Sunday, February 06, 2011

Mysteries of old TV

Look, I know that the world is falling to shreds, and that there are a zillion serious events occurring right now which demand our attention. But this blog has not offered a non-political weekend post in a long time, and, well, the piffle you are about to read has been welling up for a while.

We all grew up watching unfunny television sitcoms. We all loved those old shows, back when we were young and could not recognize insipidity even when it was licking our faces like an over-affectionate Havanese with co-dependency issues. I'm talking about old TV, geezer TV, shows that were first seen on screens with round corners and scanlines so wide you could count them from the house next door. TV you watched by candlelight.

Youngsters catching up with those old shows on cable or YouTube must have one question on their minds: Back in the '60s, did anyone actually think that sitcoms like My Three Sons and Petticoat Junction or I Dream of Jeanie or F-Troop were funny?

The answer is: No. We did not laugh. Not even when we were kids.

We sat in front of the screen in granite-like silence, unamused, unsmiling -- yet strangely entranced. We didn't multi-task; we didn't talk amongst ourselves. We just sopped everything up, asking no questions, simply accepting it all the way jump drives accept new files, and we wouldn't finish downloading until the news came on.

During an episode of The Brady Bunch, my trance ended. Pop. Just like that. It was an unsettling experience: The television was on, yet I was not hypnotized. Very disturbing. Maybe (I thought) the set needed repair. That's when I gave up television, adjourned to the local public library and began my lifelong quest to be Smarter Than You.

And now here we are, decades later. I've caught up with some episodes of those old shows on YouTube. Despite being Smarter Than You, many questions remain unanswered.

1. Roy Rogers. This was the most surreal show ever broadcast, and not just because Roy, on horseback, was somehow always able to catch bad guys who drove trucks and cars. The big question is this: What the fuck did Roy Rogers do for a living?

Apparently, he owned some sort of ranch, although I don't recall seeing him do any actual ranch stuff. Dale may have had something to do with a restaurant. Okay, but then...why was he out chasing bad guys? How could someone in the modern age regularly engage in police activity without actually being in law enforcement?

Occasionally, you would see Roy pull a gun on a bad guy. Suppose he had pulled the trigger: Wouldn't he have gone to jail? What right did he have to draw a weapon?

In episode after episode, there would be a scene where we would witness the bad guys planning some evil scheme or other, and one bad guy would say: "Yeah, sure, that takes care of the cops -- but what are we going to do about Rogers?" Jeez, dude, what about Rogers? Why is he even an issue? If he's a Batman-like vigilante, why don't the cops seek to arrest him?

2. Bewitched. The big problem here may have escaped your notice when you were a kid. What's with all the art?

We're talking Rembrandt, Picasso, Modigliani, Grandma Moses. All hanging on the walls of the Stevens residence. The question is: Within the universe of the show, were these supposed to be reproductions or actual paintings?

A go-getting, desperate-to-crawl-into-the-upper-middle-class householder like Darrin ought to start buying original art, so these pictures probably were not prints. (Obviously, they were prints on the set, but I don't think that they were supposed to be prints in terms of the show's reality.) Maybe Sam blinked them onto the walls. If so, would Darrin feel comfortable accepting stolen art? Wouldn't he notice a news story announcing the mysterious theft of Rembrandt's Girl With a Broomstick?

The other big Bewitched question has probably already occurred to you. In episode after episode, Agnes Moorehead pops into the scene in medias res, and it is clear that she has somehow overheard the things that were said before her arrival. So, like, do Samantha and Darrin have any real privacy? If I were Darrin, and if I thought that Agnes Moorehead was watching me at all times, little Tabitha would never have come into being.

3. Lost in Space. Believe it or not, we '60s kids didn't think that Dr. Smith was gay, no matter how many sly hints the writers would toss into the dialogue. Yes, we were that naive. (Seen today, Mark Goddard's sheer disgust with the effeminate Smith is the funniest aspect of the show.)

Yet even at the time, I often wondered: Why does the family allow young Will Robinson to spend so much time alone with Smith?

That was a fair question not because Smith was gay but because -- in the first episodes, at least -- he was evil. A Russian spy, or something of the sort. A cold-blooded killer. Then, somewhere toward the end of the first season, he stopped scheming and started camping.

What the hell? Why does the family trust him? Did they forget all about the really evil stuff he did when the series began?

(Lost in Space and the Jetsons taught us that, in the future, the hot blonde eldest daughter would always be named Judy. And she would get hardly any lines. Oddly enough, in the real 21st century, Judy has become an unpopular name.)

4. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. This is the show that really bugged me at the time, and it bugs me even more today.

For both the series and the old Gene Tierney movie, the set-up is simple: A woman who is a writer moves into a cottage haunted by the ghost of a sea captain. They can speak to each other freely; eventually, they develop romantic feelings for each other.

Here's the part I don't get: On occasion, she suffers from writer's block. She doesn't know what to write about.

Now, this woman has just scored the most impressive interview since Bernadette Soubirous. How can she not know what to write about? Throughout the entire series, she never thinks to ask the Captain the obvious questions: What is the afterlife like? Is there a final judgment? If so, on what basis are we judged? Is there a heaven? A hell? A supreme deity? Which religion comes closest to the truth? Why do ghosts exist? Why does suffering exist? What about reincarnation? Do ghosts look they way they did at the moment of death -- and if so, what would the ghost of someone who walked into an airplane propeller look like?

Yeah. There's your book, lady.

Instead, this stupefyingly incurious woman asks none of that stuff. Or if she does ask, she asks off-camera -- and whatever answers she may have received have not affected her life in the slightest. We never see her go to church, for example.

Also, it is established in the very first episode that the ghost watches her while she sleeps. He's in her bedroom all the time. And she's cool with this. I guess, back in the '60s, we were supposed to believe that widows never dated and never masturbated.

5. Petticoat Junction. The Shady Rest hotel is 25 miles away from the nearest town. It's not on a highway. Why would anyone build a hotel in such a place? How can this enterprise function? Why would anyone stay there -- except maybe to scope out the three hot daughters? Since this show takes place in the south, why do none of the three hot daughters have southern accents?

Okay, I know. It's just a show. I should really just relax.

PS: Football -- that's the game with the non-spherical ball, right?
If you listen to the conservative AM jibber-jabber, this is the era they want us to return to, twin beds and no commodes in the bathroom.

This ignorance of what was happening in the Big PX would lead to the race riots of the 1970's

It ties into your posts below, the American public doesn't want to know what our government is doing to other peoples to ensure cheap gas for our SUVs and big giant pick up trucks.

OH, and BTW, the Shady Rest might not be as far fetched as you might think, Google the history of the Greenbrier in West Virginia.
The Shady Rest was located near Hooterville and started each week with three girls skinny-dipping in the water tower.
I still laugh at "I Love Lucy." Does that make me a complete philistine? I also admit to occasionally laughing at F-Troop. I wasn't a kid then though.

Just to refresh your memory, myiq -- as the series progressed, the three girls were seen skinnydipping with Benji the dog.

Make of that what you will.

(In the revised opening credit shot, what was Benji standing on?)
My god, this is the first time in decades that I've seen anyone mention Petticoat Junction. I used to watch it with my grandmother. Strangely enough, a month ago I found myself (for no logical reason) briefly looking online for old episodes (prior to that hadn't thought about the show in years).
hey, f troop was funny. we're the fugawy indians isnt funny?
the best show of that time, in mho, was rocky and bullwinkle
Actually, I loved Mrs. Muir when I was a kid. Still do. It's reminder of simpler times when every show did not have to be overflowing with blatant sex and violence.

As for the ultimate interview - go read the book. Captain Gregg covers the whole subject of life in the afterlife quite nicely when he says "trying to explain the afterlife to a mortal is like trying to explain the fine points of navigation to a child floating a celluloid duck in the bath. You have no basis of comparison until you are there."

As for Mrs Muir and church, I am convinced that she DID go. The inhabitants of the town mentioned the local minister more than once (though you never say him) and in a town that size, she would be shunned and blackballed if she didn't go. I think the did, we just never saw an episode about it.
My grandparents used to laugh their heads off at Petticoat Junction. For them it caught and lampooned the changes (and resistance to change) that developed after the Highway act of 1956. The show really only makes sense if you grew up in a world where there were places without roads leading to them, and towns in decay, or on the edge of ruin, because they were being bypassed by a new highway.

Also, the show is not set in the South. If it is set anywhere, rather than everywhere rural, it is set in California's San Joaquin Valley. The town of Pixley (where most of its B-Roll/Exterior footage was shot) actually exists off of highway 99, though it has diminished some by being bypassed in the mid 60s.
Always wondered about all the artwork on "Bewitched" -- none of it seemed to match, or complement each other, and often moved around. Main reason to watch that show was Agnes Moorhead. Although I loved Sam.

Sometimes Petticoat Junction seems like its down south, then others just outside of NYC. VA makes sense though. The funniest episode was when the train employees went on strike. Since it was just the two of the, they had to jockey back and forth as to who was management. Reruns can be seen on MeTV. Also, reruns of The Dick Van Dyke show, whose writing is way better than anything you see these days in the 2000s

"I Love Lucy" is one of the funniest, off the wall, nonsensical TV comedies ever. And Lucille Ball is a comedic genius. Also, the first TV female comedy duo, I believe. Hadn't been seen since Zasu Pitts/Patsy Kelly and Thelma Todd days.

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