The Rise of American TV Series: A Golden Age of Entertainment

When television flickered into America’s living rooms after World War II, it immediately took over as the nation’s entertainment medium. Shows such as Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater, I Love Lucy and Dragnet captured the imagination.

But before cable networks broke from the shackles of broadcasting and began airing original works by Rod Serling, critics warned that TV was a vast wasteland.

I Love Lucy

During the 1950s American TV was in a golden age. The top rated show was the I Love Lucy series which followed the antics of Lucille Ball and her husband band leader Desi Arnaz as they lived in New York City. The show often included their crazy antics and a little bit of drama and was very popular.

The show was a hit and became so successful that Desilu (the production company owned by the pair) decided to create a sitcom about a multi-ethnic family in Hollywood called The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour. The show was not quite as successful as I Love Lucy but it was still well regarded.

This DVD set includes the entire first season of I Love Lucy plus a few bonus episodes and a lot of extras. It is a great way to get introduced to this classic television show.

Lucille Ball was a comedic genius and it is easy to see why she was America’s favorite comedian. She had the facial mobility of Red Skelton and the innate pixie quality of Harpo Marx. She was the perfect actress for television and made a huge impact on the world of entertainment.

It is interesting to note that I Love Lucy was one of the first shows to use multiple cameras and to be shot in front of a live audience. This was an innovative idea at the time that many other producers tried to copy.

In addition to the episodes on the DVD there are plenty of other great extras including a Bob Hope special that aired on CBS in 1956, a Desilu/Westinghouse Sponsor Presentation, color footage from the premiere episode of the show and lots more. Also included are audio excerpts from producer Jess Oppenheimer’s book about the show, a list of mistakes that were made during filming (complete with clips highlighting them), and many other interesting pieces.

As a whole the first season of I Love Lucy is very good. The cast is very comfortable in their roles and they are able to come up with some very funny shows. One of my favorites is the episode where a near sighted friend from New York visits and wants to see some celebrities so Lucy decides that they will dress up as some stars. It is a very fun episode and features Harpo Marx appearing without his brothers.

Gunsmoke

Gunsmoke ran on CBS for two decades, a remarkable feat. It survived the counterculture movements of the 60s and the tense times of the Vietnam War. And it survived TV colorization and changes in run time as well as countless competitors and spinoffs. It is one of the few shows to achieve such a long-running success, and its ability to thrive throughout changing times is an amazing testament to its quality.

The show revolved around the town of Dodge City and the lawman Marshal Matt Dillon. Most of the stories dealt with small town folk and their dealings with good and bad people. Gunsmoke was an adult Western with a strong focus on wholesome values, and it was not afraid to take the moral high ground in thorny issues such as gambling, drinking and sex.

Its characters were well-rounded, and the actors played them with conviction. The cast included James Arness as Matt Dillon, Dennis Weaver as Chester Goode, Milburn Stone as Doc Adams and Buck Taylor as Newly O’Brien.

When casting a role, directors often search through tens or hundreds of actors before settling on the best candidate. For the role of Marshal Dillon, producers went through 26 final candidates before finally selecting James Arness. Arness had a military background, and he had played a U.S. Marshal on a radio series prior to his role on Gunsmoke.

He was a physically imposing man and was 6 feet 7 inches tall. He was also a tough guy in real life and served in the Army during World War II, suffering a leg injury from machine-gun fire. His determination and physical prowess made him an ideal actor for the role of Marshal Dillon.

Gunsmoke was a hit and survived the rise of television competition, but it lost steam in the late 70s. By the early 80s, it was struggling to keep its ratings up against newer shows such as Happy Days and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

In an attempt to save the show, the producer recast some of the characters. This helped revive the show, and it remained in the top 10 for a remarkable eight years. It eventually lost its position to those newer programs, but it continued to be popular in syndication for many more years.

Perry Mason

In a decade where comedies (I Love Lucy, Leave It to Beaver) and westerns (Gunsmoke, Have Gun — Will Travel) dominated the TV landscape, Perry Mason broke through with an hour-long episodic crime drama that featured heavy sleuthing. The Raymond Burr-led series ran from 1957 to 1966, producing a whopping 271 episodes. In a format where each episode was self-contained, the courtroom drama reruns kept on coming for years afterward.

The premise of the show was that Perry, a brilliant Los Angeles defense attorney, represented people charged with crimes and got them off through surprise witnesses, stern cross-examination, and an ability to get the prosecution to admit their own guilt. The original series and its spin-offs (including the made-for-TV Perry Mason movies starring Burr) dominated the TV landscape until Law & Order came along.

As the first hour-long procedural, Perry Mason helped establish a formula for future legal dramas. Throughout the decades, television dramas would grapple with social issues, but not to the extent that Perry Mason could. In a time of racial tensions (the ACLU sued over segregation in public schools and California voters overturned fair housing laws), Perry Mason was almost exclusively white and depicted the city of Los Angeles as an exclusive, wealthy, and isolated place.

Despite the lack of diversity, the series had a huge following, enough to support a string of made-for-TV sequels and a handful of movies starring Burr after his death in 1985. The 2020 reboot, starring Matthew Rhys as Perry Mason, takes on the kidnapping and murder of an infant and brings a fresh perspective to the story.

Rhys is a compelling actor with a marked screen presence. He can make his sighs sound sincere and is the kind of man your eyes would follow around a room even if he wasn’t centered by a camera frame.

The new Perry Mason, based on Erle Stanley Gardner’s detective fiction, is a compelling and entertaining watch. The legal thriller has a solid script and magnificent courtroom battles, and the nearly-hour long episodes slip by in a flash. Unlike the slick, glossy page-turners of Gardner’s novels, the TV series features real details and fleshes out even the minor characters.

The Twilight Zone

The 1950s brought the first television anthologies, and acclaimed playwrights such as Paddy Chayefsky began writing for television. In many ways, they viewed it as their way to bring cultural legitimacy to a new medium. However, the era of television anthologies would be short-lived as sponsors became increasingly restrictive in what they were willing to finance.

One of the most enduring of these anthologies was The Twilight Zone, which debuted in 1959 and would become a cornerstone for adult science fiction shows well into the 1960s. Its success was due in part to the fact that it took a unique approach to television, allowing viewers to see how characters on a series acted within a fictional universe of their own making. This lent a credibility to the episodes, which delved into universal themes such as redemption, paranoia, greed, megalomania, and self-improvement.

In addition to being an important source of original programming, The Twilight Zone had a profound effect on the nature of entertainment series in general. By introducing viewers to a more sophisticated, intelligent type of programming than had previously been available, it shifted the focus of many drama series away from nonstop action and adventure toward character-driven stories with more emphasis on female-centered issues such as emotional growth and family life.

Unlike other prime time television shows of the period, such as Gunsmoke and Leave It to Beaver, which tended to remain firmly planted in the western setting, The Twilight Zone made an effort to stay abreast of contemporary politics and values. The episode “It’s a Good Life” and the two-part season opener, “More Than a Feeling” both dealt with sexual abuse and civil rights, which was a bold move for an hour-long series that otherwise was content to present its audience with gimmick-driven sitcoms and utopian dramas with little or no reference to contemporary events.

Rod Serling himself wrote 92 of the 156 episodes, and he served as the show’s executive producer and narrator, delivering monologues at the beginning and end of each episode. His voice was the defining feature of the series, and the iconic sound of his opening narration is now synonymous with the genre.

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