April 9, 2014

The magic of the past - what classic television tells us about ourselves

We all like classic television around here; that goes without saying.*  Besides the entertainment value, which is considerable, the shows of the past tell us something about ourselves and the times in which we watched them.  For example, it's often said of fans of Doctor Who that your favorite Doctor depends in large part on who was playing the role when you were growing up.

*If you don't, there are better places to hang around .  Trust me.

In a perceptive article at the AV Club, Brandon Nowalk writes about discovering a brand new world, one he scarcely knew existed:*
Late one night a couple of years ago, I stumbled upon an exciting new channel out in the back alleys of my cable package. That’s when I first laid eyes on Peter Gunn, which was exotic even apart from its shadowy look and circus-murder hook. I was bewitched from the moment the carnival barker interrupts the mystery of a stranger draping a reticulated python around a woman in the shadows. And that was just the beginning. Practically the entire programming schedule was new to me—a shaggy case-of-the-week PI show, a small-town drama in the middle of its 13th season, a horror anthology grasping at Val Lewton.
*The articles to which Nowalk links are well worth reading as well.

In addition to Peter Gunn, the shows Nowalk was watching were The Rockford FilesGunsmoke, and Thriller - all shows new to Nowalk.  I know that may be hard for us to believe, steeped as we are in the minutiae of old television, but Nowalk was enchanted by the revelation, which is something that should make all of us happy.  Describing MeTV, the station on which all these shows appeared, Nowalk writes that "its lineup of reruns manages to rival the best slates of the 21st century."

Nowalk refers to this lack of familiarity with the shows of the past "television's cultural amnesia."
When television fans lose their familiarity with classic television, every little formal discrepancy—from black-and-white to a multi-camera format to more obviously stylized performance—leads to perceptions that older TV is dated. And that, in turn, leads to blanket dismissals.
Which brings me back to my initial paragraph.  It's reasonable to assume that we all have a bias toward the television of our own time, which is why today's viewers call Breaking Bad "the best drama television has ever had to offer" - which it might well be, but it's pretty hard to make that claim stick by ignoring the first sixty or so years of television's history. "Don’t we lose more than we gain by constantly promoting the new and hip at the expense of the old and unfamiliar?"

In addition to losing our knowledge of television's past, though, we run the risk of losing touch of our own cultural past.  I often point out how the shows of yesterday offer us a window to the world of yesterday - one which is only approximated in period shows such as Mad Men.  I suppose this isn't a real surprise, given that these kids nowadays think history started about ten minutes ago.  But looking at the shows from the 50s and 60s introduces us to a world of wonder, in which walking on the moon was a fantastic dream; a world of apprehension, in which the threat of nuclear annihilation was a real and present danger; a world of comfort, in which the two-parent family was the norm, and neighbors looked out for each other.  We look at the stereotypes of women and minorities and see how things have changed, we see cars and fashions and marvel how technology has evolved.  We see the small towns and byways of America in the 60s, and wonder at how completely different the country has become.  We see travelogues of distant lands, and dream of travel beyond our own homes.

This is our world - the world that has been shaped by generations past.  When we lose touch of it, we lose touch of ourselves.  It's part of the magic of classic television - the magic of memory.  It's like looking through a family scrapbook, where we can watch ourselves grow, and grow old.  When we suffer from amnesia, when we lose touch with our roots, we are the poorer for it, for as Nowalk writes in conclusion, "To the untraveled viewer, the horizon is endless. I highly recommend exploring." TV  


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!