Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Comfort TV To Five Annoying Sitcom Kids: Get Off My Lawn

I’m in the midst of watching a new DVD release of an old TV show I’ve never seen before – a “Purchase or Pass” review about that series will appear in the blog next week. I mention it here because, as I started viewing the first couple of episodes, I took an instant dislike to one of the kids in the cast.

Does that sound awful?

It happens sometimes, with characters of all ages. It’s certainly not an aversion to TV children in general – most have made indelible contributions to their respective series. Even at my advanced age I wish I were as cool as Jeff Stone (Paul Petersen) on The Donna Reed Show.

If the task at hand is to single out five annoying kids, there is an easy way to do it -  focus on characters that were cast in the waning seasons of a series headed toward cancellation, such as Cousin Oliver on The Brady Bunch, Quinn Cummings on Family and Brian Bonsall on Family Ties. These actors faced the daunting task of bringing new viewers into a sagging series, while disrupting an on-screen family dynamic that was working fine before they got there. 

But that would be cheating. Instead, here are five choices that were part of their shows from the very first episode.  They all still get on my nerves.

Kathy (Kitten) Anderson
Father Knows Best
Anyone who thinks the children on 1950s sitcoms were all perfectly behaved automatons has never watched Lauren Chapin as the Andersons’ youngest daughter. She was TV’s first spoiled brat, prone to whining and temper tantrums when she didn’t get her way. 

Chapin barreled into nearly every scene she was in, projecting her lines at extra high-volume, and in episodes like “The Promised Playhouse” her character shows an utter disregard for the feelings of her parents and her siblings. 

Father Knows Best aired for six seasons, enough time for Kitten to outgrow some of her less appealing traits. And she did have some moving moments in “Kathy’s Big Chance,” which featured a memorable guest appearance by the ever-graceful and elegant Greer Garson. But generally, when I feel like revisiting this series, any episode with Kathy’s name in the title is likely going to be skipped.  

Ross Lane
The Patty Duke Show
It’s hard to figure out what purpose Ross served on this series, or even if he had one. He seems like an afterthought even among members of his own family.

Just six of the show’s 106 episodes focus on Ross. That’s a sign that the writers realized the character wasn’t working. He’s still in most of the shows, but usually turns up only to deliver a cheap shot at his sister. To be fair, she doesn’t seem to care much for him either. 

What made this show special was the remarkable performance of Patty Duke as cousins Patty and Cathy Lane. She received able support from William Schallert and Jean Byron in the parent roles. And then there’s Paul O’Keefe as Ross, who…was also there. I’ll give him this much though: he was the only member of this Brooklyn Heights family who actually had a New York accent.

Richie Petrie
The Dick Van Dyke Show
Richie, played by Larry Matthews, is the least annoying character on this list, though I could do without his tendency to run yelling out of a room. But like Ross Lane he is rarely featured, and even when a story revolved around Richie, it focused more on how his parents reacted to the situation. 

In “Washington vs. The Bunny,” Rob is torn between a business trip for his boss and attending a school play in which Richie plays a bunny. In “Where Did I Come From?” Richie asks that provocative question to his parents. In “A Word a Day” the Petries get a call from Richie’s principal, reporting that their son used a curse word in school. In “What’s In a Middle Name?” Richie wonders why his middle name is Rosebud.

All of these episodes are classics because the kid kicks off the plot and then fades into the background amidst hilarious dream sequences, flashbacks, and parental debates.

When he is featured more, such as a show like “Never Name a Duck,” the results are not as favorable. And his shaky, off-key performance of “The Little Drummer Boy” is the only part of the series’ Christmas episode you’ll want to skip.  

Julie Cooper
One Day At a Time
Oh, good lord, the yelling. Somebody please make it stop. Julie was a drama queen who never missed an opportunity to make her mother’s life more stressful.

Ann Romano already had enough challenges with starting over after a divorce, getting a job, and raising two daughters on her own. Julie was old enough to be sympathetic to her struggles, yet she couldn’t get past her own issues – and there were lots of them: jealousy, self-centeredness, terrible taste in boyfriends, truancy, gullibility, and more teenage angst than all six Bradys and all eight Bradfords put together. 

My favorite Julie moment happened in “The Runaways” – a four-episode story that follows Julie and latest loser boyfriend Chuck, as they set out to make it on their own. When Ann pleads with Julie to stay, her defiant daughter quotes a list of unreasonable terms before she’ll agree to do so. “Okay, Julie,” Ann responds. “Go.” Both Bonnie Franklin and Mackenzie Phillips play the moment beautifully, and the audience applause reveals which side they’re on. 

Wesley Crusher
Star Trek: The Next Generation
There’s a reason why “Shut up, Wesley” may be the most famous quote from this series in seven seasons.

It’s become cliché to bash Wesley so there’s not much I can add to this topic. And to be fair Wil Wheaton plays the character well and does figure prominently in several great episodes, including “Final Mission” and “The First Duty.” He’s also featured in a couple of the show’s worst installments: “The Dauphin” and “Evolution.”

The annoyance with Wesley emerges mostly from stories that have him discovering solutions to life-or-death perils ahead of seasoned officers, including Data, an android with a total linear computational speed of 60 trillion operations per second. That just shouldn't happen - and certainly not more than once.  

And if that wasn’t enough, he is recruited by a superior alien race because he is “special” to ascend to a higher form a life. I quote a contributor to IMDB: “In light of what an annoying idiot he’s become, there is no way ANYONE could believe this!!”

No wonder there are fans who, when Wesley was sentenced to death in the first season episode “Justice,” still wish that sentence was carried out. Beverly would have gotten over it eventually.

P.S. Since I limited myself to Comfort TV era characters, I could not also call out Dawn on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Maddie on Nashville, and Connor on Angel. But they are all just as awful. 


Monday, May 11, 2020

Classic TV’s Coolest Character Team-ups

Back in my Marvel Comics collecting days one of my favorite titles was Marvel Team-Up, which ran stories featuring Spider-Man working with (or fighting against) another prominent character in the Marvel Universe. It was always fun to see how two characters I liked would interact, and whether they would fight or join forces against a common enemy.

Television gave us some memorable team-up moments as well. Here are some of my favorites.

Lucy Ricardo and Superman
I don’t know if the 1957 I Love Lucy episode “Lucy and Superman” is the first classic TV crossover. But I can’t think of another example from the 1950s that was this memorable.

George Reeves’ version of Superman was best suited to lighter moments, and here he seems to be having a ball hanging out on a high-rise window ledge with Lucy. One thing I always appreciated about his story was how Lucy and Ricky only refer to Reeves as Superman, to maintain that illusion for younger viewers. 

Batman and The Green Hornet
The most oft-told story about the Batman episodes “A Piece of the Action/Batman’s Satisfaction” (1967) concerned the big fight scene pitting Batman and Robin (Adam West and Burt Ward) against The Green Hornet (Van Williams) and Kato (Bruce Lee).

It might be apocryphal, especially since the doubles for West and Ward did most of the dangerous stuff in those scenes anyway. But legend has it that the script called for Robin to beat Kato, until Bruce Lee refused to lose the fight, and threatened to land a few real shots on his opponent to prove the point. The script was changed so neither hero lost, but Ward supposedly approached that scene like the rest of us approach a root canal. He did have some martial arts training, but if Bruce Lee went rogue the fight would have been over in three seconds.

Doctor Who and Doctor Who (and Doctor Who)
Before anyone in America even knew what it was, Doctor Who was already a sci-fi favorite in England. “The Three Doctors” (1972) was a milestone in the series, created to celebrate its tenth anniversary. The story brought together then-current Doctor Jon Pertwee with his two predecessors, Patrick Troughton and William Hartnell. Illness limited Hartnell’s screen time but he made the most of it: “Oh, so you’re my replacements – a dandy and a clown.” Since then ten more actors have played the role, and the series has become a lot slicker (not to mention more woke, sadly) with its fast-paced stories and special effects. But those early serials are still entertaining, and this was one of the best. 

Scooby-Doo and Josie and the Pussycats
As I wrote in my review of The New Scooby-Doo Movies on Blu-ray, these stories were hit-and-miss at best. “The Haunted Showboat” (1973) features the usual phony ghosts, but the interactions between the Scooby gang and Josie and her friends were fun to watch, especially when Casey Kasem had to carry on conversations with himself while played both Shaggy and Alexander. Docked several points, however, for not featuring a song by the Pussycats.  

Captain Marvel and Isis
This alliance was inevitable, as the two Filmation series featuring these characters aired back-to-back on Saturday mornings as The Shazam-Isis Hour. I just wish they hadn’t waited so long, as I’d have enjoyed watching Isis meet the first Captain Marvel, played by Jackson Bostwick. He had the boyish face and earnest demeanor more suited to such a straight arrow, kid-friendly hero. John Davey replaced Bostwick in the series’ second season. 

The characters met several times during their final seasons – the best of them is “Out of Focus” (1976) where they come to the rescue of a pair of amateur filmmakers played by Andrew Stevens and Nancy Morgan. Morgan married John Ritter just one year after this episode was shot.

The Bionic Woman and Evel Knievel
Jaime Sommers fails to stop East German spies from acquiring a codebook, so she hops on the back of a motorbike and orders the driver to follow the spies behind the Iron Curtain. The best running joke in “Motorcycle Boogie” (1977) is how Jaime refuses to believe the guy she roped into her mission is Evel Knievel: “You’re good, but you’re not that good!”

I just wish this iconic 1970s pairing happened in a more entertaining episode. And I’m surprised that Knievel didn’t object to being portrayed as grouchy and self-centered. But it’s all we’ve got, and it still has its moments. 

Wonder Woman and Roy Rogers
Roy Rogers didn’t play himself in the 1977 Wonder Woman episode “The Bushwhackers,” but that really didn’t matter. In all of his movies and TV shows he was the same genial, good-natured cowboy that he plays here. The plot was unimportant – what made the episode memorable to me occurred before shooting began: Roy was hesitant about appearing with Lynda Carter in her revealing superhero costume, so a new western-style uniform was created for this episode – and of course she looked beautiful in it as well. 

The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew
Both Nancy and the Hardys had been around since the 1930s, first in books and later in various movie and television adaptations. But they never joined forces until ABC launched The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries in 1977. In the season two opener “The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew Meet Dracula,” Frank and Joe trace their missing father to Dracula’s castle, which has been rented out for a superstar rock concert (said superstar played by Paul Williams). Nancy, who had been working for the brothers’ dad on a case, joins the search, and sparks fly between her and Frank.

Colt Seavers, Nick Barkley, Yancy Derringer and Dan Troup
In “King of the Cowboys,” a 1984 episode of The Fall Guy, Lee Majors is reunited with his Big Valley costar Peter Breck, and joins forces with Roy Rogers, Jock Mahoney as Yancy Derringer, and John Russell as Marshal Dan Troup (from the underrated western series Lawman). Watching all these heroes saddle up for one more adventure had to be a remarkable nostalgic rush for old school western fans.

Thomas Magnum and Jessica Fletcher
Detectives come in all ages, sexes, shapes and sizes on TV, but it would be hard to imagine two as opposite as Tom Selleck’s Thomas Magnum and Angela Lansbury’s Jessica Fletcher. And yet, the team-up works because both actors come across as two of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet. The two-part story had a few too many twists and red herrings for its own good, but if that’s what was necessary to give this unlikely crime-fighting duo more time for sleuthing, it’s forgivable. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Classic TV: No One Can Take It Away

One of the most appealing qualities about classic television is that it’s always there when I want to enjoy it. It’s reassuring to have some constants in a world where change is inevitable. Especially right now.

The ability to watch a great series from the past is not impacted by season, by weather, by labor disputes, by travel restrictions, or even by global pandemics. If I want to revisit an episode of Bewitched tonight, I can do it. Without wearing a mask. If I want to watch the third episode from the first season of Get Smart a week from Thursday at 1:30AM, nothing will stop me from doing so. 

Does that sound silly? Perhaps to those who haven’t experienced a lot of upheaval in their lives. Consider yourself fortunate if that’s the case. And if it is – well, it’s not like that anymore, is it?

We’ve all had a lot taken away from us over the past few weeks. What’s going to be interesting is how we all respond when these things start to come back. The way I feel now, I’m not sure I’m going to have the same enthusiasm for them.

For instance – I’ve been a fan of NCAA gymnastics for more than ten years, I watch about 80 meets every season, which runs from January to April. This year I was hoping Kyla Ross would lead UCLA past Oklahoma and win the title, by which time baseball season will have started, and lately that has been more exciting since my beloved Cubs have become perennial contenders.

This year? NCAA sports were canceled, seemingly overnight – no conference tournaments, no national championship; and for the seniors in gymnastics and other sports without a pro league, your careers are over.  Just like that. As for baseball, opening day should have happened more than a month ago. Will there be a season this year? Who knows?

So I can’t watch sports anymore. But I can watch the WKRP staff play baseball against their archrivals from WPIG. I can watch Donna Stone meet Don Drysdale (The Donna Reed Show) or Ann Marie meet Stan Musial (That Girl). I can watch Sandy Koufax encounter Mr. Ed, or Jody get outplayed by twin sister Buffy in a game of stickball (Family Affair). 

Are revisiting these shows as much fun as watching a baseball game where the outcome is undetermined? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But at least I know they won’t end prematurely. When baseball comes back this year or next year or in 2025, I may be reluctant to devote the same time and passion to a new season that might be abandoned as soon as some middle infielder coughs a little too loud in the dugout. 

Over the course of my life, from the age of four to present day, I’ve been to Disneyland more than 100 times. Even with the never-ending crowds and ever-escalating ticket prices, there are few activities that soothe my soul like sailing the rivers of America on the Mark Twain.

Disneyland is closed for the foreseeable future. But King’s Island in Cincinnati is still open, at least in the episodes of The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family shot on location there. Both are series highlights for me. And now more than ever it’s a pleasure to watch them and see crowds of people gathered together and having fun.

Will those King’s Island visits be enough to not miss paying a king’s ransom for a day at Disneyland? We’ll see.

As spring turns into summer I look forward to heading out to the golf courses here in Las Vegas. Golf courses are open in most states, but not in my state. Nevada will apparently not be back in business until there’s a vaccine for COVID-19, the common cold and ring around the collar.

But I’ll always have Ed Norton teaching Ralph Kramden how to address the ball.

And maybe it’s time to pull out that I Love Lucy episode in which Ricky and Fred unsuccessfully trying to discourage Lucy and Ethel from joining them out on the course (“Well, it only took us one hour and a half to get to the first green.”).

Las Vegas is home to many wonderful restaurants, and a lot of them are located inside the hotel-casinos that line the Strip. After eating there I often stop and throw a few dollars (sometimes more than a few dollars) into a video poker machine. But
right now – you guessed it – all those resorts are closed.

The casinos better hope that I and a lot of people rediscover our joy in their games of chance, cause if we don’t they may be in trouble even after they open. In the meantime, I can watch Elyse Keaton catch blackjack fever on Family Ties, Charlie’s Angels hang with Dean Martin at the Dunes Resort (gone but not forgotten here in Vegas), and Balki hit a slot jackpot on Perfect Strangers

International travel will likely be one of the last activities to attain pre-pandemic levels. But classic TV lovers know that any time they wish they can go to England with Steed and Mrs. Peel, to Paris with The Monkees, to Australia with the girls from Facts of Life, and journey beyond the solar system on Star Trek

All of the episodes I’ve cited as examples are just a small sampling of those filmed over 60-some years about the same subjects. They’re all here now, just waiting to be rediscovered. They will be here tomorrow, while the country is still closed. And they’ll be here after it opens. When (if?) that ever happens, how you decide to spend that time is up to you. You know where you’ll find me.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Retro TV Nights (Minus One)

Every so often I like to take a look at network viewing nights from the classic TV era that can be recreated through DVDs and streaming services.

The criterion was always that every show had to be accessible. But that restriction kept several interesting lineups from making the cut. So this time I’m going to feature viewing nights where every show but one is available – and then offer a suggestion that would make a fitting substitute for the series still out of circulation.

ABC: Thursday, 1969

The Ghost & Mrs. Muir
That Girl
This is Tom Jones
It Takes a Thief

Oh yes it’s ladies night…and the feeling’s right…
What a great start to a lineup with three classic, Emmy-winning, female-led sitcoms. Both The Ghost & Mrs. Muir and Bewitched feature supernatural stories, and while That Girl settles for stories with mere mortals, one has to wonder what special powers Donald Hollinger had for dating the delightful but very high-maintenance Ann Marie for five years. 

And before anyone asks, The Ghost & Mrs. Muir is available on DVD, just not in this country. If you have a region-free DVD player, you’re good to go. 

There has also been a This is Tom Jones release, but as with many variety shows it does not feature episodes in their entirety. So that’s the one we need to replace before getting to It Takes a Thief, featuring another TV heartthrob in Robert Wagner.

Since so few variety shows are available, we’ll need to go elsewhere for something that fits well in this lineup – how about Here Come the Brides, with Bobby Sherman and David Soul?

ABC: Tuesday, 1964

McHale’s Navy
The Tycoon
Peyton Place
The Fugitive

I wonder how well the switch from a serious military show to a silly one worked back in 1964. Perhaps it seemed like a relief, after an hour of mud-soaked combat, to enjoy some lighter moments with the crew of PT-75. 

McHale’s Navy was followed by another sitcom starring Walter Brennan as a cantankerous millionaire and Van Williams (the Green Hornet!) as his assistant and private pilot. With that cast how bad could it be? We’ll probably never know now, so let’s change that to F-Troop and keep the military theme going. Then, settle back for some high-class drama with Peyton Place and The Fugitive

CBS: Saturday, 1970

Mission: Impossible
My Three Sons
The Mary Tyler Moore Show

This was quite the mix-and-match grab bag of shows for CBS at the start of a new decade. The bookends are fine with Mission: Impossible at the start and Mannix wrapping up the night. My Three Sons was running on fumes after ten seasons, while The Mary Tyler Moore Show was just beginning its celebrated seven-season run. 

In between was Arnie, a series about a blue-collar worker (Herschel Bernardi) promoted to a white-collar position, and how that change impacts his family and coworkers. 

Never saw it so I can’t tell you if it’s any good. But to take its place let’s go with Here’s Lucy, another old-school sitcom that would transition well out of My Three Sons.

ABC: Thursday, 1975

Barney Miller
On the Rocks
The Streets of San Francisco
Harry O

Two half-hour comedies followed by two hour-long dramas was a familiar programming pattern, and here we’ve got a pretty good variety with just the lone weak link in On the Rocks. A comedy set in a prison was always going to be a tough sell, even with a cast of stalwart comic talents like Rick Hurst, Tom Poston, Hal Williams and Mel Stewart. 

Barney Miller is a great show that doesn’t get enough attention now, including in this blog. I’ll try to rectify that. After that, pop in an episode of Soap in place of On the Rocks. Soap actually did follow Barney Miller on ABC’s 1978 schedule, and both shows had an absurdist streak that makes them a good match.

And when it’s time to get serious, viewers are in good hands with Karl Malden and Michael Douglas in Streets, and David Janssen as Harry O

CBS: Friday, 1977

Wonder Woman
The Incredible Hulk
Flying High

Two-thirds of this lineup makes sense, with shows based on comic book superheroes. Wonder Woman was the more breezy and colorful series, while The Incredible Hulk offered a more somber treatment of Dr. David Banner’s search for a cure to his unique condition. Both characters have since appeared in films that rendered the limited special effects possible on the TV shows even more regrettable. But taken on their own terms they are still fun to watch. 

And to round out the night, we’ve got…stewardesses? Flying High was CBS’s attempt to recreate the success of Charlie’s Angels with the lovely trio of Pat Klous, Connie Sellecca and Katrhyn Witt. Every week brought a different set of travelers, including all the usual ‘70s suspects – Charo, Dr. Joyce Brothers, Dennis Cole, Dick Gauthier, Barbi Benton – so yeah, I’d pick it up. 

But since one-season flops from 1977 rarely hit DVD, let’s substitute The Amazing Spider-Man, another cheesy comic-inspired show that also debuted on CBS that year. 

ABC: Wednesday 1986

Perfect Strangers
Head of the Class

Music rights is probably the reason Head of the Class remains unavailable on DVD, since almost all of ABC’s other TGIF-era series have been released, including the awful Step by Step. As I’ve always been a fan of shows set in schools it would be a first-day purchase for me. Whatever did happen to Khrystyne Haje? 

But since we must, let’s slot in another show with great school scenes, Boy Meets World, to complete that first hour. After that it’s two hours of escapist romance, luxury and intrigue with Dynasty and Hotel

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Comfort TV Goes Grocery Shopping

A few years ago I scribbled a note to myself to write a piece about grocery stores in classic TV episodes. It never seemed the right time, and it felt like a pretty strange idea anyway.

But if there was ever a moment to delve into this topic, it’s when we now realize how long we’ve taken these establishments for granted. Unless you are well into your senior years, this is likely the first time you went into the neighborhood supermarket wondering if they’ll have everything you need.

Me, I’ve always liked grocery stores, and I’m always amazed by all the options they provide us. So when one of my favorite shows visits a supermarket, my attention naturally perks up.

There are two kinds of supermarket TV episodes; those that shoot on location in an actual store, and those that build a scaled-down version on a soundstage, and fill it with fake products.

Real Stores
These moments are more fun, because I love freeze-framing on the shelves to see which brands from 30-50 years ago are still available, and which have disappeared.

Some are easy to spot right away, because the packaging has barely changed from then to now – the brown and yellow Bayer Aspirin box; green 7-Up bottles (do they still make it in glass bottles?); Heinz Ketchup.

There’s a supermarket scene in the Partridge Family episode “Why Did the Music Stop?” that I love, because on the shelf behind Shirley are displayed large tin cans of Hi-C fruit juice. I used to get those all the time, especially the Citrus Cooler.

Those are long gone, along with a lot of other products that used to be packaged in heavy glass and metal containers. In an episode of The Donna Reed Show called “Just a Housewife,” Donna is surrounded by shelf after shelf of large metal cans – imagine having to lug paper sacks full of those from the car to the kitchen.

And if you know something of the history of that series, it won’t surprise you that the two most prominent brands in that supermarket scene are Campbell’s Soup and Franco American Spaghetti – both sponsors of The Donna Reed Show. Product placement works, even back in 1960.

Overall, however, it’s surprising how little these places have changed over the decades. The debut episode of Police Story, “Slow Boy,” aired in 1973, and features a stakeout and shoot-out between cops and crooks inside a supermarket. Almost 50 years later that store wouldn’t look out of place now, except for the much lower prices and a few products lost to the ages, like Dixie Riddle Cups.  

An episode of Honey West called “Pop Goes the Easel” opens with an overhead shot of a massive supermarket, shelves stacked to the point of near overflowing. I’d have enjoyed a longer look around, but after thieves steal a can of chicken gumbo soup purchased by Honey’s aunt, the plot heads elsewhere. Turns out that can had a hand-painted label by a pop artist patterned after Andy Warhol.

And in the Eight is Enough episode “Quarantine” I referenced a few weeks ago, David Bradford walks the aisles of a large store where the directory signs are identified by a very ‘70s font of lower-case letters.

Fake Stores
The most familiar fake store from the Comfort TV era is the one owned by Herbert T. Gillis on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. But that’s more of a small neighborhood market. 

The store set built for “Supermarket Sweep” on Laverne & Shirley has shorter aisles, to accommodate the frenzied action as contest-winners Laverne and Shirley have three minutes to grab as much stuff as they can for free.  They load up a cart and stuff more goodies down their clothes, yet somehow only wind up with a box of fish sticks and scooter pies.

Next time you catch this one notice how the items on the shelves were not as vintage as they should have been. There are boxes of Frosted Flakes and Corn Flakes that reflect when the episode was shot, and not the era in which it was set.

Over on Bewitched, in “Samantha’s Lost Weekend” Esmerelda accidentally casts a spell on Sam that puts her in a permanent state of hunger, so it’s off to the market where she starts eating everything right of the shelves, and stealing apples from little old ladies. There’s a mix of real and fake items on display, and because they wanted to condense an entire market into a smaller space you’ll see product arrangements you’d never see in a real store. In one scene there are two shelves of alcoholic beverages stocked directly over the bottles of ketchup. 

It's rare when nearly an entire episode is set in a supermarket, but that’s what happens on Here’s Lucy in “Lucy, the Shopping Expert.” Lucy’s son Craig gets a job at a grocery store, where he is told to help keep the store looking neat and organized…and then Lucy shows up. You can guess the rest. 

This is one of those topics for which there are dozens, if not hundreds more examples. But I think a second grocery store piece might be pushing it. Let’s just hope that the era of grocery shopping that requires masks, social distancing and Soviet-style waiting lists for cleaning supplies and paper products will soon be the kind of memory we’d all rather forget.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Top TV Moments: Cheryl Ladd

One of the customary career trajectories in the Comfort TV era was to break into television doing guest spots on established series. Even if the roles were small, doing enough of them could put an actor on the radar of series producers and casting directors. If it worked, one day they would land a series of their own.

Cheryl Ladd is one of many who followed that career path. And the series she was offered was...Family. She was this-close to landing the role of Nancy Maitland, but at the last minute producer Aaron Spelling chose Meredith Baxter-Birney. When he asked her to join Charlie's Angels instead, she turned him down. Thankfully, she changed her mind.

Ladd is still known almost exclusively for her four seasons as Kris Munroe  – but she played a lot of guest spots before that, and kept busy for decades after hanging up her halo.

These are some of her most memorable TV moments.

Josie and The Pussycats (1970)
How bizarre that the first television credit for one of the most gorgeous TV stars of the 1970s would be one where viewers would never see her. Jackie Joseph provided the voice for the character of Melody in this musical cartoon trio, but Cheryl Ladd provided her singing voice for the songs featured in every episode. 

Viewers finally got to see what she looked like if they bought the Josie and the Pussycats album, which holds up as well as the series if not better. 

The Partridge Family (1973)
Keith lands a date with Johanna Hauser (Ladd) “the most desirable female at San Pueblo JC” (that would be “Junior College”). 

Unfortunately, he already has another date for that same night. Will Keith do the honorable thing? Of course not. Despite his sister Laurie’s catty comment that Johanna “goes steady with the basketball team,” Ladd doesn’t play her as promiscuous. But she clearly knows that with one smile at a hapless guy she can get whatever she wants.

Satan’s School for Girls (1973)
Charlie’s Angels wasn’t Ladd’s first Spelling-Goldberg production – she also appeared in this macabre TV movie, which also featured her future co-star Kate Jackson. 

It’s fun to see the two future Angels playing coeds together in several scenes. The movie itself is a bit like Suspiria. Of course it doesn’t have the visual flair of Dario Argento’s famed giallo, but at least it’s a lot shorter.

Happy Days (1974)
Richie wins the chance to escort Hollywood star Cindy Shea to his high school dance. This is by far the best of Ladd’s roles while she was still billed as Cheryl Stoppelmoor. The easy route would have been to make Cindy a spoiled brat who is only visiting schools to promote her new movie. But before this series became The Fonzie Show it was still capable of nuance. 

Charlie’s Angels (1977)
To the extent that Charlie’s Angels has become a globally familiar brand that inspired multiple remakes and reboots over the past four decades, much of the credit rightly belongs to Cheryl Ladd. 

Of course the series made a huge pop culture splash in its first season when Farrah Fawcett-Majors’ face and form were on every magazine cover in the country (as well as a poster that sold more than 12 million copies). But Farrah was gone after that one season, and the show’s legacy would have been very different had she taken a sizable segment of the show’s audience with her.

Fortunately (and perhaps surprisingly), that didn’t happen. Season two actually posted higher ratings than it did with Farrah, and the show ran for another three years. 

As Kris Munroe Cheryl was not Farrah - but she was beautiful and likable and fit in well with her established costars. Relations off-screen with Kate Jackson were less than cordial, but when the trio tackled cases together their camaraderie was believable. That was not always the case when Shelley Hack replaced Jackson.

Battle of the Network Stars (1977)
This is just the third installment of what became a semi-annual competition, and they had not yet settled on the right mix of events. Ladd is under-utilized in the early events, which seems understandable after you watch her bowl. But she helps the ABC team win the running relay, taking the baton from Penny Marshall and passing it on to Kristy McNichol. Her team finished second, because Robert Conrad was captain of the NBC team, and he wasn’t about to lose again. 

The Cheryl Ladd Special: Souvenirs (1980)
Cheryl Ladd starred in three music/variety specials on ABC. The first one had a storyline about her going back home to South Dakota and hanging out at a truck stop where one of the waitresses is played by Melanie Griffith. The message was that for all her fame she’s just a downhome country girl at heart. I doubt anyone bought that.

“Souvenirs” played more to her strengths – big, splashy song and dance numbers instead of country music, and colorful costumes that enhanced her stunning appearance. She also sings a duet with Joyce Dewitt, so what more could you want?

When She Was Bad (1979)
Ladd never found a prestige drama after her Angel days, like Farrah Fawcett did with The Burning Bed. This one aired while she was still playing Kris, and might have been a tough pivot for the ABC prime time audience. Ladd played a young wife and mother who takes out the stress in her life on her preschool daughter, verbally and physically. Stuff like this is always tough to watch. Ladd and Robert Urich do their best with an earnest but cliché-heavy script.

Grace Kelly (1983)
There was a lot of fanfare surrounding this TV movie biography of the movie star turned princess, and landing the part was a big coup for Ladd. It even landed her back on the cover of TV Guide

No one could blame her for taking on such an iconic role, but…it just wasn’t a very good fit. It’s not Jennifer Love Hewitt-as-Audrey Hepburn bad, but Ladd doesn’t look or sound like Grace Kelly, so it’s difficult to focus on the character and not on who is playing her. Still, it’s not dull, and it’s not a poor reflection on its subject.

The Hasty Heart (1983)
Now this is more like it. John Patrick’s play was originally performed in the 1940s, and was staged for the Showtime network in 1983 starring Ladd, Gregory Harrison, and Perry King. The story is set in a British military hospital in Burma during World War II. 

Ladd plays Sister Margaret, a British nurse tending to the wounded, including Harrison as a bitter Scot who finds himself surrounded by people who accept him despite his temper – though he won’t know the reason until…well, that would be telling. Though Cheryl Ladd has continued to work steadily (she did a couple of Hallmark Christmas movies that aired last year), this is my favorite of her post-Angels credits.