With an entire lifetime's worth of vintage TV available on every platform — DVD, cable, online sites like Hulu and those dusty videotapes in the garage — it's worth sorting which pieces of our collective past are worth revisiting.
We love television for various reasons. Sometimes, it's the timelessness of an emotion. Sometimes, it's the topicality of a laugh.
What makes us curious enough to go back? What holds up over time?
With The A-Team in movie theaters and a new Hawaii Five-O coming this fall on CBS, it's a good time to look back at the originals and appraise what's a classic — and what's just old.
Let's assign these series, picked at random but mostly from the 1960s, to three categories: still great, faded but fun, and you had to be there.
The A-Team (1983-87, on DVD); Old-style car chases knocking through flower stalls, produce stands and rickety fences: I'd seen lots of episodes but didn't remember the pilot, which was better than I thought. The Vietnam War vets are "soldiers of fortune," with macho military music accompanying the chases: cars into buildings, cars into water. The wonderful George Peppard in a sea-monster suit accessorized with a cigar. Just watching them pull over at a pay phone is a retro moment to point out to the kids. Peppard does at least three characters in the first quarter-hour and delivers his signature line with lasting casual charm. "I love it when a plan comes together." In Stephen J. Cannell and Frank Lupo's series, the flying fists and he-man stuff are always delivered with a bit of self-deprecating humor. Lots of shooting, no blood. Each episode was longer than I recalled, with more of that light disco, action-adventure soundtrack.
Get Smart (1965-70, on DVD): The pilot was in black-and-white, the rest in color. Fun espionage, the forerunner to today's spy series Chuck. When Max and the Chief activate the cone of silence, we're still laughing out loud. It couldn't have been easy acting with Fang in the pilot. Silly fight scenes, ridiculously phony and lovingly written by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry.
Hogan's Heroes (1965-71, watch it on TVLand): Still the most preposterous premise for a comedy: a POW camp during World War II. This farce set in Stalag 13 featured diversity before we knew what the word meant — French, German, English and American accents, black and white. Still brilliant, albeit implausible and anti-historical. Also, I don't remember Bob Crane being so one-note in delivery.
Leave It to Beaver (1957-63, on DVD): Barbara Billingsley, Hugh Beaumont, Tony Dow "and Jerry Mathers as the Beaver!" Surprisingly watchable, with timeless quandaries like girls, dirt and responsibility. Still a go-to example of the medium's (and the culture's) insistence on a superficial presentation of American suburban family life of the period.
That Girl (1966-71, on DVD): Opening credits are a great intro to midtown Manhattan. More a screwball romantic comedy than a sitcom. We studied Ann Marie's outfits and flip hairdo to learn about working women in New York. In the pilot, Donald is more assertive, not the simpering wimp we recall from later seasons. Oh, Donald! Wish you'd stayed that way.
Marlo Thomas talks directly to the audience at the end: "I hope you'll watch. In color. Or black-and-white. I just want you to watch."
Between the pilot and the first episode, she switched from a candy-counter job to waitress. She's moving 40 miles from home with white gloves, tweed suit and pumps. Nowadays, if your parents followed you to the city to forestall your claim on independence, you'd sue them.
FADED BUT FUN
Bewitched (1964-72, watch it on TVLand): That mother-daughter bickering never gets old. No witchcraft in front of the grandchild, Sam (Elizabeth Montgomery) cautions. Production values are primitive, but Agnes Moorehead is a hoot.
Dragnet (1951-59, on DVD): Wonderful shots of Los Angeles circa 1950. Distinguished ancestor to Law and Order and other police procedurals. It's fun to spot the teletypes, phone booths, clunky walkie-talkies. The pants are all too short, and Friday (Jack Webb, who created the series) moves like a robot.
Rhoda (1974-78, on DVD): Compiled from the best surviving masters and starring dear Rho (Valerie Harper), sister Brenda (Julie Kavner) and mom Ida (Nancy Walker). Born in the Bronx, now post-Minneapolis, back in New York, with Carlton the Doorman. It makes one wonder why there were no shows about plucky guys moving to New York apartments alone.
Rhoda, after asking Joe out on a date: "I thank you, Ms. magazine, I never could have done it without you!" Mostly Rhoda and Brenda talk about their weight problems past and present, exaggerating Brenda's size. Biggest laugh line regarding dating propriety: "Ma sez, 'A man doesn't buy a cow if he can get the milk for free.'"
YOU HAD TO BE THERE
Hawaii Five-O (1968-80, on DVD): What an impossibly long run it had. Consistent, if ultimately predictable: "Book 'em, Danno!" Steve McGarrett (the wooden Jack Lord) commanded as the elite team rounded up the villain of the week.
Father Knows Best (1954-60, available on DVD): Irony-free representation of charmed Middle American family life, led, of course, by the wise patriarch. With Robert Young as Jim Anderson, Jane Wyatt as wife Margaret, Billy Gray as son Bud and Elinor Donahue and Lauren Chapin as daughters "Princess" and "Kitten." "Bud," "Princess" and "Kitten," for crying out loud! Gold standard for what later generations rebelled against. The show's only excuse: It originated on radio in the '40s.
Mr. Ed (1961-66, on DVD): Feels so slow, looks so obviously edited, played in reverse at times and sounds so goofy. Really silly old jokes, vaudevillian. The ancient gender-role distinctions. But here's an insight: They applied peanut butter inside Ed's upper lip to make it look as if he was talking to Alan Young.
The Patty Duke Show (1963-66, on DVD): Black-and-white study of (white) teen life in the early 1960s, via "identical cousins." Individual episodes are not as memorable as the theme song. The acting skills of its star are admirable, particularly given her age at the time. The conceit gets old, though. The weary sound effects are vintage "waa-waa-waa," to indicate a scene winding down.