Picture This

05.10.14

Thank You for Being a Friend: Why TV Re-runs Never Grow Old

Have you seen the latest vampire show? That new Washington political drama? No? Don’t worry: the best stuff is all you’ve seen before, as late-night re-runs of The Golden Girls and Sex and the City prove.

Some people take pills. Others favor a hot, milky drink. But the only late-night sleep aid that works for me is The Golden Girls.

The tougher the day, the more effective this medicine. The deadly pastels of the women’s Miami kitchen and living room act as an initial anesthetic. But mostly there is its fail-safe, consistent rhythm, from Cynthia Fee singing “Thank you for being a friend,” over the credits of Dorothy strangling Rose and gnawing her knuckles, to the reliable structure of every episode: the same sweep of music and view of the outside of the house, leading to the Girls gathering in the kitchen or on the sofa to usher in that episode’s arc.

A problem emerges (Dorothy has a snobby new friend), commercial break, problem worsens (crikey, Dorothy’s friend really is a cow), commercial break, problem resolves (Dorothy realizes the life-enhancing brilliance of slutty Blanche and scatty Rose), end.

Last night, after months thinking it had disappeared from view completely I alighted upon Sex and the City, from 2001. If you like re-runs, Sex and the City from 2001—mid-series-run, Aidan’s comeback with a buff body and good hair; Samantha and Richard have late-night rooftop-pool sex; Charlotte and Trey are in the hideous baby-conception phase—is the equivalent of buried treasure.

The re-run is a strange artifact: TV is about what is new, what is coming, what is held dear to the breasts of critics—Mad Men, Breaking Bad—not what was on. What was loved. We are done with that. But the re-run, in a world of change and after a day of busy-ness and perhaps upset, is an anchor, a reassurance.

A Golden Girls fan turns on that show, and knows exactly where they are, that even the worst problem—Sophia has a health scare, Rose can’t figure out if she should date again, Blanche reacts badly when her brother comes out—will be resolved, and with tangy wit.

The Golden Girls hasn’t survived so long because of our sappy nostalgia; it has survived so long because it is still funny. You may have seen the same episode countless times—for some reason, with me, it’s when Dorothy’s friend Jean visits her and falls in love with Rose—but the jokes are fresh. Even the endlessly repetitive comic trope of Rose telling a tortuously complicated and stupid story about St. Olaf, leading to her housemates hitting her or begging her to stop, doesn’t get dull. Or Blanche’s sluttiness, or Sophia’s Sicilian “Picture this” homilies.

If the present day is too much for you, you can spend all your time stuck firmly in the past. There are cable channels devoted to favorite vintage shows—like Antenna and Retro TV—where you can fill your hours with the likes of Bewitched, Diff’rent Strokes, Barney Miller, Flipper, and Green Acres: a perpetual past in the present.

That’s a little too much for this viewer. It’s strange enough noting the speed of nearer history, which is evident re-watching Sex and the City, which ended in 2004 and now feels otherworldly. The problem with being a template like Sex and the City is that watched even a year later, never mind 10, it can feel dusty, particularly now with droves of TV shows engaged in a crazy steeplechase for our attention.

“As with any photograph of the past, we look at re-runs with affection, mixed with a kind of regret and amazement: about where we were once, and where we are now.”

And so Sex and the City’s sisterly consumption of Cosmopolitans feels from another age (I still order them in bars, and my friends roll their eyes and say, “So 2003”), and the characters have become so stock, even parodic, it’s hard to watch them as anything but glossy cartoons. But there are worse glossy cartoons, and worse TV ensembles to spend thirty late-night minutes with.

Rewatching now, when you chance on Sex and the City’s first season, before the clothes went nuts and the storylines mushroomed in sass (which was great, particularly at moments like when Carrie helped Natasha go to the hospital), there was grit in the show’s eye. Carrie spent most of her time sucking angrily on a cigarette, hair a big, straggly mess, and questions about men, careers and commitment, rarely raised so explicitly in primetime, sounded urgent and radical. At the beginning, Sex and the City is acid-smart not peppy-smart, the women recognizably normal rather than demented glamazons.

But critiques and snark have no place, watching re-runs late at night. These are old familiars who are always welcome. Of course Sex and the City doesn’t hold up now. Of course it’s obsessed by its looks. Of course Girls has superseded it. Of course life isn’t like that. But The Golden Girls shares similar lifestyle wish-fulfillment roots: Who wouldn’t want to age like that, rather than wetting a chair in a lonely retirement facility? Both shows celebrate the sustaining value of friendship, of non-blood bonds triumphing. Both shows struck obvious and subtle chords with their audience, hence their ratings success and cultural impact.

It's telling that while the re-runs of Sex and the City endure, The Carrie Diaries, the show’s prequel on the CW featuring a teenage Carrie in New York, was just canceled. More channels, more competition for the viewers' attention, means fewer shows imprinting themselves on the culture. In 10 years’ time, will we be up late, watching with the same affection, Modern Family? Probably. It’s an instant classic. Veep? I should hope. Mad Men? For certain. Two Broke Girls? Not so sure.

Late at night, when re-runs are best watched, all this is personal. You watch them, hold them close, because you remember that part of your life when you first saw the show, possibly with an old friend on the sofa with a glass of wine, or a former partner, or with your family when you were younger, a kid, unencumbered by cable bills and complication and heartbreak.

The lines that once made you simply laugh—about time passing, and body parts not being of requisite tightness, of losing love and the impossibility of finding it, the flashes of anger and upset alongside the carousel of Manolos and Patricia Field’s finest and Samantha’s hot lovers—still make you laugh, but also make you stiffen, even scowl. Time has passed, and maybe some of this is closer to home. The Golden Girls can make you giggle, then wipe a tear, in a twenty-second span.

As with any photograph of the past, we watch re-runs with affection mixed with perhaps regret and even amazement: about where we were once, and where we are now. The distance you have traveled since you first saw Miranda diss a dirty-talking hot-dog will have racked up both victories and losses: You may observe that elapsed time with awe, or surprise at least. But here still are Dorothy, Blanche, Rose, and Sophia, kvetching and bitching, and Carrie typing her insufferable inanities (“So I got to thinking…”).

There’s the strange, loving intimacy of Miranda and her cleaner Magda, and Dorothy’s feckless Stan, and Charlotte amid the “power lesbians,” and, always putting their worlds to rights, the Golden Girls at their kitchen table and the Sex and the City women at their own table having brunch, with Charlotte throwing a major strop because all the talk is about sex. There they all are, thank goodness, just as you remember them.