As I said in my Pre-ramble, “I represent the first generation whom, when we were born, the television was now a permanent fixture in our homes.” That also means that the generation prior to ours did not grow up with a TV set as a permanent fixture in their homes. It seems that TV helped widen the generation gap as well as bond our generation in ways that nothing else had before (if you don’t believe me try going to STAR TREK convention).
At least my generation used to watch TV with their families. I could watch Happy Days with my mother. I thought the Fonz (Henry Winkler) was cool and she saw the show as nostalgic. Back then if I did not get a joke or a 1950s reference she would explain it to me or have me look it up in a dictionary or an encyclopedia (this was before Google). There were also primetime shows and after school specials that encouraged parents to watch with their kids. The episodes covered a variety of topics like death, divorce, teen pregnancy and starting in the mid 1980s, AIDS. I find it amazing that in the past twenty years (I’m starting the clock with the news of Rock Hudson having the disease) that the subject of AIDS awareness has been discussed on TV through PSAs, news programs, documentaries, dramas, sitcoms, soaps and Movies of the Week. The ignorance of the disease is still high.
Nowadays every family member has a TV in his or her own room. If a child asks their parents to explain something he or she saw on TV, the parents block the show with the V-chip, start a letter writing campaign or both. I sometimes forget that my mother was progressive and did not want to shield me from uncomfortable subject matter. If there was something that she really did not want me to see she would know beforehand through the newspaper or TV Guide.
Following the recent deaths of Bob Denver and Don Adams, I was reminiscing with friends about our favorite episodes of Gilligan’s Island and Get Smart. Then I remembered that many of the adults in my life (not children of television) dismissed the two shows as stupid. Both of these shows were on the air when I was born and have been airing ever since. The wealth of talent in front of and behind the camera has to be a huge contributing factor to a show’s longevity. I was able to enjoy both shows in syndication. Both Gilligan’s Island (1964-1967) and Get Smart (1965-1970) were on when I came home from school. These were shows that I enjoyed on one level then and on a different level now.
Gilligan’s Island is possibly the most maligned situation comedy in the history of television. Sherwood Schwartz created a microcosm of American society with a military man, a millionaire, his socialite wife, a celebrity, an intellectual, a wholesome farm girl, and Gilligan. The idea was each week to show how these very different people had to work together as a cohesive unit in order to survive.
Mr. Howell: Do you think I began a dozen international corporations by stooping to thievery?
Professor: Well, of course not.
Mr. Howell: Shows how naive you are. How else do you get to the top of the corporate ladder!
In other words there was more to the show than the castaways almost getting off the island and Gilligan screwing it up. It’s not like the viewers hoped that maybe, just maybe, this week they might actually make it off the island then felt bamboozled when it didn’t happen. Everyone knew that if the castaways were rescued, the show would be over.
In an in an interview, I once heard Get Smart‘s creator Buck Henry describe Maxell Smart as the child of James Bond and Inspector Clouseau. Along with great parodies of popular secret agent movies and TV shows, Get Smart contained some highbrow social and political satire. There was more to the show than pratfalls and quotable catch phrases. Here is an example of the show’s wit. An anti-bomb statement is made in the episode titled Appointment in Sahara. Behind Max and 99 is a mushroom cloud:
Agent 99: Oh, Max what a terrible weapon of destruction.
Max: Yes. You know, China, Russia, and France should outlaw all nuclear weapons. We should insist upon it.
Agent 99: What if they don’t, Max?
Max: Then we may have to blast them. That’s the only way to keep peace in the world.
It’s funny that the same people who taught me to never judge a book by its cover could easily dismiss these shows as stupid. I can forgive them because the show’s humor may have been lost on that generation. It’s sad that now when someone sees a show that they don’t like because they don’t understand it or it conflicts with their beliefs, they can easily dismiss the shows as stupid. I can’t forgive that type of thinking. It’s not the show that’s stupid.