November 30, 2012
I figured that last week’s tribute to “Turkeys Away” might be enough of a populist idea to reach some readers beyond the regulars here, but I wasn’t prepared for how viral it went. The Washington Post and (ugh) The Huffington Post linked to it, Shawn Ryan (creator of The Shield) “tweeted” it, and it has already become the most widely read (or at least glanced-at) piece I’ve published here, by a wide margin. So, I’m very … wait for it … thankful for that (and yet, still irritated that I couldn’t track down some WKRP folks, especially Richard Sanders, in time).
All of that being not to toot my own horn (well, not just that), but to recommend two recent articles you absolutely have to read if you liked the WKRP thing: Brian Raftery’s juicy oral history of Cheers (Kelsey Grammer, wotta joik) and Edward Copeland’s herculean three-part history of St. Elsewhere (here, here, and here), which is based largely on interviews with many of the show’s writer/producers and cast (and Michael Dukakis!). Copeland devotes an entire page to one aspect of St. Elsewhere that I’d always found puzzling, then off-putting, then unintentionally hilarious: the Job-like suffering heaped upon David Morse’s appealing underdog character, Jack Morrison. I actually had the idea to do the WKRP oral history before these pieces were published — in fact, it occurred to me last Thanksgiving, and I was steamed about having to wait another whole year to do it! — but I definitely had both of these articles, especially the Cheers one, in mind when I was assembling my little mini-history of “Turkeys Away.”
One of the more interesting tidbits in Copeland’s piece answered something only tangentially St. Elsewhere-related that I’d often wondered about:
The typical episode of St. Elsewhere took seven days to shoot, though the length of shooting days on series varies widely today. Tinker, who now serves as executive producer on ABC’s Private Practice, the spinoff from Shonda Rimes’ Grey’s Anatomy, continues to direct not only on that show but others as well as he has in the years since the doors closed on St. Eligius. “Most shows (today) are eight, some of them are nine. For all but the last year of NYPD Blue, we did eight days. For the last year, in order to take about a million dollars out of every episode, we did seven-day shows,” Tinker said. On (Private Practice), for the first five years we did nine-day shows and we sort of did the same trick for this year, and then we took a day off and made a bunch of budget cuts, so we’re doing eight-day shows now. Some of the cable shows, like The Closer, did seven all the time.” Just for comparison to other cable shows currently on the air: HBO’s True Blood averages between 11 and 14 days to film an episode, while AMC’s Breaking Bad typically shoots an installment in eight days.
Of course, from the fifties through the sixties, shooting schedules were far more rigid: half-hour dramas were almost always filmed in three days (or less, at Revue and other cheapo outfits), hour-long shows in five or six. Another sea change at work today: When I spoke to Michael Zinberg, calling in from the set of an episode of The Good Wife that he was directing, for the WKRP piece, he mentioned that almost all of the network TV dramas are shot on digital video today, the final (and surprising) exceptions being Shonda Rhimes’s shows (Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, Scandal).
More essential reading: the Hollywood Reporter‘s sixty-five-years-too-late analysis of its own role in fostering the blacklist. Be sure to check out the sidebars too, especially the profile of some of the few living blacklistees (all but one of whom I’ve had the privilege of meeting and chatting with at some point). Some readers don’t get the connection, but the blacklist is really a secret author of this blog. You can’t underestimate the influence that the blacklist, and the anti-left hysteria surrounding it, had on the medium of television in its infancy. And while it’s always nice to see the subject get some fresh attention (Dave Robb’s reporting for THR on the blacklist, and the related issue of Hollywood unionism, during the nineties was also exceptional), it’s dispiriting to see how much hate and ignorance has been expressed in the comments on those Hollywood Reporter articles, by a few people whose understanding of communism and the Cold War seems to derive entirely from reading Time magazine, circa 1949. I don’t understand how anyone can still seriously believe that the Hollywood communists (and their fellow radicals) posed any practical or ideological threat to the United States, and also I don’t understand why anyone still has a stake in the matter, apart from the blacklist victims themselves. Memo to Richard Schickel, et. al.: the Cold War is dunzo.
P.S. I mentioned last month that I’ve also been writing about the stage actress Dorothy Loudon on the New York Public Library’s blog. Those articles were an offshoot of a new digital exhibition, which I helped to curate and which just launched today, that showcases the Dorothy Loudon Papers, an archival collection at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.