Last time, we began an exploration of the highest-rated television episodes of the classic era, as reported by Wesley Hyatt in his excellent book Television's Top 100: The Most Watched American Broadcasts 1960-2010. This month we continue our journey in chronological order. As mentioned in Part 1, to avoid repetition, each series only gets one entry in Hyatt's book. Also, for the purposes of this piece, we are excluding specials, movies, and sporting events.
The Ed Sullivan Show (originally aired February 9, 1964): This is perhaps the only entry for which many folks will remember the broadcast date. February 9, 1964 is memorable because it marks the appearance of a legendary act that created a mania as frenzied fans tried to get tickets. We can only be talking about the comedy team of McCall and Brill!
No, of course it was the Beatles making their first live appearance on United States TV. The lads from Liverpool stand out even more today on a bill with old-school acts like Tessie O'Shea, comic magician Fred Kaps, and the cast of Broadway sensation Oliver(including Eddie Munster -- no, wait, that's a young Davy Jones). The Beatles do five songs -- three at the beginning, two near the end -- and it's impressive how well behaved the youthful audience is when they aren't onstage.
If I could go back in time and experience one of the highest-rated episodes live, I'd pick the grand debut of the Beatles. There's a reason 73 million tuned in to watch this episode, and it's not the impressions of Frank Gorshin.
One of the great things about Hyatt's book is his attempts to explain why particular episodes drew such big ratings. In this case, there's no mystery, as this is one of the most famous events of the 20th-century. It looks odd today that such a signature program started at the bottom of the hour--8:30 in this case--but the competition (the end of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color, then Grindl on NBC; the end of Travels of Jamie McPheeters, then the beginning of Arrest and Trial on ABC) was no match for CBS.
Bonanza 'The Pure Truth' (March 8, 1964): Much like The Beverly Hillbillies, we would see a lot more of Bonanza on the list if Hyatt didn't restrict each series to one installment. The Ponderosa was a juggernaut for NBC in the 1960s. Oddly, it was in the next season, it's third, that the show became number one on television, while this second season featured most of its top-rated episodes. This phenomenon is the result of Hillbillies remaining king of the airwaves in 1963-1964 (and as we saw last month, just two months before 'The Pure Truth,' the Clampetts were in 'The Giant Jackrabbit,' the highest-rated regular sitcom half-hour of all time).
This one opens with Hoss suffering from his annual case of 'spring fever,' which his brothers and father treat with a concoction of sulfur and molasses. Hoss' spring fever doesn't mean he's anxious for Opening Day of the Virginia City Silvers. No, it means he's, shall we say, distracted by the things to which many a young man's fancy turns when the season arrives.
Despite the Cartwrights' efforts to essentially hibernate him for a while, through a misunderstanding, Hoss ends up on an errant mission to apprehend a criminal in the wrong city. While there, he is falsely accused of robbing a bank and teams up with a local 'looney' (guest star Glenda Farrell) to expose the true criminals.
I am far from a Bonanza expert, but I would have predicted its highest-rated episode would be one spotlighting the whole family. This lighthearted outing offers spirited turns by Farrell and stalwarts like Lloyd Corrigan, but it barely has Ben, Adam, and Little Joe. It doesn't have much to brand it as 'worthy' of being the high-water mark for the series' ratings. Wesley Hyatt isn't sure what makes 'The Pure Truth' Bonanza's peak. It beat The Judy Garland Show on CBS and Arrest and Trial on NBC that Sunday night in 1964. Hey, looking at the last two entries, I wonder if maybe the key to having a blockbuster episode was scheduling it against Arrest and Trial.
Gomer Pyle 'Love Letters to the Sarge' (January 29, 1965): Gomer was a top 10 hit each year, trailing only Bonanza and Bewitched in 1964-1965, but why was this particular episodes its most popular? Hyatt sees no obvious reason. 'Love Letters' beat an episode of The Jack Benny Program (guest-starring The Kingston Trio) on NBC and F.D.R., a docuseries about President Roosevelt. Maybe audiences just loved the idea of Gomer playing Cupid, even by accident.
As mail is distributed at the beginning of the episode, some of the men notice poor, old Sergeant Carter never gets anything. Lots of the enlisted guys wave around missives from their sweethearts, and even Gomer can look forward to correspondence from his lady love, but each mail call the Sarge ends up empty-handed.
So, Gomer decides to cheer up Sergeant Carter by sending him anonymous love letters to prevent him from feeling left out. Although Pyle is surely an erudite romantic in his own right, he heads to the library and studies the work of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to craft his letters, which gives the Sarge some swagger but also makes him determined to discover the author. Carter identifies three different 'suspects,' asking them enough leading questions so they develop genuine romantic feelings. It's a good thing, too, because if Carter discovered the ruse, Gomer may have suddenly disappeared in an unfortunate obstacle course incident.
'Love Letters' is an unexceptional Gomer Pyle outing, focusing more on character moments and demonstrating Gomer's big-hearted nature than jokes. It does have welcome appearances by Jackie Joseph and Elisabeth Fraser, but as Hyatt notes, it's a bit of a mystery why this episode is the most viewed of the series.
The Fugitive 'The Judgment: Part II' (August 29, 1967): Along with the Beatles on Sullivan, this is the other episode TV buffs could guess belongs on the list. The anticipated finale of an acclaimed series, 'Part II' was the highest-rated broadcast in history until Dallas shot J.R. in 1980. Even though ratings had slipped by The Fugitive's fourth season (it slipped creatively, too, perhaps partly due to a switch from black and white to color), an unusual approach from ABC helped build anticipation.
The fourth season ended in April, at least as far as viewers knew, and it was announced later that the series would return with a two-parter just before the new fall season. 'The Judgment,' then, aired back-to-back Tuesdays at 10:00, the series' regular slot, before making way for Hollywood Palace in September. Therefore this episode stands as the highest-rated summer episode in TV history. 'Part II' obliterated a showing of the Martin and Lewis vehicle Pardners (1956) on NBC and a CBS News Hour edition called 'The Tenement.'
This episode merits an entire column in itself. It's a gripping resolution for anyone who has any kind of history watching accused murderer Richard Kimble and nemesis Lieutenant Philip Gerard, and it's generally credited with being the first true series finale of its kind. However, Hyatt cites Buick Circus Hour and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp as previous examples. It's difficult imagining anyone doing it better than The Fugitive, though, and its big-event status clearly set a benchmark.
In his own excellent book The Fugitive Recaptured, author Ed Robertson reports that series creator Roy Huggins' original proposal for the show declared it 'will be a series...brought to a planned conclusion,' though executive producer Quinn Martin was the one responsible for giving viewers a satisfying denouement to Richard Kimble's saga. Another intriguing nugget Robertson provides is Martin's message at the end of 'The Judgment's' teleplay: a request not to share the events of the story with the press.
Martin also asks the press, if that request doesn't work, to 'please honor the industry code of not giving the ending away.' He does allow anyone reading the teleplay to reveal a huge piece of info I won't spoil. Apparently he believes it's obvious enough that knowing it will only entice viewers, or maybe it's just good old-fashioned showmanship.
The bottom line is 'The Judgment' provides the inevitable ending to The Fugitive while throwing in some clever twists and exciting moments. Kimble and Gerard working together to track down the one-armed man gives solid story elements but also strong emotional ones. The end of the episode successfully combines several moods, revealing the toll this journey has taken on both men, and narrator William Conrad's final words give me a jolt each time I hear them. This memorable two-parter is significant not just for its historical value, but because it's an outstanding piece of television.
The Andy Griffith Show 'Barney Hosts a Summit Meeting' (January 29, 1968): During the Cold War, United States policymakers tried a variety of approaches to maintain geopolitical stability, but disagreements and tensions with the Soviet empire created tense times. Unfortunately, our real world lacked one significant factor that may have changed the fate of the world for the better in the Mayberry universe: Aunt Bee's meatloaf.
Don Knotts had a spotlight role in his fifth guest shot since exiting as a regular. His Barney Fife gets the task of arranging a location for a summit meeting between government officials from America and representatives of an undisclosed (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) foreign power. Barney's attention to detail isn't the greatest, and the negotiators end up not only conducting their meeting in Sheriff Andy Taylor's house, but sleeping there as well. Things are rocky until the participants independently rise in the middle of the night to raid Aunt Bee's icebox. Andy and Barney are stunned the next morning that nobody is doubled over from Bee's cooking. Well, that and the fact that the 'Icebox Summit' was a huge success because of the homey, comforting environment of the kitchen.
Knotts' presence surely added viewers, but the series was number one on television in this, its final season, and it had sub-par challengers on this Monday night: The Danny Thomas Hour on NBC (a unique blend of variety, drama, and comedy changing from week to week, not to be confused with his long-running sitcom Make Room for Daddy) and Luther, a TV movie about Martin Luther, on ABC. Knotts certainly enlivens 'Summit Meeting,' but I think the show misses a golden opportunity by not having anyone bang a shoe on Andy's coffee table.
Mayberry R.F.D. 'Andy and Helen Get Married' (September 23, 1968): The spin-off of The Andy Griffith Show faded much earlier than its predecessor, but this series premiere scored big for CBS.
And why shouldn't it have? For one thing, it went up against a screening of the 1965 James Garner/Dick Van Dyke film The Art of Love on NBC and single-season ABC Western The Outcasts. Perhaps more importantly, as you can guess from the episode title, it plays like a de facto series finale of The Andy Griffith Show as it does a sitcom pilot, even airing in the old TAGS time slot.
The actual final episode of Andy Griffith, airing months earlier, was titled 'Mayberry R.F.D.' Frankly, that attempt to launch the spin-off is so weak, it's amazing to think it inspired so many people to tune in on September 23rd. 'Andy and Helen Get Married' is livelier and much more entertaining, focusing on Aunt Bee's decision to move in with Sam and Mike Hones, but also on the wedding of Andy Taylor and Helen Crump. You get to see a bachelor party featuring noted town party animals like Howard Sprague, best man Barney Fife doing some comic business at the wedding, and perhaps the single best moment: Aunt Bee, clad in her Sunday best, determinedly marching into a barn to procure fresh eggs.
'Andy and Helen' is a bit of a bait and switch because it offers three key elements viewers wouldn't see a lot of in Mayberry R.F.D.: Andy Griffith, Ron Howard, and Don Knotts. The series never matched the success of this debut, but it did have three successful seasons before getting canceled as part of CBS' infamous rural purge.
That purge signaled changing times in television, as the idea of programming to attract the largest possible audience made way for narrower, more lucrative demographics. Today sporting events dominate the top of the television ratings, and regular episodes draw nowhere near the kind of viewership these ones did in the 1960s.
Rick Brooks is the proprietor of Cultureshark, a blog in which he uses an often irreverent approach to express his reverence for the classics and the un-classics.