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 Past Through Our Modern Eyes

All right, be honest, folks: who enjoys new vintage television?! Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire or Mrs. Biggs?! I know I’ve discussed this before, but the topic continues to occupy my mind. With Downton Abbey back on TV in its third season, I feel strangely drawn to those period dramas and annoyed by them at the same time. It’s the love to detail in the costume department and the choice of fantastic actors that definitely wins my approval, the soapy drama and rushed plot, however, puts me off. I know it’s supposed to reflect realism, showing gloomy pictures and characters who delve into pragmatism and near depression, but I’m not fond of it. Same goes for the modern topics and social criticism that are always shining through, a mandatory element for programs that travel back in time. Women were always off worse, without exception. No choice, no freedom, no decent men. Take the recent Bletchley Circle, for example – is there really no other way to show female strength but to demonize the male sex? Is the violence truly necessary?

In all honesty, I wonder how our day and age will be presented fifty years from now, in clips and programs on the internet or elsewhere. How distorted we’ll feel those pictures are, how apt or cruel? If the next generation will understand our point of view and how much unscripted reality will be left?

You see, in my opinion, nothing about the past has ever been perfect, no matter how nostalgic our memories may be. The way bygone decades are presented to us these days however, blurs the truth about what it meant to live through change, progress and challenges. To look at the 1920 through 80s through millennium-fogged glasses hardly does these times justice, nor the people who came before us. It is easy to roll our eyes at their imperfect lives without realizing how little has actually changed or dwell on an erroneous belief that our present is superior in so many ways. For as long as we don’t learn to regain an innocent perception and sense of beauty, I am tired of revisiting the past in a modern setup. I want to see what it was really like – codes, decency and censorship included – to have a better understanding of where we came from, what we lost and what was rightly left behind.

New Vintage TV

To pick up on my nominations’ post on Thursday, I want to introduce a trend that’s been coming and going: revisiting bygone times and reinventing the past on TV. Happy Days did it in the 1970s, That 70s Show did it in the late 90s and early 2000s and Mad Man‘s been doing it since 2007, recently joined by Boardwalk Empire and Pan Am. The decades differ, as well as genres and style, but all of these shows have one thing in common: a look back at our past through contemporary eyes.

Mad Man is a popular example for reminding us of the early 60s, a program often praised for its authentic setting and style. Personally, I love the wardrobe, the acting and the music – my personal icing on the cake. I’ve not been all too impressed by the perpetual cynicism however, reflected in every storyline the show presents, nor by the depiction of either men or women. Not only does every character seem to have a fetish with smoking, blown out of proportion by our reversed reality in 2011, they are also easily engaged in sex, something I could live with (because yes, out of wedlock pregnancy rates already escalated in the 1940s) if only the portrayal wouldn’t leave such a bitter aftertaste in my mouth. It is one thing to present the uncomely truth of sexism in 1960 and the challenges for women back in those days, it is another to add to the cliche of the depressed houswife, the floozie secretary or the ever lewd male. Interesting way of pointing to the origins of our presentday societal issues, shortcomings or accomplishments, utterly simplified by ascribing everything to the “evil” influence of consumerism and advertising.

In the pilot, Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm) says, “What you call love was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons.” Which is pop culture nonsense. What we call love today was invented by Jane Austen and her contemporaries. Before, people rarely knew anything beyond arranged marriages. But I forgive him his lapse, it only adds to the way the character treats the women in his life. He probably doesn’t even know who Jane Austen was or that women can spell without having a man showing them how. I’m sorry, but although some men used to be as smallminded as that (and some continue to be today), there were also others like Erle Stanley Gardner for example whose Perry Mason highly appreciated his office gem for both, her brains as well as her nylons. Granted, Della Street entered the scene in the 1930s, a good time for female characters, on screen and off. But the very same girl Friday was popular on TV in 1960 and never treated like dessert after lunch (how Peggy Olson played by Elisabeth Moss so nicely put it on Mad Men). So there you go, that’s what I mean: contemporary perception on new vintage TV.

Gail Patrick Jackson was executive producer of the Perry Mason show by the way, only to comment on influential women in and before 1960. There weren’t many, but they did exist, those ladies of power, some of them developing or producing their own programs. Now that would make a truly intersting show, off the beaten track of cliche flight attendants, secretaries and their male bosses seducing or abusing them.