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I see my granddaughters staring into their phones, watching video of themselves and their friends making goofy faces, or bits of viral kitties on YouTube and, like many of us of a declining generation, worry about the future of the culture. How quick we forget.

The young nowadays hardly watch ordinary television anymore, unless it is streaming video from Netflix. But there was a time when the boob-tube was the primary entertainment for an entire post-war generation. You might even call the damnable thing the “boomer-tube.” We were there at its inception. We watched it try to find its feet. 

I was born the same year Milton Berle made television a necessity in the American home. In a sense, TV and I grew up together and it would be a shame not to admit it.

In my earliest years, we had no TV, but I cannot remember much before the great wooden chunk of furniture with the little oval screen of greenish gray — the DuMont television we had in suburban New Jersey.

It seemed as huge as a furnace and the fire that flickered through the window was the normal hearth of the home. 

Television doesn’t seem to be any miracle if you’ve never known a time without it. It’s an appliance, like the washer or the stove.

In its earliest years, television tried to fill up its empty spaces with recycled product from the movies and radio: Many of its first series were carry-overs from radio, though I didn’t know it. We never listened to radio before television.

I watched Pinky Lee, Miss Frances on Ding Dong School, Crusader Rabbit and Rags the Tiger, Beany and Cecil, the seasick sea-serpent, Bill and Cora Baird and their puppets, including Charlemagne the Lion. With my grandmother, I would watch the Bishop Fulton J. Sheen stand with that long, lined face and tell us that Life is Worth Living. 

There was Howdy Doody and Clarabell the Clown, Princess Summerfall Winterspring and Chief Thunderthud (the original “Kowabunga”). I longed to sit in the peanut gallery. I knew Buffalo Bob many years before I ever heard of Buffalo Bill. 

On Saturday mornings, I’d watch Tom Corbett, Space Cadet and each weekday afternoon, there was Al Hodge (formerly radio’s Green Hornet) as Captain Video, fighting the evil robot, Tobor. (I was proud as a pre-schooler to figure out that “Tobor” was “robot” spelled hindwards.) Later, there was Rocky Jones, another space adventurer.

The broadcast bands were filled with old Westerns, too. Not only Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, but a host of older stars, from Hoot Gibson and Ken Maynard to Col. Tim McCoy. I ate up every Three Mesquiteers film ever made, and knew subliminally that Bob Steele as an actor was better with his fists than any other cowboy star.

There was at least one old Western every afternoon, introduced by an aging cowboy, who was actually Lyle Talbot, “B”-movie actor and veteran of Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space, which we watched a dozen times in a week on Channel 9’s Million Dollar Movie — my first serious film course. They showed the same movie all day and night over and over. I first knew King Kong there, and Wee Geordie and Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. It really was a great film course. (And it was only years later I realized that the theme music to Million Dollar Movie was the Tara theme from Gone With the Wind.)

We were lucky in the New York Tri-State Area: In those days when TV channels were few across the nation, we had seven: three networks and four independents  (channels 5, 9, 11 and 13 — which later became the pre-PBS WNET-TV educational television.) 

The kiddie hosts were all over those indies: Officer Joe Bolton, Sonny Fox, Claude  Kirschner, Sandy Becker, Paul Tripp.

Late in the afternoon, Uncle Fred Sayles came on with Junior Frolics (I think it had originally been called Juniortown, or something like), where I became unintentionally conversant with the silent animation of Van Beuren Studios, Max Fleischer and Pat Sullivan. Farmer Gray (originally Farmer Al Falfa) and the Aesop’s Fables of Paul Terry — a billion stick-figure mice running all over the place. (This was also my introduction to jazz, used as background music to the silent cartoons, just as Bugs Bunny and Warner Brothers cartoons were my introduction to classical music.) There were also the Ko-ko the Clown features — Out of the Inkwell — and Betty Boop.

In those early years, they were really hurting for things to fill up the airwaves and threw up on screen anything they could scrounge.

Andy Devine hosted Andy’s Gang, with the gremlin, Froggy: “Pluck your magic twanger, Froggy!” The show featured a serial of Gunga the East Indian Boy, which was supposed to be set in India, but was shot near Los Angeles. The confusion of jungles was common. Ramar of the Jungle switched between generic Africa and fictitious India. I was a kid, what did I know? Imagine my surprise when years later, on Million Dollar Movie, I saw Ramar (Jon Hall) as a South Seas islander, Terangi, with Dorothy Lamour in The Hurricane from 1937.

I look back now and think what a pioneer I was, eating up the first indigestible offerings the networks and independent channels served up.

I remember I Remember Mama, The Goldbergs, Life with Riley, I Led Three Lives, Mr. Peepers, Bob Cummings, My Little Margie, and the early Postmodern Burns and Allen. There were searchlights that I didn’t understand in the credits of the Lux Mystery Theatre and a horrible vise that trapped a silhouette in Climax.

In the afternoons, in the years before I went to school, I watched Art Linkletter’s House Party and Ernie Kovacs, before his later primetime shows.

There was Arthur Godfrey and his ukelele and Garry Moore and his Durward Kirby, along with singers Ken Carson and Denise Lor. It was on the Moore show I saw my first stand-up comedians, when Wayne and Shuster appeared. The orchestra was led, of course, by Milton DeLugg and his accordion.

Even Morey Amsterdam had a brief afternoon show, where he told jokes between a note or two on his cello.

Television was certainly more populated than my real life: I came to know many of its citizens almost as if they were friends. I don’t know what I would have done without Hopalong Cassidy every day.

The familiarity continued as I grew up. Each age had its phosphoric denizens, and it’s astonishing how many of them were Westerns: Cheyenne, Maverick, Have Gun, Will Travel, Wagon Train, and Rawhide took the place of Sky King, Annie Oakley and Roy and Dale.

It’s a shame how much square footage in my cranium is taken up with old crates stuffed with meaningless gibberish:

“B, O — N, O — M, O — Bonomo’s” Turkish Taffy.

Hoffman Beverages, Carvel Ice Cream.

“Who’s the first to conquer space?/It’s incontrovertible/ That the first to conquer living space/ Was the Castro Convertible./ Who conquered space with fine design?/ Who saves you money all the time?/ Who’s tops in the convertible line?/ — Castro convertible.”

“Now back to those thrilling days of yesteryear …”

“What a revoltin’ development this is.”

In high school, it was Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Mission Impossible.

I am mortified at how much time I spent in front of the screen, soaking up American TV culture. And none of it seems to have escaped. It’s all still in there. 

“A little travelin’ music, Sammy — And away we go.”

Dave Garroway holding that meaty palm up to the screen, close enough it seemed to leave a grease print on the inside of the screen glass. “Peace,” he said, every single day of my childhood. I don’t know just how large a part of my decision to become a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War that daily intonation was. I suspect it played a larger part than having gone to a Quaker college.

Joe Franklin and Memory Lane; Jack Bailey and Queen for a Day; Jon Gnagy and Learn to Draw. Jack LaLanne and Marty Glickman and Win Elliot and Jack Paar. 

From infancy, plopped in front of the tube, and through grade school, when I remember spending every night spread out on the carpet in front of the console TV with my two brothers, with our parents in the chairs behind us, smoking cigarettes. We’d hit the freezer for a bowl of ice cream or the cookie jar for a handful of Oreos, and nibble and watch, hypnotized by Ed Sullivan or Carol Burnett.

Every culture has its mythology, its stories and foundational personages. For my generation — and those to follow — television and its plots and casts have replaced historical figures (at least those not turned into Fess Parker’s Davy Crockett or Hugh O’Brian’s Wyatt Earp) and the Bible stories that earlier generations grew up with. It was the TV mythology that filled out my inner picture of what the world was and how it functioned. I’m afraid it may have done the same to every generation since. Chester A. Riley gave way to Marcia Brady to Alex P. Keaton to Eric Cartman to Tyrion Lannister. If only the gray matter were stuffed with all of Dickens or Dostoevsky instead of Jerry Mahoney and Captain Video, what a wonder would have been. 

It gives me the creeps now to think about how much of my childhood was wasted utterly. But it’s all in there, the well I draw on. 

The TV show, Seinfeld, was famously said to be “about nothing.” But that is not actually true, is it? It was about a group of self-absorbed mooks in New York City. But more than that, it was about humiliation. In every episode someone — usually George — is humiliated. Sometimes it is painful to watch.

But there really are programs about nothing, or at least, in which nothing happens. These shows are primarily British and they are a subset of English television that I find increasingly attractive.

As I have gotten old, I find my attention span increases, and I prefer to float along at 4 mph, soaking everything in, instead of racing through a frenetic plot in expectation of reaching a conclusion. Even British cop shows tend to move more slowly and proceed with less overt violence. (There may be a grisly murder, but usually we are spared the actual crime and the story opens on some unsuspecting person coming across a body. In medias res.)

But it isn’t just the police procedurals and detective shows. Many a British sitcom moves at the pace of the sun across a blue sky. More on them in a moment, but it isn’t only the comedies. There is a gentleness that pervades most British broadcasting. Just consider David Attenborough’s calm and reassuring voice.

Still, nothing could quite prepare me for Great Canal Journeys. Over eight series, actors Timothy West and Prunella Scales take us down canal after canal, from England to Venice to India. All at the aforesaid 4 mph.

Both in their 80s, they have been married for over 50 years, and for more than 40 years, they have been devoted canaliphiles, owning their own “narrow boat” and spending luxurious moments drifting down verdant waterways in a boat 8-feet wide and 60-feet long, raising a family and taking them along the way.

I doubt even the England’s Channel 4 expected the reaction to the series. Who would want to see an elderly couple navigate obscure waterways, drinking the occasional glass of chablis and discussing old plays they have been in? But the series is mystifyingly hypnotic.

A viewer commented, “Tim & Pru brilliant once again on Channel 4 — awesome adventures and dealing with real life issues.”

And another: ”Is there a more lovely and gentle programme on telly than Great Canal Journeys? Proving life never stops being an adventure.”

Can the suits at Channel 4 have ever expected the reaction to the series on first broadcast in 2014? Or that the series would continue through eight sequel series?

With each journey, you feel you have spent time with old friends you have gotten to know intimately.

That last is not an exaggeration. Because we learn in the very first episode that Scales is suffering from dementia. “A condition,” West calls it. “a slight condition.” While Scales can remember “a hundred-thousand lines of Shakespeare” and things that happened 60 years ago, she cannot always remember the morning. And what we see with astonishing tenderness is how West and Scales manage their relationship in the face of her increasing sense of being lost. We can often see it in her face.

Yet, there is nothing maudlin about the show. They two obviously love each other and their is a glint in their eyes that shows how much they enjoy each others’ company.

There is also a lot of gorgeous B-roll, featuring the green landscapes, the decayed relics of the Industrial Revolution that spawned the canals, and the cities they once made possible.

But it is West and Scales that make the show real. They speak in “real time” aboard the boat, but also in voice-over, commenting on what we just saw, and their different takes on it. So, there are three levels to every scene: the journey, the conversation on the journey, and the commentary afterwards. It gives the series texture.

This sense of enjoyment, spending time with people we come to know and feel almost as friends, is what animates several of the British shows I find myself watching.

The oldest and earliest of the “nothing happens” TV is a series called Last of the Summer Wine, which ran on the BBC for 37 years, from 1973 to 2010.

Over that stretch, the show hardly changed, and through all 295 episodes, very little happened. In every episode, three Yorkshire pensioners sit around and talk, walk through the countryside and talk, visit the cafe and talk.

They might plan a trip and we see them discuss how to manage it. They may gather supplies, but by the end, they haven’t traveled at all. Credits roll.

Last of the Summer Wine is a leisurely visit with people you enjoy spending time with. You don’t watch to see what will happen; you watch to visit friends. The cast changed over the years, with actors dropping out due to illness or death, and new pensioners added to keep the level up to three.

The half-hour series was funny, but gentle. The cast of subordinate characters eventually numbered in the scores, all of them idiosyncratic and memorable. After each episode, you felt refreshed by the quiet, if frustrated humanity of the Yorkshire village — and the sometimes impenetrable North Country accents.

A bit more conventional was the series, As Time Goes By, starring Judi Dench and Geoffrey Palmer, which ran on the BBC from 1992 to 2005. The premise is that in 1953, they fell in love, but were separated when he went off to the Korean War and did not see each other again for 38 years; they meet again and fall in love again, now older, with full lives — and backstories — behind them.

As Time Goes By

Again, lots of subordinate characters, all distinct and memorable, and the sense, with each episode, that you are spending time with friends you are eminently comfortable with.

Two more recent shows take this nothingness to extremes.

Michelle Terry

From 2011 to 2013, over a scant 13 episodes, The Cafe follows three generations of women who run a seaside cafe in the resort town of Weston-super-Mare on the southwest coast of England. Created by Michelle Terry and Ralf Little, and populated with a dozen or so regular characters, it follows the cafe-owner’s daughter, Sarah (Terry), who wants to leave the town and go to London to become a writer; she doesn’t pull it all together until the final episode; in the meantime, the worries and happenstances of the dozen characters play out in a complex web of relationships. Again, it is the calmness of the series, the lack of violent crises, and the three-dimensional cast that make you want to sit through the half-hour in which nothing happens. It is a kind of therapy, and all your pent-up angst drains away.

Most recently, beginning in 2015, Detectorists follows two sad-sacks in rural Essex County, just northeast of London, who spend all their leisure time with metal detectors, scouring the farm fields looking for “Saxon treasure,” but mostly finding beer-can pull tabs and buttons.

The series was created and written by Mackenzie Crook, who also stars as Andy Stone, one of the pair (with Toby Jones as Lance Stater). Stone is lean and wiry and through the first several episodes establishes himself as a true loser. He is living with a schoolteacher, Becky (Rachael Stirling), who is bright, energetic and — what the heck is she doing with this droopy hound dog?

One of the things that makes the series so compelling is that over the course of three series (the show ended in 2017), we discover that Andy has genuine substance. Beneath the fecklessness is a solid man, who earns a degree in archeology, marries Becky and raises a child.

Yet, in each episode, nothing really happens. Andy and Toby walk fields swinging their metal detectors back and forth and commenting on the weather, or asking about what happened on last night’s QI (another British TV series — and a quiz show in which panelists score points not for the right answers to questions, but the most interesting answers, answers that are “quite interesting.”)

This is so much different from standard American TV, with its roots in vaudeville, with its relentless set-up and punchline. “A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer in your pants.” It is a rare sitcom that transcends the cliches of the genre, or the monotonous pace: set-up, punchline; set-up, punchline. Something has to pop every second in fear that the viewer might grab the clickerator and change channels.

But as you get older as a viewer, you don’t need the buzz so much as you need the connection.

In these British series, the viewer is drawn to empathize with the characters (or, with the canal journeys, the real people). They all become friends we enjoy spending our time with. At a pace for sipping and savoring, for taking it all in and processing it. At 4 mph.

As Stephen Colbert says, “I don’t know if these are actually sins, but I do feel bad about them.”

I have a seven-decade long reputation to maintain as a dour, serious-minded  stick-in-the-mud, with no time for trivialities. My theme song is Party Pooper. My favorite color is gray. My wife used to call me, “The man who can’t have fun.”

I argued back that I have lots of fun, but for me fun is reading Gilgamesh or Xenophon, listening to Beethoven piano sonatas while following along with the Schnabel edition of the score (including reading all the footnotes), listening to lectures on the Indus Valley Civilization or the Black Death from the Great Courses Plus, watching C-Span Booknotes and waiting with great anticipation for the C-Span bus to visit Sheboygan or Wilkes-Barre. These things give me great pleasure and fill my life with great joy.

Yet, that doesn’t mean I don’t have my guilty pleasures — bits of pop culture that I partake of on odd occasions. There are times I switch away from the PBS Newshour or online lectures from M.I.T. and let my hair down. You won’t tell anyone, will you?

Here, then, are five guilty pleasures that I recommend to you. (There are more, but my quotient for mortification is limited).

Drunk History — It would be hard to find anything sillier than Comedy Central’s Drunk History. Created by comic Derek Waters and Jeremy Konner, it asks various, mostly D-list entertainers to drink themselves goofy and attempt to tell the story of some historical figure, while various, mostly A-list actors and comedians lip-synch costumed re-enactments of the events.

The camera switches back and forth between the drunkard, in a home with an equally plastered Waters, and the beautifully photographed recreations, in which the actors perfectly mime the words of the storyteller, right down to the hiccups and incoherence. A fair number of the drinkers wind up finishing their tales while driving the porcelain bus; others pass out on the couch.

A few for-instances: Actor Eric Edelstein tells the story of Elvis and Nixon, while we see the re-enactment with Jack Black playing Elvis, Bob Odenkirk as Nixon and Jack McBrayer as H.R. Haldeman.

In another, Tiffany Haddish (they’re not all D-list) tells us about French Resistance fighter Rose Valland, who saved and helped retrieve hundreds of art treasures threatened or stolen by the Nazis, with Busy Philipps playing Valland in the dramatization.

For most of the half-hour shows, three stories are told, with the first two taking up 5 to seven minutes each, separated by annoying commercials, and the third filling two segments, with annoying commercials in between. (As usual, the best solution is to Tivo the show so you can fast-forward through the muck).

One of the best shows recently was when Lin-Manuel Miranda got himself pie-eyed and tried to summarize the life of Alexander Hamilton. He got the whole half-hour. Blind-casting adds extra confusion to the show: Hamilton was played by Alia Shawkat; Aaron Burr was Aubrey Plaza; Bokeem Woodbine was George Washington; and Tony Hale was James Monroe. I am astonished that Miranda would risk reputation, alcohol poisoning and brain damage to take part, but it was a scream.

And one can actually learn things from this show, although you will want to verify what you find out by actual reading and research. Sometimes the drunks get confused.

Climbing Mount Washington, N.H., in Stanley Steamers

Jay Leno’s Garage — I’m old enough to remember when Jay Leno was funny. Before the Tonight Show de-clawed him and turned him into a toothless shill for Hollywood celebrity backslapping, Leno was edgy, took chances and snookered the very thing he later became mouthpiece for. Now retired from the daily grind of pleasing his corporate masters, Leno, now 67, is still a workaholic, but it seems now he can put his energy into something he actually cares about: cars.

With Gabriel Iglesias and his 1966 VW bus

Reportedly, he owns 286 vehicles, both cars and motorcycles, and has a garage that could double as a museum. In his current show, on CNBC — a network that as far as I can tell, is watched by no one — Leno gets to play with his toys and his enthusiasm is infectious.

As someone who does not care about cars — I think of them as being appliances, like washing machines on wheels — I am surprised myself at how much I enjoy watching Leno enjoy driving Maseratis, Bugattis, Abrams tanks, fire engines, monster trucks, drag racers, and a 1939 Ford pickup truck loaded with the radial engine of a Cessna airplane.

He often has Hollywood friends show up with their own favorite autos and bikes. Keanu Reeves manufactures high-end motorbikes. Comic Adam Corolla has been collecting race cars once owned and driven by actor Paul Newman. Tim Allen plays “Stump the Car Nerd.” Arnold Schwarzenegger shows off his electric Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen conversion.

It is less the high-end muscle cars that interest me and more the peculiar vehicles he encounters, like the Mars Rover, the Ripsaw EV-2 civilian tank that can reach 60 mph, the two-story tall dump truck that carries borax from the mines, the wienermobile, a convertible filled with water and turned into a mobile hot tub. There are a lot of these.

But mostly, it is the obvious pleasure Leno takes in his toys that makes this series a joy to watch.

Young Sheldon — This never sounded like a good idea. A spin-off from The Big Bang Theory, this show follows the 9-year-old genius, Sheldon Cooper, as he negotiates life, neuroses and high school.

The parent show has long jumped the shark (although I continue to watch it because, even worn out, it has more energy — and more smarts — than most things on TV).

Many years ago, when the Colbert Report first broadcast, it was sharp and funny, but I was sure — and most people I knew were sure — there was no way to keep this up. But it kept up for nearly 10 years. In the same way, I don’t see how Young Sheldon can keep it up. But I was wrong once; maybe again.

Young Sheldon is quite different in tone from its predecessor. Big Bang is a three-camera, live-audience show and written to showcase gags and caricatures. (This is not a complaint: It has done that very well for many years). But Young Sheldon is a one-camera show, with no laugh track, which allows it to be more real.

Zoe Perry and Laurie Metcalf

And, while it is hard to actually care for the Big Bang characters — they are all there to be laughed at — Young Sheldon has so far given us warm, three-dimensional human characters. None more warm or more human than Sheldon’s mother, Mary Cooper, played by Zoe Perry, who happens to be the daughter of Laurie Metcalf, who has long played Sheldon’s mother on Big Bang Theory. The physical resemblance is striking, but more so, the personalities. There is a harried, confused wisdom in her character.

Just as good, 10-year-old Iain Armitage plays the 9-year-old Sheldon without ever being cute, without downplaying his atheism or his neuroses. Or his innocent bafflement at the complexities of the human condition.

The core of the show is Mary’s relationship with the gifted Sheldon and with her mother, the cantankerous Meemaw (Annie Potts). If there is a flaw, it is that the rest of the family, father George, sister Missy and older brother George Jr., are rather less developed, although Lance Barber brings warmth to a blustery father George, who we know from Big Bang, will die of a heart attack. That gives added resonance to the show.

Please excuse me if I sound like a critic writing a review. It’s what I am; I cannot shake it.

But, I recommend Young Sheldon. It really surprised me.

The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson — Ferguson left the Late Late Show in 2014, after nine years behind the desk. But segments of the show are all over YouTube, uploaded by several perseverant chroniclers.

When the show was live, I often watched (via Tivo the next day, so I could fast-forward through those damned Shamwow and boner pill commercials) but even I have to admit there were bits of the show that proved tedious. I could never enjoy the e-mail and tweet segments, and the monolog was often rather shaggy. And when there was a musical guest, I just turned the thing off.

Sarah Paulson and Craigyferg

But Ferguson must be the best late night interviewer there has ever been. The purpose of late night TV is for celebrities to come on, pretend to be regular people and plug their latest project with the assiduity of a used-car salesman. The whole set-up is unashamedly artificial.

Ferguson, in contrast, didn’t interview his guests so much as have a conversation with them. It was not unusual for them never to get around to the current “project.” Oh, there were guests who were duds, who wanted to coerce the talk back to their sales pitch, guests who did not seem to understand the nature of Ferguson’s self-described deconstruction of the late night talk show.

But there were many guests who got it, and they often came back over and over. Kristen Bell appeared 28 times. William Shatner 25, Regis Philbin 25, Betty White 22.

Ariel Tweto, one of his regulars

I am old enough to remember Jack Paar. Paar had a stable of regulars who came back over and over and took part in witty conversation. Peter Ustinov, Robert Morley, Oscar Levant, Hermione Gingold, Genevieve, Jonathan Winters, Dick Gregory.

Ferguson had his crew, too. They were those who obviously adored Ferguson, and understood the subversive nature of the broadcast. They often showed up with nothing to promote. Just to be there and talk. Bell was prime among them, but so, too, were Rashida Jones, Michael Clark Duncan, Paula Poundstone, Larry King, Kathy Griffin, Carrie Fisher, Mila Kunis, Lauren Graham, Jeff Goldblum, Morgan Freeman, Marion Cotillard.

Ferguson in Scotland with Rashida Jones, Ariel Tweto and David Sederis

This was a fabulous stable of personalities, including several that had obviously been previous amours of the host, and they hinted furiously at it.

The advantage of the YouTube videos is that you can see the interviews, often strung together (the set of Kristen Bell interviews lasts 4 hours, 41 minutes). Among the most infectious: Rosie Perez’s 8 visits;

Ferguson is also obviously intelligent, although he did his best to downplay that. But he has had many authors on, spent an entire hour with Archbishop Desmond Tutu (for which he won a Peabody Award), and another hour with Stephen Fry — and once had as a guest a professor of moral philosophy (who happened to be Claire Danes’ father-in-law).

Bob Steele

Cowboy movies — I use this term instead of “Westerns” because I mean a specific type of film: the cheaply made series films from the late silent era through the 1930s with stars such as Buck Jones, Col. Tim McCoy, Hoot Gibson, Bob Steele, Ken Maynard, William Boyd and, of course John Wayne.

Buck Jones

I was born at roughly the same time as television, and in those early years, stations scrambled to find content to fill those broadcast hours, and reams of old cowboy films were re-released cheaply to the stations and ran constantly, especially on the independent channels. I saw a ton of them through my pre-school years and into grade school. I loved them.

So, it is with some nostalgia that I watch them again as a grown-up.

I am not talking here about the legitimate Westerns by John Ford or Howard Hawkes, but of those films pumped out week-by-week from tiny studios such as Monogram and Republic. They were “programmers,” with repetitive plots, recognizable landscapes and often acting just this side of organic when compared with a dead tree.

Hoot Gibson

Not that there weren’t some good actors. Boyd, as Hopalong Cassidy, had a natural screen presence and a comfortable way with dialog. And John Wayne was magic on the screen, even in those early films when he was saddled with playing Singing Sandy, the singing cowboy.

And the secondary actors and the villains were played by what was almost a stock company of real pros such as Earl Dwyer, Charles Middleton, Harry Woods, Charles King, and Roy Barcroft. Dependable, every one. It was mostly the heroes who were stiffs.

But what most impressed me in these movies was their settings, the imaginary West of the cowboy, kicking up dust galloping through the Alabama Hills of California, with the glorious Sierra Nevadas in the distance, or the Santa Clarita Valley. Those backgrounds show up over and over again. I almost memorized them.

In the Alabama Hills of California

Alas, such a golden age couldn’t continue. Singing cowboys invaded the screens, such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, in movies much slicker and emptier than the earlier ones. And worse, the rising need to include a boy sidekick. Cowboy movies gave up on adults and became pabulum for children. In the ’30s, even grown-ups watched Hoot Gibson. He was my late father-in-law’s favorite actor.

Some good B-Westerns continued to be made in the early 1940s, but by the time Eisenhower became president, we had descended to Lash LaRue and Whip Wilson and the most stolidly oaken of all of them, Tim Holt. The lighting flattened out, as it tended to do in the TV-influenced ’50s, and no one really seemed to believe in what they were doing.

The quality of many cable channel Westerns is atrocious, all grainy and contrasty, and at least one S.O.B. has added synthesized music to the originals. But a good print is as beautiful and professional as anything else the studios pumped out in that wonderful era of film. Luckily, one can still occasionally find a good print on Turner Classics, and the Hoppy movies are usually in good shape, thanks to the foresight of Boyd, who bought them all up in the late ’40s and curated them carefully.

So, there you have it, the pleasures I am embarrassed to admit to. I have no defense. But I know I share some of these sins with some of you.  

cosmos logo

The new science series, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, has been a huge disappointment.

Rife with cliches, cheap-looking animation and lack of coherent structure, after its first two episodes, it is proven a shallow and glib sequel to Carl Sagan’s 1980 original, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.

The problems are myriad. The animated sequences are just embarrassing; they remind one of Sunday-school Bible story videos. Graphic ideas that were original 30 years ago now seem tired and worn; if I never see another green-screen calendar standing in for the 13.8 billion years of the universe and an actor standing on Dec. 31, pointing to the last 16 seconds as all of recorded history — well, let’s just say I will survive if I never see that again. There has to be a fresher way of presenting the material. giordano bruno animation

I don’t have a problem, per se, with Neil deGrasse Tyson as presenter, except that he is given such a lame script to read. He has been a persuasive and entertaining host on many another appearance, but here, he is reduced to being a hired-gun presenter, reading someone else’s words. One of the primary strengths of the original series was that it was Sagan’s words, his ideas and his idiosyncrasies that gave the series such strength and authority. tyson 2

You have to look long and hard deep into the credits to even discover who wrote this new series. The surprise is that the script is by Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan and astrophysicist Steven Soter, both of whom collaborated with Sagan on the first series. It is astonishing that the original was so personal and this sequel so deadeningly impersonal.

The second episode of the sequel was marginally better than the first, so maybe the series will get better as it goes along, although I doubt it. There is a serious flaw in its conception.

Television has a marvelous history of documentary series, beginning — by most people’s reckoning — with Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View, from 1969. That series set the parameters for those that followed: Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man (1973), Alistair Cooke’s America: A Personal History of the United States (1972), Robert Hughes’ The Shock of the New (1980),  and, of course, Sagan’s Cosmos (1980).

There were others, too. Jonathan Miller’s The Body in Question (1978), Phillip Morrison’s The Ring of Truth: An Inquiry into How We Know What We Know (1987), David Attenborough’s Life on Earth (1979). What makes each of these series memorable is that they are told through a presenter who has personal knowledge of what he is talking about, and more than that, has a point of view.

Whether it is Hughes, looking like a pugnacious longshoreman, or Cooke looking exactly not like a longshoreman, they each ooze personality from every pore. Neil deGrasse Tyson has personality, too. But the earlier presenters had more than personality: They had something to say.

Many documentaries — and most so-called contemporary documentary series on cable TV channels — present either a dumbed-down version of the accepted wisdom, the handed-down story, or else an “objective” and impersonal “encyclopedia-entry” regurgitation of factoids.

There are different ways of being objective. Frederick Wiseman gives us long documentary films with no narration at all — just immediate immersion into his subject, leaving us to figure it all out. Or, like the PBS series, Frontline, give us a clear narrative, read in the Voice of Doom timbre of Will Lyman — the most distinctive and recognizable faceless voice since John Facenda telling us of the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field.

And at least one great television documentary series has come from this objective school: The World at War, the 1973 Thames Television series created by Jeremy Isaacs and narrated by Laurence Olivier. For that, the enormity of its subject seemed to require a certain distance.

But most of the great and memorable educational series have come through the sensibility of a single presenter — Clark’s take on European art, Bronowski on science or Martin Scorsese on film.

It is important to recognize that it is not the personality of the presenter so much as it is that important word: sensibility. It is not the knowledge that the host conveys as his relationship to the knowledge, the connections between things, the understanding. As Albert Einstein said, “When I need a fact, I can look it up.” It isn’t facts we need but the appreciation of our ineluctable relation to those facts. Sensibility is fact filtered through the human mind. It is where poetry comes from and it is poetry that is missing in the new series. sagan with dandelion

Just one example: In the original Cosmos series, the “spaceship of the imagination” that Sagan offers us comes in the form of a starburst, or, as it later turns out, the fluffy starburst achene of a dandelion. In the final episode, Sagan speaks to us directly on a rocky seashore and picks up a tiny white seedhead and lets it fly with the breeze, and we are shocked into the recognition that the spaceship of the imagination is a metaphor — the small achene and the immense starburst are micro and macro version of the same thing — that the earthly weed from our front lawns and the burning starry dynamo in the machinery of night are one and the same substance.

As William Blake put it: “Infinity in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour.”spaceship tyson

In contrast, the new Cosmos has us riding in what looks like a giant letter opener, shiny as chromium steel and just as hard and impersonal — it is a symbol of technology, not science. Sagan would never confuse the two.

It tells us how advanced have become the tools of computer graphics and their ability to create the illusion of reflections on a moving surface. We may admire the software that produced the visuals, but we are hardly edified by them.

One other comparison: Tyson in the new series tries to inject a bit of himself in the opening episode, telling us how when he was 17, he met Carl Sagan and how much it meant to him as a young man interested in astronomy. It is the one moment of authenticity in the otherwise stumbling artificiality of the show.

The injection of the personal has often been a tactic used in documentaries. But compare Tyson’s moment of authenticity with Jacob Bronowski in the episode of The Ascent of Man in which he discusses the impossibility of certainty in science. At the end, he stand at the edge of a pond in the Auschwitz death camp and defends science as the best we can know in our own fallibility, and the evils visited upon us by certainty.

“This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave.”

He bends down and puts his fist in the muck, drawing up a handful.

“I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died here, to stand here as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.”

It is the difference between the trivial and the profound.

So, in response to the banality of the new, lesser Cosmos, we should look back at some of the best that television has given us, and the people who have something to say who have stood in front of the cameras to express their connection to the world they live in, to share their sense of attachment and their fresh words, so lacking in glibness and cant.

These are my nominees for the five best television documentary series ever produced.The five best

Civilisation: A Personal View (1969) — Sir Kenneth Clark provides a heartbreaking overview of European art and civilization in a series that is a much better, more nuanced view of its subject than you probably remember. If you recall it as Clark, with the British public-school back-palate drawl, talking about the “great masterpieces” as if he were an Oxfordian tour bus guide, you will be in for a surprise: His view is much more subtle than that. He makes a serious attempt to discover just what civilization might be, and uses the past 500 years of European history to make his discovery.

The Ascent of Man (1973) — Mathematician Jacob Bronowski reacted to Clark’s view of civilization, deciding it placed too much emphasis in art and not enough on science, so he attempted to do the job. With his unfortunate 1970’s fashion sense and a slight lisp, he could sometimes sound a bit pompous, but the content of his cosmopolitan mind was a tremendous gift to anyone willing to listen.

The Shock of the New (1980) — Art critic Robert Hughes tried to make sense of Modernism in art, and gave us many profound insights, including the uncomfortable relationship of Surrealism and Fascism. Hughes can be confrontational and pugilistic, but unlike most art critics, whose prose is often no more digestible than an old mattress, he wrote with grace, wit and memorability.

Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (1980) — Astronomer Carl Sagan made the universe personal, gave us a way in to a subject usually obscured in the jungle foliage of higher mathematics. What is surprising, more than 30 years on, is just how much he got right. Yes, you can make fun of “billions and billions,” but the truth is, there are billions of billions out there.

The World at War (1973) — The exception that proves the rule, this 26-episode series combines archival film footage with meaningful interviews with surviving participants from all sides. Written and produced by Jeremy Isaacs, it comes with the voice-over of Sir Laurence Olivier, using his most serious and least thespianic narrative powers. This is a triumph of direct and unmannered documentation.

It should be a hallmark of television literacy to have seen all of these series.

The BEST of the REST

Can you name these presenters? Answers below

Can you name these presenters? Answers below

Since it is the presenter (a very British term, but more accurate than “narrator,” “host” or “emcee”) that makes the series, one should look for any programs by

Michael Wood, whose boyish enthusiasm brought us In Search of the Trojan War, In Search of the Dark Ages, The Story of India and many more. He is best when the material is his own; when he is just a hired gun, as in the Art of the Western World, he is entertaining, but less engaging.

Michael Palin, the former Monty Python stalwart, who has become the best travel presenter ever. He began doing shows on railroad trains, but hit his stride with Around the World in 80 Days, in which he met the challenge of Phileas Fogg. He followed that series with Pole to Pole, Full Circle with Michael Palin, Sahara, Himalaya and Michael Palin’s Hemingway Adventure.

Ian Wright, a cherubic and outgoing Englishman with a Suffolk born glottal stop, he is a frequent presenter of Lonely Planet travelogs. No one joins in with whatever local population, or with less self-consciousness than Wright. You want him to be your permanent travel partner.

Martin Scorsese, the current reigning king of movie directors, has to be the best informed historian of film ever, with an encyclopedic knowledge of all things cinematic and always and engaged and engaging way of speaking about his passion. He has made two series about films that are a must: A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, and My Voyage to Italy, in which he does the same thing for the classic Italian films he grew up with.

Leonard Bernstein, who can be more annoying than anyone else on my list, with his stentorian voice and oracular pronouncements, is nevertheless a great teacher who can disclose the secrets of classical music even to the uninitiated, as long as they are willing to pay attention. His series of Harvard lectures, The Unanswered Question, is one of the best discussions of the changing history of classical music out there, even if you have to put up with a dose of Chomskian linguistics.

Sister Wendy Beckett, who can also be annoying, is nevertheless one of the most patient and thorough observers of the narrative content of Renaissance and Baroque paintings. If Modernism has made us condescending to subject matter in art, this English nun reawakens us to the subtlety and power of that content.

Simon Schama, the polymath, has given us series on The History of Britain and The Power of Art, which looks with some detail at eight artists and eight paintings. He can be snide and sometimes sounds like an English public school don, but he has a good sense of humor. His newest series, The Story of the Jews, begins this week on PBS.

There are others, too. James Burke, Bettany Hughes, Niall Ferguson. The BBC especially, is ripe with presenters.

Can you name these presenters? Answers below

Can you name these presenters? Answers below

But the king of all of them, largely unmentioned until now, but only because he deserves the Big Finish, is the greatest presenter of all, David Attenborough. For more than 60 years, he has been presenting nature programs for the BBC and has written and presented some of the best documentary series ever made. In fact, of the Top 20 TV documentary series listed on IMDb, Attenborough created 10 of them.

David Attenborough

David Attenborough

No one is more genuine on screen, nor more cosmopolitan in approach, or more knowledgeable about his subject or more personable than Attenborough. A list of his accomplishments takes up 16 pages on Wikipedia. He has made the definitive series of programs about life on the planet five times, each one better than the last, beginning with Life on Earth in 1979, The Living Planet in 1984, The Trials of Life in 1990, Planet Earth in 2006, and Life in 2009. That doesn’t count Blue Planet (2001), The Life of Birds (1998), The Life of Mammals (2002). In 2013, at the age of 86, he gave us Africa.planet earth cover

The quality of these series, the many others, and the scores of one-offs — not to mention that as head of programing at the BBC, he greenlighted such classics as Civilisation, Ascent of Man and Alistair Cooke’s America —  makes Attenborough not just a hero, but a god. At least a divi filius.

He is a paragon of humanistic awareness, curiosity and fairness, and has not, to my knowledge, ever in his life uttered a cliche. I’ve never seen anyone more present in the world. If he is not awarded some sort of Nobel Prize for his life work, the universe will have to be declared deficient.

Presenter mugs: Top photo, top row (L-R): Alistair Cooke, Bettany Hughes, Jacob Bronowski, David Attenborough, Clive James. Middle row: Edward Herrmann, James Burke, Ian Wright, David Suzuki, Kate Humble. Bottom row: Ludovic Kennedy, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Miller, Kenneth Clark, Fiona Bruce.

Bottom photo, top row: Michael Palin, Michio Kaku, Niall Ferguson, Morgan Freeman, Michael Wood. Middle row: Simon Schama, Peter Coyote, Robert Hughes, Carl Sagan, Sigourney Weaver. Bottom row: Sister Wendy Beckett, Trevor McMillan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Will Lyman, Terry Jones. 

cletus spuckler and wife

There is little science on the Science Channel, almost no history on the History Channel, nothing to discover on Discover, and you will look long and hard to find any art on the Arts and Entertainment network.

And if you learn anything from The Learning Channel, it is that America’s intellectual level has dropped from the sky like a disabled alien spacecraft, to crash and burn in a desert of mindlessness.

The History Channel, for instance, now specializes in (as explained on Wikipedia): “mythical creatures, monsters, UFOs, aliens, truck drivers, alligator hunters, pawn stores, antique and collectible ‘pickers,’ car restoring, religions, disaster scenarios, and apocalyptic ‘after man’ scenarios,” to say nothing about credulous explorations of the writings of Nostradamus. ancient aliens

Each of these channels began with virtuous motives, and for their early years, created or acquired genuine documentaries for TV viewers, but as they have come to seek ratings over virtue, each has bitten the bait, and now gives us “reality” programming, sensationalist pseudoscience, and celebrities, celebrities, celebrities.

The prime offender of this last are the cooking and food channels, which at one time gave us instruction on cooking and food, but now concentrate on celebrity chefs, some even with studio audiences to applaud and ooh. Julia Child actually taught us something. david pogue

And it isn’t just that Bravo or A&E have given us the bait-and-switch, but that even once laudable programming on PBS has been dumbed down to provide more “entertainment” and less hard information. Their once-proud flagship program NOVA has become a showcase for the high-jinx of such “info-comics” as David Pogue, “Destroyer of Brain Cells.”

It is as if no one believes that actual history or science or art can hold its own in a world of Gypsy housewives of LA married to lumberjacks who look for gold in Alaska and find Nazi ghosts piloting flying saucers from the future, as predicted by Nostradamus.

(Note to Discovery: I now have a copyright on that idea, in case you decide to make such a series.)

I have no complaints with science writers who make complex and often mathematically dense material comprehensible for laymen, such as myself. That is what NOVA used to do: It was aimed at intelligent non-scientists, people with an interest but without the background and training; it now seems aimed at Cletus Spuckler and his family of slack-jawed yokels from The Simpsons.

Is it any wonder that American students fail so badly in math and science, or that a scary percentage of American voters don’t believe in basic scientific principles, and that a major political party carries on a non-too-disguised war on science? We believe in ghosts, UFOs, and ESP, but not in evolution, global warming or environmental degradation. One scratches one’s head.

At least PBS still maintains a veneer of science or history in their documentaries, the commercial cable channels have given up completely. It is all hokum shot through night-vision goggles looking for trumped up ghosts, or teams of competing slackers moaning and groaning about how hard it is to beat the deadline making spangles for their dresses or how to turn squid beaks into desserts for the panel of judges. TLC

How is America not embarrassed to show its face in the world for presenting Toddlers and Tiaras, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant, I Eat 33,000 Calories A Day, Potty Power, Sarah Palin’s Alaska, Starter Wives Confidential, Trading Spouses, Wedding Dress Wars, or Big Hair Alaska? And those are just from Discovery.

The History Channel (now, of course, rebranded as History, keeping the only part of their name that doesn’t describe anything true about itself) has offered: Ancient Aliens, Ancients Behaving Badly, Angels and Demons: Decoded, Ax Men, The Bible Code: Predicting Armegeddon, Big Shrimpin’, Cajun Pawn Stars, Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked, God, Guns and Automobiles, Hairy Bikers, Ice Road Truckers, Shark Wranglers, Swamp People, and, of course, UFO HuntersPawn Stars photographed by Blair Bunting

Its highest-rated show, Pawn Stars, exemplifies one of the unpleasant trends in this new field of television.  So many “reality” shows (I can’t help but put quotes around the word “reality,” since the word is so horribly misused in this application) rely on having a bully at its center, whether it was Simon Cowell on American Idol or here, with “Old Man” Richard Harrison, a truly repulsive ignorant blusterer lording it over his clan like a cartoon patriarch, an uneducated know-it-all, with little sense of curiosity — there is no glow in his ball-bearing eyes, just the dull, yellowish glare of a sluggish dragon guarding its horde.

So much of TV is either aimed at or about the unwashed, uneducated and superstitious, as if all of America lived in a trailer park and had only half its teeth. It’s the Jerry-Springerization of America, and it cannot bode well for our future.

So, the rest of us find ourselves either leaving TV altogether, or braving the ridicule of our friends and family, tuning in to C-Span 2 on the weekends to watch Book TV. It’s the last bastion of a medium that used to bring us Omnibus, Young People’s Concerts and BBC nature programs.

 

img0151A

I want to acknowledge a debt. It comes as a bit of an ugly confession. And it comes wrenchingly from my throat: I write a great deal about books and poetry. I spout Roman history a little too glibly and am apt to swoon glowingly about Homer’s Iliad.

But I must acknowledge that the high tone of fine art and literature is only a patina. I have been most hewn and polished not by literary sources, but by television. It is the same for most people under the age of 65.

Television is not often enough considered when we talk about intellectual development; it actually hurts to put the words ”intellectual” and ”television” in the same sentence — and I just did it twice. I’m a masochist.

But it is true. My first introduction to classical music was on the Bugs Bunny cartoons I watched on the box. First introduction to jazz from the added soundtrack to the silent Terrytoons I saw on Junior Frolics, an afternoon kiddie show on New Jersey’s Channel 13, hosted by “Uncle” Fred Sayles. Those silent-era animations, with their added jazz scores influenced my youth in a way that Aeschylus would never be able to.

farmer alfalfa

My first theater came in the form of sitcoms; first sculpture was the Rodin Thinker that Dobie Gillis sat under to question why he could never make time with Thalia Menninger.

dobiegillis

Oh, there were a few ”highbrow” things on the tube: Sometimes we watched Omnibus with Alistair Cook or the Young People’s Concerts with Leonard Bernstein.

Nevertheless, the effect of such educational shows was as a single tiny green pea to the overwhelming harvest of corn that poured out of the box.

Bonanza, Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason, Ozzie and Harriet, Dave Garroway’s meaty palm held forward to the screen as he intoned the word, ”Peace.”

I learned about animals from Ivan Sanderson and, later, Marlin Perkins. I learned about Eastern Europe from Boris Badinov. It all twirled around in a great pop-culture spin cycle.

It’s frightening to think how much American history was gathered from watching Hugh O’Brian as Wyatt Earp or Guy Madison as Wild Bill Hickok.

It is all still there, like petroleum under the covering layers of rock. If I dig deep enough, the Tacitus recedes and Sky King comes back to the fore.

But it isn’t mere nostalgia that I mean to invoke, but rather a change that has come about as television has come of age.

What distinguishes the generation that came after mine — those called ”X” to my ”boomer” — is the quotes that have now been put around everything that appears on the screen.

Television was new to us. We approached it naively. What we saw on its glowing front we took to be an image of the real world. Those that came after us were enormously more sophisticated about what they saw. Television was for them clearly an ironic ”parallel universe,” which they somehow lived in, used for their cultural reference point, but never took seriously.

The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet was not exactly the world I inhabited, but it bore a close enough resemblance to it that I could read it as ”real.” Ozzie really was married to Harriet.

By the time The Brady Bunch came on, it so deviated from the reality of its viewers that the only way to enjoy it was as an in-joke.

victory at sea

My generation learned about World War II from Victory at Sea; the following generation learned from Hogan’s Heroes.

There are many a plus and beaucoup minuses to both sides of the generational equation. It is usually better to be sophisticated than naive. I’m mortified that I ever thought that Gene Autry really was a cowboy.

But the downside for the later generation is the disconnect they make between life and art. For them, culture is a web of references they get, the way you either get or don’t get Stephen Colbert. If you suggest to them that art might somehow mirror their daily existence and confront the questions that arise outside the TV world, they look at you like you just suggested Larry the Cable Guy should be the next James Bond.

If we have all become much more knowing about the apparatus of media, we are also in danger of drowning in that world in a kind of cultural schizophrenia, and forgetting that the world that counts is found outside prime time.

Drama recon - Neanderthals had big faces and big teeth.

There is a seemingly endless assembly line on basic cable TV that produces documentaries about prehistoric humans. We have most of them on DVD: My wife is a sucker for anything on cave men. (If she had her druthers, she’d be one. She loves to imagine herself living in a “state of nature.” “Humans went bad as soon as they invented agriculture,” she says.)

But she also has a complaint, which she repeats with every viewing and reviewing: “Why do they always show cavemen with such unkempt hair?”

She contends, and I believe rightly, that even prehistoric humans took a concern for their appearance, or at the very least, for keeping their hair out of their joint of meat.

But whether it’s “The Rise of Man,” or “Walking with Cavemen,” or “Journey to 10,000 BC,” the people — whether actors in cave drag or computer animation — have such bad personal hygiene they look like soot-faced refugees from some Hollywood cinematic apocalypse.

homosapiensdvd box

It’s a question, even if you just think about other animals. Where do you see anything else in the animal world like that? Ever seen a cat with anything but a sleek coat? Mice, marmots, horses, terriers, squirrels, deer, otters, goats or tapirs. Not a hobo among them. Even chimpanzees, our closest living relative, has reasonably regular hair.

Why, then, should our cave brothers suffer the eternal bad hair day?

One makes the distinction between the fur of animals, which reaches a determined length and then stops growing — hence remaining groomed and neat — and human hair, which keeps growing and eventually becomes unruly. But since we have no fossil records for hair on early hominins, we don’t know exactly when longer head hair entered the genetic signature of the genus Homo. Perhaps Australopithicenes  had “fur” rather than hair. Perhaps even Neanderthals had neat hair. We don’t know. We don’t know for Homo habilis or Homo erectus, either. We only know for sure that Homo sapiens has continuously growing head hair, and hence, the possibility of bad hair days.

So, where did television art directors get the idea for disheveled anthropoids? Perhaps from contemporary peoples we call primitive?

There are two problems with that idea.  We should not assume that surviving neolithic people have not also evolved culturally and therefore, as different from those prehistoric ancestors as we are — just along very different lines of development.

So, taking the Mek of New Guinea or the Yanomami of the Amazon as representative of what cave men looked like or how they behaved, is nothing but supposition.

And the second issue is that even there, coiffure is a significant part of the culture. The Yanomami have very distinctive haircuts.

yanomami man

And consider North American Indians. The squashblossom hairdos of unmarried Hopi women, or the care with which Wolf Robe — a Cheyenne man from the 1909 photograph — braids and wraps his hair in otter fur.

Hop squashblossom hairstyle and Wolf Robe

Hop squashblossom hairstyle and Wolf Robe

Hair has had such a significant role in myth and superstition, that if we draw from surviving neolithic cultures for our model, we should probably assume that prehistoric peoples did some pretty inventive things with their hair. Just letting it hang out there, ragged and dirty, is likely not one of them.

If current paleoanthropology and archeology tell us anything, it is that primitive peoples were less primitive than we used to think. Toolmaking goes back at least to the Australopithicenes, so does fire.

Seeing European cave paintings, Picasso remarked that “we have invented nothing.”

Altamira

Each new archeological find moves dates back further, and we learn that early people were far more advanced and sophisticated than we had previously thought.

Take Gobekle Tepe in Turkey, some 9,000 years ago, and not that far removed from the cave paintings, and you see a centralized cultural life, sophisticated three-dimensional sculpture and a road system leading from scattered villages to the central religious site. These people lived in rooms.

gobekletepe carving

So, where did this trope come from? Blame the Victorians, I say. (I like to blame them for anything I can.) In the popular 19th century version of evolution, each adaptation was a step on a ladder of progress, ever better and more perfect. Modern humans (and especially modern English industrial humans) were the pinnacle of creation, the end target of the process. They are the people who gave us the concept of “primitive.” They gave us the first bestial images of what the early humans must have looked like.

victorian neanderthal

They projected their racial fears into the cave men they imagined. And just as bigots tend to see the “other” as dirty and slow, whether that is applied to the Irish, the Italians, Jews or Africans, so, they imagined their ancient forebears to be of the “lower order.”

I wait to see a Discovery Channel documentary on those who painted such wonderful paintings on the cave walls of Europe as just as smart and sophisticated as us, using all that is at hand to make their lives as graceful and comfortable as they could. They were no dummies.