Is television a medium without a past?
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If the films that captured the most nominations and statues at the recent 84th Academy Awards (and the stodgily traditional award ceremony itself) are any indication, the film community is at a juncture of extreme reverence for its medium’s past. And that’s leaving aside all the studio executives who seemingly won’t green-light a new picture unless it’s a remake or a reboot of a familiar cinematic property. Their only true rivals in terms of pop-cultural pilfering operate in the realm of pop music, where the impulse to recycle old riffs, styles, and songs is so prevalent, it’s enough to send a relatively reasonable chap like Simon Reynolds into a 400-plus-page fit of hand-wringing about the future of music.
But whereas the introduction to Reynolds’ Retromania features a 14-page footnote charting the so-called “Retroscape” at the center of most pop-music trends of the last 10 years, it features only a few sentences about reclaimed and repurposed television from that same time span. And, apart from a few notable exceptions, like Battlestar Galactica, most of those shows, like the 2008 reboot of Knight Rider, or 2011’s disastrous Charlie’s Angels update, failed fast and hard.
Television’s aversion to its own past is a function of how the medium operates. Several times a year, television programmers retool their schedules and flush away the deadwood—most of it never to be seen again. Until the advent of TV on DVD, it was nearly impossible to see television series unless they’d survived long enough to reach the 100-episode requirement for syndication. Television history, meanwhile, was written by the victors, the shows whose syndication checks either extended their first runs or bought a cushy, Time Warner- or Viacom-subsidized retirement home, which they occupied until a new crop of shows reached the syndication standard (which shed a few episodes as the years went by) and pushed them out.
There’s a positive angle to this: If production studios and television networks are committed to keeping the stream of content fresh and flowing, it can’t be bothered with the past. This model champions innovation and downplays cheap nostalgia. Television is about the present and what’s working in the present. But there are some unfortunate byproducts of that tight focus on the now, and it isn’t just limited to copycat reality shows and doppelgänger sitcoms. All of this forward motion means TV is constantly in danger of papering over and forgetting its own past.
That doesn’t mean the recent past: Since 1995, every new pilot season has introduced a batch of Friends clones, and their ranks include far more duds like The Single Guy and Perfect Couples than winners along the lines of How I Met Your Mother and Happy Endings. And we’re definitely not talking any year as recent as 1999, the year that saw the debut of The Sopranos—and is therefore the critic and viewer’s choice for The Year Television Got Good. But it does apply to the years that require some digging in order to find their fossil records on cable, the decades of series that once occupied daytime and late-night hours, before they were banished from the dial by newer, more profitable shows. To make a comparison: If The Honeymooners is TV’s equivalent of the 12-bar blues, then All In The Family is its Rolling Stones. And while you’re unlikely to get from one end of your radio dial without hearing at least one song with the smudgy fingerprints of the blues, the Stones, or both, good luck finding Ralph Kramden or Archie Bunker in your cable package—and even better luck finding a modern-day successor of either that emerged from a writers’ room in the last 10 years.
The most visible outlets for second-run TV programming are no longer interested in series that premièred before Seinfeld. The cable revolution that led to networks like FX, USA, and TNT offering serious competition to their broadcast counterparts had a curious, accelerating effect on television history. A show could no longer spend an eternity ruling the syndication roost like I Love Lucy, Dragnet, and Gilligan’s Island did through the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. Around the time Nick At Nite acquired The Facts Of Life and Family Ties in the early 2000s, the landscape shifted. The “classic TV” canon was opened to younger shows with more dubious qualifications. (I’m not about to argue that longtime Nick At Nite staples like I Dream Of Jeannie and The Munsters are essential pieces of TV—but I’m also not the person who decided Charles In Charge should rub elbows with The Andy Griffith Show.)
And here’s where TV’s emphasis on the new and the now starts to get truly harmful. Because when the oldest series you’re exposed to on a regular basis is Family Matters, the four decades of TV that was produced before the heyday of TGIF begins to look (shudder) dated. And that’s a deadly word in conversation about any art, let alone television. The dated argument makes way for blanket dismissals based on the tiniest of elements that may have fallen out of favor in the years between when a series was made and when it resurfaces on a cable network or streaming-video service. Wardrobe, subject matter, even once-standard modes of production like a live studio audience can make a stone-cold classic like The Honeymooners look like a moldering relic if, say, you haven’t seriously engaged with a sitcom that was made before 2003. (And I know such people exist, because I’ve seen the disparity in comments received by TV Club Classic’s reviews of Arrested Development and Cheers.)
Certainly, the period that saw the debut of Arrested Development and the “holy trinity” of HBO drams (The Sopranos, The Wire, and Deadwood) marked a new golden age of television. But that doesn’t mean good TV didn’t exist before those shows. And the shallow view of the medium’s history that’s being fostered on the air and online makes it look that way. Can you imagine cineastes trying to pass off their bona fides without ever seeing “Le Voyage Dans La Lune” or Casablanca? Or a record collector actively ignoring Bob Dylan’s recorded output pre-Blonde On Blonde? Because that’s where the conversation surrounding TV is headed.
So how can you stop that? Short of giving The A.V. Club’s Noel Murray the capital necessary to launch his too-great-to-ever-be-realized “TCM For TV,” we can take little steps to end TV shortsightedness. The easiest way to do so: Watch old TV shows. They’re still out there, and you can get them through legal means, be they DVD, on-demand streaming, or niche networks catering to Nick At Nite castoffs like Me-TV and Retro Television Network. Sure, they’re going to look “dated,” but all great art both reflects and transcends the period of time during which it was made. Hell, Archie Bunker’s view of the world was purposely outmoded when All In The Family came to the airwaves in the late 1970s—but the humor of clashing generations is eternal.
This is where I should put some pressure on the brakes, lest I sound like I’m hectoring you into doing your television homework. I don’t mean to be the older brother slapping the Archer DVDs out of your hand and telling you to watch Get Smart or Police Squad! first. But television is a wide, diverse medium, and digging beyond the immediate past is more about the thrill of discovery than the burden of unearthing a true gem. And it’s easier to do that than with music or film because of the built-in quality control discussed above. And even in the instances where the system failed a worthwhile show—be it Freaks And Geeks, Twin Peaks, Sledge Hammer!, or the original Star Trek—the truly good stuff has made it to home video in one form or another. These shows are available and waiting to enhance both your appreciation of television as a whole and your favorite ongoing series.
And it’s not like you have to ignore ongoing series, either. Even as many of TV’s best shows push the genre forward, they’re also steeped in the medium’s history. It’s just that the ones that wear their affection for past series most visibly don’t catch that many eyeballs. You don’t need another A.V. Club article telling you to watch Community, but if there’s one contemporary primetime show that celebrates the history of the medium, it’s Dan Harmon’s single-camera riff on band-of-outsiders ensemble comedies like Taxi and Cheers. If there’s another under-the-radar series pulling the same trick, it’s Fox’s Raising Hope, which is a little more shameless in its allusions to bygone series—but its love of TV is no less infectious. In some cases, it can be downright touching: The show kicked off its second season with a musical homage to the late Sherwood Schwartz, a television icon who indirectly shaped the series’ madcap, living-cartoon sensibility through his work on Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch. The scene could easily lapse into an exercise in empty nostalgia, but doesn’t—instead, it keeps one foot in the past while fixing its eyes on the show’s future. It’s the bridging of two points on the television timeline—the type of bridge that ought to be built more frequently, by the people making and watching TV.
This For Our Consideration piece is part one of a two-part series about our disappearing pop-culture past. Tomorrow: Whatever happened to oldies radio?