Once upon a time, families spent their evenings together gathered around an electronic device called a “radio.” When television sets became widely available in the 1950s, Mom and Dad and the little nippers clustered on the sofa to watch “I Love Lucy” or “The Lone Ranger.”
Believe it or not, families practiced this alien form of multi-generational bonding for the better part of a century. And especially so in times of hardship: Much has been made of the Beatles’ first appearance on American television a few months after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, but “The Beverly Hillbillies” had a similar impact, reintroducing joy to a shellshocked nation.
“It was total escapist television,” says Ron Simon, chief curator at the Paley Center for Media. “It was a fish-out-of-water story. Perhaps that was how people felt then.”
As the American public confronts the unprecedented lockdown of the current pandemic, we wondered: Are families seizing this opportunity to revisit a golden era of couch-bound domestic bonding?
During the Watergate era, Simon reminds us, families planned their weekends around CBS’s legendary Saturday night primetime lineup: “All In the Family,” “The Jeffersons,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and “The Bob Newhart Show.” After 9/11, it was “Friends” that comforted.
In the age of streaming services, video-on-demand, and personal media devices, is there any kind of equivalent today?
Surely, we figured, a nationally recognized TV critic could help. Maybe he’d have some suggestions for sharing classic shows or movies with the kids, or how an average middle-schooler might explain those bizarro Cartoon Network series to the olds.
Somewhat alarmingly, the television connoisseur we contacted, who writes for a household-name entertainment magazine, politely declined to play along.
While his household self-isolates, he wrote in an e-mail, “we’ve all been doing our own thing, screenwise.”
Uh-oh. Isn’t that precisely what we were all doing before The Virus That Changed Everything? Aren’t we squandering a readymade chance to resurrect that rarest of old-fashioned traditions — one that might actually be as wholesome and mutually beneficial as we choose to remember it?
Thankfully, maybe not, says Dr. Michael Rich. He’s the founder and director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital. Known as the “Mediatrician,” Rich worked for several years behind the camera in the film world before a midlife career switch into medicine.
He says it’s not just wishful thinking to believe that parents can create a little family togetherness during these stay-at-home weeks by ritualizing some collective TV time.
“We have an opportunity to reinvent ourselves,” says Rich. “We’re forced to. Why not reinvent ourselves in a direction that may have seemed completely unrealistic even a month or two ago?”
As personal technology has grown increasingly accessible to an ever-younger audience, it’s only natural that children have learned to use it to distance themselves from their parents, he says. Rich likens directed-at-adolescent shows (such as “Rick and Morty,” let’s say) to “what rock ‘n’ roll was to us” — not just speaking to young people, but to the fact that their moms and dads don’t get it. For the young, he says, “the developmental task is to differentiate, individuate, to step out of the nuclear family.”
Yet they still need guidance in doing so, and their elders have not yet been written out of the equation.
“All the research we see says that parents and families are still the most important influence on life decisions and life choices,” says Rich.
Ron Simon, for one, thinks the flat screen in your living room could become the kind of focal point that the console television once was, back in the days of “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
“Certainly television can bring the family together,” he says. “What’s important is understanding how different people react. It’s a way of sharing experience, sharing your emotional inner life with the rest of the family.”
Just a month or so ago, the Family Dinner Project instituted a new feature, urging families to try an occasional “Dinner and a Movie” together. Dr. Anne Fishel is the project cofounder and director of the Family and Couples Therapy Program at Massachusetts General Hospital.
The initial goal for the project, created in partnership with Common Sense Media, was to get parents and children talking about family history, Fishel says. Some of the suggested films included “Coco,” “Crazy Rich Asians,” and “The Book of Life.”
Now, as we’ve all been cut off from our daily routines, Fishel is thinking of films that could facilitate conversations about the idea of separation — “Where the Wild Things Are,” “The Martian,” “Cast Away.”
At a time when routines have been upended, she says, rituals like dinner and a movie can take on added meaning.
“Routines are instructional — ‘This is what we have to do to get through our days,’ ” she explains. Rituals, by contrast, are more about family values: “This is who we are.”
“When routines are disrupted as seismically as they are right now, it’s a hassle. But when rituals are disrupted, it’s even more upsetting to family stability.”
Rich agrees. Before there was social distancing, he says, we’d become socially fragmented.
Establishing a ritual such as family TV time, at least for the duration of the stay-at-home advisory, “can actually be kind of anchoring” for the kids, he says. “Even if it’s a pain in the [butt]. Otherwise they’ll feel completely unmoored.”
And with parents overwhelmed by the need to balance work, home schooling, and health concerns, Fishel says, “I think this is a time to think of rituals that include a lot of relaxation, decompression, and having fun together.”
That could include extended screen time. But just the one screen.
E-mail James Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.