Why Variety?

This is a question that was brought to my attention by a Todd VanDerWerff tweet: doesn’t the networks’ obsession with reviving the variety show seem a bit strange? In the last two days we’ve had two different network presidents talk about bringing back variety. First NBC’s new chief Bob Greenblatt said they’re going to be doing a Michael Bublé Christmas special, and that he’s talking with Lorne Michaels about other variety projects the network might eventually do. And then CBS’s longtime programming executive Nina Tassler was asked whether Neil Patrick Harris would do a variety show, and she didn’t completely brush off the idea (“he’s extraordinarily talented and can do anything”). Many of these variety ideas won’t actually happen, but the idea is in the air enough that executives talk about them and journalists ask about them. And every once in a while there’s a big hullaballoo about bringing back variety specials in some form; there was a push a couple of years ago that fizzled out with the failure of Rosie O’Donnell’s special, but the idea doesn’t go away.

Now, you know me. I have a certain amount of love for all TV genres and am always happy to see an under-used genre come back. I do find it a bit odd that variety is the form that creates the most nostalgia. Most variety shows weren’t very good, which is one of the reasons the form died out – related forms like the late-night talk show somehow seemed to be more conducive to good comedy writing. More than that, though, most of the things variety can do have been taken up by other types of television. We need comedy sketches, we need musical performances, but we’ve got comedy sketches and musical performances. We don’t have a single show where a multi-talented performer can display all those talents in one show, but those shows often downplay the things the performer does best, anyway. And the Ed Sullivan type of omnibus variety show is almost impossible to revive except in the form of the amateur talent show, which remains popular to this day.

Meanwhile, there are lost or under-used TV genres that can offer something we don’t currently have on television today: the three that come to mind are anthology, Western, and movie-of-the-week. There are perfectly good reasons why broadcast networks have trouble reviving these forms, so I’m not being critical of NBC’s failure to challenge Lifetime or HBO for TV movie supremacy. But you just don’t hear that many executives being asked why they don’t do another The Day After, or execs waxing nostalgic about Duel and hoping they can do something like that again. Yet they’re always on the lookout to bring back variety.

Probably some of this is nostalgia (I started watching TV just after the collapse of variety, so I may not be able to understand). And Todd suggested that some of the variety-boosting is coming from people who like to look at TV ironically, and who love variety because it’s the ultimate snark-bait. (That I can understand. The world of TV isn’t fully itself without some element of cheese.) And of course variety has a certain cachet that reality TV doesn’t, because variety shows employ writers and are considered a more respectable form of cheap programming – though I do think reality has had a better influence on TV than variety did. I’d never object to variety returning, or to anything returning, really, but it just seems hard to imagine how the broadcast networks could bring it back and make it good, if that is in fact a goal. Maybe NBC’s just nostalgic for its glory years:

Another thing that may contribute to variety nostalgia is The Muppet Show, one of the few variety shows with a life in reruns. (But the attempt to revive The Muppet Show format with Muppets Tonight was not successful; the point of The Muppet Show was that it existed in an era where this type of show was common, and could both parody variety conventions and play them straight.) I would note that Muppet Show and Saturday Night Live suggest that the rotating-star variety format is more viable than a variety show built around a single star.

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