Over this past weekend, I was on a little trip for a family gathering and a very interesting question was posed that I felt just had to be the topic of my next post: What media works of today will be remembered in about 50 years? Now initially the question was referring to Television programs, but I decided to expand it into Movies, Music artists and (being a Broadway Baby!) Broadway shows. In order to answer this question, I had to think of what (in each of those categories) is considered the most memorable and compare contemporary works to the legacy of those most memorable (it seems a bit unfair, but it is the best way to do it!).
Let's begin with Television. When it comes to TV, no show will probably ever have the legacy that I Love Lucy has had. Thanks to years of constant reruns and a multitude of people (especially women) singing the praises of Lucille Ball and her comic antics, the show has gained an iconic status that really no other TV series (sitcom or drama) will ever touch. When you think of other shows over the years that can even come close, the "usual suspects" crop up: Bonanza, All In the Family, The Cosby Show, Seinfeld and even The Simpsons. And of all of those, only the latter still has new episodes currently airing. So what other shows of today even have a shot of being remembered in even 20 years? Two of the first shows that popped into my mind (basically because of their unique qualities that are now trying to be copied on rival networks!) are the critically favored cable drama Mad Men and the extremely popular musical dramedy Glee. But because of behind-the-scenes drama (on both shows!) and sagging storylines, the shows are showing signs of trouble living up to their earlier successes and therefore may just end up becoming footnotes in the history of early 21st Century TV. The same can be said for shows like 30 Rock or Modern Family (each universally considered two of the best sitcoms on Television today!) as they have had some trouble keeping the same "fire" they had in their respective first seasons. And when it comes to dramas, most of the shows that are popular are police procedurals or part of a "franchise" like Law & Order or CSI. Of the Reality TV contingent (cause let's face it, Reality TV will be remembered in some way or another!), the one with the clearest shot at memorability is American Idol as it has spawned a number of copycat shows which have become equally popular (re: The Voice or The X-Factor). Only time will tell if any of these shows will even come as close to Lucy's legacy (or even Seinfeld's!). The thing that has had a bigger impact on TV in the last ten years and will most definitely be remembered will be the advances in online viewing, in particular YouTube. But that is probably a topic for another day, so on to the Movies!
When it comes to the classics in film, Oscar-winners like Gone With the Wind and Casablanca are two of the biggest icons. In the late 20th Century, they were joined by films like The Godfather and Star Wars. But of the films of today, the ones that make money are the surefire fan-based blockbusters like Avatar or the Harry Potter films or current box-office champ The Hunger Games. And the ones that win awards lately have tended to be more charming or poignant independent fare like The Artist or The King's Speech or The Hurt Locker (the latter has the lowest box-office take of any Best Picture winner!). Like I Love Lucy above, Gone With the Wind was a game-changer. And when it comes to film, the game-changers get remembered. Too many of the ones I just listed from the last 10 years are copying the same trends in which Hollywood studios just love to take part. And when it comes to trends, just take a look at the Music business!
Elvis is the first name on a long list of Music icons we will never forget. Among other members of that list include Michael Jackson, Madonna and, of course, The Beatles. Like in movies, game-changers get remembered. But does Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber count as game-changers. Lady Gaga has the multitudes of Twitter followers, Bieber has the legacy of YouTube in his backstory and someone like Taylor Swift has the love and support of millions of little girls (despite the accusations of using auto-tuning!). Compare them to the likes of more talented performers like Adele or Rihanna. Or compare them to more controversial (yet still talented) artists like Kanye West or Bon Iver. When it comes to Music these days, critical acclaim is taken into account as much as popularity. And with so many possibilities, its hard to decipher which group or artist will be remembered with the likes of Elvis, MJ or even The Beatles.
And on Broadway lately, money seems to be the all-important factor in being remembered. Hell, its even the all-important factor in getting the big awards (Tony voters tend to chose the shows that will have the best chance of touring well!). So the question becomes: Will a big hit with critics and audiences like The Book of Mormon ever be remembered in the same way as landmark musicals like Oklahoma!, West Side Story, Fiddler On the Roof or even long-running (and still going!) champ The Phantom of the Opera?
The ultimate point in all of these cases is that the shows, films and artists of today may never have the iconic status that their respective predecessors have had, but you can tell which ones have the best shot at getting into the proverbial "Time Capsule." And trends are important. Without them, pop culture would not be what it is. However, it does seem to be the work that steps away from the trends (or perfect them in a way!) that get their place in the Pantheon of Great Media.