June 29, 2016

Not seeing the forest for the trees

I mentioned on Saturday that I'd be taking a closer look at one aspect of this week's TV Guide, one that clearly demonstrates how by June of 1968 television had entered something of a twilight zone - one that has nothing to do with science fiction, even though the events might have seemed just as outrageous.

In that TV Guide of June 29, 1968, it had been only a little over three weeks since the death of Robert F. Kennedy (which itself was less that two months after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.), and TV finds itself having to deal with one of its periodic existential crises. However, whereas in the past the issues were juvenile delinquency, rigged game shows, and a vague concern about violence, the RFK assassination has raised the stakes considerably. The programming section in this issue kicks off with a notice that "In the wake of the Kennedy assassination, the networks have been changing series episodes and movies in order to avoid running particularly violent material. We regret any inconvenience these last-minute changes have caused."

Obviously the networks are concerned about being sensitive to the convulsions gripping America, but at the same time one can't help but think some of this is lip service. After all, the cancelled episodes and TV movies will likely show up some time during the season; it's not as if the suits are going to throw away their money by throwing away all that film. The Doan Report gives a rundown of the various shows that were pulled:

ABC shelved a Big Valley story for good - it dealt with the assassination of a congressman. Reruns of The Avengers, The FBI and Will Sonnett were shuffled; a Man in a Suitcase episode was dumped. Even comedy sequences of The Flying Nun and The Second Hundred Years were found inappropriate. CBS, for its part, not only switched reruns of Cimarron Strip, Gunsmoke and Wild Wild West, but pulled out some movies like "Portrait of a Mobster," "Where the Spies Are" and "Young Dillinger" in favor of such happier items as Judy Garland in "I Could Go On Singing" and Peter Sellers in "World of Henry Orient." CBS's daytime serial Love Is a Many Splendored Thing got orders to postpone for a few days a story line about a young aspirant for the White House. At NBC, the soft-pedal removed episodes of Bonanza, High Chaparral, I Spy, Tarzan, The Champions, and even Mothers-in-Law. On the Saturday night movie, "Girls! Girls! Girls!" turned up in place of "Prescription: Murder." [The pilot for Columbo - MDH] The network insisted all the postponed shows will be aired "ultimately," unaltered. At another network, so many questionable series episodes were being pushed back to August that one underling predicted that month probably will be "the bloodiest in TV history."

(And they didn't even know about how the Democratic Convention in Chicago was going to turn out.)

WPIX in New York broadcast the single word "Shame"
for over two hours Wednesday morning while RFK
underwent surgery.
(WPIX/Corbis Images)
Nor is the concern limited to the programming. As we dip into this week's Letters to the Editor, we read one from Mrs. C.H. Scott of Rio Linda, California, who writes that "I have three little children and I don't want them growing up in a world where, if you don't agree with another human being's views, you just shoot him down. I feel that what is watched on TV does influence our lives, and all three networks do show too much violence, hate and fighting." Then there's Carolyn Shaffer of Tacoma, Washington, who excoriates violent commercials: "Surely manufacturers can find some way to sell their products other than with guns and gangsters. Immediately following a talk by Eric Sevareid against violence, two commercials came on, one with gangsters stealing a car, the other with guns blasting in the background to sell a 'thirst killer.'" Concludes Ms. Shaffer, "Guns and violence are prevalent enough; must we view these portrayals in commercials also?"

Mary Hager of Altoona, Pennsylvania, urges the networks to put programs with such adult themes in late-night hours where children won't see them. "We have to move forward with the times and not try to keep everything as it was in the past. Fairy-tale days are gone." However, counters Mrs. T.L. Carpenter of El Paso, Texas, "in Western time zones these 'adult' movies come on in prime-time for children viewers." What to do, what to do?

The rescheduling of particularly violent or questionable episodes is, as suggested, a temporary reaction to the high-profile murders of the past two months, but merely delaying such an episode for two months is hardly a solution. No, the larger question concerns television's responsibility for fostering a climate of violence, and how its content will change in the future. That's the subject of this week's As We See It editorial, in which Merrill Panitt asks The Suits whether or not all the violence they show on television is really necessary. For example, that episode of The Virginian in which a barn full of horses is set ablaze, and viewers are left listening to the neighing of terrified horses while a gun battle breaks out between an outlaw, a bounty hunter, and others. And then there's Run For Your Life, where "two punks seized an Army payroll, then shot and killed - in close-up - a motorcycle policeman" before being shot and killed by other police in Mexico. As Panitt puts it, "Violence certainly is a basic element of drama. And we know the argument that 'Macbeth' is full of violence too. But that violence is necessary to the plot, not something forced in to titillate the audience."

It's important to keep in mind the editorial viewpoint of TV Guide as you read the final plea to the networks to "reduce, or eliminate, unnecessary violence in entertainment shows." The politics of TV Guide, like those of its publisher Walter Annenberg, are conservative, and decidedly anti-censorship., However, the magazine has never hesitated to urge television networks to reform their programs, whether the topic is violence (as it is here), children's programming, or the quality of its drama offerings. There's a belief in the importance of these issues, but there's more to it as well. TV Guide has always been mindful that if the industry fails to police itself, that inertia will eventually constitute an open invitation for the government to step in and do the policing. The line about "Macbeth" may well be a concession that TV cannot and should not get rid of all violence, but it's also a warning to the industry that in order to preserve its freedom, it had best engage in some self-censorship before the Feds come in and do a much more extensive job. Watch yourself, it suggests, while you can.

Just as the movie industry has encountered such controversy over content, so does radio and television, and eventually record albums, comic books and video games. The violent content in the shows mentioned here, in comparison to what we see today on cable TV (and even most network programs) is almost laughable. Even when one looks at them in the context of the times, it's hard to imagine this kind of controversy. Perhaps I'm wrong about this, but with the mass shootings that have taken place in the last few years, has there been any significant discussion about the violence in Breaking Bad, Boardwark Empire or The Walking Dead (to cite just three contemporary series) leading to a social breakdown? Indeed, we hear a lot of discussion about how TV content doesn't influence behavior (I'm sure the people who buy commercial time would be dismayed to hear that), when one would have to think that at the very least such an onslaught of violence, on television and movies and video games, would at least have to desensitize viewers to its effects. Maybe you can blame a YouTube video for violence in Benghazi, but has anyone linked The Sopranos to the wild west shootout going on every weekend in Chicago? If there has been such angst, it certainly hasn't been to the extent that the topic was raised in 1968.

However, there's something else we can observe here, something that is in the long run more important. Let's draw a line from 1963 onward and see if we can find any consistent threads emerging by looking at three particular events:
  • In 1963, John F. Kennedy is murdered by a Communist sympathizer, Lee Harvey Oswald. The angst is over the availability of guns and a climate of hatred created by right-wingers.
  • In 1968, Robert F. Kennedy is murdered by an anti-Israel Arab sympathizer, Sirhan Sirhan. The angst is over the availability of guns and the content of television programs.
  • In 2016, 49 people are murdered in a nightclub in Orlando by an ISIS sympathizer. The angst is over the availability of guns and an attack against homosexuals.

What do these three events have in common? I think you could make a plausible case that each one of these acts was political in nature, that the ideological motive of the attacker in each case was readily apparent, and that there was a widespread inability on the part of the media and many in the public to confront that motive, preferring instead to focus on a broader (and more convenient) cultural indictment. This isn't to say that every major act of violence between then and now falls into this category; I'm not trying to suggest that at all. What I am saying is that in many respects, there isn't that much of a difference between 1963 and 2016. Just as conspiracies abounded in the wake of JFK's death, just as conspiracies abounded in the aftermath of 9/11, we seem determined to embark on a Quixotic quest to find a motive bigger and more "important" than the one that's staring us right in the face as the result of a simple reading of the situation. My point is that if you want to argue with me about Oswald being the lone gunman, about Sirhan being a patsy, or the Orlando gunman being motivated by something other than ISIS-inspired hatred of American culture, this is not the place to do it.

But if - and I mean if - Sirhan was indeed the assassin of Robert F. Kennedy, it probably wasn't because of a gunfight on The Virginian; I doubt that a shootout on Run For Your Life was what pushed him over the edge, what made him get up on the morning of June 4, 1968 and say to himself, "If Kennedy wins tonight, I will go to his hotel and kill him." The motive - Kennedy's support for Israel - already existed; the hate was already there. You can blame television for a lot, but not for that.

Reading the TV Guide of June 29, 1968 gives us a feeling not that dissimilar to what one gets when looking through the internet today. It doesn't even matter what the truth is, or what one believes the truth is - only that if you want to look at how people are going to react to events today, you can get a pretty good idea by looking at how people reacted to them back then. And that's a big part of what this blog is all about - how looking at television and what was written about it can serve as a jumping-off point for a study of the larger issues involved. You can't deny that such is the case here.

I don't think I'll pursue this any further here, but a deeper analysis would make a dandy chapter in my future book on TV. However, I say it time and time again, and it never proves wrong - the more things change, the more they stay the same.

June 27, 2016

What's on TV? Tuesday, July 2, 1968

As I mentioned on Saturday, we're back on familiar turf this week - Minneapolis-St. Paul in the '60s. And while the summer schedule doesn't always give us blockbuster shows, there's always something worth looking at. So let's get to it!

June 25, 2016

This week in TV Guide: June 29, 1968

Well, well, it's homecoming week here at the blog! We're back in the '60s, and back in the Twin Cities. Not that I haven't enjoyed our recent excursion through DFW in the late '50s, but every once in a while it's kind of nice to visit a place you're familiar with. Think of it like returning to a favorite vacation spot - you know your way around town a bit, you remember some favorite restaurants and places you've been to before, you look up friends you made the last time, and yet you know there are still more places to explore, more discoveries to be made, more fun to be had.

◊ ◊ ◊

There's a very interesting story present in this week's issue, dealing with the aftermath of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. It's not an article, but a collage comprised of editorials, letters to the editor, programming schedules, and a note to the readers that tells you what you're not seeing. All of these disparate pieces form a tableau that tells a story about how we disseminate the news, not just then but all the way to our present day.

I started writing about it here, but quickly realized it was big enough for its own piece - and even that won't be large enough to dig deeply enough into the topic; ultimately, it should make up a chapter in the TV book I'm hoping to publish in the next couple of years. Sorry to do this to you, but you'll have to wait for Wednesday's feature to find out what I'm talking about.

◊ ◊ ◊

During the 60s, the Ed Sullivan Show and The Hollywood Palace were the premiere variety shows on television. Whenever they appear in TV Guide together, we'll match them up and see who has the best lineup..

Sullivan: Singers Jimmy Dean,and Nancy Sinatra, Diana Ross and the Supremes, and Spanky and Our Gang; singer-composer Lee Hazlewood; comedians George Carlin and Lewis and Christy; magician Dominique; and Charlie Cairoll, clown act.

Palace: Host Bing Crosby welcomes Don Ameche, Frances Langford, Louis Nye, singer Barbara McNair, the King Family, comic pianist Yonely and the Pollack Brothers' trained-elephant act.

It's been a while, hasn't it? Both of this week's shows are reruns, meaning we're certain about the lineups; no last-minute substitutions this week. And it's an easy choice, truth be told. Palace has an automatic edge by virtue of Bing Crosby hosting, plus Don Ameche and Frances Langford recreate their roles on the OTR show "The Bickersons," while Louis Nye is on hand as "a Hollywood hippie putting the bite on a staid banker (Bing)."

While Ed offers Jimmy Dean and George Carlin, I'm afraid Diana Ross and Spanky are no favorites of mine, and the rest of the supporting cast falls short. No question; this week The Palace reigns supreme.

◊ ◊ ◊

As far as our other weekly feature is concerned, Cleveland Amory is off for the summer, so we won't be reading any of his reviews for a few months. He'll be back, though - and so will we. In the meantime, there's plenty more to look at, starting with a famous name in sports.

That name is Pelé, and he's not only the most famous soccer player in the world, he's also the highest-paid athlete anywhere, making an exorbitant $400,000 a year. To put that in perspective, the average major league baseball salary in 1968 was a little over $20,600; its highest paid player, Willie Mays, made $125,000.

Pelé has already made his mark in soccer history, playing on two World Cup-winning teams for Brazil, and this Sunday at 2:00 p.m. (CT) on CBS, he takes his Brazilian club team, Santos, to Busch Stadium and an exhibition match against the St. Louis Stars of the North American Soccer League. A crowd of over 20,000, more than double the team's average home attendance, watches the Stars jump out to an early 2-0 lead before Santos storm back for a 3-2 victory with Pelé, naturally, scoring the winning goal.

In 1970 Pelé will become even more well-known in America as he leads Brazil to their record third World Cup, The clip of the exuberant star leaping into the arms of his teammate Jairzinho after scoring the first goal in Brazil's 4-1 victory over Italy (left) was a feature of Wide World of Sports' opening montage for several years afterward.

◊ ◊ ◊

Judith Crist, TV Guide's movie critic, is on hand with some of her famously acerbic reviews this week, so if Pelé wasn't enough to help you get over missing Cleveland Amory, maybe this will help you out. The TL:DR version: the best you can say is most of them are harmless

Take A Girl Named Tamiko. for instance, starring Laurence Harvey, which "proves that all Japanese are kind, courteous and charming, and all Americans are simply stupid when they're not downright nasty." Small consolation that the real heavy, Harvey, "is a Chinese-Russian photographer who plays fast and loose with the ladies of both nations."

Then there's the Yul Brynner/Richard Widmark feature Flight from Ashiya, "one of those almost-perfectly-awful adventure films," in which the ultimate rescue of shipwrecked sailors "becomes an eternity because each of the three Air Rescue Service members heading for the survivors over the China seas takes time to flash-back his life story to us. At least the shipwrecked sailors are spared the details, and only Widmark watchers can win."

Gregory Peck's Captain Newman, M.D. is a "relatively sincere film," in which "corn and cliches are rampant and its major embarrassments are Tony Curtis and Angie Dickinson as Peck's prime aides. Curtis has a hideous dialect but pretty teeth; Miss Dickinson has pretty legs." And The Secret Invasion, a wartime adventure movie directed by Roger Corman (!)*, "boasts some of the loveliest views of Yugoslavia on film, as well as some strictly-from-muscle chases involving messy Nazis and a passel of pretty partisans."

*MST3K, where are you?

The two best bets of the week are It Started in Naples, with Sophia Loren and Clark Gable*, "masters of the comedy craft [who] provide some passable fun," and the third version of The Phantom of the Opera, this time starring Herbert Lom as The Phantom, which features "an unpretty hero, a pretty heroine [Heather Sears], nice old-fashioned scares and some dreadful operatic interludes. It won't beat the heat but it's good for a shudder or two." Oh well, as it says in the Hippocratic Oath, "Primum non nocere" - do no harm.

*The last of Gable's movies to be released while he was alive; the infamous The Misfits is yet to come.

◊ ◊ ◊

Wagner and his TV father, Fred Astaire
This week's cover boy is Robert Wagner, star of the new ABC series It Takes a Thief, which Edith Efron describes as "a rehash of The Saint, Raffles, The Rogues, The Dirty Dozen and Garrison's Gorrillas." Wagner's made the move from movies to television in an attempt to recapture the magic of his youth.*

*Wagner's an old man by now, all of 38.

Wagner's matured over the years; more confident, more sure of his talent, a man who "knows now where he's going and what he wants to do in the business." Some credit his second wife, Marion Marshall, with giving him this new sense of contentment, after the failure of his first marriage to Natalie Wood (they'd give it another go later on). Wagner himself is ready to burst out from the "restrictions" that have kept him from being "free to be myself." Whatever the reason, It Takes a Thief is just what he needs - a success, as will be two later series, Switch and Hart to Hart, and his later appearances in the Austin Powers movies will give his career a boost for yet another generation.

Also in the national section, educator Rosalyn L. Switzen tells parents not to get so uptight about using television as a babysitter; says Switzen, "We are going to have to call an educational spade a shovel and admit that formal education owes much to the informal medium of television," and offers the reassurance that "Once we are able to throw away our out-of-date prejudices about television, and harness that awesome power, we may yet usher in a new era of automatic education through entertainment."

Meanwhile, Jack Lescoulie, the former number-two man on Today, speaks about his firing from the show, the result of a fight with a crew member*, and how he's desperately looking for a way back into the business, whether through acting in movies, working on news programs, or appearing in the legitimate theater. "I'll be back," he promises grimly, but the comeback he hopes for never materializes.

*Unfortunately for Lescoulie, Amazon.com didn't exist then; Jeremy Clarkson can testify to how helpful that is.

◊ ◊ ◊

Finally, although you'll have to wait until Wednesday to find out more about the RFK feature, you can see much the same spirit in this story. Xerox, which in the early '60s sponsored the series of movies supporting the United Nations and earlier this year presented a commercial-free running of the antiwar classic Paths of Glory, is back this week as sponsor of another of the socially conscious programs of which they're so fond. This time it's the CBS documentary "Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed," airing Tuesday night at 9:00 p.m., one of seven "Xerox Special Events" under the umbrella title Of Black America. It's hosted by Bill Cosby and CBS newsman George Foster, and it focuses on how American history, primarily written by whites, ignores most aspects of black history, and the contributions by blacks in science and agriculture. Some of the examples shown will likely induce a head-shake or two; even taking into consideration the hermeneutics of television - the need to view things contextually, rather than through a constant evolution - there's a lot here that is clearly wrong. On the other hand, some of the political commentary may well make your blood boil.

As you know, I'm loathe to dip into partisan politics on this blog. After all, as the name suggests, it's about TV, and it should be a place that's safe for anyone to visit without being too ticked off by the cacophony of caterwauling that takes place in the real world. I bring this up because it's another example of how similar things are today to how they were in 1968.

Yes, it's true that Of Black America can look and sound dated; a similar documentary made today would be different - slicker, quicker, featuring people like Al Sharpton. The content would be similar, though, as would the accusatory tone. Whereas the emphasis in 1968 was on the struggle for equal rights and the sanitizing of American history, set against the backdrop of Martin Luther King's assassination, today we couch the discussion in terms such as "Diversity Training" and "Unearned White Privilege," and create a virtual cottage industry around them. Yesterday's Black Panthers have given way to today's Black Lives Matter. Listening to the rhetoric, one wouldn't be blamed for wondering if anything at all had changed in the intervening 50 years. Whether it has or not, whether today's arguments consist of substance or bluster, motivated by a wish for equality or ideological derangement, probably depends on your political point of view. What can't be doubted is that it's another of the issues that we can't seem to stop debating.

As you'll read (hopefuly) on Wednesday, our reaction to such headlines hasn't changed much over the decades. Yes, in the land of Oprah we've gotten more into sharing our feelings, searching for closure, and all the other new-age buzzwords she's championed, but our unwillingness to deal with the cause of tragedy, to look for other, more politically palatable rationales, remains. You'll see this even more clearly after reading the Wednesday essay, how society struggles to assess the blame for RFK's death while  - in my opinion - an obvious motive stares back, unblinkingly.

As you look at this era on television, consider the issues covered by news programs: race relations, gun control, violence on the streets, unemployment, war. In other words, the very same issues we struggle with today. (And they weren't new in the 1960s, either.) And the questions are asked each and every time: what can we do, how can we do it, do we have the will and determination to do it. We ask them over and over again every few years, almost in willful ignorance of the last time we posed them. Do we, I wonder, ever think why these problems continue, why there is no cure? Might it be that original sin and human nature have rendered them, like the common cold, incurable?

June 24, 2016

Around the dial

This week, Comfort TV takes us back to the days when newspapers were one of the places to be, thanks to the TV show Lou Grant. I was not the biggest fan of this show, but it was grown-up drama without all the soap elements, which is sadly lacking in much of today's TV, and it reminds me of how exciting it must have been back then to work for a paper.

The Horn Section takes a visit to the 1967 Hondo episode "Hondo and the Apache Kid."  I love the sidebar quote "Your lives are meaningless compared to Hondo" - sounds like something you'd say about Chuck Norris or The Stig, doesn't it?

At bare-bones e-zine, the Hitchcock Project looks at an episode I just saw last week (I kid you not!*) - "Mrs. Herman and Mrs. Fenimore."  The moral of the story: don't trust a character played by Mary Astor. Whatever it is you're trying to pull, she's better at it.

Cult TV Blog writes about the Big Finish audio version of the first series Avengers episode "Brought to Book."Ah, such a shame more of those early episodes weren't saved. And yes, the image of Steed as a dirty old man is delightful!

Martin Grams offers us the latest book reviews on a variety of television- and movie-related books. Perhaps one day he'll have my TV book there; of course, there's the little matter of having to write it first...

I've had Roald Dahl on my mind lately, perhaps because the title of his book Fantastic Mr. Fox has come up so often in conjunction with the new Premier League champions. Be that as it may, he's also known for a good many other things, including the TV series Way Out, an episode of which is reviewed at Recap Retro.

Faded Signals reminds us of a blast from the past - Morton Downey, Jr. Seems like just yesterday, doesn't it? It amused me to watch his show for awhile, but all the shouting finally got to me. You know what it reminds me of, though? It's the magic and wonder of cable TV - it was fairly new in Minneapolis-St. Paul when I started watching Downey; we were very late to the cable world in the Twin Cities, so I'm sure most people don't have the same association.

Dean Martin's always been a favorite here, so it's no surprise I'd gravitate toward I Love Dino Martin's piece on Dean's 99th birthday. Ah, they don't make 'em like Deano anymore.

Dunno how old this is, but Ralph Senensky's most recent blog post has to do with his experiences directing an episode of Hart to Hart, and insofar as Robert Wagner is on the cover of tomorrow's TV Guide review, I thought this was well worth reading.

Catching up on this from last week, but TV Obscurities has the television listings for WCBW in New York for the week of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

June 22, 2016

The Rebel: a portrait of America's existential crisis

The Civil War remains, to this day, America's great existential crisis. Beyond the obvious issues surrounding how one defines the humanity of a man, about whether or not I am my brother's keeper, the war continues to asks questions that strike at the very existence of the American nation. Can a country continue to exist half-slave and half-free? Is participation as a member state under the umbrella and protection of a central government voluntary, can a state freely choose to no longer be part of that grouping, or does the federal government have an obligation to hold all the disparate parts of the nation together, as if they are limbs of a single body?

These are all heavy questions, and in case you haven't already figured it out, this is going to be one of those kinds of pieces. If you'd rather take a pass on it, I'll understand - just come back on Friday to check out some more neat stuff. If you hang on, though, I think you'll find this at least a stimulating discussion that goes far deeper than simply a television show.

As I said, there are many questions involved in our premise. The Rebel does not answer these questions; indeed, it only obliquely raises them. But raise them it does, in such a way that it compels serious consideration of those questions, and causes one to look at how a television show, as a product of its own time, engages with such topics.

The Rebel*, which ran on ABC for two seasons from 1959 to 1961, starred Nick Adams as Johnny Yuma, a veteran of the war who'd fought on the Confederate side, and his adventures roaming the West while looking for meaning in his own life. That in itself carries an air of existentialism, not all that different from programs as varied as Route 66 and Then Came Bronson. As much as the series itself, though, it is the show's premise, and Adams' personal involvement in its creation, that pique my interest. Indeed, I freely admit at the outset that I've never even seen an episode of The Rebel. I suppose that makes this essay even more existential, the equivalent of Schrodinger's Cat - if I actually watch the show, does the question still exist? Enough of that, though - let's get down to business.

*Produced by Goodson-Todman, The Rebel was one of their few non-game show programs.

The impetus for this piece is a very fine article written at Television's New Frontier: the 1960s, a though-provoking piece which I can admire even as I disagree with its premise. In the process of reviewing the series, the author Beestguy makes a number of associations between the Civil War and the underlying premise of the program - assertions about the nature of the war, the reasons it was fought, and the principles for which the Confederacy stood - that instantly got me thinking. Depending on how one feels about the whole thing, the answers can tell a lot about what The Rebel means, and how it reflects America's DNA.

Beestguy's theory, and his subsequent commentary, rests upon the premise that the South was a culture of collective thought, that the only reason for the Civil War was slavery, and that the rebels (as we will call them) had a single specific goal, that to preserve what they referred to as the Peculiar Institution – an institution with which by necessity they must be in whole-hearted agreement.

The problem with this theory – and I promise this will eventually connect up to The Rebel – is that it isn’t consistent with the bulk of American history. Any number of revisionist historians will argue, from a number of perspectives, that the true nature of the Civil War, for both North and South, was over economics – the manufacturing of the North vs. the agrarian of the South. At this point in the discussion, that’s neither here nor there; it’s important merely to note that it exists.

Of far more historical precedence is the definition and nature of nationhood, of what it means to belong to both a state and a country. Overlooking this element of the conflict is to ignore how many Southerners, including a fair number of the Founding Fathers, thought of themselves first as residents of their state, i.e. Virginians, and only second as Americans. While we’ve been taught that the necessary elements of the Civil War go all the way back to the founding of the United States, the element that is most often focused on, to the exclusion of the rest, is slavery, when in fact the rights of the state vs. the rights of the nation were at least as important, particularly when it came to the ratification of the Constitution.

Understanding this is why we can understand how Robert E. Lee, perhaps the most brilliant military mind in United States history (at least up to that point), a man wooed by both North and South to govern their armies, came to the agonizing decision to fight for the South. Lee had hoped Virginia would not secede, thought that it would bring bloodshed more than anything else, but stayed loyal to Virginia and resigned his U.S. Army commission to lead the Southern armies. "I could not raise my hand against my home and my family," he says by way of explanation, and his private letters emphasize the agony surrounding his decision, despite his conventional (for the South, for the time) opinion that slaves were, indeed, property.

During the ratification debate, Patrick Henry (“Give me liberty or give me death”) voiced his apprehension over the Constitution, writing that “our rights and privileges are endangered, and the sovereignty of the states will be relinquished” should it pass as presented. “Is this a confederacy,” he asked, “like Holland - an association of a number of independent states, each of which retains its individual sovereignty?” One thing was for sure: “It is not a democracy, wherein the people retain all their rights securely.”

Yes, I know this is a TV website, which is what it will remain, so we’re not going to go too deeply into the history lesson here. My point, and I do have one, is that divided loyalties were a given from the founding of the country, and those divisions could be most clearly seen in the South. Again, it is important to accept this as the backdrop whenever discussing the Civil War as being strictly, or even primarily, about slavery.

Now, this brings us back to The Rebel. For Nick Adams personally, there must have been a great deal of symbolic appeal to casting himself as a veteran of the Confederacy. In real life, Adams was a frustrated Hollywood actor who sought his own series because he was tired of his many supporting roles in movies and "desperately wanted to be a star." This reading extends as we look at the premise of The Rebel. Adams’ Johnny Yuma is a man who has spurned his home town and people of the North and chosen instead to fight for the Confederacy. The reasons are never entirely clear, although there is “a vague reference to his wanting to get away from home during a troublesome time, a suggestion that perhaps he did not get along with his father.”

The Confederacy, in this sense, becomes a true metaphor for the man who finds that he doesn't belong, whether it be Adams the actor or Yuma the character. It positions him as the ultimate outsider; not only has he betrayed his native North to fight for the South (ostensibly for a cause that was not his), it also means he continues as an outsider to this day, a member of the vanquished rebellion living as part of a conquered people.  And for a show in which the main character lacks a permanent home, wandering from place to place and encountering new characters and situations in each episode (much like, say, The Fugitive), this is a perfect setup – the man who wanders, knowing all the while that no matter how long he remains in one place he will never truly "belong," he will never have a real home.

Beestguy refers to the “sense of misplaced southern martyrdom” present in The Rebel. One might be able to make this case more strongly had it been clearly established that slavery was an integral part of Yuma’s decision, but by his own admission the author can’t demonstrate that. We’re left, therefore, with the hypothesis that it was Yuma’s existential struggle, reflecting Adams’ own struggle in Hollywood, that becomes his motivation, with slavery either an afterthought or something that doesn’t even enter the equation. Preposterous? Perhaps, unless you don’t take the time to put everything in context, to realize the many dynamics in play at the start of the Civil War – dynamics that, as we’ve seen, extend to the very beginning of American history.

One of the problems we have today, a problem I’ve pointed out many times in this forum, is our determination to apply the morals and values of today to events from yesterday, without consideration of situational context - the hermeneutics of television, if you will. A case in point is Beestguy’s comment that “besides portraying the defeated South as somehow deserving of pity, the series whitewashes their role in fighting for slavery.” Here we see another example of painting with a broad brush. Not only is there no reason to attribute the same motives to all Southerners, to all who fought for the Confederacy, we can see that it’s historically inaccurate. Certainly there were cases where politicians and other public leaders used the issue of states’ rights as a cover for their support of slavery.* But remember who we’re talking about – politicians! Obfuscation is a prerequisite for the position. I think we can find just as many instances where the issue of states’ rights spoke honestly to the fears of Southerners – people like Patrick Henry, who knew that the usurpation by the federal government of the individual rights of a state was a slippery slope. Indeed, it’s an issue that we see constantly in today’s politics.

*I think you also have to create a distinction between slavery and racism. It depends on your definition of racism: whether you attribute it to a belief in a fundamental difference between the two races, whether you extend that to belief in a native superiority of whites over blacks, or if you have an innate fear – a phobia, we would call it today – of other races. The existence of humane slaveowners may or may not be a myth, but to the extent that we associate ownership of slaves with brutality, exploitation, and abuse, and then link this to the all-encompassing issue of “racism,” we cannot say that all slaveowners were racists, any more than we could assert that all racists are slaveowners. The existence of racists in the North, people who supported the Union against the Confederacy but opposed Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, should alone be proof of that.  

As his discussion of the series winds down, Beestguy concludes with what I truly consider a questionable statement. Referring to the episode “The Hope Chest,” he cites the “inexplicable” line Yuma utters in response to an old man’s offer of $200 if Yuma will marry his daughter. Declining the offer, Yuma remarks, "I just don't think anybody has the right to sell a human life." This line, says Beestguy, is “Spoken like a page from the Confederate apologist's playbook: the Civil War was not fought over the issue of slavery. Denial couldn't be painted in any starker terms.”

Perhaps I’m guilty of denial then, in full or in part. Once again, there is no evidence that slavery was the only cause of the Civil War. There is no evidence that Yuma was a slavery sympathizer. If anything, there is more evidence to suggest that Yuma had other, more personal, reasons for joining the Confederacy. If that’s the case, then why would he see any irony in what he says? Is there ever a moment in the series when Yuma asserts the justness of slavery, or supports the South’s right to own slaves? I don’t think so. We have to get away from the idea that when it comes to the Civil War, racism and slavery are all-consuming. Not only is that not the case, it becomes a somewhat self-centered way of thinking, the historical equivalent of the “it’s all about me” school of thought. History is a subtle mistress, and woe be to those who fail, willingly or unwillingly, to see her intricacies.

The fact that The Rebel doesn't deal with some of these questions - or, in fact, with any of them - doesn't mean the questions don't exist. It means that they are superfluous to the motivations of the characters, at least as they're projected on screen. It also means, in all likelihood, the network, the producers, or both, could have been well aware that the nation's viewers weren't ready to confront them within the framework of a half-hour drama. This isn't The Defenders, after all.* As a matter of fact, I think this is a point that probably deserves far more attention than I'm giving it, but in the end it comes back to context, whether that means when the series occurred, or when it was aired.

*In fact, even The Defenders wasn't The Defenders yet; it didn't come on the air until 1961, the year The Rebel went off.

Maybe I have come to understand this more clearly since I’ve moved to Texas. I’ve seen many of the values which I once associated with America either disappear or become a point of contentiousness. I’ve seen the federal government become more omnipresent in the lives of Americans, and at the same time more distant in terms of the average citizen’s ability to interact with it. Over the years, I’ve come to think as many Texans do, that I’m a Texan first, an American second. That doesn’t mean I’m not an American, but my state has pride of place. Does this mean I’d take up arms against the United States? In the abstract, I don’t think that’s a question that needs to be answered. But it does mean that your birthright, your family, your people – they all remain powerful motivators of human behavior, both now and then. To make such an association between slavery and the Civil War, to use it as a motivation of the character and the actor, to pick away at the contradictions with modern sensibilities rather than those of the time – well, it’s all a misreading at best, facile at worst.

I hope that you, dear readers, understand me well enough by now to appreciate that I am neither a racist nor a sympathizer of slavery. I trust that I don’t have to prove this to you, but I will mention again that, logically speaking, A does not yield B, except in arrogance.  All living people are human beings, born of the same dignity, the same worth, with the same rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Period, end of statement. If slavery is America’s original sin, then the Civil War is her existential struggle for understanding, for what it means to be a collection of quasi-sovereign states existing within a central government.  We should not be surprised that this struggle can come to light through a television series, for even though the examples can seem few and far between, there is enough evidence of it that we do television a disservice to think it capable of nothing other than a simplistic worldview. If we write about classic TV, we should give it more credit than that.

June 20, 2016

What's on TV? Wednesday, June 24, 1959

For this week, I thought we'd take a look at Wednesday's listings. (We're in Dallas-Fort Worth, by the way.) We haven't done a Wednesday lately, and unless there's something outstanding that causes me to choose a particular day, I like to change them up, provide a bit of variety, especially if we've been travelling in the same year or two.

This week we've advanced a bit in the late '50s - we're up to 1959, and although we may not see it here, I think we're entering an era where television starts to get a little more sophisticated, the technical aspects a tad more sophisticated. Not when we compare it to the '70s, of course, or even the late '60s, but progress is being made nonetheless. Let's see what kind of shows stand out.