In 1961 Newton Minow, the newly-appointed chief of the United States Federal Communications Commission, told a stunned audience of broadcasters that television had become "a vast wasteland." He asked them to watch their own television stations where they would find "a procession of game shows, violence, audience participation shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western badmen, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons". Outside of his complaints about quizzes and comedies, much of Minow's anger was directed against the sudden dominance of a new style of drama called action-adventure in the primetime offerings of all three networks.

Action-adventure is a style and a quantity that has characterized shows drawn from the genres of crime stories [both police and detective], westerns and science fiction, spy thrillers, war drama, and simple adventure. The style offers viewers a spectacle: lots of jolts, conflict, movement, jeopardy, and thrill. Its importance has waxed and waned over the years, in part because it has been the target of severe public criticisms about the "pornography of violence" on American television. John Fiske has borrowed the terms "carnival" and "carnivalesque" from the cultural critic Mikhail Bakhtin to highlight the physical excesses, the emphasis on the body, the grotesqueries and the immoralities, the offensiveness which characterize examples of action-adventure. A show that boasts a great deal of action-adventure is less thoughtful and less complicated than its compatriots: the quantity of action-adventure, for example, was usually low in such hits as the later Gunsmoke (1960s) or The Rockford Files (1970s). It is the lack of "action" (the moving body) and the significance of "thinking" (the reasoning mind) that sets apart Columbo (1971- ), the story of a brilliant police lieutenant, from other crime dramas, indeed which makes it more of a mystery. Action-adventure can be traced back to crime shows (notably Dragnet) and kids westerns (The Lone Ranger) on television in the early 1950s, to film noir and the cowboy movies, and to all sorts of pulp fiction. But its growth in American television, the growth to which Minow seemed to be responding, was a response to the needs of ABC. This third-ranked network sought to improve its finances and stature by scheduling telefilms with more punch than previous efforts. An alliance with Warner Brothers brought to television such adult westerns as Cheyenne (1955-63) and Maverick (1957-62) as well as glamorous detective programs like 77 Sunset Strip (1958-64) and Hawaiian Eye (1959-63). The most violent of the shows, The Untouchables (1959-63), came from Desilu where the initial work was supervised by Quinn Martin, who would later produce The Fugitive, The F.B.I., and The Streets of San Francisco, though none so full of gun play. The Untouchables, a police drama about Eliot Ness, the Capone gang, and Chicago in the Prohibition Years was stuffed with bullets, blood, and death, a style which won the attention of younger viewers and provoked much criticism, even in Congress.

ABC's rivals responded with their own brand of mayhem: in the 1958-9 and 1959-60 Nielsen rankings, the three top programs were all westerns (CBS' Gunsmoke, NBC's Wagon Train, and CBS' Have Gun Will Travel) and thirteen of the top twenty-five programs were westerns or detective dramas. Such a glut led to burnout, and the wave of westerns receded, eventually disappearing from TV in the next decade. Even so the networks did experiment with new kinds of action-adventure: war dramas (notably ABC's Combat), the cult hit Star Trek (1966-9), and spy stories like I Spy.

Never again would action-adventure dominate the schedule as it had in the years around 1960. But the popularity of action-adventure did revive, especially in the early 1970s when crime shows became all the rage. The Nielsen rankings of 1974-75 had nine in the top twenty-five, although only CBS' Hawaii Five-O was in the top ten. Some of the most graphic violence appeared on this series (1968-80) in which a stern Steve McGarrett led a highly competent team of detectives against local crime and international intrigue. Paramount TV produced for CBS what was considered the most violent detective show, Mannix (1967-75), about a private eye who loved to brawl. The true exemplar of this kind of excess, though, was ABC's briefly popular S.W.A.T. (1975-6), produced by Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg, which brought heavy weapons to bear on the problem of urban crime. ABC eventually ordered the quantity of violence reduced on another, more successful Spelling-Goldberg creation, Starsky and Hutch (1975-79) which featured two buddies who tackled crime with zest and wit, California-style. All of which provoked a new public outcry plus demands that the networks both reduce violence and banish what was left to the hours after 9 p.m. Nearly all of the violent crime-fighters had left the air by 1980.

Producers had turned from the excess of violence to seek other ways of stimulating the audience. First off the mark was Universal TV: it created ABC's The Six Million Dollar Man (1974-78), about the cyborg, Colonel Steve Austin, who could perform incredible feats of strength and speed. Realism gave way to fantasy here. Its success spawned imitators like The Bionic Woman, Wonder Woman, Spiderman, and The Incredible Hulk, all of which downplayed violence for displays of muscles and gimmicks. (In its defense The Incredible Hulk was also reminiscent of The Fugitive, complete with the anthology-like approach to emotional, psychological, and social problems.) Stephen Cannell, a veteran of action-adventure who had been involved in Adam 12, Baretta, and The Rockford Files, finally spoofed the superhero genre with The Greatest American Hero (1981-3) for ABC. Special effects were even more central to the expensive science-fiction thriller, Battlestar Galactica (1978-80) which followed the travails of a huge space fortress and its fleet of beaten-up spacecraft as they struggled toward Earth under constant attack from the Cylons. It was not only reminiscent of the movie Star Wars but of many a western as well (read Indians for Cylons), except that the warfare was somehow sterile and bloodless.

Spelling-Goldberg substituted sexual titillation, and blatant sexism, to make Charlie's Angels (1976-81) a smash hit for ABC. The "Angels" were three very attractive female detectives, ordered on missions by an unseen male; they rushed around, often in peril, sometimes in abbreviated clothing, all to please the voyeur. The show was a sudden, raging hit that propelled one angel, Farrah Fawcett-Majors, to celebrity status. In 1980 an otherwise ordinary private-eye show, Magnum, P.I., turned the tables by starring a male "hunk," Tom Selleck.

In CBS' The Dukes of Hazzard (1979-85), a Warner Brothers product, realism lost out to comedy: two fun-loving cousins sped all over Hazzard County in their Dodge Charger, outwitting the sheriff, doing good, but above all winning chases and surviving crashes. A few years later, Cannell produced The A-Team (1983-87) for NBC which registered in the top ten Nielsens three years in a row. The story of four unjustly persecuted Vietnam veterans featured lots of firepower, scenes of massive destruction, but very little blood or death. Its African-American star, the physically impressive Mr. T., who played B.A. Baracus, became a youth hero. But the show itself was almost as much a parody as had been The Greatest American Hero, except now the target was this whole style of action-adventure.

The 1980s saw a revival of crime drama. Cannell himself created Hunter (1984-91) for NBC, a police drama about a rebellious and tough cop, reminiscent of Clint Eastwood's "Dirty Harry" role in the movies. Barbara Corday and Barbara Avedon shaped the first successful female "buddy" show, CBS' Cagney & Lacey (1982-88), about two female cops fighting crime and managing life in the big city. That show was saved by its fans in 1983 who wrote in protesting its cancellation. But aside from the novelty of using women as the stars, the show added little to the style of action-adventure. Much the same could be said of ABC's imaginative version of the detective drama, Moonlighting (1985-89), in which action-adventure usually played second-fiddle to romance, comedy, or even fantasy. Still it launched the career of Bruce Willis who would become one of the great stars of action-adventure in the movies. More novel was the police documentary Cops that F0X began to air in 1989: the camera followed real police as they tracked down ordinary criminals, offering viewers a spectacle of sleaze and decay in the unsavory parts of America.

There were two experiments with the drama of crime on NBC during the 1980s. The most interesting was Michael Mann's product, Miami Vice (1984-89). In part it represented a return to convention: a buddy show with two policemen, albeit one white and the other black, plus lots of speed and doses of violence. Indeed the taste for glamour even evoked the memory of 77 Sunset Strip. But Mann, another veteran of action-adventure (he had written for Starsky and Hutch as well as the anthology Police Story in the 1970s), made Vice unusual by appropriating the look and feel of MTV's videos. He gave the show special colors, "an impressionist way of working with vibrating pastels" (see Winship), dressed his stars in hip clothes, presented them in both glamorous and tawdry surroundings, and featured rock music backgrounds. In short Miami Vice offered viewers an extravaganza of sights and sounds. Such effort cost money, up to $1.5 million per episode, which made Vice one of the most expensive series of the period. Although a cult favorite, it only broke into the top twenty-five Nielsens once, in 1985-6. Perhaps that is why Vice had no real successors

This was not true of the other experiment, MTM Enterprises' Hill Street Blues (1981-87), although that program challenged the conventions of action-adventure. The two creators, Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll, drew upon the techniques of both comedy and soap opera to fashion a different kind of police story, a serialized version of the everyday life of the men and women in a particular precinct. The result won much critical acclaim, not the least because Hill Street boasted excellent scripts and well-drawn characters. The transformed police drama proved a model for some hits of the mid-1990s such as NBC's Homicide and ABC's NYPD Blue, another Bochco product. This last program became notorious for its use of both nudity and violence, sufficient to spark protests from the religious right--even before it aired. Still, the most imaginative addition to the list of action-adventure shows lately has been a hybrid of the horror and the police drama offered by FOX, The X-Files [1993- ]. The occult had rarely won much of an audience on mainstream TV, even though movies had demonstrated its potential as an audience grabber many times over. But the inquiring male-female duo, the motif of a hidden government conspiracy, and the focus on visible evil seemed to give The X-Files a special appeal to the so-called "Generation X," viewers in their late teens and their twenties.


Wonder Woman


Sea Hunt

If comedy surpassed the appeal of action-adventure after the late sixties, that style nonetheless remained a staple of American television, popular abroad as well as at home. The action telefilms pioneered the expansion of American programming overseas in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Producers in other countries developed their own varieties, of course. English Canadians fashioned some mild versions for children, notably The Littlest Hobo (akin to Lassie) and The Beachcombers, both of which have been seen around the world. According to Tom O'Regan, the success of The Untouchables on Australian TV inspired the creation of the local hit Homicide that launched homegrown drama in the 1960s. Francis Wheen has explained that Japanese television at the end of the 1970s replaced Hollywood police stories with samurai dramas, both historical and modern, which were full of murder, revenge, and executions. Over the years the British have designed a modest collection of action shows, such as the three spy thrillers fashioned for Patrick McGoohan in the 1960s, Danger Man, Secret Agent, and The Prisoner, as well as such police dramas as the grim Z Cars or The Sweeney. Still, in the end, the masters of action-adventure, on television and in the movies, have remained the Hollywood community of writers and producers.

Action-adventure shows have never represented what critics consider the best in television drama. Epithets such as "mindless," "unrealistic," "demeaning," "intolerant," or "immoral" have often been thrown at this brand of entertainment. These shows have been the source of much of the violence, sometimes sex as well, which has distressed a large number of viewers. Action-adventure cannot claim the same sort of defenders who have lauded soap operas and sitcoms as sources of worthwhile entertainment. Perhaps that is because these shows are obviously escapist, their moral tales trite, so lacking in the redeeming qualities of tolerance or female empowerment or studied ambiguity which appeal to critics. When a police drama has won praise, as in the case Hill Street Blues, it was despite of any lingering evidence of a taste for action.

Even so, action-adventure fulfills a special cultural role in North America. The significance of the style lies in the way it deals with the properties and the problems of masculinity. Action-adventure has brought men to their television sets more often than any other form of programming, excepting sport. It amounts to a special stage where they can see their fears and hopes embodied. Overwhelmingly, the stars of action adventure drama have been male, and until very recently the few female stars have remained exotics, or objects, (consider Angie DickinsonUs role in Police Woman, 1974-8) in this masculine world. Viewers have been offered a range of masculine types: leaders (McGarrett), the he-man (Baracus), the sex symbol (Crockett, Miami Vice), the loner (Paladin, Have Gun Will Travel), the rebel (Mannix), the anxious male (Mulder, The X-Files), and on and on. Whatever the role, these characters find satisfaction through acts of command and aggression. Typically action-adventure offers a resolution, achieves a closure, in which the male star triumphs over his environment and his enemies. The heroes exercise power over villains, bureaucracy, machines, even friends and helpers, and normally they relish that exercise. In the end the power manifests itself through the expression of the body rather than the mind, a body freed of personal, social, and sometimes, in the superhero mode, of natural restraints. Strike first, think later--that would be a good motto for action-adventure.

This is why the appeal of action-adventure is rooted in excess, particularly visual excess whether fights and killings, explosions and crashes, chases, horrifying images, or awesome displays. Perhaps that is a demonstration of the continuing authority of masculinity in a North America where the gendered definitions of maleness have come under increasing scrutiny and criticism. More important it constitutes a continuing source of pleasure to viewers of both sexes and all ages who share a taste for the traditions of heterosexual masculinity and its generalized form, the Macho.

-Paul Rutherford


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See also Detective Programs; Police Programs; Westerns