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.

Another Season finally over…

Last night, I watched the finales of my on-and-off guilty pleasure program, Grey’s Anatomy, and its creator’s new brainchild, Scandal. I sat through ninety minutes of drama and mayhem until the inevitable cliffhanger concluded both shows for the season. I felt so dissatisfied and drained afterwards, the ups and downs in storytelling were just too much. The unnecessary drama, the pseudo realism and romanticized adultery – it all affected me in an exhausting way. After all, that’s not why I tune in to watch a show. What I’m looking for is entertainment and not an overexposure of depression.

In the 50s and 60s, Our Miss Brooks managed to mention her bad finances, work issues and relationship struggles without making the audience feel bad. She allowed us to laugh with her and didn’t put herself down, nor any of the other characters. On Perry Mason, it was also clear that nothing really bad ever happened to the main cast. No matter how bad a case, Perry, Della and Paul always came out on top and never turned against each other. On I Love Lucy, the main characters fought on occasion, but in the end it was always clear that Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel were friends no matter what. Donna Reed also smiled through every mishap and Alfred Hitchcock tested his audience’s nerves but never showed gritty details of his murder victims’ gruesome deaths.

And that’s what I miss these days – a mixture of suspense, humor and entertainment without the frustrations of a dysfunctional life. I don’t want to see my favorite characters die, nor do I want to hear their constant moaning. What I want is to be able to relax and revisit a storyline I can trust will keep me on my toes. I want dialog and uplifting action, and twists that don’t disgust or traumatize. I don’t want the endless cancer battles, broken heroes and close-up cruelties. I don’t want constant changes in structure and storytelling. So please, stop numbing me with your “anything goes” lack of imagination, dear writers, producers, network execs. I know I’m not the only one who feels that way.

Then and Now

It’s interesting how your perception shifts when you change your viewing patterns. When you watch classic programs only for a while and then return to what’s currently going on on TV, at the movies or online. It gives you a whole new perspective on what works for you and what doesn’t, on how styles have changed and what kinds of issues have evolved when and why. It can give you reassurance about how little our key issues have changed over the decades or make you cry at the loss of dignity and a certain kind of innocence that’s too often been mislabeled ignorance. My conclusion is this: they tend to overdo it these days.

Take Grey’s Anatomy. Once a celebrated new show, it is now a guilty pleasure gem with an entertaining cast and a soapy plot. Not only do they pick up where ER left off at trying to make its audience cringe every week by showing pseudo-realistic shots of injuries that border the macabre, they are also trying to push the boundaries of emotional storytelling. This year’s Valentine’s Day episode, for example, was a little bit of everything: romantic with the right dash of cheese and nostalgia, and a little bit of medical drama on the side. It all went well until the sappy was blown out of proportion as the episode was already on home stretch: a staged romantic dinner at the hospital, maitre d’ included, taking the twists and turns way beyond the already maxed out entertainment factor.

Something similar happened on an otherwise brilliant show now in its third year, The Good Wife. Early in its current season, two of the (vast pool of) main characters got engaged in a sizzling affair. Fine. Half of Perry Mason‘s clients were somehow affected by adultery back in the 1950s and 60s, and after all, that was one of the main topics The Good Wife started out on. But was it really necessary to show us scenes of the likes of a censored soft porn? It didn’t seem to fit the style of the show nor the voice of the characters involved. But maybe that was the point: expect the unexpected, break the rules to keep the audience on their toes. That’s how it works these days, isn’t it? It’s like film noir only at a much faster, dizzier pace.

When I compare contemporary shows with classic programs, it’s striking how dissimilar they are. Cursing, sex and violence – almost anything goes these days – trust pay TV to throw the last taboos overboard if necessary. Personally, I have tired of programs that keep raising the stakes, that show adults who behave like depressed teenagers and dress women in so-called hooker heels. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy some of what’s out there, of what 2012 has to offer. But the options are somewhat limited if reality TV isn’t for you and the ever so popular dramedies tap into the marginally acceptable areas of nerdification, pornification and gayification, repeating themselves over and over again by creating unfortunate clich├ęs.

It doesn’t surprise me that so many people are buying their favorite childhood programs on DVD now, that they are looking for reruns on TV or online. Funny enough, that kind of repetition never seems to get old. And I can only recommend embracing your favorite classics, at least for a while. It may open your eyes.

The 2000s

The 2000s

The new millennium started with a scare that influenced pop culture as much as everyday life. 9/11 in 2001 and the beginning of a lasting financial crisis in 2008 – the 21st century’s first decade did not live up the promise of a pampered life. But like in most crises, pop culture, fashion and the media took the turn towards entertainment. Reality shows seemed to increase by the minute, an interest in the clothes and trends of the 1980s was reborn with a vengeance, long retired musical acts from the 1990s celebrated their revivals and tabloids ran scandals and mayhem about an endlessly growing teenage starlet generation. Comebacks now referred to returning artists who had taken a break from their work for sometimes less than a year and everyone who knew how to submit an application to a song contest was labeled a star. New rules applied, enforced by social networks, youtube and the ever-growing internet media. Andy Warhol’s famous prediction that in the future everyone would claim fifteen minutes of fame seemed to turn into reality.

Apart from scripted reality, TV also offered a whole new set of new shows such as CSI (and its respective spin offs), Grey’s Anatomy, How I Met Your Mother, NCIS or Lie To Me. The credo was to present established genres from a new angle with characters who are skilled, a tad odd but also likeable. There’s no such thing as too screwed up as long as the characters excel at work and find a way to communicate with their peers. Slowly but thoroughly the nerd turned into a new hero and women were allowed to be just as silly, pitiful or sorry as men. The Gilmore Girls met the voice of an entire generation of young women and The O.C. brought soapy material back to prime time. Fantasy and science fiction was still on the rise, offering a variety of shows with strong female leads such as the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, Dark Angel or Pushing Daisies. Brothers & Sisters, Monk, Castle and The Good Wife used more traditional ways of presenting their genuine leads, nicely blending school-book storytelling with a fresh set of ideas. Veronica Mars, The Closer or Rizzoli & Isles offered a new insight into women of the new century, a lot less grim and sexed-up than some of their predecessors but every bit as empowered.

Another TV trend was the publication of shows on DVD – contemporary ones, short-lived hits or vintage shows such as Perry Mason, The Donna Reed Show, Bewitched or I Love Lucy. As an addition to on-going re-runs on TV or Hulu, those retro shows attracted an audience already familiar with their favorite childhood stars, ranging from baby boomers to a generation that had fallen in love with the classics in the 1980s and 90s. The shows offered an alternative to the different values, aesthetics and storytelling of contemporary shows that were sometimes perceived as unsuitable for families or plain unoriginal.

At the movies, Pixar was still one the rise slowly pushing old-school animation out of the market with films such as Monster Inc. or Finding Nemo. Serial adaptations were popular such as Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Twilight or The Chronicles of Narnia, showing a preference for a blend of fantasy and improved special effects. Action movies, buddy films, comic book adaptations and science fiction sagas also met the audience’s increasing interest in fairytale worlds, video game aesthetics and escapism. The 2000s also brought on a growing interest in Meryl Streep’s diversity in films such as Mamma Mia!, Doubt or Julie & Julia. There was also room for Nancy Meyer’s love stories that featured a mature cast of stellar actors, such as It’s Complicated or Something’s Gotta Give, as well as for numerous other romantic comedies. All in all, the 2000s featured a diverse list of film titles, including The Inconvenient Truth, Lions for Lambs or The Visitor. Like in previous decades, popular successes were not the only contribution and it will be interesting to see where this new decade of the 2010s is headed.