Humorless Elders?
Artifacts of a Mid-20th Century Childhood

A New Golden Age of Television

[EDITORIAL NOTE: The university study cited in yesterday's story on humor and elders caught a lot of people's attention including David Wolfe's at Ageless Marketing. He published a much more informative piece on age and humor than mine. Definitely worth reading.]

Many people who read this blog are old enough to remember what is known as The Golden Age of Television, that period from about 1949 to 1960 when, in particular, the quality of serious drama – live and later, filmed - was superb.

Such luminaries as Rod Serling, Paddy Chayefsky, Reginald Rose and even Gore Vidal were writing for such programs as Playhouse 90, Studio One, The Philco Television Playhouse, Kraft Television Theater and, a bit later, the original Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The scripts were rich and complex, as good as the best theatrical films had to offer, and some stories were so compelling they still stand out in our memories.

Then television took a dive becoming what Newton Minnow referred to as “a vast wasteland.” That is not to say that there were not good dramas and sitcoms here and there, but the quality definitely declined from television’s earliest years. Ever since then it has been de rigeur for anyone with pretensions to intellectualism to decry the quality of prime time TV.

I beg to differ. These days, our quality drama cup runneth over, most within the context of ongoing series rather than stand-alone, one-hour features of the past, but they are no less excellent.

An early leader in the renaissance is Law and Order which for nearly 20 years has served up its combination of police and courtroom procedurals that take on serious social issues ripped (as they say) straight from the headlines, and they do it without bogus easy answers at the end leaving a viewer with something to think about. The other two flavors of L&O are not shabby either.

Although the Miami and New York versions lack the pizzazz of the Las Vegas setting CSI does so well with its flashy, neon nightlife sensibility, the stories of the Vegas original and the acting are well worth viewing.

A series that snuck up on me over time is Without a Trace. The characters, with the exception of one who is now gone anyway, are well drawn and consistent over time. Plus I like the overhead and odd-angled shots of New York City that display the town in interesting ways I never noticed during 40 years of living there.

I became a fan of The Closer in its first season and it’s even better in this new summer season.

All these years later, I still like Star Trek: The Next Generation and I just recently discovered that it airs regularly on one of the more obscure cable channels. Either my memory is shot to hell or there are a lot of episodes I missed when it was in first run, and lately, I’ve been thinking Captain Picard should run for president.

Another series now in repeats on cable is an early entry into the TV drama renaissance, the stunningly good Homicide: Life on the Streets shot in Baltimore. Its network run was canceled long before it should have been, but in an interesting program innovation, the Richard Belzer character, John Munch, was "hired" by the New York Police Department in Law and Order: Special Victims Unit where he still "works."

There are others that if not entirely first-rate, are nipping at the heels of the best: Shark comes to mind along with a new entry, Heartland, and some people tell me ER should be in this group, which may be true, but I never found the actors compelling.

This idea of a new golden age of television came to me after watching a full-episode preview of a new series, State of Mind, that I mentioned a few weeks ago in a story about an increase in the number of older actors in starring roles on television.

I intended to watch the first ten minutes or so to see what the buzz is about and got sucked in for the entire hour. I’m not going to review it for you except to say that if subsequent episodes match the premier, it will join my list of top-drawer dramas – which I really don’t need. It premiers Sunday night on Lifetime or you can view the entire first episode now here on your computer.

You may wonder – and rightly so – how I watch this much television while still doing all the research and writing for this blog and maintaining a reasonable facsimile of a life.

The answer is, I don’t watch that much. I worship at the god of DVR (Tivo for some of you), set my recordings and catch up with one per evening at bedtime or by zipping through the commercials during personal marathons on rainy or brain-dead days. I miss a lot of episodes, but that just gives me new ones for the months of summer repeats.

Watching television in this condensed manner - only what I consider the best without surfing through the detritus in moments of boredom – has convinced me that we are in a new Golden Age of television drama. There is stunningly good and original work being done on the traditional networks and on cable channels.

I never get tired of being told a good story and there is now a gold mine of them to choose from on television.

[Speaking of good stories, you'll enjoy a terrific tale of parental ingenuity from Darlene Costner at The Elder Storytelling Place today. It is titled Grounded.]


Comments

You & I watch a lot of the same things, Ronni. I'm addicted to Law & Order -- even the reruns -- & I have a crush on Horatio on CSI Miami. lol

I had quit watching television for a few years so I'm catching up. When I'm battling insomnia -- The Twilight Zone reruns are a treat!

And then there is American Masters (I think it's called) on PBS. The latest was 90 minutes celebrating the extraordinary life of Les Paul still going strong at age 92. I'll just say that the program was superb especially the parts that included Mary Ford. I smiled thru the whole thing. Dee

I hope you are right about television. I was a big fan of The Next Generation and the idea of President Picard made me smile. I also really enjoyed Six Feet Under, which you did not mention, until HBO became too expensive for my budget. Then, last year, my historian husband acquired some DVDs called the Great Courses or some such. I was stunned by how much I learned from the series on art history and by the depth of knowledge the professor shared on various Impressionist painters, for instance. The experience made me reflect on what television could have been were "entertainment" not the primary goal.

The documentary and educational aspects of television are a good discussion to have but today, I was concentrating on good drama, good storytelling.

The reason I don't mention HBO is that I already spent too much on cable, internet access, etc. and there is not enough I would watch on premium channels to justify $13/month.

I'm not singling out HBO; I feel the same way about all premium channels. There is already too much good stuff on regular cable.

Ahh, Tivo, I’ll never go back.

One other new series brought to us by the producers of Deadwood is 'John from Cincinnati'. I'm afraid it's on HBO though. Sunday nights and worth a look.

Don't forget PBS Mystery series on
Sunday nights. Foyle's War, a wonderful tale involving a middle aged detective has just finished with marvelous acting and great understanding of the human condition. Miss Marple is to follow
this Sunday (talk about ageless!) and Elizabeth George's Inspector Lynley will be next. Check out this
series online. So far this is about all I watch because I prefer reading personally.
Donna in Arkansas

I'm holding out hope for the new Holly Hunter series on TNT. We'll see if it turns out to be as good as it looks right now.

I don't watch much television as in no regular programs. It isn't because I find it to be of no quality but because I don't want to have to watch things that I see week after week. I don't want to care about characters from these programs. I have been there, done that and don't want to get into it again, but have heard enough from my friends to believe that there is quality out there with good messages.

For me I surf through what is on cable when I want to sit down with the tv. I saw an excellent docudrama this week on the sinking of the Lusitania where I learned a lot about what happened, even when I thought I knew what had happened. I love those programs and they have one set for Sunday on the mummy queen they have discovered. But even there, I don't keep track of what is going to be on and feel lucky when I stumble across something good as I did this week.

I rent DVDs of series I want to try; that way, if I like something I can just rent the rest of the series immediately (as much as are
available) and have my own marathons, or space the episodes over several nights instead of waiting a week between them. My
latest discovery is a witty and intelligent Canadian TV series called "Slings and Arrows," set among a Shakespearean
theater company in a mythical city in Ontario and I was hooked from the start, adding the rest of it to my Netflix queue right
near the top. Well written and acted, I recommend it highly. I guess it's been shown here in the US on the Sundance Channel,
but I don't get that.

I'm also addicted to the PBS mysteries, but again, I rent them for the same reasons I've stated. One non-PBS British series I recommend
to other mystery fans is "Midsomer Murders," some of which has been on A&E in the past, but is not on their current schedule.

I think current media lacks creativity and are too focused on making money. Many shows just slap on a few pretty faces and then not give them enough clothes and that's that. Others are just copycats. The plethora of talent shows, reason 99 of some series that are soooo repetitive, or just rename the shows and use the same formulas over and over and over.

Granted, there are a few that are outstanding and I enjoy them a lot. But I just feel that it's quantity over quality nowadays.

A Captain Picard fan! I never suspected it, Ronni, and I confess you have charmed me completely with this single little detail.

I also love Law and Order but must admit I really miss Lenny (Jerry Orbach).He was my favorite.Another detective I loved and lost was Inspector Morse.His red Jag and his operatic arias and ever present bottle of scotch.Now I enjoy "Shark",especially his mock courtroom and his strange relationship with the beautiful D.A. What I miss on TV these days is the old variety show with the dancers and comedy sketches. You know, Dean Martin or Carol Burnett or Sid Caesar. Dean Martin opened that door over 200 times and you just never knew who would walk in. Such fun! A surprise appearance by Jack Benny or Governor Ronald Reagan or Ann Margret. They just don't make that kind of show anymore.
I did see the PBS show on Les Paul and Mary Ford and even though it ran over the hour I watched to the end because it was such a good show.
I wouldn't want to be a television writer these days because all the networks are killing themselves dreaming up stupid reality shows that don't require a script. Oh,well that will run its course ,too!

Three comments:
1-My 85 year old dad says one of the advantages of getting older and a little forgetful is that all of the Law & Order reruns are new to him.
2-My single sister is experiencing the same issues as regards scheduling a colonoscopy. I may end up flying up just so she'll get it done.
3-My husband and I are TIVO addicts - makes our lives so much simpler and no longer does TV control us. I love it!

I think we must be long lost siblings as every program you mention is on my DVD to record.I also fell in love with "Dexter" on Showtime. It's kind of quirky but hey, we need some quirk! Grey's Anatomy, while a little too heavy on the relationships, does offer some good medical drama--nothing like Heartland. Treat Williams is just that- a treat. I do hope Shark comes back. I enjoy watching some of the big screen actors on the home screen. Maybe Holly Hunter will put some WOW into television. Now, if they'd just get a Red Skeleton or Dean Martin, or even a Glen Campbell hour---heck, I'd even settle for HeeHaw!

Thanks for posting your faves -- an interesting read. I won't put the crime ones (CSI and L&O into my brain anymore, and L&O in all its permutations became lurid and boring all at the same time to me long ago). I loved "Homicide," but don't find reruns anymore. I watch Mystery (PBS) when it has Inspector Lynley (Elizabeth George, still the best), but really nothing else. Occasionally I watched the BBC America ones with Helen Mirren, until I downgraded my cable subscription. My current favorites are Jeopardy and "Man vs. Wild" (Discovery, I think), and I never miss "The Dog Whisperer" (National Geographic). I also like Bravo's reality "Top Chef" and "Project Runway." I miss "Queer Eye on the Straight Guy" -- that was fun.

The fuller my life has become the less time I have for television, and I rarely watch, but I see things occasionally when other family members have it on.

Without a Trace is a good one and RE: Captain Picard, president or lover, hee hee, I think he would be great at either or both. I always thought he was the sexiest Star Trek character.

I think there is another blog topic in here in regards to what you write about, Ronni. I find it terribly disturbing how important television is in people's lives in general, but particularly in so the older population.

Its often discussed how young parents use the TV to babysit their little ones, and I do understand people of all ages can become dependent on television.

I find myself particularly disturbed to see elderly folk parked in front of that box for hours on end. My own parents included.

I would add to this list the medical drama House, with Hugh Laurie as the crotchety genius addicted to pain medication and arrogance. From Britain, the defunct crime drama featuring Inspector Frost, another crochtery problem-solver. Hmmm, am I see a pattern here in admiring crotchety older people?

I'm going to have to add "State of Mind" to my list!

Here's a great link for many shows, including the outstanding Six Fee Under, which Alexandra mentioned:

http://www.tv-links.co.uk/

Six FEET Under. Heh!

You may be interested to take a listen to this September 2006 NPR "Talk of the Nation" interview with Newton Minow:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5775619

And if you're really a "hard core" media research fan, here's a very interesting article by Minow, written for the Federal Communications Law Journal at the Indiana School of Law in 1994.

http://www.law.indiana.edu/fclj/pubs/v47/no2/minow.html

I particularly like his comment putting the phrase "vast wasteland" into perspective: "Looking back, I wish people were much more interested in two other words in that speech: public interest."

Can you tell that I'm a media geek?

Oh sure, cops & robbers. pah!
I deal with cops every day.
Give me a break from the so-called Street Heroes please.

I still find my good programming, thankfully, on BBC and Turner Classic Movies. Sad statement that I find todays big shows just as bad as the Payton Place of my early years.

My opinion of course.

Hi I'm stopping by this morning to let you know I'd like you to check my blog to make sure it 'fits the requirements' for Elderblogger. I'll go add the button right now.

You don't mention The Sopranos! How can that be??? It's on cable weekly now or you can buy or rent the DVD's.

Elaine...

Although I neglected to mention it, I was sticking to non-premium cable channels, the sort most people can afford.

I don't subscribe to HBO, etc. I watched The Sopranos regularly in the first few seasons and it was good, of course. But there was so much time in between seasons that I lost interest so I have no idea if the quality held up in the final season or two.

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