If you did well on my little pop quiz, you’re either a baby boomer or even older, God love you — or you’ve been faithfully watching all the multicast/cable channels exclusively programmed with retro shows. Whatever your age, when you’re channel-surfing among MeTV, Cozi and the like, you’re also time-traveling: from the 1950s, when Perry Mason always got the killer to confess (in open court,no less!), to the 1970s, when my “namesake” Phyllis Lindstrom bitched it up as Mary’s landlady on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (or made folks in San Francisco miserable in “Phyllis,” the only TV show I know whose theme song actually makes very sour fun of its subject.)
All these networks are now repurposing the seemingly endless inventory of old TV shows — just as Turner Classic Movies turned the showing of old films into a sometimes-educational, entertaining experience mingling nostalgia and discovery. Still, until this year no network had taken the TCM path of curating programming in all kinds of smart and/or fun ways (as in TCM’s recent showcase of movies starring redheads, from Rita Hayworth to Lucille Ball) with someone providing commentary beforehand.
But now there’s Decades, launched earlier this year. A hybrid of History Channel, TCM and MeTV (in fact, it’s a sister channel to the latter), Decades is partly owned by CBS, which provides much of the programming inventory: a broad range of sitcoms and dramas from the 1950s through the 1980s, often-obscure movies, and documentaries.
Decades debuted with a very 2015 idea: the binge-watch. In its “soft launch,” begun in various markets around the country in January, the channel ran every single episode of such TV shows as “The Fugitive,” “The Donna Reed Show” and “Route 66,” in the original order — which took at least several days for most shows (back then the average run was 39 shows a season). I first became aware of it when my husband excitedly raved about being able to watch the rarely seen last episode of “Sgt. Bilko.”
Decades moved to its regular incarnation later in the year, with a formula of six-hour blocks of programming per weekday, introduced by a full hour highlighting the events of that particular day throughout history. (The binge model reappears with the continual airing of one particular show per weekend.)
And here’s where it gets a little weird. Each day’s hour-long intro is a jumble of “serious” events that might appear in actual history books, interspersed with pop-culture junk history that might appear only in People magazine. For example, July 27, 1967, was the day that President Lyndon Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission to investigate the causes of race riots — so Decades features the made-for-Showtime movie “Riot,” a fictional feature on the 1992 Rodney King riots. On July 27, 1940, Billboard magazine began running its list of top 100 songs — a fact that leads into episodes of TV shows whose theme songs made the list: “Peter Gunn,” “Mission Impossible,” and “Hawaii Five-O.”
July 27 was also the day when both Bob Hope and the man who invented the Zamboni died —in 2003 and 1988, respectively. And here’s my favorite piece of trivia: On July 27, 1990, ‘60s sex symbol Zsa Zsa Gabor began serving a three-day jail sentence for slapping a cop.
A group of anchor-like folks provide commentary and historical context on each event. Most prominent is former CBS News anchor Bill Kurtis, emanating (somewhat annoying) older white-guy gravitas. I’d like a little more lightness to the whole thing — like the snarkish irony exhibited by TCM host Ben Mankiewicz. Guys, we’re not curing cancer here (although we might be celebrating noted cancer researchers), but ultimately trying to have some fun.
In fact, thinking up new links between dates and entertainment content can be a fun pastime. How about the birthday of Linus Pauling (Feb.28), advocate for Vitamin C therapy, as the day to run the Vitameatavegamin episode of “I Love Lucy”?
Or how about celebrating the birthdate of the inventor of the zebra crossing (if there was indeed such a person)? That’s such an important design element on the cover of the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” that it can lead into the movie “Almost Famous,” featuring a character named Penny Lane.
As you can see, finding a historical link for entertainment can get far-fetched after a while. It’s like trying to put a sheen of significance over stuff that’s probably not that significant. Eventually you're reduced to creating phony history, like what I saw on a blackboard outside a Brooklyn bar: “Today’s the day in 1873 when Dr. Carl Boomchek discovered once and for all that bees never experience jealousy.”
ANSWERS TO QUIZ:
1. The girl who runs after Dobie on “The Many Lives Of Dobie Gillis." 2. Russian spy on “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” 3. See paragraph 2. 4. Friend of “Magnum P.I.”
Bonus: “Car 54, Where Are You?” Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev is due to land at Idlewild, former name of JFK Airport.