February 5, 2020

Shows I've Been Watching: January, 2020






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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 comments:

  1. This is a great idea, Mitchell & I can't wait to read your future posts on this subject.

    As for myself, I watched the entire Batman box a few years ago while recuperating from a hip replacement. I found that while the series as a whole was pretty funny, it's limitations showed by the third season. Also, after years of dithering, I finally picked up the first five years of SNL after finding a couple of them cheap @ my local Savers. Watching some of the episodes brought back fond memories, as well as reminders of how much society has changed since then.

    Finally, are you aware that you can burn YouTube videos on DVD?

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  2. Mitchell, is there any one place to look to see if a particular show is available on DVD? Or even survives? I'm thinking of The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse, for example.

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  3. Great concept for a recurring feature - I look forward to future entries, as well as your thoughts on Batman once you delve into the discs. As for your futures list, if you like Perry Mason I think you would also enjoy The Bold Ones: The Lawyers, with Burl Ives as a wily attorney who could give Mason a run for his money.

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!