Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Foreign Relations in 1950s Television

During this contentious election year there is much being said about how people who are different are getting along. The short answer, it appears, is not that well.

This isn’t the forum to talk about the ebb and flow of tolerance, and how some situations were clearly worse 50 years ago, while many others seemed so much better than they are now.

Instead, let’s see what happens when vintage TV shows approached this topic.

I always like these episodes. They reveal how much bigger the world seemed in the pre-Internet era. For the heartland residents of golden-age sitcoms, the chance to meet someone born outside the U.S. didn’t come along every day. That perspective influenced how outsiders were portrayed, as well as how they were received by the characters viewers watched every week.

Often these shows fell back on cultural stereotypes that could be viewed as naïve now, or offensive if you’re the sort that likes to be offended about everything.

But that was not how they were intended. If anything, writers viewed these scripts as opportunities to educate viewers about the ways different populaces lived and dressed and spoke, while also offering an outsider’s perspective on American life and culture. That required an emphasis on divergence, though inevitably an underlying message would emerge on how people are people, no matter where they are from.

Here are three intriguing examples.

“Fair Exchange” (1958)
Father Knows Best
The Andersons play host to Chanthini, an Indian exchange student played by Puerto Rico’s own Rita Moreno. 

“Will she have a shawl on her head and a water bucket on her shoulder?” Kathy wonders, while Bud hopes she knows the Indian rope trick. Chanthini is also not immune to jumping to conclusions: when she sees an apron-clad Jim helping with the dishes she assumes he’s a servant. In her country, she says, the men don’t do kitchen work. “You people have the right idea,” Jim responds.

“Fair Exchange” offers a textbook example of how this story trope often plays out. “Did you know?” lessons are frequently inserted (not always gently) into the script: “What’s that little red dot on your forehead?” Kathy asks Chanthini; “We get most of our tea from India,” Margaret informs her family.  And as we’re still in the 1950s, everyone admirably tries not to offend each other. The final scene, where Bud tries to teach Chanthini about football, is one of those utterly charming moments that TV has long since forgotten how to create.

“The Duenna” (1957)
The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet
David meets Lucita, an attractive girl who speaks only Spanish. Somehow they manage to make a date, but he is confused when she calls later and he can’t understand her. 

A half-hearted attempt to translate reveals one word familiar to Ozzie – “duenna,” meaning chaperone. Apparently it’s Spanish tradition for girls on dates to be accompanied by a grandmother or maiden aunt. Ozzie tags along to accompany the chaperone, but is taken aback when the duenna turns out to be an attractive senorita with amorous intentions. 

The episode plays without subtitles, except for one brief scene needed to clarify the plot. Thus, viewers are as challenged by the language barrier as David, which heightens our awareness of how difficult these situations can be. What is engaging is the good faith effort made on both sides, without any expressions of impatience or frustration.  

“The Geisha Girl” (1961)
The Donna Reed Show
The wife of the new doctor in town gains a reputation as a snob because she never attends social events. Donna believes such pre-judgments are unfair and drops by for a visit. She discovers that the woman in question is not only Japanese, but also someone who prefers the traditional garb and subservient role of a wife common to her homeland. 

Later, at a small dinner party, the other doctors’ wives stare in disbelief as she serves her husband dinner and lights his pipe. The doctors find her deference admirable. “Don’t let it give you any ideas,” Donna cautions her husband.

Here we do see a suggestion of prejudice, though it is quickly proven false. But there is a discomfort among the ladies of Hilldale with someone who acts so submissive, and that in itself is interesting given how many women today might view the traditional homemaker roles that are esteemed in TV shows of this era. 

The final scene shows what happens when Donna takes it upon herself to Americanize the woman. One shopping trip later our visitor from Japan has joined the ranks of Hilldale’s stylish Midwestern homemakers.

But how will her husband react to his new wife? As it turns out, he’s delighted to see her making friends and embracing her new life in a new country. Assimilation is portrayed as a triumph for the immigrant and the community. If only that were still the case. 

Thursday, October 6, 2016

'O' for Overlooked - Harry O

Charlie’s Angels was pitched to ABC as “Harry’s Angels.” The network requested a name change to avoid confusion with another ABC series, Harry O. Forty years later everyone still knows Charlie’s Angels, but Harry O has been largely forgotten outside of classic TV circles.

That’s unfortunate because the show holds up, even if it didn’t invest enough trust in its original premise. Given the series’ strengths, starting with David Janssen as the title character, that flaw is not fatal but it is disappointing.

After starring in one of television’s most iconic shows, Janssen seemed unfazed by the challenge of headlining another series. Four years after Dr. Richard Kimble was exonerated in The Fugitive, Janssen was back on TV in the Jack Webb-produced O’Hara, U.S. Treasury. There is an inherent stiffness to Webb shows that can be effective, but not with an expressive actor like Janssen. It was canceled after one season.

Harry O (1973-1976), launched the following year, was a better fit for its star and a better show all around, though it lasted just one more season than its predecessor. 

As originally conceived, it’s about Harry Orwell, a private investigator in San Diego formerly with the police department. He took a bullet in the line of duty that lodged in his spine, which forced his retirement and left him in constant pain.

As anyone who watched The Fugitive can attest, Janssen does “constant pain” really well.

Orwell lives on the beach, works on his dilapidated boat, and takes the bus to get around the city when he has a case. For help he turns to old friends on the force, especially Lt. Manny Quinlan (Henry Darrow). 

Perhaps the world-weariness of someone that beaten down by life was a little too close to Kimble, so in the latter half of its first season, the series switched things up. The setting changed from San Diego to Los Angeles. That meant goodbye to reliable TV character actor Henry Darrow, and hello to another reliable TV character actor in Anthony Zerbe, playing Lt. Trench. 

Harry's beater of a car also became (slightly) more reliable, so no more bus rides. And his nagging injury must have miraculously healed because it was never mentioned again.

All of these changes did not make the show better. The early episodes are more atmospheric, as Harry takes on cases that delve into the dark side of life in idyllic southern California. “The Admiral’s Daughter” has the always down-and-out looking detective sifting through suspects at an opulent yacht club. Guest-star Diana Ewing will break your heart in “Shadows at Noon” as a woman committed to a mental institution by the family that wants her inheritance.

The series’ tone and setting also helped to separate it from the glut of detective shows in the 1970s, especially as there are only so many plots to go around in the genre.

That said, Harry O survived the reboot better than most shows might have, and even gained one memorable asset in Harry’s L.A. neighbor, played by Farrah Fawcett. A lighter side of the character emerges, though Harry remains a cynic at heart. 

The scenes at the police station pick up as well, as Harry is much more of a smartass to Trench, whose exasperated exclamations of “Or-well!” are reminiscent of how Jerry Seinfeld addressed Newman. But the show never gets too quippy, and two episodes launched with startling murders of supporting characters are very serious business.

There’s an added appeal for Fugitive fans, of course, not just in seeing Janssen back on TV but also in watching for all of the guest stars from that classic series that appear on Harry O. Kurt Russell, who as a teenager had played Lt. Philip Gerard’s son, appears ten years later in “Double Jeopardy” as a witness to a murder who becomes a target of the same killer. Joanna Pettet, who had a doomed romance with Dr. Kimble in “Shadow of the Swan,” has an equally doomed romance with Harry in “40 Reasons to Kill.”

Harry O was not a hit in either incarnation, hence its cancellation after 44 episodes. But it’s also proof that yesterday’s also-rans are more appealing than many of today’s most successful shows. Both seasons are available on DVD and highly recommended. 

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Duke and The Clampetts: Politically Incorrect Moments in Classic TV History

“The Indians are Coming”
The Beverly Hillbillies

In the course of researching a magazine article I am writing on John Wayne, I was reminded of a 1967 episode of The Beverly Hillbillies in which Mr. Wayne makes a cameo appearance.

As I watched, my internal commentary kept repeating the same sentence: you couldn’t get away with that anymore. This nearly 50 year-old episode of a network situation comedy would now be deemed terribly offensive. 

You know what apparently isn’t offensive? Game of Thrones, the series that just won the Emmy for Best Drama. That’s the show that has featured, among other things, multiple rapes and graphic beheadings, a woman paraded naked through the streets and pelted with garbage, a child strapped to a stake and set on fire, and a brother and sister spending a special kind of quality time with each other that siblings don’t usually share.

Isn’t it wonderful living in such enlightened times?

But I digress.

Co-written by series creator Paul Henning, “The Indians are Coming” opens with the Clampetts learning about a minor border issue between their oil land and the adjoining Crowfeet Indian reservation. To the Indians, it’s a simple matter easily settled, but to Granny this can only mean one thing – the Crowfeet are on the warpath: “Except for John Wayne, nobody knows injuns like me!”

Down at the bank, Mr. Drysdale is also roused by the news: 

“They hit a gusher there! Send a message to my red brothers – Milburn Drysdale speak with straight tongue…send all black wampum my bank, we put in solid steel teepee.”

Miss Jane: “No…there’s been a boundary dispute and the Indians are claiming part of the Clampett oil land.”

Drysdale: “Why those dirty, thieving savages!”

The tribal representatives, Chief Running Wolf and his son, are cultured 20th century men (Chief Running Wolf graduated from Oxford), who realize the minor boundary issue could have been handled by correspondence, but they wanted to see California.

When they arrive at the bank they find Drysdale in full buckskins and feathered headdress, spouting every Indian cliché from every western movie. The Chief and his son play along, letting him embarrass himself further.  

By now, Granny has heard that the Crowfeet are coming to Beverly Hills, and tries to alert the community: “The injuns are coming! Put your cars in a circle!”

While Jed has a cordial meeting with Chief Running Wolf, Mr. Drysdale finds Granny preparing for a full-scale attack, and ready to return home to fight there if she can’t fight the enemy in Beverly Hills. To avoid the Clampetts leaving and taking their deposits with them, he calls a movie studio and orders up a staged Indian attack (after removing all the real ammunition from Granny’s gun).

Once the mock siege is turned away Granny, none the wiser, sits quietly in her rocker, and that’s when John Wayne appears: "I understand you were looking for me." Granny slowly stands and asks, "Where was ya when I need ya, John?" 

Is “The Indians are Coming” offensive? To those with a Pavlovian response to racial slurs regardless of context, absolutely. Expressions like “red savages,” “redskins” and “red devils” are liberally sprinkled throughout the episode.

But here’s the thing: those expressions are used only by characters that are unsophisticated and self-serving. As a result, they do not degrade the Native-Americans, portrayed as sophisticated, kind and tolerant, but instead reveal the callowness of those who use them.

When Jethro enters a hotel room where the two Native-American representatives are dressed in business suits and says, “Wrong room, Uncle Jed, we’re lookin’ for a couple of ignorant Indians,” it’s funny because Jethro, as stupid a character as TV has every introduced, is calling someone else ignorant while personifying that description.

And when Mr. Drysdale, moved by consuming greed, tries to placate Chief Running Wolf with colorful beads and trinkets, the scene works because of the over-the-top silliness of his insensitivity, as well as the bemused response it receives from its recipients. 

Of course, none of this will matter to those hell-bent on eradicating any words, symbols or subjects perceived to be hostile to any sub-section of the human race. 

Will you laugh? I know I did. It’s one of the funniest sitcom episodes I’ve watched in recent months. Irene Ryan is a force of nature playing Granny’s gung ho fighting spirit. But humor is subjective, and I’m sure there are those who find this type of comedy a relic of a previous age that is best forgotten. 

The entire unedited episode is on YouTube - let me know what you think. 

Friday, September 16, 2016

Top TV Moments: Laurette Spang

My “TV Moments” blogs usually feature performers with careers that span three or four decades. Not so with Laurette Spang, who was strictly a ‘70s girl.  

She debuted in a 1972 episode of The Bold Ones: The Doctors (in the clearly pivotal role of “Real Estate Lady”) and would go on to guest-star in some of the best-loved shows of the disco era. But after a handful of early ‘80s credits she married actor John McCook and disappeared like Keyzer Soze.

Spang was never an Emmy nominee or the subject of a People magazine cover story; she didn’t have a poster, which is surprising because even Erin Moran had a poster.  But if you watched a lot of TV back then, you knew her on sight and were probably happy to see her. The only question was whether she would play the girl you’d like to bring home to mom, or a reprobate to avoid at all costs. For a blond beauty with angelic features, Spang was often cast as a troublemaker.

Adam 12 (1973)
In her fifth TV series appearance, an episode titled “Venice Division,” Spang plays Carla Rogers, a woman frightened by a series of obscene phone calls. When Officers Reed and Malloy arrive at her door, she answers in a powder blue leotard. “When you’re dressed like that, you should close your drapes!” Malloy tells her – a reproach that now wouldn’t be well-received in some circles. But sure enough, when the cops catch the creep, it’s because he wanted more than a good view.

The Streets of San Francisco (1973)
Some shows boost tourism for the cities in which they are set. Given the seedy nature of so many Streets of San Francisco stories, I can’t imagine anyone booking a trip after an episode. “Harem” is typical, but it’s also memorable because of the casting of wholesome Comfort TV icon Ricky Nelson as a flute-playing killer pimp. Laurette Spang plays Kim, one of the irrepressible Ricky’s new recruits. It’s her most substantive part to date, and she’s terrific in it. 

Isis (1976)
This Saturday morning superhero series was one of my favorite shows growing up; in “The Cheerleader” Spang plays Ann, a selfish, scheming flirt who frames the head cheerleader with a stolen science test paper. Great fun, especially when the jig is up and she speeds away from school uttering the classic villain line “I’ll show ‘em! I’ll show ‘em all!” 

Charlie’s Angels (1976)
“Consenting Adults” may be the best Angels episode, and not just because of the famous Farrah-on-a-skateboard chase scene. Writer Les Carter captured the perfect tone for the series, one that sadly eluded so many others. It’s a shame he only wrote two episodes. Just two months after playing a high school cheerleader, Laurette Spang plays Tracy Martel, a hooker, a UCLA honor student, and a front for a burglary ring. She holds her own in looks, polish and charisma in scenes opposite Farrah and Kate Jackson. 

Happy Days (1977)
Laurette Spang was on Happy Days almost as often as Chuck Cunningham. She appeared in six episodes, perhaps most notably in the infamous three-part story that opened season five, “Hollywood Pts. 1-3.” As Wendy, the kind of California girl immortalized by the Beach Boys, she spends much of her screen time in a bikini, if you’re into that sort of thing. And she was front and center as Fonzie executed a now-legendary shark jump. 

Project U.F.O. (1978)
The final series produced by Jack Webb billed itself as a dramatization “inspired by official reports of governmental investigations of claims of reported sightings of unidentified flying objects.” I wonder if anyone checked on that. In “Sighting 4015: The Underwater Incident” Spang plays Linda Collins, an ambitious grad student who doesn’t believe a tour boat operator’s story about a UFO attack. Does she have another agenda? Of course she does, as this is yet another of her bad girl roles, and she’s delightful in it. Better, in fact, than the series’ two stiff, monotone leads, played by Edward Winter and Caskey Swaim.

Lou Grant (1978)
Spang appears twice in the show’s first season as Joanie, the daughter of L.A. Tribune Managing Editor Charlie Hume. In “Airliner,” she returns home early from Paris to surprise her parents, but the plane develops engine trouble as it approaches Los Angeles. It’s barely more than an incidental role, but there are some nice moments between Spang and Mason Adams.

Battlestar: Galactica (1978)
In her only stint as a series regular, Laurette Spang played Cassiopeia, member of the Galactica’s medical staff and girlfriend to Lt. Starbuck (Dirk Benedict). The character wasn’t featured often, but she did have a nice scene with guest star Fred Astaire in “The Man With Nine Lives.” 

B.J. and the Bear (1979)
I’m fairly certain that the two-part episode “Snow White and the Seven Lady Truckers” was intended as a pilot for a spinoff series, especially given how much backstory is provided on Spang’s character of Snow White, and a larger than usual cast (Charles Napier, Sonia Manzano, Janet Louise Johnson, Conchata Ferrell, Julie Gregg, Slim Pickens, Richard Deacon, Andre the Giant). I’m sure Laurette Spang could have carried a show, but I’m not sure this was the one to prove the point.

The Dukes of Hazzard (1981)
Five years after Charlie’s Angels, Spang could still be convincing as a college student. In “The Fugitive” she’s Mindy Lou, just passing through Hazzard when she gets tangled up in a Boss Hogg scheme to steal motorcycles before an upcoming Motocross event. Given her previous credits viewers may have wondered if she’d work with Boss or the Dukes, but this time (at last!) she joins forces with the good guys. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Why We Still Remember Comfort TV Commercials

“We make your daughters dance…wake you to the sun…”

“From the freezer to the oven to the table…”

“Here’s to good friends, tonight is kind of special…”

If you’re old enough to remember the shows discussed in this blog, you surely also recall many of the commercials that aired between them.

Why is that? We remember the shows because they entertained us, and we not only watched them at the time but for many years after in syndication, and then perhaps on DVD. For some of us they remain as close as our bookshelves.

But those old commercials stopped airing decades ago and you can’t see them anywhere now except YouTube. With few exceptions we didn’t enjoy them – they were annoying interruptions, or bathroom break opportunities.

Sure, a few were genuinely memorable – the series of Lite Beer ads with Rodney Dangerfield, Bob Uecker and a host of celebrities and athletes were always fun to watch. 

There were also campaigns created around a specific theme or character that endured for decades – Mr. Whipple, Charlie Tuna, Tony the Tiger – and some of these corporate icons can still be found in our grocery stores, so it’s not surprising they are more easily recalled. 

But I still remember countless individual commercials that had nothing remarkable about them: Ads for Pepsi showcasing the active and fun-loving lifestyle of the Pepsi Generation; A commercial for the game Connect Four where a sister wins with a diagonal lineup of pieces, and the brother responds, “Pretty sneaky, sis” before spilling all the pieces across the table. A mother in Boston yelling “Anthony!” out the kitchen window, and little Anthony running home because Wednesday is Prince Spaghetti day. 

Certainly repetition had something to do why they stuck with us. No one was keeping count but I’d estimate those like me who watched a lot of television were exposed to the same commercials dozens, if not hundreds of times. They were bound to sink into our psyche sooner or later. 

Commercials also used music to break through our barriers, a fact that the geniuses behind Schoolhouse Rock realized and harnessed for the noble aim of education, instead of the mercenary quest to sell more cat food. If you are really bored one day, take out a piece of paper and try to list all of the jingles from the 1970s onward that have taken permanent residence in your head.

“Hold the pickle, hold the lettuce, special orders don’t upset us…”

“I’m a Pepper, he’s a Pepper, she’s a Pepper…”

“Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t…”

“I don’t want to grow up, I’m a Toys r Us kid…”

“When it says Libby’s Libby’s Libby’s on the label, label, label…”

I wonder if, 30 years from now, millennials will get nostalgic when they hear “You don’t have to be lonely at farmersonly.com”?

I have one more theory about why older commercials have such staying power. They were better than commercials are now.

By “better” I don’t mean they were works of art – many were dull and many tried to be funny and failed miserably. But for the most part they behaved themselves as guests in your home. They didn’t yell at us to get our attention. They wouldn’t upset the appetite of anyone eating in front of the television. They didn’t contain content that had to be muted if there were children in the room. 

I also don’t recall ever watching an ad from that time and wondering what they were thinking (or what controlled substances they were on) when they put it together. That happens a lot now. I watch a commercial that was conceived by marketing professionals, and I do not understand how they or anyone could believe that assemblage of words and images would motivate anyone to buy something.

In retrospect, we didn’t know how good we had it back then.

What is your favorite commercial from the classic TV era? 

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Looking Back vs. Looking Forward

Every so often I like to take a step back from blogs about specific shows or actors, and look at the bigger classic TV picture.

Lately I’ve been thinking about people who prefer watching older shows to current television. Why are we like that? The title of this piece was my first theory –some prefer looking back to looking forward. But is it really that simple?

I know I don’t look at everything this way. It’s nice that light bulbs last longer now, and I’m glad that research that once required driving to the library can now be conducted at a computer in my jammies.

However, while many aspects of our lives have improved with the passage of time, I think just as many have regressed. And that’s where “things were better in my day” thinking starts, and why it can be comforting to look back at those times. The television shows of an earlier era provide a window into that bygone world – one that reinforces our certainty that those were the days. 

For instance, if you think schools were better run and taught a more appropriate curriculum when Beaver Cleaver or Opie Taylor or Peter Brady were going to class, that belief will be reinforced by the classroom scenes from their respective shows. Familiar subjects are taught, history lessons will not assume that everything that happened in America since Jamestown was wrong, and teaching will be portrayed as a noble profession. 

If you are sure that people were more civil to each other back when you were a kid, you’ll find that reflected in how characters behave in classic television. If you have fond memories of a time when there was nothing controversial about public restrooms or police officers or “Merry Christmas,” you are almost certainly someone that feels more at home in the shows of the past.

Part of this appeal comes from the fact that we lived through these eras ourselves, and they didn’t seem so bad to us, then or now. Of course, not everyone feels this way. There are many who lived through those times less happily than I did. There are those of later generations who believe the shows of this time portray an era that was less sophisticated, less enlightened, and less inclusive.

Does that mean those of us who prefer Nanny and the Professor to Masters of Sex are less sophisticated? I don’t think so. But it might mean that we define sophistication differently.  

Does it mean we don’t care about inclusion? It actually might, to be honest. It’s not that we’re against it – we just don’t always view entertainment through that prism. I’ll watch a dozen straight episodes of a 1950s sitcom and not even be aware that I’ve never seen a person of color. But I’ll also watch Room 222 with its racially diverse cast, and be just as captivated – not because of the diversity, but because it’s an intelligent and wonderful show.  

I’ve yet to meet a classic TV fan in favor of discrimination or anyone being mistreated. But we also see through the artificiality of forced diversity – in classic TV terms, that means how, beginning around the late 1970s, every Saturday morning commercial would have three white kids and one black kid. Even as children it was hard not to pick up on the pattern, and to think it was rather silly. 


Now, maybe there were African-American kids watching at the time who needed to see that, and who am I to tell them they are wrong? But I wonder if the same objective could have been achieved in a less flagrant way.

The forward-looking TV fan is content with the agendas that dictate how television shows are now put together. They’re pleased when CBS is chastised for scheduling too many shows about white men on this fall’s roster – and even happier when the network quickly goes into self-flagellation mode, desperately apologizing and vowing to do better.

Are the shows good or not? No mention of that.

The forward-looking viewer is happy that today’s shows are engineered not to offend anyone (with the exception of a few acceptable targets). Ironically, the shows of the past shared that goal. But they managed to get there without focus groups and sensitivity training. 

Have I answered the question? I don’t know. I’m dancing around the obvious conclusion that classic TV devotees are also fonder of the times in which they were made. And those who find old shows to be dated and trite also believe just about everything is better today than it used to be.

That’s probably still too simple. I’m sure there are thousands of people with a more progressive outlook who can laugh at I Love Lucy or appreciate the simpler charms of Bewitched. The difference is that they see them as nice places to visit, while classic TV fans like me take a look at where the culture is headed, and wish we could go back and live in their bygone worlds. Even with a nosy neighbor like Mrs. Kravitz. 

Monday, August 22, 2016

Better Late Than Never: The Defenders on DVD

In the four years of this blog’s existence I’ve written only about TV shows that have been a valued part of my life for decades. Until now.

I had certainly heard of The Defenders (1961-1965), starring E.G. Marshall as defense attorney Lawrence (Larry) Preston, and Robert Reed as his son and law practice partner, Kenneth Preston. Among classic TV aficionados it is revered as one of the medium’s finest legal dramas. But unlike better-known lawyer shows like Perry Mason it had been out of circulation for decades, so people like me could only hear from others how wonderful it was.

That changed when Shout! Factory made the startling decision to release the first season on DVD. Now the only question was whether this vaunted Emmy-winning series could actually validate more than 50 years of critical and popular admiration.

Here’s the short answer: Yes, it does.

Having just finished watching the show’s first 32 episodes, I have about 100 things I want to say. But you don’t have that kind of time and I’m not getting paid by the word (or at all), so a condensation will have to suffice.

This is a legal show but not a formulaic one. “The Trial of Jenny Scott” is set almost entirely in a courtroom, on Lawrence Preston’s cross-examination of one witness. In the next episode, “The Man With the Concrete Thumb,” there is just one brief court scene peripherally related to the main story.

Sometimes there’s no trial at all. Sometimes there’s a familiar premise and you’ll think you know how the rest of the story will play out – but then it gets there in the first 20 minutes and you’ll wonder where it’s going next. This 55 year-old show will surprise you, constantly and pleasantly. 

Something else you get here that has practically disappeared from scripted television is substantive discussion. In “The Point Shaver” the Prestons return to Larry’s alma mater and offer to help when a college basketball player is suspected of taking money from a gambler.  Larry and Ken meet with the Dean, and what follows is an in-depth exploration about the hazards of relying on athletics to pay for academics, and the pressures and temptations that face student-athletes – a debate that is still going on.

One last brief point about content: The Defenders exposes the fraudulent claim that stories about the dark side of humanity require graphic visual detail for sufficient impact. There are some very unsavory topics in these episodes, but they are handled effectively and without exploitation, in a way that satisfied 1960s broadcast standards. Today, good luck finding any network capable of such discernment.

The casting and performances complement the high standard of writing. E.G. Marshall: I’m sorry I never paid more attention to you. My awareness of him stemmed mainly from a few episodes of The Bold Ones: The Doctors, and when he kneeled before Zod in Superman II. His work here is a revelation. 

Marshall deserved and won the Emmy for episodes like “The Search,” an exploration of the flaws of the legal system and capital punishment. Preston learns that a man he represented who was executed for a murder may have been innocent. He embarks on a quest to find out why it happened, tracking down former jurors and witnesses and confronting the prosecuting attorney. Marshall runs the gamut here – devastation, disgust, fury, and ultimately resignation with sometimes imperfect justice.

Now, Robert Reed – that took some adjusting on my part. This was my first acquaintance with him as Kenneth Preston, but I’ve lived with his portrayal of Mike Brady since I was in kindergarten. It’s odd seeing perhaps TV’s most iconic father, looking much the same as he does on The Brady Bunch, playing a son that still has lessons to learn. He’s wonderful in this, and now that I understand the quality of material he became accustomed to playing, it puts his recurring complaints about Brady scripts into a more reasonable perspective. 

Confession: the first thing I did when I finished The Defenders was to rewatch “The Slumber Caper,” the Brady episode where Reed and Marshall are reunited for one scene.

Guest casts are also impressive: The first episode features Jack Klugman, Gene Hackman and Joan Hackett, and most movies don’t have casts as good as “The Attack”: Martin Sheen, Richard Kiley, Barbara Barrie, Nancy Marchand and Michael Constantine.

Out of 32 episodes there is only one clunker – “Gideon’s Follies” – but even that has Julie Newmar and Eva Gabor. Other than that there isn’t much to criticize. Yet those who know the show better than I insist that season one is the most inconsistent. They say the series really hit its creative stride with season two and maintained that level of excellence for the remainder of its run.  

The question now is whether we’ll get to see it.

It's unfortunate that quality is not the most significant contributing factor as to whether a television series is made available on DVD. If that were the case, every season of The Defenders would have been out a decade or more ago. It’s even more frustrating when you consider how every crap movie ever made finds its way onto Amazon, while many of television’s best shows are still locked up in a studio vault, thanks to conversion costs and legal snafus.

There are already rumblings on some TV message boards that season one sales are good but not yet sufficient for Shout to move forward with the rest of the series. I’ve been through this frustration with them once already when they pulled the plug on Room 222. It’s easy to get indignant when they don’t finish what they start, but business is business.

It’s not my place to tell you how to spend your hard-earned money. And I know this will be a blind buy for almost everyone, but I cannot stress enough what a sure thing this show is to anyone who appreciates good writing, good acting, ambitious stories, and entertainment that actually expects viewers to have an IQ above double-digits. 

Give The Defenders a try. You won't be disappointed.