April 29, 2015

Television and the Id

DETAIL, THE ROMANS OF THE DECADENCE, 1847
It's quiz time once again boys and girls.  The quote below is a bit lengthy, but I'd hope you agree it's worth it.  I've removed a couple of words that would help you to identify the writer and the context of the quote because I think that's one of the most interesting things about this excerpt.  As you read it, consider what it says not only about our culture today, but also the world of entertainment, television in particular.  As usual, I'll identify the speaker and the context at the end.

We live today in a world that is as deeply devoted to material things as was [theirs].  For example, [they] were obsessed by health, diet, and exercise.  They spent more time in baths and health clubs than in churches, temples, libraries, and law courts.  They were devoted to consumption.  A man could make a reputation by spending more than his neighbor, even if he had to borrow the money to do it.  And if he never paid back his creditors, he was honored for having made a noble attempt to cut a fine figure in the world.

They were excited by travel, news, and entertainment.  The most important cultural productions [...], from books to extravaganzas in the theaters and circuses that occupied a central place in every [...] city or town, dealt with amusing fictions about faraway peoples and with a fantasy peace and happiness that did not exist in their real lives.  They were fascinated by fame and did  not care how it was acquired.  If you were famous enough, the fact that you might be a rascal or worse was ignored or forgiven.

[They] cared most about success, which they interpreted as being ahead for today, and let tomorrow take care of itself.  They were proud, greedy, and vain.  In short, they were much like ourselves.

A pretty good description of the world today, don't you think?

The only difference is that it was written in 1991, and it was written about a people living in the fourth century - the Romans, near the end of the empire.  The late Roman world, indeed, was quite like ours.

And the author?  If you're a classic television fan, you'll probably recognize the name of Charles Van Doren.  Yes, the same Charles Van Doren of the quiz show scandals in the late 1950s.  Following his disgrace, Van Doren went into a self-imposed public exile, eventually returning to a life of writing (at first under a pseudonym) and becoming an editor at Encyclopaedia Britannica.  He authored a number of philosophical and scholastic books (some with his friend Mortimer Adler), the best known of which is probably the one from which this excerpt came, A History of Knowledge.

The relationship of this to television?  Well, I can't imagine a better description of the celebrity-infused culture of TMZ, the world of "reality" programming that has little relation to reality, knows almost no bounds, and seems to consist primarily of people who've become famous for being famous.  Can you say "Kardashians"?  "Paris Hilton"?  And if Van Doren's description of reality stars and viewers hits the mark, he's no less accurate in describing the world of consumption in which television dwells, not only in how advertising dominates the medium, but in how so much of the programming - not only reality but scripted - glorifies such consumption.

If there's anything optimistic to be taken from this, it's in how it shows that there is truly nothing new under the sun.  Van Doren obviously felt that this series of paragraphs were fairly descriptive of the cultural world of the 1980s and '90s, even as it was written about a society that existed some 1500 years before that, and could doubtlessly be used similarly to describe countless societies and cultures in between.

On the other hand, we have to recall that the Roman Empire crumbled - not at the hands of a military enemy, but from internal decay.  The historian Arnold Toynbee, himself a writer in the pages of TV Guide, posited that "the Roman Empire itself was a rotten system from its inception, and that the entire Imperial era was one of steady decay of institutions founded in Republican times." I'm afraid that if you're looking for reassuring sentiments in that statement, you're going to have to look elsewhere.

The id of Sigmund Freud has been described as the devil on the shoulder of the super-ego, an inflated sense of self-worth, "a mass of instinctive drives and impulses [that] needs immediate satisfaction." It is to the id that television thus appeals, in its ability to satisfy the insatiable desire for fame that consumes so many of its participants, and its ability to transmit that to viewers who consume it voraciously and live it vicariously.  Something, in fact, that Charles Van Doren himself fell victim to at the pivotal moment in his life.

All this is not to lay the blame solely at the feet of television.  As regular readers know, I persist in my defense of TV as a medium which is morally neutral - it's how you use the technology that counts.  My fear is that the technology is not being used very well, nor has it been for some time, but even there one can suggest that it is at least as much of a reflection of out culture as it is the source of our dilemmas.  And while it's true that television does satisfy that voracious appetite for what Van Doren called "amusing fictions about faraway peoples," but the people and the appetite had to exist in the first place - television merely exploited it and expanded it, but it has been a part of the human condition since Original Sin.  Sic semper erat, et sic semper erit: Thus has it always been, thus shall it ever be.

April 27, 2015

What's on TV? Saturday, April 27, 1963

I like to visit the weekend listings occasionally; besides Saturday being my favorite day of the week, it gives us a chance to read something other than the regular Monday through Friday listings.  Since we've looked at several issues from this era lately, I thought it would be nice to drop in on Saturday and see what's up.  This is from the Twin Cities, so I know just a little about this.  I'm too young to remember, but I probably watched some of these shows myself.  As is customary in this era, the educational station, Channel 2, does not broadcast on weekends.

April 25, 2015

This week in TV Guide: April 27, 1963

Not every issue of TV Guide is a blockbuster; not every issue has a hidden gem buried somewhere, or a historical tidbit that calls for greater exploration.  After the last two weeks, we return to an issue that is pleasantly enjoyable for being thoroughly unremarkable.  I think you'll enjoy the listings that go up on Monday; be sure and check them out.  In the meantime, let's take a closer look at the comings and goings of the week.

***

Seeing as how Perry Mason is one of my ten favorite shows, it's not surprising that I'm taking a moment to focus on the cover story, that of Perry's perpetual foil, Hamilton (don't call me Ham) Burger, played to perfection by William Talman.

Richard Gehman's article is informative and pleasingly free of snark.  Perhaps it's because he spends so much time with Talman, who comes across as humorous, charming, and benignly resigned to his current fate.  He and his wife and four children have to live on the 13% of his $65,000 annual salary that he takes home after alimony payments for two ex-wives (24% to his first ex), 10% to his agent, 5% to his business manager, and 40% to the government.  Throw in the five unions to which Talman has to pay dues, and that doesn't leave much.  He's sanguine about it, though, asking Gehman "Could you urge your readers to send money?"

Then there's the suspension he underwent at CBS as the result of a morals charge (baseless, as it turns out) because of a party he attended which wound up being raided by the police.  He was forced to miss several months of the show, eventually reinstated due to the considerable efforts of Erle Stanley Gardner, executive producer Gail Patrick Jackson, and particularly Raymond Burr, whom I've read exerted some serious pressure.  Even here, Gehman notes, there's no visible bitterness on Talman's part.  He comes across as a professional, a good actor, a good sport, and a happy man - who's particularly delighted that his wife is expecting another new addition to the family.

Finally, of course, there's the role of D.A. Burger, who never defeats Mason - one wonders how he's able to keep his job.  We should appreciate Talman in this role; reading the books, Burger is far more unlikable - smug, arrogant, often accusing Mason of misconduct and, it's implied, caring more about winning the case than seeing justice be done.  It's clear there's no love lost between the two men, though Perry reacts more with bemused patience than anything else. Talman's portrayal softens some of the edges, presenting Burger as someone who really does care about convicting the right person, even if it takes cooperating with Mason (with whom he has a much less adversarial relationship) to do it.  Eventually, Talman's identification with the role causes Gardner to alter his written portrayal of Burger, allowing him to share friendly words with Perry on occasion, and in general making it easier to imagine Talman when reading the books.*

*As time went on, all of Gardner's characters came to resemble their TV counterparts more and more.

I became a fan of Perry Mason through reruns on Channel 11; what I remember most about William Talman is the shocking anti-smoking commercial he made before his death in 1968.  The commercial, part of a longer film he did for American Cancer Society volunteers, was filmed six weeks before his death and was aired posthumously.  (Note that the picture of Talman and Burr is the same as that used on this week's cover.) It's a stunning thing to watch, a dying man urging people not to make the same mistake he did.  Although he says he's involved in a battle he doesn't want to lose, you can read the truth in his eyes.  Most remarkable of all, according to this article: he did it all, even while pumped up on morphine and barely able to make it through the filming, without a script.  It was perhaps his greatest acting role.  Yes, a pro to the very end.


***

A couple of interesting points about NBC's Saturday Night at the Movies presentation of "Three Coins in the Fountain" - interesting to me, at least.  The theme song, which was a big hit for Frank Sinatra, marks the only time Frank ever sang the theme for a movie in which he didn't appear.  And the novel on which the movie was based, "Coins in the Fountain," was written by none other than John Secondari, whose name you may well recognize from the number of times I've mentioned the ABC documentaries he's produced and hosted.

Here's a recording of Frank's rendition - bet you'll recognize it.


Another mildly intriguing tidbit from NBC movieland: Monday Night at the Movies presents "The Hunters," a Korean war melodrama starring Robert Mitchum as a hot-shot Air Force pilot who becomes involved with the wife of another office.  The actress playing the wife is May Britt, at the time married to Sammy Davis, Jr. - who is guest-starring in ABC's The Rifleman, on the same time as the movie.  I wonder who won the ratings battle?

***

That movie, "The Hunters," was directed by the late Dick Powell, who'd died just a little over three months ago, in January 1963.  His show, Dick Powell Theater, remains on the air, however, with guest hosts filling in.  This week's episode, a parody of hard-boiled detective stories called "Last of the Private Eyes," is seen on NBC Tuesday night, hosted by Ronald Reagan and featuring an all-star cast.  Bob Cummings stars as the private eye, with Jeanne Crain (the movie State Fair), Macdonald Carey (Days of Our Lives), Arnold Stang (Top Cat), Janis Page (the Broadway version of The Pajama Game), William Bendix (The Life of Riley) and William Lundigan (Men Into Space), and featuring cameos from Keenan Wynn, Sebastian Cabot, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson and Jay C. Flippen.  You'd think that with a cast like that, it would have been pretty good - I wonder if it was?

It was up against The Jack Benny Program, with Jack's guest Ann-Margaret, so we may never know if anyone saw "Last of the Private Eyes."

***

One of the great episodes of the hour-long version of Twilight Zone is on this week: "On Thursday We Leave For Home," shown (appropriately) Thursday evening on CBS.  James Whitmore stars as Captain Benteen, a man who has spent 30 years holding together a group of survivors after their spaceship crashes on a remote asteroid.  During that time, children have been born into the community, and their only knowledge of what Earth is like comes from Benteen's evocative memories.

Then, one day, a rescue ship.  Salvation!  Benteen assumes that the group will continue to stay together after they return to Earth, with him serving as their leader, and is stunned to find that everyone has their own lives to live, their own paths they want to follow.  I won't spoil the ending for you, but it includes one of the most striking camera shots, and one of the most touching endings, to any of the stories authored by Rod Serling.  By this point, four years into TZ, Serling was suffering from burnout, and too many of his teleplays were static and heavy-handed, filled with moralizing talking heads.  Not so with this one - it's sensitively done, and serves as a reminder of just how good a writer Rod Serling was.

***

Did I hear someone mention sports?

There's not a whole lot to report on this week.  As I've mentioned, we're currently in an era when network baseball coverage is blacked out in major league cities, so the only action we get from the ballpark is Sunday afternoon's game between the Twins and the Detroit Tigers on Channel 11, and Friday night's Twins contest with the New York Yankees.

However, there are five - count 'em, five - bowling shows during the week, including ABC's Pro Bowlers Tour, which precedes Saturday's Wide World of Sports.  Wide World has been on for exactly two years now, and this week's show, which would seem pedestrian by today's standards, is actually a throwback to the series' premiere - coverage of the Penn, Drake and Mount San Antonio Relays.  The Penn and Drake Relays were on that inaugural program in April 1961, and all three track meets are filled with world and American record holders, including the future "fastest man in the world," Bob Hayes, who will parlay that speed into a Hall of Fame football career with the Dallas Cowboys.  He is, according to the always-reliable Wikipedia, the first man to win both an Olympic gold medal and a Super Bowl ring.

Oh, by the way - there's a note in Saturday's listing that if a seventh game is required in the NBA Finals between the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, it will be televised on Channel 11 beginning at 7pm.  As it happens, the seventh game was not necessary; Boston won the sixth game, and the title, Wednesday night in Los Angeles (112-109).  But it reminds me of the time before saturation sports coverage, when an ad hoc syndicated network of stations would be put together to provide weeknight coverage of sports such as the NBA and NHL.  I remember this happening in 1971, when Channel 11 was part of the group of stations showing the Stanley Cup finals between Chicago and Montreal, and they showed the four games that were not played on Sunday and were not shown on CBS.  I'll always associate those games with springtime in Minneapolis, when school was nearly out, when the weather was warming, when you might even watch a hockey game with the windows open and the mild springtime air coming in.  How strong memories can be.

***

Finally, a droll letter from Mr. Ralph Cokain of New York City, who points out a trait common to television shows of the era - "titles which have nothing whatsoever to with the action that follows."  He cites a recent episode of a show - he doesn't name it, but it could easily have been The Eleventh Hour or Ben Casey, entitled "Beauty Playing a Mandolin Under a Willow Tree," the plot for which concerns "a psychiatrist confronted again with the girl he almost married."

Although many series episodes still have titles, I don't know if they make such a big deal out of them.  Back in this day, though, the titles were often included in the program listing, along with the writer of the episode (if there was room).  And pompous titles such as the one which so aggravated Mr. Cokain are not that unusual.  A prime perpetrator of this habit is Sterling Silliphant, the prolific screenwriter, whose entry this week is the Route 66 episode "But What Do You Do in March?" which concerns Tod's run-in with the gorgeous drive of a high-powered speedboat.  And then there's this week's episode of Dr. Kildare, "The Balance and the Crucible," concerning a medical missionary (Peter Falk) suffering a crisis of faith after his wife is murdered by "South American savages." (Ooh!)  One longs for the simple titles of the Westerns - "Outcast of Cripple Creek" on Cheyenne, and "Incident of White Eyes" on Rawhide.  At least there, you have a fighting chance of knowing what the story's about.  Me, I'd still be wondering what someone's doing in March, and why they're worried about that in April.

April 24, 2015

Around the dial from the Wild West to the stars!

I'm always interested to read reviews of series I haven't seen yet, whether because they were before my time or simply weren't on my radar when they did air.  At The HORN Section, there's a good review of the 1967 Western series Hondo, which starred Ralph Taeger and aired on ABC.  I've always been intrigued by Westerns from this era; the genre was in its death throws on TV, although stalwarts such as Bonanza, Gunsmoke, The High Chaparral and The Big Valley would continue on.  Nevertheless, relevancy was in the air, and with shows such as Judd for the Defense, The Mod Squad and The Storefront Lawyers either broadcasting or around the corner, it's interesting to see networks continue to turn to the past (often by interjecting allegorical storylines meant to seem relevant) in an effort to create successful programs.

We're living in a new apartment, and I have to admit I'm looking forward to decorating the place for Christmas.  I'm not, however, in a great hurry to hasten along the year, especially since we've been enjoying a very pleasant spring here in Texas.  That doesn't stop me from checking out Joanna Wilson's Christmas TV History, which this week has a great piece on 1966's Green Acres Christmas episode.  I know I watched Green Acres some when I was a lad (although I was never a fan of Eddie Albert), but I have very few memories of specific episodes, this one included, so it's always nice to read about this bizarre and often surrealistic series.

Jack the Ripper continues to fascinate us, doesn't he?  Perhaps its because so many questions remain as to the real identity of the Ripper, perhaps it's the allure of the Dickensian image we have of London during the murders, or maybe there's something more sinister in the subconscious of each one of us.  At Classic Film and TV Cafe, Rick gives us two classic television shows that dared to take on the world of Jack, Thriller and Star Trek.  Notice how many of these types of episodes incorporate time travel in one way or another, either through transporting our protagonists back to London, or whisking the spirit of Jack to our present times.  Either way, it almost always makes for an exciting story.

Speaking of Star Trek (they don't call me the master of segues for nothing), The Flaming Nose pays tribute to the late Leonard Nimoy with a list of favorite Mr. Spock episodes.  There are some wonderful moments in these stories, though I have to admit a personal preference for the moment in "The Trouble With Tribbles" when Spock dryly comments on Kirk's distain for Baris, "He simply could not believe his ears."  Wonderful double-meaning there.

I couldn't possibly pass up this entry at The Last Drive In, since the opening graphic leads off with a plug for the State Fair of Texas, which we all know is the greatest state fair in the land.  It's an exploration of ten tasty television trivia tidbits, reminding us of everything from Lieutenant Columbo's fondness for chili to Officer Bill Gannon's willingness to try almost anything.  Is it a coincidence that I'm writing this at lunchtime?

At Comfort TV, David gives a thumbs-up to Adam-Michael James’s The Bewitched Continuum (which I similarly praised here), and then talks about other episode guides that would make great additions to your television library.  I can only speak first-hand to one of them, Ed Robertson's terrific The Fugitive Recaptured and I'd offer Brenda Scott Royce's Hogan's Heroes: Behind the Scenes at Stalag 13 as one that ought to be checked out,

Catching up on something I should have mentioned earlier, Kliph Nesteroff is back with another great interview at Classic Television Showbiz, this one a witty, insightful chat with Dick Cavett.  While I've always thought that Cavett was a little too-self centered in his interviewing technique, I've come to appreciate over the years that he's also one of the best interviewers that's been on television - certainly heads above any of the chucklefests that pass for talk hows on TV today.  I don't suppose we'd be able to sit still for him today though, do you?

That's your lucky seven links for this week - tune in again tomorrow as we take another dip into the TV Guide archives.

April 22, 2015

Why the past can be, you know, kind of important

I've said it before but perhaps not here, so I'll say it now: I think James Lileks is one of the most talented writers around, and one who really understands the intimate connection between nostalgia and the development of pop culture.  It isn't just that I agree with so much of what he writes; it's that so often he does it so much better than I would.  He can say in a paragraph what it would take me a whole page (or two) to explain.

And so I'm going to go back to something he wrote last week, and while it doesn't pertain specifically to television, I think it strikes at the heart of what I'm all about here.  The topic, among other things, is the snarkiness of today's youth culture, and the inclination to believe the only important things are things that have occurred in the last fifteen minutes.  "Teens only care about the immediate culture," writes someone in "the dreadful Grievance Scratching Post known as Jezebel." "They are not stuck in dead-time nostalgia. They have never heard of Missy Elliot.*  They do not care. That is OK. Teens plow their carts over the bones of the dead."

*Neither have I, to be honest, a statement that is meant to be neither boastful nor filled with regret.

I think it's that last part that gets me the most, plowing their carts over "the bones of the dead."  It not only disrespects those who do care about more than the immediate culture, it shows a great disregard for the dead themselves, who deserve a hell of a lot more respect than that.*  Apparently it hit Lileks the same way as well:

*If they had a favorite Bible passage, which they probably don't because that stuff is so unhip, it would probably be "Let the dead bury the dead."


And so on, and on, mostly crude and ignorant and not caring what you think, because that’s so TEEN. The word the author is trying to avoid is “dumb,” because “dumb” would suggest that there is an element of gaseous vapidity in “cool.” Can’t have that. “Cool” has been elevated to the highest of human aspirations. Of course, if the author believes that Missy Elliot is some historical standard, the ignorance of which is a measure of the mind, well, that’s rather revealing. The passage stuck out because I was a Teen in most of the clinical descriptions of the term, and was also interested in “dead-time nostalgia” as well as the “immediate culture.” Things that came before me were interesting. They helped to explain why Now turned out as it did or made you wonder why Now was different from what they expected. This wasn’t that unusual. My bound copies of Life magazine at the library, some girl’s shelf of Little House on the Prairie stories.  [Emphasis mine.]

It's that bold-faced section that explains so much about why I focus on the things I focus on, why I write what I do on this site.  It's not an approximate parallel, but it will do.  What interests me about the relationship between television and modern culture is seeing how things were portrayed, how some events and movements might have been predicted while others were totally off-base.  It's being able to see how things develop over time, what was considered important at one time as opposed to another.  It's understanding how television mirrors our culture at a given time, and how it might shape it as well.

There's a phrase I've come to use frequently, which says that "text without context is a pretext."  Simply put, it means that without understanding the context in which something appears, you can't really begin to understand what it means.  Invariably you'll put a contemporary spin on it, you'll try to view mores of the '50s and '60s through the cultural standards of the '00s and '10s.  For me, looking at the artifacts of a TV Guide, the views glimpsed out a window in a sitcom, or the issues discussed in a crime drama - those tell me more than what the plot of a show is about.  They tell me about people, about how we've evolved not only as individuals but as a society.

Lileks continues with his comments.  The original subject was the 1964 World's Fair in New Your City, and how that Fair is viewed by many today as kitschy and simplistic.  Substitute classic television for the Fair, and I think we can agree:

Anyway. Teens have to be cool because cool is great, the sole arbiter of worth, and so teen mentality is the best and most authentic - and that’s what counts, right? Not whether you are good or learned, but whether you are authentic. To what? To yourself. Of course. Because what else is there, really. The people who came after the Fair were devoted to demolishing all the pieties and certainties of their forebears, having gazed upon them with adolescent wisdom and found them lacking. After they had uprooted all the certainties and decided what an Authentic Person should believe, they were left with nothing but a Utopian ideal, a hissing miserabilism over its failure to be manifested in all aspects of society, and a set of shabby tattered folklore about a golden age between 1967 and 1973.

In a future article - maybe next week? - I want to return to the idea of virtue as expounded upon by St. Thomas Aquinas, in relation to some of the things that I think make classic television superior to television of today.  This statement, by the way, is not meant to infer that all classic television was great, that all contemporary television is crap, and that there aren't any contemporary shows that can be called superior to those of the past.  That's just ridiculous.  But it's the emphasis, the underlying conceit of particular givens that inform today's shows, that may help to explain what it is that engenders such affection for classic shows - affection that, I submit, goes beyond a simple sentimentality, a nostalgia for things past.*  And that's not old-fogeyism either.

*We shouldn't forget to draw the distinction between nostalgia and sentimentality, either.  They're two quite distinct and different things.  Not enough time to go into it now, but we will later, I promise.

I'm sure that, to those who plow their carts over the bones of the dead, I must be a tragically unhip character, if I'm even worthy of consideration.  That's all right, because a well-placed curiosity is one of the defining characteristics of humanity, and in an age that's becoming increasingly inhumane, it's a characteristic I don't mind having.

April 20, 2015

What's on TV? Thursday, April 18, 1963

We're in New England once again this week, with stations in Massachusetts, Maine, Rhode Island and New Hampshire, and despite the four years I spent in purgatory - I mean, Maine - I don't have a lot of local color to add to the listings. Let's just enjoy them for what they are!  The main listings are from Boston.

April 18, 2015

This week in TV Guide: April 13, 1963

He's one of the most influential men of the 20th Century, although most of his damage was done behind the scenes.  His fingerprints are all over the concepts of urban development.  His battles with mayors, governors and even presidents were legendary, and it was the rare man who didn't succumb to at least a little trembling at the mention of his name.  His accomplishments, for good as well as ill, were legion.  He's the subject of this week's CBS Reports on Wednesday night: "The Man Who Built New York," Robert Moses, where host Bill Leonard quizzes him on his ideas, his critics and his accomplishments, as well as his reputation as "someone hard to argue with."

If you watched Ric Burns' magnificent documentary New York about 15 years ago, you know the name well, for no discussion of New York City can be had without talking about Robert Moses.  He's been called the most polarizing figure in the history of urban planning, and his concepts were a blend of genius and utter contempt.  It is Robert Moses who developed the modern superhighway, the spaghetti pattern of on- and off-ramps that often approached art in their intricacy; it is Moses who, with his contempt for mass transit, helped create the modern suburb.   Moses designed Jones Beach State Park as a haven for those trying to escape the city, accessible by freeway, and then designed the overpasses low enough that buses couldn't use them, in order to keep the riffraff away.  He created landmarks such as the Triborough Bridge, and ordered the destruction of landmarks such as the original Penn Station.  He did more than any man since Henry Ford to not only popularize but make essential the automobile, yet he himself did not drive.  He tore through neighborhoods to build roads and housing projects, he refused to help Walter O'Malley build a new stadium in Brooklyn to keep the Dodgers but gladly pushed for the construction of Shea Stadium at the site of his 1964 World's Fair.  He started out as a reformer and ended by treating "the people" with scorn, while never holding elective office.

Moses was hugely influential in urban planning, and if you look at just about any large urban city in America you'll see his influence.  I could see it when I lived in Minneapolis, every time I drove through the slums and run-down areas that lined the freeways - freeways that had been built by tearing down thriving ethnic neighborhoods, replacing them with miles and miles of concrete and fences.  The irony is that Moses' creations, designed to alleviate congestion on the roadways, actually wound up causing more congestion; as the roads and bridges went up, they encouraged more and more traffic, often making the projects outdated before they'd even finished.

At the time of this profile, Moses is controversial, but still feared by politicians, and his accomplishments (including that upcoming World's Fair) are generally praised, if sometimes grudgingly.  But the tide is turning - the following year, his plan to demolish Greenwich Village in favor of the Mid-Manhattan Expressway is vetoed by city government, and Jane Jacobs takes direct aim at him in her classic book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. But it is probably Robert Caro's massive Pulitzer-winning biography of Moses, The Power Broker, that seals the public's perception of him.  Its subtitle is "Robert Moses and the Fall of New York," and it comes at a time when the city is in crisis, when its finances are collapsing, crime is spiraling, subway cars are enveloped by graffiti, and decay is everywhere.  This, says Caro, is his legacy; this is what Moses hath wrought.

By then Moses has fallen from power; Nelson Rockefeller is the first politician - federal, state or local - to outwit the master, and Caro captures perfectly the puzzlement of the man who, oblivious to his own ruthless, bullying legacy, simply can't understand why people don't understand that he did what he had to do - what he knew was best for New York, and for America.

I tried to find some video from that CBS Reports program, but failed.  It would have been nice to provide some balance with this video, the episode of New York entitled "The World that Moses Built"


***

April 14 is Easter Sunday and, unlike what we see (or don't see) on television today, the morning is filled with special programming.

Channel 7, WNAC in Boston, presents a program at 9:30am ET on the Shroud of Turin - if that sounds familiar, it's because I also noted it in a TV Guide from 1959.  Yep, same program.  At 10, WBZ has Our Believing World, a half-hour of sacred music performed by the Boston University Seminary Singers.  Also at 10, CBS has Missa Domini, an hour of Easter music by the University Chorale and chamber orchestra of Boston College conducted by C. Alexander Peloquin, including three of Peloquin's own compositions.  And as if that weren't enough, the ABC stations in the area have live coverage of the Easter Solemn Pontifical Mass from Holy Cross Cathedral in Boston, celebrated by the renowned Richard Cardinal Cushing, Archbishop of Boston.

But there's more - at 11, NBC has an Easter service from Pleasant Ridge Presbyterian in Cincinnati, and CBS follows with a service from Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.  And later in the day Channel 12, WPRO in Providence, has a half-hour of Easter music from the Canticum Glee Club at Brown University and the Lincoln School Glee Club, conducted by Erich Kunzel - who will go on to great fame as conductor of the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra.  There are also musical presentations on ABC's Directions '63 and WBZ's Odyssey program, and at 4:30 Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians are on hand to provide a little popular Easter and spring music.

Finally, at 6:30, it's another of John Secondari's Close-Up! documentaries on ABC, this one on the Vatican.  We see the inner workings of Vatican bureaucracy, a session of the Second Vatican Council, and Pope John XXIII at work in his office.  In an article that appears elsewhere in the issue, Secondari talks of the profound impression the Pontiff left on everyone involved in producing the program - he asked questions of the sound and cameramen, wondering how their equipment worked, asked about the families of the correspondents, obligingly reread a statement when asked if he could do another take, and engaged in his everyday routine - all along seemingly oblivious to the chaos caused by the crew.  "It was not only his appearance of universal grandfather," Secondari writes, "it was the warmth and friendliness which came out to envelop all of us who had invaded what little peace and quite is his."  As they wrapped up their work the Pope blessed cameras and crew, remarking, "It is early yet and I have many things to do before I have earned my midday meal."

John XXIII was already dying of stomach cancer when this program was filmed; less than two months after it is aired, on June 3 "Good Pope John" died at the age of 81.

***

In 1963, when someone talks about sports at this time of the year, there can be only one sport: baseball.  And on the first weekend of the season, the game is in full swing.  You remember last week how I mentioned that the blackout rules of the time prohibited televising major league games into a major league market?  Well, it still holds true in '63: NBC's Game of the Week, featuring Cleveland and Detroit, and CBS' Game of the Week between Baltimore and New York, are seen in Portland, Maine, but if you want baseball in Boston you're going to be watching the Red Sox and Washington Senators battle it out at the then-newish District of Columbia Stadium, with the legendary Sox announcing crew of Curt Gowdy and Ned Martin.

On Saturday night ABC's Fight of the Week, in its final season, has a heavyweight bout between #4 condender Cleveland Williams and unranked Ernest Terrell.  In an upset, Terrell wins a split decision, and in 1965 he'll win a portion of the heavyweight championship after Muhammad Ali is stripped of the title (for fighting a rematch with former champ Sonny Liston rather than taking on a mandatory #1 contender), holding the title until 1967 when he loses a vicious decision to Ali in a unification bout.  Williams, for his part, would also fight Ali for the title, losing via third-round TKO in 1966.

***

The TV Guide Awards are on this week!  Before you get too excited, though, the presentation of the awards is only part of Sunday night's Bob Hope special on NBC, much as the Golden Globes used to be nothing more than a segment of the Andy Williams show.

The bowl given to TV Guide Award nominees - this one
to
Peter Pan, nominated for Best Dramatic, Musical or
Variety Program.
This is the fourth of the five years that the TV Guide Awards were presented, and I took a closer look at them here.   The nominees are an interesting blend of long-running hits, acclaimed but short-lived series, and specials that few people likely saw.  For example, there's the "Favorite New Series" category, comprised of McHale's Navy, The Beverly Hillbillies and The Virginian, all of which went on to successful runs, and Stoney Burke and The Eleventh Hour, which found more favor from critics than they did viewers.

In case you're wondering, the winners: Carol Burnett and Richard Chamberlain for Favorite Female and Male Performers; The Beverly Hillbillies for Favorite New Series, Bonanza for Favorite Series, Bob Hope's Christmas Show for the Best Entertainment Program, NBC's special The Tunnel for Best News or Information Program, The Huntley-Brinkley Report for Best News or Information Series, and Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color for Best Children's Series.  So what do you think?

***

In preparing the "What's on TV?" feature for this coming Monday, I took a good look at ABC's Thursday night lineup.  With one exception, this is a stunning night of television, a veritable who's who* of iconic sitcoms, all of which are deeply ingrained in classic television history.

*I don't know where, but I recall reading once that the only kind of "who's who" is a "veritable" one.

It starts at 7:30pm with The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, which is in its 11th of 14 seasons, and made Ricky Nelson into a teen idol.  That's followed at 8:00 by The Donna Reed Show, in its fifth of eight seasons, which helped define the housewife of the late '50s and early '60s.  At 8:30 it's Leave It to Beaver, the much-loved show in its sixth and final season, and then at 9:00 My Three Sons, which is probably better-known as a CBS show but spent its first five of 12 seasons on ABC.  The sitcom stars conclude at 9:30 with the youngster of the group, McHale's Navy, in its first of (only) four seasons.  ABC's schedule concludes at 10:00 with the hour-long drama anthology Alcoa Presents, the most outstanding feature of which is that it was hosted by Fred Astaire, who also occasionally starred in an episode.

I've written before about the Saturday night "Murderer's Row" of CBS shows in the '70s, and the Thursday night "Must See TV" on NBC more recently, but this has to rank as one of the most underrated television lineups of all time.  Every one of those sitcoms is well-remembered and loved, with big-name stars and familiar storylines, and each one of them tells us something important about the America of the '50s and '60s.  If you wanted to learn about those times and were limited to watching just these five sitcoms, you could do a whole lot worse.

***

Here's something we haven't done for awhile - a quick look at the celebrities appearing in this week's game shows.  As is generally the case, the celebs are on for the entire week.

Appropriately enough, first up is Your First Impression on NBC, with Steve Dunne, Betty White and Dennis James joining host Bill Leyden.   On CBS' Password, Orson Bean and Susan Strasberg are the duelers, with Allen Ludden moderating the fray.  That's followed by To Tell the Truth, which this week has Carol Channing, Joan Fontaine, Skitch Henderson and Henry Morgan on the panel, and Bud Collyer behind the host's desk.  (From past experience watching game shows, I can assume that Carol Channing was a real pain in the you-know-what.)  Finally, the unlikeliest pairing, on NBC's You Don't Say! - Lee Marvin and Beverly Garland, with host Tom Kennedy.  The oddity isn't Garland, but Marvin - I don't know about you, but I just can't imagine him on a game show.

In the prime-time shows, the nighttime version of To Tell the Truth has Tom Poston, Peggy Cass, Kitty Carlisle and Sam Levenson, while the nighttime Password has Eydie Gorme and Alan King (who was an excellent player).  The cast of I've Got a Secret isn't listed, but I'd assume it's the regular one - Bill Cullen, Betsy Palmer, Henry Morgan and Bess Myerson, presided over by Garry Moore.  And on the granddaddy of them all, What's My Line? (now in its 14th season!), Phyllis Newman and Richard Boone join regulars Arlene Francis, Bennett Cerf, and host John Daly, and though it wouldn't have been listed in the TV Guide, the Mystery Guest is Jimmy Durante.

***

Finally this week, the essayist Marya Mannes, serving as guest reviewer for the next couple of weeks, has a very funny and yet insightful look at soap operas which, she says, she became addicted to during a recent brief illness.  Says Miss Mannes, "They relax the brain, suspend belief and elicit continuous admiration for the expenditure of so much production and acting talent on such unending woe."

Her two favored soaps right now are The Guiding Light and The Edge of Night, with occasional look-ins at As the World Turns and The Secret Storm.  In particular, she finds The Edge of Night to be far and away the best, primarily because of its emphasis on law and crime and its use of reason and ingenuity in telling its stories.  She finds it, for the most part, free of the "grotesquely lurid" storylines that populate many soaps, and is "refreshing to find the sentiment occasionally leavened with humor, and some indication that the American female exists outside the kitchen."

On the other hand, there's The Guiding Light and the "bovine dumbness" of the Bauer females, which is only partially made-up for by outstanding performances of Barbara Becker as ex-alcoholic Doris Crandall and Phil Sterling as lawyer George Hayes.  (I think she's got something for lawyers.)  She finds As the World Turns to be "dull but peculiar," describes the two heroines, Penny and Ellen, as "tedious girls," and sees the show as the epitome of what plagues most soap operas: "rampant emotionalism for small reason."  I'm going to have to remember that phrase the next time someone asks me to describe the biggest problem with the Internet.  In fact, one might consider the following to be a kind of "Everything I Know About Life I Learned From Soap Operas":

  • Americans Spend Half Their Time on the Operating Table and the Other Half on the Witness Stand.
  • Nothing Exists Outside the Family Unit.
  • Women with Aprons Are Good Women; They Drink Coffee Every Two Minutes.
  • Bad Women Drink Cocktails and Have Careers.
  • Mothers Who Want Their Grown Children to Stay Home Are Good Mothers.
  • Good Men Must Be Lawyers, Doctors or Business Executives.
  • Nobody Reads Books.
  • Divorce Is Unthinkable.
  • There Is No Happiness Outside the Home.
That would make a great poster, don't you think?  

April 17, 2015

Around the dial, from A to Z

Happy Friday, and happy reading, as we take a quick look around at some of the more interesting articles at the television blogosphere.  And by the way, if you either have a TV site or know of one that isn't included in the sidebar list, please send me an email or mention it in the comments section - I'm always on the lookout for good stuff.

At Christmas TV History, Joanna reviews a fun Christmas episode from The Man From U.N.C.L.E.  Friday night is U.N.C.L.E. night on Hadleyvision, and it's been fun even though we're now in the dreadful third season.  By chance, we saw this Christmas episode at Christmastime last year (although I think I might have had to manipulate the order by an episode or two to pull it off), and Joanna is spot on.  The clips of the Macy's parade alone make the episode worth it - all the references to shows of the time!

Amanda at Made for TV Mayhem is starting a podcast, co-hosted by Dan R. Budnik, co-author of Bleeding Skull: A 1980s Horror-Trash Odyssey,   Sounds like fun listening, something to add to your podcast links.

A nice reminiscence of Jule Huffman, host of the kids show Mr. Cartoon in Huntington, West Virginia, at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.  I'm not familiar with the show myself, of course, but in Ivan's lookback I can see all the local kids shows of my own youth, and the hosts who made them so special.  A lost part of television, to be sure, but a lost part of the childhood experience as well.  You can read more about these shows in Tim Hollis' great Hi There Boys and Girls!

In my Monday listings, I often talk about local TV stations that were split affiliates, offering programs from two (or more!) networks.  The Broadcasting Archives at the University of Maryland has an add for one of them, WAPI in Birmingham.  Interesting that from '63 to '65, Huntley-Brinkley was the only national news broadcast seen in Birmingham.

I haven't watched Saturday Night Live for decades, but All Things Kevyn has a very good list of every SNL cast member from the beginning, ranked from worst to best.

Speaking of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. as we were earlier, this week's TV Guide review at Television Obscurities features the show's stars, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, on the cover.  As seems to be so often the case, although the picture is of the two of them, the article only profiles one - in this case, McCallum (my favorite of the two), who's certainly had a long and successful career in television.

And The TV Guide Historian has an example of two ads that disappeared from the magazine sometime, I'd guess, in the late '60s or early '70s -  a movie playing at a local theater, and a local restaurant.  By the '70s, the ads were solely for TV shows, although I think the stray astrologer ad still featured.  They introduced a classified section sometime not long before I cancelled my subscription.

So much for today, and there's so much for you to read.  Don't forget to be back here tomorrow for more TV fun.

April 15, 2015

Remembering Lincoln

I don't usually do two posts in one day, but I thought I'd share this (and I would have done it earlier had I been thinking clearly) - an eyewitness to Lincoln's assassination appearing on I've Got a Secret in 1956:


I mentioned to someone over at the other blog that it was mind-boggling to think of people who'd lived to see both the Civil War and World War II - but think of a man who'd seen Lincoln's assassination, and lived to tell about it on television.  Is that staggering, or am I easily amused?

TV Jibe: Sign of the times


April 13, 2015

What's on TV? Friday, April 14, 1961



Even though I've started to branch out to issues from other parts of the country, I always feel most comfortable returning to the Twin Cities editions.  I'm more familiar with the programming, and it's so easy for me to travel back in time and put myself into the story - even if, as is the case this week, I must have been too young to know anything.  So this week I'm going to take a closer look at some of these local shows, and the personalities that made them.  Let's go through it together, shall we?

April 11, 2015

This week in TV Guide: April 8, 1961

Just as Westerns dominated television in the '50s and early '60s, dramas and action shows set during World War II were successful up to the late '60s, when they began to morph into allegorical tales related to Vietnam.  From lesser-known series such as The Silent Service to sitcoms Hogan's Heroes and McHale's Navy to successful dramas like The Gallent Men, Twelve O'Clock High, The Rat Patrol and, probably the most successful of them all, Combat!, series set in World War II were part of the television landscape.  They had a ready audience in those WWII vets who could recognize in the stories, the settings and the equipment some of the experiences they had undergone during the war.  In April 1961, we were just less than 16 years from the end of that war, and it was still a vivid part of the memories of many people.  In other words, in one way or another, most adults knew what it was all about - they had lived through it.

That's one of the reasons why the event that began on April 11, 1961 was so important to so many people, and why it still struck a chord deep in the heart.  For it is on that date that one of the final acts of World War II begins to play out: the war crimes trial, in Jerusalem, of Adolf Eichmann.  And unlike the war, this will play out, live, on television sets throughout the world.

Adolf Eichmann was one of the architects of the "Final Solution," a man who had organized and facilitated the internment and execution of Jews in the extermination camps.  He had been captured by the Mossad in Argentina in 1960, and now, in the biggest war crimes trial since Nuremberg, he is about to go on trial for his life: charged with "crimes against humanity," "crimes against the Jewish people," and "war crimes," including "robbery, enslavement, sterilization and the murder of millions by bullets, poison gas, torture, starvation and disease."

SOURCE: HADLEY TV GUIDE COLLECTION
This week TV Guide highlights television coverage of preparations for the trial.  A picture shows the stark setting, the Jerusalem Cultural Center.  On the dais sit three chairs, for the judges that will determine Eichmann's guilt or innocence.  To their left is the famed bullet-proof glass booth in which Eichmann will remain for the duration of the trial.  As Euan Ferguson recounts in this article on the trial, the challenges facing the production crew are daunting, from the fact that Israel didn't yet even have a television service, to the refusal of the trial judges to allow the hot and noisy cameras in the courtroom.  (Producer Milton Fruchtman gets around this prohibition "by half-unbricking the walls of the court and hiding the cameras inside, then employing an ingenious trompe-l’oeil system involving reflective white paint and chicken wire.")  Hired as the director is Leo Hurwitz, who had been blacklisted in the '50s.  Thirty-seven countries carry the trial; in the United States, tapes were flown overnight for next-day availability.  Capital Cities Broadcasting Corporation, which would go on to purchase ABC and ESPN, is the exclusive rights holder.

The trial lasts until August, with the three-judge panel rendering its verdict in December: guilty on most of the charges (although not guilty of having personally killed anyone himself).  He was sentenced to death on December 15, and after the appeals process had run its course was executed on June 1, 1962.

For many years, we have been warned that the Holocaust could happen again, some day, and it seems as if every few weeks we see something on the news that reminds us of how real a threat this is.  In his article, Euan Ferguson writes that for 15 years after the end of World War II, the Holocaust was "essentially disbelieved," at least as far as the sheer enormity of it.  The trial of Eichmann, held when the memory of World War II was still alive, brings the brutality and ugliness, the evil of it all, right into the living room - to an audience that, as I mentioned earlier, did not see it as ancient history.  For them, the reality of the war, and the scars, are still there.  The Eichmann trial would rip them open, providing perhaps the denouement to a drama that had started so many years before.

Here is an excerpt from the opening session of the trial as it happened.  It sounds almost trite to comment on the incredible clarity of the videotape; at least one source says that this was the first trial ever to be televised.


Below is a portion of a documentary on the trial, which provides background and commentary as well as giving us a further look at the proceedings in the courtroom.


***

Controversy about whether or not to run adult content on television during hours when children might be watching is nothing new.  What is new, or at least evolving, is our definition of "adult content," what is or is not suitable for children to watch.

Take this letter from Mrs. Leslie Franklin of Richmond, California, who complains about daytime commercials:

Please! can't [sic] something be done to stop the daytime television commercials of horror movies that are showing at local theaters?  These advertisements show more horror, violence and frightening things than all Westerns or mysteries put together.  And, naturally, these previews are shown during the hours when small children are watching.

Doubtless the content of these commercials - or the movies themselves, for that matter - are nothing as compared to what appears on television today.  I wonder what some of those movies might have been?  The always-reliable Wikipedia gives us an idea of some of the horror movies from 1961: Doctor Blood's Coffin, Creature from the Haunted Sea, The Mask, Shadow of the Cat.  A couple of movies actually have some credibility: Roger Corman's The Pit and the Pendulum, starring Vincent Price, and Jack Clayton's The Innocents, with Deborah Kerr.  Here's the trailer for Pit and the Pendulum, which probably would have provided the material for the commercial:


On the other hand, here's the trailer for Curse of the Werewolf:


As someone once said, text without context is pretext.  While we might think these movies are pretty tepid (if not laughable) today, the problem of juvenile delinquency was at the head of the class in the late '50s, and movies like this would have been viewed with extreme suspicion.  But then, considering the anything goes nature of our culture today, it's no surprise that we see far, far worse then this on TV today, even networks that include the word "Family" in their titles.

***

SOURCE: HADLEY TV GUIDE COLLECTION
Tuesday is a milestone in the history of Minnesota sports.  At 12:55pm CT on Channel 11, the Minnesota Twins take the field for the first regular season game in their history.  Minnesota's original major league professional team, formerly the Washington Senators, opens the season in New York against the defending American League champion Yankees.  The Twins win that first game, as they do their next game three days later against Baltimore.  Next week's home opener against the new Washington Senators - the first major league game played in Minnesota - will also be on Channel 11.

Channel 11 has plans to televise 50 Twins games, 45 on the road and five at home.  Interestingly, TV Guide notes that aside from the World Series, these will be the only major league games seen on TV in the Twin Cities.  Currently, the Saturday Game of the Week is on CBS with a handful of prime-time games on ABC, and the Series is on NBC.  However, the television rules of the day call for any network game to be blacked out in major league markets.  Frankly, depending on how good your team is, you might be better off without one - the national games could be superior.  Minnesota, for example, was home to the farm team of the New York/San Francisco Giants, which made the area National League territory.  Having only American League games to choose from must have been a change.

That's not the only sports on television this week, of course.  Saturday and Sunday CBS is back with the third and fourth-round coverage of The Masters.  I wrote about a previous Masters weekend last week; this week's coverage is pretty much the same.  Sunday's coverage is wiped out due to rain; if you're able to see Monday's broadcast, you'll see Gary Player become the first foreign-born player to win.

The weekend also sees coverage of the NBA Finals between the Boston Celtics and St. Louis Hawks.  It's a rare case of back-to-back games - since NBC doesn't broadcast games during the week, the teams play both Saturday and Sunday in order to maximize coverage.  The teams split the two games, played in St. Louis, and the Celtics wind up wining the series in five, for yet another championship.

***

What else is on this week?

There's a game show on ABC Monday afternoon called About Faces, starring Ben Alexander.  We know Alexander primarily as Sgt. Frank Smith on the original TV Dragnet.  When I first read this listing to my wife, she was incredulous.  What was Joe Friday's sidekick doing hosting a game show?  I agree, it doesn't seem right, but here it is:


On Tuesday, NBC presents its second status report on JFK's presidency.  I wonder if this commitment to the Kennedy White House is a function of the President's charisma, the bond he has with newsmen, or just the new medium being able to cover a new presidency in a way they've been unable to in the past?  Also, my alma mater, Hamline University, airs its weekly Hamline College Hour at 8:30pm on Channel 2.  Despite the title, the show's only 30 minutes.  I don't know what that says about the quality of the school.

Wednesday night there's a program on the educational station, Channel 2, entitled Astronomy.  Tonight's episode: "Superior Planets."  As opposed to inferior ones?  I mean, I've always had a soft spot for Pluto, but man, Neptune is just a slacker planet...

On Thursday, CBS Reports commemorates the 100th anniversary of the start of the Civil War with a visit by famed Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg to Gettysburg, site of Lincoln's famed address.  Up against that, NBC has Groucho Marx's You Bet Your Life, and you'd have to understand the absurdity of Groucho's humor to appreciate tonight's episode: the finals of the "Mrs. Housing Development" contest.

More baseball on Friday, as the Twins travel to Baltimore to take on the Orioles.  It's interesting; the Orioles themselves have been in Baltimore less than 10 years, having moved there from St. Louis, where they were the Browns.  Neither the Browns nor the Senators had had much success in their previous homes, yet by the end of the decade each will have appeared in a World Series, and the two teams will be fierce rivals heading into 1970.

Finally, there's the celebrity profile show Here's Hollywood, which NBC aired late afternoons in the early '60s.  In today's episode, co-host Joanne Jordan interviews Joan Crawford's daughter Christina about "her childhood impressions of Hollywood."  I wonder if she brought up wire hangers?

April 10, 2015

Getting it all wrong

LE TRAITRE: DÉGRADATION D’ALFRED DREYFUS, UNKNOWN, 1895
The Thirty-First of February
The Alfred Hitchcock Hour
January 4, 1963
Directed by Alf Kjellin
Teleplay by Richard Matheson (writing as Logan Swanson)
Based on the novel by Julian Symons

You probably know that over the years I've railed against the glorification of the all-powerful law enforcement department as seen in contemporary police procedurals.  In series after series, from CSI to NCIS to SVU to Castle, we see our heroes
(if you can call them that) stampeding all over the rights of individuals, probably violating several amendments in the Bill of Rights, not to mention engaging in interrogations that are often psychologically and verbally abusive, and display law enforcement officials that are either 1) supremely arrogant, 2) woefully under-informed (look at how many times they interrogate the wrong person, who clears himself by giving the cops information that even a cursory investigation should have already turned up), or 3) a combination of the above.  And when they do finally zero in on the guilty party, they do so through means that the Founding Fathers likely would have blanched at - not the technology, which none of them save Franklin would have anticipated, but the disdain with which the rights of the individual (who, recall, is innocent until proven guilty) are treated.  Despite all this, we rarely see any negative consequences arise from this kind of conduct, at least on network television.  This is presumably in order to keep the viewers on the side of law and order; after all, it's hard to root for someone week after week if all they do is continue to make mistakes.*

*For years I advocated the addition of a semi-regular to a show like Law & Order, a Perry Mason-type defense attorney whose past appearances would have conditioned us to understand that the person about to go on trial was innocent, and that the guilty party was still at large.  It would have been interesting to see the effect it had on the viewing audience, watching police and prosecutors follow through on the arrest and trial of someone we at home already knew was innocent.  

I've referred to this in the past as the "police state wet dream," in large part because I believe it conditions viewers to accept this abuse of power as necessary in these times of crime and terrorism, with the reassurance that of course we only use these tactics on guilty people, so the innocent have nothing to fear.  As a former talk-show host in Minnesota used to say, that's B as in B, S as in S.  And so that's why I'm always intrigued by a show that comes up with a different way of looking at things, a twist that pretty much turns the modern procedural on its ear.

Such is the case with the episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour entitled "The Thirty-First of February," which I caught on MeTV a while ago.  It's a tense hour of television, in which the viewer's perception of the truth changes several times, with the result that the ending comes as a true surprise - or at least it did to me.

A brief synopsis: Andrew Anderson (David Wayne) plays a man whose shrewish wife unexpectedly turns up dead at the foot of the basement stairs.  Based on his behavior and the looks he gave her, we're led to believe that he is responsible for it.  However, Wayne insists that his wife must have stumbled, and a burned-out lightbulb plus a book of matches next to the body would seem to confirm that she tripped in the darkness and fell to her death.  The coroner's inquest rules the death to be accidental, and that would seem to be that.  This leads us to our putative hero, the dogged Sergeant Cress (William Conrad, who is, after all, the larger-than-life Matt Dillon on radio's Gunsmoke), who remains convinced of Wayne's guilt and determines to fight a psychological battle against him in order to trap him into admitting his guilt.

Among all the clues that inform the detective, there's one thing that stands out - that box of matches laying next to her body.   He reviews the facts: she went to the basement steps assuming the light was working; she flipped on the switch, no light, she stumbles on the stairs and falls to her death.  But if that was the case, then why the matches?  After all, she wouldn’t have taken them if she thought the light was on, would she?  And if she knew the light was off, and she didn't change the bulb, then why wasn’t there evidence of a burned-out match?   Anderson suggests the matches must have been there for several days, but Cress counters that the cleaning woman had been there the day before, and would have picked up the matches if they’d been there.  No, it's clear to Cress that Anderson planted the matches to make it look like it was an accident, when in fact it's a clear-cut case of murder.

So far, so good.  Conrad's character lacks the charm of, say, Lieutenant Columbo, but we know how a show like this works, and as the story progresses we see more and more little details that point the finger to Wayne.  In the face of this, he continues to profess his innocence - yes, it's true (as he admits to the women whom he loves) that he never loved his wife, but that doesn't mean he killed her.  But there are things - letters that purport to be from his dead wife, accusing him of the crime; notes that suggest she was having an affair with one of his co-workers; evidence that another co-worker is spying on him; anonymous letters to the police; someone ransacking his home; a desk calendar with the date "February 31" on it.

Anderson begins to crack.  He becomes so frustrated trying to explain things to his new girlfriend that he tries to strangle her.  He exhibits increasingly erratic behavior at work, making wild accusations about his co-workers (including Bob Crane, who makes a very nice, if brief, appearance).  Eventually it becomes too much for Anderson to handle and he suffers a mental collapse.  We next see him in a hospital, hopelessly insane, convinced that his wife is trying to come back from the dead and blame her of his death.

It turns out that the letters, the search of the house, the stalking employee, the calendar, the various clues suggesting an affair – all of them had been planted by Cress in an attempt to shake Anderson until he cracked and confessed.  His breakdown, Cress feels, is validation that Anderson's guilt finally drove him over the brink.

And then - we meet Cress’ colleague, who we learn had been planted in the office by Cress as the stalker.  He strongly disapproves of Cress and his methods, and personally believes that Anderson was innocent, and that Cress’ investigative tactics are responsible for driving Anderson mad.  Why, for example, didn't Cress acknowledge that Anderson had previously suffered a nervous breakdown during the war?  Considering his medical history, it’s no surprise that Cress’ psychological games would eventually break him.

Cress remains unconvinced.  He knows Anderson is guilty, knows that he killed his wife.  He points again to the matches as evidence that Anderson planned the whole thing.  And then the denouement: Cress goes to light his pipe, finds that he’s misplaced his matches.  Where could they have gone?  His colleague points to a box lying at his feet.  There they are, he says.  Cress is momentarily confused, then realizes there was a hole in his pocket – that must be how the box got there.  And it is then that the knowledge hits him with full force:  a hole in Anderson’s pocket, the matches falling out when he went to investigate his wife’s fall – Anderson was innocent.  Thanks to his investigation – to his tricks, his bullying tactics, his total belief in Anderson’s guilt, he has succeeded only in driving an innocent man insane.  It is, indeed, something that he will have to live with for the rest of his life.

As you might imagine I've left out some details, but the gist remains the same.  Although the viewer is used to waiting for the twist in a Hitchcock story, this one proves to be a real stunner, and serves as a savage rebuke to the police.  I'm actually kind of surprised this one got on the air.  There's nothing to suggest that Cress is a corrupt or crooked cop, just a man utterly convinced that he's right, and totally determined to bring a killer to justice by whatever means necessary.  And he turns out to be wrong.

Granted, the kind of thing I'm talking about is easier to do on an anthology series, where the abusive official isn't one of the lovable quirkbots we'll be rooting for again next week, but then it might not be that bad of an idea to introduce the concept of humility (another of St. Thomas Aquinas' cardinal virtues) to them, as a way of helping develop their character.  If we're going to have serialized television with continuing storylines, might as well introduce some constructive values to them, right?

The thing is, considering the tactics used by authorities in today's procedurals, the single-mindedness with which they pursue their quary, and the way they so often use evidence to back up their own theories, one has to think that without any moral principles to go on but a conviction in their own rightness, this kind of thing is bound to happen.  And it's that knowledge - the acknowledgement of the oftentimes fragile, blurry line between guilt and innocence - that should temper the actions of cops, force them to reason things out, prevent them from acting in the heat of the moment.  One of the reasons I prefer British police shows is that they seem, at least the ones I watch, to be a bit more thoughtful about things: confident without being arrogant, dogged but not bullying, firm without shouting all the time.

The point of this, I guess, is one I've made before.  We're like the frogs in the boiling water, conditioned to accept less and less freedom while putting more and more trust - and power - in the hands of the state: we know it will only be used against the guilty.  I don't buy that, and I think there are a lot of people who think the same way.  That kind of absolute power surely corrupts absolutely; it probably already has.  But that's the story the procedurals are selling us, and they're sticking to it.  It's time to give them the reply: no deal.

April 8, 2015

On Stan Freberg, Top Gear, online sports and more

Since we didn't take a spin around the dial last week, I thought I'd make up for it today and look at some TV headlines.  Those of you who are regular readers might suspect that I'm doing this on a Wednesday because I have nothing else prepared.  To that, I'd simply respond that only my hairdresser knows for sure...

The brilliant satirist and all-around innovator Stan Freberg died yesterday, one of the most clever personalities on radio and television.  Like Ernie Kovacs, Freberg's sense of humor was often a little ahead of his time for audiences, but as my friend Tony Pizza commented, whatever humor you've seen here in the last few years was undoubtedly influenced by Freberg.  Here's one of his most famous parodies: the tale of St. George and the Dragonet.

Also passing this week was James Best, most remembered for The Dukes of Hazard but who did a lot more than that.  Comfort TV has an excellent remembrance of him, and Michael's TV Tray recalls a memorable turn he did on The Twilight Zone.

A couple of weeks ago I gave you a piece of my mind regarding the BBC and the sacking of Jeremy Clarkson, star of the corporation's (former?) hit Top Gear.  This article at Breitbart London reinforces my suspicion that there was an ideological bent to this decision, and underlines the decaying corruptness of the BBC.  If only UKIP had the votes to defund it altogether.

Here's an interesting article from World Soccer Talk - not a prediction, but an analysis of why it would make sense for Amazon to get into the bidding for television rights to the English Premier League or some other future sports contract.  When (not if) this eventually happens, it might well mean the death of cable TV - if you don't need it for sports, what do you need it for?

Speaking of which, I've spoken often of my admiration for NFL Films, particularly the genius of Ed and Steve Sabol (each of happy memory) - Classic TV Sports reports that NFL Films is coming up with another promising series, this one on historic NFL drafts.  Were I still a fan of the NFL, you can bet I'd be a sucker for this one.

You should always be reading Television Obscurities for the excellent weekly TV Guide series, but here's another good piece from yesterday commemorating the 88th anniversary of the first long distance television transmission.  What is it they say about the long journey beginning with a single step?  We've come a long way from that day 88 years ago, haven't we?

The TV Guide Historian gives us a look at a vintage ad for Felony Squad, starring Howard Duff and Ben Alexander.  I've read that it was being on this show that prevented Ben Alexander from joining Jack Webb on the reboot of Dragnet in the late '60s - wouldn't that have been great?   As a side note, did you know Webb was planning yet another comeback for Dragnet when he died, and that his partner would have been Kent McCord in his character from Adam-12?

Hopefully that should give me some time to come up with something you something to chew on until Friday, when I'll be back with more fun.  Until then, don't touch that dial - except to follow these links, of course.

April 6, 2015

What's on TV: Monday, April 6, 1959

This week our television travels take us to Virginia, and an edition of TV Guide that even includes parts of West Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee.  We're concentrating on Virginia however, and a hodgepodge of stations and affiliations - I've never seen so many double- and sometimes triple-affiliations.  It does give one a good idea of the most popular shows in a given market, though - the shows that demographics and viewers demand be shown in their area.  Since this is my first time through the market, I won't have much in the way of local background to add, but let's take a look at a pretty good television day: