In Newcomb and Hirsch’s essay on “Television as a Cultural Form” and Todd Gitlin’s piece on the hegemonic ideology of TV, the authors take opposing stances regarding the possibility of meaningful dissent and debate on television. For Newcomb and Hirsch, (network) TV provides a public forum in which popular issues are staged, examined, and debated, reflecting the pluralism of American politics. In contrast, Gitlin believes that TV entrenches hegemony by assimilating opposition into the dominant ideology. Newcomb and Hirsch argue against the conventional ways that we derive meanings from texts in which a narrative imparts some moral lesson. Rather, they contend that “the rhetoric of television drama is a rhetoric of discussion” (566), so the very fact that ideological problems are raised and discussed matters more than whatever position a narrative's conclusion may be taken to endorse. This is an optimistic argument that I want to be convinced by. However, I am unable to look past what I see as the sit-com format’s inherent conservatism. No matter how virulently issues are debated, the narrative restores the status quo—the situation. Dissent is always aberrant and ultimately quelled. While the sit-com’s situation may slowly transform over time, as Newcomb and Hirsch insist it does, this is precisely how hegemony works under liberal capitalism. As Gitlin explains, it “changes in order to remain hegemonic” by domesticating opposition (263). So while I love Parks and Rec, it delivers, as Hendershot admits, a fundamentally centrist message (211). Its utopianism towards compassionate debate and liberal-pluralist coexistence rings as desirable today, in an era immobilized by polarized politics. However, the progress enabled by such a model occurs at the same rate as the sit-com situation’s development, which is hardly sufficient for those demanding substantive change.
Perhaps a more optimistic take on this problem can be found in the relationship between representation and reality. Gitlin suggests that these televisual worlds are “not so much fictional as fake” (262). Like the cinematic musical, they offer nonviable and utopian solutions to actual social problems. This process is fake and not fictional because it reproduces the palliative logic that, in actuality, is mobilized in response to many problems. Newcomb and Hirsch make a similar observation regarding M*A*S*H, noting that “we remain trapped, like American culture in its historical reality, within a dream and the rhetoric of peace and with a bitter experience that denies them” (567). This common ground indicates that while TV may not be capable of sustaining radical critique, it can accentuate the ideological paradoxes that structure life under neoliberal capitalism. In this sense, it also suggests that the sit-com may be a surprisingly realist form.