April 19, 2010
Last month I bought a copy of the first season of The Bill Cosby Show for six dollars in a remaindered DVD store on Sixth Avenue. That probably goes some way towards explaining why it’s taken Shout Factory, which distributes The Bill Cosby Show, four years to get around to releasing the second and final season, and only as a direct-mail exclusive.
If you’re confused about how anything Cosbyfied could lapse into obscurity or unprofitability, you should note that I’m talking about The Bill Cosby Show (1969-1971), not The Cosby Show (1984-1992). The latter is the mega-popular, audience-friendly family sitcom that kept NBC in business during the eighties. The former is the black sheep of the Cosby canon, a forgotten but far superior series in which the comedian took chances, engaged with the realities of the immediate post-Civil Rights era, and apparently annoyed the network (also NBC) enough to trigger a premature cancellation. The first name makes all the difference. Original recipe Cos is the one you want.
Backed by triple Emmy wins for his work on I Spy, Cosby executive-produced The Bill Cosby Show himself, independently. It doesn’t look or feel like any other situation comedy from the time. There’s no laugh track, no ensemble of colorful sidekicks mugging for attention. A lot of the action in The Bill Cosby Show takes place outdoors (and off the backlot). Many of the directors (Harvey Hart, Ralph Senensky, Seymour Robbie) had more experience working with dramatic material than with comedy, and the writers took care to depict Cosby’s character as a rounded, multi-faceted individual, an organic part of a well-defined environment. It would be an overstatement to call The Bill Cosby Show a “dramedy.” But it takes place in the real world, not in sitcomland.
The other aspect of The Bill Cosby Show that distinguishes it from most television comedies is that it has no set formula. It goes in all different directions. Each episode is very different from the others in its plot, setting, and even the style of humor. Cosby plays Chet Kincaid, who in press materials about the show is usually identified as a high school gym coach. That’s accurate, but incomplete, because this is not a workplace comedy. Chet is, first and foremost, a black man in Los Angeles.
In the first episode, “The Fatal Phone Call,” Chet stumbles into a series of increasingly serious misadventures while out for a morning jog. That activity is the only clue to his profession, which the series explores at its leisure. Later episodes build out the character of Chet, gradually introducing members of a large family (siblings, sister-in-law, niece & nephews, parents), various girlfriends, colleagues from work. Chet’s life at school dominates more episodes than any other subject, but many segments deal exclusively with his family relations, his sex life, or simply the scrapes that an average citizen gets into while going about his daily life.
My favorite episodes of The Bill Cosby Show fall into that last category, because they are the most unpredictable. Unencumbered by all the usual sitcom fallbacks, Cosby and his head writer, Ed. Weinberger, could craft scenarios out of any whim that struck them. “Rules Is Rules,” one of the funniest farces I’ve ever seen on television, pits Chet against an implacable public school bureaucracy in his quest to purchase a single valve that he needs to re-inflate his supply of basketballs. “A Word From Our Sponsor” sees Chet accept a role as a cereal pitchman – because, he makes clear, he needs the money. Rather than follow standard sitcom rules, the writer, Marvin Kaplan, offers a series of formless set pieces, climaxing with a howler of a TV commercial shoot in which the hapless Chet is soundly defeated by a precocious child actor and a misbehaving box of Corn Wispies. The episode falters only because Cosby seems to have improvised at length, and his timing was altered when these sequences were trimmed to fit the half-hour frame. It’s hard to imagine an episode of That Girl having that problem.
A comparison to Seinfeld may be too easy, but the best of The Bill Cosby Shows are, indeed, about nothing. This appealing minimalism reached its apex with Henry Fonda’s guest appearance in “The Elevator Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.” Instead of giving the movie legend a meaty star turn, Stan Daniels’s teleplay casts him as a meek English teacher who gets trapped in an elevator with Chet. The pair pass the time with word games and breath-holding contests. Fonda does get to deliver a touching monologue near the end, but for most of the show he seems liberated by the chance to riff with Cosby in a series of long-take two-shots.
Cosby seems to have insisted on that setup as much as possible. In “Home Remedy” there’s an amazing four-and-a-half-minute improvisation between Cosby and Lee Weaver (a semi-regular, as Chet’s married brother), in which they reminisce about faking illnesses to score sick days when they were children. Long takes suit Cosby because he really gets going when he has strong, adult performers off of whom he can play. (Cosby is less entertaining when he’s playing with children, or doing solo schtick. The comedian foregrounded those elements in his second eponymous series, which was likable but not nearly as funny as the first one.)
Even more than Fonda, small-part actors who were often stuck playing exaggerated comic types in other shows came alive in the company of Cosby. Kathleen Freeman must have drawn on her own experience as an acting coach in “A Word From Her Sponsor,” in which she plays a drama teacher who puts a hopeless Chet through a series of detailed and authentic-sounding acting exercises. In “Let X Equal a Lousy Weekend,” Chet subs as an algebra teacher and gets stuck on a tough word problem involving amounts of candy. Enter Bill Zuckert to deliver a hilarious aria as a candy shop owner who decides that Chet is crazy when he requests a hike in prices so they’ll match his math problem exactly.
And Fran Ryan, never one of my favorite character players, is a revelation as the stern school administrator in “Rules Is Rules.” She’s playing her usual battle axe type, but it occurred to someone that Ryan’s Mrs. Beal should respond to the charm that Cosby aims at her. With a hint of a smile, Ryan betrays a secret pleasure as Chet outwits the inane red tape that Mrs. Beal is charged with enforcing. A cliched situation turns complex, warm, and real through the byplay between the two performers.
My favorite of Cosby’s sparring partners is Joyce Bulifant, the perky blonde who later appeared on The Mary Tyler Moore Show as Murray’s wife. Bulifant plays a hip guidance counselor, Marsha Paterson, who has a lively, sexy chemistry with Chet. But she disappears after a few episodes. That a romance between Chet and Mrs. Paterson (carefully identified as a married woman in the scripts) remained off-limits brings us around to the issue of race, which lies palpably under the surface of The Bill Cosby Show.
Supposedly Cosby and Robert Culp, his co-star in I Spy, agreed that the camaraderie between their characters on that series “was the statement.” Their interracial friendship was more powerful because race was never mentioned. Cosby took the same approach when he got his own series. Racial discrimination and identity politics form an important structuring absence in The Bill Cosby Show.
In “The Fatal Phone Call,” Chet gets picked up by the cops because he resembles a vague description of a burglar they’re looking for. He is a victim of racial profiling. But Cosby hedges his bets by casting African Americans as two of the police officers, and then by playing the actual criminal himself in the closing gag of the show. Chet’s uncanny resemblance to the thief means that the cops can’t be faulted for overt bigotry.
Is that a cop-out? I’m not sure. Casting a squat, bald black man who looked nothing like Cosby would have made a powerful statement, but that’s not the kind of show Cosby wanted to do. He’s more concerned with a minute study of how Chet deals with the problem: he gets exasperated, then alarmed, but he contains his emotions and plays it cool. Most TV shows in the sixties either ignored racism or railed against it, and I’ll bet that Cosby’s down-to-earth attack on the subject held more meaning for viewers who actually faced systemic racism in their daily lives.
In “The Gumball Incident,” an innocent Chet gets arrested for breaking a merchant’s gumball machine. Chet has the option of paying off the complainant, but he submits to the arrest because of his faith that the system will vindicate him. Cosby does a funny routine where he has trouble holding his booking sign the right way as the police (who are, again, multiracial) take his mug shot. The sequence conveys no explicit political message, but it’s freighted with a meaning that would not be there if, say, Ted Bessell posed for a booking photograph on That Girl.
(In case you hadn’t noticed: That Girl is this week’s banal-sitcom whipping-post.)
At the end of “The Gumball Incident” Chet reconciles with the surly storekeeper. In the interim, he has received scrupulously fair treatment by the police and the courts. The plot of the episode evokes the specter of the Watts riots – a black man is accused of vandalism by a white business owner – but Cosby chooses to paint the situation in the most optimistic terms imaginable. It’s possible to take this as naïve, and I wonder how African American audiences reacted to it back in 1969. The Bill Cosby Show’s approach to matters of race is non-confrontational in the extreme. Whenever Cosby addresses the subject, he’s pointed but indirect. A photo of Dr. King or a Ray Charles album on prominent display in Chet’s apartment contextualize him within African American politics and culture. But no one ever mentions the color of anyone’s skin.
The most potent of these unreferenced images of blackness involve Chet’s sexuality. To put it in modern terms, Chet is a player. He’s an unapologetic bachelor who lays a good line on a different beautiful black woman in nearly every episode. Chet has game, and a sex appeal that will surprise anyone who only knows Cosby as Cliff Huxtable. Chet never gets serious about any of his lady friends, and then when he does – in “The Blind Date,” which features a lovely, relaxed Cicely Tyson as a potential soulmate who breaks his heart – it carries a great deal of meaning. The Bill Cosby Show debuted just before the blaxploitation era of aggressive African American pimps and studs, at a moment when Sidney Poitier faced criticism for muting his own sexuality in films like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in order to court a wider (or whiter) audience. In his typically subtle way, Cosby crossed one of the last barriers for black leading men.
That’s why I’m curious about Joyce Bulifant’s departure, and why The Bill Cosby Show poured cold water on her character’s flirtation with Chet. Did Cosby oppose interracial dating? Did he worry about provoking a controversy that would overshadow his quietly progressive take on race relations? Did Cosby sacrifice Bulifant’s contributions in order to preserve the opportunity to place a variety of attractive black women in front of the camera? Or was NBC simply too squeamish to put an interracial relationship on the air in 1969?
Since I started this blog, I have acquired a reputation as a Scroogy McScrooge who doesn’t like to laugh. Except maybe when I’m kicking puppies or insulting dead actors. Yes, that’s right: a sitcom-hater. My detractors will be delighted to learn that I must be getting soft in my incipient middle age, because I have started watching Love American Style and I think it’s very funny. Sometimes.
In purely formal terms, Love American Style, which also debuted in the fall of 1969, was as novel as The Bill Cosby Show. An hour-long anthology, Love assembled three or four unrelated comic stories each week. Interspersing with these were a half-dozen or so blackout gags, all less than sixty seconds in duration and featuring a regular cast of bit players. The looseness of the format made the show feel more like a variety show than a sitcom, even though the material was typically sitcomic, right down to the laugh track. The success of NBC’s free-form Laugh-In the previous year probably inspired ABC to dilute Love‘s structure and content to appeal to a wider audience.
A popular, five-season hit in its day, Love American Style has since acquired a reputation as a uniquely cringeworthy relic. The show is redolent with nehru jackets and paisley party shirts, but the reason it’s dated now is because it didn’t tell much truth. If the show had anything real to say about love or sex or relationships, its disinterment for DVD in 2007 wouldn’t have inspired a long say wha? in the New York Times, of all places. Love took the easy route – it reduced its subject to a card-file of cliches, hoary vaudeville routines, and adolescent male fantasies.
The premiere episode, which was probably shot and broadcast first because it broached a “controversial” topic, concludes with a sketch entitled “Love and the Pill.” The segment unfurls a dialogue between the parents of a teenaged girl and her mod young boyfriend. Revealingly, the character who’s absent while the other parties discuss her reproductive rights is the teenager who may or may not be using the pill. The big joke – wait for it – is whether or not the parents (Robert Cummings and iconic TV mom Jane Wyatt) will opt to mash up a contraceptive and spike their daughter’s food with it.
Love American Style is always like that. Its default perspective is vaguely establishment and relentlessly male. It takes a traditionally “female” genre (romance) and twists it into leering sex farce. The funniest episodes are those in which a dweeby or creepy young man comes up with some clever trick for wearing down the resistance of a beautiful woman. (If that sounds familiar, it may be because Judd Apatow’s modern, acclaimed “adult” comedies and their imitators founder on the same shoals of arrested development.) Segments that revolve around middle-aged or elderly couples, or African Americans, usually play like musty old vaudeville routines. Likely that’s because the youngish, white, male executive producers, Jim Parker and Arnold Margolin, couldn’t be easily budged from a point of view that came naturally to them.
Were a viewer to marathon-watch Love American Style today, the casual sexism would grow toxic. But I did say that I liked this show, didn’t I? Yes, that’s the shame: within its limits, here and there, Love American Style delivers laughs.
One reason for that is the anthology structure. If you got tired of dropping in on Marlo Thomas and Ted Bessell year after year, you could click over to Love American Style, safe in the knowledge that this week’s quibbling couple would make their exeunt in twenty minutes or less. This knowledge must have appealed to the writers even more than to the viewer, because they could end a script without having to return their characters to the same stasis they were in last week and would still be in next week. Occasionally, a Love American Style segment takes advantage of that freedom and goes in for a bawdy laugh or out on a strange tangent.
“Love and the Living Doll,” in which Arte Johnson romances a blow-up doll in order to make a neighbor girl jealous, teeters intriguingly on the boundary between icky and cute. “Love and the Watchdog” fetches some clever telephone humor out of a dognapping scenario (the owner wants to hear the dog bark before she’ll pay a ransom). “Love and the Dating Computer” chronicles a botched blind date between two guys whose names are Francis and Marion, who find that the computer matched them perfectly in every other regard. What sounds like an exercise in homophobia turns witty and endearing once it becomes clear that the writers, Michael Elias and Frank Shaw, aren’t going to coat the budding bromance with a layer of gay panic. And the casting is inspired: Broderick Crawford has great fun playing against type as a sensitive, lonely bachelor.
Then there’s the segment in which newlywed Stefanie Powers tells husband Gary Lockwood that his mouth is too small, and he tries to prove her wrong by fellating a doorknob. It’s called, yes, “Love and the Doorknob.” I really don’t know what to say about this absurdist gem, except that suddenly I want to know more about the private lives of Doris and Frank Hursley, the soap opera royalty (they created General Hospital) who wrote it.
Only two things are worth mentioning about the tiny throwaway sketches that Love American Style used as a connective tissue between the main segments. The first is that they made a star of sorts out of the rubber-faced Stuart Margolin (brother of Arnold Margolin, and later to play Angel on The Rockford Files), who was the only actor in the seven-member ensemble with any talent. The second is that the “Love American Style Players,” as they were billed in the closing credits, were interracial (two black, five white). That makes these otherwise innocuous vignettes as much a snapshot of network television’s take on race at the end of the sixties as The Bill Cosby Show. It’s no surprise that Love American Style’s ideas on this subject are far more squirm-inducing and out of date than Cosby’s. Partly that’s an accident of casting: Buzz Cooper, the African American romantic lead of the group, deployed an array of slack-jawed, sho’ nuff expressions that Willie Best would have envied. (Cooper was replaced for the second season.)
But the more troubling aspect of the short sketches is that while the cast is interracial, the couples are always of the same race. The vignettes pair off the seven performers in every possible heterosexual combination, except for mixed race couples. After the first few episodes, Love American Style’s avoidance of that possibility becomes a pregnant case of passive racism. I never understood why it was such a big deal when, in March of 1969, William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols enjoyed an interracial kiss in an episode of Star Trek. Now I’m starting to get the picture.
Correction (1/22/14): The original version of this piece misidentified the writer Frank Shaw (as Frank Davis).
March 12, 2010
Long-running television shows are like the proverbial elephant: they feel very different depending on where (or when, in case of a TV series) you touch one. A few, like Bonanza or C.S.I., have gone for a decade or so without changing much, but those are the exceptions. Most of the time, there are significant changes along the way in a show’s cast, producers, writers, premise, setting, tone, or budget, and these inevitably affect its quality.
I always think of Rawhide, a popular western which ran on CBS from 1959 to 1965, as the most extreme example of this phenomenon. On the surface, one episode of Rawhide looks more or less like any other. It began as the story of a cattle drive, and remained true to that concept for most of its eight seasons (actually, six and two half-seasons, since it began as a midyear replacement and closed as a midyear cancellation). The stars were Eric Fleming as the trail boss and Clint Eastwood, a sidekick who almost but not quite achieved co-lead status, as his ramrod. A few secondary cowboys came and went, but the only major cast change occurred in the last year, when Fleming was replaced by a worn-looking John Ireland.
Behind the scenes, though, the creative turnover was significant, and the types of stories that comprised Rawhide changed with each new regime. A thumbnail production history is in order.
The creator of Rawhide was Charles Marquis Warren, a writer and director of B movie westerns who had played a significant role in transitioning the radio hit Gunsmoke to television in 1955. Warren stayed with Rawhide for its first three years (longer than he had remained on Gunsmoke, or would last on his next big TV hit, The Virginian). For the fourth season, CBS elevated Rawhide’s story editor, Hungarian-born screenwriter Endre Bohem, to the producer’s chair. Vincent M. Fennelly, a journeyman who had produced Trackdown and Stagecoach West, took over for the fifth and sixth seasons. During the seventh year, the team of Bruce Geller and Bernard L. Kowalski succeeded Fennelly, only to be fired in December and replaced by a returning Endre Bohem. A final team, comprising executive producer Ben Brady and producer Robert E. Thompson, couldn’t save Rawhide from cancellation halfway through its eighth season.
Most Rawhide fans will tell you that the early seasons are the best. I can guess why they think that, but I believe they’re wrong. Warren’s version of Rawhide played it safe, telling traditional western stories with predictable resolutions. The writers were second-rate, and Warren padded their thin plots with endless shots of migrating “beeves.” Warren was content to deploy totemic western tropes – Indian attacks, evil land barons, Confederate recidivists – in the same familiar ways that the movies had used them for decades.
During the Bohem and Fennelly years, things began to improve. Both producers brought in talented young writers, including Charles Larson and future Star Trek producer Gene L. Coon, who contributed quirky anecdotes like “The Little Fishes” (Burgess Meredith as a dreamer transplanting a barrel of fragile Maine shad fry to the Sacramento River) and pocket-sized epics like the amazing “Incident of the Dogfaces” (James Whitmore as a malevolent but terrifyingly effective cavalry sergeant). There were still episodes that coasted on routine genre action, but they alternated with meaty, character-driven pieces.
When Kowalski and Geller (the eventual creators of Mission: Impossible) took over Rawhide in 1964, they pulled off a daring experiment that has never been matched in the history of television. The new producers upended Rawhide, dismantling western myths and muddying genre barriers with surgical precision and undisguised glee. Geller and Kowalski commissioned teleplays like “Corporal Dasovik,” a Vietnam allegory which portrayed the cavalry as slovenly, dishonorable, and homicidal, and “The Meeting,” a surreal clash between the drovers and a prototypical mafia on a weirdly barren plain. The two-part “Damon’s Road” was a rowdy shaggy-dog comedy, complete with infectious Geller-penned showtunes (“Ten Tiny Toes”) and a subplot that reduces Fleming’s square-jawedhero to buffoonery, pushing a railroad handcar across the prairie in his longjohns.
Geller and Kowalski’s Rawhide segments may be the finest television westerns ever made. Taken as a whole, they represent a comprehensive rebuke to the myth of the Old West. They anticipate the brutal, disillusioned revisionist western films made by Sam Peckinpah and others in the following decade. Peckinpah’s The Westerner (1959) and Rod Serling’s The Loner (1965-1966) touch upon some of the same ideas, but they do not take them as far. Not until Deadwood, forty years later, did television produce another western that looked, felt, and smelled like the seventh season of Rawhide.
The only problem with the Geller-Kowalski Rawhide, which the producers undoubtedly understood, was that it had little to do with the Rawhide that had come before. Many observers just didn’t get it, including Eric Fleming, who refused to perform some of the material. (Eastwood, apparently, got the idea, and Geller and Kowalski shifted their attention from Fleming’s character to his.) Another non-believer was William S. Paley, the president of CBS, who was aghast at what had been done to one of his favorite programs. Paley fired Geller, Kowalski, and their story editor Del Reisman midseason in what they termed “the Christmas Eve Massacre.” Paley uttered one of television history’s most infamous quotes when he ordered their replacements to “put the cows back in.”
During the final year of Rawhide, the new producers did just that. The series attracted some talented young directors and actors, including Raymond St. Jacques as TV’s first black cowboy. But no one took any chances in the storytelling.
Critics don’t have much value if they neglect to interrogate their own assumptions, question their long-held opinions. Which explains why I’ve been slogging through the first and second season of Rawhide, screening the episodes I hadn’t seen before and looking for glimmers of life that I might have missed. Most of the segments I watched in this go-round proved to be just as handsomely mounted, and fatally tedious, as the rest. But one episode, “Incident of the Blue Fire,” triggered some doubts about my dismissal of Charles Marquis Warren, and led me to write this piece.
“Incident of the Blue Fire” (originally broadcast on December 11, 1959) is a little masterpiece about a cowhand named Lucky Markley, who believes he’s a jinx and whose frequent mishaps gradually convince the superstitious drovers that he’s right. It sounds like one of those dead-end cliches that I listed in my description of the Warren era above. But the writer, John Dunkel, and Warren, who directed, get so many details just right that “Incident of the Blue Fire” dazzled me with its authenticity, its rich atmosphere, and its moving, ironic denouement.
Dunkel’s script gives the herders a problem that is specific to their situation, rather than TV western-generic. They’re moving across the plains during a spell of weather so humid that the constant heat lightning threatens to stampede the cattle. The drovers swap stories about earlier stampedes, trying to separate truth from legend, to find out if any of them have actually seen one. Eastwood’s character, Rowdy Yates, averts a stampede just before it begins, and explains to his boss how he spotted the one skittish animal. Favor, the trail boss, replies that Rowdy should have shot the troublemaker as soon as he recognized it. These cowboys are professional men, discussing problems and solutions in technical terms, like doctors or lawyers in a medical or legal drama.
Then Lucky appears, asking to join the drive with thirty-odd mavericks that he has rounded up. “Those scrawny, slab-sided, no-good scrub cows?” Favor asks. Not unkindly, he dispels Lucky’s illusions about the value of his cattle. Lucky shrugs it off, and negotiates to tag along with Favor’s herd to the next town. Then Favor and one of his aides debate the merits of allowing a stranger to join them. In one brief, matter-of-fact scene, Dunkel introduces viewers to an unfamiliar way of making a living in the west and to a type of man who might undertake it.
Warren directs this unpretentious material with casual confidence. He gets a nuanced performance from Skip Homeier, whose Lucky is proud and quick to take offense, but also smart and eager to ingratiate himself with others. Warren’s pacing is measured, but it’s appropriate to a story of men waiting for something to happen. Tension mounts palpably in scenes of men doing nothing more than sitting around the campfire, uttering Dunkel’s flavorful lines:
WISHBONE: Somethin’ about them clouds hangin’ low. And the heat. Sultry-like. It’s depressin’, for animals and men.
COWHAND: Yep, it’s the kind of weather old Tom Farnsworth just up and took his gun, shot hisself, and nobody knowed why.
“Incident of the Blue Fire” features some unusually poetic lighting and compositions. Much of it was shot day-for-night, outdoors, and the high-key imagery creates, visually, the quality of stillness in the air that the cattlemen remark upon throughout the show. (The cinematographer was John M. Nickolaus, Jr., who went on to shoot The Outer Limits, alternating with Conrad Hall.) There’s an eerie beauty to many of the images, like this simple close-up of Eric Fleming framed against the sky.
Does one terrific episode alter my take on the early Rawhide years? No – they’re still largely a bore. But now I can concede that Charles Marquis Warren was probably after something worthwhile, a quotidian idea of the old west as a place of routine work and minor incident. That the series lapsed into drudgery much of the time, that the stories usually turned melodramatic at all the wrong moments, can be lain at the feet of a mediocre writing pool. Or, perhaps, Warren capitulated too willingly to the network’s ideas of where and how action had to fit into a western. But Rawhide had a great notion at its core, and that explains how the show could flourish into brilliance when later producers, better writers, were given enough room to make something out of it.
February 11, 2010
Quick rundown on the wave of great New York City-based TV shows from the early to mid-sixties: East Side / West Side, Naked City, The Defenders, The Nurses, The Patty Duke Show, Coronet Blue, N.Y.P.D. . . . .
Wait a minute: The Patty Duke Show?
Yes. For its first two seasons, this rather innocuous Hollywood-style sitcom was actually filmed in New York. That’s a fact that few television histories have dwelled upon. Indeed, while I had guessed that The Patty Duke Show was lensed in New York based on some of its guest stars, I wasn’t sure my theory was accurate until the first season appeared on DVD last year.
This aspect of geography might seem trivial. But since I am, admittedly, not a great enthusiast when it comes to mainstream sitcoms, it was the element of The Patty Duke Show about which I was most curious when I took my first look at it.
There weren’t too many comedy series shot in New York after the live era. The important ones that come to mind are Nat Hiken’s The Phil Silvers Show and Car 54, Where Are You?, both of which have a funky, nonconformist vibe. They’re full of hustlers and oddballs, and in a sense they’re humorous counterpart to some of the dramas mentioned above, especially Naked City.
But The Patty Duke Show was something of a Trojan horse. Despite its New York pedigree, this family sitcom sought the same tone as the Hollywood-based domestic comedies that preceded it: Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver, The Donna Reed Show. The parents were competent, the kids affable, the real world a safe distance away. Apart from the presence of one foreign relation (more on her later), The Patty Duke Show focused on the same traditional nuclear unit that comprised most of the families in family comedies: father, mother, and two kids.
Consciously or unconsciously, The Patty Duke Show sought to minimize its Brooklyn roots, even as it revealed a Manhattan skyline in the background any time someone in the Lane household opened the front door. Whether due to budgetary limitations or ideology, The Patty Duke Show scrupulously avoided images of the city itself. In the eighteen episodes I screened, the show’s characters stepped outdoors only once, in a brief scene in “How to Be Popular.”
Though they lived in urban setting, the problems of the Lane family were essentially suburban. And although The Patty Duke Show debuted during the twilight of Camelot (in September 1963), most of the early plotlines could have been lifted from any domestic comedy of the fifties. Dopey dad thinks the fishing license Patty obtains for him is actually her own marriage certificate (“The Elopement”). Little brother Ross goes reluctantly on a first date (“The Birds and the Bees Bit”). Eccentric Aunt Pauline comes for a visit. And so on.
It’s no surprise, then, that the creators of The Patty Duke Show were veterans of classic Hollywood comedy. William Asher, the original producer and director, had been the primary director of I Love Lucy. Sidney Sheldon was a screenwriter of MGM musicals, slumming in television for a decade before he found his way into a third career – one which would earn him billions – as an author of trashy novels. Both men worked on The Patty Duke Show immediately prior to producing the two iconic fantasy sitcoms of the sixties: Asher’s Bewitched (1964-1972) and Sheldon’s I Dream of Jeannie (1965-1970).
The one element of The Patty Duke Show that distinguishes it from its domestic predecessors is one that, though merely implausible, anticipates the outright supernatural element of Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. Sheldon and Asher cast Duke not only as a typical American teenager, Patty Lane, but also as her identical cousin from Scotland, Cathy Lane. (It’s worth remembering that Elizabeth Montgomery and Barbara Eden, the stars of Bewitched and Jeannie, both played recurring dual roles on their shows.)
The Patty Duke Show never tried to explain the biological unlikelihood of identical cousins, although the title song’s irreverent lyrics did an adequate job of encouraging the audience to accept rather than question the premise. I wonder if Sheldon made the Lane girls cousins rather than twins just to put a little distance between The Patty Duke Show and The Parent Trap, the popular 1961 Disney film from which its premise seems to have been lifted.
Like many successful TV series, The Patty Duke Show underwent a great deal of turmoil before finding the right mix of on- and off-camera talent towards the middle of its first season. The series’ pilot was re-shot, with William Schallert replacing Mark Miller in the role of Patty Lane’s father, and most of the original footage was recycled into an “origins” story that became the final episode of the first season, “The Cousins.” The most obvious alteration in the reshoots was Duke’s hairdo, which was changed from a frumpy bob (similar to Hayley Mills’s in The Parent Trap) in the pilot to the lighter, longer wig she wore for the rest of the series. The Patty Duke Show was produced by United Artists, a “mini-major” film studio which never produced much television. Its other big show of 1963 was East Side / West Side, which presented UA with the same problem: a pilot that varied so greatly from the rest of the series that it couldn’t be dropped seamlessly amid the subsequent episodes. East Side / West Side was such a ratings loser that UA finally aired the pilot without explanation. The Patty Duke Show, at least, merited enough funding to produce “The Cousins,” but in the meantime UA managed to thoroughly confuse viewers by mixing footage of Duke wearing both hairdos into the first season’s opening title sequence. It was an indifference toward continuity that wouldn’t be tolerated by today’s audiences.
The Patty Duke Show churned through three producers in its first year. William Asher left around the time the show debuted on ABC; in his excellent memoir When the Shooting Stops … The Cutting Begins, supervising editor Ralph Rosenblum wrote that Asher was fired and his contract bought out due to his continual indecisiveness. Part of Asher’s payoff may have been a co-creator credit; until midway through the first season, Sheldon alone was listed as The Patty Duke Show’s creator. Replacing Asher were producer Robert Costello (later of Dark Shadows) and director Stanley Prager (who eventually took over the producing job as well). Prager was a blacklisted actor and Broadway director who remains surprisingly little-remembered today, perhaps because he died young in 1972.
Costello and Prager, longtime New York-based producers, may have gotten on better than the outsider Asher did with a distinguished crew that included: Rosenblum (later famous as Woody Allen’s editor during the seventies; line producer Stanley Neufeld and art director Robert Gundlach, recent veterans of Naked City who were probably very happy to come in out of the cold for the studio-bound Patty Duke Show; and composer Sid Ramin, who must have had the world’s best agent. Ramin receives not only an unprecedented credit in the opening titles, but also a second solo title card in the end credits. He is forgotten today, but had, at the time of The Patty Duke Show, just won both an Oscar and a Grammy for orchestrating Leonard Bernstein’s score for West Side Story.
So far I’ve focused on the minutiae The Patty Duke Show’s production history without saying much about its content. Regarding the latter, I’m relieved to be able report that the series will prove at least tolerable to sitcom-phobes like myself, and probably delightful to everyone else. The show excels for one reason alone (or maybe two, depending on how you count): Patty Duke. My memory of her work in the few other productions in which I had seen Duke – The Miracle Worker, the treacly “Mrs. McBroom and the Cloud Watcher” episode of Ben Casey, the horrid high-school comedy Billie, Night Gallery’s “The Diary,” and of course Valley of the Dolls – was that she tended to come across as shrill and overbearing. Now I suspect my impressions had more to do with weaknesses in the material than with Duke’s talent.
Here, Duke is never less than likeable, and often funnier than the bland material. In “The Birds and the Bees Bit,” obnoxious Ross says that he’s lost one of his marbles; Patty’s comeback (“Whaaaaaat an opening!”) is so obvious it’s barely a joke, but Duke cracked me up with her delivery. When the show shifts occasionally into light drama – as in “The Birds and the Bees Bit” when Patty recalls her own childhood awkwardness, or “The Drop Out,” a turgid stay-in-school treatise with an odd emphasis on the economic disparity between Patty’s family and her boyfriend’s – Duke reminds us of her Helen Keller bona fides.
The Patty Duke Show reveals not only Duke’s versatility, but also a technical proficiency in her work that is as startling as Meryl Streep’s. I suspect Sheldon was drawn to The Parent Trap’s dual-role gimmick because he understood that Duke would be wasted playing a standard-issue teenaged girl. Cathy’s Scottish accent would have been enough to cue the audience as to who was who, but Duke developed an extensive catalog of mannerisms and facial expressions to distinguish between the brainy, reserved Cathy and the conformist chatterbox Patty. Cathy’s crinkle-eyed giggle and Patty’s open-mouthed exuberance (as captured in the first season opening titles) were trademarks of each character:
It would be cringeworthy to suggest that Duke’s later diagnosis with bipolar disorder had something to do with her skill at switching between two opposite personalities within the same project, except that Duke makes that very point in a new interview that appears on the DVD. (Also intriguing is the fact that Sidney Sheldon, who created the Lane cousins while Duke lived with his family for a few weeks, suffered from bipolar disorder as well.)
Contrary to my expectations, The Patty Duke Show does not overuse the Parent Trap-derived device of identity-switching between the identical girls. Fewer than a third of the episodes have Patty and Cathy changing places to fool someone, and in most of those the swap is incidental rather than central to the plot. As someone who got tired of Durwood or Major Nelson falling for this kind of switcheroo far too often, I’d like to give Sidney Sheldon credit for anticipating his audience and underusing the obvious gimmick inherent in The Patty Duke Show’s premise. But what actually happened, I suspect, is that Sheldon became captivated by Patty Lane’s freewheeling enthusiasms and intricate, mile-a-minute slang, to the extent that Duke’s Cathy Lane became a supporting character in her own show. Even though her exotic background might have been expected to launch more than her share of storylines, Cathy, like the other members of the Lane family, developed into a straight man (straight person?) for Patty’s antics.
It’s fascinating to watch Duke come alive as Patty Lane in a way that she does not as Cathy. Patty is assertive and unflappable; though she has a firm grasp of the status quo and little desire to challenge it, she also does not deny herself any pleasure or goal that it occurs to her to seek out. In that way, Patty may be placed in the company of more obvious pre-feminist women of early sixties television, like Laura Petrie of The Dick Van Dyke Show or Liz Thorpe of The Nurses. She also reminds me, even though she’s quite unlike either character, of Allison Mackenzie and Betty Anderson of Peyton Place, which would debut on ABC a year after The Patty Duke Show. The ethereal Allison and the grasping Betty were teenagers defined by their trajectory out of youth (and their small town home) and into adulthood (and the city). It’s equally possible to view the slightly younger Patty Lane as a prototypical adult rather than an average teen. This quality comes through mainly in Duke’s boundless confidence, which the show met with storylines that had Patty Lane engaging in atypically mature endeavors – pursuing a sexually experienced older man (“The French Teacher”) or adopting a Korean child (“Patty, the Foster Mother”).
Although the episodes I’ve seen maintain Patty’s good reputation, there is just a hint of a sexual subtext to her precocity. The show saddles Patty with the dopiest boyfriend in the history of television: Richard Harrison (the funny Eddie Applegate), an easygoing underachiever to whom Patty seems attracted mainly because he obeys orders willingly. If Patty was assertive with Richard in all other things, might she not have tugged him behind the bleachers and urged him toward or second or third base? Patty Lane, in contrast to her cousin, strikes me as the kind of teenager whose natural curiosity and impatience would extend to the functions of physical intimacy; my mother, who was about Patty’s age in 1963, might have called her “fast.”
It would feel creepy to pick up on a sexual component in the performance of a sixteen year-old actress, if not for the facts we now know about Patty Duke’s offscreen life: that she was sexually abused before or during the production of the series by her guardian and manager, John Ross (who also scored an associate producer credit on The Patty Duke Show); and that Duke married Harry Falk, Jr., a young assistant director who worked on her show, a year before it went off the air in 1966. So sexual awareness was indeed an component in the actress’s own teenaged development, even as familial warmth was not; in her interview for the DVD, Duke touchingly points out that she enjoyed making the show so that she could bask in the illusion of a standard-issue family that Sheldon had created for her.
That brings us around to my original entry point into The Patty Duke Show, the seemingly anomalous decision to shoot the series in New York City. I had guessed that perhaps Duke has some theater commitment or family roots that led United Artists to bring the show to her, rather than Duke to Los Angeles. It turns out that the motive was more sinister. As William Schallert reveals in his interview for the DVD, New York was chosen solely because it allowed the producers to circumvent California’s stricter child labor laws. Duke would have been restricted to a five-hour workday in Los Angeles – difficult for any teen with a regular part in a TV series, but impossible for one cast in a dual starring role. In New York, she could work a full twelve-hour day. Paul O’Keefe, who played Ross Lane, had an even more herculean workload; he shot his scenes while appearing in the title role in Oliver!, eight times a week, during part of its 1963-1964 Broadway run. Neither of them spent much, if any, time with an on-set teacher. The Patty Duke Show was a far distance from the suburbs, all right.
November 1, 2009
Ford, Hart, Bell and the Von Kleinsmid Center
Lately I’ve been revisiting The Paper Chase, the ensemble drama about law students and their demanding, terrifying mentor Professor Kingsfield, which debuted on DVD earlier this year. The show had an unusual history. Cancelled after a single season on CBS, it resurfaced nearly five years later (after some success in syndication) on Showtime, which produced close to forty new episodes. It’s an early, outlying instance of the now nearly complete migration of worthwhile television programming from the major networks to niche cable channels.
I hadn’t seen The Paper Chase in over twenty years, and while its edges are a bit rougher than I remembered, I still consider it one of the best American TV dramas. It’s an important enough series that I hope to revisit it more thoroughly in the near future. In the meantime, here are a few thoughts that occurred to me as I watched the first dozen episodes.
1. The title song, “The First Years,” is a soft-rock classic, a beatific, even goofy little ditty performed by Seals and Crofts but written by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel. Gimbel, who received an Emmy nomination for his lyrics, wrote a slew of big-time pop songs in the seventies: “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” “I Got a Name,” the English lyrics to “The Girl From Ipanema,” “It Goes Like It Goes” from Norma Rae, the Laverne and Shirley theme.
But shouldn’t it be “The First Year,” singular? Because the show places a great deal of importance on the fact that its main characters are all “1Ls,” newbies who are struggling to learn the ropes of the hugely challenging post-grad education they’re beginning. Their status would change quite a bit from year to year. (The Showtime version would track this matriculation with some precision). And since law school only lasts for three years anyway, it’s kind of meaningless to distinguish the first two from just the final one. I guess the first line (“The first years are hard years”) wouldn’t work in the singular, but the final stanza (“Then one day, we’ll all say / Hey look, we’ve come through / The first years”) could have dropped that final “s” and brought the song more in line with the content of the show.
2. Last year I wrote, briefly, about my own personal connection to the series; about how I adored The Paper Chase as a young teenager because I thought it showed what college would be like (wrong), and how when I went to college, I discovered that my own campus (the University of Southern California) was the same one where The Paper Chase had been filmed. This created a weird kind of disjuncture. I wasn’t having much fun as an undergraduate, and I resented the geographical overlap with my earlier, idealized, pop-culture version of how higher education should be.
When I wrote that, I remembered USC as the setting for Showtime’s Paper Chase episodes, but I wasn’t certain whether the same campus had been used in the first season. I thought that perhaps the bigger CBS budget had permitted for some location exteriors at a real New England university. (Coyly, The Paper Chase never says what school it’s depicting, although it’s based on Harvard grad John Jay Osborn, Jr.’s autobiographical novel, so you’re supposed to do the math.) But, nope. The first season of The Paper Chase was filmed at USC, and while the campus has been seen in a ton of movies and TV shows, I doubt that any project before or since made such extensive use of it. Alumni will have a blast watching this show unless, like me, they are still kind of sick of the place.
Although I spotted other locations as well, most of the filming seems to have been confined to the area in between three major buildings in the center of the campus: Bovard Auditorium (home to Professor Kingsfield’s lecture hall and office, although the real building does not house any regular classrooms), the imposing Doheny Library, and the more modern Von Kleinsmid Center. Most of this area looks the same now as it did then, although it’s fascinating to see Trousdale Parkway, the street between Bovard and Doheny, before it was paved over and closed to vehicular traffic. And the fountain in front of Doheny never seems to be turned on in the early episodes. I wonder if Los Angeles was in the midst of one of its periodic, very un-New England droughts during the summer of 1978.
If you stop and think about it, none of this looks at all like an Ivy League school, but of course, it’s television and hardly anyone ever stops to think about things like that.
3. The quality that makes The Paper Chase singular within television history, and disproportionately valuable today, is its celebration of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Not even other shows in the “inspiring teacher” genre, like Mr. Novak or Boston Public, have focused primarily on this idea. The law students of The Paper Chase sacrifice fashion and even hygiene, not to mention social lives and sex, in order to give themselves over entirely to their coursework. Though they register the stress and the monotony of their work, they don’t cheat or take shortcuts (or if they do, the show depicts them as having failed to live up to an important standard). In a gesture that was probably idealistic even for the seventies, The Paper Chase rarely mentions careerism or money as reasons behind its protagonists’ interest in the law.
Unlike many of my real-life teachers who tried to “make learning fun,” The Paper Chase succeeds in passing along its enthusiasm for knowledge to the viewer. Professor Kingsfield (John Houseman) roots his lectures in the Socratic method. The scenes in his classroom, almost always the best in each episode, mine suspense from whether the characters will know the answers or not; whether they will express themselves eloquently; whether they will impress their teacher or disappoint him. The classroom sequences have an echo in the students’ study group meetings, where they typically discuss not their own personal problems (even if those problems form the thrust of that week’s plot), but the technical and moral intricacies of the law. Many scripts weave actual cases common to law school curricula into the storyline (Hawkins v. McGee in the pilot, the Speluncean explorers hypothetical in “The Seating Chart”). The resolutions to these cases, even though they are conveyed entirely through talk rather than action, often prove as compelling as the actual stories.
The Paper Chase characterizes Bell (James Keane), the comic relief law student, as a fat, pizza-gobbling slob, but I doubt that contemporary viewers would make much of a distinction between Bell and Hart (James Stephens), the chief protagonist, who is pale, sunken-chested, bespectacled, and generally unkempt. And yet Stephens manages to remove his shirt in most of the first half-dozen episodes. I think The Paper Chase was positioning him quite deliberately as a sex symbol in the sensitive-New-Age-guy mold (think Alan Alda or Woody Allen). What I like most about Stephens (and Hart) is his avidness, which contrasts strikingly with the kind of image-conscious nonchalance that nearly every modern TV hero projects. “How do you do it?” he blurts out beseechingly after he meets the have-it-all-career-girl Law Review editor (Darleen Carr) in the episode “A Day in the Life…” Hart doesn’t care whether anyone thinks he’s cool.
I bring this up because many of these notions, which were central to The Paper Chase, have no currency within our culture any more. The Bush II era codified anti-intellectualism as a legitimate approach to national leadership, one which may have been ratified at the polls. (Recall the “which candidate would you rather have a beer with?” factor in the 2004 election). And it’s very difficult to find anyone on television now who doesn’t appear to have stepped out of a fashion magazine; even “nerds” (like Adam Brody of The O.C. or Zachary Levi of Chuck) have a six-pack and a stylish haircut.
When I was a kid, I picked up the ideas (from shows like The Paper Chase, but also from the adults who surrounded me) that enlightenment meant developing the mind more than the body, and that obsessing over one’s personal appearance was vain and shallow. I still live by those ideas, but they seem rather lonely within the public and private discourse I encounter these days. I didn’t expect to be old-fashioned before I was thirty-five, but it seems to be working out that way.
October 13, 2009
Last month, writing about Wagon Train, I advanced the theory that long-running series sometimes wound their way into strange tangents that only a combination of ratings invulnerability and creative fatigue could explain. Now that all of Wagon Train’s seventh and penultimate season has been released on DVD, alongside a selection of episodes from all the others, there is ample opportunity to study that phenomenon in practice.
By its sixth season, Wagon Train had experienced the sudden death of one lead, Ward Bond, and the departure of the other, Robert Horton, to pursue other opportunities (mostly dinner theater, as it worked out). The actors who replaced them were not stars. Veteran supporting player John McIntire (then best known as the sheriff in Hitchcock’s recent hit Psycho) became the new wagonmaster, and blond ex-movie Tarzan Denny Miller took over as the train’s scout. I guess NBC figured that the real attraction was the guest stars, although by 1962, Wagon Train wasn’t even spending much money on those. Judging by the evidence on the screen, Wagon Train barely had enough money to get a completed film in the can. Episodes routinely opened with stock footage montages, overlaid with meaningless narration by McIntire, in a blatant move to pad their length. In one case, this drivel runs for a full six minutes before the show gets around to an actual storyline. I’m convinced that something so shockingly lazy could get on the air only in a “flyover show” – one so unhip and purely commercial that none of the network or studio executives in charge actually watched it.
In other words, after five years, Wagon Train was a case study of a show that had outlived every reason to endure other than ratings. Occasionally this creative exhaustion led to fascinating oddities like “The Abel Weatherly Story,” a January 1963 episode with a Twilight Zone-like flavor in which a shipwreck survivor (J. D. Cannon, very good) may or may not be haunted by the ghost of an artist he killed some years before. Robert Yale Libott’s script takes place, variously, in a New England whaling city, on a ship and then a deserted island, and finally in a small Kansas town – everywhere, in other words, except on the wagon train. McIntire and Miller do not appear at all; Cannon must make do with the show’s bit players as his interlocutors. I wonder how Wagon Train’s loyal audience reacted that week, confronted as they were with neither of the show’s stars, and nothing resembling its original premise.
Yuck: Art Linkletter and friends in “The Sam Darland Story.”
I enjoyed “Abel Weatherly” for its sheer strangeness, but a more typical example of Wagon Train’s sixth year was the preceding week’s outing, “The Sam Darland Story.” Sam Darland, played by Art Linkletter in a disastrous bit of stunt casting, is an evangelical layman who attempts to settle a ghost town, in hostile Indian territory, with no one other than a band of young orphaned boys. The one spinster (played by Nancy Reagan!) who ventures that the children should be removed from Sam’s care and adopted by the families in the wagon train is treated an antagonist rather than a voice of sanity. Religiosity abounds and, needless to say, a modern audience could not watch this show and view Sam as anything other than a deranged pederast.
In 1963, in an effort to imitate the successful The Virginian, Universal expanded Wagon Train from the sixty minutes it could barely fill to a whopping ninety, and began to film the show in color. Robert Fuller, fresh off the studio’s cancelled Laramie, joined the show as a rotating star, effectively demoting Scott Miller back to sidekick. The same production team, led by Howard Christie and comprised of a small pool of regular freelance writers (Norman Jolley, Steven Ritch, Gene L. Coon, Allen H. Miner) and directors (William Witney, Virgil W. Vogel, Miner), remained the same as during the previous season. There was no reason to hope that the changes in length and hue might give Wagon Train a shot in the arm, but somehow – and to my considerable relief, because the DVDs contain all thirty-two of these things – it did.
To skip straight to the top, Wagon Train produced one undeniable masterwork during its supersized year. This is “The Robert Harrison Clarke Story,” which features Michael Rennie as a master hunter (with a Sikh attendant, played by an unrecognizable Henry Silva) who tags along with the train in search of American game. Clarke hunts for sport, and the cowhands’ mechanical methods of rounding up cattle and slaughtering them for sustenance sicken him; at the same time, the westerners are put off by Clarke’s exoticism and veddy British hauteur. Brian Keith takes a small part as a world-weary cavalry scout, and his presence is a mystery until some of the parties end up trapped in a ruined fort, under siege by Indians. As this group contemplates its limited options, Gene L. Coon’s script turns into a thoughtful study of courage in the face of death. Clarke and the Americans, represented by Keith’s taciturn Sergeant Galt, come to accept their differences once they realize that they share a kind of Hawksian stoicism and masculine competence. At first Coon aligns our sympathies against the unbearably arrogant Clarke, but then he gradually redeems the character; it is Clarke’s fancy hunting rifle, seemingly useless on the rough-and-tumble frontier, which fires the shot of salvation.
John McIntire, Robert Fuller, and Michael Rennie in “The Robert Harrison Clarke Story.”
Coon, best known as one of the producers of Star Trek, was one of the finest writers of westerns during the fifties and sixties, and sort of a secret weapon for Wagon Train (even though he also claims credit for “Clyde,” the unsuccessful comedy that I mocked in my earlier post). Coon also wrote the seventh season’s premiere, “The Molly Kincaid Story,” which stars Carolyn Jones as a white woman reclaimed from captivity among the Indians. The story is familiar, but Coon treats the subject with a startling toughness, beginning with the gruesome facial scarring that Molly suffered during her ordeal.
After Coon, Wagon Train’s other noteworthy auteur was Allen H. Miner, one of the few freelance writer-directors to work as a hyphenate on a multitude of fifties and sixties shows without ever creating his own. (Douglas Heyes and John Meredyth Lucas, both overlooked talents, were among the others.) Miner’s segments tend to start off with a catchy premise and then lose their way, either through a gradual dissipation of narrative tension or a sharp left turn into conventionality. In “The Sam Pulaski Story,” Miner stages some effective comedy by dropping a trio of Runyonseque Brooklyn toughs into the old west, but the fun stops as soon as an element of genuine menace is introduced. “The Kitty Pryer Story” begins as a dark, perverse love triangle, then shifts into a more conventional tale of lovers (Diana Hyland and Bradford Dillman, both superb) on the run. Miner also wrote and directed the season finale, “The Last Circle Up,” which nostalgizes the camaraderie of the wagon train and suggests (without really explaining why) that the settlers may fall upon each other now that they’ve arrived at their destination. John Ford, in his westerns, often addressed these notions of community versus individualism, but Miner does not know what to do with them.
Some of the other ninety-minute segments work because of an inspired guest turn. Ronald Reagan, in one of his final acting roles, is surprisingly good as an army officer torn between his professional responsibilities and his duty to his alcoholic wife in “The Fort Pierce Story.” Peter Falk, marshalling a steely restraint absent from his Columbo-era persona, faces off against McIntire after leaving the wagonmaster for dead to save his brother’s life in “The Gus Morgan Story,” an episode that espouses an admirable commitment to reason over vengeance and anger. Even some of the failures are bizarre enough to hold one’s interest for an hour and a half. “The Widow O’Rourke Story,” for instance, casts Broadway star Carol Lawrence as an elderly Chinese woman who runs her western plantation with an iron fist; flashbacks, in which Robert Fuller assumes a second role as the red-headed sailor who purchased her from slavers, explain how she ended up so far from home.
Carol Lawrence and Robert Fuller in “The Widow O’Rourke Story.”
None of the ninety minute episodes that I’ve seen so far proselytizes as blatantly as “The Sam Darland Story.” But Jesus does make a cameo in enough of them to make me wonder if Christie had a message to send, and no qualms about using a wagon train instead of Western Union. “The Michael Malone Story,” written by my friend Gerry Day (who is in fact a devout Catholic), chronicles a priest’s crisis of faith without ever contemplating that the priesthood might not be right for him. (Personally, I was rooting for Michael Parks and Joyce Bulifant, one of television’s stranger romantic pairings, to blow off those vows and get it on.) “The Whipping,” bearable only due to Martin Balsam’s sensitive performance as a self-hating drunk, builds its story around the assertion that atheism and alcoholism are morally equivalent. (Faith and sobriety, we are told, are also interchangeable). The story’s climax contains an unambiguous miracle which, somewhat atypically for television, does not bother to offer an alternate, earthly interpretation of the events. At least the writer, Leonard Praskins, had the courage of his convictions.
That may sound like I’m anti-religion – and I am. But I’m capable of enjoying programs that examine faith with respect and intelligence, and from more than one point of view. Wagon Train does not take this approach; it simply turns preachy now and again. Commentators who actually believe we have a “liberal media” ignore not only the underlying truth that our media companies are all controlled by wealthy conservatives, but that there have always been popular television shows which espouse a semi-overt, pro-religious agenda. This is just as true today (this decade’s Joan of Arcadia was especially obnoxious) as it was in the era of Wagon Train. And then there’s the “new” Battlestar: Galactica. Watching the series’ finale this year, I was bemused to discover that the answer to many of that show’s long-running mysteries was, in essence: God(s) did it.
Continuing on with the third season of Ironside, one of my favorite undemanding popcorn shows of its era, I find it harder than ever to ignore the budgetary constraints that are so obvious on screen. Universal was always cheap, even going back to Wagon Train; those ninety-minute shows cut back and forth between outdoor locations and unconvincing soundstage “exteriors” in the same scene, with complete indifference to the jarring lack of resemblance between the two. But it wasn’t until 1969 or 1970 that the studio’s legendarily penny-pinching production department really clamped down, hobbling the efforts of even the most creative or defiant producers. Except for some second unit shooting, I don’t think Ironside left the backlot once during the whole season.
The nadir is “Good Will Tour,” a romance in which Eve (Barbara Anderson) gives a visiting prince (Bradford Dillman, sporting a stillborn mittel-European accent) a lengthy rear-projection tour of San Francisco. It’s a decent if slight script by another writer friend, the late Norman Katkov, but why on earth would the producers commission such a location-dependent story? Ironside overlapped with The Streets of San Francisco for three years of its original run (on the same night of the week), and I can’t understand how the contrast with the actual Bay Area locations of Quinn Martin’s superior cop drama didn’t get Ironside laughed off the airwaves.
On the other hand, I can report that Ironside returned partly to form in the latter half of its third season, offering a few of the traditional cop stories that distinguished its first two years. One such episode is “Programmed For Danger,” in which Ironside and undercover singleton Eve go up against a dating service operator cum serial molester (slick Roger Perry, well cast) who uses a punch-card computer to select his victims. Along with the computer, True Boardman’s script places an odd emphasis on gadgets like Ironside’s telephone answering machine and the portable cassette player that Perry carries along on his attacks. Did you have something you wanted to say about modern technology, Mr. Boardman? The message was clearer in that Twilight Zone where Richard Haydn gets taken out by a homicidal electric razor.
Also during my staycation I pulled down a pair of memoirs that had been gathering dust on the bookshelf for a couple of years: Richard L. Bare’s Confessions of a Hollywood Director (Scarecrow, 2001) and John Rich’s Warm Up the Snake: A Hollywood Memoir (University of Michigan Press, 2006). Bare and Rich (insert name joke here) were two of the very top television directors of the sixties. Their books complement each other in a rather amusing way.
Richard Bare directed the pilots for Cheyenne and 77 Sunset Strip, thereby launching both the western and detective cycles that swelled the coffers of Warner Bros. and ABC in the late fifties; he later helmed nearly every episode of another certified classic, the subversive Green Acres. John Rich directed the first three years of The Dick Van Dyke Show, and the first five of All in the Family. Before James Burrows, he was the undisputed king among sitcom directors. At his peak, Rich could command huge fees just for consulting on finished pilots and pointing out what was wrong with them. Rich’s brief association with Gilligan’s Island amounted to little more than that but, according to Warm Up the Snake, Sherwood Schwartz rewarded him with a ten per cent ownership of the series.
Rich has given a lot of interviews about Dick Van Dyke and All in the Family, but even if you’ve read or heard them already, his book offers a concise, revealing portrait of both series from a director’s point of view. Rich’s stories about shows with which he is less often associated, like Gunsmoke and MacGyver, have even more value. Unfortunately, Warm Up the Snake is padded with a lot of really stale jokes and anecdotes that have little to do with Rich’s own career, and those will be old news for most readers. There’s a whole chapter devoted to explaining odd industry terms like “M.O.S.” and the “Abby Singer shot,” and when Rich finally explains his title, it’s not exactly a gutbuster. (In fact, Walter Grauman, another veteran director, told me a much funnier story about defrosting a snake for a TV scene, which I will share one day.) Rich and Bare even recount one of the same old Hollywood jokes, about the director who ordered a crowd of spear carriers to “Lunge!” and instead the whole company went to lunch. But Rich says the director in question was Michael Curtiz, while Bare fingers Cecil B. DeMille!
Rich’s prose has an impersonal, smoothed-over feel to it, and he includes hardly anything about his childhood or non-professional life. The closest he comes to a confessional tone is a good-natured admission that he sometimes wielded a bad temper on the set. (He once broke his foot by kicking a chair during an All in the Family table read.) I found Rich’s reticence particularly disappointing, because I would haved liked to know more about his older brother, David Lowell Rich, a director of television dramas who did some fine work on M Squad, Route 66, and Kraft Suspense Theater. David Lowell Rich retired to my home town of Raleigh and, while I was in college, he drove me crazy by turning down repeated requests for an interview. After I sent him (without being asked) some tapes of his rarer shows, Rich thanked me and finally agreed to a meeting – but then died before my next trip back to Raleigh. I have heard, from several sources, that the Rich brothers did not get along, and that they were not on speaking terms for much of their adult lives. So I guess I’m not surprised that David receives nary a mention in John’s autobiography.
In contrast to Rich’s approach, Confessions of a Hollywood Director focuses mainly on Richard Bare’s personal life. He’s still in film school (at my alma mater, USC) on page 100, and when he gets to Green Acres around page 290, Bare has only a handful of anecdotes to tell. That may make the book sound as dull as unbuttered toast and, indeed, I wish Bare had chosen to share more about his contributions to Maverick and The Twilight Zone and The Virginian. But Bare’s memoir is so breezy and detailed, and his enthusiasm for old friends and childhood shenanigans so infectious, that I thoroughly enjoyed it. A Modesto native, Bare (whose childhood friends included George Lucas’s father!) was a true Zelig of the California coast, who stumbled into amusing encounters with everyone from Walt Disney to Dwain Esper to Langston Hughes to Marilyn Monroe.
Richard Bare is still with us, and his name made the rounds on the internet recently because his last birthday, on August 12, was alleged by many sources to be his one hundredth. Except that when I chatted briefly with Bare ten years ago, he insisted that he was actually born in 1913, and even named the reference book (Ephraim Katz’s The Film Encyclopedia) in which he felt the inaccurate date had originated. Bare expressed anger at the error, because he felt it had cost him work toward the end of his career.
At the time, I was convinced. But Confessions of a Hollywood Director gives no birthdate for Bare, and his narrative remains a bit, well, slippery on the subject. At one point Bare claims that he was nineteen in 1934, and a subsequent mention of his age also supports a 1914 or 1915 birth. If Bare was willing to cheat his age forward a little in the book, could he have been fibbing to me as well? In the book Bare states that Julio Gallo, the winemaker, sat next to him in an algebra class at Modesto High School. Gallo was born in March 1910, so either he was an unusually slow math student, or . . . well, with all due respect to Mr. Bare, let’s just say that I’d welcome a peek at his driver’s license.
October 2, 2009
Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the broadcast debut of The Twilight Zone. I wasn’t around in 1959, but I can join in by celebrating a less precise anniversary.
Picture, if you will, a precocious pre-teen with a morbid turn of mind and not enough pop culture fantasies to nourish it. He’s seen the show before. Episodes like “The Dummy” and “Little Girl Lost,” caught in passing on the way to The Flintstones or The Facts of Life, scared the heck out of him when he was a little kid. But now he’s just the right age to groove to Rod Serling’s dark imagination. He drags his dad to the local Waldenbooks to buy him the only literature he can find about the show, Marc Scott Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion, which he all but memorizes as he follows the show in syndication, twice a night, once on WGN and then a different episode on the Fox affiliate. It’s been twenty years, give or take a couple of months, since I discovered The Twilight Zone.
One thing that occurred to me recently is that most of my opinions about each Twilight Zone were formed as a response to those taken by Zicree in his book. Given the dearth of other reviews or commentaries, the Companion’s raves, pans, and pointed dismissals – three or four lines of Pauline Kaelish hauteur directed at the likes of “Hocus Pocus and Frisby” – tended to fix themselves permanently in a Zone fan’s consciousness. Over the years, when I’ve found other Zone aficionados who were sufficiently well-versed to compare notes on individual episodes, the discussion has sometimes played out in terms like: “You know, I liked that one more (or less) than Zicree did!”
Last month I reviewed Martin Grams’s The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door and lamented Grams’s decision to withhold his own opinions on the show. That made me wonder: who else has weighed in on the subject since Zicree’s book came out? Surely, on the internet, there must be a plethora of kibitizing on the subject of beloved (or hated) Twilight Zones. And of course, there is.
There are on-line polls where fans can vote for a favorite episode, and forums and websites where they can explain their choices. The Twilight Zone Cafe is a website devoted entirely to Zone chatter, with a thread for every episode and surveys to determine the best and worst of them. Today, to mark the anniversary, the New York Times got into the act, accruing 172 reader responses within eight hours. (Note that, just as the Times’s blogger predicted, only two reader comments were submitted before someone listed an Outer Limits and an Alfred Hitchcock Hour among their favorite Twilight Zones!) Even Facebook, a Twilight Zone-worthy concept if ever there was one, contains a page devoted to the topic. The discussions on these sites sometimes reflect fuzzy memories and unsophisticated ideas, but the affection that viewers continue to express for The Twilight Zone is awe-inspiring.
For a number of reasons, I tend to view the Internet Movie Database’s user ratings with skepticism. But I noticed that for most Twilight Zones, unlike episodes of many other TV series, the IMDb has recorded more than 150 votes. Perhaps that’s enough to constitute a valid statistical sample, even in the absence of any transparency as to how the system works. Most of the Zones fall within a fairly narrow numerical range on the IMDb’s ten-star scale. If an episode scores over a 9.0, it’s a masterpiece. Under a 7.0, and the public can be envisioned as holding its collective nose.
In general, the scores are predictable, although after studying them for a while I noticed one intriguing anomaly. Twilight Zones that turn on an especially clever twist ending skew higher than episodes that instead emphasize character or mood. Fair enough, you may be thinking, surprise endings are what The Twilight Zone is all about – until I point out that IMDb users rank “The Shelter” (8.4), “Printer’s Devil” (8.3), and “The Masks” (8.3) above “Walking Distance” (8.0). Now that’s what I’d call a twist! I think I’ve found more evidence for my pet theory that American audiences take comfort in clever plotting to the exclusion of all else.
As I mentioned before, thumbing through The Twilight Zone Companion – and now, surfing through all those Zone outposts on the internet – brings out the contrarian in me. I always feel like slaughtering a few of the sacred cows in the Twilight Zone’s pens, and sticking up for the underdogs in that fifth-dimensional kennel. I could easily compile a list of both species. But since we’re celebrating an anniversary, I’m going to focus on the positive.
Here, then, are thirteen episodes (presented in chronological order) that I think have slipped through the cracks. These aren’t my personal favorites, which are probably about the same as everybody else’s. They’re the Twilight Zone’s red-headed stepchildren, the ones that haven’t received quite as much love as they deserve from audiences and critics.
1. “The Lonely” (November 13, 1959) Arguably somewhat underappreciated amid the bounty of the early episodes, this is The Twilight Zone’s greatest tragic romance. Jack Warden creates one of his most touching everymen, and the location shooting (an increasing rarity as the series wore on) turns Death Valley into a visceral hell-on-an-asteroid. The final twist may play as contrived, but the power of Serling’s writing is not in that punchline but in the earlier, emotional double-reversal (Warden hates the robot girl, then can’t bear to part with her), which has rarely been executed so skillfully within the confines of a half-hour teleplay.
2. “A World of His Own” (July 1, 1960) Deliberately slight, this budget-friendly bottle show casts Keenan Wynn as an urbane Walter Mitty-ish writer who solves his Betty-or-Veronica dilemma with the help of an enchanted dictaphone. Ending season one with a throwaway gag was a bold, unexpected move, and to overpraise it would miss the point. But Richard Matheson’s droll script resounds with an intricate verbal wit that still sounds fresh and unusual within The Twilight Zone, mainly because it was a mode in which Serling (though he seems to have vaguely inspired Wynn’s character) could not write.
3. “Twenty-Two” (February 10, 1961) A polarizer. Some fans find it shrill and obvious, including Zicree, who calls it “not one of the more shining examples of The Twilight Zone.” Others will delight in seeing comedienne Barbara Nichols pull off a straight dramatic lead, and appreciate the repeated wallop of the spooky stewardess’s refrain (“Room for one more, honey”: for my money the connoisseur’s “It’s a cookbook!”) The smeary imagery enhances the nightmarish quality of the story, making this the only episode to actually benefit from the second-season humiliation of videotape.
4. “The Odyssey of Flight 33” (February 24, 1961) Horror in the lowest key. Armed with technical advice from his airline-pilot brother, Serling crafts a deliciously slow-building atmosphere of terror out of nothing but flight-crew jargon and offscreen space. Naturally, some find that “boring.” As in “Little Girl Lost” (also undervalued), there’s an appealing purity to the contest between concerted rationalism and the batshit inexplicable. The casting of non-star underplayers completes the formula (one show-off in the cockpit would have ruined the big reveal), and the uneasy ending provides even less closure than usual.
5. “The Rip Van Winkle Caper” (April 21, 1961) There’s something seedy and harsh about this nasty little futurist neo-noir, with its second-rate cast and its jerky narrative, stitched together by a rare intermediate Serling narration. But The Twilight Zone was entitled to – even enriched by – a few tawdry little B-movies to bottom-half a double bill with A-stories like “Walking Distance.” (See also: “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up,” another great shaggy-dog story that irritates a certain segment of the fans.) The final twist is half-gotcha, half-groaner, but its mean-spiritedness is just right for this “Caper”’s ugly anti-heroes.
6. “Two” (September 15, 1961) A sentimental favorite. Perhaps the spectacle of two future superstars making googly-eyes at each other across a rubble-strewn MGM backlot contains an element of camp that has kept this one off too many of the all-time favorite lists. But giving Charles Bronson all the dialogue and making Elizabeth Montgomery, everyone’s favorite motormouthed sorceress, act with her orbs, is irresistible against-type casting (at least in hindsight). Plus, settling the Cold War after it’s too late for all but two of us to care is pure Serling.
7. “The Hunt” (January 26, 1962) Earl Hamner, Jr., was The Twilight Zone’s most underappreciated writer; he belongs in the “Big Four” in place of the overrated George Clayton Johnson. Nestled at the heart of this script, which plays like a supernatural episode of The Waltons, is the lovely conceit of a man who turns his back on heaven because St. Peter won’t let his dog in, too. Some of the execution can be faulted, especially the awkward shifts between locations and faux-exterior sets, but I find Arthur Hunnicutt’s sad-eyed performance (which Zicree sees as “leaden . . . and with no range”) straightforward and moving.
8. “I Sing the Body Electric” (May 18, 1962) This respectable Ray Bradbury adaptation has one magical scene, in which three newly orphaned children play Mr. Potato Head at the robot factory and come up with adorable uber-granny Josephine Hutchinson. The remainder is perhaps not all it could be, but “I Sing the Body Electric” certainly doesn’t fail spectacularly enough to earn the contempt that some fans have heaped upon it; perhaps Zicree jinxed it by reporting the episode’s extensive production problems, and Bradbury’s negative reaction. To those who find it saccharine, I ask: have you seen that ostensible classic “Kick the Can” (or as I like to call it, “Pass the Bucket”) lately?
9. “Jess-Belle” (February 14, 1963) By a wide margin the best of the hour-long Twilight Zones, “Jess-Belle” uses the added length to create an authentic sense of place (Hamner’s beloved Blue Ridge Mountains) and mood (a morose fatalism expressed in the performances, the music, and the folk-tune that replaces Serling’s closing remarks). Instead of the usual high-concept twists, “Jess-Belle”’s strangeness manifests in the form of a subterranean sensuality – the animal transformations as an expression of repressed desire; the leering flirtatiousness in Jeanette Nolan’s startling turn as the old witch – that’s atypical both for The Twilight Zone and among Hamner’s catalog of folksy backwoods stories.
10. “The Bard” (May 23, 1963) And you thought the modern-day-imbecile-hooks-up-with-historical-genius fantasy genre began with Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. But – no. Granted, the TV-industry satire trotted out here is in no danger of dislodging Network from its pedestal. But Serling’s only funny comedy mines more laughs than expected out of a time-traveling Bill Shakespeare, and Burt Reynolds’s side-splitting evisceration of Brando may still be his best performance.
11. “You Drive” (January 3, 1964) Edward Andrews, occupying a rare and welcome leading role, exudes maximum smarm in this Duel precursor about an unrepentant hit-and-runner whose car meets out justice. It’s a one-idea premise, but director John Brahm executes the driverless car effects so cleverly that nothing more is needed. Modern cinema abounds with tales in which our cars want to kill us (The Car) or fuck us (Crash) or both (Christine). But can anyone think of an earlier version of this technophobic meta-narrative than “You Drive”?
12. “Black Leather Jackets” (January 31, 1964) Associations with schlocky fifties juvenile delinquency films have unfairly shivved the reputation of this alien biker gang saga. Maybe Lee Kinsolving and Shelley Fabares don’t quite sell the teen angst, but I love the sheriff (a creepy, pre-Hill Street Michael Conrad) and the all-seeing, Mabusean video device: even before the space hoodlums arrive in their titular garb, humanity is already doomed. “Jackets” channels McCarthyism, but it also looks ahead to the free-floating, anyone-could-be-an-alien paranoia of The Invaders and The X-Files.
13. “Come Wander With Me” (May 22, 1964) Everyone points out, correctly, that this star-crossed backwoods romance makes no sense. And you were expecting what in the Twilight Zone? One viewer’s nonsense is another’s surrealism, and here the narrative incoherence recedes as the claustrophobic soundstage-exterior sets (which sabotaged other episodes) give the proceedings a unique, otherworldly feel. Bonnie Beecher and Gary Crosby were non-entities, but they’re just right for the material: Beecher, who hung out with Dylan and married Wavy Gravy, looks as if she has strummed a guitar barefoot before; and Crosby, always diffident and uneasy on screen, must have felt comfortably in his father’s shadow as “Come Wander With Me”’s folkie-poseur.
Now, which episodes do you think are underrated . . . or overrated?
September 15, 2009
“It’s a hippie wagon, and it’s real far out”: Ironside joins the post-Woodstock era (“Eye of the Hurricane,” 1969)
What did people do back in the years before someone invented the term staycation? Personally, I passed the dog days of summer lounging around, reading, and watching old TV shows, just as I do now. But I didn’t have such a handy term for it back then.
I had to send away to Australia for the third season of Ironside, after Shout Factory conceded that it has given up releasing the series on DVD in the United States due to disappointing sales. I guess that means not enough consumers share my belief that the differently abled detective and his not-so-mod squad are, like, way hip, man.
For an already formulaic show, Ironside experienced a curious case of mission drift during its third year. Gone were the standard outings in which Chief Ironside (Raymond Burr) bogarted a high-profile homicide case and then either solved the mystery or played cat-and-mouse with the killer. Instead, the third season delivered a string of “very special episodes.” Ironside finds himself in jeopardy, kidnapped as a hostage in a prison break (“Eye of the Hurricane”). Or Ironside goes on a special mission, as when he’s appointed head of security for a political delegation in Red China (“Love My Enemy”).
The biggest change was that in the majority of episodes, Ironside or a member of his team gets drawn into the week’s case through a personal connection to the victim. If you were a San Franciscan and Chief Ironside owed you a favor, something bad was bound to happen to you, whether you were an old girlfriend (“Goodbye to Yesterday,” writer Sy Salkowitz’s sequel to his first season script “Barbara Who”), an aunt (“Alias Mr. Braithwaite”), a pupil (“Stolen on Demand”), a former schoolmate (“Ransom”), or an even older girlfriend (“Beyond a Shadow”). Apart from casting aspersions on the objectivity of the San Francisco Police Department, this new storytelling mandate gradually undermined the plausibility of the stories. And, let’s face it, a show about a man in a wheelchair who happens to be named Ironside needs to hold on to as much credibility as it can.
The same producers (Cy Chermak, Joel Rogosin, Douglas Benton, and Winston Miller) who oversaw the second season also managed the third. So either they were starting to get bored, or else they caved in to network pressure to fix what wasn’t broken. The surest sign of someone’s command for cosmetic change was the destruction of Ironside’s vehicle, a converted paddywagon (which was, I concede, ridiculous), in a fiery crash in the episode “Poole’s Paradise.” For the rest of the season, Ironside upgraded to a snazzier cream-colored van decked out with a whole lot of slatted wooden window shutters. I like to think this got him laid a little bit more often, and presumably the new wheels also garnered the show a few lines in that week’s TV Guide. Did audiences ever really care about stuff like that, even when they only had three channels to choose from?
Years ago I watched most of the Wagon Train episodes that Columbia House released on VHS, and found the show rather bland. Wagon Train was a traditionally written western with a medium-to-low budget, constructed mainly as a star vehicle for whatever A- and B-list guest stars MCA could seduce into headlining the episodes. Most of the segments were titled after the name guest’s role (“The Willy Moran Story,” etc.), which should give you an idea of the extent to which Wagon Train was willing to sideline its putative stars (ex-John Ford court jester Ward Bond and pretty-boy Robert Horton). Ideally, this backdoor-anthology format would have been an opportunity to emphasize character drama over the B-movie action that, say, Laramie or Tales of Wells Fargo favored. In practice, though, the stories usually took too long to find their way toward obvious, uplifting resolutions, and the show leaned more on Native Americans as stock villains than any of the other “adult” TV westerns of the late fifties.
But Wagon Train was a long-running series, and Columbia House focused just on the first two or three of its eight seasons. Shows which last that long sometimes evolve from one thing into another; CBS’s Rawhide, which was probably closest in content to Wagon Train than any other major TV western, also ran for eight seasons and went through some radical on- and off-screen changes during that time. Last year Timeless Media, the indie outfit with the keys to Universal’s tape vault, released two giant boxes of Wagon Train episodes in a typically eccentric fashion. The emphasis was on Wagon Train’s penultimate year, the only one shot in color and expanded to a weekly ninety minutes (in an effort to copy Universal’s 1962 hit The Virginian, which had begun to trounce Wagon Train in the ratings). But Timeless also rounded up a random grab-bag of segments from all the other seasons to complement the thirty-two ninety-minute Wagon Trains. Ordinarily this compilation would run afoul of my compulsive nature, but I took it as a way of setting out some trail markers to chart the direction the show took over the years.
I wish I could report that the results were something other than dire. But here’s how most evenings went. First I cued up an episode entitled “The Ah Chong Story.” Then I realized that Arnold Stang played the title character, and figured I’d need a Vicodin to get through that. So I skipped to the next episode, “Clyde,” which turned out to be a comedy about trail cook Charlie Wooster (Frank McGrath, a tenth-rate Walter Brennan) and the pet buffalo he shields from hungry settlers and Indians. The buffalo was so mangy that at first I mistook it for a pony draped with a woolly throw rug. I can’t remember now whether or not Clyde got eaten in the end, because by then I was having one of those occasional crises in which I become paralyzed by the question: Why again did I decide to specialize in early American television?
August 26, 2009
Last year saw the publication of a valuable new book called The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic. The author, Martin Grams, Jr., has written or co-written histories of various radio series as well as television shows like I Led Three Lives and Have Gun, Will Travel. Most of those programs had not been the subject of a book-length account before Mr. Grams, a prolific young historian, turned his attention to them.
For that reason I was somewhat surprised to find The Twilight Zone under Grams’s microscope, because the show’s history had already been ably chronicled in Marc Scott Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion. Zicree’s book, which has been reprinted several times since its publication in 1982, offered a highly readable history and appreciation of The Twilight Zone. Indeed, The Twilight Zone Companion launched the television episode guide as a literary genre and established a format that scores of books (some terrific, some worthless) about old TV shows would follow.
Had anyone asked, I would have guessed that little of substance could be added to Zicree’s research. Grams has proven me wrong, by unearthing a multitude of previously unreported facts and providing some new insights into how The Twilight Zone was made. Here are a few examples that I found particularly fascinating:
- Two highly regarded third season shows, “The Grave” and “Nothing in the Dark,” were actually produced during the second year and shelved, apparently because the network wanted to stockpile some strong shows for the new year.
- Rod Serling and producer Buck Houghton went into a panic after seeing the rough cut of “To Serve Man,” an episode that ends on an infamously droll punchline but is, otherwise, kinda stupid. James Sheldon (who was himself replaced, ironically, on a subsequent episode, “I Sing the Body Electric”) directed reshoots, the footage was extensively re-edited, and alien giant Richard Kiel’s voice was replaced with that of another familiar character actor, Joseph Ruskin.
- A rather absurd legal conflict over a G. E. Theatre episode also entitled “The Eye of the Beholder” is finally revealed as the reason why the rerun broadcast of the famous Twilight Zone segment, and later some syndicated prints, bore the alternate title “A Private World of Darkness.” Grams also examines the plagiarism claims, covered vaguely or not at all by Zicree, that led to the exclusion of four episodes from syndication for many years.
- On several occasions where actors played dual roles, a performer of note was engaged to supply an on-stage performance as the “double,” one which would be replaced by optical effects and never seen by the public. Joseph Sargent, later a major film and television director, doubled for George Grizzard in “In His Image,” and Brian G. Hutton (the director of Where Eagles Dare) filled in as the “mirror version” of Joe Mantell in “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room.” And Keenan Wynn, gave the off-camera performances in Ed Wynn’s mirror scenes in “Ninety Years Without Slumbering” while visiting his sickly father on the set! (Zicree’s book reported the part about Sargent, but the others were news to me.)
Grams has re-interviewed surviving Twilight Zone cast and crew members, albeit somewhat selectively (Collin Wilcox’s recollections of the show, for instance, remain exclusive to this blog). His primary source is a trove of correspondence, memoranda, and other paperwork, some of it apparently acquired on Ebay.
The centerpiece of Grams’s research shelf was a set of ledgers from Serling’s accounting firm, which break down the budgets of most of the Twilight Zone episodes. Grams records these figures and, although he rarely dwells on their significance, the reader can have a lot of fun crunching numbers. Why did some episodes cost far more than others, and were the results were worth it? In the first season, for instance, the classic “Walking Distance” toted up to a whopping $74,485, while the cute season finale, “A World of His Own,” cost a meager $33,438. Grams also reports the actual shooting dates of the episodes, and in so doing he confirms one of my long-standing suspicions about Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion: that, apart from grouping them by season, it presents the episodes in no particular order. (Why? I have no idea.)
Much of the above may seem trivial. But Grams also probes into more substantive behind-the-scenes happenings. Extensive quotations from production memoranda and private correspondence offer far more detailed glimpses than we have had before of the personalities of The Twilight Zone’s creative minds. Buck Houghton, producer of the first three seasons, seems much the same man as he did in Zicree’s account: a sage line producer gifted with an unflappable pragmatism and an uncommonly good story mind. Charles Beaumont, who served as a sort of informal ambassador between The Twilight Zone and the world of science fiction fandom, proved a shrewd salesman for both the series and for his own talent. Richard Matheson was a virtual geyser of grievances who managed to find fault with the execution of nearly all his scripts.
Grams’s depiction of Rod Serling has more complex shadings than I expected. His reputation as an all-around nice guy, and an especially generous ally to fellow writers, is confirmed in the many letters quoted in Unlocking the Door. But Serling’s correspondence also wallows in an extreme form of self-deprecation that comes across as masochistic in some instances, phony in others. He wasted a great deal of time replying (and often apologizing) to viewers who wrote in with picayune complaints about each week’s episode.
But Serling’s humility did not extend to his fame. Previous accounts have depicted Serling as a default choice to host The Twilight Zone, but Grams makes it clear that Serling plotted from the start, over the sponsors’ objections, to insert himself in front of the camera. There is ample evidence that Serling relished his status as a celebrity; Grams quotes an especially shameless letter to an old teacher in which Serling faux-sheepishly plugs an upcoming appearance on The Garry Moore Show. In some people, an outsized ego might be a small imperfection. For Serling – the frequency of whose media appearances during and after The Twilight Zone can be measured neatly in inverse proportion to the quality of his writing – it was a flaw that took on Shakespearean dimensions.
Grams’s coverage of the individual Twilight Zone episodes varies in length and quality, but I admired his attention to some of the tangents and failures that other scholars have neglected. The coverage here of “Mr. Bevis,” the unfunny comedy spinoff about a hapless guardian angel, and Serling’s distaff rehash of same two years later (as the Carol Burnett vehicle “Cavender Is Coming”), is exemplary. Grams reprints plot summaries for unmade episodes of the “Mr. Bevis” series, and casting suggestions for the starring roles in both pilots. He quotes Serling’s lacerating confessions as to why both versions failed creatively, although just why Serling remained so attached to his bungling angel idea as to make it twice remains a mystery. (“Bevis” originated via a sweetheart deal between CBS and a potential sponsor, Prudential Insurance, which may explain how it bypassed the usual common-sense scrutiny that would have vetoed such a slim premise.) In a note to Carol Burnett, Serling admitted that “Cavender” was “lousy,” adding that “I feel like Napoleon surveying the aftermath of Waterloo, except at least I get residuals – all he got was Elba.” Even in his letters, the poor man wasn’t funny.
After three seasons during which it ran smoothly and excelled creatively, The Twilight Zone fell into chaos. Dropped by CBS in the fall of 1962, the series returned the following January in an hour-long format, and limped along (as a half-hour again) for a fifth year. During the half-season in which The Twilight Zone appeared to be dead, both Houghton and Serling took other jobs. Houghton was replaced by three successive producers, none of them as good. Serling, on the other hand, exiled himself in dramatic fashion, taking a teaching job in far-away Antioch College (in Yellow Springs, Ohio) and declaring to the press that he was burned out on television.
In The Twilight Zone Companion, Zicree describes Houghton’s immediate replacement, Herbert Hirschman, as a talented producer who disagreed mildly with Serling. On Hirschman’s successors, Bert Granet and William Froug, Zicree remains noncommittal. The most important sections of Grams’s book are those that expand Zicree’s and other sources’ minimal coverage of the final two seasons (widely viewed by fans as inferior to the first three) into a dramatic struggle for control of a troubled series.
In actuality, Hirschman fell immediately out of favor with Serling, who began – in exasperated and (for him) harshly worded memoranda – to question Hirschman’s compatibility with The Twilight Zone’s elements of fantasy and the macabre. Serling was right, I think, based on his specific disagreements with Hirschman over the scripts for “The Thirty Fathom Grave,” “The Incredible World of Horace Ford,” and “The Bard.” In each case, Hirschman favored a more pedestrian approach. Serling lobbied to have Hirschman fired, and after a few months the producer was unceremoniously ousted. But Serling’s move backfired. Serling’s choice as Hirschman’s replacement, executive and sometime director Perry Lafferty, was passed over in favor of Granet, a CBS executive already assigned to the show. (Granet, marking his territory, insisted on the right to recut Hirschman’s episodes.)
What’s fascinating about this account is how effectively the network took advantage of Serling’s physical absence to distance him from his own show. Serling still had to supply scripts and commute to Los Angeles to film his introductions, but the new regime did not consult with him on casting, production, or other writers’ scripts. Many key decisions previously made by Serling and Houghton fell not just to the new producers, but to CBS executives above them in the food chain, including Robert F. Lewine, Boris Kaplan, and George Amy (a distinguished film editor who must have been supervising post-production for the network). Kaplan, formerly a TV producer at Universal (of Riverboat and 87th Precinct), seems to have played a critical role, and yet I don’t believe his contributions to The Twilight Zone have ever been examined in detail.
Ultimately Serling was reduced to fuming impotently in letters to production manager Ralph W. Nelson, a Houghton-era holdover who loyally supplied back-channel reports from the set. Serling’s anger at being exploited as a figurehead on his later series Night Gallery has been well documented, and I think Grams’s work recasts Serling’s Night Gallery unhappiness as a rerun of his role during the fourth and fifth seasons of The Twilight Zone. That begs the question of why Serling would allow himself to be trapped in the same limbo twice. The answer seems to be that Serling hoped to wield his influence from afar without battling in the trenches; and the tragedy was that television doesn’t work that way.
Can a well-researched book that’s bigger than two bricks fail to become the definitive account of its subject? Sadly, I think that may be the case here. I remember a great line from a review of David Fincher’s Zodiac, to the effect that watching the film was like being trapped inside a file cabinet. That’s how I often felt as I macheted my way through the eight hundred pages of Grams’s book.
It’s a common peril for an author to get bogged down in the minutiae of his topic, and the biggest problem with Unlocking the Door is simply that it contains too much information. In my own work, I have sometimes made the case for detail at the expense of readability. But does anyone really need to know the dates on which “Queen of the Nile”’s hand inserts were filmed, or that the production staff may have failed to pay MGM for the rental of the episode’s Egyptian props? Or that Serling’s original narration for “Sounds and Silences” gave the protagonist’s weight at 217 pounds, instead of 220 in the filmed version? Grams’s book is so choked with this kind of junk data that it becomes nearly impossible to read for pleasure.
Some of the trivia is not merely irrelevant, but also, perhaps, misleading. On three occasions, Grams lists names submitted for specific roles in Twilight Zone episodes by a talent agent named Robert Longenecker. As Grams points out, none of those actors (with one exception) landed a part on The Twilight Zone. Judging by the names on his list, Longenecker managed a stable of bit players. Ethel Winant, The Twilight Zone’s casting director, had the budget and the clout to attract top actors to the show, and she likely filed Longenecker’s correspondence away without giving it serious consideration. But Grams neglects to provide that context, and the casual reader may assume that these were actors in serious contention for major roles on the series.
Both here and in his introduction to the book, Grams takes particular exception to an erroneous figure in The Twilight Zone Companion. Zicree, evidently sourcing only the memory of producer William Froug, wrote that The Twilight Zone purchased the rights to Robert Enrico’s short French film “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” for $10,000. Grams documents that the actual figure was $20,000, plus an additional $5,000 in post-production costs. The correction is welcome. But even the $25,000 figure falls well below the halfway point of an average fifth-year Zone episode’s budget. In fussing over the amount, Grams distracts the reader from the larger point, conveyed succinctly in Zicree’s account, that the acquisition of “Occurrence” was a clever coup that both rescued The Twilight Zone’s budget and introduced American audiences to a fine foreign film they would not otherwise have seen.
Perhaps inevitably, Grams compounds this pedantry by organizing his data in a sequence that is only roughly chronological, and often follows no other structure that I can discern. Essential, well-written chronologies of the series’ production alternate with gobs of trivia that should have been consigned to an appendix or cut altogether. Chapter Six, for example, begins with an overview of plans for The Twilight Zone’s second season, then segues into sections on: letters from agents and actors plying Rod Serling for jobs; Serling’s transition into on-camera hosting; the various clothing manufacturers who supplied Serling’s suits; Serling’s charitable activities; a Shakespearean sonnet sent in by a fan; fan clubs; the soundtrack album; and so on. The introductory material, and even the production histories of some episodes, read as if a clipping file had simply been emptied onto the pages.
It’s discouraging to see books on important subjects like The Twilight Zone wind up self-published, or on tiny imprints, for the obvious reason that not enough people will read them. (OTR Publishing, which issued Unlocking the Door, is Grams’s own company). But it is equally relevant, I think, that many of those books are not as good as they could be because their authors do not have the input of a seasoned editor.
In his introduction to Unlocking the Door, Martin Grams presents a sort of mission statement that guided his writing. Grams eschewed earlier published histories of The Twilight Zone and consulted only primary documents. He avoided the kind of shorthand that blurs the opinions of historian and subject. Most radically, he decided that he would not attempt “to offer a critical analysis of the episodes.”
In an era where many alleged journalists source their information from Wikipedia, I applaud authors who stake out a rigorous methodology for themselves and stick to it. But in Unlocking the Door, Grams’s “just the facts, ma’am” approach is too dry. A historian who has immersed himself in his subject for years has earned the right to present reasonable, thoughtfully argued opinions. In fact, he may owe them to his readers. It would be unthinkable, for instance, for the biographer of a major film director not to take a position on which of that director’s works are canonical; or for a professor in a media history class to offer only data without context or analysis. Surely Grams, after studying The Twilight Zone so closely, has some interesting ideas on where the show succeeded and failed, and why. It’s a shame he felt the need to deprive us of them.
While fact-checking some of what I have written above, I pulled out my copy of The Twilight Zone Companion. Immediately, I found myself getting drawn in by Zicree’s clean, witty prose, just as I did decades ago, when I began reading his book for the first time (at a school bus stop, in case anyone cares, on a frigid morning in the winter of 1989). Yes, Zicree’s four-line dismissals of some episodes and his overpraise of others can be infuriating, but they are part of why his book is so enjoyable. And, at least during the years before the internet, Zicree’s reviews also dominated the conversation about The Twilight Zone; I realize now that my own initial thoughts about the individual episodes formed very much in agreement with or in opposition to what Zicree wrote. Much more than his facts, I would have liked this new Twilight Zone book to rebut Zicree’s opinions.
Some of my criticisms of Unlocking the Door may sound harsh. But as a work of scholarship, this is a worthwhile book, a cornucopia of factoids that will delight hardcore Twilight Zone wonks. Luckily, there are a multitude of worthwhile resources on this classic show. For new fans crossing over into The Twilight Zone for the first time, Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion remains the essential intro. For supplemental, multi-media studies, there are Stewart Stanyard’s Dimensions Behind the Twilight Zone: A Backstage Tribute to Television’s Groundbreaking Series (an astonishing trove of behind-the-scenes photos), and the special edition DVDs, which are crammed with new and vintage video and audio interviews with the show’s creators. And now, finally, for the advanced scholars who feel ready to begin a post-graduate course in Zoneology, Martin Grams, Jr., has published their textbook.
Martin Grams, Jr., is also the organizer of the annual Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention, which occurs this week (August 27-29) in Aberdeen, Maryland, and benefits the St. Jude Children’s Hospital. Part of Grams’s presentation on The Twilight Zone from last year’s event can be viewed here, here, and here.
July 30, 2009
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a former Angeleno, and I remain fascinated by Los Angeles locations in the movies and on television. The film essayist Thom Andersen made a whole film, Los Angeles Plays Itself, about the schism between Los Angeles, the actual city, and Los Angeles, the cultural artifact constructed by its ubiquitous appearances in visual media. Andersen prefers the real thing. I’m not sure I agree.
One idea that I took away from Andersen’s film is that iconic locations, like the Bradbury Building or the Griffith Park Observatory, take on a slightly different meaning in the movies than the spaces only a native will find familiar. The latter initiate a sort of private, privileged communication between filmmakers and a geographical subset of their audience. Depending on how a location is depicted, it can add a layer of authenticity and familiarity for those select viewers. Or it can be a trigger that leads those viewers to step outside the narrative, to confront the text as an industrial artifact and to contemplate how reality has been manipulated during its creation.
For about a year I lived around the corner from the Sportsmen’s Lodge, a small hotel and restaurant in Studio City. The Sportsmen’s Lodge is now undergoing extensive remodeling, but for nearly fifty years, it never changed. For that reason it’s easy to spot in any number of movies and TV shows, particularly those made at Universal Studios, which lies only a couple of miles east along Ventura Boulevard. (Columbo fumbled around the Sportsmen’s Lodge more than once.) In its center courtyard the Lodge has a tiny pond, spanned by a wooden bridge, and its most infamous use as a movie location may be in the micro-budgeted fifties post-nuke opus The Day the World Ended. That film used the Lodge’s little trout pond to simulate a real, outdoor body of water.
Recently I was delighted to see the Sportsmen’s Lodge featured prominently in “The Italian Bird Fiasco,” a 1976 episode of The Rockford Files. The Lodge doubles as the Delman Motel (allegedly in Santa Monica, on other side of town), which Rockford visits twice to meet his duplicitous client, played by St. Elsewhere’s William Daniels. In the frame above, James Garner is standing underneath the carport outside the western entrance to the hotel’s parking lot. The building to the right is a lobby leading, if I remember correctly, to both the lounge and the hotel. The street behind Garner is Ventura Boulevard. The structure in the background with the unusual windows is now a Ralph’s Fresh Fare; in the seventies, it was a different supermarket.
Later in the same episode, Garner visits the Winslow Art Gallery to bid on an unusual art object. The Winslow Art Gallery is also the Sportsmen’s Lodge. It’s a different entrance at the eastern end of the hotel, perpendicular to the “Delman Motel” carport. Below is a frame in which Garner stands just outside the Winslow Art Gallery (out of frame just to the right). But in the background, minus its ersatz sign, is the “entrance” to the Delman Motel.
(At a time when many Universal shows, like Emergency! and the early episodes of Kojak, were still confined largely to a backlot that was growing ever more dated and threadbare, The Rockford Files – and Columbo as well – had enough clout to seek out practical locations nearly all the time. But Universal’s prop department still had some catching up to do. In both of those series, the signage added to those locations always looked, well, like something that had just been slapped together by the prop department. Realism came fitfully to television.)
Visible on the horizon in this sequence are both the Sportsmen’s Lodge’s own tiki-styled sign and (to the right of it in the frame below) another yellow, diamond-shaped sign in the background. The latter is a revolving sentinel that towers over Twain’s, a twenty-four hour diner on the northwest corner of Ventura and Coldwater Canyon Boulevards. Twain’s is another San Fernando Valley landmark that’s been there forever and is instantly recognizable to locals (and no one else).
During my Studio City year, a co-worker described how Twain’s was a favorite hangout for her crowd when she was a Valley high schooler during the eighties. Were Wendy to catch a rerun of “The Italian Bird Fiasco,” she would probably forget about the cat-and-mouse game being played out by James Garner and William Daniels on screen. Her thoughts might turn back to her teenage memories – a reaction different from anyone else watching the same episode, and one wholly unanticipated (and possibly undesired) by the show’s creators. But I suspect Wendy would find the experience pleasurable, as I do when The Rockford Files or some other show takes me back to my old neighborhood.
I have written this partly as an exercise in nostalgia, but also to illustrate the small point that TV shows reuse and disguise their locations and even their sets in all kinds of clever ways that most of us never notice. I have a trained eye, but I’m sure I would not have observed consciously that “The Italian Bird Fiasco”’s two key locations share the same architecture had I not already been familiar with the Sportsmen’s Lodge. As spectators, our suspension of disbelief extends to spatial geography just as much as it does to storytelling. We allow movies and television to pull all manner of trickery on us, just so long as the people behind the curtain aren’t so manifestly incompetent that they force us to notice the strings holding everything up.
Here’s another example, also taken from a crime program of the seventies, of a very specific kind of visual sleight-of-hand that I often catch. In this scene from “Betrayed,” a 1973 segment of The Streets of San Francisco, Detectives Keller (Michael Douglas) and Stone (Karl Malden) study a reel of surveillance footage and detect an important clue to a bank robber’s identity.
Keller, the younger detective, operates the sixteen-millimeter projector. “Move in on that,” Stone tells him, when they come to a crucial moment in the footage.
Keller complies, both zooming in and freezing the frame on the bank robber’s wrist.
Somehow Keller has accomplished a feat that lies beyond the technical capabilities of his equipment. He has shifted the angle to a point of view different from that established for the surveillance camera moments before.
Movies do this all the time. They depict cuts, zooms, camera moves, and other visual effects in films-within-the-film that are blatantly implausible, at least to the trained eye. Lately I’ve seen a few movies (George Romero’s wily Diary of the Dead is one) that make extensive internal use of “found footage” and do adhere rigorously to the spatial limitations established for that footage within the story. But often filmmakers find it too difficult to convey a desired expository point within the limited perspective that fixed-camera footage would offer in the “real” world.
I always notice this kind of cheating, and it always gives me a chuckle. But I wonder if it registers with most spectators, or if it’s another example – like “The Italian Bird Fiasco”’s multitude of Sportsmen’s Lodges – of the generous suspension of disbelief that we grant to visual media that attempt to give us pleasure.
Another reason we might accept rather than reject this flaw is that it enlists us in a more active kind of spectatorship than television or the movies usually offer. In the scene described above, Detectives Stone and Keller assume the roles of, respectively, a director and a cinematographer/editor. Stone tells his collaborator the effect he wishes to achieve – a solution to a mystery – through the process of watching (making) a film. Keller selects the camera angle and organizes the footage in a way that will deliver that result. Unconsciously, the viewer participates in this process with them.
In any episode of The Streets of San Francisco (or The Rockford Files), the writer, the director, and their collaborators construct a story for us by making the same choices. The projector scene in “Betrayed” embeds this process (or an oversimplified version of it) within the narrative. The spectator will either play along, or else detect the shortcuts and reject them as “fake.” How do we make that choice? Is it conscious or unconscious? Is one response to this scenario superior, or more “correct,” than the other? Personally, few things annoy me more than watching or discussing a movie with someone whose refrain is “Well, that could never happen.” My own tolerance for plot holes (and consequently my indifference to “spoilers”) is quite high, because I consider plot one of the least interesting components of a film or television show. But based on which television shows have achieved popularity in recent years – Lost and 24, Grey’s Anatomy and Gossip Girl – I think many spectators may hold the opposite point of view. They prize narrative complexity to the exclusion of any other kind of complexity.
Hypothetically, let’s say that the director of “Betrayed,” William Hale, had opted for accuracy at the possible expense of clarity. In that case, the scene might have played out with Keller and Stone stopping the film and then squinting and puzzling over the blurry image. Perhaps they would have disagreed over the meaning of the clue. Perhaps their ambivalence would have carried over into another scene; instead of knowing already that their suspect (played by Martin Sheen) was the culprit, they would have had to interrogate him, bluff him, to elicit a confession. Perhaps Sheen’s character would have slipped from their grasp for lack of evidence. Perhaps Keller and Stone would never have known whether he was guilty or not. Perhaps the viewer would have been left with less confidence in the effectiveness of the police, less certainty about the likelihood of closure in general.
Each of those possibilities is less likely than the previous one, at least for a mainstream television show from the seventies. That single subliminal, impossible edit may seem like a continuity error. Instead it’s a shrewd elision that tidies the narrative of “Betrayed” in a meaningful way. Did some viewers, even in 1973, congratulate themselves for catching a mistake that the filmmakers missed? Of course. But the filmmakers had the last word. They understood that sometimes a “mistake” is more satisfying than an uncertainty.
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.
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.