Longing for entertainment of the past

Now that nostalgia has entered the light of scientific acceptability, I must confess to regular bouts of longing for the television shows and movies of yesteryear.

Recent news reports recount 14 years’ worth of studies at universities around the world that corroborate the same conclusion: nostalgia promotes psychological and physical well being.

The many benefits resulting from this previously maligned tendency to don rose-colored glasses include optimism, hardy resilience when facing an uncertain future, an increase in body temperature, and a healthy sense of self-continuity. Some researchers see nostalgia as an evolutionary plus, a theory based on findings that subjects who cultivated nostalgic thoughts in a cold room had an increase in body heat; the benefits to our ancestral bands of hunters and gatherers trying to survive in cold climates are obvious.

But when the rose-colored glasses come off, we are left with an entertainment-saturated present. There is not one minute of a twenty-four-hour period when movies, television shows, and video games are unavailable. Regardless of socioeconomic status, most Americans have access to a phone, cable box or computer that will deliver this surfeit to them.

The quantitative difference between this era’s endless television hours and those of past decades, when all three television stations went off the air at one a.m., doesn’t alarm most people. Those who say “change is inevitable, and it hasn’t killed us yet” may be justified in claiming as benign the loss of five or six hours of sleep-promoting test patterns every night. But it is a skinny argument that rejects the qualitative differences between a Hitchcock thriller and the surreal parade of “Saw” sequels, or between yesterday’s crime dramas, such as “Columbo” and “Cagney and Lacey,” and today’s graphic offerings. “Blacklist” and “Hannibal” are current shows that exemplify a sharp turn toward extreme violence, as their content reveals.

What point is there in watching a show whose weekly villains are implausible agents of unlikely plots unless constant terror is the point? “Blacklist” is a parade of shocking explosions, vicious murders, and deadly retributions. Fans of “Hannibal” get to see a more plausible, more sophisticated story with fewer thrills, but anyone familiar with Hannibal Lecter can imagine what a no-holds barred production brings into viewers’ living rooms. None of his grisly deeds are left to the imagination. Having seen only one episode, in which I empathized with one FBI agent’s extreme nausea, I had to wonder what would happen to my ability to see all this as traumatic if I exposed myself to it regularly.

The American Psychological Association studies the effects of media violence carefully. Most available evidence points to a strong connection between exposure to violence and an increased ability to tune it out, or to gloss over it. Doesn’t it make sense? The more you see something – a picture, a backyard scene, an office plant-the less likely you are to pay attention to it. Desensitization is a normal brain function; why wouldn’t media violence be subject to it?

Every week, theaters across America are filled with tension. Horror. Political thrillers. Kidnapped children. Vengeful ghosts. Slashing psychopaths. The previews grind away, hinting at plots based on long-winded chase scenes, improbable leaps from buildings, exploding vehicles and structures, and menacing encounters with deadly weapons of all sorts, all of which feed the overriding cinematic theme of this era: Death.

Can a little bit hurt us? Probably not. Are Hollywood and cable channels and network television giving us a little? Definitely not. There is a point at which saturation becomes as qualitative as the bloody entrails I saw on my first and only viewing of “Hannibal.” American entertainment has reached that point.

We can choose to indulge in the nostalgic flip side of television: Turner Classic movies and a sprinkling of channels that have resurrected some of those old crime dramas. Fans of “Murder, She Wrote” and “Poirot” appreciate the chance to enjoy a good murder mystery without the nauseating visions that comprise today’s dramas.

Entertainment need not be graphic to be exciting. The Hitchcock thriller “Rebecca,” Bette Davis’s drama “Storm Center,” and Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” still deliver robust characters, suspense, plot twists, and last lines that stick to your bones like oatmeal. The television series “Mannix” managed to offer hard-boiled detective stories without the gore of today’s dramas.

The nostalgic side of television offers a refuge of continuity. Enduring old shows bring comfort and perhaps a nostalgic optimism that good things last: good ideas, good shows, good people. Will there be nostalgia someday for the grisly death mongering of today’s graphic entertainment?

I hope not.

Renee Gravelle is a Dunkirk resident. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com