By Cory Barker and Les Chappell
Welcome to the first round of This Was Television’s Hall of Fame. As described in our original announcement, Cory and Les (for now) will each be selecting three different shows in the categories of Drama, Comedy, and Wild Card. Each will present a brief case for his show’s inclusion in the Hall of Fame and debate the merits of both shows for inclusion. Then we’ll open it up to voting from the This Was Television readership. After voting has concluded, we’ll announce the winners and enshrine them in the Hall of Fame (with an appropriately shiny description), along with an announcement for our focus over the next month.
To remind you of the rules and forestall the inevitable cries as to why we didn’t include some of your favorites starting out: shows are only eligible for the Hall of Fame if they’ve either a) completed their runs and been off the air for a minimum of five years, or b) been on the air for long enough that their worthiness to be considered is without question. In cases of the latter, those circumstances will be discussed and agreed upon by both members of the Hall of Fame’s august voting body.
Again, please note that selection of these shows aren’t meant to serve as a last word on which shows represent quality, nor should they be seen as us recognizing one show at the expense of the other. This is just us having fun, talking about the shows that we think are important and talking about why we think they mean something.
While we’ll be going for more of a thematic ballot in the months to come, for our first outing we wanted to keep it simple. These are our knee-jerk reactions, the shows that were the first to come to mind when asked, “What belongs in the Hall of Fame?”
Comedy time. Les, kick it off.
Comedy: I Love Lucy, CBS, 1951–1957
Legacy in one sentence: The grand high priestess of the multi-camera situational comedy.
Les: It may not have been the earliest sitcom ever—Wikipedia tells me that honor goes to the BBC’s Pinwright’s Progress, or possibly CBS’s The Goldbergs—but it’s hard to think of another sitcom that’s been more important to the development of television in the last 60 years. It literally invented the multi-cam format of three cameras and a live studio audience, a format that was foundational to the vast majority of the sitcoms produced since and which today spurs many critics to wistfully long for a return to its glory days. It had Lucille Ball at the center, one of the finest and most gifted comedic actresses of her time or any time since—an undiluted force of enthusiasm, game for any bit of physical comedy regardless of how silly it looked. While the show’s been dinged over the years for its sexist attitudes, there’s still a raw heart and energy to it that still makes it a joy to watch. With syndication, I Love Lucy has never been off the air once since it premiered, and I think it’ll keep airing as long as there’s a TV left functioning to show it.
Cory: Ah, Lucy. That one was on my short-list for comedy choices this go-around so again, it’s difficult to outwardly say why it shouldn’t belong. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz worked wonderfully together, despite the troubling and retrograde gender dynamics at play in the show’s narrative. There are a handful of episodes from that series that many, many television fans can pick out or name right off the top of their heads—”Lucy Does a TV Commercial” and “Job Switching” are probably the two biggies—and even 50-plus years later, I Love Lucy still holds up. Sure, in 2012, the jokes seem a bit broad and again, let’s not even get into the representation of gender, but the show is indelibly watchable, which I think is a big statement for a program that old.
Despite all that, I’m going to throw my support behind…
Comedy: All in the Family, CBS, 1971-1979
Legacy in one sentence: A family sitcom with bite that was willing to address issues that were at the time (and still kind of are), quite groundbreaking, setting the stage for a new era in TV comedy.
Lucy might have played a major role in ossifying some of the sitcom’s conventions and formulas, but by the early 1970s, the format needed to be altered in some way. Thankfully, Norman Lear, Carroll O’Connor, Jean Stapleton, and the rest of the All in the Family cast decided to do more than alter the sitcom: they dismantled it and rebuilt it with a more grounded life force, one focusing on engaging with political, social, and cultural issues of the time. As most probably know, very little was off the table with All in the Family. The show consistently addressed complex issues and questions related to race, religion, class, sexuality, gender, and politics (among many other things), and it generally did so without coming off as didactic, preachy, or both. Best of all, Family managed to do all this while still being very funny; the show knew how to manage the heavy macro-level social commentary with more based and formulaic humor, a tightrope that few shows have been able to walk—or really even try.
Lucy is something, but O’Connor’s Archie Bunker is simultaneously one of the most deplorable and most charming characters in TV history. He was unfortunately ignorant, consistently awful, and regressive in his beliefs, and yet the show succeeded because it was always willing to make him (and to be fair, other characters as well) the biggest fool in the room. The television sitcom has forever been full of fools on display to make us laugh at their expense. Nevertheless, it’s hard to top Archie Bunker in that department and it’s also hard to imagine that we’d have the likes of Al Bundy, Homer Simpson, Michael Scott, and so on without the success of a lovable, dense asshole like Archie.
Norman Lear’s brand of comedy storytelling ushered in a new kind of television sitcom, one that wasn’t afraid to at least attempt to discuss the world’s problems—to make television a real cultural forum, if you will—and while there’s no doubt that those kinds of comedies have come and go since the 1970s, All in the Family still opened both the industry and viewers up to that new world full of more complex and intelligent possibilities.
Les: (Whistle) Good choice there, and one I’m hard-pressed to argue against. While I Love Lucy served as the blueprint for many other sitcoms to come, All in the Family was, as you say, the sitcom that tore through those blueprints and transcended the weekly situational comedy format. Few other shows then or even now would have the balls to turn one of their Christmas episodes into a debate on the Vietnam War (“The Draft Dodger”), or to say the things that Archie Bunker would say and do on a weekly basis. As you say, Archie was the original curmudgeon, and one who managed to be racist and bigoted while at the same time being enough of a decent individual at his core to be seen as an Everyman—one that Sammy Davis, Jr. himself would want to appear with and kiss on the cheek. And more to the point, All in the Family is also another show that can only be clarified as immortal: The opening credits with Archie and Edith singing “Those Were The Days” along with the piano are probably some of the most recognizable credits in television history, and I don’t think you could find anyone who’d argue that Archie’s armchair deserves its spot in the National Museum of American History.
I feel bad about arguing against this one, but I still have to give the nod to I Love Lucy, because while All in the Family was certainly groundbreaking, the point in my book goes to the show that put the ground in place. I Love Lucy was the first sitcom to establish for the American public exactly what a sitcom was, from its technical aspirations (the first show show on 35 mm in front of a studio audience) to the nature of being a weekly situational sitcom where people would want to tune in to see the wacky hijinks of its central characters. Lucy’s constant efforts to make it big, Ricky’s aggravation at the crazy woman he’d married, the bickering of the Mertzes—the show had a rhythm it found very early and knew exactly how many variations it could find on that rhythm without losing what its audience wanted. And it was also a sitcom that had genuine heart, helped by the friendships between the four leads and Ball and Arnaz’s real-life marriage. It understood the essential truth of the weekly sitcom: characters that you wanted to visit every week.
Speaking of the marriage, while you mentioned the troubling gender dynamics of Lucy‘s plotting, I think that the behind-the-scenes action of Lucy needs to be recognized as a counterbalance. Lucy was created and run by Desilu Productions, the studio founded by Ball and Arnaz to bring their Vaudeville act to TV. Ball’s experience in so many movies (which we discussed in our chat about Christine Becker’s book) meant she had a keen eye for talent, and Desilu was where such programs as The Untouchables and Star Trek got their starts—and their eternal life, given that Arnaz recognized the potential of reruns very early on. After their divorce, Ball would become the head of Desilu, making her a woman with unquestionable power for that era in the studios. Lucy may have been a Vitameatavegamin-swilling, attention-seeking diva on camera, but behind the camera she was a feminist icon.