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How Not to Write About Classic Television

Criticwire By Max O'Connell | Criticwire July 28, 2014 at 4:54PM

Looking at classic television with a critical lens is encouraged. Using older shows as a way to deliver glib jokes in a major publication, not so much.
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'I Love Lucy'
'I Love Lucy'

It's not uncommon to idealize older eras of film/television/music/whatever, either by ignoring the bad stuff that came with the good (the '70s gave us "Every Which Way But Loose" alongside "Days of Heaven") or looking through the lens of nostalgia. With that in mind, it's sometimes healthy to look at older works with a critical eye to see what made them interesting in their time and why they might not hold the same power years later. For an example of how not to do this, look to The New York Times.

In the Times' "Critic's Notebook" section, Neil Genzlinger wrote about the overload in retro television in the New York/New Jersey area, and how the widespread availability of classic TV can bring to attention how some of these shows haven't aged well. And by "wrote about," I mean "made glib, lazy jokes in lieu of any real observations." 

"I Love Lucy" (premiere: 1951) Yeah, I know; it’s at or near the top of a lot of Best TV Series of All Time lists, and rightly so. In its time, it was defining. But today the broad humor draws only the occasional chuckle. The show is like your high school girlfriend: Just because you loved Lucy once doesn’t mean you still do.

"The Honeymooners" (1955) Same problem, only louder. Couples defined by screaming seem more sad than funny today.

"Gilligan's Island" (1964) Considering the cultural impact it had, this show wasn’t around for long, but if you were a child when it was on, it looms large. Such characters! Such a predicament! Preserve that innocence by not watching it again, because most of the episodes were actually kind of lame, and some dismaying stereotypes floated through the island from time to time.

"Green Acres" (1965) Speaking of stereotypes, there was this empty-headed series. Along with “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Gomer Pyle” and a few others, it made sure “rural” and “stupid” would be wrongly linked for years to come.

"Welcome Back, Kotter" (1975) Love the John Sebastian song; hate the hair and the sight of John Travolta. Even if Mr. Travolta hadn’t mangled Idina Menzel’s name at the Oscars, I don’t think I could take hearing the phrase “up your nose with a rubber hose” again.

On Twitter, critic Victor Morton described Genzlinger's article as "the dumbest piece of TV criticism in the history of Ever." Frankly, "criticism" might be too disciplined a word to describe it. There's zero analysis of the shows, zero display of intellectual curiosity about them, and zero attempt to understand why it was the series' appeal might not translate x years later. 

Instead, there's vague assertions that "I Love Lucy" isn't very funny anymore, or that "the Honeymooners" is bad because the couples yell at each other (...and?), or that the bizarre rural humor in "Green Acres" is dumb. Still, those vague assertions might be preferable to the notion that "Welcome Back, Kotter" is bad because of the 70s hair and the fact that John Travolta mispronounced Idina Menzel's name four decades later (things I never thought I'd do: defend "Welcome Back, Kotter").

The "Kotter" bit might not even be the worst graf in the piece. It has tough competition from the "Sex in the City" takedown, which doesn't amount to much more than "the clothes are bad sometimes." "Boy Meets World" should be scrubbed from retro TV programming because the sequel series "Girl Meets World" doesn't come close to the original. The popular soap "Dallas" gets a one-sentence dismissal: "What’s dismaying isn’t so much that this series was ever on, it’s that it ran for 13 years and then was revived in 2012." What the hell does that even mean?

I don't like dismissing articles as clickbait, but it's hard to see what else was actually meant to be accomplished with something that shows less intellectual rigor or effort in 900 words than most of the writers I follow on Twitter are able to muster up in 140 characters or less. If a writer wants to criticize a show as beloved as "I Love Lucy" by addressing any perceived shortcomings honestly and without a smug sense of superiority, fine. If, on the other hand, the piece features a passage like this:

But to actually watch 50-year-old shows all day? I’d rather rip out my eyeballs.

Stop, go back, try again. Or perhaps not at all.


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