Rerunning On Empty


One downside of being a TV nation

is that, well, television is

ubiquitous—it's even on the

Web. More precisely, though,

history has become a rerun from

which we cannot awake.

Television bombards us with old

shows, ranging from the good

(The Beverly Hillbillies) to the bad

(Dukes of Hazzard) to the ugly (Designing

Women). Whole networks are

devoted to 24-hour-a-day airings

of such classic fare as Hunter,

Who's the Boss?, and The

Commish. You may not be able to

step into the same river twice,

but these days it's a bit too

easy to see the same episode of

Mannix over and over again. The

influx of repeats only confuses

our already precarious notions

of time and place in this world

of instant history and distant

present. When Larry Hagman was

shot on Dallas, viewers

everywhere immediately

identified the prime suspect:

Dr. Bellows from I Dream of

Jeannie, a man forever foiled in

his attempt to get to the bottom

of things. If ever a man had a

motive for murder…. (Another

disappointment: The shooter

turned out to be one of Bing

Crosby's brats instead.)

'Tis a pity, for at its best

(which is very good), TV, like a

good bowel movement, should be

momentarily satisfying and then

flushed away forever, and this is

as true for Seinfeld and The Simpsons as

it is for Small Wonder and The Single

Guy. Like the second helping of

ice cream, the second helping of

episodic television accomplishes

nothing more than a creeping

sense of excess, maudlin

self-recrimination (Why did I do

that?), and incipient nausea.

Scientists now know that reruns

are depressing for a number of

reasons. On a very basic level,

repeatedly watching the

Sisyphean antics of common TV

protagonists induces blinding

moments of self-revelation. To

watch Dr. Richard Kimball

endlessly track his wife's real

killer, Ralph Kramden enact his

next get-rich-quick scheme, or

Mr. Roper try to catch John

Ritter in a homosexual act on

Three's Company—filled as it

is with suffering and

disappointment, such TV is

cinéma vérité, not escapism.

In a related way, reruns sadden

us by reminding us of the

gargantuan amount of human toil

that goes into even the

shittiest half-hour of

programming. Sure, thousands of

people died building the

pyramids, the cathedrals of

Europe, and the Great Wall of

China, but at least we can gaze

upon such work hundreds of years

later and comfort ourselves with

the thought, "At least they're

kind of interesting looking."

Try doing that as the credits

roll by after an episode of

Mama's Family. The list of

names, from executive producer

down to best boy and caterer,

might as well be the names of

Heaven's Gate cult members, the

passenger list of TWA Flight

800, or the crew of the Titanic

(which seems to be doomed to its

own tragic form of reruns). They

all inspire the same

head-shaking, teary-eyed mantra,

"What a waste, what a horrible,

horrible waste."

Incessant reruns also discomfit

Americans like a parent

embarrassing a grown child by

bringing up adolescent lapses in

taste. This is all about

national shame: What American

worthy of the name isn't ashamed

that I Love Lucy was a hit back

in colonial days, that The Mod

Squad was once seriously mod,

that Rhoda's Carlton the Doorman

was once fall-down funny? If

Johnny Carson is an American

institution, it seems clear that

a few episodes of Carson's

Comedy Classics were probably

the reason that Aldrich Ames

started selling secrets to the

Russians. Our historical guilt

may ultimately have less to do

with slavery and stealing Indian

land and more to do with the

fact that we honor Milton Berle

and Sid Caesar as national

treasures, that Mork and Mindy

once topped the ratings, and

that the very special episode of

Family Ties in which Alex

Keaton's "best friend" (never

mentioned before or after, of

course) kills himself while

driving drunk, was ever taken


More profoundly perhaps, reruns

cruelly punish those of us who

actually like television, who

inhabit the vast wasteland like

happy Bedouins traversing the

Sahara—they disabuse us of the

illusion that there is in fact

anything like quality TV. Even

the good shows suck after a

while. Take M*A*S*H, for

instance, generally considered

one of the best series ever to

grace the small screen. Watching

M*A*S*H reruns in sequence is

like watching a friend die a

slow and painful death.

The malignant tumor was Alan

Alda, who metastasized from

costar to producer/director/

writer/creative consultant/key

grip and who drove out anyone

who might compete for laughs and

replaced them with bums. Soon

enough, the show went from a

cleverly plotted, funny

first/serious later, sitcom that

had more in common with Hogan's

Heroes than Shoah to a

pun-ridden morality tale that

drove home the shockingly

controversial point that war is

hell. Worse still, Army brass

went from being bumbling,

self-serving (but funny) fools

to being evil cretins with names

like Colonel Bloodworth (get

it?). The later episodes are so

ham-handed and rotten, in fact,

that it makes you hate the early

shows for being the petri dish

from which this virus grew.

When it came time for the

flatulent, pretentious two-hour

finale, what viewer wasn't

rooting for the North Koreans to

overrun the camp and torture,

mutilate, and kill everyone

associated with the good old

4077? Now that might be worth

watching a couple of times.

Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief of reason. This story originally appeared in Suck, and can be viewed in that format here.