There are 500+ channels on digital cable — sitcoms to classic movies to foreign nets. The sheer size of selection can be overwhelming and, at times, depressing.
The how-low-can-you-go talk shows demean the human spirit, while reality dating shows often have contestants pimping themselves out. While I’m a fan of HBO and Showtime’s dramas, they're an investment.
Sometimes, you just want to pretend the world of economic turmoil and terrorism doesn’t exist, that health care is affordable, and the middle class still exists. In short, to quote the definition of nostalgia: “a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time.”
For many, that's MeTV and Antenna TV.
Assuming that your version of happiness is black-and-white shows where everything is sewn up nicely — even crime on “Dragnet” is sanitized — tune in. Viewers get to revisit the late '50s, early '60s — a blissfully one-dimensional TV past.
Don’t misunderstand. That can be hugely comforting when you’re stressed. The machinations of “The Sopranos” or the intricacies of “Mad Men” are complicated, nuanced and compelling.
Conversely, watching “The Patty Duke Show” is a breeze. Duke plays twin teens — “Cathy, who's lived most everywhere, from Zanzibar to Berkeley Square,” while Patty “loves to rock and roll, a hot dog makes her lose control.” The catch: both girls enjoy good relationships with parents. Patty’s “Poppo,” a newspaperman who works an enviable 9-5, talks to the girls in a sensitive, adult fashion.
So do the adults in “Family Affair,” in which a bachelor uncle with a Manhattan apartment I’d kill for, and a British valet, Mr. French, talk to a teen girl and 7-year-old twins in an attentive, caring way. Adoption never looked so good.
Here’s the amazing thing: The kids listen! They don’t contradict their elders! They never crack wise! The “Leave It To Beaver” boys call their father "sir"! Life can be goofy, but it's respectful. There is a name for such scripts: fantasy TV. Unlike Axl, the snarky teenager in “The Middle,” who favors boxers and torturing his younger siblings, or Haley, the pretty but sarcastic daughter in “Modern Family,” TV kids in earlier eras value family harmony. Writers put a premium on one-plot scripts: Beaver gives a girl a locket; Patty edits the school paper. At least by Hollywood standards, life was simpler. A basic bike was a big gift, a fraction of the cost of an iPad.
One of my favorites, “Naked City,” is a portrait of vanishing New York. The cast of actors who appeared in the police show is now legendary, such as Dustin Hoffman, Robert Duvall and Robert Redford. The architecture alone is memorable.
Even crime shows like “Perry Mason” wrap up nicely. Usually, Perry asks some semi-piercing question and the defendant on the stand conveniently crumbles. “The Closer” it isn’t. “Dragnet” is based on real cases in Los Angeles. Like “Naked City,” the dialogue is clipped and sparse, but sans any graphic portrayal of violence. It did, however, create the template for future cop shows, though Sgt. Joe Friday never fails to discuss lunch.
Say what you will about kicking back with a cocktail. If you want to pretend that families are always friendly, a haircut costs $1 and the world is a sane place, head up the cable dial.