March 31, 2017

Around the dial

A good crop of articles for you to check out this week, as follows.

One of the things I always liked about The Twilight Zone (at least the first two or three times I saw each episode) was the twist at the end that made so many of them so memorable. The Twilight Zone Vortex is counting down the 20 best twist endings; the countdown starts with #s 20-16.

Lately I've been doing some reading on famous murder cases, a bit of research for my next novel (#1 is already out, #2 should be out by the end of this year, and that TV book's gonna be out sometime between #2 and #3), so of course I was attracted by "Murder Case," the Jack Bridges-written episode that appears in bare-bones e-zine's Hitchcock Project.

When I was in college, back in the days before the internet and VCRs, I used to do my research at Wilson Library on the campus of the University of Minnesota, where I'd spend the last 20 minutes of my day reading old TV Guides in the periodical section. Over time, I used TV Guide's Academy Awards issues to write down movies that interested me, particularly lesser-known (to me, anyway) movies that had garnered major nominations. It's how I heard of Albert Finney, and how I wound up enjoying his kitchen-sink drama Saturday Night and Sunday Morning when it aired on KTCA one weekend. It's a long way of saying that I appreciated Classic Film and TV Café's review of the movie, and the genre.

Now, I know what you're thinking: "Hondo and the Gladiators" sounds like fodder for MST3K. Well, you're wrong. It's episode 15 of Ralph Taeger's 1967-68 Western series that aired on ABC, and The Horn Section is here to tell you all about it.

I think I've told you before about my enjoyment of Allan Sherman when I was young, and so it's not surprising that when I see his name pop up, I pause and read. That's what I did here, with The Lucky Strike Papers, when Andrew gives us a good dose of Sherman, as well as an interesting note on guys named Jackie.

Finally, a moment to add a note on something that nobody else touched on, the death earlier this week of Lola Albright at the age of 92. She played Edie Hart, the patient girlfriend of Peter Gunn, on the show of the same name; her day job (or night job, if you will) was as a singer in "Mother's," the club which doubled as the place where Gunn usually hung out. It gave us a chance not only to appreciate her talent as an actress, but her ability to handle a song as well.

I wrote about Lola Albright a few years ago, and her character here, and there's not a whole lot I can add to that. She and Craig Stevens had real chemistry on that show, and one of the things I liked about that relationship was that it wasn't a starry-eyed romance, nor was it one of clothes-ripping lust. It was an adult relationship between two adults, and there's something refreshing about that. Of course, she did more than just Gunn; she was in numerous movies, most notably as Kirk Douglas' inamorata in the great boxing movie Champion. (Kirk sure didn't know how to treat her like Pete did!) There was a lot of TV as well, including an episode of The Twilight Zone that may or may not make it into that list of twist endings, and an episode of Burke's Law that I particularly enjoyed. It's well worth your time checking out some of those performances.

However, it was Gunn for which people will remember her, and when they remember you the way The Hollywood Reporter did in it's obit of her, as "the charming actress with the smoky voice who sang and starred on TV's Peter Gunn and was spurned by the back-stabbing Kirk Douglas in the classic 1949 boxing drama Champion," then I think you've done pretty well for yourself, because that's not a bad way to be remembered. TV  

March 29, 2017

How technology changed television (and it's not necessarily how you think)

Watch an episode, any episode, of an old TV series, any series, from the '50s through the early '90s. And as you watch it, ask yourself this question: how would the plot change, how would the story be different, if the characters had cell phones and computers? Would we ever again hear lines like this?

  • “Where have you been? I’ve been trying to reach you everywhere.”
  • “I’m sorry, but you just missed him. Can I take a message?” 
  • “I had to step out and make a call, and when I got back she was gone.”

For those who grow up knowing nothing other than iPhones and iPads, it might be increasingly difficult to relate to an time in which most meetings took place face-to-face rather than over the phone or via email, where major plot twists occur because someone missed a phone call or didn’t know where to reach someone, where someone had to wait hours, if not days, for a piece of information that could be located or verified with a few strokes on a keyboard. In an era of mobile communication, when people are less tied down to homes, to businesses, to landlines, it’s almost impossible to be out of touch. And that makes for a major change.

In a classic Nero Wolfe story – The Mother Hunt, I think it was – Wolfe's right-hand man Archie Goodwin is out on a stakeout when he has to call Wolfe for instructions or reinforcements or something of the sort, so he drives into town to use a pay phone. Naturally, when he gets back he finds the subject’s car, which had been in the garage, is long gone. He’s lost the suspect, and by the time she’s found, she’s also dead. And if you know anything about Nero Wolfe's temperament, you know this is not good news for Archie.

Something like this is an elemental part of so many mysteries, and yet it would be impossible to pull off today. Archie would simply pull out his iPhone and call Wolfe from the car, all the while keeping his eyes focused on the front door of the house. He could even take pictures and email it to Saul or Fred or Orrie, to let them know who or what they should be looking for. Oh, if you needed to create tension you could have the phone drop coverage or have the battery die, but you can’t go there too often without making a joke of it.

And then there's the Route 66 episode where the boys are staying near the coastline, and Buz finds himself struggling frantically to free a woman whose foot has become caught in a reef, before the rising tide drowns her. There’s no phone in their cabin, and Tod’s taken the car to town to buy supplies. Now, you can say that the situation is contrived and maybe it is, but it's still plausible.

So Buz can’t drive to town to get help – he needs to find a phone and call Tod. He runs to various places where he thinks he might find one – leaving the trapped woman in the meantime – only to find that there is no phone, or that the phone is disconnected. But even if he could find that phone, Tod won’t be any help because Buz doesn’t know where Tod is, doesn’t know that on the way back from the store he’s stopped at a diner for lunch. Probably he could call the police, but in the isolated coastal hamlet they’re in, the police might take even longer to get there. In other words, Buz is screwed. It’s only because a boat just happens to sail by (and how’s that for contrived?) that he’s able to get help to free her just in the nick of time. But if he had a cell phone? No problem. Call the police, call Tod (on his cell), call the Coast Guard, take video for YouTube if he wants. In the meantime, stay with the damsel in distress and comfort her – who knows what might come of that?

Perry Mason is a great example of how technology can change things.  In a typical Mason episode, Perry’s always sending Paul Drake to San Francisco or New York or Mexico or wherever he needs to go, often on little more than a hunch, in search of the one piece of evidence that proves his client’s innocence. Will Paul find that evidence? And will he get it back to the courtroom in time for Perry to use it in his devastating cross-examination of the real killer?*

*Paul did get a car phone at some point in the series, as did other private detectives such as Richard Diamond and Joe Mannix, which helps to some extent - as long as you're in your car. And yet I can remember several Mason episodes in which Paul, like Archie Goodwin, is forced to rely on a pay phone while he's on a stakeout. 

More likely, Paul doesn’t have to rush back to the courtroom – he can just email Perry the document, so he read it right there where he sits. Come to think of it, Paul doesn’t have to leave the courthouse either; he can take the elevator down to the lobby (where he gets a good clear signal on the city's free wi-fi), get the information from one of his operatives, and then text Perry something like “ASK WITNESS WHAT WAS DOING SAT NITE.”

How many times have we seen a plot hinge on a phone call that was missed, with no voicemail to take the message? How many murders could have been prevented by reaching someone on their cell phone instead of driving to their house only to find out they were too late? How often does someone sit at home desperately waiting for news that today would be only a text away? How many misunderstandings could have been avoided if the driver had simply used GPS instead of fiddling with a map (or, if he's a man, refusing to ask anyone for directions)?

This development of technology has to have changed the art of scriptwriting.* So many misunderstandings, cliffhangers, mistakes, anxiety-ridden moments – all the elements of human relationships – become much harder to pull off now, when we’re all so connected, all of the time. And so the story has to change. Information that might have taken 15 minutes to unfold on Dragnet now gets done in the blink of an eye. The phone caller claiming to be John Doe in order to suggest that John Doe is still alive when in reality he was murdered an hour ago – well, that’s a little more difficult with Skype, isn’t it? The frantic drive through rush hour traffic to prevent an assassination can be taken care of easily, with the press of a few buttons.

*I’m sure there’s an article on it somewhere, but frankly I’m too lazy to Google it; besides, I might lose my train of thought.

I wonder if that’s one of the reasons why shows like CSI and NCIS are so prevalent now. The classic police show - Columbo for instance - seldom relies on technology (other than the communications devices found in any standard issue police car), and when it does, it’s usually to confirm a suspicion the detective has already sleuthed out, rather than pointing him in the right direction. I’m not saying this is always the case; a lot of shows from the era used advanced science to identify suspects. But the show featuring the lone wolf – the brilliant police lieutenant, the world-weary private detective – how many of these shows still exist? And of the ones that do, how many of them rely on some kind of a gimmick (think any American crime show, for example), rather than the depiction of good, hard investigative work? Some might say they’ve fallen victim to the ensemble casts that dominate most television nowadays, but I would suggest an additional factor, that these shows reflect the nature of technology today. Simply put, too many of the things upon which these shows were based have now been rendered pointless because technology has changed the way we operate.

I don’t say that it’s good or bad – just different. As for how different, just watch your favorite black-and-white show, pretend there’s a cell phone or a laptop around, and imagine what happens.

March 27, 2017

What's on TV? Wednesday, March 24, 1971

This was one of the first 1970s Twin Cities TV Guides I wrote about, and it's appropriate we look at one of the listings from this issue, since we've spent the last few weeks in the 1960s. Now we're seeing the transition from one decade to the next, and while 1971 doesn't seem that different from the late '60s, that will change by the end of the '70s.

March 25, 2017

This week in TV Guide: March 20, 1971

Hang on, all you TV Guide fans out there, help is on the way! After this week's encore presentation (here's my take on it five years ago), we're in for a long run of original issues, and I'm sure you're as happy to hear this as I am. If it helps, think of this as the last in a series of reruns; next week your favorite show returns with all-new episodes.

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Edith Efron kicks off the week with an insightful article into how television looks at the drug problem. (It's interesting, by the way; I wonder, since the drug issue first reared its ugly head on TV, if the medium has ever not been looking at it. That's how constant the problem has been.)

She leads with a quote from Bob Claver, executive producer of The Interns, who leaves little doubt about what he thinks: "Most of the shows on drugs I've seen make the cop a heavy, the parent a heavy and make the kid a hero! They tell you it's understandable to take drugs because . . . look at all the trash around us!" Lest you think this is an exaggeration, Efron writes of how television has responded to President Nixon's call for an "antidrug campaign" on the networks. Of 24 teleplays that Efron analyzed, the "dominant perspective is a strange one: they add up, collectively, to an anti-Establishment cartoon, in which the 'heavies' tend to be liquor-guzzling, pill-taking, profit-making, Protestant-ethic-advocating, middle-class 'squares' . . . while the drug takers - also mostly white middle-class - are  cast as acutely suffering, often idealistic 'victims' of this 'society.'"

The reasons for these portrayals are varied, according to the producers of the "drug-plays." Claver says it's because of the "overwhelming" political leftism of the industry. "There's no question about that. So they take the anticop, antiparent and pro-kid position." Alan Armer, former producer of Matt Lincoln, agrees wth Claver but adds that network executives are to blame as well. "[T]here was an effort at the networks, particularly at CBS, to find a younger audience - essentially an anti-Establishment audience." Attempting to capitalize on the success of movies such as Easy Rider meant "in order to reach this younger audience, you had to do stories in which the heavy was the Establishment. So the protagonists all became helpless guys who were being badly used by the Establishment." It would seem, Efron concludes, that "networks were pandering to the leftist young, who are the primary drug consumers in white middle-class society," by "loading the moral decks" in the drug takers' favor.

It's part of a larger question, that of the existential nature of free will. Matthew Rapf, former producer of The Young Lawyers, says that "People who rely on drugs have pyschological problems. They've been exploited. To hold that they have moral responsibility means you'd want to put addicts in jail. Most writers don't agree with this. I don't." Armer counters that "The whole psychiatric thing today says that people who go out and commit rape, murder and robbery are not responsible for their actions, that it's all because their patterns put them on a cold potty at the age of 2. We've been brainwashed! It's become fashionable to interpret things this way. It's a cliche. Of course the addict is responsible! We're very much masters of our own fates. And if we take drugs, we must take the blame."* It's not a popular opinion in the industry, though, which means, as Efron puts it, "the suffering drug takers are morally whitewashed and their sins concealed."

*We've learned more since about the nature of addiction as an illness, and to distinguish between addicted users and habitual ones. Nonetheless, the question of free will remains central to the understanding of the human condition. Whether or not one is an addict, it can't be denied that the initial usage has to be the result of free will in one way or another.

Efron challenges the industry as to why there's been no intellectual discussion about why users turn to drugs. Why no stories about characters turning to drugs to escape conflict over Vietnam? Why no exploration of the "alienated youth" fed up with the hypocrisy of their altruistic liberal parents? David O'Connell, producer of Marcus Welby, M.D. has a pointed take on this: "The upper-middle-class educated families who have talked neosocialism all their lives, but have actually been grabbing for the buck all the time! They've projected a hypocrisy to their kids, and it has affected the kids badly. I don't think most of the writers really understand this liberal hypocrisy, because they share it. So they can't write about it."

Likewise, the panel is puzzled as to why none of the stories touch on the link between drugs and the sexual revolution (the consensus being that the networks want to stay away from sex), nor do they look at the responsibility borne by those who glamorize drug use. Again, Efron asks the question: why? Her conclusion: a combination factors. One is self-censorship; Rapf, for example, says he's not sure these kinds of issues can be raised on commercial TV, and he for one doesn't even try it. Then, there's political bias. O'Connell says liberals are incapable of portraying members of their own group as "heavies," something which conservatives would do without reservation. "Good, strong right-wing writers would probably damn the liberals to such an extent that the results would be unacceptable to the networks." And then there's simple ineptitude on the part of writers who just aren't good enough to write such nuanced storylines.

Drug plays are still with us today, of course, and as we've learned more about the psychology of the drug user and the nature of addiction as an illness, and seen the difference between a habitual user and an addicted one, we have perhaps a more nuanced portrayal of drug use, one that doesn't always glamorize the drugs and pardon the user.

Whatever the reason, there's one fact that's without dispute: in asking the networks to take on an antidrug campaign, the president got exactly the opposite of what he asked for. "It is a most unfortunate result," Efron says in conclusion, "because Mr. Nixon was unmistakably acting on the country's behalf. It is the country itself that has been hurt by this network misadventure."

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

Thanks to the wonders of cable television, the Henry Fonda-helmed TV series that most people are familiar with - and I use the word "familiar" very loosely - is the 1959-61 Western The Deputy. Far fewer will remember Fonda's 1971-72 effort, The Smith Family, the story of a plainclothes policeman named Smith and, well, his family. And, if Cleveland Amory's review is any indication, we should all be grateful for small miracles.

It starts with the show's theme, "Primrose Lane." Maybe you're familiar with the song, since it preceded the series by more than a decade, and you might even like it. If so, don't take this personally, but, says Amory, "We've heard worse, but we can't remember where." And then there are the "messages" delivered each week, usually by the children of the cast. It's not that the messages themselves are troublesome - "some of them are a good idea, particularly for nowadays" - but they don't sound like they were written by kids. They sound, in fact, as if they were written by screenwriters. You can always tell when this is the case - instead of being subtle and working on you, they hit you with a sledgehammer.

That's not to say that everything about The Smith Family is regrettable. As Amory points out, the series "is sometimes interesting and once in a while engrossing," but when it comes to making the sale with viewers, "your only hope is to think of it as a put-on - which, we assure you, it isn't." Fonda's presence, unfortunately, isn't much help; he's let down badly by the writing and directing, with the result that, though he's an actor of great stature, "there's a difference between stature and moving through a part like a statue." The series itself is, writes Cleve, about 20 years too late; it might have fit in much better in the 1950s, "with June Allyson playing the filmy-eyed mother, and perhaps a few songs and dances."

It's too bad, but Fonda isn't particularly unique when it comes to big-screen stars who fail to cut it in weekly series, as a previous TV Guide pointed out. Sometimes that's just the way it is. Almost always, it's because the star, for whatever reason, makes the wrong choice of material. In this case, its to our detriment as well as Fonda's.

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At last, March Madness - even though that's not what they call it yet, and it's a far cry from how TV covers the NCAA basketball tournament today. On Saturday, NBC presents a doubleheader, two of the four regional finals that determine the teams headed for the Final Four (even though it wasn't called that yet, either). The four games being played are parceled out based on region; the first game (1:00 p.m. CT) features the East Final, the second (3:00 p.m., time approximate) is either the Mideast or Midwest Final. Meanwhile, viewers out West get the Mideast/Midwest Final followed by the Western Final. There's no thought of showing all four games, or of dividing the games between Saturday and Sunday.

The tournament continues on Thursday night at 6:30 p.m. with the first of the two national semifinal games from the Houston Astrodome, the first appearance of the tournament in a domed stadium. NBC shows the early game in the eastern half of the country and the late game in the western half. The Twin Cities, being in the "eastern" half, gets that first game, starting at 6:30 p,m. It's only on Saturday afternoon, when the championship game is played, that the entire country will see the same game at the same time. Quite a change from today, when every game is televised on one of four different channels. Another interesting difference, as Classic TV Sports points out: because the tournament was much smaller in these days, and because the teams were placed in their regions strictly based on geography, many areas of the country never got the opportunity to see perennial champion UCLA until that final game.

Melvin Durslag, sportswriter for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and TV Guide's resident sports expert, makes some interesting observations in his article on the tournament. He points out, for example, that playing the game in the fabled Astrodome isn't the best thing for the fans, what with so many of the seats so far away from the court. But it means they'll be able to sell 40,000 tickets for the finals, and compared to all the money that'll make for the NCAA, what's a little inconvenience for the fans? And then there are the players, thinking about the opportunities that await them once they turn pro, with the NBA-ABA bidding war driving salaries to previously unheard-of levels.* Their bodies will be on the court, Durslag warns, but their thoughts will be on their bank account. Maybe NBC can demonstrate this on a split-screen, he notes helpfully.

*In fact, of the teams in the Final Four, two of them - runner-up Villanova and third-place Western Kentucky - had their participation voided due to players having illegally signed pro contracts while they continued to play college ball.

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This week's starlet (we haven't done one in awhile) is Elaine Giftos, currently starring as the wife of Mike Farrell in Bob Claver's The Interns on CBS. She started out as a dancer, but after she fell off a few stages and missed her partner while trying to dive into his arms and wound up in the orchestra instead, she decided that being nearsighted isn't such a good thing for a dancer. So she turned to acting, although when directors tell her to hold that sexy expression, she still has to tell them that she's not trying to look sexy - she just can't see.

Her movie career took off after an appearance in a skit on The Tonight Show, and although her highlight was playing Barbra Streisand's best friend in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, she's still worked steadily in movies and television, appearing on Bonanza and I Dream of Jeannie before getting the part in The Interns. She loves the work ("The Interns is fun"), but when 6:00 p.m. rolls around, she says, "I become me."

Elaine Giftos never became a big star; The Interns ran for 24 episodes. She continued to work until 2001, though, appearing in series from Ironside to Ally McBeal, before becoming a Feng shui consultant. She says in the article that she'll never marry an actor, and indeed she doesn't: she was married to writer/producer Herbert Wright until his death in 2005. All in all, it's not been a bad life for the woman who once was called "the girl with the most beautiful legs in the world."

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Finally, some notes from the TV Teletype.

Jean Shepherd's America is coming to PBS later in the year. This is long before Shepherd became known for A Christmas Story, but he already has a following from his whimsical books and radio program. Here's an episode he did on his fascination with trains...

We get so used to Teletype notes about noble-sounding shows that never make it to screen, so it's always nice to find examples of some that do. Shepherd's show is one, and here's another - CBS newsman Eric Sevareid's "interview" with Lord North, played by Peter Ustinov, in the first episode of a projected six-year project called The American Revolution. I don't know if there ever were any additional episodes, but this one won a Peabody. No surprise, considering how good Ustinov always is...

Later in April, George Plimpton appears with Bob Cromie on the PBS series Book Beat to discuss his newest, American Journey: The Times of Robert Kennedy. Unsaid in the Teletype blurb is that the book is an oral history, consisting of interviews conducted by Jean Stein, and Plimpton serves as the editor...

Here's a reminder of when the Tony Awards were bigger and more populist than today: ABC's broadcast next Sunday will be co-hosted by Anne Bancroft, Elliot Gould, Lauren Bacall, and Rex Harrison. Awards shows were very big on multiple hosts back in those days. In fact, Bob Hope will be one of 33 co-hosts on next month's Oscarcast...

Hogan's Heroes may have been cancelled, but Bob Crane's nowhere near finished, as he heads out this month on the summer theater circuit to do "Beginner's Luck," the play for which he'll become most known (next to Hogan). In fact, it's the play that he's doing in Scottsdale, Arizona when he's murdered in 1978...

And speaking of plays, PBS (again) plans to broadcast an adaptation of John Dos Passos' epic trilogy U.S.A. next month on Hollywood Television Theater. It was nominated for an Emmy, and I understand it's very good, but I have to wonder - how do you make a 150 minute movie out of a trilogy of books? U.S.A. was Dos Passos' crowning achievement, a monumental story. I can't imagine what they must have had to cut out to make it fit in the allotted time. Imagine trying to do that with Lord of the Rings... TV  

March 24, 2017

Chuck Barris, R.I.P.

There was a time, back when I was in high school in The World’s Worst Town™, when the funniest program on television, without a doubt, was The Gong Show. When it had first started, I’d thought it the dumbest, most idiotic, insulting, and banal thing I’d ever seen.

But then, something happened. Perhaps it was the episode in which every contestant sang “Feelings,” or it could have been Gene, Gene, the Dancing Machine, or the Unknown Comic, or the time when Chuck Barris rode up into the rafters sitting on a crescent moon as if he were one of the starlets in a Ziegfield Follies show – followed a moment later by a mannequin, dressed as Barris, plummeting to the stage. Whatever it was* (and there were more moments like those), for that moment The Gong Show was a daily Theatre of the Absurd, something Ionesco would have been proud of, a skit comedy show cloaked in the guise of a game show. Of course, the moment didn’t last – they never do – and before long, my perception of the show returned to what it had been, and soon after that the show was cancelled. But that was my introduction to Chuck Barris.

*It sure wasn't the Popsicle Twins.

Only it really wasn't. It really came, though I didn’t know it then, years before, through his two hugely successful ABC game shows, The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game. The first one, I thought, was kind of stupid, with shaggy looking guys in full groovy mode, trying to act cool and impress some chick wearing too much makeup. It didn’t kill me to watch it, but it wasn’t nearly as funny as The Newlywed Game, which presented ordinary people, reasonably newly-married couples who were asked ridiculous questions (many of which involved the exotic, to a nine-year-old, phrase “Making Whoopie”) in an effort to find out how well they knew each other. It didn’t move the Dumb Meter far off the bottom either, but there was something very funny about it anyway, watching the wife giving her mate The Look after he’d missed an unbelievably obvious answer, costing them a new refrigerator. (If the lost prize was a new car, she might even hit him over the head with the card on which her answer had been written.) The look of stunned confusion that would occasionally pass across the face of host Bob Eubanks was frequently the best part of the show.

Anyway, that – along with a few other failed efforts – was the primary legacy of Chuck Barris, and it would have been easy to forget all about him except for that bit about being a paid assassin for the CIA.

It came in his memoir Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, when Barris made the claim that all this work as a creator and host of game shows was simply meant to provide cover for his movements around Europe, offing various enemies of the United States. Whenever he’d accompany a Dating Game couple who’d won a trip – say, to beautiful Helsinki, Finland – it was, Barris said, because he had to carry out a hit there, and acting as a representative of ABC gave him a perfect reason for being there.

It was an audacious claim, absolutely preposterous. How could anyone possibly expect people to believe such a ridiculous story? Why would the CIA trust such sensitive work to a man with a drug and alcohol problem, not to mention suspect mental stability? The whole idea was laughable – so laughable, in fact, that after awhile it made you start to wonder. All the objections that made the story so ridiculous could also be seen as making perfect sense. After all, who would be less likely to be suspected of being an international hitman than Chuck Barris? No one would ever believe it – which, one might suppose, would be precisely what the CIA was looking for. The fact that the Agency denied any claim to having had Barris on the payroll just gave his story more plausibility; would they admit it even if it were true? The thought of Barris as a hired gun for the spooks would explain a lot about him, wouldn’t it? George Clooney made a movie out of the book, a very funny movie with a very good cast, that chose to take Barris at his word when he insisted that he was, indeed, a very dangerous man.

Despite the absurdity of the whole thing, Barris continued to cling to the story, never cracking a smile, never hinting that it might not be true. It was either the most prolonged con one could imagine – and Barris was, in a very real sense, a con man, considering his ability to convince networks to go for his outrageous ideas* - or he was simply nuts. Unless, of course, he was telling the truth.

*In an entertaining interview with Larry King, Barris once said, matter-of-factly, that the obvious next step for one of his shows to take was one in which the losers were summarily killed at the end of the show. I think he was kidding.

I don’t know that Chuck Barris ever allowed that façade to crack, to suggest that the story about working for the CIA was just that, an extended joke. If he did, I never heard it. There was a part of me, the common sense side, that wanted to dismiss it out of hand – but there was also that little voice in my head that kept saying Why not? Why couldn’t it be true? In truth I wanted to believe him, wanted to believe that the whole crazy story was true, because there was something about it that just seemed right. I suppose it’s the same instinct that causes us to believe that the underdog can win the championship, that the winning lottery ticket is just around the corner, that there really is a Santa Claus. And you know what? Sometimes, that instinct is right. Whatever the reasons, it made me feel good to believe his story, and it made me like Barris in a way I wouldn’t have thought possible back in those Gong Show days. And if it wasn’t true, if the whole thing was a big joke, then remember the word I used to describe it – absurd – and remember that it wouldn’t have been the first time Barris had used absurdity to his advantage.

It’s tempting to think that Barris’ death on Tuesday at age 87 is just another one of his ruses, meant to protect him while he goes into deep cover on another mission for the CIA. What and where that mission is, and who his target is, is anyone’s guess. But if that thought crossed your mind, even for just a second, then somewhere, I’m sure, Chuck Barris is smiling.

March 22, 2017

Worst of the worst

One of these days I’m going to start a list, and I think I’m going to call it “The Worst ‘Worst-Of’ Lists of All Time.” I know, these “Worst-Of” lists are just evil clickbait, and as such they should be ignored, and their authors sent off to some purgatory where there may still be a chance for redemption, a very, very slim one.

However, one’s opinion toward such lists chances when one is looking for some spark of inspiration, some reason to put pen to paper and write down choice opinions on an issue of the day. Now, let me assure you that I do have ideas for other essays, and there’s a good chance you’ll be reading those essays in the next few weeks. The temptation here was too strong, though – a list of the 12 worst television shows of all time. Surely there has to be some grist for the mill here!

It already had several things going for it, especially if your intention was to pick apart the list and demonstrate why it was a waste of time, and how my job is to read it so you don’t have to, etc. For one thing, the list appeared on the CNN website, and I’m normally of the opinion that 98% of everything that appears on the CNN website should be treated as clickbait and worthy of contempt. (The other 2% are actually advertisements, and therefore exempt.)

Once there, it got better. As it turned out, the list came from Rolling Stone, which previously gave us the “100 Greatest Shows of All Time” list that was similarly ridiculed, to which they said this was a “companion list.”  Now, if the presence of Rolling Stone’s name wasn’t itself reason to unload cultural scorn, then the fact that a list of 12 really bad shows can be considered a companion to 100 really good shows is an even better reason. It suggests, for one thing, that the history of television contains a disproportionate share of good shows to bad ones – a ratio of just under 10 to 1, if my math is correct. And if they’re trying to convince us that thus is the history of television, then I think they’ve got another think coming. Why limit it to 12? Why not 1,000? That would be about the right ratio, I’d think.

Anyway, you can see how successful my idea is, that I’m already on the fifth paragraph without even having gotten to the shows in the list. Hey, when it comes to this kind of thing I know what I’m doing!

Yes, the list. I was expecting one of my favorite series, Hogan’s Heroes, to be on the list, because it frequently winds up on such lists, especially the ones written by people who don’t really have a clue as to what the series was actually about. In fact, I’d already composed three sentences of my rebuttal before I found out Hogan’s Heroes wasn’t on the list. I was glad, but I was also sad in a way – it’s always hard for an author to throw material away. But now, to the actual list!

It turns out the absolute worst television show of all time is Duck Dynasty. Now, I have to admit up front that I’ve never seen an episode of Duck Dynasty, but I know what it’s about (more or less), and I know who the Robinson family is. Why do I get the feeling that this choice is more ideologically-based than anything else? I’m not saying, I’m just saying.

In fact, two other shows on this list come from the reality genre – Osbournes Reloaded and For the Love of Ray J – and this is not really playing fair. For one thing, most reality shows belong on a list like this, so by having them make up 25% of the shows on this list just makes the list maker(s) look lazy. It’s like catching fish in a barrel. You’re really telling your readers “I was on deadline and didn’t really have time to do any research, so here.” And seriously, these are the three worst reality shows? What about Real Housewives? What about Honey Boo-Boo? What about Wife Swap, or the one where real-life couples having intimacy problems went into a room to sort things out while a group of “experts” waited outside until they were done? Right.

I mentioned that Hogan’s Heroes didn’t make the list, which at first blush would seem to indicate at least some level of discernment, but wait! The oldest show on the list, The Ropers, only dates back to 1979; the next-oldest, Joanie Loves Chachi, ended in 1983.* C’mon, where’s My Mother the Car? Where’s Turn-On, the infamous one-episode comedy show that was almost cancelled while that single episode was on? What about Jackie Gleason’s bomb You’re in the Picture, which was so bad he spent the entire next week’s airtime apologizing for it. Television had existed for thirty or so years prior to the debut of The Ropers, and apparently none of those shows merited an appearance in this list? Wow, the Golden Age of Television really was Golden, wasn’t it?

*Considering the author makes a point of mentioning star Scott Baio’s presence at last year’s Republican National Convention, I suspect there might have been an agenda at work here as well. And another thing: they write of Joanie Loves Chachi that “this barely beats My Two Dads and Mama's Family.” If it was that close a decision, why aren’t either of those shows on the list? It's not as if the '80s are overrepresented.

Oh, and by the way, they also say that this “killed [Baio’s] career.” Which, of course, is why he wound up as a co-star on Diagnosis: Murder ten years later. It has, as they used to say, the crackle of Confederate money.

(By the way, the rest of the shows on the list: Viva Laughlin, 1600 Penn, The Hard Times of RJ Berger, The Ghost Whisperer, Stalker, and The Pickup Artist. I swear to you, except for The Ghost Whisperer, I've never heard of any of these shows. I wonder why that is?)

More likely, this list was compiled by – wait for it – a bunch of snarky millennials who have no grasp of the history of television, no ability to think back any farther than they day they were born, and probably never heard of the series I just mentioned. Probably they discarded anything in black-and-white just on general principle – those old shows are, like, so uncool, you know. They were made back in the Stone Age. And that’s fine if you want to compile a list of the Worst Shows Since I Was Born, or the Worst Shows of the Last 30 Years, or the Worst Shows of the 2000s, or something. But now, these are The 12 Worst TV Shows of All Time. Get that – all time. Like in since the beginning of time. Which says a lot for truth in advertising.

No, really. Words mean things, and when you bill your list as compiling the worst shows of all frigging time, you ought to have at least one show on there from the 50s or the 60s, or even the 80s, which is woefully underrepresented (nine of the 12 came from the oughts, which again is kind of hard to believe). Northern Exposure, another show that makes the list, was, the authors (let’s assume the plural here) concede, critically acclaimed in its time. If that’s the case, what makes it now one of the worst? C’mon, tell us; we’ll wait. (I’ll be it’s because one of its stars, Janine Turner, is a Republican.) I could name plenty of shows that would wind up on my own worst-of list, shows that probably appear on someone else’s favorites list: Cop Rock, The Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer, Sheriff Lobo, SportsNight, Supertrain, Hello Larry. Every one of these shows has its fans (well, perhaps not Desmond Pfeiffer), and I could at least give you a reason why they’re on my list. It would start a conversation, anyway. The only conversation this list could reasonably start is one on how stupid the individuals who made it are.

Not stupid, check that. Uninformed. And there’s no shame in that; most people aren’t anything like experts on vintage television, nor is there any reason they should be. But when you give your list such an authoritative title, even in just, all you really do is put your ignorance on display for all to see, so in addition to uninformed, I guess you can add hubris, or whatever someone suffering from that is called.

The introduction to this list mentions that “For every bad show that claws its way to the airwaves, there are hundreds of even worse ones that never made it that far.” And that’s where this list has all the others beat, because there are probably hundreds of bad worst-of lists, but how many of them make it into print? You made it all the way, guys - you're the worst of the worst. Congratulations.

March 20, 2017

What's on TV? Monday, March 18, 1968

It's a bilingual TV Guide this week; although our focus is on Buffalo and Rochester, we've also taken a brief foray across the border to Toronto, where as always we see an interesting mix of American and Canadian shows. CBLT, for example, picks up mostly CBS programming, with a Show of the Week starring Canadian hero Gordon Lightfoot. They also provide us with a rare glimpse of the famed British soap Coronation Street, before it would make its way to American TV. On the other hand, Hamilton's independent CHCH has a variety of syndicated programs that would be familiar on any American independent. Here you are - enjoy!

March 18, 2017

This week in TV Guide: March 16, 1968

Yes, children, there was a time when you didn't simply run out to the store and buy a new TV when the old one stopped working, nor did you go online and order one.* This was a time long, long ago, when you weren't even a glimmer in your parents' eyes, and the only people who remember it are very, very old indeed. When your set "went on the blink," as we used to say, you picked up this big book with yellow pages, and flipped through it until you found what you were looking for, and then you picked up the telephone - they were attached to the wall back in those days - and called a man, and pretty soon he came out in a truck and took the back off your set and tried to find out what was wrong with it and "repair" it. He warned you that he might have to take it back with him to his "shop," where he could run some tests and find out exactly what was the matter. And when he was all done, your television set would work again, and the repairman would give you an astronomical bill for work, most of which you didn't think was necessary. But you had your television back, and in the end that was all that mattered, and they all lived happily ever after. The end.

*Al Gore hadn't invented the information superhighway yet, at least not for consumer use.

Well, perhaps it isn't quite that simple, but it is true that television repairmen were the politicians of their time; in other words, they had a terrible reputation. And this week, they take to the pages of TV Guide to insist that they are not all crooks, that in fact they are "misunderstood, maligned, distrusted, unappreciated, overworked and underpaid." True, they concede, there are dishonest ones among them, as is the case in any profession, but to judge the 130,000 or so TV repairmen by the actions of a few bad apples is grossly unfair.

Last year, a TV Guide article on set repair fraud estimated examined 20 service dealers in New York and Chicago, and found that 65% of them charged more than they should have (on a repair job that should have cost about $8.00), some "claiming to have made extensive repairs." But does this really give us a balanced view of the repairman's job? To find out, author David Lachenbruch talked with Richard Tinnell, a former electronics professor at Oklahoma State, who's coordinating a development program to train more repairmen, a program sponsored by the nation's television manufacturers. He points out that at this moment there are 515 million electronic instruments of various kinds in the U.S., and 75 million being added each year. "All 515 million are in working order. If 65 percent of the service technicians were unethical or incompetent, this situation just couldn't exist."

Tinnell finds the claim that the repair job in question should have cost $8 to be dubious. According to the definitive Blue Book of service charges, a tube replacement alone should run anywhere from $9 to $14, depending on the socio-economic area. "Anything below $15 looks reasonable." A technician's itemized invoice of such a repair job lists the following prices, which remind us of how long ago 1968 was:

Recording and scheduling call: $0.50
Travel time: $1.00
Locating and replacing tube, explaining trouble to the customer: $2.00
Shop overhead (estimated at 150% of actual labor costs): $5.25
Cost of the new tube: $5.00
Total expenses: $13.75

This adds up to a wage of about $4.00 per hour, or $8,000 per year, for the repairman.

John Gooley, service manager of the National Appliance and Radio-TV Dealers Association, points out that with expenses such as a truck, parts inventories, test equipment, uniforms, laundry, rent and insurance, such expenses aren't out of line. In fact, the union bus driver in New York City makes more on an hourly basis. Says a part-time serviceman who works on sets in his spare time, "On each job I'm happy if I make enough for gasoline and a couple of dollars for beer and cigarets. Good luck to those thousands of trainees who try to make a living in this business."

And then, says Gooley, there's the customer, who bears some responsibility himself. "People who have these problems are often those who have larceny in their own hears, and who fall for lowball prices. A shop can't exist on $2 service calls and 20-per-cent-off parts. A little simple arithmetic and cost-of-living figures will show you why." Indeed; it's the complaint we hear even today from brick-and-mortar stores struggling to compete with online retailers who are able to offer the same products at a fraction of the cost to consumers looking for the best deal, or simply trying to maximize their purchasing power.

Whatever the reason, concludes Lachenbruch, the color-TV era brings with it new challenges, more complex technology, and the sense that the "old-fashioned 'tube-puller' can't survive." The end result: "Reliable TV service isn't cheap and you're probably going to have to pay even more for it.

Either that, or throw it out and buy a new one, right?

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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: Scheduled guests include Lucille Ball; George Hamilton; singers Tony Sandler and Ralph Young, the Bee Gees, Fran Jeffries, and the Dubliners; and comedians Stiller and Meara, and Jackie Kahane.

Palace: Host Don Knotts and guests Douglas Fairbanks Jr., singer Nancy Ames, Met soprano Mary Costa, Country-Western guitarist Glenn Ash the rocking Merry-Go-Round and magician Ralph Adams.

This week's matchups seem fair well-balanced in terms of overall entertainment. However, when one looks at star power - well, there's Lucy. And I think Ed has the deeper bench this week, which leads me to give the nod to Sullivan, by the strength of the redhead.

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

A few weeks ago I mentioned Operation: Entertainment, the new ABC series that takes entertainers to American servicemen stationed at various bases around the country. It's a worthy idea, according to Cleveland Amory, but not one without some drawbacks. The very concept "involves the necessity of everyone playing not primarily to you  [the viewer], but to the GI audiences. And thus everyone seems one step further removed from you than you are used to." There's also what Amory calls a"a kind of amateur-night quality" to the whole enterprise, particularly in the way GIs become participants in the show. In one example, the program's "entertainment girls" are tasked to "help chosen GIs find someone who kissed like their wives," while in another, "there was a contest among three GI photographers to choose the best model poses for three entertainment girls." It was rigged, of course, since one of the girls turns out to be the fiance to one of the GIs, resulting in much jocularity. By the way, did we mention that this show was created by Chuck Barris?

The professional talent leaves something to be desired as well. There was gospel-singer Bessie Griffin and her Pearls; "[t]heir screaming, yelling jumping performance was one of the most appalling acts we've seen this year. Altougher, if it hadn't been for singer Fran Jeffries, who was excellent, we would have gone A.W.O.L." Another show, with Tim Conway and Paul Lynde, was equally bad. Cleve did have kind words for an episode hosted by Dean Jones, in which "singer Barbara McNair was wonderful and we even went along with sailors trying to sing while being nuzzled by Sivi Aberg, Eileen O'Neill and Shawn Robinson." Seems to me that if that doesn't make you sing, nothing will.

He doesn't say it, but he doesn't have to: Operation: Entertainment may have been born with the best of intentions, but we all know just where that road can lead you, right?

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Our look at some of the week's programs begins on Saturday night with an unusual triple-feature courtesy of CBLT* in Toronto. It leads off with one of the grittiest movies of the '60s, The Pawnbroker, starring Rod Steiger in an Oscar-nominated turn as a concentration camp survivor. That's followed by an Elvis movie, Follow that Dream, in which Presley portrays a "naive and girl-shy Southerner." The evening (or morning, more accurately) winds up with Meet the Girls, a 30s screwball comedy in which two dancers wind up in Hawaii. As I said, a very unconventional pairing.

*No truth to the rumors that BLT stands for bacon, lettuce and tomato.

In 1960, the famed author John Steinbeck toured the United States in a camper-truck, accompanied by his French poodle Charley, where he observed the many facets and peoples of America, The result, Travels with Charley, became a best-seller and, on Sunday night (10:00 p.m. ET), an NBC documentary. Steinbeck's words are read by Henry Fonda, with animation recounting Charley's role in the adventure. The score is by Rod McKuen.

On Monday, Bill Cosby appears in his first television special (8:00 p.m. NBC). "The key to Cosby's wit," according to the Close-Up, "is his wonderfulness - a mobile face and a warmly whimsical appreciation of childhood's fears, fantasies, experiences and delights." Reminds you of just how popular Cosby was from the '60s until the last few years, and how it has to be one of the quicker, more spectacular falls from grace that the entertainment industry has seen.

Tuesday, CFTO, also in Toronto, runs last week's Batman episode, featuring the great Frank Gorshin as The Riddler, with Joan Collins as his sidekick, The Siren. That seems about right. It's also a night for stars on Tuesday's variety shows - Merv Griffin and Barbara Eden guest on Jerry Lewis' show (NBC, 8:00 p.m.), while on CBS (8:30 p.m.), Red Skelton welcomes Eddy Arnold. At 10:00 p.m., CBS carries another of Andy Rooney's delightful essays, "The Strange Case of the English Language," narrated by Harry Reasoner, with an appearance by Peter Ustinov, modeling foreign accents.

It's a momentous occasion on Wednesday, as Mrs. Emma Peel says farewell to The Avengers. (7:30 p.m., ABC) Replacing the delightful Diana Rigg is the give-her-time-and-she'll-grow-on-you Linda Thorson as Tara King, with more boot-kicking action to follow. Also, tonight's Bob Hope special (9:00 p.m., NBC) boasts a lineup including Anne Bancroft, Lou Rawls, Jill St. John and Arnold Palmer. That's followed by a Jack Benny special with Lucille Ball, Johnny Carson, Paul Revere and the Raiders and Ben Blue.

*Highlight: in introducing herself to John Steed for the first time, she identifies herself as Tara, followed by "Ra-Boom-De-Ay." I've included the Wikipedia link for those of you too young to remember the reference, a group I suspect is closely aligned with those who don't remember TV repairmen.

Thursday, NBC's Children's Theatre special (7:30 p.m.) kicks off its run with "The Reluctant Dragon" (right), a puppet drama with Burr Tillstrom, Fran Allison, and the Kuklapolitan Players, based on a story by Kenneth Grahame, author of "The Wind in the Willows." One guess as to which of the Kuklapolitans plays the Dragon.

Finally, Friday rounds out the week with the conclusion of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" on ABC's Off to See the Wizard (7:30 p.m.), The Bell Telephone Hour (10:00 p.m., NBC) presents something you'd never see on prime-time network television today: an hour of operatic ensemble scenes, with some of the greats of opera: Joan Sutherland, Tito Gobbi, Nicolai Gedda, Phyllis Curtin, Jerome Hines, Mildred Miller and Charles Anthony. Just Google Joan Sutherland, for example, and you'll see I don't exaggerate. Last but not least, I'm often joking about how thus-and-such movie looks as if it should be on MST3K - well, here's one that was! It's The Giant Gila Monster, the first half of WKBW's horror double-feature. The second half, The Monster Demolisher, sounds as if it should have been.

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Did I say that was it? Indulge me one more. In this week's TV Jibe, two executives are talking across a desk. Says the one to the other, "I think the pilot script is vacuous, inane, and insulting to any viewer's intelligence. Now let's hope the sponsor likes it, too."

Which goes to show that not everything changes over time.

Thanks to John Rowe for providing this week's issue! TV  

March 17, 2017

Around the dial

This week, The Flaming Nose kicks off our spin through the dial with something I really like, a critical look at the moral code - or lack thereof - of the Fox series Lethal Weapon. Some people will argue that these are only TV characters, after all, but I don't think we do this nearly often enough, look at the consequences of the behavior displayed by our supposed "heroes" on TV.

The latest edition of The Hitchcock Project at bare-bones e-zine is all about the James Bridges-penned episode "The Cadaver," which was originally scheduled to be broadcast on November 22, 1963. A good episode, and an interesting look at how Bridges adapted and molded (and improved on?) the original story, written by Robert Arthur.

Comet TV was showing one of Vincent Price's cheesier horror flicks the other night, and while I didn't take the time to watch it, I've always enjoyed Price and his sophistication; even when he's playing in a Roger Corman special, he invests the material with a dignity it often doesn't deserve. Therefore, I was pleased to see Classic Film and TV Café look at Price's five best performances - including one made by Roger Corman!

Nothing says Puppets! quite like Thunderbirds! The premiere episode of MST3K had a double-feature of those movies, even though they were from another Gerry Anderson series - Stingray, perhaps. Anyway, we're talking about Thunderbirds, or rather Fire Breathing Dimetrodon Time is, with a review of a second season underwater thriller you won't want to miss!

I was old enough to have watched Camp Runamuck but, like so many of the shows from that era, I don't think I would ever have known about it were it not for the invaluable Brooks and Marsh encyclopedia. Thanks to YouTube - and Classic Television Showbiz - we get a chance to see exactly what Camp Runamuck was like.

Television Playhouse sounds like a pretty generic name for a TV series, but according to Television Obscurities, this 1947-48 series was also pretty good. I continue to think that one of the misfortunes of contemporary television is that it's stopped trying to bring the feeling of live theater to the home. It really is a different kind of entertainment - one worth pursuing.

Television's New Frontier: the 1960s is into the year 1961, and one of my favorite series: Perry Mason. Some interesting information here on how the success of the show helps explain the shadow life created by star Raymond Burr, and a close call that Burr experienced in 1960.

And with that sampling, you should have enough to keep you busy until tomorrow. If not, go back to the sidebar and check the other great blogs listed there - like me, if you're not careful, you might learn something. And while you're at it, a happy St. Patrick's Day to you! TV  

March 15, 2017

Stranger in a Strange Land

Or is it The Man Who Fell to Earth? Either analogy is OK, I guess. The question is what people from the ‘50s and ‘60s would think of television today, if they hadn’t been exposed to the cultural evolution that some of us have gone through. You find this in reverse many times when trying to explain the appeal of classic television to those who are either too young to remember it, or too lacking in an appreciation of history to care about it. I’ve been told of many young people (and some not so young) who won’t even consider watching a black-and-white TV show or movie, which I think is ridiculous since all you’re really doing is arbitrarily depriving yourself of something you might otherwise enjoy based solely on your lack of imagination in being unable to appreciate anything that doesn’t spell it out for you right there.*

*On the other hand, I saw an article today that says today's kids, weaned on Netflix and the like, don't know what commercials are. On balance, that's probably a good thing, although try explaining those DVD sets of classic commercials to them.

I was prompted to this thought by reading a discussion at Home Theater Forum, one that unfortunately got a bit testy toward the end, as such discussions tend to do. The topic had morphed into comparing classic television with current television, whether or not wholesomeness was an adequate substitute for gritty realism, how one defined “realism,” what the purpose of television was in the first place, and other existential questions. Experience has taught me not to get in the middle of these kinds of discussions – well, that, and the fact that I’ve got my own blog where I get to control the conversation myself.

Anyway, people who have no particular appreciation of cultural history often find it impossible to understand what things were like in the ‘50s and ‘60s (or even the ‘70s and ‘80s, if we’re being honest), prompting them to declare anything from that time period “unrealistic” because it doesn’t match up to their contemporary expectations. (People like me who express pleasure in classic television are often accused of "living in the past," or "denying progress.") Given a nuclear family, children who aren’t juvenile delinquents, couples who don’t sleep together prior to marriage, women who don’t work outside the house, and any number of by-products of another era (comments that appear to be sexist, racist, or otherwise offensive), and for these people it simply doesn’t compute; hence, it has to be something totally idealized, which is another way of dismissing “things that never were the way they’ve been portrayed.”

This is a subtle point, which is why it’s not a good idea to dismiss it with such a simplified, off-hand solution. It is true that most portrayals of a given period in time are, to some extent, idealized. Even documentarians do this in order to substantiate a narrative they’re trying to present. We shouldn’t expect total realism from anything; even a photograph or a home movie can’t capture everything that went into creating a particular moment. Given that total realism is, therefore, impossible, the best you can do is present something that is recognizable to viewers – or maybe I should say plausible. It’s true that series like Leave it to Beaver probably fell on the “idealized” side of the line, but not to the extent that the people who watched it couldn’t understand what it represented.

The complaint many people have about contemporary television is that, as one HTF commentor put it, "the characters [on classic TV shows] seem to be relatable human beings. I stopped watching present-day 'entertainment' years ago, but when I see segments of it I feel as if I must live in a different Universe." The stranger in a strange land, indeed.  Flip to any given series, and you'll find a world in which your next door neighbor might be a meth dealer, the couple down the street might be a threesome, or undercover Communist agents (or both), everyone’s a quirkbot and every single life seems to have been ripped from the pages of a soap opera script, religion is barely mentioned (and when it is, it's usually disparaged) and the default setting is not good humor and hopefulness, but cynicism and world-weariness. It's as if, when we decided to get rid of Frank Capra and his "Capra-corn," we replaced him with Albert Camus. There’s a certain sort of realism here as well, in that these things do happen, but I’m willing to bet that if you dropped most people into the middle of a neighborhood like this, they wouldn’t recognize it.

Contrast that with the average viewer's reaction to a series from the classic era. Whether or not your family was like the Cleavers, for example, they weren’t far off from what how many families lived. Their values were similar, their families seemed a lot like the ones you knew in the neighborhood. Except, maybe, for the couple who lived down the block, the one where he’s always getting drunk and shouting about something, and she goes running from the house, crying, only to come back in a day or two. They didn’t show people like them, at least not on sitcoms, but then that was the point, wasn’t it? They weren’t funny, and they weren’t entertaining, and that wasn’t what Leave it to Beaver was all about. My point is that nobody living in the same time period as the Cleavers would have looked at them as if they were out of place, people from another neighborhood, anything like that. They were like you and me, if perhaps a little more perfect than we were. And, lest you forget what you were watching, the commercials would remind you that this was a television show you were watching, not real life.

Back then, married couples on television didn't even sleep in the same bed together. Now, you've got plenty of couples knoodling between the sheets - and not all of them are married, nor are all of them even members of the opposite sex. The cops aren't always the good guys, and many cable series (cable? What's that?) center around something called an "anti-hero." And try explaining to someone who watched I Led Three Lives and The FBI how you could create a series around a couple of Soviet spies, let alone calling that series The Americans. If many of those earlier shows were like a steady diet of sugary cereal, today's series often require a prescription for Prozac.

In a way this is so similar to how the elitists of Establishment America have, for so long, misunderstood the rest of the country, its values and its way of life. As the last presidential election demonstrated, there’s a wide gap out there between the world of the elitists and the world of everyone else, and considering how most people in the entertainment industry come from that world of elitists, I don’t suppose we should be surprised. After all, everyone writes about what they know about.

This segues us, ever so gently, into the eternal question of television’s version of the chicken and the egg. Does television determine cultural mores, or does it simply reflect them? My own opinion, for what it’s worth, has always been that television is a follower, not a leader – BUT it’s also a persuader, a facilitator, an enabler, a whisperer. Immerse yourself in the world of television, and then try to resist the temptations that these shows offer, the way they gradually – over a period of months or years – lure you into their way of thinking. Rod Dreher, whose book The Benedict Option prescribes "a strategy for Christians in a post-Christian nation", says people need to withdraw from popular and social media - including television and movies - in order to recapture and reinvest in their faith. Barbara Nicolosi, a Christian screenwriter, says that Christians must engage with popular media and the arts if they hope to change the culture. Either way, it speaks to the power of television to shape minds and attitudes.

I could go on, and someday will, because I'm as guilty of simplification as anyone. The point, however, remains the same. While there are some outstanding programs on television today, many of them relate to a recognizable world, one not so different from our own. There is something fundamentally different about classic television, about how it develops organically from the culture which it reflects. That's something I can't say about most of today's programs. They present a world that, for the most part, is far different from the one which I inhabit - darker, cruder, rougher, more nihilistic. It's not the world I want to live in. To paraphrase Dominick Dunne's wonderful book about the O.J. Simpson trial, it's another country, not my own. Perhaps that's the best analogy of them all.

March 13, 2017

What's on TV? Friday, March 17, 1967

Friday is St. Patrick's Day, in 1967 as it is this year, and while nobody thought to dye the Mississippi River green, there was a parade in St. Paul, the more Irish of the two Twin Cities. You can see that on Channel 4, along with some other interesting shows, and some that were probably not so interesting. Lots of clips this week, though!

March 11, 2017

This week in TV Guide: March 11, 1967

We've done the "good news, bad news" shtick before, so I'll just say this: next week we have a brand-new TV Guide to look at, but in the meantime we have one more issue deserving of a second look (to go along with this first look, which we took almost five years ago).

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I've written a few times about how March Madness seems to be missing from TV Guides of this decade, but in fact there is a sort of March Madness this week. It only lasts three days, including next Saturday, and it may pale compared to the glitz of today, but it's here nonetheless, and it's called the Minnesota State High School Basketball Tournament.

The NBA's not yet hip in 1967, and besides, there are only ten teams. College basketball is big, but mostly regional – the NCAA tournament isn't even shown on national television, although the NIT is (see Saturday, CBS). In Minnesota, there are only two professional teams, the Vikings and the Twins. High school basketball, on the other hand, is played in every city and town in Minnesota, and the dream of most of those high school players is to play at Williams Arena, home of the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers. They get that chance, once a year, at the state high school tournament. Only eight teams qualify, and it doesn't matter how large or how small your school is; David vs. Goliath is alive and well, and at the end of three frantic days one school will be crowned as champion, and memories will be created and kept forever. Crowds for Saturday’s championship game come as close to 20,000 as the fire marshals will allow, and a picture from my youth shows two players on the elevated court*, with row upon row of faces behind them, stretching up into the smoky haze of the rafters, fading from view. The tournament is more than a sporting event; it's a happening, a rite of passage. One historian describes it as “among Minnesota’s most significant cultural events this side of the State Fair", and that sounds about right.

*So those sitting in the front row wouldn’t block the views of spectators behind them.

It isn’t just Minnesota, either. Perusing this week's issue, we see stations in Iowa carrying the finals of the state girls' basketball tournament on Saturday, and on Friday night the semifinals of the Iowa boys tournament can be seen, as well as the semifinals of the Wisconsin state tournament. But our focus is on Minnesota, and the coverage that dominates statewide TV. The host station is the Twin Cities independent Channel 11, sharing the broadcast with stations in Duluth, Austin, Alexandria, Rochester, and Mankato. Whether or not their school is in it, there's sure to be at least one town in the viewing area that has their team represented in the tourney.

In 1967, there is no Cinderella story in Minnesota, as the affluent suburb of Edina - we always referred to them as the "cake-eaters" - continues their reign of terror, winning the middle of their three consecutive championships. (They also won consecutive hockey titles during that time.) It was that string by the Hornets that finally convinced state officials that small schools were no longer able to compete with larger ones on a consistent basis, leading to the class structure that exists today.

And so things are different now, as they usually are. There’s more professional sports in Minnesota, and those pro teams have become bigger and bigger. The college game has far more bling than it did back then, with literally thousands of games on television. The tournament itself has been split into four classes*, which means that a small school such as Edgerton (1960 champions, and possibly the most storied winner of all time) would never be adopted as a Cinderella darling, taking on the bigger schools, Hoosiers-style as the crowd cheered them on. Girls’ basketball has come into its own, and rightly so, but its evolution has by necessity diluted the impact of the single tournament. The tournament no longer calls Williams Arena home; it’s now played in the glitzy Target Center, home of the NBA Timberwolves. In short, it ain’t what it used to be, but then what is?

*The World's Worst Town™ even manages to win under this format, in 1997. 

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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: Ed's scheduled guests are singers Lou Rawls, Nancy Ames and the Kessler Twins; the comedy teams of Smith and Dale, and Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara; the Emerson Society Pipe Band, composed of members from New York City's Fire Departments; Irish singer-harpist Grainne Yeats; and the Feller Brothers and Dodo, a comedy wire-act.

Palace: Hostess Kate Smith presents Country and Western singer Jimmy Dean; Tim "Rango" Conway as Boy, son of Tarzan; Britain's New Vaudeville Band; singer-dance Ann Miller; the Hardly-Worthit Players; Rene and his musical puppets; comedienne Donna Jean Young; and Hugh Forgie and Shirley Marie's comedy badminton act.

The Hardly-Worthit Players satirize Senator Robert Kennedy, not only another example of topical satire (remember a couple of weeks ago?), but something that would be unthinkable in a little over a year. I've always associated political satire of the time with countercultural humor - interesting that it would be pointed at RFK, but back then the Kennedys were always fair game. But that isn't what puts Palace on top this week; while Sullivan starts out fairly strong, the bench isn't enough to overcome Kate Smith, Jimmy Dean, Tim Conway, and Ann Miller. It's not a runaway, but Palace takes first place.

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

The news that ABC was preparing a Phyllis Diller vehicle called The Pruitts of Southampton was cause for another of Cleveland Amory's Laws: "if there is one sure disaster area on your screen, it is television brass faced with what they regard as class." On the one hand, they like the people who in real life show class, the people of Society. They like them so much, they wish they were part of them. On the other hand, in their fictional world of television, they believe "that everyone in Society is rich, mean and rotten to the core, and that sometime before the final commercial they will get their just deserts."

And therein lies the rub with this series, now called The Phyllis Diller Show. The premise is that the Pruitts of Southampton are a once-wealthy family now fallen on hard times, and an obviously-fictional IRS takes pity on them because news of their bankruptcy would throw the financial markets into a panic. It's not the worst premise in the world, Amory remarks, but "[t]he trouble came 'twixt the idea and execution." In "episode after episode," the Pruitts try to earn back their money, while Phyllis "womanfully slapsticked her way through everything from being a secretary to baking pies." You can see how ABC hoped Diller would morph into a latter-day Lucille Ball. How successful was this? According to Amory, by the end of the year "it had all worn so thin that you couldn't help being on the Government's side." Ouch.

Despite a reasonably good supporting cast including Reginald Gardiner, Grady Sutton and Gypsy Rose Lee, the show failed to take off, and a new supporting cast including John Astin and Marty Ingels is subsequently introduced. "And, it must be admitted, since the appearance of these the show has been better, but whether this is a compliment or the law of averages, it's hard to say." But Diller's left on her own too often, and her broad comedy is a bad fit for the format. Not to worry, though; in 30 months, the show leaves the airwaves. Perhaps the IRS just got tired of waiting and brought the whole bunch of them in.

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Let's take an expansive look around at the rest of the week and see what catches our eye.

Saturday night features a trio of late-night movie classics on local television: Anatomy of a Murder on KCMT, Channel 7 starring Jimmy Stewart in his last Oscar-nominated role; Porgy and Bess, Gershwin's folk opera with Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge, on LaCrosse's WKBT, Channel 8, and the original Ocean's 11, starring the Rat Pack and others, on KMSP, Channel 9. Those are the kinds of movies that made Saturday night worth staying up.

On Sunday, it's the Class show of the week, as NBC's Bell Telephone Hour (5:30 p.m.) celebrates the hundredth anniversary of legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini, former head of the NBC Symphony Orchestra. It's hard to imagine a symphony conductor engendering such popular acclaim nowadays, but in the middlebrow culture of mid-century America, conductors were indeed towering, much-admired music-makers, the height of creativity in the lively arts. There was something intriguing, almost God-like, about them, witness the number of movies in the '30s and '40s that featured them as main characters, often mysterious and occasionally mad. In this case there's none of that, just a straightforward biography that features clips of the maestro in action with fellow legends Gian Carlo Menotti, Samuel Barber, and Rudolf Serkin, and comments from conductors George Szell and Erich Leinsdorf, and an appearance by NBC's major-domo himself, David Sarnoff.

Monday's shows give us both the hokiness and the charm that makes series from this era so beloved by so many. On Gilligan's Island (6:30, CBS), "The castaways piece together an ancient hieroglyphic tablet that may reveal an escape route," while NBC's The Monkees counters with an episode where "Peter's fondness for fortune cookies leads the boys to a run-in with Chinese agents led by the sinister Dragonman. Pandemonium breaks loose when Davy and Mike don the guise of super heroes." If that isn't enough for you, Captain Nice (7:30 p.m., NBC) has the evil Mrs. Nash attempting to steal the fabulous Selma diamond, an obvious pun on the famed comedienne/writer of the same name. It reminds me of the time Rocky and Bullwinkle encountered the equally fabulous Kerward Derby, a play on Garry Moore's sidekick Durward Kirby. I don't know how Selma Diamond felt about the Captain Nice episode, but we know that Kirby was offended enough by the Bullwinkle cartoon that he threatened to sue, until Jay Ward counter-threatened to use the lawsuit as even more publicity for the show. I guess some people just don't have a sense of humor when it comes to themselves.

CBS News features a special on "Saigon: The City Behind the Headlines" on Tuesday night at 9:00 p.m., including the problem of improving the images of American soldiers within the city. And if you can stay up late enough, WCCO, Channel 4, has the classic science fiction movie The Fly, starring Al Hedison, who as David Hedison goes on to more fame on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

The plotline of Ben Casey on Wednesday afternoon (ABC) has a 10-year-old patient who may die without a transfusion of rare blood. It's probably a race against time to track down the blood, whereas today the hospital would just punch a few numbers into a computer and come up with the location of the blood right away, which could then be airlifted if necessary to the hospital. Not as dramatic, perhaps, but I'm sure the patient doesn't much care about that. Elsewhere, Tallulah Bankhead stars as "the sinister Mrs. Max Black" (right) on Batman (6:30 p.m, ABC), the Clampetts buy a hippopotamus on The Beverly Hillbillies (7:30 p.m., CBS), and Eb's sighting of a flying saucer turns him into a celebrity on Green Acres (8:00 p.m., CBS). And an NET profile of director/actor John Huston (8:30 p.m.) wears me out just to read about it: directing Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor in Rome, acting in "Casino Royale" in London, directing his first opera at LaScala in Milan, taking part in a fox hunt in Ireland - and still having time to talk about his father, actor Walter Huston, and his feelings about creativity. What a life. And if you enjoyed that Jimmy Stewart movie on Saturday, WDIO, Channel 10 in Duluth, gives you another opportunity, as Jimmy plays Charles Lindbergh in The Spirit of St. Louis (10:25 p.m.)

Thursday's the start of the high schol basketball tournament, but it also features James Gregory as Big Jim Parker, threatening to evict Camp Courage from the town he just bought, in F Troop (7:00 p.m., ABC). Star Trek is preempted on NBC for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus taped in Greensboro and hosted by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans (7:30 p.m.). Dean Martin's guests on a very fine lineup (9:00 p.m., NBC) are Ella Fitzgerald, Edie Adams, Red Buttons, and Dom DeLuise. Opposite it on ABC Stage '67 are Anne Bancroft and Dick Shawn in the musical-comedy "I'm Getting Married," with music by Jule Styne and lyrics and book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. That's some real talent there.

Finally, Friday is St. Patrick's Day, a fact not overlooked by WCCO, which broadcasts taped highlights of St. Paul's parade (the first in 55 years) at 3:30 p.m.while KSTP shows film of personality Jane Johnston's trip to Ireland in 1965 in A Bit o' Ireland at 6:30 p.m., preempting Tarzan. And NBC's Hallmark Hall of Fame (8:30 p.m.) presents another classic, "Anastasia," starring "two great ladies of the theatre" (and indeed they were), Lynn Fontanne and Julie Harris. The story of Anastasia is probably better known from the Oscar-winning movie starring Ingrid Bergman, but this would sound like a worthy adaptation.

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Finally, NBC's announced their new fall schedule, which includes a big-scope Western (High Chaparrel), Raymond Burr sleuthing around in a wheelchair (Ironside), and Perry Como and Jerry Lewis returning to host weekly variety shows (in Perry's case, a revived Kraft Music Hall). To make room for these and other new shows, the network is axing Andy Williams (who will continue to do occasional specials throughout the year), The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., Flipper, Please Don't Eat the Daisies, T.H.E. Cat, and Bob Hope's Chrysler Theater. Was this addition-and-subtraction a good thing overall? You be the judge. TV