January 28, 2017

This week in TV Guide: January 28, 1984

OK, Cybill Shepherd, we’ll say it. You’re sexy. Satisfied now? Sheesh.

(Fingers crossed.)

Cybill Shepherd, current star of NBC’s The Yellow Rose, future star of ABC’s Moonlighting, is this week’s cover story. We’ll be back later to find out if there’s anything else worth discussing, but in the meantime here’s the rest of the issue.

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One of the constant features of dyspeptic, apocalyptic police state stories has been the ability of governments to spy on their citizens through the television, looking out at you as you look at it. Stories of early television viewers worried that the characters on the tube could actually see them are legion, although you’d like to think most of them are urban legends. Still, the thought of moving pictures actually appearing in your living room, some of them being broadcast live as they happened, had to have been a pretty radical concept. Seen from today’s perspective, when we watch television on the same phones with which we have video chats with friends, maybe it wasn’t so far out after all.

This week, in another of the cautionary stories that marked this era of TV Guide, James Morrow commemorates the first month of 1984 by looking at just how close we are to the world of George Orwell’s book, and it turns out we’re pretty close – just not the way you might think.

For example, Morrow points out that to Orwell, “language is the blood of the mind. To abuse language is to abuse the human spirit.” What better example of the power to abuse language, he says, than the television commercial? Consider the use of the word “natural.” It seems pretty straightforward, until you hear someone say, “Change your hair color. It’s the ‘natural’ thing to do.’”* Orwell called this trait “doublethink,” as in “War is Peace” and “Freedom is Slavery.” Television does this kind of thing all the time.

*I hadn’t even thought about that one. It’s kind of like “jumbo shrimp,” don’t you think?

American television, writes Morrow, may have developed a “dominion over human consciousness” similar to that existing in Winston Smith’s world. Viewers turn to fictional TV doctors for medical advice, they accept without question documentaries that portray American society as far riskier and dangerous than it really is. Some people might substitute Dr. Phil for Dr. Marcus Welby, while others would  see either global warming (to the right) or Donald Trump (to the left) as evidence of American television viewers’ willingness to be taken in by The Big Hoax.

And yet, a question remains: “[I}s the right to be stupid not one of the most fundamental freedoms afforded by a nontotalitarian government?” It reminds me of the comment we noted a couple of weeks ago by CBS news chief Richard Salant that the job of TV news was to provide “what people ought to know, rather than what people want to hear.” As Morrow notes, nobody forces you to watch television. You don’t have to “abandon” your children to it or use it as your only source of knowledge. To do so, to suggest that the truth, or anything else worth knowing, comes from TV and only TV, “is to lower one’s guard against the day when somebody decides to chisel away your set’s on-off switch or to install a spy-camera adjacent to the picture tube, or to attempt some other truly Orwellian innovation.”

For all of American television’s faults, Morrow thinks that Orwell might well have liked it, or at least parts of it. Orwell, says Morrow, “believed in the common sense of common humanity” and might well have seen TV’s “populist nature” as protection against the all-encompassing state. Orwell believed that “it was among the intellectuals, not among the working classes, that you found society’s villains”: he probably would have loved Cheers.

So how close are we to the nightmare telescreen world of 1984. We’re not there, at least not yet. But, as Morrow concludes, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t listen to those who seem to be crying wolf about TV’s power and influence. “The boy who cried wolf was wrong – and the townspeople who ultimately ignored him were also wrong. Theirs was the sin of complacency.”

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I think I’ve mentioned before that Cleveland Amory’s successor as TV Guide’s critic is Robert MacKenzie, and in a week where we’re looking for worthy information to assess, his review is probably as good a place as any. This week’s show is ABC’s Hardcastle and McCormick, a buddy comedy-adventure starring Brian Keith and Daniel Hugh-Kelly as, respectively, a retired judge hunting down scoundrels who escaped his justice via technicalities, and a young rascal paroled to Hardcastle’s custody because the judge “saw good in the lad.”

It’s a preposterous premise, on many levels. Neither of them work, for example, yet they pay their bills every month. There are a lot of car chases and crashes, and McCormick drives so fast and so well that in real life he’d probably be a professional racing driver, thus solving the problem of where the two find the money to pay bills. Keith is fine as Hardcastle; MacKenzie believes he “can do better work, and has, but he likes steady employment.” Hugh-Kelly is “cute” and has great hair, which puts him in competition with NBC’s Knight Rider, which features David Hasselhoff, “who also drives fast and has even more hair.”

Sometimes, after a long day of work, you just want to turn on the television and relax instead of thinking about the world’s troubles or having some talking head shout at you all evening long. The problem, as Orwell might have put it, is that this can lead to complacency, or at least laziness. Like so much of television in 1984, H&M “seems designed for workingmen who dream about hot cars but can’t afford them, who can flake out in from of a TV world in which the good guys have the fastest cars and the hardest fists.” It’s a nice world to visit from time to time, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

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We’re now on to sports, and this is the early stages of the cable era, that unregulated free-for-all before sports governing boards figured out the power of collective negotiating, when leagues and conferences signed contracts with just about any cable network that would have them. This week there are no less than 26 college basketball games on this week, for example, and that’s only with NBC, CBS, ESPN, WGN, and USA. Suffice it to say that some of these games might have been quite entertaining, but few of them were actually important.

As was the case last weekend, it’s All-Star time, and in a sign of the times, the NBA All-Star Game, from Denver, is on CBS Sunday afternoon at 1:00 p.m. (CT) You heard me right; it’s not on cable, it’s not on in prime time. All it has to offer is a bunch of pretty good players: Julius Erving, Larry Bird, Isaiah Thomas, Kevin McHale, Moses Malone, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, George Gervin. Not bad, I’d say. ABC counters with the NFC-AFC Pro Bowl at 3:00 p.m. from Honolulu, which also managed to find some pretty good players to take part: Dan Fouts, Earl Campbell Joe Theismann, Eric Dickerson. The NHL version is on USA Tuesday night* from East Rutherford, NJ. No indication as to the players taking part, although a quick spin through the interwebs tells us there were a few Hall-of-Famers on hand, names like Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Ray Bourque, Grant Fuhr, Steve Yzerman, and Gilbert Perrault. Back in the days before fans could see just about any game they wanted just about any time they wanted, these contests were rare treats, the one time you could see some of the game’s greats in action. I do miss those times.

*When all-star games used to be played so as not to tamper with the weekend gate receipts.

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Coming to your TV screens Saturday night on NBC – it’s World War III! Or, to be more accurate, World War III! It’s actually a rerun from 1982, when this kind of speculation, in the Ronald Reagan-Evil Empire era, was all-too-real for some. It boasts an all-star cast including Rock Hudson as the American President, Brian Keith as the Soviet Leader, David Soul as “an American colonel trying to hold off a war,” and Cathy Lee Crosby as “an intelligence officer craving one last moment of love,” among others. It runs both tonight and Sunday night, and since Judith Crist calls it a “dandy,” I’m inclined to give it a pass instead of saying something even snarkier. I’m more inclined to like Channel 11’s Saturday late-night (2:40 a.m.) movie, The Underground Man, with Peter Graves as a private detective looking for his old flame’s kidnapped son.

Sunday night at 6:00 p.m., NBC Reports presents a profile of a man very much in the American bloodstream – Lee Iacocca. The man who saved Chrysler (among other things) and became a ubiquitous television pitchman and best-selling author visits with Tom Brokaw, who finds him “an emotional, sensitive and religious family man, who talks on the phone with his grown daughters at least twice a day.” There’s no greater American success story in the early 80s than Iacocca, whose name is occasionally bandied about as a possible presidential candidate, though the idea of a successful businessman with no political experience running for office seems ridiculous…

On Monday (8:00 p.m.), NBC (again) airs a live special from Hawaii as David Hasselhoff and Jayne Kennedy invite viewers to vote for The Most Beautiful Girl in the World, chosen from “21 international beauties.” Entertainment comes from Air Supply and Engelbert Humperdinck. Opposite that, it’s the ABC Monday Night Movie “When She Says No,” examining the case of a woman who claims she was raped, and the men who insist she led them on. Crist calls it a “cogent and sensitive” movie, free from the leering exploitation that one often sees in such fare.

The Hallmark Hall of Fame has made its complete transition to movie format, but it hasn’t yet descended to saccharine Oprah-style greeting cards expanded to feature length. On CBS Tuesday it presents a rip-roaring adventure, Robert Louis Stevenson’s "The Master of Ballantrae," starring Michael York and Richard Thomas, and Crist views it as “first-class romantic adventure despite the final sugarcoat” which gives it a happy ending

Live From the Met headlines the PBS schedule on Wednesday, with the remarkable Plácido Domingo headlining an all-star cast in Verdi’s masterpiece Don Carlo. I’m not shy in using the word “remarkable” to describe Domingo, still wowing audiences over 30 years later; and it’s not a case of him having been a young unknown back then, either – he was already a star, and has remained one since.

This Thursday we get a look at one of CBS’s most successful programming nights of the 80s, starting at 7:00 p.m. with Magnum, P.I. – it’s the episode where he gets trapped in a bank vault with Carol Burnett. At 8:00 p.m. the detective-brothers Simon & Simon look after a flashdancer (a trendy thing back then) who’s a target for an assassin. Rounding off the evening, more suds with Knotts Landing, the venerable nighttime soap. Now, I ought to note that WCCO, the Twin Cities CBS affiliate, isn’t showing Simon at all this week (good decision) due to a University of Minnesota basketball game, and they’re tape-delaying Knotts to 10:30 p.m., after the late local news, so if basketball isn’t your thing, you might instead watch Hill Street Blues (9:00 p.m., NBC), the most celebrated drama of the time, which tonight deals with the death of the much-loved actor Michael Conrad, who played Sgt. Esterhaus. (“Let’s be careful out there.”) Or you could just forget it all and watch Grease on ABC.

Friday night has a cast of familiar programs, unless you’re last-place NBC – The Dukes of Hazzard, Dallas, and Falcon Crest on CBS, Benson, Webster, and Matt Houston on ABC, even Washington Week in Review and Wall $treet Week on PBS. The best NBC can do is the underrated Ninja action series The Master, starring Lee Van Cleef, master of many a movie on MST3K.

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Let’s get back now to Cybill Shepherd, if we must. In our last episode, we mentioned that she was one of the stars of NBC’s The Yellow Rose, in which she plays a young widow who, with her two stepsons (not much older than she is) tries to hold on to the family ranch against, one supposes, a recurring cast of unsavory interlopers. Former co-executive producer Michael Zinberg says Shepherd was chosen for the role because they wanted “a very hot, attractive woman, and she was always our first choice.” Oh, and she’s Southern too, so that helps.

Along the way we learn about her start in The Last Picture Show, her romance with the movie’s director Peter Bogdanovich, who viewed her in the same category as Ava Gardner and Lana Turner. Although her acting ability is often overshadowed by her looks, she’s learned the craft over the last few years, taking acting classes from Stella Adler; says John Wilder “We’ve put some real demands on her dramatically in the first couple of weeks, and she’s really come through.”

She’s also learned more about herself, that marriage is “a male invention to control women,” but that she still loves it; that childbirth is the most incredible experience, one that men envy because “women create life”; that even through adversity “we can’t be afraid of making mistakes.” The Yellow Rose only lasts for 22 episodes, but it leads next to Moonlighting, which can hardly be said to be a mistake.

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Finally, a quick note that Thicke of the Night, Alan Thicke’s late-night talk show, has been picked up for another 26 weeks, despite poor ratings that caused about a quarter of the stations showing it to bow out. It will go on with more than 60 still onboard. It’s a good thing we came to know him for more than this, isn’t it? RIP.


  1. The Pro Bowl (the NFC-AFC moniker is long gone) is in Orlando this year, and the Sunday before the Super Bowl now. I've seen a few, don't waste your time, they are arguably the worst of the All-Star games. Players and coaches very obviously don't care (many of the stars simply blow off the game either due to injury or being in the Super Bowl). In fact, if you do watch it, you'll see players 'tagging' each other in and out pro wrestling style.
    There is a way to make it at least watchable, don't have it in January. Late June-early August, about the same time (if not actually the same game) as the Hall Of Fame preseason opener.
    It will at least give the stars some incentive to actually go out there and try, because they're working themselves back into playing shape - and also removes the Super Bowl, and for many, injuries as an excuse to shrug it off.
    Of course, that means no more Pro Bowls in Orlando (Ever been in Orlando in August? Trust me, it sucks, and it's downright dangerous conditions for playing football) either combine it with the Hall Of Fame game in Canton, or, rotate it among northern/domed stadiums.

    1. YIH has a good idea.

      Maybe the Super Bowl would then be just one week after the AFC and NFC championship games, restoring the Big Game to it's traditional late-January date.

      On the other hand, the networks probably want the Super Bowl to remain in early February so it would be held during the sweeps (which for 2017 begin this Thursday, February 2nd).

    2. They actually tried harder this year. And ever notice that some of these sporting events get pushed back further? The Super Bowl is now in February. The Daytona 500, which used to be within a week of Valentine's Day, this year it's on February 26th. The men's and women's basketball Final Fours are now in April. April Madness?

    3. They Super Bowl ended up in February for two reason. One is the 17 week NFL schedule. The other is the NFL now starts the season the week after Labor Day. If either of those wasn't present the game would still be in late January. Also the NFL likes the two week break(and the teams do too)because of all of the logistics involved.

  2. Amazing how President Reagan could increase apocalyptic ratings based on his own foreign policy...Sorry, Mitchell. I was raised as a Rockefeller Republican...

  3. Your passing mention of channel 11's late movie, The Underground Man, starring Peter Graves:
    Does the listing mention that this was an unsold pilot for a series about Ross Macdonald's 'Lew Archer'?
    When it first ran a few years before, every TV critic hated it; they felt that Peter Graves was miscast as Lew Archer (they were all apparently hung up on Paul Newman's 'Harper'-disguise from a decade before).
    Not long after this movie aired, NBC ordered up a Archer series, this time with Brian Keith; this one was one of the faster flops of its season ... but that's another story ...

    Actually, not everybody disliked Peter Graves's casting as Lew Archer.
    Ken Millar (aka 'Ross Macdonald') thought Graves was "... okay ..." (but he didn't care for the movie as a whole).

    By the by, not to harp on this but -
    - did you ever check back on what I had to say about 'Brett Halliday'/Michael Shayne all those posts ago?
    It does kind of tie into this, after all ...

  4. Burnett discussed that role on MAGNUM..."I was locked in a bank vault with Tom Selleck and I was supposed to hate it--obviously that was a problem with the script"

  5. The Hill Street Blues episode referring to is "Grace Under Pressure", and it's appeared alongside the rest of Season 4 on DVD from Shout! Factory. Never mentioned what episode the quote on the ad is from!!!


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!