Mel's Marginally Meritorious Media Meditations - Why TV is better now than ever
Come on people. Let's stop living in the past. There is a tendency on the part of us old timers (meaning 40 and over) to pine for the "good old days" and weary our children to the point of tedium with boring stories about how things were better way back when. But let's wake up to the facts and merge with the modern world at least on one small issue, which is television. Television was basically mediocre mind candy back when I was growing up, and is only now beginning to come into its own. Before proceeding, allow me to add one caveat to my thesis. I am not including reality television under the banner of better television. Reality television remains mediocre mind candy. I would rather watch reruns of Gilligan's Island.
I started thinking about this subject yesterday, when I began watching Mad Men on Netflix. I have never seen a television program that was so completely detail oriented that it made me feel like I was actually back in the era in which it was set. Having grown up in the 60s and 70s I still remember those days when people shamelessly smoked anywhere and everywhere there was room to strike a match; the days when a boss could pinch his secretary's butt and get away with it. What impresses me the most about Mad Men is not its expose of the 1960s advertising industry. The advertising angle is really only the backdrop to the story and is marginal in its importance to the plot. The series could have been set in any industry and still have the same impact. What the show is really about is how America has changed since the 1960s and, more importantly, how it has not. The business world, both in the private and public sector, is still as relentlessly ruthless as it was back then, if not more so, and we see this examined in horrendous detail in Mad Men, to the point where we are left aghast about how completely merciless we are toward fellow members of our species.
Anyhow, Mad Men was merely the catalyst that got me to musing upon this subject. So now I am going to expound upon a few eclectic thoughts I have had on the subject of TV then and now, and you can hear me out and let me know if you agree or disagree.
Mel's Favorite 70s TV shows
At this point, in order to better illustrate my point about what kind of crap they were force-feeding us back then, I am going to list a few of my favorite TV shows from the 70s. Remember that this was back in the pre-cable days when we only had three or four channels to choose from, five tops if you were into the public television fare, where the hosts of the programs were obviously graded on the degree of dull monotone they could interject into the narration. To demonstrate the dearth of entertainment we had back then I only have to recall that all we had on Sunday Evenings was Lawrence Welk and his bubble machine, for crying out loud! I suffered through a lot of bad TV in the seventies, but Lawrence Welk was the only show that would make me turn the TV off and go grab a book to read. In this respect, perhaps Mr. Welk ehanced my education and i should be grateful for it. A test pattern was more entertaining! Kids these days don't even know what a test pattern is. Since most of them were politically incorrect, involving a lot of stone-faced people wearing feathered head-dresses, I won't give a description of one. Anyway, here are my shows.
Happy Days - Happy Days may have started off as a rather serious and thoughtful small screen adaptation of American Graffiti, but the longer it ran and the more successful it became the more it degenerated into mindless silliness. There is a reason why South Park parodies Arthur Fonazarelli (Fonzie) jumping the shark on a his motorcycle; the reason is that it deserves ridicule. Still, for a pre-adolescent who did not know better because he had nothing better to compare it to, this was high theatre. "Sit on it!" is all I can say if you don't agree with this assessment.
Starsky and Hutch - This series was such a cliched caricature of a detective drama that even one of its stars, Paul Michael Glazer (Starsky) couldn't stand it or the "Striped Tomato" Ford Gran Torino he raced around in with Hutch in between french-kissing sessions with his partner and shake downs of the noble pimp "Huggy Bear," who will remain the classic archetype of pimpdom forever and ever.
The Brady Bunch - This daring early 70s drama dealt with topical issues that America was scarcely emotionally prepared to deal with at that time. Producer Sherwood Schwartz was a master at producing shows that were on the cutting edge of social controversy; ie Gilligan's Island, Dusty's Trail. Among some of the themes examined in the stately halls of Brady Manor were: Gender Equality - Should Martha, Jan and Cindy be admitted into the Brady Boy's exclusive, males only clubhouse? Whistleblowing - Cindy accuses housekeeper Alice of making out with the mailman, threatening retaliation from Alice's boyfriend Sam the butcher (Note to all of you philandering mailmen out there - not a good thing to piss off a butcher). Drug abuse - Mrs. Brady finds a package of cigarettes in Greg's jacket. Native American Relations - Cindy and Bobby get lost in the Grand Canyon and are rescued by Chief Eagle Cloud - who inducts all of the Bradys as honorary members into his tribe. Alice receives the honorific title of "Squaw in Waiting." You get the idea. Why go on?
Tired Network Formula - Cable on the Cutting Edge
The above sample points out plainly that 70s TV was, quite frankly, silly, a lot like the feathered hair that was so popular during the latter part of the decade. Looking back, I remember that when I finally got my first feathered haircut I thought I was positively pimping, but when I look back at those old photos now I cringe with horror! I get the same reaction when I think of the 70s TV shows I used to watch religiously.
The problem today is that the same basic network formula that was prevalent in the 70s, and by network I mean CBS, NBC, and ABC, but not FOX because FOX wasn't around back then, is that they are still using the same tired old TV show formula that worked back then. The reason it worked back then is because of the absence of competition. The little cable David was not around to challenge the titan network Goliath, and the result was bad TV. The networks generate the same mind-numbing mush today.
The problem is that all of the shows seem to be spookily similar in background and basic plot outline. For instance, how many different flavors of CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) do you need, for crying out loud? The original might have been original and refreshing, but did the idea well-bucket go completely dry after creating the first rendition and so we have to copycat it to the point of ridiculous redundancy? NCIS seems to be the victim of the same inability to come up with anything new and innovative, as now there is apparently a NCIS Los Angeles clone in circulation. I watched one of these NCIS programs with my mother when she came over for a visit recently. I only suffered through this indignity because she is my Mother and it is my filial duty to be kind to her. I think my Mom has not been given the news update about the invention of Cable TV yet. She watches CBS, and only CBS, regardless of what they show there, and I think she has been doing this since approximately 1963. Anyway, this was the worst hour of yawn inducing television I have suffered through in years, even though the series was apparently voted American's favorite television show. Maybe it's me that's not getting it.
Cable TV, on the other hand, has been busy creating programs that are cutting edge, risky, and sophisticated in their development of plot and character analysis. I think HBO set the bar on this reinvention of the television series when they released The Sopranos several years ago. Another HBO was Rome, one of my personal favorites, even though it was discontinued after only two seasons because it was too expensive. Another fantastic HBO series is the current Game of Thrones. At any rate, although HBO seemed to pave the way in the campaign to wean viewers off of the increasingly insipid network menu, the other cable networks soon took up the crusade.
I believe that AMC has done the most respectable job of proving that cable TV can be something other than a platform for the endless circulation of worn out old movies. There are three series now that I am following on AMC, these being Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and yes, I admit, The Walking Dead. That latter is sort of a guilty pleasure, but although its theme seems rather infantile on the surface, the show's in depth character analysis is surprisingly sophisticated. Just like Mad Men is not about advertising, The Walking Dead is not about zombies. It is about the people who survive the zombie apocalypse and the insights into human nature that their survival reveals to us. I admire AMC for its willingness to take risks and diversify into areas that have not been previously explored on television. More often than not their risks are being rewarded these days.
The Self-Contained Unit vs. The Ongoing Series
Part of the reason why today's dramatic series are surpassing their seventies predecessors is because their stories are usually ongoing, rather than self-contained one hour units. As an example of the self-contained unit, your typical 1977 Charlie Angel's episode went something like this: 1.)Someone is found murdered in a tiny little bloodless pile. 2.)The Angels are hired and move in swifly to collect clues. Even though the murder usually did not occur on or near the beach, the investigation phase more often than not consisted of at least one beach scene, which provided a justification to include some nifty bikini shots for the benefit of us drooling 13 year olds in the viewing audience. 3.)The murderer is identified, followed by a car chase. 70s police dramas always had a car chase at the end. I wish I could have bought stock in the scrap metal industry back then. 70s cars were not like the fragile fiberglass-bodied death traps we have now, those cars had an awful lot of metal. 4.)The culprit is apprehended, followed by drinks and jokes around the intercom with Charlie, usually at Bosley's expense. Every story was wrapped up in one all-encompassing hour, after which the writers would pull out the show template, erase the names and places and replace them with new ones for next week. There were no word processors yet to make this process easier, so the eraser industry must have also been booming.
I remember that one episode of the Bionic Woman, where a supercomputer goes haywire and tries to destroy the world, had two episodes, but other than a few exceptions the shows were wrapped up in one tidy episode with no loose ends.
In contrast, the new programs being developed primarily by cable TV these days are an ongoing saga. The characters we meet at the beginning are rounded out over the course of several episodes, sometimes several seasons. For example, in Mad Men we learn in the beginning that Don Draper is hiding a mysterious past, but the details of this past are only filled in gradually. We are not introduced to his long lost brother until about episode 6 or 7, and this brief allusion to his dark, hidden history only makes the viewer hungry for more. It is a very effective dramatic device. Cliff-hanger endings in between episodes and seasons are also the norm. The cliff hanger, if successfully executed, compels viewers to drop everything to tune in next week, or even next year. I am surprised that the ratings-ravenous networks didn't think of this by themselves a long time ago.
Are TV Viewers Smarter Now?
So, the very encouraging conclusion we can draw from the fact that TV shows are getting smarter now is that TV viewers are getting smarter too, right? Certainly there must be a cause and effect relationship between the two; something along the lines of smarter TV watcher = smarter TV shows. Because the TV viewer is more intelligent, he/she is demanding better TV programs, right?
I would love to draw this conclusion, but it doesn't seem to be a valid one. In fact, the reverse may be true, and we only have to take a look at so-called "reality" TV to support this theory. We live in the Duck Dynasty generation. Our existence is validated and justified by You-Tube. People are essentially voyeuristic and they want to see the intimate and awkward moments of their neighbor's lives exposed to public scrutiny. We are going back to the practices of the Puritans, when one's private business was the public business. Appearing in an embarrassing moment on You-Tube is like the modern day scarlet letter being embroidered upon your breast. Reality TV is essentially an extended-play You Tube moment.
So why, then, is TV getting smarter? TV is getting smarter because the producers of television programs are figuring out that there is a significant percentage of intelligent people in the viewing audience. There always has been, but in the days of big three domination there was limited programming time, so they had to play down to the lowest common denominator. Then the clever little cable scavengers swooped down and started picking off viewers from around the edges of the network lion's meat pile. It has since been discovered that these intelligent viewers out on the fringes were a bigger slice of the pie than was previously supposed. The benefit is that we are now being given better shows, and more of them to choose from. Some of us that never watched TV in the past are now starting to. The world is a happier place. What else needs to be said?