I’ve been engaging in this pointless endeavor for more than three years. I’ve rewatched many hours of television from my childhood, with my feelings towards them ranging from warm, soothing nostalgia to abject horror that such a thing ever existed. Often I’m just puzzled. There were a lot of baffling decisions made, particularly with television of the 70s. Though the medium had existed for over two decades by that point, there still seemed to be a lot of confusion as to exactly what could be done with it, and how to do it. Perhaps it really was just radio but with pictures. Or, perhaps it could be a viable alternative to movies. Or, perhaps it could be a new way to showcase beautiful women in tight and/or skimpy clothing. Or it was the most effective advertising platform businesses had ever (or would ever, until the internet) had in their grasp. It was all of these things. It was none of these things. But, try it all anyway, just in case, to see what works best.
This was particularly true of variety shows, that great though now long dead genre that people like Rosie O’Donnell and Martin Short have tried numerous times to revive, with resoundingly unimpressive results. As I’ve written about time and time again, variety shows were a fascinating experiment in the “throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks” method of entertainment, with no clear indication as to who the audience was, and cast with a mix of performers who were known largely for appearing on other variety shows, and those who had no recognizable affinity (let alone talent for) singing, dancing, or doing comedy. Whether there was a palpable desperation to make it work, or an air of utter indifference, they were always entertaining to watch.
This year marks 35 years since the release of E.T., Steven Spielberg’s greatest child friendly movie, if not one of the greatest movies of all time overall. In recent years, film aficionados have tried their darndest to dismiss Spielberg as an overrated hack who works in sloppy sentimentality like Van Gogh worked in oils. E.T. in particular has been retconned as an exercise in fooling audiences into mistaking empty nostalgia for actual human emotion. To this I say cram it, nerds, it’s still a great movie, and Spielberg is still a great director, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull aside.
It also, of course, spawned a number of atrocious rip-offs, including Nukie, and the even more infamous Mac and Me, one of the most cynical children’s movies ever made, where fully half the action takes place inside a McDonald’s restaurant. One could even make the case for surprise TV smash ALF being, at the very least, inspired by E.T. The basic plots are the same: an alien ends up accidentally left on Earth and is taken in by a human family, where he quickly bonds with their young son. The family must go out of their way to hide the alien from shady government agents who mean to do it harm. Where E.T. sends the audience on an emotional rollercoaster ride through wonder, terror, grief, and joy, however, ALF was mostly just about what happens when you splice a teddy bear with Borscht Belt comedian Shecky Greene, and give him a long, phallic nose.
As our country continues its train ride into Hell, driven by a conductor who speaks in an inscrutable word salad, much like the Man From Another Place in Twin Peaks, it’s important to keep in mind that the concept of #MAGA, that dream world our President and his most ardent supporters speak about, never really existed. There’s never been a time when everyone had a Cadillac in their driveway, and people (wink) knew their place (nudge). The rich have always dominated the poor, teenagers have always been having sex, women have always been getting abortions, and the gays have always been gay. Other than the fact that you can now send a picture of a dancing hot dog to someone within less than a second, the world hasn’t changed all that much.
Remember last Christmas, when we all looked askance at parents who went to insane lengths to buy Hatchimals, the media hyped “hot toy” of the year? People lined up outside of stores before dawn, got into fistfights with each other over the last one, and paid up to ten times the price to predatory opportunists online. This year? You can get them for $20 at Big Lots. They can’t get rid of these things. But, it’s okay, as long as the rest of us who didn’t participate in such nonsense can smirk in satisfaction and judgment over what parents today will do in order to appease their spoiled brats.
But, here’s the thing (and I know that most people know this, but seem to conveniently forget it in favor of smug superiority): this exact same thing happens every few years, and has for decades. Before that, there was Tickle Me Elmo. Then there were Furbies, then Tamagotchis, and then Tickle Me Elmo again, for the first time. Before any of that, however, there were Cabbage Patch Kids.