In a way, historians who study the ancient world have it easier because of their limited source materials. They can look at some pottery shards, skeletal remains, maybe a piece of papyrus or a cave painting, and somehow reconstruct an entire civilization. By contrast, historians studying the 20th century will have to sift through millions of hours of television programs. It will be literally impossible in the future for any historian to master all the original source material on how people lived during this period.
The trouble will be figuring out what TV content reflects reality and what reflects an idealized version of reality. What makes it even harder is that many shows do both. A show like “Leave It To Beaver” would lead future historians to conclude that mid-century housewives cleaned the home in housedresses and pearls and then slept with their husbands in twin beds. Yet there is also a truthfulness to the show in the way it depicts a more innocent time, when kids could wander off to entertain themselves without adult supervision. So you can’t entirely write off “Beaver”’s historical value.
But other programs are clear distortions of reality. “The Andy Griffith Show” is in many respects an excellent series, but it in no way represents the actual life of a small-town Southern sheriff in the mid-1960s. About a quarter of the North Carolina population was African American, at that time yet Sheriff Andy Taylor’s Mayberry, N.C. appears to be lily-white. No prejudice here, folks. There’s no one to be prejudiced against!
Ironically, the absence of minority characters, gay people, and working women from television in the ‘50s and the ‘60s, their sudden appearance in the ‘70s tells us more about shifting attitudes than many textbooks. A program like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” is a remarkably accurate reflection of early ‘70s life, when women started to move into the workforce -- but also a time of oil shortages, increased divorce, and inflation.
What “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” demonstrates is that frequently the most critically acclaimed and beloved shows provide the best depictions of an era’s zeitgeist. “The Office,” for example, may be told in “mockumentary” style, but it’s so true to life that it almost functions as a real documentary of middle-class life in the early 21st century. It’s all there: the hollowing out of the workplace, corporate politics, modern gender dynamics, the rise of the Internet.
Or take “Seinfeld,” a show about nothing. It’s actually a very accurate depiction of social mores at the end of the 20th century. But “The Cosby Show,” which has higher aspirations, is almost as misleading about race relations as “The Andy Griffith Show” because it presented such an idealized version of the African-American family in the 1980s.
So far I’ve only mentioned sitcoms as sources for social archeology. That’s because the whole purpose of the genre is to reflect back the realities of everyday life, but in a humorous way. To laugh at a sitcom you have to believe it says something fundamentally true about the human condition. Dramas, on the other hand, tend to reflect the extremes of life, providing an inside look at situations we usually don’t expect to be in. (For example, which better depicts the daily life of doctors: the drama “ER” or the comedy “Scrubs”? I would bet real money that actual doctors would vote for “Scrubs.”)
One thing I would strenuously suggest to future historians is that they avoid so-called “reality” shows. There has never been anything further from reality than the reality genre. Of course this not universally true. In particular, many of the “how-to” shows (how to dress better, how to renovate your house, how to cook better) will be a gold mine for future social historians. But in general, historians, reality competition shows or programs that purportedly show people living their daily lives are nearly pure faction.
Back to the central question: What is a future historian to believe? Certainly ratings alone do not necessarily produce shows that accurately represent the reality of an era. “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Happy Days” and “Two and a Half Men” are evidence of that. Instead, look for quality. The best shows at capturing the zeitgeist are the ones that are the most intelligent and demand the most from their viewers. And with luck, shows that seem smart now will still seem smart a hundred years from now.