Sure, you loved Lucy, but vintage has limits

By Neil Genzlinger / New York Times News Service

Published Jul 28, 2014 at 12:03AM

Maybe you’re one of those irritating people prone to complaining, “Why can’t they make shows as good as (name of a vintage TV series) anymore?”

For years, that was a safe whine because the shows existed only in the memories of those who had seen them the first time around. But then, in addition to releases on videotape and DVD, came cable. Outlets like Nick at Nite and TV Land discovered that they could live off rebroadcasts of ancient series, and now, in case you haven’t noticed, all sorts of imitators have discovered that, too.

On a recent Saturday afternoon at 1:30, a Comcast customer in central New Jersey like me could choose from among “7th Heaven” (on a channel called Up that promises “uplifting entertainment”), “Good Times” (TV One), “The Virginian” (Inspire), “The Bill Cosby Show” (Aspire), “The Golden Girls” (TV Land), “Maverick” (Encore Westerns) and others. Expecting to feel nostalgic on Thursday night at 10:30? Cozi has “Magnum P.I.,” Antenna TV has “Sanford and Son,” and Aspire offers “The Flip Wilson Show.”

The problem with the ready availability of this old stuff — don’t even get me started on Internet streaming — is that it forces us into a wistful but abstract longing for what was. And the reality is: All this retro TV is too much of a good thing, or, more correctly, too much of a thing that wasn’t really as good as memory makes it seem. It’s fine to pay respect to the shows of yore, to acknowledge and admire them for delineating and expanding the form and so on. But to actually watch 50-year-old shows all day? I’d rather rip out my eyeballs.

Sure, it’s fun to indulge occasionally — once a week, say. Maybe you’ll get lucky and stumble on a 1966 episode of “Bewitched” called “Man’s Best Friend,” where a young actor named Richard Dreyfuss, still a teenager, made one of his first appearances. Or perhaps you’ll hit upon one of the two “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” episodes from the 1950s directed by the unknown Robert Altman.

But if you’re watching this fare all day, every day, you need help, because “venerable” doesn’t necessarily mean “still watchable.” Sluggish pacing, wooden acting, wince-inducing jokes and obvious plot twists abound in the television of the distant and even not-so-distant past. Too much of this will turn your brain to mush as surely as too much of today’s reality TV will.

I know this is heresy to some, but since I’m in this far, I might as well go whole hog. Here are nine great, important, fabulous vintage (or soon to be) shows that I never want to see again. I don’t know if they are currently being shown on any of the channels mentioned above, but surely somebody has programmed them or plans to in the future. No! Back in the vault, please.

“I Love Lucy” (premiere: 1951): Yeah, I know; it’s at or near the top of a lot of Best TV Series of All Time lists, and rightly so. In its time, it was defining. But today the broad humor draws only the occasional chuckle. The show is like your high school girlfriend: Just because you loved Lucy once doesn’t mean you still do.

“The Honeymooners” (1955): Same problem, only louder. Couples defined by screaming seem more sad than funny today.

“The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” (1959): Considering that it gave us one of the most memorable characters in television’s first half-century, the beatnik Maynard G. Krebs (Bob Denver), this series is remarkably drab. Teenagers perhaps found that it spoke to them. If those same people, with a lifetime of perspective now in their heads, were to watch it today, the memory of that would make them flush with embarrassment. At their age, that would constitute a health risk.

“Gilligan’s Island” (1964): Considering the cultural impact it had, this show wasn’t around for long, but if you were a child when it was on, it looms large. Such characters! Such a predicament! Preserve that innocence by not watching it again, because most of the episodes were actually kind of lame, and some dismaying stereotypes floated through the island from time to time.

“Green Acres” (1965): Speaking of stereotypes, there was this empty-headed series. Along with “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Gomer Pyle” and a few others, it made sure “rural” and “stupid” would be wrongly linked for years to come.

“Welcome Back, Kotter” (1975): Love the John Sebastian song; hate the hair and the sight of John Travolta. Even if Travolta hadn’t mangled Idina Menzel’s name at the Oscars, I don’t think I could take hearing the phrase “up your nose with a rubber hose” again.

“Dallas” (1978): What’s dismaying isn’t so much that this series was ever on, it’s that it ran for 13 years and then was revived in 2012.

“Boy Meets World” (1993): This was and still is a wonderful show. I just don’t want to see it on TV again, because its mere presence might remind me of the sequel that just started, “Girl Meets World,” which doesn’t come close to clearing the bar the original set.

“Sex and the City” (1998): It’s perhaps not quite “vintage” yet, but this series already has the feel of a show whose original fans, when they’re older and wiser, might upon revisiting it say: “Gosh, I really didn’t know anything back then, did I? And some of those clothing choices didn’t age well.”