By Alan Hurst
Television’s first golden age was in the fifties when TV was in its infancy and the potential of the medium seemed to evolve and grow each week – dramas, comedies, live productions, musical spectaculars, news, game shows. Everything was new and exciting. It opened a new outlet for new talent both behind the scenes and on the air. It was a fertile training ground for aspiring young writers, directors and performers. It also served as a catapult for people who had been around for a while and suddenly found a new and perfect platform for their talents – people like Jackie Gleason, Lucille Ball, Jack Benny, Dinah Shore and Danny Thomas.
I think we’re in another golden age right now with the abundance of top-notch original content we’re seeing on cable and streaming services, and on the networks.
But there was also a second golden age – it started in 1970 and began to wind down by the end of the decade. But it’s impact is still being felt today. Those were 10 amazing years, driven primarily by the breakthrough programming on just three networks and one publicly funded channel.
Here are the 10 reasons why those 10 years remain a touchstone:
This was the Tiffany of production companies in the seventies (and into the eighties) and it all started when Mary Tyler Moore and then husband Grant Tinker got an offer from CBS for a sitcom starring Moore. The resulting enterprise – logically called The Mary Tyler Moore Show – ran from 1970-77 and quickly became the gold standard for sitcoms. Depicting the home and work life of single Mary Richards, the show broke new ground in showing a woman who wasn’t solely motivated by being in relationship. With Moore and a wonderful group of actors spinning magic each week, the show won a then record 29 Emmys and is still acknowledged as one of the top shows of all time. But this was only the start for MTM, soon after the debut of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the production company introduced The Bob Newhart Show (1972-78), Rhoda (1974-79), WKRP in Cincinnati (1978-82), Lou Grant (1977-82), and The White Shadow (1978-81). MTM Enterprises made a point of cultivating a stable of writers (for the first time a number of them were women) and then left them alone to do their thing. The results speak for themselves.
If MTM made its statements in a subtle way, producer Norman Lear combined comedy with a sledgehammer point of view in his shows, and that hasn’t been replicated since. His first production of the decade was All in the Family (1971-79) and it took off like gangbusters. Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) was the bigoted patriarch of a Queens, New York family and served as the lightening rod for all the political points Lear wanted to make – Vietnam, Watergate, race, sexuality, feminism, you name it. Thanks to top writers and a wonderful cast, the show did more to enlighten audiences than any show before or since. It was also very funny and, at times, incredibly moving. But this was only the first from Lear’s stable. It was quickly followed by Sandford and Son (1972-77), Maude (1972-78), Good Times (1974-78), One Day at a Time (1975-84) and The Jeffersons (1975-85). And Lear was able to cover any number of social issues that made sense for these characters to deal with.
Weekly Variety Shows
Variety shows are a relic of a bygone era and they reached their zenith in the sixties and seventies. From 1970 to 1979 you could find a variety show – some excellent, others sophomoric – on any given network. The Carol Burnett Show (1967-78) was the top of class – a well produced, very funny mixture of sketch comedy, musical guests, and production numbers – that many people remember with true affection. Burnett and cast mates Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, Vicki Lawrence and Lyle Waggoner may not have been the most cutting edge, but they were the most dependable and enduringly funny. There was also The Flip Wilson Show (1970-74) which was one of the funniest shows on television during its first two years. Also making a mark was Laugh-In – it started in 1968, but still ran for three seasons in the early seventies. Saturday Night Live started its marathon run in 1975, breaking down comedy barriers and becoming the most talked about new show in the mid-seventies. Sonny and Cher had a hit – in various formats – from 1971 to 1976. And The Donny and Marie Show (1976-79) upped the sugar quotient during it’s three season run. There were also some excellent one season shows – The Julie Andrews Hour (1972-73) and Van Dyke and Company (1976-77) both won Emmys for Best Variety Series during their short runs.
The TV movie had started to come into its own in the late sixties but became a staple in the early seventies with two different productions – one garnering acclaim and the other acclaim and controversy. Brian’s Song (1971) with James Caan and Billy Dee Williams was the true story of the friendship between two football players – one black, one white – during the sixties when race-based segregation still existed in sports. The eventual illness of Caan’s character and the unflinching support provided by Williams induced tears across the county. That Certain Summer showed a family dealing with the father’s homosexuality in frank manner – a subject that had been taboo up that to that point was now the focal point of mainstream TV film. Both productions showed that TV could handle sensitive and timely subject matter, and still draw viewers and positive reviews. These were quickly followed by number of exceptionally well-produced, written and acted films that drew major talent from other TV programs, films and stage. Highlights included A Case of Rape (1974) and The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975), both with Elizabeth Montgomery; The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974) with Cicely Tyson; Love Among the Ruins (1975) with Katharine Hepburn and Laurence Olivier; Babe (1976) with Susan Clark; Eleanor and Franklin (1976) with Jane Alexander and Edward Hermann; Sybil (1976) with a superb Sally Field; The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case (1976) with Anthony Hopkins; First You Cry (1978) with Mary Tyler Moore; Strangers with Bette Davis and Gena Rowlands (1979), and Friendly Fire (1979) with Carol Burnett and Ned Beatty. Thankfully this is one genre that continued to flourish into the eighties and beyond and it’s now reached a new peak with the output from cable and streaming.
The early seventies saw the introduction of the Limited Series, or Miniseries as they were sometimes called. These were not a regular 25-episode series that continued season after season, but programs that wrapped up the story after a multi-episode arc. The genre gained traction with QBVII (1974), a star-studded adaptation of the Leon Uris book about a doctor who sues an author for implicating him in Nazi war crimes. With a star studded cast, this was prestige stuff. With the airing of Rich Man, Poor Man and Roots on ABC during the 1976-77 television season, the format was kicked into high gear. Both of these productions were widely watched and showered with awards. In fact the week Roots aired over eight consecutive nights, most of North America stayed home to watch. From there the floodgates opened with such high-quality productions as Holocaust (1978) which introduced to Meryl Streep; The Awakening Land (1978) with Elizabeth Montgomery and Hal Holbrook; Backstairs at the White House (1979); as well as fun trash like Salem’s Lot (1979), The Moneychangers (1976) with Christopher Plummer, and Pearl (1978) with Angie Dickinson about the attack on Pearl Harbour. This genre hit its peak in the 1980’s with productions like The Thorn Birds (1983) and The Winds of War (1983).
Mary Martin and Ethel Merman were the first to have a big impact with a special variety program in 1953, part of a celebration of Ford’s 50th anniversary. Essentially bringing the vaudeville format to TV, the combination of star power, dance, music, comedy proved addictive to audiences. Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Carol Burnett, Julie Andrews and many others enjoyed considerable success with their specials in the sixties, but the genre really came into its own in the seventies with major stars headlining specials across all three major networks. Some of those specials really did elevate the art – particularly those that steered away from the cheesy banter between guest stars and stupid comedy sketches and focused instead on music, dance and groundbreaking comedy. Among the best was Liza with a Z (1972) directed by Bob Fosse. This was a concert for television that showed Liza Minnelli at her staggering best during the Cabaret heydays. Minnelli also teamed with Goldie Hawn for Goldie and Liza Together for an entertaining hour in 1979. Ann-Margret had a series of well received specials, particularly Ann-Margret Olson (1975) which teamed her with Tina Turner. Lily Tomlin used some very funny specials to move out of the Laugh-In shadow before kick starting her film career. Shirley MacLaine flexed her musical skills in the variety special format and it helped her career get back into high hear with a series of acclaimed specials. Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme elevated their brand with several classy specials focused on the American songbook, garnering praise and awards attention. By the early eighties, the genre had morphed more to the occasional themed tribute, and then seemed to disappear entirely.
Always a TV staple, the traditional genre of crime/cop/detective shows in the seventies was reinvigorated with the opportunity provided by adult theatrical hits like Dirty Harry (1971) and The French Connection (1972). Suddenly things were a little grittier, the crimes a little dirtier, and the heroes a little more flawed. I’m thinking specifically of shows like Columbo (1971-78) with Peter Falk (1971-78), Kojak (1973-78) with Telly Savalas, The Streets of San Francisco (1972-77) with Karl Malden and a young Michael Douglas, Starsky and Hutch (1975-79), the anthology Police Story (1973-78), Baretta (1975-78), The Rockford Files (1974-80) with James Garner, and even the slightly trashy Police Woman (1974-78) with Angie Dickinson. The crime drama grew up during the decade, paving the way for Hill Street Blues (1981-87), Cagney and Lacey (1981-88), NYBD Blue (1993-2005) and The Wire (2002-08), among others.
The British Invasion
The impact of British TV drama was felt in a major way in the 1971-72 season when two productions made their way to PBS: The Six Wives of Henry VIII with Keith Michell and Elizabeth R with Glenda Jackson. Both productions riveted viewers with their vivid and articulate interpretation of history and both were major players in that year’s Emmy Awards, winning a combined six awards. The appetite for British drama and comedy continued in the mid-seventies when Upstairs, Downstairs and Monty Python’s Flying Circus started attracting a significant following of North American viewers. I, Claudius (1978) became a bit of sensation when it aired as well.
Saturday Morning Cartoons
The Saturday morning cartoon line-up was a signature of TV in the seventies. It meant that kids could get up, pour some cereal in a bowl, and plunk themselves down in front of the TV and watch any number of shows that can still bring a nostalgic smile. Programs like H.R Pufnstuf, Lidsville, Josie and the Pussycats, Archie, Scooby Doo, reruns of Sylvester and Tweety, Bugs Bunny, The Road Runner, The Jetsons. Like the cereal being consumed, there wasn’t a lot of nutritional value here, but they provided hours of entertainment.
National news was much more hard core in the seventies, centered primarily between the major networks in Canada and the United States, and PBS. We didn’t yet have the 24/7 news cycle and the proliferation of cable news. For the most part, what the seventies delivered was factual, unbiased reporting that people relied upon to get the information they needed. News anchors and reporters were trusted, they were never part of the story, and rarely did they ever offer an opinion. It feels like things are an out of control mess now, but the seventies was not without drama. But with the coverage of the FLQ Crisis, the Vietnam war, the Munich massacre, Watergate, the energy crisis, the Iran hostage crisis and many other events, viewers had a much more balanced idea of what was going on then they do today.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.