As a student of television history, it is difficult not to notice how television series change over the course of their run. If the show makes it to season five, it has already begun to change, cast as well as creative team turnover, story lines that were much different and characters who were older that influenced the direction of the show. Historically, at five years or 100 episodes, a show begins to run out of steam or originality, or the newness has worn off and the show changes to stay on afloat.
Five years in television is a lifetime. In the television biz, producers wanted to make it to five years to guarantee enough episodes for profitable syndication. If they owned a percent of the show, syndication is easily worth millions of dollar$.
I’m talking generally about network or cable television, not streaming series, which have changed the way viewers attach themselves to a series. Mine is an old-school view of series television, when you had to wait a week to see a new episode, and the series season lasted from September to May.
Thanks to streaming services and oldies channels, the world of television past is available to you. It is fun to look back and it is interesting to see the cultural significance of a television show. Archie Bunker in season one of All in the Family was on America’s radar. By season nine, Archie has mellowed and America had moved on.
Television is a reflection of our culture. Not always an accurate one, it can still be a view that we hope to see rather than a real one. Sometimes television helps to shift our culture and at other times, the opposite is true. Over the long course of a television series you generally see characters changing: growing up, growing old, changing perspective. Of all the shows I looked at, Gunsmoke is one of the few whose characters changed the least. The reason for that is you never really knew much about them.
Take a show like MASH that ran for 11 seasons. Compare the first season to the last, how similar are they? Not very. The first season was a nutty, screwball comedy. Season number eleven was more serious and realistic, the tone was very different, and the characters had grown and evolved. Much of the cast had turned over, as had the production team. Hawkeye, Margaret, Father Mulcahy and Klinger were the holdovers. During the first three seasons, where Henry Blake and Trapper John were characters, the show occasionally turned serious but the laughs were broad and the characters often very unrealistically goofy. After season five, Frank Burns was gone, as were the creative team of Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart. The creative direction and tone of the show shifted in other directions. I read where the laugh track was made more subtle in the background.
Barney Miller ran for eight seasons beginning in 1975. The cast was very diverse and the comedy was very loud and obvious. The characters were drawn broadly and often their interaction was curt and somewhat unrealistic. It was like you were watching a play, acted out for the audience, not organic character interactions. By the fifth season, four of the main characters had left and cast was smaller, and focus of the interaction more intimate between the characters. Intimate in terms of personality and the depth of the characters. Before, the banter was done for laughs or simply rolled off the characters. Later, the conversations meant something, the characters reacted and the show reflected a deeper audience knowledge of the characters. The characters were more vulnerable. The topics were also more serious to the characters and there was a lesson involved, almost preachy. In the early season, the characters were broadly written, but by the midpoint of the series, the characters were being polished, fewer laughs at their expense as their personalities were more realistic and the scripts drilled deeper for conflict points.
Gunsmoke started as a half-hour show in the mid 1950s and ended its run after 20 seasons. Matt Dillon and Doc Adams were the only original characters left. Miss Kitty departed after season 19. The general nature of the show did not change greatly during its run. It was a drama and you did not go into the personal lives of the series characters, although the episodes alternated between them and guest stars. The level of violence did not change significantly through the years either, as there were gunfights, fistfights and people shot in about every episode. In later years what I notices was a more psychological use of violence, a bit harder edge to what you already saw. There were bad men from the beginning, but the writing went darker in the last seasons. The characters were scraggly, dirty and more realistic than the often clean-shaven versions of the 1950s and 1960s. On one episode in season 19, Miss Kitty is kidnapped by an outlaw leader in revenge for the death of his brother. He rapes and shoots Kitty in the back, leaving her for dead. When Dillon confronts the outlaw leader in a fight, it is obvious Dillon wants to kill him with a heavy rock, but is stopped by Fetus. This episode is grittier in raw emotions than what you would have seen in the past. Gunsmoke was clearly on the decline, the ratings showed it. I do not believe the producers were trying for more sensational stories or presentations, rather loosening the restraints to be bolder. In season 20, there is a two-part episode where Doc and a new saloon owner are kidnapped by former Confederate soldiers, now a criminal gang. They beat and rape her, although the rape is implied. During most of the episode, the series regulars play supporting roles to the guest-stars, something you often saw in the show’s later seasons. What you also saw were locations instead of the studio set. In the late 1960s, Gunsmoke was slated for cancellation because of lower ratings. The network president’s wife preferred Gunsmoke over Gilligan’s Island, so that’s how it went down. Gunsmoke got about six more seasons due to that one fan.
My Three Sons starts in 1960 and ended in 1972. The difference between the first season and the last are like night and day. In the early days, the show was hip and somewhat silly, but had a daring and inventive nature. Peter Tewksbury produced and directed the series in the first season, and occasionally co-wrote some episodes. There were probably a dozen or so writers on the first season, many were women, including married writing teams. Most of these writers contributed scripts over the first several season. There were a lot of family sitcoms on television at the time, so My Three Sons worked at being different. In the middle years of the series, the show got very bland. In later years, the cast changed and new characters freshened up the stories and the emotional vibe of the show. In the last season, even MacMurray stepped up his game. For much of the series he floated in for a few weeks and filmed all of his scenes, then was gone the rest of the year. Nice contract. He was really a supporting character, but got a fat paycheck. With only original son Chip left in the cast, MacMurray seemed to take a more involved role with the show. The person who prolonged the show was Beverly Garland as the new wife of MacMurray’s Steve Douglas. She added heart and a sense of reality. The last season really had possibilities but the network didn’t renew it. My Three Sons did go out on a high note.
All in the Family began in 1971, the first volley fired by producer Norman Lear toward a big change in network programming. Archie Bunker was the bigot we loved to hate, although he had a lot of supporters. Each week, the Bunker living room was a battleground for an issue that was pulled from America’s front page. Race, women’s issues, gun control, sexuality, it was all fair game. Some CBS stations were cautious about airing the series. In most of the series nine season, All in the Family tackled important issues, but sometimes it was just for laughs. By the late 1970s, All in the Family was pretty tame and Archie had turned into mainly a grumpy old man. The Meathead and Glory had moved away and Archie bought into a neighborhood bar. The series that had fangs was now wearing dentures. Was it the show that changed or society? Both.