Retro television with text: "When the Nights Belonged to Nick at Night."

When The Nights Belonged to Nick at Nite

By Jennifer Dines

The TV first spoke to me on a midsummer night when I was thirteen years old. My father and I had an argument over whether I could go to a friend’s house. In the end, he relented, but the waves of tension remained when I returned home that night, filling me with adrenalin. My parents had spent so many nights fighting that summer, with one another and with me, that I no longer wanted to sleep in my bedroom, down the hall from my parents. Instead, once my parents fell asleep, I would creep down to the basement—the farthest place from them in the house—and I would use the dusty remote to put on Nick at Nite.

Usually, the drowsy flute melody of the Taxi theme song knocked me out around 11:30 p.m., but whenever a fight happened, the jazz fusion tune couldn’t work its somniferous magic. Instead, I would stay up until the 5:00 a.m. showing of Taxi or even the Susan Powter “Stop the Insanity!” diet program infomercial which followed.

That particular night, just as Taxi ended, it happened—the reassuring and cheerful voice rang out from the television, speaking directly to me:

You’re wide awake, hour after hour passes, and you wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

You’re a super achiever, getting a start on tomorrow tonight with Nick at Nite overnight.

 

Let the slackers sleep while you spend quality time with quality shows that will help you face the new day with a fresh perspective and a smile on your face.

This voice that told me I was fine, that my insomnia was fine, maybe even a good thing! Nick at Nite could assuage my troubles. Nick at Nite could help me smile again. And its promise of quality time was especially appealing.

When I was in elementary school, quality time with Dad meant watching Nick at Nite together while I munched on microwave popcorn and he puffed on a cigar. Back then, we loved simple fare such as Donna Reed, who could face any charity drive or scouting trip with aplomb, and Lassie, who always rescued Timmy from rabid dogs or nightshade berries or a stampeding elephant just in the nick of time, returning him to his family.

These shows comforted me with their predictability, each episode ending with a loving family gathered together at home. My family used to be loving too, before my mother had announced her plans to earn her master’s degree and then leave my father. But now I walked on eggshells, not knowing what might set my parents off. It could be anything from leaving a dirty dish in the sink to sneaking out to meet a boy to forgetting to call my grandmother on her birthday. But the TV was telling me, even if I no longer spent quality time with dad, no matter. I had all these great classic shows to keep me company, to carry me through the night.

That summer, Nick at Nite had blocks of programming called “Block Party Summer” in which they would show three-hour blocks of the same show. There were “Mary Mondays,” “Lucy Tuesdays,” “Jeannie Thursdays,” and “Sergeant Joe Fridays,” but “BeWitched BeWednesdays” was my favorite,

Bewitched episode still featuring Samantha and Darrin seated, holding cocktails.

Bewitched really focuses on exposure. Darrin Stevens puts pressure on his wife Samantha to live as a normal suburban housewife, but Samantha can’t hide her identity as a powerful witch, far more powerful than her mortal husband. Her inability, and at times unwillingness, to suppress her power gives way to Darrin’s frenzied states of agitation and fear. What if his boss Larry Tate finds out? What if his mother finds out? What if a neighbor finds out?  But at the end of each episode, Samantha always manages to cover up or explain away the strangeness she causes, such as how her hairstyle changed six times in a minute or how Larry Tate is both outside his house in a suit and inside his house in pajamas at the same time.

I could relate to Darrin and how he constantly lived on the verge of a breakdown. The power of my parents’ anger made me wonder who might find out or who already knew about my family’s all-out blowouts. I knew someone suspected something because someone had called Child Welfare Services on my parents.

When a dowdy-looking social worker showed up at the house one evening, I thought something might change. We talked in my bedroom with the door closed, and I told her about my parents’ screaming matches, the time my mother beat me with a coat hanger, the time Dad  flipped a table on me. The social worker then checked me for bruises, and, finding none, she abruptly left my room. Afterwards, I could hear her and my parents yammering away in the kitchen, saying how all these teenage girls these days just wanted attention.

I felt like Gladys Kravitz, the Stevens’ nosy neighbor, who can see the madness going on across Morning Glory Circle, but who cannot manage to prove it to her husband or anyone else. Her husband Abner believes she’s gone mad as time and time again, she tries to convince him that something fishy is happening across the street, but Abner never actually sees it.

While Bewitched reflected my homelife, Alfred Hitchcock Presents soothed me greatly by showing me the banality of ordinary people doing horrible and destructive things. In Hitchcock’s black-and-white world, psychotic murderers and gangland shootings were rare. Instead, each episode exposed the neuroses and violence beneath the surface of everyday America.

In one episode, “Lamb to the Slaughter,” Barbara Bel Geddes plays a pregnant suburban housewife whose husband comes home from work one day and announces his plans to leave her for another woman. So she kills him by delivering blunt force trauma to his head with an enormous frozen leg of lamb.

I could only fantasize about things being this simple. I knew it was crazy, but I wondered why instead of the prolonged fighting, the agony of my parents’ disintegrating marriage, one of them couldn’t just kill the other? The killer could frame it as an accident, and I could move on with my life without the fear of the next argument.

I also very much enjoyed the episodes about outcasts—a reminder that my isolation and despair could, in fact, actually get worse. At least I wasn’t a spinster in love with a ventriloquist who turns out to be not a human man, but a plaster of Paris sculpture . At least a Virgin Mary statue hadn’t paralyzed my legs as punishment for my attempt at an insurance scam.

Our family’s brutal arguments at home continued until my senior year of high school, when my mother did indeed leave. I hadn’t slept well since that summer when I was thirteen after all those years of staying up with Nick at Nite, and I barely graduated high school. I had missed too many days, having spent them sleeping in my car or at my college-age boyfriend’s apartment. I slid by only because I still turned in all my assignments, earning As on projects and exams.

After Mom left, Dad and I resumed our habit of watching Nick at Nite together, though at a higher volume. Because now we needed the television to fill the hollow silence left after the war that had taken place for so many years in our house. During those wartime years, Nick at Nite had been there for me in a way that no one else could be, reflecting my world like a funhouse mirror, twisting and distorting it into a place I had a chance of understanding.