The 20 Best TV Shows Of The 1960s
The world was changing in the 1960s, from music to fashion, and as television sets were becoming ubiquitous with families you better believe that the programs that appeared throughout the decade were moving away from formulas that worked in the 1950s. As color TV became the norm, programs utilized color in a variety of startling ways, from taking viewers through space to fighting crime.
The TV shows that defined the 1960s are all over the place, just like this wonderful decade. Programs meant for children had inside jokes for adults, and "grown-up" programming touched a nerve with young people at the same time. In this era anything was possible and we can't get enough of it.
How to even quantify the importance of Star Trek in science fiction, let alone the 1960s? This three-series sci-fi show starring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy saw the crew of the USS Enterprise traveling through space and time on new and exciting adventures every week. At the time, the series was seen as a lark, a space show for the kids - it was anything but that. Star Trek inspired children across the world to become scientists and science fiction writers, and it changed the lives of everyone who worked on the original series. Leonard Nimoy, who played the green-blooded Vulcan said of the series:
I can't describe what the whole experience has been, except for that I have been a very, very lucky actor. Ever since Star Trek went on the air in 1966 I never had to worry about work, and that's a major thing for an actor to be able to support a family all those years without worrying about income.
The Monkees were never meant to be culturally important, they were just supposed to be a Beatles knock-off that kept teeny boppers entertained, but somewhere along the way the four lads from, well all over, who formed The Monkees became iconoclasts all on their own. The two-season series was kind of like Laugh-In but with musical interludes and extremely surreal sketches that featured all manner of Laurel Canyon musicians. Watching the show now, it's clear that it was like nothing else on TV.
Aside from learning how to be a band together in front of an audience, The Monkees also learned how to be TV stars. Frontman Davy Jones explained:
I remember the soundman moving electrician's cables and the electrician helping the prop man. And the prop man being in one of the scenes, and nobody from Actors Equity complaining. We all knew Micky Dolenz and myself being the actors, and Peter and Mike being the musicians. We did end up to be 4 musicians and 4 actors. We knew how to cover for each other. We saved time by being there, ready to film. The Monkees episodes went out for $75,000. I mean that's all they cost. That was unheard of. And that was because of the co-operation and the excitement and because of the originality and the enthusiasm from all these different areas.
The Twilight Zone
The Twilight Zone is an astounding and profound television series wrapped in the trappings of a 1960s serial. The series wouldn't have come about if it weren't for its creator, Rod Serling, running head-on into television censors while trying to produce an episode of The United States Steel Hour about the lynching of Emmet Till. His script was shredded to bits, leading him to realize if he wanted to tell a story about today, he needed to add something "weird" to it.
Scholar Lester H. Hunt said of Serling's shift from telling a straightforward story to something slightly more fantastic:
[Serling] changed, rather abruptly and driven by the pressure of circumstance, from an artist who thought it was his highest calling to comment on the problems of the day by depicting them directly to one who commented on principles and universals involved, not merely in the problems of the moment, but of human life itself.
I Dream Of Jeannie
One of the most popular shows of the groovy era is I Dream of Jeannie, which stars Barbara Eden as a genie discovered by an astronaut who brings her back to suburban America where hijinks ensue. With her exposed midriff and magical head nod, Eden quickly became an icon of the era who's still replicated to this day. Eden played the 2,000-year-old genie for more than 100 episodes on top of a few TV movies. While speaking with People Magazine Eden noted that she's A-OK being known as television's preeminent magical character:
She's easy to live with. She really is. I like her a lot. I think what makes me so happy is that so many people around the world like her. Not me. They like that character. And they like the show for what it is. It takes people out of themselves and into another world, and I appreciate that. I like it very much.
During the Groovy era television was obsessed with the era that directly predated it, World War II. Many of the shows on the air at the time dealt with the war, but none of them were as funny or as influential as Hogan's Heroes. This long-running take on prisoners of war in Stalag 13 just outside Hammelburg applied a cheeky sense of humor to something incredibly serious, and it was all the better for it.
The series follows Colonel Robert Hogan (played by Bob Crane), the highest ranking POW who brings together his men with sterling wit and intelligence to take down Colonel Klink - the head of the German POW camp. As dour as all of this sounds, Hogan's Heroes was incredibly funny and it paved the way for dark comedies that followed.
Even though the star of Bewitched, Elizabeth Montgomery, didn't care for TV, she played one of the most beloved television characters of the 1960s - Samantha Stephens. Produced alongside her husband William Asher, Bewitched was one of the most subversive programs of the era. On Bewitched, Samantha Stephens cooks dinner for her husband and regularly makes him a drink, but she also twitches her nose to change the outcome of events and generally mess with people who get on her nerves. It wasn't just a fantasy, it was a subtle poke in the eye of the view of the homemaker in the 1960s.
This series about the Dark Knight only ran for three seasons, but in that time it did something that no other adaptation of Batman has done - it had fun. Starring Adam West as Batman, the series captured the fun of a comic book while winking at the adults in the audience. The meta nature of Batman may have had to do with its demise, but watching it now it's clear that everyone involved was having a blast. While speaking about Batman in 2017, West noted that most of what he and his cohorts on the show were trying to do went over everyone's heads:
I mean, it's taken 30 years for the critics to come around, and at last pronounce it as brilliant. It's important! [Laughs] No, it's satisfying, because we've worked hard. I got a chance to work with some really remarkable people... I saw it again the other night, and I'd forgotten how wonderfully funny, and interesting, and imaginative, and all those things that we were. I laughed my head off.
The Outer Limits
The Outer Limits has such a strong grip on our minds that it's hard to wrap our heads around the fact that it only ran for 49 episodes. This series that's often compared to The Twilight Zone was more of a hard science fiction program than its accidental companion series.
Every episode of this short-lived series is definitely worth watching, but if you get a chance check out the first episode of season 2, "Soldier," an episode by Harlan Ellison that sort of formed the basis of the first few minutes of James Cameron's Terminator.
Petticoat Junction! The sister series to Green Acres followed life at the Shady Rest Hotel where the Bradley family gets up to all manner of nonsense in this rural area. The widowed Kate Bradley has to do her best to take care of the hotel and its patrons while watching out for her three daughters - Betty Jo, Bobbie Jo, and Billie Jo. Petticoat Junction may seem quaint now, but it set the table for every sitcom that followed.
Everyone looks back fondly on Gilligan's Island, the zany show about a group of disparate tourists who end up stuck on an island when they were only meant to take a "three-hour tour." The series featured a wide array of talent that somehow managed to turn this simple premise into one of the most beloved series of the 20th century.
After the series came to an end series star Bob Denver (Gilligan himself) realized that he hadn't had a break in nearly a decade so he moved 30 minutes away from Los Angeles and parked himself, where else, on a lake. In 1967, he told The Wichita Beacon about his little slice of paradise:
Right after I got the house, I discovered that I hadn't relaxed for an hour in the past seven years. It's such a gas! Every morning the businessmen who live around the lake are out rowing themselves into shape. Then, after they go to work, the kids show up and play pirate in the marshes... When my next series starts, I'm going to make sure I'm not in every scene like I was with Gilligan.
The Addams Family
They're creepy and they're kooky, they were on a series that only ran for two seasons on ABC from 1964 to 1966, and they're part of a long-running gothic enterprise. Whether you caught the series when it first aired or you just know the show from its iconic music and its following films, it's impossible to forget The Addams Family.
The series only lasted for two seasons, but it achieved cult status after a lengthy syndication run that saw the series playing for viewers who weren't even alive when the show premiered.
Debuting in 1963, Doctor Who began its life as a children's show about a time-traveling weirdo that took on a life of its own as one of the most beloved television programs of the 20th century. The early version of this long-running series set much of the groundwork that's still followed today: The Doctor, a time-traveling alien, zips around the universe with a companion who helped him solve a variety of problems both spooky and freaky.
Even though the original episodes of Doctor Who are lost to time because of the BBC's rules about reusing film and video in the 1960s, the original version of the show is still influencing the people behind the series in the modern era. Showrunner Russell T Davies told The Guardian in 2021:
I love it. It’s the first thing I watched on television. In there is every single edition of Doctor Who Magazine.
What is it about Green Acres that made audiences fall in love with its cast? Is it seeing a fish out of water story about wealthy people trying to live life on a farm? Or is there something inherently funny about rural humor? Whatever the case, the series was a hit, and it was one of the first successful spin-off programs on television. Tangentially related to Petticoat Junction, the series regularly intertwined with some of that show's side characters.
Green Acres may look like a basic bit of programming, but it was a forerunner of modern programming complete with a mockumentary-style opening episode as well as cross-pollination with other programs. That was a rarity in the 1960s.
The Prisoner is straight-up weird. It may have only run for one season, but this British program about a secret agent stuck on an island full of former secret agents remains one of the most influential programs of the era. Aside from familiarizing audiences with a mystery that will never be solved, The Prisoner predicted the surveillance state with its cozy town known as "The Village" where everyone is covertly watched at all hours of the day. Aside from that depressing piece of information, The Prisoner singlehandedly created a space for weird TV like Twin Peaks and Lost by creating a long-form enigmatic story that's never truly solved. If you haven't sat down and absorbed The Prisoner there's no better time than now.
TV westerns were a dime a dozen in the 1960s, but Maverick was a step above the rest. Focusing on James Garner as a poker-playing rogue in the 19th century, the series managed to create the template for hour-long adventure dramas that became the norm in the early '90s. Essentially Bret Maverick, or his brother Bart, would show up somewhere to make some money playing poker and before they knew it they'd wind up in trouble and have to get out of it with brains and brawn. That sounds simple, but at the time it was a mind-blowing concept.
Alfred Hitchcock Presents
It's crazy to think that while Alfred Hitchcock was directing some of the most important thrillers of the 20th century he was also producing the Alfred Hitchcock Hour, an anthology series that wracked up more than 300 episodes and spanned a decade between 1955 and 1965. The series offered a tightly wound cousin to The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, albeit with one of the most important directors who ever lived at the helm.
While it was much bleaker than the rest of the shows on the air at the time, Alfred Hitchcock Presents was able to introduce the director to an all-new audience while getting young people hooked on the mystery genre.
Can you think about Hawaii Five-0 without hearing the upbeat drumming that leads audiences into the show? You can't, it's technically impossible to not think about the theme composed by Morton Stevens and later recorded by The Ventures. For a solid 10 seasons, the series followed Detective Captain Stephen "Steve" McGarrett as he solved crimes across Hawaii while enjoying fun in the sun. This Groovy era program (unlike most shows, it spanned the '60s and '70s) is so popular that it's still in syndication to this day.
The Beverly Hillbillies
Running for nearly 10 years and almost 300 episodes, The Beverly Hillbillies is one of the most beloved programs of the Groovy era. The show got its start in 1962 as a rags to riches story that followed Jed Clampett and his family as they strike rich on "Texas T" before moving to Beverly Hills.
The series was popular for the way it took down big city sophistication through "low class" ideals. When the show came to an end in 1971, series star Buddy Ebsen transitioned from this '60s classic to a beloved '70s show, Barnaby Jones. The man was one of the most well-known faces of the Groovy Era.
Scooby Doo, Where Are You!
It's hard to find someone who doesn't know intrinsically what Scooby Doo is today, but when it was first produced in the 1960s it was simply seen as a cheap mystery cartoon for children, but now it's considered one of the most influential TV shows of the Groovy era. Scooby Doo, Where Are You! is a fascinating series. It offers no backstory or reason for Mystery Incorporated's drive to solve mysteries — it simply exists. The crazy thing about this is that it totally works.
There are only a few episodes of the first iteration of the show, but they all follow the same formula. Scooby and the gang end up somewhere, a mystery presents itself, the gang runs from a ghost or goblin (usually leading them to split up), and then they unmask the ghoul or goblin to reveal that it's a just a human. The series may be cheaply made and repetitive, but it's incredibly fun, and it teaches young viewers that the scariest thing in the world is a greedy adult.
Even though The Saint is a very English TV show, this groovy-era program is one of the more influential pieces of television of the 1960s. Starring Roger Moore shortly before he was cast as James Bond, The Saint follows "Simon Templar" as he helps various world powers solve intricate problems with his outside-the-law specialties. The series ran for more than 100 episodes and played a major role in bringing the super spy genre to the groovy era. Many shows followed in its wake (The Avengers, The Man From UNCLE) but few had the lasting impact of this beloved series.
Lost In Space
Between 1965 and 1968 viewers watched as the Robinson family attempted to colonize space on Jupiter 2 before they were thrown off course by the evil Dr. Smith. Many of the TV shows produced in the 1960s were kitschy and full of unnecessary camp, but Lost In Space is the campiest of all.
Even though Lost In Space has been adapted for the screen multiple times, it's the original series that lasts in our memories. Even now we can hear the Robinson family's robot shouting "Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!"