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In America, primetime generally translates as family. In the first episode of this new four-part series exploring US TV’s evolution, Alan Yentob investigates the myriad ways in which TV has reflected and even shaped the national discourse. Some of the clips from the small screen’s infancy are hilarious in their prudish, idealised cheesiness – the lead couple in ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show’ slept, separated by a dressing table, in side-by-side beds, lest the whiff of coitus pollute the American living room. But of course, the notion of family became more strained and contested as time passed – shows like ‘All in the Family’, ‘The Simpsons’, ‘Modern Family’ and ‘The Sopranos’ all reflected fundamental changes.
Despite its stellar list of contributors (Roseanne Barr, Rob Reiner, Jon Hamm, Davids Lynch and Chase), this opener is watchable rather than essential – the format feels too linear, the canon too predictable. But with TV, as one pundit claims, ‘becoming literature’ just as it faces the first real threat to its primacy, it’s interesting to see the first drafts of its history being written.