Keeping It More and More Real

TV Guide’s anthology and the myth of TV progress.

Every week, or so they say, 30 million people read TV Guide—a handy, perfect-bound service magazine that contains America’s TV listings, mini-profiles of people in television, and essays by known writers at loose ends, like Jay McInerney or Gloria Steinem. These essayists, who stipulate that they ordinarily dislike television, express in TV Guide happy surprise that one show or another strikes them as true to life. In 1988, Steinem praised Cagney & Lacey for reflecting “the reality of women’s lives.” In 1996, McInerney observed that Seinfeld was “like real life,” adding, “I know people like this.”

TV Guide has now published Fifty Years of Television, an anthology of its blue-ribbon pieces, together with photos and show summaries. I don’t know who spends $50 for a book like this—a heavy silver square that consumes as much as a quarter of a coffee table’s surface—but if you really like television (or have questions), it might be worth the cost, chiefly since its sturdy pages seem to show no smudges after a read-through—i.e.,  it’s easy in this holiday season to buy, read, wrap, and give.

The predictable images are here—Oswald, Challenger, Bronco—but Fifty Years of Television also contains surprises. Rather than give a simple chronology, it presents television as a long master day, profiling morning shows through daytime, evening, prime time, and late-night talk. This sequence enlivens its subject: You get the old with the new, so you’re disinclined to flip through merely to brood just one more time on the lost years during which you loved television with abandon.

The format has led to many cool curatorial choices: The morning section opens with an ultramodern cel from Warner Bros. showing Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner looking like sleek Italian furniture; at midday, there’s a coppery shot of Julia Child against a lilac-y shot of Martha Stewart; and, in dark of night, the book shows a still of a cocksure Johnny Carson with a clean-cut Woody Allen that manages to capture something of the complexity of comedy in the 1960s.

The pages of oral history also offer up curious details. Chevy Chase, for instance, takes a big bite of credit for Saturday Night Live’s success (“John Belushi was kind of upset that I became the star”). Rob Reiner admits that he was uncomfortable on the All in the Family set because he felt caught between the sensibilities of Carroll O’Connor and Norman Lear. David Duchovny sums up the appeal of sci-fi: “You can be moralistic and allegorical and get away with it.”

The book is also pervaded by the Steinem/McInerney argument that television is best when it’s most like life, and, moreover, that programming is on a steady progression from fake to real—from fantasy to verisimilitude—from the goody-good dreamland of the 1950s straight through to today’s hard-core reality. In the introduction, Mary Tyler Moore cites the bold leap taken by Carl Reiner when he ventured to depict “real spats” on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Edie Falco muses that, these days, “The Sopranos … is shocking and upsetting, but so is what really happens in our lives.”

There’s something obviously dubious about this—and the book, by rejecting straight chronology, also undermines the onward-and-upward model of TV history that accepts flawless naturalism as the medium’s ultimate goal. TV Guide has been covering this gay science for nearly 50 years; its editors are not impressed by would-be revolutions in programming anymore. Too many shows have billed themselves as breakthroughs in realism. Fifty Years in Television offers only gentle reminders that, in fact, for half a century nearly every producer who has put a show on the air has imagined that he or she is finally bringing truth to television.

“It’s honest, it’s adult, it’s realistic”—so John Wayne warned viewers before Bonanza airedin 1960. It turns out that even Ozzie Nelson created his show as a study in accurate representation. As he put it in TV Guide in 1963: “Most people are pretty nice.” And to that extent, Ozzie and Harriet—more even than The Sopranos—got human nature exactly right.