I was recently interviewed, along with my fellow Popdose Podcast co-hosts Dave Lifton and Jason Hare, by the Brown Tweed Society — I imagine the article will run whenever they get around to re-imbibing whichever combination of alcoholic beverages made them think we’d be worthwhile interview subjects in the first place — and part of our conversation centered on the way the proliferation of entertainment options over the last 25 years has pretty much eradicated pop culture as a shared experience.
Put another way, most of us used to watch and listen to more or less the same stuff — and often, those of us who didn’t were committing a willful act of cultural disobedience. As Chuck Klosterman wrote in his brilliant essay on the subject, there was once a time when if you were awake at 11:30 PM, you were either watching Johnny Carson or deliberately choosing not to watch him. He was a unifying cultural phenomenon.
Earlier in the evening — during the part of the night TV execs lovingly called “primetime” — we had more choices, but they were still pretty limited — and more importantly, the networks tended to stagger their programming so that if, say, ABC was airing a sitcom, NBC would air a police thriller and CBS would air something for old people. It didn’t always work out that way, but particularly if a network had already established a hit during a particular timeslot, it tended to create easy clumps of viewers. If you wanted to watch a sitcom at 8:00 on Wednesday in 1987, you were going to watch Perfect Strangers. Everyone else watched Highway to Heaven. End of story. (Nobody watched Paul Sorvino’s The Oldest Rookie on CBS. Nobody.)
What this often meant was that even if a show was just sort of okay, it could draw an audience simply by virtue of being on the dial. ABC was arguably the king of this sort of programming during the ’80s, pasting the airwaves with a slew of shows that went on and on for years more or less in spite of themselves: Who’s the Boss?, Full House, Head of the Class, Hotel, Perfect Strangers, MacGyver, and Dynasty were programming institutions, and it had very little to do with high-quality scripts or acting.
And then there was Growing Pains.
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Here’s some scary perspective for you: During Growing Pains‘ second season, which ran from September of ’86 to May of ’87, it averaged just under 20 million viewers an episode, and it was the eighth ranked show on television. Right now, the #8 show in the Nielsens is Castle, and it’s drawing about 12.3 million. American Idol, TV’s top draw, pulls anywhere between 20 and 23 million viewers.
What a difference a quarter of a century makes, huh? Make viewers choose between a dopey family sitcom and a legal procedural about a kindly old lawyer, and you end up with year after year of Growing Pains and Matlock. Give them a few hundred channels plus the Netflix library, and the viewers — not to mention their ad dollars — scatter all over the place, and you end up with a lot of panicked executives, a lot of reality TV, and the slow death of the notion that the major networks have a responsibility to entertain and enlighten the public.
All of this is also a very roundabout way of exploring the circumstances that produced a third-string sitcom like Growing Pains and turned it into a hit so big it got its own short-lived spinoff. I turned 13 during the show’s second season, and I know I watched it, although I don’t remember identifying with it, laughing at it, or even liking it very much; it was simply on, and it was the lead-in for Moonlighting, a show I really did like. I remembered it as being a show that very much wanted to be funny, and would have liked to be hip, but could never get past its intrinsic squareness; it used meta gags and broke the fourth wall like a middle-aged uncle using last year’s slang.
That is, as I said, how I remembered the show. But watching Growing Pains: The Complete Second Season, I found myself continually surprised by how well the damn thing held up. The humor was definitely barn-door broad, but executed in an endearing way, with precious little of the cringe-inducing sap that was such a key component of shitty sitcoms like Full House. As the lovably stern but understanding parents of the Seaver clan, Alan Thicke and Joanna Kerns did their fair share of mugging, but their performances had more nuance than I remembered.
And the kids? Well, pre-Jesus Kirk Cameron was obviously a charmer (in fact, I only requested this set to make fun of my wife, who had a crush on him in middle school), and even if Tracey Gold and Jeremy Miller weren’t up to his level, they were still less annoying than, say, the cast of Charles in Charge. And even the writing wasn’t bad — it was never as funny as it tried to be, but in terms of your old-school sitcom setup-gag-repeat formula, it wasn’t really any worse than Everybody Loves Raymond. (Notable difference: Raymond never gave us any Very Special Episodes, while Growing Pains did it at least once a season. Thank goodness for DVD sets that allow you to skip over the episode where Ben brings a homeless kid to Thanksgiving dinner.)
We like to think the sitcom was rescued from its inane death spiral by groundbreaking shows like The Office and Arrested Development, but really, not many people watch those shows; most of sitcom-loving America is content to consume TV pudding like Two and a Half Men or, God help me, According to Jim. The formula is alive and well, but it hasn’t been refined at all; if anything, it’s being used more carelessly than ever. Watch these Growing Pains DVDs, and you get the sense that you’re seeing the work of talented, well-meaning professionals who were probably a little embarrassed by the show, and tried to subvert the genre where they could. Watch Mike & Molly or $#*! My Dad Says, and you just feel cold and alone in a chaotic, uncaring universe.
Is this just nostalgia talking? Probably. But while watching these, I couldn’t help missing the time when cable was for softcore porn and home shopping instead of the only shows worth watching. I’m not going to argue that programming was better overall back then, because it clearly wasn’t; aside from the bulk of the shit that the major networks put out, we’re clearly living in a golden era for television. But was it worth it to get here if it meant giving up the ability to truly share it all as a culture?
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