September 2, 2020

What I've been watching: Summer, 2020

I'm not here to tell you my problems, and I rather suspect you're not here to listen to them, so I'll only say that having gone through another period of unemployment, as well as moving to a new apartment, tends to put a damper on any new video purchases. Now, I'm back to work, at least temporarily for what it's worth, but what this all means is that our look back at the summer will focus on what I've watched, and we'll return to what I've bought whenever—well, whenever I buy something.

t  t  t

N.Y.P.D. isn't a sequel to Naked City, at least not formally, but it functionally serves as one, and not because both shows were on ABC. Whereas Naked City, which aired from 1958 to 1963, portrayed a New York that might be thought of as in a state of tired, shabby chic, N.Y.P.D., (1967-69) finds the city in free fall, a place of crime and grit and decay, of vigilanties roaming the streets because they doubt the city's ability or desire to protect its citizens. While the characters propelling the stories in Naked City were often eccentric misfits, N.Y.P.D.'s streets are populated by grifters and thieves, gang members, racists, and common killers. And the city itself, still colorful and bold in the early part of the decade, is now comprised of mean streets that decent people avoid after dark. In other words, New York's descent from glory, hinted at earlier, is now undeniable—and it hasn't come close to hitting rock bottom yet.

New York's finest (L-r): Frank Converse, Jack Warden,
and Robert Hooks
One thing that hasn't changed, though, is the squadroom, a thankless place far removed from the technocenters portrayed in modern procedurals. Here, in this stark setting, are our heroes, Lt. Mike Haines (Jack Warden) and his two right-hand men, detectives Jeff Ward (Robert Hooks) and Johnny Corso (Frank Converse). They're good cops: hard working, honest, looking out for each other, frustrated at the challenges of being a policeman in New York City. (Just imagine how they'd feel now.) And while we're spared the soap opera elements that seem to saturate today's procedurals, thanks to a half-hour running time that mandates a lean, tight plot, that doesn't mean the characters are reduced to two-dimensional figures just there to keep the story moving. In one episode Ward is accused of taking kickbacks to buy a fur coat for his wife, while in another he confronts a subtle racism that never hits you over the head but exists nonetheless; Converse has to deal with second-guessing himself after killing a suspect, and in a later story faces an internal affairs investigation after being charged with assulting a woman. And Haines, who spends most of his time confronting rising crime, dealing with bureaucracy, and worrying about his men, is taken advantage of when a friend uses him to provide himself with an alibi. It's never over the top, but represents the kind of stress that cops have to deal with, a message that couldn't be more timely.

One interesting technique that, thankfully, isn't overused, is a brief voiceover allowing us to hear what's running through a character's mind at a point where it isn't feasible or practical for him to speak those thoughts out loud. It's a nice touch; sometimes it allows you to see the wheels turning in a detective's mind as he sorts out the pieces of a case, while on other occasions you get an insight into what makes him tick, what he thinks about, who he is.

The three leads are very good, which isn't surprising considering their acting credentials, and they're easy to root for—again, unlike so many of today's TV cops. The location shooting, echoing Naked City, works in tandem with the show's tense, tough soundtrack to lend the show a gritty realism that isn't surprising, considering that David Susskind (East Side/West Side) was executive producer. It's remarkable how much drama and action a show can pack into thirty minutes, actually. Today's showrunners might consider taking a page from that script.

t  t  t

Speaking of half-hour crime dramas, Blake Edwards came to prominence as the creater of one such show that ran for four years on radio: Richard Diamond, Private Detective. It starred Dick Powell, who had made a brilliant transition from song-and-dance man to the star of hard-boiled detective stories, and while it was standard P.I. fare (aside from the song that Powell would invariably sing at the end of each episode as he played the piano for his girlfriend Helen), it was immensely entertaining, a natural for television. And indeed, Powell's production company, Four Star, brought Richard Diamond to the small screen in 1957, with David Janssen taking over the lead role. Unlike Powell, Janssen may not have had a song in his heart, but he often had a half-smirk on his face, part of the wisecracking persona that remained one of Diamond's trademarks, even as his Diamond resides in a tougher, less lighthearted universe than his radio counterpart. There are other differences between the two versions; the TV Diamond lacks both regular girlfriend Helen and police sidekick Walt, for example. Both radio and TV iterations have that same smoothness and charm, though; no Diamonds in the rough here.

"It's Sam, Mr. D. I have a message for you."
Diamond (his friends call him Rick, never, ever Dick) works hard for his fee; like every detective, he has his moments of brilliant insight, but just as often he comes to his conclusions (and the bad guys come to justice) through dogged determination and resourcefulness. (And occasionally dumb luck.) He also has a hard head, which comes in very handy for those times, and there are many, when he gets conked in the back of the head by some goon with a gun. Even in the first few episodes, the number of concussions that Diamond must have suffered is appalling; fortunately, thanks to that half-hour running time, the show moves at such a pace that you don't have time to consider what the long-term side effects probably were. Anyway, Diamond seldom ever lets one of these slights go unpunished; he may have a hard head, but he also has a long memory.

During the course of the series Diamond moves cross-country, from New York (the location of the radio series) to Hollywood (where the glamourous detectives hang out on the Sunset Strip), and picks up both a car phone and an answering service, manned—an inappropriate word if ever there was one—by the legs-only "Sam," played most memorably by young Mary Tyler Moore. The stories are pretty routine, with many of the early shows adapted directly from the radio version, but Janssen, in the role that made him famous and set him up for stardom in The Fugitive, is an eminently likeable hero, as quick with a smartass retort as he is with his fists, and his wry voiceover narration—which helps bridge the gaps that come with the half-hour format—immediately brings the viewer into the case. The two Richard Diamonds, Dick Powell and David Janssen, are two sides of the same coin, two different ways of portraying the same person, Either way you look at him, though, he comes up a winner.

t  t  t

I've mentioned the documentaries of David L. Wolper several times, so it shouldn't be any surprise to you that we've moved on to another such series, Hollywood and the Stars, which ran on NBC for 31 episodes in the 1963-64 season. It was a good time for documentaries on television; ABC had taken season-long looks at both FDR and Winston Churchill, NBC adapted John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage, and CBS had taken an in-depth look at World War I, as well as its long-running 20th Century. Hollywood and the Stars has a decidedly lighter tone, though, and while it's not the in-depth look at the stuff of dreams that, say, Ken Burns might have produced, it's also a reminder of just what it is that we used to love about the movies.

That about says it all, doesn't it?
The celebrity narrator is a trademark of a Wolper doc, and Hollywood is no exception, with the distinguished actor Joseph Cotton doing the honors, and he combines an authoritative gravitas with an occasionally dry humor to serve as a able guide to the remarkable story of the film industry. (He only appears on-screen once in the entire series; it would have been nice to see him at the start of each episode, at least) Various episodes focus on the Hollywood musical, great comedians, famous swashbucklers, glamour girls, and the history of monster movies; others take us behind the scenes with "making of" looks at The Cardinal and The Night of the Iguana. Some of the best are the biographies of the screen's great heroes, from men known by one name (Bogart, Crosby, Jolson) to contemporary stars like Paul Newman, Kim Novak and Natalie Wood. It's occasionally jarring to see clips from familiar blockbuster color extravaganzas being shown in black-and-white, but then this is a black-and-white series. (If, say, TCM were to ever acquire this series, I wonder if they'd use clips from the versions in their own film library, as they did with their episodes from The Dick Cavett Show a few years ago.)

Like N.Y.P.D. and Richard Diamond, Hollywood and the Stars has never received a proper commercial DVD release, but a significant number of episodes are available thanks to YouTube, which makes up at least in part for its myriad faults. Perhaps Hollywood and the Stars isn't as hard-hitting and comprehensive as we'd expect to see today, but Hollywood itself is a fantasyland; I guess if any documentary series is entitled to give us the legend instead of the facts, it would be this one. TV  


  1. In a callback to her role as "Sam", DVD SHOW had MTM voice the receptionist, "Sam", for a playboy friend of Rob's in Season 4's "Man from Emperor".

  2. "It's Sam, Mr. D. I have a message for you." Believe it or not, car phones did exist before the 1980's! Now of course what are now called "cell phones" (which were developed during the 80's) have become so ubiquitous that pay phones are all but extinct.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!