Two Guys on the World's Greatest Road Trip: 'Route 66: The Complete Series'

The genre-bending television series, Route 66, captured a view of America at a time when it seemed that anything was possible.

Route 66: The Complete Series

Director: Philip Leacock, Arthur Hiller, Alvin Ganzer
Cast: Martin Milner, George Maharis, Glenn Corbett
Distributor: Acorn
Studio: CBS TV
Release date: 2012-05-12

Eight years before Simon and Garfunkel sang about going to look for America, two young men set off in a Corvette on much the same mission. One, Tod Stiles (Martin Milner) was a Yalie whose father had recently died and left him the car; the other, Buz Murdock (George Maharis), was a tough city kid who had worked for Tod's dad. Both were looking for something, although they couldn't have told you exactly what—just that they were sure that there was more to life than staying on the assembly line that led from school to work to marriage to grave.

Tod and Buz weren't hippies—they were much too clean-cut to ever blend into the cast of Hair--but they were the spiritual cousins of everyone who's ever questioned the straight and narrow path to middle-class (or working-class) respectability, and Buz in particular had more than a bit of the beat generation about him.

Tod and Buz, of course, are the central characters of Route 66, the groundbreaking CBS television series that aired from 1960 to 1964. The series was the brainchild of producer Herbert Leonard and writer Stirling Silliphant, and it's so different from the usual fare (variety shows, westerns, cop shows, anthologies) offered on American television during those years that it's astonishing not only that it was made at all, but that it lasted for four full seasons.

Route 66 didn't fit into any existing genre—it wasn't an anthology program of independent episodes, like Alfred Hitchcock Presents or The Twilight Zone, nor was it a conventional drama with a large ongoing cast, like Gunsmoke or Perry Mason. Instead, each week Route 66 offered a new story, but it was centered around the two recurring characters of Tod and Buz as they traveled across America (often far from the real Route 66, but who's counting?).

It's an absolutely brilliant setup that allowed the writers extreme flexibility in terms of story and location, while also maintaining continuity of interest through the two central characters. Rather notably, the series was able to replace Maharis in season 3, after he became ill, with Glen Corbett (as "Linc Case"), without doing any damage to its narrative structure.

There's so much to enjoy in this series, but first and foremost is the fact that all the episodes were shot on location, which was quite unusual for television at the time. This means that the Route 66 episodes present a time capsule of America when local customs were far more distinctive than they are today, and it's great fun just to see what Grand Isle, Louisiana, or Philadelphia, or the Glen Canyon Dam looked like 50 years ago.

Another great pleasure is the quality of acting from the supporting characters, both from veterans like Peter Lorre, Lew Ayres, and Everett Sloane and from young up-and-comers including Ed Asner, Robert Redford, and Suzanne Pleshette. A third is the quality of the scripts and the number of serious issues they tackled, from racism to drug abuse to juvenile delinquency. Silliphant, who wrote many of the episodes, is justly famous for infusing a poetic quality into the dialogue, and many episodes include a monologue which, while perhaps a bit too plummy for the character and the context, bring a heightened sensibility not often seen on broadcast television.

Route 66 captures the feeling of a particularly optimistic time in American life, when anything seemed possible (at least if you were white and male and had a few bucks to spare) and a young person that could afford to put off adult responsibilities for a few years and be confident they'd have no problem picking up with a conventional life when the time was right. The road trip is part of America's cultural DNA, and Tod and Buz are on the greatest road trip of all time—they get to go wherever they want, defer to no one (to the point of being "ugly Americans" to their fellow countrymen from time to time), and always have enough money to maintain their freedom (although the show made a point of having them pick up work as they traveled). Besides, they win every fight and charm all the pretty girls, so who wouldn't want to trade places with them?

Acorn Media has released all the episodes of Route 66 in a single box set, and it is one big collection: 24 discs, 116 episodes, 6000 minutes. The episodes look and sound great, and if you're so inclined, you can use the set to disappear into early '60s America and not come up for air for four days. If you're more given to moderation, you can treat the set like a collection of chapters from a modern-day serial novel, dipping into them when you have an hour or two free.

The DVD extras are OK, if nothing spectacular: a documentary on the Corvette, vintage commercials for Chevrolet and Bayer aspirin, and clips from a Q & A session featuring George Maharis, directors Arthur Hiller and Elliot Silverstein, casting director Marion Dougherty, and writer/producer Herbert B. Leonard.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Julian Barratt and Oliver Maltman (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.