February 7, 2015

This week in TV Guide: February 7, 1981

Here's Jane Seymour, looking not at all like the future Dr. Quinn, but with a bit of a slutty, come-hither appearance to her, quite consistent with the role she's playing in ABC's three-part miniseries East of Eden.  And for those who think we don't need another version of John Steinbeck's classic, especially when we have one with James Dean in it, TV Guide assures us that we do - this one is "more faithful to Steinbeck," and Seymour, as the "Satanic siren" Cathy Ames, is a major attraction.

In Bill Davidson's profile, Seymour (real name: Joyce Penelope Wilhelmina Frankenberg) confesses she likes "evil parts," as did Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.*  She's just now coming into her own as an actress; despite her appearance as a Bond Girl in Roger Moore's 007 debut Live and Let Die, her most recent fame comes from her Emmy-nominated turn in Captains and the Kings, followed by another miniseries, Seventh Avenue.  With East of Eden, she's ready to cement her status as "Queen of the Miniseries."  And this is before appearing in War and Remembrance.

*Perhaps, rather than Dr. Quinn, she should have played a female version of Jack Kevorkian? 

Perhaps her fame today rests on her ability to sell jewelry, but Jane Seymour has come a long way from being mistaken for one of Henry VIII's wives.

***

There's another movie on this week, CBS' A Gun in the House starring Sally Struthers, and that's the subject of this week's editorial.  As one might imagine from the title, there's a gun involved in the story, and it's the violence surrounding the gun that's attracted TV Guide's "anger and disgust."  "Television drama," Merrill Panitt writes, "had gone too far again, in pursuit of a Serious Issue."  Surprisingly, given the movie's title and TV Guide's political leanings, the Issue is not gun control, at least as far as this editorial goes.

In the movie Struthers plays a woman terrorized by two robber-rapists who resorts to a gun "only when she has good reason to believe it is her only chance to avoid being raped and possibly murdered."  So far, so good.  "But the script establishes this by offering scenes of prime-time soft-core sadism that go considerably beyond the artistic requirements of showing a woman who fears for her life."  To cite one extreme example, "Was it really necessary for the would-be rapist to pour pear brandy over the head of his intended victim?  Two glasses of pear brandy?  And then force her to wipe the floor with her body?"  Ooh, kinky.  Too bad Jane Seymour wasn't available for the role.

But I get what Panitt is saying here.  It sounds campy today (and even he described it as blackly humorous), but over thirty years ago, something like this quite possibly would have earned a theatrical release an R rating.  And, in fact, what does it have to do with the main story.  Are the writers trying to establish the rapist as a sadistic, possibly psychotic, criminal?  It is, as Panitt says, "an excuse for scenes of gratuitous nastiness."

The point, the editorial concludes, is that scenes like this aren't necessary.  "For lessons on how to create terror without sleaze, they should see any movie of Hitchcock's."*  But in this case, it was business as usual for the writers, who simply followed the maxim of "hasty TV writing" that  "tastelessness is a shortcut to powerful effects."

*Notwithstanding that Hitch received much of the same criticism for a movie called Psycho.

It isn't just Panitt feeling that way, though.  Judith Crist's review calls it a "simple-minded" movie that winds up "exploiting sex and violence," is more interested in "sadistic perversions," and "loses all its credibility with the introduction of a near-manic district attorney and Struthers' being left to solve her own case."  Says Crist, "It's true that social-issue movies need juicing-up to hold the viewer, but lascivious drool isn't the lubricant."

***

And now a local note: I've had occasion in these reviews to allude to the Great Affiliate Switch of 1979, in which three of the Twin Cities' four commercial stations changed their affiliation, with Channel 5 switching from NBC to ABC, Channel 11 teaming with NBC instead of being an independent, and Channel 9 - the former ABC affiliate - winding up with the short end of the stick, becoming the new independent.

Or maybe they didn't turn out so bad after all.  Click to enlarge.

ALL: HADLEY TV GUIDE COLLECTION
***

I'm not going to take up space with another of my gratuitous shots at what's become of the Hallmark Hall of Fame - I mean, it's like catching fish in a barrel, isn't it?  Instead, I'm just going to concentrate on this week's presentation, the one-man show Mister Lincoln, starring Roy Dotrice and taped at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C.

The broadcast is one of three that appear this season on PBS*, the other two being Casey Stengel, another one-man show with Charles Durning, and Dear Liar, a two-person play with Jane Alexander and the late Edward Herrmann.  It's one of the Hall of Fame's most interesting recent seasons, the only one since 1979 in which the presentations were staged as plays rather than movies.  As for Mister Lincoln, I recall having seen this when it was first broadcast.  Dotrice, an English actor known as a man of many faces, is a most convincing Abraham Lincoln, and TV Guide's description of his "stirring reading of the Gettysburg Address" is no exaggeration.  This is one of the few instances in which Hall of Fame was done before a live audience, and at the end of that reading the audience burst into spontaneous applause.  But here - see for yourself.  The Address comes about an hour and 10 minutes in.


*Somewhat disingenuously, back when PBS still pretended to be commercial-free, these presentations were simply called the Hall of Fame, with Hallmark providing the grant.  Today, using the full title would hardly be an issue. 

There's also a nice article by Herbert Mitgang, author of the play, putting Lincoln's life in context and debunking many of the myths that have grown up around him, such as his being a hick lawyer, and that he opposed racial equality.  TV Guide would do this from time to time under the label "Background," with an article, often by an outside expert, providing added information regarding one of the more significant programs being shown during the week.

***

A warning, though - if you want to see Mister Lincoln, you're going to have to pass up part two of East of Eden, and the remake of the Doris Day movie Midnight Lace, starring Mary Francis Crosby in Dodo's role.  Capitalizing on the whole Dallas angle, the teaser proclaims, "She Shot J.R.  Now Who's Trying To Kill Her?"

That's the way of it during Sweeps Weeks of course, and February is long-known for the networks packing as much star power into their programming as possible.  East of Eden has it particularly hard; not only does it go up against Midnight Lace on Monday and A Gun in the House on Wednesday, its Sunday night premiere has to face NBC's three-hour docudrama Kent State, which Crist calls a "stunning film [that] allows us our individual judgment but, more important, does not allow us to forget."

And that's not all.  Both Kent State and East of Eden have some real competition with the week's other blockbuster movie, Burt Reynolds' Hooper, co-starring Sally Field and Jan-Michael Vincent.  It was one of the big box-office hits of 1978, and Crist's favorable review describes it as "wonderfully rowdy, funny and on occasion touching."

On the other hand, all this week Family Feud features competition between Miss USA and Miss Universe.  I don't suppose that has anything to do with Sweeps, do you?

***

As I was running through those blockbuster Sweeps matchups, I wondered how much any of that would mean to younger viewers, those who've grown up with DVRs and streaming video.  I mean, when you can record a half-dozen or shows at once, or go to your computer and watch a show any time you want, what difference does it make if there are two or three good ones simultaneously?

Remember, though, that this particular electronic age is in its infancy right now.  I was reminded by an ad that appeared just before the programming section.  It was for Audio King, an electronics chain that was big in the Twin Cities for quite some time.  It asks you to imagine the absolute wonder of being able to play a television program over again and again.

But be forewarned: this technical marvel will cost you.  The top-of-the-line MGA HS300U features infrared remote control, speed search, slow motion and a 7-day timer, all for $1,450.  If that's a little too rich for you, there's the Hitachi - it's compact and easily programmable, and only sets you back $1,250.  And for those of you on a budget, JVC has a two-speed model that still offers remote control, still-frame and slow motion for $950.

These are all in the VHS format, but don't forget there's another player in the field.  This ad for Video Images offers you your favorite movies and television shows on either VHS or Beta!  And when you buy three, you'll get a fourth title free!  What a deal!  And free with your order, you'll get their giant video catalog with "over 400 all time favorite TV shows, feature films, cartoons, etc!"  (That should just about cover it all.)  The cost?  Well, each Beta is $39.95, while VHS runs you $42.95.  And to think - today you can get a movie on DVD, a far-superior format, out of the bin at Walmart for a buck.*

*And you can download to your laptop or the cloud and not even have to have it physically in your possession.  How far we've come.

With prices like that, it's no wonder people are still complaining that they always put all the good shows on at the same time.

5 comments:

  1. Wonderfully nostalgic as always. My family bought our first VCR in 1981, a top-loading VHS model, and I used it to tape General Hospital so I could watch it after school. Thought it was the best invention ever.

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  2. The single best thing that ever happened to KMSP was losing their ABC affiliation and going Independent. I recall watching them for quite a few off network runs of popular network programs at that time. They were the MeTV of that time period. Oddly enough, I can't begin to name even one program that I watch on KMSP today.....whether it's their local news, syndicated shows (most of which sound like garbage) or anything from FOX.

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  3. Of course, the big mid-1990's realignment is still affecting television today. Part of the reason "The View" on ABC was developed, and even with its struggles, wins in major markets is the 1994 realignment. The View was developed to reach those markets, and in them (Detroit, Atlanta, and Milwaukee the most notable) it holds a significant lead to this day over its primary competition, CBS' long-running "The Price Is Right (1972)" ("New" was dropped in 1973, but for legal reasons, it is the 1972 The Price Is Right; while this season is the 40th season of the show in its present format), which lost viewers in those markets when CBS was relegated to minor-network status. In our local market, the CBS affiliate (WLTX) even made plans to leave in 1998, even signing with United Paramount Network for a partial deal in 1995, with an option to become full-time in 1998 (they did not).

    To this day, CBS admits they struggle in the markets where they were ignored following the realignment.

    The top syndicated shows on television in the season are three classic game shows, all of which have been around since 1976 (but not consecutively) -- Wheel of Fortune (1975; current syndicated 1983), Jeopardy! (1964; current syndicated 1984), and now Family Feud (1976; current syndicated 1999, current host 2010; extremely raunchy since the move to Atlanta). During the NFL season, Monday Night Football also is on par with the three classic game shows, though only two markets get the game. (Under the NFL's anti-siphoning policies, ESPN or the NFL Network must be blacked out during the game in the primary markets of both teams; in the primary market of the visiting team, and if the game is sold out, the home team, the NFL sells the game to local stations via syndication; the league starts syndicated contract bidding shortly after the new "fiscal year" in the NFL begins March 10.

    Syndicated television's trashy talk shows have a completely different audience than television reruns or game shows, with incomes far lower being pushed.

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  4. Your comments on the Hallmark Hall of Fame are accurate. What once was one of the last bastions of culture on TV is now a home for sentimental tripe.

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  5. "each Beta is $39.95, while VHS runs you $42.95. And to think - today you can get a movie on DVD, a far-superior format, out of the bin at Walmart for a buck."

    And you can get the player to play it on for less than the tapes! Blu-ray players too, if you're willing to go the refurbished route, and that's not even accounting for inflation. I am a little surprised at how low those 1981 tape prices are, though. I seem to remember hit movies being released in the $80 - $100 range in the early 1980s, and only dropping down to the $40 range by the mid eighties (that's when my family got their first VCR, with wired remote). It took Paramount's "Priced to own" Initiative in the late 1980s to bring VHS prices down to an affordable $20-$25. You can get new-release Blu rays cheaper than that now. But perhaps the tapes being advertised are not what would be considered hit movies, or perhaps the prices I'm remembering were for that "rental window" period.

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!