September 13, 2014

This week in TV Guide: September 12, 1964

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There's a good reason why they're called the "Dog Days of  Summer."  From the Latin diēs caniculārēs, the term originated with the Romans' belief that the star Sirius - the "Dog Star" was, because it rose at the same time as the sun - was responsible for sultry weather, and must be appeased.  It's commonly thought that the Dog Days end in late August, but in TV terms, the ending comes with the beginning of the new season.

In this week's issue, ABC kicks off its new season, and even though the official Fall Preview isn't for another week, that's close enough for me.  I've made no secret that the summer months can be slow; many shows are reruns, and the remainder of the schedule tends to be filled out with anthology collections of failed pilots, and summer replacement series that rarely catch fire.  But this issue is chock full of irony and newness and the return of old friends and all the other things that make television so much fun.

***

Let's start with the new, and a look at the new TV sets for 1965.  A couple of weeks ago, you may remember that I had a bit about the new "smart" televisions for 1981.  That generated something of a "Meh," seeing as how virtually everything discussed in the article had come to pass, and in fact is pretty much of a given today.  There was, in other words, no "a-ha" moment, when you could literally see the future coming to life before your eyes.  Such is not the case this week.

The premise of Henry Harding's article is what you can expect in the television set of 1984, and he warns us ahead of time that the prophecies "may amaze" us.  For one thing, he speaks of a television set that is virtually invisible - mounted on the wall, measuring about four-by-three feet, and with a thickness of about two inches.  There are no cords; they're hidden in an outlet behind the set.  You don't really notice the set, either - when it's not on, it assumes the guise of a Picasso  painting, something of a screen saver that shows when the set's not being used for anything else.

ALL: HADLEY TV GUIDE COLLECTION
This set is the centerpiece of a "Home Communications Center," perhaps smaller than the average 1964 console set, which sits by your chair or sofa.  From this center you can control your television (via 25 or so push buttons representing each channel," plus you have the ability to record and playback programs on a video recorder via a small tape cartridge.  You can make your own recordings, using a miniature battery-operated camera that allows immediate playback, rather than waiting for the film to be developed.

And that's not all - you can get your newspaper, or anything else, faxed to you through the center.  You can watch video books brought home from school or the library.  You can watch video from security cameras placed in various locations around the house.  You can make video phone calls that will show on your television.  You can make use of the TV shopping service that allows you to purchase everything from clothes to groceries - just push a few buttons, and your computer will do the rest.

And as far as the "television" programming you'll see - it's all in living color, Some of the broadcasts are international, being beamed to your set via satellite, and an automatic translator will convert to English any broadcasts that are being presented in another language.  There will be educational channels, local access broadcasts - pretty much anything you can imagine.  You're not limited to seeing them on your big screen, either; a portable unit, covering "one entire flat surface of the brief-case," will operate via battery or solar power, and, weighing less than four pounds, will provide "clear, bright color pictures."

Now, to be fair, it might have been premature to expect all of this by 1984.  But, frankly, just about everything else in this article has come to pass in one form or another.  Flat-screen television?  Check, down to size and width.  Cordless?  Check.  (Just ask Dish.)  Videophone?  Try Skype. VCR?  Already come and gone, replaced by DVDs and DVRs.  The brief-case sized TV is today's mobile device.  The automatic translator is called SAP, and while .  The newspaper may not be faxed to you every day, but you read it (or anything else) online,   And don't even get started with home shopping networks.

Harding predicted that people would even be able to do their own repairs on their units, rather than calling a technician.  I'm not so sure about that - most tech help desks are still doing good business, and many times it's more economical to replace than repair.  But otherwise, I think this article presents a remarkably accurate portrait of today's technology - sometimes off a bit on the detail, perhaps, but spot on as to the end result.  Reading this today, and gradually developing a sense of amazement as one recognizes these predictions coming to live in various gadgets, is little less than astounding, at least for one who was alive during this time, and saw all these things come to fruition.  One can only imagine how outlandish they might have seemed in context, presented to one reading about it in 1964.

A last note here - Harding asks for your forbearance at the end, reminding us that "If this vision of the future home communication center seems far-out to you," remember that the whole idea of "electronic home television" was absurd to many when it was first presented in 1926 - only twenty years before the first household set was produced.

***

And now for something ironic.

You'll note that on the cover we have David Janssen and Barry Morse, stars of ABC's hit series The Fugitive, about to enter its second season.  Even with just one year under its belt, the concept must already have taken hold, as you can see in this first-run episode of CBS' The Defenders on Saturday night.

The premise:  "When the train taking him to the Sing Sing death house is derailed, condemned murderer Bernie Jackman kills a guard and escapes."  OK, as far as it goes.  This could be a parody (yes, even a show as serious and earnest as The Defenders did do comedy once a year), or it could be a Law & Order-type "ripped from today's headlines" episode, even if those headlines were generated by an opposing network's show.  And then we get to the twist - the second half of the episode's description:  "What Jackman doesn't know is that he had just been cleared of the previous murder."

Ironic, yes - the storyline, told in isolation, is the stuff of Greek tragedy.  But brilliant also, taken in the context of coexistence with a program built on a very similar storyline.  Larry Cohen's script turns The Fugitive on its ear; imagine Kimble killing Gerard after the derailment, while back in Stafford, Indiana Gerard's superior has just picked up the one-armed man.  This is no mistake, believe me.  I'm quite sure Cohen knew quite well that he was lampooning the premise of The Fugitive, while at the same time giving us a vicious turn of events.  I've always admired that "what-if" mentality of taking an established idea and spinning it around until it goes in a different direction.  I do it a lot myself.  And while I don't know how successful this episode ultimately was (I'm assuming that the Prestons must have been defending Jackman, for example), I can imagine I might have enjoyed the episode immensely.  Perhaps some of you out there (Mike Doran, for instance) can shed some light on how it was received.

***

All of ABC's ads employed one-word tags
There's no "Sullivan vs. The Palace" this week, although The Hollywood Palace is entering its ninth month on ABC, as Palace is preempted this week by the Olympic Trials from Los Angeles.  ABC, however, has something bigger in mind for the stage of the Palace.

It's ABC's Wide World of Entertainment, a gala one-hour special hosted by Bing Crosby, and meant to introduce to us the stars of ABC's new and returning series.  There are songs, clips, and simple walk-ons by the network's biggest stars: Elizabeth Montgomery, promoting her new show Bewitched, Mickey Rooney, star of the new series Mickey, Richard Basehart and David Hedison from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, John Astin, Carolyn Jones and Ted Cassidy from The Addams Family, and more.  Bing himself is plugging his new series The Bing Crosby Show.  You've also got Ernest Borgnine, Jimmy Dean, Gene Barry, Patty Duke and others plugging returning series, some of which have moved to new time slots.

It's interesting, looking at this list.  Just by looking at the names of the guests, you can usually figure out what shows they're associated with (George Burns and Connie Stevens in Wendy and Me, for example, or Inger Stevens plugging The Farmer's Daughter).  And while some of them were real bombs (Valentine's Day with Tony Franciosa, Walter Brennan in The Tycoon), a fair number of them have entered classic TV folklore.  ABC seemed to do particularly well with sci-fi/fantasy, considering Voyage, Bewitched and Addams, as well as Combat!, McHale's Navy, and The Fugitive, among others.  Not all of them were long-running series (Addams ran a scant two seasons), but all of them were recognizable.  That's not bad for a network with a track record as weak as ABC.

***

As I mentioned at the top, there's a lot of "welcome back" about this issue.  Football, for example.  At the ungodly hour of 10:45 CT on Saturday morning, NBC kicks off the new college football season with an interconference clash between UCLA and Pitt, live from Pittsburgh.  UCLA wins, 17-12, but it's a rare bright spot for the Bruins, who end the season with 34-13 thrashing at the hands of USC to finish with a record of 4-6.  Pitt's season isn't much better - the team winds up 3-5-2, including a 28-0 thumping from its hated rivals, Penn State.

The reason for the early start, by the way, is to accommodate 45 minutes of highlights from the men's semifinals at the U.S. National Tennis Championships at Forest Hills, New York.  It's not called the "U.S. Open" yet, because it's not open to professionals - amateurs only.  That cuts down on some of the great players, to be sure - stars such as Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and Pancho Gonzalez are nowhere to be found.  No matter; a couple of players who went on to some degree of success, Roy Emerson and Fred Stolle, meet in the final on Sunday, with the top-seeded Emerson taking the title.

Sunday marks the kickoff of the pro football season.  There's only one game on television, the Kansas City Chiefs taking on the Bills in Buffalo in ABC's AFL game.  That suggests to me that the Minnesota Vikings must have been playing at home, triggering a blackout of all NFL games in the area - let me check, yes, I'm right: the Vikings beat the Baltimore Colts 34-24, en route to a very successful 8-5-1 season.  (The Colts, on the other hand, would lose to the Cleveland Browns for the NFL championship; after that loss to the Vikings they would not drop another game until the next-to-last game of the season in Detroit.)  As for the Bills and Chiefs, 34-17, on their way to winning their first of two consecutive championships.  This is, by the way, the last year for the AFL on ABC - next season they'll move over to NBC, as the bidding war between the two leagues escalates.

There's still baseball, in the waning days of the season.  The Twins are on Channel 11 with two games over the weekend with the Yankees (preempting the Saturday national Game of the Week), and later tilts against the Orioles and Red Sox.  And, if you thought two football games on the weekend wasn't enough, there's bonus coverage on Wednesday: the Edmonton Eskimos and Toronto Argonauts in CFL action taped Sunday, the first of eleven weekly telecasts.  I'm pretty sure that's what I would have watched - Canadian football held a strange attraction for me as a boy, one that's lasted to this day.

***

Last week we had the Miss America pageant, and guess what - it's back this week!  Actually, owing to the vagaries of the calendar, it's just a week later than it was in 1979, and it's on a different network - CBS instead of NBC - but much else is the same.  The pageant is still in Atlantic City, New Jersey, with a start time of 9 pm CT; Bert Parks is still the host (his tenth of twenty-five years in the role), and the lovely Bess Myerson, Miss America of 1945, is the television hostess.  Parks is quoted in the Close-Up as saying ,"This year I hope to win!"* but in actuality the winner is Miss Arizona, Vonda Kay Van Dyke, who went on to a career as an author and singer.

*I don't remember the commercial now, but late in Parks' career as Miss America host, he did a bit where his line was, "Miss Americas may come and Miss Americas may go, but I'll go on forever," concluding with a somewhat uncertain expression, as if he were knocking on wood.  It was a few years later that he was sacked, replaced with Ron Ely.  Remember him?

***

Some scattered notes from the rest of the week, as I think I've been running on a little long here:

Laugh - and that's an order!
On Wednesday night, it's the 13th season opener for ABC's Ozzie and Harriet, and the debut on the same network of the rock music show Shindig, with Sam Cooke, the Everly Brothers, Donna Loren, the Wellingtons, Bobby Sherman, the Blossoms, comic Alan Sues, Jackie and Gayle, and the Righteous Brothers.  All in a half-hour.  Over on CBS, Harry Reasoner narrates a special entitled "Politics is a Funny Business," concentrating on the role of humor in American political life.  And you thought Ozzie was outdated?

Speaking of Ozzie, it's hard to believe that The Donna Reed Show is still on the air, but it makes its season premiere the following night.  It's even more interesting when one considers that later on Thursday night, ABC airs the second of the two-night debut of Peyton Place.  But it's only the seventh season for the show, which will run for one more season after this before leaving the airwaves.  Why does it seem as if it were on for so much longer?  Perhaps because shows like Donna Reed and Ozzie and Harriet (which also went off the air in 1966, after 15 seasons) are thought of as presenting a simpler, idealized America, one that's been ridiculed so much over the years.  Perhaps they were already something of an anachronism in 1964, but by the time they leave for good in 1966, they're coexisting with free love and Vietnam, which make them really stick out.

And on Friday, ABC premieres Jonny Quest and The Addams Family, while CBS airs Route 66 for the last time.  Route 66 was one of the few (for the time) shows to offer something of a final episode, as Tod (Martin Milner) finally settles down with a girl, leaving Linc (Glenn Corbett) to roam the country solo.  Interestingly enough, though, this final airing is from one of the show's first three seasons, with Tod's sidekick being the far more popular George Maharis as Buzz.

Good issue, don't you think?  It's true - there is something about the fall air that makes everything seem fresh and new, even though as I write this it's 96 and sunny in Dallas.  But then, fall is kind of delayed gratification down here - it'll get here sooner or later.  Hopefully next week's issue will be just as good as this one, but we'll just have to see.


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September 11, 2014

Meditations on September 11

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From Ric Burns' extraordinary documentary New York, here's one of the more extraordinary moments; a reading by Josh Hamilton of the "Moloch" section from Allen Ginsburg's epic poem "Howl."

September 9, 2014

Television with (Golden) Balls

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The brilliance of television, and the tragedy, lies in its uncanny ability to reflect in its tube the essence of human nature. Nowhere is that more apparent, for better or worse, than in reality television, which isn't really real at all - except for when it is.

Joe Posnanski, one of the best sports writers around - one of the best writers, period - brought the following topic up about a year ago, and while he may be an unlikely source of information for a TV blog, he provides a brilliant insight into just how television does this.  It concerns a British game show called, believe it or not, Golden Balls.  It's a really good piece, and I would have linked to it even if I didn't have one thing to add to it.  In fact, I think you should stop right here and read it now.  If you don't, though, I'll give you another chance later.

As you'll gather from the always-reliable Wikipedia, Golden Balls was a show that tested every facet of human emotion: trust, greed, betrayal, passivity, lust - and did it all under the naked lights of a television studio.*  The premise was simple enough, as Posnanski says, starting with a team of two contestants.  "[They] would open these, well, golden balls and build up money in what was sort of a joint bank account. It’s actually a bit more convoluted than that, but for the point in this post that doesn’t really matter. Just know that money gets piled up."

*Pos notes his surprise, which I share, that this show hasn't yet made it onto American television.  For the life of me, I cannot imagine why - is it any more extreme than anything that's already on?

At the end of the show, with the two having amassed something between £10,000 and £120,000, the denouement comes.  Each of the contestants is presented with two golden balls to choose from.  One says "Split," the other "Steal."  The contestants know which ball is which, so there's no confusion there.  Each one of them chooses a ball, in a variation on the old Prisoners' Dilemma puzzle.  One of three things then happens:

  • If they both choose to split the money, they will split the money.
  • If one chooses to split the money and the other chooses to steal, the stealer gets everything.
  • If they both choose to steal, nobody wins any money.

When the big moment arrives, you can cut the tension with a knife.  It exposes, Posnanski points out, "the stark and bare humanity" of our lives.  Most of the time the two players agree in advance that they're going to choose "Split" - after all, half of the prize is better than nothing.  But what if one of them gets greedy?  That's where the psychology comes in.  If you can convince your partner that "Split" is the only logical choice, and then choose "Steal" yourself, you get everything.  But if your partner is overcome by a case of the greeds and goes for "Steal" as well, thinking that he's going to outsmart you, then each of you winds up with nothing.  The only safe, logical choice, therefore, is "Split" - but, most of you are probably thinking, a man doesn't become rich by playing it either safe or logical.  Particularly, when money is concerned, by being safe.

The whole thing is a fascinating, grotesque look at the human psyche.  Joe focuses on one particular episode involving two gentlemen named Ibrahim and Nick it what could serve as a master class in psychology, running the gamut of all those emotions I listed above, but centering on trust and greed. You see, unlike most contestants, Nick tells Ibrahim outright that he's going to Steal.  But, he goes on to say, if Ibrahim will only choose Split, thus allowing Nick to get all the money, he - Nick - promises that he will split the money with Ibrahim 50/50, as if they had both chosen Split.  As Poz says,

See the difference? Instead of Nick appealing to Ibrahim’s essential goodness like everyone else does, he challenges Ibrahim’s fury. OK, he’s basically saying, I’m telling you straight out I’m going to steal. I know that ticks you off but, frankly, I can’t help that. I’m stealing. Now, what are you going to do? How badly do you want to punish me for choosing steal? Are you so angry that you will choose steal yourself, assuring that neither of us will get a dime? Or will you choose split and take the chance — however low you might believe it to be — that I really will give you half the money?

Pos discusses this in quite a bit more detail which I won't repeat here - he's a much better writer than I am, you'll enjoy his account more - but suffice it to say I found the whole thing spellbinding, if not absolutely brilliant.  (You can also see it play out for yourself in this YouTube clip here.)

And here's the point of it all, the reason I brought this up in the first place (besides linking to a piece I really liked) - since the beginning of this blog I've talked about how television is an indicator of our culture, our society.  It shows us our DNA.  No matter what people might say about television influencing the viewer, it's clear to me that most of the time it merely magnifies what's already there.  A schemer on Survivor or Big Brother isn't going to be any less of a schemer in real life; television merely gives him or her the chance to magnify that trait in front of a national audience.  Granted, reality TV can create a monster, but I'm willing to bet that nine times out of ten it's a monster that was already in there, in the psyche of that individual.  Woe be to the producer that magnifies or exploits that particular trait, for they may well find it better had they never been born.  But all the same, it's probably true that there's more "reality" in reality TV than we'd like to think.

I'm assuming that by now you've read Posnanski's piece and watched the clip of Ibrahim and Nick, but if you haven't, that's all right - I'll wait until you've caught up.  Go ahead.

(Sound of absent-minded humming, toe tapping.)

All right, everyone back?  What did you think?  Was not that one of the greatest examples of psychology you've ever seen on television?  I don't want to read too much into it, or exaggerate its importance*, but I thought there was a deep existential element to the whole thing, an exploration of the meaning of trust that goes far beyond what you're likely to see in most scripted programs.

*Exaggeration: something I never, ever, ever do.

I'm not advocating that we all become reality television fans; that's probably the one and only episode of Golden Balls that I'll be checking out, at least anytime soon.  But this particular example, and Posnanski's retelling of it, is utterly fascinating.  It is as good an example as we're apt to see of the way television can show us what we're all about.  I would like to think that the best drama, and even the best comedy, can still do that; unfortunately, at least on the networks, I'm not sure it always can.  But, at least in this case, it's storytelling every bit as gripping as anything you'll see in scripted TV.

September 6, 2014

This week in TV Guide: September 8, 1979

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It's always a bit hard for me to decide how to write about TV Guide's famous Fall Preview edition, which is one of the reasons why I don't do them often.*  They're so big, so sprawling, it's often hard to know where to start, and how much time one should spend covering them.  We'll see how it goes this week; the complaint box will be open as usual.

*The other reason being I don't have very many of them.


***

One way to do this is to look at what's new this fall.  And that's quite an interesting exercise.  See how many of these series, new for 1979, you recognize:

ABC
Hart to Hart (romantic mystery; Robert Wagner and Stefanie **sigh** Powers)
Out of the Blue (sitcom; James Brogan)
A New Kind of Family (sitcom; Eileen Brennan, Gwynne Gilford* and Rob Lowe)
The Associates (legal comedy; Wilfrid Hyde-White and Martin Short)
240-Robert (police drama; Mark Harmon, Joanna Cassidy and John Bennett Perry)
The Lazarus Syndrome (medical drama; Louis Gossett Jr. and Ronald Hunter)
Benson (sitcom; Robert Guillaume)

*Not to be confused with Glynn Griffing, former quarterback for the New York Football Giants, or Gwyn Griffin, author of An Operational Necessity.  Or Fred Gwynne, for that matter.

CBS
Working Stiffs (sitcom; Michael Keaton and Jim Belushi)
Big Shamus, Little Shamus (family detectives; Brian Dennehy and Doug McKeon)
Paris (crime drama; James Earl Jones)
Trapper John, M.D. (medical drama; Pernell Roberts and Gregory Harrison)
California Fever (sitcom; Lorenzo Lamas, Jimmy McNichol and Marc McClure)
The Last Resort (sitcom; Robert Costanz and a large ensemble)
Struck by Lightning (sitcom; Jack Elam and Jeffrey Kramer)

NBC
A Man Called Sloane (spy thriller; Robert Conrad)
The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo (police comedy; Claude Akins)
From Here to Eternity (war drama; William Devane, Don Johnson, Barbara Hershey and Roy Thinnes)
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (sci-fi; Gil Gerard and Erin Gray)
Shirley (sitcom; Shirley Jones, Tracey Gold and Rosanna Arquette)
Eischied (crime drama; Joe Don Baker)

Now, the sad thing is that I remember most of those shows.  Not all of them, mind you, but this was the second year back in civilization for me after having spent six years in the world's worst town, and I suppose I was gorging myself with television, good and bad.

SOURCE FOR ALL: HADLEY TV GUIDES
To be fair, there are a few hits in this list; Hart to Hart and Benson spent a good amount of time on ABC's schedule, as did Trapper John on CBS, and Buck Rogers lasted a couple of seasons on NBC.  But, if we're being honest with ourselves, there's not a whole lot to like about this schedule, is there?  Paris and Lazarus were notable in that they were among the first drama series to feature black actors in the lead roles; neither of them did well.*  Sloane gave Robert Conrad a chance to add to his collection of failed series; he probably only trailed McLean Stevenson at that point, with Robert Urich coming on strong.  Lobo, which to be fair also ran for two years, was a spin-off from B.J. and the Bear, which means that the character was with us for even longer.  Eischeid seems like MLT3K material.  And in 240-Robert Mark Harmon smiles.  How realistic is that?

*The Lazarus Syndrome tried to sell us the idea that a man (Hunter) recovering from heart surgery would, in his effort to give his life meaning, take on a job as a hospital administrator.  No stress in that, right?

I don't know how this season ranks in television's panoply; I suspect there have been worse, but I doubt that this one went into the Television Hall of Fame.

***

The miniseries is still all the rage, and the networks are lined up to give 'em to you.  Unlike the days of Roots and Rich Man, Poor Man, however, the focus is on shorter, more concentrated stories, running for no more than two or three nights.*  ABC gives us The French Atlantic Affair (which wasn't quite as bad as you might think, considering it featured Telly Savalas and Chad Everett) and Masada (with Peter Strauss and Peter O'Toole, which was quite good), while CBS gives us six hours' worth of Judith Kranz' Scruples.  NBC, which was a pioneer in turning the miniseries into a weekly series, gives us The Gangster Chronicles, The Martian Chronicles, and The Convertible Chronicles.  Wait, I got carried away with that one; it's actually The Last Convertible.

*The two-night ones used to be called "two-part movies."

It's too bad about the miniseries, a genre which in general I quite liked.  Look at Rich Man, Poor Man, Roots and Holocaust - all memorable, ground-breaking series.  But, as was the case with Who Wants to be a Millionaire, you invariably reach a saturation point where your lust for the dollar causes you to push things a little too far, and for the miniseries that might well have come when ABC did Washington: Behind Closed Doors in 1977.  I don't think it's a coincidence that, two years after than series ran, the miniseries was on its way to becoming much, much shorter.

Back in 1979, the slack in network miniseries was being picked up by PBS, which still enthralled viewers with mammoth productions on Masterpiece Theater - Poldark (13 parts), Love of Lydia (12 parts) and The Duchess of Duke Street (15 parts) were the headliners.  Alas, even PBS has given up the miniseries ghost nowadays, but that's not all it's missing.


***

For some time, Wall Street Journal critic and blogger Terry Teachout has been critical of PBS' negligence of the arts. Even though PBS executives have admitted that they fall short in this area, those same executives have acknowledged, through their programming decisions, that they don't intend to do anything about it.  As he recently noted, the network's 2014-15 fall schedule "includes no ballet or modern dance, no classic theater, no real jazz, no opera save for “Porgy [and Bess]” and no classical music of any kind."  Such was not always the case, however, for the organization whose original mandate is "to enrich man's spirit."  For the 1979-80 season, PBS's Great Performances show includes "a back-to-back production of Jean Cocteau's "The Human Voice" and a film of the Poulenc opera [La voix humaine] based on the play," a film version of Carmen directed by Franco Zeffirelli, Live From Lincoln Center performances by Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne, Metropolitan Opera productions from Verdi's Otello to Kurt Weill's Rise and Fall of the City of Mahoganny, and anthology programs based on American short stories, including those of author John Cheever.  Finding words to describe what has happened to PBS over the past 35 years that are also appropriate to a family blog escape me, but as culture has dumbed down, we see only too obviously how the nation's preeminent cultural medium has followed suit.

***

But what we've lost in culture, we've more than made up for in football.

The NFL rolls out its new season, with what we today would call a "limited schedule."  I mean, there are only 20 games scheduled in prime-time - the 16 Monday night games, plus four Sunday night specials that ABC plans to carry.  Contrast that with this year's schedule, which includes games on Sunday, Monday and Thursday night virtually every week of the season - 50 games by my count.  And to think - the Sunday night ratings in 1979 were poor enough that some people actually thought there was too much football on TV.  Suckers.

Then, there's ABC's college football schedule.  ABC was the only network to offer regular season games in 1979, and their schedule includes 13 national and 45 regional games.  Today, between ABC, CBS, Fox, the ESPNs, CBS College, Fox Sports 1 and 2, and the regional networks, you can see practically that many games every week.  They were all played on Saturday, too, except for Labor Day night and the odd Thursday/Friday games of Thanksgiving weekend.   There were little more than a dozen bowl games, all but a handful being shown on the networks.  (The remainder were broadcast on the late, great Mizlou network.)

Let's not overlook college basketball in the mix, though.  Besides the NCAA tournament (expanding to an incredible 48 teams, not to be confused with the 68 that take part today), NBC offers 90 national and regional broadcasts starting on January 5.  Would that the television season waited until then today - I daresay the average basketball fan has probably had access to that many games during the the season's first month.  It was about then, as I recall, that the Big Ten Conference (which at the time only had ten teams) voted down a proposal to create a nationally televised Wednesday night Game of the Week.  Big Ten teams only played on Thursday and Saturday (barring the rare Sunday afternoon game), the powers that be dictated.  And anyway, who would want to see that much basketball?

Well, you get the point.  I like sports as much as many people, and I like having a choice of which game to watch - but as Captain Kirk once said, "too much of anything, even love, isn't necessarily a good thing."

***

We've often discussed movies, and how the really big theatrical ones have more or less disappeared from over-the-air television.  That trend, of course, had not yet appeared in 1979, and TV Guide critic Judith Crist brings us a hint of what we can look forward to: Annie Hall, Jaws, Looking for Mr. Goodbar and Benji on ABC, Coming Home, The Outlaw Josey Wales and Dog Day Afternoon on NBC, and Bound for Glory, House Calls, Silver Streak and Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown headlining the premieres on CBS.

Oddly enough, I think that Josey Wales is the only one of these movies I've actually seen, but I feel fairly confident suggesting that with the exception of Benji and Charlie Brown, all of these movies would have been edited, some more heavily than others, for both time and content.  They all would have included frequent interruptions for commercials.

And that's one reason why, despite my occasional yearning for the bygone days of weekend matinee double-features on local stations, the trend away from theatrical movies on OTA television is a good thing.  People (me included) want to see movies run intact, without cuts for one reason or another, and we want them uninterrupted.  It's true that you can catch movies on the basic cable stations that offer neither of the above, but others - from TCM to the pay stations - give you everything you want, which is the way you want it.

So I'm not always a curmudgeon when it comes to television.

The replacement for theatrical movies is the made-for-TV movie, and the much-derided vehicle is still a few years away from the respectability it now holds (save the disease-of-the-week genre, which sadly has outlived the diseases it portrays).  One of the sadder notations included in the schedule of coming features is CBS' All Quiet on the Western Front - not because it was a bad movie, per se, but because its presentation on the Hallmark Hall of Fame signals that series' permanent move away from the taped stageplay format which had served it for so well over the years.  All Quiet on the Western Front, which starred Richard Thomas, was actually pretty good; would that everything which followed it was as good.

Otherwise, we have more goodies to look forward to: Ira Angustain in a highly-praised performance as Freddie Prinze in Can You Hear the Laughter? on CBS this week; the same network will also have Lesley Ann Warren as the "stripper with a heart of gold" in Portrait of a Stripper, Scott Baio and Lance Kerwin in The Boy Who Drank Too Much, David Janssen and Susannah York as a policeman and nun finding love and murder in The Golden Gate Murders, Ed Asner and Meredith Baxter in the adultery drama The Family Man, and Tom Berenger in an adaptation of Pete Hamill's Flesh and Blood, as a boxer having an incestuous affair with his mother (Suzanne Pleshette).  It's heavily edited from the book, although I doubt it would be today.  Not to encourage that kind of thing, but if she was playing your mom, well...

NBC has O.J. Simpson in Goldie and the Boxer, and I don't know how I missed that one, nor do I understand why I didn't see Gary Coleman in The Kid from Left Field, Eric Braeden and Melinda Fee in The Aliens are Coming, Lee Meriweather, Loretta Swit and Janet Leigh in the plastic surgery drama Mirror, Mirror or Raquel Welsh in The Legend of Walks Far Woman.

ABC touts S.O.S. Titanic, which I did see (and forgot as quickly as possible), with the aforementioned David Janssen as John Jacob Astor, Valentine, with Mary Martin and Jack Albertson in senior citizen love, The New Season starring John Ritter as a track coach mentoring street kids, Cheryl Ladd as a child abuser in A New Start, and Tony Lo Bianco in a biopic of heavyweight champ Rocky Marciano.

I make fun of many of these (and even more I didn't list) because their very descriptions sound putrid.  Some of them, such as Ladd's child abuser turn, sound like obvious Emmy bait.  There might have been some good ones in there, but when you can't get past the title, it's kind of hard to find out, insn't it?  Maybe some of you have seen them, and you'll be able to set me straight.

***

Finally, some notes from, you know, actual programming.

Saturday night is the Miss America pageant, live from Atlantic City on NBC.  As is customary back then, the broadcast starts at 9pm CT, running for two hours.  The redoubtable Bert Parks is the host, former Miss Americas Mary Ann Mobley, Dorothy Benham and Susan Perkins are the television hosts, and the winner is Cheryl Prewitt of Mississippi.  According to the always-reliable Wikipedia, her husband's brother-in-law is televangelist Richard Roberts, who's father is the famed Oral Roberts.  You can't make this stuff up.  The Emmys air on Sunday night, hosted by Cheryl Ladd and Henry Winkley (and even without looking at the page I could tell you it had to be on ABC) and the big winners were Taxi, Lou Grant, Roots: The Next Generation, Carroll O'Conner, Ruth Gordon, Ron Leibman and Mariette Hartley.

Monday night features part one of the rerun of NBC's Holocaust, up against the season kickoff of Monday Night Football with the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles.  On Tuesday, it's the season premieres of ABC's sitcom superstars: Happy Days (with a cameo appearance by Laverne and Shirley), Angie, Three's Company and Taxi.  Wednesday features an absolutely dreadful crossover movie on ABC - Charlie's Angels on The Love Boat (there's never an iceberg around when you need one).  Thursday's edition of ABC's 20/20 asks the burning question: what really killed Elvis.  At least they didn't ask who.  And on Friday CBS' Late Night Movie (which, thanks to Channel 4's insistence on running local movies, appears on the independent Channel 9, and is joined in progress after 30 minutes) has Darren McGavin's wonderful The Night Stalker, the ad for which has perhaps the best headline I've seen in quite some time: "Satanic Forces Hold Senate Election in Death Grip!"  Talk about being ahead of your time.

So that's the kickoff of the 1979-80 television season.  Loyal readers know in general my low opinion of this era of TV, which I think is best summed up in a pair of Letters to the Editor.  Elaine J. Johnson of Wickenburg, Arizona says the thought of Laverne & Shirley, Mork & Mindy, The Love Boat and shows like them taking the high ratings makes her wonder "if we will be deluged with more of this type of show next season," and asks the networks to "serve up fewer giggle shows and more informative, family-type entertainment."  Meanwhile, Judith S. Felton of Marietta, Georgia reminds us of Newton Minow's "vast wasteland" quote and wishes the networks "would realize that there are some adults out here who don't use TV as a baby sitter and who would like a little something to entertain us."  Ladies, from 35 years in the future, I feel your pain.

September 4, 2014

Summer reruns: when government was "the good guys"

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PETER BRECK (CENTER) WITH THE MESSAGE: "DON'T MESS WITH THE GOVERNMENT, DAMN IT."

One of the goals of this blog is to analyze how television interacts with American culture - the ways in which it forms it, and the ways in which it reflects it.  This is one of those times when we look at the later.

It's all prompted by the death earlier this month of the actor Peter Breck, who was probably best known for playing Nick Barkley in the 60s western series The Big Valley.  But prior to that, on November 4, 1963, Breck starred in an episode of The Outer Limits entitled "O.B.I.T." The opening narration presents the premise:

In this room, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, security personnel at the Defense Department Cyprus Hill's Research Center keep constant watch on its scientists through O.B.I.T., a mysterious electronic device whose very existence was carefully kept from the public at large. And so it would have remained but for the facts you are about to witness…

And there's a very good reason why O.B.I.T. is kept secret: the machine "allows the observation of anyone, anywhere, at any time."  Breck enters the story as U.S. Senator Jeremiah Orville, whose committee is on the scene to investigate the murder of the center's administrator.  During the course of the investigation, Orville uncovers the truth about O.B.I.T. - that the machine is in reality controlled by "imperialistic inhabitants" of another planet, who are using their human pawns (as aliens from other planets so often do) to gain control of the planet.


Now, what I find interesting about this story - and it's the point I'm trying to make here, although I may not be doing it very well - is that there is no question about Orville being the protagonist of the story, as the dogged senator determined to get to the bottom of things and find out the truth about the strange goings-on at the facility.  His presence presents the clear message that one doesn't screw around with the United States Government.  At the end of the episode, the government smashes the conspiracy, and we are assured that "Agents of the Justice Department are rounding up the machines now."  There is, in fact, something charming about this idea - that a U.S. Senator, and the government in general, are "the good guys."  Today it's far more likely that the government itself would be portrayed as instigating the development of such an all-pervasive surveilance machine, and that the senator (or the military, at the very least) would more likely than not be involved in a cover-up of the whole thing.

That's what I like about "O.B.I.T." - it's taken for granted that the government is there to find out the truth, and once accomplished they'll see to it that the threat is destroyed.*  The assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, the Vietnam War, Watergate, and a host of other events have yet to occur, and the general cynicism with which the government is observed today has not yet become all-encompassing.  In fact, as author James Pierson notes in his book Camelot and the Cultural Revolution, in the early 60s the government enjoyed a high approval rating from the public, who also had a great confidence that the government knew what it was doing.

*Author Mark Holcomb, in his excellent summaries of Outer Limits episodes, points out the McCarthy-era subtext in the story, which certainly isn't intended to show the government in the best light.  However, he also notes the evolution of Orville "from publicity-seeking sham to deeply concerned crusader."  This is, in fact, quite a nuanced episode in many respects, but I think the larger point remains: that Orville is from the government and is here to help.

And it's through this lens that one has to view this episode.  It reminds me a great deal of one of my favorite series, The FBI.  If you remember that show, you might recall that each week the series opened with the mission of the FBI.: "[T]o protect the innocent and identify the enemies of the Government of the United States."  That, combined with the images used in the opening (the Washington Monument, the Capitol, the Supreme Court and Treasury buildings) was enough to make any red-blooded American race out and sign up to be an FBI agent, even though it was Sunday evening and the offices were closed.

Today, we'd probably see the show for what it was, in part - a piece of Hoover-era propaganda designed to put the Bureau in the best possible light.  Just as we'd expect O.B.I.T. to be a product of a conspiracy involving the government and the military.  If anyone was to uncover it, it would probably either be an intrepid newspaper reporter, an intrepid group of high school civics students, or perhaps both.

We're right to be suspicious of government, for in many respects it has evolved into something the Founding Fathers would scarcely recognize, an invasive, intrusive, often malignant presence in the lives of Americans.  However, for better or worse we didn't always feel that way.  This episode of The Outer Limits, I think, accurately reflects how we saw the government back then - as a force for good, protecting us from threats to life and limb.  It's hard to imagine we could see an episode quite like this today.

Originally published February 27, 2012

September 2, 2014

Around the dial - post-vacation edition

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One of the great things about technology is that it enables you, in a way, to be in two places at the same time.  I was on vacation last week, but you might not have known it since new pieces continued to pop up on the blog.  Way back in the earlier days of Blogger, when I started the other blog, you weren't able to do that, at least not easily.  On a trip to Boston, I recall, I had to rely on a friend to go into the blog and publish a piece that I'd written but wasn't able to postdate.

The point of all this is that one area that did fall short last week was our look around the classic TV blogosphere.  There would have been no end of dirty looks, not only from my wife but our hosts, had I excused myself to take an hour or so and compose a series of links.  Yes, loyal readers, even though I would do anything for you, I wouldn't do that.*

*I did, however, stop in an antique store and pick up a couple of additions to the TV Guide collection, which (owing to the dates) you'll probably be reading about next year.  So don't say I didn't get you something while I was on vacation.

With that, I've decided to move the look around the dial from Thursday to Tuesday, so let's see what's new and exciting out there.

Comfort TV gives us part two of a look at what happens when TV stars sing.*  There's a high potential for disaster with these kinds of projects, but not always - for every Star Trek and Laverne & Shirley, there's a David Soul (Starsky and Hutch) or Rick Springfield (General Hospital) producing #1 hits.  Now, I'll admit that I was drawn to this piece by the infamous Hogan's Heroes album, but David points out that it's actually pretty good - I'd kind of like to check it out.

*And yes, David, I did check out the cover of Cheryl Ladd's album.  Several times.

Keeping with the music theme, to people who laud John Williams' movie music I usually have one answer: listen to John Barry.  Barry's probably most famous for his James Bond soundtracks, but as  Classic Film and TV Cafe reminds us,  there were some other pretty memorable pieces out there as well.  A personal note regarding Barry's distinctive sound: many years ago I was forced to go to Dances With Wolves, a movie I generally hated.  There was one thing about it that resonated with me, though - the music.  Before I'd even known that Barry wrote it (I'd probably snoozed through the credits), I remarked to my wife how similar some of the music was to the Bond movie You Only Live Twice.  No wonder - Barry was responsible for them both.

One of the shows that keeps popping up in my old TV Guides is Love That Bob!, aka The Bob Cummings Show.  I've never seen an episode of it, which is due more to laziness than anything since I could find it online anytime, but thanks to The Horn Section I don't have to!  Seriously, Hal gives us a very good flavor for the show with his look at the 1958 episode "Bob Goes Birdwatching," and it encourages me to give it a try.  I've always liked Bob Cummings, oddly enough not for comedy but for his dramatic roles: a memorable turn in The Twilight Zone's second season opener "King Nine Will Not Return," and his equally memorable appearance in Studio One's "Twelve Angry Men." This was the original production of the play, not the movie version starring Henry Fonda that followed.  Cummings plays the Fonda role, and I have to tell you that I prefer Bob to Hank.  That won't get me shot, will it?

Let's segue to another bit about comedians playing serious roles.  Ever heard of the series Cain's Hundred?  It's a crime series from 1961-62 that starred Mark Richman, but despite a pretty good cast of writers and directors it only lasted that one season.  Kliph at Classic Television Showbiz gives us an episode from that show, featuring a most unlikely guest star - Don Rickles.  But then I'm reminded of something I read once - probably from Kliph himself - that Rickles was actually quite good in dramatic roles, respected by his peers for his acting ability.

Stephen Bowie at The Classic TV History Blog has a nice piece up on every male classic television buff's crush, Susan Oliver.  Seems there's a new documentary out on Oliver's career, called The Green Girl, and according to Stephen it's pretty good.  The title, of course, refers to her famous role in the Star Trek episode "The Menagerie," but there was a great deal more to her career than that.  Very good stuff.

Something very interesting starting this month at Television Obscurities - a week-by-week look at TV Guide throughout the entire 1964-65 season.  I don't think there's much of an overlap with what I do here; for one thing, I don't have an entire season's worth of TV Guides for any season, and for another, I think I'm probably looking for different things in these TV Guides.  Not better, just different.  Should be fun reading!

Finally, I can't remember whether or not I've mentioned this before, and I don't quite have the time to look back and check, but a recent addition to the links list on the sidebar is RerunCentury, which has a great storehouse of links to streaming episodes of classic television.  A lot of these shows can be hard to trackdown online if you don't know where to look, and Bob Poulsen's done us all a favor by putting this site together.

Oh, and as Columbo would say, one more thing.  It's About TV! is on Facebook, which I hope you'll like and follow.  When you have a minute - either on FB or by commenting here - please take the opportunity to let me know if there's anything you'd like to read about, any topics or shows or time periods that you'd like me to pay more attention to.  Although I get a great deal of personal pleasure from writing about classic television, this blog exists primarily for its readers.  True, much of this material also serves as a rough draft for a future book project or two, but then just think - you'll all appear in the acknowledgements page as well!