Getting in the Mood

TV themes. Do you remember when they lasted longer than only a couple of seconds? When the sound of your favorite show put you in the mood for an episode of fun, suspense or tears? Did you know the lyrics by heart? Did you recite them or sing along? Do you still find yourself humming those songs while you cook, do laundry or are cleaning up? Do they still put you in a good mood like they used to? Bring back memories of characters once dear to you like friends or relatives?

Today, a lot of shows save up time by using trademark teasers rather than songs that last longer than a mere moment. Castle, Malibu Country, The Good Wife are some of my favorite examples. If you sneeze, you may miss the catchy intro. Sad news for anyone who suffers from hay fever or catches a cold. There are exceptions no doubt: Elementary Downton Abbey or Rizzoli & Isles. I enjoy all of these shows once in a while but the less new programs offer a catchy melody or song, the more I miss that positive trigger classic television used to lure me in. Granted, for the sake of commercials, screen time has been cut down over the years. While a Perry Mason episode still lasted an average of 50 minutes and Bewitched an entertaining 25, most shows only get 43 (or 21) minutes today. So while it was great to hum along to Family Affair or Hart to Hart in the past, it makes sense for Go On to save up time and use those theme song seconds for the storyline.

Although I know the reasons and appreciate a couple of contemporary programs for their beautiful tunes, I still miss those beautiful TV songs that used to stick with me all week. Bugs Bunny, The Mickey Mouse Club, The Flintstones. I Love Lucy, The Muppets, Bill Cosby, Growing Pains. Murder She Wrote, Family Ties, The Golden Girls. Love Boat. Cagney and LaceyScarecrow and Mrs. King. Even shows I didn’t like for anything but their catchy themes such as Family Matters or Full House. Do you still remember your favorite melodies?!

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.

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 clichés.

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.

Classy TV Ladies

So this is the odd Friday post after I was indisposed last week. Sorry about that! But this week I’m back and on a roll about something a dear friend of mine stirred up over breakfast only yesterday. Whatever happened to the warmhearted, caring and classy TV lady?! Mind you, I may jump decades a little in this entry, but I can’t help it. Where did my darling women go?! You know the bunch: Donna Stone, Samantha Stephens, Jennifer Hart, Elyse Keaton, Amanda King, Claire Huxtable,  JB Fletcher or Maggie Seaver?! All essentially different characters but obviously of undesired making these days. Or are they?!

When the topic arose yesterday morning, I found my friend raving about these shows: The Cosby Show, Family Ties and Growing Pains. All shows with strong working mother types. Granted, all comedy shows and not all too popular in style anymore – at least not production-wise, DVD sales however tell another (more successful) story. So the 1980s may be in vogue and families could be buying these childhood memories for their own kids these days, but isn’t it strange how appealing those stories and characters still are, especially to young women who seem to grow tired of being bombarded with a sexed-up stereotype of power Barbie?!

You see, I greatly enjoy Castle and The Good Wife, both shows with strong, likeable female leads. Brothers & Sisters also featured a motherly type of rare making in today’s shows and a bunch of crazy yet charming (adult) kids.  But these shows seem to be on the endangered species list. How many other popular programs can you name that make you feel like coming home to a family of respectable adults who really nurture their kids?! Donna Stone (The Donna Reed Show) and Samantha Stephens (Bewitched) really seem to be from another lifetime when you watch them doting on their families in the 1950s and 60s. But weren’t Maggie Seaver, Claire Huxtable and Elyse Keaton just the same only two, three decades later?! All working moms but always capable and affectionate towards their families despite their equally cherished careers?! And what about those female characters without children, like JB Fletcher, Jennifer Hart or my all-time favorite Della Street?! How come they were so much less neurotic and snotty and able to smile even if they were up to their necks in hazard?!

I don’t know, maybe it’s just me but although I greatly enjoy some of what TV has to offer these days, including The Closer with its quirky female characters or Rizzoli & Isles with that team of unalike female leads, I cannot help but wonder why there are so few shows out there who pick up on that yearning for a more mature kind of female characters who are in touch with both, their professional qualities and their warmth. The West Wing did good in its own unique way without the sexual (yet highly entertaining) in-your-face attitude of Sex and the City, granted. But with all due respect for feminism and women’s lib, was Della Street that much less liberated by choosing to be a working girl and dressing adequately for success? Or did Claire Huxtable ever make a secret of loving her family but, at the same time, struggling to combine it with her dedication to her profession?! Hardly so, yet they both never came across as dodgy, moody or condescending. They were charming instead and had a respectful sense of humor about their situation, the men in their lives and the obstacles that came with both, something I greatly value when I now watch DVD reruns of the shows they were such pivotal parts of.

Call me a hopeless romantic or an idealist but I like to see the best of both worlds depicted on screen: female characters who get to prove their skills with implicitness in both their workplace and at home (husband and children included or not). I loved growing up with that image and it has always instilled a sense of tranquility in me that there is more to life than only the choice between Cagney or Lacey, Mary Tyler Moore or Sue Ann Nivens, mother or career woman. And I hope there will be a larger variety of shows which introduce independent yet sane and benign female characters again who make me feel like coming home.