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Praising Today’s TV Plums Doesn’t Require Sour Take on Yesteryear

Television is rightly basking in the glory of its perceived new Golden Age, with even high-minded literary bastions and sequel-weary film critics increasingly showering praise upon the medium.
At times, though, the corollary of lionizing the current crop of prestige programming demands unnecessarily raining on what’s gone before.

A case in point would be the New York Times’ Neil Genzlinger, who recently wrote about how nostalgia obscures the shortcomings of vintage series. “Sluggish pacing, wooden acting, wince-inducing jokes and obvious plot twists abound in the television of the distant and even not-so-distant past,” he suggested, even assembling a list of shows — among them “I Love Lucy” and “The Honeymooners” — that, in his view, don’t stand the test of time.

One can quibble over the particulars, but there is truth in the assertion that people who whine about how “They don’t make ’em like they used to” are often blinded by rose-colored glasses.
Still, there’s also a dose of myopia in hailing today’s TV gems without recognizing the excess and misfires that surround them. And it’s simplistic — if perhaps comforting to those once so eager to dismiss the “idiot box” as a “vast wasteland” — to act as if the switch has been from “Green Acres” to “Orange Is the New Black,” ignoring all the chromatic gradations in between.

Obviously, the rhythms and pacing of television have changed, as well as the complexity and ambition. This has largely been made possible by ratings fragmentation and a proliferation of options, enabling networks to order more narrowly defined programs that, in feature-film terms, are the equivalent of art-house fare.

Yet many channels offering some of TV’s best shows flesh out their lineups with plenty of reruns and less expensive reality programs, many of which hardly represent a leap forward. As almost any critic can testify, the onslaught of original programming hasn’t diminished the ratio of clunkers, but merely provided more brilliant material for those lucky enough to confine their viewing to the best and the brightest — relying on DVRs and streaming services to screen out the dreck.

The focus on drama, too, overlooks comedy, where plenty of modern shows are raunchier but relatively few exhibit the thematic courage Norman Lear did with programs like “All in the Family” way back in the 1970s.

It’s also worth pointing out that older programs are literally meatier than their heirs. That’s because most ad-supported series have shrunk roughly 20% in terms of actual content, down to roughly 21 minutes per half-hour episode for the average comedy.
Finally, any talk about TV’s relative greatness can’t really be confined to series, since the miniseries in the 1970s and ’80s produced some of the greatest and most-watched productions the medium has conjured, including “Roots,” “I, Claudius” and “Shogun.” While the genre has made a welcome comeback, the miniseries was in such disrepair a few years back the Television Academy dumped it as a stand-alone Emmy category.

One suspects most baby boomers have had the experience of seeing a show they loved as a youth and wondering what their younger selves saw in it. Of course, part of the thrill then was the need to rush home to watch, and the communal aspect of discussing it the next day.

Today, thanks to technology, there’s no need to rush, and finding like-minded fans requires the mediation of the Web.

For the most part, that represents progress. But while black and white sometimes appears pallid juxtaposed with an age of high-definition color, there’s still a lot to like about Lucy.

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