William Urban: American TV Series
We don’t watch a lot of American TV shows now. We used to. “Mash” was one, but watching reruns convinced me it was better the first time. Growing up in the Plains led me to “Gunsmoke” and even “Have Gun, Will Travel”. It was so long ago that “Gunsmoke” wasn’t even in Spellcheck, but more specifically, we only had three networks and all of the programming was for the general public. One story is rarely linked to another – for this you went to soap operas, which my grandfather loved, while my grandmother watched baseball. In short, there was something for everyone, but not on demand. You’ve built your schedule around their schedule. If you are bored you would watch everything that was going on.
Today, the offers are aimed at a more specialized audience, and you can save anything for later viewing. We may not agree whether today’s shows are better or not, but I would say The Smothers Brothers and Jackie Gleason were funnier than most comedians today.
My tastes have changed as I got older. I can’t imagine watching “Highway Patrol” anymore, and while “Dragnet” may have been the best musical theme ever produced, I’ve had enough of Jack Webb’s moralizations about the impact of politics on the work of the police. These are 30 minute shows and it is difficult to develop a plot within twenty-five minutes of airtime. This made it easy to accommodate “Hill Street Blues” and similar hour-long crime / hospital series until they became so realistic that it was difficult to separate the real drama from the fictional ones. “House of Cards” and “Designated Survivor” were practically introductions to the 2021 policy.
Perhaps the 24-hour cable news caused the change. In CNN’s early years, there were plenty of stories from overseas, where real news was happening every minute. However, audiences weren’t interested in this, so CNN began to focus on American news, with PBS offering more intellectual shows and FOX occupying a more conservative niche. When CNN moved to the left, then more to the left to compete with MSNBC, I moved on. The news had become too political
Entertainment series have suffered the same fate. “West Wing” and “Madame Secretary” appeared in an attempt to elect President Hillary, and the Americans celebrated a pair of Russian moles, with an unfortunate FBI agent living next door. (That’s all I remember, since I quit watching long before my wife.) Hollywood got political even earlier. When a soft porn movie beat “Saving Private Ryan” for Best Picture of 1998, I stopped watching the Oscars. As I watched less television, even sport lost its appeal.
There were programs that I missed because life filled my evenings. I wrote, which meant a lot of reading, and I had classes, which involved both preparation and grading. But I liked both and I was paid to do it. It’s the good life, being able to do what you love and not feel guilty about it.
I still watch “Chicago PD,” in part to see how Sergeant Voight handles the growing political control over the department, politically correct control. The melodrama of his unit’s life is overdone at times, but the acting is good and the dilemmas presented are exactly what I read in the Tribune – that crime is a serious problem, that the audience is not. not supportive and that politicians are sneaky. Not a lot of laughs there.
Maybe I should watch “Blue Bloods”. But I’m too far away and I don’t have enough time to catch up. We enjoyed the “Boardwalk” series on the rise of organized crime, and my wife loves violent and gory shows more than I do. I’m more “Little House on the Prairie” than “Deadwood”. We compromise by not looking either.
There were a lot of things I liked in the past. I knew at the time that most of my students would understand a reference to a television program (like Roots), and I could count on minimal sex and violence. The comedy was better and the comedians could be more daring. (Today Ralph Kramden could never yell “Bang! Zoom! To the moon Alice, to the moon!” And no one can tell an ethnic joke unless it’s Arkansas and It’s not really funny.) Soviet citizens have developed a shape I’m told it can be found in obscure corners of the American Internet.
There were movies that audiences flocked to – my wife didn’t see the appeal of Ma and Pa Kettle, but I grew up with people like them. Anyway, every time we showed one of their movies, people would sit in the aisles to see them. (The Fire Marshal never risked a riot while trying to stop the show.)
Even though I missed a lot, that’s life. If conversation is a dying art, maybe it’s because we have fewer common experiences to tell. We are reduced to “What about them?” “
William Urban is Lee L. Morgan Professor of History and International Studies at Monmouth College.