Of Cowboys and Comedies

July 31, 2010

1950s TV show by Tom Jackson

As the advance copies of my novel The Shame of What We Are ship to reviewers, I’m appreciating even more the wonderful illustrations done for the book by Tom Jackson. Here’s one of them, a 1950s TV set with weird images of characters from The Danny Thomas Show, or Make Room for Daddy as it was originally known. In the chapter this picture accompanies, the nerdly young hero, Art Dennison, has horrific associations with that program. On the whole, though, he loves the TV shows of the era, and he’s as mesmerized as that inert hand on the armrest implies.

Me, too—I had a real passion for TV in the old days, nothing I can summon up now, and I’m wondering why that’s the case. Is the difference just a child-adult thing, the magic worn off because I’m older? Then why is old-time TV a cult fascination for so many other people, both older and younger than I am?

Video itself was brand-new then, with a freshness we can’t duplicate today. Too, the shows were feel-good concoctions that tapped into a cultural reservoir of notions about right and wrong, good guys versus bad guys. Even though the real world offered the Red Scare, civil rights struggles, and a nuclear arms race, when you trundled off to bed you could be confident that all was right with the world. Comedians like Danny Thomas made it so, along with Superman, Joe Friday on Dragnet, and all the wonderful cowboys who pranced across the screen.

Now our action shows are ambivalent, our comedies uneasy or cringe-worthy. Our reservoir of agreed truths has sprung a BP-sized leak.

Of course, one of the premises of my novel is that the seeds of our bitter, depressed times were there in the supposedly naive postwar era, not just in the political machinations and social injustices but deeper in the American psyche. We killed off our own innocence, pardner. Plugged him dead. I guess that big white hat was just too much to take.

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