One of the banes of my teaching existence is the degree to which my students fail to respond to old movies. There are a few happy exceptions, of course, who love old movies – or at least, are eager to learn more about them. But to most, the idea of sitting through an actual black and white movie has all the appeal of waiting on a line at a pre-ATM bank to get cash.
So it is with some suspicion that I view my own drastic aesthetic preference – almost all TV made before the 1990s is crap.
As with my students, there are a few happy exceptions. The Ernie Kovacs Show is mind-blowing. Love me some Dick van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore. Your Show of Shows. The Prisoner is pretty cool, and there are some awesome Twilight Zone episodes. I liked Cheers, and would be interested to see if WKRP in Cincinnati holds up. M*A*S*H*, Taxi. Black Adder, Moonlighting. One or two one-offs, like the TV movie of Marty and I, Claudius. And other than that….crap. As in, practically unwatchable crap.
Before the mid-1990s, shows are largely more interesting for their cultural information rather than any aesthetic value. They are a scope into a different time without the present-day showrunner’s winking of Mad Men. It’s fascinating to see the attitudes toward race, gender, and ethnicity. They were reflected by, and sometimes shaped for the better by, shows such as The Goldbergs, Roots, Sanford & Son, All in the Family, Maude, Charlie’s Angels, and, most famously, The Cosby Show. But that doesn’t amount to being a good show (of those, Roots and All in the Family are the best on non-cultural information merits as well).
And I’m not sure what made TV better. Because this happened before the pay-channel, thousand-channel, DVD, HD, streaming revolution. In the 1990s, things started to change. Perhaps it started with Twin Peaks, which was a serious attempt to bring an arthouse aesthetic to network TV. The Simpsons, The X-Files, Seinfeld, even (God help me) Roseanne were interesting in ways that hadn’t been seen. The recent revolution in television broadcasting and technology unquestionably sped up the change the aesthetics of TV, and I think seriously advanced it — allowing for much more intricate shows, less need to return to a status quo at the end of an episode, more money to spend, niche programming, freedom from advertiser pressure in some cases. But it didn’t start it.
In the past ten years alone, we’ve had The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Six Feet Under, 30 Rock, Lost, The Office, Friday Night Lights, Futurama, Arrested Development, Daily Show, Colbert Report, Downton Abbey, and Mad Men. I’m sure I’m forgetting some and haven’t seen others. None of which are perfect. But, taken together, the last ten years totally trumps the previous fifty.
It is not just because of my students’ revulsion at old movies that makes me skeptical of my own opinion. I am also skeptical because I’ve read film reviews of Italian Neo-realism, the French New Wave, and their American successors in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s. These reviews all cheer the advance in aesthetics from the late 1960s onward over the Hollywood Golden Age of the 1930s-50s, crediting the move toward greater accuracy in representing the human condition as an indication of the advance. Yet from the present, it seems that while post-1966 (say) movies are unquestionably grittier, more violent, less morally centered, more nihilistic, more sexual, more oriented toward masculine tastes, they don’t seem necessarily better than, say, All About Eve. Just different. So maybe I’m doing the same thing. TV isn’t better, just different. And someone in the future less swayed by the fads of today will see today’s TV as just different, but not better.
The reason I suspect I’m not making the same mistakes that my students are making and those critics made is that I don’t attribute the improvement in TV to one quality (such as more accurately representing the human condition, or having color). I’m not claiming they’re better because there is one single quality art must have in order to be good, and now shows have it. (I am skeptical of claims that art, or even any art form, has a particular aesthetic duty.) They are better in myriad different ways. They are better in themselves.