Too Much Retro TV? Not Even Close.

An opinion piece by TV critic Neil Genzlinger titled “Sure, You Loved Lucy, but Vintage Has Limits: A Case of Retro TV Overload” was published online at The New York Times website on Sunday and in the paper’s print edition yesterday. In it, Genzlinger argues that there is too much classic TV available and that nobody should be watching old episodes of I Love Lucy and The Virginian because they’re really not as good as people think they are.

It’s true that there are a lot of cable channels and digital specialty networks devoted to classic television. TV Land may have all but abandoned its roots but in its place are Antenna TV, Cozi TV and MeTV. While some might see this as a good thing, Genzlinger considers it a dangerous overload of ancient sitcoms and dusty Westerns that don’t hold up. He’d rather rip his eyeballs out.

From the article:

But if you’re watching this fare all day, every day, you need help, because “venerable” doesn’t necessarily mean “still watchable.” Sluggish pacing, wooden acting, wince-inducing jokes and obvious plot twists abound in the television of the distant and even not-so-distant past. Too much of this will turn your brain to mush as surely as too much of today’s reality TV will.

This is a particularly bizarre argument to make because there’s plenty of middle ground between not watching any classic TV and spending all day doing so. Anyone who spends all day watching television of any sort and from any decade probably needs help. Genzlinger goes on to list “nine great, important, fabulous vintage (or soon to be) shows” that he never wants to see again, including I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, Green Acres and Dallas.

The article received more than 400 comments, most of them critical. Comments have now been closed.

To be clear, I don’t think Genzlinger hates classic TV. Nor do I think he’s trying to insult those who love watching classic TV. He’s writing with his tongue at least partly, if not firmly, in cheek. That said, I don’t agree with his article, however facetious it may be. He’s making a big mistake assuming that the only people watching classic TV are baby boomers who watched them when they were first on the air trying to revisit a time when television was better. That’s simply not the case. I’m proof.

While it may be true that a large percentage of those watching Antenna TV, Cozi TV and MeTV are baby boomers — and I don’t know that for a fact — I’m sure there are also plenty of younger folks watching as well, some of whom may be much younger. Should nobody ever be allowed to watch old TV shows again, simply because they’re old? That’s like saying nobody should ever read Shakespeare (an argument I could actually get behind; my hatred for the Bard runs deep) or watch Citizen Kane again. For some reason, television never gets the respect that books and films get.

(I’m also confused as to why Genzlinger mentions 7th Heaven, Boy Meets World and Sex and the City in the article when the bulk of the other shows he mentions are from the 1950s through the 1970s with a few from the 1980s. I’m not quite ready to call any TV show from the 1990s retro, no matter what TV Land and Nick at Nite seem to think.)

If there’s any sort of “retro TV overload” these days, it’s not the sheer amount available but the fact that so many of the classic TV shows being shown on Antenna TV, Cozi TV and MeTV — like I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Bonanza, and Gilligan’s Island — are the same few dozen shows that have never not been on television. We need more retro TV, not less. Genzlinger can be forgiven for being tired of seeing the same old shows but that’s no reason to dismiss the entirety of TV history. Instead, he should be pushing for Antenna TV, Cozi TV and the like to add less well-known shows to their schedules. While they may not hold up any better than Lucy or Gilligan, at least they’ll feel somewhat fresh and new.

10 Comments

  • Barry I. Grauman says:

    Genzlinger is an ass. He thinks he’s as clever as Tom Shales, David Bianculli, and Robert Bianco……..he’s NOT. He reminds me of Robert Strauss- the “hip”, snotty critic who worked for the ASBURY PARK PRESS from 1988 through ’96 (and wound up teaching “Non-Fiction Creative Writing” at the University of Pennsylvania).

  • The New York Times has a history of publishing essays attacking fan interests. It’s been doing it for years with pieces on children’s and YA literature. Just a couple of months ago, it published an essay in which the author said adults who read YA fiction should be ashamed. Outrage followed.

    These kinds of articles get the Times a lot of attention. Since this opinion piece received 400 comments, my guess is that you can expect to see similar essays in the future.

    • Robert says:

      I had no idea there was a history of The New York Times publishing pieces like this. If that is the case, then I think I will just ignore any future articles about classic television rather than rewarding blatant clickbait.

  • ERIC PLEASANT says:

    I like to watch old TV shows because they are good. Maybe not the best sometimes but I believe that many of them can hold up much better than many of the “scripted” shows that they have on nowadays that seem to be done by people working in their sleep. Not all of them are good, don’t get me wrong, but a good TV show is simply a good one no matter what decade it was originally on! And I am not just talking about my generation!

  • ERIC PLEASANT says:

    A good TV show is simply a good show, Genzlinger can’t condemn every show from the past because they are either in black and white or are older than he is. This is an old argument going back to the 1960s talking about the Golden age.

  • Oops. That YA essay I referred to was published at Slate. Nonetheless, the NYT has done pieces like this related to children’s lit/YA.

    If you start seeing opinion pieces about vintage TV turning up in the future in the popular press, that could be an indication that the field/genre is becoming popular. No one cared enough to sneer at readers of YA until big numbers of people were reading it.

  • lurky McLurkson says:

    I agree the only problem with classic T.V. is it’s lack of pushing the envelope, and going beyond Lucy, Gilligan and the rest (heh, heh). Shows from past decades, regardless of popularity/quality, are a window into their times, and that has much value in of itself.

  • C says:

    Cozi TV has cut out closing credits for most of its shows..I’m not happy about that. I was watching “Here’s Lucy” and no closing credits was featured..after the final scene, went straight to the Lucille Ball Productions logo and the distributor, Paul Brownstein. Even after the opening credits, it went straight to the show–no director credits was shown…I’ll stick to video releases and the Hu–where I can see the closing credits..The only thing I watch on Cozi is the Lone Ranger..Antenna Tv and MeTv got it right——–Closing credits!!!!!

  • History of Television (Hot TV) is in Dallas/Fort Worth, Seattle, Las Vegas, and Sacramento.

    Hot TV runs My Little Margie, I Married Joan, Lock Up, Man With A Camera, Ozzie and Harriet, Public Defender, Racket Squad, Meet Corliss Archer, Range Rider, Love That Bob, and countless programs from the 50s and 60s.

  • Avery says:

    I can definitely agree with the criticism regarding some of the most egregious sitcoms of the “golden era.” Shows like The Beverly Hillbillies, F-Troop, Gilligan’s Island, Petticoat Junction, Green Acres, Andy Griffith, The Brady Bunch, I Dream Of Jeannie, Jack Benny Show, etc, were inferior shows when they were on network television. Now they are just painfully dated rotten programs that even the network executives didn’t like. There were many great sitcoms produced back in the day, yet they are rarely seen anymore. I applaud small fringe networks like Antenna TV and MeTV for at least trying to keep the classic TV flame from burning out, but their selections of “classic media” have much to be desired. I will only source my dvd’s and YouTube for the real classics, and ones that aren’t butchered for commercial time.

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