March 26, 2013

Give Me That Old Time Television

One of the advantages to the recent digital tv switchover is that, much like cable, there is a greater variety of choices. (Unlike cable and other providers, it's free....with a converter box). What I've noticed in the time that I'm spending with television is that a variety of channels providing "classic" television has erupted.

With names like "Cozi-TV", "Me-TV", "Antenna TV" and "Retro TV", these channels might be seen to be a dumping ground - a great opportunity for purchasing low-cost content to show in between infomercials  (In fact, the target demographic seems to be aging Boomers and possibly aging Generation Xers). Some of the selections may be a bit obscure on other channels (Route 66? The Real McCoys?), but these channels deal heavily in nostalgia...and they do themselves a disservice, because they're a great education into how television used to be produced.

And no, that's not nostalgia from a guy who's being targeted by these shows. (I mean, let's face it, Cozi-TV has won my heart by mini-marathons of Lee Majors and Lindsay Wagner doing superheroic things in slow motion). In our current content-driven media culture, it would be easy for the younger set to get enmeshed in the high drama, overamped arcs, and continuity-driven storytelling, having done-in-one-episode stories seems exceptionally quaint...yet, there's a strength to the writing on several of these older shows. (There's also a greater flexibility in the performing - after all, two channels highlight the dramatic work of Bill Cosby - yes, I typed that out loud, and quite honestly, proved that he was more than the sweater-wearing pudding-pop salesman of the 1980s).

Ironically, these channels have me revisiting (in between writing bursts and job search efforts) two of my favorite shows: The Wild, Wild West and Ellery Queen...and has me appreciating the craft both shows bring. Neither one of them is "classic" television, and there's no whiff of nostalgia with Queen (I barely remember it as a child, and only began appreciating it via reruns on A & E in the 1990s), but both shows - much like the fare on current digital channels - demonstrate a kind of literacy that is largely absent from contemporary pop culture - concise plotting, well-drawn characters, and a willingness to engage the intelligence of the average viewer.

It's ironic - as I think about these channels, I'm reminded of summers with my paternal grandparents, where I would sneak downstairs while both napped, turn on the ancient black-and-white television (which needed to warm up first!) and watch reruns of shows on WGN and WFLD. It's great to know that some child, flipping channels, will now receive a pop culture education similar to my own.

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