It’s a strange idiosyncrasy of folks my age to keep a stash of VHS tapes secreted somewhere in their house, no matter how technologically advanced they may be. Seriously, I don’t think I have one friend who doesn’t still own a beat-up 1989 copy of Tim Burton’s Batman, or the original Little Mermaid tape with the hidden penis on the cover, or a frayed Addams Family tape that McDonald’s sold for $5 in the mid-1990’s as part of some long-forgotten marketing initiative.
I am, of course, guilty of all three of these infractions, and these days, I wield the physical copies of those distant memories with pride. During the frantic throes of moving my worldly possessions out of my parents’ house and into my first apartment a decade ago, I ran across all of my old VHS tapes shoved haphazardly into a cupboard in my bedroom. With a sneer, I threw them all in a box destined for the Goodwill, ready to banish all non-digital items from my life. But then I stopped. I looked down into the box full of old Disney VHS tapes with the bulky plastic covers that never quite snapped shut, the grimy copies of Gremlins and Back to the Future Part III, and the scratchy recordings of long-ago canceled sitcoms that I’d taped off the TV. Somehow, I couldn’t part with any of them. They were a part of my past, my childhood, and my life. How could mass-produced plastic ribbons and cartridges mean so much to me? Why did I feel as though I were betraying my past by throwing them out?
I brought the box of VHS tapes to my new apartment. They have made the move to each subsequent new home, surviving purge after purge of stuff that I either couldn’t fit in the moving van or didn’t feel like packing up to bring with me. These days, the tapes sit in the closet of my home office, some still adorned with splashes of spilled juice and crayon markings from my childhood. My grandparents kept all of their old 78s; my parents kept all of their vinyl records; I keep some of my old CDs and VHS tapes. At least the habit isn’t exclusive to my generation.
Nowadays, I have an odd fascination and reverence for old VHS tapes. I proudly paid 50 cents last year to obtain a VHS tape entitled Learn the Macarena! from my local Goodwill. Someone was getting rid of an old copy of Muppet Babies at a garage sale, and they let me have it for free when I told them that I’d always assumed that I had made that show up, and couldn’t believe that it actually existed (I still haven’t watched it). Somehow, these old VHS tapes – edges worn, covers faded, fonts blocky and hot-pink – call to me, and I can’t resist.
One of my job duties as a librarian is to go through all of the donations that people bring in to the library. We get all sorts of things that a library really has no business – or interest – in selling: stained toys, calendars from 2003, those Reader’s Digest Condensed Book thingies (seriously, we don’t want them either). Getting VHS tapes in a donation is not unusual, and people still purchase them. But a few months ago, one particular donation caught my eye:
Several VHS tapes recorded off of television in the early 1990s.
Now, we’re not able to sell things like that, and a normal librarian would just throw them away. But I am not normal. I am a Sharpest Shark. And thus, I took them home with me.
An experiment was born.
I am fortunate in that I have several friends who are as strange as I am, and I took the liberty of calling one of those strange friends to participate in this experiment.
“Look, dammit,” I said forcefully, because I was trying to sound scientific and important, and you have to say “˜dammit’ a lot when you’re being scientific and important, “I’ve got these old VHS tapes that someone taped off the TV in the ’90s. Let’s watch them.”
Jude, my strange friend, was not receptive to my forcefulness and demanded to know why.
“It is an experiment!” I cried as though it should be obvious. “Look, we’re both immersed in modern technology. Modern technology is aimed at our age group. And yet, we spent the first half of our lives without things like internet, on-demand TV and movies, cell phones, iPods, Facebook, or anything like that. Wouldn’t it be interesting, just for one night, to sit down and watch television from the years of our childhood without being able to fast forward through commercials or look on IMDB because that one guy in the show looks familiar? What would it be like? Not only that, but American culture is reflected by television and in some instances influenced by it. So what would we learn about our own time by watching the broadcast of another?” And then, as if it needed to be said, I added mysteriously, “You know. For science.”
Jude is up for anything if it is for science. Excuse me, for science.
Our rules: No fast forwarding. No internet for the duration of the viewing. No use of iPods, cell phones, or laptops during the viewing. Basically, it was 1992 again for one evening. I suddenly missed Ecto Cooler with the fervor of an impassioned lover separated from her mate by oceans and the space-time continuum.
And then we pressed play.
Both the obvious and the nostalgic were the most immediately discernible – eyeglasses with overly large frames, advertisements for the types of small sporty cars that were always instantly totaled in even minor fender-benders (ask me how I know that!), promos for old television programs like The Wonder Years and Doogie Howser, M.D., a Paula Abdul Diet Coke commercial, the hair styles – all things that we remembered from our own youth. There were even a few long-forgotten catch phrases from companies like Ford (“Have you driven a Ford lately?”) and Taco Bell (“Run for the border!), while some of the catch phrases have stayed exactly the same (such as “You’re worth it!” from Loreal). However, the longer we watched, the more it became apparent that many things in our television culture are vastly different from how they were a mere 20 years ago.
For instance, a few of the programs we watched fell neatly into the “crime drama” category, but the protagonists – the detectives, the cops, the do-gooder citizen who somehow got swept up in investigating the crime – all seemed like genuinely likable people. They seemed to belong to loving families and had none of the noticeable personality flaws on which shows of the same genre seem to thrive today. Modern “mystery” shows like House, Lie to Me, and CSI all feature main characters whose personal problems move the storyline as much as any action from the plot itself. Copious amounts of time are spent on fleshing out these main characters’ troubled personal lives, whereas it seemed many programs of earlier television epochs focused almost solely on the patients, the suspects and the criminals. Anything beyond very short, adroit points about the protagonist’s background didn’t seem to factor heavily in the programs from 1992 that we watched, unless the show was a sitcom (where jokes almost have to revolve around the main character’s life if it is to be at all relatable), or a soap opera (which focuses almost entirely on a character’s own emotions and motivations). Jude suggested that this change happened due to the meteoric rise of reality television, and how today’s audiences are far more concerned with realistic portraits of characters because we’ve become so resistant to any character who seems disingenuous, lacks strong motives (in whatever the form that motivation takes), or is portrayed as too good or too pure to possibly be a real human being. In today’s television, audiences want characters that express a wide range of motives and possibilities with a realistic portrayal of personal background to back it up – and nothing makes for good drama quite like a character with a tortured inner life.
Of course, sitcoms were in no short supply in 1992, and are in no real danger of dying out today. However, it does seem as though there were more sitcoms back then, and much less of the kinds of modern television serials like Boardwalk Empire and Downton Abbey that must be watched chronologically in order to fully understand them. We could only assume that this was due to the increasing prevalence of the internet, where short clips with a very definite purpose and aim are plentiful (cat videos! Autotone the News!) and thus audiences have fewer reasons for wanting to spend a half hour watching one set of characters in revolving comedic situations, with one episode basically interchangeable with another in terms of content. If a person is going to turn their attention away from short, easily-digestible chunks of humor, commentary or special-effects trickery on the internet, then we seem to want the exact opposite from our television programs – long, deeply involved story arcs involving many different characters whose personal motivations aren’t immediately revealed. The situational backgrounds must also be very realistic, either from a historical viewpoint (Spartacus) or stylistic viewpoint (Mad Men). In modern television, it seems as though our “suspension of disbelief” setting is very, very high, and the writers and actors must constantly cater to our demand that every aspect of a storyline be believable, even in fantasy and sci-fi genres.
In some ways, it also seems that we’ve moved backwards in that popular programming doesn’t have much diversity in terms of ethnicity or race. I have to say that our television programs seem pretty white washed compared to shows 20 years ago. I cannot bring to mind any recent popular network sitcom revolving around a black family, but I vividly remember the mainstream popularity of such shows as Family Matters, Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper and Martin. Where are shows like that today on major networks?
After only three hours, I was beginning to get antsy with our “no 2012 technology” rule: clouds had begun forming in the sky and I longed to check the weather online; I hadn’t checked my email in hours and I might be missing something important!; I had seen at least three actors whose faces I recognized but could not place and I was dying to check their filmographies on IMDB. Jude only tripped up once, when she quickly checked the time on her cell phone, because”¦well, that’s what you do instead of getting up to look at the clock on the wall or microwave, right? Per our agreement, not being able to fast forward was also difficult because our attention spans are so accustomed to speeding through content that is of no interest. On-demand services allow us to watch exactly what we want, when we want it, but in 1992, you either saw it when it aired or you didn’t – those were your choices. However, during the experiment, we had no choice, and that was the interesting part.
There was something lovely and simple in having nothing else to do but watch what was playing on screen. There were no websites to surf, no one to text, no chat windows popping up on Facebook demanding your attention, no emails sitting impatiently in your inbox waiting for your reply. Although Jude and I make a habit of having discussions in the middle of TV shows or movies, it is usually interrupted at least once by a text or a funny picture found on the internet and it takes a moment to find the conversational thread again. None of that happened during the VHS experiment. Because our attention wasn’t being momentarily stolen by content outside of the television, we talked when we wanted to talk, making observations (“You know, there just aren’t as many commercial breaks as there are today”), or commentary (“Why would that woman commit suicide by shutting herself in a dishwasher and turning it on? That doesn’t make sense!”), or recollections based on our own memories (“Grape Dimetapp! Oh man, that stuff tasted so good!”). It was just two friends on a couch, whose entertainment choices were either conversation or television, and that was it.
After close to five hours of what could only be called “vintage broadcast television,” we decided it was time to head back to 2012. Doing our high school English teachers proud, we compared and contrasted television of our childhood with the television of today and promptly concluded we preferred the choices we have today. While it can be an interesting journey through cultural nostalgia to view tapes such as this, it makes me all the more aware of how glad I am that technology has evolved from those days. I am glad that I spent my childhood and young adult years without having absolutely every bit of information I could possibly want at my fingertips, but I am even more glad that today, I do. I love not having to dig through a phone book to find a phone number, I love being able to get a question answered with just a quick Google search, I love being able to connect instantly with people on the other side of the world. These were things I couldn’t have even imagined in 1992, and I know technology will only continue to evolve. But through it all, I will still always love my VHS tapes, because they are almost not of today’s world at all.
Maybe that reminder of what it was like all those years ago is what actually makes them cool.