Friday, May 6, 2005

MH - Time Passages

Sharp-eyed readers of this blog know we've got a thing for the much-loved old game show What's My Line? (And we're not the only fans out there.) Those who remember WML might think of it as a rite of passage; those who were starting kindergarden when the show premiered would have been graduating from college when it ended.

What suddenly brought this to mind was a story mentioning the upcoming 17th season of The Simpsons, and the possibility that the show could hit 20 years before it's all over. That would surpass the original WML run of 17 1/2 years (1950-67). That's a long time for The Simpsons - a very long time - and yet I couldn't see the passage of time in the same way that I do when I think of WML. What, I wondered, was the difference? Was it just the affection I had for the old show? Was there something about black and white TV that exaggerates the vastness of time? Yeah, partly, but once I really set out to think about it, the answer came to me almost immediately. The Simpsons is a cartoon. Perhaps that's what makes the show timeless - not just figuratively, but literally.

In Springfield, nothing changes - everyone and everything still looks the same (save the design alterations that mark the first year or two of any cartoon, until they get the drawings just right). There is no sense of a passage of time - except for the myriad cultural references, an eposode aired in 1990 might be indistinguishable from the one that was on last night. It's the magic and timelessness of animation, what makes the old Looney Tunes cartoons so special. And, oddly enough, it's that very thing that serves to highlight the flip side of this equation - the magic of growing old, of seeing the years go by - in short, the human element.

When WML debuted in 1950, Harry Truman was president. His daughter Margaret appeared on the show back then, both as mystery guest and guest panelist. His predecessor's First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, was a guest as well. During the run of the show Ike was elected president, as were JFK and LBJ, and you could see how people of the time reacted to it. The Korean War was going when the show started, and the Vietnam War when it ended. Mission: Impossible was the show that took WML's place in the Sunday night lineup, and a show similar in temperament, CSI, is the top-ranked show today.

The show started out in glorious B&W, when television was still in its infancy - even before TV Guide started - and many of the celebrity guests still had radio programs (WML itself had a radio version for a year or so); by the final season, the show had made the transition to color, and radio had firmly assumed the back seat role. Sets changed over the years, as did fashions and hairstyles. Fads came and went (wolf whistles for attractive females; disparaging remarks about that new rock 'n roll music and dances like the watusi), and we not only got to see history as it happened (Dorothy Kilgallen covering the coronation of Elizabeth II in London and the trial of Dr. Sam Sheppard in Cleveland), we also saw history before it happened (references to Steve Allen's new nightly show, The Tonight Show, and guest appearances by Johnny Carson before taking over the aforementioned show) and history as it was (silent film stars Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd). Chuck Yeager, who had broken the "unbreakable" sound barrier, appeared - as did a technician who helped with manned space flights. Celebrities came and went, plugging their books, movies and shows - some of them big hits, others disappearing without a trace. For most of the run of the show, the panelists dressed in formal evening wear and tuxedos. Although some shows were taped, most were broadcast live. And every show was an original - in over seventeen years there were almost 900 episodes shown. It may occasionally have been pre-empted, but there was never a rerun. (It also aired in the same time spot for almost its entire run - Sunday night at 9:30 - imagine that nowadays!)

The times changed, we changed, and they changed along with us. There were marriages, divorces, births and deaths (two of the regular panelists, Dorothy Kilgallen - who started on the very first show - and Fred Allen, died during the show's run). Steve Allen left for The Tonight Show, but made frequent guest appearances. Arlene Francis joined the cast with the second show and remained for the duration. Bennett Cerf, publisher of Random House, became a household name, and we heard about his sons Jonathan and Christopher as they grew up. And John Daly, the host - witty, urbane and sophisticated, always wearing a bow tie - was there from the beginning. It's interesting that most of them had other commitments - WML was on CBS, yet Steve Allen and Arlene had shows on other networks at the same time, John was VP of news at ABC and covered political conventions, and Random House was eventually purchased by RCA, owner of NBC. Conflicts of interest abounded - hard to imagine a situation like that today.

Who'd have imagined, when The Simpsons premiered as a feature on The Tracy Ullman Show, that it would still be on the air almost twenty years later? Likewise, when WML made its debut, nobody cuold have anticipated that it would leave the air as the longest-running television show up to that time. There must have been times when it seemed it would last forever, and thanks to the magic of videotape it can - the show, never rerun during its lifetime, now appears every night on GSN - and an entire generation can see what TV was like, back when.

And that's probably the biggest difference between The Simpsons and WML - the cartoon is timeless because nothign changes, WML is timeless because it changes.

Put another way, a painting of a rose and a rose itself are both beautiful, for different reasons. The painting is always there, a still life with no past or future, utterly dependable, always fresh, always cheering the heart.

The rose grows old, withers and dies, and its thorns can prick our fingers; but in its bloom we recall our own youth, its petals pressed between the pages of a book bring us back to a moment in time, the blood from the thorn reminds us that we are human, and as it fades away its aroma lingers in the air - leaving us, as life does itself, with the memories of times past; years ago, but only yesterday.

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