I remember the days when American TV programming was pretty bad. Thirty minute sitcoms with canned laughter. Thirty-minute cop shows with big plot flaws. Shows like Rin-Tin-Tin and Lassie, Flipper, The Naked City, Highway Patrol, The Donna Reed Show, Marcus Welby, M.D., Leave It to Beaver, The Twilight Zone, One Step Beyond, I Love Lucy.
Some of these shows were good – Lucy was genuinely, hysterically funny at times. And Lucille Ball was always such a treat to watch. Twilight Zone and One Step Beyond were my personal favorites. I watched these shows and all the others in Spanish. I don’t recall the Spanish translation for Twilight Zone, but One Step Beyond was called Un Paso al Mas Alla. We were living in Venezuela at the time and compared to Venezuelan TV, these American dubbed shows were a delight and a conduit to the place we traveled to every summer, our other home, the U.S.
On Sundays nights, I remember, TV was a family thing. We used to have grilled cheese sandwiches and some other side dish and gather where the TV was and watch Twilight Zone or One Step Beyond. Or was it Tales of the South Pacific that we watched? This is where memory becomes tricky terrain. I think it might have been Tales, based on the Pulitzer-Prize winning book by James Michener. But it could have been Twilight Zone. My interests certainly would be more with Zone that with Pacific, although I recall that’s Gardner McKay starred in this series and it stirred my hunger for foreign travel.
But other than Zone or Beyond, there just weren’t that many shows that sparked your imagination, that introduced new ideas, new what if scenarios. Then in the Sixties, when I was in college, Star Trek became the equivalent of Zone and Beyond. We zipped around the universe on the Enterprise with Kirk and Spock and got to play with the ideas that were introduced.
From 1993-2002, we had The X-Files, where Mulder and Scully were FBI agents who investigated sightings, possible abductions, all the high strangeness of the encounter and UFO phenomena. Since then, we’ve had The 4400, about that number of people who vanished and then returned. We’ve had V, Under the Dome, 137, The Medium, Lost… shows that have pushed the envelope in terms of ideas, shows that prompt us to ask What if?
Last week, we watched the first episode of an HBO series called The Leftovers. It’s about what happens to the people left behind when two percent of the world’s population – now more than 7 billion – vanishes.
Very soon now, CBS will air its first episode of Extant, a Spielberg production for CBS – starring Halle Berry. It’s about a female astronaut who lived for 13 months solo on the space station but – uh-oh - returns home pregnant.
The second season of Under the Dome, based on Stephen King’s book by the same name, focuses more closely on how people in a small American town are impacted when a transparent dome slams down over their community, cutting them off from the rest of the world. It’s Lord of the Flies on steroids.
The point is that television as entertainment has morphed into TV as a cultural vehicle that prompts us to ask ourselves important questions. What do we really know about the nature of reality? Who are we in the greater scheme of things? Is our reality malleable, subject to change according to our beliefs about what is possible?
Hey, are we living in The Matrix?