Noel Murray’s most recent “Very Special Episode” column was about The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, and how much those science fiction TV shows (cheesy as they often were) meant to young sci-fi fans before Star Wars brought the genre into the entertainment mainstream. But it occurred to me, reading the column, that there’s something else about those shows that you don’t see very often today: they were prime-time, broadcast television shows aimed in large part at children. Today most shows aimed at children are children’s shows – mostly on children’s cable networks. But there used to be a whole category of what I’ve come to call “lunchbox shows,” because they were so popular in merchandising and turned up on a lot of kids’ lunchboxes.
The Dukes of Hazzard was the first prime-time show I remember seeing on a classmate’s lunchbox, and that’s a quintessential lunchbox show: after its first few episodes, which were slightly more adult (all lunchbox shows usually started that way, since they were almost never planned as kids’ shows), it emerged as a prime-time show with the simple stories, characters and action that kids loved most of all. Knight Rider, as Berke Breathed famously noted, was another prime-time kids’ show; so was The A-Team; so were most of the science fiction shows between Star Trek and Babylon 5. But while lunchbox shows tended to censor themselves to avoid anything that would bring the blush of shame to the cheek of a young person, they were not kids’ shows in the sense of a Disney or Nickelodeon show. (Sometimes lunchbox shows even had semi-adult material: Charlie’s Angels was not a “family hour” show, but it was watched by kids – it certainly explained every plot in terms that the youngest child could understand – and featured tie-in merchandising for children.) Lunchbox TV dramas usually had very few kids in the cast, and they might have more adult references than you could get on Saturday morning TV, since no prime-time TV show can afford to broadcast to children to the exclusion of adults. They were to TV as Star Wars was to film: entertainment for kids who didn’t want to watch kid stuff.
Lunchbox entertainment is still big in the movies. Star Wars is the great lunchbox franchise, but it’s being challenged for supremacy by the Marvel movies. These are films that are not marketed as “family entertainment” in quite the way that the average animated film is marketed: they’re PG-13, not G or PG. The filmmakers aren’t making children’s entertainment, but they do appeal strongly to children. They follow the example of George Lucas, who considered Star Wars to be a kids’ movie but didn’t want it be a ghettoized kids’ movie like the Disney features of that time. A movie like The Avengers is not trying to dumb itself down to appeal to kids, it just does appeal to kids because it has a lot of things kids like, and a basic simplicity of story (good guys team up to stop bad guy from taking over the world) that kids can follow even if they don’t get all the nuances yet.
But there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of lunchbox TV at the moment, especially in drama (there are some hit comedies like Big Bang Theory and Modern Family that may fit this description). Modern TV doesn’t have a lot of action, and seems to tend toward a dark and adult tone even in shows that are basically just good guys fighting bad guys. CBS, for example, is the network of black-and-white morality, yet there aren’t a lot of attempts to reach out to children in the kind of stories they do, in the amount of action they feature, in their visual style. And in science fiction, once the key form of the lunchbox drama, forget it: the look, feel and storytelling style of TV science fiction practically invites kids to watch Disney instead. Not that every show has to reach out to children, of course. It just seems surprising that there are so many movies aiming for that Star Wars style family appeal, and so few TV shows. Even superhero shows don’t try to have a whole lot to interest kids: teenagers, maybe, but not kids. Remember David E. Kelley’s failed Wonder Woman pilot a couple of years back; it was a deliberate attempt to drain the franchise of anything children liked about it.
In the world of hour-long TV, Glee is a lunchbox show, or was when it was popular; Once Upon a Time was conceived as a family show and owes some of its popularity to that mix of adult and kid appeal. But in general we’re more likely to see a good-guy/bad-guy show told in a CSI type of way – dark, flashy, playing up whatever adult elements it possesses – than in a Hercules: The Legendary Journeys type of way. The reasons lunchbox shows died out are familiar ones that have to do with the decline of family programming: Advertisers are less interested in viewers under 18 except on kids’ networks; kids have their own viewing outlets and don’t need to find shows to watch with their parents; the collapse of the syndication market took away an important outlet for lunchbox shows. Kids are worth money to movies because it costs them money to get in; they’re worth almost nothing to the advertisers who pay for most TV shows.
What I’m curious about is whether various movie franchises’s expansion into TV will change any of this. Will Joss Whedon’s SHIELD series be a show that kids can enjoy the way they enjoyed the Marvel movies? If Disney launches more Star Wars-related TV shows, will they retain the things that make the movies so kid-friendly? It might not even be worth it: most lunchbox TV dramas have not been of particularly high quality, and it may be that trying to make a TV show kid-friendly imposes too many artistic restrictions on it. (The only episodes of The Dukes of Hazzard that were any good were the ones they made early on before they knew they were going to be for kids.) If you try to make a Star Wars for TV, you might just end up with the original Battlestar Galactica, so perhaps you’re better off going dark and complex and creating a superior show like the remake of Battlestar Galactica. Still, I think there’s room for dramas that kids can enjoy and discuss and look forward to the way they looked forward to Knight Rider and The Bionic Woman. It just can’t be like the remakes of Knight Rider and The Bionic Woman.