The weekly television dramas of the 1950s were in many respects an unruly, dirty-faced brood of ersatz art; unevenly combining dime store progressivism, woolly performance spontaneity, and impressive feats of technical derring-do, they appear now like primitive relics from an era of confoundingly desultory media developments. The prospective canon of kinescopes compiled in the Criterion Collection’s Golden Age of Television set (preserved from a PBS retrospective in the 1980s) includes a few examples of straight-forward dramatization—the clunky, melodramatic A Wind from the South suffers from the ever-neutering “filmed play” syndrome—but most blend flourishes of cinematic grammar (such as the use of prerecorded montages to suggest the passing of time) with the unnatural didacticism of radio speech (where all must be told rather than shown) and arrive at a pluckily alchemical genre of social theater. And for all its curatorial aspirations, one can’t help view the DVD set’s contents as a series of funhouse mirrors unintentionally reflecting the paranoid, conservative zeitgeist of their time.
The cliché-with-more-than-a-kernel-of-truth regarding the American 1950s typically admonishes the fearful conformity of the middle class (best personified, or compacted into a movement, by McCarthyism), the rise of nuclear family values (the purity of which was threatened, ironically, by godless, Russian atom bombs), and the Faustian exchange required to stray from bourgeois comforts (as Richard Yates’s April Wheeler illustrates with Greek intensity). But among the many aspects of 1950s psychology omitted from this perspective is the role the media played in enforcing repressive ideals even when, or perhaps especially when, broadcasting what might have been considered subversively realist material for a wide audience. The very physical configuration of TV-watching promotes a subtle equality or “commonness”: Not only were programs free to those who could afford sets and endure advertising, but when we observe a television show we look “on” at a small, cozy box in the cloister of our homes rather than “up” at a colossal screen or performers on a proscenium stage. In the digital age these dwarfed, modest images have come a long way, but in the ’50s television owners were still adjusting to the intrusion of visual entertainment into quotidian existence. And judging by the sheer popularity of the “Golden Age” dramas, one can sense that there may have been an implicit need to exchange “spectacle” for pseudo-realism in TV programming as a result—a shift that, in retrospect, seems to have created more opportunities for policing the status quo than for challenging it.
There is nothing in Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty—or in any of Rod Serling’s comparable commoner pageants—that even remotely approaches the ferocious sexual vernacular of Tennessee Williams (who rose to power in the late ’40s) or the blunt domestic venom of Harold Pinter (whose productions would be shocking Brits before the decade was out), or even the hard-boiled, observant socio-tragedies of Elia Kazan. Nor is Chayefsky’s “street talk,” which spawned laughably prosaic catchphrases, any more authentic than the dialogue of those three titans. But Chayefsky and Serling had different goals for a different medium, determined partially by what kinds of stories were allowable, and more importantly desired, on network television. They essayed comforting contemporary fables mimicking the cadence of real life as it was imagined and aspired to more than actually lived—which is why, of course, the allegorical Marty (played with phenomenally calibrated instincts by Actor’s Studio graduate Rod Steiger) is both homely and lonely until pairing up with an equally homely and lonely mate. The inescapably condescending but slyly tradition-affirming point is not that love conquers ennui, ugliness, or Oedipal complexes, but that ordinary people can be redeemed simply by championing their most superficial flaws. Serling’s office-drama Patterns is similarly problematic, depicting the dour, cutthroat world of industry where CEOs exploit workers into dotage, and then discard them. And while the crackerjack ending was deemed “anti-cliché” by Andrew Sarris, it actually marks the start of another petty business-on-TV formula: That of the supercilious boss who only trusts the employee with enough spunk to stand up to him.
In fact, most of the programs included on the Golden Age set have proven both archetypal and prototypical in their approach to moralistic, working-class drama. Andy Griffith’s hillbilly buffoon in the comedic No Time for Sergeants (which, along with Marty, forms the DVD box’s nadir of uneducated simpleton-porn) was so popular he built an empire of a backwoods show around it—though not, quite perversely, before skewering the subliminal malice in television’s embrace of plain-speakin’ folks with A Face in the Crowd. Days of Wine and Roses similarly casts a sweaty-palmed Cliff Robertson off the addictive precipice that would yield countless weepy imitations of drunken self-destruction both on TV and in film. And The Comedian, possibly the set’s least patronizing yarn, features Mickey Rooney hamming it up as a sadistic primetime clown inebriated on the tyrannical possibilities of stardom—suggesting that the stability and dedication to family found in home audiences was far more noble than the pain-obscuring smiles of celebrities.
Even a relative masterpiece like Requiem for a Heavyweight, which boasts far more believable acting and focused writing than the Anthony Quinn film adaptation, can’t quite overcome its condescending, proletariat-persuading core. Jack Palance’s prematurely retired boxer starts out with so little dignity that the narrative’s theme of brotherly betrayal (offered added potency from the father/son team of Ed and Keenan Wynn playing the respective angel and devil over Palance’s shoulders) sags under the lachrymose load of the character’s dim-witted hopelessness. Rod Serling’s articulation of American values isn’t any more complex or useful than what we find in a Norman Rockwell painting—though, just as with The Four Freedoms or Breaking Home Ties, there are moments of emotional resonance in Serling’s best work that are both witty and inspiring. But unlike The Twilight Zone, where simple morals were needed to sharpen the twist endings, the Golden Age of Television dramas were heavy-handedly designed to inspire complacency, and it’s the insidiousness of the craft that cuts through the kinescopic noise most forcefully. Jack Palance’s heavyweight discovers his real calling is working with children rather than “stooping” to the muscular theatrics of wrestling—which is, of course, far less honorable than a human blood sport like boxing. What’s your calling? HUAC needs interns!
The writing of 1950s television dramas may have encapsulated all the most hazardous elements of that era’s psychology, but the manner in which the programs were staged and shot evinces nothing short of technical genius. Each of these shows was broadcast live, from complex, cavernous stages, with a myriad of cameras orchestrated by some of the brightest talents in the industry-most notably young adult prodigy John Frankenheimer. Unfortunately, however, the limitations that engendered the programs’ creativity also made them difficult to catalogue (magnetic tape wasn’t introduced until the late ’50s) and the kinescopes used for Criterion’s set are at times nearly unwatchable. One can’t expect much from a process that involves jerry-rigging a film camera to record images off a studio monitor, but the additional combing lines and telecine artifacts make this unequivocally Criterion’s worst-looking and sounding release of the year. A suggestion: Watch them on an iPod with headphones on, where the poor quality is less noticeable.
There are a handful of commentaries and interviews on this set, but since they aren’t noted in the otherwise highly informative booklet you’ve got to discover them as you work your way through the DVDs. The former eschew scene-by-scene analysis for occasional anecdotes and nostalgic observations, so sifting through them can get tedious. John Frankenheimer’s participation is easily the most rewarding: Blessed with a sharp memory and an ability to articulate very meticulous backstage methods in a down-to-earth manner, he fills us with an envious kind of reverence for the crazy, talented youths who managed to pull off these powerhouse productions. The set also unfortunately includes the introductions from PBS’s original "Golden Age of Television" retrospective, and the exordiums from personalities like Jack Klugman, Carl Reiner, and Eva Marie Saint are both irrelevant and sterilizing. The no-frills ’80s style video titles are, however, a spooky reminder of what public television once looked like.
The age might have been more gilded and gullible than golden, but as a lesson in media studies this set is indispensible.