Television is in the midst of (or, depending on who you ask, at the tail end of) a “Golden Age. 1” Cinematic shows like The Sopranos and The Wire raised the bar and pushed the envelope, proving not only that TV could be a legitimate medium for smart, powerful storytelling, but that it could be the perfect one. The critical and eventual commercial success of these shows empowered writers and producers to get as bold and creative as they liked, and it forced the networks to come to terms with the fact that it was well beyond time to grow a pair.
Or so goes, at least, the accepted narrative. But to deem the last fifteen years the “Golden Age,” to imply that TV is at its best in the form of profane hour-long dramas or single-camera comedies, is arrogant. For starters, several other TV Golden Ages have been named. There's the era of radioesque live TV that lasted from the 40s to the early 60s. And an essay by Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, actually alludes to two separate TV Golden Ages: the early 70s (home to All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show) and the post-Hill Street Blues 80s 2. Depending on who you ask, the Golden Age of TV could have occurred anytime in the last seventy years. No one's claiming that the strides taken by HBO's standard-bearers were not for the better – anyone who has hoovered a whole season of Breaking Bad on a sick day can attest to the fact that well-made television can satisfy in ways that film simply cannot – but it just doesn't make sense to flush the first fifty years of TV down the toilet precisely at the moment that all but the snobbiest of our culture has accepted it as a valid artistic medium3.
Drama is safe – thanks to the ubiquitous availability of streaming media, curious types will inevitably run out of episodes of Homeland or Deadwood and scare up an old episode of The Twilight Zone or dive head first into The X-Files. Stuff like Twin Peaks is a trend-proof rite of passage. But what of old comedy? TV Land is running original programming, Nick at Nite is mining 90s nostalgia, and streaming services are mostly barren of old staples. A decade of post-Office 4 single-camera television has left a whole generation jaded and unwilling to touch classic sitcoms with a ten-foot pole. They have developed an aversion to the laugh track.
Yes, the laugh track. An indicator of mediocrity in modern shows? Perhaps. A bitter annoyance? Without a doubt. Decades of lowest common denominator entertainment have made it easy to associate the laugh track with garbage. But is the laugh track a surefire indication of a bad show? Absolutely, positively not. I've heard people use “I just can't get into that show – it has a laugh track” to justify not watching Seinfeld, for chrissakes.Seinfeld! Comedy doesn't get much more modern than that. What a shame. Flush, fifty years of great television down the drain. NoI Love Lucy. No Cheers. And no WKRP in Cincinatti 5.
Set in the studio of the titular struggling radio station, the show follows the exploits of the eight main studio employees – characters like Dr. Johnny Fever, a cynical burnout who refused to play disco, and Les Nessman, the bumbling, bespectacled newsman who's the star of today's episode. There's no two ways about it: They just don't make 'em like WKRP anymore. Even when they did, it was one of the best. During the show's original run on CBS from 1978 to 1982, it raked in Emmy nominations. But it didn't really find an audience until syndication, whereupon it became a huge hit – one of MTM Enterprises's6 most successful shows ever. Though hard to find today due to music licensing issues (it is, after all, set in a radio studio), fans frequently mention WKRP in the same breath as Taxi, M*A*S*H, and other unimpeachable greats of the era7. The show had it all: three-dimensional characters, great writing, and hilarious, talented actors.
WKRP in Cincinatti is a great introduction to a genre that might as well be called “70s sitcom.” Sitcoms from this era make for some of the most vital TV of all time, laugh track or not. Much like today's smart and popular comedies tend to use mockumentary and metahumor, the smart and popular comedies of the 70s had common strains as well. Here, I'll let one of the AV Club's master TV critics list them better than I ever could: “The characters are lovable losers, the central setting is a workplace mired in defeatism, and the episodes have an undercurrent of rueful regret. 8” Defeatism, rueful regret – it's no coincidence that these shows didn't come out in the 60s.
For better or for worse, critics and audiences alike seem to be taking TV a lot more seriously these days. As we look forward to the Arrested Development reunion or finding out Walter White's final fate, let's not forget to look back – there is so much, especially comedy, that's worth watching. It may not be modern, postmodern, or wink at the viewer, but it will definitely surprise them. The National Film Registry has been selecting “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films” for preservation within the Library of Congress, which, lest we forget, also preserves all of our tweets. Why shouldn't it preserve our television? We need structures in place to preserve and honor shows like WKRP in Cincinnati. Network Awesome, as always, has our back.
2 Johnson, Steven. "Watching TV makes you smarter." The New York Times 24 (2005).
3 As opposed to an adequate timekiller. For proof, check your favorite news source or entertainment website for a review of this week's Walking Dead or Boardwalk Empire. If they don't have one, I owe you a beer.
4 Not to be confused with “Post Office.”
5 WKRP may not be as monumental as either of those other two, but roll with me here.
6 Mary Tyler Moore's production company. Other MTM productions include The Mary Tyler Moore Show (duh), The Bob Newhart Show, Lou Grant, Hill Street Blues, and St. Elsewhere. Not bad!