Whither Dr. Alfred Bellows: The Death of the Television Rerun
There’s a better-than-average chance you have no idea who Alfred Bellows is. And, to be honest, I don’t know that much about Alfred Bellows either. Like, for instance, I have no idea if his friends call him “Al” in social situations. I mean, that would certainly make sense. I do know that Alfred Bellows – who, professionally, went as Dr. Bellows – was Tony Nelson and Roger Healey’s superior officer on a popular situational comedy that aired from 1965 until 1970 titled ‘I Dream of Jeannie.’
I mention this because, one night a couple of weeks ago after a few pints, I made a Dr. Bellows reference. As you might imagine, a Dr. Bellows reference doesn’t quite go over like gangbusters today like it would, say, 44 years ago. Unsurprisingly, I had to explain who Dr. Bellows is and that explanation was met with the inquiry, “Wait, how old are you?”
That question piqued my interest. (Which is in itself an oddity; being in my late 30s, I’ve been trying to ignore questions about how old I am for about two years now.) But, the question assumed that because I knew something about 'I Dream of Jeannie,' I must have been alive when the show was actually on the air. (I wasn’t.)
We live in a world in which culture shifts have pitted the now-retiring Baby Boomers versus the now-overwhelming force of working Millennials. My generation – Generation X – is the forgotten generation, and that’s actually kind of okay, I suppose – if, for no other reason, than I don’t have to say the words “Generation X,” which I’ve done maybe four times in my life. (My biggest takeaway about Millennials is that they seem to enjoy using the term “Millennials.”)
We also live in a world in which every kind of media is on demand for your viewing pleasure and at a moment’s notice. This is a much better way to live. And, this is the way that most Millennials have digested their movies and television. Again, good for us! I can not stress more, again, that this is the much better way to live. But, the repercussions are that the television rerun is dead.
I was in my prime adolescent television viewing age in the 1980s. During the weekday – on a rainy summer day, or a day home from school for whatever reason – the television viewing options were pretty scarce. It was basically a decision between a) soap operas, b) whatever movie was on the one HBO channel, c) an Atlanta Braves baseball game on WTBS, or d) whatever reruns were showing on the stations that weren’t airing those three other things. I almost always chose that last option.
Because of this, I have seen almost every episode of television shows ranging from ‘The Andy Griffith Show,’ ‘Green Acres,’ ‘The Beverly Hillbillies,’ ‘The Brady Bunch,’ ‘Gilligan’s Island,’ and even going back further to even older shows like ‘I Love Lucy,’ ‘Father Knows Best’ and ‘The Honeymooners.’ Oh, yes, and ‘I Dream of Jeannie.’ All of these shows ended their original runs well before I was born. Right now, my knowledge of television spans almost 60 years and this was basically done by accident – it’s just the way it was.
Yes, there are reruns today. ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘Friends’ air on an almost constant rotation, but no one is stuck watching them because there’s “nothing else on.” (I still need to point out that this is a good thing.) And, if someone wants to watch every episode of ‘I Dream of Jeannie’ on a constant loop for the next three weeks, that is easily achievable. But, who is going to do that other than people who already love that show? We will get to a point where only television historians have seen ‘I Dream of Jeannie,’ and Generation X (ugh, that term) is the dividing line of all of this culture.
And, again, what’s being lost isn’t just the few years difference between the average age of a Millennial and an X-er, it’s about four decades of culture that no one will remember after us. I mean, what Millennial is going to say to himself or herself, You know, I think I’m going to watch an episode of ‘Night Court’ tonight? (For the record, I am not holding that decision against anyone -- though, I feel we are already at a place where most people don’t recognize the names Dan Fielding or Christine Sullivan.)
‘The Cosby Show’ was the most popular television show of the 1980s. No one watches ‘The Cosby Show’ anymore. I mean, why would you? There are so many current options. But, it’s a shame that (especially its first couple of seasons), at some point in the near future, that show will be as forgotten as ‘It’s Your Move.’
The strange thing is that this doesn’t seem to be a problem with other media. I was recently at a bar and the table next to me – all filled with people I’d guess were students at NYU – were singing along to every Queen song that the bar was playing. I never once questioned that these people were older than me because they like Queen. Classic music is something that’s revered. You’re looked down upon by music snobs if you don’t know your history. People today love buying vinyl. Yet, nobody is buying Betamax cassette tapes of ‘Head of the Class.’
Movies, too: There’s a whole subculture on Twitter, partially led by young guys like Sam Fragoso and Peter Labuza, who will, let’s say, let it be known if you happen to write about movies, yet don’t know your movie history. But, where are their television equivalents? The A.V. Club does a great job revisiting select classic television series, but its impractical to think many readers are going to follow suit and watch if they haven’t already. It’s one thing to carve out two hours of your day to watch ‘The Parallax View’ for the first time, it’s another to watch 635 episodes of ‘Gunsmoke.’
The case will be made that classic television isn’t as important as classic movies. This line of thinking is bullshit. Again, this isn’t an argument against the way we digest culture, it’s an argument that a part of culture is dying and no one seems to care. No one is arguing that ‘Citizen Kane’ doesn’t deserve its never-ending praise, but it’s a shame that less and less people can appreciate ‘The Bob Newhart Show,’ let alone ‘Newhart.’ (You’d think that the 'Newhart' finale would extend its shelf life, but speaking the name George Utley out loud draws a fair amount of blank stares.)
No one is ever going to forget Charles Foster Kane’s name. But, Dr. Bellows is already a lost cause.
Mike Ryan is senior editor for ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.