Looking Back: formative TV shows that shaped our beat

Tuesday, November 27, 2018 - 7:30pm

Looking Back at TV

Looking Back at TV Buy this photo
Casey Tin / DAILY

We live in a time of seemingly unending television content. With new streaming services and bingeable series rearing their heads on a weekly basis, the pool from which to choose quality television becomes almost unnavigable. It can be easily taken for granted then, when faced with an overabundance of content to choose from, the impact that a single show can have on a person. Watching television is so ingrained in the lifestyle of modern society, it’s almost overlooked how much one really takes in from the sitcom played after family dinner, or the talk show you watched with your mom when you couldn’t sleep. All the nights we stayed up glued to the screen, or arguing over who controlled the remote — these moments that felt menial shaped us more than we could recognize at the time. At The Daily, the writers of the TV/New Media beat are almost always tasked with taking on the deluge of brand new shows. Hardly does there come a time for us to look back at the shows that built the foundations that those we review today stand on. For once, we wanted to change that pattern, and harken back to the TV shows that made us the buffs and bingers we are today. Sofia Lynch, Daily TV/New Media Editor

Thank you for being a friend: Growing up with ‘The Golden Girls’

At 14, I didn’t know the type of woman I wanted to be. All I knew is that there were a million voices telling me what I should be. A woman is supposed to raise good kids. A woman is supposed to be strong-willed and dissident. A woman is supposed to be unapologetically sexy. A woman is supposed to be ditzy and small. Each expectation was so distinct, so contradictory. I didn’t believe any of these lifestyles I was seemingly forced to choose from could coexist. And then, I switched on “The Golden Girls.”

“The Golden Girls” aired on NBC from Sep. 1985 to May 1992, spanning seven seasons and 180 episodes. Dorothy, Blanche, Sophia and Rose. Not since Paul, John, Ringo and George had four names been so closely associated with one another. Though I did not have the good fortune of watching “The Golden Girls” as it aired, I found myself drawn to it in the summer of 2013, over a decade after its finale.

It was my first summer away from home. I was living with my grandma, a woman who mirrors the feisty, dependable Sophia in every way despite the lack of Italian heritage. I had just finished up my freshman year of high school and was starting work at my first job with a group of people I had never met before. It was a formative experience and one that in hindsight I would do again. And yet as I remember those times, I don’t think about that job or those people. What I think about is “The Golden Girls.”

Every morning, I would wake up still exhausted from the day of work before. This woman had yelled at me, that man had been creepy. And every morning, my grandma would have a hot breakfast ready and “The Golden Girls” queued up on the television. Hallmark Channel, 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m., every single weekday. For four years, I spent the summer at my grandma’s house and for four years we had the exact same routine. We laughed at Rose’s (Betty White, “Fireside Chat with Esther”) misunderstandings and long-winded stories. We rooted for Dorothy (Bea Arthur, “Enemies of Laughter”) as she was unlucky in love. We gasped at Blanche’s (Rue McClanahan, “Wit’s End”) shameless sexuality. We hoped Sophia (Estelle Getty, “The Million Dollar Kid”) would never change.

By the time I was 18, I was spending my fourth summer at that same job. The people who had once been strangers were now close friends; the place that had once been so intimidating I now knew better than my hometown. And while all that changed, one thing remained consistent: mornings spent with “The Golden Girls.” I was off to college soon, still unsure of the kind of woman I wanted to be. But then, I knew I didn’t have to choose just one. I could love widely and deeply like Sophia and still keep that smart mouth. I could be as strong and independent as Dorothy and still long for a true love. I could be feminine and seductive like Blanche and still have insecurities. I could be as loyal and nostalgic as Rose and still make a silly remark every once in a while.

Women are taught that we must contort ourselves to fit a mold that others have created for us. “The Golden Girls” taught me to challenge that, to be whoever I wanted to be and then question others on why they couldn’t accept that. By the time I first started watching “The Golden Girls,” three of the four original actresses had passed away, with only Betty White remaining. Yet for many women, whether they watched the show as it aired or with their grandmothers years after, as I did, their characters will live on in the tears, laughs and lessons we shared as women across the country just trying to figure out who we wanted to be. And so to Dorothy, Blanche, Sophia and Rose I say on behalf of all of us: Thank you for being a friend. Samantha Della Fera, Daily Arts Writer

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What ‘Ugly Betty’ taught me

The cancellation of “Ugly Betty” will go down in history as one of our nation’s lesser moments. Seriously, America? Given the opportunity to watch Judith Light (“Transparent”) and Vanessa Williams (“Desperate Housewives”) snark at each other in power suits for an hour every week, we let it get canceled? We don’t even deserve television. This is exactly what Jesus meant when he said not to cast pearls before swine.

I find myself thinking about “Ugly Betty” a lot these days. It followed the unstylish, plucky Latina Betty Suarez (America Ferrera, “Superstore”) navigating work at illustrious fashion magazine MODE, and in its four-season run, stumbled on the themes around which a lot of today’s conversations revolve: the myth of meritocracy, the politics of a workplace, the singularity of celebrity culture.

There are obvious reasons why “Ugly Betty” would resonate with someone like me. It captured nicely the experience of being a woman of color in a majority-white environment — the little indignities that might be chalked up to tone-deafness, and also the big ones, like having to work for someone whose father got him the job. Betty Suarez takes them in stride, sometimes shrugging them off with an eye roll or a sigh. Other times, they sting and bubble over into intense episodes of insecurity.

Upon rewatch, I’ve come to sympathize with MODE Magazine’s icy villain Wilhelmina Slater (Williams), a creative director with a bitter, vengeful streak and a desperate desire to be editor-in-chief. If you had been passed over for the job of a lifetime so it could be given to the publisher’s son, wouldn’t you be an icy villain too?

But as much as it was a celebration of diversity in the literal sense — an ode to brownness and immigrants and queerness and the working class — I’ve always loved “Ugly Betty” for the way it celebrated diversity in a different sense, the kind that recognizes the multitudes in each of us and our capacity to be different things.

The show itself was modeled after the Latin-American telenovela, reveling in melodrama and camp. At some moments, “Ugly Betty” was cheerful and smiley; at others, tragic and wrenching. It could hinge its dramatic stakes on anything: gun violence, Shakira, body image, immigration, networking, perfume! And I loved “Ugly Betty” for that. I loved that it could poke fun at the serious and find meaning in the frivolous.

The show came to me at a time when I was genuinely concerned that no matter what I did, I’d be unhappy. I imagined myself some kind of wretched character in a dystopian novel, having to choose which faction I would join. Would I be a serious person who did crossword puzzles and plodded through dense non-fiction? Or would I be a frivolous person who took solace in glossy magazines and binged reality television without a care in the world? And then “Ugly Betty” came along and said, why not both?

Whenever I’m asked why I study public policy and art history in college, I sometimes joke that one is the antidote to the other — after dwelling on the problems of the world, I can lose myself in rococo and gauzy pastorals. But I think that does a disservice to the enormity of art. And it forgets how utterly small and absurd politics can be.

On the final day of class last semester, a professor of mine offered some parting advice. Many of us, she said, would go on to have emotionally-taxing careers, so we should also make room in our lives for the things that brought us joy. For her, it was a neatly-tended garden, which she had proudly shown us at her home a few days before. And I immediately thought of “Ugly Betty” and all the things in my life that brought me joy: fashion, TV, museums, the odd piece of celebrity gossip. They weren’t just silly distractions, but the very things that got me through the day.

“Ugly Betty” has always reminded me that it’s OK to care about lots of things. It’s OK to care about climate change and also that time Lindsay Lohan had a Turkish accent. It’s OK to be angry about voter disenfranchisement and the fact that “Jane the Virgin” will probably never win an Emmy. Not only is it OK for us to care, we should care about as much as we can. The best thing about Betty Suarez was her earnestness, her ability to see the value in everything and everyone.

And the beauty of the multitudes in all of us is that each piece of our lives is made better by the existence of the other parts. When Betty leaves MODE in the series finale, she no longer has braces or bangs, and her clunky frames have been swapped for a chic pair. And for Betty’s time there, the magazine is a better, kinder place. —Maitreyi Anantharaman, Daily Arts Writer

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‘Family Guy’: Race Jokes and The Pursuit of a Good Laugh

Let me assure you now that I did not initially get sucked into the cesspool of toilet humor that is “Family Guy” because of a boy I wanted to impress. Yuck. My introduction to “Family Guy” can be attributed to a different man — my father — and his obliviousness that Cartoon Network switched over to Adult Swim at 8:00 p.m. Thankfully, he could not (and still cannot) distinguish between cartoons created with children in mind, and adult cartoons created for people with the sense of humor of children. By the time my mother realized that her eight-year-old daughter was watching a show that made fun of everything from Y2K to mass cult suicides, it was too late. I was hooked.

Contrary to what Common Sense Media might believe about what attracted me to the show, it was not the violence or the blunt depictions of sex that drew me in — it was the lightning fast pace of humor. “Family Guy” constantly had me on my toes in a way that “Arthur” or “Hannah Montana” could not. “Family Guy” presented itself to be the best kind of puzzle; for every reference made to something I did not understand, I would take to the computer in the den to research it. I owe my love of pop culture to “Family Guy.” I owe my ability to win an ’80s trivia game to “Family Guy.” Weirdly enough, I also owe a small fraction of my sex ed to “Family Guy” (send all hate mail to my P.O. box). What can I say? I went to a Catholic school in a red state. Anything was better than what I was getting. Thus, while part of me is content that my mother capitulated and did not throw away my DVD box sets and other merch, a part of me always wonders how I would have I turned out had I only stuck to the rivers and lakes that I was used to: Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, PBS Kids. Would my sense of humor be the same? Would I still be the cynical bitch I am today?                                  

My byline does not come with a picture, nor a description of who I am. As a result of this relative anonymity, it would not be far-fetched to assume that this piece, seemingly attempting to give a revisionist reading of an offensive show, has been written undercover by a white, male DudeBro™ who drinks too much Mountain Dew and substitutes an XBox for a personality. Or, perhaps scarier, a white girl still trying her hardest to prove she is cool enough to be One of The Boys™. Yet, here I am, a Black woman writing this piece.

And there I was, a young Black girl allowing myself to be molded by this show, not realizing the potential consequences of this influence. In the same way that I would recognize that jokes were being made about something I did not fully understand at my age (i.e. the drawn-out parodies of ’70s and ’80s sitcoms), I recognized that jokes were being made about people and people groups. To be fair, every group was a target on “Family Guy.” However, at my young age, I did not realize that when the jokes were targeted at marginalized groups, especially the ones I identified with, I did not feel the same desire to figure out the joke as I had done with the pop culture references. These targeted jokes unleashed an instinct to suppress, to forget, to glaze over.

An issue that I have found with myself over the years is that I have an almost frenzied need to be “in” on the joke. It’s the reason why I laugh politely at inside jokes that I have no way of understanding. The reason why I chose to smile passively like a buffoon and laugh along with the white boys in middle school who regurgitated the Black jokes in my direction without an iota of consideration of my feelings on the matter. I did not want my identity to obstruct my ability to enjoy the joke. To reference “Family Guy,” I did not want to be a Buzz Killington.

I grew up. I learned more, and with each re-run of “Family Guy” that I would watch and cringe at, I tried to construct a justification — not in order to protect the show, but in order to defend myself. Was I a sellout? A coon that laughs at jokes at my own expense? Seth MacFarlane, creator of “Family Guy,” was my first adult-man crush, so it is understandable why most of my justifications involved him. MacFarlane is a staunch Democrat, an Obama supporter, an outspoken activist for the environment and LGBTQ rights, so there couldn’t be ill will behind the show, right? He and I couldn’t break up now — I already memorized his birthday!

It was not until I learned what “lad humor” was that I finally could articulate my issue with “Family Guy.” Lad, or “bro,” humor is the practice of being problematic for the sake of being problematic, and then passing it off cheaply as “irony.” There is nothing wrong with ironic humor when it is clear who the joke is meant to skewer. The issue with Seth MacFarlane (call me! <3) and “Family Guy” as a whole is that they lack the social responsibility to make it clear that they are “punching up” at targets who possess societal privilege. Rather than assert this, they cower in ambiguity and allow their predominantly white male audience to believe that these clichés and caricatures are OK, and further, funny.

So, yes, “Family Guy” did mold me. Take that bit and spin it however you like. Clearly, I can admit that some good has come of my childhood addiction to the program. I remain steadfast in my pride that I was able to piss off so many elementary school teachers by quoting the show. However, outside of the vacuum of sentimentality and restaurant trivia, I actually don’t have much to directly thank “Family Guy” for other than too many wasted years spent self-loathing. Most of the positives gleaned from “Family Guy” are not even a direct result of the show. “Family Guy” gave me a foundational point to refine my sense of humor from. “Family Guy” and Seth MacFarlane have taught me that being white and liberal does not automatically make you an ally. Most importantly, reflecting upon this show’s role in my life has allowed me to see the futility in attempting to always be in on the joke. It’s impossible. You shouldn’t sell your soul simply to keep laughing. This is Tom Tucker for Channel 5 News, signing off. —Ally Owens, Daily Arts Writer

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An ode to Anthony Bourdain and food TV

Back in sixth grade, in my quest to become a more “adult” and worldly 11-year-old, I decided to move on from the realm of Nickelodeon and Disney Channel into the mature world of the Travel Channel and the Food Network. And I devoured it, perhaps a little too much. Every day before and after school, I would spend hours becoming an honorary citizen of Flavortown, watching Adam Richman eat himself to what I figured would be his early death and wondering when Andrew Zimmern would take that heel turn and finally become a cannibal, all while my parents probably descended into a deep depression, wondering whether I was beyond saving at that point.

In between “Man vs. Food” and “Bizarre Foods” was an even more intriguing show called “No Reservations.” It didn’t feature just those god-forsaken mountains of food I was used to ogling, but more people instead. The host was a tall, tan, tattooed guy with an amazingly soothing voice and an edge that set him apart from the corny ostentatiousness (I don’t necessarily mean this in a pejorative sense) of the other food celebrities. Half of his jokes probably flew over my pubescent head and I didn’t fully appreciate the stories being told, but I was intrigued.

Seven years later, I was back home after a memorable freshman year of college when one morning, I got a call from my dad saying that my hero, the great Anthony Bourdain, was dead. It took me a while to process. It just didn’t make any sense. I remember seeing him last week? All three of us, watching him tour Hong Kong with Christopher Doyle, saying it was his favorite episode he’d ever done? It was only then that I realized how much of an impact one man who I had never met and never would meet had on my life, and so many others.

“No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown” were, and still remain, my escape. Every Sunday, right after dinner, I would make sure my family and I all got together to watch Tony explore the world. We would watch him in the finest kitchens in Lyon and a dingy boat in the middle of Congo. It wasn’t just the exotic that amazed us, but rather the familiar. When he visited our hometown of Kolkata in “No Reservations,” touring the Sundarban in a boat eating malai curry shrimp, we were reminded that, holy shit, we also come from some place amazing. Watching his “No Reservations” episode in Berlin in eighth grade made me start learning German. His “Parts Unknown” episode in Granada inspired me and my friends when we found ourselves there the summer after our senior year, before we realized that the best way to be like Tony was to completely disregard all the places he went to and try to trail blaze our own path instead. Even if I’d read them a hundred times, my copies of “Kitchen Confidential” and “Medium Raw” will always remain on the top of my desk for a quick laugh and a witty observation. Ironically, I’m sure he would despise any form of this kind of adulation.

On the dreariest of days, in the middle of the semester’s grind, I often find myself feeling completely hopeless and drained. Only recently have I found myself being able to come back to Bourdain’s work. I’m not often one for hero worship, but I realize that his work is the reminder that there really is more to life than completing the next assignment and finding the next job. His show was never only about the food. It was about life. It showed that literature, art, music, food and the people around me and their stories all transcend the daily struggle and make life worth living. To this day, I hope I can live half the life he did. —Sayan Ghosh, Daily Arts Writer

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Coming of age through TV

When I was younger, my Bubbie would tell me that television turns my brain into mush. Like most Jewish grandmothers, her intentions were well-meaning. My voracious consumption of TV certainly had a negative impact on my attention span. During my many visits to her apartment growing up, I often found myself stretched out on her couch like a rag doll, eyes glued to her gray Panasonic TV screen that projected colorful stories catered to my youthful sensibilities. But even when I grew weary and antsy, and my brain felt like it was on fire, TV captivated me in a way no other medium could.

As I’ve written about before, the most formative television for me came from Nickelodeon — though I fancied a Cartoon Network and Disney Channel show here and there. “Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius,” “The Fairly OddParents,” “SpongeBob Squarepants,” “Danny Phantom” and “Avatar: The Last Airbender” were always my go-to’s. With the exception of “SpongeBob,” I lived vicariously through Timmy Turner, Jimmy Neutron, Danny Fenton and Aang, wishing that I had my own set of fairy godparents, a laboratory filled with gadgets, the ability to fly like a ghost and bend the four elements.

Through their fantastical escapades and reckless misadventures, I managed to come away from each of these shows with an important life lesson: “The Fairly Oddparents” taught me we can’t always get what we want, “Jimmy Neutron” showed me how ego and selfishness can corrupt relationships, “Danny Phantom” and “Avatar: The Last Airbender” illustrated how evil can only be vanquished through compassion, empathy and community. And “SpongeBob”? Well ... “SpongeBob” just made me laugh (R.I.P. Stephen Hillenburg). But seeing these young, flawed misfits find their way in the world nourished my yearning for a sense of belonging and fostered within me a passion for crafting coming-of-age stories of my own.

Throughout my cumbersome adolescence, my taste in TV broadened to more teen-centric programming like “Drake & Josh,” “Zoey 101” and “iCarly.” Each show, coincidentally created by renowned teen comedy producer-turned-pariah Dan Schneider, provided a wacky yet grounded glimpse into the highs and lows of teenage life. The main characters were kids with an unbelievable amount of agency and freedom, but they were also the adults of their own world, taking responsibility for themselves while investing in serious, long-term friendships with one another.

As reassuring as these shows were during my budding maturity, “Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide” became the paradigm for getting me through the muddy social landscape of middle school. Through its incisive takes on puberty, procrastination, peer pressure and other issues pertinent to aimless tweens, “Ned’s Declassified” imbued within me the value of patience and the idea that overcoming social, academic and personal hurdles is a painful but ultimately rewarding process.

While the majority of my television watching was spent alone, watching TV with my family helped expose me to a diverse swath of content and storytelling. Watching “Glee” and “America’s Next Top Model” functioned as a weekly ritual for me and my sister, the two of us racing to our living room to watch both shows as if it were a high-stakes sport. On Tuesday nights, we were engrossed in the extravagant musical numbers, zippy humor and dysfunctional dynamics of McKinley High — to this day, we still talk about the timelessness of “Halo/Walking on Sunshine” and “It’s My Life/Confessions Part II.” On Wednesday nights, when “ANTM” aired, we were mesmerized by the insane photoshoots, enchanting makeovers, Tyra Banks’s theatrical personality and the sassy rapport between Miss J. Alexander and Jay Manuel. “Project Runway” and “The Bachelor” also made for a fun viewing experience for me, my sister and my mom. The three of us would poke fun at the absurdity of each show’s melodrama, but marvel at the stylish spectacle of the former and the juicy, exploitative undertones of the latter.

When reality TV was too much, the wonderful, short-lived romantic crime comedy “Pushing Daisies” drew us in with its scintillating aesthetic, whip-snap dialogue and multilayered plot. And when hour-long comedies proved too overwhelming, the sci-fi-laced adventures of “Star Trek: Enterprise” acted as both a compelling, action-packed deviation and a bonding experience between me and my dad.

Looking back on all of this, it’s odd yet comforting to see this trajectory. It fills me the same kind of melancholic, satisfying nostalgia I get whenever I flip through old pictures of myself in a scrapbook or find an old toy in the hidden pockets of my bedroom. I can directly link my own personal development to the evolution of my TV watching. My childhood obsession with Nickelodeon and reality TV manifested from a restlessness to be understood and validated. But as this compulsion softened over time, I grew more open-minded toward a variety of TV shows — from sitcoms like “Broad City” and “The Good Place” to sketch programs like “SNL” and “Key & Peele,” mystery thrillers like “Mr. Robot” and “Homecoming” to dramas like “Breaking Bad” and “Big Little Lies.” Animation still remains an important staple for my TV watching — “BoJack Horseman,” “Rick & Morty” and “Big Mouth” are among some of my current favorite shows, not just because they happen to be animated (and beautifully so) but also because they never shy from being as gritty and poignant as a standard, live-action show. Whether I’m alone or with someone else, I can always rely on TV to offer some morsel of insight, no matter the story. Sam Rosenberg, Senior Arts Editor

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