They reunited on the air in late May. Bob Lobel and Susan Wornick, former husband and wife and two of the more familiar faces from Boston TV when I was a kid, began making regular appearances on the local affiliate of the nostalgia TV network called MeTV. Their job is to banter in between the old sitcoms airing on the channel. Its general manager said the idea was to attract the boomers and Gen Xers who remember watching Wornick and Lobel deliver the news and sports. That crowd also happens to be the channel’s target audience for reruns of The Beverly Hillbillies, The Brady Bunch, and Happy Days.
I always liked Lobel and Wornick. But as one of those target Gen Xers, I have another suggestion for the station: Forget us and try to attract our kids. Maybe dust off a pair of personalities that the younger crowd would recognize. (I suggest those towheaded twin brothers Zack and Cody from the washed-out Disney Channel show The Suite Life on Deck. Something tells me they’re available.) Judging from a completely unscientific experiment with my own kids, I suspect the youth demo might be willing to give classic sitcoms a try.
My wife and I began our experiment out of frustration. Our three daughters, most notably our then 8-year-old youngest, began delivering unfamiliar back talk that seemed to have been scripted by some cynical Disney Channel screenwriter. When we watched their shows more closely, we realized that’s exactly what was happening.
Around the same time, I stumbled across Brady Bunch episodes airing on the Boston affiliate of MeTV, a new 160-station network with a lineup of sitcoms and dramas so old that they were already in reruns when I was a kid. I loaded up our DVR with Brady Bunch shows (including some from the Hallmark Channel) and sent Disney and Nickelodeon on a forced hiatus. I expected some resistance from my kids, who had previously recoiled at being asked to watch black-and-white movies, acting as if they might actually damage their eyes.
But they quickly got hooked on the groovy band of Bradys. Before long, they had plowed through all 77 banked episodes and moved on to a slew of other sitcoms.
What made the experience fun for me was seeing these shows through my daughters’ eyes. I wasn’t surprised that they picked up on the most painfully sexist language from the ’60s and ’70s, such as the Barbara Eden character calling her boyfriend “master” on I Dream of Jeannie. But I was pleased to see them detect subtler cues, such as Carol Brady complaining to a merchant that she was going to “take my husband’s money elsewhere.” These observations sparked great family discussions about the women’s movement that were all the more meaningful because they had come about organically. Thanks not to Gloria Steinem, but Florence Henderson.
The girls had other interesting insights, including how all Bewitched episodes followed essentially the same plotline (Darrin’s mother-in-law casts a spell on him that causes him to lose a $5 million ad account and then his job, and Samantha uses her magic to get him his job back) and how comparatively slow-paced the shows of my childhood were. At one point during the yawning three(!)-episode arc tracking the Bradys’ trip to the Grand Canyon, Bobby, the youngest of Mike’s three sons, and Cindy, the youngest of Carol’s three daughters, get lost. Then the rest of the bunch turns into a search party. One of my daughters noticed how all the males in the family were yelling “Bobby,” while all the females were calling out “Cindy.” She quipped, “They’re not a very well-blended family.”
Yet when we watched the very first episode of the series, I was surprised at how honestly it dealt with the challenges of blended families, compared with the absurdity of the rest of the run, when the first spouses of Mike and Carol are never mentioned. (In the pilot, Mike discovers that Bobby has hidden his framed picture of his mother, so as not to offend his new stepmother.)
I’m hardly the first person to sense the cross-generational appeal of old TV. In the 1980s, when I thought I had joined a subversive club of revolutionaries led by David Letterman and Garry Shandling, my father schooled me on those guys’ deconstructionist forebears, Steve Allen, George Burns, and Gracie Allen. Around the same time, when fledgling Nickelodeon needed to fill the air while its target audience was asleep, television bright lights Fred Seibert and Alan Goodman hatched the idea of Nick at Nite. The TV equivalent of oldies radio, it was an instant ratings hit with adults and even kids (a combined demo the network referred to as “KADULT”).
“Television has become an unshared experience,” Seibert says. “As screens multiply in our lives, we all go off to our own corners.” At 62, Seibert now runs the Channel Frederator Network, which distributes animation programs on YouTube.
The current top draw on YouTube is PewDie Pie, a young Swedish guy who offers mock narration to video games. He has some 27.6 million subscribers and nearly 5 billion views — and I bet most of you first learned about him from the previous sentence. “You could shoot a cannon down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and not hit a single person who’s ever heard of him,” Seibert says. That’s how fractured our media consumption has become.
Shared viewing experiences are increasingly rare. His advice to parents: “If you find them, you’ve got to grab onto them like gold.”
Or at least like that famed Brady hair of gold (like their mother).
Clips from what the Swidey family has been watching:
“Brady Bunch” The Honeymoon episode:
“Brady Bunch” Grand Canyon episode:
“I Dream of Jeanie” part one of Solid Gold Mother-in-Law episode:
“Bewitched” Americanization minisode:Neil Swidey is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @neilswidey.