February 27, 2019

The shows that never were

We all know that television is nothing if not derivative. From the beginning of the industry, successful programming has bred copycats; at the outset, it was Westerns, police dramas and private eyes, while in recent decades we've been deluged with shows about nothing (Seinfeld), shows about friends who all seem to live next to each other (Friends), shows about strangers thrown together (The Real World), singers trying to make it big (American Idol), and so on. Most of the time, the imitations are just that, pale knockoffs of the original, and many of them fail miserably. Sometimes, as was the case after the wave of shows imitating National Lampoon's Animal House, they all bomb.

Using this as a starting point, let's consider an intriguing article that appeared recently at The Ringer. The premise, based on Danny Boyle's upcoming movie Yesterday: what if the Beatles had never existed? Would another group have picked up the slack? Would rock music have evolved differently? Would their music still be successful if it were introduced today? It's an interesting exercise, the kind of question that fans love to hash out for hours in a restaurant while the server gives them dark sideways looks, or late night on social media. (Hint, hint!)

(There's a TV angle to this as well; how might The Ed Sullivan Show, for example, have been impacted? The Fab Four's four Sullivan appearances not only created a sensation, they ushered in an alliance between Sullivan and some of the biggest rock acts of the day, geared to appeal to younger viewers. Would this still have been the case if the Beatles never had been, or had this ship already sailed the night Ed welcomed Elvis to the stage?)

Anyway, here's the question before the court, and I'd like to open it up to all of you. Which TV show's absence, in your opinion, would have had the greatest impact on television's history, and on pop culture's history as well? Dragnet? I Love Lucy? All in the Family? Monday Night Football? Survivor? And what is it about this show that changes everything if you wipe it from our collective memory banks? Television is an enormously influential medium; there's hardly a corner of American culture that hasn't been touched by it. Surely the absence of a given show might have enormous ramifications on how the future evolved.

So fill in the blank, as Match Game might have put it: "How would television be different if _________ had never existed?" Use the comments section, and tell us why you feel that way. The possibilities are endless! TV  


  1. OK, in the middle of a deep winter in upstate NY on a Wednesday night with graduate deposits due by the 15th, I may not be ready to handle this question, Mitchell. But give me the weekend and you've got a deal!

    1. Hah! We've had a record snowfall for the month of February here in Minnesota, and it's below zero now. But I'll give you a pass until you're ready! :)

  2. The problem with your example is that there was a LOT of innovative rock music on the scene at the time of the Beatles (Whoes first attempt at America flopped BTW) & Ed SUllivan was already not only well established by 1964 but had introduced dozens of acts geared toward the changing youth market. So it MIGHT be better to scratch The Beatles, and say The British Invasion, for example.

    As for TV, this is more difficult because, as you have presented the question, you have to provide a direct link from show A (I Love Lucy) to Show T (Everyone Loves Raymond - probably the last Stay at Home Mom sitcom). How have classics like Playhouse 90 had any influence on The ABC Movie of the Week or Jessie Stone (since there are no live action dramatic presentations anymore).

    You would almost have to present an almost James Burke "Connections" style lineage to connect I Love Lucy, to the wrath of widowed parents in the 60s (The Lucy Show) to the Feminist flag bearers (On Day at A Time) to the unwed fathers of My Two Dads and the unwed mothers of Baby Daddy. And then we have the whole Gale Storm Show leading to That Girl leading to Mary Tyler Moore and her host of clones.

    The next problem is how far back do we go? "I Love Lucy" was only possible ( I would slightly argue) because of the Radio show "My Favorite Husband." Playhouse 90 because of Suspense! Rocky Jones and Captain Video because of Terry & the Pirates.
    So what would have happened if the Cathode Ray Tube had been invented before AM radio? We would go from books & plays right into living room entertainment without the learning curve of audio media.

    So (she FINALLY gets to her point) the type of TV we have today is a growth of all the shows and styles of the past. At any point someone would have come up with a Lucyesq show and a quality one at that. Ms. Ball was extremely talented, I agree, but there are a lot of talented people out there. And for every "Hit it out of the Ballpark" whos like "One Day at a Time," there were a box full of failed pilots like "Three to Get Ready." Even the greatest innovators had their disasters.

    So, while the eddies and flows of TV history would have been different, the main currents would have been the same.

  3. "How would television be different if intelligent leads had never existed?"

    As a child, I remember faithfully watching "Have Gun - Will Travel" with my father who would let me stay up late to watch it. He always shared the lesson from the show with me.

    Unlike most ABC or Warner cowboy shows of the time, Paladin read Shakespeare, featured a chess piece (the knight) on his "business" card and rarely shot anyone, figuring out a more peaceful way (karate, old fashion fists but also reasoning and logic).

    Are there an "branches" from the intellectual hero tree that may have come from the adventures of Paladin? A look at one of HGWT's writers may give us a clue---Gene Roddenberry.

    The character of Spock has several of Paladin's traits. A distaste for violence (using logic or the famous Spock pinch instead), a constant need for learning and intellect and a coolness to offset the fiery passion of Captain Kirk.

    In the same, era, one could argue Adam Cartwright and Jared Barkley as the learned "cowboys", written to contrast their brothers (and half-brothers") more emotional personalities. Both of them could shoot straight when necessary but in several episodes logic and rhetoric overruled the bullet.

    Paladin never had a co-star who was the opposite of his cool, rational self. that was usually reserved for the gust star.

    If one looks as a path of evolution of these characters as TV programming progressed through the decades, I would argue that they became what is now the "flawed hero"...The viewing public wanted more depth from their heroes and as such, writers added levels of flawed humanity to the likes of Frank Furillo and the likes. The flaws became greater than the intellect and the public ate it up---to the point where Tony Soprano and Don Draper became such flawed and inwardly despicable that they actually became complicated heroes for the 21st century.


  4. I was just thinking of Queen for a Day. It seems that it did benefit women who desperately needed things (the few that won, that is). But it also seems to have been the seed for reality programs that focus on dysfunction and human misery. Would we have had "Honey Boo Boo" and "Real Housewives..." and "Celebrity Rehab" without it? Hard to say. It looks like sleazy tv isn't a new invention, there's just more of it now.

    And I think we could do with heroes that are a little less "flawed". I'm still a huge Rifleman fan. Lucas McCain sometimes leaned toward action, and he could be stubborn. But he had an interest in life and learning and didn't mind philosophizing from time to time. There are ways to "flaw" a character and still leave them mostly admirable. Many writers don't seem to take the time.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!