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Mad Men, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the ‘Golden Age’ of television

Christina Hendricks with the Mad Men costume sketches being archived by the Smithsonian. But academics were interested in television long before Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Mad Men. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Mad Men, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the ‘Golden Age’ of television

Christina Hendricks with the Mad Men costume sketches being archived by the Smithsonian. But academics were interested in television long before Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Mad Men. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

An enormous amount of digital column inches are dedicated to discussing American television. This week one of the more prominent articles is about television and academia.

The Atlantic’s “The Rise of Buffy Studies” by Katharine Schwab has been popping up all over the place on Facebook, Twitter and has even been republished by SBS.

Schwab’s article contends that Joss Whedon’s genre bending cult-show Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) paved “the way for scholars to treat television shows like The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad as sprawling works of art to be dissected and analysed alongside the greatest works of literature.”

But this isn’t entirely true - television has been the subject of serious academic inquiry for decades - long before Buffy, let alone The Wire (2002-2008), Mad Men (2007-2015) and Breaking Bad (2008-2013).

This is not to challenge the phenomenon of Buffy; I have published on Buffy myself and it is by far the most written about television series in academia. However it is not the beginning of academic television studies and it is misleading to think about it in those terms.

Buffy has the distinction of capturing the imagination of many English literature and cultural studies academics who had previously not examined television. The show’s use of metaphor, allegory and literary allusion makes it particularly appealing for longform analysis.

As Schwab outlines, academic examinations of Buffy range from the philosophical to the peculiar. Philosophical approaches to the series are aplenty, including James B. South’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy (2003) and Dean Kowalksi and S. Evan Kreider’s The Philosophy of Joss Whedon (2011).

At times Buffy scholarship gets very niche. Personal favourites of mine include Stevie Simkins’ “You Hold Your Gun Like A Sissy Girl”: Firearms And Anxious Masculinity In Buffy The Vampire Slayer (2004), Patricia Pender’s “Kicking Ass is Comfort Food”: Buffy as Third Wave Feminist Icon (2004) and Leigh Clemons’ Real Vampires Don’t Wear Shorts: The Aesthetics of Fashion in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (2006).

There is even academic writing on the academic writing on Buffy, thanks to David Lavery’s “I wrote my thesis on you!”: Buffy Studies as an Academic Cult (2004).

Before Buffy

Lucille Ball and Tennessee Ernie Ford in a 1956 episode of I Love Lucy. Bureau of Industrial Service/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Television studies has existed as a coherent area of academic study since the 1970s, often a sub-discipline of film studies, media studies and/or cultural studies.

An enormous amount of academic scholarship has been written on the industry of American television and the cultural significance of series such as I Love Lucy (1951-1957), The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966), The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977) and Cagney & Lacey (1981-1988) amongst others.

Feminist, industrial and thematic analysis dominates early television studies.

Entire monographs and anthologies are dedicated to individual series. One of my favourites is Julie D'Acci’s Defining Women: The Case of Cagney & Lacey (1994). D'Acci charts the different ways that Cagney & Lacey negotiated the women’s liberation movement, feminism and the changing television industry.

Before HBO, “quality television” was most closely associated with The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970–1977) and Moore’s production company MTM Enterprises, thanks in part to Jane Feuer, Paul Kerr and Tise Vahimagi’s book MTM: Quality Television (1984).

But The Atlantic article is representative of a broader trend in contemporary journalism and popular media to forget this history. And as the history is forgotten, so too is the valuable scholarship that goes with it.

Mary Tyler Moore, Dick Van Dyke and Larry Mathews in a 1963 episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show. CBS Television/Wikimedia Commons

One case in point is an article published in The Huffington Post in June 2015 by Zeba Blay, entitled “How Feminist TV became the New Normal.” This article charted the rise of so-called “feminist TV” without any discussions of television series before Sex and the City (1998-2004).

American television has a rich and complex history with feminism that extends back to its early years with I Love Lucy (1951–1957) and The Gracie Allen and George Burns Show (1950-1964). Seminal television scholar Patricia Mellencamp has written about these series and their importance at length. Mellencamp provides a framework for reading these series as feminist, arguing that Gracie and Lucy operate as feminist figures who outsmart or outmanoeuvre their inevitable containment.

The “Golden Age” of television?

A 1977 episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show featuring Valerie Harper, Cloris Leachman and Mary Tyler Moore. CBS Television/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Why are we so reticent to remember this history and those who wrote it?

Why the reluctance to acknowledge that before Buffy or The Sopranos (1999-2007) changed American television irrevocably, so too did I Love Lucy and The Mary Tyler Moore Show?

And what about All in the Family (1971-1979), M✵A✵S✵H (1972-1983), Roots (1977), Cagney & Lacey, Roseanne (1988-1997), The Simpsons (1989-present), NYPD Blue (1993-2005) and ER (1994-2009)?

Lynne Moody and Georg Stanford Brown in the 1977 television miniseries Roots. ABC Television/Wikimedia Commons

In part, the forgetting of television history is fuelled by books that chart the rise of the so-called “Golden Age of Television” including Brett Martin’s Difficult Men (2013) and Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution was Televised (2012).

But there are those who consider this “Golden Age” something of a myth. When Mad Men creator-showrunner Matthew Weiner visited Australia for the Vivid Ideas festival in June, he said he didn’t believe American television was “better” now than it was when he was growing up.

I would argue the “Golden Age” idea is exclusionary; it not only encourages an elitist attitude towards contemporary television, but also fails to acknowledge the extraordinary work that informs television today.

Mad Men’s Jon Hamm stands beside the his Don Draper costume at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

It’s important to remember our history, because we don’t get Tony Soprano, Walter White and Don Draper without the crude, offensive and difficult Archie Bunker of All in the Family. Orange is the New Black (2013-present) likewise owes as much to I Love Lucy and M✵A✵S✵H as it does to Lost (2004-2010) and The Wire.

We don’t forget the great film and literature of the past, so why do we forget iconic television series and their history?

Perhaps it’s because television’s history is relatively short compared to other mediums. Or because we don’t think television’s history is worth remembering. Is it because television only became worthy of “serious” academic and historical examination when it became “cinematic”? Or perhaps when movie stars began to appear in it?

Maybe TV has just given us shorter memories and even shorter attention spans - an ailment perhaps best remedied by watching another episode of Buffy.