Moving on to less profound blessings, I feel very fortunate to be a member of the now-aging television generation. During my childhood most of the programming available to me was family-friendly, even if limited to three networks and a handful of local stations. Every night at 7:30 (when prime time used to begin) the networks offered at least 90 minutes of shows that kids could watch without their parents worrying that they might be exposed to inappropriate entertainment. That began to change in the Seventies with the arrivals of issue-oriented made-for-television movies, the sitcoms of Norman Lear and certain provocative productions on PBS. The rest, for better and worse, is TV history.
The years when television offered so much innocent fun are long gone, but wonderful memories remain. It is in that context that I also feel thankful for the sudden abundance of retro-programming networks -- all of which, I'm pleased to say, are available to me on my cable system. Amid the madness and the multitasking and the mounting daily stresses of this new millennium, there are instant diversions to be found on Me-TV, Antenna TV, This TV and Cozi TV.
Consider this partial list of their collective offerings: “I Love Lucy.” “The Twilight Zone.” “Lost in Space.” “Batman.” “Dragnet.” “Adam 12.” “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” “The Bob Newhart Show.” “That Girl.” “The Patty Duke Show.” “Green Acres.” “Mister Ed.” “F Troop.” “Hogan’s Heroes.” “Hazel.” “Father Knows Best.” “I Spy.” “The Odd Couple.” “The Rifleman.” These networks also include movies on their schedules and/or regional station programming (i.e., infomercials).
While indulging this year in retro-TV I became particularly interested in “Leave it to Beaver” (on Me-TV). I recall watching daytime repeats of it when I was a kid. I also recall not thinking very much of it at the time. Today, I find it to be one of the most comforting and fascinating half-hours television has to offer. Was life as it was lived by the picture-perfect Cleaver family ever a reality for anyone? Probably not, but the simple lessons of respect and consideration for others that can be found in every episode used to be very much in play, especially as they pertained to children. The kids on “Beaver” sometimes questioned adult authority, and sometimes knowingly played pranks, but their parents and teachers always set them straight and they never talked back to grownups. Keep that in mind the next time you watch the empowered little monsters on so many current shows for children make the adults around them look like complete idiots.
If “Leave it to Beaver” feels like something from another era, “Lassie” -- which premiered in 1953 and ran for 19 seasons -- strikes me as having been beamed in from another dimension altogether. (Cozi TV offers two episodes on weeknights at 7 p.m.) The episodes from the Sixties and Seventies feel quite dated, but those from the Fifties are positively unreal.
A recent “Lassie” standout for me was an early episode from the Fifties titled “The Tree,” which concerned the efforts of Lassie’s unfailingly polite young owner Timmy to save his favorite tree -- one rumored to have been planted by Johnny Appleseed -- from being demolished to make room for a section of new highway.
“They’re going to cut down Johnny Appleseed’s tree -- for progress,” sighed little Timmy, sounding worried and saddened but never as obnoxious or disrespectful as any of the smart-mouthed kids in modern television shows. Imagine the fuss one of them would kick up today, if he or she even took the time to notice a tree, let alone worry about it.
The weirdness that followed was mesmerizing. Timmy took it upon himself to write a letter to the President of the United States asking for help in saving the tree. It fell to Lassie to bring the letter to the friendly neighborhood postman, who upon noticing that Timmy had forgotten to put a stamp on the envelope smiled and said, “I’ll take care of it!”
In a further test of disbelief, the President of the United States sent an immediate reply to Timmy informing the boy that he had referred the matter to the Department of the Interior. Naturally, Lassie delivered the letter to Timmy, who was standing nervously by as two men were preparing to rip the tree out by its roots. Lassie got there just in the nick of time. By episode’s end Timmy was thrilled to learn that the tree would be transplanted to his family’s orchard (because in those days, even families of humble means could have their own orchard).
If I didn’t have dim memories of “Lassie” from my childhood I don’t think I could be convinced that shows like it ever were sent out over the air into the living rooms of families across the country. (When I try to show “Lassie” to my godchildren, they instantly glaze over and return to whatever they were doing on their phones and tablets.) Fortunately, Me-TV, Antenna TV, This TV and Cozi TV are there to remind us that television used to be something else entirely.