When Television Heroes Stopped Smoking

April 28, 1998

Okay, not really. But April 28, 1998 is when the JAG episode  "The Return of Jimmy Blackhorse" aired. At the end of the episode, Harm quits smoking cigars because the addiction rules him, not the other way around.

Keep in mind, JAG was the brainchild of manly man Bellisario, who kept his finger on the pulse on what makes audiences tick. Al wandered around with a cigar. So did Magnum occasionally. But Harm didn't, not after the first two seasons at least (I can't speak for the actor).

Go back far enough in television and movies and everybody smokes. For a few years in the 70s and 80s, not only did everybody smoke but smoking had no negative connotation. Columbo smoked, and it gave him a sweet curmudgeonly edge. It never, ever, ever implied that he was undisciplined or irresponsible.

Hit the late-90s, however, and that is exactly the connotation.

This post is not a public service message. The point is that we always want our heroes to be good, noble, strong-minded individuals. What they are good, noble, and strong-minded about depends on the time frame.

What's extra interesting is that watching early Columbo doesn't change my mind about him. I adjust to the time period automatically. The same is true when I'm watching Cary Grant.

I should point out: I don't smoke and have no wish to. When I was growing up, the kids that smoked in high school huddled together on the edge of school property and got wet. It seemed like an awful lot of money for a habit that entailed  constantly ducking outside and, ya know, killing oneself.

And yet, I don't leap to those "lessons to live by" reactions when I watch old time movies. Or Columbo. Or Quantum Leap. On the other hand, I probably would if Gibbs smoked. So--

Popular culture in many ways proves that humans can (and do) adjust to context. We always want our heroes to be "good"--we recognize that good is both absolute and amorphous all at the same time.


Joe said...

My main TV interest for the past few years has been watching old TV shows--as in shows that started before about 1965. What's interesting is that in several, nobody smokes and when they do, it's almost always to set up a joke or situation (or to establish the villain.) In some shows, the smoking was so rare that when it happened, it was quite jarring.

Where it gets really jarring is watching old "roasts" (okay, just about anything with Dean Martin in it) where they're smoking and drinking up a storm.

BTW, one reason for smoking and drinking in films/TV was to give characters something to do. The problem being that it reeks havoc with continuity.

Katherine Woodbury said...

Giving the actor something to do reminds me of a Numb3rs commentary in which Rob Morrow complains about bad directing. He HATES it when directors have characters start a scene by walking into the middle of the room. Or have them walk off towards the side of the set where there is no door. WHERE are they coming from? WHY are they walking there?

Of course, movement is always better than no movement.

Continuity reminds me of the Monk episode where he watches "take 2" on a television episode, then corrects all the continuity problems from the lights on the vehicle being off to a person's jacket being zipped only half-way up. After a while, the director and producer stop him. They want continuity but nobody is prepared for that much continuity! (And it's amazing how much the human eye will ignore in order to "blend" realities. Although once one is aware . . .)