Monday, February 20, 2017

"Television, As A Foreshadowing Crystal Ball"

Beware of pretentious pontification.  Not you.  That was an advisory to myself.  I am sharing that sentiment to acknowledge concern for possible blowharding opinionations – thank you “Blossom” – vowing I will be warily vigilant about crossing the line.  I will probably cross it anyway.  Just saying I’ll be unhappy about it when I do. 

A TV sitcom accurately foretold where we would wind up today.  And we just thought it was a show.

Offered for your consideration…

All in the Family debuted in 1971.  That’s now forty-six years ago.  The show was extremely successful, topping the ratings five seasons in a row, ranking in the “Top Ten” seven years out of its series complement of nine. 

They called it “Water Cooler” television, meaning people discussed it around the water cooler at work.  There you go.  Already a delineating cultural distinction. 

Although certainly not unilaterally, water coolers are stereotypically associated with offices, thus identifying “water cooler” conversation with predominantly “white collar” occupations.  To my knowledge, it was never called “Stick Your Head Under The Tap” television, or “Shlurp Directly Out Of The Hose” television.  Water coolers attracted few people in work boots and overalls.

(By the way, although shows like All in the Family attracted humungous audiences, those numbers, at their highest, reflected approximately a tenth - thirty million out of three hundred million - of the available viewership.  I have considered – and rejected – writing a post about whether it makes a difference that we no longer all watch the same programming at the same time, deciding, realistically, that we never did.  Moreover, although many of us may have tuned in to the same program, we did not inevitably internalize an identical understanding.  TV’s biggest hits offered something for everyone.  But it was not necessarily the same “something.”  Now let’s return to our story.)

My point in a nutshell:  You want a determining indicator of how we got here? 

Watch All in the Family.

“Exhibit A” – the “A” standing for “all you really need as evidence” – Archie Bunker, pioneering progenitor – a presumed, or at least imaginable, blue-collar “Roosevelt Democrat”, converted by a rapidly changing Home of the Brave and Land of the Free into a Right Wing resenter of a relaxing morality and minority encroachment. 

Immediately tip-offingly, the show’s retro opening theme song, “Those Were The Days” echoed a wistful nostalgia for “the best days of our country, slipping away.” 

You think Archie Bunker would “get” Make America Great Again?

America was losing a war for the first time in its history.  (Bill Murray in Stripes crowed that we were “Ten-and-One.”)  Can you imagine Archie Bunker identifying with “Our generals don’t know much because we’re not winning anymore”?  Donald Trump could have easily borrowed that from him.

And then there’s his nemesistical adversary.

Son-in-law Michael Stivik, with his “outsider”-sounding surname, his “superior” college education, his anti-American diatribes and his subsidized living arrangement.  Not governmentally­-subsidized, but Mike and wife Gloria (Archie’s daughter) enjoyed cost-saving shelter under Archie’s roof, a condition Archie was never reluctant to toss superciliously in Mike’s face.

Stivik’s rational arguments, backed by corroborating evidence, clashed explosively with Archie’s visceral opinions.  Rather than validating his point, “Meathead’s” evidentiary proof was perceived by his opponents – characterized by Archie – as a personal insult – the unstoppable “Fact Dispenser” trumpeting his “loftier understanding.” 

Archie’s ubiquitous malapropism?  Well, it was a comedy.  Moreover, to his identifying adoring fans, Archie’s regular “misspeakings” invalidated neither his beliefs nor his credibility.  Instead deliberately making him look bad confirmed that All in the Family’s scriptwriters were demonstrably prejudiced.

Grievance-sensitive supporters – including my Zaidy (grandfather) Peter who, not alone, hand-tippingly called All in the Family “Archie” – saw Archie’s word-mangling dialogue as big-city smartasses mocking their hero’s – and by association their own – limited academics and lack of worldly sophistication.  

You think Archie Bunker had a passport? 

Dueling Perceptions:

“An untraveled know-nothing.”

“What the hell has that got to do with anything?”

Okay, that’s it.  Attempted even-handedness quickly tires me out.  But you can see what I’m driving at – the beginnings of “Now” were perceivable then. 

In its day, Archie’s throwback intransigence was seen as a backlash against the rebellious upheaval of the turbulent 60’s.  Under the radar, however, there was the visible blueprint for balancing the books.

Conclusion (for many, not a moment too soon.)

Once, TV audiences sat around a big campfire and they listened to a story.  Now, there are two campfires and two stories.  I know it’s not as simple as that, a single story, as described, open to contrasting interpretations. 

Still, it felt like one place.  And now it doesn’t.     

Oh well.

The signals were all up there.

But we were too busy laughing to take heed.

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