April 2, 2004
TV Shows Take On Bush, and Pull Few Punches
EST HOLLYWOOD, Calif., March 31 — Galvanized politically in ways they have not been since the early 1990's, Hollywood's more liberal producers and writers are increasingly expressing their displeasure with President Bush with not only their wallets, but also their scripts.
In recent weeks, characters in prime time have progressed beyond the typical Hollywood knocks against Washington politicians to calling out the president directly or questioning his policies, including the decision to go to war in Iraq, the support of the antiterrorism law and the backing of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
On the NBC show "Whoopi," the hotelier played by Whoopi Goldberg delivered an anti-Bush screed when the president, played by a lookalike, appeared at her establishment to use the facilities. "I can't believe he's in there doing to my bathroom what he's done to the economy!" she said.
One of the wise-cracking detectives on the NBC show "Law & Order," played by Jesse L. Martin, referred to the president as the "dude that lied to us." The character went on to say, "I don't see any weapons of mass destruction, do you?" His cantankerous partner, played by Jerry Orbach, retorted that Saddam Hussein did have such weapons because the president's "daddy" sold them to a certain someone "who used to live in Baghdad."
But the season finale of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" on HBO arguably best conveyed the growing sentiment. On that episode, the main character, played by the comedian Larry David, backed out of a dalliance sanctioned by his wife after noticing that his prospective paramour had lovingly displayed a picture of Mr. Bush on her dresser.
Network executives and some producers said these were isolated cases, reflecting the political debate dividing the country and coming at a time when television has never had a greater diversity of viewpoints on a wider array of channels. They added that these examples should not be seen as reflective of a supposed liberal agenda in the entertainment industry, an argument they said was undercut by shows with patriotic streaks like "J.A.G." on CBS. (These network executives declined to be quoted by name because, they said, it would be tantamount to engaging publicly in a debate traditionally thorny for them.)
Still, many in the creative community are not shy about their anger and distress with the administration, and some acknowledge channeling those emotions into their productions.
"You want to say to people, `Wait a minute, is this man leading this country as an American or is he leading the country as a Christian,' " said Ms. Goldberg, who is an executive producer and writer for "Whoopi."
Asked if she would be pleased if her show could contribute to the defeat of Mr. Bush, she said, "I would like that," but added that she was careful to present opposing views.
Tim Graham, an analyst with the Media Research Center, a conservative group that monitors the media for signs of liberal bias, said scripts had not been this political since the 1992 election. That campaign season, displeasure over 12 years of Republican residency in the White House and Dan Quayle's criticism of the fictitious Murphy Brown for having a child out of wedlock contributed to the outspokenness.
Mr. Graham and other observers said the barbs dwindled during the term of President Bill Clinton, who counted many in the Hollywood creative community as his friends.
And certainly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many in Hollywood seemed to get behind the president to see how they could help bolster the image of the United States abroad. Some executives later produced programming like "DC 9/11: Time of Crisis," a Showtime movie about Mr. Bush's handling of the attacks that liberal critics said unduly lionized him.
Producers, actors and longtime executives said that the combination of the failure to find unconventional weapons in Iraq, the troubled economy and the president's environmental and social policies had stirred the town's prominent liberals to action.
"I have never, ever seen this community more united than right now, never," said Laurie David, Mr. David's wife, who has been active in organizing the creative community against Mr. Bush. "Not a day goes by when I'm not getting a dozen calls from people saying to me, `What can I do?' And it's all with one goal: to change the course of what's going on in this country and get rid of this administration."
Ms. David and her like-minded peers are putting a lot of money behind the push. She, for one, has given $100,000 to the Media Fund and America Coming Together, Democratic groups using unlimited donations to run television commercials and to motivate voters against the president. Marcy Carsey, whose production house Carsey-Werner-Mandabach produces "Whoopi," has given $500,000 to the Media Fund, federal election records show. Ms. Carsey declined to be interviewed for this article.
On Wednesday night alone, Senator John Kerry's campaign was estimated to have raised $2.5 million at a fund-raising event in Beverly Hills attended by powerful studio executives like Sherry Lansing, the chief executive of Paramount Studios, and stars like the actors Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson. Mr. David, who declined to comment for this article, performed at the fund-raiser. Saying he had a lot in common with the president, Mr. David described himself as "a nincompoop, a chicken and a liar."
Republicans, conservatives and campaign aides to the president said they expected money to flow from Hollywood, a place they consider a bastion of liberalism, to the Democrats. But they said they were surprised by how much partisan sentiment seemed to be seeping onto television.
Mr. Graham said the anti-Bush sentiment coming across in prime time was more troublesome than usual because it was woven into scripts across so many of the major networks, and not restricted to sketch comedy.
"It's different when you're really involved in `NYPD Blue' or `Law & Order,' and to you it's, `That's my man Sipowicz and he doesn't like Bush,' " Mr. Graham said. "This can be seen, and certainly is seen, by conservatives as Hollywood's in-kind contribution to the Kerry campaign."
Matthew Dowd, the president's chief campaign strategist, said he was not planning any moves to combat such scripted critiques. "I do acknowledge every bit of information that's communicated on things has some effect," he said. "But I don't think it's something you run against. It's something you acknowledge that exists, it's just something that's there."
Some producers said they were simply raising important questions as part of a larger national debate. Dick Wolf, the executive producer of the troika of "Law & Order" series, said that his characters' critiques of Mr. Bush were in his programs' long tradition of equal-opportunity provocation. "Virtually everyone who lives in the lower 48 states at one time or another has been offended by `Law & Order,' " Mr. Wolf said in a statement.
But other producers are more pointed in their questioning.
"Why does it have to become unpatriotic to do something that is our inherent right, which is to debate issues?" said Tom Fontana, the creator of shows like "Oz" and "Homicide."
Mr. Fontana said he wrote a film for HBO called "Strip Search" to explore the merits of the USA Patriot Act. The film, which has not been shown yet, tracks the parallel experiences of an American woman being held for questioning by the authorities in China and a Muslim man being held for questioning in the United States, both on suspicions of terrorism.
"The real question is, if it's wrong for a white American woman to be mistreated in a repressive country, is it O.K. for us to mistreat a Muslim male in this country?" he said. "I don't know the answer, but when does the humanity stop and the fear take over?"
Robert Breech, an executive producer of "The Practice" on ABC, said his show was trying to spark debate and entertain while presenting both sides. In one episode, a lawyer gave an impassioned speech to a jury in which she referred to the use of a "free speech zone" that kept protesters away from Mr. Bush. "What is happening to this country?" the lawyer asked.
"We're really just inviting people to think about these things," Mr. Breech said. "How far is too far in seeking security?"