Because TV shows dealing with ethics in the strict philosophical sense would be so niche as to be essentially unwatchable for a majority audience, the only way that ethics can make it onto television is via the ethical element of narrative, which as discussed in the Michael Moorcock serial, is an unavoidable component of stories. Of course some modern writers decide to offer a nihilistic perspective as their ethical context (such as many of the Iain M. Banks novels) while the majority of modern storytelling is concerned with formulaic expressions of conventional ethical assumptions – a necessity when appealing to a mass market audience who in the main do not want to watch something that doesn't accord with their values.
Both South Park and Boston Legal are exceptions to this trend. Each in their own unique manner deals with ethical (and thus necessarily political) issues on a regular basis with both wit and intelligence.
South Park, the animated playground of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, is almost certainly familiar to most readers of this blog. Peaking in the early second season at 6 million viewers, the audience has now settled to a comfortable 3 million, and the show has been a major boon to Comedy Central, which enjoyed massive uptake as a result of airing it. Although it began with episodes which primarily utilised shock value to generate humour, as the show has progressed Parker and Stone have shown themselves to be expert satirists who – between scatological jokes grosser than anything previously aired on television – produce genuine social commentary sadly lacking elsewhere in the world of conventional media.
Boston Legal enjoys a wider audience (roughly 10 million), probably as a consequence of being less outrageously shocking, but is perhaps less well known among the internet geek community since it is ostensibly a legal drama (conventionally a mass market format). The show is masterminded by David E. Kelly, perhaps best known for Chicago Hope and Ally McBeal, who effectively span the series out of his previous show, The Practice, by shuffling the cast in its final year. One of these experimental additions was James Spader as the nefarious and apparently amoral Alan Shore, and later experiments with William Shatner as the faltering yet brilliant Denny Crane provided the foundation for the new show. The later addition of Candice Bergen as Shirley Schmitt – a perfect foil for Shatner's character – completed the core cast. Unlike other TV programmes, Kelly has been relentlessly experimental with his cast, changing the line-up of supporting characters every season, often writing out those whose romantic arc has resolved in order to introduce new possibilities for romance in the next season.
Although the two shows are wildly different, there are considerable parallels. Neither show is suitable for a young audience. Both shows break the fourth wall regularly, or at least knock very loudly upon it. Both use outrageous storylines as their stock-in-trade – South Park has had Eric Cartman, its selfish antihero, lead Nazi-esque marches against the Jewish people and trade in dead foetuses (all in pursuit of both comedy and social commentary); Boston Legal has had cases concerning a the display of a dead man's alcohol-abused body, a homeless man resorting to cannibalism, and an attempt to secure a court-ordered abortion. Both shows have evolved towards a role as soapboxes for their respective creators, and it is in this sense that they express their ethical element.
In the case of Boston Legal, Kelly (who is the chief writer among other executive roles) uses Alan Shore as his mouthpiece in an unashamed fashion, delivering closings in court cases which are nothing more than ethical or political treatises, delivered eloquently by James Spader who excels in his role. In one instance, Shore literally climbs upon a box of soap at the beginning of a legal closing, parodying what the audience knows full-well is going on. (The character of Shore has become a more overt crusader for social justice with each passing season, while remaining lecherous and morally ambiguous). Kelly clearly holds extremely liberal beliefs, although he is perfectly willing to scorch both Republicans and Democrats with his ire; indeed, the extent of his liberalism is such that it has probably contributed to the shows struggle to remain on television, despite frequent awards at the Emmies. Counterpoint is often delivered via Denny Crane, generally played with masterly skill by Shatner, who delivers absurd (yet occasionally poignant) alternative viewpoints.
It is interesting to compare the perspectives presented in each show against each other. For instance, in a recent Boston Legal (Smoke Signals), a suit against the tobacco companies afforded Kelly the opportunity to catalogue the offences of “Big tobacco”, including increasing the nicotine content and including an ammonia-based compound to increase the absorption of the addictive chemical, and putting up a public front of telling kids not to smoke while covertly using movie placements and shop-floor tricks to lure in a younger consumer. The target here is the corporations that profit from smoking, yet Kelly (in the final scene of this episode) reluctantly exonerates tobacco itself – almost all episodes of this show end with Shore and Crane smoking a cigar on the balcony of the law offices, so some recognition of the social benefits of smoking perhaps had to be allowed.
Compare the South Park episode Butt Out, in which the satire focuses its barbs against anti-smoking campaigner Rob Reiner on a number of grounds, while presenting a rare positive image of the tobacco industry via a parody song, sung by the workers in a cigarette factory: “I like to have a cigarette every now and then/It makes me feel calmer when the day is at an end/And if it gives me cancer when I'm eighty I don't care/Who the hell wants to be ninety anyway?” In this, and many other episodes, Parker and Stone take a stance in defence of the habits, beliefs and autonomy of the US populace at large against prominent liberal celebrities who attempt to enforce their ethical and political beliefs on others.
(At this point it is perhaps also worth mentioning Mike Judge's King of the Hill, the only TV show I know of which uses comedy to explore ethical issues in a form accessible to viewers in the US with more traditional beliefs. In networks overrun with shows espousing extremely liberal viewpoints, King of the Hill is one-of-a-kind, offering conservative ethics with both insight and respect for the culture of the masses).
It seems likely that South Park will remain airing for many years to come – at least until Parker and Stone become irredeemably bored of it. But Boston Legal now hangs precariously in the balance. ABC, the channel upon which the show airs in the US, has announced its intention not to order additional episodes of the show, effectively cancelling it. The double episode which aired yesterday could mark its end. I urge anyone reading who is a fan of the show to write to ABC asking them to order new episodes before the cast and crew is disbanded.
There are few interesting explorations of modern ethical and political issues on TV, and those that exist are a precious commodity. While I suspect that anyone capable of enjoying South Park's ribald humour is already watching that show, Boston Legal's quirky hijinks may well appeal to many who have yet to watch it. Although the first season is largely concerned with managing the transition from The Practice to a new dramatic format, by the second season it has found its feet with great assurance. Although later seasons have lacked some of the stronger character-writing of the earlier years, it has remained fascinating and insightful in its ethical and political commentary, with a cast of regulars and guest stars that would be the envy of any other show. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Anyone interested in exploring the ethical and political arguments advanced via Alan Shore's closing arguments may be interested to learn that complete transcripts of Boston Legal are available online here. Don't forget to write to ABC to ask them to renew the show – thank you!