July 14, 2010
Update, 7/19/10: As if to underscore my point, the New York Times today has a report on an abortion-related episode of The Family Guy (yet another show I don’t watch) that both Fox and Adult Swim declined to air last year. Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane refers to the topic as a “comedy red zone you just shouldn’t enter.” It’s finally coming out on DVD, albeit separated from the rest of the season within which it was produced.
Here’s an important New York Times piece, by Ginia Bellafante, about a recent abortion storyline on the (sort of) NBC drama Friday Night Lights. Sort of, because these days Friday Night Lights airs first on DirecTV (and I don’t even know what the heck that is, exactly, except that I either can’t afford it or can’t get the landlord to install it on my roof) and only later creeps onto NBC as a summer rerun, an arrangement that may allow the show to fly under the radar a bit. Important, because if Bellafante is right about Friday Night Lights (I’ve only seen the series’ 2006 pilot), it represents progress of a kind that I’ve been waiting impatiently for television to make.
Since most of the major taboos of the fifties and sixties are long gone, we sometimes assume that television has no more taboos. That’s not true. Yes, television can now depict all of the following things that it once could not, and in a variety of contexts, serious and humorous, positive and negative: violence; gore; graphic sexual talk; promiscuity; homosexuality; nudity (at least on cable); racism and other forms of discrimination; non-white characters and cultures (although stereotypes persist, and there remains a lamentable unwritten prohibition against minority leads, or all-minority casts, in certain types of shows); and all but the most colorful profanity. And probably a lot of other once-forbidden topics that I haven’t listed. Remember, no one could say the word “pregnant” even when Lucille Ball was visibly so, and they bleeped out “gas” anytime the gas chambers were mentioned in the Playhouse 90 production of “Judgment at Nuremburg.”
As a First Amendment absolutist, I’m all for this kind of progress, even when it doesn’t seem like progress. Even when freedom of speech results in something like the xenophobic, torture-happy sludge of 24, there’s still a beneficial effect, because thinking people can see the ugliness in what’s being shown even if the show’s creators are indifferent. But I wish more critics were doing the work that Bellafante has done with considerable insight, which is to point out some of the ground that we’ve lost during the same time in which it has become permissible for a “good guy” like Jack Bauer to electrocute suspects with a table lamp or slice off their fingers with a cigar cutter.
In an era where the oxymoronic phrase “liberal media” still does not provoke the guffaws it should, it’s gratifying to see the paper of record offer the blunt diagnosis that “[f]or years . . . television has consistently leaned to the right on the subject of unwanted pregnancy.” Bellafante explains that the teenager in Friday Night Lights who decides to terminate her pregnancy is one of the first TV characters since Maude Findlay of Maude whose abortion is depicted, without much equivocation, as the right choice for her. (That was in 1972.) Bellafante mentions a 2008 Private Practice episode (which I also haven’t seen) that examined a woman’s decision to have an abortion “with all moral positions respectfully represented.” I think that’s the key. Every time I’ve seen a fictional character have an abortion, or confess to a past abortion, there seems to be an obligatory scene meant to undermine that character by implying she will be forever crippled by some vast chasm of remorse. In the guise of objectivity, a kind of anti-feminist judgment is passed. That’s a more insidious cultural chill on women’s reproductive rights than movies like Knocked Up or Juno (or a Sex in the City plotline cited by Bellafante which, yep, I haven’t seen either), in which a character’s decision to keep an unplanned child seems so out of character that it launches a productive debate as to the creators’ political agenda.
In an era where Roe v. Wade is in real jeopardy, I wish more of our artists would (or could, because many have probably been shut down) take the step into actual abortion rights advocacy or, at least, come up with some scripts that don’t tiptoe around the subject. I’ve written elsewhere about an episode of The Defenders which presented a passionate plea for the legalization of abortion. That was in 1962, and I doubt that as forceful a case for the continued legality of abortion could be made on a network series today. I wish I could be more, er, fair and balanced, and call for the other side to make its case into compelling art too; but at the moment, I don’t think the Sarah Palins and Sharron Angles of the real world need a whole lot of help from Hollywood. Or, perhaps, they’re getting it already: Bellafante points out that Bristol Palin managed to insert herself into The Secret Life of an American Teenager, a kids’ show that offers “didactic and soulless cheerleading for anti-abortion sentiments.”
Abortion may be the most taboo of the new taboos, but it isn’t the only one. Sometimes I’m surprised by how much left-leaning and even anti-capitalist comment certain shows (namely The Wire) have gotten away with. I think that’s because viewers are generally so ill-informed now that detailed political and economic talk goes over their heads, or else the censors think it will go over their heads, or else it goes over the censors’ heads. But there is a limit: look at how much vitriol David E. Kelley attracted during the last few seasons of Boston Legal, which contained many impassioned, up-to-the-minute, name-naming tirades against specific officials and policies of the Bush Administration. It’s true that Kelley was burned out by that point, and that some of this material took the form of lazy speechifying. But I found it courageous, and cathartic, because Boston Legal seemed to be the only show on television willing to engage the headlines of the day. And much of the criticism directed against Kelley seemed less interested in illuminating the dramaturgical weaknesses in his writing than in scolding him for being the guy at the dinner table who won’t shut up about politics.
It may also be impossible now for a television show to suggest that recreational drug use can be a positive, or even a neutral, component of an average person’s lifestyle. The closest you can get is a defiant, curmudgeonly chain-smoker like Sharon Gless’s character on Burn Notice, or maybe the clownish potheads in the supporting cast of Weeds. I’m not sure that’s a great loss, but I know a lot of intelligent people who don’t share my own anti-drug stance, and it would be nice to see a character on television who reminds me of them.
The drug issue is my favorite example of a topic where ground has been lost in terms of what you can say about it on television, and Exhibit A is another episode of The Defenders called “Fires of the Mind.” In that show, which was made in 1965, Donald Pleasence plays a Timothy Leary-like LSD advocate who is tried for murder after one of his patients commits suicide. What is remarkable about this show is its unwillingness to take as a given the idea that psychotropic drugs are harmful. The father-and-son attorneys fall on either side of a generational split on LSD, with Lawrence Preston (E.G. Marshall) so disgusted that he drops out of the case and his son Kenneth (Robert Reed) curious enough to take an acid trip. Ken is permitted to enthuse about his expanded consciousness without rebuke, and on the witness stand the LSD doctor demonstrates some of the positive effects that drugs have had on his perception and memory.
Bellafante writes that it is “not just the rise of evangelical Christianity” but also “the dramatic realignment of women’s priorities since the most active days of the feminist movement” that account for television’s current anti-abortion bias. Indeed, but I think we can safely blame television’s equally timid and right-skewing depiction of religion on the networks’ (and cable channels’) fear of that loudmouthed evangelical minority. Just as television is loathe to produce scripts about women who do not regret aborting their pregnancies, it is also unlikely to deliver many unrepentant, well-adjusted atheists into your living rooms. Or even an unrepentant, well-adjusted agnostic; or a person who insists upon rationalism rather than superstition as a basic worldview; or a sympathetic character who mocks creationism. (The only recent, partial exception I can recall is Boston Legal’s Alan Shore.) This may not seem like a big deal, but it’s an absence that speaks volumes. I know a great many atheists personally, so why do I see so few on television (or in public office)?
There’s a parallel here to the abortion issue: often when a character is identified clearly as a non-believer, there’s a corresponding scene suggesting that he or she is somehow empty or soulless or in need of enlightenment. The Defenders had something to say on this subject, too, in a 1963 episode called “The Heathen,” in which a teacher is persecuted for his open atheism. Ernest Kinoy’s teleplay for “The Heathen” equates atheism with rationalism and comes down solidly on the side of both. “It’s so easy to demand the symbol and ignore the reality,” says the teacher (played by Gerald Hiken), in a scene meant to indict hypocrites who pledge a public allegiance to our dominant religion that does not reflect their private beliefs. That seems more relevant now than ever, both in politics (yes, Mr. President, I am thinking of you) and on television, which couches Christian dogma in vehicles both obvious (Joan of Arcadia) and surreptitious (Battlestar Galactica). Lost proposed its overarching narrative as a kind of dialectic between science and faith; in case anyone missed that, the writers helpfully titled one episode “Man of Science, Man of Faith.” I always considered the show a lot less brainy than it fancied itself, but even I was a little surprised by the absence of nuance in the final act of the final episode. Spoiler alert: Faith flattens science with a TKO.
I consider Christianity to be enormously destructive, but I grew up around many fine, principled people who were devout Christians and who insisted on crediting their faith for some of the qualities I admired in them. I still struggle to reconcile their examples with my abstract views about Christianity, and to understand the distinction that they made (but that I cannot) between their Christianity and the anti-intellectual intolerance and hypocrisy which constitute the public face of that religion. I wouldn’t bring that up here, except to say once again that characters who reflect any of those complexities have been mostly absent from popular television in my lifetime. The only series I can think of that gazed upon religion or faith with an intelligent, ambivalent eye on a regular basis was Nothing Sacred, which made it through one shortened, controversial season in 1997-98.
The only contemporary drama I can think of that tries to engage with religion as a facet of its practitioners’ daily lives is HBO’s Big Love, a show that strikes me as a failure largely because it doesn’t seem to have any of an idea of what it wants to say on that subject. The Christians in Big Love are a rogue sect that even the Mormon church has disowned, and so the show can relish the hypocrisy and craziness of most of its characters without offending too many people. Bill Hendrickson may drop to his knees and pray for guidance in trying times, but it doesn’t seem to occur to Big Love’s writers to try to explore why he does that and the ladies of Wisteria Lane do not. With that piece missing, Big Love is just another sensationalist suburban melodrama, as tawdry as Desperate Housewives and a lot more leaden and self-important.
You might guess that I’d cheer on any show that equates religion with charlatanism, and gives us characters like Roman (the wily Harry Dean Stanton), a spiritual leader who’s really a despot and a crook. But that’s the easy way out and it, like Big Love in general, gets boring in a hurry. I wish Big Love had built itself around some substantive argument in favor of Christianity, because I honestly can’t understand why Bill Hendrickson, or anyone, falls for it, and as always I turn to art for enlightenment when I can’t find the answers in life.
Also in the news: Matt Zoller Seitz, formerly a film reviewer for the New York Press, has penned some impressive television criticism at Salon lately, especially this detailed breakdown of a shift in Jon Stewart’s approach to the Obama Administration. For people (like me) whose response to reality shows is to pretend they don’t exist, Seitz’s look at a crucial arc on the Discovery Channel’s The Deadliest Catch is a reminder that the genre can on occasion approximate the form of legitimate documentary. But I disagree with Seitz when he shrugs off the show’s cheesy, pumped-up music, arguing that “decrying it . . . would be as pointless as complaining water is wet.” Not good enough. If a work of art/entertainment hopes to transcend a schlock genre, then eschewing the baser conventions of that genre is precisely what it must do. The obvious analogy is to sitcom laugh tracks: critics complained about them for decades and, finally, unlike the weather (or global warming), somebody finally did something about it.
And lastly: This week in the New Yorker, Nick Paumgarten compares God to the Balladeer, the off-screen voice (actually that of Waylon Jennings) that narrated each episode of The Dukes of Hazzard. It’s not so much a tongue-in-cheek joke as a clumsy metaphor. In fact, the Dukes reference is such a non sequitur that I think Mr. Paumgarten may have outed himself as a fan. The last time I remember seeing The Dukes of Hazzard cited in the pages of the New Yorker, it was when Malcolm Gladwell complained that the show (along with the likes of Dallas and Starsky & Hutch) made us all literally, scientifically, dumber. I’m not sure how I feel about this shift but it’s an obvious testament to the durability of Dukes, which was my favorite thing in the whole world around the time I was four years old. Where I come from, God was very big, and so was the Balladeer.
June 22, 2010
Last hear I wrote about how Susan Gailey, a minor television ingenue of the seventies, figured unexpectedly in the Roman Polanski rape case and also in the 2008 documentary about that case, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired. Now I’ve noticed that one of last year’s major documentaries – the film that won the Best Documentary Oscar, as a matter of fact – also has a classic television connection.
If you’ve seen The Cove, Louie Psihoyos’s terrific expose of brutal Japanese dolphin fishing, then you already know what I’m talking about. The protagonist of the film is one Ric O’Barry, a youthful sixty-something year-old whose full-time occupation is the fight against marine mammal fishing and, more broadly, against animal captivity in general. O’Barry’s story contains a dramatic twist that’s the stuff of great drama. When he was in his twenties, he was an animal trainer who worked on Flipper, the Florida-based, Ivan Tors-produced kids’ show about a boy and his dolphin. In The Cove, O’Barry claims that he captured all five dolphins who played Flipper, and that he trained them while living in the dockside house that was a main Flipper location. In 1970, one of the dolphins died in O’Barry’s arms (he describes it as a kind of suicide), and he began to rethink the ethics of keeping the mammals in captivity.
O’Barry is a controversial figure with a lot of enemies (especially in Japan) and some detractors, although I couldn’t find a well-sourced, bylined takedown of him. Among other things, he changed his name at some point: when he worked on Flipper (and a number of other marine-related Florida movies and television shows), O’Barry was credited as Ric O’Feldman, which also sounds like a stage name. Just who is this guy? O’Barry may be guilty of some Hollywood-style self-mythologizing, and while his commitment to his cause seems genuine, I wish The Cove had offered a more balanced portrait of the man on whom much of its credibility hangs. This profile adds some detail to O’Barry’s ideological transformation, placing it in the context of the hippie movement of the late sixties. O’Barry hung around with Michael Lang and Joni Mitchell, and went to India on a journey of self-discovery after Flipper bit the dust in 1967. When he came back, unlike a lot of hippies, he left behind his old life and set out to do some good.
Fans of caper narratives will also enjoy The Cove, because once O’Barry’s motley gang of activists plot to infiltrate the secret cove where the brutal dolphin slaughter takes place, the documentary plays out like an episode of Mission: Impossible. (There’s even a dossier scene, almost.) I’m not the world’s biggest lover of critters, but I defy anyone to see this film and not be sickened by the cruel and (because dolphin meat is too mercury-laced to eat) pointless slaughter of these beautiful, intelligent animals.
My only complaint about The Cove is the same one I lodged about Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired: that excerpts from older 4:3 material, like the Flipper series, have been cropped to matched the 16:9 aspect ratio of the new footage. There is absolutely no reason not to pillarbox these clips so that they appear intact within the frame, and film buffs should continue to complain loudly about this practice until documentarians discontinue it. Butchering Flipper is not acceptable, and neither is butchering Flipper.
Animal trainer Ric O’Barry (center, in the red trunks), then billed as Ric O’Feldman, also played on-screen bits in various Flipper episodes.
May 26, 2010
TO: Those Listed Below
FROM: James A. Glenn
Director, [NBC] Television Network Operations
DATE: April 22, 1958
RE: KINE RECORDING
2. [NBC's Hollywood studios] will make a videotape of all daytime shows, but will have no kine back-up for any of these shows including Today.
7. Kine re-recordings from videotape can be made on order. However, because of the scarcity of tape, Hollywood finds it necessary to erase and re-use this tape as soon as practicable in order to meet the requirements of their work-load. They will erase such tapes within 48 hours following broadcast unless they are notified in sufficient time to prevent tape erasure.
Mr. Aaron Rubin
National Broadcasting Corporation
30 Rockefeller Plaza
New York 20, New York
January 13, 1961
Dear Mr. Rubin -
Danny Welles asked me to write and officially tell you that you can wipe our FORD STARTIME TALENT SCOUTS color tape. It is okay, since we will have no use for it in the future.
TO: Mr. Alan B. Fendrick
FROM: Douglas Lutz
DATE: November 18, 1963
RE: DUPONT SHOW OF THE WEEK
The Talent Administration and Legal Departments have completed their investigations, and have commented on our recommendation to erase some of the old DUPONT SHOW OF THE WEEK programs.
The following programs may now be erased.
THE BATTLE OF THE PAPER BULLETS
WONDERFUL WORLD OF TOYS
TRICK OR TREASON
HOLLYWOOD, MY HOME TOWN (Ken Murray)
THE ACTION IN NEW ORLEANS
A SOUND OF HUNTING
THE MOVIE STAR
THE RICHEST MAN IN BOGOTA
All other programs in the DUPONT SHOW OF THE WEEK series must be retained.
TO: Joseph Hewes
FROM: Robert J. Dunne
DATE: June 7, 1973
RE: Tape Retention
This Department has no objection to erasing the 17 reels of Ford Startime and the 29 reels of Sunday Showcase currently being stored at NBC.
The text above has been excerpted verbatim from NBC correspondence and internal memoranda. Kinescopes of some, but by no means all, of the television shows mentioned still exist. In many cases those kinescopes are monochrome recordings of programs created in color. The Sunday Showcase segment “What Makes Sammy Run” is an example of a color show for which the original tape is presumed to have been erased, and of which only a black-and-white print survives.
December 7, 2009
Today, over on the main Classic TV History website, I have published a feature story entitled Murder, He Wrote. If the names mentioned therein are unfamiliar, the story may read like an outline of a fictional crime show, an episode of Dragnet or Cold Case or, yes, even Murder, She Wrote. But the people in this story are real, and the events that it records actually happened.
More than three years have passed between the day when I first heard a rumor about the TV writer who killed his wife back in the sixties. I did not know the man’s name, or any other information about him, apart from a few details of the crime (some of which turned out to be inaccurate). But immediately I realized this story fell so squarely into my area of study that I had to report it. Many times during those three years, I thought I knew the whole story. And each time, just as I was about to close the file, I learned some new fact that added another tragic, touching, or bizarre layer to it. Finally, it’s time to turn the tale of Leonard Heideman (or, as he came to be better known, Laurence Heath) over to my readers.
True crime is a new area of reporting for me, and a sobering one. The violent act committed by Leonard Heideman in the early morning hours of February 23, 1963, continues to reverberate in the lives of his family and friends nearly fifty years later. Some of those family members and friends were courageous enough to discuss this difficult subject with me. I hope that I have done justice to them and to all the other parties involved in this story.
As always, I welcome readers to offer their reactions in the comments area below.
October 17, 2009
Recently, as you may have read or heard somewhere, the film director Roman Polanski was recently arrested in Switzerland and may soon find himself back in the United States to face sentencing on a statutory rape charge to which he pled guilty thirty-one years ago. This development reminded me that I still hadn’t seen Marina Zenovich’s Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, a fascinating, well-researched documentary about the Polanski rape case that was released last year.
I have no editorial comment whatsoever to make on the subject of Polanski’s crime. However, the Polanski case does contain one intriguing connection to the subject of this blog. Susan Gailey, the mother of the thirteen year-old girl with whom Polanski had sex in 1977, was an actress. Gailey played bit parts in episodes of Police Woman, Starsky and Hutch, and (according to some internet sources) L.A. Law. I’d bet that she can be found in other shows from the mid-seventies, too. The credits of many small-part actors, especially in obscure series, have not found their way into any on-line resource yet.
Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired includes a brief clip from Gailey’s appearance in a 1976 segment of Police Woman. The image above is taken from the documentary. Note that, instead of pillarboxing the clip to preserve its correct 4:3 aspect ratio, the filmmakers have cropped the footage to shoehorn it into the 16:9 frame of their film. This is a deplorable practice that’s all too common in documentaries these days.
That episode of Police Woman is not commercially available on DVD, but Gailey’s Starsky and Hutch episode is. Here she is, billed as Suzan Gailey, in the first season’s “The Deadly Impostor,” from 1975.
Does anyone out there know of any more Susan Gailey appearances? Gailey declined to be interviewed for the Polanski documentary. Zenovich claims that Gailey changed her mind after seeing the film, but Zenovich opted not to record an interview and add it to the film for its DVD release. I’d love to hear what Gailey – who has been accused by some of essentially pimping her daughter to Polanski – has to say. But for now, we’ll have to settle for her fleeting appearances in a few bad old cop shows.
UPDATE: Susan Gailey was also a fixture in some long-running TV ad campaigns in the seventies – the kind of television history that’s often lost to those of us who weren’t around to witness it firsthand. For more on Gailey’s post-Hollywood years, see the Washington Post and the Virginian-Pilot (which gallantly omits any mention of l’affaire Polanski).
July 9, 2009
I have always intended to write in this space about new TV shows as well as old ones. Since my blog debuted, though, the networks (and even the cable channels) have stymied that plan by offering up two of the most uninspired television seasons in history. But my friend Stuart Galbraith’s recent review of the most recent season of 24 (the only one I haven’t yet seen), plus my own sideswipe at neo-con 24 writer-producer Manny Coto, have gotten me thinking about that series again. So perhaps that’s a place to start.
Two years ago Jane Mayer’s New Yorker article cast a baleful eye upon the popular Fox action serial in which shady government operative Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) plows a lethal, annual real-time path through an array of terrorists bent on blowing up America. (So far we have glimpsed only 168 hours of Bauer’s life, during which he has saved the world seven times – an impressive average.) For anyone who has qualms about the moral implications of 24, it’s cathartic to see Mayer expose the show’s co-creator, Joel Surnow, as a cigar-smoking, Rush Limbaugh’s ass-kissing, John Milius-wannabe buffoon. Memo to Mr. Surnow: John Milius wouldn’t be caught dead sporting a soul patch.
But Mayer is a political, not an entertainment, reporter. The revelation of Surnow’s politics (and those of fellow 24 writer/producer Manny Coto) is her main “gotcha,” but the more substantial point Mayer makes is that the storytelling of 24 relies heavily upon torture and the trampling of civil rights. That was hardly news to regular 24 viewers, but Mayer’s evidence that military and law enforcement recruits have begun to see the show as justification for brutality in their work gave many pause. Just as the mafiosi of past generations copied their style from James Cagney or The Godfather, today’s real-life spooks may be aping Jack Bauer’s moves.
As a television historian, I’m intrigued by one idea which remains implicit in Mayer’s reporting. I suspect that 24’s torture fetish is more practical than ideological. This is borne out by the amusing quotes from actor Kiefer Sutherland and producer Howard Gordon, who tie themselves in knots trying to reconcile their own liberal or moderate opinions with the series’ hawkish reputation.
In 24, torture operates primarily as an expository device. Mayer, and the experts she quotes, point out that violent coercion always works on 24. It always provides reliable intelligence, always averts deadly disasters in time. Joel Surnow would be happy to have you accept this aspect of his show as an aesthetic affirmation of Bush’s torture policies. But I believe the real reason for all the torture in 24 is simply that it’s the only way to move the story from point A to point B. 24 functions as a succession of suspenseful set pieces, and in order to activate the next one, some new bit of exposition must be gleaned at the end of the previous arc. There are interrogation methods other than torture – many of them mentioned by Mayer – but all of them take longer than a real-time drama can afford. Ergo, lots and lots of busted kneecaps and electroshock. 24’s failures of compassion are secondary to its failures of imagination.
It’s easy for op-ed writers to opine about the supposed politics of a television show when it happens to intersect with the zeitgeist. But most of the time, television’s politics are just opportunistic. Only a tiny handful of American series (The Defenders, M*A*S*H, The West Wing) have actually expressed a coherent political point of view, and I can’t think of any that you could call radical (either to the right or the left). Law and Order is my favorite example: it’s often perceived as a right-leaning show, and in general its focus on cops and prosecutors leads to a knee-jerk pro-law and order stance. But Dick Wolf has always shifted shrewdly with the political breeze – installing liberal district attorneys for the Clinton and Obama eras, a conservative one for the Bush years – and Law and Order nurses a streak of Dickensian, populist contempt for the wealthy and powerful that muddies its ideology. Wherever the story goes, the politics follow.
What I enjoy about 24 are the tangential elements: the taut direction; the drab, sun-battered San Fernando Valley locations; and Sutherland’s sweaty, tamped-down portrayal Jack Bauer, a welcome relief from the Schwarzenegger/Willis model of over-the-top movie action hero. But I suspect that most fans get pulled into the show by the storylines that I find silly and repetitive.
In the New Yorker, Mayer laid out how 24’s overuse of race-against-time threats that rarely, if ever, occur in real life represent a straw-man argument for the efficacy of torture. Her argument complements a point articulated in Adam Curtis’s 2004 BBC documentary The Power of Nightmares, which can also be taken as an extended rebuke to 24. Curtis makes a persuasive case that the idea of an organized global network of terrorism is a fiction maintained by fear-mongering politicians in order to command the allegiance of the public. People who believe the lies cling to hawks like Bush and Cheney in order to feel safe, and I think that’s why 24 has found an audience, too. Across its seven cycles, 24 exhibits a horrorshow of worst-case scenarios with unconcealed glee: political assassinations, dirty bombs, missing nukes, flesh-eating bioterror microbes on the rampage in downtown L.A. Emotionally, 24 scores by eliciting a vicarious, tenuous sense of relief that looming real-world threats to our personal safety may come to pass tomorrow, but did not do so today. What eludes me is why such a masochistic ritual appeals to so many people.
Meanwhile, I’ve been watching Swingtown, the show about wife-swapping during the Bicentennial summer that was already a lame duck when it aired last year. Swingtown was a curious venture for CBS, not just because the network hasn’t successfully nurtured a serious drama in nearly a decade, but also because it covers such familiar territory. What is there about suburban banality that hasn’t already been sliced and microscoped on Weeds or Desperate Housewives or Big Love or Mad Men or The Riches?
Not much, it turns out. Swingtown has a solid B+ pedigree; it was created by writer Mike Kelley (ex-The O.C.) and executive produced by director Alan Poul (ex-Six Feet Under). But Swingtown borrows a great deal from Ang Lee and James Schamus’s The Ice Storm, albeit ten years later and fatally watered down for prime-time. Kelley’s creation, set in a Chicago commuter town, has a cul-de-sac full of stereotypes: prudish Stepford wife best friend; coke-whore single mom; precocious teen with a crush on her teacher. But so far (I’m around the half-way point) there has been no single iconic image with the resonance of Christina Ricci’s teen nymphette in a Nixon mask.
There are two good reasons to watch Swingtown: its leading ladies. (There are men in Swingtown too, but I’ve already forgotten them.) Since I first noticed her on Boomtown, Lana Parrilla has passed through several series (including 24) without leaving much of an impression. Here she finally has a chance to shine as Trina, the predatory swinger superwoman who is as at home in the kitchen, whipping up a perfect fondue, as she is in bed with two men. Parrilla is ravishingly sexy and confident, and more committed than the rest of the cast to the authentic seventies hairdos.
But the star here is Molly Parker, playing a thirtysomething housewife and mother who discovers an unexpected restlessness within herself after she’s exposed to Trina and her hedonistic circle. The main thrust of Swingtown is Susan Decker’s awakening, to sexual experimentation and also to some of the ideas and practical applications of feminism. I was afraid that Parker would offer just a caricature of female repression; it’s well within her range, and the early episodes don’t help her much with ridiculous scenes like the one where Susan gets flustered by all the sexy talk and drags the family straight off to church. But Parker understands that we want to see her break through. She has a natural languor, but also the ability to turn on a kind of inner radiance at just the right moments. A fearless indie film star (see Wayne Wang’s The Center of the World, for one), Parker descended into television via Deadwood, and it’s especially exhilarating to see her freed from the straitjacket of David Milch’s pretentious pseudo-Shakespearean dialect. Mostly she’s way ahead of the writing in Swingtown, but there’s a real joy in watching her light up any time the prospect of liberation presents itself.
The real test of a show about sexual freedom is probably whether or not it comes off as sex-positive, and this is where Swingtown may have suffered from being on CBS instead of cable. For one thing, it can’t depict an actual orgy; instead there are quick cutaways to a shirtless extra with two (clothed) babes cooing in his ear, a scene so chaste it could be an outtake from a deodorant commercial. At one point Trina’s husband entreats her to talk dirty to him, and the camera whoosh-pans away from Parrilla with her mouth hanging open, before she can get the first word out.
Not being able to show (or even talk about) the central subject is handicap enough, but even as pure plot Swingtown stalls on the wife-swapping. Susan and her husband enjoy a polite gangbang with the neighbors at the climax of the pilot, but by the seventh episode, a second hookup remains conspicuous in its absence. One particularly grating tactic for throwing cold water on everyone is the character of Susan’s straitlaced “old” best friend Janet (Miriam Shor, in a cripplingly weak performance that equates repression with a robotic speech pattern), who has a habit of showing up whenever Susan (or anyone else) starts to feel naughty.
Maybe this is just a conservative narrative strategy – once Susan and spouse go all the way, the show has shot its wad, as it were – but it smacks of another kind of conservatism, too. There’s an aspect of class consciousness nestled at the base of Swingtown’s premise that remains revealingly underdeveloped. Susan’s transformative odyssey begins only when she and her family move to a pointedly wealthier neighborhood. Swingtown math: financial prosperity (Trina) equals decadence; relative poverty (Janet) equals inhibition and intolerance. But surely there’s a happy, middlebrow, censor-appeasing, baby boomer-CBS-audience-satisfying compromise somewhere along that sliding scale, right?
I’m reminded of a Night Court episode from the eighties in which a guy has just awakened from a twenty-year coma. “What about the sexual revolution – is it over?” he asks innocently. Marsha Warfield’s no-nonsense bailiff looks at him pityingly and says, “Ohhhhh, yeah.” (I’ve paraphrased that exchange from memory.) Swingtown doesn’t treat the sexual revolution as a joke, but it doesn’t seem to know why we should take it seriously, either. Are we meant to feel nostalgia for the bygone possibility of alternative sexuality in even the most staid of enclaves – of Harry Reems dropping in for cocktails at a midwestern house party, as happens in one enjoyable episode – or to shudder with relief that such scandalously unchecked libidinousness is as extinct as the Ford Pinto? One thing you can say about all of the best TV shows, of any era: they take a position.
August 15, 2008
I wasn’t planning to tackle the new season of AMC’s Mad Men, the retro-sixties pastiche that was the only really good new show to debut last year, until all the episodes had been broadcast. But my correspondents have been abuzz with word that this week’s segment named-checked the finest television drama of the actual sixties, Reginald Rose’s The Defenders, in a major way. I had to take a peek.
Last season Mad Men referenced The Twilight Zone, in a scene where aspiring writer Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis) cites Rod Serling as an inspiration. It was a terrific way to humanize a character (because, don’t we all dig Rod Serling?) whose pipe-smoking pomposity was off-putting, even before he scuttled his rapport with the new secretary by making a clumsy pass at her. So it’s not surprising that, as Mad Men jumps ahead eighteen months (from 1960 to 1962) to continue its narrative, its creator, Matthew Weiner, and his writing staff would choose to acknowledge The Defenders as a way of updating the show’s cultural touchstones.
The Mad Men storyline wraps an entire subplot around The Defenders. Mad Men‘s Sterling Cooper Agency becomes involved in the search for a replacement sponsor for the Defenders episode of April 28, 1962, which was so inflammatory that the show’s regular sponsors withdrew their advertisements. Hotshot ad exec Don Draper (Jon Hamm) pitches the Defenders opportunity to one of the agency’s clients, a lipstick company called Belle Jolie, on the grounds that they can buy ad time for “pennies on the dollar.” Plus, the episode is about abortion, a topic of interest to Belle Jolie’s target audience of young women. But the client declines, arguing that the show is “not wholesome.”
The title of the Defenders episode in question, “The Benefactor,” is the same as the title of the Mad Men episode. Mad Men excerpts two clips from the original “The Benefactor.” In the first, the district attorney (Kermit Murdock, a wonderful, rotund character actor with a trademark droopy lip) cross-examines the young woman (Collin Wilcox) who was on the operating table at the time her doctor was arrested. The second scene depicts a confrontation between a teenager (soap star Kathleen Widdoes) and her father (Will Hare), who’s so ashamed by the news that his daughter has had an abortion that he slaps her. Lawrence Preston (E. G. Marshall), the attorney at the center of the series, scolds the man for his lack of compassion.
Kathleen Widdoes, E. G. Marshall, and Will Hare
“The Benefactor,” which was written by future Academy Award winner Peter Stone, employed a self-consciously didactic strategy toward the abortion issue. In the narrative, the doctor arrested for performing the operations (which were, of course, illegal until the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade verdict in 1973) encourages his attorney, Lawrence Preston, to put the law on trial. Preston expresses doubts about using the courts as a “public forum,” as this defense stategy will increase his client’s chances of being convicted (which is in fact what happens). “The Benefactor” turns its courtroom scenes into a referendum on a hotbed issue, using the testimony of the witnesses in the fictitious case as a means of presenting real statistics and ethical arguments to the audience. Both sides are heard, but “The Benefactor” clearly advocates for the legalization of abortion. The argument that a fetus is “not a human being” is articulated passionately, and twice the point is made that if the law is to restrict abortions, it must provide humane alternatives. (More humane, the script suggests, than foster care and homes for unwed mothers.)
“The Benefactor” received a great deal of press attention in the spring of 1962 when, as related on Mad Men, the three rotating sponsors of The Defenders – Lever Brothers, Kimberly Clark, and Brown & Williamson Tobacco – declined to have anything to do with the episode. In January of that year, CBS president Frank Stanton had testified before the FCC that “The Benefactor” – already notorious even before it was broadcast – was “a very fine, realistic and honest dramatization,” but the advertisers were unmoved. It was “in conflict with their corporate policies,” according to the New York Times.
“The Benefactor” was the nineteenth episode produced during The Defenders’ first season, but the thirtieth to be broadcast. During the weeks while the completed show sat on the shelf, conversations approximating those depicted in Mad Men took place. Eventually the Speidel Corporation, which made watch bands, bought up the whole hour’s advertising. Just how much of a discount, if any, Speidel received is unknown.
But the worst of the storm was yet to come. Hoping to cushion the blow, CBS screened “The Benefactor” for its local affiliates via closed circuit television on April 18. This move may have prevented a widespread backlash, but ten of the 180 network stations declined to run the episode. The residents of Boston, Providence, Buffalo, New Orleans, Omaha, Milwaukee, and various smaller cities never saw “The Benefactor.” Nor did anyone in Canada, after the CBC rejected the segment. A number of stations delayed the broadcast until after the evening news, as did the BBC when “The Benefactor” crossed the Atlantic in July. All of these events received ongoing coverage by major newspapers, including the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.
Robert F. Simon played the abortionist in “The Benefactor”
Throughout all this, The Defenders enjoyed staunch support from CBS. It was an unusual display of backbone in an industry dependent on the fickle support of the masses. Bob Markell, then the associate producer of The Defenders, remembered that the hero of the hour was CBS chairman William Paley. “It would have gone on with or without sponsors,” Markell told me, because Paley believed in the show. Michael Dann, the CBS executive who had developed the Defenders pilot and fought to get it on the air over the objections of network president Jim Aubrey, also felt that the sponsor defections were irrelevant. Dann felt that “The Benefactor” won the day because it was serious-minded and well-made, like all of the programs supplied by executive producer Herbert Brodkin’s company. Had it been exploitative or inept, the episode might have done irreparable damage to The Defenders.
The historical record supports Dann’s assessment. Published surveys of viewer responses reveal that there was no “Benefactor” backlash. Two weeks after the broadcast, Reginald Rose told the New York Times that the mail received (over a thousand letters, compared to 150-200 following most episodes) ran eleven to one in favor of the abortion show. The Los Angeles Times published the first ten letters it received about “The Benefactor,” eight of which were positive, and Television Age reported that 93.8% of the 1,000 New Yorkers it surveyed approved of “The Benefactor.” The episode pleased critics, as well, earning a rave from Cecil Smith in the Los Angeles Times and a lengthy, if more ambivalent, notice from the New York Times‘ Jack Gould. Gould nevertheless called “The Benefactor” a “remarkable demonstration of the use of theatre as an instrument of protest.”
Michael Dann – incidentally a fan of Mad Men who believes it’s the “most important show on cable right now” – remembered “The Benefactor” as an essential “turning point” for The Defenders. The positive outcome of that controversy translated into a mandate for Reginald Rose and the series’ other writers to address the issues of the day in a frank and opinionated manner. Many of the first season segments were timid, or had lapsed into silly melodrama or Perry Mason-style courtroom theatrics. “The Benefactor” gave The Defenders the courage of its convictions, the mojo to confront a divisive topic literally almost every week: capital punishment, the blacklist, atheism, faith and religion, medical malpractice, birth control, nuclear proliferation, child abuse, euthanasia, the draft, recreational drug use.
One reason I was pleased to be able to write about “The Benefactor” is that it gave me an excuse to renew my acquaintance with Collin Wilcox, one of my favorite television actresses of the early sixties. Wilcox is probably best known as the angry young woman who accuses Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) of rape in To Kill a Mockingbird (which was filmed before but released after “The Benefactor” was made and telecast). TV fans will remember her as the plain girl who doesn’t want to look like everybody else in The Twilight Zone episode “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You,” and as Pat Buttram’s sultry child bride in The Alfred Hitchcock Hour‘s creepy “The Jar.” Today, Wilcox and her husband operate a small black box theatre in her home town in western North Carolina, where she will star in Love Letters opposite Rex Reed this October.
Collin Wilcox in The Defenders‘ “The Benefactor”
In “The Benefactor,” Wilcox plays a woman who undergoes an abortion after being raped. Though compelled to testify against her doctor, she is grateful to him, and unwavering in her conviction that she should have been allowed to terminate her pregnancy legally. In our conversation this week, Wilcox revealed that she drew from her own life in shaping her performance.
“I really related to it, because I had an abortion when I was eighteen,” Wilcox told me. “At that time it was damn near impossible to find someone who would perform one.” Wilcox flew with her mother to Peoria, Illinois – “the airport was full of standees of famous movie stars, and I remember thinking they had probably all been there for the same reason I was” – where the operation was done in far from ideal circumstances. Her doctor was “still wearing a hat with fishing hooks on it” when he arrived. Wilcox experienced complications after the procedure, and nearly died. Although she had not been raped, as the young woman in “The Benefactor” had been, Wilcox shared her character’s view that her abortion was the right decision.
Wilcox, a member of the Actors Studio, had studied with the legendary acting teacher Lee Strasberg during the late fifties. Strasberg’s technique emphasized the actor’s use of his or her own past experiences and sensations to create a character. With that in mind, it’s hard to imagine a more daunting exercise in the “Method” than the one Wilcox underwent for “The Benefactor.”
If The Twilight Zone remains familiar today to almost everyone, The Defenders was probably a big “say what?” to Mad Men fans, a sixties totem as exotic as ashtrays in the office and martinis for lunch. As far as I’ve been able to determine, the last time The Defenders was shown on American television was on an obscure and now defunct cable channel, circa 1980. It’s hard to think of another series made after 1960, even one in black and white, that ran for as long as The Defenders (four seasons, 132 episodes) and yet hasn’t been syndicated in nearly thirty years. And that’s not even taking into account the show’s acclaim and enormous historical relevance. Mad Men enthusiasts seem to be expressing some curiosity about The Defenders in their columns and blogs. Is it naive to hope that a few seconds’ exposure on Mad Men might lead to a renaissance for The Defenders, on cable or home video? Probably. But here’s hoping.
Update (August 19): I’ve chatted with Defenders producer Bob Markell again, after he saw Mad Men‘s “The Benefactor” over the weekend. Markell felt that the “concept was admirable,” but expressed dismay about some factual inaccuracies regarding the television industry of the early sixties, most of them in the scene depicting the initial phone conversation between Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) and the junior CBS executive. These are indeed worth exploring further.
The CBS exec in Mad Men offers a rather confusing explanation as to how “The Benefactor” got made. He tells Crane that the abortion script was somehow substituted for an episode on cannibalism that the network would not allow to be made. I’m guessing this is a modified version of an instance of horse-trading that’s been widely reported in the literature on early television. In 1963, when CBS balked at Reginald Rose’s pitch for a Defenders episode about racial prejudice (not the show’s first brush with that inflammatory topic), Rose offered to produce a segment on blacklisting instead. Rose felt that CBS would back down and allow him to proceed with the race story, but to his surprise the network agreed to the switch and the Emmy-winning 1963 “Blacklist” episode was the result.
However, implausible as it may sound, there was a Defenders episode about cannibalism. Written by David W. Rintels and entitled “A Taste of Ashes,” it dealt with the prosecution for murder of two sailors who had killed and eaten another seaman while adrift at sea. The segment was produced in late 1963 (the assassination of President Kennedy occurred during the filming) but not broadcast until the following season, on November 12, 1964. Because of the sensational subject matter, CBS shelved the episode for nearly a year before executive producer Herbert Brodkin bullied it onto the air. ”A Taste of Ashes” attracted only a fraction of the attention that “The Benefactor” had, even though the earlier segment had enjoyed the public support of the network. Mad Men is generally pretty scrupulous in its historical accuracy – “The Benefactor” takes place in late March or early April of 1962, while the preceding episode, “Flight 1,” deals with a real plane crash that occurred on March 1 of that year – but the reference to the cannibalism story violates this chronology.
Another line that rings false is the CBS exec’s comment that “the director eats up all this time refusing to do” the cannibalism script. In fact, not even the most acclaimed episodic television directors enjoyed that much clout in the sixties. On almost any of the show of that period (and probably now, as well) a director would have been immediately fired and replaced had he flatly refused to shoot script pages. Markell averred strongly that this would have been the case on The Defenders, even though the series had its share of temperamental directors.
(One thing the Mad Men script gets right is the CBS exec’s comment that “The Benefactor” will be “going on the air, sponsor or no.” Last week, I quoted Markell to the effect that this was the network’s position in 1962. What I didn’t bother to include, because it was somewhat redundant, is that CBS vice president Frank Stanton made a similar comment in his January 1962 testimony before the FCC. I’d wager that his remark, which was quoted in the news coverage of the “Benefactor” controversy, were the source of this bit of dialogue.)
The most troublesome of the CBS executive’s lines in Mad Men is his joke, “I miss the blacklist.” It’s highly unlikely that anyone at CBS would have uttered this remark in 1962 – not only because the blacklist was a taboo subject, even in private conversations, but because CBS was still enforcing it in 1962. The network continued to veto certain blacklisted artists sought for The Defenders at least until the series’ final (1964-1965) season; in fact, my research suggests that CBS, oblivious to irony, may have rejected the producers’ original choices to star in and direct the “Blacklist” episode.
Of course, these are minor points, and creative license is essential to good drama. I still think it’s very cool that The Defenders, one of my pet TV history causes, has been interwoven so creatively into one of its few worthwhile modern counterparts. But, upon further reflection, I do wish that Matthew Weiner and his co-writer, Rick Cleveland, had thought better of that glib line about the blacklist.
Markell made one final, crucial point about the storyline of Mad Men‘s “The Benefactor” in our conversation, and he’s absolutely right about it, too. The Madison Avenue agencies were so ubiquitous in the production of live television that it’s unlikely a large, established agency like Sterling Cooper wouldn’t have had a thriving television department long before 1962. It also seems strange that so trivial as to function as a consolation prize for the likes of Harry Crane. But, hey, now that Harry does have his new toy, perhaps that opens the door for a more meaningful storyline about the blacklist. Sadly, there’s still plenty of time within Mad Men‘s chronology in which it would still be relevant.
Many thanks to Collin Wilcox, Bob Markell, and Michael Dann for taking time to answer my questions; to Jonathan Ward for research; and to Bob Lamm for bringing Mad Men‘s Defenders homage to my attention.
First Richard Kimble found his wife’s dead body. Then he was convicted of her murder. Then he found himself on the run with a psychotic nutjob vowing to send him to the death house.
But all of that was a cakewalk compared to what happened when Dr. Kimble fell into the hands of CBS Home Video.
The latest volume of The Fugitive to arrive on DVD, the third such set, has had all of its incidental music stripped out and replaced by an entirely new score composed specifically for that purpose. This is not the removal of occasional snippets of songs, which has (lamentably) become commonplace in the DVD realm because it’s expensive to clear the rights to popular tunes for home video. Instead, it’s the wholesale deletion of the entire original musical element of the series – and without any warning to consumers beyond a standard boilerplate disclaimer in tiny print. This is the first time any television show has arrived on DVD in such an aurally mutilated form. It’s a very big deal.
“Where did they put my music? Is it behind this fence?”
I’ve sampled the new music in some episodes on the set and compared them scene-for-scene to tapes of the show with the original score intact. The results were dire. To their credit, the new composers have been conservative in their approach, placing the new music for the most part in the same spots as the old – even imitating it note for note in some sections. Roy Braverman, a music editor who worked on the new score, wrote on his website that the “new music library is being composed ‘in the style of’” the original scores.
Up to a point, that’s true – the new music isn’t quite as obtrusive I expected. However, it is pedestrian and generic. As I watched the first act of one of my favorite episodes, “Devil’s Carnival,” my heart sank. The mournful Pete Rugolo melody used whenever Kimble would amble wearily into a new town, was gone, replaced by new notes that have no emotion at all. The Rugolo score played under William Conrad’s basso narration, adding a wistful quality to lines like “Richard Kimble: He travels a lot by thumb, makes many a long, lonely hike between rides.” The new music fades out abruptly as soon as Conrad starts speaking, and pops back in with an annoying two-note sting as soon as he falls silent. (The main and end titles of all the episodes have their original music intact, although the musical bridges from the teaser into the opening titles have been effaced in a rather jarring way.)
On a technical level, the new music has a tinny, squawky quality and the remixed audio tracks exhibit a lot of abrupt changes in volume. Even if you’ve never seen The Fugitive before, and aren’t sensitive enough to the styles of sixties music to detect the anachronistic, modern tinges to the new score, this release will hurt your ears.
This week I called Alan A. Armer, the producer of The Fugitive‘s first three seasons, and broke the news to him about the music replacement. Armer told me that he was “totally in awe of what you’re telling me . . . . I’m a bit staggered.”
Armer had less involvement with scoring The Fugitive than most TV producers do on their shows; at QM Productions, series producers focused on story while the post-production was supervised by other executives (on The Fugitive, Arthur Fellows and John Elizalde). Nevertheless, Armer expressed dismay that the original cues are gone. “You just have to wonder how much that will affect the dramatic quality of the shows,” Armer told me. “I suspect that the show may have suffered as a result of it.”
The Fugitive has a somewhat unusual musical history. It was, as Jon Burlingame writes in his invaluable TV’s Biggest Hits: Television Themes From Dragnet to Friends, the only major hit series of the sixties for which “no single episode actually received an original score.” Instead, QM commissioned jazz composer Pete Rugolo (a former arranger for Stan Kenton) to write a library of cues that could be tracked into multiple episodes. Rugolo composed the theme and basic Fugitive motifs based upon either a screening of the pilot, or possibly just a description of the show’s premise.
To supplement Rugolo’s library (there were “other things they needed that I didn’t write,” Rugolo told Ed Robertson for his book The Fugitive Recaptured), Elizalde and music editor Ken Wilhoit pulled stock cues from outside music companies. Cues from the Capitol Music catalog were licensed, along with the CBS music library and, eventually, an archive of scores composed by Dominic Frontiere, the Outer Limits composer who became closely associated with QM during the sixties. The CBS library was an especially important source, and many treasured cues from The Twilight Zone and Gunsmoke (by such famous composers as Jerry Goldsmith and Bernard Herrmann) were repurposed for The Fugitive.
(There’s some debate as to whether any of Frontiere’s music appeared in the episodes on this DVD set. I’m almost certain that the familiar Outer Limits melodies from the Daystar library didn’t begin to crop up until The Fugitive‘s fourth and final season, but it’s possible that Frontiere’s scores for Daystar’s Stoney Burke or an earlier QM show, The New Breed, were sourced.)
Rugolo’s score would have been owned outright by QM and, though there was no connection between The Fugitive (an ABC show produced by QM and United Artists) and CBS Music in 1963, both properties are now owned by the same corporate entity, Viacom. Naturally, then, there’s ample cause for speculation as to what element of the Fugitive scoring could have triggered the music replacement – especially since the series’ first season, comprised of the same mix of musical elements, arrived on DVD intact last year.
Adding insult to injury, CBS has digitally altered the closing credits of each episode to insert the names of the composers of the new score:
It’s a move that reeks of duplicity. Instead of appending a new card containing the modern names to the end of the titles, as one would see on a film that’s been restored (although, in this case, these would be the “desecration credits,” not the “restoration credits”), CBS has hidden the new names in plain sight to avoid a clear admission that the music was changed. Here’s how that same card (from the episode “Devil’s Carnival”) is supposed to read:
Nothing personal against Messrs. Heyes, Winans, and Komie, but seeing their names embedded among those of the people who actually worked to create The Fugitive back in the sixties gives me a sense of almost physical revulsion.
Somewhat overlooked, given the magnitude of the score-replacement problem, is the fact that CBS sliced out portions of the image in the “Ballad For a Ghost” episode, in which Janis Paige plays a chanteuse who bears a haunting resemblance to Richard Kimble’s late wife. The two songs that Paige performs on-camera have been changed on the audio track, and so all of the closeups and medium shots during her numbers were deleted (a total of about a minute of footage). One of the missing shots is a fast-dolly into a closeup of Paige immediately after Kimble (David Janssen) sees her for the first time. The camera move emphasizes Kimble’s shock upon discovering his wife’s doppelganger; without it, the scene loses much of its power.
I didn’t realize this because I haven’t been watching any of the affected shows, but CBS has been taking this approach to some of its other classic television releases as well. Often when Jim Nabors sings in Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., or when Jack Klugman or Tony Randall belt out a few bars of a pop tune during the banter of The Odd Couple, those moments have been excised from the DVDs.
Look what they did to my song, Dr. Kimble: Janis Paige in a shot you won’t see on the new Fugitive DVD
The high costs of clearing popular music are widely known and many fans have been quick to forgive the studio and buy into the argument that paying the license fees for these songs would give the DVDs a prohibitive pricetag. I won’t take a position on that except to suggest that cynicism rather than blind trust would be a more productive attitude toward any issue of corporate accounting.
One fact made clear by the extensive song deletions on various DVDs is the fact that CBS has an active corps of intellectual property lawyers scrutinizing the musical history of their television properties. In off-the-record remarks to me, several people with recent experience in the home video world have characterized both the CBS/Paramount legal staff, and their counterparts at other studios, as inexpert, inconsistent, and overcautious. (As an example, when you hear long stretches of silence in a Paramount or Warner Bros. DVD audio commentary, it’s usually not because “these people got caught up in watching something . . . they hadn’t seen in over 40 years,” as Jeffrey Kauffman suggests in his review of the recent Mannix DVD. It’s because the lawyers have scissored out any material that could in theory trigger some kind of defamation claim.) The convoluted nature of The Fugitive‘s underscoring raises the possibility that CBS’ attorneys scrutinized the show’s cue sheets, found some unfamilar names, and made a hasty decision to replace the score without fully or accurately investigating the ownership of the music.
(Before publishing this piece I attempted to solicit a comment from CBS, but calls and e-mails to several CBS home video personnel, as well as a Paramount media relations representative, were not returned. Roy Braverman and one of the credited composers of the new Fugitive score also did not respond to interview requests.)
A separate, but very much related, issue is the ignorance and/or sympathy that on-line DVD reviewers exhibit for this sort of nonsense. Ronald Epstein, proprietor of the widely-read Home Theater Forum website, praised Paramount for its “wise decision” regarding the Fugitive music replacement. Both DVDTalk and DVDBeaver, well-respected sites among cinephiles, gave the Fugitive DVD set high marks without noticing the music substitution.
Now, I have some sympathy for DVD reviewers in this situation, because nobody can be an expert on every TV show or movie that’s thrown over the transom. And as we’ve seen above, the studios will do everything they can to disguise the alterations they’ve made to their product – so each DVD is a little trap for the unsuspecting DVD reviewer to step into. But I feel that the ignorance displayed by DVDTalk’s Paul Mavis in this case is inexcusable.
Two days before publishing his review of the altered Season 2 set, Mavis posted a review of the largely unchanged Season 1, Volume 2 Fugitive DVD. How could any remotely competent film historian or “Fugitive fanatic” (Mavis identifies himself as both) watch parts of these two collections back-to-back without immediately noticing the radical changes to the sound of the series’ music? After being alerted to his error, Mavis posted a defense of CBS’ decision: “I know it feels good to bitch out the studios for doing this . . . but I also know this is a business – pure and simple . . . . I’m not willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I’m going to enjoy the show.” As of this writing, Mavis has yet to substantially amend his review, which still claims that the audio on the DVD set “accurately represents the original broadcast presentation.” This is not consumer reporting as I understand the concept.
And speaking of consumer reporting, I vowed after February’s Route 66 debacle that I wasn’t going to turn this into a DVD blog. I also wrote that I was going to balance my reporting with some positive posts about successful DVD editions of early TV shows. But before I’ve gotten around to doing that, we have yet another crisis to address – another essential series of the sixties that’s being butchered in its initial videodisc release. It’s ironic that The Fugitive should join Route 66 in the virtual wastebin (and the wastebin, make no mistake about it, is exactly where I’m recommending you file your Fugitive Season 2 discs). The two series have always been paired in my mind because of their peripatetic structure, and because they featured protagonists who were anti-heroes of a sort – social dropouts at a time when television typically celebrated establishment figures (doctors, lawyers, policemen) and looked askance at nonconformists. In this regard The Fugitive, which arrived on the air as Route 66 began its final season, can be seen as a natural continuation of the earlier show – Richard Kimble was a forced exile from society while Route 66‘s Tod and Buz had left on their own accord and could re-enter the mainstream at any time. Both of them were prescient hints of the years ahead when “dropping out” became a widespread credo for disaffected young people.
Because of that, although I’m not sure that I’d call The Fugitive or Route 66 my favorite television drama of the sixties, I would argue that the two of them have to be considered the most signifant. It’s beyond dispiriting that both shows are in real peril of being utterly ruined in their first (and likely only) complete home video release.
It is of – pardon the pun – paramount importance that CBS undo its error, untangle whatever legal or financial morass underlies the music substitution, and give us the real Fugitive. With the release of this DVD set, if not before, I’ve become convinced that large-scale music replacement is a form of aesthetic butchery that’s the equal of panning-and-scanning or colorization during the days of VHS. It took a long time, but those battles have largely been won by videophiles. Now those of us who care about television and movies know what the next fight will be.
Update (4/20/2013): After more than four years of further gaffes – more numerous than I could attempt to report along the way - CBS/Paramount issued a definitive box set with all of Pete Rugolo’s music and the vast majority of stock cues intact. For the most part, replacement copies were not provided to consumers who purchased the mutilated sets, and no official explanation for the music replacement was ever offered.
Finally, I’ve solved – or at least made some headway on – a minor mystery about The Fugitive that’s nagged at me ever since Jonathan Etter’s book Quinn Martin, Producer: A Behind-the-Scenes History of QM Productions and Its Founder came out in 2003.
Citing The Fugitive‘s original producer, Alan A. Armer, as his source, Etter wrote that the writer Jack Laird “moonlighted under his wife’s name for a few scripts on The Fugitive during the Armer years.” Laird was a major talent, the author of some of the finest Ben Caseys, the primary creative force behind Night Gallery, a key contributor to Kojak, and on and on. To confirm his uncredited creative involvement in The Fugitive would be something of a scoop, at least among classic tele-philes.
A while ago I checked with Etter, and he had no further details. Since then I’d been thinking now and again about the pseudonym Laird might have used. Armer’s hint about Laird’s “wife’s name” wasn’t much help, since there were no Fugitive writers whose names related obviously to Laird’s. Whittling the list down to just the show’s women writers, who were very much in the minority at that point in TV history, still left several possibilities. Betty Langdon, who wrote the “When the Wind Blows” (a bland episode about a single mother and her troubled runaway boy), was an obvious candidate: she has no credits on any other American TV series, at least not according to any reference book or database I’ve come across. Or what about Joy Dexter, the author of “Coralee,” a familiar Jonah story with Antoinette Bower as the tragic girl who thinks she’s the town jinx? Dexter had a smattering of credits on The Virginian and a couple of other westerns, but few enough that her name could’ve been an alias someone used for a while. But I couldn’t find any information to support my guesses about either of them.
Meanwhile, I’d always been curious about another Fugitive writer, a woman named Jeri Emmett, mostly because the four episodes on which she shared a teleplay credit during the series’ fourth year were all pretty good: “The Devil’s Disciples,” with Diana Hyland as a sultry biker chick; “Concrete Evidence,” about the paths of guilt that follow in the wake of a shoddily constructed schoolhouse’s collapse; “Dossier on a Diplomat,” with Kimble holing up on the foreign soil of an African embassy; and “The Savage Street,” a routine juvenile delinquency story. (Well, three out of four isn’t bad.)
Emmett’s television work seemed to stop abruptly after a brief burst of productivity between 1966 and 1968. I’d ruled out Emmett as a candidate for the Jack Laird pseudonym, though, because she was clearly a real person, listed in the Writer’s Guild database and with credits on a handful of other TV shows from the same era (including Mannix and Iron Horse).
But this week I did some more checking, and discovered that Jeri Emmett was married to Jack Laird in the late ’60s and had to be the woman to whom Armer was referring. (I had jumped to a conclusion, assuming that Laird had registered his wife’s name as a pseudonym with the WGA, and that this identity would’ve died when he did in 1991.) The minor error in Etter’s book was that Laird (if he was in fact writing under Emmett’s name) didn’t work on The Fugitive during Alan Armer’s stint as producer, but during the show’s final season, after Armer had departed to oversee another Quinn Martin series, The Invaders.
That made perfect sense, because the producer who succeeded Armer on The Fugitive‘s fourth season was a man named Wilton Schiller. Schiller had been, until they’d split up to pursue separate careers about five years previously, Jack Laird’s old writing partner on shows like M Squad and The Millionaire. The year after The Fugitive went off the air, Schiller moved over to produce the first year of Mannix – and that’s where Jeri Emmett has her final produced credit that I can find, on the episode “Turn Every Stone.”
But what became of Jeri Emmett after her brief spate of ’60s writing? Beginning in 1977, she entered into a three-decade legal battle with Aaron Spelling over the authorship of the TV series Family, which is often regarded as the only worthwhile program Spelling was ever associated with. Emmett won a $1.69 million jury award but, through a series of complex legal setbacks, the verdict was reversed. (The sole credited creator of Family is the distinguished screenwriter Jay Presson Allen, although in his insipid autobiography, Spelling hogs a lot of Allen’s glory for himself, too.)
The most intriguing tidbit I unearthed about Jeri Emmett was what appears to be her debut as a professional writer – this tell-all account of working as a Bunny at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club during its mid-’60s heyday:
(I’m guessing that’s not really Jeri on the cover – although she does write that she was a dead ringer for Connie Stevens.)
The book is a fascinating read, the story of a smart, naive farm girl from Grant’s Pass, Oregon, who drifts into working as a Bunny while at loose ends in L.A. She’s bemused by the casual vulgarity and sex she encounters at the Club and among her fellow Bunnies. Some passages feel genuine, and have a mildly proto-feminist point of view, while others feel ghost-written or punched up, as if an editor stuck in some sleaze before the manuscript went to press.
At the end of the book Bunny Jeri pulls off her tail and resolves to return to Grant’s Pass. In real life, within the same year of the book’s publication (it covers the span of about 1964-65 and came out in 1966), Emmett apparently met and married Jack Laird and achieved her first television credit.
Aha: an ex-Bunny turned prime-time television writer? Now that’s a story! But, the question remained: was Jeri Emmett really a television writer at all? Did she really write those Fugitive and Mannix scripts, or was she just a front for Jack Laird, writing under the table for his old buddy Wilton Schiller? Laird was at that time under exclusive contract to Universal, producing pilots and TV movies, so it made sense that he’d have needed to use an assumed name to do any writing on the side. The fact that all of Emmett’s Fugitive credits were shared with other writers suggests that Schiller was using Emmett as a script doctor, an unusual situation for a fledgling writer. I’m inclined to believe the “Laird touch” is what Schiller was seeking to punch up those scripts.
But mightn’t the Lairds also have collaborated, if Emmett was an aspiring writer, and Laird wanted to help his new bride get started in the business? And officially, of course, the credits are Emmett’s alone. It seems unfair to deprive her of any credit based on one offhand remark, especially given that Emmett had a byline of her own before she ever met Jack Laird.
It occurred to me that a certain sexist assumption common to the era may have been at work here. In other words, the idea that since Jeri Emmett was an attractive young blonde, and married to a prominent television writer, any scripts issued under her name must surely have sprung forth from the prolific brain of Jack Laird. Perhaps that rumor might have dogged Emmett’s nascent career, and had something to do with its early demise?
That might sound far-fetched – impossibly patronizing – by today’s standards. But this is the same era when the executive producer of a hit Fox serial kept an apartment across the street from the lot to “audition” prospective actresses, and having an affair with Gene Roddenberry was evidently a qualification for becoming a female series regular on Star Trek. Sexism was omnipresent in the television industry.
Ultimately, there were many talented women writers who came to be taken seriously on their own merits during the ’60s. But who’s to say that there weren’t just as many who got shut out? If they couldn’t get a foot in the door and gave up in frustration, then they’re not around to tell their stories. That’s the peril in my kind of research. Screen credits and production files provide a finite pool of leads, and those leads yield only a certain kind of truth.
I thought that when I made the connection between Laird and Emmett I’d solved a mystery, but instead I’d only uncovered a much knottier conundrum. It seemed that the only way to find out who really wrote what might be to ask Jeri Emmett Laird herself. So last week I tracked Ms. Laird down and put to her some of the questions I’ve been ruminating about above.
Unfortunately, Jeri wouldn’t comment for the record about anything (not even whether that’s her on the cover of Point Your Tail in the Right Direction), because she’s working on writing her own memoir. We chatted on the phone for a while and, off the record, Jeri gave me a partial answer to my basic question about the authorship of those Fugitive scripts. For the time being, though, that part of the story will have to remain a mystery.
And in the meantime, I can’t figure out whether I’m pleased or discouraged that, with three books in print about The Fugitive (plus that Quinn Martin bio), puzzle pieces like these still remain for the historians to fit together.
Update, 9/15/08: I haven’t purchased the reissued Season 1 Route 66 DVD set yet. But word on the street has it that while the second half has been redone in the correct 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the first fifteen episodes are still presented in the original mediocre 16mm transfers. I guess it’s up to the individual consumer to decide whether the glass is half full, or half empty. The complete Season 2 will be released on October 21. 7/14/09: The name of the Infinity Entertainment spokesman with whom I corresponded for this piece has been redacted at his request. He is no longer affiliated with Infinity.
Thus far I’ve refrained from turning this blog into a report on home video issues, even though I do keep tabs on them, because there are many other sites which perform that function ably. I’m also not fond of people who use their blogs as bully pulpits to harangue others less civilly than they would in person. But I’m suspending precedent and decorum today because I’m outraged by the offense that’s been committed against one of my favorite TV shows of the ’60s, Route 66.
Last week, a new collection of Route 66 episodes was released on DVD. This time, unlike in the preceding batch, every episode was shown in an incorrect aspect ratio that deletes a large swath of picture in a brutal effort to make the image conform to the dimensions of high definition TV sets. This has been tried by the studios before, when Warner Bros. released the first season of Kung Fu in faux widescreen. Outraged fans shamed the studio into correcting its mistake in subsequent volumes. But now it’s happening all over again, and to a TV classic far more important than Kung Fu.
Last October, Route 66 made its DVD debut in a package consisting of the series’ first fifteen episodes. I was overjoyed, because Route 66‘s combination of powerful writing (Stirling Silliphant’s beat-styled dialogue and existential, wanderlust-driven narratives introduced the counterculture into mainstream television), exceptional guest stars (New York-based casting gave unknown actors like Gene Hackman and Alan Alda key early roles), and location shooting in cities all over the U.S. made it a unique treasure. I’d seen all 116 episodes already, but I was delighted that a new, younger audience would have the opportunity to become conversant with this offbeat masterpiece.
Then reality set in. The first fifteen episodes were transferred to DVD mostly from sixteen-millimeter prints, rather than the far better looking tape masters that were broadcast on the Nick at Nite network in the late ’80s. The image quality wasn’t abysmal, but it was fuzzy and flat-looking enough to turn off many viewers who might be discovering the show for the first time; and there was the further problem that one of the first season’s strongest episodes, “A Fury Slinging Flame” (about nuclear paranoia), was cut by five minutes. All of this was especially frustrating that Route 66‘s “sister show,” Naked City, had received a partial DVD release on the Image label a few years earlier, and those transfers were jaw-droppingly gorgeous.
The problems seemed to stem from the fact that Sony, which owns Route 66 (along with the rest of the old Screen Gems TV library), had licensed the show out to an entity called Roxbury Entertainment which is, to put it kindly, inexperienced in the arena of home video. Roxbury is the operation of one Kirk Hallam, a producer of hack movies who optioned the property’s film rights and is currently trying to leverage a Route 66 remake out of development hell (which is exactly where it belongs). I guess DVD rights to the original series were part of the deal – the best part, some might say, but so far they’re being treated more like that piece of toilet paper that sticks to your shoe when you leave the bathroom.
Then, last week, Infinity Entertainment Group (Roxbury’s distribution partner) released Season 1, Volume 2, in a form that had many fans longing for the battered 16mm transfers from the first batch. Mr. Hallam had kept his promise to begin transferring the episodes from superior elements (what he referred to as “fine grain masters of film” in an interview), and indeed the level of clarity and detail was beautiful. But someone made a catastrophically wrong-headed decision: to “enhance” the image for widescreen televisions by cropping the shows from their original 1.33:1 (4:3) compositions to a 1.78:1 (16:9) framing. If you don’t understand the technical jargon, it means simply that 25% of the original image has been lopped off the top and bottom of the frame.
The unique circumstances of Route 66‘s production – it was the only major television show of its era to be filmed largely outside New York or Los Angeles – make it the worst possible candidate for this butchery. On the margins, the part that Infinity/Roxbury have seen fit to efface, is precisely where Route 66‘s cultural significance is located: in the architecture, the advertisements, the un-Hollywood faces of the local “background artists,” the uncluttered skylines that share the frame with Martin Milner and George Maharis.
Today Infinity issued a press release which crushed fans’ hopes that this was a mistake soon to be corrected, and went on to insult the intelligence of those who complained by claiming that there’s “some confusion in the marketplace about some of the technical aspects of this restoration process.” No, Infinity, we’re not the ones who are confused.
Then there’s a ludicrous attempt to put a positive spin on the mutilation of the image. Quoting the press release: “High Definition transfer which requires an update to the 16×9 aspect ratio for new HD TV Broadcast and future Digital Media delivery, i.e. Blu Ray DVD and HD Internet.” [Sic] Wrong: there are films (like Casablanca) with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio available in HD, and those have mostly been presented on hi-def DVD in a proper pillarboxed format. Cropping to 1.78:1 for HD is not a requirement, it’s a (bad) choice. More press release excuses: “During the film transfer, the post production house used a process called tilt and scan which allows a Telecine technician to examine each scene individually and center the frame on the action.” Terrific! I’ll enjoy watching these so much more knowing that the 25% of deleted picture was chosen judiciously by a technician fifty years removed from the original production rather than simply chopped off the top and bottom.
There’s plenty more to mock in that press release, but instead I’ll move on to report some clarifications that an Infinity spokesman was gracious enough to provide in an e-mail today. Regarding my most crucial questions, as to whether Roxbury would reissue the Season 1, Volume 2 set in 4:3 transfers and what aspect ratio future volumes (if any) would use, the spokesman would comment only that: “The state of future releases is unknown as of now. Discussions have been going on between IEG and Roxbury continually.”
When I pressed for details on whose idea it was to hack off part of the image for 16:9 formatting and why, the spokesman fingered a third party: “The post production house took it to widescreen without our knowledge. We received complaints about the picture quality on Volume 1, so we decided to invest a large sum of money to telecine the second volume for the ‘die hard fans.’ Ultimately, we caused a larger problem when it was taken to HD/Widescreen.” That represents a more forthright admission of error than anything in today’s press release.
But wait, what about this part of the press release: “While we tried to remain as true as possible to the original programming, our overall goal is to not only make the program available once again on television, but to optimize it for the next generation of broadcast and television standards.” Or the Infinity spokesman’s response when I asked who, exactly, made the decision to crop for widescreen, Infinity (which has distributed some exceedingly well-produced early TV packages, like Suspense and Man With a Camera) or Roxbury (which has no such track record). The spokesman wrote that “it was a joint agreement between the two parties. The decision was made without knowing that making it widescreen would ruin the cinematic qualities.” Well, okay, I’m with him on the “ruin” part, but now I’m confused. It seems to me that Infinity is trying to have it both ways: Oops, we messed up and Forced widescreen is good for you - learn to like it.
But I’m hoping it’s really true that this was just a telecine gaffe, because that means it can be fixed easily on future Route 66 DVDs – and because it would put to rest the speculation that Infinity/Roxbury opted cynically to sacrifice their DVD consumers in order to peddle new 16:9 Route 66 masters to hi-def TV channels whose viewers want their screen filled with image no matter what the cost. Just like in the good old pan-and-scan days of VHS. It’s maddening to have to combat this ignorance over and over again. Come on, people: remember Procrustes? That thing with the bed did not end well for him.
I do think there’s some sliver of hope that we’ll see subsequent seasons of Route 66 in their proper format (and they’d better be derived from those same pristine film elements). But that’s still not good enough for fans who would quite reasonably like to own the entire series in a watchable format. And though I strongly encourage Infinity to find a way to remaster and reissue their Season 1, Volume 2 set (and ideally the entire first season), I can’t imagine that such an endeavor would be economically feasible even for a much larger company. (That Kung Fu fix from Warners? Still waiting on it.)
To illustrate the impact of the cropping, here are a few image comparisons between the DVD and one of my bleary old tapes. They’re all from the first half of “The Opponent,” an episode from Season 1, Volume 2 selected more or less at random (except for the fact that the great Lois Nettleton has been on my mind lately). It’s a skid-row story in which the atmospheric ugliness of Youngstown, Ohio is as essential to the meaning as anything in the script.
Each of these may be a couple of frames off, but I hope they illustrate more eloquently than I have above why, to slip into consumer-ese, I’m giving this package the strongest possible DO NOT BUY advisory:
Not nearly so much feeling of bustling Youngstown, Ohio in the claustrophobic DVD version:
A cool store sign . . . that would never catch your eye on the DVD:
The lovely Lois . . . with hat, and without:
Here’s Darren McGavin (giving a genuinely disturbing performance as a broken-down boxer) in a shot that loses all its seedy power when cropped:
Whither Otto Zempski? For those of you who bought the DVD, it turns out he’s at a “Pre-Fight Gala.” I’m thinking that Telecine technician scanned when he should’ve tilted on this one: