Sunday, February 26, 2012

Billy Crystal's Return to the Oscars

Billy Crystal’s return to host the Oscars for a ninth time represents a departure from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences’ recent attempts to recruit younger people.  Like the Super Bowl, the Academy Awards remains one of the few programs that can attain widespread viewership in today’s 500-channel universe.  While the awards show is often the highest-rated non-football program of the year, it has struggled to maintain the attention of 18-34 year olds who didn’t necessarily grow up watching it.

The Oscars, like all TV programs, has experienced declining audiences in recent years, never matching the record 57 million that watched the megahit “Titanic” sweep the awards in 1998.  As a result, the academy has sought out hosts who appeal to a younger demographic, with Chris Rock, Hugh Jackman, and John Stewart (twice) receiving the opportunity since Crystal last hosted in 2004.  None of these performers were particularly good or bad, with the notable exception of the James Franco/Anne Hathaway disaster of last year.  Nevertheless, viewership has continued to fall, due to expanding entertainment options as well as the fact that many of the victorious films in the last few years have not been box office hits.  While critics have often lambasted the Oscars for rewarding commercial movies, recent winners like “The Hurt Locker” (2009) and “No Country for Old Men” (2007) were hardly blockbusters.

With no hit film likely to do well tonight, Crystal’s return is unlikely to reverse the trend of diminishing audiences, especially among younger viewers, given that his heyday came in the late 80s and early 90s with movies like “When Harry Met Sally” (1989) and “City Slickers” (1991).  Still, he will likely appeal to the traditional Oscar watchers.  According to today’s New York Times, 61 percent of the 2011 Academy Awards’ viewership was female, with the highest ratings coming from women over 35.  This explains why my mother was the one who got me into watching the program as a kid.  And why she told me not to bother her tonight.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

"The Artist" and Hollywood's Golden Age

I enjoyed “The Artist,” which is the favorite to win best picture tonight at the Oscars.  I’m not sure if it should win the Academy Award, but it is an innovative film that harkens back to the “Golden Age of Hollywood” in the 1920s and 1930s.  Motion pictures emerged as a dominant part of the pop culture in this time and eventually moved from silent movies to “talkies” with sound.

D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” which premiered in 1915, is generally considered the first feature film.  Though there had been movies in the first decade of the 20th century, “Birth” used new techniques that give it an almost modern feel.  Griffith took several weeks to make “Birth of a Nation,” at a time when most movies were filmed in a week.  Unfortunately, the film’s historical significance is how it depicted Reconstruction as a time when law and order broke down in the recently defeated Confederacy because freed blacks held political sway.  The climax of the film shows the Ku Klux Klan emerging to defend virtuous white womanhood while restoring calm to the South.  Griffith’s work provided a popular audience for the conventional historical interpretation of Reconstruction at the time—that its “failure” revealed blacks were not ready for citizenship and that racial change must come gradually. 

“The Artist” begins in 1927, with the movie industry thriving during the economic expansion of the “Roaring 20s.”  20,000 new theaters were constructed, as movie houses became a central part of downtowns in major cities across the country.  Furthermore, attendance grew as the number of tickets sold rose from 40,000 in 1922 to 100,000 by 1930, when 65 percent of the country attended films on a weekly basis, an all-time record (Leuchtenburg, 195; Pautz, p. 1).  

The central character of “The Artist” is George Valentin, whose name is likely an homage to Rudolph Valentino, a major star of the silent film era.  The movie shows Valentin and his love interest, Penny Miller, working directly for the Hollywood studios.  Under the “studio system” of the period, production companies signed real-life actors and actresses to contracts to appear in a certain number of films. This arrangement prevailed throughout the industry until legal challenges eventually brought about its end in the early 1960s.

“The Artist” shows Valentin as dismissive of the dialogue in movies when first introduced to “talkies” in 1929.  In fact, Al Jolson’s “The Jazz Singer” premiered as the first “talkie” two years earlier, in 1927.  “The Jazz Singer” is mostly a silent film, but features two major scenes with talking and song and dance numbers.

The film also shows how Valentin’s career, like many silent stars, was damaged by the change to audio.  To add insult to injury, Valentin is financially devastated by the stock market crash of 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression.  Propelled by the “talkies,” however, the movie industry as a whole did fairly well during the 1930s, as Americans needed an inexpensive distraction from their troubles. The film then follows Valentin’s descent into obscurity as he refuses to adapt to the new reality, while the younger Miller thrives in “talkies.” 

“The Artist” mythologizes the late 1920s and 1930s, which many look back upon as the peak years of the movie industry.  Indeed, films dominated American popular culture before the arrival of television in the late 1940s.  Subsequently, though, movie attendance began a two-decade long decline that would only be reversed with the arrival of the summer blockbusters in the 1970s.  For more, see

Sources: William Leuchtenburg, Perils of Prosperity, 1914-32 (1958)
                Michelle Pautz, "The Decline in Average Weekly Cinema Attendance: 1930-2000,"  Issues in Political Economy, 2002, vol. 11

Monday, February 20, 2012

Jeremy Lin and American Immigration

Jeremy Lin’s meteoric rise in sports and popular culture has been incredible as the Harvard alum-turned-New York Knicks point guard was satirized on “Saturday Night Live” while appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated during the same week.  Indeed, “Linsanity” has spawned tremendous discussion about race and ethnicity in professional sports, much of it poorly informed.  As the son of Taiwanese immigrants, Lin’s historical importance is how he embodies a long American tradition of sports serving as an avenue of assimilation for recent immigrant groups.

Though there was a significant Irish and German immigration in the mid-19th century, the largest wave of newcomers came to the U.S. from eastern and southern Europe between 1882 and 1924.  Unlike previous immigrants, who had mostly come from northwestern Europe, these new arrivals hailed from Italy, Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The background of these immigrants, many whom entered the U.S. through Ellis Island, spawned a fierce debate about the nature of American identity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Many Americans believed eastern and southern Europeans weakened the country because they were racially inferior; others were concerned that a large percentage of them were Catholic and Jewish.  Labor unions feared they would lower wages for American workers.  As a result, some native-stock Americans formed organizations to halt the wave and after many years of lobbying, Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, which sharply curtailed immigration from eastern and southern Europe by creating small quotas for newcomers from those nations

By the 1930s, first-generation sports heroes became symbols of pride for these immigrant communities, smoothing their entrance into the American mainstream.  The Jewish-American baseball player Hank Greenberg became a star first baseman for the Detroit Tigers during the Great Depression.  With the backdrop of Hitler’s rise in Europe and growing American anti-Semitism, Greenberg won two American League Most Valuable Player awards and challenged Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record in 1938.  In the same era, the Italian-American Joe DiMaggio emerged as the successor to Ruth and Lou Gehrig as the star of the New York Yankees, setting a major league record by hitting in 56 consecutive games in 1941.  Given their outsider status, Jews and Italians took particular pride in the achievements of Greenberg and DiMaggio.  Furthermore, the baseball stars’ accomplishments earned them respect among the older American population, contributing to the weakening of the anti-Semitic and anti-Italian sentiment that remained virulent in the 1930s United States.

With the military service of first and second-generation Ellis Island immigrants in World War II, nativist sentiment began to decline.  The soldiers returned home and participated in the economic boom of the 1950s, moving out of the old urban neighborhoods and into the suburbs, where ethnic identity was not as visible.  Furthermore, the civil rights movement undermined the scientific racism that had served as the basis for the restrictions of 1924.  In 1965, Congress passed and President Johnson signed the Hart-Celler Act, which removed the quotas that had limited immigration from eastern and southern Europe.  For a number of reasons, legislators believed that they were simply ending an antiquated system and did not think the change would precipitate renewed migration to the United States.

They were wrong.  Hart-Celler facilitated a new wave of immigrants came from Latin America and Asia in the last third of the 20th century, again reshaping the nation’s demography. Today, the percentage of Americans born outside of the United States is the highest it has been since 1920. As we have seen in recent years, this migration has renewed the early 20th century debates about “Who is an American?”

Like the Ellis Island wave, many first-generation immigrants attained prominence in sports.  In particular, Hispanic Americans have reached tremendous heights in baseball, growing from a little over ten percent of major league players in the early 1990s to over a quarter by the early 21th century.  The number of all-star Latino players is simply too long to list, though Sammy Sosa earned the greatest fame because of his duel with Mark McGwire for Roger Maris’ single-season home run record in 1998 (though the two of them have had some difficulties since, as you may have heard).

Lin is certainly not the first Asian-American sports star.  The Chinese-American tennis player Michael Chang, who was overshadowed by contemporaries like Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras in the 1990s, comes to mind.  Still, Lin’s success is comparable to Greenberg’s in that it also breaks down the stereotype than an ethnic group known for excellence in academic pursuits can’t do the same in athletics.  Though he has only played a few weeks in the NBA, “Linsanity” has gone a long way to accomplishing this end.

Only time will tell if Lin can sustain his current level of play.  The history of sports is littered with phenoms who have started strong and then disappeared almost as quickly.  Whatever the end result, his status as an ambassador for a recent immigrant group is part of a long American pattern.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Rise of NASCAR

With the Daytona 500 days away, it is an appropriate time to analyze the meteoric growth of NASCAR over the last three decades.  As late as the mid-1980s, open wheel racing (Indy cars) reigned supreme over stock cars (NASCAR) and the Indianapolis 500—not Daytona— was the most popular race in the country.  Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt, not Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, Sr., were the most famous drivers in the nation.  In the last 30 years, though, stock car racing has surpassed open wheel racing, evolving from a regional sport based in the rural South to a national phenomenon with fanatical supporters across America.

According to legend, NASCAR’s rise began with the exciting conclusion to the 1979 Daytona 500, which was the first to air live on network television.  A major snowstorm on the East Coast left many trapped inside and some viewers who would not normally have watched tuned in.  Following the conclusion of the race, won by Petty, drivers Cale Yarborough and Bobby and Donnie Alison got into a fistfight over a last lap crash, bringing new attention to this sport.  Just as 1958’s “Greatest Game Ever Played” between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants spurred football to new heights, the ’79 Daytona launched NASCAR. See

Over the next two decades, led by charismatic drivers such as Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, and Jeff Gordon, NASCAR became one of the most popular sports in the country, with ratings only surpassed by the NFL.  Like football, auto racing’s ratings were augmented by its once-a-week format, but that does not detract from the sport’s incredible rise.  Meanwhile, internecine disputes in Indy car racing split the sport into rival camps and many top drivers did not race in the Indianapolis 500 for several years.  This divorce left the auto racing market to NASCAR alone.

NASCAR’s growth also reflected the rise of the South during the time.  As the region’s population expanded, so did its influence on American culture.  Other traditionally southern phenomenon, like country music, developed crossover appeal.  Since the Reagan era, the political conservatism and religiosity of the region has often seemed more reflective of the country than the liberalism and relative secularism of New England.  By the 1990s, some discussed the “Southernization of America,” as Arkansas’ Bill Clinton, Georgia’s Newt Gingrich, and Mississippi’s Trent Lott, served as President, Speaker of the House, and Senate Majority Leader, respectively (Applebome, Dixie Rising). 

Dale Earnhardt, Sr.’s death in a crash during the 2001 Daytona 500 precipitated Princess Di-style mourning below the Mason-Dixon line.  At the same time, some in the North scratched their heads over the emotional reaction.  I’ll never forget where I was when I found out that “The Intimidator” had died: the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  The local news declared “tragedy strikes as a legend dies at Daytona.”  Though I can count on my hands the number of NASCAR races I’ve watched, as a sports fan I immediately blurted out, “Oh my G-D, did Dale Earnhardt die?”  My Manhattan friends seemed totally nonplussed and refused to even let me watch the sports segment to find out what had happened.  It was a reflection of the cultural chasm that still exists, as NASCAR is very popular across a broad swath of the nation, except for a few bastions of blue America.  As a perceptive friend of mine said later, the circumstances surrounding Earnhardt’s death were unbelievable, the equivalent of Michael Jordan dying during Game 7 of the NBA Finals.

Paradoxically, the period following Earnhardt’s crash may have been the sport’s peak.  In 2004, “NASCAR dads” replaced “soccer moms” as the swing voters fawned over by presidential candidates and the national media alike.  President George W. Bush campaigned for re-election at the 2004 Daytona 500, opening the race by declaring, “Gentlemen, start your engines!”

While “The Intimdator’s” death brought new attention to the sport, it also sparked a greater awareness of its dangers.  NASCAR instituted new safety guidelines that have helped prevent any deaths since 2001, though some have suggested these measures have reduced the excitement of the races.  Over the last decade, the sport’s popularity has declined as attendance at the races has slipped and television ratings have come back to earth a bit.

It is not just the new safety measures, however, that have caused the sport to plateau.  NASCAR began as a working-class sport in the rural South, but the sports’ leadership pushed to attract a more upscale demographic.  Nothing reflected this change more than when sponsorship of the NASCAR points series switched from the “Winston Cup” to the “Nextel Cup” in 2004.  Races at some of the older tracks have been abandoned in favor of larger venues, alienating some of the sports’ traditional fans, often called “gearheads.”  Since Earnhardt, Sr.’s death, no driver has emerged to replace him as someone that fans either love or hate.  Jimmie Johnson has dominated the sport in (old) Tigeresque fashion in recent years, winning five consecutive championships between 2006-2010.  But he doesn’t seem to elicit strong emotions either way from the “gearheads.”

As the 2012 race commences on February 26, it could mark the beginning of a resurgence in NASCAR’s popularity.  Despite only one victory in seven years of Indy car racing, Danica Patrick is moving to stock cars and will be in the field for the first time.  Her celebrity will certainly bring renewed interest in the “Great American Race,”  but whatever happens, NASCAR has come a long way since its early days of moonshine and dirt tracks.

Monday, February 13, 2012

"Mad Men," "Alcatraz," and the Fascination with the Kennedy Era

Propelled by the unlikely success of AMC”s  “Mad Men,” television has been fascinated by the early 1960s in recent years.  The current season has featured “Pan Am,” “Playboy Club,” and “Alcatraz,” which have all been set during this time period.  While “Alcatraz” is the only one of these shows likely to be renewed, the continuing interest in this period reflects a persistent nostalgia for the United States before the social and political changes of the 1960s.

Following the Kennedy assasination, the nation went though a series of upheavals, from Vietnam to race riots to Watergate.  Though the Kennedy era witnessed the beginning of the civil rights movement, with sit-ins as well as the March on Washington, many scholars do not believe the decade truly began until the mid-1960s.  One historian refers to 1964 as “The Last Innocent Year,” as the major aspects of the turbulent decade did not start until after the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Though there were 16,000 U.S. advisers in Vietnam by 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson did not send American ground troops until 1965, when it became clear South Vietnam would fall to communism without direct U.S. military involvement.  While there had been minimal antiwar activity early in the war, opposition to the conflict grew every year after 1965, as casualties mounted.  By 1968, a majority of Americans believed the war had been a mistake and protesters and police squared off at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Furthermore, the non-violence and the interracialism of the early civil rights movement gave way to assertions of self-defense and black nationalism. Only a week after President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, race riots broke out in Watts, followed by three more years of “long, hot, summers,” culminating in a national wave of violence after Dr. King’s assassination in Memphis in 1968.  One of the few cities that did not experience disorder was Indianapolis, where Robert Kennedy was campaigning for president in the Indiana primary.  After informing the crowd that King had been shot, RFK told them of the anger he had felt after his brother’s murder and urged the audience to reject violence. The younger Kennedy seemed to be a unifying figure in a divisive time, able to reach out to both blacks and disaffected working-class whites.  Adding to the turmoil of that year, RFK himself was assassinated two months later in Los Angeles, immediately after winning the California primary.

Richard Nixon achieved a historic political comeback to win the 1968 presidential election over Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, and sought to end the war in Southeast Asia through “Vietnamization”; that is, turning over military responsibilities to the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN).  Nevertheless, the anti-war movement continued to grow, peaking in 1970 when Nixon expanded the war by invading Cambodia.  The largest wave of campus protests followed and five Kent State students were shot and killed by Ohio National Guardsman.

Eventually, American military involvement in Vietnam came to a close with the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, but it took a toll on the country, both in terms of 58,000 casualties as well as a loss of trust in government and other major institutions.  President Johnson and military leaders had repeatedly insisted we were winning the war and these lies gave way to a “credibility gap” between the public and Washington.  This gap expanded because of Nixon’s prevarications during the Watergate scandal.  In the early 1960s, three quarters of Americans trusted the government to do the right thing all or most of the time. Since Nixon’s resignation over the Watergate scandal in 1974, it has been rare to find a poll where even one-third of the country trusts the government in such a fashion.

In addition, social and cultural changes disturbed many traditionally minded Americans.  The divorce rate rose dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s, as did the number of children born out-of-wedlock.  Many blamed these trends on the emerging feminist movement.  After the Stonewall riots in 1969, gays also began to come out of the closet and organize politically.

As a result, nostalgia grew for the seeming calm of the 1950s and early 1960s.   George Lucas’ film “American Graffiti” (1973) and the television show “Happy Days,” (1974-1984) were early examples of this phenomenon.  Coming in the immediate aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, they presented an optimistic vision of Eisenhower-era America, without showing the darker sides of the period, such as racial segregation and McCarthyism.

In latter years, social conservatives often promoted an image of the 1950s as a time of stable families when America led the world militarily.  On “Meet the Press” in 1995, Newt Gingrich praised the 1950s, saying that liberal Democratic policies and the 60s counterculture had undermined the traditional families of the time, causing modern social problems.

It is not only conservatives who harken back to the Kennedy era.  Numerous hagiographic accounts of the Kennedy presidency have promoted the idea of his administration as “Camelot.” Oliver Stone’s “JFK” (1991) suggested that if President Kennedy had lived, he wouldn’t have escalated the war in Vietnam.  Indeed, the upheavals that followed the Kennedy assassination are a major reason for the persistent JFK nostalgia.  His presidency now looks like the calm before the storm.

Of course, “Mad Men” is no “Happy Days.”  The show clearly illuminates some of the downsides of the time, particularly the institutionalized sexism.  Still, some observers have suggested that the early seasons romanticize the period.  I’ve stopped watching “Pan Am,” but it did seem to indulge in nostalgia, suggesting that stewardesses are the avatars of feminism and largely ignoring the difficulties they faced.  It is too early to tell with “Alcatraz,” which moves back and forth in “Lost”-like fashion between present day and the early 60s.  Nevertheless, the proliferation of such shows, as well as the continued fascination with JFK, show the nation still has a soft spot for that era in American history.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Changing Image of New York City, 1970-Present

As regular readers know, I’m enjoying both “Person of Interest and “Blue Bloods” on CBS. While the shows are very different, both programs’ feature protagonists who fight crime in New York City.  In “Person of Interest,” Jim Caviezel plays an ex-CIA operative who operates with occasional help from allies in law enforcement, while “Blue Bloods” focuses on Tom Selleck as the leader of a family of Irish-American police officers and prosecutors.  Their dual premise is interesting because crime has fallen dramatically in the Big Apple over the last two decades, making it one of the safest cities in America.  While New York City-based shows and movies of the 1970s and 80s depicted an unsafe metropolis in economic decline, most popular portrayals in recent years have caught up to the contemporary reality of a thriving city.

As crime rose in the 1970s and middle-class New Yorkers fled to the suburbs, negative images of the city became plentiful in popular culture.  In the aftermath of the fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s, Woody Allen, the most prolific chronicler of New York, offered a harsh assessment in his most commercially successful movie, “Annie Hall” (1977).  In light of the Ford Administration’s rejection of Mayor Abe Beame’s request for a bailout in 1975, Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) tells his friend Rob (Tony Roberts) that the failure of the country to rally around New York is because, “the rest of the country looks upon New York like we're left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers,” adding, “I think of us that way sometimes and I live here.”  Singer later tells Rob, who has now moved to Los Angeles, “You're an actor, Max. You should be doing Shakespeare in the Park. “  Reflecting the rise in crime, Rob tells Alvy, “Oh, I did Shakespeare in the Park, Max.  I got mugged. I was playing Richard the Second and two guys with leather jackets stole my leotard.” Films like “Taxi Driver” (1976) and "Saturday Night Fever"(1977) also showed a metropolis in decline.

The city endured a another epidemic of bad publicity in the 1980s as racially charged crimes like the Bernard Goetz subway shooting and the infamous Central Park jogger case dominated coverage of New York.   The early “Law and Order” reflected these issues in “ripped from the headlines” fashion while Spike Lee portrayed a New York City bitterly divided along racial and ethnic lines in “Do the Right Thing” (1989).  Oliver Stone even skewered the bright spot of the era, the stock market boom, in "Wall Street" (1987).  See

As the crack cocaine epidemic peaked, murders reached an all-time high in 1990.  Consequently, films and television of the mid-to-late 80s depicted a city where law enforcement was ineffective.  “The Equalizer,” a now-forgotten show that is a forefather of “Person of Interest,” featured Edward Woodward as a former CIA agent who protected people the police couldn’t or wouldn’t protect. In Tim Burton’s original “Batman” (1989), Gotham is a stand-in for a NYC where only a vigilante can rescue the city from the Joker and his violent minions.

With crime falling in the 1990s, pop culture reflected this change.  “Seinfeld” and "Sex and the City” portrayed a Giuliani-era New York that almost seemed like a return to the “Fun City” of the mid-1960s.  In 1999, Spike Lee made “Summer of Sam” which directly contrasted the booming city of the tech bubble with the dysfunction of 1977, when Son of Sam terrorized the citizenry and a blackout precipitated widespread rioting. 

Positive depictions grew throughout the late 1990s and into the 21st century.  The first “Spider Man” (2002) showed the caped crusader fighting minor criminals in a city that looked in far better shape than the Gotham of the late 1980s.  Following the lead of “Seinfeld,” virtually every sitcom aimed at an affluent demographic seemed to take place in the city as “Friends,” “Will and Grace, “ and “Just Shoot Me” showed a safe New York where upscale professionals thrived (though the diversity of the region is virtually absent from these programs.) 

Starting in the early to-mid 1990s, crime in the Big Apple fell precipitously, with murders reaching their lowest levels since the 1960s.  The economy boomed, partly due to the stock and real estate bubbles of the time.  While “Blue Bloods” and “Person and Interest” depict a still-dangerous city, films and television have largely reflected the reality that it is now one of the most prosperous and safest big cities in the country.

Monday, February 6, 2012

How Football Dominates America (Part 3)

With an audience of 111.3 million people, the 2012 Super Bowl barely broke the overall American viewership record of 111 million set by last year’s matchup between the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers.  While the ratings, which represent the percentage of television households watching, for traditional scripted programs have fallen dramatically since the mid-1980s, the ratings for Sunday night’s Super Bowl XLVI between the New York Giants and the New England Patriots only slightly lagged the numbers for games from that period.  Only in the NFL could a contest between small-market Green Bay and Pittsburgh draw an audience virtually identical to a game between big-market New York City and Boston (Though this was helped by the fact that the Packers and Steelers have two of the three biggest national followings of any NFL franchise, along with the Dallas Cowboys.)

Furthermore, 13 million people watched this year’s Pro Bowl, the meaningless NFL All-Star game, more than watched either the baseball or basketball all-star games.  This figure is remarkable given that the quality of play in the Pro Bowl was so poor that even Commissioner Roger Goodell is contemplating ending the annual ritual.

Perhaps no league has ever dominated the American sports landscape the way the National Football League does today.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

"Blue Bloods" and the Legacy of 9/11

The February 3rd episode of “Blue Bloods” provides yet another example of how television and film are beginning to focus more on the legacy of 9/11, as opposed to the threat of future terrorist attacks.  As the 10th anniversary of the tragic event passed last September and in the (thankful) absence of another major attack, shows and movies are examining the long-term impact of 9/11 on those who survived.

Like most episodes of “Blue Bloods,” the emphasis is on the Reagans, as one or more of the police family is investigating a conventional crime in New York City.  In this episode, however, Frank Reagan, the stoic police commissioner played by Tom Selleck, is also struggling with guilt because a close friend from the force is dying.  The colleague was with him in the North Tower on 9/11 and it appears he became ill due to exposure at Ground Zero.  Because he is having difficulty sleeping, Regan, who embodies traditional notions of masculinity, has even taken the step of surreptitiously seeing a psychiatrist.  Eventually, Regan’s friend passes away and he speaks at the funeral.

Ironically, Selleck’s most famous television show, “Magnum P.I.,” focused heavily on the legacy of a traumatic event from another era, the Vietnam War, as Magnum (Selleck) and his two closest friends had served together in that conflict.  At the end of the “Blue Bloods” episode, Reagan goes to the 9/11 Memorial to honor his friend, and concludes the show by touching it.  The scene is reminiscent of the 1985 “Magnum, P.I.” episode, “Going Home,” which ends with Magnum going to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, finding the name of his half-brother, and touching the wall.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

"Blue Bloods" and Irish Americans

CBS’s “Blue Bloods, ” which airs on Friday nights, has been one of the few breakout hits on television in recent years.  Starring Tom Selleck as the head of a multigenerational family of New York City cops, it is yet another of the network’s procedural programs aimed at older viewers.  The show centers on the Reagans, an Irish-American clan that has produced three generations of police officers.  Selleck’s character, Frank Reagan, is the city’s police commissioner.  By featuring an Irish-American family working in law enforcement, it reproduces a pop culture archetype with real roots in American history.

The Irish migration in the 1840s and 50s was the first major post-independence immigration wave to the United States. As a result, Irish Americans became a central factor in urban politics in the mid-to late 19th century.  Martin Scorsese depicted this dynamic in his 2002 film “Gangs of New York,” where the Tweed machine gains power by garnering the loyalty of freshly arrived Irish voters in the Civil War era.  Displaced by the disastrous potato famine, the Irish came to the major Northeastern and Midwestern cities a generation before the larger wave of eastern and southern European immigrants.   Using this time advantage, Irish Americans like Boston mayor Honey Fitzgerald, who was also JFK’s grandfather, became political leaders in a number of big cities. 

In an era before significant federal and state social welfare programs existed, political “machines” like Tammany Hall in New York City offered new arrivals desperately needed jobs on the public payroll, often in the police force or the fire department.  In response, native-stock progressives called for civil service reform to take the patronage power away from the machines.  Despite some success by their opponents, mayors and their ward allies were still able to reward their backers and the Irish newcomers became a staple of police departments in the major cities.  Like the fictional Reagans, many children and grandchildren followed their parents and grandparents into the family business. Thus, the Irish-American cop has been a staple of TV and films, perhaps best exemplified by Jimmy Malone, the policeman played by Sean Connery who assists Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness in the “Untouchables” (1987).