March 26, 2012
It came to me in a dream: A final exam of some kind, where the only question was to recast Mad Men as if it were produced during the time period (the early sixties) in which the show is set.
Most dream-ideas seem kinda stupid when you wake up – but I thought this one was pretty cool. Especially since I aced that dream-exam. My subconscious remembered a whole lot of the characters by name (even Freddy Rumsen!) and came up with some good actors to match. When I woke up, I added some conscious choices to fill out the list. Take a look, imagine some Mad Men moments with these actors playing them, and see what you think . . . .
Ben Gazzara as Don Draper (Jon Hamm)
Gena Rowlands as Betty Draper (January Jones)
Gig Young as Roger Sterling (John Slattery)
Collin Wilcox as Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss)
James Franciscus as Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser)
Tina Louise as Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks)
William Daniels as Sal Romano (Bryan Batt)
Robert Morse as Harry Crane (Rich Sommer)
Linden Chiles as Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis)
Roger Perry as Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton)
Patrick O’Neal as Duck Phillips (Mark Moses)
Roddy McDowall as Lane Pryce (Jared Harris)
Tim O’Connor as Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley)
John McGiver as Bert Cooper (Robert Morse)
Martin Balsam as Freddy Rumsen (Joel Murray)
Susan Oliver as Midge Daniels (Rosemarie DeWitt)
Bethel Leslie as Anna Draper (Melinda Page Hamilton)
Lee Grant as Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff)
Suzanne Pleshette as Trudy Campbell (Alison Brie)
Joyce Van Patten as Mona Sterling (Talia Balsam)
Claire Griswold as Jane Siegel (Peyton List)
Robert Culp as Archie Whitman (Joseph Culp)
Ruth McDevitt as Miss Blankenship (Randee Heller)
Shelley Berman as Jimmy Barrett (Patrick Fischler)
Pat Hingle as Conrad Hilton (Chelcie Ross)
You’ll notice that I’ve fudged the issue of whether our hypothetical Mad Men was filmed in New York or Los Angeles, a critical issue that would have influenced casting in the early sixties. Gazzara and Rowlands – my pairing an indulgence in Cassavetesphilia; Cassavetes himself would have been a profound, if angry, Don Draper – were bicoastal, but probably more New York-centric in 1960; the ideal Los Angeles teaming might have been David Janssen and Inger Stevens as Don and Betty.
Having been immersed lately in the world of Marion Dougherty, the visionary New York-based casting director who discovered so many future stars on the Off-Broadway stage, I can picture a Mad Men cast by Dougherty and starring Gene Hackman as Don, Sandy Dennis as Betty, Robert Redford as Pete, Robert Duvall as Roger, Dustin Hoffman as Paul, Martin Sheen as Harry, James Caan as Ken, Robert Loggia as Sal, and Walter Matthau as Duck. All of them were working on television and on Marion’s radar by 1961, at the latest; so it’s legit but still too much of a cheat, even for funsies.
Now it’s your turn to kibitz. Come up with your own list, or “cast” even more of the minor characters than I did. But I’m gonna be real strict about this. Anyone you pick has to have been a viable candidate for a regular or recurring role on an American television series during the early sixties. Do not annoy me by naming movie stars who didn’t do television during that time, or actors who died in 1958 or debuted in 1970, or actors who were unavailable because they were already starring in some other series for most of the time between 1960 and 1965. (Sorry, you can’t have James Arness as Don Draper.)
Now: get to it!
Ben and Gena together in 1966 on Run For Your Life (screen grab stolen from this detailed Run For Your Life fansite).
October 24, 2011
When I wrote about Kojak last week, I argued that the popular cop show didn’t hit its stride until late in its second season. That started me thinking: what other long-running classic TV series peaked late? More often than not, great television shows experience an entropy effect. They start strong and then gradually run out of ideas or begin to repeat themselves. Here are a few that were still getting better in their third seasons, or later.
1. Studio One (1948-1958). No live anthology made itself over as thoroughly as Studio One, which evolved from hoary stagings of the classics to gritty kitchen-sink dramas after the “Marty” revolution. Producer Felix Jackson’s years on the show, which yielded “Twelve Angry Men” and “1984,” are probably seen as the high-water mark, but I prefer the periods produced by Robert Herridge (summer 1956), a cultivator of fragile, poetic writers, and Herbert Brodkin (most of 1957), who sought out edgy, topical material (like “The Defender,” pilot for the subsequent series).
2. 77 Sunset Strip (1958-1964). The final season (1963-1964) of this six-year crime show was a reboot avant la lettre. New executive producer Jack Webb jettisoned the entire supporting cast and moved the one remaining P.I. (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) off the Strip and into the historic Bradbury Building. He also changed the tone, from goofy escapism to bleak, violent hard-boiled pulp.
3. Rawhide (1959-1966). Like Studio One, Rawhide morphed into a different show each time it changed producers. I’ve already written about my preference for the modernist (1962-1964) seasons produced by Vincent Fennelly and the postmodern half-year (fall 1964) stewarded by Bruce Geller and Bernie Kowalski versus the early, classical seasons (1959-1962) run by Charles Marquis Warren and then Endre Bohem. Rejoice: CBS continues to herd Rawhide on its slow cattle drive to DVD, and the good stuff is almost here.
4. Route 66 (1960-1964). George Maharis may have had more charisma, but his departure in the middle of the third season opened the door for a better actor: Glenn Corbett as Linc, whose recent discharge from Vietnam service motivated some of Stirling Silliphant’s best scripts. Also, the 1961 Congressional uproar over televised violence, during which Route 66 was cited, enabled the producers to prune away some of the gratuitous fistfights that were the early episodes’ most conspicious flaw.
5. Mannix (1968-1975). The initial format – Mannix as a rebellious corporate private eye – was a good idea on paper but a bust in practice. A new producing team, Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, revamped the show as a classical private eye story, albeit hyperviolent and with colorful sixties look. The peak came around the third or fourth season, by which time Mannix had a roster of great genre writers contributing fatalistic, noirish stories, great directors (especially Sutton Roley and Paul Krasny) indulging in wild compositions and camera pyrotechnics that were too bold for most shows, and great supporting actors (like Hugh Beaumont and Robert Reed) recurring as Joe Mannix’s law enforcement foils.
6. The Bold Ones: The New Doctors (1969-1973). The first three seasons were competent, intelligent medical melodramas with an emphasis (perhaps an overemphasis) on cutting-edge scientific breakthroughs in various fields of medicine. For the fourth and final year, The New Doctors fell into the hands of young producer David Levinson (formerly of the brilliant The Senator), who recruited even better writers and turned the series into a Defenders-style social issues drama, with topical, ballsy episodes that addressed mental illness, homosexuality, impotence, euthanasia, and malpractice.
7-9. Cheers (1982-1993), Newhart (1982-1990), and Night Court (1984-1992). All of these eighties ensemble comedies needed three or four seasons to assemble their perfect lineups. Newhart discovered Julia Duffy (Stephanie) in its second year and Peter Scolari (Michael) in its third, and expanded the presence of its wacky supporting cast (especially William Sanderson et. al. as Larry, Darryl and Darryl) as it went along. I’m ambivalent about Sam and Diane (Shelley Long) vs. Sam and Rebecca (Kirstie Alley), but young idiot Woody (Woody Harrelson), a fourth season replacement, was funnier than old idiot Coach (Nicholas Colasanto), and Frasier and Lilith (Kelsey Grammer and Bebe Neuwirth) were vital midpoint additions to Cheers. Night Court ran through two public defenders and two elderly bailiffs before finding the right chemistry in the fourth season with sweet Markie Post and Marsha Warfield, whose character was so tough she wanted nothing more than to fight Tyson. Of course, mortality necessitated many of these changes (Colasanto and Night Court’s Selma Diamond and Florence Halop all died during production). Show business is harsh.
10. The X-Files (1993-2002). The nine-season science fiction masterwork peaked somewhere in the middle, before its mythology became too complex but after creator Chris Carter and his writers gained the courage to make the one-off stories ever more off-beat (“Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose”), avant-garde (“The Post-Modern Prometheus”), and visually stylized (“Home”).
11-12. The Wire (2002-2008) and Mad Men (2007- ) burst out of the gate as masterpieces. But The Wire’s final season was also its finest, and Mad Men’s most recent was its best to date. Both shows’ writing staffs created such fully fleshed-out, internally consistent fictional worlds that a viewer’s investment in the characters could increase exponentially over time; desperate alcoholics Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) and Don Draper (Jon Hamm), for instance, evolved from self-pitying sad sacks into tragic everymen.
Readers, chime in – what are some other shows that were at their best in the middle or at the end?
August 12, 2010
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.
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 (8½, 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?
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
June 12, 2009
Here’s a list I’ve been noodling with lately. The first entry kind of gives it away, but see how quickly you can guess what these films have in common:
Marty (Paddy Chayefsky/Delbert Mann)
Patterns (Rod Serling/Fielder Cook)
The Rack (Rod Serling/Arnold Laven)
The Catered Affair (Paddy Chayefsky/Richard Brooks)
Crime in the Streets (Reginald Rose/Don Siegel)
1984 (William P. Templeton/Michael Anderson)
Ransom (Cyril Hume & Richard Maibaum/Alex Segal)
The Fastest Gun Alive (Frank D. Gilroy/Russell Rouse)
Twelve Angry Men (Reginald Rose/Sidney Lumet)
The Bachelor Party (Paddy Chayefsky/Delbert Mann)
Dino (Reginald Rose/Thomas Carr)
Edge of the City (Robert Alan Aurthur/Martin Ritt)
Spring Reunion (Robert Alan Aurthur/Robert Pirosh)
The Young Stranger (Robert Dozier/John Frankenheimer)
Fear Strikes Out (Mel Goldberg/Robert Mulligan)
Man on Fire (Malvin Wald & Jack Jacobs/Ranald MacDougall)
The D.I. (James Lee Barrett/Jack Webb)
The Left-Handed Gun (Gore Vidal/Arthur Penn)
No Time For Sergeants (Ira Levin/Mervyn LeRoy)
Sing Boy Sing (Paul Monash/Henry Ephron)
Middle of the Night (Paddy Chayefsky/Delbert Mann)
The Rabbit Trap (JP Miller/Philip Leacock)
Visit to a Small Planet (Gore Vidal/Norman Taurog)
One Foot in Hell (Aaron Spelling/James B. Clark)
Judgment at Nuremberg (Abby Mann/Stanley Kramer)
The Outsider (Merle Miller/Delbert Mann)
The Hellions (Harold Swanton/Irwin Allen & Ken Annakin)
Days of Wine and Roses (JP Miller/Blake Edwards)
The Miracle Worker (William Gibson/Arthur Penn)
Requiem For a Heavyweight (Rod Serling/Ralph Nelson)
Incident in an Alley (Rod Serling/Edward L. Cahn)
Pressure Point (S. Lee Pogostin/Hubert Cornfield)
A Child Is Waiting (Abby Mann/John Cassavetes)
Dear Heart (Tad Mosel/Delbert Mann)
Baby the Rain Must Fall (Horton Foote/Robert Mulligan)
A Big Hand For the Little Lady (Sidney Carroll/Fielder Cook)
The Incident (Nicholas E. Baehr/Larry Peerce)
Charly (James Yaffe/Ralph Nelson)
The Legend of Lylah Clare (Robert Thom/Robert Aldrich)
Tomorrow (Horton Foote/Joseph Anthony)
Bang the Drum Slowly (Arnold Schulman/John Hancock)
The Trip to Bountiful (Horton Foote/Peter Masterson)
As you’ve probably deduced already, all of the movies above were adapted from live or videotaped dramas from the “golden age” television anthologies. The writer of the teleplay (but not necessarily of the subsequent screenplay) and the director of the film (but not necessarily of the original TV show) are listed, respectively, in parentheses.
I think it’s a revealing compilation because, once you get beyond the Serling and Chayefsky scripts, many of the films are not often cited as having their origins in live television. Mainly that’s because most of the authors and the original teleplays never became famous on their own, as Serling and Chayefsky and “Marty” and “Patterns” did.
I can only scratch the surface of this idea here, but I’d like to posit this list as Exhibit A in a theory that the live television adaptation represents a genuine and unacknowledged movement in the history of American cinema. How significant a movement? Less influential, certainly, than Italian neorealism or the French or Japanese New Waves were upon their national cinemas – but perhaps as discrete and coherent as any of those.
One thing that fascinates me about this list is the chronological curve it forms. If you mapped this data on a graph, the line would trace Hollywood’s explosion of interest in live television following the success of Marty; the early peak in 1956-1957 during which just about any live TV writer could make a lucrative movie-rights sale; and the gradual falling off as escapism regained ground in mainstream American filmmaking for a time during the mid-sixties.
“Kitchen sink” realism was the umbrella term for the elements of the archetypal fifties television drama: working class characters, urban and ethnic milieus, claustrophobic settings, center-left politics. All of these concerns migrated west to Hollywood on the backs of teleplays purchased from early New York-based TV dramas. So did a new style of emotionally intimate acting that developed in tandem with, and partly within the pressure-cooker workshop of, live television. The American theatrical renaissance of the postwar era – the influence of Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, the Actors Studio, Stella Adler – is often and correctly credited with importing many of these ideas into the cinema. But television was an equally vital conduit.
If this wave of derived-from-live-television films is not enshrined as part of the historical canon, it may be because it foundered so quickly. Part of the problem was simply the process of filmmaking itself, which tended to dilute the characteristics that made television-derived material distinctive. Hour-long scripts were padded to feature length. Shooting in Hollywood studios, with cinematographers and production designers trained to make movie stars and their surroundings look as appealing as possible, added a visual gloss that no amount of carefully positioned garbage in backlot alleys could diminish. The commercial imperative to attract a wider, more mainstream audience led to the de-ethnicization and de-urbanization of characters and scenarios. Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair were happier and prettier than television’s Marty and Clara.
Another factor in the diminution of the live television school’s influence on the movies is the extent to which its major practitioners deviated from the styles they had developed in television. There was no reason to expect otherwise; consider how quickly the Italian neorealist auteurs diverged into maximalism (Fellini), minimalism (Rossellini), abstraction (Antonioni), decadence (Visconti), or banality (De Sica). Here’s another list to illustrate this point – a roster of the major live television directors who transitioned into features, with a chronological selection in parentheses of some of their most significant films. The directors are also listed chronologically, according to each man’s initial foray into filmmaking:
Delbert Mann (Marty; Separate Tables; That Touch of Mink)
Fielder Cook (Patterns; A Big Hand For the Little Lady; Seize the Day)
Alex Segal (Ransom; All the Way Home; Harlow)
Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men; Long Day’s Journey Into Night; The Pawnbroker)
Martin Ritt (Edge of the City; Hud; The Molly Maguires)
John Frankenheimer (The Young Stranger; The Manchurian Candidate; Grand Prix)
Robert Mulligan (Fear Strikes Out; To Kill a Mockingbird; The Stalking Moon)
Robert Stevens (The Big Caper; In the Cool of the Day; Change of Mind)
Jeffrey Hayden (The Vintage)
Arthur Penn (The Left-Handed Gun; Bonnie and Clyde; Little Big Man)
Vincent Donehue (Lonelyhearts; Sunrise at Campobello)
Daniel Petrie (The Bramble Bush; A Raisin in the Sun; The Neptune Factor)
Buzz Kulik (The Explosive Generation; Warning Shot; Villa Rides)
Ralph Nelson (Requiem For a Heavyweight; Father Goose; Soldier Blue)
George Roy Hill (Period of Adjustment; Hawaii; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid)
Franklin Schaffner (The Stripper; Planet of the Apes; Patton)
Jack Smight (I’d Rather Be Rich; Harper; Midway)
Elliot Silverstein (Cat Ballou; The Happening; A Man Called Horse)
Paul Bogart (The Three Sisters; Marlowe; Skin Game)
George Schaefer (Pendulum; Doctors’ Wives; An Enemy of the People)
I’ve handpicked the films listed above (and potentially stacked the deck, I realize) to diagram the seemingly inescapable expansion of their directors from television-sized projects into larger-scaled and more stylistically varied films. Instead of building upon the techniques of live TV to develop radically new methods of filmmaking (of the type, say, that John Cassavetes, an actor but never a director in live TV, would do), the live directors all moved toward established Hollywood practices. The directors who resisted or failed to master these conventions are the ones who struggled.
Jeffrey Hayden, in a recent interview, told me that he felt underprepared and overwhelmed when MGM sent him to France with a veteran film crew to make his first (and only) feature. For Hayden, devoting two years to the planning of a single project translated into crushing boredom, and he returned to episodic television. Vincent Donehue is a case study in how live television experience can fail to prepare a director for working on film; nearly every camera angle, blocking choice, and cut in his two films is conspicuously ill-chosen. Delbert Mann, who hewed more closely than most to the kind of material he had directed in television, found worthwhile projects scarce after the mid-sixties. George Roy Hill and Franklin Schaffner were talented filmmakers, but they became such efficient purveyors of large-scaled, star-driven dramas that their roots in television (not to mention their own personalities) are difficult to discern in their work.
The richest filmographies among the directors above belong to those who fused what they learned in television with the broader possibilities of the cinema. Lumet adopted an intimate, mainly realistic approach that relied upon extensive rehearsal to foreground the work of his actors. He developed a preference for practical locations over the soundstages of live TV, and yet returned again and again to a vision of a grimy, teeming New York City.
Frankenheimer, almost a polar opposite, developed an aggressive visual style that drew heavily upon, but extended and refined, the tools available to him in live television: daring camera movements; frequent and extreme shifts in focal length; and complex, assertive editing. Where Lumet rarely chose to draw attention to his camera, Frankenheimer often abdicated in the area of performance, deferring to his actors to make their own choices (and often to overindulge themselves). Yet the basics of both styles derive measurably from live television.
To extend these musings one step further, I wonder to what extent certain aesthetics of live television may have resurfaced in the reborn “New Hollywood” of the seventies. Penn, Lumet, and to a lesser extent Ritt and Mulligan were still making major films at the time, films that attempted to interrogate or dismantle the classicism of their earliest features. The studiously drab imagery of Network and Night Moves, the Method-style acting of Little Big Man and Dog Day Afternoon circle back to the television that Penn and Lumet were directing in the fifties, even though both had flirted with a range of contradictory styles in the interim.
I’ve always been struck by how many of the key American filmmakers of the seventies who did not come out of live television apprenticed instead in its West Coast counterpart, the episodic filmed TV of the sixties. Altman, Peckinpah, Rafelson, Cassavetes, Spielberg, Sydney Pollack, Michael Ritchie, Stuart Rosenberg, Lamont Johnson, Robert Towne, Alvin Sargent, Frank Pierson, and others all did significant early work there. Any serious pre-history of the New Hollywood movement must take television into account. The initial question that comes to mind: was TV any kind of a positive influence on the mature work of these filmmakers, or just the holding pen from which they broke loose in order to innovate?
Thanks to Jonah Horwitz for correcting some technical errors in my earlier writing on John Frankenheimer, and for adding to my understanding of Frankenheimer’s and Lumet’s visual strategies. An earlier draft of this piece omitted A Child Is Waiting (1963), Dear Heart (1964), A Big Hand For the Little Lady (1966), and several other films from the first list.