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.

My name is Stephen, and I am a Trekkie.

It’s been over ten years since I’ve used, but I know I can slip at any time.

It started when I was nine years old.  My father, in most other ways a sage and upstanding man, was the one who hooked me.  He just wanted something decent to watch when he came home from work.  At the time Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. was my afternoon rerun of choice, and he knew Star Trek was on the other channel.

It didn’t take immediately.  I pronounced the spaceships and the wild aliens “boring,” and I missed Jim Nabors.  But after a while, I started to get it.  I liked Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a utopian future, and the idea that Mr. Spock’s behavior was governed by logic rather than emotion (a point of view foreign to most of my fellow fourth graders).  I couldn’t have articulated this then, but I also dug the retro-futurist design in the sets, the costumes, and the special effects.  (Now, I find these to be the most enduring aspects of the 1966 Star Trek’s appeal – which is why the new Blu-Ray versions which replace the original effects with CGI gild the lily in the most pointless way.) 

It got ugly pretty fast.  I was always an obsessive taxonomist of whatever interest I had at the moment – earlier, it had been geography, and before that zoology – and so I got my hands on all the books about Star Trek and read them over and over again.  There was Allan Asherman’s The Star Trek Companion.  Stephen E. Whitfield’s The Making of Star Trek.  David Gerrold’s The World of Star Trek. My mother, so sure she’d had a scientific prodigy on her hands, tore her hair and begged for the animals and the maps to come back.  But they were gone for good. 

My father suffered, too.  I’d become a Trek fan during a rare window, a lull between the movies, when the original show wasn’t ubiquitous in reruns, at least where I lived.  I must’ve dragged my dad to every video store in the greater Raleigh area looking for tapes of the fifty-two episodes that had been released on VHS.  When the lion’s share of Star Trek’s third season finally emerged on tape, my father bought the whole run of them on the same night I discovered them in the Waldenbooks at the Crabtree Valley Mall.  I was awed, because a parent had never spent so much money on me at one time before.  Now I realize that my father understood he was saving himself a lot of grief in the long run.

I tried to spread the gospel in school, but they were all heathens there.  I’d take my Star Trek books into class and the other kids, discoving that I had them memorized, would quiz me on the trivia.  They thought they had me once, but it was actually a misspelling in Asherman’s book.  During the fifth grade, our lessons each week were organized around a theme of the teacher’s choosing: geology, say, or Native American culture.  In the spring Mrs. Jones (not a pseudonym) called me outside and whispered a secret conspiracy: what say I ghost-write her lesson plan and we make Star Trek the theme of the week?  I happily complied.  Finally, an official seal of approval!  My classmates seethed: this Star Trek nonsense they’d been tuning out for so long had finally forced its way into their lives.  I’d been a citizen of the nerd ghetto since kindergarten, but Star Trek sent my popularity down to some subterranean level quite possibly never plumbed by an elementary schooler before.  That time when the other kids (abetted by a parent volunteer) duct-taped my mouth shut – I’m pretty sure that had something to do with Star Trek.

My fervor crested around the time Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted in 1987.  I still remember which living room chair I was sitting in as I devoured the pilot (mediocre, but of course I didn’t mind).  The Next Generation was a constant during my teen years, even as my media tastes expanded (other TV shows; movies; theater) and as I developed something resembling a social life.  When it went off the air – I remember that night, too – it was sad, but I figured I could get by without it now.  There were other things to think about, like girls.

Something else happened during the seven-year run of The Next Generation, something more profound than my feeble progress toward getting a life, and it’s a phenomenon that I don’t think has been remarked upon enough: Star Trek became corporatized.  Paramount had been trying to make money off of Star Trek for twenty years, but in fact it had overseen a long period of benign ineptitude (premature cancellation of the original series; the collapse of a sequel show in the seventies; the failure of the first film) in which Trekkies were more or less left to their own devices.  Finally, with Star Trek: The Next Generation, the studio had a vehicle that could generate sustained profit and, more importantly, could transition Trek from a cult to a mainstream fanbase.

I noticed the changes that came with that transition with dismay.  I was, after all, the last of the “classic Trek” fans.  Suddenly Trekkies were deluged with collectible plates and pewter starships.  An extensive line of action figures emerged – oh, if only they’d been a few years earlier, when I was still young enough to play with them!  When I went to my first Star Trek convention, in 1987, there was a dealer’s room where the items for sale were mostly handmade (wood-carved tricorders!) or mimeographed (episode guides and, yes, even some “K/S” fan fiction).  The only celebrity guest was Mark Lenard, who had played the minor character of Spock’s father, and the rest of the busy program consisted of fans’ panel discussions and screenings of original Trek episodes and blooper reels on ordinary TV sets.  During the run of The Next Generation, the conventions were hijacked by an event planning corporation called Creation.  Creation could book the big name stars into third-tier cities like Raleigh, and project exclusive preview clips onto giant screens.  The dealers sold only Paramount-authorized merchandise; fans never had much chance to talk to each other; and while Marina Sirtis was fun, it was obvious even to a thirteen year-old that she (unlike Mark Lenard) was there because promoting the show was part of her job.

I’m pretty sure that I was the only person under eighteen at that 1987 show.  When I went to my last convention, five or six years later, I was shocked to see the audience full of children younger than me, with parents in tow.  Star Trek was now being marketed, successfully, not toward adults but to a “family” demographic.

Courting an audience of twelve year-olds, Star Trek seemed increasingly to be written and executed at a twelve year-old level.  The writing and acting on The Next Generation remained somewhat pure, but the subsequent series had compromise in their DNA.  Early on during the run of The Next Generation, Gene Roddenberry, the truculent anti-authoritarian who had created Star Trek, was kicked upstairs.  Rick Berman, the Paramount executive who took charge of the Trek franchise, was a corporate loyalist – a suit.  Everything new that emerged during the Berman era was calculatedly bland.  Deep Space Nine, the third series, introduced the character of Dr. Bashir as a temperamental and potentially dangerous rogue, for example, but he became a lovable fop after the test screenings.  Voyager and Enterprise, the fourth and fifth Trek series, made me embarrassed to admit I had ever been a Trekkie, with their cookie-cutter scripts and interchangeable supporting casts of pretty but hopeless nobodies.  (Quick, Neelix or Phlox, which was the comic relief alien from which series?  It doesn’t matter: both were insufferable.)

What really bothered me was that the fans seemed to go right along with program while Star Trek was watered down and merchandised to death.  I didn’t get it.  Star Trek had been a phenomenon of the counterculture.  The original Trekkies were hippies and peaceniks who had seen Trek as part of a larger cultural movement that tried to map out a hopeful future in a dark time.  They were intellectuals and artists, not maladjusted shut-ins.  At least, that’s the way it was told in the histories of fandom I’d read.  But if that was true, why didn’t the old guard of Trek fans rise up and reject the condescending, homogenized Star Trek of Deep Space Nine on, of the tie-in novels, of most of the feature films? 

I had this epiphany sometime in high school and resolved to write a passionate, well-reasoned missive to the official Star Trek fanzine, the Communicator, outlining the points above and leading the fans in wresting Star Trek back from the corporate machine.  I would be the Trotsky of Star Trek.  But then it dawned on me that most – in fact, just about all – of the letters published in the Trek fanzine were pretty positive about the way Star Trek was going.  It was almost as if the Communicator was itself hooked in with Paramount somehow.  I began to suspect that the Communicator might have the temerity to not publish my manifesto, even if I did sit down and write it.  I wondered if everyone who had mocked Star Trek, from Bill Shatner on Saturday Night Live on down to my middle school classmates, might not have been right.  Were we sheep, we Trekkies?  By the time I went off to college, I had mostly left Star Trek behind.

I tried to be loyal over the years.  I sampled Voyager and Enterprise when they began, but found them too banal to stick with.  With its complex characters, its robust acting and direction, and its sometimes profound engagement with real ideas, The Next Generation had achieved a quality comparable to the other great (and more critically acclaimed) ensemble dramas with which it overlapped, from St. Elsewhere to Picket Fences.  But Voyager and Enterprise were just schlocky action serials. 

I’ll admit to a certain schadenfreude when UPN cancelled the last of the Star Trek shows well before the end of the seven-year covenant to which every mediocre Trek sequel felt entitled.  Enterprise had done more than simply bore me.  It had enraged me with the cliff-hanger ending to its second season, a callous fictionalization of the September 11 tragedy that expanded the following year into a hysterical, opportunistic parable for the United States’s “war on terror” (itself a fiction, but I digress). 

One of the main architects of this “Xindi” storyline was a writer named Manny Coto, and years later when the New Yorker made a big splash by outing the creative staff of 24 (including Coto) as a nest of right-wing torture-mongers, my reaction was along the lines of: Well, no doi.  That agenda was no secret if you knew where to look.  Star Trek died the most undignified death imaginable.  It began as one of television’s few sincere pleas for tolerance and peace (complete, infamously, with actual space hippies) and ended as a neo-conservative exercise in outer space war games.

*

But Star Trek, like Spock, always resurrects, and if the above reads like a backhanded way of tying this blog in with current events . . . well, it is.  We have a new Trek movie whose box office returns are replicating like tribbles, and that seems sure to guarantee a few more sequels starring its new cast in the familiar roles.  Supposedly the fans are on board, but then my friend Scott Foundas (also a lapsed Trekkie) believes that the film was made by a committee of Vulcans, or of studio execs looking to shore up their franchise.  That sounds familiar to me.  I wish the new Star Trek well, but I’m not sure I’m in any hurry to beam up again.

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