How old television reruns scarred a generation: Part 2

How old television reruns scarred a generation: Part 2

Welcome back to a not-at-all political look at some television shows that somebody thought was a good idea but would live on as low-key means to scar a generation staying home sick from school. It’s not at all political, because we’re all very sick of politics and don’t want to talk about it anymore. By not political, I mean actually, it’s all about politics and not something I was daydreaming about a few weeks ago when I was contemplating new career choices that would never put me in contact with the thoughts of Kevin McCarthy ever again, and how dare you accuse me of that.

In Part 1, we discussed Gilligan, the Clampetts, a guy with bolts through his neck, and how it all was structured to show Americans that people who are different from you are dumb and that capitalism primarily exists as means of oppressing skilled labor. I think. That sounds wrong, given what we know about television studios of the Cold War era, but there it is.

Let’s continue before my editors catch onto this nonsense and shut us down. Here are some of the only shows on during that horrible early afternoon period when you, a feverish child home sick from school, had only a few channels to choose from and no energy to do anything else. Presuming, of course, you were a child in the late 1970s. Back then, the local McDonalds might have metal playground equipment capable of inflicting severe injuries, and if you went to Disneyland, it looked much bigger than it does today not because you were smaller back then, but because the choking Los Angeles smog put even the largest park landmarks behind a thick, brown, leaded haze.

No VCR, six channels, and chickenpox. You younger folks don’t know what you were missing.

The Brady Bunch

Yeah, it was fine. Whatever. It’s iconic enough to still show up in memes, so that’s got to count for something. A man and woman get married, moving all six of their kids into the same house. This doesn’t go well because everybody knows stepchildren hate each other’s guts and it doesn’t matter how big the house is, it’s still going to be too small to house that many personalities. Family strife is always pretty funny until somebody breaks their nose just before their big high school dance.

What I learned: Architects are rich enough to hire domestic help, and if you are rich enough to hire domestic help then a whole lot of your problems tend just to go away. For a while, I wanted to be an architect. Not sure if there’s a connection there.

Chicken soup rating: Mildly positive. Was nice to finally see a television family willing to push each other down the stairs in acts of petty vengeance, though that part might have only happened in one of my fever dreams. Anyway, it really spoke to me.

The Partridge Family

In what I’m going to assume was an attempt to mimic the success of The Brady Bunch because I’m sticking to my original vow not actually to look any of these shows up, this one depicted a band family with a vividly colorful band bus and it represented the exact endpoint of how rebellious you were allowed to be in now-color-television America without getting the nation’s security apparatus called out to beat your head in.

What I learned: Honestly, not a lot. I avoided this one because the music was kinda cringe, the lip-syncing was kinda cringe, and the whole show sorta smelled like incest. It somehow aged much worse and much quicker than its peers, but what was most memorable was the lack of effort anyone put into pretending to play their instruments and the apparently furious insistence, among television executives, that American viewers were going to get the whitest, blandest music possible no matter what musical revolutions were sweeping through the rest of the nation. The show seemed to insist that this was the exact point beyond which American culture was absolutely not allowed to go.

Chicken soup rating: Negative. If you were feeling queasy before watching, you’d feel worse 27 minutes later. Why are you doing this to yourself, kid with fever? You don’t have to watch television, you could just read or nap or something. Do you hate yourself that much?

My Three Sons

This one felt like another alternative universe Brady Bunch, one in which the two parents never met so only the male cast members existed. The put-upon housekeeper turned into a grouchy mean-spirited old guy. And that’s literally all I remember. There was a horn-section-provided theme song featuring six barely-animated cartoon feet, and then … nothing. I must have watched every episode at least once, but can remember not a single plot point. I think there was a dog?

What I learned: Despite each episode’s plot rolling off my young mind without so much as a ripple, I learned a lot! This show taught me that the Baby Boomers grew up during a dark, hellscape-adjacent time in which this sort of thing passed for Good American Culture. It was a comedy, but it was bleak. Not in the sense that the plots were bleak because God help me, I can’t remember a single one of them. This show appeared to be an approximation of what would happen to Leave it to Beaver if June Cleaver died. The family would collapse into vague dysfunction that would never show itself except in the mildest of ways, because if one of the boys did act out with meaningful aggression the television censors would simply kill them, mounting their corpse in dad’s smoke-filled den as a warning to the others. This show was scary in a way that Tim Burton’s versions of suburban utopia could never manage.

Again: This was it, the show seemed to say. This was white, well-off suburbia in the time of the American Dream. If you grew up in America when this show was popular, My Three Sons the maximum amount of culture, or feelings, or general stress you would ever be allowed to have. It was terrifying in its aggressively enforced banality. Lying on a couch, sick, while being told that this was the best life that could await you made every minor cold feel like a vision of a dystopian future.

In my mind, all three sons went on to die in Vietnam, none as a result of enemy action.

Chicken soup rating: God, no. What are you doing? I don’t care how bad you feel, young me, the ennui from this post-war Professional White Male conformity test will haunt you for decades. And you, television station schedulers: Why?

The Courtship of Eddie’s Father

It had a theme song. I remember that. It had a kinda peppy theme song that sounded something like Simon and Garfunkel had a fight and Art Garfunkel needed rent money so he threw something together that he thought would sell and oh, how about that, there’s fifty bucks in the wallet so it must have worked. It must not have had a lot of episodes because it never seemed to stay in rotation very long.

The Courtship of Eddie’s Father was another show that was shockingly dark even when it wasn’t trying to be. This was a period of time when Walt Disney was going door-to-door across America killing off parents for artistic inspiration, and Eddie’s mom must have been offed one morning when she answered the door during one of Walt’s bad days. Or something. Now Eddie and Eddie’s father were depressed and lonely and America was going to fking hear about it.

Again, this was all before the concept of “divorce” was really allowed to even be mentioned on network television. Back in the day, if you wanted to depict a single-parent family, your only choice was murder. Oh look, somebody’s mom ran into Walt Disney and got Bambi’s Mom’d into oblivion. Oh look, somebody’s mom painted radioactive paint onto watches for a living and died a horrible death that we patriots will never speak of again. That was it. That was as far as you could go. Anything else threatened to become societal critique and during absolutely no point of the decades-long Cold War were you allowed, on television, to question why a company was giving mom radiation poisoning or why the guy who ran a cartoon empire was allowed to hunt parents for sport.

What I learned: There is nothing more adorable than a small watery-eyed child constantly trying to goad women into a long-term sexual relationship with his father. You don’t like this? You’re saying you don’t like this? Then you’re a cold-hearted freak, because there’s nothing 1970s America considered to be as important as children paying their way in society by being useful to somebody.

You either had to form a family band, touring the country on a weird bus with your fellow dead-eyed siblings in a futile quest to boost your brother’s music career, or you had to always be up to hijinks, thus gainfully employing a whole neighborhood of professionals who would have to respond to your hijinks, or if you lacked any other talent whatsoever you had to act as your mopey dad’s wingman and pressure 1970s women into unhealthy 1970s relationships.

It was an uncomfortable time. Every few years your family might take you to the Sears Portrait Studio, which later would become an arcade. Hung on the walls were pictures of other families more photogenic than yours, but everyone in the nation had the same dead eyes. Dead eyes, everywhere. Dead eyes and casseroles, uncountably many casseroles.

In my mind, Eddie grew up to be Knight Rider. I have no basis for that, it just seems like the sort of childhood that would make you really into violence-based justice and talking cars.

Chicken soup rating: No.

Family Affair, WITH SEBASTIAN CABOT

I am not sure this show ever actually existed. It is possible that it existed only in my mind during the days of my worst fevers because I’ve never heard any other person, of any age or background, mention this show even once. Did I unknowingly fall into another dimension during a fever spike? What explains this?

The plot of Family Affair was that Walt Disney claimed another pair of parents, through means that were only briefly hinted at, but in any case, Buffy and Jody’s(?) parents are dead, dead, dead, so they’re orphans now. Their rich asshole uncle(?), who lives in a New York penthouse, agrees to take them in, but hates children and seems to acknowledge their existence as little as possible. Also, he drinks, like, a lot. Even by the standards of the time, it feels like this guy is sloshed 24/7.

Fortunately, Rich Jerk has a Santa-esque personal butler who is SEBASTIAN CABOT, which the show’s credits want to make sure you know because apparently, the presence of SEBASTIAN CABOT is the only reason this show ever got made. So Rich Jerk’s Butler does all the work of actually comforting the newly orphaned kids, teaching them life lessons, or putting the butler crowbar to Rich Jerk so that Rich Jerk is forced to at least have token interactions with the children now quivering in his dark rich person lair.

Did the children ever go outside? Was it ever daytime? I honestly don’t remember. The only scenes I remember are of wet-eyed orphan kids looking for guidance from SEBASTIAN CABOT from inside the cramped confines of an always-dark few rooms. Rich Grouch would occasionally come in to look in on them and look vaguely guilty about how much he obviously sucks. But it had the darkest set designs of any show I’ve ever seen. There are vampire shows with more sunlight than this one.

In my headcanon, Jody grew up to work for Enron and would later bring down Lehman Brothers. His sister, Buffy, briefly fought vampires before being bitten by one and turned into Kayleigh McEnany.

What I learned: That I have an active imagination. There’s no way this show about an abusive drunk rich asshole withholding emotional support from orphaned kids could possibly have gotten made during any period of American culture, even the crappiest ones.

Barring that, I suppose the show’s only pertinent lesson is that if you are a Rich Person, you can simply hire someone to have emotions on your behalf. Problem solved. The Help will have the proper emotions, and you can get on with nursing your never-full, never-empty glass of hard liquor and melting ice.

Chicken soup rating: No matter how bad you felt, stuck sick at home, this show would raise your fever two degrees, give you a pounding headache, and make you wonder if death was the only true release. I envy you kids with your Spongebobs and your Invader Zims. We just had alcoholic rich assholes stubbornly fending off life lessons from SEBASTIAN CABOT.

Dramatic conclusion with politics and insights and stuff:

OK, so here is what I learned from being a frequently sick child stuck at home with only six television channels to watch, during a period when even the VCR was naught but fantasy.

• Black Americans did not exist until 1972.

• During the 1940s, you were allowed to be wacky on television. A bit. 

• During the 1950s, you were absolutely NOT allowed to be wacky on television. Wacky was for communists and freaks. There was a set of about ten things you were allowed to do to be wacky, and doing anything outside those bounds would have Congress calling up Walt Disney to kill your parents.

• During the 1960s, absolutely nothing happened. Everything was perfectly fine. White suburbia remained white and suburban, and there was never any controversy anywhere, and God help you if you thought otherwise.

• During the 1970s, possibly because of rampant pollution and leaded gas, America’s long-ignored mental stability was declining to the point where people bought weird pants, and children were goading women into having sex with their dads. Television would fight back against these clear signs of societal fragmentation by giving us David Cassidy and telling us to pound sand if we didn’t like it.

No, really: During no pre-1970 period of television history did Black Americans exist. Nowhere. Not in suburbia. Not in southern towns patrolled by folksy sheriffs. Nowhere. No LGBT Americans. No anybody. You weren’t even allowed to be Italian on television unless you had greased-up hair, carried a gun, or implied you knew somebody who did.

And even though you were absolutely not allowed to openly critique any part of American society or culture during aaaaany of this long ultra-homogenized delivered-milk Wonder Bread gelatin-everywhere period that television networks sustained well into the era of corduroy, there sure were a crapload of parents who ended up dead. Nearly every one of these shows had a dead parent. What the hell was happening in American society that was causing parents to drop like flies? I mean, sure, there was the drinking, and the enormous metal death mobiles with entirely optional seatbelts, but still. This wasn’t something the Walt Disney Company could do on its own. Something was afoot.

The on-screen lessons of the period were, however, fairly robust. All rich people were assholes, cheats, or drunks but could make up for it by hiring empathetic butlers or aligning their financial interests with those of the people we were supposed to be sympathizing with, so actually, everything was fine. Most of the country had high-paying jobs and housekeeping services. Nobody was ever in financial distress in any way that couldn’t be solved by the end of an episode. The only poor people were only poor until they were no longer poor because magic. NOTHING ELSE WAS HAPPENING.

I blame 1 to 4:30 p.m. on weekdays for screwing up an entire generation of sick kids. You want to know why Generation X grew up cynical, distrusting of their elders, contemptuous of past cultural norms, and of the general impression that America would rather burn the planet down than make the slightest acknowledgment of society-induced crisis? Blame six channels of grotesquely twisted faux-normalcy shoved in your face like hard gravel.

We wish we’d had Nickelodeon. We would have killed for a VCR. We had 13-inch color screens that opened into suburban hellscapes in which even if your neighbors were literal green-hued monsters, none of them were allowed to have any problem more severe than not being able to open jars or having to form multi-person teams to trick so-and-so into going to the school dance with you.

So yeah, maybe we’re bitter here. Maybe we don’t get along with the older generations that foisted this stuff on us, or with younger generations that don’t understand that we had SIX channels when we say we had six channels. They only worked if you walked uphill, both ways, to an antenna that needed to be adjusted based on which of the six you were trying to get, and then along came cable. It turned out to be mostly filled with red-faced church sermons and weird guys standing in front of blank backdrops ranting about the link between compound interest and their skin condition.

This is why we’re cynical. Not trying to excuse it. Just pointing out that this is where it comes from.

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