Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Good Times and Happy Days

The Bunkers’ first floor consisted of a living room, with one end set up as a dining room, and a kitchen. There was no front hall, no family room, not even a bathroom; Archie flushed upstairs. The living room was furnished with two chairs, one of them wooden and uncomfortable-looking, and a couch. The dining room had a round wooden table and chairs. The kitchen had nothing.

But the Bunkers enjoyed far from the shabbiest living conditions on the sitcoms of the 1970s, even disregarding the tent those surgeons in Korea lived in. The Kotters lived in a one-room apartment the next borough over from the Bunkers, with a closet that was helpfully but unnecessarily labeled; Mary Tyler Moore lived in a one-room apartment in Minneapolis. (Her upstairs neighbor didn’t even have a door.) Alice Hyatt let her son have the bedroom in the one-bedroom apartment they shared in Phoenix; Alice slept on the couch. Laverne and Shirley shared a one-bedroom “garden” (i.e., basement) apartment in Milwaukee. Jack, Chrissy and Janet all shared a two-bedroom apartment, but at least they had the promise of sensual hijinks. Across town, Fred Sanford and his son lived in a junkyard in the L.A. ghetto of Watts, which may or may not have been more attractive than the high-rise housing project the Evans family of Chicago called home. Across town from them, Bob Hartley -- a doctor! -- lived in a two-bedroom apartment of his own.

These shows may not have dealt directly with economic issues on a regular basis, and they weren’t trying to achieve some sort of kitchen-sink realism. No one would confuse the four twentysomethings who made up the Sweathogs with actual high school kids. But there was a determined deglamorization at work, or at least a nonglamorization. In the Nineties, the dramatic series NYPD Blue was acclaimed for its dank naturalism, but its set at least had arty slats of light coming in through the windows. The detectives room of the Twelfth Precinct, by contrast, where Barney Miller’s men worked, didn’t even have windows.

Was there something about the 1970s that caused people to want to watch sitcom characters in grimy settings? The credit sequences for Welcome Back, Kotter made Brooklyn look like East Berlin, albeit an East Berlin coated with graffiti. Or did TV executives just not realize how much more palatable it would be to see sparkling, spacious homes? After The Cosby Show debuted in 1984, every sitcom turned into The Jeffersons, a largely urban fantasy of movin' on up. The change, it seems to me, was not for the better.

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