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Those '70s Shows

Welcome to the 1998-1999 television season, or, as the Chinese Calendar calls it, "the year of the hackneyed premise."

There's hardly time to sit a spell and take your shoes off before you're bombarded with images of a close-knit Irish brood, chock full o' cliches (priest, hard-drinking lug); a bumbling single dad struggling to raise a cute, sassy moppet (or, in the case of the Olsen twins, cute, sassy, multinational conglomerates); or a thoughtful meditation on race relations, where people of different ethnic backgrounds are depicted living harmoniously, reveling in each other's successes and commiserating over their shared failures in this crazy, mixed-up world of ours.

Of course, you'll have to tune in to the Sci-Fi Channel for that last one. As for The Hughleys -- the G isn't silent and unfortunately, neither is the star -- and Living in Captivity, which both depict black families moving into white neighborhoods with incredibly zany results, they're just brash fish-out-of-water tales that will tank soon enough.

What I find completely despicable, though, isn't the shallow stereotypes, trite plots, or ham-fisted theatrics, but the fact that these shows aren't even really new; they're hollow retreads of groundbreaking programs of the 1970s.

And it's not just Messrs. Bunker and Jefferson being fleeced. Their whole decade has become ripe for the picking, as far as television executives are concerned. The seventies have been considered something of a national embarrassment since, well, the very early '80s. But now, it's as if there was some sudden, collective decision to embrace the era that we recently-and rightly-abhorred.

Don't get me wrong -- television has always recycled its concepts with a frequency that would make even tree-hugging hemp-monger Woody Harrelson proud. But there used to be a certain false nobility to the practice.

When producers pinched ideas, they at least had the moxie to beat their chests and loudly explain how I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched bore no resemblance to each other, how The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits were light years apart creatively, or how The Golden Girls was not just a thinly veiled Bonanza knockoff, with the action moved from a Western cattle ranch to a Southern Florida retirement community, and the delightful Bea Arthur ably filling Hoss' formidable chaps. As if we wouldn't see right through that.

But it seems that even the minimal effort it took to ape successful shows and pass the premises off as their own -- a la Hughleys and Captivity -- is starting to prove too much for some TV honchos, who've now abandoned all pretense and are resurrecting 20-something-year-old programs, essentially intact.

The trend actually started last season, when UPN took The Love Boat out of mothballs. Now, one might not fault UPN for giving the old girl another run; it was, after all, a fledgling netlet and needed a gimmick to snag an instant audience. But if you pay any credence whatsoever to the saying, "You only get one chance to make a first impression," you should be downright insulted that a brand-spanking-new network, struggling to be taken seriously, chose as its flagship show a rehashing of a decades-old vehicle that's chief contribution to the cultural climate was introducing America to the glandular Landers sisters.

Of course, the new Boat has a '90s edge, including a female chief of security played by Joan Severance, proving that there is indeed life after soft porn, even if it's the showbiz equivalent of being in the witness protection program. Look for Andrew Stevens as Lance, your ship's gynecologist, in an upcoming episode.

Love Boat's '70s Saturday-night neighbor is also making a comeback this season, with ABC saying welcome to Fantasy Island. Of course, the new Island has a '90s edge, including a dark-suit-wearing, pseudo-evil Mr. Roarke, and the complete absence of a diminutive French sidekick. The Tattoo removal is not necessarily a misstep, though, since 1) Herve Villechaize is long-since dead, and 2) as a replacement, we get the superfantabulous Madchen Amick. Smiles, everyone, smiles!

Nevertheless, no man -- save Ricardo Montalban -- is an Island. And that goes double for the creepy Malcolm McDowell, who increasingly looks more and more like Sting's deranged father.

And then there are the game shows. Dear, sweet Lord, the game shows.

Every 10 years or so, someone gets a notion to stack celebrities three-high, hire some schlub to ask them double-entendre-laden questions, wrangle a couple of yokels to gauge the veracity of their answers, and nationally televise the whole sordid mess. The driving force of Hollywood Squares this time around is Whoopi Goldberg, who occupies both the center square and, for some reason, a place in America's heart.

Now, I was just a tyke when Peter Marshall was trading barbs with the likes of Squares-denizens Charlie Weaver, Rose Marie, and Paul Lynde, but I seem to remember that the stars back then could at least feign improvisation. I'm sure those snappy remarks weren't all as snappy as they were purported to be, but no one cared because the scripting wasn't as pull-down-your-pants obvious as it is now.

I haven't seen every episode -- my incessant binge drinking demands too much of my time -- but I have yet to see Whoopi answer a single question without periodically glancing downward to consult what has to be either a cheat sheet, or a reminder of why she's there in the form of a check containing more O's than that grid she's anchoring.

You'd expect more from someone who calls herself a comedian and is therefore supposed to be funny and fast on her feet, but not if you dialed up Comedy Central's Make Me Laugh, the show that challenges contestants to sit straight-faced through one full minute of a comic's shtick. If you've ever seen a comedian bomb, you know how the room takes on a desperate, nervous energy as he tries in vain to win over the crowd. Now imagine that it's a crowd of one -- and that you're it -- and you'll understand what nearly all of the participants on this show endure. Perhaps a more apt title would be Make Me Very, Very Uncomfortable.

The original Laugh featured up-and-comers with talent like Freddie Prinze and Jay Leno who sported what, even in the '70s, was an ungodly tousle of hair. Now, with the glut of comedians this country has churned out in the last 15 years or so, any half-wit with a wry observation and a sport coat is vying for stage time at the local Nut Hut. And turning up on shows like Make Me Laugh. And guess what -- most of them can't.

The '70s-redux onslaught is only gaining strength. Donny and Marie recently launched a talk show, a new Wonder Woman series is in the planning stages, Mary Tyler Moore and Valerie Harper are rumored to be reprising their Mary Richards and Rhoda Morgenstern characters, and Match Game and Family Feud remakes are reportedly in the works. Survey says: Bad idea on all counts!

Ironically, one of this season's most original new offerings has its spiritual, if not its creative, roots in the '70s. Network executives would do well to learn a lesson from That '70s Show and create funny, unique work instead of reusing tired plots, characters, and even entire series. That '70s Show puts a fresh spin on the sitcom format, showing a slice of American life from 20 years ago, the same way Happy Days portrayed the '50s... back in the...

Hey, wait a minute.

We've been duped. My God, the show even has Tanya Roberts, proving once again that there is indeed life after soft porn. So, I guess, sit back, turn on your lava lamp, and look for Andrew Stevens as Lance, the wacky next-door neighbor, in an upcoming episode.


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