September 28, 2013

This week in TV Guide: September 30, 1961

From the beginning of time – or at least the introduction of television – there’s been much handwringing about the content of programming and its effect on viewers specifically, and culture in general. Over the last few weeks I’ve pointed out several discussions surrounding violence on television, and what can (and should) be done about it. In this week’s issue, mystery writer Mickey Spillane has a novel idea - improve it!

Spillane is author of the hard-boiled Mike Hammer detective series, perhaps one of the most violent of a violent breed of pulp thrillers, so it’s no surprise that he believes there’s a place for it on television. However, he points out, “Fiction writers don’t incite to riot; they simply dramatize what is already there, and long before TV and Mike Hammer there was a World War, the Roaring Twenties, the living Untouchables, and dead Dutch Schultz, Pretty Boy Floyd, Little Augie, Dillinger and Mad Dog Coll with their Bonnie Parker-type broads.” (Any doubts that Spillane wrote this article himself should have been dispelled by that sentence.” Yes, Spillane says, his books are filled with “highly explosive scenes, but in reality they were only fictionalized facts and any day you can see these things in existence in your local papers.”

The problem, according to Spillane, is what might be thought of as “lazy” violence, the kind that permeates today’s television. It’s cliché-driven, “fake judo chops or wild punches that can belt a villain 10 feet without knocking his hat off,” or “a hero with a chopper dropping a half dozen actors with blank bullets.” Such overt violence "is not necessary.  It uses up valuable storytelling time, brings on the screams of critics who threaten Governmental control and mighty often annoys the sophisticated audiences it is trying to entertain.” Such violence “goads toymakers into selling snub-nosed guns so authentic-looking that they were outlawed in New York City unless altered in color.”

Interestingly enough, Spillane offers a suggestion that would likely have won approval from the writers roundtable I discussed last week. Audiences “still want violence, but it needs to be based on the suspense of“impending action” rather than the gratuitous use of fists and guns of today’s shows. "A war of nerves can be so deadly between fictional characters as well as actual nations that when climactic action does finally come it is almost a relief."  This kind of violence, “portrayed at the proper time and portrayed believably is rarely castigated. You can expect a wild explosion from dynamite, but not from a firecracker, and it’s trying to build firecracker scenes into dynamite ones when they don’t belong that causes the explosion to fire in producers’ faces.” The result, says Spillane, is that “Rather than a frenzied, overt violence continually erupting in fist fights and shootouts, the violence is held in check, a grenade with the pin out but the handle still held down.”

Spillane points out that two of television’s greatest authority figures – Joe Friday and Matt Dillon – rarely resort to “the stilted, pseudo-bloody action seen in one of some current shows.” The violence was there; “It was about to happen every second and you knew it and wondered how it was going to come about. But in between a story got told and an audience got entertained believably, no critics screamed and if kids wanted to emulate a hero they got good ones in Friday and Dillon. And brother, you still don’t mess around with Old Matt.”

And it’s the need to tell a cohesive story that Spillane keeps coming back to. Audiences are more sophisticated now than they were years ago, a fact that movies have begun to understand, and they’re “far more selective in their choice of entertainment,” which requires television violence to be “refined to a higher degree to satisfy story-conscious audiences who have developed as objective viewers as the trade itself has developed technically.” Violence can’t and shouldn’t be eliminated from television, Spillane implores, but it needs to make sense in the context of a well-written and well-told story. “If I’m right,” he concludes, “I’ll be on the wave of a new trend. If I’m wrong the public will bury me as quickly as it did many others.”

***

One of the things I particularly like about this era of TV Guide is how live events are frequently described with a mix of up-to-the-date and to-be-announced information. Case in point is the start of the World Series on Wednesday morning (10:45am CT). There are no divisions in 1961, no playoffs except in case of ties, so the American and National League champions go straight to the Series. There were more than a few years when this meant the two participants were known well before the end of the season, because they’d either already clinched the pennant or were far enough ahead that their victory was taken for granted.*

*For another example of TV Guide’s timeliness, see Sunday afternoon’s episode of G-E College Bowl, pitting TCU – winner of last week’s match – against Buffalo University. College Bowl was a life broadcast, which meant that this issue couldn’t have been published until Monday at the earliest.

At press time, “it looks like the Cincinnati Reds vs. the N.Y. Yankees this year,” and so it was, with the powerful Yanks topping the Detroit Tigers by eight games, while the Redlegs managed to hold off the Los Angeles Dodgers* by four. New York had appeared in nine of the previous 11 Series, including 1960, when they’d lost a breathtaking Game 7 to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Cincinnati, meanwhile, was making only their fourth appearance in the World Series, and their first since 1940, when they’d defeated Detroit (the only non-tainted Series they’d won to that point, the other being the year of the 1919 Black Sox Scandal). The undermanned Reds were led by future Hall-of-Famer Frank Robinson, while the Yankees countered with a Murderer’s Row that included Roger Maris (fresh off breaking Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record with 61), Mickey Mantle (who’d hit 55 of his own), and 25-game winner Whitey Ford. The Reds surprised New York by winning Game 2 and headed back to Cincinnati with the Series knotted at a game apiece, before the Yankees reasserted control and swept the next three, winning the Series 4-1.

*And how strange that still must have sounded in 1961, only four years after the Dodgers had moved from Brooklyn.

A note about that starting time – we often hear it said that the World Series can’t be played in the afternoon anymore because people wouldn’t be able to see or hear it, and yet a starting time of noon Eastern couldn’t have been an accident. It would have afforded anyone in the Eastern and Central time zones a chance to catch a sizable part of the game during what was undoubtedly an extended lunch hour (with a few liquid libations on hand, no doubt), and stories abound of schoolchildren smuggling transistor radios into classrooms under their shirts, listening to the games through earphones. As is the case with so many things in life, half the fun of a daytime World Series was the effort required to follow the game. An accompanying article mentions that 300 million people worldwide are expected to watch the Series. Nowadays, games are seldom done before midnight – and they wonder why the game’s having so much trouble attracting younger fans.*

*Another mark of changing times – a notation that if the game “is concluded before 2pm the regularly scheduled programs will be seen.” If today’s Yankees were in that Series, they’d probably be reaching the 7th inning just about then.

The rest of the sporting landscape pales in comparison. For NFL football, the Vikings take on the Baltimore Colts on CBS, while ABC’s AFL Game of the Week features the Houston Oilers and the Dallas Texans. Saturday’s college football spotlights one of the game’s great matchups, between Oklahoma and Notre Dame. It was Notre Dame that ended Oklahoma’s staggering 47-game winning streak four years previously, and while this season finds both teams far from their glory days, it’s still worth a 15-minute pregame show spotlighting the tradition of the rivalry (despite the fact the two have only played four times). By the way, if you’re reading this article on Saturday morning, it’s not too late to catch the two doing battle again this afternoon, on NBC.

***

The new season is here, and this issue is full of new and returning series making their debuts this week. There’s the aforementioned Gunsmoke, for example, making its inaugural appearance as an hour-long drama after six seasons at 30 minutes.* According to the always-reliable Wikipedia, thirty television Westerns came and went during Gunsmoke’s run.

*The half-hour dramas would appear in syndication as Marshal Dillon; in the UK, the series would be known as Gun Law. I kind of like that one.

On Monday a new medical drama premieres on ABC - Ben Casey, starring Vince Edwards and Sam Jaffe.  It runs for five seasons, and you might remember it from the famous opening titles:


Another successful series makes its debut Tuesday night, on CBS.  You might have heard of it - The Dick Van Dyke Show, "starring comedian and musical-comedy performer Dick Van Dyke as comedy writer Rob Petrie."  That had some pretty famous opening titles as well:



Other successful shows have already had their coming-out party: NBC had Ben Casey's archrival Dr. Kildare, along with Car 54, Where Are You, International Showtime (hosted by Don Ameche, presenting a different international circus each week), and Hazel, with Oscar winner Shirley Booth, as well as the debut of the popular Saturday Night at the Movies; CBS added The Defenders to its stable of hit series such as The Andy Griffith Show (starting its second season), Perry Mason (season number five) and The Danny Thomas Show (also fifth season), and welcomed Mr. Ed, which had previously run in syndication.  A pair of new and much-loved cartoons appeared on Tuesday nights - Top Cat on ABC, and The Alvin Show on CBS; both would go on to greater fame and glory on Saturday mornings, while The Bullwinkle Show made the move from ABC to NBC, where it would air early on Sunday evenings.

And then there are those shows that are probably best forgotten, since viewers didn't really remember them to begin with.  It seems as if you were particularly in for it if you'd experienced previous success.  Robert Young had had a big hit with Father Knows Best (still in reruns on Wednesday nights), not so much with Window on Main Street, which remained open for only 13 weeks. Similarly, Gertrude Berg had been a TV pioneer with the early hit The Goldbergs (not to be confused with this year's new sitcom), but couldn't duplicate the success with Mrs. G. Goes to College, later retitled The Gertrude Berg Show.  It didn't help; no matter which title you preferred, you only had 26 shows to watch it.  Bob Cummings, whom audiences had loved for five seasons on Love That Bob, fared less well with The New Bob Cummings Show, which audiences only loved 22 times. Calvin and the Colonel, an animated gloss on Amos 'n' Andy, was  26 and out.  Leslie Nielsen starred in The New Breed, playing a member of the Metropolitan Squad, an elite corps of the Los Angeles Police Department.  He'd have better luck 20 years later playing a member of Police Squad, a special branch of the Police Department.

***

That goofy face on the cover belongs to Carol Burnett, years before she has her own variety show. Right now she’s entering her third season as part of the cast of The Garry Moore Show on CBS, but there’s already reason to suspect stardom is not that far away. Earlier in the year she was voted Favorite Female Performer at the TV Guide Awards, defeating Loretta Young, Barbara Stanwyck, Dinah Shore and Donna Reed, and Moore says her talent “is so powerful you almost have to protect her from it.” She’s had a hit novelty song, “I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles,” and received a Tony nomination for the Broadway musical Once Upon a Mattress.

She tells a story of the time she went to a fashionable restaurant in slacks, because she had once seen a slacks-wearing Marlene Dietrich dining there. Told by the captain that this wasn’t permitted, she apologized, saying “I’
(L-R) Garry Moore, Carol Burnett, Durward Kirby
ve just been fitted for a new wooden leg and I’m still not used to being out in dresses.” It’s that ability to spin any situation into one that will draw laughs, combined with her modesty and all-around likeability, that bodes well for the future.

As a matter of fact, the person most skeptical of Burnett’s future success is Carol herself. Moore says she won’t believe in her own feminine charms, and others point out that when she’s complimented for a particular piece of work, she almost always insists it could have been done better. When she won the TV Guide award she was so unprepared, so sure that one of the others would win, she burst into tears and for a moment forgot everything as she tried to accept the award.

But Garry Moore is indeed right when he says that Carol “has got to be a star.” She’ll remain with the Moore show for one more season, but as Moore says, she’d “be foolish to continue with our show after next season.” Series offers are already coming in, and sooner or later the right one will appear. It’s not The Entertainers, a failed variety show that ran for one season in 1964. But Moore says it’s only a matter of time – “She’s got a glimmering, but no real idea how important she’s become.”

***

Channel 11 wraps up its coverage of Billy Graham's Philadelphia crusade with a Friday night broadcast.  The night's topic: "Will God Spare America?"  The crusade is broadcast from Municipal Stadium, which in three years will be renamed John F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium.  Over the next few years, there would be many things from which God would not spare America.

Finally, the Editors despair at the low ratings for last season's more educational television fare.  People are always complaining that there's nothing "for the mind" on television,  but when they're given the chance they still tune out.  Last season's highbrow shows, such as Winston Churchill: The Valiant Years and Eyewitness to History were routed by such series as The Untouchables and Gunsmoke.  The Editors weren't surprised by this, but "we had hoped that the informational shows would gain more attention, more audience, than they did.  It seemed most of those who campaigned for serious programming instead of violence kept watching violent shows instead of the serious ones."

NBC has a new strategy, though.  They've taken Sing Along With Mitch and moved it to Thursday nights, directly opposite The Untouchables.  Stanley Frank wonders if NBC's "measuring Miller for the Distinguished Service Medal or a truckload of Purple Hearts."  Somewhat surprisingly - or maybe not - Sing Along bloodies the veteran cop show, which moves to Tuesday nights the next season before moving off the schedule completely.  Now, I'm not ashamed to admit that I love watching The Untouchables - but you ought to know by now never to bet against anyone named Mitch.

September 26, 2013

Around the dial

One of these days we'll make it to the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention, although I suppose I don't have any excuse for not having attended the one year that we lived two states over from where it was held, in Maryland.  Anyway, until that day comes, I'll just have to live vicariously through those that were there - and Joanna from Christmas TV History has a great write-up of all the excitement - with great pictures!  I'm so jealous of that picture of Joanna in the Tardis...   Meanwhile Andrew from The Lucky Strike Papers was there as well, and has his own report from the scene.  Andrew, if you're reading this - your book is next up on the pile in our library!

Speaking of great stuff (and of Maryland), I'm never sorry to head over to the Broadcasting Archives at the University of Maryland.  What I wouldn't give to spend a few hours in that collection.  This week's offerings include everything from vintage radios (which I find particularly of interest, since I'm into a bit of a radio phase right now) to pictures celebrating the anniversary of the historic Kennedy-Nixon debates.   Can you imagine people getting that excited about a debate between presidential candidates today?

I didn't watch the Emmy Awards last Sunday, which I suppose isn't too surprising considering I don't watch most of the shows that were up for awards, but at TV Gems Tom tells us what we missed - and it isn't surprising that some of the best moments came from the classic TV stars.

Fred Astaire was pure elegance.  Even if he's just sitting there, he does it with style.  And in the days when variety specials really were must-see TV, few of them were as must-see as the trio of specials Fred did from 1958-1960.  Fortunately, Kinescope TV takes us back to those days, and do make sure to take some time to check the video out, one of the oldest existing shows broadcast in color.  I promise you won't be sorry - unless it's that there aren't shows like this on TV today.

And I can't think of a more graceful note on which to end for this week.  See you back on Saturday, when I promise that This Week in TV Guide will be more about what's on the tube, and less on my pontificating!


September 24, 2013

Continued from last Saturday...

When last we met, back on Saturday, we were in the middle of looking at the September 25, 1965 issue of TV Guide. But since I'd blathered on for so long about the lead story (see here if you've forgotten), it didn't leave much time for anything else, and there are some very neat things, particularly ads for the new season, that you'd probably like to see. So I've decided to carryover the discussion, which means that if you're here to see what the #4 show is in "Mitchell's Top Ten," you'll have to wait another week. I hope you can manage.

***

We're about two weeks into the new season, and the pages of TV Guide are filled with ads for new network lineups.  NBC is particularly aggressive about this; they have ads for each night of the week, and they're making a big deal out of how many of their shows are in color.  (As always, you can click on any of these images to enlarge, although I can't be held responsible for how large the images might appear.)


NBC's Sunday night lineup has some clear hits; Friday night - not so much.  But hey - they're in color!*

*Except for Convoy, a World War II drama that was forced to take the B&W route since it was heavily dependence on old war footage.  Because of that, many NBC affiliates refused to clear the show, and it was gone before the end of the year.  Not that the rest of them (excluding U.N.C.L.E. did much better.)

This ABC ad from Sunday night is interesting; unlike the NBC ad above, this one doesn't mention the local affiliates.  Maybe it's because ABC was also investing heavily in color broadcasts - but, as we learn from the individual program listings, Channel 6 in Austin does not yet colorcast.  Perhaps that's why ABC was perennially in third place back then - people didn't know where to find the stations.  (That's a joke.)


Oh wait, here's one that includes the channel numbers.  But this from the sponsor, not ABC.  And Channel 6 still doesn't colorcast.*

*They would eventually go to color in 1967.


CBS alone foregoes advertising the entire night's programming.  I'm not sure why; perhaps I missed it from a previous issue, or maybe I'll run across it next week.  I've seen them in the past, though.  As a matter of fact, they have precious little advertising of any kind in this issue, but they do manage to sneak in a sole ad for the Thursday Night Movie.  And it includes channel identification!  (By the way, the movie's in black and white.)


And we wouldn't want to forget him, would we?


***

A couple of stray observations: this week's cover story is a fairly snarky piece by Thomas B. Morgan as he accompanies Jackie Gleason and his TV family (and a couple dozen reporters) on their raucous train journey from New York to Miami Beach, where he taped his weekly variety show, to kick off the new season.  I'm not a big fan of this type of journalism, which was seen frequently in TV Guide (as well as other magazines) in this era.  There's a condensation to Morgan's tone, a sense that he's taking overheard conversations and trying to put them in the worst light, ridiculing them without the tone or style of, say, P.J. O'Rourke.

Johnny Carson's celebrating his third anniversary as host of the Tonight show; could anyone have imagined there were, what, 27 more of these to go?  It's not a clipfest as we would become accustomed to in years to come, just a regular show with Jerry Lewis and George Burns as guests.

And finally, the jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi is the subject of the NET documentary Anatomy of a Hit, profiling the recording sessions for his new album, Black Orpheus, including the Grammy-winning hit "Cast Your Fate to the Wind." 


Guaraldi was a wonderfully talented musician - if the name doesn't sound familiar, perhaps this, his biggest hit, does.  You might have heard it a time or two.

There now, aren't you glad I spent one more day on this issue?

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.

September 20, 2013

Around the dial

A day late, perhaps, but that just gave me a little extra time to find some worthwhile links for you to check out.

Fun post from Rick at Classic Film and TV Cafe, listing the five best classic television detectives. I might have found a place for the erstwhile British inspectors Morse, Lewis or Foyle, and I would agree with those who might have taken a pass on Jessica Fletcher, but a great piece nonetheless, and a very perceptive choice of Poirot as number one.

Speaking of lists, Amy at Embarrassing Treasures has her list of five favorite classic TV show openings. Regular readers know that from time to time I've enjoyed talking about my own favorites in this category - specifically, The FBI, The Fugitive and Perry Mason. Again, not only catchy, but recognizable to any TV fan. It's our loss that so many series have moved away from more substantial openings (and theme songs).

Anyone out there remember Josie and the Pussycats? I watched this cartoon Saturday mornings, although I'm not sure if it's because of the cartoon itself, or because at that age I'd watch any Saturday cartoon. (A few years later, and me a few years older, and I figure I would have been at the age where the Pussycats had a distinct appeal...) At Comfort TV, David takes us back to those neat, sweet, groovy days.

I've been putting the finishing touches of a couple of future "This Week in TV Guide" entries, in which a highlight of the week's broadcasting is the broadcast of afternoon World Series games. (One year starting at 10:45am CT, if you can believe it.) In a similar vein, Jeff at Classic Sports TV and Media gives us a rundown on weekday daytime major sports broadcasts. Great information for detail buffs like me, who also enjoy living in the past...

Todd VanDerWerff at The Onion A.V. Club tells us that the Golden Age of TV is dead, long live the Golden Age. Some very interesting thoughts here on everything from what makes a TV series a classic to what makes a TV era a golden one. I think he's particularly right in talking about how the scarcity today of 50s programming may make the era seem better than it is, and how the 60s (at least the early part) weren't as bad as we might remember. I won't dispute the labeling of the last few years as another Golden Age, even as I concede that I fail to appreciate its appeal.

And also from The Onion, as well as other sources, this note on NBC's proposed miniseries biopic on Johnny Carson. For as much as we revere Carson's memory and his impact on television, I wonder how relevant he is to the viewers of today, considering how long he's been off the air, and how invisible he became as soon as he left. Has Carson become one of those figures your grandparents watched? I don't know. But as an added bonus, Grantland's Ken Tucker has some ideas on his dream casting lineup for the miniseries.

Finally, at the Classic TV History Blog, Stephen has a terrific "true story" take on The Fugitive. The details are terrific, from the photo captions to the tone of the story. I won't tell you any more - read it for yourself!

Think that's enough for today? Let's call it a wrap, and meet back here tomorrow for another episode of TV Guide!

September 17, 2013

Mitchell's Top Ten, #5: What's My Line?

Each week for the next couple of months, I’ll profile one of the series that appear on my personal Top Ten list. I don’t claim that these are the ten greatest series of all time; that would be presumptuous. However, I do presume to identify those shows that mean the most to me.

These aren’t academic histories or encyclopedic entries; rather, they’re personal memories of shows that, through the years, have brought me delight, influenced my way of thinking and doing, left their indelible traces imprinted on me. Think of it as a memoir of my life as seen on TV.




Felix culpa. Happy fault, in the Latin. An accident, something that wasn’t supposed to happen and probably shouldn’t have happened but did, and something very good comes from it.

You never like the phone call in the middle of the night, because it can only mean one of two things: bad news, or a wrong number. In the case of the later, you often wind up angrier than if it had been the former, partly from frustration, partly from relief. On this particular night, which I suppose was ten or so years ago, it was indeed the later. I answered the phone, exercising one of my few natural gifts, that of sounding wide awake even when I’ve been roused from a deep sleep. The voice at the other end was female, not pleasant sounding. I can’t remember now if she asked for a man or a woman – a man, I think – but it was obviously not me she was looking for, and I told her she had the wrong number. She didn’t seem to like this idea, and insisted that I put this person on. I hung up, since she sounded as if she might have had one-too-many and wasn’t open to reason.

A moment later she called again, reiterating her demand that I put this person on. I repeated my assertion that no such person existed, at least in our home, and to leave us alone. By the time of the third call (for she was nothing if not persistent), I resorted to threatening to call the police. “Go right ahead,” she assured me. There was something both nasty and determined about her, suggesting that if this was a prank it was a malicious one, and if not then whoever she was after was in big trouble.

Well, after three calls it was starting to get a little disturbing, frankly, so I unplugged the phone. Little good it did, though, for now I was wide awake, and at a quarter after two in the morning the better part of the night’s sleep was already gone. And then an idea: I had a doctor’s appointment that afternoon, and I had to fast 12 hours for it. I still had time – why not go to the kitchen and get something to eat? And while I was at it I might as well turn on the TV and see what was going on. After all, what would a snack be without TV, especially when you didn’t have to worry about waking the rest of the house?

My wife wasn’t particularly hungry but was just as awake, so we trooped out to the living room, where I sat in my recliner with a bowl of instant oatmeal and the TV remote. It was hard to find anything but informercials until I stopped on a black-and-white videotape image. I’d run into the Game Show Network, which I’d seen a couple of times but not often enough to remember what channel number it was, and the image I was seeing was an early 60s broadcast of Password. I’d always enjoyed Password, had had the home version when I was a kid. It was a kick seeing the old fashions, the formality, the celebrity guests. We watched the end of the game (“Gee, that was fun!”), and I checked the programming guide to see what was next. What’s My Line?, I was told. I had no idea these shows were on, so I figured that another half-hour without sleep wasn’t going to make any difference.

Felix culpa.

Suddenly I was taken back to another time and place – another world, really. A genteel, sophisticated world where men wore tuxedos and women evening gowns, where everyone were erudite and humorous and well-read. It was love at first sight.

A typical line
I remembered watching What’s My Line?, which had premiered in 1950 and ran until 1967, when I was a kid. I didn’t remember that much about it, although I knew my mother hadn’t liked Bennett Cerf, head of Random House and a regular panelist – she thought he was a political liberal, and quite possibly a Communist. I knew the name Dorothy Kilgallen; she was a newspaper columnist, and had died from an overdose in the early 60s. Arlene Francis I recognized from her appearances on game shows throughout the time, though I didn’t know then that she was also a serious actress. And John Daly, the host, was always described with words like "urbane", and had been the Mystery Guest on the show’s last episode.*

*Fun fact: John Daly's second wife was the daughter of Earl Warren, Chief Justice of the United States.

I wasn’t about to repeat the experience of getting up at 2:30 to watch What’s My Line?, which is why God made it possible for the VCR to be invented. And as the episodes flew by, and the years*, I came to view the WML team as old friends, joining a legion of fans (such as Wall Street Journal theater critic Terry Teachout) who relished the reruns on GSN and discussed their cultural significance.

*There were a lot of episodes in those seventeen years, even though many of the early ones no longer exist. The show was often done live and never did reruns, meaning that if you multiply 17 ½ seasons by 52 weeks and eliminate the less-than-three-dozen times it was preempted, you’ll come up with the nearly 900 episodes that were made.

It was an innocent time back then, or at least one much different from our own.  It was a time when viewers could be amused by the idea that a woman might be a men's barber or a district attorney, that a man with a charming British accent might be a high school history teacher on loan from England, that a young college student could earn extra money by raising worms or catching mosquitoes for research purposes.  It was, in short, a time when people did things, made things, used their hands, and that's one reason why the show probably wouldn't catch on today - nobody makes anything anymore.  We all have computers to do the jobs that we haven't already outsourced to India.

Clockwise, from top: Bennett,
Dorothy, John, Arlene
Bennett might in fact have been a Commie, though he most certainly was a liberal, but he was also literate and witty, a connoisseur of puns and an appreciator of female beauty*, a man who read both the front page and the sports page and knew what was going on. Arlene was elegant and charming, aristocratic at times, but always seeking to form a bond with the contestant. Dorothy, who many viewed as the “heavy,” could be a shrew and sometimes seemed to be a little tipsy as well, but was incredibly shrewd and intelligent, as was her wont as a Broadway columnist and crime reporter, and her death – even though it occurred almost 50 years ago – is still affecting. And the guest panelists – from Steve Allen, who only left the show because of his duties as host of Tonight (and who also coined the question “is it bigger than a breadbox” on WML) to Robert Q. Lewis’ smoothness to the cultured, dignified tones of Arlene’s husband, stage actor Martin Gabel

*It was also a time when men in the audience whistled whenever a pretty girl signed in, and she was flattered by it.

And there was the man who held it all together - John Daly, who was the most urbane man on television, with his South Africa cum East Coast accent and a habit for circumlocutions that often required a road map to follow.* For over half the show's history, John also managed the neat trick of hosting What's My Line? Sunday nights on CBS while remaining an ABC News executive and host of the network's Monday through Friday nightly news broadcast (he left ABC in 1960).  What I particularly liked about him was that he was not neutral, but most definitely on the side of the contestant, taking every opportunity to try and mislead the panel as to the occupation under discussion. “We got ‘em!” he would say after a contestant had stumped the panel.

*A trait that, for better or worse, I’ve noticed popping up in my own discourse over the years.

So familiar was the panel after so many years together - John was always there, Dorothy was on the very first show,Arlene the second show on, and Bennett by the show's second year - that they became like family friends, stopping over for a Sunday nightcap and some witty conversation before bedtime.  And so it was a distinct shock to everyone when Dorothy died in 1965 of an apparent accidental drug overdose.  That first broadcast after her death was a somber one, John and Bennett, along with old friend Steve Allen, eschewing their tuxedos in favor of straight ties and dark suits, while Arlene and Kitty Carlisle, a Goodson-Todman mainstay, wearing simple dresses rather than evening wear.  The show, in the best entertainment tradition, would go on, but it was never really the same after that; Dorothy's place was filled by guest panelists, and the end for What's My Line? would come two years later.*

*Fred Allen, the well-known radio star who had replaced no-relation-Steve as a regular panelist in 1954, died suddenly of a heart attack in 1956, and was similarly mourned.  Like Dorothy, his seat was never permanently filled; Martin Gabel would be the most frequent guest panelist.

The appearance of the celebrity “Mystery Guest” was always a highlight of each program, with John introducing the segment with words that would seldom change from episode to episode, year to year. It seems as if everyone was on at one time or another, and if they were there mostly to shill for their latest book, movie or television show, it was still fun to see them trying to disguise their voice in order to escape detection.  One of the most famous Mystery Guest segments of them all was the last one, on the series finale of September 3, 1967, when John himself was the mystery guest, shuttling back and forth between his chair and the guest's.  It was a glorious end to the show's 17-year run.


The syndicated WML, which debuted in 1968, had some of the charm but little of the class of the original; John’s references to “Miss Francis” and “Mr. Cerf” being replaced by Wally Bruner (and later Larry Blyden) introducing Soupy Sales. No, there’s no doubt that the world of What’s My Line? is long gone, but there are few television shows that can better reflect that world through its words and images. As long as I have a top 10 list, What’s My Line? will be part of it. And to think it came about totally by accident – Felix culpa, indeed.


The countdown is off again next week but returns in two weeks to reveal the first of the final four series, featuring a man who'd rather not be a number


Last week: Perry Mason

September 14, 2013

This week in TV Guide: September 16, 1967

This week, Neil Hickey asks the question “Do TV cameras add fuel to riot flames?” Rioting is a big deal in 1967 America, between the civil rights protests and the anti-war movement, and although nobody knows it at the time, it’s about to get worse in the next year. Demonstrators, like many other people, are becoming very media-savvy; WABC reporter Cindy Adams recalls the time she got a call from someone representing a group protesting U.S. military involvement in the Dominican Republic, asking WABC to cover a protest they planned at the Dominican Republic’s UN mission. When Adams asked what time the demonstration would start and how many would be there, the woman replied, “We’ll have as many marchers as you want out there any time you say.” Notes Hickey, “An increasing number of social and political activists are learning that it is possible to manipulate TV news to their own interests.”

However, the manipulation rubs both ways. Hickey tells the story of a reporter covering the demonstrations surrounding James Meredith’s enrollment at the University of Mississippi. Seeing the protesting students “taut but controlled,” the reporter “leaned from his car and shouted to a group of them, ‘Hey! Where’s the action? I heard there was action going on around here!’” That, of course, did the trick. The students “turned the newsman’s car over and burned it, sending him scrambling; the violence spread from there. At the end of it, two men were dead.” Many think TV played a similar role in the New York race riots of 1964 and the Watts riots the following year. As ABC’s Tom Jarriel says, “There’s no doubt that a camera causes pickets to act up more vigorously. They know the power of TV exposure.” Wherever you have a camera, the journalists agree, you’ll draw a crowd.

So, Hickey asks, what can be done? Suggestions include holding off on reports of violence until the police have established control, avoiding the spread of rumors and unconfirmed news, basing coverage from police command posts rather than wading through the crowds, and bringing cameras out only when there’s something to actually film. More important, perhaps, is the use of experienced, seasoned newsmen dedicated to presenting the coverage “soberly and untheatrically,” rather than using a crisis for his own professional self-aggrandizement. As John Lawrence of CBS remarks, “More trouble is caused by young and inexperienced wire-service reports than by TV men.”

Whatever happens, Hickey concludes, the answer is not a rigid code, but rather the unwritten “law” of news coverage: that TV should not shape the event through its coverage, and should not allow itself to be manipulated. Only through that self-responsibility can television avoid playing an even larger role in the news stories it covers.

***

I don’t usually spend much time talking about the week’s movie presentations, but with the start of a new TV season we usually see a flock of broadcast premieres, and this week is no exception. A pair of blockbuster Oscar Best Picture winners make their television debut: The Greatest Show on Earth, Sunday night on ABC, and The Apartment, on CBS Thursday night. According to TV Guide’s Judith Crist, Greatest Show offers a “lavish exposition of the thousands involved in the colorful, sprawling, glittering sawdust world of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey organization,” with an all-star cast including Charlton Heston, Jimmy Stewart, Betty Hutton and Cornel Wilde. On the other hand, Crist finds The Apartment witty but cynical, and despite the “charming” star power of Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, the movie is “unpleasant, albeit fascinating.”

Also featured this week is the Western epic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, starring Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne and Lee Marvin. Crist describes it as solid, plain but unsubstantial, with the villainous Marvin adding “a tinge of flavor” to a harmless, white-bread movie. Paradise, Hawaiian Style is the latest Elvis movie, not to be confused with 1961’s Blue Hawaii. For one thing, Crist says, this one has “a cute little girl who sings.” Stay away, though, from the other Shirley MacLaine vehicle, What a Way to Go, which Crist describes as “unadulterated dullness, relieved by neither taste nor intelligence.”

***

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..

It’s first-run for both shows this week, with Ed featuring Yul Brynner, who accompanies himself on the guitar to sing “Two Guitars,” “Sokolovs Guitar” and “Okontchen”; Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme*; the singing Kessler Twins; comedians Flip Wilson and Rodney Dangerfield; and the Skating Bredos.

*Who just died last month. I didn’t think it necessary to include TV Guide’s notation that she was Steve Lawrence’s wife. Everyone should have known that by now.

Palace: host Milton Berle presents singers Lena Horne, England’s Donovan, and Spanky and Our Gang. Also on the bill: dancer Neile Adams (Mrs. Steve McQueen) and David Hedison, who takes part in a take-off on his series “Voyage” [“to the Bottom of the Sea.”]

I dunno. Neither of these lineups sets the world on fire. The Palace is starting the season off on Wednesday night, rather than its traditional Saturday timeslot (to which it will return shortly), and it just doesn’t look right. I’m going to give the nod to Sullivan primarily on the basis of Steve & Eydie, although Yul might have killed with his guitar solos.

***

The football season is in full swing – at least by 1967 standards. ABC’s college football coverage kicks off with the network’s A team of Chris Schenkel, Bud Wilkinson and Bill Flemming in College Station, Texas to cover the SWC matchup between SMU and Texas A&M. SMU wins the game, 20-17, a rare highlight in a mediocre season for the Mustangs, who finish 3-7. The Aggies continue to stumble after this game, starting off the season 0-4 before ripping off seven straight victories to win not only the SEC title but the Cotton Bowl. Channel 11, the independent station, picks up the slack with some small-college football between St. Norbert and St. Thomas, and returns Sunday morning with a condensed version of yesterday’s Notre Dame action.* Actually, it’s a season preview, since the Fighting Irish don’t start until the following week.

*I have fond memories of those Sunday morning rebroadcasts, with Lindsay Nelson at the mic. They were great fun to watch after church and before the pro games started. The phrase “We now move to further action” will live forever in the mind of any football fan from that era.

Both the AFL and NFL are in regular season form as well. CBS’ NFL coverage varies depending on where one lives: in the Twin Cities and Rochester, where the Vikings home game is blacked out, viewers are treated to the New York Football Giants’ 37-20 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals; in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, the Packers are the home team and WKBT carries the Pack’s 17-17 tie against the Detroit Lions. As for stations in Duluth and Iowa, the Vikings game carries the day – but in a losing cause, as the Vikings drop the season opener to the San Francisco 49ers, 27-21.

NBC’s coverage is much more straightforward: all stations carry the doubleheader that starts with the Houston Oilers’ 20-3 victory over the Buffalo Bills, followed by the San Diego Chargers’ 28-14 Oakland Raiders' 35-7 defeat of the Boston Patriots. Interesting that game one of the doubleheader begins at 1pm CT, with game two being picked up in progress. This was fairly common for the time, when games generally kicked off at 1pm local time, and yet because games didn’t run for over three hours, viewers might only miss the first quarter.*

*If I'm not mistaken, that graphic accompanying the AFL game on KSTP looks an awful lot like Floyd Little, #44, who had been drafted #6 that year by the Denver Broncos.  Or else it could be Ernie Davis, who also wore that number for Syracuse.

No Twins baseball this week, which means they must be on a homestand, since they’re in the thick of the American League’s Great Race. The week’s only TV game is NBC’s Saturday Game of the Week, featuring either Baltimore at Boston or Washington at Detroit. Both the Red Sox and Tigers are embroiled in the battle for first place that includes the Twins and Chicago White Sox.

And Wide World of Sports has another of the first-round bouts in the tournament to select a new heavyweight champion. This week, European champ Karl Mildenberger, who fought and lost a title fight against Muhammad Ali last year, takes on Oscar Bonavena in a live broadcast from Frankfurt, West Germany. Heavily favored, Mildenberger loses a 12-round decision to Bonavena; he’ll only fight three more times, losing twice, before retiring.

***

This issue of TV Guide may not be the Fall Preview, but we’ve got plenty of season and series premieres anyway. Jay North, perhaps better known as “Dennis the Menace,” stars in NBC’s short-lived Saturday night adventure series Maya, where he plays a teenager searching India for his missing hunter-father. It was off the air by February, 1968. More successful was CBS’ Mannix, which stars the first of its eight successful seasons on Saturday night as well, starring Mike Connors as a throwback private detective working for a computerized agency.

Gentle Ben was a feature of CBS’ Sunday night schedule for two season; interesting to see TV Guide’s note that “Ronny Howard of ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ and series regular Clint Howard are brothers.” On NBC, there’s a pair of Westerns, with Bonanza starting its ninth season, followed by High Chaparral’s first. Other new series include Accidental Family, Ironside, The Jerry Lewis Show, The Mothers-In-Law and The Danny Thomas Hour (NBC); The Carol Burnett ShowGood Morning, World, Dundee and the Culhane and Cimarron Strip (CBS); and The Guns of Will Sonnett, Off to See the Wizard, The Flying Nun, The Second Hundred Years, Custer, Garrison's Gorrillas, NYPD, Coyboy in Africa, and Good Company (ABC).

The famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee* tries her hand at talk with her new half-hour syndicated chat show, directed by future Oscarcast producer Marty Pasetta. Gypsy’s constantly at odds with the producers over her desire to discuss topics such as cancer, cosmetic surgery and prostitution, and her proclivity to be, shall we say, free with her language. The show was never aired live but always taped, giving producers the chance to blip out any objectionable language. Lee once complained that she was even blipped for talking about damming a river.

*Fun Fact: Gypsy Rose Lee’s younger sister was movie star June Havoc.

Also premiering Monday is CBS’ long-running soaper Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, created by Ima Phillips (the godmother, as it were, of the television soap) and running until 1973. Speaking of Ironside, Ray Burr is once again on the cover of TV Guide, only this time, as C. Robert Jennings reports, he’s working for the prosecution instead of the defense. Jennings’ story repeats many of the details of Burr’s life that we now know to be false, including the marriages and the non-existent son, and also reinforces much of what we know about Burr the actor: he’s a professional, a hard worker, a man who makes countless trips to Korea and Vietnam (22 by 1967) and donates his time and money to several charitable causes. In Vietnam he’s known as someone who’s more interested in listening to the troops than in talking about himself. As one Air Force gunner says of him, “We all think Ray Burr is one helluva fellow.”

So, after nine arduous years as Perry Mason, why does Burr return so quickly to the grind of series television? He likes to work, and appreciates the challenge of playing the wheelchair-bound police detective Robert Ironside; “There’s more latitude for showing a human being because he is not tied down to a courtroom.” But even more he likes the pleasures of life that money can provide him. He gets to spend six months in Fiji, for example, and to spend another month travelling. “It also enables me to do some things in the future that I can’t do now. I am very rich, but I don’t have a large bank account.” His dream is a life where money produces no worries, no concerns. “I want to be free to give, to exist, to live.” As Burr says, “I don’t know what a man is on earth for if he hasn’t done it all.”

***

Finally, on September 10, ABC preempted its entire prime-time schedule to present a four-hour documentary entitled "Africa: A Journey to Discover the People and the Land That are Africa Today," narrated by Gregory Peck with additional commentary from ABC newsman Howard K. Smith. Now, a week later, ABC repeats the series in four weekly one-hour broadcasts. The interesting thing: the air time is 8:30 CT Tuesday morning. I can only think that the network’s trying to reach an audience that wasn’t available the previous Sunday night, offering the show to homemakers hungry for something more substantial than game shows, soap operas and Gypsy Rose Lee.

September 12, 2013

Around the dial

Occasionally reading other blogs can be not only illuminating, but sobering; there's so much good writing out there that for a writer like me, it's kind of daunting. But, hoping that after reading them you won't forget about me, here are some of the past week's highlights.

Stephen Bowie's Classic TV History Blog was one of the first and best TV blogs I started reading, and it's still one of my favorites. Here's a very funny sight gag that explains Hawaii Five-O for all of us; on a more serious note, while at The Onion AV Club, Stephen has a rundown on The Fugitive, a show which you'll recall I covered a few weeks ago as part of my Top Ten. I have to disagree with him slightly in his assessment of Gerard; while he could often act like an ass, I do think he understood Kimble better than anyone else, including the unlikelihood of Kimble committing further crimes. But a great piece!

I always liked Dick Powell, but unlike many movie buffs I'm more familiar with him as a dramatic actor rather than the musicals in which he started out, and I've probably seen him more through television than on the big screen. At Classic Film and TV Cafe, Rick has a typically good offering of six things to know about Dick Powell. Two things you can add: Powell played Richard Diamond on radio (David Janssen, from the aforementioned Fugitive, played him on TV), and he also originated the role of Amos Burke on TV as part of Dick Powell Theater; that role went to Gene Barry in the series.

Be sure to check out Comfort TV this week, as David lists the seven least intimidating TV villains. I probably still wouldn't have wanted to tangle with any of them.

Hopefully, most classic-TV buffs know that Gunsmoke was a radio drama before appearing on television. I had the chance to hear some of the radio episodes a couple of years ago, and they're remarkable in their detail. Glad to see that Embarrassing Treasures is giaving some time to it - take the advantage to listen to those five favorite episodes.

It's back to the 60s again in this week's TV Guide - we'll see you back here again on Saturday!

September 10, 2013

Mitchell's Top Ten, #6: Perry Mason

Each week for the next couple of months, I’ll profile one of the series that appear on my personal Top Ten list. I don’t claim that these are the ten greatest series of all time; that would be presumptuous. However, I do presume to identify those shows that mean the most to me.

These aren’t academic histories or encyclopedic entries; rather, they’re personal memories of shows that, through the years, have brought me delight, influenced my way of thinking and doing, left their indelible traces imprinted on me. Think of it as a memoir of my life as seen on TV.




James Lileks once wrote that it was the secret dream of every lawyer to have the theme to Perry Mason played at his funeral, and a lawyer friend of mine later acknowledged it was probably true.

Few television shows have had an opening title sequence more representative of its content than the one used for the third season of Perry Mason.* It starts with the camera looking down on a stylized figure standing in front of the judge’s bench. There are no walls in the animation, no courtroom to be seen; just a still white image of a man, isolated and alone, open and vulnerable, before the bar of justice. It is the lawyer, engaged in single-warrior combat, the only man standing between an innocent client and the gas chamber. And that lawyer, we see when the camera returns to eye level, is Perry Mason.

*Along with the original opening of The FBI, it’s my favorite series opening of all time.

It’s not only stylish but gripping, telling us everything we would ever want to know about the character of Perry Mason. For Mason is a loner; we never see him out socially with anyone other than Della Street, his devoted secretary, and Paul Drake, his stalwart private investigator; we never see the inside of his apartment unless it’s to establish the setting when he receives an emergency phone call in the middle of the night. Mason's life is the law - you get the idea he reads law books for relaxation - and he’s chosen to pursue that profession by putting himself in the most vulnerable position available to him: that of a trial lawyer committed to seeking justice for his client.


The odds are always against him: the evidence of his client’s guilt is usually considerable, the DA and police are confident of victory, even Paul Drake has his doubts. His reputation and his undefeated record probably put even more pressure on him, what with everyone expecting him to pull another rabbit out of his bottomless hat - not only getting his client off, but identifying the true killer. That’s more than most people would ever want to deal with, and yet by all evidence, Perry thrives on it. What an interesting character!

Some people say that Perry Mason is formulaic, that the plots are often preposterously complicated, that Perry often functions more like a detective than an attorney, that he never seems to have more than one client at a time, that anyone seems able to walk in and see him without an appointment.

To such people, this is what I have to say: So what?

Burger about to snap his pencil after yet another airtight
case crashes in flames
Yes, it’s formulaic, as most series are. When you watch an episode of Perry Mason you know exactly what you’re getting: several characters are introduced, with one of them generally in some kind of untenable situation. Often, that person starts out consulting Mason about this situation, which suddenly fades into the background with the appearance of a dead body. The evidence usually puts Perry’s client at the scene of the crime at roughly the same time as the commission of the murder, and the client has ample motive for committing the crime. The client complicates matters by lying to Perry, or at least withholding the entire truth. The District Attorney, Hamilton Burger, and the homicide detective, Lt. Arthur Tragg, are obsessed with the idea of defeating Mason.*

*Burger more than Tragg; the good lieutenant occasionally acquiesces to one of Mason's far-fetched schemes, in the pursuit of truth. Burger, on the other hand, sometimes seems as if he doesn't much care whether the accused is guilty or innocent as long as he can beat Mason.

In the pre-trial hearing* Burger’s evidence seems unassailable, until Paul comes into the courtroom with a vital piece of evidence. Perry’s frowning visage fades, replaced by a steely determination as he launches into a withering cross-examination, punctuated with one rapid-fire question after another, always starting with “Isn’t it true,” at which point either the witness or someone in the packed gallery blurts out an admission of guilt (frequently without remorse). Before the final credits run, the gang gathers, usually either in Perry’s office or a restaurant, where he regales them with an explanation of just how he figured out the identity of the guilty party. Fade to black, and the theme music reappears. All you have to do is change the names of the actors and their characters, and you’ve pretty much got 90% of the stories right there.

*A cost-saving method; by staging the action in a pre-trial hearing, the producers didn’t have to cast – or pay for – a jury.

"Isn't it true?"
But it’s precisely this formula that makes the story so enjoyable. It shares the same qualities as a Three Stooges short or a Road Runner cartoon – you can see the punch line coming, which is half the fun. We salivate waiting for the key moment when Perry gets the guilty party on the stand, and with the first “Isn’t it true” question, we grin knowingly, because that’s the sign that the jig is up, that it’s just a matter of time before the truth comes out. From the moment Perry Mason stands up to start the fateful cross-examination (and he can get wonderfully contemptuous), these people have had it – they just don’t know it yet.

True, there are some questions. For example, the office of District Attorney is an elected one in many cities, including Los Angeles (where the show is set), and it’s hard to see how Burger* keeps getting voted in when he loses every high-profile case he tries. And what about that police department? They seem to constantly be arresting the wrong person, after little more than a cursory investigation which suggests they already have their minds up before they even start. Tragg’s just lucky he isn’t back to walking a beat. In that sense one might see a fairly subversive undercurrent to this series.

*I wonder if anyone ever calls him "Ham"?  As in Ham Burger?

There’s never much of a passage of time between the commission of the crime and the pre-trial hearing, either – usually a matter of days, seldom more than a few weeks. Even if we’re looking at a significant period between the hearing and the actual trial (which we hardly ever get to), that’s still justice moving at the speed of light compared to what we have nowadays. And, even considering the judge’s desire to provide the defense with the greatest amount of leeway, Perry seems to get away with a lot.

And to all this, my answer remains: So what? There are few series that have been as much fun to watch as Perry Mason. Raymond Burr, simply put, is Mason; he embodies the role so much that it’s no surprise in real life Burr made many speeches before bar associations. Burr radiates a an overpowering presence, a confidence that most lawyers – or just about anyone else, for that matter – would kill for.*  If I were in serious trouble, I cannot imagine just how comforting it would be to have Perry Mason out there fighting for me. I'd probably figure that if he couldn't get me off, I must be guilty. It is rare that any actor can project that kind of power, but Burr does it week after week.

*And smooth, too.  When a fan once confronted Burr demanding to know how it was that Mason won every case, he replied, "But madam, you only see the cases I try on Saturdays."

And Perry’s surrounded by a great supporting cast: Della (Barbara Hale), the absolutely perfect confidential secretary; Paul (William Hopper), the private detective who, although he’s sometimes a step or two behind Perry, always delivers the key information in the nick of time.* Burger (William Talman) is properly villainous; seeing his smug face fall when he realizes that Perry has outwitted him yet again, is one of life’s simpler pleasures. And the performance of old pro Ray Collins as Tragg is almost always scene-stealing – it’s a shame that Collins died during the sixth (of nine) seasons.

*One of the things the series does quite well is portray Drake as the head of a large and successful business, the Drake Detective Agency. Contrary to the typical lone-wolf PI, Drake employs a number of good detectives, and has contacts in cities all over the world. He also knows how to throw his weight around.

As was the case with Nero Wolfe, about which I wrote last time, watching Perry Mason led me to pick up the Mason books, written by Erle Stanley Gardner. Gardner wrote over 80 of them, many of which were adapted for the series. They’re not great art, but they’re great fun. In those books, even more than in the series, Mason comes across as a man dedicated to seeing that his client gets a fair break: he’s suspicious of authority, determined to prevent the police from rushing to judgment, willing to bend the rules to the breaking point in pursuit of the truth, and unwilling to rest until that truth is uncovered.

I wrote some time ago about the prevalence of police procedurals on TV today, and wondered if this in some way had the subliminal effect of reinforcing the public’s acceptance of police and governmental authority. If that is the case, it’s also interesting that there’s nothing like Perry Mason on TV anymore, a series built around a trial lawyer defending the innocent, taking on the state and its authorities, and winning. It’s our loss, in more ways than one.



Next week: The game show that was the most sophisticated half-hour on television
Last week: Nero Wolfe