LIKE leadership tension in the Labor Party, some television shows simply refuse to die. On the free-to-air multichannels and nostalgia-based pay TV channels, it’s as if the new millennium never happened.
One explanation is old shows are cheap and there are lots of channels in need of content. But there’s more to it than that.
For a start, the shows with the longest shelf life are sitcoms. Most sitcoms abide by the rule that nobody learns and nobody grows, which makes them ideally suited to lives of perpetual rotation. Each episode works within a rigid universe where familiar tropes, character traits and catchphrases are repeated ad infinitum. In narrative terms, they exist in a state of suspended animation.
Interestingly, a disproportionate number of these sitcoms come from the US in the mid-1960s, which in retrospect was the golden age of the sitcom. It was, of course, a golden age for popular culture in general – a kind of cultural big bang, the effects of which are still being felt to this day. These shows reflect a world that is recognisably our own while simultaneously suffused with a comforting glow of nostalgia.
In stylistic terms, it represented a magical period between the drab austerity of the 1950s and overindulgence of the early ’70s. It is a period enjoying a revival thanks to the success of Mad Men, and the cool minimalism of shows such as I Dream of Jeannie and Get Smart seem almost contemporary.
Here are 10 US sitcoms from the ’60s, in order of launch date, that deserve their place in the TV schedule.
Many became more popular in syndication than when they first aired, gradually insinuating their way into the popular imagination.
Some have dated better than others, but they share fine writing and production values, and a beguiling sense of optimism.
Bewitched (1964-72)Number of episodes: 254
The first of a run of shows combining family sitcom tropes with supernatural elements. Beautiful witch Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery) marries mortal Darrin (Dick York, and later Dick Sargent) and tries to lead a normal suburban life. Storylines are driven by attempts to keep Samantha’s true nature hidden, and the disapproval of her mother (Agnes Moorehead), who doesn’t approve of the mixed marriage. The idea of a powerful woman subverting attempts to tame her played well at a time when patriarchal structures were being challenged. Watch it on: Gem, TV1, DVD.
The Addams Family (1964-66)Number of episodes: 64
This is based on a series of New Yorker magazine cartoons about an eccentric family with supernatural capabilities. The plots are driven by the family’s good-natured indifference to how they appear to straight society, and in that sense the show anticipated the emerging countercultural revolution. It features wonderful, richly drawn characters and a superb theme song. Watch it on: Fox Classics, DVD.
The Munsters (1964-66)Number of episodes: 70
This aired during the same period as The Addams Family but in this case the humour derives from the family looking like horror-movie characters while acting like a conventional sitcom family. Both shows were broadcast in black and white and this has only added to their timeless, Gothic appeal. Watch it on: DVD only.
Gilligan’s Island (1964-67)Number of episodes: 98
Created by Sherwood Schwartz, who later made The Brady Bunch, this features a disparate group stranded on a deserted island.
The plots are driven by the incompatibility of the castaways and their thwarted attempts to escape, usually as a result of Gilligan’s ineptitude. The early episodes were first aired in black and white but were colourised for syndication. Watch it on: Channel Nine, DVD.
Hogan’s Heroes (1965-71)Number of episodes: 168
Released against a backdrop of the Cold War and US involvement in Vietnam, and with the horrors of Hitler’s Final Solution relatively fresh in people’s minds, a jolly World War II prisoner-of-war romp might have seemed a curious anachronism. But presenting German officers as bumbling fools possibly provided a salve of sorts for those scarred by the war. Watch it on: Channel One, DVD.
I Dream of Jeannie (1965-70)Number of episodes: 139
Inspired by the success of Bewitched and based loosely on the movie The Brass Bottle, which also stars Barbara Eden, this follows a hapless astronaut (Larry Hagman) who accidentally releases a genie (Eden) who is determined to serve him. Much of the humour comes from his thwarted attempts to control the feisty, mischievous Jeannie and conceal her true identity from colleagues and neighbours. Sidney Sheldon created the series and wrote most of the episodes. Watch it on: Gem, TV1.
Get Smart (1965-70)Number of episodes: 138
Comedian Mel Brooks devised this superb spy-show parody with Buck Henry but took a backseat after the pilot. The show’s stylish mid-’60s aesthetic has a timeless appeal and its legacy is an abundance of references that have permeated popular culture – the cone of silence, the shoe phone, phrases such as ”and loving it” and ”missed it by that much”. It was a kind of knowing slapstick, based on the repetition of deliberately bad jokes and some rich characters. Still, the show’s success relied on the chemistry between Don Adams as Agent 86 Maxwell Smart, and Barbara Feldon as 99. Despite their age difference, his bumbling pratfalls and her weirdly vulnerable flirtation are a winning combination. Watch it on: Channel One, TV1.
Batman (1966-68)Number of episodes: 120
The popular DC Comics character gets a playful, quasi-psychedelic, gloriously camp television adaptation with Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as the boy wonder, Robin. Its signature motif is the use of words such as KAPOW!, BAM! and ZOK! superimposed over fight scenes – a homage both to the show’s comic-book origins and the pop-art movement, which reached its apotheosis in the US in the early to mid-’60s. Watch it on: 111 Hits.
The Monkees (1966-68)Number of episodes: 58
Inspired by the success of the Beatles’ movies, particularly A Hard Day’s Night, Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider manufactured a four-piece band for a TV show. Despite the contrived nature of the band (often referred to as the Pre-Fab Four) and the show, both surpassed expectations. The show features avant-garde film techniques and bravely shunned a laugh track. The band also railed against the restraints imposed on them, eventually writing their own material and gaining respect within the music industry. Watch it on: DVD only.
The Brady Bunch (1969-74)Number of episodes: 117
Although it was launched in the ’60s, this is much more a post-’60s artefact, the blended Brady family an acknowledgment of the disruption the decade caused to family life (the creator, Sherwood Schwartz, intended Carol to be a divorcee but the network insisted this not be made explicit). Nevertheless, it is a gentle, anodyne family sitcom that seems irredeemably cheesy today. Its enduring popularity seems based more on a postmodern affection for kitsch than any intrinsic qualities. Watch it on: Channel Eleven, TV1, DVD.
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