I remember watching CHEERS as a kid. I specifically watching the famous last episode of the show, with the “Sorry, we’re closed” line and straightening of the Geronimo photo on the wall. The show has a weird place in my memory and my heart.
Strangely enough, even though I didn’t really realize until I was older and watching reruns did I realize the true impact of that show, including a lot of episodes that at the time would be considered “very special,” and nowadays in the so-called “Golden Age” of television, would be considered “important.”
(I’m using the quotation marks to create critical reads of those words and phrases on purpose, so bear with me.)
The episode with Sam and his lucky bottle cap (“Endless Slumper”) in particular is incredible to watch later on, now aware and more informed about addition, addict culture and behavior, so those last few minutes are surprisingly intense to watch. It’s one of those standouts of writing and acting and set all working together really well, the uncomfortable silence of the live audience adding so much to the pain coming across. It’s up there with those episodes of THE GOLDEN GIRLS dealing with dementia and elder care (“Old Friend” and “Sophia’s Choice”) that have really rough endings that just hit you, or the entire run of MASH or the first 3/4 of ROSEANNE (two serious masterpieces as far as I’m concerned).
I distinctly remember the CHEERS episode “The Boys in the Bar” from when I watched it as a kid, even though I don’t think I fully understood it then. It originally broadcast in 1983 (when I was born) but I saw it in reruns a couple of times over the years, the last time being probably in 2012, which is when I realized the entirety of the impact of this episode.
Can you imagine what it was like for blue-collar sitcom TV to address homophobia in 1983? For this intensely-uncomfortable feeling to come through the screen and let you realize that passive bigotry from likable/loveable characters like Norm and Cliff is considered the standard? No one is hanging a “No Homos” sign in the window when Sam’s old teammate on the Red Sox comes out, but the idea to make it a “no gays” bar and try to basically trick supposedly-gay patrons to leave is an indication of that attitude.
I looked up a review of the episode by Cory Barker, who called Norm’s reactions “honest for the time,” and also tackled how much of the episode centers on Sam’s sympathies and support for his old teammate versus a practical wish to maintain his business, which, as the show constantly likes to tell us in more comedic episodes, was all Sam really had in the world. And yes, it’s a typical feel-good serious-issue episode of a TV show that, in typical fashion, never comes back to the topic or the character in general at the time because you only have 22 minutes to deal with that one particular moment in social growth before going back to fat jokes and baseball references no one but by dad gets.
Still though, it sticks out to me.
I never understand “golden age of TV” talk, mostly because I grew up on TV. To me, it was always a medium with great examples.
Yeah, there was reading and riding my bike, but I grew up in a fairly good middle-class family and had an active imagination, not a lot of friends, and spent a lot of time visiting family who were significantly older so I’d just watch TV. I’d watch it with my parents, I’d watch it with my grandparents, with friends, with my little brother. I’d get older and hang out with friends and drink shitty beer and watch movies and TV shows and laugh.
I’m in my 30s now, I’ve got what I think is a pretty good sense of critical history and cultural and media awareness, so watching older TV now in reruns is an interesting experience. I watch out of fond nostalgia, curiosity, or habit because it was something I liked then, not to mention the period of time I had where I worked from home exclusively and left daytime cable reruns of sitcoms play in the background.
It was, for the most part, really fucking good. It’s stupid to fall back on this phrase but the AV Club’s CHEERS oral history from a few years ago made a reference in it that the writers of that show were from one of the last generations to work in TV who didn’t grow up watching TV, which lent a different element to their influences and writing, drawing more on theater and prose. There’s a lot of theater elements in those moments, in dead-silent confrontations that bring conflicts directly to light, directly into the focus of the audience as opposed to hiding them in the settings of the scene.
THE ODD COUPLE was really great and funny. The very last episode of MASH makes me cry every fucking time (that fucking chicken…). Even your hipster girlfriend’s ironic favorite THE GOLDEN GIRLS illustrates some character and story work that you’d never see nowadays in any serious light, with older characters (especially women) doomed forever by faux-Betty White worship and idolatry into making sex and drug use jokes and swearing a lot.
What “the Golden Age of Television” isn’t is some sort of finally-good wave of broadcast/serialized TV shows, the first in forever because television was where talent traditionally went to die. What it is though, is a level of awareness of (at least in an utterly shallow and surface sense) of the basics of storytelling that makes more people in the audience aware that what they’re watching might just be pretty good.
Of course, another element is that TV is now seizing on the public consciousness of popular ephemera at an increasingly-alarming rate, making stuff people are interested in seeing at a faster and relatively-high quality rate. The web model (outside of YouTube, where indie web TV lived forever) of Hulu Originals, Netflix, Amazon Streaming, etc allows for even more flexibility and quick turnaround on whole-seasons-at-once, material that would be hard to approve for regular broadcast, etc.
You know though, the bubble’s gonna burst eventually. Is it still going to be the Golden Age of Television? Probably, in some way, shape, or form. Look at nostalgic archaeology of 1990’s sitcoms and cartoons (especially cartoons) within nerd subculture. I was watching clips with friends and someone asked how so many TV shows could have been available at that time that seem to stick to the popular consciousness. The answer may surprise you, as the Upworthy headline would say…
They weren’t available. So many just existed as quarter-seasons of failed toy launch campaigns, straight-to-video TV movie pilots because the show runner or animators quit right after, or the toys didn’t do well, or the show sank after a whole season due to the glut of TMNT-esque ripoffs hoping to capture Eastman and Laird’s lighting-in-a-bottle moment they were smart to cash in on.
There was no golden age of 90’s cartoons, because “ages” don’t exist in TV. There’s only seasons.