August 3, 2016

What's classic about classic TV?

Last month I wrote about how people who enjoy classic television shouldn't be looked upon as trapped in the past; in fact, it is only today's technology that enables one to unlock the past and fully appreciate it, and the past attains a certain richness particularly when viewed from a distance: in other words, from outside and not from within.

All this brings to mind a question I keep coming back to, again and again: why classic television? Specifically, what makes me seek to return to two particular decades more than any other: the ‘50s, the decade before I was born; and the ‘60s, the decade which saw me enter the world, but also the one of which I have the fuzziest memories.

It’s normal, I think, to have curiosity about what things were like in the years B.Y., “Before You,” even though the current generation appears to think history begins on the day of their own birth. Oftentimes we don’t want to go all the way back to the far past, decades before we became the blessed event; it’s the near past, when things were recognizably similar to what we remember, when there is a tangible link between that time and our own, that captures our attention. For example, I can recognize 1955 as different from 1962, but far more similar than 1962 is compared to, say, 1969. And it’s natural to want to know more about what things were like in the early years of your life, at the age when you could form a vague memory of something but not one strong enough to survive intact to adulthood. Lileks had a paragraph about this that, as usual, describes what I’m talking about far better than I could:

I have a box of my dad's slides, taken in the first few years we lived in the hallowed Turquoise Rambler, and they are precious - prelapasarian pictures whose situations I remember in the most vague and indistinct form. In one picture I am squinting unhappily and holding up a dead pheasant. My dad shot it, brought it home; we ate it. We spat shot onto the plate. In another I'm in the turquoise inflatable pool in the backyard, Mom in a lounge chair, and while I don't remember the moment I remember everything about that pool, the feel of the plastic seam, the pink bricks that paved the patio by the back door, the tall thin trees at the end of the lot, the clothesline - the more I think and drill down the more I recall, and the slides are doors into rooms at the far end of a corridor, way back behind me. The backyard was summer. One year I dug canals in the dirt back by the tall trees, filled it with water; there was a story, a plot, an afternoon spent alone finding some drama in this ration of dirt.

Isn’t that nice?

For someone who enjoys the history of television almost as much as television itself - someone like me, for example - it's easy to see why the '50s and '60s are of interest. They represent television's formative years, the years in which the medium struggled to find out what it was good at and what it wasn't good at, when creative minds threw all kinds of programming against the wall to see what stuck, when live programming came and went and more sophisticated forms of filming came into their own, and when color slowly but surely replaced black-and-white.

Although television has come a long way since those early days, just as the United States has come a long way from the days of the revolution, one still has to hearken back to the beginning to understand it all. There's no doubt that if you want to become a TV historian, you have to start there, and if you do, nothing that has come since is likely to much surprise you. The growth of cable and satellite, the advent of reality programs, the striving for dramas dealing with adult content, the myriad advances in technology - all of those can be found back at the very start.

For me, and people of my age demographic, there's another reason why this era of television is so interesting - that's because it comes from our own formative years, the years that go into making us who and what we are today. In that sense television isn't so very different from us; it grew up as we did, and just as our teen years begin to form our personalities, our mores, our ways of thinking and acting - such is the case with television as well. And since television is a part of those years for us, it's natural that the programs we watched played a role in our development, even if it's only limited to creating the memories that we look back upon years later.

Take that quote from Likeks - who among us, watching a television show from our youth, can't be swept back to a certain place and time, remembering the home we lived in, the school we went to, the classmates we dated? Perhaps it's a little later - that first job, a memorable Christmas, an even that remains frozen in our memory. All it takes is a glimpse of a particular program, and we're whisked back to that time as if we'd never left.

Those formative years are going to be different for everyone, depending on when and where you grew up. It's why some are drawn to '80s shows like Alf, others to the '90 sitcoms like Friends. If you were to ask me, both of those shows seem too recent to be considered classic, but for someone who was born in 1980, Friends can be right up their wheelhouse. Friends left NBC a dozen years ago, meaning that someone who came to the show when they were, say, 18, is now 30. A lot younger than me, to be sure, but old enough that we wouldn't necessarily call them a "kid" anymore.

This isn't nostalgia, exactly, nor is it sentimentality. Classic television does not create an alternate universe, one to which we retreat to escape the pressures of modern life, a place where everything and everyone is frozen in time as if nothing had changed since we lived there ourselves.* People who think of it that way, and who think of classic TV fans as people who long for a different world, really don't understand what it's all about.

*That is, unless you happened to grow up in The Twilight Zone.

The point to all of this is that television, more than anything, is like a book of photographs, a family album. It's what Lileks talks about - a place where one can revisit the past without becoming lost in it, where one can emerge from the memories refreshed and invigorated rather than bitter and disappointed. You may not like the direction the world's headed in, and you may think things were better back in the good old days - and you may well be right. But as I said in that previous piece, it's today's world that gave you the means by which you could revisit the past.

There's nothing wrong with escaping to another time and place for a little while; it's the function that movies played during the years of the depression, the function that all entertainment plays, really - books perhaps most of all. Television happens to provide a visual as well as an aural snapshot, and being that our senses play such a strong role in forming memory, it's not surprising that TV's effect would be so great. Now, too much of anything - even cherished memories of the past - isn't necessarily a good thing,* but that's a lesson we ought to have learned by now.

*So sayeth Captain Kirk.

You'll notice I've left out most of the part where I talk about the value of being a cultural archaeologist, of digging through the remains of classic television and finding the remnants of a lost civilization, one that has evolved into the world in which we live today. I haven't talked about how a particular program or series might have changed someone's life, made them decide to become a doctor or a lawyer or a football player. I haven't touched on whether or not the world given to us by these TV shows was a realistic depiction of the world in which they were created, or if it was even intended to be. And these things are a very important part of it, at least for me. It's a fascination, as it would be for anyone interested in history and sociology. It's important as well, in that it truly does teach us about how we got there. It's all this, and much more, as I hope the past five-plus years of this blog have demonstrated.

The one thing it isn't, though, is a justification. You shouldn't have to use scholarly pursuits and other highbrow rationale in order to excuse yourself from enjoying classic television. We can, and often do, debate just what makes a particular television program classic, but one thing I think we can agree on is that if it's played a significant part in your life, if it's made you smile or cry or think, if you can remember what it was like when you first saw it, then it's classic to you.

That's why I watch a lot of television from the past, from America's midcentury. It's classic television, for more reasons than one. And that's why I won't apologize for it.


  1. Good article! Classic TV is just plain fun! I like some current TV shows but few of them compare to the best old shows. It's also more comfortable to watch the old shows with your family, since there's less that could be considered offensive. For me, the decade with the least to offer on TV was the '80s.

    1. Thanks, Jack. I think you're right about that - I don't want to be embarrassed by the content of something I'm watching, even if I'm by myself. And if this ever gets to the point where watching classic TV becomes a chore instead of fun, you'll see this blog take a hiatus. I don't ever want to lose my enjoyment of it all.

  2. You ask interesting questions and provide even more interesting answers. I agree with every word of this insightful piece. The definitions are indeed tricky here, but I think "classic TV" is subjective, while "quality TV" is not. Which is why The Twilight Zone is both, and Gilligan's Island qualifies only in the former category. And as much as I appreciate the medium's most acclaimed programming achievements, I can take just as much pleasure in a Saturday morning cartoon from the 1970s, because it brings back happy memories of when the world seemed less angry and less complicated. Even though it probably wasn't.

    1. Thanks as always for the kind words, David! I think you've hit it on the head - this week, I'm going to speculate on just how accurate some of our memories are. In my case, the mind's probably played tricks on me from time to time, which explains a lot!

  3. This piece is so spot on, Mr. Hadley.

  4. Well said. I have noodled with similar ideas at my blog lo these many years, although my particular prism is pop music and Top 40 radio. The past always seems seductively right in a way that the present does not, and there's a natural desire in uncertain times to re-experience times that felt more certain. One can do the same thing with old songs, and I do.

    1. I'll be interested to see what you think of this Wednesday's piece - does the memory (mine, at least) play tricks on you? Can you ever view a program from a time period to which you didn't belong in the same way as if you did belong? Ah, such questions - and such a great group of people I have making comments - what a blessing!

  5. As you'll note, I took my own sweet time working this up:

    See, I never use the term classic TV.
    My term would be vintage TV.
    Or, if I'm not feeling pretentious, old TV.
    I might have mentioned a time or ten that I was born in 1950; thus, my memories of TV are both long- and wide-ranging.
    Back in the day (God, how I hate that phrase), when your family had TV, you watched everything.
    If you lived in a city like Chicago, with all four commercial networks available, plus Educational TV (starting in '55), that was an embarrassment of riches - if you didn't care for what you were seeing, you could get up out of your chair and change the channel knob ... or if you were our dad, you could tell one of the kids to do this (I could get from 2 to 5 to 7 to 9 and back as fast as any kid on the block, if I do say so myself).
    As a TV Guide reader since I could read, I would get interested in whatever I wished, with no "demographics" to tell me what I was supposed to like or not like.
    I had almost everything to choose from: game shows, comedies, variety, mysteries, westerns ... even on rare occasions, a "kiddie show".
    The shows could be old movies (mainly Poverty Row programmers from the '30s and '40s) or newer filmed shows (from the '50s and '60s - with many of the same performers and crews from the '30s and '40s).
    I read credit crawls from an early age, and the connections I made even then contributed to a sense of the history of it all - the continuity, if you will.

    These days I have my DVD wall, representing movies and TV going back to well before I was born - and continuing to the present day.
    I don't believe in "binge watching" or nostalgia nights as proffered here. What I do is select various shows at random, from different years and different circumstances, not looking for a "theme" of any sort; I think that's more fun, to surprise myself.
    ... which doesn't mean that on some occasions, a theme will present itself, unbidden.
    Like the same character actor turning up in shows made 20 or 30 years apart (that's the most frequent one).
    Or finding episodes from the same writer or director, covering a similar time frame.
    Or seeing episodes of the same long-running series that had the same story - one from the '50s, one from the '60s - with little or no change in the dialog (a practice that continues to this day).
    Or any number of other examples you or I could come up with.

    My point here (I think) is that the TV and movies of my youth(?) (and the years before that) were, intentionally or not, timeless - no thought was given to their being "up to the minute" or "up to date" or "hep to their jive" or any other such nonsense ... which we now call demographics, the #1 Junk Science of the Millenium.

    So anyone who decries Old TV just because it is Old TV -
    - they're missing several points.
    Points of time, context, continuity ... points of history, really.
    And it's their loss - their failing, really.

    (This is what happens when you think too much about all this - maybe it's better to just enjoy what's there - and be grateful that so much of it is still there.)

    1. Ah, classic vs. vintage - very interesting! Going back to what David said above, is this the word that describes it best?

      I don't go for the binge watching either, although most of the time we have a set schedule of shows that doesn't change from week to week (which I think I've discussed here - Hawaii Five-0 every Thursday, the same group of series every Saturday, etc.), but like any network schedule that doesn't prevent us from "preempting" our regular shows for something special from time to time, as we did a couple of weeks ago.

      Excellent summary about what people are missing - really like that!


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!