Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Time Passages

Here’s a question I present for discussion among my fellow comfort TV fans: Does watching an inordinate amount of television from 30 or 40 years ago alter your perception of how time passes?

I don’t know about you, but for me the 1980s don’t seem that long ago, even though I graduated high school in that decade and I’m 51 now. Is it the same with everyone, or has constant exposure to television from the 1970s and ‘80s kept that era fresher in my mind, and made it seem less far away?

One recent night’s TV viewing included a Charlie’s Angels two-parter, followed by a Harry O episode and two Bob Newhart Shows. The transition from the hours spent in those bygone fictional worlds to the here and now hardly felt distant at all. 

It’s a different experience with shows from the 1950s and early ‘60s, especially those broadcast in black and white. Here, there are numerous and obvious indicators that these are stories from another age. Just observing the way students dress to go to school is enough to realize how life has changed. 

I feel at home among the shows from the 1970s, perhaps because I shared cultural touchpoints with the characters that were growing up in that decade. And watching the shows in 2015 doesn’t feel any different from watching them in 1995 or 1985 or when they were first broadcast. My TV is bigger and I don’t have to worry about fixing the vertical hold, but otherwise it’s the same happy experience.

Maybe that is why I find myself occasionally jolted, almost painfully, into the actuality of passing time.

Earlier this year I saw a photo of the Eight is Enough cast, when they gathered at a memorial service for Dick Van Patten. I hesitate to say they looked older because that sounds like a criticism when it is merely an observation. Laurie Walters and Dianne Kay and Grant Goodeve and Joan Prather have been out of the public eye since the series ended 34 years ago, and time has not stood still for them any more than it has for the rest of us. Of course they looked different. 

But if Eight it Enough is still a part of your regular TV viewing, as it has been for mine, that chasm of years can seem like it’s passed in the blink of an eye. There also isn’t much in the series’ stories or settings that loudly indicates how much time has elapsed. Sure, Tommy has a Fleetwood Mac poster in his room, but the band is still performing.

“What about the fashions and the hairstyles?” I hear some of the most stylish among you enquire. I don’t know - have they really changed that much? On Eight is Enough I see a lot of jeans and t-shirts and Nike athletic shoes, and sweaters and dresses that wouldn’t make anyone do a double-take if you saw someone wearing them now. There are exceptions, but I find most of them more flattering than their present-day counterparts. 

The Bradfords didn’t have computers or cell phones. But phones are phones, really, or at least they should be. I have a cell but I don’t care for it much, and I have never felt the need to carry a portable camera/GPS tracker/videogame/etc. wherever I go. A corded landline does not look to me like a primitive device. 


Of course, someone in their teens or 20s will have a very different perspective. Eight is Enough to them looks how I Love Lucy does to me. But I have driven the Burbank streets where you’ll often glimpse the Bradfords on location, and to me only a few store names and the gas prices have changed.

If my temporal perspective seems altered, I can only imagine what it must be like for the actors, constantly contending with an image of their younger selves still airing on TV every day. They have lived the days and weeks and years between so they are not stuck in that earlier time. But how must it feel to get that look of disappointment from a fan at an autograph show, because they are no longer the cool teenager or the stunning young woman they were back in prime time?

The gap widens a little more with each passing day. But I have a feeling that ten years from now, when I enjoy another trip through the Eight is Enough seasons or any of the shows from that period, it will still seem like a visit to a place that is not so far away, and a time that was here just yesterday.  


  1. "Is it the same with everyone, or has constant exposure to television from the 1970s and ‘80s kept that era fresher in my mind, and made it seem less distant?"

    I think you're asking the wrong crowd. I watch tons of '70s and early '80s shows, so my perspective would likely be as skewed as yours. I graduated high school in '86, so I'm a few years younger than you. When I first saw the show The Goldbergs, it did not actually occur to me that it was a period piece. It wasn't until I watched the behind-the-scenes features on my DVD set that it hit me! I knew going in that it was set in the 1980s, but while I was watching it I didn't consciously notice the difference in the world as presented in that show and the world of today. My mind was just thinking "yeah, that's how the world looks" and I was completely blown away when I saw how much time, effort, and money went into designing and constructing the sets and props to give an authentic '80s look and feel to the show. Apparently, my mind is stuck in the 1980s, but I can't say how much of that is due to my TV watching habits, how much of it is because I live in a pretty rural area where most of the houses were built in the 1980s and before, and how much is just old curmudgeonness. I will say that when I watch 1980s shows and up, I don't consciously notice a difference, but I do notice the difference in time when watching shows from the 1970s and back. Of course, the difference is far more pronounced with the B&W shows from the '50s and '60s, but I do notice the difference in clothes & hairstyles (and I'm not a fashionista or anything), cars, furniture and appliances between the 1970s and now. The cutoff for what I subconsciously think of as "modern" seems to be right around 1980-81 for me.

  2. Kind of six-of-one on this. I agree with SaturdayMorningFan that shows from the era of my late teens onward (in my case, the late '70s) tend to make it a little more timeless in the sense that it seems more recent. Yes, they're dated in a way (look at the styles in "The Rockford Files"!), but I often find myself thinking, "C'mon, Ronald Reagan wasn't THAT long ago!"

    On the other hand, watching shows from the late '50s and '60s, when I either wasn't born or wasn't really paying attention, tend to have the opposite effect on me. Rather than reliving what seems to me to be relatively recent history, I'm thrown back into what I've called the time capsule, where I almost feel as if I'm in a museum, looking at relics from another time. And in that sense, it makes it seem much longer ago (which also has the effect of making me feel older; after all, if a show from 1960 is really old, what does that make me?). Maybe it's the B&W aspect, maybe it's measure of how much things have changed, but there's probably a dividing line - say, the mid '70s - where everything before that feels older than it is, everything after that seems more recent than it is.