The Evolution Will Be Televised: 60 Years Later And We’re Still Watching TV

It’s impossible to explain to our children just how much the world has truly changed since you or I were kids. They experience movies and radio with only the most peripheral of differences than we did – most of which involve cosmetic improvements and frequency of access. Television, however, has made phenomenal leaps and bounds. It’s as if we were driving horse and buggies while they’ve been handed flying cars.

During its prime, the television – feared by many as the device that would put an end to the need for radio – was a financial investment tantamount to buying a house, a vehicle, or kitchen appliance. It wasn’t just an LCD or plasma screen propped up on a bookshelf like a photograph in a frame. It was a massive piece of furniture. Called a television ‘set’, it contained elements borrowed from radio systems for audio, a small electric motor, a spinning disc, a group of glass tubes to convert power, a gelatin-based vacuum tube to project an image, and a wooden cabinet to house it in. Over time record players and actual radios were added to the cabinet which constituted the first self-contained entertainment ‘unit’.

It was Lo-Fi mono audio, the pictures were in black and white, and you required an antenna to ‘catch’ broadcast signals from the local network carriers – up to 12 of them (the #1 on the television’s manual ‘dial’ was for emergency broadcasts only). There was no remote control. That dial had to be cranked by hand and a list of TV shows was printed in a book you bought at the supermarket every week called a ‘TV Guide’. The networks would start broadcasting at 6 AM and ‘sign-off’ at midnight following the evening news. They’d go dark after the performance of a canned version of the national anthem before being replaced by a test pattern – featuring the feathered head of a politically incorrect drawing of a Native North American. Though television now can still be a major financial consideration, it’s because the TV is the size of a sheet of GypRoc and is mounted on your wall like artwork. It’s a precision device projecting thousands of pixels per square inch in 4,000,000 colours with up to 7.1 surround sound audio and high definition visuals streamed into your house through a cable no thicker than a piece of licorice. No more antennas. No more manual dialing through 500 channels instead of 12. Television networks rarely ever go off the air – it cost them too much money to be dark from midnight to 6AM. Television is now 24 hours/365 days of the year. And, yet, there’s less on TV now than when I was growing up. Certainly less quality entertainment at any rate.

Because there was less airtime – most certainly for children who attended school – we were limited to an hour or so before heading out in the morning and after school was broken up between home-work, playing outside until dinner, and playing outside until dark. We really only watched TV for less than three hours on a weekday. When you include the time spent doing same on weekends between the times Mom and Dad had other plans for us cleaning our rooms, playing board games, shopping, visiting family, we may have only caught TV a few more hours Saturday or Sunday. And according to the good folks at ‘Morals R Us’ these hours were eating our brains.

They may have been right. When I add up the hours of television available to me they seem disproportionate to the unending number of things I remember watching. School days started with a kids’ variety program called ‘Rocket Ship 7’ hosted by Dave Thomas out of WKBW-TV in Buffalo (interesting trivia note: he is the father of ‘Angel’/’Bones’ TV actor David Boreanaz). Like similar shows being broadcast in that era on stations all across North America, the show featured skits, birthday greetings, puppets, a talking robot, and the latest, cheaply licensed kids fair. We watched the Christian-based ‘Davy & Goliath’ and ‘Gumby’ stop motion animation shows, Looney Tunes, Merry Melodies, ‘Popeye’, ‘The World of Oz’ and occasionally ‘The Three Stooges’ and ‘Little Rascals’ shorts.

When we came home for lunch it was a revolving world on either CHCH (out of Hamilton) or CTV (out of Toronto). I recall catching ‘The Flintstones’, ‘Rocket Robin Hood’ and any number of Canadian made game shows starring host Jim Perry – most notably ‘Eye Bet’ and ‘Definition’ – as well as a Canadian children’s variety show called ‘The Uncle Bobby Show’ featuring a cardigan wearing old Brit. After school there was a juggling act of homework, outdoor activities or watching another children’s variety show called ‘Commander Tom’ which was the afternoon version of ‘Rocket Ship 7’ featuring most of the same shows though they also included longer programming with ‘The Addams Family’, ‘The Munsters’ and ‘Batman’.

Saturdays were a barnstorm of Hanna-Barbara cartoons and live-action children’s shows like ‘Scooby-Doo’, ‘Hilarious House of Frightenstein’, ‘H.R. Puffenstuff’, ‘Liddyville’, ‘Get Smart’, ‘The Hudson Brothers’ Razzle Dazzle Show’, ‘The Powder Puff Derby’, ‘The Monkees’, ‘Gidget’, ‘The Brady Bunch’, ‘Gilligan’s Island’, ‘The Wacky Races’, and more Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies than we could ingest.

Evenings brought us sitcoms and dramas: ‘Party Game’, ‘Mary Tyler Moore’, ‘The Carol Burnett Show’, ‘The Trouble With Tracy’, ‘Starsky & Hutch’, ‘Love Boat’, ‘Sanford & Sons’, ‘All In The Family’, ‘Love American Style’, ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show’, ‘Bewitched’, ‘The Dean Martin Roast’, ‘Streets of San Francisco’, and, of course the national standard – ‘Hockey Night In Canada’ on Saturday nights. Sunday was a bit of a drag with mornings filled with religious programming but we usually caught the weekly ‘Movie For A Sunday Afternoon’, ‘The Wonderful World of Disney’, and ‘Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom’.

Today, TV’s need to fill 24 hours worth of programming – paid or created – means an assembly line of reality based shows, repeats of expensive dramas and syndicated shows from our near past (rather than our distant past… something we have to pay extra for on another set of cable channels). I love having more choices now, but I hunger for the shows that defined my childhood – even if some of them were cheesy as hell and barely hold up to repeat viewings.

But I don’t yearn for them – only the way they made me feel. I still watch television as a respite from writing and dealing with the maddening battle to make a living as a hungry parasite on the back of the entertainment juggernaut. There are still good shows out there depending on your tastes. My current favourites are a mixed bag of sci-fi, sitcoms and reality shows:

1) Mike & Molly
Premise: Two middle class working stiffs – a school teacher played by Melissa McCarthy (‘Bridesmaids’) and a Chicago patrol cop played by stand-up comedian Billy Gardell – find each other at an over-eaters anonymous meeting where they soon realize they’re too set in their ways to ever stop eating and decide to make the best of it together.

McCarthy and Gardell have great chemistry together as his oafish character completely misunderstands every situation which leads to some socially awkward encounters. It’s ‘King of Queens’ without the angst. There’s also a little bit of Honeymooners magic in this one as Gardell and his cop sidekick Carl, played by Reno Wilson, spend their time plotting one ridiculous idea after the other in an effort to get Wilson’s character a date – without him screwing it up because he’s a self-centred, loudmouthed Mama’s boy that lives with his grandmother. This past season Mike & Molly were planning a wedding while Carl falls in love with an opthomologist played by Holly Robinson Peete (ex-21 Jump Street). The supporting cast of regulars is outstanding – especially Molly’s over-sexed, widowed, party-packing mother played by Swoosie Kurtz, the local Rastafarian restaurant owner that Mike & Carl take advantage of every episode played by Nyambi Nyambi, and Mike’s bigoted, self-loathing divorced mother played by the brilliant Rondi Reed (the therapist on ‘Roseanne’). Light-hearted and giggle funny all around.

2) Two And A Half-Men 2.0
Premise: Ashton Kutcher’s billionaire software developing Playboy philanthropist takes over Charlie Sheen’s former haunt as the headmaster of a beach-front hedonism house still occupied by the free-loading Alan Harper played by the ubiquitous Jon Cryer and his idiot savant son Jake played by Angus T. Jones.

This reboot of the series – about to roll into its 10th season – should have died on the operating table when Chuck Lorre excised the tumour that was Charlie Sheen and had his character killed in the show. But something magical has happened. This is a quieter and gentler “Two And A Half Men”. Where Cryer and Sheen had worked in tandem to pump up each week’s level of debauchery, humiliation and gross outs, Kutcher plays it straight as a level headed businessman trying to navigate his way around a new relationship with a divorcee while his ex-wife attempts to both destroy his billion dollar company and his manhood. Cryer’s character, meanwhile, spends every waking hour trying to stay relevant enough that Kutcher doesn’t boot him out of the house and onto the street. There’s enough of the old show still in check as Cryer continues to winnow on about being regular, masturbating, and dealing with his mother – still played with Cruella DeVille aplomb by Holland Taylor – who has just entered into a new senior citizen phase of her life as the lesbian lover of Georgia Engel (of ‘Mary Tyler Moore’ fame). No more prostitutes and parties for this show. Just First World problems for the crew from here on in.