Monday, January 21, 2008

Aging well on television

In the course of a post on Canadian television, Kathy Shaidle writes
Seinfeld was actually criticized regularly for being "anti-Semitic" -- or, more precisely, for "making Jews look bad"/being "bad for the Jews". (I just finished editing a book on this subject, as a matter of fact.) I could never sit through a single episode, the characters were so unattractive (although Jerry and co. were cuddly Disney characters compared to the creeps on Curb Your Enthusiasm.)

I wouldn't go quite so far in denigration of 'Seinfeld' myself. There were a number of episodes I enjoyed, and they deserve credit for being politically incorrect and funny at the same time. The episode about the Cigar Store Indian carving is a particularly fond memory - just Jerry arriving unexpected at Elaine's apartment with it still under wraps (it was a surprise present) and greeting her assembled girlfriends: "Hello...Winona." You get a delightful feeling of dread at what is about to happen.

The way 'Seinfeld' has dated now, though, might have something to do with 9/11. I know that after that, I just couldn't stand to watch it anymore. Maybe a "show about nothing" just wasn't very interesting anymore, once our lives became so preoccupied with "something". I found the themes, the lines, the preoccupations of the characters just intolerably shallow. Sure, they were MEANT to be shallow. But I guess to everything there is a season; a time to be shallow and a time to be serious, and shallowness just stopped being entertaining for me.

It's interesting to look at old TV shows and see how they've dated. Some wear quite well: I'm still watching my dvds of 'Dr. Katz' and it's surprising that they've held up so well, since they're built around stand-up comedy routines, and those are often very ephemeral and reflective of their current time. I think the show still holds up because the Dr. Katz character himself hasn't dated - whatever his patients are talking about, he's the same impassive "receiver", and his reactions are normal and relatable for the viewer. I find that the center of the show has moved from the patients to Dr. Katz and his son; maybe it was always there, but when the show was new, I found I was more interested in the patients. Now they're the secondary characters.

But if you want to see something that's dated BADLY, watch "All In The Family". Oh my God. Talk about something you can't watch an entire episode of; I was passing through the channels the other day, and came across an episode, and I couldn't stand 5 minutes! I couldn't believe the utter HAMMINESS of Carroll O'Connor's performance. Ham, ham, ham. And to think, silent movie actors have to carry the rap of "over-acting" to compensate for the lack of sound. What would be Norman Lear's excuse? The long, long pauses between lines. The gesticulating. The facial contortions. The squalling delivery. "Broad" is not sufficient to describe this style of performance; "horizonless" would be more accurate. Yes, indeed, as far as aesthetics go, the 70s were the UGLIEST decade of the 20th century.


Blogger Scott said...

A TV show (from the 1980s) that has not aged in the least, IMHO, is "Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister". I've been watching the series again on DVD and, by and large, the shows reflect political reality even better now than when originally broadcast.

3:42 pm  
Blogger Dr. Mabuse said...

I absolutely agree! There is nothing in that show that can't be applied or adapted to current politics. I guess the problems and personalities in politics are always constant.

I'd also put in a good word for SCTV. Its stories took place in a fictional TV station in a fictional town, but it was so complete and self-sustaining, it was pretty much a fictional universe. Even the real-life personalities it incorporated were passed through the SCTV filter, and because part of this alternate world. As a result, it didn't depend much on real current events, so it hasn't dated so badly.

4:07 pm  
Anonymous Toral said...

As soon as I saw the words "Yes Minister" I knew dr. Mabuse was going to jump on that. Exceptional show (actually "Yes Prime Minister" was not nearly as good --whole different crop of writers.)

I've never watched a Seinfeld. It's on on reruns all the time, but I have a perhaps neurotic desire to watch the whole series right from the beginning. I think there would be a real interest in a TV Guide feature that told you when a series, being rerun for the 15th time, starts from the beginning.

I would like to see Frasier in the same way.

Also Friends. The girls are unquestionally pretty and I would wonder how many episodes I could watch before I puke.

10:18 am  
Blogger Dr. Mabuse said...

Believe it or not, I've never seen 'Friends'. I don't know why - whenever I see ads for it along with other comedies like "Everyone Love Raymond" something repels me. Too loud, or something. I haven't watched sitcoms for a long time - "King of the Hill" is probably the only one I'll make time for now.

It's true, "Yes, Minister" was better than "Yes, Prime Minister". Part of the fun of Jim Hacker's character was that his position always felt rather precarious. He wasn't very capable, and his ministry wasn't very important (or even definable), so there was always this feeling that every blunder might be his last, and he'd be mercilessly dispatched by a ruthless Prime Minister. Once he became Prime Minister himself, he didn't seem quite so vulnerable. I haven't watched all the episodes of YPM, but I have seen all of YM.

1:14 pm  
Anonymous Toral said...

Ah yes, so many good YM episodes.

I worked for an old judge who had been Chairman of the Civil Service Commission under the Chief and he revelled in every episode....

I haven't seen them for a while, but there is the new hospital, which has a full administrative structure and a giant room supplied with dozens of professional typists click-clacking away at high speed.

Hacker: "But, but...there are no patients!"

And of course the episode where the Minister desires to have a drink in the English embassy in an Arab country where alcohol is proscribed.

"Minister! To the despatch room....An important message that requires your attention."
"Oh, really from who?"
"From Mr. Johnny Walker"

3:18 pm  
Blogger Dr. Mabuse said...

Yes, and the last message was from..."Napoleon"! Whereupon the Minister collapsed into a drunken stupor.

Dean and I even have adopted an expression from that episode: "Drinkies".

4:44 pm  
Blogger The Bovina Bloviator said...

There was a corrosive humor magazine published in the late 'eighties, by New Yorkers for New Yorkers, called "Spy." I think they nailed it when they referred to the 'seventies as the "taste-free decade."

Anent "Yes Prime Minister," my favorite episode was the one where a bishop needed to be appointed and the candidate proffered by the C of E was an atheist; not too far from the truth, these days

4:56 pm  
Blogger Christopher said...

I hated Seinfeld. Just detested it. I didn't find it even remotely funny. Just monumentally annoying, perhaps because all of its characters were such poorly-drawn cartoons. On the other hand, I actually liked Friends. Wasn't Citizen Kane and its morality was horrible but it had the great virtue of having actual human beings as characters.

8:31 pm  
Blogger Dr. Mabuse said...

The kind of humour Seinfeld used was Schadenfreude humour - that's why it didn't matter too much that the characters weren't real human beings. It made it better, in fact. You can feel guilty about enjoying the humiliation and downfall of a real person; but Kramer? George? Jerry? They were made to be failures. It felt positively virtuous to see them screwing up and being defeated, because they were such intolerable creatures. It felt like justice, somehow.

What irritated me was the thing that has changed in the intervening years and become dated: the cultural assumptions of the age. I found it an ugly, cheap world that the Seinfeld characters inhabited - promiscuous, acquisitive, vain. The low, hollow, "everybody does it" 90s. I hated the background that everyone just took for granted. Against that, I could enjoy separate moments where the comedy came together for me, but I never liked the whole picture.

10:38 pm  
Anonymous Christopher Johnson said...

I'll take your word for it, Doc. But for me, non-animated humor has to have an element of plausibility to it. These situations have to happen to real people. If you're going to give me cartoons, they'd better be directed by Chuck Jones.

11:59 pm  
Blogger Kasia said...

I think part of the thing with Seinfeld might just be viewer age (no offense, Doctor). I loathed it when it was on, which if memory serves would have been my late teens and early twenties, but around my mid to late twenties I started to be able to sit through a full episode. I still don't love it - probably never will - but I think it primarily appeals to a particular age bracket - say, maybe 25-40? - and most people simply outgrow it.

That's my guess, anyway. But you're right about the underlying shallowness and self-gratification that seemed to be the underlying assumption of the show. I think that's one of the things that made me never really "get" it. I mean, why do I want to watch a show about people I don't like, doing things I don't care about, with no apparent purpose?

But then, I never thought that deeply about it at the time, so it's hard to recapture the initial disgust without retro-interpreting it...

6:29 pm  
Anonymous Toral said...

Jim Hacker on UTube:

The actual message was from "Mr John Walker...of the Scotch office." A little Internet checking shows that another message was from "a delegation of Teachers"

2:51 pm  

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