August 21, 2017

What's on TV? Monday, August 24, 1964

The nice thing about being in a city like New York during Convention week is that we're not limited to network affiliates for our viewing entertainment. In fact, we've got plenty of choices if politics isn't your thing, as will be the case for increasing numbers of Americans by the time this divisive campaign is over. As this is the first day of the convention, the opening session isn't until tonight, meaning the daytime schedules are unaffected, leaving us with even more to watch. Well, let's get to it!

August 19, 2017

This week in TV Guide: August 22, 1964

It's the first of back-to-back issues to end the month of August, and this week we're in frantic Atlantic City to see Lyndon Johnson receive the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. John F. Kennedy's memory hangs heavy over the convention city, nine months after his death; for all of the talk of party unity and tradition (large portraits of Kennedy, Roosevelt, Truman, and Johnson hang over the podium, with the motto "Let Us Continue"), anxious Johnson aides are said to be keeping track as to whether or not pictures of Kennedy are outselling those of their boss. Although Johnson, in his memoirs, says that he remained uncertain about seeking election until close to convention time, there's little doubt about the outcome, with the largest question being the selection of Johnson's running mate.

And for all we know, LBJ could have chosen Walter Cronkite to be his veep. After all, Uncle Walter isn't busy this week; after having been trounced in the ratings by the Huntley-Brinkley-led NBC at the Republican convention in San Francisco, CBS decides that a anchor duo is the answer, and replaces Cronkite in the booth with the team of Robert Trout and Roger Mudd. It's a move that leaves everyone looking bad; Cronkite handles the demotion with grace (The New York Times quotes Cronkite as saying, "We took a clobbering in San Francisco, and it seems perfect­ly reasonable that management at C.B.S. would like to try something else to regain the audience. This is their decision as to what should be done," which shows he knows how to be a team player in public), and NBC still dominates the ratings anyway.

One of the great moments of convention coverage comes not on television but radio, while Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey is appearing on a phone-in show with listeners back home on WCCO, the "Good Neighboor" station we all grew up listening to, and the program is interrupted by a CBS bulletin essentially announcing that President Johnson is trying to reach him regarding the Vice Presidency, after which Humphrey tells the audience he'd probaby better get off the phone, It's a wonderful moment of radio, which you can hear here.

The emotional highlight of the convention is undoubtedly Robert F. Kennedy's appearance to introduce the memorial tribute film to JFK. The younger brother of the late president received a 22-minute ovation from delegates, most of it, I would say, as a living representation of John, whose portrait was visible all week. Then again, although Bobby wouldn't fully come into his own until the presidential campaign of 1968 he did have a charisma all his own, a charisma that didn't pass all the way down to Ted, who might not have gotten the same kind of reception, It was precisely the kind of response that Lyndon Johnson had feared, which was why he had insisted the tribute film be moved to the end of the convention to prevent a possible delegate stampede during the vice presidential voting. You can see part of NBC's coverage here; it is the last time RFK will be present at a Democratic National Convention.

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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: The Beatles headline the show in a routine taped before their return to England. Other guests are Gordon and Sheila MacRae; singer-dancer Cab Calloway; English comics Morecambe and Wise; clarinetist Acker Bilk; comedians Dave Barry and Morty Guty; and the Pinky and Parky Puppets.

Palace: Tony Martin and his wife Cyd Charisse introduce gospel singer Mahalia Jackson; pianists Ferrante and Teicher; comedian Corbett Monica; the Berosini Chimps; the Amandis, teeterboard act; the three Bizasrro Brothers, musical group; and comics Gaylord and Holiday.

It's been a long time since we've had one of these - back to June, I think; well, it's about time! We might as well get this out of the way, because no show with the Beatles as headliners is going to lose the week, so let's get beyond that and look at the rest of the lineups. Ed has a very deep show this week, with the MacRaes and Cab Calloway, and anyone who reads these TV Guides will recognize Morecambe and Wise. On the other hand, once you get past Mahalia Jackson, the Palace has too much vaudeville. It's a lineup that might win some weeks, but this is not one of them. Sullivan is the big winner.

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One of the big DVD releases of recent times was season one of The Defenders, E.G. Marshall's seminal legal series. I've got it, although it's yet to reach out and grab me; I always felt The Defenders was one of those series that crossed the line between discussion and advocacy of controversial issues. Interestingly enough, as the series prepares for its fourth season, Marshall feels it's lost its edge, "this show broke fresh ground in its early days; now the atmosphere in television has developed so that even more areas can be dramatized: abortion, pornography, Negroes' problems. You have to give The Defenders at least part of the credit for that. But, as I said, we don't do much of it any more ourselves."

What are the reasons for the slump in quality, at least according to Marshall's perception? "I don't know who makes policy for the show...We're using the hunt-and-poke system, and throwing out samples to see how people react. Next season, for example, we're sprinkling in a few romances to see how they'll work. But is controversy old hat? I don't believe it is." One of the problems is that The Defenders never developed writers the way other shows did; Reginald Rose, the mastermind behind the series, did a lot of the heavy lifting early on, but there's only so much one man can do. Herbert Brodkin, the producer, "sat in his office waiting for writers to come to him." And while many did, "we could have done more real harvesting gone out in the field and farmed these writers...any writer in the country ought to be eager to work for us." There's also a tendency, if I can put Marshall's words into current-day vernacular, to focus on the micro rather than the macro; he cites a recent story in which a woman failed a blood-alcohol test in which the story focuses on whether or not the woman's test could have been tainted by the alcohol swab used by the nurse who administered the test, rather than the larger question as to whether or not requiring a defendant to submit to such a test was a violation of the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination.*

*If I'm not mistaken the laws on this vary from state to state, but generally the Fifth Amendment is not held to protect one in such a case, although personally I tend to agree with Marshall that it should.

Marshall's contract on The Defenders runs out at the end of this, it's fourth season, and while Brodkin is confident it can run indefinitely, Marshall comments dryly that "Barry Goldwater is confident he'll be the next President of the United States." The show's also moving to a new night, Thursday, where it will be up against The Jimmy Dean Show on ABC and Kraft Suspense Theater on NBC. Marshall thinks Robert Reed could carry the show without him, though I'm not sure about that, but it's a moot point, as the fourth season will be the final one for The Defenders before it settles into television history. And while I'm not what you'd call a big fan of the show, I can think of nothing more appropriate than seeing the remaining three seasons come out on DVD, for the many people who've enjoyed it.

Here's something I think you'll like: five caricatures of E.G. Marshall, done by five of the top cartoonists of the day. Click on the photo to find out who's responsible for what.

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Sometimes it's the shows, sometimes it's the stars, sometimes it's something that just catches my eye.

Man Without a Gun stars Rex Reason as a crusading newspaperman (is there any other kind?) determined to rid his area of the West without the use of a weapon, and Sunday's episode (3:00 p.m. ET, WABC) carries the title "No Heart for Killing." Well, if you're in a series called Man Without a Gun, you'd better not have any heart for killing, or you're going to find yourself out of luck. Later on Sunday, if you're like me and wouldn't really have wanted to watch the Beatles, the choice would have been the interestingly-named I Bury the Living on WOR; it sounds like a Corman-type MST3K feature, but it stars Richard Boone (made during his Have Gun - Will Travel days) and Theodore Bikel. The story: "A cemetery manager finds that someone dies each time he sticks a black pin into a chart fo the reserved plots." And after that, if Bonanza's your thing (9:00 p.m., NBC), you get to see Little Joe, who's determined to marry a young woman whom he accidentally blinded in a hunting accident. Note to prospective couples: this is not a prescription for long-term marital success.

Monday afternoon's matinee on WPIX (1:00 p.m.) carries the decepitve title Hangmen Also Die; it's actually the more-or-less true story of Obergruppenf├╝hrer Reinhard Heydrich, one of the most evil, and most remarkable, men of the 20th century. His nicknames speak for themselves: The Hangman; The Butcher of Prague; The Blond Beast; The Man with the Iron Heart. He was at one time head of the group which would become Interpol; he helped organise Kristallnacht in 1938; as chair of the Wannsee Conference, he was tasked with organizing plans for the Final Solution in 1942. He was played in the movie Conspiracy by Kenneth Branagh. As for Hangmen Also Die, it's directed by Fritz Lang, based on a story by Bertolt Brecht, with a score by Hanns Eisler and cinematography by James Wong Howe, It stars Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, Brian Donlevy, Walter Brennan, Gene Lockhart and Dennis O'Keefe. Whew.

Friday, WPIX offers up chapters 13 and 14 of the serial "Canadian Mounties vs. Atomic Invaders." I don't know how I've missed this one - or, better yet, how MST3K missed it. Here's a trailer for the DVD release, just to prove I haven't made it up.

At 9:30 p.m. on Friday, CBS has a preview of the $200,000 Carling World Golf Championship, which airs over the weekend and which gets a mention in next week's issue. James Garner is the host of the exhibition, which was taped earlier in the day at the famed Oakland Hills Country Club outside Detroit and features six of the golfers playing in the tournament, along with some comic relief from Pat Harrington.

That's not the big sports news of the week, though - that story was in the front of the issue, where For the Record reports on the sale of controlling interest of the New York Yankees to CBS for $11 million. It's a landmark sale in many ways, for although the sum seems paltry by today's standards, it marks one of the first moves of corporate ownership into professional sports. It's thought that CBS did this partly for investment purposes - "It's the entertainment business, isn't it?" said one director" - and partly for strategic reasons, to keep pay-TV, which has made inroads with the Dodgers and Giants, from becoming more heavily involved in the broadcasting picture. It's not a happy marriage, and CBS winds up unloading the Yankees for $10 million in 1973, less than what it paid for the club. Don't weep for the Tiffany Network, though; according to Michael Burke, one of the new owners (along with George Steinbrenner), "because of its corporate structure, tax losses and the like, CBS 'substantially recouped its investment.'

Here's something I didn't know: the announcer and sidekick on Tennessee Ernie Ford's Monday-Friday afternoon variety show is Jim Lange, who started out with Ford during his prime-time show in 1962 and will, three years later, go on to host The Dating Game. Something I did know is that Lange was born and raised in the Twin Cities and graduated from the University of Minnesota. When you're from Minnesota yourself, you tend to know things like that.

TV Teletype reports that NBC will pair two previously seen half-hour portraits of Civil War heroes Grant and Lee on September 1: "U.S. Grant, and Improbable Hero," and "Lee, the Virginian" as a full-hour show. No snark here, just a serious question: could you actually show something like this on television today, let alone refer to Robert E. Lee as a "Civil War hero"? I honestly don't know that you could.

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Long before Guy Fieri became a royal pain in the ass, there was The French Chef, Julia Child, the first breakout star of National Educational Television. People love her and her easy-does-it attitude; more than once she's said something like, "Never use water unless you have to - I'm going to use vermouth." Of the occasional blunder, there's the hope that "Heavens! Maybe we'll discover something new with this departure from the recipe!"

Her show is produced on WGBH, Channel 2 in Boston, and is currently seen on 40 educational stations throughout the country, a number that will expand to 90 this fall. She gets no pay for the program, and prior to doing the show she'd never performed before a camera. The story mentions how her husband worked with the State Department in Paris, how she took a six-month course at Cordon Bleu, how she was tutored by private chefs and then opened her own cooking school, after which she co-wrote a cookbook called Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It mentions nothing about her time working as a spy for the OSS, a story good enough that they're planning to make a TV series about it, but then you can't have everything in one story, can you?

"Part of cooking," she says, "is in recovering one's mistakes. A cook's motto should be 'Never despair' - you can always change a mistake into something else." That attitide, and her accessibility, is one reason why she'll always be the people's chef.

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Phyllis Newman, lately of NBC's That Was the Week That Was, will long outlive the network's unsuccessful attempt to duplicate the success of the BBC's news/satire hit. ("This is the satire that isn't," says the New York Herald Tribune's John Horn). She was far from an unknown commodity before the show started, and the "kooky and quick-witted parlor personality" will remain in-demand long after TW3 is but a blur in the faded consciousness of even the most hardened classic television aficionado.

She started her career out at age five with an act called "Pussy the Hypnotizing Cat," something even she admits she isn't sure about. As a youngster she trooped around the Catskills performing in the last days of vaudeville, then did some drama in school and wound up back in the theater. She understudied in the musical "Bells are Ringing," and wound up marrying the show's co-author, Adolph Green - half of the famed songwriting team of (Betty) Comden and Green. She went on to win a Tony for Supporting Actress in a Musical for "Subways Are For Sleeping," after which came appearances on The Tonight Show, gigs as a daytime panelist on To Tell the Truth and other Goodson-Todman properties, and TW3, among others. Always, she appears with that "kooky," girlish charm and winning personality, guaranteeing she'll be a fixture on TV screens and stages, for even though she loves being a mother of two and enjoys being in her husband's limelight ("I'm not after a monumental career."), a friend says she's like everyone else: She wants to be a star.

One of the reasons why I mention Phyllis Newman, besides the fact that I've always liked her, is because if you have Buzzr, you can catch her on reruns of Password, What's My Line? and To Tell the Truth. If you have Antenna, you can likely see some of her many appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. And if you check her out online, you can go to her website because Phyllis Newman is one of the very few stars from that era who is still with us, and I think that alone is worth celebrating, don't you?

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Finally, why convention organizers are so adamant on having conventions tightly scripted - and why television viewers hate it so much.

As Neil Hickey relates it, it was at the 1948 Democratic convention when "a well-meaning lady delegate decided that a flock of 'doves of peace' should be released in the Convention Hall just as President Harry Truman was to begin his acceptance speech." We'll let the story develop from here:

The "doves" turned out to be garden-variety pigeons recently entrapped at City Hall, and no one had bothered to rehearse them sufficiently. They were supposed to soar upward on cue as inspiring symbols fo peace.

Instead, they waddled out of their cages and remained resolutely earthbound, until their sponsors began spooking them with sticks and rolled-up newspapers. Then they took off crazily in all directions, diving and swooping at the delegates.

One made a low-level attack on Permanent Chairman Sam Rayburn, sending him cowering under the rostrum. Others flew with a kamikaze fervor into the giant fans which were cooling the hall.

The scene proved to the Democrats that pigeon pageants are OK - on paper - but an old-fashioned platform addvocating peace is safer."

About the only detail missing is the feathers from the kamikaze pigeons, floating lazily down from the ceiling to the convention floor. But I ask you - would you not tune in to something like this? If you ask me, this would be Must See TV.

August 18, 2017

Around the dial

A while back Lileks made an observation; I'm not going to go back and look it up now, but the gist of it was about when you find watching a favorite show has become a chore, an obligation, rather than something you want to do. At Comfort TV, David is thinking along similar lines when he looks at the legacy of Norman Lear and asks whether classic TV always serves as comfort TV. For him, it doesn't; furthermore, to say that just because a program is edgy and controversial means it is also substantial and important - well, it reminds me of Dick Cavett's rejoinder to Ashley Montagu, which has been quoted variously but amounts to "Do not assume that because I am frivolous that I am shallow, any more than I assume that because you are grave that you are profound.”

At The Horn Section, Hal returns to Crazy Like a Fox with "Some Day My Prints Will Come" from 1985, with guest star Norman Fell, and isn't it a treat to see two old pros like Fell and series star Jack Warden. I can appreciate there's a lot of good young talent out there nowadays, but I really do miss the added excellence of veterans and character actors in today's series.

Martin Grams, reviews Chuck Harter's book on Mr. Novak, one of the acclaimed TV series of the 1960s, a show that's been heard about more than seen and probably will stay that way due to music rights. But, as Martin says, until that day comes along, this book is probably the next best thing.

The Land of Whatever picks up the story of yet another attempt to reboot The Munsters. Now, I don't want to suggest that every attempt to reboot a classic television series has been an abject failure, but it's true that you can probably count the number of successes on one hand (Battlestar Galactica, although perhaps I could think of others if I spent more time on it), and it really does begin to feel as if they're the exceptions that prove the rule, doesn't it?

The Twilight Zone Vortex looks at Volume 1, Number 3 of The Twilight Zone Magazine, and this issue ought to look familiar to me, because I owned this very copy! I'm quite sure at the time I had no idea who Stephen King was (ah, ignorance is bliss, isn't it?), and while I recall parts of the interview with Robert Bloch and portions of Marc Scott Zicree's episode guide, I could be thinking more of the latter's Twilight Zone book. Otherwise, I'm afraid the rest of the issue's a blank with me. Dumb kid.

Continuing at bare-bones e-zine is a look at Charles Beaumont's work with the Hitchcock TV series; this week, Beaumont's second and final contribution, "The Long Silence," from The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in 1963. Since I haven't seen this episode, I've wised up and didn't read what I'm sure is Jack's typically excellent summary; instead, I'm bookmarking it to read after I've purchased the DVD set to play in my region-free player. See, I'm not always a dumb kid.

Although it's not about television, I have to link to Ivan's piece at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, "The appalling thing about fascism is that you've got to use fascist methods to get rid of it," because it's made me curious enough to want to purchase the movie in question, It Happened Here, the "what-if" story that proceeds from the assumption that England was defeated at Dunkirk in 1940. Watch Christopher Nolan's movie to see how close that came to happening, follow up with this, and take it from there.

At Christmas TV History, Joanna has some great stories from her trip to the Detroit Festival of Books. I always love going to events like that, and it's always invigorating to see crowds of people looking at the written word. Reassuring to see there are still a few of us dinosaurs left, and a few fans of Christmas at that.

And another reminder - if you're going to be at the Mid Atlantic Nostalgia Convention, let me know - love to see you there!

August 16, 2017

The long and the short of it

More, as we know, is not always better; in the immortal words of Captain Kirk, “Too much of anything, Uhura, even love, isn’t necessarily a good thing.” And so it’s understandable how, as Ben Lindbergh pointed out in this recent article at The Ringer, there are some definite positives in the continued shrinking of the average television season. That season, which once ran as long as 39 episodes for some series, now averages about 12 or 13, and that’s just an average, mind you; it can be even shorter for some. Given this culture’s proclivity for binging nowadays, that means that, whereas most dramatic series of the ‘70s used to combine new and repeat episodes to fill out an entire 52-week calendar run, today’s short-run series can be wrapped up over a weekend, leaving avid viewers with 51 weeks (at least) to wait before the story picks up again.

In 1967, when Quinn Martin decided to bring to a conclusion Dr. Richard Kimble’s four-year chase after the one-armed man, The Fugitive chose a unique way in which to wrap up the series.* The final episode came not at the end of the first-run cycle of episodes, in May or June, but in August, after the rerun season had concluded. The final episode of The Fugitive would, in fact, be the final episode. It was an extraordinary way to end the series, and one which viewers would never stand for today. Or maybe they would – when you consider the hype that series like Mad Men and The Sopranos were able to create over the final half-season, imagine what an enterprising network could to do promote a one-off (or, in the case of The Fugitive’s final two-parter, a two-off) finale.

*It’s possible that, given the relative lateness with which the decision to end the series was made, a conventional airing date of May/June just wasn’t possible, and the network decided to go with the next best thing.

There are, to be sure, a few clunkers in the 120 episodes that comprise the original run of The Fugitive (an average of 30 per season), but through the course of those 118 stories that led up to the final two-parter, a tremendous amount of suspense built up. Yes, we knew that our hero would escape the clutches of Lieutenant Gerard, or whatever ham-fisted local policeman happened to have Kimble in his sites, but that didn’t prevent the viewer from experiencing the sense that Kimble was on a type of epic journey, an Odyssey if you will, crisscrossing the country in search of a goal so elusive that it was only the occasional glimpse of the one-armed man that convinced Kimble it wasn’t all just a dream. The Harrison Ford big-screen version of The Fugitive was swell and all, but it all happened just too fast; it lacked that sense of ordeal that Kimble had suffered. I wonder – could this sense of time and journey, could the epic nature of it all, have been done in just 30 or 40 episodes?

Maybe it could – The Prisoner ran just 17, and yet created one of the most bizarre worlds television has ever seen, one that left viewers and actors alike utterly exhausted when it was done. Had the series lasted longer than it did, I’m not sure anyone could have stood it. For it to have come back for a second season would have been ridiculous. There’s a key difference, though, one that might help answer the question, at least in part. Number 6 (or John Drake, if you prefer) was never someone we actually were supposed to know; it was the enigmatic quality of the show that made it work in the first place. The Fugitive, on the other hand, succeeded precisely because of our ability to know and trust Kimble, to believe that he was innocent of his wife’s murder, and to put our rooting interest in his escape from authority. Therefore, while brevity was an asset to The Prisoner, familiarity was essential to The Fugitive.

These are just two examples, the long and the short of it you might say, but they do raise interesting points about the relative merits of long vs. short television seasons. There’s another aspect to this which Lindbergh mentioned only in passing in his fine article, which I think bears a paragraph or two, and that’s the miniseries. The original concept of the miniseries was to tell a story in an epic amount of detail, far more than could be handled in a traditional movie (even a three-hour or two-part movie), but a story that nonetheless fell short of filling the space necessary to occupy a multiseason series. Rich Man, Poor Man was a huge success at 12 episodes of varying lengths (the sequel was somewhat less successful, possibly because it was written entirely for television); Roots, at eight consecutive nights, was Roots was a success beyond all expectation and triggered an avalanche of miniseries, from Shogun to Holocaust to The Winds of War and the incredibly ambitious War and Remembrance. What these all had in common was that they had literary sources, were of limited duration, and told stories that had finite endings.

Speaking of which: television's approach to storytelling has changed dramatically over the past decade or two. Whereas the classic structure of a season involved a series of self-contained episodes, with the odd two-part storyline but otherwise with no particular order from episode to episode or (barring cast changes) even season to season, this gradually evolved to encompass story arcs that covered multiple episodes (Wiseguy and Crime Story were two of the first series I can remember to successfully utilize this technique, although I'm sure there are other examples), cliffhanger endings that left viewers guessing as to how the next season would begin (effective especially if certain cast members were up for contract renewals), and eventually serialized storylines more reminiscent of soap operas than anything else. With these new constructs providing less and less flexibility in terms of the shape a series takes, it's easy to see why a shorter season might look more attractive.

Today's modern series all seem caught up in providing a finite ending as well, suggesting the existence of one final episode that promises to tie all loose ends together. In other words, they’ve copped the MO of the miniseries, but with the advantage that they’ve not limited to one six or eight week season, but can keep coming back for years and years. The drawback to this, as anyone who’s read the original source material for shows such as, say, The Man in the High Castle, Orange is the New Black, and House of Cards is that the book generally runs out of material before the series runs out of time. House of Cards, for example, is actually the first book of a British trilogy (the other two titles being To Play the King and The Final Cut). When it was made into a TV series (which appeared in the United States on Masterpiece Theatre), it was over three series, each one bearing the name of the book which it adapted. I don’t know what season the U.S. version of House of Cards is in now.

So where have we gotten from this shorter season mania? It is true, as Lindbergh points out, that writing and production quality can be higher when resources don’t have to be stretched as far as they did over the course of a long season. It is also true, in all likelihood, that it is easier to get big-name stars to commit to longer arcs that it used to be, although one of the pleasures of the classic era was in seeing a big-name star appearing in a one-off guest spot, and in the age of the self-contained episode that was usually good enough. In the pre-VCR era the reruns gave you the chance to catch up on what you might have missed during the regular season, which made the 52-week season practical in more ways than one – it kept the show foremost in the mind of the viewers, keeping them poised for the show’s return during the always exciting Premiere Week in September.

What we’re missing is a commitment to our favorite show as viewers, and a concurrent commitment by those shows to us. There was something comforting to being provided with a guaranteed hour of entertainment at the same time every week all year long, save an interruption or two for specials or something unexpected. Yes, as I said at the outset, not all of them were winners, but a lot of them were pretty good, and most of them were at least entertaining. At the end, they usually gave you what they wanted, which was all we usually asked from our shows. The summer season, when some of the series went off the air to give prospective new series a tryout, was what brought shows like The Prisoner to television in the first place

Sometimes I think too many television shows today try to operate on too grand a scale, as if every episode was the second act of Tosca, where the diva gets to sing the show-stopping aria before plunging the dagger into the chest of the villain, thus setting the stage for the grand finale. That kind of emotion is unsustainable over a protracted season, one reason for the truncated seasons. But not every series needs to be Tosca; sometimes it's enough to simply provide, as my friend David Hofstede calls it, Comfort TV. We burn through a season a weekend and look for more, we catch up on a decade's worth in a month, we text and talk and our attention spans grow ever shorter, and then we wonder why our comfort turns to indigestion.

August 14, 2017

What's on TV? Thursday, August 20, 1970

A while back - quite a while, now that I think of it - someone mentioned here that I didn't have very many issues from 1970. And by golly, they were right - at the time, I might have had one, or none at all. Although you probably know my affinities don't lay with the 1970s for a number of reasons, I have no particular animus against 1970 other than aesthetics: I don't like the TV Guide redesign. Otherwise, as I've pointed out before, the first part of the decade more closely resembles the end of the '60s than it does the rest of the '70s. For those of you who'd like to see this rectified, you'll be glad to know that this recent increase in 1970 issues (this is the second in a month) is going to continue through this year and into next year. It won't be an every-other-week kind of thing, but I'll be ramping up the frequency a little more. Right, Kenneth?

Today's issue, by the way, is from Pittsburgh, with added assistance from the surrounding areas.

August 12, 2017

This week in TV Guide: August 15, 1970

I almost didn't get this issue when I first saw it; I thought I already had it, was positive I already had it, and even after I failed to find it on my list, I looked two or three more times, checked this website multiple times, so sure was I that I'd seen the issue somewhere before, so afraid was I of commiting that dreaded faux pax of the collector, spending good money on something I already had.

Part of the problem, of course, was that Johnny Carson appeared on the cover of TV Guide 28 times, and there are just so many ways you can arrange a portrait of Carson, or anyone for that matter, before they start to run together. And this article by Merle Miller doesn't even tell us much, except that Carson and Company don't like to talk to people. That's the joke, get it? A talk show whose stars and staff don't talk. Miller, whose career as a movie and television writer was interrupted by the blacklist, spent hundreds of hours in the early '60s interviewing Harry Truman for a television project that never came about and whose best-known work will be the book Plain Speaking, an oral biography of the former president, probably found it ironic to be working on a story about people who wouldn't talk to him. Johnny's all interviewed out, the press agent for NBC explains, and a writer who wouldn't talk on the record said that one reason why Carson doesn't like his backstage people talking is that he likes people to get the impression he's responsible for all the material he uses on Tonight. "Don't ask me why." "I didn't ask him why," Miller notes.

The most interesting aspect of Miller's story is his look behind the scenes at one episode he witnesses up close. For example, James Coco, one of Johnny's guests, fresh from his performance in the play "Last of the Red Hot Lovers" for only a few weeks, has "confidence in every pore of him, and he has a great many pores; he is a chubby man." On the other hand, Maureen Stapleton, a star for over twenty years, sits pale, clinging to the edge of a table with a white-knuckled hand. "I might as well leave right now because I'll never make it. I'll never be able to walk out there on stage, not in a million years." Dennis Weaver, who's been in both Gunsmoke and Gentle Ben, isn't quite that nervous but, writes Miller, "I could tell that, Given a choice between going on stage and wrestling Gentle Ben, he'd take the bear, every time." Of course, they're all just fine with Johnny on stage; Maureen Stapleton was "warm and witty and wonderful. It didn't matter if she had said most of the same things to a talent co-ordinator six hours before or if Carson's best lines had been handed to him four hours before."

I don't know how people looked at talk shows back in 1970*, whether they were aware of the extent of the work that writers and talent coordinators did. (After all, I can't recall ever thinking that Johnny came up with all those lines himself, and I think a lot of people knew Dick Cavett himself had worked as a writer.) Still, perhaps there were people who were surprised to find out that this is how talk shows operated. Perhaps Merle Miller wanted to let Carson and his people know what happens when you don't cooperate with the press. Or maybe it was just a case of plain speaking, of telling it like it is.

*I know, I know: they looked at them on their television sets. (Rim shot.)

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The ad on the right is for Richard Doan of the Doan Report, the feature that for many years ran at the front of the programming section of TV Guide and from which I frequienty quote. I mention it because it shows how different TV Guide is in 1970 from the fanmags of the day, as well as the TV Guide of today.

The emphasis is on Doan as a serious journalist - the black and white photograph, grainy, with Doan in his shirtsleeves, probably a white shirt and tie, taken in the newsroom. The stark text with the pronounced whitespace, listing his credentials in the industry: columnist, critic, program director, research company vice-president. An encyclopedic knowledge of television. Most important, a trusted source of news and insight into the television industry for the 32 million adult readers who turn to TV Guide every week.

No discussion about how many celebrities he hangs with, how chummy he is with the insiders, how with-it and down he is. In short, everything that a writer from today's TV Guide would be.

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As some of you may have noticed, I now have my own personal troll; I can't even say that the troll belongs to the blog, because said troll seems to have picked out me personally. He goes by the handle of Ray G., and in last week's "This Week" comment section he proudly proclaimed that "When you let your rightist political views enter into your articles, I can't stand you. I will not be reading your blog, and will spread the word about it." Now, I'd probably have been more bothered by this if, as I mentioned in my reply, he hadn't said essentially the same thing on June 6, when he also called me "revolting." My crime, apparently, was that I'd attacked PBS, and for that I deserve to lose the right to write about classic television forever.

With this in mind, I'm a bit hesitant to include this next item, which happens to be about PBS. Yes, I know Ray G. said he's not reading the blog anymore, but he said that once before and you all know what happened, so who knows? Anyway, the reason I mention this is that PBS has been controversial almost from the very moment it was created, and prior to the actual creation of the network the idea of a government-funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting was controversial, so any discussion of television that includes the political and cultural dynamics of the time is bound to include it.

The item is from the aformentioned Doan Report (written for the vacationing Richard Doan by Andrew Mills), and mentions an attack on Sesame Street from Arnold Arnold, an educational consultant speaking recently at a conference of the American Management Association. Arnold "called the program a failure and quoted a number of other authorities who agree with his opinion." One of those who agreed with him elaborated, saying that Sesame Street "is not imagination; it is more acurately labeled as fradulent." For example, while chldren from poverty homes did know their numbers, they didn't know what they meant; "They couldn't relate the numeral '3' to a group of three apples." Says Arnold, this type of learning is equivalent "to that achieved by a fairly bright parrot."

In an argument that could be made today with respect to how children learn through computers and cellphones, Arnold argues that "preschool children learn primarily 'through direct contact with people and by active manipulation of materials.'" Sesame Street doesn't provide this opportunity; there's no chance "to conjecture, to solve problems, to be creative." Thus, says Arnold, it doesn't teach - however, not only does it pretend it teaches, it spends big money telling people it does. "It's a promotional campaign without parallel," Arnold says of the $6 million spent on ads and PR, with the end result that moms no longer feel guilty about letting TV act as a babysitter because they're convinced Sesame Street is educational. It's not right, because as far as innovation goes, concludes Arnold, Sesame Street "stands on a par with the invention of the dunce cap."

I don't get any particular pleasure out of all this. As longtime readers know, I've written about Sesame Street before; it wasn't on when I was of proper viewing age, and didn't start to really watch until I was in high school in The World's Worst Town™, when I watched it out of self defense because there was absolutely nothing else worth watching. I enjoyed the program's wittiness and jokes designed to amuse the parents, I have enormous affection for the Muppets, including an abiding love for Ernie, Bert, and the Cookie Monster, and even today I get a big charge out of bits like "Monsterpiece Theatre."

Sesame Street first premiered in November of 1969, so the show's less than a year old at this point and this may be one of the first negative stories to feature in the popular press. As such, it's significant, and it deserves to be mentioned here. Now, if Ray G. has a problem with it, that's his perogative. I love my readers, all of them, even the ones who disagree, because they (1) care enough to read, and (2) care enough to comment. In Ray's case, though, he's already quit reading for the last time twice, so if he decides to come back again I hope one of you will get ahold of me and tell me what I'm doing wrong.

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While we're on the education front, on Sunday afternoon, it's a repeat of the controversial ABC documentary "The Eye of the Storm" on teacher Jane Elliott's "blue-eyes-brown-eyes" experiment in racial hatred with her Riceville, Iowa class of third graders. As this article details, the experiment began on the day after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, as an effort to explain to her small charges why somoeone would want to kill the man they had recently made their "Hero of the Month." By dividing the class into two groups based on eye color, and by rewarding and punishing the two groups accordingly, Elliott hopes to demonstrate to the children what it was like to live in a society plagued by discrimination. During the course of the two-day experiment, she sees "children who were cooperative and thoughtful turn nasty and vicious," and she realized that she had “created a microcosm of society in a third-grade classroom.” This is the third year that Elliott has conducted the experiment, and the first time that it has been filmed for television; PBS's Frontline will return in 1984 to visit with members of that class to see how the experiment affected their lives.

I'm of two minds about this kind of experimentation, especially in elementary schools. On the one hand, I'm all for teaching critical thinking in schools rather than what often takes place in the classroom. On the other hand, I'll admit to being very uncomfortable with the idea of experimenting on third graders, when their minds are particularly impressionable to whatever you happen to be teaching them (I'm thinking here of James Clavell's The Children's Story as an example) and especially if their parents don't know what's going on. There's a fine line between education and indoctronation, and it doesn't only happen when you're nine years old.

In the meantime, Jane Elliott remains a controversial figure to this day, becoming nationally renown as a facilitator of diversity training and an anti-racism activist. Ironically, a 2003 study at the University of Georgia suggested that the Blue-Eyes-Brown-Eyes exercise could exacerbate problems that didn't previously exist, and "can also lead to anxiety because people become hyper-sensitive about being offensive or being offended." I ask you, who could have imagined that people today would be hyper-sensitive about being offended?

And to think it all begain with this experiment. Ah, that's the '70s for you.

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Sue Bernard is called the Starlet's Starlet, and so that should be worth at least a moment's notice. Dick Hobson describes her as a rarity, the starlet "who actually works at her trade" with a regular daytime role on General Hospital and nighttime gigs on shows such as Room 222 and "The Joe Namath Special." She was a child actress, appearing on Playhouse 90 and Father Knows Best. Oh, and as was the case with last week's starlet, Carol Lynley, she's graced the pages of Playboy, this time as December, 1966 Playmate of the Month. (Again, I'm taking their word for it.)

Since this article, most of her work has been in the form of documentaries and as the author of six books, and works at promoting the work of her late father, the photographer Bruno Bernard; her Playboy photos were taken by one of her father's apprentices, the famous Mario Casilli. Although I don't partake of the portfolios of these men's work, I don't look down on them; after all, Felix Unger took pictures for Playboy as well, remember?

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And now the week in viewing pleasures.

The honors in sports go to ABC's weekend coverage of the PGA Championship from Southern Hills in Tulsa. We read about the PGA a few weeks ago when it was played in July, but by this time we're seeing the tournament settle in to its traditional mid-August spot. Dave Stockton, known today as one of the great putting doctors in golf, wins the first of his two PGA titles; he's the only player to break par in the brutal 100⁰+ heat, finishing at -1 and defeating Arnold Palmer and Bob Murphy by two shots. On Sunday, Chet Atkins is the guest on Evening at Pops (PBS, 10:00 p.m.), and on the replay of Friday night's Merv Griffin Show which several affiliates offer (having preempted the Friday airing), longtime announcer and sidekick Arthur Treacher says farewell to Merv; the show's preparing to move to Hollywood, and Treacher, who loves New York, doesn't want to move with it.

Monday night at 8:30 p.m., Channel 4, WTAE in Pittsburgh, has a British film I quite admire, from the "Kitchen Sink" era of realistic drama. It's the 1961 black-and-white movie The Mark, which garnered the first and only Best Actor Oscar nominaton for Stuart Whitman as a convicted child molester now rehabilitated and out of prison but struggling to acceptance in the wider world. Maria Schell co-stars as a sympathetic woman who becomes his girlfriend, and Rod Steiger turns in a surprisingly effective performance as the humane psychiatrist who treats him. Whitman has never been what I'd call a great actor, but I've never seen him give a better performance. If it's not your cup of tea, tune in to CBS at 10:00 p.m. for The Wild Wild West, as Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford guest star in the story of a town terrorized by a ghostly rider. And on a replay of NET Festival (10:00 p.m., NET), it's a report on how movie music is no longer for background only. Examples include the use of "Eleanor Rigby" as a sequence in the Beatles' Yellow Submarine.

Tuesday's first run of NET Festival (8:00 p.m.) is "In the Name of Allah," a "colorful" documentary of Moslem life in the city of Fes, Morocco, includng "a look at modern French-build areas of Fes, where young Moslems are rebelling against the traditions of their ancestors." Were this documentary to be done today, I rather suspect it it might have a slightly different tone. Later on NET, Firing Line (9:30 p.m.) presents a debate over capital punishment with Truman Capote, who comes up with the provocative suggestion that all murder cases be tried in Federal courts.

Wednesday the race issue appears again, in the Group W special "The Man Nobody Saw," (KDKA, 7:30 p.m.) It's based on the Kerner Commission Report on race relations, and under the guise of a courtroom drama tells the story of a man (Arthur French) repeatedly rejected by "a white society that ultimately impelled him to commit crimes against that society. As the drama unfolds, it becomes evident that it is not Richardson who is on trial, but rather the 'white establishment.'" The drama is followed by a discusion between blacks and whites about the questions raised by the play, and one of the things these programs makes clear is that for all the discusions about race today, (1) they're nothing new, and (2) you get the feeling nothing's changed. Whether or not that is, in fact, true, is another matter. It is, however, all-pervasive in 1970,

Also on Wednesday, NBC's The Virginian presents "High Stakes," an episode from 1966 starring Jack Lord. Why, you may ask, would they present a four-year-old rerun? Well, for a series that's been on the air since 1962, they've got quite a stockpile of episodes to choose from, and during rerun season you're not going to simply rely on the last couple of years. Additionally, when you just happen to have an episode that features an actor who's now starring in a very popular TV series of his own, even if it is on another network - well, that doesn't hurt, does it?

On Thursday the guests on This is Tom Jones (ABC, 9:00 p.m.) are Anthony Newley, Peggy Lipton, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and John Byner. Newley's singing some of his songs, including "What Kind of Fool Am I," "On a Wonderful Day like Today," and "Who Can I Turn To?"; the man wrote a hell of a lot of hits, didn't he? Dean Martin Presents the Golddiggers (NBC, 10:00 p.m.) features "Marty Feldmen as a traffic cop who things he's a matador and Charles Nelson Reilly as a matchmaker who runs his place like a used-car lot," and Joan Rivers is the guest host for the week on The Tonight Show, a reminder of how her relationship with Johnny Carson went south, and how as much as we might enjoy Johnny in front of the camera, he really was not a very nice man.

Herman's Hermits star in the CBS Friday Night Movie "Hold On!", which Judith Crist describes as "11 numbers barely connected by plot," and goes on to add that "This is a film designed for teen-agers who undoubtedly wouldn't be caught dead watching such teeny-bopper stuff." She feels unsophisticated seven-year-olds might tolerate it.

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Finally, an article by Dr. George Weinberg on those one-parent shows. They're nothing new to television, although in 1970 the single-parent family is never the result of divorce; it's always because the parent is widowed or comes into custody of the children through unusual means. But what do they tell us?

Well, we find that single-parent families are affluent. The fathers are rich, the mothers have good jobs, they all live in comfortable surroundings with helpful friends and neighbors and often employ live-in help. They also enjoy remarkably healthy social lives; although permanent relationships often escape them, their romantic escapades provide fodder for storylines and humorous situations.

The children of single-parent families are well-behaved and intelligent, and they enjoy loving relationships with their sole parent, often bordering on that of two adults. Rarely do we see the territorial possessiveness of a parent that children demonstrate in real life when they feel their position threatened by the appearance of an interloper; the son in The Courtship of Eddie's Father who actively looks for a mate for his dad is an outlier indeed. Only occasionaly, as in Family Affair, do we see the children struggle with the memory of the deaths of their parents.

It sounds as if this is a negative review of the single-parent show as unrealistic, preposterous, existing merely to provide easy plot devices for the writer, but in fact there are many worthwhile aspects to these shows as well, Dr. Weinberg points out, among which is an example of what parenting should be and too frequently isn't. He cites an episode of Mayberry R.F.D. in which Sam (Ken Berry) "discovers from small signs that  his son is removing himself and losing zest for their relationship, [and] he sets out systematically to recover the boy. The story is the father's struggle to make contact again - perhaps a struggle that should be more familiar to us than it is." It is, says Weinberg, an episode that stands "in contrast to shows that thrive on depicting neurosis and violence."

These one-parent shows are watched more or less equally by men, women and children because, Weinberg posits, they offer some promise of the daily life that we once envisioned, a life that seems increasingly "gone and irretrievable." There's an honesty, a devotion to value, a kindness that is generally the chief motive of one or another of the charactors. Weinberg has hopes that programs like these can help reduce the gap between the generations, can improve the relationships between parent and child. There has been a sudden increase in their number on America's TV screens, and they will have ain increasing influence on the next generation of childhood television viewers.

August 11, 2017

Around the Dial

If you thought that, after last week's massive offering, we weren't going to be able to compete this week, guess again.

I've often thought that in order to have been a successful variety show host, back in the days when the variety show was television royalty, you had to be able to do three things: (1) possess a talent that came across on television, (2) use that talent to attract similar types of talent, and (3) play the foil in comedy skits. This explains, for example, why you never saw The Spalding Gray Comedy Hour on television. Gray was perhaps the most brilliant monologist of his time, and proved himself more than adequate at humor during his turn as the Stage Manager in Our Town, but can you imagine an entire hour of Spuddy Grays talking to each other?* That's one reason why Glen Campbell was so successful. His personality was warm and winning; he was a natural on television, both as a singer and actor; and he had no trouble attracting talent to his Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. Oh, and by the way he also recorded a ton of hit records. In short, he had all the qualities one needed, and that's why his program was a success from 1968 through 1972. He died this week after fighting a courageous and very public battle against Alzheimers, and the fact everyone knew it was coming didn't diminish the waves of affection that arose in wake of the news. R.I.P.

Jack Seabrook is on to another phase of his Hitchcock project at bare-bones e-zine, this time looking at the writing contributions of the great Charles Beaumont, beginning with the 1960 episode "Backward, Turn Backward" starring Tom Tully, Alan Baxter, and Phyllis Love. Having seen this episode, I agree with Jack's misgivings; nonetheless, even subpar Hitchcock is often far better than nothing.

Speaking of which, Ben Lindbergh's article from The Ringer (more about this next Wednesday) brings up the pluses and minuses of the truncated television season. In a comment last week, RJM linked to this piece that mentions how The Lone Ranger's inaugural season featured a staggering 52 original episodes over the course of 52 weeks! That may have been extraordinary, but it wasn't unusual to have seasons of over 30 episodes per season, and for many years the yearly norm was well over 20 episodes, but that number is now down to, in many cases, about a dozen. It keeps quality high, but do we lose something in the process? Put another way, would we have been satisfied with 12 Hitchcock episodes a year?

I think I've said this before, but if not I'll say it again: Dave Garroway was truly one of the pioneers of television, and he deserves to be much better known than he is. Thankfully, the staff of Garroway at Large are out to rectify that, and this website is not only a primer to the career of one of television's great communicators, it's also the starting point for what hopefully will become a book-length Garroway biography, which is sorely needed and which I will gladly help promote.

Fire-Breathing Dimetrodon Time (that name just slays me) looks at the thirteenth episode of Logan's Run and mentions an interesting sidelight to the heavy played by Gerald McRaney. Tidbits like that pop up all the time.

If I needed information on TV movies, I can't think of anyone I'd turn to first other than Amanda By Night, and her Made For TV Mayhem. This week it's "An Element of Truth," the devious 1995 con-man meets fem fatale movie starring Donna Mills (who else?). I could easily see a shorter, darker version of this on the Hitchcock Hour, in fact, probably with John Williams showing up as the detective at the end.

At TV Party!, where I've been privileged to publish some of my articles in the past, Billy Ingram reminds us that this is the 30th anniversary of that infamous moment in 1987 when a group of television terrorists took over the Chicago airwaves. It's kinda funny, both then and now (it was, as Billy says, "surely the tackiest terror attack of all time"), but he also points out that the culprits were never apprehended...

Finally, I'll mention this again before the event, but the Mid Atlantic Nostalgia Convention is coming up September 14-16 in Hunt Valley, Maryland, outside of Baltimore. I know some of you are likely planning on being there, either as fans or vendors or, perhaps, presenters. I had high hopes of being a presenter this year, but real life intervened once again, and so my plan now is to be presenting on my TV book next year. I will, however, be there as a fan, and if any of you are going to be there as well, I'd love to meet up for an in-person visit! Please let me know either through the comments section or, if you'd prefer, through the email address that you can access on the sidebar. I really do hope to see you there!

August 9, 2017

The news media on the "Firing Line": 1971

Warning: political content ahead. (For Ray G.)

I hope you have time to watch this at some point, because it touches on things we see debated quite a bit in the pages of these TV Guides, most recently with Chet Huntley just over a week ago. It's William F. Buckley Jr.'s Firing Line from 1971: the title is "The News Twisters," the topic is media bias in presentation of the news, and the guests are TV Guide's Edith Efron and CBS's Andrew Rooney. The positions offered are fairly predictable - as one commentator offers, "the more things change, the more they stay the same" - but no less interesting for all that. No matter how you feel about the issue, you should find this discussion enjoyable; it's one thing to read about this in context, but it's always fun to see it play out in real time, as it were, especially with two of the people we read (and read about) so much.