July 6, 2016

The past, brought to you by the present

It would come as no surprise, to me at least, to find out there are actually people out there who look at us classic TV aficionados and think that, well, we're maybe just a little batty. They look at our dedication to fifty- and sixty-year-old shows and think (not always without good reason) that some of us take it a little too far, that we've carried our appreciation for the past to a point where we're in danger of rejecting the present altogether, as something from which no good can come. To them we spend our days shut up in dim, dusty rooms living in our own personal twilight zone.

I imagine this is probably true for some people, at least once in a while. I have my own moments, when I’d like nothing better than to say the hell with it all and retreat to a world painted in sepia tones where all the television shows are in glorious black-and-white. (And, to top it off, I can open the window and yell at kids to get off my lawn.) On the other hand, in the world of today we don't have to worry about polio and many other diseases that terrorized people in mid-century America, we don't have to spend hours cleaning clothes and dishes by hand, we don't have to wrestle with cars lacking power steering - I'm sure you get the drift. The mere fact that you’re reading these very words right now wouldn’t have been possible back then.

But let's bring this closer to home, to the world of television. It's true that I watch very little contemporary TV other than sports, news, and the odd documentary or recent movie.* If it weren’t for my need to stay current, we’d be prime candidates for cord cutting; between our DVD collection, YouTube and Amazon Prime, we’ve got more than enough content to last us through a reasonable lifetime, or until the State comes to get us, whichever comes first.

*Though it is worth pointing out that the show at #1 on my hit parade is a current series, although I've shifted my allegiance from Top Gear to The Grand Tour.

And with that last paragraph, I’m about to prove my point – that it is, in fact, quite impossible for any classic TV buff to completely reject the present, for it is only the present that gives us access to the past.

I got to thinking about all this from a Terry Teachout column last week, in which he pointed out how it was much too easy to take the present for granted, that many of the things we enjoy without thinking would have been quite unthinkable back in the very days to which we keep returning. And as he talks about how back in the day every television show was "appointment television" that required you to make real decisions in your viewing choices because you only had that one chance to see it, no recording or going back later to catch what you missed or what was on the other channels.

I remember those days, and for all that we talk about the quality and content and charm of television back then, I have no desire to revisit the technical limitations that existed alongside those great shows. Which brings up another point: it is, after all, the evolution of technology that makes it possible for us to travel to the past in the first place.

Think about it: from the ability to record and replay, to the video tape and DVD, to streaming services that operate on machines you can hold in the palm of your hand, to subchannels that give us a windfall of classic programming - you can watch, over and over again, a history of television that goes back nearly 60 years. You can watch them free from the constraints of time and proximity to a television, free from having to choose between two desirable offerings, free to see programs that aired before you were born, or never made it to your viewing area when you were young. Is this great or what?

It's that technology that is responsible in great part for fanning the flames of nostalgia, for creating a demand for classic television that has expanded the choice far beyond the standard hits of each decade. For every Star Trek, I Love Lucy, Hogan's Heroes or The Dick Van Dyke Show that has been on pretty much as long as television has been into reruns, there are shows like The Four Just Men, Combat, The Fugitive, The Loner - series that had a short run, or never played much in syndication, or held a reputation for greatness based on their original run but hadn't been seen since. If technology hadn't succeeded in bringing us the most popular shows, it's unlikely the resulting demand for more would have caused companies to go into their vault for more obscure or seldom-seen series. It's unlikely the classic subchannels would have been seen as profitable ventures. It's unlikely an entirely new generation of fans would have grown up loving shows like Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best. It's unlikely that groups of fans devoted to particular series would have emerged, sharing information and creating a far more complete picture of a given show than had ever existed before. And it's unlikely that we ever would have experienced the picture and sound quality that far surpasses even that from the original airing. In other words, it is only because we are around today to benefit from this technology that any of these experiences are possible.

Not surprisingly, it's my contention that we're better off for all this, for the chance to see and learn from shows of the past, to be reacquainted with the stars and celebrities from other eras, to share the moments and memories that link us to our common history. These people, their shows, the images contained in them, the scripts from which they worked - all of these things deserve to be preserved and shared. And in each case, it's technology that makes it possible.

So if you're inclined to think of me as someone who lives in the past, think again. I don't apologize for my viewing habits, for my embrace of an era which, in many ways, seems superior to our own. Because it's only the perspective provided by the present that allows one to make such value judgments, that just maybe shows us every once in a while that things weren't all that good back then, that not every show in black-and-white is a winner.

Stuck in the past? Me? Nonsense! Better to think of me as a traveler, one who journeys daily between the past and the present, with an occasional look into the future. If these trips are at times sobering ones, they're also frequently exciting, thrilling, and immensely satisfying. Most important, they allow me to enjoy something that would have been impossible to fully experience for those who actually lived in the past.

It is the past, brought to you by the present - a present that I am only too happy to inhabit.


  1. Excellent piece about a topic I've also pondered many times. I agree with your assessment that it's easier to celebrate TV's past with the technology of the present...however, when we had no choice but to watch a program on a certain day at a certain time, as we still must do when going to a Broadway show, it made the presentation more significant. It also had a more communal aspect, as we sat down to watch these shows knowing that tens of millions of other people were doing the same thing at the same time (give or take a time zone difference). We don't have enough such shared passions anymore, and while I wouldn't go as far as to say it contributed to the current fractures in our society, I do think it's nice to have something we can all enjoy together. But as I once wrote in a similar rumination, if you can do something anytime you want, there's nothing special about doing it.

    1. You're absolutely right about that, David - television was meant, I think, to be communal, not to be something done in isolation from others. All we have left as shared experiences are what - sports and news events? Where's the fun in that?

      One of my pet projects (which I'd probably be farther along on if I actually did something about it) is to start a classic television group that would meet once a month and watch some old TV shows and then discuss. The shows could have a current theme, or they could all be from the same year, or star the same person - something that would allow for a fun discussion/argument about it afterwards. And that goes directly against this idea that watching TV is now a solitary activity, which is why I think it's a good idea. Do you have any thoughts on that? It would probably be a local group, but I can even see expanding it so that people living in another area or unable to make the meeting could watch the same show on their own TV and then Skype or IM in and be part of the discussion. I personally think it would be a lot of fun!

    2. I like the idea! And while there is no substitute for shared reactions emanating from the same room, it would be nice if it were open to others as well, though obviously that's easier said than done. I think once I had a group together, each month I would invite a different member to program a viewing night.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!