Credit2

When Christopher Knopf, who died on February 13 at the age of 91, turns up in the history books, it is usually a source rather than as a subject.  

During a stint as a contract writer at ex-movie star Dick Powell’s significant and, today, too little-known Four Star Productions, Knopf (the k is pronounced, the f is silent) befriended with a trio of future television superstars: Sam Peckinpah, Bruce Geller, and Gene Roddenberry.  He saw the truculence that would expand into full-blown insanity and addiction once Peckinpah became a prominent film director, and he watched from the sidelines as Geller and Roddenberry gave birth, respectively, to Mission: Impossible and Star Trek.  Roddenberry kidnapped him once on his motorcycle, and took Knopf on a rain-slicked ride that ended with a crash, torn clothing, scraped skin.  “Do you realize you may never do that again?” Roddenberry asked his dazed companion.  A self-effacing family man, Knopf had little in common with these larger-than-life characters, but remained a bemused, lifelong observer of their perpetual midlife crises.

And yet Knopf’s own accomplishments, despite his reticence to claim credit for them, were prodigious.  A past president of the Writers Guild of America (from 1965 to 1967), an Emmy nominee, and a winner of the coveted Writers Guild Award, Knopf was a writer of considerable skill.  His voice, though distinctive, echoed off those of the other talented men he shared ideas with in his formative years. His best work espouses the compassionate liberalism one associates with Roddenberry, as well as the pessimistic, myth-busting sobriety of Peckinpah.  Knopf wrote about himself a great deal, although his touch was delicate enough that the elements of autobiography might remain safely hidden without the road map Knopf provides in his engaging 2010 memoir, Will the Real Me Please Stand Up.

Sensitive about his origins as a child of privilege (and a beneficiary of Hollywood nepotism), Knopf penciled himself into most of his early scripts as a grotesque but ultimately sympathetic outsider.  His first television western, “Cheyenne Express” (for The Restless Gun), centers around a weasel (Royal Dano) who back-shoots the boss of his outlaw gang and then expects the show’s hero (John Payne) to protect him from retribution.  Dano’s character would be utterly despicable, except that Knopf gives him a sole redeeming quality, a devotion to feeding a stray dog that tags along behind him – Umberto D in the Old West.  A traditional narrative until the final seconds, “Cheyenne Express” ends with a curious anti-climax – Dano falls out the back door of a train as the gunmen close in on him – that scans like a stranger-than-fiction historical anecdote, or a proto-Peckinpavian grace note.

Restless

Inscribing his characters with a hidden personal or political meaning became Knopf’s  trick for giving early westerns and crime stories a potency often missing from other episodes of the same series.  A feminist streak comes through in twinned half-hours that fashioned tough, doomed distaff versions of his autobiographical loner figure.  “Heller” (for The Rifleman) and the misnamed “Ben White” (for The Rebel, with an imposing Mary Murphy as a sexy outlaw’s girl known only as T) told the stories of backwoods women – defiant, independent, but with no recourse other than self-immolating violence to combat the drunken stepfathers, Indian captors, and psychotic lovers who victimize them.  “Heritage,” a Zane Grey Theater, cast Edward G. Robinson as a farmer whose neutrality during the Civil War may extend as far as turning his Confederate soldier son over to Union occupiers.  “That man was my father, who I felt at the time cared more about his work than about his kids,” Knopf told me. Yet the father in “Heritage” finally redeems himself, choosing his son’s life over the barn and the crops that will be burned as punishment for his collaboration.

Rebel2

Widening his gaze from psychological to social injustices, Knopf sketched Eisenhower as an ineffectual sheriff on Wanted Dead or Alive and contributed a fine piece of muckraking to Target: The Corrupters.  An exposé of migrant labor abuse, “Journey Into Mourning” centers around a cold-eyed portrait of a cruel and eventually homicidal foreman named Claude Ivy (Keenan Wynn).  Ivy’s villainy is flamboyant and inarguable but Knopf insists upon context. Ivy presents himself as a self-made success, a former worker who grants himself the right to mistreat his workers because he clawed his way out of the same misery.  Even as the laborers beg and threaten for a few cents more, Ivy grubs for his own meager share, dickering with a slightly more polished but equally callous landowner (Parley Baer). Knopf’s malevolent exploiter is just the middle man; the true evil, though name is never put to it, is capitalism.  As in “Heritage,” Knopf is passionate without becoming polemic, studying all sides of a dilemma with an even gaze.

Target

At the age of thirty, Knopf netted an Emmy nomination for “Loudmouth,” an Alcoa Theatre tour-de-force written especially for Jack Lemmon.  His reward, of sorts, was an exclusive contract with Four Star, the independent company that produced Alcoa (and Zane Grey Theater).  It was a mixed blessing.  Knopf loved working for Dick Powell and recognized that Four Star offered writers an unusual creative latitude.  However, he found that he could not protect his interests as effectively as Geller, Peckinpah, or Richard Alan Simmons, Four Star’s other star scribes.  Unable to unencumber himself from Powell’s credit-grabbing lackey, Aaron Spelling, Knopf spent much of his time at Four Star toiling on pilot development and other impersonal assignments.

Four Star ended badly for everyone, starting with Powell, who died in early 1963 after a brief bout with cancer.  The company collapsed and Knopf made a damaging horse-trade to escape the rubble, giving up credit and financial interest in a western he co-created, The Big Valley.  Knopf, in the days following John F. Kennedy’s assassination, had written a pitch called The Cannons of San Francisco, which imagined a West Coast version of the Kennedy family that would reign over Gold Rush-era California.  Powell’s successor, Tom McDermott, favored a vaguely similar ranching dynasty premise from A. I. Bezzerides that already had a network commitment, and pressured Knopf into writing the first two episodes in exchange for a release from his Four Star contract.  Knopf merged his own characters into Bezzerides’s setting, and the result was The Big Valley.  The “created by” credit on which ended up going to Bezzerides and producer Louis F. Edelman, who brought star Barbara Stanwyck into the show.  (Bezzerides exited the show more colorfully than Knopf, in a bout of fisticuffs.)

Knopf’s two-part Big Valley pilot script forayed once again into Oedipal anxiety, contrasting the manor-born assumptions of a rancher’s legitimate sons (Richard Long and Peter Breck) with the resentment of their bastard brother (Lee Majors).  Left in Knopf’s care, The Big Valley might have become an epic family serial – a novel precursor to Dallas – rather than the traditional western that lingered on ABC for four seasons as a middling epitaph for Four Star.

BigV

But letting go of the Barkley clan proved liberating for Knopf, who moved on quickly to write a pair of exceptional Dr. Kildares.  “Man Is a Rock,” probably his finest episodic work, takes a hard-drinking, hard-charging salesman who resides somewhere on the Glengarry Glen Ross / Mad Men axis, and fells him with a coronary event that requires not just surgery but a lengthy recuperation.  Knopf’s interest is in the difficulty of accepting illness as a life-altering event, and the idea that a man might allow himself to die simply because a change in routine represents a more tangible threat.  As Franklin Gaer, the salesman who tries to make a deal with death, Walter Matthau contributes an astoundingly visceral performance, full of pain and fear – a feat all the more terrifying when one realizes that Matthau was himself only a year away from a near-fatal heart attack that would shut down production of Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie for months.

Although cinephilia was not a key motif in Knopf’s work, it does play a role in both of his Dr. Kildares.  The second is set within the film industry, and although “Man Is a Rock” is not, it climaxes with a scene in which Franklin Gaer delivers this drunken, despairing monologue to his frightened teenage son:

There was this picture, see, and it had this trapeze artist in it.  He wasn’t a Jew or anything, but he was in this concentration camp, and he and a bunch of the others broke out, including Spencer Tracy.  Anyway, the Germans get to cornering this guy, this trapeze artist, up on some roof in the middle of a German town somewhere. There he is up there, and down below are a bunch of people.  They’re screaming at him to jump. And scrambling over the rooftops you’ve got all the nazis with the machine guns and everything, and they’re getting to him. Well, there’s no way out. It’s either back to prison, or jump.  So, that’s what he does. He throws his arms out like that, and he shoves off in the prettiest ol’ little swan dive you ever saw in your life. One hundred feet smack right down into the pavement. You know what they did in that theater?  Everybody stood up and applauded. For over a minute!

The speech is not only an unusually abstract metaphor for Gaer’s dilemma, but also another coded autobiographical reference.  Although Knopf doesn’t name the film in his script, Gaer is describing a moment from The Seventh Cross, a 1944 MGM production overseen by his father, Edwin H. Knopf.

Kildare

In 1967, Knopf got another western pilot on the air, and this time stayed with the project to oversee its creative development.  Set in 1888, Cimarron Strip was less a western than an end-of-the-western, a weekly ninety-minute elegy for the frontier that bore the unmistakable influence of the work Knopf’s friend Sam Peckinpah had been doing at Four Star.  Of the series’ twenty-three episodes, at least half a dozen centered on some larger-than-life tamer of the wilderness who was now obsolete and who would, by the story’s end, be stamped violently out of existence by encroaching civilization.  Knopf’s pilot script, “The Battleground,” charted the inevitable showdown between an irredeemably savage outlaw (Telly Savalas) and his former compatriot, Jim Crown (Stuart Whitman), who is now the marshal of the Cimarron Territory and the series’ protagonist.  Preston Wood’s mournful “The Last Wolf” took a sociological perspective in its examination of the wolvers, a class of rambunctious hunters whose value to the community had plummeted once they hunted the prairie wolf into extinction. William Wood’s “The Roarer” guest starred Richard Boone as a cavalry lifer so conditioned to bloodshed that, as a garrison soldier, he creates violence in a time of peace.  Explicitly revisionist, Harold Swanton’s “Broken Wing” and Jack Curtis’s extraordinary “The Battle of Bloody Stones” depicted thinly-disguised versions of (respectively) Wyatt Earp and Buffalo Bill as dangerous charlatans interested in only in their own mythmaking.

Network executives were perplexed by Knopf’s unorthodox approach to the conventions of the western genre, which often meant nudging Cimarron Strip into areas of allegory (several episodes had anti-war, which is to say anti-Vietnam, undertones) or toward other genres altogether.  Two particularly strong segments productively hybridized the western and and the horror story. “The Beast That Walks Like a Man,” with a teleplay by Stephen Kandel and Richard Fielder, puts Marshal Crown on the trail of a possibly otherworldly prairie predator that mutilates its victims in a manner unlike any known man or beast.  Some scenes, such as the one in which a hardened pioneer patriarch (Leslie Nielsen) finds his family mutilated, are terrifying, and the unexpected resolution is neither outlandish nor a cop-out. Even more outlandish is Harlan Ellison’s forgotten classic “Knife in the Darkness,” which makes the bold conceptual leap of transporting Jack the Ripper into the Old West.

Cimarron

It would be gratifying to hold up Cimarron Strip as an overlooked masterpiece that anticipated the magnificent spate of postmodern westerns that filmmakers like Peckinpah, Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, and others would make a few years hence.  Unfortunately, only a handful of the show’s finished segments achieved as much stature as the daring, offbeat synopses that Knopf detailed in our interview would suggest. The rest became casualties of an aggressive campaign of sabotage by CBS, even after Knopf and his staff pursued a preemptive strategy of appeasement by alternating straightforward action stories with more challenging conceptual narratives.

Cimarron Strip was final foray into episodic television for more than twenty years.  One of the few rank-and-file episodic writers who transitioned wholly into longform work, Knopf crafted a number of distinguished features and television films, including the cult item A Cold Night’s Death, a two-hander about scientists (Eli Wallach and Robert Culp) cracking up in Arctic isolation.  For the big screen, Knopf wrote one terrific period piece, the Depression-era rail-riding epic Emperor of the North, and two-thirds of another, the western Posse.  In both cases, the subtleties of his characters and ideas were coarsened by the films’ directors (Robert Aldrich and Kirk Douglas, respectively), and yet Knopf’s innate intelligence and empathy remain in evidence in the films.  He returned to television at the end of his career, co-creating and producing the Steven Bochco-esque legal drama Equal Justice in 1990.

This piece was adapted from the introduction to my 2003-2004 interview with Christopher Knopf, which will be a chapter in a forthcoming book.

Advertisements

Defending the Defenders

July 14, 2016

Title

The Defenders is one of the most important television series to air on an American broadcast network.  It won more than a dozen Emmys, including three consecutive trophies for best drama (a record not broken for another two decades, by Hill Street Blues).  At a moment when the dramatic anthology was on its deathbed, and ongoing series were often (fairly or not) thought of as meritless escapism (Newton Minow’s “vast wasteland” speech depends on this context), The Defenders created the template for what we now think of as quality television.  It was a show with both feet in the real world: where other smart dramas gave their elements of social commentary some shelter within genre (Naked City; The Twilight Zone), melodrama (Peyton Place), or abstraction (Route 66), The Defenders was bluntly political.  Its basic premise – Lawrence Preston (E. G. Marshall) and his son Kenneth (Robert Reed) run a small Manhattan law firm with an appetite for controversial cases other attorneys might avoid – was in the most literal sense a formula for debating hot-button issues in the guise of fiction.  While similar shows have often worn a fig leaf of balance, The Defenders trafficked in advocacy, taking liberal or even radical stances and articulating counterarguments mainly so that it could knock them down.  It was pro-abortion and anti-death penalty, anti-nuke and even pro-LSD.  Although it lasted for four years in part as CBS’s highbrow show pony (and self-important network chairman William Paley’s unstated apologia for the likes of The Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan’s Island), The Defenders was at least a modest hit, cracking the Nielsen top twenty during its second season.  It became the key precedent for shows like The Senator and Lou Grant and a name-checked inspiration for some of the present century’s smartest dramas, including Boston Legal and Mad Men.  Had this bold series failed to achieve both popular and critical acclaim, and done so without compromising the elements that made it noteworthy, prime time probably would have been a lot dumber in the decades that followed.

Unfortunately, The Defenders has fallen into apocalyptic obscurity during the fifty-one years since it went off the air.  Though it did have a short life in syndication (which is still more than its Plautus Productions siblings, including the excellent three-season medical drama The Nurses and the cult whatsit Coronet Blue, enjoyed), The Defenders had largely disappeared from view by the time VCRs made it possible for collectors to capture and circulate any obscure show that turned up in reruns somewhere.  The last known sighting, a short run on the Armed Forces Network circa 1980, is the source of a few of the thirty or so episodes (out of 132) that have found their way into private hands (and eventually onto Youtube).  Cerebral shows and black-and-white shows are a hard sell, to be sure, but The Defenders was further hampered commercially by split ownership (between CBS, the corporate successor to its executive producer Herbert Brodkin, and the estate of its creator, Reginald Rose) and possibly by talent deals that established complex, non-standard residual payments.  Although short-lived shows often vanish into the studio vaults, it’s extremely unusual for any series that crossed the 100-episode syndication barrier – much less one that took home thirteen Emmys – to remain so thoroughly unseen for more than a generation.  That’s why this week’s DVD release of the first season of The Defenders can legitimately be described, at least within the realm of television, as the home video event of the century.

Me being me, I’d like to briefly discuss why this might not be an altogether good thing.

Remember how The Andy Griffith Show spent part of its first season with Andy as a jibbering hillbilly, before Griffith figured out that he was the straight man?  Or how M*A*S*H uneasily aped the chaos of Robert Altman’s film before focusing on its core characters, or how Leslie Knope was an idiot at the beginning of Parks and Recreation?  First season shakedown cruises are almost a tradition among great sitcoms, but long-running dramas sometimes take them, too.  Mannix started with a convoluted, allegorical format and struggled until its second-season reversion to classicism; Kojak needed a year to get off the backlot and flourish in full-on French Connection, Beame-era Big Apple scuzziness.  The Good Wife (another recent show with a lot of Defenders DNA in it) and Person of Interest each slogged through half a year of dull standalone stories before committing to bigger, more original narrative arcs.

You probably see where I’m going with this: The Defenders is one of those shows that didn’t hit its stride until its second season.  Although there are many strong hours in the first year, and I’m going to enthuse about some of them in a moment, nearly all of the series’ worst duds can be found in this initial DVD set, too.

Prestons

The Defenders has often been characterized as the anti-Perry Mason.  If Mason was an unabashed fantasy of the defense attorney as an infallible white knight, The Defenders was a corrective that depicted the law with an emphasis on realism and moral ambiguity – to the extent of permitting the Prestons to be among the few TV lawyers, then or now, to lose their cases.  Reginald Rose’s lawyer, Jerome Leitner, was credited as a consultant on The Defenders, and one suspects that his influence was considerable.  As it evolved, The Defenders’ interest in the arcana of legal procedure came to define it.  (Long before The Good Wife made it a seasonal tradition, for instance, The Defenders liked to drop its lawyer heroes into non-standard courtrooms and show them struggling to master their procedural quirks.  The first season’s “The Point Shaver” takes place in a Senate hearing, and “The Empty Chute” in a military tribunal.)

It’s a shock and a reality-check, then, to find Lawrence and Ken Preston engaging in some very Perry Mason-esque courtroom theatrics in the early episodes, even to the extent (in “The Trial of Jenny Scott” and “Storm at Birch Glen,” among others) of badgering confessions out of the real culprits on the witness stand.  Moments like these are a bit of an embarrassment compared to the more serious-minded tone The Defenders would soon adopt; in hindsight, they seem like something from a different series altogether.  In general, the first year was overreliant on personal melodrama rather than legal procedure as the basis of stories.  “The Accident,” for instance, was the first episode whose climax turned on an obscure point of law; it was the eighth to air.  “The Broken Barrelhead,” the first season finale, introduces an intriguing ethical dilemma that’s been revived lately in news coverage of self-driving cars: was a driver right to plow into a group of pedestrians in order to save the passengers in his car?  But David Karp’s teleplay sidesteps the question to focus on the very conventional conflict between the callow defendant (Richard Jordan) and his blowhard father (Harold J. Stone).

Were Rose and company, or the executives at CBS, worried that too much legalese would alienate the audience?  I’m speculating here because I still don’t really understand why season one of The Defenders is so frustratingly all over the map.  The archival record may answer the question definitely (Rose’s and several of the key writers’ papers are at UW-Madison, Brodkin’s at Yale), but I haven’t had the chance to explore much of it; and while I’ve interviewed many people who worked on The Defenders, all of them remembered its glory days with far more clarity than its early missteps.  Network interference is an obvious possibility: when I interviewed CBS executive Michael Dann in 2008, he called the famous “The Benefactor” episode “a turning point,” implying that The Defenders didn’t have a mandate to get political until it tackled abortion head-on and got away with it.  The eighteenth episode, “The Search,” has a prosecutor (Jack Klugman) and an implausibly naive Lawrence Preston doing a post-mortem on an old trial after they learn that Preston’s client was sent to the electric chair for a murder he didn’t commit.  The structure of Reginald Rose’s script is misshapen and the ending is a cop-out, and I’ve always suspected “The Search” was a neutered attempt at the kind of death penalty broadside that would become The Defenders’ signature issue – addressed passionately in “The Voices of Death,” glancingly in “Madman,” and definitively in the astounding “Metamorphosis,” all from the second season.  The network continued to wring its hands throughout the run of the series, shelving an episode about cannibalism (!) for a year and authorizing the classic “Blacklist” only after the producers agreed to drop a race-themed script in exchange; the difference in these later clashes was just that once the Emmys started to pile up, the producers had more leverage.

Klugman

Along with the degree of network tinkering, the major unknown in understanding the early content of The Defenders is the extent and nature of Reginald Rose’s contribution.  The Defenders was unquestionably Rose’s show, although it’s revealing that throughout the series’ run he received screen credit only as its creator, never as a producer or story editor.  Rose was extremely hands-on at the outset, to the extent that TV Guide reported on murmurs from disgruntled freelance writers who deployed pseudonyms to protest Rose’s copious rewrites; indeed, overwork triggered some sort of physical breakdown late in the second season, which required Rose to reduce (but never wholly end) his involvement in the writing.  (From 1963 on, it’s likely that David Shaw, credited as a story or script consultant, was the de facto showrunner.)  But Rose penned only a dozen original teleplays for The Defenders, a startlingly small number compared to the totals racked up by Rod Serling on The Twilight Zone and Stirling Silliphant on Route 66.  A few of those 12 are masterpieces, and the last of them (“Star-Spangled Ghetto”) plays as a kind of mission statement for the what the show wanted to be about; but more of them feel compromised or desperate, as if Rose was bashing out flop-sweat scripts to fill holes in the production schedule.  The second season’s “Poltergeist,” an eccentric bottle show in which the Prestons solve a locked-room murder in an isolated beach house, has elements of concealed autobiography (it takes place on Fire Island, where Rose vacationed in those days) and almost seems to be a cry for help, a notice that Rose would rather have spent the winter of 1963 writing anything but The Defenders.

I point all of that out in order to advance a hesitant case that in his approach and his skill set Rose may have been less of a Serling or Silliphant and more like, say, Gene Roddenberry on Star Trek.  Roddenberry had a strong, compelling overall vision for his creation, but proved to be a less talented episodic writer than Gene L. Coon, D. C. Fontana, and some others on the show’s staff.   It’s hard to point to anything of prodigious quality in Roddenberry’s dialogue or even his prose, and yet every subsequent variation of Star Trek has abandoned the philosophical and structural underpinnings that Roddenberry laid down in the original series at its peril.  In Rose’s case, there’s a thematically coherent body of Studio One scripts that establish his preoccupations with ethics and rhetoric, culminating with 12 Angry Men, his declaration of interest in the intersection of jurisprudence and liberal values, and “The Defender,” a live 1957 two-parter that served as a blueprint for the subsequent series.  “The Defender,” with Ralph Bellamy and William Shatner as the Prestons and Steve McQueen as the defendant, is pretty clunky, and it’s noteworthy that when Rose reworked the script as the series’ pilot, “Death Across the Counter,” he improved it.  (The third episode broadcast, “Death Across the Counter” was shot in Los Angeles more than a year before production began – an atypically long delay, during which the show was all but brought back from the dead in spite of sponsorial indifference – thus adding to the first-season sense of The Defenders being a different show every week.)  The crude generational conflicts between the Prestons in “The Defender” are reshaped into more specific clashes over legal strategy and philosophy in “Death Across the Counter,” and this explicit refinement of a theme over time makes me think that Rose, as The Defenders went into production, was still actively working out what he wanted to say and how best to say it.  Mining drama from the statutes is one of those conceptually pure ideas that looks obvious in retrospect, but maybe Rose had to chisel through the hysterics of a thousand hacky courtroom dramas to see it.  12 Angry Men, Rose’s best work prior to The Defenders, emphasizes archetypes over specificity – in a way that’s conscious and effective (Henry Fonda’s common-man rectitude takes on symbolic weight in the film version), but is often seen as reductive, self-important, or dated in contemporary critiques of the piece.  (See Inside Amy Schumer’s dead-on parody.)  As Serling and Silliphant poured forth with high-flown philosophy and idiosyncratic syntax that always felt fully formed and absent of self-doubt, Rose may have been more process-oriented, and messier: did all those pseudonymous writers complain because the best elements of their episodes were the touches that Rose added?   (Howard Rodman, the genius to whom Silliphant bequeathed Naked City for much of its run, had a unique, poetic voice – and a tendency to express it through substantial, uncredited, and often objected-to rewrites of other writers’ scripts.  So did The Outer Limits’ Joseph Stefano.)

Launching an innovative series is always burdened with a prosaic risk – can you find enough people who will understand how to write it?  And Rose, lacking the Serlingian-Silliphantian stamina to pen the lion’s share himself, was at a perilous disadvantage.  The first season’s credits are full of one- or two-off writers who weren’t asked back.  There are other flaws at work, too, including skimpy production value (something that never really changed; The Defenders was an interior-driven show, and any expectations of further exploring the vintage New York of Naked City must be gently managed), tonal inconsistencies (check out the weirdly overemphatic presentation of the Prestons’ old-school-ties nostalgia at the beginning of “The Point Shaver”), and direction that’s a bit stodgy.  Herbert Brodkin’s aesthetic was notably conservative – he favored endless extreme closeups to the extent that his directors referred to this set-up, contemptuously, as a “Brodkin.”  (Not to mention that most episodes climaxed in the confines of a courtoom – a setting where convention placed severe constraints on any potential flourishes in set design or composition.  Did any of the great directors do their best work filming trials?)  The Defenders eventually came to have some of the forceful compositions and contrasty, documentary-styled lighting that one finds in the New York indie films of the day.  The series’ most visually imaginative director was Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke), who debuted with a late first-season episode and became a regular the following year.  Aesthetics, too, were a work in progress.

Kiley

For skeptics, the best way to tackle The Defenders on DVD might be to skip ahead to “The Attack,” the thirteenth episode broadcast and the first one that is unquestionably great.  Featuring Richard Kiley as a surly beat cop whose daughter is sexually assaulted, “The Attack” tackles both pedophilia and vigilantism.  The outcome of the trial ends up feeling anticlimactic; what’s notable about the ending of “The Attack” is that Lawrence Preston has grown disgusted with his client, has come to believe in the man’s moral guilt.  Think about that for a moment: The Defenders positions Preston as its putative hero, yet here it shows him rejecting the kind of eye-for-an-eye emotionalism that was axiomatic in westerns and crime dramas, in a way that dares the audience to consider him unmanly.  In what would become another recurring theme of the series, “The Attack” advocates for the necessity of institutional over individual justice; the catharsis of the latter is a refuge of barbarians.  This was almost beyond the pale at a time (and, really, this is still the case today) when television’s vigilantes were often sketched sympathetically even as, say, a reluctant Matt Dillon punished them, and when masculine honor and physical courage were (or are) unassailable.  Route 66’s Tod and Buz might’ve been wandering poet-bards of the asphalt frontier, but they still managed the beat the shit out of some unhip lunkhead (or each other, if lunkheads were in short supply) most weeks.  Preston prioritizes his ethical obligations over his personal feelings, and does so without a great deal of handwringing or soul-searching.  He’s a professional; this is simply how the law works.  Other smart, liberal Camelot-era dramas would play on this conflict between duty and personal conviction, but in ways that flattered the hero and the audience.  When Ben Casey solemnly invoked the Hippocratic oath and performed life-saving surgery on some maniac who murdered three people before the opening credits, it ennobled him; when the Prestons used legal trickery to get some mobster or neo-nazi off on a technicality, it was an inescapably sordid affair.  Moral victories could also be Pyrrhic ones.  

All of this strikes me as a huge advance over even 12 Angry Men, with its unthreatening man-against-the-mob calculus, and other high water marks of live anthology drama.  The Defenders insisted that the audience respond to the material intellectually as well as emotionally, and it confounded traditional, unquestioning identification with a show’s protagonists to a greater extent than anything else on television prior the antihero cycle of The Sopranos, The Shield, Mad Men, et cetera, forty years later.

After “The Attack,” episodes that are just as complex and confrontational start to alternate with the clumsy ones.  “The Iron Man” is a profile of a young neo-nazi (Ben Piazza) that wades into the paradoxical weeds of free speech absolutism.  “The Hickory Indian” draws a moral parallel between the mob and prosecutors using strongarm tactics to pressure an informer into testifying.  “The Best Defense” features Martin Balsam as a matter-of-fact career criminal railroaded on a bogus murder charge; the Prestons agree to defend him on the grounds that crooks deserve good legal representation as much as anybody else, and they’re rewarded for their naivete when Balsam’s character, scorpion-and-the-frog-style, implicates them in a false alibi.  “The Locked Room” uses a Rashomon structure to chronicle a “Scotch verdict” case, in which the prosecution can’t prove guilt but the defense can’t mount a persuasive case for innocence, either.  Its themes are existential: lawyers often don’t know or even need to know whether their clients are guilty; trials often fail to get anywhere close to the actual truths of a crime.

LockedRoom.png

I suspect that “The Locked Room” – the title refers to the jury’s place of deliberation – was a conscious, semi-critical reply to the idealism of 12 Angry Men.  Its author was Ernest Kinoy, whom I would single out as the key writer of The Defenders – even more so than Reginald Rose, and in fact it’s possible that Kinoy’s first-season scripts (which also include “The Best Defense”) influenced the direction in which Rose took the series.  Something of a legend among his peers, Kinoy won Emmys for The Defenders and Roots, and reliably wrote the best episodes of half a dozen series in between.  An adoptive Vermonter for most of his professional life, Kinoy kept one foot out of the industry; he’s semi-forgotten today, and I deeply regret that he never used one of those Emmys as leverage to get his own series on the air.  Rose and story editor William Woolfolk acknowledged him as the only Defenders contributor who always turned in shootable first drafts; the filmed versions of these suggest that Kinoy had an ease with naturalistic dialogue and realistic behavior that made other good writers’ work seem phony or overwrought.  Like The Defenders itself, Kinoy kept getting better as he went along; his greatest triumphs were “Blood County” (a clever analogy for violence against civil rights activists), “The Heathen” (a defense of atheism), “Blacklist,” and “The Non-Violent” (James Earl Jones as a Martin Luther King, Jr. figure), all from the second and third seasons.

The infamous abortion episode, shown in April 1962, was The Defenders’ trial by fire; I wrote about it in detail in 2008, when Mad Men wrapped a “C” story around it.  Produced in the middle of the season, “The Benefactor” endured its sponsor revolt and aired as the third-to-last episode.  Positioned as such, it’s something of a moral and aesthetic cliffhanger: the culmination of The Defenders’ evolution from a brainier version of Perry Mason to courageous political art.

Jones

I hope that by writing this I haven’t rained on the parade of everyone who has been looking forward to seeing The Defenders, or even sabotaged the show’s chances of continuing on DVD.   (Shout Factory, its distributor, has indicated that future releases depend on the sales figures for this one.)  Even the weaker episodes have something to offer, whether it’s the gritty New York atmosphere or the chance to spot important Broadway and New Hollywood actors a decade or so prior to their next recorded performances.  

(Some favorites: Gene Hackman as the father of a “mongoloid baby” in “A Quality of Mercy”; an uncredited Godfrey Cambridge as a prison guard in “The Riot”; Barry Newman as a reporter in “The Prowler”; Jerry Stiller and Richard Mulligan as soldiers in “The Empty Chute”; Roscoe Lee Browne as the jury foreman in “The Benefactor”; James Earl Jones, above, as a cop in “Along Came a Spider”; Gene Wilder as a waiter in “Reunion With Death.”)  

Rather, my purpose here is to preemptively shore up the reputation of The Defenders in anticipation of contemporary reviewers who may note the early episodes’ creakier elements and wonder, “What’s the big deal?”  The Defenders’ first season has a rough draft feel; it tests out all the blind alleys and bad ideas and rejects them in favor of greater complexity and commitment and innovation.  The first season is a journey; let’s hope that Shout Factory gives us the destination.

Note: The frame grabs illustrating this post are not taken from the DVD release, which hopefully will look better.

Invisible is right.

Word has it that the recent Blu-ray release of The Invisible Man, the 1975 series that starred David McCallum, is all fucked up.

The Blu-rays have cropped the episodes – which, like every TV show prior to the late nineties, were shot in the 4:3 aspect ratio – on the top and bottom to fit the standard widescreen television size of 16:9.  That means that poor David McCallum, who was already short enough to begin with, has been shorn of his hair and his legs in a lot of long shots.

There are apparently other problems with this Blu-ray – for one thing, all thirteen episodes are crammed onto a single disc – but obviously the Procrustean aspect ratio change is the dealbreaker.  It’s the same botch that afflicted one batch of Route 66 episodes (which were corrected) and the first season of Kung Fu (which weren’t).

(And the series pilot is actually stretched instead of cropped!)

VEI, which put out The Invisible Man discs, is one of several independent DVD labels that have sublicensed old TV series from Universal; it’s responsible for the absurdly overpriced McMillan and Wife box set, and for liberating the four episodes of The Snoop Sisters, a ninety-minute mystery wheel show that had been on a lot of collectors’ most wanted lists.

What’s particularly galling here is that VEI clearly knew better, because their simultaneous DVD release of The Invisible Man is in the original 4:3 aspect ratio.  I don’t pretend to understand the logic but it certainly appears that VEI has caved into imbecile pressure from the “I want it to fill my screen” crowd.

It’s not a total loss, since fans who know and care about this stuff can avail themselves of the DVDs instead of the Blu-rays.  But the state of classic TV on Blu-ray is so anemic – we have The Twilight Zone, The Prisoner, and … what else? – that a screw-up like this can have wider consequences.  It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: fans will buy the DVDs instead, sales for the Blu-rays will suck, and VEI (and other industry watchers) will convince themselves that consumers in this niche don’t care about Blu-ray.  Well, some of us do – but you have to get them right.

This issue has received surprisingly indifferent coverage on the usual internet rant-podiums (maybe because the show, which I’ve never seen, is not highly regarded), but  you can read more about this disaster at my bête noire, the Home Theater Forum. Update: At “press time,” HTF posters are reporting that VEI has plans to issue a second pressing of the Invisible Man Blu-rays in the correct aspect ration.  We’ll see.

Hammered

January 8, 2012

Mike Hammer, perhaps the trashiest of the film noir-era literary detectives, came to television in 1958, in seventy-eight gloriously lurid assemblages of fast-paced  fisticuffs, threadbare sets, and stock plots.  Video’s first Hammer, incarnated by Darren McGavin, was a reasonably faithful and always lively continuation of the popular series of novels by Mickey Spillane.  A&E’s unexpected DVD release of the show, which contains every episode, was one of my favorite home video events of last year.

Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer was produced by MCA, the talent agency-cum-TV factory that churned out oceans of half-hour genre series in the late fifties.  The shows were pumped out in backbreaking lots of thirty-nine, shot in three or even two days, for no money (the budgets were often well under $50,000 per episode), on the old, cramped Republic Studios backlot in the San Fernando Valley.  MCA had sweetheart deals with the networks, especially NBC, but since there was only so much prime time to be colonized, the up-and-coming mini-major also sold shows into first-run syndication.  Mike Hammer was one of those – perhaps the only syndicated MCA offering that’s remembered at all today, and a surprising network reject, given the fame that both Hammer and his shrewd, self-mythologizing creator had accrued since their 1947 debut.  The first episode, “The High Cost of Dying,” premiered in New York City on January 28, 1958 (but, as with any syndicated show, any airdates listed on the internet are bogus; local stations that bought the series had discretion over when to schedule it).

The difference between a bearable MCA show and an unbearable one, at least for a modern viewer, is often one of personality – that is, whether or not the series’ star had one.  The studio had tried to make TV stars out of stiffs like Dale Robertson (Tales of Wells Fargo), John Smith and Robert Fuller (Laramie), and Rod Cameron (City Detective, State Trooper, and Coronado 9), but it had also corralled an electrifying young Lee Marvin, clearly on the cusp of major stardom, into a television commitment with M Squad in 1957.

In the late fifties, Darren McGavin had a lot in common with Marvin.  Both had done showy supporting turns in major films, Marvin in The Big Heat and The Wild One and McGavin in a pair of 1955 releases, David Lean’s Summertime (as an unfaithful husband) and Otto Preminger’s The Man With the Golden Arm (as a vicious drug dealer).  The small screen had less prestige than the movies, especially those made by A-list directors, but it offered these youngish actors the opportunity to transition from incipient typecasting as flamboyant villains into potential stardom as leading men.  Television proved a wise career move for both actors and, a half-century later, they have repaid the favor by keeping their old series out of history’s dustbin.  The boundless energy of Marvin and McGavin – the way they dance around iffy dialogue and prop up dull guest actors and just revel in being the center of attention – is the indispensible quality that overwhelms the many elements that now appear cheap or rushed or dated.

By 1958, there had already been three films, a radio drama, and at least one busted television pilot spun off from the Spillane novels.  That pilot was written and directed by future Peter Gunn creator Blake Edwards and starring Brian Keith, who would’ve made a fine Mike Hammer.  But the only one of those properties that retains any currency today is Kiss Me Deadly, the 1955 Robert Aldrich masterpiece whose notes of cynicism, futurism, and paranoia were decades ahead of their time.

Armed with a richly ironic A. I. Bezzerides script, which depicted the thuggish, dim-witted Hammer as the agent of his own destruction, Aldrich recast Spillane’s two-fisted, commie-hating hero as something that crawled out from under a rock.  Aldrich put Ralph Meeker, the actor who replaced Brando as Stanley Kowalski on Broadway, in the part, and Meeker sneered, sweated, and fondled his way toward the creation of one of film noir’s nastiest protagonists.

Television’s toned-down Hammer isn’t quite as disreputable or disgusting as Kiss Me Deadly’s.  But McGavin captures enough of Meeker’s scuzziness to make the series more than a standard, square-jawed (and square) round-up-the-bad guys outing.  McGavin’s persona fits Hammer like a glove.  He’s fast-talking, gruff, growly, scowling, a girl-chaser and an ass-kicker.  He can take lines like “I’m gonna find out about this character Lewis, and when I do, I’m gonna take him apart like a four bit watch!” and spit them out with a palpable sense of menace.

Gun, Hammer, shithole: Darren McGavin as Mike Hammer in his seedy office

I’ve always looked at McGavin as a curmudgeon, television’s great loquacious crank, but my friend Stuart Galbraith IV, who thinks McGavin is cast against type (albeit effectively) in Mike Hammer, calls him “one of the breeziest, most likable of character actors ever.”  I have difficulty reconciling that McGavin with my McGavin, but it’s true that the actor plays sincere pretty well in the scenes where Hammer has to comfort grieving widows and orphaned daughters.  McGavin himself had contempt for the material, and insisted on affecting what he called a “satirical” approach; he claimed to have won a showdown on the matter with MCA chief Lew Wasserman, who wanted Mike Hammer played straight.

In practice, what McGavin described as “treating it in a lighter manner” meant camping it up whenever he could get away with it (he was a hammer indeed).  This was a habit that could make the actor overbearing in some of his later work, like Kolchak: The Night Stalker and A Christmas Story.  (The producers of both Kolchak and another McGavin private eye series, The Outsider – respectively, Cy Chermak and Roy Huggins – also clashed with the star over the same issue.)  But in Mike Hammer, McGavin doesn’t go overboard.   He knows just how much spoofery he can get away with, and his Hammer isn’t clowning so much as he’s blustering enthusiastically through each week’s mystery, the same way a dime-novel private eye would charge through a slim, plot-choked Dell paperback.  When McGavin does play it goofy, it’s often genuinely funny; see, for instance, “Requiem For a Sucker,” in which Len Lesser plays a gun thug with an exaggerated Brooklyn accent, and McGavin then mocks it throughout their scenes together.

Since I only made it through about three pages of I, the Jury before giving up on Spillane’s ugly, turgid prose, I can’t really grade the extent to which the Mike Hammer series mimicked the novels.  For television, MCA kept Hammer’s pal on the police force, Captain Pat Chambers, but dropped the other regular character of his sexy secretary Velda – a somewhat surprising move, given that a video Velda would’ve been both another leggy dame on display and an efficient conduit for some of the inevitable reams of exposition.  (Velda is mentioned in a few early episodes, but after a while it became clear that McGavin’s Hammer was a one-man operation.)

As for Chambers, he was played by Bart Burns, a busy bit player and live television veteran, whose chief claim to recognizability was his pronounced Noo Yawk accent.  Burns bears a close resemblance to Mickey Spillane, and I wonder if perhaps he was Spillane’s choice to play the character and ended up with the secondary role as a consolation prize after MCA hired a bigger star.  Certainly, Spillane had a history of trying to make over screen Hammers in his own image.  He went on to star as his own creation in the weird but worthwhile 1963 movie The Girl Hunters, and he had tried unsuccessfully to install Jack Stang, an ex-cop pal on whom the character was purportedly based, as Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly (and did succeed in getting Stang small acting roles in I, the Jury and another Spillane film project, Ring of Fear).

Bart Burns as Captain Pat Chambers

If you only know the Hammer character via Kiss Me Deadly, which transplants him to a very location-specific Los Angeles, the emphasis that the television series places on his identity as a New Yorker will come as a surprise.  Television’s Hammer often sings the praises of the great city, except when he’s going back to his rough old neighborhood (Greenwich Village, now even more perilous following its colonization by hipsters) to help out or hunt down an old crony.  The implication is always that Hammer has come a long way since those hardscrabble days, but the visual evidence is unpersuasive.  Hammer operates out of a grungy one-room office (see the image above), and lives a transient existence in the dubious-looking Parkmore Hotel.  The heroes of 77 Sunset Strip and Peter Gunn were upright, respectable professionals, and part of the fun of Mike Hammer is that no one made any effort to reform Hammer into any kind of respectability.  He drives a huge honking convertible; that’s something, at least.

According to one historian, Mike Hammer slaughtered thirty-four people in the first five Spillane books.  There’s no way a television hero, even one operating just prior to the 1961 Congressional hearings on televised violence, could match that body count; McGavin got to blow away one or two bad guys per episode, tops.  But the show occasionally delivers some hint of the sex and sadism in which Spillane traded, especially in the earliest episodes.  In “Just Around the Coroner,” a murder victim leaves a good-sized arc of blood spatter on a wall, and Hammer observes that “somebody had worked her over with a pistol butt or a hatchet, you couldn’t really tell which.”  In the standout “I Ain’t Talkin,’” Hammer roughs up a woman, kicking in a moll’s door, then shoving her up against a wall and screaming into her face.  (Then, of course, he kisses her.)  “Hot Hands, Cold Dice” has a scene in which Hammer invites a villain to step outside, then throws his coat over the oaf’s face and kicks him in the ass.  In “Just Around the Coroner,” as in Kiss Me Deadly, Hammer’s meddling gets an innocent person killed.  None of this comes anywhere close to the demythologized, revisionist private eye cycle of the seventies, but Mike Hammer does occasionally – and unexpectedly, for a fifties TV show – call to mind The Rockford Files or Altman’s devastating riposte to Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye.

Darren McGavin and Joan Tabor in “I Ain’t Talkin'”

If the violence was necessarily diluted, other aspects of Spillane’s fifties-pulp style are not.  Like M Squad, the show is patched together with verbose first-person narration, a necessity for conveying all the plot points that a low-budget show could not afford to stage.  Mike Hammer turns a weak device into something enormously entertaining: the narration is often witty and lurid, and McGavin’s delivery of it is varied, surprising, and often priceless.  The episode titles, which do appear on screen, also convey the show’s grim but wry attitude: “Lead Ache”; “Baubles, Bangles, and Blood”; “For Sale: Deathbed – Used.”

So do the stories themselves, when the series is at its best.  In “Just Around the Coroner,” Hammer tells a clerk to keep the hotel doctor on call for the next ten minutes.  Then he barges in on a counterfeiter, breaks the guy’s money-printing machine over his head, throws him into the hallway, and helpfully informs him that first aid awaits in Room 210.  The funny “To Bury a Friend” features James Westerfield as a smirking cop (with a great name, Lieutenant Dan Checkers) who uses Hammer as a punching-bag bird-dog to ferret out a murderer while he himself remains parked on his fat ass.  At the end of “Dead Men Don’t Dream,” the gallant Hammer allows the moll to slip away (with a parting admonition to “change your brand of men”) and then pounds the shit out of a roomful of thugs.  His pal Captain Chambers is outside with the cops, but he hangs back to give Hammer time to finish his beatdown.  “Mike Hammer doesn’t kill easy,” Chambers tells the anxious ingenue confidently.  Hammer is the Paul Bunyan of pulp, parading through downmarket crime stories writ large as noirish tall tales.

*

MCA in the late fifties was already famous as a menacing corporate octopus, a sort of entertainment-industry F.B.I. that clothed its agents (many of whom later became television producers or executives after MCA’s TV arm, Revue Productions, consumed the agency business) in dark suits and ordered them to avoid personal publicity.  That ethos may explain why some early Revue shows, including Mike Hammer, carry no producer credit.  So if there was a guiding intelligence behind Mike Hammer – and the series was sharp enough that it must have had one – that person’s identity will remain cloaked until someone undertakes a bit of detective work.  (Alas, of the archival, not the beating up people, kind.)

We do, however, know who wrote and directed the seventy-eight Mike Hammer segments.  The future A-lister among the regular directors was Boris Sagal (Dr. Kildare, Mr. Novak, The Omega Man), then a recent graduate of the live Matinee Theater doing his low-budget apprenticeship in filmed television.  It’s almost impossible to see any kind of directorial signature in these two-day wonders, but I did think it fitting that the few forceful compositions I spotted occurred not in Sagal’s episodes but in those helmed by Earl Bellamy, a journeyman who stuck with Universal for a long time as a directorial fix-it man on troubled productions.

It’s more relevant to look at Mike Hammer’s writers, since this was a show that thrived more on words than images.  Spillane had nothing to do with the television Hammer, but the series’ most prolific writer (and possibly its uncredited rewrite man) was another pulp writer of some note, Frank Kane.  Kane’s series character, New York investigator Johnny Liddell, predated Mike Hammer but flourished in a series of novels that emerged after Spillane hit it big.  Supposedly Kane repurposed some of the plots from the Liddell books into Mike Hammer mysteries, and it was an easy transposition: Liddell had a brother on the police force who could turn into Captain Chambers with just a dash of Wite-Out.  Kane, who died young in 1968, did not make substantive contributions to many television series, but he had done quite a bit of writing for radio, on The Shadow and also an array of private eye series.  His involvement may explain why Mike Hammer’s voiceovers were so much more flavorful than those heard in other contemporaneous series (M Squad, for instance).

Mike Hammer also adapted stories by a young Evan Hunter (under the pen name “Curt Cannon”) and Henry Kane, a prolific crime novelist who still has a small cult following.  There was also the talented Bill S. Ballinger, whose books formed the basis of the films noir Pushover and Wicked as They Come.  His script for “Requiem For a Sucker” introduces characters named Zyg Zygmunt, Buckets Marburg, and Chinchilla Jones, and it’s as bouncy and Runyonesque as those monikers would imply.  Ballinger signed all his Mike Hammers as “B. X. Sanborn,” and the pseudonym mania didn’t stop there.  “Steven Thornley,” who wrote more than a dozen scripts, was in fact Ken Pettus, a young writer who later contributed extensively to The Big Valley, The Green Hornet, Bonanza, and Hawaii Five-O under his own name.

Len Lesser and McGavin in “Requiem For a Sucker”

It’s too bad that the television rights to the Hammer character didn’t go to some outfit other than MCA.  Ideally, the series would have been produced on the streets of Hammer’s home turf, New York City, and with more than a few pennies’ worth of production value.  The Republic lot’s New York street was so inadequate that Mike Hammer relied mainly on interiors and rear projection.  (McGavin, or more often his double, did swing through New York for pickup shots a few times: “Dead Men Don’t Dream” shows McGavin outside a Houston Street subway station, and “Letter Edged in Blackmail” has him entering the Daily News/WPIX building on 42nd Street, not too many blocks away from where I’m writing this.)

But the low-rent approach works; it fits the material.  The narration drowns out much of the toneless stock music that was MCA’s unfortunate aural trademark.  The threadbare sets evince Mike Hammer’s threadbare world.  And McGavin’s mugging takes your attention away from the holes in the overused plots.  There were four great half-hour hard-boiled private eye shows on the air during the late fifties: Peter Gunn, Richard Diamond Private Detective, Johnny Staccato, and Mike Hammer.  Each of the first three enjoyed the participation of a figure who retains a significant cult following today – respectively, Blake Edwards, David Janssen, and John Cassavetes – and I think that because Mike Hammer has no comparable cinephile lightning-rod name, it may sometimes be excluded from their company.  Hopefully the new DVD release, which has given the show its first significant exposure in about fifteen years, will put some fresh ammo in Hammer’s gun.

*

Postscript: A&E doesn’t release a lot of vintage television, but Mike Hammer brings the label full circle: fans will recall its issue, over a decade ago, of another fifties private eye classic, Peter Gunn, which was doomed by atrocious image quality and aborted before even the first (of three) seasons was completed.  The DVDs of Mike Hammer, which sport slightly soft but still very watchable transfers, represent a kind of redeption for the label.  While researching this piece, I noticed that, amazingly, the 1954 Brian Keith pilot is also available on DVD, and there’s still more good news: I’ve heard a solid rumor that Peter Gunn will be continued on DVD next year, by a different label, and hopefully from better elements.

Nostalgia’s Menace

July 29, 2011

I never really met Jay North, who played Dennis the Menace on television, but I saw him once at an autograph show.  North, who has long been as much of a poster-boy for the fucked-up child star as you can be without actually dying from it, was slumped face-down over his table, cradling his head in his arms amid a puddle of eight-by-ten glossies.  Jeannie Russell, his former co-star, stood behind him, hand on his shoulder, quietly talking him off of whatever ledge of mental anguish on which North was perched.  What struck me as I studied this scene was how routinized it seemed: I got the idea that these two had acted out this ritual countless times before, a sad-funny part of arrested adult lives built upon vague memories of a childhood in which they remained trapped like the proverbial bugs in amber.  And although the spectacle might have been new to this particular roomful of fans, I was certain that I wasn’t in the midst of the first crowd that had tiptoed awkwardly around North in a public setting, waiting for him to get himself together.  Exactly who, I wondered, was benefitting from this transaction?  What does Jay North get from these people?  Why is an old photo of a burned-out child actor worth five bucks and a trip to North Hollywood to anyone?  Nostalgia is the slowest-acting poison.

Jay North: Rebel without a comb.

Anyhow: This month brings us the DVD release of the second season of Dennis the Menace (the third, out of four, has already been announced for the fall, suggesting unexpectedly robust sales), and Shout Factory, in its usual puckish fashion, saw fit to send me this set but not the first season, which came out back in March.  Ordinarily, I’m a completist about this kind of thing, but then I decided that if there was ever a series that did not need to be seen from the beginning, it was probably Dennis the Menace.

My Nick at Nite memories of Dennis the Menace, which I found agreeable as a child, were of an epic, all-out guerilla combat between male Bad Seed Dennis and querulous, nasty old retiree Mr. Wilson.  This turns out to be inaccurate: the show is sweeter, gentler, blander, and less funny than I recalled.  Though it is based, of course, on the long-running Sunday strip by Hank Ketcham – himself apparently a nasty old man who based and named his creation after his own attention-deficit-disordered son, then became estranged from the child who earned him millions – the TV Dennis affects a comics-page atmosphere only in the repetition of cloying catchphrases (“Great Scott!” “Good ol’ Mister Wilson!”) and the exaggerated costumes of Dennis and his know-it-all nemesis Margaret (the aforementioned Ms. Russell).  The rest is straight sitcom-generic, a second-tier entry in the stable of cheap Screen Gems domestic comedies, which also included Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, and Hazel.

Like those other, better Screen Gems comedies, Dennis the Menace tried for warmth as much as for humor; and it’s a sad reality that warmth, especially yesterday’s warmed-over warmth, does not age as well as a good gag.  The premise hints at a dire form of suburban combat: a symbiotic bond of irritation between two essentially unpleasant people, a bratty child and a mean-spirited retiree, Maple Street denizens burdened by opposite extremes of age but both with too much time on their hands.  Dennis Mitchell is sometimes bratty, occasionally disobedient or disingenuous, but more often just accident-prone or hyperactive.  Mr. Wilson is an asshole and a hypocrite, susceptible to flattery or bribery, querulous by default but obsequious when the potential for personal gain presents itself.  Whenever he has a chance to finally vanquish his enemy, though, as when Dennis runs away in the season opener “Out of Retirement,” Wilson turns nice and sees to it that no harm comes to the boy.  (Paul Mavis, in a customarily credulous and exhaustive survey of the first season, suggests that the earliest episodes offered a livelier and more maleficent Dennis.)  It is probably wise that the show’s creators chose to soften these characters, because I see no one on the show’s roster of creative talent – Screen Gems staff producer James Fonda, B-movie directors William D. Russell and Charles Barton, a list of journeymen writers, and a less than ideal cast – with the talent to have made the show darker without also making it impossible to take.  But as a result Dennis the Menace has no subtext, no edge, neither the nuanced view of human behavior that distinguished Leave It to Beaver nor even the fascinating, barely suppressed hysteria of Donna Reed.

My favorite of the dozen Dennis episodes I watched this week was “Dennis and the Radio Set,” in which Mr. Wilson finds a cache of cash hidden in an old radio, purchased (thanks to Dennis’s meddling) at auction.  Mr. Wilson and Mitchell pere immediately start spending the money in their heads, until Dennis stops them in their tracks by insisting that a search be undertaken for the true owner.  The adults agree to place a classified ad in the local paper, but word it so that the person to whom the cash belongs is unlikely to come forward.  The ethical positions taken by the various characters – Dennis as idealist and moral compass, Mr. Wilson and the usually unassailable Henry Mitchell as morally compromised or, at least, pragmatic to excess – are not consistent with those they affect in other episodes.  But they are, at least, mildly surprising.  The teleplay (credited to Fonda, who was not primarily a writer) also finds room for a not-quite-absurdist gag in which the characters never realize that the old radio only broadcasts a South African station (say what about a lion on the rampage?) and the best role I’ve ever seen gangly bit actor Norman Leavitt play, as an American Gothic-styled ne’er-do-well angling to claim the cash, with a crib sheet tucked into his hat, yet.

But in its efforts to set up and then embellish some sustained gags, “Dennis and the Radio Set” runs somewhat counter to the series’ format.  The prototypical Dennis episode would be one like “Henry and Togetherness,” in which the towheaded twerp manages to destroy, among other things, a cookie jar, an aquarium, and Mr. Wilson’s new hat.  Mr. Wilson, meanwhile, runs a con on Dennis’s father, manipulating him into giving up a golf game in order to spend more time with Dennis, on the dubious logic that this will keep the little brat out of his own hair.

(Mr. Wilson often behaves according to that heightened dream-logic of sitcoms, in which people do things that make absolutely no sense in order that we may have a plot each week.  See also, for instance, Jeannie’s psychotic fixation on “helping” Major Nelson, despite his constant pleas that she mind her own fucking business; Darrin Stephens’s monomaniacally self-defeating anti-feminism; and practically all the behavior of the castaways on Gilligan’s Island.  I’m still working out my Lost-like theory that Gilligan’s isle was actually a top-secret asylum for the dangerously insane, and that everyone on the Minnow was a multiple murderer, heavily drugged and circumvented in escape by unseen government agents.)

Loose in its structure, slack in its pacing, “Henry and Togetherness” is content to assemble a modest catalog of routine childhood antics and banal adult reactions around only a smidgen of plot.  It is inoffensive in its mediocrity, and actually superior to episodes that contrive more elaborate or far-fetched conflicts between Dennis and Mr. Wilson, like “Dennis the Campaign Manager” (Dennis inspires Mr. Wilson’s bid for parks commissioner) or “Dennis and the Miracle Plant Food” (more or less self-explanatory).  But is that ambition enough to justify one hundred and forty-six half-hours?

There are other “classic” shows that have, arguably, gotten by with this approach.  If you enjoyed The Cosby Show, it was because you liked spending time with Bill Cosby and his appealing TV family, not because any of them were killing themselves trying to make you laugh.  But the cast of Dennis is too cut-rate to coast on slight material.  Radio actor Joseph Kearns plays Mr. Wilson with a catalog of overdone, old-womanish gestures and expressions.  He’s the right type but he isn’t much fun; Dennis needed a sharp, operatically hateable antagonist, like The Dick Van Dyke Show’s Richard Deacon or The Lucy Show’s Gale Gordon (who, in fact, replaced Kearns on Dennis after he died suddenly toward the end of the third season).  Herbert Anderson, playing Dennis’s father, is a nebbish with a tremulous voice, a slight build, and no chin.  In contrast to windbaggy sitcom dads like Robert Young, Hugh Beaumont, or Carl Betz, Anderson is a non-entity, displaced entirely by the monster-grandpa figure of Mr. Wilson.  A father figure of such extreme weakness, positioned within the standard nuclear-family dynamic, is an intriguing source of unease.  But I have yet to come across a Dennis episode that mines Anderson’s odd passivity for either humor or pathos.

And as for Jay North, a Village of the Damned escapee with a spooky death-rictus grin, he bellows his dialogue with a presentational delivery, like a seal whose trainer stands just off-camera, ready to toss a fish after each correctly timed bark.  On one level it’s hard to argue with his casting, because Dennis is supposed to be annoying and North certainly fits that bill.  I kept wishing, though, that Dennis could have been Stephen Talbot, who played the similarly unctuous character of Gilbert on Leave It to Beaver in a more likable and realistic manner.  Indeed, Beaver’s rich supporting cast contrasts sharply with the lack of background color in Dennis the Menace; all of Dennis’s friends and most of the other adults (including Gloria Henry as his mother) are forgettable.  Beaver had an first-rate secondary cast and it deployed them shrewdly, to extend its tonal richness.  If Wally and the Beav were flawed but also likable and recognizably human, then their assortment of friends were either venal (Eddie Haskell, Gilbert Bates) or stupid (Lumpy Rutherford, Larry Mondello), a collective suburban id that had no place in a plainer, sunshinier show like Dennis the Menace.

I wrote above that Dennis the Menace had no subtext, but that’s not quite true.   Out of the myriad ways in which a little boy might torment an elderly pensioner, nearly half of my random sampling of episodes zeroed in on incidents whereby Dennis caused, or threatened, a financial loss for Mr. Wilson.  This obsession with economics is expressed with numeric precision.  Every teleplay spells out the exact sums of money at stake.  Mr. Wilson’s worthless stock escalates in value to $500 just as Dennis throws it out with an old phone book (“The Stock Certificate”).  Mr. Wilson’s parcel of scrap land goes up in value from $2,000 to $5,000 after Dennis finds gold on it (“The Rock Collector”).  Mr. Wilson gets a hundred dollar bill in the mail, only to see it snatched away by a crow (“Woodman, Spare That Tree”).  And so on.  The amount of money in that radio set was $1600, and in conversations with each of two potential claimants, the exact figure of a reward is haggled over.  So much uncouth discussion of dollars and cents called up, in contrast, one of my indelible childhood memories of Leave It to Beaver, in which the Beav asked his dad if they were rich and Ward replied only that the Cleavers were “comfortable.”  (I think that line may have triggered my earliest conception of the middle class, and the awareness that I numbered among it.)

On other occasions I have praised shows (like The Wire) that emphasize money, because frank depictions of economic hardship rarely emerge from Hollywood.  But when Dennis the Menace does it, the show merely reflects George Wilson’s avarice; you can practically imagine the writers looking over his shoulder and smacking their lips in unison with Mr. Wilson as he grubs for some wad of cash.  It’s an unthinking validation of the capitalist trap: the anxiety surrounding financial loss is the most real thing in the world of Dennis the Menace.  Still, I’m not unsympathetic.  As I grow older and ever less “comfortable,” the thought of living on a fixed income moves further up on my list of fates worse than death, inching past even the threat of torment by unruly children.

The Writers Guild of America has confirmed the death of prolific television writer Preston Wood on January 13.  Wood was 87 and lived in Grover Beach, California.

Although there was no obituary at the time, word of Wood’s death has since surfaced in a detailed Internet Movie Database bio, bylined by his son Mark, and in this introduction to his papers at the Belknap Collection for the Performing Arts at the University of Florida.

Wood began as a writer for radio, then made an unusual detour into directing live television and another into the executive suites of Madison Avenue, where he developed TV programs for the ad agency Young & Rubicam.  In the early sixties, Wood transitioned back into story editing and then freelancing for television.

(It wasn’t uncommon for ad execs to migrate into creative roles in early television.  Some of the prominent live TV directors – although none of those who became important filmmakers – doubled as agency staffers.  Recently I’ve been interviewing another major television writer, Jack Turley, who spent a decade planning and directing TV commercials for ad agencies before making a career move similar to Wood’s, and at the same time.)

As a live television director, Wood worked mainly on We the People and Holiday Hotel.  In Los Angeles, he began his writing career as a story editor on the underrated western Outlaws, and also served briefly as a story editor during the first season of The Wild Wild West.  He wrote episodes of Bonanza, Mr. Novak, Slattery’s People, The Virginian, The Addams Family, The Patty Duke Show, Rawhide, Destry, Gunsmoke, Matt Lincoln, Little House on the Prairie, Quincy M.E., Kaz, and Jessica Novak.

Wood’s most significant work came for producer / director / star Jack Webb, during the twilight years of Webb’s crime show empire.  Wood wrote a few episodes of the 1967 revival of Dragnet before moving over to Adam-12 as its primary writer (he penned ten out of twenty-six episodes during the first season) and then on to Emergency!  A bit more than the other early writers, Wood mastered Adam-12’s emphasis on arguably trivial vignettes that made up the professional life of its prowl-car cop protagonists.  My favorite Adam-12 is one of Wood’s.  The tense “Log 33” abandons the show’s usual loose structure and imprisons Officer Reed (Kent McCord) in a room with a tough Internal Affairs investigator (Jack Hogan) who shakes his confidence in his memory of an officer-involved shooting.

Wood seems to have evaded a comprehensive career interview.  I contacted him in 2004 but a brief correspondence subsided without the opportunity of an interview, and Michael Hayde, Jack Webb’s otherwise thorough biographer, seems to have missed Wood as well.  As Wood’s archive of scripts is one of the most comprehensive records of a television writer’s output that we have, so I particularly regret missing the opportunity to complement that resource with an account of the events in his career that occurred off the page.

*

Also largely unreported: The death of comedy writer Norm Liebmann on December 20 of last year.  Born on January 16, 1928, Liebmann’s primary claim to fame derived from one-half of a murky “developed by” credit on The Munsters.  According to Stephen Cox’s The Munsters: A Trip Down Mockingbird Lane, a shady Universal executive merged Liebmann and collaborator Ed Haas’s proposal for the series with another by Allan Burns and Chris Hayward, without bothering to inform either set of writers until they met on the set.  A Writers Guild arbitration resulted in the convoluted (non-) creator credits.  Liebmann told Cox that he came up with some of the characters’ names, and he and Haas wrote a couple of early episodes.

Much of the rest of Liebmann’s resume holds more interest than The Munsters.  Alternating between sitcom and variety assignments, he wrote for the 1961 Bob Newhart Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Hazel, and Chico and the Man, as well as for Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, and Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.

I discovered The Fugitive on TV.

The title character was my imagined self as sexual igniter.  He was running from a murder charge as trumped-up as mine was real.  The show was the epic of shifting and lonely America.  Love was alway unconsummated.  Yearning was continuous and transferred monogamously.  Dr. Richard Kimble had moments of stunning truth with women weekly.  The real world interdicted his efforts to claim them and create a separate world mutually safe.  The guest-star actresses were torturously aware and rooted in complex and frustrated selfhood.  They all try to love him.  He tries to love them all.  It never happens.  It all goes away.

I fucking lost it and wept every Tuesday night . . . .

It wasn’t the way they looked at Dr. Kimble.  It was who they were and the path of their hurt up to him.

– James Ellroy (who turned 15 in 1963, and blamed himself for his mother’s murder five years earlier), in his memoir The Hilliker Curse (2010)