Tuesday, September 30, 2014

1964-1965: The Greatest Television Season Ever?

Among classic film buffs 1939 is generally considered the greatest year for film ever, although a few might make an argument for 1954 as well. Among classic television buffs there seems to be no general agreement as to what was the greatest season for American episodic television, but it could well have been exactly fifty years ago. The 1964-1965 season saw the debut of several classic television shows that still air today in syndication. Indeed, it could well have seen the debut of more classic shows than any other year. Quite simply, what 1939 is for classic film, the 1964-1965 season could be for classic television.

To give an idea of just how remarkable the 1964-1965 season was, such shows as The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Shindig, Daniel Boone, Bewitched, Peyton Place, The Addams Family, The Munsters, Jonny Quest, Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C.,Gilligan's Island, and Flipper all debuted that season. What is more, that list does not include every single classic show (or at least every show that has persisted in syndication) to debut that season. One would be hard pressed to find another year in American television when so many shows debuted that would remain on the air for literally years after ending their network runs.

Of course, here it must be pointed out that the mid-Sixties as a whole tended to be among the very best years for American episodic television shows. If one were to choose a season when American episodic television began what could be called a "Golden Age", it could well have been the 1963-1964 season, when such shows as The Fugitive, My Favourite Martian, The Outer Limits, Petticoat Junction, The Patty Duke Show, and Burke's Law debuted. And while American episodic television shows seem to have peaked in the 1964-1965 season, the following two seasons would see a large number of classic television shows debut as well: F Troop, Green Acres, I Spy, I Dream of Jeannie, The Wild Wild West, and Batman all debuted in the 1965-1966 season, while The Monkees, Star Trek, The Green Hornet, and Mission: Impossible all debuted in the 1966-1967 season. American episodic television shows seem to have reached their peak in quality from the fall of 1963 to the summer of 1967, with an inordinately large number of classic shows debuting during that time. And the peak of that era appears to have been the 1964-1965 season.

Indeed, the 1964-1965 season produced some shows that were fairly unique, either for the era or perhaps even in television history. Peyton Place, which debuted on 15 September 1964, was the first successful prime time soap opera. While it would not remain the only prime time soap opera for long (CBS debuted its own, Our Private World, in May 1965), it would set the pace for all prime time soap operas to come. Without Peyton Place there might not have been Dallas, Knot's Landing, or Melrose Place.

The 1964-1965 season would also see two primetime animated series. Now animated series airing in primetime were not unusual in the Sixties. The debut of The Flintstones in 1960 had sparked a cycle towards primetime cartoons. That having been said, most followed The Flintstones' example as a half hour comedy. Jonny Quest was a half hour adventure series that was designed and created by comic book artist Doug Wildey. It had much more in common with the adventure shows of the era than it did The Flintstones or The Jetsons. The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo was also a very different sort of primetime animated show for the era. The series placed UPA's popular character Mr. Magoo (voiced by Jim Backus) in adaptations of literary classics. Sadly, both shows only lasted one season, although Jonny Quest would reappear on Saturday morning and in syndication.

Another unique show that debuted in the 1964-1965 season was Daniel Boone. While Westerns had been very common on American television in the late Fifties and were still plentiful in the mid-Sixties, dramas set in the American Colonies before there was even a United States have always been very rare. This set Daniel Boone, which centred on the legendary frontier hero in the 1770s, apart from other shows on at the time (and for that matter, shows that have aired ever since). While the show did play fast and loose with American history, it was well written and well acted. It proved to be successful enough to last six seasons and has persisted in syndication ever since.  

Daniel Boone naturally appealed to children, as did another rather unique show, Flipper. Flipper centred around the bottlenose dolphin of the title, a close friend of the Chief Warden of Coral Key Park and Marine Preserve, Porter Ricks (Brian Kelly), and his family. The show proved very popular with youngsters and produced a large number of merchandise. It also went onto a fairly successful run in syndication. Sadly, since the show has aired there has been controversy over the treatment of the dolphins on the show

While there were several unique shows that debuted in the 1964-1965 season, there would be other shows that were either part of an ongoing cycle or, in one instance, a show that actually started a cycle. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was the first show in a cycle towards spy shows that would soon overtake the American broadcast networks. It was also part of a larger cycle (I suppose one would call it a "supercyle") towards shows with fantastic elements that had begun in the 1963-1964 season with The Outer Limits and My Favourite Martian. Indeed, it must be pointed out that the science fiction series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea also debuted in the 1964-1965 season. The following seasons would see the debuts of such sci-fi/fantasy shows as Lost in Space, The Wild Wild West, Time Tunnel, and Star Trek.

Of course the best known shows in the Sixties supercycle towards sci-fi and fantasy might well have belonged to a cycle towards situation comedies that used  the premise of an ordinary person living with an individual who has extraordinary abilities--what I call "supernatural companion" shows. The progenitor of the "supernatural companion" genre was the Fifties sitcom Topper, based on Thorne Smith's novel and the 1937 film of the same name. Topper would prove successful in syndication and would be joined on the airwaves by Mister Ed in 1961. While Mister Ed would prove popular, however, it was the debut of My Favourite Martian in 1963 that sparked an entire cycle towards "supernatural companion" shows. The 1964-1965 season would see the debut of two more "supernatural companion" shows: the classic Bewitched and the cult show My Living Doll. The 1965-1966 season would see the debut of even more: I Dream of Jeannie, My Mother the Car, and The Smothers Brothers Show.

Not only would two more shows that used premise of an ordinary person living with a person with extraordinary abilities debut in the 1964-1965 season, but so too would two shows that were essentially their inverse: extraordinary individuals either living with a normal person or living on their own. The first of these was The Addams Family, based on Charles Addams's cartoons about a macabre extended family. The Addams Family proved popular and would eventually spark a media franchise that included Saturday morning cartoons, feature films, and a musical. The second of these shows was The Munsters. The Munsters centred on the family of that name who resembled monsters from the classic Universal horror movies except for cousin Marilyn, who looked like an ordinary, if very pretty, blonde. The Munsters regarded themselves as a normal family and were often surprised by others' reactions to them. Like The Addams Family, The Munsters proved popular and has lasted in syndication ever since.

Another classic show that was part of an ongoing cycle was also a spinoff of another popular show. The 1962-1963 season saw the start of a cycle towards service comedies that included McHale's Navy. Over the next few years a few service comedies would debut each season, and in the 1964-1965 season one of the most successful debuted. Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. was a spin off of The Andy Griffith Show, wherein the none too bright gas station attendant from Mayberry joined the United States Marines. Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. proved very popular and remained in the top ten shows every season for which it was on. When its star, Jim Nabors, decided that he wanted to pursue other things, the show ended its network run and has stayed in syndication ever since.

The success Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. saw in syndication was not unusual for shows debuting in the 1964-1965 season, Indeed, an inordinately large number of them went onto success in syndication and are still running today. Indeed, the 1964-1965 season saw the debut of the all time champion of syndicated reruns. Gilligan's Island has been repeated more than any other show in the history of American television, even I Love Lucy.

Of course, while many of the shows from the 1964-1965 season would see success in syndication and are still rerun today, yet others would only last one season and would be largely forgotten. Among these is the aforementioned My Living Doll. While the show received good reviews and had a following while it was on, it also had low ratings and was cancelled after only 26 episodes. Regardless, it would have a lasting impact. Not only did the phrase "does not compute" originate on the show, but it may well have had an influence on other "supernatural companion" sitcoms, particularly I Dream of Jeannie.

Another lost gem from the 1964-1965 season was The Rogues. In a less competitive season The Rogues might well have been a hit. The show starred David Niven, Charles Boyer, and Gig Young as a trio of related grifters who used their skills for good in conning the wicked. Messrs. Niven, Boyer, and Young, rotated being the lead in episodes, so that it was rare two or more of them appeared together. The Rogues received a good deal of critical acclaim and even won the Golden Globe Award for Best TV Show, as well being nominated for two Emmy Awards. Unfortunately the show had the misfortune of airing against the popular Candid Camera on CBS and The ABC Sunday Night Movie. It was cancelled after one season. Currently it is airing on ME-TV on very early Saturday mornings.

The Rogues wasn't the only critically acclaimed show that would fall victim to low ratings. While we generally think of escapist shows when we think of American television in the Sixties, the early to mid-Sixties saw a cycle towards socially relevant or social realist shows that included The Defenders, East Side/West Side, and Mr. Novak. Among the last shows in this cycle was another lost gem from 1964-1965, Slattery's People.  Slattery's People was another lost gem from the 1964-1965 season. The show centred on  Richard Crenna as state legislator James Slattery. The series received a good deal of critical acclaim, and was also nominated for Emmys for Outstanding Dramatic Series, Outstanding Dramatic Programme (for the episode "Rally 'Round Your Own Flag, Mister"), and Outstanding Individual Achievements in Entertainment - Actors and Performers (for Richard Crenna). Even politicians were happy with the show.  U.S. Representative James C. Corman of California even going so far as to praise it in the Congressional Record. Unfortunately Slattery's People found itself airing against the still popular Ben Casey and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. It ended its run after one season.

While the 1964-1965 season would produce a number of classic TV shows that have remained popular fifty years after their debut, in some ways it is difficult to say why the mid-Sixties was such a good time for episodic television. Much of it may have been due to the fact that many veterans of classic film had moved into the relatively young medium of television. A perfect example of this is The Rogues. Not only had its leads been movie stars, but its creators were also veterans of film. Ben Roberts and Ivan Goff had also co-written the screenplays for such films as White Heat (1949) and Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951).  The Rogues wasn't the only show with links to classic film. Nat Perrin, who produced The Addams Family, had written gags for Groucho Marx on many of the classic Marx Brothers films, and written such screenplays as Song of the Thin Man (1947).  Even the much maligned Gilligan's Island had links to classic film in the form of star Jim Backus and director Ida Lupino (who actually directed several hours of television in the Fifties and Sixties). Bewitched, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. My Living Doll, and many others shows that debuted during the season had links to classic film.

While many of the creative personnel on the 1964-1965 American television shows had begun working in the Golden Age of Hollywood, yet others had risen up through the ranks during what is widely considered the Golden Age of Television in the late Forties and early Fifties. Paul Monash, producer of Peyton Place, had written for acclaimed anthology shows as Studio One and Playhouse 90 in the Fifties. James Mosher, creator of Slattery's People, had worked on such classic shows in the Fifties as Dragnet and Medic. William Asher, who directed the lion's share of Bewitched and often acted as its de facto producer, had worked on such classic shows as I Love Lucy, Our Miss Brooks, and Make Room for Daddy. The Golden Age of Television was a time when the networks were a bit more concerned about quality than they would be at later points in television history, so that the creative personnel who rose up during that time period would naturally be inclined to do quality work.  This was reflected in the shows of the 1964-1965 season.

Another reason that so many of the shows from the 1964-1965 season have persisted may also be higher production values. This is particularly true of situation comedies. In the Sixties the vast majority of sitcoms were shot with a single camera on film, just as feature films were. Sitcoms from the era then have a much more cinematic look than those made earlier in the Fifties or later in the Seventies. Indeed, in contrast, most sitcoms of the Seventies were shot using a multi-camera set up on videotape. While most sitcoms from the Sixties look like feature films, then, most sitcoms from the Seventies resemble videotaped stage plays. The end result is that the sitcoms of the Sixties ultimately look better and even more modern, particularly on 21st Century high resolution screens. This is probably one of the reasons why many of the shows from the Sixties are still seen today, while many from the Seventies and Eighties are not.

 There were probably other factors that made the mid-Sixties, and the 1964-1965 season in particular, a good time for American television. Regardless, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to pick another single season that produced nearly as many classic shows as the 1964-1965 season did. While seasons from the Seventies and Eighties are lucky to have only two or three shows that are still being rerun in syndication, the 1964-1965 season boasted several that still are. It could quite possibly be the greatest single year in American television, at least with regards to episodic TV shows.

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