Feel-Good TV

Photo Credit: The Dick Van Dyke Show: Credit: Photofest 

In 1961, TV Kept One Foot In The ’50s While The Other Tried The Twist.

By Matt Roush, ReMIND Magazine

The decade was young, so were the new inhabitants of the White House, and in 1961, network TV was entering its own adolescence. Little wonder the medium experienced growing pains that year. In May, FCC Chairman Newton N. Minow infamously described the broadcasting landscape as a “vast wasteland,” obviously not a fan of the plethora of Westerns and squeaky-clean family sitcoms that had carried over from the 1950s.

Dennis was still a menace, we hadn’t stopped leaving it to Beaver, teens were swooning to Edd “Kookie” Byrnes on 77 Sunset Strip and grooving to hipster Maynard G. Krebs on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. Gunsmoke, TV’s top-rated show, was now so popular it grew from 30 minutes to an hour in 1961 (with repeats of the original format airing as Marshal Dillon).

And yet, not everything new was old again.

Like Dorothy emerging into a dazzling Oz, Walt Disney Presents moved from ABC to NBC, where it suddenly blossomed into Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color — heralding a boom in color technology that would continue through the decade.

This was also the dawning of the age of Camelot, so dubbed because that Broadway musical was said to be a favorite of the newly installed first family, the youthful Kennedys. Five days after being sworn in, John F. Kennedy held the first live televised press conference, covered by all three networks. Everything about him, his glamorous wife Jackie and their children felt made for TV, capturing the public’s imagination.

So much so that the year’s most sophisticated new sitcom, The Dick Van Dyke Show, was seen by many as a reflection of Camelot in the frisky, sexy relationship of Rob and Laura Petrie, embodied by the lithe Van Dyke and perky star-is-born Mary Tyler Moore, a sensation in her trendsetting capri pants. Though the Petries adhered to the era’s TV standards by occupying separate beds — as if! — the world they inhabited seemed oh so modern.

As did Rob’s workplace. Inspired by the life and career of series creator Carl Reiner (who had starred in a pilot of an earlier version), The Dick Van Dyke Show was one of the first to go behind the scenes of TV, delighting in the shenanigans of a writers’ room occupied by scene-stealers Rose Marie and Morey Amsterdam.

A newer genre, the medical drama, came of age in 1961 when two TV doctors became household names. Vince Edwards was the more rugged, intense Ben Casey. (The show’s stark tone was so vivid that when I got my tonsils out in the late ’60s and was rolled down the hospital hallway in a gurney, my mind went straight to Ben Casey‘s credits.) The same fall, matinee idol Richard Chamberlain began his long TV career as the more sensitive young intern, Dr. Kildare.

Legal and crime dramas were already established, with Raymond Burr’s undefeated Perry Mason well into his long run, and Robert Stack’s The Untouchables courting controversy with its incessant violence. But the format took a leap forward in acclaim and respect with the premiere of The Defenders, starring E.G. Marshall and a pre-Brady Bunch Robert Reed as a father-son defense team. Tackling still hot-button issues including abortion, capital punishment and immigration, the series would win three consecutive Emmys as TV’s best drama.

Sure, TV still had a silly side — remember Mister Ed, the talking horse? — but in a year when ABC began its Wide World of Sports franchise, the thoughtful Password game show made word association seem cool, It’s Academic spotlighted smart high schoolers and The Mike Douglas Show helped popularize daytime talk, was TV really such a wasteland?

Perhaps the biggest TV event of 1961 was Alan Shepard’s suborbital space flight on May 5, seen by an estimated 45 million viewers. The Space Age antics of The Jetsons wouldn’t appear until 1962, but the ever-prescient Rod Serling was prepared, with one of the best-remembered Twilight Zone episodes from 1961. The nearly wordless “The Invaders” starred future Bewitched costar Agnes Moorehead as a farmwoman under siege by tiny figures that emerge from a flying saucer. As she sets out to destroy these sinister interlopers, we discover that they’re actually U.S. astronauts who’ve landed on a planet of giants.

Maybe they should have just stayed home and watched TV.

Matt Roush is “TV Guide Magazine’s” senior critic and is a nationally respected television journalist.