Up and Down the Dial

85740-fullOne of the most interesting things about being in a relationship with someone who is both from a different culture and has a significant age difference is that you get to share things which may seem old hat or fond memory to you, but become something new and fun to them. With us, this happens whenever we’re talking about TV shows or commercials or music… pop culture references, really.

To this end, a couple of months ago we were talking about something, might have been Thanksgiving, and the subject of WKRP in Cincinnati came up. Rasa was game so we acquired the series run and began watching it. Around our house, it was known as “that show about the radio” because the idea of call letters isn’t the same over here so she couldn’t wrap her head around the reason for the show’s name. 

Anyway, we just finished season four, the finale of the original run, and I gotta say, a lot of it holds up. And here’s the thing… I was just writing this and I typed “the jokes…” but they didn’t really have “jokes,” not in the traditional sense. Not like a lot of today’s sitcoms. This wasn’t writing based on set-up and punchline, but on the humor coming out of the characters themselves, and those characters, were actually allowed to change and grow over the show’s four year run, without resorting to becoming cardboard, one-dimensional shadows of their original selves, spouting catch phrases and trotting out tired gags week after week (I’m looking at you Big Bang Theory and Friends).

Through 90 episodes, the characters maintained or developed three dimensions and the show and, using humor, dealt with some incredibly serious issues (military desertion in “Who Is Gordon Sims?“, the general seating deaths at a Who concert in “In Concert” among others). These characters were also allowed to be of an age. With the exception of 29 year old Jan Smithers, who played journalism graduate Bailey Quarters, the rest of the cast was all in their 30s or older. It was believable when they spoke of their experiences (I love Arrow, but 26 year old Katie Cassidy as the DA is stretching credibility just a little).

But one of the things which I found the most interesting was their treatment of a number of -isms. The third episode, Les on a Ledge, takes on homophobia and transsexualism in a humorous, but still serious and thought provoking way (the idea of sexual reassignment actually comes back in the third season episode “Hotel Oceanview“). Sexism is a constant, with Loni Anderson‘s Jennifer Marlowe always being treated as a sexual object, but at the same time, the show makes it perfectly clear she’s the smartest person in the room and her objectification is at her discretion. She shoots it down whenever it crosses the line from playful to harassment and Marlowe herself is allowed to break free of the blonde stereotype with regularity.

Then there’s the racism, mostly perpetrated by Richard SandersLes Nessman and directed at Tim Reid‘s Venus Flytrap. Now, I remembered a few key lines from the past (like when Les is trying to get a station softball team together in “Baseball” and intimates that Venus is good at sports because he’s “a negro”) but what I didn’t remember was how much of a conspiracy nut nor how racist he really was. His racism, though, came from a place of ignorance, not hatred, and he was called out on it every time so it could be used to illustrate points.

But during the episode “A Family Affair” Andy Travis (Gary Sandy) wants to set his visiting sister up with 60s burnout DJ Dr. Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman). Instead, she meets and falls for Venus. Now, Venus and Travis are friends, this is well established in the show. Travis brought Venus to the station, has Venus cover for him as temporary program director whenever he’s away and generally uses him as a rational sounding board. When this happens, though, Travis has to confront the passive racism inside him when he realizes he’s not comfortable with his sister dating a black man. And this is what the show did so well. Sure, it was played for laughs, but this wasn’t a “special episode” situation. This had a real world resonance which I think is missing from a lot of today’s television. It also wasn’t one-sided.

The show was able to find ways to express uncomfortable, real world situations where the characters actually had to deal with internal, human issues which made watching it, 35 years later, a joy.

What do you think?

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