June 23, 2021

How old is old?

I've long since become accustomed to the idea that nothing of much value comes from the BBC; it is, after all, the network that got rid of the Jeremy Clarkson version of Top Gear. I'm not here, though, to rag on the BBC. Instead, I'm going to rag on a recent article at the BBC website.

The article, by David Renshaw, asks the question: Is Watching Old TV Good For the Soul? For those of us who hang out here, the answer is obviously yes. It is, in the words of my friend David Hofstede, Comfort TV. It's something of an existential question, getting to the heart not only of what old television purports to be, but how it intersects with the increasingly fluid values displayed in today's pop culture. I suppose you could describe it as the basis for everything this website is about, and in fact I did describe it that way in the first chapter of my book The Electronic Mirror, which is pretty much all about the question of what classic television is. The only question that concerns me right now, however, is how you define the word old

I've used the words old and classic more or less interchangeably in that paragraph, because that's how I've always thought of it myself. Maybe I've been wrong about that, though. One of my favorite commentators, Mike Doran, once suggested using the word "vintage" instead of "classic," since classic implies a certain quality that doesn't necessarily depend on age; hence the otherwise oxymoronic term "instant classic." (I suppose one could say that "instant classic" is as oxymoronic as "instant coffee," but since I don't drink coffee, I don't have a horse in that race.) Anyway, it was a good suggestion, but I was already too far down the road I've taken to change, and so the term remains "classic television." 

But this Renshaw article redefines old in a way that isn't familar to me. Some of the "old" television programs mentioned in the article include:
  • The Sopranos
  • The Office
  • Seinfeld
  • The West Wing
Depending on what you think of them, these shows (and others from their era) could, I suppose, be considered classic, but would you consider them old? I don't; to me, "old" means the 1950s and 1960s, perhaps the 1970s. I suppose, though, today's viewers would consider them not old, but ancient. Maybe that's what bothers me about this article; after all, if shows from less than 30 years ago can be considered old, what does that make me, in the early years of my seventh decade? Am I ancient too? Hell, I'm not even eligible for Medicare yet. 

It gets worse. Renshaw quotes Daniel D'Addario, Variety's head TV critic: "'The sea-change I'm really expecting is that there will come a point where we're so far past Friends and The Office that future generations cannot relate to them,' he says, pointing to I Love Lucy as an example of a classic TV show that no longer chimes with modern audiences."

It's true that I've never been much of a fan of Lucy, but I'm going to take a stand on her behalf here. Yes, the world populated by Lucy and Ricky Ricardo is one that might appear foreign to modern audiences, unless they grew up watching Mad Men (another "old" program). And yet, I have to ask why Lucy wouldn't chime with them? The show's humor, much of it rooted in the human condition, is timeless, and often laugh-out-loud funny. Love, friendship, misunderstandings, couples getting mad and making up—these are things that have tickled the funny bones of people for generations. And as for slapstick, someone once said that nothing was funnier than a man slipping on a banana peel, because the anticipation was half of the fun. Isn't that how we feel when Lucy and Ethel are trying to keep up with the chocolates on the assembly line in the candy factory? And I'm not just talking about comedy; is there any who can really say, with a straight face, that a show like The Twilight Zone doesn't have something to say to us today?

No, you know what kinds of shows I think future generations won't be able to relate to? Shows that traffic in political proselytizing in the guise of entertainment. These shows don't even attempt to be timeless; they're geared to appeal to others of similar beliefs, a kind of secret handshake that welcomes like-minded viewers into an exclusive club, from which they can laugh at and ridicule those outside their clubhouse walls. I suppose these shows, like so many other things in our modern economy, are designed to be disposable; considering the number of programs viewers can choose from (532 original scripted television series were created last year), maybe they don't need to have any shelf life at all. We watch them, and when we're done with them we just throw them away. Maybe it's just me, but I doubt that in twenty years very many people are going to be laughing at jokes about presidents with orange hair.

The best part of this article, by far, is D'Addario's explanation of why people turn to old shows, and it's as David Hofstede says: for comfort. "[T]here is the comfort of familiarity. The things people are binging are not deeply experimental, you know the rhythms of these shows very well. It's about knowing what you're getting and letting it wash over you." And for people who feel alienated from today's world that seems to say that right is wrong, left is right, up is down—well, for them (and there are a lot of them), that familiarity is not going to be found exclusively in the shows of the last thirty years; they're going to find it in shows like Leave it to Beaver, Andy Griffith, and, yes, I Love Lucy.

It is, I think, alarming that we've come to the point that we consider something from thirty years ago as old. It really doesn't have anything to do with television at all, you know. It's a disregard for experience, for history, for tradition; it's a scorn for values that were accepted and lived out for centuries, if not millennia. It's the mark of a society that thinks only the now is important and that values are transitory, that crucifies people for the sin of having been products of their time, that views the past and those from it as being as disposable as, well, those TV shows I was talking about. 

So that brings us back to the question I posed at the beginning: how old is old? It's a question we all struggle to answer; we keep coming up with trite phrases like 60 is the new 40 and then plaster them on wooden plaques we hang on our walls to make ourselves feel better as the birthdays ramp up; we keep talking and dressing and living as if we're still twenty years younger than we are. We don't want to grow up, let alone grow old.

There are those who say that seeking comfort in nostalgia is an attempt to escape the world of today, but maybe it's also a way of acknowledging that we're all growing older, at the rate of 60 minutes per hour, and that we've come to terms with it. Watching television from the 1950s and 1960s isn't a way of trying to recapture our youth—it's admitting that, like these shows, we are old, and we accept it. As Harry Reasoner (a really old TV guy, and therefore of no importance) once said, no matter how a man tries to avoid risk or grasp for youth, "he may get one day extra or none; he never gets eternity." Not in this world, anyway. TV  


  1. Well, since you called me out, I feel obligated to reply - some way, anyhow ...

    But your query - How Old Is Old? - that's triggered some thoughts.

    - If you've still got this week's TV Guide - the 1954 one with Ed Sullivan on the cover - would you please turn to page A-28, and look at the ad for Channel 2's evening newscast?
    The man in the photo is Julian Bentley, Channel 2's anchorman at 6:15 each weekday evening; his delivery of news was stern and unsmiling, his voice severe-sounding and always serious.
    Just for fun, guess how old Julian Bentley was in 1954.


    Just back from looking it up: in 1954, Julian Bentley would have been 45 years old.
    (Based on his 1968 obituary, which set his age at that time at 59.)

    - So How Old Is Old?

    You didn't give a date for the Harry Reasoner quote about death and its avoidance (I think you used it once before, but I don't remember its date).
    But I do remember my own quoting of Harry Reasoner's ABC obit for Rex Stout, from 1975 (Stout, you'll recall, was 88 when he passed).
    Again, just back from looking it up: in 1975, Harry Reasoner was 52.
    When Harry died in 1991, he was 68 - two years younger than I am right now.

    - More on Mortality:
    If you check through those books I've been sending you, you'll find a couple of novels by one of my all-time favorites, William L. DeAndrea.
    I'd like to ask you to look at The HOG Murders, which contains a moving introduction by Bill DeAndrea's widow, novelist Jane Haddam.
    It's a reminiscence of their marriage, with a brief but harrowing account of Bill's final illness, which was quick but not merciful.
    However it's also a celebration of all the work Bill managed to accomplish in his life (you've got two of his best mysteries in hand, thanks to me (you're welcome)).
    Here's the thing: when Bill DeAndrea died in 1996, he was 44 years old.
    If he were alive today, Bill would be two years younger than I am right now.
    I strongly suggest that you read Jane Haddam's introduction to The HOG Murders, for perspective (read Bill's novels, too, while you're at it - they're that good).

    - When I got to be in my mid-sixties, the State of Illinois issued me a spanking new State ID Card (not a Driver's License, because I don't drive), which expires in 9999 - in other words I don't have to renew it, ever.
    Thus, I am now, legally and officially - Old.
    The thing about that is, growing up in the '50s and '60s, I've always felt Old.
    Everything I grew up reading, watching, and hearing, all of it came about before I was born, and I took all of it in, to pick and choose as I liked.
    Demographics, the great Junk Science of this age, hadn't yet come along to tell me what I should or shouldn't enjoy, based on my age, ancestry, residence, religious beliefs (or lack of same), how I part my hair (or lack of same), or any of that rigmarole.
    I'm not especially enjoying my "Senior Years", less and less every day; mostly I'm sitting on the sidelines, shaking my head - and I'm starting to detect a distinct rattle ...

    But here's a quote from one of Bill DeAndrea's mysteries:

    "Nobody lives forever ..."
    "Yeah, but have you ever noticed, everybody tries?"

    So how's your week going?

  2. And since you called me out, to borrow Mike's opening line...

    Yes, "comfort" is a big part of why we return to those classic shows - which for me, as for you, means television from the 1950s-1970s. "Old" does not mean irrelevant, as Greek tragedies and Shakespeare plays remain rather popular; there is truth and beauty in them, and as John Keats reminds us, "That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

    I think there is also truth and beauty in the shows we both still watch. Perhaps to a lesser extent - a Roswell Rogers "Father Knows Best" script is not on the same level as "As You Like It" - but it had something to say to its audience, and something to say to audiences now. We can appreciate the artistry and craftsmanship that went into its creation.

    The difference with current television is that both "As You Like It" and "Father Knows Best" received wide exposure to a large audience over the course of generations, enough so that it's quality could be recognized. That seems no longer possible in a TV universe where hundreds of new series debut every year, and are watched by maybe 1% of the population. Perhaps those who enjoyed them will also enjoy revisiting them in 20 years, but they will never evoke the generational nostalgia of the classics, because they will never have made that big of a splash in the first place.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!