"Are you better off than you were four years ago?" Ronald Reagan asked Americans in the 1980 election. Now he is asking it again, and most Americans apparently answer "yes." But if we were to ask not your ordinary boring real Americans and, instead, ask the Americans who make up the far more colorful world of prime-time television, the answer would be the most resounding "yes" since Richard Burton asked Liz Taylor if she liked jewelry.
The revolution in the standard of living on TV since the Carter years has been the most extraordinary jump since man has been on the planet, far surpassing anything that real-life economists could even conceive. Candidates Reagan and Mondale may argue on TV about how many Americans live below the poverty line in real life, but on TV, the answer is simple: there are no longer any Americans on TV who are not well-to-do, except for cops and servicemen, and they get to have nice clothes anyway.
This year, as you survey the prime-time line-up, the poorest newcomers to the TV block are undercover Miami vice cops, who get to dress up and pretend that they are rich and even drive a Ferrari, and an Air Force major's family in "Call to Glory," who get to be involved in everything that happens in the early 1960s from Vietnam to Martin Luther King, so they hardly miss the pay. (Besides, in earlier years they would have been considered rich.)
Just about every other newcomer is out and out stinking rich, or at least lives as if he were. You can grab the shows by the handful and hear the sound of money: "Glitter," about two well-to-do reporters for a People mag clone, surrounded by nothing but rich people; "Paper Dolls," in which fashion plates, teenybopper models, lecherous older men and aging vamps let their fingernails grow, but keep their coupons well-clipped; or "Hunter," in which a man and woman chase criminals from behind the raw silk curtain.
On TV today, money is "in," delightful, glorious, overflowing. Gone are the Norman Lear years of the suffering, bickering proletariat. (One of his shows, "The Jeffersons" is still the best long-running comedy on the air, but its characters are rich, too.) Gone is the angst of worrying about whether or not there will be money for food in "Good Times" or gas money in "Happy Days." Today's question is whether Morgan Fairchild (my dream girl) will wear the Yves St. Laurent or the de La Renta to the Van Snoot's ball. This is the new era of golden bathtubs, in which even the policemen have psychoanalysis ("Hill Street Blues").
In situation comedy land, the days when Harriet Nelson or Mrs. Cleaver slaved over an ironing board are even more obsolete. Today's sitcom world has about 12 shows with middle-class, white, two-parent families with children. All but one of them has full-time domestic help. That is, of all the middle-class sitcom families in prime- time land, only "Family Ties" shows a family without a live-in servant. (For those of you who wonder if TV is the mirror or the siren song, in the United States of America on the other side of the TV screen, about one in every 120 families has live-in domestic help, according to the Statistical Abstract. There are, relatively speaking, about 110 times as many servants on TV as in real life.)
TV has solved the servant problem to the extent that not one, but two new TV shows feature a household with a male, live-in au pair boy: "Charles in Charge" on CBS and "Who's Boss" on ABC. (In real life in America, the number of families who have such an arrangement is too small to count.) "Charles in Charge" is by far the most engaging, charmingly executed show of the new season, and, thank heavens, money need never be mentioned in front of the servant.
Not only is today's TV world fantastically rich, but tomorrow's will be as well, if today's kids are any indication. Arnold, the engaging and scheming son on "Dif'rent Strokes" was joined by another rich foundling on a show called "Webster," and they have been joined by the Bass Brother in the "Family Ties" family, and even he is a sluggard compared with the wheeler-dealer con man played by Jason Bateman in the brilliantly realized "It's Your Move." (A sign of the times: "It's Your Move" is a product of Norman Lear, and it fully endorses hustling for a buck. This is about the same as Tip O'Neill writing an apology to Richard Nixon.)
Newton Minow looked over the TV scene 20 years ago and called it "a vast wasteland." If he looked at TV today, he would see that the wasteland has been paved and it is now the parking lot at Ma Maison.
Why did it happen? As usual in Hollywood, the product is caused by a little input from the outside world and a lot of input from the Hollywood pros. To some extent, Hollywood's TV apparatus is reflecting an increased (and alarming) fixation on wealth in American life generally. It is no secret that the Weather Underground cannot meet its enlistment quotas, but business schools are jammed. Today's heroes are the money makers, not the spearheads of the proletariat.
This change was reflected starting five years ago in the "Dallas" phenomenon, grew with "Dynasty" and "Falcon Crest" (where the kids are even more money crazy than Jason Bateman) and has now reached flood proportions with "Silver Spoons," "Magnum, P.I.," "Remington Steele," "Knot's Landing," and other artifacts of the exploiting class that get high ratings.
When TV's bees smelled the flowers of wealth, they began to swarm. Just as poverty and shrieking were the watchwords of the 1970s, money, money and money became the watchwords of the 1980s. The TV producers soon found that despite their commitment to social justice, they had no problem making shows in which every player lived off surplus value. "When the Nielsens go up, politics goes into the toilet," a producer at Universal told me, paraphrasing an ancient Yiddish expression.
TV at prime-time has stopped saying that the love of money is the root of all evil (except for a few diehard shows -- for instance, "The A-Team," Hollywood's answer to "The Battleship Potemkin"). Hollywood's TV factory is now smiling on business, if not broadly, at least with a faint wink. Even J. R. Ewing last week told a little boy that business fights should be fair fights. The message coming out of the TV screen is now exactly the same as the message coming out of all the means of mass communication in America: "Enrichissez-vous."