April 22, 2019

What's on TV? Sunday, April 22, 1973

It's Easter Sunday, and today's broadcasting schedule, which comes to us from the Minnesota State Edition of TV Guide, gives us a mix of religious programming and playoff hockey and basketball. Through in a few movies, and you've got a little something for everyone.

April 20, 2019

This week in TV Guide: April 21, 1973

When I showed my wife the cover of this week's TV Guide with Raymond Burr as Pope John XXIII, and added that the Pope was actually the good guy in the program, she remarked, "Boy, they wouldn't do that on TV today, would they?"

The program in question is Portrait: A Man Whose Name Was John, an ABC special airing at 7:00 p.m. CT on Easter Sunday.  It tells the true story of Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, who in 1958 would be elected John XXIII, but during World War II was the apostolic delegate (i.e. ambassador) to Turkey, and his battle to save over 600 Jewish children from being shipped to Nazi Germany. It was a cherished experience for Burr, who had personally met John four times* during his papacy and called him the most impressive human being he had ever met. "There was absolute communication between us," he said of their first meeting in 1959, which had been arranged by Family Theatre producer Father Patrick Peyton. Though not Catholic—he describes himself as "believing in all religion"—Burr had long hoped to do a film project based on John's life (a film for "all people"), when he was approached by producer David Victor with the idea for A Man Whose Name Was John. It was less ambitious than Burr's plan, but "it told a lot about the kind of man Roncalli was." Eventually, Burr decided, "it wouldn't be a bad idea" to take it on. As far as I know, Burr's own movie on John was never made.

*At this point I should point out, not unkindly, that given Burr's predilection for creating events in his own life, one has to be careful not to put too much stock into this. Still, his impressions of John are so strong I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

The whole movie is, not surprisingly, available on YouTube. Burr makes for a very convincing John; dare I suggest that TV Guide's cover shot makes him look even more papal than the current pope?


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Given that Easter doesn't have a set day every year, this is the second of back-to-back issues we've looked at with Easter programming of one kind or another, and this issue is no exception. In addition to John, there are several religious-themed movies, mostly on Saturday night on local TV: The Robe (9:00 p.m., Austin's WEAU), A Man Called Peter (10:30 p.m., WKBT in LaCrosse, Wisconsin), The Nun's Story (10:45 p.m. WDIO in Duluth), and The Song of Bernadette (10:50 p.m., WCCO in Minneapolis).

As for Easter itself,  CBS has a live broadcast of an Easter service from New York, conducted by the famed positive thinker Dr. Norman Vincent Peale (10:00 a.m.), NBC presents a Sunday morning documentary on the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral in England (10:00 a.m.), while ABC's Directions covers the Easter Mass from St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. (12:00 p.m.) Later in the day (12:30 p.m.), Eau Claire's WEAU gives us an hour of sacred music from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and at 4:00 p.m., PBS has Handel's Messiah (which Handel wrote as an Easter, rather than Christmas, piece), featuring the Arion Musical Club of Milwaukee.  In case you're looking for ABC's annual airing of The Ten Commandments, that didn't start until 1973.

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TV's two definitive 70s-era rock music shows, NBC's The Midnight Special and ABC's In Concert, faced off on Friday nights.  Midnight Special was a weekly show, airing after Johnny Carson, while In Concert was an every-other week part of Wide World of Entertainment.  Whenever the two slug it out, we'll be there to give you the winner.

Don't know if you can call this week's matchup entirely fair, as In Concert goes with a three-hour marathon (originally broadcast as two separate shows) featuring Alice Cooper; The Allman Brothers Band; Blood, Sweat and Tears; Curtis Mayfield; Seals and Crofts; Chuck Berry; Poco; and Bo Diddley. I count eighteen songs during the show, with almost everyone doing at least one of their biggest hits ("School's Out," "Ramblin' Man," "Roll Over, Beethoven," "Summer Breeze," etc.) The 90-minute Midnight Special counters with an all-50s show hosted by Jerry Lee Lewis with Little Anthony and the Imperials, Chubby Checker, the Shirelles, the Ronettes, Freddy Cannon and the Diamonds.

You can't say the stars weren't out this Friday night, can you?  I'm going to give it to In Concert strictly on the basis of it being twice as long; as far as the talent, it's a push.

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.Throughout the 60s and early 70s, TV Guide's weekly 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. 

Friends, this is a column to be savored, to be remembered; indeed, to be immortalized. For in this column, friends, Cleveland Amory admits he has made a mistake.

Back in the summer, Cleve reviewed The Bobby Darin Show and wrote, among other things, that this show would never make it past the summer. First of all, it's a variety show, and we all know that they're on their last legs. Second—well, to be frank about it, the show wasn't very good. But, as Our Critic says, "we can't always be right, can we?" The show is back, and much better than it was during the summer. For one thing, Darin has made liberal (or should we say conservatively?") included the oldies in his repertoire, songs like "I Get a Kick Out of You" and "Hello, Young Lovers" that made him big in the first place. His guest list has improved as well, with terrific appearances by Burl Ives and Sid Caesar, among others, and the welcome addition of 8½ year old Charlotte Wong—a girl for all ages, according to Amory—as a regular. The show's skits have improved as well, particularly Darin's takeoff on Groucho Marx.

At the outset, Amory remarks that one of the reasons variety shows are in trouble is that if they appeal to seniors, then they're not attractive to sponsors; if, like Sonny & Cher, they appeal to the younger set, well, that's a fickle audience with a short attention span. And despite the fact that Amory has an animus against shows that try to appeal to everyone, it's clear that this is just what The Bobby Darin Show does. He doesn't love it, but he does like it. And coming from Cleve, that's pretty good.

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Besides John, there are some other very interesting specials on this week—or at least they were interesting to me, even though I didn't see any of them. Yes, it's time for more tales from the World's Worst Town™. As you know, my six years in exile were spent primarily watching two television stations; the main channel, KCMT, was primarily an NBC affiliate, but picked up additional programming (mostly sports and some specials) from ABC. We did get TV Guide up there; this very issue, in fact, which still carries my name and address on the label Unfortunately, the Minnesota State Edition meant I was continually being taunted with glimpses of shows I would never see. Nonetheless, a number of these shows intrigued me—they seemed fraught with a suggestion of gravitas that lent them importance, or so it seemed.

*I realize I'm being quite shallow in judging quality of life based on number of television stations received, but you have to remember I was only 13 at the time.  On the other hand, the promoters of cable TV would surely have agreed with me.

Monday night, for example, CBS counters with its own special Monday night, as Rex Harrison stars in The Adventures of Don Quixote, (8:00 p.m.), a co-production with the BBC, sponsored by IBM. Frank Finlay is his Sancho Panza, and Rosemary Leach is Dulcinea. Doctor Who fans will recognize Roger Delgado, The Master, as a Monk. (Not a meddling one, as Whovians will understand.)

Tuesday is one of those nights that made the VCR inevitable; Cliff Robertson stars in ABC's The Man Without a Country (7:30 p.m.), available (naturally) on YouTube. I suspect viewers today might wonder what all the fuss was about back then. The final 30 minutes dovetails with CBS's Playhouse 90 at 8:30 p.m. (yes, it's still around, though as an occasional special rather than a regular series), presenting Ingmar Bergman's made-for-TV play The Lie, the story of a husband and wife (George Segal and Shirley Knight Hopkins) struggling to hold their marriage together. An all-star supporting cast includes Robert Culp, Victor Buono, William Daniels, Dean Jagger, and Mary Ann Mobley. As one of the unhappily marrieds comments, "People have to lie and deceive in order to live together."  Does this in any way resemble The Secret Life of Dentists?

PBS weighs in with a couple of specials of their own: on Sunday night at 7:30 p.m., the opera great Joan Sutherland continues a series of abridged operas on Who's Afraid of Opera (this week: La Traviata), and on Thursday evening at 7:00 p.m., the network presents a restored version of David Lean's epic Oliver Twist, which includes nine minutes of footage originally cut from the American film version.

Now, you may notice that none of these are on NBC, which means none of them are seen in our household.  Oh, there was an NBC special: The Going Up of David Lev (Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.), a musical saluting the 25th anniversary of the creation of Israel, starring Topol (Fiddler on the Roof), Brandon Cruz (The Courtship of Eddie's Father), Melvyn Douglas and Claire Bloom. And on Friday, NBC's documentary series The American Experience looks at three turbulent eras in U.S. history—the Revolution, the Civil War and the Depression. The program is entitled "Strange and Terrible Times," which not only seems to describe our own times, but certainly is an apt way to put my six years in the wilderness. But don't start cheering—neither of these were on KCMT, which preempted them for Twins baseball games. That the games were what I would have watched anyway is besides the point.

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This week's "Shape of Things to Come" feature: this note in The Doan Report, asking "Will the Senate's Watergate probe early next month develop, as some observers predict, into a major TV show?" The Senate committee, led by North Carolina Democrat Sam Ervin, is welcoming the cameras into the hearing room, and NBC News president Richard Wald tells Doan that "We'll air a live pickup if the hearings are interesting enough." Oh, they will be, Mr. Wald—trust me on this.

That note makes all the more poignant a CBS news special on Thursday, Five Presidents on the Presidency (8:00 p.m.), in which the incumbent, Richard Nixon, is quoted as saying, "The most important thing about a public man is not whether he's loved or disliked, but whether he's respected. I hope to restore respect to the Presidency."

Doan also tells us of the strange Star Trek craze; even though the show has been off the air for several years, there are still devoted fans "hold[ing] reunions to bemoan its loss." For them, producers hope to provide some solace with a new sci-fi series entitled Starlost, created and written by legendary writer Harlan Ellison, starring Keir Dullea (2001: A Space Odyssey). It winds up being called The Starlost, and if you've never heard of it, this article—with the title "Is The Starlost the Worst Science Fiction Series Ever Made?" might provide an explanation.

And finally there's the coming end of the third and final incarnation of Jack Paar's talk show, the one that featured on ABC's Wide World of Entertainment.  Paar had made the comeback, in part, to help out his old friend and protege Dick Cavett, but speculation is that ABC and Paar "will mutually call off his late-night comeback as an unsalvageable disappointment." A pity; we could use that intelligent conversation today. TV  

April 19, 2019

Good Friday with Bishop Fulton Sheen, 1956

I often make the point on these pages of how much things have changed over the years, not only in television but culture in general.

Bishop Fulton J. Sheen's Life Is Worth Living ran on DuMont, ABC and in syndication from the early 1950s through the late 1960s.  Blessed with a sharp mind, a whimsical sense of humor and a gift of gab, Bishop Sheen brought his ecumenical message to millions of viewers each week; as Brooks and Marsh put it in their Complete Guide to Prime Time Programming, the word "homily" would be strong for the friendly, accessible talks from the good Bishop.

A half-hour of religious programming in prime time on a national broadcast network would be unthinkable today - that pretty much goes without saying.  And while that is one measure of the change in television between then and now, it's actually another point that I'm thinking of: the idea of a "talking head" as entertainment programming.

There were no fancy graphics, no special effects, on Life is Worth Living; the closest thing being the invisible "angel" (actually a stagehand) responsible for erasing the blackboard Sheen used to illustrate his points.  People watched and enjoyed that, week after week.  As someone wrote not long ago about the Dick Cavett shows, it hearkens back to a day when conversation was actually considered entertainment - and by that I mean actual, you know, talking, rather than shouting, interrupting, declaiming, insulting, offending, and what have you. Of all the changes we've seen in television over the years, I think this is one of the most underrated and underappreciated.

What we have here is either from Good Friday, 1956; It was sponsored (as I recall from the version I have) by Progresso, and presented without commercial interruption (as was the norm with religious programming back then, even on network television.*)

*Even series like Studio One, when broadcasting religious-themed episodes such as "Pontius Pilate" and "The Nativity", would show them without interruption, instead grouping the commercials before and after the presentation.


Back tomorrow with another TV Guide blast from the past. TV  

April 17, 2019

The end of an era—in more ways than one

If it were a secret, it would be the world’s worst-kept. Game of Thrones is back.

If you’ve never heard of Game of Thrones, then one can only conclude that you’ve spent too much time, well, on the throne—the porcelain kind, that is. Now, that’s not the same thing as never having seen it—I’ve never seen a second of it myself, and that’s only partially because I don’t have HBO and haven’t had any incentive to get it. Mostly it’s because the show just doesn’t grab me. Lord of the Rings, with its Christian allegory embedded in the books (less so in the movies), was a horse of a different color; Game of Thrones, on the other hand, strikes me as just too much—too much legend, too much scope, too much time required, too much violence, too much incest, too much everything.

It’s the very universality of Game of Thrones that was the subject of Alyssa Bereznak’s article last week at The Ringer, “How ‘Game of Thrones’ Became the Last Piece of the Monoculture,” which asks the question: does the upcoming end of Game of Thrones also represent the end of the shared cultural experience?

For those who hang out in the virtual water cooler part of the Internet, there’s very little else that’s being talked about. In fact, if this season disappoints somehow, I’ve no doubt that there will be those calling on Robert Mueller to launch an investigation, thereby combining the internet’s too most recent obsessions. (It’s a good thing Meghan Markle was never on the show, otherwise the internet might well and truly break, and it would probably be a good thing.) Talk of the series’ final season is everywhere—The Ringer, for instance, which posts at least a couple of new stories each day, but also just about every other place on the internet. In fact, you’d have to make a conscious effort to avoid it. I’ve read enough about it, in my role as cultural archaeologist, to get the gist of what’s going on; it should help me, in a television sense, to keep up with the stories that will follow.

But what I find interesting about this—and I promise I’ll keep this short, no longer than a novella—is the irony of it all. Thanks to what Bereznak calls “entire online ecosystems,” made possible by “a media environment that thrives on obsessive fandom,” Game of Thrones has become the “de facto water cooler topic of the decade.” Yet, as she points out, it’s this very technology that makes it unlikely any other show—or possibly event, short of war—will ever come along again. The internet that helped birth Game of Thrones has, in a sense, moved beyond it, creating “a hyperactive attention economy that has revolutionized both the content people consume and how they consume it.” Using the data mined from viewership numbers and shaped by algorithms, the result is “shows that are far more fractured and niche.”

I started this off by mentioning how unlikely it would be to run across anyone who wasn’t aware of Game of Thrones—I have no doubt that somewhere in the middle of the rain forests of the Congo, there was a viewing party riveted to last weekend’s events—but it would be good to put things in a bit of perspective. The numbers that the program pulls in are modest when compared, say, to the ratings for The Beverly Hillbillies back in the mid ‘60s, and it isn’t as if we haven’t had this kind of excitement and anticipation over a television series before: look at the “Who Shot J.R.?” era of Dallas, for example.

But those came in a different era, when there were only three broadcast networks and the culture was more homogeneous than it is today. In what might be the understatement of all time, things have changed since then. Without trying to get too depressing, it’s probably safe to say that there is no common, shared culture in America anymore. As perhaps befits a country that’s always treasured the rights of the individual, we’ve become a nation of individuals—we’ve ditched radio in favor of our own downloaded playlists, we increasingly cut the cord and program our own television networks, we fractionalize our politics into smaller, more bitter factions with nothing in common.

It’s been held for some time now that only the Super Bowl continues to bring America together in a shared experience, all of us (metaphorically speaking) engaged in the same activity at the same time. Other things have the capacity to do that; 9/11, for instance. But very few pleasant things fit that description, and the more we fragment, the more we’re instructed by social media as to what is and isn’t permissible to be found pleasant, the fewer things we’ll find to celebrate. A while back, David Hofstede wrote a piece in which he discussed the number of television programs that slip under the radar simply because there are too many of them to keep track of, being made by too many different studios. (There’s that too much meme again.) Can television fit the definition of entertainment if there’s nobody aware of it, nobody watching it?

So the world congregates to celebrate the beginning of the end to a series that technology helped to build into a monocultural event, at a time when technology is doing everything possible to prevent that from ever happening again. That is ironic, isn’t it? And it would have made a great topic for an ABC Movie of the Week back in the day, a cautionary tale of artificial intelligence being used to tear apart the fabric of communal society. It probably would have gotten big ratings back then, too. Thing is, it would never get an audience today.  TV  

April 15, 2019

What's on TV? Friday, April 22, 1960

We're back to the Minnesota State Edition this week, and without further adieu, here are the Friday night listings!


April 13, 2019

This week in TV Guide: April 16, 1960

Wait, what's this? A new TV Guide—can it be? It can, and it is. Don't get too excited now; the employment circumstances still don't allow for new purchases (if you want to help, buy my books!), but this happens to be one I've had for awhile that I just haven't gotten around to—until now. Next week begins another brief cycle of encore presentations (most of them mixed with new content, to be sure), so enjoy this one while you can!

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Seeing as how I'm currently appearing on a podcast that's doing an episode-by-episode look at Bourbon Street Beat, it seems appropriate to kick off this week's issue with that story stripped across the top of the cover, and see just what kind of strange we're talking about.

Bourbon Street Beat is out of the Warner Bros. stable, to use a racing metaphor, a detective series in the mold of the studio's 77 Sunset Strip and Hawaiian Eye (with Surfside 6 still to follow) with a bunch of good looking guys living in exotic locations and solving crimes that invariably involve attractive girls. Some call these cookie-cutter shows, and there's more than a little validity to this, but originality has always taken second place to entertainment when it comes to television, and Warner has tended to produce some very entertaining series—among them, Bourbon Street Beat. It's set in New Orleans, stars Richard Long, Andrew Duggan, and Van Williams as the guys, and Arlene Howell as the girl, plus a fine cast of guest stars.

Actually, when it comes down to it, there's nothing particularly strange about Bourbon Street Beat at all. It's the way writer Bob Johnson frames the story, referring to a 1957 episode of the ABC anthology series Conflict called "The Money," noting that the entire cast of unknowns and semiknowns in the episode have since gone on to appear as regulars in various series. Included in that cast was the 6 foot 5 Duggan, who played a crooked private eye turned killer in "The Money," but has since gone straight as one of the good guys on Beat. It's the culmination of a career that has included radio, theater, movie and television work, including appearing as a killer on 77 Sunset Strip, and a three-episode gig as Gentleman Jack Darby on Maverick, both WB properties. He and Long work well on Bourbon Street Beat, and so far the show has raised ABC's Monday night ratings (although not enough to merit a second season).

So is there anything truly strange about all this? Well, not strange, perhaps—I'd probably say "ironic." A couple of weeks ago (1960 time), the show featured an episode called "Twice Betrayed." It's a remake of "The Money," except that this time Duggan's private eye solves the murder instead of committing it. Only in Hollywood, right?

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I've raised this point before, usually at Christmastime, but at the risk of beating a dead horse (and just why would someone do that, anyway?), this issue provides us with another example of the continuing disappearance of religion from popular American culture.

April 17, 1960 is Easter Sunday, but the seasonal selections actually begin on Saturday night with NBC's World Wide 60 color presentation of "The Way of the Cross" (8:30 p.m.),a documentary look at the world seen and heard by Jesus during His lifetime. (Capitalization in the original.) Come Sunday morning, it's time for church: CBS leads things off at 9:00 a.m. with a Solemn Pontifical Mass from the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.; that's followed at 10:00 a.m. by an Episcopal service from the National Cathedral, also in D.C. On opposite that, KSTP has a color broadcast of the Easter High Pontifical Mass from St. Peter in Chains Cathedral in Cincinnati.* At 11:00 a.m., WTCN presents a local broadcast of services from the Simpson Methodist Church in Minneapolis.

*Both the 9:00 a.m. Mass in Washington and the 10:00 a.m. Mass in Cincinnati are scheduled for one hour. I've been to several Pontifical High Masses in my day, and I can assure you that they will not be done in one hour; 90 minutes is more likely. I wonder how the networks handled this?

At 11:00 a.m., the CBS Television Workshop presents "Tobias and the Angel," the Old Testament story from the book of Tobit. At 11:15 a.m., KSTP has a 15-minute program of Easter music by the St. Paul Central Senior High School chorus; that's followed at 11:30 p.m. by Richard Kiley as St. Peter in "The Power of the Resurrection." At 1:00 p.m., KROC in Rochester has "Kiss of Judas," the tragic story of Judas Iscariot, and at 5:30 p.m. Raymond Burr stars in a Resurrection story on KMMT in Austin. Finally, at 7:00 p.m. on NBC, Victor Jory introduces an hour of Easter music from Salt Lake City, including selections by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the ballet corps from the University of Utah.

One other thought: The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King is Ned Brooks' guest on Meet the Press (5:00 p.m., NBC); I wonder if it's just a coincidence that Rev. King is appearing on Easter?

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It's also the start of baseball season, the last in the Twin Cities before the advent of the Minnesota Twins in 1961. There is no unified television contract between Major League Baseball and the networks; each team is free to make its own deals. All three networks offer weekend games; CBS carries a game each on Saturday and Sunday, with Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese calling the action, while NBC matches the two-games-a-weekend schedule with Lindsey Nelson and former manager Fred Haney behind the mics. (In most cases, you'll see the same two teams on both days.) Over at ABC, it's only Saturday coverage, with Jack Buck and Carl Erskine covering a schedule made up predominantly of San Francisco Giants home games. For starters, this weekend CBS has two games with the Milwaukee Braves and Philadelphia Phillies, while NBC counters with a par featuring the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds. ABC's game has the Giants hosting the Chicago Cubs from the brand-new Candlestick Park by the bay. And you won't want to miss the debut of Home Run Derby, which airs here at 10:30 p.m. Monday night on WCCO; they don't come much bigger than this battle between Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays.


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Starting in 1954, Steve Allen helmed his own NBC variety show which, at the beginning, aired opposite that of Ed Sullivan. It didn't run as long as Ed's, of course, but then Allen said his goal was never to conquer Ed, but to coexist with him, which he did for several seasons. Let's see who gets the best of the contest this week.

Sullivan: Ed's guests are gospel singer Mahalia Jackson; song stylist Roberta Sherwood and her three sons; Wayne and Shuster, who cavort as advertising men trying to popularize the income tax; singers Patricia Neway and Regina Sarfaty, who appear in a scene from Gian Carlo Menotti's opera The Consul, David Seville and the Chipmunks, novelty act.

Allen: Steve's guests are Charles Laughton, Martha Raye and singer Mark Murphy. Steve and Don Knotts, Louis Nye, Gabe Dell, Bill Dana and Pat Harrington Jr. join Martha in a sketch about the problems of a night club singer.

If you want to know how Ed Sullivan managed to stay on top for so long, tonight is a pretty good example: comedy, pop music, gospel, opera, and the Chipmunks—you're not going to find that combination very often. Menotti's opera The Consul, one of his best, won the Pulitzer Prize and opened on Broadway. I'll bet he never imagined it would share the same stage with Alvin.

But then Steverino's pretty good this week as well. I would imagine Laughton might be doing one of the readings that he became so famous for in the latter part of his career; maybe from the Bible, considering the time of the year. And his cast of regulars is almost without parallel. Still, although it's a close call, Sullivan gets the nod this week.

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What else have we got this week?

Tuesday's Startime (7:30 p.m., NBC) is an unusual episode. "Well, What About You?" produced by former movie honcho Dore Schary, is a star-studded, non-partisan get-out-the-vote variety special (and you thought "Rock the Vote" was original?) hosted by Eddie Albert and featuring Marian Anderson, Polly Bergen, Mike Wallace, Martin Gabel, Fred Clark, Joseph N. Welch (of Army-McCarthy fame) are among the stars, and they're surrounded by a host of politicians, including Nelson Rockefeller, Adlai Stevenson, and the spokesmen for both parties—who just happen to be Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy.

On Wednesday, Gene Fullmer defends his middleweight boxing championship against Joey Giardello from Bozeman, Montana. (9:00 p.m., ABC) Fullmer retains the title on a draw; he'll lose the title two years later to Dick Tiger.

DuPont Show of the Month (7:00 p.m., CBS), with Sandra Church (currently appearing on Broadway in the smash musical Gypsy) as the young Ruth Gordon Jones, along with Robert Preston, looking every bit as charming as Professor Harold Hill. In case you didn't know, Ruth Gordon had quite a writing career, including three Academy Award screenplay nominations, and a co-writing credit for the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn comedy Adam's Rib.

Ruth Gordon is known as one of America's finest stars of stage and screen, but Thursday night she makes a rare television appearance—or rather, it's her writing in the spotlight. Her autobiographical play, "Years Ago," is featured on the DuPont Show of the Month (7:00 p.m., CBS) with Sandra Church as the young Ruth Gordon Jones, starring opposite Robert Preston, looking every bit as charming as Professor Harold Hill.

Friday's Playhouse 90 special (8:00 p.m., CBS) has an intriguing story. "Journey to the Day" takes place in a state mental hospital, where six patients are involved in group therapy. John Frankenheimer directs, with a cast including Mary Astor, Mike Nichols, Janice Rule, Steven Hill, and James Dunn.

And finally, in New York, the TV Teletype reports that Jackie Gleason is flying Edward R. Murrow in from Asia and Mickey Rooney from Hollywood to appear as themselves in his new TV special "Million Dollar Incident," due to air next season on CBS. I've never seen this, and the reviews I've read have been mixed, but it sounds like a lot of fun. The premise: Gleason, playing himself, "is kidnapped and discovers nobody will pay the $1,000,000 ransom." How sweet it isn't? TV  

April 12, 2019

Around the dial

Whether or not you remember him (and in an era that seems to lack any sense of the past, that probably includes a lot of people), Charles Van Doren was one of the major figures in television history. His rise to fame following his electrifying appearances on Twenty-One, and the subsequent revelation that he was part of the Quiz Show Scandal, guaranteed that; however, unlike the disgraced celebrities of today (say, Lori Loughlin), Van Doren didn't consult a crisis expert afterward; he accepted the exile that was an inevitable consequence of what he'd done, and remained there, writing books and teaching but otherwise refusing the opportunity to reenter public life. I've always found something dignified about that, even noble in a way. Van Doren died this week at age 93; the Broadcasting Archives at the University of Maryland links to this Washington Post obit. I'd also recommend reading the one and only time Van Doren addressed what happened, when he wrote about it in The New Yorker.

Last week we looked at FredFlix's open letter to MeTV, which contained a kind of wish list for a future broadcasting schedule. Well, he's back this week with a revised schedule, based suggestions from his viewers. I know you'll want to watch it.

This isn't really about television, but I enjoyed it anyway: Ben Lindbergh's essay at The Ringer on how the Cleveland Indians' rally in the movie Major League shouldn't have counted. I include this because if you read it, you'll know something of what it's like watching TV with me.

Part seven of Jack's Hitchcock Project on James P. Cavanagh over at bare-bones e-zine, and it's the third season episode "Sylvia." I must confess that although I've seen this episode, I don't remember it. (Getting old, I guess.) I trust Jack's observation that it's a good one.

Commentary tracks can be one of the simple pleasures of a DVD, although I'll readily admit that I don't make enough use of them. But at Comfort TV, David helps fill in the gaps with three favorite commentary tracks, and one that should have been.

At Bob Crane: Life & Legacy, Carol offers a warm, heartfelt remembrance of Johnny Thompson, "The Great Tomsoni," who died last month. Johnny and his wife, Pam, were part of Carol's Herculean efforts to give people the truth about Bob Crane's life. R.I.P.

Television's New Frontier: the 1960s moves to 1961 to pick up the second half of the second season of Dennis the Menace. Recognizing the popularity of Dennis's long-suffering next-door neighbor, the show could have been renamed The Constant Humiliation of George Wilson. You get the point.

"A Busy Person's Guide to TV" could describe what things are like today, with a myriad number of cable and streaming options for the television aficionado, but in fact it's the cover story of the April 8, 1989 issue of TV Guide. Read all about it at Television ObscuritiesTV  

April 10, 2019

What Hogan's Heroes (and other WWII television series) can tell us about wartime military ethics

When you’ve seen every episode of Hogan’s Heroes as often as I have, you’re allowed to let your mind wander a bit. By this time, you can identify each episode within the first ten seconds, you can quote an alarming amount of dialog, you know all of Hogan’s scams and how Klink reacts to them, you know that through it all, Schultz never sees anything. It’s all as comforting as a warm blanket in the middle of winter.

So when you’ve seen, say, “Information Please” for the tenth time, you start to pay more attention to the little things, like when Hogan decides the only way to get rid of the German officer threatening their operations is to frame him as a traitor, and Newkirk, after listening to the plan, comments that “We really are a nasty lot, we are.” And “The Assassin,” when, after discovering that a Nazi scientist is in camp working on atomic research, Hogan declares, “We got to kill him,” to which a startled Carter replies, “Just doesn’t sound like us, Colonel.” And “Hot Money,” which involves the Nazis setting up a counterfeiting operation, in which the lead scientist of the operation voices concern over the morality of counterfeiting even during wartime.

These represent some of the rare moments of genuine self-reflection in the series, when, even amid the absurdist humor, the characters dwell on the implications of their actions with an acute awareness of the consequences involved. Setting aside the fact that we’re talking about fictional people in a very improbable setting, you have to ask—what does it all really mean? The storylines in Hogan’s Heroes encompass a wide range of acts, including deception, misinformation, lying, and killing. How does one assess their morality during wartime? After all, just because we’re talking about a comedy, that doesn’t mean truth can’t be found somewhere in the midst. And not just Hogan's Heroes, of course, but other wartime television series as well.

To find the answers to these questions, I decided what I needed was an expert. So I went out and got one.

Dr. Robert G. Kennedy is a Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, and his area of expertise includes St. Thomas Aquinas, who did quite a lot of writing about the Catholic theory on Just War. Among other things, he’s presented on topics such as “A Catholic Analysis of Modern Problems for the Just War Tradition,” “Is the Just War Theory Obsolete?” and “Is the Doctrine of Preemption a Legitimate Element of the Just War Tradition?” With credentials like this, I figured he was the person I was looking for. He also knows something about military ethics as portrayed in television and the movies, which made it less likely he’d think I was completely around the bend. “It’s interesting, the questions that a 50-year-old sitcom can prompt,” he said after I’d described what was on my mind; then, as a true scholar and gentleman, he gave serious consideration to my questions and rose to the challenge.

“The Catholic tradition since Augustine has held that lying—deliberately asserting to someone as true something that you know to be false—is always wrong. The key word here is asserting.” For example, things such as acting in a theatrical performance, telling a joke, and so on, are in many cases not assertions; consequently, false statements on those cases are not lies. (Philosophers often debate where to draw lines, but that’s a question for another day.)

Addressing the question in “Information, Please,” in which the boys frame a German officer, Major Kohler, by falsely implicating him as a traitor, Dr. Kennedy continued. “If Hogan makes a false assertion, he is lying and acting wrongly, even if the end to be achieved is worthwhile. On the other hand, if memory serves, the story line in these matters often involved deception (lying is a species of deception, but not all deception is wrong). Suppose Hogan ‘carelessly’ leaves a forged document someplace where Klink will find it, and Klink immediately draws a conclusion, as he was meant to do, that some officer or another is a traitor”—a fairly common occurrence in the show. “Or suppose Hogan, in conversation with Klink, asks a number of insinuating questions, planting the idea in Klink’s mind that the officer is a suspicious character.

“In neither of these cases does Hogan assert anything, even though he certainly means Klink (and others) to draw conclusions that are false but helpful to Hogan’s aims. In cases like this he has certainly engaged in deception, but he has not lied. Not all deception is morally sound, but in some of these cases it might be.” He added, however, that deception intended to cause an innocent person to be harmed, even if it might not be lying, may still very well be immoral, a concern which Newkirk seems to be alluding to in his comments.

By now, I was beginning to understand why I’d wanted an expert.

In the episode “How to Win Friends and Influence Nazis,” Hogan’s assignment is to convince Dr. Karl Svenson, a world-famous Swedish chemist working on a formula for a new steel alloy, not to give the formula to the Nazis. Failing that, his mission is to assassinate Svenson, which he’s prepared to do with a small bomb implanted in a pen. To understand the morality of such an action, it’s important to make a distinction—not between military and civilian personnel, as is sometimes supposed, but between combatants and non-combatants. “Some persons in uniform are generally held to be non-combatants, such as chaplains, medics, and perhaps even the JAG corps. But even here, the instant a medic or chaplain picks up a weapon, he becomes a combatant—which is why we generally have very strict rules against these people ever engaging in actual combat. The moment they do so, they contaminate the immunity of all other medics and chaplains. They can say a prayer but they can’t pass the ammunition.

“Strictly speaking, combatants are liable to attack, even lethal attack, even when they are not actually engaged, at that moment, in combat operations. The argument would be that they are still ongoing participants in the wrongful project of the enemy and therefore may be subject to the force necessary to impede their project. An air base, for example, is a legitimate military target, even at night when the personnel are asleep. But there are limits. Injured soldiers in a hospital are likely not combatants, soldiers on leave back home, even when wearing a uniform, are likely not combatants, and so on. In all this, by the way, there is the assumption that it is the enemy who is engaged in a wrongful project, not our own side. We also assume, while acknowledging that this is hard to measure, that the level of force applied should not exceed what is necessary to impede the wrongful project. So, we should not kill enemy soldiers if we can disable them; we should not disable them, if we can persuade them to surrender.”

In the case of Dr. Svenson, “though a civilian, [he] is likely a combatant, even if a reluctant one. Even though he is not in uniform, he is engaged critically, if at some remove, in developing weapon components that could be strategically effective against his nation’s opponents”—such action means “he is directly participating in the wrongful project of the Germans and therefore enabling in a proximate way their combat operations.* Is he a legitimate target? Again, there are extremes but here we can talk about the distinction between pre-emptive action and preventive action. Pre-emptive action, which is often justified, seeks to neutralize an imminent threat. Preventive action seeks to neutralize a threat that one can imagine becoming real at some point in the future, but which poses no imminent danger. It is hard to imagine a situation in which preventive action can be justified.

*An analysis that could apply to “The Assassin” as well.

“So, what is the situation with [Svenson]? Is he on his way to deliver the formula for the new alloy to the Nazis or is he merely making progress on developing the formula, and might reasonably succeed, in a month, or a year or two? I would say that if he has the formula and is about to give it to the Nazis, then he probably poses an imminent threat and could be a legitimate target. But probably not if he is merely making progress. We would also want to know how important his formula really is and what other means might be available to prevent the exchange. The answers would address the issue of proportionality.” In this case, Svenson tells Hogan that work on the formula will require “two or three month’s more work,” to which Hogan replies, “I’ve now got time to convince you to come over to my side.” The implication is that Hogan is prepared to do whatever it takes to make killing Svenson a last resort; it’s a wise—and moral—judgment.

Then there’s an episode like “The Swing Shift,” in which the men infiltrate industrialist Hans Speer’s cannon-making factory, so they can sabotage the plant with explosives? Assessing this situation requires “sound judgment and attention to details and context,” according to Dr. Kennedy; while extreme situations are often easy to resolve, “the closer they are, in fact, to the middle, the less clear they become.” Given that factory workers are not automatically considered combatants, any attack, if possible, should be staged when the workers are not working. In “The Swing Shift,” however, the plan is for the factory to operate around the clock. What then?

Dr. Kennedy compares this example to the bombing of the famous ball bearing plant at Schweinfurt* “Ball-bearing manufacture was a choke point in the German war industry, as so many pieces of equipment required ball bearings. Destroy the plant and war production would be crippled. It had very high strategic value, not merely a tactical value. A strong argument can be made that harm to the workers was justified by that strategic value.”

*Ironically, in the episode Hogan’s request to London for an air strike is tabled due to higher-priority targets, among which is—the real-life ball-bearing plant at Schweinfurt. It’s not the first time the writers got little details like this correct, and quite possibly the mention of Schweinfurt was designed specifically to justify the sabotage to Herr Speer’s factory (whose name, of course, is an indirect reference to Nazi Armaments Minister Albert Speer). 

Overall, these kinds of actions call for careful consideration. Examples of non-uniformed combatants could include “a civilian truck driver delivering ammunition to troops in battle or of a technical advisor helping combat troops to operate complex equipment, and so on.” However, Dr. Kennedy adds, “I am less inclined to say [that factory workers are combatants] in general. One issue here would have to do with what it is they are making? Is it bullets and cannon shells or army boots? Are they building ships or canning vegetables? We usually draw some lines with respect to the proximity of the support provided—the mother knitting socks for her soldier son is not a combatant—and whether the support itself is neutral (that is, not combat specific). In the latter case, we would likely say that the truck driver delivering groceries to a military base is not a combatant since this would be done without regard to war or peace.

“A second issue has to do with timing. Factories don’t move and in principle, therefore, they could be attacked when the workers are not working. In the Second World War, the British bombed Germany at night, when they could not see the target. Their reasoning was that it didn’t matter whether they hit the factory or the workers’ homes: production would stop either way. But Catholics would think that there is a very important difference here.

“A principle of proportionality has to be introduced: is the military objective sufficiently important to justify a certain level of genuinely unintended casualties? One test question is to ask whether we would proceed with an operation if we were bombing (let’s say) one of our own cities that had been occupied by the enemy, and the unintended casualties would be our own citizens. We are on more solid grounds if we could answer affirmatively, as the French did with respect to the bombing of their own railyards immediately before D-Day. At the other extreme, was the bombing of Japanese and German cities in the latter days of the war, when our objective was clearly to use the deaths of non-combatants as leverage to force surrender.”

In summary, says Dr. Kennedy, “war is a very messy business. It always involves unintended casualties and collateral damage. Cases like these, and there are a great many, irritate people who want formal rules for all occasions. There are no such rules, which is why prudence is the preeminent practical virtue. And in the difficult cases, the decision maker often lacks some vital piece of information, so in the end we often do the best we can. Here again, the genuinely virtuous person, who will be less swayed by bias or emotion, is more likely to judge well.”

By this time I was thoroughly exhausted, but also exhilarated and intellectually stimulated. I thanked Dr. Kennedy not only for his time, but his patience in answering what some people might consider silly questions that read far too much into light entertainment. Looking back on the discussion, it seemed to have justified my decades-long fandom of Hogan’s Heroes (which I think does very well when it comes to ethical choices). More important, it provides us something to think about whenever we watch depictions of war on television (or in the movies)—not to the exclusion of the program’s entertainment value, but rather in amplification of it, complimenting and enhancing our understanding of what we watch. Furthermore, the same questions can be asked of other kinds of shows: police procedurals, for example, or mysteries. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the most searing drama or the silliest comedy—they all play using the same set of moral rules, even if they don’t abide by them.

War forces terrible choices on everyone: not just the combatants, but those who issue the orders sending them into battle, the politicians responsible for making policy, the civilians providing support to their armed forces. We live with the consequences of our choices, and someday we answer for them. How right Robert E. Lee was, when he observed that “It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.” TV  

A special thanks to my friend Dr. David Deavel for providing the introduction to Dr. Robert Kennedy.