James Leroy Wilson's blog

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Happy Days and the Power of Television

I normally do not watch "reunion" shows and whatnot, but I made it a point, for some sub-conscious reason, to watch the Happy Days "30th" anniversary special (how they came to that conclusion,I don't know. Maybe this show is a repeat from two years ago, because Happy Days is undeniably older than 30 years. But it's a Sweeps month, and networks don't do repeats during Sweeps. It's a mystery to me.) I don't think I've seen even a rerun of Happy Days in 20 years, yet I made it a point to watch this.

I am somewhat in the middle of the "Generation X." Culturally, pre-cable, pre Internet, yet post-Sexual Revolution. "Star Wars" is our defining moment, as it became the standard for how movies should be made. (Star Wars is the Beatles of cinema - every new scene has to be interesting and entertaining. Lots of film critics think this is a bad development.) Before Nick at Nite, we watched television reruns after school, not in prime time. That included low-brow, though generally wholesome, fare like Gilligan's Island, Brady Bunch, and Happy Days.

I don't think, if you based the standard on the script, that "Happy Days" was a very good show. Even a nine year-old could tell the difference between, say, "Facts of Life," "Different Strokes, and "Happy Days" from "Mary Tyler Moore" and "Taxi."

(Fortunately, this reunion episode addressed the "jump the shark" issue and the "Chuck" problem, if only briefly. They also dug up Pat Marita, who played Arnold, though they didn't dig up the guy who play Al. Does that mean that they would have to literally dig him up? Is he dead? I forgot. They did not, however, explain their great betrayal of the public trust when they not only revealed Jenny Piccolo, but made her a cast character of the show.)

Yet, the power of Happy Days is bigger than the script. This may suggest, also, the power of other mostly "bad shows" like Little House on the Prairie, which as a kid I knew was corny - a friend of my family called it smarmy, a word that I can attribute to the emotions of Michael Landon's and Steve Spurrier's faces; otherwise, I don't even know the definition of the word "smarmy"- and completely unfaithful to Laura Ingalls Wilder's books, yet I watched it, week after week. After a time, especially after I reached junior high, I gave up on both Happy Days and Little House, and the Dukes of Hazard, and Dallas. Cheers and Hill Street Blues had set the bar far too high. Sure, I still watched a lot of television, far too much, but after a point, watching bad shows becomes a drag.

But this is why I watched the Happy Days reunion special, and am glad I did. Unlike technically better shows, like MTM or Taxi or Cheers or MASH or Seinfeld, name one regular character from Happy Days that you wouldn't want to have as a friend. Or, name even a cast member - the actor - that you wouldn't want as a friend. The genius of Seinfeld is that the four main characters, and virtually all the recurring characters, are people that you would NOT want as friends; they are therefore reliable comic foils, which made that series so special. Happy Days is almost intrinsically a far worse show for the very reason that you like all the characters.

Whenever, in our politcal environment, the phrases "middle America" or "middle class" come up, I think of the Cunningham's house. I didn't know what a coma was until Richie had one. And, especially, my very understanding of friendship began in the early shows, revolving around Potsie and Richie, and later episodes about Fonzi and Richie. When I hear anything that mentions "ego," I think of the Fonz. And, of course, when I hear "cool," I think of the Fonz.

"All in the Family" may have been, in virtually every sense, a far better series, but would you want any of the principles to be your friend? Yet whom among the "Happy Days" characters would you NOT want to be your friend?

In the late adulation of Johnny Carson, a lot was made by many people that the King of Late Night was far better than his successors. What they conveniently forget was his opening monologues, which, as time went on, were increasingly stale, lacking any bite. (Although the rest of the show, especially interviewing guests, remains the gold standard.) Whatever one says about Johnny's personal life, this much is true: he was handsome in the telegenic sense, though not disarmingly great-looking. And he was funny, though not neurotic - which Letterman, Leno, and Kimmel undeniably are. What Johnny Carson portrayed on television was a guy you liked, someone you'd want as a friend. Television has that power. It is what makes James Garner, Tom Selleck, and Ted Danson first-rate television stars, even though you won't necessarily bother to buy the ticket to watch their movies. In the same way, I doubt that Gary Cooper, John Wayne, or Harrison Ford could have carried a television series. Nor could I imagine that a Steve Martin or Robin Williams, funny as they are, could have carried a late-night talk show.

That's the power of television. It is macaroni and cheese. Not the greatest food in the world, but you like it, and it fills you up. It is "comfort food."

And that was Johnny Carson, and that is/was Happy Days. Everyone has their specific gifts, and some of those gifts are best suited for television. A gift is different from a talent; there's no logical reason why Selleck was a great TV star but not much of a movie star. In appearence and acting ability, he's not appreciably different, and perhaps better, than many movie stars of his generation.

But he, as Magnum P.I., became "comfort food." Happy Days was, similarly, comfort food. And Little House, and a host of other shows. It is said that "familiarity breeds contempt." It is also true that familiarity also breeds loyalty. The difference between the "good " and the "great" is likeability. Dances With Wolves may not be half the movie that Goodfellas was, nor may Forrest Gump be half the movie that Pulp Fiction was. But no one wants to root for a bad guy, someone one wouldn't want as a friend.

This explains the Oscars, if not every year, most years. Even the pretty people vote for what they like, over what is great.

This also explains television ratings. This explains Happy Days.

If you don't like what I'm saying here, then sit on it, nerd.


  1. the saturday morning column as a blog :

    accepting the premise - how do we use the fact that people desire comraderie and friendship and want to like the people they deal with to transform away from television and back into the real world? Or is that a desirable goal - maybe we don't want them tuned in - it's kinda depressing. but media shapes our lives and quite frankly, i didn't like the shape of where it was taking me.

    so i quit - cold turkey. no cable, no sports. i will be polite in company, but if i am visiting and the host turns the television on, it is my signal that the social visit has ended. i do not impose on my wife and kids much, only when i have things to say or do with them.

    this does not apply to hollywood - we still do vcr and dvd - tho i do wish the educational content was a bit better. but that's just me. i understand that there's a game on tomorrow - (Pats 44 Eagles 17 - no TO factor)

  2. I would think that we'd all like to like, and even love, the people we work with, and do business with. Wouldn't that be the best?