It’s hard to find a lousy episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, but a good place to start would be the third season’s Christmas show, “The Alan Brady Show Presents,” in which the usual precision-tooled wit takes a holiday break and the lets the cast flounder in some self-indulgent variety-show routines.  If ever a series earned the right to phone one in during Christmas week, it’s Carl Reiner’s masterpiece.  But “The Alan Brady Show Presents” is part of an unhappy tradition, in which shows that should know better put their usual formulas on pause and pander to the season with religiosity and cheap sentimentality.  That’s how you ended up with Bewitched’s pagan Samantha and skeptic Darrin not only celebrating Christmas, but spending it in blackface.  Bah, humbug!

But every rule has an exception.  There’s one nearly forgotten Christmas-themed entry that may actually be the best episode of the series it was part of.  Called “Time and a Half on Christmas Eve,” it first aired in December 1966, during the second season of Run For Your Life.

A lower-stakes knock-off of The Fugitive, Roy Huggins’s Run For Your Life starred Ben Gazzara as Paul Bryan, a lawyer who goes on a well-heeled walkabout after being diagnosed with a terminal illness.  “Time and a Half” strands him in a small town where he knows no one after some Christmas Eve engine trouble forces his flight to divert.  Stepping away from the other passengers to make a phone call, Bryan returns to find the terminal unexpectedly empty; everyone else has already caught a ride to a motel.  That moment of disorientation hints at “Time and a Half”’s true subject: it’s about being alone, literally or otherwise, during the holidays.  Bryan catches a ride with Harry Martin (Ernest Borgnine), a cab driver so hearty verging on overbearing that he hauls over to the side of the road and shows the Salvation Army Santa how to ring his bell harder.  (It’s a perfect role for Ernest Borgnine – another variation on Marty Piletti).  The pair end up in Harry’s favorite bar, a run-down dump that’s expectedly empty except for Sam (Charles McGraw) and Jeannie (Melanie Alexander), the bartender and waitress who pass for his best friends.  Although they’re fond of Harry, they’re not ready to party all night with him; Sam has a family and Jeannie a boyfriend, something the cabbie didn’t realize, or pretended not to.  As they close up the bar, Jeannie gives him a look and says something about “fifty miles north.”


Harry is a proud loner who praises himself for having avoided the “traps” of ordinary life that burden other people.  Fifty miles north turns out to be where the wife and child he abandoned years earlier now live.  Urged on by Paul, who senses Harry’s deep-seated unhappiness, they pick up some last-minute gifts and undertake a road trip to find out what happened to the lost family.  That way lies heartbreak.  “Time and a Half” ends on an upbeat note, albeit a brief one, following a troubling climax which suggests, through a sharp metaphor, that suicide may lie in Harry’s future.  A. Martin Zweiback’s teleplay (from a story by Daniel L. Aubry) is full of wry details and smart dialogue.  Bryan learns of the airplane’s distress before the captain announces it because he happens to be sitting next to an airline engineer who hears the engine struggling: exposition dissolved in humor.  The walls of the podunk airport are adorned with a cheesecake calendar and a “Worms For Sale” sign.  “‘Bob,’ he asked disappointedly?” is Paul’s response when the stewardess he’s trying to pick up tells him she’s engaged to the pilot.  Although Paul Bryan was a ladies’ man through-and-through, this is one of the few episodes to acknowledge how casually he’s on the prowl; the script isn’t totally clear, but as Gazzara plays the scene, it sounds like the Christmas engagement he has to break is with another random hook-up.  Gazzara’s natural pensiveness makes him the perfect foil for the voluble Borgnine; the script never requires Bryan to call bullshit on Harry’s self-deceptive posturing, because the mix of amusement and pity playing across Gazzara’s face makes it plain that he knows the score.

Borgnine CU


Directed by Michael Ritchie, soon to make acclaimed films like Downhill Racer and Smile, “Time and a Half” pushes the limits of how much visual creativity could be expressed on the Universal backlot.  Nearly all of the episode takes place at night, and the interiors are dark too, punctuated by pools of harsh artificial light that prove just as gloomy as the shadows.  (John L. Russell, who shot Psycho for Hitchcock and who would be dead before Christmas dawned in 1967, was the cinematographer.)  At least half a dozen familiar carols adorn the soundtrack, either as instrumentals or source music, and seasonal iconography – wrapped gifts, Christmas trees, lights on suburban houses – abounds, all with a conscious sense of rubbing it in.  The relentlessly Christmassy atmosphere is ironic, not festive.  Never sour or hostile, “Time and a Half on Christmas Eve ” is a still a pretty morose sort of holiday fable.  It’s Christmas from the point of view of the outsiders and introverts who will never be a part of the warmth and inclusiveness that most of television’s Christmases take as a given.

The best thing about “Time and a Half” is that it’s not a departure from the series’ premise but an ideal realization of it.  At its outset, Run For Your Life proposed a quest of self-discovery.  It was a show about a dying man who wants to figure out how to live – a great concept that allowed for Hemingwayesque excursions into physical daring, but also promised introspection.  In practice, of course, introspection is hard to pull off in prime time.  Run For Your Life never wholly abandoned its existential side, but too often it slid into espionage stories and other generic action formulas.  “Time and a Half on Christmas Eve” is one of the few episodes that omits any element of physical danger whatsoever, an exception it was probably able to claim only because it was a Christmas episode.  Run For Your Life should have been that kind of show every week – but Huggins and Company only got away with it once, when all the flights were grounded.

Although it’s been shown on RTV recently and there’s a short clip on YouTube, “Time and a Half on Christmas Eve” remains hard to find.  In the meantime, you might cue up the Bill Murray special A Very Murray Christmas – a new classic with an air of melancholy that reminded me of this episode.

This short-lived workplace comedy from Victor Fresco (Andy Richter Controls the Universe) peaked with a brilliant high-concept set-up: a memo cautioning employees not to use offensive language replaces the “not” with a “now.”  Since Veridian Dynamic is staffed with bureaucrats and obedient cube-drones, everyone blindly obeys the obvious typo and the swear words begin to fly.  Dilweed.  It’s a classic sitcom plot (by veteran sitcom writer Mike Teverbaugh) because it’s driven forward by each main character’s reaction to the circumstances: free spirit Linda (Andrea Anders) finds the profanity liberating; controlling middle manager Ted (Jay Harrington) takes it as a threat to his authority; nerdy scientists Phil (Jonathan Slavin) and Lem (Malcolm Barrett) craft a mathematical formula for effective cursing (which actually works, by the way).  Buttmunch.

Teverbaugh’s premise is also transgressive in the way it subverts television censorship requirements to get laughs.  The joke is that Ted and company invent an off-the-wall alternative slang to insult each other; if the show ran on HBO and the characters could use real F-words, the gag wouldn’t work.  Back-alley crab muffin.  (Although a blooper reel featuring actual blue language is still pretty funny, you walking cock-cozy.)  A subplot in which heartless corporate exec Veronica (Portia de Rossi) deals with unexpected guilt over a stolen promotion by consolation-dating her sad sack rival (Chris Parnell) is more traditional, but it’s still worthwhile because it sets up lines like: “Then I let him feel me up.  I think I might need new breasts.  These are covered in sadness.”  That’s an example of the kind of presentational wit that Better Off Ted came to specialize in after it evolved from a topical satire (like The Office) to a non-realistic farce (like 30 Rock) driven more by dazzling verbal humor than by situations or characters.  You’ve heard of comedians’ comedians; this is comedy writers’ comedy writing, you sad jar of hobo urine.

When I launched the Classic TV History website three years and change ago, one of the exclusive pieces that debuted there was my personal, subjective, opinonated list of the one hundred greatest American television episodes of all time.  Immodestly, I thought the article included some pretty good short-form writing, and it certainly inspired some lively discussion in the comments here.

But there was one problem: I only wrote about fifty television episodes.  The idea was that this would be a list to grow on, one to which I would add over my, and the website’s, lifetime.  I explained that in the introduction but I guess it didn’t register, or else people really want the whole hundred when they’re promised a hundred of something, because occasionally I still get e-mails asking, “Where’s the rest?”  (Or, “Hey dumbass, your list only has fifty shows on it.”)  In truth, I had another ten or so episodes that I had planned to add to that page at some point, but I never got around to it.  For the rest, readers would to have to wait until I got around to seeing, well, every television show ever made.  Not that I have a life or anything, but that’s still going to take awhile.

Then it hit me that the solution to this problem was the solution to more or less everything these days: blogify it.  So from now on, as I discover new episodes that belong in the canon, I’ll write about them here first, and eventually archive them on the 100 Episodes page.  Without further ado, number fifty-one in a series.


Gordon Forbes steps out onto a window ledge and threatens suicide unless his wife is brought to him.  Only one problem: when private eye Honey West goes to pick her up, she finds that Mrs. Forbes has been shot dead.  This episode represents a wistful choice, because Honey West is one of those “classic” television shows that was never very good.  Most of the scripts were written by journeymen, and the stories and characters are cartoonish and silly.  The producer, Aaron Spelling, liked to leer at the ladies when the gaze, and the violence, was directed against them; see Burke’s Law (from which Honey West was a spin-off) and Charlie’s Angels.  But when he was handed a female protagonist, Spelling turned prude and made the show a live-action cartoon that would have fit in just fine on Saturday morning.  Only in the series’ pilot, written by Columbo creators William Link and Richard Levinson and directed by Walter Grauman, do we get a glimpse of Honey as she was meant to be: dangerous, sexy, chic.  Link and Levinson returned twice – fittingly, for the final episode – and arguably topped themselves with their final script, despite the punctuation error in the title.  The dialogue in “Eerie, Airy” is sophisticated, the pace fast, the stakes life-or-death, and the twist ending devilishly clever.  If U.N.C.L.E. fans pine for an alternate history where Batman kept the camp to itself, then I’ll take a Honey West led by L & L.