March 25, 2017

This week in TV Guide: March 20, 1971

Hang on, all you TV Guide fans out there, help is on the way! After this week's encore presentation (here's my take on it five years ago), we're in for a long run of original issues, and I'm sure you're as happy to hear this as I am. If it helps, think of this as the last in a series of reruns; next week your favorite show returns with all-new episodes.

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Edith Efron kicks off the week with an insightful article into how television looks at the drug problem. (It's interesting, by the way; I wonder, since the drug issue first reared its ugly head on TV, if the medium has ever not been looking at it. That's how constant the problem has been.)

She leads with a quote from Bob Claver, executive producer of The Interns, who leaves little doubt about what he thinks: "Most of the shows on drugs I've seen make the cop a heavy, the parent a heavy and make the kid a hero! They tell you it's understandable to take drugs because . . . look at all the trash around us!" Lest you think this is an exaggeration, Efron writes of how television has responded to President Nixon's call for an "antidrug campaign" on the networks. Of 24 teleplays that Efron analyzed, the "dominant perspective is a strange one: they add up, collectively, to an anti-Establishment cartoon, in which the 'heavies' tend to be liquor-guzzling, pill-taking, profit-making, Protestant-ethic-advocating, middle-class 'squares' . . . while the drug takers - also mostly white middle-class - are  cast as acutely suffering, often idealistic 'victims' of this 'society.'"

The reasons for these portrayals are varied, according to the producers of the "drug-plays." Claver says it's because of the "overwhelming" political leftism of the industry. "There's no question about that. So they take the anticop, antiparent and pro-kid position." Alan Armer, former producer of Matt Lincoln, agrees wth Claver but adds that network executives are to blame as well. "[T]here was an effort at the networks, particularly at CBS, to find a younger audience - essentially an anti-Establishment audience." Attempting to capitalize on the success of movies such as Easy Rider meant "in order to reach this younger audience, you had to do stories in which the heavy was the Establishment. So the protagonists all became helpless guys who were being badly used by the Establishment." It would seem, Efron concludes, that "networks were pandering to the leftist young, who are the primary drug consumers in white middle-class society," by "loading the moral decks" in the drug takers' favor.

It's part of a larger question, that of the existential nature of free will. Matthew Rapf, former producer of The Young Lawyers, says that "People who rely on drugs have pyschological problems. They've been exploited. To hold that they have moral responsibility means you'd want to put addicts in jail. Most writers don't agree with this. I don't." Armer counters that "The whole psychiatric thing today says that people who go out and commit rape, murder and robbery are not responsible for their actions, that it's all because their patterns put them on a cold potty at the age of 2. We've been brainwashed! It's become fashionable to interpret things this way. It's a cliche. Of course the addict is responsible! We're very much masters of our own fates. And if we take drugs, we must take the blame."* It's not a popular opinion in the industry, though, which means, as Efron puts it, "the suffering drug takers are morally whitewashed and their sins concealed."

*We've learned more since about the nature of addiction as an illness, and to distinguish between addicted users and habitual ones. Nonetheless, the question of free will remains central to the understanding of the human condition. Whether or not one is an addict, it can't be denied that the initial usage has to be the result of free will in one way or another.

Efron challenges the industry as to why there's been no intellectual discussion about why users turn to drugs. Why no stories about characters turning to drugs to escape conflict over Vietnam? Why no exploration of the "alienated youth" fed up with the hypocrisy of their altruistic liberal parents? David O'Connell, producer of Marcus Welby, M.D. has a pointed take on this: "The upper-middle-class educated families who have talked neosocialism all their lives, but have actually been grabbing for the buck all the time! They've projected a hypocrisy to their kids, and it has affected the kids badly. I don't think most of the writers really understand this liberal hypocrisy, because they share it. So they can't write about it."

Likewise, the panel is puzzled as to why none of the stories touch on the link between drugs and the sexual revolution (the consensus being that the networks want to stay away from sex), nor do they look at the responsibility borne by those who glamorize drug use. Again, Efron asks the question: why? Her conclusion: a combination factors. One is self-censorship; Rapf, for example, says he's not sure these kinds of issues can be raised on commercial TV, and he for one doesn't even try it. Then, there's political bias. O'Connell says liberals are incapable of portraying members of their own group as "heavies," something which conservatives would do without reservation. "Good, strong right-wing writers would probably damn the liberals to such an extent that the results would be unacceptable to the networks." And then there's simple ineptitude on the part of writers who just aren't good enough to write such nuanced storylines.

Drug plays are still with us today, of course, and as we've learned more about the psychology of the drug user and the nature of addiction as an illness, and seen the difference between a habitual user and an addicted one, we have perhaps a more nuanced portrayal of drug use, one that doesn't always glamorize the drugs and pardon the user.

Whatever the reason, there's one fact that's without dispute: in asking the networks to take on an antidrug campaign, the president got exactly the opposite of what he asked for. "It is a most unfortunate result," Efron says in conclusion, "because Mr. Nixon was unmistakably acting on the country's behalf. It is the country itself that has been hurt by this network misadventure."

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Throughout the 60s and early 70s, TV Guide's reviews were written by the witty and acerbic Cleveland Amory. Whenever we get the chance, we'll look at Cleve's latest take on the series of the era. 

Thanks to the wonders of cable television, the Henry Fonda-helmed TV series that most people are familiar with - and I use the word "familiar" very loosely - is the 1959-61 Western The Deputy. Far fewer will remember Fonda's 1971-72 effort, The Smith Family, the story of a plainclothes policeman named Smith and, well, his family. And, if Cleveland Amory's review is any indication, we should all be grateful for small miracles.

It starts with the show's theme, "Primrose Lane." Maybe you're familiar with the song, since it preceded the series by more than a decade, and you might even like it. If so, don't take this personally, but, says Amory, "We've heard worse, but we can't remember where." And then there are the "messages" delivered each week, usually by the children of the cast. It's not that the messages themselves are troublesome - "some of them are a good idea, particularly for nowadays" - but they don't sound like they were written by kids. They sound, in fact, as if they were written by screenwriters. You can always tell when this is the case - instead of being subtle and working on you, they hit you with a sledgehammer.

That's not to say that everything about The Smith Family is regrettable. As Amory points out, the series "is sometimes interesting and once in a while engrossing," but when it comes to making the sale with viewers, "your only hope is to think of it as a put-on - which, we assure you, it isn't." Fonda's presence, unfortunately, isn't much help; he's let down badly by the writing and directing, with the result that, though he's an actor of great stature, "there's a difference between stature and moving through a part like a statue." The series itself is, writes Cleve, about 20 years too late; it might have fit in much better in the 1950s, "with June Allyson playing the filmy-eyed mother, and perhaps a few songs and dances."

It's too bad, but Fonda isn't particularly unique when it comes to big-screen stars who fail to cut it in weekly series, as a previous TV Guide pointed out. Sometimes that's just the way it is. Almost always, it's because the star, for whatever reason, makes the wrong choice of material. In this case, its to our detriment as well as Fonda's.

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At last, March Madness - even though that's not what they call it yet, and it's a far cry from how TV covers the NCAA basketball tournament today. On Saturday, NBC presents a doubleheader, two of the four regional finals that determine the teams headed for the Final Four (even though it wasn't called that yet, either). The four games being played are parceled out based on region; the first game (1:00 p.m. CT) features the East Final, the second (3:00 p.m., time approximate) is either the Mideast or Midwest Final. Meanwhile, viewers out West get the Mideast/Midwest Final followed by the Western Final. There's no thought of showing all four games, or of dividing the games between Saturday and Sunday.

The tournament continues on Thursday night at 6:30 p.m. with the first of the two national semifinal games from the Houston Astrodome, the first appearance of the tournament in a domed stadium. NBC shows the early game in the eastern half of the country and the late game in the western half. The Twin Cities, being in the "eastern" half, gets that first game, starting at 6:30 p,m. It's only on Saturday afternoon, when the championship game is played, that the entire country will see the same game at the same time. Quite a change from today, when every game is televised on one of four different channels. Another interesting difference, as Classic TV Sports points out: because the tournament was much smaller in these days, and because the teams were placed in their regions strictly based on geography, many areas of the country never got the opportunity to see perennial champion UCLA until that final game.

Melvin Durslag, sportswriter for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and TV Guide's resident sports expert, makes some interesting observations in his article on the tournament. He points out, for example, that playing the game in the fabled Astrodome isn't the best thing for the fans, what with so many of the seats so far away from the court. But it means they'll be able to sell 40,000 tickets for the finals, and compared to all the money that'll make for the NCAA, what's a little inconvenience for the fans? And then there are the players, thinking about the opportunities that await them once they turn pro, with the NBA-ABA bidding war driving salaries to previously unheard-of levels.* Their bodies will be on the court, Durslag warns, but their thoughts will be on their bank account. Maybe NBC can demonstrate this on a split-screen, he notes helpfully.

*In fact, of the teams in the Final Four, two of them - runner-up Villanova and third-place Western Kentucky - had their participation voided due to players having illegally signed pro contracts while they continued to play college ball.

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SOURCE: HADLEY TV GUIDE COLLECTION
This week's starlet (we haven't done one in awhile) is Elaine Giftos, currently starring as the wife of Mike Farrell in Bob Claver's The Interns on CBS. She started out as a dancer, but after she fell off a few stages and missed her partner while trying to dive into his arms and wound up in the orchestra instead, she decided that being nearsighted isn't such a good thing for a dancer. So she turned to acting, although when directors tell her to hold that sexy expression, she still has to tell them that she's not trying to look sexy - she just can't see.

Her movie career took off after an appearance in a skit on The Tonight Show, and although her highlight was playing Barbra Streisand's best friend in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, she's still worked steadily in movies and television, appearing on Bonanza and I Dream of Jeannie before getting the part in The Interns. She loves the work ("The Interns is fun"), but when 6:00 p.m. rolls around, she says, "I become me."

Elaine Giftos never became a big star; The Interns ran for 24 episodes. She continued to work until 2001, though, appearing in series from Ironside to Ally McBeal, before becoming a Feng shui consultant. She says in the article that she'll never marry an actor, and indeed she doesn't: she was married to writer/producer Herbert Wright until his death in 2005. All in all, it's not been a bad life for the woman who once was called "the girl with the most beautiful legs in the world."

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Finally, some notes from the TV Teletype.

Jean Shepherd's America is coming to PBS later in the year. This is long before Shepherd became known for A Christmas Story, but he already has a following from his whimsical books and radio program. Here's an episode he did on his fascination with trains...


We get so used to Teletype notes about noble-sounding shows that never make it to screen, so it's always nice to find examples of some that do. Shepherd's show is one, and here's another - CBS newsman Eric Sevareid's "interview" with Lord North, played by Peter Ustinov, in the first episode of a projected six-year project called The American Revolution. I don't know if there ever were any additional episodes, but this one won a Peabody. No surprise, considering how good Ustinov always is...

Later in April, George Plimpton appears with Bob Cromie on the PBS series Book Beat to discuss his newest, American Journey: The Times of Robert Kennedy. Unsaid in the Teletype blurb is that the book is an oral history, consisting of interviews conducted by Jean Stein, and Plimpton serves as the editor...

Here's a reminder of when the Tony Awards were bigger and more populist than today: ABC's broadcast next Sunday will be co-hosted by Anne Bancroft, Elliot Gould, Lauren Bacall, and Rex Harrison. Awards shows were very big on multiple hosts back in those days. In fact, Bob Hope will be one of 33 co-hosts on next month's Oscarcast...

Hogan's Heroes may have been cancelled, but Bob Crane's nowhere near finished, as he heads out this month on the summer theater circuit to do "Beginner's Luck," the play for which he'll become most known (next to Hogan). In fact, it's the play that he's doing in Scottsdale, Arizona when he's murdered in 1978...

And speaking of plays, PBS (again) plans to broadcast an adaptation of John Dos Passos' epic trilogy U.S.A. next month on Hollywood Television Theater. It was nominated for an Emmy, and I understand it's very good, but I have to wonder - how do you make a 150 minute movie out of a trilogy of books? U.S.A. was Dos Passos' crowning achievement, a monumental story. I can't imagine what they must have had to cut out to make it fit in the allotted time. Imagine trying to do that with Lord of the Rings...

2 comments:

  1. Elaine Giftos is fondly remembered by 'Partridge Family' fans as Bonnie Kleinschmidt, the stewardess...er, 'flight attendant' girlfriend of Reuben Kincaid.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I suspect that Elaine Giftos eventually wore contact lenses.

    And maybe in recent years, she's had Lasik(R) surgery.

    ReplyDelete

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