Top 20 Desert Isle Television Shows

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, Sanford and Son, 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.)

Come Ride the Little Train: In Praise of “Petticoat Junction”

Forget about your cares

It is time to relax

At the Junction…

My most frequent babysitter as a kid was the television set.  Now, I realize I’m a little strange, but I don’t think that’s unusual for baby boomers.  I probably saw most episodes of the more popular cartoons, Westerns, and sitcoms made during the 1960s. Back then, though, I didn’t know which shows were good and which were bad. I just watched what the networks fed me. I hadn’t yet developed any critical thinking skills.

Today, thanks to various cable TV stations that specialize in nostalgia, I get to indulge in many of these shows again. And I sometimes wonder “Why did I ever watch this dopey thing?”

One of them is the half-hour CBS show, Petticoat Junction. This is a situation comedy with a rural theme that aired between 1963 and 1970. Petticoat Junction had two sister shows, “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Green Acres.” These two shows were funny. Petticoat Junction was… well… “charming.” But there were few truly wacko characters, so the show relied more on light situations, and the laughs were sparse.

So why am I praising it? Maybe because I’m now popping Centrum® senior multivitamins, but I don’t require laughs like I once did. Just smiles. These days, old-fashioned settings and cornball humor, which Petticoat Junction had in spades, are (pardon the colloquialism)… fine and dandy.

Granny and Jethro Clampett are TV classics, and I love the crazed bumpkins in “Green Acres,” who lived in a strange, alternative universe. But Petticoat Junction, for me, is less frenzied.

Heavens to Betsy, I don’t want frenzy these days! What do I want? I’ll tell you: I want to recline in a rocking chair on the front porch of the Shady Rest Hotel, ogle the beautiful Bradley sisters, then mosey inside with Uncle Joe to sample Kate Bradley’s fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and gravy.

Bradley sisters, first lineup. L to R: Linda Kaye Henning, Pat Woodell, Jeannine Riley

Petticoat Junction (henceforth “PJ”) was one of three situation comedies (including the earlier “The Beverly Hillbillies” and the later “Green Acres”) created by a man named Paul Henning. Henning was a prolific writer of radio, television, and film. In 1962, he concocted an idea for a television show about a bunch of hillbillies who strike it rich, then move to swanky Beverly Hills, California. “The Beverly Hillbillies” was so successful, Henning was asked to invent another show. This would be PJ.

Henning came up with the show’s premise from stories his wife told of being a child in Eldon, Missouri, where her grandparents ran a hotel near some railroad tracks. She entertained Henning with anecdotes about the simple local folk, and the city slickers who checked into the hotel. Henning liked the contrast, which was sort of a reversal of “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

He called his fictional hotel the “Shady Rest,” situating it midway between the farm towns of Hooterville and Pixley. A three-car passenger train named the “Hooterville Cannonball” connected the two boroughs, but apparently went nowhere else (if you like trains, the “Cannonball” might be worthy of research). The town of Hooterville had a small grocery store run by a man named Sam Drucker (Frank Cady). Nearby lived various farmers, such as Fred, Doris, and Arnold Ziffle (the last-named a near-genius pig), Newt Kiley, catty Selma Plout, deaf Grandpappy Miller, ex-New Yorkers Oliver Wendell and Lisa Douglas, and others. But most of the action occurred in and around the Shady Rest Hotel.

Here, a widow named Kate Bradley (Bea Benaderet) managed the Shady Rest, along with her three luscious daughters: Billie Jo, Bobbie Jo, and Betty Jo. They were assisted… or unassisted… by Kate’s uncle, Joe Carson (Edgar Buchanan). There was also a frisky terrier with no name who was always upstaging Uncle Joe whenever Joe tried to concoct some new, failed business enterprise.

Additional characters included Cannonball engineers Charlie Pratt (Smiley Burnette), conductor Floyd Smoot (Rufe Davis), and bad guy Homer Bedloe (prolific character actor Charles Lane), who was forever trying to shut down the Cannonball. Later seasons featured cropduster Steve Elliott (Mike Minor), who eventually married Betty Jo, both in the show and in real life; engineer Wendell Gibbs (Byron Foulger); game warden Orrin Pike (Jonathan Daly); and Dr. Janet Craig (June Lockhart of “Lassie” and “Lost in Space”).

Bradley sisters, second lineup. L to R: Linda Kaye Henning, Lori Saunders, Gunilla Hutton

PJ ran for seven seasons. The cast frequently changed, which helped keep the show fresh. Three different actresses played blonde Billie Jo: Jeannine Riley, then Gunilla Hutton, then Meredith MacRae. Two actresses played brunette Bobbie Jo: Pat Woodell, then Lori Saunders. Redheaded Betty Jo was played throughout by Linda Kaye Henning, daughter of Paul (billed as “Linda Kaye” early on).

Edgar Buchanan, as Uncle Joe, was the only other principal actor besides Henning and Frank Cady to last the entire run. He was the closest thing to a wacko and provided many of the best laughs. He just wasn’t as good-looking as his nieces.

Along with its instantly recognizable theme song, music played a big part in PJ, both inside and outside the show. Actress Pat Woodell was a professional singer, and Meredith MacRae was the daughter of singer/actors Sheila (“The Honeymooners”) and Gordon MacRae (OKLAHOMA). During the 1963-64 season, the three Bradley girls and a friend (played by Sheila James from “Dobie Gillis”) formed a mop-top pop group called The Ladybugs, in response to the Beatles’ recent success (the actresses recorded a single as The Ladybugs and, like the Beatles, appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show”). In 1968-69, MacRae, Saunders, and Henning released two singles as The Girls from Petticoat Junction. And many episodes, particularly the later ones, featured group singalongs around the piano.

_________

Of the seven seasons that PJ aired, my favorites are seasons four and five. These featured Meredith MacRae, who played Billie Jo the longest.  Also, the fictional sisters’ personas had solidified: Billie Jo was ambitious and career-minded; Bobbie Jo was a cute airhead; and Betty Jo was the tomboy turned wife and mother.

Also, seasons four and five still featured Bea Benaderet as the mom, Kate Bradley. Benaderet was the most skilled actor in PJ. She’d had a long career in radio and television (she provided the voice for Betty Rubble in “The Flintstones”). She was so talented, that Paul Henning is on record saying that PJ existed only because he wanted to get Benaderet in a starring role.

Bea Benaderet

Sadly, Benaderet contracted lung cancer, and she missed much of season five. She died in 1968. Her place was taken by June Lockhart, who portrayed a doctor who takes up residence at the Shady Rest. Lockhart tried, but she couldn’t replace Benaderet. The show’s ratings declined.

PJ was canceled in 1970 at the beginning of an infamous “rural purge” by CBS. A lot had happened in America in the late 1960s, and CBS executives felt that comedies with rural themes were out of touch. Pat Buttram, who played Mr. Haney on “Green Acres,” famously said “(they) canceled everything with a tree.” Shows like PJ, “Green Acres,” and “Mayberry R.F.D.” were replaced by more urbane and topical sitcoms like “All in the Family,” “M.A.S.H.,” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

Those shows, and others from the 1970s, are comedic wonders, loaded with clever writing, characters, and trend-setting humor. But it’s a heterogenous world, and I feel there’s also a place for simpler, throwback shows like PJ. I’m grateful to MeTV for resurrecting this special show, which for some reason has been neglected by the suits at other cable stations.

If you like homespun simplicity, check out PJ, if not on MeTV, then on DVD. It won’t have you howling with laughter. But it has a simple grace that is especially welcomed in these graceless times.

Bradley sisters, third lineup. L to R: Linda Kaye Henning, Lori Saunders, Meredith MacRae (copyright Gene Howard)

Some interesting facts about PJ:

  • There were actually four Billie Jo’s. The original actress selected was Sharon Tate. She’s pictured in several early promo photos, but she resigned before taping because her agent felt she wasn’t ready for a major television role (some say it was because she had posed nude). She later popped up as a recurring guest character on “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
  • Pat Woodell, the original Bobbie Jo, left the show to become a singer. That didn’t work out well, and she returned to acting, appearing in several sexploitation flicks, including THE BIG DOLL HOUSE from 1971. She passed away in 2015.
  • The bright little terrier named “Dog” had the real name of “Higgins” and later was the star of the popular movie BENJIE, which also featured Edgar Buchanan.
  • Jeannine Riley and Gunilla Hutton, who both played Billie Jo, later jumped into the hay lofts of the variety show “Hee Haw” (another victim of CBS’s rural purge).
  • Before her one season in PJ, Gunilla Hutton was a chorus girl who toured with Nat King Cole. Cole became infatuated with Hutton, who was 19 years younger, and almost left his wife. He abandoned the fling after developing smoking-related lung cancer.
  • Mike Minor, who played handsome pilot Steve Elliott, was the son of Don Fedderson, creator of “My Three Sons.” He and Linda Kaye Henning were married five years, then divorced. Minor died in 2016.
  • Before PJ, Meredith MacRae played the girlfriend of the eldest Douglas boy in “My Three Sons.” (Shucks, why couldn’t the Bradley girls and Douglas boys ever hook up??). MacRae succumbed to brain cancer in 2000.
  • Lori Saunders’ real name is “Linda,” but she changed it to avoid confusion with Linda Kaye Henning. Saunders and Jeannine Riley later acted together in a failed sitcom called “Dusty’s Trail,” a clone of “Gilligan’s Isle” set in the West, starring Bob Denver and Forrest Tucker.
  • Smiley Burnette, who played engineer Charley Pratt, was a former Western radio and television star, a sidekick to both Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.  He was also a musical prodigy, and wrote many songs with Autry.
  • Frank Cady is the only actor to ever appear in three concurrent television shows (PJ, “Green Acres,” and “The Beverly Hillbillies”). He was in his 40s-50s when he played Sam Drucker. Cady lived to age 96, passing away in 2012.

(Wikipedia provided much of the information for this article. If you want to read an exhaustive analysis of the fictional town of Hooterville, click here. Someone devoted a lot of time to this subject. This person sounds even stranger than me.)