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)

Thought of the Day

July 16, 2011

The older I get, the less I feel like Burgess Meredith in “Time Enough at Last” and the more I feel like Burgess Meredith in “The Obsolete Man.”

Thought of the Day

August 5, 2010

Last week I had a dream.   I don’t remember any of the details, except that there was a scene in the dream in which William Schallert (you know, the father from The Patty Duke Show) played a cranky old judge.  This happens to me all the time.  My gray matter dredges up familiar character actors to play parts in my dreams.  The actors mix in with the real people I know.  I forget who he was playing, but I think Bruce McGill appeared in the William Schallert dream, too.  My subconscious is a great casting director.

I like having favorite character actors drop in for a surprise visit while I’m sleeping, but there’s one aspect to it that drives me crazy.  No matter how hard I try, I can’t get the Internet Movie Database to add these credits to their filmographies.  Go ahead, take a look at William Schallert’s IMDb page.  Is the role of “Cranky Judge” in “Untitled Stephen Bowie Dream of 27 July 2010” listed?  No, it is not.  In fact, the IMDb would have you believe that Schallert hasn’t worked since an episode of Medium in February.

Just another example of the perpetual unreliability of the internet.

Thought of the Day

July 9, 2010

Let’s assume for a moment that when the apocalypse arrives I will have been conveniently napping in a lead-encased underground bank vault and will thus emerged unscathed as the last surviving remnant of mankind.  I’ve given a lot of thought to what will happen next.  Yes, I’ll rummage through some of Manhattan’s used bookstores and make a beeline for the Schwartzman Library (the one with the lions) and pile up some massive stacks of books I’ve always meant to get around to reading.  I’ll have two or three of my old pairs of glasses stashed in a safe place (learned that lesson early: who says kids don’t learn things parked in front of the TV?) and I’ll stockpile a few of those eyeglasses repair kits with the tiny replacement screws, too.  Even before that, though, I’ll head down to the Home Depot on 23rd Street and wheel out their biggest generator, then wheel it back to my place and hook it up to the plasma TV and the multi-region Blu-ray player and (if it’s summer) the air conditioner.  Then I’ll raid all of the few remaining DVD rental stores and brick-and-mortar retailers and the nearest Netflix shipping center (yes, I do know roughly where it’s located; one has to be prepared) and spend the end of the world watching all the movies and TV shows I’d never gotten around to, until the fallout gets me.

At least, that used to be the plan.  But how the heck am I supposed to make it work with – ulp – streaming video?  Huh?

Dirt in the Bathtub

June 30, 2010

“Sometimes you just gotta be a whore in this business.” – Ed Asner

When I first set up this blog (and the related website), I decided that it would be totally non-commercial.  No ads, no plugs, no Paypal “tip jar.”  I began writing in this space as a way of distributing ideas and research that I thought had value even though they had been turned down by commercial publishers.  I felt that if I was going to give it away for free, I should really give it away for free.  Of course, a blog about forty year-old TV shows are not exactly an advertiser’s bonanza, and the offers to monetize this space were few.  So it’s been easy to remain a purist.

The partial exception to that (and let this serve as past and future disclosure) has been the DVD screener.  On a few occasions, small distributors have asked to send me DVDs or books for review, and if the content interested me, I agreed.  At other times, I have contacted distributors, asked for screeners of specific DVDs, and received them.  For instance, last week’s article on “Three Plays by Tennessee Williams” was facilitated by a review copy from Criterion.

I’ve never seen this as a conflict of interest for a couple of reasons.  First, I’ve only asked for or accepted DVDs that I’ve genuinely wanted to write about.   (If Criterion hadn’t send me a copy of the “Three Plays” disc, I would’ve gotten around to Netflixing a copy and writing the same piece anyway.  But don’t tell them that.)

Second, I haven’t let the balance of content in this space be influenced by a desire for free stuff, even though, like most people, I do like to get free stuff.  That may seem an obvious policy to follow, but I can think of a lot of internet DVD reviewers who seem to be filing joyless book reports just to avoid plunking down forty bucks for a Blu-ray.  On this blog, I’ve always chosen what to write about based on my own whims rather than somebody else’s monthly release schedule.  It gets awfully dull when everyone on the internet is talking about the same thing at the same time.  (That, incidentally, is why I spiked a half-written piece on the Lost finale last month.  By the time I got done reading what all the other media writers I admire had to say about the subject, I was bored with it.)

I realize it’s naïve of me to engage in any hand-wringing at all over free screeners.  I’ve worked in or around enough “real” media outlets to know that most of the major entertainment programs, newspapers, magazines, websites, etc., receive an avalanche of unsolicited DVDs, and very often those go home with the receptionist or the janitor (or to the nearest record store) with the shrink-wrap still on.  It’s probably also naïve of me to feel guilty about the few screeners I accepted and never got around to writing about, but I do, and if you’re one of the people who sent me one of those, I really will get to it.  One of these days.

All of the above is intended as a prelude to an admission of defeat in a rather silly one-man battle with Shout Factory, a DVD company with which some of you may be familiar.  Shout Factory, along with CBS/Paramount and Timeless Media, is one of the few companies in the dwindling DVD market that is still releasing a high volume of vintage television programming.  Last year, I contacted Shout with a request for review copies of a few of their recent TV releases – Room 222 and Adam-12, I think.  There was no response.  I tried a second time.  No response.  Then I wrote directly to the president of the company.  Again, no response.

To be clear, I don’t feel entitled to freebies from anybody.  I wouldn’t argue with any publicist who took a quick look at this blog and found its potential for publicity too modest to justify the cost of sending out a review copy.  But I did feel that a polite inquiry merited at least a professional response along the lines of “Sorry, bub, but you ain’t exactly Entertainment Weekly.  Nice try, though.”  And after three, count ’em, three such polite inquiries did not generate a response in kind, I was annoyed enough to consider boycotting future Shout Factory product on this blog.  But that really would be unethical.  So I went ahead and wrote about The Bill Cosby Show (an older Shout release) when the urge struck me.  And sometime afterward, it occurred to me to send that piece to Shout,  just as a way of showing them what they were missing out on, as it were.

That e-mail also received no direct reply, but – lo and behold – it landed me on Shout Factory’s press release distribution list.  Would those e-mails about upcoming releases be followed by screeners?  Why, yes, a week or two later, the UPS man delivered an envelope from Shout, and I opened it to find . . . a copy of G.I. Joe: The Movie.  Not the recent live action movie, mind you, but the direct-to-video feature that was spun off the popular kids’ cartoon in the eighties.

G.I. Joe: The Movie was not one of the DVDs I requested, and not exactly  the kind of show where you’d think, hey, that guy behind the Classic TV History Blog would be really likely to jump all over this and write a glowing review.  Was Shout Factory just not getting it, or (indulge me in a bit of paranoia here) were they fucking with me?  Kissing off those pesky e-mails by sending me the stupidest release on their calendar this year?

If so, well played.  Except that a better choice might have been Small Wonder, the soul-crushingly vapid eighties sitcom about the robot kid.  Small Wonder would be a sure-fire finalist in any competition for the worst television series of all time and, let me tell you, that piece of shit was on TV every single afternoon when I was in middle school.  For years.  On every channel.  Wall-to-fucking-wall Small Wonder.  Just finding that DVD in the mailbox could’ve made me morose and nauseous for a day or two, and that’s without even putting it into the DVD player.  Small Wonder really would’ve stuck it to me good.

G.I. Joe, on the other hand, was a childhood favorite.  I loved me some G.I. Joe back in the eight-to-ten year-old day.  The toys, the comic books, and yes, the cartoon: I was the living-room Patton of G.I. Joe, circa 1986.  I mock the G.I. Joe movie not out of cultural snobbery towards cartoons created to sell toys but because, as every old-school Joe fan knows, the movie introduced a load of fantasy claptrap and other inanities that brought the animated Joe to an ignominious close.  No, if Shout had made the mistake of sending me the classic Season 1 of G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (yes, it’s in their catalog too), the result might well have been a prolonged dip into Joe nostalgia.  Be thankful you were spared.

*

That bit of kvetching played out longer than I expected and probably just sounds sort of petty.  Sorry about that: we’ll get back to serious business here in a few days.  I do have a point, though, which is to explain how I had hoped to write at some length about Leave It to Beaver, but won’t be doing so.  As I mentioned in passing in this piece on The Donna Reed Show (also reviewed courtesy of its distributor, thank you very much), I think Beaver remains a funny, important show, one with a great deal of unacknowledged cynicism and self-awareness lurking underneath the surface of its sunny suburban nuclear-family universe.  But I haven’t seen much Beaver since I was twelve or thirteen (yes, that was a double entendre, and brace yourself for more), and I can’t afford the $179.99 (plus s&h) price tag for Shout’s new release of the complete Beaver series, so a closer analysis will have to wait.

In the meantime, I’ll direct you to Neil Genzlinger’s terrific piece on Leave It to Beaver in last Friday’s New York Times (which pays for its review copies, if I understand its rigid rules of objectivity accurately; but let’s wait and see who lasts longer in the modern mediaverse, the big paper or the li’l blog).  Genzlinger picks out a great example of Beaver’s sly, multi-layered humor, a scene in the first episode where the Beav and his older brother elaborately stage the scene of an untaken bath, all the way down to chucking some dirt in the tub to create a ring.  That it would take less effort to actually bathe is the punchline that wisely remains unspoken.  And then there’s the kicker, when Wally dismisses a more obvious transgression (reading a sealed teacher’s note) at the same time he’s pulling one over on his parents.  Nixonian logic in the Eisenhower era, and ample evidence for my theory that Wally was a situational ethicist of the highest order, a passive-aggressive malcontent who lurked in the shadow of a more transparent sleazebag (the infamous Eddie Haskell).  In the end, Wally got away with a more profound form of insolence.

Genzlinger did phone interviews with the four main kids from the show, and asks some good questions that get at the pranks, pratfalls, and embarrassments that made up the week-in, week-out existence of Wally and Eddie and Lumpy and Beav.  In Leave It to Beaver growing up was often sort of a placid nightmare, despite the calming influence of Ward and June.  I may be on shaky ground when I wonder if the famous episode that traps Beaver in a giant soup bowl inspired Fellini’s billboard sequence in Boccaccio 70, but how about this one: the Beav in a bunny suit (Jerry Mathers’s pick as the most humiliating episode) as the source of the scary giant bunny in the not un-Leave It to Beaver-ish Donnie Darko.

(“Beaver in a bunny suit.  The only thing that would be funnier is a bunny in a beaver suit,” is Lumpy’s typically meta take on the situation.)

The last thing about Leave It to Beaver is the urban legend.  Not the one about how Jerry Mathers was supposedly killed in Vietnam.  No, the one I’m fixated on is how Mrs. Cleaver supposedly uttered the line of dialogue, “Ward, you were awfully hard on the Beaver last night.”  Hyuk, hyuk, I know, but my stuck-in-the-sixth grade wit needs to know if that line, which could have been spoken in so many episodes of Leave It to Beaver, ever actually was spoken in one of them.  I was thinking I’d offer to give my review copy to any reader who could find it in an episode, or else a line close enough to it to be the source of that rumor.  Of course, I don’t have a review copy to give away, but if anyone does know the answer, please enlighten us in the comments anyway.  On the internet, everyone works for free.

Is there any TV show with more terrible episodes than The Man From U.N.C.L.E. that still qualifies as a genuine classic?

Readers, please discuss, as I continue my death-march through the dreaded Third Season. 

Perry Mason Never Dies

July 23, 2009

Things sometimes move slowly here at the Classic TV History blog.  (It is, after all, mostly about old stuff).  That’s why I’m a bit late in noting that a television classic made an unexpected and widely reported appearance in the news last week. 

During soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings, a question from Senator Amy Klobuchar prompted Sotomayor to mention Perry Mason as an influence (one of several the jurist pulled from the realm of popular culture).  That’s Perry Mason the show, not Perry the man: Sotomayor explained that as a youth her sympathies lay with the series’ fictitious district attorney, Hamilton Burger.  Sotomayor went on to offer a fairly specific example of how the relationship between Mason and his adversary inspired her to become a prosecutor herself:

“Perry said to the prosecutor, ‘It must cause you some pain having expended all that effort and to have the charges dismissed.’

“And the prosecutor looked up and said, ‘No, my job as a prosecutor is to do justice, and justice is served when a guilty man is convicted and an innocent man is not.’ And I thought to myself, that’s quite amazing, to be able to serve that role.”

I guess Raymond Burr was right when he told author David Martindale that “Perry Mason awakened people’s interest in our system of justice.  For a lot of people, it still awakens that interest.”

Later, Senator Al Franken – appropriately, a former television personality himself – followed up by making the jokey but not totally irrelevant observation that Hamilton Burger was kind of a loser.  A legendary loser in the annals of TV history, in fact, and so how exactly did Sotomayor settle upon him as a role model?

Sotomayor then gestured, holding up one index finger, and Franken followed her train of thought by referencing one of the famous canards in television history: that Perry Mason lost only a single case.  Franken and Sotomayor joked about how neither could remember the episode in which this event occurred. 

Perhaps that’s because it’s apocryphal, sort of.  In The Perry Mason Casebook, Martindale explains at some length the circumstances under which Mason actually lost three legal decisions during the course of the series’ 271 episodes.  But those losses were either asides to the main storyline or set-ups for scenarios in which Mason did triumph.  It wasn’t as if Perry ever actually got thoroughly trounced by the hapless Hamilton Burger and watched as an innocent client got hauled off to the electric chair thanks to his legal missteps.

I think it’s probably a good sign for the state of the nation that our leaders are starting to display some evidence of having spent too much time watching television.  But I wish that, if television history is going to be the topic of the day on the Senate floor, someone would consult an expert beforehand.  I, for instance, can think of a couple of follow-up questions that I would have liked to see Senator Franken ask. 

One is, how come Judge Sotomayor was watching Perry Mason instead of The Defenders?  There’s room in the television universe for both of these concurrent but polar-opposite takes on our legal system, one of which had nothing to do with reality and the other of which shoved it into your face.  Perry Mason has been enshrined over the years (escapism is unkillable), while The Defenders is largely forgotten now.  But The Defenders was a show that actually examined issues, like race and abortion, upon which Justice Sotomayor will soon be ruling.  The Defenders also depicted a world in which prosecutors sometimes prevailed over defense attorneys, even when the defendants deserved to win.  I can live with a Supreme Court justice who has a shelf of Perry Mason DVDs in her office.  But I would rather have had a Defenders fan.

My other question would have been, was Hamilton Burger related to the former Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger?  Because some things run in the family.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 189 other followers