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With ‘Courage, New Hampshire,’ tea party movement enters world of entertainment

Since the inception of the tea party movement, we’ve had tea party candidates, slogans, and rallies. Next up – tea party TV?

“Courage, New Hampshire,” is the first effort from a new TV production firm, Colony Bay, formed by a duo of Hollywood tea partyers.

The first episode, titled “The Travail of Sarah Pine,” details the struggles of a Colonial American woman to bring to justice the British soldier who fathered her illegitimate child.

It was shot on a shoestring budget of some $120,000, and is intended to depict traditional American values espoused by the tea party movement. Their goal, the producers say, is to balance mainstream entertainment which they believe tends to treat conservatives and people of faith unfairly.

“Most TV sitcoms and dramas tend to depict conservatives and traditionalists and people of faith as halfwits,” Colony Bay cofounder James Patrick Riley told the Hollywood Reporter. “That tactic lost its edge about four decades ago and we think it’s time to turn the tables.”

But because the show does not yet have a distribution deal with any TV network, it will premier Sunday night in a movie theater house in Monrovia, Calif., and then come out on DVD.

While this grass-roots approach to storytelling fits neatly into the populist strains that infuse the tea party movement, it also raises questions on the one hand about the viability of overtly partisan programming and on the other, what its expanded presence in popular entertainment tells us about our deeper political culture.

“This is just the next frontier in the whole party polarization fight,” says Sean Theriault, associate professor of government at the University of Texas in Austin.

“It is just one more example of the increasing Balkanization of our culture,” he says, adding, we have liberals who watch “Modern Family” on ABC and conservatives who feel the traditional family values they hold dear are being undermined by depictions of alternative lifestyles.

“And so now, they can watch shows from Colony Bay instead,” says Theriault.

The electorate is growing increasingly polarized, edged onwards by the explosion of primaries and caucuses where candidates with the most extreme views often prevail, says Villanova University communications professor Len Shyles.

He likens the national political profile to “a dumbbell, with each end getting more extreme.”

The fragmentation of the media landscape into niche outlets holds promise for programming with a limited market appeal.

But fringe distribution doesn’t necessarily deliver political impact, points out Peter Orlik, chair of the School of Broadcast and Cinematic Arts at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant.

“You may be able to preach to the party faithful this way, but you won’t reach anyone outside that circle,” he adds. And so far, entertainment targeting the nascent tea party faithful, estimated at around 9 million nationally, has had little success.

The $15 million film, “Atlas Shrugged,” based on the first third of the Ayn Rand novel and intended to launch a trilogy on ticket sales to tea party loyalists who share the novelist’s libertarian beliefs, made roughly a quarter of the budget in sales. Certainly, an emphasis on political views over great moviemaking may have contributed to that film’s failure – it was drubbed by mainstream critics.

Technology is furthering our ability to isolate ourselves, says John Nelson, professor of political theory at the University of Iowa.

“Our ability to choose only what is most compatible to ourselves gives the impression that a mutually compatible society is slipping away from us,” he notes.

But, he also adds, the tea party movement taps into a deeply-shared, cultural value of populist anti-elitism that runs back to the nation’s founding.

“It is not a simple, us-versus-them equation, because there are many smaller grievances that get mixed in from many directions,” he says.

“Every little package defines its own balkanized subculture,” he adds.

Pushing back against the dominant cultural portrayals in TV and films dovetails neatly with populist sentiments, points out Michael Popejoy, assistant editor of the journal White House Studies.

“We as individuals rarely have sufficient political power to influence policy; however, as members of the groups that we join and support, we do have power,” he says, adding, “This is a good process for any free, democratic society.”

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