Scott D. Parker
Late Sunday evening, after the wife and I watched a new-to-us show, Glitch, on Netflix, we turned off the steaming service and landed back on regular cable TV. This being a weekend, the channel was still tuned to MeTV, the channel that shows classic TV. I love Saturdays because it’s westerns all day. During our Covid-19 era, Sundays have become The Brady Bunch day right after I stream my church’s service.That Sunday evening, the show being broadcast was The Dick Van Dyke Show. It was "Show of Hands," a season 4 (1965) episode in which Rob and Laura and their son, Ritchie, accidentally get their hands stained with black ink. This being episode 28 of the season, it was probably late spring 1965. What gave the show its comedic element was that they were to attend an awards show specifically, although not explicitly, on the in-show’s treatment of the equality of African-Americans in society.
The acceptance speech Rob gives—after he admits the truth about why he's wearing gloves and takes them off to show his black hands—basically said that to treat each other equally is the right thing to do. The characters on the show all laughed at Rob's predicament. This episode led directly into the next.
Tired though I was, I sat and watched these two episodes. The wife did, too. We started chatting about us being latch key kids in the 1970s. That is, we school-aged kids would go home after school to an empty house because both parents would be working. Sure there was homework, but there was also the freedom to do what you wanted with no parent telling you 'no.'
Not having the plethora of entertainment options available in 2020, we'd zero in on TV and the reruns being broadcast. Here in Houston, that was mostly Channel 39 and Channel 26, the two independent UHF channels. Here's where we'd get a steady diet of shows from the 1950s (I Love Lucy) and the 1960s (Dick Van Dyke, Gilligan's Island, The Brady Bunch, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeanie, etc.). Day after day, we'd consume these shows, memorizing them, laughing at them.
And learning from them.
It was my wife who made the observation: Because these shows we watched in reruns were intended for adult audiences (or at least the entire family), they were not specifically geared to children and their tastes. That was for Saturday morning cartoons and PBS. Watching and seeing how adults interacted with each other, we learned about adult life. Sure, it was often over the top and overly funny, but the common thread was there. Adults got into situations, worried about what to do and the consequences, and made decisions. If it was the wrong decision, they learned. If it was the right one, someone on the show also learned.
We kids absorbed what we saw and internalized it without even knowing it.
Now, don't get me wrong: entertainment geared for kids is perfectly fine. And yes, lots of it is imbued with lessons to learn. But when you have a diet consisting only of kids entertainment, how do you learn about the adult world? Yes, I know, learning about life from TV is not really how you do it. You get out there and live life, learning along the way. But entertainment plays a role, too. Movies, TV, books, music: it's all in the mix.
Seeing Old Shows With Fresh Eyes
What's fun about catching an episode of an old show like the Dick Van Dyke Show we saw as an adult is the ability to see the content with fresh eyes. Sometimes, your adult self sees old episodes you remember as a kid and you go "Boy, was that silly" or "How did I even like that?" Often, as we're eating lunch on Sundays and The Brady Bunch (actually, the Brady Brunch where MeTV sequences four episodes with a common theme) is on, the wife will remember and (sometimes) chuckle, while the boy rolls his eyes. I simply grin and keep watching. it's the historian in me.
Then again, you catch an episode like "Show of Hands" and you realize a subtle, powerful message was being delivered not only to adults in 1965 or the kids who might also be watching in 1965, but to folks in the 1970s and beyond. Especially kids.
We were learning and laughing at the same time and didn't even realize it.