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.)

There is Nothing Wrong With Your Television Set…

50 yearsouter limits2

… Do not attempt to adjust the picture.

We are controlling transmission.

These were the ominous words of The Control Voice.  They were delivered with the authority and cold austerity of an Orwellian manipulator or Soviet Gulag director.  You did not dare touch the TV and defy The Control Voice.  The monsters and terrors encountered during the coming “great adventure” were intended for you and you alone.

Some people have Star Trek.  Others have The Twilight Zone, Dr. Who, or The X Files.  For me, the most intriguing science fiction and/or horror show ever on U.S. television was the original run of THE OUTER LIMITS.

THE OUTER LIMITS was a black-and-white, hour-long show that ran for two seasons on ABC in 1963-65.  It returned sporadically for syndicated reruns, and was resurrected (disappointingly) in 1995 as a totally new, colorized series.  Because September 16 is the 50th anniversary of the airing of the pilot of the series (“The Galaxy Being” starring Cliff Robertson), I’d like to pay homage to this offbeat but very influential TV show.

What was happening in September 1963?  Well, John F. Kennedy was U.S. president.  Nikita Khrushchev was Soviet Communist secretary.  Civilization was only 18 years from WWII, Nazism, and the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The U.S. had fought a war in Korea, undergone McCarthyism, and was jacking up a military presence in Vietnam.  The superpowers were also beginning to explore the frontiers of space.  Soviet pilot Yuri Gagarin had completed the first orbit of the Earth in 1961.  A year later, President Kennedy promised that America would beat the Soviets to the moon “in this decade.”

So while there was heady excitement over the space race in 1963, there was also concern about the nuclear arms race.  The U.S. and Soviet Union were at the height of their Cold War, with the Cuban Missile Crisis only narrowly averted in ’62.  It was against this backdrop that creator Leslie Stevens and producer/writer Joseph Stefano unveiled THE OUTER LIMITS.

galaxy being

The Galaxy Being

Stevens, a one-time night attendant at a mental hospital, had been writing for theatre and the screen since 1954.  He envisioned a show that had the acuteness of “The Twilight Zone,” but darker, with less plot-twisting and a larger dose of science-fiction, horror, and social commentary. He wanted to explore issues like warfare, atomic energy, totalitarianism, mind control, space exploration, etc. in the guise of a small morality play.  Like “The Twilight Zone,” THE OUTER LIMITS would be an anthology, and with alternating writers, directors, and actors for each show.

Stefano had written the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s infamous film “Psycho,” so he knew horror.  He led a cast of scriptwriters that included sci-fi novelist Harlan Ellison and Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Towne (“Chinatown”).  The other key ingredients were Oscar-winning cinematographer Conrad Hall, who specialized in the shadowy camera techniques of film noir, and composer Dominic Frontiere, whose creative music scores provided bold dramatic coloring (his music has since been released on CD; AllMusic critic Bruce Eder called it “the best music ever written for television”).

A number of young actors used THE OUTER LIMITS as a launching pad.  They included future stars Martin Landau, Martin Sheen, Bruce Dern, Robert Duvall, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Robert Culp, Sally Kellerman, Ed Asner, etc.

Martin Landau as Andro in "The Man Who was Never Born"

Martin Landau as Andro in “The Man Who was Never Born”

Others had been major stage and film stars and were on a career downswing, such as 1930s-40s star Miriam Hopkins, B-movie queen Gloria Grahame, and venerable actor Sir Cedric Hardwicke, whose last role was in the episode “The Forms of Things Unknown.” The big attraction for an impressionable kid like me was the monsters.  Although the costumes and makeup were primitive by today’s standards, some of these creatures could be literally nightmarish.  In fact, the monster created for one episode, “The Architects of Fear,” was considered so frightening by some ABC affiliates that they blackened it out!  Stevens and Stefano deliberately utilized these creatures, which they collectively called “the bear,” to create atmosphere and as a springboard for plot development.

A total of 49 episodes were created over the show’s two-year span, with the best airing during the first season.  After this, ABC in its infinite wisdom decided the show was too opaque and cynical for audiences, so they dumbed it down with simpler plots, more low-tech sci-fi and less true horror.  They also replaced Frontiere’s majestic scores with more mundane music and added a gimmicky Theremin sound device.  Producer Stefano, not surprisingly, resigned in disgust.  There are a few second-season shows that stand out, however, notably the Ellison-written “Demon with a Glass Hand” and the two-part show “The Inheritors.”

Here are a few of my favorite episodes (all from the first season):

Nightmare (starring Martin Sheen): a coalition of international astronauts lands on the black planet Ebon, hoping to rescue an earlier flight crew with whom Earth lost contact.  eboniteThey immediately become imprisoned by frightening Ebonites, and start behaving very strangely.  Are they truly prisoners of the Ebonites?  Or are they guinea pigs for sadistic torture experiments guided by their own leaders?  Does Dick Cheney know the answer?

The Guests (starring Luana Anders and Gloria Grahame): a drifter stumbles into an old house where the inhabitants never age.  Upstairs lives a massive alien blob that searches their brains for the “missing part of the equation.”  guestsWhat is the missing part?  Will the drifter and his new love – Tess – escape from the house?  Or will they forever be playing cornhole in darkened hallways?

The Zanti Misfits (starring Bruce Dern): a runaway criminal and his moll tumble upon a spaceship in the middle of the desert.  The craft is filled with hideous insect creatures, prisoners shipped from the planet Zanti, who escape and go on a rampage.  Is Zanti using Earth as its own little penal colony?  zantis2How should a society deal with the problem of overcrowded prisons?  Has Zanti ever considered decriminalizing soft drugs like marijuana?

Note: TV Guide selected this episode as one of its 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time.

The Sixth Finger (starring David McCallum): a scientist creates a machine to speed up human evolution.  A dim-witted coalminer becomes his first test case, and evolves into an arrogant creature that has the ability to read people’s minds.  sixth fingerHow far should science go before man is playing God?  If the human hand does eventually develop a sixth finger, what new gesture will we use when someone cuts us off in traffic?

We now return control of your television set to you… until next week at the same time, when The Control Voice will take you to…

outer limits2

The Girl With the Novocaine Lip

When I was a kid in the ‘60s there was a science-fiction horror show called THE OUTER LIMITS (Stephen King has since called it “the best show of its kind ever on TV”).  One of the episodes was entitled “The Guests.”  It was about a drifter who stumbles into an old Victorian house where the residents never grow old.  If they try to leave, they age rapidly and turn to dust.  One of the “guests” is a Norma Desmond-like silent film actress who pathetically clings to the idea she’s still a star.  In one particular scene, she slithers over to the drifter, gives him a peck on the lips, and says, “I had to do that.  It was my madcap heart.”  There’s a slight pause.  Then, “’My Madcap Heart’ was the name of my first bad picture.  Did you think I was sincere?”  At that moment I became smitten with Gloria Grahame.

Going back a few more years, to the late ‘40s and ‘50s: a style of film emerged in Hollywood that is today called “film noir” (“noir” being French for “dark”).  These films were much more downbeat and cynical than the buoyant adventures, musicals, and romances that proliferated until the end of WW2.  They were B&W crime pictures that usually featured a hard-boiled detective and a tough, sassy “dame.”  The cameras made heavy use of shadows, cigarette smoke, rain-soaked city streets, and train yards.  Most film noirs were low-budget ‘B’ movies featuring actors generally unrecognized today except by hardcore film buffs.  A few ‘A’ movies included DOUBLE INDEMNITY (Barbara Stanwyck), THE BIG SLEEP (Bogart and Bacall), and TOUCH OF EVIL (Orson Welles).  If you’ve ever seen Leslie Nielsen in the hilarious NAKED GUN series, well, film noir is what those comedies are spoofing.

Mention the name Gloria Grahame to any male film noir buff and he’ll hyperventilate and gush “Ahhh yes…the girl with the novocaine lip!”  Grahame is today considered one of the queens of film noir.  She only made about eight noirs, but they are some of the best and most beloved of the genre.  Grahame was somewhat ahead of her time.  Her looks and acting had a sleaziness closer to today’s femme fatales.  There was always a hint of the forbidden about her.  I’ll put it bluntly: she oozed sex.

She also made a number of movies outside of film noir.  Her most visible roles were as town flirt Violet Bick in the Christmas classic IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE starring Jimmy Stewart; and as plucky Ado Annie Carnes in the film version of OKLAHOMA!  The last-named was made in 1955 and is responsible for driving Grahame’s movie career to a halt.  Not so much because she was tone deaf, couldn’t sing, and was miscast in a family musical, but because her truculent behavior (she crushed the cowboy hat of a co-star) pissed off everyone on the set.  The word went out that Grahame was “difficult,” and producers and directors stayed away.

But there were a couple other reasons her career dried up.  One was her boisterous private life.  She had four stormy marriages and divorces.  She is also rumored to have slept with her 14-year-old stepson (they later married and had two kids – after he turned 21!).  She also had a series of surgeries on her mouth and chin to make herself look sexier – long before plastic surgery became fashionable.  During one operation in Germany, the doctor accidentally severed a nerve, rendering her upper lip immobile and earning her the sobriquet that titles this essay.  Needless to say, Hollywood distanced itself even further from her.

In the ‘60s and early ‘70s Grahame popped up occasionally on popular television shows – like THE OUTER LIMITS – usually portraying a washed-up actress or conniving stepmother.  She had some cameo film roles in the ‘70s, as well as leading roles in drive-in exploitation trash with titles like MAMA’S DIRTY GIRLS and MANSION OF THE DOOMED.  She also did a lot of stage work (her first love).  Grahame died in 1981 from complications due to breast cancer.

November 28 (tomorrow) is her birthday, and Turner Classic Movies (TCM) is honoring her by showing a bunch of her movies.  So those of you unfamiliar with Gloria Grahame, and who can access TCM, can see why longitudes is making such a fuss.  If you can only see a few movies, on TCM or elsewhere, I recommend CROSSFIRE (Robert Mitchum), IN A LONELY PLACE (Humphrey Bogart), and THE BIG HEAT (Glenn Ford and Lee Marvin).  All three are not only excellent examples of film noir, but my girlfriend Gloria is at her absolute best.  I’ll allow you to feast your eyes for a while.  Just don’t get too close.