Fellow Americans, do you remember what Thursday nights at 7:45 were like in 1987?
I do. I was 11. It was finishing homework, ending the last game of tag, driving fast over the Sullivan Bridge to get home from the grocery store. I remember Liz Barrows, a zaftig woman with olive skin and white hair, ending a conversation with my mother at the lobster pound next to the Sullivan Bridge by saying, “Yuh, it’s about 8 o’clock!”
We all understood what she meant, and I was bemused by the sudden, vast understanding that Liz Barrows, and everyone else I knew, liked The Cosby Show as much as I did.
Generations after me don’t have this intense collective nonsports television experience.
Yes, Seinfeld ran a high national fever in the 1990s. American Idol has gotten the citizenry talking from time to time. But I don’t think as many people, or as many different kinds of people, love these shows the way we used to love The Cosby Show, or Cheers, or M*A*S*H*, or the Roots miniseries. There is just too much competition now. Back in 1987, with three networks, a public broadcasting station and no Internet, you pretty much dug the good stuff put in front of you. It was probably easier to date back then, too.
Putting aside my anxious belief that television is corrosively frivolous and we all ought to be out riding bikes or volunteering to walk orphaned dogs, I miss that feeling of shared anticipation and joy stretching across the whole country. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately as my husband and I watch the final three episodes of the third season of Community.
(I should explain that I watch all my TV on our computer, which has a relatively big screen. In our ongoing attempt to shrink the household budget, we dropped the cable bill in favor of the Internet. So, yes, I do my part for the fragmentation of American cultural life.) Community aired on Thursday nights at 8 p.m. this past year. I love it. I sometimes read cast members’ Twitter feeds. I read the episode recaps on EntertainmentWeekly.com. I watch it on my fancy phone, then again with my husband on the computer, and once more on the phone. I sometimes watched episodes while my newborn baby nursed.
I felt like I’d discovered chocolate when I saw my first episode, the third season Christmas special, “Regional Holiday Music.”
The series is set at Greendale Community College in Somewhere, USA. It follows seven students who haphazardly form a Spanish study group. They are all outcasts or losers — a disbarred lawyer, a cuckolded wife, a geriatric heir to a moist towelette fortune who has been taking classes for 13 years, to name three — and they stumble with many a pratfall toward becoming each other’s chosen family.
On top of that structure, the writers pile endless pop culture references, from whole episodes that riff on other shows and movies such as Law & Order and Fistful of Dollars, to jokes that dart past so fast it takes three viewings to catch them. The writing and acting are smart and goofy, my favorite combination, and the wit and topicality are balanced by a genuine sense of heart. As ridiculous as the premise and plots are, the characters care for each other. They suffer disappointments. They choose love and connection over greed, laziness, self-loathing, loneliness and fear. The whole thing is unrepentantly absurd, and it is real.
Community is by no means a perfect show. Some episodes fall flat, and the third season lacks the cohesiveness of the first. But all in all, I am in love.
About 3 million people watched Community each Thursday at 8.
In television terms, that’s almost less than zero so, unlike the Huxtable half-hours, there is no national emotional moment happening for this show. If anything, the country is coalescing around Community’s time slot competitor and funhouse mirror twin, The Big Bang Theory.
While not a Cosby Show phenomenon, TBBT draws 10 to 15 million viewers a week. It features a band of lovable misfits who get into scrapes and cleverly jape and stick together despite the many jealousies and tensions plucking them apart.
I do not enjoy this program.
Many people I love and respect like it to the point of laughing out loud all episode long. I think the actors are very good, but I can’t watch a minute before I feel bored and uncomfortable, because the whole glossy enterprise feels boxboard thin.
And that, my friends, makes me sad. This thing so many people love leaves me cold. The thing I love barely makes a dent in the public consciousness. (To be fair, while 30 million people watched Cosby in 1987, that still left 212 million who really didn’t care.) The more popular thing is of lesser quality and has a less complex heart, so what is widely shared doesn’t even mean very much. Today’s television hits just don’t live up to the legacy of the great old shows.
The best ones entertained and soothed and challenged us, and sometimes they reminded us in real time that we were all living in one moment (with a threehour delay for the West Coast feed), all breathing and laughing, all feeling suspense or surprise or sadness. In their minor, smallish- screen way, these silly programs gave us a little bit of shared American-ness. They gave us our laugh.
I don’t know if another piece of TV art will ever do this for us again. Viral videos are like Skittles: delicious, then gone. Of all media, reality TV is the least grounded in reality, so any grand moment that comes from it is necessarily shallow. We seemed to have reached a saturation point with movies, where they simply don’t impress us anymore.
Maybe sports will do it. Goodness knows the World Cup is a massive event broadcast all over the globe. Or maybe politics on television is where we come together, in harmony or not.
Whether you were for or against Obama in 2008, that campaign season was a profoundly collective set of weeks. On Election Night, it felt so good to be watching television, all together, everywhere. For a moment, probably just before the cable newsies called the race, you could feel it. We were one huge community. That was some great TV.