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VOL. 45 | NO. 39 | Friday, September 24, 2021

TV was easier when there were fewer choices

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I used to be a professional TV viewer, as a critic for a daily newspaper. I thought it would be a dream job. It was not. Turned out that a lot of the stuff I had to watch was bad.

For every “Hill Street Blues” there was a “Manimal.” For every “Cheers” an “AfterMASH.” For every “Greatest American Hero” a “Mama’s Family.”

If you’ve never heard of “Greatest American Hero,” trust me. And if you liked “Mama’s Family,” you were wrong.

At the first opportunity I begged off the critic’s job and went back to being an amateur viewer, a status I retain today. A talented amateur, if I do say so myself. But it’s challenging. The TV scene has changed so much.

I am a child of the TV era, born about the time the medium began broadcasting its spell on the American people. “I Love Lucy.” “Your Show of Shows.” “Playhouse 90.” “The Honeymooners.” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”

What, you thought “The Andy Griffith Show” was all I watched? Hey, I used to stand in front of the TV set and draw down along with Marshal Matt Dillon against the bad guy in the opening to “Gunsmoke.” I never missed “The Monkees” or “Get Smart.” I can still sing the theme to “Green Acres.”

I can also quote dialogue verbatim from “The Beverly Hillbillies.” And from an old toothpaste commercial:

“Crest has been shown to be an effective, decay-preventive dentifrice when used in a conscientiously applied program of oral hygiene and regular professional care.”

(The brain territory that bit of information is occupying could be filled with something useful, like the combination to the lock on our storage shed that I have to keep recorded in my cell phone. But no.)

There was a time, in the early to mid-1960s, when I pretty much knew what show was on any given channel at any standard viewing time. “My Favorite Martian.” Check. “Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp.” Check. “Lost in Space.” Check. “Combat!” Check. Considering there were only three networks, it wasn’t so hard.

And viewing had a predictable regularity to it. New programs, or new seasons of successful ones, tended to debut in September, preceded by weeks of promotional spots to build anticipation. Thirty-something episodes of shows would be made. Selected reruns appeared in the summer. Repeat next September.

Nowadays, forget about it. In addition to those still extant three networks there are countless other stations broadcasting, some over the air and others via cable or streaming services. New shows pop up willy nilly.

Some of the offerings are new productions, some are relics from long ago. For instance: Among the relics I managed to find “Yancy Derringer,” an old-favorite CBS program that ran but one season in 1958-59 featuring Jock Mahoney as a gentleman-adventurer-gambler in Reconstruction-era New Orleans.

Yancey and his silent Pawnee Indian sidekick, Pahoo, communicated with hand signals. Pahoo carried a knife and a sawed-off shotgun concealed about his person, which made him a pretty formidable ally. Yancey, meanwhile, carried a derringer, of course, and was secretly working for ...

Sorry. Got carried away.

Anyway, my point is, it can be quite rewarding to mine the vast library of shows available, some new, some from the distant past. And it has been particularly valuable since COVID made staying home and watching TV a potential lifesaving activity. We usually put in a couple of hours a night.

I’m an Anglophile, so a fair amount of our viewing consists of British cops solving sundry cases including a rather shocking number of murders that manage to occur despite the relative paucity of guns. Among those I’d recommend for your consideration:

“Deadwater Fell,” “Broadchurch” and “Mystery Road” (an Australian entry) on Acorn; and “Shetland” and “Line of Duty” on Britbox.

My Anglo tastes notwithstanding, we also have taken in a number of programs from countries where English is not the first language. Among those I’d recommend: “Gomorrah,” a gangster series from Italy; “Borgen,” a political serial from Denmark and “Tehran,” a spy thriller from Israel.

American shows form our standard diet, though. About which, this complaint:

Some of the shows seem to have adopted the British TV formula of much shorter seasons, with long, fallow periods between the new offerings. Two in particular are “Ozark,” a Netflix thriller about a family sinking ever deeper into a life of crime, and “Better Call Saul,” the AMC series that’s a prequel to “Breaking Bad,” the pre-eminent show about sinking ever deeper into a life of crime.

The most recent season of “Better Call Saul” wrapped up in April last year. The new season isn’t expected until sometime next year.

That kind of delay can be vexing when you’ve reached an age at which it’s hard to remember what you had for supper last night, much less tangled TV plot machinations.

Sometimes it’s best to stick to lighter fare. “The Detectorists,” for instance, which has nothing to do with detectives, is brilliant. Not sure it is available anywhere now. Keep an eye out for it.

And along those lines, “Greatest American Hero,” I’ve discovered, is available on various services. Well worth your time.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com

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