"Sons and Daughters"
Originally Published October 24th, 2004
Premiering in the fall of 1974 on CBS, this dramatic series was set in the 1950s and followed a pair of high school students as they tried to deal with life and love. Only nine episodes were broadcast before the series was cancelled due to low ratings -- surprisingly several episodes were later edited into late-night cable telefilms. Gary Frank and Glynnis O'Connor starred.
On Friday, March 22nd, 1974 at 9PM, CBS aired a Friday Night Movie entitled Senior Year. The ninety-minute telefilm introduced viewers to Jeff Reed and Anita Cramer, played by Gary Frank and Glynnis O'Connor, two high school sweethearts whose romance is challenged after both face family crises. The two attended fictional Westwood high in Stockton, California. The telefilm was set in 1956.
Jeff's perfect family is torn apart when his father dies abruptly, forcing him to take on more responsibility as his mother tries to deal with her loss and propelling him into the role of father figure for his younger brother. Meanwhile, Anita learns that her mother has been seeing another man and her parents are splitting up. The two are hurt, unsure of the future, and perfect for one another.
As was common at the time, telefilm was a pilot for a potential series to premiere in the fall of 1974 . One critic instantly noted the similarities between Senior Year and ABC's new hit sitcom, Happy Days, which had debuted in January of 1974 and became an instant hit . When CBS announced its fall schedule on April 19th, an hour-long drama entitled Senior Year was scheduled for Wednesday evening . Like many new shows, on all the networks, Senior Year was part of a trend away from violent programming, towards family-friendly fare like The Waltons and Happy Days.
The pilot telefilm was rebroadcast on Thursday, August 22nd, 1974, followed by the pilot telefilm for another new CBS show, The Manhunter . Prior to its debut, Senior Year was retitled Sons and Daughters. It would retain all the stars from the telefilm and pick up right where Senior Year left off (although the name of the high school was changed to Southwest High).
Sons and Daughters was scheduled for the Wednesday 8-9PM timeslot opposite Little House on the Prairie on CBS and That's My Mama on ABC (plus the first half-hour of ABC's Wednesday Movie of the Week. All three shows were new fall entries, and all debuted on Wednesday, September 11th, setting the stage for a three-way battle for viewers intrigued by fresh programming. Little House on the Prairie won that battle, ranking 9th for premiere week, while Sons and Daughters and That's My Mama finished outside the top twenty .
As the series got underway, Jeff and Anita were still seniors at Southwest High, each with their own circle of close friends. Jeff's buddies included Stash, Moose and Charlie (played by Scott Colomby, Barry Livingston and Lionel Johnston, respectively). Anita's best gal pals were Evie and Mary Anne (Debralee Scott and Laura Siegel).
Also featured in the series were Anita's separated parents, Walter and Ruth (John S. Ragin and Jan Shutan), and Jeff's mother, Lucille (Jay W. MacIntosh), plus his younger brother Danny (Michael Morgan). Rounding out the cast was Cody (Christopher S. Nelson), a brainy underclassman who buddied around with the older students, hoping to use their influence to help him in his quest for the senior class presidency - once he got to that grade.
In the premiere episode, Jeff purchases a pricey locket to show his love for Anita, but she rejects the gift and Jeff. As if that wasn't enough drama, it turns out Danny (Jeff's brother) stole the locket after losing Jeff's money. In the next episode, Anita and Frank are spotted outside a motel and the rumors fly at school.
By early October it was apparent that Sons and Daughters was underperforming. CBS insisted that the show wasn't facing cancellation, but word in the industry was that the death blow could come within weeks. And come it did, in mid-October when it was announced that a new variety show, Tony Orlando and Dawn, would replace Sons and Daughters starting December 4th . All that was left was to burn off remaining episodes of Sons and Daughters.
All told, a total of nine episodes were broadcast. In the October 23rd episode, an ex-girlfriend (Linda Purl as Julie) turns to Jeff for help when an older man impregnated her. Unable to talk to her parents and with the father skipping town, the only person she had left to go to was Jeff, which understandably upset Anita. Always trying to do the right thing, Jeff was ready to marry Julie to keep her parents from forcing her to have an abortion.
The final episode aired on November 6th and dealt with Jeff and Anita considering premarital sex. The episode left the series without any closure. In the month or so between the show's cancellation and the premiere of Tony Orlando and Dawn, its timeslot was filled with specials, including one featuring The Osmonds.
Both the programs Sons and Daughters competed against were renewed for the 1975-1976 season. ABC's That's My Mama would never become a huge hit and was canceled midway through its second season. As for NBC's Little House on the Prairie, it ranked an impressive 13th for the 1974-1975 season and would stay on the air for a total of nine seasons, finally ending in March of 1983.
Although Sons and Daughters failed, many of its actors and actresses later went on to modest fame in television. Gary Frank would co-star on Family as Willie Lawrence for several seasons and Glynnis O'Connor played Bobbie Lee opposite Robby Benson's Billy Joe McAllister in the made-for-TV movie Ode To Billy Joe, based on the popular Bobbie Gentry song.
Linda Purl, who had guest-starred in one episode, later played Fonzie's girlfriend on Happy Days. And Debralee Scott had a recurring role on Welcome Back, Kotter as Rosalie "Hotsy" Totsy. Additionally, four episodes of Sons and Daughters were later edited into a pair of made-for-TV movies entitled Love is Not Forever and Young Lovers and typically resigned to early morning timeslots.
Sons and Daughters never connected with the viewing public the way the lighter, more amusing Happy Days had. In addition to its continuing storylines and soap opera qualities, Sons and Daughters also dealt with more controversial content than Happy Days. The storylines were sincere and the series pulled no punches, tackling all the hurdles teenagers in the 1950s faced -- many of the same hurdles teenagers in the 1970s were facing.
Executive producer David Levinson had high hopes for the show, stating in the fall preview that he thought the series would reflect the values of the time (meaning the 1970s) by concentrating on the characters in the series. And reflect Sons and Daughters did, perhaps a bit too well. The series included episodes that dealt with abortion, teen pregnancy, premarital sex, adultery, and an exceptional scene between Anita and her mother discussing birth control. The controversial nature of the series was problematic.
One critic, in describing the content of Sons and Daughters, suggested its focus was on "the comitragedy of the sexual mores with which teen-agers of the '50s were saddled" . Levinson realized that the CBS Standards and Practices Departments (the network censors) would only allow so much talk of sex, but nevertheless felt it was a necessary area to explore .
For a show such as Sons and Daughters, one that appealed to a select group of viewers to begin with, such controversial content was hardly helpful. Viewers who initially expressed interest in the series may have been turned off by its sincere look at teenage life. Although Happy Days touched upon social issues throughout its run, it did so in an amusing and careful manner (recall the "controversy" regarding Fonzie's leather jacket).
Finally, its timeslot didn't help a bit. NBC's Little House on the Prairie, a family-friendly series that appealed to viewers of all ages, simply crushed Sons and Daughters in the ratings.Works Cited:
1 Brown, Les. "Say, Why Don't We Do a Series About..." New York Times. 24 Mar. 1974: 137.
2 Stein, Benhamin. "When Growing Up Was Not Absurd." Wall Street Journal. 26 Mar. 1974: 17.
3 Brown, Les. "TV Programming for Fall Cuts Down on Violence." New York Times. 20 Apr. 1974: 65.
4 "Television." New York Times. 22 Aug. 1974: 67.
5 Cyclops. "'Tis the Season to be Cutesy, Fa, la, la, la, and So Forth." New York Times. 29 Sep. 1974: 133.
6 Brown, Les. "Variety Shows to Make Winter Comeback on TV." New York Times. 12 Oct. 1974: 64.
7 Shull, Richard K. "Sons and Daughters Part of the Nostalgia Bag." Hartford Courant. 27 Oct. 1974: 29P.