Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Whatever Happened to Period Television?

It's upfront week, the time of year when the major television networks reveal their fall schedules for advertisers and we learn which of the new pilots will become series. It was ABC's turn today, and they confirmed that one of the titles that I had been rooting for, "Poe," is not getting picked up. "Poe" would have been a crime procedural set in the 1840s featuring Edgar Allen Poe as a sleuth. This continues a trend that I've always found a little baffling. In the last decade, American period shows have almost totally vanished from network television.

Well no, this isn't quite true. AMC's "Mad Men" set in the 1960s, is no doubt responsible for this year's spate of new network dramas like "Pan Am" and "The Playboy Club," which are set in the same decade. And there are always one or two shows that take place in the more recent past that directly appeal to our nostalgia like "Happy Days," "The Wonder Years," and "That 70s Show." But you have to go to cable, and premium cable at that, in order to find shows set any farther in America's past, like "Boardwalk Empire," (1920s Prohibition) "Carnivale" (1930s Depression era), "Deadwood" (1870s Old West) and "The Pacific" (1940s WWII).

But it wasn't always like this, mostly because we used to have Westerns. Back in the 50s and 60s the networks couldn't seem to get enough of them. By the 90s we were down to the likes of "Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman," "Christy," "the Adventures of Brisco County Jr," "The Young Riders," and endless "Bonanza" reruns, but they were there. And miniseries and made-for-television films were still plentiful, so you'd see the occasional "North and South," "Scarlett" and "Sarah, Plain and Tall." Nowadays, however, it often feels like American network television has completely cut ties with the past.

The obvious reason for the decline is that period programs tend to cost more than most, because they have to recreate bygone eras. And there's always the nagging feeling that shows set in the past would only appeal to older viewers because of the antiquated language and historical frames of reference. Not true of course, but that's the prevailing wisdom. Only cable networks seem to have the means and, well, the guts to take a risk on shows that take place beyond fifty years ago, which means that access to this kind of programming has become limited.

That's a shame, since the result is that there are various genres of television that the majority of American viewers just don't see any more. Along with Westerns, pioneer stories like "Little House on the Prairie" are gone. "Hogan's Heroes," "MASH," and most shows about the armed forces have disappeared as the major world wars have faded from the popular consciousness. And it worries me a little that many viewers under a certain age have never engaged with much media related to the Prohibition, the Civil War, or earlier. Our media is a reflection of our popular culture, after all, and the signs of increasing disconnect with our own history are hard to miss.

I think I notice this more than most because I still occasionally watch imported Chinese television on the foreign language channels, where period dramas and period action shows, often set several dynasties ago, are a staple. CCTV just remade "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" again, which takes place roughly in 150-250 A.D. Then there are the British, who keep turning out new versions of old-as-dirt stories like "Robin Hood" and "Merlin" that are very modernized, but still set firmly in the past. And "Doctor Who" tangles with a historical figure or two in every series. This creates a nice sense of cultural continuity I wish the American media had. If we were more engaged with our past, then maybe we could turn out something like the era-hopping "Blackadder" or those time travel serials that have the Chinese government so worked up.

Granted, the US only has 250 years of history, but I don't doubt there's plenty of material there worth mining. What really had me excited about "Poe" was that it was set in an era that is practically untouched by other media. Do you have any idea what was going on in this country during the pre-Civil War 1840s? I sure don't, but wouldn't it have been fun to find out? I guess I should take some comfort in the fact that the project got as far as it did. And even if period programming is disappearing from television, in film we still regularly see historical dramas and biopics. Heck, over the last year westerns came back in full force, and Hollywood is sending Abraham Lincoln off to do battle with vampires next summer.

Maybe this means period television will be back on the networks someday too. In the meantime, I guess I'll just have to keep waiting for those premium cable shows to hit DVD. And keep an eye out for a "Quantum Leap" reboot.

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