Obviously, you can't assume that every show from the 1950s and 1960s shows you the reality of American life. At best, Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best were highly idealized views of white American suburban life. But other shows are, within the limits of what network practices allowed, attempts at realism. The revival of Dragnet (1967-1970) may seem campy or even incomprehensible when watched by Americans under 30 (or even under 40), but I grew up in the Los Angeles that Dragnet portrays, and I remember those years in considerable detail. The way people dressed, the signs, the buildings, the gas station chains that no longer exist...it brings back bittersweet memories.
Dragnet may seem incredibly conservative by modern standards: many episodes clearly show disdain for drug abuse, the hippie counterculture, homosexuality, and divorce, and producer Jack Webb was quite open that his goal was to promote a positive view of police. Yet these were largely mainstream liberal values at the time, as were the other values that Dragnet preached (sometimes a little clumsily): the importance of racial equality, freedom of speech. While it is subtle, some Dragnet episodes also showed some discomfort with civilian gun ownership -- a mainstream liberal value to this day.
Other shows from this period are less realistic but still provide fascinating insights into American culture of the period. The original Mission: Impossible series ran from 1966 to 1973, with nearly every episode opening with the chief of the Impossible Missions Force receiving his instructions on a vinyl record or magnetic tape that ends with the warning, "This recording will self-destruct." Mission: Impossible always had technology that was just a bit beyond what was actually possible then...but seems positively antique by modern standards.
Some of the plots will surprise you, because they seem like fairly modern concerns: slavery and blood diamonds, for example. Like with Dragnet, there is a racial equality in Mission: Impossible that was more an aspirational goal than a statement of how America was back then: Greg Morris played electronics expert and general all-around technogeek, Barney Collier. George Takei played a microbiologist who was part of the IMF team in the first season (at the same time that he was starring in Star Trek).
The show reflected what were mainstream liberal values in 1966: a belief that totalitarian societies were evil, that the U.S. was the leader of the free world, that democracy was the path towards progress for the entire world, that we sometimes had to engage in secret, deniable missions to achieve those goals. By mid-run, these values were not mainstream liberalism in America, and you could see the change in the plot mix. Increasingly, Mission: Impossible episodes involved organized crime and other domestic criminal enterprises, where the IMF had to be careful not to break too many laws, while manipulating the bad guys into killing each other.
To the credit of the writers, while our side was definitely wearing white hats, sometimes their opponents were wearing shades of gray: people who believed in what they were doing but were simply wrong or deceived. One episode involves the son of two American nuclear physicists executed for spying for the Soviets in the 1950s. The IMF must convince him that a Soviet nuclear attack on the United States has taken place to get him to reveal critical information -- and in the process, they expose that his parents really were guilty, and that a mutual friend caused them to be sacrificed for the propaganda value.
Even television series of the period that seem completely irrelevant to understanding the 1960s are surprisingly instructive. If you want to see how attitudes about women changed during the 1960s, watch the 1964 pilot for Star Trek (starring Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike). Then watch the portrayal of women in the episodes made from 1966 to 1968. As much as you might find the uniforms worn by the women really ridiculous, it was a logical extension (or is that shortening?) of the trends in hemlines that were then in play.
More importantly, women played important roles on Captain Kirk's Enterprise. The first season episode, "Tomorrow Is Yesterday," has the Enterprise thrown back to the 1960s by a close encounter with a black hole, leading to them beaming a U.S. Air Force pilot aboard -- and the pilot is utterly shocked that there are women serving on a warship. When that episode was first broadcast in 1967, that would indeed have been shocking -- an idea too radical for anyone to take seriously in American society. Not today, of course.
The last episode of the original Star Trek series is "Turnabout Intruder." Captain Kirk meets up with an old girlfriend, Dr. Janice Lester, who uses an alien device to exchange bodies. While Dr. Lester is mentally unbalanced, we find that her reason for this action is that she has long resented that, being a woman, she could never be considered to be a starship captain -- a role reserved for men, even in the enlightened 23rd century. Today, this seems utterly unimaginable -- but it tells you a lot about what was considered enlightened, liberal thinking in 1969.
There is much to learn from watching 1960s television shows. You may find much of it laughable today -- but you may also find yourself wondering if we lost quite a bit as well.
Cramer, Clayton E. 2013. “Cultural Anthropology through Netflix”. American Thinker. Posted: June 23, 2013. Available online: http://www.americanthinker.com/2013/06/cultural_anthropology_through_netflix.html