I know I promised you coverage of some seventies crime shows and, trust me, it’s coming.  Soon.  But first, there are a few follow-ups to old pieces that merit reporting.

Last year, I wrote about how abortion and atheism were topics that television drama rarely tackles any more, because the people who make (and pay for) entertainment programming know that they’ll get more grief than they can handle from all the right-wing dittoheads.  In particular, it seemed as if no television show was willing to let a female character choose to have an abortion without undermining that decision with a “family values” message, whether stated or unstated.

Now, according to this cogent piece by Los Angeles Times television critic Mary McNamara, that barrier may have been broken by Grey’s Anatomy, in which its best character (Sandra Oh’s Dr. Christina Yang) terminated a pregnancy that would have interfered with her career.  McNamara points out that Dr. Yang did not suffer from any of the mitigating factors (rape, poverty, being underage) that softened the question on other shows (like Friday Night Lights last year), and that Yang “did not seem particularly agonized” in a way that would encourage the audience to believe she was making a mistake.   McNamara seems as gobsmacked as I am that Grey’s creator Shonda Rhimes allowed Dr. Yang to have the final word on her choice.

I haven’t watched Grey’s Anatomy since its first season, which I found melodramatic and dull, and I wish this breakthrough had occurred on a better show.  But Grey’s is now in its eighth year, and these kinds of things tend to happen on series that nobody is paying much attention to any more.

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So now we know: the complete DVD set of The Fugitive will have nearly all of its original music restored, plus a mouth-watering array of bonus features.  As long as I don’t think too hard about what that “nearly” means, I consider this a marvelous outcome.  CBS hasn’t put together this elaborate a TV series package since Paul Brownstein was producing Gunsmoke special editions for them, and its home video staffers deserve congratulations.  Yes, we had to wait longer and pay more than we should have.  Doesn’t matter.  The Fugitive is worth whatever it takes.

Ivan Shreve, who gives CBS’s home video division no quarter, argues that we owe this DVD release to the misguided suckers who knowingly bought the Heyesified Fugitive DVDs; it was their dollars that affirmed the financial viability of the show on home video.  He’s probably right.  But, at the same time, it had to have cost CBS some dough to untangle the legal issues around the original scores.  CBS wouldn’t have parted with that money if it didn’t think that there were a lot of us holdouts out here who would only purchase The Fugitive in an unmolested form.  So I still can’t work up much sympathy for anyone who shelled out for the now-worthless Heyesified DVD and has to decide whether to re-buy the whole series.  If you eat at McDonald’s, don’t whine about the indigestion.

Update, 10/14/11: Please see the comments section for some troubling news about the new edition of The Fugitive.  If this information proves true, the new DVD set probably won’t be worth buying after all.

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I’m going to give myself credit for some prescience in my two complaints, from March and August,  about the troubling moves Netflix was making in its relative support of physical and streaming media.  Since I filed those editorials, Netflix has experienced an unusually public meltdown and stock devaluation.  The company alienated subscribers by splitting the two platforms (this was marketed, bizarrely, as a price hike, although that was only the case for certain customer segments), then threatened to shunt its disc business into an offshoot with a goofy name, and then abruptly abandoned this plan to split itself in two.  Customers went batshit over each new development.  Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, once viewed as a Steve Jobsian corporate sage, experienced an Obama-in-the-middle-of-2009 moment: we all realized, all at once, that he didn’t have a secret, brilliant master plan, that he was just a good talker being pushed around by forces with a lot more capital and power.

My only personal interest in all of this is the fate of Netflix’s disc business . . . which is why I’m dismayed by the outcome.  Most analysts smelled a sell-off in the segregation of two video channels.  Netflix, presumably, was angling to unload its physical media and go exclusively online.  A sale could have ended with any number of disasters, but Netflix’s treatment of its disc renters has become so shabby that I found myself rooting for it to happen.  In a best-case scenario, the disc business might have been sold to a smaller entity that would have cared about it and turned it into a viable niche business.  Now it looks as if the discs won’t be going anywhere, and the Netflix library will continue to wither on the vine.  Hastings hates DVDs so much that I’m already envisioning apocalyptic outcomes.  Don’t be surprised if you wake up one morning in the near future and read that Netflix has landfilled a few million movies.

I’ve tried to keep an open mind about streaming video, since it’s obviously not going away, and in my first post on the subject I emphasized the few positives I could find.  But over the last few months I’ve come to believe that the issue is cut and dried: streaming video is an unambiguous enemy of cinephilia.

As a fer instance: Over the weekend I landed a paid writing assignment that required me to see a lot of films within a very short time.  I found several on Netflix Instant and a few others for “rent” from Amazon.  All of the Amazon streams were highly compressed and waxy-looking, on the order of Youtube videos.  That’s especially outrageous given that Amazon uses a la carte pricing (between $2 and $5 each for the movies I purchased), which, on the whole, comes out to a lot more than Netflix is charging.

Netflix fared a little better, but not much.  One recent film was in “HD” and it did in fact look gorgeous, whenever the image was still; but all the lateral motion was just a mite too jerky to seem natural.  Another film had an acceptable image but, at the time I chose to view it, either the Netflix servers or those used by my streaming device were having an off day; the movie froze up every few minutes.  A third film had also looked adequate, probably about the same as a DVD would.  But that film is available on Blu-ray, and if I hadn’t been on a deadline, I certainly would have preferred to wait until I could acquire a copy of the disc.

Because it was for work, streaming these films, rather than schlepping around to the few remaining video stores in New York in search of them, was indeed “convenient.”  But not one of those six viewing experiences would have passed muster had I been watching the films primarily for pleasure.

It’s still possible that the baseline standards for streaming video will improve beyond what I encountered this weekend.  But I actually think they’ll get worse, as more people avail themselves of streaming and compete for the same finite bandwidth.  You’d think – or hope – that audiences wouldn’t settle for this, but then I consider all the people I know, my age or younger, who claim to “watch” movies regularly, but don’t own television sets.   Instead they’re using laptops or, as David Lynch famously moaned, their telephones; and although they haven’t actually seen the movies they think they’re watching in any sense that has value, they don’t know that.

My prediction: In five or ten years movie buffs will be in the same boat as the audiophiles who, today, disparage MP3 and cling desperately to vinyl.  We’ll be paying outrageous prices for out-of-print DVDs and, if we’re very lucky, there will be a handful of independent labels who continue to issue a small number of key films on Blu-ray for our sad little niche market.  If there’s a silver lining, it’s that by then we’ll probably all be too poor to worry about such first-world problems any more.

Taboos

July 14, 2010

Update, 7/19/10: As if to underscore my point, the New York Times today has a report on an abortion-related episode of The Family Guy (yet another show I don’t watch) that both Fox and Adult Swim declined to air last year.  Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane refers to the topic as a “comedy red zone you just shouldn’t enter.”  It’s finally coming out on DVD, albeit separated from the rest of the season within which it was produced.

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Here’s an important New York Times piece, by Ginia Bellafante, about a recent abortion storyline on the (sort of) NBC drama Friday Night Lights.  Sort of, because these days Friday Night Lights airs first on DirecTV (and I don’t even know what the heck that is, exactly, except that I either can’t afford it or can’t get the landlord to install it on my roof) and only later creeps onto NBC as a summer rerun, an arrangement that may allow the show to fly under the radar a bit.  Important, because if Bellafante is right about Friday Night Lights (I’ve only seen the series’ 2006 pilot), it represents progress of a kind that I’ve been waiting impatiently for television to make.

Since most of the major taboos of the fifties and sixties are long gone, we sometimes assume that television has no more taboos.  That’s not true.  Yes, television can now depict all of the following things that it once could not, and in a variety of contexts, serious and humorous, positive and negative: violence; gore; graphic sexual talk; promiscuity; homosexuality; nudity (at least on cable); racism and other forms of discrimination; non-white characters and cultures (although stereotypes persist, and there remains a lamentable unwritten prohibition against minority leads, or all-minority casts, in certain types of shows); and all but the most colorful profanity.  And probably a lot of other once-forbidden topics that I haven’t listed.  Remember, no one could say the word “pregnant” even when Lucille Ball was visibly so, and they bleeped out “gas” anytime the gas chambers were mentioned in the Playhouse 90 production of “Judgment at Nuremburg.”

As a First Amendment absolutist, I’m all for this kind of progress, even when it doesn’t seem like progress.  Even when freedom of speech results in something like the xenophobic, torture-happy sludge of 24, there’s still a beneficial effect, because thinking people can see the ugliness in what’s being shown even if the show’s creators are indifferent.  But I wish more critics were doing the work that Bellafante has done with considerable insight, which is to point out some of the ground that we’ve lost during the same time in which it has become permissible for a “good guy” like Jack Bauer to electrocute suspects with a table lamp or slice off their fingers with a cigar cutter.

In an era where the oxymoronic phrase “liberal media” still does not provoke the guffaws it should, it’s gratifying to see the paper of record offer the blunt diagnosis that “[f]or years . . . television has consistently leaned to the right on the subject of unwanted pregnancy.”  Bellafante explains that the teenager in Friday Night Lights who decides to terminate her pregnancy is one of the first TV characters since Maude Findlay of Maude whose abortion is depicted, without much equivocation, as the right choice for her.  (That was in 1972.)  Bellafante mentions a 2008 Private Practice episode (which I also haven’t seen) that examined a woman’s decision to have an abortion “with all moral positions respectfully represented.”  I think that’s the key.  Every time I’ve seen a fictional character have an abortion, or confess to a past abortion, there seems to be an obligatory scene meant to undermine that character by implying she will be forever crippled by some vast chasm of remorse.  In the guise of objectivity, a kind of anti-feminist judgment is passed.  That’s a more insidious cultural chill on women’s reproductive rights than movies like Knocked Up or Juno (or a Sex in the City plotline cited by Bellafante which, yep, I haven’t seen either), in which a character’s decision to keep an unplanned child seems so out of character that it launches a productive debate as to the creators’ political agenda.

In an era where Roe v. Wade is in real jeopardy, I wish more of our artists would (or could, because many have probably been shut down) take the step into actual abortion rights advocacy or, at least, come up with some scripts that don’t tiptoe around the subject.  I’ve written elsewhere about an episode of The Defenders which presented a passionate plea for the legalization of abortion.  That was in 1962, and I doubt that as forceful a case for the continued legality of abortion could be made on a network series today.  I wish I could be more, er, fair and balanced, and call for the other side to make its case into compelling art too; but at the moment, I don’t think the Sarah Palins and Sharron Angles of the real world need a whole lot of help from Hollywood.  Or, perhaps, they’re getting it already: Bellafante points out that Bristol Palin managed to insert herself into The Secret Life of an American Teenager, a kids’ show that offers “didactic and soulless cheerleading for anti-abortion sentiments.”

Abortion may be the most taboo of the new taboos, but it isn’t the only one.  Sometimes I’m surprised by how much left-leaning and even anti-capitalist comment certain shows (namely The Wire) have gotten away with.  I think that’s because viewers are generally so ill-informed now that detailed political and economic talk goes over their heads, or else the censors think it will go over their heads, or else it goes over the censors’ heads.  But there is a limit: look at how much vitriol David E. Kelley attracted during the last few seasons of Boston Legal, which contained many impassioned, up-to-the-minute, name-naming tirades against specific officials and policies of the Bush Administration.  It’s true that Kelley was burned out by that point, and that some of this material took the form of lazy speechifying.  But I found it courageous, and cathartic, because Boston Legal seemed to be the only show on television willing to engage the headlines of the day.  And much of the criticism directed against Kelley seemed less interested in illuminating the dramaturgical weaknesses in his writing than in scolding him for being the guy at the dinner table who won’t shut up about politics.

It may also be impossible now for a television show to suggest that recreational drug use can be a positive, or even a neutral, component of an average person’s lifestyle.  The closest you can get is a defiant, curmudgeonly chain-smoker like Sharon Gless’s character on Burn Notice, or maybe the clownish potheads in the supporting cast of Weeds.  I’m not sure that’s a great loss, but I know a lot of intelligent people who don’t share my own anti-drug stance, and it would be nice to see a character on television who reminds me of them.

The drug issue is my favorite example of a topic where ground has been lost in terms of what you can say about it on television, and Exhibit A is another episode of The Defenders called “Fires of the Mind.”  In that show, which was made in 1965, 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.

Bellafante writes that it is “not just the rise of evangelical Christianity” but also “the dramatic realignment of women’s priorities since the most active days of the feminist movement” that account for television’s current anti-abortion bias.  Indeed, but I think we can safely blame television’s equally timid and right-skewing depiction of religion on the networks’ (and cable channels’) fear of that loudmouthed evangelical minority.  Just as television is loathe to produce scripts about women who do not regret aborting their pregnancies, it is also unlikely to deliver many unrepentant, well-adjusted atheists into your living rooms.  Or even an unrepentant, well-adjusted agnostic; or a person who insists upon rationalism rather than superstition as a basic worldview; or a sympathetic character who mocks creationism.  (The only recent, partial exception I can recall is Boston Legal’s Alan Shore.)  This may not seem like a big deal, but it’s an absence that speaks volumes.  I know a great many atheists personally, so why do I see so few on television (or in public office)?

There’s a parallel here to the abortion issue: often when a character is identified clearly as a non-believer, there’s a corresponding scene suggesting that he or she is somehow empty or soulless or in need of enlightenment.  The Defenders had something to say on this subject, too, in a 1963 episode called “The Heathen,” in which a teacher is persecuted for his open atheism.  Ernest Kinoy’s teleplay for “The Heathen” equates atheism with rationalism and comes down solidly on the side of both.  “It’s so easy to demand the symbol and ignore the reality,” says the teacher (played by Gerald Hiken), in a scene meant to indict hypocrites who pledge a public allegiance to our dominant religion that does not reflect their private beliefs.  That seems more relevant now than ever, both in politics (yes, Mr. President, I am thinking of you) and on television, which couches Christian dogma in vehicles both obvious (Joan of Arcadia) and surreptitious (Battlestar Galactica).  Lost proposed its overarching narrative as a kind of dialectic between science and faith; in case anyone missed that, the writers helpfully titled one episode “Man of Science, Man of Faith.”   I always considered the show a lot less brainy than it fancied itself, but even I was a little surprised by the absence of nuance in the final act of the final episode.  Spoiler alert: Faith flattens science with a TKO.

I consider Christianity to be enormously destructive, but I grew up around many fine, principled people who were devout Christians and who insisted on crediting their faith for some of the qualities I admired in them.  I still struggle to reconcile their examples with my abstract views about Christianity, and to understand the distinction that they made (but that I cannot) between their Christianity and the anti-intellectual intolerance and hypocrisy which constitute the public face of that religion.  I wouldn’t bring that up here, except to say once again that characters who reflect any of those complexities have been mostly absent from popular television in my lifetime.  The only series I can think of that gazed upon religion or faith with an intelligent, ambivalent eye on a regular basis was Nothing Sacred, which made it through one shortened, controversial season in 1997-98.

The only contemporary drama I can think of that tries to engage with religion as a facet of its practitioners’ daily lives is HBO’s Big Love, a show that strikes me as a failure largely because   it doesn’t seem to have any of an idea of what it wants to say on that subject.  The Christians in Big Love are a rogue sect that even the Mormon church has disowned, and so the show can relish the hypocrisy and craziness of most of its characters without offending too many people.  Bill Hendrickson may drop to his knees and pray for guidance in trying times, but it doesn’t seem to occur to Big Love’s writers to try to explore why he does that and the ladies of Wisteria Lane do not.  With that piece missing, Big Love is just another sensationalist suburban melodrama, as tawdry as Desperate Housewives and a lot more leaden and self-important.

You might guess that I’d cheer on any show that equates religion with charlatanism, and gives us characters like Roman (the wily Harry Dean Stanton), a spiritual leader who’s really a despot and a crook.  But that’s the easy way out and it, like Big Love in general, gets boring in a hurry.  I wish Big Love had built itself around some substantive argument in favor of Christianity, because I honestly can’t understand why Bill Hendrickson, or anyone, falls for it, and as always I turn to art for enlightenment when I can’t find the answers in life.

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Also in the news: Matt Zoller Seitz, formerly a film reviewer for the New York Press, has penned some impressive television criticism at Salon lately, especially this detailed breakdown of a shift in Jon Stewart’s approach to the Obama Administration.  For people (like me) whose response to reality shows is to pretend they don’t exist, Seitz’s look at a crucial arc on the Discovery Channel’s The Deadliest Catch is a reminder that the genre can on occasion approximate the form of legitimate documentary.  But I disagree with Seitz when he shrugs off the show’s cheesy, pumped-up music, arguing that “decrying it . . . would be as pointless as complaining water is wet.”  Not good enough.  If a work of art/entertainment hopes to transcend a schlock genre, then eschewing the baser conventions of that genre is precisely what it must do.  The obvious analogy is to sitcom laugh tracks: critics complained about them for decades and, finally, unlike the weather (or global warming), somebody finally did something about it.

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And lastly: This week in the New Yorker, Nick Paumgarten compares God to the Balladeer, the off-screen voice (actually that of Waylon Jennings) that narrated each episode of The Dukes of Hazzard.  It’s not so much a tongue-in-cheek joke as a clumsy metaphor.  In fact, the Dukes reference is such a non sequitur that I think Mr. Paumgarten may have outed himself as a fan.  The last time I remember seeing The Dukes of Hazzard cited in the pages of the New Yorker, it was when Malcolm Gladwell complained that the show (along with the likes of Dallas and Starsky & Hutch) made us all literally, scientifically, dumber.  I’m not sure how I feel about this shift but it’s an obvious testament to the durability of Dukes, which was my favorite thing in the whole world around the time I was four years old.  Where I come from, God was very big, and so was the Balladeer.

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. 

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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.”

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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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