It may seem as if watching people play poker only became a regular part of the television viewing schedule with the unfortunate arrival of the belief among network executives that Americans are willing to watch anything as long it stars real people. In fact, poker games on TV preceded the nadir of Reality TV by decades. After all, the single most successful dramatic genre during the first two decades of television was the western and what would a western be without a few hands of poker? Often, but by no means only, as a very useful plot device for teaching life lessons.
The Odd Couple
“The Odd Couple” so regularly featured a poker game either as part of the plot or as part of the fabric of the narrative that you could very well consider the adventures of Oscar Madison and Felux Ungar and friends the fictional prototype for all the live coverage of poker tournaments that would air in the future. One episode of “The Odd Couple” focuses exclusively on the loss and suspected theft of $50 by one of the guys at the poker table. In another episode, Murray the cop chooses the poker game as the centerpiece of his new attempt to get tough and he arrests all his friends for gambling.
Star Trek: The Next Generation
Another regular recurrence of poker on TV occurs throughout the voyages of the Starship Enterprise under the captaincy of Picard. All the regular cast members making up the crew took part in the poker game aboard the Enterprise with one exception. That one exception finally joined in on the game of chance in the series’ finale. The overriding concept of poker at play in most episodes of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” in which the game is played is the bluffing. The ability to outwit other players even when your hand is extremely vulnerable serves as an excellent metaphor for the way primary way in which Capt. Picard differs from Capt. Kirk, thus enhancing the irony of Picard’s absence from play in the poker scenes.
In between the regular poker games of “The Odd Couple” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation” you had the poker play of “MASH.” In the midst of the horrifying war taking place around them, poker represented an escape from the atrocity exhibition as well as an allegory of the randomness of life as a great big game of chance.
Despite the fact that you had teenage boys growing into young college students, poker really did not come up much on “Happy Days.” Perhaps because it was a family show. And it is precisely because “Happy Days” was a family show that it is an iconic representation of poker on TV as a way to teach the young valuable lessons in responsibility. Richie and Potsie lose the money their band made performing at a college party to the college boys playing with a marked deck. Teaching everybody younger than him a lesson is up to Richie’s dad, Howard.