Health issues, family issues, and work issues of late have all contributed to a more sporadic posting schedule here, and I apologize for that.
While trying not to be overwhelmed by the uncertainties of the future, the last thing I should have done was read the latest in Mitchell Hadley’s series of pieces called “Descent Into Hell,” about how television shows of the past foretold so many of the calamities of our present day. Of course it was as insightful and thought provoking as everything on his It’s About TV blog, but at the time the last thing I needed was another reminder of where we are vs. where we were.
However…while some classic television shows told science fiction and fantasy stories that were cynical about our future, there were many others that celebrated the virtues of their present day, usually without a conscious effort to do so. And every time I visit with these shows I once again feel blessed to have been raised in and lived through that moment in history.
That wasn’t what originally drew me to the classics – I discovered a lot of these shows in reruns when I was still in elementary school – The Dick Van Dyke Show, Bewitched, The Brady Bunch. At that time the shows airing in prime time were not that different from the shows in syndication. The way people lived then – this would be the 1970s – was still the same way the characters in these shows went about their daily lives. Black and white could make some series seem more distant than others, but that fictional world was not far removed from the one I inhabited.
In my college years I found Nick at Nite, and a new (to me) collection of vintage shows that quickly became favorites: Get Smart, The Donna Reed Show, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, The Patty Duke Show, all while rediscovering the appeal of Lucy and Mary Tyler Moore and Sgt. Joe Friday. From that point on I could not wait to take an even deeper dive into what the networks served up from the 1950s through the 1970s.
I now own full runs of more than 85 shows on DVD – Saturday morning cartoons, courtroom dramas, British imports, sitcoms, variety series, detective shows, escapist fantasies, coming-of-age stories, and shows that are not complete unless every episode includes a song. I still make the occasional purchase but the supply of retro releases on home video has dwindled to the point where I don’t expect that 85 number to reach 100.
When DVDs started coming out I was still just buying and watching these shows because I liked them. That was more than reason enough. I wasn’t seeing a bigger picture – or maybe I recognized it subconsciously but did not ascribe my affection for the shows to a longing in me that was growing with each passing year.
Now, and really for at least the last ten years, classic television has become far more than a pleasant diversion. It’s a way to experience once again the sights and sounds of our collective past. And it’s sometimes seeing parallels in what is happening in the episode with moments from my own life.
That’s what my school classroom looked like.
That’s the way our home was furnished.
That’s how we rode our bikes to the park.
That’s how Christmas looked and felt in my house.
Of course that’s partly nostalgia – the same warm feeling anyone would get when they hear a song they loved as a kid, or during a visit to their hometown after moving thousands of miles away. But over the last few years in particular, watching these shows has affected me in a way far beyond the usual wistful contentment we all get thinking back on happy memories.
Sometimes I truly believe these shows have actual healing power. I recall a very stressful day not long ago when I watched “The Banjo Players,” an episode of The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet. When it was over, I would swear my blood pressure had lowered to a healthy level, and without any of those side effects announcers rush through in prescription drug commercials.
You have to be over 40 – and maybe over 50 – for these shows to have the same effect. I would not expect anyone raised on 400 channels and streaming services and Dear White People to see anything they like in them. And that would be fine – you watch your shows, I’ll watch mine; except the more vocal among today's culture warriors are not content with that arrangement, and are determined to eradicate everything they find personally offensive.
And boy do these old shows qualify. They are “problematic,” and “distasteful to contemporary standards.” I’ve read the articles on sites like Collider.
Such assessments are as short sighted and misguided as so much of what passes for journalism now. That’s another reason why part of me still suspects that the destruction of the classic sitcom homes on Blondie St. feels like more than just a land reallocation project.
So I would not be surprised if many of them disappear from the airwaves over the next ten years, or are shown with warnings about their offensive content. That’s why it’s nice to have the DVDs. That’s where I’ll be, while this deeply unserious nation awaits the next outrageous affirmation from the enlightened herd. Don’t mind me – I’ll be quietly time-travelling through the old shows and remembering. And sometimes remembering is enough.