Scene from "All in the Family"
Credit: © CBS Television 1972/Public Domain/

Rue McClanahan and Vincent Gardenia as Ruth and Curtis Rempley with Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton as Archie and Edith Bunker in an episode of "All in the Family"

What 1970s TV Trends Stand Out to You?

The 1970s were an interesting decade of T.V. viewing. Comedy, action and drama ruled the airwaves, and many of these shows often presented groundbreaking themes in scripts as social values and changing of the times crept into episodes with dialogue reflecting and, in some cases, addressing these issues. Even without exploring social themes, many of the shows were just fun.  A few of them even lasted into the 1980s.

Social Themes Move to the Forefront 

The 1950s and 1960s were full of westerns and comedies that focused on the family with light conflict (for instance "I Love Lucy" and "Dick Van Dyke"). This stuff was funny, no doubt about it, but most of it was not anything "heavy". This is not to say there weren't groundbreaking events happening in TV during the '50s and '60s, there were, as these were the decades of  change that eventually made its way into the television of the '70s. In this decade, television writers would take these situations and dig a lot deeper to use comedy to highlight and/or address social issues that previously had been hush-hush on television.

The decade started with 30-year-old Mary Richards on the "Mary Tyler Moore Show", who moved to the big city after a breakup with her live-in boyfriend (divorce was still way too controversial for these times!)  The show centered on Mary's desire to start anew as an independent and self-sufficient career woman. The show was a huge success, having a 7-year run, with words such as "acclaimed" often used to describe it. Many of its stars would go on to lead their own series, either in spin-offs of MTM or on totally unrelated shows.

Shortly thereafter, shows like "All in the Family" took racism and discrimination issues head on, and "Three's Company" reflected a single man sharing an apartment with two single women. The idea of unmarried people of the opposite sex living together was still touchy to some extent in society, and to illustrate this, the writers had "Jack" pose as a gay man to show the landlord that no "hanky panky" was going on in the apartment. While "Three's Company" was primarily straight forward situation comedy, "All in the Family" used comedy to highlight important societal issues. Throughout its 8-year run, in addition to racism, it addressed topics such as homophobia, menopause, sex, abortion and anti-semitism, to name a few.

Adventure and Live Action Drama

Social themes were not the only front and center topic in '70s television. Adventure and live action drama held a prominent place in the network's prime time lineups.  Those watching TV in this era will likely not forget shows like "Charlie's Angels", "Dukes of Hazzard" and "Wonder Woman". Not to mention the police and private detective shows such as "The Rockford Files", "S.W.A.T.",  "C.H.I.P.S." and "Starsky and Hutch".

Technology also continued to develop during this decade. "Buck Rogers", "The Bionic Woman" and "The Six Million Dollar Man" highlighted technical concepts that, at the time, suspended belief. What's interesting is some of the things presented in those shows aren't so far-fetched by today's tech standards in the 21st century.

Charlie's Angels original cast 1977
Credit: © ABC Television 1977/Public Domain/ Pre-1978, no mark

Jaclyn Smith, Farrah Fawcett, Kate Jackson - original cast of "Charlie's Angels"

Comedy and Variety Shows

Comedy and variety shows ruled the 1970s, and shows like "Carol Burnett" and "Sonny and Cher" stand out to mind. Many other music stars would get their own weekly shows during this era. Before decade's end, these would fade in popularity, and the '80s would see the rise of the "talk show". Today comedy and variety shows don't really exist in the same way, and have been somewhat replaced with late night talk and reality shows. (But reality shows are a whole 'nother topic entirely...)

During this decade Saturday Night Live (SNL) also emerged and quickly claimed a status that indicated "king" of late-night television; many might possibly argue the subsequent decades of this show couldn't touch the mastery that this show's birth and formative years did. SNL brought us John Belushi, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Dan Ackroyd, Gilda Radner and Jane Curtin. Even frequent guest Steve Martin made the show memorable. All of these names became staples in both T.V. and movie history and performed in some of the most memorable pieces ever - still often referenced today.

More of the Family

While the Bunkers were grabbing viewers during these years, the rural and family-oriented shows that were the trend of the '60s still continued into the '70s to some extent. "Little House on the Prairie" and "Happy Days" reflected the nostalgia of an earlier time. While the "Bradys" lived in the current times during its 5-season run, they were "groovy" and reflected the changing of times while still playing off the earlier traditional "family" television shows. These shows also evolved into fantasy imaginings where society watched characters on the "Love Boat" and "Fantasy Island" travel different or unexpected paths to taking an experience or discovering the life of their dreams.

Saturday morning cartoons were every kid's dream. Imagine back to a day where cartoons were primarily aired once a week, and only for a few hours every Saturday morning! Sunday mornings did have shows such as "The Electric Company" and "Captain Kangaroo", but, while cool, those didn't have the same energy and magic the Saturday morning lineup did (and who can forget the classic spots of "Schoolhouse Rock"?)

Decade Ends with a 'Bang'

Television in the 1970s literally ended with a BANG as viewers across the world sat in anticipation waiting to learn who actually shot J.R. Ewing (OK, technically this episode was run in early 1980, but the show rose to the top during the late 1970s). Anyone who lived in that day, fan of the show or not, will remember the large presence of "Dallas". This show paved the road for what would become the next decade of continuity drama shows (night time "soaps") that dominated prime time of the 1980s. Even today the quip "Who shot J.R.?" remains famous to this day in certain circles. In 1980 a song was even written to capture the "hysteria" surrounding the show's season finale that year.

(As an aside, cable network TNT launched a "reboot" of the "Dallas" series that ran a few seasons, bringing back some of the original characters and building its foundation on the next generation using the previous generation's story lines. As of fall 2014, that new series had been canceled, but was looking for a new home).

The 1970s were an interesting decade for television. The diversity of ideas that were presented planted the seedlings for the future shows that would be born. These TV shows separated themselves from the rest and to this day, some would truly remain in a class by itself. Not to say that other shows haven't created history before or since, but the 1970s television shows did have a "flavor" of their own.