Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Great Television

I grew up with TV like most Americans born after World War II, and when I think of the hours and hours spent sitting in front of a tube in my life ..., well it's natural to regret the amount of time wasted. At its worse, television is pathetic and unproductive, particularly all the silly stuff you likely  watched as a kid. Take me for example. Gomer Pyle, Gilligan's IslandLaverne and ShirleyMy Three Sons, Sanford and Son, The Partridge Family...  you get the picture. Not exactly mind-expanding stuff. Of course, at the time I thought they were terrifically funny, and for kids, maybe they were. At least it kept me out of trouble. But today, you'd have to strap me in a chair a la Alex in A Clockwork Orange to watch those shows.

I can't say that my television diet as an adult has been all that much better. Dallas, Cheers, St. Elsewhere, etc., did little more than pass the time when you think about it. Certainly not as life-enhancing as visiting a museum or historical site. I suppose I watch less than I did, but it's still too much.

Still, I'm not knocking the invention. Downtime is important. And every once in a while, television reveals itself as a medium that indeed can contribute something wonderful to your life. There were moments when it was and is terrific and there are a handful of programs over the last fifty years that seem eminently worthwhile. Watched even today, they still have to power to move me, to entertain me, and cause me to reflect. Here's a list of ten favorites, in no particular order. 1977 was a great year.

1. I Claudius

This 13-part series from the BBC first appeared on US television as part of Masterpiece Theater in 1977. Steeped in Roman history it's narrated by an elderly Claudius, and covers a good chunk of Augustus' rule up to the deformed Claudius' rise to power and death, about 80 years. Augustus' wife, Livia, is evil personified as she manipulates her husband and knocks off his heirs one-by-one to elevate her own son, Tiberius, for emperor. Double dealing, incest, murder, and brutal politics have never been as fun.

2. Eleanor and Franklin 

The story of the Roosevelt's as told through Eleanor's eyes appeared in two ABC mini-series in 1976 and 1977. Edmund Herrmann played the president, and Jane Alexander, his wife, Eleanor. Nominated for 17 Emmys, it won eleven and was also awarded a Golden Globe for best TV Motion Picture. The timing could not have been better, as the nation's bi-Centennial brought interest in American history to the forefront. The story follows their courtship, his paralysis, through his presidency and death. Terrifically acted with wonderful production values. Maybe not always historically accurate, and perhaps too slanted toward the wife, it is still one of the best programs the Big Three networks ever presented. Five-time Oscar winner John Barry wrote one of TV's best musical scores.  

3. Mad Men

Now in its fifth season, this drama debuted in 2007 and details the lives of Madison Avenue ad executives during the amazing and turbulent 1960s. Featuring terrific and amusing scripts, and superb acting, it's biggest appeal for those who lived through it may be the frequent cultural references to the decade and the spot-on set decorations and clothing. None of its principal characters are one-dimensional, but rather are complicated souls who struggle with the changing times as they wrestle with what they really want out of life. Three more seasons are planned. As currently set in 1966, Vietnam is about to ramp up, promising a crazy backdrop for the series.  

4. Lonesome Dove
 Robert Duvall as Gus McCrae

Easily the best Western ever shown on television. A great adaptation of Larry McMurtry's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. First shown in 1989, the epic story of two Texas Rangers on a cattle drive from Texas to Montana soars on Robert Duvall's wonderful performance as Gus McCrae and McMurtry's magnificent screenplay.

Woodrow Call: You ever get tired o' loafin' I reckon you can get a job waitin' on tables.
Gus McCrae: Oh, I had a job waitin' tables once. S' on a riverboat. I wasn't no older than Newt, there, but I hadda give it up.
Newt: How come?
Gus McCrae: Well I was, too young and pretty and the whores wouldn't let me alone.

 5. The Civil War

Ken Burns magnificent documentary first aired in 1990 in nine episodes on PBS. Featuring period music, photography, the writings and speeches of historic figures, and commentary by contemporary historians like Shelby Foote, the epic story of America's greatest crisis unfolds in the best history lesson ever shown on television.

6. The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson

Hard to believe it's been two decades since Carson left late-night in 1992. He was an institution--the most comfortable personality on television. A welcome respite from your day. The topical monologue; Carnac the Magnificent with the sealed jar on Funk and Wagnal's porch; Art Fern and his buxom assistant; Floyd Turbo and his hunter's hat; Aunt Blabby; San Diego Zoo animals; and Ed McMahon's ridiculous laugh. He helped launch the careers of many comics, including Jerry Seinfeld and his eventually successor, Jay Leno; and brought movie stars and Hollywood royalty into our homes and made them real and human.

7.  The Olympics    
The thrill of victory -- 1980.
 "Do you believe in miracles?"
The Olympics consistently provide unparalleled sports excitement; and over one's lifetime, produce the most memorable snapshots of athletic competition, often amidst political and cultural backdrops that enhance the experience. The national fervor, grand opening ceremonies, Munich, Johnson vs Lewis, Usain Bolt, American over Russia, the Black Power Salute, Nadia Comaneci's perfect 10s. Scintillating moments all. The first I recall viewing was the Winter 1968 Games, with American skater Peggy Fleming and French skier Jean Claude Kiley becoming international stars. Better before professionalism infiltrated the competition, it's still some of the most inspirational and magnificent television you're likely to see.    

8. CBS coverage of the Space Program

The greatest adventure. Walter Cronkite's infectious enthusiasm over the space program during the 1960s made the station's nightly news must-see viewing, as thrilling as real life could get on television. He covered Mercury, Gemini, and most famously, the Apollo launches, culminating magnificently with the Moon landing in June, 1969. "Go, baby, go" he shouted as that ship rocketed off Cape Kennedy. Cronkite would stay live on the air for 27 of the next 30 hours. At Neil Armstrong's first footstep, Cronkite acted like a kid; breathing a sigh of relief, he rubbed his hands together in awe and said simply, "Boy!" Other memorable moments of coverage included Ed White's historic 1965 space walk and the 1967 tragedy of Apollo 1, when three astronauts were lost in a fire.  

9. Roots

In 1977 ABC aired a twelve-part series that became a cultural phenomenon. Roots tells the story of Kunta Kinte, a slave captured in Africa and brought to America prior to the Revolution, and follows his descendants until they are liberated after the Civil War. Based on Alex Haley's best-seller, it featured a big cast of television stars of the day. The show pulled no punches when it came to displaying the horrors of slavery, and for its day didn't just push the envelope, it ripped it wide open. Production values sometimes are lacking but this was an important moment in American television that helped broaden the national conversation about race relations. It won nine Emmys and was nominated for another 28.      

10. The West Wing

The best TV has ever done in showing the inner workings of Washington politics, the way power gets wielded and compromises made. It debuted in 1999 and ran for seven seasons. The first four were easily the best, when it won the Emmy for Best Drama series. Martin Sheen was terrific as president Jed Bartlett, but the entire cast was excellent. It often mirrored the events of the day, such as North Korean shenanigans and political scandals. If it had too much of a liberal slant for some viewers, it at least portrayed good people on both sides of the political aisle, as well as plenty of dirty rotten scoundrels.    


  1. Yet another great post.

    I have acknowledged you with the 7X7 Link Award, details of which can be found back at "Caftan Woman".

    1. Thanks, CW. Very kind of you. I'll respond regards to details on the Link Award in a future post.