June 30, 2010
“Sometimes you just gotta be a whore in this business.” – Ed Asner
When I first set up this blog (and the related website), I decided that it would be totally non-commercial. No ads, no plugs, no Paypal “tip jar.” I began writing in this space as a way of distributing ideas and research that I thought had value even though they had been turned down by commercial publishers. I felt that if I was going to give it away for free, I should really give it away for free. Of course, a blog about forty year-old TV shows are not exactly an advertiser’s bonanza, and the offers to monetize this space were few. So it’s been easy to remain a purist.
The partial exception to that (and let this serve as past and future disclosure) has been the DVD screener. On a few occasions, small distributors have asked to send me DVDs or books for review, and if the content interested me, I agreed. At other times, I have contacted distributors, asked for screeners of specific DVDs, and received them. For instance, last week’s article on “Three Plays by Tennessee Williams” was facilitated by a review copy from Criterion.
I’ve never seen this as a conflict of interest for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve only asked for or accepted DVDs that I’ve genuinely wanted to write about. (If Criterion hadn’t send me a copy of the “Three Plays” disc, I would’ve gotten around to Netflixing a copy and writing the same piece anyway. But don’t tell them that.)
Second, I haven’t let the balance of content in this space be influenced by a desire for free stuff, even though, like most people, I do like to get free stuff. That may seem an obvious policy to follow, but I can think of a lot of internet DVD reviewers who seem to be filing joyless book reports just to avoid plunking down forty bucks for a Blu-ray. On this blog, I’ve always chosen what to write about based on my own whims rather than somebody else’s monthly release schedule. It gets awfully dull when everyone on the internet is talking about the same thing at the same time. (That, incidentally, is why I spiked a half-written piece on the Lost finale last month. By the time I got done reading what all the other media writers I admire had to say about the subject, I was bored with it.)
I realize it’s naïve of me to engage in any hand-wringing at all over free screeners. I’ve worked in or around enough “real” media outlets to know that most of the major entertainment programs, newspapers, magazines, websites, etc., receive an avalanche of unsolicited DVDs, and very often those go home with the receptionist or the janitor (or to the nearest record store) with the shrink-wrap still on. It’s probably also naïve of me to feel guilty about the few screeners I accepted and never got around to writing about, but I do, and if you’re one of the people who sent me one of those, I really will get to it. One of these days.
All of the above is intended as a prelude to an admission of defeat in a rather silly one-man battle with Shout Factory, a DVD company with which some of you may be familiar. Shout Factory, along with CBS/Paramount and Timeless Media, is one of the few companies in the dwindling DVD market that is still releasing a high volume of vintage television programming. Last year, I contacted Shout with a request for review copies of a few of their recent TV releases – Room 222 and Adam-12, I think. There was no response. I tried a second time. No response. Then I wrote directly to the president of the company. Again, no response.
To be clear, I don’t feel entitled to freebies from anybody. I wouldn’t argue with any publicist who took a quick look at this blog and found its potential for publicity too modest to justify the cost of sending out a review copy. But I did feel that a polite inquiry merited at least a professional response along the lines of “Sorry, bub, but you ain’t exactly Entertainment Weekly. Nice try, though.” And after three, count ’em, three such polite inquiries did not generate a response in kind, I was annoyed enough to consider boycotting future Shout Factory product on this blog. But that really would be unethical. So I went ahead and wrote about The Bill Cosby Show (an older Shout release) when the urge struck me. And sometime afterward, it occurred to me to send that piece to Shout, just as a way of showing them what they were missing out on, as it were.
That e-mail also received no direct reply, but – lo and behold – it landed me on Shout Factory’s press release distribution list. Would those e-mails about upcoming releases be followed by screeners? Why, yes, a week or two later, the UPS man delivered an envelope from Shout, and I opened it to find . . . a copy of G.I. Joe: The Movie. Not the recent live action movie, mind you, but the direct-to-video feature that was spun off the popular kids’ cartoon in the eighties.
G.I. Joe: The Movie was not one of the DVDs I requested, and not exactly the kind of show where you’d think, hey, that guy behind the Classic TV History Blog would be really likely to jump all over this and write a glowing review. Was Shout Factory just not getting it, or (indulge me in a bit of paranoia here) were they fucking with me? Kissing off those pesky e-mails by sending me the stupidest release on their calendar this year?
If so, well played. Except that a better choice might have been Small Wonder, the soul-crushingly vapid eighties sitcom about the robot kid. Small Wonder would be a sure-fire finalist in any competition for the worst television series of all time and, let me tell you, that piece of shit was on TV every single afternoon when I was in middle school. For years. On every channel. Wall-to-fucking-wall Small Wonder. Just finding that DVD in the mailbox could’ve made me morose and nauseous for a day or two, and that’s without even putting it into the DVD player. Small Wonder really would’ve stuck it to me good.
G.I. Joe, on the other hand, was a childhood favorite. I loved me some G.I. Joe back in the eight-to-ten year-old day. The toys, the comic books, and yes, the cartoon: I was the living-room Patton of G.I. Joe, circa 1986. I mock the G.I. Joe movie not out of cultural snobbery towards cartoons created to sell toys but because, as every old-school Joe fan knows, the movie introduced a load of fantasy claptrap and other inanities that brought the animated Joe to an ignominious close. No, if Shout had made the mistake of sending me the classic Season 1 of G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (yes, it’s in their catalog too), the result might well have been a prolonged dip into Joe nostalgia. Be thankful you were spared.
That bit of kvetching played out longer than I expected and probably just sounds sort of petty. Sorry about that: we’ll get back to serious business here in a few days. I do have a point, though, which is to explain how I had hoped to write at some length about Leave It to Beaver, but won’t be doing so. As I mentioned in passing in this piece on The Donna Reed Show (also reviewed courtesy of its distributor, thank you very much), I think Beaver remains a funny, important show, one with a great deal of unacknowledged cynicism and self-awareness lurking underneath the surface of its sunny suburban nuclear-family universe. But I haven’t seen much Beaver since I was twelve or thirteen (yes, that was a double entendre, and brace yourself for more), and I can’t afford the $179.99 (plus s&h) price tag for Shout’s new release of the complete Beaver series, so a closer analysis will have to wait.
In the meantime, I’ll direct you to Neil Genzlinger’s terrific piece on Leave It to Beaver in last Friday’s New York Times (which pays for its review copies, if I understand its rigid rules of objectivity accurately; but let’s wait and see who lasts longer in the modern mediaverse, the big paper or the li’l blog). Genzlinger picks out a great example of Beaver’s sly, multi-layered humor, a scene in the first episode where the Beav and his older brother elaborately stage the scene of an untaken bath, all the way down to chucking some dirt in the tub to create a ring. That it would take less effort to actually bathe is the punchline that wisely remains unspoken. And then there’s the kicker, when Wally dismisses a more obvious transgression (reading a sealed teacher’s note) at the same time he’s pulling one over on his parents. Nixonian logic in the Eisenhower era, and ample evidence for my theory that Wally was a situational ethicist of the highest order, a passive-aggressive malcontent who lurked in the shadow of a more transparent sleazebag (the infamous Eddie Haskell). In the end, Wally got away with a more profound form of insolence.
Genzlinger did phone interviews with the four main kids from the show, and asks some good questions that get at the pranks, pratfalls, and embarrassments that made up the week-in, week-out existence of Wally and Eddie and Lumpy and Beav. In Leave It to Beaver growing up was often sort of a placid nightmare, despite the calming influence of Ward and June. I may be on shaky ground when I wonder if the famous episode that traps Beaver in a giant soup bowl inspired Fellini’s billboard sequence in Boccaccio 70, but how about this one: the Beav in a bunny suit (Jerry Mathers’s pick as the most humiliating episode) as the source of the scary giant bunny in the not un-Leave It to Beaver-ish Donnie Darko.
(“Beaver in a bunny suit. The only thing that would be funnier is a bunny in a beaver suit,” is Lumpy’s typically meta take on the situation.)
The last thing about Leave It to Beaver is the urban legend. Not the one about how Jerry Mathers was supposedly killed in Vietnam. No, the one I’m fixated on is how Mrs. Cleaver supposedly uttered the line of dialogue, “Ward, you were awfully hard on the Beaver last night.” Hyuk, hyuk, I know, but my stuck-in-the-sixth grade wit needs to know if that line, which could have been spoken in so many episodes of Leave It to Beaver, ever actually was spoken in one of them. I was thinking I’d offer to give my review copy to any reader who could find it in an episode, or else a line close enough to it to be the source of that rumor. Of course, I don’t have a review copy to give away, but if anyone does know the answer, please enlighten us in the comments anyway. On the internet, everyone works for free.