by: Allison McCracken / DePaul University

America is making people disappear. While the “real” casualties of this administration are rarely represented on television, rituals of death are continually replayed and the sense of loss remains, haunting these texts. My subject for this first column is, appropriately, what we have lost and how we’re coping with that loss — on television, anyway. With a fall season marked by the popularity of programs entitled Without a Trace and Lost, the importance of loss as a televisual theme seems rather obvious. We can easily look back on the past few years for confirmation of this trend. For example, competitive reality programs in which the “unchosen” disappear into the night, through a ritual cab ride (as in The Apprentice or The Bachelor) or simply by going “off” camera. Others like Wife Swap exploit fears of spousal disappearance, creating fractured families who long for reconnection. And death, not love, is certainly all around in the crime procedurals that dominate prime time. These programs litter our evenings with corpses, most often women or children, casualties in a domestic war that has no name. Invisible during their lives, such bodies become sites for investigation after their death, as professionals use the latest technology to probe their flesh for clues to their untimely demise. As hard as these investigators work, however, the “losses” continue to pile up. On the one hand, these programs serve as cautionary tales reinforcing the terror warnings: we must be fearful, we must be good consumers, we must not lose the game. If we make a mistake, we shall be erased. On the other hand, these programs also enact a revealing displacement: both domestically and internationally, America is making people disappear. While the “real” casualties of this administration are rarely represented on television, rituals of death are continually replayed and the sense of loss remains, haunting these texts.

In American prime-time, such losses are not exclusively thematic; the industry itself has dramatically changed in the last four years, and the loss of socially progressive programming has been devastating to liberal producers and to the communities they serve. During the 2000 Presidential election, for example, I alternated between watching the returns and reading the reactions to them by Buffy fans on-line. That evening, we had all previously watched a new episode of the program’s 5th season, “Family,” in which Buffy producer Joss Whedon took a firm stance in support of gay couples, to the delight of fans. This year, one week before the Presidential election, Whedon unexpectedly shut down his television production company, Mutant Enemy, because, he said “I have a bitter taste in my mouth with where tv has gone the past five years.” (Variety, Oct.24, 2004). Since the surprise cancellation of Angel this year, all of Mutant Enemy’s programs are now off the air, replaced by sometimes entertaining but largely reactionary boy-centered melodramas like Smallville, Everwood, The O.C., Jack and Bobby, and life as we know it. Aside from a few female-centered programs, none of which offers the innovations Buffy did, girls (and queers) have largely vanished from prime time prominence, along with socially progressive agendas. Television’s experiments in the mid-to-late 90-s,which resulted in such gems as Freaks and Geeks, Homicide, My So-Called Life, Ellen, Oz, Once and Again and Sex and the City seems over. For their audiences, these texts represented a socially liberal space that enabled viewers to connect with alternative forms of community which may not have been available to them otherwise. Their loss (and the lack of comparable replacements) is a potentially profound one for many television viewers, who are no longer permitted the range of discussion or opportunity for community richer, more critical texts made available to them (and often encouraged by producers like Whedon).

It’s perhaps no surprise that, amidst such loss, prime-time television has turned to God (like many voters in this year’s election). While in the 90s Buffy re-appropriated religious symbols and icons to serve feminist and queer ends, and Oz acknowledged religious diversity and linked spiritual practices with broader humanitarian concerns, God has reappeared in more traditional forms in recent years, as a wise advisor or institutionalized icon. This shift to God in “straight” form has been particularly hard on female characters. The most obvious example is Joan of Arcadia, whose creator, Barbara Hall, rediscovered God after suffering a sexual assault. Hall created Joan so that adolescent girls and other viewers could turn to God in dealing with the perils of modern life. The program, however, often seems to have the opposite effect for Joan. God tells his handmaiden how to make everyone else’s life better except her own, which is continually disrupted by his bizarre requests (unsurprisingly, Joan is not permitted to know God’s reasons beforehand). Similarly, on the much-heralded new drama Jack and Bobby, future President Bobby recoils from his fiercely secular (and unfortunately shrill) mother to embrace religious life, paving the way to his becoming a minister. And last season on Everwood, local doctor Harold Abbott races to church to confess his sins after performing an abortion for a random teenage girl. While the girl herself never reappears, the point is clear: the fallen woman caused this good man to sin.

Alongside these literal references to God, the desire for supernatural or spiritual intervention has taken hold of more secular-seeming dramas as well, most notably J.J. Abrams’ Lost. Lost begins where most disaster films end — after the plane crash on the deserted tropical island. The program is particularly timely in that it deals both with lost people and feelings of loss generally, especially for a liberal-minded middle-class audience. Lost represents many of those who are normally invisible as protagonists on television (non-Americans, non Anglos, the disabled, the overweight, an Iraqi citizen, a drug user), but it also suggests the world view of American liberals who feel stranded in a land in which they have lost social power, and who are haunted by past events which have brought them to where they are. This is a potentially powerful scenario, but Lost has resisted complex interrogations of liberal alienation or American social violence in favor of more comforting supernatural band-aids.

The most successful episode, “Walkabout,” found fans absolutely overjoyed and in tears when it was revealed that wheel-chair bound Terry O’Quinn had been mysteriously healed by the plane crash. Even on such seemingly secular boards as televisionwithoutpity.com, religious rhetoric was plentiful as fans referred, some in gingerly quotations, to the “miracle” that had occurred. While the quotation marks indicate some possible discomfort with the term, especially in relation to a program coming from generally more progressive Buffy writer David Fury and Alias/Felicity creator J.J. Abrams, they also suggest an increased willingness to entertain religious explanations. Indeed, a recent TV Guide poll revealed that 26% of viewers think that the “survivors” are actually all dead, another 23% that they’re in “Purgatory” (TV Guide, 11/14/04). Perhaps more than anything else, this poll suggests the hopelessness of many audience members who seem willing to embrace, at least televisually, some sign of a divine or at least an easy, solution to a depressing, perhaps intolerable, situation.

Remarkably, I find myself looking to a procedural for representations of the “disappeared” in which conditions of actual social violence are referenced. Without a Trace is unusual for today’s procedurals because it is the only crime program which consistently offers thoughtful characterizations, fallible detectives, failed investigations, and moments of progressive politics. The program recently departed from its procedural format to offer a pretty faithful adaptation of Barbara Ehrenreich’s social critique of the situation of low-wage working women (the episode titles are “Nickel and Dimed, Parts I and II”). In this case, the “vanished” woman is a single mother, trying to make ends meet by working at “Everymart” and cleaning houses on her days off. Desperate for money for her son’s hearing aid, she works as a go-between for drug-dealers, who kidnap and eventually kill her. Single female Detective Samantha Spade empathizes with the women, putting her own life at risk in order to search for her by going undercover as a low-wage worker; Spade’s “break from common procedure” allows the program to further expose these women’s inhumane working and living conditions. In the episode’s thesis statement, the frustrated Spade angrily mourns the missing woman: “It shouldn’t have been so hard for her, you know? She deserved better. This isn’t about records or files or paper trails. The problem is she’s invisible. This woman has vanished into thin air, and if it weren’t for Jake, [her son], it wouldn’t have even made a ripple. I feel like things happen to people like her and no one notices and no one’s held accountable!” Spade’s critique is remarkable in that it exposes the blinders of our culture generally, well represented by television’s other procedurals — their devotion to “paper trails” and elaborate autopsies while larger structural causes are never addressed. While her outburst does not offer a divine or easy solution, it does significantly acknowledge the pervasive losses caused by our social system. And Spade does mourn these losses, at least for a television moment — and such moments may be the only “real” comfort television has to offer for the next four years.

ABC’s Lost Home Page
CBS’s Without a Trace Page
Religion Online
Religion and The Mass Media: Bibilographic Database

Please feel free to comment.


  • God and Television

    I really like this article. In the 90s, and even leading up to 9/11, things definately felt more free and adventurous in the media. It’s as though we feel bad about where we went with our entertainment, and are moving back in a penitent direction, albeit only with our fictional texts. Reality TV seems entirely unaffected by this trend. Does God exist, in the American concience, as a force to be expressed and explained ficticiously? With the religious right & the GOP more powerful then ever, is Jesus becomming less a part of personal spiritualism, and more pop-culture icon?

  • Oh look, God is on my television….

    I read Allison’s column and kept thinking of the recent brouhaha over the Monday Night Football/”Desperate Housewives” promotion spot on ABC that featured a nude (albeit from the back) Nicolette Sheridan jumping into the arms of a uniform-clad NFL player. Given the FCC’s somewhat recent turn to the radical right, is anything “safe” anymore? Conflating “safe” television with “pious” television is ideological irksome and not economically sound given the constant erosion of network audiences… Frankly, I would prefer that the FCC sanctioned ABC for casting the lone Iraqi character on “Lost” as a conscience-plagued war criminal — because that is far more offensive than the other. However, in a political climate that is much more hospitable to representing monstrous Arab characters than the bare shoulder blades of blonde sexpots, the Iraqi war criminal barely created a stir. Which is highly, highly unfortunate.

  • Thoughts of Bush…

    I enjoyed this article thoroughly, and even though the piece is as political as any on this site, I didn’t mind at all. I kept wanting to nail it for excessive Bush-bashing, except that her discussion of reemerging religion and conservatism in Bush-era TV is really spot-on. Media and TV, as so many have said, reflects the culture from which it’s propagated, and certainly that applies here to the new media ideals apparently inspired by the Christian Right. Perhaps the most interesting portion of the piece was the section on “Lost” and its multiple readings for a post-9/11 America. While the tendency to turn towards the supernatural for comfort in both production and private life seem commonplace, I found the postmortem reading of the show’s scenario very interesting. I don’t think that this reading must simply be that of reactionary Christians; think of the critical dialogue on what the final scenes of “Taxi Driver” could possibly mean, along similar lines. This is just critical dialogue, nothing more. What I found even more fascinating was her liberal reading of the same scenario. Naturally a popular TV show wouldn’t fully explore the avenues of isolation, purgatory and deep character psychology so much as it would want to entertain its audience as much as possible, so we shouldn’t be shocked. Pointing out the alienation of contemporary political groups was powerful enough for me.

  • I really enjoyed this article. I liked how it pointed out the lack of minority roles in these crime shows. Can Black and Brown people not solve mysteries like White people can? As for the characters of Lost, I honestly never considered heaven or purgatory as options, and as these two account for 50% of the survey, it shows me a (not so) suprising turn to the right.

  • Conservatism – merely an ideology or a way of life?

    With the progressive voice starting to disappear from major pillars of American society (government, justice etc.)and the ideological divide of the country being more apparent than ever before ,it is not surprising that the voice of reason is also disappearing from prime time television.As networks increasingly turn to God and the supernatural , they are only reflecting the desires of millions of Americans who seek solace through faith and religion, especially in turbulent times. There is nothing wrong with that per say, but the sheer lack of competing alternatives, along with the recent spat of FCC censorships, surge of the radical Christian right wing as a political force, elimination of contrasting or moderating viewpoints is alarming. Not only the great American melting pot not proportionally represented, but stereotypes are exploited to fit conventional wisdom (ex Iraq war criminal -completely outrageous) and the ideals of democracy and freedom, which are widely broadcasted as universal values and reasons to invade other countries, entirely missing from American life. Conservatism, it seems is not merely content to remain an opposing ideology, but seeks to become a way of life. And in its absolutes, it tends to be saying – this is America, and this is what we all believe. If you don’t agree, there is probably something wrong with you!.

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  • Race – There’s no paper trail.

    When the few progressive voices on television started to disappear, only a few people noticed. There was a large audience upset by the cancelation of shows like “Angel” but the general public never heard about any uproar when they left the airwaves and, I doubt most people who didn’t watch these shows, knew about the statements these shows were making. Shows like “Buffy” and “Angel” were making statements about queer and gender issues but only if you were watching — they’re message managed to miss the general public who didn’t know that social statements could be made by vampires. Now that they are gone and replaced by carbon-copy teen dramas there aren’t sounding board for these audiences and even in the months since this article was published nothing has changed. The world of prime time television is filled with conservative shows that are dealing with things that middle class America wants. These shows are not dealing with a number of issues that are facing this country, gender and sexuality issues are still being ignored as women remain in supporting roles to male leads that are merely supplements to story lines and gays are being presented as flamboyant best friends. What’s worse is that there has been little progress made in the areas that even “Buffy” and “Angel” didn’t address. It’s true that “Buffy” and “Angel” were progressive and liberal shows. They dealt with a lot of issues that other shows wouldn’t touch but they never bothered to deal with race. The empowered female characters on “Buffy” were almost never (if ever) black. The characters never dealt with the stereotypes that African Americans and Hispanics are facing today in terms of their sexuality. Most of the characters on these shows were white. The issue of intersectionality is staring viewers in the face. It is impossible to understand race without looking at one’s gender, sexuality, class, etc. Shows like “Buffy” and “Angel” were only starting to break the ice by discussing gender and sexuality openly, they needed to take it a step further to make a difference but didn’t. Race is something that isn’t talked about in today’s culture because it isn’t a problem; everyone has taken to ignoring it because if they pretend that they don’t see it it’s not there. In television, it’s really not there. The rest of the progressive shows mentioned in this article have no or only token minority characters. “Sex in the City” featured no minorities (unless you count Charlotte because she’s a brunet), “Freaks and Geeks” didn’t have any minorities as main characters either. “My So-Called Life” was about a white suburban family with Ricky as the only minority and he was a stereotypical black gay male, covering all minorities in one token character. It’s not that these shows weren’t making statements. They did. They had to choose which statements they made though. It’s impossible to cover all of the injustices facing television in one show. One cannot be too progressive in today’s market and because “Buffy” and “Angel” dealt with gender and sexuality – they couldn’t deal with race as well. Now that these shows are gone and America is tuning in to yet another reality show or shows were God is the one of the characters (these are interesting because wouldn’t God included minorities because he loves us all?) Is there any hope to raise the topic of race? The answer is, most likely, no. When the shows talking about sexuality and gender disappear, the shows about the race are set back another ten years because we cannot talk about race until we deal with those first. Those are easier to discuss after all because we actually can see them. We don’t spend time pretending that gender doesn’t exist. That would make all those dating shows really messy. When the idea of people disappearing “Without a Trace” because they leave behind no paper trail is brought up, shouldn’t we bring up the idea of how even when watching programs with God as a character race disappears the second we turn on our television sets?

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