Fall TV premiers are right around the corner. Downton Abbey will soon begin its final season, The Muppets are returning to NBC for the first time in nearly 20 years, and Melissa Benoist will make her post-Glee debut as Kara Zor-El on CBS’ Supergirl. It is an exciting time for TV fans. In fact, many critics believe we are in the Golden Age of the medium. But, the focus on long form storytelling that defines the current TV zeitgeist is nothing new. We took a look back at the most-watched TV shows from 55 years ago and found that most of the top programs in 1960 were also serialized dramas.
Don’t touch that mouse, because we’re counting down the top TV programs from 1960!
Gunsmoke was in its fifth season in 1960. This was the final season before CBS expanded the format from a half-hour to an hour. Marshal Matt Dillon, “Doc” Adams and “Kitty” managed to keep audiences engaged for 20 years and produced 635 episodes, more than any other American television show. After the show was cancelled, Los Angeles Times columnist Cecil Smith wrote:
“Gunsmoke was the dramatization of the American epic legend of the west. Our own Iliad and Odyssey, created from standard elements of the dime novel and the pulp western as romanticized by Buntline, Harte, and Twain. It was ever the stuff of legend.”
If you liked it try: Doctor Who, based purely on series longevity.
- WAGON TRAIN
Wagon Train followed series star Ward Bond as the leader of the titular caravan as it journeyed from Missouri to California. Bond proved a fan favorite; the show actually bumped Gunsmoke out of the top ratings spot in 1961. The main difference between the two programs – other than the presence of wagons – was Wagon Train’s focus on developing its characters’ back stories. Most episodes focus on the events that led an individual or group to join the “train.”
If you liked it try: Firefly, it is a western… in space! Also features hot-headed characters with shadowy pasts.
- HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL
While many of the popular television shows of the 1960s based on radio programs, CBS’ Have Gun Will Travel was among the first TV programs to spawn a radio version. The series starred Richard Boon as the gunfighter-for-hire known as “Paladin.” The protagonist was a wealthy businessman practicing vigilantism under a pseudonym, a popular trope then and now. Unlike most series however, the Paladin’s real name was never revealed on the show.
If you liked it try: Better Call Saul, features another intelligent and well-intentioned protagonist operating under a false name who is forced into morally questionable positions.
- THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW
Dramas set in the post-Civil War frontier defined popular television in the late 50s and early 60s, but The Andy Griffith Show never failed to draw and audience during its original run. In fact, it ranked among the top 10 most watched programs through each season of its 8-year run. Why was the program so popular? It brought an unmatched earnestness to the ever-popular comedy-of-errors format. But, the true key to The Andy Griffith Show’s success was the legendary Don Knotts.
If you liked it try: Arrested Development, a cult-favorite featuring odd characters who win your love – despite being generally unlikable – through misunderstandings and offbeat adventures.
- THE REAL MCCOYS
The Real McCoys follows the McCoy family who moved from the mountains of West Virginia to California. That may sound like the premise of the still-syndicated program The Beverly Hillbillies, which premiered in 1962, but The Real McCoys was actually much different. The most obvious difference is that the McCoy family weren’t oil tycoons, they were dirt farmers. The program’s comic sensibility was also more down to earth. While Hillbillies’ humor was often slapstick, The Real McCoys relied more on situational comedy and often featured a strong moral message.
If you liked it try: The New Girl, another fish-out-of-water story where friends teach each other lessons while trying to scrape together grocery money.