Tuesday, February 27, 2024

How Classic Television Still Inspires People – Every Day


As I’ve acknowledged before, outside of news and sports I pay very little attention to the current TV landscape. But every so often a current series references the classic TV era in a way that merits notice.


Such a moment happened last week when there was a Facts of Life cast reunion on The Drew Barrymore Show. That alone would not be worth mentioning here, were it not for how Drew paid homage to guests Lisa Whelchel, Nancy McKeon and Mindy Cohn. She didn’t just share fond memories of watching the show – she described how much Blair, Jo and Natalie meant to her, and how they helped to shape her own character. 



Jo, she said, “showed that girls could be strong and tough, and (she) helped take a lot of intimidation away for females." Blair taught her about empathy: "Because you know how popular, beautiful people can scare you sometimes? Blair was like, 'It's not about the outside, it's about the human inside.'” Natalie became a “moral compass” and “a voice of reason.”


She also commented on the impact the series had on young people who didn’t come from a traditional two-parent household, as it depicted four young women growing up with a beloved teacher in a de facto parent role: “You gave me a blueprint that made my life feel better to me in every sense of the word."


They were nice sentiments, and if she felt that way you can be sure other young viewers did as well. We don’t know who they are because they don’t have their own talk shows. But this was a disclosure that summarizes why the shows of the past still maintain such an affectionate hold over us. I think it’s something that can’t be celebrated often enough, so let’s talk about it again.


“If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”


That quote has been attributed in various forms to Humphrey Bogart, Bob Hope and movie producer Sam Goldwyn, all titans of American pop culture from a bygone era. It refers to material that overtly attempts to sway public opinion (or impose that of the writer) on an audience – and why that approach never prospered back then. They didn’t care about sending messages – they wanted stories and characters that would interest the largest possible audience, and put some profits in the studio’s account.


There were certainly “message” episodes in the classic TV era as well. The Facts of Life had several of them, often affectionately mocked by fans as another “very special episode.” Perhaps they did some good, but I’ve always thought that the most blatant messages are rarely the most persuasive. 



That is some comfort in this current and very different era of pop culture, one that engages in what essayist Robert Royal described as “wholesale dismissals of the past as irretrievably evil.” When the message is the fulcrum from which every aspect of the project derives, and is wielded like a blunt force instrument, it risks preaching only to the already converted.


Goldwyn, Hope and Bogie knew that was not a recipe for success. For proof one need only observe how one entertainment brand, once revered and synonymous with the best in family entertainment, switched from fantasy to advocacy, and hasn’t had a hit in years.  


But Drew Barrymore's reflections on The Facts of Life illustrates how messages are still being sent by every movie and every episode of every television show. They’re not the colorful tasty frosting on top of the cake, the first thing everyone notices. Instead they’re baked deep inside, awakening our senses to their profundity only after several bites.


It was these kinds of messages that inspired countless young men and women to go to law school because of Perry Mason. In Star Trek that set youngsters on paths to become doctors and scientists, and allowed Mae Jemison to believe she could one day reach the stars herself. 



It’s the wholesome family shows, so often ridiculed now, that nudged stressed fathers and mothers into being better parents, and that helped sensitive teenagers realize that if the boy or girl you loved didn’t love you back, it wasn’t the end of the world.


Such implications were so intrinsic in who the characters of these shows were and how they lived, that they didn’t have to be acknowledged to be effective. They were just…there. And that is not something that should be cavalierly dismissed. What if these shows never existed? Would these people still have entered new professions or listened to their better angels without that inspiration, or would they have gone in another direction that may not have resulted in a happier life?


Shows from the Comfort TV era no longer air in prime time on networks that count their viewership in the tens of millions, but mercifully they haven’t disappeared from the pop culture landscape. They play daily on retro channels like MeTV and on demand from streaming services. Full episodes can be watched on YouTube and other online sources, which may result in a DVD purchase.


The world has changed, but their messages have not, and they are still going out. They’re not as loud or prominent as they used to be, and they may sometimes get lost amidst a larger wave of dubious counter-signals. But like that still, small voice that Elijah heard in the Book of Kings, they can still reach those with ears to listen. Through all the noise and the nonsense. And thank heaven for that.


  1. I agree. A lot of what I learned as a kid did not come from my parents, but instead from Mr. & Mrs. Brady, or Mr. Drummond, Mrs. Garrett, and on and on. Where my mental and moral compass could have gone awry, fictional characters helped me stay the course.

    1. Thanks for reading - I think we all got some help to stay on a better path even if we didn't realize it at the time.