New Vintage TV II

Apparently, vintage-themed shows are in vogue these days and despite my aversion to so many of them, I cannot help but give each new program the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, I was put off again, this time by my guilty pleasure program Downton Abbey, ITV’s newest brainchild Mr. Selfridge and a Canadian production called Bomb Girls. The success of each show is beyond dispute, an increasing number of young viewers seems to enjoy their melodramatic quality without exception. Downton Abbey, which was just renewed for a fourth season, may still be the most commonly known show of the three, first and foremost because of an always excellent Maggie Smith and the unabated shower of awards and nominations. Designed like a soap, the show has remained faithful to its genre from the start and thus jumps the shark more frequently as the seasons rush by. Now set in the 1920s, fateful twists and unnecessary drama follow public demand. Bomb Girls uses similar tools by exploiting the dramatic background of WWII. As if war and its related cruelties wouldn’t be enough, the pilot episode already proved that modern vintage programs need sex, abundance or gore to authenticate themselves (the gruesome accident in the bomb factory still haunting me today). Mr. Selfridge and his department store empire seems tame compared to those Rosie the Riveters, but all the first installment did for me was celebrate extravagance. I really wonder what’s so appealing about these programs?!

With all our troubles in the world, maybe people are looking for consolation that 2013 is a better time to live in than the early 20th century. After all, according to those shows our attitudes and problems have barely changed – and if they did, only for the better (of course). I don’t like that kind of evaluation of the past, that mix of nostalgia for elegance in fashion and grand gestures of love. I prefer the past for what it was, with all its similarities and differences to our times. I do not like to see an interpretation of it through our modern eyes, glorified or demonized. There is nothing romantic about the turmoil of two world wars, nor have we reached the devastation of the Great Depression. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from past successes and ordeals, reducing yesteryear to a colorful setting for our modern ways and attitude, however, does no one justice. It only makes it harder for future generations to understand our roots and struggles. It waters down progress (or setbacks) and the price thereof. I know, a lot of people only see films and shows as entertainment, but by choosing a vintage setting, the writers and producers also influence the knowledge and perception of their viewers of the past. I wish, they would handle it with more care, and most importantly, as more than just a stage for beautiful wardrobe.

A Heart for British Drama

It would be wrong to suggest I love them all, that I’m generally drawn to British drama. I do admit to having a weak spot for Victorian England, however, for British classics and, increasingly, for new vintage TV produced in the United Kingdom. I may be confused about inaccuracies at times or frustrated with the never-ending tendency to transfer our contemporary morals and issues to bygone eras, but apart from these adjustments to modern viewing patterns, I am rather fond of British productions. Bleak House, Downton Abbey, Marple, North & South, Pride & Prejudice… There have been many memorable (mini) series over the years. BBC’s The Hour is my latest find, now in its second season and a real treat for anyone who likes to revisit the past through modern eyes.

Set in London in the 1950s, the show offers a look into the genesis of a news program that pushes boundaries on the air and behind the scenes. Starring Ben Whishaw, Romola Garai, Dominic West and Anna Chancellor as The Hour‘s main pool of characters, the series has a slow start but takes off in episode two as soon as the variety and significance of the supporting players shine through. Picking up on cultural influences of the time, the series is suspenseful and entertaining, but (in best millennial tradition) also mildly depressing. With its cold war storyline in season one and increasing social criticism in season two, The Hour may wish to reflect on the questions and struggles of the Beatnik generation, a successful attempt for an audience who likes to dress but not think nostalgically.

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.