Register Wednesday | December 11 | 2019

I Am Not a Number, I Am a Free Man (Part One)

The dark years of mid-eighties cable programming

The summer I turned twelve, I moved out of the space that I shared with my brother. The spare room I took over had great closet space, hardwood floors, a southern exposure, a stationary bicycle, boxes of junk, a loveseat and a television set. Everything got moved out except for the TV, but my parents soon took that away too. This being Ohio, they were concerned that I was staying up until the wee hours watching Cinemax (aka Skinemax) with the sound turned off.

I was up until the wee hours watching TV, but nothing saucy. I was really into Nick at Nite and VH1, which had just been added to our cable subscription. This was back in the dark years of mid-eighties cable programming, when all you needed to start a network was a pile of capital, some pluck and endless reruns of Green Acres.

Cable TV seemed so wild back then. On VH1, I could find classic rock videos from the sixties that were particularly mind-blowing. The Doors and ELO, and every so often the Beatles, tromped around in videos that were artful, but baroque by contemporary standards. These videos plus the menagerie of sitcom oddballs over on Nick at Nite opened my mind to a cultural world from years before I was born. And that had to have been the appeal. Why else would a twelve-year-old be so engrossed by Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, Fernwood 2Nite, Green Acres, The Dick Van Dyke Show and Sanford and Son? But I ate up these shows as well as reruns of the first few years of Saturday Night Live—there wasn’t much else on, and twelve-year-olds don’t generally have full social calendars.

The idea of Nick at Nite was simplicity in itself. During the day, the channel called itself Nickelodeon and showed programming for children and preteens. Once the kiddies were off to bed, though, it was rerun city. I don’t think Nick at Nite expected to trade so much on nostalgia, but that turned out to be its major selling point.

Nick at Nite has since morphed into TV Land, a cable channel devoted entirely to nostalgic content. The great thing about building a channel around reruns is that all you need to do is add a few more shows to the program schedule every few years. My Barney Miller is another person’s Full House. And that’s cool, even though I’ve never been a fan of Full House. Sure, I used to watch ABC’s TGIF lineup every week when I was younger, but my memories of Urkel and the gang have sloughed off over time. I do remember the night when Urkel built a jetpack and flew over the homes of the other TGIF families waving hello. He was finally brought down by the cast of Dinosaurs, who pelted him with rocks, and subsequently eaten by Jurassic patriarch Earl Sinclair.

The most revelatory discovery I made during that summer of reruns was The Prisoner. I put up with weeks of promo ads to watch all seventeen episodes of this fascinating series. The Prisoner was created by Patrick McGoohan, previously the star of the British espionage show Danger Man (or as it was known in the US, Secret Agent). While The Saint and The Avengers were wonderfully daffy, The Prisoner was a different beast altogether. Full of allegory and paranoia and the Beatles, it told the ongoing story of a former secret agent who resigns his post for reasons that he refuses to divulge. He is abducted and taken to the Village (in reality a Welsh seaside resort), where his secrets are to be uncovered. The Village is full of heavily drugged ex-secret agents, who favour long scarves, khaki pants and blazers, and are referred to only by number. McGoohan’s secret agent is dubbed Number Six, an indignity against which he rails: “I am not a number, I am a free man!” Each episode features a different Number Two using various mind-control techniques to discover the reason for Number Six’s resignation

Number Six was a brooding and paranoid figure, quite unlike any hero I’d seen before (or have seen since). While Emma Peel and John Steed were out preventing quirky villains from achieving world domination, Number Six was more likely to be found pacing back and forth in his kitchen after having smashed up his radio, or running along a beach being chased by a weather balloon.

I always liked Number Six. He was cranky and quick-witted; he fought against the system; and despite being brought to his knees each time he stepped outside the box, he never stopped trying and instead grew ever more subversive in his attempts to escape. When you are twelve and living in Ohio, this sort of thing speaks to you in a very specific way. After watching the first episode, where Number Six is brought to the Village and makes his first stand against Number Two, I felt keyed up, full of energy. I’d always loved discovering new reruns, but before The Prisoner none had ever made me think. Most of the characters in sitcoms struck me as being lame and odd, difficult to relate to, but Number Six was this gigantic mind trapped in a strange and oppressive town. So I went outside and ran to the end of my neighbourhood, and when I got to the end, like Number Six on the edge of the beach, I didn’t know where to go exactly, but I felt exhilarated from running to the very borders of my world.

The glory of that summer’s reruns was in discovering something new, not in tuning out or immersing myself in nostalgia. Still, watching those old shows nowadays makes me feel homesick for a time when there were few summer replacement shows and the hot months were for swimming, having picnics, competing against rich kids in regattas and entertaining space aliens that had landed at your summer camp. These days, there are so many channels that viable summer programming has become inevitable (and unavoidable). In my next column, I’ll deliver my judgement on some of the new shows. In the meantime, BBC America is rerunning The Avengers, The Saint and The Prisoner on Friday nights. Perhaps somewhere out there a twelve-year-old is staying up past his or her bedtime, watching them with the sound turned way, way down.

Frank Smith lives in New York City and is a fiction writer, Iggy Pop fan and television know-it-all. TV Eye appears every second Wednesday.