When less is more on TV

Posted: May 09, 2002 12:00 AM
Try to imagine what would be the reaction of today's typical twenty- or thirtysomething TV scriptwriter were he suddenly ordered to make his writing conform to the broadcast standards of 1965. My guess is that he'd submit a blank piece of paper, then resign. Most scriptwriters today could never deliver the quality of product regularly produced by the likes of Carl Reiner, Jackie Gleason, and all those other writers working in an industry with so many creative limits 40 years ago. Consider sex, almost certainly the most notable of the many topics the TV shows of the 1950s and 1960s weren't allowed to mention. Now try to imagine a current comedy series without sexual material as an essential element. But has adding colors to the palette resulted in better programming? It appears that TV Guide's May 4 cover story choosing the 50 greatest television series ever reaches the conclusion that more latitude has actually produced less quality. Were there a correlation between program quality and the lessening of restraints on television's writing and producing corps -- that thing Hollywood calls "creative license" -- one would expect the magazine's list to be heavily weighted in favor of shows appearing in the last 25 years, and especially in the last 10. After all, how were you supposed to produce a first-rate series back when you couldn't portray a married couple sharing a bed, couldn't depict a single dad sleeping with his new girlfriend, and couldn't even say the word "pregnant"? Somehow they managed. "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and "The Andy Griffith Show" both premiered more than 40 years ago. TV Guide ranks "Van Dyke" thirteenth, "Griffith" ninth. Then there's "I Love Lucy," which began its run more than half a century ago; the magazine ranks it the second-greatest show in history. Coming in third is "The Honeymooners," another '50s show. In fact, of the 36 prime-time broadcast-network entertainment series on the list (which also included the likes of "The Sopranos," "Sesame Street," "Nightline" and "The Oprah Winfrey Show"), 20 were launched in the quarter-century between 1950 and 1974. In fact, only five of the top 50 have debuted in the past decade, a small-screen epoch of bare buttocks, crude language and sitcom jokes concerning virtually every type of sexual practice. Oh, sure -- there's lots to nit-pick here, starting with "Seinfeld" rated as the greatest show in history. Cite the show for succeeding -- wildly -- in making something out of nothing, week after week -- but that's it. How could "The Odd Couple," surely one of the funniest sitcoms of all time, not qualify? Why didn't "The Untouchables," for my money the greatest police drama of all time, make the cut? How in blazes did "Donahue" make the list but not "Barney Miller"? A few of the selections will raise eyebrows with social conservatives, too. Some sex-heavy, even vulgar, series, such as "Seinfeld," "Friends," "Roseanne" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," are on the list. Yet again and again we observe among the picks a preference for older, cleaner series over newer, racier ones. Where legal dramas are concerned, "The Defenders" is on; "L.A. Law" is not. Traditional-values series like "Bonanza" and "Gunsmoke" made it; the self-consciously "innovative" "NYPD Blue" and "Ally McBeal" didn't. While plenty of "edgy," critically acclaimed modern comedies and dramas could have occupied slot No. 50, the magazine instead honored that wholesome rerun staple "Bewitched." What happened? We may be seeing signs of a backlash against the networks' ever-relaxing standards. Given TV Guide's massive circulation and influence, this would be, to understate it more than a little, a positive development. Moreover, the magazine's selections seem to endorse an idea that Hollywood usually resists: Some restrictions on "artistic freedom" actually are conducive to artistic excellence. An artist once was challenged to produce quality. Today, he's instructed to reach the lowest common denominator, by any means possible. We're now well into a period when much of TV takes the easy way out, resorting to self-indulgence and sensationalism rather than the discipline and talent needed to tell a good story. Perhaps TV Guide's recognition of so many bygone shows will nudge the industry back to the future. Yes, the world has changed, and yes, some of the old content restrictions were silly, but if the choice is between slightly stuffy then and almost-anything-goes now, I'll take Rob and Laura Petrie, twin beds and all, over "Will and Grace," and just about everything else on the idiot box today.