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"It's Not the Years, Honey, It's the Mileage": The Awkward Aging of Television and Film

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | January 10, 2013 | Comments ()


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I have infuriated Mrs. SLW on occasion with my television flipping habits. There are two reasons for this. First, I have memorized which channels are either blank, home shopping network crap, or otherwise pointless. These channels I flip through without pausing long enough for the signal to come up on the screen. To a non-channel-memorizer this seems like I'm just arbitrarily skipping swathes of channels.

The second reason is one that I never quite consciously registered. She likes old television and movies, and I hate them. I see black and white, I flip. And if you've noticed, there is a point at which television became crisp around 1990 (I don't know if it was a sudden improvement in cameras, or the way the film is stored, but it's certainly too early for it to be the digital switch). There's a curious half-fuzziness to any television series from before that point. I see that, I flip. It only takes a frame or two. It took several remotes being embedded in my skull before I could even identify that this was the reason that I was flipping.

Here's the thing though. It's not that I consciously dislike older television or film. Hell, I would have argued the exact opposite and cited all manner of anecdotal examples of old series and movies to the contrary. But anecdotes aren't evidence, and my unconcious optimization of flipping channels provides a bit of data. The unconscious drive to automatically skip anything I wouldn't enjoy systematically evolved towards skipping anything old. I have therefore been forcing myself to watch old television and movies when they come up on the channel flipping, out of a masochistic desire to understand. And to avoid physical assault.

It became an internal argument with myself. I'd be watching Dr. No, with half my head grumbling that it wanted to change the channel, and the other half trying to insist that this was a Connery Bond film, that I was pretty sure that I actually did like this. Note that this is not the same as forcing myself to watch something I don't enjoy because I am trying to consume something that other people tell me is great. I'm not that masochistic. No, this wasn't me pretending to like brocolli because it's good for me, this was me trying to figure out why I didn't like oatmeal even though I like all the ingredients.

In some instances, it's really just a genre disconnect. Ancient reruns of Perry Mason and various cop shows are unsurprisingly tedious, because that's how I feel about the genre today for the most part. On the other hand, The Twilight Zone and Star Trek are fantastic, which could simply be explained by my love of the genre. But those are also old shows that I happened to watch in rerun as a child, so that I'm innoculated against their particular flaws of aging.

Late at night one of the random channels runs old episodes of "The Saint," Roger Moore in all his dashing glory. And I hate them. Every part of them is painful to watch. And yet this is nothing more than a forty year old version of "Burn Notice" or a half dozen other similar and enjoyable shows. The show's treatment of women is the most glaring, characters who whether friend or foe are fundamentally helpless and essentially exist in order to be shoved around (physically or not) by the male characters. But it's not just the misogyny, watch a bit of "Rome" or "Deadwood" and you're going to get plenty of misogynous characters. It goes with setting stories outside of the modern era.

But when the stories themselves are misogynistic, it breaks the suspension of disbelief for me. I don't believe women are like that in reality, whether today or in the sixties. And so a story that portrays them as such breaks down. Nothing exists independentally of its historical context, and art is no exception. The artist sees the world through the lens of his own cultural baggage, no matter how introspective he might be. He sees through that lens darkly, oblivious to the spots and cracks in the lens because they've always been there. And someone from the same time and place, viewing the art through a similar lens doesn't see most of them either, because he has matching spots and cracks. But at the remove of years, we look back through a different lens, with different context, and it's hard to see the picture for the flaws. That's not to say we see more clearly, it's just that the flaws of our lenses don't line up anymore.

A backwards view of women is an easy culprit to identify, because we're very conscious of how such portrayals have changed, and because it's also something that we attach moral significance to. But there are any number of other elements of context that break the suspension of disbelief in the same way.

Dust off Dante's Inferno and what do you find? The bulk of the individuals he finds in the various levels of hell are politicians and public figures of the time, none of whose noteriety has survived the centuries. Most of them don't even have Wikipedia pages other than a note mentioning that they show up in Dante. Even in a translation of modernized English, Dante is pointless to read without footnotes, because they're needed to tell you who these people are because otherwise you cannot appreciate why they're suffering where they are suffering. Ironically, it is the historical figures who we think that we don't need footnotes for that suffer the most for this. Take the very center of hell, and what three men do you find in the jaws of Satan himself? Judas, Cassius, and Brutus. With a bit of history we know these guys. But their condemnation to the worst place in hell doesn't resonate with us. It tells us a lot about Italy at the time, that the worst crimes in history were those that destroyed central power, but we can only understand the placement, we can't feel it implicitly.

How much of the experience we commit to television and film is truly universal? Take series that we love to love around here like "Community," with dense layers of cultural references. Give it twenty years and no one under thirty will know that there are references at all. Give it a century, and it will require an annotated script book for anyone to even understand that it's supposed to be a comedy.

That's not to say that it's futile, or even to say that old stories have no meaning and resonance. The study of what a culture's stories say about that culture is a fascinating field. But it's rewarding on a meta-level, not on a direct level of entertainment. By being conscious of the story as a story, you cannot lose yourself in the story. You are watching the lens instead of the panorama.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.


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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • winged chorus

    I love watching old movies/tv series that are costume dramas because i find it fascinating that at a remove of 30/40/50 years, they tell you more about the time they were made in than the older time period they are set in. For example there are some 1960s Italian costume dramas that are set in like the late nineteenth century, and probably at the time seemed like an authentic representation of the late nineteenth century, but now to me watching in 2013 everything about them screams 60s from the matte, slightly beehive-y hair to the sets to the way its shot.

    I'm convinced that in 30 years people will watch reruns of Downton Abbey on telly and will see 2012, rather than England 100 years ago. I have a theory that historical/costume dramas age quicker than other genres because they are just so concerned with time and place. It doesn't take long at all for our lenses to shift just enough that the time it was made becomes a constant glaring presence in the movie/show. Take Ryan's Daughter, set in 1916 Ireland. I watch it and its like a marriage of 1916 with the 60s. I love that. Costume dramas from only a decade or two ago already seem like they are more about when they were made than when they were set.

  • overandout

    I know what you mean. I love historical Korean Dramas which are almost all set in Joeson era, so the costumes rarely change, the stories are all the same, but even just between the last 6 or 7 years you can see the changes in how the dramas are shot.

  • Belkwinith

    I used to love Cheers and Beauty and the Beast. Now when I see Cheers, I roll my eyes at Sam's "Player attitude" because, by now, I have actually dated real players and they are not fun, nor is their accompanying baggage of Baby Mamas and/or VD amusing. Beauty in the Beast doesn't work, because I worry about exposure to black mold and radon gas. But I still like Dragnet, probably because I have no experience with the California Penal System.

  • c

    The reason that shows like M*A*S*H and Seinfeld* and Family Ties and The Cosby Show** and Twilight Zone and All in the Family*** still hold up is the scripts. Rod Serling was a damn good writer as was Larry Gelbart at M*A*S*H.

    *Watching Seinfeld now, some of the cracks in the writing are pretty glaring as is the fact that some of the acting was pretty terrible, just WAY too broad.

    ** Same thing with Seinfeld, some of the acting was too broad.

    ***Some of the social issues were pounded into your face over and over and over.

  • ,

    Let's not get carried away. There are some great ones, but many of the "Twilight Zones" kind of ... what's the word? Suck. Maybe two-thirds of them are childishly moralizing. Not many of them were "The Monsters are Coming to Maple Street."

    "The Outer Limits" was much more like what "Twilight Zone" wanted to be. IIRC, some of the best science fiction writers of the era contributed episodes. And a few of those toward the end were dreck too, but I think "TOL" had a much higher batting average than "TZ."

  • Fabius_Maximus

    I'd still watch "Streets of San Francisco" or "Starsky & Hutch", if I'd watch still regular TV, and they were on. I won't seek them out, though, because I've already seen them. There are so many movies and series out there that I haven't already watched to keep me busy til I die.

  • Enrique del Castillo

    What has less chances to endure, a TV series like Seinfeld that bases some of its situations on things that are no longer an issue (like lack of cellphones, internet, etc.) or then current events (like the Rudolph Giuliani or Keith Hernandez episodes); or TV series that are mostly pop culture references (like Family Guy or South Park)?

  • Three_nineteen

    1) You know you can program a DVR to not show channels you don't watch, right?
    2) If you get the ASPIRE channel, try watching I Spy and compare it to The Saint. The main issue I have with it is the heavy-handed Cold War stuff, but otherwise I think it holds up rather nicely.

  • tmoney

    You and I have the same channel-flipping habits. I also seem to have a prejudice against grainy or black and white films and TV shows.

    I tried to watch an episode of "Airwolf", my husband's favorite show from his childhood, and it was probably the worst 45 minutes I've ever spent watching TV. Everything about it was dated, unrealistic, and glaringly stupid, particularly the dialogue. While I understand that people haven't gotten any smarter since the 80's, it amazes me that shows like that were so successful at the time.

  • elsie_the_first

    My husband got very excited when he discovered Airwolf and Magnum PI on Netflix. I never liked Airwolf but I remember liking Magnum at the time. However, I find them both unwatchable now. My husband has also stopped watching them both. I think he has the same problem but doesn't realize it.

    On the other hand, we watch Emergency on a fairly regular basis because, while the acting isn't superb, the stories are surprisingly compelling.

  • DeltaJuliet

    I happened to catch an episode of Knight Rider on some random cable channel. I was so excited, like, I had to call my husband and tell him Knight Rider was on tv. And then I watched about 10 minutes of it and thought "This show sucks". How could I have watched it for years as a kid??

  • Tom

    I was at my parents' house last week and a "US Army, settlers and Indians" movie from 1961 was on. I had a hard time watching it, not just because the Indians were hilarious caricatures but also because that sort of story does not appeal to me at all. I don't want to watch a western with good white Americans and mostly bad Indians. That story has absolutely no relevance to or resonance with me.

  • c

    I find this kind of comment hilarious because you are also one of the same people who shriek and fart and bleat that Dances With Wolves is HTE WORSTEST FARTIEST POOPYEST MOVIE EVARSSZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! because it depicts all the whites, with the exception of Costner as vile scum and all of the Indians as saintly figures.

    Newsflash, you don't get to have it both ways.

  • Tom

    I've never seen Dances with Wolves. To be more clear, none of those typical Western stories or movies appeal to me. Even if you flip the usual tropes like Dances with Wolves apparently does. To be clear, my point should have been that I understand what Wilson is saying here because I had a similar experience recently with an old Western. I think that no matter what, a story like that will not appeal to me. The movie was "Two Rode Together" in case anyone cares. That may have been a great movie and not prejudiced at all but the type of story itself instantly turns me off.

  • Bert_McGurt

    It could also just be that The Twilight Zone is timeless and awesome regardless of genre. I'm much like you in that the look and feel of an older movie/show will turn me off regardless of whether I think I should or will like it, which is why I've still never seen Citizen Kane or Casablanca, for example (I know, I know). Of course there's also certain stuff that I can loosely clump together as almost a franchise, like Kubrick movies, Peter Sellers, Clint Eastwood westerns, Bond, or Batman that I know I'll enjoy regardless of the "old look & feel".

    But for some old shows, both ones I've seen as a kid (like the Cosby Show) and ones I didn't (like MASH, or Twilight Zone) which I've sporadically seen in the last couple years, they seem to hold up well regardless of the look. It seems like the uniting thread is that the setting is merely window dressing for some pretty universal truths, be they related to family, war, or human nature in general. You can remake any of these shows in a modern setting using practically the same scripts.

    When you look at other classics like All in the Family (or, apparently, The Saint), the setting, and particularly the values and morals that were common at the time are integral to the plots. Archie Bunker is so ingrained as the blathering bigot archetype (or should it be Archie-type?) that it can't be removed without completely changing the nature of the show. Likewise, the cop and lawyer shows are bound by the laws of the time that any truths to be found are inextricably linked to the anachronisms.

    It's be interesting to get a read on what current shows people think will hold up over time like this. I blasphemously submit that Seinfeld is going to be one of the ones that doesn't, while Arrested Development will endure.

  • BWeaves

    Damn, Roger Moore was pretty, wasn't he? I think that's the only reason I watched the show. I think I was too young to actually understand the plots.

    I've mentioned before that pop references are the kiss of death when it comes to watching a old movie or TV show. I cannot watch Marx Brothers' movies. I just don't get the jokes. Shrek and Scary Movie, etc. won't hold up well in the future, but The Princess Bride is timeless exactly because it lacks pop references.

    I watched an episode of Campion (Peter Davison) last night from 1989. I was amazed at how chunky the pixels were and how bad the video quality was. Some shows are worse than others. I think a lot has to do with the media the program was stored on and transferred to. However, I try to avoid shows I used to love. I always cringe when I discover they are shit now.

  • I watched Duck Soup the other night on Netflix and found myself laughing at it harder than I have at a few comedies made within the last couple of years. It took me a moment to get over the EXTREMELY LOUD VOLUME and the "at least you tried" attempt at restoration, but knowing the year it was made (talkies had just come out in 1927 with The Jazz Singer and Duck Soup was 1933) had me a little more understanding. I don't think the Marx Brothers' movies would be funny if it wasn't for Groucho's delivery.

    Mrs. Teasdale: As chairman of the reception committee, I welcome you with open arms.
    Rufus T. Firefly: Is that so? How late do you stay open?

  • ,

    I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.

    --Groucho Marx

  • Jerce

    Wonderful and though-provoking as usual, SLW.

    I do sometimes like to watch "vintage" TV just for the cultural aspects--to treat them as artifacts rather than storytelling. It can sometimes give you insight into history. Watching as "Negroes" were gently, timidly, gradually introduced to the American TV-watching public as nearly-human beings over the 60s-70s is one obvious (and painful, and fascinating) example.

    That's one of the reasons I love the original Star Trek so much. They didn't do that shit on Star Trek.

  • Mrcreosote

    I watched an old episode of T.J. Hooker recently with David Caruso as the villain. I suspect even in it's time that show was a throwback with the Shat and Mr. Zmed doing the buddy cop thing. But watching this show, Hooker is a TERRIBLE cop. He beats up innocent witnesses, makes glaring mistakes and drives in a way that would get him suspended even then. The plots are trite and predictable and the show makes the dumbest episode of CSI look like high art. The only way they solve the crime is because the criminal is even dumber. It was fascinating to watch, but also kind of sad. The same thing is true of episodes of Dragnet in color. way, waaaay out of touch. The drug episodes are comical.

  • PDamian

    Some time ago, I caught a rerun of Family Ties on some cable channel or other. I had almost forgotten about Alex P. Keaton, the loveable caricature of a go-go Eighties Republican douchebag. If I recall correctly, Alex was redeemed by his occasional flashes of generosity and ability to love deeply (and the scenes of him with the little brother, played by Brian Bonsall, are still sweet and hold up well). Now, I wonder if anyone will watch that sitcom in re-runs and not think, "There goes one of the little shits who grew up, went to work for Lehman Bros., and sank the economy."

  • Miss Laaw-yuhr

    I long ago made up my own alternate history for Alex P. Keaton:

    Although he took a job on wall street he had a quarter life crises and decided to go back to school. However, while getting his MBA he realized he wasn't a sociopath like many of his colleagues and then founded a non-profit teaching fiscal strategies to other do gooder non-profits.

    Otherwise you're right, I'd hate him and love the change to sucker punch him.

  • Kballs

    This was like a refreshing splash of cold water to the face on a hot day. Invigorating.

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