Monday, September 30, 2013

"Going Backwards"

I think I know the reason for this (and if I’m right, then I have provided a misleading title, though, for me, this is hardly unusual and barely rates mentioning.)  It is possible, however, that I am egregiously off the mark.  Perhaps this writing will unearth some fresh insights.  Or maybe you will think of something and pass it along.  Should that, in fact, occur, I shall extract that modular hunk in my head that represents “faulty thinking” and replace it with a superior, albeit externally derived alternative.  I am not married to my mistakes.

Okay, what am I talking about?

I am talking about this.

Recently, they came out with the iPhone 5, placing me officially five iPhones behind the curve.  I still have a “flip” phone, which generally sits cradled on a table in our front hallway, and costs me two hundred and twenty-one dollars and seventy-six cents a year for the privilege of (almost) never using it.    

The point is, somebody believes that the iPhone 5 is an upgrade from the earlier iPhones, and I am in no position to dispute that.  Because I’m ignorant, and I don’t care.  (And I have no life, and nobody calls me.)

In the technological arena, “upgrades” are the necessitarian norm.  Nobody touts a new product as being “Not quite as good as what we’ve been selling you to this point.”  Everything must be newer and better.  “Newer” is easy.  You just make it later than the older stuff.  “Better”, they work hard on, and invariably, they come up with something.

“What’s on the Drawing Board?”


That doesn’t happen.

There is always something in the works.  And it is always, according to someone’s perspective, and hopefully the consumer’s perspective as well, an improvement. 


We move on to sitcom writing. 

Where the progression we see in technology does not seem to be the case.

My eyes were opened, or more accurately, re-opened to this contrast while reading the recounting of the Mary Tyler Moore Show saga in Mary And Lou And Rhoda And Ted by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong  (Amazing.  Four post ideas from a book I didn’t care for.)  The book’s “epilogue” contains the discouraging but undeniable observation that “The television of the 1980’s (Mary and the equally groundbreaking though stylistically different All In The Family aired in the seventies) made it feel like the previous decade’s progressive television revolution had been nothing more than Mary’s Impossible Dream.  A return to vapid female roles and token people of color marked the superficial programming of an empty calorie decade.”

I knew that.  But the book’s reminder still jolted me.  In technology, the products always get better.  (With the exception of our new toaster-oven that toasts bread slower than the toaster I recall growing up with in the fifties.)  In sitcoms, after a decade of hard-hitting and real-feeling comedies, things went noticeably qualitatively backwards. 

Think:  Three’s Company, Different Strokes, Co-ed Fever and What’s Happening!!   

It was like, after ten years of substantially reality-based entertainment, the audience said, “My head hurts!  Bring me vacuous comedies!”

Or, more precisely, “No more education and illumination.  I just want to laugh.”

Times change.  The sixties spawned consciousness-raising comedies.  The seventies said, “Enough learning and growing!  Bring on Disco!”

Responding to an apparently immutable Law of Nature, a glut of one thing – even a good thing – spawned a clamoring for its opposite.  This is the quintessential “Fashion Cycle”, and entertainment is simply another branch of fashion (Take it from a writer who was once demonstrably fashionable and now, equally demonstrably, is not.) 

It’s wide ties; it’s narrow ties.  It’s short skirts; it’s long skirts.  Common sense is not an issue.  Legs could be your not most attractive attribute, but “Mini-skirt Season” hits (after a spate of its opposite), and up go the hemlines. 

“But I don’t want them up.”

“Hey, there’s only two directions they can go.  And they just finished being down.”

“Why don’t I just stick with what I’ve got.”

“You can do that.  But you’re not going to be popular.”

My mother once overheard a conversation in a bakery where a kid was complaining about the cookie assortment, and his mother said, “What do you mean?  There are a hundred different kinds of cookies here.”  To which the kid angrily replied, “Yeah, but it’s always the same hundred.”

An era brings us an array of comedies that do no insult our intelligence.   And, simply because of the desire for a change, the next cycle brings us an entirely different array that do.

A glut.  A reaction.  And an inevitable reversal.

That’s my explanation for why half-hour comedies, once smart and reality-based, reversed themselves and became broader and stupider. 

Feel free to offer an explanation of your own.
A recent reader asked how they could access "Story of a Writer",  an extended series I wrote a while or two back.  I don't know, couldn't you just write, "Story of a Writer" is the "Search" place and it will pop up?  If that's wrong, please let me know, because I would really like anyone interested to have a chance to read it.



a hanson brother said...

or just go back to Feb 08 and check out the titles.

while there, I also checked out the greatest hockey story ever. good stuff. curious did you ever find/meet Debbie? now you should find the Duke, maybe bring them together. wouldn't that be a kick?!?!

(I did find a gary duke edmunson via google - he played in about 42 games for the leafs in the 59-60 & 60-61 seasons. since that's the only edmunson on Toronto's historical list of players, i'm going to assume it's the same one. unfortunately, no photos.)

Mike said...

The requirement of a best-practice US TV drama/comedy is "slick, competently written, well-oiled, engaging and perfectly bland". Above all, bland. Nothing about clever or radical or surprising. Syndication is the goal.
(Cable TV should require originality. British TV has never had syndication.)

Jim Russell said...

"The Cosby Show" started in 1984, so it wasn't *all* bad.

JED said...

I thought Newhart (1982-1990) was pretty good and I liked Coach but that started in 1989 so maybe it doesn't count. But it had Shelley Fabares playing, of all things, a woman in television.

I never watched Buffalo Bill (only 1983-1984) but the critics seemed to like it. Likewise, as in didn't watch it, The Golden Girls (1985-1992) seemed to have a good following as well as some critical praise.

Last but not least was a show called Major Dad (maybe cheating because, like Coach, it started in 1989) developed by someone we all know and love.

In case you forget all the programs that aired during the 1980's (not necessarily just in the 80s), there is a listing on Wikipedia (of course) of the hundreds of shows:

By the way, what did you think of the ending of Broadchurch? I hope you were able to see all the episodes.

Jim Dodd