Baby boomers who have long been a nostalgic lot and are growing more so as they totter toward old age. Witness their tiresomely obsessive fascination with the popular television series of their youth. Likewise their undimmed passion for the rock music of the 1960s and '70s, which they still love so much that they'll buy expensive tickets to see wrinkled old codgers play it onstage.
You talkin' to me? Probably not, although I can't deny there are days when I fade into the mists of classic television time as if it were a town called Willoughby. In fact, I was going to write about this earlier - much closer to when it was actually published - but never got the piece past the "draft" stage. Probably too busy watching The Saint and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
But I'm glad I didn't get to it until now, and in fact what prompted me to return to the subject was the Grammy Salute to The Beatles on CBS on Sunday. I didn't watch it; as you may recall, I've never been a particular fan of the Fab Four, and besides, it would have interrupted my viewing of season two of The F.B.I. So let me ask all of you out there - does this show fall into Teachout's description? Either the one above, or the one below:
As always with the boomers, this nostalgia contains more than a touch of narcissism. The same narcissism was on display in many of the countless gushy boomer-penned reminiscences occasioned by the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. An indisputably major historical event, to be sure, but there was also something decidedly creepy about the self-centered tone of those suddenly-my-world-changed pieces, which was deftly skewered by this Onion headline: "Area Man Can Remember Exactly Where He Was, What He Was Doing When He Assassinated John F. Kennedy. " Like everything else in the boomers' world, Kennedy's death turned out in the end to have been all about them.
My first reaction was, and remains, that the Beatles/Grammy special probably does fall into this category. As a historical moment in time, you can't deny that it was significant.* However, had CBS wanted to commemorate that, it probably would have been easier to simply rerun the Sullivan show that had aired exactly 50 years ago that night. It exists, after all. And though The Beatles are just one part of the show, that very fact illustrates how at least two eras existed in the same space that night; the world as it was, and as it was about to become. (Had Ed had Señor Wences on that night as well, you could have added the vaudeville past as well.)
*Though I'm not prone to attaching as much significance to it as many do. I think the idea that "The Beatles helped America recover from JFK" shtick is a bit overblown. However, given what Teachout says about JFK above, it's not at all a surprise.
The real significance of The Beatles on the Sullivan show was that it demonstrated at once the need of programs to appeal to more than one age demographic, and the increasing likelihood that they would no longer be able to do so, leading to the fragmented programming we have today. As suggested in the Sullivan book I reviewed a couple of years ago, one could argue that it was Sullivan's desire to remain relevant by booking rock groups such as The Beatles that led to his eventual downfall, a classic case of trying to satisfy everyone and winding up satisfying no one.
So instead of offering a one-hour look at a moment that's since been frozen in time (with perhaps a wraparound documentary), the network opted for an all-evening extravaganza consisting of a reunion of the remaining members of the group (these reunions, by the way, are starting to resemble nothing so much as the old Peter Cook-Dudley Moore movie The Wrong Box) and an appreciation concert by legendary rockers. It was, in short, an event that came dangerously close to a marathon of self-congratulatory ceremony by the industry, for the industry, and on behalf of the industry. Look at us, they seem to say, look at how we changed the world.
And this, I think, is the kind of thing that Teachout writes about. Because the whole thing was important to the industry, it has to be important to everyone, inflated beyond all reasonableness.
Now, I know what you're thinking: wait a minute. You write about things like the JFK assassination as much as anyone. In fact, your whole blog is devoted to classic TV. Don't his words speak to you as well?
I know some classic TV buffs who fit Teachout's description of those who “don’t want to see anything new, though they’ll put up with it if absolutely necessary.” Maybe I fit in that category somewhere, although those who've followed my Top Ten list know I've heartily embraced several shows from this century - a couple of which are still going. But it does raise a larger question: what is it about classic television that causes us to feel nostalgia? Is it the hearkening back to an era that never really existed except in the yearning of the imagination? Is it that television itself, which has always styled itself a guest in our homes, has the rare ability to touch our interior in a way that other media can't?
There are other reasons I prefer older shows: often I find the absence of "frank adult content" to be a relief. I like the immediacy and imperfection of live drama. I think the civilizing influence of classical music is not only refreshing but necessary. I think the rapid quick-cuts that are popular on so many shows are good for not much besides inducing seizures. And so on and so on.
Does this mean that new television is all bad? Of course not. I think location filming has done a great deal to enhance the viewing experience. The acting in many old shows was stilted, and character motivation could hover between naivety and improbable. Advances in technology and special effects have made many action scenes more compelling, and I like avant-garde camera angles about as much as anyone. And though I think story arcs and serializations are best left to soap operas, some character development and continuity would be welcome in the old warhorses.
So where does that leave us? I think the dangers in nostalgia are twofold: first, it can be dangerously close to sentimentality, which not only isn't necessarily good but can often be bad.* And second, it can cultivate, as Teachout suggests, a self-centeredness that combines both narcissism and isolation, to a very bad effect.
*And makes for bad television, as demonstrated by virtually anything by Hallmark or Oprah.
When we live constantly in the past, we fail to grow personally. We refuse to mature, to take on the responsibilities of adults. We submerge ourselves in cartoons, much the same way as some take refuge in videogames, refusing to leave the comfort of our childhood. We stop striving, because things can't get any better than they already were. We ignore the contributions made by present and future generations. I didn't reject new Doctor Who, for example, just because I loved the old series.
And, oddly, that's not the world portrayed in the sitcoms of the 50s and early 60s, when families ate meals together and sat around the fireplace together (or the radio, or the early television) and sometimes just talked to each other.
As a cultural archaeologist, I try to use the past to understand the present and gain insight into the future. I look at the programs of the 50s and 60s (and early 70s) in an attempt to see how and why things developed as they did, to gain a glimpse of worlds long gone, to see if there's a hint of what's yet to come. Television both shapes and reflects its times, and as a measurement of a given time and place it's as good as anything.
Someone once said that where there's life, there's hope. When you remove the incentive to strive, to achieve, to create something new, you've removed a crucial aspect of life. And that, in the end, is what this is all about. When you live in the past to the exclusion of the present, when you say that what we have is as good as it gets, then you're not really experiencing life at all. And where's the hope in that?