Thursday, May 9, 2013

Classic TV 101: The 1960s

The 1960s was a watershed decade for popular culture, particularly in music. But there were also signs of the changing times reflected in the television of the era.

Contrast the programming choices at the start of the decade, many of them holdovers from the more traditional 1950s, with the iconoclastic shows of 1968 and 1969. The disparity is much deeper than the change from black-and-white to color.

Sometimes it’s possible to notice the medium’s evolution within just one show – observe how Samantha Stephens’ outfits change from the first season of Bewitched (1964) to the last (1972). To paraphrase a popular advertising slogan from that era, she’s come a long way, baby.

These are the shows you should know from the 1960s.

The Andy Griffith Show
Sixties TV is evenly divided between shows that look back, and shows that look forward. The Andy Griffith Show is one of television’s most delightful backward glances – more than 40 years later and we still can’t get enough of the tranquil Mayberry lifestyle. 

Mission: Impossible
Television’s finest espionage series, particularly in its first three seasons when Martin Landau and Barbara Bain were part of the team. The propulsive Lalo Schifrin theme and Mr. Phelps’ self-destructing tape recorders left a permanent mark on popular culture. 

Peyton Place
A groundbreaking prime time soap opera (based on a once scandalous novel) that launched the careers of Ryan O’Neal and Mia Farrow. New shows were aired as often as three times a week, and fans still hope that all 500+ episodes will be released on DVD.

That Girl
This story of a young single girl in the big city reflected the changing times and the rise of feminism. Marlo Thomas’s character of struggling actress Ann Marie was a TV trailblazer that begat Mary Richards and Carrie Bradshaw. 

The Dick Van Dyke Show
Mixing sophisticated wordplay with inspired moments of slapstick silliness, The Dick Van Dyke Show was a near-perfect situation comedy that remains strikingly modern more than 50 years after its debut.

Star Trek
Star Trek, and it’s many subsequent TV and film incarnations, represents a vision of our future that might be achievable if we don’t screw it up. The Enterprise’s original five-year mission barely lasted three seasons but introduced a profusion of iconic characters, concepts and expressions. The series also inspired a then-unprecedented level of television series fandom, that didn’t truly kick in until after the show was canceled.

There were many sitcoms with fantasy elements in the Sixties (I Dream of Jeannie, My Favorite Martian, Mr. Ed). Bewitched was the best and the classiest of the bunch, and the only one with a subtext beyond its supernatural set-up. Was it really about TV’s first mixed marriage?

My Mother the Car
On the other end of the fantasy sitcom spectrum was this infamous disaster starring Jerry Van Dyke as a man whose mother is reincarnated as a 1928 Porter automobile. Treasure it the way bad movie fans love Plan 9 From Outer Space, as one of the medium’s preeminent punch lines. 

The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour
This youth-oriented variety series was on the front line of the cultural and generational conflicts of the Vietnam era. Tom and Dick Smothers and their writers (including Steve Martin) constantly pushed the envelope on provocative political humor, so much so that the series was pulled by conservative CBS executives despite respectable ratings.

Scooby Doo, Where Are You?
This Saturday morning staple was the first in a seemingly endless series of Hanna-Barbera cartoons pitting teenage friends against phony monsters and would-be world conquerors. It wasn’t brilliant television, but the premise was certainly durable – they’re still making new Scooby Doo adventures.

The Fugitive
As Dr. Richard Kimble, a pediatrician wrongly accused of killing his wife, David Janssen delivers one of the most poignant and nuanced performances on any program from any decade (so of course he never won an Emmy). The series’ final episode held the record for largest viewing audience until the resolution of Dallas’s “Who shot J.R.” cliffhanger. 

The Brady Bunch
If there is an official family sitcom of the Baby Boomer era, this is it. It’s far from the best written or performed representation of its genre, but its characters have been lovingly embraced by two generations of TV fans. This is one of the ultimate “Comfort TV” series. 

Candid Camera
Technically, Candid Camera debuted in 1948, and appeared sporadically on local stations and as a segment of network series throughout the 1950s. But it is mostly remembered for a 1960-1967 run, so it is listed here with the best of the sixties. The gags staged by host Allen Funt were remarkably inventive, without the streak of cruelty apparent in latter-day updates like Punk’d.

The Avengers
London had its own swinging sixties vibe, which provided the backdrop for this tongue-in-cheek secret agent series, one of the few British programs to crack a US prime time schedule. The chemistry and witty repartee  between Patrick Macnee (John Steed) and Diana Rigg (Emma Peel) has yet to rivaled, much less surpassed. 

The Carol Burnett Show
Though it’s now more closely associated with the 1970s, Carol Burnett’s classic variety series debuted in 1967. So many of the comedy sketches have passed into TV legend, but the show’s musical moments, now largely forgotten, were just as impressive.

Even with new superhero movies opening almost every month, there hasn’t been anything comparable to this inspired, deranged and altogether unique rendering of  the Caped Crusader and Boy Wonder.

Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In
A phenomenon in its day, and a peerless launching pad for future stars (Goldie Hawn, Arte Johnson, Lily Tomlin), Laugh-In introduced more memorable comedic characters and catchphrases than any other 1960s series. 


The Beverly Hillbillies
Paul Henning created three rural-themed sitcoms for CBS in the Sixties – The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres and Petticoat Junction. All of them are worth revisiting. Hillbillies was the most popular and the most polarizing. Some find it lowbrow humor at its worst, but others (like me) find the Clampetts irresistible.

The Outer Limits
Television’s first truly exceptional science-fiction series was hindered only by primitive special effects. But with scripts by Harlan Ellison and Joseph Stefano, and actors like Martin Sheen, Robert Culp, Leonard Nimoy, Martin Landau and Cliff Robertson, it was easier to imagine the show’s rubber-suited creatures as convincing metaphors for social injustice and the military-industrial complex.

The Monkees
American TV’s answer to A Hard Day’s Night proved far more successful, both artistically and musically, than anyone had a right to expect. The series was fresh and funny and made a pioneering contribution to music video. The Monkees’ music, once derided by some critics as corporate-driven and manufactured, has aged even more gracefully than the series.

Dark Shadows
A gothic daytime drama that added vampires, witches, werewolves, time travel and reanimated corpses into the usual mix of soapy afternoon romance and betrayal. Echoes of reluctant vampire Barnabas Collins, masterfully played by Jonathan Frid, can be perceived in nearly all of the vampire shows and movies of the past decade. 

Get Smart
An obvious gimmick – sending up James Bond – with a distinguished pedigree (Mel Brooks and Buck Henry served as creators) Get Smart was a giddy mix of dumb jokes and smart jokes, anchored by Don Adams’ matchless portrayal of Maxwell Smart. You can’t be a classic TV lover if you don’t cherish every appearance of the Cone of Silence. 

In Julia, Diahann Carroll became the first African-American woman to play a (non-domestic) lead role in a prime time series. With Greg Morris already on Mission: Impossible and Nichelle Nichols on Star Trek this wasn’t color-barrier breaking at the Jackie Robinson level, but it’s a progression of which TV fans should be aware.

Extra Credit
More 1960s standouts that deserve your attention:

The Flintstones
Monty Python’s Flying Circus
The Dean Martin Show
Honey West
The Defenders
The Patty Duke Show
Route 66

Next week: The 1970s


  1. Mr. Hofstede, what did you think of "The Rat Patrol" and "The FBI"?

  2. Both very good shows. I hope to start re-watching The FBI on DVD soon.