September 21, 2013

This week in TV Guide: September 25, 1965

Earlier this week I was reading yet another article on yet another current series I've never seen, Breaking Bad, and how it could well be the best show of the contemporary “Golden Age of Television.” According to many critics, the state of the television drama has never been higher than in the last 15 or so years, from NYPD Blue, ER and The Sopranos through the ongoing trifecta of Mad Men, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones.

This outcome might well have come as a surprise to the industry insiders interviewed by Edith Efron in this week's TV Guide. The question: Can TV Drama Survive? The experts include some of the bigger names in television drama, including future Star Trek major-domo Gene Roddenberry, Route 66 and Naked City co-creator Sterling Silliphant, and Bruce Geller, who at the time was producer of Rawhide and went on to create Mission: Impossible and Mannix among other hits.

Looking back on the 1965 television season, what do we see in the way of TV drama? There are returning series such as Perry Mason, Slattery’s People, The Fugitive, Ben Casey, Dr. Kildare and Peyton Place; Westerns like Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Rawhide and The Virginian; adventure shows like Daniel Boone, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Wild Wild West and Lassie; war dramas like Combat and Twelve O’Clock High and newcomers including Run For Your Life, Lost in Space, I Spy, The Big Valley and The FBI.

What you don’t see much of are what might be called “issue” dramas, weighty social pieces like Route 66, Naked City, East Side/West Side, The Defenders – all shows that were known for tackling topical, controversial issues with a weight and gravitas, and often advocating for unpopular causes. The focus of this discussion revolves around where such "serious" drama has gone, why, and what can be done about it.

To say that these men had strong opinions would be something of an understatement. For example, Christopher Knopf, head of the Writers Guild of America West, relates how various interest groups – “Siegfrieds going forth to fight the flaming dragon with a lance,” as he puts it –pressure networks and sponsors to change or even cancel programs because they don’t approve of how something is portrayed. Bruce Geller tells Efron that there’s “no way to portray [a member of a minority group] as a villain” – the one time he tried to introduce a black character as a villain, he was forced to make him an Argentinian instead; “I guess there’s no Argentine pressure group.”

Jack Neuman, whose works included the topical teacher drama Mr. Novak, bristles when the subject of government intervention is raised. “These dictums to eliminate sex and violence from drama are destroying drama,” he tells Efron. Sex, says Neuman, is “the drving force of every man and woman in the country,” and as for violence, “anyone who tells me to take violence out of drama – I say, go to hell!” Roddenberry posits that censorship itself caused the excessive reliance on physical violence in the first place; “conflict is the source of drama,” and if the conflict doesn’t come from the subject matter, it’s inevitably going to come from something more physical. *

*How would these men have reacted to the cultural backlash against TV violence in the wake of the King and Kennedy assassinations in 1968? Going based on these words alone, I rather suspect Roddenberry’s quote contains the answer.

Without a change, they all argue, the future of television drama is bleak. Roddenberry calls the future “a cultural disaster”; Gellar sees “no hope of it getting better,” Knopf says that “the genuine spark of the individual creation is gone,” traded for what he calls “polished mediocrity.”

Sterling Silliphant (Washington Post)
Many of the complaints these men voice are real. Stories of interference by sponsors and networks are legion – such as Rod Serling’s World War II concentration camp drama which was forced to strike every mention of gas chambers because the program’s sponsor was a natural gas company, and another Serling story in which a British naval captain was prohibited from drinking tea by the show’s coffee company sponsor. Programs dealing with controversial topics often felt the network censor’s wrath, or were subjected to preemptions by nervous network affiliates. Dramas touching on race were particularly sensitive topics in the 50s and 60s - there’s an urban myth that one Southern station refused to air Bewitched because the portrayal of a mixed marriage – even one between a mortal and a witch – might give viewers the idea that there was nothing wrong with marriage between blacks and whites. Now, that particular one isn’t true, but the fact that it sounds plausible underscores how a vast array of tensions make it difficult for TV dramatists to produce bold work.

And yet, I still find much of it ringing hollow. Silliphant, in talking about the tyranny of the ratings system, says that “Products are legitimately noncontroversial. Art is not. Products can logically command an audience of multimillions. Art cannot. Good creative writing, with a viewpoint, must necessarily be disturbing, probably offensive, to part of those millions. The statistics determining the survival of TV plays are relevant to advertising, not to art.”

But is television scriptwriting really art? I don’t know. It is a commodity, though – something to be pitched and purchased and used primarily as a vehicle to sell a product. I know various studies question the correlation between programming content and sales success (or lack thereof) of the sponsor’s products, but for the sake of argument let’s assume that everyone agrees Client X wants to sponsor Program Y because X would very much like to publicize X’s product, which it hopes will happen through its sponsorship of a popular television program which many people will watch. It should hardly be surprising, therefore, that said sponsor would indicate a preference for a program that people will be encouraged to watch. What the television producer has to do, then, is make a compelling case that his or her program fits that bill. And the question then becomes this: will an audience willingly watch a program that they find offensive, or insulting?

Silliphant seems to resent this whole notion, in suggesting that ratings “are relevant to advertising, not to art.” Even assuming that Route 66 and Naked City can be categorized as art, does that somehow qualify them for an exemption from the rules of market economics? Most of us would probably put a Mozart symphony in that general “art” category - and yet Mozart had wealthy patrons (including a Holy Roman Emperor) who subsidized his compositions, opera companies who commissioned him to write new works. If they didn’t like what he wrote, if the seats in the opera house remained empty, the pantry would soon find itself that way as well. Verdi’s operas were often highly charged with political issues of the day – and government censors often forced him to change his subversive themes. Does that prevent us from seeing Nabucco or I vespri siciliani as masterpieces?

The truth is that there have always been market pressures at work on those who try to create, in whatever media they choose. Van Gogh sold only one painting during his lifetime. Bach was better known as an organist than a composer. Kafka died before much of his work was published. And Mozart himself died a pauper. Few were the artists who saw their works praised while they still lived, even fewer were those who could afford to be independent, free to ignore the dictates of others. Sic semper erat, et sic semper erit - thus has it been, thus shall it always be.

***

What also emerges from this discussion is the perception of a certain contempt for the American people, or at least a particular segment of it. Roddenberry talks of “the attitudes of the Bible Belt, of the religious orthodoxies, the business community, the Madison Avenue people who, historically, have never been people with fresh, brave opinions,” while Geller refers to “rigid, anti-intellectual and vociferous groups” whose opposition stifles creativity.

Gene Roddenberry
Again, having granted some of the more egregious instances above, Roddenberry’s words still denote an elitism, a distain for what might be thought of as middle American values, and a suggestion that much of the public is too stupid to appreciate the wisdom and artistic drama that’s being presented before them. that is almost breathtaking, if not surprising. Richard Alan Simmons, executive producer of the lawyer series Trials of O’Brien, complains that writers “must avoid attacking the primacy of the state, religious values, sexual values, sensitive social areas.” And I ask, not rhetorically but seriously, is that necessarily a bad thing? Perhaps it’s just semantics, but I rather think there’s a difference between challenging something and attacking it. What we see too often today is the latter, an attack on the values, customs, beliefs, mores of a sizable portion of the public. There’s nothing wrong with being provocative, with challenging people to think about a topic in a way which they might not have previously considered, with presenting opposing sides of an issue. That’s good, constructive, and can be very entertaining. Attacking something, ridiculing, mocking – that’s something else.

The NAB Code, which Silliphant saw as “the barbed wire, the prison guards and the machine guns” under which writers had to live*, set rules for the portrayal of situations such as adultery, suicide, and physical violence, and “demands that conventional virtue triumph, that conventional vice be punished.” Simmons saw the result that “the cultivated person is made into a buffoon, and the salt-of-the-earth low-brow emerges triumphant.” Does Simmons see himself, and those who think like him, as that “cultivated person” - in other words, the one who knows best? And why, he might suggest, shouldn’t everyone feel that way?

*I find this analogy particularly objectionable, considering that soldiers in Vietnam (and, before that, Japan, Germany and Korea) were living under actual barbed wire, prison guards and machine guns. They probably would have enjoyed the chance to sit at a typewriter and be told what they could and could not write.

Now, it’s not wrong to say that the Code should have been changed, that it was certainly restrictive when it came to storytelling. Shakespeare and Wagner would never have survived the Code. For that matter, the Bible itself probably wouldn’t have fared too well. However, there are still a lot of people who, for example, view things like drug usage and sex outside of marriage as wrong, or at least as something that shouldn’t be encouraged and glorified, and I think too often the impression we get from today’s elites is that such a reaction is a backwards, ignorant, even hateful opinion that must be mocked and ridiculed at every turn. Understandably, people who hold those beliefs don’t particularly like being mocked and ridiculed, and in their quest to rid themselves of the meddlesome Code, I wonder if writers haven’t gone too far in the other direction.

Bruce Geller
What has taken its place, at least in part, is what former Pope Benedict XVI once referred to as the “dictatorship of relativism,” in which good and bad have been redefined or, even worse, obliterated altogether. The discussion of good and evil can’t take place, because neither of them exists anymore in an objective form. For television to reflect this cultural development is one thing; for it justify and glorify it is something else, especially at a time when mass culture doesn’t offer much in the way of protection for those who want to resist it.

And so television today reflects a changed landscape. The concerns which these men offered in 1965 are largely forgotten; the biggest threat to television drama today is not censorship, but “reality TV,” which recognizes no boundaries and costs far less to produce than scripted drama. Is this significant? I’m not sure. The Golden Age of Television Drama continues, a far different one than that which existed in the 1950s, reflecting a far different America than that which existed then. Is it a better America? Are we better off now than we were then? Would you trade one period in time for another?

Such blanket speculation is meaningless; every era, every decade, every year and month and day has its good points and bad, which form the tapestry of life that makes things so fascinating. But can we honestly say that, on balance, we’re better off now without the standards, the restraints, the codes which this article condemned?

Dorothy L. Sayers, the mystery novelist and a pretty fair dramatist herself, once remarked that the central theme of a murder mystery is the restoration of the world to truth through the equilibrium of justice. If justice is not dispensed, the equilibrium does not exist, and the mystery fails.

And really, isn’t mystery what life is all about?

***

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

Hollywood Palace: Host Bing Crosby introduces jazzman Louis Armstrong; comedian Phill Harris; the 36 singing Young Americans, led by Milton Anderson; comic magician Carl Ballantine, a regular on “McHale’s Navy”; Pat Woodell, formerly of TV’s “Petticoat Junction,” who makes her TV singing debut; Danish trapeze artist La Norma; French ventriloquist Fred Roby; and Simms’ performing ponies.

Sullivan: On the second show from Hollywood, Ed’s scheduled guests are Dinah Shore; comic Jack Carter; rock ‘n’ roller Trini Lopez; actress Gertrude Berg; singer Leslie Uggams; the University of California (Berkeley) Band, and Komazuru Tsukushi, a top-spinner.

It may be September, but these lineups feel more like the dog-days to me, with emphasis on “dog.” The Palace has Bing and Satchmo, and that’s enough. One of them had to come out on top.

If you’re looking for something better, my suggestion is NBC’s Bell Telephone Hour, airing at 5:30pm CT on Sunday afternoon. It’s a tribute to “The Music of Jerome Kern,” with Ginger Rogers, Ella Fitzgerald, Metropolitan Opera soprano Roberta Peters, msucial-comedy performers Earl Wrightson, John Davidson and Nancy Dussault, and pianists Ferrante and Teicher.

***

One of the dramas fondly remembered by those of us who were around back than is Run For Your Life, a creation of Roy Huggins, father of The Fugitive. I wrote about Run For Your Life a few weeks ago, but the premise concerns Paul Bryan (Ben Gazarra), a lawyer diagnosed with a fatal disease which will kill him in one to two years, but will leave him relatively symptom-free until near the very end. Bryan decides, in his words, "to squeee 30 years' living" into that period.

As I say, many people remember this show fondly, and it's been a popular addition to the retro station Cozi. But one person who doesn't have such warm feelings is TV Guide's critic, Cleveland Amory, who warns potential viewrs to "do as the title suggests." It is a potential source of trouble when one of the kindest things a critic can say about a show is that "the color is magnificent", although it should be added that in this day when shooting a series in color was a real selling point, this praise isn't perhaps as faint as it would seem.

Ben Gazarra in Run For Your Life
Amory praises Gazarra for giving his all - acting as if he really believed the far-fetched premise he'd been given.* At this early point in the series' history - Amory bases his review on the first two episodes - the writers are clearly struggling with how to tell the story without lapsing into cliche and heavy-handedness, and to Amory's ears they seem overly intrigued with Gazarra's health, turning him into something of a noble mystic spouting such mysterious lines as "I have played [the game of life and death] - and I lost." He also finds lacking many of the people Gazarra runs into in his adventures; speaking of Katharine Ross' performance in the premier episode, Amory says that "we couldn't tell whether she was that shallow or her part was - but no matter, we wanted no part of her."

*Gazarra, a classically trained stage actor, often felt frustration himself with what he saw as the superficiality of the role.  In many ways it was a paycheck job for him.

Thanks to Cozi, I've been able to see these two episodes, along with quite a few others. And, in truth, while the show is fun to watch and brings back some good memories, there's much to what Amory says. The show is hampered by a lack of on-location shooting, relying heavily on file footage and backlots to document Paul Bryan's globe-trotting; had the show committed to going on-location in a similar way to, say, Route 66, the results might have been quite different. And the scripts seldom go beyond telling traditional stories; Paul helps a young woman learn how to love, Paul helps a friend accused of murder, Paul works to end legalized gambling. They're stories that any series could tell, while at the same time they rarely deal with the existential aspects that arise from a man living with a death sentence: besides spending his money doing everything he ever wanted to do, how does one prepare for death? If you knew you only had two years to live, what would you do to make sure you'd lived a life of value; what would be your legacy? It could be that the producers simply didn't want to deal with that aspect, although I suspect Gazarra might have. But it does tend to underscore the comments we read at the beginning of today's post. Run For Your Life was a real opportunity to introduce thought-provoking drama, and too many times it fell short.

***
And with that nice little piece of linkage, I think I'll call it a day. Since I spent so much time on the future of television drama, I haven't left much for the discussion of television's present (1965-style, at least). So what say you come back here on Tuesday, and we'll take a look at some additional highlights from this week's issue? After all, the new season is in full swing, and if we don't look at the new shows quickly, we might not have another chance.

2 comments

  1. At the time of this issue, the second "Star Trek" pilot had been filmed and was in "post-production".

    Interestingly enough, producer Gene Roddenberry and NBC had a dispute on whether the Vulcan Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) would be kept in or not. In the end, Spock stayed, and would go on to be one of the most iconic characters in the history of television.

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    Replies
    1. Yes - it's totally in keeping with Roddenberry's character and his view of the integrity of the writer's vision that he holds firm to what he wanted in that show, and his concept of Spock. And it's brilliant. I may disagree frequently with Roddenberry, but I credit him for being consistent, and here he's absolutely right.

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