“I can’t stand old movies,” my Uncle Tommy once said to me. “Any time I see a guy wearing a hat, I change the channel.”
Despite his dismissal of a filmmaking era I love, and have since childhood, I kept my cool. (I learned that from Cary Grant, who, by the way, knew how to rock a hat.) Opinions are subjective reflections of personal taste, I reminded myself. That explains why some people are Yankee fans, or Republicans.
Then I asked him, calmly, what he didn’t like about “old movies.”
“What you may think of as ‘dated’ other people consider ‘classic,’” I said.
“They’re boring, and the acting is terrible!” he added. “Katharine Hepburn is the worst. I can’t stand her.”
Funny thing: I have a picture of Katharine Hepburn from THE PHILADELPHIA STORY hanging in my apartment; I have no such picture of my Uncle Tommy, love him though I do. So I decided to change the subject to something less controversial, like Obamacare.
I was reminded of this conversation when I read critic Neil Genzlinger’s take down of “Retro TV” in yesterday’s New York Times, an article crafted with such a broad brush I don’t even know where to begin rebutting it.
Apparently, Mr. Genzlinger was channel surfing on Saturday afternoon and was dismayed to find a bunch of “old stuff” clogging his cable on channels with funny names like Inspire, Aspire, and Up! Uplifting Entertainment. (And don’t even get him started on new-fangled Internet streaming of old-fangled TV! Because, how crazy is that?) He then took pen to paper to slice up some sacred cows.
“Sluggish pacing, wooden acting, wince-inducing jokes and obvious plot twists abound,” he opined, metaphorically shaking a remote-clutching fist. “Too much of this will turn your brain to mush as surely as too much of today’s reality TV will.”
And then he added a zinger of particular interest to me (and many people I know):
“(I)f you’re watching this fare all day, every day, you need help,” he wrote.
For the record, this past weekend I watched The Odd Couple, Get Smart, Lost in Space, The Honeymooners, and a Blu-ray of Betty Boop cartoons. It’s a wonder I can even write this, what with the tightness of my straight jacket.
Mr. Genzlinger then provided a hit list of “old stuff’ you should avoid (in convenient chronological order): I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Gilligan’s Island, Green Acres, Welcome Back Kotter, Dallas, Boy Meets World, and Sex and the City.
Let’s ignore the fact that any list that equates I Love Lucy, the first TV sitcom shot on film, and Sex & the City, the first TV sitcom to base an episode around the taste of a man’s semen, is impossible to logically refute. Or that he thinks Boy Meets World (which left the air a mere 14 years ago) is a “wonderful show,” but you still shouldn’t watch it (because the spin-off Girl Meets World is bad). Or that he’s hardly the first TV critic to suggest that Gilligan’s Island isn’t Peabody-worthy.
Mr. Genzlinger is a respected critic who is entitled to his beliefs, as is my Uncle Tommy. But whereas my uncle’s opinion was overheard by a handful of family members at a Christmas party, a New York Times columnist wields a bit more influence.
What irks me most is Mr. Genzlinger’s reiteration of an endemic prejudice that has existed for years: that “old” is somehow a flaw. This same perspective inspired colorization a generation ago and leads contemporary distributors and networks to crop (or stretch) shows produced in olde-fashioned 4:3 aspect ratio to widescreen, or to re-do special effects, in an effort to convince younger audiences that a show is of a more recent vintage. It’s the perspective that led to a 500-channel universe in which only one network – Turner Classic Movies – routinely aired black & white programming. And it’s the perspective that led the generation after mine to grow up with less-than-ready access to anything “classic.”
Then, happily, technology interceded. In recent years, the explosion in basic cable networks, broadcast digital sub-channels, and streaming media has led to a renaissance in the availability of classic content. TCM has gotten two broadcast competitors airing classic movies 24/7: getTV and MOVIES! TV Network. The niche left open by Nick at Nite and TV Land (already eschewing classics in favor of newer stuff) was filled by digi-nets like Me-TV, Antenna TV, COZI-TV, and Retro TV. Subscription VOD platforms like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime began loading up on binge-able retro content, and Warner Bros. launched Warner Archive Instant, a boutique streaming service for classic TV shows and movies, many restored from original source material.
Classic film and TV is just about the only segment of the physical media business still thriving. Expensive DVD and Blu-ray collections of Twin Peaks (out today), The Wonder Years (due in early October), and Batman with Adam West (coming November 11) are expected to do big business, and not just with the nostalgic. A new generation is embracing classic content, a fact underscored by TCM’s audience, two-thirds of which they say is between 18-54.
In that sense, the market rebuts Mr. Genzlinger more effectively than I ever could. Because, if nobody wanted to watch this stuff, it would be back “in the vault” where he believes it belongs.
I hold equal respect for classic film and TV, since my affection for both developed in the cable-less 1970s when the handful of channels I got filled their schedules with both. To be clear: while Mr. Genzlinger did not include classic film in his dismissal of “old stuff,” his complaints against non-contemporary TV are the same my uncle used to condemn movies of the same era: pacing, acting, and predictability.
It’s a fact that the pace of filmed entertainment of a generation (or more) ago differs from that of today. But I find the frenetic quality of contemporary blockbusters to be headache-inducing, so, for me, that’s a selling point. Mr. Genzlinger worries that my brain will turn “to mush” if I watch too many of these old shows. I appreciate his concern, but I have the same concern for my seven-year-old nephew, whose senses are assaulted daily by ADHD-inducing entertainments on multiple screens.
I liken the slower pace of (some, not all) classic TV and movies to visiting with a grandparent. Once you tune yourself to their wavelength, you may suddenly feel more relaxed. Heck (as they say on Andy Griffith), you might even set a spell and enjoy yourself.
Regarding acting, as clothing styles have altered over the years, so has performing technique. The theatricality of silent film evolved into the presentational style of early Talkies, then filtered through the Actors Studio and American New Wave, etc. TV acting evolved as well, from stage-y live TV drama to high definition naturalism. Mr. Genzlinger dismisses an entire era of TV acting as “wooden;” I prefer to think of it as a different approach to the craft. I’ll agree that supporting players in some classic show can be hit or miss, but sometimes imperfection is part of the fun.
What many fans love about classic content is the evocation of an era, and all that comes with it (including, at times, the political incorrectness that Mr. Genzlinger references from a show like Gilligan’s Island). It’s not necessarily nostalgia for stuff we saw, as he puts it, “the first time around.” It’s interest in, and affection for a time and a style that’s unlike today. Can you be nostalgic for something you don’t remember, or weren’t even alive to experience? You can, and classic film and TV fans do that every day.
Which leads me to what may be the crux of the matter: how do you define classic (a word, admittedly, that Mr. Genzlinger does not use in his artcle)? There’s no better way to start an argument among fans than by raising this question.
“There’s no cutoff date, no strict definition for classic,” on-air host Ben Mankiewicz said at the TCM Classic Film Festival in 2013. “It’s not really about years removed from a movie’s release.”
In fact, “classic” is often a moving target that depends largely on the age of the person you ask. For Millennials, the 1980s may be classic (and even the ‘90s, George Burns help us.) I look at films and TV shows from the ‘80s and and laugh at how dated they are, because I remember looking just like that (and still cringe at the pictures). My uncle, who is in his 70s, likely feels the same about films as far back as the late 1940s. I don’t know Mr. Genzlinger’s age, but I could introduce him to a number of 20-somethings who watch Welcome Back Kotter on Me-TV for all the reasons he says they should avoid it.
Are all old TV shows worth seeking out? No. As Mr. Genzlinger suggests, many are contrived and predictable. Some were products of zeitgeist, spinning long runs out of teen idols and lunchbox-ready catch phrases, and will hold little interest for contemporary audiences. But I’ll bet that any I might condemn here would still have plenty of vocal fans today, and not just those who are ‘wistful,” as Mr. Genzlinger puts it, for a simpler time.
Because one person’s “dated” is another person’s “classic.”
As a rebuttal to Mr. Genzlinger, here are ten classic shows I think are worth seeking out (and where you can watch them). Note: this list is by no means definitive. There are plenty more where these came from:
1. The Honeymooners (1955-56, CBS)
Jackie Gleason’s one-season spin-off of a variety sketch that first appeared on Cavalcade of Stars in 1951 still crackles with wit, pathos, and aspirational resonance. The relationship between Audrey Meadows’ “long-suffering” Alice and Gleason’s blowhard bus driver Ralph serves as an antidote to the fiction of the perfect ‘50s family, and Gleason and Art Carney are as entertaining a comedy duo as TV has ever seen. (39 episodes)
Me-TV Tues 10p.m. + 10:30 pm/Sat nights 2 a.m. + 2:30 a.m. (ET)
On Blu-ray and DVD
2. The Twilight Zone (1959-64, CBS)
Rod Serling’s sci-fi drama has been a rerun staple ever since its original airing, and with good reason. Unlike other anthologies of the era, the series benefits from its lack of regular characters, instead letting a steady stream of still-recognizable guest stars and brilliant teleplays take center stage. Serling himself, as on-screen narrator, holds it all together, spookily popping up in each episode, smoking an ever-present cigarette.
Me-TV Mon-Fri 11 p.m. (ET) + occasionally on SyFy
All episodes in HD on Amazon, Netflix and Hulu (w/ ads)
On Blu-ray and DVD
3. Get Smart! (1965-69, NBC + 1969-70, CBS)
Mel Brooks and Buck Henry developed comedian Don Adams’ hotel detective character from The Bill Dana Show into a hip and often-hilarious James Bond parody (with a dash of Inspector Clouseau). Adams and Barbara Feldon (as Agent 99) had hot chemistry from the get-go, and the visual gags (e.g. the “Cone of Silence”) are often top notch. (138 episodes)
Me-TV Sat nights 1 a.m. + 1:30 a.m./Mon 10 p.m. + 10:30 p.m. (ET)
4. Dark Shadows (1966-71, ABC)
Producer Dan Curtis mashed up every conceivable horror movie plot in five years of daily installments of this off-the-wall supernatural soap opera. With a threadbare budget and 1960s-era technology, Curtis wove an addictive continuing story that unfolded over hundreds of years and multiple parallel universes, most of it headlined by Canadian actor Jonathan Frid as the original (non-sparkling) reluctant vampire. Once you acclimate to the not-so-special-effects and occasional flubbed dialogue, you may find yourself under its spell. (1,225 episodes)
240 episodes on Hulu (w/ ads) – 80 episodes on Amazon (VOD)
5. Batman (1966-68, ABC)
Just two years removed from its 50th anniversary, this show has even better legs than Batgirl. Adam West, Burt Ward and Yvonne Craig (added in the third season) fight a rogue’s gallery of classic film stars (many of them one-time Fox contractees) in a piece of 1960s pop art that works as parody for the grown-ups and straight-up adventure for the kids. And Holy octogenarian! Adam West still looks great. (120 episodes)
Me-TV Sat 7 p.m. + 7:30 p.m. (ET) + various times on IFC
On DVD and Blu-ray Nov 11
6. The Odd Couple (1970-75, ABC)
Tony Randall and Jack Klugman star in this adaptation of Neil Simon’s stage play and film of the same name. Skip the single-camera first season; the show really found its rhythm in season 2, when producer Garry Marshall (Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley) switched to a multiple-camera format, filmed in front of a live studio audience. (114 episodes)
Me-TV Fri 10 p.m. + 10:30 p.m. (ET)
66 episodes on Hulu (w/ ads)
7. The Waltons (1971-1981, CBS)
Creator Earl Hamner Jr.’s autobiographical tale of life in a rural Virginia town during the Great Depression and World War II is best remembered today for it’s “Goodnight, John Boy” closing gag. In reality the show is a beautifully written, resonant family drama with naturalistic performances by Ralph Waite and Michael Learned as parents John and Olivia, Will Geer and Ellen Corby as grandparents Zeb and Esther, and Richard Thomas, Judy Norton-Taylor, Jon Walmsley, Mary Elizabeth McDonough, Eric Scott, David W. Harper, and Kami Kotler as the kids. And thanks to cable TV, you can watch seven(!) episodes each weekday. (210 episodes)
INSP Mon-Fri 3 p.m., 4 p.m., 8 p.m. (ET)
Hallmark Channel Mon-Fri 5 p.m., 6 p.m., 7 p.m., 8 p.m. (ET)
72 episodes on Amazon (VOD)
8. Family Ties (1982-89, NBC)
There are more iconic and, arguably, better comedies of the 1970s and ‘80s that I’ve excluded from this list, but I include Gary David Goldberg’s family sitcom for one reason: Michael J. Fox. His Alex P. Keaton, the Nixon-revering son of former ‘60s radicals (Meredith Baxter and Michael Gross), stands out as one of the great characters in TV comedy. Plus, the smart writing transcends the sometimes drab look of shot-on-video, multi-camera comedy. (168 episodes)
TVGN various times
All episodes on Netflix and Amazon (Season 1 is Prime, the rest are VOD)
Complete series on DVD
9. The Wonder Years (1988-93, ABC)
Twenty-five years later, middle schoolers (and later, high schoolers) Kevin and Winnie still pack an emotional punch. Note that the episodes streaming on Netflix contain an alternate version of the theme (sans Joe Cocker vocals) and missing/replaced songs, due to rights issues. Time-Life has indicated they will clear “more than 300 songs” for the upcoming DVD release, and include hours of newly created extras. (115 episodes)
All episodes on Netflix
On DVD in October
10. Twin Peaks (1990-91, ABC)
The extent to which David Lynch’s serio-comic murder mystery informs TV of today is almost immeasurable. But while many shows seek to capture the otherworldly mood of this short-lived series, none have ever come close. Wow, BOB. Wow. (30 episodes)
All episodes on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu (w/ commercials)
On Blu-ray (with the 1992 feature film FIRE WALK WITH ME + lost footage)