Friday, December 12, 2014

What is Your Classic TV Constant?

Discuss favorite Lost episodes with fans and it won’t be long until someone mentions “The Constant.” 

For those who didn’t follow this fascinating and sometimes frustrating series, the episode was about a man whose reality had become fractured in divergent timelines, and who was able to survive the ordeal by focusing on a “constant,” defined here as something or someone of value that is always present in his life.

It’s a concept I hadn’t pondered before watching Lost, but one that I’ve often thought about since. Who wouldn’t want a constant to anchor us amidst turmoil, something we know with certainty will be in our lives for as long as we desire it?

It’s the type of security some of us get from faith, which may adapt with the times but still adheres to bedrock principles and eternal promises.

But on a much less profound level, I believe it’s one of the reasons why what I call Comfort TV is something so many of us treasure. 

Life is inevitably about change.

We live with our parents when we’re young, and then we’re out on our own, before creating new families, which stay together until another generation leaves the nest. We move from one home to another, and change jobs and companies throughout our careers. Pets come into our lives for a time, but unless you are partial to parrots or tortoises they will leave long before you do.

If you’re lucky you’ll hold on to a few childhood friends into your adult years. The rest you’ll see at school reunions, and acknowledge their birthdays on Facebook.

The neighborhood restaurant you grew up with is replaced by an Outback Steakhouse. The park where you played baseball is now condos. The daily newspaper is on your computer instead of your doorstep.

When you really stop to think about it, how many things come into your life and are always there – or are at least always accessible when you wish to see them again?  Favorite books, favorite songs, movies and TV shows are indeed a constant for so many of us, and that’s why they bring us such joy.

I was five years old the first time I saw The Dick Van Dyke Show. I was in the living room of a duplex in Skokie, Illinois, eating dinner on a TV tray and watching the series in syndication on Chicago’s WGN-TV, channel 9. It made me laugh, and it made my mom laugh. We watched every weeknight, until my father came home from work. 

At the time I had no idea the episodes I was enjoying so much had originally aired several years earlier. But gradually as the five seasons continued to play in succession, I became aware of the concept of the rerun, and began to look forward to watching my favorite shows again.

After a few years of constant exposure I lost touch with the Petries for a while, only to rediscover them in the 1980s when my home was wired for cable and I discovered the delights of Nick at Nite. Once again, The Dick Van Dyke Show was a nightly tradition, and it had lost none of its appeal.

When the DVDs came out I bought them all. Now I could watch the series on my schedule, skip over the (very) few sub-par episodes and enjoy classics like “The Curious Thing About Women” and “October Eve” as often as I wished. 

When the series was released on Blu-Ray, I had a welcome pretext to watch every show again in order, now with a stunning clarity that I could never have imagined more than 40 years earlier. For the first time I could clearly distinguish the pile of the carpet in the Petrie living room, beads of sweat forming on Dick Van Dyke’s forehead in several of the office scenes, and the fine detail in the threading on Mary Tyler Moore’s costumes.

There are other shows that have been with me nearly as long as The Dick Van Dyke Show – I retain a very hazy memory of watching a first-run Brady Bunch episode at the age of four – but if I had to name an origin point for my classic television passion, it would have to be 148 Bonnie Meadow Road in New Rochelle, New York. And it feels good to know that 10, 20, 30 years from now it will be there. And Buddy’s putdowns of Mel Cooley will still make me laugh, even though I’ve heard them a thousand times before. 

Do you have a classic TV constant?


Monday, December 1, 2014

My Christmas TV List

The end of Thanksgiving heralds the beginning of my Christmas television season.

The lineup and viewing order vary from year to year. Between my DVD library and programs accessed by other means, I probably have anywhere from 60 to 75 holiday episodes to choose from. Some are annual viewing; others are pulled out occasionally, and many are skipped altogether. The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis is a wonderful series I’m glad to own, but in four seasons they didn’t manage one memorable Christmas show.

This list contains the episodes that are essential to my Christmas celebration. Please share your favorites in the comments if you’re so inclined.

And if you’d like to know more about Christmas TV the universally-recognized authority is Joanna Wilson, who has a blog devoted to this particular topic, and whose books on Christmas television I cannot recommend highly enough.

The Avengers (“Too Many Christmas Trees”)
Steed has Santa-themed nightmares, which come to life at a Charles Dickens-inspired Christmas party. The dialogue sparkles as it usually does with this show (Steed on Emma’s friendship with a rare book dealer – “Is he still after your first edition?”), and there’s a clever reference to Steed’s previous partner, Cathy Gale.

The Lucy Show (“Together for Christmas”)
Lucy and Viv look forward to their first Christmas together, until they discover that their respective holiday traditions couldn’t be further apart. Anyone with in-laws can relate.

Dragnet (“The Christmas Story”)
Friday and Gannon try to track down a missing statue of the baby Jesus, stolen from a church’s Nativity scene. Turns out the culprit is a little boy who prayed for a red wagon for Christmas, and promised Jesus the first ride. “Paquita’s family, they’re poor,” explains the priest in the last scene. Friday looks around the church and responds, “Are they, Father?” Good luck finding that kind of message on TV anymore.

The Monkees (“The Christmas Show”)
The Monkees baby-sit a spoiled rich kid (played by The Munsters’ Butch Patrick) over the holidays. The episode is just fair, but it closes with the band performing a superb a cappella version of “Riu Chiu,” a Spanish carol that dates back to the 1500s. 

The Donna Reed Show (“A Very Merry Christmas”)
Donna worries that Christmas is not what it used to be (in 1958!) but finds the true spirit of the season in a hospital janitor who arranges a Christmas party in the children’s ward. Silent screen legend Buster Keaton plays the janitor. A beautiful and heartwarming episode typical of both the series and its era. 

The Dick Van Dyke Show (“The Alan Brady Show Presents”)
All singing, all dancing, all wonderful – except for Richie’s off-key warbling of “The Little Drummer Boy.” What did we do before fast-forward buttons on remotes?

Petticoat Junction (“Cannonball Christmas”)
Railroad executive Homer Bedloe (Charles Lane, TV’s go-to curmudgeon) tries to shut down the Cannonball but is outsmarted by Kate Bradley and her daughters. The show ends with the train, decorated for the holidays, riding through Hooterville to the strains of holiday music. 

The Patty Duke Show (“The Christmas Present”)
Cathy is convinced that her father, a foreign correspondent, will be home to spend Christmas with her, even though newspapers report he’s been jailed after a revolution on the other side of the world. Will he make it in time? Of course he will – what classic TV show would dare to run a depressing Christmas episode? Yeah, I’m looking at you, Family Affair.

The Brady Bunch (“The Voice of Christmas”)
No surprise to see this one on the essential list: Cindy asks Santa to restore her mother’s laryngitis-stricken voice in time for her church solo. Remember when TV characters actually went to church?

That Girl (“’Twas the Night Before Christmas, You’re Under Arrest”)
After one of those misunderstandings that only happen on sitcoms, Ann and Donald spend Christmas Eve in jail.

Wings (‘The Customer’s Usually Right”)
There were six Wings holiday episodes and I usually watch all of them.
My favorite is this one from season four, in which Joe’s refusal to pay a 50-cent rewind fee on a rented videocassette gets a sweet little old lady fired on Christmas Eve. His attempts to make amends lead to unexpectedly hilarious complications.

Father Knows Best (“The Christmas Story”)
Determined to celebrate the holiday right, Jim drags his family up to the mountains so they can cut down their own Christmas tree.  His plan goes awry when the car gets stuck in a snowdrift, and they are forced to seek shelter in an abandoned fishing lodge. The ending, when Kathy thinks she sees Santa Claus out her window, is magical. 

The Bob Newhart Show (“Bob Has to Have His Tonsils Out, So He Spends Christmas Eve in the Hospital”)
The title says it all. Bob is subjected to the indignities of peekaboo hospital gowns, Howard’s hospital horror stories, and an ancient nurse played by the veteran character actress Merie Earle, who gets a laugh with every line she utters. But then you can’t go wrong with any of the Newhart holiday shows.

The Partridge Family (“Don’t Bring Your Guns to Town, Santa”)
This was a favorite episode among most of the cast, and while I like it I don’t love it. I wish there would have been a full performance of “Winter Wonderland,” or better yet “A Christmas Card to You.” But the costumes are beautiful, and with every passing year I am moved more by the poignancy of Dean Jagger’s lonely prospector. 

The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet (“The Girl in the Emporium”)
Ricky and his friend Wally get jobs at a department store to make some extra holiday money – and to hit on a cute sales clerk. I think I watch this one every year just for Ricky Nelson’s Kingfish (from Amos & Andy) imitation near the end. It never fails to make me laugh.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show (“Christmas and the Hard Luck Kid”)
If you’re a classic TV fan you are already picturing Mary’s desk, decorated for the holidays (with Nativity scene in the desk drawer). This is another personal favorite – one year I am definitely going to gift-wrap my front door like she does in this episode. 

Eight is Enough (“Yes, Nicholas, There is a Santa Claus”)
Will Geer plays a down and out man who convinces Nicholas he is Santa Claus, and then steals all the Bradford Christmas presents. Really, Nicholas? Even Nancy wouldn't have fallen for that. Still, it’s a fun two-part show with an unexpectedly powerful ending.

The Flintstones (“Christmas Flintstone”)
I love the look of this episode. The deep blues, reds and whites in the color palette are a striking change from the earth tones that permeate most Flintstones shows. The songs are silly but still memorable, and the Pebbles dolls are an amusing example of not-too-subtle product placement.

Bewitched (“A Vision of Sugar Plums”)
This is my favorite Christmas episode of any series. Every moment of it is perfect.

Glee (“A Very Glee Christmas”)
This is the only contemporary show on my list, but it feels retro because of the wonderful covers of “The Most Wonderful Day of the Year” from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and two songs from The Grinch that Stole Christmas


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Classic TV Legacy of Casey Kasem

Most Saturday mornings you’ll find me driving around Las Vegas listening to a 1970s edition of American Top 40 with Casey Kasem on Sirius XM. I live in the past as much with music as I do with television.

Hearing Casey count down tracks from Fleetwood Mac, Andy Gibb and the Ozark Mountain Daredevils is a happy reminder of tuning into the same broadcasts when they originally aired, as well as a way to remember Kasem in his element, before recent months have turned him into a post-mortem punch line on par with baseball great Ted Williams. 

Kasem was certainly best known as a radio personality, but he also had a successful and somewhat bizarre acting career that also deserves commemoration. He was, to borrow a phrase from Nick at Nite back when that network was worth watching, part of our television heritage.

Here is just a sampling of the shows where he appeared and the roles he played over an eclectic career.

Norville “Shaggy” Rogers
Outside of daytime drama you rarely find an actor portraying the same character for 40 years. Casey Kasem created the voice of Shaggy for Scooby Doo, Where are You when it debuted in 1969, and kept coming back for revivals and adaptations and direct-to-video DVDs until 2009. That’s a lot of “Zoinks!” From 2010 to 2013, he voiced Shaggy’s father, Colton, in Scooby Doo: Mystery Incorporated.  

Kasem’s voice was often described as unmistakable. But to me Shaggy’s high-pitched quaver sounds almost nothing like the soothing, resonant voice you heard on the radio, or in voiceover the commercials he narrated for Heinz ketchup or Dairy Queen or Oscar Meyer. The difference was so distinct that Kasem often voiced secondary characters in Scooby Doo shows (like the various cops who drag the phony monster to jail) and if you didn’t know you’d never suspect it was the same performer.

Dick Grayson/Robin
This was Kasem’s second most famous animated character, one that predates his time in the Mystery Machine. He played an earnest Boy Wonder in 1968’s The Batman/Superman Hour, and reprised the role in Hanna Barbera’s long-running Super Friends shows. Super Friends and Scooby Doo were Saturday morning staples throughout the 1970s – no wonder my generation grew up with Kasem’s voice in our heads. 

Adolf Hitler
In 1974, when Don Rickles was the guest of honor on one of Dean Martin’s legendary roasts, Casey Kasem was introduced as “the man who writes every word that comes out of Don’s mouth.” Out he strolled as Hitler (not in Nazi garb, but in a purple smoking jacket), to claim that Rickles is “the only man who has bombed more places than I have.” It’s a bizarre moment but Casey does his best to commit to the character.

Peter Cottontail
Here Comes Peter Cottontail (1971) was the first of three Rankin-Bass Easter specials, none of which are as fondly recalled as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Still, here’s a chance to hear Casey sing, and you try to find another actor who played both Hitler and Peter Cottontail. 

Charlie’s Angels
The season 3 episode “Winning is for Losers” finds the Angels on bodyguard duty, after a professional golfer receives death threats. Jamie Lee Curtis plays the golfer, the same year she starred in Halloween. And Casey Kasem appears as sportscaster Tom Rogers, who has a sinister secret but may or may not be the killer. Despite the appearances of Curtis and Kasem, the episode is most memorable for a scene in which petite little Kris Munroe (Cheryl Ladd) wrestles an alligator.

The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries
In the two-part thriller “Mystery of the Hollywood Phantom,” Kasem plays struggling actor Paul Hamilton who, as in Charlie’s Angels, may or may not be a murderer. In his first scene he impersonates Peter Falk as Lt. Columbo, and pulls it off surprisingly well. 

Saved By The Bell
Casey played himself in more than 50 television appearances, including two episodes of this awful but strangely beloved series. In “Dancing to the Max,” he appears as the host of a dance contest, which is somehow won by Screech. Apparently no one saw Elizabeth Berkeley on Dancing With the Stars. Or Showgirls.

These selections are just a small sampling of Kasem’s TV work – if you’re a viewer of the various retro TV channels you’ll also spot him in episodes of Fantasy Island, Hawaii Five-O, Ironside, Quincy and My Two Dads. And if you need a fix between reruns please join me Saturday mornings on the Sirius 70s on 7 channel. I’ll bet it’s been years since you’ve heard “Convoy” or “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” on the radio.

As you do, say a little prayer if you’re so inclined that Casey Kasem’s body will soon be at rest, as his soul ascends to the stars he always encouraged us to reach. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

The (Real) Home of Comfort TV

There is a fantasy shared by many of us who love Comfort TV, and that is the prospect of visiting the fictional worlds created in classic shows. What would it be like to attend one of those martini-drenched cocktail parties hosted by Sam and Darren Stephens? Or listen to the Partridge Family rehearse in their garage? Or to see snow falling over Major Nelson’s house in July, and realize that Jeannie is at it again? 

Impossible, of course. But there is a place that would bring one closer to realizing this dream than any other in our mundane real world. It’s in Burbank, California, on a section of the Warner Bros. Ranch known as Blondie Street. If classic TV has a home, this is it.

At first glance it looks like any other gently-curving street you would find in suburban cities throughout the United States – single family homes with attached garages and neatly-manicured lawns out front, some with a white picket fence surrounding the property.

But if you know your classic TV shows, it won’t be long before every house on the block begins to look familiar. Start with the Blondie home, built for use in a series of 1940s films based on the long-running comic strip. For TV fans, however, it is famous as the home of the Andersons in Father Knows Best, as well as the home of Major Nelson on I Dream of Jeannie

This is also where you’ll find the homes used on Hazel and Gidget, and the Oliver house that was home to both the Stones on The Donna Reed Show and the Mitchells on Dennis the Menace. Next door to the Blondie home is the Partridge Family home  – note the driveway on the right where the iconic bus was often parked. 

At the end of the street is the Higgins house, most famously used as the Stephens residence on Bewitched

There is a park on the other side of the street, which has appeared in all of the above shows and hundreds more. Its most famous feature is a circular, white stone fountain that should also be familiar to every TV fan. It was prominently featured in the opening credits of Friends
, but sharp-eyed viewers can spot it in dozens of other shows, from The Waltons to The Monkees.

If you want to know the full history of the Warner Bros. Ranch, there is an excellent website that details every aspect of the property, from its initial construction to the movies and television shows filmed there. Mischa Hof, with whom I’ve exchanged a number of emails over the past 10 years, created the site. It’s a labor of love for him, and I can’t imagine how much time and money he’s devoted to research and interviews that celebrate its pop culture heritage.

A few months ago I received an email from a woman named Janet who works on the Blondie Street part of the property. She asked if I would be willing to write a blog on the site and on Mischa’s work.

I immediately accepted, having wanted to visit the place for years. I’ve walked the perimeter of the property during more than one trip to Los Angeles (there’s a pretty good pizza place across the street), and peeked through the chain-link fence where you can glimpse some of the houses. 

Unfortunately, just two weeks after Janet extended the invitation, she was laid off after 10 years on the job.

I didn’t know much about Janet then –  I have since learned that she was much loved by her coworkers and those fortunate enough to tour the lot in her presence. 

It’s important that those who work in special places have an appreciation for their history, and for what they mean to people. This should be true whether it’s a metropolitan art museum, a Broadway theater, a venerable old sports arena, or Blondie Street. 

Janet got that. At the time of her dismissal she was working with Mischa on a “Friends of the Ranch” program that would have opened the street to visitors for the first time in its history. Now, that probably will not happen.

I’ll get there one day. I have a few somebodys who know somebodys who will be able to set something up. And as Blondie Street is still a valued part of the studio (you’ll also see it in more recent series like The Middle), I do not fear for its future. But it is without a caretaker now, and that concerns me.

There’s a reason we bestow landmark status on exceptional places. It elevates them above mere property controlled by a corporation, and protects them against the whims of the bureaucrat, the robber baron and the unenlightened. Blondie Street is a place to walk in the footsteps of television’s most beloved characters. It has the ability to reconnect adults with the blissful days of their childhoods.

Perhaps that’s not sufficient for the kind of safekeeping afforded to the Ryman Auditorium or the Old North Church. But if the home of Millard Fillmore can make the cut, so can the home of Samantha Stephens. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Love Boat: Sailing Away from Cynicism

My classic TV viewing is rarely influenced by current events. However, at those moments that the world situation seems more depressing than usual, I often find myself drifting toward less challenging shows.

When a temporary escape from dire headlines is warranted, the carefree appeal of a frivolous series like The Love Boat is particularly welcome. What sounds better to you right now – another story about Ebola, lone-wolf terrorism, school shootings and contentious political campaigns, or an open smile on a friendly shore? 

Escapism was always one of the series’ selling points, even if viewers were only escaping something as mundane as winter. From 1977 to 1987, the show embarked on each new season as autumn leaves began to fall, and sailed through the months when days were shorter and weather forecasts promised blizzards and cold, bleak temperatures.

Growing up in the Chicago suburbs I can still recall watching The Love Boat on Saturday nights and gazing, longingly, at the bright sunshine and clear blue skies as the Pacific Princess sailed out of port. As each week’s swimsuit-clad voyagers lounged on the Lido deck, sipping tropical drinks and discussing day trips into Mazatlán or Puerto Vallarta, it felt like a virtual vacation from the frozen wasteland outside my bedroom window. 

Critics hated it, of course. It didn’t have the gravitas of Hill Street Blues (as if that was the objective). How dare any series possess no higher aspirations than showcasing nice people in attractive scenery, and simple stories of romance. But in the era that brought us the Iran hostage crisis, the last throes of the Cold War, the Unabomber, the murder of John Lennon and other depressing news, I’m sure millions of viewers appreciated the break. The show came along at a good time.

And the timing was also favorable when it came to casting. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, many of Hollywood’s golden age stars were still performing, even if opportunities to do so were not as prevalent. The Love Boat‘s prestigious passenger list includes June Allyson, Van Johnson, Lana Turner, Joseph Cotten, Olivia de Havilland, Greer Garson, Joan Fontaine, Stewart Granger and Ginger Rogers.

Television stars past and present filled out the remaining roles, along with a few frequent travelers who qualified as celebrities, though at the time we didn’t know why, exactly: Bert Convy, Mary Ann Mobley, Dr. Joyce Brothers, and the ubiquitous Charo, who seemed to check in at least once a month. 

The Love Boat crew was as responsible for the series’ success and longevity as its guest stars. I can’t prove it, and have not found any polling on the subject (academia is shockingly bereft of scholarly research on The Love Boat) but for me it was the friendly and reliable presence of Gavin McLeod, Fred Grandy, Ted Lange, Bernie Kopell and Lauren Tewes that anchored the series though episodes good and bad.

What a wonderful job that must have been. With the stories carried by the passengers, your captain, yeoman purser, doctor, bartender and cruise director received scripts with one-third of the lines they would have to memorize on a typical hour-long series. Kopell and Grandy had so much free time they also wrote several stories. And once or twice each season a crewmember would get to play a moment that required extra depth and effort, and they were always up to the task.

I had it bad for Julie McCoy, who seemed like one those sweet and wholesome girls that you would be proud to take home to mom. That says something about my naiveté as a viewer, because in nine seasons she invited a lot of guys back to her cabin. At the time I thought they were just getting together to sip hot chocolate and play some board games. 

As with any long running series, even one with such a pliable premise, The Love Boat eventually began to lose its mojo. I never thought Jill Whelan was the Cousin Oliver of the cruise lines, but most people didn’t get why Vicki was necessary. Lauren Tewes’ one-season departure disrupted crew chemistry, and the late addition of the Love Boat Mermaids and series-killer Ted McGinley (as ship photographer Ace) smacked of desperation.

But even in its least inspired moments, The Love Boat was a refreshing oasis of optimism in a desert of cynicism. It was weekly wish fulfillment that reassured all of us losers that there really was someone out there for everyone. 

And if nothing else, it was a time capsule for an era of film, television and popular culture that we rightly recall as magical. Artist Andy Warhol sailed on the Pacific Princess. So did Donna Reed and Dolly Parton, Hulk Hogan and Lillian Gish, the Hudson Brothers and the Pointer Sisters. Luise Rainer, who won back-to-back Oscars in 1936 and 1937, appeared on The Love Boat (playing twins!). Janet Jackson was there at the beginning of her career, and it was where Janet Gaynor, the first Best Actress Oscar winner in 1928, gave her final performance. 

The first two seasons of The Love Boat are available on DVD. In discouraging times like these, the rest of the run cannot be released too soon. 

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Top 20 TV Theme Songs of the 1980s

As with last year’s series of blogs on essential television series by decade, this series on theme songs will also conclude with the 1980s. Not only is this the last decade that qualifies as Comfort TV, it’s also the last one where a theme song was an essential part of the viewing experience. It might be an interesting challenge to try and find 20 great songs form the 1990s, but I fear the selections would be pretty scarce after Friends, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X-Files.

The 1980s doesn’t seem like that long ago – to me, anyway – yet think about how times have changed. Back then an ode to a bar as heartening as “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” was actually commended, and not condemned for encouraging alcoholism. 

Hill Street Blues
Another outstanding (and Grammy-winning) theme from Mike Post, the genre’s most prolific and successful composer. Good thing he came up with something this appealing for Hill Street Blues, since it would have to play long enough to introduce what seemed like 30 or 40 regulars in every episode. 

The Golden Girls
“Thank you for Being a Friend” was written and recorded by Andrew Gold in 1978, and then revived (with new vocals by Cynthia Fee) for this beloved sitcom. It’s a perfect fit.

Miami Vice
If any television theme screams 1980s, it’s this electronic musical assault from Jan Hammer. Probably not the sort of piece you listen to very often anymore, but then not everything that seemed cool 30 years ago has managed to retain that status.

And while some compositions like the Miami Vice theme have their moment in the sun and then fade into history, others endure for hundreds of years. The Wings theme is actually the Rondo movement from Franz Schubert’s Sonata in A, written in 1828. Sadly, it only lasted through the series’ first season and half of season two. 

The Greatest American Hero
The Joey Scarbury hit “Believe it or Not” is one of those songs that are kind of awesome and kind of terrible at the same time. But who didn’t love the pop culture boost it received from George Costanza’s answering machine on Seinfeld?

Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors
‘80s kids grew up with cartoons created primarily to sell toys. The themes were mostly generic, but the intro to Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors had an over-the-top hair metal vibe that still sounds great. And the toys were underrated too.

Twin Peaks
Perhaps no other series used music to establish tone and atmosphere as effectively as Twin Peaks. The extraordinary theme and score by Angelo Badalamenti created a sense of foreboding that hung over every scene. It’s impossible to think of the show without it. 

It’s a Living
With its full orchestra and soaring vocal arrangements, this lively theme sounds like something written for a classic 1940s Broadway musical. 

St. Elsewhere
Dave Grusin’s lilting jazz theme for this always excellent (and always low-rated) drama was the best of his many television works, which also include the themes for Maude, Good Times and It Takes a Thief

Bob Newhart’s second successful sitcom had a subversive streak that belied its bucolic setting. But its simple, beautiful theme had no such undertones. It’s just a really sweet and cozy piece of music from Henry Mancini, a composer who also contributed to my list of top 20 themes from the 1950s.

The Winds of War
Technically this was a miniseries, but there were 14 episodes between The Winds of War and its sequel, War and Remembrance, and that’s more than some shows manage. The magnificent theme was created by Robert Cobert, whose work with series producer Dan Curtis dates back to their days on Dark Shadows

If you look back over TV history, you find that all of the coolest shows have music that complements this admirable quality. Do the songs become cooler by association, or do they succeed on their own merits? With Moonlighting the answer is obvious. One can groove to Al Jarreau’s jazzy theme without ever meeting David Addison, Maddie Hayes or Miss DiPesto.

My Sister Sam
Not a lot of happy memories associated with this situation comedy, given the tragic murder of costar Rebecca Schaeffer. But it was a good show with much potential, and a theme in Kim Carnes’ “Room Enough for Two,” that under different circumstances would be much better known. 

This soothing piece by W.G. Snuffy Walden always reminds me of Pachelbel’s Canon in D.

It’s Garry Shandling’s Show
Here is the first theme song to send up the very concept of the theme song. Shandling’s self-aware series was a forerunner to the kind of meta-television we take for granted now. 

Highway to Heaven
David Rose wrote music for three shows starring Michael Landon ­– Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven. And each time it set the appropriate mood for the stories that followed. I like the trumpet on this theme better than the one on Dynasty

The A-Team
A rousing march and one last curtain call for Mike Post, who (with long-time partner Pete Carpenter) scored a big part of our classic TV heritage.

Beauty and the Beast
One of television’s most beloved cult series was graced by a theme (by Lee Holdridge) with all the romance and gravitas of a classic film score. Check out the beautiful rendition by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra.

Duck Tales
Those infectious “Woo-hoos” have stuck with Generation X the same way that “Watch out for that tree!” can still make a Baby Boomer smile after all these years. 

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Top 20 TV Theme Songs of the 1970s

I haven’t perceived a significant change in approach to TV themes from the 1960s into the 1970s, beyond a more prevalent use of pop songs to encourage crossover promotion. There are still plenty of outstanding contenders to choose from, and several worthy examples that fell just short (my apologies to One Day at a Time, The Waltons and Land of the Lost, among others).

We begin, however, with what is arguably the best television theme song of all time.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show
The season one version of The Mary Tyler Moore Show theme is more than just a catchy tune or a means to introduce characters; it told the story of a generation of women breaking free from traditional stereotypes (“How will you make it on your own?”), and encapsulated a transitional moment in the culture. In subsequent seasons the lyrics changed to a celebration of the charms of Mary Richards, thus rendering the theme less substantive but still memorable. 

The Incredible Hulk
We are currently awash in superhero films and TV shows, all scored with some variation on a bold, John Williams-like orchestral fanfare. So it’s surprising that one of the first successful transitions of a Marvel character into television, particularly one as powerful as the Hulk, would rely instead on a poignant piano piece called “The Lonely Man,” which focused more on the misfortune of the scientist inside the monster, so affectingly played by Bill Bixby. 

Makin’ It
As I wrote in an earlier piece on TV theme songs that were better than the shows they introduced, “Makin’ It” was a Saturday Night Fever homage rip-off that debuted in February of 1979, and was canceled one month later. But the theme, performed by series star David Naughton, deservedly reached #5 on the Billboard chart. 

The Rockford Files
This is the first classic TV theme written by Mike Post (with Pete Carpenter). Post would go on to create equally memorable songs for several other series, including Hill Street Blues and Magnum P.I. While the song itself is distinctive, it’s really the jarring hodgepodge arrangement that puts it over. I’d wager that before this no one had written anything for blues harmonica, dobro, electric guitar, synthesizer, flute, French horn and trombone. 

Welcome Back, Kotter
Gabe Kaplan’s sitcom already had a theme selected, when former Lovin’ Spoonful lead singer John Sebastian submitted his effort. Producers quickly made a switch and the theme, Sebastian’s only solo hit, topped the Billboard chart in May of 1976.

The Love Boat
Is it cheesy? Sure it is. But this Paul Williams-Charles Fox composition set the right tone for a series that delivered breezy (and cheesy) romantic stories. The Jack Jones vocal adds an extra touch of Vegas schmaltz. Has anyone boarded a cruise ship in the last 30 years and not had this playing in their head?

As with The Incredible Hulk, Taxi has a theme that offers a counterpoint to the series it introduces. The show featured loud, outlandish characters, a seedy setting and crass (at least for its time) punch lines, but it opened with “Angela,” a gentle, melancholy wisp of electronic jazz composed by Bob James.

Every cop show should open with this blistering theme. Every single one. It would even make the lousy shows better. 

The Odd Couple
Neal Hefti’s theme has that instant earworm quality of the best TV theme songs, and once it gets inside it doesn’t go away easily, as illustrated in the most perfect Friends cold open in that series’ history. 

The Young and the Restless
A haunting, graceful piece of music with a complicated history. It was introduced in the 1971 film Bless the Beasts and Children as “Cotton’s Dream.” A new arrangement by cowriter Perry Botkin, Jr. was first heard on The Young and the Restless in 1973. But after ABC’s Wide World of Sports used “Cotton’s Dream” to score a compilation of gymnast Nadia Comaneci’s routines from the 1976 Olympics, the music became forever known as “Nadia’s Theme.”

The jubilant “Different Worlds” made the top 20, and you can still hear it performed live if you happen to catch the amazing Maureen McGovern in concert. Since Angie has been out of circulation for so long, there’s still a freshness to the tune that is unachievable by themes from more popular shows. 

The NBC Mystery Movie
Here we see an example of the exceptional craftsmanship we used to take for granted in television. Rather than a simple voiceover and teaser clips from each week’s mystery movie, NBC created a brief but unforgettable segment with a shadowy figure brandishing a flashlight, a cloud-filled orange sky, and an eerie whistling theme composed by Henry Mancini. 

“Suicide is Painless” was first heard in the film version of M*A*S*H, but worked equally well as an introduction to the long-running series. Mike Altman, the 14 year-old son of the film’s director, Robert Altman, wrote the lyric, which was never heard on the show. The song was so successful that it earned the teenager more than $1 million, more than ten times what Altman received to direct the movie.

The Bob Newhart Show
Classic TV fans may best know Lorenzo Music as Carlton the unseen doorman on Rhoda. He should be best known for co-creating The Bob Newhart Show and writing its theme, “Home to Emily.” Multiple arrangements were tried during the series’ 6 seasons, but it’s the longer version, with that soaring trumpet that plays as Bob indeed arrives home to Emily, that makes the track unforgettable. 

The Dukes of Hazzard
The saga of two good ol’ boys never meanin’ no harm, as performed by balladeer Waylon Jennings, was the fulfillment of what Dukes creator Gy Waldron told me he wanted from his show, back when I interviewed him for my book on the series. He wished for episodes to unfold like a great country song. That didn’t always happen, but the song that opened every show was a keeper.

Barney Miller
In the beginning there was that bass line. And then there were drums, and an electric guitar, and by the time the horn section had its say you were primed and ready for another visit to the 12th Precinct. 

The Partridge Family
I think almost everyone prefers the “Come on get happy” version that played in seasons 2-4, over the “When we’re singing” theme from the first season. Either way it’s certainly one of the songs that epitomizes 1970s pop culture. 

Sigmund and the Sea Monsters
All of the Sid & Marty Krofft shows have memorable themes – H.R. Pufnstuf, The Bugaloos, Land of the Lost, Lidsville, etc.  I’ve selected “Friends” from Sigmund and the Sea Monsters as the pick of the litter, fully cognizant that the rendition by series star Johnny Whitaker does not bolster my case. 

The Jeffersons
Obviously a great song, with its spirited lead vocal (by Good Times star Ja’net Dubois) backed by a gospel chorus, but this is also a theme that resonated more deeply with African American communities, as a sign of long-overdue changing times. Beyoncé covered it on her 2013 tour.

Westerns had all but disappeared on television by the 1970s.  Dallas is rarely classified that way, but its dynamic theme certainly recalls the glory days of the genre.

Next: The Top 20 Themes of the 1980s