A Forgotten ClassicRating: 1 likes, 0 dislikes
Not nearly as well-remembered as it deserves to be, "Route 66" is nonetheless recognized by those familiar with the program as one of the most superlative dramatic television series of the 1960's, as well as one of the most ground-breaking. All the elements necessary for one of television's great sagas are present: fully defined lead characters with depth who grow over the course of the series, masterful writing including classic lines of dialogue, unforgettable stories and individual scenes, quality musical scores tailored for individual elements and episodes of the series, and top-notch guest stars.
Ostensibly an adventure show chronicling the ultimate American road trip, Route 66 originally had three main regular stars: (1) Martin Milner as clean-cut, Yale-educated, introspective Tod Stiles, (2) George Maharis as his close friend the street-wise, hep-talking and occasionally short-tempered Buz Murdock and (3) the Corvette the two of them drove around the U.S.A. in search of romance and adventure.
Route 66 was primarily the brainchild of veteran screenwriter Stirling Silliphant who poured his heart and soul into the series in a manner reminiscent of the way Rod Serling did with the Twilight Zone Like Serling, Silliphant scripted the vast majority of the series' episodes throughout its four-year run, and his show likewise became a vehicle for his own philosophy and values.
Under the guidance of Silliphant and his stable of award-winning writers (including Howard Rodman and Larry Marcus), the series achieved a quality of literary and dramatic excellence seldom seen on the small screen, and did it consistently. In contrast to the pat happy endings and clean resolutions which prevail in episodic TV drama even to this day, the individual stories of "Route 66" often turned out to be tragedies with no real winners, no clear answers. As the series progressed and the stories began to attain more complexity, some of them quite flatly appeared to be nearly incomprehensible on a first viewing, only to take on new levels and layers of meaning each time they were viewed again. Yet the series showed it's diversity by offering up the occasionally delightfully whimsical comic episode as well. "Route 66" probably couldn't be done today.
But perhaps the most unique aspect of the series - and its most historically significant one - was the fact that it actually was filmed on location all throughout the U.S. And not only were the adventures of Tod and Buz played out against the background of familiar metropololises such as Chicago, L.A. and Boston, but in America's small off the beaten path communities as well. Towns like Grant's Pass, Oregon; Butte, Montana; Carlisle, Pennsylvania; Apache Junction, Arizona; Poland Springs, Maine and many others had episodes filmed in them, and those shows remain as important time capsules for those communities of how they looked in the early 60's.
"Route 66", however, did not progress through its four-year odyssey without a few bumps in the road. In 1962, with the show at the zenith of its popularity and quality, Maharis suffered a bout of hepatitis which caused him to miss the final four episodes of season two. He later complained that the show's producers were inconsiderate of his physical well-being. Maharis abrubtly left the show for good midway through year three. The loss of such an essential and vital character as Buz Murdock would have doomed a lesser show, but Route 66 not only continued, it continued to offer stories of exceptional caliber.
After a few episodes in which Martin Milner rode the highway alone, he found a new traveling partner in actor Glenn Corbett early in 1963. Corbett took on the role of Linc Case, a troubled soldier recently returned from combat in Vietnam. Dealing with the Vietnam War on a dramatic television series at a time before that event was making front page headlines marks another historic landmark for the series. And while the loss of Maharis was undoubtedly a crippling one for the program, it cannot be denied that some of Route 66's finest stories came with Corbett in the passenger seat.
In March of 1964, the series concluded its run with another milestone as it became one of the earliest American prime time dramatic television programs to bring its storyline to a planned, definite conclusion in the two-part finale "Where There's a Will, There's a Way". And while the wrapup (a sort of a failed black comedy) left much to be desired both as a satisfying individual story as well as an appropriate conclusion to the epic; it gave Route 66 a sense of closure as series star Milner finally settled down and tied the knot with a Tampa Bay heiress played by guest star Barbara Eden.
Thus, Route 66 passed into television history. Sadly, the program has been rarely seen since, with the exception of a run on Nick at Nite in the mid-eighties which allowed the show to garner a second generation of fans. And in recent years, the show has seen a semi-official DVD release by the Roxbury/Infinity company. While these recent DVDs have not been without issues (mainly the use of inferior source prints in many of the first-season episodes), this should not overshadow the fact that they are allowing this unjustly-neglected classic program, a sterling example of the best television of its era had to offer, to reach even more potential fans.
Review posted on Friday, January 2nd 2009 at 1:42 pm