Television is often the ultimate “sign of the times.” With Millennials and now Gen-Z a significant chunk of the audience to grasp, showrunners and studios have rapidly begun to diversify not only casting choices, but also content to address topics that the current youth generations truly care about. However, many shows in recent memory have embraced a trend that is distinctly Gen-Z: breaking the boundaries by ignoring them entirely; effectively fighting prejudice with strategic silence. At face value that sentiment may sound backwards, especially for generations that have been so proudly outspoken in the wave of injustice. However, for the traditionally unsubtle medium that is television, it can be its biggest weapon.
To elaborate, this strategy does not refer to metaphorical silence, but literal. Topics that were once considered “off-limits” for television, especially broadcast channels, like sexual/gender identity, abortion, women’s rights, religion, racism and more, are presently being tackled far more frequently than before by creative showrunners. These programs subtly rebel against the idea that such themes should be taboo by incorporating them into the plot without drawing major attention to them or making them the center of the drama. In effect, making them obvious without even entertaining the fact that they should be considered taboo. Below are some of the more pronounced examples of the last half decade.
Pop Network’s Schitt’s Creek may not seem incredibly “woke” if all you know of it is its basic synopsis: the once wealthy, snooty Rose family lose everything after their business manager steals everything from them, and are forced to relocate to the eponymous town of Schitt’s Creek, which they bought years prior as a joke for their son. It does not take much deeper of a look however to see the true heart and social awareness of the show’s star and mastermind, Dan Levy.
Levy plays David Rose, son of Moira and Johnny Rose (played by frequent collaborators Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy). At the start of the show’s first season, David is fairly sexually ambiguous, although exhibiting stereotypes would have the average viewer (and indeed other characters) assume he is homosexual. However, it soon is revealed unceremoniously that David identifies as pansexual. That being said, while it is a light plot point in early episodes, the important thing is that at no point is David’s sexuality treated as a significant topic or joke, nor is there ever a storyline about homophobia from his family or the community. Other characters simply accept his life and the show is allowed to focus on events separate from his sexuality. He is treated as a person independent of his sexual orientation.
The premise of the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, created by Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna and starling Bloom in the lead role, likely seems bonkers to anyone not familiar: a hardworking Jewish lawyer in New York City drops everything on a whim to move to the unassuming town of West Covina, California in the desperate hope of winning back her childhood summer camp boyfriend, Josh Chan (played by Vincent Rodriguez III, the first gay Asian-American actor to play a straight romantic lead). Also it’s a musical wherein the elaborate song and dance numbers are conjured from the main character’s musical theater-obsessed brain. But like Schitt’s Creek, underneath the admittedly wacky setup, real issues lie in wait to be discussed.
For example, in the show’s second season, character Paula (played by Donna Lynn Champlin) becomes pregnant and decides to get an abortion to keep her law career dreams alive. Her making of the decision, which could have been central to the plot, is given little ceremony, and no character faults her for it. While it is certainly an important story moment, it neither defines her character, nor is it treated as a subject that must be thoroughly discussed. This is only one example of the many topics CXE worked to de-stigmatize, with other central ones being the diagnosis and struggles of mental illness (particularly the often ignored Borderline Personality Disorder), menstruation and tampons and age gaps in homosexual relationships.
Hulu’s Ramy, the semi-autobiographical story of American Muslim stand up comedian Ramy Youssef, may seem out of place in this category; it deals with very real prejudice against the Muslim community in the United States, and there are many loud dissenting voices throughout the series, such as Ramy’s sexist uncle and his family who hold him to very high standards. However, with the exception of Ramy’s non-Muslim friends post-9/11 in an early flashback episode, these voices of conflict come from within Ramy’s own community, and indeed within himself. Ramy predominately tackles anti-Islamic behaviors in America by focusing on the main character’s internal struggle to define himself as a first-generation practicing Muslim American. He deals with wanting to have sex while also abstaining from alcohol and drugs, setting his own boundaries for what it means to be a good Muslim. So while this show does not utilize silence in the same way as Schitt’s Creek and CXG, it for the most part eschews outside influence in order to let the main character shine as a minority with a voice to be heard and taken seriously.
On these shows, there is no crow-barred-in devil’s advocate character complaining that his Latin coworker needs to improve his English. No racist cousin in the corner driving any important plot. No protests shown outside Planned Parenthood clinics in the name of “realism.” To not even give that dissenting voice oxygen is a remarkable concept, and for the current crop of Millennials and Gen-Z, that silenced hate is true rebellion from within.
It would be unfair to say that shows that utilize this strategy are the ultimate ideal, as many current programs that attack the same important issues in a more head-on manner are just as important and well made. Programs like Netflix’s Orange is the New Black directly challenge racism in America and injustice within the prison system. BoJack Horseman takes an uncomfortably realistic approach to depicting mental illness, and USA Network’s Mr. Robot tackles the same subject with a more abrasive, surreal tone. Sex Education, while highly stylized and in no way after realism, does confront sexual repression and stereotypes among both teens and adults in a way that simply would not be possible without any sort of devil’s advocate/villain character. So while it is unreasonable to urge all shows to combat injustice with tactical silence, this new television “sub-genre” of sorts is not one that should go away any time soon.