Somewhat to my surprise, it turned out the answer was the classic British series The Avengers. Perhaps it's our American sensibilities, the era in which the show first came to our shores, the episodes that were shown here, or the fact that I'm looking back on it with the perspective of many years, but I have a hard time believing that anyone could ever have taken The Avengers seriously as a spy thriller.
That doesn't mean I'm taking the series lightly or putting it down. If you're been a regular reader, you know The Avengers is a favorite of mine, particularly Patrick Macnee's dapper John Steed. (Of course, there's the beautiful Honor Blackman, the painfully young Diana Rigg, and the shapely Linda Thorson, but that is a topic - or two, or three - for another day. Or week.) I've got the complete boxed set at home, and after having gone through the whole series once, I'm feeling as if it's about time to start from the top once again.
But really. Considering the leather catsuits that Honor Blackman wore, could you really have thought this was straight drama? Apparently so, based on the frustration expressed by producer John Bryce, who after two seasons has finally admitted that "The Avengers was conceived as a satire of counterespionage thrillers, but the British public still insists on taking it seriously."
To be fair about it, the early episodes when Steed was partnered with Ian Hendry, John Rollason and Julie Stevens, were of quite a different tenor. The series was in black and white back then, and shot on tape rather than film, giving the shows a somewhat stagebound feeling Cathy Gale, Blackman's character, was smart, independent, and tough - every bit the equal of her male counterparts. And the villains were typical spies, not fantastic creations that came later, such as the Aquanauts. Seeing these episodes in isolation, one could understand how viewers could have seen The Avengers as pretty much of a straight drama, albeit with some lighthearted moments.
|Mrs. Peel and one of her leather outfits|
By the time The Avengers made it over here, it fit in perfectly with shows like The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Batman, and other over-the-top adventure series. Plus, American viewers never did get to see episodes with Mrs. Gale until they appeared on cable years later. So perhaps we were already well prepared for the joke by that time. Still, I have to admit that the hook for this article turned out to be something of a letdown. I guess the joke was on me this time.
During the 60s, the Ed Sullivan Show and The Hollywood Palace were the premiere variety shows on television. Whenever they appear in TV Guide together, we'll match them up and see who has the best lineup..
Sullivan: Scheduled guests include comediennes Phyllis Diller and Mary Tyler Moore; violinist Itzhac Perlman; vocalist Dusty Springfield; the Brooks Sisters, instrumental trio; comic Jackie Mason; the Cinco Latinos, vocal-instrumentalist quintet; and comic acrobat Doug Hart.
Palace: Host Dale Robertson introduces actress-songstress Betty Hutton; comics Paul Lynde and Carole Cook; vocalist John Gary; French singers Varel, Bailly and Les Chanteurs de Paris; comedians Davis and Reese; juggler Dave Parker; the Bumpy Spectaculars, acrobats; Cueno's Horse Fantasy; and the Womenfolk, a singing group.
Questions: I wonder what Mary Tyler Moore was doing on Sullivan's show? She wouldn't have had a standup act, would she? The Van Dyke show was in full swing so doubtless she was promoting that, perhaps with a clip? The great, great Itzhac Perlman is more evidence of the middlebrow culture that Sullivan understood so well, and people would have enjoyed his appearance; Dusty Springfield would have been representative of the new pop mentality that was on the way. Jackie Mason was a regular performer on the Sullivan show, at least for a few more months.
I've written before about Dale Robertson; he's my kind of guy, but I'm not sure that even Dale can help the Palace out too much. I was never a fan of Betty Hutton; thought she was too much over the top. Paul Lynde is good, but I think he's got to be playing off of someone else. The rest of the show doesn't do a lot for me, which means that though it's not his best, I'm giving the nod this week to Sullivan.
It's interesting that in 1964 people are already looking back to the "good old days" of television, or at least taking stock of the industry and seeing what kind of progress it's made. In the fourth part of a continuing series, TV Guide's editors have asked celebrities what they think of the current state of TV: has programming improved, what kinds of shows would you like to see, and what is the medium's greatest need.
I haven't read any of the other articles, but the respondents in this series seem like a pretty good cross-section of knowledgeable people: satirist and TV veteran Henry Morgan, writer and occasional teleplay author Gore Vidal, Dobie Gillis creator Max Shulman, novelist John Dos Passos, artist Leonard Baskin, photographer Philippe Halsman, TV host Lawrence Welk and Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz.
In general, the consensus seems to be that TV has improved technically and in its ability to cover news and sports, but that the overall quality is either stagnant or has actually gone down. Vidal sees television with an "enthusiastic commitment" to producing junk, while Shulman blames a lack of talented writers and interference from network executives, and Baskin describes programming as "essentially pap." All bemoan the loss of live drama and anthology, and agree that there are too many commercials and too much pressure from advertisers (Halsman has the kindest word, saying that today's commercials "are now often more original and visually exciting than the shows they sponsor."), and Schulz talks of the need for the "artist to be able to record his work without its being torn apart and put together again by a host of others in authority." When asked what TV needs for the future, there are few surprises. The comedian Morgan would like more sketch comedy, comedy specials and comedy dramas; the musician Welk would like music "well played and in good taste"; the artist Baskin longs for the elimination of advertising, the novelist and historian Dos Passos would like more non-partisan news and analysis. Vidal comments acidly that television needs "a sense that getting people to buy things they do not need is morally indefensible," and Halsman looks back with nostalgia "of the time laughter came out of me and not out of a can."
In many ways, we could be having this conversation today. You'd see some of the same complaints about commercials and commercialism, you'd read comments about a need for more serious coverage of the news, you'd hear calls for more creativity and less interference. And yet this isn't really a situation where we look back at an era that was never as good as we thought it was, one that's been burnished by time. For those who know television history, one could indeed say that by 1964, the decline of TV from the Golden Age was well under way. Anthologies, the lifeblood of early television, were mostly gone, being replaced by sitcoms such as The Beverly Hillbillies, and by the middle of the 60s there was a general consensus that TV was being dumbed down dramatically. Though I have many favorite shows from this time period, it's not particularly an era I'd be anxious to return to.
Speaking of the sitcom (dumbed down or not), word on the street (or at least from TV Teletype) is that "Producers of Gilligan's Island are looking for three more regulars to co-star in the new comedy with Bob Denver, Alan Hale, Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer." Those three would turn out to be Tina Louise, Russell Johnson and Dawn Wells. I don't know that I'd ever have considered myself a big fan of Gilligan, but I liked most of those people on it. And I always had a soft spot in my heart for Mary Ann. A very soft spot - in fact, I think she's worth a **sigh**, don't you?
There's a note about some of the stories planned next season for The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo, and the Gilligan note above reminded me that these two shows were on opposite each other for Gilligan's first season, meaning that Jim Backus, the voice of Magoo, will be the first - and only, I think - person in the history of television to appear on two different shows on two different networks at the same time and day. He was competing with himself. Hard to imagine that nowadays.
I'd tell you more of the Teletype news from New York, but that's one of the pages ripped out of this issue. Someone thought a coupon for Kraft mustard was more important. They were probably right.
Despite the notation above about the diminishing quality of television, I offer you, without comment, another installment of this week's lament on the decline of television.
The 1963 Emmy Award nominations have just been announced. The categories are a bit different from what we're used to today; in addition to best comedy, drama and variety series, there's an award for "the best program of the year." The nominees are "Blacklist," an episode from the CBS drama The Defenders (also nominated for best drama), and four documentaries: "American Revolution of '63" (NBC), "The Kremlin" (NBC), "The Making of the President 1960" (ABC) and "Town Meeting of the World" (CBS). Not surprisingly, "Making of the President" won, and while it would have been very difficult not to vote for a program about the election of a man who had been dead for six months, I have to say that it is a very good documentary, and may well have won on its own merits.
And now a word or two about a couple of medical series on the air, and what their storylines might tell us about today's TV world.
*Not technically a spinoff, but the shows did at one point engage in a two-part crossover story.
Each of these series features plotlines this week that I think would be told differently were they on TV today. In Breaking Point, the subject is autism, in the story "And James Was a Very Small Snail." Autism wasn't a very well-known or understood condition in 1964, so the material was probably much fresher than it would be today. Dr. Thompson's (Richards) small patient is seven-year-old Petey Babcock, whose only means of communication with his therapist is through a crayon. Thompson's burden is to con vince Petey's parents and older brother that Petey's only chance at making progress is if he remains at the clinic. Later that week, The Eleventh Hour presents "This Wonderful Madman Calls Me 'Beauty," the story of a biochemist recently diagnosed with a brain tumor, who wants to forego treatment until he's concluded his research on isolating a life-prolonging enzyme, work that he feels is on the threshold of success.
Breaking Point is, I think, even more fertile ground. Today this story would be on a legal show - The Good Wife, probably. The issue would be the legal rights of the family vs. the health of Petey, which I think overlooks the heart of the drama: the mystery of existence, the depth of the human mind, what "quality of life" really means. Once again, without watching the show I can't tell what the producers did with the story, but given that it's not an episode of Ben Casey, I think it's safe to suggest that some of these deeper issues might have been explored.
My point here (and, as Ellen used to say, I do have a point) is that in the 60s, "issue" drama was a big deal. Despite what we read earlier about the diminishing quality of television, dramatists such as Sterling Silliphant* and Reginald Rose were well-known for raising big themes on TV, and these two stories seem as if they could have fallen in that category. (Their episode titles were certainly pretentious enough.) By reducing the storyline in, say, Breaking Point to a legal, rather than an existential, point would be to miss that point entirely.
*Silliphant's Route 66, pretentious though it could be, was also possibly one of the most existential series ever shown on television.
If anyone out there has seen either or both of these episodes and can show my theories are full of hooey, by all means please do so. It wouldn't be the first time, trust me. But in reading these storylines, I couldn't shake the idea that there was something about them that was different, richer, from what we might see today.
If I haven't put you to sleep completely with that last section, a brief mention of this week's cover story should be a good way to wrap things up. Combat! was probably the best of the World War II dramas that populated television in the 60s; it was a gritty, realistic portrayal of an American squad of troops working their way across Europe following D-Day. (It also didn't hurt that all but the last season was done in B&W.) The stars, Vic Morrow and Rick Jason, more or less alternated leads each week, though they also could appear together in stories. Morrow is probably the better known of the two, but Jason was thought by many to be the likely star of the series when it began, and he's the focus of the unbylined profile.
Jason reminds me a bit of a similar profile of Jack Lord that was done a few months before; both come across as men trying just a little too hard to show everyone what Renaissance men they are. In Jason's case, it's how he prides himself on sculpting, painting, woodworking, leathercraft, carpentry, plumbing, landscaping, cooking, photography, dog training, fish breeding, guitar playing, singing, writing, bridge, chess, hunting, fishing, underwater swimming, and karate, in addition to starring in a weekly hour drama. He also reads "everything from Aristotle and Plato to Henry Miller," pilots an airplane, and speaks Spanish, French, Italian and Chinese. Makes me tired just to type that.
The typically unnamed friend concedes that Jason probably does "most, if not all, of these things" but adds that "he's not as much of an expert as he'd like you to think." His first wife says "he is very handy - but he never finishes anything." Like Lord, he's seen as something of a throwback to Hollywood's larger-than-life stars of its glamorous past - "Vic is more of an actor," another unnamed source says, "Rick is a star." But whereas Jack Lord clearly rubs some people the wrong way, Rick Jason is inherently more likable, with "a naiveté which might leave him open to ridicule were it not for his very guilelessness."
I wasn't particularly impressed with Jason's character as presented in the first episode of Combat!, a show that for some reason I remembered from its last seasons, but like Jason the man, he grew on me as the series progressed. It's a show that, unlike M*A*S*H, has aged well because it never tried to tell a contemporary story through the lens of a period piece. It's never dated, because it's frozen in time as a moment in history. However, I can promise that after I've watched an episode featuring Rick Jason, I've had no particular desire to get up and do some woodworking, fix the plumbing, whip up a gourmet meal, train a dog, study Chinese, . . .