Sunday, May 6, 2012

Topical Episodes: Good Idea or Bad Idea?

I ordered the uncut version of The Renegade Refugee from Netflix and watched it early yesterday morning. My purpose was to see if there were any scenes with William Boyett that I hadn’t previously seen. (I think there was one.) I ended up with a topic for today’s post.

With the plot of the episode partially involving a missing WWII Nazi, I began to ponder. There are several episodes that are rather topical for the day, including that one and some others. Hence, they date the show more than the general episodes do. Is this good or bad? Or neither?

One thing I find really interesting about The Dick Van Dyke Show is how the creator insisted that there never be any mentions of current real-life events. Hence, perhaps more than many shows, The Dick Van Dyke Show’s storylines can smoothly fit into any modern time or place. The characters’ adventures could happen just as easily in 2012 as in 1962. Did the creator have foresight? Or did he just not want the series to become social commentary or a newsreel?

The typical Perry episodes are the same way, really. Oh, there might be a throwaway reference to a specific year, but it’s usually of little consequence to the plot and doesn’t matter that much. And sometimes they seem to go out of their way to not mention a date! Think of the many times Hamilton asks someone about, say, “March 3rd of this year.” Or last year. I don’t think he has ever given a date during any of the countless occasions he has asked about a day. Is that standard court procedure? Or just a way to keep specific years out of the show as much as possible? I wonder.

And then every now and then we get topical episodes, where years seem to matter a great deal. There’s a couple of episodes involving the Cold War, one a very intense adventure in season 9. They place the show firmly in the present day of its time, as do some of the military episodes, and just as with those, some people don’t seem to care for the concept. I’m unsure whether that’s because they think the show should take place in the 1930s, as per the early books, or if they would just rather Perry stuck close to home and the plots were things that could happen any time, rather than being topical.

I find nothing wrong with topical shows, in general. Some people like feeling that the characters are experiencing events that they, the viewers, have witnessed in real-life. It may make them feel even closer to the characters in that respect. Of course, since people of today are not experiencing those topical issues, that is also how shows or episodes become dated. But I believe that the episodes should be appreciated for what they are: voices of the times in which they were made.

One might think since I’m so insistent about moving the time period of Perry to the present of today (it’s something I can’t be shaken from), I wouldn’t care for those topical episodes even if I'm alright with them in other shows. Actually, the opposite is true. I usually love the topical episodes on Perry. I’m intrigued by what went on in decades past and I like the window to those events. The season 9 episode, The Fugitive Fraulein, is one of the only episodes without Hamilton that I particularly like. (Most I consider average at best, below average at worst.)

The same holds true for the long-running Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys book series. I love reading installments from every time period. I enjoy seeing how they were written in the 1930s and 1940s just as much as I enjoy the books written in the 1990s. In fact, it’s partially the very fact that those characters endure through the years and adapt to every time period that I feel just fine about doing the same with the Perry cast. There’s no real way to reconcile that some of the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys adventures happened in what is noticeably decades past. But for those series, where time simply is not important, there’s also no real way to deal with the fact that the characters are perennially the same ages, from 1930 (or 1927) to now. It just must be accepted.

Several years ago, the comic publisher Moonstone decided to write new adventures about the 1970s character Kolchak: The Night Stalker. The creator himself made the decision that the new stories should take place in the present day, with the characters the same ages and no explanation necessary. Time isn’t important there, either—just the characters and the stories, all of which easily transplanted to the 2000s. I enjoy the new stories and the original series equally.

Of course, there were very rarely topical goings-on in those serials. But it was always clear what time period they took place in, so for me the principle is the same.

(And frankly, as far as my views on topical episodes go, and feeling that a reason for them is to feel closer to the characters, that is one of my big reasons for sliding the time period to the present day. I like thinking that they are experiencing things that I am now, while still keeping hold of the values from yesteryear, of course. The present day could benefit from a lot of those values being reinstated.)

When it comes to the topical episodes of Perry, I approach them the same way I approach any other Perry episode. Is the plot good? Are the characters engaging? Is it exciting and fulfilling? If the answers consist of Yeses, and I find they usually do, they are worthwhile episodes no matter the subject.

And when it comes to figuring out how episodes like The Fugitive Fraulein fit into my timeline, well . . . I haven’t yet. For the characters in The Misguided Missile, as I mentioned before, I just changed the war they fought in from Korea to Bosnia, since that wasn’t really a critical plot point. For the few episodes where time period is a critical plot point, I just sit back, enjoy them, and decide I’ll tweak them into my timeline if it ever becomes necessary. Which I don’t anticipate it will.

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