How <i>Baywatch</i> Unknowingly Changed the World: The Untapped Power of TV Shows

This American action-drama was more than its busty women, overly confident male counterparts and long, drawn-out commercials for Jell-O. Much to the show's unapologetic critical disapproval,had influence.
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Baptized as the "most watched TV show in the world," Baywatch had a weekly audience of 1.1 billion people in 148 countries, translated into 44 different languages. There were very few nations around the world unfamiliar with the self-assured David Hasselhoff and the well-endowed Pamela Anderson.

Set on the sandy beaches of Los Angeles, the American action-drama was more than its busty women, overly confident male counterparts and long, drawn-out commercials for Jell-O. Much to the show's unapologetic critical disapproval, Baywatch had influence.

Within 24 months, Baywatch went from that show NBC canned to, "[one of] the highest-rated of American imports." From Belgium and Guatemala, to Malaysia, Kenya and the Philippines, the lionhearted Alpha Males and their beach-trophy pin-ups were awaited every night by all parts of the world -- including the Middle East.

While countries like Israel and Egypt embraced the show in the millions, it is speculated that other places in the Middle East banned it. According to Michael Berk, the creator of Baywatch, many Muslims even risked imprisonment watching pirated copies of the show.

In a study published back in 2003, then-professors at Boston University, Dr. Margaret and Melvin DeFleur learned that out of all the teenagers they surveyed worldwide, only about 12 percent had ever set foot in the United States. Yet, because they had access to American movies, music and TV shows, most of them considered Americans to be "sexually immoral."

Two of the surveyed countries: Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, the study's Middle-East benchmarks.

Contrary to popular belief, Muslim women are not required to wear the hijab. According to John Bowker's book, What Muslims Believe, the headscarf is worn out of "decency in clothing" -- as to "prevent sexual temptation."

While many Americans believe Muslims suppress their women by suffocating their bodies and faces, many Muslims abroad are convinced Americans do not respect their own women: by coercing them all to wear red, high-cut, skintight, waterproof underwear.

This playful, sand-imported melodrama had the most innocuous of intentions: But its international appeal just may have spawned the contemporary Middle East-United States divide on womanhood.

• • •

Applauded by Karl Rove and Henry Kissinger, The West Wing swiftly stole the hearts and minds of TV critics, poli-sci professors and many White House staffers. From 1999 to 2006, Aaron Sorkin's political drama captivated 17 million viewers in America itself.

With rapid-fire wordplay, one-shot walk-and-talks and six-million-dollar episodial budget, The West Wing trailed the fictitious Bartlet administration -- from congressional negotiations behind closed doors, to Golden-Gate terrorist plots.

Despite the show's popularity, by many it was jeeringly dubbed, "The Left Wing." The personality-driven political series portrayed a romanticized version of the perfect Democratic presidency. It idealized Washington. It sentimentalized the West Wing.

Yet the show is still used today as a faithful educational tool.

In 2010, Hillary Clinton noted a speaker of the Myanmar Parliament told her he would watch Sorkin's show to "learn about the mechanics of self-government." In an interview with Newsweek, Catherine Ashton -- the European Union Foreign Minister -- said she studied America and "the mechanics of Washington life," by avidly watching The West Wing.

"It's not like our TV shows and films are just seen here in America. That's not the case at all," affirmed Simone Sheffield, the former U.S. Manager for the Bollywood actress Aishwariya Rai and the co-producer of Lee Daniel's The Butler. "We have to be more morally responsible. It's only fair because it is such a global business at this point."

• • •

Eight weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center, 24 debuted its pilot episode.

The premiere, filmed months before 9/11, coincidentally narrated an explosion of a passenger airplane -- stunning critics and effortlessly ushering America into the Age of the Patriot Act.

With its heart-pounding urgency, breakneck edits and hysteria-inducing storylines, drawing millions and millions of viewers each season, 24 became one of the most successful cult-inciting TV dramas of all time.

Eulogized by Rush Limbaugh, and deprecated by Bill Clinton, the post-9/11 drama shadowed the fictitious U.S. counterterrorist agent Jack Bauer and his stop-at-nothing approach against terrorism. The show's political hot button? Torture.

Within the first five seasons itself, 24 was held accountable for its 67 scenes of torture. Although advocated internally by the Bush administration, many from the U.S. military were against the show's spellbinding interrogation techniques.

One former U.S. Army interrogator disclosed that soldiers would watch DVDs of 24 in Iraq and Afghanistan, and then try to emulate Jack Bauer and his torture sequences on their own prisoners.

According to the British lawyer Philippe Sands, the action-drama partly inspired 18 approved interrogation techniques at Guantánamo Bay -- including waterboarding, sexual embarrassment and terrorizing captives with dogs.

Despite the show's staunch Republican points of view, 24 was experimental. It was groundbreaking. In a span of eight seasons, the political drama had not one, but two black presidents.

The fictitious David Palmer inaugurated the show in the early 2000s, securing the presidential election as a 40-something-year-old black senator. A few seasons later -- on January 14, 2007 -- another African-American took the reigns on 24.

For about half a year, the actor D.B. Woodside played the second black president on the much-watched TV show -- while, then Senator Barack Obama was seeking the Democratic nomination.

In my recent interview with D.B., the dark-eyed, lean-figured actor noted, "It made the idea of a black president more palatable, especially for Middle America."

• • •

Veep is the newest of political satires.

Envisioned by Armando Iannucci and acknowledged by Joe Biden, Veep follows around Julia Louis-Dreyfus, as Selina Meyer: United States' first female vice president.

The eight-time Emmy nominated TV series is one of the most watched TV shows of our time. The giddy, witty veep and her incompetent crew sashay around Washington, trying to make a name for themselves in this highbrow, female-empowered comedy.

Now if only the show's president were to casually get bumped off -- or even impeached -- and second-in-command Selina Meyer happens to straighten up for the Oval Office. Dare I say: Hillary Clinton 2016?

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