By the time I took “History of the 60s” in college, I already knew a bit about intergenerational perspectives on the Vietnam war — mainly based on watching Archie and Meathead fight bitterly about it.
In my rural middle-class neighborhood, I never would have understood that stark class differences existed outside my slim circle if it weren’t for Good Times.
I never would have known that stoops existed, that people sent mail from blue boxes on street corners and that trash cans were propped outside of brownstone buildings if it weren’t for Sesame Street.
My son has never seen any of these shows. There is never a moment in his life when, given the freedom to do what he wants, he chooses to watch television. His dad and I have tried to get him to see some of these old shows, but just from the opening credits, he can identify an otherworldly production — lengthy credits in an ‘80s or ‘70s-style font will immediately make him leave the room and scoff, ”What? Is this a show from the 20th Century?”In the TV land of the 21st century, difference is embraced and celebrated. Painful and stark reality is traded for perky acceptance.
When he is given a choice, my son never watches television. I imagine that as a grownup, he won’t even want a TV in his home.
Most of our “together time” is hardly that. We engage in three different forms of computer-oriented activity in the same room: my 13-year is on the computer watching YouTube videos of other boys walking him through the steps to play a video game he doesn’t own; my husband alternates work with posting photos of our cat to the Orioles chat room (who is orange and does, indeed, have a circle on his side that looks remarkably like an O); and I watch critically-acclaimed dramas and socialize.
In the ‘70s, parents discouraged their kids from spending too much time in front of “the boob tube.” Now, we beg our son to watch with us, to break from our individual lives, to be able to spend time with him when he isn’t wearing headphones.
We select shows that replicate the sense of humor and values that we remember from the ‘70s — shows with sharp writing, diverse casts and egalitarian relationships. Parks and Recreation is my son’s Mary Tyler Moore. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is his Barney Miller. Modern Family is his All in the Family. We can (just barely) convince him that these shows are worth his time.
In the TV land of the 21st century, difference is embraced and celebrated. Painful and stark reality is traded for perky acceptance. Gay men kiss on screen and no one scoffs (a huge win, undoubtedly). In a small Indiana town, everyone in the diverse office works together peacefully and without prejudice or racism (a utopia!).
I fantasize, though, about using the old TV shows to initiate discussions about the hard issues. We’re missing a show about Iraq and Afghanistan in the vein of M.A.S.H. to teach him about the horror of war through comedic eyes. How will he begin to understand a pro-choice perspective without Maude struggling with a late-life pregnancy? Where will he be able to safely observe conversations and explore issues about race without Norman Lear?
Do conflict-free TV shows ultimately teach the lesson that it’s better, more polite somehow, if we don’t discuss these things out loud?