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.

Wagons, Ho!

I’ve recently discovered a passion for watching old, black-and-white Westerns—not the movies, but the decades’ old TV series. The Rifleman. Wagon Train.  Rawhide. Have Gun Will Travel.  Gunsmoke.  Maverick.  These and several other shows have become a guilty pleasure in which I regularly indulge, watching them on the Classic TV rerun channels.

Never mind their asinine, inaccurate, and degrading depictions of Native Americans, nearly always played by Caucasian actors dipped in stage makeup. Disregard the pioneers with perfect teeth…the women with perfectly-coiffed hair, makeup, clean dresses, and even popped collars.  Ignore the rare appearance of dirt and sweat, pipes and chewing tobacco on the well-shaven male main characters…the healthy, fat and strong herd animals and horses (barely a mule or a burro to be seen!)  Overlook the extremely rare appearance of a black or Asian person (although Hispanics, all too often portrayed as cunning or criminal, seem to abound).  Never mind the Hollywood fiction of  bespangled saloon girls and the frequently wrong-for-the-era clothing of all the characters.  Yes, it’s all ridiculous.  And, yes, despite all the nonsense and bias, I still enjoy watching these old Westerns.

I grew up watching them, of course; these and several other shows were the common TV fare of my childhood, so there is a nostalgia connected with viewing the reruns. I was too young when I first saw them to now remember more than a scene or two, or a particular character, so I delight in the stories; to me, they are not reruns; they are brand-new.

But what strikes me most about many of these old Westerns are the strongly contemporary themes. The films may 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 as opposed to implied cowardice. 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.

Characters in these old shows agonized over decisions in which they felt their ethics would be compromised. Every shade of grey in the human experience comprised part of the Western stories, and their conclusions were surprisingly contemporary—sometimes what we would now, scathingly, refer to as “politically correct”.  And although often simplistic, the answers provided in each 30- or 60-minute show were, above all, honorable and decent.  They exhibited complex interactions between main characters who held civility and courtesy to be their abiding principles, who genuinely believed that a man’s word was his bond. There was always an expectation that individuals who were proved wrong would admit their fault and be punished for it—and yet justice was often, unexpectedly, tempered with mercy.

My brother commented once that he realized he’d learned much of his understanding of morality from watching episodes of “The Rifleman”.  His comment made me wonder what the children of the current generation are learning from their diet of TV fare consisting of the carefully orchestrated unreality of “reality” shows, horrific crime dramas, and bloody fantasy programs.

It will be a long time before I’ve finished watching these old Western reruns. Even when I’m certain I’ve seen most of the episodes, I occasionally run across one I missed.  And I expect to go on enjoying them, despite the fact that many of the episodes are now reruns even to me.  Like a complex tapestry, the many threads that make up these decades’ old stories are carefully crafted and interwoven, and endlessly surprising.