June 16, 2002

Nowadays we're all finding new (and, according to TV executives, ever more worrisome and criminal) ways to not watch commercials when our favorite programs are on. And yet time and again what fascinates us most about old TV shows is not the programming itself, but those selfsame commercials that we tried so studiously to avoid when they were first shown.

Through commercials, we can watch the evolution of modern culture with a much less self-consciousness style than "normal" programming provides. Game shows, the infomercials of the sixties and seventies, are a particular source of fun. Who would've thought that a big TV was a 19" set (and was a freestanding piece of furniture), or that avocado green was once considered an attractive interior color, or that a really nice car would only cost $3500? It seems a little surreal to watch someone get completely hysterical over winning $10,000 until you realize that amount of money would get you half-way to owning a house in 1971.

After awhile even the programs themselves begin to take on this quality. I didn't notice it as much when I was growing up in the 70s. At that point, the only "old" programming we had came from the stilted, self-delusioned, stylized late 50s and early 60s. Ozzie and Harriet seems timeless because it comes from no time, no place that ever really existed in America. You may laugh at "I Love Lucy" (and right you should), but there's not much in the program that would fix in your mind anything about the period it was created in.

Thirty years later we now have a much broader range of far more realistic portrayals of modern life. At this point shows from the 70s are the most interesting (although the 80s shows are closing fast), because that was when TV stopped trying to create some sort of stylized Shangri-la of Americana and started really trying to portray life, warts and all.

And what a life it shows us. Who would've thought that a guy could get evicted from an apartment because he moved in with two women? The women's movement, the struggle for racial integration and equality, the Vietnam war, are all given an immediacy, a level of detail, a tangibility, that you just don't get watching a documentary on any of those subjects.

Again, it's the lack of self-consciousness that really strikes you. "That 70s show" tries to make fun of the "me" decade, but anachronisms creep in everywhere you look (I'm sure there were millions of high-school couples in 1978 who wished their parents would leave them in a bedroom alone to "study"). It feels fake because everyone knows how it turned out, what happens in the end, what stuff had a future and what stuff ended up being, well, stupid stuff. The Partridge Family didn't have this problem because it was the 70s. Nobody knew what the hell was going on, and it shows in everything from the topics they chose to the clothes they wore to the cars they drove.

This is why ancient texts can be so much fun to read. Watching a History Channel documentary on the Roman Empire will give you a nice overview of what happened, but it's nothing like the immediacy, the level of detail, or the downright bizarre feel you get reading a documentary about the same stuff from someone who saw it happen, lived just down the street from the emperor, and really did believe there were gods on Olympus. Someone today describing what the Parthenon looked like when new is nothing compared to someone who was scribbling on a scroll in front of the thing when it was new.

And ancient authors don't just tell you what things look like. They give directions. How to get there, where to stay, which inn has good beer and which temple has the best hookers. A modern history of Augustus will tell you what he did, but a contemporary will tell you what he was like, who he slept with, and which particularly colorful method he used to off one of his more annoying critics. This is stuff you just don't get in a modern history book, and it makes it all live for you.

When Seutonius describes the forum or Pliny talks about defending a case in court yesterday or Herodotus describes the pyramids, it makes you want to get up and go look at these things yourself. You have to stop and remind yourself that these people are dust, and the places they talk about are rubble.

It's at that point, when you realize the things they loved, cherished, worried about, or fought for exist now only on the pages of the book you're holding, that history has truly come to life.

Posted by scott at June 16, 2002 04:33 PM

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