|Martha Plimpton (left) and Patricia Heaton (right). Photos courtesy of xfinity.comcast.net.|
Last week, two TV shows that are beloved by critics but ignored by audiences (and no, neither of them is Community, as much as that might shock you) went into ratings free fall. This wouldn't really be a newsworthy story, as under-the-radar critical darlings are constantly losing viewers, except that these ratings declines followed controversial comments by the series' lead actresses. Raising Hope's Martha Plimpton came out against proposed legislation that would restrict abortion rights, and The Middle's Patricia Heaton joined Rush Limbaugh in his slut-shaming of Georgetown student Sandra Fluke.
June Thomas, writing for Slate, blamed the shows' lowered ratings on their stars' outspoken political comments. It's certainly possible, although it's always worth remembering that TV ratings are unpredictable, and rise and fall all the time for no apparent reason. If Heaton and Plimpton's comments (which were both published on that notorious publicists' nightmare, Twitter) did in fact to their shows' ratings slide, it raises another question: at what point do a star's off-screen antics start to infiltrate the onscreen world?
There are certain high-profile incidents (cough, *Charlie Sheen*), where real-world behavior is egregious, disturbing and well-publicized enough to permanently taint the viewing experience. And off-screen behavior tends to become more of an issue when the face that's all over the tabloids appears onscreen, which explains why many critics find it easy enough to overlook Roman Polanski's legal troubles when reviewing his films, a pass that no one seems willing to give Sheen or Michael Richards.
Some actors' behavior tends to reduce the size of their audiences because it impairs their ability to work, or because it's hard to believe a particular performance when you know every sordid detail of the star's latest stint in rehab or crash-and-burn relationship saga. Lindsay Lohan's recent SNL gig was a particularly salient example; looking at the former Disney star's overly aged face and bone-thin frame made it difficult to ignore her history of rehab, drug use, eating disorders and excessive partying. That's not the case with Heaton or Plimpton, however. Whatever you think of their political views, both women are talented actresses and consummate professionals.
The real issue, then, is at what point someone's political views become so abhorrent to your own that you can no longer disassociate the actor from the role they inhabit, and whether an actor's personal views should even matter to the enjoyment of their work. Theoretically, it should be irrelevant (or, at least, I like to think it should be irrelevant). A good performance is a good performance, whether it comes from, as one of my friends would say, a capitalist pig or a commie bastard.
But of course, nothing is ever that simple. People are highly emotionally involved in both their entertainment and their politics; just look at the fan reaction to Community's forced hiatus, which rivaled Occupy Wall Street in its intensity (and occasionally called for an "Occupy NBC" movement). When you really like a show, you have a tendency to identify with the characters, as I identify with Liz Lemon and Annie Edison. You put yourself in their shoes and, by extension, you start to put yourself in the actor's shoes. It's easy to conflate character and actor, because after all, they have the same face.
Of course, once you start identifying an actor with the character they play, and yourself with that character, it becomes easy to see a particular actor's off-screen behavior as a personal insult. It's this emotional investment, I think, that causes viewers to turn off Raising Hope or The Middle because they're offended by Plimpton or Heaton. It's not about wanting to take money or influence away from the stars, even though many people may say that's why they're tuning out. It's because we identify with Virginia Chance and Frankie Heck; we care about them, we want them to succeed, we may even love them.
When Plimpton and Heaton say things that we don't agree with, we don't hear the actresses. We hear Virginia and Frankie, and we take it personally. This is, of course, absolutely unfair to the shows' creators, writers and casts, who shouldn't be punished for Plimpton and Heaton's comments, not to mention to the women themselves. But that doesn't mean that I'm any more able to look at the sympathetic, harried Frankie Heck without thinking of the torrent of abuse that Heaton heaped on Sandra Fluke.