When This Was Television launched in May of this year, it was born out of a desire to write something different about television, something that could add a new dimension to the never-ending conversation about everyone’s favorite medium. We wanted to unearth shows that had been lost to the ages, find points that hadn’t already been dissected to death, and start a dialogue amongst like-minded individuals. And we weren’t shy about these ambitions, with our very first post expressing a bold mission statement to “explore multiple facets of television history through multiple approaches and lenses… to approach older television content with knowledge of contemporary trends, themes, and realities.”
And now, more than six months later, it’s no exaggeration to say that This Was TV has exceeded all of our expectations. It went from four of us trading long and frequently incoherent email chats (“Project Lemon Bar Food Truck” anyone?) to a thriving network of twenty writers, all of whom have brought unique and engaging voices to the site. We’ve discussed shows that range from the legendary to the obscure, held four series of roundtable discussions, talked through three books on TV’s earliest days and most colorful networks, launched our own (occasionally controversial) Hall of Fame complete with statistical analysis, and chronicled 192 days of TV history. We were cheered early on by an overwhelmingly positive response from our friends and peers in the critical community, and continue to hear from people who are glad a site like ours exists.
So, as a celebration of how far we’ve come, we thought it would be fun to take a look at our own history. We asked our editors and contributors to pick their favorite article they’ve written, and their favorite article from another contributor, and say a few words on just why they liked them so much. These are all pieces that we’re proud to have written and published under the This Was Television banner, and ones we hope you’ll take the time to read for a first or fifth time.
From all of us here at This Was Television, thank you for your readership and your comments. We hope you’re as thrilled for 2013 as we are.
Cory Barker: If there’s one thing the Internet knows about me, it’s that I love lists. So it’s probably no surprise that my personal favorite project thus far was my countdown of the top 30 shows in WB and UPN history (I’ve linked to the final portion, but you can access them all from there). Going back through the tumultuous yet sometimes wonderful histories of those two ill-fated networks brought back a number of memories from formative television-viewing days—a time that so greatly impacted my life and now a feeling that I think defines the kind of work we strive to do here at TWTV. It’s cool to review things you’ve never seen before, but there’s something powerful about returning to shows and eras in which you’re very familiar.
J. Walker’s Same As It Ever Was? feature brings us great insights on the reg, but as a massive wrestling mark, I can’t help but gush over the piece about the post-steroids era WWF, when Hulkamania seemed “dead” and the wrestling company, broiled in scandal, tried to pick up the pieces. Wrestling deserves to be taken more seriously by critics and scholars, particularly its form of storytelling, and J. does that here with his consideration of how The Undertaker and Yokozuna feud expanded the WWF’s typical rhythms and realities, for better and for worse.
Les Chappell: One of my favorite aspects of This Was Television has been the chance for our various writers to revisit the shows they loved growing up, the ones that helped push them from simply watching TV to engaging with it and writing about it. As such, my Our Old TV feature on Mystery Science Theater 3000 is my pick for personal favorite project of the year. Leaving aside the fact that it gave me an excuse to rewatch some of the funniest episodes of television ever (“Paul! You is a warwilf!” “Rowsdower-mobile, away!” “Lucky guy, he’s about to find out I’m Ben Murphy.”), it was great to realize just how much the show had shaped my sense of humor and approach to criticism, and to remember those glorious days when a VHS cassette was your only way to preserve a favorite show.
When we started this site, our mission statement was to be “an all-encompassing look back at where television was in hopes of learning more about where it is,” and I think that Erin’s first Black in Time column on the history of Black nerds is one of our best examples of this. Not only was it topical, she selected some incredibly good choices for her favorites, and made a well-reasoned argument about how what’s come before has shaped the way similar characters are portrayed today. (I particularly enjoyed her phrasing about how today “viewers can appreciate these characters for being black Nerds instead of Black nerds.”) And most impressively, she was able to discuss this topic without including Urkel, which earns a round of respectful applause.
Andy Daglas: A programming bloc can be like a mix-tape: Get the right pieces together, in the right order, and they can build on one another and make something greater than the sum of its parts. I grew up watching line-ups that still have instantly recognizable brand identities—Must See TV, T.G.I.F. Snick. So I’ve especially enjoyed how Anthony Strand’s Right On Schedule column has identified classic line-ups and dissected what made them tick. From his first one, highlighting ABC’s 1970-71 Friday nights, you can see how Anthony’s approach throughout the column sheds light on what each of these shows means in context with their contemporaries and their eras. All three have been some of the most interesting material we’ve published, and I can’t wait to see which classic primetime bloc he spotlights next.
For my own piece, I’ll cheat a bit (in large part because I haven’t written much in the way of solo, long-form features. But working on This Was Television On… more or less every day since we kicked off has given me a chance to learn more about the nooks and crannies of TV history than I ever thought possible. Some days turn up fascinating, forgotten relics, like how the word “television” dates back to the staggering year 1900. Other dates have had a less fruitful history, at least per my own research, but… well, that’s when you improvise. Regardless of the relative “importance” of each event, I hope these have provided a few fun nuggets of TV lore for readers as well.
Noel Kirkpatrick: I’m going to cheat a little too. While I do really like what I wrote for the final roundtable installment on Blackadder Goes Forth, and have no trouble representing that for my sample of the year, I think it also highlights my favorite thing about This Was Television, which has been working with Cory, Les, and Andy. I think all three of them are great here (plus it reminds us that Cory is sort of heartless, and I’m all for that), and it demonstrates the value in our varied perspectives, voices, and conversations, a big part of This Was Television, as you all know.
My choice for the non-me bit of writing is also from the “founding partners,” as it were. We’ve gotten shouted at by some commenters for being too recent, too idiosyncratic, or too narrow in choices of coverage, and yet when Andy Daglas discussed Studs’ Place, no one bothered to comment, or even to say, “It was a gem!” Was too too local? Did it air too early? Instead of celebrating unearthing this show (with the assistance of the Museum of Broadcast Communications), it got crickets. Time to remedy that.
Sabienna Bowman: I had a blast writing my September Women in the Box column spotlighting Jeanne Cooper’s work as Katherine Chancellor on The Young and the Restless. Since Y&R is both my mother and my grandmother’s soap of choice, I grew up watching this magnificent grande dame of a lady, but I was too young to witness many of her juiciest storylines firsthand. Writing the column gave me the opportunity to delve into the character’s past and explore all of the ways she has left a mark on the genre. In the process, I regained my appreciation for Katherine and a genre that is so often taken for granted by the critical community.
Erin’s Black in Time column is always a terrific read, but I’m still enamored with her In Living Color feature. Framing it as a letter to her future grandchildren was an inspired choice that infused the piece with humor, and cleverly integrated the cultural significance of the series in an entertaining way. It also gave the article an unexpected layer of poignancy in the way that it made it clear that In Living Color is part of a bygone era from before the networks were afraid of taking risks, which will likely never come around again. I’m ashamed to admit I’ve only seen a handful of skits from In Loving Color, but Erin wrote about the series with such passion that it made me realize how much I’ve been missing out on.
Greg Boyd: I was kind of terrified to review Dick Van Dyke’s “The Curious Thing About Women.” Writing about great episodes of TV comedy is a daunting proposition, and I initially struggled with writer’s block as I attempted to find something interesting to say about one of the show’s all-time greatest episodes. In the end, I’m extremely pleased with how the review (in which I decided to analyze the episode’s four key scenes rather than reviewing the whole thing all at once) turned out. I’m not sure it’s objectively the best of the pieces I’ve written, but it’s definitely the one I’m the most proud of, just because of how much of a struggle it was to write at first.
Sabienna’s “Women in the Box” piece on Ellie Walker was just fantastic. I’m not all that familiar with The Andy Griffith Show, but having parents who grew up during the 1960s meant that I wound up watching a few episodes here and there during my childhood, including at least one or two featuring Ellie. And I definitely remember being bothered by the show’s attitude towards women (and really, towards any attempt to challenge tradition) on more than one occasion. Indeed, I believe Ellie was one of the few characters I actually liked, and so I found Sabienna’s analysis of her brief but memorable impact on the show to be a terrific read, and one that brought back a lot of memories: mostly of my dad trying to quell his young feminist son’s outrage at the behavior of many of the characters, and of my admiration for Ellie. A brilliant piece of writing.
Kerensa Cadenas: When I went into writing about The Partridge Family, I had a preconceived notion about what I was going to write about. After watching the actual episode, that whole idea was void. I panicked, attempting to pull something, anything from an episode of television that I didn’t even particularly enjoy. It forced me to analyze my own viewing habits of teen shows of similar, if not worse, quality and why I actively continued to watch them. It helped in part, to realize reasoning behind my unwavering commitment to teen television, and created a much stronger piece of writing than I ever expected to emerge from the brink of a panic attack.
One of the things I look forward to reading is Julie Hammerle and Emma Fraser’s team-up reviews of My-So-Called-Life. As someone who also didn’t watch MSCL as a teen, I really enjoy reading from the perspective of two people who also aren’t experiencing it in that context. While I think it’s near impossible for me to pick a favorite, I’m going to go with their first column on the pilot episode. It establishes the great banter between Julie and Emma, their mutual distaste of Jordan Catalano and contains this quote which caused me to laugh for five minutes: “I think all of us pretty much believed that we would die if we ever even looked upon another person’s genitalia.” Every column is a great blend of humor, heart and thoughtful ruminations on the teenage experience.
Emma Fraser: I have been having a terrific time discussing all things teen TV, 90s nostalgia and changed perceptions in regards to My So-Called Life with Julie Hammerle, so it’s hard to pick a specific piece. The one that stands out to me though is the double bill of “The Zit” and “The Substitute” as this captured the best and worst of the show. Yes it can be incredibly perceptive and heartfelt, but it also isn’t immune to awful clichés, such as kooky substitute teachers who want you to “Question Everything.” This one has all the ingredients of our MSCL posts; potential Rayanne/Sharon BFF fanfic, bathroom chats, teen confessions, Mean Girls references and love for Patty Chase.
One thing I really like about This Was TV is finding out about shows that I had little to no knowledge of and Kerensa’s recent Teen Dreams piece James at 15: Teen Boys, Masculinity and Raging Hormones is the perfect example of this. Teen TV as you can see is an area of interest and it’s good to know that there has been a male equivalent of Angela Chase long before Claire Danes first hit our screens. It’s also interesting to see where James at 15 would fit in with today’s “teen bro shows” and how this show was an inspiration to Kevin Williamson. I will be adding James at 15 to my always growing ‘to watch’ list, but I’m thankful that articles like this are broadening my TV history horizons.
Julie Hammerle: In the middle of all the ELECTION FEVER, I loved reading Eric Thurm’s historical peeks back at the televised debates of old. My favorite Debate Night had to be the Bush/Dukakis 1988 post. The 1988 election is the first one I remember anything at all about, and what I mostly remember is a kid making fun of other kid at school because s/his parents were voting for Dukakis. I love this post because it reiterates that nothing really is new under the sun—that the same players were still playing, that the pundits were still punditing, and that the “science guys” were still out there trying to prove the pundits worthless. I found this notion (and Eric’s well-researched assessments of each debate) oddly calming in the midst of all the election craziness.
I went into watching My So-Called Life thinking it was just a show about a teenage girl mooning over Jared Leto. Thankfully, I was ever so wrong. The episode where this really, truly hit home for me was “Strangers in the House,” which I thought would be a Very Special Episode about the Chase family being robbed, but instead turned out to be an episode that left me bawling and cursing some of my own teenage life decisions. Also in this post, Emma Fraser and I got to talk about Jordan Catalano’s random illiteracy and I got to reference Tori Amos’s ill-fated ’80s band, Y Kant Tori Read, so there’s that.
Whitney McIntosh: The most intimidating subject I tackled over the last few months was definitely my breakdown of Match Game. Seeing as it is one of my favorite old game shows of which I’ve watched countless hours there was certainly pressure to do it justice and properly represent all of its quirks. But while scouring clips and anecdotes was stressful, it also allowed me to find great moments that I had no previous knowledge of on my way to a piece that ended up representing Match Game at its best. With all the various panelists and spontaneous pieces of the show, being able to bring a solid mix of hijinx was very satisfying.
One thing I think is great about This Was TV is that most of the time the site features shows and events that are not so familiar to audiences, thus allowing the contributors to highlight some really unique moments in TV history. Therefore, what I think is some of the more difficult subject matter to tackle is those shows or events that people are already very aware of on the surface. Which is why I really enjoyed Eric Thurm’s Nixon/Kennedy debate analysis. The first debate between these two figures was a major turning point for politics and has been referenced endlessly, so it was refreshing to see someone really dig down into how the media and television impacted each candidate and their overall strategy without seeming at all derivative. A thoroughly enjoyable and informative look at Kennedy vs. Nixon.
Andrew Rabin: November was a big month for statistics between politics (Nate Silver! Yay!) and sports (AL MVP! Boo!) but on a much lower scale, I was very proud of my Hall of Fame analysis for November. AIRS works particularly well with shows in the 7-12 season range, so the 300 episode theme was a good fit. Plus, the analysis of closely ranked shows led to some exceptional comparisons, including Frasier ranking between NBC 90s sitcom mates Friends and Seinfeld. The November analysis is what gave me confidence behind what AIRS was showing.
What I like most about This Was TV is when I can relate to an experience that I had in watching something years ago. That was very much the case with Cory’s “The Box Seats” piece on the XFL. The XFL seemed like such a big deal at the time, and yet it is something that basically never crosses my mind anymore. Cory’s discussion of the league, and analysis of the coverage of the first game, brought me back eleven years, when it seemed like the NFL might have a real rival.
Eric Thurm: Writing about presidential debates can get a little repetitive—the structure is almost always the same, with some interesting historical additions along the way. So my favorite installment of Debate Night thus far, Carter/Reagan: 1980, focused on my favorite presidential candidate in the last 50 years—Ronald Reagan. It’s not that I’m a huge fan of Reagan’s politics, but his 1980 campaign did so much to shape the way we see debates that it was a joy to write about. From “There you go again” to “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” the Gipper made rewatching presidential debates way more fun than it has any right to be.
Kevin’s Wild & Crazy Kids feature is basically designed to go right to the pleasure centers of my brain—I have too many soft spots for ’90s children’s programming to count. But his first installment on Doug in particular is informative, a breeze to read, and sends me right back into a nostalgia hole. I hadn’t known many of the things Kevin discusses, like the Honker Burger being based on In-N-Out or that Billy West voiced both Doug and his nemesis Roger Klotz, all of which just make me appreciate the show even more.
J. Walker: When I pitched the concept for my Same As It Ever Was? column, the very first name that came to mind was Gene Roddenberry. But my piece about his obsession with depicting humanity as “perfect” was surprisingly difficult to write—I’ve loved Star Trek since I was a small child, and forcing myself to turn a serious critical eye on it wasn’t as simple as I thought it would be. It’s always easy to point out the surface flaws in something you love—oh, the acting’s bad, or the costumes are cheesy—but actually cracking the thing open and looking at its fundamental flaws is much harder. But tracing the evolution of the Star Trek franchise from its utopian genesis to its darker, nuanced (and better!) stepchild, Deep Space Nine, gave me the opportunity to put into words some ideas that had been bothering me for decades. And any time I get to use my favorite Harlan Ellison quote—that Roddenberry “couldn’t write for sour owl poop”—it’s a good day.
I’m a game show junkie—the day we got the Game Show Network as part of our cable package was a banner day in the Walker household—so it was delightful to read Whitney McIntosh’s breakdown of Blockbusters, a favorite of mine that is often overlooked. I especially enjoyed the section devoted to host Bill Cullen, who was always as much an integral part of the game as the scoreboard. In these days when most game show hosts are odious posers imported from other fields—stand-up comics, celebrity chefs, etc.—it’s nice to be reminded of a time when being a good game show host was an actual skill set, and one that was highly regarded.
Cameron White: In exploring So Weird from the start again for the first time since my youth, I’ve rediscovered a lot of episodes that I thought were great on first viewing, but don’t hold up as well in hindsight. So I was pleasantly surprised when “Werewolf,” an episode I already knew was pretty good, turned out to be a series highlight. In just under thirty minutes, the episode proved that a Disney Channel show could truly reach all ages by using classic storybook coding, couching the confusion and struggle of puberty in supernatural terms, then having a support system rally around you. I can’t say I was expecting to be moved to 1,500 words on it, but I am glad that one of my favorite shows can still surprise me.
I’m undeniably biased towards this one, given my own obsession with the development of the Disney Channel over the past couple decades, but I was very excited when Kevin McFarland talked about Flash Forward, the channel’s first real attempt at original programming. And Kevin is very good at mixing personal experiences with analysis, which is probably a useful skill to have when talking about the television shows of our youth. I also think, on a broader scale, his feature is a way of providing a window into the past when it comes to children’s and young adult television, an area where cultural transmission has thrived for many years, and the Flash Forward piece is a prime example of how important it is to talk about these shows.
Featured image: keen_seth/Flickr