Showtime’s long-running Shameless series starring William H. Macy as the loveable loser alcoholic dad, has long been one of my favorites. I enjoy the show not just because of the outrageous humor but because yes, I grew up around people like the Gallaghers in my little rust belt down about 90 miles east of Chicago.
In season 10, Lip (who smokes like a chimney) tries vaping, but in the episode the writers went a little off the track by ditching their usual brand of humor to simply push anti-vape fearmongering. In the episode, Lip is picking up his brother Ian from prison. Much to-do is made of the fact that Lip is now vaping because he doesn’t want to smoke in front of his kid. The dialog gets a little uncharacteristically moralistic when Lip says “I can feel this thing killing me.” Strangely, the same agenda is not pushed so forcefully about smoking, which is far more dangerous.
The Disney channel is also getting in on the act, with “Raven’s Home” starring Raven-Symoné airing an episode called “What About Your Friends.” The morality play went so far as to even include a special message from the cast following the anti-vaping episode. The episode was apparently guided by a group called “Hollywood, Health & Society, along with experts from CDC and USC. Generally speaking, when a creative project is made with writers being guided by outside non-creative experts, the creativity suffers. Creativity with an agenda is usually not very creative. If you’ve ever seen Communist-era movies from Russia or Poland, you know what I’m talking about. The agenda usually comes first, with “creativity” added in to try to make it appealing.
It almost never works, and the preachy message buries the creative story arc. Hollywood needs to return to its creative roots and stop the moralizing. And when they do go over the top with such content, it usually backfires, as was the case of the 1936 film “Reefer Madness,” which has come to be seen as one of the biggest failures of the film industry, and is shown today only for the purpose of laughing at it.
In Amazon’s otherwise well-done sci-fi series “Upload,” the main character Nora, who works as a customer service “angel” for a company which uploads dying people’s brains into a digital heaven, is concerned about her father, who is dying from “vape lung” disease and refuses to be uploaded. It is implied in the series that “vape lung” is pervasive in this dystopian future world, despite existing science and vaping investigations that has revealed standard commercial vaping does not cause vape lung; it exists in patients which have used illicit THC vapes made with a vitamin E acetate carrier oil. It is far likely now, as it will be in whatever future we may imagine, that smoking is and will be far more deadly than vaping.
In the 1950s, television and movies was strictly guided by a set of moral guidelines. Ricky and Lucy, even though they were married, slept in separate beds (although of course, everybody smoked cigarettes). The industry was guided then by the Code of Practices for Television Broadcasters, along with a surprisingly high level of censorship from the commercial sponsors. For example, a 1959 drama called Playhouse 90 was sponsored by the American Gas Association, and when an episode referred to the Nuremburg trials, the sponsor demanded that all mentions of “gas chambers” be removed from the script.
The history of television is full of such examples. We never heard a toilet flushing on television before “All in the Family” in the 1970s
Those who create television today have a lot more freedom, but occasionally they still feel the need to moralize about one or another subject, and the latest bandwagon is vaping. We can only guess at their motives – it may be simply a gentle nudge from the CDC and other anti-vaping organizations, although some have suggested something more sinister, such as a payoff from the tobacco industry. The latter makes great conspiracy stories, although it is unlikely since the tobacco industry is rapidly moving into the vaping business.
Those television shows which are too quick to moralize and push a non-creative agenda will quickly lose their viewership. The audience knows better. They don’t want to be lectured to, they want to be entertained. Hollywood needs to get back to the business of entertainment and drop the anti-vaping propaganda.
Dan Blacharski is editor-in-chief of TheVivant.com.