The Short Road to Obscurity

You can’t watch an episode of Dukes of Hazzard anymore.

It’s impossible to enjoy an old Love Boat episode.

yes, you liked this show.

yes, you liked this show.

It looks like NBC made Miami Vice in some kind of Miami-based time warp.

At the time, we watched those TV shows like the networks were crack dealers and we needed our fix. They gave us whatever we were looking for. Action, slapstick, romance — they’re the same things we’re looking for now. So how come when we buy the old DVDs, we’re bored within 30 seconds? In five minutes, we’re frantically trying to figure out how to get the shrink wrap back on so we can return them.

Old TV shows get dated — fast. And once they start to show their age, not only do you struggle to get through 10 minutes of them, but you also start to question your own sanity and intelligence for even watching in the first place. “Wait, I actually laughed at ALF?”

So what makes a show dated? There’s an argument I read recently that says it’s pop culture references that highly contribute to making a show unwatchable now, or for the next generation. The thought being that the world of pop culture is so fickle and fluid that within a couple weeks, you forget all about it. Charlie Sheen jokes might be funny right now, but by June, is it something we’re still laughing at? And if it’s not funny in June, surely it won’t be funny in 2025.

The problem with that argument is shows have only been incorporating pop culture references for the last 20 years or so, ever since the Simpsons started it when it premiered in 1989. After that, it was like a whole new window of opportunity opened for an entire generation of TV writers who found that kind of humor funny. So the shows that ripped off, errrr, emulated the pop-culture infused comedy stylings of The Simpsons are too young to look dated yet. The flaw in Zoller Seitz’s argument is that he’s basing it on the comprehension level of a 7-year-old. I didn’t fully understand The Simpsons at 16 — certainly a 7-year-old wouldn’t understand its nuance and clever one-liners. It’s a show for adults. Maybe we should talk to his son in 2020 and see if he finds it funny yet. Simpsons also bases one of its secondary characters, Mayor Quimby, on the Kennedys. I didn’t live through that, but I still know what it is and find it funny. I just wouldn’t have thought it was funny when I was 12 — and I wasn’t supposed to.

Of all the things that make a TV show dated, the least of anyone’s worries should be pop culture references that are out-of-date. Take this scene from NewsRadio:

In 1995, Whitewater was the lead story on every national news broadcast and was the first of many scandals Bill Clinton would endure. Now? I couldn’t tell you one thing about it. Nothing. I know it was a scandal, and that’s it. But that doesn’t necessarily mean this scene isn’t funny — it’s hysterical. Phil Hartman and Dave Foley take two traditional comedy roles — the straight man and the funny man — and play them to their funniest extreme. It’s over-the-top without being ridiculous, and uses the available comedic talent to its fullest. It doesn’t matter if you know squat about Whitewater or even what’s going on in the scene. It’s still funny 15 years later because these are two talented, funny actors.

So what exactly makes a TV show dated?

Technology. There’s a pretty good case for Seinfeld being the most rewatchable sitcom ever. It wouldn’t stay in regular rotation and generate consistently high ratings if it wasn’t. But it ended more than 10 years ago, and it’s been more than 15 years since it started its run as the biggest show on TV. In Seinfeld-ese: “Ever noticed that just about all the problems in Seinfeld could have been solved with a cellphone?” And there’s a joke in one episode, “I gotta get on this Internet thing.” The show ended at the cusp of the boom of both of those inventions, and not having those things in play almost makes the show look like it was set in the New York City of I Am Legend.

Format of the day. Hollywood is a copycat town. When something is groundbreaking, it gets copied like crazy in the hopes it can piggy-back off something else’s success and make a fraction of the money the original made. So when you see something like Falcon Crest now, you just know it’s a lesser copy of Dynasty. When you see the Ellen show, you know it’s just a copy of Friends, which was a copy of Seinfeld. The shows that still look original, that you’re still able to watch now years after they’ve been on TV, are the ones that were doing something — anything — original. We think mockumentary comedies like Parks and Recreation and Modern Family are funny now. Will we think that way in 15 years, or will we just call them copies of The Office? Either Office?

Bad pop culture references. Maybe it’s not pop culture itself that makes a show seem dated, maybe it’s just bad references. In the past year, Community dedicated two entire episodes to mocking Goodfellas and Die Hard and has a Pulp Fiction episode planned. You think those movies are going anywhere? They all came out at least 15 years ago, and they don’t look dated for a second. Not. One. Second. The show tries to be so hip that it often slips up — my wife didn’t get a Last Airbender joke a couple weeks ago — but for the most part, Community sticks with the classics.

They’ve been improved on. Shows can be groundbreaking, but what if they didn’t break enough ground? Cosby Show is dated now because something like Married With Children blew up its format and then Modern Family made it more realistic. Hill Street Blues is dated because Homicide and NYPD Blue went to the places it only wished it could, then The Wire came around and made people say “Hill Street what now?” It’s not necessarily their fault, they were fighting like crazy to get what they got on the air. But when they paved that main road, other shows followed and built side streets. That’s just how it happened, to the detriment of some of the older trailblazers. There was nothing like this Homicide scene in the cops shows that came before it.

Bad quality. When it comes down to it, this is what makes a show dated. Even if we liked a show 20 years ago, we may have been victims of media hype, of water cooler peer pressure or just plan guilty pelasures. There’s nothing wrong with that. But we’re allowed to look back and say, “Yeah, that show sucked.” Even if it still holds a strong place in our TV heart.

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