BOSTON — Fox's "That '70s Show" makes nostalgia for the 1970s seem pretty cool, just as "Happy Days" made nostalgia for the '50s goofy fun. "Seventh Heaven" is meant to remind us of "The Donna Reed Show" and "Father Knows Best." Despite the proliferation of MTV-styled morals, pacing, shooting, and editing, the "good old days" never quite fade away on television.
In fact, the old shows never died; they were just recycled on cable.
And fans don't come more faithful than those swept up in yearning for a simpler time and place. "The Andy Griffith Show," for example, now has Web sites and Internet chat rooms (as do most old shows) and cookbooks (the latest is "Aunt Bee's Mealtime in Mayberry," by Ken Beck and Jim Clark). Even a Bible-study group is devoted to it they find inspirational messages in the simple morality of Mayberry. It's available in "best of" video collections from mail-order houses like Columbia House and Amazon.com, and airs on cable everyday.
And it's not alone.
No longer merely "reruns," the popular old TV shows are designated "classic TV," by execs at the cable network Nick at Nite and Nick's offspring, TVLand.
"All our shows have withstood the test of time," says Larry Jones, general manager of Nick and TVLand. "Our core audience is 25 to 55, but 18-to-24-year-olds are watching, too."
Nick at Nite has made its reputation on sitcoms from the 1970s and '80s primarily, dipping into older TV now and then. " 'I Love Lucy' is still a funny show," says Diane Robina, vice president of programming at Nick at Nite and TVLand.
TVLand taps into all genres of classic TV - westerns, dramas, sci-fi, and comedy. It also features classic ads (last week TVLand and TV Guide jointly named the 50 best ads of all time).
"Vintage commercials are a real hoot to watch," Ms. Robina says. "Back 25 or 30 years ago, you were watching three networks - that's all there was." Because so many Americans saw them, "you get a strong emotional response from these ads."
"Retromercials," as these early ads are called, trigger instant emotional responses, but many TV shows also hold up remarkably well as artful entertainments.
Rod Serling's "Twilight Zone" and "Night Gallery" were so well written that many of the episodes are like gripping, little plays - indeed, many are based on excellent short stories. "All in the Family" from the 1970s is still funny and relevant, and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" is still droll and sometimes scary.
Other shows have their niche audiences: No matter how silly they are, somebody is watching. ("Petticoat Junction" and "The Brady Bunch" come to mind.)
A source for movies
With the summer blockbuster "Wild Wild West" movie ruling the box office last weekend, despite negative reviews, the national obsession with television nostalgia is ratcheted up even more.
Of course, many expensive Hollywood movies derive from TV (just as lots of TV derives from other sources, from novels to old-time radio to comic books and movies), and the nostalgia factor kicks in with films like "The Brady Bunch," "The Avengers," and the eccentric "The Addams Family." With last year's "The X-Files" setting the precedent, a movie may now be considered as a mega-episode of an ongoing hit TV series.
Why the backward look? Are movie execs running out of ideas from the literary and real worlds, or is TV so much a part of our culture that it has become part of our collective memory? Many experts recognize TV, particularly classic TV, as our common mythology.
"The Truman Show," "Pleasantville," and "EDtv" were all insightful commentaries on just that fact - that TV is so pervasive it has offered us a common mythology. Of course, these films attacked TV culture - and these filmmakers found nothing positive in the common mythology at all.
But other experts see TV differently, suggesting classic TV is gaining popularity for its higher quality. "In 1949 when television began," says history professor Joseph Dorinson at Long Island University, "people who owned TVs were more affluent, better educated. So when Sid Caesar did a parody on 'Pagliacci,' the audience knew the opera." Now most comedy is pegged to the lowest common denominator, he adds.
'Nick at NIght clears the palette'
Robert Thompson, professor of TV, radio, and film at Syracuse University and director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television, says there are three reasons why the old stuff is so appealing.
"Well, first: We have emerged in the last 10 years into such an extraordinarily ironic era. There's 'David Letterman,' 'Spy Magazine,' and 'The Man Show.' No one really says anything funny - it's all attitude and irony. But the old shows still tell jokes. They act as a kind of antidote to the '90s ironic wise-guy. A little Nick at Nite acts as a sorbet to clear the palette from all this hip and ironic 'must-see TV.'
"The sorbet theory explains a lot of things - like the popularity of [the nostalgic film] 'Forrest Gump.' "
The second reason for the popularity of nostalgia television, says Dr. Thompson, is that Americans are beginning to long for a shared culture.
"We all know what it means to say, 'I'm feeling Jan Brady today,' " he says. "But that shared information no longer applies to current television shows. It's hard to gather around the water cooler and get a discussion going about what happened on 'Suddenly Susan' last night...."
He points out that broadcasting (radio and television) from the late 1920s to the early 1980s, when the rise of cable depleted the networks' powers, produced a shared culture unprecedented in history - one that stretched across all social classes, was in fact a "class-free cultural system." Interestingly, by running classic shows, cable is now doing something to restore those shared memories it helped undermine, he says.
Lastly, Thompson suggests that nostalgia for the past isn't such a bad reason to watch these shows: "In some ways, TV is the soundtrack of our childhood."
Simpler times made more sense
"Part of the appeal is simple nostalgia," agrees Robert Jones, general manager of Knowledge TV, "baby boomers looking back on their lives at shows they watched when they were 8, 16, or 20. It's a reminder of a period when life made more sense."
Mr. Jones points out that the programs of that period don't tend to be too complex or too quickly paced. Simple stories with simple solutions was the rule in comedy. The humor was broad and often physical (think "I Love Lucy"). But controversial subjects were not tolerated most of the time - Mayberry may be an idealized small town, but it is located in South Carolina, and it is all white.
"There is no question that there are real problems with nostalgia TV," says Jones. "Many of these programs played into stereotypes of the worst kind.... "It's the good-old-days syndrome 'When men were men and women knew it.'
"But classic TV can be a refuge against modernity and change - people flee to it," Jones continues. "In periods of rapid change you can either accommodate it and learn and grow, or you can hide from it and resent it...."
Fantasies they may be, but at least these shows offer a haven for children, says child psychiatrist Robert Butterworth of International Trauma Associates. "Nearly 20 percent of what kids are watching is classic TV.
" 'Lucy' was like a cartoon.... The relationships of kids to the family was very different [in these shows]. Beaver never said, 'Eat my shorts,' like Bart Simpson." Parents are not afraid to let their children watch classic TV.
From one generation to the next
Since classic TV is what parents watched as children themselves, it offers memories that can be shared with their children. "We hear it all the time," says Nick's Robina. Adult viewers say "We all grew up with these shows, and now we get to watch with our kids."
Classic TV may be the last programs on television not affected by MTV-style production values, Jones says. "People today are being pressured, and TV reflects that hectic sense. These classic TV shows are like buffalo on the plains, the last remnant of a [more leisurely] style that has all but disappeared."