All-Pervasive TV Glues Society Together : Culture: TV shows make references to other TV shows, and viewers love to see that connection, sharing a culture that’s obsessed with television.
Six friends--three women, three men, all in their 20s--come back to an apartment after a few cappuccinos at the local coffee bar and spread out through the chic living room-kitchen nook area. Most are bug-eyed, looking up at the glowing portable TV on a high shelf against the wall.
On the tube is a Spanish-language soap opera. None of the friends speaks more Spanish than “taco” or “adios,” but they are transfixed nonetheless. As the obligatory cat-fight scene between two women on the screen progresses, the friends start chanting, “Push her down the stairs! Push her down the stairs!"--and cheer mightily when it happens.
An unlikely scenario? Well, maybe, but not in the world of television. For this is a scene from the pilot of the highly touted new NBC sitcom, “Friends,” one of three scenes in that show where one or more of the friends are watching the cathode box.
“I think people today are TV obsessed,” said David Crane, one of the executive producers of “Friends.” “We grew up on television and we have become very television obsessed. These people (in the show) are very real and, being real, they watch TV.”
Whatever the excuse, clearly these days, on TV the TV is on.
Time was when TV references could rarely be found on TV shows. For one thing, the mentioning of another show or its characters, it was thought, might make you realize there was something else on another station. Even when the show was about a TV show, like “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” you rarely, if ever, saw the show-within-the-show being produced. People, on the screen and in front of it, had a life--or, at the very least, a life outside of television.
Today, it seems, hardly a sitcom--or even a news event--can go by without a reference to television in some way. On an episode of CBS’ “Evening Shade” last season, when the Burt Reynolds and Marilu Henner characters were planning to renew their marriage vows, the men attended a dull bachelor party while the women had a bridal shower that featured an appearance by a policeman who turned out to be a stripper. The dialogue that later ensued:
One man: “You did things to that cop you can’t do on ‘NYPD Blue.’ ”
One woman: “You’re just mad because you relied on Captain Kangaroo to provide your entertainment.”
Another man, miffed: “I’m a perfectly good host.”
Same woman: “That’s what Chevy Chase said.”
“In earlier days, references in programs may have been to theater or magazine articles or books,” said Robert Batscha, president of the New York-based Museum of Radio and Television. “References must be to what everyone knows, because you are writing to such a large audience. People’s commonality of experience now is television.”
TV has become all-pervasive. It is our our tie to the rest of society.
“I really do believe that a big change overtook this culture through the 1970s,” said Mark Crispin Miller, a professor of media studies at Johns Hopkins University and a media critic often published in the New Republic. “TV changed. It became markedly more titillating and faster-paced. Kids tended to watch more of it than they did in the past. It used to be, ‘Let’s watch this certain program tonight,’ then it became, ‘Let’s watch television.’ Rock ‘n’ roll was not primarily a televisual experience until MTV. You listened to it and danced to it. Now you watch it.
“It’s a very, very pervasive change. TV is more of what’s going on than it used to be,” said Miller. “It is our only shared culture. It has supplanted all previous amusements and cultural forms and distracted us from a range of other institutions. The most obvious one is it keeps us in the house, free from other associations.”
So when people write about television for television today, they are following the old Composition 101 dictum: “Write about what you know.” And a lot of writers don’t think that is as heinous as Miller posits.
“People love observational humor. They love to be able to relate to things they’ve experienced,” said David Mirkin, executive producer for the past two years of “The Simpsons,” which overflows with TV references. “They love to recognize something they’ve seen on TV and then see it again in another context.”
The phenomenon runs the gamut from intellectual favorites like HBO’s “The Larry Sanders Show,” which spoofs the contrivances of the late-night television format, to a kiddie-zone show like ABC’s “Sister, Sister,” whose pilot this spring had references to “The Twilight Zone,” “Beavis and Butt-head,” Oprah Winfrey, Montel Williams and Geraldo Rivera.
Television has become like an M. C. Escher painting, in which the people who are watching television are watching people watch television.
“I think the phenomenon really got started with the shows of the mid-to-late 1980s,” said Batscha of the Museum of Radio and Television. “The writers of shows like ‘thirtysomething,’ ‘Kate & Allie’ and ‘Moonlighting’ were a smart group of young writers trying to reach their own age group, the 18-to-35s of the time. They saw these references as something everyone could understand.
“When I went to college, you wanted to write the great American novel; now you want to write the great series, and I don’t think that’s all that bad,” said Batscha. “Young people who are writing for television today are unashamedly positive about the medium. The early writers for television seemed to be in it because it was the work they could find. The writers in it now love it. They’re not as ambitious to do a film. And they aren’t ashamed of television’s history.”
A few examples of their varied self-referential methods:
* On “Dream On,” the cops arranging a surrender in this season’s premiere episode were played by Taurean Blacque, Ed Marinaro, Joe Spano, Michael Warren and Bruce Weitz, all of whom played cops years ago on “Hill Street Blues.”
* On “Love & War,” Jerry Seinfeld and his “Seinfeld” executive producer, Larry David, were seen at the end of an episode considering proposed scripts by the “Love & War” characters.
* On “Murphy Brown” (which has had as guest stars a slew of network newsies such as Katie Couric, Irving R. Levine, Paula Zahn, Joan Lunden and the formerly unself-referential Walter Cronkite), Murphy finally found a great secretary: Marcia Wallace, reprising her “Bob Newhart Show” role as Carol Kester Bondurant. By the end of the episode, Newhart (as “Newhart” or just plain Newhart?) appeared to re-employ her.
* On “Roseanne,” when the woman playing the part of older daughter Becky was replaced without the character changing, the family sat on the couch in front of the TV watching a “Bewitched” rerun and commented on the similar replacement of Dick York by Dick Sargent in that show’s male lead.
* “Home Improvement,” “Murphy Brown,” “The Larry Sanders Show,” “The Critic” and “Coach” either center around TV or have major characters who are employed by TV. That will also be the case on NBC’s new “Martin Short Show.”
Although sitcoms do more of the TV references, dramas are not immune. On “NYPD Blue” last season, for instance, guest star John Wesley Shipp was playing a cop who had gone undercover. In a card game, he complained that he lost his “flash money,” the extra money given to undercover cops so that they can pass in their “other” worlds. Shipp, you may remember, played the lead in the short-lived but well-regarded “The Flash” a couple of seasons past.