Route 66, newly collected on DVD by Shout! Factory, has historical value as a document of early-’60s TV, a time when producers and writers were growing more adventurous in figuring out what the young medium could do. But it also has inestimable value as a time capsule of an America that hadn’t yet become one massive monoculture, a land where regional differences still mattered, and where the mass media and Internet hadn’t flattened everything into a country full of smoothly similar subcultures.
The premise of Route 66 is as simple as it gets: Two men travel the country in a great car. While they’re on the road, they happen across situations that require their attention. They help out, take odd jobs, make things right, then hit the road again. In one episode, they might confront serious social issues. In another, they might solve a mystery. In still another, they might uncover the buried secrets of a small town’s bloody past. At the end of the episode, they’re always off to the next town, the next corner of a giant country that was only starting to be easily traversed.
Route 66 was made in the midst of a time when TV drama was in transition. The anthology dramas that had dominated the ’50s—and created the moniker “the golden age of television”—were waning. (Though The Twilight Zone, one of the best examples of the form, was still on the air.) Westerns like Gunsmoke and Bonanza ruled the ratings charts, and more and more TV production was being done in Los Angeles, instead of New York. Into that void stepped a number of producers who aimed to figure out just what the medium was capable of achieving. In terms of experimentation, only a few other periods in TV history can match it.
Though Herbert B. Leonard and Stirling Silliphant created the series, Silliphant—who had previously been the guiding force behind the seminal cop drama Naked City and would later win an Oscar for writing In The Heat Of The Night—was the driving force behind Route 66. His scripts were dense and literate, filled with writerly dialogue that would have sounded almost more appropriate coming out of the mouths of characters on a stage, rather than in the series’ on-location milieu. Yet somehow, the heightened emotions of Silliphant’s writing dovetailed nicely with the series’ on-location filming. The combination of beautifully written scripts and naturalistic footage was the sort of thing that could only have happened at that point in TV’s history. It seems unlikely anything like it could get on the air now.
At its heart, Route 66 is basically an anthology drama, only with recurring characters. As such, it has the same flaws all anthology dramas have: The episodes are of variable quality, and a handful of them feel phoned-in every season. The series also seems bound inextricably to the social mores of its time, as in an early episode set on board boats just off the coast of New Orleans, which actually questions whether a woman would be able to serve as a ship’s captain. Even Silliphant’s ’60s liberalism can’t stop some episodes from being cringe-worthy to modern eyes. The show also struggles a bit later in its run, as cast changes (due to illness) led to shifts in the durable formula.
The series is a treasure all the same. It’s always tempting to think that TV drama was all dull variations on the same formulas before The Sopranos came along, but a series like Route 66 belies that. It’s not perfect, of course, but what works works as well as any TV drama series ever has, with the added bonus of dropping viewers into pockets of U.S. subcultures that no longer exist. In some ways, the greatest theme of Route 66 is the idea that two inventions—the car and the television—were doing their level best to take what had been a collection of smaller pieces and make it a whole. Yet here’s a show combining those two inventions into a joyous eulogy.
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