Friday, March 27, 2020

Still More Two-Part Episode Hits and Misses

I haven’t done one of these for a while, so let’s take another look at a grab bag of Comfort TV-era two-part episodes and separate the hits from the misses.

As I previously wrote, two-parters should be utilized only for major series milestones or when a writer comes up with an idea that is so good, it deserves a little extra breathing room to be fully explored.

But that doesn’t always happen.

Since we all have more time at home these days, it seems like an ideal opportunity to find some great shows that will help kill an evening – as well as some to avoid.

Good: That Girl: “It’s a Mod, Mod, Mod, Mod World”
Ann meets the famed British fashion photographer Noel Prince, who brings her to Los Angeles as part of a pictorial on the mod, modern woman. Of course he falls for her, much to Donald’s jealous dismay:

Noel: “I once knew a soccer player named Hollinger.”
Donald: “I once knew a dog named Prince.”

The photo shoot scenes are just the sort Mike Myers sent up as Austin Powers, but
Gary Marshal is really good in this as Noel Prince.

It's a shame he had such a short career – his last IMDB credit was in 1971. And while the ‘60s vibe is fun, I was surprised the first time I saw the opening scene, which took place in an automat. I hadn’t seen one of those on TV outside of Agent Carter, which was set in the 1940s. I didn’t know they still had them in New York 20 years later.

Bad: Bewitched: “George Washington Zapped Here”
This was a lightly rewritten version of an earlier (and much better) Bewitched two-parter, in which Aunt Clara zaps up Benjamin Franklin. Here we get George Washington (convincingly played by Will Geer) instead of Franklin, and the drippy Esmerelda instead of Aunt Clara. It’s still sad to me that such a great series ended with a such a dreadful final season.

Good: Dynasty: “Royal Wedding”/ “The Aftermath”
Better known among fans as the Moldavian Massacre, the first half of this two-parter ended with a scene that apparently wiped out the show’s entire cast. 

Measured by ratings and water-cooler buzz, this was a cliffhanger to rival J.R. getting shot and Picard becoming Locutus. Of course, when the next season began we found that the terrorists who sprayed that hail of bullets were about as good at hitting their targets as the bad guys on The A-Team.

Bad: Dallas: “Return to Camelot”
Dallas opened its tenth season by explaining how Bobby Ewing could appear in Pam’s shower after being killed at the end of season eight. Say it with me: Bobby’s not dead – it was all a dream! 

“I thought they had written themselves into a corner,” Charlene Tilton told me when I interviewed her on the occasion of the series’ 25th anniversary. “Everyone criticized the shower scene, but I never heard anyone come up with a better idea.” She’s got a point.

“Return to Camelot” felt entitled to the special status of a two-parter, but that was hard to maintain with its undercurrent of “nothing to see here, move along,” so no one would linger over such an audacious reboot.

Good: Harry O: “Forty Reasons to Kill”
In addition to featuring two actresses I’m always happy to watch in anything, Joanna Pettet and Hillary Thompson, this is one of those stories that definitely merits the added time.

You’ve seen variations on this plot before: Harry’s case takes him to a small rural town run by corrupt power brokers that have the local law enforcement under their thumb. Of course, hard-luck Harry is going to run afoul of those folks and will take a few beatings and spend some time in jail before he finds what he needs to bring them down.

Bad: Family: “Taking Chances”
I don’t know if there really are any bad episodes of Family. At least until Quinn Cummings shows up. But this show is on such a high pedestal with me that I’m disappointed when it indulges in a drama trope that’s right out of a soap opera. In “Taking Chances,” family patriarch Doug (James Broderick, excellent as always) is hit by a car and loses his sight. It might be restored with surgery, but the operation is risky and could also kill him.

The performances are always perfect, so I can’t not like this show. But the whole conceit of a tragic life-changing event that is conveniently erased in the last scene feels beneath the standards of this Emmy-winning series.

Good: The Bionic Woman: “Jaime’s Shield”
You know how a good whodunit is set up so that the last person you’d suspect is the guilty party? “Jaime’s Shield” got me with its reveal. And all the other business along the way is fun as well, with Jaime going to the police academy and hiding her special abilities from an obnoxious instructor – until that moment she decides to put him in his place. 

Bad: The Wild Wild West: “The Night of the Winged Terror”
This was a barely serviceable single show that got stretched into a mess. Hypnotism stories rarely work for me, except for that Dick Van Dyke Show episode in which Rob acts drunk every time a bell rings.

This one further suffers from the absence of Ross Martin as Artemus Gordon, who was sidelined with health issues for several shows in the series’ final season. Only the genuninely hypnotic close-ups of the divine Michele Carey made this tolerable. 

Good: The Secrets of Isis: “Now You See It…And Now You Don’t”
Every so often I have to throw a bouquet at my favorite Saturday morning series, so I hope you’ll indulge me.

These were the show’s final two episodes, and they were used in an attempt to launch a spinoff series called “The Super-Sleuths.” After teacher Rick Mason is arrested for stealing government secrets, four of his friends and students set out to prove his innocence: series regular Rennie Carol (Ronalda Douglas), Asian kung-fu expert C.J. (Evan Kim), street-smart Feather (Craig Wasson!) and an magician of Indian descent named (and billed as) Ranji. 

Throw in a guest spot from Captain Marvel (John Davey) and some wonderful scenes set in the dearly-missed Busch Gardens theme park, and you’ve got a great way to send off a beloved series.

Bad: The Facts of Life: “Out of Peekskill”
It’s hard to find anything to celebrate about a story that removes a beloved character from a series canvas, and replaces that character with one that never really clicked. Sure, this show had already passed its sell-by date at the start of its eighth season. But it was still sad to lose Charlotte Rae and the familial connection she had to the kids in her care. 

Cloris Leachman’s ditzy den mother didn’t get a great introduction, and it was the beginning of the end for Facts of Life.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Quarantined? These Shows Can Help Pass the Time


A lot of stuff has happened since my last post. Concerns over Coronavirus have shut down all professional and collegiate sports, most theater performances, conventions, and every other type of public gathering. Those who have contracted the virus are in quarantine, and many others are opting to self-quarantine to reduce the risk to themselves or others. 

This post is not meant to make light of some serious things that are happening.
But if you’re under quarantine, or have decided to self-quarantine for the next week or two, I recommend these shows to help pass the time. None of them feature doctors or hospitals.

If you’re going to be stuck inside for a while, the last thing you want is to run out of shows to watch. There’s not much chance of that with Gunsmoke. The series ran for 20 seasons and 635 episodes. Even if you watched five shows a day, you’re covered for the next four months. 

There were better TV westerns, but this is certainly a good one, anchored as it was by the steadfast presence of James Arness as Marshal Matt Dillon. Arness received three Emmy nominations for that portrayal, but the greater achievement was keeping the character consistent, relevant and appealing through two decades of turbulent American history. From the optimistic era of President Dwight Eisenhower through Vietnam, the JFK assassination, the moon landing, Woodstock and Watergate, and long after the rest of the TV cowboys were gone, Dillon protected the streets of Dodge City, and gave millions of Americans a reassuring place to visit when the rest of the world wasn’t as safe.

Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood
Yes, adults can watch this show too, and be comforted by the calming presence and innate compassion of Fred Rogers. In a world that now careens forward so rapidly even in ordinary circumstances, this series invites us to slow down, take a longer look at the wonders of the everyday, renew our appreciation for music and art, and explore the possibilities of make believe.

The Waltons
This series serves as a reminder that Americans have faced challenges before – those that were a lot tougher and lasted a lot longer than the current situation. The Walton family came through the Great Depression and World War II, and they did both without ever hoarding groceries from Ike Godsey’s general store.

In this first season episode of Eight is Enough, the Bradfords find themselves quarantined in their Sacramento home, after Mary is potentially exposed to an African virus from a boyfriend just back from the Peace Corps. 

“A thing like this brings a family closer together,” Tom offers with his fatherly wisdom. But between Susan’s cross-country training and Joanie’s play rehearsing and Nancy coping with an oddball blind date that gets stuck in the house as well, togetherness isn’t always harmonious. So if you’re quarantined, this episode might at least make you happy that it’s not with eight other people.

The Bob Newhart Show
Any sitcom from the Comfort TV era will lift your spirits. I selected this one because much of the humor emanates from Bob’s dry but amusing reactions to the craziness that often surrounds him. Whether it’s Mr. Carlin’s latest neuroses or Howard Borden’s strange ways, Bob maintains his healthy outlook and takes their eccentricities in stride. That’s a good lesson to remember if you’re in the midst of frenzied shoppers fighting over the last Butterfinger bar. 

The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams
If you’re stuck inside, you may find some vicarious pleasure from a series set in the great outdoors. This feel-good, back-to-nature adventure was shot in Utah’s beautiful national forests, as well as Arizona and New Mexico. 

Your Favorite Classic
It’s all about a temporary escape from our current troubles, and I’m sure you already have a show that fills that need. That’s where you want to go for a while. Maybe it’s Dennis tormenting Mr. Wilson, or Norton tormenting his buddy Ralph, or Mr. Mooney tormenting his incompetent red-headed secretary. Maybe it’s a song from The Monkees or The Partridge Family; Samantha’s twitch or Jeannie’s blink; the family squabbles of the Ewings or the Carringtons; Jonathan and Jennifer Hart or Steed and Mrs. Peel; Scooby and Shaggy or Josie, Valerie and Melody. As a commercial for a better kind of Corona urges, Find Your Beach. And take comfort that this too shall pass. 

Monday, March 9, 2020

Three Shows That Put Me to Sleep

I have a friend who likes to pop in a Flintstones DVD before he drifts off to sleep. The familiar sounds of voices and stories he grew up watching induce a calm, soothing feeling that makes it easier to doze off.

That technique has never worked for me. When I fall asleep on a show, it’s not a compliment to the happy memories associated with it.

Very few shows have elicited this response. Even with a series or an episode that’s just not working, I can usually find something to focus on that makes the effort worthwhile. But with these, there was just no escape.

1. Space: 1999 (1975-1977)
No other television series from any era or genre can knock me out faster than this one. 

I know it has many devoted fans, and I don’t wish to disparage their affection for what was certainly an ambitious attempt at serious sci-fi, with an impressive cast and pedigree. 

According to Wikipedia, Space: 1999 was the most expensive series produced for British television up to that time. Maybe that was one of the problems – they really wanted to show off where the money went, so they lingered over every futuristic white-on-white set, and showed every spaceship takeoff and landing in real time, though it made no contribution to the story.

"Scarcely any attention was paid in the scripts to the real character of those people in Space: 1999,” series costar Barry Morse told Starlog magazine back in 1995. “Unfortunately, in my opinion, although immense attention was paid to the special FX- the models, explosions, all that - hardly any attention was paid to the actual human characters.” He was right.

I tried several times to get into this show, because I like Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, and I found some of creator Gerry Anderson’s earlier British sci-fi efforts (like UFO) to be quirky fun.

It never took, but a few months ago I bought the complete series Blu-ray set to give it one more chance.

I stayed conscious through episode one, “Breakaway,” in which the moon was blown out of earth’s orbit, taking the 300 or so denizens of Moonbase Alpha on an unexpected odyssey. And I hung in there for “Black Sun,” with its doomsday scenario and trippy ending right out of Kubrick’s 2001.

But “A Matter of Life and Death”, about the danger from a giant yellow space eyeball? That eye stayed open longer than mine. And I also fell asleep about 20 minutes into “Earthbound,” in which Christopher Lee had room on his spaceship to bring one of the Alpha crew back to earth. Though I did wake up in time for the Twilight Zone-like climax, which I had already guessed anyway.

And so it went. It’s still amazing to me how Mattel merchandised the heck out of this series, as its dull stories and bland characters could hardly have been that appealing to the age group most likely to buy a Commander Koenig action figure. 

They had to know they had a slow-moving show; I think that’s why the opening credits were compiled with a lot of quick cuts of movement to suggest there’s more action than there was – plus those “this episode” reminders within smacked of desperation – “Please don’t change the channel – look at what you’re going to miss!”

Yes, they lightened the tone in the second and final season, with more romance and humor and the addition of Catherine Schell as shapeshifter Maya, who usually looked like she just popped in from Las Vegas. That made it a different show, but not a better one. 

2. Planet of the Apes (1974)
In 1973, CBS paid $1 million for first broadcast rights to the film Planet of the Apes. It was money well-spent, as the broadcast drew an amazing 60 share. That was enough to green-light a series featuring two new astronauts who crash-land in our simian-ruled future. Episodes followed the adventures of Pete Burke (James Naughton) and Alan Virdon (Ron Harper) as they tried to find a way back to their own era, while staying one step ahead of Dr. Zaius (Booth Colman) and General Urko (Mark Lenard). Roddy McDowall played Galen, the humans’ only ally among the apes. 

The opening credits sequence is still pretty cool. The show, not so much. Most stories could be summarized like this: astronauts get captured; astronauts escape. Still could have worked if I cared about the leads, but Harper and Naughton were not exactly Starsky and Hutch when it came to chemistry and camaraderie. More like Coy and Vance Duke, sadly. Bad reviews and a bad time slot sank it after 14 episodes.  

3. QVC Before the Millennium
The shopping channels are Comfort TV to a lot of viewers, and for me this was the closest experience I could find to relaxing to The Flintstones like my friend does. It doesn’t work anymore because today QVC and HSN are all about guests and harder sells, but 20 years ago the shows had one host that talked soothingly and directly to viewers, like Mr. Rogers if he was trying to sell the stuff in his house. It was nice, especially if like me you had no interest in the products. Then you could just drift off gently to descriptions of leather espadrilles and marcasite jewelry. QVC cured my insomnia for a while, and then they had to hire Lisa Robertson, who was arguably the most beautiful woman on television in the 1990s. So much for sleep. 

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Purchase or Pass: Our Miss Brooks

In some of my freelance writing I have occasionally been accused of burying a lead. So let’s settle the main question for this piece up front: my verdict for Our Miss Brooks on DVD is a pass.

If you’re surprised, imagine how I felt.

Prior to the DVD set’s arrival I had two reasons to believe this show would be a welcome addition to my classic television library: it starred Eve Arden, and it was a series set in a school.

Whether it was The Mothers-in-Law or Grease or the Bewitched episode where Tabitha was born, I can’t think of a time I haven’t enjoyed watching Arden, or listening to her distinctively marvelous voice. She brought such convincing authority to the characters she played, it was easy to believe the sharp punch lines supplied by a script came from her own quick wit.

Our Miss Brooks was her breakthrough, first in 1948 when it debuted on radio, and then four years later when the series came to television. The role of high school teacher Connie Brooks seemed like a perfect fit for Arden’s persona – someone who is smart and capable, yet frequently befuddled by eccentric coworkers.

And school shows? Always loved them, whether it was Mr. Novak or Room 222 or Fame or The Paper Chase or Head Of the Class.

So what could possibly go wrong here? In a word: everything. 

One of the most basic elements of any series is the way its characters interact with each other. The authenticity of those relationships between friends, relatives, and coworkers are a reason why viewers come to care about them.

But on Our Miss Brooks those interactions seem forced and artificial, especially in the way people that have known each other for years keep referring to each other by name throughout a conversation. And all of the dialogue is delivered at a heightened intensity, the way it might be in a stage play where actors have to amplify each line so it can be heard in the back row.

That’s a bad situation for Eve Arden, whose comedic arsenal featured subtle expression changes and sly, dry understated retorts.

Another surprise for me was how Connie Brooks, described in more than one book about television as TV’s first independent career woman, would seemingly chuck that independence in a heartbeat if only science teacher Philip Boynton (Robert Rockwell) would return her affection. He’s clearly interested, but every time Connie makes a move he runs for the hills. 

I did like Gale Gordon as Madison High’s principal, Osgood Conklin, though he’s doing the same bellowing boss role here that he’d later perfect opposite Lucille Ball. The show’s most annoying character is student Walter Denton, played by a 25 year-old Richard Crenna. Crenna is another fine actor whom I’ve liked in just about everything he’s done – but here he speaks in such an unnaturally high-pitched voice that it pretty much took me out of every scene he’s in. 

My other big issue with Our Miss Brooks is that it’s a show about a teacher, but we never actually seen Connie Brooks teaching. I read (online, so take it for what it’s worth) that this was a result of Eve Arden feeling uncomfortable in front of a classroom of students, since she never graduated high school. True or not, without these scenes the show could just as easily been set at a library or a bank.

I know that millions of people have loved this show for many years, so clearly this is a situation where your mileage may vary. There are other classics that I’ve never embraced, and sadly Our Miss Brooks is now on that short list. If you think I’m nuts, let me know. 

Monday, February 17, 2020

Television’s Tough Guy: Robert Conrad

In 1999 I wrote an article on The Wild, Wild West for Cowboys & Indians magazine, to coincide with the release of a movie adaptation of the series.

I contacted Robert Conrad’s publicist to ask if he had any comment on the film, which cast Will Smith in his iconic role of James West. 

A few days later I pressed the blinking ‘play’ button on my answering machine and heard Mr. Conrad’s voice. He thanked me for asking but politely turned down the interview request, adding: “Not only do I not want to talk about that film, I don’t even plan to see it.”

Turns out he was not alone in that decision.

As I’m sure you know he passed away recently, and is still being mourned by those like me who remember the time when he was on television as often as the My Pillow guy is now. He had been in poor health for a while, but not poor enough to turn down any chance to meet his fans, as my friend and fellow TV blogger Mitchell Hadley recalled. I’m sorry I never had the opportunity to shake his hand.

The Wild, Wild West remains the crown jewel in his television legacy, but it was not his first hit series. That would be Hawaiian Eye, a private detective drama that aired from 1959 to 1963. With his Brylcreem textured pompadour Conrad looked a little like James Dean back then – if Dean had a chiseled six-pack and voted for Eisenhower. 

I don’t know it well. It is one of a slew of ‘50s/’60s Warner Bros. detective shows (77 Sunset Strip, Bourbon Street Beat, Surfside Six) that have never been released on DVD. And the odds of Hawaiian Eye coming out are even more remote since many episodes included songs performed by lounge singer Cricket Blake (Connie Stevens), likely forever relegating the series to music rights purgatory. 

Two years after that show ended, Conrad returned to the small screen in one of the most daringly original and flat-out entertaining series ever devised.

The parallels between unflappable Secret Service agent James West and British Secret Service agent James Bond were not coincidence. Michael Garrison, who created The Wild, Wild West, had previously purchased the movie rights to Ian Fleming’s 007 novels. That was in 1955, when Hollywood wasn’t interested. By the time they came around, he had already sold them.

Undaunted, Garrison finally did his version of Bond, transferring the character to the American west in the 1870s. It was a risky move, since the boom in TV westerns had largely subsided by 1965. But the series’ mix of western elements with espionage and science fiction was something new and fresh.

Conrad fit the role of James West as perfectly as he fit into his excessively tight pants. He had the steel-eyed stare, the charm with the ladies, the fancy transportation, the array of gadgets to get him out of tight situations, and one advantage Bond never had – an equally resourceful partner in Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin). 

The Wild, Wild West had many memorable qualities – villains like Dr. Loveless and Count Manzeppi, those freeze-framed scenes that morphed into the animated opening credits, Artie’s endless array of disguises – but my favorite moments were always when West would hurl himself into a gang of thugs.

West: “There’s only four of them.”
Gordon: (after shooting one of them) “Three. Hardly worth your trouble”

This show had the best fight scenes of any TV western, and Conrad, with his running, jumping, and diving off barn roofs and moving stagecoaches, was the Jackie Chan of his day. He choreographed his fights and did most of his own stunts.

This is a good time to get reacquainted with this classic series. It holds up. And once you’re done here are some other Conrad credits that are always worth another look.

Centennial (1978)
“He did the stunts. I did the acting,” said Ross Martin of his Wild, Wild West costar, with tongue only slightly in cheek. But Conrad could act, and the role he was most proud of was that of the French-Canadian trapper Pasquinel in this extraordinary miniseries. It’s one of the best things that television has ever done. 

Columbo (1974)
In “An Exercise in Fatality” Conrad plays an embezzling fitness club owner who murders a franchisee that uncovers his shady dealings. A scuff on a waxed floor, a spilled cup of coffee and an order of Chinese takeout put Columbo on the killer’s trail. Robert Conrad had his detractors, and this is how they likely perceived him – cocky and arrogant. I’m sure they enjoyed watching his downfall here. 

Mission: Impossible (1970)
In “The Killer”, the best of Conrad’s three M:I guest appearances, he plays Edward Lorca, an assassin that does not plan any aspect of his jobs in advance. How will Phelps and his team react in time to Lorca’s random decisions?

Battle of the Network Stars
Everyone remembers the footrace he lost to Gabe Kaplan, but he took the loss like a gentleman, and captained his team to more than one victory in his seven Battle appearances. Conrad enjoyed these friendly competitions so much I think he said yes to shows like The Duke and A Man Called Sloane just so he’d get invited back to Pepperdine. My favorite Conrad moment came in Battle #6, when he put Leif Garrett in the dunk tank. Garrett began heckling him, mocking his age with an exaggerated “Sir,” until Conrad executed a perfect toss that dropped the punk in the drink.

Black Sheep Squadron (1976-1978)
Conrad played Major Pappy Boyington in this military drama set during World War II. Not one of my favorites, but there are fans for whom this is the quintessential Conrad series. 

Eveready Commercials
Next to the Polaroid ads with James Garner and Mariette Hartley, Conrad’s series of battery commercials may be the most memorable campaign featuring a famous actor. They played perfectly off his tough-guy image, and his smile at the end was a hint that he was in on the joke too. 

Godspeed, Mr. Conrad. I wish I had been home that day when you called.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Terrible Shows I Like: Magic Mongo

There’s no justifiable way to defend the joy I get from watching Magic Mongo

Sure, I’m an easy mark for what Sid and Marty Krofft unleashed upon an unsuspecting generation. But there are limits: try as I might I can’t get into The Lost Saucer or Far Out Space Nuts.

Viewed objectively, Magic Mongo clearly belongs in that second tier of Krofft creations. Forget comparisons to Pufnstuf or Land of the Lost: even among its fellow segments of The Krofft Supershow, most fans would likely rank Mongo behind Dr. Shrinker, Electra Woman and Dyna Girl, Wonderbug and Bigfoot and Wildboy.

I get that. And I get that there is nothing in its 16 episodes that is not derivative of other, better TV shows. But I still like it.

The saga of Magic Mongo begins with three teenage friends hanging out at the beach: Donald (Paul Hinckley), nice guy but a bit of a dweeb, Kristy (Robin Dearden), his sort-of girlfriend, and Lorraine (Helaine Lembeck) as the Joyce DeWitt of the trio. 

Chasing after an errant Frisbee, Donald finds an old bottle (“it didn’t seem much of a find”, the theme song tells us). But when they rub it, out pops the affable, blundering genie Mongo (Lennie Weinrib).

Surprisingly the kids don’t use their genie to make them rich and successful, and cure all of the ills of the world. Instead, they call for help when they run out of gas in their VW van, or to help Donald after he is dumped into a trash can by local tough guy Ace (Bart Braverman) and his sidekick Duncey (Larry Larsen). 

When there’s trouble brewing, Donald yells, “Mongo! Monnnn-gooooo!” while putting his hand to his forehead and wincing like he’s getting a migraine. And then Mongo appears, always (like Dr. Bombay on Bewitched) in a different costume – white tie and tails cause he was just giving Beethoven his piano lessons, or in a U.S. Cavalry outfit cause he was helping General Custer.

After he magically changes into his beachcomber duds, Mongo hears the wish of his master and enthusiastically replies “No problem!” Then he grabs his earlobes, sticks out his tongue and makes a “bliddle bliddle bliddle” sound, with a bit of Curly Howard body language. And something always goes wrong with the spell and stuff gets worse before it gets better. 

How bad? Donald’s request to avoid a butt kicking from Ace results in Mongo turning him into a woman (“The Two Faces of Donald”); when the gang asks for babysitting help with a spoiled brat (played by Robbie Rist) Mongo turns the kid into a frog (“Hermie the Frog”); another attempt to avoid Ace results in Mongo zapping everyone back to prehistoric times (“You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby”).

And once order has been restored, our trio laughs over their latest adventure and exclaims, “That’s our Mongo!” And…roll closing credits.

The series was not a launching pad to stardom for its young cast, and given the levels of hyperactive over-emoting in each show that’s not really a surprise.

Paul Hinckley has just one other IMDB credit; he passed away back in the 1980s.
Robin Dearden was on the soap Generations for a while; several years ago I was watching Game Show Network, and was surprised to see her pop up as a contestant on Card Sharks. There’s a funny story in David Martindale’s book on the Krofft shows about how a staff photographer was sent to the set for one day to shoot promotional photos for the series. He took 150 shots – 100 of them were of Dearden in her red bikini. 

You may remember Helaine Lembeck from Welcome Back, Kotter. She probably got the part in Magic Mongo because her brother Michael hosted the Supershow as Kaptain Kool. 

But she’s still working, and according to Martindale’s book she and Dearden remain close friends. 

The part of Mongo was written for Alex Karras, who played a character with that name in Blazing Saddles. But when he passed the Kroffts hired Lennie Weinrib, the voice of H.R. Pufnstuf. Classic TV fans should know him from memorable episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show, as well as a long and impressive career of cartoon voices (including Scrappy Doo, but we won’t hold that against him). 

I guess I really haven’t yet answered the question of why I still like this largely forgotten series.

For me, shows like Magic Mongo are the ultimate in carefree, silly, happy escapism. Each episode is only about 12 minutes long so there’s no time to get bored, and like every Krofft show it has a catchy theme song. 

When I watch it I think how delightful it would be to travel back to 1977, hang out with some friends at Huli’s Hut, have a hamburger at the beach, and just enjoy the summer sunshine. Maybe that would be one of my wishes if I ever found an old bottle in the sand. 

Note: A photo used in this piece was taken from the blog Fire-Breathing Dimetrodon time. You can read its take on this series here

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Remembering John Karlen – and TV Moments That Changed Everything

The passing of John Karlen was felt in particular by two TV fanbases: those who remember him from his Emmy-winning performance as Harvey Lacey on Cagney and Lacey, and those who first met him 15 years earlier, as Willie Loomis on Dark Shadows

Dark Shadows was unique in many ways, one being it was a rare example of a show that changed completely and irrevocably in a single pivotal moment. And John Karlen was the only actor on the screen when it happened.

That moment aired on April 18, 1967. Con man Jason McGuire and Willie, his sleazy sidekick, had blackmailed their way into the home of the wealthy Collins family. Willie learns of a secret room in the Collins mausoleum where the family’s ancestors have been buried in their expensive jewelry. He breaks in, cuts through the heavy chains wrapped around a coffin, and lifts the lid. From inside, a hand slowly emerges, and tightens around Willie’s throat.

It’s still a powerful scene, played unforgettably by Karlen. We never see what Willie sees when he opens the coffin, but his terrified expression is enough to sell the moment.

The rest is history. The character of vampire Barnabas Collins is introduced, wonderfully played by Jonathan Frid, and Dark Shadows went from a daytime drama on the brink of cancellation to a national phenomenon. It was as instant a reversal of fortune as was possible in the pre-internet age, when feedback on a series was gauged by ratings and fan mail.

How often did something like that happen in the Comfort TV era?

Sure, many shows evolve over their runs, often in dramatic and unexpected ways. We’ve seen supporting characters embraced by the public that became focal points for the majority of episodes – Fonzie on Happy Days, Alex Keaton on Family Ties – but those changes were gradual. 

Likewise, the death or departure of a major character (Henry Blake on MASH, Chrissy on Three’s Company, Tasha on Star Trek: The Next Generation) did not reset those shows in a fundamental way. 

I’m looking here for single, premeditated moments when a series was one thing before they happened, and something else afterward.

Any suggestions?

Eight is Enough might qualify, but the change did not originate with a writer or producer. The passing of costar Diana Hyland resulted in a show about a family with eight kids becoming a series about a single father struggling to raise eight kids, and how the Bradfords coped with a sudden, tragic loss. 

You could try to make a case for “Ricky the Drummer,” a 1957 episode of The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet in which Ricky Nelson sang for the first time. Such performances became a featured moment in many subsequent episodes – however, everything that happened around those scenes was the typical delightful business as usual. 

The final scenes of the final episodes of Newhart and St. Elsewhere were indisputable game-changers. Here we have shows that fit the criteria of being one thing before those scenes, and something different after. But since both ended on those moments we only experienced the revelations, and not their ramifications. 

So perhaps that Dark Shadows scene featuring John Karlen is even more unique than I first believed. With an Emmy Award and that contribution to TV history, that’s a pretty impressive legacy.