February 21, 2012

Hogan's Heroes: the final episode

I do have a point to this piece, although it takes me a while to get to it - just bear with me.  It starts, unlikely enough, with the Isaac Asimov Super Quiz.  I don’t know how many of you have the Isaac Asimov Super Quiz in your newspapers, but a while back there was one that that dealt with final episodes of TV series. You might think that this would be a quiz in which the Cultural Archaeologist would have excelled; if you’d had that thought, you’d have been wrong. I owe it to the abundance of questions featuring series from a year starting with 2. (Frankly, it’s been about twenty years since I’ve watched any current series with any kind of regularity. I don’t say this boastfully, except to note that most of what passes for TV nowadays is crap. I still prefer the oldies but goodies, which is another reason why I get down on my knees every night and thank God for the DVD. 

Anyway, back to the quiz - none of us sitting around the table that day did very well, but it did instigate an interesting question – what TV series do you think should have had final episodes? The phenomenon known as the “final episode” is a fairly new innovation, relatively speaking. Can you think of the final episode of I Love LucyGunsmokeThe Beverly Hillbillies? Does Lucy leave Desi, is Matt gunned down on Main Street, does Jed hit rock bottom as oil prices collapse? These series didn’t require any kind of resolution; they left you with the impression that things would continue more or less the same forever. 

Today, it’s almost obligatory that a long-running series gets to call it quits with a finale, often taking up two or three times the length of a normal episode.  Some, like St. Elsewhere and Newhart, end in a delightfully surrealistic manner.  M*A*S*H ended with the end of the Korean War, albeit a few years overdue.  Seinfeld’s final episode was, to many, disappointing.  The last episode of Cheers was probably better known for the drunken afterparty. 

One of the first major series to introduce a final episode was, if I’m not mistaken, Route 66.  In that final story, shown in March 1964, Tod Stiles (Martin Milner) calls it a day after four years of crisscrossing America behind the wheel of a Corvette.  Having finally found that place where he belongs, he pulls off the road for the last time and settles down in Tampa with Barbara Eden. (And if you remember Barbara Eden from I Dream of Jeannie, then you’ll agree that this is not such a bad way to settle down.) And that’s a nice way to end the series – logical, low-key, and inevitable 

The most famous final episode is probably that of The Fugitive, in which Richard Kimball finally catches up with the One-Armed Man. (Sorry if I’ve ruined it there for you.) This made sense; the whole series was about Kimball’s dual quests to clear his own name and to find the man who actually killed his wife, all the time while escaping from the relentless Lt. Gerard. The final episode of The Fugitive was the highest rated program ever seen on television at the time, and remained so for many years. The lesson for television executives and producers alike: final episodes could be profitable as well as fun.

One series that definitely deserved a final episode was a 1967 mid-season replacement called Coronet Blue. It starred Frank Converse as an amnesiac trying to find out who he was and why people were trying to kill him. (Think The Bourne Identity, which once again proves there’s nothing new under the sun.) Converse’s only clue was a piece of paper he was found clutching, with the words “Coronet Blue” written on it. Coronet Blue was thrown on almost as an afterthought by CBS, with little publicity or notice, and only after it had been sitting on the shelf for months. It went on the air and immediately became the smash hit of the summer. By that time, however, all those involved with the show had gone on to other projects, since there’d been no particular reason to think they’d be needed again. Despite best efforts, they were never able to pull everyone together to continue the series, or even offer a one-shot episode resolving the loose ends. Today, they’d probably get together for a big-screen movie.

But the series I’d most have liked to see come up with a final episode was the long-running sitcom Hogan’s Heroes. I’ve never been ashamed to admit that Hogan was, and remains, one of my all-time favorites. It was the first series I got in its entirety on DVD; the acting was superb, the writing often brilliant, the plots usually literate and clever and frequently downright hilarious. The cast – Bob Crane as Hogan, Werner Klemperer as Klink, John Banner as Schultz, Klink’s nemeses General Burkhalter and Major Hochstetter (Leon Askin and Howard Caine) and the whole cast of heroes (Robert Clary, Richard Dawson, Larry Hovis, Ivan Dixon and Kenneth Washington) were uniformly great. 

The last episode, airing on July 4, 1971 could have been any particular episode from that final season, and in fact there’s no reason to think it was conceived any other way. The show had been around for six years and, like most extended-run shows, was beginning to show its age, the ratings had begun to fade, and the cancellation was not particularly unexpected. In other words, a perfect candidate for a wrap-up episode. 

So what would that final episode have been like? Well, many of the major events of the war had come and gone during Hogan’s run, including D-Day. The Allies might have come to liberate the camp, or they might simply have terminated Hogan’s assignment (the POWs, you recall, were stationed at Stalag 13, posing as prisoners but in reality operating a massive underground commando and espionage ring). Myself, I prefer to think of the series concluding with the end of the war; Burkhalter and Hochstetter, being true believers in the Nazi regime, probably would have been taken prisoner themselves by the Allies. (In reality, they might have committed suicide, but let’s not make this too realistic.) 

Hogan and his men probably would have vouched for Schultz, who really was just a working man at a job he didn’t particularly like, and possibly even Klink, who when all was said and done didn’t really bear the POWs any real malice; he was too incompetent to have done too much harm. The men would have been lauded as true heroes for their daring behind-the-lines escapades, none more so than Colonel Robert Hogan himself. Already a full colonel, it’s reasonable to assume that Hogan would have come out of the war at least a Brigadier General, with a brilliant future should he decide to stay in the service. The Army, recognizing what it had on its hands, would have made the most of the photogenic, dynamic Hogan. (An earlier episode had actually involved the brass bringing Hogan back home, cashing in on his accomplishments by having him lead bond drives throughout the country.) 

And where do things go from there? There certainly would have been a book about such an audacious assignment, just as there was with A Bridge Too Far, A Man Called Intrepid, The Great Escape and other true war stories, probably called, simply, Hogan’s Heroes, by General Robert Hogan as told to David Halberstam. In due course, a movie would have been made based on the book, and it’s fun to speculate on who would have played Hogan in the movie. (Greg Kinnear, anyone? Probably more likely Kirk Douglas.) Hogan might have served in Korea, flying the same kinds of bomber missions he flew in Europe during WWII; on the other hand, he probably would have already been back in Washington, with a high-level job in the Pentagon. 

Come the early 60s, Hogan would still have been only about 50. JFK, who also recognized talent when he saw it, might have made Hogan his Air Force aide, working directly out of the White House. (I'll bet they would have had some adventures together.) Our co-blogger Steve suggests that Hogan might have been in charge of the Bay of Pigs invasion, which would have meant that the fiasco would have been averted, Castro toppled, and Cuba liberated. Without Castro and the CIA working behind the scenes, JFK doesn’t meet his death at the hands of conspirators in Dallas, and as we all know that means no expanded war in Vietnam. (Yeah, right.) 

See how easy this is? The world as we know it changes completely! Kennedy goes through with his plan to dump LBJ from the ticket in 1964, choosing instead the charismatic Senator from Minnesota, Hubert Humphrey. Bobby lives, not being shot in the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, because it is JFK’s loyal Vice President Humphrey who becomes the unanimous choice to continue the legacy of the New Frontier. (Bobby continues as Senator from New York, even providing consultation with that young Clinton fellow from Arkansas who’d had his picture taken with JFK that time. Bobby and Bill fly to Hollywood often and hang out with friends. 

The Republicans, of course, turn to Richard Nixon as the best bet to unseat Humphrey and end eight years of Democratic dominance. In a peaceful campaign prosperity becomes the number one issue, and the voters decide to give the Republicans and their tax breaks a chance, electing Nixon as president. True to form, Nixon immediately sees an opportunity to wreak havoc on his enemies, even authorizing a burglary at Democratic headquarters at the Watergate. (What was that about history changing?) The country in a shambles, being led by the president who pardoned the man responsible for it, the people turn to someone they can trust: Robert Hogan, the now-retired military hero, the man who has always stayed above politics, the most trusted man in America (next to Walter Cronkite). And with him, the charismatic former actor and governor of California, Ronald Reagan. What a match! Hogan and Reagan – or is it Reagan and Hogan? Whatever. Happy days are here again. 

All that from a simple half-hour sitcom. See why it’s so important for series to have final episodes? You can never tell how history could turn out differently. TV  

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