Back to the Beginning
I think my favorite class the one year I attended New York University’s film school was the one that introduced me to early American television. My little teenaged world was blown out the Western adventure Sky King, by the witty visual genius of Ernie Kovacs, even by an early episode of General Hospital. I was enthralled to see how TV had changed in the then 30 years since, and how it hadn’t changed. It was supremely exciting — as someone who had already been fancying herself a total nerd on film and TV for years at that point — to see stuff the likes of which I’d never even really imagined existed. (Seriously: Ernie Kovacs made my brain explode, in the best way.)
If you’ve never had that experience, then please do yourself a favor and pick up the three-disc set The Golden Age of Television, which is two levels of TV history in one. See, there was a series on early 1980s PBS called The Golden Age of Television, which collected the most important and the most legendary and the most just plain downright entertaining live teledramas of the mid 1950s: it gave them new introductions, offered new interviews with the folks involved, and then just let the teledramas themselves unfold. It was sorta like a proto DVD, and the only way to see these old and utterly worthwhile examples of early TV in the days before home video.
And now those PBS packages are here, in this set, for eight of those essential, foundational works of American television, which originally aired between 1953 and 1958:
• Marty: A theatrical version would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture two years later; here, it’s Rod Steiger and Nancy Marchand as the two lonely souls who make a surprising connection.
• Patterns: Think Mad Men before its time, and know that it was written by Rod Serling, who would go on to create The Twilight Zone, of course (though there’s nothing fantastical about this drama).
• No Time for Sergeants: Primitive Andy Griffith, and the basis for Gomer Pyle.
• A Wind from the South: Julie Harris stars as an Irish innkeeper whose yearning for escape presages the coming feminist revolution.
• Requiem for a Heavyweight: Another one from Rod Serling, starring Jack Palance as a washed-up boxer who doesn’t know what to do with his life.
• Bang the Drum Slowly: It’s baseball and Paul Newman, one of his first roles.
• The Comedian: Sterling again, and this one is fascinating in a meta sense — it’s a behind-the-cameras look at a TV comedian (played by Mickey Rooney) who’s not the jolly fellow he appears to be onscreen.
• Days of Wine and Roses: Directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Piper Laurie and Cliff Robertson, this is the tale of one young couple’s battle with alcoholism.
As pure drama, these are still fascinating to watch, especially to see the early work of some now very famous names. But as a look at what TV was doing half a century ago, it’s riveting. Astonishingly, these one-off dramas were all broadcast live, something a narrative, fictional TV show attempts today only rarely, as a stunt. (ER broadcast live, for one episode, in 1997, for instance, and it was a noticeably different experience for the viewer than its usual way of filmed storytelling.) These were more like stage plays, in some ways, than what we consider TV drama today, and yet they’re not at all as if their directors had merely plopped a camera in front of a stage: watching these teleplays is like getting an intimate look at how creative people were trying to figure out what they could do with this new medium. It’s exciting and dynamic, and in many ways like what’s happening with the Web today.
As cultural artifacts, they’re not at all what we’re supposed to expect from the gray-flannel 1950s: these are socially progressive stories that — one might imagine from an era in which the horrors of the decades previous, economic depression and world war, had only just been resolved — represent a collective struggle to figure out what the new American way of life was going to be about. Everything from changing expectations for romance and marriage to the rise of corporatism to how entertainment and media were coming to dominate society are hinted at or explicitly explored here.
If you missed it all the first time around, don’t miss it again.