In a few weeks, we’ll all be watching the new fall TV season. And most of the time we’ll probably be saying, ”Hey, remember when they put good shows on TV? Like Bonanza and The Donna Reed Show?” But many of these good shows can still be seen. They live on in syndication on local stations and on cable systems throughout the country. So Entertainment Weekly searched the TV landscape and came up with television’s top 20 classics — witty ones, emotional ones, campy ones, revolutionary ones. If a few of your favorites and mine are missing, there’s probably a reason. The Mary Tyler Moore Show, for example, isn’t on in most cities these days. (Some classics, however, are available on tape; see story, page 40.) What follows is a combination viewers’ guide and hall of fame; it’s designed to prod your memory and point out a few things you might never have known about these video pleasures. They’re arranged in order of their various and cumulative virtues.
The Andy Griffith Show
(Syndicated; check local listings)
Is this the best series that TV has ever produced? There are those who think so, and their arguments are persuasive. The Andy Griffith Show (CBS, 1960-68) is a beautiful combination of laughs and sniffles, physical humor and well- crafted dialogue.
Sheriff Andy is the show’s calm center, wise and wry. Don Knotts’ Deputy Barney Fife is an amazing comic creation — a jittery, bug-eyed doofus who is nonetheless a sweet, plucky fellow. Ron Howard plays Andy’s son, Opie, looking as if he’d just tumbled out of bed — Opie must be the least bratty, least cutesy TV kid ever. Add Frances Bavier as Aunt Bee and inspired eccentrics like Floyd the barber (Howard McNear) and you have a pretty-darn-near-perfect show.
Face to watch for: The spirit of The Andy Griffith Show lives on in current pop culture. Ron Howard is one of the few child actors who actually went on to bigger, better things: His movies as a producer-director include the hits Cocoon, Splash, and Parenthood.
Original ratings: Andy finished its first year at No. 4 in the Nielsens, never fell below No. 7, and was No. 1 its final year.
Episode to watch for: Barney goes into a funk when Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors) makes a citizen’s arrest. You see, Barney thinks it undermines his authority if just anybody can make an arrest. Don Knotts in the throes of despair is magnificent.
The Rockford Files
(Syndicated; check local listings)
James Garner as the unluckiest private eye in the world. From 1974 to 1980, Rockford was probably TV’s best-written, best-acted hour. An ex-con, always broke, living in a tattered trailer on the beach, palling around with his dad (Noah Beery Jr.), Jim Rockford is a beguiling antihero — sneaky, lazy, and such a softie that you know he’ll never get ahead in life.
In the two-hour Rockford pilot, Rockford asks a hood he just collared: ”Does your mother know how you make a living?” So? Well, the line is Raymond Chandler’s, and Garner lifted it from a movie he’d appeared in five years earlier, Marlowe, in which he played the archetypal detective Philip Marlowe.
Faces to watch for: Isaac Hayes, the hot-buttered-soul man himself, turns up occasionally as a fellow ex-con named Gandolph Fitch, who always refers to our hero as ”Rockfish.” And in the 1979-80 season, a pre-Magnum Tom Selleck appears as a fatuous, know-it-all P.I. named Lance White.
Original ratings: Finished its first year on NBC at No. 12, but, an underdog like Jim Rockford himself, was never in the yearly top 25 after that.