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Gift Ideas for TV Fans: Entertainment Choices During the Writer’s Strike

By Christopher Gildemeister


The Writers Guild of America, the union representing America’s television scriptwriters, went on strike November 5th. At issue are the amount of payments the writers would receive for programs shown on the internet and related issues. As of the date of this article, the writers strike is in its fourth week, and no resolution is in sight. The effect which the strike may have on television viewers – and on TV viewing patterns – is as yet unknown…but may be dramatic.


During December, the prime-time TV schedule is typically dominated by holiday specials and reruns. The networks are reluctant to show original programming then; viewership is down because many people are engaged in family and holiday activities, so a lack of new episodes is not of much concern to the networks, or to viewers.


But if the writers strike continues into January or beyond, prospects for original network programming are dim. While a few new series were already scheduled to begin in January, the vast majority of current network shows will have run out of scripted episodes. Already NBC's The Office and CBS' sitcoms The Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother, Two And a Half Men and Rules of Engagement have run out of scripts. And many other prime time broadcast series, such as NBC's Heroes, Fox’s K-Ville, House and Family Guy, ABC's Samantha Who?, Ugly Betty, Pushing Daisies, Grey's Anatomy and Desperate Housewives, and CBS’ CSI and its spin-offs CSI: NY and CSI: Miami, and NCIS, Criminal Minds, Without a Trace, and Cold Case are all down to six or fewer episodes remaining before original content is exhausted. And the return of Fox's huge hit 24 has been postponed indefinitely. While many currently-running and new reality series, among them Fox’s top-rated American Idol, will likely be brought to the fore, the overall result is that viewers may be faced with a dearth of original scripted comedy and drama.


One of the entertainment industry’s greatest fears is that viewers, already tired of the current wave of dark, graphic and explicit programming, and now confronted with the prospect of endless reruns of same, will turn for entertainment to some of the many alternatives which now exist to watching prime-time television. Not least among these alternatives are the many series from television’s past now available on DVD.


While there are, inevitably, some viewers who crave novelty, or who revel in graphic violence, explicit sex, and endless foul language, many Americans are weary of such depressing fare. The writers strike offers TV viewers a unique opportunity to revisit – or to see for the first time – television programming from the days before constant swearing, sophomoric sex jokes and horrifically explicit and gory violence were considered a necessary part of every TV show. 


With the gift-giving holiday season rapidly approaching, the PTC would like to suggest alternatives for families and viewers tired of the current trends in programming – by recommending ten (or more) older TV series which could easily take the place of some of those soon to go missing from broadcast television. Every “older” program mentioned here is currently available on DVD…and would make a fine “clean” addition to any home’s television viewing.


1. Viewers drawn to compelling legal intricacy and courtroom drama have, in recent years, had to settle for the ridiculously unrealistic legal strategies, rampantly sex-crazed characters and anti-religious bigotry of David E. Kelley’s Boston Legal. For a more dignified legal melodrama – though like Kelley’s shows, still containing obvious “good guys” and “bad guys” -- Raymond Burr’s portrayal of Perry Mason still provides entertainment and courtroom intrigue, without the necessity of injecting smarmy sex references into every other line.


2.  In place of the missing 24, viewers might consider the original Mission:Impossible. Starring in its early seasons Academy Award winner Martin Landau, the program also featured talented actors Barbara Bain and (for one season) Steven Hill (later D.A. Adam Schiff on Law and Order), as well as cultural icons Peter Graves and Greg Morris. The plots on Mission: Impossible are every bit as tense and intricate as those on 24. Of course, on Mission: Impossible one does not have the opportunity of seeing Kiefer Sutherland repeatedly subjected to brutal torture; but if a viewer is willing to forego this pleasure, Mission: Impossible will fit the bill nicely.


3. Along similar lines of tense drama, fans of The Unit may find much to admire in the 1960’s World War II drama Combat. Rarely shown in reruns today, Combat was television’s longest-running drama about World War II. Featuring Vic Morrow as tough infantry sergeant Chip Saunders, the series was lauded for its realistic approach to the portrayal of war, with some first-season episodes being written, directed or produced by famed film director and Honorary Academy Award recipient Robert Altman. A product of its time, Combat does not feature the explicit violence or raw language of The Unit, but still conveys the tension and drama of war.


4. The field of forensic crime investigation has become a fertile one for television, with such dramas as Bones, NCIS and the various CSI spin-offs, among others, all scrambling for a piece of the (increasingly bloody) pie. For another drama featuring a forensic investigator – albeit one with a more humorous twist – fans tired of decomposing corpses might welcome a visit from Quincy, M.E. Starring former Odd Couple partner Jack Klugman, Quincy is a hard-nosed coroner (or “Medical Examiner,” the meaning of those mysterious initials after his name in the show’s title) who doggedly takes to the streets whenever he believes the police are ignoring the evidence his autopsies have uncovered. While obviously less realistic than today’s forensic dramas, Quincy is also far less graphic -- and as a result features more sharply-drawn character interaction than many of today’s shows. For viewers intrigued by murder mysteries and forensic science but tired of gore, Quincy is just what the doctor ordered.  


5. Seth MacFarlane’s rancid cartoon Family Guy offers American TV viewers the opportunity to be “entertained” by such spectacles as a household of men and boys explicitly vomiting and passing gas; a father beating his own daughter with a baseball bat; and a baby discussing the ways he plans to torture and murder his own mother – and all this is, allegedly, “satire.” For animated programming about “family guys,” but without the bondage gear, flatulence and constant crude sex jokes, a viewer could turn to those mainstays and building blocks of prime-time animated comedy, The Flintstones and The Jetsons – both of which are every bit as intelligent as Family Guy, even if they lack its lascivious and grotesque elements. And for genuine satire, The Best of Boris and Natasha, collecting episodes from The Bullwinkle Show, features cunningly clever word-play and slyly subversive humor which doesn’t need to make bathroom jokes to inspire laughter. 


6. Conversely, if the antics of MacFarlane’s animated atrocity American Dad begin to pale, why not enjoy some live-action programs featuring “American dads” of far more admirable character? From the sweet humor and timeless moral lessons of The Andy Griffith Show, to the outrageously funny (yet somehow oddly realistic) situations of The Dick Van Dyke Show, there are many choices available to viewers who ache for laughter, yet are tired of being offered endless references to sex, genitalia and bodily functions posing as humor.  Those who remember when watching television made them feel good instead of cynical, and made them smile and not wince, will find that these timeless classics can bring back those feelings.


 7. The workplace has been an unending source of humor for decades. While the current hit The Office is admirably funny and rarely features objectionable content, it is regrettably off the air for the foreseeable future. In its absence, why not become reacquainted with some of the classic workplace comedies of the past? The Mary Tyler Moore Show featured one of the strongest casts in television history, with each performer going on to star in their own series, as well as hilarious scripts and loveable characters. For a drier and more understated sense of humor, Barney Miller offered deadpan comedy leavened only occasionally by outright zaniness. And many other old workplace comedy favorites – from Taxi to WKRP in Cincinnati (in a drastically recut, musically-altered version) – are available to fans as well.  


8.  Supernatural is about a pair of individuals investigating the occult, replete with graphic violence and bitter, unhappy characters. The program is often unrelentingly grim. For a different take on the same situation – one that used suggestion rather than open bloodshed to inspire spine-tingling suspense – fans of horror-themed shows could do worse than Kolchak: the Night Stalker (no relation to the “re-imagined” abomination from ABC last season). Starring TV veteran Darren McGavin as a wise-guy reporter who consistently finds himself entangled with the occult, Kolchak was a brilliant combination of humor, horror and hard-boiled newspaper drama -- and was cited by creator Chris Carter as a major inspiration for The X-Files.


9. Since the overwhelming success of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, vampires have become one of television’s most frequently-featured protagonists. Most recently, the program Moonlight has returned to the bloody well, dipping into stories of an ageless vampire in love with a mortal woman. But there is nothing new under the sun (or the full moon, either); and for those who are deeply interested in such drama and willing to make a long-term investment in following it, the original Dark Shadows offers many, many episodes of supernaturally-themed Gothic romance. A product of fast-paced production schedules and a tiny budget, Dark Shadows will require patience from a contemporary viewer accustomed to the latest in CGI; but the lack of focus on special effects at times actually enhances the haunting atmosphere and mood. Generations of fans have enjoyed Dark Shadows, and today’s fans of supernatural shows just might find that they do, too.


10. Finally, in the realm of situation comedy, at least two popular shows have featured the story of a child living in the same house as his swinging bachelor uncle, who undertakes to teach the child about life. It is a measure of how far Hollywood’s idea of “teaching children about life” has declined that today’s iteration is the crassly crude and sexual Two and a Half Men. Those who are not enamored of seeing a twelve-year-old boy referring to group sex and condoms, or adults who talk constantly about sex and little else, might find a refreshing change (or an exercise in nostalgia) in Family Affair. One program features an impatient but loving uncle and three squeaky-clean children; the other, a drooling, sex-crazed uncle and a snide, abrasive child. If Family Affair is unrealistically sweet, Two and a Half Men is unrealistically sour and smarmy. Neither program represents a family truthfully; so why give automatic credence to the repellently raunchy recent show? Many may laugh at this comparison, for Family Affair has come to be seen as hopelessly saccharine and sappy, but it is worth pausing for a moment and considering: is Two and a Half Men really any more realistic – or any less stupid?


TV Trends: Aubree Bowling inspired and contributed to this report.

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