The Golden Age of Television

Remember when, almost 12 years ago now, ER did their live-to-air broadcasts, and garnered attention from all corners for their daring stab at working without a net? But also recall that, rather than trying to shoot an episode that followed the usual ER formulas, they retreated to a more manageable cinema verité approach, the conceit being that a documentary crew was covering a day in the busy “emerge” department. This was their way of achieving the immediacy of “live” TV while wrapping themselves in the bubble-wrap of a looser script and a built-in warts-and-all concept.

In effect, they were audacious enough to try something that could have been a disaster, but they played it safe enough that any accidents could have been forgiven (or even perhaps could have gone unnoticed). It worked, sort of; but mostly it impressed people (including me) with its conflation of the excitement of “live” theatre with the technical immediacy of a sports broadcast.

But, in the ’50s, the so-called “Golden Age of Television”, such an approach was actually the norm, not the thrilling exception. Prior to the solidification of weekly sit-coms and serials with recurring characters and formulaic 22-minute narrative arcs, television was still understood to be a mingling of media: a hybrid of stage, film, and radio. Writers jumped at the opportunity to write short “teleplays” (usually in three 20-minute acts) for such popular programs as “Kraft Television Theater”, “Ford Theater” and “Chrysler Theater”. On such programs, their words could find hungry directors, producers, and actors, many of them moving between film, the stage, and television with a fluidity not seen again until very recently.

Imagine: each week a new original “teleplay”, written by a budding genius such as Rod Serling, Paddy Chayefsky, or Gore Vidal, directed by up-and-comers like John Frankenheimer or Sidney Lumet, and performed by bright lights like James Dean, Paul Newman, Andy Griffith, Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger, Jack Palance and Piper Laurie. Imagine again: each of these programs was shot and played “live”, one-time-only (in most cases), never to be re-staged in this format. Indeed, the only reason we are able to see them today is that the stations had the foresight to set up a camera to shoot the monitor during the performances!

This was television understood to be a site of communal experience, through which the actors, filmmakers, and writers could share their creation with an invisible audience with all the immediacy and danger of living, breathing, theatre. Sometimes, surely, it must have made for some pretty ugly gaffes. But on the few surviving examples collected on this indelible set from Criterion Collection, the results were incendiary and extraordinary.

But let us first dispense with the downside: due to the way these performances were captured – shooting a monitor meant that the film (which moves at a rate slower than video) had to be doctored a bit to make the stuff make visual “sense” – the quality of the A/V experience here leaves a lot to be desired. But, unlike a poor transfer of film to DVD, for example, which is annoying mostly because we know it could have been done so much more effectively, these DVDs represent the best possible outcome from a truly difficult situation.

Still, be forewarned: this ain’t your typically gorgeous and perfect Criterion release. There is noise on the screen from time to time, a few scratches here and there on the audio, and a lot of awkward blurry instances. If there’s any comfort on that score, it’s that they did everything they could to clean this stuff up.

Even with this obvious impediment, however, this set makes for enthralling and rewarding viewing. With eight classic “teleplays”, almost all of them good enough to be remade into feature films (“Marty”, “Bang the Drum Slowly”, “Days of Wine and Roses”, “Requiem for a Heavyweight”, “Patterns”), and all of them featuring astounding performances, crisp writing, fascinating choreography, and truly thrilling harebrained filmmaking, this is a must-see set for any TV buff, historian of popular culture, or armchair enthusiast.

Extras include commentaries, introductions, and a helpful series of essays which put each “teleplay” into its context. (Caveat Emptor: My rating below reflects the historical value and significance of this set as a whole — if I were to take into account the unavoidable A/V issues here, the grade would be somewhat lower.)

RATING 9 / 10