How TV got good – a Gen X story

“Remember when we hated television?”

I’ve had this conversation with several fellow Gen Xers recently.  We circle each other warily until someone mentions liking a TV show, and then someone asks “Do you … like … Television?”

To say “Yes” back in our formative years would have identified you as a philistine:  someone hopelessly out of touch with what’s good in life.   But there’s no cultural cache left in disliking TV.  The words “Golden Age of Television” come up a lot.  It would be a terrible thing to live in a golden age and not know it.

Yet it’s not accurate to say that television has “evolved.”  TV was actually better as a new medium, for all the clumsy production values and ham-handed social conventions, than it was during my childhood in the 80s.  I’ll admit the groan-to-pleasure ratio is pretty high but I defy anyone to watch the early vaudeville performers putting it on the line in front of a live crowd and for millions at home, and not get lost in their act.

They didn’t know what they were doing, but that’s because they were pioneers:  and watching pioneers in action is always exciting.  They were seeing if it was even possible to make a connection as a performer across such vast distances, and history has been kind.

The early internet was much the same – except that in the days of television it was the best of the best who made it on to the new medium.  The internet had no such exclusivity.  Television was a casting call;  the internet was a 100 million car pile-up.

It was once we finally understood what “television” was, and how to do it, that we got really bad at it.  There is a moment in every creative endeavor when pioneers get replaced by hacks.  It’s not a complete take-over at first:  “Star Trek” can co-exist with “The Brady Bunch,” “All In The Family” with “Three’s Company.”  But once the suits realize the hacks are easier to make money from, aesthetic gentrification is inevitable and the pioneers can’t afford the rent.

The inevitable result is “Charles in Charge,” and “Small Wonder,” and an armada of programs remembered only for being so forgettable.  It was this epoch of mediocrity that my cohort and I rebelled against:  don’t judge us if you weren’t there, you would have too.

But it was more than just the mediocrity.  I’m not sure how the dominant theme in serialized television came to be “stasis,” but the urge to preserve television characters in amber was present from the very beginning.  Show after show, from black and white comedies like “Mr. Ed” to dramatic programming like, oh, “Knight Rider,” presented us with a premise, a set up … and hundreds of episodes after which the “reset” button was hit and everything returned to the premise and the set-up.

Unlike any other art form involving recurring characters, the television mainstream television show refused to acknowledge change, growth, or evolution.  Occasionally there was a “Very Special Episode” that might deal with death … though it was just as likely to deal with marijuana … but in general the paradigm was observable in the “two Darrens” phenomenon from “Bewitched”:  if you lose a major actor, just switch somebody else in to play the same character and pretend nothing has happened.  Above all else:  pretend that nothing changes.

Stasis was the dominant television aesthetic of our formative years at a time when television was everything.  We were the latchkey kids coming home to it.   Of course we rebelled against that.  Stasis is unbearable to teenagers.

We also knew that more was possible.    Punk was happening.  Michael Jackson was revolutionizing pop.  Monty Python, which had a wholly different view of the world, was just beginning to make inroads into the U.S..   Star Wars was a thing now, and so was Annie Hall.  We treated TV as the least of our artistic options because, Christ, but it was.

The Onion’s AV Club has put “The Larry Sanders Show” (1992-1998) at the vanguard of the Golden Age of Television:  the show that proved “quality” could make money again, leading us inevitably to “The Sopranos” and the new Golden Age.  That’s a good pin to stick in, but I think the ice was breaking sooner, with lesser shows.  Dynamic serialization, after all, wasn’t unheard of in television:  soap operas had been doing it for decades (on radio too), and by the mid-to-late 80s the idea kept poking its head up.  Thirtysomething (1987 – 1991) was a soap-opera-ish stab at it, but it was a stab at it.  I never got it, but I recall my parents friends thinking it was electric.  The New York Times called it “as close to the level of an art form as weekly television ever gets,” which kind of makes my point.

Northern Exposure (1990 – 1995), by contrast, electrified everyone.  It had snuck in as an eight-episode replacement series for CBS, and became a hit despite the network never adequately promoting or really even knowing what to do with it.

What thirtysomething and Northern Exposure had in common, along with equally exciting programming like Hill Street Blues (which arguably got the ball rolling in 1981), was the fact that they were fully serialized:  they rejected stasis.  Actions that were undertaken would therefore have consequences for the future – and that made the stakes meaningful.  Some of these shows haven’t withstood the test of time because, in fact, they weren’t really all that good:  but the fact that they rejected stasis, and had meaningful stakes, meant they were still a true cut above for us.  There was so little of it that we were still cynical about the medium (TV was still crap) but we could acknowledge when somebody was trying to do better.

In today’s Golden Age of Television, it’s no accident that there is no more stasis.  Every show, from half-hour comedy to hour-long drama, no matter how crappy, moves and changes in accordance with time.  Even the Simpsons … where no one ever ages … has continuity.  Bleeding Gums Murphy and Maude Flanders died and are still dead.

When every show rejects stasis, the rejection of stasis can no longer be used as a critical criteria by which to distinguish good and bad.  That’s all for the good.  Yet I think the fundamental human truth that rejecting stasis gets at … that there are consequences to the characters, that causes have effects … is still at the heart of good television.

I find this at the heart of the change in “Community” – one of the most celebrated and controversial comedies on television today – between seasons 3 and 4.  The reason for the change is well known:  the series creator Dan Harmon was unceremoniously dumped and replaced;  and it was Harmon’s unique vision, more than anything, that drove the program.

That would naturally cause a change.  But in fact Harmon was replaced by two very strong showrunners:  one from “Happy Ending,” which shares a similarly manic, anything-for-a-joke, vibe, and one from “Alien in America,” which had a similarly big heart for its characters, refusing to ever look down at them.  Both were excellent shows – yet Community turned in a devastatingly lack-luster fourth season.

What was the factor that they couldn’t re-create?  The AV Club’s Todd VanDerWerff has posited that the show became obsessed with appealing to fans by repeating itself:  saying, in essence “Hey, here’s one of the things about Community you loved before, so we’ll do it again and you’ll love us more!”  There’s a lot of truth to that.

But what was immediately apparent in the new season was a related, but different, phenomenon:  having been handed the keys to a new show, the new showrunners were determined not to break it.  They were handling their characters with care, not making any sudden moves, and … inadvertently … trapping them in amber.  Harmon was celebrated for his willingness to take risks – and his characters did too, with human consequences coming out of every scene.  When that was taken away, the characters lost their depth.

It was likely always going to be this way, and not just because Community was an inherited property.  Neither “Happy Ending” or “Alien in America” ever took chances with their characters.  In the case of “Happy Ending,” it is because the program skates along a slick absurdist surface that in incompatible with true pathos:  the characters may go there, but the show never lets the audience.   The show is having too much fun to dwell.  It’s a wonderful effect, I liked that show very much, but it was completely incompatible with Community’s interest in the full range of its characters humanity.  Refusing to let characters experience prolonged pathos is, itself, a form of stasis in a show that had taken risks.

“Alien in America” was far subtler and more tender, but still preferred to return to the same emotional beats over and over again:  progress happened, but it moved verrrrrry slowly.  Not quite stasis, but not always clearly distinct from it either.

Yes, “Community” dazzled with its technical innovation: but it was its refusal to let the characters stand still, and its demand that every interaction, every conversation, have sufficient heart to open the door to consequences, that made it great television.

Which is to say that the Golden Age of television may be a return to the pioneer days.  The difference between a great show and a middling show in the Golden Age and a great show and a middling show in the pioneer days were both the willingness to take risks and see what worked.  In the pioneer days it was an experiment with the form itself:  can we do this?  In the Golden Age, we are far, far, more technically proficient and have a far more vast repository of knowledge about what works and doesn’t.  The issue then becomes about story:  of course you need a good premise, and good characters, and a good set-up … but then you have to be willing to risk it all, over and over again.

Neither “Happy Ending” nor “Alien in America” ever took that kind of risk, however good they were in other ways.  “Community,” and every show you’ve ever really, really, loved, did all the time.

Stasis, the bane of television in the 1980s, is still the bane of television.  But with hundreds of channels and the internet, we got our pioneer spirit back.