Homework

April 14, 2012

Time once again to give myself a little breathing room by turning your attention to some other TV-related stuff on the internet that’s worth readin’.

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In this piece about one of the great forgotten comedy series, The Bill Cosby Show, Mark Holcomb briefly acknowledges my own blog post about the show, and further flatters me by reusing the screen grabs I took.  But that’s all the credit I can hog, because Holcomb’s insights into why Cosby’s first self-named series was so eccentric and wonderful are much sharper and more detailed than my own.  Dammit.

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I guess The New Yorker can’t afford copy editors for its blog content, since this piece about The World of Henry Orient misspells the name of its screenwriter, Nunnally Johnson, and identifies its producer incorrectly (it was Jerome Hellman, not Jerome Hill).  Nevertheless, the writer, John Colapinto, dug up something truly fascinating in the message boards of the Internet Movie Database (one of my secret sources for tracing obscure people, or finding scurrilous gossip about them).  Although one of its unknown stars, Tippy Walker, did have a minor television career in the sixties (chiefly in arcs on the serialized Dr. Kildare and Peyton Place), The World of Henry Orient is a movie, a good, eccentric, unclassifiable movie about two teenage girls and their precarious interactions (sexual, parental) with the adult world.  The film becomes all the more poignant, or disturbing, when one realizes that its director, George Roy Hill, was boinking the seventeen year-old Miss Walker during and, briefly, after is production. (In yet another editing error, Colapinto is inconsistent about Walker’s age at the time, but seventeen seems to be correct.)  Colapinto’s discovery was that Walker herself quietly fielded questions from fans for several years on the IMDb boards, writing with poor spelling but spare, moving honesty about her troubled life as a starlet who never quite made it.  Colapinto mines a potent contrast between the fragile Walker and her co-star, Merrie Spaeth, who went on to a very public life as the hand up the felt-lined asshole of various Republican politicians and CEOs.  (If that made you think, “Yecchhh,” well, join the club.)

The other thing that bothers me about Colapinto’s reporting is that he seems to be declaring both actresses as officially found.  But Walker’s IMDb posts ended abruptly in 2008, and a lot can happen to someone in four years, especially someone who casually admits to having gone through “periods of homelessness.”  I’d say it’s a “whatever happened to…?” file that remains very much open.

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Here’s an entertaining interview with one of the most ubiquitous of sixties-and-beyond lead guest stars, Bradford Dillman.  Dillman, a slim Anthony Perkins type, played a lot of neurotic and often flat-out-crazy bad guys in his day.  He’s now a writer and has enough wit to weave his way through what almost becomes one of those “wait, I was in that?” sessions.  It’s very tough to mine the good stories from actors who did one of everything but rarely had a job that lasted more than a week.

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The only thing better than a TV actor interview is a TV writer interview, and here’s one with longtime soap opera scribe Sam Hall.  Hall’s claim to fame is his long stint on Dark Shadows, and while that material is covered in revealing detail (Hall’s complicated relationship with Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis is particularly noteworthy), the interviewer, Jay Blotcher, was thorough enough to quiz Hall on his earliest days as a live television dramatist, too.

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Fernwood 2Night is a self-reflexive seventies comedy I’ve never seen, a sort-of spin-off from Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, which I’ve also never seen.  But from what I’ve read, I suspect I’d have a hard time disliking either.  Here’s a recent appreciation, by Richard Metzger, of Fernwood, a piece that is valuable in particular for the brief recollections offered by Bob Illes, one of the show’s writers, in the comments section.  Illes clarifies some misconceptions about the series and gives a lot of credit to Alan Thicke, the actor-writer-talk show host who remains the butt of a lot of doofus jokes, years after his career sputtered out.  Here’s another of those credibility-demolishing declarations: I always thought that Thicke’s clueless dad routine on Growing Pains was fucking hilarious, a knowing spoof of the fifties Ward Cleaver archetype.

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Just another reminder that my old pal Ralph Senensky is still going strong at his curiously named (since it’s mostly about television) blog, Ralph’s Cinema Trek, with great new stories about the TV episodes he directed.  In a sad coincidence, Ralph’s latest piece, on the Waltons episode “The Firestorm,” mentions his friend Barry Cahill, who died this week at 90.  Square-jawed and solidly built, but not menacing enough to play heavies, Cahill was the definition of the all-purpose actor.  He was married to Rachel Ames, a one-time television ingenue later famous for her long run on General Hospital.

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So CBS, home to that notoriously Fugitive-averse legal team, has in its lawyerly wisdom cease-and-desisted an amateur group’s filming of an unproduced Star Trek script by Norman Spinrad (author of the classic episode “The Doomsday Machine”).  I was with the fans on this one until I got to this passage:

“These executives should be phasered on heavy stun,” said Harmon Fields of Manhattan, who called himself “a ‘Star Trek’ fan of galactic proportions.”

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If you want some new TV coverage, check out this detailed interview with Mad Men’s set decorator, who reveals the inspirations and sources for many of the pieces in Don Draper’s swanky new apartment.  I’m not touching Season Five until it’s over, and I also haven’t yet seen Luck, which shockingly is over, thanks to a cruel slash-and-burn campaign by the typically out-of-touch-with-reality PETA.  (Luck was cancelled due to the widely-reported deaths of three horses during production, even though the American Humane Association signed off on the show’s safety procedures, and Luck’s standards may have exceeded the production accorded to equines in the actual horse racing industry.)  Here’s a very measured, thoughtful consideration of the ethics of Luck’s unenviable situation by Matt Zoller Seitz, who also snagged a revealing interview with the show’s creators, David Milch and Michael Mann.  (I’m a big fan of Mann’s work but I think Milch is a ponderous fraud, so I have no idea what I’ll think of Luck.)

Seitz, incidentally, has emerged as perhaps our finest television critic of the moment.  I was not often in tune with Seitz when he reviewed films for the New York Press (in a section that included two other talented writers, Armond White and Godfrey Cheshire); he was perhaps best known for his obsessive love for the director Terrence Malick, who may be the only poseur in Hollywood with an emptier head than David Milch.  But Seitz is a very knowledgeable and thoughtful television reviewer, who invented (I think; am I wrong about this?), or at the very least helped to popularize, the episode-recap style of reviewing on his blog The House Next Door (since handed over to other minders).  I’m dubious about the value of that kind of instant-impressions writing (David Simon, creator of The Wire, took a jab at it in this recent interview), but I’ve been enjoying Seitz’s imposing Mad Men write-ups this month, confident that the best bits will seep into my subconscious and emerge to enrich my experience of Season Five when the Blu-rays come out in a year or so.

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A reader wrote in a few days ago asking me to “demolish” this blog post in which Macleans critic Jaime Weinman argues that – well, I’m not sure what he’s arguing, exactly, since he equivocates all over the place.  But the question at hand is whether modern television ROOLZ, YO! when compared to older television, which may be “too limited and convention-ridden to qualify as ‘great.’”

Nothing here strikes me as terribly new or interesting but, since someone asked, I’ll say that I didn’t react with the expected outrage (classic TV shows must be defended against the heretics!) but with a kind of weary sadness that bloggers so often feel impelled to weigh in on a subject in which they don’t seem to have much interest in engaging.  Does the beast really need to be fed that badly?  I don’t disagree with all of Weinman’s points.  He overstates the exceptionality of HBO (is he unaware of all the network and basic cable shows, from Veronica Mars to The Shield, that have expanded the boundaries of television just as much?), and sees Twin Peaks as the beginning of an era of quality television drama that actually extends back to Hill Street Blues and especially St. Elsewhere.  but Weinman is right in that good television has a trajectory.  The medium demands more of its audience now; it has had to break new ground to remain vital.  The Wire isn’t a better series than The Defenders, but it is more complicated – more characters, longer stories.  I know television enthusiasts who can’t make that transition.  Their taste remains excellent up to a certain cut-off date and after that, they just can’t cope with some element of newfangledness, whether it’s dramas without heroes (like The Sopranos) or sitcoms without laughtracks.

Weinman’s post comes in response to a similar screed by another blogger, one Rose Woodhouse, that is so condescending, self-contradictory, and blatantly attention-seeking that it doesn’t bear serious examination.  What strikes me most about Woodhouse’s piece is how transparently the author clings to her comfort zone.  Even though her post is called “Old TV Is Bad TV,” and she argues that “almost all TV made before the 1990s is crap” and “the last ten years totally trumps the previous fifty,” Woodhouse offers not one single early television show that she personally despises, or that she considers undeserving of a reputation as a classic.  There is, however, a long and faintly apologetic list of exceptions that Woodhouse enjoys, including The Prisoner (“pretty cool”), Your Show of Shows, and “the TV movie of Marty” (by which I suppose she means the live broadcast of Chayefsky’s original teleplay).

The question that comes to mind is why, if fourteen television programs made between the fifties and the eighties gave her some degree of pleasure, Woodhouse doesn’t feel the urge to explore those decades further, in the hope of finding more to like?  I guess it’s just easier to put those fourteen on permanent repeat (or perhaps file them away, with due self-congratulation, as dutifully-endured classics) and just dismiss everything else as crap.  I wouldn’t ordinarily single a relatively obscure blogger over this (and a teacher, no less, although hopefully not of writing, since she employs phrases like “love me some Dick Van Dyke” and “Roots and All in the Family are the best on non-cultural information merits,” whatever those are).  But last year the New York Times ran a specatularly dim-witted and instantly infamous op-ed piece called “Eating Your Cultural Vegetables,” in which some dunce named Dan Kois gave himself a high-five for failing to understand and/or avoiding altogether certain modestly demanding films, such as Meek’s Cutoff and Solaris.  It seems to me that incuriosity is never a defensible stance for a critic to take – and while that is a terribly obvious, Criticism-101 observation, it is apparently one that the Times either doesn’t get or will gladly disregard for a shot at going viral.  At least Kois got paid handsomely to rationalize his disengagement.  Any of us who write for free and take the same attitude should maybe think about taking a nap instead.

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19 Responses to “Homework”

  1. Toby O'Brien Says:

    Rachel Ames is actually associated with ‘General Hospital’ as nurse Audrey Hardy……

  2. Stephen Bowie Says:

    Oops, thank you; fixed. Clumsy mistake. That’s what I get for sticking something in at the last second….

  3. Tom Nawrocki Says:

    Coincidentally, I recently wrote about Tippy Walker and her big starring role in “Jennifer on My Mind,” one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen: http://www.debris-slide.blogspot.com/2012/03/headlining-new-york-city-scuzz-festival.html


  4. Thank you for your comments. I agree I equivocated a lot, because my own mood is equivocal — I believe that there is a lot of great television throughout the medium’s history, but I don’t think that someone who loves modern TV will necessarily respond to older works, particularly scripted drama series.

    Sitcoms are a bit of a different beast because sitcom storytelling hasn’t changed as much over the decades. But the standards we use to judge a modern serialized drama — do the characters change and grow; how do the writers resolve the season-long story — simply have no place in a pre-HILL STREET BLUES drama. So evaluating an older drama doesn’t just require that we adjust to a different era and values (which any good viewer ought to be able to do) but that we adjust to different aesthetics, and think of a series as an anthology of short films rather than one big novel.

    I would disagree with someone who says that this approach can never produce greatness, but there’s another school of thought that says that this approach — where characters never really change or learn from their experiences — is too limited to lead to great work. And I think that’s at least a reasonable thing to argue, even if I don’t agree with it myself.

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      It’s a tough question, because art forms do have a somewhat linear progression … and yet, any critic who throws out a medium’s classical period is probably not to be taken seriously. Also, if the newest stuff is the most accessible, then you just get a lot of rationales for laziness or indifference, like “cultural vegetables.”

      I disagree with your point about sitcom storytelling, though, particularly during the last decade, where we’ve seen the best shows adopting heavily serialized narratives, dropping the canned laughter, and refining new formal strategies (single camera, pseudo-documentary). It’s akin to the dramatic serial revolution of the 80s and (here I go, partially contradicting myself), moreso than on the dramatic side, I do feel like these changes have liberated the genre in a positive way. Although I still love me some Dick Van Dyke.


      • One difference between sitcom and drama storytelling, though, is that most sitcoms are still very episodic, while virtually all dramas today — even prodedurals — are serialized by comparison with older dramas. (Many comedies today still show episodes out of production order because they have no arcs to disturb. Almost no drama can do that today because there are so many storylines on every show.) And of course sitcoms like THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES actually did use multi-episode story arcs, making them more serialized than any drama of the time and almost any comedy today.

        Also, as you know, single-camera isn’t a new strategy, just single camera without the laugh track (but the laugh track brought artistic benefits to single-camera shows like LEAVE IT TO BEAVER and ANDY GRIFFITH, allowing them to get away with gentle or “soft” jokes without the awful music and over-the-top acting that today’s single-camera shows use to indicate that something was funny; canned laughter is far better than sappy music). I think the best single-camera sitcoms of the ’60s were more ambitious formally and asked more of their audiences than their modern-day successors.

        But this just demonstrates, I guess, that one’s perception of changes in TV may be different depending on whether you’re talking of drama or comedy. I’ve known fans of modern TV drama who aren’t into older drama but do love them some CHEERS.

  5. Larry Granberry Says:

    Rose Woodhouse? That’s only short by half the name of the character in Ira Levin’s classic “Rosemary’s Baby,” Stephen.


  6. I may be a dimwit, but I do know that Matt Zoller Seitz, great as he is, did not invent the recap form. I’d argue that Television Without Pity did, but I bet there was someone who did it even before them.

  7. Stephen Bowie Says:

    Wow, I really have to set up a Google Alert for myself, I guess.

  8. Jonah Says:

    Further research material re. Alan Thicke: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZoQ4ZuiSh8A


  9. I got a lot of push back in comments, so you are not alone. I do wish I used less inflammatory language. I tried to express that i had doubts about my own perceptions. If it came off as a screed, I misfired. I got a BA and MA in film studies and took 4 or 5 TV history classes. Most of my knowledge of pre-1970s TV comes through that, so obviously it’s limited.

    And while I don’t teach writing, I am prescriptivist about grammar in my professional life, and a descriptivist for blog writing. :)

    Rose Woodhouse is a pseudonym, taken from my middle name and a fondness for Jane Austen. I had forgotten about Rosemary’s Baby. Although I do want to live in the Dakota one day.

  10. Toby O'Brien Says:

    Mention of the “evolution” of sitcoms and ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show’ in particular reminded me of the time I was watching an episode at work on my lunch hour. One of my co-workers stopped to watch and then asked what it was. (He had not grown up in this country.)

    When I told him it was ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show’, he muttered – “Can’t be any good; it’s in black and white…..”

  11. dmalcolmjr Says:

    Stephen,

    As of this writing, Elizabeth (“Tippy”) Walker is still alive and hanging on in New Haven, CT. I am no longer in direct contact with her (a long story in itself…) but I receive updates from one or two individuals who continue to have regular interactions with her and, in varying ways, operate as her “lifelines.”

    It would be best if she could be persuaded to write an actual autobiography, but the prospect of something like that coming to pass in anything other than a scattershot manner is, alas, extremely problematic.

  12. Joge Perez Says:

    Dr. Kildare and Ben Casey -two series I’m just re-discovering- did kind of employ series ‘arcs': Kildare in its fifth and last season, when it went to two half-hour episodes each week, and some stories lasted for four or five ‘episodes’. And Casey sometimes used a format that I haven’t encountered anywhere else: one episode could have two different stories going on simultaneously: one would end then, but the other would continue in the next episode, alongside a new story starting out then. And the pattern would then reepeat itself.
    So, both Kildare and Casey would be very difficult to show in syndication using anything else but the original episode sequence.

  13. michael Says:

    One of the reasons for the growing interest by the studios in the arc TV series is the DVD or downloading. In the past studios would make a TV series knowing they would not make a profit until syndication. This meant each episode had to stand on its own as stations would show episodes out of order. Now syndication still is important but sales of DVD and downloading offer an alternative. Shows such as “Fringe” and “Lost” can make a profit without syndication because people will buy the season long DVD to follow not just one episode at a time but the story arc as well.


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