February 17, 2020

What's on TV? Friday, February 21, 1969

I don't think it's a secret to any of you that my favorite issues are from the Twin Cities; we have a history, the Cities and me. That's probably why I enjoy these occasional excursions into other parts of the country; it gives me an idea of the shows we were missing back home. For instance, without TV Guide I would never have known that Donald O'Connor hosted his own variety show (8:30 p.m., WKBS), just as past issues introduced me to similar programs with Allen Ludden and Tom Kennedy. (I don't count the time I spent in the World's Worst Town™; you could probably put together an entire issue with nothing but the shows we didn't get there.) This week's issue, for the record, is from Philadelphia.

February 15, 2020

This week in TV Guide: February 15, 1969

This city of Chicago runs the city of Prague a close second right now as the world's least attractive tourist attraction." Now, before you get upset with me, I didn't say this; as a matter of fact, I rather like Chicago, even though it's one of the most violent and corrupt cities in the country, if not the world. No, these words come from CBS commentator Eric Sevareid, in the buildup to the 1968 Democratic Convention, and they set the tone for Neil Hickey's article, the second of four parts, on "Television in Turmoil"—in this case, the networks defending themselves against charges of bias and distortion in their coverage of the convention.

And they can use all the help they can get. As we saw a while back, the media were united as seldom before in their opposition to the violence and police abuse that they had witnessed (and, in some cases, experienced personally) during the "Battle of Chicago," only to find that the great majority of Americans were siding against them, and with Mayor Daley and his police. They're now being called upon by the FCC to answer the many letters of complaint received about their coverage, and in their defense they point out that a relatively small percentage of their overall convention coverage was devoted to the more violent moments. ABC, for example, points out that with their limited coverage (90 minutes per night), only 13 minutes and 49 seconds concerned the violence between police and demonstrators. Additionally, ABC counted William F. Buckley Jr. among their commentators, and both he and ABC newsman Howard K. Smith were strongly critical of the demonstrators. NBC had perhaps the cheekiest response, telling the FCC that many viewers simply had "forgotten instances of reporting which contradict their conclusions, while recalling only selectively or inaccurately to suit an argument." (Doubtless those same viewers probably felt the same way about the NBC,) CBS, meanwhile, criticized the limits set up by the Chicago police, "restraints upon the freedom of movement and technical resources of television . . . which have never before been imposed on the medium."

ABC's explanation may be the best: the events were so "inherently inflammatory," and "people identified so passionately with one side or the other, that no matter how these events were treated by the news media, there would inevitably have been criticism of the news coverage." However, Hickey concludes, that explanation has pleased nobody, neither "private citizen nor public official who was convinced that television behaved with partisan bad manners in Chicago last August and ought to be restrained from ever doing so again."

What's the moral of the story? For the news media, Chicago 1968 was an existential crisis, the first time they'd been confronted with the possibility they were out of touch with the views of the public, and many media people wondered if that might not in fact be the case. The question of media bias is rising, through the coverage of civil rights, Vietnam, the convention, and national protests, and it's only going to get more pointed with the outspoken speeches of Vice President Agnew. And, judging by what we read and hear today, the argument shows no signs of dissipating. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

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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: Tentatively scheduled guests: Arthur Godfrey; singers Caterina Valente and the Young Americans; the rocking Blood, Sweat and Tears; comedians Rodney Dangerfield, and Fiore and Eldridge; and juggler Eric Brenn.

Palace: Host Milton Berle welcomes Steve Allen, Jayne Meadows, Mel Tormé, singers Dana Valery and Leland Palmer, and comedian Jerry Collins.

This matchup could go either way. I think Sullivan has a deeper lineup, but I like the way Palace starts out strong with Steverino, Jayne, and the Velvet Fog. And anyway, this isn't about which lineup is better, it's about which one I like the best, and I think this week I prefer Hollywood over New York. Palace wins the week.

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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. 

Before Brian Lamb and Booknotes on C-SPAN, there was a program on NET, a much-loved program called Book Beat, hosted by Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Cromie, in which Cromie interviews an author about his latest book. Now, there's nothing particularly new about authors being interviewed about their books, though rarely for a half hour. Johnny and Merv and Joey do it all the time. And this doesn't always make for the best television since, as Cleveland Amory points out, authors make for difficult interviewees: "All too often he exhibits that one unpardonable combination—nervousness and ego together. A man becomes an author, Somerset Maugham once said, because he is the kind of man who things of what he should have said on the way home from the party. We have often thought of that line as we watched some interview program and saw some author mumbling along."

(As an author myself, I'm probably not the best one to talk about the accuracy of this statement. It is true, I will admit, that many of my best retorts come post facto, when I become hilarious and erudite in the eyes of an audience of one. In my defense, however, as well as the defense of authors everywhere, I should note that the only important thing about coming up with the right thing to say is being able to remember it long enough to write it down. This I am usually able to do.)

What makes Bob Cromie, and Book Beat, different is this: not only does Cromie read every book that he discusses on the show, he proceeds from the assumption that his viewers are as interested in these books as he is. This makes a big difference. It also helps that Cromie knows his role on the show. For instance, notes Cleve, a recent program with Marc Connelly (Voices off Stage) required him to do little more than provide the punctuation for Connelly's nonstop stories. On the other hand, when interviewing Norman Mailer (Miami and the Streets of Chicago), Cromie's job was to "grin and bear it" in the face of Mailer's relentless negativity, and he did it so well that, Amory says, "at the end Mr. Mailer was actually likable."

Most memorable, perhaps, was an interview with Elie Wiesel (Legends of Our Time), in which Cromie's simple question, "You are, I believe, a survivor of Auschwitz?" was enough to "open the floodgates of one of the most memorable interviews we have ever heard." So memorable was it that Cleve dispenses with his clever bon mots and puns, in favor of quoting Wiesel's poignant words about the Holocaust. When asked how many of his family died in Auschwitz, Wiesel replies, "Dozens. Dozens and dozens and dozens. In each of my books I give life to one member of my family. In one book my father, in another my grandfather, in another my little sister. I try to bring them in and give them some kind of monument. In words, not stone—there is no stone." That, I think, is what it means to be an author, and also what it means to be interviewed by a pro.

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The Americanization of Emily is generally considered one of James Garner's best movies; with a script by Paddy Chayefsky, it combines the easygoing charm of Garner and co-star Julie Andrews with the savage satire and biting wit of Chayefsky's other hits, including The Hospital and Network. (In fact, both Garner and Andrews considered it their personal favorite of all the movies they acted in.) Its anti-war message was controversial in its time, however, and we get a hint of that in Judith Crist's review (Thursday, 9:00 p.m. ET, CBS). "[This week's] pretension is in The Americanization of Emily, an "almost" movie in that it almost gets where it thinks it's going before it changes its mind  and gets nowhere. Blame the fuzzy-minded and phrase-gimmicked screenplay extolling cowardice because heroics and heroism immorally support and encourage war. James Garner is simply unbelievable as the antihero and Julie Andrews is charming, but Emily barely gets her first papers.

If you think that's a bad review, though, wait until you get to her take on The Carpetbaggers (Sunday, 9:00 p.m., ABC). "Five years ago this screen version of Harold Robbins' foray into poor man's pornography was noteworthy for its being dull and dreary soap opera decked out with near-incest, nymphomania, alcoholism, prostitution, blackmail, big-business dirty-dealing and some antique theorizing about hereditary insanity. Since these are now the everyday stuff of entertainment, we're left only with the dull and dreary. The movie grossed millions because people paid to see if it was as smutty as the book. It wasn't." Ouch!

Lest you think all is negative, there's "one of Hollywood's best movie musicals," Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Saturday, 9:00 p.m., CBS), directed by Stanley Donen and choreographed by Michael Kidd, and staring Howard Keel and Jane Powell. "The fresh humor of the plotting is irresistible and the dancing—particularly a barn-raising and rough-house sequence—still stands beyond compare." I know it's one of my wife's favorites, but I can't help but think about this version.

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College basketball is the big winner in this week's sports scene, highlighted by the famous Palestra doubleheaders that have been such a big part of the Philadelphia basketball scene for so many years. On Wednesday night it's Seton Hall vs. St. Joseph's, followed by Duquesne vs. LaSalle; Friday it's Brown vs. Penn and Detroit vs. LaSalle. Both nights begin at 7:00 p.m. on WPHL. While some of these colleges may be obscure in the big-time scene nowadays, Eastern basketball was big-time back in the 1950s and 1960s, when the NCAA tournament had maybe 22 teams and each conference could only send one team.

There's also golf this week; the PGA Tour event is the Phoenix Open (5:00 p.m. Sunday, ABC), and the made-for-TV shows include the CBS Golf Classic (4:00 p.m. Saturday) and Shell's Wonderful World of Golf (Saturday, 5:00 p.m., NBC). With their big names and color footage of some of the world's greatest golf courses, I think these shows had more to do with the growth of golf than the actual tournaments. The NHL Game of the Week gives us the Boston Bruins against the Black Hawks at Chicago (Sunday, 2:30 p.m., CBS), and the Flyers are on local TV, taking on the Blues in St. Louis Wednesday at 9:00 on WKBS.

Also on Wednesday, it's the second annual Academy of Professional Sports Awards, live from Hollywood (10:00 p.m., NBC). Last year, the host was Johnny Carson; this year, the honors go to Perry Como. I haven't been able to find out too much about these awards; I know there were several awards of this type around this time (the Victor Awards, for example), but I don't see any evidence of this outfit beyond this year.

And if none of these float your boat, there's ABC's Pro Bowlers Tour Saturday at 3:00 p.m., followed by Wide World of Sports, featuring figure skating and the World Figure-Eight Stock Car Championships at Islip, New York—always a favorite. Remember these?


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Raymond Burr has moved out of the courtroom and into a wheelchair, as the star of Ironside. In fact, I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that, despite the supporting cast, Burr, virtually through an act of will, is the show. And in this interview with Edith Efron, he shows how similar the character is to the man.

Efron begins by looking back, to Burr's portrayal of Perry Mason, to find how the actor inhabits a role—or, more accurately, how he creates it. Speaking of Mason, Burr says he wasn't given much to work with: "Erle Stanley Gardner did not create a character with spiritual qualities." But Mason, like Robert Ironside, "is something like doing a Greek tragedy. You already know what the end will be. Because the action is schematized and predictable, the whole concentration must be on qualities of character. I had to project these qualities, these values, from the inside."

So what, Efron asks, does it take for an actor to portray a hero? "It's harder to play a hero than a heavy. It requires the ability to project honesty and truth, to project great moral purity. A certain subtle quality of evil can prevent an actor from conveying the purity required for a heroic lead." When Efron asks if, then, Burr lacks that quality of evil and has that purity, he replies "I didn't say that." Even though, implicitly, he did.

Because of the values he projects, Efron says, Burr "has gotten more than respect. He is the object of moral adulation by an incredible legion of human beings in 71 countries—where the Perry Mason show is breaking international records for inspiring devotion, as it did for so long in this country." He inspires awe in fellow actors, and even fear. Says an old friend, "Those eyes—they seem to go right through you to the core. He looks—and you've had it. He affects a lot of people that way."

Raymond Burr is something of a contradiction. He's an intensely private person, and yet to a great degree the man you see on the screen, regardless of the role, is Raymond Burr. He tells Efron a curious thing: "I never lie. I don't say all there is to say about myself. But I never lie. And I hate being lied to." Well, we know that he has lied, about his life and his background, though there's no evidence that it was ever done for personal gain, but simply to help create that barrier around him. (And in fairness, a number of the "lies" are simply conclusions drawn by others based on things he's said.)

This isn't the first article TV Guide has done on Burr, and it won't be the last. But no matter how many times we read about him, he continues to be more and more fascinating, even as we find we never get any closer to knowing him.

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I don't really know what to make of the show I'm about to mention. It's a special called Children's Letters to God (Sunday, 8:30 p.m. ET, NBC), hosted by Gene Kelly and by our old favorite, Dr. Frank Buxton, and based on the best-seller by Stuart Hample and Eric Marshall. From the description, I think it's supposed to be a humorous half-hour, kind of like those bits that Johnny Carson used to do where he'd read Thanksgiving recipes from children. ("Put the turkey in the oven at 1,000 degrees for 10 minutes.") The letters were written by kids in Sunday school, and put to animation by Bill Melendez Associates, the folks responsible for the Peanuts specials.*

*Of which there just happens to be one this week, He's Your Dog, Charlie Brown, Thursday at 7:30 p.m. on CBS.

Some of these letters are pretty funny: "Dear God, Why did you make worms and things? I know you must have had a reason, but I hope it was a good one," reads an unsigned one, while Frank writes, "Dear God, I saw St. Patrick Church last week when we went to New York. You live in a nice house." The program description notes that a child may write about "anything—slum conditions, a show-business career or a distaste for [as we saw] crawly creatures." The letters are described as whimsical and touching, and there's something quite poignant about how these children share with God so freely and openly, about whatever happens to be on their mind, as if they were talking with a friend or parent—and that's the way it should be.

At the same time, I get the feeling there's something far more existential buried in this idea, especially considering when this show was made. I'm drawn back to that memorable 1968 Mister Rogers episode in which Daniel Striped-Tiger asks about assassination. Was there a letter from a child asking, "Dear God, Why do bad people kill good people? Or are they not really bad?" What about a letter like, "Dear God, Why did you make things like War? And why did my daddy die?" And, of course, we're right in the middle of the counterculture revolution; I wonder if anyone would have written, "Dear God, My older sister says you're dead. Is that true?" Maybe a Jewish child would have asked a question about the Holocaust, like Elie Wiesel. I realize that this all sounds terribly depressing, or at the very least like something that The Onion would have come up with. But there was great desperation taking hold of America at the end of the Sixties, and no wonder: war, race, poverty, sex, drugs, divorce. Children must have been frightened by it all, it also seems quite natural that this would have been a deeper, more reflective program than it is.

And then there's how a show like this looks from today's perspective. I know that these kinds of programs are still done by people like Steve Harvey, and books like this one are still written. (The original authors themselves wrote additional volumes.) But there's a segment of the population out there, the people who despise any kind of religion, and they probably equate Sunday school with some form of child abuse, or scoff at the naivety of these children that they actually believe in something as foolish as God. Certainly the East and West Coasts are far too sophisticated for this kind of sentimental claptrap. Seriously, could you air a program like this today? It seems to be a relic not just from another era, but another world.

That's why I say that I'm not quite sure what to make of this program. I look at the title and I see something that's probably completely different from what the program actually was. I look at the books with their brightly colored covers, and read the earnest letters written in a kid's handwriting, and I understand what they're going for. Then I look back at the title again: Children's Letters to God. There is something so very stark about that, don't you think? "Dear God, Please get me and my family out of this place." "Dear God, I pray every night. Do you hear me?" Maybe one like "Dear God, Thank you for the food we have every day," or "Dear God, Thanks for bringing my mom home from the hospital." Were there letters like those too? Why is there suffering? Why did my dog have to die? Kids ask these kinds of questions, and I think the answers would have been quite moving, as well as inspiring.

I know, I know; reading too much into something again. Still, a version of this program on Lamp Unto My Feet or Look Up and Live might have been interesting; Fred Rogers would certainly know how to do it. As the world seemed to crumble before our very eyes, it would have reminded us just Who holds it all together. TV  

February 14, 2020

Around the dial

We’ll start off this week with a shameless self-promotion for the latest episode of Eventually Supertrain, in which I join Dan Budnick to discuss our favorite topic of conversation, Bourbon Street Beat, And don’t miss Dan and Amanda talking about Masquerade—plus a surprise!

Speaking of podcasts, Ed Robertson’s TV Confidential is always recommended, and in his latest episode, he welcomes actress and director Michelle Danner, and pays tribute to Robert Conrad and Kirk Douglas.

Jodie returns to Garroway at Large with video links to a 1962 science series that Dave Garroway hosted for NET after having left Today. Titled “Exploring the Universe,” it’s further proof of the relentlessly inquisitive and eclectic Garroway, and it comes to us courtesy of the American Archive of Public Broadcasting, which has a growing collection of programs dating back to the early days of national educational television.

Of Late I Think of Cliffordsville” is the episode up for review at The Twilight Zone Vortex, and as Jordan tells us, it’s another one of those nasty time-travel stories that reminds us the past is seldom the way we remember it. Oh, and did I mention that it also features the Devil? Take it from me, this is not going to turn out well.

On Wednesday I wrote of Orson Bean, who died last week; Inner Toob shares a retrospective of Bean as well (and how could I have failed to mention his memorable performance as Mr. Bevis in The Twilight Zone?), along with some personal remembrances. And while you’re at it, check out A Shroud of Thoughts for Terence’s wonderful look at Bean’s career. Bean once said that he was someone famous simply for being famous, which as Terence says, is far from the truth. It’s clear that Bean’s career touched a great many people

At Cult TV, John dips into the world of Monty Python with “The War Against Pornography,” an episode that demonstrates how even (especially?) comedy can give us a shrewd (and hilarious) insight into the times from which it comes. Now that I think about it, “especially” is probably the right word.

We all have things in life that give us great pleasure, although we’d be hard-pressed to say why. In the case of our friend David at Comfort TV, it’s the 1977 series Magic Mongo, a production of Sid and Marty Krofft. I have no memory whatsoever of this show, which I’m perfectly willing to blame on the World’s Worst Town™.

The Hitchcock Project continues at bare•bones e-zine, and this week Jack takes us to the sixth Hitchcock episode written by Sterling Silliphant, “The Canary Sedan,” with Jessica Tandy and Murray Matheson. As always, it’s fascinating to find out how the scriptwriter adapts a short story into a teleplay—what he adds and subtracts, alters or changes outright, and the effect it has on the story. TV  

February 12, 2020

Orson Bean / Robert Conrad, R.I.P.

Orson Bean used to talk about how he was one of the few entertainers who'd been blacklisted by both sides; in the Fifties, it was for being a communist ("I wasn't a communist. I was horny for a communist girl and she dragged me to a couple of meetings."), while in the 2000s it was for being a conservative ("It’s harder now to be an open conservative on a Hollywood set than it was back then to be a Communist," he once told his son-in-law, Andrew Breitbart). He might have been bitter about it, but he seemed more amused than anything.

Several years ago, someone wrote of Orson Bean that "I never could figure out who the guy was, So far as I knew, he never had done anything of note. He was on the show because he was a celebrity, and he was a celebrity because he was on the show. . . He was the compleat artificial man." Not only was this needlessly cruel, it was completely false. Bean had been a fixture in clubs and on Broadway since the Fifties; he starred on Broadway in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter with Jayne Mansfield, and was nominated for a Tony for Subways Are for Sleeping. He appeared at the famous New York club The Blue Angel on a bill with Nichols and May, Harry Belafonte, and Eartha Kitt, and he recorded a comedy album at another famous club, The Hungry I. He counted as friends everyone from Lenny Bruce to Jonathan Winters to Henry Fonda, appeared in series such as The Twilight Zone, Studio One, The Love Boat, One Life to Live, and Murder, She Wrote, and displayed his skills as a raconteur on The Tonight Show, both with Jack Paar and Johnny Carson. (He subbed as host for Carson more than 100 times.) He played the voice of Bilbo Baggins in Rankin-Bass' animated version of The Hobbit, and Frodo in the sequel, The Return of the King, and was a regular on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. All that, and he still had time back home in California to do community theater. I wish I'd been so artificial.

(By the way, I didn't name the person who wrote that, but I know who it was. I don't see any point in giving that person any publicity, even if it comes from being an idiot. I will tell you that it was not someone who writes regularly about television, which just goes to show you shouldn't dabble in things you don't know anything about.)

Unquestionably, what he was best known for—the show that our unnamed critic refers to—was his many years as panelist on To Tell the Truth. He was smart and witty, urbane and good-natured, a humorous and warm presence on the show ("Elegant Kitty Carlisle on my right with a feather boa. Peggy Cass on the other side."), and drew funny little cartoons on the card each panelist used to indicate who they thought was "telling the truth."

I'm usually saddened by the death of someone I've watched and liked, as you'll see below, but when I heard that Orson Bean had died as the result of being hit by a car, I was a bit stunned as well. Yes, he was 91, and yes, it was unexpected, but it affected me in a way that most of these celebrity deaths don't. For years I'd and listened to him talk, not only about Hollywood and show business, but about how he'd found God, how he'd moved politically from the left to the right (like Ronald Reagan, he'd insist that he didn't leave the Democratic party, but it left him). He was one of those people about whom you say that the world seems just a little better place with him around, and it saddens me that he isn't, and that his death seems so needless.

I don't know if that's how he'd want to be remembered, though, so I'll leave you with a couple of fascinating stories. One occurred while he was performing at The Blue Angel in the 50s: "A guy named Bud Howard introduced the acts and played the piano in between. One day I came in early and he said, 'Listen to this song I knocked off.' He played Fly Me to the Moon. I said, 'That's great, but what are you going to do with it?'" (Give it to Frank, natch.) The other concerns his son-in-law Andrew Breitbart who, like Bean, started out on the political left. One night, Breitbart noticed a book by Rush Limbaugh in Bean's bookcase.  "Why in the world would you have a book written by some fascist right-winger on your bookshelf that anybody could see?" Breitbart asked him. Bean replied, "Andrew, take that book and read it. Just read it." The rest is history, and there's no political point that I'm making here; it's just quite a story, from a man who lived quite a life.

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The one and only time I saw Robert Conrad in person was at the 2018 Mid Atlantic Nostalgia Convention. He was in poor health then, a shadow of the robust, charismatic James West, and if that was the Robert Conrad you’d come to see, then you were asking for disappointment. Or maybe not.

See, the thing about James West was that no matter what megalomaniacal villain he confronted, no matter what fantastic plot for world domination he foiled, no matter what outrageous steampunk invention he faced, he knew that to fail was not an option. That requires a kind of inner determination, a resolve that (with apologies to Paul McCartney) when you’ve got a job to do, you’ve got to do it well* or you die trying. There is no in-between. It’s the same thing when you play a character like that, and especially when you insist on doing most of your own stunts. You’re laying it all on the line for everyone out there to see, and if you can’t pull it off, you’re going to look like a fool. Perhaps it was a combination of ego, insecurity, and supreme confidence, but Conrad took that bet, and pulled it off.

*Well, that and good scriptwriters.

And that brings us back to his appearance at MANC. He was obviously ailing, but he declined staff offers to make him more comfortable by cutting back on the time available for his fans to meet him. It wouldn’t be right if he did that; those fans had come to see him, had paid money to do so and had spent time in line waiting, and he wasn’t going to disappoint them. No, he wouldn’t quit until everyone who’d wanted an autograph or a picture or a chance to shake hands had had the opportunity to do so. He wasn’t going to leave any fans disappointed. And you don’t do that without that same inner determination, that will to finish the assignment. So maybe there wasn’t such a difference between James West circa 1965 and Bob Conrad circa 2018. They were the same man, after all.

Robert Conrad had his detractors, those who said he had a chip on his shoulder, that he suffered from short man’s disease, that he insisted on doing it all because he was basically insecure. He didn’t suffer fools, which is a drawback in an age that prizes sensitivity. Discussing the various run-ins he’d had with people over the years (which had earned him several lawsuits), he put it simply: if you’re nice to me, I’ll be nicer to you. If not, well. . . He starred in several TV shows that were failures, but he had two that were hits—Hawaiian Eye and The Wild Wild West, successes that most actors would gladly accept. He lampooned his own tough guy persona in a series of Eveready commercials, daring you to knock that battery off his shoulder.

I was planning to write about Wild Wild West in my next “What I’m Watching,” but I’ll get ahead of myself here and mention that it’s a tremendously enjoyable show to watch every Friday night, and I’m glad we were able to watch the entire first season, with episode instructions by Conrad, while he was still alive. It doesn’t make any difference, I know, but somehow it still seems meaningful. And every time I watch James West, I think back to Robert Conrad at MANC, determined to make sure everyone left satisfied. After all, it wasn’t just his fans coming to see him; he’d come to see them as well. And, as he does every Friday night, it was a mission he successfully completed. TV  

February 10, 2020

What's on TV? Sunday, February 11, 1973

February 12 is Abraham Lincoln's birthday, and in commemoration there are no fewer than five Lincoln specials on TV this week. On Tuesday, NBC celebrates with The Great Man's Whiskers, the story of how Lincoln came to grow his beard, with Dennis Weaver as Honest Abe. The rest are today: Lamp Unto My Feet's "No Lonely Mountain Peak" is a musical tribute, with Met Opera baritone Sherill Milnes performing the Gettysburg Address; WPIX has Abe Lincoln in Illinois, with Raymond Massey in his signature role; and NET Playhouse has D.W. Griffith's Abraham Lincoln biopic. (Various PBS stations also carry A Look at Lincoln, with actor Dick Blake as the 16th president. It was a time for heroes, and speaking of which, who wants to miss Peter Cushing as Doctor Who in Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D., starring the Daleks.

The week's issue is the New Jersey-Pennsylvania edition, with New York City thrown in for good measure.

February 8, 2020

This week in TV Guide: February 10, 1973

On January 28, 1962, NBC broadcast a White Paper called "The Battle of Newburgh," Newburgh being "a tiny, declining upstate New York city." The story that emerged was of a town run by a city manager, Joseph Mitchell, who had launched a "crackdown on chislers," which among other things denied welfare benefits to unwed mothers who continued having children, provided free bus tickets to send welfare recipients back to their home states, placed all able-bodied welfare recipients on the city's work crews and required welfare recipients to register at the police station." Jack Gould, the influential New York Times columnist, called it a "scorching indictment" of Newburgh's policies. And, eleven years later, residents claim the city still suffers from the effects of its night on national television.

I don't bring this up to discuss whether or not Newburgh's policies were correct (although I can't believe anyone named Mitchell could be that bad). No, what I find interesting about this is how different things might be if it happened today.

I'm thinking specifically about a couple of instances, although there are more. In 1982, nine years after this article appeared, former U.S. Army Chief of Staff General William Westmoreland brought a $120 million libel suit against CBS over a CBS Reports documentary entitled The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception. The documentary, which aired on January 23, 1982—five days short of 20 years after the original broadcast of "The Battle of Newburgh"—claimed that "Westmoreland had contributed to the public reaction to Tet by manipulating intelligence about enemy strength in order to create the impression of progress." Westmoreland countered that there had been no political motivation behind the intelligence reports. The case went to trial in 1984, and the following year, with jury watchers predicting Westmoreland would lose, the two sides settled out of court. You can read more about Westmoreland v. CBS here.

The second case this calls to mind happened in 1992, when two producers for ABC News went undercover at Food Lion grocery stories in the Carolinas. (Full disclosure: we shopped at Food Lion the year we lived in Raleigh. Not that it comes into play here.) The report that emerged from this undercover work, which aired on the network's Prime Time Life (remember that?) alleged that "Food Lion’s meat department at those stores required employees to engage in unsafe, unhealthy or illegal practices, including selling old meat that was washed with bleach to kill odor, selling cheese that had been gnawed by rats and working off the time clock." As part of the report, the network used hidden camera footage taken by the reporters. Food Lion sued in July, 1995, arguing that ABC used "illegal newsgathering methods." including falsifying information on the producers' job applications, to obtain their information. This case also went to trial, and in December 1996 a jury ruled in favor of Food Lion, awarding the grocery chain $5.5 million in punitive damages for fraud. It all wound up in the U.S. Court of Appeals, where the fraud claim and damage award was overturned; however, they also ruled that the ABC reporters trespassed in that they didn't have permission to videotape secretly. That case you can read about here if you're so inclined.

As I said, there are other cases; the always-reliable Wikipedia mentions General Motors' successful objection to an NBC report in 1993 (NBC fired the news director and reporter and publicly apologized); Philip Morris's lawsuit against ABC in 1994 (settled out of court); and Brown & Williamson's threat to sue CBS over a planned interview with whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (CBS pulled the segment, but the movie version did earn Russell Crowe an Oscar nomination). The point I'm making here is that, in another day and time, Newburgh probably would have hauled NBC into court. I'm thinking specifically of this quote from George F. McKneally, former mayor of Newburgh, who says of writer-director Arthur Zegart (who'd become a good friend during the making of the report), "Zegart warned me the White Paper on Newburgh would not be particularly helpful for Newburgh or anyone who would be appearing in it. Zegart told me that NBC had made most of the people look like bad guys, so he decided to leave me out of the show." Now wouldn't that have looked good in a court document? Zegart, of course, denies he said that, but this probably would be best left for lawyers (and a jury?) to decide. Then, of course, there's the power of social media, alternative media, Fox News ("it's not uncommon," writes author Michael Krawetz, "to hear about 'those Communists who run ABC, NBC and CBS back in New York City.'")—well, as I've said so often, the possibilities really do write themselves, don't they? Yes, times—and news gathering—really have changed since then, haven't they?

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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, you're going to have to help me out a bit this week. The subject is M*A*S*H, in its first season, which Cleveland Amory, our man in action, says, "was one of those movies that was adjusted a bit much for television. So instead they made it into a television series, the idea apparently being that what will corrupt us if we see it once will not corrupt us if we see it every week. They've got a point, too. Anyone who sees this program every week is, from a corruption standpoint, around the bend." He praises good performances, especially from Alan Alda, McLean Stevenson, and Gary Burgoff. You'll notice that he does not praise the writing and plots; while the doctors toss off joke after joke while "hacking away" on anesthetized patients, "[t]he rest of us do not have the advantage of being anesthetized." He also looks askance on what we would see as the sexual harassment of the nurses by our heroes.

As for the plots—well, "[o]ne plot begins with Hawkeye acting strangely, another with Radar acting strangely, a third with Colonel Blake acting strangely. That produces, you see, a lot of suspense. Acting strangely is very hard to diagnose here." There's also a tendency to rely on chloroform as a plot mechanism, e.g. Hawkeye and Trapper John putting it in Major Burns' after-shave. It is, Cleve seems to be telling us, the only way in which we can sit through the outrageous developments that confront us in every episode.

And this is where I need your help. Obviously, I'm not unaware of M*A*S*H (Amory adds that when it comes to shows with asterisks in their titles, "[p]roceed at your own risk—or, in this case, at your own risque."), and it's not as if I've never seen an episode of it. I know that it's really an allegory for Vietnam, and that over the years the show became increasingly serious, until it becomes what we'd today think of as a dramedy. I never liked it, though, never—not the show, nor the smarmy Alda (a younger version of Robert Vaughn) nor, later on, the equally off-putting Mike Farrell, so I'm not in a position to be objective here. Was the early series really, as Amory suggests, tough to watch? Was the humor of suspect taste, and did it improve in future seasons when it became more serious and character-driven? Or was it better when it took itself less seriously, when it was content to simply be a comedy rather than to try and take itself so very seriously? I don't know, through there are strong opinions on both sides. Here's your chance to have your say on the matter.

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Let's take a really deep dive into the week's programming and see what we come up with.

Don't "strain" yourself, James Olson.
Saturday's highlight is the television premiere of director Robert Wise's literate science-fiction thriller The Andromeda Strain (NBC, 9:00 p.m. ET). Judith Crist praises the qualities of the movie that I like myself: "its propinquity to fact rather than fantasy; its consistency of theme without the usual sex-schmaltz trappings that so often reduce sci-fi to soap opera or slickery; its high-class production values; and its terrible significance in relation to the truths of germ warfare and miltaristic puropse in space exploration." It's a faithful adaptation of Michael Crichton's "chilling and complex best-seller," with Arthur Hill very good as the lead scientist, and James Olson in an extremely effective turn against type as one of the good guys.

If sci-fi's a little plebeian for your taste, you'll probably want to go to Jean Cocteau's bizarre, wildly imaginative "fairy tale for adults," 1946's Beauty and the Beast (8:00 p.m., PBS). which Crist calls "an exquisite realization of the children's fairy tale that all ages can savor on a variety of levels." And if you happen to be living in Philadelphia this week, you've got a late-night choice: The Innocents (11:30 p.m., WPHI), a very creepy adaptation of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, with Deborah Kerr. At the same time, on WCAU, Jason Robards is Al Capone to Ralph Meeker's Bugs Moran, in The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, which for the genre is a pretty good movie. It just goes to show that Saturday really is movie night, isn't it?

On Sunday, CBS gets down with the star-studded Duke Ellington . . . We Love You Madly (9:00 p.m.), a brilliant tribute to the jazz great, with a glittering lineup including Count Basie, Ray Charles, Sammy Davis Jr., Louis Bellson, Roberta Flack, Aretha Franklin, Sarah Vaughan, Peggy Lee, Chicago, Billy Eckstine, Paula Kelly, and Joe Williams. Later, it's the premiere of a Jack Webb series that, frankly, I don't remember. It's called Escape (10:00 p.m., NBC), and it's a four-episode anthology series about "people caught in life-and-death situations." It's on right after Columbo, and we were living in the World's Worst Town™—is it possible that KCMT didn't carry it? After all, they used to show Sanford and Son on Sunday nights to show Lawrence Welk, so anything could happen. But that's getting beyond the point, isn't it? We were talking about Escape, and tonight Ed Nelson is a World War II submarine captain being hunted by a Japanese destroyer. At 10:30 p.m., a time that the nets ceded back to the locals, WOR has the syndicated revival of This Is Your Life with Mrs. Spencer Tracy as the surprise subject. (I'll bet Katharine Hepburn isn't one of the guests.) There's another episode of TIYL on earlier in the day where the subject is Anne Baxter; I don't know about you, but I think there was something more interesting about it back in its original run, when it was live and TV Guide didn't list who the honoree would be.

Does Ed Nelson look like a talk-show host to you?
Monday's Laugh-In has a pretty good guest lineup (NBC, 8:00 p.m.), with Ernest Borgnine in a Sherlock Holmes spoof (he's Watson; don't ask me who's playing the lead), plus appearances by John Wayne, Don Rickles, Arthur Godfrey, and Slappy White. And no, Hogan's Goat (8:00 p.m., PBS) isn't a story about Sergeant Carter forgetting to set the timers for the bombs on the Adolf Hitler Bridge—instead, it's a television adaptation of William Alfred's 1965 play about Irish-American politics in late-1800s Brooklyn, starring Robert Foxworth and Faye Dunaway. And you remember Ed Nelson as captain of that sub? Well, he must have made good on that escape, because he's playing a radio talk-show host whose wife is murdered in Tenafly (NBC, 9:00 p.m.), the pilot for the private detective series starring James McEachin. I always liked McEachin's character; there was, in fact, something very likable about both him and his character, and the show was created by Columbo's Levinson and Link; too bad there were only four other episodes as part of one of NBC's Mystery Movie nights. For something completely different, go to NET Opera Thetare (PBS, 9:00 p.m.), and Thomas Pasatieri's rending opera The Trial of Mary Lincoln, based on her 1875 insanity trial. Mezzo Eliane Bonazzi stars as the widowed First Lady, with Wayne Turnage as her son Robert, the plaintiff.

Just between you and me, I've got a great idea for a movie—let's take a guy, say, William Shatner, and put him in an airplane flying at 37,000 feet, see? And something weird happens on that plane, see? Strange voices, strong winds, funny things, you know what I mean? Waddya think? (Pause) You mean it's already been done? With Shatner? No problem! We'll just change a few things in the script, have it be some supernatural thing in the cargo hold instead of a gremlin on the plane's wing, throw in anyone who's been on the last ten years (Roy Thinnes, Chuck Connors, Lyn Loring, Buddy Ebsen, Tammy Grimes, Jane Merrow, Paul Winfield, Will Hutchins, France Nuyen), and call it The Horror at 37,000 Feet (Tuesday, 9:30 p.m., CBS). What more can you ask for? Per Judith Crist, it was unavailable for preview.

Wednesday is St. Valentine's Day, which I guess explains the Jason Robards movie on Saturday, and what could be more fitting than the lineup on The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour (8:00 p.m., CBS): Joe Namath, a dozen Playboy centerfold playmates, and a cameo appearance by their boss, Hugh Hefner. No? OK, let's go back to the movies; how about Sammy Davis Jr. as "a bumbling disciple from hell" trying to lure Jack Klugman to the land of fire and brimstone in Poor Devil (NBC, 8:30 p.m.) As was the case with Horror at 37.000 Feet, this was unavailable for preview, and, speaking as a fan of Sammy, it's probably for the best. The late movie on ABC's Wide World of Mystery (11:30 p.m.) is The Screaming Skull, with David McCallum in "an eerie tale about a murderer whose victim (his wife) returns to avenge her death. Dick Cavett's wife Carrie Nye plays the wronged woman. Though there are differences in the plot, it has at least a passing resemblance to another Screaming Skull, made in 1958, known and loved from MST3K.

An American Family continues Thursday on PBS (9:00 p.m.), and, according to The Doan Report, Dick Cavett will be devoting his entire February 20 show to an interview with the now-divorced Louds and their five children, to try and figure out why a family would choose to lay bare their lives on national television. And PBS can use all the publicity it can get; Doan also reports that President Nixon has slashed the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's $70 million request in half, leaving the funding level as it has been for the past two years. Too early to tell what the effect will be on the CPB, but the worst-case scenario is that "the money crimp might force CPB to wipe out the PBS network."

Come Friday, we've got a little In Concert vs. The Midnight Special action going. In Concert (11:30 p.m., ABC) has the Hollies, Kenny Loggins and Jim Messina, and Billy Preston, while The Midnight Special (1:00 a.m., NBC) counters with Mac Davis as host, and guests Helen Reddy, the Hollies, Waylon Jennings, Billy Preston, and Billy Paul. Now, I think you can see where this is going, so let's think about it for a minute: both programs have the Hollies (performing different songs; "Amazing Grace" and "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" on Concert; "Magic Woman Touch" on Special), and both have Billy Preston ("Blackbird" and "Outa-Space" on both, plus "That's the Way God Planned It" on Concert). That leaves us with Loggins and Messina vs. Mac Davis, Waylon, Billy Paul, and Helen Reddy. Even with the numerical advantage that Special has, we'll have to go with In Concert this week. Or you could skip them both and watch Monterey Pop, which follows In Concert on WABC; that features a few stars of its own, including Jimi Hendrix. If your taste runs more to the classics, then you can't go wrong with Bogie and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (11:30 p.m., WNEW).

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In an otherwise uneventful sports week, there's one event that I think deserves to be singled out. This weekend NBC carries the final two rounds of the Bob Hope Desert Classic (Saturday and Sunday, 5:00 p.m.) from Palm Springs. It's one of the most popular tournaments of the year, with a cast of celebrities that might rival that Duke Ellington special. But that's not what's noteworthy about this tournament. No, even though the Hope isn't a major championship, neither I (watching on television) nor anyone else watching the tournament will ever forget it. The tournament is won by Arnold Palmer, shooting a 3-under-par 69 in the final round to edge Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller by two strokes. The win breaks a two-year victory drought for Palmer, who last won at the 1971 Westchester Classic, and it is the 62nd and final regular tour victory of The King's illustrious career. It is, indeed, a hell of a day.

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Things being what they are nowadays, I suppose pornography is as good a way as any to end this week's issue. What am I talking about with that provocative statement? Well, don't blame me; it's all the fault of CITY-TV, the small-budget, community-oriented UHF station operating out of Toronto. Jack Batten tells us the story of how this cable station (which is still around, and isn't so small anymore) has created a niche for itself with its avant-garde programming: there's Free for All, "a live, two-hour show on Sunday nights that invites anyone with a beef or a cause to air it in the Hyde Park soapbox style"*; The Money Game, a nightly investments show; Greed, a live Saturday night amateur talent show; and a full two and a half hours of news and public affairs every night in prime time from 8:00 to 10:30 p.m.

*Sounds a little like the inspiration for Johnny LaRue's Street Beef, doesn't it?

And then there's the late night movie show on Fridays. It's called The Baby Blue Movie, and its fair includes I Am Curious (Yellow) and All the Loving Couples—unedited and uncensored. "When we cooked up the idea of running restricted movies," says the station's managing director, Moses Znaimer, "we figured it as a loss leader something that'd attract attention to us but wouldn't necessarily make money because advertisers would hardly want to be associated with the smut." But, surprise! The Baby Blue Movie is the station's most popular program, and ad space is so hot that the stations can force sponsors to advertise on weaker programs in order to get on the movie.*

*Commercials in a pornographic movie? Commercium interruptus, I suppose.

As for how the station was able to get the movies past the censors, that's another story. "The head of Morality phones us the day before we went on the air," the station's lawyer, Jerry Grafstein, says. "He sounded very heavy, very threatening, and he told us he didn't like what he'd heard about our plans for the Baby Blue." The station cut 100 seconds from I Am Curious (Yellow) ("I thought it was tragic to interfere with a director's work that way," Granstein comments, "but our backs were against the wall.") The station heard nothing from the police department's Morality Squad. Later, they ran the movie again, with the cuts restored. Still later, there was the movie How to Succeed with Sex (directed by MST3K fave Bert I. Gordon), which Grafstein describes as "real hard-core pornography"—crickets. "We're beginning to feel safe," he says.

So viewers love it, advertisers love it, and the Morality Squad doesn't seem to care. In fact, there's only one group out there that seems upset about The Baby Blue Movie: bowling-alley operators. "They're mad because on Friday nights their customers are packing it in early to get home for the Baby Blue." TV  

February 7, 2020

Around the dial

It's a good week for retrospectives here at the old homestead. Let's start at The Last Drive-In with a comprehensive look back at the career of Piper Laurie, featuring some wonderful pictures. We think of her in movies, but she's done a lot of TV during her long and glorious career.

Next up is James Garner, who claims his share of movie and TV credits as well. He's the subject of the James Garner Blogathon at Reelweegiemidget, and you'll want to click through to a week's worth of enjoyable essays on this most enjoyable actor.

William Holden is an actor I've always liked, and of course, he features in one of the greatest of all time movies about television, Network. But at Classic Film and TV Café, Rick reminds us of a movie that's not nearly as heavy, and has a lot of action besides: The Devil's Brigade.

Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) is one of those shows I read about and hear about all the time, but I've never checked it out, sad to say. But if anyone can talk me into it, it's Fire-Breathing Dimetrodon Time; see what's what with "The Glorious Butranekh."

Gene Reynolds, whose credits as a television creator and developer include M*A*S*H and Lou Grant, died this week at the age of 96, and at A Shroud of Thoughts Terence has a retrospective on the many, many series that he was involved in over the years. What a career.

Speaking of careers, what a career Kirk Douglas had. What a life! I always think of him as a dangerous actor, full of fire and energy and capable of anything at a moment's notice. He mostly appeared on television as himself, promoting or spoofing his movies, which themselves are on TV all the time. At The Lucky Strike Papers, Andrew has a short but sweet appreciation that ends with a quote on death that we should all keep in mind.

Short but sweet this week, but you know what that means: even more to look at next week. And, of course, a TV Guide to keep you entertained tomorrow. TV  

February 5, 2020

Shows I've Been Watching: January, 2020






Shows I’ve Watched:
Shows I’ve Bought:
The Eleventh Hour
Playhouse 90
Perry Mason
Hogan's Heroes
Star Trek: The Original Series
Batman 
Columbo: The Complete Series

There's a thin line in the writing business between inspiration and plagiarism. One day you think you’ve come up with a great idea; the next day (or month or year) you discover not only that it wasn’t original, it also mirrors very closely something that someone else had already written—and better than yours. Sometimes when you run across a particularly good idea, you forget to put it in quotation marks, and the next thing you know somebody’s lawyer is on the line claiming you stole something from their client. Fortunately, that’s something I haven’t had to worry about during my writing career, primarily because I haven’t sold enough books to give anybody a chance to accuse me of theft.

That’s plagiarism. Inspiration is what we’re onto today, though, and I’ll be completely honest in admitting to stealing a brilliant idea from one of my favorite writers, Nick Hornby. Hornby writes a regular column for the magazine The Believer in which he reviews both the books he’s read in a given month, and the books he’s bought. Sometimes they’re the same books, and you’ll be fascinated to find out how one book from an author can lead you to another, and another, until you find you’ve read four or five of their books in a row. Other times, the books he’s bought but hasn’t yet read get no mention at all; rest assured, however, that they’ll probably be popping up in a future column.

It occurred to me the other day that there’s no reason why this can’t be done with television shows as well as books. (That, plus the fact I didn’t have anything else ready to post this week.) It requires a few adjustments, of course; considering how many television shows exist as streaming options, why, I figured, should I limit myself simply to shows I’d purchased? Why not include those that I’ve become aware of, even if I haven’t viewed them yet? That is, after all, why the “Watch Later” button was invented. And since the shows we watch often stretch out over months, if not years (we haven’t fallen into the binge mode yet), it might be appropriate to revisit a show I’ve already written about when it starts another season, or takes a particularly wicket plot twist.

That’s a wordy way to introduce you to what I hope will become a regular feature here, “Shows I’ve Been Watching.” It might appear monthly, or every other month, or whenever I feel I’ve got enough material to write something. Depending on the reactions of you, the readers, it might have a very short shelf life, or it might provoke intense and stimulating discussion. Rebuttals are welcome, of course, as well as suggestions—if you’ve got something you think ought to be on the futures list, the comments section is the place for you to make your case. Some of my favorite shows, ones I might never have thought of watching on my own, came from recommendations. I can’t promise I’ll take you up on them, but I can guarantee I’ll take them seriously.

(Talking about wordy, that added a few dozen more words, didn’t it?)

The golden TV Guide, the one that introduced me to the pleasures of reading about old TV shows, gave me the first hint I’d had to a psychological drama on NBC, The Eleventh Hour. The episode I read about in that issue came from February 1964, the show’s second, and last, season, when Ralph Bellamy was the lead. Unfortunately, that season hasn’t yet come out on DVD, but the first season, in which Wendell Corey starred, has. (Jack Ging, the young doctor to Corey and Bellamy’s wizened veterans, a la Dr. Kildare, the series from which The Eleventh Hour was spun off, co-starred in both seasons.) Having watched and liked all the available episodes of a similar ABC program, Breaking Point (which in turn was a spin-off from Dr. Kildare’s television rival, Ben Casey, complete with the young doc/old doc dimension), I figured this was my thing, and after a couple of years of deliberation, it found itself under the Christmas tree in December.

Wendell Corey (far left), with Steven Hill (center)
in "There Are Dragons in this Forest"
In The Eleventh Hour—the title comes from the decisive point at which a patient either breaks or starts on the road to recovery—Corey plays Dr. Theodore Bassett, a psychiatrist in private practice whose cases often involve patients brought to him by the legal system. In the first episode, for instance, Vera Miles plays a woman who’s killed her husband; Bassett’s job is to discover whether or not she was legally insane at the time. A second episode features Steven Hill as an American soldier accused of desertion in the final days of World War II, who has been apprehended after 17 years and returned to America to face court-martial. Bassett, working with attorney Lloyd Bochner, tries to uncover what caused Hill, a decorated soldier, to leave his unit and marry a German woman, despite already having a wife back home. It’s a fascinating character study of a man struggling with what he perceives as the life that has been chosen for him, all of which is exposed by Bassett’s insistence that he and his (German) wife recreate the events surrounding their initial meeting.

Given Wendell Corey’s tortured personal life, including a long and unsuccessful battle with alcoholism, it’s understandable that he was replaced by Bellamy for the second season, but it’s unfortunate as well. I quite like his character, who exhibits a strong belief in the power of psychiatry (offset by a healthy cynicism), and combines both a deep sympathy for his patients and the necessary distance he has to maintain to be objective. He’s also not afraid to admit to his colleague, psychologist Dr. Paul Graham (Ging) that he isn’t always sure he’ll be successful. This is particularly evident in an episode starring Barbara Rush and David Janssen as a formerly married couple; Rush’s character, Linda Kincaid, was previously hospitalized for a nervous breakdown after attempting suicide, and a series of recent events (an auto accident, leaving the gas on, etc.) appears to suggest the same thing could be happening again. In the climactic scene Dr. Bassett drops his sympathetic demeanor to coldly demand that Linda confront the evidence of these things she’s supposed to have done. In a robotic manner, she says that she must have done all these things; what else could it be? Baloney, Bassett snaps at her. You don’t believe you did any of these things, do you? Stunned, Linda starts to fight back; no, she says, I didn’t try to kill myself. I wouldn’t do any of those things, I wouldn’t hurt my daughter that way. To which Bassett, softly and warmly, replies, “I know.” In breaking her, he has forced her to stand up for herself, and prove to herself what Bassett has already figured out: there is nothing wrong with her; her ex-husband, Janssen, was behind it all in an effort to get her committed and win custody of their daughter. (Janssen’s performance, full of gestures, tics, and repression, is masterful; you can easily imagine this marital drama evolving into murder without Bassett’s intervention. Oh, wait…)

There’s something stirring about one man standing up for someone in trouble, a lone individual insisting in the face of unanimous opposition that things aren’t always what they seem. It’s the kind of appeal that, as I’ve pointed out in the past, fuels a series like Perry Mason. If there’s one quarrel I have with the show, and it may be rectified in subsequent episodes, it’s that, unlike Breaking Point, the resolutions to each episode seem to be pretty conclusive, rather than the frequently ambiguous endings of the former series, in which a patient is presented with a road map to recovery, but the ultimate outcome is often left in doubt. It may be a little more than a nit, but not enough to dissuade my opinion that The Eleventh Hour has been, so far, a wise investment.

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Who knew that there’d be a treasure trove of Studio One and Playhouse 90 episodes on YouTube? Well, yes, we know that you can find almost anything on YouTube; still, it’s not that common for drama series from the 1950s and ‘60s, especially ones that were often broadcast live, to still exist. And while we’re a long way from having access to all of these episodes (at least through the public domain), it’s a pleasure to go back to a time when the claustrophobic atmosphere provided by small sets and dark lighting contributed with the pressure of a live performance to give television an energy that rivaled that of live theater.

Last week, we watched an episode of Playhouse 90 from 1959, “Judgment at Nuremberg.” Like “Twelve Angry Men,” “Judgment at Nuremberg” started out as a teleplay before moving to the big screen; unlike “Angry Men,” writer Abby Mann added a substantial amount of material to the movie version of “Nuremberg,” perhaps due to the influence of producer-director Stanley Kramer, who never met a social cause he didn’t feel could be expanded to three hours—twice as long as the TV version, and not nearly as tightly written.

Maximillian Schell as Hans Rolfe
The star of the Playhouse 90 version, as was the case in the subsequent big-screen iteration, is Maximillian Schell, in the role of Hans Rolfe, attorney for one of four German judges accused of perverting justice by upholding Nazi laws against Jews. (Although he represents only one of the defendants, Ernst Janning, he speaks for the other three defendants and their lawyers.) Schell is nothing short of brilliant, raising disquieting points about the moral equivalency regarding the acts for which the judges (including a much more Germanic Werner Klemperer than who you see on Hogan's Heroes) stand accused. In one uncomfortable instance, Rolfe reads from a judicial opinion upholding the enforced sterilization of mentally handicapped people, lest they produce more “defects” that the state will be forced to take care of. Only at the conclusion does he reveal the author of the opinion: Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in the case Buck v. Bell. You can’t have it both ways, Rolfe repeatedly insists: if we Germans didn’t know what Hitler and his cronies were up to, you can’t very well hold us responsible; on the other hand, if we did know about the concentration camps, then what about you, the Allies, who knew about them as well,  and yet did nothing? I’ve always had doubts about the morality of war crimes trials and the issue of post facto law; this story does nothing to dissuade those doubts, although Abby Mann might not have intended to do so. (I should note here that actual footage of the concentration camps, including the countless dead bodies of inmates, is included—perhaps the first time many in the viewing audience had seen it.)

Claude Raines, in the Spencer Tracy role as the American chief judge Dan Haywood, does a fine job, although his character isn’t nearly as fleshed out as in the movie. Paul Lukas, as Janning (in the role played by Burt Lancaster), shows a nobility to accept his fate, even as he fails (at least in Haywood’s eyes) to provide a convincing rationale for what happened. The replica courtroom, which serves as the setting for most of the drama, is filled with period detail, including the men providing simultaneous translation for both Germans and Americans (a detail ingeniously incorporated in both the television and movie versions). As I said, there’s a snap and crackle to this production that keeps it from dragging; one can debate which version better tells the story, but as my wife remarked when it was over, how often does television today provide such well-written, literate, adult dramas?

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Since cutting the cord, we no longer have MeTV, which means we have to resort to watching our DVD versions of shows such as Hogan’s Heroes and Perry Mason, and after doing this for a while, you notice just how much you're missing when you watch them on Me (or any other network). The syndicated cuts over the years are bad enough, but you get the feeling that MeTV has removed even more, rendering some plotlines virtually incomprehensible. Watching the uncut episodes on DVD makes the Mason and Hogan episodes seem brand-new, filled with scenes not seen (by us) in years, giving the overall story a completely different feel. It's not quite like finding loose change in your couch after a party, but it's still pretty cool.

That's one reason why the "Shows Bought" column contains titles like Columbo and Star Trek,  shows that you can see for free on over-the-air channels. There's another reason, one that we picked up on last week, when we noticed that Perry Mason had disappeared from Prime Video, having become the property of CBS All-Access; The Twilight Zone is another series that's headed for CBS. I don't have a problem with his; after all, CBS owns the rights, and I can understand perfectly why they need reliable, commercially attractive properties to convince viewers to spend money on their subscription service. This is probably going to become more and more common, until the streaming business reaches a critical mass and begins to collapse upon itself like a black hole; what happens after that is anyone's guess, unless you're Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The point is that if you really, really want to make sure you've got access to watch your favorite TV shows whenever you want, your only choice is to own them. Even YouTube isn't safe, whenever they undertake one of their periodic reviews of copyright holders. No, you have to have them in your possession, on some sort of physical media or hard drive, if you want to enjoy that luxury. Is it worth it, though? Can you be sure you'll watch them often enough to make owning them pay? Can you take the chance there will still be a resell market if you don't? Perhaps we'll have some answers next month. TV