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.
Premise: North America has become incorporated as big business takes over the running of government. In 2076 a civilian terrorist organization begins assassinating key players in this new world order. After being caught and sentenced to an execution, they manage a remarkable escape – 60 years into the past. Their plan is to begin dismantling the future by preventing it in the past. Alas, a fly in their ointment is a bulldog by-the-book cop played by Rachel Nichols (‘Star Trek’ the reboot; ‘Amityville Horror’ the reboot) who gets dragged into the time machine against her will and must now track down the terrorists and bring them to justice.
This is ‘The Sarah Connor Chronicles’ gone sideways. Nichols’ character, Keira, is a fish deeply out of water and her only allies in this Brave Old World are another detective – played by the brooding hunk Victor Webster – and a 17 year old kid (played by teen sensation Erik Knudson) who built the network infrastructure and technology that would one day run the world from which Keira has just been torn from. She has lost her family and still has to find the strength to bring these criminals to their knees. But things are not as black and white as they seem. We’re two episodes in and tension is mounting as the lines are becoming blurry as to whether Keira’s fighting on the right side or the wrong side of the terrorist cause. Only time will tell. Bonus points for the show being set and identified as Vancouver in the show; a time traveling cop show that’s not set in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. Yay! The city’s locale also takes great advantage of casting availability as many former ‘Stargate’ alumni co-star including Lexa Doig and Tony Amandola (appearing at the Polaris convention in Toronto this summer) plus former X-Files ‘Cancer Man’ William B. Davis as the ‘future’ version of Erik Knudson’s Alec Sadler.
4) Last Man Standing
Premise: “Home Improvement” gets a 21st Century facelift as Tim Allen moves from Wisconsin to Colorado, runs a sporting goods store instead of a TV show, and has to raise three daughters instead of three sons.
Not much new territory for Allen as he continues his reign as the king of backyard, hot-rod loving cavemen. However, the ensemble cast makes the difference here with Nancy Travis (“So I Married An Axe Murderer”) playing Allen’s better half and the three daughters giving him obvious amounts of comedic grief. He tones down the stupid-husband premise (though he does crush a boat with a Sherman Tank in one episode) and becomes straight-man for the funny subplots with his family and co-workers. The show did an unprecedented 24 episodes in its first season and has been renewed for a second season. He’s doing something right here, kids.
5) Two Broke Girls
Premise: A low-income waitress named Max (played by Kat Dennings) living in Brooklyn, New York befriends a fallen heiress named Caroline (played by Beth Behrs) whose father has lost the family fortune after his failed Bernie Madoff-like Ponzi scheme lands him in jail – and her with nothing but the clothes on her back and her favourite horse to show for it. The two become roommates and co-workers at a local restaurant but they dream of rising above their own poverty by starting a cupcake making business (you can’t make this stuff up!)
Believe it or not this is a clever and witty ‘buddy’ show from the mind of failed comedienne Whitney Cummings (don’t believe me? Just watch her own self-titled sitcom). The show is driven by the two lead actresses who act as a female version of The Odd Couple. Dennings’ Max plays up the self-loathing, down-on-her luck underclass ‘broad’ while Behr’s Caroline plays less Paris Hilton and more Reese Witherspoon’s character in Legally Blonde. Max firmly believes her station in life will always be a lowly waitress while Caroline, who has tasted success, believes her business smarts and Max’s cupcake making prowess will lead them out of the shadows of squalor. They attempt to co-exist in their obviously different approaches to life and hijinx ensue. The supporting cast is truly negligible as these young ladies steal every scene – except when the horse is on screen. Best line of the show so far from Max: “Hey, Equestrian Barbie… your horse has done the impossible. It smells worse than Brooklyn”.
6) Saving Hope
Premise: An upwardly mobile surgeon – played by Michael Shanks (Stargate; and husband of Lexa Doig seen in ‘Continuum’) – and his soon-to-be surgeon wife played by Erica Durance (Smallville) find themselves caught in a life or death struggle as Shanks’ Charlie Harris suffers a brain trauma in a car accident. As he sinks into a coma he finds himself having an out of body experience observing the hospital patrons as a third party. Shanks narrates the show as he watches the daily drama in the hospital and must also watch Durance’s Alex Reid respond and cope with the possibility of losing her life partner while still having to keep her shit together so she can do her job. The staff, including an ex-boyfriend, rally around her. This might turn out to be the most awkward love triangle since “Ghost”. It’ll be interesting to see how this show can maintain premise’s momentum before having to either kill Dr. Harris or revive him so that he can do the ghost whisperer thing from there on.
7) Big Bang Theory – a group of nerdy friends, and a hot non-geek next door neighbour try to navigate the world of social interaction. Still one of the most intelligent sitcoms on TV. Bravo to Chuck Lorre for stunt casting his old ‘Roseanne’ acting buddies AND shoe-horning geek celebrities into the weekly plots. With Wil Wheaton (Star Trek: Next Generation) as a semi-regular there are plot possibilities galore [how about having him take Penny on a date… leaving Leonard in a jealous funk? Thereby putting Sheldon’s new found friendship with Wheaton at jeopardy]. Adding the ladies to the plot has also been a welcome relief as there are only so many ‘Babylon 5’ jokes one can take (or even understand). But, Chuck… you gotta address the broken elevator in the apartment building. Why not make the celebrity guests pose as an elevator repairman every now and then? It worked for ‘Frasier’s weekly talk show callers…
8) Pawn Stars – Rick Harrison, Corey, the Old Man and Chumlee The Idiot run a Vegas pawn shop. You could not script a better ‘reality show’ than this redneck three ring circus set on the Vegas strip; People selling useless shit for cash and a dysfunctional family trying to deal with their own fame. It’s television gold and makes the Antiques Roadshow… well… British and boring. Don’t miss the spin-off show ‘American Restoration’ featuring one of the Pawn Star regulars. It’s less of a soap opera, but the pop culture antiques that are rebuilt and brought back to life is the payoff at the end of every show.
9) Auction Hunters – forget Storage Wars, Storage Hunters, Pawnathon, American Pickers or Canadian Pickers. Those are all small potatoes. It’s any wonder the people on them are even in business given how excited they get over finding things that only yield $100 or $200 margins after sale. The Auction Hunters duo has no time for penny ante crap. They’re going to storage auctions and buying big ticket items: boats, tanks, cars, weapons, you name it. The best was the shark cage they found – which, upon demonstrating it to a potential buyer – plunged to the bottom of the ocean when it hit the water. A $15,000 deal turned into $500 worth of scrap metal. Their hauls usually net them tens of thousands in profits and sometimes they LOSE thousands. That’s some reality show ‘drama’ I can get behind.
10) Hollywood Treasures – here’s the ultimate in geek porn. Collectibles movie fan and self-made millionaire Joe Maddelena takes us on a pop culture safari every week in search of people who want to sell off their movie and television memorabillia usually in the form of props, costumes, vehicles and in the most recent episode: the entire District 12 village used in ‘Hunger Games’. Joe and his team track down the most iconic of these objects, authenticate them then either buy them directly off the owners at bargain basement prices in cash or convince the owners to place them in auctions from which Maddelena’s company get a percentage of the profit. Episodes have featured the original Panavision camera George Lucas used to film the original Star Wars ($550,000), the cane that Jim Carrey used in ‘Batman & Robin’ ($12,500) and the Judy Garland ruby slippers used in The Wizard of Oz for close-ups ($2,000,000). Maddelena also hustled the on-screen stunt version of Bumble Bee, the Camero from ‘Transformers’ from a junkyard for $20,000 and turned it over to a collector for $40,000 cash. Check this out when it’s on – not just eye candy, but some pretty cool behind-the-scenes trivia about the objects and their origins as well.
Though I miss the simplicity of TV from yesteryear, I do not miss the reruns – even if shows did have longer seasonal runs (usually 21 to 24 shows on average). To that end, modern TV viewing allows us the chance to PVR and watch at our leisure and many cable networks are finally learning that firing up new brands during the summer is proving to be a smart idea. I’ll report back soon with more new series highlights as the summer TV season gears up.