The “Golden Age of Television” is roughly defined as that period from the early 50s to the very early 60s when productions broadcast live captivated millions of viewers. As the existing kinescopes were never rebroadcast their blue-chip reputations were all we knew of them until 1981, when PBS packaged eight of the shows as a series entitled The Golden Age of Television. Almost 30 years later the Criterion Collection has reissued that series as a three-disc set. Prepare to be fascinated.

This is a welcome but somewhat offbeat undertaking for the label, which specializes in film. But this prehistory was prelude—a number of these shows, produced for The United States Steel Hour, The Goodyear Television Playhouse, Playhouse 90, and other landmark series, were the basis for movies that were acclaimed in their own right, and all of the directors went on to have film careers. They pretty much had to: Once tape was introduced, allowing retakes and tweaks, there was no need to go live, and the thrill (and the work) was gone. Today prime-time live broadcasts are a novelty and a gimmick, used to goose ratings or recall that vanished time (George Clooney co-produced and co-starred in a live telecast of Fail-Safe in 2000) but back then this curious, magical combination of theater and TV was a necessity. (One wit called it “summer stock in an iron lung.”)

In the booklet that accompanies the package Ron Simon, the curator of television and radio at the Paley Center for Media, explains that the age was particularly golden for writers, who were vital in producing new material once the networks had strip-mined short stories, books, and plays. Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling were among those who seized the opportunity to take on contemporary, controversial themes, and in so doing pushed the medium toward maturity. Anyone who thinks Mad Men suddenly discovered the angst-ridden underbelly of mid-century America will be surprised by the anxiety, despair, and regret that course through these programs.

Chayefsky is best known for the brilliant bombast of movies like The Hospital (1971) and Network (1976), but I prefer the relative understatement of earlier teleplays like 1953’s Marty, which is first up chronologically in the set. Marty, a homely Bronx butcher mired in bachelorhood, finds love with a fellow “dog” at a ballroom dance, unsettling his mother and his pals, who are accustomed to routine. Thanks to Ernest Borgnine’s Oscar-winning portrayal in the subsequent 1955 feature film, Marty became an iconic character, and his exchanges with his feckless friends about their nowhere plans (“So what do you feel like doing tonight?”) are classics of lassitude. Rod Steiger is no slouch in the part, though, and director Delbert Mann gets fine performances from him and Nancy Marchand, decades before her defining work on Lou Grant and The Sopranos.

Each Golden Age program includes the original PBS introductions, hosted by veterans of the era like Carl Reiner and Jack Klugman and featuring some of the stars and creative personnel. Of mysterious provenance are commentaries by directors Delbert Mann, Ralph Nelson, Daniel Petrie, and John Frankenheimer, which someone thought to record before their deaths. Given the low budgets and corresponding lack of producer pressure, plus the generous rehearsal time, Marty director Mann explains how the chief stress was exerted by the clock, which led to actors having to speed up their performances in the third act as the allotted time ran short. This is noticeable in the one-hour Marty, which was one reason why Mann agreed to direct it as a movie. A wise choice, as he, Chayefsky, and the film itself also won Academy Awards.

The Serling-penned Patterns (1955) is a harrowing critique of corporate ethics, as an up-and-comer in the executive suite (Richard Kiley) is caught between the Scrooge-like business owner (Everett Sloane) and the man he learns he’s set to replace, a loyal time server (Ed Begley) whose time has run out. Terribly insecure about his writing career (not even the later success of The Twilight Zone calmed his fears), Serling poured everything he had into characters like Begley, who face the loss of their livelihoods and, worse, their dignity. (Serling won an Emmy for the show.) Powerfully acted, Patterns was so successful with critics and audiences it was broadcast live a second time a week later, and became a film in 1956, with Van Heflin replacing Kiley. (Future Bewitched star Elizabeth Montgomery, 22 years old but looking like a pudgy-faced high school junior, plays a secretary.)

In the introductory segment Patterns director Fielder Cook explains that the show had to be telecast live a second time, as the kinescope, shot off a TV monitor as a broadcast ensued, was too low-quality to rebroadcast. PBS and Criterion had to make do with what they had, so be prepared for aged, substandard images on each of these programs, with speckles, wavy lines, and everything else associated with the rabbit ears days of TV. The unintentionally ghostly atmosphere does however work for the haunted Patterns.

No Time for Sergeants (1955) is a rare comedy, one so popular it became a Broadway play later that year and in 1958 a movie, all starring Andy Griffith in his breakthrough role as a seeming yokel of an Air Force draftee who fools everyone in his barracks and comes out on top. Period service comedies aren’t my thing but the easy-going Griffith has the live studio audience in the palm of his hand. TV trivia: the Broadway show paired Griffth and Don Knotts for the first time, and a series version scheduled against The Andy Griffith Show in 1964 was shot down by it in the ratings. The program clearly inspired Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. to some degree, with Gomer a real and not a pretend bumpkin.

Mann notes that the “Golden Age” didn’t always yield gold, with plenty of clunkers for every outstanding show. 1955’s A Wind from the South isn’t terrible, but I imagine it’s fairly typical, a pleasant but undistinguished slice of romantic blarney with Julie Harris, in her East of Eden heyday, as an Irish innkeeper who falls for a married tourist (Donald Woods). Look for Roy Scheider in a dance-on in a dance hall scene; off camera, future talk show host Merv Griffin sings “A Soft Day,” a popular song from Griffin’s Quiet Man tribute album, which inspired James Costigan to write the piece. (He and Wind director Daniel Petrie won Emmys for the 1976 TV film Eleanor and Franklin.)

Paul Newman leaps off the small screen in 1956’s Bang the Drum Slowly. He’s so avid as a fast-talking baseball pitcher helping a drawling, Georgia-bred catcher (Albert Salmi) through a terminal illness during a winning season it’s hard to believe he was dismissed as a Brando clone back then. Then again, maybe he was too eager to please—ending on his final, gripping monologue, the show ran overtime, and the closing credits sequence went unaired.

In a commentary track director Petrie (who worked with Newman on 1981’s controversial Fort Apache the Bronx, well after the doubts had been silenced) remarks on how the blacklist tarnished the “golden age,” forcing him not to use certain friends with uncertain political beliefs. He also talks about how giving Newman expository narration helped telescope Mark Harris’ acclaimed book into the hour-long format. The 1973 film version, with Michael Moriarty and Robert De Niro, had the luxury of time, and the freedom to show actual baseball games, but doesn’t pack quite the same punch.

And speaking of punch…just a couple of weeks after Bang the Drum Slowly aired Serling’s Requiem for a Heavyweight, the first 90-minute live drama, was broadcast. It performed like a champ, winning six Emmys (including teleplay, best director for Ralph Nelson, and best actor for Jack Palance) and earning Serling the first-ever Peabody Award. Here again the writer (who considered it his finest achievement) empathizes with the little man, in this case the big boxer “Mountain” McClintock (Palance), a punch-drunk fighter whose selfish manager (Keenan Wynn) wants him to lower his standards and switch to the snakepit of wrestling. Though the morality of pro boxing vs. pro wrestling is debatable Serling and Nelson came out swinging in their first collaboration, and a hewn-from-granite Palance gives a titanic, pathos-rich performance. (Anthony Quinn stepped into the ring for Palance in Nelson’s 1962 film, which has a harsher ending—and Sean Connery played Mountain in a BBC version of the teleplay.)

As a gimmick, Wynn’s father, Ed Wynn, was cast as Mountain’s cut man in the program. But the comedian’s terrible performance in rehearsals was no laughing matter for Nelson, who in 1960 wrote and directed his own teleplay about the experience, The Man in the Funny Suit. That both Wynns and Serling played themselves in that show indicates that the story had a happy ending, with Ed Wynn rallying to perform beautifully as the cameras rolled.

John Frankenheimer, who had the hardest-driving film career of his peers, directed the final two programs in the set, 1957’s The Comedian and 1958’s Days of Wine and Roses. The Comedian pushes live television to the brink, with Mickey Rooney (whom the director calls “the finest actor I ever worked with”) as a thuggish TV comic and Edmond O’Brien as his self-hating head writer, who is reduced to plagiarism to please his tyrannical boss—as you might have guessed, Serling wrote it, and he was never so lacerating about his profession. For biting the hand that fed him, he and the teleplay won Emmys, with the star and director earning nominations.

Watching Rooney and O’Brien sweat and slug it out is a matter of taste. The real star turn is Frankenheimer’s, as he breaks the fourth wall by casting the crew as themselves and filming scripted versions of their behind-the-scenes activities, uses more complicated sets than usual for live TV, and interjects intricate dissolves, montages, and rear projection. The director says he lost 12-15 lbs. each time he mounted a live TV show, and The Comedian is a stunning tour-de-force, radically different in style from the other programs. The punchline? The show ran just a few seconds over, chopping off his credit.

I’m fond of Blake Edwards’ 1962 film of Days of Wine and Roses, which starred Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick. The teleplay lacks Johnny Mercer’s Oscar-winning theme song but Frankenheimer’s taut direction of JP Miller’s script and stars Cliff Robertson (another actor who only caught fire during he actual performance) and Piper Laurie more than compensate. Served straight up, the story of a young couple whose lives collapse into alcoholism is wrenching, and Laurie’s performance, with its intimations of child abuse and incestuous desire, goes the limit. Her drunken abandon reminded me of her mother in Carrie, when the mask of piety dissolves.

Frankenheimer’s distinguished film credits included The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, and Ronin, but he insists in his Comedian commentary that his heart was in live television, where he developed many of his techniques. The Golden Age of Television lets us revisit this lost frontier.