Before most people had a television, my dad brought one home for the family one day, as a surprise. I remember that the screen was more olive green and white than it was black and white!
The first show I remember watching was Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca's The Show of Shows. The whole family watched it every week. We also watched The Jack Benny Program and The Milton Berle Show. These types of variety shows used to be all over TV (years later, my husband and I watched The Carol Burnett Show and The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour). I think their demise was largely due to the writer’s strike in 2007-2008. When the networks suddenly found themselves without scripts, they turned to a new genre that was already big in Europe: the unscripted reality show. Who knew they’d come to dominate TV the way they have.
One more show stands out to me as a child. There was a McCarthy era television show called I Led Three Lives in which a U.S. agent infiltrated liberal organizations to look for people to accuse of being Communist sympathizers. My parents had friends who were victims of McCarthy’s witch hunts, and so they forbade me from watching I Led Three Lives. Of course, this meant that I hoped they’d go out the night it was on so that I could watch it! I saw a lot of episodes.
In my teens, my favorite show was Father Knows Best. My dad died when I was ten, and the father on that show (played by Robert Young) became a substitute dad for me. I adored him just as I'd adored my dad. I never missed an episode.
In high school, I also watched American Bandstand with Dick Clark after school every day. Looking back, it was a sign of my loneliness. I often came home to an empty house (my mother had to work) and this show was my company. I came to know all the kids from Philly who were regulars. I had my favorites and if they were there, I was excited to see them. I also had favorite couples and would feel sad if they broke up (which I’d figure out because they wouldn't be dancing with each other anymore). I also saw most of the big pop music stars perform on that show—Frankie Avalon, Bobby Darin, Connie Stevens...and many more.
Then there was a long period—college and beyond— when I didn’t watch TV.
When we had our two kids, we started looking for family fare on TV. The Bill Cosby Show rose to the top of our list. Of course, I condemn his treatment of women off-screen, but the original Cosby show was, in my view, one of the best sit-coms to ever be on television. By then, we had a VCR (yes, the now antiquated VCR), and we recorded most of the shows and watched them over and over.
When my kids got older, I don’t remember what I watched—if anything—for many years.
Then, when I became chronically ill in 2001, TV became my new best friend. The problem was, there was hardly anything worth seeing on it, so we subscribed to Netflix and I started watching movies, sometimes all day long. (Back then, they only came to you as DVDs in the mail.)
I wanted to watch tennis, which I’d learned to love on TV when I initially fell ill and was stuck in bed on a trip to Paris, but the big matches in most of the major tournaments, such as Wimbledon, took place in the middle of the night for me. Then my friend Nhi suggested I get a TiVo so I could record the tennis and watch it when I got up in the morning. My first reaction was that this technology was way beyond my ability to purchase and set up. Not deterred, Nhi got all the information for me, helped me order it and set it up.
With the TiVo in place, a new era of TV watching became part of my life, and not just because of the tennis that was on. My husband and I decided to splurge (since I was home all day, mostly in bed) and buy premium cable, which included HBO. Back then, HBO had a terrific line-up of shows, such as Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, Sex and the City (the latter may seem trivial, but the writing was superb: each half hour was a little morality play, narrated by Sarah Jessica Parker). I loved HBO: no ads, no censorship, great scripts, superb acting. Now, several other cable channels have become competitive in quality with HBO.
I rarely look at network television. And, if I do want to see something, I record it to watch later so I can speed through the commercials. In addition, with TiVo (or a DVR which is what we have now), I can pause a program if I want to, and I can rewind it if I didn't understand something or if I just want to see a good scene again. I love my DVR!
My husband and I do have one guilty pleasure on network TV and that’s Survivor. We think our attraction to it comes from the days when he was an elected official and had to play a similar “game”: the social game and the political game.
The show I miss the most is David Letterman's Late Night. We recorded it every night and watched most of them the next evening. Dave was like a relative you love but who can also drive you crazy. He could go too far at times and even be obnoxious, but so can that relative you love. He was smart and he was fast with his humor. And, I loved his honesty. He was like a member of the family to me, and none of the other late night show hosts come close to taking his place. I wish he were still on.
And that's my brief history of TV watching!
My list is not as in depth as my mother’s...and I’m sure I’m missing some because I don’t have a great memory. I used to watch a lot of television, but more and more I don’t watch dramatic programming very much. I usually have news or the Food Network on as background noise. But there are definitely a few shows that I feel a connection to.
The ones listed below are the ones that I watched every week, or if they’re still on, I make sure to DVR them. I’ve only included ones that were on for multiple years. There are lots of newer shows I enjoy, but they haven’t been on long enough for me to feel like they've become part of my life history. I’ve divided my list into three categories: childhood, young adult, and adult.
The Facts of Life
Little House on the Prairie
The Bill Cosby Show
(Honorable mentions are Dallas, LA Law, Hills Street Blues, The Wonder Years, and Moonlighting because those were shows my whole family watched together.)
Law and Order
Mad About You
Game of Thrones
Note from Toni: After reading Mara's list, I have to add to mine of course. Yes, I forgot all of her honorable mentions, which we enjoyed watching together as a family. (We watched Dallas to make fun of it!) And how could I forget Downton Abbey, which I watched so faithfully that when I thought the fourth season wasn't up to par, I wrote a piece for Psychology Today about it! If you want to read it, here it is: Has Downton Abbey Jumped the Shark?