Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Looking Back vs. Looking Forward


Every so often I like to take a step back from blogs about specific shows or actors, and look at the bigger classic TV picture.

Lately I’ve been thinking about people who prefer watching older shows to current television. Why are we like that? The title of this piece was my first theory –some prefer looking back to looking forward. But is it really that simple?

I know I don’t look at everything this way. It’s nice that light bulbs last longer now, and I’m glad that research that once required driving to the library can now be conducted at a computer in my jammies.

However, while many aspects of our lives have improved with the passage of time, I think just as many have regressed. And that’s where “things were better in my day” thinking starts, and why it can be comforting to look back at those times. The television shows of an earlier era provide a window into that bygone world – one that reinforces our certainty that those were the days. 



For instance, if you think schools were better run and taught a more appropriate curriculum when Beaver Cleaver or Opie Taylor or Peter Brady were going to class, that belief will be reinforced by the classroom scenes from their respective shows. Familiar subjects are taught, history lessons will not assume that everything that happened in America since Jamestown was wrong, and teaching will be portrayed as a noble profession. 



If you are sure that people were more civil to each other back when you were a kid, you’ll find that reflected in how characters behave in classic television. If you have fond memories of a time when there was nothing controversial about public restrooms or police officers or “Merry Christmas,” you are almost certainly someone that feels more at home in the shows of the past.

Part of this appeal comes from the fact that we lived through these eras ourselves, and they didn’t seem so bad to us, then or now. Of course, not everyone feels this way. There are many who lived through those times less happily than I did. There are those of later generations who believe the shows of this time portray an era that was less sophisticated, less enlightened, and less inclusive.

Does that mean those of us who prefer Nanny and the Professor to Masters of Sex are less sophisticated? I don’t think so. But it might mean that we define sophistication differently.  

Does it mean we don’t care about inclusion? It actually might, to be honest. It’s not that we’re against it – we just don’t always view entertainment through that prism. I’ll watch a dozen straight episodes of a 1950s sitcom and not even be aware that I’ve never seen a person of color. But I’ll also watch Room 222 with its racially diverse cast, and be just as captivated – not because of the diversity, but because it’s an intelligent and wonderful show.  



I’ve yet to meet a classic TV fan in favor of discrimination or anyone being mistreated. But we also see through the artificiality of forced diversity – in classic TV terms, that means how, beginning around the late 1970s, every Saturday morning commercial would have three white kids and one black kid. Even as children it was hard not to pick up on the pattern, and to think it was rather silly. 

 

Now, maybe there were African-American kids watching at the time who needed to see that, and who am I to tell them they are wrong? But I wonder if the same objective could have been achieved in a less flagrant way.

The forward-looking TV fan is content with the agendas that dictate how television shows are now put together. They’re pleased when CBS is chastised for scheduling too many shows about white men on this fall’s roster – and even happier when the network quickly goes into self-flagellation mode, desperately apologizing and vowing to do better.

Are the shows good or not? No mention of that.

The forward-looking viewer is happy that today’s shows are engineered not to offend anyone (with the exception of a few acceptable targets). Ironically, the shows of the past shared that goal. But they managed to get there without focus groups and sensitivity training. 



Have I answered the question? I don’t know. I’m dancing around the obvious conclusion that classic TV devotees are also fonder of the times in which they were made. And those who find old shows to be dated and trite also believe just about everything is better today than it used to be.

That’s probably still too simple. I’m sure there are thousands of people with a more progressive outlook who can laugh at I Love Lucy or appreciate the simpler charms of Bewitched. The difference is that they see them as nice places to visit, while classic TV fans like me take a look at where the culture is headed, and wish we could go back and live in their bygone worlds. Even with a nosy neighbor like Mrs. Kravitz. 


7 comments:

  1. Mr. Hofstede, when it comes to judging the quality of DVD sets for TV series, do you still put more weight on the completeness of episodes than on overall picture and sound quality? Film and TV historian Stuart Galbraith IV has panned VEI's DVD releases for "Cannon" and especially "Barnaby Jones." He has complained that both sets have episodes with subpar picture quality, but he has admitted that all the installments for "Cannon: The Complete Collection" appear to be complete despite the presence of judder (unnatural jerkiness when there is motion). On the other hand, Mr. Galbraith has reported that "Barnaby Jones: The Complete Collection" utilizes a LOT of syndicated-episode cuts.

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    1. In a perfect world you get both. But I'm delighted to have two seasons of Room 222 on DVD, and the picture quality is pretty awful. I can live with it.

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  2. A thoughtful post. There are a few "moderns" I like. But, I’m a huge fan of classic tv. And the positive values it espoused – like being kind to each other, and respecting parents and teachers - are one of the big reasons why. And I don’t think every classic show was strictly conformist, either. I’ve seen shows where children (respectfully) argued with parents, even shows where parents turned out to be wrong about something – while not be made out to look like the buffoon, either. I think I can even remember a Little House about a cruel and abusive teacher – so authority figures were not always made out to be perfect.

    Yes, diversity was often missing – though later-age “classic” shows – like Diff’rent Strokes and Welcome Back Kotter started to rectify some of this. But those shows also kept the important qualities of older classics – engaging stories, and characters you came to really care about.

    That’s the other big reason I’m a fan of the classics - is a question of quality. Simply put, the majority of older tv shows and tv characters were better written, in my opinion. I believe that a great story and great characters are something that can be applied to anyone. Classic conflicts, archetypes and characters drawn from them do not belong to any gender, race, religion, etc. - anyone can be those characters.

    But now – it seems like there’s a checklist of marks to hit. And if they get around to it, they can think about story and character. And controversy has largely taken the place that was reserved for quality. “If we shock ‘em, they’ll tune in next week!” Kinda sad. And it makes me want to stick to the classics.

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    1. You and me both. I appreciate the positive feedback - especially on a post that some might find controversial.

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  3. Great post David. I have long felt like a stranger in a crowd when it comes to my love of classic television versus modern day TV. A huge part of that is for the sentimentality it brings; it takes me to a simpler time in my life, and in the world. Mostly, it takes me back to my grandmother's house, where the very happiest moments of my childhood were lived. That being said, I am very much on the conservative side when it comes to television programs in general, and classic TV was, for the most part, just cleaner TV. Even the things that were considered risqué back then are mild by today's standards. That, and I've always held to the belief that the acting in general was better, the scripts were often better, because they didn't have the technology and engineering that we have today to overshawdow and compensate for pitiful acting. Back then you either could act or you couldn't. I saw an episode of Andy Griffith the other day where Barney and Andy were watching Mrs.Ambrose's baby at the jail while she went shopping. It was obvious that they were holding a baby doll, and not a live infant, but I thought the acting was superb, and even commented on it to my company, because the acting never faltered, in spite of cooing to a plastic baby doll. (Of course we are talking about Don Knotts and Andy Griffith here - could we expect any less?) In my opinion, Hollywood today can never replace classic TV.

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    1. I agree with your opinion 100%. Glad you found the blog! We're going to get along just fine.

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  4. Great post David. I have long felt like a stranger in a crowd when it comes to my love of classic television versus modern day TV. A huge part of that is for the sentimentality it brings; it takes me to a simpler time in my life, and in the world. Mostly, it takes me back to my grandmother's house, where the very happiest moments of my childhood were lived. That being said, I am very much on the conservative side when it comes to television programs in general, and classic TV was, for the most part, just cleaner TV. Even the things that were considered risqué back then are mild by today's standards. That, and I've always held to the belief that the acting in general was better, the scripts were often better, because they didn't have the technology and engineering that we have today to overshawdow and compensate for pitiful acting. Back then you either could act or you couldn't. I saw an episode of Andy Griffith the other day where Barney and Andy were watching Mrs.Ambrose's baby at the jail while she went shopping. It was obvious that they were holding a baby doll, and not a live infant, but I thought the acting was superb, and even commented on it to my company, because the acting never faltered, in spite of cooing to a plastic baby doll. (Of course we are talking about Don Knotts and Andy Griffith here - could we expect any less?) In my opinion, Hollywood today can never replace classic TV.

    ReplyDelete