The Not So Good, Part 1

Sometimes, It’s Not So Good

I recently finished writing well over a hundred thousand words about specific artists and I think i avoided singling out anyone for any serious knocks. Perhaps I did imply that something was not so good. Anyhow, I’ve tried to be positive, keep on the sunny side, and say only nice things. While that was intentional because of the bounds I defined when I started that exercise, I am not without a discerning heart. Criticism does distinguish even if it only happens through omission (though everything not mentioned is not necessarily disliked).

Rudyard Kipling and Theodore Sturgeon, as well as everyone who has been exposed to more than ten works of art, have placed the percentage of “crap” or “bad” or “what the hey?” variously between eighty and ninety percent. I don’t entirely agree, but certainly a solid forty to sixty percent is mediocre.

These thoughts occur to me as the various streaming services have begun inundating the WiFi with old television programs. Nostalgia is a powerful force that can lead to revisiting almost anyplace fondly remembered. Yet, the past is a different country entirely and we are not the people that we were. That hamburger joint from your youth really did not make the best fries ever. They only made the best ones that you’d eaten up to that point. Or you were just especially hungry and in the right company.

We watch any number of old shows on the streaming app machine. Sometimes, I just want to hear the theme song. Other times, I want to visit with long lost friends because there are so many that I have no way to see again and this is just an attempt to stave off another loss. Oh, the television set has been a devilish seductress.

Love American Style may have been entertaining once

CHiPs and Gilligan’s Island and Roseanne and so many more are like an IV drip of downers. They are unwatchable. That is not to say that I did not watch them when they first appeared. More recently, I had to constantly remind myself that this was entertaining once. Everything is not dreck. I was surprised to find that I could enjoy The Saint. I still try to track down episodes of Secret Agent Man. Perhaps a pattern emerges. Maybe comedy simply does not date well. Then again, The Dick Van Dyke Show and Mary Tyler Moore, among others, still work for me. Did I really make so much time in my life for things like Fantasy Island and Happy Days?

Ignoring movies, sports and variety shows, the top rated programs in 1966, 1976 and 1986 were:

1966 1976 1986
Bonanza Happy Days The Cosby Show
The Andy Griffith Show Laverne & Shirley Family Ties
The Lucy Show M*A*S*H Cheers
Green Acres Charlie’s Angels Murder, She Wrote
Daktari The Six Million Dollar Man The Golden Girls
Bewitched Baretta Night Court
The Beverly Hillbillies One Day at a Time Growing Pains
Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. Three’s Company Moonlighting
The Virginian All in the Family Who’s the Boss?
Family Affair Welcome Back, Kotter Dallas
Hogan’s Heroes The Bionic Woman Newhart
Dragnet The Waltons Amen
Get Smart Little House on the Prairie 227
Petticoat Junction Barney Miller Matlock

Maybe it is unfair to judge television shows for their mediocrity. They were meant for momentary distraction aimed at the widest possible audience and constrained by methods of delivery and production. Nothing about them at the time reckoned with the future force of nostalgia. No one working on a show could afford the time or emotional cost to consider the impact of their efforts a decade or five down the road.

Is it really healthy to binge watch MacGyver?

That additional aspect of memory, however, is important. I do wonder how important time becomes in evaluating a work of art. Realistically, we have two types of critics: those who tell us whether or not we want to consume a work of art now based on their own immediate reactions and those who evaluate art for longstanding appreciation. Both types want to overlap. Both types need to feed the word beast and often bring all sorts of data to their writing (much of what I have written being a case in point). The former sometimes use history as a guide and the latter want you to feel the way they do right now about the pyramids or the Mona Lisa or Wagner.

My point here is simply that initial responses do not always stand the test of time. All consumers of art, including critics, are trapped in time. We are all creatures of popular fashion, both because that limits what is available, but also because our taste is shaped by constant reinforcement. We may withstand some of those forces with a seeking mind or a longstanding preference, but the world does tend to have its way with us.

Part 2 appears next week

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