Hoo, boy: The conservative blog Exurban League has produced a list of “the top 25 conservative television shows of the last 25 years,” which follows in the tradition of other lists of “conservative movies” (I found the link via John J. Miller, author of a widely-mocked list of “conservative rock songs”).
Like most lists of this kind, it suffers from several problems. One is the implication that it’s hard to enjoy something if you’re not in sympathy with its message. Another is that it assumes that a conservative character equals a conservative message: sure, Family Ties had Alex, but he always had to learn some liberal lesson at the end of the episode. But the biggest problem is that it takes certain values that are basically apolitical and defines them as “conservative.” I mean, Magnum is a conservative show because it portrays “a well-adjusted, happy Vietnam veteran?” CSI Miami is conservative because the hero is a practicing Catholic? And the argument that Buffy is conservative because it “acknowledges that evil exists in the world and we have a duty to fight it” is actually one I’ve heard in several places, and it makes no sense unless you completely buy into the stereotype of liberals as pure moral relativists. Otherwise, belief that evil exists is not a political value at all (it doesn’t become political until you decide what is and is not evil).
A lot of these lists tend to start from very strange assumptions about what will piss off liberals; another recent example is Sex and the City 2, where several conservative commentators floated the idea that liberals would hate it because it was against the oppression of women in Muslim countries. The idea being, presumably, that liberals love Sharia law. If you set up a liberal strawman, almost anything seems conservative by contrast. You could just as easily create a conservative strawman to prove that every show ever made is actually liberal, e.g.: 24 has portrayed corrupt businessmen, conservatives love businessmen, therefore, 24 is a liberal show.
Actually, I’ve heard that argument too. And it makes sense, even though 24 is one of the few shows on the list that genuinely does try to incorporate conservative political messages into its storytelling. Not that that’s bad, but the point is that even 24 can be interpreted in a different way, because a) The demands of storytelling tend to make it impossible to push a coherent, consistent message — which is why Law and Order has always had a mix of lefty and righty takes on current issues, sometimes even within the same episode — and b) Abstract themes, morals, and values are not the same as policy prescriptions, meaning that until a show takes a specific stand on a policy issue, its messages can come off as politically ambiguous. That’s why politicians frequently cite the same values to justify totally different policies.
I think ultimately it makes more sense to accept that most television shows are the product of a strange mix of views, often instinctive rather than thought-out, and that many values and messages can be interpreted as both “conservative” and “liberal.”