Sunday, June 7, 2015

A Default Setting of Kindness

“What separates classic (or Comfort) TV as a whole from current TV?”

I’ve discussed that topic many times with fellow classic TV fans. Certainly some differences are obvious –maturity of content, cultural inclusion, assertion of more traditional values. But I have always felt it runs deeper than that.

There is something primal in the DNA of these shows that is no longer found in much of today’s television. Exactly what it is, however, can be difficult to put into words.

But I think I’ve finally figured it out.

One night a phrase came into my head that encapsulates what I love about vintage shows, and how they diverge from the current television landscape. No single description will fit hundreds of series from the 1950s through the early 1970s. But as a general summation of philosophy I think this one is pretty close.

Classic TV shows, and more specifically the characters in these shows, originate from a default setting of kindness. 

The outlook that emanates from these shows, particularly the situation comedies, is a positive one that is embodied in the demeanor of their characters, who start each new day in a place of contentment with their lives, their families and their careers.

This being television, many episodes introduce complications into these sanguine environments, prompting experiences of sadness, frustration or disappointment. But these too are managed in a civilized manner, and by the next episode the characters have reverted back to their default setting, eager to face the possibilities of another day.

Work was not an ordeal. Most classic TV breadwinners approached the trip to the office not with dread but with appreciation for their jobs. Joe Friday (Dragnet) loved being a cop. Rob Petrie (The Dick Van Dyke Show) reveled in the camaraderie and shared creativity he enjoyed while writing for The Alan Brady Show. Pete Dixon (Room 222) cared about the educations and the futures of his high school students. Pediatrician Alex Stone (The Donna Reed Show) gamely smiled through the screams and tears of his patients.  Jim Anderson (Father Knows Best) sold insurance, an occupation associated only with tedium – and carried out his tasks with integrity and professionalism.

Homes were happy places where functional families lived. Children were blessings, not burdens. Doorbells and phone calls were answered with a smile. Communities were closer and neighbors knew each other.

I could cite countless shows and episodes that would support these positions, but this isn’t about specific moments; it’s about the overall impression expressed throughout this entire era. Audiences enjoyed spending time each week with these characters because they were admirable people. Many of us still do.

Of course there are exceptions: Sgt. Bilko, as brilliantly played by Phil Silvers – inveterate gambler, con man and sycophant; grocery store owner Herbert T. Gillis (The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis), perennially frustrated by rude customers and a deadbeat son; bus driver Ralph Kramden (The Honeymooners) had a short fuse that was exacerbated by the repeated failure of his get-rich-quick schemes. But the exceptions only reinforce the argument that most TV Land denizens in this era were basically contented people.

Now, look at any list of this year’s most popular or critically-acclaimed series. What’s the most common default setting for the characters?

I see a lot of people that are self-centered and cynical. I see characters that believe the world owed them a better life than the one they have, who wake up every day into a deck that is stacked against them. I see people that resort to snark because they are uncomfortable with sincerity.

Is that more realistic? Perhaps. But that wasn’t the question and that, for me, is not the top priority of a television show.

I try to have a default setting of kindness. Sometimes it doesn’t last until breakfast, but it’s important to have aspirations. When I need a refresher course in how it’s done, I always know where to look. 


  1. Mr. Hofstede, have you seen any episodes of the short-lived series "East Side/West Side"? It aired on CBS during the 1963-64 season.

    BTW, is it safe to say that even the daytime soap operas that were on the air before 1975 generally had a default setting of kindness? I personally wish that some classic episodes of "Days of our Lives" could be legitimately released on DVD, especially considering the fact that this coming November marks the 50th anniversary of the show's premiere.

  2. I have not see "East Side/West Side" but have heard good things about it. With the soaps and their need for conflict, kind people are certainly prominent, but there are always also cruel people ready to scheme against them.

  3. This is a typically excellent piece, David. For me, looking at the same question, the answer I've come up with - particularly when looking at the police genre - is that classic television lacked a pervasive sense of cynicism. Today's cops often act as if they know nothing they do will change things, that the public is by-and-large dishonest, that even for the police the ends may justify the means if they can get away from it. On older shows - "Naked City," for example - there's still this sense that the police exist to serve the public and to protect the city. There's not such an overt sense of hostility, in other words. But I think that this grows from the same seed as you point out - kindness. Without that, the whole world starts to lack meaning, and it becomes quite easy to be cynical.

    This is definitely a topic that deserves further investigation.

  4. Thanks, Mitchell. I focused mainly on the sitcoms but you're right - there are similar contrasts in the police genre. There was an innate respect flowing from the public to law enforcement that was reciprocated by those who wore the badge. The lack of esteem now afforded police officers is yet another sign of how times have changed, and how entertainment reflects those changes.

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  6. I loved the way you described the old sitcoms. You are so right... Everything, mostly, in their world was idyllic, and they are so different then, then everyone is now.

    Often times, I wish we could be like that today... But I don't think it's possible... It's like a whole other world. I guess that's why we cherish the old sitcoms so much.

    Thank you for this trip down memory lane. Do you have an email list or blog followers, I would love to get future updates on your site!

    Blessings, Net

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