Then vs. Now: Classic TV Shows that Do (or Don't) Stand the Test of Time
With the outside world being as it’s been for over a year now, many quarantined citizens have run out of programs to binge from our digital dens. How many of us can relate to having been suggested some milquetoast series that’s been rushed out by one of the many platforms, only to feel like our hearts and/or brains are made of dry saltines afterwards?
You’ve likely re-watched some of your favorites and can quote them while in a coma at this point, and taken flyers on lower-middle quality dramas and are ready to give your labradoodle bangs to not become completely numb to what you just spent a weekend watching. Add in the fact that many production companies have either had to put their flagship shows on hiatus or completely cancel them (RIP, GLOW), and you’re wondering what’s left.
We live in what’s often referred to as “the platinum age of television” but that doesn’t mean that the odd sketch show or multi-cam from yesteryear doesn’t have good value. There’s a world of television out there to discover from your, or your parents’ past! That said, we are also living in an extremely progressive era, and you may need some guidance on what “holds up” versus what doesn’t. Now, the argument regarding content from the past versus today’s standards is equal in perpetual frustration as the “art versus artist” debate, so if you want to discuss that, there’s a website called Twitter for you to explore and get yelled at on. This here is a loose suggestion of what you may find funny and evergreen against what might make you cringe so hard you blush out a sunburn. Let’s open up the vault.
WATCH: Kids in the Hall
Canada’s five-headed monster of comedic risk needs to head your list. There’s so much to explore (not unlike the sketch “Explore Scott” in which troupe member Scott Thompson advertises spots on his body as a getaway vacation destination). The Kids in the Hall are often referred to as ahead of their time, but the true genius to them is they are almost two generations ahead. During a period where there was barely any LGBTQ content on the airwaves, KITH had an openly gay member, with many sketches that were daring and sharing on the subject.
The real kicker is that Scott Thompson was actually taking shots at what he found insufferable in mainstream gay culture in the late eighties and early nineties, which you don’t even see much of today. The Kids were basically the comedy equivalent of the band The Replacements: they were beloved by the indie community and they were heavy drinkers. To the last point, like Python, not all of their sketches pass a breathalyzer test, but the ones that do will leave you quoting them for life.
DO NOT WATCH: Three’s Company
At the height of what was dubbed “Jiggle TV” (think The Love Boat and Charlie’s Angels) we had a show that can be summarized fairly as “A man who pretends to be gay to fool his prehistoric landlord, tries to break his roommates’ trust by coercing them into having sex with him.” This is usually the plot of every episode, buffered with more gay panic jokes than a nineties Adam Sandler picture. It was sleazy then, and it’s worse now. Even with the brilliant physical comedy of John Ritter, just skip this one and you’ll feel you made the right call.
WATCH: Bosom Buddies
Yes, this is a show about two cis men who dress in drag to live in a cheaper, all-woman apartment building, so nobody could blame you for finding it problematic. However, there’s much more heart to this show than the premise. A young Tom Hanks acts opposite an equally talented (at the time) Peter Scolari, and they keep up the tradition of the Laurel and Hardy duo, without resorting to the lowbrow antics popular at the time.
Furthermore, the women of the show (played by Telma Hopkins, Donna Dixon, Holland Taylor, and Wendie Jo Sperber) are not just cast for comedic relief or T&A. The pecking order of Bosom Buddies has the women firmly at the top. Hanks and Scolari’s characters are forever at the mercy of their counterparts, but always with joyful resolutions. Sperber particularly shines on the show, as she does on mostly everything she has been cast in, and you would wish for a spinoff of her character if not for the real bosom buddies being the entire gang when they’re together. Throw in a Bob Saget cameo in a classic episode, and you’ll have a good time.
DO NOT WATCH: Perfect Strangers
Clearly trying to ride on the back of Saturday Night Live’s “Wild and Crazy Guys” sketch, comes a show that often feels like one long xenophobic joke. The SNL sketches at least would use a real country versus Perfect Strangers’ fictional one, and even throw in the occasional progressive take on the frustrations of communist Czechoslovakia. Perfect Strangers attempts to do the Hanks/Scolari duo bit, and succeeds at times, but then the two lead characters’ caricature blonde, stewardess girlfriends enter the scene, one written as a bland skeptic and the other ditzier than a National Lampoon character, and you feel like you’ve been eating nothing but bibi-babkas for a week and need to brush your teeth. Perfect Strangers’ lasting legacy might be that it had a spinoff called Family Matters. That being said…
DO NOT WATCH: Family Matters
No show in history has worked the format spectrum from one end to the other like Family Matters. When it started, the original theme song was “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong, and the whole show was a glimpse into middle-class black America that almost felt like it came from the Norman Lear tree. By the end of the run, there are three Steve Urkel characters (a cool one and a robot, along with the original) and one of them is getting Fantastic Voyage’ed by the father on the show. Somehow between fourth-wall-breaking musical interludes, they managed to write off the youngest daughter by just sending her upstairs and her never returning. Problematic? Probably not, but just don’t watch it unless you’re playing a drinking game with it.
Bewitched gets lumped in with I Dream of Jeannie for being an outdated, possessive male fantasy come to life, but Bewitched is about keeping your head about you when everyone else is losing theirs. Samantha Stevens, a witch married to a mortal, is bookended by two sides yelling at her about her morals and lifestyle, and still handles her life with aplomb her way. Husband Darrin is a jackass who doesn’t want his LITERAL MAGICAL BEAUTIFUL WIFE to use her powers at all, and Sam’s mother insists that Samantha is slumming it by staying married to a mortal. Samantha mostly just outsmarts them both, has a laugh, and raises a cool daughter who gets her own spinoff. The most cringe part of the show is the Kravitz couple — a bad trope of Jewish neighbors who don’t mind their business (see also: ALF). Bewitched can be satisfying if you feel stuck between two sides, like many of us do these days.
DO NOT WATCH: I Dream of Jeannie
Barbara Eden’s Jeannie character isn’t like Samantha in Bewitched. She’s a literal kept woman in a bottle, hoping to get married to her “Master” (ugh) even though she’s all-powerful and immortal. She’s written with stunted dialogue: loud, jealous, and infantile. Let’s not even start with the brownfacing when any of Jeannie’s relatives show up in the show. Skip this and listen to Eden’s music instead.
WATCH: Hogan’s Heroes
A comedic take on allied prisoners in a Nazi POW camp where all the Nazis are played by Jewish actors? What more can we ask for during a time where there’s a rise in right wing nationalism around the world? Can we reboot this with Rob Corddry as Bob Crane’s Hogan character, and Mel Rodriguez as Schultz, with Black Monday-style winking jokes at present-day political monsters?
DO NOT WATCH: Blossom
You know how in the denouement of the legendary (and recently restarted!) series Clone High how Will Forte voiceovers: “Next time, on a VERY SPECIAL Clone High?” That’s a clear shot at Blossom. Ask anyone who grew up before streaming about the punishing frustration of waiting all week for your favorite comedy to come on, and then be hit with a serious, string section-scored episode about HIV or molestation, and they’ll take a belly breath so deep you’d think they were having a panic attack. Blossom perhaps saw the ratings one day for their shows about alcoholism or gun ownership and just ran with it until it became One Tree Hill with a laugh track. Don’t put yourself through this, no matter how much of a vintage fetishist you are.
WATCH: Married With Children
Pegged (…cough) as a misogynist pile of sleaze by many, including a fuming sister-in-law of Mitt Romney, (whose Streisand Effect-esque letter writing campaign was what made the show truly take off), Married With Children has heart and laughs that will last forever, while somehow walking the tightrope of problematic premises and dialogue. Take it from writer Jeanne Romano: “It’s ironic. Married was often expressed as being demeaning to women. For me, it was the most self-actualizing experience I ever had.”