'Best of Television' a tribute to stupidity

June 26, 1992|By Diane Werts | Diane Werts,Newsday

Every minute of every day, somebody somewhere in the world is watching "I Love Lucy."

I'm sure this is what Philo T. Farnsworth envisioned. Why else devote your life to inventing a transformational new medium but so people all around the planet can watch a dingbat drink Vitameatavegamin 4,000 times over?

And so, as we debate the societal message behind single mom Murphy Brown, as we hail the informational import of CNN, as we ponder the political implications of presidential candidates' video town meetings (or saxophone stylings) -- let's pause a moment to remind ourselves exactly what has been the biggest draw on this profound medium throughout the 45 years of its existence:

Stupid behavior.

Lucy, Gilligan, Barney Fife.

Herman Munster, Ralph Kramden, any Brady kid.

Though we now have the real-life mutation -- folks like Amy Fisher who make such ratings-grabbers out of PhilOprahCurrentAffair -- they're just transitory amusements that pass with their times. Gilligan will be bopping the Skipper with coconuts til the rivers run dry.

Thus, TBS has no qualms about bestowing the following title on its new Sunday-night summer showcase of vintage series episodes: "The Best of Television." Why bring up Edward R. Murrow when Mork can na-noo Fonzie?

Why, indeed. Who's had the more lasting impact on us anyway? Who's spent more time in our households, helped define our values, and provided cultural common ground for our diverse population? Americans may not be able to tell Shakespeare from Hemingway, or identify Jimmy Carter's vice president (Who's Jimmy Carter?) -- but they sure as heck know what happened in "Lucy's Italian Movie" on "I Love Lucy," "Sammy's Visit" to "All in the Family" and the "Mary Tyler Moore Show" episode "Chuckles Bites the Dust." (All of which are rerunning this summer.)

TV's going to keep regurgitating these "classics" until it chokes -- which it very well may, at least in its current network state, if this past season is any indication. The new shows came and went. Name some. Name one.

Try naming a hit. Past "Home Improvement" -- hammocked between Top 10 fixtures "Full House"and "Roseanne" -- there weren't any. Why else would "The Commish" get renewed for a second season? "The Commish"! You know. That Saturday night ABC show? Earnest chubby cop hero? Ten p.m.?

BTC Never mind. This isn't going to make anybody's "Best of TV" list in the 2020s. There isn't going to be a "Best of TV" list 30 years from now the way things are going, except for maybe "Best of the Best-Of Tributes."

This old-timey overdose is especially disheartening to someone like me, who grew up a TV tot, watching from morning til night, and who initially greeted the vintage-show likes of Nick at Nite as a sofa-spud dream come true. Maynard G. Krebs and "wooork"! Mister Ed dissing Wilbur! Rob tumbling over the ottoman! For us boob-tube babies, this was one continuous warm-fuzzy (to get '70s about it) -- a cathode-ray security blanket to help soothe frazzled nerves and enable us to face the coming day.

Problem is, this video tranquilizer has devolved into an insidious excuse not to face the next day, or the next anything that isn't as lip-smackingly candy-sweet. Vintage TV is zoning us right out of reality -- that vexing complication of life! -- and into some odd apparition of a more pleasing past. Lingering on the sofa with these old shows transports boomers, especially, into a regressive mode of aimless amusement -- back, back into those carefree days of childhood when we didn't have to worry about anything more taxing than how to beat it to the bathroom and back before the commercial ended.

Call it a retreat into the rerun refuge: Both viewers and networks would rather hibernate in the "good old days" than deal with an uncertain future.

And they say TV doesn't reflect the reality of American life!

Prime time's frantic floundering these days reflects the larger lack of direction in society, which doesn't know which way to turn to make things right. All we know is that things are bad. And somebody should make them better for us.

Why should anything be different in tubeland? Here we are on the brink of 200 cable channels -- people with satellite dishes already have that many -- and nobody has a clue what's happening with TV. We can't even make heads or tails of the listings, which we all know were basically the last compelling reason to know how to read. No, the tube is too confusing to figure out. So why try? Especially when you've got the reliable likes of Lucy-Opie-Archie to make things feel the way we think they used to:

No surprises. No challenges. No nagging new ideas. Just cozy familiarity -- instant reassurance for our shaky souls.

Enough already. Let's get our heads out of this electronic sand. Let's find a way to appreciate our video past without wallowing in it, bathing ourselves in its simplicities and distractions, to the point that they start to appear the answer to the incongruities that bedevil us today. The world has changed. TV has changed. The past cannot be the future.

Talk about stupid behavior. Lucy has nothing on us.

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