Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Uncomfortable Classics of Norman Lear

Norman Lear and his white floppy hat have been back in the news of late. 

First for being among the recipients of this year’s Kennedy Center Honors; and then for announcing his intention to skip the awards ceremony, as some sort of Donald Trump protest. 

I could write this blog about that but I won’t. What I will observe is that this accolade really has nothing to do with Mr. Trump. Honorees are selected by previous winners and the Kennedy Center trustees. It’s one of the highest honors this nation bestows upon its artists, and should have nothing to do with politics. Harry Belafonte accepted his medal from Ronald Reagan, and Charlton Heston accepted one from Bill Clinton. And everyone behaved themselves. 

But, again, that’s not the topic for today. Instead, I’d like to explore Norman Lear’s paradigm-shifting contributions to television. The reflexive position among TV historians is to praise them as brave and brilliant and progressive. And much of that is true. But I don’t own any of the shows he created on DVD, and have rarely watched them since their first runs, so joining that chorus of adoration would be disingenuous. 

I acknowledge that All In the FamilyMaudeOne Day At a TimeThe Jeffersons and Good Times are classic TV, either as a result of their quality or enduring appeal. Classic TV shows from the 1970s often serve as comfort TV as well. But this is one of those times when, at least for me, they do not.  

It’s not because they were groundbreaking – a trait that implies shaking up the status quo. That Girl and The Mary Tyler Moore Show and I Spy and other comfort TV staples also share that distinction. The difference to me is that with the Lear shows, the controversial or incendiary elements were always at the forefront. It became what they were about, instead of being just one ingredient in the situation comedy stew. 

As a result, they shared another common denominator that disqualifies them from comfort TV status – anger. 

Quick – what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of All In the Family? It’s probably Archie and Mike in a heated argument over politics, or Archie calling his wife a dingbat. On The Jeffersons, a deluxe apartment in the sky did little to assuage George’s seething resentment over past indignities. And Julie on One Day At a Time was always yelling about something. 

Sure there were laughs along the way as well. But when I think of Comfort TV I don’t think about shows that consist largely of people screaming at each other. I get enough of that on Facebook. 

Norman Lear proved that television comedy could incorporate contemporary issues into stories. And since television reflects culture more than shapes it, it’s probable that if Lear hadn’t done it someone else would have, and perhaps not as well. 

But the fact that sitcoms can be provocative doesn’t mean they have to be, or even that they should be. Where I get perturbed is when cultural critics suggest that Lear’s shows were better, or more important, because they engaged such topics. 

I am not trying to demean Norman Lear’s legacy. His shows deservedly achieved both popular and critical success. All In the Family alone earned more than 20 Emmys. 

But there is a tendency in art, including television, to pat itself on the back more when it’s ‘edgy,’ as evidenced by the current Emmy dominance of cable and streaming shows over more traditional network fare. 

It’s fine to prefer television that confronts current event issues, but 20 or 40 years later a joke about school busing or Richard Nixon doesn’t pack the same punch. And it’s just as difficult to write a good sitcom episode about more benign topics, and make it funny and appealing. In fact I’d argue it’s more challenging, because you can’t lift material from the newspaper. 

And if you believe doing so makes Maude more substantial, and a series like Father Knows Best more antiquated, watch an episode of both and get back to me. 

Monday, July 31, 2017

Searching For Sugar Bears

After writing an article about hoarding (not for here, of course), I was inspired to do a deep clean into some drawers and closet space that haven’t been exposed to light for a while. As expected, most of the contents were junk that could be discarded, but in an album of old .45 records I found one with this label:

I don’t have a record player anymore but I did go to YouTube to listen to the song. The lyrics came back almost instantly, and before it got to the chorus I was singing along: “Baby you’re my morning sun, you are the one.” Here's the song:

It’s amazing how music can hide in the recesses of a memory for decades, only to pop out again when triggered.

The Sugar Bears are pretty much forgotten now and clearly I was among those who forgot them. All I could recall after hearing “You Are the One” was that they had an obvious connection to Super Sugar Crisp cereal and its familiar mascot, a hipster bear in a blue turtleneck. Never cared much for the cereal but I always liked him. 

Back when Saturday mornings were filled with cartoon characters pushing boxes of sugarcoated flakes as part of a nutritious breakfast, most of them acted so hyped up you could believe they were actually getting that much sucrose in their diet. The Trix Rabbit was a basket of neuroses (you would be too if kids kept grabbing cereal out of your paws), Quisp and Quake were always fighting about something, and somebody should have incarcerated Sonny the “Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs” bird for the safety of the community.

But Sugar Bear was the iconoclast. Cool and laid back where the others were frenetic, he had the voice of Bing Crosby and the detached demeanor of Dean Martin. Maybe that's why he was featured in his own cartoon series in the 1960s, while Tony the Tiger and Toucan Sam couldn't get work outside of commercials. 

Where did the idea for music come from? I couldn't find a definitive explanation, but many of us recall that one of the popular cereal marketing gimmicks in the 1970s was printing actual, playable records on a cereal box. 

Post, the company that made Super Sugar Crisp, offered records from The Archies and The Jackson 5 on its boxes, and I guess someone in marketing decided that they could create their own band instead of borrowing music from others. Thus, America met The Sugar Bears, though the uninspired look of the characters suggests that not a lot of time and effort were devoted to the concept.

Sugar Bear was the front man, of course, though with his temperament he seemed more suited to forming a jazz trio than a bubblegum pop group. Rounding out the quartet were drummer Shoobee Bear, bassist Doobee Bear, and the lone female member on tambourine, Honey Bear. 

Far more interesting is the talent gathered to create the songs, which included Mike Settle, a member of The First Edition (once featuring Kenny Rogers) and Kim Carnes, who also wrote some of the songs and sang lead on the lilting “Feather Balloon.” She doesn't have the rasp yet that was so prominent in "Bette Davis Eyes," but I like this song too. Have a listen:

Baker Knight, who wrote for Rick Nelson and penned Elvis’s “The Wonder of You,” contributed three songs to the group’s only LP, 1972’s “Presenting The Sugar Bears”.

When “You Are the One” peaked at #51 and a second single (“Some Kind of a Summer”) failed to chart, the Sugar Bears disappeared faster than The Defranco Family. Super Sugar Crisp now called Golden Crisp because…well, nanny state nonsense. But surprisingly Sugar Bear is still around under the same name.

After listening to the rest of the songs on YouTube, I’m up for Rhino releasing their album on CD. As with The Archies and Josie and the Pussycats, there was more talent behind this project than it deserved. I’m still humming “All Of My Life” and “Someone Like You” since rediscovering them more than a week ago. If you click on the link below, those hooks might get into your head as well.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Comfort TV Coast to Coast: 50 States, 50 Classic Moments (Part 5)

Like all summer trips, our state-by-state classic TV tour of America must come to an end. But at least we’re finishing up strong with visits to Mount Rushmore, Southfork Ranch and the Double R Diner, where they make some damn fine coffee.

South Dakota
Did you know there was a secret base inside Mount Rushmore, where the President can hold clandestine meetings away from the fake news-generating media? This national security secret was leaked not by the Deep State, but in a 1981 episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century called “Testimony of a Traitor.” Somehow the republic survived. 

The choice here is between two iconic shows from the 1950s. From Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, Fess Parker starred in a series of telefilms as the legendary Tennessee frontiersman Davy Crockett. 

They launched a Crockett craze that had millions of school kids wearing coonskin caps. 

Classic family entertainment, but I’m going to instead select “Tennessee Bound,” a 1955 episode of I Love Lucy. En route to Hollywood, Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel get caught in a speed trap in Bent Fork, Tennessee and wind up in jail. Fortunately there’s an old friend nearby in Lucy’s cousin Ernie, played by Tennessee Ernie Ford. The episode also features Aaron Spelling before he became one of TV’s top producers, and the unforgettable Borden Twins as Teensy and Weensy. 

Like New York, Texas is a state with many choices but one clear winner. Dallas captured the cowboy roots, oil-fueled opulence and outsized swagger of its namesake. 

And it earns bonus points for authenticity as the Ewing homestead of Southfork Ranch is actually located in the Lone Star State and not on some Southern California backlot. It’s still a popular tourist attraction. 

We haven’t cited a musical variety show yet, so Utah goes to Donny & Marie, which debuted in 1976 and moved production to the Osmond Studios in Orem, Utah the following year. As with most variety shows from the 1970s it’s a mix of sometimes cringe-worthy comedy segments, wonderful guest stars and nostalgic musical moments. I know more than a few guys my age who were in high school then and crushing hard on Marie, though they were too cool to admit it. 

After playing a character perfectly suited to his talents on a sitcom considered a classic in its own time, I had my doubts about Bob Newhart’s next series attempt. But Newhart surrounded the actor with another memorable cast and even more outrageous situations than he faced on The Bob Newhart Show

Wonderful Henry Mancini theme song, too. The show was set at Vermont’s Stratford Inn. The hotel used for the exteriors is called the Waybury Inn and is indeed located in East Middlebury, Vermont. 

I think we’ll have to go with The Waltons here, which is not to say it’s a choice I made reluctantly. It was a wonderful show but it ran at least two seasons too long, after many of the core cast members either left or passed away. Plus, it ruins a little of the magic to find out Walton’s Mountain is actually in Burbank. 

“Comfort TV” are two words that will never be associated with Twin Peaks

And we do have a more wholesome alternative for Washington in Here Come the Brides with David Soul and Bobby Sherman. 

But here we’ll let authenticity and excellence carry the day. Many of Peaks’ most iconic locations are in Snoqualmie, Washington, including the Double R Diner, the Great Northern Hotel and the Reinig Bridge, where we first saw Ronette Pulaski in the show’s stunning pilot. 

West Virginia
With no viable option we will once again return to The Fugitive. In the series’ third episode, “The Other Side of the Mountain,” Dr. Kimble barely eludes Lt. Gerard inside a long-abandoned coalmine shaft. This is one of the best Gerard episodes in the run, though it won’t stop viewers from hating him. 

Happy Days is the obvious choice (unless you were partial to Laverne & Shirley). 

But I don’t think of it as a Milwaukee show the way I associate The Mary Tyler Moore Show with Minneapolis, or other classics with their settings. Maybe that’s just me. Either way, the series did make its mark on its adopted hometown, most notably with a truly ghastly bronze statue of The Fonz on the Milwaukee Riverwalk. 

The challenge for western fans with Wyoming is choosing from an impressive field of genre series set there, including Cheyenne, Laramie, Lawman and The Virginian

Rather than face such a difficult selection, let’s instead celebrate one of the most memorably fragrant slices of 1970s cheese that also took place in Wyoming: “Death Probe” was a two-part episode of The Six Million Dollar Man, in which Steve Austin squared off against a “fearsome” evil Russian space probe. 

The probe looks like the offspring of a Dalek and an igloo, but it made enough of an impression to inspire a home version by Kenner. 

 And that's it - 50 states and we all made it back safely. Thanks for taking the journey.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Comfort TV Coast to Coast: 50 States, 50 Classic Moments (Part 4)

Four weeks in and our state-by-state Comfort TV tour rolls on. If this were a real tour we’d be racking up frequent flyer miles this time around, with trips from New Mexico to New York, and from Oregon to Pennsylvania. But I’d still rather visit all ten states without getting off the couch.

New Mexico
We begin this week’s trip in North Fork, New Mexico, where widower Lucas McCain is raising his son and taking down outlaws that the inept local law enforcement can’t handle. The Rifleman is a western show that appeals to people who don’t care for westerns, because it’s as much about family as fast draws. 

New York
Next to California, New York offers the most options as a setting for television classics. Even if we consider only those series filmed in New York, the list of contenders is formidable. Actually I’m just artificially inflating the suspense because the choice is easy. It’s Naked City, because it features not one New York location but just about all of them. From the skyscrapers to the sewers, Broadway to the bowery, Wall Street to Madison Ave., there isn’t a Big Apple locale that didn’t provide a backdrop for one of its eight million compelling crime stories. 

North Carolina
The most beloved town in North Carolina can be found in TV Land but not on Mapquest. Mayberry, the setting for The Andy Griffith Show (and Mayberry R.F.D.) was inspired by Griffith’s actual hometown of Mount Airy, where you can still attend the annual Mayberry Days celebration. 

North Dakota
Our first challenge for this list, as no classic TV era options exist for a full series. So once again we’ll turn to The Fugitive. The episode “When the Bough Breaks” finds Kimble in Grand Forks, North Dakota, where he gets mixed up with a mentally disturbed young woman (Diana Hyland) who is also on the run after kidnapping a baby.

Two very obvious and deserving choices emerge: WKRP in Cincinnati and Family Ties. But there are two other options that feature on-location footage in Ohio’s King’s Island amusement part – The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family

As we already used the Bradys for Hawaii, we’ll go with the Partridges here, in the delightful episode “I Left My Heart in Cincinnati.” 

Thursdays in 1967 proved too tough a trail for Cimarron Strip, a short-lived but impressively mounted western set in the border region between Oklahoma and Kansas. Viewers who opted for Batman and Bewitched missed an epic opening credits sequence, brilliantly underscored by a stirring Aaron Copland-esque theme. Everything about Cimarron Strip was grand and cinematic, from its 90-minute running time to Stuart Whitman’s rugged, self-assured portrayal of Marshal Jim Crown. 

With no better options we are left with Hello Larry. Sorry about that, but as its theme song acknowledges Portland is a long way from L.A.. The show limped through two seasons which still comprise the most successful of McLean Stevenson’s post-MASH work. And it has Kim Richards before she became one of those Real (obnoxious) Housewives.  Sometimes you can go back and look at these older shows and appreciate them more in retrospect. Sometimes. Not here. But I’d still rather watch Hello Larry than Portlandia

It’s between Thirtysomething and Angie for me, two ABC shows set in Philadelphia but not filmed there. But you do get to see Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell in the opening credits of Angie, and any time I have a chance to play "Different Worlds" I am not going to pass it up. 

Rhode Island
Why don’t more people remember Doctor Doctor with Matt Frewer? It was a very smart sitcom about physicians at a group medical practice in Providence, Rhode Island. It debuted in 1989, the same year as Seinfeld, and had the same freshness and edginess about it, but lasted just 40 episodes. TV, like life, isn’t always fair. 

South Carolina
Sometimes it’s worth stretching the limits of the Comfort TV timeline, when a quality TV series provides an especially unique and insightful look at the state in which it is set. For South Carolina, such a series was Gullah Gullah Island, which debuted in 1994. 

I took AP History in high school and never learned about the Gullah language and culture, or the African-American communities on the Sea Islands off South Carolina that are home to descendants of former slaves. This award-winning Nickelodeon children’s show also featured some of the best original music for a kid’s show since The Wiggles. 

Next week: The final ten states of our tour!

Monday, July 10, 2017

Comfort TV Coast to Coast: 50 States, 50 Classic Moments (Part 3)

Another week, another ten stops on our cross-country tour of classic TV America, state by state. My guess is that some of these choices may be shows you’ve not watched (or perhaps even knew existed). But we’ll also salute a couple of all time classics.

Sure, there’s that bar where everybody knows your name. But Cheers, like St. Elsewhere, Beacon Hill and James at 15, never spent any time in Massachusetts outside of collecting a few establishing shots. Fortunately, we have a couple of memorable shows filmed in Boston. There was Zoom on PBS, featuring kids in rugby shirts, one of whom could do strange, supernatural things with her arms. 

And there was Spenser: for Hire with Robert Urich and Avery Brooks. 
It was filmed largely in Boston and authentically captured the accents of the locals and the locales described in Robert B. Parker’s source novels. Spenser gets the nod. 

With Freaks and Geeks and Home Improvement coming along too late for comfort TV, Michigan goes to The Fitzpatricks (1977-1978). 

This was CBS’s attempt to emulate the success of Family; they even cast Family star Kristy McNichol’s brother Jimmy (pretentiously billed as James Vincent McNichol) as one of the Fitzpatrick brood. Helen Hunt played the girl next door who ignites Fitzpatrick sibling rivalry, back when she was getting all the scripts for wise-beyond-their-years teenagers that Jodie Foster turned down. 

The series was clobbered by Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley, but if it came out on DVD I’d buy it. It’s from that TV era when families displayed kindness and support for each other without always covering sincerity with snark. 

With all due respect to the moose and squirrel from Frostbite Falls, there is really only one choice here. The Mary Tyler Moore Show put Minneapolis on the classic TV map, though it didn’t do much for the city’s broadcast journalism reputation. 

I wrote In the Heat of the Night down immediately because I recall the show looked like it was filmed in the South – and it was, just not in Mississippi. Second choice: the legal drama The Mississippi with Ralph Waite, filmed entirely on location in the state of its title. No, I’ve never watched it. But it has Ralph Waite so I’d probably like it. 

Remember how excited we were to follow Col. Potter back to Hannibal, MO in AfterMASH? That didn’t last long. 

There was one comfort TV era show filmed in Missouri – that was Lucas Tanner, starring David Hartman as a high school teacher. But I’m going to call an audible here and instead select “There Sure Are a Bunch of Cards in St. Louis,” a two-part episode from That Girl’s fifth and final season. It may not have been shot in Missouri but it features one of the state’s most beloved icons in St. Louis Cardinals Hall-of-Famer Stan Musial. 

Buckskin was a short-lived 1950s backlot western set in Montana that almost no one remembers. Instead, let’s select an outstanding episode of The Fugitive entitled “Passage to Helena.” Dr. Kimble is arrested for stealing a truck and realizes it’s only a matter of time before the local deputy discovers his identity. In the adjoining cell sits a convicted killer (James Farentino) who has already figured it out. Great stuff. 

There wasn’t much of a market for westerns in 1989, but The Young Riders was a kind-of successful series (three seasons, 68 episodes) with Stephen Baldwin as a young Buffalo Bill Cody, and Josh Brolin as Wild Bill Hickok. It was set in “Nebraska Territory,” but filmed in Arizona. As with many western shows it retains a loyal fan following. 

Bonanza is certainly the most successful classic TV series set in Nevada (Virginia City). But it wasn’t filmed there and, let’s face it, to 99% of the population Nevada is just a word that comes after Las Vegas. 

That makes Vega$ the more appropriate choice, not just because it was shot there but because it captures that city in the final throes of its golden age, before the mob moved out and Steve Wynn moved in. Two Robert Urich shows in the same list – what are the odds? 

New Hampshire
I could find only one option: Northwest Passage (1958-1959), a series based on the 1940 Spencer Tracy film. Buddy Ebsen was in it, six years before he loaded up the truck and he moved to Beverly.

New Jersey
I don’t have the guts to select Makin’ It, though I still kind of want to. 

I have no similar compunctions about passing on Charles in Charge. No, I think New Jersey will be claimed by Toma, the excellent urban crime show starring Tony Musante as real-life undercover Jersey cop David Toma (who also sometimes appeared on the show). Musante left the series after one season, and the concept was reset as Baretta with Robert Blake. 

Next week: The picks for New York, Pennsylvania and Little Rhody

Monday, July 3, 2017

Comfort TV Coast to Coast: 50 States, 50 Classic Moments (Part 2)

Welcome back to our classic TV tour of the United States. Sadly we’ve hit some bumps in the road, as only two of the selections for the next ten states feature any location filming where they were supposed to take place. Let’s start with one that does.

For our photogenic 50th state the choices include series that were filmed there (Hawaii Five-OMagnum PI), shows that were set there (Hawaiian Eye) and shows that dropped in for an extended visit. I am tempted to select “Angels in Paradise,” the Charlie’s Angels season two opener that introduced Cheryl Ladd as Kris Munroe. 

But if you are a long-time reader of this blog you probably already know where this is going. Season four of The Brady Bunch opened with a three-episode Hawaii adventure featuring a cursed tiki idol, Greg surfing, Alice hula-dancing and Vincent Price committing several felonies against the family, and still being invited to their farewell luau. 

I’m certainly open to suggestions here. The only appropriate option I could find is “Idaho a Go Go” from Wacky Races, in which Penelope Pitstop and company race through the town of Baked. The episode features the usual inventive sight gags, and a come-from-behind win for the Slag Brothers (spoiler alert). 

As an Illinois native I’m not surprised at how many television stars from Chicago wanted their shows set in the Windy City, including Jim Belushi, Bonnie Hunt and Bob Newhart. And while The Bob Newhart Show only filmed on location for some of the opening credits sequences, references to its setting (The Cubs, Marshall Field’s, The Pump Room) were weaved through several episodes. Plus, it’s one of the best sitcoms ever, so another easy choice. 

The Hoosier state is not a hotbed of television production, but it does have one prominent classic TV link as the home of Dr. Richard Kimble – wrongly convicted of murdering his wife and sentenced to death. Kimble make a dangerous trek home in several classic episodes of The Fugitive, including “Home is the Hunted” and the series’ two-part finale, one of TV’s highest-rated shows of all time. The Kimble family residence shown on the series is actually on Ethel Ave. in Studio City, California.   

The sophisticated globetrotting espionage show The Man From UNCLE is one of the last shows you’d expect to set an episode in Iowa. But that’s where Agent Napoleon Solo landed in the series’ second episode, “The Iowa-Scuba Affair.” There’s a James Bond in Mayberry quality to the episode that makes it one of the more memorable first season outings, helped along by Richard Donner’s brisk direction and the always interesting Slim Pickens as a rodeo cowboy with secrets.  

As Marshal Matt Dillon, James Arness kept the streets of Dodge City safe for 20 years on Gunsmoke. Dodge City remains a popular tourist draw in part because of this series, which filmed in Utah, California and Arizona but never in Kansas. But if you go there you can visit Gunsmoke Street, dedicated back in 1959. 

The life and legend of Daniel Boone is celebrated most in Kentucky, where the famed frontiersman’s name is still prominent (Boonesborough, Booneville, Boone County, etc.). So we almost have to go with the Daniel Boone series starring Fess Parker, even though most of it was shot in California’s Big Bear. 

It’s surprising that a colorful city like New Orleans has not attracted more on-location filming of shows set in Louisiana. As a result we are left with two choices, both set there but not filmed there. As few people still remember Bourbon Street Beat, I’ll select the smart, laid-back and sadly short-lived Frank’s Place, a sitcom that deserved a better fate. Married couple Tim and Daphne Maxwell-Reid played New Englanders who inherit a restaurant in New Orleans. 

“My name is Victoria Winters. My journey is beginning, a journey that I hope will open the doors of life to me, and link my past with my future. A journey that will bring me to a strange and dark place, to the edge of the sea, high atop Widow's Hill, a house called Collinwood.”
The small fishing village of Collinsport, Maine is not a real town but for five years it was one of the most fascinating places on earth for devoted viewers of Dark Shadows

While recent shows like The Wire and Homicide: Life on the Street have enjoyed successful runs in their Maryland settings, in the classic TV era Baltimore was a kiss of death. Among the series set there and canceled within one season: The Ellen Burstyn Show, In the Beginning (McLean Stevenson as a priest!) and Men with Ted Wass and Ving Rhames. No real winners here, but one of the failures is memorable as Norman Lear’s first TV bomb. From 1975, Hot l Baltimore pushed the envelope on mature content so far that the first episode was preceded by a ‘viewer discretion’ warning. There are a couple of clips on YouTube if you’re curious. 

Next Week: Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey and more!