Wednesday, August 31, 2016

the shelf life of sitcoms

Here’s a Friday Question that became a full post.

It's from Joe Stevens.

What is the shelf life of a hit sitcom or how many people watch pre-1978 sitcoms regularly? I chose that date as Taxi and WKRP came out that year.

It depends on many factors. How beloved was the show? How dated has the show become?  How universal are the situations and characters? Is the show still relevant on some level? Is the appeal strictly nostalgia?

Certainly as generations pass on, the shows from their era tend to fade into the mist. But not always. I LOVE LUCY is still around. So is THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW and THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW. And if you look hard enough, THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW and THE HONEYMOONERS are still on TV somewhere. If I’m not mistaken, a local New York broadcast station still airs THE HONEYMOONERS on a regular basis.

Some series seem timeless like MASH and GOLDEN GIRLS and CHEERS and I suspect they’ll still be around when the Jetsons are alive.

Others like MURPHY BROWN with it’s political references and most of today’s sitcoms that rely so heavily on pop culture references will have very short shelf lives.

And then there are the series that for whatever inexplicable reason still has a following – shows like GILLIGAN’S ISLAND and THE BRADY BUNCH. You explain it.  I can't. 

I’m a little surprised that TAXI didn’t fare well in syndication. Maybe it’s just that audiences didn’t like the setting – a taxi garage was grimy and uninviting. But the writing and characters were top notch. THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW also did not have a great afterlife. It could be that the sets today look chintzy. I dunno. A better written show from any era you will not find.

It used to be that independent TV stations needed programming to fill so they bought off-network syndicated programs. CHEERS might be on at 11 at night for several years, eventually replaced by SEINFELD, etc. Shows would have their day and eventually disappear. But now that there are so many more platforms and ways to see old series, shows like FRASIER and ALL IN THE FAMILY and even SAVED BY THE BELL will be available to watch somewhere. This is why I’m particularly pissed that our series, ALMOST PERFECT is not available. Or should I say, not available in America? ALMOST PERFECT is available on Netflix in Europe. But not here. Isn’t that crazy? If they’ve gone to the trouble to digitize and catalog all 34 episodes, why not make them available in the US?

But I digress…

WKRP IN CINCINNATI feels very dated. And on the DVD’s the music is replaced because of rights issues. So you’re watching a knock-off of the original program.

All of this can be said for movies too. Yes, most movies made in the ‘30s and ‘40s have disappeared forever. But not all. And with movie channels like TCM, some of these oldies but goodies can still draw an audience. People will be watching Billy Wilder movies long after they’re watching Seth Rogen movies.

I personally consider myself very lucky. Lots of TV writers toil for years on shows that disappear into the ether. Having done many episodes of MASH, CHEERS, FRASIER, and THE SIMPSONS – I’m eternally grateful that people today can still enjoy my efforts. That YOU can still watch my shows.

Now if I could just get Netlix to run ALMOST PERFECT…

57 comments:

Mark said...

Friday question:

What happens to the actors who play regular characters (like Norm or Cliff or Roz or Klinger) who aren't in an episode? Do they get paid even though they're not on that week? Are they told in advance so they can schedule something else, a small part in a movie, a commercial, or something else? Or are they just out of luck that week? And, am I asking too many questions for one Friday question?

Anonymous said...

there was no better written show, then or now, than the Bob Newhart Show (1972-1978)
Still holds up as well as anything on TV today.

Curt Alliaume said...

One noted - the latest DVD reissue of WKRP in Cincinnati features about 90 to 95 percent of the original music. There were only a few songs they weren't able to clear for whatever reason (money, artists' egos, members of the band now hate each other, etc.), but most of it is still there.

Nick Alexander said...

A correction on WKRP (the most recent release): "Over 90% of the original music is contained in the set." Enough of the music has been restored that the last 10% can be forgiven.

Carol said...

I've been watching Dick Van Dyke on Netflix whilst exercising, and it totally holds up. Sure the furniture and clothing are all classic 'mid-century' but frankly that's part of the fun. (I covet so many of Sally's outfits)

The stories themselves totally hold up. I've seen them all multiple times, and I still find myself laughing out loud. I especially like it when they do a song/dance number.

David said...

For what it's worth, Almost Perfect isn't on Netflix in France either, despite France definitely being in Europe...

Arthur Mee said...

My understanding is that WKRP did better in syndication than any other MTM show, and by a considerable margin. Much to the shock and puzzlement of MTM itself, who did not regard WKRP as one of their prestige offerings.


Brian Phillips said...

Actually, the music for WKRP has been 90% or so restored on the Shout Factory release. They didn't get the rights for Pink Floyd's Animals, so that scene had to go, but ths SF release is in MUCH better shape than the first issue.

B.A. said...

Ken, you mentioned a peeeeve of mine, which is that Euro countries have legal access to US shows that we can't watch. I guess it's a "strategy" to withhold programs from the audience that made a show popular until the corporation has figured out a way to honor the music Mafia.
So now we have very expensive dvd sets of WKRP, FREAKS & GEEKS, and now I guess THE WONDER YEARS. Why ALMOST PERFECT is missing is a mystery to me as well ( as a US consumer who lives in the valley hoping something good will roll downhill).

VP81955 said...

"People will be watching Billy Wilder movies long after they're watching Seth Rogen movies."

To which the lady in my avatar (who knew Wilder but unfortunately never got to work with him, either as a writer or director) responds, "Thank God -- and let's hope we can say likewise for Lubitsch!"

Speaking of sitcoms with long shelf lives, hasn't "Topper" (the Leo G. Carroll/Robert Sterling/Anne Jeffreys version) aired in the weekend graveyard shift for decades? I'm pretty certain the ABC O&Os in NY and LA ran it as late as the past decade.

parking_infraction said...

THE ODD COUPLE starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman did much better in syndication than it did in its original five-year run on ABC.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I suspect that the problem for the MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW is that the things that made it groundbreaking - a single woman having a job and not seeking necessarily to get married - don't have the same cultural relevance. And I know everyone here loves MTM, but I always found her character rather wet. She was the nicest possible version of a career woman. Despite the political references in MURPHY BROWN, I still enjoy that show a lot because Candice Bergen's character was genuinely tough and successful on her own terms. (Actually, come to that, I think THAT GIRL had more oomph about her than MTM.) And much as I admire Cloris Leachman's work, Phyllis was ghastly to watch on screen. I did like Rhoda.

So although the writing on MTM and the jokes in it haven't dated, the *premise* has, and badly.

That's also the problem I always had with MAUDE. I loved Beatrice Arthur and the style and aggression of the character (especially her voice), but underneath the reality remains: she was a woman wholly supported by her husband, she had no job or career aspirations, she had no children she needed to raise, and she had a housekeeper. She didn't even, AFAIR, do volunteer work. So her form of feminism was simply to stand on the sidelines and complain. She voiced a lot of things that were important at the time, but she didn't *do* anything, and I think her character is hard to relate to now because there are really very few women today whose lives are like that (or who can afford lives like that).

The two episodes of MAUDE that should go down in the TV Hall of Fame, though, are the two where she and Walter consider whether they can handle another child. It is even today almost impossible for a major female character to get an abortion on American television.

Among current/recent sitcoms, I think at least the first two seasons of TWO AND A HALF MEN, the early seasons of THE BIG BANG THEORY, and MOM will all be with us for some time to come because even if some of the jokes are topical each is based in solid, relatable relationships: loneliness, people who function in their own subculture but alienated from the rest of the world, the family dynamics of addiction.

Which reminds me: someone here last year predicted when LIFE IN PIECES debuted that it wouldn't make another season. I note that it has. I've actually come to quite like it, myself. The other show I liked from last year that I think only started in mid-season is SUPERSTORE. It's interesting to note that the people most enthusiastic about it seem to be those who have worked in big-box retailers. What's really clever about it - because the premise is of course band of downtrodden people struggling to cope with the big faceless corporation they work for - is the background stuff. You have to really watch it to get the best jokes, which are the weird shenanigans of the shopping customers, often neither noticed nor remarked upon by the main characters.

wg

Mike Barer said...

I think with Gilligan and Beverly Hillbillies, it was the cast that made it. In both shows, they had chemistry. Same with Brady Bunch.

Mork said...

FWIW, they were able to address most--certainly not all--but most of the music issues on the WKRP DVD's. The "complete series" release was certainly miles better than the original first season release.

But never let it be said that the Internet doesn't have everything. This Google doc:

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1jWiewI2fp1l9gxrIXXhbWWT1a_L4kvASk4UFYLFl4Hw/edit#gid=2132153301

...is a compendium of all of the music used in the show and which tracks were changed for the "complete series" release. (Gray lines were altered, pink were kept.)

Daniel said...

WKRP was re-released on DVD not too long ago with nearly all of the original music. Some of the comments about race, gender, and especially homosexuality feel very dated, though. (The details about the workings of a radio station were never accurate, but in the age of streaming music, they may have some interest as a history lesson.)

Cheyanne Dayymbers said...

It IS amazing how some sitcoms transcend time. I read from another commenter, "aside from the hair and clothes, Cheers is still funny and relevent today!" Amen to that... So in my verbose, Cheyanne Dayymbers way, I have a FRIDAY QUESTION about Cheers to proffer!

The early seasons of Cheers seem so special... I've been watching them on Netflix with my teenage daughter. We finished season 2, with the finale, "I'll Be Seeing You", part 2.

This break-up episode is so well-written; 'poignant, sad, real, AND funny.. Sam and Diane start the final scene amicably enough, but then things escalate and explode. We see a cruel, darker side of Sam ("You hit me!" "Not as hard as I wanted to..."), and then his deeper side when he reacts to the painting of Diane. The acting from both is just... Wow...

Anyhoo, it seems strange to say this about a show that's over THIRTY years old, but by today's COMEDY TV standards, that slapping battle is pretty shocking! Was that real slapping? Did Shelley Long or Ted Danson have problems with that scene, from the "never-hit-a-woman" perspective? Did they have to do more than one take? Did the writers have trouble getting that slap-scene approved by the network?

Thanks, Ken!

PS: And, what ever happened to Sam's mailorder "Velvet Elvis" painting of Diane? I would totally pay for a print of the "Velvet Chambers" for my sister, who IS a carbon copy of D.C.

Harkaway said...

Sad to say, although the UK is still in Europe for the moment, Netflix hasn't treated us to Always Perfect yet. Here's hoping they change their mind. A couple of months ago they added The Dick Van Dyke Show and the original Star Trek to their offerings. I hope people watch so that more classic series are offered.

Harkaway

Joseph Scarbrough said...

THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW has never been off our airwaves down here in Tennessee, but then again, Andy Griffith is as much of an icon of the south as Jerry Seinfeld probably is for New York. Our local CBS affiliate has been airing the black-and-white seasons of the show since perhaps before I was even born, and they still continue to do so everyday.

Our local NBC also used to play I LOVE LUCY everyday at 12:30 for the longest time, then for a short while they replaced it with the black-and-white seasons of THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, before going back to LUCY, until they finally decided they needed to extend their noon newscast from half to a full hour.

But that brings to mind an interesting oddity: how is it you always see THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES and GREEN ACRES on TV, but never PETTICOAT JUNCTION? It spun-off from THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, and eventually lead to GREEN ACRES, and I know all three shows are classified as "The Hooterville Trilogy," but it just kind of strikes me odd that one of them isn't as vindicated in reruns as the other two.

Kirk said...

I think I can explain Gilligan's Island's success in syndication, at least as it pertains to Cleveland, where I hail. When GI first went into syndication, it was aired on a local UHF station following afternoon cartoons. So, if you were a kid in 1970 or thereabouts, you'd come home from school, watch Yogi Bear, Flinstones, etc, and then Gilligan would come on, which was kind of like a live-afternoon cartoon. And that's its appeal. It's a show you discover as a kid. Same thing with such series as The Munsters and The Addams Family. In the 1970s, and a bit beyond, UHF stations strategically aired all of them after cartoons. Whether they were meant to be or not, they were very kid-friendly shows, and fit right in.

MikeK.Pa. said...

I work with millennials and Gen Xs who have never seen CASABLANCA or CITIZEN KANE and flinched at the idea of watching a black and white film.

Two sitcoms that seem to live forever in syndication, at least on TBS, are SEINFELD and MARRIED WITH CHILDREN.

Regarding GILLIGAN'S ISLAND, it still baffles me why a millionaire and his wife (who could certainly afford to rent a yacht, if not buy it) and a movie star (who could certainly date or marry someone with a yacht) would be caught dead on The Minnow. Perhaps a form of slumming for the rich and famous in the '60s?

Steve Bailey said...

Funny you should mention this. The other night, my wife and I watched a couple of episodes of "The Bob Newhart Show" on Hulu. We laughed ourselves silly, but we also couldn't get over how "'70s" the show looked.

Aaron Sheckley said...

I was going to gripe that WKRP isn't dated, until I realized that I watched it during it's original run on TV, so I guess we're both dated. Still, it's a funny show, and no amount of the passage of time will keep me from laughing at "as God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly".

estiv said...

And then there are the series that for whatever inexplicable reason still has a following – shows like GILLIGAN’S ISLAND and THE BRADY BUNCH. You explain it. I can't.

Sherwood Schwartz, in his own doggedly middle-of-the-road way, was a kind of genius. His genius wasn't in doing great work, it was in giving a lot of people something they wanted. So he was more like Ray Kroc than Billy Wilder.

Boomska316 said...

WKRP also looks dated because it was shot on videotape instead of film. Cheers definitely seemed like a warm, inviting environment compared to Taxi. Do you think the fact that MASH is set in Korea keeps it from feeling too anachronistic?

gottacook said...

To take the point about videotape and WKRP a step further: Would any of the series from the 1970s and '80s that still have a following (for example, Cheers or MASH) have many fans today if they'd been shot on videotape? Somehow I don't think so.

DMK said...

Ken,
Thanks for taking care of some of the rude reply comments yesterday. Still not sure how your comments moderation (if that's the word) works since a few of mine haven't gone through. All PG I swear.

Also, Best Coast was at the Greek last night, opening act for the Go-Go's. Did you make it there? A quick set but it was fun to see them.

Hope to catch "Going Going Gone" soon. I'd be curious on your thoughts casting for theater vs TV.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@MikeK.Pa. Even though I'm a Millennial (I still prefer the term "Gen Y'er" as "Millennial" makes it sound like I was born and grew up during the Turn of the Millennium, when much of my childhood was spent growing up in the 90s), I can tell you that that mentality dates way back to even when my generation were kids: as a kid, I was the only one who actually like Rocky and Bullwinkle - all of the other kids automatically dismissed it altogether simply because it was "old," and that kind of mentality still prevails today; after all, notice how CBS keeps coloring episodes of I LOVE LUCY (and now, black-and-white episodes of THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW), "for kids of all ages to enjoy." Because God forbid kids see black-and-white.

That's just the way their little brains are hardwired, apparently: if it's old, it's automatically "bad." SESAME STREET can't even show Ernie and Bert skits anymore because kids today find them "boring" because they're not fast-paced and hyper like most other kiddy shows today like SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS (which I blame as a contributing factor why most kids today have mush for brains). Even ARTHUR did an episode years ago where Arthur and his friends automatically shoot down classic musical because they say it's "boring," and I know that's true to life, particularly when I was in middle school - one of my math teachers would play classical music during tests to help stimulate our minds, but all the other kids whined that it was so boring and they hated it.

YEKIMI said...

Yeah, if done today WKRP would flop. Wouldn't get much comedy when you'd be showing a laptop sitting on a desk and just one person coming in twice a year to update the music playlist or updating the computer with the latest softwear every other year.

Wally said...

BTS of Vin Scully's stories:
https://sports.vice.com/en_us/article/with-a-little-help-from-his-friends-the-story-behind-baseball-announcer-vin-scullys-stories/?utm_source=vicesportstwitter

Sam said...

For many years, the rule of thumb in television was that most sitcoms had a shelf life of five to ten years once they hit syndication. Certainly there were exceptions to that rule, but by and large, the average syndicated sitcom tended to fade out of sight after five to ten years in reruns. That's not necessarily true anymore, since there seems to be several thousand networks, mini-networks and microscopic-networks, all in need of programming. I expect that, at some point, pretty much every television series that was ever preserved on film or videotape will be running on some channel somewhere.

When I was a kid, we had three network stations and no independent, so whatever off-network syndication sitcoms we got were whatever the stations could squeeze into late afternoon and early evening. Funny thing is, the lineups never seemed to vary that much. (This was in the '70s.) Year after year, I LOVE LUCY, BEWITCHED, THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, GILLIGAN'S ISLAND, I DREAM OF JEANNIE, along with ancient cartoons and LITTLE RASCALS shorts, some of which dated to the dawn of sound. Other sitcoms would float into the schedule for a year or two, then would be gone. That core group, though, always seemed to be in place.

One I used to hope would show up but never did was THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. I used to see it when we visited relatives, but it never ran where I lived. I once read a comment from Carl Reiner that THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW had never been a hit in syndication on the level of, say, I LOVE LUCY. Reiner thought it was because TDVDS didn't have as much kid appeal as many other sitcoms. That was always the thinking about why the MTM and Norman Lear sitcoms were never as successful in syndication back then as their network track records might have led you to expect. Kids were the main ones who were parked in front of the TV set in late afternoons and early evening, and kids were more likely to be watching GILLIGAN'S ISLAND than THE BOB NEWHART SHOW. Of all the shows that Norman Lear turned out, for example, the most successful in syndication -- according to Lear himself -- was SANFORD AND SON, which was decidedly less political and topical and more oriented on pure comedy than his other shows.

ADmin said...

Okay - here's my nickel's worth of perspective/theory on why shows like GILLIGAN’S ISLAND and THE BRADY BUNCH might endure:

It's the ensemble cast. It gave both shows "legs".

While there were certainly more prominent characters in both, any one (or number) of them could (and did) become the main character within a given episode. In one, it could be Marcia. In another, it's the Howells. Every episode could take a fresh angle. Cheers had that dynamic and so did M*A*S*H to some limited extent. I dunno...lol - like I sad, it's a theory.

Andy Rose said...

It's true that videotape ages more poorly than film, but All in the Family was shot on tape, and that didn't seem to hurt its shelf life. And Full House seems to be enjoying quite a renaissance lately, even though it was the only Miller-Boyett sitcom not shot on film.

I think Taxi feels more dated than the average sitcom of the time because it was based on the "gritty" era of New York City that largely disappeared by the early 90s. Even relatively dour New York-based shows these days like SVU and Mr. Robot don't depict the city as a dirty, trash-strewn pit of despair anymore. (Compare Law and Order's pilot filmed in 1988 to the rest of the series to see the NY transition already underway.) Taxi is also hampered by Bob James' soundtrack of disco-influenced jazz, which is unique but doesn't hold up very well.

Brad Fischer said...

The sudden surge of HD has relegated many of these old series to oblivion due to the fact that many were not forward thinking in terms of production values. Namely, the fact that many were filmed in the limiting and unforgiving video format of the day. True, that was a cost-saving issue at the time, and I don't fault them for that, as noone could even conceive of the idea of how much better today's presentation is. Yes, some of these series are definitely dated, and may not draw, but I think that there's definitely interest in some of these old series, now that many of the filmed ones are getting remastered into something very watchable. In fact, seeing some of these series in a quality we never did even when they were first broadcast is quite exciting, and I find myself searching them out. Heck, I saw a remastered episode of the The Walton's and it was frickin' gorgeous!
I am actually surprised M*A*S*H itself hasn't seen the HD treatment yet. The series runs on a cable channel here using upscaled SD and it's pretty gross, and since it is such a perennial favourite for reruns, it seems to me anyway that there would be enough return for Fox to go the extra mile. Paramount took a risk with Star Trek and I'm sure now that they have learned it was indeed the right think to do and has given its syndication returns new and better legs.

gottacook said...

I think I'd be much more likely to stop and look at All in the Family when flipping channels if it weren't on tape. As it is, I've avoided it for decades, despite having been a fan during its original run, and I'm pretty sure my aversion has nothing to do with whether the political content is or isn't dated.

Ten years earlier, CBS forced The Twilight Zone to switch to videotape for cost savings; several episodes were produced on tape, everyone agreed they looked awful, and the show returned to film. Too bad that lesson was unlearned over time.

Peter said...

Ken, have you heard of a movie coming soon called Mr Church? It's a drama starring Eddie Murphy and directed by Bruce Beresford. I like both Murphy and Beresford and though the movie sounds like very obvious Oscar bait by Murphy, it'll be nice to see him take on a more serious role than usual.

But the reason I ask if you've heard of it is to suggest that, if you do plan to see it, you avoid the trailer like the plague. I made the mistake of watching the trailer and now I know the entire story, right down to literally what looks like the closing shot of the whole movie.

I'd love to know the rationale behind the creation of trailers that give away the entire plot. It just boggles the mind.

Anonymous said...

@Jospeh Scarborough
The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres are light years ahead of Petticoat Junction, if you watched them closely.
For at least the first five years of TBH, it was subversive satire. Most people might not have noticed it, but ti was a real commentary on America, Southern California, money and fads from James Bond to rock music. Combine that with four brilliant actors who maintained difficult roles all the time. As good an ensemble cast as any ever put together. Sure many, if not most people might have looked at it as cornpone humor but it was genius until 1967 or 1968, when events overtook it.
.Green Acres was true bizarro, break the fourth wall surrealism. Watch some of the jokes like giving the credits on the clothes of the characters or some of the jokes that are right out of Burns and Allen. Again many who watch just saw cornpone humor but it was as good a surreal journey as we ever had on television.
petticoat Junction had nothing to distinguish it. Wasn't especially funny or clever- it really was just cornpone humor. A run of th emil sitcom.

Johnny Walker said...

I struggle with MARY TYLER MOORE partially because the sets are so damned ugly. Can someone tell me if they improve in later seasons? They look like they're from some fantasy land where basic human movement doesn't exist and everything is always lit with flood lighting. Weird that that should be the thing that takes me out of it, but it does. (That and Ted Baxter being a bit too cartoony.) I think Wendy is right about its central premise not being so compelling anymore, but at least we can be aware of that when we watch it and make mental adjustments to how certain things played out 40 odd years ago.

Dan said...

gottacook said...
I think I'd be much more likely to stop and look at All in the Family when flipping channels if it weren't on tape. As it is, I've avoided it for decades, despite having been a fan during its original run, and I'm pretty sure my aversion has nothing to do with whether the political content is or isn't dated.

Ten years earlier, CBS forced The Twilight Zone to switch to videotape for cost savings; several episodes were produced on tape, everyone agreed they looked awful, and the show returned to film. Too bad that lesson was unlearned over time.


That ALL IN THE FAMILY was produced on tape rather than on film had nothing to do with money. It was entirely an artistic decision. Norman Lear preferred to do his shows on videotape because he wanted them to have the look and feel of live television. Tape gave the Lear sitcoms a spontaneous air that they wouldn't have had if they had been slickly produced on 35mm film.

Andy Rose said...

The downside of Star Trek in HD: The border of Shatner's toupee is very, very noticeable in some scenes.

Rachel said...

And then there are the series that for whatever inexplicable reason still has a following – shows like GILLIGAN’S ISLAND and THE BRADY BUNCH. You explain it. I can't.

Easy. Their primary appeal is to children, whose sense of humor is decidedly less sophisticated than that of adults. Yes, I know a lot of adults watch these shows, too, but then there are a lot of adults whose tastes in television and movies are more or less frozen by the time they turn twelve. If they weren't laughing at it when they were in elementary school, they're not gonna laugh at it now.

Terrence Moss said...

No one has mentioned THE JEFFERSONS -- which has enjoyed a very healthy live in syndication for decades (moreso than its parent series).

Jim, Cheers Fan said...

Huh, I think MTM and WKRP held up really well, and I love old re-runs of AITF. I think it's ME-TV that plays a lot of 70s and 80s sitcoms. Maude is unwatchable, unfunny and badly acted (IMHO), which I say only because you often see it mentioned as a prestige series (Rhoda is of the same quality, but rarely gets mentioned in that context)

Just this morning I hate-watched a post-Barney episode of Andy Griffith. They tried to make Emmet the repair shop guy a supporting character, apparently.

One non-sitcom that has aged terribly is LA Law. It was can't miss TV for me back in the day, and I caught an episode not long ago and it was painful to watch. It looked bad-- I don't know what production method gave it that dated, soap opera-ish look, and there was nothing appealing about it. It was kind of weird.

Pat Reeder said...

I can tell from the number of comments that this topic really hit a nerve. I still have one TV with an antenna box so I can watch Antenna TV, Me-TV, etc. and see a lot of old sitcoms. It's surprising which ones hold up and which don't. A big hit from the '80s or '90s (most of the ABC family sitcoms) can seem horribly dated, while a pioneering '50s series like Burns & Allen is still fresh and hilarious. One thing that especially dates the more recent shows is the hysterical studio audience reaction to the entrance of every then-hot character/actor or utterance of his/her catchphrase that's now just a trivia question.

"MASH" will likely hold up forever not just because of the top-flight cast and writing, but because it was already a period piece when it aired. It's not a series shot in the '50s that now looks dated, it's a series deliberately set in the '50s. And not like "Happy Days," where '50s characters had '70s' blow-dried hairdos. Also, "MASH" dwelt on the personal interactions of a small group of interesting characters in their own, insular little world. Most of the sitcoms that still hold up have that in common: Andy Griffith (the small town culture of Mayberry), "The Odd Couple" (two diametrically-opposed personalities jousting for dominance over territory), "Gilligan's Island" (literally an isolated island where the characters each represented a different faction of the larger society -- see, it was more sophisticated than you thought).

Sometimes, being dated is a feature, not a bug. I could never stand "The Brady Bunch" as a sitcom, but now that my wife and I live in a restored midcentury modern house and have gotten deep into that era of design, we watch that show just to gaze in awe and wonderment at the horrific fashions, furniture, appliances, etc. We freeze-framed an episode yesterday just to stare at their bright orange-and-avocado green kitchen. The early '60s look also gives "The Dick Van Dyke Show" an extra level of enjoyment, but in the opposite way, because their styles are so cool, tasteful and retro-hip again.

Finally, I agree with the defense above of "Green Acres" and the early "Beverly Hillbillies" episodes. Those shows were brilliantly surreal and unfairly lumped in with the pedestrian rural sitcoms such as "Mayberry RFD." And having just finished researching "Petticoat Junction" for an update of my "Hollywood Hi-Fi" book (for the chapter about the recordings of the three Bradley sisters who obviously gave Hooterville its name), I can point out six firm reasons why a lot of men watched it despite the writing. You could also probably have gotten rich selling bottled water from that water tower they skinny-dipped in during the credits.

Sorry if that sounds sexist, but I am a man. I'm not a robot.

Russ said...

The different reactions people have to reruns are interesting. My parents, for example. My mother, once she's seen an episode of a TV series a couple of times, she's done with it and has absolutely no desire to ever see it again, no matter how good the episode may have been or how long it may have been since she's seen it. My dad, on the other hand, the more times he's seen an episode, the more he enjoys it. He can identify an episode of THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW or MASH within seconds, because he's seen them so many times, but he'll still sit there and laugh like hell at them, as if seeing them for the first time, despite knowing absolutely one of the jokes and knowing everything that's coming.

Martin said...

there are a lot of adults whose tastes in television and movies are more or less frozen by the time they turn twelve. If they weren't laughing at it when they were in elementary school, they're not gonna laugh at it now.

That's very true. I've known people like that. It's as if their tastes in entertainment were set by adolescence, and they spend the rest of their lives regretting that current movies, TV, music, etc., aren't as wonderful as they were when they were a kid. Which, if that's what they like, that's their business. Myself, I keep remembering that when I was 7 or so I thought "Scooby Doo" had to have been the greatest show ever in the history of television. I'd hate to think my tastes had never matured past that point. But I've known people like that.

Andy Rose said...

One thing that has hurt the repeat value of Petticoat Junction: it went through so many changes. Black-and-white to color, the young ladies in the cast changed several times (and they all had various suitors who pop in and out of the series), Bea Benederet had to leave for sickness, then returned, then died, then they had two stopgap characters to fill in, then brought in June Lockhart as a whole new character. It's hard to jump into that show and get a good sense of who's who, especially if a channel isn't careful to air episodes in order.

My Three Sons had a similar problem, and it hasn't fared so well in reruns either.

VP81955 said...

If the series is well-written with a good cast, it won't date very much. Case in point: "Dobie Gillis." On the surface, it would appear to be locked in America of the early '60s (it aired from 1959 to 1963), but it holds up surprisingly well. Why? It moved at a breakneck pace, unlike any sitcom of its time (a TV equivalent of "His Girl Friday"). The writing and characters were top-notch (sorry, Gilligan fans, but Maynard G. Krebs is the definitive Bob Denver role, and Frank Faylen was a delight as Herbert T. Gillis), at times verging on the surreal. It was the first prime-time series I watched regularly, and it's probably influenced my taste in TV ever since.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@Dan That's exactly why SESAME STREET was shot on videotape (up till 2008, when they switched to HD): they wanted it to look like a live broadcast. Unfortunately, because videotape was so primitive back then, they had to work around it - for example, in the first season in 1969-70, Oscar the Grouch was orange instead of green, but Jim Henson had originally intended for him to be purple; unfortunately, the videotape cameras at the time weren't able to record that color very well and made him look like a washed-out magenta.

Unkystan said...

Hey Ken! Crank up the DVR. November is Natalie Wood Month on Turner Classics!

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Wendy Grossman - btw, I agree. I liked Mary. Wasn't crazy about Phyllis but LOVED Rhoda. So goes not just with the characters but also the shows themselves.

Had a crush on Rhoda (despite being so young) because here was a sarcastic funny good looking female on TV. Very rare back then.

Jahn Ghalt said...

I can answer the Gilligan's Island question in two words. The first one's "Mary" (or perhaps "Dawn").

Jahn Ghalt said...


Anonymous Jim, Cheers Fan said:

Maude is unwatchable, unfunny and badly acted

I'll go along with two of those descriptions, but Adrienne Barbeau is very watchable.

Just like football on the weekends, mute the TV, play a record.

(fast forward is helpful too)

Jeff Boice said...

My memory of the rabbit ear days is that the during the afternoon and early evening the stations would run shows they thought would appeal to kids (young boys in particular). So we got I Love Lucy, the fantasy shows like The Flying Nun, Bewitched, Jeannie, My Favorite Martian, The Munsters, Batman, other stuff like Family Affair, Patty Duke and of course Gilligan. 11PM was when they aired Star Trek-that was for the college students. Dick Van Dyke? That show disappeared after awhile.





Jeff Boice said...

Jahn Ghalt said...

"I can answer the Gilligan's Island question in two words. The first one's "Mary" (or perhaps "Dawn")."

I agree and would add that while I thought I Dream of Jeannie was never that funny, Barbara Eden was so wonderful to watch...

Steve719 said...

The most dated thing (apart from the topical references) is the fact that little family owned stations like WKRP don't exist anymore. They have all been vacuumed up by major conglomerates in the wake of the FCC deciding to allow the same company to own multiple stations in a single market. If WKRP had been real and was still on the air, they wouldn't answer to a "Mother Carlson" but rather a nameless, faceless board of directors in some other city.

It was my great pleasure to work on WKRP for its final three seasons. Over thirty years later, I still receive compliments for the work we did back then. So I guess it's still making people laugh.

Hank Gillette said...

I suspect that the problem for the MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW is that the things that made it groundbreaking - a single woman having a job and not seeking necessarily to get married - don't have the same cultural relevance.

That may be true, but it’s not nearly as dated as I Love Lucy, where Lucy is a housewife who wants to be in show business, but her husband won’t let her. A husband, I might add who treats Lucy as a child (when he’s scolding her, she responds with “Yes, Sir” and “No, Sir”) and even upon occasion threatens to spank her.

I know it was groundbreaking (first three-camera sitcom), and Lucille Ball was very talented in physical comedy, but I find the show unwatchable.

Mark said...

Say what you will about the scripts for the Brady Bunch, but it was brilliantly cast. Tons of kid appeal (the audience watching in the afternoons) and very relatable characters (contrast them with the smart-alecky kids on Make Room For Daddy, or the dull kids on My Three Sons). And Robert Reed, a very fine actor, gave the whole thing some gravitas.

Petticoat Junction suffered from cast turnover, and the loss of its lead character, Kate Bradley, which was awkwardly handled (the last time the character was seen onscreen was shot from the back with her voice dubbed in, using a body double, and then she was never mentioned again). The earliest black-and-white seasons - which were similar to Green Acres tonally - weren't syndicated. So what we saw in syndication were lots of episodes without Kate, and after the show shifted to a more corny approach. Too bad, because those earliest seasons are quite good.