In Praise of Vintage: 10 Classic TV Shows + Where to Watch Them

the_man_has_style_cary_grant_style_icon_1943“I can’t stand old movies,” my Uncle Tommy once said to me. “Any time I see a guy wearing a hat, I change the channel.”

Despite his dismissal of a filmmaking era I love, and have since childhood, I kept my cool. (I learned that from Cary Grant, who, by the way, knew how to rock a hat.) Opinions are subjective reflections of personal taste, I reminded myself. That explains why some people are Yankee fans, or Republicans.

Then I asked him, calmly, what he didn’t like about “old movies.”

“They’re dated.”

“What you may think of as ‘dated’ other people consider ‘classic,’” I said.

“They’re boring, and the acting is terrible!” he added. “Katharine Hepburn is the worst. I can’t stand her.”

Funny thing: I have a picture of Katharine Hepburn from THE PHILADELPHIA STORY hanging in my apartment; I have no such picture of my Uncle Tommy, love him though I do. So I decided to change the subject to something less controversial, like Obamacare.

I was reminded of this conversation when I read critic Neil Genzlinger’s take down of “Retro TV” in yesterday’s New York Times, an article crafted with such a broad brush I don’t even know where to begin rebutting it.

Apparently, Mr. Genzlinger was channel surfing on Saturday afternoon and was dismayed to find a bunch of “old stuff” clogging his cable on channels with funny names like Inspire, Aspire, and Up! Uplifting Entertainment. (And don’t even get him started on new-fangled Internet streaming of old-fangled TV! Because, how crazy is that?) He then took pen to paper to slice up some sacred cows.

“Sluggish pacing, wooden acting, wince-inducing jokes and obvious plot twists abound,” he opined, metaphorically shaking a remote-clutching fist. “Too much of this will turn your brain to mush as surely as too much of today’s reality TV will.”

And then he added a zinger of particular interest to me (and many people I know):

“(I)f you’re watching this fare all day, every day, you need help,” he wrote.

For the record, this past weekend I watched The Odd Couple, Get Smart, Lost in Space, The Honeymooners, and a Blu-ray of Betty Boop cartoons. It’s a wonder I can even write this, what with the tightness of my straight jacket.

LucyMr. Genzlinger then provided a hit list of “old stuff’ you should avoid (in convenient chronological order): I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Gilligan’s Island, Green Acres, Welcome Back Kotter, Dallas, Boy Meets World, and Sex and the City.

Let’s ignore the fact that any list that equates I Love Lucy, the first TV sitcom shot on film, and Sex & the City, the first TV sitcom to base an episode around the taste of a man’s semen, is impossible to logically refute. Or that he thinks Boy Meets World (which left the air a mere 14 years ago) is a “wonderful show,” but you still shouldn’t watch it (because the spin-off Girl Meets World is bad). Or that he’s hardly the first TV critic to suggest that Gilligan’s Island isn’t Peabody-worthy.

Mr. Genzlinger is a respected critic who is entitled to his beliefs, as is my Uncle Tommy. But whereas my uncle’s opinion was overheard by a handful of family members at a Christmas party, a New York Times columnist wields a bit more influence.

What irks me most is Mr. Genzlinger’s reiteration of an endemic prejudice that has existed for years: that “old” is somehow a flaw. This same perspective inspired colorization a generation ago and leads contemporary distributors and networks to crop (or stretch) shows produced in olde-fashioned 4:3 aspect ratio to widescreen, or to re-do special effects, in an effort to convince younger audiences that a show is of a more recent vintage. It’s the perspective that led to a 500-channel universe in which only one network – Turner Classic Movies – routinely aired black & white programming. And it’s the perspective that led the generation after mine to grow up with less-than-ready access to anything “classic.”

Then, happily, technology interceded. In recent years, the explosion in basic cable networks, broadcast digital sub-channels, and streaming media has led to a renaissance in the availability of classic content. TCM has gotten two broadcast competitors airing classic movies 24/7: getTV and MOVIES! TV Network. The niche left open by Nick at Nite and TV Land (already eschewing classics in favor of newer stuff) was filled by digi-nets like Me-TV, Antenna TV, COZI-TV, and Retro TV. Subscription VOD platforms like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime began loading up on binge-able retro content, and Warner Bros. launched Warner Archive Instant, a boutique streaming service for classic TV shows and movies, many restored from original source material.

Adam West and Burt Ward in Batman 60s series pic2Classic film and TV is just about the only segment of the physical media business still thriving. Expensive DVD and Blu-ray collections of Twin Peaks (out today), The Wonder Years (due in early October), and Batman with Adam West (coming November 11) are expected to do big business, and not just with the nostalgic. A new generation is embracing classic content, a fact underscored by TCM’s audience, two-thirds of which they say is between 18-54.

In that sense, the market rebuts Mr. Genzlinger more effectively than I ever could. Because, if nobody wanted to watch this stuff, it would be back “in the vault” where he believes it belongs.

I hold equal respect for classic film and TV, since my affection for both developed in the cable-less 1970s when the handful of channels I got filled their schedules with both. To be clear: while Mr. Genzlinger did not include classic film in his dismissal of “old stuff,” his complaints against non-contemporary TV are the same my uncle used to condemn movies of the same era: pacing, acting, and predictability.

It’s a fact that the pace of filmed entertainment of a generation (or more) ago differs from that of today. But I find the frenetic quality of contemporary blockbusters to be headache-inducing, so, for me, that’s a selling point. Mr. Genzlinger worries that my brain will turn “to mush” if I watch too many of these old shows. I appreciate his concern, but I have the same concern for my seven-year-old nephew, whose senses are assaulted daily by ADHD-inducing entertainments on multiple screens.

Screen Shot 2014-07-29 at 11.20.44 AMI liken the slower pace of (some, not all) classic TV and movies to visiting with a grandparent. Once you tune yourself to their wavelength, you may suddenly feel more relaxed. Heck (as they say on Andy Griffith), you might even set a spell and enjoy yourself.

Regarding acting, as clothing styles have altered over the years, so has performing technique. The theatricality of silent film evolved into the presentational style of early Talkies, then filtered through the Actors Studio and American New Wave, etc. TV acting evolved as well, from stage-y live TV drama to high definition naturalism. Mr. Genzlinger dismisses an entire era of TV acting as “wooden;” I prefer to think of it as a different approach to the craft. I’ll agree that supporting players in some classic show can be hit or miss, but sometimes imperfection is part of the fun.

What many fans love about classic content is the evocation of an era, and all that comes with it (including, at times, the political incorrectness that Mr. Genzlinger references from a show like Gilligan’s Island). It’s not necessarily nostalgia for stuff we saw, as he puts it, “the first time around.” It’s interest in, and affection for a time and a style that’s unlike today. Can you be nostalgic for something you don’t remember, or weren’t even alive to experience? You can, and classic film and TV fans do that every day.

Which leads me to what may be the crux of the matter: how do you define classic (a word, admittedly, that Mr. Genzlinger does not use in his artcle)? There’s no better way to start an argument among fans than by raising this question.

“There’s no cutoff date, no strict definition for classic,” on-air host Ben Mankiewicz said at the TCM Classic Film Festival in 2013. “It’s not really about years removed from a movie’s release.”

welcome-back-kotter-castIn fact, “classic” is often a moving target that depends largely on the age of the person you ask. For Millennials, the 1980s may be classic (and even the ‘90s, George Burns help us.) I look at films and TV shows from the ‘80s and and laugh at how dated they are, because I remember looking just like that (and still cringe at the pictures). My uncle, who is in his 70s, likely feels the same about films as far back as the late 1940s. I don’t know Mr. Genzlinger’s age, but I could introduce him to a number of 20-somethings who watch Welcome Back Kotter on Me-TV for all the reasons he says they should avoid it.

Are all old TV shows worth seeking out? No. As Mr. Genzlinger suggests, many are contrived and predictable. Some were products of zeitgeist, spinning long runs out of teen idols and lunchbox-ready catch phrases, and will hold little interest for contemporary audiences. But I’ll bet that any I might condemn here would still have plenty of vocal fans today, and not just those who are ‘wistful,” as Mr. Genzlinger puts it, for a simpler time.

Because one person’s “dated” is another person’s “classic.”

As a rebuttal to Mr. Genzlinger, here are ten classic shows I think are worth seeking out (and where you can watch them). Note: this list is by no means definitive. There are plenty more where these came from:

Screen Shot 2014-07-29 at 11.38.46 AM

1. The Honeymooners (1955-56, CBS)
Jackie Gleason’s one-season spin-off of a variety sketch that first appeared on Cavalcade of Stars in 1951 still crackles with wit, pathos, and aspirational resonance. The relationship between Audrey Meadows’ “long-suffering” Alice and Gleason’s blowhard bus driver Ralph serves as an antidote to the fiction of the perfect ‘50s family, and Gleason and Art Carney are as entertaining a comedy duo as TV has ever seen. (39 episodes)
Me-TV Tues 10p.m. + 10:30 pm/Sat nights 2 a.m. + 2:30 a.m. (ET)
On Blu-ray and DVD

tumblr_static_a5fd66aeuowk0ggwk40k8c8g8

2. The Twilight Zone (1959-64, CBS)
Rod Serling’s sci-fi drama has been a rerun staple ever since its original airing, and with good reason. Unlike other anthologies of the era, the series benefits from its lack of regular characters, instead letting a steady stream of still-recognizable guest stars and brilliant teleplays take center stage. Serling himself, as on-screen narrator, holds it all together, spookily popping up in each episode, smoking an ever-present cigarette.
(156 episodes)
Me-TV Mon-Fri 11 p.m. (ET) + occasionally on SyFy
All episodes in HD on Amazon, Netflix and Hulu (w/ ads)
On Blu-ray and DVD

Smart

3. Get Smart! (1965-69, NBC + 1969-70, CBS)
Mel Brooks and Buck Henry developed comedian Don Adams’ hotel detective character from The Bill Dana Show into a hip and often-hilarious James Bond parody (with a dash of Inspector Clouseau). Adams and Barbara Feldon (as Agent 99) had hot chemistry from the get-go, and the visual gags (e.g. the “Cone of Silence”) are often top notch. (138 episodes)
Me-TV Sat nights 1 a.m. + 1:30 a.m./Mon 10 p.m. + 10:30 p.m. (ET)
On DVD

Hulu

4. Dark Shadows (1966-71, ABC)
Producer Dan Curtis mashed up every conceivable horror movie plot in five years of daily installments of this off-the-wall supernatural soap opera. With a threadbare budget and 1960s-era technology, Curtis wove an addictive continuing story that unfolded over hundreds of years and multiple parallel universes, most of it headlined by Canadian actor Jonathan Frid as the original (non-sparkling) reluctant vampire. Once you acclimate to the not-so-special-effects and occasional flubbed dialogue, you may find yourself under its spell. (1,225 episodes)
240 episodes on Hulu (w/ ads) – 80 episodes on Amazon (VOD)
On DVD

Bat

5. Batman (1966-68, ABC)
Just two years removed from its 50th anniversary, this show has even better legs than Batgirl. Adam West, Burt Ward and Yvonne Craig (added in the third season) fight a rogue’s gallery of classic film stars (many of them one-time Fox contractees) in a piece of 1960s pop art that works as parody for the grown-ups and straight-up adventure for the kids. And Holy octogenarian! Adam West still looks great. (120 episodes)
Me-TV Sat 7 p.m. + 7:30 p.m. (ET) + various times on IFC
On DVD and Blu-ray Nov 11

Odd

6. The Odd Couple (1970-75, ABC)
Tony Randall and Jack Klugman star in this adaptation of Neil Simon’s stage play and film of the same name. Skip the single-camera first season; the show really found its rhythm in season 2, when producer Garry Marshall (Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley) switched to a multiple-camera format, filmed in front of a live studio audience. (114 episodes)
Me-TV Fri 10 p.m. + 10:30 p.m. (ET)
66 episodes on Hulu (w/ ads)
On DVD

THE WALTONS

7. The Waltons (1971-1981, CBS)
Creator Earl Hamner Jr.’s autobiographical tale of life in a rural Virginia town during the Great Depression and World War II is best remembered today for it’s “Goodnight, John Boy” closing gag. In reality the show is a beautifully written, resonant family drama with naturalistic performances by Ralph Waite and Michael Learned as parents John and Olivia, Will Geer and Ellen Corby as grandparents Zeb and Esther, and Richard Thomas, Judy Norton-Taylor, Jon Walmsley, Mary Elizabeth McDonough, Eric Scott, David W. Harper, and Kami Kotler as the kids. And thanks to cable TV, you can watch seven(!) episodes each weekday. (210 episodes)
INSP Mon-Fri 3 p.m., 4 p.m., 8 p.m. (ET)
Hallmark Channel Mon-Fri 5 p.m., 6 p.m., 7 p.m., 8 p.m. (ET)
72 episodes on Amazon (VOD)
On DVD

Ties

8. Family Ties (1982-89, NBC)
There are more iconic and, arguably, better comedies of the 1970s and ‘80s that I’ve excluded from this list, but I include Gary David Goldberg’s family sitcom for one reason: Michael J. Fox. His Alex P. Keaton, the Nixon-revering son of former ‘60s radicals (Meredith Baxter and Michael Gross), stands out as one of the great characters in TV comedy. Plus, the smart writing transcends the sometimes drab look of shot-on-video, multi-camera comedy. (168 episodes)
TVGN various times
All episodes on Netflix and Amazon (Season 1 is Prime, the rest are VOD)
Complete series on DVD

FRED SAVAGE, DANICA MCKELLAR

9. The Wonder Years (1988-93, ABC)
Twenty-five years later, middle schoolers (and later, high schoolers) Kevin and Winnie still pack an emotional punch. Note that the episodes streaming on Netflix contain an alternate version of the theme (sans Joe Cocker vocals) and missing/replaced songs, due to rights issues. Time-Life has indicated they will clear “more than 300 songs” for the upcoming DVD release, and include hours of newly created extras. (115 episodes)
All episodes on Netflix
On DVD in October

Cast

10. Twin Peaks (1990-91, ABC)
The extent to which David Lynch’s serio-comic murder mystery informs TV of today is almost immeasurable. But while many shows seek to capture the otherworldly mood of this short-lived series, none have ever come close. Wow, BOB. Wow. (30 episodes)
All episodes on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu (w/ commercials)
On Blu-ray (with the 1992 feature film FIRE WALK WITH ME + lost footage)

About willmckinley

Will McKinley is a New York City-based writer, producer and classic film and TV obsessive. He’s been a guest on Turner Classic Movies (interviewed by host Robert Osborne), Sirius Satellite Radio and the official TCM podcast. Will has written for PBS and his byline has appeared more than 100 times in the pages of NYC alt weeklies like The Villager and Gay City News.
This entry was posted in Classic TV. Bookmark the permalink.

34 Responses to In Praise of Vintage: 10 Classic TV Shows + Where to Watch Them

  1. Jennifer says:

    Great post, Will. Now I need to watch some classic Batman!

  2. Mark Aldrich says:

    “Any time I see a guy wearing a hat, I change the channel,” is such an old guy with a hat type thing to say.

    We can disagree about one’s list of “classic” or “must-miss” shows—Genzlinger’s (it rhymes with “gunslinger”) list strikes me as a list of titles taken at random from an old man’s hat—but the culture-wide conversation about what makes a classic is always fun and necessary. Thanks for your contribution, and for including where, on TV or (gasp) the internet, one can find your list.

  3. I agree with pretty much everything you say, but I do have a small nit. In your reference to “Sex and the City” you use the phrase “man’s semen.” Is there another kind? :)

  4. excellent rebuttal.

    I don’t think Mr. Genzlinger and I would get along.

    I’m going to stay happy with my “Perry Mason” and “Gunsmoke” and “Car 54, Where Are You?”.

  5. As soon as saw the article in the NYT I was waiting for this other shoe to drop. Such a challenge could not go unanswered. Will has done so magnificently and with his usual flourishes.

    Disappointed that GREEN ACRES didn’t make the list, but I’m sure it made position #11.

    As for Mr Genzlinger, I vant to shoost him, but first ve’re playing Monotony and Scramble with Arnold.

  6. Kelly says:

    F**** NY Liars paper what that dude know btw for the record I am generation X female I remember back in da day in SO CAL watch old movie in mid days hour then watch Twiliight Zone and one channel then change to KCOP watch Adventure of Superman and Star trek

    This reason why NY Liars subscribtion going down on toilet for political bias NOBODY Read the paper anymore even my LA LIars newspaper losing the customer

    Screw the NY Liars everybody know if wasn’t for that Mexican businessmen there won’t be NY Liars right now or near future trust me Will they are SO losing money right now

  7. Oh, I love this list, thank you for providing the sources as well as the rationale behind the shows!

  8. Drina Gordon says:

    Exactly correct about putting on me tv and winding way down, especially when it sends one back to childhood memories, watching The Waltons with Dad, TwilightZone w big sis age 5, JohnnyCarson Fri nts with Gramma, as adult, talking on the phone with my 11 yr old nephew thru Wonder Years to help him not be so alone during his parents divorce. Heck, the only reason I started watching Mad Men was because I thought it was an episode of some old series I missed, till I recognized John Slattery!

  9. 70srichard says:

    Hell yeah, you tell em Will. That was well reasoned, passionate and accurate as well as funny. All that TV must be screwing up your brain the right way.

  10. avid reader says:

    thanks for reminding me of an article I read years ago that had Arafat and his crew watching Golden Girls:

    http://m.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/09/in-a-ruined-country/304167/

  11. Jen says:

    Great post, Will. There are a few I would not mind seeing on this list, but it’s a great stroll down memory lane (I absolutely loved watching “Get Smart” on Nick, and of *course* “Batman”, what kid didn’t?). “The Honeymooners” were a sick-and-at-home-from-school treat. It is, however, a little odd to see “Family Ties” and “The Wonder Years” already on the list, as those were contemporary to my own youth (and popular in my home, too).

    Speaking of television, my husband and I were talking “Frasier” (one of our own favourites, and easily available for binge-watching on Netflix) the other night. Did you know it has been almost TWENTY-ONE YEARS since it premiered?

    Yeeesh, *that* makes me feel elderly.

    • Kelly says:

      Actually in So Cal Honeymooners was late at night on KTLA. One that really bring back memories is back to back episode of Superman with George Reeve and Batman on KCOP in mid afternoon hours – coming home from school watch two episodes of each shows.

  12. Aurora says:

    Reblogged this on How Sweet It Was and commented:
    A must read – get your classic TV on!

  13. Kelly says:

    Trust me if I caught this tv critic in restaurant I pass him I probably throw glass of wine at him LOL! call him YOU PIG you don’t know jack about classic tv shows or movies

  14. Pingback: The Rockford Files, The Sopranos and Classic Television : The Cultural Gutter

  15. Kelly says:

    You know what I gather I hear from another person online probably that writer never watched Antenna TV.

    He’s just talking smack to hear himself talk.

  16. Milliarium says:

    Nice rebuttal. One I would DEFINETLY include would be The Three Stooges! Personally gotta remove The Wonder Years. (Absolutely hated that ’68 Jets jacket, ’cause I’m a diehard Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts fan).

  17. Excuse my French, but is this guy FUCKED or what? I grew up watching these shows – and still do – and I cannot understand where this dude gets off comparing I Love Lucy to the trainwreck that was Sex In The City. I get it, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but this one just seems … bogus and unsubstantial. If it was up to him, we’d ALL be wearing straightjackets and drinking apple juice out of paper cups.

    Oh, if you’re looking for a classic Britcom that somewhat resembles The Honeymooners, check out On The Buses. Just sayin’ ;)

    • Kelly says:

      I agree with you I remember when Sex in the city I check out two episodes didn’t get humor or sex humor on that series I did watch Sopranos premire around that time when Sex in the city came on the air

      yeah I rather almost 60 year old show like I Love Lucy than Sarah Jessica Parker spreading her legs on her HBO Show Sex in the city which star post Law and Order cop Mike Logan aka Chris Noth

  18. Mitchell H. says:

    Which is why I don’t read the NYT! Seriously, given the discussion lately about the renaissance of classic TV (at the AV Club, for example), it doesn’t surprise me that Genslinger is late to the party. Typical Times – a day late and a dollar short!

  19. Just add to the new release list;

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Sgt-Bilko-Silvers-Complete-Collection/dp/B00JDCZHVI/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1406843296&sr=8-1&keywords=phil+silvers

    Us Brits have great taste when it comes to classic American comedy and Phil Silvers is revered as a comedy God. We’re also organising a Phil Silvers evening at the British Film Institute with Cathy Silvers as our very special guest!

    https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::permalink=bilko

    • Thanks for the info about the Bilko show coming out on DVD. It fills a huge void. Neil Simon used to joke that he hated writing for Phil. Simon said that Silvers talked so fast that each Bilko episode required about 20% more dialogue than the usual TV comedy, with no added salary.

  20. Enjoyed the your article. It is readily apparent that Mr. Genzlinger has some problems discerning the crooked part of his arm from his posterior. As for your list I give it a 50/50 ratings. Some of my classics would be Leave It To Beaver, Car 54, Bilko, Green Acres (incredibly unique sense of humor and the best con man since the Kingfish), Amos & Andy (shudders), Father knows Best, Jack Benny Show, Perry Mason, the Untouchables and Newhart (the Vermont show) to name a few gems.

  21. Pingback: Friday Round Up: New But the Same Geek Junk! | The Robot's Pajamas

  22. I think Mr. Genzlinger may need a laxative. I have loved classic films for years since I was a kid. Of course there can be some that are outdated and corny but others never go out of style. And the same for the TV shows like Honeymooners, or Car 54. My husband and I have this huge DVD collection. We have Honeymooners and Car 54. I found myself laughing hysterically at a scene in Car 54 and who can forget Jackie Gleason and Art Carney, “address the ball.” Even though older films and TV shows do not have the special effects of recent films the writing and stories can be so good that you can overlook the old fashioned special effects. Like in War of the World the original or The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (the film), The African Queen and so many others. I love Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogard, Gregory Peck, Betty Davis and so many more.

  23. Laurie H. says:

    Really great blog post! I am a huge Old-Hollywood-lover myself, my favourites being the biggest classics Gone with the Wind & Wizard of Oz. And whatever Joan Crawford played in. I could replay that forever.
    Although the Golden Age is long gone and there was never any better time for the film-makers, I feel sorry that there are no such movies released anymore. Sometimes I really do miss just going to the cinema or matinee and not being disappointed by what I have seen. The legends of 30s could never ever spoil my appetite for a movie, but today’s cinema offer? With all the sci-fi and 3-Ds? Not interested… Do you think there is a chance Hollywood stops feeding us with dull stories and tries to go back to the beautiful classics? This article Hollywood Future offers some very vague solutions, hence I would love to hear something more real…

  24. KC says:

    I feel so sad for people who feel the need to pour scorn on the hard work of others. My life would lose a great deal of luster without Maude, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Twilight Zone.

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