Bad old days are long gone

Dave Bartlett
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TV writing has come a long way in the last couple of decades

Have you tried to watch any of the shows you grew up with lately? Maybe you’ve found a few on Netflix, or bought a box set of a past favourite on digital discs.

“The Dukes of Hazzard” is one of the shows that just hasn’t stood the test of time, despite having spawned a feature film a few years back. — Submitted photo

Some of you may actually even still own VHS tapes and machines of classic, grainy episodes of shows that never achieved digital release.

So, did your favourite show hold up to the test of time when you watched it again? Was it how you remembered it at all?

Or did you find yourself rolling your eyes at something you laughed at 15, 20 or 30 years ago: or did an overused bit of lame dialogue, or even a now questionable stereotype, make you cringe?

I’ve tried to watch a number of shows I was obsessed with in elementary school and junior high and I can’t think of one off the top of my head that has held up very well at all.

However, the characters in those shows still seem like pop culture behemoths to me.

There’s B.A. Baracus and his other A-Team allies, the Duke boys of Hazzard County and MacGyver. I mean the guy’s name is a verb I still hear used occasionally around my circle of friends.

To MacGyver: to make or fix something complex using common items usually found in the bottom of a pocket with the lint, such as paper clips and rubber bands.

I’m sure many of you didn’t need that definition.

Even two comedies I watched as a kid — “Different Strokes,” and “The Facts of Life” — have had their turn after various Netflix hunts.

But of those five shows, I have not been able to sit through a full episode without having my attention drift to what I was going to have for dinner or what the cat was playing with now.

More often than not, 15 minutes in, I turn off the screen and go do something different.

Beyond those shows, think of the great ensemble of “Night Court” or “WKRP in Cincinnati.” Anyone who watched TV back then remembers bald-headed bailiff Bull Shannon and DJ Dr. Johnny Fever.

Those are two shows that may actually have some staying power, and I would like to find out if they also would turn out to be as disappointing as most of their peers.

So, if I can still appreciate the characters of all these shows, and characters are what typically drives a series, why have so many of the shows I have tried to watch from my youth been so disappointing?

It comes down to writing. Most TV is still based on tried and true formulae and tropes, but not like it was 25 years ago.

The advent and rise of American cable networks and now direct viewing of original series from Netflix have forced the major networks to push their boundaries and, plain and simply, make better programming.

So, now great characters also get to have flaws, or at least be more three-dimensional.

Four-dimensional if you consider how some TV characters have grown over the course of a series.

One of the most notable that comes to mind is Willow Rosenberg, played by Alyson Hannigan, in “Buffy The Vampire Slayer.” At the start of the show, Willow is a shy nerd, nervous around popular kids and teased for her booksmarts and bland attire.

By Season 7, Willow had slowly morphed through several stages organically and gradually from astute researcher and computer hacker, to a crime fighting and werewolf-guitarist-dating teen, to a powerful lesbian witch in college, to a cold-blooded vengeance killer and finally, a repentant magical powerhouse who was scared to wield the power that she could.

And beyond better character development, shows started to find new ways to tell their stories, even within the confines of four 11-minute blocks of show timed to fit in 16 minutes of commercials spread over four or five breaks in the narrative.

Yet, some of that formulaic writing seems to be coming back in vogue.

In particular, I’ve notice a string of very recent Canadian comedies are seem stuck in that ’80s formula mentality.

A shame when the Canadian shows of the ’80s, while maybe a little cheesy, were actually better written and hold up moderately better than the stuff from south of the border because of a solid sense of place. Think “The Beachcombers.”

And it’s a real shame when you compare these shows to a great recent Canadian show which I really miss, “Less than Kind.” Granted, it was an HBO Canada production.

Alas, the show faltered after the death of Maury Chaykin. Though the series continued with a few beautiful episodes of how the Blecher family dealt with their patriarch’s death, it was missing a certain magic.

But when it was at its best, it could blend comedy and drama in such a seamless and unique way.

We need more shows like it.

What shows from your past have

disappointed you when you’ve rewatched them?  Send correspondence to Dave Bartlett

at talkingtelevsion@gmail.com.

Organizations: HBO Canada

Geographic location: Hazzard, Cincinnati

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