A golden age of television is now blindingly aglitter if you agree with the critics and the fans who gush about Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Homeland and a still-expanding list of dark, intelligent, cinematic drama series developed in the wake of The Sopranos’ debut on HBO nearly 15 years ago.
But what about the original “golden” age, the live-drama era that extended from the late 1940s to around 1960? Is its reputation truly deserved?
You can evaluate one of the most celebrated examples for yourself on Tuesday, October 22, at 7 p.m. in the auditorium of University of Georgia’s Russell Special Collection Library.
As part of the admission-free Peabody Decades series, the Peabody Awards Collection is screening Requiem for a Heavyweight, a 1956 Playhouse 90 production that won its author, Rod Serling, the first Peabody ever given for a script.
Downbeat and gritty for a product of a decade more associated with the slapstick shenanigans of Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz, it’s the story of an over-the-hill, punchy boxer, Harlan “Mountain” McClintock, and his greedy manager’s attempts to exploit him a few more rounds. In light of the National Football League’s current brain-injury controversy, McClintock’s dementia pugilistica may strike some viewers as prescient. It may also make some wonder whatever happened to television drama that addresses current affairs and issues beyond crime rings and terrorist cells.
“Requiem was one of the highlights of live ’50s drama,” said Ron Simon, Curator of Television and Radio at the Paley Institute for Media in New York and a former Peabody board member. “It proved that live drama could sustain 90 minutes of dramatic time, achieving that rare artistic cohesion in which script, staging, and performance were seamlessly integrated.”
Requiem was, as noted, the first script awarded a Peabody. But it wasn’t the first or the only instance of live drama being honored.
The first Peabody given to a television program, as opposed to radio, went to a weekly series titled Actor’s Studio in 1948. It was an ambitious anthology developed by Elia Kazan and his Actor’s Studio cohorts to showcase plays and short stories by great writers (Edgar Allan Poe, James Thurber, Irwin Shaw) and draw on New York City’s deep pool of acting talent. Casts on occasion included stars-to-be such as Marlon Brando, Julie Harris, Kim Hunter and Jessica Tandy.
In 1951, the Peabody board honored Celanese Theatre, an anthology that featured works by Maxwell Anderson, Eugene O’Neill and other noted playwrights. Celanese, by the way, was the sponsor, a chemical company. Sponsors names were often part of dramatic anthologies’ titles.
NBC’s Peabody-winning Philco Television Playhouse, named for the TV set manufacturer, staged work by established playwrights as well as new voices such as Paddy Chayefsky, whose teleplay Marty, about a homely Bronx butcher taking a chance on love, is another signature work of the era.
Playhouse 90, the title reflecting the expanded hour-and-a-half length that allowed writers to stretch out a bit more, garnered a Peabody in 1958.
Though a few live-TV dramas, notably The Comedian, adapted in 1957 by Serling for Playhouse 90 from a novella by Ernest Lehman, are impressively sophisticated and movie-like, no one could seriously argue that the ’50s dramas can compete with the current high-end product’s production values or narrative complexity. But if we’ve gained in some regards, we may have lost in others.
As Simon noted, the live dramas “embraced dramatic realism, examining the most direct issues of the day with a cogent intensity. Writers such as Serling, Chayefsky and Reginald Rose created vivid characters and situations, which were immediately memorable. They were very conscious of the evanescence of the medium. Contemporary drama has time to linger on plot and character development. It has a more sweeping, cumulative impact, often framed with generic convention. Many series are meant to be seen and re-seen with hidden clues. The ’50s dramatists hit you directly, cognizant they had only one punch for impact.”
Brian Rose, a professor of media studies at Fordham University in New York who lectures on TV history, said that while the characterization “golden” is a bit generous given the spottiness of the live-drama anthologies, “There’s no question that the period from 1948 to the late 1950s was a distinctive era in American television.”
Television was a “brand new medium,” Rose noted, “and even though its corporate owners had decades of experience with network radio, they still permitted a wide degree of experimentation in terms of style, format, and content. Network television’s operating headquarters in New York City had a great deal to do with it, since there was a tremendous pool of talented young writers, actors, directors, and producers eager for work and open to new possibilities.”
Rose said the anthology format permitted those artists “to test the waters of this new medium, and to creatively explore its limits.”
The era ended – and the exploration slowed — for a variety of reasons, including the greater cost efficiency of filmed, episodic productions that could be re-run and syndicated, and audience growth that made westerns, detective melodramas and sitcoms shrewder business choices than high-brow plays. Or middle-brow, for that matter.
What we’re now experiencing is the actually the third “golden” era, the second having come in the 1980s with series such as Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere and Homicide: Life on the Street.
Notice, however, that these series, like most of today’s most esteemed dramas, are genre shows – and crime-related genre shows at that. Some spoilsport might say that in a TV-drama landscape teeming with gangsters, drug dealers, rogue cops, spies, anti-terrorists and do-gooder serial killers, we could use a few washed-up boxers and lonely Bronx butchers hoping to catch a break.