It could be said that the B-team is on display this week, as the hit shows of the '70s beget the spinoffs of the '80s. And so Mary Tyler Moore begets Lou Grant, M*A*S*H begets Trapper John, M.D., Dukes of Hazard begets Enos and Alice begets Flo, and pretty soon you feel like you're reading from the Bible. In most cases, the progeny fall short of the parent, though Lou Grant and Trapper John had nice runs, and one would agree that shows such as The Jeffersons and Maude, both spinoffs of All in the Family, or Knots Landing, which came from Dallas, became hits and developed distinct personalities of their own.
And then there are the original shows that are either beginning a successful run or winding down from the same. ABC continues to have a string of hits; Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley (another spinoff), Three's Company and Hart to Hart represent only one night - Tuesday - of a very successful schedule that includes Charlie's Angels, Dynasty, Eight is Enough, Mork & Mindy (spinoff), Barney Miller, Taxi, Soap and Benson (spinoff), plus their twin Saturday night giants, The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. By most any measurement, that represents a very successful lineup. CBS has Magnum, P.I., Knots Landing, The Dukes of Hazard, Dallas, The Waltons, M*A*S*H and 60 Minutes, and NBC can boast Little House on the Prairie, CHiPs, Quincy, and the new kid on the block, which for some reason they've stuck on Saturday night - Hill Street Blues. I'm sure that a lot of these shows count as favorites for many of you, and I can respect that.
Be that as it may, it's difficult to look at this and not think that the Golden Age has come and gone, at least for the time being. Or am I just old?
Oh - you noticed the headline on this week's cover: "Why We Need the Space Shuttle," by Neil Armstrong. Nobody, however, has written "Why We Need Suzanne Somers."
Let's take a look at the movies on this week, since there's some interesting fare there, with appropriate commentary from TV Guide's resident critic, Judith Crist.
The top offerings of the week are a pair of theatrical giants. First, there's 1968's The Lion in Winter, making its television debut on PBS, starring Peter O'Toole as Henry II* and Katharine Hepburn in her Oscar-winning role as Eleanor of Aquataine, with supporting turns from Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton, among others. When a tough critic such as Crist uses words like "brilliant," "stunning" and "striking," you know you've touched all the bases. It was beaten out for Best Picture at the Oscars by the musical Oliver!, which tells you much about the state of the Academy that year.
*A role he also played in 1964's Becket, making him one of the few actors to receive Oscar nominations for playing the same character in two different movies.
However, as is always the case, the reviews in which Crist savages the movie are far more fun to read - Richard Prior's Which Way Is Up? is little more than "an unsuccessful adaptation of Lina Wertmuller's excellent Italian satire The Seduction of Mimi," and the TV-movie Madame X, the seventh version of the story, features "cheap emotions and [a] ludicrous plot." Says Crist, "if there's a wet eye in the house check for raw onions." The Chicago Story, another TV-movie, is "contrived" and "incoherent," and a version of Dracula set in 1972 amounts to little more than a sort of 'Beach Party a-Ghoul-Ghoul.'" If that isn't the best line of the week, I don't know what is.
Last week I was pointing out once again how different sports coverage was in the late '50s and '60s, particularly on the weekends. This week gives us a different look altogether.
For one thing, it's the start of March Madness, even though it isn't called that yet. The NCAA basketball tournament is smaller than it is today, with only 48 schools. It's less commercial; the term "Final Four" is only colloquial, not trademarked, and because relatively few conferences have tournaments of their own it starts earlier in the month than it does now. But even though it doesn't have the saturation coverage that we see today, it still dominates both Saturday and Sunday, with NBC telecasting doubleheaders each day. ABC has its old Saturday standard, the Pro Bowlers Tour, and Saturday and Sunday editions of Wide World of Sports. CBS has Sports Spectacular on Saturday, and on Sunday features live coverage of the Formula 1 Long Beach Grand Prix; additionally, the third and fourth rounds of the Doral-Eastern Open span the weekend.
There's local sports as well, a ton of it in fact. Saturday is the final day of the Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament, which at the time was probably the premiere sporting event in Minnesota - I think, in fact that the largest crowd ever to see a hockey game in the state was for one of the tournament games. For many years the tournament was seen on the Twin Cities' independent station, Channel 11, but with WTCN's move to become an NBC affiliate, the tournament has switched to KSTP, the ABC affiliate. KSTP did a lot to promote that switch, bringing in all kinds of ABC celebrities - including, in 1979, Howard Cosell! - to call the games. Nowadays it's shown on KSTC (which is owned by KSTP), and it's called by former ESPN announcer Gary Thorne.
But because this is the Minnesota State Edition of TV Guide, we've got a lot more than that - there's the Iowa and Wisconsin girls state basketball tournaments on various local stations Saturday, and then on Thursday the Minnesota girls tournament and Iowa and Wisconsin boys tournaments start. You've also got some NBA basketball thrown in there, as well as a Minnesota North Stars hockey game Saturday afternoon.
The dumbest event of the week has to be Superteams, a spinoff (naturally) from ABC's Superstars competition, one of the trashsports standards of the late '70s - early '80s. The principle is the same - ostensibly to find out who the best overall athletes are - but this time it's a team, rather than individual, competition. This week's combatants are the two World Series teams from last year, the Kansas City Royals and Philadelphia Phillies. Supposedly, the Royals are gunning for revenge after their six-game defeat in the Fall Classic, but somehow I don't think many of the Royals are going to be thinking, "Well, you guys won the Series, but we won Superteams!" Kind of hollow revenge, if you ask me.
One more sports note: TV Update tells us that in a recent NBA game between longtime rivals Philadelphia and Boston, Celtics coach Bill Fitch was ejected for protesting a call. He left the court, as the rules require, going to his team's dressing room, whereupon he turned on the television set to CBS, saw a closeup of Sixers coach Billy Cunningham outlining strategy for his team during a time out, and relayed the information to Celtics assistant K.C. Jones, who was manning the team in Fitch's absence. Since then, NBA Commissioner Larry O'Brien has informed all teams that this kind of behavior "violates the spirit of the rules and is prohibited." And you wonder why football coaches always seem to be holding cards in front of their mouths when they're talking to their assistants.
Russell was not a professional actor; he appeared in only two other movies, and only made one other television appearance. He was, nonetheless, a memorable presence, and his appearance in Trapper John gives the show a gravitas and dignity that it doesn't often have.
Opposite Trapper John, PBS has a salute to the tenth anniversary of Masterpiece Theatre, with host Alistair Cooke presenting a montage of clips from the series' first ten years. I was about to write that it's hard to believe the show is still on, but in a sense it isn't, really. Yes, there is a show called Masterpiece on PBS Sunday nights, and yes, most of the characters speak with English accents. But the stories today are not the multi-part miniseries of years past, nor are they presented as if they were plays for television. Instead, the emphasis is on the look and feel of a movie, the series itself is split into "Classic," "Mystery" and "Contemporary" (each with their own host, who may or may not say much of anything before the story commences), and most of the stories themselves are more like American series, offering four or six or eight episodes of a story that is often serialized. And let me tell you, Alan Cumming is no Alistair Cooke, not by a long shot. The only thing they share are initials and an accent, and that's where the similarity ends.
One last PBS note before we move to the next topic: it's pledge week for many of the affiliates, and on Sunday afternoon Bemidji's KAWE presents an all-day marathon featuring the ultimate PBS hack of the '80s: Dr. Leo Buscaglia. Wouldn't be PBS - or pledge week - without him.
Finally, on Wednesday night we have one of the odder cultural signposts of the '80s. It's the premiere of ABC's The Greatest American Hero, but our oddity has virtually nothing to do with the show; it is, in fact, a testament to Shakespeare's axiom, "What's in a name?"
The plot is simple enough, and typical '80s fare: William Katt, last seen playing Paul Drake, Jr. in the Perry Mason movies, is a high school teacher given a superhero suit by aliens who just happen to stop by in their UFO. Together with an FBI agent played by Robert Culp, the duo fight crime and combat evil. Happens every day, I know.
So far, so good. Unless, that is, the name of your superhero character happens to be Hinkley, and a man bearing the same last name as yours attempts, two months later, to assassinate the President of the United States.
Notwithstanding that Wednesday's inaugural episode features Katt's Ralph Hinkley trying to stop an assassination, the idea that there could be any confusion between him and the attempted assassin of President Reagan, John Hinkley, is more than absurd. And so naturally, network executives being who and what they are, Ralph's last name was immediately changed. As the always-reliable Wikipedia puts it,
For the rest of the first season, he was either "Ralph" or "Mister H". In the episode where Ralph is given a promotion and his own office space, we see the name "Ralph Hanley" on the door plaque. At the start of season two, the name had changed back to Hinkley. In the season three episode "Live At Eleven", Ralph is given a name tag at a political rally with his last name spelled "Hunkley" and Ralph gives up saying "it's close enough for politics".
OK, I get that in 1963, you might want to change the name of a character named "Oswald," just because the wounds would be too raw. But Reagan survived! And I'd like to think, with all the white noise surrounding us in 1981, that we wouldn't get ourselves too upset about the last name of a television character. Besides, Ralph had the name first!