more on tv
NOTE: I've never really been into dramas or hour-long shows, at least not until the last few years, so for the most part the words television and sitcom are interchangeable below.
I'm generally not one to ever put limitations upon what items can legitimately be compared to each other. It'd be odd to compare and contrast a certain type of shoehorn to an ancient Sumerian sun-god, but if you can pull it off convincingly then, by all means, try. Of course comparing an ancient sun-god to a comparable god from a similar ancient culture would be far easier to justify and maintain than comparing one to a modern footware implement, but still, I believe the whole apples and oranges argument is invoked far too often. Still, in spite of this, I have a seriously hard time comparing television of the last fifteen to twenty years with that which came before.
Talking about the relative greatness of today's television naturally made me think of the great (and just supposedly great) shows throughout history. Unfortunately many of these shows, while definitely important and no doubt excellent and ground-breaking taken within their historical context, hold little for the modern viewer. How can one seriously compare Seinfeld or The Simpsons to something like The Andy Griffith Show? Now, don't get me wrong, I absolutely love Andy Griffith, and truly believe it to be the greatest sitcom (and perhaps program) of tv's first forty (or so) years. But the entire nature of television in general, and the sitcom in particular, has changed so thoroughly over the last twenty years that Griffith, despite its wonderful writing and acting, would probably be barely recognizable as entertainment to anybody under the age of 18.
I grew up in the '80's, watching endless reruns of shows good and bad from the '50's, '60's, and '70's. My love of television was forged by shows like Andy Griffith, Sanford and Son, Bewitched, WKRP in Cincinati, The Jeffersons, Three's Company, Diff'rent Strokes, Leave it to Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet, Benson, et al. When I see these shows today they don't seem odd or quaint to me, although they do make me nostalgiac for my youth. I have extensive experience with these and many other old programs, and so when I see them I'm able to accept them for what they are. When I encounter a show from those eras that I've never really seen before, though, it can be really jarring. The wife and I started watching Soap this week. I had seen a few stray episodes when I was a kid, but other than the concept, some of the actors involved, and the Benson character, I've never really know anything about this show. With no personal history, I was shocked at how slow and labored everything was. There was hardly any subtlety, and the only irony was reflective of soap opera cliches and not those of sitcoms. In the present post-traditional-sitcom era, a sitcom that's stereotypical in structure and format is almost impossible for me to accept, even if it's a show from the past that I've merely never seen before. I realize Soap was considered controversial and groundbreaking at the time, and is still spoken of as one of the more notable sitcoms in history; all I see, though, is a mediocre program hobbled by the stodgy constraints of its genre, and that generally bungles its good concept. If they had cut back on the awful punchlines and dropped the laugh-track, Soap would have worked far better both as comedy and as a parody of soap operas. Of course, if they did that, it'd be an even more blatant rip-off of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.
And so, I find it surpassingly difficult to effectively compare the telvision of the last 15-20 years to that which came before it. The programs I knew well as a child are what, in comparison, made The Simpsons and Seinfeld and Get a Life so amazing and special, whereas those very same shows from the '90's, and the ways in which they broke down and destroyed the traditional tropes of the sit-com, have made it almost impossible to get into older shows that I have no history with. Thus I am completely incapable of comparing the new and the old. Fuckin' A.
The true test will come, I suppose, whenever I make an attempt to watch The Mary Tyler Moore Show, or The Dick Van Dyke Show. Both are regularly mentioned as being among the greatest shows of all time. I've seen, maybe, two episodes of either. Could I ever believe them to be genuinely great, or will they merely be great in relation to the sit-coms of their day? Anybody a fan of either?