April 27, 2016

Early television: good or bad?

My friend Steve forwarded something to me the other day; he thought it might be worthy of discussion on the blog, and after thinking about it for awhile I think it's right. It's an exchange from an interview with Patton Oswalt (who's sadly in the news for other reasons these past days), and it pertains to the heritage, the legacy of classic television:

Question: I’d like to give you three options: Do you think the Internet is going to become more and more of a hellscape until it self-combusts, do you think we’re headed toward it becoming even worse and more and more annoying, or do you think people eventually get better?

Patton Oswalt: See, initially, I was in the whole “Oh, this will become and remain an even worse and worse and worse hellscape” camp. But then I was reading about the early years of TV — it was awful, it was so bad what television started out as — and then, luckily, more and more artisans began to be drawn toward it and it got better. So I think that right now, the Internet is sort of in its DuMont [Television] Network stage of development, and it will get better.

Unfortunately, we’re seeing the early crappy years. I mean, obviously there are glimmers of intelligence out there.. but, you know, the infant form of anything is going to be a lot of, uh, I guess, chaff if you will, and it’ll get better and better. So we’re here for the chaff years.

Now that's food for thought, isn't it? It's a question with, at heart, a provocative premise. I've been involved in more than one discussion on the "Golden Age of Television,", and it's reasonable to conclude that everything wasn't golden back then, no more so than during the age of Pericles. For every triumph such as Playhouse 90 (and that had its share of lemons as well), there were shows that just don't deserve the time of day.

What comes next might seem as if I'm ragging on Patton Oswalt a little bit, and that really isn't the case. At first blush some of what he says sounds elitist, or dismissive of classic TV, but I'm not convinced he meant all that, or that he intended to paint with a broad brush. Any man who knows about DuMont is not a fool when it comes to early TV history. But what he's done here is open the door to endlessly entertaining topics of discussion: is TV better now than it was then? Is it better to have more explicit shows, or ones that leave something to the imagination? Are we better off looking at shows as pure entertainment, or should they have societal value as well? And what about shows that advocate one point of view or another?

Oswalt's right, I think, to the extent that in the original days of television, anything went because you'd throw just about anything on the screen just to have something on, and a lot of that could be pretty bad. Of course, DuMont had a brief but noteworthy history - as the always-reliable Wikipedia puts it,

DuMont was the first network to broadcast a film production for TV: Talk Fast, Mister, produced by RKO in 1944. DuMont also aired the first TV situation comedy, Mary Kay and Johnny*, as well as the first network-televised soap opera, Faraway Hill. Cavalcade of Stars, a variety show hosted by Jackie Gleason, was the birthplace of The Honeymooners (Gleason took his variety show to CBS in 1952, but filmed the "Classic 39" Honeymooners episodes at DuMont's Adelphi Theater studio in 1955-56). Bishop Fulton J. Sheen's devotional program Life Is Worth Living went up against Milton Berle in many cities, and was the first show to compete successfully in the ratings against "Mr. Television". In 1952, Sheen won an Emmy Award for "Most Outstanding Personality"
*Also, as I recall, the first program to show a married couple sharing the same bed.

In addition, The Original Amateur Hour, The Ernie Kovacs Show and Captain Video were programs that first aired on DuMont. It's true that some of these shows were crude in comparison to today's smooth productions, while others were limited by the technological issues of the day. Some of them had particularly bad storylines and iffy acting - I've seen some of Captain Video, and it can make you cringe. When Oswalt critiques those early days, is that the kind of thing he's discussing? I suspect so. On the other hand, Amateur Hour (and talent shows of the time by Arthur Godfrey and Lawrence Welk) was really nothing more than the American Idol of its day, minus all the flash and glitz; that's an example of a show where the looks have changed in comparison to today's efforts, but at heart all talent shows are the same.

Does Oswalt mean that the content of the shows back then suffers compared to today? Interesting question. I'll admit that watching someone play the accordion or sing a corny song can look pretty hokey, but that relates more to the popular culture of the time than anything else. Is that what Oswalt is saying, that the pop culture of today is superior to what it was back then? I hope not, because if he is, I'd have to disagree. Strongly.

What about the subject matter of those shows? Many of them concerned domestic family life. Is that part of it? Well into the '60s, TV produced series from Donna Reed and Father Knows Best to Leave it to Beaver and Ozzie and Harriet. The intelligentsia tend to roll their collective eyes at them nowadays, talking about the fanciful portrayal of a time that never really was. Is that what Oswalt is saying here, that these shows were successful, well-acted and written, but that the content is too simplistic, not cool enough for today's audiences?

What about educational and cultural television? The early years of TV had classical works of drama and music, and public broadcasting started out as a truly eclectic mix of education, rather than a warehouse for British drama. And dating back to the very beginning, the pioneers of television worried about their responsibility to present such programming to the audience, and whether or not ratings should enter the discussion. Does Oswalt consider that time to be part of the good time for TV, or not?

And then there's drama, and when it comes to that there is some true brilliance that literally does date back to television's infancy. Studio One debuted in 1948; the Hallmark Hall of Fame in 1951, the aforementioned Playhouse 90 in 1956. Gunsmoke, an adult Western that often raised provocative questions about society and its mores, premiered in 1955; Naked City, one of the first police dramas to introduce social relevance as well as gunplay, started in 1958; Route 66, which often presents a vivid picture of American life of the time, debuted in 1960. The Defenders, one of the most provocative of the legal dramas, came along in 1961. Most if not all of these shows were known for the richness of the writing as well as the strength of the acting and directing talent.

Are these the artisans that Oswalt refers to?We've talked about the era of live television recently, to the effect that the loss of live TV meant the loss of an entire genre of programming. Would he consider these shows to be from those "early days" because of their lack of polish, the rough edges and errors that were not uncommon in live TV? Or would he point to the writers, people like Serling and Chayefsky and Rose who were legitimately recognized as artisans in their own time, and cite this as evidence of television's positive evolution? Is this when it got better, the days when drama was considered a writer's medium? Or is it when television began to tackle complex and controversial issues, ranging from abortion to equal rights to war? Do those kind of issues constitute the entrance of the artisan? Does he think that talent began with Aaron Sorkin? I doubt it, but it's just kind of fun to throw a snarky comment like that in there.

As I said, the whole thing is fun, because it gets people to really talk about TV and what's it's about. Are the heavily-serialized shows of the last fifteen years or so, the "new" Golden Age, better than the dramas of the '50s and early '60s, many of which tackled heavy issues without resort to sensationalism? Was St. Elsewhere better than Ben Casey? How do they compare to ER? And what about Naked City vs Hill Street Blues?

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this discussion is the part we haven't touched on at all: Oswalt's comparison of today's internet to those early days of television, with the presumption that the internet will evolve into a more mature product, as he believes television has. I'm not sure about that; if you were to tell me that the quality of the internet product will continue to follow the same arc as television programming, I don't know if I'd laugh or cry.

I think Oswalt's comments open the door, and I think this gives us the opportunity to defend classic television, to point out both its strengths and flaws, and to look at TV's role in the wider culture. I'm sure everyone's got opinions on these questions - I know I've got mine, but how about yours?


  1. Well, Dumont had budgetary constraints, but they also put Hazel Scott (first African-American to host her own network show in 1950), Ernie Kovacs and Jackie Gleason (The Life of Riley was originally his, in 1949) on the television map. Also Colonel Humphrey Flack, sort of a Bilko two years before Bilko. Just looking at Dumont's programming alone (not to mention the other 3 networks), one sees a lot of programs that we'd love to be able to see now.

    Oswalt could have worded it better, definitely.

    Looking back, some short-lived shows seem better than shows that lasted several years, and others are best left forgotten. You could say that about movies and radio shows of any era too. And, yes, internet content.

  2. Oswalt's statement is a sweeping generalization that invalidates itself just by that fact. The people who made television when there was no blueprint for television did, for the most part, an outstanding job. Look at how many shows from that era are still revered, even by those who were not around when they first aired. To say TV is "better" now demands a definition of "better" - and I suspect that reasons he cites for preferring current product and dismissing the classics would also be the reasons I prefer to watch the classics.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!