Posts Tagged: television

The Television: What’s on?

TV with no Guide

a vintage portable TV set.
Image by Marc Pascual from Pixabay

I didn’t have a TV childhood. We had a black & white TV South Dakota. My sister and I never argued over which channel to watch, because we only had three channels, and there was only ever one thing on at a time worth watching.

I acknowledge that “worth watching” is a highly subjective term. We waited all year for our chance to see The Wizard of Oz, and Rogers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. Go on, ask us to sing “In My Own Little Corner.” My sister and I will happily belt it out with all the whiny, screechy fervor of Lesley Ann Warren.

How did we know these yearly events were coming our way? Mom told us. People kept track back then, but how did they know? We didn’t use a TV Guide, I know that much. I’m not sure when I first encountered a copy of TV Guide. I spent my earliest years in a town with two channels, so we certainly never needed one in Claremont. Aberdeen had three channels, but that wasn’t exactly a buffet of choices.

We didn’t need a guide to lead us through the offerings of the Big Three. I suppose I might have encountered the TV Guide at the store, but there was no way my mother would have taken any of us kids along on a grocery shopping trip. We would have asked for things. In all my childhood memories, I remember being at the store with Mom once, an event so memorable that I wrote a poem about it.

The Advent of Color

When we lived in Aberdeen, one of my mother’s erstwhile suitors brought over a newer TV for her. It was a behemoth in a console, and our first experience with a color set. The first time we watched The Wizard of Oz, I went flying into the kitchen to retrieve Mom, to show her the miracle. Somehow, some way, they’d made it color in the Land of Oz! Mom let out gales of laughter. She had a wonderful laugh.

And so, we watched the offerings of the day in color for the first time. Petticoat Junction. Green Acres (which I hated but watched anyway). The Flintstones and the Jetsons. And I suppose we watched Saturday morning cartoons, but I don’t remember a lot of those. TV was a crapshoot. You turned it and hoped there was something. If there wasn’t, you turned it off and went off and played.

We left that behemoth TV behind when we moved to Rapid City. We might not have had a TV for a bit, but on his second or third visit to our house, my eventual new father brought a color TV to Mom. He was in the Air Force and probably got a nice deal at the PX.  They married, we moved. We lived in Minnesota briefly, then moved to rural Arkansas.

Arkansas Airwaves

We lived on the farm, where we watched the Brady Bunch and the Partridge Family. We found little to relate to in these shows. The Bradys in particular inspired a lot of mockery, but we watched their suburban lives play out with horrified fascination. What small concerns they had (aside from Marcia’s broken nose, that was a real concern)!

Then we moved to rural Montana. Cat and I watched even less TV there. We were up on a ranger station at first, and you don’t get much signal up there on the ranger station, and we’d outgrown the artificial families we’d watched in Arkansas. In Montana, we became unfortunately mature. Our tastes changed accordingly. I loved the Bob Newhart Show and the Mary Tyler Moore Show to pieces. I think I got a little Rhoda in there, too. Maybe some Phyllis. Again, there was no guide to what was on. You just pulled out the little knob and hoped for the best.

Yakima

I didn’t live with my parents in high school. I lived with my pretend husband (to make it clear, he was a real person but we were pretending to be married). Our apartment was across town from my high school, so I’d walk home with Bev, and stay at her house until my boyfriend was done with his day at the community college.

I think by the time I visited Bev’s house in Yakima, I’d lived in fifteen different places; houses and apartments both, many of which were charming, but most of which were decidedly lacking in mundane comforts. While at Bev’s, I’d marvel at the conventional ease of her family’s ranch home. My mother would have turned up her nose at the commonplace nature of it, but it seemed convenient to me.

They had an eat-in kitchen with a dishwasher, and a washer/dryer in the hallway. Two bathrooms, three bedrooms, which meant they had a spare room (what luxury!). In the living room were twin recliners facing the TV, with a well-thumbed TV Guide on the little table between them. This was my first exposure to this publication.

In my Yakima apartment, we didn’t have a phone or a washer/dryer or a dishwasher or a garage. We didn’t even have a TV, let alone a comprehensive periodical listing everything on the airwaves. I perused Bev’s parents’ copy with puzzlement. There was nothing in it that interested me. And the articles were about people I’d never heard of, on shows I’d never heard of. I didn’t see the point. Who cared what was on? None of it looked any good to me.

When we finally received a castoff black and white TV from my pretend husband’s parents, I was psyched. Finally, something to watch!

Disappointment

Unfortunately, we had entered the Rob and Penny Marshall era of programming, with a side of Charlie’s Angels. The TV offerings of 1978 held little to no glamor for me, with one beautiful exception. One afternoon, I found Dolly Parton’s syndicated half hour variety show. I’d never watched anything so charming in my life. I figured out exactly when it was on and watched it religiously. I didn’t need a TV Guide to lead the way to Dolly.

That TV stayed behind in Missoula Montana when I left the pretend husband, who had by that point become my actual first husband, in 1980.  I didn’t have a TV again until 1982, after I had my first child. My little brother, who was 11 at the time, gave me a nine-inch black and white to watch while I was up in the night nursing my firstborn. She rapidly started sleeping through the night, but I’d wake up and pump anyway, as I was a super-producer and a friend from Lamaze class needed the milk.

I can’t remember what was on in the middle of the night—we certainly didn’t have cable—but I’d stare at that little screen, the volume so low I could barely hear it. Sometimes I dozed. Occasionally Tom Pederson (and Gloria, too!) would say, “WAKE UP!” and I would. I’d detach the pump and freeze the milk and go back to bed.

The Real TV

That little black and white TV was our only TV until 1984. During these years, I loved Taxi and Cheers. I enjoyed these dry and witty shows, and made a point of watching them on that teeny little TV.

Then my second husband went out and found us a good deal on a color Sony with a remote control. A note about this remote: it had twelve buttons, for twelve channels. That was enough back then, as we didn’t have cable for years. Another note about this remote: my oldest dropped it in her goldfish tank when she was four, and said, “Look Mom, I made bubbles!” She’d been disappointed that we didn’t have an aerator in there.

Cable arrived, then went away, then came back to our house, depending on the financial situation du jour. But of course, it eventually became a necessity. I was a single mother of three, just trying to survive the demands of working, going to school, keeping them all afloat through the chaos of our suburban life. If they wanted to take a little refuge in the travails of the Cosbys or the Winslows, who was I to complain? I thought those kids on Barney were creepy, as stiff and forced as if they were hostages performing with weapons at their backs, but if it made one of my girls happy to watch it, then she could watch it!

TV kept the peace.

Until it didn’t.

I was not prepared for the channel discord that came to my house once some of my girls aged out of the Disney channel and into the disarray of one wanting to watch Disney, one wanting to watch Mtv, and the other just wanting to fight with someone because that’s the age she was. The girls diverged, and the discord began.

Thankfully, these were three-way squabbles, not four-way squabbles, because I didn’t watch much TV. In fact, I hated most of what was on in the eighties and nineties. I could barely stand to be in the house on Friday nights, when they watched that block of insipid TGIF programming that included Full House. But I never made them change the channel. They would all watch that garbage peacefully, with no argument. Besides, my sister and I had watched Green Acres and Petticoat Junction. Who was I to complain about Steve Urkel?

But I couldn’t stand to hear it. And by “it,” I mean the TV and the arguments it started. So I bought all three girls their own small color TVs with DVD players built in, and had cable hookups put in their rooms. I took the larger TV out of the main room and put it in my bedroom—finally replacing the nine inch black and white I’d kept in there for all these years (bonus feature, it no longer had any knobs). Everyone had her own TV, her own cable, her own DVD player. There was no need to fight.

Of course, they still did. They moved all their squabbles to my bedroom, where they watched the larger TV in order to argue over it. It was on, and in my airspace, and there were things like Real World Challenge and Bad Girls Club penetrating my consciousness. The Kardashians. Teen Mom. I had eschewed TV for years, but pretty soon I was hooked on American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance and Project Runway. What a time suck. What a nightmare.

And then my friend Karl told me to watch Mad Men. And my oldest girl found Big Love and knew I would love it.

TV had changed, and I was hooked.

Today

I watch TV now. I’m somewhat appalled by how much TV I watch. When it’s time for mindless, I go straight to HGTV.

I watch all the NBA games with my husband, giving my own clueless commentary for a game I just vaguely understand but wholeheartedly enjoy. “He stands funny when he goes to the line.” “Those uniforms make the Nuggets look like old-timey acrobats.” “The Minnesota uniforms look like sailor suits.” “Oh, the guy with the deep-set eyes shaved all his hair off!” “Look at all the biceps for Jesus out there, what is up with that.” It’s really insightful and important commentary, let me tell you.

I’ve watched Game of Thrones all the way through. Twice. And I’ll watch season two of House of the Dragon once I can binge it. Season three of The Bear is coming soon. My favorite viewing experience, ever, is Schitt’s Creek. I think the best shows that have ever been on TV are Mad Men, Rectify, and Boardwalk Empire. I thought The Last of Us was phenomenal. I’ve never watched West Wing because I can’t tolerate how Aaron Sorkin writes women. I’ve never watched Breaking Bad or The Sopranos, and I couldn’t make it through Deadwood. And you know, I probably never will. Because there’s TOO MUCH GOOD TV now. A person has to make choices.

But if you’ve read this far, tell me what you love that you think I might love. Because, you know. I still like to watch good TV.