May 2, 2020

This week in TV Guide: May 4, 1974

Podunk, the dictionary tells us, is "An imaginary small town, taken as typical of placid dullness and lack of contact with the progress of the world."  Granted, that sounds to me a lot like the World's Worst Town™, except it's noted that this is a "humorous name," whereas my appellation is full of malice. Be that as it may, Neil Hickey, after listening to network executives talk about how the "gruel, treacle and drivel" often seen on television is "what Americans want" ("If they wanted quality, we'd give them quality.") decided to travel to Podunk to find out if this is so.

Podunk, in this case, is a village just outside of East Brookfield, Massachusetts. The name was made famous by George M. Cohan, who spent summers there with his relatives, and loved the area. (See, I told you it was different than the World's Worst.) About 100 people live in Podunk, and Hickey spent a few days moving among them, asking what they thought about television. Now, before we go any further, it should be noted that Podunk has no lack of stations from which to choose; they get six from Boston, two from Providence, and one each from Worcester, Hartford, and Manchester, so this should be a fair test.

John Treadwell, a farmer, isn't shy about what he thinks. "I'm too apt to fall to sleep when I watch the TV," he says. "Daytime TV is ghastly, anyway. Soap operas are for idiots. And the nighttime shows are all the same—police and crime." Overall, he says, "Not only is there no intellectual stimulation on television, but you get fat going to the refrigerator during all those commercials." Mr. and Mrs. Alva Silliman used to watch TV all the time, but don't anymore. "We liked Arthur Godfrey and Ed Sullivan, but they're not on any more," Mrs. Silliman says, and her husband chips in with a critique of reruns. "They must really be hard up for programs if they keep showing the same ones over and over." Mrs. Silliman is particularly concerned about the violence and sex on TV, and its effect on youth. "A lot of that stuff gets to your young folks. It's not good for them." As for the way women dress, "you can see women in low-cut dresses almost losing what they've got."

These are by no means unique opinions in Podunk. Says the Rev. Leslie Edwards, who divides his time between circuit preaching and house painting, "[T]here's no hunger in my heart to sit down and look at the kind of fiction they have on television." Mr. Joe Perry, superintendent of streets and tax collector, is partial to John Wayne movies, but otherwise says of TV, "They can throw it away." Like the others, he's concerned about violence, but more disturbed by increasing sexual content. "You don't have to push in front of them. They're shown a picture before they even learn the words. Maybe it's just the way I was brought up." He's also irritated by the patronizing manner of network newscasters. "Anybody who gives the news to the public should just tell us what's going on and let us make up our own minds. They seem to believe that the public doesn't have enough intelligence to think for themselves." Mr. Fred McCrillis underscores a point that we'll return to later: "I think the quality of TV has gone down, like the quality of movies. And that's too bad because television comes right into your home."

And so it goes on. "Of the several score interviewees," Hickey says, "none was unrestrainedly pleased with the quality of television entertainment." And, it should be noted, Podunkians are "articulate, opinionated and well-informed." They also understand that there's more to life than television. Mrs. Silliman mentions the beauty of the area, especially in the fall; the majestic stand of red spruce and oak trees visible from the Silliman home means "you can look out that window and see all the color you need. We don't need TV." And although I'm inclined to disagree when Mr. McCrillis says that there's "so much more to an evening than television," it's a point well taken.

Podunk, as a recognized geographical area, no longer exists, swallowed up by East Brookfield, but it was real, as were the opinions expressed by the citizens who, according to the suits in the corporate offices, "don't care about quality television," But then, as now, it's so easy for those on the coasts to overlook the rest of America. Isn't it?

t  t  t


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

"If we can have 4,003 shows about the police," Cleveland Amory writes, "will we say nay to just one about fireman?" The show in question is not, as you may think, Emergency!, but ABC's Firehouse, starring James Drury, Richard Jaeckel, and Michael Delano. And, says Cleve, Firehouse is better than most of those 4,003 police shows. For one thing, they actually try to develop relationships between the characters, rather than having them play second fiddle to various disasters. "Of course, these relationships aren't particularly interesting, but no matter. The point is, they're there." The characters aren't very well developed either, but the series compensates by giving us five leads.

So much for the good news. "The basic trouble is that Firehouse is so pat that it's not only almost unbelievable, it is unbelievable." You're guaranteed at least one little fire and one big fire in every episode, and you're not guaranteed that either one of them will be interesting. For example, one week we start with a small fire at the shop of a poor seamstress, followed by a big fire that destroyed the studio of a top designer, portrayed by guest star Rudi Gernreich (playing himself). Everything's been destroyed; not to worry, though; he's just glad nobody got hurt. "'How can I ever find a way to express my gratitude?', he reads off the cue card. 'I think there's a way,' one of the firemen tells him. 'There's a seamstress who needs a good job.' Our heart went pit-pat." See what I mean? In another episode, J. Pat O'Malley plays an old man who won't abandon his fire-threatened collection of old movies. The episode's guest star goes in to get him. "It shows kindness," he tells her as the flames threaten them both, "and thoughtfulness." Apparently kindness and thoughtfulness extends to putting someone's life at risk.

I think that almost all kids are fascinated by fire engines and firemen, or at least they were when I was a kid. I was always impressed by the class trip to the fire station, which struck me as an enormously impressive place full of trucks, ladders, hoses, and other equipment. And that, says Amory, is the problem with Firehouse: "it fails utterly to capture the lure of the firehouse." It could use some old-timers, talking about what it was like fighting a fire without today's modern equipment; the show is "so with-it that it's without anything else." Worst of all, for animal-lover Amory: no Dalmatian. Couldn't they at least have that, for Pete's sake?

t  t  t

Not only do we have NBC's The Midnight Special and ABC's In Concert this week, there's also the syndicated Don Kirshner's Rock Concert. Not only that, we've got two different versions of Kirshner! Let's see who's better, who's best.

Kirshner I: The Allman Brothers Band joins Wet Willie, the Marshall Tucker Band and Martin Mull.

Kirschner II: Guests include Ike and Tina Turner, Redbone, and Michael Stanley.

Midnight Special: Comedian George Carlin is the host. Guests include Buffy St. Marie, Waylon Jennings, Livingston Taylor, the Dramatics, Leo Sayer, and Puzzle.

In Concert: The first of four programs taped at "California Jam" April 6. Acts include Emerson, Lake and Palmer; Deep Purple; Eagles; Seals and Crofts; Rare Earth; Black Oak Arkansas; Earth, Wind and Fire and Black Sabbath.

It's hard to compare this week's shows; three music shows in a studio vs. a concert held before 200,000 fans at Ontario Motor Speedway in California. I'm going to throw Midnight Special and Kirshner II (Saturday, 11:15 p.m., KOVR in Sacramento) out right away, leaving us with Kirshner I (Saturday, 11:00 p.m., KRCR in Redding) and In Concert. Kirshner I has a higher percentage of stars, but In Concert has a larger number. What to do, what to do. Watch 'em both, of course! This week is a Push.

t  t  t

It's that time of year when the networks start to discuss the new fall season, and I hope you aren't too comfortable with what you've been watching, because you're in for a big change this fall. Richard K. Doan headlines the story "Massive Changes," which is a pretty good way to describe a new season that will include 30 new series. And to make way for those new series? As I often say in the Monday listings, see if you can find your favorites from among the soon-to-be canceled:

CBS: Dirty Sally, Hawkins, Shaft, Here's Lucy, The New Dick Van Dyke Show, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, The CBS Tuesday Night Movie.

NBC: Hec Ramsey, The Magician, Banacek, The Snoop Sisters, Tenafly, Faraday and Company, Chase, The Flip Wilson Show, The Dean Martin Comedy World, The Brian Keith Show, Lotsa Luck, The Girl with Something Extra, Music Country U.S.A., NBC Wednesday Night at the Movies.

ABC: The FBI, Owen Marshall, The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, Toma, Doc Elliot, The Cowboys, Chopper One, Firehouse, ABC Suspense Movie.

Some pretty big-name, long-running shows included in that list, aren't there? We'll see some familiar names in the list of replacements, as well. For example, NBC is offering Little House on the Prairie, The Rockford Files, Lucas Tanner, Movin' On (which is still known as In Tandem at this point), Petrocelli, Chico and the Man, and Police Woman ("possibly with Elizabeth Ashley," and how different would the series have been if that had happened?); CBS boasts Rhoda, Planet of the Apes, and Paul Sand in Friends and Lovers; and ABC introduces Harry O, The New Land, Get Christy Love!, Kolchak—The Night Stalker, Paper Moon, The Sonny Comedy Revue, and That's My Mama. Some of them are major hits, some barely more familiar than the shows they replaced, and some (The Love Nest, starring Florida Friebus and Charles Lane) never make it to the schedule.

t  t  t

The highlight of the week in sports has to be the landmark 100th running of the Kentucky Derby, live from Churchill Downs in Louisville. (2:00 p.m. PT, CBS) The centennial Run for the Roses will feature the largest field in history (23 horses) and a then-record crowd of over 160,000, and when it's all over, the winner is a horse that doesn't really go down in history: Cannonade, who goes on to finish third in both the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes.

We're also seeing the climax of the winter sports playoff schedule in both basketball and hockey. Yes, I know it's only May 4, and nowadays each sport goes on for at least six more weeks, but trust me when I say things were different then. (You should, by now; I've said it often enough.) On Sunday, Milwaukee takes on Boston in Game 4 of the NBA finals (11:30 a.m., CBS), while Philadelphia hosts the New York Rangers in the seventh game of the NHL's Eastern Division finals (1:00 p.m., NBC) The Bucks defeat the Celtics 97-89 to even up their series at two games apiece, while the Flyers defeat the Rangers, 4-3, to advance to the Stanley Cup final against the Boston Bruins.

Our handy programming note informs us that CBS plans to telecast Games 5 and 6 on Tuesday and Friday, if necessary—and they are necessary, especially the magnificent Game 6 in Boston, where the lead changes hands three times in the final 24 seconds of the second overtime before Milwaukee pulls it out, 102-101 to force Game 7 (which Boston wins). The American Basketball Association also makes prime time this week, with the Utah Stars facing the New York Nets in the second game of the finals (7:00 p.m., KTXL on a tape delay). The Nets, behind the incomparable Julius Erving, take a 118-94 victory on the way to a five-game triumph and their first ABA title. Meanwhile, although we're advised that NBC may broadcast a Cup final game in prime time, they don't; we'll have to wait for Game 3 next Sunday. Then as now, hockey winds up playing second fiddle.

And some notable programming this week: Monday at 11:30 a.m. on ABC, it's the premiere of Dick Clark's The $10,000 Pyramid, an enduring game show that continues in various formats, right up to this day; if you want to win some kind of bet, Anne Meara and Soupy Sales are the inaugural celebrity guests. On Monday night, Peter Graves stars as Ross Macdonald's private eye Lew Archer in The Underground Man (9:00 p.m., NBC); the character is probably better-known to the moviegoing public as "Harper," played by Paul Newman in a pair of quality big-screen movies. Opposite that, it's America's Junior Miss Pageant (9:00 p.m., CBS), hosted by Michael Landon. The winner, Karen Morris*, goes on to play Dr. Faith Coleridge Desmond (one of many actresses to do so) on Ryan's Hope; the organization, which still exists, is now known as the Distinguished Young Women organization.

*Fun fact: Karen Morris is married to the son of announcing great Curt Gowdy, who in 1974 is celebrating his 25th anniversary as a sportscaster.

t  t  t

Judith Crist leads off her column with a a review that's more like a commentary. Here it is; then we'll talk about it.

For a quickie course in what happened to a certain kind of movie, to American morality and to director John Huston over a 30-year period, refresh your memory of Huston's 1941 The Maltese Falcon and then compare it with his 1970 The Kremlin Letter, the one theatrical prime-time premiere of this network-movie week. It's all there in this film based on Noel Behn's thriller: the complete dehumanization of the private agent, the super-coldness of the spy, the replacement of human relations by physical violence and/or sexual activity, the obfuscation of individual responsibility with tired mouthings of amorality, the substitution of banality for logic, and the assumption that if we're presented with enough "names," enough glossy location shooting and enough glimpses of oo-naughty! glamour (all of which may not survive to the small screen), we are going to accept the whole dumb mess as entertainment. Are you?

I don't think she liked it, do you? More than that, though, Crist hits upon something that plagues television—and all entertainment, for that matter. Call it cynicism, nihilism, what have you, but Crist nails it with her repeated emphasis on the lack of humanity. (Of course, one of the other problems is that Crist proceeds from the assumption that qualities such as logic, individual responsibility, and human relations are actually good, and there'd be people today who disagree with that.)

The other night, as we were watching The Eleventh Hour, my wife commented on how the psychological drama is a metaphor for what we're going through now. One of the keys to this series is that, as the doctors look to get at the heart of their patients' problems, they have hope that their treatment will succeed, that, even if the patient isn't cured, he or she will at least be able to enjoy a vastly improved quality of life. This particular episode ("Angie, You Made My Heart Stop") ends uncertainly; as Angie is to begin her therapy, the doctors are confident she'll recover, but there are no guarantees, and we aren't around to see how it all turns out. Differentiate that hope, cautious though it may be, with the darkness that pervades some of the top dramas on TV today—as, in fact, it does with contemporary society in general. We have as many antiheroes as heroes, "realism" takes precedence over all, and we use terms such as "gritty" to describe situations that often reek with the qualities I mentioned above: cynicism, nihilism, brutality and inhumanity. Meanwhile, reality television often puts our least admirable qualities on display for all to see—greed, materialism, selfishness, lust, self-centeredness, and stupidity—and participants, far from being embarrassed or ashamed, glory in the attention (and the financial compensation).

I'm trying not to paint all of today's television with a broad brush; there are plenty of shows that offer more positive outlooks, even inspiring ones. But as the Podunk article shows, there's plenty of concern about the content of television in 1974, of what could be seen as a collapse of traditional values in favor of more explicit portrayals of sex, violence, and drugs, along with news bias. Too often, people who talk about the "new" Golden Age of Television miss one point, something I find essential. The television of today might be just as dramatic, just as powerful, as those of yesteryear. But back then it was permissible to believe in hope. Today, far too often, they don't believe in anything. TV  


3 comments:

  1. All the acts in the first Kriishner Rock Concert Show were on Capricorn Records @ the time. It was the. premier label for Southern Rock in the '70s & the Allman Brothers were the top act.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Slight correction on the $10,000 Pyramid - it's not the premiere of the show, but the premiere of the show on ABC. It premiered a little over a year earlier on CBS (March 26, 1973 - same day as Y&R) but CBS got panicky with the ratings and cancelled it. A little over a month later, it returned but on ABC.

    ReplyDelete

Thanks for writing! Drive safely!