9 TV shows that were too ahead of their time in the early 1970s

By: Start TV Staff    Posted: February 28, 2023, 2:38PM

Images: The Everett Collection

The early Seventies was a revolutionary era for American television. Some call it the "rural purge," but it could just be that tastes were changing with the times. Sitcoms shifted from idyllic, lighthearted tales to topical comedies set in the big city. There were more shows about single women, black families, emergency services, and young Americans, as networks looked more to realism than escapism.

The era gave us M*A*S*H, Mary Tyler Moore, All in the Family, Police Woman and The Jeffersons, just to name a few. But other forward-looking series did not fare as well. Let's take a look at some forgotten series that were perhaps just too ahead of their time.


The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine


By 1971, Monty Python's Flying Circus had aired two seasons of pioneering sketch comedy in the U.K. However, the British series did not air in the U.S.A. until PBS took a chance on the show in 1974. That made The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine revolutionary for comedy in American airwaves in 1971. Feldman, a chameleon-eyed comic from London, had much in common with Python, even utilizing animations from Terry Gilliam on his Machine. Influential British comedy icon Spike Milligan also appeared on the short-lived ABC series, which was perhaps too different a flavor of humor, like laughter Marmite.

Image: The Everett Collection




Bruce Lee had become a household name as the sidekick Kato on The Green Hornet in 1966, but Longstreet allowed the martial arts icon to be himself, as he played a Jeet Kune Do instructor name Li Tsung. This was still before Way of the Dragon and Enter the Dragon. The action-drama allowed Lee to deliver his principal philosophies of "be like water," and he taught Longstreet. Which brings us to the main character, Mike Longstreet (James Franciscus), a blind insurance investigator.

Image: The Everett Collection


The Corner Bar


From the image and title, you can surmise that The Corner Bar was essentially a spiritual precursor to Cheers, which would arrive a decade later. The sitcom centered around the denizens of a NYC watering hole called Grant's Tomb. Most revolutionary, however, was Peter Panama, portrayed by Vincent Schiavelli, the first recurring gay character on American television. The wonderful Anne Meara also nabbed a lead role.

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Sometimes, even the technology of a show can be too ahead of its time. The futuristic suspense of Search, a.k.a. Probe, centered around the investigators of the World Securities Corporation. Using circuit-filled rings and medallions, not to mention an array of computers, the three lead agents (Hugh O'Brian, Tony Franciosa, Doug McClure) could use their miniature tech to read vital signs, communicate, film, record, etc. Their boss, played by the wonderful Burgess Meredith, was even named "V.C.R." Remember the VCR had only just hit the consumer market. Some credit the show's failure to being just too advanced technologically — though not set in the future — to seem relatable.

Image: The Everett Collection


Temperatures Rising


Before 1972, medical shows on television had largely been serious dramas or soap operas. M*A*S*H and Temperatures Rising changed that. While the Korean War dramedy utilized humor as the character's coping mechanism during horrific experiences, Temperatures Rising was pitched more as an outright farce set in the healthcare industry. The notion of not taking doctors seriously shocked some, as Temperatures Rising wrote with a dark, satirical sense of gallows humor, with the doctors' continual malpractice and exorbitant bills. To boot, the sitcom was built around a young black surgeon (Cleavon Little) with a mischievous streak. The doctors of the fictional Capitol General hospital would misread X-rays as they charged patients $185 a night for a room. Lambasted for its irreverence, the show retooled in season two, adding the popular Paul Lynde to the cast, but it was too late to revive.

Image: The Everett Collection


Hot l Baltimore


Producer Norman Lear pushed boundaries with frank, contemporary sitcoms such as All in the Family, One Day at a Time, The Jeffersons and Good Times. But some of his productions were perhaps too aggressive. ABC aired a disclaimer before episodes of Hot l Baltimore (the "E" in the hotel sign had burned out) warning of its "mature themes." The characters included illegal immigrants, sex workers and gay couples. Even the Baltimore affiliate opted to air something else. Despite a fantastic cast — Oscar nominee James Cromwell, SAG president Richard Masur, Emmy nominee Conchata Ferrell, Emmy and Tony nominee Charlotte Rae — Hot l checked out quickly as Lear's first major flop.

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M*A*S*H co-creators Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart, hot off their success, realized that American television had set many shows in its capitol about its government. Thus, they came up with Karen, a showcase for Emmy-winner Karen Valentine (Room 222). Karen's character was a consumer advocate and lobbyist for Open America, fighting corruption in Washington, D.C. The critics were condescending and chauvinistic in their appraisals, claiming Karen was "too cute" to be "taken seriously." Writers focused on her appearance, not her character, noting "a pretty face can only take you so far."

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No, this was not a series about Captain Kirk and his nemesis. Khigh Dhiegh (best known as Wo Fat on Hawaii Five-O) led a cast that included Asian-American stars Evan C. Kim and Irene Yah-Ling Sun. Khigh Dhiegh, born Kenneth Dickerson in New Jersey, was actually of Anglo-Egyptian Sudanese ancestry, yet was typecast in Asian roles throughout his career. Still, here was a detective show with a primarily minority cast. Dhiegh was a committed practitioner and proponent of Taoism, who founded the Taoist Sanctuary in Hollywood. Perhaps that is what led him to, in an unprecedented move, take no credit for his lead role on Khan! That's right — he was the face of the show but went unbilled. He also eschewed promoting the series, which is probably why it only lasted four episodes.

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Just look at the little girl's, Elizabeth Cheshire's, face at the bottom of this image. Typically, children on American television had been sweet kids like Beaver Cleaver, at worst charming imps like Dennis the Menace. Sunshine strove for realism. Chicago Tribune called Cheshire a "pest." The series focused on a hippie musician and single father (Cliff DeYoung) struggling to raise his daughter. Yep, that is indeed Bill Mumy, formerly Will Robinson, on the far left as a folkie friend, looking like one of the Beach Boys. The dad was fiercely dedicated to his child, though audiences found the show either too serious and topical or too crunchy and hippie, depending on their outlook. Another critic wisely labeled it "before its time." Thematically. Hippies were certainly not new.

Image: The Everett Collection