The Changing Face of TV
For people that didn’t grow up in the ‘70s, it’s often remembered as the decade of disco, hippies and feathered hair. But it was actually a time of huge social change in America.
Women and minorities were fighting for their rights. The Vietnam war was dragging to a close. We went through a recession and a petroleum crisis. And to top it all off, President Richard Nixon resigned from office.
Along with all the social upheaval, American TV began to reflect the times and went through its own transformation. Sure, Happy Days, The Waltons and The Brady Bunch still served up family-oriented, happy-ending TV.
But there were several other groundbreaking shows that changed the conversation and the players to more accurately reflect the times. Let’s take a look at the '70s TV shows that launched us into the modern era.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977)
It was the first TV show ever to focus on the life of a single working girl. Mary Tyler Moore starred in this comedy about a TV news producer who puts her career before men. Something hitherto unheard of on network TV.
Instead of depending on a romantic relationship to define her life, she develops a close camaraderie with her boss, co-workers and the women who live in her apartment building.
Apparently, America was ready for the independent Mary. Just like the theme songs says, she turned the word on with her smile, and the show had huge popular as well as critical success.
And though a show that focuses on single women may not seem breakthrough now, it’s hard to imagine that Carrie Bradshaw would have ever come along without the original single gal in Minneapolis.
All In The Family (1971-1979)
Centered around bigoted, working class Archie Bunker, this breakthrough comedy tackled every serious issue of the day. Women’s rights, racism, abortion, sexual orientation and a host of others. Never had the TV conversation been this frank or controversial.
Counterweighted by his liberal daughter Gloria and her husband Mike (aka Meathead), Archie’s conservative view of the world was challenged weekly. Played with humanity and sheer brilliance by Carol O’Connor, America took Archie and All In The Family to heart.
Conservatives liked the show because they felt the same way as Archie. Liberals loved the show because the joke was always ON Archie. In short, everyone was happy, and the show ranked number one for five straight seasons.
Since then, the conversation has never been the same.
The Jeffersons (1975-1985)
The Jeffersons was a spinoff of All In the Family. What’s breakthrough about it? It centered around the lives of a middle class African American couple as they “move on up” the socioeconomic scale, which had happened on TV exactly zero times before.
Not only did America accept The Jeffersons. They loved the Jeffersons. For 11 seasons they couldn’t get enough of the bombastic George Jefferson, his long suffering wife, Louise (known better as Weezie), and their wisecracking maid, Florence.
It also featured their neighbors Tom and Helen Willis. The first interracial couple on a TV series. Ever.
It was a load of groundbreaking laughs that paved the way for other shows like Cosby and Blackish. Hallelujah for moving up with the Jeffersons.
The Carol Burnett Show (1967-1978)
There were plenty of other variety shows in the ‘70s, but none that were lead by a woman. Producers were nervous, but this classic sketch comedy show turned out to be a huge hit.
The famous “Gone With The Wind” send-up sketch, “Went With The Wind” is the stuff of comedy legend. So are “As The Stomach Turns” and the recurring “The Family” sketch.
And it wasn’t just the audience that was laughing. Carol and her co-stars Harvey Korman, Tim Conway and Vicki Lawrence often cracked up during their own performances. A fact that only made the audience laugh harder.
As with any variety show, there was a stream of guest stars. And plenty of singing and dancing.
At the end of every show, Carol tugged her left ear as a sign to her grandmother and sang, “We’re so glad we had this time together.”
We’re so glad Carol showed us that women can be seriously funny.
The Flip Wilson Show (1970-1974)
Flip Wilson was the first African American to star in a successful variety show. During its first two seasons, it ranked number two in the Nielsen ratings.
Not only that, but his most famous sketch character was Geraldine Jones, a part which he played in drag. Flip donned a wig and a tight-fitting dress each week and had America roaring with laughter. Yes, this show broke the mold.
The stream of famous singers that appeared on the show is also impressive. The Jackson 5, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, The Supremes and many others graced the stage.
In a nutshell, you could say everyone flipped for Flip.
Saturday Night Live (1975 - Present)
October 11, 1975. The first time we ever heard the words, “Live from New York. It’s Saturday night!” Thousand of sketches and more than 40 years later, this juggernaut is still around.
In fact, it’s been around so long that it’s easy to forget how breakthrough it was when it debuted. Its anti-establishment humor wasn’t deemed appropriate for families, so you had to wait until after the 11 o’clock news to see it.
That’s how the original “Not Ready For Prime Time Players” got their name.
Another thing that made Saturday Night Live breakthrough is that it brought back live TV. Each week John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Dan Akroyd, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtain and Garrett Morris did a comedy high-wire act where the laughs and stakes were high.
And the show has never fallen off the radar since.
M*A*S*H (1972- 1983)
This comedy/drama set during the Korean war was loosely based on the 1970 movie of the same name.
Doctors Hawkeye (Alan Alda) and Trapper John (Wayne Rogers) often broke the rules and wisecracked their way through the miseries of war.
It also didn’t skim over the blood and guts of combat and featured plenty of operating room action — just one of the things that made it a breakthrough.
It also wasn’t afraid to kill off major characters, as it did when Col Henry Blake dies at the end of season three.
But at the heart of the breakthrough was the iconic character of Hawkeye Pierce. He was the embodiment of the ‘70s “sensitive man” and helped redefine what masculinity really means.
M*A*S*H, we salute you!
Kung Fu (1972 -1975)
A Shaolin monk rambles through the Old American West exacting justice martial arts style. If this fusion show wasn’t breakthrough, we don’t know what is.
The story is based around Kwai Chang Cain (aka Grasshopper), the orphaned son of an American man and a Chinese woman who is taken in by a Shaolin Monastery in China. He becomes a priest and kung fu expert.
But when he kills the man that assassinated his beloved mentor, Cain is forced to flee to America with a price on his head.
As he searches for his long-lost family roots in the American West, he doles out Taoist philosophy and stands up for the underdogs with hands, fists and feet. At the end of each episode, he’s forced to move on to avoid capture.
The show was a combination of action along with aphorisms from the Tao Te Ching.
Thanks for making the American West a little bit wiser, Grasshopper.
The Bob Newhart Show (1972-1978)
This intelligent comedy about a Chicago psychologist may not seem breakthrough now, but you have to remember this was the 1970s. Nobody went around quoting their shrink in everyday life because that would be admitting you actually HAD one.
Along with a lot of other issues, mental health was one that got swept under the rug.
Then straight man Bob Newhart and his wisecracking co-stars came along. And the game had officially changed.
Now, if we could only get people to STOP quoting their therapist’s ad nauseum.
Soul Train (1971-2006)
Soul Train was a music and dance show that served up R&B, soul, jazz and pop on Saturday mornings. It had a huge impact on pop culture and was groundbreaking for many reasons.
It’s creator and producer Don Cornelius became the first African American owner of a nationally syndicated TV franchise. His example was the inspiration for the wave of black-owned entertainment that followed.
The look, the music and the dances featured on the show also brought an Afrocentric perspective to a much wider audience for the first time. Not to mention that most of the black popular music at the time was launched here.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Soul Train was a cultural powerhouse.
The changing times of the 1970s were definitely reflected in what America was watching. As you can see, many pioneers of the small screen had a huge impact on what we watch today.
Through them, America became more representative and more real. Clearly, we still have a long way to go with inclusivity. But we can thank the creators and stars of these iconic shows for helping to push our culture forward.
May the times keep on changing.