Among the many embarrassing relics I’ve saved from my wonder years, two highlight signs of early TV addiction. The first is a cassette I labeled THEMES—TELEVISION. On it I captured the opening-credit songs for such shows as Charles in Charge and The Golden Girls, with the sound quality one would expect when you crank up the volume on a cheap console and hit RECORD on a cheaper tape recorder. A decade later, in my twenties, I popped the tape into the dashboard deck on a road trip to Death Valley and tortured my friends when I sang along to every tune.
Exhibit B is a loose-leaf notebook documenting my prime-time punditry for the fall 1985 TV season. While other kids were confiding their dreams and fears to their diaries, I was reading the tea leaves contained in each week’s Nielsen ratings. “The Fall Guy dropped like a rock,” I wrote in my analysis of the fourth week of September. “Diff’rent Strokes isn’t going to last against Dallas.”
There were at least five TVs scattered throughout the house I grew up in. I awoke to the banter of Jane Pauley and Bryant Gumbel on the Today show, the catfights on General Hospital filled our afternoons, and the shenanigans of The Gong Show kept us laughing through dinner. Around midnight, as I lay tucked in bed and my Toshiba flickered, my father would bellow from the hall: “Go to sleep! An eight-year-old shouldn’t be up watching The Tonight Show!”
As a kid, I had a cast-iron stomach for schlock and a sweet tooth for miniseries like Shogun and North and South and Lace. Ah, Lace! How could anyone forget Phoebe Cates, who played a famous actress abandoned as a baby? She brought the three likely culprit-moms to her lavish mansion and demanded to know, “Incidentally, which one of you bitches is my mother?” TV Guide once deemed it the best line, like, ever.
In our September issue writer Tom Carson dives deeply into one of those sagas, The Winds of War, which of course I devoured when it aired in 1983 (I even watched the sequel). He uses the overreaching spectacle that dramatized the U.S. involvement in World War II as a springboard for discussing the state of television today. Tom argues that TV has become more golden than ever but less democratic, with the best shows aimed at a boutique audience rather than the masses who lapped up The Winds of War.
I’ll concede that the plot, dialogue, and character development of shows like Breaking Bad and Orange Is the New Black far surpass what aired when I was an addict (I’ve since reined in my obsession). Nonetheless, I’d defy anyone to name a TV show from the past ten years with a theme song that packs the punch of the opening chords of The Love Boat or Maude. Skeptical? Have I got a mix tape for you.