November 17, 2017

Taking the readers to school - with class

Mr. Novak: An Acclaimed Television Series
by Chuck Harter
BearManor Media, 374 pp, $27.00

For a series that lasted only two seasons and was seldom seen thereafter in syndication, it’s remarkable how fondly Mr. Novak is remembered. Until recently, I’d never seen an episode myself, and yet I knew about the show, that it starred James Franciscus, that it was about a high school teacher, that Dean Jagger, whom I had enjoyed immensely in White Christmas, played the principal, and that the series dealt with the typical issues that confronted high school students in the early 1960s. That was about it, but one can say that this is about all that most people know about most television shows that

It wasn’t good enough for Chuck Harter, though. A late-comer to Novak himself, he was surprised to find that there had been so little written about a series that had won such acclaim during its brief lifetime. So he did what writers are wont to do – he wrote a book about it. Mr. Novak: An Acclaimed Television Series does the show proud, and reflects well on the talent and passion of its author for his subject matter.

Many books have been written about television series over the years; some of them have, not surprisingly, found their way to my bookshelves. Most of them follow a fairly standard template: a recounting of how the series came to be; bios of the major participants; an episode guide, including thorough credits for everyone involved, with varying degrees of information about each episode; and an epilogue that brings us up to date on what happened to everyone after the show’s run ended. It provides an effective blueprint for writing a successful book on a given series, but sometimes these books serve as little more than television junk food – fun to read, with entertaining stories from many of the show’s participants, leaving the reader full for the moment but ultimately wanting a little more substance.

Harter’s book has all these things, but it’s what he does with them that makes this book a cut above the standard. In providing us with those brief bios, for example, Harter does a particularly good job in using them to illustrate the evolutionary process that led to the airing of Novak. At the same time, he introduces us to people whose names might ring a bell, especially with classic television fans, but who perhaps ought to be more widely known than they are. His chapter on E. Jack Neuman, for example, not only pays tribute to Neuman’s role in creating Novak, but it allows us to get to know a talented man with a long and successful career in radio and television who, even had he never been involved in Novak, would still have been an interesting character.

Likewise, Harter isn’t afraid to take a deep dive in writing about the series’ development. I suppose we sometimes think a television series sprouts, fully developed, from the ground,* when the truth is far different. Here is another area in which Harter excels, taking the time to use the filming of the Novak pilot as a primer on how a television series gets made. We go behind the scenes as Neuman and his partner, Boris Sagal, flesh out their ideas for the series and choose the writers and actors to bring it all to life, and Harter gives us a fascinating look at how a network – NBC in this case – goes about building the publicity machine that can make or break a new series.

*Reminding me of the scene from 1776 in which John Adams explains how the history books will regard the forming of the United States – “Franklin did this and Franklin did that and Franklin did some other damn thing. Franklin smote the ground and out sprang George Washington, fully grown and on his horse. Franklin then electrified him with his miraculous lightning rod and the three of them - Franklin, Washington, and the horse - conducted the entire revolution by themselves.”

We find out from the people involved – from Ed Asner, playing one of the new teachers, to some of the nearly 1,000 students of the real-life John Marshall High School in Los Angeles, extras essentially playing themselves – how things started to come together. As one of the co-stars, Marian Collier (who later would marry Jack Neuman) recalls, “we all had a real good feeling about the show being picked up by the network.” It was a feeling shared by Franciscus, co-star Jagger, and ultimately the network.

Ultimately, what really sells this book is that Harter illustrates how a television show can almost assume a life of its own. He writes what amounts to a biography of the two years that the show was on the air – the highs (critical acclaim, testimonials from actual teachers and the National Education Association, a bushel of awards) and the lows (Neuman’s ouster from the show in the second season and the replacement of several actors, including Jeanne Bal, amid salary conflicts and disputes with network personnel), and everything in-between. It’s really a history of the fictional (or is it?) Jefferson High, as well as the people who brought it to life. Whereas many books depend on the episode guide to provide the story, Harter’s use of a narrative format is one of the book’s most notable facets, as well as one of its biggest pluses

Harter does include an episode guide, but it’s likely to be more comprehensive that what you might be used to, including contemporary reviews that help give us a sense not only of the episode itself, but how it went over with viewers and critics. It’s valuable color, particularly when you’re talking about a series that many people haven’t seen (or haven’t seen for years) – in fact, one of the best pieces of news we’ve seen lately in the classic TV market was that Mr. Novak would finally be making it to DVD next year. Harter’s descriptions of these episodes won’t take the place of viewing them yourself, but they will act as far more of a companion to the viewing than is often the case with these books. There’s more to the book – a list of the many awards won by the show, including the Peabody, a writers guide written by Neuman, and a provocative episode on venereal disease (starting on Novak and concluding on Dr. Kildare) that was ultimately vetoed by the network. And that's not to mention dozens of very good interviews, and delightful contributions by Richard Donner, Walter Koenig, and the late Martin Landau.

Can a book make you care about a television show you’ve never seen, perhaps never even heard of? Can it make you want to watch the show? If you were to ask me that, I’d respond by saying that it depended on how well the book made its case, how it convinced me that I should care, how curious it made me to actually watch an episode or two. In the case of Mr. Novak: An Acclaimed Television Series, Chuck Harter has succeeded on all fronts: he’s educated me on a series of which I’d only had a rudimentary knowledge, he’s made me become interested in it, and he’s made me want to watch it. Other than writing a best-seller, it’s about all an author can hope for, I suppose. A book like this is all a classic TV fan can hope for, as well.

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In case you missed it, my interview with Chuck Harter appears hereBe sure to check it out for more information on Chuck's book, the seris, and some great photos!   TV  

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