The TV Shows That Shaped Us

My parents had unusual ideas about what constituted good family TV viewing.

If you have read my post “There Are No Generations”, from November 18, 2020, you’ll already be aware that the article, “Baby Boomers: Five Reasons They Are Our Worst Generation” written by Mr. Gene Marks in 2013, supremely ticked me off.  As I pointed out in that earlier essay, the people described in Mr. Marks’ angry diatribe in no way resembled anyone I’ve ever known.

But one of the points he made in his unpleasant and inaccurate rant, far from causing me disgust or making me angry, left me laughing—laughing hard and long.  That point concerned his remarks regarding the television shows that, watched by Boomers during their youth, supposedly shaped their worldview. According to Mr. Marks, the television shows of that era created a belief system, shared by all Boomers, that women were intended to be housewives; that of all human races, Whites alone mattered; and that homosexuality was disgusting.  As an example, he provided the vision of then-youthful Boomers clustered around the TV for family viewing of shows like Ozzie and Harriet.

Uh, no.

At least, not in the household where I grew up.

My parents, if not precisely having better taste, at least had more varied ideas about what constituted good family viewing. I don’t recall that we ever watched even a single episode of Ozzie and Harriet.  I did take in just a few installments of Leave It to Beaver and Lassie, but, honestly, I thought both shows were pretty dumb.

But, as I say, my parents’ tastes were varied.  Tales of the Vikings, Kirk Douglas’s only venture into television, lasted only 39 episodes, but was our favorite family viewing. (I can sing the theme song to this day.) We clustered about the TV, enthralled by the amazing sets and costumes, and always cheering when swords inevitably clashed.

During the day, especially as she endured the boredom of doing the ironing, my mother regularly viewed a few soap operas, which she would not let me watch.  Nevertheless, she and I also spent summer afternoons together drinking in the much higher quality Loretta Young Theatre in the early 1960s.

But Westerns were the order of the day for evening viewing, and, as I commented in the blog post Wagons, Ho!, what still strikes me most about many of those old Westerns are the strongly contemporary themes. The films might be black and white, but the subjects they were tackling were anything but.  Racism. Spousal abuse.  Bullying.  Controlling or brutal parents. Societal expectations. True courage. Gun control.  Bigotry.  The way in which gossip, rumor and hearsay destroys lives. The use of religion to justify evildoing. The destruction of wildlife and the decimation of habitat. Kindness toward and acceptance of the different or disabled.  

The Rifleman, Paladin, Wagon Train, Have Gun Will Travel, Gunsmoke—all encouraged us not only to consider adult concepts, but to learn and practice ethical and moral ideals and behaviors.

Then we still-young Boomers grew a bit older, and true Westerns faded into Gene Roddenberry’s contemporary wagon train of Star Trek, throwing new ideas and concepts at our heads like errant baseballs.  A woman, a Black woman, as an officer on a starship? Amazing!  And an interracial kiss!  Wow!

From there we dove into the conflict, debate and generational discord of All in the Family.  Greatest Generation guys like Archie Bunker were being constantly challenged, on screen and in real life, and we then-young Boomers lapped it up, rooting always for the Glorias and Michaels of this world, and praying that the Ediths would stand up for themselves and find their place in the scheme of things.

Now, once more scanning Mr. Marks’ ridiculous comments about the TV programs that shaped a generation, I suspect that his misapprehension may stem from his misplaced certainty that reading about, and perhaps even knowing a few individuals who lived through a particular era, entitles him to draw generalized assumptions about an entire group.  But, as I learned several years ago to my dismay, that isn’t at all the case.

My enlightenment arose on the terrifying evening of 9/11/2001.  Still in the dark about who had committed this terrible atrocity against our country, we citizens were all simply reaching out to loved ones.  I called my Dad, saying to him, shaken, “Daddy, finally, finally, I really know what you went through on the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor.”

He was silent a heartbeat before he responded.  “No, honey, no. You don’t. This is completely different.  At Pearl Harbor, we knew who the enemy was.”

Perhaps it is true that the TV shows of our era helped to shape the viewpoints of the entire Boomer generation, contributing to our belief systems; molding us into the adults we would eventually become. I know that I was challenged by and acquired many progressive ideals from the programs I viewed.  But someone who did not actually live through those turbulent years can never have any more than the faintest glimmering of understanding, the merest glimpse into the reality of our lifetimes in that era.  They will never quite comprehend what the TV we watched really taught us.

If you enjoyed this essay, you might also like the post “Wagons, Ho!”, which  was published on April 6, 2018, and “There Are No Generations”, posted November 18, 2020.  Scroll down to the Archives to locate both.

Princess Diana Saved My Life

Princess Diana saved my life.

However fanciful that statement may sound, it is also, to some degree, true.

In the years when the royal marriage was crumbling, and Diana’s popularity with the masses was at its lowest ebb, the articles being written by a rabid press were a thousand times more critical and far less fawning than they would be after her passing (although undoubtedly no more factual). More than one intrusive publication at the time explored the notion that perhaps the unpredictable and complex princess suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder.

Until I encountered those articles, I’d never heard of that psychological affliction. I was completely uninterested in whether the disorder applied to Princess Diana, but the description intrigued me. I needed to understand more about it. In one of my earliest ever internet searches, I researched the term. Leapfrogging from one page to another, I stumbled across a review of a book; a book written for family and friends of those with Borderline Personality Disorder. Included in the review was a questionnaire from the book. It was a quiz to determine if one was trapped in a relationship with a person suffering the disorder.

I took the quiz with an eye to unraveling my tortured relationship with my mother.

I answered “yes” to every question.

At last, at last, I had an explanation for the enigma who was my mother, and for the anguish and abuse that had comprised my childhood.

Knowledge is power, the saying goes, and like most proverbs, it carries a germ of truth. Armed at last with real understanding of the mental disorder that had, in all probability, troubled my mother, I began the long, excruciatingly painful but eventually rewarding struggle to excavate myself from the ruins of my childhood.

Decades later, it is a struggle that still continues. My healing is always tenuous. But without the famous and sometimes infamous Princess, and, more importantly, the insensitive, rude media speculation about her behavior—without those things, the healing that I experienced might never even have begun.

Like the multifaceted person who was Diana, Princess of Wales, my mother was saint to some, demon to others, and both, sometimes at the same moment, to me. The life that Betty Jean wove about me, my brothers, my father, even her acquaintances, was often a glimpse into the nether regions of hell. But we (and this is something of which I must constantly remind myself) escaped. She never could. My mother lived in that hell always. She was her own hell. The rest of us dwelt only on the fringes of her insanity, and at last, with physical distance, knowledge, understanding, and therapy, and finally with her death, we were freed.

With regard to those articles that set me on my search, though, well, aside from Diana’s well-publicized and admitted struggles with bulimia, no one, and certainly no member of the media, could ever have had genuine knowledge of any psychological disorder suffered by the beleaguered Princess. Those rumors were nothing but the fabrication of a bitterly unkind and often hostile press, hunting for their next story. Continued speculation on the matter would be both inappropriate and unspeakably cruel, for the truth is, none of it matters at all except to the family and friends who loved her. For the rest of us, that aspect of Diana’s life never was and still is none of our business.

But I will forever be grateful to the famous woman who endured such unbearable public abuse, so much anguish-provoking intrusion into her private existence, for without what I learned, encountering cruel conjecture and malicious speculation about Princess Diana, I might never have uncovered the knowledge I needed to begin the tortuous ascent from my own personal purgatory.

I say that Princess Diana saved my life, but it was really I who saved myself. I took her story, the painfully sad fairy tale of a real-life Princess, and allowed it to lead me to knowledge. I grasped that knowledge like a lifeline, weaving it into a net – an escape net, to which I clung for my very life. My very life: the life that I now have. The whole and healthy life that I created, like a phoenix, rising from the ashes of intense misery.

And while I may not live happily ever after, I will never cease to be grateful to nor forget the story of a princess with which that new life began.