November 29, 2023

What Christmas is all about, or Missing the (Hall)mark

I first ran this piece last December, but I thought it was worth repeating this year. You won't be surprised to find that my opinions haven't changed in the intervening year; in fact, if anything, they're even stronger than they were originally. If you think you might be offended by my strong opinions toward modern "Christmas" movies, feel free to skip to the next article—nothing personal, no harm done. I can't help the way I feel, though; to paraphrase our good friend Linus, these movies aren't what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

According to Jodi Walker in this article at The Ringer, the 2022 Christmas season will see 169 original holiday movies on various cable and streaming services—Hallmark, Lifetime, Netflix, and the like. (To put that in some perspective, there were 99 two years ago; that number jumped up to 147 last year.) It's no wonder there are so many of them: they're relatively inexpensive to make; they require almost no effort to write, since they all use basically the same plot; and they're extremely popular among viewers.

The hallmark of these movies (no pun intended) is a hero or heroine who returns to their hometown, disillusioned with the life they have lived regardless of the success it may have brought them, who finds a sensitive soulmate, often recovering from a brokenness of their own, who leads them to a better understanding of themselves; overcoming a series of obstacles (with the help of a man who may or may not be Santa Claus), the two come together in a loving embrace under the twinkling of the stars or the sparkle of the Christmas tree, and everyone presumably lives happily ever after. 

About that popularity—according to Walker, more than 80 million people watched at least a few minutes of a Hallmark movie last year.* Their appeal is no mystery, either: says Walker, tongue-somewhat-in-cheek, "These movies are specifically built to be discovered in fits of Thanksgiving boredom so debilitating that no member of the family is able to muster the physical or mental strength to change the channel. They are intended to temporarily uplift spirits, smooth gray matter to silk, and make you laugh at their ludicrous conceits." Even the worst holiday movie, Walker points out, "is the best holiday movie because it takes no effort to consume, and there are inevitably cookies involved." You know how even exhibition football games get larger TV audiences than regular season baseball or basketball games? Well, that's how it works with holiday movies. 

*Although there's no proof to support it, my theory is that some of them could only make it through a few minutes before they had to go to the bathroom and throw up. 

Most of these movies are colloquially billed as Christmas movies; many of them even have the word "Christmas" in their titles. I have to admit, though, that I have more respect for a network like Paramount+ that simply refers to them as holiday movies, though there's no question about what particular holiday we're talking about. Because, as Walker put it in an earlier Ringer article, "The holidays are about finding romantic love, wish-related magic, and firing up IMDb to see where you recognize that person from." But "they’re certainly not about organized religion." 

That's a matter of opinion, I suppose, the part about holidays not being about organized religion. I mean, I'll grant you that Independence Day and Labor Day are pretty much religion-free, but nobody makes rom-coms to show on a July 4 marathon. (Shhh—don't give them any ideas.) But there's a real feeling of a missed opportunity here. Not that your average holiday movie has anything to do with love, any more than a given season of The Bachelor; the characters may talk about love, but the stories really deal with romance, which I suppose is why they're not called luv-coms. But this holiday that dares not speak its name—Christmas—is filled with nothing but love, a love that's deeper and more profound than anything you'll see in these movies.

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Bishop Fulton Sheen, in an episode of Life Is Worth Living, said that there are three kinds of love, and used their Greek words to describe them, because there was no English word that could really measure the distinction between them. The first is eros, or affectionate love, which is probably the closest thing to what you see in holiday movies, since eros is where we get the word erotic. Then, there's philia, which is love for others made in the likeness of God. Brotherly love, as the name Philadelphia might indicate. The third is agape, or sacrificial, divine love of God for man. Pure love.

That third kind, agape, is what Christmas is all about. It's the love of God become man, to live among us, with feelings and emotions; to die among us, with the most unimaginable physical and supernatural pain imaginable; and to conquer death in the Resurrection and show us the world available to us after this life has ended. It's a love greater than the love that the handsome but sensitive café owner has for the beautiful heroine who's lost her way and returned home to find it. 

And here's another missed opportunity, because the subtext to these movies is frequently that the modern world is not all it's cracked up to be, that the high price required for success in Corporate America is not worth paying. It's the kind of introspection that Christmas demands, getting in touch with the things that matter most: not the number of presents under the tree, not who has the best light display, not the new Lexus in the driveway (although all of these can be pleasurable in moderation), but the love of a God Who gave us the most precious of gifts. These movies may see it obliquely, as if through a glass darkly, but until they give up the childish things, until they replace feelings and sentimentality with something more substantial, they'll never quite get there. And, essential as it is for the protagonist in our movie to succeed in this journey to self-discovery, the German philosopher Josef Pieper understood that self-knowledge is not enough; "we simply cannot satisfy our hunger from within. No amount of self-knowledge will satiate us entirely."

How strange it is that the true meaning of a holiday that is all about love is virtually ignored in favor of movies that talk about romance without going much deeper than, "love means never having to say you're sorry." 

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Now, I know what you're thinking: what's this burr I have in my saddle (or the thorn in my side, or the bug up my, well, you know what I mean) when it comes to Christmas movies? We'll use Hallmark as a stand-in for all the various providers of the genre, since they were the first originators. Literally.

The very first episode of the Hallmark Hall of Fame was a Christmas story. An opera, to be precise. It was called "Amahl and the Night Visitors," and it aired live on December 24, 1951. The composer, Gian-Carlo Menotti, took as his inspiration Hieronymus Bosch's painting "The Adoration of the Magi." the original of which was brought to the studio for Menotti's introduction to the program.

The opera tells the story of a young shepherd, Amahl, who suffers from a crippled leg. One night he and his widowed mother are visited by three kings travelling East, following a star. They carry with them containers filled with gold, frankincense, and myrrh, meant as gifts for a newborn King they have heard about. Amahl, too, wants to pay honor to the Child, but he has nothing to give other than his crutch. when he offers it to the kings, his leg is miraculously healed. The opera ends with Amahl leaving with the kings to present his crutch to Jesus in person.

"Amahl and the Night Visitors" was an overnight sensation, garnering headlines and praise from around the country. It was restaged the following Easter, and then during the Christmas season every year through 1966, in the process becoming television's first Christmas tradition. I wrote an article about this many years ago, so you'll forgive me for being biased.

Over the years, Hall of Fame continued to provide high-quality, literate presentations, including the occasional Christmas drama. Many of Shakespeare's plays make an appearance, performed by America's finest actors. "The Lark" adapts a play by Jean Anouilh on the trial of Joan of Arc; "The Green Pastures" tells stories from the Old Testament and features an all-black cast (in 1957!). There are biographical stories on Churchill and Disraeli, adaptations of well-known movies such as "Dial M for Murder," and dramas by Shaw, Rostand, and Hellman. Well into the 1990s, you could count on Hall of Fame for thoughtful movies like "Sarah, Plain and Tall" and "Breathing Lessons." Over the decades, Hall of Fame was known as presenting some of the best in television, appealing to the viewer's desire for quality, middlebrow entertainment. More people probably saw one of its three telecasts of "Macbeth" than all the people who'd ever seen the play in-person up to that point.

Quality, literate, thoughtful television. "The Borrowers," "Man and Superman," "Abe Lincoln in Illinois," "Give Us Barabbas." Not Noel Next Door, A Kismet Christmas, A Magical Christmas Village, and A Christmas Cookie CatastropheThat's what the bug is.

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Google some variant of "Christmas movies criticism" and you'll get stories from the last few years about how the casts are too white and too heterosexual, how Hallmark nixed gay relationships, how Hallmark backed away from nixing gay relationships, how Lindsay Lohan is using her Netflix holiday movie to reboot her career, and so on. As far as criticism of the content or quality of these movies is concerned, there's not a whole lot to be seen. Most people seem to understand that their plots are derivative, their content is sugary, they won't tax your brain too much, and their goal is escapism. Most people seem to like them. 

Now, I'm the first to acknowledge that I'm not a romantic. I'm actually more neo-Baroque. (A little classical music humor there.) Given the choice between a movie by, say, Nora Ephron and one by Bergman, you can probably guess which one I'm going to choose. But there's nothing wrong with being a romantic, or with making extremely successful movies. One of the problems with today's Academy Awards is that it panders to movies that virtually nobody has seen, so there's a lot to be said for popular culture in films.

My problem, I think, is the same problem that Martin Scorsese has with superhero movies. Scorsese, you might recall, once said of the superhero movie that, while "Many of the elements that define cinema as I know it are there in Marvel pictures. What’s not there is revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger … They are sequels in name but they are remakes in spirit, and everything in them is officially sanctioned because it can’t really be any other way. That’s the nature of modern film franchises: market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted and remodified until they’re ready for consumption." I see much of the same in the Christmas cookie-cutter holiday movie.

I know, I know, people want the sameness, the story of boy-meets-girl, trouble ensues, love overcomes all. And it would be great if that's the way life was. But it isn't. As Scorsese says about cinema, so he could have said about life: it's full of revelation and mystery. The emotional danger is real because you're not guaranteed an ending that's happily-ever-after—that's up to you. But if you don't seek out that drama in your entertainment, how are you going to recognize it in your life?

Am I a hypocrite, considering how many times I say about television that it's OK to watch a show not for its realism or its intellectual content, but just because it's fun? Well, maybe; I was a political science major, which means I know a lot about hypocrisy. But if you'll recall, I also make the point that man does not live on dessert alone. Just as you need a well-balanced diet for your nutritional health, you need it for your intellectual health as well.

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My goal is never to unintentionally offend; if I'm going to offend someone, I want the satisfaction of knowing I did it. So if you're a fan of the rom-com and you're sipping warm coco from the authentic Hallmark Christmas Movie-Watching Mug™, I'm not calling you stupid, or saying your brain is full of mush. A man who watched The Gong Show daily has no place saying that. Besides, my wife used to watch these movies for years, and I know for a fact that she's none of those things. It's just that, like the old Peggy Lee song, I'm left asking "Is That All There Is?". 

People gravitate towards movies like these because they offer comfort and hope. But as St. Augustine wrote, "Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are." That was a major theme of Dickens in A Christmas Carol, and the story's held up pretty well for the past 180 or so years. Don't worry that viewers can't handle it: we can. And we, as viewers, can be more discriminating; we need to start challenging ourselves more: to be better, and to demand better. 

As I said, I'm not a romantic. And I'll admit to being a bit of a contrarian, but I'm not a humbug. If your Christmas isn't complete without a Christmas movie on Hallmark, Lifetime, Netflix or Paramount+, by all means enjoy. It won't surprise you that I won't be watching any of them; I'll be sticking with the classics, with their subtle subtexts: How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Miracle on 34th Street, which remind us that Christmas is about more than commercialism; Amahl, which shows the power of sacrificial love; the various versions of A Christmas Carol, which demonstrates the importance of repentance, and, echoing the Parable of the Workers, reminds us that it's never too late, no matter how old you are, no matter what you've done in the past. That ought to be as comforting to us as a warm Christmas cookie.

So my wish, this Christmas, is that Hallmark might consider, just once, returning to its roots and doing a movie with quality, depth, and gravitas; and that all of the networks might produce even one movie out of 169 that tells the true Christmas story without some vague allusion to an amorphous spirituality—perhaps something like The Fourth Wise Man, a fine TV-movie with Martin Sheen from years ago. Two or even three movies would make up less than two percent of your annual new output, not including reruns from past years.

Christmas is more than sugar and spice and everything nice. (That's what little boys are made of.) It's more than giving and receiving gifts, more than discovering the things in life that really matter. For that matter, it's more important than crafting the most literate movie ever made. Most important, it's far, far more important than mere romance. Christmas is part of the Greatest Love Story Ever Told, and the challenge in accepting that love.

We deserve better than what we're being given. We need better than that. TV  

November 27, 2023

What's on TV? Wednesday, November 30, 1960

Watching TV from the 1950s and '60s, it begins to seem as if television was comprised of a vast repertory company of actors and actresses who simply rotated through all the shows and then started over again. You start to recognize some of them by name or face, or, if you're really lucky, by name and face. 

Myrna Fahey is one of those names and faces; according to the always-reliable Wikipedia, she appeared in episodes of 37 television series from the 1950s until her untimely death from cancer in 1973 at age 40. As if to prove a point, she's in not one but two shows tonight: first, as the lead guest star in Wagon Train; and then in Hawaiian Eye, and for all I know she's in other shows this week as well. But that was the way of it back then, and it just shows that you didn't have to be a star of a big show to be a familiar face. This week's listings are from the Pittsburgh edition; maybe you'll see some other names you recognize.

November 25, 2023

This week in TV Guide: November 26, 1960

After years—nay, decades—of asking who's to blame for the lousy programs we see on television, we at last have a final and definitive answer: we are.

Well, that's comforting.

The man providing the answer is Hubbell Robinson, formerly EVP of programming for CBS, now head of Hubbell Robinson Productions, and the reasoning behind his answer is actually very sound: we get mediocre programs because we don't demand more from the networks; we "passively accept it that way." Furthermore, when networks do offer informational and public-affairs programming, we don't watch them.

This is, of course, an argument with a double-edged potential to it. Yes, Robinson seems to be saying, if you will watch it, they will make it; ratings, after all, rule the roost. And, as H.L. Mencken may or may not have said, nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people. However, in his pious appeal to the Latin phrase Sic transit gloria rei publicae ("Thus passes away the glory of the republic"), he comes dangerously close to the elitist attitude that the public doesn't know what's good for them, that if only they'd watch what we prepare for them, everything would be all right. Quoting Pericles, Robinson ponderously pronounces that "We consider the man not informed about public affairs not only harmless but useless," and he comments on how it's a good thing that the creators of TV's public-affairs, informational, and news programs are "a hardy lot." "In spite of the relatively small percentage of rabbit ears pointed their way," he sys, "they continue to enlarge and lift their horizons." 

Give Robinson credit, though; he allows that, for its part, television must "mature and upgrade the level of its entertainment, show some of the skills in the arts it has displayed in the crafts, manage to bring its creative accomplishment more in line with its electronic genius." Just because shows like 77 Sunset Strip, Gunsmoke, The Untouchables, and "that obeisance to the cult of something for nothing, The Price is Right" are popular, executives should not assume that these are the only kinds of shows that can be popular. And for the record, I think many, if not most, people would consider Gunsmoke and The Untouchables to be above-average drama series at least, while Sunset Strip is far better than a "mediocre" program. (The Price is Right? Well, as someone pointed out in an issue from a few weeks ago, people have to have knowledge of current market pricing and the ability to make rapid calculations in order to succeed at it.)

Setting aside all that, what does Robinson think should be done to improve the quality of shows seen on our tubes? For one thing, television's creative talents must accept "the need to be popular" in order to succeed. That may seem an odd thing, but remember how fashionable it's been to criticize artists for producing "popular" works? They wear their lack of commercial success as a badge of honor, and that has to stop. Other than that, though, there should be no constraint on their output; they should have "complete freedom." Combine the discipline of working in a popular medium with the latitude to take on "message" projects will not only improve programming, it will help to attract and retain talented writers, producers, and directors. Sponsors and networks also have to make a commitment to support such shows—the financial sinew, he says, "to start and keep going."

And here's where it all returns to us. These changes can't be achieved by industry critics, or by the "antics" of someone like David Susskind, someone who wants to make a lot of noise with not much to show for it. (Methinks there's more to the story there.) It can only happen by "a network or networks partnered with independent production ventures and the major talents themselves." And it must be supported by the 100,000,000 Americans who run television by nature of their repeated viewership. "It is not a question of whether television can afford to take this step," Robinson concludes. "The question is: can it afford not to?" Based on the 60+ years of programming that have followed, I think Robinson would conclude that television, apparently, can quite easily afford not to.

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College football's regular season comes to an end this Saturday in Philadelphia, where more than 100,000 fans will be in attendance for the game of the year, the 61st meeting between Army and Navy. (1:00 p.m. ET, ABC) And lest you think this is all hype, consider the words of sportswriter Melvin Durslag: "Irrespective of the records of Army and Navy during the course of the season, the 105,000 seats in Philadelphia Stadium are hardly enough to meet the demand. People flock to this even from all over the Nation, even though television brings it to the warmth and comfort of one's parlor." The first use of television instant replay was during an Army-Navy game, and ABC's going all-out for this year's broadcast, with Curt Gowdy and Paul Christman in the booth, and Bob Neal roaming the sidelines (with a portable camera called the "sneaky-peepy." Seven cameras will be covering the action (a "whopping" number), and the pre-game parade of Cadets and Midshipmen will be shown on television for the first time. So, yes, this game is a big deal.

That might seem hard to believe now. Neither Army nor Navy have been considered major forces in college football since, well, the 1960s. Ah, but Navy produced two Heisman Trophy winners in that decade, Joe Bellino and Roger Staubach, and the 1963 team finished #2 in the country, behind only Texas; Navy enters this year's game ranked #7, and winds up with a #4 ranking. The golden years for Army's Black Knights have, alas, been fewer and farther between. These days, successful seasons mean battles not for the national championship, but for spots in some of the second-tier bowl games, and while they're capable of producing nine- or ten-win seasons, this year's game will be typical of recent contests, with the two teams having combined for a total of eight victories (at this time of writing). 

But while the stakes not what they once were—it's hard to imagine, for instance, drawing 100,000 fans to this year's game—Army-Navy is still a thing. Although the Air Force has enjoyed greater success over the past few decades, their games against Army and Navy never attract the same level of excitement. The game is privileged with an exclusive spot on the schedule, after all the regular season and conference championship games are played (one could argue that this is the only way the game keeps its place on the national stage), and among the spectators is often the president of the United States. It even has a corporate sponsor, the ultimate sign of prestige as it goes in sports. 

Oh, and by the way, if you're curious to see how that 1960 Army-Navy game went, you can see it right here.

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This week's starlet is the lissome Diane Cannon, and it really is true that while she was sitting in a restaurant having lunch one day, a man came up to her and said, "Honey, are you in pictures? Because if you're not, you should be." That man turned out to be an agent, and before you knew it, Diane had gone from being a showroom assistant for a sweater manufacturer to having appeared in three episodes of NBC's Matinee Theater

Since then, she's done a publicity tour for MGM's Les Girls (even though neither she nor the other two women doing the tour actually appeared in the movie), and from then on, it's been steady work: the feature film The Sleepwalkers, Playhouse 90 (three times), 77 Sunset Strip, and Bat Masterson among other TV series; and work on the soap operas For Better or Worse and Full Circle. The latter title earned her a one-year contract at CBS. Working a live, five-day-a-week soap is easy for her; "I'm a fast study. Eight years of concert piano study taught me how to memorize things in a hurry."

Diane's real name is Camille Diane Friesen, but she has one more name change in store, altering the spelling of her first name to "Dyan." So that's how Dyan Cannon got her start—and she hasn't stopped since. Since this article in TV Guide, she's earned three Academy Award nominations (including one for Best Live Action Short), married Cary Grant (with whom she had daughter Jennifer), became a favorite guest of Johnny Carson's on The Tonight Show (where she frequently showed off her infectious laugh), and was a regular at courtside seats for the Los Angeles Lakers. She has had, by any definition, a terrific career, and she's still active at age 86. Could anyone have predicted this by reading this article in 1960? If so, they're a shrewd judge of talent.

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Dwight Whitney reports that, unless there's a last-minute settlement, Maverick star James Garner's legal battle with Warner Bros. will be going to court this week, and it promises to be one of the biggest stories Hollywood has seen in years. 

For the uninitiated, the dispute goes back to last March, when the suspended star was laid off from Warner Bros. due to, of all things, a writers' strike. The studio invoked its force majeure provision of the contract, under which it claimed the strike was akin to an Act of God—in other words, beyond the control of the studio. Since Maverick couldn't be made without scripts, the show went on hiatus, and under force majeure, the studio wouldn't have to continue paying Garner's salary. Garner filed suit against Warner, claiming that the action was a breach of Garner's contract with the studio, making him a free agent. "I feel like a side of beef," Garner complained to TV Guide. "Every once and a while, the studio cuts off a hunk." Garner has made no secret of wanting out of his contract. "Contracts are completely one-sided affairs," he says. "If you you click, the studio owns you." He's been particularly frustrated about not being free to do movies, claiming that it would benefit the studio as much as it would him. "If we made two movies a year we'd do 15 times as well."

Garner's colleagues at Warner Bros. have already returned to work during his suspension; both Jack Kelly and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. have signed new deals that include healthy increases, and Roger Moore, who took Garner's place on Maverick, had it written into his contract that, should Garner return to the show, Moore wouldn't have to do any more TV at all.

"Should Garner return to the show. . ." Therein lies the rub. In a precedent-setting decision, Garner wins his lawsuit against Warner Bros., and wins again when the studio appeals the verdict. "I remember my lawyer asked me what I wanted," Garner would recall years later. "He said, 'Do you want a new contract, do you want a raise, or do you want out?' I said, 'I want out.'" And out he went—of the many WB stars suspended at one time or another by the studio, Garner would be the only one to win his freedom. "I wanted to be in control of my career. I didn't want somebody else making those decisions. If I was going to be a success, I wanted to be my success. If I was going to be a failure, I wanted to be my failure, not somebody else’s because they made the wrong choices."

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After all this, let's get to some shows, shall we? 

On Sunday night, ABC debuts its new documentary series The Valiant Years (10:30 p.m.), based on the memoirs of Sir Winston Churchill. It is, TV Guide says in an accompanying article, "the greatest drama of our times." Churchill had nothing to do with the production of the series and does not appear except in archival footage; as former producer Edgar Peterson, who helped get the project started, says, "We don't need Churchill, [he] has already written the script and that we have the original words." He thinks of the story as the ultimate Western: "We have a wonderful hero, Churchill; a dastardly villain, Hitler; and a terrific chase—World War II." Gary Merrill narrates the series, while the words of Churchill are,  read by Richard Burton; composer Richard Rodgers will win an Emmy for his incidental music. I suppose this is an example of the kind of show that Hubbell Robinson thinks of when he points the finger at viewers, and he has a point; I've seen from several editions of TV Guide that there were too many affiliates who didn't clear the series or aired it at other times; they'd rather show movies or syndicated programs that garner higher ratings and provide the stations with higher ad revenue.

Tuesday, an NBC White Paper (10:00 p.m.) takes an in-depth look at "The U-2 Affair." Chet Huntley hosts the hour, which presents a minute-by-minute timeline of the shooting down of an American U-2 spy plane by the Soviet Union in May. Initially, the United States claimed the plane was involved in civilian weather research, but were eventually forced to concede the existence of the U-2 after the Soviets produced its pilot, Francis Gary Powers, who was then tried and convicted of espionage in August. The affair resulted in the collapse of a U.S.-Soviet summit planned in Paris and gave Soviet premier Khrushchev another opportunity to grandstand in public; all in all, it was not one of America's more shining hours.

On Wednesday and Thursday, Family Classics presents a two-part adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' "The Three Musketeers" (7:30 p.m. each night, CBS), featuring a wonderful cast including Maximilian Schell as the heroic D'Artagnan, Vincent Price as the evil Cardinal Richelieu, Patricia Cutts as Milady de Winter, Felicia Farr* as Constance, Barry Morse as Athos, John Colicos as Porthos, and Tim O'Connor as Aramis. 

*In two years, she'll be Mrs. Jack Lemmon.

Also on Wednesday: Red Skelton's half-hour weekly variety series doesn't expand to an hour until 1962, but this week, in addition to his regular Tuesday night show, Red stars in an hour-long color special (8:30 p.m., CBS) in which his regular characters—Clem Kadiddlehopper, Freddie the Freeloader, Sheriff Deadeye, and others—take a tour along Hollywood Boulevard. Not surprisingly, they'll run into some famous folks along the way: Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, George Raft, Bobby Rydell, and William Demarist.

On Friday, the docudrama series Our American Heritage (9:00 p.m., NBC), hosted by Lowell Thomas, presents "Born a Giant," the story of Andrew Jackson's life prior to being elected president. British actor Bill Travers plays Jackson (an interesting choice), but the real interest is in the guest stars: Barbara Rush, Farley Granger, Walter Matthau, John Colicos (fresh from saving France as a Musketeer), and Robert Redford.

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Those are the highlights of the week after Thanksgiving. Each weekday afternoon at 5:15, WTRF in Wheeling, West Virginia has a 15-minute kids' program called Santa Claus, and KDKA in Pittsburgh has an identically-titled show for 10 minutes at 6:20; I suppose they're those shows where kids call in and talk to Santa and tell him what they want for Christmas (while mom and dad listen in to find out what to go shopping for). Otherwise, there are no Christmas programs to be seen.

Regular readers will have heard me bring this up—many times. But new readers come along all the time (so I can hope), and so it's worth repeating that Christmas programs in the early 1960s didn't start the moment the clock struck 12:00 on the day after Thanksgiving Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol, in 1962, was the first animated Christmas special made for television, and the first to be shown annually. Rudolph came along in 1964, and the others after that. The networks, however, had the decency to at least wait until early December to start showing them. Nowadays, most of these shows exist for one reason only: to use their commercials to push ads aimed at the kids who are watching, and it wouldn't do to have these shows air too closely to Christmas; wouldn't give the parents much time to buy the goodies for the kiddies, would it? This year, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer airs on November 24

As we get closer to Christmas, we'll see more programs with a seasonal flair: movies, variety shows, and the like. And while they were certainly intended to push merchandise—after all, who can forget Ed Herlihy's commercials for Kraft and their holiday recipes, or the card commercials on Hallmark Hall of Fame?—they were also intended to provide a festive atmosphere for viewers. Amahl and the Night Visitors, the first Christmas special to be aired annually (as well as the first Hall of Fame special), made its television debut on December 24, and when variety shows were a regular part of television, they all aired their Christmas episodes a week or so out. 

Today, so much holiday programming consists of regurgitated romance movies from Hallmark (how far they've fallen!), Netflix, and the like, starting—I dunno, sometime right after Halloween? And, let's be honest, their actual connection to Christmas is tenuous at best; what they're really selling is a chaste form of romanticized sex. (I wonder what Hubbell Robinson would think of them?) As for more traditional Christmas specials, it almost seems as if the closer one gets to the big day, the fewer there are, at least on networks. Maybe things are different this year; in all honesty, I've stopped checking the schedules.

Don't worry, though. As far as "This Week in TV Guide" is concerned, the Christmas programs will be along shortly, if not quite as early as you've come to expect. Remember, good things come to those who wait. TV  

November 24, 2023

Around the dial

Wednesday was the 60th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and Garry Berman tells us about the effect it had on the world of comedy: the behind-the-scenes story of the British satire series That Was the Week That Was, and the scramble to prepare a tribute to JFK for the November 23 show; Neil Simon making a pitch for two of his comedies; and Vaughn Meader's career.

There were all sorts of unexpected television ramifications from that day, and the Broadcast Archives links to a piece by Michael Hayde on an "unfortunate" listing in TV Guide for December 4: a live program called "The Kennedy Awards," sponsored by the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, at which JFK was scheduled to appear. I'd not heard of this one before; it's a show that never took place.

Long before the politicians of the day, the Kennedys were intertwined with Hollywood, thanks to papa Joe's involvement. Find out more about that, as well as the Hollywood connections of the future president, in Maddy's interesting piece at Classic Film and TV Corner. 

At Drunk TV, Paul does exactly the kind of thing I love to do: look back at past holidays and see what was on TV. In this case, it's Thanksgiving 1971, and I can identify with it: studying the listings to plan out your day's viewing, watching the parades (which often seemed a vague letdown), the special movies and cartoons (with, yes, too many songs), and—for me, at least—the football, including one of the greatest college football games ever played. Not like that anymore, but we still have the memories.

Nothing to do with TV, but I agree 100%: at A Shroud of Thoughts, Terence opines on why it's too soon for Christmas, and why Christmas doesn't end on December 25, but is just getting started. As he says, "Everything has its own season. I want to celebrate Halloween, the Day of the Dead, and Thanksgiving before I get to Christmas."

However, television networks don't happen to see things that way; they've got their holiday programming all queued up, and Joanna is here, or at least at Christmas TV History, with a handy guide to where and when many of those shows and movies can be seen. I'll be the first to say many of these are not my cup of tea, but who am I to play Scrooge at this time of year? Tune in next Wednesday, and you'll find out.

At Comfort TV, David's journey through 1970s TV continues with Tuesday night, 1973. It's a night of favorites old and new: NBC's Police Story being the new, while ABC's Marcus Welby, M.D. and CBS's Maude and Hawaii Five-O being the old. A good night for television; even Hawkins, the single-season series starring Jimmy Stewart, wasn't bad. 

John takes a pause from his own travels through the '70s at Cult TV Blog to bring us The Organisation, ITV's 2005-06 supernatural series that takes the tropes of the classic Victorian ghost story and brings them to our time, along with a meditation on life and death and the afterlife. I like that kind of ambition in a series.

Hopefully today finds all of you still basking in the glow of a most happy Thanksgiving, and that if you dared to go out on Black Friday (is that still a thing in the stores, or is it all done online now?) you found everything you were looking for and returned safe and sound. TV  

November 22, 2023

The 2024 It's About TV Gift-Giving Guide

I am old enough, I believe, to remember when Black Friday wasn't a thing. Oh, the day after Thanskgiving has always been the biggest shopping day of the year, but according to the always-reliable Wikipedia, the term wasn't officially coined until it appeared in the paper of record, The New York Times, in 1975. Since then, it's become virtually a holiday of its own, even threatening to overshadow Thanksgiving when stores started the abomination of opening on Thanksgiving Day itself. But when I was growing up, the day after Thanksgiving meant a long weekend, an extra day off from school. It meant a day of cartoons on ABC, and, later on, a flood of college football games. We did our share of Black Friday shopping back in the day, when we were younger, but there aren't so many people to shop for nowadays, and like so many of us, we do most of our shopping online.

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the subject at hand today. Undoubtedly, some of you will be doing your Christmas shopping this weekend, and I'd be remiss if I didn't give you some excellent gift-giving ideas, based on what we talk about here, for the cultural historian among your family and friends, or for yourself if you're so inclined. And this year I'm doing it early enough to allow you to build it into your shopping schedule.

My first recommendation is always going to be my own books, which you can purchase at Amazon through this link, or at Barnes & Noble, or any of your other favorite online retailers. The Collaborator and The Car are novels, provocative mysteries that will give you something to think about. The Electronic Mirror is a collection of essays on classic television and its relationship to American culture. All of them are worth reading, and hopefully by this time next year there'll be one more book to add to the collection.

I've reviewed several books over the past few years that I strongly recommend: Peace: The Wide, Wide World of Dave Garroway, Television's Original Master Communicator, by Jodie Peeler, Dave Garroway Jr., and Brandon Hollingsworth, is the biography of one of television's greatest pioneers: the first host of Today, one of the original "communicators" of the landmark radio program Monitor, and much more. And yet, if his accomplishments are largely forgotten, the private life of this public man has never really been known, until now. Available in hardcoverpaperback, and Kindle, I can't recommend this enough.

Another book I strongly recommend is David Hofstede's When Television Brought Us Together: Celebrating the Shows and the Values That Shaped America's First Television Viewing Generations, available in paperback and Kindle. David's elegant prose demonstrates that a love of classic television is more than a nostalgic wish for the past: it's a look at shows that offer examples of the ideals and ethics that were once common in America but, especially in recent years, have seemed to be shrinking away from us. Reading this book, you'll find yourself nodding in agreement more than once.

For something a little more lighthearted but no less enjoyable, there's From Beverly Hills to Hooterville: Exploring TV's Henningverse 1962-1971, Daniel Budnik's affectionate and thorough look at Paul Henning's three iconic sitcoms of the 1960s: The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, and Green Acres. Even though these shows all share the same universe and cross over from time to time, they have their own distinctive styles, themes, and characters, and Daniel covers them all in a way that will both delight longtime fans and create new ones. (Paperback, Kindle)

(Full disclosure: I'm mentioned in the acknowledgements section of one of these books, and have cover blurbs on the other two. This absolutely should not be taken to mean that my opinions are biased in any way, right? Seriously, all three of these books are ones that I've enjoyed thoroughly; I don't profit from my recommendations other than to share that enjoyment with others.)

Longtime readers know my fascination with the pivotal year 1968, and the effect it's had (and continues to have) on our political, cultural, and communications history. If you share that interest, you're going to want to read Heather Hendershot's When the News Broke: Chicago 1968 and the Polarizing of America. (Hardcover, Kindle) The 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago was one of the most consequential events in recent history: it reflected the deep divisions not only in the country but in one of its political parties; and displayed for all to see the changing relationship between Americans and the news media. I can't add to this description of the book as "A riveting, blow-by-blow account of how the network broadcasts of the 1968 Democratic convention shattered faith in American media."

Do I write too much about sports? It's not surprising, since sports and television are two of my great material loves, and what could be better than a book that combines the two? That would be Keith Dunnavant's The Fifty-Year Seduction: How Television Manipulated College Football, from the Birth of the Modern NCAA to the Creation of the BCS (Hardcover) Even though this book is nearly 20 years old, it's a valuable recounting of the history of college football on television, and how the medium has changed the sport over the years. (You youngsters out there might be surprised to see how different coverage of the game was once upon a time.) Dunnavant points out a myriad of problems with the sport, and 20 years later, a lot of them still exist.

Having recently finished watching the astonishing final season of Twin Peaks (The Return), I have to add Mark Frost's two epistolary novels, The Secret History of Twin Peaks (Hardcover, Kindle) and Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier (Hardcover, Kindle). Among the raft of scholarly books that attempt to dig deeper into the series' meaning, why not go with the two written by the show's co-creator? They may or may not help explain what it was all about, but, as was the case with the series itself, they'll take you on a hell of a ride. 

There are a number of other books I've reviewed over the years that are worthily worth your consideration; you can read those reviews here.

Turning to the video side, it's unfortunate that, for the most part, the well of classic television on DVD has pretty much dried up. Except, that is, for ClassicFlix, which has brought out three little-seen programs from the 1950s that deserve a place on your DVD shelf: The O. Henry Playhouse, 21 Beacon Street, and World of Giants. You can read about and order each of these series at the ClassicFlix website, as well as find out news on upcoming releases, such as season two of The Abbott and Costello Show, and the sitcom Angel. These have all been handsomely restored in glorious black-and-white, and they'll make perfect gifts, especially for those of you who think you've already seen everything there is to see out there.

Other series that I'd recommend, in no particular order: Hogan's Heroes, The Defenders (season one), The Wild, Wild West, Combat, The Eleventh Hour (season one), Burke's Law (season one), Sam Benedict, The Prisoner, Danger Man, The Saint, Perry Mason, and Mission: Impossible. You're probably familiar with most of these, and might even have them already, but I want to especially single out The Defenders, The Eleventh Hour, Burke's Law, and Sam Benedict; you might not be as familiar with them, and if you check them out I think you'll be delighted with the results. There are also a couple of British imports that require a region-free player: The Human Jungle and Maigret (with Rupert Davies). Again, there are many more shows than I have room to mention, but I point these two out because of their relative unfamiliarity to American viewers. I think these are all available on Amazon, and I've mentioned almost all of them on the blog at one time or another; they've provided us with many, many hours of enjoyment.

If you've got recommendations of your own, please mention them in the comments section; I'm always looking for classic TV gift ideas myself, and I can't think of anything that makes our little community stronger than sharing our favorites. Happy shopping!

For those of you reading this on Wednesday, I add my wishes to all of you in America for a happy and blessed Thanksgiving; it is, after all, a time to give thanks for the many blessings we've been given, both personally and as a nation; it's also a reminder how easily those things we take for granted can be taken away, and why we always have to be prepared to fight to preserve and defend them. If you're reading this after the big day, I hope you had a wonderful time, and remember to keep telling yourself that the tryptophan torpor is a myth! TV  

November 20, 2023

What's on TV? Thursday, November 23, 1967

As Stanley Frank mentioned on Saturday, the networks start their special programming early on Thanksgiving, and in come cases it's even earlier when you're dealing with the Northern California edition. It all begins at 7:00 a.m., with CBS's parade coverage from four cities: New York, with Mike Douglas and Bess Myerson reporting on the Macy's parade; Philadelphia, with Jack Linkletter and former Miss America Marilyn Van Derbur covering the Gimbel's parade; Detroit's J.L. Hudson parade, where Kukla, Fran (Allison) and Ollie do the honors; and Toronto, for taped coverage of Eaton's Santa Claus Parade, with Arthur Godfrey and Beth Brickell. That was always my favorite of the parade shows. If you're only interested in one parade, however, NBC has the Macy's parade, shown on the West Coast on a two-hour tape delay, with Lorne Greene and Betty White back again for the hosting duties.

We're certainly not lacking for football, which is how it should be on Thanksgiving. At 9:00 a.m., the Los Angeles Rams take on the Lions in Detroit's traditional Thanksgiving game, part one of CBS's NFL doubleheader; I'm afraid the Lions don't put up much of a fight, losing to the Rams 31-7. Over on NBC, the AFL is playing its own Thanksgiving doubleheader for the first time, and it starts in Kansas City with the Chiefs and their own traditional Turkey Day classic, this year against their bitter rivals, the Oakland Raiders (11:00 a.m., Raiders 44, Chiefs 22). And ABC's in on the act as well, with yet another Thanksgiving tradition, as the Oklahoma Sooners travel to Nebraska to play the Cornhuskers (12:00 p.m., Oklahoma 21, Nebraska 14). At 2:00 p.m., NBC's AFL doubleheader concludes in San Diego, with the Chargers hosting the Denver Broncos, and defeating then 24-20. All these games are live, but the second half of the CBS-NFL doubleheader is not. Dallas's traditional game, this year against the St. Louis Cardinals, actually kicks off at 6:00 p.m. ET, but because it's a big part of CBS's primetime, it's being shown at 6:00 p.m. PT, a three-hour tape delay. It's not as if fans were left with nothing to watch, but it's a good thing the Internet didn't exist back in 1967; it's likely viewers won't find out in advance that the Cowboys win, 46-21.

For those not into parades and pigskin, you'll still find festive family favorites. At 3:00 p.m. on KOVR, Bremen Town Musicians relates the fairy tale about an overworked donkey who wants to become a musician. At 4:30 p.m. on KRON, A Light Here Kindled presents a re-enactment of the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620. The Rufus Rose Marionettes present Washington Irving's classic Rip Van Winkle (7:30 p.m., KLOC). The seasonal programs aren't limited to specials; on a first-run Bewitched (8:30 p.m., ABC), Aunt Clara transports the Stephenses back to the first Thanksgiving, where Darrin is accused of being a witch. That's followed at 9:00 p.m. by That Girl, where Ann tries to cook Thanksgiving dinner for her parents and Don. Do you have to ask how that turns out? Let's just hope your Thanksgiving is a better one!

November 18, 2023

This week in TV Guide: November 18, 1967

Thanks to a typographical error, you almost wound up with another issue this week, which would have been disastrous. Fortunately, however, disaster was averted, which means we're on to another great Thanksgiving issue! Thanksgiving in 1967 was, as it is this year, on November 23, which means this should be a great lead-in to one of the best days of the year. 

Not everyone shares my opinion on Thanksgiving. For some, such a family get-together is a source of dread greater than a turkey watching the farmer sharpening his ax . If you live in such a family, you have my sympathies—you indeed have less to be thankful for than some of us. But if you're looking for a solution to such problems, perhaps you just need to read what Stanley Frank has to say, because he can show you how television makes your Thanksgiving Day better than ever.

The TV Guide writer knows what such family gatherings can be like; the motley collection of relatives, the "opinionated loudmouth determined to impress one and all with his garbled misinformation, the in-laws and the "incessant yakking and bragging of birdbrains on her side of the family who make more money than I do," and the like. The secret, Frank has discovered, is to "create a community of interest that will keep them from each others' throats." And the way that you do that is by turning on the television.

"The incontrovertible truth," he says, "is that TV is the greatest boon to family harmony since the introduction of the second bathroom, and a vigorous defense of this marvelous force for domestic tranquility is long overdue. I mean the rapport TV has brought to family gatherings, especially during the holiday season that is rapidly approaching like a thundercloud." Frank even took the precaution of renting a portable color set to augment his regular black-and-white set. By making sure there's television for everyone, "it unites them in criticism of the show they’re watching. Their hostility is diverted from the host to the performers on the screen." 

Now, if that isn't a recommendation, I don't know what one is. 

True, there are some dangers involved in using TV as such a buffer. "The networks competing for the home audience are loading holiday schedules with so many morning attractions that people come early and turn a dinner invitation into an all-day chomping and guzzling marathon." Last year's specials began at 10:00 a.m. with the dual parade telecasts on NBC and CBS, which, in the Frank household, meant "coffee, Danish, eggs and booze, in reverse order of preference." Then came the football, beginning at 11:00 a.m. with the Detroit Lions and their annual clash. They say the early start is meant to give fans a chance to get home in time for Thanksgiving dinner, but in reality, it's "designed to give freeloaders an early start on heartburn." On balance, however, "the emotional wear and tear saved by TV more than compensates for the extra cost." For instance, the youngsters were drawn to Treasure Island on the second set, which started at 1:30; they were so enthralled "they refused to come to the table." That was a plus.

Further benefits came at 3:00 p.m, with two games on the air, a pro game on NBC and a college tilt on ABC. "It is unclear how the myth originated, but it is an enduring fallacy of American folklore that after overeating at family dinners everyone is in a torpor broken only by gentle burping." The truth is that before television, after-dinner conversation consisted of  "a relentless torrent of such pompous nonsense that even the nitwits could not let it pass unchallenged. One word led to another and the situation deteriorated into a free-for-all of abusive name-calling." But with two games on simultaneously, "guests were so confused shuttling between the two sets to catch both games that they forgot to repay old favors with contempt." 

And now, for dessert, so to speak: the men voted to continue with the Dallas-Cleveland game at 6:00 p.m. In the past, "wives, tired of yelling at their rotten kids and resentful of the fun the men were having, always turned on their husbands and demanded to go home while they, the husbands, were in condition to drive." But the second TV enabled them to tune in to Divorce Italian Style, with Marcello Mastroianni. "The ladies blissfully watched Mastroianni and the gents happily watched Danny Villanueva kick four field goals to win the game for Dallas." That was followed by the CBS Thursday Night Movie, which happened to be Jason and the Argonauts, "a gem of a horror that cleared the joint with occasional groans and retching noises from me. As I said, TV is a wonderful instrument for serenity."

So the moral of the story is that if you're dreading this year's family gathering, try television. It may seem counterintuitive to those who've grown up hearing how TV turns us all into couch potatoes, but trust Stanley Frank: "The family that watches television together stays together." Especially at Thanksgiving.

And by the way, if you're wondering what's TV has to offer on Thanksgiving Day, 1967, tune in on Monday; as I've done in the past, Monday's listings will be from Thanksgiving, and I'll have all the details on parades, football, and more! But even without it, there's a lot to watch this week, as you'll soon find out.

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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. 

A few years ago, Cleveland Amory described Raymond Burr's performance as Perry Mason as "too businessmanish." The great man is now ready for two large helpings of crow, for Burr's performance in NBC's Ironside is, in a word, "magnificent." "Playing San Francisco police detective Robert Ironside, a man confined to a wheel chair, he is, in character range, far from confined, and with the same ease with which he manipulates his chair he moves from fury to fun and from cynical curmudgeon to philosophical elder statesman." 

But don't think that the producers have left Burr to do all the heavy lifting himself; they've surrounded him with a strong supporting cast: Don Galloway as Detective Sergeant Ed Brown and Barbara Anderson as policewoman Eve Whitfield; both of them seem to be impossibly good-looking, but you soon discover that they're both very good at their jobs, and "as taut and exciting as the boss." And you might think that Don Mitchell, as Ironside's aide Mark Sanger, is "in the show merely for the sake of being," but you'll quickly find that "his performance is both different and convincing." All in all, Cleve writes, credit show creator Collier Young for "bringing exciting originality to a tired field."

So far the episodes have generally been excellent, with top-notch guest stars. One such show, featuring John Saxon and Don Stroud as a pair of escaped killers, culminated in "as exciting a scene as we've seen this year." Ironside is rarely mentioned in the pantheon of classic programs from the 1960s and 70s, yet it has a legacy that continues to this day; it was spoofed and parodied by the shows of its time (always affectionately), and Quentin Tarantino used a sample from the Ironside theme in the Kill Bill movies. You might recall a while back I featured several guest pieces on Ironside from Stephen Taylor, and his reviews were often as positive as Amory's. For me, Raymond Burr will always be Perry Mason, but I imagine that for others, he's remembered first as Robert Ironside. Either way, it's a testament to the man, his supporting cast, and those behind the scenes, that he's remembered for not one but two long-running successes.

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On the topic of football, I'll admit to being puzzled by this description of Saturday's game between UCLA and USC (1:30 p.m., ABC). According to the listings, the teams may be playing for "the highest stakes ever in a college game." Now, it's true that this is a very big game; UCLA is undefeated and ranked #1 in the country, while once-beaten USC is ranked #4; the winner of the game will go to the Rose Bowl; and the teams' best players (quarterback Gary Beban of UCLA and running back O.J. Simpson of USC) are the two favorites to win the Heisman Trophy as player of the year. There's also the unofficial championship of Los Angeles on the line.

And yet: "the highest stakes ever"? You'll pardon the confusion, but it was almost one year ago to the day (November 19) that Notre Dame played Michigan State in what was being called the "Game of the Century." Notre Dame was undefeated and ranked #1, while Michigan State was undefeated and ranked #2. And while it's true that neither team could go to a bowl game (Michigan State was ineligible, having gone to the Rose Bowl the previous season, while Notre Dame didn't play in bowls at the time), the stakes were much higher: the national championship, which would undoubtedly go to the winner of the game. The number of press credentials issued for the game was higher than for any game ever played at the time (and would go on to include the first few Super Bowls), and an unprecedented demand to watch the game led ABC to tape-delay it to any part of the country that didn't get to see it live. (It also had the largest audience ever to see a college football game on TV.) As I wrote about here, the game changed college football forever, and as big a game as USC-UCLA was, I can't countenance putting it in quite the same category.*

*For the record, Notre Dame and Michigan State tied 10-10, giving Notre Dame the national championship. In a game that was nearly as close, USC defeated UCLA 21-20, on the strength of a missed extra-point.

The highest stakes ever? Granted, it's true that memories are short; there would be another, and better-remembered, Game of the Century played in 1971 between Nebraska and Oklahoma, but I'd have thought the memory would have lasted at least a year.

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There's more to Saturday than football, though. There are, for example, two absolutely powerhouse movies on in the late night slot. At 10:30 p.m. on KGO, it's the unforgettable Hitchcock shocker Psycho, with Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh. An hour later, on KPIX, it's "the most powerful film yet on TV," The Pawnbroker, starring Rod Steiger. To have two great movies like these on local television—well, that's what TV used to be like. And to have them on at nearly the same time is what VCRs were made for. But there's more! Earlier in the evening, KOVR is showing The Magnificent Seven (6:30 p.m.), with a magnificent cast headed by Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, and Eli Wallach. What a night for classic movie lovers—and you didn't even need TCM to achieve it. 

On Sunday, Debbie Reynolds features in her first special, "And Debbie Makes Six!" (8:00 p.m., ABC), with five fabulous guest stars: Bob Hope (confirming my suspicion that Hope appears in every variety special that's ever appeared on television), Jim Nabors, Bobby Darin, Frank Gorshin, and Donald O'Connor (who co-starred with Debbie in Singin' in the Rain). That's a pretty good lineup, even if it does pre-empt The FBI. And we can't forget Ed Sullivan this week (8:00 p.m., CBS); his guests are Eddie Albert; George Hamilton who does a song-and-dance number; Diana Ross and the Supremes; and the Temptations; Flip Wilson; George Carlin; Apache dancers Evon and Astor; and the Muppets. On film: Rex Harrison in a scene from Dr. Doolittle.

Monday, Pernell Roberts reminds us of just how successful his departure from Bonanza was with a guest-starring role on Gunsmoke (7:30 p.m., CBS). Yup, trading one big-time Western for another; I'm not so sure just how good an idea that was. Elsewhere, Sammy Davis Jr. pulls double-duty, first on Danny Thomas's dramatic anthology series (9:00 p.m., NBC), where he plays a World War II soldier wondering if the fellow GI who befriended him (Henry Silva) is really a German spy; then as a guest on The Joey Bishop Show (11:30 p.m., ABC). If you want to catch him on the latter, though, you're going to have to pass up yet another outstanding late-night movie—The Maltese Falcon (11:30 p.m., KPIX in San Francisco), with Humphrey Bogart as private detective Sam Spade, and Mary Astor as the woman he won't play the sap for.

On Tuesday, NBC airs a made-for-TV flick, The Outsider (9:00 p.m.), a pilot for next season's series of the same name, starring Darren McGavin as an ex-con-turned-private detective. Although it was well-regarded by many critics, who welcomed the departure from the smooth, well-dressed jazz detectives we'd become accustomed to, it will run for 26 episodes before departing these mortal coils. And a couple of specials at 10:00 p.m. vie for your attention: on CBS, it's "Gauguin in Tahiti: The Search for Paradise," a documentary recounting the painter's time in Tahiti, narrated by Charles Kuralt, with Sir Michael Redgrave as the voice of Gauguin. Meanwhile, ABC pre-empts The Hollywood Palace (and whose stupid idea was it to move the show from Saturday to Tuesday?) for One-Night Stands, a look at the lives of performers who make their livings touring from city to city. Featured performers include Johnny Rivers, Woody Herman and his Swinging Herd, and the 5th Dimension; Bing Crosby, who knows a thing or two about life on the road, is the narrator.

Wednesday is the fourth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a fact that is commemorated by a Kennedy documentary (9:00 p.m., KTVU in Oakland) narrated by Cliff Robertson, with added insights by Jim Bishop, author of The Day Kennedy Was Shot. On a lighter note, the King Family celebrates Thanksgiving with the first of five holiday programs (7:30 p.m., KXTV in Sacramento). And the Kraft Music Hall goes Country this week, with Dinah Shore hosting "The Nashville Sound" (9:00 p.m., NBC), aided by Ray Charles, Eddy Arnold, Johnny Mercer, the Everly Brothers, and the Stoney Mountain Cloggers.

In Thursday's non-Thanksgiving programming, Cliff Robertson returns, this time as John F. Kennedy, in a rerun of PT 109 (9:00 p.m., CBS), the story of JFK's time as a World War II PT-boat skipper. Judith Crist calls the movie "a kind of comic-book-version-of-history-for-slow-readers," and mentions that when the movie was originally broadcast, she'd described it as "an adventure movie that would appeal to 10-year-old boys of all ages," only to receive objections from 10-year-old boys who thought the age limit should be lower. This movie was released in theaters during Kennedy's lifetime, so don't expect any exploration of the actual circumstances surrounding the sinking of Kennedy's boat. And on Batman (7:30 p.m., ABC), Rudy Vallee and Glynis Johns star as Lord Ffogg and Lady Penelope Peasoup in the first part of a mediocre three-part story that somehow contrives to put Batman, Robin, and Batgirl in "Londinium."  

On Friday, it's ABC's annual day-after-Thanksgiving Cartoon Festival, running between 9:30 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. It's one of the things that I miss most about Thanksgiving week, even though I might not have watched any of these cartoons; there was something special about seeing Saturday morning cartoons on Friday that reminded you that this was a bonus day, an extra Saturday if you will, on top of everything that happened yesterday. Of course, one reason why it's not done today is because the networks don't show cartoons on Saturday morning anymore. As a matter of fact, I don't think they show anything on Saturday morning anymore; they leave it to the local stations and their lame E/I programs. Ah, another golden memory gone; I guess college football serves the same function today. In primetime, NBC pre-empts Star Trek (note to programming: in the future, don't pre-empt the program on the cover of this week's issue) for a repeat broadcast of Singer Presents Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass (8:30 p.m.), which the ads promote as "the most popular hour special in TV history!" Now, whether they can actually prove that statement or not is, I suppose, questionable, but there's no question that Alpert & Co. were as popular as any group around back in the late 1960s. It's also a great time to be selling sewing machines.

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As you probably know by now, we at It's About TV! are dedicated to examining classic television through the microscope of American culture, and nothing could be more American, though lacking in culture, than the Hippie. So we'd be remiss if we passed up Robert Higgins' examination of what Hippies think of television, the ultimate instrument of the establishment? And, perhaps surprisingly,  "the tuned-out generation is as tuned in to TV as Ernest Establishment and Company." This insight comes to us courtesy of "combing through a horde of hippie pads," and interviewing representative members "ranging from spokesmen such as poet-writer-musician Ed Sanders of The Fugs, a singing group, to hippie rank-and-filers like Richie (he’s dropped his last name), a former Ashbury-based Digger." Their verdict: "the boob tube was the grove tube." 

The psychedelic artist Peter Max, for instance, sees television as "almost spiritual," while Ed Sanders calls it "hypnotic," and adds that "It’s part of life—like toothpaste and cancer." His bandmate, Ken Weaver, watches TV "all the time." "I watch movies all night, and at 6 a.m. I start the day with Modern Farmer. That’s groovy—all about cattle diseases." (Funny, I never thought about Modern Farmer that way when I was living in the World's Worst Town™.) And Village Voice staffer Don McNeill thinks TV is a "fantastic medium. You can find out where America’s really at by watching TV." Which is what I've been saying here for years.

Hippies don't pay much attention to the fact that they're often portrayed on television in a negative light. And, oddly, they aren't offended by the materialism implicit in the commercial medium; "[t]hey often dig the commercials more than the programs." Richie says it's because they're on to the "hucksters' hoaxy ways," but Weaver has perhaps a more practical explanation: "When you’re stoned you don’t get so mad at them. Even the soap -commercials. You figure, what the hell; soap’s to wash dirty clothes, man. They can’t make that romantic." They're not always stoned while they're watching, though. "One of the grooviest ways to watch TV," Sanders says, “is to turn on a series like Gunsmoke, turn the sound off and put on a Beatles or, better still, a Fugs record." Hippies also don't seem to mind the violence that infests so much of television. "If people want it," says Sanders, "I say slap it to them. I'm democratic." Adds McNeill, "Hippies aren't particularly anti-violence. Most aren't put off by it." 

Even though Hippies are masters of the put-on, they seem to be sincere in their admiration of television. "Young Hippies aren’t going to put down TV," Sanders tells Higgins. "It’s like going to church for them, They’re products of the middle class. Their parents have made sure they can plug back in whenever they want to. They can plug back into the Long Island railroad, the commuter card or TV. Those who haven’t already plugged back in will do so eventually. They'll go back to Jersey and marry the dentist. The only difference is that they’ll turn the dentist on to grass."

As for the influence that Hippies will have on the future of TV, Sanders thinks it will be substantial. "TV is one generation behind. Today's kids will have a lot of power—and they're not going to be buying a lot of what's on TV." Did that come to pass; is that reflected in the television of the 1970s and 1980s? If you see the evolution of television as a linear progression, that would explain a lot.

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MST3K alert: Dressed to Kill
(1946) When banknote plates are stolen from the Bank of England, Sherlock Holmes is called onto the scene. Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Edmond Breon. (Sunday, 11:15 p.m., KRON in San Francisco) OK, I'm cheating a bit this week; this is actually part of Rifftrax, the spinoff from Mystery Science Theater, featuring two of the stars from MST3K, Bridget Nelson and Mary Jo Pehl. And we don't usually get to see movies that are, well, not bad. But there's still a lot of humor to be mined from the Rathbone-Bruce movies, and don't forget the biscuits! TV