September 30, 2014

Police procedurals and (non-existent) civil liberties

I've commented before on this habit I have of finding material in unusual places.  I think this is due in part to how my mind works, but also it demonstrates how pervasive television is in our culture.  It's used constantly as a reference point and frequently demonstrates, better than many other media, some truths about ourselves, both as individuals and as a society.

My latest example is this article by Gregg Easterbrook at ESPN.com last week.  The main thrust of the story concerns the unprecedented backlash experienced in the last few weeks by the NFL, which is not the point of this post but is interesting in and of itself.*  Not quite halfway through the article, however, Easterbrook takes a right turn into discussing television, and points out something I've been constantly harping on regarding police procedurals.  I bring this up only to mention how nice it is to find someone else whose mind works the same way as mine, at least part of the time.

*In particular, I appreciate the point he makes about how the NFL "holds up a mirror to American society."  I don't necessarily agree with everything he says, but it's the same point I make constantly about television, and TV Guide - it's like holding up a mirror to a given point in American cultural history.

Easterbrook's writing about Chicago P.D., the latest cop show by schlockmeister Dick Wolf, who's responsible for the Law & Order franchise.  This connection doesn't surprise me a bit, for reasons I'll explain shortly.  In discussing how unrealistic the show is, he makes points that could, in fairness, be made about most police shows throughout the years (excessive numbers of murders, exaggerated shoot-outs, the idea of extreme crime as an everyday occurrence, convicted killers being released "by order of the police chief"), and adds something that any watcher of a Dick Wolf show should know upfront: "This really is not how the justice system works." Easterbrook then makes a point that I've made time after time:

But what's disturbing about Chicago P.D. is audiences are manipulated to think torture is a regrettable necessity for protecting the public. Three times in the first season, the antihero tortures suspects -- a severe beating and threats to cut off an ear and shove a hand down a running garbage disposal. Each time, torture immediately results in information that saves innocent lives. Each time, viewers know, from prior scenes, the antihero caught the right man. That manipulates the viewer into thinking, "He deserves whatever he gets."

In the real world, law enforcement officers rarely are sure whether they caught the right person or what a prisoner might know. Some ethicists say there could be a ticking-bomb exception -- if the prisoner could reveal where a ticking bomb is, then torture becomes permissible. But how could a law enforcement officer be sure what a captive knows? And if by this logic torture is permissible, wouldn't that justify torture by, say, the Taliban if they captured a U.S. airman who could know the location of a planned drone strike?

NBC executives don't want to live in a country where police have the green light to torture suspects. So why do they extol on primetime the notion that torture by the police saves lives? Don't say to make the show realistic. Nothing about Chicago P.D. is realistic -- except the scenery.

To this, I can only say, "Yes!"  My very point, in pieces such as this one, is that the American public is slowly being conditioned into accepting certain kinds of authority - abuses, really - as necessary to today's world.  After all, what have we got to fear from the government if we're innocent?  We shouldn't have to worry about having our phones tapped, or our mail read, or the possibility of being tortured - right?

Now, I know what some of you are thinking - hey, these are just television shows.  Why get so uptight about them, seeing conspiracies lurking behind every badge?  True - and the next time you try that line, ask yourselves why television has commercials.  Because they're trying to influence the way people think, that's why!

I took a shot at Dick Wolf earlier, and I don't want you to think that it was just a gratuitous shot.  In fact, I find his programs to be the absolute worst when it comes to trampling on civil liberties.  The police and prosecutors both show a breathtaking arrogance when it comes to the rights of individuals, and their supreme conviction that they know best is matched only by their willingness to do whatever it takes, including intimidation, to secure the result they want.  Particularly in the odious SVU, viewers are witnesses to an amazing contempt that authority holds for citizens*, which extends to every kind of bullying they can think of, including statements that I'd read as being clearly unconstitutional.  (My favorite is when they tell a suspect that if they don't talk now, any chance of a deal is gone.  Try telling that to some overworked assistant DA who'll cut any kind of a deal to decrease his workload.)  These people aren't interested in justice - they just want to win.  I don't want to get too graphic, but shows like this, and the characters in then, make me sick.

*Contrast this to a recent episode of Naked City, in which Detective Lieutenant Mike Parker tells an aggrieved New Yorker that, as a citizen, he has every right to bring his problem to the police and expect some kind of resolution.  What Parker realized, and today's cops don't, is that the police are the servants of the public, not the other way around.

I'll have more to write about this in the next few weeks - I've been working on a piece that is much too long and complicated right now to make any sense, but it has to do with the cynicism that pervades so much of television drama today, and how detrimental this has been to the culture at large.  Keep this in mind, though, the next time you watch a procedural where the police are scanning through someone's bank account, going through their cell phone, or threatening them in the interrogation room.  Ask yourself what kind of message this sends, and whether or not it describes a country you want to live in.

September 27, 2014

This week in TV Guide: September 28, 1963

On the cover this week is the lovely Inger Stevens, star of the ABC series The Farmer's Daughter.  The show ran for three seasons, from 1963 through 1966, and was based on the 1947 movie of the same name that starred Loretta Young (who won a Best Actress Oscar) and Joseph Cotten. Stevens played the Young role, that of a young Swedish woman who became the housekeeper to a widowed Congressman (played by William Windom in the TV series, Cotten in the movie).*  (You can tell how things have changed since this series, by the way; it's so old that here a Congressman is the good guy.)

*Two months after this cover appeared, a commercial voiceover for The Farmer's Daughter, narrated by Windom, appeared following the November 22 lunchtime airing of Father Knows Best.  It would be the last commercial anyone would see on ABC for the next four days.

There are other hints that the times have changed, however.  In the article, Stevens, then 28, is asked by the interviewer Robert De Roos if she wanted to get married. “Yah, very much,” she said.” [Yes, she did talk that way!] “I love men. But I think it would be unfair to get married when I’m tied up with the series. I’ve no time for a husband.”

What’s ironic about this comment is that at the very time she issued it, she was married – to actor Ike Jones, who happened to be black – and had been since 1961 (their marriage remained secret until her death). It reminds us again of a different time, when marriage was often seen as a liability for an attractive young actress whom the moguls hoped would have the right kind of sex appeal to the audience. Add to that the extraordinarily explosive connotations of interracial marriage in the early 1960s, and, as Paul Harvey would say, now you know the rest of the story.

Knowing how that story ends, one searches the interview for some hint, some clue as to what was to come. She’s interested in working with children, she says. She doubts acting is all there is to life: “I like acting and I’m not knocking the theater. It’s just that I don’t know whether acting is the way I ought to spend my life.” As for the rest of that life, which at this point has less than seven years to run: “I’m working so hard I feel I’m wasting time. … When I lie down at the end of the road, I’ll want to have left something behind – even if it is just having helped one other person. I would like to utilize myself to the best possible advantage.”

Inger Stevens died in 1970, of a drug overdose that might have been intentional.  One wonders what went through her mind in those last moments of life – did she feel she’d left anything behind at all?

***

No "Sullivan vs. The Palace" this week, for one very good reason - it's week two of The Jerry Lewis Show, ABC's massive (two hours!), expensive ($8 million for 40 episodes!) and ultimately disastrous (13 weeks and gone!) variety show.  I may have written about this in the past; if not, you can read more of the gory details here.  This week, Jerry's guests are "Liberace on the piano, Ruby Keeler on her toes, Kay Stevens on her vocal chords, and Dr. Julius Sumner Miller on - of all things - physics!"  That part about physics doesn't surprise me; Lewis was a pretty smart guy himself, curious about a lot of things.

Here's part one of a typical Lewis show; you can see the entire episode over there at YouTube.  Because I like Jerry, I won't say any more.


I will say a word more about something relating to Jerry, though.  A couple of times I've noted various celebrity-studded benefit programs that usually appeared each year around Christmastime as a benefit for the Muscular Dystrophy Association and were, I suppose, a precursor to the Labor Day telethons.  This Saturday morning we have something similar: a live special at 10:00am on Channel 11, hosted by kids' show host Dave Lee, which "honors area children who put on street carnivals and donated the proceeds to the Muscular Dystrophy Association."

Does that ring a bell with any of you out there?  Growing up, I can remember how you could send away to Channel 11 for a kit that would give you everything you needed to put on a show - flyers, tickets, posters, ways for your friends to help out, the roles different people could play, the whole thing.  I sent away for one, once, because it sounded like fun.  I never put on a carnival, though, primarily because I didn't have any friends.  Well, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but doing it right and doing it well required a lot of work, and then (as now) I tend to shrink away from anything that sounds too much like that.

***

Speaking of Saturdays, the nets are starting to roll out their new Saturday morning cartoon lineups.  Debuting on CBS are Tennessee Tuxedo (at 8:30am CT) and Quick Draw McGraw at 9:00.  Over at NBC, Shari Lewis, who once replaced Howdy Doody, is going off the airwaves, as is King Leonardo.  The later is being replaced by Fireball XL-5, one of those Supermarionation shows from Gerry and Sylvia Anderson.  Those shows really were dreadful, weren't they?*  Their main appeal today is nostalgic, I think, at at that it's hard for me to sit through an entire episode.  I remember they got the MST3K treatment once, and that seems about right.

*And the names.  I mean, Colonel Steve Zodiac?  Doctor Venus?  Professor Matthew Matic?  Give me a break.

Apparently I loved this show when I was a kid, though.  My mother used to insist that I'd sent away for a Fireball XL-5 spaceship, which even at the time I couldn't remember.  Today my memory has improved only to the extent that I vaguely recall it.  It would have looked something like this:


Nope, still not coming back for me.

***

Here's ground I know we've covered before: the start of the Fall Classic, and another reminder of how much sports on TV have changed.  Game 1 of the series, between the Dodgers and the Yankees.  Nothing particularly new there, except for the starting time: noon (11:00 Central time) on Wednesday, October 2. In an age where nighttime Series games played in the shadow of Halloween* and seldom finish before midnight, the thought of a game starting at noon (regular afternoon programming scheduled to resume at 2:30 p.m.) on a crisp autumn day is almost unthinkable. Is there anyone out there who can even remember such a time, except us?

*Next season, a potential Game 7 in the World Series would be held on November 5.  Excuse me while I throw up.  There.  I'm better now.

Those who were able to catch the game (and many, many people did), they were rewarded with a magnificent performance by Sandy Koufax, who struck out a then-World Series record 15 Yankees en route to a 5-2 victory for the Dodgers (the first of a four-game sweep, the first time the Yankees had ever been swept in four games in the Series).  Reports had it that, in the ninth inning with the game out of reach for the Yanks, even the fans at Yankee Stadium were cheering for Koufax to get the record.  No reason not to have seen the game on TV, even if you were at work - just take a long lunch hour, as the game only ran 2:09.  Here are some highlights.


Other sports for the week: college football Saturday, as CBS' Game of the Week features Oklahoma vs. USC at the Coliseum in Los Angeles.  USC is the nation's top team coming into the contest, but Oklahoma emerges with the victory, 17-12.  The Sooners would finish the year 8-2, while the Trojans would wind up 7-3.  Neither team would go to a bowl, back in the day when there were only a handful out there, often reserved for conference champions.

On Sunday the Minnesota Vikings are at home, which means no televised NFL game in the Twin Cities due to the league's restrictive blackout rules of the time.  Back then, if your team was at home, you got nothing on television, not even games between two other teams - the league's way of preserving the live gate.  That didn't apply to the rival AFL, of course, which meant that the new league would, for half the season, be the only show in town (or on television, at least) in cities such as New York, Detroit, Chicago and Los Angeles.  Exposure being vital to the league's survival, this was one of the main reasons the AFL was able to establish a foothold, leading up to their big-money contract with NBC in 1965.  Eventually the NFL would figure this out, limiting the blackout to the home team's game alone, which meant that even if the Vikings were at home, you'd at least be able to see the Bears and Eagles, or some such contest.  Oh, the AFL game?  It was the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Diego Chargers, one of the great early rivalries of the AFL. The Chargers, who would win the AFL title that year, beat the Chiefs 24-10.

***

Ads from the networks touting their new fall lineups are all over the place this week.  Here's an example of ABC's technique: full-page ads promoting the network's entire schedule for the night:

ALL: HADLEY TV GUIDE COLLECTION
NBC's ads are fairly unremarkable, heavy on pictures and text:


It's CBS's ads that I find most interesting.  They're simple; sparse, even - so much so that you might not pay any attention to them unless you happen to recognize that the caricatures are drawn by the famed cartoonist Al Hirschfeld.  The drawings had been commissioned by T. Lou Dorfsman, vice president and creative director of advertising and design at CBS, who did so much to establish the network's visual look over the years.  The ads are stunningly original, quite a coup, I think.  Everyone's a critic, though, as is illustrated in the following from the always-reliable Wikipedia:

One of the programs was Candid Camera, and Hirschfeld's caricature of the show's host Allen Funt outraged Funt so much he threatened to leave the network if the magazine were issued. Hirschfeld prepared a slightly different likeness, perhaps more flattering, but he and the network pointed out to Funt that the artwork prepared for newspapers and some other print media had been long in preparation and it was too late to withdraw it. Funt relented but insisted that what could be changed would have to be. 

Of course, after all that, we have to show the Candid Camera one, don't we?  Frankly, I'm not sure what Funt's problem is - looks like a perfect likeness to me.



***

In 1954, Sammy Davis Jr. lost an eye in an automobile accident.  Nine years later, he's starring in an episode of Ben Casey on ABC Wednesday night as "a baseball player who adjusts to the loss of an eye, but can't take the venomous anti-white hatred of his Negro doctor [Greg Morris]."   In real life, Davis was often the target of similarly venomous anti-black sentiment, but I'd imagine that an episode like this would have been tough for Davis with the black community.  The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s peaceful civil rights campaign is in full swing by this time, but there was always a radical element advocating violence and accusing King of not being aggressive enough.  Davis' turn in this drama might have played well in the white community, but - and far be it from me to make this statement as fact - I wouldn't be a bit surprised if others, who already thought Davis did too much to play to white audiences, might have been muttering "Uncle Tom" under their breaths.  All of it - anti-white, anti-black, anti-everyone - gets tiresome after awhile.

***

Finally, just to demonstrate that you really never do know what you’re going to run across, there’s this program listing on NBC at 9:30am on Monday – a new game show, hosted by Merv Griffin, called Word for Word. The premise: a “word game, played like anagrams. The contestant who accumulates the most words in a best two-out-of-three series is then pitted against the electronic Word-Ometer.” Merv created as well as hosted this short-lived game show, and one can almost imagine him thinking, “hmm, that anagram game didn’t go over so well. But I still like the word idea – hey (snaps fingers), I've got it: what about a game based on hangman?” The rest, of course, is history…

September 25, 2014

Around the dial

I've mentioned this series before, but it's worth repeating with Rick's fine write-up at Classic Film and TV Cafe regarding the British spy series Man In a Suitcase.  I've managed to catch a couple of episodes (so far) of this on YouTube, and it's very good.  Rick's right - it may well be the best of its type that you've never heard of.  I just wish the price on the DVDs would go down!

At Captain Video, Britt Reid (love that name!) gives us a different look at The Saint, via a comic strip.  The Saint is one of my favorite Brit series from the time; Roger Moore has, I think, much more of an edge to him than Patrick McNee's Steed, and maybe even more than Moore himself when he played James Bond.  I've also heard Vincent Price's version of Simon Templar on OTR - Price is always good, but only Roger Moore is The Saint.

Keeping with the British theme, Cult TV Blog continues looking at allegory in The Prisoner, this time with one of the series' strangest episodes - "Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling."  Despite the title, this is not the Prisoner episode that takes on the Western genre - that would be "Living In Harmony," which comes later.  I always thought this a great episode, and there's some very interesting analysis in this week's piece.

We've talked about TV themes before, particularly the dreadful covers done by Sammy Davis Jr. (starting here), but Comfort TV takes us through a list of the top 20 TV themes of the '50s.  Of course, the theme from Peter Gunn takes first place with me, but all of these themes do a great job of presenting their respective programs - nowadays with the truncated openings and closings that so many programs have, we lose sight of how important themes are in setting the stage for a program.

At Television's New Frontier: the 1960's, we get a really good look at a series I've heard of but never seen, the syndicated Western Shotgun Slade, starring Scott Brady.  On the other hand, now that I read more of the article, I think I have seen this before, at least one episode.  What I remember is the "jazz-Western theme music," which at the time I thought was both unusual and kind of neat.  So much Western music sounds the same.  Unfortunately, it was perhaps the most distinctive part of this two-season show.

Classic TV History Blog takes on The New York Times this week, as Stephen Bowie tells us "how to get away with being a terrible critic."  My own personal feeling is that this is a problem that's endemic to the Times as a whole, not just the TV section, but the things Stephen points out are appalling in and of themselves.  I don't pretend to be a journalist, even one good enough to write for the Times, but I hope I give you better quality than what they're doing.

Finally, over at The Hits Just Keep on Comin', jb has a touching piece on "the man who took an interest" and his effect on jb's radio career.  I really enjoyed reading that - to have someone like that play a part in your life like that, large or small, is very special.  And by the way, I also want to link back to jb's terrific piece from a while back on NBC Radio's Monitor, since I reviewed a book about that just the other day.

Gotta run now - see you back here on Saturday, right?

September 23, 2014

The life and death of the greatest radio program

Monitor: The Inside Story of Network Radio's Greatest Program, by Dennis Hart, iUniverse, Inc., 270 pages, $19.76

Why, you may ask, am I reviewing a book about classic radio on a blog devoted to classic television?  Aside from the obvious connection between the two media, it's absolutely necessary for one to understand the role that television played in the creation of Monitor, the NBC radio program that ran for nearly 20 years from 1955 to 1975.

By the mid-50s, it was clear that television had forever changed the way network radio functioned.  Most of radio's brightest stars and programs had already transitioned from radio to television (or were in the process of doing so), and the advertising dollars were following.  It was pretty clear to most people that if something wasn't done, and soon, network radio could well cease to exist.  This is where Pat Weaver comes in, and where Dennis Hart's engrossing story begins.

Weaver, of course, was the L'enfant terrible of early television; as President of NBC, he'd created everything from the Today and Tonight shows to the concept of the TV special, or "spectacular."  His idea to save network radio was equally audacious: a continuous, 40-hour program running from Saturday morning to Sunday midnight, featuring some of the biggest names in entertainment presenting literally everything: news, sports, comedy, live concerts, interviews with celebrities, recorded music, and remote reports from around the world - in other words, a show that would become known for "going places and doing things."  Weaver described his baby as a "kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria," but settled on a much simpler name: Monitor.

As Hart points out, this was an incredibly risky move: by putting all its eggs in one basket, large though that basket might be, NBC was literally staking its future on Monitor.  If the show failed to attract advertisers and listeners, the network would likely go under.  The fact that it didn't, that Monitor became an epic adventure that would run from the last of the big bands through Vietnam and Watergate and acid rock, was a testimony not only to Weaver's vision but to the talents of the producers and directors, writers, technicians, and personalities that helped assemble the mammoth show each week.  And it is this story that Hart brings so wonderfully to life.

Dave Garroway, the first "communicator"
The list of people who appeared on Monitor over the years reads like something of a who's who of the entertainment world.  The list of hosts alone (or "communicators," as they were initially called) would have been enough: the very first voice of Monitor, Dave Garroway; newsmen such as Frank McGee, David Brinkley and Frank Blair; television personalities from Ed McMahon and Hugh Downs to Gene Rayburn and Art Fleming; DJs such as Big Wilson, Wolfman Jack and Don Imus; and actors whom one wouldn't picture as radio hosts: David Wayne, Barry Nelson, James Daly and Tony Randall, all of whom helped create a conversational intimacy with the listener that made everyone feel as if they were part of an extended family.

There were comedy stars as well: Bob and Ray (who initially were to be on call throughout the weekend, ready to fill in on a moment's notice should a technical glitch prevent a particular report from being broadcast), Nichols and May, Jonathan Winters, Ernie Kovacs and more.  Feature presentations and reviews throughout the weekend were provided by names like Arlene Francis, Betty Furness, Gene Shalit and Dr. Joyce Brothers.  And no overview of Monitor would be complete without the immortal "Miss Monitor," played by Tedi Thurman, the sexy, alluring voice who read the national weather while romantic music played in the background.

The program itself was a true magazine, covering it all: breaking news, in-progress sports reports, live big band and jazz concerts, interviews with celebrities and newsmakers, features on all aspects of life and the latest in popular culture.  It's a rich, colorful history, and Dennis Hart takes full advantage of it.  He was fortunate enough to connect with and interview many of Monitor's key people while they were still living, collecting insightful (and often hilarious) stories from those both in front of the mic and behind the control room glass, assembling them in a way that gives the reader a real picture (so to speak) of what made Monitor such a special show.  He also does a good job of placing Monitor's role in radio's rich history, particularly the bold advertising timeshares with affiliates that allowed the show to thrive well into the '60s.

In fact, though, some of the most interesting segments of Hart's story come from the anecdotes provided by those who listened to the shows, both adults and those who grew up with Monitor as a regular weekend ritual.  Nobody expected to listen to the entire show, and that was the point: it was always there, ready whenever you happened to tune in to it.  Monitor took full advantage of growing American mobility to position itself as the listener's friend, whether you were at the beach, driving in the car, working in the garage or basement, or just spending time with friends.  There's one scene in particular, in which a listener describes the effect of walking down the street, hearing Monitor coming continuously from every house along the block, that illustrates just how much we've lost in our headlong rush to embrace the world of individuality and fragmented demographics.

Nothing lasts forever, though, and such was the case with Monitor, which eventually fell victim to a number of circumstances, most of all the desire of big-market affiliates to control their own commercial and broadcasting time.  When Monitor went off the air, in 1975, there were still over 120 stations, but hardly any were in the major markets.  And if there's any criticism of Hart's book, it's in his description of Monitor's downfall; chapter after chapter discusses the program's success in terms of stars, segments, features and the like, so the story of its demise (a gradual reduction in hours from 40 to a mere 12, plus 9 hours of repeats; loss of stations, advertising schemes with affiliates that cannibalized the show's flow and hastened its death) comes as something of a shock, with little foreshadowing provided to give it context.  It also serves to somewhat diminish the show's remarkably long run; without the twists, turns and surprises that surrounded the show's existence, one feels less the weight of the show's passing years, and its ability (or inability, as in the case of popular music) to change with the times.

That's a minor quibble, to be sure, in this fascinating book.  I have to admit that I have no memories of Monitor myself, although I must have just missed being aware of it, for I still have a great fondness for the all-news format that replaced it (NBC's News and Information Service, whose slogan was, "All News, All Day, Every Day").  Or perhaps Monitor had already disappeared from the airwaves where I lived back then.  All the more reason, then, for this book (and Hart's companion website), to introduce those of us without memories to the remarkable show that was Monitor.  For those fans of old time radio programs, the claim that Monitor was network radio's "greatest program" might seem a bit spurious, or at least somewhat grandiose.

But a 40-hour program that was born of desperation, a program that helped save an entire network for twenty years, a program that went around the world and broadcast anything and everything that was worth broadcasting, all without losing a sense of fun and wonder: well, that makes it pretty great in my book.

September 20, 2014

This week in TV Guide: September 20, 1980

What is "the Washington that TV news can't cover"?  Why can't they cover it?  If they can't, how do we know it's there?  And is it being covered today, 34 years later?

So many questions.  We'll be back with the answers in a moment.

***

Have there been many people in the entertainment industry who've been able to get buy on their last names as long as Priscilla Presley?*  At this point in her "career," Priscilla is only seven years' divorced from The King, and trying to carve out a niche for herself.  Until the divorce, "I was totally devoted to my life style at that time, to being a wife and mother.  I had no ambitions then.  It was a totally other life."

*Don't answer that; I know you'll probably be able to come up with a hundred examples that will ruin the bit completely.

Since then she's opened and sold a clothing boutique in Beverly Hills, taken acting lessons, and done some modeling.  She's been turned down for some roles she really wanted, and turned down other roles that were offered to her (including, she says, Charlie's Angels - I wonder which one she would have been?), but not she may have the opportunity she's been looking for.  Along with Burgess Meredith (!) and Jim Stafford, she's co-hosting the new ABC program Those Amazing Animals.  It's something she's looking forward to: "I don't care about being a superstar, but I feel I have something to give and to share, and if I can do that and maintain my values . . .well, I can."

The show, a spinoff of That's Incredible, runs for only one season, but Priscilla Presley, though she never becomes a superstar to match her last name, does pretty well with herself.  She co-stars with Leslie Nielsen in three Naked Gun movies (far less funny than the TV version, Police Squad!), and has seldom been out of the public eye for too long at a time.  And, my goodness, at 35 she has ripened into a strikingly attractive woman, hasn't she?  I really hadn't appreciated that until now.

***

Back a couple of weeks or so ago, we had a discussion in the comments section about what constitutes a miniseries.  With that in mind, I'll ask the question now: is Centennial a miniseries or not?  It's 26 hours long - longer than a lot of series that run for only a half-season or so.  Today it might be called a "limited series," and with our penchant for serialization it might simply be a regular series.  But it has other of the hallmarks of the miniseries genre: an adaptation of a best-seller (in this case by James Michener), an epic sweep (covering a period from the 18th Century to the present day), and an all-star cast.  In its advertising, NBC itself calls it a "motion picture," as in "The Biggest Motion Picture Ever Made."   The always-reliable Wikipedia calls it a miniseries, so I guess that's that.

Whatever it is, NBC's rerunning the 1978 program, which I think the network never did handle correctly.  Rather than broadcasting it over consecutive nights (admittedly a difficult thing considering its length) or putting it on at the same time each week, the network moved it around hither and yon, making it extremely difficult (in those days before networks shuffled series at will, sometimes without notice) for anyone to get used to when it would be on.  I mean, look at this schedule (most episodes ran two hours):


It appeared on three different nights of the week and seldom appeared for more than two weeks in a row (sometimes as long as a month) until it finally settled down to a regular schedule in the middle of January.  I can't remember if it was a ratings hit at that point or of NBC was just trying to burn the remainder of the episodes, but it sure took them long enough to get it right.  I suppose I should have saved this argument for when it was on the first time, but I don't have that issue.

And why is NBC running Centennial again?  Because of the actor's strike, that's why.  The strike ran for three months and included a boycott of the Emmy Awards, broadcast on NBC September 7.  TV Update tells of the desolate program, for which only a few performers would appear as presenters, and only one - Powers Boothe - would be there to accept his award, for Best Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Special.*

*He played Jim Jones in "Guyana Tragedy."

I remember watching that show; it was a dramatic moment.  To that point no winner had been present, and none were expected.  It was, therefore, very startling to see this tall man, who appeared even more gigantic as he slowly rose up the steps to accept the award.  He got a standing ovation, as I recall.  His comment was that "this is either the most courageous moment of my career or the stupidest."

***

Understandably, given the strike, there are a lot of reruns on this week.  In fact, virtually everything that could be described as a scripted program is a rerun, leaving much of the big noise to the movies. There are four big ones, and improbably, Brad Davis stars in half of them.

SOURCE: HADLEY TV GUIDE COLLECTION
The first is the two-part TV movie A Rumor of War (shot, as were the other TV movies this week, well before the start of the strike), in which he plays a Vietnam soldier in an adaptation of Philip Caputo's own time in the war.  Judith Crist had good things to say about the movie, which co-starred Brian Dennehy: "despite the war-is-hell cliches, the obligatory bed scenes and elliptical characters, the special horrors of the Vietnam experience are made clear and, one would hope, unforgettable."

That aired on CBS Wednesday and Thursday nights, but Davis had already been the star of one evening that week, in ABC's Sunday night presentation of Midnight Express*.  Crist describes the movie as "grim and sordid," and has praise for the performances of Davis, Randy Quaid, and Oscar nominee John Hurt.

*That is, if it aired.  See the next story for an explanation of why.

And back in the day when Saturday night was not the television graveyard, CBS shows one of the great movies of the '70s, Chinatown. with Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway.  If that isn't enough star power for you, try Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman in Papillon, which CBS has on Tuesday.

Just to show you that everything isn't coming up roses, though, there's ABC's For the Love of It, a telemovie starring Deborah Raffin and featuring a cast mostly of stars of ABC series (Jeff Conaway, Tom Bosley, Norman Fell, Pat Morita, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), in the story of "a madcap search for stolen Soviet secrets."  Better, I think, to hang on for an hour and watch Dallas at 9 on CBS.

***

In case you don't remember, 1980 is a presidential election year, and the first televised debate of the campaign is scheduled for Sunday night in Baltimore.  The emphasis is on scheduled, because nobody's sure if it's going to happen or, if so, who's going to be in it.

If you're up on your history, you might remember that there were three presidential candidates that year; Jimmy Carter, the Democratic incumbent, Ronald Reagan, the Republican challenger, and John Anderson, the Illinois Republican-turned independent candidate.  The uncertainty arises from the fact that Carter has refused to participate in any debates including Anderson, and Reagan refused to participate in any that excluded Anderson.*

*Of Carter's reluctance to debate, Reagan remarked, "He knows that he couldn't win a debate even if it were held in the Rose Garden before an audience of Administration officials with the questions being asked by [press secretary] Jody Powell." 

In the event, Anderson showed up, Carter didn't, and the debate went on without him.  The decision not to debate was probably a mistake for Carter; Reagan rose in the polls and Anderson slumped, and the subsequent October debate between Carter and Reagan, held just one week before the election, proved to be a decisive win for the Gipper.

As for Midnight Express, a note in the programming guide states that "The movie will be pre-empted if President Carter participates in the Presidential Debate scheduled tonight."  Frankly, I don't know if ABC showed it or not.

***

As we've been speaking of politics, this seems a good time to follow up on our lead story.  "The Washington that TV news can't cover" is, as you might expect, the smarmy side of DC - lobbyists, lawyers, consultants, grant seekers, and the parties and balls where the real work of the Capital is done.  According to former NBC corresponded and presidential press secretary Ron Nessen, television - with its fixation on the moving image, is loathe to fall into the so-called "talking head" trap that it fears will turn off viewers.

SOURCE: HADLEY TV GUIDE COLLECTION
One veteran Washington correspondent points out the inherent advantage the print media has over television in covering the secret Washington: "A source can't talk to you on camera and maintain his anonymity," he points out.  "We can do that kind of story, but not on camera."  Were  a network to attempt this, with a correspondent "accumulating the facts of this backstairs Washington" in his notebook, "then coming back to the studio and telling the story without film," the viewers will either fall asleep, or leave.

Nessen cites a series of safety regulations on power lawn mowers that took seven years from instigation to implementation as an example of the complexity of backstage Washington, and maintains that the country needs to know about these Machiavellian proceedings.  He also takes television to task for its failure to cover itself, relating a story about how the FCC subtly exerts pressure on stations to sell holdings to minority entrepreneurs and implement equal-employment opportunities in return for having merger transactions approved.  Nothing of this sort appears on network news.

Other than being vigilant and trusting the viewer to not be bored, Nessen doesn't really offer any suggestions for how television news can improve its coverage of the secret Washington.  And does TV do any better today?  We get more shouting, more of the conflict than we used to, but is that really covering the story?  We have more spin doctors, lobbyists, think-tank consultants on the air, open in their affiliations, but to they lend us any real insight into the story?  We have cable news networks that air 24 hours a day, rather than the measly 30 minutes networks offer (Nessen comments that one of Walter Cronkite's nightly scripts would fit on the front page of the Washington Post "with several columns to spare," but is our coverage any less superficial than it used to be?  I think the answer speaks for itself.

***

Interesting little piece of gossip on the back page TV Teletype, talking about Craig Tennis' new book about what goes on behind-the-scenes at The Tonight Show.  Johnny Tonight, written by the show's former head talent coordinator, spills some of the beans on Johnny Carson, including the fact that some staffers view him as a "cold fish."  Jerry Buck, the AP's television writer, called it "amusing and revealing," while noting that "it offers no new insights on Carson," who even then was known as an exceptionally private man.  It likely wasn't anywhere near as revealing as Henry Bushin's recent tell-all; that notwithstanding, I'd imagine Johnny probably didn't appreciate this book.

Anyway, the Teletype describes two groups of stars: those who aren't invited on the show "because [Carson] doesn't care for and can't communicate with" them, including Charo, Rip Taylor, Dick Shawn, Jack Carter, the Hudson Brothers, and "any gossip columnist."  On the other hand, there are those who refuse to work with Carson, such as Larry Hagman, Van Johnson, Shirley Bassey and Tennessee Ernie Ford.  Interesting - I can remember seeing Charo and Taylor on Carson's show multiple times, which means either that I'd seen them before this book came out and Johnny got sick of them, or they appeared after the book came out because Johnny thought ratings were more important.  Either way, it's an interesting insight into Carson's prickly personality.

September 18, 2014

Philip Marlowe on TV

POWERS BOOTHE AS PHILIP MARLOWE, CIRCA 1983
I've been taking a break from heavier reading the last month or so, instead catching up with one of my old friends on the bookshelf: Raymond Chandler.

Chandler's Philip Marlowe is, to my mind, the prototype of the private detective as we have come to see him.  And Chandler himself was not merely a great writer of detective fiction, he was a great writer, period.  I've said in the past that I'd put Chandler up favorably against Fitzgerald any day; I found The Long Goodbye a far superior book to The Great Gatsby, among other literary classics I'm supposed to be impressed with.

Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer is another favorite of mine (as you can see, I tend not to go for genteel detective stories), but Hammer is a far rougher, more violent man than Marlowe.  The writing is similar; Spillane is nowhere near the wordsmith Chandler is, but he can tell a cracking story.  And perhaps that's why Mike Hammer has come through better on television than Philip Marlowe.  So much of the appeal of Marlowe stories lies in Chandler's way with words, from his dingy description of Los Angeles to the utter futility that Marlowe sometimes experiences, and those are moments that simply can't be captured on screen.  In fact, the most famous passage from Chandler's classic The Big Sleep, the concluding line that explains the title of the book (and is the only time the title is used in the manuscript) never appears in the most classic version of that story, the Bogart/Bacall movie.*

*It does, however, make an appearance in voiceover in Robert Mitchum's commendable remake.

Marlowe's made it to the small screen twice.  The first time was a 1959-196 series on ABC, starring Philip Carey.  I've not seen much of it, though I'm reasonably informed (by the always-reliable Wikipedia) that the show wasn't very true to the character.  Check it out for yourself and see what you think.


The more successful version aired on HBO from 1983 to 1986, and starred Powers Boothe in the title role.  I've seen a few more episodes of this, and my memory of it is that while there's still a difference in the way the stories are adapted to screen, it's a significant upgrade in both style and substance from the previous effort.


I've written before of my disappointment that the private detective, once a staple of television, has pretty much disappeared from the airwaves.  One of the reasons, I suspect, is that procedurals have become so completely reliant on technology, the type that goes far beyond wiretapping in its intrusiveness.  Most of that would likely be unavailable to the average shamus today, which means the writers would have to rely on honest-to-goodness legwork and deduction.  Far too hard to think about that; much easier if he can just press a button or two and come up with the answers.  As for the detective's traditional antagonism with the police force, just make him a rebel within the department itself; all the procedurals are full of quirkbots like that.  Heaven forbid he should show too much individualism, though.  We don't seem to like that much.

Another reason might be that detective fiction seems to work best in a period atmosphere.  One of the challenges with the Stacy Keach version was that it tried to incorporate a contemporary time period into a story and character that were resolutely not of this time.  To the extent that it worked, it was due to Keach's ability to see the anachronism, but the detective as we know him - the Marlowe prototype - seems to thrive more in the noir grime of the last century's first half.

At any rate, from Philip Marlowe to Jim Rockford, from Richard Diamond to Peter Gunn, from Darren McGavin's Spillane to Stacy Keach's, the private detective has been a welcome presence on television.  Let's hope there's a comeback one of these days, and that it's better than Moonlighting or Remington Steele, hmm?

September 16, 2014

Around the dial - catch-up edition

Well, I did it again last week - skipped an edition of "Around the Dial."  I'm nothing if not a creature of habit, which explains why, for the most part, I stick to a Saturday-Tuesday-Thursday posting schedule.  That means if something out of the ordinary comes up, "Around the Dial" is the feature most likely to suffer.  I hate it when that happens, because doing this feature allows me to catch up on some really interesting pieces from other classic television blogs.  So, you ask, why don't I just shut up and get on with the links?  Why not, indeed.

I've never particularly cared for Doris Day or her movies, so why is it I can remember seeing her television show in the late '60s and early '70s?  Search me - it must be more evidence (if more was needed) that I'd watch just about anything that happened to be on TV at the time.  On the other hand, you have someone like Ivan at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, who knows and appreciates this show.  I've enjoyed his regular reviews of episodes from The Doris Day Show, and this week's is no exception.

Another series of posts I've enjoyed has been on Cult TV, where we continue to work our way through the use of allegory in The Prisoner.  This week's episode is "A Change of Mind," an episode that I've always found disturbing.  The idea of "social conversion" was topical then (an allegory of Communism), but it's all the more so today.  Any time you see one group or another attempting to enforce conformity around a given set of ideas or principles, with "reeducation" classes for those who resist, think back to this episode.

I don't know about you, but I loved TV dinners when I was a kid.  It's not that they were really good, although some were better than others (I remember Swanson's fried chicken with some fondness; the TV dinners that were purely for kids were fun, but the desserts were always bad).  It probably had something to do with being able to eat it off a TV tray while watching the tube.  This week Michael's TV Tray tells us more about the history of the TV dinner.  Ah, the memories of those foil containers!

Comfort TV has a good write-up of another program I remember from my youth, The Jimmy Stewart Show.  I don't remember much about it, though - probably because I was watching The F.B.I. on ABC while Jimmy aired on NBC.  David's right: Stewart is such an agreeable gentleman that you really want this show to be better than it is.  At that, it would be hard to disagree with David's assessment of the 24 episodes that "many are good but none are great."

It's been anything but fall-like here in Dallas this month, so Christmas may not be the first thing on one's mind.  I've been thinking about it, though - the first year in a new home presents many decorating challenges, and I've been considering some of them since we moved in.  All the more reason to be put in the mood by Joanna's Christmas TV movie recommendations at Christmas TV History.  Surprising how few of them I've seen - I guess I'm just stuck too much in the past.

One show that I don't remember from my childhood - mostly because I was a bit too young for it, is One Step Beyond, which generally shows up in my old TV Guides as Alcoa Presents.  I've seen a number of episodes of this over the years - some better than others - and I've always thought of it somewhat as a junior version of The Twilight Zone, but Television's New Frontier: the 1960s has a very good overview of this show that was, at the very least, always intriguing.  And I did like John Newland very much.

Hopefully I've done the links justice this week, and you'll go on and check them out.  It should keep you busy until you join me on Thursday for - well, I'm not quite sure what I'll be writing about then!

September 13, 2014

This week in TV Guide: September 12, 1964

There's a good reason why they're called the "Dog Days of  Summer."  From the Latin diēs caniculārēs, the term originated with the Romans' belief that the star Sirius - the "Dog Star" was, because it rose at the same time as the sun - was responsible for sultry weather, and must be appeased.  It's commonly thought that the Dog Days end in late August, but in TV terms, the ending comes with the beginning of the new season.

In this week's issue, ABC kicks off its new season, and even though the official Fall Preview isn't for another week, that's close enough for me.  I've made no secret that the summer months can be slow; many shows are reruns, and the remainder of the schedule tends to be filled out with anthology collections of failed pilots, and summer replacement series that rarely catch fire.  But this issue is chock full of irony and newness and the return of old friends and all the other things that make television so much fun.

***

Let's start with the new, and a look at the new TV sets for 1965.  A couple of weeks ago, you may remember that I had a bit about the new "smart" televisions for 1981.  That generated something of a "Meh," seeing as how virtually everything discussed in the article had come to pass, and in fact is pretty much of a given today.  There was, in other words, no "a-ha" moment, when you could literally see the future coming to life before your eyes.  Such is not the case this week.

The premise of Henry Harding's article is what you can expect in the television set of 1984, and he warns us ahead of time that the prophecies "may amaze" us.  For one thing, he speaks of a television set that is virtually invisible - mounted on the wall, measuring about four-by-three feet, and with a thickness of about two inches.  There are no cords; they're hidden in an outlet behind the set.  You don't really notice the set, either - when it's not on, it assumes the guise of a Picasso  painting, something of a screen saver that shows when the set's not being used for anything else.

ALL: HADLEY TV GUIDE COLLECTION
This set is the centerpiece of a "Home Communications Center," perhaps smaller than the average 1964 console set, which sits by your chair or sofa.  From this center you can control your television (via 25 or so push buttons representing each channel," plus you have the ability to record and playback programs on a video recorder via a small tape cartridge.  You can make your own recordings, using a miniature battery-operated camera that allows immediate playback, rather than waiting for the film to be developed.

And that's not all - you can get your newspaper, or anything else, faxed to you through the center.  You can watch video books brought home from school or the library.  You can watch video from security cameras placed in various locations around the house.  You can make video phone calls that will show on your television.  You can make use of the TV shopping service that allows you to purchase everything from clothes to groceries - just push a few buttons, and your computer will do the rest.

And as far as the "television" programming you'll see - it's all in living color, Some of the broadcasts are international, being beamed to your set via satellite, and an automatic translator will convert to English any broadcasts that are being presented in another language.  There will be educational channels, local access broadcasts - pretty much anything you can imagine.  You're not limited to seeing them on your big screen, either; a portable unit, covering "one entire flat surface of the brief-case," will operate via battery or solar power, and, weighing less than four pounds, will provide "clear, bright color pictures."

Now, to be fair, it might have been premature to expect all of this by 1984.  But, frankly, just about everything else in this article has come to pass in one form or another.  Flat-screen television?  Check, down to size and width.  Cordless?  Check.  (Just ask Dish.)  Videophone?  Try Skype. VCR?  Already come and gone, replaced by DVDs and DVRs.  The brief-case sized TV is today's mobile device.  The automatic translator is called SAP, and while .  The newspaper may not be faxed to you every day, but you read it (or anything else) online,   And don't even get started with home shopping networks.

Harding predicted that people would even be able to do their own repairs on their units, rather than calling a technician.  I'm not so sure about that - most tech help desks are still doing good business, and many times it's more economical to replace than repair.  But otherwise, I think this article presents a remarkably accurate portrait of today's technology - sometimes off a bit on the detail, perhaps, but spot on as to the end result.  Reading this today, and gradually developing a sense of amazement as one recognizes these predictions coming to live in various gadgets, is little less than astounding, at least for one who was alive during this time, and saw all these things come to fruition.  One can only imagine how outlandish they might have seemed in context, presented to one reading about it in 1964.

A last note here - Harding asks for your forbearance at the end, reminding us that "If this vision of the future home communication center seems far-out to you," remember that the whole idea of "electronic home television" was absurd to many when it was first presented in 1926 - only twenty years before the first household set was produced.

***

And now for something ironic.

You'll note that on the cover we have David Janssen and Barry Morse, stars of ABC's hit series The Fugitive, about to enter its second season.  Even with just one year under its belt, the concept must already have taken hold, as you can see in this first-run episode of CBS' The Defenders on Saturday night.

The premise:  "When the train taking him to the Sing Sing death house is derailed, condemned murderer Bernie Jackman kills a guard and escapes."  OK, as far as it goes.  This could be a parody (yes, even a show as serious and earnest as The Defenders did do comedy once a year), or it could be a Law & Order-type "ripped from today's headlines" episode, even if those headlines were generated by an opposing network's show.  And then we get to the twist - the second half of the episode's description:  "What Jackman doesn't know is that he had just been cleared of the previous murder."

Ironic, yes - the storyline, told in isolation, is the stuff of Greek tragedy.  But brilliant also, taken in the context of coexistence with a program built on a very similar storyline.  Larry Cohen's script turns The Fugitive on its ear; imagine Kimble killing Gerard after the derailment, while back in Stafford, Indiana Gerard's superior has just picked up the one-armed man.  This is no mistake, believe me.  I'm quite sure Cohen knew quite well that he was lampooning the premise of The Fugitive, while at the same time giving us a vicious turn of events.  I've always admired that "what-if" mentality of taking an established idea and spinning it around until it goes in a different direction.  I do it a lot myself.  And while I don't know how successful this episode ultimately was (I'm assuming that the Prestons must have been defending Jackman, for example), I can imagine I might have enjoyed the episode immensely.  Perhaps some of you out there (Mike Doran, for instance) can shed some light on how it was received.

***

All of ABC's ads employed one-word tags
There's no "Sullivan vs. The Palace" this week, although The Hollywood Palace is entering its ninth month on ABC, as Palace is preempted this week by the Olympic Trials from Los Angeles.  ABC, however, has something bigger in mind for the stage of the Palace.

It's ABC's Wide World of Entertainment, a gala one-hour special hosted by Bing Crosby, and meant to introduce to us the stars of ABC's new and returning series.  There are songs, clips, and simple walk-ons by the network's biggest stars: Elizabeth Montgomery, promoting her new show Bewitched, Mickey Rooney, star of the new series Mickey, Richard Basehart and David Hedison from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, John Astin, Carolyn Jones and Ted Cassidy from The Addams Family, and more.  Bing himself is plugging his new series The Bing Crosby Show.  You've also got Ernest Borgnine, Jimmy Dean, Gene Barry, Patty Duke and others plugging returning series, some of which have moved to new time slots.

It's interesting, looking at this list.  Just by looking at the names of the guests, you can usually figure out what shows they're associated with (George Burns and Connie Stevens in Wendy and Me, for example, or Inger Stevens plugging The Farmer's Daughter).  And while some of them were real bombs (Valentine's Day with Tony Franciosa, Walter Brennan in The Tycoon), a fair number of them have entered classic TV folklore.  ABC seemed to do particularly well with sci-fi/fantasy, considering Voyage, Bewitched and Addams, as well as Combat!, McHale's Navy, and The Fugitive, among others.  Not all of them were long-running series (Addams ran a scant two seasons), but all of them were recognizable.  That's not bad for a network with a track record as weak as ABC.

***

As I mentioned at the top, there's a lot of "welcome back" about this issue.  Football, for example.  At the ungodly hour of 10:45 CT on Saturday morning, NBC kicks off the new college football season with an interconference clash between UCLA and Pitt, live from Pittsburgh.  UCLA wins, 17-12, but it's a rare bright spot for the Bruins, who end the season with 34-13 thrashing at the hands of USC to finish with a record of 4-6.  Pitt's season isn't much better - the team winds up 3-5-2, including a 28-0 thumping from its hated rivals, Penn State.

The reason for the early start, by the way, is to accommodate 45 minutes of highlights from the men's semifinals at the U.S. National Tennis Championships at Forest Hills, New York.  It's not called the "U.S. Open" yet, because it's not open to professionals - amateurs only.  That cuts down on some of the great players, to be sure - stars such as Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and Pancho Gonzalez are nowhere to be found.  No matter; a couple of players who went on to some degree of success, Roy Emerson and Fred Stolle, meet in the final on Sunday, with the top-seeded Emerson taking the title.

Sunday marks the kickoff of the pro football season.  There's only one game on television, the Kansas City Chiefs taking on the Bills in Buffalo in ABC's AFL game.  That suggests to me that the Minnesota Vikings must have been playing at home, triggering a blackout of all NFL games in the area - let me check, yes, I'm right: the Vikings beat the Baltimore Colts 34-24, en route to a very successful 8-5-1 season.  (The Colts, on the other hand, would lose to the Cleveland Browns for the NFL championship; after that loss to the Vikings they would not drop another game until the next-to-last game of the season in Detroit.)  As for the Bills and Chiefs, 34-17, on their way to winning their first of two consecutive championships.  This is, by the way, the last year for the AFL on ABC - next season they'll move over to NBC, as the bidding war between the two leagues escalates.

There's still baseball, in the waning days of the season.  The Twins are on Channel 11 with two games over the weekend with the Yankees (preempting the Saturday national Game of the Week), and later tilts against the Orioles and Red Sox.  And, if you thought two football games on the weekend wasn't enough, there's bonus coverage on Wednesday: the Edmonton Eskimos and Toronto Argonauts in CFL action taped Sunday, the first of eleven weekly telecasts.  I'm pretty sure that's what I would have watched - Canadian football held a strange attraction for me as a boy, one that's lasted to this day.

***

Last week we had the Miss America pageant, and guess what - it's back this week!  Actually, owing to the vagaries of the calendar, it's just a week later than it was in 1979, and it's on a different network - CBS instead of NBC - but much else is the same.  The pageant is still in Atlantic City, New Jersey, with a start time of 9 pm CT; Bert Parks is still the host (his tenth of twenty-five years in the role), and the lovely Bess Myerson, Miss America of 1945, is the television hostess.  Parks is quoted in the Close-Up as saying ,"This year I hope to win!"* but in actuality the winner is Miss Arizona, Vonda Kay Van Dyke, who went on to a career as an author and singer.

*I don't remember the commercial now, but late in Parks' career as Miss America host, he did a bit where his line was, "Miss Americas may come and Miss Americas may go, but I'll go on forever," concluding with a somewhat uncertain expression, as if he were knocking on wood.  It was a few years later that he was sacked, replaced with Ron Ely.  Remember him?

***

Some scattered notes from the rest of the week, as I think I've been running on a little long here:

Laugh - and that's an order!
On Wednesday night, it's the 13th season opener for ABC's Ozzie and Harriet, and the debut on the same network of the rock music show Shindig, with Sam Cooke, the Everly Brothers, Donna Loren, the Wellingtons, Bobby Sherman, the Blossoms, comic Alan Sues, Jackie and Gayle, and the Righteous Brothers.  All in a half-hour.  Over on CBS, Harry Reasoner narrates a special entitled "Politics is a Funny Business," concentrating on the role of humor in American political life.  And you thought Ozzie was outdated?

Speaking of Ozzie, it's hard to believe that The Donna Reed Show is still on the air, but it makes its season premiere the following night.  It's even more interesting when one considers that later on Thursday night, ABC airs the second of the two-night debut of Peyton Place.  But it's only the seventh season for the show, which will run for one more season after this before leaving the airwaves.  Why does it seem as if it were on for so much longer?  Perhaps because shows like Donna Reed and Ozzie and Harriet (which also went off the air in 1966, after 15 seasons) are thought of as presenting a simpler, idealized America, one that's been ridiculed so much over the years.  Perhaps they were already something of an anachronism in 1964, but by the time they leave for good in 1966, they're coexisting with free love and Vietnam, which make them really stick out.

And on Friday, ABC premieres Jonny Quest and The Addams Family, while CBS airs Route 66 for the last time.  Route 66 was one of the few (for the time) shows to offer something of a final episode, as Tod (Martin Milner) finally settles down with a girl, leaving Linc (Glenn Corbett) to roam the country solo.  Interestingly enough, though, this final airing is from one of the show's first three seasons, with Tod's sidekick being the far more popular George Maharis as Buzz.

Good issue, don't you think?  It's true - there is something about the fall air that makes everything seem fresh and new, even though as I write this it's 96 and sunny in Dallas.  But then, fall is kind of delayed gratification down here - it'll get here sooner or later.  Hopefully next week's issue will be just as good as this one, but we'll just have to see.


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September 11, 2014

Meditations on September 11

From Ric Burns' extraordinary documentary New York, here's one of the more extraordinary moments; a reading by Josh Hamilton of the "Moloch" section from Allen Ginsburg's epic poem "Howl."

September 9, 2014

Television with (Golden) Balls

The brilliance of television, and the tragedy, lies in its uncanny ability to reflect in its tube the essence of human nature. Nowhere is that more apparent, for better or worse, than in reality television, which isn't really real at all - except for when it is.

Joe Posnanski, one of the best sports writers around - one of the best writers, period - brought the following topic up about a year ago, and while he may be an unlikely source of information for a TV blog, he provides a brilliant insight into just how television does this.  It concerns a British game show called, believe it or not, Golden Balls.  It's a really good piece, and I would have linked to it even if I didn't have one thing to add to it.  In fact, I think you should stop right here and read it now.  If you don't, though, I'll give you another chance later.

As you'll gather from the always-reliable Wikipedia, Golden Balls was a show that tested every facet of human emotion: trust, greed, betrayal, passivity, lust - and did it all under the naked lights of a television studio.*  The premise was simple enough, as Posnanski says, starting with a team of two contestants.  "[They] would open these, well, golden balls and build up money in what was sort of a joint bank account. It’s actually a bit more convoluted than that, but for the point in this post that doesn’t really matter. Just know that money gets piled up."

*Pos notes his surprise, which I share, that this show hasn't yet made it onto American television.  For the life of me, I cannot imagine why - is it any more extreme than anything that's already on?

At the end of the show, with the two having amassed something between £10,000 and £120,000, the denouement comes.  Each of the contestants is presented with two golden balls to choose from.  One says "Split," the other "Steal."  The contestants know which ball is which, so there's no confusion there.  Each one of them chooses a ball, in a variation on the old Prisoners' Dilemma puzzle.  One of three things then happens:

  • If they both choose to split the money, they will split the money.
  • If one chooses to split the money and the other chooses to steal, the stealer gets everything.
  • If they both choose to steal, nobody wins any money.

When the big moment arrives, you can cut the tension with a knife.  It exposes, Posnanski points out, "the stark and bare humanity" of our lives.  Most of the time the two players agree in advance that they're going to choose "Split" - after all, half of the prize is better than nothing.  But what if one of them gets greedy?  That's where the psychology comes in.  If you can convince your partner that "Split" is the only logical choice, and then choose "Steal" yourself, you get everything.  But if your partner is overcome by a case of the greeds and goes for "Steal" as well, thinking that he's going to outsmart you, then each of you winds up with nothing.  The only safe, logical choice, therefore, is "Split" - but, most of you are probably thinking, a man doesn't become rich by playing it either safe or logical.  Particularly, when money is concerned, by being safe.

The whole thing is a fascinating, grotesque look at the human psyche.  Joe focuses on one particular episode involving two gentlemen named Ibrahim and Nick it what could serve as a master class in psychology, running the gamut of all those emotions I listed above, but centering on trust and greed. You see, unlike most contestants, Nick tells Ibrahim outright that he's going to Steal.  But, he goes on to say, if Ibrahim will only choose Split, thus allowing Nick to get all the money, he - Nick - promises that he will split the money with Ibrahim 50/50, as if they had both chosen Split.  As Poz says,

See the difference? Instead of Nick appealing to Ibrahim’s essential goodness like everyone else does, he challenges Ibrahim’s fury. OK, he’s basically saying, I’m telling you straight out I’m going to steal. I know that ticks you off but, frankly, I can’t help that. I’m stealing. Now, what are you going to do? How badly do you want to punish me for choosing steal? Are you so angry that you will choose steal yourself, assuring that neither of us will get a dime? Or will you choose split and take the chance — however low you might believe it to be — that I really will give you half the money?

Pos discusses this in quite a bit more detail which I won't repeat here - he's a much better writer than I am, you'll enjoy his account more - but suffice it to say I found the whole thing spellbinding, if not absolutely brilliant.  (You can also see it play out for yourself in this YouTube clip here.)

And here's the point of it all, the reason I brought this up in the first place (besides linking to a piece I really liked) - since the beginning of this blog I've talked about how television is an indicator of our culture, our society.  It shows us our DNA.  No matter what people might say about television influencing the viewer, it's clear to me that most of the time it merely magnifies what's already there.  A schemer on Survivor or Big Brother isn't going to be any less of a schemer in real life; television merely gives him or her the chance to magnify that trait in front of a national audience.  Granted, reality TV can create a monster, but I'm willing to bet that nine times out of ten it's a monster that was already in there, in the psyche of that individual.  Woe be to the producer that magnifies or exploits that particular trait, for they may well find it better had they never been born.  But all the same, it's probably true that there's more "reality" in reality TV than we'd like to think.

I'm assuming that by now you've read Posnanski's piece and watched the clip of Ibrahim and Nick, but if you haven't, that's all right - I'll wait until you've caught up.  Go ahead.

(Sound of absent-minded humming, toe tapping.)

All right, everyone back?  What did you think?  Was not that one of the greatest examples of psychology you've ever seen on television?  I don't want to read too much into it, or exaggerate its importance*, but I thought there was a deep existential element to the whole thing, an exploration of the meaning of trust that goes far beyond what you're likely to see in most scripted programs.

*Exaggeration: something I never, ever, ever do.

I'm not advocating that we all become reality television fans; that's probably the one and only episode of Golden Balls that I'll be checking out, at least anytime soon.  But this particular example, and Posnanski's retelling of it, is utterly fascinating.  It is as good an example as we're apt to see of the way television can show us what we're all about.  I would like to think that the best drama, and even the best comedy, can still do that; unfortunately, at least on the networks, I'm not sure it always can.  But, at least in this case, it's storytelling every bit as gripping as anything you'll see in scripted TV.

September 6, 2014

This week in TV Guide: September 8, 1979

It's always a bit hard for me to decide how to write about TV Guide's famous Fall Preview edition, which is one of the reasons why I don't do them often.*  They're so big, so sprawling, it's often hard to know where to start, and how much time one should spend covering them.  We'll see how it goes this week; the complaint box will be open as usual.

*The other reason being I don't have very many of them.


***

One way to do this is to look at what's new this fall.  And that's quite an interesting exercise.  See how many of these series, new for 1979, you recognize:

ABC
Hart to Hart (romantic mystery; Robert Wagner and Stefanie **sigh** Powers)
Out of the Blue (sitcom; James Brogan)
A New Kind of Family (sitcom; Eileen Brennan, Gwynne Gilford* and Rob Lowe)
The Associates (legal comedy; Wilfrid Hyde-White and Martin Short)
240-Robert (police drama; Mark Harmon, Joanna Cassidy and John Bennett Perry)
The Lazarus Syndrome (medical drama; Louis Gossett Jr. and Ronald Hunter)
Benson (sitcom; Robert Guillaume)

*Not to be confused with Glynn Griffing, former quarterback for the New York Football Giants, or Gwyn Griffin, author of An Operational Necessity.  Or Fred Gwynne, for that matter.

CBS
Working Stiffs (sitcom; Michael Keaton and Jim Belushi)
Big Shamus, Little Shamus (family detectives; Brian Dennehy and Doug McKeon)
Paris (crime drama; James Earl Jones)
Trapper John, M.D. (medical drama; Pernell Roberts and Gregory Harrison)
California Fever (sitcom; Lorenzo Lamas, Jimmy McNichol and Marc McClure)
The Last Resort (sitcom; Robert Costanz and a large ensemble)
Struck by Lightning (sitcom; Jack Elam and Jeffrey Kramer)

NBC
A Man Called Sloane (spy thriller; Robert Conrad)
The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo (police comedy; Claude Akins)
From Here to Eternity (war drama; William Devane, Don Johnson, Barbara Hershey and Roy Thinnes)
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (sci-fi; Gil Gerard and Erin Gray)
Shirley (sitcom; Shirley Jones, Tracey Gold and Rosanna Arquette)
Eischied (crime drama; Joe Don Baker)

Now, the sad thing is that I remember most of those shows.  Not all of them, mind you, but this was the second year back in civilization for me after having spent six years in the world's worst town, and I suppose I was gorging myself with television, good and bad.

SOURCE FOR ALL: HADLEY TV GUIDES
To be fair, there are a few hits in this list; Hart to Hart and Benson spent a good amount of time on ABC's schedule, as did Trapper John on CBS, and Buck Rogers lasted a couple of seasons on NBC.  But, if we're being honest with ourselves, there's not a whole lot to like about this schedule, is there?  Paris and Lazarus were notable in that they were among the first drama series to feature black actors in the lead roles; neither of them did well.*  Sloane gave Robert Conrad a chance to add to his collection of failed series; he probably only trailed McLean Stevenson at that point, with Robert Urich coming on strong.  Lobo, which to be fair also ran for two years, was a spin-off from B.J. and the Bear, which means that the character was with us for even longer.  Eischeid seems like MLT3K material.  And in 240-Robert Mark Harmon smiles.  How realistic is that?

*The Lazarus Syndrome tried to sell us the idea that a man (Hunter) recovering from heart surgery would, in his effort to give his life meaning, take on a job as a hospital administrator.  No stress in that, right?

I don't know how this season ranks in television's panoply; I suspect there have been worse, but I doubt that this one went into the Television Hall of Fame.

***

The miniseries is still all the rage, and the networks are lined up to give 'em to you.  Unlike the days of Roots and Rich Man, Poor Man, however, the focus is on shorter, more concentrated stories, running for no more than two or three nights.*  ABC gives us The French Atlantic Affair (which wasn't quite as bad as you might think, considering it featured Telly Savalas and Chad Everett) and Masada (with Peter Strauss and Peter O'Toole, which was quite good), while CBS gives us six hours' worth of Judith Kranz' Scruples.  NBC, which was a pioneer in turning the miniseries into a weekly series, gives us The Gangster Chronicles, The Martian Chronicles, and The Convertible Chronicles.  Wait, I got carried away with that one; it's actually The Last Convertible.

*The two-night ones used to be called "two-part movies."

It's too bad about the miniseries, a genre which in general I quite liked.  Look at Rich Man, Poor Man, Roots and Holocaust - all memorable, ground-breaking series.  But, as was the case with Who Wants to be a Millionaire, you invariably reach a saturation point where your lust for the dollar causes you to push things a little too far, and for the miniseries that might well have come when ABC did Washington: Behind Closed Doors in 1977.  I don't think it's a coincidence that, two years after than series ran, the miniseries was on its way to becoming much, much shorter.

Back in 1979, the slack in network miniseries was being picked up by PBS, which still enthralled viewers with mammoth productions on Masterpiece Theater - Poldark (13 parts), Love of Lydia (12 parts) and The Duchess of Duke Street (15 parts) were the headliners.  Alas, even PBS has given up the miniseries ghost nowadays, but that's not all it's missing.


***

For some time, Wall Street Journal critic and blogger Terry Teachout has been critical of PBS' negligence of the arts. Even though PBS executives have admitted that they fall short in this area, those same executives have acknowledged, through their programming decisions, that they don't intend to do anything about it.  As he recently noted, the network's 2014-15 fall schedule "includes no ballet or modern dance, no classic theater, no real jazz, no opera save for “Porgy [and Bess]” and no classical music of any kind."  Such was not always the case, however, for the organization whose original mandate is "to enrich man's spirit."  For the 1979-80 season, PBS's Great Performances show includes "a back-to-back production of Jean Cocteau's "The Human Voice" and a film of the Poulenc opera [La voix humaine] based on the play," a film version of Carmen directed by Franco Zeffirelli, Live From Lincoln Center performances by Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne, Metropolitan Opera productions from Verdi's Otello to Kurt Weill's Rise and Fall of the City of Mahoganny, and anthology programs based on American short stories, including those of author John Cheever.  Finding words to describe what has happened to PBS over the past 35 years that are also appropriate to a family blog escape me, but as culture has dumbed down, we see only too obviously how the nation's preeminent cultural medium has followed suit.

***

But what we've lost in culture, we've more than made up for in football.

The NFL rolls out its new season, with what we today would call a "limited schedule."  I mean, there are only 20 games scheduled in prime-time - the 16 Monday night games, plus four Sunday night specials that ABC plans to carry.  Contrast that with this year's schedule, which includes games on Sunday, Monday and Thursday night virtually every week of the season - 50 games by my count.  And to think - the Sunday night ratings in 1979 were poor enough that some people actually thought there was too much football on TV.  Suckers.

Then, there's ABC's college football schedule.  ABC was the only network to offer regular season games in 1979, and their schedule includes 13 national and 45 regional games.  Today, between ABC, CBS, Fox, the ESPNs, CBS College, Fox Sports 1 and 2, and the regional networks, you can see practically that many games every week.  They were all played on Saturday, too, except for Labor Day night and the odd Thursday/Friday games of Thanksgiving weekend.   There were little more than a dozen bowl games, all but a handful being shown on the networks.  (The remainder were broadcast on the late, great Mizlou network.)

Let's not overlook college basketball in the mix, though.  Besides the NCAA tournament (expanding to an incredible 48 teams, not to be confused with the 68 that take part today), NBC offers 90 national and regional broadcasts starting on January 5.  Would that the television season waited until then today - I daresay the average basketball fan has probably had access to that many games during the the season's first month.  It was about then, as I recall, that the Big Ten Conference (which at the time only had ten teams) voted down a proposal to create a nationally televised Wednesday night Game of the Week.  Big Ten teams only played on Thursday and Saturday (barring the rare Sunday afternoon game), the powers that be dictated.  And anyway, who would want to see that much basketball?

Well, you get the point.  I like sports as much as many people, and I like having a choice of which game to watch - but as Captain Kirk once said, "too much of anything, even love, isn't necessarily a good thing."

***

We've often discussed movies, and how the really big theatrical ones have more or less disappeared from over-the-air television.  That trend, of course, had not yet appeared in 1979, and TV Guide critic Judith Crist brings us a hint of what we can look forward to: Annie Hall, Jaws, Looking for Mr. Goodbar and Benji on ABC, Coming Home, The Outlaw Josey Wales and Dog Day Afternoon on NBC, and Bound for Glory, House Calls, Silver Streak and Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown headlining the premieres on CBS.

Oddly enough, I think that Josey Wales is the only one of these movies I've actually seen, but I feel fairly confident suggesting that with the exception of Benji and Charlie Brown, all of these movies would have been edited, some more heavily than others, for both time and content.  They all would have included frequent interruptions for commercials.

And that's one reason why, despite my occasional yearning for the bygone days of weekend matinee double-features on local stations, the trend away from theatrical movies on OTA television is a good thing.  People (me included) want to see movies run intact, without cuts for one reason or another, and we want them uninterrupted.  It's true that you can catch movies on the basic cable stations that offer neither of the above, but others - from TCM to the pay stations - give you everything you want, which is the way you want it.

So I'm not always a curmudgeon when it comes to television.

The replacement for theatrical movies is the made-for-TV movie, and the much-derided vehicle is still a few years away from the respectability it now holds (save the disease-of-the-week genre, which sadly has outlived the diseases it portrays).  One of the sadder notations included in the schedule of coming features is CBS' All Quiet on the Western Front - not because it was a bad movie, per se, but because its presentation on the Hallmark Hall of Fame signals that series' permanent move away from the taped stageplay format which had served it for so well over the years.  All Quiet on the Western Front, which starred Richard Thomas, was actually pretty good; would that everything which followed it was as good.

Otherwise, we have more goodies to look forward to: Ira Angustain in a highly-praised performance as Freddie Prinze in Can You Hear the Laughter? on CBS this week; the same network will also have Lesley Ann Warren as the "stripper with a heart of gold" in Portrait of a Stripper, Scott Baio and Lance Kerwin in The Boy Who Drank Too Much, David Janssen and Susannah York as a policeman and nun finding love and murder in The Golden Gate Murders, Ed Asner and Meredith Baxter in the adultery drama The Family Man, and Tom Berenger in an adaptation of Pete Hamill's Flesh and Blood, as a boxer having an incestuous affair with his mother (Suzanne Pleshette).  It's heavily edited from the book, although I doubt it would be today.  Not to encourage that kind of thing, but if she was playing your mom, well...

NBC has O.J. Simpson in Goldie and the Boxer, and I don't know how I missed that one, nor do I understand why I didn't see Gary Coleman in The Kid from Left Field, Eric Braeden and Melinda Fee in The Aliens are Coming, Lee Meriweather, Loretta Swit and Janet Leigh in the plastic surgery drama Mirror, Mirror or Raquel Welsh in The Legend of Walks Far Woman.

ABC touts S.O.S. Titanic, which I did see (and forgot as quickly as possible), with the aforementioned David Janssen as John Jacob Astor, Valentine, with Mary Martin and Jack Albertson in senior citizen love, The New Season starring John Ritter as a track coach mentoring street kids, Cheryl Ladd as a child abuser in A New Start, and Tony Lo Bianco in a biopic of heavyweight champ Rocky Marciano.

I make fun of many of these (and even more I didn't list) because their very descriptions sound putrid.  Some of them, such as Ladd's child abuser turn, sound like obvious Emmy bait.  There might have been some good ones in there, but when you can't get past the title, it's kind of hard to find out, insn't it?  Maybe some of you have seen them, and you'll be able to set me straight.

***

Finally, some notes from, you know, actual programming.

Saturday night is the Miss America pageant, live from Atlantic City on NBC.  As is customary back then, the broadcast starts at 9pm CT, running for two hours.  The redoubtable Bert Parks is the host, former Miss Americas Mary Ann Mobley, Dorothy Benham and Susan Perkins are the television hosts, and the winner is Cheryl Prewitt of Mississippi.  According to the always-reliable Wikipedia, her husband's brother-in-law is televangelist Richard Roberts, who's father is the famed Oral Roberts.  You can't make this stuff up.  The Emmys air on Sunday night, hosted by Cheryl Ladd and Henry Winkley (and even without looking at the page I could tell you it had to be on ABC) and the big winners were Taxi, Lou Grant, Roots: The Next Generation, Carroll O'Conner, Ruth Gordon, Ron Leibman and Mariette Hartley.

Monday night features part one of the rerun of NBC's Holocaust, up against the season kickoff of Monday Night Football with the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles.  On Tuesday, it's the season premieres of ABC's sitcom superstars: Happy Days (with a cameo appearance by Laverne and Shirley), Angie, Three's Company and Taxi.  Wednesday features an absolutely dreadful crossover movie on ABC - Charlie's Angels on The Love Boat (there's never an iceberg around when you need one).  Thursday's edition of ABC's 20/20 asks the burning question: what really killed Elvis.  At least they didn't ask who.  And on Friday CBS' Late Night Movie (which, thanks to Channel 4's insistence on running local movies, appears on the independent Channel 9, and is joined in progress after 30 minutes) has Darren McGavin's wonderful The Night Stalker, the ad for which has perhaps the best headline I've seen in quite some time: "Satanic Forces Hold Senate Election in Death Grip!"  Talk about being ahead of your time.

So that's the kickoff of the 1979-80 television season.  Loyal readers know in general my low opinion of this era of TV, which I think is best summed up in a pair of Letters to the Editor.  Elaine J. Johnson of Wickenburg, Arizona says the thought of Laverne & Shirley, Mork & Mindy, The Love Boat and shows like them taking the high ratings makes her wonder "if we will be deluged with more of this type of show next season," and asks the networks to "serve up fewer giggle shows and more informative, family-type entertainment."  Meanwhile, Judith S. Felton of Marietta, Georgia reminds us of Newton Minow's "vast wasteland" quote and wishes the networks "would realize that there are some adults out here who don't use TV as a baby sitter and who would like a little something to entertain us."  Ladies, from 35 years in the future, I feel your pain.