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Undiminished by Decadence

I grew up in the 1960s and ’70s and I’m happy to report that, for the most part, television and mainstream cinema today are orders of magnitude better than they were in my salad days.

· 15 min read
Undiminished by Decadence
Warner Bros 

In his recent book, The Decadent Society, Ross Douthat complains that Hollywood has become too reliant on reboots, remakes, sequels, and spinoffs. “As a part-time movie critic,” he grumbles, “I can attest that … the economics of the business depend increasingly on the constant recycling of famous properties that originated as mass market entertainments between the 1930s and 1970s. Unoriginality is, of course, hardly new in Hollywood, but there has been a meaningful trend away from novelty and creativity over the last generation.”

Nor is Douthat especially impressed by the state of contemporary television. He has some good things to say about the kind of prestige TV that thrived in the first 15 years of this century (Mad Men, The Sopranos, The Wire, and Girls seem to be his favorites), but on the whole, he wants us to know that things are Not What They Were and that this is A Bad Thing. “There is often more creativity in today’s television than at the movies,” he allows. “But mass-audience TV still keeps trying to resuscitate shows such as Roseanne and Murphy Brown, while it keeps The Simpsons and South Park on life support and recycles endless variations on Law & Order.”

Even the TV of which Douthat approves is “essentially a small-screen version of the 1970s golden-age of the Hollywood auteur. … Even at its most creative, television struggles to escape the shadow of the boomer era, the patterns set two generations back.” The prestige shows “of the early 2000s often felt vital and relevant precisely because they were so good at holding up a mirror to frustration, futility, repetition, decay, corruption—in a word, to decadence.” He calls our current state of repetition, reboot, corruption, and decay “The Eternal Return to 1975.”

As if to underline the point, on May 4th, Douthat tweeted a link to an essay by Adam Mastroianni, which he described as a “strong data-driven analysis of the ‘repetition’ aspect of our decadence.” Mastroianni writes:

In every corner of pop culture—movies, TV, music, books, and video games—a smaller and smaller cartel of superstars is claiming a larger and larger share of the market … fewer and fewer franchises rule a larger and larger share of the airwaves. In fact, since 2000, about a third of the top 30 most-viewed shows are either spinoffs of other shows in the top 30 (e.g., CSI and CSI: Miami) or multiple broadcasts of the same show (e.g., American Idol on Monday and American Idol on Wednesday).

Mastroianni, however, prudently includes the following caveat: “I’m probably slightly undercounting multiplicities from earlier decades, where the connections between shows might be harder for a modern viewer like me to understand.” Well, I grew up in the 1960s and ’70s and I’m happy to report that, for the most part, television and mainstream cinema today are orders of magnitude better than they were in my salad days.

Let’s take a quick look at some of the top-rated American TV programs of the 1974–5 season. The highest rated program, All in the Family, was an American remake of a British program called Till Death Do Us Part. The second-highest rated program, Sanford and Son, was a remake of a British series called Steptoe and Son. At number three was Chico and the Man, which was inspired by a comedy bit performed by Cheech and Chong and also bore a strong resemblance to Sanford and Son. In fourth place came The Jeffersons, a spinoff of All in the Family. In fifth place we have M*A*S*H, which was a spinoff of a Robert Altman film, which was itself based on a Richard Hooker novel. In sixth place comes Rhoda, a spinoff of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In seventh place is Good Times, a spinoff of Maude, which was itself a spinoff of All in the Family (which, of course, was based on a British series). In eighth place comes The Waltons, a spinoff of a 1963 film called Spencer’s Mountain, which was based on a 1961 novel by Earl Hamner, Jr. In ninth place comes the aforementioned Maude. Not until we come to the tenth-highest rated program, Hawaii 5-0, do we arrive at a wholly original piece of intellectual property.

The next few years would bring us hit series like Laverne & Shirley (a spinoff of Happy Days), Mork & Mindy (ditto), The Ropers (a spinoff of Three’s Company, which was a remake of the British program Man About The House), Alice (a sitcom based on Martin Scorsese’s 1974 film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More), The Dukes of Hazzard (a spinoff of the 1975 film Moonrunners), Lou Grant (a Mary Tyler Moore spinoff), Phyllis (ditto), Flo (a spinoff of Alice), Archie Bunker’s Place (a re-working of All in the Family), House Calls (based on a 1978 film of the same name), Trapper John, M.D. (a spinoff of M*A*S*H), Benson (a spinoff of Soap)—

I could go on like this for another couple of pages, but you get the point. Almost all of the shows I’ve just mentioned were official spinoffs, reboots, or reworkings of an existing show. Others were outright rip-offs. The master of this dubious craft was producer Glen A. Larson, whom Harlan Ellison once dubbed Glen A. Larceny, because so many of the series he created and/or produced plundered somebody else’s work. Larson’s Alias Smith & Jones was a rip-off of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It Takes a Thief, which Larson produced, was a variation on Hitchcock’s film To Catch a Thief. Battlestar Galactica was a rip-off of Star Wars (which was a loose remake of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai classic The Hidden Fortress). BJ and the Bear was a mash-up of films like White Line Fever, Smokey and the Bandit, and Any Which Way but Loose (and inspired its own spinoff, The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo). Switch was a mash-up of the film The Sting and The Rockford Files. Automan was a rip-off of the film Tron.

To be a TV junkie in the 1960s and ’70s was to live in a permanent state of déjà vu. Dusty’s Trail, a sitcom that aired in 1973 and 1974, was created by Sherwood Schwartz, who created Gilligan’s Island, both of which starred Bob Denver. The former was essentially a rip-off of the latter, but set on the Oregon Trail rather than a desert isle. The Munsters, a sitcom featuring tropes from horror fiction but set in American suburbia, debuted on CBS on September 24th, 1964, just six days after the debut of ABC-TV’s The Addams Family, a show with a nearly identical premise. As Allan Burns, co-creator of The Munsters, later noted, “We sort of stole the idea from Charles Addams and his New Yorker cartoons.” Likewise, The Big Valley was just Bonanza with a female lead. And The Jetsons was just The Flintstones set in the future rather than the past.

An industry practice known as script recycling was rampant in the 1960s and ’70s. I was a television super-fan in the 1970s, and I corresponded with many of the most successful TV writers of the era including Alvin Sapinsley, Stirling Silliphant, and Roland Kibbee. I read the writing credits of every TV show I watched. I kept track of episode titles. And I frequently saw writers recycling virtually the same script over and over again for different TV series. This was much easier to get away with back before home entertainment made it possible to review TV episodes over and over again.

A letter written to the author when he was sixteen by Jerry Day, one of the most prolific female TV writers of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s.

As a lengthy post about script recycling on the TV Tropes website points out:

24 scripts on Bewitched were recycled scene by scene. One was recycled twice. Most of these were episodes featuring the first Darrin [Dick York] that were recycled with The Other Darrin [Dick Sargent], while the others were black and white episodes remade in color. Since some were two-parters, this means that a total of 55 of the 254 episodes, 22% of the entire show, weren’t unique. In addition to these completely recycled scripts, there were also many that had similar premises but were different in the particulars, and many individual scenes and gags that were recycled in otherwise original episodes.

You couldn’t get away with that kind of self-cannibalization on a contemporary sitcom like, say, Netflix’s Grace and Frankie because, once an episode has aired, it becomes permanently available for streaming. But if a TV viewer in the 1960s thought a season-three episode of Bewitched resembled an episode from season one, he’d have no way to confirm it. We didn’t even have VCRs back then.

Elsewhere in the same post, TV Tropes notes that Rick Husky’s script for the Charlie’s Angels episode “To Kill an Angel” was just a reworking of a script called “Cricket” that he wrote for The Mod Squad. For his later series T.J. Hooker, Husky recycled scripts he had written years earlier for programs such as Dan August, The Mod Squad, The Rookies, and The Streets of San Francisco. The Columbo episode “Uneasy Lies the Crown” used essentially the same script as an episode of McMillan and Wife called “Affair of the Heart.” Hee Haw, a variety series with a down-home southern flavor, featured “almost 20 years of recycled scripts, and not just segments recurring, but their entire content repeated.”

Douthat and other disconsolate declinists see the contemporary proliferation of film and television franchises as evidence of American cultural decline. In fact, these new series offer pretty convincing evidence of American cultural improvement. After all, it’s not as if no one ever tried to create film franchises in the second half of the 20th century. It’s just that, for the most part, they were very bad at it.

Jaws, for instance, was the highest grossing film of 1975. Nearly 50 years later, it remains among the most admired American films of all time. Universal Pictures were not about to let that kind of critical and commercial success remain a standalone property, and the studio quickly set about producing a sequel. Today, the sequel to a monstrously successful film would likely be helmed by the same director as the first, or by someone of comparable stature. Universal Studios first assigned Jaws 2 to director John D. Hancock, a filmmaker of no particular stature, and then, after Hancock was fired, to Jeannot Szwarc, a Paris-born journeyman best known for cranking out episodes of TV series like The Rockford Files, Baretta, and It Takes a Thief. This was fairly typical of the careless way film franchises were handled back in the 1970s.

Jaws 2 was released in 1978. Despite a troubled set (Roy Scheider actually faked insanity in an attempt to get out of appearing in the sequel) and numerous cost overruns, the film was a huge financial success, earning more than 10 times its production budget of $20 million. But it received a lukewarm reception from unimpressed critics resulting in a Rotten Tomatoes score almost half that of the original. Five years later, Universal went back to the well with Jaws 3D. This film was directed by Joe Alves, a production designer who had never directed a film before and would never direct another. Jaws 3D was also a financial success and has since come to be regarded as a camp classic, but no one with any sense thought it was actually any good, still less an improvement on its underwhelming predecessor. Today, it enjoys a meagre 11 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Jaws: The Revenge appeared in 1989 and managed to be even worse. Directed by Joseph Sargent and starring Michael Caine, it is widely regarded as one of the worst big-budget films ever made. On Rotten Tomatoes, it has an approval rating of zero.

Nor were diminishing returns unique to that particular franchise. Grease was released in 1978 and starred John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. It became the highest-grossing film of all time within months of its premier, taking $366 million—roughly 60 times its modest production budget of $6 million. The 1982 sequel starred two unknowns (one of whom was Michelle Pfeiffer) and grossed $15 million on a production budget of $11 million. It so diminished the value of the franchise that no additional installments have appeared since.

The 1977 film Saturday Night Fever, in which Travolta also starred, was another monster success, grossing $237 million on a $3.5 million budget. For reasons unexplained, Paramount Pictures handed the sequel, Staying Alive, to Sylvester Stallone, a guy whose previous directorial work included two boxing films (Rocky II and Rocky III) and a wrestling picture (Paradise Alley). Surprisingly, it was a financial success. Unsurprisingly, it was an artistic failure, and has an approval rating of zero on Rotten Tomatoes. Roman Polanski’s Chinatown was one of the best films of its era, and screenwriter Robert Towne intended it to be the first of a three-film series. Alas, when Polanski fled the country a few years later, the trilogy was shelved. A lackluster sequel called The Two Jakes eventually appeared in 1990, written by Towne and directed by star Jack Nicholson. It grossed $10 million on a budget of $25 million. Needless to say, plans for a third film were quietly abandoned.

Hollywood isn’t worse at finding original projects, it is simply a lot better at following them up with successful sequels, spinoffs, and reboots. Back in 1980, CBS produced a TV series called Beyond Westworld, a spin-off from Michael Crichton’s 1973 film. But it was beyond awful and the network cancelled it after just three episodes. In 2016, HBO began broadcasting a new series based on Westworld, which is still on the air and has been nominated for well over 100 entertainment-industry awards. It had the most-watched first season of any HBO program in history. If this is what decadence looks like, I have no complaints. It certainly hasn't diminished the quality of small-screen entertainment—quite the contrary.

In the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, plenty of successful film franchises hit the theaters, including the James Bond films, the Planet of the Apes films, the Airport films, the Dirty Harry films, the Rocky films, the Superman films, the Pink Panther series, the Bad News Bears films, the Star Wars series, and the Star Trek series. Very few of these films had much to recommend them. Each film in the Jaws franchise made less money than the last and was significantly worse than its predecessor. The same is true of the four films in the Airport series, released between 1970 and 1979, and the Dirty Harry franchise which experienced a steady decline in quality across its five installments. Today, film franchises tend to become more successful as they grow.

The first Toy Story film made $373 million in worldwide grosses. The second film earned just under $500 million. The third grossed $1.66 billion. The fourth film grossed $1.73 billion. All were critically acclaimed. Iron Man, the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise earned $585 million internationally. Last year’s Spider-Man: No Way Home, the 27th installment of the franchise, earned nearly $1.9 billion internationally. These are not anomalous results. Plenty of contemporary film franchises get more profitable with each new release. The first film in the Fast and the Furious franchise earned $207 million worldwide. The seventh film in the series earned $1.7 billion. The first film in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings cycle earned $871 million internationally. Every subsequent film in the series earned more than that. The series’ final installment, The Return of the King, also won 11 Oscars, a feat previously achieved only by Ben Hur and Titanic.

Hollywood is just a lot better at this now. No sane person would argue that The Godfather Part III, Jaws: The Revenge, Concorde… Airport ’79, or Battle for the Planet of the Apes was the best installment of its respective franchise. Plenty of people, on the other hand, will be willing to argue that 2017’s Logan, the 10th film in the X-Men film series, is the best of the bunch. Conservative commentator and movie critic John Podhoretz has described Paddington 2 as one of the best American films in recent memory—an assessment corroborated by the sequel’s 99 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes (the first film received 97 percent).

This is partly because each new installment of a franchise today tends to cost more to produce than its predecessor. Studios genuinely want to improve the product and keep the franchise viable. That wasn’t always the case. The original version of Planet of the Apes (1968) cost $5.8 million to make. The sequel, 1970’s Beneath the Planet of the Apes, cost $2.5 million. The third installment cost $2 million, the fourth and fifth installments cost $1.7 million each. Those numbers don’t reflect a preoccupation with quality control, they reflect a studio trying to make a quick buck from a dying franchise with as little effort and investment as possible. The best of today’s franchises are growing in quality and box-office returns with each new installment.

Besides which, most of today’s legacy franchises bear only the vaguest resemblance to the intellectual properties of the 1960s and ’70s that spawned them. With only one exception, Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible film series doesn’t re-use any of the characters who appeared in Bruce Geller’s 1966–73 TV series of the same name. The exception is the Jim Phelps character played by Jon Voight in the first film, but Phelps was a patriot in the TV series and reappears in the movie as a traitor to his country. Most of the technical gadgetry used by Cruise and his teammates didn’t even exist in the 1960s and ’70s. The original series employed an ensemble cast, and various episodes often showcased a different set of characters, foregrounding some and sidelining others. Cruise’s series has some recurring secondary characters, but every film revolves around his character, Ethan Hunt.

Moreover, the original series looked cheap and was shot almost exclusively on the Paramount Studios lot. The eight installments of Cruise’s series (two of which have yet to be released) have cost a total of nearly a billion dollars and were filmed on locations in cities like Prague, Singapore, and Dubai. The original series ran for seven years and was mostly directed by a rotating series of undistinguished TV journeymen. Cruise’s series is approaching its 30th anniversary and has been directed by the likes of Brian De Palma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams, and Brad Bird.

Most of the cast members of the original series who lived long enough to see the first installment of Cruise’s series disliked it intensely and felt that it was a betrayal of the original. They had a point. The blockbuster franchise barely acknowledges its roots—it is essentially an original piece of intellectual property marketed under the name of an earlier brand, probably as a sop to baby boomers. But it is also much more intelligent, better made, more thrilling, and generally an improvement on the original in almost every respect. Only someone who never watched the original could possibly think of Cruise’s Mission: Impossible series as an example of American decline.

I’m not saying that every contemporary remake is an improvement on the 1970s original. Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express (2017) and Death on the Nile (2022) are artless pieces of junk that make Sidney Lumet’s 1974 version of the former and John Guillermin’s 1978 version of the latter look like masterpieces. But the notion that TV and film have become much less original than they were 50 or 60 years ago is largely bunk. Cheap imitations were everywhere. Script recycling was commonplace. And spinoffs, remakes, and outright rip-offs made up probably 70 percent of the programming available in any given week.

I should add that I loved many of the old films and TV shows I’ve disparaged in this article. I was a big fan of Glen A. Larson. It Takes a Thief and Alias Smith and Jones were two of my favorite shows as a kid. Hell, I even loved Jaws 3D and Battle for the Planet of the Apes. So, I take no pleasure in the frank acknowledgment that the TV programs I grew up on look like garbage when compared to contemporary television shows. Yes, spinoffs, remakes, sequels, and reboots still constitute a great deal of what is available on TV or at the multiplex. But many, if not most, of these re-workings benefit from a level of creativity and investment that studios simply weren’t prepared to offer the cynical cash grabs that passed for sequels and spinoffs 50 years ago.

Declinists are an inevitable part of every generation’s commentariat, gloomily pronouncing that everything is bad and getting worse and that nobody else seems to notice or care. But unexamined assumptions make for poor analysis, and Douthat (who was born in 1979) doesn’t seem to realise how fortunate he is to have such an embarrassment of riches at his fingertips today. He may be right that many other American institutions have been diminished by decadence. But he’s dead wrong about television, and at least partially wrong about film. If he spent even a week watching nothing but old 1970s television programs—Planet of the Apes (a dreadful 1974 series based on the film franchise), The New Perry Mason (a dreadful 1973 reboot of the earlier series, cancelled after 15 episodes), The New Howdy Doody Show (a dreadful reboot of a 1947 show about a ventriloquist and his dummy), and so on—he might better understand what decadence really looks like and appreciate the comparative richness of our cultural moment a bit more.

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