Thursday, May 16, 2013

Classic TV 101: The 1970s

Whenever necessary I will own up to my own personal biases. So in the interest of full disclosure I acknowledge that the 1970s is my favorite TV era. It’s certainly not the best or the most groundbreaking but it’s the one I grew up on. And I have always believed that the television shows you bond with in childhood are the ones that always stay closest to your heart.

Escapism reigned for much of the decade, with a profusion of forget-your-troubles-and-just-get-happy shows that helped viewers cope with gas lines, presidential scandals and leisure suits as fashion statements. Those seeking more serious fare embraced a new programming genre – the miniseries – that adapted great books and retold great moments in history with all-star casts.

How I wish I could justify the addition of The Magician, Harry-O, Switch, Eight is Enough and ElectraWoman and DynaGirl to the list of must-see 70s shows. But here’s a more objective list of the decade’s finest offerings.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show
One of the best comedic ensembles ever assembled for a situation comedy, choreographed into consistent excellence by two masters of the form, James L. Brooks and Allan Burns. The show is as fresh and funny today as it was 40 years ago. 

Peter Falk’s trenchcoat-clad police lieutenant, who annoyed suspects into confessions, was one of several characters featured in NBC’s Sunday Mystery Movie series. But while McCloud, McMillan and Wife and Hec Ramsey all had their moments, Columbo was the only one that earns a place alongside the creations of Poe and Conan Doyle in the annals of classic detective fiction.  

Saturday Night Live
While each generation grumbles about how SNL is not as funny as it used to be, the show itself continues to introduce at least 2-3 major comedy talents every few years. The original cast may still be untouchable, though inconsistency has always been part of the mix. But no other series has been as influential on American comedy – from John Belushi to Eddie Murphy to Phil Hartman (and from Gilda Radner to Tina Fey to Kristen Wiig).

In the seventies there were several prime-time soap operas depicting the shady lifestyles of the rich and glamorous. Dallas was the most successful and the most entertaining. J.R. Ewing, played with grinning malevolence by Larry Hagman, was a villain for the ages – as demonstrated by his charismatic return in the series’ 2012 revival. 

M*A*S*H lasted so long – ten years and nearly 250 episodes – that fans debate which series era was better. Do you prefer the early years, which mimicked the impertinent tone of Robert Altman’s film, or the later, less outrageous seasons that reflected the input of star Alan Alda (who wrote and directed several episodes)? The final show still holds the record for most viewers, at more than 125 million.

All In the Family
The first of several Norman Lear-produced comedies that broke genre taboos, frankly discussed controversial issues and represented (for some) a bold step forward from the more innocent family sitcoms of an earlier age.

The Love Boat
Carefree escapism was a seventies TV staple, and no one delivered more of it than producer Aaron Spelling. The Love Boat was one of his most shallow and most successful concepts. It’s also worth another look for the golden age movie stars who staved off retirement with appearances on shows like this one, Fantasy Island and Hotel. Where else can you see Don Ameche and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. sailing alongside Jimmie Walker and Roz Kelly?

The Bob Newhart Show
No situation comedy explored the comic possibilities of the telephone and the elevator more than The Bob Newhart Show. Newhart’s dry delivery and Suzanne Pleshette’s sass anchored one of the decade’s top sitcoms. Plus, “Home to Emily” may be the era’s best instrumental TV theme. 

The ABC network was so nervous about how viewers would greet the ‘miniseries’ format, especially one that dealt with the harsh realities of slavery, that they aired all eight episodes on consecutive nights. The idea was to just get it over with quickly. Instead, America became enthralled with Roots. It drew 100 million viewers and became for a time the most watched and most honored dramatic show in television history.

Little House on the Prairie
Michael Landon was one of TV’s most beloved stars. While he also enjoyed long-running success in Bonanza and Highway to Heaven, Little House is his best TV work. Based on the classic books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the series also introduced adorable half-pint Melissa Gilbert, and the delightfully wicked Nellie Oleson.

General Hospital
Soap operas were successful before and after the seventies, but General Hospital achieved the kind of pop culture prominence reserved for prime-time shows after introducing super-couple Luke and Laura, played by Tony Geary and Genie Francis. Their wedding was the most-watched daytime drama moment ever. 

Happy Days
Truth be told I don’t think this show holds up as well as other comedies from its era, but you can’t talk seventies television without paying due homage to The Fonz. For a few seasons, before he literally jumped the shark (introducing that phrase), Henry Winkler could stop the show with every entrance, every line reading and every thumbs-up. His leather jacket now hangs in the Smithsonian.

The Rockford Files
Beneath the glittering disco balls and superficial fads that flitted through 70s pop culture, there lingered a more sobering cynicism, spurred on by two events that served as decade bookends - Watergate and the Iran hostage crisis. Few shows tapped into that cynicism as entertainingly as The Rockford Files. No other TV detective ever received as little personal satisfaction or financial compensation for his work, suggesting that no matter how hard you try, you’re bound to fail in a system that’s rigged.

WKRP in Cincinnati
I’m not sure why this show seems to bubble just under confirmed “classic TV” status. Maybe it wasn’t on long enough. But I still can’t get through Thanksgiving without one reference to flying turkeys.

Charlie’s Angels
The first “jiggle TV” series, and the launching pad for the decade’s most famous and flawless face, Farrah Fawcett-Majors. The first three seasons offered pleasures besides cheesecake – Kate Jackson earned two Emmy nominations and almost made the Angels credible as investigators.  

Barney Miller
Barney Miller gets better with age. It’s been called TV’s only optimistic cop series, and that’s as good a description as any. Depicting real crime and real victims with humor requires a delicate balance, but at the 12th Precinct it was all in a day’s work.

The Six Million Dollar Man
Though cell phones and iPads were still years away, technology began to play a larger role in our lives in the 1970s, and this was a series that suggested advancements once relegated to science fiction were coming closer to reality. Plus, more Farrah Fawcett, an illustrious spin-off series in The Bionic Woman, and Bigfoot!

This was one of the first shows that some took as the beginning of the end for western civilization. Watchdog groups protested and some ABC affiliates refused to carry the series, but Soap was never as decadent as its detractors claimed. Much of the controversy focused on Billy Crystal as Jodie Dallas, one of TV’s first gay characters.

Extra Credit
For more groovy Seventies classics, check out these shows:

The Partridge Family
Marcus Welby, M.D.
Three’s Company
Starsky & Hutch

Next Week: The 1980s


  1. What? No Quinn Martin shows mentioned in this blog entry? Mr. Hofstede, did "The Streets of San Francisco" really fall short in your book?

  2. Certainly a good show, but not quite there. However, "The Fugitive" did make the 1960s list.