Like 1960s summer reruns, streaming TV shows are liberating [Unscripted column] | Entertainment

When I was a kid, growing up in the 1960s and early ’70s, summer TV was defined by reruns and the occasional seasonal replacement variety show.

Because there was no technology with which to record your favorite shows back then, you pretty much had to watch them the night they first aired. So, summer was a liberating experience for a child: You were free to engage in other forms of entertainment and not feel you were missing anything on TV. It gave us time to ride our bikes, go to the pool, dance to top-40 tunes in friends’ carports and stay out late playing Murder in the Dark.

In my household, in my hometown of State College, summer also meant going to the theater to enjoy plays and musicals — both on community-theater stages and in “summer stock” on the Penn State campus.

Death of linear TV

At a recent quarterly report to shareholders, Netflix co-CEO Reed Hastings predicted that linear TV — basically, having to watch a show at the time and on the original channel on which it’s broadcast — will be dead within a decade.

Hearing that, I realized that in my world, if linear TV isn’t totally deceased, I’m at least planning the luncheon for after its funeral.

As a longtime, second-generation cable subscriber, I was a bit slow to adopt streaming services — dipping my toe into only one or two of them for years before free-month deals and bundles with other services enticed me to add a couple more.

But in reading Hastings’ words, I realized that streaming services, video on demand and Passport for PBS members have done for my TV diet what podcasts have done for my favorite National Public Radio shows. They’ve liberated me the way summer reruns did when I was a kid. Except for a few news-oriented programs, pretty much nothing on radio or TV is “appointment” entertainment for me anymore. I’ll watch (or listen to) what I want, when I want — even a year or two after all the hype over the current “hot show” has died down. And I’m OK with that.

And, in between, I can walk in the park, go to a gallery exhibit opening or, yes, enjoy summertime live theater as I have since childhood.

I’ve seen some fabulous stage productions this summer. Susquehanna Stage in Marietta offered up an engaging staged reading of “All the Way” — a look at how accidental President Lyndon Johnson navigated running for office while trying to get the Civil Rights Act passed. (This one-night production deserves an eventual mainstage presentation — with the same cast.) Ephrata Performing Arts Center’s powerhouse production of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” crackled with contemporary political themes, despite being set during the 17th-century Salem witch trials.

Thanks, nonlinear TV!

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Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key, center, are Josh and Melissa, strangers in a strange land in the musical series “Schmigadoon!”

Playing catch-up

This summer, having added a free streaming service and a paid one I’ll eventually cancel, I can catch up on shows from up to a year ago that have been on my non-urgent watchlist.

I broke down and subscribed to Apple TV+ in order to watch the film “CODA” before the Academy Awards, where it won best picture.

I stayed with it to see what all the “Ted Lasso” fuss is about and to binge-watch two seasons of the uneven but still-worth-watching “The Morning Show.”

I also stayed for Apple TV’s thoroughly addictive and unsettling “Severance,” an extreme take on work-life balance in which workers are psychologically altered to not remember their outside lives while they’re performing repetitive work in a creepy and confusing corporate institution. They also don’t remember their work when they go home for the evening. The astonishing season-one cliffhanger had my heart pounding.

I’ve also caught up on Apple TV’s year-old first season of “Schmigadoon!” — both a satire of and a loving tribute to movie musicals of the 1940s and ’50s.

Big-city physicians Josh and Melissa (played by skilled comedic actors Keegan-Michael Key and Cecily Strong) take a wrong turn on a hike and find themselves trapped in a “Brigadoon”-like town where the characters hilariously nail every stage trope and stock character in the book as they burst into full-on song-and-dance numbers to cope with everyday life.

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Academy Award-winning actor Ariana DeBose plays schoolmarm Emma Tate in “Schmigadoon!”

Using the musical vocabulary of “The Music Man,” “Oklahoma!,” “Carousel” and more, the creative team of screenwriters Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio and producer Lorne Michaels of Saturday Night Live perfectly captures the spirit of those shows’ best-known tunes. Characters croon about everything from falling in love to making hard work into a game to eating “corn puddin.’” The six frothy, fun episodes are a gut-buster for knowing theater fans, and a charming fish-out-of-water tale for everyone else.

As Josh and Melissa’s love is tested, their contemporary attitudes affect — and unearth secrets in — the early-19th-century town that’s populated with such Broadway luminaries as Alan Cumming, Kristin Chenoweth, Ariana deBose, Aaron Tveit and Jane Krakowski. I can’t wait for season two; it’s being teased as a “Schmicago” look at the musicals of the ’60s and ’70s.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve also been using the free, ad-supported version of the Peacock network to place myself amid the mountains of Montana and immerse myself in a world I never thought would suck me in.

Though I’ve enjoyed plenty of Oscar-honored western-themed films, I’ve mostly avoided TV westerns. I’m just not much of a fan — or so I thought. I’ve embraced the world of “Yellowstone,” starring its executive producer Kevin Costner, and was surprised by its snubs in the recent Emmy Award nominations. (The series originally ran on Paramount).

While Costner has always run hot and cold as an actor for me, I love him as John Dutton, the philosophical, bad-dad owner of the cattle ranch his great-grandfather established more than a century earlier on Native American land.

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Kevin Costner plays John Dutton in “Yellowstone.”

I’ve become moon-eyed over the stunning scenery, and fascinated with the minutiae of ranch and cowboy life. I’ve enjoyed watching Dutton and his kids alternately fight and find common cause with Native Americans as both ranchers and Indigenous communities fight developers seeking to dramatically change the thrilling landscape.

The pervasive violence of the series — beatings, shootings, stabbings, hangings — are something the viewer must endure to enjoy the intrigue of Dutton’s broken adult children fighting for their own lives and for — and sometimes against — the future of the ranch.

The series is a western “King Lear” crossed with HBO’s “Succession” and Costner’s own “Dances with Wolves.”

Prequels to this series, the already-aired “1883” with Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, and the planned “1923,” featuring Helen Mirren and Harrison Ford, offer a deeper origin story to the establishment of the Dutton ranch.

I suppose I’ll catch up with those eventually — some summer night when when I don’t have a ticket to the theater.

“Unscripted” is a weekly entertainment column produced by a rotating team of writers. 

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