Television in America has changed since it first invaded homes across this country over 50 years ago. But how has it changed, were the changes permanent or temporary, and what does today’s TV tell us about ourselves as Americans and as human beings?
The formats of television have changed, just a bit. Back in the old days, there were variety shows, comedies, some dramas, and sporting events. We still have some of those, but the variety show has died along with vaudeville, its immediate ancestor, and MTV brought us the concept of music television, which has grown beyond its music-video borders to encompass channels with music and music-connected specials and series.
The advent of civil-rights demonstrations brought a spate of shows featuring “pocotpt” (people of color other than pale tan) which, sadly, never evolved into showing us the lives of actual people of color, except for “The Cosby Show,” which showed us that “pocotpt” are like people everywhere, and we really needed that lesson to continue. So much of the change TV may have wrought in Americans’ social consciousness has come through comedy (Archie Bunker, for one; remember?). The pill is easier to swallow if it’s sweetened.
“ER” brought a style of storytelling that was immediate and arresting, due mainly to its setting (an emergency room at a busy city hospital), but also due to the ensemble cast’s individual story lines. The characters weren’t static, a la “The Donna Reed Show” (1950s or thereabouts, for you young whippersnappers), so they became almost real people to viewers. The intensity of this kind of writing owes part of its success to “MASH,” of course, which was probably where this intense-character writing technique saw its first flowering. That was a comedy, though. “ER” may have been the first successful drama to employ it. 1980s prime-time soaps like “Dynasty,” “Dallas” and their ilk don’t count; their characters remained pretty much the same through each series’ run.
In today’s popular series, there are interesting elements that seem new, but may not be. “Heroes” recalls the “Superman” series, albeit in a more sophisticated form; it seems American audiences were thirsting for a show with ordinary people called to do extraordinary things. It certainly didn’t hurt that the tinctures of secret government conspiracies, surviving high school, acculturation and accepting destiny were added in. “Lost” is full of hotties but also has people who look more like us than some of us are willing to admit, and not physically. Most of the really scary stuff is off camera, a la Hitchcock, and apparently enough viewers are willing to put up with the long-stick-with-a- very-tiny-carrot approach the writers use to keep them watching.
“Heroes” didn’t interest me because I’m not into conspiracy theories and I’m way past high school. I’ve read enough comics, both classic and modern, to perceive a familiar path in the series, and I’ve been down that path already. “Lost” just plain pissed me off. The end of Season One had little to no payoff for me as a viewer; there just wasn’t enough going on to wonder what would happen next week.
Ensemble casts can make or break a show. “Babylon 5” had an outstanding ensemble cast, and even survived the replacement of its male lead. Of course, “B5” also had J. Michael Straczynski as its series creator and writer, and JMS had that puppy planned out over 5 years way ahead of time. The networks who allowed the entire series to be broadcast are to be commended; it remains, arguably, the best science fiction show ever aired.
Yes, not even “Battlestar Galactica” in its latest incarnation can beat “B5” — and I’m a big fan of “BG,” too. The reason I rate “BG” behind “B5” is that “BG” is a reinvention, whereas “B5” was made of whole cloth, all new and shiny, with dozens of touchpoints from written SF that made it that much more attractive to bookworms like me. “BG” has some SF touchpoints as well, of course, but “BG” is military space opera, which is a bit different than the kind of space opera that “B5” employed as a foundation. Where “BG” recalls Heinlein, “B5” recalls Clarke. Discuss.
And yet, and yet…television keeps doing stupid things. Why am I surprised? I shouldn’t be, really.
The infection known as the “reality” show is pandemic. The latest nonsense is a group of celebs being sent to live in a prison. Gee, do we get to see the gang rapes? I wish I could be in the same room for five minutes with the cretin who thought up this idea. I’d do to that person what I’d do to the people who created “Flavor of Love” and “I Love New York” and “The Bachelor” and “Big Brother” and all the other dreck of that nature. Exactly what I would do is not for public consumption; suffice it to say, it would not be pretty.
And yet and yet…even the “reality” show format has some interesting offshoots. The DIY craze is still going strong, a decade or so down the road, and television programming reflects this. The DIY Network and HGTV are crammed with shows that give us tips on painting, remodeling, rearranging, carpentry, plumbing, and on and on. Home organizers are big: “Mission Organization,” “Clean House,” and “neat” are popular shows, and that’s just three of them. “The Carol Duvall Show” fed the inner crafter in millions of people, and got me started in what I do in the crafting world today. Ms. Duvall has moved on to a well-deserved retirement from her show, but other shows such as “B. Original” and “Creative Juice” have picked up where she left off. There are more, many more, so let’s leave it here for now.
Of course, there are other formats not mentioned here, but I leave them for someone else to cover. Blogs are for what the blogger is interested in, after all.
Television in America isn’t just American anymore, either. With the advent of cable and satellite TV, we can get British shows on BBC America, and there are a plethora of Spanish-language shows, not to mention the advent of the novela style of TV from South America in the form of “Ugly Betty” (bless Salma Hayek for getting this on the air!). But that’s just a dusting of what’s available from around the globe that hasn’t made it to American audiences yet. These things take time; TV producers are still slow to change what they perceive to be winning horses.
It’s my fervent hope that the crap will eventually go away, and leave the better shows behind. But that’s probably not gonna happen.