Born in the USA

I’ve always taken American TV too seriously. As a reluctant cub scout at some camp or other being compelled to walk blindfolded through a bit of bracken (for reasons which continue to escape me), I remember belligerently complaining to my schoolmates how outrageous it was that we were being made to do this while The A-Team was on, hoping to incite some kind of insurrection. This was, as my parents later told me, part of a childhood pattern of over-sensitivity to TV. Years previously I used to run on the spot along to chase sequences in cartoons like a dwarf soothsayer doing a dance prophesising the age of TV interactivity and behind the sofa (a cliché now but I was a pioneer) whenever Skeletor reared his skull in the thinly-veiled after-school special that was He-Man.

The A-Team

You'd be a fool to miss it

At some point, I got creative with my love of American TV. In primary school, when we were given the relatively inspiring brief of writing our own Aesop fables, my thoughts turned immediately to The Cosby Show and dieting Cliff Huxtable’s ingenious replacement of a piece of cream pie with tissue stuffing. I swapped Cliff for a Walrus according to the anthropomorphically bizarre conventions of these stories and threw into some stodgy morality about greed and how ‘in the end the pie was all tissues’. It never occurred to me that my teachers were watching the most popular sitcom on the country’s fastest-growing channel in the world’s mass-medium par excellence, and my plagiarism was duly exposed.

Dr. Cliff Huxtable

The Cosby Show: my favourite fable

Intellectual property issues aside, I was on to something. The sitcoms I used to watch as a kid were fables. They told me more about family and growing up and what adult life might be like than seemingly impenetrable allegories about relationships between incongruous talking animals ever did. And some of them did it so believably I actually thought they were saying something to me about my life (Pardon the DJ, so to speak). Roseanne was and still is so much a part of what I think of as family life. The details weren’t exactly spot on, we weren’t a working-class family from Illinois and I was an only child, but the show spoke to a larger truth about dysfunctional yet happy families around the world. I could really relate to the easy-going yet cynical parents, the weird and vaguely sociopathic little boy (because I, ahem, had a friend like that), the fraught but always loving family dynamic and the constant struggles of life that caring parents such as mine would always keep their kids blissfully oblivious to, even if we were part or all of the problem.

Roseanne

Smells like family life!

 But American TV wasn’t all about seeing or learning about my life. Sometimes I just wanted escape. So did the majority of Americans in the 1960s and 70s, by the looks of it. Thanks to a (now much-missed) scheduling policy of classic US TV repeats on Channel 4 in the 80s and 90s, I whittled away my childhood years to such delights as the camp escapades of Adam West’s Batman, which is stunning whether you know it’s taking the piss or not and hence the perfect family show, and the disturbing, bleak and violent non-adventures of two humans trapped in a hostile future with no chance of return (besides death-by-hunt) on the TV version of Planet of the Apes, proof that the fantasy in these shows was sometimes worse than the reality they escaped (see also Land of the Giants). But, looking back, I can see the seeds of a career as a TV critic and analyst in the way I watched these shows. I always knew a shot of the submarine (or, more accurately, the camera) rocking violently from side-to-side in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was the same one that appeared every single week, regardless of the story (it wasn’t hard-the haircuts changed all the time). Something was amiss and I knew it. And I’ve just spent four years trying to solve exactly the same production riddles, only this time I made a PhD out of it. But it was the same impulse I had when devotedly scanning these programmes into my mind’s eye forever.

Planet of the Apes (TV Series)

Tonight: A shocking glimpse into our future

 I can’t help thinking of Bart Simpson’s maxim about television and parenting ‘It’s hard not to listen to TV. It’s spent so much more time raising us than you’. Now my parents were attentive, loving and committed, and yet it’s still the same. American TV was the lifelong-learning course I enrolled on.

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2 Responses to “Born in the USA”

  1. […] Born in the USA – A paean to American television with moderate usage: I can’t help thinking of Bart Simpson’s maxim about television and parenting ‘It’s hard not to listen to TV. It’s spent so much more time raising us than you’. […]

  2. You trying to blag your homework by riffing on the Cosby Show? Excellent stuff! Your teachers must have been impressed by your ingenuity, if nothing else. I know just what you mean about these sitcoms saying something to you about your own life – I feel exactly the same about Roseanne, for example. The circumstances are very different, but the title sequence of the family around the table with the adults talking and the kids goofing off reminds me so vividly of my own childhood, far removed though it was from blue collar Illinois!
    Great stuff, Rev. Keep her lit x

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