I know that some of you have followed me to Twitter, but the only reader who’s become a regular thorn in my side over there is Marty McKee, author of the estimable Johnny LaRue’s Crane Shot blog. Recently – after a quibble over whether another TV critic could still be taken seriously after he admitted he’d never seen The Bob Newhart Show – Marty asked me what major television series I’d never seen.

Now that’s a question that I’ve always loved asking other critics, in part because they hate it. No professional ever really seems eager to admit to the gaps in their knowledge. Especially nowadays, on the internet, any show of weakness is going to get you reamed. One of my college friends, now a respected film critic, was always suspiciously noncommittal whenever I inquired about which Hitchcock films he had under his belt. I also remember an “Ask the Critic” column (apparently no longer online) in which Manohla Dargis, then a lead film critic for the Los Angeles Times, was asked the dreaded question. Reluctantly, she agreed only to fess up to some examples from a single national cinema — Italian — and so we learned that she’d never gotten around to I Vitelloni.

Me, on the other hand, I’m an open book. Well, not really. But Marty asked for five TV shows I’ve never seen at all (apart from a stray clip here or there), and I figure I can admit to that many without completely decimating my credibility. So here goes. Never seen a single episode of any of these — not for lack of interest, just for lack of hours in the day.

1. Maude
2. Lou Grant
3. Taxi
4. thirtysomething
5. Homicide

I can think of a handful of others, but Marty asked for five so that’s all I’m giving up. Now it’s your turn. For all of you fellow expert-level TV maniacs, get your skeletons out of the closet: What are you embarrassed to admit you’ve never seen?

Why I Do This

November 8, 2013

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In the second season of Scandal, there’s a scene in which the White House Chief of Staff, Cyrus Beene, encounters a political rival moments after having successfully executed a scheme to vanquish her, temporarily, from power.  “Madame Vice President, how are you today?” he sneers as he walks past her into the Oval Office.  Jeff Perry, the actor who plays Beene, delivers this nondescript bit of dialogue in a gleeful, singsong tone.  He places the emphasis on “you” and then again on the final syllable of “to-day.”  He sounds like a cheery, semi-deranged telemarketer.  Then he grabs his crotch, a gesture just barely captured by the camera.

A second later, Beene’s aside to his colleague – “That was small of me. I need to work on that” – underlines the sarcastic intent of his greeting.  I’m sure that the lines were scripted, but Perry’s interpretation of them is so exuberantly eccentric that they feel improvised.  In obscure corners of television I’ve glimpsed a few other brilliant grace notes like that over the years, but they’re exceedingly rare.  The great Miguel Sandoval had a few of them on Medium, and on House Chi McBride did something once that I think probably was his invention.  McBride played a hospital executive who had it in for Dr. House’s unorthodox methods, and at the beginning of their final showdown in an empty conference room McBride scatted a bit on a throwaway line: “D-d-d-d-d-d-doctor House in the house,” he grins with a cockiness that is, of course, soon obliterated.  It was a line reading that was totally out of character for a buttoned-down numbers-cruncher, but that was the point: with a few extra syllables, a stock villain appeared to gain a secret inner life not hinted at on the page.  A few Scandal episodes later, Jeff Perry has another astonishing scene (above), a longer one in which he finally reveals the true scope of his ambitions to his husband (Dan Bucatinsky, also good), as well the seething rage that being unphotogenic and gay has thwarted them.  When Perry utters the words, “I was made to be president of the United States,” there is a big gob of snot drooling out of his nose.

The above may sound like a lead-in to an endorsement of Scandal.  That’s the opposite of what I would want it to be mistaken for.  Like everything else I’ve seen from the pen of Shonda Rhimes (which includes only the first ten or so episodes of Grey’s Anatomy and all of Scandal), Scandal is trash.  I’ve seen it mentioned in the same breath as The Good Wife, which really is one of the smartest show on television at the moment, and that’s not only wrong but alarmingly softheaded.  For Scandal is utterly ignorant not just about how government operates but about the basics of how people feel and think, too. Scandal is the most pernicious kind of bad television because it’s propulsive and superficially competent.  It’s watchable, in other words, unlike most bad television, which is dull or laughable and therefore easily dismissed.  Rhimes’s writing has all the wit and insight of a romance novel – indeed, it is consistently and perhaps deliberately pitched at that level – and yet because its story pieces fit together neatly and its tension mounts from episode to episode at a satisfying pace, too many critics have given its utter absence of substance a pass.

But back to Jeff Perry: He is a lesser-known graduate of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, his midwestern twang still intact, and maybe the best of them.  He’s been around for a couple of decades, doing thankless character work in stuff like Nash Bridges and Prison Break; I first noticed him as a teacher in My So-Called Life, twenty years ago.  Cyrus Beene is a career-defining performance for Perry, one that proves he can hit Shakespearean highs; now he’s on my list of actors I’d love to see as Lear or Richard III (which is, really, who he’s playing here), and he wasn’t before.  Sometimes good actors (or good directors or even good writers) end up doing good work within a canvas that is, on the whole, risible.  That is the case with Perry and a few others (especially Tony Goldwyn and Debra Mooney) in Scandal, but it’s also worth noting that the very stupidity of the show may be the factor that makes Perry’s spine-tingling work possible.  Subtlety is completely unknown in Scandal, and therefore it has room for Perry to scale his work all the way over the top without wrecking the thing and making a fool of himself.  Whereas in shows that have brains, actors have to try to impersonate actual human beings.

Occasionally someone will ask me, because I’m supposed to be an expert, whether or not they should watch a television series or a movie.  My unhelpful answer is always, “Of course you should.”  I realize that most people have not made the conscious decisions to fill all their waking hours with pop culture and that they have to make hard choices about what to opt into and that some sage advice would be useful to them.  But the question remains unanswerable.  You can’t substitute my judgment for yours.  Everyone who ever read a review hoping to find the answer to “should I go see it or not?” was doing it wrong – no matter how understandable that impulse might be.

The corollary to that train of thought is this one: Someone will ask me if I watch a television series and I’ll say yes and they’ll say, “Oh, so it’s a good show then,” and I’ll say, “Oh, fuck no, it’s horrible.  Stay away!”  Such is the case with Scandal.  And when I tell my inquisitor to stay away I am, in essence, saying: “Leave this one to the professionals, dear.”  But the rationalization that I’m sticking with junk like Scandal because it’s my job to keep up with whatever’s in vogue at the moment, whether I like it or not, is only a half-truth.  No, I’m there because I want to be.  But why?  How do I justify surrendering hours to what I know is bad art?  Well, the short answer is Jeff Perry.  The long answer was explained to me by Pauline Kael – at an early point in my life as a media geek, fortunately, or I’d probably have gotten a lot more neurotic about it.  If you’re a movie nerd, too, I’ll bet you already know where I’m taking this: to one of the secondary ideas in Kael’s “Trash, Art, and the Movies.”

…. At best, the movie is totally informed by the kind of pleasure we have been taking from bits and pieces of movies.  But we are so used to reaching out to the few good bits in a movie that we don’t need formal perfection to be dazzled.  There are so many arts and crafts that go into movies and there are so many things that can go wrong that they’re not an art for purists.  We want to experience that elation we feel when a movie (or even a performer in a movie goes farther than we expected and makes the leap successfully.

…. If we go back and think over the movies we’ve enjoyed – even the ones we knew were terrible movies while we enjoyed them – what we enjoyed in them, the little part that was good, had, in some rudimentary way, some freshness, some hint of style, some trace of beauty, some audacity, some craziness.

Kael made those points in the service of a larger argument explaining why movies were good for you in spite (or because) of not being “high art.”  Fifty years later, the distinction between high and low art is meaningless; or, rather, we’ve erased it so much that instead of defending television against the snobs, as one had to do in Kael’s day, I wish there were more snobs around to swat down enticing drivel like Scandal.  But for me, this part of Kael’s essay was an epiphany.  It gave a twenty year-old culture snob the permission to relax and take what the movies and the television shows were giving me on their own terms, instead of judging against pre-conceived notions or ignoring the trees in search of the forest.  That doesn’t mean suspending judgment on the likes of Scandal; it just means remaining open to everything and embracing the parts without demanding they add up to an exceptional whole.  Because, if you don’t, you run afoul of Sturgeon’s Law (ninety percent of everything is crap), and ten percent of television, or anything, is a pretty meager diet.

Kael’s essay framed a question I mulled over for a time in my twenties.  Was I willing to devote a lifetime to sniffing out truffles like Jeff Perry?  (Or Walter Doniger or Norman Katkov or the seventh season of Rawhide or “Turkeys Away” or Jerry Stahl’s scripts for CSI?)  Was it worth my time, was it in fact not wasting a perfectly good life, to sometimes pay attention to things like Scandal, that I knew to be far more flawed than worthwhile?  Would that be enough?  When I realized the answer to all of those was yes was when I had to break it to mom that I probably wouldn’t ever be going to law school or running for office or paying for her elder care.  It may also have been when I started to get sort of good at what I do.

Richard Kimble Was Guilty

September 17, 2013

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Richard Kimble exits the Stafford, Indiana courthouse, on August 29, 1967, moments after his murder conviction was reversed.  Kimble’s sister, Donna Taft (far left), now alleges that Kimble was guilty of that crime. (File Photo)

STAFFORD, IND. – Richard Kimble, the small-town pediatrician and death row fugitive whose first degree murder conviction was famously overturned in 1967, may not have been innocent after all, according to new claims made this week by members of his family.

Convicted for the brutal slaying of his wife Helen Kimble in September 1961, Kimble escaped custody during a freak train derailment two years later.  He spent four years as the subject of an intensive manhunt before the discovery of new evidence led him to turn himself in to Stafford police in August of 1967.

According to Kimble’s sister, however, her brother was guilty of the crime, and the new evidence that exonerated him was faked.

Donna Taft, 81, maintained her brother’s innocence for more than fifty years.  During his years as a fugitive, she was the Kimble family’s primary spokesperson and an outspoken critic of what she described as his “persecution” by prosecutors and police.  Now, however, Taft says that Richard Kimble really did kill his wife.

“Richard was a severe alcoholic,” Taft explained in an interview Thursday. “Helen was a heavy drinker, too. They argued all the time and the arguments escalated into brawls. Then Dick found out that Helen was having an affair, and that caused him to snap.”  According to Taft, her brother hired a man he met in a bar to kill his wife in exchange for a payment of $1,000.  The man, Fred Johnson, was a troubled veteran with a history of violent larceny and assault and battery arrests. Johnson lost his right arm while serving in the Pacific during World War II.

Upon his arrest, Kimble told police and reporters that he had seen a one-armed man, whom he did not recognize, running from the scene of the crime.  “Dick’s plan all along was that if the police did arrest him, he could just blame Johnson, and they would take his word over that of a known criminal,” Taft explained.  But Kimble hadn’t counted on Johnson’s ability to disappear so completely.  When the police were unable to locate Johnson, even after interrogating dozens of local amputees, Kimble was trapped.

According to Taft, Kimble did not confess to her his true role in the slaying until two or three years into his escape.  “He was a master manipulator,” she said.  “He fooled us all.”  During Kimble’s four years on the run, reports occasionally surfaced in the press of strangers who helped Kimble elude capture.  In particular, he had a knack for seducing lonely women who provided him with shelter and money.

“Yes, for a time, I believed he was innocent.  That’s true,” said Terry Waverly, 73, who is the younger sister of Helen Kimble.  “Only our mother was certain. She never trusted Dick, never.”

“I spoke to dozens of people who met Kimble, and nearly all of them described his empathy, his quiet warmth,” said Ed Robertson, author of The Fugitive Recaptured, a 1993 book that retraced Kimble’s path across the United States during his years of flight.  “If it is true that he conspired to kill his wife, then he had to have been a true sociopath.”

In the interview last week, Taft said that her brother confessed to her because he was looking for a way out of a life on the run.  “Dick was worn out. He’d suffered injuries and serious illnesses. Finally, he called my husband and I and asked us to help him find an exit strategy.”  Kimble had always thought he could eventually settle down quietly somewhere, or leave the country, after the initial media frenzy around the escape.  What Kimble had not counted on was the determination of Philip Gerard, the Stafford police lieutenant who initially arrested Kimble and in whose custody Kimble was on the night of the escape, to bring him to justice.

“Gerard was crazy,” Taft says. “He used his own money and vacation time to pursue Dick around the country. Dick was desperate. A few times he set up traps for Gerard — he lured him into the path of other criminals in the hopes that one of them would kill Gerard for him. But it never worked.”

Taft and her husband Leonard, discussed severing ties with Kimble. But in the end they agreed to help him.  (Leonard Taft, now 87, was to ill to be interviewed at length, but he confirmed that his wife’s statements are true.)  When a family friend, a court stenographer named Jean Carlisle, alerted Donna Taft that Johnson had been arrested on a different charge in Los Angeles, Kimble and the Tafts quickly devised a scheme to revive the original frame that Kimble had arranged for Johnson.

“Gerard interrogated Johnson and placed him in Stafford at the time of the murder, but he still didn’t buy it.  He knew Dick too well by that time, knew he was a killer,” said Taft.  “So we got Lloyd Chandler involved.”

Chandler, who died in 2005, was a neighbor who had never been publicly connected to the Kimble case.  But in 1967 Chandler declared that he had been in the Kimble home at the time of the murder and had watched as Johnson, not Kimble, bludgeoned Helen Kimble with a lamp.  That testimony led a judge to vacate the original verdict.

Chandler never offered an explanation for his six years of silence, and reporters at the time speculated that he had been having an affair with Helen Kimble.  Taft confirmed that those rumors were true, and says that after Johnson was apprehended she and Leonard Taft approached Chandler with a bribe.

“We knew he had serious financial problems, and also we figured that if his story was questioned, the affair would make it seem plausible,” Taft explained. “Lloyd was desperate enough to perjure himself, and we all got away with it.”

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Lloyd Chandler (File Photo)

But the conspiracy between Kimble, Chandler, and the Tafts went further than perjury.  In order to prevent Johnson from implicating Kimble in the killing, Kimble and Chandler lured Johnson into a meeting where, claims Donna Taft, Kimble planned to kill Johnson.  Although a clear account of that encounter never emerged, Johnson was slain – but by Gerard’s bullet.  Gerard stated publicly that he was convinced of Kimble’s innocence by that point, and the press treated him as a hero. “POLICE PURSUER SLAYS ACTUAL KIMBLE KILLER,” read the headline in the Stafford News.

But, according to Taft, Gerard was actually aiming for Kimble and missed. “Gerard hated my brother so much he never put it together that Dick hired Johnson.  He was sure that Chandler was lying, but he couldn’t prove it.  If he had tried, he would have been implicating himself in the death of a man he thought was innocent,” said Taft.  “So he kept his mouth shut.”

At the time, perhaps, but in the decades that followed, Gerard gave many interviews proclaiming his continued belief in Kimble’s guilt.  Reporters at the Stafford News grew accustomed to ducking calls from Gerard, who suffered personal and professional setbacks as a result of Kimble’s exoneration.  He took an early retirement from the Stafford police force in early 1968, a move that was not of his own volition, according to a former Stafford police official who insisted upon anonymity.  Afterwards, Gerard briefly operated a private detective firm, and later worked as a uniformed security guard.  He died in 2008.

“I don’t care about Richard Kimble,” said Philip Gerard, Jr., the only son of Lt. Philip Gerard, when reached on Monday.  “Dad cared more about him than about his family.  My mother left him and I grew up without a father because of Richard Kimble.”

Gerard, Jr., who retired from a thirty-year career with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2007, initially declined to comment further, but abruptly added: “When I started at the Bureau, I went to work for an old-time, by-the-book guy named Lew Erskine. He recognized my name and all he said was, ‘Chip off the old block?’ My dad alienated the Bureau guys all the time and I could tell just from Inspector Erskine’s expression that Dad had stepped on his toes, too.

“So if Kimble is guilty and that rehabilitates Dad’s reputation to any extent, I guess that’s a good thing,” Gerard said.

As for Kimble, he lived a quiet but restless life after winning his freedom.  Although his license was restored by the Indiana Medical Board, Kimble never practiced medicine again. Instead, he moved to Los Angeles with Jean Carlisle, the typist who helped set his exoneration in motion.  Their marriage ended in divorce after less than a year.  According to Donna Taft, Kimble was living in San Pedro, California, with Karen Christian, a woman he first met during his time as a fugitive, when he died of complications of alcoholism in 1980 at the age of 48.  “But he looked twenty years older,” said Taft. “He never recovered from the ordeal of being on the run.  He was never happy again.  And he couldn’t stop drinking.”

Kimble re-entered the headlines only once, in 1971, when he was questioned as a suspect in the Zodiac killings by San Francisco homicide detective Dave Toschi.  Kimble was quickly cleared at the time.

“But if we know now that Kimble really was a killer, that’s a whole new ballgame,” said Robert Graysmith, author of several books on the Zodiac case.  “I always thought Kimble was a strong suspect as the Zodiac.  I tried to interview him, but he wouldn’t talk to me.  He was a squirrelly guy.  He never made eye contact, not once.  That definitely needs to be looked at again.”

Asked whether prosecutors were considering reopening the Kimble case, a spokesperson for the Stafford County District Attorney’s office had no comment.

Kicks

March 16, 2013

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Three years ago I ranked Veronica Mars as the best American television series of this century – partly as a provocation, but also with the sincere belief that Rob Thomas’s teen neo(n)-noir belongs in the same pantheon as The Sopranos, The Wire, and now Mad Men.  So I was as excited as anybody when Thomas and star Kristen Bell made a surprise announcement on Wednesday that, with the blessing of Warner Bros. (which owns the rights), the long-promised, long-in-doubt Veronica Mars movie would become a reality this summer if a $2 million crowdsourced fund was raised.  Fans coughed up the two mil in under twelve hours, and they still have nearly another month to add to the budget.  A torrent of think pieces have followed, probably far exceeding whatever press the series got when it was on the air (where were you when we needed you?).  Critics who kvetch that fans are paying for the movie twice – once to make it and again to see it – and that Warner Bros. is exploiting a grass-roots system not meant to benefit a multi-billion-dollar media conglomerate have a point.  But, as one guy on my Twitter feed said: “But me still want movie!”

The Neptune pledge drive was such an instant success that it didn’t take long for fans, critics, and still-sulking show-runners to wonder: what other shows can we bring back from the dead this way?  Ace TV-beat journo Alan Sepinwall noted that Veronica was something of a perfect Kickstarter storm; you need “a very particular set of circumstances to pull this magic trick off.”  Namely: a pre-existing property with a built-in cult; a creator and cast who care enough to come back, and also haven’t become megastars in the interim; and something that doesn’t cost a fortune.  ($2 million was by far the biggest movie-oriented Kickstarter ever initiated, but that figure is less, by as much as half, than the budget of a single episode of most hour-long TV dramas.)  Most of the other shows that have been eagerly advanced fail one or more of those tests.  Everyone from Deadwood is an A-lister with major commitments.  The effects-driven Firefly is too expensive.  Terriers and Party Down might be cheap enough to fit the bill, but their fan base is smaller than Veronica’s.

I have another idea.

Let’s bring back Coronet Blue.

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Think about it: This strange, existential mystery still casts a spell over some of the audience that saw it during its brief summer run in 1967.  (It was shot two years earlier; the network had no idea what to do with it.)  After The Fugitive, it was one of the first prime-time dramas to have an ongoing, underlying conflict (amnesiac Michael Alden searches for his identity, while being confounded by various sinister figures), but unlike The Fugitive, it didn’t last long enough to provide a resolution.

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Let’s go over the Kickstarter checklist, shall we?  The star, Frank Converse (above), and his sidekick, Brian Bedford, are both still alive and still active.  The show’s creator, Larry Cohen, seems to look back upon Coronet Blue with affection – and he says he knows how the show would have ended.  And as for costs, well, they made these for under $200K back in the sixties, and Cohen went on to become one of the great low-budget film directors of the seventies.  He could shoot it in his backyard, just like he made his first feature, the terrific Bone (1972).  One wonders how Paramount, which owns the show, would feel about all of this.  But, hey, they love me over there after I reamed ’em about the music replacement on the original Fugitive DVDs.  Just tell ’em I said this is cool and it’ll be all good.

Of course, there are only about twelve of us who still remember Coronet Blue, so we’d probably all have to kick in a hundred grand or so.  But, y’know, details, right?

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Update: Or….

We could start kicking up a Route 66 reunion movie for the 50th anniversary of the end of its road next year.  All you’d need are Maharis, Milner, and a vintage ‘Vette.

Let’s see: Buz comes out of the closet.  Tod has been incapacitated by a stroke, but still manages a tear when Buz tells him what he’s known all along.  Buz drives his old pal around to all the cities and towns they visited fifty-some years ago.  Now they’re all paved over with Targets and Starbucks, and they all look alike.  When they reach the Grand Canyon, the (old) boys end the movie by doing a Thelma and Louise….

Yeah, the coins are gonna come rollllllin’ in!!!

Further Into the Beaver

November 16, 2012

Late-breaking news here, of vital import to classic TV fans everywhere.

Two and a half years ago, I offered a no-prize to any reader who could identify any episode of Leave It to Beaver in which June Cleaver actually uttered the line, “Ward, you were awfully hard on the Beaver last night.”

Nobody has stepped forward to claim that prize.

Now, however, it would appear that Todd VanDerWerff, the AV Club’s indefatigable television columnist, has found the infamous episode.  Sort of.

According to Todd, it’s the second season entry “Beaver’s Ring” (ahem), and the actual wording is “Don’t you think you’re being a little bit hard on the Beaver?”  Which is kinda dirty, but not as perfectly dirty as the oft-quoted version.  You really need the past tense to suggest that – let’s see, how can I put this delicately? – that Ward was hittin’ it animal-style.

So again I pose the question: is that the closest Barbara Billingsley ever came to saying the infamous line, or is there another utterance that gets closer to the urban-legend?

In the meantime, be sure to read Todd’s piece in its entirety.  His descriptions of ten key Beaver episodes are an excellent reminder of why the show was so quietly transgressive, and also endlessly likable.

Occasionally people have complained that this blog is “too political.”  I generally take that to mean that I have expressed political beliefs with which the complainer does not agree.  I also think it misses the point, in the sense that everything is political, including television.  Obviously The Defenders is political, but so is Gilligan’s Island, in less obvious ways.  It’s not as if I’m hitting the pause button here to endorse a candidate or rant about current events.  Any time I have expressed a political view, it’s been a genuine response to something I’ve seen in a television show.  To elide or avoid expressing that response for fear of offending someone would be a kind of self-censorship that I have no interest in practicing.

And yet some readers are clearly uncomfortable about this, either in a “no politics at the dinner table” way or else because they’re uninterested in experiencing art that expresses (or even seems like it might express) a viewpoint different from their own.

I haven’t spent much time on the Home Theater Forum (whose founder I’m on record as having some issues with) in recent years, but my Herbert Leonard piece from last week was mentioned over there and that led me to spend a little time poking around in some recent threads.  Here are a few comments from a Home Theater Forum thread that got me thinking:

GaryOS (referencing the long-abandoned Television Code):

Most shows seem to encourage the use of profanity; encourage the negative portrayal of family life; encourage irreverence for God and religion; encourage illicit sex, drunkenness and addiction; encourage presentation of cruelty, detailed techniques of crime, and the use of horror for its own sake; and encourage the negative portrayal of law enforcement officials, among others. And most assuredly performers are encouraged to dress and move outside the “bounds of decency”.  And if these things are not out and out encouraged, they are at least certainly on display over and over.

And that is precisely why I prefer classic TV to current television.  Most everything today seems to fall to the lowest common denominator and I find most current programming to be shallow and unimaginative.  Not to mention just flat out vile and repulsive.

Archie Goodwin:

If it weren’t for DVDs I would no longer have necessity for a TV. 99% of what I watch on my TV today comes from DVDs of old TV shows and my intelligence is never insulted, my morals never made fun of, my sense of justice always reinforced, my view of good winning over evil reinforced, Good guys winning in the end reinforced, behaving decently toward one another, the Golden Rule, always being the best policy, reinforced, & honesty winning over lies.

Jack P:

Law and Order is for me, a classic case of a show that in terms of format is something I would ordinarily love, by letting us see the “process” form of drama play out with equal attention to cops and prosecutors. But I have to be hyper-selective in terms of which episodes I watch because this show too often and I mean *too* often has succumbed to the desire to go on soapbox messaging that purposefully caters to one narrow end of the spectrum only. By contrast, a *good* show with a winning format in an earlier era was something I could feel comfortable watching 99% of the episodes of, and that is one thing that has been lost in the last couple decades.

I sense closed-mindedness, even fear, in these remarks, as if any new idea or image (or, worse, a familiar but unappealing one) sends some spectators rushing to cover their eyes and start chanting to drown out the noise from the TV set.   I don’t get that.  Why would one’s personal values need align with the point of view expressed by a television show, a television character, or a television creator?  My own values apply to my life, not to the content of art or entertainment.

For instance: I found 24 morally offensive in certain ways, and yet it never occurred to me not to watch it.  24 was a well-directed action show with a number of showy performances from important actors.  I didn’t want to miss out on any of that.  More importantly, engaging with its dismaying politics made for an interesting intellectual exercise.  I thought about it, probably more than it deserved; argued about it; wrote about it; had fun with it.  My only criteria for skipping a television series are if it’s dull or stupid.  (“Stupid” as in insulting to the intelligence; e.g., reality shows that clumsily stage events and ask the audience to accept them as spontaneous.)

I bring this up not to tweak these specific folks from the Home Theater Forum (although, yes, I would like to give a couple of them a good shake), but because it’s relevant to my work in a specific way.  I sense that a lot of early television enthusiasts are essentially nostalgists.  They like old television because it’s old.  It evokes ambered childhood memories (if you’re a baby boomer) or it constructs a world that existed before one’s own birth (if you’re my age).  (These are two separate cravings, which I don’t have room to parse at the moment, but look at in terms of Rod Serling characters: you have your Martin Sloan, who longs to escape into his own past, and you have your Gart Williams, who yearns for an idealized nineteenth century.)  Nostalgia even has its own convention now – not just science fiction or vinyl or movie posters or radio, but everything musty and old, I guess.  They’ve actually built Willoughby.  This year it’s in Hunt Valley, Maryland.

Well, have at it.  A stop at Willoughby is a chill down my spine, because my mission here isn’t to wallow in the past.  It’s to excavate interesting stuff from a variety of time periods, including the present day, and to write about it in a way that’s modern and relevant.  I was tempted to call this post “Fuck Nostalgia,” but I think I’m saving that title for something more substantial.

To a certain extent – and correct me if I have this wrong – I suspect that a strong personal or cultural identification with the good old days may may overlap with a reactionary political stance.  (“Reactionary” can have a neutral meaning – someone whose values are old-fashioned – and a pejorative one – a hatemongering lunatic.  I’m not sure which applies here.)  I think it’s obvious by now that I have no truck with that stance.  But I’m not sure what to do with my conservative constituency (assuming I still have one), or even the apolitical nostalgists who get bent out of shape when I describe Donna Reed as an emasculating wraith.  Should I mock or ignore or engage with them?  Is it a fool’s errand to think that I can write what I want and somehow not alienate that segment of classic TV enthusiasts?  I mentioned a couple of Twilight Zone episodes above and I’ll bet everyone who’s still reading this got the references, so there is a common language that we’re all speaking.

So: discuss.  If you have a different way of looking at things, please elaborate on it.  You can call me a dick if you feel like it (a freedom of speech not enjoyed by Mr. Epstein’s acolytes).  Apparently some of those Home Theater Forum regulars think I’m a snob, but I’m genuinely interested in the ways that people choose what they watch, and how they use those shows in their actual lives.

Badge 540

May 29, 2012

Watched over the long weekend.  Anybody remember this show?

Update, 5/29/12: Okay, let me put you guys out of your misery before you waste too much time on this.  The image is from the Paul Wendkos film The Case Against Brooklyn (1958), a late, minor film noir about police corruption.  One of the investigators (played by Brian Hutton, the director of Where Eagles Dare) is seen watching the fictitious TV series Badge 540.  The movie doesn’t make much of it, as irony or any other kind of comparison between “real” cops and TV cops, and you only get a few glimpses of the “show,” which is probably why nobody seems to have mentioned Badge 540 anywhere on the whole internet.

But somebody could compile a really interesting piece about all of the fifties movies that include television as a subject, up to and including the creation of fake programs.  There are a lot of them.

Thought of the Day

May 4, 2012

Was Hawaii Five-O‘s Steve McGarrett the first professional character on television whose subordinates addressed him by his first name?

It’s common these days to address your boss by his or her first name.  But in 1968, I wonder if viewers weren’t startled by the fact that Dan-O and the other cops called their boss “Steve” rather than “Captain McGarrett.”  I guess The Lord was confident enough in his authority to let a little faux egalitarianism float through the offices of Five-O.

Can anyone think of an earlier series in which characters addressed their boss this way, rather than by rank or as “Mr.” or “Mrs.”?

(Self-) Congratulation

January 24, 2012

My old friend Toby Roan just gave me the first award I ever won (unless you count those middle school spelling bees).  Toby tagged me as a recipient of the 7×7 Linked Award, which is one of those things that passes around among bloggers to give each other some much needed recognition.

Usually I’m pretty slack about responding to these things.  But the timing on this one was good, because lately I’ve been reflecting on the state of the archives here at the Classic TV History Blog.  I’ve been doing this long enough that the place is bursting at the seams, and I’m trying to figure out what, if anything, I should do about that.  Today it State of the Union day; maybe it’s also time for a State of the Blog address.

More importantly, this offered me a chance to give Toby Roan a shout-out, which I don’t think I’ve done before.  Toby paid for and published my first pieces of professional writing, back when I was in high school and he was editing a magazine about laserdiscs.  Now he has a really great blog about fifties westerns –  which I used to think I knew something about, but Toby’s work is a constant reminder that I’ve barely dipped my toes into that particular watering hole.

Anyway, this award thingee prevails upon me to do three things:

1. Tell everyone something no one else knows about.

I’m starting to think that binge-watching each season of The Office on DVD, as I’ve just done for the seventh time, may just be the high point of my year, every year.  Bonus factoid: I am in love with Mindy Kaling.  (Mindy darling, if you’re Googling yourself, I’m on Facebook!)

2. Link to one of my posts that I personally think best fits the following categories:

I’ve tried not to be too self-referential on this blog – no anniversaries or birthdays; onward! – but one thing I’ve noticed lately is that, after four years of accumulated verbiage, the archive you’ll find on the right is getting kind of cumbersome.  Even I sometimes have a tough time digging out an old piece when I need it.  I’m working on compiling a comprehensive index of the long pieces, which should make everything more accessible and point new readers to some content they may have missed.  This prompt is a nudge toward getting that done.  In the meantime, what the hell; I’ll indulge in a little back-patting.

Most Helpful Piece

I think my production history of East Side / West Side remains a pretty solid piece of scholarship.  Some of the key people I interviewed for it over fifteen years ago (ulp!) have since passed away, so for that reason alone it has some tangible value.  I wrote the first draft when I was a college sophomore, and it became the first substantial piece I published (originally, in a great magazine called Television Chronicles, which went to ’zine heaven before I could write anything else for it).  I revised it substantially when I reprinted it on this website in 2007, partly to upgrade some bad college writing but mainly to add a lot of new stuff I’d learned since.  And, in fact, I could correct and update it again just based on new info I’ve come across in the past four years.

The East Side / West Side piece established the methodology for all the work I’ve done since.  The behind-the-scenes story of this series is so juicy, and so vital to understanding the content on screen, that it validated my hunch that oral history and archival research were the best way for me to contribute to the body of knowledge on television and film history.

Most Popular Piece

The interviews I’ve done with popular character actors – especially Jason Wingreen, Harry Landers, and the late Collin Wilcox – seem to get the most hits and the most enthusiastic comments.  These are harder to prepare than they look, but I’m going to try to get a few more together for 2012.

Most Controversial Piece

My editorial damning CBS/Paramount for botching a DVD release of The Fugitive drew some heated comments – some echoing my outrage about the music replacement on those DVDs, and others because I took a swipe at a couple of other writers (if you can call them that) who chose to toe the corporate line in their own reportage of the incident.  I think what I wrote about those guys was right, but after running this post I decided I didn’t want to be one of those bloggers who made a habit of starting flame wars with other internet personae.  Since then I’ve mostly stuck to that resolution, even though – let me tell ya – some tempting targets have presented themselves.

Meanwhile, the initial controversy continues, with the unexplained recall of a Fugitive DVD re-release last fall that was supposed to restore most of the deleted music cues.  I’ve heard some interesting rumors about the reasons for that recall, and the likely outcome, but nothing that I can report on the record.  (Sorry.)

Most Surprisingly Successful Piece

Actually, this month’s consideration of the fifties Mike Hammer series generated a very passionate and detailed discussion in the comments.  But you just read that one.  So: “Dirt in the Bathtub” started out as a churlish gripe about a home video distributor that wouldn’t send me review copies of its DVDs.  I didn’t think much of it when I published it – in fact, I almost spiked it – but I reread it recently and was pleasantly surprised.  Without my noticing, it morphed into a pretty well-shaped essay that managed to weave together a few unrelated ideas in an unexpected way, almost as if a real writer had written it.

Most Underrated Piece

It seems to be axiomatic in the world of blogging (and maybe every kind of writing) that the ones you put your heart into pass without comment, while the throwaways attract more attention.  This profile of Laurence Heath, a Mission: Impossible writer/producer with a very dark past, took three years of off-and-on research and writing.  Relative to that, drew less of a response than I was expecting.  However, the silver lining there was that no one has challenged any of the facts in the piece (in fact, a distant relative wrote to me last year and confirmed many of the details I’d had to guess at) or the way I handled the more sensitive aspects of Heath’s story.  I try to get every story I report right, but I’m real glad I didn’t blow it with this one.

I also have a sense that two of my favorite features are a bit of a hard sell to regular readers.  But I’m going to keep doing the quick takes on contemporary character actors, because I think great acting is one of the pleasures of television that hasn’t changed since the first days of the medium; television today is a lot different than “classic” television, but this is a through-line that connects them.  And the oral history project with early television writers has been neglected lately, but I’m going to be coming back to it soon in a big way.

Most Pride-Worthy Piece

This mash note for the tragic Roberta Collins is probably the most writerly thing I’ve attempted.  It was confessional enough that I almost didn’t run it.  But I’m glad I did; I think it’s about as good as I can get.  Also, with the frame grabs I added in the post-script, I was (I think) the first on-line source to point out Roberta’s bit parts in two cult movies, Lord Love a Duck and Minnie and Moskowitz.  Most of what I write here is disposable, but any time I can dig up some fact that’s never been published before – well, that’s the work I take pride in.

Most Beautiful Piece

I can’t bring myself to apply that adjective to anything I’ve written.  I can apply it to this picture of Collin Wilcox.  I miss you, Collin, and I’m so glad we got to record some of your history together before you left us.

3. Pass this award on to seven other bloggers.

Er … Here’s where I’m gonna fall down on the job.  I’m not totally comfortable with the chain letter aspect of these awards, so I’m afraid this one is going to die out with me.  Yeah, I realize I’m kinda missing the point … but then, I do that all the time.

I’ve been really bad about networking with other bloggers – and there are a lot more good ones who’ve sprung up since I started.  A blogroll is another item that’s climbing up to the top of my to do list.  For now, though, let me throw this one out to readers: If I were going to pass this award on to other blogs, who should I choose?  What other TV-related blogs do you guys like?

Thought of the Day

December 13, 2011

Is C. Montgomery Burns of The Simpsons a partial caricature of Peyton Place‘s malevolent town patriarch Martin Peyton?  No one else on the whole of the internet seems to have suggested this idea, and I grant it would be an obscure connection.  But Burns’s voice, in particular, recalls the breathy, aged drawl of the great George Macready.  And it strikes me as the kind of thing that Harry Shearer, who voices Mr. Burns, would remember.

And if you’re wondering why I’m in a Peyton frame of mind (not that one ever needs a special reason to be), well, my next post will make it clear.

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