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March 31, 2021  | By Mike Hughes  | 24 comments

By now, way too many TV memories are taking up space in my mind.

They leave little room for anything else, except movie plots and Cubs' batting averages. But one vivid memory is basic – a show in which a man simply played records.

More about that in a moment.

This is my final TV Worth Watching piece before the site quits adding new items. I hope you'll continue to read about TV on websites (mine can be found here, by the way) and in books (one of my favorites is Dangerously Funny, David Bianculli's history of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour). Also, keep watching TV; Ken Burns' Hemingway, coming up next month on PBS, is the best show this season.

And yes, there were times when TV wasn't nearly that good. Let's go back to Clintonville, Wisconsin:

I was seated in front of the TV set (a safe distance, of course, because you just couldn't be sure about those rays). So were my parents, grandparents, and sister; we were watching the man play records.

He would show us a record, tell us what it was and then play it. Sometimes, we would see the record playing; sometimes, we would see the man seeing the record playing. We kept watching.

Why? Well… Because this was television. And it was actually happening, live, and in black-and-white.

Even in its early years, TV did have some splendid fragments.

I Love Lucy began in 1951, with moments of sight-gag splendor.

Ed Sullivan started in 1948, eventually helping those of us who would never have a chance to see Broadway or the Beatles.

Edward R. Murrow dissected Joe McCarthy in 1954 and did Harvest of Shame in '60. A colleague says 1956 – the Golden Age of live drama – was TV's finest year.

But these were the exceptions.

In the year that Lucy debuted, prime time also had Film Filler, Music in Velvet, The Dell O'Dell Show, Georgetown University Forum, and Johns Hopkins Science Review. Still, people watched.

And away from prime time, the non-network times were iffy. There was no Oprah, no Phil (Donahue or McGraw), no Judge Whoever. Green Bay's WBAY gave us Captain Hal and that guy playing records.

Network TV spurted quickly. It had its first comedy Golden Age with the convergence of two independent producers at CBS – Grant Tinker, whose Mary Tyler Moore Show debuted in 1970, and Norman Lear, whose All in the Family began just four months later. By '74, those two men had seven shows in Nielsen's top 11.

I was lucky enough to start catching the Television Critics Association's Hollywood tours just as another spurt was coming. That was 1982, and Tinker had been put in charge of NBC. The network already had his superb Hill Street Blues; now it was adding his St. Elsewhere and his attitude.

Tinker told his programming chief (Brandon Tartikoff) to use the same approach he used at his own company: Get the best producers; then get out of their way.

Many of the first new shows were superb – Cheers, Family Ties, Remington Steele, and St. Elsewhere. When Cosby and Golden Girls arrived in '84 and '85, NBC was soaring.

Tinker left in 1986, with NBC at the top.

Tartikoff left in '91, when it had leveled off, but had planted the one big step for the future.

Seinfeld was once a four-episode summer show with mild prospects. It would go on to be the best comedy ever. It propelled the second Golden Age of comedy, which soon had Friends, Frasier, Mad About You, Third Rock, and Will & Grace (all on NBC), plus Fox's The Simpsons and CBS's Everybody Loves Raymond.

That comedy surge burned out. The last great comedy was The Big Bang Theory, from Chuck Lorre; the most recent really good one is Bob (Hearts) Abishola, also from Lorre.

But something bigger has arrived. It's the second Golden Age of drama – or, as Bianculli has dubbed it, the Platinum Age.

Cable shows found themselves with few rules about content, length, or number of episodes. They didn't even have to worry about mass audiences. They responded with idiosyncratic brilliance – Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Fargo; then streamers joined and broke up the male dominance, with The Crown and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

They were following the Tinker formula: Hire the best people and get out of the way.

That works across any format. One of the best broadcast dramas was The West Wing, by Aaron Sorkin. One of the best cable dramas was The Newsroom, by Aaron Sorkin. One of the best movies is The Trial of the Chicago 7, by Aaron Sorkin.

Talented people (Sorkin or Burns or Lorre or such), if left alone, give us just what we need – TV worth watching.

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