Last night, I got caught up in a Twitter discussion about the flood of largely forgotten sci-fi and fantasy shows which came and went on network TV during the late Seventies and early Eighties. It devolved, as these conversations tend to do, into an extended back-and-forth of hey-do-you-remembers annotated with the appropriate YouTube links.
I’m not going to rehash that here, but the experience did dredge up certain memories — not of the shows themselves, but of how I experienced them as a tow-headed tyke back in the day.
This was a time and place where single-TV homes were the norm, cable was an expensive rarity, and VCRs were all but unknown. TV viewing was a family affair involving complex scheduling, trade-offs, and the all-power parental veto. This was especially true in a crowded apartment where one of the six inhabitants slept on the living room couch. My reserved blocks of TV time were largely limited to the Must-See Dealie-Os (Dukes of Hazzard, Happy Days, Saturday Morning Cartoons) or opportunistically snatched during the post-dinner/pre-prime time dead zone of syndicated sitcoms and game show repeats. (Hence my abiding love of WKRP, Barney Miller, and the Gong Show.)
Otherwise, I never really knew what was on outside what my parents felt like watching or what cropped up during in-house promo spots. The only way I’d find out about some New Big Thing was by hearing about it on the playground during recess, at a Cub Scout meeting, or hanging with the gang of neighborhood kids on the stone wall across from Scott Mullen’s house. The shit was always talked up to a hyperbolic degree, which made the angst of missing out all the more acute.
Even worse were the times where the lucky those-in-the-know would make it the subject of the the day’s free play.
“Let’s play Future Cop! I’ll be Haven!” they’d say, and you’d just sort of roll with getting stuck some character you knew nothing about except that he wasn’t one of the cool ones.
That humiliation would be enough to cajole your irritable parents into letting you watch the next scheduled episode. I was pretty successful at this, reveling in the victory as I counted down the days, hours, and minutes until it aired.
Then the anticipated moment would arrive and….well, I rarely viewed more than one episode of these shows during their original runs.
For starters, once the sun sets and I enter a reclined position, my body almost immediately falls into a state approximating the Odinsleep. It’s why my wife disregards any complaints I have about bedroom noise or lighting. “You’ll be passed out in five minutes, so don’t worry about it.”
Furthermore, few of these shows lasted more than a handful of episodes before getting the axe or jumping to some less lucrative timeslot. They were forgotten because they were forgettable, yes, but also because they rarely stuck around long enough or consistently enough to make any impression on the masses. It also didn’t help that kids’ tastes are fickle in the extreme. There’s always a new darling in the pipeline to replace the previous moment’s one, which makes the constancy of the era’s Happy Days cult so remarkable by comparison.
Finally, most of these sci-fi TV shows were boring as fuck from a kid’s perspective. Budgetary constraints and network-imposed hedging produced works of action TV boilerplate gussied up with a veneer of fantasy. Out of a fifty minute show, you’d be lucky to get five minutes of the effects-driven nonsense you tuned in to see. The rest was just long talky bits, sloppily blocked fights, and stuntmen crashing their way through the decade’s massive inventory of surplus domestic automobile stock.
The bits that did stick, however, stuck deeply if not broadly. Up through my late twenties, every encounter with a new circle of geeks would involve some coded, half-remembered reference to one of these shows or another. I’d make an offhand reference to Automan and someone in the group would pick it up and respond in kind, like some liturgical ritual of a mystery cult. It didn’t matter that neither of us could remember any detailed specifics, because it wasn’t really about the show at all. It was an acknowledgement of shared childhood experiences.
It’s also the sort of thing from which toxic “gatekeeping” attitudes can emerge, unfortunately.
Every group also had That One Guy (always male) who had absorbed all those shows with near-photographic recall, making them the bomb piece in the Stratego set of geek social interaction. You’d drop a passing reference to Manimal as a throwaway joke and in turn receive a three-hour rant about the most minute details of the show, delivered with stream of spittle flecks and a truly frightening intensity of focus. I’m pretty certain that if I returned to the lobby of Wheatley Hall today, I’d still find a certain college acquaintance rambling to a space I vacated twenty-five years ago, “…and don’t even get me STARTED about how they fucked up The Misfits of Science!”
During my late twenties and early thirties, during moments of nostalgic weakness, I made an active effort to seek out these shows by any means available — cable repeats, bootleg DVDs, torrented rips of VHS tapes with Finnish subtitles. The thrill was more in the chase than in the capture, because the vast majority of it remains unwatched past the pilot episodes. The stuff wasn’t great shakes to begin with. The passage of four decades has not improved things, as the seams and joints and rough edges are even more obvious to my grown-up eyes.
(This has also become the case — minus the steep nostalgic inflationary curve — with shows of more recent vintage such as Buffy and Charmed. The latter especially, because you can pinpoint the exact moment the budget was slashed to the season where the villains gave up their elaborate costumes and started to dress like bouncers at a Theater District dance club.)
I wish I could watch an episode of Buck Rogers with the same fascinated indulgence I could when I was ten years old, but the only takeaway for my present self is that I had really shitty tastes as a kid.