It’s been said that you can learn as much from bad examples as you can from good ones, as long as you have the wisdom to know which is which. Television, being the barometer of societal trends and attitudes over the last half of the 20th century, provides plenty of both.
It’s been said that you can learn as much from bad examples as you can from good ones, as long as you have the wisdom to know which is which.
Television, being the barometer of societal trends and attitudes over the last half of the 20th century, provides plenty of both. Two wildly successful comedy series that served as bookends for TV’s first 50 years show, depending upon your point of view, how far we’ve come or how low we’ve fallen over that period of time.
The first, “I Love Lucy,” ran on the CBS network from 1951 to 1957. Lucille Ball and her real-life husband, Desi Arnaz, starred in the show that highlighted the New York City adventures of a Cuban (pre-Castro and pre-embargo) bandleader and his zany wife from upstate Jamestown.
It was wildly popular. The birth of the couple’s son, Little Ricky, was a national event. It, along with “Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater” (a variety show), were the first examples of television as a national catalyst, entertainment that brought the nation together. They were programs that people talked about the next day at work or over the backyard fence as they were hanging their laundry out to dry (electric or gas dryers weren’t the common appliances that they are today).
“I Love Lucy” was a microcosm of postwar America, probably not as it really was, but the way we’d like it to be. Most of the comedic situations in this situation comedy developed as a result of one of Lucy’s hare-brained schemes to meet celebrities or to become part of the show at Ricky’s Copa Club. Everyone liked everyone else, and most of the plots resolved themselves by the end of the half hour, leaving the viewer with a warm and fuzzy feeling and waiting for more, as the announcer intoned after every show, “Lucy and Ricky will be back at the same time next week.”
Compare that with the biggest sitcom success story at the tail end of TV’s first half century. It, of course, was “Seinfeld,” the self-proclaimed show about nothing. It ran on NBC from the middle of 1989 to 1997. You can still see it in all of its syndicated rerun glory multiple times a day.
Unlike “Lucy,” there’s not much that’s uplifting about “Seinfeld.” Comedian Jerry Seinfeld and his fictional friends spend most of their days and nights obsessing over themselves and the woe, real or imagined, that has befallen them. They do it, of course, hilariously, which earned the series a place as one of the funniest TV shows of all time. The “Seinfeld” cast put the fun in dysfunctional.
Those who see progress over the 50 years will say “I Love Lucy” was a romanticized, idyllic version of America; one that we may have wished for but never really existed. They might even say those kinds of sitcoms (throw the Cleaver family of “Leave It to Beaver” into the mix) contributed to a fantasy that few could live up to. Real life paled in comparison and the shows offered a standard to which few could achieve.
They say “Seinfeld,” with all of the characters’ warts and lack of sympathy and empathy for and with the rest of the human race, is a more realistic picture. People aren’t perfect and the Seinfeld crew was imperfect. So, they say, if you want an accurate picture of the human condition and would like to laugh at the same time, “Seinfeld’s” your choice.
But the people who pine for the good old days look at it differently. While some of the old-time shows, like “I Love Lucy,” might have been unrealistic, they set a standard of the way things ought to be, the way we would like them to be. And if we don’t have those kinds of standards, the way-we-were crowd feels we won’t have any stars to reach for.
There’s little doubt that life in these United States has changed over the past 50-plus years. And television, being the all-encompassing medium that it is, has changed as well.
Has it changed us or have we changed it? As with most everything else in life, it’s probably a little bit of both.
Dick Lucinski is the managing editor of the Niagara Gazette.