TV or Not TV

Paula Abdul

The Hulu Hula: Part Three

Consistency is rare. It doesn’t help that we are a culture that thrives on change. The very existence of pop culture is a testimony to those who believe the past couldn’t possibly compare to the present, even if the past was last weekend. Last year’s American Idol is already a has-been. The “Trial of the Century” is a fungible property determined by the whims of a fickle media. Britney Spears is only as good as her most recent FHM photo shoot.

The thing is this: 15-years-ago, nobody knew what an American Idol was. And the “Trial of the Century” could only be referring to the OJ Simpson murder case. And Britney Spears hadn’t even hit puberty. Go back another 15 years and Paula Abdul hadn’t even had sex with Arsenio Hall in exchange for a music career. OJ Simpson was hosting “Saturday Night Live.” And Britney Spears was nothing but a gleam in her white trash mother’s eye.

Television feeds off of pop culture. The trends of a given generation are readily apparent in what TV shows a teenager watches. But then the teenager grows up, and the TV actors they watched get jobs in feature films… or Broadway… or they fade into obscurity. If a society can be judged (in whole or in part) on its art, contemporary society has to be judged by television. The nutritionists had it wrong; we are what we watch.

Reviewing the TV shows available on Hulu, I spotted some familiar titles. And I couldn’t help but wonder how they fared after all this time. In some instances, the shows were exactly as good as they once were:

Benson
The Bob Newhart Show
Dream On
Elvira’s Movie Macabre
The Fall Guy
Forever Knight
The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Remington Steele
St. Elsewhere

And in other cases, the shows were exactly as bad as they once were:

The A-Team
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Charles In Charge
Fantasy Island
Highlander
Land of the Lost
The Munsters Today
Team Knight Rider

But, as is often pointed out to me, “good” and “bad” are relative terms. Your likes and dislikes will vary from mine, and the world is a richer place for it. I suppose a better way to frame this dialogue would be to say that the above groups of shows are exactly the way I remembered them. If you liked them when they first aired, you will most likely continue to enjoy them. If you found them vomit inducing, you should probably keep a barf bag handy, should you choose to view an episode on Hulu.

“Benson” was one of those rare breeds of sitcom with writing that was both smart and dumb. This show about the buffoonery of the world of politics has a longer shelf life than, say, “Murphy Brown,” because the jokes aren’t dependant on the audience needing to be aware of anything other than the names and job titles of the characters (if “TV Land” executives were smarter, they’d have done a “Pop-Up” edition of “Murphy Brown” with the specific material being referenced blinking onto the screen; otherwise, your brain fries trying to remember who the speaker of the house was in 1993). Sure, the characters are stereotypes, but they are funny.

“The Bob Newhart Show” was anything but stereotypical. Like the previously mentioned “Dick Van Dyke Show,” this series attempted to show how a man’s work life and home life compare, contrast, and, at its best, merge into one. For me, the time and expense needed to produce and create the entire series was worth it for one thing: The episode “Over the River and Through the Woods” (known in my universe as the moo-goo-gai-pan episode) is one of the five funniest half hours in the history of television. Sadly, the episode is in the fourth season, which is not yet available on Hulu.

“Dream On” was not a great show, but it was quirky and had a certain freshness to it. It also probed the world of sex in the city long before four catty women pilfered the concept and castrated it. Speaking of castrated, Hulu offers up the nudity-free, suitable-for-syndication version of the episodes, but the series never relied on that.

I am sure I’ll catch grief for listing “Elvira’s Movie Macabre” as a good series, but remember my proviso about relativism. At a time when the management at KHJ in Los Angeles could have brought in some Don Pardo wannabe to play bowling-for-dollars during the midday movie, they went a whole different direction and brought in a hot chick to poke fun at the very movies they scheduled to air on the station. I was probably 10-years-old when Elvira first wished me “unpleasant dreams.” Watching her now, I feel the same charge (the difference being I can better define the cause and location of the charge).

If I didn’t catch grief from people over liking Elvira, I’ll almost certainly catch grief for admitting to liking “The Fall Guy.” Honestly, I wasn’t expecting to be able to watch this series as an adult. But it is fun, in the same way “Chuck” is fun. Ridiculous chases, a hapless anti-hero, and cute blondes is a time-tested combination.

“Forever Knight” was my favorite of the short-lived “crimetime after primetime” lineup of shows CBS toyed with before signing Letterman. Before there was Buffy or those emo Twilight vamps, Nick Knight was a brooding, blood drinking crime-fighter with a cold heart of gold. Each episode was a lesson in morality (often a dark lesson), coupled with dialogue that snapped. Add to the mix a really cool (almost likeable) villain, and the show still holds up as an alternative to a late night talk show.

This should be obvious, but “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” is as good now as it was when it aired. Much like my favorite Bob Newhart episode, my favorite MTM episode “Chuckle’s Bites the Dust,” (another of the five funniest half hours in the history of television) hasn’t made it to Hulu yet. But there is more than enough laughter found in the first three seasons. There is something so basic about sitcoms of this era, almost like one-act plays. And this show could have been set anywhere. Mary could have been a waitress. Gavin MacLeod could have worked on a cruise ship… oh, wait.

“Remington Steele” had a basic premise, but it was not a basic show. It was like “Moonlighting,” but it was also quite different from it. An up-and-coming James Bond tried to look dashing in a 1980s tuxedo, complete with wide collars. And the third most talented Zimbalest tried to play an ace detective. Hilarity sometimes ensued.

I should not have liked “St. Elsewhere” as a kid, but I did. I was so far out of the target demographic, gorillas had more to offer advertisers than I did at the time. All I knew was that the voice of KITT and the big haired comic who put a rubber glove over his head co-starred in a TV show… I was there. I wasn’t expecting the writing to hold up as well as it does. Sure, it can get a little goofy when they say things like, “Someday there will be a successful heart transplant,” but the show’s focus was always on the characters, not the medical jargon. KITT and the comic proved they could be decent dramatic actors when they wanted to be.

But you don’t want to hear me gush about how great shows are. You want me to talk some trash. Well, since you asked nicely…

People are going to ask me why I would rank “The Fall Guy” as good and “The A-Team” as bad. Because… that’s why. I should mention that I like “The A-Team,” but it was a genuinely bad television show (I’m hoping fans of reality TV read that; perhaps if they see me admitting to liking a bad TV show, they might be induced to confess to liking a bad TV genre). It wasn’t smart. It wasn’t clever. It wasn’t well written or acted. And watching it now, it is as bad as it was… and I still like it.

I cannot say the same for “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” As a product of my generation, I should be genetically predisposed to like the work of Joss Whedon, but I don’t. Given “Dollhouse,” his most recent piece of televised torture, I have to face the facts and admit I think he is a talentless, one-trick ass (not even a one-trick pony). I feel bad, though, like I should enjoy his work… that there is something wrong with me, as a person, because I do not enjoy his work. But I tried watching the first few episodes of Buffy again, and I just can’t. It isn’t good… not even a little bit.

Unlike the work of Joss Whedon, I feel no guilt about disliking the work of Scott Baio. “Charles In Charge” was not a good show, and yet it should be counted among Baio’s best work. Assuming our country one day gets around to banning waterboarding as a form of torture, I humbly suggest that episodes of this series would induce similar effects.

Do you remember that feeling you felt when an undertall foreign man in a white suit climbed up a tower to ring a bell and utter a catch phrase? No, the other feeling… the feeling that you had just seen the highlight of any given episode of “Fantasy Island?” With “Fantasy Island,” Aaron Spelling was well into his quest to dominate the world of television with “special guest stars.” He put them on a boat. He defended them with a trio of beautiful-yet-interchangeable angels. He stranded them on an island with Khan and Nick Nack. Yep, that was the bottom of the barrel.

The premise of the movie “Highlander” was “there can be only one.” Except, oh wait, here’s another one. The movie would have been crap without Sean Connery, and even his presence in the film only bumped it up to average. No TV series needed to be made (they made more than one, for the record… The Raven?) based on the film. And no one needed to watch it.

Just last week I learned they were doing a feature film adaptation of “Land of the Lost.” Didn’t we, as a society, say all we needed to say about the routine expedition? What do we not yet know about Marshall, Wil, and Holly? I know what some executive was thinking, but not even Michael Westmore’s makeup skills can make up for a premise that was exhausted by the eighth minute of the first episode.

“The Munsters Today” dared to answer the question: What if the Munsters lived today? But nobody asked that question. Nobody will ever ask that question. But let me ask you this: Did you know the series ran for three f-ing seasons? Somebody please explain to me how the Soviet Union failed but our civilization still stands. Say what you will about communists, they never would have greenlighted “The Munsters Today.”

In order for a team to be called “Team Knight Rider,” someone in the original “Knight Rider” had to refer to Michael Knight as “Knight Rider.” Otherwise, the name of the team sounds like a porn film about a medieval orgy. And, I have to tell you, if “Team Knight Rider” was actually about a medieval orgy, I’d be more inclined to enjoy this series. A vague shadow calling himself Michael Knight and a bowling ball calling itself KITT (hand to my heart, this is true) do appear in the finale of this show, but they are not the duo we once knew. This was not a faithful recreation of the original, nor was it an average homage. No, this was a molestation. “Knight Rider” was violated. Someone should sue.

This was an interesting trip down memory lane… without a single thing to remember. It brought back thoughts and feelings from the days of old. When men were men, women were women, and reality TV was limited to “Real People” and “That’s Incredible!”

I don’t know if television was really better back then, but it wasn’t worse. And I can’t help but ponder which shows currently in production (and also found on Hulu) will fare the stormy seas of memory.

Next time: The present day shows that will and will not stand the test of time.