If I were on a Desert Island or stationed at a mountain fire watch tower and did not have Internet or cable, just my collection of 20 favorite DVD sets, what would I bring?
Why did I pick these because this is not my “greatest” hits of television series, although many of these are on that list. These are series that I deem to be high quality and ones that I would enjoy watching again and again. I already do that with a few of these shows.
A quick scan of this list reveals that I draw heavily from the 1960s and 1970s.There were fewer viewing options then. Where the shows better? Tough question. I would answer that by saying more shows appealed to me.
The Jack Benny Program (1950-1965) Jack Benny brought his popular radio program to the new medium of television. Even though the viewer knew Benny’s persona and gags, there was something always fresh about his delivery. Benny got big laughs by doing very little. I still watch this show because there is something magical about Jack Benny.
Have Gun Will Travel (1957-1963) – Paladin charged $1,000 per case, and he usually got results. A very thoughtful Western, with a lead character who lived in a nice hotel, enjoyed the theater and beautiful women, and quoted philosophers. He wasn’t afraid of a fight, but preferred other less showy methods. Richard Boone was perfectly cast.
Leave It to Beaver (1957-1963) – Wally and the Beaver led an idyllic life, although neither would have saw it that way. This was not the life that probably most kids experienced, the problems they encountered were usually self-made. Although it wasn’t exactly true-to-life, the episodes were well-written, and based on true family situations of the creators, who hired a talented cast to inhabit this world. It’s nearly timeless, never cheesy, and comes from a pure heart.
Wanted: Dead or Alive (1958-1961) – Produced by Four Star Productions (The Rifleman, The Big Valley, Richard Diamond) and starring Steve McQueen, this was a quality half-hour Western. McQueen was bounty hunter Josh Randall, who was a likeable, principled man, often mired in the lives of the people he sought to bring to justice. The persona McQueen used in this show was one he would inject in other characters, including Vic Tanner, his character in The Magnificent Seven. Randall carried a sawed-off Winchester rifle, which was what set him apart from other Western characters. The show also incorporated humor and the show’s characters were believable and the stories quite watchable.
Rocky and Bullwinkle Show (1959-1963) – The show had several times and was created by Jay Ward. The adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle served as bookends for several other animated segments of wacky, sardonic characters: Dudley Doright, Fractured Fairy Tales, Peabody’s Improbable History and Aesop and Son. This was more than a children’s show, it had commentary on things that appealed to adults. Some of the characters were voiced by William Conrad, Hans Conreid, June Foray, Edward Everett Horton and Charles Ruggles. Allan Burns, who wrote for this show, would go on to help create and produce The Mary Tyler Moore Show. This show was ahead of its time.
The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1965) – Created as a starring vehicle for himself, Carl Reiner instead produced and wrote many of the scripts. Dick Van Dyke was not well-known, but he had shown amazing comedic talent. Reiner took a chance on a young dancer named Mary Tyler Moore, and surrounded both with a veteran cast of performers. All the pieces fit together in what is recognized as the smartest sitcom of the era.
Combat (1962-1967) – The best television show about World War II, not primarily for the action, but the human drama. A great cast led by Vic Morrow captured the fear, courage and sacrifice of an ordinary rifle squad fighting their way across Europe. Filmmakers like Robert Altman and Burt Kennedy wrote and directed episodes. I have blog where I discuss this series in more depth.
Jonny Quest (1964-1965) – Produced by the prolific Hanna-Barbara Productions, it aired only one season. This was a show that was action-adventure about a preteen Jonny who had adventures with his friend Hadji, often getting into trouble and needing to be rescued by his scientist father, Dr. Benton Quest and his bodyguard Race Bannon. They travel the world and are confronted by evil forces. The show had a certain degree of fantasy along with quite a lot of violence. The series was reimagined several times. Actor Tom Matheson (Animal House) voiced Jonny.
Hawaii Five-O (1968-1980) – The original. Although it faded in later years, the first four seasons of the original cast are gold. Jack Lord was every bit McGarrett as Peter Falk was Columbo. From the opening credits and rocking theme song, this show was hip, gritty and a kaleidoscope of the times. Steve, Danny, Chin and Kono were the swingin’ po-po. Book’em.
Mannix (1967-1975) – Joe Mannix was cool but he did not let that get in the way of being affable and humble. A private investigator, he would not stop until he had the case figured out and a wrong was righted. Mannix was not a hardboiled detective, he did not have vices, other than he smoked. He drove a very hip car, a great wardrobe and he dated beautiful women. Mannix was originally a Desilu Production and kept on the air by Lucille Ball when the first season did not get great ratings, but she show the potential and made some changes. Mike Connors fit the character like a glove.
Columbo (1968-1978, 1989-2003) – Could anyone else have played Lt. Columbo? Sure, but not as well. The man, the cigar, the old car and the crumpled raincoat were one. Developed and produced by Levinson & Link, they had the perfect formula, hired great writers like Peter S. Fischer, Jackson Gillis and Steven Bochco, attracted the best villains like Robert Culp, Jack Cassidy, Robert Vaughn, Martin Landau, Patrick McGoohan, Robert Conrad, Laurence Harvey, Ray Milland and Ruth Gordon. The first two pilot episodes of series are worth comparing to series when it officially started. The pilots feel like traditional police dramas and the quirkiness of Colombo is muted. Once the series started, bam! Raincoat, messy hair, disheveled appearance. Oh, and one more thing…
Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977) – Great writing and incredible cast. A witty and sophisticated ensemble show. The writers and producers all went on to great success. This show was carefully crafted around Moore, who proved that playing Laura Petrie was no fluke. She graciously gave away many laughs to her co-stars, at the cost of the spotlight. On this show, and others produced by Moore’s company, she hired female writers and even gave directing opportunities to women trying to break into a male dominated world. I have written about this show and Moore in other blogs. Two words describe her show: quality and funny.
Alias Smith and Jones (1971-1973) – Sort of patterned after Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the show was a lighthearted Western starring Pete Duel and Ben Murphy as outlaws that want to go straight. They are offered a deal to get their amnesty if they can avoid trouble, however everyone will still think they are wanted. In the second season, Duel dies, by his own hand, under somewhat mysterious circumstances. Roger Davis assumes his role, but the show never recovers. The show had a charm, a lot of guest stars and Duel was a very good light comedy actor.
M*A*S*H (1972-1983) – The first three seasons only. These were the very funny years that included Henry Blake and Trapper John McIntyre in the cast. The show began to change in the fourth season, cutting down on the silliness and incorporating more drama. I have nothing against the other seasons, they are just not my favorites. The show took about a third of the first season to get traction and find the right balance. Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart are responsible for the direction of the show in those early years, producing, sometimes writing and overseeing each script.
The Streets of San Francisco (1972-1977) – Lt. Mike Stone (Karl Malden) and Inspector Steve Keller (Michael Douglas) solved various crimes for five seasons. Richard Hatch replaced Douglas for one season. The chemistry between Malden and Douglas was like father and son, and it was a strength of the show. Produced by Quinn Martin (The Fugitive, Barnaby Jones) and shot on location in San Francisco. Although the shows had a certain formula, they were character-driven and stylishly produced.
Police Story (1973-1980) – Created by former Los Angeles Policeman Joseph Wambaugh, this was an anthology series of different police officers in a variety of units. A few characters appeared more than once, but this was an actor’s studio. Every actor wanted to play a cop. The show was often downbeat and showed the underbelly of police work. Wambaugh did not sugarcoat police work in his novels. Alcoholism, broken marriages, suicide, dirty cops, death in the line of duty. It also showed valor, sacrifice, dedication and service.
Barney Miller (1975-1982) – The cops of the 12th Precinct went through many cast changes in eight seasons, but always found humor and human drama. Every episode centered around a couple of cases, wacky suspects and a personal issue thrown in. In the early seasons, the comedy was broad and sometimes a bit theatrical, but always entertaining. Later seasons saw each cast member go through changes and the humor was more focused. I missed Fish, Chano and Yemana.
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (1999-2015) – Biting, brave and funny. Stewart had a fantastic view of world events and politics. His interviews injected humor into very serious subjects. Each night was required viewing. Stewart was surrounded by zany characters who reported from the field and gave commentary. Ed Helms, Stephen Colbert, Steve Carrell, Rob Corddry, John Oliver, Rob Riggle and Lewis Black.
CHiPs (1977-1983) – I used to think this show was stupid and unrealistic. Roller disco and female officers that look like centerfolds? During one period of my life I started watching the reruns every morning, I had time on my hands, so I got into the viewing habit. I started watching for entertainment value, instead of realism, and I got hooked. The interplay between Jon, Ponch and their sergeant are what make the show fun. ChiPs was good-natured, the action sequences usually interesting, and a lot of cars totaled. While maybe not heavily realistic, there were law enforcement procedures used as a part of the story, like when they did accident recreation. Jon and Ponch are part of the late 1970s, when the country was passed Vietnam and Watergate.
In Plain Sight (2008-2012) – Mary Shannon is a U.S. Marshall who handles people in the Witness Protection Program in Albuquerque, NM. Mary deals with many screwed up people, some of them her own mother and sisters. Her life is a mess, but she’s super good at her job, less so in her own life. The show had a great cast and excellent writing. Happiness was the one thing that constantly eluded Mary, but she pulled her shit together and got after it each day. Mary McCormack was phenomenal as Mary.
Honorable Mention: Harry O, Emergency!, Adam-12, The Rockford Files, St. Elsewhere, Peter Gunn, Bob Newhart Show, Gidget, Insomniac with Dave Attell, All in the Family, The Andy Griffith Show. (Any of these shows could have been part of the list of 20)