“I Hate Spunk” (#80)

Hello, friends! In the latest episode of When We Were Young, we are sitting on the sofa, there’s a TV in the corner, we are watching Major Nelson… and Mary, Lucy, Samantha, Herman, Horshack, and Sergeant Joe Friday, too.

Does the phrase “Bewitched Be-Wednesdays” ring a bell? If so, you may remember that the mid-90s spawned a revival of classic sitcoms from the 50s, 60s, and 70s through Nick At Nite’s Block Party Summer programming, allowing a whole new generation of viewers to binge “oldies” like I Love Lucy, The Munsters, I Dream of Jeannie, Welcome Back Kotter, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show for the very first time.

We revisited seven of these beloved shows to see which ones still taste just like candy, and which go down like a spoonful of Vitameatavegamin now that our TV palettes have matured. Fold your arms, twitch your nose, and toss your hat up in the air as we take you back to long-ago era before we were young, when entertainment was sweeter, simpler, and way more sexist. Yeah… these shows have some ‘splainin’ to do!

Listen to the podcast here or on iTunes.

Is covering Nick At Nite’s Block Party Summer just a stealth way to slip a discussion of my favorite 50s sitcom into this podcast on 80s and 90s pop culture? Maybe! But as it turns out, this somewhat obscure cable programming block from 1995 is more relevant to the way we watch television now than you might think.

Nick At Nite launched in 1985, driven by a need to air something at night on Nickelodeon, a network that catered to children. But what could play after the little ones went to bed that would still be appropriately on brand for a family audience? Taking a cue from “oldies” radio station, Nick At Nite replayed wholesome sitcoms from yesteryear, including old hits from Dick Van Dyke and Donna Reed, amongst others.

It sounds like a no-brainer now, but at the time reruns were undervalued. There was no proven market for classic TV. This was, of course, years before full TV seasons were available for purchase on DVD, and long before streaming made entire series easily digestible. If you wanted to see a particular episode of Bewitched, you could wait months or years for that particular rerun to air in syndication.

Nick At Nite’s Block Party Summer was an early prototype of binge-watching old shows, something we now take for granted. Six episodes would air back-to-back, in order, so you could follow arcs across episodes rather than viewing everything as a one-off. It was kinda revolutionary.

Revisiting these shows had a lot of kitsch appeal — not just the dated cheesiness of the shows themselves, but also for the quirky promos that are burned into my brain. They were very 90s. Best of all, of course, is “Jeannie’s Diner,” a relentlessly catchy ditty that repurposes Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner” and the ever-so-memorable Jeannie theme song.

It came as no surprise that the magical, supernatural themed shows — Bewitched, I Dream Of Jeannie, and The Munsters — were the corniest upon a rewatch. While they each have some charms, there’s also a lot of troubling retro sexism at the center of both I Dream Of Jeannie and Bewitched — the alpha male always knows best, and finds his orderly manhood constantly thwarted by the dizzy blonde with super powers. They’re ultimately about extraordinary women who must repress their abilities to make a happy home for their man. Ironically, it’s only the appeal of the women in these series — Barbara Eden, Elizabeth Montgomery, and Agnes Moorehead — who make them worth revisiting at all. (Plus, killer theme songs for all three.)

Dragnet is awfully dry by today’s police procedural standards, and Welcome Back Kotter also suffers from a lot of dated attitudes toward social issues of the day. That’s why it was extra refreshing to check out The Mary Tyler Moore Show for the first time. The show was a huge hit, won a crazy amount of Emmys, and is still cited by comedians as groundbreaking, so the fact that it’s “good” shouldn’t have been a revelation. Still, I was blown away by how fresh and funny it still is. It’s easy to see why Cloris Leachman and Valerie Harper both got spin-offs — they’re legendarily good.

The only real problem with The Mary Tyler Moore Show is the garish set decoration, also a major eyesore on color episodes of Bewitched and I Dream Of Jeannie. For better or worse, these shows certainly capture a moment in time, and it was fun to revisit a nostalgic moment from childhood that was already nostalgic for a much earlier era.

Thoughts?

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