Friday, October 15, 2010

If A TV Show Turns 50 And No One Notices...

If A TV Show Turns 50 And No One Notices...
by David Bianculli
October 6, 2010

The theme song to TV's My Three Sons is a tune all but guaranteed to start your toes tapping — and it may even conjure up long-dormant images of the animated opening credits, where cartoon toes were actually tapping.

There's value in old shows like that one, not just because the best of them were and are entertaining but because they provide a snapshot of what we were, what we accepted and what, in some cases, we aspired to become.

I mention this not because of a general wave of nostalgia, but because of a very specific wave: Last Wednesday, My Three Sons, a gentle ABC sitcom starring Fred MacMurray as a single father raising three boys, turned 50 years old. I would say it celebrated its golden anniversary, except I couldn't find any celebration.

There was no mention on ABC, which wasn't about to waste valuable prime time on a show that premiered before the oldest person in the network's coveted 18-to-49 demographic was even born. Not on TV Land, which you'd think would be a natural — or even on Nick at Nite. No, not even on cable networks devoted to vintage TV, where "vintage" these days means The George Lopez Show. And I'm not kidding.

My Three Sons, by the way, is by no means an isolated case of TV's disregard for its own past. Last Sunday, CBS's The Andy Griffith Show — one of TV's most durable, popular and iconic weekly shows, turned 50. TV Land at least showed a four-hour block of episodes that day to honor the event — but made sure the celebration was over before prime time.

The Flintstones turned 50 last week, and only the Boomerang cable network seemed to care. ABC's Beulah, the first TV sitcom to star an African-American, turned 60 last weekend — but not even BET bothered to present an episode.

And yesterday was the 60th anniversary of You Bet Your Life, the delightful game show hosted by Groucho Marx — and I bet your life you didn't know that.

Next month is the golden anniversary of one of the most important TV documentaries ever shown — Edward R. Murrow's Harvest of Shame, about migrant workers, which was originally shown Thanksgiving weekend on CBS. It's been out on video for years — but if no one sees it, that's the same as being lost and forgotten.

The same goes for a show that turns 60 next Tuesday, a CBS series that was the pivotal missing link between vaudeville, radio and what evolved into the TV sitcom: The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show.

This was when both George Burns and TV were relatively young. The stage sets of George and Gracie's house only had three walls, so studio audiences could see the stars. Mentions of the commercial sponsor, Carnation Evaporated Milk, were folded right into the show's dialogue; Gracie, effortlessly bringing to TV her radio role of a ditzy dame, would wonder how they managed to get milk from a carnation.

But the central DNA of television situation comedy is all here: the neighbor who bursts in unannounced, the schemes that don't work, the husband who thinks he knows best but often doesn't. And after 60 years, the comedy is still funny.

For example, the scene where Gracie visits a friend in the hospital and returns home with a bouquet of flowers — and yes, they're carnations — still gets a big laugh from the college students in my TV history class.

"I'll put them in the refrigerator, dear," she says to George. "We'll milk them later."

"We'll milk them later," he repeats. "Well, I guess if she made sense, I'd still be selling ties."

So where is that scene going to be shown on TV next week? So far as I can tell, nowhere. And that's a shame. For movie fans, Turner Classic Movies is the perfect cable network. It shows films unedited and uninterrupted, and has a host on hand to put things in context. It even has a weekend showcase called The Essentials, where Robert Osborne and guest host Alec Baldwin present certain movies, and talk about why they love them.

Where's the TV equivalent, when more programs are celebrating key anniversaries every year? If we forget our TV history, we're doomed to no repeats.

David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website, and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey

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