June 3, 2023

This week in TV Guide: June 7, 1980

We'll start the week off with this news item from the Hollywood teletype: "John Forsythe has replaced George Peppard as the patriarch in Oil, ABC's Dallas-like movie and series pilot. Peppard denied speculation that he left the show because of a reluctance to play a character patterned after Larry Hagman's J.R. Ewing, though he does say that he quit because of a disagreement over how his role should be played. Forsythe will continue his work as the voice of Charlie on Charlie's Angels, and as host on The World of Survival." Oil, of course, became Dynasty, which introduces us to the glory days of primetime soap operas, and this week's cover story, on the Dallas spinoff Knots Landing.

For those of you keeping score at home, the bridge characters of Knots Landing are Gary and Val Ewing (Ted Shackelford and Joan Van Ark), of those Ewings. Gary's the black sheep of the family (although I'm not exactly sure what being the black sheep of that family would be like), and the two of them were spun off into their own series in the third season of Dallas. Knots Landing returns to the CBS schedule this week, which gives author Cyra McFadden the opportunity to take a look at what it takes for a couple from Texas to make it in sunny Southern California.

We're reminded that the residents of Knots Landing are women who probably have their jeans drycleaned to keep their shape, and their eyelashes "began life as part of a mink"; however, it's unlikely that Karen (Michele Lee) would be a "marvelous cook" with those "inch-long, dark-red 'sculptured' claws that look as if they belong on a lobster." The women are all "thin, pretty and glowing with health. You know they’re on the Scarsdale Diet and never miss a workout at the local branch of Jane Fonda’s gym." As for the males of the enclave, Richard (John Pleshette) is a lawyer who wears gray suits, white shirts and ties; "my most successful lawyer friends," notes McFadden, "dress like very clean, very rich lumberjacks." Gary's okay wearing his cowboy boots becuase they're trendy even in Southern California, "but someone should tell Gary to stop sleeping in that Stanley Kowalski undershirt before he hears from the Knots Landing improvement association."

Still, the show gets some of the California details right. Unlike Texas, the oilmen are the bad guys when it comes to offshore drilling; and a rape episode showed the men in a sensible, sensitive and enlightened light; "No macho chest-beating, no vigilante attempts, no flicker of suggestion that the wife involved might somehow be to blame." And everyone seems to know that the fashionable California drink is a white-wine spritzer, not a Scotch-and-soda. But Val has problems—it is, after all, a soap opera—and she needs to do better than sing tenderlyto her childhood rag doll. Maybe, McFadden suggests, "Val would benefit from some of the new California therapies—primal screaming. or est, or meditative massage."

In the event, what began as a spinoff wound up more than holding its own; Knots Landing runs for 14 seasons (longer than Dallas), wins critical acclaim and viewer affection, and is the last of the primetime soaps to leave the airwaves. It even outlasts Dynasty, that John Forsythe show. And by the way, we shouldn't feel too sorry for Dynasty's would-be star, George Peppard; he went on to do a series called The A-Team, and as I recall, that did pretty well, too.

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On weeks when we can, we'll match up two of the biggest rock shows of the era, NBC's The Midnight Special and the syndicated Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, and see who's better, who's best.

Kirshner: Music by Rufus and Chaka Khan, Squeeze, Tanya Tucker and Rupert Holmes: comedy by Jimmie Walker and Dick Lord. Songs include "Do You Love What You Feel?" “Lay Back in the Arms of Someone," "Blind Love,” "Escape.”

Special: The Brothers Johnson; J. Giles Band; Randy Vanwormer; Neil & Dara Sedaka; and clips of Del Shannon, Bonnie Tyler and John Travolta from the film Urban Cowboy.

I wouldn't say that either show has an unforgettable lineup, but that's the way it is sometimes. John Travolta was already on something of a comeback after the bomb that was Moment by Moment, and Urban Cowboy helped prop him up. If this was a documentary on Travolta's career, it might be more significant, but as it is, it adds enough panache to Special's roster that the week winds up with a Push. 

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And now to the week in TV. Awards shows are often (but not always) a barometer as to what's popular, what's trendy. (I was going to add "what's hot," but I would have needed a thermometer for that.) This week, we have two we can choose from, starting on Sunday with the Tony Awards (8:30 p.m. CT, CBS), hosted by Mary Tyler Moore and Jason Robards. From the nominees, the big productions are the musicals Evita, Barnum, and Sugar Babies, while Children of a Lesser God is probably the best-known drama; individual nominees include Jim Dale (who wins for Barnum), Mickey Rooney (nominatd for Sugar Babies), Patti LuPone (winner for Evita), Blythe Danner (nominated for Betrayal), and Sandy Duncan (nominated for Peter Pan). 

The following evening, NBC carries the Music City News Country Awards (Monday, 8:00 p.m.), live from the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. Again, big names abound; Larry Gatlin, Marty Robbins, Kenny Rogers, Conway Twitty, and Don Williams are the male artist nominess, while Crystal Gayle, Emmylou Harris, Loretta Lynn, Barbara Mandrell, and Anne Murray are up for female artist. Lynn Anderson, Ray Stevens, and the Statler Brothers are the hosts.

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I've never been a fan of the hybrid genre called "dramedy." For me, things are pretty straightforward: a show is either a comedy or a drama. That doesn't mean you can't have humor in a dramatic situation (just watch Joe Friday's Dragnet partners Frank Smith and Bill Gannon; they provide excellent comic relief and at the same time are very competent detectives), nor does it mean you can't have drama in a humorous show (even a series like Hogan's Heroes has several surprisingly serious moments). One of the prime examples of a show that can't keep track of what it is is M*A*S*H. Full disclosure: I never liked M*A*S*H, so I could be projecting some bias here. But this show's crossovers into drama seem far more appropriate for a series like Medical Center or E.R. than a sitcom—and before you say anything, I know the show ceased to call itself a sitcom by the time it concluded. It just seems to me that if you want to send a message like this, spin Hawkeye off into his own dramatic series. Hey, it worked for Trapper John, M.D., right?

Anyway, the subject of this ramble is Monday's episode "A Race Against Time" (8:00 p.m., CBS), in which Hawkeye battles with the clock to save the life of a GI with a damaged heart. His only hope is to graft a blood vessel from another dying soldier—provided that soldier dies in time. Now, I have no complaints about the material here; the drama of the attempt to save the first soldier's life, combined with the potential ethical dilemma of wanting the second soldier to die "in time" is fine dramatic fare. I could see this in one of the old anthology series, or in a medical series like Ben Casey or Dr. Kildare. I have my doubts about a sitcom, though. And if they want to go that route, just make M*A*S*H a half-hour drama; they used to be plentiful. Again, you can disagree with me, and I won't hold it against you. 

Another program on Monday could be thought of as blurring the lines between comedy and drama, but in a different way. Mark Twain: Beneath the Laughter (8:00 p.m., PBS) gives us a brilliant performance by Dan O'Herlihy as an elderly Samuel Clemens, reflecting on life and death following the unexpected death of his daughter. The drama draws on Twain's writings, as well as insights from Twain scholars, to illustrate "the tragedy or folly that often provoked Twain's humor, while never forgetting the laughter, his device for getting and holding our attention." We know that most comedians have a dark, or at least darker, side to them anyway, so maybe I'm wrong about M*A*S*H; perhaps it's the comedy that makes us better appreciate the drama of the human condition.  Or maybe I was right the first time.

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In contrasting the TV Guides of the era with the fanmag it's turned into today, I often cite examples of how the magazine used to try and provide viewers with context and background for various shows they might be watching, and we've got an example of that this week. 

No "Disraeli Gears," but not bad.  
Masterpiece Theatre
is currently airing the four-part drama "Disraeli: Portrait of a Romantic," which looks at the former British prime minister's life: a man of humble beginnings who rose to power in the Victorian Era despite being "a dandy, a womanizer, and a Jew." The "Background" article, written by Michael Hiolroyd, gives us further insight into this enigmatic man, compelling us to be more interested in finding out more by watching the drama. 

Disraeli (played in the series by Ian McShane) was a writer of "extravangtly poetic novels" who dreamed of a career in politics. He believed, as he told one friend, that "to enter high society a man must either have blood, a million, or a genius." He lacked the blood part, and often failed in his moneymaking efforts (one debt took him 30 years to repay). Women were strongly attracted to him, and he engaged in several scandalous affairs with married women. Finally, he was "rescued" by a wealthy widow, 12 years his senior, with whom he enjoyed an extraordinarily happy 33-year marriage; Mary Anne (Mary Peach) would later say that "Dizzy married me for my money, but if he had the chance again, he would marry me for love."

Eventually, Disraeli was elected to Parliament as a Conservative; he continued to write novels, but in time he became a kind of early version of Churchill; an aphorist more than a novelist, a formidable adversary in debates. (One example: when an opponent accused Disraeli of having been picked out of the gutter by his wife, he replied, "My good fellow, if you were in the gutter, nobody would pull you out.") As his star rose, he became more serious; then ovel Sybil focused on industrial poverty in the north of England, while Tancred exposed Victorian materialism. Finally, he rose to "the top of the greasy pole," becoming prime minister in 1868, and again in 1874. His well-known cynicism was a cover for his kindness and humor; it was Disraeli who convinced Queen Victoria to return to public life after the death of Albert; it was Disraeli who made her Empress of India; and despite never completely winning over the blue-blood Tories, he achieved his life's ambition: to become a great man.

Now, after reading that, doesn't it make you want to watch the series? Doesn't it help you understand a little more about the obstacles he faced in his improbable rise to greatness? Doesn't it at least make you a little curious? It's certainly more compelling that a kiss-and-tell expose of what happened behind the scenes of the production.

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Now here's something interesting: a controversial new series on NBC's fall schedule. It's called Speak Up, America, and it's being condemned—not by viewers, not by critics, not by various advocacy groups, but by the network's own affiliates.

Speak Up, America
is a spin-off from Real People, produced by that show's producer, George Schlatter (who was responsible for Laugh-In), and hosted by former child evangelist Marjoe Gortner. Two episodes of the show were aired in April; although the ratings for the previews were not good, the network, calling it "The Time Magazine of the Airwaves," gave it a spot on the fall schedule. But, as an anonymous NBC spokesman admitted, the affiliate meeting exposed "a lot of concern that this show blurred the lines between news and entertainment." Indeed, many of the station executives told newsmen they would simply refuse to air the show. Their complaints were several: the show is "tasteless" ("a sperm bank was the subject of one feature"), it was too easy to mistake for a news show (giving news departments a black eye), and that it took on too many controversial targets, such as the oil industry, which could leave stations vulnerable to lawsuits.

Much of the criticism was aimed at Gortner, with one executive quoted as saying, "Marjoe’s nothing but a clown. His outbursts are too editorial, and I think we could have some very serious Fairness Doctrine problems," while another compared him to Network's Howard Beale in his revivalistic rhetoric and delivery. (One critic, Tom Shales, described him as "less personable than the average used-car salesman.") There were also problems with the show's "man in the street" segments; one executive said that "all the public is getting is mob responses for effect."

Frankly, I'm not sure what all the shouting is about; Speak Up, America sounds no different from the basic newsmagazine/reality show of today, albeit perhaps a little more flamboyant. Debuting in August (yes, it did make it to the fall schedule, with former NFL Today personality Jayne Kennedy and comedienne Rhonda Bates added as co-hosts), it was off the air by October, replaced by NBC Friday Night at the Movies. As I've often said here, perhaps the really problem was that Speak Up, America was just ahead of its time.

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In fact, I do remember Speak Up, America, at least vaguely, although I know I didn't watch it. (Having graduated from the World's Worst Town™, I was no longer limited to watching NBC). There are several shows, however, that I don't remember, either because I was busy with college, or they weren't on long enough to notice. I've probably mentioned some of them here—undoubtedly one of the times we looked at a 1980 issue—but I'm always surprised when I think about it; I'm familiar with so many of the shows of the 1960s and '70s, some of them I was too young to watch; and yet even though the 1980s should be a TV sweet spot for me, I have no memory of them. 

There's Joe's World (Saturday, 8:30 p.m., NBC), a "short-lived situation comedy about the owner of a house-painting contracting firm (Ramon Bieri) trying to support a wife and five children whose ages range from 9 to 23." It ran for 11 episodes. There's When the Whistle Blows (Saturday, 9:00 p.m., ABC), another "short-lived comedy about construction workers enjoying themselves. The crew was all male except for Lucy (Susan Buckner)." Dolph Sweet and Sue Ane Langdon are the best-known members of the cast; this one ran for 10 episodes. The Yeagers (Sunday, 6:00 p.m., ABC) was an Andy Griffith vehicle about "A logging/mining baron and his family struggling to operate and maintain the family business." It was also short-lived; four episodes were made, two were aired.

Phyl and Mikhy (Monday, 7:30 p.m., CBS) was a sitcom meant to play off the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow; "Track stars Phyllis (Phyl) and Mikhail (Mikhy) are on opposite sides of the Cold War but meet and marry." Six episodes, but director Hal Cooper says the show had good ratings; it was cancelled because of the controversy over the Olympic boycott. Semi-Tough (Thursday, 8:30 p.m., ABC), based on Dan Jenkins' much-loved satire on pro football, starred David Hasselhoff and Bruce McGill as "fun loving roommates," with Markie Post as the girl they both love; four episodes. Here's Boomer (Friday, 7:00 p.m., NBC), a contemporary take on Lassie but with a different breed, actually ran for two seasons. I have no recall of it. Maybe you do. That was followed by Me and Maxx (7:30 p.m., NBC), with Joe Santos as Norman, a man "living the bachelor life when his ex-wife decides it's his turn to raise their 11 year old daughter Maxx." Ten episodes.

Now, there were successful shows on in 1980—many of them—so it's not as if everything from the era is forgettable. Dallas, CHiPs, Alice, Little House on the Prairie, Lou Grant, Three's Company, Happy Days, Taxi, Hart to Hart, Charlie's Angels, Quincy. That's just a casual glance; there are many more. So not everything from the decade faded into the ether. But 1980 certainly had its share.

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A brief word on this week's editorial, which begins with a look at the controversy surrounding the upcoming NBC miniseris Beulah Land, set on a Southern plantation during the Civil War era. The series faces protests from the NAACP that the miniseries presents "a demeaning and sterotyped portrayal of blacks." "There is, of course, hardly a group that hasn't been stereotyped by television," editor Merrill Panit comments; "that’s almost the nature of the beast. But whether Beulah Land's depiction of blacks is "demeaning” is another question, and one for individual viewers to judge."

Executive producer David Gerber complains that the protests were "based on an original script that was revised 15 times after the NAACP committee saw it, and checked for accuracy by the chairman of the department of history at Rutgers University." Gerber has, it should also be noted, been the recipient of several awards regarding portrayals of black characters, including one from—you guessed it—the NAACP.

The last time we looked at an issue from 1980, the editorial was criticizing the Australian import series Prisoner: Cell Block H. But in that case, the complaint was not over whether or not the show should be aired at all, but rather what time it should be aired; there was never any question that stations should be allowed to show the series, no matter how bad it was, in the first place. The protests over Beulah Land, however, form an example of what we've come to call "cancel culture," the demand to preemptively censor anything offensive to anyone. Doubtless, a show like Beulah Land would never see the light of day today. But, as Panit says, "The dramatic quality of the film is not at issue here: Beulah Land may turn out to be an outstanding show, a mediocre one or a third-rate version of Gone with the Wind. What is at issue is the right of viewers to make up their own minds. We urge NBC—and the NAACP—to let us do that."

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MST3K alert: 
Reptilicus. (Danish; 1961) Prehistoric monster comes to life and rampages in Copenhagen. Fair effects, the rest smorgasbord. Carl Ottosen, Ann Smyrner. (Friday, 10:30 p.m., WTBS) This otherwise-undistinguished movie will always be remembered as the first to be shown in the first revival of MST3K on Netflix, with Jonah Ray taking over the hapless role of nursemaid to two robots, and viewer of cheesy movies. As for this offering, well, the movie industry has seen better times. TV  

1 comment:

  1. I'm with you on MASH. Someone said once 'MASH started as a comedy interrupted by moments of unexpected drama, to a drama interrupted by moments of unexpected comedy (and that's debatable).' When they switched to drama in season 4 they had to change the personalities of the remaining characters. I love the first three years, after that... well, as someone else noted: 'In 1973, if you watched MASH, you were cool. In 1983, If you watched MASH, you were a nerd.'
    The only successful transition of a character from comedy to drama (IMO) was Lou Grant. Outside of toning down his bluster from the Mary Tyler Moore Show, Lou's personality remained intact. I suspect the reason was MTM simply used the character as a springboard for a newspaper drama similar to 'All the President's Men'. Lou was simply part of an ensemble cast and the stories that surrounded them. Having worked in a newsroom in the 1980s, I can attest to the accuracy of the show compared to newspaper shows and movies of the past.
    As for MASH. If anyone is looking for a powerful ant-war message in a sitcom, they should look no further than the final scene in the Britcom Blackadder Goes Forth. One of the reasons that scene is so powerful is the fact that Blackadder WAS a comedy. The sudden shift in the final scene to drama packed a punch because we laughed and grew to love these characters for four years. Blackadder accomplished in a little over three minutes what took the finale of MASH two and a half hours to say.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!