Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Essence of Late '70s TV

The death of Farrah Fawcett has caused a lot of people to write about TV in the late '70s (see Jim Henshaw's post for one of the beest examples) and what it was like. By "the late '70s," I tend to include 1980 and maybe even the early '80s, when there was a recession going on and the '70s air of despair and malaise (tm) was still being felt everywhere. TV was an escape from all that.

It was unquestionably more of a true mass-entertainment medium than it is now; the hit shows back then were watched by many more people than you get for most so-called hits today. The quality of writing and production was, overall, lower than TV today, with some exceptions (situation comedy was probably in better shape then than it is now).

But the most distinctive thing about the era was the style, a strange combination of several trends from earlier in the '70s. The early '70s had loosened network TV censorship a bit, while the mid-'70s tightened censorship again through the imposition of the Family Hour. The mid-to-late '70s was also a period when producers discovered that audiences' tastes actually hadn't changed very much (whereas in the early '70s, it was often assumed that audiences had become more "sophisticated"); this culminated in the success of the totally unsophisticated Star Wars, but it was a lesson Hollywood had been in the process of learning for several years.

So by the late '70s, network TV was able to say and show more than in the '60s, but it was aiming to be even more unsophisticated than TV of the '60s (which, given that that was the era of witches, genies and martians, is really saying something). The new freedom of the early '70s was still there, but it was now channeled into titillation, broad comedy, fantasy and action.

It was to television what Star Wars was to movies -- a rebuttal of everything anybody had ever said about the "maturing" of the audience. I say that to describe the era, not to put it down. A lot of these shows, like Star Wars, succeeded because they were very entertaining. More than that, they hold up better as entertainment and even as art (using the term loosely) than the television that critics claimed was Good For You. If it's a choice between Laverne and Shirley and Larry Gelbart's deliberately unfunny comedy United States, the former is much better written. But it was an era when series television was mostly very simple: simple storytelling, simple morality, simple characters.

It was also an un-ironic age of TV, when -- again, like Star Wars -- the most old-fashioned and silly plots would be trotted out and done without any self-mockery. It was the last era when a show could do, without any sense of humor whatsoever, a plot like this from the show Vega$: an evil hypnotist brainwashes the hero's dumb sidekick to kill the hero whenever he hears the trigger word "Superstar." In the '60s, this story would have been done tongue-in-cheek. In the 1979-80 season, it was played absolutely straight:

Even shows that aimed to be sophisticated had to incorporate those "unsophisticated" elements in order to succeed. And sometimes the need to be silly, flashy, and titillating actually improved a show. That's one thing I love about Taxi, that it takes the MTM style -- smart but often a little stolid -- and pumps it full of the things a show needed to be on ABC in the late '70s: broad, kid-friendly silliness (Latka), a beautiful woman who is inappropriately bra-less (Elaine), hunky young guys to keep the women watching (Bobby, Tony, probably not Randall Carver), and out-and-out fantasy (many episodes involving Latka or Jim). The mix of early '70s smart and late '70s goofy produced a great show. WKRP in Cincinnati, which can basically be described as The Mary Tyler Moore Show re-tooled to look like Three's Company, also has that appealing mix of styles.

And of course there was Soap, an "issue" comedy in the early '70s Norman Lear vein, written by the person who wrote the Maude abortion episodes for him, which got by in the late '70s by pumping itself full of titillation, goofiness, fantasy, etc. You literally could not do a smart show in 1977-8 if you weren't willing to make it look stupid, but the stupid elements probably helped make a smart show more interesting.

We'll never see the like of late '70s TV again, except in an ironic sort of way. On the whole, that's probably a good thing, but even a bad late '70s show can be strangely watchable. It was perhaps the last golden age of television showmanship, of scripted TV producers who would do anything to entertain us.


VP81955 said...

Indeed, the later part of the 1970s were what defined the decade (the same could be said for the '20s and '50s); otherwise, why would "That '70s Show" have initially taken place in 1976? As someone who got out of college at that time, it was largely a sad period for television, as if the Visigoths had taken over. It reached its reducio ad absurdum when Fred Silverman took over NBC, resulting in the collective network equivalent of "Heaven's Gate." Dreadful banality.

There was good TV if you knew where to find it. You mentioned "WKRP," but let's not also forget the brilliantly subversive "Fernwood/America 2Night," which was smart by being exceedingly stupid.

J Lee said...

Ah, the Curse of Fred Sliverman. Fred, of course had risen to prominence at CBS first by dumbing down the network's Saturday morning cartoon lineup, and when he was promoted first to assistant and then to head of prime-time programming was assumed to be part of the cadre of execs who were going to "culture up" the prime-time schedule -- Fred was in the No. 2 spot when CBS massacred its rural comedies in the 1970-71 period, just before and after "All In the Family" debuted.

But watching what he did once he moved to ABC, you have to wonder if Silverman also wasn't one of those who thought throwing away an entire demo of "unsophistcates" was the right idea, or at the very least, that the networks weren't taking advantage of the looser rules on censorship from a sexual angle. The greater emphasis on sexual-themed shows and the lack of guilt in doing promos for those shows that reveled in their unsophisticatedness is really what made ABC No. 1, Fred a pile of money and inspired a vehemence among TV critics against a network executive that has yet to be surpassed (though to be fair, while the changes to "Happy Days" and the "Charlie's Angels"/"Three's Company" stuff was the most notable shift in the pre-/post-Silverman era, he was smart enough to leave Danny Arnold alone on "Barney Miller")

Fred did show that, once a market becomes saturated with a certain type of programming, there's a limit to how much you can sex-it-up/dumb-it-down and get the audience to follow you, as was the case when he went to, and failed at NBC, much to the enjoyment of media watchers everywhere. And people forget Silverman was the one who began the rise of the second era of rising sophistication in network TV when he green-lighted "Hill Street Blues". Problem was he had become the New Coke of TV execs by then and had to be shown the door by NBC (even though today, the network's position is even worse than it was under Fred 30 years ago, but the same group of hacks running NBC keeps going on, and on, and on...)

Anonymous said...

Brandon Tartikoff was Fred's most famous protoge, but it was the instincts of Grant Tinker that kept him from crashing on the same rocks that wrecked Silverman, until Tartikoff tried to run Paramount Pictures.

Todd Mason said...

I have to wonder if nostalgia isn't coloring your assessment some...I don't think WKRP owes Anything to THREE'S COMPANY, for example, not compared to what it owes to, say, M*A*S*H (the generational split, somewhat more convincing in WKRP, for one). But, then, I hated most of the intentionally stupid programming of that era, and while UNITED STATES wasn't successful artistically, either (though a decent try to import a bit of PBS drama sensibility into a sitcom format...back when there was PBS drama, my goodness), it woudld be for me vastly less tortuous than sitting through an episode or even a fragment of THE ROPERS or MORK AND MINDY. HOT L BALTIMORE was another example of the kind of thing you're getting at, the attempt to be wild and salacious, that didn't quite come off, but again, as I remember it, a child of LOVE, AMERICAN STYLE and LAUGH IN as much as the other Lear/Yorkin Tandem sitcoms of the time. For me, the relative sophistication of THE ROCKFORD FILES was an oasis (or VISIONS, one of the better of the late '70s PBS anthology drama series...not quite up to PBS HOLLYWOOD THEATER in the early '70s or AMERICAN PLAYHOUSE in the '80s, but not too shabby).