Television offers entertainment and education to its viewers. A person may turn on the tube to learn the daily news, watch an educational program or for entertainment. However, television as an overall cultural experience offers a significant insight into the important values of a time period. By examining television as a possible gauge of the cultural trends, individuals may recognize developments in the American cultural landscape. Television offers a glimpse of how far society has come in the past decades and where it may lead in the future.
The 1980s were noted for extravagance and outlandish consumption. In the early 1980s, a mall culture appeared. Young Americans ventured to the mall as a form of recreation; shopping consisted as a significant part of this. The culture of the yuppie evolved, as Wall Street boomed. Television shows reflected this in The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. During this show, viewers watched extravagant consumption worthy of Versailles before the French Revolution. During the late 1970s into the early 1980s, the show, Fantasy Island, also followed luxurious practices. The family version of these shows was Silver Spoons, about an heir who wanted for nothing. The short lived 1982 television show Filthy Rich showed more of the same.
Even in detective shows, viewers could not escape that wealth was the epitome of the American dream. In Hart-to-Hart, the amateur detections also happen to be extremely wealthy. Miami Vice followed the drug culture and night life of Miami. Money from drugs fueled Miami’s night life during the 1980s. However, its two detectives drove cars and wore clothes that a vice detective would never be able to afford. Sonny Crockett drove a vintage Ferrari on the show. They owned expensive yachts. In reality, if a vice cop ever owned these possessions, he would be investigated. Americans recognized this incongruity of the characters’ looks and lifestyles with their sworn professions. However, Americans did not care about the flaws. Americans wanted to see glamour and glitz, power and prestige.
Many other shows focused on the average family. They showed a two-parent household and their children. Family Ties, Growing Pains, and The Cosby Show followed this format. However, they were not the family of the 1950s television experience. In Growing Pains, the father worked out of the house as a psychiatrist; this allowed the wife to return to work full-time. The Cosby Show showed an African-American family. The parents were both professionals and lived a comfortable lifestyle. They also always had time for their children; they attempted to instill good values in the kids.
Family Ties also showed parents who worked. It also reflected the changing political nature of American politics. Alex, the son of 1960s liberals, dreamed of being a yuppie. He expressed Republican ideals on the show, in contrast to his parents. The show debuted during the administration of President Ronald Reagan. America went from a liberal counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s to a conservative revival in the 1980s. Alex clearly represented the changing of generations and that belief systems change with these generations.
Not all shows expressed a traditional middle class family prototype however. Roseanne showed a working class family, struggling to make ends meet. The show debuted in 1988 and indicates a backlash to the overindulgence seen in the early 1980s. They worked a variety of odd, lower-class jobs and often lost them. There was never enough money to pay the bills. However, the family loved each other. Roseanne also became noted for discussing extremely taboo topics, such as abortion, menstruation, birth control, homosexuality and domestic violence on the show. Other shows in the 1980s also discussed controversial topics amidst comedy.
Television shows in the 1980s also challenged America’s notion of what a family was. In the 1970s, divorce became easier and more commonplace. More children grew up in single-parent homes. Television shows indicated that the family structure was changing quickly. Punky Brewster and My Two Dads showed unconventional family arrangements. Punky Brewster lived with a foster parent. My Two Dads discussed the topic of paternity. No one knows which dad is the father of the main character. In Diff’rent Strokes, a wealthy white man adopts two African-American boys. In doing so, this show combined the concept of conspicuous consumption with the changing nature of the American family. It broke down racial barriers by allowing a mixed race adoption. It aired in 1978, just over a decade after the Civil Rights’ Movement. The careful crafting of this TV show for American consumption needs to be examined closely. As Americans adapted to a modern desegregated world, they likely needed role models with how to proceed with desegregation. Americans viewed those with wealth as the ideal American role model. Therefore, the perfect way to create the acceptance of a desegregated society was by combining a wealthy white male adopting two African-American boys.
The Golden Girls exhibited four older women living together. They created a family for themselves. This recognizes that Americans’ definition of a family was changing. Sophia and Dorothy are mother and daughter on the show. However Blanche and Rose have no relation to them. Despite this, they evolve into a family. The show also challenged the previously held idea that middle-aged and elderly women were not vital and active. Three of the four are widows. They do not spend the rest of their lives in widows’ weeds, mourning their husbands. They are active in events, volunteer their time and actively date.
The 1980s programs indicate the evolution of society and values through the decade. However, in today’s world, television does not offer this exact ability. The explosion of TV channels allows individuals to choose what appeals to them. Hundreds of channels, many catering to individual tastes, appear on today’s programming guides. One facet of culture that has been revealed by modern TV is the obsession with celebrity. Previously, one needed to have talent to be on TV. Actors sang, dance, acted, and perfected the comedic timing to secure a television show. The proliferation of reality TV shows changed this idea. The Real Wives programs, Jersey Shore, the Kardashian shows and others reality shows offer celebrity without talent for the “stars.” Most Americans likely do not live similar lives to those in these shows. They cannot relate to the lifestyle. Yet, the draw appears to be the fantasy. In this way, society has returned to the early 1980s. Many Americans audition for the opportunity to be a reality star. These individuals became wealthy and famous merely because of the shows. Celebrity begets celebrity. The reality TV craze began around the same time as the real estate bubble. This may not be coincidental; it may reflect value systems. Individuals attempted to create large amounts of wealth by flipping houses. The wealth actually was built upon the sand, as was soon learned. The fame from reality TV shows also is built out of the air. It can disappear tomorrow. The turn of the millennium indicated that Americans chose to believe in vacuous institutions. They enjoyed the mirage of wealth and celebrity, rather than respecting the hard work and determination normally required for these. If this is correct, it does not bode well for the future of America.
However, perhaps this is a backlash against the preachy voices of the late 1980s and 1990 TV shows. After the consumption bubble broke, Americans faced TV shows that always appeared to discuss a topic of importance, albeit with laughs. Today, news is streamed 24/7. Americans constantly hear about these difficult topics. Americans may have grown weary of listening to their actors reading lines from a soapbox. Pendulums continuously swing. The frivolity of the current TV reality craze may be the far side of this swing. It may merely represent a mindless diversion from the pressures of life.
One television show does not indicate the current cultural climate of America. It is only in retrospect, after examining the larger picture, do we understand what a decade worth of programming meant to America. In 2020, the picture may be clearer to examine.