Back in the day (translation: a really long time ago), my family and I used to rally around the TV on Sunday nights. Why? Because there were two things on which we could depend: On ABC’s “The FBI,” Inspector Erskine (or “one-shot Erskine,” as my brothers used to call him), played by the incomparable Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., was going to save the girl (it was ALWAYS a girl), shoot the bad guy and make it home unscathed in time for dinner; and that the Sunday Night Movie of the Week was going to be worth staying up past bedtime. (Good times.)
It would never occur to us NOT to tune in – not because we didn’t have a choice (we had lots of entertaining things to do as a family); it was because we had good, quality shows to watch. The three then-dominant networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) offered a slew of choices fit for family- and perhaps not-so-family-friendly environments.
There was no gore, no psychotic criminals running rampant through the streets. It was the era of Hitchcock and Serling, two masterminds who realized that the imagination is worse than anything anyone could ever depict on a TV screen.
Most of the shows on TV today are vaguely “surf-worthy” – just good enough to watch portions here and there, while you watch your REAL preference, before tuning back for its final two minutes to see “whodunnit.” Easy to do when most of the shows are rehashed versions of the old classics.
Case in point: I like The Mentalist. Simon Baker is a good-looking guy (always a plus), affable, smart – and his character is all the stuff you’d want from the man dating your daughter. But Baker’s Mentalist is no match for Columbo. Even in his crumpled-cigar-smelly raincoat and beat-down hooptie, Lieutenant Columbo wins hands-down.
Those old dudes had character. Integrity. I distinctly remember an old, rugged cowboy played by Walter Brennan in the title role of The Guns of Will Sonnett. This charming old man won audiences over each week with four simple words: “No brag, just fact.” Ha! Arguably the best line ever on TV.
Today’s “heroes” don’t even come with a tagline. Who could forget Jack Webb’s firm pronouncement each week as Sergeant Joe Friday? (Just the facts, ma’am.), Telly Savalas as Kojak? (Who loves you, baby?), Columbo’s “Just one more question, ma’am,” or Jack Lord as Detective Steve McGarrett in Hawaii Five-O? (Book him, Danno – murder one!). Even as late as the 1980s Hill Street Blues’ Michael Conrad’s Sargent Phil Esterhaus gave us, “Let’s be careful out there!”
Yeah, network TV has its work cut out, alright. There’ll never be another Green Hornet, a Cagney or Lacey. I Spy, Mod Squad (“Dig the police brutality!”), SWAT, Starsky and Hutch (and the hippest cat on any TV series, Huggy Bear) – are all remnants of the past, only to be (mercilessly) re-done with faux scripts, overacting or both.
They’re all gone.
To be sure, there are still a few honorable mentions – but most are overshadowed by the hoopla over that national singing contest, “un-” reality shows, and melodramatic primetime news series.
Still, I feel privileged to have lived through a moment in time when I can now look back on fond memories of the whole family gathering ‘round that square, big box. It may not have been pretty to look at with its large knobs and rabbit-ear antenna. Most of the time we had to maneuver it, positioning it “just so” – just to get a half-decent picture. But it was good, solid, quality storytelling at its very best.
And that’s “no brag, just fact.”