April 16, 2016

This week in TV Guide: April 17, 1993

This week's TV Guide comes to you courtesy of Steve Harris from the In Other Words site, who has written so many of the devastatingly funny "This Just In" pieces over there. It was part of a small lot of TV Guides which he graciously gave me for Christmas this past year, issues you'll be seeing pop up from time to time in this space.

It's an interesting issue, and this is going to be an interesting look at it; I'm not sure we're even going to dip into the programming until Monday. That's because this is the 40th Anniversary Issue, and as you can tell from the cover, we're going to be reading about TV Guide's choices as the All-Time Best TV.* Ratings like this are ultimately pointless (one man's trash is another man's treasure, after all, and as the Editors themselves point out, "most of the fun is in the argument"), but they're usually fun to look at. Let's see if that's the case this time as well.

*I can't imagine writing this phrase without using Capital Letters.

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The shows are separated into categories: sitcoms, family shows, cop shows, Westerns and the like, and winners are chosen for the decades of the '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s and overall. Some of the choices, which must have seemed so progressive at the time, are probably going to be quite dated now, while others are going to be a testimony to how cultures change over time. Let's start, as an example, with sitcoms. The best sitcom of the '50s is no surprise: I Love Lucy. Probably not much disagreement there. For the '60s, the winner is The Dick Van Dyke Show, the '70s is M*A*S*H, the '80s is Cheers, and the All-Time Best* is M*A*S*H. What does this mean?

*There are those Capital Letters again.

The justification for selecting M*A*S*H as the all-time best is that it did what only the greatest comedies do: "mix hilarity and tragedy, often in equal measure." I'm not sure I agree with this - the definition, I mean. Yes, many comedies introduce an element of drama from time to time, but I disagree strongly with the assertion that this is a requirement of classic comedy. The editors acknowledge that M*A*S*H's politics could occasionally be heavy-handed, but "never at the expense of laughter or character," and I'm not sure I agree with that either. The politics of M*A*S*H, while ostensibly referring to the Korean War, was often meant as an allegory for Vietnam - but by this time, much of it has become dated, not to mention simplistic, and its cast members seem even more sanctimonious and pushy than they did back then. Perhaps the editors could have created a category for Best Dramedy, where M*A*S*H could have competed against Thirtysomething and SportsNight.

Another characteristic of classic comedy is its timelessness, and that's something that one can genuinely question about M*A*S*H. Let's put it this way: if you were to introduce this show to an audience today, one that lies outside of the demographic most preoccupied with Vietnam, would they find it funny in the same way they do Lucy or Andy Griffith or Leave it to Beaver, or even Frazier and Seinfeld, if you want to project into the future? I'm not sure they would, because those other shows, although rooted in a specific time period, often draw their humor from situations that are timeless and jokes that are often funny regardless of their setting. Much of M*A*S*H's humor may fall into that category (after all, authority will always be the butt of the joke), but I don't think you can say the same for its politics, and for that reason M*A*S*H, like another contender from the era, All in the Family, is too much of its time to be considered timeless.

My own personal choice in this category, not surprisingly to regular readers, is Hogan's Heroes, which combines a modicum of slapstick with some very clever "caper" plotting that also happens to be very funny. There's a certain gravitas about the mission of the Heroes that doesn't exist on, for example, McHale's Navy, and from time to time you're reminded that their missions do, in fact, often involve killing. The complaints about bad taste fall on deaf ears in this household, and most of the situations that form the basis for the comedy do seem, to me at least, to be universal in a way that they aren't in M*A*S*H. This is just one man's opinion; however, remember that the one man happens to be the owner of this blog.

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Best Drama? Your winners by decade are Playhouse 90, The Fugitive, Upstairs, Downstairs, and St. Elsewhere, and even before I turned the page I knew St. Elsewhere would be the winner, because it came from the '80s, which at the time was considered another Golden Age, and it was the most recent in people's minds.

Here, my complaint revolves around methodology. Some people might consider Hill Street Blues, the winner of Best Cop Show, as the best dramatic series of all time. Ah, but Hill Street is a genre show, albeit one that transcends the normal lines that separate a genre series from a regular drama. Others might suggest that The Waltons, a nominee for Best Family Show, should be considered for this category. For that matter, St. Elsewhere could be considered a genre show itself, a medical drama. But wait - there isn't a category for best Medical Drama. Could it be because there aren't really any medical dramas on television at the time, before ER and Chicago Hope and House? Can we even say that St. Elsewhere would be the best medical drama if that category existed? After all, Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare took on some weighty issues for the time.

I think this is a terribly weak choice: of the shows listed, I'd probably go with The Fugitive, although Playhouse 90 is a strong contender. The problem with Playhouse 90, in my mind, is that it was an anthology; as such, without a regular cast, you don't have to consider things such as character development and continuing storyline. It probably should have gone in a category for Best Anthology, but said category does not exist. Meanwhile, The Fugitive could just as easily have been put in the cop show category since its protagonist spends his time trying to avoid capture by - you guessed it - a cop. Upstairs, Downstairs could just as easily be put in the Best Nighttime Soap category (not that there's anything wrong with that), but if you're going to consider it as among the best, then let's look at the series that was the best Masterpiece Theatre had to offer: I, Claudius. Or was that too much of a soap? And what about The Prisoner, one of the most provocative series of all time? It isn't even mentioned in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy category. What about The Defenders, a show of exceedingly high quality, or Perry Mason, a series with high entertainment value? What about Mission: Impossible, which doesn't seem to fit into any category?

The bottom line here is that the categories themselves are useless - unless there's something that makes a series unique (and I'd allow that science fiction can fall into that description, as well as the anthology series, and today's reality shows), a drama is a drama and a comedy is a comedy. To paraphrase the editors, a classic television series transcends simple classification; just as Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe transcended genre fiction to be considered mainstream literature, the best series, regardless of the field in which they take place, are dramas (or comedies) first and foremost. Dragnet, one of the decade winners in the Best Cop category, is fine as a genre show, but it doesn't reach the level of another decade winner, Naked City, which is not a police drama at all, but a drama about men who happen to be policemen. See the difference?

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There are a few other bones to pick as well.

I mentioned Best Family Show above, but I'll say again that I think this kind of segregation cheapens the quality of these shows. The Waltons not a drama series? Leave it to Beaver and The Donna Reed Show classified as "family" shows and not sitcoms? It's almost as if the editors are embarrassed by them, giving them a special category rather than letting them compete with the "big boys." And speaking of embarrassment, I wonder how they'd feel about their all-time winner in this category, The Cosby Show? They might like to forget it, but Cosby was the biggest hit of the day. Why isn't this a sitcom, unless you want to define them as containing jokes about sex and other bodily functions?

I also mentioned Hill Street Blues winning Best Cop Show, but how can you compare cops on the beat to homicide detective Columbo (winner of the '60s)? Dragnet is a worthy winner for the '50s, but if you want cops, why not choose the crew of Naked City, a much better show than Hill Street, at least in my opinion. Still, if this issue had come out today, the choices probably would have been one of the Law & Order versions, or one of the NCIS versions, so I suppose we have to be grateful for small favors.

Johnny Carson is named best Nighttime Talk Show host, defeating Steve Allen, Jack Paar and David Letterman. No surprise, and I don't think you can really argue with it. Paar is more my taste, but between Johnny's staying power and the memorable moments from interviews, comedy skits and impromptu bits (thrown any tomahawks lately?), it's hard to dispute him as the king. And to think so many from today's generation have no clue who he is.

The Ed Sullivan Show wins for Best Variety Show, beating out Laugh-In, Saturday Night Live and The Tracey Ullman Show, and I'll admit I'm kind of surprised by this. I'd have thought they might go with SNL, based on its "groundbreaking" reputation, but Sullivan's show offered, as the editors point out, "all-encompassing variety," a program "that offered everything from dramatic readings to dancing bears, from opera buffo to Topo Gigio, from The Doors to Dinah Shore." As I pointed out here, it was influential in ways Sullivan himself couldn't have anticipated.

Howard Cosell is named Best Sportscaster, but he wasn't really a sportscaster in the sense that Vin Scully or Keith Jackson or Brent Musberger are; he was a sports commentator, or even better a sports personality. Yes, he did boxing and was very good at it (although not better than Don Dunphy), and he is absolutely one of the most important figures in television. But he doesn't belong in the same category with Red Barber, the voice of the Brooklyn Dodgers, or Jim McKay, host of Wide World of Sports, or even the young Bob Costas (who actually did more than pontificate back then), the other three nominees. Here, a little bit more distinction in categories would actually have been useful.

The Simpsons is the winner for Best Cartoon (what we'd call Best Animated Series today), but I think that really belongs in the sitcom classification, where it would probably have beaten M*A*S*H. It beats out Gumby (which wasn't a cartoon at all), The Bullwinkle Show (which wasn't a kids show at all), and Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids (which has suddenly become very awkward). I'm surprised, considering its longevity and popularity, that The Flintstones doesn't make the list.

I'm even more surprised - make that appalled - that Captain Kangaroo doesn't make the list of Best Kids' Show. Yes to Howdy Doody for the '50s and Sesame Street for the '70s, but Walt Disney instead of the Captain for the '60s? Disney's appeal crossed over to adults as well as children, and when you're talking about a "kids' show," you can't possibly compare "The Love Bug" and "Davy Crockett" (popular though they were) to Mr. Green Jeans talking about nature, the Captain introducing kids to the wonders of books through reading, or the various animal guests. As for the show of the '80s, ABC's Afterschool Specials, again - it's not a weekly series. Isn't this just apples and oranges? By the way, Sesame Street wins - no surprise.

For best Sci-Fi Show, I would have chosen Doctor Who, but at the time the British import hadn't gone mainstream, though it still had an enormous cult following in this country. Star Trek: TOS is the winner here, over The Twilight Zone (again, I'm not sure they really fit in the same category), Mork & Mindy (?), and Star Trek: TNG.

The original version of Jeopardy!, with Art Fleming, takes the Best Game Show category, and I'm not going to disagree with that - it's much better, in my opinion, than the Alex Trebek-helmed version. What's My Line?, the '50s choice, would have been mine as well, but it's not really a game show in the same sense as Jeopardy! or the other winners, Password and Wheel of Fortune.

Best News Show: 60 Minutes, over See It Now, The Huntley-Brinkley Report (which, I can't stress enough, was NBC's frigging evening news program, not in the same category at all) and Nightline. If you're talking about news magazines, sure, 60 Minutes - but if you're introducing Huntley-Brinkley, why not The MacNeil/Lehrer Report?

Best Morning Show: The Today Show, and I'm all right with that if you're talking about the '50s and '60s, as they do here. Good Morning America is the '70s choice, and CBS News Sunday Morning wins the '80s. It just goes to show how weak the entire weekday-morning lineup is.

Best Daytime Soap is General Hospital. Best Evening Soap is Dallas. I won't quarrel with either. Best Daytime Talk Show Host is Oprah Winfrey, and I think that choice, though regrettable, was inevitable. Arthur Godfrey's '50s show and Merv Griffin's '60s daytime show were in the mix, as well as Phil Donohue in the '70s; I prefer Merv's evening/late night show, for the same reasons they chose his '60s program - Merv as host was "a literate, intelligent one who didn't shrink from cerebral or controversial guests." And in that vein, don't forget that Dick Cavett started out as a daytime host as well, with ABC's This Morning.

Best Western Show: Gunsmoke, over Maverick ('50s) and Bonanza ('60s). Sure, although I think Gunsmoke is better placed in the '60s than '70s, but they had to have something for the '70s, since they couldn't come up with anything for the '80s (for the simple reason that there wasn't anything. For a genre that, at one time, dominated the TV airwaves, it's too bad TV Guide's format is so limiting - it leaves out a program such as Have Gun - Will Travel, a very complex program.

I'm not even bothering with the Best Actor and Actress categories, since I think the Best Show categories have created enough of a mess, but if you're curious the comedy awards went to Jackie Gleason and Lucille Ball (but wait a minute! The Honeymooners wasn't even a choice for sitcoms, and The Jackie Gleason Show didn't make it for variety show!), and the drama award winners were James Garner (who's magnificent forte is really the lighthearted drama) and Tyne Daly (whose Cagney & Lacey doesn't have the staying power needed to be voted best anything, I'd submit). Best Newscaster is Walter Cronkite, and my favorite, the non-nominated David Brinkley, wouldn't have stood a chance.

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And there you have it. I'm sure I've probably slammed some of your favorite shows, and if I have, I hope you'll forgive me. This is, after all, One Man's Opinion, and even if - as I mentioned earlier - that man happens to run this site, my opinions should be taken for what they're worth.

On the other hand, I think my opinions are as valid as anyone else's, certainly as much so as the editors of TV Guide, compared to whom I think I've shown more discernment and taste, as well as a greater sense of historicity, and I won't back down from that assertion.

However, what I'd like as much as anything is to hear your opinions. Keep in mind that this was written in 1993, so some of your favorites (especially from the cable boom) weren't anticipated, but otherwise, have at it - with either TV Guide, or me, or both!

2 comments:

  1. Funny you should bring this up, Mitchell....

    Two weeks after this issue came out, my letter was published in TV Guide regarding the selection of St Elsewhere as the top medical drama.

    At that time, I was "moonlighting' as an adjunct professor of communications at my undergraduate alma mater, Cortland State (NY). I would work all day in my capacity as Public Information Officer in my county's health and human services department, then head off to teach various communication courses. That daily experience, along with growing up in a hospital as a child because of my father's medical condition (plus having an older sister who faithfully made me watch Dr Kildare with her), exposed me the the real-life doings of health care and I was happy to bring those experiences to my eager students.

    That semester, I taught a class in "Writing for Media." When this issue of TV Guide came out, I proudly brought the issue in to my class and pointed out that the show we had studied (and that I had said was the best medical show ever) was St Elsewhere. They were modestly impressed, so I wrote a letter to Radnor, PA indicating that I had predicted their choice at the beginning of my class in January 1993.

    They published it, of course....

    A month later, I received a package at the college from Tom Fontana, Executive Producer of St Elsewhere (who went on to produce "OZ" and the short-lived "Copper."). He was grateful for my letter and sent me a working script from the Emmy-award winning two-part episode of St E for my class (complete with update sheets)entitled, "Time Heals."

    I would respectfully argue that that two-part episode, which traces the history of St Elsewhere from its start as a Catholic hospital under the leadership of controversial priest Joseph McCabe (played flawlessly by the late Edward Hermann) was one of the greatest episode(s) written for television, right up there with a similar flashback episode of "The West Wing" entitled "Two Cathedrals."

    Unlike its law enforcement doppelganger, "Hill Street Blues" (which started with a bang), St Elsewhere started slowly but took off after the first season. HSB peaked at Season 3 and went downhill from there, eventually being taken out of its 10 pm (Eastern) power slot for its last season. St E stayed at 10 pm Wednesdays until its last episode.

    While the finale of St E remains one of the most controversial endings in TV history, the body of work, I believe, speaks for itself. Dr Kildare's last season was diminished by the network thinking so little of it that it was reduced to a serial and Ben Casey was held hostage by its egotistical star, so much so that the elder statesman-physician, Sam Jaffe, had to leave before the show's final season.

    St E was an ensemble that held it together with excellent acting, writing and stories that were not only topical (AIDS and Mark Harmon's character for example) but ahead of the 1980's TV drama curve (autism, etc).

    In 1993 terms, I believe it to be the best medical show produced for commercial TV.

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    1. ...and P.S>, I also told my class that Star Trek:TOS was the best Sci-Fi show of all time as well! My "growing up with TV" 1960's bias is showing...

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