With its mixture of serious news and serious fluff, the Me Decade's TV left us dazed and amused

By Ken Tucker
Updated February 19, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

Think of the ’70s as TV’s Golden Age of Confusion, 10 years in which the tube searches for its own identity, its place in society. The decade commenced with the father of daytime talk, Phil Donahue, going into national syndication (a sign we were ready — nay, wanted — to see real people get in touch with their feelings, even if we didn’t know the end result would be Jerry Springer). The ’70s ended with Dallas‘ ”Who Shot J.R.?” cliff-hanger (a sign that we were ready — nay, wanted — to forget all our national troubles and focus on the maiming of a rich guy in a ten-gallon hat: TV as ultimate escapism).

Really, what a schizo time. Newly aware of its role as reflector of society, the tube presented a ceaseless amount of piping-hot news: the Pentagon Papers scandal; Watergate; Nixon’s trips to Peking and Moscow; Nixon’s resignation; the punk-rock explosion. Surrounding all this, entertainment programming reached new peaks of fluffiness; for every great or groundbreaking series — The Mary Tyler Moore Show and All in the Family spring immediately to mind — there was schlock (albeit memorable schlock) epitomized definitively by The Brady Bunch. This even as reality continued to seep in: Bea Arthur’s character got an abortion on Maude, and miniseries like Roots and Holocaust made us confront our past, present, and future.

In between the bests and worsts, the ’70s gave rise to its share of innovation (everything from the increasingly influential Sesame Street to bleak-comic M*A*S*H to what would come to be scornfully called disease-of-the-week movies, beginning with the quality work Brian’s Song). In the exact middle of the decade, Saturday Night Live premiered, providing the next 20 years with some of the most inspired TV satire and many of the worst movie comedies ever made. And there was a refinement of already-established formats, such as the prime-time newsmagazine (60 Minutes came into its own preeminence) and the afternoon soap opera (All My Children hooked millions with carefully paced and spiced storytelling). On the business side, it was largely a period of steady expansion and consolidation: ABC, CBS, and NBC remained the big guns; videotape replaced film as the primary way to capture TV images; and Nielsen began breaking down its findings into something called demographics. All in all, it was a growing stage for TV — an awkward adolescence for a medium continuing to mature in always unexpected ways.

March 21, 1970
Even the most sports-phobic TV viewer has the image stamped indelibly on the brain: Yugoslavian Vinko Bogataj illustrating the ”agony of defeat” by careening off a ramp during the International Ski Flying Championship in Oberstdorf, West Germany. Bogataj not only survived the hideous spill but went on to become a celebrity thanks to ABC’s Wide World of Sports coordinating producer Dennis Lewin, who inserted the segment into the show’s opening credits. Lewin recalls the U.S. ski-jumping team being none too pleased with his use of Vinko’s tumble: ”They thought we were giving the sport a bad name.” Rank 88

Sept. 15, 1970
Who doesn’t crack a smile just thinking of John Cleese’s goofy leg-jiggles in this classic bit from Monty Python’s Flying Circus? Well, John Cleese, for one. ”I’m very glad you’ve chosen one of my least favorite sketches,” he scoffs. No matter. We think the Silly Walks perfectly sum up Python’s absurdist, pomposity-puncturing sketch show. The brilliant BBC boys have left their silly footprint on every TV skit-fest since, from SCTV to Kids in the Hall to today’s Mr. Show. Rank 76

Sept. 19, 1970
It was a simple little movement — Mary Tyler Moore tossing her hat into the frigid Minneapolis air — but in addition to putting a perfect, um, cap on her signature show’s opening credits, the gesture also spoke volumes about Moore’s new-gal-in-town character, Mary Richards. ”Wasn’t it great?” says Moore. ”Freedom, exuberance, spontaneity, joy — all in that one gesture. It gave a hint at what you were going to see.” Viewers responded to what they saw, and Richards became the archetype against whom all other successful single women would be measured (Ally who?). Sure, the Chuckles the Clown episode and the WJM-TV clan’s group hug are classics, but for us, it’s the image of that heaven-bound hat (”a knitted black and turquoise beret my aunt had given me,” says Moore) that really sums up the creative spirit Mary brought to TV. Rank 2

Sept. 21, 1970
The brainchild of NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle and ABC Sports chairman Roone Arledge (who chose Howard Cosell, Keith Jackson, and Don Meredith to be the inaugural commentators), ABC’s ratings powerhouse has been crushing rivals for 18 years now. But before that first broadcast — a matchup between the New York Jets and the Cleveland Browns — no one was sure how the nation’s Sunday pastime would go over in prime time. ”It’s an obvious idea now,” says MNF play-by-play man Al Michaels, who just completed his 13th season. ”But back then you were taking one of only three networks and using up all its programming for a full evening. That was an unheard-of risk.” The gamble paid off. Rank 43

Nov. 20, 1970
With its formula for finding a 22-minute solution to minuscule yet melodramatic problems, ABC’s The Brady Bunch became the prototype for the fantasy-family sitcom genre (including Diff’rent Strokes, Who’s The Boss?, anything involving an Olsen twin). In this state-of-the-art episode, perpetually insecure Jan (Eve Plumb) dreams up a boyfriend after her succubus sister Marcia (Maureen McCormick) steals the affections of Jan’s cutie classmate Clark. ”The shows were driven by angst,” says Brady creator Sherwood Schwartz, explaining why Brady reruns have struck such a chord for nearly 25 years. ”And Jan was the most angst-ridden of them all.” Rank 58

Nov. 13, 1971
Before Duel, TV movies were largely considered two-hour filler barely worthy of the same term as big-screen cinema. But director Steven Spielberg took a Richard Matheson thriller — about a motorist (Dennis Weaver) pursued by a truck whose driver is never seen — and turned it into a little masterpiece of suspense montage. ”The studio asked me if I’d accept a young director they thought highly of, but who had little experience,” says Weaver. ”I figured, the script was so good, how could he mess it up? In fact, of course, he made it even better. Steven told me just a few weeks ago that he watches Duel twice a year to remind himself of how he should make movies.” Rank 59

Feb. 19, 1972
Pop pioneer Sammy Davis Jr. broke another boundary when he perpetrated the smooch heard round the world — on the cheek of America’s favorite bigot, Archie Bunker. ”Sammy loved the show,” says cocreator Norman Lear of the equally boundary-busting CBS sitcom’s only celeb guest (Davis played himself). ”He was so passionate we worked like hell to find a way to get him into the Bunkers’ lives.” To wit, after Archie becomes a cabbie, passenger Davis leaves something behind and visits 704 Hauser St. to retrieve it. There, Sammy puts his hateful host on the spot, planting one on him just as a neighbor takes a snapshot. For a series used to controversy, Lear recalls, ”the feedback was wonderful. It was all ‘Huzzah!”’ Rank 7

Sept. 5, 1972
With its clear-cut heroes and Cinderella-ish underdogs, the sports world — and particularly the Olympics — had always provided glorious escapist TV fare…until the ’72 Munich Games. That’s when, instead of track or gymnastic events, cameras were focused on the Palestinian gunmen who invaded the Olympic Village’s Israeli compound, killed two men, and held nine hostage. ”At some point I learned that one of the athletes was [originally] from Shaker Heights, Ohio,” recalls sportscaster Jim McKay, ABC’s point man on the unfolding drama. ”And I realized that it was very likely that the young man’s parents would be hearing from me whether he was dead or alive.” Finally, the harrowing announcement came: ”Our worst fears have been realized,” said an ashen-faced McKay after police botched a rescue attempt. ”They’re all gone.” Rank 65

Nov. 8, 1972
”Everyone said that consumers wouldn’t pay for TV,” says HBO chairman and CEO Jeff Bewkes. ”It was only after we saw customers running after cable trucks to sign up for HBO that we realized we were on to something.” Granted, the beginning wasn’t all that auspiciousm — its first original program was a polka festival. But Home Box Office found its rhythm, becoming the place to see commercial-free Hollywood flicks, ambitious homegrown movies (If These Walls Could Talk) and pioneering series (Oz). And by coaxing bored viewers away from the staid Big 4, the cable network continues to prove that to the risker goes the spoils. Rank 57

Nov. 14 & 21, 1972
The caustic All in the Family spin-off had barely been on the air two months when the 47-year-old Maude (Bea Arthur) decided to have prime time’s first legal abortion. The controversial decision — which came three months prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision — certainly jerked viewers to attention: The CBS sitcom incited thousands of calls and letters in protest…and shot to fifth place in the ratings. Maude’s choice set the tone for what was to become one of the tube’s most politically charged series. ”No matter what touchy subject we dealt with,” says creator Norman Lear, ”everything always started with, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if…?’ As hard as we made America think, we made them laugh harder.” Rank 49

March 8, 1973
Reality may bite — but it sure is fun to watch. In a decision they would come to regret, the middle-class Loud family of Santa Barbara, Calif., agreed to let PBS cameras trail them for seven months. The result: a soap opera with regular people. Ten million viewers (huge by PBS standards) tuned in to the groundbreaking documentary to see son Lance come out of the closet and parents Bill and Pat decide to divorce. ”I have spoken to a lawyer, and this is his card,” Pat told Bill on camera. ”And I’d like to have you move out.” Alan Raymond, one of the filmmakers, recalls that back then it was ”shocking television. Now we have all these talk shows where people confess their worst secrets.” We also have Family‘s bastard offspring: MTV’s heavily edited, carefully constructed, sort-of-real Real World and HBO’s Taxicab Confessions. Granted, such privacy-invading TV brings up ethical dilemmas aplenty, but who’s got time to worry about morals when you can watch a guy named Puck launch snot rockets? Rank 50

May 17, 1973
It’s no wonder soap operas are floundering; how can they compete with the daytime drama of pubic hair on Coke cans and presidents canoodling with interns? Yes, in recent years, the Anita Hill and Zippergate hearings have given us riveting political theatrics. But for sheer national impact, nothing can compete with Watergate. What did Nixon know, and when did he know it? Turns out he knew a lot. Rarely had a procession of talking heads created such an edge-of-the-couch spectacle, drawing even apolitical teens to the set. Sums up White House counsel-turned-canary John Dean, ”It was a painful civics lesson for America.” And damn good TV. Rank 13

Sept. 20, 1973
There was plenty to laugh about when the reigning women’s tennis champ crossed rackets with self-professed male chauvinist Riggs. But the ”Battle of the Sexes” — broadcast live from the Houston Astrodome on ABC — also represented the very real struggle raging on America’s campuses and in its courtrooms and corporations. Before King went on to trounce the 55-year-old Riggs (in front of an estimated 40 million viewers), she had a feeling that some people still didn’t quite get it: ”I remember Howard Cosell saying as I was entering the court, ‘Gee, if she’d just get rid of those glasses and let her hair grow, she could be a Hollywood movie star.”’ Rank 94

Jan. 6, 1974
This London Weekend production — the first PBS addiction — almost didn’t make it on the air stateside, for the very reason we became obsessed with it: It was deemed too risque. Created in part by Jean Marsh, who played the maid Rose, this tale of upstairs aristos and downstairs yobbos made a star not only of Lesley-Anne Down (the preening Georgina) but of the sexed-up miniseries. The nets were soon duplicating the success of this — as Masterpiece exec producer Rebecca Eaton describes it — ”feel-good and good-for-you TV.” Rank 90

Sept. 23 & 30, 1975
In the 1970s, cool had a name and it was Arthur ”the Fonz” Fonzarelli. With an ”Ayyy!” here and a ”Sit on it!” there, ABC’s Happy Days character soared to pop-culture heights. The apex of the Fonzie frenzy was a two-episode arc in which, fearing he’s losing his cool, he jumps over a record 14 barrels on his bike — and then crashes into Arnold’s Fried Chicken stand. Says the Fonz himself, Henry Winkler: ”I still get letters from kids saying, ‘Did the chicken stink?”’ Rank 80

Feb. 1, 1976
Depending on who you ask, it’s either one of the scariest or campiest of TV moments: Steve Austin (Lee Majors) — the bionic hero of ABC’s The Six Million Dollar Man — duking it out with a hairy beast known as the Sasquatch (7′ 4” grappler Andre the Giant). As millions of kids watched in horror, Sasquatch treated their favorite cyborg like a rag doll. ”That’s the episode everybody always brings up,” laughs Majors, who ultimately won the fight. ”Maybe because the ugly fella was so big, you couldn’t forget him.” Rank 100

Feb. 24, 1976
Fran Drescher’s whine aside, it’s the most insidious of TV sounds: that damn laugh track. In the 1950s, the newly invented laugh machine was used to mute the audience’s yuks so the jokes could be heard. But ever since, producers have pumped up the volume. Only rarely do we get a reprieve, most memorably with ”The Interview,” a powerful black-and-white pseudo-documentary about Hawkeye and the 4077th gang. How’d creator Larry Gelbart get CBS to can the canned laughs? ”When you’ve made a billion dollars for a company,” says Gelbart, ”they extend the leash a little.” Rank 23

July 19, 1976
Who could have guessed that the political unrest of the Montreal Olympics (the boycott by some African nations, the brouhaha over Taiwan’s exclusion) would be soothed by an 86-pound, 4′ 11” sprite in a white leotard? With an exquisite uneven-parallel-bars routine, Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci, 14, earned the first perfect score in Olympic gymnastics history (unprepared for such excellence, the scoreboard read 1.00). ”I don’t [watch] it that often because it makes me cry,” says Comaneci, who captivated the TV audience more than any gymnast past (Olga Korbut) or future (Mary Lou Retton). ”As a kid, you don’t think it’s a big deal, but later on, you’re like, wow, maybe it was.” Rank 78

Sept. 22, 1976
There were TV babes before them and after, but no TV babes captured the nation’s eye quite like the original trio of Charlie’s Angels. By dispensing with such superfluous law-enforcement devices as bras, butt-kicking detectives Sabrina (Kate Jackson), Kelly (Jaclyn Smith), and Jill (Farrah Fawcett-Majors) became overnight sex symbols (most notably Farrah, whose bod went on to sell an estimated 12 million posters) — and cut the perfect mold for a new genre known as Jiggle TV. Angels was created by the king of provocative television, Aaron Spelling, who says he used to laugh at anyone looking for substance in the series: ”We wanted to suspend reality. We wanted to be a hoot.” Job well done, Aaron: Your hoot-ers are the most memorable in prime-time history. Rank 77

Oct. 2, 1976
John Belushi — who arrived at his audition for SNL shouting ”TV sucks!” — consistently proved himself wrong. His surly bumblebee and screaming samurai were gut-busting delights, but nothing summed up his high-voltage style better than his take on Joe Cocker: a convulsing, beer-spewing tour de force. So convincing was the impression, even Cocker couldn’t resist — he joined Belushi for a rendition of ”A Little Help From My Friends.” It was early SNL at its finest — a taste of excess and celeb skewering totally new to TV. Says exec producer Lorne Michaels, ”Before we came on, just having rock & roll music was controversial.” Rank 56

Jan. 23, 1977
Networks weren’t sold on miniseries — or ”novels for television,” as they were then known — until ABC nervously ventured an 8-night, 12-hour slavery saga and was rewarded with an estimated 130 million viewers. Based on Alex Haley’s best-seller, Rootsvalidated the genre, compelled America to face its checkered past, and sparked a nationwide discussion of race. ”I went to a birthday party for George Burns that week,” remembers exec producer David L. Wolper, ”and everybody was upstairs in different bedrooms watching. No one wanted to miss a chapter.” Rank 4

Nov. 27, 1979
ABC’s socially conscious sudser All My Children was bubbling near the top of the ratings when bitch goddess Erica Kane (Susan Lucci, then a mere one-time Emmy bridesmaid) was confronted by hubby No. 3 (Tom Cudahy) for using the pill behind his back. While the deception put an end to their marriage, it was only the beginning of Lucci’s reign as daytime’s quintessential vixen. ”The fans went nuts for her,” says creator Agnes Nixon. ”They hated what she’d done, but they couldn’t get enough. It’s a tribute to Susan that after all these years, they still can’t.” Rank 89

No. 1 Shows
1970 Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In*
1971 Marcus Welby, M.D.
1972 All in the Family
1973 All in the Family
1974 All in the Family
1975 All in the Family
1976 All in the Family
1977 Happy Days
1978 Laverne & Shirley
1979 Laverne & Shirley
*Seasons began the previous year