What’s a classic, anyway?

by Jaime Weinman

There seems to be a surprising amount of talk lately about the past of TV, the split in American TV history that occurred in 1999, and whether we owe it to ourselves to get more into TV history. This post, despite its overly-provocative title, is a pretty calm and fair examination of this question from the point of view of a writer who, like many people, finds much older U.S. TV too limited and convention-ridden to qualify as “great.”

And there’s nothing wrong with that. The TV drama era that started with Twin Peaks and culminated in The Sopranos really did bring a lot of viewers to TV, viewers who previously found TV too limited, corny, slapdash and beholden to advertisers. Even the greatest pre-Sopranos TV shows are obviously compromised, and you have to make allowances for that. (Homicide, for example, is obviously a more compromised show than The Wire – not to say that The Wire is necessarily better in an absolute sense, just that the bargains Homicide made with advertisers, network executives and ratings are right there on the screen for everyone to see.) Trying to argue for the classic status of an obviously compromised commercial product is not impossible, but it’s tricky. You can’t argue that this seemed real to people at the time; it never did. And when you start arguing for the greatness of these older shows, you have to use almost a new set of aesthetic standards. Most obviously, if you’re going to argue that, say, The Rockford Files is the equal of a post-1990 drama, you have to first throw out any notion of characters growing or changing with time; the whole notion of character growth, or character growth lasting more than one episode, is completely inoperative. Well, once you start arguing that way, it sounds like special pleading.

Again, the history of movies demonstrates that conventional genre pieces can be redeemed as classics. Sort of like the French rediscovered low-budget American crime movies and proclaimed some of them to be works of art – which, it turns out, some of them were. But it’s harder to do that with TV because every TV series is uneven, and older shows are even more uneven than they are now (because they had more episodes to produce per season and smaller staffs to rewrite them), so if you sit down to look at a series you might literally be seeing a different, worse show than other people remember.

I guess what I’m saying is that pre-’90s TV, and drama in particular, has a lot of interesting material waiting to be investigated. And some of it, I think, is better than (fill in the name of a modern “quality” show you don’t like) But I think it’s pointless to try and claim it’s the same kind of thing, or that someone who got into TV through the post-Sopranos shows has a duty to watch older shows and consider them great.

The fascinating thing about TV today, what makes it more vibrant than movies (not necessarily “better,” just more culturally relevant) is that there are at least two different audiences that are in love with the medium: the traditional, often older audience that was raised on the older genres, and the newer audience (not always younger, but probably younger overall than the other audience) that delights in seeing TV break free from those older conventions and finally fulfil its potential. Unlike movies, TV has not yet completely split into two separate types of work for separate audiences – broadcast networks have some of the edgiest, genre-busting stuff, and cable TV networks make much of their money on repeats of conventional genre shows. (AMC runs CSI Miami ads in the middle of Mad Men original episodes.) But the split still exists, even for modern shows. And a show made before 1990, especially a drama, is almost from another world entirely; the great ones may be as good as today’s, and I think they are, but I don’t think a Mad Men fan is doing a disservice to the medium’s history by not slogging through shows that are based on a different aesthetic.

Finally, after all this (this turned out to be a longer, more rambling post than I anticipated, one that overlapped some with a post I wrote a few weeks ago, but I decided it was just different enough that I should leave it as is), I am reminded: there probably has never been a better slogan in television history than “It’s not TV, it’s HBO.” It was so simple and perfect. It was based on a concept that had circulated in various forms almost since the medium began; you might remember that Bravo! used to have “TV too good for TV.” But HBO distilled it to its essence, inviting in viewers who had nothing against TV in theory, but just didn’t find TV as it stood – the conventions and compromises that networks had developed over the years – to be very interesting. The slogan became famous as an aspirational thing: watch HBO and feel good about your taste. But it worked because it was accurate: people who weren’t interested in “TV” might find they were interested in what HBO had to offer, not because it was necessarily all great, but because it was trying to do something different.


What’s a classic, anyway?

  1. Intriguing thoughts, though as a TV and cultural historian myself I always point out to my students that “history” is a moving target. Our perceptions always change over time, and in the case of popular culture (especially film, TV, music, and digital media) change very, very rapidly. I’ve no doubt that Mad Men will look as curious an artifact of the 2000s-10s in 35 years (and probably sooner) as The Rockford Files does of the 1970s from today. The Sopranos already seems (to me at least) an intriguing hinge between 1990s episodic forms (notably The X-Files) and 2000s seriality.

    The trick (and really, it shouldn’t be *that* tricky) is to not treat media forms as timeless artifacts but as products of their times. Literature doesn’t mean the same thing now as it did in 1970, 1920, 1850, or 1690, but that hasn’t stopped us from appreciating centuries of work. It isn’t impossible (or even that difficult) to find significance in old films like The Gold Rush, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Vertigo, Breathless, Nashville, Wings of Desire, The Piano, or Run Lola Run. And it shouldn’t take too much work to admire what was done, amidst many “conventions and compromises” (which, of course, still exist, in every medium) on pre-1990 TV classics like Playhouse 90, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Star Trek, All In The Family, Taxi, St. Elsewhere, and Miami Vice.

    • This was brought up on Woodhouse’s entry comments as well. He argued, however, that the classics of literature and cinema are not comparable to the psuedo-classics of television, and that far too many shows of decades past are too comprimised (even as seen then as now) to be brought up in a discussion alongside the films of Hitchcock, Wilder, and Wellea.

      • I still have to scroll through those comments to get to that part of the discussion. It seems an untenable argument, though. Who determines what “compromise” means? At what time? Can we retroactively deem something “compromised”? If so, does that mean it’s irredeemably off the table? It should be obvious as well that 90-ish percent of all film and literature is crap as well, but that shouldn’t render it all into some cultural landfill.

        Anyway, not your argument, but Woodhouse’s! I’m just fascinated by our shifting perceptions of what matters, and disturbed by these broad hand-waving gestures at vast swathes of culture that say “nope, doesn’t matter.” Still, you can find similar sentiments (that what went before wasn’t any good, and that NOW everything’s great) at every stage in our cultural histories of the past few centuries.

        • I wanted to echo your point regarding who gets to determine what “compromise” means and why that is the key standard in this discussion. Premium cable shows are still for-profit enterprises, even if they are granted wider latitude in terms of complexity of storytelling. How much “compromise” is too much, and who decides?

          The best of the ’80s and ’90s network shows operated on multiple levels, adding complexity for upscale audiences while still pulling in a wider audience with more mainstream pleasures — an argument which Jaime has made on his own blog about shows like Remington Steele. Northern Exposure would also fit this category. A viewer doesn’t have to understand Chris the DJ’s preferences to philosophy to get the episode, but the story takes on a deeper layer if that do. There’s a degree to which that kind of writing is more difficult to pull off than writing that wears its complexity on its sleeve.

          Finally, I have a problem with the current notion of equating quality TV with TV that explores the darkest corners of the human psyche. Willa Paskin made this argument on Salon this week under the rubric of anti-heroes, but as one commenter pointed out, it is perhaps more accurate to put the current “quality” shows under the rubric of “shows that lack a redemptive narrative arc.” Are we so cynical about the forced happy endings of mainstream older TV that we can’t consider something with nuanced uplift good TV?

  2. Interesting post.  I am a fan of dramatic radio and my long-term observation is adding visuals and looser standards and practices made drama better and comedy worse.  That is to say that even the greatest radio cop shows couldn’t compete with The Wire or The Shield for the depth of character and intricate plots they portray.  On the other hand The Jack Benny Show is still the most consistently funny sitcom in history and we’re closing in on 80 years since its debut (comedy writers get lazy when you can just aim the camera at a pretty girl or tell a dirty joke).  Your observation about dramas on TV follows that pattern within the TV medium.

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