early February, when Lydia began working in a
community center to meet a college requirement. When she handed over her
hard-earned $500 in rent to keep the center open, she had no choice but to move
back into her parents' home. Soon her father was involved, and comments overheard
by an acquaintance allowed the family to save the center. And because this is
television, civic involvement led to romance.

Similarly, love is integral to a thriving community on Ed. After
thirty-something Ed is fired from a job as a corporate lawyer and finds his wife
in bed with a mailman she picked up at Starbucks (not even their own mailman,
which might at least have been a sign of some kind of social capital at work), he
moves back to his hometown of Stuckeyville, Ohio. On a whim, he buys the local
bowling alley, which, according to an employee, is "as dead as my Aunt Frances."
When Ed arrives in Stuckeyville, residents of the town are not just bowling
alone; they're not bowling at all. And so, for every customer who bowls three
games, Ed promises to provide free legal advice. Granted, Putnam might be
skeptical about Ed's choice of solution--the whole litigious thing has replaced
the kind of social-capital interaction that Putnam discusses--but he also notes
that it's hard to know what solutions best suit current times. Might
Ed--or any of these shows, for that matter--be onto something? (Full
disclosure: I went to my senior prom with one of the creators of Ed.
Shouldn't there be some social capital in it for me?)

What does it mean that as a society we are comforted and entertained by the idea
of adult children, even those with successful careers, moving home and pursuing
community connectedness? It doesn't take a sociologist to imagine that the
disconnected post–baby boomers who write and watch these shows might yearn to be
somewhere where everyone knows their name--not just for a drink after work, but
for life. If these shows echo, in their own way, Putnam's call for social
capital, is there anything we can learn from how they do it? At best, it seems,
they reinforce the appeal of community ties while suggesting that we should
reshape what we actually have rather than return to the good old days. Of course,
we probably have the best shot of living as these characters do if we stop
watching them: One of the great ironies of TV is that its heroes are rarely seen
watching it, except when they're depressed. It will be another great irony if
these social-capital shows contribute to our social-capital deficit.

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