By Anthony Strand
Right On Schedule is a series looking at a network’s primetime schedule for one night during one TV season. It aims to examine the shows in relation to one another, TV as a whole, and sometimes even the culture as a whole.
CBS Mondays 1973–1974
9:00 Here’s Lucy
9:30 The New Dick Van Dyke Show
10:00 Medical Center
Among primetime TV lineups, CBS’s Saturday night in 1973-1974 is one of the all-time greats. It’s one of the few lineups that gets written about regularly, and it’s easy to see why: four brilliant sitcoms, all of them relatively young (the fourth seasons of All in the Family and Mary Tyler Moore, and the second seasons of M*A*S*H and The Bob Newhart Show), followed by a landmark variety show (The Carol Burnett Show). The five shows flowed well as a programming block, and the night as a whole pointed the way towards an exciting future where sitcom characters acted like real people with real relationships.
But what of CBS’s six other evenings that year? They couldn’t all be so forward-thinking, could they? Indeed they weren’t. While Saturday looked ahead, the Monday night lineup was firmly stuck in the network’s stodgy past. It’s this lesser-known lineup that we come here to examine today.
CBS’s identity crisis was most apparent in the evening’s last program, Medical Center, which was all about a struggle between the old and the new. The old was curmudgeonly experienced Dr. Paul Lochner (James Daly), and the new was handsome, idealistic young Dr. Joe Gannon (Chad Everett). Dr. Gannon further proved his young, hip bonafides by serving as the head of student health at the local university. Every week, the pair argued over the best way to treat patients, generally coming to a heartwarming understanding in the end.
The student health angle allowed the show to tackle current issues of the day, similar to other youth-oriented dramas like The Mod Squad. But at heart, the show wasn’t much different from medical dramas that had aired a decade earlier, such as ABC’s Ben Casey and NBC’s Dr. Kildare. Like Medical Center, both of those shows focused on handsome young doctors and their older mentors. The formula dates back decades before those shows (including the Kildare theatrical films in the 1930s and 1940s), and Medical Center functioned best as comfort food — a familiar program for audiences who wanted something they recognized.
Audiences certainly recognized the rest of Monday’s offerings. The lead-off show was Gunsmoke, then in its nineteenth (19th!) hit season. Gunsmoke had its share of changes over those two decades. It switched from thirty to sixty minutes in 1961, and from black-and-white to color in 1966. It had swapped out several cast members, most notably replacing Dennis Weaver (as lovable, dim-witted deputy Chester) with Ken Curtis (as loveable, dim-witted — in a different, folksier way! — deputy Festus). But the core cast (James Arness as Marshall Matt Dillon, Amanda Blake as saloon owner “Miss” Kitty Russell, and Milburn Stone as Doc Adams) had remained intact to this point in the run. Blake left before the twentieth and final season, but that’s still a remarkable accomplishment.
With that group of characters in place, the show told the same kinds of stories for its entire run. Each episode focused on a guest star, usually a stranger in Dodge City. They ran into some sort of trouble, and Matt put everything right. Doc patched up wounds as needed, Kitty gave Matt someone to talk to, and Chester or Festus backed him and provided comic relief. The show was even set in the same year – 1874, for whatever reason – for its entire run. By 1973, TV viewers knew exactly what to expect from Gunsmoke, and the show continued to deliver well-written, well-acted drama. Even more than Medical Center, it was an oasis of familiarity in a TV world that was changing rapidly.
In the evening’s two sitcoms, we find two very different attempts to hang onto the past. Gunsmoke was immediately followed by Here’s Lucy, Lucille Ball’s third and last TV hit. Like I Love Lucy and The Lucy Show, it ran for exactly six years, which meant that Ball had an even longer history on CBS than Gunsmoke. Including the occasional Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour specials in the late 1950s, Ball was on CBS for all but two seasons between 1951 and 1974. This season marked the end of that historic run, as Here’s Lucy finally ran out of gas.
The show was largely constructed out of spare parts from Ball’s previous series, especially its immediate predecessor The Lucy Show). Lucy was again cast as a widow with one son and one daughter. She again worked for grumpy old Gale Gordon, although this time she was also his sister-in-law. Her best friend was again played by Mary Jane Croft, who had replaced Vivian Vance midway through the earlier program. The changes were mostly cosmetic. Lucy’s last name was Carter instead of Carmichael. She lived in Los Angeles instead of New York. Her children were played by her actual children Desi Arnaz Jr. and Lucie Arnaz.
So it was essentially the same show, but not nearly as inspired. Everyone involved seemed to be going through the motions, particularly Ball. She wasn’t as involved behind-the-scenes as she had been,
since she didn’t own the show’s production company. (EDIT: Commenter Keith points out that while she had sold Desilu, she did, in fact, own the show through her new Lucille Ball Productions.) She also wasn’t capable of doing the physical comedy she was known for, as she was sixty-three years old by the time the last season premiered. To make up for that, the show let her have more increasingly-absurd run-ins with celebrities than ever. In addition to Andy Griffith, Joan Rivers, Milton Berle, and others, the sixth season found time for an episode called “Lucy Carter Meets Lucille Ball,” promoting Ball’s new musical film Mame.
(To Lucy’s credit, she’d been on TV for over twenty years at that point. It only took Mork two-and-half years to meet Robin Williams.)
While Here’s Lucy was happy to coast on its star’s reputation, its time-slot companion seemed trapped in the shadow of its predecessor. The show was called The New Dick Van Dyke Show, which certainly didn’t discourage comparisons. Indeed, it had many similarities with The Dick Van Dyke Show. Like that series — and like the Saturday night hit starring Van Dyke’s old co-star Mary Tyler Moore — the action was split between home and work. Van Dyke’s character Dick Preston again worked in television, this time as the host of a local talk show in Phoenix, Arizona (which allowed the show to film in Van Dyke’s actual city of residence). He was again married with one child at home, a girl this time.
Despite the similarities, Van Dyke and creator Carl Reiner wanted the show to feel different from their earlier classic. More accurately, they wanted it to feel fresher, with character-based writing more akin to the shows produced by Norman Lear and MTM (the latter of which was in turn heavily influenced by The Dick Van Dyke Show). The writing was edgier, and Fannie Flagg added an offbeat, unique energy as Dick’s sister Mike, the only original regular character who wasn’t a veiled recreation of someone from DVD. One story famously focused on daughter Annie accidentally walking in on her parents having sex. CBS refused to air it, saying that it didn’t fit with Van Dyke’s family-friendly image.
Following that event, Reiner chose to end the show after this third season, claiming that CBS was being hypocritical because they let All in the Family get away with much, much worse. Despite Reiner’s protests, though, the writing was distinguished mostly being not quite as good. I can’t say for sure whether that was due to CBS’s restrictions or to a general lack of inspiration, but it’s clear in the episodes I’ve seen from all three seasons. It was for this reason, as much as any, that the show was moved away from its cushy Saturday slot as the lead-in to Mary Tyler Moore after its first season.
In this third season, the show strayed from its original premise, moving Dick and his family to Hollywood, where he got a job on a soap opera and met new characters played by people like Richard Dawson and Dick Van Patten. The idea was to inject new life into the show, but mostly it demonstrated that the show never had much life in the first place. Van Dyke is one of the most charismatic TV stars in history, but this series wasn’t worthy of his talents or Carl Reiner’s time as a writer. TV had moved on, and CBS knew it. It just took them until 1974 to fully admit it.
Next: Dumont Tuesdays 1952-1953
Previously on Right On Schedule: FOX Sundays (1988-1989)