LSD

April 29, 2012

On last week’s Mad Men, “Far Away Places,”  Roger Sterling (John Slattery) and his trophy wife Jane dropped acid.  Roger’s trip involved a magazine model with a weird hairdo who turned out to be Ted Baxter – well, not the Mary Tyler Moore Show news anchor, but the actor who played him, Ted Knight, who evidently supported himself with modeling gigs during his lean years as a bit player on Combat and The Outer Limits.

Matt Zoller Seitz, my go-to guy for Mad Men parsing, called the acid trip sequence “the least judgmental, most period-innocent depiction of the cosmic insight that people took LSD to experience in the mid-sixties.”  This season of Mad Men is set in 1966, a moment when experimenting with LSD really did enter the mainstream.  I’ll bet many Mad Men watchers were surprised by the idea that there were a few years – after LSD emerged from the counterculture of Ken Kesey and Owsley Stanley, before it was criminalized in 1968 and Richard Nixon called Timothy Leary “the most dangerous man in America” – when hard-drinking, out-of-touch middle-aged guys like Roger might have taken a dose.  Even Cary Grant dropped acid around this time.

What may surprise TV fans even more is that Roger Sterling isn’t the first TV character in a suit to enjoy a beneficial acid trip.  In fact, even in “TV time,” Kenneth Preston (Robert Reed) beat him to it by more than a year, in an amazing 1965 episode of The Defenders called “Fires of the Mind.”

In that show (and for the record, I’m self-plagiarizing this description from a post I wrote two years ago), Donald Pleasence plays a Timothy Leary-like LSD advocate who is tried for murder after one of his patients commits suicide. What is remarkable about this show is its unwillingness to take as a given the idea that psychotropic drugs are harmful. The father-and-son attorneys fall on either side of a generational split on LSD, with Lawrence Preston (E.G. Marshall) so disgusted that he drops out of the case and his son Kenneth (Robert Reed) curious enough to take an acid trip. Ken is permitted to enthuse about his expanded consciousness without rebuke, and on the witness stand the LSD doctor demonstrates some of the positive effects that drugs have had on his perception and memory.

“Fires of the Mind” was one of the last works by Arnold Manoff, the blacklisted writer who enjoyed a too-short revival of his career, under the pseudonym “Joel Carpenter,” in the early sixties.  Manoff’s episodes of Route 66 and Naked City are quirky, off-beat comedies.  But for his single Defenders, Manoff contributed a straightforward, frank script, clear-eyed and questioning in a manner typical of the taboo-busting legal drama.  It feels like the work of someone who needed to stick up either for the experience of LSD or, at least, for its proponents who were being demonized in the press.

For the most part, early television was monolithically anti-drug, rarely mentioning illicit substances and then only in the most hysterical, unhip terms.  “Fires of the Mind” aired for the first time on February 18, 1965.  Manoff, who had a weak heart, had died eight days earlier.  Roger Sterling took his acid trip in September 1966.  Four months later, on January 12, 1967, Benjy “Blue Boy” Carver died of an acid overdose in the now-famous, latter-day camp classic Dragnet episode “The LSD Story,” effectively ending the conversation – on television, at least – about the possible benefits of lysergic acid diethylamide. 

Robert Reed on acid!

The Summer Man

June 14, 2011

The fourth season of Mad Men was the series’ finest thus far.  The narrative strands that took the show into areas of tonal inconsistency – Peggy’s surprise pregnancy; Don’s Carnivale-worthy childhood flashbacks – have been erased or smoothed over.  Mad Men now has a roster of rich, fully-developed characters upon which the writers and actors can riff with confidence and take in a thousand different directions.  Of the television series I’ve seen, only a tiny handful have lasted long enough and stayed good enough to enter this zone: The Dick Van Dyke Show, Peyton Place, maybe St. Elsewhere, middle-period ER, The Sopranos, maybe The Shield, the American The Office, The Wire.  Perhaps I’m just rationalizing personal taste, but Mad Men further commits me to the theory that for television the serial drama is the apotheosis of the art form.

I could go on like that.  But in keeping with the theme of this blog, I’m just going to focus on some (but by no means all) of Mad Men’s connections to actual sixties television.  As we saw in Season 2, Harry Crane’s (Rich Sommer) promotion to head of the (one-man) television department meant that the fictional admen of Sterling Cooper would interact with the real-life TV biz of the mid-sixties.  Though it offered nothing as elaborate as a whole episode wrapped around The Defenders, Season 4 was peppered with vintage TV references.

  • In the season opener, “Public Relations,” Harry sells a jai alai special to ABC, which he says is now interested in telecasting unusual sporting events.  He doesn’t mention the name, but it’s clearly a reference to the network’s Wide World of Sports, which had become popular by doing exactly that during the early sixties.  Incidentally, that jai alai fad that Mad Men has chortled over several times was no joke.  I’d never heard of the sport until I came across a 1963 Route 66 episode (“Peace, Pity, Pardon”) about a Cuban jai alai team.
  • In “The Good News,” Harry hears that Don will have a twenty-four hour layover in Los Angeles and asks him to have lunch with “Bill Asher at the Brown Derby.”  Asher created Bewitched and therefore a lot of Mad Men bloggers caught this one, because that show’s Darrin Stephens was a Madison Avenue ad man (something I’d forgotten, I confess).  But when Harry grumbled that Asher would probably cast Don in something, I thought maybe it was a jab at Don’s looks and that he might have been thinking of the beach party movies that Asher was directing for AIP in 1964-1965.  I would have said that Bewitched in-jokes were too cheap for Mad Men, until I got to the episode (“Hands and Knees”) in which Roger Sterling (John Slattery) was thumbing desperately through his rolodex and calling former clients.  He reaches someone named Louise, who tells him that her husband Larry has passed away.  I surrender: Larry Tate was Darrin’s boss on Bewitched, and his wife was named Louise.
  • In “The Summer Man,” Harry (sitting next to his autographed photo of Buddy Ebsen in full Beverly Hillbillies attire; hyuk!) tries to talk freelancer Joey Baird (Matt Long) into auditioning for Peyton Place.  He says that one of “Ryan’s” (Ryan O’Neal) “rivals” has been giving an embarrassing performance, and that there could be an opening.  “Can’t tell you who,” insufferable star-fucker Harry says, so we can only speculate on which actor Joey might have replaced.  I doubt very much that Matthew Weiner et. al. went to the trouble of quizzing surviving cast and crew but, in fact, there were several disappointing second leads on Peyton Place around that time who might have been written out of the show sooner than planned.  Richard Evans, who played Paul Hanley (Allison’s unintentionally creepy college-age suitor), and Don Quine, who played Gus Chernak (a hoodlum who died after Rodney, O’Neal’s character, beat him up), come to mind.  That’s only the most prominent of several Peyton Place references in Season 4, which takes place right at the height of Peyton’s huge popularity.
  • Incidentally, Harry reveals that he sent Joey’s Polaroid from the office Christmas party (depicted in “Christmas Comes But Once a Year”) to Bernie Kowalski in Hollywood.  Bernard L. Kowalski was a real person – he collaborated with Sam Peckinpah at Four Star and directed the Mission: Impossible pilot around the time of this season’s events – but as far as I know he had nothing to do with Peyton Place.  Just me, but I don’t think Joey would’ve been so hot as Mr. Briggs.
  • In “The Beautiful Girls,” Joan (Christina Hendricks) watches The Patty Duke Show; and in “Chinese Wall,” Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) watches Hazel.  I wouldn’t necessarily have predicted that either character would be a fan of those particular series.  But, hey, in 1965, there weren’t a whole lot of choices when you turned on the TV.

 

 

Odds and Ends

September 2, 2010

Last month television history gained, and lost, another of its few centenarians.  Werner Michel, an executive at CBS and Du Mont during the networks’ earliest days, died on August 27, a few weeks after his 100th birthday.  Michel was involved with the creation of Captain Video at DuMont, and Studio One and The Edge of Night at CBS.  I’ve come across a few interviews with Michel – he’s quoted in Jeff Kisseloff’s indispensible book The Box, and here – and they all focus on the pioneer days.  But Michel had a long career as an executive, first at the ad agencies that dominated television through the fifties, and later at ABC and MGM.

Another breaking obit: Vance Bourjaily died on August 31 at 87.  Bourjaily was one of those promising post-war novelists who, rather like Norman Katkov, acquired a certain cult following but never achieved mainstream recognition.  The obits will focus on his novels and his long stint as an instructor at the legendary Iowa Writers Workshop.  They may omit Bourjaily’s brief run in the mid-fifties as a live television dramatist.  (Update: Called it.  No TV mention in the New York Times.)  In and out in four yeats: Bourjaily seems to have debuted on Philco Television Playhouse in 1955, then crafted a number of docudramas for Armstrong Circle Theatre between 1956 and 1959.  In between he adapted a Henry Kane story as one of the last Kraft Theatres and an A.J. Cronin novel for the DuPont Show of the Month

The latter show, directed by Sidney Lumet, would have been Bourjaily’s one big credit.  The closest analogy is probably to Gore Vidal, who had published a number of well-reviewed novels before turning to television as a more lucrative venue.  Like Vidal, Bourjaily got out of television fast once the live anthologies collapsed in the late fifties.  I don’t know why Bourjaily chose to make his exit when he did, but in 1959 he published a piece in Harper’s called “The Lost Art of Writing For Television.”  If that was a promise, it was kept.

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I mentioned a couple of posts back that while the rest of the world is watching Season 4 of Mad Men, I’m still on Season 3.  Mad Men has a coy way of dating each episode by planting topical references in the background, in newspaper headlines or radio broadcasts or conversational asides.  That’s unusually important because Mad Men sometimes skips days or weeks in between episodes, and doesn’t call attention to those ellipses in any obvious way.

I’m sure Matthew Weiner and company fully expect the show’s die-hard fans to Google those clues, and indeed they do.  One radio snippet in the episode “Wee Small Hours” mentions the Upper East Side murder of two young women, with no other details, but it has been correctly identified by various Mad Men bloggers and fansites.  The reference is to the Wylie-Hoffert murders that occurred on August 28, 1963, the same day on which Martin Luther King. Jr., delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. 

The Wylie-Hoffert murders keep coming up in my research.  They reverberate through the history of television in at least three ways: (1) One of the victims, Janice Wylie, was the daughter of Max Wylie, a minor radio writer and TV story editor (for CBS and then Omnibus) who developed The Flying Nun for television.  Wylie also wrote a good book about the craft of television writing, called Writing For Television (Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1970), and shot himself in 1975 following the deaths of his wife and another daughter.  (2) The television movie The Marcus Nelson Murders, which served as the pilot for Kojak, was based on the Wylie-Hoffert case.  (3) Ellen M. Violett, a talented live television writer, based part of her only novel, Double Take (New York: Doubleday, 1977), on the case.  The book is also a sort of Network-like peek at the venality of TV production, with some characters based on actual people of Violett’s acquaintance.  I wonder if any of those connections triggered the Mad Men reference. 

I have a long piece ready to go – I mean, long – but I don’t want to bury it two days before a holiday weekend.  In the meantime, if anyone is out there and looking for something to read, you should head over to the TV Obscurities blog and rummage through the archives.  The author, who chooses to remain anonymous, has been reporting on things like vintage TV ratings, old TV promo spots, which rare shows are in what archives, and other classic-TV ephemera since 2008.  The enigmatic “RGJ” also reports on the inevitable DVD news and obituaries, and when he (or she?) runs the occasional longer piece on a show like Coronet Blue or My World and Welcome to It, it’s always impeccably well-researched and footnoted. 

That reminds me that one thing I’ve been meaning to do for a long time is to create a blogroll.  It’s the custom for blog writers, but when I launched this space I was resistant to rounding up the popular movie critics’ blogs and forums.  I read them regularly, and many of you probably do too, but they didn’t seem to connect with what I’m trying to do here.  And when I went looking for other good sites that focused mainly on early television, or just offered some really good writing about television of any era, the cupboard was a little bare.  I’m glad that I have more company now than I did three years ago.  And if you know of other TV critics and historians I should be reading, let me know about it in the comments.

I. Mad Men is back on and I’m still a half-season behind, as usual.  But the critic Vadim Rizov has a good piece here called “The Antonionian Ennui of Mad Men,” which begins:

In 1962, Don Draper went to see La Notte and loved it. He’s up on his cinema, and that’s no surprise.  When someone asked if he’d seen The Bridge on the River Kwai, he responded, “I’ve seen everything, and I have the ticket stubs to prove it.”  Not that Don could assimilate Antonioni into advertising that quickly.  He’s much more likely to use Bye Bye Birdie as a starting point for his work; foreign innovations are, for now (the show’s up to 1964), just that.

I love that line about the ticket stubs, and I’ve always thought Don’s cinephilia was an important key to his character.  (Back in the second season, around the time of the Defenders episode, there was a scene in which Don slipped into a movie theater to catch an arty foreign film.)  It’s a signifier of Don’s secret discomfort with the status quo, and one that we media geeks in the Mad Men audience are likely to find especially resonant.

Rizov goes on to discuss how both Mad Men and the sixties advertising world it depicts intersect with the European New Wave films that Don Draper enjoys.  That caught my attention because it comes close to one of my pet obsessions: tracking the influence of foreign films, and the New Wave in particular, on the American television shows of the fifties and sixties.

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II. I Love Lucy: “Lucy’s Italian Movie” (4/16/56)

The phyical comedy in the famous grape-stomping episode has been so often cited that one sometimes forgets that the episode spoofs the exotic films washing ashore from Europe.  Lucy is set to star in Bitter Grapes, a reference to Bitter Rice (U.S. release date: September 18, 1950), and the wine vat melee can be said to parody, in the vaguest way possible, a similar brawl in the Giuseppe De Santis film.  It is one of the first of many comedies (not to mention commercials) to use foreign films, or certain cliches about them, as the punchline to a joke.

III. The Dick Van Dyke Show: “4½” (November 4, 1964)
IV. F Troop: “La Dolce Courage” (November 24, 1966)

Neither of these episodes has anything to do with Fellini (, U.S. release date: June 25, 1963; La Dolce Vita, U.S. release date: April 19, 1961).  In the sixties, situation comedies rarely broadcast the titles of episodes, so the titles became, if anything, a sort of conversation between writers and story editors.  “I don’t know why we bothered,” Irma Kalish, the co-writer of “La Dolce Courage,” told me.  “I mean, they got put into TV Guide, but you don’t see them on the screen.”

But were there cases in which television writers engaged with sixties art films at a level beyond the industry in-joke?

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V. Naked City: “Kill Me While I’m Young So I Can Die Happy!” (October 17, 1962)

Abram S. Ginnes’s tale of a bitter, dying middle-aged woman (Maureen Stapleton) was a distaff reworking of Kurosawa’s Ikiru (U.S. release date: March 25, 1956), filtered through Ginnes’s own obsessive Freudian preoccupations.

“I tried to buy it,” Ginnes said of the original film, which he first thought of adapting as a musical.  “I called Japan and I got Akira Kurosawa’s son, who spoke some English, and I offered to buy the story.  He got back to me and he said his father didn’t want to sell it.  I was so taken with it, I did it anyway.”

VI. The F.B.I.: “Ordeal” (November 6, 1966)

In this episode written by Robert Bloomfield, a group of criminals, plus an undercover federal agent, drive a truck loaded with nitroglycerine over a treacherous mountain path.

“Yeah, that was a rip-off of The Wages of Fear [U.S. release date: February 16, 1956],” agreed the director of the episode, Ralph Senensky.

VII. Lucan (May 22, 1977)

The pilot for a short-lived series, Lucan told the story of a young man who was raised by wolves and now seeks to acclimate himself to human company.  The writer, Michael Zagor, was inspired by Francois Truffaut’s The Wild Child (U.S. release date: September 11, 1970).

NBC executive Freddy Silverman “read the script and said he liked it a lot, but he said he thought that Lucan should be looking for his father,” said Zagor.  “I said, I can’t do that.  It [violates] the purity of the script.  I want to talk about the problems that he had in the world, and I want to do Francois Truffaut, and so on.”  Eventually Zagor added the father angle.

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VIII. Route 66, “A Gift For a Warrior” (January 18, 1963)

Lars Passgård, the young man in Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly (U.S. release date: March 13, 1962), makes his only American film or television appearance as a German teenager in search of his American father (James Whitmore).

Passgård was not a star, even in Sweden, so it’s reasonable to surmise that someone on Route 66 (producer, director, casting director) made a special effort to hire him because he or she remembered the Bergman film.

IX. Channing, “The Face in the Sun” (February 19, 1964)

Leela Naidu, the star of James Ivory’s The Householder (U.S. release date: October 21, 1963), makes her only American television appearance as an exotic love interest for the protagonist of this series, college professor Joseph Howe (Jason Evers).

Naidu’s situation was similar: a relative unknown, she likely was imported on the strength of the Ivory film.  (The producer of Channing, Jack Laird, was a movie buff and a collector of film prints.)

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X. The Defenders: “The Seven Ghosts of Simon Gray” (October 6, 1962)

This flashback-laden episode of The Defenders hit a post-production snag when the producer, Bob Markell, was denied funds for the requisite number of ripple dissolves.  In the manner of Hiroshima Mon Amour (U.S. release date: May 16, 1960), Markell put the show together using direct cuts between past and present.  “I was amazed that it worked so well,” he said of a technique that was not common on American television at the time.

Markell was a cinema fan who recalled attending the New York premiere of Tom Jones (U.S. release date: October 6, 1963) with two other Defenders staff members.  When I asked, he agreed that Tony Richardson’s film and others may have influenced the increasingly non-linear editing of The Defenders in its later seasons.

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XI. “Are You Ready For Cops and Robbers à la Alain Resnais?” by Rex Reed, New York Times, July 23, 1967.

In July of 1967 it seemed like a good idea to both Daniel Melnick, executive producer of the police drama N.Y.P.D., and to the obliging Reed to sell the new series in terms of the European art house cinema.  Melnick believed that TV viewers “have all seen Antonioni and Fellini and Resnais movies.  They’re not dumb.  They don’t need old-fashioned dissolves to tell them that time has passed.  They’re ahead of us.”

Reed wrote that N.Y.P.D. filmed using “hand-held cameras, à la Godard or Agnes Varda.”  Melnick pointed out that the show’s cinematographer, George Silano, had some TV ads on his resume, “just like Richard Lester came out of commercials in Europe.”  Silano was shooting on sixteen-millimeter, under the supervision of directors imported from “the National Film Board of Canada and British TV.”  The series would be narrated using “fragmented thoughts, stream-of-consciousness.”  Melnick “got the idea from Hiroshima, Mon Amour and La Guerre est Finie.”

The producer of N.Y.P.D., unmentioned in Reed’s article, was Bob Markell.

XII. Most of Melnick’s claims were puffery, or were never implemented.  George Silano left the series after a few episodes, and N.Y.P.D. imported exactly one director each from Canada (John Howe) and Great Britain (John Moxey).  Markell remembered the camera operator, Harvey Genkins (who eventually replaced Silano as director of photography), as the person who did the most to establish the look of the series; and Alex March and David Pressman, both veterans of live television drama, as the most important directors.  The voiceover narration that gave Rex Reed his headline was dropped early in the first season; the actors, among others, considered it awkward.

XIII. So was there a European influence on N.Y.P.D.?  Yes and no.  “Everybody on that show was a cinema fan,” Markell told me.  “It was an erudite group.  We were all interested in Bergman and the Italian directors.  Danny was not incorrect, but we didn’t overtly go out and copy them.  We may well have been influenced by them subconsciously.”

But N.Y.P.D.’s formal decisions were determined first and foremost by the low budget and the compressed (three to three-and-a-half days per episode) shooting schedule.  The sixteen-millimeter film stock and handheld cameras were “a purely economic decision,” Markell said.  Only later, he explained, did the crew come to appreciate the aesthetic opportunities they offered.  Of course, many of the formal innovations for which Truffaut and Godard received credit were also motivated by limited resources.  The crew of N.Y.P.D. was not imitating them so much as making the same discoveries out of the same necessity.

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XIV. The N.Y.P.D. article came to my attention via Lynn Spigel’s TV by Design: Modern Art and the Rise of Network Television (University of Chicago Press, 2009).  Spigel cites the piece in the context of an argument that New Wave aesthetics entered television first through advertising.  She writes that “[t]elevision commercials of the 1960s were often extremely condensed versions of the techniques and ideas that advertisers gleaned (or in fact invented) through their associations with film culture, especially European new-wave cinema and independent, experimental, and structural films of the 1960s.”

XV. Which brings us back to Don Draper.  Perhaps Don could, if Mad Men lasts another couple of seasons, forge a new career as the executive producer of an arty TV cop show.

XVI. None of the above is meant as a substitute for a rigorous textual analysis.  It’s simply a set of clues arrayed to establish the idea that, yes, the makers of popular television programs during the sixties were paying attention to new ideas from foreign shores.

All quotations are taken from my own interviews unless otherwise noted.

The New Classics

December 30, 2009

Even though the decade doesn’t really end for another year (don’t get me started on the subject of the Year Zero), everyone is playing favorites this month, and I can’t resist joining in.  Typically, I’ve come across plenty of discussion about the best movies of the “aughts,” but not a whole lot about the highlights on the small screen during the same years.

I haven’t written much about “new” TV in this space, mainly because the launch of this blog two years ago coincided with a notable dip in the quality of both network and cable offerings.  But I’ve always insisted on defining “classic” as good rather than just old.  Here, then, are some remarks about the shows that I think stand as the finest of the past ten years.  (Yes, they’re in order of preference.)

1. Veronica Mars (UPN/CW, 2004-2007).  A howl of class resentment masquerading as teen angst, this po-mo Nancy Drew update mined revenge-fantasy gold with its sly premise: Veronica, a middle-class townie among decadent rich kids in a seaside SoCal town, uses the private eye skills she learned from her ex-police chief father (the wonderful Enrico Colantoni) to claw her way up the socioeconomic ladder.  Who wouldn’t want to relive their high school years armed with a Nexis password and a skeleton key to the principal’s office?  Newly-minted star Kristen Bell nailed the title role, cultivating a smart, sullen reserve that explained how Veronica could be beautiful (and capable of belting out a rockin’ karaoke cover of “One Way or Another”) and still a perpetual outsider.  Rob Thomas’s neon-lit neo-noir never took the easy way out, always treading instead into darker places than you thought a UPN show could go: Veronica spent the first season tracking down the rapist who took her virginity.  At the heart of the show was a touching filial bond – daughter and father against the world – but even there trust was not sacrosanct.  When Veronica swiped a clue from his private office safe, Dad said nothing . . . but changed the combo.

2. The Wire (HBO, 2002-2008).  If its teenaged target demographic could overlook the Marxist underpinnings of Veronica Mars, there was no ignoring the class concerns of David Simon’s masterpiece, an epic survey of Baltimore’s haves and have-nots, from wretched crack addicts all the way up to scumbag politicians.  Jaw-droppingly ambitious and intelligent, The Wire earned a rep for complex plotting (“it’s more like a novel than TV,” was the backhanded critical refrain).  But the characters were the reason to watch; they were perhaps the richest and most unpredictable in the history of television, and often the writers seemed to make choices simply to find out what one of their creations would do in a particular circumstance (Prez … as a teacher?).  The inattentive recoiled from The Wire’s final season when the putative protagonist, homicide detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), finally stepped outside the hypocritical professional code that had triggered his self-destructive rampages in the past.  Never mind that the groundwork for this act had been laid carefully for years: there are things that TV heroes just don’t do, and The Wire violated that covenant.  In granting Jimmy some measure of peace at the finale, the series reaffirmed the most essential and sagacious of its basic tenets: that our systems may be unsalvageable but that the people within them always merit respect.  Season Five also served up the best of the show’s trademark civic-arena subplots.  Simon staged a heart-rending tribute to the beat reporting from whence he came with his canonization of an old-school, anti-corporate newsroom editor (an astonishing Clark Johnson, also a key director on the show).  Dare I point out that East Side/West Side, forty years earlier, also closed by invoking the death of independent journalism as a self-referential metaphor?

3. The Sopranos (HBO, 1999-2007).  If people were generally redeemable in Simon’s vision, the other David – David Chase – saw humanity as corrupt to the core; HBO in the aughts boiled down a Manichean debate between the conditional optimism of The Wire and the misanthropy of The Sopranos.  Indeed, The Sopranos’ central conceit that the mafia are just like us extended, over time, into a premise that every person is trapped in a prison of his or her own making – that we all repeat the same patterns of destructive behavior over and over again in an unbreakable cycle.  Consider Carmela’s endless but always deluded personal re-inventions, Janice’s interchangeable scumbag boyfriends, and of course the gradual decimation of everyone in Tony’s inner circle: viewers who played the game of guessing who would get whacked next missed the forest of existential despair for the trees.  Delighting in the visual contrast between mob violence and the bland New Jersey suburbs, Chase foregrounded his mockery of tracksuits and Starbucks until The Sopranos verged on full-out farce; by the end it had more in common with Seinfeld, the original Show About Nothing, than with The Godfather.

4. The Office (NBC, 2005- ).  Because the original British series was note-perfect, this adaptation seemed doomed, until (during the second season) showrunner Greg Daniels found ways to rebuild its structure to fit the American TV custom of more episodes and open-ended network runs.  One strategy was to shift the focus somewhat from megalomaniac manager Michael Scott (Steve Carell) to a uniformly hilarious supporting cast of office oddballs, most of them played by non- or semi-professional actors.  Another was the use of melodrama – long-running, off-and-on story arcs like Dwight and Angela’s bizarre romance, or Michael’s feud with Toby – as the structural foundation for the gags.  Over time, these complicated subplots began to mimic real life, so that The Office’s jokes became interchangeable with the you-had-to-be-there insider humor of our own workplaces.  Best of all, Daniels and company – and it is a company, of performers and writers who, judging from the leftover scenes on the DVDs, improvise far more than is customary in the sitcom form – enjoy challenging their audience’s complacency.  Jim, the sardonic slacker who provides our easiest point of identification, begins to come off as smug and entitled when he gets the girl or works for a normal boss.  Meanwhile, Michael’s dim-witted worldview seems a bit less infuriating after he meets an adorable soulmate (Amy Ryan, doing a comic version of her character from The Wire).  If there’s a message here, it may be that work makes us all kind of insufferable.

5. Arrested Development (FOX, 2003-2006).  So corrosive in its sensibilities that it was destined to become a cult item, Mitchell Hurwitz’s dazzling satire attacked the American dream with a buzzsaw.  (Literally – much of the action took place in a house that was sliding into oblivion.)  The Bluths were a family of crooked Orange County land developers who were not just decadent and kooky, but utterly narcissistic and vile.  Incest – between the semi-retarded Buster and his perpetually soused mother; between the two tweener cousins; between the “normal” brother Michael and his maybe-sister (played by Jason Bateman and his actual sister, Justine) – was a frequent narrative possibility, and also the key metaphor in the show’s attitude toward the sanctity of family.  Arrested Development skirted so close to ugliness that I was poised to tune out until the most extreme characters, like the semi-retarded Buster (Tony Hale) and the sexually confused Tobias (David Cross), gradually worked their way around to being funny instead of just creepy.  What removed this show from Married With Children territory was its capacity for intricate verbal and physical farce.  As the seasons mounted (only up to three, alas), flocks of throwaway gags – like the one where teenaged Maeby stumbled into a successful career as a Miramax development exec – recurred and extended to the point that Arrested loyalists were rewarded with a laugh on every line or background action.  By the time Buster, the luckless Oedipal casualty with a dominant mother named Lucille, was maimed by an animal that escaped from his magician brother’s act – you got it, a loose seal – it seemed as if the English language itself might have evolved just to suit the show’s needs.

6. The West Wing (NBC, 1999-2006).  Aaron Sorkin’s presidential drama was so much a product of the Clinton era that I’ll bet many viewers have forgotten it was, save for the first few months, a show of the aughts rather than the nineties.  With its fantasy of a Wilsonian academic as president and a court of White House insiders who were philosophers as much as pragmatists, The West Wing was a tonic that helped many of us endure the Bush debacle – even though Sorkin was more likely to turn a New Yorker article into a C-storyline than to tackle any fiery lefty talking points head-on.  Sorkin’s exit just past the midpoint cost the show its brilliant Gilbert-and-Sullivan walk-and-talks, but the maligned “John Wells years” made some acceptable substitutions.  Wells’s core of new writers found flaws in the characters Sorkin had deified, and took a chance on a Robert Drew-derived pseudo-documentary civics lesson during its final Jimmy Smits vs. Alan Alda election storyline.  This was the last, and nearly the best, in the now extinct tradition of the eighties-vintage, character-driven large-ensemble drama.

7. The O.C. (FOX, 2003-2007).  The initial premise was thin, but irresistable: a prince-and-the-pauper variant by which a semi-orphaned delinquent (Ben McKenzie) befriends the son (Adam Brody) of the rich Orange County couple who adopt him.  The two teens engage in a form of mutual gate-crashing: the poor kid, Ryan, gains access to a world of privilege and opportunity, while geeky Seth trades on Ryan’s bad-boy cool factor to become popular.  Add some autobiographical sincerity from creator Josh Schwartz; a raft of snarky, self-referential improvisations by breakout stars Brody and Rachel Bilson; and just the right amount of a grounded truth in Peter Gallagher’s lovely performance as Seth’s mensch of a dad – and you have the feel-good show of the decade, a perfect dream of the way your teen years should have been but weren’t.

8. The Shield (FX, 2002-2008).  Was Vic Mackey, the epically crooked cop at the heart of The Shield, a subhuman monster or a vigilante saint?  I had no doubts about my own opinion of him, and at first I thought creator Shawn Ryan was taking the easy way out by playing the Archie Bunker card – that is, making Mackey (a ferocious Michael Chiklis) charismatic enough to serve as a rallying point for conservative viewers and leaving the rest of us to root for the massing horde of vengeful gangsters, politicians, and internal affairs cops to take him down.  But Vic Mackey turned out to contain multitudes: the ever more torturous and rickety amalgam of rationalizations that enabled Mackey to see himself as a defender of family and innocence rather than a murderer and a thief made him a compellingly ambivalent and complex anti-hero.  As Vic’s poison cascaded downward, everyone in his path (wife, kids, partners, bosses) struck similar bargains with themselves in order to keep the Mackey Problem at arm’s length; some of them, namely the brilliant but troubled serial-killer specialist Dutch (Jay Karnes) and his morally irreproachable partner Claudette (CCH Pounder), spun off into equally fascinating mini-stories of their own.  The Shield sustained an adrenaline-fueled pace that few shows could match, and constructed a vast, grungy world of L.A. lowlifes (on both sides of the law) that made it the best James Ellroy adaptation that’s not actually a James Ellroy adaptation.

9. Boston Public (FOX, 2000-2004).  Running on fumes after the intoxicating nineties (Picket Fences, Chicago Hope, The Practice, Ally McBeal), the written-out David E. Kelley delivered one more of his quirky, sensitive, beautifully observed character dramas for the new millenium.  As unconcerned with teen life as a show set in a high school can be, Boston Public (like Mr. Novak forty years earlier) scrutinized the diverse mix of personalities who made up the mostly dedicated teaching staff of an inner-city campus.  Kelley’s respect for this impossible profession was consistently moving, as were many of the individual performances (especially that of Nicky Katt, as a teacher whose passionate involvement with his students’ problems was complicated by perpetually poor decision-making skills).  As often happened in Kelley’s best work, a prickly but soulful loner came to occupy the show’s emotional center; in this case, it was vice principal Scott Guber (Anthony Heald), a much-loathed martinet with an unnoticed compassion for his students and an unrequited crush on a young teacher (Jessalyn Gilsig).  Guber’s unlikely friendship with the world-weary principal, Steven Harper (Chi McBride), set the stage for the decade’s most poetic two-handed acting to come from a pair of relatively unknown character players.

10. C.S.I. (CBS, 2000- ).  A victim of its own success, C.S.I. dropped off the critical radar after it tainted its brand with a pair of wretched spin-offs.  But the original version maintained its status as the most satisfying mainstream genre show on the air for most of the decade, thanks less to the clever forensic mysteries and the tiresome “bullet-cam” stylistic tics than to the well-rounded cast.  The whole ensemble understood that underplaying was the only way to build characters amid the torrent of technobabble, and star William Petersen maintained a poker face that kept science guru Gil Grissom an enigma all the way up to his 2009 exit.  The handful of episodes written by Jerry Stahl (which introduced the world to “furries” and “adult babies”) revel in their gleeful perversity and sexual frankness, and collectively they represent a kind of morbid humor that remains rare on television.  You can only get away with that when you’re number one.

*

Although I have a pet peeve about top ten lists that morph into “top seventeen” lists, I will comment on a few shows that merit some sort of honorable mention.  I wish I had found room for Jenji Kohan’s Weeds (Showtime, 2005- ).  Its writing is uneven and sometimes lazy, but also hilariously, unapologetically profane (“cockamole on her faceadilla” gave me my loudest laugh of the decade) and perfectly attuned to the weird personas of Mary-Louise Parker and Kevin Nealon.  Nip/Tuck (FX, 2003-2010) has insight, fine performers (especially Julian McMahon and Boston Public castoff Jessalyn Gilsig) and, crucially, some of the most vibrant and empowered women characters on television.  But the consistent streak of cruelty in Ryan Murphy’s world finally turned me away.  Six Feet Under (HBO, 2001-2005) and Alias (ABC, 2001-2006) could have made the list, had either of those very different shows carried the depth and urgency of their first two seasons forward into their last three.  30 Rock (NBC, 2006- ) has overcome most of my initial resistance, and hit some kind of zany peak in its third year.  Fastlane (FOX, 2002-2003) gets the “guilty pleasure” vote: this forgotten one-season cop show catalogued the mindless pleasures of empty banter, expensive man-toys, sexy ladies, and explosions with an infectious glee and a surplus of style.

And while I love Mad Men (AMC, 2007- ), something (maybe just the fact that I haven’t seen the most recent season) kept pushing it out of my top ten.  Like its hero, Don Draper, the show has a way of holding back just when it should burst forward.  Will Mad Men’s undeniable excellence last long enough to earn it a spot in the next decade’s list?  Somehow, I doubt it – but then, I’m not sure if I’m going to last that long, either.

Benefactors

August 15, 2008

I wasn’t planning to tackle the new season of AMC’s Mad Men, the retro-sixties pastiche that was the only really good new show to debut last year, until all the episodes had been broadcast.  But my correspondents have been abuzz with word that this week’s segment named-checked the finest television drama of the actual sixties, Reginald Rose’s The Defenders, in a major way.  I had to take a peek.

Last season Mad Men referenced The Twilight Zone, in a scene where aspiring writer Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis) cites Rod Serling as an inspiration.  It was a terrific way to humanize a character (because, don’t we all dig Rod Serling?) whose pipe-smoking pomposity was off-putting, even before he scuttled his rapport with the new secretary by making a clumsy pass at her.  So it’s not surprising that, as Mad Men jumps ahead eighteen months (from 1960 to 1962) to continue its narrative, its creator, Matthew Weiner, and his writing staff would choose to acknowledge The Defenders as a way of updating the show’s cultural touchstones.

The Mad Men storyline wraps an entire subplot around The DefendersMad Men‘s Sterling Cooper Agency becomes involved in the search for a replacement sponsor for the Defenders episode of April 28, 1962, which was so inflammatory that the show’s regular sponsors withdrew their advertisements.  Hotshot ad exec Don Draper (Jon Hamm) pitches the Defenders opportunity to one of the agency’s clients, a lipstick company called Belle Jolie, on the grounds that they can buy ad time for “pennies on the dollar.”  Plus, the episode is about abortion, a topic of interest to Belle Jolie’s target audience of young women.  But the client declines, arguing that the show is “not wholesome.”

The title of the Defenders episode in question, “The Benefactor,” is the same as the title of the Mad Men episode.  Mad Men excerpts two clips from the original “The Benefactor.”  In the first, the district attorney (Kermit Murdock, a wonderful, rotund character actor with a trademark droopy lip) cross-examines the young woman (Collin Wilcox) who was on the operating table at the time her doctor was arrested.  The second scene depicts a confrontation between a teenager (soap star Kathleen Widdoes) and her father (Will Hare), who’s so ashamed by the news that his daughter has had an abortion that he slaps her.  Lawrence Preston (E. G. Marshall), the attorney at the center of the series, scolds the man for his lack of compassion.

Kathleen Widdoes, E. G. Marshall, and Will Hare

“The Benefactor,” which was written by future Academy Award winner Peter Stone, employed a self-consciously didactic strategy toward the abortion issue.  In the narrative, the doctor arrested for performing the operations (which were, of course, illegal until the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade verdict in 1973) encourages his attorney, Lawrence Preston, to put the law on trial.  Preston expresses doubts about using the courts as a “public forum,” as this defense stategy will increase his client’s chances of being convicted (which is in fact what happens).  “The Benefactor” turns its courtroom scenes into a referendum on a hotbed issue, using the testimony of the witnesses in the fictitious case as a means of presenting real statistics and ethical arguments to the audience.  Both sides are heard, but “The Benefactor” clearly advocates for the legalization of abortion.  The argument that a fetus is “not a human being” is articulated passionately, and twice the point is made that if the law is to restrict abortions, it must provide humane alternatives.  (More humane, the script suggests, than foster care and homes for unwed mothers.)

“The Benefactor” received a great deal of press attention in the spring of 1962 when, as related on Mad Men, the three rotating sponsors of The Defenders – Lever Brothers, Kimberly Clark, and Brown & Williamson Tobacco – declined to have anything to do with the episode.  In January of that year, CBS president Frank Stanton had testified before the FCC that “The Benefactor” – already notorious even before it was broadcast – was “a very fine, realistic and honest dramatization,” but the advertisers were unmoved.  It was “in conflict with their corporate policies,” according to the New York Times

“The Benefactor” was the nineteenth episode produced during The Defenders’ first season, but the thirtieth to be broadcast.  During the weeks while the completed show sat on the shelf, conversations approximating those depicted in Mad Men took place.  Eventually the Speidel Corporation, which made watch bands, bought up the whole hour’s advertising.  Just how much of a discount, if any, Speidel received is unknown. 

But the worst of the storm was yet to come.  Hoping to cushion the blow, CBS screened “The Benefactor” for its local affiliates via closed circuit television on April 18.  This move may have prevented a widespread backlash, but ten of the 180 network stations declined to run the episode.  The residents of Boston, Providence, Buffalo, New Orleans, Omaha, Milwaukee, and various smaller cities never saw “The Benefactor.”  Nor did anyone in Canada, after the CBC rejected the segment.  A number of stations delayed the broadcast until after the evening news, as did the BBC when “The Benefactor” crossed the Atlantic in July.  All of these events received ongoing coverage by major newspapers, including the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

Robert F. Simon played the abortionist in “The Benefactor”

Throughout all this, The Defenders enjoyed staunch support from CBS.  It was an unusual display of backbone in an industry dependent on the fickle support of the masses.  Bob Markell, then the associate producer of The Defenders, remembered that the hero of the hour was CBS chairman William Paley.  “It would have gone on with or without sponsors,” Markell told me, because Paley believed in the show.  Michael Dann, the CBS executive who had developed the Defenders pilot and fought to get it on the air over the objections of network president Jim Aubrey, also felt that the sponsor defections were irrelevant.  Dann felt that “The Benefactor” won the day because it was serious-minded and well-made, like all of the programs supplied by executive producer Herbert Brodkin’s company.  Had it been exploitative or inept, the episode might have done irreparable damage to The Defenders.

The historical record supports Dann’s assessment.  Published surveys of viewer responses reveal that there was no “Benefactor” backlash.  Two weeks after the broadcast, Reginald Rose told the New York Times that the mail received (over a thousand letters, compared to 150-200 following most episodes) ran eleven to one in favor of the abortion show.  The Los Angeles Times published the first ten letters it received about “The Benefactor,” eight of which were positive, and Television Age reported that 93.8% of the 1,000 New Yorkers it surveyed approved of “The Benefactor.”  The episode pleased critics, as well, earning a rave from Cecil Smith in the Los Angeles Times and a lengthy, if more ambivalent, notice from the New York Times‘ Jack Gould.  Gould nevertheless called “The Benefactor” a “remarkable demonstration of the use of theatre as an instrument of protest.”

Michael Dann – incidentally a fan of Mad Men who believes it’s the “most important show on cable right now” – remembered “The Benefactor” as an essential “turning point” for The Defenders.  The positive outcome of that controversy translated into a mandate for Reginald Rose and the series’ other writers to address the issues of the day in a frank and opinionated manner.  Many of the first season segments were timid, or had lapsed into silly melodrama or Perry Mason-style courtroom theatrics.  “The Benefactor” gave The Defenders the courage of its convictions, the mojo to confront a divisive topic literally almost every week: capital punishment, the blacklist, atheism, faith and religion, medical malpractice, birth control, nuclear proliferation, child abuse, euthanasia, the draft, recreational drug use. 

*

One reason I was pleased to be able to write about “The Benefactor” is that it gave me an excuse to renew my acquaintance with Collin Wilcox, one of my favorite television actresses of the early sixties.  Wilcox is probably best known as the angry young woman who accuses Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) of rape in To Kill a Mockingbird (which was filmed before but released after “The Benefactor” was made and telecast).  TV fans will remember her as the plain girl who doesn’t want to look like everybody else in The Twilight Zone episode “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You,” and as Pat Buttram’s sultry child bride in The Alfred Hitchcock Hour‘s creepy “The Jar.”  Today, Wilcox and her husband operate a small black box theatre in her home town in western North Carolina, where she will star in Love Letters opposite Rex Reed this October.

Collin Wilcox in The Defenders‘ “The Benefactor”

In “The Benefactor,” Wilcox plays a woman who undergoes an abortion after being raped.  Though compelled to testify against her doctor, she is grateful to him, and unwavering in her conviction that she should have been allowed to terminate her pregnancy legally.  In our conversation this week, Wilcox revealed that she drew from her own life in shaping her performance.

“I really related to it, because I had an abortion when I was eighteen,” Wilcox told me.  “At that time it was damn near impossible to find someone who would perform one.”  Wilcox flew with her mother to Peoria, Illinois – “the airport was full of standees of famous movie stars, and I remember thinking they had probably all been there for the same reason I was” – where the operation was done in far from ideal circumstances.  Her doctor was “still wearing a hat with fishing hooks on it” when he arrived.  Wilcox experienced complications after the procedure, and nearly died.  Although she had not been raped, as the young woman in “The Benefactor” had been, Wilcox shared her character’s view that her abortion was the right decision.

Wilcox, a member of the Actors Studio, had studied with the legendary acting teacher Lee Strasberg during the late fifties.  Strasberg’s technique emphasized the actor’s use of his or her own past experiences and sensations to create a character.  With that in mind, it’s hard to imagine a more daunting exercise in the “Method” than the one Wilcox underwent for “The Benefactor.”

*

If The Twilight Zone remains familiar today to almost everyone, The Defenders was probably a big “say what?” to Mad Men fans, a sixties totem as exotic as ashtrays in the office and martinis for lunch.  As far as I’ve been able to determine, the last time The Defenders was shown on American television was on an obscure and now defunct cable channel, circa 1980.  It’s hard to think of another series made after 1960, even one in black and white, that ran for as long as The Defenders (four seasons, 132 episodes) and yet hasn’t been syndicated in nearly thirty years.  And that’s not even taking into account the show’s acclaim and enormous historical relevance.  Mad Men enthusiasts seem to be expressing some curiosity about The Defenders in their columns and blogs.  Is it naive to hope that a few seconds’ exposure on Mad Men might lead to a renaissance for The Defenders, on cable or home video?  Probably.  But here’s hoping.

Update (August 19): I’ve chatted with Defenders producer Bob Markell again, after he saw Mad Men‘s “The Benefactor” over the weekend.  Markell felt that the “concept was admirable,” but expressed dismay about some factual inaccuracies regarding the television industry of the early sixties, most of them in the scene depicting the initial phone conversation between Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) and the junior CBS executive.  These are indeed worth exploring further.

The CBS exec in Mad Men offers a rather confusing explanation as to how “The Benefactor” got made.  He tells Crane that the abortion script was somehow substituted for an episode on cannibalism that the network would not allow to be made.  I’m guessing this is a modified version of an instance of horse-trading that’s been widely reported in the literature on early television.  In 1963, when CBS balked at Reginald Rose’s pitch for a Defenders episode about racial prejudice (not the show’s first brush with that inflammatory topic), Rose offered to produce a segment on blacklisting instead.  Rose felt that CBS would back down and allow him to proceed with the race story, but to his surprise the network agreed to the switch and the Emmy-winning 1963 “Blacklist” episode was the result. 

However, implausible as it may sound, there was a Defenders episode about cannibalism.  Written by David W. Rintels and entitled “A Taste of Ashes,” it dealt with the prosecution for murder of two sailors who had killed and eaten another seaman while adrift at sea.  The segment was produced in late 1963 (the assassination of President Kennedy occurred during the filming) but not broadcast until the following season, on November 12, 1964.  Because of the sensational subject matter, CBS shelved the episode for nearly a year before executive producer Herbert Brodkin bullied it onto the air.  “A Taste of Ashes” attracted only a fraction of the attention that “The Benefactor” had, even though the earlier segment had enjoyed the public support of the network.  Mad Men is generally pretty scrupulous in its historical accuracy – “The Benefactor” takes place in late March or early April of 1962, while the preceding episode, “Flight 1,” deals with a real plane crash that occurred on March 1 of that year – but the reference to the cannibalism story violates this chronology.

Another line that rings false is the CBS exec’s comment that “the director eats up all this time refusing to do” the cannibalism script.  In fact, not even the most acclaimed episodic television directors enjoyed that much clout in the sixties.  On almost any of the show of that period (and probably now, as well) a director would have been immediately fired and replaced had he flatly refused to shoot script pages.  Markell averred strongly that this would have been the case on The Defenders, even though the series had its share of temperamental directors. 

(One thing the Mad Men script gets right is the CBS exec’s comment that “The Benefactor” will be “going on the air, sponsor or no.”  Last week, I quoted Markell to the effect that this was the network’s position in 1962.  What I didn’t bother to include, because it was somewhat redundant, is that CBS vice president Frank Stanton made a similar comment in his January 1962 testimony before the FCC.  I’d wager that his remark, which was quoted in the news coverage of the “Benefactor” controversy, were the source of this bit of dialogue.)

The most troublesome of the CBS executive’s lines in Mad Men is his joke, “I miss the blacklist.”  It’s highly unlikely that anyone at CBS would have uttered this remark in 1962 – not only because the blacklist was a taboo subject, even in private conversations, but because CBS was still enforcing it in 1962.  The network continued to veto certain blacklisted artists sought for The Defenders at least until the series’ final (1964-1965) season; in fact, my research suggests that CBS, oblivious to irony, may have rejected the producers’ original choices to star in and direct the “Blacklist” episode.

Of course, these are minor points, and creative license is essential to good drama.  I still think it’s very cool that The Defenders, one of my pet TV history causes, has been interwoven so creatively into one of its few worthwhile modern counterparts.  But, upon further reflection, I do wish that Matthew Weiner and his co-writer, Rick Cleveland, had thought better of that glib line about the blacklist. 

Markell made one final, crucial point about the storyline of Mad Men‘s “The Benefactor” in our conversation, and he’s absolutely right about it, too.  The Madison Avenue agencies were so ubiquitous in the production of live television that it’s unlikely a large, established agency like Sterling Cooper wouldn’t have had a thriving television department long before 1962.  It also seems strange that so trivial as to function as a consolation prize for the likes of Harry Crane.  But, hey, now that Harry does have his new toy, perhaps that opens the door for a more meaningful storyline about the blacklist.  Sadly, there’s still plenty of time within Mad Men‘s chronology in which it would still be relevant. 

Many thanks to Collin Wilcox, Bob Markell, and Michael Dann for taking time to answer my questions; to Jonathan Ward for research; and to Bob Lamm for bringing Mad Men‘s Defenders homage to my attention. 

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