This link is to an article written by Rod Dreher, and it’s discussing a book called How Societies Remember, which was written in 1989 by Paul Connerton. It has absolutely nothing to do with television, and in fact is the kind of article that I’d usually save for discussion over at the other blog. But it addresses some points that are key to understanding (in a somewhat bookish way) why some people watch old television shows while others don't, and the importance of television as a part of a society’s collective memory.
For me, the key point of Dreher's essay comes from this comment:
When a society really wants to remember something as a society — e.g., mythical, religious, or historic stories that tell a people who they are and what they must do — it invents commemorative ceremonies around those stories. It is not enough to tell a particular story; the story has to be “a cult enacted.” That is, the story must convey a metaphysical truth, and thus has to be granted sacred status as an event that is taken out of the past and in some mystical way re-presented in the present.
For our purposes, we're going to simplify the "commemorative ceremony" to mean depicting it in a television program. And let's face it, there is a veneer of legitimacy that TV can apply to an event; that's why so many special interest groups complain that this or that issue or demographic or viewpoint is ill-represented on the tube, and deserves more recognition, in order to depict something which they refer to as the "real world." Note that I'm not automatically criticizing such behavior - it's true that your results will vary depending on your own personal system of beliefs, but at least in theory there's nothing wrong with wanting television programs to depict something that approximates your reality.
The point is - as I always say, there's always a point - the point is that somehow an idea, whether it deals with social injustice, homosexuality, political ideology, or any number of issues, remains an abstract until it's actually presented on television and witnessed by viewers. But simply presenting it is not sufficient to make a point; it has to be done in a way that is plausible to the people viewing it. The logician will assert that plausibility derives from presenting something so that those who see it will immediately recognize it as representing what it purports to represent. In other words, to cite one of my favorite examples, The Judy Garland Christmas Special of 1962 gives us a Christmas full of caroling and parties and decorations, purportedly in Judy's own home. Today it's seen by some as camp. However, the important thing is that people in 1962 recognized it for what it was. Sure, their homes might not be decorated like that, they might not sit around a mod fireplace singing carols (and I sure as hell don't think they had Jack Jones and Mel Tormé dropping by), but if it had not been recognizable to viewers, if it had not presented a plausible version of Christmas 1962, it would have been laughed off the screen.
This is one reason why the content of a television show is so important - it will serve to future generations the function of a time capsule, telling those viewers what life was like back in the day: the values, the relationships, the way people thought and acted and what they believed in. Advocacy groups understand this, inherently if not explicitly, which is why they spend so much time and effort on it.*
*Interestingly enough, it occurs to me that one could ask opponents of, for example, violence and sex on television whether they really believe such behavior influences those, particularly young people, who watch it - or if they're concerned about the legacy such shows leave, and if future generations will see and accept such behavior as acceptable. In the long run it serves the same purpose - to convent behavior - leaving the only question as to when that behavior kicks in.
Here is another key passage, this one from the author Connerton, that to me illustrates the appeal of classic television, and why it's important for us not to forget it:
Under the conditions of modernity the celebration of recurrence can never be anything more than a compensatory strategy, because the principle of modernity itself denies the idea of life as a structure of celebrated recurrence. It denies credence to the thought that the life of the individual or a community either can or should derive its value from the acts of consciously performed recall, from the reliving of the prototypical.
So what, you may ask, does this mean - and how does it tie in to the general discussion?
My take on it, as it relates to our topic, is thus: what classic television does is not only portray a lost period in time, it identifies that portrayal as having represented the values as understood - if not practiced - by society at the time.* To the extent that modernity rules the roost, attempting to overturn the values of the past in favor of a new and revolutionary way of thinking, it attempts to pigeonhole such shows, - and here is what I think is important - ridiculing the idea that "the life of the individual or a community either can or should derive its value from the acts of consciously performed recall."
*Another pet peeve of mine. Critics will look at programs such as Leave It to Beaver and chortle that they give us an idealized look at childhood. Of course they do, and I don't think anyone ever intended for them to be documentaries. You can argue that the shows attempted to enforce a type of conformity, however mild, to certain roles and archetypes, but what's important is, once again, that they were plausible, acceptable and recognizable depictions as far as the viewers were concerned. The Beverly Hillbillies, by contrast, never attempted any type of overt realism; its value comes from a combination of slapstick and covert allegories based on the appeal of common sense.
Again, in other words, when television was a communal activity - with a limited number of programs watched at the same time by the entire population - it either presented or reinforced the values of that community, in such a way that both individuals and the community as a whole would recognize. Those who seek to cast off classic television, wittingly or unwittingly, look to deny credence to the world presented in those programs. They may dislike the simplicity of the scripts, the quality of the acting, the implausibility of a lawyer solving a case in 60 minutes or family disputes always ending "happily ever after," or something as simple as the show being presented in black-and-white rather than color, and for some people that may be all there is to it. But either explicitly or implicitly, the secondary consideration is not only to deny the past as it appears on television, but to wipe it from the memory banks of today's generation - remember my earlier point that television grants a veneer of legitimacy to what it portrays. When you remove that collective memory as presented in the program, what happens? Dreher posits this from Connerton's words:
He’s telling us that in modernity, the market is our god. It conditions what we imagine to be possible. We can’t dream that life should be ordered by rituals that bound and define our experience, and link it to the past, to a sacred order. There is no sacred order; there is only the here and now, the tangible. The world exists to be remade to fit our desires. There are no ways of living that we should conform our lives to, no stories that tell us how we should live.
The only thing that matters, therefore, is what we see now, what we read now, what we believe now. The past is the past, while control of the future is played out on the battlefields of today.
Connerton, and by extension Dreher, is specifically discussing capitalism and the free market economy, but to the extent that television is (as the networks keep reminding us) a commodity, prepared for and purchased as a business transaction, the analogy remains intact. "When Connerton says that in modernity, and under capitalism, we can hardly 'imagine life as a structure of exemplary recurrence,'" Dreher writes, "he’s saying that we can no longer easily believe that we should live according to set patterns of thought and action because they conform to eternal truths."
I've used a lot of words to make a very small point, and perhaps I've lost some of you along the way. In that case, I take responsibility for my failure to be concise. But the very small point I'm about to make has very large implications, ones that we're dealing with today and will continue to deal with in the future. And the point is this: classic television is a medium, one of many but perhaps the most visible and most personal one, that tells us about ourselves - who we were, who we are, who we aspired to be. Forget that, banish it from our collective memories, fail to learn from it, and we have forgotten an integral part of ourselves and our American culture. And as Santayana suggests, if we forget the past, we fail to learn from it.
I take great pleasure in watching classic television, but I also study it and learn from it - and that's one of the reasons I watch it.