Twenty-Five All Time Great American Television Shows
In the 1960s there was Magic on American Television.
Advertisers and Viewers Demanded Better Shows
The Shows that made the 1960s Wondrous
- The Twilight Zone
- The Outer Limits
- Have Gun, Will Travel
- Lost in Space
- Star Trek
- My Favorite Martian
- I Dream of Jeannie
- The Munsters
- The Addams Family
- The Flying Nun
- The Wild Wild West
- The Man from UNCLE
- The Green Hornet
The Fabulous 1960s
The 1960s might have started out with the usual family comedies, such as The Dick van Dyke show, where the sets were minimal and you had the occasional guest star to shake things up but then came programs such as My Favorite Martian, Bewitched, Gilligan's Island and I dream of Jeanie.
Key events occurred after the 2nd World War and in the 1950s that would make television in the 1960s something special. Increases in station revenue from advertising and the demands for better, more sophisticated shows are two prime answers. But how did these increases and demands come about?
It was predicted that, after the 2nd World War, the USA would crawl back into the deep, dark hole of another Great Depression that would spread to encompass the rest of the world.
Since it was the 2nd World War that had gotten the USA out of the depression that kicked off in 1929, it was reasonable to assume that the ending of this global conflict would throw the USA back into that deep, dark hole. This didn't happen. Economists still speculate as to how and why the economy jogged down a different track to prosperity.
American factories were quick, in some instances, to go from war production to the production of household goods. New materials, including plastics, came on the market. Teenagers started earning more and also spending more. Catering specifically for them steered the economy in at least one fresh direction.
There was a certain optimism that was infectious and had, indeed, infected all walks of American life. This optimism was on radio and on television. There was an attempt to get somewhere with this with the Gidget movies and also the Gidget television series. Surf and sun in summer were in.
Westerns, such as Wanted Dead or Alive and Gunsmoke, however, continued to capture television audiences as did Westerns at the cinema. .
Americans were still being urged in the 1950s to buy government bonds but the need to do so was waning. Companies such as Coke Cola had spread their product across the globe during the 2nd World War and so the demand for American products had become more global.
A black mark on all of this was the growing Cold War. Certainly there was a strong industry in the USA aimed at creating more weapons of mass destruction for a new global conflict everyone hoped would never arrive. There was also the Korean War which started about five years after the 2nd World War.
How did this affect television? As with the movies, anyone in the entertainment industry that might have ties with Communism were scrutinized.
Actors, directors and script writers came to be black listed. In other words, they could no longer work in the movies or on television. Actors had to be careful what they said on television and script writers had to be very careful what they wrote. This tamed down drama for a long while.
There was an easing off in the 1960s, however, that allowed for at least some political discussion. Script writers found their hands not quite as securely bound as they once had been.
Westerns were considered sure fire viewing pleasure in both the 1950s and 1960s. Shows such as Rifleman, Rawhide, Wagon Train, Daniel Boone and Bonanza were popular. There were, however, westerns such as Have Gun - Will Travel and The Wild Wild West that pushed the boundaries of what a western could be.
There had been science fiction shows on American television going back to the early days. Movie serials with science fiction themes could easily be transferred to the small screen at not much cost. It was even possible to create movie serials for television that, at a time when not everyone had a set, could also be shown at the cinema.
Anthology type shows such as The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) came to break new ground with more intelligent offerings to the viewing public.
There was also The Outer Limits (1963- 1965). This anthology show was rarely about friendly visitors from outer space.
My Favorite Martian (1963-1966) was a friendlier look at visitors from other worlds.
Then there was Lost in Space (1965-1968) which took a family to other planets and finally Star Trek (1966-1969).
The makers of Star Trek didn't have a huge budget to work with and the sound stages first used for the show were old and not really suited to what the show was about. Even so, in its three years, a lot of areas to do with what was both right and wrong with the world were covered. It was daring having someone of African descent in an important position on board a starship.
There was at least one episode that dealt with how ridiculous racism might appear to an outsider. Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the show, had to fight to keep Spok, an alien with pointed ears, as part of the crew. The show's optimism concerning a future for the human race, where an atomic war hadn't wiped everything out and humans were reaching for the stars, fit the times like a glove.
Fantasy shows such as Bewitched (1964-1972) and I Dream of Jeannie (1965- 1970) had their lighthearted appeal.
There was the concern when Bewitched first started up that the American Bible belt would not take kindly to an attractive witch living in what was then modern America.
With I Dream of Jeannie there was the fear that some viewers wouldn't take kindly to a young woman in a skimpy costume living unmarried with a male astronaut. Jeannie, however, was a magic creature rather than your average young lady. Besides, it was made obvious that she slept in her bottle and not on the astronaut's bed.
The mini-skirt and mod music were featured at times in both shows. There was the question raised as to what is art and there was also women's liberation. Bewitched and I dream of Jeannie swung with the times.
The Flying Nun (1967-1970) was an American fantasy show set and, to some extent, filmed in Puerto Rico. Among other things, there was the hope of not only national but also international appeal. It was a favorite among Australians as was the earlier surfer chick show Gidget (1965-1966). Sally Fields starred in both.
Such shows took some of the sting out of the Vietnam War. Even so, the fact that young men now had something to say about being drafted into battle was still there in the daily news.
An unusual show for this period was the crime buster thriller The Untouchables. It starred Robert Stack as Elliot Ness, the head of a group of government men who could not be bought by gangsters.
A more recent show along similar lines is Boardwalk Empire which is also set in the era of prohibition when it was not always easy to find an honest cop.
By the 1960s viewers were getting sick of family sitcoms based around ideal families. In the pages of The New Yorker, Charles Addams had been putting lit dynamite under your so-called average family with his Addams Family cartoons since the 1930s. They had proved to be popular. Could they be translated into a live action television show?
In 1964 chances were taken and The Addams Family, starring John Astin (Gomez) and Carolyn Jones (Morticia) hit the small screen. Admittedly, Carolyn Jones in tight black kept many a male viewer fascinated with this series.
Strangely enough, The Addams Family wasn't the only American show of 1964 pushing the macabre for all it was worth. Take your old Universal horror movie characters, make a family out of them and you have The Munsters.
Ideas came from Britain. Spy vs Spy concepts took off. There was wondrous gadgetry in the early James Bond films. There was also wondrous gadgetry in The Wild Wild West (1965-1969), The Man from UNCLE (1964-1968) and The Girl from UNCLE (1966-1967).
There were stabs at doing live action superhero stories. There was Batman (1966-1968), The Green Hornet (1966-1967) and Captain Nice (1967).
Over all, the 1960s was a time in American television for the sort of experimentation and wild flights of fancy that might never come again. In the 21st Century there have been other forms of experimentation and somewhat darker flights of fancy.
Somehow it became Okay in 2006 to have a Serial Killer Loose on Television
From The Walking Dead to Magic to Outer Space, War and the Wondrous Surf.
Which Television show of this Twenty-five do you like the most?See results without voting
The All Time Great Twenty-Five!
1. The Walking Dead (2010-)
The show opens with images of time no longer having the importance it once had. What is of greatest meaning happens to be survival. The question is put to the viewer continually whether it should be survival at any cost.
Flesh eating zombies have been dealt with before in such films as Day of the Dead. They have not, however, been dealt with on a television show with such drama and fantastic use of special effects. Starring Andrew Lincoln and Jon Bernthal, this is must see television.
2. Hell on Wheels (2011-)
This show is roughly about the building of the first transcontinental railroad across the USA. There are North American Indians to deal with who know that their way of life will change forever with the coming of the iron horse.
Among the workers there are old wounds, both mental and physical, still to heal from the American Civil War. Memories of Andersonville, the worst of the Confederate prisons, crops up. Starring Anson Mount and Colm Meaney (who some viewers might remember from Star Trek: The Next Generation and also Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), this is a western with bite.
3. The Dresden Files (2007)
Take a modern day wizard with a seedy past, put him in Chicago where strange things are happening and you have The Dresden Files. Based on the novels by Jim Butcher and starring Paul Blackthorne as Harry Dresden, this Canadian television series went before its time.
4. Fringe (2008- 2013)
The premise for this show is slightly reminiscent of the earlier and less sophisticated British sci-fi show Doomwatch (1970-72). There are people doing nasty things with relatively new science, including horrific murders.
A federal task force has been set up to deal with them. Starring Anna Torv and Joshua Jackson, you have one definitely mad scientist, his son and a female law enforcement agent with savvy. Those are the good guys. On the other side you have a big corporation playing God by pushing the boundaries of what is possible. There's spy vs spy here too.
5. Dexter (2006- 2013)
Based on a series of novels by Jeff Lindsay, this was one show with teeth. Take a boy traumatized into becoming a serial killer by the brutal death of his mother and put him with a policeman who will train him to kill other serial killers.Have this boy grow up with a girl he regards as his sister. Then have the lad become a blood splatter expert for the Miami Metro Police Department while his sister becomes a detective.
There were plenty of twists and turns in this show to keep viewers glued to their televisions. Starring Michael C. Hall as Dexter Morgan and Jennifer Carpenter as his sweet though often foul-mouthed sister Debra Morgan, this show changed the very nature of what one might expect to see broadcast.
6. Smallville (2001- 2011)
There had been other less successful attempts to bring Superboy to the small screen. In the mid-1960s there was the animated series The Adventures of Superboy which had a three year run. Superboy or The Adventures of Superboy (1988- 1992) was a live action effort starring Gerard Christopher as Superboy and Stacy Haiduk as Lana Lang.The special effects were great for the time but, over all, the show lacked luster and direction.
The main task of the team who put together Smallville was to find a new direction. Science Fiction was very popular and so boosting that angle made for a good start.
The child who would someday become Superman would travel to earth in a space craft as had long ago been established. There would also be a meteor storm from the planet Krypton breaking up that would tie Lana Lang (Kristin Kreuk), Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum) and Smallville more firmly to Superman's origins.
Lana would lose her parents in the havoc caused by the falling bits of Krypton. Lex would lose his hair.
Also there was the question of kryptonite. It had never made much sense that the radiation from it could have various affects on someone from Krypton, depending on its color, but have absolutely no affect on humans. Obviously this also annoyed those responsible for Smallville. In this series, kryptonite can, for better or worse, do strange things to humans.
Chloe Sullivan (Allison Mack), one of the characters specifically created for the show, eventually develops healing powers from her long term exposure to kryptonite.
It can be noted that Annette O'Toole, who played Martha Kent to perfection, was Lana Lang in Superman III (1983). Erica Durance made for a charmingly fiesty Lois Lane.
Smallville started off as a high powered special effects show and it continued, up to cancellation, to deliver the goods. Tom Welling was a good choice to play the young Clark Kent who would, in the final season, put on the red cape.
7. Dead Like Me (2003-2004)
Starring Ellen Muth, this started out as one weird puppy of a show and it just got weirder. Apparently not everyone who passes away actually go somewhere. There are those who become Grim Reapers, collectors of souls, instead.
In the pilot episode, Georgia Lass (Ellen Muth) is hit by a Russian toilet seat that came off a Russian space station. Before she dies her soul is taken from her body and, soon after that, she's recruited by the local head reaper Rube (Mandy Patinkin).
The transition from life to semi-life isn't easy for Georgia. She misses her family. As a reaper she isn't supposed to have any contact with her past life.
Job-wise, she hadn't been doing much with her life before it ended and sort of started up again. She discovers she still has to eat and have a place to stay. What's more, reaping doesn't pay the bills. Hence she finds work in an office that seems to specialize in getting very little done. One of Rube's team is a Mason (Callum Blue), a British drug addict not really trying very hard for redemption.
8. Sliders (1995- 2000)
Take a boy genius (Jerry O'Connell) who has invented a device that can enable him to travel between dimensions via an artificial wormhole. Throw in a girl (Sabrina Lloyd) who is keen on him and an old professor (John Rhys-Davies). Now have them all slide without being anchored to their own dimension so they will have a tough time finding their way back home. Oh, and toss in a singer on his last legs for good measure (Cleavant Derricks).
Imagine a USA that has turned Communist. Wonder at a USA where the lawyers have completely taken over. This show had fun, excitement and plenty of juicy social commentary going for it.
9. Bewitched (1964- 1972)
This is one of the longest running fantasy shows to hit television. Take one witch, Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery) and marry her to a mortal, Darren Stephens (Dick York) then, just for fun, throw into the mix one disapproving mother-in-law, Endora (Agnes Moorehead). What's the result? A comedy with lots of magic. Elizabeth Montgomery shines and Agnes Moorehead bristles magnificently. Meanwhile Dick York as Darren changes into all manner of creatures when he tries to make a place for himself in his own household.
Due to back problems, Dick York left the show and was replaced in 1969 by Dick Sargent.
10. Gidget (1965- 1966)
Starring Sally Field, this was a show about a teenage girl and her adventures. Scenes of surfing and beach life in general along the California coast made it popular with Australians who could readily dig the beach culture because it mirrored their own. It ran for one season only but later did well in reruns.
It was fine back then for girls surfing and swimming to wear bikinis. Nowadays there's some Muslim opposition to bikini wearing and so we can but smile at the wonderful freedom that was indisputably there in the 1960s.
11. The Flying Nun (1967-1970)
Based on the book The Fifteenth Pelican by Tere Rios and starring Sally Fields, this show was an instant hit that petered out after a while. Starring Sally Fields as the nun capable of flight, it had novelty value to begin with plus beautiful scenes of Puerto Rico. The cast also included Madeleine Sherwood and Marge Redmond.
12. The Munsters (1964- 1966)
This was the show about a family that that had moved from the old country, Transylvania, to the USA. What made this family different? Herman Munster (Fred Gwynne), the head of the house when his wife. Lilly lets him, had originally been put together in a lab. Lilly happened to be a vampire as so was her father, better known as Grandpa (Al Lewis). There was also a child with werewolf tendencies (Butch Patrick). The only normal looking member of the family was Marilyn whom the others thought of as an ugly duckling because she didn't have a monstrous appearance. Marilyn was originally played by Beverley Owen but she was replaced fairly early by Pat Priest.
Fred Gwynne and Al Lewis has worked together on the cop comedy Car 54 Where are You? On The Munsters they made such a powerful comedic team they have been compared with Abbot and Costello and also Laurel and Hardy.
Grandpa was forever experimenting and cackling like the mad scientist he was. Herman required the occasional tune-up in the family dungeon. Lilly tried to get Marilyn a boyfriend but, unbeknownst to her, most of the lads thought the young lady to be a top notch but freaked out when they met the rest of her family. The freaking out was somehow taken as proof by Herman that Marilyn wasn't all that attractive.
As the show progressed, Herman became more child like and Grandpa more crafty. Eddie, the son of Herman and Lilly, didn't always fit in at school. This usually evolved into a father and son talk in which Herman either got confused or actually learned something. The show was killed by poor writing in the final season. Up to that time the scripting and the acting had complemented each other in being both sensational.
13. The Addams Family (1964-1966)
This wasn't your average family. The kids played with dynamite, the husband liked blowing up model trains, the wife fed meat balls to a carnivorous plant called Cleopatra. the uncle lit up a light bulb by placing it in his mouth and Granny was handy with a knife. Starring John Astin as Gomez, the male head of the family and Carolyn Jones as Morticia, as the female head, this was a guaranteed per episode trip into the weird.
The characters were well realized but the show suffered a little from cramped sets and over used props. Uncle Fester was played by Jackie Coogan who got his start as a child actor during the silent days of cinema. Lurch was played by Ted Cassidy. Other actors over the years have tried to be Lurch but without much success. None have quite got his personally or lack thereof quite right. There was the occasional guest appearance of Cousin It - the long hair of the family.
The continuing love affair between Gomez and Morticia that would heat up whenever she spoke French was a highlight of the show. It was nice to know that the flames of passion need not die out simply because you happen to be married to each other.
14. Have Gun - Will Travel (1957-1963)
It was highly unusual to have a Western based around the adventures of a hired gun. In fact Have Gun - Will Travel is the only one I know of. Paladin (Richard Boone) lived in San Francisco and was hired out from there. He wore black and his sign was the chess piece knight. Despite his profession, he was always on the side of the angels in his dealings with both the lawful and the lawless.
There was a send up of Paladin in the Western comedy Evil Roy Slade (1972) which starred John Astin as the evil one. Unlike Paladin in Have Gun - Will Travel viewers really wanted retired Marshall Bing Bell, the silly send up, to finally bite the dust.
15. The Wild Wild West (1965- 1969)
This came with fascinating scene changes and commercial breaks. Secret agents James West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin), working for President Grant, are sent on various missions via their own private train. There are gimmicks galore and villains from mad dictators to top grade assassins to contend with. The west had never been wilder.
16. BATMAN (1966- 1969)
Starring Adam West and Burt Ward, this was one live action costumed crime fighter series that didn't take itself too seriously. It played on the idea of being something out of a comic book. The sets were bizarre and so were the villains.
As the show took off in the ratings, big name actors started lining up to take on the dynamic duo. The first big name was Cesar Romero who delighted audiences as The Joker. He refused to shave off his trade mark moustache so white powder was used to disguise it.
17. M.A.S.H (1972- 1983)
Starring Alan Alda as surgeon Hawkeye Pierce and Loretta Swit as head nurse Major Margaret Houlihan, this started out as a ho-hum comedy set in Korea during the Korean War but became the greatest anti-war television series so far produced.
Loretta's character went from being a running joke to someone you could sympathize with and care about. Alan's character went from being the life of the party to something much more complex. The show was about a fictional mobile army surgical hospital that had a great success record for treating the wounded.
At the time there was no way in the USA that a drama/comedy show about the rights and wrongs of the Vietnam War could be aired. That would come later. The Korean War, however, had long been over so it could be made into a fine substitute.
Though based on the 1970 film by the same name and also the 1968 novel by Richard Hooker, the anti-war sentiment shown reflects more the 1970s going into the 1980s than the 1950s.
One highlight of the latter half of the series was the introduction of Charles Emerson Winchester III played superbly by David Ogden Stiers. He was meant to replace Frank Burns (Larry Linville) as the clown of the surgical outfit. This didn't happen. Winchester, at times, did get up the nose of Hawkeye but there were also times when he was right and Hawkeye was wrong.
Winchester's humanity shone through in certain wonderful episodes. There was a time when he befriended a stuttering soldier. This seemed odd until we learn that his sister, whom he had some affection for, was also a stutterer.
Another time he refused to donate to the local orphans at Christmas because doing so openly was not the Winchester way. He gave candy shipped in especially from Boston through a secret arrangement with the head of the orphanage. Max Klinger (Jamie Farr) found out but kept quiet about it.
18. I Dream of Jeannie (1965- 1970)
Take one astronaut, Major Anthony Nelson (Larry Hagman), and add one beautiful female genie (Barbara Eden) to his life. The result? Continuous mayhem on earth and occasionally in outer space. This was a fast paced show for its time. The genie was supposed to obey the astronaut but that was very rarely the case.
19. The Man from U.N.C.L.E (1964- 1968)
Starring Robert Vaughn (Napoleon Solo) and David McCallum (Illya Kuryakin) , this was a spy vs spy show with strange scene changes, up to date weaponry, and gadgetry. The main enemy of U.N.C.L.E was THRUSH. Their main aim was the taking over of the world. Here the Russians, for the most part, are on the side of the Americans. Perhaps there was hope at the time that the Cold War couldn't last forever.
20. Star Trek (1966- 1969)
Created by Gene Roddenberry, this show took science fiction to new heights. It also spawned quite a few novels, comic books, television series such as Enterprise, and movies. It follows the crew of a starship on their five year mission of exploration.
Starring William Shatner as Captain Kirk and Leonard Nimoy as Spok, it not only took viewers to other planets but delved into the human condition. Spok was half human and half alien. His presence on board make the United federation of Planets seem more a reality.
Shatner appeared in at least one episode of The Outer Limits before becoming Captain Kirk. Shows such as The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, and Lost in Space showed what could be done in terms of science fiction on the small screen. Without such shows Star Trek might never have come into existence. There have been Star Trek conventions as far afield as Sydney, Australia.
21. The Greatest American Hero (1981-1983)
Ralph Hinkley( William Katt), a high school teacher who dealt with difficult kids on a daily basis, was given a special suit by an alien keen to save our world from destruction. He was partnered by FBI agent Bill Maxwell (Robert Culp) who continually wished the alien had given him the suit instead. Now throw into this mix Ralph's girlfriend and lawyer Pam Davidson (Connie Sellecca) and you have all that are in the know concerning what Ralph was given. It came with an instruction manual which Ralph managed to lose not only once but twice.
The humor of the show was based on the fact that the powers within the suit were unpredictable. Ralph could fly but in a wobbly sort of way and generally screaming for dear life. Crooks and spies were caught. Occasionally the planet was saved from such things as nuclear devastation.
22. The Untouchables (1959- 1963)
Starring Robert Stack as Eliot Ness, this was a hard hitting crime show set in and around the prohibition era. There were fictional elements here but also plenty of action. There was machine gun play and tossed bombs.
Dirty rackets were cleaned up. The name Untouchables comes from the idea that the men in Ness' small army, including Ness himself, cannot be bribed. In one episode Ness is offered money to stay out of the way and gets to slap the person offering the bills around.
By making drinking alcohol (generally speaking) illegal, Prohibition in the USA promoted crime. Many Americans couldn't see the sense in the new law against alcohol. Hence criminals not only found new ways of making money but also an acceptance they had never had before. This acceptance ended when public killings among criminals vying for distribution territory increased.
It was because of lack of regulation that there were victims of poorly made liquor. Some people were sent blind by it. Others took a one way trip to the morgue. As it turned out, it was better to have drinking alcohol legal and the production of it properly regulated for safety reasons if nothing else. For a documentary about this time period in American history Ken Burns' Prohibition series is highly recommended.
23. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997- 2003)
Starring Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy Summers, vampire slayer, this show put new vim and vigor into the vampire myth. There were not only vampires to put to rest but also demons of all shapes and sizes. The most fascinating demon to cross Buffy's path was a twisted tap-dancing fellow who turned an episode of the show into one hell of a musical.
24. Due South (1994- 1999)
Take Constable Benton Fraser (Paul Gross), a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer, get him sent to Chicago and then have him team up with a Chicago Detective Raymond Vecchio (David Marciano). Throw in a deaf wolf and Vecchio's sister, Francesca (Ramona Milano) and you have an impressive action packed comedy.
When pushed to it Fraser comes on like some kind of Canadian superhero leaving Vecchio playing catch up. There's also the attraction women seem to have for Fraser which he can't always see but at times annoys the hell out of Vecchio. There's also the issue of Canadians in general being incredibly polite folk.
25. Ugly Betty (2006- 2010)
Take a bright young Mexican American woman named Betty Suarez (America Ferrera) who doesn't happen to be a human stick insect. Next make her a secretary for a boss who runs a fashion magazine. The magazine being the perfect place for your human stick insect. Toss in some gossip mongers and the occasional murder mystery and you have Ugly Betty.
Great scene changes in this show plus great sets made it something special. There were also memorable performances from Eric Mabius as Daniel Meade (Betty's not always with it boss), Becky Newton (a terribly good office gossip) and Vanessa Williams (playing the vixen of the office.)
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