TV and History

Getting ready to do another bunch of threads on the sorry state of the network fall schedule, and ran across American Dreams

A while back, I realized why this show (or at least the promos, which is all I can bring myself to watch of it) seemed hauntingly familiar.

It’s a mawkish family drama about a period 35-40 years ago.

But wait! In the 1970s, we ALSO had a maudlin family drama about a period 35-40 years before that… The Waltons.

So apparently, 35-40 years is the time frame in which we feel a need, in our fictional depiction of it, to frame a time period in “family values”. And we make a show about it roughly every thirty years.

In a simlar pattern, we have a sitcom,begun in the 1990s, That 70’s Show, which reflects humorously on a time 20-25 years earlier.

We also had that in the 1970s-80s. Happy Days. In fact, we had it twice.

So every twenty years or so, we do a sitcom or two about the time two decades earlier.

Is this a real pattern? All these shows were/are hits, or at least long running (even though some of us who watched them then now wonder why). Have we discovered the secret to historical TV success?

Older Dopers, was there a successful saccharine family drama in the late 1940s (or perhaps a radio show before 1948?) about a family struggling through the 1900s? Or a sitcom from the 1950s about the 1930s?

Did That 80’s Show fail, not because it sucked (watched MASH or Happy Days recently?), but because it failed to follow the pattern?

And what does this mean for the future? In the 20-teens, will we have the “Dot-Comedy!”, a sitcom about the 1990s? Only to have the 2030’s give us the saccharine story of a family struggling to cope with the Internet Age?

I think it’s clear that most people don’t actually feel nostalgia for a particular era but are actually feeling nostalgic about a time in their own life.

Holy crap! There was!

“Mama”, based on the play “I Remember Mama”. Ran 1949-1956.

There was also “Life With Father,” set in the same era as “Mama.”

I also vaguely recall a short-lived sitcom in the 1960s about a teenage girl living in the 1920s. Damned if I can remember the name.

But “The Wonder Years” only had a gap of 20 years (set in the late 60s, ran in the late 80s) and “Leave it to Beaver” was actually set in the present (although it was probably Norman Rockwell’s idea of the present.)

Margie (1961-1962). (Not to be confused with My Little Margie.)

So, in about ten years, we should keep our eyes open for a humorous sitcom about life in the 80’s? Sorry, all the disco jokes have been done.

What, you missed That '80s Show?

No, the nostalgic sitcoms are typically set about 20 years ago, while the nostalgic family dramas are set 30-40 years ago.

He said a humorous sitcom.

Well now, “Margie” seems to reinforce the hypothesis by petering out after a season or two, but “The Wonder Years” seems to break the mold.

Perhaps “That 80’s Show” failed solely due to its abysmal quality.

Lemme see:

1940s: Successful Drama about the 1900s: Mama(1949)
1950s: Successful Comedy about the 1930s: ?
1960s: patterns skips a decade

1970s: Successful Drama about the 1930s: The Waltons(1972)
Successful Comedy about the 1950s: Happy Days (1974), MASH(1972),
Laverne and Shirley (1976)
1980s: pattern skips a decade
1990s: Successful Comedy about the 1970s: That 70s Show (1998)
2000s: Successful Drama about the 1960s: American Dreams (2002)

The only way for “The Wonder Years” not to break the pattern is if its a part of a larger pattern in and of itself.

That is, every 23-30 years, we get a drama that takes place 40 years earlier, and every x number of years, we get a drama that takes place 20 years earlier. Not only did we have “The Wonder Years”, but “China Beach” as well.

Any candidate shows that could tell us what x might be?

And any reinforcement of the patterns by finding a hit 1950s sitcom set about 20 years earlier? Our range of comedy is 22-26 years, so something anywhere from 1946-1954

The only show at all I can find is “The Untouchables”, but I’d be hard pressed to call that a comedy.

The early 1980s had Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley when they were set in the 1960s, and The Waltons when it was set in the 1940s. The Indiana Jones-ish Tales of the Gold Monkey (1982) was set in 1938.

Not a family drama, but there was The Roaring 20’s in 1960-62. Nostalgia was a part of its appeal.

The Chicago Teddy Bears was a comedy set in the 20s. It ran briefly in 1971 and made The 80s Show seem Emmy-worthy in comparison.

The Wonder Years exactly fits the pattern. I watched it from beginning to end, and it was set exactly 20 yearse before the year it first aired. When it premiered in 1988, it was set in 1968, and moved forward one year per season.

No exceptions need to be made for it.