We keep hearing that we are in a new golden age of television, with acclaimed dramas about dysfunctional advertising executives and high school chemistry teachers who break bad garnering awards and attention. Most of these and other distinguished series are found on basic and pay cable channels, which allow greater flexibility in narrative and content than broadcast networks. Indeed, many of these series, such as HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and FX’s “The Americans,” are known as much for their raw depictions of sexuality and astonishing levels of violence (often in the same scene) as for their dramatic excellence.
Even if many viewers are game for grim visions offered by such series, not all audiences are primed for such edgy entertainment. Is there room in the television multiverse for programming that offers a vision of life closer to home, with a more hopeful perspective—and that families could feel safe watching together? The powers that be at the UP cable channel think so, and accordingly have produced their first scripted series, “Ties That Bind,” which demonstrates a fresh approach to family programming.
A hybrid of police procedural and family drama, the show aims for a balance that broadens its audience appeal. Created by Sheryl J. Anderson, a television-writing veteran, it depicts the McLean family, who has taken on a major challenge. Allison (Kelli Williams), a police detective in a Seattle suburb, has arrested her own brother Tim (Luke Perry), for aggravated assault. Upon his conviction, she decides to take in his teenage children, Cameron and Mariah. This sets up a jarring new family dynamic that will test everyone under the same roof.
Allison tells her husband, Matt (Jonathan Scarfe), that taking in Tim’s kids is “the right thing to do,” even though those kids are understandably not happy about being thrown into the household of the aunt who arrested their dad. Allison’s own two teenage kids, Jeff and Rachel, aren’t exactly delighted either, but share their parents’ desire to do right by their newly extended family. The fact that Allison makes the offer before the family has unanimously agreed with the decision tells us something about her character that could make for some interesting familial interactions as the series continues.
The episodes have tried to balance the family scenarios and Allison’s police work with her partner, Devin (Dion Johnstone). This is a departure from so many police procedurals where almost everyone is conveniently single, available for romantic storylines—pretty unrealistic given the likelihood of officers being married in larger percentages in the real world.
In my phone interview with Sheryl Anderson, she explained, “My marching orders for the show: real people making real mistakes with real consequences.” She likened her efforts to telling parables that teach through storytelling without preaching. She wants to tell stories about the intervention of grace, fleshed out in human form, in sometimes terrible situations.
Rather than follow television’s traditional patterns of rote resolutions involving cops catching robbers, and families with clueless parents and snarky kids, Anderson is aiming for showing how light shines in the darkness when someone goes the extra mile, especially by showing unconditional love to those in the same household. “It can be downright difficult sometimes,” she says, “but you link arms and carry on.” In one episode, the high-school age daughter of a couple Allison and Matt know disappears, and it soon emerges that the girl has run off with her violent boyfriend to escape her even more violent father who has terrorized both mother and daughter. Allison walks a fine line between friendship and her duty to protect both women.
The UP (for Uplifting Entertainment) channel was formerly the Gospel Music Channel, but in 2013 it rebranded itself as a family-friendly entertainment programmer. Despite its faith-based origins, the cable channel is seeking to stake out an increasingly rare niche of content that is safe for families but not explicitly religious. Rather than seeking to be the television equivalent of some Christian cinematic efforts to inject movies with overt (and sometimes creakily sermonic) messaging, Anderson’s goal was to express a strong morality in her series that could appeal to viewers of faith as well as those just wishing to see more life-affirming stories.
Such a counterprogramming strategy offers audiences an alternative from the dark and bleak series so popular with many cable programmers. Commenting on efforts to deliver pointedly Christian content, Anderson observes, “Some Christian filmmakers are narrowbanding when they could be broadbanding it.”
Whereas some believe Christians should fight the culture wars by telling stories that extol their faith, Anderson, raised Lutheran, never felt at war with the culture, nor does she feel the need to use media for thinly veiled Christian efforts that mostly preach to the choir. “I’m trying to use the gift I’ve been given for creating art that speaks to the audience,” she told me.
Her show seems to be hitting its target with viewers, including the reviewer for the New York Times. “If this is a faith-based series, it’s a very subtle one; the only sign of religion in the premiere is that the family says grace before dinner, and even that is done in a way that advances the plot,” writes Times critic Neil Genzlinger, describing the pilot episode. “The actors, especially Mr. Scarfe and Ms. Williams, are quite credible, and their characters are, too. This couple may have solid convictions about how to raise kids, but smug they are not.”
Indeed, “Ties That Bind’s” storytelling, rather than being facile and overly upbeat, reflects real-world problems and stories, such as this one about a bachelor detective who adopted two brothers in the foster system. Indeed, “Ties That Bind” may be reaching an underserved demographic. Yes, there’s plenty of great but dark television drama about difficult characters, but there’s much to be mined in stories about families responding with costly grace that changes lives for the better.
Image copyright Reel One Entertainment.
Alex Wainer, Ph.D., is the author of “Soul of the Dark Knight: Batman as Mythic Hero in Comics and Film.” He teaches communication and media at Palm Beach Atlantic University.