“Ah, good ol’ trustworthy TV. My love for you will never die.”
I know, I know, the actual line by Homer Simpson is about beer (which also happens to be a very good friend of mine) and not TV. But this column is about TV, not beer.
It should come as no surprise to longtime readers of this column that in an emergency I can suck-out the contents of an entire Pillsbury raw-cookie-dough sausage with the tube from a disassembled ballpoint pen (I got the idea from that episode of M*A*S*H when Father Mulcahy performs a tracheotomy using a similar technique) But that’s not important right now.
It should also come as no surprise that I’ve seen more than my share of TV. I’m not proud of how much I’ve watched, though I’m probably not as ashamed as many folks think I should be. Still, there’s no disputing I’ve wasted a considerable amount of time that could have been better spent elsewhere. Having seen every episode of What’s Happening!!–though, obviously, not What’s Happening Now!!–is not something I’ve found particularly useful. Not once has the episode where Rerun gets caught bootlegging a Doobie Brothers concert come up in a job interview.
One advantage I used to have, which is now largely lost to me, was my ability to watch TV and read at the same time. For most of my adolescence I could read comic books, sci-fi novels and, in my mid teens through college, magazines like Commentary, The New Republic and National Review while still catching every episode of 21 Jump Street. I can’t do that anymore. (“Maybe if you put down the scotch once in a while . . . er, sorry, I mean your ‘medicine’”–quoth the Couch.)
Regardless, these days I watch less TV than I used to. Though I still watch too much. But I’ve concluded that one of the reasons I watch less TV is because TV simply isn’t as good as it used to be.
It’s funny, there’s this near-universal consensus that TV’s “Golden Age” was some 50 years ago. Nonsense. Sure, there was some really good stuff in black and white, but there was also a lot of garbage.
And even many of “the greats” weren’t as great as people remember. I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners were a lot of fun, but they’re really not that hilarious to watch these days. One reason is that many of the jokes and situations they created have been mimicked so many times that the shows just feel clichéd. Another reason the jokes feel so clichéd is that they were clichéd. Many of them were aped from vaudeville and radio. And, for similar reasons, many of the shows seem simplistic today because they were simplistic then too. Since TV was a new medium and the audience was new too it, you could get away with doing things that weren’t all that clever.
There’s another factor: There was nothing else to watch. With only a couple TV networks, the least objectionable programming could garner huge audiences and seem like a giant accomplishment of the human imagination. Uncle Milty may have been great in his own right, but he was also a central landmark of the popular culture, and so Americans invested him with even greater significance.
In a similar vein, lots of people my age still believe that the shows we grew up on–The Brady Bunch, Gilligan’s Island, CHiPs, Emergency, Bewitched, Sanford & Son, The Jeffersons, Battle Star Galactica–were great stuff. Some of it was–Barney Miller, The Rockford Files, The Odd Couple, the early M*A*S*H seasons–but most of it was pretty terrible. We just didn’t know better. And, because much of that fare serves as the vernacular of our common culture, we’re psychologically committed to keeping it from becoming obsolete or devalued. Add in the natural nostalgia that comes with getting older, and it’s no wonder we remember Happy Days being a lot funnier than it was.
No, I think television’s greatest age is the one we are just now coming out of–from the mid to late 1980s to around now. In that period, television mastered the drama and the sitcom. The best sitcoms of the 1980s and 1990s are, I believe, simply much funnier than pretty much all of the sitcoms of the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s. Yes, there are some close calls (my love of The Odd Couple will never die). But Cheers, The Cosby Show, Taxi, Married with Children, The Simpsons, Malcolm in the Middle, Everybody Loves Raymond, Friends, and Seinfeld really are better than their predecessors, taken as a group. The top shows of the 1970s–Three Company, Happy Days, etc.–really aren’t very good.
As for drama, that’s a bit tougher, but again, I think starting with, say, St. Elsewhere and going through X-Files, Buffy, and the first two-thirds of NYPD Blue and Law and Order and it’s hard to see a superior age. The Twilight Zone is truly timeless, but there too the creators benefited from an abundance of low-hanging fruit. Rod Serling was able to tap into a wealth of talent from the ranks of top-flight science-fiction writers.
Anyway, either you agree or you don’t by now. My larger point is that I think TV has had its run. I think the best evidence of this comes in three forms. First, the decline in TV viewing among young men. Nielsen Media Research and the networks are screaming at each other over Nielsen’s contention that young men are suddenly not watching TV. The networks blame the numbers. Nielsen blames the programming (and the rise in the popularity of video games and the Internet, among other things). I’m with Nielsen.
The second bit of evidence is that many of the best (and not-quite-best) shows of the 1990s–ER, Law & Order, NYPD Blue, The Simpsons, Frazier, Friends–are still on the air. The simple explanation for this is that the networks can’t come up with anything better. The downside is that all of these shows are getting demonstrably worse. The Simpsons is probably the most immune to deterioration because it’s a cartoon and can therefore operate outside the conventional rules. But Law & Order is an unbelievably tired and formulistic franchise now. The stories may be “ripped from the headlines,” but in the past those headlines were about actual murders. Now, very often, the show relies on headlines about mundane scandals and simply asserts that they’re actually about a murder. But don’t get me started on that.
But the networks can’t let go, because every time they cancel an established show, the viewers, particularly the younger ones, vanish. No one thinks it’s worth investing in a new show. The rise in reality shows has been cited by many as a sign of creative exhaustion on the part of Hollywood. But I think a better sign is the absolute explosion in sexuality. I think by now most readers understand I’m not particularly Comstockish about sex, so I hope this won’t be taken simply as the lament of a typical culture vulture. But the reliance on sex jokes on TV is really astounding. Because there’s still an ever-thinning veneer of taboo to sex, jokes about it still have a chance at working. But the desperation of writers comes across in how deep, i.e. low, they have to dig. It reminds me of a Simpsons episode that takes place in the near future; Marge says to Homer, “Fox turned into a hardcore porn channel so gradually I didn’t even notice.”
Anyway, my last bit of evidence is purely anecdotal. I speak to college kids on occasion. And whenever I do, I tend to make references to TV shows and movies because, well, I’m me and that’s what I do. At this point you would think that my references would be lost on many of them–and theirs on me. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. What’s also interesting is that these kids are quoting the same movies that my buddies and I quote, which might be a function of the fact that young men today would rather re-watch, say, Stripes or Roadhouse, than invest time in My Wife and Kids or some other drek. In effect, kids today are living off the entertainment capital of the previous generation.
What this all means is a subject for another day. But I think I’m right. The good times are coming to an end. My love for TV will still never die, but it is increasingly unreciprocated.