If you're feeling glum about the state of the world today, just watch basic cable. There, you'll stumble across a number of current shows set in past decades –- or reruns from a few decades ago –- and you'll be reminded that things weren't any better back then.
This past week saw the Season 1 finale (and perhaps the series finale) of "Halt and Catch Fire," the AMC drama about '80s techies trying to build a then-revolutionary new portable computer. Unlike many of the other period shows built on the "Mad Men" model, this one doesn't make the past look sexy; the clothes and décor are as tacky as they should for a series set in 1983, and the cutting-edge gadgetry all looks clunky and slow to today's eyes. (The computer the characters are trying to build is considered lightweight at 15 pounds.) The season built toward the unveiling in the penultimate episode of the machine, dubbed the Giant, at a tech trade show, only (spoiler alert!) to have their victory made hollow by their competitors. One rival company brought out an inferior but less costly knockoff of the Giant. The other was Apple, introducing the Macintosh, which made the IBM-compatible Giant look instantly obsolete. The last episode, anticlimactically, made the victory seem especially inconsequential, though two of the four leads did decamp for a new company that seemed to look toward the online future of computing. The message: Following your dreams can come at great personal cost and mean only meager rewards and being relegated to a historical footnote.
(It's worth noting that the plot arc of "Halt and Catch Fire" mirrored that of HBO's recent "Silicon Valley." But that show, set in the present, was able to play its characters' anxiety and paranoia for cringe comedy.)
Rival teams of engineers racing to complete a secret project are also the subject of "Manhattan," the new drama series on WGN America. Here, it's the Manhattan Project, the secret gathering of scientists in Los Alamos, N.M. to build the first atomic bomb, with the engineers racing against Nazis, the mounting death toll of World War II, and each other (the Manhattan scientists are split into two teams working on different designs for the bomb). The scientists have their spouses and families with them, but they're unable to disclose to their loved ones even the slightest detail of what they're building. The 1940s clothes and cars are sleeker and more stylish than those of "Halt," but the techies on both shows undergo similar sacrifices, ruining their personal lives, their fortunes, and even their mental health to build something whose historical impact they can't truly grasp. (One gadget barely works; the other works all too well.) Looking back from today's perspective, viewers of both shows might wonder whether all the efforts were really worth all the bother.
Smart people ruining their own lives in the name of science –- that could also describe Showtime's "Masters of Sex," now in the midst of its second season. The show, about pioneering 1950s sex researchers William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), hews closely to the "Mad Men" model, with sexy period trappings underscoring the fact that gender roles back then were horribly confining, especially if you were a woman or (like Beau Bridges' unfortunate character, Barton) a gay man. Bill and Gini operate under the idealistic notion that sexuality is something that science can quantify, explain, and perhaps even control. It's a notion that allows Bill and Gini to rationalize their own illicit affair, or Barton to think that electroshock therapy can turn him straight. Today, we may know more about the mechanics of sex (thanks in part to M & J) but we're no smarter about sex or any more capable of approaching sex with any objectivity. As if that weren't enough, the new season also seems poised (based on the touchy relationship between Bill's wife Libby and the couple's nanny, Coral) to address the dawning Civil Rights movement and America's thorny history of race relations. As problematic as that continues to be, it's certainly light-years better than it was in the segregated 1950s.
Even the early 1990s don't look so rosy, based on the newly-aired reruns of "Blossom," a recent addition to the nightly line-up on the family-oriented Hub channel. Maybe (like me) you were too old to have watched the sitcom when it was new (1990-95), or maybe you remember the show as a simple romp about the antics of a spirited teen girl (Mayim Bialik) and her hunky but dimwitted big brother (Joey Lawrence). Judging by the episodes that have aired on Hub, however, the show was a lot darker than that, what with all the divorced parents, the recovering-addict eldest brother (Michael Stoyanov), and the protagonist herself frequently getting into trouble for acting out the growing pains of a normal teenage girl. One episode ends with her dad, Nick (Ted Wass), acknowledging that Blossom won't be able to have a normal adolescence without lying to him about certain things. In another, Blossom tells a lie to get out of going to the big dance with the nerd who asked her; then she feels guilty and confesses, only to have the geek reject her for having treated him shabbily in the first place. (Blossom's fear of being branded a nerd for life if she dates the guy is pretty funny, given the way Bialik became a poster girl for geeks, based on both her real-life career as a scholar and her current stardom on "The Big Bang Theory.") Nick consoles his daughter by telling her that guilt and recriminations are signs that she's a good person. "Really good people are miserable all the time," he tells her. Now, that's bleak.
So cheer up, couch potatoes. Things may be grim now, but the cable slate reminds us that the good old days were no better.
Photo courtesy of Showtime