[Posted by Jeremy Grayson]
Pop quiz: When was the last time you watched an episode of I Love Lucy?
How about an episode of Perry Mason? Or Maude? Or Magnum, P.I.?
Most likely, it’s been a while. For some folks, it’s never. Which seems surprising, given that all the shows I just listed are among the most acclaimed and beloved of their respective eras. Yet many ardent TV fans – particularly younger ones – are largely unfamiliar with content produced in the first three or four decades of the medium. And the gap seems to be widening – even beloved ‘90s-era shows like Picket Fences and Northern Exposure are now falling by the wayside.
Film scholars remain widely familiar with the classics, with few unacquainted with Citizen Kane, Sunset Boulevard, and Lawrence of Arabia. But how many television experts are truly well-versed in The Fugitive or Have Gun – Will Travel? These shows broke remarkable ground once upon a time; these days, they’re essentially historical footnotes.
This wasn’t always the case – as recently as the turn of the century, TV shows of the 1950s and ‘60s factored heavily into discussion about great television. But nowadays, the oldest examples an average scholar will bring up when discussing great television tend to be Buffy and The Sopranos.
What, precisely, is happening to old TV? Is it permanently fading from the cultural consciousness? Moreover, is there something we can do to salvage it?
Part of the issue undoubtedly lies in the television’s inherent length. The standard film runs an average of two or three hours (at most), making them easy for primetime or theater-going events. Television is a vastly different beast – we live in an era where hundreds of shows are produced each year, across dozens and dozens of networks and streaming platforms. Most of these shows tend to air between 10 and 13 episodes each season, and network series can air 22 or more. As many of us who’ve tried to keep up with Peak TV can attest, it’s already difficult to keep up with all the currently-airing shows – who has time for blasts from the past? (This is especially an issue with long-running shows, a distinction of many great classics. Sure, something like The Honeymooners (39 episodes in total) could make an easy weeklong binge, but M*A*S*H, Happy Days, and Cheers have over 250 episodes each.)
There’s also the issue of availability. Plenty of great classic shows (St. Elsewhere, The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd) have barely seen any public releases since leaving the airwaves. DVD sets were once a fresh and exciting way to preserve golden oldies, but the market has suffered in recent years with the rise of online streaming. And while streaming sites are also a viable means of preserving old shows, they’ve turned out to be a mixed blessing, with powerhouse Netflix now more interested in producing its own original content, slowly trimming its “classic” library all the while. (Hulu still maintains an impressive backlog of old-age television, though some of its selections lack individual episodes and seasons.)
But the biggest obstacle that old television must overcome is the fact that… well, it’s old.
Let’s face it: TV has changed a lot over the last 70 years, and especially in the last couple of decades alone. While film has undergone shifts and changes in production and scope since the Birth of a Nation days, that medium’s key storytelling tenets remain fundamentally unchanged. Not so with television – modern shows have grown progressively more serialized, with more complicated long-term stories allowing for deeper character and themes. Audiences have been trained to watch shows more attentively, as shows like Arrested Development and Mad Men reward careful (and repeated) viewing. Television has also grown more experimental and esoteric, shattering conventions with series like Hannibal and Rectify (neither of which could have conceivably existed even a decade ago). The current standard for “conventionally” great drama (think The Americans or Halt and Catch Fire) has changed drastically in recent years.
And with each new leap forward in current TV, bygone television seems to take two steps back. After absorbing yourself in the global majesty of Game of Thrones, would you really care for the simple (and much lower-budget) sci-fi of the original Star Trek? Once you’ve seen the complex legal machinations of The Good Wife, are you all that interested in the standalone weekly travails of The Defenders? (No, not the upcoming Netflix version of The Defenders. I really hate that I now have to make this distinction.)
Peak TV won’t last forever, of course. But between the need to stay caught up on all our favorite current shows and the general sense of age that surrounds so many old programs, it seems unlikely that future generations will value the classics the way they should.
What, then, can be done? Are classic TV shows doomed to fall by the wayside, sometimes referenced but rarely watched?
Well… I can’t guarantee that every great show will be preserved in amber, but I do think there are ways to remember and appreciate many of them.
Let’s start with the most obvious means of survival: syndication. For decades, TV was designed with a standalone structure in mind, so that networks could package episodes and re-air them, for years and years, in any order. (Writers didn’t begin to flirt with serialization until the 1980s, and it wasn’t until the late ‘90s that long-term continuity became a staple of primetime drama.) Right now, there are still numerous cable channels devoted not to original programming, but to re-airing old episodes of Leave It to Beaver and Mister Ed. And the practice has even extended to other networks. Recently, Sundance Channel – the folks behind the aforementioned Rectify – has begun daytime broadcasts of Andy Griffith and Bob Newhart.
Completism is difficult when it comes to shows that aired so many episodes – but these shows were never designed for completism. The average viewer at the time rarely watched more than every third or fourth episode. And if they couldn’t do it then, why should we be expected to now? Sampling a random selection of Lucy episodes can be even more fun than locking yourself chronologically into every single episode. (Just make sure you don’t miss “Job Switching.”)
You’ll notice that many of the syndicated shows I’ve mentioned are sitcoms. Indeed, TV comedy has not changed quite as dramatically as… well, drama. Conventional sitcoms still feature only limited serialization, and viewers seek the same objective from them as always – to laugh. The line from The Jeffersons to The Carmichael Show, or from Barney Miller to Brooklyn Nine-Nine, is not especially long. But what about drama? Can you really make a case that watching the occasional Gunsmoke is as captivating an experience as binging a full season of Orange is the New Black?
Well, consider this: The year is 2050. You’re flipping through channels on your giant plasma-screen (or online streaming service, or VR helmet, or however people will watch television in the future) when you stumble across an episode of Breaking Bad. You’re instantly hit by a wave of nostalgia, but your son (or daughter, or robot, or space alien) is not impressed. Why? Because forty-year-old television looks cheap. It feels clunky. And the antihero cliches and “novel for television” format have been done to death already! 2050 TV has moved far beyond what early 21st-century folks can imagine. (No, really, I can’t imagine it. Curse my early 21st-century mindset.)
Laugh if you will, but think of all the times critics in the past have referred to a show as “the peak of TV drama.” Think about how Hill Street Blues and Homicide and NYPD Blue and The Shield were all, at some point in time, viewed as “the grittiest cop show ever.” The times have always been changing, and with progressiveness at the heart of Hollywood, there’s no indication that TV won’t continue to push new boundaries, expanding further outward and leaving older shows even farther behind.
Do you want to live in a world where your children have no interest in checking out such outdated and cliched shows as Buffy and Friday Night Lights? I know I don’t. But in order for the future to preserve the present, it’s important that the present learn to preserve the past.
The summer season has just begun. There are certainly some good current shows worth your time – I’m particularly looking forward to the new season of Bojack Horseman – but there are also plenty of classics worth checking out as well. It’s a relatively light season (recent summertime hits, including Mr. Robot, UnREAL, and Stranger Things, are all on extended hiatus), which means there’s extra time to dive into the past.
This summer, find a beloved old show – one that’s been off the air for at least twenty or thirty years – and give it a whirl. You don’t need to start from the beginning, or watch every episode – after, all, that’s not what the producers of the day intended. Just get lost for a few hours with Jim Rockford or Donna Stone. Take a moment to enjoy the past, rather than try to keep up with the heavy bustle of the present.
Television continues to strive forward, and its constant experiments are a very good thing. But it’s taken a long time to get where it is now, and every so often, we should pause, turn, and reflect on the journey.