Noel: Todd, both you and I spend a lot of time watching older TV shows, both for pleasure and for work. You’ve written your Primers for ’70s and ’80s sitcoms; I’ve written my Very Special Episode columns that try to use older TV as a way to examine the qualities that make television a unique medium. And if you’re anything like me, I’m sure you’ve had the experience watching something that was acclaimed in its day and thinking: “Man, this does not hold up.” But what is it that makes some older TV shows feel dated? Is it the style? The references? Something else?
For me, one of the biggest culprits is an inflated sense of social importance. If I watch an old Ironside or Marcus Welby, M.D., for example, and the hero is working on a case involving drugs, or domestic abuse, or the generation gap, or sexual liberation, I can sense the writers straining to make a point, and more often than not it’s one rooted in preserving the status quo, not acknowledging that times may have changed. There’s an infamous Marcus Welby episode, for example, “The Other Martin Loring,” about a pudgy, depressed drunk whose wife is divorcing him because of his homosexual leanings. The doctor suggests that he’s not really gay, just afraid of being gay, and suggests therapy so he can learn to fight his urges and become normal again. The episode is fascinating to watch from a sociological perspective, but as entertainment, it’s painful, and certainly not the exemplar of “quality TV” that it once was. And I can think of dozens more examples, many of them bothersome because they’re more benign: an argument about women’s rights that ends with the woman essentially submitting to the man; an anti-racism message that reduces minorities to helpless non-entities, waiting for the hero to help; and so on.
What about you, Todd? What makes a show feel dated for you? And is “dated” always a deal-breaker?
Todd: I don’t necessarily find “datedness” a deal-breaker, simply because all TV eventually looks dated. TV’s such a reliable time capsule of whatever era it’s depicting that it’s all but impossible for a series to avoid aging. Even shows that aimed to keep topical references out of the mix, shows like Everybody Loves Raymond or The Dick Van Dyke Show, are inextricably linked to the eras in which they were produced. I was horrified to watch an early episode of Dick Van Dyke, in fact, that was more or less about how Laura Petrie had no business making suggestions to Rob about his work life because she was his wife and the home was her domain. The unexamined things we take for granted in whatever era become the things that horrify later generations. Put another way, The Wire and The Sopranos seem like ingenious records of the way we live today right now, but to our great-grandchildren, they’re going to seem as distant and trapped in amber as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (which has a similar journalistic sweep) seems to me now.
And, yeah, that’s true for every art form, but it’s always seemed especially true for TV. The medium is so tied to pumping out product that the very act of feeding the beast means that episodes will become more and more “of their time” as the series goes on, simply because the easiest place to find storylines (especially if you’re a workplace drama) is the newspaper. Yet at the same time, as you’ve mentioned, some shows seem to age more poorly than others. Both All In The Family and Murphy Brown engaged in rampant cultural and political references, but where it’s easy to overlook Archie Bunker complaining about inflation or liberal pinko communists and just laugh, it’s much harder to look past Murphy taking snide potshots at Dan Quayle, and that’s coming from someone who was cognizant of the big brouhaha over the show’s decision to make Murphy a single mother.
While I think self-importance certainly has a role to play in how dated TV becomes—just look at that famous episode of the 1967 Dragnet remake where a man on LSD paints himself blue for an example of one era’s self-seriousness becoming another’s camp—I also think it’s easy to underestimate the simple appeal of good craftsmanship. All In The Family lasts because it’s simply a better-crafted show than Murphy Brown. It has a strong core and a strong central conflict. It’s a series that’s really about something, where Murphy quickly lost sight of its initial goals in favor of making of-the-moment jokes. Similarly, Hill Street Blues, a series wrapped up in the social issues of the early ’80s, lasts because its producers were careful to make it a show about the interpersonal conflicts within the squad room. It’s easy for a show to get distracted from its central goal, but the ones that last are the ones that never take their eye too much off the ball.
But here’s another question: Are there particular genres or types of shows that age less quickly than others? Given the fact that we’re still watching The Twilight Zone and Star Trek, I’d be tempted to make a case for science fiction, but there are certainly dozens of shows that now just seem impossibly cheesy.
Noel: Sitcoms can be dicey, as you mention, if only because comedy writers love their jokey topical references. The reason Murphy Brown doesn’t hold up as well isn’t just the smugness of the characters and the writers—though that’s a big part of it—but that the show sometimes let topicality be an end in itself. Just sticking a famous name or a hot-button issue into a joke doesn’t make the joke any funnier. (Prediction: In about 10 years, sitcoms from this era that used “I saw it on YouTube” as a punchline will seem far less hip than they might right now.)
Also, sitcoms for some reason tend to get broader the longer they’re on the air, so what might’ve seemed funny at the time—just because viewers were used to the shows in question and their style—now seems strained. I’ve always been a defender of Friends, because to me it’s a prime example of slick, engaging, character-based situation comedy—the kind where the humor and the storytelling derives from the writers’ understanding of who these people are. But when I was working on our Inventory about TV characters on game shows, I re-watched the Friends where Joey appears on Pyramid—an episode from late in the show’s run—and was stunned by how bad it is. Everyone’s acting in that episode is so broad and abstracted, both from normal human behavior and from what had previously been established for their characters. It was painful to watch. I’ve seen the first five or six Friends seasons a few times in syndication, so I know they hold up fairly well, but I’d never re-watched those last few Friends years. The Pyramid episode seems to be a case of writers (and perhaps actors) getting into a rut and going for lazy laughs rather than taking the time to build a moment properly.
Humor in general often dates quickly, though I find I laugh just as easily an old Honeymooners or Car 54 episode as I do at today’s best sitcoms. And even when I don’t laugh, a good sitcom should be well-written and well-performed enough that I can appreciate it anyway. Even topical comedy still works if it’s done well. In fact, the topicality can have an upside. The Simpsons, for example, is a show that has always relied a lot on references, but in its heyday, it was so sharp that I think even someone who wasn’t alive when those episodes first aired can enjoy them. Plus, now they can look up those references and learn something, the way I did with Warner Bros. cartoons as a kid.
Todd: It’s the idea that sticking some sort of “funny-sounding” cultural reference into the midst of a script will automatically make lame jokes funnier that gets to me. I can’t count the number of episodes of shows I’ve watched this year that have had lame subplots based around sexting, where the characters spent lots of time just saying the word “sexting” with befuddled expressions as cutesy music boops along on the soundtrack. What the hell are the few remaining Chuck fans of the year 2061 going to make of this when they watch it? And every season, there’s some cultural topic or another that works its way into the middle of lots of shows, as though TV writers all read the same newspaper filled with lame trend stories. (Another this season was scripted shows commenting on the spate of reality shows about hoarders, and it seemed virtually every show’s Halloween episode was contractually required to feature a character—usually male—dressed as Lady Gaga.)
But the more I think about it, the more I wonder if the biggest problem in creating TV that doesn’t date is a problem that bedevils all TV: To make good TV, you have to think beyond the basic premise of the show, because the premise isn’t always going to seem as fresh as it does now. One of the things that prompted this question in my mind was watching a long string of ’80s sitcoms that somehow didn’t feel as fresh as the ’70s sitcoms I’d watched, despite having 10 years on the former. And the more I think about it, the more I realize that something like Kate & Allie hasn’t aged particularly well because it was a show that came up with a “daring” premise for the time—two divorced women live together after their marriages end—then figured its work was done. The joke-writing was fairly stale, despite solid performances from the lead actresses, yet the show was one of the most acclaimed of the ’80s, largely based on critics finding the premise cutting-edge. Now, in a world where the idea of a single woman raising a child doesn’t seem so provocative (and I’m shocked it was in the ’80s, all evidence to the contrary), it’s easier to see the flaws lying beneath the surface. A similar thing happened to Will & Grace, a show that was mostly praised for featuring gay characters and now seems shopworn, even in the early, better seasons.
Put another way (and to bring things off of sitcoms for a moment), the best TV pokes and prods at its premise, no matter how solid the premise is. The first time I confronted the idea that TV could age—and age poorly—was when I read a top-10 list by a newspaper critic as a teenager. It listed Buffy The Vampire Slayer as one of the top 10 shows of the season, and it offhandedly commented that the show, with its extensive number of cultural references, would seem stale within a couple of years. If you go forward a few years, you’d find a show that seemed to have solved that particular problem in Smallville, which assiduously avoided many cultural references outside of long-popular comic-book heroes and villains. Yet when I watch early episodes of Smallville, which wasn’t a bad show in its day, they seem hilariously of their time, while Buffy seems timeless, despite the fact that it keeps dropping references to late-’90s pop-culture items. I assume my kids won’t immediately know what it means to “Scully” someone like I do, but I’d hope the central ideas of Buffy, ideas about growing up and maturing, will remain resonant, and I hope they’ll enjoy the way the show keeps poking at its premise and underlying ideas until it figures out ways to challenge everything we think we know about the series. Smallville never did that, at least that I saw. I’m told the later seasons are better, and now its early seasons seem rote and tired, belonging to a bygone TV era that’s just 10 years ago.
So if I were to sum up what could make a TV series feel timeless, even with lots of cultural references and assumptions—like Buffy or All In The Family—I’d say that moving beyond the basic premise is the best way to ensure a long shelf life. Yet I’m sure a lot of people would say we’re barking up the wrong tree. Plenty of people would argue that Buffy and All In The Family may stay good shows, but that all TV is bound to get dated because of productions acting as a de facto time capsule. The themes of Buffy may be universal, but the ’90s hair and fashions aren’t. And nobody’s going to decorate their living room like the Bunkers did anymore. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on this aspect of TV datedness, the idea of TV as time capsule.
Noel: Honestly? I love it. To me, every TV show and every movie is on some level a documentary, in that it records fashions, designs, musical trends, and even performance styles (which can change over time). That’s why I’ve never been as bothered by product placement as some people are. Sure, it’s annoying right now to see the Fringe heroes take great pains to show the camera their Sprint phones or whatever, but 10 years from now, both that phone and the blatantly artificial gesture to make sure we see the phone are going to become an era signifier. They’ll make the episode richer in replay value. Even those outmoded socio-political attitudes I referred to earlier are a gift in their way. Some of those formerly “quality” shows would be pretty tedious were it not for their datedness. (And I’m hopeful that some of my favorite current shows that rely on topicality, like The Good Wife, will continue to work down the road both as outstanding drama and as a document of the past.)
Even before I wrote about older TV, I watched older TV, for a number of reasons. Seeing how poorly or how well a show ages can be instructive, helping us to grasp that what seems so amazing on TV right now may not seem as good a decade from now. And I’m also addicted to the time-capsule element you mention. Watching shows from my youth—or from the era immediately before—is a way of getting back memories I thought I’d lost, whether it’s hearing a piece of music that reminds me of specific moments from the past or spotting a toy or a drinking glass that looks like one we had in our house.
Really, the older TV shows that interest me least are the ones that had paltry set-design budgets, and took place on minimally dressed stages. So I’d encourage modern TV producers to make their series look as dated as they can, especially if they’re making something that’s otherwise mediocre. Those shows will be tedious now, but think how useful they’ll be to the pop historians of the future.