March 15, 2017

Stranger in a Strange Land

Or is it The Man Who Fell to Earth? Either analogy is OK, I guess. The question is what people from the ‘50s and ‘60s would think of television today, if they hadn’t been exposed to the cultural evolution that some of us have gone through. You find this in reverse many times when trying to explain the appeal of classic television to those who are either too young to remember it, or too lacking in an appreciation of history to care about it. I’ve been told of many young people (and some not so young) who won’t even consider watching a black-and-white TV show or movie, which I think is ridiculous since all you’re really doing is arbitrarily depriving yourself of something you might otherwise enjoy based solely on your lack of imagination in being unable to appreciate anything that doesn’t spell it out for you right there.*

*On the other hand, I saw an article today that says today's kids, weaned on Netflix and the like, don't know what commercials are. On balance, that's probably a good thing, although try explaining those DVD sets of classic commercials to them.

I was prompted to this thought by reading a discussion at Home Theater Forum, one that unfortunately got a bit testy toward the end, as such discussions tend to do. The topic had morphed into comparing classic television with current television, whether or not wholesomeness was an adequate substitute for gritty realism, how one defined “realism,” what the purpose of television was in the first place, and other existential questions. Experience has taught me not to get in the middle of these kinds of discussions – well, that, and the fact that I’ve got my own blog where I get to control the conversation myself.

Anyway, people who have no particular appreciation of cultural history often find it impossible to understand what things were like in the ‘50s and ‘60s (or even the ‘70s and ‘80s, if we’re being honest), prompting them to declare anything from that time period “unrealistic” because it doesn’t match up to their contemporary expectations. (People like me who express pleasure in classic television are often accused of "living in the past," or "denying progress.") Given a nuclear family, children who aren’t juvenile delinquents, couples who don’t sleep together prior to marriage, women who don’t work outside the house, and any number of by-products of another era (comments that appear to be sexist, racist, or otherwise offensive), and for these people it simply doesn’t compute; hence, it has to be something totally idealized, which is another way of dismissing “things that never were the way they’ve been portrayed.”

This is a subtle point, which is why it’s not a good idea to dismiss it with such a simplified, off-hand solution. It is true that most portrayals of a given period in time are, to some extent, idealized. Even documentarians do this in order to substantiate a narrative they’re trying to present. We shouldn’t expect total realism from anything; even a photograph or a home movie can’t capture everything that went into creating a particular moment. Given that total realism is, therefore, impossible, the best you can do is present something that is recognizable to viewers – or maybe I should say plausible. It’s true that series like Leave it to Beaver probably fell on the “idealized” side of the line, but not to the extent that the people who watched it couldn’t understand what it represented.

The complaint many people have about contemporary television is that, as one HTF commentor put it, "the characters [on classic TV shows] seem to be relatable human beings. I stopped watching present-day 'entertainment' years ago, but when I see segments of it I feel as if I must live in a different Universe." The stranger in a strange land, indeed.  Flip to any given series, and you'll find a world in which your next door neighbor might be a meth dealer, the couple down the street might be a threesome, or undercover Communist agents (or both), everyone’s a quirkbot and every single life seems to have been ripped from the pages of a soap opera script, religion is barely mentioned (and when it is, it's usually disparaged) and the default setting is not good humor and hopefulness, but cynicism and world-weariness. It's as if, when we decided to get rid of Frank Capra and his "Capra-corn," we replaced him with Albert Camus. There’s a certain sort of realism here as well, in that these things do happen, but I’m willing to bet that if you dropped most people into the middle of a neighborhood like this, they wouldn’t recognize it.

Contrast that with the average viewer's reaction to a series from the classic era. Whether or not your family was like the Cleavers, for example, they weren’t far off from what how many families lived. Their values were similar, their families seemed a lot like the ones you knew in the neighborhood. Except, maybe, for the couple who lived down the block, the one where he’s always getting drunk and shouting about something, and she goes running from the house, crying, only to come back in a day or two. They didn’t show people like them, at least not on sitcoms, but then that was the point, wasn’t it? They weren’t funny, and they weren’t entertaining, and that wasn’t what Leave it to Beaver was all about. My point is that nobody living in the same time period as the Cleavers would have looked at them as if they were out of place, people from another neighborhood, anything like that. They were like you and me, if perhaps a little more perfect than we were. And, lest you forget what you were watching, the commercials would remind you that this was a television show you were watching, not real life.

Back then, married couples on television didn't even sleep in the same bed together. Now, you've got plenty of couples knoodling between the sheets - and not all of them are married, nor are all of them even members of the opposite sex. The cops aren't always the good guys, and many cable series (cable? What's that?) center around something called an "anti-hero." And try explaining to someone who watched I Led Three Lives and The FBI how you could create a series around a couple of Soviet spies, let alone calling that series The Americans. If many of those earlier shows were like a steady diet of sugary cereal, today's series often require a prescription for Prozac.

In a way this is so similar to how the elitists of Establishment America have, for so long, misunderstood the rest of the country, its values and its way of life. As the last presidential election demonstrated, there’s a wide gap out there between the world of the elitists and the world of everyone else, and considering how most people in the entertainment industry come from that world of elitists, I don’t suppose we should be surprised. After all, everyone writes about what they know about.

This segues us, ever so gently, into the eternal question of television’s version of the chicken and the egg. Does television determine cultural mores, or does it simply reflect them? My own opinion, for what it’s worth, has always been that television is a follower, not a leader – BUT it’s also a persuader, a facilitator, an enabler, a whisperer. Immerse yourself in the world of television, and then try to resist the temptations that these shows offer, the way they gradually – over a period of months or years – lure you into their way of thinking. Rod Dreher, whose book The Benedict Option prescribes "a strategy for Christians in a post-Christian nation", says people need to withdraw from popular and social media - including television and movies - in order to recapture and reinvest in their faith. Barbara Nicolosi, a Christian screenwriter, says that Christians must engage with popular media and the arts if they hope to change the culture. Either way, it speaks to the power of television to shape minds and attitudes.

I could go on, and someday will, because I'm as guilty of simplification as anyone. The point, however, remains the same. While there are some outstanding programs on television today, many of them relate to a recognizable world, one not so different from our own. There is something fundamentally different about classic television, about how it develops organically from the culture which it reflects. That's something I can't say about most of today's programs. They present a world that, for the most part, is far different from the one which I inhabit - darker, cruder, rougher, more nihilistic. It's not the world I want to live in. To paraphrase Dominick Dunne's wonderful book about the O.J. Simpson trial, it's another country, not my own. Perhaps that's the best analogy of them all.

5 comments:

  1. This is one reason I love your page Mitch! You remember things as they were and as many of us wish they were again. I wish many of today's millennials felt this way.

    George E.

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    1. Thanks for the kind words, George! From your lips to God's ears.

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    2. You make some excellent points here. Michael Medved's book, HOLLYWOOD VS. AMERICA, detailed many of these points 25 years ago now, and unfortunately it's only gotten worse since then.

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  2. I don't like the mentality that television should be an idealized escape from reality, making the unstated message there is something wrong with us if we don't fit into that model mold.

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    1. I understand Paul, and I fully respect the idea of not being pressed into a mold.

      But when I wanted to turn on the television I wanted to be entertained. Not told what was existentially wrong with the universe. I get my nose rubbed in the problems around me for most of the day, so a little bit of wholesome escape is welcome.

      It seems like things such as "family values", right versus wrong and other things my generation valued are slowly but surely going down the proverbial tubes. I never believed "Leave it to Beaver," or "Ozzie & Harriet" or other such shows were real but I saw them as examples of us at our best.

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!