Monday, June 29, 2015

From Hooterville: A Classic TV Dog Story

Sometimes you hear a story that makes you smile, and it continues to do so every time you think about it. This story does that for me. My guess is that many of my fellow classic TV lovers have heard it, but since it’s always nice to share happy remembrances, I hope they will indulge my telling it again.

In the second season of Petticoat Junction (a series long overdue for praise in this blog) a new character was introduced – a stray dog adopted into the Shady Rest Hotel by the youngest of Kate Bradley’s three daughters, Betty Jo. He was never given a name on the show but trainer Frank Inn, who discovered the dog at the Burbank Animal Shelter, called him Higgins. 

The dog was loved by everyone in the family except for gruff old Uncle Joe, played so memorably by gruff old Edgar Buchanan: “One thing we don’t need around this hotel is some flea-bitten hound eating us out of house and home.” Between takes, Buchanan was as fond of Higgins as the rest of the cast. 

Higgins remained a prominent presence for the remainder of the show’s seven seasons, and he astonished audiences with the remarkable and complex tasks he was trained to do. Whether running and jumping on cue, picking up objects and carrying them to a specific place, turning off lights or picking up phones, Higgins became known as “the one-take dog,” because he always got the scene right the first time.

When Petticoat Junction ended its run in 1970, Frank Inn had planned to let Higgins, then 10 years old, enjoy his retirement. But in 1974, the dog was cast as the star of a hugely successful family film that (according to IMDB) was made for $500,000 and grossed more than $39 million. From then on Higgins had a new name – Benji.

As coincidence would have it, Benji also featured Edgar Buchanan in a supporting role. Buchanan had not seen Higgins since Petticoat Junction was canceled three years earlier. On his first day of filming, as he stood on a porch that was part of a set, he wondered whether the dog would remember him. But as soon as Higgins spotted his friend, he ran toward him and took a flying leap into his arms. And even gruff old Edgar Buchanan couldn’t hold back the tears. 

As I said, just a nice story to make you smile. And perhaps to wonder what we ever did to deserve the pure and unconditional love we receive from dogs. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

Terrible Shows I Like: The Girl from UNCLE

To be clear, as “like” is a relative term, justifying any recommendation for The Girl From UNCLE requires some effort, even with the ‘terrible shows’ disclaimer. 

This series will not appeal to most casual TV fans. If you enjoyed The Man From UNCLE you’ll want to check it out; if you are a fan of Stefanie Powers from Hart to Hart, you may be curious about her first series. If you have an affinity for the “swinging ‘60s” era, or that decade’s tongue-in-cheek spy craze that launched with James Bond, you may want to explore all of its artifacts. 

But even with an open mind and/or a predisposition for the genre, many of you will not make it through all 29 episodes. I did, but it took awhile, and I don’t have a return visit planned anytime soon.

What eases the series ever so slightly into a ‘like’ category, beyond a mere 6-7 agreeable episodes, was the potential for fun that was clearly present but never fully realized. This, despite the best efforts of two actors with enough chemistry and charisma to invigorate less than adequate stories.

The Girl From UNCLE (I know technically it’s U.N.C.L.E. but that’s too much work to keep typing) was a 1966 spin-off of The Man From UNCLE (1964-1968), a clever and well-cast series that caught the zeitgeist of the times…and generated 60,000 fan letters every month addressed to Robert Vaughn (as the suave Napoleon Solo) and David McCallum (who became an international teen idol as Russian good guy Illya Kuryakin).

Like Batman, another ‘60s TV phenomenon, the show featured eccentric villains played by distinguished guest stars, and found a sweet spot between stylish action and self-aware camp: “We could make one of our daringly resourceful and nauseatingly punctual escapes – if only the door weren’t locked” laments Illya in a typical episode.

The 1966 episode “The Moonglow Affair” introduced Mary Ann Mobley as UNCLE agent April Dancer and Norman Fell as her partner, Mark Slate. The Girl From UNCLE was recast with Stefanie Powers as April, and Noel Harrison (the son of Rex Harrison) as Slate. Leo G. Carroll played UNCLE boss Alexander Waverly in both series.

April had Emma Peel’s fashion sense and gift for understatement, but none of her intelligence or fighting skills. For a trained secret agent she was, for the most part, incompetent. That’s not how Mobley played her in “The Moonglow Affair,” and one can only wonder why the character was not allowed to retain her aptitude and resourcefulness. Powers – stylish, sly, sexy – tried to give viewers a reason to care even as the show undermined her at every turn.

Noel Harrison is the series’ real find, even if like Stefanie he rarely received anything interesting to do. But whether an episode was trending as silly as Get Smart, or required a moment of playing it straight, as in the opening scenes of “The Double-O Nothing Affair,” Harrison adapted effortlessly to the inconsistent tone with Carnaby Street charm unscathed.

Fortunately, the show didn’t kill his career any more than it did his co-star’s – though he may be better remembered now as a singer.

If The Girl from UNCLE had given its agents something – anything – to build from, the result may have been more successful. But it didn’t, and I really cannot stress enough how badly this show was written. Episodes like “The Drublegratz Affair” seem virtually plot-less, meandering from scene to scene with no sense of direction or purpose.

One assumes they were trying to find the same quirky tone of its UNCLE predecessor, but I can’t be sure because many episodes are so inept it’s hard to figure out what they were trying to do. Any show that can make a writer as gifted as Jackson Gillis look overmatched should never have emerged when it did from the development stage.

Sometimes, they lucked into the right formula. The first show, “The Dog Gone Affair,” raises false hopes in a wonderful scene where April escapes an elaborate deathtrap without any help. “The Faustus Affair” ends with a Benny Hill-like chase through a mad scientist’s lab, that is so ridiculous I couldn’t help smiling. “The Mother Muffin Affair” is indisputably the best segment, thanks to a Napoleon Solo crossover and a nemesis played by Boris Karloff in drag. 

There’s also an interesting array of guest stars, including some that rarely appeared on shows like this. You expect Dom DeLuise (who appears in one of the better outings, “The Danish Blue Affair”); but when Stan Freberg pops up as a henpecked husband in the otherwise dreadful “The Carpathian Killer Affair,” or Peggy Lee plays a western saloon owner in “The Furnace Flats Affair,” it helps pass the time.

When I finished The Girl From UNCLE, I felt the same way I did after watching the 1984 film Supergirl, which squandered the perfect casting of Helen Slater. What good does it do to get the most difficult and important part of the project right, and just about everything else wrong? I’ve watched Supergirl at least three more times hoping it will somehow get better, and it never does. Kara Zor-El, meet April Dancer. She’s in another terrible show I like. 

Sunday, June 7, 2015

A Default Setting of Kindness

“What separates classic (or Comfort) TV as a whole from current TV?”

I’ve discussed that topic many times with fellow classic TV fans. Certainly some differences are obvious –maturity of content, cultural inclusion, assertion of more traditional values. But I have always felt it runs deeper than that.

There is something primal in the DNA of these shows that is no longer found in much of today’s television. Exactly what it is, however, can be difficult to put into words.

But I think I’ve finally figured it out.

One night a phrase came into my head that encapsulates what I love about vintage shows, and how they diverge from the current television landscape. No single description will fit hundreds of series from the 1950s through the early 1970s. But as a general summation of philosophy I think this one is pretty close.

Classic TV shows, and more specifically the characters in these shows, originate from a default setting of kindness. 

The outlook that emanates from these shows, particularly the situation comedies, is a positive one that is embodied in the demeanor of their characters, who start each new day in a place of contentment with their lives, their families and their careers.

This being television, many episodes introduce complications into these sanguine environments, prompting experiences of sadness, frustration or disappointment. But these too are managed in a civilized manner, and by the next episode the characters have reverted back to their default setting, eager to face the possibilities of another day.

Work was not an ordeal. Most classic TV breadwinners approached the trip to the office not with dread but with appreciation for their jobs. Joe Friday (Dragnet) loved being a cop. Rob Petrie (The Dick Van Dyke Show) reveled in the camaraderie and shared creativity he enjoyed while writing for The Alan Brady Show. Pete Dixon (Room 222) cared about the educations and the futures of his high school students. Pediatrician Alex Stone (The Donna Reed Show) gamely smiled through the screams and tears of his patients.  Jim Anderson (Father Knows Best) sold insurance, an occupation associated only with tedium – and carried out his tasks with integrity and professionalism.

Homes were happy places where functional families lived. Children were blessings, not burdens. Doorbells and phone calls were answered with a smile. Communities were closer and neighbors knew each other.

I could cite countless shows and episodes that would support these positions, but this isn’t about specific moments; it’s about the overall impression expressed throughout this entire era. Audiences enjoyed spending time each week with these characters because they were admirable people. Many of us still do.

Of course there are exceptions: Sgt. Bilko, as brilliantly played by Phil Silvers – inveterate gambler, con man and sycophant; grocery store owner Herbert T. Gillis (The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis), perennially frustrated by rude customers and a deadbeat son; bus driver Ralph Kramden (The Honeymooners) had a short fuse that was exacerbated by the repeated failure of his get-rich-quick schemes. But the exceptions only reinforce the argument that most TV Land denizens in this era were basically contented people.

Now, look at any list of this year’s most popular or critically-acclaimed series. What’s the most common default setting for the characters?

I see a lot of people that are self-centered and cynical. I see characters that believe the world owed them a better life than the one they have, who wake up every day into a deck that is stacked against them. I see people that resort to snark because they are uncomfortable with sincerity.

Is that more realistic? Perhaps. But that wasn’t the question and that, for me, is not the top priority of a television show.

I try to have a default setting of kindness. Sometimes it doesn’t last until breakfast, but it’s important to have aspirations. When I need a refresher course in how it’s done, I always know where to look. 

Sunday, May 24, 2015

In Defense of “Spock’s Brain”

Note: This review is part of the 2015 Summer of MeTV Classic TV Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Click here to check out this blogathon's complete schedule.

Writing about the original Star Trek in 2015 is like writing about The Beatles or The Wizard of Oz or sunlight. Everybody knows what it is, thousands of other people have already written about it, and at this point there doesn’t seem much left to add.

So rather than offer yet another tribute to the vision of Gene Roddenberry, or more praise for the show’s forward-thinking philosophy on race and class and technological achievement, and its optimistic view of mankind’s future, I thought it would be a more interesting challenge to find something praiseworthy in what is regarded by fans as the series’ worst episode. 

That would be “Spock’s Brain,” the show that kicked off Star Trek’s third and final season. "Frankly during the entire shooting of that episode, I was embarrassed," was Leonard Nimoy’s recollection. And if you’ve heard his singing on “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins,” you know he doesn’t embarrass easily. Was it justified? Let’s find out.

Our story begins with the Enterprise approaching a mysterious alien craft. Before Captain Kirk can inquire if there might be any attractive young women aboard, one actually beams over, incapacitates the crew and then walks over to Spock and begins stroking his forehead. 

Sometime later the crew wakes up. Spock has been moved to sickbay where a solemn Dr. McCoy informs the captain, “His brain is gone.”

“If it was taken out, it can be put back in.” Kirk responds, showing the quick thinking that made him a Captain.  But McCoy warns that the procedure must be performed within 24 hours. Because, apparently, a body can’t survive without a brain for more than a day, unless it belongs to a Kardashian.

Thus begins the quest to reunite Spock’s brain with the rest of him, which requires the crew to beam down to a planet populated by cavemen wearing fuzzy blue skirts.

Sound ridiculous? Absolutely. But the next time this episode airs on MeTV and you’re tempted to change the channel, here are five reasons why “Spock’s Brain” is worth your time.

1. Marj Dusay
Before spending two decades on various daytime dramas, Marj Dusay was a frequent and always welcome guest star on many 1960s series like Get Smart, Hogan’s Heroes and The Wild, Wild West. She specialized in seductive brunettes who try to lead good men astray. Removing someone’s brain is going to rather extreme lengths, but it does fit the pattern. As Kara, the woman who makes Spock an involuntary organ donor, Dusay also gets to deliver the episode’s most memorable and inscrutable line: “Brain and brain – what is brain!”

2. William Shatner Gives 110%
Every Trekker has his (or her) William Shatner-as-Kirk impression, complete with convulsive body movements, random pauses between words and other assorted histrionics. The thing is, you don’t see that Shatner in “The Space Seed” or “City on the Edge of Forever,” when the story could stand on its own merits. It was only when the script was lacking that he would try to forcibly inject some drama into substandard material. So when Uhura asks Kirk why someone would steal a brain, Kirk responds, “Yes…why…would…they…want it?” “Spock’s Brain” needs all the help it can get, and Shatner is happy to oblige. 

3. It Makes a Perfect Drinking Game
As classic TV drinking games go, it’s hard to top the one for The Bob Newhart Show, in which participants drink every time a character utters the phrase “Hi Bob!” “Spock’s Brain” offers a variation on that theme: Count the number of times “Spock’s brain” is said by Kirk, McCoy and Uhura. If you’re drinking anything alcoholic, you’ll certainly start enjoying the show at some point.

4. The Sitcom Fadeout
Rarely does a Star Trek moment seem appropriate for a laugh track, but one certainly seems to be missing from the denouement of “Spock’s Brain.” After Dr. McCoy’s brain replacement surgery is successful, Spock immediately starts spouting dry scientific observations about the planet’s natives. “I knew it,” McCoy sighs. “I knew I shouldn’t have reconnected his mouth.” 

5. It’s Still Better than “Threshold”
The reign of “Spock’s Brain” as the worst moment in Star Trek history ended in 1995. That’s when Voyager released “Threshold,” in which Captain Janeway and Tom Paris were turned into salamanders and had reptile babies. After that, this episode seems almost quaint in its silliness.

And here is one bonus reason to stay tuned: even substandard Star Trek is better than any episode of Dating Naked, Honey Boo Boo, The Real Housewives of Lompoc and much of today’s television, for which brains are also optional. 

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Museum of Comfort TV Salutes: The Hoyt-Clagwell Tractor

Imagine a place where all of the instantly recognizable objects associated with classic television are on display. It doesn’t exist so we’ll create it here, and pay tribute to many of our favorite Comfort TV things.

Greek mythology tells of Sisyphus, who was condemned to the underworld for his sins and forced to push a heavy boulder up a steep hill, only to have it roll back down as soon as he finished the job.

Where Sisyphus had his boulder, Oliver Wendell Douglas had his Hoyt-Clagwell tractor. 

Both men were cursed to repeatedly have their day’s labor undone by cruel fate (and in Oliver’s case, deficient factory standards). His noble attempts to uphold the tradition of the American farmer he so admired were no match for an ancient derelict vehicle that would fall apart if you tried to ride it, or start it, or even sometimes if you just looked at it the wrong way.

It was Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, who described Green Acres as the story of Oliver Douglas in hell. Everything about life in Hooterville bedeviled him at one time or another, from his wife Lisa’s “hotscakes,” also suitable as an afterlife punishment, to the agricultural guidance he received from county agent Hank Kimball, the ideal personification of government bureaucracy.

But Oliver’s Hoyt-Clagwell surpassed mere incompetence to verge on outright malevolence, like a rural version of Stephen King’s ‘Christine.’ Even Mr. Haney, who sold Oliver the tractor, couldn’t control it. In one episode Eb recalled how it used to chase Haney across the field; even on those rare occasions when it’s moving, this tractor cannot be trusted. 

I don’t believe it ever chased Oliver, though my Green Acres recollection is not without gaps. I do recall it catching fire, losing wheels, losing its steering wheel, and nearly electrocuting its owner during an attempted battery jump. In the season one episode “Neighborliness,” Oliver tries to attach the tractor to a plow. That didn’t go well, either.

I love the name “Hoyt-Clagwell” because it sounds authentic. Of course, no such company ever existed – and even in the fictional world of Hooterville it had long since passed into history. When Oliver went to Drucker’s General Store to order replacement parts, Sam Drucker told him that Hoyt-Clagwell closed after Mr. Hoyt left the tractor business to make plastic fruit.

The tractor that was immortalized as a Hoyt-Clagwell was actually (according to multiple sources) a 1918 Fordson Model F, and in its day was considered a miracle of modern machinery. That is, when it wasn’t flipping over because of poor weight distribution. The wheels tended to break as well – talk about perfect casting.

Before I began researching this piece, I was not aware that Ertl Toys, makers of die-cast models of many classic TV vehicles, had also made a Hoyt-Clagwell tractor. Now I want one. 

Of course, we are proud to have the original here in the museum. For your own safety, however, just don’t get too close. 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Vegas Episode

What happens when you take classic TV characters out of their familiar surroundings and send them to Las Vegas?

The question has been posed in countless writer’s rooms over the past 50 years, resulting in enough Vegas episodes to fill a week-long marathon.

However, a distinction should be drawn between shows that say they’re going to Vegas, and those that actually do it. It’s just a 50 minute flight from L.A., but the logistics of moving a show that far for one or two episodes was obviously too daunting for most budgets and shooting schedules. 

Of all the series with a Las Vegas episode, 90-95% relied on a stock montage of Strip resorts and Glitter Gulch neon, followed by an interior establishing shot of characters entering some sorry-looking fictional casino, hastily assembled on a soundstage, with one blackjack table and five slot machines.

It could work when it was done right – Perfect Strangers had a hilarious show that pretended to be set in – let’s all say it like Balki – “Vay-gaaaaaaaaas.” But usually the most memorable episodes are those where you actually see the characters in the city.

Let’s take a look at four stand-outs from this much smaller sample size. Having lived in the Las Vegas area since 1982 I have a particular affinity for these shows. They captured a moment in time before recent building booms robbed the resort areas of so much of their colorful heritage.

That Girl (“She Never Had the Vegas Notion, Pts. 1 & 2”)
Ann Marie gets a job in a Vegas show supporting headliner Marty Haines (Jack Cassidy, as always playing Jack Cassidy). Strait-laced Donald Hollinger has too much to drink, and Marty tricks him into believing he married another of the star’s entourage, as a way to prove to Ann that even the most virtuous man can lose himself in Vegas.

The episodes were filmed in 1969, a great time in the city’s history. You’ll see Ann and Donald dodging cars while crossing Fremont Street (no longer necessary as it’s now closed to traffic), and riding a merry-go-round outside Circus Circus. But most of the filming was done at the legendary Sands, where the Rat Pack reigned throughout the 1960s. If you love that era of show business, it’s a thrill to see the lush hotel grounds and the lavish casino, and a sign outside the showroom that promotes an upcoming appearance by Louis Prima. 

The Partridge Family (“What? And Get Out of Show Business?”)
Nothing like starting at the top: in the first episode of this classic series, the Partridge Family appears at Caesars Palace.

As their iconic bus approaches the resort’s main entrance, we see their name in huge letters across the marquee; below, in smaller letters, two other shows are promoted – one for some guy named Duke Ellington. As this was the pilot, filmed before anyone had heard of the series, I can only guess how many passers-by wondered about this group that was top-billed over one of the legendary jazz composers and bandleaders of the 20th century. You can also make out the marquee for the Flamingo Hilton across the street, where Sonny & Cher were appearing.

The performance that follows this scene was not shot in the resort’s famed Circus Maximus Showroom or anywhere else in the city. In fact, the Vegas footage comprises just one minute of the episode. But the sequence adds an authenticity to the family’s show business success. 

The Bionic Woman (“Fembots in Las Vegas, Pts. 1 & 2”)
In which Jaime goes undercover (but not much cover) as the strongest showgirl in Las Vegas history, and chases a Fembot past the fountains outside Caesars Palace. If you couldn’t tell from the title alone, this is a classic slice of Comfort TV cheese.

The casino sequences were filmed at The Maxim, which was located across the street from the original MGM Grand. It closed in 2001. 

Charlie’s Angels (“Angels in Vegas, Pts. 1 & 2”)
The series’ season 3 debut had something for everyone – a cameo from Las Vegas’s most famous detective (Robert Urich as Dan Tanna), Kris Munroe singing with Darren Stephens (Dick Sargent), Kelly Garrett joining the famous Folies Bergere revue, and Sabrina Duncan romancing a casino owner played by Dean Martin, who between takes was romancing Kate’s stand-in, Camille Hagan.

Granted, the whodunit payoff at the end is pretty weak, but there’s much fun to be had along the way, including a great speedboat chase and shoot-out at Lake Mead. Most of the action was shot at the Tropicana Resort, which is still here, and the Dunes, which sadly is not. 

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Bewitched Continuum, and Other Outstanding Classic TV Episode Guides

I love episode guides.

There are dozens of television show companion books in my library, and I particularly enjoy revisiting those that devote most of their pages to an in-depth examination of each episode from their respective series.

Books like this were plentiful 15-25 years ago, when there was more of a market for TV companion volumes. Back then, you could go into any bookstore and the “Film/TV” section would comprise an entire aisle. Today, that subject is lucky to secure a single shelf in the six or seven bookstores still in business. 

Since the advent of the Internet, episode guides have moved online – and almost all of them are crap. There are exceptions – “Family Affair Fridays” over at Embarrassing Treasures offers wonderfully insightful and frequently hilarious analysis of that charming sitcom, but most website guides provide nothing beyond episode titles, airdates and guest cast listings.

That’s why I was delighted when Adam-Michael James’s new The Bewitched Continuum landed with a Yellow Pages-like crash on my doorstep. It delivers more than 600 pages of Bewitched episode guide. That will either strike you as overkill or “Oh, yeah!” If you’re in the latter category, you’ll definitely want to check out this exhaustively researched chronicle. 

An episode guide does its job when it makes you want to take the journey through the series again. Not that most classic TV fans ever need an excuse. But a well-written guide offers the possibility of seeing something new in a 40 year-old TV show, or better understanding how a single episode fits within the context of the entire series. It adds to our appreciation of a creative work.

As I began reading The Bewitched Continuum I found myself learning things about shows that I have watched a dozen times. James provides a synopsis of each episode, followed by a review that focuses primarily on how consistent the show played by the rules it established for witches and witchcraft (short answer: not too well).

The author also points out the best moments in each show, offers renewed appreciation for the series’ still-impressive special effects, and cites examples of inspired dialogue (writers always appreciate good writing). In addition to the episode guide, he provides a by-the-numbers overview of Bewitched that tells us how many times Darrin was fired by Larry Tate (15) and how many times Endora calls Darrin “Durwood” (133!) among dozens of other trivia nuggets. 

If you enjoy books like The Bewitched Continuum, here are five other classic TV tomes with episode guides done right. I’ll refrain from including my own efforts in my Dukes of Hazzard and Charlie’s Angels books – that is for others to judge.

1. The Lucy Book (Geoffrey Mark Fidelman)
In one volume you’ll get detailed episode guides to I Love Lucy, The Lucy Show, Here’s Lucy and Life With Lucy. The author is a  fan of his subject, but he is not afraid to call out episodes where Lucy was just going through the motions. 

2. Growing Up Brady (Barry Williams)
Very few classic TV actors would have any interest in sharing their thoughts on every episode of the series that made them famous. But here, Barry Williams offers the ultimate insider’s view of The Brady Bunch, including the episode where he was stoned on camera. 

3.  The Fugitive Recaptured (Ed Robertson)
One of television’s crown jewels deserves an episode guide worthy of its status. Ed Robertson delivers with discerning show reviews and interviews with cast members, producers, writers and series creator Roy Huggins. 

4. The Avengers Dossier (Paul Cornell, Martin Day and Keith Topping)
It’s quirky, with star ratings for such categories as “Kinkiness Factor,” “Champagne” and “Eccentrics.” But The Avengers was a unique show that merits an equally off-kilter appraisal.

5. The First 28 Years of Monty Python (Kim “Howard” Johnson)
Monty Python historian Kim Johnson has written five books on the British comedy troupe. Here, every episode of the Flying Circus is described and dissected, along with quotes from all six Pythons on the stuff they liked, the stuff they didn’t, and what was censored for American broadcast.