My friend Mike at Ticket 2 Ride recently wrote about an old television show we both enjoyed. Since I’m now in “desert isle” mode, I thought I’d continue my series by listing my top 20 television shows.
I enjoyed these shows as a kid, and some hung over until my teen years in the 1970s. But unlike many that I can’t stomach as an adult (e.g. Lost in Space, The Monkees, Gilligan’s Isle, The Brady Bunch), at age 63 I still get a charge out of those listed here. Even Batman, which was unashamedly targeted toward juveniles, has adult appeal…at least, if you appreciate outrageous, high camp like I do.
Some of these shows had radical cast changes over their duration. For those, I specified my preferred time period.
NOTE: unfortunately, a lot of parents still use television as a pacifier or babysitter for their children. (Today, electronic “pacification” is compounded thanks to video games, the internet, and computer phones.) I’m sure Captain Kangaroo and Romper Room held some educational benefits when I was little, but I’m inclined to agree with former FCC chairman Newton Minow, who famously told the National Association of Broadcasters in 1961 that most television is a “vast wasteland.” Fast forward sixty years and look at how that wasteland has turned toxic.
Television is one of the main reasons my parents felt compelled to send me away to boarding school. I’m still scratching my head why they didn’t just unplug the boob box.
But this essay is intended to be a fun, baby-boomer nostalgia trip, so I think we can temporarily sideline Mr. Minow’s words.
Listed in order of air date:
Lassie (1954-73) (Forest Service years). Our family had a collie dog, and my mom had one as a girl, so Lassie…about a dog with human intelligence and emotions…was always special in our family. The fifth longest-running prime-time show in history, Lassie is sticky-sweet beyond belief, but some of the sugar dissolved when in 1964 the producers ditched the kid for Ranger Corey Stuart, and boy’s best friend became man’s best friend.
Leave it to Beaver (1957-63). Unlike similar period sitcoms that centered on a suburban American family, episodes of Leave it to Beaver were written from the kids’ point of view, using the slang of the time, and this might explain this show’s iconic status. Another crucial ingredient is TV’s version of James Dean: the mildly delinquent Eddie Haskell, who provided a perfect foil to all-American Wally Cleaver.
The Rifleman (1958-63). Each episode is a small morality play involving a widowed father and his adoring son in 1880s New Mexico territory. The chemistry between actors Chuck Connors and young Johnny Crawford, a former Mouseketeer, lifts this show above other television Westerns. And it has great theme music by Herschel Burke Gilbert.
The Andy Griffith Show (Barney years) (1960-68). This show’s popularity never wanes, probably because of its relaxed rural simplicity, the writing quality, actor Andy Griffith’s talent, and character Barney Fife, who like Eddie Haskell is now a television icon.
My Three Sons (pre-Dodie years) (1960-72). I didn’t latch onto this show until the family adopted Ernie, my favorite character, with his gargantuan teeth, glasses, and dry earnestness. I also like the earlier “Mike” years, but lost interest toward the end of the show’s duration, when dad Steve Douglas remarried. Nothing against the little girl who played Dodie, but the character grates my nerves.
The Avengers (Emma Peel years) (1961-69). Gorgeous Diana Rigg, as Emma Peel, was the second of three actresses to play opposite Patrick McNee’s suave private eye John Steed, and the first to appear on American TV. This English show is suspenseful, witty, and sophisticated, with dramatic theme orchestration that drips 1960s Swinging London.
Combat! (1962-67). Not just your standard WWII actioner, this show emphasizes character development and raises moral questions practically every episode. Vic Morrow is superb as jaded Sergeant Saunders, who leads a floating five-man army unit across the French countryside. As one critic said: “At times, you can see the tombstones in (Saunders’) eyes.”
The Outer Limits (1963-65). I devoted a whole blog post to this groundbreaking horror/sci-fi show (click here). Only on for two seasons (the first season is much better), it scared the daylights out of me both then and now. Back then it was the monsters. Now, it’s the realization that grown-ups can be monsters, capable of immense stupidity and destruction. Yet more great music, by conductor/composer Dominic Frontiere.
Petticoat Junction (1963-70). I did a separate post on this show, too (click here). The scripts are lame and redundant, and the overt bias against all things urban becomes more pronounced as the series progresses. But its cornpone quality is kind of relaxing with the chaos that goes on today. And the Bradley girls are fun to look at.
Jonny Quest (1964-65). All kids, and many adults, love cartoons, but Hanna-Barbera’s Jonny Quest is significant because it’s an action drama involving humans, not animals, yet is without a superhero. Jonny’s voice is provided by Tim Matheson, who appeared in two episodes of Leave it to Beaver and who still has a lucrative film career. (His most visible role was “Otter” in National Lampoon’s Animal House.)
The Munsters (1964-66). Produced by Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, who also produced Leave it to Beaver. I prefer this show to the similarly macabre The Addams Family because the family is more down-to-earth, working-class. Like The Addams Family, it’s funny because the concept of the ideal nuclear family is turned upside down: they’re all freaks who consider themselves perfectly normal. Come to think of it, sounds like my mom’s side of the family.
The Wild Wild West (1965-69). Another show with clever theme music and graphics that kids with budding testosterone glands can truly appreciate. A Western with espionage and sci-fi elements? I’m on board! Lead character Jim West is almost as cool as Sgt. Saunders. He certainly gets more women.
Get Smart (1965-70). I get more laughs out of this than any other show, except maybe Barney Miller. The non-stop gag humor is courtesy of comic legends Buck Henry and Mel Brooks. My favorite moments are the close-ups of the Chief’s baggy-eyed poker face whenever Max says something dumb…which is most of the time. Surprisingly, the show stayed fresh even after Max and Agent 99 got married. The introduction of robot Hymie probably helped.
I Dream of Jeannie (1965-1970). Not sure why I prefer this to the similarly themed Bewitched, which is also good. Maybe because Jeannie is single and slightly hipper and sexier than housewife Samantha Stevens. Actually, I think it’s probably Larry Hagman’s acting. He mastered the art of appearing nervous and flustered whenever Jeannie misuses her magic.
Green Acres (1965-71). A Paul Henning production, along with Petticoat Junction and The Beverly Hillbillies. For me, this is the funniest of the three. I love Oliver Douglas’s stuffed-shirt bewilderment at the zany characters that continually plague him: Eb, Mr. Haney, Mr. Kimball, Alf and Ralph, and his own beautiful but low-IQ wife. And can’t forget Arnold Ziffle, a genius hog.
Batman (1966-68). In second grade I had a bigger stack of Batman trading cards than anyone in school…then Alan Lamb stole it. But I think I’ve only watched one episode since 1968. Despite this, I have great memories of this fast-paced, over-the-top, technicolor spectacle where serious dramatic actors portray cartoon characters. A standout is former silent-film actor Neil Hamilton’s ham acting as the Gotham City commissioner. “Quick, Chief O’Hara, call up the caped crusader!”
The High Chaparral (1967-71). One of television’s later Westerns, I like the southern Arizona locale, theme music, and several of the characters, especially happy-go-lucky Manolito, raggedy Buck Cannon, and ravishing Victoria Cannon…although the constant battles with Apaches, most of whom were portrayed by white actors, got a bit tiresome.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77). Somewhat revolutionary, and reflective of the times: a situation comedy about a single, working woman succeeding in a man’s world. I never considered this aspect during the show’s heyday, I just liked the scripts and characters. Immature and egotistical news anchor Ted Baxter is, in my opinion, one of television’s funniest creations, along with Barney Fife.
Columbo (1971-78 on NBC, then 1989-2003 on ABC). Most television cop shows have a standard formula. Columbo stands tall due to the title character’s eccentricities and actor Peter Falk’s talent. All of the scripts deal with white-collar homicide, but there is a twist: the viewer knows who is guilty from the start. The enjoyment of this show is watching Lieutenant Columbo slowly unravel the case as the murderer, smug and self-assured at first, becomes increasingly panicky. The earlier NBC episodes are the best. The later ABC shows feature lesser actors and introduce more sex.
Barney Miller (1975-82). Probably my favorite sitcom on many levels. It has interweaving sub-plots spiced with ingenious dialogue by a rotating cast of writers; memorable regular characters (a black cop who’s the best-dressed, most cultured guy in the squad room; a slow-witted but sensitive Polish cop who’s always getting laid; a humble, thoughtful cop forever displaying his genius IQ; and others); hilarious semi-regulars (gruff, old-school, foot-in-mouth Inspector Luger; perennially frustrated Inspector Scanlon of Internal Affairs, who despises Barney’s spotless record; the overtly homosexual jailbird Marty); and despite being a comedy, many real cops have cited it as being the most realistic cop show on TV. Unlike most TV series, Barney Miller improved with age. And like Woody Allen films, which also use New York City almost as another character, there’s an intellectual edge to Barney Miller that probably limited the viewership. But for me it’s the best sitcom ever made.
Honorable Mention: I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, The Twilight Zone, Rawhide, Bewitched, Hawaii-Five-O, All in the Family, Police Story, The Waltons, The Bob Newhart Show.
Thanks for joining me in this jump back into time. Now it’s your turn!
(And a shout-out to TheWriteLife61: How Pop Culture Influences Us, which specializes in classic television and the people involved.)