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Lileks: Why old TV was bad

August 26, 2018

My wife made a reference to the “summer TV season” the other day, and I had to check to see if we hadn’t time-traveled back to 1977 and were drinking Tang from Harvest Gold glassware. Is there even such a thing as a fall TV season anymore?

Once it was a hallowed time that deserved capitalization: The Fall Season. The networks would announce the debuts of about a hundred new shows, most of which were replaced by other new shows a year later. It’s not so much that the networks have quit producing new shows, it’s that now it seems as if every show is the same.

There are basically two shows:

“Law-Cop Doctors” An ensemble drama about six people who look too good to be anything but professional models but are actually lawyers who have become police surgeons. In every episode they save someone from a disease, arrest them and then defend them in court. It’s now in its 17th season even though you’ve never met a soul who watches it.

“The Sassies” A sitcom about people who say things to each other. It’s a spinoff of “The Awkwards,” a comedy about people who say things that are followed by pauses.

The other night my wife was watching “America’s Got X-Factor Idol Talent,” and I asked what it was and why it existed. She said it was a talent show, and I’d missed two Japanese men who made strange sounds with their belly fat.

“OK, call me if they have a cat with contact dermatitis and the owner makes it yowl ‘Flight of the Bumblebees’ by scratching it.”

A long time ago, in the era of magazines, the arrival of TV Guide in the mailbox (back in the era of mail) was a big deal. It had all the new shows! Pages and pages of new shows, made just for us! Most had two things in common: They were bad, and they were doomed. Nonetheless, we hung on every word:

“Police Time” From the producers of “The Now Police” and “Dateline: Police” comes a story of two cops in gritty New York. Det. Harry Ideelist is a bearded newbie who doesn’t play by the rules but gets results; his partner, Det. Lt. Sgt. Capt. Frank O’Proach, is a crusty old-line cop who regards his new partner with wary suspicion. In the series premiere, a prostitute with a heart of gold is found dead, possibly because the heart is usually made of muscle, and it’s up to the cops to solve the crime before their supervisor gets angry because the mayor and the papers are breathing down his neck.

“Uncle Brother” A spinoff of the popular “Bachelor Husband.” A wacky man finds himself married to an aunt and a sister and faces contrived situations each week that easily could be resolved if he just left town.

“The Gibbet Brothers Old Tyme Musical Hour” Down-home music and comedy with the 14 Gibbet Brothers and their eight-sister jug band.

There’s no fall TV season on the streaming channels. Every time I turn on Netflix, it’s unveiling 42 more TV shows of exceptional quality. Such as a drama set in the 22nd century about rich, inbred people who live on the moon and seem terribly put-upon by things but nevertheless keep up a good appearance. Filmed on location.

If you don’t like that, tomorrow they’ll give you 14 seasons of a Danish detective series where a morose man solves a murder but becomes incrementally estranged from his dog. Pay TV is an infinite banquet.

Of course, the very phrase “pay TV” used to sound wrong and anti-American. That’s how it was in Russia, surely; people sitting around in cold rooms with a bottle of vodka in one hand and a kopeck in the other, nodding solemnly at documentaries about wheat production, waiting for a picture of Lenin to flash on the screen to tell them to “Pay, comrade.”

Why would we have to pay for TV? It came through the air, like bird songs and the smell from the sugar beet plant. It just was. Three wonderful channels — well, four, if you counted the spinach factory that was public television — and the idea that you should pay was like telling us we needed a ticket to go to school.

When CBS said they were bringing back “Star Trek,” but I had to pay, I didn’t mind. But the pay service still had commercials. This is like paying for a meal, and the waiter comes by every 11 minutes, takes your plate, stands there, tells you all about life insurance, then gives you the plate back.

I canceled the service, because I was tired of paying money every month for TV shows I didn’t watch. Now I subscribe to Hulu, which also costs money. But the shows I don’t have time to watch are much, much better.

james.lileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858 • Twitter: @Lileks • facebook.com/james.lileks

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