The Wednesday Pop Culture Rant was enjoying an old episode of Prime Suspect with the marvelous Helen Mirren, a woman The Rant assumes has a Dorian Gray-like portrait of herself stashed in a closet somewhere so she can continue never aging. We’re on to you Helen. In Prime Suspect she plays a police detective, and in this episode a crucial piece of evidence surfaces on a VHS tape. There’s an amusing build-up of tension as everyone stares at the wee, square television and waits for the tape to rewind. Today everyone would stream the video simultaneously on their phones.
Our first VCR consisted of two enormous chunks of metal. One played the tapes and the other contained a bewildering grid of dip switches that could theoretically be programmed to record a future episode of Happy Days without you even being there to press the ON button. Magic and witchcraft. Despite countless hours of effort and an infinite combination of switches, not once did The Rant ever successfully record The Fonz.
The VCR at school was roughly the size of a Pinto and required a special cart to wheel it from classroom to classroom as attempting to lift it would have led to a workman’s comp claim and a lifetime of back pain.
“Why are you here to see the doctor?”
“I fell off a scaffolding. How about you?”
“I tried to lift a VCR.”
“I’ll ask the nurse to let you go first.”
Of course at the time the appearance of VHS felt like getting a jetpack (If you bet on Betamax, The Rant feels for you. You bought a LaserDisc player too, didn’t you? Being an early adopter isn’t all beer and skittles). Suddenly you could watch any movie you wanted instead of hoping something might show up on one of your four channels. After watching your VHS tape you could listen to music on your cassette tape, and if you traveled out on the edge of the wild frontier, code your computer to tape. All you had to avoid were magnets, which could erase all the tape. Adults seemed to assume The Rant’s pockets were heavy laden with magnets, the big U-shaped ones like Bugs Bunny used, constantly admonishing us to use caution near the tape machines1.
Prime Suspect arrived on our television via a streaming service. We have no idea how it works; the entire process exists as virtual dip switches for us. The Rant has no nostalgia when it come to the delivery of our entertainment. We just enjoy that it arrives faster and easier each passing year in ever greater quantities.