America in Primetime

In 2011, PBS presented America in Primetime, a documentary in four parts about the history of television. Focusing on the evolution of the Independent Woman, the Man of the House, the Misfit and Crusader, each episodes offered a look back at the beginning of mainstream television in the 1950s until today. Blessed with a great variety of popular interviewees, America in Primetime was an ambitious project with names such as Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Ron Howard, David Lynch and Shonda Rhimes attached to it. Unfortunately however, the series did not live up to its potential and rarely offered controversy about contemporary perception. For years, it’s been in vogue to bash the 50s and idealize the 1960 and 70s, for example, but from the announcement of this PBS production I had expected otherwise.

It’s always easy to look at a bygone era with modern eyes without looking underneath the surface. But no matter how much I am personally tickled by Lucille Ball, the 1950s had more to offer than just I Love Lucy, The Donna Reed Show and Leave it to Beaver. I was surprised, to say the least, when I didn’t hear a mention of Betty White and her already flourishing career and bewildered, like so often, when Mary Richards was called the first single working girl on television. Whatever happened to Connie Brooks and Della Street? After all, not every female character (despite their feminine appeal) was “just” a housewife, a job many (post-)feminists still seem to wrestle with.

Male characters of that era weren’t appraised more adequately either. I mean, Ralph Kramden may have been a prototype for characters like Fred Flintstone or Homer Simpson, but he was already a caricature back in his time and not just a regular guy. Jim Anderson from Father Knows Best, as another popular example, was also more flawed than critics often depict him today. His wholesome attitude and simple answers may have fostered the image of the omnipotent father, but only on the surface – he was wrong too often with his fatherly assessments to call him a picture perfect patriarch.

But America in Primetime doesn’t like to dig deeper and rather creates an odd summary of female liberation (and correlated emasculation of male role models) on TV. Murphy Brown, Sex and the City and Grey’s Anatomy serve as notable examples along with The Good Wife‘s Kalinda Sharma. Positive role models such as The Cosby Show‘s Clair Huxtable, Maggie Seaver from Growing Pains, Designing Women or The Golden Girls don’t even get a mention and I wonder if it’s their grace and domesticity or their love for men that interferes with the desired image of women who favor their careers over everything else.

All in all, America in Primetime – like other documentaries before – celebrates the evolution of television from the simple, archaic days of the 1950s to a supposed golden age of the 2000s (predominantly on pay TV). By celebrating the creation of broken and disturbed characters whose complexity supports the audience’s alleged desire for drama and realism, the program may appeal to anyone who enjoys shows like Nurse Jackie, The Sopranos, Mad Men or Breaking Bad. For anyone who prefers dignity, subtlety and moderation in storytelling, the documentary may draw the wrong conclusions about a bygone era and leave a taste of bias in your mouth. Personally, I was dissatisfied with the fragmented glimpse into TV history and the overwhelming number of present-day TV makers as a primary interview source. But with my fondness for vintage that may not come as a surprise.

The 80s

The 1980s

Looking back, the 80s seem to have been dominated by aerobics, a blindingly rich pink and shoulder pads. What the decade brought us was yuppies, legwarmers and a 1950s comeback. Blue jeans were stone washed, perforated and often tight, and career women wore sneakers on their way to work and then switched back into their heels before entering their business palaces. Bows were big on prom dresses and wedding gowns, men had mullet hair, women perms, and artificial fabrics and colors were the thing to wear. Madonna released her debut album in 1983, The Bangles were popular and so was REM. Lean cuisine entered the market and dieting was a public motto now along with a general fitness craze.

On TV, Murder, She Wrote with super sleuth Angela Lansbury as J.B. Fletcher was mighty popular, as well as Family Ties, The Cosby Show, Growing Pains, The Wonder Years and Who’s the Boss. Other famous shows were The Greatest American Hero, Remington Steele, Fall Guy or ALF. Like in the 70s, the list of household names is long and many of these shows are still well received on DVD or in re-runs today. Continuing a tradition that started back in the 1950s and 60s already, the 80s brought us a lot of shows with Hollywood legends, familiar faces and names. Falcon Crest, for example, featured Jane Wyman, Hotel first Bette Davis and then Ann Baxter and Barbara Stanwyck graced a season of Dynasty‘s spin-off The Colbys. In 1985, my favorite Perry Mason returned to TV after almost 20 years of absence and reunited Raymond Burr with Barbara Hale as Della Street for twenty-six star-studded TV movie episodes that lasted well into the early 90s. Women continued to redefine their image on stellar shows like Cagney & Lacey, The Golden Girls and Designing Women, standing their post-feminist ground as working mothers, single women and retirees.

At the movies, teen flicks like Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or The Breakfast Club turned into box office hits, as well as dance movies like Dirty Dancing, Fame or Footloose (which was just recently remade). All in all, 1980s cinema was dominated by comedies, action movies and romance, creating stars like Molly Ringwald, Michael J. Fox or Patrick Swayze. Some of my decade favorites are Out of Africa, The Big Chill, Beaches, Mask, Matewan, The Doctor or Steel Magnolias. As the last full decade that knew how to create old style Hollywood momentum, the 1980s brought on many more memorable TV shows and films with a lot of stars that are still around these days, Richard Gere, Neil Patrick Harris or Michelle Pfeiffer only to name a few. The 80s also rediscovered class – now guess who’s fond of that?!