Recycled TV: déjà view all over again

Promising 'American Dreams' references TV; 'Rerun Show' just repeats it.

What makes TV cannibalize itself with such regularity? It's just an ongoing lack of imagination, to say nothing of spunk.

Consider this summer's parody of old dated TV: "The Rerun Show" on NBC; fall's "Starsky and Hutch" update in "Fastlane" (Fox); a butler-as-father-figure in "Family Affair" (The WB); and "The $50,000 Pyramid," hosted by the ever-grinning Donny Osmond (syndicated). Why recycle such junk when you can see the original banalities on TV Land and Nickelodeon?

The answer is not "nostalgia for a simpler past," as some have implied, because these updates have largely lost what meager meaning the originals possessed – namely, their innocence.

Take The Rerun Show (NBC, 8-9 p.m.): An ensemble cast sprinkled with guest stars from defunct TV sitcoms parody the acting style and humor of the original shows. But sexual innuendo and mean-spirited subtexts suggest that the originals were really phony coverups for a highly dysfunctional society. So much for nostalgia – these shows can't represent a longing for a "simpler" time if that time was really horrendously foul.

Parody has a definite function – it undermines conventional thinking and knocks down false idols. But with lame parodies of "Diff'rent Strokes" and "The Partridge Family," "The Facts of Life" and "Saved By the Bell," all "Rerun" does is further trivialize already inconsequential TV. Now, why go to so much trouble for so little? Because for many people, TV is culture. This is especially true of some TV executives.

Fastlane (premières Sept. 18 on Fox, 9 p.m.), is a rip-roarin', impossibly crass-action show that is meant, according to its producers, to give its audience the same kind of experience as "Starsky and Hutch" did in the '70s – essentially squealing-wheel chase sequences and unlikely dope busts. There's no excuse for "The Rerun Show" or "Fastlane," or the "$50,000 Pyramid" for that matter. There's not much reason for a revival of Family Affair (The WB, Thursdays, 8-8:30 p.m.) with Tim Curry taking the Sebastian Cabot role, either.

Yet, TV is a huge component of our culture and there are times when its self-reference is not only appropriate, it is illuminating. It's not surprising that Rod Serling's wonderful fantasy series "The Twilight Zone" should be rekindled – again – this time with Forrest Whitaker as host. When its creator was at the helm, it was amazing. Revived in 1985 following the release of the film, it entertained us until 1987, though it had radically changed from Serling's own enthralling style.

But better than reviving an old favorite is a new show that attempts to grapple with what TV has wrought in our culture. One of most promising shows of the fall season is the intelligent American Dreams (NBC, prèmieres on Sundays in September). In order to recapture the feeling of the early '60s, with its social turmoil, sexual revolution, the women's movement, and Civil Rights activism, to say nothing of the growing popular controversy over Vietnam, we need to understand how much a part of the cultural landscape TV had become and recall how it affected (and still affects) real people.

In "American Dreams," a young family on the edge of societal change finds itself caught up in television's images. Amid all the upheaval, the teenage daughter wants nothing more in life than to dance on "American Bandstand." Naturally, old-fashioned Dad doesn't approve, but the kid hangs outside the studio with her girlfriend hoping to be chosen. And, lovely as she is, one day she and her friend are picked – and asked to become regulars.

Producers include real episodes of the teen-beloved program with Dick Clark (one of the producers for "American Dreams"), whom we see on TV monitors in the studio and on televisions in people's homes and stores. We see the Beach Boys as youngsters in button-down shirts starting up surf-pop, and the breakthrough music of African-American singers getting their shot.

The title sequences for the show include TV images of everyone from President Kennedy to conscientious objectors and civil rights demonstrators being beaten by police.

These images from the period create a feeling for the anguish of the times – the confusion of the older generation, the idealism and self-indulgence of the younger. Overnight the world changed, and TV was there to record it, and to speed up the American lifestyle forever.

"American Dreams" starts out well, though many a fine pilot has been betrayed by later episodes. But as it stands, the show's self-referencing to television is smart and helpful.

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