Classic TV as Teacher?

Herbie J Pilato

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[The Classic TV Preservation Society]

In past generations, television loomed large in American households and around the world. There were no video games, internet connections, smartphones, or any number of such communication devices that are available today. At its genesis, TV was a means of entertainment and a window into domestic and foreign lands and imaginations. Educational programming was presented on networks like PBS, but society benefited in other ways from that shining box of light in the living room. The cultural conversation about and around television’s positive social influence has expanded in countless productive and illuminating ways, with regard to racial issues, domestic problems, women's rights, those with disabilities, and more.

While those of a certain age have lived and identified with a TV show like The Wonder Years, the modern consumer has also embraced that 1960s-based series which, when it first aired in the mid-1980s was nostalgic from the on-set. As a result of ABC’s success with recent reboot specials of All in the Family and The Jeffersons, the network premiered this year an African-American re-do of The Wonder Years. Meanwhile, too, The CW is readying a reboot of the original Waltons TV-movie, The Homecoming, which debuted fifty years ago on CBS. Other networks, like HGTV, continue to reap ratings-gold with programming that celebrate old shows [like 2019's A Very Brady Renovation), reruns of The Golden Girls, and I Love Lucy frequently find new young fans.

In 2020, the new Peacock streamer rebooted Saved By the Bell to rating victory, while its parent network NBC readies a sequel to Night Court (starring original cast member John Larroquette). Zoom cast reunions of other NBC classic shows like Frasier and Family Ties are fast becoming the most popular form of programming on digital platforms like YouTube and beyond. Remakes of Dynasty, Charmed, MacGyver, and Magnum P.I. have captured all-new contemporary viewers of The CW and CBS networks (respectively).

All the while, retro networks like ME-TV, Cozi-TV, and Antenna TV, continue to be more popular than ever, as the big TV picture expands, right beside our consciousness of its social ties.

Are we more tolerant of those who happen to be different because Star Trek “makes us so”? Has your father’s television set developed into today’s hip moms and dads because they reaped the benefits of solid TV parentage? Is today’s watcher better prepared to acquire lessons on how not to be a mother by screening Nancy Walker as Mrs. Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Rhoda? Does the sci-fi sitcom wisdom of ALF really provide us with answers to all of life's questions?

Channels switch, signals cross, and the focus is clear:

While some research has shown that extensive binge-watching of classic TV shows may cloak deeper issues, other experts say the mainstream affection for such programming simply helps us all feel more connected, particularly in these increasingly chaotic times.

Will Meyerhofer, a New York-based psychotherapist and author, has long believed watching our favorite classic TV shows can help us cope with anxiety and mild depression. “For many clients,” he once said in an interview, “…[the] old shows are like the food they grew up with. The Brady Bunch or The Facts of Life or The Jeffersons are like that beloved baloney sandwich on Wonder Bread with just enough mayo the way mom used to make.” Meyerhofer, who finds solace in Star Trek: The Next Generation, explained further, “In therapy terms, it’s an instant — and for the most part healthy — regression in the service of the ego.”

Krystine Batcho, a licensed psychologist and professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York, had researched nostalgia. She recently told a media outlet that watching our favorite retro television programs soothes our “nostalgic need” with legitimate emotional benefits. “When people are stressed or anxious or feeling out of control, nostalgia helps calm them down. It’s comforting. It’s analogous to a hug from your mom or dad or being cuddled.”

Columbo is Batcho’s TV retro series of choice, but she has also enjoyed “big and clumsy” computers, VCRs, and other such technology and tidbits of the 1970s. For her, it all harkens back to “what we might, even erroneously, perceive as a simpler time in our life with fewer responsibilities and obligations and…worries.”

For those who have experienced trauma or loss, the classic TV connection may be a crucial prescription. Reassurance about our identities can be “critical,” Batcho said. Re-viewing shows like Friends or Beverly Hills, 90210 has the potential to “bring back memories and feelings of the friends you had back then and at the fun times you had together.”

Kimberly M. Wetherell, a fortysomething audiobook narrator from Brooklyn, New York, has always enjoyed “comfort TV” from the past. “When I go to bed, my mind is still racing,” she recently explained in an interview. “My brain will be going over the anxiety of the day…start overanalyzing things…just won’t turn off.” But watching a show like The Golden Girls is “…like hanging out with old friends.”

With its pulsating images and rhythms, stories and conversations, scripted and real, classic TV has clearly guided some to their very life’s purpose. For others, with its every sight and sound definition, nostalgic television has become a solid state of social circuitry that is worn with a harmonic armor of honor. With both whimsey and reality, amidst its many outlets of influence, and in the most productive of ways, classic television has plugged into and become a conduit of potential, both established and untapped, teaching its viewers along the way how to be retro-active while living for today.

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Writer/producer Herbie J Pilato is the author of several books about pop culture including biographies of Mary Tyler Moore, and "Bewitched" star Elizabeth Montgomery. He also writes for Emmys.com, TVWriter.com, and is the host and an executive producer of "Then Again with Herbie J Pilato," a classic TV talk show.

Los Angeles, CA
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