Here is our list of 7 episodes that achieved just the right balance between entertainment and social awareness.
1. The Fosters, "Quinceañera"
Everyone who watches The Fosters, knows that it's a social issues carnival. But, when this show picks a topic to address, it does so carefully and respectfully. "Quinceañera," addresses both Mariana and Lena's struggle to find their identity within a certain ethnicity that, for various reasons, doesn't entirely accept them. Mariana wants to keep with the traditions of the quinceañera, but to her embarrassment, her 21st century family doesn't quite fit, and the problem of the traditional father-daughter dance becomes one fraught with tension and insecurity. In the end, the themes of acceptance and love win out over trying to make yourself fit other peoples' expectations. Applying big issues like this into storylines can be challenging, but The Fosters knows how to break it down and make it personal.
2. Orange is the New Black, "Tall Men With Feelings"
Orange is the New Black is one of the best shows around when it comes to this stuff. It can be ruthless, hilarious, and delicate, all at the same time. "Tall Men With Feelings" presents an interesting dichotomy between what outsiders imagine certain issues to be and what the issues actually are for people on the inside. When Larry gives his radio interview on Urban Tales, he acts as if he is an expert on what happens at Litchfield, when in actuality he shares information that is not his to tell. With the powerlessness of the women in Orange is the New Black underlined within this situation, the inherent problems of our penal system are also brought to the forefront in subtle and careful ways, while still making it abundantly and consistently clear that these women are not their stereotypes.
3. Switched at Birth, "Uprising"
In Switched at Birth's "Uprising," the show addressed issues in the deaf community and obstacles faced by those fighting to claim the rights and services they deserve. With Carlton School for the Deaf in danger of closing, the students, both deaf and hearing, stage a rebellion that paid homage to the real-life Deaf President Now movement at Gallaudet University in the late 1980s. Stroking the fires of pride, inclusivity, exclusivity, and identity, Switched at Birth didn't shy away from complex issues. In addition, Switched at Birth also managed to present these issues in a format fitting the content; "Uprising" was an episode entirely in American Sign Language, and was so well done that it almost had us wishing that every episode was silent.
4. Masters of Sex, "Fallout"
Masters of Sex often manages to touch on several issues at once so flawlessly that it sometimes makes us forget that it's touching any at all, and "Fallout" is no exception. In fact, it's probably the best example. In "Fallout" one of the main themes is experimental ethics; when a study participant comes in to Masters' office claiming she's pregnant and wants to know the name of the father, Masters refuses in the name of anonymity, but Virginia can't seem to get on board with his reasoning. The ingenuity behind this standard disagreement is that it's hard to find fault in either argument, for science, while inherently human, is also inherently clinical. The ethical conundrum is at the heart of this episode, but that's without even mentioning the nods to women's health reform, marital consent in issues of alternative conception, homosexual shame in the 1950s, sexual and non-sexual love, and the physical and emotion differences between love and sex.
5. Orphan Black, "Endless Forms Most Beautiful"
Addressing the issue of claims of ownership over women's bodies in unsettling and thought-provoking ways, Orphan Black's Season 1 punchline made a lot of people uneasy for all the right reasons. When we find out that the clones have been patented, this science fiction plotline starts to have real-world ripples that touch on individuality, self-ownership, and women's rights. Add in that heartwrenching scene where Cosima learns that, to her creators, she's nothing but a tag number, and we have a profound, yet understated, treatise on self-worth and humanity.
6. Orange is the New Black, "Blood Donut"
We're back to Orange is the New Black, because just one episode wasn't enough to round out this list. In "Blood Donut," Orange is the New Black addresses the consequences of the last episode's elections, and Piper is quick to realize that the Women's Advisory Council (affectionately, WAC) doesn't have any power whatsoever. In order for Piper to get what she wants (the running track re-opened) she has to betray her fellow inmates and turn in one woman's only connection to the outside world--her contraband cell phone. It's a balancing act of power dynamics and sisterhood, and Orange is the New Black walks the line better than any other.
7. The Fosters, "I Do"
If you've been awake at all during the past twenty years, then you're aware of the debate about gay marriage. Throughout the first ten episodes of The Fosters' first season, the topic slowly progressed from Stef not wanting to get married to, you guessed it, the wedding. In the episode "I Do," Stef confronts her conservative father and tells him that her reservations about getting married are coming from him, and that if he can't support her wedding, then he shouldn't attend. In this one scene, we see just how The Fosters handles their social issues. It wasn't preachy or excessive; it was personal, emotional, and truthful. Making this statement earlier in the episode allowed us to enjoy Stef and Lena's wedding as a celebration, rather than a social statement. We love the way The Fosters handled its social issues in 2013, and we hope it will do the same when the season returns next year.
Written by: Milena
Milena is one half of the awesome team that created Red Herry. When not deciding which fictional vampire is her favorite, she enjoys cats, corn on the cob, and forcing the Harry Potter books onto unsuspecting children.
Follow Milena on Twitter: @RazberryBattle
Written by: Jacqueline
Jacqueline is one half of the team at the helm of Red Herry, and the whole brain behind almost every fish pun you can find on this website. She is a fierce advocate for helmets, ice cream, and the Oxford Comma.
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