Thursday, February 04, 2010

Ten Television Shows That Changed My Life

My plea for help in understanding Lost, which resulted in some commenters making strong cases for the show, has put me in mind of my own occasional experiences with television program fandom. And, of course, because I can't ever just ask myself a simple question, but rather have to turn it into a ponderous, life-examining, navel-gazing blog post, I did so. And here it is. As best I can figure, these are the ten television programs I've watched in my life that I not only enjoyed the most, but which changed my viewing--and thinking--habits most. Enjoy. (List in mostly chronological order, as I encountered them.)

Sesame Street. I've talked about my fond memories of old school Sesame Street before; according to family legend, I would watch it two or three times a day (morning, afternoon, and sometimes at lunch) on a couple of different public television station back when I was three and four years old (say 1972 to 1974, or thereabouts). I can still fondly--though vaguely--remember great stories and gags from those years (didn't they once load up the whole gang on a truck and drive to Mexico to help one of Luis's cousins build a house?). As for what I learned from the basic cognitive boot-camp which Sesame Street provided, I have no idea; it's too fundamental, buried too deep. But really, wasn't that the point?

Star Trek. The original series, of course; my older brother Daniel and I would watch the reruns of TOS obsessively, on Saturday afternoons. The station in our hometown which broadcast them must not have had a license for the whole set of episodes; either that, or they played favorites. Either way, we saw some of them over and over and over again, until we practically had them memorized. Why did we love the show? Because we were kids, and here was a show we could watch (it's 4pm on a Saturday, Mom, what else should we do?) that showed us adults fighting, dying, loving, solving problems, confronting the void, etc., etc. And then we would run off, play Kirk and Spock and McCoy, and create our own worlds. Science fiction, before I knew what the terms meant, before I'd read anything by that label, gave me a language of story-telling (not to mention of geekery) which I still use today.

M*A*S*H. In particular, seasons 6 and 7, after the arrival of Winchester and before the departure of Radar. The fact the I even knew that without having to look anything up on Wikipedia is itself the best case I can make for this show: it was he first time I found myself taking a television show seriously as a television show. I read stuff in TV Guide and Reader's Digest about the cast; I would buy copies of People magazine or Newsweek when there were articles about the show or interviews with the stars. Lots of great writing, some awesome laughs, some really affecting (but also sometimes terribly overwrought and melodramatic) drama, but really, overall, the show that gave me an awareness of the mechanics of television drama.

SCTV. When I was a junior in high school, I got my own television set in my bedroom. Why? Because my Commodore 64 needed a monitor, that's why. I would retreat to my room sometime around 9pm, and then do homework or read for the next two hours. Sometimes I suppose I might have watched something on prime time, but I don't remember what. What I do remember is that, at 11pm, one of the local PBS stations would show an episode of Second City Television, and it wasn't long before I was completely hooked. Stupid--yet smart--nutty comedy, from Canada. Much more than Saturday Night Live, which I watched only occasionally during the 1980s, SCTV taught me something which I'd never really known about before: satire. I was already a sarcastic kid (you couldn't read Peanuts obsessively and not become one); SCTV helped me sharpen and refine it, making more pointed and surreal at the same time. And speaking of surreal...

Monty Python's Flying Circus. After SCTV was over, the PBS station would start showing an episode of Flying Circus, and that really blew me away. Dark, lunatic, impossibly intelligent farce, mixed with crude, pointless, cheap slapstick. In dresses, of course. Monty Python has become one of the essential soundtracks to my life, shaping my whole sense of humor and the entire way I mix piety with tactlessness (though not nearly as successfully as they did, through I try). It's a regular feature in my classes; I can't say that about any other television program.

Late Night with David Letterman. So by then, after SCTV and Flying Circus, it was 12:30am, and there I was, tired from laughing but not ready to go to bed. What to watch, then, except Late Night (Monday through Thursday, anyway; on Fridays there was no Late Night, but there was Friday Night Videos instead)? My parents had never been fans of the evening talk shows, and so I didn't know what to expect. What I got was yet another kind of irreverence, a silly and thoroughly American kind, one that mixed pop culture and politics together on a daily basis, schooling me--though I didn't realize at the time--in viewing the news of the day as fodder for the mind, something to chew over and crack wise about. I haven't followed and really haven't cared much about the Letterman vs. Leno (vs. Conan and everyone else) battles, but for a couple of years, Letterman framed my imaginary approach to political life as much as the McLaughlin Group or any news show. What some folks get from John Stewart today, I got from Letterman, as the Reagan years came to a close.

(Plus, as might be apparent from all this, because we lived on a farm and I had to be up milking cows at 5:30am, I didn't sleep much for a couple of years there.)

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. I watched The Next Generation as a student at BYU, and at first I didn't like it--but then, almost no one liked its first couple of seasons. Eventually, though, it began to put out some pretty good episodes, and I, of course, watched regularly. But I didn't obsess over; it didn't dig into me, the way DS9. It's one of the very, very few television programs--maybe the only one, actually--that I watched from it's premier, all the way through to the end, rarely missing even one episode. It's also the first television program I became part of a wider community for; sure, as a Star Trek geek, I partook in that fandom universe, but only minimally: mostly, it was all in my head. But for DS9 I was talking to others, reading reviews (posted on the "internet," can you believe it?), and basically going beyond my interest in the show as a show: I was viewing it as property, something that I was part-owner of, something that I well, cared about. Seems silly to put it so plainly, but it's true: the show completely fell apart in its last two seasons, especially the final one, and it pissed me off. We were living in Germany the summer of 1999, after DS9 had wrapped up its final episodes, and as I'd missed them (I went over to Germany in early May), Melissa had taped them all for me, and brought them with her. I stayed up late one night, watching the final episodes back to back, and I found myself getting angry, actually stomping around our apartment, arguing with the television set. I'd never done that with a tv show before, and I haven't since.

Northern Exposure. Melissa and I were married and living cheap the year after we'd graduate from BYU, waiting to find which--if any--graduate school I'd go to. All we had for entertainment was our television set, with no cable, and a limited number of stations. So we watched a lot of TV--and we discovered Northern Exposure. It was already winding down by then, to a not particularly enjoyable conclusion, but we watched it together, and faithfully recorded late-night reruns, delighting in the show's whimsical mix of music, character, scenery, mood, and story. We ate it up, and still sometimes share moments of the show with each other in jokes or memories. It was show for us.

Homicide: Life on the Street. The other, much less romantic and funny, much more dark and disturbing, tv show we watched together was Homicide. I'd read a couple of iffy reviews at some time in the past, and avoided it for a few years. But then something--I remember; it was the episode where Robin Williams guest-starred--made me tune it in, and I was hooked. Slowly, but surely, I dragged Melissa in, and it became a show that we argued about. It was the first show either of us had ever followed which provided such detailed, sometimes convoluted, sprawling story-lines; I'd become invested in characters and the world they inhabit before, but never so much in the writing, in the twists and turns of plot and the rotating in and out of characters new and old. It introduced me to a knew way of relating to television story-telling. The fact that Melissa and I became, for a few years, passionate Law and Order--during the years with the classic Jerry Orbach/Chris Noth line-up, years during which L&O and Homicide crossed-over a few times--only made it more complicated, and more worth watching.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Since the kids started arriving, I've watched less and less television. That goes for both of us; I think we've actually been without television reception for most of the past decade or so, and we don't miss it much. The tv set sits there, used for movies, and that's about it. Except, of course, that over the past several years, we've discovered television on dvd. The first real breakthrough here came with getting the superb, Jeremy Brett-starring, BBC-produced Sherlock Holmes stories: all six series of them (though the final one, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, when Brett was very ill, is unfortunately of poor quality). The programs themselves are excellent, but what was most changing is that it made me realize what I'd been missing through the 90s and the decade since, as complicated, long-form, interconnected television shows were made and broadcast, simply begging for dvd treatment. Through Sherlock Holmes my eyes were opened to so much good television; Rome stands out in particular, but also Monk and, lately, Life on Mars. Given our aforementioned affection for Homicide, I suppose one of these days we'll make our way through The Wire, and Melissa is right now delighting our girls with Robin Hood (I watched the first season, but took a pass on the rest.) But Sherlock Holmes will stand out as my real introduction to this format...and, of course, also because it was, as everyone agrees, one of the finest examples of television casting and acting in history.

Ok, so there you go: the ten most important television shows in my personal history. What are yours?


Rob Perkins said...

-- Babylon 5 (which, among its fans, is considered the show DS9 was supposed to be, what with its producer floating the idea to Paramount before Warner Brothers picked it up)

-- Firefly, which only has 13 episodes, but it was the only way (apparently!) that I'd ever have taken interest in a Western.

-- We used to watch a lot of Law and Order, back when there was only one variant. NBC overdid it, though.

-- First two seasons of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, which went further than most crime shows to showcase forensic sciences. And then CBS overdid it.

-- Heroes, until it was clear that Sylar was never going to actually be killed. Never went back to that one after the writer's strike.

-- Seinfeld and Friends, of course, even though in hindsight they just made us cringe, all the time.

-- The "A" Team. Again, in hindsight, it was to see that car crash stunt they did, all the time.

Rob Perkins said...

Gah, I nearly forgot:

Doctor Who. Does it really need an introduction or a reason why?

Tracy M said...

Northern Exposure is one of my all-time favorite shows. And Homicide- wow, what a cast/show that was...

Jacob T. Levy said...

I've discovered two very important differences between you and me:

1) In *my* house, we couldn't afford no fancy Commodore 64. We had the C64's idiot cousin, the Commodore Vic-20!

2) I think that DS9 collapsed in the final season, not the final two seasons; I still think the second-to-last season is part of the great run of the show.

Otherwise, I'm really with you on basically everything (right down to that 2-3 times per day Sesame Street habit) until Homicide and Holmes (neither of which I've ever watched at all).

Aloysius said...

Nothing could explain you better than your list. Its an object lesson in the benefits of controlling your child's TV viewing time.


Camassia said...

I am definitely with you on the first three, though it sounds like I didn't start watching Star Trek until I was older than you were -- I was about 12, as I recall. Actually I was big on all the Star Treks up to Enterprise. I even have fond memories of Voyager, which no one else seems to admit to liking. As you say, the social aspect is part of it -- when Voyager came out I was just moving out on my own, got my first real job, and made a friend there who was even geekier than I was.

My first hardcore geek show, though, was Cosmos. Do you remember that? I was eight or nine, and I thought it was the most awesome thing ever. Even though I realized even then that Carl Sagan talked a little funny.

I guess Superfriends must have had an impact on me, because that's the first superhero show I remember watching, and I'm still fascinated by superheroes. Given how big superhero films are these days, maybe my whole generation was brainwashed.

My whole generation was also brainwashed by The Brady Bunch. On the distaff side of the playground anyway, everybody seemed to know every episode. Though precisely because it was so universal, it doesn't seem that personal to me now.

I was definitely more into TV as a child than as an adult. I followed Buffy the Vampire Slayer up to the end, and I was also fairly avid about Farscape, until it was abruptly canceled. That was when I canceled my cable actually, because that was the last cable show I really was interested in. I was interested in Lost for a while but bailed out in the second season.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. (Even you, Aloysius. It's nice to have a troll of my own, after all these years. You're probably correct that my parents should have done more to control my television watching. Silly people, having nine children, and then not disciplining them properly. They ought to be ashamed. I still love 'em, though.)

Rob, I watched about five or six episodes of the first season of Babylon 5 (which my brother sent me on tape, after the show had finished its run) and I liked what I saw, but it did really grab me. Perhaps someday I'll give it another shot. (And, of course, you guys have been all on my case about Firefly.)

Tracy, nice to learn you were a Northern Exposure fan too.

Jacob, by the next-to-last season of DS9, the war with the Dominion had absorbed so many other decent plotlines, and yet the whole story with the Founders and Odo and Section 31 and all the rest felt like it was being thrown together--and of course, it was in the sixth season that Gul Dukat lost all shades of grey and turned into a Pah-Wraith demon. Granted, it could have come together in the final season, but with Dax recast and Sisko suddenly the Messiah, there was probably no way to save it. No, I cared about DS9 until the end, but--despite the frequent fine episodes--I was never really happy with it after the awesome fifth season.

Camassia, some of my friends--like Rob, up above--have urged me to check out Cosmos. I did watch one episode, and found it fascinating; I'll have to find the time to check out the whole thing one of these days. As for cartoons and sitcoms, I had my favorites. I had Superfriends bed sheets, just like every other kid. And I did watch The Brady Bunch in after school reruns. But my favorite of those reruns, by far? Hogan's Heroes, absolutely.

Unknown said...

Just sent you an FB invitation to something about Strange Women Lying in Ponds...

MH said...

The early MASH seasons were the good ones. It went downhill pretty quickly without Henry and dropped like a rock without Frank. People who can play those types of parts well are apparently hard to come by.

Russell Arben Fox said...

The early MASH seasons were the good ones. It went downhill pretty quickly without Henry and dropped like a rock without Frank.

I agree with Henry's departure being a loss to the show; I think his character could have developed in some wonderful ways, and would have kept a degree of whimsy in the show. But I didn't miss Frank, MH; he was such a thoroughly stock character, the complete idiot straight man, that--as the years went by and the reruns filled me in on what I'd missed--I just found him boring. Winchester was an infinitely more fun character, capable of being used in far more ways by the writers than Frank ever was. Also, Frank's departure meant Margaret's character could be developed further. No, I think his leaving made for a better show.

Camassia said...

Well, I can't vouch for how well Cosmos has aged. The FX were very low-budget, and I'm sure after 30 years some of the science is out of date. I think what impressed me most, though, was its sense of wonder at the universe. Since I grew up in a non-religious household, that was my version of "the heavens proclaim the glory of God" and so on.

I think I would also be remiss if I didn't mention the Oprah Winfrey Show. Yes, it's easy to look back now and blame her for New Age and Jerry Springer and the whole culture of emotional voyeurism. But back in the first few seasons, when I was in the taboo-laden environment of high school, it was amazing to see someone talk about things like domestic violence and child molestation in a forthright and compassionate way.

Mostly, though, I remember music videos from that era in more detail than the TV shows. As you know, that was the Golden Age. Though your postings here have called back some videos that I'd successfully repressed...

Aloysius said...

While I am sure that you give great allegiance to Sunday School, the real RAF is more a creation of these influences than anything that happened once a week and was frequently incompetent on a production values basis.


Harry B said...

I loved television, and loved a lot of shows. But of all of them, just three.

The Goodies

Morecambe and Wise

and most of all

Doctor Who which I continue to adore, and find it completely, completely bizarre that having spend my whole childhood regarded as a nerd for liking it I have a teenage daughter who is regarded as the epitome of cool for having found it so long before any of her friends.

Russell Arben Fox said...

The Goodies I know, and Dr. Who, of course (I had a couple of friends who were passionate about the Tom Baker episodes on PBS in my youth 25 years ago, and I watched a few and like them, but I never became a big fan myself). But Morecambe and Wise...that's completely new to me. More stuff to look up on Youtube, I guess!

Unknown said...

in chronological order: Electric Company (I have no memories of watching Sesame Street though I knew all the songs and had several albums) Bugs Bunny Cartoons (the old ones on after school, not the Saturday morning ones); Carol Burnett Show (if parents would let me stay up to watch); Star Trek original (for recreating episodes on the playground) Saturday Night Live (ditto); Northern Exposure (explained my life in New Mexico to myself); Star Trek TNG (in reruns in grad school with my housemates late at night); Buffy; Homicide; Survivor especially the first season when it felt like Lori and I were the only ones watching and were also following it on