Enormous ratings for ABC's recent 25th anniversary show suggest America has still not Od'd on nostalgia. NBC adds to the population explosion of Golden Oldies Sunday night with "TV: The Fabulous Fifties," at 8 on Channel 4.
The 90-minute program is another step forward in the '70s art of looking backward - a forgivably cursory sample of highlights from early television shows that has been put together with a minimum of flatulent cant but also, alas, no real excess of imagination.
The idea of another "Your Clip Parade" may not sound too thrilling at this point but the show is filled with enough funny, arcane or poignant treasures to make it worthwhile. Things taken for granted or dismissed as trite in their own day can be richly enhanced by the filter of time.
Thus a corny scene like one in which young Jon Provost and the suspicously ageless Lassie run toward each other in a field, finally locking in embrace like B-movie sweethearts, still carries a surprising amount of emotional oomph. Your invisible protective shield of cynical sophistication melts because you are struck not only by the primal calculations of the scene but because you flash back to a day when you were an innocent pushover for just such blatent ruses.
In some cases the material is so timeless that there's no mystery to the fact that it remains affecting. When Mary Martin as Peter Pan teaches three kids to fly, and the smallest alights at the cry of "Christmas," defenses dissolve. This is imperishable perfection: no explanations can make it any more touching than it already is.
Stars tumble by in reckless profusion - there are scenes from the first Red Skelton and Dinah Shore shows, the Roz Russell Conga number from "Wonderful Town." Groucho interrogating Ramiro Gonzales Gonzales. Steve Allen interviewing men on the street who were not on the street at all, plus Caesar and Coca, Burns and Allen, Ozzie and Harriet. Lucky and Rickie, Bing and Satchmo and Astaire and Chase (Barrie, not Chevy).
Some of the footage is familiar, but one genuine oddity is the finale to the pilot of "Bonanza," in which the four original characters - including the late Dan Blocker - sing lyrics to the show's theme song before riding off over a ridge. It is something they were never silly enough to do again.
The program, which features newly taped appearances by Lucille Ball, Mary Martin, Red Skelton and others, was originally scheduled to air a year ago, but CBS News suddenly slotted its own TV retrospective near this one, so it was delayed. Age hasn't withered it exactly, but the custom of looking at old film clips is beginning to stale.
What would be valuable now is a regular spot on public TV in which the good old shows and even some of the bad ones could be seen in their entirety. What is unfortunately more likely is a TV-themed version of Jack Haley Jr.'s "That's Hollywood" series, where the past is recycled into snippets of rumor that only hint at the existence of a greater or goofier truth.