Archie, Kunta, Latka … Holocaust, Sybil, Manson…Hooterville, Munich, Dallas … Women’s Lib, Wounded Knee, Brown Pride … The 1970s had it all, and TV showed it all, warts and all.
In the very first week of the very first year of an entirely new decade — the 1970s — these were among the episodes of TV that aired in prime-time:
“When Darrin is conflicted between a business trip to Japan and staying at home with his new baby, mother-in-law Endora splits him into two people.” (Bewitched January 1 1970)
“Marcia wants to nominate her new Dad as Father of the Year.” (The Brady Bunch January 2 1970)
“Billie Joe brings her new boyfriend home to Hooterville to meet the family.” (Petticoat Junction January 3 1970)
“Steve Douglas gets cast in daughter Dodie’s school play as a tree.” (My Three Sons January 3 1970)
“Lassie is struck by a car while saving a child and now appears to have amnesia.” (Lassie January 4 1970)
“A circus midget and new widower struggle to deal with the prejudice of the town’s banker.” (Bonanza January 4 1970)
“Craig’s high-school club initiation scavenger hunt includes a candelabra that he borrowed from Liberace, which Lucy tries to return, with disastrous results.” (Here’sLucy January 5 1970)
“Miss Kitty and her horse are taken hostage, and Marshall Dillon sets out to rescue them.” (Gunsmoke January 5 1970)
“Julie is held hostage by a disturbed man who mistakes her for the daughter of a woman he wants to punish for insulting him.” (The ModSquad January 6 1970)
“Jim tries to quash Debbie’s attempts to get into the newspaper business once and for all.” (The Debbie Reynolds Show January 6 1970)
In the very last week of the very last year of the 1970s, these were among the episodes of TV that aired in prime-time:
“Billie researches an article on the suicide of teenagers.” (Lou Grant December 24 1979)
“A visit to a restaurant at a nudist colony is featured.”(Real People December 26 1979)
“Gary and Valene Ewing move to Knots Landing and get acquainted with their new neighbors — including a drunken teenaged daughter who’s wreaking havoc on her parents’ marriage.” (Knots Landing December 27 1979)
“Danny and Polly continue to grapple with their inter-racial romance; Chester begs wife Jessica for another chance after she discovers his infidelity; high-school senior Billy is thrown an 18th birthday by the teacher he is sleeping with.” (Soap December 27 1979)
“Barney assigns a female detective to investigate a dentist who has a history of sexually assaulting sedated patients.” (Barney Miller December 27 1979)
“Disc-jockey Johnny Fever awakens in the middle of the night convinced that God is talking to him.” (WKRP in Cincinnati December 31 1979)
Clearly between January 1970 and December 1979 something about TV changed.
The something was everything.
In large part that’s because so did the people making it. The 1970s more or less marked the arrival in TV of the first generation raised on it — producers and writers, network and studio executives, dreamers and decision makers. A collective that along with select risk-taking long-timers seemed to realize that at this point TV’s reach could and should extend further than its thus-far self-limiting grasp.
Developed in the 1920s and officially unveiled at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York (fairly or not by NBC head David Sarnoff, as chiefly his creation alone), television began as a business in the 1940s. Its early thinking was as black-and-white as its programming: Schedules were filled with shows imported from radio: already working and popular star-driven sitcoms and variety shows, easy-to-digest panel shows, genre series like cop shows and westerns. Dragnet, Lucy, Gunsmoke. Close your eyes and the radio’s still on.
These were safe broad strokes for a curious new experiment — an infancy of adherence (to what was already working) and limitation (to what was already allowed) that lasted through the 1950s as the industry settled in and TV took off. Even the drama showcases that led to the decade being christened as television’s Golden Age were adaptations of the established live-theater format.
With the 1960s, the TV that had been thus far crawling began to walk, tentatively at first, as toddlers do when first stepping outside the safety and structure of what is known. Convention and formula still reigned, but some sitcoms became a bit more sophisticated and layered (The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Green Acres); some families became bit less conventional (The Andy Griffith Show, Bonanza), some dramas took on a bit more shading (The Defenders, Dr. Kildare, Ben Casey); some casts were a bit less all-white (I Spy, East Side West Side); some authority groups were a bit less all-male (Julia,Star Trek). That more of all of it was unfolding “in living color” helped to re-draw some of the lines. Lucy and Ed Sullivan and Jack Benny and Sheriff Dillon were sharing space these days with Uhura and the Smothers Brothers.
By time the 1970s arrived, TV was a full-fledged adolescent. And like any teen, it had one foot inside the world it knew and the other out in the new world it wanted to explore. Rebelliousness and curiosity led to transition — from concrete thinking and rules-adhering to abstract thinking and rules-breaking, from acceptance to rejection, from passive to active learning, from conventional to experimental, from dependence to semi-autonomy, from indirect experience to immersion, and from looking and listening to seeing and hearing.
If still tethered in a child-like way to its roots of radio — Dragnet,Gunsmoke, Ed Sullivan, Walt Disney, Lucy were each still on the air at the beginning of the decade — TV was beginning to show an un-earthing of its roots. In the 1970s, TV looked around and saw change underway in real life and knew it had to reflect it. Be a part of it. What the nightly news was covering was something prime-time television could not ignore.
The transition was a halting one.
Some shows began to reflect the new cultural landscape, but most continued to ignore it. That Girl (ABC, 1966–71), an old-fashioned show about a single woman living and working in the big city — with the help of her boyfriend and her “daddy” — aired on the same schedule as The Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS, 1970–77), a new-fashioned comedy about a single woman making it on her own. In the same week, one could watch The Lawrence Welk Show (ABC, 1955–71), a 15-year-old musical variety program that featured a legendary polka band, and Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In (NBC, 1968–73), an irreverent new comedy-variety show plugged into the 1960s counterculture. (Encyclopedia Britannica, “The Relevance Movement”)
NBC’s Laugh-In, in fact, was one of the ways TV had slowly and incrementally started both reflecting and affecting the change. (It was, after all, the 1960s show that had the temerity to feature not one but two black females among its ensemble.) Laugh-In was one of three new series introduced onto the prime-time landscape during a critical two-and-a-half-year window in the late 1960s, the others being CBS’s The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which premiered in February 1967 and which courted young audiences and sizable controversy in equal measure as it took on the Vietnam War (and the establishment in general); and ABC’s Room 222, the 1969 high-school half-hour that marked TV’s first multi-ethnic young cast, speaking directly to high-schoolers’ questioning points-of-view. (Much to ABC’s initial concern, it also featured two black leads who also happened to be engaged in a sexual relationship.)
Counter-culture had come mainstream. Into living-rooms. And TV was suddenly … different.
Given that the same two-and-a-half-year period — between February 1967 and September 1969 — also saw the Summer of Love, the assassinations of both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. (and their associated riots), the Tet Offensive and the My Lai massacre, the 1968 Democratic convention uprising, the New York openings of both Oh! Calcutta!and Hair, the fist-high athlete protests at the Mexico Summer Olympics, the Zodiac killings, the Santa Barbara oil spill, Midnight Cowboy, and (in a single summer) the Manson murders and Woodstock and a moon landing and Chappaquiddick and Stonewall and Abbey Road, not to mention student protests in Paris, martial law in Madrid, the Spring Rebellion in Prague, the Stock Exchange bombing in Montreal, the John-and-Yoko bed-in in Amsterdam, and the race riots in Malaysia –
… all of which TV news was documenting …
… how could prime-time TV not change?
The Smothers Brothers,Laugh-In, Room 222. Because of these three shows (plus a handful of lesser lights that nonetheless spoke to and influenced a new era, from Shindig!to The Mod Squad to Adam-12to The Courtship of Eddie’s Father), TV came to the brink of the 1970s a new medium for a new world. Like it or not, the march to adulthood had begun.
Largely, at least at first, the response was not. But the time and the need had come: Vietnam just could not co-exist alongside The Brady Bunch alone.
Thus, what had become a counterculture rallying cry in the late 1960s — a 1967 line by writer Amiri Baraka adopted soon after as a call to arms by Mark Rudd, a local organizer of Students for a Democratic Society — could very well be applied to the revolution coming for 1970s television, as well:
There is only one thing left to say. It may sound nihilistic to you, since it is the opening shot in a war of liberation:
Up against the wall, m***erf***er.
The decade had begun.
(Read more about the topic in the new book ALL IN THE DECADE: 70 Things About 70s TV That Turned Ten Years Into a Revolution, from which this essay was excerpted. Available on amazon.com. )