Westerns used to dominate television - in 1959 alone there were 26 of them. But there hasn't been a successful one since - when? Brisco County, Jr.? That was a quirky series that really tried to transcend the genre to make it more relevant to the 21st Century, but perhaps it was too far ahead of its time, and it only lasted one season on Fox. Firefly? That was another series that Fox didn't really get, and it too ran only one season. It was a blend of the old West and the new West - space. For all its sci-fi trappings, though, its sensibility was the Western. Then there are the modern-day Westerns, from Walker, Texas Ranger to Justified to Longmire, but those are programs that I'd say are set in the West geographically more than philosophically. Little House on the Prairie had a good pedigree, Michael Landon having been one of the stars of one of the last big-time Westerns, Bonanza. Doctor Quinn probably qualifies as a Western in spirit as well as setting, but that strikes me more as soap opera than horse opera.
How the West Was Won wasn't what you'd call a long-running success, but it's one of those shows that seemed always to be on TV one way or another. It started as a TV-movie in 1976, The Macahans, then had a go in miniseries format the next season, before becoming a regular series for 1978 and 1979. As the notoriously reclusive Arness sits down for his "one and only" interview of the new season, he explains to Dick Russell the difference between his two titanic characters. Machaan, he says, is a man from "an era when men were the law unto themselves," making their own rules, taking advice only from themselves. Matt Dillion, on the other hand, "was the opposite - a guy who not only had to see that the laws were carried out, but live by them himself. He had to do the right thing." Arness took this code to heart, as "Miss Kitty," Amanda Blake, recalls: "He didn't want Matt to make a mistake." She wondered why he couldn't be "on the other end of the pole" even once. "Might've been interesting. But Jim would never hear of it."
How the West Was Won gives Arness a chance to live out a different kind of Western hero, one closer to his own persona - the rugged outdoorsman, less restrained and buttoned up than Dillon. But the strength of Dillon, and of James Arness the man, remains paramount. In real life, as a close friend confides, Arness "really believes in the law of the West - what's right is right, and wrong is wrong; there are no grays." It's impossible to not see this quality in Arness, and perhaps that had to do with the end of the Western. As the 50s morphed into the 60s and 70s, society was less confident, less able to tell the difference between right and wrong, more willing to see the shades of grey that Arness was unwilling to acknowledge. The kind of self-assuredness of a Matt Dillon or Zeb Macahan threatens people at times like this, people who lack that kind of knowledge of themselves, and when confronted with it they often shut their eyes to it. By the time the public was again ready for that kind of television hero, as Steven Stark comments in Glued to the Set, the maverick cowboy had been replaced by the maverick police detective.
How the West Was Won leaves the air in 1979, and James Arness will return to Gunsmoke, making five TV-movies between 1987 and 1994. His own foray into police procedurals, McClain's Law, has a brief run in 1981-82. Arness' character, Jim McClain, is described as an "old-school" cop; but when it comes to taking the bad guy to school, nobody does it better than the heroes of the Old West, the ones James Arness plays so well.
Up against How the West Was Won on Monday night is the debut of one of the dumbest ideas we'll see in a long time - NBC's Mrs. Columbo, starring Kate Mulgrew as the supposed wife of Peter Falk's Lieutenant Columbo, an amateur crime solver in her own right. The Lieutenant isn't seen in this series, of course, just as Mrs. Columbo was never seen in the former series*. She isn't seen by many viewers in this series either, and the Lieutenant's shadowy presence makes it much easier for NBC to change the premise; as the always-reliable Wikipedia relates, the negative critical response forces the network to rename the series first as Kate Columbo, followed by Kate the Detective, and finally Kate Loves a Mystery, by which time the character has been renamed Kate Callahan, presumably because even she doesn't want anything to do with this dog. The only real mystery remains how this series gets greenlighted at all.
*Although unlike the detective, she did have a first name, as we see - Kate.
And speaking as we were of Westerns, the star of that grand oater Bonanza is now playing Captain Adama on Battlestar Galactica. Lorne Greene never does recapture the magic of Ben Cartwright; like James Arness, he tries to transition to the role of cop-hero in Griff, but that doesn't work. Galactica, a series which I never thought was quite as bad as its reputation, is probably his most successful post-Bonanza network foray, but I remember him in those years as the commercial spokesman for Alpo dog food. Hey, don't knock it - Ed McMahon did pretty well by Alpo, as I recall.*
*Watch out, though - it's not as easy as it looks.
Lorne Greene did have a notable role in the original Roots miniseries, as a villainous slave owner. This Sunday, right after a special two-hour episode of Galactica, Roots: The Next Generations concludes with James Earl Jones playing Alex Haley as the author, traveling back to Africa in search of his, well, roots. While TNG doesn't quite match up to the impact made by the original - face it, nothing was ever going to compare to the sensation of that - it does receive considerable commercial and critical praise, and takes home the Emmy for best miniseries.*
*As well as an Emmy for Marlon Brando (who didn't refuse) in the brief but memorable role of American Nazi leader George Lincoln Rockwell.
Just as Westerns were the dominant form of television in the day, the 70s is the era of the miniseries. Whether turned into an event, as with Roots and TNG being broadcast on consecutive nights, or spread out, as in the cases of Rich Man, Poor Man, Captains and the Kings, and others, the miniseries is synonymous with quality, epic, must-see television. And while Roots: The Next Generations is a singular sensation in February 1979, there's another landmark miniseries that month leaving its mark on television: Edward the King.
And this could be just the beginning. Operation Prime Time, an ad-hoc collection of affiliates and independent stations, has already struck with big-name productions such as John Jakes' "Kent Family Chronicles" (The Bastard and The Rebel) and Evening in Byzantium, featuring big-name stars like Glenn Ford, Shirley Jones and Ingrid Bergman.* Mobil has plans for more miniseries, and the Group W-owned stations regularly preempt network programming for local public-service programs.
*OPT ran intermittently until 1987, except for its most successful program, which continues to this day: Entertainment Tonight.
The number-one network, ABC, is relatively unaffected by these preemptions, but NBC and CBS are plenty worried, routinely having to offer "make-good" rebates to sponsors because their commercials failed to reach a nationwide audience. The fear is that affiliates may decide to flex their muscles, demanding lower fees to carry network programming under the threat of increased preemptions. And you know how networks feel about their bottom line. But as worried as the networks are in 1979, can you imagine how they would have felt if you'd told them about cable and streaming video?
*Not to mention a victory over the touring Soviet national team - one of only four college teams to accomplish that feat.
The magic continues for the Cinderella Sycamores, as they dispatch three top-ten ranked teams in the NCAA tournament before they run into a team with magic of their own - Magic Johnson, that is. His Michigan State Spartans defeat Indiana State 75-64 in the title game, a matchup that remains the highest-rated college basketball game ever televised. It is, in the opinion of many, "the game that changed college basketball."
Meanwhile, as of this writing, the team that Indiana State defeated that Sunday - Wichita State - is the nation's lone undefeated team in 2014. They're not quite as unheralded as Indiana State, but they're a great underdog team nonetheless. One wonders how their story will end?
Elsewhere in TV sportsland, CBS' NBA game of the week features the Philadelphia 76ers, led by Julius Erving, taking on their old teammate, George McGinnis, and his Denver Nuggets, followed by the final round of the Glen Campbell Los Angeles Open golf tournament (won by Lanny Wadkins). ABC counters with their Sunday afternoon trashsports, in this case Women Superstars, and Sunday's edition of Wide World of Sports (an exhibition by world figure-skating champions). I'm not going to let CBS off the hook though; their own trashsport, Celebrity Challenge of the Sexes, is on against the final episode of Roots: The Next Generations.
Finally, to end our review of this very interesting issue, let's take about a quick look at the week's celebrity game shows? There aren't many anymore - certainly not like the golden age of game shows in the 60s. ABC leads off with Dick Clark's $20,000 Pyramid, with Jo Anne Worley and David Letterman. Password, once a staple of CBS, is now on NBC, with this week's guests Elizabeth Montgomery and Bert Convy. And CBS has its own celeb-fest, the raunchy Match Game '79, with Bart Braverman, Fannie Flagg, Dick Martin, Charles Nelson Reilly, Barbara Rhoades, and Brett Somers. No Richard Dawson - he's on Family Feud by this time.
Maybe there was better money to be made appearing in a brief role on one of those multi-story guest star-studded shows of the late 70s. The Love Boat, for example, has Match Game's Gene Rayburn, while Fantasy Island has our friend Stuart Whitman, Diana Canova and Lola Falana. NBC's $weepstakes has Gary Burghoff, Susan Strasberg, Edd Byrnes, Jack Carter and Nipsey Russell, and the same network's super-disaster Supertrain has Roy Thinnes, Loretta Swit and Victor Buono. And that Celebrity Challenge of the Sexes is a veritable who's who of the B-list: from Valerie Bertinelli, Connie Stevens, Suzanne Somers and Carol Wayne to Sammy Davis, Jr., Gary Coleman, Erik Estrada and Ted Knight.
And then, of course, there are those made-for-TV movies, such as Women at West Point, a CBS movie starring Linda Purl and Andrew Stevens. It makes you long for the game shows, doesn't it?
But without those awful movies, we would have been deprived of the line of the week, coming from TV Guide's movie critic Judith Crist. After ripping the 1969 movie Stiletto, which "gives us Alex Cord as a Mafia hit man masquerading as a playboy," she turns her attention to the 1972 bank heist-flick Snow Job, which "gives us Olympic champ Jean-Claude Killy masquerading as an actor. At least it has some top-notch skiing by Killy; he should have had a stand-in do his acting."