How (and why) to fight television culture's amnesia

How (and why) to fight television culture's amnesia

Late one night a couple of years ago, I stumbled upon an exciting new channel out in the back alleys of my cable package. That’s when I first laid eyes on Peter Gunn, which was exotic even apart from its shadowy look and circus-murder hook. I was bewitched from the moment the carnival barker interrupts the mystery of a stranger draping a reticulated python around a woman in the shadows. And that was just the beginning. Practically the entire programming schedule was new to me—a shaggy case-of-the-week PI show, a small-town drama in the middle of its 13th season, a horror anthology grasping at Val Lewton. The only known entities, both long-time favorites, were Star Trek and The Twilight Zone. They were in good company there with The Rockford Files, Gunsmoke, and Thriller. The channel is Me-TV, none of its programming is new, and its lineup of reruns manages to rival the best slates of the 21st century.

That rush of discovery came back to me when I read Mike Ryan’s recent lament on Screen Crush that the rerun is going the way of the VHS, and it’s taking television history with it. Last year A.V. Club associate editor Erik Adams wrote about the same problem: When television fans lose their familiarity with classic television, every little formal discrepancy—from black-and-white to a multi-camera format to more obviously stylized performance—leads to perceptions that older TV is dated. And that, in turn, leads to blanket dismissals. Meanwhile Anne Helen Peterson arrived at the same place from a different path: Her students were not familiar with television that wasn’t available through Netflix streaming. By the same token, a recent Digitalsmiths survey reveals that about nine out of every 10 television viewers stick to the channels they always watch (and four out of five stick to just 10 channels or fewer). Taken together, the diagnosis is clear: Television culture is developing amnesia.

Meanwhile television culture keeps insisting it can match film for richness. I’m speaking in generalizations here, but the way I see it, film fandom is more balanced between new releases and classics, while television fandom is lopsided toward the new. Film critics are expected to have some understanding of film history, going all the way back to at least the major silents, if not 19th-century efforts. To not be familiar with Alfred Hitchcock or John Ford is to concede, whereas to not be familiar with Alfred Hitchcock Presents or Norman Lear is almost expected. Sight & Sound’s respected decennial list of the best movies of all time routinely favors old warhorses over young Turks. Meanwhile people in a position to evaluate 60-plus years of television history and to tell audiences what’s worth watching are reporting that Breaking Bad is the best drama television has ever had to offer, which it may be, but I’m not sure midway through its fourth season is the most convincing time to say so.

Even TV reviewers are adamant that there’s too much to watch nowadays to keep up with everything worthwhile. Critics Alan Sepinwall and Dan Fienberg responded to Ryan’s piece with confessions of their own. Not even they have seen a single full episode of, as an example, Rawhide, notable for being Clint Eastwood’s big break and one of the rare TV Westerns to capture the sheer expanse of the West. How are non-professionals supposed to keep up with the new, let alone catch up with the old?

Television was around for half a century before The Sopranos, so are we really in a position to call anything the greatest show of all time? And what does that really mean? Is the glory of The Sopranos or Breaking Bad all the reason a television fan needs to ignore M Squad, The Westerner, and Twin Peaks? Don’t we lose more than we gain by constantly promoting the new and hip at the expense of the old and unfamiliar?

I’m always pleasantly surprised to see a publication set aside time and money for an engaging writer to discuss a classic. Recently I nodded my way through Emily Nussbaum’s piece on All In The Family and the legacy of Archie Bunker. It’s like I’m listening to Grandpa’s war stories whenever Alan Sepinwall talks about ’80s and ’90s crime dramas, and I smile at Matt Zoller Seitz on his connection to The Rifleman. Before I ever had the opportunity to write for The A.V. Club, I devoured Noel Murray’s A Very Special Episode column, an eclectic bunch of essays that brings Robert Altman’s war story Combat! alive one week and the late ABC Family superhero show The Middleman another. These days, I’m honored to publish alongside Todd VanDerWerff’s look at He & She and Stephen Bowie’s examination of Playhouse 90, and I learn just as much from the commenters on those pieces. As a television fan, it thrills me to know there’s so much good stuff out there I haven’t seen.

The best solution to the rerun problem Sepinwall and Fienberg could come up with is for gatekeepers to sing their favorites from the mountaintops, and short of Noel Murray’s TCM for television idea, I agree. Television didn’t become good when Tony Soprano went to therapy. Reruns are out there. Television history is out there. It’s rich, it’s rewarding, and you don’t have to pay a cent beyond your cable package.

Me-TV is the best-curated nostalgia channel I get, and the infrequent commercials for Life Alert and gold are a small price to pay for such bounty. You wake up to ’50s- and ’60s-era sitcoms from I Love Lucy and Leave It To Beaver to less ubiquitous comedies like My Three Sons and The Donna Reed Show. When I finally caught up with some Andy Griffith last year, I wished I had fallen into its small-town rhythms sooner. Cop shows and Westerns cover the afternoon, ’60s and ’70s sitcoms play during the evenings, and sci-fi and horror anthologies come out at night. The wee hours get really fun with The Untouchables, Naked City, and Route 66. Me-TV’s genres are jumbled it’s possible to watch for a couple hours and get a filling entrée, but watch a couple more and get a well-rounded meal. The channel airs Disney’s wholesome Daniel Boone for breakfast, latter-day Gunsmoke at high noon, hearty family Western The Rifleman for dinner, and Steve McQueen’s blazing Wanted: Dead Or Alive for a late-night snack. And on the weekends, there’s an extra dose of crime with a bloc including The Streets Of San Francisco and the tough but weird Kojak followed by geek TV like Batman and Star Trek.

In other markets, Antenna TV covers the ’50s to the ’80s in sitcoms, more commercial than creative hits, despite triumphs like Barney Miller and WKRP In Cincinnati. Retro TV has more variety but less sophisticated taste, with Westerns limited to The Cisco Kid and Hopalong Cassidy, early kiddie adventures as opposed to the moral dramas pioneered by John Meston, Sam Peckinpah, and Gene Roddenberry. TV Land has less time for classics nowadays—giving one the distinct impression that even nostalgia channels aren’t as good as they used to be—but it does air a surprising spread from The Andy Griffith Show and Gunsmoke on weekdays to Roseanne and Cosby on weekends. Encore has an outlet for Westerns, most of which are already covered by other channels, and one for series created for black audiences—like Amen and 227—which aren’t.

Still more niche channels are cropping up, like The Inspiration Network, a source for feel-good small-town dramas with a rural flair like The Waltons and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. But it’s also the current home of Bonanza’s more complicated cousin, The High Chaparral. Chaparral’s a late Western that’s set and shot in Arizona, to its benefit given the rugged cactus-and-sandstone landscapes and the precarious settlement of the titular ranch with Mexican bandits on one side and Apaches on the other. And lest an ostensibly enlightened modern viewer write off the series over fears of representation, The High Chaparral, like many of the ’60s Westerns written by Hollywood liberals, is about as socially conscious as you’d hope. And I haven’t even mentioned streaming services or classic TV on DVD.

A month ago I started recording a ’60s half-hour case-of-the-week Western called Bat Masterson, and I’ve already watched half a season of this crackling new favorite. Many modern TV fans are daunted by the quantity of older shows, but you don’t need to watch every episode, and you don’t need to watch in order most of the time. I dove in somewhere during season two, and if an episode doesn’t grab me, it becomes background viewing. Encore promotes the series with a modern-looking commercial of a shirtless Bat punching some brigand out followed by the caption “Bat-ass,” which seems cheesy until you see the show. Gene Barry’s Bat Masterson really is a badass, a wisecracking winner not unlike modern TV heroes. In one episode a bad guy breaks his cane and taunts him about it, so Bat smacks him with the top half and remarks that it still works. In another he tells an outlaw rarin’ to shoot him, “If you reach, I can guarantee you’ll see nothing but sky.” The outlaw grabs his gun, but Bat beats him to it: “Is the view worth it?”

Television fans need not watch anything they’re not interested in, even if focusing so heavily on the present might doom television culture to ephemera. Imagine being so current that you find The Sopranos dated. Is the view worth it? My point is not that classic TV is good for you; my point is that it is good. The witty banter of Peter Gunn, the moral tales of Have Gun–Will Travel, the straight-up fun of Bat Masterson. Just last week Me-TV yielded a gaudy John Brahm Thriller episode starring a young and quickly dispatched Bruce Dern; an ’80s-era M*A*S*H with Jeffrey Tambor as a no-nonsense authority figure; and the late Mickey Rooney in an unreal Night Gallery restaurant. To the untraveled viewer, the horizon is endless. I highly recommend exploring.

More For Our Consideration