‘Blue Bloods,’ a show that stands up for traditional values, such as… respecting each other


The Reagans, having another civil debate over Sunday dinner.

For years, my parents would ask me if I’d ever seen the cop drama “Blue Bloods,” and when I said I hadn’t, they urged me to check it out. They love it.

Eventually, in casting about this year for a new series to get hooked on after running out of “The West Wing,” I tried it. And I loved it, too, probably for a lot of the same reasons they do. And I’m kind of sad that this morning during my workout, I ran out, watching the last episode that is available so far on Netflix.

Maybe I had to get to be old enough to become a fan. At least back in 2010, “Blue Bloods” had the oldest audience on traditional broadcast television. And when you consider that traditional broadcast TV skews older anyway, that’s really saying something.

Part of it is probably that it bucks the trend, set by shows as varied as “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones” — all of which lack so much as a single admirable character to root for. While every recurring character on “Blue Bloods” is human and fallible, each of them has enough to like and respect and even admire that you just want to spend more time with them. I mean, I loved “Breaking Bad,” but sometimes you want to see some people who might inspire you to break good for a change.

Another likely reason for the older audience is that everything about the show, from the central characters to the plots to the dialogue, fosters and celebrates traditional values such as family, loyalty, honor and duty. To some extent, these are the kinds of things I was talking about in 2008 in a column headlined “Give me that old-time conservatism” (as opposed to the kind that people like Mark Sanford and Rand Paul promote).

Oh, and there’s another traditional value the show celebrates: Respect for others, including those who don’t necessarily look at things the way you do.

That observation may be jarring to a lot of the people whose teeth are set on edge when you say “traditional values,” people who would define that as meaning some throwback to the bad old days (many seem to regard old days as bad by definition) when people who didn’t adhere to some norm were despised and put down.

But I don’t see it that way. I see a political environment today that has almost zero tolerance for varying opinions. Today, if you don’t agree with me, you are beyond the pale, a person without value, or worse, a person with negative value, one to be despised and condemned and reviled.

And I can remember when our politics weren’t quite that bad, when Democrats and Republicans were committed opponents, but more in the way fans of different football teams are, rather than as participants in a morality play in which there are only Good People and Bad People.

(Those earlier times had their own problems, of course. As I said on a previous post today, I don’t believe any previous generation was any better, or worse, than this one. People are always people, and each individual has his or her capacities for good and evil. We don’t have a moral advantage based on the time in which we are born.)

One of the ways “Blue Bloods” promotes this value is through the trope of the Sunday family dinner, as traditional an institution as one might find.

To back off and explain briefly — the show centers around the Reagan family. Not Ronald’s, but Frank’s. Frank Reagan, played by Tom Selleck, is the New York city police commissioner. His father, who lives with him (both of their wives are deceased), is the former police commissioner. Frank’s two sons are both cops — Danny a veteran detective, younger Jamie a graduate of Harvard Law School who gave it up to become a beat cop. Another brother was also a cop, but was killed in the line of duty before the show began. Sister Erin is an assistant district attorney.

So, when this clan gathers for Sunday dinner at Frank’s house, with Erin’s daughter and Danny’s wife and two sons, there’s a lot of shop talk, and it tends to center around some ripped-from-the-headlines issues such as police use of force and the like. And there is always a fairly wide array of perspectives, from the cops and Erin, and from Erin’s daughter and Danny’s wife. Danny is the hard case; Jamie is more the bleeding heart and rights-of-the-accused guy and so forth.

And while it gets contentious — in fact, there are dinners when one or another member of the family is giving one or all the cold shoulder over some current issue (say, Erin is at odds with the cops on whether a certain suspect should be prosecuted) — ultimately everyone loves and respects everybody else, and at least gives them the benefit of the doubt enough to listen. Even Danny, the hothead — usually.

But the respect-other-views thing runs through the whole show. Paterfamilias Frank, the commissioner who models himself on predecessor Teddy Roosevelt (right down to the mustache) might have one firm opinion, but the views of others are fairly represented.

I’m far from the only person to notice this. I like the way Mark Blankenship, a blogger at HuffPost, wrote about it when the series was young in 2010. I found this by searching on “Blue Bloods conservative,” to see how others reacted to the series’ traditionalism:

And although it’s never been stated, I’d wager that Danny would identify himself as a political and social conservative. Almost every episode of the show features a dinner table debate among the extended Reagan clan, and Danny always comes down on the ostensibly Republican side. He gets heated when someone suggests that drugs should be legal or that criminals should have inclusive rights, and he often chastises his brother Jamie, who left Harvard Law School to become a beat cop, for being an elite, Ivy League softie who doesn’t know how the real world works. In moments like this, I almost expect Danny to quote Sarah Palin.

But here’s the thing: Unlike the people who bloviate on cable news about their so-called conservative values, I’m actually willing to listen to Danny. His character is written and played with nuance, with flaws, and with admirable traits… so even though I might disagree with some of the things he says or does, I can’t dismiss him as a jerk, a lunatic, or a man who would like to see my rights as a gay man obliterated in the name of what’s good for America.

Meanwhile, that’s almost always how I see conservative candidates and pundits. They play to their base by underlining their most radical views, and their opponents play to me by underlining them, too. I’m left inside a system that boils everyone down, asking me to make quick decisions about right, wrong, good, evil.

And the truth is, it works. I try my damndest to live a thoughtful life, but after years of exposure to Tea Party vitriol, Red State vitriol, and Evangelist vitriol, I almost always assume that Tea Partiers, Red Staters, and Evangelicals wish me harm.

I know this is unfair. I also know that other people jump the same unfair conclusions about me. But I’m a person, you know? I can be influenced.

That’s why I find it almost spiritually refreshing to be presented with a character like Danny Regan, who is so different from me, but who still seems human. I see Danny sit at dinner with his family — some of whom are his political opposites — and I see him, I see all of them, talk to each other and listen to each other. Thus far, no one has changed anyone’s mind, but no one has been shamed away from the table, either.

Blue Bloods, then, has created a world where different points of view can coexist in the same family. How nice to imagine that metaphor spun outward, to imagine different Americans allowing each other space at the table. How nice to imagine people with wildly different views still finding ways to care for each other….

Yes, it is a nice thing to imagine, and I thank “Blue Bloods” for helping us imagine it. I’m sorry I’m out of episodes, and look forward to the most recent season being posted on Netflix as well…

Traditional values: The Reagans, in keeping with the cop stereotype, are Irish Catholic. Interestingly, in early episodes they got the words to the Catholic grace wrong. It was corrected in later episodes.

Traditional values: The Reagans, in keeping with the cop stereotype, are Irish Catholic. Oddly, in early episodes they got the words to the Catholic grace slightly wrong. It was corrected in later episodes.

22 thoughts on “‘Blue Bloods,’ a show that stands up for traditional values, such as… respecting each other

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    That business of respecting people who disagree was one of the things that I loved about “The West Wing” as well. Most of the characters were liberal Democrats (or liberal Republicans — I’m thinking of the Alan Alda character), so the show had that perspective. But it also ably and fairly represented the views of people who disagreed. I really admired that, and how skillfully it was done.

    You go, Ainsley!

  2. Burl Burlingame

    Agree. One of the threads in “Blue Bloods” is that life will go on, despite events and despite opinions, so deal with it.

  3. Doug Ross

    Physician, heal thyself. You have ZERO respect for the libertarian viewpoint. That’s fine. It’s the same way I feel about those who expect me to “respect” that I must support their views or else I am a selfish person.

      1. Doug Ross

        I’d be interested to hear if your family Thanksgiving dinners are ones where opposing viewpoints are respected or even encouraged. You have a large brood – is there healthy debate or do they know not to engage with the patriarch? Do you have any Mark Sanford/Nikki Haley supporters in your crew?

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Oh, yeah. There’s considerable range of ideas, although probably not any of the Haley/Sanford sort.

          I don’t poll the table, but most at the table are more “liberal” than I am, I sense — except my parents. My parents are always there at family gatherings (like Frank’s Dad), and they are more conservative than I am. But they are of the McCain kind of conservative, not the Rand Paul kind (which isn’t conservative at all). My parents more or less identify as Republican (my Dad’s first memories of politics are of his father arguing in the street with a neighbor about FDR, with my grandfather taking the anti position), which as you know I do not — I like it no more than the other flavor.

          My former son-in-law, my eldest granddaughter’s father, who still occasionally joins us at the table, leans rather strongly libertarian. Big Ron Paul guy. Doesn’t make me like him any less…

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Also, while I’m the father or grandfather of most of the people present, I’m not exactly the patriarch with my parents there.

            We usually have these gatherings at our house, though. They used to be at my parents’ house, but some years ago they gave us the dining room table that belonged to my great-grandparents, and our house then became the primary venue.

    1. Doug Ross

      I unfriended someone on Facebook recently because I grew tired of the political foolishness she was spouting. She ( a 55 year old woman) said she wished she had been a socialist at an early age because she regrets not having the government support her “passion” of playing folk music. She felt it wasn’t fair that she had to go get a real job to support herself. This is a woman who now makes a lot of untaxed income reselling junk on Craigslist or doing under the table computer repairs. Apparently paying taxes does not fit the socialist mindset. I don’t see any need to respect her opinion.

    2. Pat

      Doug, Ron Paul’s brand of Libertarianism makes sense to me. On a given issue, I can pretty much tell what his take on it is going to be. He’s going to err on the side of less government involvement. He was always pretty consistent. But the other Libertarians, especially as Mark Sanford was on the rise here in SC, were so vicious in their determination to get their way. Starting whispering campaigns against those they disagreed with, hanging little toy pigs all over the neighborhoods of politicians who voted the “wrong” way, calling people rinos if they are a more moderate Republican, or even worse, a liberal. One could respect their right to their view if not for that. Whatever happened to the art of persuasion?

  4. Brad Warthen Post author

    Y’all know I don’t put a lot of stock in Identity Politics. That’s because I don’t consider being of this or that race or gender or whatever demographic category you want to name to be as significant as a lot of people consider them to be — or at least, not significant in the same ways.

    The kind of diversity that really matters to me, and the kind I think we have to work the hardest to embrace and respect (I certainly do, as Doug points out), is diversity in the ways that we THINK. Allowing for the fact that others don’t see things as we do, and respecting them anyway, is vastly more of a hurdle than, say skin color (which to me is the least significant of all the differences).

    Yep, this country is still struggling with issues of race and may always do so. As a smart friend of mine once said, she feared that 1,000 years from now, historians will say something like, “The United States was a noble experiment, and they gave it a good try, but they never got over that slavery thing.” I fear that, too.

    But I still believe that the thing we have to struggle with the most in civil society is respect for those who disagree…

    No, let me put that another way… It’s not that it’s a more IMPORTANT struggle. It’s just that I, personally, feel more called to address it. Because I’m someone who trades in ideas.

    I’ve told this before, but I’ll say it again, because it’s kind of core to what this blog is about. Many years ago, my wife mentioned that her mother said that there are two kinds of people in the world — people people and things people. I thought about it a moment and said that I didn’t think I was either. She said actually, her mother allowed that there was a third, much smaller, category: Ideas people.

    I was comfortable with that label, not because I’m some great genius who Thinks Great Thoughts, but because I’m simply more attracted to ideas, however feebly I might engage them.

    So obviously, diversity of thought would be something to which I would attach great importance…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      And yeah, that preference for ideas is something I need to work on.

      Ya’ll know I belong to the Capital City Club, and sit on the board of governors there. Which makes me sound like a joiner of clubs. But I’m a singularly nonsocial club member.

      I sit alone at breakfast instead of at the big, round table with the other regulars because I choose to spend the time reading The State, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal (all on my iPad), as well as checking on blog comments and browsing Twitter. I do the same when I drop by for happy hour on Wednesday evenings. I SAY I go to that because I feel the need to make an appearance as a board member, but I don’t socialize unless someone else specifically asks me to sit down and chat. I prefer to read.

      People notice this (because everyone else in the room is socializing like mad), and I sort of feel bad about it. I need to work on being more of a people person. Because I think people people are the best kind of, you know, people.

      I have one excuse, though. With my Meniere’s Syndrome, I have a terrible time hearing people in a crowded room with lots of conversations going on. So it’s a bit of a strain to carry on conversations. Much easier to participate in written ones, here and on Twitter and FB…

      1. Mark Stewart

        Being able to track conversations is critical to socializing.

        I can’t hear some women’s voices in crowded parties when the general decibel level just rises too high. I smile dumbly for a while, then make an exit. There really isn’t anything else to do.

        1. Bryan Caskey

          “I smile dumbly for a while, then make an exit.”

          That gets me through 50% of conversations at social events. An alternative strategy is to say something that will make the other person end the conversation.

        2. Brad Warthen Post author

          Oh, wow, I’m now flashing on an unpleasant experience from last week.

          My wife and I went to dinner at a Mexican restaurant near home. The greeter seated us in a booth by the front door. As soon as I sat, I regretted our position. There was a group of young women in the booth behind me, and one of them was talking almost constantly, and her voice not only was loud, but had a grating, irritating quality that was impossible to ignore.

          When the waiter had taken our drink orders, I confided to my wife that I hadn’t heard a word he had said because he had spoken so much more quietly than the person behind me.

          Also… since my hearing loss in my right ear, I’ve discovered that while I hear less in that ear, certain kinds of sounds can be too LOUD for that ear, causing a vibration that is actually painful, aside from causing a buzzing sensation that is a lot like a blown speaker on a stereo that’s turned up too loud. It’s hard to explain. Anyway, the young woman’s voice was that kind of sound, and was that loud.

          Although it wasn’t just me. My wife, whose hearing is normal, said our neighbor’s voice WAS loud, grating and hard to hear over.

          Finally, to add to the irritation, she used that vocal tic that is called “vocal fry,” which Alexandra Petri mentioned in her recent piece about “How to Speak While Female.” You should watch the video. It’s one of those things that make you say, “Yes! I HAVE heard that, and it really IS obnoxious! I just didn’t know it had a name…”

          Ms. Petri’s hilarious piece was making fun of people who find fault with young women’s manners of speaking, but hey; THIS young woman really needed someone to take her aside and tell her she was driving everyone around her nuts. She really needed a coach who would tell her, among other things, Shut up and let your friends say something occasionally. Which she was not doing…

    2. clark surratt

      Brad, I believe that historians maybe 500 years from now will say the United States from about 1970 to (2470 ?) was a noble experiment, one of the best efforts in history in trying to make people equal under the laws before it collapsed of its own good intentions. Racism and slavery have been with mankind always, and there’s not much to believe it’s going to be much different. This, of course, assumes a worldwide perspective on slavery and race.

  5. Karen Pearson

    The major reason I continue to follow this blog is because it offers a forum of ideas, and it requires civil behavior of all, so that all may be heard. I can’t think of a person who participate on this blog that I agree with all the time; some I disagree with most of the time. But I appreciate the opportunity to read different viewpoints, and to respond to the ideas.

  6. scout

    Hey, come on now, Jon Snow is alright. Maybe Davos.

    I liked the newsroom for its feel of respecting conflicting views though the majority of characters were left leaning as well. But it was also Aaron Sorkin so I guess that’s not surprising.

    Do you watch Turn, Washington’s Spys. We just finished the first season on netflix and the second is not there yet, which is very sad. It is very good. Seems like something you might like since it involves history and spies. If you do and have mentioned it here, I apologize for missing it; I’ve been distracted of late.


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