How Television Shows Reflect the State of the National Psyche

In the ’30s and ’40s, during the heyday of radio and long before television, comedy was king. People were sick of the realities of the Great Depression and wanted to laugh. Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Burns and Allen, and Amos and Andy were some of the big stars. What Americans wanted in entertainment was obvious and it didin’t take a great deal of psychoanalyzing to understand why.

Then came the fifties and television became the popular media. Fans followed their favorite comedians to the screen and comedy stars, especially Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Jack Benny were the household words. It was a return to the days of Vaudeville. But a new form of comedy appeared, the Sitcom. America was blessed with I Love Lucy, probably the greatest series ever to appear, and the nearly as good, The Honeymooners. Desi and Lucy, the Cramdens and the Norrises were real people. But with comedy, another type of homeland project free tv show, the western, began to dominate air time. Gunsmoke was a popular radio show and moved easily onto camera with James Arness replacing William Conrad as Matt Dillon.

Soon came Richard Boone as Palladin in Have Gun Will Travel, Clint Eastwood and Rawhide and numerous other shows set in the old west. Fans clearly liked the genre, but the question is why. The most common reason given is that Americans were sick of the restrictions and rationing imposed during the Second World War and the storied freedom of the west was the type of catharsis they needed. Yes there were bad guys, just as there were in the real world, but the cowboy hero would step in to straighten things out, then ride off into the sunset. I believe that many people knew America was needed in the world, but hoped it could clean up the mess and leave.

The ‘sixties had myriad detective shows. Something clearly was wrong in the world at the time. The Soviets were ahead of us in scientific technology, launching the first satellites. Our foreign policy didn’t seem to be working. Long-time friendly regimes were being overthrown, civil wars in Africa, and we had communism at our southern border that refused to go away when we tried to force them out. The Bay of Pigs was an enormous blow to our national pride. We would take more with the Viet Nam War, the unrest of the Civil Rights Movement, the Kennedy Assassination(s), the Assassination of Martin Luther King and the Long Hot Summers.

Someone or something was to blame and we needed detectives to figure things out. Nearly everyone who watched TV at the time can remember “Book ‘im, Dano,” from Hawaii-Five-O and Peter Gunn’s racy sports car. Two of my personal favorites were Mannix and Mission Impossible. With the bloodshed and the uncovering of clues, Sitcoms carried on the tradition of real people with the Andy Griffith Show and Leave it to Beaver.

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