Monday, September 14, 2009

Television Was Young, and So Were We

By Mitchell Hadley

Terry Teachout is always worth reading, but I feel a particular kinship with him when he reminisces about things such as classic television. We're roughly of the same era, and share a nostalgia (as opposed to a sentimentality) about the "good old days," which as we all know weren't necessarily all good.

In fact, there was a lot of dreck on television in the 50s and 60s. What makes us long for that era, I think, is the variety that was available. I don't just mean variety shows, although they certainly qualify as something from another time. And most people know that television of the 50s was dominated by police shows and westerns, so we're not necessarily talking about a "something for everyone" kind of programming.

No, I think what it is that makes us look back in envy are the sheer number of types of programs that simply don't exist anymore. Besides the aformentioned variety programs, there are shows such as NBC Opera Theater and Voice of Firestone, live dramas like Playhouse 90 and Studio One, children's shows such as Captain Kangaroo, religious programs (Bishop Sheen's Life Is Worth Living), documentaries (ABC's Saga of Western Man and NBC's Omnibus), and more. Now, not all of this was good - the recent Studio One boxed set features some very uneven quality - but ask yourself this: is mediocre live drama better than none at all? Maybe, maybe not. I'm not sure there is an answer. (Many would contend that some of today's TV movies top anything previously on television, or in movie theaters for that matter, for dramatic power and content.) The point is, we no longer seem to even try to come up with something new and different. We let the marketplace make our choices for us, without necessarily showing them what all is available.

Today, Teachout blogs about a 1977 CBS documentary, now available on YouTube, entitled When Television Was Young. Look at some of the shows included: Captain Kangaroo, CBS Reports, Douglas Edwards with the News, The Edsel Show, The Ernie Kovacs Show, The Garry Moore Show, The Goldbergs, The Honeymooners, Howdy Doody, I Love Lucy, Kukla, Fran and Ollie, The Mickey Mouse Club, Mary Martin and Noël Coward: Together With Music, Mr. I. Magination, Playhouse 90, The Red Skelton Show, See It Now, The $64,000 Question, Studio One, Suspense, Texaco Star Theater, Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, You Are There, and Your Show of Shows. Really, do take some time and check this show out.

Now, a lot of you (hello, anyone out there?) probably won't recognize all of, or even any of, those shows. You might find them slow-paced, silly, naive, or hopelessly outdated. But together, they point toward the possibilities that existed in the early days of television. There was a feeling back then that anything was possible, and everything was worth trying. That's what made it the Golden Age of Television.

As the resident cultural archaeologist, I'm often hearking back to the programs of this era as a reflection of the culture which produced them. Viewed in that sense, they can indeed be eye-opening. But if you get the chance to watch some of these shows (many of which are out on DVD), try watching them for a couple of other things as well. First, as an indication of the creativity to which television aspired; and second, see if you don't find that a show such as Route 66 manages to tell a pretty good story.

The Golden Age was not all gold, nor even all glitter, but it does represent something special, when the executives who ran television thought they just might be able to come up with something more interesting than a warmed-over Jay Leno. These men once dreamt they could show live opera, quality drama, real educational programming. If they fell short, at least they gave it a try.

We often look at (for example) pornography masquerading as popular drama, and ask if TV can possibly go any further. A quick look at the past will affirm for us that yes, indeed, it can. Rather than dragging us down, it can attempt to raise us up. Isn't that even worth the effort?

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