Has Fiction No Place in Our Lives?

Oh, for a good, old fashioned soap opera – a mindless, unrealistic, silly daytime TV show one could easily turn away from. You might know what I mean if you’re of an age. In fact, as I recall, in the heyday of soap operas (TV dramas largely sponsored by detergent companies selling to bored housewives), most of us didn’t even have our TVs turned on when “soaps” were airing. And we felt darned good about that. Silly old soaps! Waste of time! Who would watch that?

If you’re not “of an age,” permit me to sketch out for you my recollection of how TV programming used to be in the olden days. We had plenty of wholesome kids’ shows before and after school, including hours of cartoons throughout Saturday morning. Then, from about 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., the soap operas reigned, interspersed with a few game shows. In the early evening we had one hour of TV news: 30 minutes from the local station and 30 minutes with the likes of Walter Cronkite. No commentary, just reporting.

Evenings were sitcoms, more game shows, westerns, and, on weekend evenings, the big variety shows. Jack Parr launched the late-night genre when I was a kid but, for the most part, all we saw on our screen after 10:00 p.m. was “snow.” That’s what we called the look of nothing but static on our screen. The TV stations had signed off for the night; it was over. Hard as it might be to believe now, TV had a daily start time and an end time, and no one expected to watch the box after bedtime on a school night or work night. (And just think: There was no Internet either!)

I have very fond memories of TV in my childhood. In fact, I remember when we got our first TV! Our grandfather was so excited for us that he just couldn’t hold the secret in: “Wait till you see what your mother is bringing you! You’ll be so happy.”

“Mama’s gonna have a baby? Wow! That is so exciting.”

“No, it’s not a baby, but you’re going to love it.”

And the next day it arrived, black-and-white images, of course, shaped like a cube, as deep as it was wide and high. There was no such thing as color television then, and our set was purchased “used” – you didn’t go to the store and select a TV from a display in the ‘50s. Besides, we weren’t of the socioeconomic class that could have bought a new TV back then.

We had no place to put it, so it sat on the sofa for the first few days, and we three kids sat on the floor with our long-suffering German Shepherd, mesmerized.

Part of the Fabric of our Lives

Now, never was TV viewing allowed before school unless gathering clouds compelled us to take a quick peek at the local weather broadcast. When a blizzard was brewing, we’d wonder whether we might have a snow day, and someone would call out, “Turn on the TV.” But for the most part, TV was for evenings.

I well recall one startling exception to that rule: On the day Alan Shepard was to be launched into “space” beyond the earth’s atmosphere, our mother informed us that we would be watching TV while we ate our Rice Krispies. In fact, she carried that magic box into the kitchen and set it on a chair so we could watch the first man blast into space without wasting any time. “This is too important to miss,” she said. “You’ll be a little late for school, but I’ll write each of you a note.” She did, and then drove us to school. Alan Shepard made history, and we ate our Rice Krispies.

Many years later, when the first man walked on the moon, I was in a college production of Neil Simon’s “All-American Girl.” The director, one of our drama professors, informed the cast of three (I was the girl) that, during intermission, the moon landing would occur! He invited us into his little office, where he had placed a small TV just for that evening, and let us watch the moon landing between acts. What a college memory, huh?

But my TV habits were formed at a much earlier age, soon after my grandfather made that heart-stopping announcement of something wonderful to come. After school, my sister and I would rush home to watch the Mickey Mouse Club and the Mouseketeers. I can still see Annette Funicello in her mouse ears and little pleated skirt. My brother liked Spin and Marty and Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.

Over the years our family developed favorites, of course, and TV was central to our lives, not as a source of information (that was the daily newspaper) but as a source of family entertainment. Soon every family member knew “what was on” at certain hours of each evening, for evening was the big TV-watching time. And we really did watch as a family. Every night, without fail, Walter Cronkite, eventually tagged “the most trusted man in America,” told us “and that’s the way it is…”  And on particular evenings, The Dick Van Dyke Show, LaVerne and Shirley, Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, The Honeymooners with Jackie Gleason… (Interestingly, back in the 50’s, we kids thought Jackie Gleason was the fattest human being on earth. We could not imagine obesity; it hadn’t become part of our culture. We were amazed by his waistline. “Har-de-har-har!”)

Joie de vivre an hour at a time

But Saturday and Sunday evenings were prime family TV watching times. We three kids lay on the living room floor, heads propped on the flank of the patient German Shepherd, Mom and Dad on the couch, all eyes and ears trained on the box. It was always black and white. (I do remember the first time I saw that amazing thing called “color TV.” I was a young wife with a baby, and we were invited to watch the winter Olympics at the home of another family, because, as they explained, “It’s just a totally different experience in color.” They were right.)

My best TV memories, though, were those weekend evenings in our tiny living room. We had family favorites – no one would ever quarrel with the decision to tune into Gunsmoke or Bonanza or The Lawrence Welk Show or The Ed Sullivan Show or I Love Lucy. We never tired of them. Together we watched scenes so utterly unlike our own real life - and we were entertained, uplifted, carefree for those hours. We laughed together as a family. We kids listened to the comments our parents made about the set or the acting, the timing, the costumes, the sponsors, and our perspectives broadened. As children, our attachment to these entertainments was validated by our parents’ participation.

Ed Sullivan gave us our first glimpse of the Beatles. We watched people juggling and spinning plates on tall sticks and tap dancing, and we knew joie de vivre in 30-minute segments for a few shining hours each week. And we knew it as a family. Nothing on the screen resembled our lives – and that was okay. Call it an “escape” if you must, but I see it as simply a pleasant interlude, a lighthearted break – entertainment.

Well, what a difference a couple generations make! Now I turn on the TV first thing every morning to see whether this is the day Kim Jong Un is going to nuke Seattle (so I can get my affairs in order). I wonder whether there’s been a 3:00 a.m. tweet that’s raised hackles - and the security threat level. And I anticipate another humorous gaffe by the bumbling White House press secretary.

Some days I get some or all of those things. (Okay, Seattle has not been nuked.) Other days I get leftovers for my TV breakfast: More talk by hosts and “the panel” and “experts” whose mind-numbing repetition of yesterday’s missile strike or Thursday’s intimation that Steve and Reince are feuding does anything but uplift me. And it certainly doesn’t entertain me. It often makes me mad!

Where has the entertainment gone?

Today one can tune in to people talking nonstop on TV just about any time, day or night. And, if there’s nothing new to talk about, they just rehash the old stuff ad nauseum, often augmenting it with supposition, projection and “alternative facts.” Have you ever noticed that “breaking news” now “breaks” for 8-12 hours or until something better “breaks”? How often do you look at your TV screen and not see that banner saying “Breaking News”? And more news crawling across the bottom of the screen! How did we survive with one hour of daily news, Monday through Friday?

Oh, sure, there’s also another new TV genre, something more in the vein of entertainment, but look at what it really is: In almost every case it is “reality TV.” Real people trying to lose weight or win a million dollars or catch an alligator or find a real steal at an auction, rent an apartment, prove they can make escargots... It’s just life, as humdrum and beige as it can be. Nobody seems to be writing plots or dialogue anymore (except the makers of Designated Survivor – a fictional series that comes painfully close to real life, but I love it anyway).

Yes, yes, I like some of these “reality” type shows. I enjoy America’s Got Talent and Shark Tank, with ordinary, hard-working individuals who come on TV and show what they can do and sometimes get rewarded for it. But the whole point is that it is real people, and the lives portrayed are no more uplifting than mine or yours. And it’s almost always competitive, sometimes brutal. Gone is the lightheartedness, the pleasant interlude away from real life, the fiction. TV today is certainly no source of joie de vivre. No surprise then that, when I visit the homes of my children, each family member is usually engaged in a separate screen activity not shared with others, and the TV is off. Why? Because the parents don’t want their kids watching all that garbage; I understand.

Remember that “snow” I said we used to see on the screen after 10 p.m.? Maybe that was a good thing. We got out a book or the crayons or the glue and the model airplane kit. My mother went into the kitchen and made hot cross buns from scratch! My dad went out and moved the sprinklers to keep his garden growing. TV back then was entertainment - in small doses - and then life went on in larger doses, until the next refreshing interlude, when Lucy and Ethel worked the assembly line in the chocolate factory. And all day long, the mindless soap operas offered up even more dramatic fiction for those who had the time or the inclination to watch what the rest of us disparagingly called “daytime TV.”

Have we pushed this twentieth-century medium beyond its natural boundaries? Have we made a Frankenstein of what was once pure, simple entertainment? Or is it the viewers who have changed? Is entertainment via fiction no longer worthy? Or does it just not sell products anymore?  I don’t know, but I think I would love to see someone spin plates on a tall stick again, just for fun. I think my grandfather, rest his soul, would like that too.