All this brings to mind a question I keep coming back to, again and again: why classic television? Specifically, what makes me seek to return to two particular decades more than any other: the ‘50s, the decade before I was born; and the ‘60s, the decade which saw me enter the world, but also the one of which I have the fuzziest memories.
It’s normal, I think, to have curiosity about what things were like in the years B.Y., “Before You,” even though the current generation appears to think history begins on the day of their own birth. Oftentimes we don’t want to go all the way back to the far past, decades before we became the blessed event; it’s the near past, when things were recognizably similar to what we remember, when there is a tangible link between that time and our own, that captures our attention. For example, I can recognize 1955 as different from 1962, but far more similar than 1962 is compared to, say, 1969. And it’s natural to want to know more about what things were like in the early years of your life, at the age when you could form a vague memory of something but not one strong enough to survive intact to adulthood. Lileks had a paragraph about this that, as usual, describes what I’m talking about far better than I could:
I have a box of my dad's slides, taken in the first few years we lived in the hallowed Turquoise Rambler, and they are precious - prelapasarian pictures whose situations I remember in the most vague and indistinct form. In one picture I am squinting unhappily and holding up a dead pheasant. My dad shot it, brought it home; we ate it. We spat shot onto the plate. In another I'm in the turquoise inflatable pool in the backyard, Mom in a lounge chair, and while I don't remember the moment I remember everything about that pool, the feel of the plastic seam, the pink bricks that paved the patio by the back door, the tall thin trees at the end of the lot, the clothesline - the more I think and drill down the more I recall, and the slides are doors into rooms at the far end of a corridor, way back behind me. The backyard was summer. One year I dug canals in the dirt back by the tall trees, filled it with water; there was a story, a plot, an afternoon spent alone finding some drama in this ration of dirt.
Isn’t that nice?
For someone who enjoys the history of television almost as much as television itself - someone like me, for example - it's easy to see why the '50s and '60s are of interest. They represent television's formative years, the years in which the medium struggled to find out what it was good at and what it wasn't good at, when creative minds threw all kinds of programming against the wall to see what stuck, when live programming came and went and more sophisticated forms of filming came into their own, and when color slowly but surely replaced black-and-white.
Although television has come a long way since those early days, just as the United States has come a long way from the days of the revolution, one still has to hearken back to the beginning to understand it all. There's no doubt that if you want to become a TV historian, you have to start there, and if you do, nothing that has come since is likely to much surprise you. The growth of cable and satellite, the advent of reality programs, the striving for dramas dealing with adult content, the myriad advances in technology - all of those can be found back at the very start.
For me, and people of my age demographic, there's another reason why this era of television is so interesting - that's because it comes from our own formative years, the years that go into making us who and what we are today. In that sense television isn't so very different from us; it grew up as we did, and just as our teen years begin to form our personalities, our mores, our ways of thinking and acting - such is the case with television as well. And since television is a part of those years for us, it's natural that the programs we watched played a role in our development, even if it's only limited to creating the memories that we look back upon years later.
Take that quote from Likeks - who among us, watching a television show from our youth, can't be swept back to a certain place and time, remembering the home we lived in, the school we went to, the classmates we dated? Perhaps it's a little later - that first job, a memorable Christmas, an even that remains frozen in our memory. All it takes is a glimpse of a particular program, and we're whisked back to that time as if we'd never left.
Those formative years are going to be different for everyone, depending on when and where you grew up. It's why some are drawn to '80s shows like Alf, others to the '90 sitcoms like Friends. If you were to ask me, both of those shows seem too recent to be considered classic, but for someone who was born in 1980, Friends can be right up their wheelhouse. Friends left NBC a dozen years ago, meaning that someone who came to the show when they were, say, 18, is now 30. A lot younger than me, to be sure, but old enough that we wouldn't necessarily call them a "kid" anymore.
This isn't nostalgia, exactly, nor is it sentimentality. Classic television does not create an alternate universe, one to which we retreat to escape the pressures of modern life, a place where everything and everyone is frozen in time as if nothing had changed since we lived there ourselves.* People who think of it that way, and who think of classic TV fans as people who long for a different world, really don't understand what it's all about.
*That is, unless you happened to grow up in The Twilight Zone.
The point to all of this is that television, more than anything, is like a book of photographs, a family album. It's what Lileks talks about - a place where one can revisit the past without becoming lost in it, where one can emerge from the memories refreshed and invigorated rather than bitter and disappointed. You may not like the direction the world's headed in, and you may think things were better back in the good old days - and you may well be right. But as I said in that previous piece, it's today's world that gave you the means by which you could revisit the past.
There's nothing wrong with escaping to another time and place for a little while; it's the function that movies played during the years of the depression, the function that all entertainment plays, really - books perhaps most of all. Television happens to provide a visual as well as an aural snapshot, and being that our senses play such a strong role in forming memory, it's not surprising that TV's effect would be so great. Now, too much of anything - even cherished memories of the past - isn't necessarily a good thing,* but that's a lesson we ought to have learned by now.
*So sayeth Captain Kirk.
You'll notice I've left out most of the part where I talk about the value of being a cultural archaeologist, of digging through the remains of classic television and finding the remnants of a lost civilization, one that has evolved into the world in which we live today. I haven't talked about how a particular program or series might have changed someone's life, made them decide to become a doctor or a lawyer or a football player. I haven't touched on whether or not the world given to us by these TV shows was a realistic depiction of the world in which they were created, or if it was even intended to be. And these things are a very important part of it, at least for me. It's a fascination, as it would be for anyone interested in history and sociology. It's important as well, in that it truly does teach us about how we got there. It's all this, and much more, as I hope the past five-plus years of this blog have demonstrated.
The one thing it isn't, though, is a justification. You shouldn't have to use scholarly pursuits and other highbrow rationale in order to excuse yourself from enjoying classic television. We can, and often do, debate just what makes a particular television program classic, but one thing I think we can agree on is that if it's played a significant part in your life, if it's made you smile or cry or think, if you can remember what it was like when you first saw it, then it's classic to you.
That's why I watch a lot of television from the past, from America's midcentury. It's classic television, for more reasons than one. And that's why I won't apologize for it.