The Casablanca problem

If you show the iconic film Casablanca for the first time to somebody in their 20s, you might be disappointed in the response. From their point of view, it just looks like a myriad other cinematic romances.

But back in 1942, that was very much not the case. Casablanca invented much of cinematic storytelling language that we now take for granted. So much so, that it’s hard to remember that before that film came out, nobody had ever seen anything quite like it before.

You’ll run into the same problem if you try to show Hill Street Blues to a young person who knows nothing about it. It just looks like everything they grew up seeing.

But back in 1981, Steven Bochco and company were literally creating something that nobody had ever seen before. In that year, because of that TV show, the collective culture changed, and it has never looked back.

Yet it’s hard to appreciate that now, because we’ve been watching Hill Street Blues knock-offs for more than forty years. We’ve reached the point where there are now even knock-offs of those knock-offs.

I wonder how many such cultural artifacts there are out there — great classics that changed everything, to the point where they no longer seem innovative to the uninitiated. Maybe we could compile a list.

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