I was just becoming an adolescent when The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis started playing on television in 1959, and like the title character of that show, I had no interest in being at home with my parents watching television. Like Dobie, I wanted be with my friends, but mostly, I wanted to be with girls. And so it was that the show that I might so easily have identified with, I never saw.
But in the age of Netflix, it is now possible to watch old television shows on DVDs in the order in which they originally aired, and being retired with lots of time on my hands, I have lately been taking advantage of that possibility. I say I have lots of time on my hands not only because I no longer have to work, but also because the attractions of youth have largely dissipated. While I do have friends, the need to hang out with them incessantly, the way I did when I was a teenager, no longer exists for the simple reason that I do not have the need to get out of the house and away from my parents the way I used to. As for women, while I still find them desirable, I am no longer willing to put out the effort, in part owing to the decline of passion that comes with age, and in part owing to the wisdom that also comes of age.
I don’t wish to give the impression that watching old television shows is the bulk of my entertainment. I watch recently produced movies and television shows too. Many of them are quite good, fortunately, but many more try my patience. Sometimes a show seems so determined to check all the boxes of ethnic and sexual diversity that the story is overwhelmed by these unrealistic combinations of characters. It might be argued that America has become a more ethnically and sexually diverse country than it was in the 1960s, and that is true. But while some of that diversity might actually show up in our family or close circle of friends, it seldom does so to the degree that it does on the screen, where the amount of diversity we see is a result forced by the felt need to get it all in.
One of the charms of an old movie or television show is that there was no need for this. Everyone could be white and heterosexual without anyone thinking there was anything politically incorrect about it. This is important not because being white and heterosexual is intrinsically better than the alternatives, but because it makes for simpler dramatic situations. Whether diversity is a good thing in real life is a different question from whether it is a good thing in drama. If The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis were made today, Dobie’s best friend would no longer be the not-too-bright beatnik Maynard Krebs, but an African American who is always ready with sage advice. Zelda Gilroy, the one girl that Dobie could actually have but did not want, because she was neither pretty nor sexy, would be replaced by someone who is gay, trying to convince Dobie that since he is getting nowhere with girls, he should consider having a boyfriend instead. Both these substitutes would have overwhelmed the simple plots and precluded the light humor that makes watching this show a pleasure. Instead, the tension between white and black, on the one hand, and between straight and gay, on the other, would have made this a very different show. And that would be just for starters. Thalia Menninger would no longer be a scheming gold digger, but a girl intent on having a professional career. And room would also have to be made in Dobie’s life for a Latino, an Asian,and a Muslim.
Could it still have been funny? Maybe. And if a show makes us laugh, nothing else matters. But when I watch a modern situation comedy that does not make me laugh, and I find myself at the same time being acutely aware of all the obligatory diversity that has been crammed into it, I cannot help but wonder if the latter is the reason for the former.