Books & Culture

When TV and Film Still Had Heart

Steven J. Cannell and John Hughes were ’80s greats. How could two people create shows and movies that varied so much between the absurd and the comical to the serious? And, today, what is the goal? It’s like there is a competition to see who can create more darkness.

There is a real darkness in our country and, no, it isn’t the president’s fault. He has simply amplified a hidden sentiment that has been masked for a long time. This goes for all forms of media, but specifically, it applies to movies, television, and obviously the news. I’d include music, but I have zero idea what the kids are listening to nowadays. Saying the media is biased is like saying Led Zeppelin is your favorite band, so let’s just go down the path of television and movies.

I was blessed to be a 1980s child, a time when movies were so unrealistic they were a thing of beauty. From “Indiana Jones” to “The Goonies” (I mean, who didn’t dare their friends to do the “truffle shuffle”?) to “The Princess Bride”—it is a miracle that such a majestic beauty was directed by (and I’ll be nice) such a nonmajestic man—to all the movies Yoram Globus and Chuck Norris made. Let’s not forget the amazing “Lethal Weapon” series, and of course the greatest action movie ever made, “Die Hard.”

In television, there was no better time to be a boy. It was as if Stephen J. Cannell knew how to speak to a young boy’s fantasies: From “Airwolf” to “The A-Team,” “The Greatest American Hero,” and of course “21 Jump Street.” (Do not watch the movie, which is but a poor remake of the show).

And who could forget “Knight Rider,” and, of course, all the great sitcoms: “The Cosby Show,” “The Wonder Years,” “Family Ties,” and “Growing Pains.” Some were realistic, some were not, but one thing they all had in common, was that when you turned off the television you felt better than when you turned it on.

I bring up Cannell specifically because he was to television what John Hughes was to movies. They both knew how to write for kids, teens, adolescents, and adults, without ever speaking down to, or insulting the intelligence of the audience. Both were prolific writers and directors. Both, sadly, died young; and both left incredible vacuums when their left the scene.

Maybe best of all, there was no political messaging—even subliminally. The only message was “enjoy, maybe think a little, and please escape, because that is what television and movies were made for.”

I know I missed a ton of great movies and television shows from what I consider the second Golden Age for both mediums. Also, I purposely didn’t mention any Hughes movies, for fear of slighting one movie by mention another of his greats. And who can forget the music that so inspired Hughes?

Cannell and Hughes were 1980s greats. How could two people create shows and movies that varied so much between the absurd and the comical to the serious?

And what is the goal today? It’s like there is a competition to see who can create more darkness. We get it. Ryan Murphy, you are the cream of the crop—I’m just not drinking it. Honestly, I’m not sure how many truly are, since a TV “hit” today is 5 million viewers. Shows used to get canceled if they had only 15 million viewers. These days the message counts more than the numbers. Where have the Tartikoffs gone?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, since we are all binging on streaming services in the time of COVID-19. When a friend told me this week that his son was about to have a virtual high school graduation, I realized that I’d rather watch that over the overly-hyped “Ozark” starring an actor whose likeability I simply don’t understand.

So, why not stream graduations? I know it’s odd watching other people’s graduations, and no one wants to feel like the cheering leather guy from “Little Miss Sunshine,” but what are the alternatives these days?

For the record, I am not one of those people who thinks yesterday was always better, and I encourage all to watch anything that was on the USA or sci-fi networks in the mid-2000’s. And yes I am a “Psycho.” And please preorder the new Killers album.

Maybe I am one of those people. Who knows? When I hear “Make America Great Again,” it doesn’t conjure in my mind anything about race or anything political. It evokes a longing for a time when kids could be kids. When one could argue over whether Billy Joel was better than Elton John (Billy, of course). Or when we could imagine we were Jake Ryan but, in reality, we were Brian Johnson. Or when we could pretend to be looking for lost and buried treasures or imagining ourselves as a commando unit that escaped into the Los Angeles underground. To quote The Killers, it was an era when “little boys have action toys for brains, I’m living proof it can last a long time.”

Imagining, and imagination is what makes us great and imagination always trumps the dark and the darkness.