TV GUIDE presents "The Best of '70s Television"
Here are our choices of the best sitcom, the best drama, the best cop show,
and so on through 20-plus categories, of the 1970s. Did we argue? You bet.
Was blood spilled? Well... almost. We don't expect you, our readers, to agree
with all of our choices; most of the fun is in the argument. In that
cheerfully chaotic process, you get to think back over the years of '70s TV
entertainment -- the shows you loved growing up, the comic performers who
made you laugh, the talk-show host who put a funny spin on the events of the
About our criteria: the choices of performers speak for themselves; but when
it came to shows, we weren't thinking about ratings or popularity. We weighed
such factors as the influence and impact of the series, both on the medium of
television and on American culture; the show's quality; and whether it has
held up over the years.
Whether it was Trapper and Hawkeye plotting against Frank, or Radar intoning
"Ahhh, _Bach_," "M*A*S*H" always found new ways to charm. For example: recall
the time Henry Blake was the unfortunate victim of a bomb in the latrine. The
classic payoff -- dazed Henry, blackened with soot amid the wreckage, with
the toilet seat around his neck, and mouthing the word "boom" -- was all the
better because of the hilarious buildup. And in addition to the one-liners,
sight gags, and character bits that made the show a howl most weeks,
"M*A*S*H" also introduced dramatic subtext appropriate to its setting. Try
to imagine someone _dying_ on "McHale's Navy" -- a show that went off the air
just six years before "M*A*S*H" began. At the 4077th, patients died and war
was _definitely_ hell. Yet amid this adversity, people were often at their
best, and funniest. As for its competition? We said "The Mary Tyler Moore
Show" in our heart, and "All in the Family" in our head, but "M*A*S*H" came
right from the gut. It did what only the greatest -- the classic -- comedies
do: mix hilarity and tragedy, often in equal measure. Like all great sitcoms,
it succeeded mainly by exploring, indeed celebrating, the chemistry between
the characters. And it got better throughout the decade -- and _that_ is a
lamentably rare accomplishment in TV.
DRAMA: "UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS"
Why would several million American viewers care about the aristocratic
"upstairs" Bellamys and their underpaid "downstairs" servants in the elegant
London townhouse at 165 Eaton Place? Answer: because it was rousing good soap
opera, filled with juicy plot turns, marvelous detail, and best of all, great
gossip. The episodes were self-contained, the action often delicious. The
saucy parlormaid, Sarah, has a secret affair with the Bellamy's son, James
(talk about eyebrow-raisers: when she applied for the job, Sarah had the
cheek to knock on the mansion's _front_ door); delectable Georgina
scandalizes by becoming a "moving pictures" siren. Holding together the
household staff were Jean Marsh, the series' co-creator, as Rose, and loyal
Hudson, head butler, who somehow managed to be both autocratic and admirable.
How important was "Upstairs, Downstairs"? One critic thought it was "unlikely
that commercial TV would have presented "Roots" if "Upstairs, Downstairs" had
not already broken the ground for quality drama."
COMIC ACTOR: CARROLL O'CONNOR
Only in the hands of an actor of O'Connor's sensibilities could the oxymoron
"lovable bigot" come to life and keep us watching season after season. He
knew when to blow off, when to bully, when to blubber, and he always got a
laugh. He walked the tightrope between stereotype and sympathy with enormous
skill, never forgetting the human being beneath his character. He knew that
we were, after all, only looking at ourselves.
FAMILY SHOW: "THE WALTONS"
There were plenty of crises on Walton's Mountain, but we've forgotten them
all. What we remember is the show's signature close -- the house with its
lights going out as everyone said good night to each other. It's a brilliant
image, the tucked-in symbol of a close-knit family. The success of "The
Waltons" spawned other family shows, including "Little House on the Prairie,"
"Eight Is Enough," and "Family." But "The Waltons" started the trend, and it
is the series whose image has proved most durable: when you think of a warm,
homespun family series, this is the one that springs to mind. In 1992, when a
TV GUIDE survey asked Americans what television family they would most like
to be a member of, the top answer was -- you guessed it -- the Waltons.
COMIC ACTRESS: MARY TYLER MOORE
She was the perfect role model for a generation of working women. Her perfect
timing -- bantering with Mr. Grant, cracking up at Chuckles the Clown's
funeral -- was the centerpiece of a hit-parade ensemble cast. Her mastery of
the comedic pause and double take alone gets her into the Comedy Hall of
Fame. Moore's Mary Richards always stood up for herself, with an enthusiasm
and ability that did -- and does -- make every working woman proud.
"Gunsmoke" was king of the hill -- not merely the longest-running western, as
one reference book points out, but "television's longest-running prime-time
series with continuing characters." Its central character, the towering
marshal of Dodge City, Matt Dillon, was played by James Arness. "Gunsmoke"
had a clean structure, simple but sturdy plots, and distinctive, memorable
DRAMATIC ACTOR: RICHARD CHAMBERLAIN
In the '70s Richard Chamberlain was excellent in "Centennial" and several
TV-movies; but whatever he's done, from "Dr. Kildare" to "Shogun," Richard
Chamberlain has brought intensity and range. Put him in a series, a costume
mini-series, a disease-of-the-week -- heck, let him read the phone book --
and Chamberlain will deliver.
COP SHOW: "COLUMBO"
True, there was Kojak, with his lollipop and "Who loves ya, baby?." But this
was the series that turned conventional TV crime-busting on its head: no
violence; a maladroit, disheveled, and (seemingly) bumbling sleuth as its
hero; and a no-suspense format in which the viewer learns up front whodunit,
and the fun (lots of it) derives from watching Lt. (no first name) Columbo
spin a web to ensnare the guilty. Starting on Sept. 15, 1971, Peter Falk
originated one of TV's most enduring (and endearing) icons: the Los Angeles
detective with the famous soiled, rumpled raincoat and the unfailingly polite
DRAMATIC ACTRESS: CICELY TYSON
Tyson's gallery of enduring characters showcased the black experience in
America: "A Woman Called Moses," "Roots," "King," and so on. Her tour de
force -- "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" -- remains a masterwork. As
Pittman walks, at age 110, to a whites-only water fountain, viewers didn't
think, "Look at that _acting_." All they saw is Pittman's pain,
determination, and dignity.
PRIME-TIME SOAP: "DALLAS"
It defined the formula for modern evening soaps: People with power and loads
of money will do almost anything -- ethics, _ha!_ -- to keep it. The
diabolical corporate and sexual finagling of J.R. (Larry Hagman) Ewing and
his adversaries kept us appalled and enthralled. It had a superior sibling
contrast: J.R., the evil brother, vs. Bobby (Patrick Duffy), the good
brother. Basically, the reason it worked so well is that the writers kept the
focus on J.R., the Ewing family, and Ewing Oil, in that order. Then again,
maybe it was all just a dream.
NIGHTTIME TALK SHOW HOST: JOHNNY CARSON
When Tiny Tim wanted to marry Miss Vicki or Ed Ames wanted to throw a
tomahawk, it had to be on-stage with Johnny. Taking the reins from Jack Paar,
Carson quickly established himself as a star, with a mix of gags and laid-
back interviewing that became a formula for imitators. He was our comfort
zone and our national barometer. His topical nightly monologue was must
viewing if you wanted to be in the know. And nobody was more generous with
new talent. Johnny handled people, pets, Ed, and Doc with grace, and had a
patent on the bemused double take. He was, quite simply, not only the best
talk-show host of the '70s, but also the best talk-show host ever.
VARIETY SHOW: "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE"
What "Laugh-In" did for the _form_ of TV variety shows, "Saturday Night Live"
did for content. Disaffected youth of the '60s -- a.k.a. The Not-Ready-for-
Prime-Time Players -- were finally free to express themselves in front of TV
cameras. On this video frontier, Baba Wawa (Gilda Radner) was a famous TV
interviewer, ring-tossing Coneheads came from France; "land sharks" delivered
Candygrams; and people in be costumes were everywhere. Shimmer, you'll
recall, was a floor polish _and_ a dessert topping. Where the superb "Carol
Burnett Show" charmed with broad comedy in the Lucy/Mel Brooks mold, "SNL"
thumbed its nose at tradition. More than any other show on TV, "SNL" had
Attitude. Though it began to run out of steam by the end of the '70s (but
regained it later), "SNL" did make TV ready for anti-Establishment satire --
hi, Dave Letterman -- even if still not in prime time.
DAYTIME TALK SHOW HOST: PHIL DONAHUE
For more than 25 years, Donahue has pushed the limits of the talk-show form,
opening the door for Oprah, Sally, Geraldo, and innumerable others to live
debate in an atmosphere of see-it-now immediacy. You name it, Phil's done it:
from cross-dressers to life in Russia, from Nazis to a testy Bill Clinton,
from Marlo to Zsa Zsa to Nancy Reagan. "I'm not mock-humble. I think I'm the
best guy in the world with an audience," he once said -- and until Oprah
Winfrey came along in the '80s, he was right.
DAYTIME SOAP: "THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS"
As lushly produced as a Ross Hunter weeper and featuring a cast of gorgeous,
near-naked newcomers who would break into song at the drop of a hat, "The
Young and the Restless" premiered in 1973 and instantly branded all other
soaps old-fashioned. No social issue seemed too touchy -- incest, breast
cancer, euthanasia, obesity were all explored. In only its second season,
"Y&R" won the Emmy as Outstanding Daytime Drama.
SPORTSCASTER: JIM McKAY
As host of the '72 and '76 Olympics plus ABC's "Wide World of Sports," he
quietly dominated the decade. But McKay's defining moment came during the
1972 Olympics in Munich when terrorists took members of the Israeli Olympic
team hostage. As the world watched in horror, McKay suddenly found himself
covering a major news story. He retained his composure, updated the facts,
and handled the 12-hour satellite broadcast as well as any network anchor
could hope to. That earned him an Emmy (one of 10), the Polk journalism
award, and, more importantly, a level of professional respect rarely accorded
MORNING SHOW: "GOOD MORNING AMERICA"
"GMA" became the first serious competition to "Today" when it arrived on Nov.
3, 1975. A sometime actor, David Hartman ("The Virginian," "Lucas Tanner"),
was its host for the first dozen years of its life, abetted (at the outset)
by sidekick Nancy Dussault and a huge band of supporting players: Geraldo
Rivera, Helen Gurley Brown, Erma Bombeck, Rona Barrett, Howard Cosell, F. Lee
Bailey, and a consumer-products reporter named Joan Lunden. It chipped away
determinedly at "Today"'s audience, and finally, in 1979, broke through to
become the No. 1 morning program. It's been up and down since, but usually
tops the ratings in the '90s.
NEWS SHOW/MAGAZINE: "60 MINUTES"
Was it the reporters? The brisk, machine-tooled format? Or their knack for
presenting hot stories in a lucid, entertaining fashion? Whatever it was, CBS
found the ultimate TV franchise in "60 Minutes." Its reporters -- masters of
the expose and champions of the people's right to know -- became media
giants. In addition, they had viewer mail (long before Letterman), the wild
Point-Counterpoint, and, eventually, Andy Rooney's idiosynchratic musings. It
was a rich, satisfying news fix each week. No wonder people still find it
NEWSPERSON: WALTER CRONKITE
He first sat in the "CBS Evening News" anchor chair on April 16, 1962, and
remained there for 19 of the most tumultuous years in U.S. history, becoming
in the process the most trusted American and the presence to whom most of us
turned in times of crisis, including the assassination of JFK. He made
himself an expert on the manned space program, covering all of it from Alan
Sheperd's first flight to the Apollo moon landing in 1969. His comments on
Vietnam helped persuade Lyndon Johnson that he'd lost public support for the
war. By the end of the '60s, the Missouri native had already earned the
affectionate nickname "Old Iron Pants" for his stamina and unflappability
CARTOON: "FAT ALBERT AND THE COSBY KIDS"
Drawn (in both senses of the word) from Bill Cosby's stand-up routines about
the Philadelphia ghetto of his boyhood, Fat Albert and the gang were the
_original_ Boyz N the Hood. On Saturday mornings teeming with funny animals
and super-heroes, they confronted such real-life problems as drugs, alcohol,
and divorcing parents. Cosby consulted with a panel of academics in crafting
the show, and provided the voice of Albert. Hey, hey, hey!
KIDS' SHOW: "SESAME STREET"
"This show is brought to you by the letter D and the number 8," said
"Sesame," cannily framing its lessons in the zippy style of TV commercials --
which, everyone knew, kids loved to watch because they were quick and catchy.
The most popular characters were the Muppets, including Cookie Monster, Oscar
the Grouch, Bert and Ernie, and, best-loved of all, Big Bird, a sweetly shy,
8-foot-tall canary. "Sesame" hit the "Street" running, and it's still going
GAME SHOW: "JEOPARDY!"
The answer is: The perfect quiz show, hosted by Art Fleming. The question:
What is "Jeopardy!"? The game board supplied the answers, contestants raced
to provide the appropriate questions, and Fleming kept a rollicking pace
without histrionics. As TV's toughest game show, it drew the brightest
players and became a hit with college students. Granted, it's not really a
candidate for The Learning Channel, but it is, however, one of the few shows
that actually encourages people to learn. And the fact that the three-way
competition is often electrifying to watch doesn't hurt. Bad time slots
temporarily killed it in 1975, yet "Jeopardy!" rose from the ashes like a
mythical bird (what is a phoenix?).
SCI FI/FANTASY: "MORK & MINDY"
Here we give a nod to the sitcom-fantasy that managed to transcend both forms
thanks to the manic comic genius of Robin Williams. As Mork, the childlike
alien from Ork, he examined and commented on human life in an improvisational
whirlwind -- all while driving poor Mindy (Pam Dawber) bonkers. To purists
who contend that it wasn't really sci-fi, we say: "Whadda _you_ know,
TV-MOVIE: "BRIAN'S SONG" (ABC, 1971)
True story of the professional rivalry -- and tender friendship -- between
black Chicago Bears halfback Gayle Sayers (Billy Dee Williams), and his white
teammate, Brian Piccolo (James Caan), who died of cancer in 1970 at the age
of 26. "Brian's Song" was a beautifully poignant story "about" illness and
death, but much more about life, friendship, and love. A high mark in TV-
MINISERIES: "ROOTS" (ABC, 1977)
Suddenly, over eight consecutive nights in January, there was "Roots," a
series about a black man's search for his origins -- a quest that took him
back through American slavery to ancestors in a remote West African village.
But not only blacks were watching. The whole country was enthralled by Alex
Haley's story about the slave Kunta Kinte, his daughter Kizzy, here son
Chicken George, and so on through four generations. It was a landmark of form
and content that towered over the decade.
- TV Guide, 4/17/93.
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