Can one year change TV? It can when it features slaves, sex, and Soap.
It was a winter Wednesday morning, a few years back, and I was standing in front of my TV 101 class in Philadelphia trying to articulate the importance of the landmark 1977 eight-part miniseries Roots. Not just that it aired or even that it aired every night for a week, but that after seven straight nights 100 million people tuned in on the eighth to watch its final episode.
Like, all at the same time.
The students weren’t having it. Weaned on delayed viewing, they lived lives now of self-catered streamable feasts. They couldn’t seem to connect to the concept let alone the significance of a national TV gathering.
I tried a visual.
“Look out the window,” I said, pointing to the classroom’s wall of glass, fronting a landscape that had seen a snowfall the night before. “See all that snow? All that white? On every street and every sidewalk and every car and every parking lot and every patch of lawn? Covering every thing as far as your eyes can see?” Heads nodded. “That,” I explained, “is this country on January 28, 1977, watching Roots.” Viewers in every conceivable place, I told them. Watching, doing, being the same thing. Part of a human collective.
“That night, there was nothing else,” I said.
(The snow analogy seemed apt: Though Roots was already building momentum the week it aired and thus a sizable finale audience was guaranteed, The Blizzard of ’77 descended on the East Coast the last weekend of January and trapped a third of the country indoors with little to do but watch TV.)
If the 1970s marks the dividing line between the B.C. and A.D. of prime-time television — between the I Love Lucy of its early days and the Westworld that it is now — I’ve always thought that 1977, the year that began with Roots, marks this defining decade’s most defining year. The year when B.C. actually became A.D. When the dust settled after a seismic prime-time shaking in the early part of the decade (thanks to All in the Family) and revealed a permanently changed landscape. Where dramas were dark, and comedies darker. Where the good were as flawed as the bad. Where problems were explored but not always resolved, and where questions were asked but not always answered. Where TV turned around and became about us. And where a brutal eight-night history lesson could unite a nation.
Firmly in the hands of the first generation raised on it, TV in 1977 had a New Normal.
Other 12-month spans during the 1970s can claim a significance of their own — 1972, for instance, with Sanford and Son, MASH, Maude, That Certain Summer, and even the inter-faith Bridget Loves Bernie; and 1973, with Steambath and An American Family (both on PBS) — but on the whole 1977 seemed to be the year that change had come to be expected rather than merely attempted. Not many weeks went by that a sitcom, a drama, an original movie or a variety special didn’t show up to say, “This is TV now — get used to it.”
A list, in chronological order, of ten scripted projects that seemed to represent that New Normal of 1977.
- Roots January 20–28, 1977 (ABC)
As legendary for its success as for its network’s nervousness in airing it, Roots dominated the ratings, the headlines, and the Emmys. It also smashed long-held notions of the limited appeal of black-themed programming, integrating prime-time as it had never been. On-screen it shocked; off-screen it inserted race into our national dialogue. And TV became both important to watch and hard to ignore.
2) Three’s Company March 15, 1977
If the sitcoms of the early 1970s were about consciousness raising, many in the latter half of the decade were about inhibitions lowering. Out went issues; in came sex. (And what a relief after all that learning, right?) No TV series symbolized the transition better than Three’s Company, which spent seven years making an art of the sexual innuendo and helped to coin the term Jiggle TV. Three’s Company radically changed the post-9pm sitcom as it made sex, mostly giggling about it, a national pastime.
3) Eight Is Enough March 15, 1977 (Yep: Same night)
Slight and cheesy by today’s standards, if not the butt of many Nicholas jokes, Eight Is Enough popularized the concept of the one-hour hybrid form known as the dramady. Having eight kids supplied the comedy; the death of lead actress Diana Hyland twelve days after the premiere served up the drama. Four seasons of large-family mishaps and easily resolved conflict followed. Though a few family one-hours later tried to take a page from its success (Mulligan’s Stew and Harris and Company among them), none clicked. But the hybrid form remained. And it found even greater success a few months after Eight Is Enough with The Love Boat.
4) The Richard Pryor Special? May 5, 1977
Forget the weekly series that was ordered and aborted in its wake. (He sure did.) The Richard Pryor Special? is the comedian’s real early-career prime-time calling card. Meta before the concept was cool, the one-hour special follows Pryor as he makes his way around NBC getting advice on hosting an NBC variety show. Whatever, right? But consider that it opens with a sketch set aboard an America-bound slave-ship, featuring a whip-cracking John Belushi who singles out indentured rower Pryor for the ignoble task of working at NBC when they reach shore, then goes on to feature a sketch with Pryor as a race-baiting preacher, as well as a performance from Gladys Knight’s back-up trio the Pips, minus Gladys Knight (they’re introduced as “and the Pips”) and a spoken-word monologue from Maya Angelou. If the traditional variety-show genre was on life support by the mid-1970s (and it was), The Richard Pryor Special? helped to pull the plug.
5) James at 15 September 5, 1977 (NBC)
James Hunter (Lance Kerwin) lived in what was the realest world of the American teenager yet depicted in prime-time, light-years away from Dobie Gillis, Gidget Lawrence, the Bradys, and even then-reigning champs Richie and Potsie and Ralph. James at 15 was simply about the days of one boy’s adolescent life, with The Washington Post for one admiring the authenticity. (“Consistently, it communicates something about the state of being young, rather than just communicating that it wishes to lure young viewers.”) But after a huge tune-in for the two-hour movie pilot, James at 15 struggled to find a weekly audience, maybe because it aired opposite Hawaii Five-O and Barney Miller, and maybe because it was hampered by a limiting title. Just how long can a person remain 15, anyway? In an attempt both to answer that question and to increase the show’s audience, producers had James celebrate his 16th birthday by losing his virginity, not only prompting a title change but also the resignation of the show’s producer when the network insisted that James show remorse after doing the deed. James at 15/16 was cancelled soon after. Seventeen years later, My So-Called Life would do it with more fanfare, but James at 15 did it first.
6) Soap September 13, 1977
An adult satire of the daytime drama, Soap begged controversy from the start (some of it courtesy of an erroneous report passed around early on about its content, in what was the big fake-news story of its day): Its pilot featured bed-hopping as a near sport, spotlighted a son conspiring to murder his step-father, and introduced trans-sexualism in the guise of a 20-something man seen trying on his mother’s dress in the days before his reassignment surgery. (Says a shocked, then admiring, mother: “Oh, you wear it belted!”) Despite the obvious mocking of convention that it was, Soap scared the pants off much of the country before it even aired. Some ABC stations relegated it to late-night timeslots; others refused to air it at all. Then of course it became a laugh-out loud hit, and all was forgiven. At its best, Soap brought literate adult-level drawing-room comedy to TV years before Frasier. Plus, creator/producer Susan Harris (who wrote every episode of its first and best season) made the novel idea of a female showrunner cool.
7) Lou Grant September 20, 1977
Whenever the evolution of the TV-drama is discussed, Hill Street Blues is usually — and rightly — held up as the series that broke and re-cast the mold, with its open-ended serialized storytelling, its mix of colorful characters and situations and of sardonic humor with dark gritty realism. But in its own way non-cop-show Lou Grant started the chipping away three-and-a-half years earlier. The first hour-long drama successfully spun off from a half-hour sitcom, its drama, too, was laced with humor; and it, too, mined it real-life, with stories about police corruption, the Klan, elder and spousal abuse, senility on the judicial bench, Vietnam, the FDA, and gun control. All within the confines of a premise that had rarely worked in prime-time, the newspaper drama. One of the most celebrated dramas of the 1970s — 56 Emmy nominations — Lou Grant brought big-city realism and grounded relatable characters to episodic TV.
8) All in the Family “Cousin Liz” October 9, 1977; “Edith’s 50th Birthday” October 16, 1977; “Edith’s Crisis of Faith” (December 18 & 25, 1977)
Aint no thing to see All in the Family on any list of the Best of 1970s TV. But three separate entries? For episodes in its eighth season? How much more envelope was there left for the landmark sitcom to push? Turns out: Lesbianism, home-invasion rape, and gay-bashing murder. “Cousin Liz” (Archie: “Are you telling me that Liz …[pause]…was a lez?”) won an Emmy for its script; the tightly-wound one-hour “Edith’s 50th Birthday” won the DGA award for its directing; and Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton each won the year’s top Emmys for their performances in what became the last season of AITF to feature all four cast regulars. As for David Duke, who played Edith Bunker’s would-be rapist in “Edith’s 50th”? He received death threats after the episode aired.
9) Mary Jane Harper Cried Last Night October 5, 1977 (CBS)
Divorce, homosexuality, gang rape, prostitution, euthanasia, abortion, alcoholism, terminal illness, mass-murder — one hurdle after another was cleared in the TV-movie-heavy 1970s, leaving few hot-potatoes left to cover by 1977. Child abuse was one of them. Mary Jane Harper Cried Last Night grabbed and tore into it with a bleak ferocity. While it starred a familiar and sympathetic TV face (Susan Dey) and had a deft and sensitive script by an award-winning female writer (Joanna Lee), there was no lessening the sting of watching a child trapped in an endless family nightmare, replete with allusions to incest in the abusive mother’s past. It had an ending that made even TV-cancer weepies seem upbeat by comparison — Spoiler Alert: rhymes with Cried — but MJHCLN was nonetheless praised and even admired for putting a spotlight on an important but little-talked-about societal issue.
10) The Gathering December 4, 1977 (ABC)
It hardly had the makings of a holiday classic: A terminally ill not-always-likeable man tries to bring together his estranged family for one last Christmas. But a believable cast and Emmy-nominated script and direction made it become one. (Go figure: Randal Kleiser directed — and if the name rings a bell, it’s because six months after The Gathering he became world famous as the director of Grease). Tear-jerking without being cloying or maudlin, raw without being abrasive, The Gathering won the year’s Emmy for Outstanding Drama or Comedy Special, elevating the Holiday Made-For to a sort of art-house level. (Odd side-note: It was produced by Hanna-Barbera.)
Ten projects, twelve months, a Brave New World for TV — though for the record it has to be pointed out that 1977 actually marked an incredibly lousy year for TV in a way, too. More than 40 new shows were introduced. Forty. Most flopped. And in the cases of showcases for Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx, flopped badly. (CHiPS and The Love Boat were the big headlines.) But that’s TV as normal even at a time of New Normal, isn’t it?
Overall, it stands out as the year writers and producers and directors walked past the splinters of a creative door that was blown off its hinges at the start of the decade and set about making more realistic and honest TV, where its reach could now extend further than its grasp. Shades of gray had supplanted three decades of black-and-white, and the once G-rated prime-time line-up beamed into our living-rooms was decidedly rated PG (if not R). Not far ahead: cable and premium and streaming content that would make it all look quite tame by comparison.
Beginning with Roots, 40 years ago.
And if that stat makes those of us of a certain age feel even age-ier, there’s this: The anniversary of Roots’ record-setting finale was last Saturday.
So … make that 40-plus years ago.
Photos courtesy of ABC, CBS, NBC, Warner Bros, Witt-Thomas, Hanna-Barbera Productions, Lorimar, MTM/20th Century Fox, David L. Wolper Productions, Nicholl/Ross/West