Don’t Know Much About History

gunsmoke-by-britannicadotcom

ABC’s announcement that it will launch an updated 1980s version of the classic TV show “The Goldbergs reminds me that in the history of television, some of the most popular series have been about, well, history.  “Gunsmoke,” “Bonanza,” “Happy Days,” “MASH,” “Little House on the Prairie” and “The Waltons” were all huge ratings-generators and all were about bygone days.

Today it’s a lot different.  Almost all of contemporary scripted television is set in the present.  There are, of course, a few huge exceptions on the cable networks and PBS.  “Mad Men,” “Downton Abbey” and “Boardwalk Empire” are not only unusual in being great dramas on their own, but they have the added virtue of using history to illuminate the present.

With their slavish attention to historical detail and long-since-abandoned social mores, these shows makes us think seriously about how society has evolved over the past few generations.

As the writer L.P. Hartley famously wrote, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” A good TV show set in the past will illustrate how they did things differently and help us reflect on how we live today.

Not all history-based shows are as ambitious as “Mad Men” and “Downton Abbey,” of course.  Simple nostalgia tends to be the driving force for most of them.  Throughout the history of television, there’s a recurring pattern of TV series being set about 20 years before the date of airing. There’s a theory that the music that’s popular when you reach sexual maturity remains the soundtrack of your life, and to some extent the same principle is true with all pop culture.  When TV viewers get into their 30s and 40s they seem to want TV shows set in the period when they were young adults.

Thus, the 1960s saw a raft of shows about World War II (“Combat,” “Twelve O’Clock High,” “Rat Patrol,” McHale’s Navy,” “Hogan’s Heroes,” etc.) Then in the 1970s we had shows about the 1950s (“Happy Days,” “Laverne and Shirley” and “MASH”).  In the 1980s, “The Wonder Years” and “China Beach” were explicitly about the 1960s.  And in the 1990s we had “That ‘70s Show.”

The appeal of most nostalgia shows is that they portray a world where life was simpler, the music better and the food a little bit tastier.  Of course, nostalgia alone is not enough to guarantee a show’s success. A couple of years ago the networks tried to capitalize on the popularity of “Mad Men” with other ‘60s-themed shows such as “Pan Am” and “The Playboy Club.”  It turned out that mini-skirts and sideburns alone are not enough to save a history show; you also need good writing and acting.  If “The Goldbergs” is to succeed, it will need more than funky Cosby-era sweaters to evoke the essence of the 1980s.

I think part of the reason nostalgia shows have lost their appeal is that the Baby Boomers, the most nostalgic generation in history, have essentially aged out of the 18-49 demographic, and the networks have decided to let them get their history fix from The History Channel and Ken Burns documentaries.

But perhaps even more important, as far as the 20-year rule is concerned, the immense cultural transformation that lasted from the 1960s to the 1980s is largely over.  In the ‘70s and ‘80s, you could look back two decades and muse, “Can you believe how we acted and dressed back then?”   But a series today set in the 1990s wouldn’t portray an alien land at all.  Except for the lack of cell phones and Internet access, the way we live hasn’t changed that much.

In a much talked-about 2012 Vanity Fair piece, Kurt Andersen argued that although America has gone through a lot of technological innovation in the past two decades, cultural innovation has ground to a halt.  He argues that, “The appearance of the world (computers, TVs, telephones, and music players aside) has changed hardly at all, less than it did during any 20-year period for at least a century. The past is a foreign country, but the recent past—the 00s, the 90s, even a lot of the 80s—looks almost identical to the present.”

With an unchanging culture, there’s no need for nostalgia television. If the past is not a foreign country, no one will want to visit it.

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55 comments
  1. I would like to see more historical television series, perhaps taking us back to the 90’s which is my generation of teen hood. A lot happened pop culture and the realization of global issues like pollution to the AIDS epidemic. Revisiting the media age and the ever-changing world of the internet.

    I like to say, my favorite shows growing up was the Walton’s and Little House on the Prairie. Yeah it was about the simple times but I crave to live the simple life in today’s world.

    Great topic and I look forward to reading future posts.

    • Thanks. I haven’t seen The Americans yet, but I hear it’s a great show set in the 80s. Glad you liked the post.

  2. A good piece. It reminds me of the quote in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence”. if the legend is better than the real story go with the legend. The same goes with history. When I was a kid a big show was on Davy Crockett. The actor who portrayed him was Fess Parker who was rather tall. Crockett on the other hand was quite short. Like I said, people who saw the program have in their minds a Fess Parker or John Wayne image and that is not really what he looked like. Then add Disney and their slant on how he acted and that is what we currently believe.

    • Thanks. That’s why I like Mad Men so much. They have their own agenda but at least they try to get the period right.

      • I came across a tidbit of history I thought you might enjoy and maybe did not know. After the bombing at Pearl Harbor, F.D.R. needed a bullet proof car to go to congress. The government did not have one and they went to a storage facility where confiscated material was kept. They ended up using Al Capone’s car. I think that is hilarious.

      • Ha, that’s funny. Thanks.

  3. Do you suppose some of the popularity for the second season of American Horror Story (besides how scary it was) was from the fact that it was set in the sixties, when people were still very naive about mental health and what it means to be different, yet it was still a hopeful age?

    • Rami, you could be right. Placing characters in familiar but slightly strange places (like the past or foreign countries) puts the reader/viewer just a little off balance.

      • And in horror, a little off balance can go a long way.

  4. pezcita said:

    I barely remember what it was like 20 years ago, but it seems society has changed some. People live in fear now. Fear of losing their jobs. Fear of not having enough money. Fear of getting shot in broad daylight. Fear of kidnappings. The list goes on. It’s a much scarier world in some parts of the country.

  5. Life was never really simpler, the music perhaps was a tad bit better but the food is a little bit tastier now (especially since it’s easier to prepare) — but then again, you’re right, the appeal of old shows is to make us think things were better way back when, and after all, it is entertainment. We’re allowed to drift off into fantasyland now and then. Nice post, thanks!

    • Thanks Jann, I think The Goldbergs is going to turn out to be en exercise in fantasy nostalgia — a standard comedy with funky 80s clothes but not much else to make it seem like the 80s. We’ll see.

  6. I think certain periods of history are far more interesting to us than others — hence the popularity of HBOs Boardwalk Empire, set during Prohibition. The clothes, cars, lingo, politics — all different enough to be intriguing. There was to have been (still in production?) an American Gilded Era version of Downton, also written by Julian Fellowes, but I wonder if anyone — in this era of hideous income inequality — really wants to watch rich Americans swan about. I sure don’t. There’s enough of that inanity on “reality” television already.

    I take issue with your notion that documentaries are the best or only way to portray history. One of my favorite films (partly shot in my NY town) is The Good Shepherd, with Matt Damon, about the founding of the CIA, through the eyes of one of its key operatives. Much more compelling history than another snoozy doc.

    • Thanks Caitlin, I didn’t mean to imply that documentaries are a better way of portraying history. What’s better on the 60’s than Mad Men? And Upstairs Downstairs taught me more about Edwardian and post-war England than my history professor. Agree too that the American version of Downton Abbey will be a flop. I remember when one of the networks had a show called Beacon Hill, which was supposed to be an American take on Upstairs Downstairs. It was terrible.

      • Have you seen Parade’s End? It’s well worth it — also Edwardian era with WWI as a character.

      • I started to watch it but thought it was a bit depressing. Someday I should write a piece about Masterpiece Theatre, which for years and years was the one place you could find historical drama. I know Parade’s End wasn’t on Masterpiece but it but it could have been.

      • Oh, but so worth it! Cumberbatch is an amazing actor.

  7. My mom said that she never heard of “The Goldbergs”. C’mon Mom.

  8. Interesting –
    I think it plays into my idea that people used to be “smarter” before technology took over.
    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed.

  9. I think re-treading The Goldbergs is a patently dumb idea, and I expect rapid failure unless it features some break-out comedy stars. The biggest trend in currently popular shows is not looking back at the past, but creating ALTERNATE speculative FUTURES. Two of the toppers across all demographics are The Walking Dead, and True Blood, both set in near “futures”. The other way to pursue speculative historical exercise is on shows like Game of Thrones, an invented world that parallels Medieval history. The Borgias, an attempt to portray the Renaissance period as another Godfather saga, notably failed. Audiences didn’t buy the historical liberties the way they had on The Tudors (with a Henry VIII who never got fat or old!)

    Improvements in CGI (green screen) and special fx make the invention of “impossible” worlds, and the sagas of superheroes more technically achievable within reasonable budgets than ever before, so I expect more of that in films and tv shows. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a TV comic-book adaptation supporting Marvel’s Avengers film franchise is hotly anticipated for summer – another alternate future that also supports your nostalgia principle, the books read when current adults were kids.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comments. Closely related to what you are saying, I think, is that part of the problem is the difficulty in creating a credible past, not just going back to Henry VIII but even back 30 years. Mad Men has managed to evoke a credible 60s, but only through a huge artistic commitment that a run-of-the-mill program won’t make. I think you are right that alternative realities are a lot easier to create.

  10. P Bobby said:

    I don’t know that the last three decades have been more or less identical, but your point about helping us reflect on how we live today is one I had not considered; perhaps people are now getting their history elsewhere, or indeed (as you suggest), perhaps they are not getting any history at all.

  11. Although I am not of those times. I do agree with you. Historical shows have gone under. Perhaps the last acceptable one was Deadwood(2004). Well written article.

    • Thanks. I’ve never seen Deadwood but now I think I’ll give it a try.

  12. I am one of those very few individuals that dislikes “Reality TV. My reason(s) for this is time.. I mean I literally cannot justify using my time to simply watch the lives of others, and know that there is nothing to take away from it. I agree with you that the addition of internet and cell phones has hijacked one of Mankind’s best qualities, that being able to experience new things and learn from it, and now it is about the immediate gratification of self and a vapid narcissism that consumes the airways. Progress is not only about moving forward, its about knowing where to go based on where we’ve been. It’s a shame that the best reminders of where we have been in the shows we once watched is paid no heed by the digital generation.

  13. mentalfrolics said:

    Reblogged this on Mental Frolics and commented:
    Huh, ever notice the trend of playing TV shows set in the past and why that happens less today? And how first fashions were defined by centuries then you could tell between decades and now it all feels the same? This is an interesting post on that.

      • mentalfrolics said:

        No problem! I was trying to reblog it, and that was going to be my little intro. But I have a wordpress.org site so it probably didn’t work. Just know I found this very interesting. Nice writing!

      • I think the reblog worked because I got a notice that did that. I am sympathetic because I’m pretty new to WordPress myself. btw, congratulations on the engagement.

      • mentalfrolics said:

        Well I hope so. I’m new too. Best of luck! And thanks!

  14. coll123 said:

    Hey, I saw this and had to check it out! The Gunsmoke picture!!! I did a blog on how The characters and Marshall Dillon had it right. The way the treated everyone, each other. Nice post!! Thanks! 🙂

  15. donrobbins4 said:

    40 years ago.

  16. Very nice article. You notice looping patterns with music and fashion too however that seem to go in 20-30 year cycles. For instance, in the 00s there was a rehashing of the 80’s music styles and fashion trends. The 90s harkened back to the 60s, musically and stylistically and the 80s regurgitated elements of the 50s.

    Yet music and fashion are predominantly led by the trendsetting youths of the day. I wonder if they somehow link up to TV.

  17. Good post. I think there’s a certain aspect of omnipotence viewers enjoy when watching shows set in the past. We know what’s going to happen because we have read the history and we can’t wait to see their reactions to events. That’s their allure. This is especially true for Mad Men: the Cuban Missile Crisis, two Kennedy assassinations, the MLK assassination and the ensuing race riots, etc. I recommend the documentary “We Live in Public” on netflix. It kind of touches base on the technological changes up that decade and what it means for culture.

    • Thanks for the interesting comment and the recommendation. I’ll check out that documentary on NetFlix.

  18. Interesting read I think you’re right about th 90s and 00s. I find the show “The Supersizers” featuring Giles Coren and Sue Perkins an interesting show as it travels through time (and food) but with the eyes of 21st century. The show only went up to the 80s again adding weight to the argument that the 90s and 00s are just too similar to today.

  19. Sherri said:

    You hit the nail on the head with you comment about the writing and acting. A good story well performed transcends the wardrobe, hairstyle, car model and date on the calendar that decorates the set.

  20. Loved the post – but I’m going to hit the old fart button.

    A remake/retooling of GUNSMOKE would be a rotten idea if they went with the usual crop of airbrushed twenty-something candy-ass actors. I don’t need to see the next graduate of film school telling Miss Kitty to get back to her blogging while he goes off to shoot somebody…

    Now, if they waited until Ron Perlman got done with SONS OF ANARCHY – and started the series with HIM as Matt Dillon, before he got busy making his next HELLBOY movie – now that would be something I’d line up to see.

  21. There are some things that have changed since the 1980’s and the biggest changes are the ones surrounding law enforcement, so I would love to see a cop show that takes place in the 80s before the invent of DNA mapping and all the stuff that you see on CSI. There is a book series by Tami Hoag that came out a few years ago that was like this. The first book was Deeper Than the Dead, and a big part of it was about how the police and the FBI solved crimes without the aid of modern conveniences. If done right (i.e. not 21 Jump Street–the movie), this could be really good.

    • This is an interesting idea. Maybe go back even further, to the sixties, before there were any electronics at all, including computers.

      • That would be really cool–true investigations without the aid of any modern technology.

  22. Dena said:

    I am actually working on a thesis that will combine the psychology of nostalgia with why we choose to remember the prettier parts of our own history. This post hit a little soft spot in me (I’m not a baby boomer, but a gen-xer – if we’re talking cultural labels). I think because the less savory parts of our world are easily accessible, thanks to global access and internet, we can no longer create a “simpler time”. We all know each generation, each decade even, has had to grapple with their own terrifying crises (WWI & WWII, the Vietnam draft, the AIDS scare, etc.) but it’s more difficult these days to try to get others to believe the illusion we all know isn’t true. I am a sucker for nostalgia, though, so maybe this makes me a bit of an optimistic historian who hopes everyone was able to appreciate the simpler things in life.

    • Thanks for the interesting comment. I do think there’s something interesting about the fact that there have been so many TV shows based on periods 20 or 30 years earlier. In the 70’s there were shows about the 50’s and in the 90’s there were shows about the 70s. It’s probably impossible not to romanticize your own youth (unless it was a period of emotional or physical privation) because you are not only enough to understand the negative parts of the culture. Plus, as you point out for your own thesis, people employ selective memory.

  23. Walt said:

    Great read. Re-posted to my Flipboard magazine (“Hysterical Nakedness”), if that’s ok.

    I’m wondering if television is less nostalgic oriented today because our culture is actually quite different than the previous two decades, rather than being sort of a mirror image of them. Part of that is do to the technological growth we’ve seen over the past 20 years, which cannot be discounted. Much of what we see on television has connections to what goes on in the technological/cyber world – Twittering and Facebook during live broadcasts; YouTube entertainers showing up as contestants or stars on television, etc. No longer do we see rough, blue collar police dramas, but instead we are shown suave, young, sexy, and scientific investigators (would Quincy work today?). On a social level, the advances in acceptance of the gay community is playing out on television. Aesthetically, we MAY look similar to the past two decades, but much, much has changed and our television is trying like hell to keep pace with it, and like many people, it doesn’t have time for the past. Maybe.

    • Interesting comment. There are obviously major changes in communications over the past 20 years; that’s probably the biggest thing. Even five years ago I didn’t have a smartphone and my day-to-day life was quite different, in that I had to fill my empty time with my own thoughts instead of checking Twitter. But our politics, our clothes, our economy all seem a little stuck in the 1990s. You make a good point about how TV represents the world now. I wrote a blog post a couple of months ago about the vanishing middle class on TV. Hardly anyone on TV are working class and few are actually middle class. Instead, the default class on TV is now Upper Middle Class (see Modern Family as exhibit number one.)

  24. I don’t have a television and have approximately zero interest in what appears on it, but I am intrigued by your central hypothesis that the 90s and the 00s are so similar to today that they are nothing to be nostalgic about. But on the other hand we get technology nerds and science buffs telling us about all this gosh darned progress we are supposed to be making in nanotechnology and genetic engineering and artificial intelligence and the hyper-connected revolution and everything, I can’t help thinking this poses a serious question: If we really are making so much progress, and those decades really are so much the same as this one, what in hell fire does, “progress” mean?

    • Thanks for the interesting comment. I’d encourage you to read the Kurt Andersen piece that I linked to for a greater explanation about how culture hasn’t changed much in 20 years. The big change, of course, has been in the Internet and telecom, which is a big thing, but otherwise we seem a little stagnant. Your question about what is “progress” would be a good subject for another blog (or book). A lot of people would argue that we’ve actually regressed in the past 20 years, at least economically and politically. Myself I judge progress in terms of improvements in quality of life. That’s hard to quantify among 300 million people in our country, to say nothing of 7 billion world wide.

  25. The History Channel. Would that be the station that shows Ice Road Truckers or the one that shows Pawn Stars? Or is it both, maybe?

    They recently started calling they’re network just “History.” They should just call it “Channel.”

  26. I really enjoyed this piece. I have thought about this very thing when I try to figure out why the kids in my daughters generation (23 YO) listen to the music from the 70s and very early 80s. Born in 1959, I spent my teen years in the 70s. I always tell my daughter That 70s Show is about my life. The only thing different was our Fez was from Ohio. I really see that nothing has really happened to divide the blur of the past 20-30 years except technology.
    Again nice article.

    • Thanks for the comment. I was born in 1954, so the show that evokes my childhood is “The Wonder Years.” It’s funny, though, that a show about the 60’s produced in the 80’s seems more true to the spirit of the times than sitcoms that actually appeared in the 60s.

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