The campaign that seems to have lasted forever enters its homestretch with the first of three presidential debates (9 p.m., ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, Univision, CNN, C-SPAN, CNBC, Fox News, MSNBC) between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
For the record, the first Republican primary debate of the 2012 election took place on May 5. Of 2011! Tonight's event at the University of Denver will focus on domestic affairs. It offers Romney a chance to introduce -- or reintroduce -- himself to voters who have yet to focus on the race or make up their minds. Over the years, debates have provided challengers the opportunity to appear "presidential" and more up to the job than the incumbent. Or at least more likable.
That was the case in 1976, when President Gerald Ford stumbled on issues of foreign policy, giving Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter an opening. Four years later, Carter seemed ill at ease compared to a confident Ronald Reagan, who assured voters that he was more than a genial Hollywood star. Romney's supporters find the 1980 analogy apt because, just like Reagan, he is facing a president beset with a bad economy.
Glancing back at the year of the Carter-Reagan election, you can now see that even the prime-time television trend was moving in Reagan's direction and beginning to tout his pro-prosperity mantra.
For years, television programs had celebrated the everyman. From Ralph Kramden to Archie Bunker, the average guy was king. The middle class was depicted as a kind of paradise. Even an all-powerful sorceress like Samantha Stephens on "Bewitched" wanted to join. The rich, when they were depicted at all, were pitiable, effete and detached, like the Howells on "Gilligan's Island."
After a decade of inflation, TV audiences in 1980 were ready to celebrate the "champagne wishes and caviar dreams" that would later be touted on the syndicated series "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." They loved the Ewings on "Dallas" and would soon love the Carringtons and the Colbys on "Dynasty," which premiered shortly before Reagan's inauguration in 1981.
Reagan's message was in tune with a television audience ready to get rich again -- or rich for the very first time.
But that was more than 30 years ago, a generation-long span that has seen remarkable growth in personal wealth, as well as a radically unequal distribution of it -- both on television and off.
However, some attitudes and images die hard. It's interesting to note that after the tape was released containing Romney's "inelegant" comments about 47 percent of Americans being government-dependent victims, conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks called him "Thurston Howell Romney," a reference to the "Gilligan's Island" millionaire.
Viewers still clamor for series like ABC's "Revenge," which celebrate the jet set. But there is also a growing cable audience for series depicting (or exploiting) feelings of economic desperation. Much of cable seems deliberately set on the other side of the tracks, a land of pawn shops, storage locker auctions, varmint exterminators, doomsday preppers and tattoo parlors. I don't think
Samantha Stephens would like to live there or want to expose her daughter, Tabitha, to Honey Boo Boo.
Could that be why this
season's most powerful super-
natural couple live at "666 Park Avenue"? They're a stylish reminder that there can be hell to pay for a lifestyle of the rich and famous.
---Miami boot camp on "The X Factor" (8 p.m., Fox, TV-14).
---The newcomers and the aliens at the mall on "The Neigh bors" (8:30 p.m., ABC, TV-PG).
---Dean returns from purgatory on the season premiere of "Super natural" (9 p.m., CW, TV-14).
---"Life After Top Chef" (10 p.m., Bravo) debuts.
---"Food Paradise" (10 p.m., Travel) celebrates bacon.
Hank Azaria, Neil Patrick Harris, Jayma Mays, Sofia Vergara and Tim Gunn participate in the 2011 live-action/animated adaptation of "The Smurfs" (9 p.m., Starz).
---A child left behind on "Animal Practice" (8 p.m., NBC, TV-PG).
---Fired from her job, Frankie faces a career crisis on "The Middle" (8 p.m., ABC, TV-PG).
---Marny wants another baby on "Guys With Kids" (8:30 p.m., NBC, TV-PG).
---Sen. Rand Paul is scheduled on "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" (11 p.m., Comedy Central).
---Jennifer Garner, Terry Crews and Tegan & Sara appear on "Conan" (11 p.m., TBS).
---Alyson Hannigan, Chris Franjola and Matt Braunger are on "Chelsea Lately" (11 p.m., E!, r).
---Kenny Rogers sits down on "The Colbert Report" (11:30 p.m., Comedy Central).
---Tina Fey, Rick Santorum and LP appear on "Late Show With David Letterman" (11:35 p.m., CBS).
---Jay Leno welcomes Christina Applegate and Apolo Anton Ohno on "The Tonight Show" (11:35 p.m., NBC).
---Amy Poehler, Alan Arkin and Garbage appear on "Jimmy Kimmel Live" (midnight, ABC).
---Martin Short visits "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" (12:35 a.m., NBC).
---Craig Ferguson hosts Keanu Reeves on "The Late Late Show" (12:35 a.m., CBS).
Kevin McDonough can be reached at email@example.com.