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RSVPhillippi | October 2018

Dennis Phillippi

Is Something Funny On?

Apparently I have been watching television wrong. While I‘ve been enjoying sit-coms and light-hearted procedurals, I was actually supposed to be torturing myself by watching shows that seem designed to make the viewer miserable. This stems from a conversation I overheard recently during which two people argued over whether Breaking Bad or The Wire was a better series. These young people were filled with passion on this topic, and neither side could be persuaded to change their opinion. Mind you, a person’s mind is almost never changed by a conversation anywhere but on sit-coms and light-hearted procedurals, but that’s for another time. They ultimately came to a kind of uneasy detente by agreeing that those two shows are simply the best shows ever.

Let’s see, Breaking Bad is about, and you should know I’m saying this as someone that has never seen a single episode, a high school science teacher that gets cancer and, naturally, decides to become a meth manufacturer and distributor and over the course of the show become a ruthless, and amoral crime lord. Hmmm. Pass. The Wire is, I’m told, about a crooked cop in a violent, corrupt city, and he’s the hero. Yeah, pass on that one too. I’m sure these were both well-written shows with terrific performances that I have zero interest in seeing. Years ago I tried to watch one of these “prestige” shows that everyone was talking about by sampling the pilot of The Sopranos.  That was about a vicious mob boss who decided he needed therapy.  Well now, you can’t combine two things that spell fun better than murder and psychoanalysis. I didn’t make it to the end of the episode.  

The truth is, sometimes I doubt people really watch these shows. For years and years one of the highest rated shows on network television was 60 Minutes. I never watched 60 Minutes. I don’t know anyone who watched 60 Minutes. It was on at the same time as our collective secret sin, America’s Funniest Home Videos. I don’t care what the ratings diaries said, given a choice between watching Ed Bradley interview the President of Spain or seeing somebody’s dad take a wiffle ball to the fuse box, we’re all opting for the latter. It was just some kind of silent consensus that the people with ratings books claimed they watched the news show so we wouldn’t look like a nation of chowderheads that love seeing fat people fall down. But see, we are.

As is often the case when I need to have my own poor tastes confirmed, I went to social media and asked people to name their favorite TV episodes. You know what, I didn’t see much of The Wire, Breaking Bad or the Sopranos. They were there, sure, but they were greatly overshadowed by sit-coms and dramas from the 1980’s and 1990’s.  

Pretty much everyone was a fan of the last episode of Newhart, the turkey episode of WKRP, the Sammy Davis appearance on All in the Family, and any episode of M*A*S*H. The thing that jumped out at me is that most of my friends appear to have stopped watching TV about 20 years ago. There wasn’t a single mention of a streaming show. We get our TV the old-fashioned way — basic cable.

There have been great comedies in recent years, from The Middle to The Office to Always Sunny in Philadelphia to Blackish, but given a choice, the people I know would rather re-watch Cheers when the cast got in a food fight on Thanksgiving than give something new a try.

It’s just in our nature, we remember things from the past more fondly than we want to embrace anything new. We all remember the Beverly Hillbillies when Granny had the cure for the common cold, “Take this and in a week to 10 days you’ll be fit as a fiddle”.  We all remember that episode of Gilligan’s Island when they almost got off the island but somehow Gilligan screwed it up. Just like we remember that episode of Bewitched when Samantha’s magic powers were almost revealed, but then she used her magic powers to keep it from happening. Okay, rereading that I realize that the shows we loved as kids were one thing — repetitive. Repetitive is reassuring.

When the networks started throwing weird things like Lost at us, many of us simply rebelled. Were they ever even on that island? Did they almost get off and Gilligan somehow screwed it up? What was up with the episodes where they were all suddenly back living their normal lives? Did that stuff ever happen? Did anything on that nutty show ever happen? I didn’t watch it and I know there was some kind of smoke monster and a cave that was a time machine or some nonsense like that. I read about that at the time and thought; “Hey, I wonder if Nick at Night is showing the Golden Girls?”