John Ozersky has successfully married academic scholarship with fun, page-turning copy, though a discerning reader will note a few nagging issues among his observations and theories.
The author posits two basic ideas, both of which make good sense. First, he contends that the realities of the 1960s were finally incorporated into television. The results were fatal for disconnected primetime skeds loaded with such escapist fare as “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Bewitched.” Second, he says that the modern notion of a divided audience came about in the late ’60s and early ’70s. That was when the “least objectionable programming” designed to appeal to everyone gave way to programming tailored to draw coveted demos, primarily affluent young adults.
The title signals the book’s focus. “All in the Family” came on the scene with a sharp edge, delivering the coup de grace to television’s ancient regime of fantasy devoid of any connection to reality. Norman Lear’s show was relevant and successful — it was was No. 1 for five straight years, almost unheard of, and spawned several spinoffs.
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That’s not good enough for Ozorsky, who hectors the show for becoming more character-driven and charging that it “domesticated and shrank” the issues, leaving them “harmless and devoid of content.” One could also conclude that it worked well on more than one level, leaving everyone satisfied.
Ozorsky felicitously follows the evolution of today’s irony-based TV, discussing “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “MASH” on to Letterman, as well as the late 1970s counter-revolution that ended with fantasy-driven shows such as “Six Million Dollar Man” and “Fantasy Island.” After the end of the tumultuous decade in the nation and on TV, the tube returned to where it had started — except that relevance and the themes raised in the ’70s had been incorporated into non-threatening programming.
Ozorsky knows his stuff and generally does a good job placing the TV trends within the larger societal context. And it’s mostly a fun ride, which is more than you can say for many serious books.
But some of his observations can only make you wince. “Star Trek” fans will shudder that the book discusses just one episode of a major show — one of the worst of an uneven skein, the one with the space hippies going to a new Eden. He also terms “MASH” generically anti-war and apolitical. Huh?
The irony is implicit: Baby boomers, whose youth culture was ground zero of the change in the U.S. and on television, are now seeing themselves ignored by execs eager to court the new young demographics. Well, we had it coming.