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.

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.

On A Personal Note

I’m happy to share a link with you today, a link to a wonderful magazine I’ve mentioned to you before, Queens of Vintage. As their most recent story, they are running an article of mine, “Sharpen Your Pencil, Beautiful: The Style and Fashion of Della Street”.

This publication coincides with the release of the new edition of Vintage Life, issue #22, which includes a review I had such a good time writing for them.

It comes from the heart when I say, August 30 has been a good day. ♥ Thanks a million to both magazines!

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.