My Friday post about the digital transition seems to have flushed a bunch of anti-TV folks out of their weedy, book-lined dens. This has stimulated my urge to defend perhaps the oldest friend I have in the world. This isn’t the first time. I live in a community where people at parties talk about how much they like that new program that’s on the air now: Friends. “Did you see Friends the other night?” they will inquire. To which I reply, “No, I’ve been awake for the last couple of years.” Equally daunting is the type who admits shamefacedly, “I do catch an episode of Antique Road Show now and then. Can’t help it. Guilty pleasure.” Worst of all, in my opinion, are the people who strip their children of social awareness and all chance of popularity by denying them the American right to watch the programming of their choice. “We do allow little Tiffany the occasional Sesame Street. But only when I’m hyperstressed,” one mother told me not long ago.
Did you know that in spite of the Internet, in spite of Hulu, in spite of YouTube and ITunes and all that jazz, the average time spent watching television in this nation is slightly on the rise? Horrors?! No way. Television is our common language, our history, our heritage. Of course most of it stinks. It always has. You think that when the common groundling went to the theater in Shakespeare’s day all that was on the stage was Shakespeare? Do most books remind you of Hemmingway or Sedaris? How about music? Lots of Mozarts and Mathers around? A medium can’t be defined by its worst examples. You have to look to the best. And during my lifetime, the great unifying cultural events have always taken place inand around the television set. Let’s look at them briefly. I’m afraid it has to be brief, because the TV has destroyed my attention span. What were we talking about again? Oh, yes. Shows that have rocked my world. You may remember some or none:
- Wonderama: A variety show featuring Terrytoons, early cartoons that may now be found on YouTube. They’re terrible. We all loved them.
- Winky Dink: An early atrocity in which children were encouraged to draw with crayons on the television set.
- Soupy Sales: A very funny schtick meister who played with puppets. He came to ruin, at least for a while, when he instructed his audience to go to their parents’ wallets, remove the pictures of either George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, I can’t remember, and mail them in. Kids did so. Parents were upset.
- The Rifleman: Not as popular as Gunsmoke, the story of a single dad who set things right with a really cool gun.
- Have Gun Will Travel: A vigilante in black. Used to watch it with my dad.
- 77 Sunset Strip: The coolest show of its day; three private eyes in slick, Sinatra-era LA. A character named Cookie had a lot of hair, that he combed into a modified ducktail. So did we.
- Mannix: One of the many Quinn Martin productions that neatly divided themselves into acts, usually with an epilogue. Usually about a detective or other law-enforcement type. After a lot of talk and sneaking around, always ended with a very brief action sequence in an underground parking lot.
- MTM: As hard as it may be to believe, America used to gather — all generations — on Saturday night, to watch the CBS lineup that included The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Bob Newhart, some other stuff I can’t recall. We weren’t always sober, but we thought it was pretty funny stuff.
- Masterpiece Theater: I particularly liked the one about Henry the Eighth, who is now disporting himself once again on Showtime. Also terrific was the grand guignol excess of I, Claudius. Derek Jacobi made a stammer and a limp look like the trappings of power.
- Fawlty Towers: The ultimate extension of the Monty Python spirit that for a brief time graced us.
- Seinfeld: Still crazy after all these years in syndication.
- CSI: I watch a lot of procedurals. Everybody underestimates not only the intricate plotting over huge story arcs, but also the differences between examples of the genre, which may be our most potent one at this point in time, including the great Law & Order franchise and a host of others.
That’s just a very short list. These days I catch most of the shows I’ve liked whenever I can. I also love House, which is one of the best television programs not only of our day but of any other, and do admit to catching the reality make-over program, What Not To Wear, whenever I fly on JetBlue. I don’t watch Gossip Girl, of course, which is only an indication of how out of it I’m starting to get. And I will always decline to give a flying photon about Jon & Kate, even if he did cheat on her on her birthday.
I also read books, by the way, and do a number of non-digital activities. Personally, I think blogs rot your brain a whole lot worse than anything else, except perhaps for aggregators.