August 9, 2013

Does the show mean what we think it means?

Last night I was watching an episode of the late ‘60s series Run For Your Life, starring Ben Gazzara as lawyer Paul Bryan, who is trying to cram a lifetime’s worth of adventure into a year or two after being diagnosed with a terminal illness. (Which, conveniently, won't affect him physically until very near the end.) It’s an interesting premise, a cross between The Fugitive* and Route 66, in which Bryan tours the country and the world, while running from the one thing he can’t escape – his own body, in which lies his rapidly approaching mortality.

*Not surprising since its creator, Roy Huggins, was also responsible for The Fugitive.

In last night’s episode, the second of the series, Bryan finds himself in West Berlin, where he runs into Eileen, a former flame who tells Bryan she’s being pursued by intelligence services of four nations. (I’m sure that kind of thing has happened to most of us at least once.) Subsequently Bryan is approached by Mike Allen, an American spymaster who asks Bryan to use his lifelong friendship with Eileen to obtain critical information from her, information which could spell the difference between life and death for many people on both sides of the Iron Curtain.* The episode is completely of its time, and that’s what I found not only interesting – but challenging.

*There’s a lot more to the story than that, of course, but for the purpose of our discussion that should suffice.

In order to see why, we need to back up for a moment and put this episode in context. “The Girl Next Door is a Spy” was aired on September 20, 1965, only four years after the construction of the Berlin Wall, three years after the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s the height of the Cold War, which is always one step away from turning very, very hot. Schoolchildren practice “Duck and Cover,” and the edge in the global political climate is palpable. And so when Allen asks Bryan to use his friendship with Eileen to get that information, he does so with the appeal that “your country needs you.”

We’re made uncomfortable by Allen’s request, because Eileen has confided to Bryan that he is the only person she can trust. Their bond goes back to childhood, and how many of us would risk such a bond, even for something as noble as love of country? It is only after Allen shows Bryan an operation to smuggle East German refugees to the West, one that would be endangered without Eileen’s cooperation, that Bryan overcomes his hesitation and agrees to help.

Ben Gazzara (left) and Macdonald Carey
But is that the only reason we’re supposed to be on edge? Viewing this episode through contemporary eyes, one is struck that anybody would take anything from the government at face value, even (or especially) when it’s presented as an appeal from “your country.” We live in cynical times, and even assuming that Allen is telling the truth, even taking for granted that he’s right in his assessment of the threat to a critical operation and the impact it would have on many lives, we’d question the morality and ethics of everything, from American motives to what happens to Eileen once Bryan gets the information the government wants. We might well see Bryan as naïve, and his decision to cooperate with the spies as an idealistic one.  We ask ourselves if our spies are any different, any better, than their spies.

As I say, this is an instant, contemporary reaction – and as soon as I had it, I immediately asked myself if it was the reaction we were supposed to be having? Or was the viewer of today losing the meaning of the story by viewing it outside of the context in which it was made? It was a distracting thought, wondering if an American spy was supposed to be upright and virtuous or suspicious and menacing, or perhaps I was just reading too much into what wasn't actually a spy drama but was really a love story.

I’ve long argued that one of the biggest mistakes we make as a society is to judge the past by the standards of the present. Whether in morality, ethics, technology or appearance, we must keep the original context in perspective to understand what an event truly means. To judge the events of yesterday by the standards of today is not only foolish, it’s inaccurate as well.

I’ll give you an example as it pertains to television: it’s easy to watch certain shows today, shows from the 50s and 60s, and blanch at certain insensitivities – the way women or racial minorities are treated, for example. It offends our contemporary sensibilities. And yet this kind of behavior was, at the very least, common at the time the show was made. Such shows are not a retroactive commentary, as Mad Men might be, but an account of how things were at a given time, or at least how they were seen.

So, returning to “The Girl Next Door is a Spy,” one is tempted to wonder just what Roy Huggins had in mind,* and how the viewer of the day was expected to watch it. Remember, in 1965 things are just starting to get bad; a majority of American college students actually support the Vietnam War, LBJ’s civil rights reforms and War on Poverty express a certain confidence, an optimistic view on the power of government, and both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. are still alive. The news media repeatedly refer to “we” and “us” when discussing American involvement in world affairs.

*Huggins also wrote this episode, under the the pen name John Thomas James.

Eileen (Diana Hyland) about to spill the beans
Are we, therefore, supposed to see Allen (and, by extension, the United States) as unquestionably in the right, fighting against the godless Communists?* Are we to take it on face value that when he appeals to Bryan’s patriotism, we’re supposed to sympathize with that? And is Bryan’s eventual agreement to pump Eileen for the information one that would have been understood and accepted by viewers as the right decision?

*You can’t ignore the casting of Macdonald Carey as Mike Allen, either. Carey, who’s just started his long-running role as Dr. Tom Horton in Days of Our Lives, played the “good guy” in most of his roles. Would this casting have been seen as indicative that we aren’t to question Allen’s trustworthiness, or would we have been supposed to wonder if Carey was being cast against type?

Or would there have, even then, been a suspicion of the government, a suspicion that we didn’t really represent freedom, justice and the American way? Certainly by the end of the decade those thoughts would have been present in the minds of the viewers, if not those of television producers.* But in 1965? Would it have ever even entered the mind of the average viewer to suspect the motives of an American intelligence agent, or of America itself?

*The focus of Mission: Impossible, for example, gradually changed from covert intervention in the affairs of other nations (in the name of America’s best interests, of course) to domestic operations against organized crime and other undesirable elements, when the former became more problematic.

And in doing so, it calls into question our own way of watching classic television. How am I supposed to watch this? Am I reading too much into it? Is my suspicion of Mike Allen blinding me to some larger point that Huggins is going for? Am I distorting the story by viewing it through 2013 rather than 1965 eyes? How would Huggins have assumed viewers would have seen it?

In the end, it’s impossible to divorce yourself from the present enough to view the past as it actually was, which is why particularly topical shows have trouble beyond the context of their own times. No matter what we try, we’re always going to filter what we see through the lens of contemporary mores.

We know that, and attempt to compensate for it, usually subconsciously, which is why a situation like this, in which we do notice it, becomes so interesting. For an episode like this presents us with a view of the past that, for better or worse, we can see but, because of the passage of time, we’ll never be able to completely understand. We're left to ask ourselves: is that what we believed, back then? Did we ever believe it?


  1. Hi Mitchell --

    This is a really interesting post and topic for conversation. I watch a lot of classic shows with my daughter, who, of course, doesn't know the time specific reference points, and often find myself explaining cultural changes in the context of a plot point or joke.

    In some cases, even more recent shows can reveal the disconnect. My daughter and I have been watching the 10 seasons of "Friends" over the summer and some of its jokes and character motivations around issues of homosexuality now seem curious (at least in the blue states).

    I think the real challenge comes when the audience is supposed to infer a character's state of mind and motivation based on a prevailing cultural attitude at the time (i.e., Chandler can't get over the fact that his dad is drag queen). When the attitude changes and you go back to a particular show, the character seems inexplicable and the story no longer works.

    It's also a reminder of one of the reasons pop culture is an important window into studying cultural history. We have documentation of shifts in attitude and examples of cultural change that might otherwise be more difficult to document.

    1. Hi Lynn!

      That's very well put. Whereas a show like "Mad Men" engages in, as I put it above, retroactive commentary (in that it's impossible for the show's makers to divorce themselves completely from viewing the past through the present's sensibilities), watching a show like this, or (especially "Route 66") gives you the picture of how it really was at that point in time.

      Or, let me amend that - it may not be exactly "how it was" - after all, all art distorts somewhat - but it was close enough to being "how it was" for it to be palatable to the viewer. If it wasn't how it really was, it was how viewers thought it could or should have been, if that makes sense.

      That, I think, is why a really well-done show doesn't appear dated so much as it is a time capsule.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!