Arts and Culture


Were the good old days of TV really any good? A border-crossing broadcaster lets you answer that for yourself.

By Steve Burgess 23 Sep 2011 |

Steve Burgess watches MeTV purely as an exercise in cultural anthropology, which is part of his job.

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Give me Moore! Mary Tyler Moore, that is, whose groundbreaking sitcom holds up, sort of.

One day while serving the sentence of Grade 8, I had a double math class. Wanting to put my time to good use, I pulled out a sheet of paper and started to practice a snazzy new signature. The night before I had seen the Hawaii Five-0 episode where Steve McGarrett is targeted by counterfeiters -- in one scene, he signs his name. It looked cool. And I had the name to take advantage. By the end of that double period, I'd created the signature I've used ever since.

All of which is to say KVOS TV probably has people like me in its crosshairs. Recently the Bellingham station switched to the MeTV format, a packaged nostalgia lineup syndicated by Chicago-based Weigel Broadcasting. MeTV offers shows from the '50s through the '80s -- from The Honeymooners to Barney Miller, Mary Tyler Moore to Cheers, Perry Mason to Get Smart, Hawaii Five-0 to Happy Days, Beverley Hillbillies to The Brady Bunch, Taxi to Combat! and dozens more. It's a lineup that offers at least two generations' worth of memory lane tickets. But aside from the cynical nostalgia factor, it can make for fascinating viewing. I don't know if social anthropologists are a coveted demographic, but MeTV must surely have them cornered.

History buffs, too. MeTV has given me a chance to see pop culture staples for the first time. Living in Regina in the early '60s, we had access to one channel -- later in Brandon, two. Until MeTV, I'd never seen Rawhide, co-starring coltish young Clint Eastwood. It's Clint all right but his persona is not yet fixed -- he tells goofy jokes around the campfire. Meanwhile eager young tenderfeet are dropping like flies while the trail boss looks on and nods sagely. On Rawhide, kid cowboys die faster than red-shirt ensigns on Star Trek (which is coming to MeTV shortly).

But the greater joy is seeing genre-shaping classics with new perspective -- in particular, Mary Tyler Moore. Arguably the most groundbreaking sitcom in TV history, it's still a pleasure to watch. But four decades on the show can be by turns hilarious and hilariously dated. In one episode, Lou Grant, Mary's boss at WJM TV, blithely invites himself over to her place for an intimate Friday night dinner. During said evening he sits on her couch with his arm around her. Yet it is clear that nothing inappropriate is being implied. It's just Lou and Mary, sexless sitcom pals.

That same episode offers plenty of evidence of why MTM is so revered. Seeking to win a coveted award, anchorman Ted Baxter is pandering with a nightly on-air prayer: "Heavenly Father... this is Ted Baxter!"

Lou wants to fire him, but Mary warns him: "You can't fire a man for praying on TV. They'll getcha for that." If MTM were on today, Bill O'Reilly would probably spend half his airtime foaming about those goddamn media liberals at WJM.

Open that nostalgia nozzle

Barney Miller -- my personal favourite back in the day -- is another cutting-edge sitcom that now seems both funny and dated by turns. An episode featuring a cross-dressing truck driver is striking -- everyone does double takes, and some of the humour comes from the detectives' inability to convince the man he is doing something criminal. Thirty-odd years later, the truck driver sounds like the only sane guy in the room.

Not every time capsule yields a treasure trove. But even The Beverley Hillbillies or Gomer Pyle are morbidly fascinating as cultural artifacts. And watching Hogan's Heroes might at least be educational -- back in 2003, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi started a row by comparing a German politician to Sgt. Schultz. Watching MeTV can also help you catch more references on vintage episodes of The Simpsons.

The network lineup soon promises to include Mission: Impossible, a show that loomed so large in our young lives we won a groundbreaking delay in our Wednesday night bedtimes just to watch it. It might be better not to watch it now.

But I never tire of those old Hawaii Five-0 episodes. That opening montage must have influenced scores of young filmmakers and editors -- every paddle, siren and gyrating grass skirt is imprinted on my brain. With Kam Fong as Chin Ho, and Zulu as Kono. (Nowadays played by Vancouver's own Grace Park Kim. She's great, but as I'm sure she'd agree, no Zulu.)

Small town TV stations KVOS have long scrambled to find their place in the cable environment. MeTV may represent a desperate ploy find a market niche. As desperate ploys go, I like it. May they live long and prosper.  [Tyee]

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