What's Happened to TV Since Its '70s Heyday?
Smash cut to 1995: Look how far we've come! Twenty-five years ago I was a bewildered college student beginning to contemplate a career in television, growing my first beard, changing my major from pre-dental to English/theater arts, hoping that the Vietnamese would finally understand our desire to turn their country into a Kinney System parking lot, and trying to get laid--all in the same semester. Looking back, I realize that the first three were good ideas. The last two proved to be expectations beyond reach. Born into the TV Generation, I was hooked on that insidious glowing tube from the start. I'm young enough to remember my parents' bellowing laughter over The Goldbergs, Mama, and Your Show of Shows, yet old enough to conjure up my own flickering images of The Phil Silvers Show (a/k/a You'll Never Get Rich), The Life of Riley, and The Burns and Allen Show. Since my old man spent most of his conscious hours at work and my mother was busy with her shopping career, I think my personality was actually formed by The Jack Benny Show, The Abbott and Costello Show, Wyatt Earp, and The Twilight Zone. I had shared so many childhood aquatic adventures with Sea Hunt's Mike Nelson that when--many years later in LA--I actually got to meet Lloyd Bridges, I didn't recognize him dry. But overall, it was that 1970 season that sealed my professional fate. So, what did the prime-time schedule of 25 years ago have to offer? There were dramas about everyone from psychiatrists to hippies. One series had doctors, lawyers, and cops; another gave us airline pilots, psychiatrists, psychotics, and a cowboy cop. Viewers could choose from sitcoms, variety shows, country variety shows, country comedy shows, country sitcoms, and spy shows. There were Movies-of-the-Week that featured lawyers, doctors, cops, spies, and cowboys. I guess reality was about the only thing missing from the prime-time line-up of 1970. Of course, there was the CBS News Hour at 10 p.m. on Tuesday nights that showed true stories of crime, hunger, drug addiction, and war--but who wanted to watch that crap? America loved all kinds of cops in 1970. On ABC's The F.B.I., Inspector Lew Erskine kept America safe from criminals and communists while, like his real-life fed counterparts, staying clear of organized crime. It has since been revealed that J. Edgar Hoover took a keen interest in all aspects of the show, reading scripts, running background checks on cast members, and, uh, selecting the wardrobe. On CBS's Hawaii Five-O, Detective Steve McGarrett was still punctuating each episode with that memorable command, "Book 'em, Danno!" Meanwhile, NBC's Adam 12 followed nice-guy city patrolmen Pete Malloy and Jim Reed as they kept the streets of Los Angeles free of petty crooks, vagrants, and stray cats--the last LAPD cops who neither beat Rodney King nor framed O.J. Simpson. High-concept crimebusters were also popular in 1970. On Ironsides, a former chief of detectives who looked suspiciously like a defense attorney swept San Francisco clean of hippies, dopers, hookers, black militants, anti-war freaks, and rock music . . . all with his butt firmly planted in a wheelchair ("Oy . . . those hills!"). New York City was a much safer place thanks to the efforts of Dennis Weaver's cowpoke McCloud ("Coib yer friggin' horse, Mack!!"). And while we're on the subject of gritty cop shows, let's not forget ABC's memorable Mod Squad, in which the hippies were the cops and never took or listened to anything harder than Pepto-Bismol and Percy Faith, and where the "relevant" plots often had the trio going undercover to expose violent radicals hiding in Linc's hair. The medical profession was equally well represented. The three-in-one series The Bold Ones let us watch the "new doctors" hone their skills on bit players at NBC. CBS showed us the life-threatening emergencies and heart-warming love stories typical of any modern Medical Center. Meanwhile, over at ABC, tough-but-kind psychiatrist Matt Lincoln was trying to knock some sense into troubled teens, and Marcus Welby M.D., perhaps the last of a long line of great television general practitioners, was always busy curing colds. Those were the good old days of medicine, when somebody other than Kevorkian still made housecalls. In the network-shaped-world of 1970, attorneys were still heroes, not bottom-feeders in Flipper's lagoon. ABC had the Young Lawyers; NBC offered The Lawyers as one of the rotating chapters in The Bold Ones. No doubt Burl Ives, Joseph Campanella, and James Farentino stood ready to file malpractice suits against the "new doctors" or lobby the Senator segments of the same program. And never being one to buck a trend, CBS proudly presented Storefront Lawyers, who either provided free legal services to the poor or read their palms, I forget which. In retrospect, I applaud the networks' courage in giving us these shows--after all, it had been just four years since the American Bar Association had killed Peter Falk's The Trials of O'Brien for portraying lawyers in a "negative" light. On the subject of comedy, 1970 was a watershed year for sitcoms. Even as the ever-coagulating pablum of Bewitched, Family Affair, The Brady Bunch, Nanny and the Professor, My Three Sons, and Mayberry R.F.D. continued to clog laughtrack machines, The Mary Tyler Moore Show--the first in a wave of "smart" comedies--set new standards for writing, acting, social awareness, and audience loyalty. And did it all with the touch of a feather. When after seven great years the show's principals decided to call it quits, MTM was still at the top of the Nielsens, had spawned an empire of fresh programming, and had yet to buy a single script from a certain frustrated young writer wanna-be. Back in 1970, folks like my very unhip parents still devoured variety shows, much like the surf & turfs or smorgasbords at their favorite family restaurants. They could get misty-eyed with Lawrence Welk, or thrill to the skating chimps, Ukrainian plate spinners, and Steve and Eydie on The Ed Sullivan Show. Old Ed did try to stay current during his seemingly-endless career by bringing us Elvis from the waist up, the entire Beatles, and clumsy attempts to sanitize the Rolling Stones, the Doors, and Jackie Mason's thumb. Frankly, even when I was a kid Topo Gigio made me nauseous. There were actually variety-format shows for the not-ready-for-Geritol set. Carol Burnett and her stock company of loons were part way through their 12-year laugh spree at CBS, never once forcing upon us the artificial and quickly passe hipness of Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, a non-controversial outgrowth of the Smothers Brothers' show, introduced mainstream America to bluegrass music and Dom DeLuise. Seeking to avoid a codpiece identity crisis, ABC entitled its "hot" variety offering This Is Tom Jones; over at NBC, Dean Martin continued to stagger his way into our hearts and livers. Flip Wilson and his cross-dressed alter ego Geraldine made us roar("Hit that ball, Willy!"), and millions of city slickers loved to hear the only country singer who could actually speak off-key announce, "Hello. I'm Johnny Cash!" No doubt about it, variety was very, well . . . varied in 1970. While national politics gave us one equestrian view, High Chaparral, Bonanza, and Gunsmoke still spoke to us from their horses' mouths. Sure, we may have all started to wonder why any sane woman would fall in love with a Cartwright when she was sure to wind up dead by episode's end. And Marshal Dillon had gotten so long in the tooth that he had trouble getting his gun up for those weekly opening-credit shootouts (rumored to have caused Miss Kitty to seek solace down at the livery stable). But Americans still needed to see Good face down Evil in a Kansas cowtown or the mountain pines of Nevada. I think these melodramas reassured us about the "rightness" of the real gunplay going on in Southeast Asia. So, where did we go from there? The Westerns slowly roared up into the sunset and became space dramas. The variety shows, as we knew them, took their final curtain calls. But cop shows, ranging from the urban Kojak and Streets of San Francisco to the just-plain-dumb Starsky and Hutch, continued to drift away from reality, while still offering a sense of security to large audiences. No one seemed to mind that the only thing Cannon's William Conrad usually drew in anger was his Diner's Club card. It was the "mystery show" variant of the cop genre that would reverse a long-standing trend and finally begin to write up to viewers. Each week on Columbo they'd tell us in the first five minutes who dunnit, then make us watch with glee as the rumpled detective ensnared the guilty. I still mourn James Garner's wise and often hilarious weekly series of morality plays disguised as The Rockford Files. I also vividly recall the first real-life trip I made to a Malibu watering hole called the Sandcastle. Suddenly the parking lot became strangely familiar as I thought I saw, through the thickening fog, the outline of Jim's trailer. It wasn't there, of course, but I had indeed chanced upon the right place. Overall, I think audiences were growing more cynical in the 1970s, and with good cause. We would soon see the Watergate scandal unfold, as lawyers, politicians, and bureaucrats all tarred themselves with the likes of "To the best of my recollection" and "I am not a crook!" One of the few medical dramas to survive was the aging-but-still-trustworthy Marcus Welby--perhaps people were just tuning in to see whether Robert Young would finally hurt somebody. As the Vietnam War ground slowly toward its unceremonious end, we needed an outlet for our rising anger and frustration. Sitcoms would soon provide that safety valve. In 1972, Norman Lear bought the rights to and reworked a British series named 'Til Death Do Us Part. The result, All in the Family, gave us an American household headed by a true-believing-but-badly-misinformed blowhard, and it changed the rules on what was acceptable grist for the mill. Bigotry, conservatism, liberalism, sex, menopause, Richard Nixon, and, until then, that most silent of American appliances--the toilet--became fair game for topic-hungry writers. We loved our new-found freedom, and we embraced the show's descendants, a whole family of bitingly funny shows that included The Jeffersons, Maude, and Good Times. Meanwhile, M*A*S*H took on the Vietnam War by pretending to be about its Korean predecessor. As Hawkeye, Trapper John, B.J., Hot Lips, Charles, Radar, and Klinger struggled with fictional death and destruction in a long-past "police action," audiences were forced to question the wisdom of an ongoing, real-life event. Many of the wise folks in Washington came to despise the all-seeing electronic eye of television back then; they even sought to blinker it. Some of them haven't stopped trying. For all the sitcoms that jolted us, there were others that merely sought to amuse. Garry Marshall had created a production line of laughter over at Paramount's TV studios with The Odd Couple, Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Angie, and Mork & Mindy. None of these very funny "gag" shows ever claimed to do more than entertain its audience--but in the increasingly ugly world of the '70s, entertainment counted for a lot. And while Fonzie was exclaiming "Aaaaayyyy!" and Mork was uttering "Nanu-nanu" and "Shazzbot!", on a nearby soundstage a gifted group of writers and actors were crafting Taxi. Some of the same talent that created this surreal gem later generated Cheers, The Simpsons, and Frasier. Not too shabby a record for a something that happened on a lot once owned by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Where does that leave us at a time when Newt Gingrich says that Hollywood knows nothing about the real American values he represents? Well, Hollywood is run by people who'd think nothing of dumping their mates for younger and better-looking ones, or grabbing millions from questionable sources for work they've never done. I mean, just look at what these folks have given us in this cable-enriched world of the '90s: sports, sex, murder, mystery, betrayal, cops, and lawyers. But enough about the O.J. Simpson trial. How does 1995's scheduled programming look to this grizzled veteran? Honestly, it's a mixed bag. Cops shows are still here, but I like what they're doing with them now. Homicide, Life on the Street and NYPD Blue have found homes in the hearts of critics and audiences alike while managing to outrage those who would protect us from too much reality. I guess such people think that Murder, She Wrote represents violent crime the way it should be, but for the those of us who spend our daily lives in urban angst, Jessica is a bit too much Mame and too little maim. Lawyers returned to prime-time success with L.A. Law, but in the form of characters who often exposed their less-than-altruistic selves. In 1995, we have Sweet Justice and Law and Order; the one displaying Melissa Gilbert strutting her righteous indignation and the other an exhausted legal system trying to serve an impatient society. Who knows, maybe before the year's out TV will combine the two concepts by giving Robert Shapiro and Marcia Clark a show of their own. Sitcoms once again fill the night air. It's hard to believe that they had become virtually extinct by the early 1980s. One overpaid network soothsayer actually told me during that decade that comedy was dead and buried. Forever. My picks from the current crop? Mad About You, Home Improvement, Grace Under Fire, Murphy Brown, Frasier, and The Nanny really make me laugh. I know people watch Friends (with its hit theme song) and Family Matters, but I still think those shows should suck on a tailpipe. I was sorry to see Madman of the People get the axe. Sure the show often creaked, but I'd pay good money to watch Dabney Coleman sneer at anybody. Enough already of Seinfeld's whining histrionics, and I sure wish The John Larroquette Show hadn't gone soft. As for Roseanne . . . well, I'm still waiting for the big-screen set to really appreciate her talent. Sci-fi dramas (usually anything with Star Trek in its title) continue to fill the void left by Westerns. Steven Spielberg even swiped a corny melodrama from the '60s and renamed it Seaquest DSV--just think of it as Voyage to the Bottom of the Ratings. And speaking of Westerns, I refuse to include the manicured and coiffured Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. It certainly can't be called a doctor show, either, because they usually have something to do with the healing art. For those viewers wanting suspenseful dramas made possible by modern medical miracles, 1995 does offer Chicago Hope, E.R., and Baywatch. The good news is that real TV Westerns are fixing to make a comeback, and none too soon. Over the years, we've had a few half-hearted attempts to resurrect the variety genre, but they haven't survived. After all, what was In Living Color but a hip-hop Jackie Gleason Show with Fly Girls instead of the June Taylor Dancers? A prediction: as the competition for viewers intensifies, there will be a flood of revisionist variety show What's missing from 1995's TV line-up? Station breaks, opening credits, and, worst of all, theme songs have all but vanished. The geniuses who make the really big decisions at the networks figured that by having their shows smash into each other, they'd fool viewers into thinking it's really all one, big 24-hour-long episode. If you ask me, this idea rates right up there with drive-thru proctologists. Sometimes I get depressed just picturing Mike Post standing in the unemployment line. Where do we go from here? I'm a little worried that the current climate in Washington looks an awful lot like the one that blew through in 1980 and caused the networks to lose their collective nerve. Instead of All in the Family, we got Silver Spoons. The Jeffersons and Sanford and Son, shows about black people with attitude, gave way to Diff'rent Strokes and What's Happening? Adorable, frolicking minorities are, God help us, abundant once again, and no one of any color appears to be safe. Characters like Family Matters' Urkel and All-American Girl's cutesy Koreans do for sitcoms what Clarence Thomas did for affirmative action. I'm afraid we're in for a lot more "ah so," "such a deal," "meester you want my seester," and " 'atsa some spicy meatball" stuff before the pendulum swings back to plumb. Finally, with all those cable channels and the new "personal" satellite dishes, how much have things really changed? Overall, I'd say they're the same or even a bit better for us TV junkies than in 1970. At the very least, there's a lot more of everything. Cancelled shows are no longer just consigned to the syndication scrap-heap; they can often look forward to the afterlife of features. Want a blast of ersatz nostalgia? Rent The Flintstones, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Addams Family, or Car Fifty-Four, Where Are You? (Expect The Brady Bunch to join that bunch soon.) A film version of Gilligan's Island is said to be in the works. Are these any better than the originals? Well, it's not easy measuring up to such lofty standards, but it would appear that just being bigger is now enough. What's next, Family Affair: The Musical with Luciano Pavarotti in the Sebastian Cabot role as Mister French? The good news for our weary world is that the incendiary pants and Bobby Sherman hair helmets are nowhere to be seen. There are four major networks now and any number of minor ones; media experts predict hundreds of channel choices in the not-too-distant future. And Richard Nixon? Oh, he's probably still sitting in front of a roaring fire, compiling a brand new Enemies List, but where he is now, he'll really have to crank up the air conditioner.