March 31, 2023

Around the dial

It's 1964, the start of the third season of The Saint, and at Silver Scenes, it's a look at that episode, "The Miracle Tea Party," a delightful episode that serves as an entry in that "Favorite TV Show Episode" blogathon I was talking about on Wednesday. Be sure to check them out; maybe I'll have another chance next year!

Here's another entry from that blogathon—at Once Upon a Screen, Aurora takes us back to a Columbo episode that, I think, ranks near the top in everyone's list of favorites: "Any Old Port in a Storm," with a terrific performance by the always-outstanding Donald Pleasence as the murderous winery owner, and Gary Conway as his deceased brother. I always enjoy this one.

And since Terence at A Shroud of Thoughts is hosting the blogathon, I'd be remiss if I didn't highlight his contribution as well. It's "Home," a 1996 episode of The X-Files, that is truly disturbing, not least because the story occurs not in the big city, but in a small town (the sheriff is even named Andy Taylor, though not that one), and it brings the horror—home.

John's latest entry in his 1980s TV series retrospective at Cult TV Blog is the excellent series Mapp and Lucia, based on the equally respected novels by E.F. Benson. and the episode "Lobster Pots." There have been two versions of the series, so if you want see what John's raving about, be sure to look for the 1985 version.

At Comfort TV, David brings his trip through 1971 television to a close with a look at Saturday night, and again I have to stress how Saturday used to be a killer night for television: All in the Family, Funny Face, The New Dick Van Dyke Show, Mary Tyler Moore, and Mission: Impossible were CBS's dominant lineup, but there were some others to check out, including The Persuaders (sorry, David).

We're coming up on Holy Week, which means it's a good time to review a series called Greatest Heroes of the Bible (a series that could never be aired on broadcast television today), and at Drunk TV, Paul looks at volume two of this 1978-79 series, with a collection of episodes dealing with "God's Chosen Ones." I only hope I'll get to be one.

The Broadcast Archives has a brief pictoral look back at Carol Burnett back in the late 1950s or early 1960s, and aside from the pictures, it's a good reminder that next month she turns 90, and if that makes you feel old, then just  go back and watch more of her shows, forget about your problems, and have some fun.

Some more promising news from Television Obscurities, where Robert reports that ClassicFlix, which has brought back several rare series via DVD, has another one in store come June: 21 Beacon Street, a detective drama with Dennis Morgan. I confess that I don't know anything about it other than recognizing the titles from TV Guide, so it could be interesting.

Cult TV Lounge revisits the 1976 limited anthology series Beasts, which draws its credibility from its cxreator, Nigel Kneale, who is responsible for the legendary British sci-fi series of the 1950s, Quatermass. Sounds like it's well worth watching—and by the way, Kneale is responsible also for a British TV movie that you'll be reading about in a future "Descent into Hell" essay.

At Shadow & Substance, Paul visits an unlikely suburb of TZ; "The Hound of Heaven," a short dramatic sketch written by Earl Hamner Jr. for The Kate Smith Hour in 1953 (I didn't even know that show had dramatic sketches.) and has a cast including John Carradine and a very young James Dean. The story would become the bases for the third season TZ episode "The Hunt." TV  

March 29, 2023

What I've been watching: February, 2023

Shows I’ve Watched:
Shows I've Added:
Twin Peaks (season 1)

The Lineup

There's a blogathon that's run several times in the past: "The Favorite TV Show Episode Blogathon." I've never entered it when it's come around, partly because I couldn't decide if it means my most favorite TV episode ever, or if it's the favorite episode of my favorite TV series. Now, I don't know if Twin Peaks is one of my top 10 series of all time (I'll be revisiting that list next month, so maybe we'll find out then!), but I can say with complete certainty that it contains my favorite episode of any show I've ever watched. Having determined that, we can now be sure that this particular blogathon will never come around again.

For anyone under the age of, say, 40, it may be hard to explain just how transformative—how radical, how subversive, how bizarre—the pilot for Twin Peaks was when it premiered on ABC on April 8, 1990. I think it's safe to say that nothing like it had ever been seen on network television before, and rewatching it 33 years later, it still comes across as a remarkable two hours. If anything about it seems clichéd today, it's because of the many attempts to copy it since then; but Twin Peaks was the first, and in most ways, the best.

For one thing, it had the involvement of one of the boldest filmmakers of his time, David Lynch. Lynch had first appeared on the scene with his cult favorite Eraserhead, and followed up with a Best Director nomination for The Elephant Man. (He received a second nomination for Blue Velvet, a movie with a passing resemblance to Twin Peaks; perhaps it happened in another neighborhood. A third followed, for Mulholland Dr., which is strange on a different plane.) Giving Lynch the keys to a weekly television series was a real statement; the fact that I can't really say for sure what kind of statement it was speaks for itself. He teamed up with Mark Frost, a writer who'd worked on episodes of Hill Street Blues; together they came up with a combination police procedural/soap opera/coming of age story, one that took the conventional (police trying to solve a murder) and dropped it in the middle of a fantastical setting, one that would have been perfectly at home in a Fellini movie. 

If you're not familiar with Twin Peaks, the basics are this: a teenaged girl's dead body, wrapped in plastic, washes ashore in the town of Twin Peaks, Washington. Because of the similarities to another murder that took place in the Northwest, the FBI, in the form of special agent Dale Cooper (Kyle McLaughlin) is brought into the case, and forms a close working relationship with Sheriff Harry Truman (Michael Ontkean). Laura Palmer, the dead girl, was popular, beautiful, homecoming queen of the high school, and her violent death affects every member of the town; those effects form part of the deepening mystery, which combines elements of the supernatural with prostitution, drug dealing, surrealistic dream worlds, and absurdist comedy. Nothing, as they say in these kinds of stories, is what it seems.  

And that's Twin Peaks in a nutshell. Lynch shot the pilot with an alternete ending, solving the murder, so that it could be released as a movie if ABC passed on it as a regular series. But the network did pick it up, and so Twin Peaks premiered as a limited series; when it proved to be a ratings blockbuster (one of the most talked-about TV shows of its time), renewed it for a second season, where it turned out not everything was wrapped up as neatly as we thought. Not surprisingly, the second season floundered—ABC, proceeding on the assumption that nothing succeeds like excess, drove it into the ground (as it would Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? a decade later)—and the series was eventually cancelled, only to be resurrected a quarter-century later on Showtime, with Lynch and Frost picking up the story after 25 years had passed.

But this isn't about Twin Peaks Season One, which, for the most part, is superb; nor is it about Season Two, which, for the most part, isn't; or Season Three, which we'll look at after we're done rewatching seasons one and two. This is all about the pilot, and what made—and makes—it so unsettling, so extraordinary.

Take, for instance, the scene in Twin Peaks High: the empty desk at roll call, a girl running screaming past the classroom window just before the students are given word of Laura's death, the principal's announcement echoing down the empty corridors of the school. The scene at Laura's house, her mother calling around wondering where she is, the framing of the ceiling fan in the upstairs hallway (surely the most sinister ceiling fan ever seen on television). The scene at the Great Northern Hotel, where Leland Palmer, Laura's father, tries to reassure his frantically worried wife while Sheriff Truman is seen in the background through the window, preparing to give Leland the horrible news. The malfunctioning fluorescent lights in the room where Agent Cooper examines Laura's corpse, a surreal moment made even moreso by the knowledge that the light actually was malfunctioning, and Lynch decided to go with it because of its disorienting effect. The intermittent shots of a lonely stop light, swaying back and forth to the sound of an ominous wind. The brawl at the Roadhouse (actually, the "Bang Bang Bar"), a dive favored by "bikers, loving couples, and lovers of good music," set against the backdrop of hypnotic vocals sung by singer Julee Cruise (and written by Lunch), set to the haunting music of Angelo Badlamenti (perhaps the most unlikely kind of biker bar music you're ever apt to encounter).

All this is the stuff of genius, a masterpiece of composition, the kind of thing that you might see on the big screen but seldom on television, and the effect it leaves on viewers is indescribable. As Washington Post critic Tom Shales wrote in a preview of the pilot (which is where I might have gotten the urge to watch it when it came on, "Twin Peaks isn’t just a visit to another town; it’s a visit to another planet. Maybe it will go down in history as a brief and brave experiment. But as can be said of few other TV shows in the near or immediate future: This You Gotta See."

Couple this with Frost's elliptical dialogue, brilliant performances by everyone (especially Kyle MacLaughlin) and a cast of memorable characters—townsfolk that play as comic relief, but drawn from theater of the absurd, scenes that leave you laughing out loud one moment and gasping in shock the next—and you have the makings of what The Boston Globe's Diana White called "the movie that will change TV" history. It introduced a flock of quirky, weird shows hoping to capitalize on how weird was now in, but of course imitations are seldom able to live up to the original.

It was, of course, just as impossible for the series to live up to the initial billing of the pilot, and as the second season progressed, things strayed further and further away from Lynch's original concept. Lynch deliberately left plotlines hanging in the final episode, knowing that they weren't going to be resolved—at least not right away. When the series returned on Showtime in 2017, with Lynch's total involvement, the series promised to return to its original weirdness. 

There's no question that the longer Twin Peaks went on, the weaker it became. The first season managed to maintain a high level throughout, but even near the end, it seemed to be losing steam. The second season started off strong, but I remember, during its original run, that I eventually quit watching; when the cancellation was announced, I was glad. It was like seeing a badly injured animal put out of its misery. The soap opera elements, which had been played for satire, started to overwhelm the show. With the Laura Palmer mystery settled, there was really no reason for the show to continue. But then, how many times have we seen this in the era of "Prestige TV," when a book gets spun off not into a miniseries, but a series that may last two or three seasons, with the storylines getting further and further away from the source material. (The Man in the High Castle, anyone?) For those reasons, I'm not sure I can put Twin Peaks in my Top 10 list. As for the pilot, though, there is no doubt.

As I said, I haven't seen that third season yet, but I'll tell you this: I can't wait. TV  

March 27, 2023

What's on TV? Tuesday, March 30, 1954

Even though I’ve done many of these daily listings from the 1950s, I never stop being impressed by how many programs were broadcast back in the day. Of course, many of the daytime serials were 15 minutes, a carryover from radio, and other than the dramatic anthologies, most primetime shows were half an hour. (Fun fact: the first hour-long, non-anthology drama with continuing characters to be renewed for a second season was Cheyenne. It was also the first hour-long Western.) And we think people have short attention spans now! I wonder, though: one of the problems with contemporary television is that there’s too much original content—something like 600 series, if I remember. Nobody can watch it all, even if they wanted to. Maybe if they cut them to 15 minutes, we’d have a chance. Your issue this week is from Chicagoland.

March 25, 2023

This week in TV Guide: March 26, 1954

It really is difficult sometimes to explain the effect certain people have had on television history. Not because they weren't talented, or because their accomplishments transcended the medium, but because people don't remember them anymore. And that can be difficult for me to understand, because to me these are historical figures, as real (though perhaps not as important) as Grant, Lee, Jackson, and Sherman are to Civil War historians. Some celebrities just have more staying power than others; Arthur Godfrey and Dave Garroway, for instance, have probably disappeared from the consciousness of most people today, and yet there's no way to tell the history of television without apportioning a large part of that story to the two of them.

What about Jackie Gleason? His legacy, to the extent that it's remembered, is probably based on The Honeymooners, although film buffs will certainly remember his memorable, Oscar-nominated performance in The Hustler and his comic appearances in the Smoky and the Bandit series; others will recall that he won a Tony for Best Actor for Take Me Along, and had a series of successful, easy-listening record albums (which he supposedly arranged and conducted). And, as this week's lead story by Tom O'Malley shows, he was a larger-than-life presence off-screen as well as on: a man who, as his friends say, "really knows how to enjoy himself."

O'Malley describes Gleason as a "model of excesses," a big spender "even when he owned more bar tabs than dollar bills." Even now, when he grosses a half-million a year, one old friend bets he still hasn't got a quarter. He'll buy a thousand-dollar poodle on a whim, has (at least) 65 tailor-made suits in his closet (in three sizes, to accommodate his current weight) and "loves a good party"; he once presented a live goat to restauranteur and close friend Toots Shor because Shor "looked and smelled like one." 

Abour his weight: Fred Allen (another name sadly forgotten) once said of Gleason, "If he were a cannibal, he'd eat up the whole neighborhood." His weight fluctuates between 175 and 275, and he's known for his "much-publicized" trips to the hospital to starve it off; producer Jack Hurdle says Gleason "has to be tied down" to lose weight. But he makes sure that those 65 suits can handle it; he designs his clothes himself and has his tailor keep the "Jackie Gleason Drape" exclusive to him.

Part one of this three-part profile concludes by noting that all those friends who helped Gleason through the hard times, letting him roll up enormous tabs, knew their man. "The paid tabs are all torn up and now one of the softest touches in the business is Gleason himself."

I simply can't imagine what Gleason would have been like in the era of social media, of TMZ and E! and Entertainment Tonight. Would he still be the lovable bon vivant (warts and all) that we read about here, would he still be able to count on his chums in the media to be his co-conspirators (and frequently partners in crime)? Would he, possibly, be even bigger than he is now? Would he be as famous today as "real" housewives and celebrity sisters who've accomplished virtually nothing in their entire lives? Or would he have been laid low by a press that thirsts for scandal and loves the smell of blood, even if they have to inflict the cuts themselves? Would his relationship with them be acrimonious, contentious, punching out photographers? I'm not sure we'll ever know, but I'm not sure we'll ever have the larger-than-life figures like Jackie Gleason. To paraphrase The Great One himself, "Away they went."

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Speaking of Arthur Godfrey, as we were up there, the two primetime "Godfrey Shows" Arthur Godfrey and His Friends and Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, are the subjects of this week's unbylined review. The review speaks of Godfrey as a man "who takes up more air space on both radio and TV than most mortals have time to keep track of" (Arthur Godfrey Time, his Monday-Thursday morning show, isn't included in this review; see what I mean about Godfrey's place in TV history?); even though Godfrey's been a lightning rod for controversy since sacking Julius La Rosa last year, The Old Redhead has so far maintained his popularity and it's no wonder, since "[Godfrey's] charm has an almost mesmerizing effect on almost every viewer in the land over 41, and a good many under."

As the first program's title suggests, Godfrey still has a lot of "friends," including singers Frank Parker, the McGuire Sisters, Marion Marlowe, Lu Ann Simms, and announcer Tony Marvin, but with the exception of Parker, the rest of the regulars "bear a strong resemblance to small children doing their Sunday afternoon recitation piece for a kindly but nonetheless exacting grandfather." They owe their success to him, though; "Only Godfrey, America’s No. 1 salesman, could have taught the newcomers the essentials of showbusiness, made them work at swimming, dancing and even ice-skating, and sold them to a doting public."

Talent Scouts, described as "a sort of amateur-professional talent show which, under the aegis of anyone else but Godfrey, undoubtedly would have died a Potter’s Field death long since," is exactly what it sounds like. Three amateur performers are presented each week, introduced by their sponsors, with the winners selected by audience reaction. It may not sound like much, but this simple formula was, nevertheless, a great success; as Talent Scouts ran on radio and television from 1946 to 1958. And the list of participants is impressive: the McGuire Sisters joined Godfrey and His Friends after winning here, as did Pat Boone; other contestants included Tony Bennett, Don Knotts, Leslie Uggams, Jonathan Winters, Eddie Fisher, Lenny Bruce (!), Connie Francis, and more. 

You might wonder why I'm spending as much time on this review as I am, given that it might not seem all that interesting (at least in comparison to Cleveland Amory's witty columns). Well, you have to remember that Arthur Godfrey and His Friends is, at this time, the #6 show in the Nielson ratings, while Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts is #3. You can't underestimate Godfrey's popularity, nor his impact on television (and radio). It really is quite remarkable, and for those not familiar with him (a number that, sadly, continues to grow) it may seem unfathomable, given his lack of obvious talent. Godfrey had three things going for him, though: an avuncular, folksy personality to which viewers quickly warmed; his ability as one of the medium's greatest salesmen (sponsors loved him); and a shrewd eye for appraising and developing talent. In terms of a ubiquitious presence, maybe Regis Philbin compares to him, but it really is difficult to imagine another Arthur Godfrey today. Maybe you have some suggestions.

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I promise I didn't make this up, but when you're talking about television history and looking at an issue from the early 1950s, the time when most TV pioneers were active, I suppose it's inevitable: in that first paragraph today I mentioned both Arthur Godfrey and Dave Garroway; having just looked at the Godfrey story, who should pop up now but the Master Communicator himself, Garroway?

To be fair, Garroway is just one of many celebrities pictured here, recognizable for their various hand gestures (I wonder where Jack Benny's "Well!" is, by the way), but it's obvious that his "Peace" is first among equals. (He also has a pair of shows; in addition to Today, he hosts the primetime Dave Garroway Show on Friday nights.) More than anything else, I think this reminds us of the visual nature of television, and that it's still a new thing; in 1954 it's exciting to think that you can actually see these stars in your own home!

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Some scattered notes from the week:

We've got another one of those two-network spectaculars this Sunday, with General Foods celebrating their 25th anniversary by purchasing 90 minutes (8:00-9:30 p.m. CT) on both CBS and NBC for highlights from the musicals of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II*. If you're a fan of musicals, you'll be bowled over by the productions: Oklahoma, Carousel, Allegro, South Pacific, The King and I, and Me and Juliet. (Even yours truly, who does not consider himself a fan of musicals, recognizes four of these.) The talent isn't bad either: Gordon MacRae, Jan Clayton, John Raitt, Mary Martin (who also hosts), Yul Brynner, Rosemary Clooney, and Tony Martin are among the performers, and special guests include Jack Benny, Groucho Marx, Ed Sullivan, and Edgar Bergen. Not a bad lineup at all; I'm betting it won its timeslot. You can see a portion of the show here.

*Interestingly enough, because I'm always curious about these things, the always-reliable Wikipedia says this was aired on all four networks (including DuMont). I suspect this information came from IMDb, which seems to be the source for similar writeups, and I wasn't sure what to think until I came across this contemporary account from Time, which confirms the four-network broadcast. (And that's why I take the extra step sometimes.) General Foods must have added DuMont and ABC at the last minute, although I'm not sure what they gained from the two least-watched networks on television.

Monday's Voice of Firestone (7:30 p.m., NBC) features 16-year-old Elizabeth Evans of Akron, Ohio, winner of the Eighth Annual Voice of Democracy Contest for high school students, repeating her essay "I Speak For Democracy" in response to viewr requests. Having scored a major triumph with my research on the General Foods special, it seemed like a good idea to follow it up and check this out as well*. Elizabeth Ellen Evans was one of four winners of the contest, all of whom received prizes of $500 college scholarships and trips to Washington, D. C. I'm guessing Elizabeth may have been chosen to appear on Voice given her hometown, Akron, which was also the home of Firestone Tire and Rubber Company. The show's musical numbers include "The Lord's Prayer," "Land of Hope and Glory," and "Stars and Stripes Forever," which I imagine were performed in the same segment. You can read the entire essay here; I wonder if you could read something like this on network television today.

*That same research revealed that Elizabeth's essay was recited at least one other time on television, by Susan Huskisson, Miss Teenage Knoxville, Tennessee, on the September 28, 1968 episode of The Lawrence Welk Show. I'd imagine this wasn't the only time it was repeated on TV.

On Tuesday's Today (7:00 a.m., NBC), "William Buckley, author of God and Man at Yale, discusses his new book, McCarthy and His Enemies." Buckley, only 29 at this point, is the l'enfant terrible of the burgeoning conservative political movement; at a time when there was no significant intellectual conservatism, he becomes one of the most prominent public intellectuals on the scene. I don't have to do extra research here because I have both of these books; Buckley was a major influence on me at a time when I was just beginning to appreciate the intellectual aspect of politics. I still enjoy reading his earlier stuff, even though I think he went soft later on and sided too much with the neocons.

One other note: on Wednesday, Arlene Francis takes her Home show on the road (10:00 a.m., NBC) for its first color broadcast, from Washington D.C. ("under the cherry blossoms.") Highlights include girls from the Japanese Embassy showing off authentic costumes, a preview of the Mayflower Hotel spring fashion show, and a demonstration of the care of cherry trees. Things aren't all lightness and grace, though; Filmed overhead views of Washington's slums will be followed by Arlene showing scale models of plans for slum clearance. Lord only knows how well that turned out. We don't mention Home much except for the daily listings, but it's part of Pat Weaver's dawn-to-midnight programming for NBC viewers: Today, Home, and Tonight

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Boxing (along with wrestling) helped create early television—at one time, there were as many as six prime-time bouts a week, and there are five on this week—but now we're seeing some of the drawbacks of the mutual enrichment that came from that relationship. Two separate sources report that the upcoming heavyweight championship fight between Rocky Marciano and Ezzard Charles will not be shown on home television; the rights instead have been granted to Theater TV, which will show the fight in 61 theaters in 45 cities nationwide; those living outside of that select availability will have to be content to listen to the fight on network radio. It's the start of a trend that will grow in the years ahead; even as overexposure leads to the steady decline of boxing on network television, major bouts will migrate to theater broadcasts, and later to home pay-per-view. Nowadays it makes news when a major title fight is on free home TV. 

More sports: the baseball season starts next month, and the legendary sportswriter (and TV Guide columnist) Red Smith has his picks for the season. In the American League, the New York Yankees are going for their sixth consecutive World Series victory, and as Red sees it, "if the Yankees are to be beaten, they must beat themselves." Their opponents in the last two Series, the Brooklyn Dodgers, can expect stiffer opposition in the National League, but none of their challengers have "the superb balance expected of Brooklyn." Smith is a little off on his predictions this season: he feared that none of the Yankee rivals had done anything to challenge them, but the Cleveland Indians do exactly that, winning an American League-record 111 games and romping to the pennant; meanwhile, the New York Giants, picked to finish fourth by Red, take the National League title and then shock the Indians with a four-game sweep to win the Series. As a modern-day footnote, you've probably read about the pending collapse of regional sports channels and how it might affect the broadcasting plans for several teams, so I thought you might like to teams treated local television coverage back in 1954.

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Finally, how about some food? This era of TV Guide includes an occasional feature on regional recipes, provided by hosts of local television programs from around the country. This week we're in the Midwest, and Anne Hayes, host of Today's Woman on KCMO-TV in Kansas City, Missouri, has a recipe for Mid-America Beef Potpie. "I've always found that my listeners and viewers prefer menus typical of the average American family," she says, and "Mid-America Beef Potpie" is the very spirit of the Midwest. It’s easy to prepare and delicately spicy."

As always, if anyone tries this out let us know. TV  

March 24, 2023

Around the dial

Let's start things off this week at bare-bones e-zine, where Jack's Hitchcock Project moves to the first of two scripts by Lou Rambeau: "Hangover," from December, 1962, starring Tony Randall and Jayne Mansfield. While I'm offended that it features an alcoholic whose first name is Hadley, it sounds like a terrific, sinister episode.

At Realweegiemidget, Gill goes all the way back to 1981 and the glory days of prime time soaps, with the first episode of Falcon Crest, "In His Father's House," with Jane Wyman, Robert Foxworth, Susan Sullivan, and Lorenzo Lamas heading a cast that never, in the show's nine seasons, would lack for big names.

We've discussed the ABC Movie of the Week many times here; it remains a popular topic among classic TV fans, and at Classic Film & TV CaféRick looks at one of the more unusual entries in the series: Goodnight, My Love, Peter Hyams' neo-noir starring Richard Boone and Michael Dunn, with Barbara Bain as the femme fatale and Victor Buono as Sidney Greenstreet. Talk about great casting!

At Comfort TV, David makes me envious with his look back at close encounters with classic TV stars. It's an impressive list—I'm going to make you go over there and read it, because I don't want to pick and choose names—and I wish I could relate some experiences like that. I've seen many over the years, but the only one I've ever talked with was Gary Lockwood, who was very conversational.

John continues his series on 1980s TV at Cult TV Blog with a review of The Chinese Detective, and if you know anything about British TV and still don't remember this, it's because it's virtually impossible to find. Read what John has to say about this British-Chinese detective (David Yip) who has to battle both crime and racism on the mean streets of London's east end.

Here's the kind of story I enjoy: at the Washington Post, Benjamin Dreyer writes on HBO's reimagined Perry Mason, and the difficulty the series sometimes has with making sure the dialogue is period-authentic. I wrote about a similar article several years ago regarding Mad Men; it's another way we see the eternal challenges of viewing the past through the prism of the present.

What does Rod Serling mean to you? That's the question that Paul's asking at Shadow & Substance, with a story on efforts to erect a statue of Rod Serling in his hometown of Binghamton, NY—and how you can help. I submit it for your approval.

I've poked fun at television's attempts in the late 1960s and early '70s to be "with it"; sometimes, as in a series like Judd for the Defense, tackling current issues worked, but more often, the attempts were wince-inducing. Terence looks at the 1970-71 season at A Shroud of Thoughts, and finds that "relevant" TV didn't particularly translate to "successful" TV.

Finally, at TVParty, Cary O'Dell writes about those shows that went just one season too many. For some it will be a painful reminder of a favorite show that went, in Cary's words, "off the rails," while other examples will just confirm what you knew all along. In any case, it proves the old adage that you should always leave them wanting more; I hope we don't outstay our welcome here! TV  

March 22, 2023

Television in its natural state

Although classic television is my primary beat, that doesn’t mean I don’t pay attention to what’s going on in more contemporary TV news. And, as is usually the case, once I start digging around on a topic, one thing leads to another. In this case, I've been reading a pair of articles at Slate. (Who says I'm closed-minded?) The first, which came via a Google search that took me back to October 31, 2019, is called "The Golden Age of TV Is Over," by Sam Adams. The second, also by Adams, is from March 5 of this year, and it's entitled "Peak TV Is Over. Welcome to Trough TV." 

You might wonder about the difference between the "Golden Age" and "Peak TV," and although on first glance the two terms may seem similar, they really aren't. The Golden Age of Television, whichever one you think of (Adams thinks in terms of "the halcyon period that dates from the premiere of The Sopranos in January 1990) is steeped in quality, while "Peak TV" ("the halcyon days when streamers would throw money at established creators and new talents alike, and no idea was too strange to try for a season or three.") measures things in terms of quantity. During the Golden Age, streamers were flush with cash and therefore willing to try anything; the Peak era saw nearly 600 original series aired, hoping to overwhelm potential viewers with choices in hopes they wouldn't notice that the quality, with few exceptions, had dropped.

Now that we've got this out of the way, what does the end of Peak TV mean, and what does it have to do with our website? Well, Adams points out certain trends, from which I've extrapolated certain theories, which amount to the following:

  1. Because streamers (HBO Max, Netflix, etc.) are looking to monitize their back catalog of programs, previous seasons of your favorite show may just up and disappear, stuck in limbo until they wind up on another streamer, probably ad-supported.

    Solution: a return to physical media. You know, DVDs and such. Your physical media can't disappear without notice unless you've just been robbed and your DVD collection is the onlya thing of value you own, in which case you have my sympathies.

  2. It can take up to two years for the next season of your favorite show to drop.

    Solution: a return to a fixed seasonal structure. As far as I know, nobody ever waited two years for the next season of Friends or ER.

  3. The freedom of not having a fixed episode length encourages showrunners to write stories that may run for as many as 20 minutes over what the typical episode length is. While proponants claim this prevents stories from being truncated in order to fit a set length, some critics note that these expanded running times often encourage self-indulgence at the expense of tight editing.

    Solution: a return to a standard running time as the rule, not the exception. That "very special" cliffhanger? OK, let it run a few minutes over, but try a little discipline, people!

  4. Some shows, even ones with an established fan base, might disappear without ever having a resolution. 

    Solution: a return to self-contained episodes as the norm, with storyarcs that run for several episodes, not several years. Not every television show has to have a final episode that wraps things up.

  5. Too many new shows each season! Nobody can possibly watch them all, which means some will invariably get short-changed.

    Solution: I don't know; maybe fewer new shows? Like when there were only three networks plus a healthy inventory of first-run syndicated series.

If you've been reading carefully, you might notice that almost every concern that's been raised by the end of "Peak TV" and the onset of "Trough TV" can be tackled by returning to more traditional methods of television broadcasting. True, Trough TV may be plagued by a lack of originality, copycat concepts, and appealing to the lowest common denominator. As Adams points out, "For the first time in recent memory, it feels possible to revive the complaint from the pre–on demand era that there’s nothing good on." And, surprise, surprise: "No wonder audiences and critics alike have thrown their arms around Abbott Elementary, an old-fashioned network sitcom that provides new laughs 22 weeks out of the year."

There's an old saying that it doesn't do any good to close the barn door after the horses have escaped, and there's a good reason why it's an old saying: it's true. Not that we were ever going to return to the old days of three (OK, four) commercial networks and a handful of cable networks dominating your viewing via an inflexible schedule of programs with set start- and stop-times; between cord-cutting and streamers, we're never returning to that era again. Maybe that's a good thing, maybe not; as someone who doesn't watch a lot of new television, I'm not really in a position to say. 

Which brings us back to the somewhat obscure title of this piece. Perhaps there is what we might call a "natural state" for television. Maybe things were the way they were for a good reason, and that we're now finding out that the tried and true methods were the best ones after all. Maybe some of the challenges we're facing in this so-called Trough TV era exist because we strayed too far away from those methods. Maybe another old saying—what's old is new again—is right after all. Or maybe I'm just trying to fit all of this into some fantasy that things really were better back in the day. That could well be, and it wouldn't be the first time; I don't know. 

But one thing is for certain—television is entering yet another period of change, and as long as that's the case, it might not be a bad idea to take a second look at the "old" way of doing things. Like your parents, maybe the people who came up with them actually knew what they were doing. TV  

March 20, 2023

What's on TV? Saturday, March 15, 1969

It’s a smaller lineup than usual this week, thanks to the educational channels not broadcasting on the weekend. That doesn’t mean we have less to check out, though. For instance, there’s NBC’s Saturday Night at the Movies presentation of The Vikings, with Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, and Janet Leigh.  Judith Crist calls it “an idiot-level spectacular that passes off Ernest Borgnine as the viking daddy of Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis, as incredible a pair of blood brothers as you’d encounter in a comic strip, which this is in essence.” Well, maybe not. My money is on the basketball doubleheader in the afternoon (I discussed this on Saturday), and Jackie Gleason in the evening, with a fine lineup of comedians. And unlike The Vikings, they’re being funny on purpose. This week’s listings are from Northern California. 

March 18, 2023

This week in TV Guide: March 15, 1969

It's only fair, after all: A few weeks ago, we saw a stirring defense of the soap opera from none other than James Lipton, who hypothesized that it might be the most realistic form of drama on television. I hesitate to call this week's essay by Marya Mannes a rebuttal, since it was written before Lipton's (maybe his article was the rebuttal), but we can at least say that it's a differing opinion.

Whereas Lipton maintains that soaps are domestic dramas for a domestic society, ones that tell stories of life and death, Mannes counters that the genre deals with "a world that simply does not exist, which is doubtless why the serials fascinate millions of women and sell millions of dollars worth of detergents, cake mixes, deodorants, tooth pastes, polishes and illusions." It is, she continues, a story of one kind of America: "the comfortable suburban life of white, middle-class Protestants, the homes always impeccably neat and ultraconservative, the men either lawyers, doctors, small-business men or newspaper types, the women always perfectly coiffed and smartly attired, the forces of good and the forces of evil neatly opposed, love finally triumphant over obstacles that would have mired Eros himself." The "major illusion" of the soap opera, one trumpeted by Lipton—realism—is, according to Mannes, is one "sustained by domestic situations familiar to most people and dialogue so simple and explicit that a dropout would understand it. It is also sustained by men and women who might be the people next door, only better-looking."

Mannes goes on to discuss the many ways in which soaps drift away from reality; "Some of these may seem trivial, some are serious." Aesthetically, "[R]eal women do not do their housework in  perfectly pressed little luncheon dresses, with street shoes and coiffures fresh from the dryer" but instead "are often in housedresses or slacks and flat slippers. Their hair is, at the least, inclined to casualness, with detached or errant strands, when it is not—at the worst—in curlers." More important is the life of the average American woman as portrayed in soaps: a "total limitation of their horizons. They are given no independence of mind, spirit or action, as individual human beings; the role assigned them as wife and mother is assumed to permit no extensions and no additions." It is, she says, "indefensible." They don't read, don't take home courses, don't serve as substitute teachers, don't watch the UN on TV.

As she indicates, some of these problems are more trivial than others. We should hardly lose our cool at the lack of clutter in the average soap opera home, unless it's some kind of shaming (as we'd call it today) of the bad housekeeper. But there's something deeper at work, something that she calls "the perpetuation of attitudes which are neither relevant to the changes and needs of present life nor a preparation for a perilous future." The Achilles heel of the American commercial television industry, the need for sponsorship, yields programming—not just soaps, she stresses—that is designed "to keep as many people as possible at home in a suspension of reality and a mood to buy." "Like 'enriched' bread, which is divested of its original nutrient, the soap opera contains just enough additives to make viewers feel it is keeping up with the times." She cites a similar thinking in the way the soaps portray the "new young breed of social and political activists, what of the young idealists and draft protesters who court contempt and prison for their passionate beliefs? They're nary to be seen; "That wouldn't sell goods in Ohio or Georgia or Texas, to name a few."

This is harsh stuff, and while it's enjoyable to read Mannes lay waste to various cliches of the genre, I'm not at all sure they're all fair. Again, you need to keep in mind the context we're in: the end of the Sixties, the growth of Women's Lib. Given this, one can sense a certain disregard for the life of the average housewife, a devaluation of the values of those women who (then as now) derive satisfaction and pleasure from maintaining the home for their husband and children. As we can see from the disasterous decades since, the collapse of the domestic family has played a large role in the subsuming of the structure on which American society was built. And part of the appeal of the soap opera was always in offering housewives the chance to escape their lives for those of their television counterparts, who frequently had it worse than their viewers. In appealing for a more realistic portrayal of the world of "city families living, or trying to live, through strike after strike, through hopeless traffic, through noise and pollution and crowds and the daily brutalities of life," she's essentially advocating a daytime version of East Side/West Side, and I don't know that anybody wants that.

And yet, it would be foolish to use a broad brush in dismissing her objectives. There is something insidious about the way sponsors use programming to push their products, or the way programs of all kinds use their storylines to reinforce certain attitudes and perspectives in the minds of their viewers. It all goes back to that thin line between advocating and reflecting, between showing the world as it is and showing the world the way you, the writer or producer or sponsor, want it to be. 

There's much to be said for, as Mannes puts it, placing "an unlimited succession of human woes, sins and follies" within the context of "living realities instead of manufactured crises." It's time, she concludes, to free the viewer "from the soap that leaves a blurring and distorting film." Perhaps James Lipton, a year later, was trying to reassure Mannes that the soap opera was on its way, headed in that direction even if it hadn't yet reached its destination. 

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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: Tentatively scheduled guests: George Burns; rock singer Janis Joplin; Jacques d'Amboise of the New York City Ballet (with a ballet version of Irish folk dances); singer Ed Ames; comedian Scoey Mitchell; country stars Chet Atkins and Floyd Cramer; saxophonist Boots Randolph; the USAF Strategic Air Command Band (playing “Strike Up the Band’); Honey Ltd.; and the Carols, novelty act. 

Palace: Sammy Davis Jr, takes the spotlight. Grooving with him are the James Brown Revue, Mod Squad’s Peggy Lipton (in her TV singing debut) and singer Charo (Mrs. Xavier Cugat). Providing comic touches: Nipsey Russell and Laugh-In’s Dave Madden, who comments on trite sayings. .

I swear, people watching Ed's show this week must have gotten some kind of cultural whiplash, being thrown from the old guard (George Burns) to Marya Mannes' "new young breed" (Janis Joplin) to the classical (Jacques d'Amroise) to country (Atkins and Cramer) to the establishment (the SAC Band). I get exhausted just typing it. But if you're in the business of entertaining the entire household, of delivering something for everyone, then this is the show for you. On the other hand, speaking of being exhausted, can you imagine a show with Sammy Davis Jr. and James Brown? I'm really too tired to come up with anything other than a Push for the week.

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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 shows of the era. 

When was the last time we had a positive—I mean really positive—review from ol' Cleve? Well, get ready, because ABC's new variety series This Is Tom Jones is the real thing.

Displaying "one of the most infections grins ever to cross the Atlantic," Jones captivates from the very beginning of the very first show, a program "so sumptuously mounted and inventively shot that, compared to most American variety shows, it broke new ground in not only backgrounds, but in variety too." The camera in production numbers "literally seemed to dart in and out, giving us so many peek-a-boos that at times it almost seemed sublminal." And while Jones occasionally looked "like a sick fish" when he leaned on a rock number, he also displayed a smoothness with his guests and (all-girl) staff that "seemed as charming as Dean Martin." The guests were also, for the most part, very good, particularly "a young French singer, Mireille Mathieu. The only way to stop her from stealing a show would be to arrest her before the show starts." Now, we've read about her in TV Guide before, so we shouldn't be surprised by Cleve's captivation with her, nor that he refers to a later show featuring "a singer from the first show who was evidently out on parole. Can you guess who she was? Well, we'll give you a hint—her initials are M.M." 

Amory had wondered if this first show would be the exceptioin rather than the rule, if they would "still use all this high-test or go back to regular gas" but he needn't have worried; "This Is Tom Jones was high-test all the way," beginning with a performance of "Help Yourself" on a stage "with so much going on that it was just like watching a three-ring circus," before deftly and almost imperceptibly segueing into a soft and memorable rendition of "Green, Green Grass of Home." The show included two particularly memorable guest appearances from relative newcomers: a Welsh singer named Mary Hopkin and a comedian named Richard Pryor. Not bad.  Yes, there's more than Mireille to this show, and as long as Tom Jones brings it, he'll continue his "tremendous start."

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One of the tragedies of American education over the decades is the virtual disappearance of music appreciation courses. Numerous reasons have been given for this, reasons that rapidly become political and which we don't need to discuss here. But I have to wonder how much of a role was played by the cancellation of programs like Captain Kangaroo. The pictures on the left shows highlights from "Jazz Week," a special week beginning April 7, in which the Captain (Bob Keeshan) and Billy Taylor, the American jazz pianist, composer, and broadcaster (he's currently porgram director of New York's WLIB radio) are going to present a history of jazz, featuring special guest artists.

On the top left, we see the African musical group Babatunde Olatunji and Company; tenor saxophonist George Coleman is on bottom left; on on bottom right is ragtime/blues pianist Willie "the Lion" Smith, along with Keeshan and Taylor. Other musicians include Wilbur de Paris' Zeba, talking about improvisations, solos, and counterpoint; the Eddie Daniels Quintet, demonstrating swing and bop; and Taylor's own quintet, performing with the Eric Gales group to demonstrate the influence of jazz on rock. "Might make for some swinging kids," the article concludes.

I was critical, or at least ambivalent, when I wrote about the generation that grew up watching Captain Kangaroo, but at the same time I retain a great affection for the program. My love of reading started with the Captain (as it did for my wife), and it, along with Bugs Bunny cartoons, provided me with an introduction to music appreciation. Programs such as Sesame Street, for all the good they may do, seldom offer such long-form exploration of single topics like music; local children's shows, especially in large cities, often had guests from that city's performaning arts groups. And so, again, I wonder how much the disappearance of shows like these (and Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts) have had to do with the lack of music appreciation. 

The appreciation of the classics, including jazz and its related genres, may seem like a small part of a child's education, but it helps to create a well-rounded, civilized young person growing into adulthood, and I think we can certainly use more of that in today's culture.

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I'm aware that there are a lot of things that were amazing back in the day, but hardly attract any attention now; the fact that I was amazed by these things just reminds me of how old I am. For instance, it's hard to explain what a big deal the Houston Astrodome was when it was built. A domed stadium! Indoor football and baseball! Even a basketball game, with a record crowd! It seemed as if there was nothing the Astrodome couldn't do, and we get an example of this on Saturday's Wide World of Sports, with coverage of last week's Grand Prix Midget Auto Racing Championship for dirt track cars (5:00 p.m. PT, ABC). The idea of indoor auto racing—well, that just about takes the cake. And if you think dirt track rasing isn't the real thing, the drivers are Bobby Unser, Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, and other stars from Indycar racing. You can see highlights of that race weekend here

Sunday's Public Broadcasting Laboratory (8:00 p.m., NET) presents a cinema-verite profile of Johnny Cash, "an authentic folk hero, self-made from the crucible of the American experience during the Depression." The producers explain that Cash's reticence required them to rely on observation; there is no narration, and besides excerpts of Cash performing, we see him visiting his family, returning to an Arkansas shack in which he once lived, and a chance meeting between Cash and Bob Dylan. You can see this documentary on YouTube.

On Monday, a two-hour ABC News Special, "Three Young Americans In Search of Survival" (9:00 p.m.) tells the story of these three young people, working to better the world they live in. One is an environmentalist, the second works with blacks in the ghetto, and the third is fighting water pollution. One could do a similar documentary today, using the same title, to tell of three young people struggling with the prospect of finding work in the rust belt, poverty and illiteracy in the Applechians, and searching for meaning to life in a world rapidly stripping away all cultural norms; that's the kind of thing I think of when someone talks about searching for survival. But we deal here with what we're given; Paul Newman narrates the special. By the way, it's interesting how the definition of "young people" has changed over the years; these three are 26, 32, and 30, respectively; Greta Thunberg would probably accuse them of being part of the establishment.

Tuesday's Red Skelton Hour (8:30 p.m., CBS) features guest star Merv Griffin spoofing his own show, interviewing three of Red's most famous characters: Cauliflower McPugg, Boliver Shagnasty, and Willy Lump-Lump; Merv also sings his back-in-the-day hit, "I've Got a Loverly Bunch of Coconuts." I love hearkening back to those days when talk show hosts had to have some actual talent. After an interlude with The Doris Day Show, CBS continues with an episode of 60 Minutes with Mike Wallace and Harry Reasoner (10:00 p.m.), which, as the listing reminds us, was then a bimonthly show. It's easy to forget that it wasn't until 1971 that 60 Minutes first aired on Sunday nights, and it was 1973 before it settled there for good.

Andy with Donovan. Dig the groovy shirt!
Speaking of Sunday, I always think of Glen Campbell's show as beng on Sunday, probably because he started out as the summer replacement for the Smothers Brothers, but here he is on Wednesday, leading off an interesting night of variety shows. (8:00 p.m., CBS) Glen's guests tonight are Jim Nabors and Bobbie Gentry, and there's a note at the end that Cleveland Amory will be reviewing the series next week. That's followed by a pair of specials on NBC: first, Bob Hope presents "an hour of comedy and song" with guests Jimmy Durante, Cyd Charisse, Ray Charles, and Nancy Sinatra. (9:00 p.m.) After that Andy Williams hosts a flower-power "Love Concert" (even the stage is covered with flowers) with Jose Feliciano, Donovan, the aforementioned Smothers Brothers, and the Ike and Tina Turner Soul Review. (10:00 p.m.) Hang on a minute while I get my Nehur jacket and beads.

I've mentioned this before, I'm sure, but I'm counting on most of you having forgotten about it. (At least I'm honest!) As you're reading this, we're in the midst of March Madness, with everyone and his great-aunt hosting some kind of bracket to make the NCAA basketball tournament worth watching. The tournament wasn't always such a big deal, though; on Saturday afternoon, NBC broadcast an "Elite Eight" doubleheader (it was just called the quarterfinals back then) featuring two of the four games being played—the Eastern and Central time zones got the East and Mideast finals, while the Mountain and Pacific time zones got the Midwest and West finals. Now, on Thursday, the winners of those four games meet in the Final Four in Louisville, and once again the game—yes, you only got to see one of the games—depends on where you live. The East and Central get the first game, the Mountain and Pacific get the second, which in this issue means Drake vs. defending champion UCLA. (7:30 p.m.) Dragnet and The Dean Martin Show follow the game. Once again, we're reminded how times have changed.

NBC finishes the week with a couple of interesting programs on Friday; first, The Name of the Game (8:30 p.m.) showcases a terrific lineup of British guest stars: Honor Blackman, Maurice Evans, Brian Bedford, and Murray Matheson among others. The story takes Glenn Howard (Gene Barry) to London to defend the company against a libel case being prosecuted by a crooked counselor (Blackman). Then, it's a Bell Telephone Hour special on the great Hollywood movies of David O. Selznick. Henry Fonda narrates; the special includes, for the first time on television, the burning of Atlanta scene from Gone with the Wind.

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Finally, the start of baseball season is just around the corner, and one of the most interesting former baseball players around is Joe Garagiola, one of the hosts on NBC's Today. Now, I'll admit that I've never been a particular fan of Garagiola—I always thought his mouth was a little too small for the number of words trying to get out, and I didn't find his humor that funny—but I'll also admit when I'm wrong, and in this case I've come away from Stanley Frank's article much more impressed than before.

Joe's been on Today for the last year and a half, and during that time the show's ratings have risen to an all-time high. After an eight-year career, spent mostly as a backup catcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, he segued into broadcasting. He'd already become a popular after-dinner speaker because of his folksy, self-deprecating sense of humor, and an appearance with Jack Paar eventually led to his role on Today. You might have expected him to serve as the token jock on the show, reading the scores and narrating the highlights from last night's games, but you'd be wrong. "Joe has a marvelous quality of cutting through the malarkey from pundits and pretentious writers by asking the questions viewers want to hear," producer Al Morgan says, explanating why he expanded Garagiola's role beyond sports. "He’s a very bright. guy who does his homework. Besides, I could trust his taste and judgment implicitly." Adds Today host Hugh Downs, "I have a tendency to be stuffy and pedantic. Joe's direct, down-to-earth approach counterbalances that element in me and gives the show the vigor that keeps it moving. He knows how to bring out the truest in a guest. That's his great forte."

Garagiola shares his experiences interviewing people outside the sports beat. Of poet Marianne Moore, whom Garagiola had never heard of prior to researching her for the interview, he said, "She bowled me over with her charm. She had a violent crush on the old Brooklyn Dodgers and reminisced about them for 10 minutes. I finally got her to talk about poetry and I was given a better appreciation of it than I'd ever learned in school." During one interview, he contfronted cultural historian Lewis Mumford, who deplored living conditions in the cities and suburbs, but admitted that although he had an apartment in New York, he went to his house in the country when life in the city got to be too much. "Few people can afford to maintain two homes,” Garagiola replied. "People like you should be working on solutions for urban problems instead of writing off the whole thing as a hopeless mess." And when Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), complaining about discrimination in America, said, "I live here, but it's not really my country," Garagiola told him during a commercial break that "If you want to move, OK. But if you want to live here, you'd better go out there and square yourself with people who are sympathetic to your cause." After they returned, Alcindor said he hadn't really meant to repudiate his citizenship.

Garagiola puts in 12-hour days preparing for interviews. When talking to authors, "Downs admits he skims through 20 percent of a book; but Joe, lacking his colleague’s background, reads it all the way through." The foyer of his house is lined with 20-foot shelves of books; Garagiola has read most of them. He enjoys Today, but admits to an idea he toys with: "I'd like to do a Saturday morning show talking to two kids without patronizing or putting them down and see the world through their eyes." He also recalls talking with members of the hippie compound at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. "When I asked what their beef was against society, they gave me a lot of tired cliches and ended every sentence with, 'You know what | mean?' Well, I didn’t know what they meant and they couldn't express it, clearly and simply. Maybe a guy like me could help them bridge the communications gap." That sounds like a home run idea to me; it's a pity people can't try something like that today.

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MST3k alert:
 The Deadly Mantis (1957) "A paleontologist suspects that a gigantic prehistoric mantis has returned to life. Craig Stevens, Alix Talton, William Hopper." (Saturday, 2:30 p.m., KHSL) 

You would think that a movie starring a couple of superstar detectives like Peter Gunn and Paul Drake would be better than this, right? But it's still good fun. TV