The political reaction to television can take any form, from high praise to outright rejection. When something happens on TV, public reaction materializes in short order, especially on Twitter. This past week saw two such reactions, one incredibly sad but positive, the other sparking outrage. The death of Leonard Nimoy and the reaction to Saturday Night Live's parody of a Toyota commercial elicited such different responses. Yet, in some way, the opposite reactions might not have been predicted given the similarities in the root references if not for the differences in time lags between the Twitter reactions.
Leonard Nimoy, whose career included playing Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway in 1974, playing Paris on the original Mission Impossible and recording such classic songs as Proud Mary and I Walk the Line, was best remembered for his role as Spock on Star Trek. Yet, when Nimoy first appeared in the pilot episode of Star Trek, the producers were concerned that his Vulcan character looked too satanic.
Star Trek was an inspiring show, not just for its championing of the exploration of space, but for its bold tackling of race issues in America. Don't forget, the first interracial kiss on TV was between Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura. Exposing the hypocrisies of racism was a common theme on Star Trek and Spock's role as an alien First Officer was a constant reminder that we must shed our prejudices if we want to embrace the future.
That some 50 years later Nimoy is remembered as an iconic inspiration to NASA, the U.S. Army, Members of Congress and even the President is a testament to the enduring impact of what was once controversial TV. It shows that what was once very controversial on TV helped to move America into a new era of thinking, even if not yet universally so.
Just one day after Leonard Nimoy passed away, another collision between TV and politics happened when Saturday Night Live aired a commercial satirizing a Toyota commercial. In both versions of the commercial, an emotionally challenged father is dropping his daughter off to join the military. But unlike in the original commercial, on SNL the daughter is joining a extremist para-military group, not the U.S. military. The backlash on Twitter was strong and negative.
People took to Twitter proclaiming that SNL's commercial was "tasteless," "horrible," "inappropriate."
I can only imagine what people would have tweeted in response to Kirk kissing Uhura or placing an alien as second in command of the U.S.S. Enterprise. I am sure if Twitter existed back then the comments would have been far more negative than anything posted about SNL's ISIS commercial.
And this raises the question, "What will people's feelings be about the SNL ISIS commercial when they look back at it a few decades later?" Will they still consider it in poor taste? Or will they praise it for shining a satirical light on a very serious problem. Angry youth from across the West are enlisting in ISIS. And the SNL sketch, while a certain feather ruffler, is a powerful way to raise awareness about this problem. It provides an opening for parents to talk to their kids before they might make a decision to head to Iraq and Syria. To me, that is a good thing, even if it took a comedy sketch that many found tasteless to make it possible.
If we are to learn anything from the hindsight applied to Star Trek, it is to hold judgment on TV that pushes the envelope on the most controversial issue of our day. Shining the satirical light on these issues is important to our efforts to move beyond them. That is why so many of us are still reeling about Jon Stewart stepping down from The Daily Show so soon after Stephen Colbert ended The Colbert Report. And while the social media backlash against SNL tells us just how visceral the issue is, it has made mainstream the discussion of one of the most pressing issues of our day. That is always a good thing.
As Spock might say, "As long as we are willing to face our controversial issues head on, we will be able to live long and prosper." #LLAP!