DVD Review: The Golden Age of Television Is Golden

I think my favorite class the one year I attended New York University's film school was the one that introduced me to early American television. My little teenaged world was blown out by the Western adventure Sky King, by the witty visual genius of Ernie Kovacs, even by an early episode of General Hospital. If you've never had that experience, then please do yourself a favor and pick up The Golden Age of Television, which is two levels of TV history in one.

See, there was a series on early 1980s PBS called The Golden Age of Television, which collected the most important and the most legendary and the most just plain downright entertaining live teledramas of the mid 1950s: it gave them new introductions, offered new interviews with the folks involved, and then just let the teledramas themselves unfold. And now those PBS packages are here, in this set, for eight of those essential, foundational works of American television, which originally aired between 1953 and 1958: Marty, in which lonely souls Rod Steiger and Nancy Marchand make a surprising connection; No Time for Sergeants, featuring Andy Griffith in the basis for Gomer Pyle; A Wind from the South, in which Julie Harris' innkeeper yearns for escape; Bang the Drum Slowly, with Paul Newman in one of his first roles; Days of Wine and Roses, directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Piper Laurie and Cliff Robertson; and all from future Twilight Zoner Rod Serling, Patterns (like Mad Men before its time), Requiem for a Heavyweight (starring Jack Palance as a washed-up boxer), and The Comedian, a fascinating behind-the-cameras look at a TV comedian played by Mickey Rooney.

As pure drama, these are still fascinating to watch, especially to see the early work of some now very famous names. But as a look at what TV was doing half a century ago, it's riveting. Astonishingly, these one-off dramas were all broadcast live, something a narrative, fictional TV show attempts today only rarely, as a stunt. These were more like stage plays, in some ways, than what we consider TV drama today, and yet they're not at all as if their directors had merely plopped a camera in front of a stage. Watching these teleplays is like getting an intimate look at how creative people were trying to figure out what they could do with this new medium. It's exciting and dynamic, and in many ways it's like what's happening with the Web today.

If you missed it all the first time around, don't miss it again.

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MaryAnn Johanson is in black-and-white AND color at FlickFilosopher.com. (email me)