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.

Episode titles are the great lost art of television.

Nowadays most series don’t even bother to show them on screen, but once upon a time – back when a lot of television writers had classical educations, or literary pretensions – television episodes often had titles that were allusive, alliterative, obscure, obtuse, witty, or just weird.  And long.  Sometimes the writers got so fanciful that some poor editor would have to shrink the type size or switch fonts just to cram the title onto a single card.

For a few years, the writers of Ben Casey and Naked City and a handful of other shows seemed to be competing to concoct the most over-the-top title of them all.  Naked City had “The Man Who Kills the Ants Is Coming,” “A Horse Has a Big Head – Let Him Worry,” and “Color Schemes Like Never Before.”  Ben Casey replied with “The White Ones Are Dolphins,” “For San Diego, You Need a Different Bus,” and “No More Cried the Rooster: There Will Be Truth.”

On the comedy side, it’s no surprise that the smartest sitcom of the sixties, The Dick Van Dyke Show, got into the act, with episode handles like “I’d Rather Be Bald Than Have No Head at All,” “When a Bowling Pin Talks, Listen,” and “Uhny Uftz.”  In the seventies, a few of the better crime shows picked up the habit, none more exuberantly than The Rockford Files (“White on White and Nearly Perfect,” “The Oracle Wore a Cashmere Suit,” “Sticks and Stones Will Break Your Bones, But Waterbury Will Bury You”).

A few of these titles achieved a sort of aphoristic poetry that resonated apart from the content of the actual episode.  “There I Am – There I Always Am” (from Route 66) is a phrase that often runs through my head.  So are “The Sadness of a Happy Time” (Run For Your Life) and “Somehow It Gets to Be Tomorrow” (Route 66 again).  The shows themselves were so prodigiously good, and yet there was still a little dab of icing on the top.

Then there were the other series, the Gunsmokes and The F.B.I.s, that didn’t bother, that were content with generic descriptive titles (“The Threat”) or episodes named after that week’s guest protagonist (“Mr. Sam’l”).  Don Mankiewicz told me that they changed one of his Ironside titles just because Universal was too cheap to whip up a new optical, and instead substituted a title from some episode of some other show.  Okay, fine: like I said, treat the title as a bonus.

But then you come to the sitcoms, which – even as early as the fifties – often didn’t show the episode titles on-screen.  Invisibility tempted the writers not to care.  Why waste energy on one extra joke that nobody would ever see?  Decades later, though, the DVD menu has lifted the rock off of these groaners.  Some of them are bad enough that you’re already in a mood not to laugh before you even press play.

There are a million ways to illustrate this dearth of creativity, but let’s take just one.  Call it the Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner Rule.

After that movie, in which Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy eradicate racism forever by deciding to be nice to their daughter’s African American fiance, came out in 1967, just about every lousy sitcom on the air had an episode title that started with “Guess Who’s Coming to…” wherever.  It didn’t matter whether the story had anything to do with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, or even if the pun was clever.  Mostly it was just, oh, there’s that movie, and we can’t think of anything better.  For the years between 1967 and about 1973, there may be no more accurate way of separating the really terrible sitcoms from the at-least-watchable ones than by determining whether or not they succumbed to the Guess Who’s Coming Rule.

The earliest examples of the Rule do not occur until 1969.  (What on earth took so long?)  In that year we find “Guess Who’s Coming to Picket” (The Flying Nun), “Guess Who’s Coming Forever” (The Mothers-in-Law),  and “Guess Who’s Coming to Rio” (It Takes a Thief).  Moving forward chronologically, we have “Guess Who’s Not Coming to Dinner” (Headmaster, and again on The Jeffersons), “Guess Who’s Coming to Our House” (Arnie), “Guess Who’s Coming to Seder” (The New Dick Van Dyke Show), “Guess Who’s Coming to Visit” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Christmas” (give it a rest, Happy Days), and perhaps the classiest of the lot, “Guess Who’s Coming to Burp” (Too Close For Comfort).  Ralph Senensky had the misfortune to direct two of them: “Guess Who’s Coming to Lunch” (The Courtship of Eddie’s Father) and “Guess Who’s Coming to Drive” (The Partridge Family).

By the eighties, it wasn’t even necessary to make a joke out of it any more.  Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was a “classic” (actually, it’s fucking terrible), a lame punchline all on its own, so you could just rip it off!  The Facts of Life, Growing Pains, Empty Nest, Thunder Alley, Step by Step, and the notorious The Secret Life of Desmond Pfeiffer all have episodes entitled just “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”  And they’re still at it: as of this writing the Internet Movie Database spits out 118 instances of the Guess Who’s Coming Rule, all the way up to this year’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Delhi” (Outsourced).

(I should add that I have not bothered to sort out whether or not any of these titles have a question mark on screen, if applicable, or on the script page, if not.  For the sake of sanity, I have presented them all here without the question mark.  Pedants: deal with it.)

After I got through with the Guess Who’s Coming Rule, I was going to do a count of episode titles that start with “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to . . .”  But, instead, let’s don’t.

A Life at the Video Store

November 10, 2011

North Carolina Video, Cary, North Carolina, 1983. My technophile father, a fugitive from movie theaters after three nuns sit down directly in front of us in an otherwise empty theater and talk throughout E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, discovers this, the first video rental store in my hometown. He brings home a Sony Betamax. The first videotape I ever rent is The Last Unicorn, a now-forgotten Rankin-Bass cartoon that was also the first movie I saw on tape (when my first grade teacher showed it, illegally, in class).

The Video Bar, Cary, North Carolina, 1984-1987. The second video store to open in my hometown, in a shopping center across the street from the mall. My mother and I drop in on its first day in business and come out with membership card #2, which we share for nearly a decade, until the store switches computers and issues new cards. Instead of carrying their chosen videotape box to the counter, customers retrieve a little laminated card for each title from a hook underneath the shelf – blue for Beta, red for VHS. Red cards guarantee tantrums, until my father finally throws in the towel and switches to VHS. Though as a child I generally dislike children’s films I rent, over and over again, The North Avenue Irregulars (because I like the cars) and the Dot and the Kangaroo movies (because I like the Australian animals).

North American Video, Cameron Village and North Raleigh, North Carolina, 1986-1987; Schoolkids Records, Saltbox Village, Cary North Carolina, c. 1988; various others. The mid-eighties are a bad time for a newly-minted Trekkie. In a lull between theatrical features, classic Star Trek is atypically scarce in syndication. My long-suffering father is deputized to drive me to every video store in Wake County in a mostly vain search for the fifty-two episodes available on video at the time of my conversion. One of these stores (I can’t remember which) supplies the crucial “Balance of Terror” and “The City on the Edge of Forever,” both found on the rare double-episode cassettes that are show’s the first home video release. (When the third season of Star Trek finally debuts on VHS, my father astonishes me by pulling out his credit card and buying all twenty-four tapes on the same night I first spot them in the Waldenbooks at Crabtree Valley Mall. He is tired of driving to video stores, I guess.) Hitchcock, the filmmaker who introduces me to the idea of auteurism, first catches my eye in the “Suspense” aisle of a North American Video in Morrisville.

Videorama and Video Plaza, Cary, North Carolina, 1988-1990. Tucked into neighboring shopping centers right in front of my mother’s post-divorce apartment, these two small stores make a convenient summer afternoon destination for a bored pre-teen. The copy on the videocassette boxes in these shops becomes my first film school. At Video Plaza I discover, and become obsessed with, The Outer Limits.

Silver Screen Video, Raleigh, North Carolina, 1988. Situated far out into North Raleigh, Silver Screen is run by movie buffs and is the only store in town that carries the remaining Outer Limits episodes then available on VHS – a mere eighteen out of forty-nine. Totally unaware of how the home video industry works, I call them every few weeks to ask if they have any “new” Outer Limits episodes. My voice hasn’t broken yet, and I am infuriated when the clerks address me as “ma’am.”

Blockbuster Video, Cary, North Carolina, c. 1989. The blight first intrudes on Kildaire Farm Road, where I sniff around this neon-lit monstrosity (which will wage a protracted battle with the town council, as the overbrightness of its signs violate a local ordinance). Failing to comprehend the drawing power that 1,000 copies of every bad new release will have, I dismiss it as understocked and overpriced ($5 a night plus tax?!). A friend responds more pro-actively, by depositing an electrocuted squirrel found on his lawn in the overnight drop of a Durham branch. But the battle is a losing one; Videorama and Video Plaza, both across the street, are among the first casualties.

Carbonated Video, Waverly Place, Cary, North Carolina, 1991-1995. Along with the venerable Video Bar, now relocated to the other side of the Winn-Dixie/TJ Maxx shopping center, this new arrival is the best place in town to find classic and cult movies during my teenage cinephile years.

The Video Bar, Raleigh, North Carolina, 1993-1995. This offshoot, near the North Carolina State campus, stocks a hip slate of cassettes. Here, I discover the work of Russ Meyer – never imagining that a few years later I will spend a memorable afternoon with Russ and his sometime star Charlie Napier.

VisArt Video, Carrboro, North Carolina, 1994-1995. Having exhausted the movie supply in my own county, I begin regular trips to this college town mecca, almost an hour’s drive to the west, during my senior year of high school. I rent as many as I can, copy them all to enable time-shifting (most VCRs manufactured prior to 1990 were immune to Macrovision; I kept one operational until well into this century), and do it all over again the next weekend. I can’t remember the name of it, but a tiny little video store on a bend in the road between Chapel Hill and Carrboro supplies the life-changing Home Vision tapes of Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss. On the cross-country trip to college, my parents check out the Grand Canyon but I haul a VCR and my 13″ TV into a hotel room each night and watch tapes from the VisArt cache. (Teenagers are dumb.)  The only film I remember from that week is Marnie, the last major Hitchcock film I have not yet seen.  I am ready for new directors and new directions as I start my new life on the West Coast.

Tempo Music & Video and the 32nd Street Market, Los Angeles, California, 1995-1999. USC is in a low-income area that cannot support real video stores. All I find are a music shop and a dingy grocery store in a little outdoor mall, each with a kiosk full of mostly new releases. No matter: In film school it dawns on me that contemporary movies can be as good as old ones, so I eagerly set about bringing myself up to date.

Mondo Video a Go-Go and Jerry’s Video, Los Feliz, California, 1997-1999. Only a short bus ride from USC, these quirky neighborhood shops fill in more gaps, and the weird proprietors behind the counter provide added entertainment.

Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee, North Hollywood, California, 1996-2000. Perhaps the greatest video store of all time, EBSM is a long schlep into the Valley, but has no limit on rentals. I take a shoulder bag and fill it up each time. Noobs complain that the videos are organized not by genre but in alphabetical order, but of course I come with a list – and know enough to ask for the contraband behind the counter. Eddie Brandt’s allows me to become a television historian: it has a wall of bootlegs of shows like Naked City, East/Side West Side, Arrest and Trial, and others I’d only dreamed of ever finding.

Dave’s Video/The Laser Place, Studio City, California, 1999-2000. Having missed the laserdisc era almost entirely (those suckers are expensive, and therefore off my radar; as a teenager I mistake the rack of them in Camelot Music for soundtrack albums), I purchase my first DVD player in August 1999 and begin almost daily walks from my Coldwater Canyon apartment to Dave’s, one of the premiere DVD outlets in Los Angeles and soon to be a canary-in-the-mineshaft casualty of the medium’s decline. Dave’s is known for its celebrity customers, most famously Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, but I cherish meeting character actors like Bonnie Bartlett and Kurtwood Smith here.

Evergreen Video, West Village, New York City, 2000-2007. A friendlier but almost as well-stocked equivalent to the tool factory across town (see below), this tiny West Village store cuts up the video boxes and rehouses the artwork in fingertip-slicing laminated sleeves in bins. It’s even less browsable than Eddie Brandt’s, but no matter: by now I am cataloging every new DVD release of interest in a life-governing spreadsheet.

Tower Records, 4th Ave & 4th St, New York City, 2000-2006. The video rental shelf is small, but I can get new releases and TV seasons at two dollars for three nights – best deal in town. The Tower/Evergreen circuit becomes a fast-walking Friday lunch hour ritual for a few years.

Mondo Kim’s Video, East Village, New York City, 2000-2004; 2007-2008. A sluggish convert to the new DVD format, Mondo Kim’s eventually becomes the only store in town to amass a substantial library of imports and bootlegs. Relations with the legendarily supercilious staff deteriorate to the point that, following a conversation ending in the declaration “I have your money and I’m not giving it back,” a three year boycott is declared. Toward the end of 2007 I notice a “for rent” sign in the upstairs window and, although the twerps behind the counter persistently deny that the end is near, I lift the ban and manage to rent most of the expensive imports and out-of-print rarities just before the inevitable closure. In a typically shady maneuver, Mr. Kim, who once ranked number thirty-seven on the New York Press’s annual “Most Loathsome New Yorkers” list, does not sell off the videos but instead packs them away to a small town in Italy with the promise that the memberships of any old customers who happen to pass through Palermo will still be honored. Though I am happy to see my stoner asshat nemeses out of work, this still probably rates as some kind of tragedy.

Netflix, 2005-201?. I enjoy the rituals of browsing and spur-of-the-moment selections and am therefore a late and reluctant convert to rental by mail. Though impressed by the reliability of Netflix and the breadth of its library, I remain faithful to Evergreen and to Kim’s until they leave me twice widowed. (Visiting my home town, I ask around and realize that every single North Carolina video store mentioned above has closed its doors – even the Blockbuster. The final holdout, VisArt Video, hits eject at the beginning of this year.) At last almost entirely dependent on Netflix by 2008, I am unsurprised to find myself ditched once again, as company founder and nouveau douchebag Reed Hastings declares his loyalty to a deeply flawed streaming video offering and commences to throwing discs over the side as quickly as he can hoist them. The future is uncertain, but from here – on this, my thirty-fifth birthday – it looks a lot like 1982.

Minor changes for clarity made on March 28 and August 15, 2012.  Thanks to Scott, Andrea, and Toby for supplying the forgotten names of some of the stores mentioned above.

Suspension of Disbelief

October 6, 2011

Rita Lee came back with a frozen Milky Way and some confession magazines and comic books.  She read about a miser duck called Uncle Scrooge, and his young duck nephews, whose adventures took place in a city where all the bystanders, the figures on the street, were anthropoid dogs walking erect.  Norwood read about Superman and the double-breasted-suited Metropolis underworld.  It was a kryptonite story and not a bad one.  He went through the book in no time at all and rolled it up and stuck it in his pocket.  “Did you ever see that dude on television?” he said.

Rita Lee looked up with annoyance from her duck book.  “Who?”

“Superman.”

“Yeah, and I know what you’re going to say, he killed himself, the one who played Superman.”

“It looks all right when you’re reading it.  I didn’t believe none of it on television.”

“You’re not supposed to really believe it.”

“You’re supposed to believe it a little bit.  I didn’t believe none of it.”

- Charles Portis, Norwood (1966)

“Finally he decided his only choice was to get drunk, to control through oblivion what he could not control any other way.  Only the oblivion had never come, just this numbness that let him sit hour after hour watching motion pictures forming soundlessly in the dark.  He had the television tuned to one of Los Angeles’s non-network channels and all evening there had been nothing but reruns of old series, Ben Casey and The Fugitive and The Invaders, a short history of a pathetic people’s pathetic myths, the TV seasons with which they had measured out their lives, happily surrendering the treasures of community – family, church, club, bar – for the narcotic of endless spectatorship.  And it infected Hook with despair, almost an illness of despair, for he realized that he had come to despise so many things about his own country and its people, that they had settled for so little.”

- Newton Thornburg, To Die in California (1973)

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