February 18, 2017

This week in TV Guide: February 17, 1968

The good news: every room in the house, save one, has been unpacked and set up. The bad news: that one room is the library. The good news: the TV Guides were in one of the boxes that has been unpacked, and they're on a shelf in the closet. The bad news: I wasn't able to get to it until Friday night, which leaves little time to do anything constructive. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

What awaits you this week is a hybrid that's strange, even for me. It's based on the original write-up I did back in the early days of the blog, augmented by brand new material made up of some of the features I've added over time (Sullivan vs. The Palace, Amory's Review). It's not perfect, I'll be the first to admit, but it's better than nothing - about 50% new. The good news: next week I should have far more time to spend on TV Guide. The bad news: I don't have a new issue waiting for me. How will this drama play out? Tune in next week and find out.

On the cover this week are the two stars of The FBI, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and William Reynolds, although judging by the background one would be forgiven for thinking that they were starring in a series about Grand Prix racers. I've written several times about The FBI, one of my favorite law enforcement programs, including the impact Zimbalist's portrayal had on countless young viewers who, because of the series, were motivated to join the FBI.

The focal point of this week's profile, authored by Arthur Hano, is Zimbalist's sidekick, William Reynolds. The FBI is the fourth series Reynolds has worked on in the last eight years, and the first in which he will appear for more than one season. When the call came from his agent telling him he'd snagged the role of FBI special agent Tom Colby, he was either out playing golf (his version) or trying to sell real estate (his wife's version). Either way, it is a life preserver for a man who had waited three years for the big call. He will wind up putting in six years as Colby, but in 1968, he remains uncertain enough that he doesn't let the success of The FBI go to his head, still driving the same used Cadillac that he has nursed for over 50,000 miles. Such is the life of a second banana, he says; "You've got to stay cool. Otherwise you get eaten alive."

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During the 60s, the Ed Sullivan Show and The Hollywood Palace were the premiere variety shows on television. Whenever they appear in TV Guide together, we'll match them up and see who has the best lineup..

Sullivan: Ed's scheduled guests are Jane Powell; George Chakiris; singers Bobby Gentry and Franco Corelli; comics Rodney Dangerfield and Will Jordan; pianist Paul Mauriat; and the Muppets.

Palace: Host Jimmy Durante welcomes Van Johnson singers Jimmy Dean and Vikki Carr, comedian Pat Henry, the rocking Temptations, comic magician Mac Ronay, and strongman Franklin D'Amore and the Bodyguards.

An interesting pair of lineups this week. They both start out strong, but whereas Ed's guest list finishes up with Paul Mauriat (performing his smash hit "Love is Blue") and the Muppets, the Palace can only counter with a comic magician and a strongman group. As soccer experts will tell you, a deep bench is what wins championships, and on that basis Sullivan takes the match.

Here's Paul Mauriat in what may well be a clip from that Sullivan show:

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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. 

When I was growing up, I thought Jonathan Winters was one of the funniest people I'd ever seen. Today, speaking from a mature perspective, I still think he's one of the funniest people. So does Cleveland Amory - "pound for pound, sound for sound" - and as only Amory can, he explains why now is the Winters of his discontent.

Amory is a big fan from way back, and for years he's griped about how networks don't seem to know how to handle a man of Winters' talent. His network specials were terrible, but this was actually good news - as Amory's Law says, "if you can't be good, be terrible. That way at least you attract a lot of attention." The problem is that Winters' new weekly series is good, very good - and, according to Amory's Law, it will probably go off the air.

What works with this new series, in Cleve's opinion, is that Winters has to do it all - not only perform, but host, introduce the guests, and so forth. In a strange way all that work works to Winters' benefit, providing just enough restraint for his manic talent to shine through. He cites an example which is so wonderfully convoluted that I have to repeat it in full just to give you a taste of it.

As Mad Dog Wretchen, [Winters] is in command of the Filthy Dozen, who are ordered to attack the Sieg Heil Hilton. "The Nazis are having a little banquet there," Mad Dog explains. "The usual thing, a little chamber music and then they kick the waiters to death. Now you all know your assignments?" Replies guest Fess Parker, "Roger. First Fats goes over the electrified fence. To do that, the twins distract the guard by cleaning chickens in the mine field. Then when the guards turn to look, I short-circuit the fence by riding a rubber cow into the wires. Next I put the Count into a pair of Sta-Prest rocket pants, ignite his zipper and blast him up into the 10th-story window, from which he drops a giant M-3 yoyo and we all ride to the top on the upstroke, just in time to serve the snake-infested sauerkraut and the booby-trapped bratwurst. Well, that's the plan, major. What do you think?" Replies Mad Dog: "Well, it's an old trick, but it just might work."

Sadly, Amory's Law seems to hold true; the Winters show: by 1969, it's gone. Jonathan Winters is never forgotten, though.

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Across the top of this week's cover is a blurb for "The Most Outlandish Game Show Yet," which turns out to be ABC's Treasure Isle.  Not only did the show take place outdoors, it was staged on a one-and-a-half acre man-made lagoon in Palm Beach.  Probably the most interesting item we find out is that the show was financed and packaged for $800,000 by John D. MacArthur, who's probably better known as the founder of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, supporter of many public television programs over the years.  MacArthur's brother was Charles MacArthur, playwright and co-author of The Front Page  Charles MacArthur was married to the actress Helen Hayes, and her son James MacArthur played Danno on Hawaii Five-0.  When your genealogy is more interesting than the television show you created, you know you're in trouble. But then, here's a sample episode; decide for yourselves.

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The most notable program this week, although nobody knows it at the time, is an NBC made-for-TV movie on Tuesday called Prescription: Murder.  Judith Crist, TV Guide's longtime movie critic, notes that the movie has not been made available for preview by the network, meaning that she'll have to stick to the facts without being able to advise potential views of the "wonders you may or may not behold."  She reports that the movie "stars Gene Barry as a doctor who murders his wife."  And that's true, as far as it goes.  What she doesn't mention is that the murder is investigated by a detective named Columbo.  The listing doesn't even suggest that the movie's a pilot.  But the rest, as they say, is history.

Although made-for-TV movies are really making an impact by 1968, big-screen movies still command the attention of viewers. This week, the big news is the network television premiere on ABC of Shane, the landmark western starring Alan Ladd and Van Heflin.  As Crist points out, Shane is "the original source for many of the cliches of subsequent Westerns - cliches that in the original are matters of inspiration, of genius and of art."  But that isn't all, as CBS counters with Steve McQueen's WW2 hit The Great Escape, "offered again uncut in two installments, each supplemented by equally pleasing short subjects."  Although it's hard to imaging having to wait two nights to see a single movie, that is pretty common back in the day, running a long movie in two parts over two nights if it doesn't fit into a two-hour time slot (except for Saturday and Sunday, when networks are more willing to let a movie run into the local news slot). As for those short films that the nets use to fill up the rest of the time slot, sometimes TV Guide tells us a little about what the films are. In this case, part 1 is followed by a short cartoon, while part 2 is wrapped up by " 'Rainshower,' a 15-minute featurette honored at the Chicago Film Festival."  Quaint.  I probably wasn't watching it though; the state high school hockey tournament is on Channel 11, the independent station, on both Thursday and Friday nights.

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What else?  On Saturday, ABC pre-empts the Pro Bowlers Tour for the penultimate day of the Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France.  The last day, including the closing ceremonies, is shown Sunday afternoon from 1:00 to 3:00, followed by pro basketball - a little different than the saturation coverage we get today, hmm?

And then there are these two curious items: on Tuesday afternoon, CBS presents "the 19th annual Busy Lady Bake-Off."  Now, I've heard of the Pillsbury Bake-Off, but the Busy Lady?  Turns out a Google search suggests they're the same thing.  I wonder if this was a way for TV Guide to avoid the commercial mention for Pillsbury, or if the company itself billed the contest this way. Maybe some enterprising researcher out there can fill us in on the truth.

And then there's a musical version of Robin Hood airing on NBC Sunday night (in place of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color and The Mothers-In-Law). It has a great pedigree: songs by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, and it features a who's who of familiar 60s names - Noel Harrison, Roddy McDowall, Steve Forrest, Walter Slezak, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Arte Johnson and Victor Buono in supporting roles.  But in the starring role of Robin Hood - David WatsonWho?  I'd never heard of him until checking him out on the always-reliable Wikipedia, and it turns out that he had a pretty good pedigree on the legitimate stage and was one of the apes in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (taking Roddy McDowall's place, it should be noted), but his TV career seems limited to guest roles in various shows.  Well, you learn something new every day.

And then there's this note: "Communications experts seem increasingly agreed that closed-circuit TV (CATV) will gradually replace the over-the-air kind," Richard Doan writes. And what would this new, "cable" TV mean besides the end of ghostly reception and the ability to beam signals into remote rural locations? "It would mean the view would pay for his piped-in TV, much as he now pays for lights and phone service." Not everything that TV Guide predicted came true - but this certainly did. But many thought that three networks constituted a vast wasteland - could they have possibly foreseen the scorched earth that the future would bring?

◊ ◊ ◊

And finally, the Letters to the Editor feature a moment of poetic magic from Sidney M. Major, Jr., of Independence, MO, lamenting the replacement on ABC's The Avengers of Diana Rigg with Linda Thorson.

Steed without Emma
Presents a dilemma
With which I, for one, cannot cope;
Without her assistance
Steed can't go the distance - 
Please tell me there yet is some hope.

Sorry, Sid - them's the breaks. But you know the old saying about life giving you lemonade - and trust me, Linda Thorson is no lemon.

February 17, 2017

Around the dial

This week gets off to a flying start with Comfort TV's look back at the TV career of Veronica Cartwright, from Leave it to Beaver to The X-Files. 

A trio of episode reviews is next: "Dear Uncle George" is the episode du jour as bare-bones e-zine continues its study of James Bridges' output on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Twilight Zone Vortex takes a closer look at the TZ comedy-western "Showdown with Rance McGrew," and The Horn Section delights with "Pawn Ticket for Murder" on Get Christie Love!

Back when we lived in Maine, we picked up a number of those albums featuring TV theme songs - a great way to spend the evening with friends. Classic Film and TV Cafe tests your knowledge of these themes with a great video quiz.

On our way from Texas to Minnesota we passed by (but not through) Kansas City, which is as good a reason as any to enjoy Faded Signals look at the career of early KC TV personality Bea Johnson.

Care for some holiday viewing? Christmas TV History keeps the season alive with a review of Family Matters Christmas, while Once Upon a Screen spends Valentine's Day with Jack Benny.

Finally in this somewhat abbreviated edition, a shout-out to Andy Stark's new website on Chet Allen, who played the title role in the historic first broadcast of Amahl and the Night Visitors. Regular readers know my affinity for that opera, and I'm always delighted to share a website that not only gives us more information on it, but also gives us a closer look at television from that era. Do Andy - and yourself - a favor by visiting the site and spiking his hits. He'll appreciate it - and so will you.

February 15, 2017

Watching the sausage get made

Question: What is TV's greatest need?

Answer: A sense that getting people to buy things they do not need is morally indefensible. One does not ask for Utopia, only a slightly less frantic exploitation of the innocent.

Gore Vidal, as quoted in TV Guide, May 9, 1964

February 13, 2017

What's on TV? Tuesday, February 15, 1966

When we last talked on Saturday, I told you that if I wasn't successful in getting the TV Guides unboxed, you'd be getting listings courtesy of the Chicago Tribune. Well, here we are on Monday, and true to my word, since the issues remain in their boxes (along with over 50 boxes of books and a good many other things), I've resorted to the online archives of the Tribune for today's listings.

A word about these archives, which are truly magnificent - unlike any other big city newspaper that I've been able to identify, the Trib has digitized all of their past issues, and make them all available free to anyone who cares to seek them out. No accounts, no logins, no subscriptions. It's not only a wonderful research resource, it's just plain fun to read through.

I may have to do this again sometime. Depending on how the unpacking goes, it may be as soon as next week. Speaking of which, I'm sure you'll understand if I dispense with the commentary, other than to note that the times listed for the educational stations are the most precise I've ever seen. Perhaps Mike Doran can fill in the blanks for us.

February 11, 2017

This week in TV Guide: February 12, 1966

I'll be honest with you here - not that I'm not always honest with you, of course. For the first time in the history of this blog, I've been forced to simply reprint a "This week in TV Guide" feature. Yes, I've done multiple reviews of a few issues, but this one is the same, word for word, as it was when it was originally printed five years ago. That's not to say it isn't good, just that it isn't new. The reason for this egregious offense is twofold: 1) I didn't have a new issue for this week, and 2) All the TV Guides are still packed in boxes, so I wasn't able to do a "Take Two" on this one, It is, however, notable in that it's the very first appearance of "This week in TV Guide" as a regular feature. I make no promises that I'll have tracked down this issue by Monday; if I haven't, you'll just have to put up with listings courtesy of the archives of the Chicago Tribune. It's still all good, though. 

One of the ways I justify my modest TV Guide collection is to cite it as "research," that is, to take what is in reality a relaxing diversion and turn it into a scholarly enterprise.  But of course there is something to it: as I've mentioned before, one can do far worse than use TV Guide to provide a snapshot of popular culture at any given time.  Since I started this blog, I've been intending to take an issue from my collection every week, and just open it at random: see what's inside, whether or not there was anything important going on, and whether or not something in it wound up being pretty special.  So let's take a look at this week in TV Guide from 46 years ago, the week of February 12, 1966.  And since TV Guide always started the week on a Saturday, we'll do the same.


On the cover are two of the stars of Peyton Place, Ryan O' Neal and Barbara Parkins.  O'Neal, of course, went on to have a pretty successful career, highlighted by his Oscar-nominated role in Love Story.  Parkins was big in the late 60s and early 70s, with her starring roles in PP and Valley of the Dolls.

Inside we have a profile of James Drury, star of The Virginian, by that up-and-coming young writer Peter Bogdanovich, five years before writing and directing The Last Picture Show.  There's also a teaser for an upcoming National Geographic* special, The World of Jacques Cousteau.  The TV critic Cleveland Amory reviews Batman.  ("The whole show, on first impression, may not be as great.  It is, after all, trying to be all things to all men.  Still, it is the season's most talked-about offering.")

*Apparently National Geographic wasn't extreme enough back in those days to be called "NatGeo."

There was a section in the front and back of TV Guide issues, printed on yellow paper, called "TV Teletype."  The front usually covered TV news from Hollywood, the back from New York.  The Teletype often referenced shows that were never made, underwent name and/or cast changes, or wound up in substantially different shape from original plans. The New York version carries a note on an upcoming pilot for a show called The Time Tunnel.  That show did made it, as did its two stars, James Darren and Robert Colbert.  There's also an announcement that Truman Capote's short story "A Christmas Memory" is going to appear on ABC next season - it did, and won an Emmy.  On the other hand, Hollywood reports on a pilot for Li'l Abner, featuring Robert Reed.  The show didn't make it, but Reed would be back two years later, in The Brady Bunch.*

*Reed was said to be the second choice for the show, after Gene Hackman turned it down.  Imagine it for a moment: Mike Brady hunting down the French Connection.  Kinda makes you pause, doesn't it?

Inside, in the program listings, there's not  a whole lot to talk about.  CBS Reports features "The Divorce Dilemma," wherein we learn of "one of the major social problems in the U.S." - the divorce rate having hit an unthinkable 25%.  It's a bit higher now.  Bob Hope has a comedy special on NBC, and CBS has "An Evening with Carol Channing."  There's also a teaser for next week's TV Guide, featuring a profile of Lee Majors.  "Seven years from now . . . I'll be getting an Academy Award nomination," Majors is quoted as saying.  Well, he didn't - but he did go on to a long and pretty successful career in television.*  The Rolling Stones and Wayne Newton appear with Ed Sullivan, and ABC's Hollywood Palace counters with Donald O'Connor and Paul Anka.  

*A bit of irony there, if you're looking for it.  Consecutive issues of TV Guide presenting us with Ryan O'Neal and Lee Majors, the future companion and husband (respectively) of Farrah Fawcett.  What, I wonder, are the odds?

There's really nothing that jumps off the page though, no hockey or basketball game that everyone talked about the next day, no show that went on to set a viewing record or introduced us to a new star or caused the controversy of the season.  In short, it was a perfectly ordinary week in television, the kind that gives one a snapshot of how things were, the week of February 12, 1966.

February 10, 2017

Around the dial

I chose the image above more for what it represents - an ideal - than anything else. As we speak, being able to sit back in the easy chair and watch television is a distant dream, what with boxes all over the place. Never fear; things will soon be back to normal, or at least what passes for it around here, but in order to make sure we don't miss a beat at It's About TV, I've started compiling this week's best-of well in advance, so that you might be able to benefit from the wisdom of others.

For example, at Comfort TV, David reflects on when Nick at Night was still done right. Looking at how that resource was wasted by the executives at the network reminds me of Franklin's words about the revolution, how "Never was such a valuable possession so stupidly and recklessly managed."

It's funny that Classic Film and TV Cafe is writing about the lone color episode of the original Perry Mason - we just saw that very episode a couple of weeks ago. Perhaps if the entire series had been filmed that way - but seeing Perry and Della and Hamilton Burger in color just didn't work for me. It was as if it had been colorized after the fact.

At Cult TV, John ponders the same question I've asked myself several times, an answer to which I'm still working on: why classic TV? John speaks of special effects when he says this, but I think he could be speaking of the characters as well, when he writes that "Perhaps we who watch old TV want to see things really happening to people who really existed?"

I did not know that yet another version of Agatha Christie's classic The Witness for the Prosecution had been done, but thanks to British TV Detectives I know it now. Unfortunately, it sounds very much as if this version - based not on the movie but on the original play - ultimately falls short. But then, when you have the original, why bother to improve on it?

What with the recent passing of Mary Tyler Moore, it seems a good time to look back beyond The Mary Tyler Moore Show to her first memorable appearance, which Once Upon a Screen covers in this look back at The Dick Van Dyke Show

At The Horn Section, Hal is back in the saddle with another episode of Hondo, this time the 1967 episode "Hondo and the War Hawks." It's a hard call considering I haven't seen Hondo, but I can't imagine the series is any more entertaining than Hal's writeups!

Another obituary in the television world, with the death this week of Professor Irwin Corey. The comedian was never my cup of tea, but then many people could say the same about my favorites. Classic Television Showbiz honors Corey with this clip from his 1983 appearance with David Letterman.

That's all I've got time for right now, but if I don't get a chance to update this before Friday, I hope I don't miss anyone. Just to be sure, you'd better check out all the classic TV blogs, as seen on the sidebar.

February 8, 2017

Classic rerun: Trafficking in human misery

The saga of the Hadleys' cross-country move continues. While we've arrived in our new hometown (same as the old hometown) and I've started my new job, our goods remain in transit and we continue to benefit from the kindness of our friends, letting us bunk in their spare room. By the time you read this - perhaps at the very moment you open it - the boxes may well be in the process of being unloaded, and eventually unpacked. 

Needless to say, with everything in a state of disarray, I haven't had much time to devote to new material. That will change on Friday, thanks to some great material from the classic TV blogosphere, (though I can't make any promises for Saturday), but today you're blessed (or cursed) with a rerun. I thought I'd go back to the first full year of the blog, when many of you probably hadn't yet discovered it. I think it holds up pretty well after 4+ years, but you can be the judge.

ack in the day, there was a show called Strike It Rich. If you’ve never seen it, the basic premise was to see how miserable someone’s life might be and how much that person might be able to get for it.

That’s a simplification perhaps, but not by much. Strike It Rich, which started on radio in 1947 and made the move to TV in 1951, featured contestants (or their proxies) who would come on the show and tell of the heartbreak they were currently experiencing. Their sob stories might run the gamut from a crippled child to chronic illness to broken-down appliances to financial misfortune.

The "contestants" would be asked questions - it was, after all, a quiz show - but the questions were easy, and most people on the show were "winners."  But if they didn't get the question right, there was still the "Heart Line."  "After they told their tale of woe, emcee [Warren] Hull would open up the telephone lines and ask viewers to pitch in what they could."  And the audience would deliver, often thousands of dollars, not to mention clothes, medical equipment, and other kinds of gifts.

Of course, the supply of  desperate people far outweighed the demand of the show's producers for contestants, probably a ratio of about 5,000 to 1.  Many critics accused the show of choosing contestants based on those thought to have the "most interesting tales of woe.  Some people spent what little money they had on transportation to New York, where the show was broadcast, only to be turned away, and have to turn to the Salvation Army for money to get back home.  The show was, in the words of television historians Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh, "one of the most sickening spectacles ever seen on a TV screen, exploiting those same unfortunates for the vicarious thrill of viewers and the selfish gain of advertisers."  TV Guide called it "a despicable travesty on the very nature of charity."  The head of the Travelers' Aid Society remarked, "Putting human misery on display can hardly be called right."  Despite the controversy, however, the show was popular and the ratings were good, and it continued on until dying a natural death in 1958.

I thought about this show the other day, when at lunch some colleagues of mine brought up Honey Boo Boo. Now, I’m probably dating myself by saying that when I hear the name Boo Boo, the first thing I think of is Yogi Bear. But I had some vague knowledge that his had something to do with reality TV, so I sat back to listen to the conversation in hopes of educating myself.

Considering where I fall on the hipness scale, you probably already know about Honey Boo Boo and Toddlers and Tiaras and the whole trailer trash scene. But if you don’t, here’s a thumbnail description of “the Boo Boo clan” from Betsy Woodruff at NRO:

She and her three sisters have four different fathers. Her mother, who weighs more than 300 pounds, says that farting 12 to 15 times a day helps you lose weight. And Alana’s niece, whose birth was celebrated in one episode, has a teenage mother and three thumbs (Alana’s reaction: “I wish I had an extra finger, then I could grab more cheese balls!”).

A lot of people enjoy this program; a lot of people are disgusted by it, and some people look at it as one of the signs of the upcoming apocalypse. But what does this all mean? How should we feel about it? How should I feel about it?

Now it’s a fact that many people of modest means are mocked by the prevailing culture for the lifestyle they enjoy, the idea being not only that they live a “trailer trash” kind of life, but that they’re so stupid they don’t even know that they aren’t supposed to be having fun living like that. Maybe it’s not that they’re mocked: it’s more like they’re pitied. It’s rather like the Pharisee whose prayer of thanksgiving was “I thank thee, God, that I am not like the rest of men.”*

*Luke 18:11.

At the same time, I’m not at all sure that this kind of lifestyle is something that someone should be proud of. Now, having said this, I should hasten to add that I don’t know for a fact that this family is proud of their lifestyle; they may well figure that what’s past is past, and there’s no sense in agonizing over something you can’t change. But there is the truth that reality TV generally exists for three purposes: to condone behavior, to condemn behavior, and to entertain the audience while doing so. I’m not sure whether Honey Boo Boo condones or condemns, but I am uncomfortable that, either way, we’re expected to be entertained by it.

I mean, what are the expectations for me as the viewer?* Am I supposed to think that there’s nothing wrong with the lifestyle of this family? Or is it all some kind of post-modernist ironic humor that depends on the realization that the audience is in on the joke but those poor dumb lummoxes on the show aren’t? Are we laughing with them or at them?

*The well-known “Method Watching” style – what is my motivation?

Generally, I don’t think stupidity in real life is particular funny. So if that’s what the makers of this show expect from me, I don’t buy it. On the other hand, I don’t think I’m up to laughing with these folks either. I don’t need to sit in judgment of them to say that their situation simply isn’t funny.

My sense, though, is that there is something pathetic about them – about the whole Toddlers and Tiaras crew, for that matter. I don’t condemn them, I don’t pity them, I don’t laugh at or with them. I do have compassion for them, that perhaps there’s more to life than what they know. You watch these people and you think to yourself, “they just don’t have a chance.” You get the sense that there is something miserable about the way these people live, and that deep down they know it, but since it brings them fame and fortune, they’re prisoners of it.*

*So I don’t condemn them. I do, however, have nothing but scorn and contempt for TLC, which used to be a reputable network – The Learning Channel – before descending into this crap. Lord knows what audiences are supposed to be learning.

Programs like this – like Strike It Rich, in fact – have been around since the dawn of television, or at least shortly afterward. So this show, and its success, shouldn’t surprise us. “You don’t have to like the show,” Woodruff concludes, adding that she herself doesn’t. “But you don’t have to panic either.”

So it’s not the end of the world after all. But it’s also not entertainment. Trafficking in human misery never is.

February 6, 2017

What's on TV? Saturday, February 4, 1984

If you read this site on Saturday, you'll know that this week I was a bit cramped for time. My misfortune, however, is your opportunity. Rather than my ordinary commentary on the day's listings, I'm going to let you, the reader, fill in the blanks with any information you'd like to add to the shows below. It can be anything - anything at all. For instance, you might note that by 1984 we've seen the takeover by college basketball of the post-football weekend. It's everywhere, good games and bad. And to think we look back on this today and think there's hardly any basketball on at all.

I've gotten you started, now you take it from there while I get reacquainted with these local stations...

February 4, 2017

This week in TV Guide: February 4, 1984

It is difficult to look back at the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics with anything other than a sense of tragedy. It's not the same sense one gets from the horror of the Munich Olympics in 1972; nothing even remotely approaching that happened at the Sarajevo games. No, the tragedy of these games occurred years after the fact, when Sarajevo was stained with rivers of blood, and the Yugoslav nation itself ceased to exist.

The future doesn't yet exist in 1984, however, and so there's nothing but excitement and anticipation leading up to Wednesday's Opening Ceremonies, which ABC televises on tape-delay beginning at 8:00 p.m. (CT).  Even before the Olympic flame has been lighted, though, the fun and Games have started, with the hockey competition opening on Tuesday night, with Team U.S.A., defending gold medal champions, taking on Canada. The hockey team was the story of the 1980 Games, especially if you lived in the United States, and people are wondering if Miracles can strike twice, like lightning. In a word, no - the U.S. wins but one of five games in the preliminary round, and winds up in seventh place after defeating Poland 7-4. Instead of hockey, it's ice dancing that captures the imagination of the public in 1984 - Torvill and Dean and Bolero - and the U.S.'s triumphs belong to downhill skier Bill Johnson, the first American ever to take gold in the downhill, the Mahre brothers, who get gold and silver in the slalom, Debbie Armstrong, winner of the gold in the giant slalom, and the great Scott Hamilton, who wins the gold in figure skating.

Not surprisingly, TV Guide's preview centers on Jim McKay, the voice of ABC's coverage, and as William Marsano's article shows, you can't write about McKay and the Olympics without flashing back to Munich in 1972 and McKay's masterful coverage of the terrorist attack and subsequent butchering of the Israeli athletes. McKay's friends at ABC - a true gentleman, he seems to have no foes - say that while he could certainly do play-by-play of college football, for example, nobody can handle the ad-lib situation, such as the Olympics, better than he can. It's coming close to the end of the line for McKay and ABC at the Olympics - 1984's Los Angeles games will be the last of the summer variety for the network before NBC establishes a monopoly, and after 1988's Winter games in Calgary, CBS and NBC become the network of record. I think NBC completely overdoes it; for my money, even though ABC came up with the "up close and personal" way of covering the Olympics, I still prefer their broadcasts. Perhaps I'd feel different without McKay, though.

It's a wonderful two weeks of coverage; ABC's offering a record 63½ hours, and KSTP, the ABC affiliate in the Twin Cities, has two of its reporters in Yugoslavia to cover the Minnesota angle, especially on the hockey team. It's Yugoslavia's chance to shine on the international stage, and for Sarajevo, known primarily as the location for the spark that ignited World War I, it's a chance to create a new image.

Here's a picture of Kosovo Stadium and those Opening Ceremonies, on February 8, 1984, a field of dreams:

After the war, a family picnics near the bobsled run. They're photographed through a hole in the concrete track, used as a Serbian sniper's nest.

Had they but known then.

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Even if you hadn't known this was sweeps week, you might have been able to figure it out from the movies on the schedule. We get a slightly different glimpse of the Olympic idea on CBS Sunday night, with the network television premiere of 1981's Best Picture winner Chariots of Fire, the true story of two British athletes competing against prejudice and the establishment. "Exquisitely produced, brililantly executed," writes Judith Crist, TV Guide's movie critic, "Chariots is exhilarating and inspiring."

In another reminder of why the VCR was invented, Chariots goes up against NBC's Sunday night offering (also from 1981), On Golden Pond, which won Oscars for Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn. Says Crist, "It is a film aglow with tender appreciation of human frailty, of physical change in man and nature, and of the weakness and strengths of age."

In ABC's last free evening before their Olympic coverage, they offer their own 1981 Oscar winner on Monday, Arthur, which garnered a Best Actor nomination for Dudley Moore and a Supporting Actor win for Sir John Gielgud. Crist says it's a "re-creation of a '30s 'madcap' comedy, given heart and substance by endearing performances" from Moore, Gielgud, and Liza Minnelli.

And because it is sweeps week, there's also My Mother's Secret Life on ABC Sunday, with Loni Anderson as a model mother when she's at home, and "the most expensive woman in town" when she's not. It's "unavailable for preview" according to Crist, which is usually all you need to know.

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Is there anything besides the Olympics on TV this week? Well, let's see.

USA used to have a Saturday night program called Night Flight, which started at 10:00 p.m. and ran through the night, to 6:00 Sunday morning. It included "a mix of mainstream and alternative music videos, artist interviews, B movies, documentaries, short films, stand up comedy, cartoons, and more" according to the always-reliable Wikipedia. I remember this show, though I don't think I ever stayed up all night* watching it. You'd think USA could come up with something like this today, wouldn't you? I mean, it would be better than those endless NCIS reruns.

*Another USA program, with a totally different appeal.

Sunday features what at the time was one of the bigger golf tournaments of the year, the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am, from Pebble Beach, California. Even though Bing had died back in 1977, the tournament carried his name for many years thereafter, and that helped produce some of the best fields of the season. CBS provides coverage of the final round starting at 2:00 p.m., with Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Ben Crenshaw, and defending champion Tom Kite among the pros; the amateurs aren't bad either, with former President Gerald Ford, Glen Campbell, Clint Eastwood, and Jack Lemmon leading the celebs.

On Monday, following Arthur, Barbara Walters returns with another of her celebrity interview specials (9:00 p.m.), featuring Mr. T, former swimming actress Esther Williams, and Howard Cosell. It's a nice snapshot of what was in back then. I think I'd have opted for Psycho, the 8:00 p.m. movie on TV Heaven 41.

Interesting program on Showtime Tuesday at noon, called A Talent for Murder, in which Angela Lansbury plays "a celebrated mystery writer with a huge estate - and a houseful of greedy relatives." It's an adaptation of Jerome Chodorov and Norman Panama's 1981 Broadway play*, but it sure sounds a lot like Murder, She Wrote, doesn't it? I'm sure the series must have been in the planning stage long before this time, but still...

*Which featured Claudette Colbert as Jessica Fletcher, er, Anne Royce McClain.

On Wednesday, probably the week's show with the most fun - The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie on CBS. (7:00 p.m.) I defy anyone to watch even one Road Runner cartoon without laughing out loud at least twice. Opposite that is Daffy Duck's Movie: Fantastic Island on HBO (ironic timing, that) and another Oscar-winning epic, The Bridge on the River Kwai, on Showtime. Might want that multiple-programming VCR if you're tickled by that sort of thing, as I am.

Hill Street Blues is NBC's crown jewel on Thursday night, and in the news update section, Steven Bochco tells us that he's being pushed by the network to make changes in order to keep its female audience, which seems to be drifting away to CBS's Knots Landing. They want romance, a neighborhood association made up of housewives, and a sex scandal, perhaps involving tapes. Bochco says he doesn't mind the suggestions, "I'll take them from anybody, even a network president" but he disputes the idea that Hill Street is losing audience: "I don't give a ---- about network research."

Finally, Friday brings the week to a close with an NBC "World Premiere" movies (i.e. made-for-TV), starring the network's most bankable star, Gary Coleman, in The Fantastic World of D.C. Collins; Crist calls it "a very pleasant after-school special misplaced in prime time." I didn't see the movie, although I remember the ads for it. What I do remember, although I didn't know it at the time, is the premiere of a show that would become one of my favorites: the wickedly funny British political satire Yes Minister, which airs at 10:00 p.m. on A&E. I mentioned it in my "16 for 2016" piece back here; it is as hilarious as it is brutal.

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It's been 20 years since the Beatles made their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, after which nothing would be the same again. Bob Greene tries to explain it to those who weren't yet born, or who were too young to remember what it was like. As part of it, he recalls a conversation he'd had with Ringo Starr, before John Lennon's death, about all those people who'd wanted to see the band get back together. "They say, 'I never saw them, and I want to see them just once'," Starr says with a smile. "Well, I never saw the Beatles either. I really wish I could have, but unfortunately I was on stage. I would have loved to have been out in the audience and have seen the Beatles. I would have liked to see what all the excitement was about." Reflecting on it, Greene was struck that Starr really was one of the few people of his generation not to have seen the show on television, and asks him what it was like, all those years ago, appearing on his side of the camera rather than the other side.

"I can never make you understand," he told Greene. "There's only four of us who will ever understand exactly how it was, and that's John, Paul, George and myself . . . Just the four of us." Interesting, isn't it, that Ringo lists the members of the band in the same order that Ed did. Almost anyone who's asked to name the Beatles will do it - John, Paul, George, Ringo - and it's because they heard Sullivan do it that way. The power of television.

There's something else that Greene says in his article, at very end, that speaks to that power, and in its own way it underlines what this blog is about. "We are a generation that is not particularly good at remembering history," he writes. "But perhaps it's worth taking the time - if only the blinking of a moment - to look back on a night when we all gathered in front of television sets and thought that anything was possible in a world that was an inherently joyous place. They really made us feel that way. I guess you had to be there.

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My apologies if this seems shorter than usual this week. True, the issue was a little thin, or at least it seemed so to me on January 28, when I wrote this. If you're reading this on the day it was published, then you have an advantage over me, because you know where you are - and I don't. All I can tell you for sure is that we're somewhere between Texas and Minnesota, hopefully closer to the latter than the former. Anything is possible, though, and since we'll be two or three days on the road, with all our worldly possessions on a truck due to show up sometime, I thought it prudent to get this done before we go. There's one box left to pack, and as soon as I'm done typing this sentence, this issue goes in that box, so forgive me if I'm in a hurry. Next week we may be looking at a new issue, or it may be a rerun, depending. So tune in again next week, same time, same website. Until then, I'll bet the suspense will be killing you - I know it will be me.

February 1, 2017

Mike Connors, R.I.P. / Barbara Hale, R.I.P.

For those of you who hoped this year would be better than last year, so far your prediction isn't doing very well. It seemed almost ridiculous that in the course of three days we'd hear of the deaths of three of television's stars from the past (plus John Hurt; although his fame rests mostly from movies, we can hardly forget his television appearances, from I, Claudius to Doctor Who). If you think about it, though, it's fitting that Mike Connors and Barbara Hale would die at more or less the same time, for the characters which brought them the most fame were alike in many ways.

Joe Mannix, Mike Connors' most enduring character, was an archetype, the last of a kind - the hard-boiled private detective. Connors admitted as much, saying that Mannix really was a throwback to that earlier time, an impostor in modern clothing. In that first season, Mannix worked for a company called Intertect, a large detective agency that used advanced (for the time) computer technology to aid its agents. That wasn't Mannix's style, though, and by the start of the second season he'd moved out on his own, which is how most of us remember him. We also remember him for his essential humanity, his dedication to the truth and to obtaining justice for his clients. It's been said by others that these qualities, and the warm way Connors was able to bring them to life on the screen, which made Mannix such a hit with viewers. Mannix is a dependable hero, through and through.

It was that same dependability and trustworthiness that made Della Street, the iconic secretary to Perry Mason, such a memorable character. Della wasn't always sure of the direction her boss was taking, but there was never a doubt about him in her mind. Look at the hours she worked - late almost every day, well into the night (or early morning) during big cases, even going into the field at times to deliver the vital information Perry needed to win his client's freedom. They are so much a team - it's almost impossible to envision Perry without Della, which is why the very premise of the revival movies - in which Perry steps down from a judgeship to defend Della on a murder charge - was ridiculous. Do you think Della would ever have let Perry go off to become a judge without her? Do you think Perry would ever have taken that appointment without bring Della along? Preposterous.

Della is a product of her times as well, the dedicated secretary that feminists might have scoffed at, putting her ambitions aside in service to her man. Could Della have been a lawyer in her own right? Perhaps; she certainly learned enough law working all those years for Perry. But that wasn't the point. Perry Mason was a great man; who among us would not have given something to work with and alongside such a man, dedicated to the truth and to obtaining justice for his clients. Likewise, Mannix's relationship with his version of Della, Peggy Fair, showed not a employer-employee duo, but a partnership on both a professional and human level. They were object lessons in the dignity of the workplace, and that's something increasingly difficult to find today.

Were either of these characters well-developed? Probably not in the way we'd think of it in today's serialized, soaped-up television. But in each case, it was the actor that brought an extra dimension to the character, a likability and honesty of portrayal that endeared them to viewers then as well as now. We loved them as characters, we miss them as real people. In this day and age, that's a rare combination - but then, Mike Connors and Barbara Hale were rare indeed.