David_Carradine_as_Caine_from_Kung_Fu_-_c._1972–1975

Television used to be not only entertaining but educational as well. I have previously extolled the virtues of TV in the 1960s with such programs as Route 66 and Naked City. On Route 66 Stirling Silliphant widened my perspective by writing stories that included topics ranging from Zen Buddhism to the plays of Luigi Pirandello. Naked City presented the humanity of the people involved in the crime of the week– far more interesting than viewing the grisly details of an autopsy, or discussions of DNA analysis and blood samples, which are what crime shows are mostly about today.

It’s also true that the stories of that era reflected the optimism of The New Frontier of John F. Kennedy. Route 66 presented a hopeful America where jobs were plentiful (Tod and Buz never failed to find work wherever they went– there were a lot of factories back then) and people felt some control over their lives. That era is gone and it’s reflected in shows that depict an America that’s falling apart socially, morally, economically, and intellectually. The characters on TV mostly feel no optimism. The cops and doctors and lawyers seem to be holding on by a thread, trying to get through another day, as the world crumbles around them. Cops are as likely to become vigilantes as peace officers, lawyers accept the corruption in the system.

But I digress. Television was still interesting and educational even in the 1970s. Recently David Carradine’s old Kung Fu series has been airing on  the Heroes and Icons digital channel. Let’s not discuss how Carradine came to be in the series after it was created by Bruce Lee. That’s a sorry part of TV history in itself, but at least Carradine and creators Ed Spielman and Herman Miller tried to present a decent series that expressed quite a bit of eastern philosophy. You can dismiss that as part of the whole love generation, hippie thing going on back then, but nevertheless, it was something different and refreshing and gave you something to think about occasionally.

Not only was Kung Fu a pretty abstract show compared to current TV fare, it was a show that was “written.” It was not so much the visual, visceral kind of entertainment that we’ve gotten used to. It was a show that, like Route 66, used words, language, to get ideas across. Even on the most basic level it was educational. For example, I have only watched a few of the rebroadcast episodes, but already I have learned two new words. The first is one I should have known but somehow didn’t. “Cenotaph” was the title of a two-parter. Somehow my college education failed to teach me that a cenotaph is: “an empty tomb or a monument erected in honor of a person or group of people whose remains are elsewhere.” (Wikipedia).

In another episode I learned the word “Pissmire,” which is an archaic word meaning “ant.” In that episode, a fellow Shalolin monk back in Kwai Chang’s days in the old monastery was an excellent carver of things like birds, bugs, animals. He made a black carving of an ugly looking ant and gave it to  Kwai Chang, telling him he made it because it was what Master Po always called him: “A Pissmire.” Of course he was jiving. It was an insult. Master Po always called him “grasshopper” as we all know. A nasty fellow. Even monks can be mean.

Anyway, I will keep watching the show as it plays daily. Who knows? I might pick up a new word a day.

 

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