Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The End of a TV Era: A Three Hour Tour, and Three Times Two

"Just sit right back and hear a tale...
...Of a lovely lady...."

Once these songs get into your head, you're hooked for life...

"Gilligan's Island", and "The Brady Bunch"....Two of arguably the most recognizable sitcoms (and theme songs) in American television history. Both still have lives of their own, still going strong in syndication, decades after their original broadcasts.  Both were the creations of Sherwood Schwartz, who died this week at age 90.

Schwartz, who gave up the study of medicine to write jokes for Bob Hope in the 1940's, went on to great success in television.  He created these two popular shows from the 1960's and early 1970's.  Schwartz also wrote the lyrics to the theme songs which laid out the premise of each situation. The ideas and their finished products were simple and simplistic, but nonetheless brilliant for being so memorable and so iconic.  Schwartz lived and worked in a time when it was admirable to reach as large an audience as possible, when appealing to a broad common denominator was respectable, even desirable, and inclusive. 

"Gilligan's Island" sent six hapless characters adrift after their "three hour tour" boat is shipwrecked.  The fun of the show was watching such disparate characters; a millionaire couple, a starlet, a genius, a girl-next-door, a birdbrained captain and his bumbling mate--survive all kinds of wacky incidents, and coexist.  It's  a slapstick version of "Lost" and "Survivor",  before this premise took itself so darned seriously.  The episodes bore no resemblance to "reality", and everyone knew it: that was part of the innocent fun. Mind-numbing yes, and for me, a little went a long way.  And yet, a lot of respectable people grew up enjoying this stuff, and regard it with pleasant nostalgia. It is part of our pop-culture fabric.

"The Brady Bunch"  is perhaps even more well-loved.  Two single, widowed parents, each with three children, get married, and the children's initial resentment eventually turns into a bond, and mischief ensues.  The fun of this show was also how these two families, along with their wisecracking housekeeper, got into dilemmas that were neatly resolved in a half hour.  Even though it was a "contemporary" look at a typical middle-class family, everyone knew even then that it was all sugar-coated absurdity, not at all a reflection of real families.  And therein lay its appeal, the same as comfort food, not always nutritious, often bland, but predictable, safe, and good for some laughs.

As far as innovation and groundbreaking television was concerned, these were barely passable shows in general, but they were harmless, and fun.  They never went beyond the mildest level of tension, and that predictability was appreciated.   

And many regard them with a lot of affection, as a symbol of an era where folks across generations and demographics could enjoy something knowingly cheesy; and everyone across the country had these shows in common, and bonded over them.

(You didn't have to vote people "off"; no one was humiliated except in a gently comic way; no one feared having to see a ripped open corpse, or suffer through "hip" banter that elicits the laughter of degradation instead of joy.  The public did not require TV to establish its "street cred" in order to be acceptable, and TV didn't pander to that idea, either. We knew it was fake...we loved it for its artifice.)

And everyone was in on the joke, producers and audiences alike.  These shows have a following unlike anything that is currently broadcast. And nothing on TV now, I predict, will have anything like the longevity or staying power of Shwartz' creations.

Perhaps you  have heard the trivia regarding the little boat in "Gilligan's Island" called The S. S.Minnow...It was an in-joke, named after former FCC Chairman Newton Minnow, who, in a 1961 speech about media, ranted about the state of television, and coined the now-famous phrase "Vast Wasteland" to characterize it. 

Well, if Newton Minnow could do today what he urged media experts to do then, which is to spend an entire day in front of television with no other form of media input, he might find the reruns of "Gilligan's Island" and "The Brady Bunch" to be welcome oases in a wasteland he could not have imagined 50 years ago.

I suppose if I were older when these shows were released, I would have cast a jaded, snobbish eye on them.  But then, things are different now. Maybe I like these shows because they have, in all of their innocence, endured, and are pleasing new generations of viewers. 

Fellow blogger Andrew of Encore 's World of Film and TV has asked readers to select their favorite episode of a "scripted" show from this past season.  You know what? I honestly can't think of one. But if I said something like "The Minnow would be lost", or "pork chops and applesauce", a lot of folks could launch into an entire song...or give a complete episode description.

The question that begs is: which of this season's episodes--and TV theme songs--will everyone remember, fondly and completely, after 40 years?


  1. I think that maybe TV has gotten a little zeitgeist and with the number of shows on TV right now there are bound to be some that are just ABYSMAL but I think that some networks are doing great things.

  2. Andrew, you make a good point. There ARE many good things on some networks these days, and you write so well about them on your site.

    Today's best is truly great, but today's worst is so much worse than ever it truly makes me worried for the future of pop culture!