Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Golden Age of Fantasy on Television

When was the Golden Age for fantasy-themed shows on TV? Was it the 1990s, with the debut of The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Or possibly now, with Game of Thrones? Forget about it! There was once a brief time when fantasy shows sprouted on television like weeds in an abandoned shopping-mall parking lot.

I am referring, of course, to the mid-1960s.  But here's the rub:  all of these fantasy shows were situation comedies, and a lot of them were really, really bad.  Just take a look at this list of shows, with the year each one first appeared:

The Munsters (1964)  There are monsters living in that house!
The Adams Family (1964)  And in that house, too!
My Living Doll (1964)  A psychiatrist takes charge of an android that looks just like a beautiful woman (played by Julie Newmar, who went on to star as Catwoman on the Batman TV show). No, it's not science fiction -- it's fantasy.
I Dream of Jeannie (1965)  Astronaut finds a beautiful genie in a bottle.
Bewitched (1964)  Advertising executive discovers that his wife is actually a witch.
My Mother the Car (1965)  The protagonist's mother is reincarnated as a car. I must admit that this was one of my favorites when I was six years old, and I never understood why I never got to watch it again after the first year. The reason, of course, is that it was promptly cancelled -- it's generally considered one of the worst TV series ever produced.
My Favorite Martian (1963).  A Martian crash-lands on Earth. I suppose you could consider this science fiction instead of fantasy -- that is, if you think Martians look and talk exactly like us except for the TV antennae attached to their heads.
Mister Ed (1961)  A talking horse. The less said, the better.
The Flying Nun (1967)  A flying nun. Definitely fantasy. I attended Catholic schools for 12 years, and not a single one of the sisters could fly.
Batman (1966)  The television Batman can only be considered both a fantasy and a comedy.
It's About Time (1966)  Astronauts accidentally exceed the speed of light, causing them to go back in time to the Stone Age, where they are taken in by the locals (who just happen to speak English). Science fiction or fantasy? You decide.

Almost all of these shows premiered between 1964 and 1966. What caused this efflorescence of the eerie, this sprouting of the surreal? Heck if I know. Of course, there was a natural tendency at that time for television producers to imitate each other.  Many of these shows follow the same basic formula: only one or two characters know about the true nature of the fantasy element (genie, Martian, witch...). Wacky hijinks ensue.

But as suddenly as they appeared, these shows vanished from television, leaving a void that simply cannot be filled by the likes of Game of Thrones. For my own part, I will just wait until the remake of My Mother the Car.


CCPhysicist said...

You left out Dark Shadows (1966). Soap opera fantasy.

Robert Scherrer said...

Yes, I remember it well. It was a "must see" cult classic for a couple of years. If we expand beyond the comedy theme (and a bit chronologically as well), then the other show that has to be mentioned is the Twilight Zone, which went off the air just as all of these other shows appeared.

Anonymous said...

1. I dispute that the Addams family was really really bad. :)

2. You are focused on "prime time" TV series here. Saturday morning cartoons have had continuing fantasy themes from their origins to the present day (e.g., Puff the Magic Dragon -> Scooby Doo -> Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtls -> Yu-Gi-Oh!)

Robert Scherrer said...

1. I should admit that I actually liked all of these shows...
2. I mourn the demise of the Saturday morning cartoons.

L-I-S Afficionado said...

Yes, there were some clunkers in the 60's TV lineup, but that era was a period of great creativity and experimentation, particularly in the comedic forms. Compare the immense variety of characters/settings - castaways (Gilligan's Island), POWs (Hogan's Heroes), erudite suburbanites (Dick Van Dyke), spies (Get Smart), Wild West troopers (F-Troop), rednecks (Beverly Hillbillies), sailors (McHale's Navy), small-town folks (Andy Griffith), etc. - with today's feeble and narrow offerings, and you'll admit that the 60's failures were worth enduring to get to the comedic gems.

Robert Scherrer said...

I agree. But what caused this burst of creativity at this particular time? I don't really watch television anymore, so I cannot compare with current shows.