An Ode To Television Do You Think TV Is Crass, Ridiculous And Frivolous? Don’t Tell This Viewer, Who Loves His Shows
I love my television set.
There, I’ve said it, and I feel much better now.
You’ve noticed, haven’t you, how guilty some people try to make you feel if you admit that you enjoy spending time in front of your television? As if, instead, you should be listening to Beethoven, reading Shakespeare, studying a foreign language or writing checks to organizations that work for world peace.
As if you couldn’t do all those things and watch TV, too.
I’ve been watching television since my parents bought one of the first sets in our neighborhood way back in 1952. It was a Zenith console, one of those big, clunky models encased in a dark wood frame as big as a refrigerator box with a screen that must have been all of 12 inches. The postage-stamp-sized images came only in black and white, we got only the three main networks, reception was perpetually lousy and my enduring memory is of the Indian-head test pattern.
It was glorious.
Even if it was, at times, embarrassing.
Where I lived in the early ‘50s, the San Diego border suburb of San Ysidro, a popular children’s cartoon show was called “Webster Webfoot.” Imagine going to school and hearing kids call out, “Hey, it’s WEB-ster WEB-foot!”
Think humiliation. Think resentment. Think duck on a stick.
But I never blamed our TV. I loved our TV.
My parents strictly enforced early bedtimes in those days, so what I most remember is sitting in the dark, watching that tiny screen through my partly open bedroom door.
Always on guard should my parents walk in, I managed to sneak peeks at Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town” on Sunday nights, “I Love Lucy” on Mondays, Red Buttons on Tuesdays, “This Is Your Life” on Wednesdays, “Dragnet” on Thursdays, “Our Miss Brooks” on Fridays and Jackie Gleason on Saturdays.
Remember this? “And awaa-ayyy we go!”
To fully understand the significance of those secret night viewings, you have to realize that 1952 was the same year that my parents took me to my first movie, a matinee showing of “Singin’ in the Rain.” To this day, I can still feel the magic of Gene Kelly, radiant in full color, dancing across that big screen.
But such treats were rare. In those days, my family, like many others, couldn’t afford to go to movie theaters on a regular basis. I was one of four children, the youngest a mere infant, and drive-in theaters - long gone now - were still a relatively new phenomenon. And home video was decades away.
Television, even as limited as it was, quickly became the chief form of family entertainment. It replaced the radio and, gradually, most other traditional forms of family interaction.
The Barry Levinson film “Avalon” portrays the sad side of this transformation.
But we know all that. If we haven’t seen enough anti-television portrayals on TV itself, we’ve been bombarded by the warnings of self-appointed social commentators whose familiar message typically equates the little screen with a perceived dumbing down of America.
Not that there isn’t plenty of evidence to warrant such concern.
From “Who’s the Boss?” to “Full House,” the O.J. Simpson trial coverage to “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” some television networks have demonstrated there is no common denominator low enough for the public.
And we, the public, have proven there is no lowest common denominator we won’t embrace.
Yet … what about television’s good moments, for surely there have been literally thousands?
Last season, for example, the most riveting hour I’ve ever experienced on television, an hour that rivals most movies I’ve ever seen, was broadcast as part of the critically acclaimed medical series “ER.” And, no, it was not the highly hyped Quentin Tarantino episode.
The show I mean featured the character played by Anthony Edwards, the acting resident surgeon in an urban Chicago hospital. As the consummate professional, Edwards’ character finds himself in a nightmarish position - unable to pass off responsibility for a patient in trouble and yet unable to handle the problems that, quicker than he can rationally react, begin to multiply.
It was a show that featured everything: comedy, drama, life, death, pain, pathos, fluid direction, superb acting and writing that treated the subject matter with honesty and the show’s audience as adults.
And remember, this was on a weekly television show.
There have been other shows of high quality, almost too many to count. This past season alone I found myself watching and, for one reason or another, enjoying “Friends,” “Homicide,” “NYPD Blue,” “The X-Files,” “The Larry Sanders Show,” MTV’s “The Real World,” “Law and Order,” “ER” and OK, I admit it “Melrose Place.”
But it’s been more than 40 years now, and I can’t even begin to list all of the shows that have entertained me in that time.
I loved most of what I saw on “Hill Street Blues” and “St. Elsewhere,” precursors of such current shows as “NYPD Blue,” “ER” and “Chicago Hope.” But even before that, and given the different moods and styles of various eras, I have fond memories of “Magnum P.I.,” “Leave It to Beaver,” “Dark Shadows,” “Wagon Train,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” “Walt Disney Presents,” “Monday Night Football,” “M*A*S*H,” “The Steve Allen Show,” “The Waltons,” “Barney Miller,” “The Twilight Zone,” “Have Gun Will Travel,” the various gestations of “The Bob Newhart Show,” “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” “Saturday Night Live” (the Eddie Murphy years), “Twin Peaks” and all the Andy Williams Christmas specials.
All those shows, and the list could be three times as long, were network offerings. I haven’t even mentioned the network that, traditionally at least, has been considered the best the medium has to offer: the Public Broadcasting Service.
But it’s there that we have managed to find “Sesame Street,” “Masterpiece Theatre,” “Mystery,” “The McNeil-Lehrer News Hour,” “This Old House,” “American Playhouse,” “Doctor Who,” various National Geographic specials and much more.
These days of cable television, of course, offer multiple channels of programming, from MTV to Bravo, HBO to The Movie Channel, Comedy Central to the Sci-Fi Channel, Discovery to SuperStation TBS, Telemundo to Nickelodeon.
Including ESPN and its various clones. Even given the bad feelings that I still harbor about the baseball strike, I find myself tuning to the PSN/ Prime Network to watch the Mariners, to ESPN to watch everyone else and to CNN for its extensive baseball highlights.
And football is just beginning.
So is there any real weight to the anti-TV arguments? Well, sure there is, if you watch the near eight hours a day that statisticians say is average TO THE TOTAL EXCLUSION OF EVERYTHING ELSE. Get a life, pal.
But there is quality there, if you look for it. There is drama and comedy and pain and joy, controversy, conflict and consensus. Television is, whatever its faults, simply a microcosm of the larger culture.
You’ll find pretty much everything you’d ever want or need there.
You just have to look for it.
As I do.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 5 Color photos
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: YOUR TOP 10? Do you have a Top 10 list of your favorite all-time television shows? If so, we want to know about it. Just write down your choices and send them to Favorite TV, c/o Dan Webster, The Spokesman-Review, P.O. Box 2160, Spokane, WA 99210. We’ll publish the findings as soon as enough of you send in your votes.
This sidebar appeared with the story: YOUR TOP 10? Do you have a Top 10 list of your favorite all-time television shows? If so, we want to know about it. Just write down your choices and send them to Favorite TV, c/o Dan Webster, The Spokesman-Review, P.O. Box 2160, Spokane, WA 99210. We’ll publish the findings as soon as enough of you send in your votes.