Thursday, September 4, 2014

"Something Changed"

A new television season is upon us.  That used to be a huge excitement for me, not when I was working, when I was a kid.  I have mentioned probably more often than you are interested in hearing that I have accumulated – and retain to this very day – a collection of TV Guide Preview Editions dating back to 1956-57, with the exception of four.  (I once tried to buy one of the missing issues on eBay, I sent them the money, and received in return a tarnished serving fork and a soup spoon.  So I stopped trying.)

Growing up, there were two kinds of shows for me – series I never watched – like The Donna Reed Show and… these are harder to come up with because I watched almost everything.  The other kind were the shows I watched devotedly every week.

My younger readers – should there be any – may be amazed by the fact that once there was a time when you could have, assembled in your head, the entire television schedules of the three networks.  (Which was all the networks there were.)  I didn’t even need TV Guide.  I could recite them by heart.  (Then why did I buy TV Guide?  Wow!  This is the first time I ever thought about that.)

How many episodes of Have Gun, Will Travel did I miss?  Or The Dick Van Dyke Show?  Or Bilko?  Or Ben Casey?  Or Doctor Kildare?  Or The Sixty-Four Thousand Dollar Question?  Or Desilu Playhouse?  To name just a handful out of hundreds?

I’ll bet a paltry few.  (Are we catching hinted glimpses of an unlived early existence?  You’re darn tootin’ we are!)

I was addicted to television.  I’d watch the “Test Pattern” if it was on.  (Not a joke.  Sometimes, a station would lose their signal, and they would throw on the “Test Pattern” until it came back.  So that’s what I’d watch.  Not for hours – I am not entirely crazy – but a few minutes, waiting for the show to return, which it inevitably did.  The problem was not the “Test Pattern.” It was the accompanying sound, which I still have ringing in my ears.  Because it was a ringing sound.)

Okay, I am turning the corner here.

Today, it’s different. 

I watch ballgames.  I watch movies.  I watch Seinfeld reruns.  I watch English murder mysteries.  I watch (though with diminishing faithfulness) Law & Order SVU. 

Any non-English dramas or comedies that weren’t made in the 90’s?

Not a one.

The idea of watching a series regularly to me now seems alien and unappetizing.

I wonder why.   That is not rhetorical.  I actually do wonder why.

Series television viewing was once my indispensible meat and potatoes.  Now, it’s like I’ve turned entirely vegan and carbo-phobic.

Maybe it’s because I’m old and I am running out of time.  No.  I squander time all the time.  Besides, other people my age still watch TV series on a weekly basis, smart people reaching Modern Family like irresistible M & M’s. 

But not me.  Though I enjoyed it when it started, I have not watched an episode of Modern Family – original or rerun – for more than four years.  Why not?  It’s a good show.  It wins prizes.  Earlier in my life, I’d have been a passionate enthusiast. 

But today – nothing.

I mentioned my determined resistance to series television to a fellow comedy writer and, acknowledging a similar reaction, he attributed his aversion to their triggering painful recollections of

“{eating out of} Styrofoam {containers} at two in the morning.”

For him, the current comedies reflect not laughter but the agony of the rewrite.

My response is more “disinterest” than memories of driving home with the sun coming up.  In this regard, I do not underestimate the importance of sour grapes.  It’s them now, and not me.  Just writing that evokes a dark and deadening reaction.  But it’s got to be more than (understandable) envy, doesn’t it? 

I used to laugh.  And in erstwhile dramas, I felt engaged by the protagonists.  Rockford.  Columbo.  Today, overall, I do not laugh.  And as for today’s protagonists, I am not buying in.  Comedic characters and storylines, tortured heroes (and female heroes) harboring devastating secrets – they invariably leave me cold. 

Maybe – at least from the comedy standpoint – it’s because I’m a professional and I can see behind the artifice.  Watching comedy movies in particular, I have invariably noticed myself laughing a second or so ahead of the rest of the audience.  (Unless there’s another comedy writer in attendance, in which case we laugh at the same time.)  It’s an “occupational hazard”, I suppose.  Absent when I was younger, because I had not yet amassed the education and the experience.

So there’s that, for certain.  There is also comedic cultural referentialism – which is another way of saying I often do not know what they are talking about.  In dramas – and I have written about this before – there is less likely the portrayal of “Good” inevitably triumphing over “Evil.”  I used to appreciate that a lot. 

I hate it when it’s the other way around.  Partial victories are not even enough.  I want to see “Good” kick the crap out of “Evil” and banish it for eternity.  Because if it doesn’t happen in fiction, I have no other place to turn. 

I believe I am getting closer here.  The fact is, today’s series, both comedies and dramas, are not written for an audience of me.  What an astonishing revelation.  Not only are other people writing the shows, other people are quite happily watching them.  Leaving me totally out of the equation.  I have apparently disappeared – both as participant and as a satisfied viewer.

(I could watch channels programming series from the past, but sometimes that is startlingly depressing, as a number of those shows do not successfully hold up.  Have you ever watched a rerun of Rhoda?  Yikes!  And I wrote four of them!)

My best guess is it’s a “generational thing.”  Nothing is funny to everybody.  (And their grandfather.)  And yet, I wonder.  And regret.

Because when it comes down to it,

I still really want to laugh.

(And, in dramas, to rejoice.)

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