April 26, 2023

What I've been watching: crisis of confidence edition

I was starting to worry.

For years, I’d prided myself on our carefully curated collection of classic television shows, which had been assembled thanks to the knowledge which my underpaid career as a classic television historian has afforded me. Many of the programs had come from my study of the old TV Guides, picking out shows that looked interesting, sounded familiar, received critical praise. Some of them had been on when I was young, and I had faint memories of them; others were blind buys, shows that I looked back at and wished I'd watched at the time. And I'd been on a long winning streak; I'd introduced many new programs as well as old favorites into our viewing schedule, with great satisfaction

But now things were giving me pause.

It started, I suppose, with the final season of Hawaii Five-O. I knew the show, had watched it when I was younger (before before the move to the World's Worst Town™), and used "Be here—aloha" as a catchphrase. We watched it consistently every Thursday night; sure, there were some clunkers in the batch, as there are in every long-running series, but it had been a most agreeable arrangement, watching the weekly exploits of Steve McGarrett and his Five-O team of crimefighters, over the course of eleven seasons. Unfortunately, as any Five-O fan can tell you, the series ran for twelve seasons; and it didn't take me more than two episodes to tell that the twelfth season was going to be a disaster. Danno was gone, Chin was gone, Kono was gone, those remaining were behaving in a most unlike-Five-O way, including putting the power of ancient Hawaiian curses above their duty to Steve. What is this? I said, although I admit my language might have been stronger. 

Some quick internet research informed me that I was correct, that most fans thought the final season was awful, and that as bad as the first two episodes had been, the remainder were going to be even worse. And so, after having watched Five-O every week for more than five years, we pulled the plug. It might have seemed unthinkable, after that time investment, but from that day to this, the final season has remained in the box, unwatched except for two episodes.

Next, it was 77 Sunset Strip. It had been a blind buy, one I'd certainly known about, but had never seen. It had a great legacy, and for five seasons it was a Friday night standard. One could tell by the end of the fifth season that the show was starting to run out of steam, and I suppose that's why WB decided on the radical changes for the show's sixth season: getting rid of the entire cast except for Efrem Zimbalist Jr., ditching the theme song and the familiar settings, and transforming the series into a neo-noir, with Stu Bailey turned into a tough, abrasive (and frequently unlikable) private eye out of the old school. 

We managed to make it through the entire final season, but it was painful, similar to (but far less serious than) watching an old friend waste away. Fortunately, the changes so alienated viewers that the show was cancelled halfway through the season. Even the network must have seen how disastrous things were; when the series went into summer reruns before leaving the airwaves, they didn't even use the newer episodes, only those from seasons past with the old format and cast. And again, my instincts had been confirmed by the opinions of others. 

But the pace was quickening. I liked Mike Hammer, the character; I liked the way Stacy Keach had played him in some episodes from his first go-around playing the private detective. Ergo, I would like Mike Hammer: Private Eye, the third series to star Keach as Hammer. I reviewed it here; not only could I not make it through the entire series, I packaged it up and put it in the pile for Goodwill.

That pile also includes The Rat Patrol, which puzzled me. I'd watched and enjoyed it when it was first on, and I thought it would be fun to watch again. What I learned was 1) Sgt. Troy (Christopher George) was a lousy commander; and 2) it's better described as an adventure series for kids playing soldier in the back yard, not a war series for adults. We did get through the whole thing, but not without a lot of shouting from me. 

Then there was Maverick. Thanks to MeTV, I'd seen enough episodes of it to know that I'd like it; its pedigree was flawless, and who couldn't like James Garner? Me, apparently; the episodes starring Jack Kelly are enjoyable (in fact, although I'm probably in the minoritiy here, I think Kelly is a better actor in this than Garner), and there was something oft-putting about the Garner brother, Bret. He exhibits a kind of benign amorality, and while he hates to get involved, he doesn't hesitate to criticize those who do. (See "Day of Reckoning.") I haven't given up on it, though; I know the show doesn't really hit its stride until the second season, when the satire becomes more fully formed. It's on hiatus, though, replaced for the time being by Cheyenne.

I also dropped Alfred Hitchcock Presents in the middle of its sixth season. It shared the same moral ambiguity that Maverick occasionally displayed, and it started to exchange whimsy for true suspense. Worse, it was showing definite signs of being capricious; bad things were happening to basically decent people without any logical foundation for it, and no penalty for the perpetrators—dangerously close to nihilism. It was violating the Dorothy L. Sayers maxim that if justice is not dispensed in a story, there can be no equilibrium, no restoration of truth. ("The Throwback" was the final straw.) It headed for a long hiatus, replaced by a quartet of British dramas you'll be reading about shortly. But it will be back; there have been just too many good stories to give up.

Finally, and least surprising of all, Twin Peaks. I wrote about this here, and I knew exactly what I'd be in for with the second season. The good news is that we've made it through five episodes, which means we're that much closer to the end of the season. The bad news: there are still seventeen episodes to go. What's particularly interesting about this is that, at some point in the fourth episode, I realized I didn't remember having seen it. It wasn't that I'd blocked out all memory of it; I'd reached the point where I'd quit watching it. Funny; I thought I'd made it further along in the season. That's what pain can do to you, I guess.

Even if one discounts Twin Peaks, all this was enough to shake anyone's confidence. I'd always pictured myself as a champion for quality television, but was I not, perhaps, as discerning a viewer as I fancied myself to be? Was the idea of quality television just a mirage, the kind that the Rat Patrol might have come across in the desert? Was I washed up as a television aficionado? I'd even started to find flaws with shows like Perry Mason and Mystery Science Theater 3000, shows I'd watched and enjoyed many times; were those flaws always there, and I'd just overlooked them before? It was the kind of thing that could cause an existential crisis in a lesser man—perhaps I was a lesser man.

It was up to my wife to talk me down, something she's only too used to having to do. She reminded me that there were plenty of classic shows I'd selected, shows that I'd had little or no problem watching. We'd watched Hogan's Heroes, for instance, all the way through several times, and I wasn't complaining about that. And Perry Mason—well, the shows in the last couple of seasons were weak, but as soon as we cycled back to the beginning, I'd be fine again. She started ticking off a long list of shows I'd been right about: Danger Man, The Prisoner, The Avengers, Doctor Who, The Persuaders!, The Fugitive, Nero Wolfe, The Saint, Sherlock Holmes, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Wild Wild West, Blackadder, Peter Gunn, Search, Brenner, The Human Jungle, Breaking Point, The Green Hornet, Man With a Suitcase—the list went on. (And on, and on.) Out of such a substantial string of hits, there was bound to be a miss or two. And while some of the shows were well-known, just as many were calculated gambles, stabs in the dark, and they'd paid off in a big way. Besides, shows like 77 Sunset Strip were mostly successful.

And, she continued, look at the success I'd had recently with recent shows: Judd for the Defense, possibly headed for my Top Ten list. Combat! Tightrope. Hawaiian Eye. Search. Surfside 6. The Baron. Not all of them were great, but they were fun. (Well, you wouldn't call Combat! fun, but it is excellent.) We just started watching The Twilight Zone after many years, this time in Blu-ray, and weren't disappointed. She was right, and the reminder helped restore my confidence. No, I hadn't lost it after all.

Two nights ago we watched the first episode of Sam Benedict, the 1962-63 legal drama starring Edmund O'Brien; based on the first showing, there's every reason for optimism. In fact, if there's one string that runs through all these shows, it's that many of them were short-lived, running between one and three years. Is it possible that these shows ended before I could get tired of them? Should there perhaps be a break between seasons of longer-running series, the way it was when they were originally on and went into reruns during the summer? Both of these theories are possible; my tastes, eclectic as they are, do tend to result in series that don't exactly exhibit mass appeal. And maybe it would be a good idea to use some of them as breaks between seasons to keep from getting burned out by long-running favorites.

It's something to think about, down the line. Not now, though. For now I'm content to bask in the knowledge that whatever it is, I've still got it. TV  


  1. That's why I prefer the limited episodes of British TV over the assembly-line nature of American TV. American shows run out of steam much quicker. Not to say the Brits aren't capable of that. Last of the Summer Wine is the worlds longest sitcom, lasting 31 series over 37 years. The final years are almost physically painful to watch. Once you run out of story ideas, its time to call it quits.

    1. You said it right there - when you recycle a story idea three times, you've probably hit the limit!

  2. Marc Ryan
    77 Sunset was great fun to watch on MeTV because it was such a reflection of its time.
    Well, that's true of all our programs here.
    And you're right, junking all but Steam ruined it.
    Alfred Presents and Alfred's Hour is hit or miss to me. But it's an emotional old pair of slippers to me because as a child, my big brother loved Hitch, he was allowed to stay up. 🙂

    1. I remember watching Hitchcock in syndication on our Channel 11 during the summers when I could stay up late; it was on at 11:30 p.m., a perfect time. That old pair of slippers analogy is perfect!

  3. 'we've made it through five episodes, which means we're that much closer to the end of the season'
    If I start losing interest, start wondering why a show wasn't junked, or can't get into it after half an hour I now don't bother. Life is too short.
    Strangely Twin Peaks is something I've never got into despite wanting to and Dark Skies is a show I desperately want to love but is just an X-Files hanger-on.
    I, too, have sold or passed on a lot of DVDs over the years.

    1. Yeah, I'm starting to get that way myself. With the number of shows I've got on backlog, life is too short to spend time hatewatching. I'm committed to Twin Peaks though, if for no reason other than that I think I need to know what happens before I start season three, which I understand is MUCH better.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!