August 1, 2012
Todd VanDerWerff of The AV Club has an important piece about The Defenders, that cornerstone courtroom drama of the sixties that remains frustratingly out of reach for most ordinary mortals.
I’m quoted at some length by Todd, who buys into my theory that the early sixties are a “Platinum Age” of early television in which the best traditions of the live New York dramas were transmuted into ongoing series, in ways that remain unacknowledged or misunderstood. (I think I might be the first person to use that phrase as a corollary to the legendary “Golden Age” of the fifties, and I hope it sticks.)
For someone who’s only seen a handful of episodes, I think Todd does a great job of capturing the gist of The Defenders and sketching in some of the context within which it originally aired. The commenters make some valuable points, too; for one thing, both Todd and I forgot that for a time Law & Order indulged in those “we’re fucked” endings, where the bad guys walk and the prosecutors end up with egg on their faces. The tone of those is very similar to some of the Defenders episodes in which the Prestons lost their cases, and I bet Dick Wolf was well aware of the precedent.
Trust me, if more people could see more episodes of The Defenders, it would be cited in fanboy discussions of the all-time greats just as often as The Fugitive or The Twilight Zone or The Dick Van Dyke Show. Maybe someday.
April 29, 2012
On last week’s Mad Men, “Far Away Places,” Roger Sterling (John Slattery) and his trophy wife Jane dropped acid. Roger’s trip involved a magazine model with a weird hairdo who turned out to be Ted Baxter – well, not the Mary Tyler Moore Show news anchor, but the actor who played him, Ted Knight, who evidently supported himself with modeling gigs during his lean years as a bit player on Combat and The Outer Limits.
Matt Zoller Seitz, my go-to guy for Mad Men parsing, called the acid trip sequence “the least judgmental, most period-innocent depiction of the cosmic insight that people took LSD to experience in the mid-sixties.” This season of Mad Men is set in 1966, a moment when experimenting with LSD really did enter the mainstream. I’ll bet many Mad Men watchers were surprised by the idea that there were a few years – after LSD emerged from the counterculture of Ken Kesey and Owsley Stanley, before it was criminalized in 1968 and Richard Nixon called Timothy Leary “the most dangerous man in America” – when hard-drinking, out-of-touch middle-aged guys like Roger might have taken a dose. Even Cary Grant dropped acid around this time.
What may surprise TV fans even more is that Roger Sterling isn’t the first TV character in a suit to enjoy a beneficial acid trip. In fact, even in “TV time,” Kenneth Preston (Robert Reed) beat him to it by more than a year, in an amazing 1965 episode of The Defenders called “Fires of the Mind.”
In that show (and for the record, I’m self-plagiarizing this description from a post I wrote two years ago), 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.
“Fires of the Mind” was one of the last works by Arnold Manoff, the blacklisted writer who enjoyed a too-short revival of his career, under the pseudonym “Joel Carpenter,” in the early sixties. Manoff’s episodes of Route 66 and Naked City are quirky, off-beat comedies. But for his single Defenders, Manoff contributed a straightforward, frank script, clear-eyed and questioning in a manner typical of the taboo-busting legal drama. It feels like the work of someone who needed to stick up either for the experience of LSD or, at least, for its proponents who were being demonized in the press.
For the most part, early television was monolithically anti-drug, rarely mentioning illicit substances and then only in the most hysterical, unhip terms. “Fires of the Mind” aired for the first time on February 18, 1965. Manoff, who had a weak heart, had died eight days earlier. Roger Sterling took his acid trip in September 1966. Four months later, on January 12, 1967, Benjy “Blue Boy” Carver died of an acid overdose in the now-famous, latter-day camp classic Dragnet episode “The LSD Story,” effectively ending the conversation – on television, at least – about the possible benefits of lysergic acid diethylamide.
Robert Reed on acid!
October 11, 2010
“If Clurman had the fervent years in theater, these were the fervent years in television. I don’t think the people involved ever felt as great about themselves again as they did then.”
– Arthur Penn in Jeff Kisseloff’s The Box: An Oral History of Television 1920-1961
I feel obligated to write something sweeping and substantial about Arthur Penn. In terms of his contributions to television as a medium, he is the most significant of all the recently deceased people mentioned in my last post. But it’s too daunting a task, in part because of the pesky problem of access, which is something that the estimable Jonah Horwitz gets at in his television-oriented Penn obituary.
Horwitz enjoys tantalizing access to a significant archive of kinescopes at the University of Wisconsin, and in his piece he offers tantalizing (did I say that already?) descriptive details of a couple of Penn-directed live dramas. Penn finished his tour in live television with a few early segments of Playhouse 90, one of which, William Gibson’s 1957 Helen Keller biography “The Miracle Worker,” became Penn’s first commercially successful film five years later. But Penn did his most substantive television work for The Philco/Goodyear Television Playhouse. He was one of three alternating directors during a two-year period (1953-1955) when that series, produced by the legendary Fred Coe, was ground zero for the intimate “kitchen dramas” that came to represent, for critics, the pinnacle of live television.
As Horwitz notes, the original Playhouse 90 staging of “The Miracle Worker” – which preceded both the stage and film versions, and features different actors (Teresa Wright and Patty McCormack) in the roles made famous by Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke – exists, but it is not in wide circulation. In fact, so far as I know, “The Miracle Worker” does not reside in any private collections, and neither does “Judgment at Nuremberg,” the other Playhouse 90 which became a hugely successful film (and also, with its bleeped-out dialogue concerning the gas chambers, the most infamous victim of censorship in the history of television). I have been told that the rights issues surrounding Playhouse 90 are “very complicated.” But the absence of a commercial rerelease for these shows, after three decades of home video and a dozen years in which it has become customary to pair items like these with their big-screen cousins on DVD, is tragic.
The extent to which live television is a forgotten medium is humbling. Not only are some of the shows lost altogether; not only are many of the extant ones (like “The Miracle Worker”) inaccessible; but in many cases, as I realized while researching this piece, even the basic data remains to be compiled. Horwitz estimates that Penn directed “likely over 100” television segments during his five years (1953-1958) in live television. That number might be a little high, but I’m certain the actual tally is far greater than the thirty-four live dramas currently listed in Penn’s Internet Movie Database entry. I’m not aware of a published source that does any better. To fill out any more of Penn’s television resume, one would have to delve into archival collections or old newspaper and trade reviews. That’s a pretty profound knowledge gap, considering that Penn was one of the top practitioners of what was once considered a serious art form.
Penn’s film career was uneven and diverse, but I love about half of them: Mickey One and The Chase, with their exceptional supporting casts of character actors from TV; the twinned genre revisions, Little Big Man (which examines the Old West as a construct of media, celebrity, and identity politics) and Night Moves (a detective story without a resolution); and the nakedly emotional Four Friends, which orbits around a fearless, uninhibited performance by the forgotten Jodi Thelen.
One obit (which I can’t find again) suggested that it’s difficult to reconcile what Horwitz calls Penn’s “deliberately unshowy” television style with the more forceful imagery of his films (in particular, the bold, sometimes jarring editing). The answer to that riddle is that in between television and movies Penn, who had spent time in Europe as a young man, fell under the influence of the New Wave. Dave Kehr’s New York Times obituary has a great quote about how Penn was “stunned” by the extent to which The 400 Blows, Francois Truffaut’s autobiographical debut film about a troubled, semi-delinquent teenager, reflected Penn’s own childhood. At least on the surface, Penn’s key films (especially Mickey One and Bonnie and Clyde) borrow more from the style and mood of French, Italian, and Japanese New Wave films more than they do his own early television work.
(The other x factor is that Penn, far more than any other ex-live television filmmaker, was an important Broadway director. The extent to which Penn formed his style on stage, especially in his work with actors, is another key subject for further research.)
Kehr, incidentally, is one of the best American film critics, and yet he doesn’t quite get the television section of Penn’s career right. Kehr refers to Penn’s first film, The Left-Handed Gun, as “an extension of the Playhouse 90 aesthetic”; but really, it’s an extension of the Philco aesthetic. (The Left Handed Gun was, in fact, derived from Gore Vidal’s Philco teleplay “The Death of Billy the Kid.”) The distinction is important because Philco embodied the intimate, performance-driven New York style of live drama, whereas Playhouse 90, telecast from the spacious CBS studios in Los Angeles, placed a greater emphasis on size and spectacle. Positioned at live television’s fin de siècle, Playhouse 90 aimed to be cinematic and, as such, was actually a partial repudiation rather than a continuation of the Penn-era Philco aesthetic. Penn told the scholar Gorham Kindem that CBS’s decision to set up Playhouse 90 on the West Coast represented
the transition from the New York theatre and the New York actors to the Hollywood actors and the Hollywood names. When I went out there to do “The Miracle Worker,” it was an accepted fact that it was going to have to be with people from the Hollywood community.
Penn seemed to accept that shift grudgingly; he felt that Patty McCormack was “too old” to play Helen Keller, and preferred Anne Bancroft’s Annie Sullivan to Teresa Wright’s. In The Box, Penn told Jeff Kisseloff that he took Playhouse 90 for the money (“I had a couple of shirts where the collars were almost gone”). Even after the success of “The Miracle Worker,” Penn had no desire to continue on the series beyond the initial batch he agreed to direct for producer Martin Manulis. “Those four were enough for me,” he told Kindem. Penn realized that the theater and movies – even movies made in Hollywood, where Jack Warner took The Left Handed Gun away from Penn and recut it – offered better opportunities to create the kind of reality that he had achieved in his Philco work.
The New York Times followed Kehr’s official obituary with a penetrating appraisal of Penn’s work by Manohla Dargis. Dargis places unexpected emphasis on Penn’s debut feature, The Left Handed Gun, and she finds more in it than the tortured Method acting and self-conscious anti-genre posturing that I recall. (I’m going to find time for a second look.)
The Left Handed Gun derives so thoroughly from Penn’s television beginnings that it compels Dargis to devote some space to Penn’s pre-history in TV. She relates a funny anecdote about Penn’s initial blocking of The Left Handed Gun, which presumed a multiplicity of cameras, as Penn was used to in television, rather than the single one used in motion picture photography. There’s also a marvelous quote from Penn on how directing live television was “like flying four airplanes at once.” That analogy echoes a famous remark by the director George Roy Hill, who flew bombers during World War II, that calling the shots in a live television control room was a lot like commanding a B-29.
Dargis also dredges up a quip from Gore Vidal, who called The Left Handed Gun “a film that only someone French could like.” I’m not sure whether that’s a dig or not, but Vidal’s remark underlines the possibility that his teleplay and the subsequent film may have been quite different from one another. The Left Handed Gun may bear the handprints of television, but a feature film made at Warner Bros. is still a big leap in scale from a sixty-minute live television broadcast. Plus, there’s a significant remove in authorship. “The Death of Billy the Kid” was written by Vidal and directed by Robert Mulligan; The Left Handed Gun was adapted for the screen by Leslie Stevens (the future creator of The Outer Limits) and directed by Penn.
One tends to think of group of directors who moved from live television into movies as having made that transition with a film adaptation of one of their own TV shows. For instance:
- Delbert Mann directed “Marty” on Philco, and then as his first film.
- Fielder Cook directed Rod Serling’s “Patterns” on Kraft Theater, and then as his first film.
- John Frankenheimer directed “The Young Stranger” on Climax, and then as his first film.
- Ralph Nelson directed “Requiem For a Heavyweight” on Playhouse 90, and then (a full five years later) as his first film.
But it was actually just as, if not more common, for a television director to do what Penn did: to adapt as his debut feature a property that someone else had done on television. Consider:
- Sidney Lumet directed 12 Angry Men, which had been staged live on Studio One by Franklin Schaffner.
- Robert Mulligan directed Fear Strikes Out, which had been staged live on Climax by Herbert B. Swope, Jr.
- Martin Ritt directed Edge of the City, which had been staged live on Philco (under the title “A Man Is Ten Feet Tall”) by Mulligan.
I’m not sure if that proves anything, except that by 1955 the film industry viewed live television as a prime commodity. The movie industry imported talent and material in bulk. After “Marty,” it wasn’t individual teleplays, with director and actors attached, that got scooped up by Hollywood. It was any property, and any director, that could attract a movie offer.
Those personnel switches may amount to trivia now – Mulligan, we see, was a two-time bridesmaid before he got to bring one of his teleplays to the big screen – but I’ll bet that at the time they were colored by personal rivalries and conflicting perceptions of having compromised or sold out in order to matriculate into filmmaking. Penn, for one, seemed acutely conscious of that concern. In interviews, he was always eager to define, and to champion, the New York aesthetic of acting and storytelling. In The Box, Penn explained that
our mission on Playhouse 90 was to come in as the New York boys and take the Hollywood community and “Marty” them. Hollywood’s way of dealing with New York was, “If we can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”
The challenge for fans of Penn’s films is to find the connective tissue between them. Dargis is vague: “a sense of history, a feeling for what makes us human and the lessons learned from theater, television and life.” Maybe the difficulty in pinning down Penn is that he was always reacting against something: traditional ways of depicting violence or a subculture in the movies; conventions of individual genres; phoniness in general. Substitute “movies” for “Playhouse 90” in the quote above, and you’ll see what I mean.
One final tangent of Arthur Penn’s legacy is that he married a woman who auditioned for him on Philco, and in doing so he took a talented actress off the market. She survives him. Her name is Peggy Maurer, and she retired in 1964 after having done quite a bit of live television and only one film (the 1958 horror curio I Bury the Living). I’ve only seen three of Mrs. Penn’s few recorded performances, but in at least one of them, an important segment of The Defenders called “Ordeal,” she pulls off a leading role of considerable emotional complexity. She was also rather pretty.
October 9, 2010
I don’t know why I feel compelled to apologize when there’s a lengthy gap between posts (hey, it’s not like you guys are paying for this stuff). But I feel guilty in spite of myself. Anyhow, there will be a lot of new content coming here soon, particularly in the DVD and book review categories. In the meantime, as has become the custom when I’m busy, I’m going to vamp for time by redistributing some links.
Like everybody else in the movie-and-TV blogosphere, I felt like the Grim Reaper was punching me in the face all last week. Actually, it goes back a little further: First we lost Kevin McCarthy and Harold Gould, both on September 11. McCarthy was one of my favorites, underrated in particular as a villain, and yet doomed to be remembered mainly for one role, his atypical starring turn in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Here’s a sentence from the penultimate paragraph in the Los Angeles Times obit for McCarthy: “He was a founding member of the Actors Studio.” Talk about burying the lede.
Gould was one of those all-purpose character players who always seemed to me to be doing the same thing (which was: not very much) no matter what kind of part he was playing. I don’t think Gould ever surprised me. Judging from the tributes, Gould had a lot of fans, and more power to them; but every time he made an entrance, I always felt a twinge of regret that the producer hadn’t cast a more exciting actor. We all have a few actors who make us feel that way, I’d wager. I remember, back when I was a college student and had discovered Pauline Kael for the first time, feeling relieved by her irrational, unfair hatred of Hume Cronyn, who she singled out for ridicule every time she reviewed one of his films. Not that I had a problem with Cronyn – I don’t – but because I’d been waiting for permission to write about actors in that way, with the gloves off. Sorry, Harold.
Then there were Arthur Penn, one of the last of the important live television directors (more on him in a separate post to come); Tony Curtis, who did some significant television work on The Persuaders and Vega$ as his movie career began to decline; and Art Gilmore, a legendary narrator and voiceover artist who, like a lot of voice artists, enjoyed a secondary career as a character actor. Gilmore was one of Jack Webb’s repertory company, and when I was fourteen or so, I (like all teenagers) spent a lot of time trying to distinguish him from Clark Howat and the other blandly authoritative actors who played police lieutenants or captains all the time on Dragnet and Adam-12.
Somewhere in there came (or rather went) Joe Mantell, famous for a pair of best friend roles: he was the sidekick to both Martys, Rod Steiger on television and Ernest Borgnine in the film, and then to Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes in Chinatown. He delivered iconic lines in both but managed to remain anonymous, as only character actors can. A lot of people seem to remember Mantell for a tour-de-force in a Twilight Zone I always forget, “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room.” When I sought him out for an interview around 1998, he was more like a crabby man in an Encino bungalow. Mantell talked to me on the phone, reluctantly, for a few minutes, but clearly did not care to reminisce. There’s a modern character actor with a similarly ferrety face named Michael Mantell, who I always took to be Joe Mantell’s son, but the obituaries seem to have disproved that hypothesis.
Finally there was Stephen J. Cannell, one of the most prolific TV producers of all time. I’m aware that Cannell has a few credits with some heft to them (The Rockford Files, of course, and one friend of mine swears that Wiseguy, which I’ve never seen, is a masterpiece), but basically I thought of him as Aaron Spelling with a little more of an edge. The Los Angeles Times reports that Cannell had a “golden touch” (I would’ve said, “golden tan”) and that he produced 1,500 television episodes and wrote 450. I’ll buy the 1,500 but can anyone point me toward a list of 450 produced Cannell teleplays? I’m also dismayed to learn that I’ve been mispronouncing Cannell’s name for decades (it rhymes with “flannel”). That’s going to take a long time to re-learn. Anyway, Lee Goldberg has a short but warm reminiscence on his blog.
Lost amid all the high-wattage names was a belated report of the death of television writer-director Clyde Ware, who is probably best remembered as a prolific Gunsmoke contributor for a couple of years around the time the long-running western series shifted to color. Ware also wrote a Man From U.N.C.L.E. that became the second episode to be expanded into a feature film (The Spy With My Face), and two exceptional Rawhides from the revisionist Bruce Geller-Bernard Kowalski season. Later in his rather unpredictable career Ware did stints as a story editor on Bonanza and a producer-writer on Airwolf. Not long after he was established in the business, Ware turned auteur, writing and directing the made-for-television movies The Story of Pretty Boy Floyd, with Martin Sheen in the title role, and The Hatfields and the McCoys. Prior to that Ware made a pair of independent feature films, both starring Sheen, that I’ve always wanted to see: No Drums, No Bugles and When the Line Goes Through. I believe these were both released on VHS decades ago, but apart from that they’re among the many American films of the 1970s that have fallen into utter obscurity.
The only obituary for Clyde Ware appeared in Variety, an important source for that kind of information that has fallen off the internet-aggregation site radar since it began partially firewalling its content earlier this year. Variety ran the obit on September 16 and as of now the Internet Movie Database still hasn’t recorded Ware’s death, or updated his birthdate (to December 22, 1930; Ware had successfully subtracted six years from his age in all the reference books).
I must give a shout-out to Tom B. of the Boot Hill blog, which was the first place to reproduce the text of the Ware’s Variety obit – in violation of copyright, I suppose, but in compliance with today’s netiquette, like it or not. For over a year now, Tom B. has been archiving death notices of anyone who ever worked on a motion picture western. And since almost everybody who worked steadily in the movies prior to 1980 passed through a western at some point, Tom’s blog has become a handy general reference for movie fans and historians. It’s a great example of a specialist’s narrow interest taking on a value beyond its original domain. For instance, it’s only due to the Boot Hill site that I’ve learned today of the death of Anabel Shaw, a minor ingenue of the forties and fifties. I only vaguely remember Shaw from a small role on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but it seems that she also had a key supporting role in Joseph H. Lewis’s astonishing film noir from 1949, Gun Crazy.
CBS’s repurposing of the title of its towering sixties legal drama The Defenders to a bland-sounding new legal drama starring Jim Belushi this season made me mildly grumpy. But since it gave Sara Fishko’s WNYC radio show an excuse to devote a program to the real The Defenders, all is forgiven. Excerpts from Fishko’s interviews with Defenders vets David Rintels, Ernest Kinoy, and Ellen Rose (a secretary in the Defenders office who married its creator, Reginald Rose, during production) are here.
Kliph Nesteroff, who wrote a great piece on Al “Grandpa Munster” Lewis that I linked to a while ago, is back with another amazingly well-researched story, this one on the politics of the writing staff of Laugh-In. I know even less about Laugh-In than I did about Al Lewis – I’ve only seen a few clips here and there – so this was an even more fascinating read. Nesteroff’s argument is that, in contrast to the outspoken The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Laugh-In was a totally unthreatening show, an establishment-friendly outpost that appropriated the look of the counterculture as “smoke and mirrors” to conceal its lack of political commitment or, indeed, even a covert right-wing agenda. The evidence that Nesteroff marshals, especially regarding Laugh-In head writer Paul Keyes, is jaw-dropping.
And yet Laugh-In retains a reputation as a politically relevant program. That’s probably one of those canards that proves very obviously inaccurate whenever anyone who actually sits down and studies the facts, but remains enshrined in the historical record thanks to lazy journalists and historians. Sort of like that nonsense about how Reagan “won” the Cold War – a lie that comes to mind because it seems particularly central to the beliefs of one idiot who litters my comments section with a litany of retrograde conservative talking points any time I write something even tangentially political. I’m guessing this graph means we’ll be treated to another dose of the same.
My own review copy must have gotten lost in the mail, but ever since the entire Thriller series came out on DVD last month, bloggers Peter Enfantino and John Scoleri have been reviewing an episode a day in a conversational, Siskel-and-Ebert-style format. There are sixty-seven episodes of Thriller, the terrific Boris Karloff-hosted anthology of crime and gothic horror stories that ran from 1960 to 1962, and as of this writing the pair are about halfway through. It’s a neat idea that has drawn some overdue attention to Thriller in the pop-culture blogosphere.
Initially, reluctantly, I wasn’t going to link to their blog because most of Enfantino’s and Scoleri’s dispatches struck me as jokey and not very insightful. But then they had an even better idea, which was to intersperse their episode critiques with interviews with the many historians and other Thriller enthusiasts who contributed audio commentaries to the DVD set, and those posts are worth reading. They offer some very frank examples of the minutiae of creating supplementary materials for DVDs, and of the almost insurmountable challenges that prevent these extras from being as good as they should be. The interviewees thus far are Steve Mitchell, Gary Gerani, David J. Schow, Larry Blamire, Alan Brennert, and Lucy Chase Williams.
The extras on the Thriller set are copious and worthwhile. But they are still limited in value, largely because only a few of the surviving participants were called upon to participate. (They include Richard Anderson, Patricia Barry, Beverly Washburn, and Arthur Hiller.) The executive producer William Frye and a key writer, Donald Sanford, are both still living but neither is in evidence on the DVDs. Frye, who lives in Palm Springs, told me recently that he was available for interviews, but not over the phone (which is why you haven’t heard from him yet in this space).
The interviews conducted by Scoleri and Enfantino shed some light on the reasons behind the obvious omissions in the Thriller extras. Apparently Image Entertainment, which released the DVDs, gave the extras producers, Steve Mitchell and Gary Gerani, only three weeks to get everything together. From what I’ve heard over the years, that is a typical scenario. If you think about this too hard, you’ll start to weep for all the priceless documentation that could’ve been added to the DVDs of your favorite shows if the corporate types at the top actually gave a damn.
These interviews have a significance beyond Thriller. They’re a snapshot of a fin de siecle moment, as the dominent mode for home video is shifting from DVD to internet streaming, and the whole idea of supplemental material (and for that matter, acceptable image quality) are going the way of the dodo. Maybe I’m just projecting, but the interviewers’ comments seem suffused with awareness that they’re participating in the end of an era.
Corrections Department, Part 5.1: Matt Zoller Seitz has a pair of articles on Salon in which he nominates the twenty best television pilots, ten dramas and ten comedies. They’re structured as slide shows, which is irritating, but it’s worth clicking through twenty times to see Seitz’s choices. Most of them are predictable, but Seitz’s arguments are persuasive. Although this criterion remains implicit in the text, Seitz only showcases pilots for series that were artistically and/or commercially successful. I’m tempted to respond, at some point, with a list of great pilots for lousy shows: things like The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters or Crime Story or Flash Forward, which set up a promising premise that the producers and writers couldn’t figure out how to sustain.
I’ve praised Seitz’s work here before and so I hate to have to point out a major error in his piece. Contrary to the headline, Seitz has come up with a list of nineteen pilots and one premiere episode. Out of Seitz’s twenty selections, the most inspired may be Sam Peckinpah’s mournful, short-lived The Westerner, which ran for thirteen weeks in 1959. The pilot for the series was called “Trouble at Tres Cruces,” and as was common in the days of the dramatic anthology, it was broadcast as an episode of The Zane Grey Theater in the spring prior to The Westerner’s fall debut. But the “pilot” that Seitz describes at length is not “Trouble at Tres Cruces” but the first regular episode of The Westerner, “Jeff.”
Referring to a television show’s debut as its pilot is a kind of lazy shorthand that drives me up the wall, sort of like when a journalist attends the “taping” of a show that’s being shot on film (instead of, you know, tape). But, as we see here, the pilot and the first episode of a series are not always one and the same. Remarkably, Seitz’s review of the non-pilot of The Westerner has gone uncorrected on Salon’s website (and unnoticed among the more than one hundred reader comments) for more than two weeks. Early television history has become the province of obsessives, I guess, and copy editing is even deader than DVD extras.
August 12, 2010
I. Mad Men is back on and I’m still a half-season behind, as usual. But the critic Vadim Rizov has a good piece here called “The Antonionian Ennui of Mad Men,” which begins:
In 1962, Don Draper went to see La Notte and loved it. He’s up on his cinema, and that’s no surprise. When someone asked if he’d seen The Bridge on the River Kwai, he responded, “I’ve seen everything, and I have the ticket stubs to prove it.” Not that Don could assimilate Antonioni into advertising that quickly. He’s much more likely to use Bye Bye Birdie as a starting point for his work; foreign innovations are, for now (the show’s up to 1964), just that.
I love that line about the ticket stubs, and I’ve always thought Don’s cinephilia was an important key to his character. (Back in the second season, around the time of the Defenders episode, there was a scene in which Don slipped into a movie theater to catch an arty foreign film.) It’s a signifier of Don’s secret discomfort with the status quo, and one that we media geeks in the Mad Men audience are likely to find especially resonant.
Rizov goes on to discuss how both Mad Men and the sixties advertising world it depicts intersect with the European New Wave films that Don Draper enjoys. That caught my attention because it comes close to one of my pet obsessions: tracking the influence of foreign films, and the New Wave in particular, on the American television shows of the fifties and sixties.
II. I Love Lucy: “Lucy’s Italian Movie” (4/16/56)
The phyical comedy in the famous grape-stomping episode has been so often cited that one sometimes forgets that the episode spoofs the exotic films washing ashore from Europe. Lucy is set to star in Bitter Grapes, a reference to Bitter Rice (U.S. release date: September 18, 1950), and the wine vat melee can be said to parody, in the vaguest way possible, a similar brawl in the Giuseppe De Santis film. It is one of the first of many comedies (not to mention commercials) to use foreign films, or certain cliches about them, as the punchline to a joke.
III. The Dick Van Dyke Show: “4½” (November 4, 1964)
IV. F Troop: “La Dolce Courage” (November 24, 1966)
Neither of these episodes has anything to do with Fellini (8½, U.S. release date: June 25, 1963; La Dolce Vita, U.S. release date: April 19, 1961). In the sixties, situation comedies rarely broadcast the titles of episodes, so the titles became, if anything, a sort of conversation between writers and story editors. “I don’t know why we bothered,” Irma Kalish, the co-writer of “La Dolce Courage,” told me. “I mean, they got put into TV Guide, but you don’t see them on the screen.”
But were there cases in which television writers engaged with sixties art films at a level beyond the industry in-joke?
V. Naked City: “Kill Me While I’m Young So I Can Die Happy!” (October 17, 1962)
Abram S. Ginnes’s tale of a bitter, dying middle-aged woman (Maureen Stapleton) was a distaff reworking of Kurosawa’s Ikiru (U.S. release date: March 25, 1956), filtered through Ginnes’s own obsessive Freudian preoccupations.
“I tried to buy it,” Ginnes said of the original film, which he first thought of adapting as a musical. “I called Japan and I got Akira Kurosawa’s son, who spoke some English, and I offered to buy the story. He got back to me and he said his father didn’t want to sell it. I was so taken with it, I did it anyway.”
VI. The F.B.I.: “Ordeal” (November 6, 1966)
In this episode written by Robert Bloomfield, a group of criminals, plus an undercover federal agent, drive a truck loaded with nitroglycerine over a treacherous mountain path.
“Yeah, that was a rip-off of The Wages of Fear [U.S. release date: February 16, 1956],” agreed the director of the episode, Ralph Senensky.
VII. Lucan (May 22, 1977)
The pilot for a short-lived series, Lucan told the story of a young man who was raised by wolves and now seeks to acclimate himself to human company. The writer, Michael Zagor, was inspired by Francois Truffaut’s The Wild Child (U.S. release date: September 11, 1970).
NBC executive Freddy Silverman “read the script and said he liked it a lot, but he said he thought that Lucan should be looking for his father,” said Zagor. “I said, I can’t do that. It [violates] the purity of the script. I want to talk about the problems that he had in the world, and I want to do Francois Truffaut, and so on.” Eventually Zagor added the father angle.
VIII. Route 66, “A Gift For a Warrior” (January 18, 1963)
Lars Passgård, the young man in Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly (U.S. release date: March 13, 1962), makes his only American film or television appearance as a German teenager in search of his American father (James Whitmore).
Passgård was not a star, even in Sweden, so it’s reasonable to surmise that someone on Route 66 (producer, director, casting director) made a special effort to hire him because he or she remembered the Bergman film.
IX. Channing, “The Face in the Sun” (February 19, 1964)
Leela Naidu, the star of James Ivory’s The Householder (U.S. release date: October 21, 1963), makes her only American television appearance as an exotic love interest for the protagonist of this series, college professor Joseph Howe (Jason Evers).
Naidu’s situation was similar: a relative unknown, she likely was imported on the strength of the Ivory film. (The producer of Channing, Jack Laird, was a movie buff and a collector of film prints.)
X. The Defenders: “The Seven Ghosts of Simon Gray” (October 6, 1962)
This flashback-laden episode of The Defenders hit a post-production snag when the producer, Bob Markell, was denied funds for the requisite number of ripple dissolves. In the manner of Hiroshima Mon Amour (U.S. release date: May 16, 1960), Markell put the show together using direct cuts between past and present. “I was amazed that it worked so well,” he said of a technique that was not common on American television at the time.
Markell was a cinema fan who recalled attending the New York premiere of Tom Jones (U.S. release date: October 6, 1963) with two other Defenders staff members. When I asked, he agreed that Tony Richardson’s film and others may have influenced the increasingly non-linear editing of The Defenders in its later seasons.
XI. “Are You Ready For Cops and Robbers à la Alain Resnais?” by Rex Reed, New York Times, July 23, 1967.
In July of 1967 it seemed like a good idea to both Daniel Melnick, executive producer of the police drama N.Y.P.D., and to the obliging Reed to sell the new series in terms of the European art house cinema. Melnick believed that TV viewers “have all seen Antonioni and Fellini and Resnais movies. They’re not dumb. They don’t need old-fashioned dissolves to tell them that time has passed. They’re ahead of us.”
Reed wrote that N.Y.P.D. filmed using “hand-held cameras, à la Godard or Agnes Varda.” Melnick pointed out that the show’s cinematographer, George Silano, had some TV ads on his resume, “just like Richard Lester came out of commercials in Europe.” Silano was shooting on sixteen-millimeter, under the supervision of directors imported from “the National Film Board of Canada and British TV.” The series would be narrated using “fragmented thoughts, stream-of-consciousness.” Melnick “got the idea from Hiroshima, Mon Amour and La Guerre est Finie.”
The producer of N.Y.P.D., unmentioned in Reed’s article, was Bob Markell.
XII. Most of Melnick’s claims were puffery, or were never implemented. George Silano left the series after a few episodes, and N.Y.P.D. imported exactly one director each from Canada (John Howe) and Great Britain (John Moxey). Markell remembered the camera operator, Harvey Genkins (who eventually replaced Silano as director of photography), as the person who did the most to establish the look of the series; and Alex March and David Pressman, both veterans of live television drama, as the most important directors. The voiceover narration that gave Rex Reed his headline was dropped early in the first season; the actors, among others, considered it awkward.
XIII. So was there a European influence on N.Y.P.D.? Yes and no. “Everybody on that show was a cinema fan,” Markell told me. “It was an erudite group. We were all interested in Bergman and the Italian directors. Danny was not incorrect, but we didn’t overtly go out and copy them. We may well have been influenced by them subconsciously.”
But N.Y.P.D.’s formal decisions were determined first and foremost by the low budget and the compressed (three to three-and-a-half days per episode) shooting schedule. The sixteen-millimeter film stock and handheld cameras were “a purely economic decision,” Markell said. Only later, he explained, did the crew come to appreciate the aesthetic opportunities they offered. Of course, many of the formal innovations for which Truffaut and Godard received credit were also motivated by limited resources. The crew of N.Y.P.D. was not imitating them so much as making the same discoveries out of the same necessity.
XIV. The N.Y.P.D. article came to my attention via Lynn Spigel’s TV by Design: Modern Art and the Rise of Network Television (University of Chicago Press, 2009). Spigel cites the piece in the context of an argument that New Wave aesthetics entered television first through advertising. She writes that “[t]elevision commercials of the 1960s were often extremely condensed versions of the techniques and ideas that advertisers gleaned (or in fact invented) through their associations with film culture, especially European new-wave cinema and independent, experimental, and structural films of the 1960s.”
XV. Which brings us back to Don Draper. Perhaps Don could, if Mad Men lasts another couple of seasons, forge a new career as the executive producer of an arty TV cop show.
XVI. None of the above is meant as a substitute for a rigorous textual analysis. It’s simply a set of clues arrayed to establish the idea that, yes, the makers of popular television programs during the sixties were paying attention to new ideas from foreign shores.
All quotations are taken from my own interviews unless otherwise noted.
July 30, 2010
Alvin Boretz, a prolific dramatist of early television, died on July 22 at the age of 91. Boretz claimed to have written over 1,000 radio and television plays. “From the very beginning I had a good reputation,” he said, “I was always getting work. I never had to look for it.”
After working his way through school (seven years of nights at Brookyn College) and serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II, Boretz got his first writing job in 1945 after he answered an ad in the paper. It was a radio gig, and for the rest of the decade Boretz penned scripts for Five Treasury Salute, Big Town, Front Page Farrell, Big Story, and (for producer Steve Carlin, later a figure in the quiz show scandals) Five Minute Mysteries. His first paycheck, for $60, was signed by radio pioneer Himan Brown, who preceded him in death by just over a month.
“Radio was great because you went in and you created a whole world,” Boretz said.
Big Town and Big Story transitioned successfully into live television, and they took Boretz with them. Both were newspaper dramas, Story an anthology and Town a crime drama that starred Patrick McVey as a racket-busting editor. Boretz expanded his catalog to include Treasury Men in Action, which like Big Story was produced by the brothers-in-law Bernard Prockter and Everett Rosenthal. Appointment With Adventure, Justice, and another Prockter production, The Man Behind the Badge, followed. In 1952, Boretz watched an unknown actor named James Dean audition for one of his scripts for Martin Kane, Private Eye. Dean was fired by the director after two days of rehearsal, but he later starred in “The Rex Newman Story,” one of Boretz’s Big Storys.
Though Boretz never joined the first rank of the live TV playwrights, he logged hours on some of the most prestigious anthologies, including Philco Television Playhouse, Kraft Theatre, and The Alcoa Hour.
“Alvin was a professional, no-nonsense writer,” said producer Bob Markell. “He knew the problems of making TV, and he accomodated the problems, not worrying about whether it was great art or not. He had no pretensions. More often than not, the shows were good shows.”
In the early days of live television, the writer was a welcome presence at the table reading and the rehearsals of a script. Boretz took full advantage of his access. “I used to sneak an actor away from the producer and say, ‘Listen, do me a favor. When you play this part, do this, do that, do that,’” Boretz recalled. “If the producer knew I was doing it, they’d kill me. But I couldn’t help it, because I wanted to protect my work.”
Boretz spoke with a loud Brooklyn accent; he sounded like the actor Joseph Campanella. The writer Harold Gast remembered Boretz as “a smartass.” He described an obnoxious gag Boretz would use at parties: He would grab someone by the arm and give it a vigorous shake. The greeting was a pretext to cause the other man to spill his drink.
But Boretz’s aggressive personality was a key to his writing. He told me that
I’m a big talker, so when I meet guys, I’ll take a guy to lunch and tell him this idea that I have. What do you think of it? “That’s not a bad idea.” I’d say, Well, how would you go about doing this or go about doing that? I would bleed them a little for ideas. Then I would take them to lunch. I belonged to the Princeton Club. Not that I went to Princeton; I went to Brooklyn College at night for seven years. But the guys at the Princeton Club invited me to join because I was a good squash player.
Boretz got the idea for one of his Armstrong Circle Theaters, about a banker who was “a crook, a thief,” from a Princeton Club acquaintance. (This was 1963’s “The Embezzler,” starring Gene Saks.) Armstrong was Boretz’s most important early credit. When David Susskind took over production of the show in 1955, he gave the anthology a distinctive identity by turning it into a showcase for ripped-from-the-headlines, current-events stories. The scripts utilized dramatic devices borrowed from newsreels and documentaries, something Boretz had already been doing on Big Story. These were “strong, honest stories,” in Boretz’s view. Between 1958 and 1961, he penned nearly every third Armstrong segment.
For Armstrong, Boretz wrote about con men, prison reform, highway safety, compulsive gambling, and single parenting. The Cold War was Armstrong’s bread and butter, and Boretz’s scripts on that subject included “The Trial of Poznan,” about the 1956 uprising in Poland. Jack Gould, the television critic for the New York Times, wrote that
The best part of his play . . . was its depiction of the contagion of freedom. The two defense attorneys, who had expected to follow orders as usual, one after the other became interested in putting up a genuine defense. Next it is the judge who, having granted some freedom, cannot be sure when to stop and finally exercises his own authority. Finally it is the prosecuting attorney who realizes too late that freedom cannot be turned on and off at will.
Boretz won a Harcourt Brace Award for “The Trial of Poznan,” which cashed in on the anti-communist hysteria of the late fifties and also subverted it to deliver a progressive message. It’s a good example of how Armstrong (and David Susskind) navigated the crazed political atmosphere of the times.
Boretz claimed that he was “never stupid enough to join the Party.” But his politics tilted leftward and he believed he had a “narrow escape” from the blacklist. A sword hung over his head that had nothing to do with his politics. His cousin, Allen Boretz, a famous playwright and screenwriter, was blacklisted. Alvin was twenty years younger and barely knew Allen, but he spent the McCarthy era fearing that someone would mix up their names and blacklist him too. At one point his friend Abram S. Ginnes, another Armstrong writer who was graylisted, asked Alvin to put his name on one of Ginnes’s scripts so that it could be sold. Boretz refused. “Fronts” sometimes followed the men they stood in for onto the blacklist.
Of all his work, Boretz was proudest of his association with Playhouse 90, even though he wrote only one script for it. “It was a classy show,” Boretz said. His episode, “The Blue Men,” was a police procedural that the producer, Herbert Brodkin, spun off into a half-hour series called Brenner. Boretz served briefly as Brenner’s story editor (Earl Booth replaced him), and went on to write for Brodkin’s next two series, The Defenders and The Nurses.
One of Boretz’s closest friends in the business was a writer named Allan E. Sloane. Similar in background and temperament, they both commuted to work from Long Island and for a time shared a pied-à-terre in Manhattan. Boretz and Sloane had something else in common, too: Each of them had an autistic child, and each dramatized aspects of that experience in his television writing.
When The Defenders debuted in 1961, Boretz was deeply offended by the premiere episode, “The Quality of Mercy.” Written by Reginald Rose, the series’ creator, this infamous “mongoloid idiot baby” show concerned an obstetrician (Philip Abbott) who euthanizes a mentally retarded newborn. In examining the issue from all sides, Rose declined to condemn the doctor’s action. Boretz crafted a response of sorts in the form of “The Forever Child,” a segment of Brodkin’s medical drama The Nurses. Earnest and compassionate, “The Forever Child” debated the merits of home schooling versus public education for mentally challenged children. Boretz’s script emphasized the crushing fatigue experienced by the parents of such children.
“The Forever Child” drew upon research Boretz had done for “The Hidden World,” a 1959 Armstrong show about Iowa’s Glenwood State School for the mentally retarded. It wasn’t the only time he returned to his Armstrong work for inspiration. One of his three Dr. Kildares, “Witch Doctor,” resembled “The Medicine Man,” an Armstrong exposé on quack doctors. Another, “A Place Among the Monuments,” depicted a duel of wills between Kildare and a suicidal young woman (Zohra Lampert) who resists his efforts to counsel her. It was a reworking of “The Desperate Season,” an Armstrong about a suicidal college professor (Alexander Scourby) who receives successful treatment for his depression.
Dr. Kildare, one of Boretz’s first Hollywood credits, led to work on other West Coast doctor shows: The Eleventh Hour, Breaking Point, Medical Center. Boretz ended up using his pseudonym (“Roy Baldwin”) on all three. “I carefully documented the case histories of my fictional patients, but the story editors put up an argument,” Boretz told a reporter in 1965. “My name, to me, has value. It’s all I’ve got.”
Like a lot of New York-based writers, Boretz struggled against the more commercial and less collegial circumstances of television production on the Left Coast. Never willing to relocate, Boretz slowed his output somewhat as he wrote for Laredo, Mod Squad, Ironside, The Rookies, and Kojak from afar. He had a role in developing The Amazing Spider-Man for television in 1977, and wrote a pair of exploitation films (including Brass Target, for his old friend Arthur Lewis, the first producer of The Nurses). One of his final credits – or, rather, Roy Baldwin’s – was the TV movie and hopeful pilot Brass, starring Carroll O’Connor as a New York City police commissioner.
Brass was shot on location in Manhattan, but Boretz’s real New York swan song may have been his five (out of forty-nine) episodes of N.Y.P.D., the gritty half-hour cop show that ran from 1967 to 1969. Bob Markell, the show’s producer, remembered that
when I was doing N.Y.P.D., I convinced Susskind and Melnick [the executive producers] to let me go out and shoot what I called stock footage, so that I could use that any time I wanted to. Fire trucks, ambulances, things like that that you could cut in. One day, Susskind, or Danny [Melnick], said to me, “What are you going to do with all this stock footage you got?” I said, “I don’t know.” I called Alvin up and said, “Alvin, I shot all this stock footage. You want to write a script around it?” He wrote a hell of a script. I loved Alvin.
All five of his scripts are winners; Boretz had a real feel for the sleazy two-bit criminals on whom the show focused. “Case of the Shady Lady” had the cops untangling a knot of suicide, murder, and extortion among a rich playboy (Robert Alda), an wide-eyed B-girl (Gretchen Corbett), and an obnoxious club owner-cum-pimp (Harvey Keitel). “Private Eye Puzzle” gave Murray Hamilton an amusing star turn as an oily P.I. “Who’s Got the Bundle?” was a cat-and-mouse game between cops and crooks searching for a missing $150,000. The money ends up with a pudgy cab driver who crumples as soon as Lt. Haines (Jack Warden) questions him. M. Emmet Walsh, new on the acting scene but already middle-aged, hits the right wistful note as he delivers Boretz’s monologue explaining why the cabbie kept the loot:
Twenty-two years. That’s how long for me, twenty-two years. Cab driver. You know, I listen to the radio: Fly here, fly there. Fancy millionaire stiffs me out of a tip. Then a guy puts a knife in your neck and he takes it all. Then yesterday morning, suddenly, like from heaven, a gift. I opened it in my apartment. I s’pose I knew all the time I wasn’t going to have it. I mean, after twenty-two years . . . .
In March of 2003, I visited Alvin Boretz in Woodmere, a town on Long Island where he had lived since at least the early sixties. What ensued was a very uncomfortable conversation. Boretz was suffering from symptoms of Alzheimer’s or dementia, and he could recall his career in only the most general terms. Alvin would try to cover the gaps by changing the subject or repeating something he’d just told me, and I did the best I could not to let on that I noticed any problem. The quotations above represent almost all of what I could salvage.
“He wasn’t like this six months ago,” his wife, Lucille, told me as she drove me back to the train station. Rarely have I been made so aware that my work is a race against time. Lucille and Alvin Boretz were married for 68 years.
Thanks to Jonathan Ward for his assistance with some of the research.
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.
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.
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.
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.