Monday, August 22, 2016

Better Late Than Never: The Defenders on DVD

In the four years of this blog’s existence I’ve written only about TV shows that have been a valued part of my life for decades. Until now.

I had certainly heard of The Defenders (1961-1965), starring E.G. Marshall as defense attorney Lawrence (Larry) Preston, and Robert Reed as his son and law practice partner, Kenneth Preston. Among classic TV aficionados it is revered as one of the medium’s finest legal dramas. But unlike better-known lawyer shows like Perry Mason it had been out of circulation for decades, so people like me could only hear from others how wonderful it was.

That changed when Shout! Factory made the startling decision to release the first season on DVD. Now the only question was whether this vaunted Emmy-winning series could actually validate more than 50 years of critical and popular admiration.

Here’s the short answer: Yes, it does.

Having just finished watching the show’s first 32 episodes, I have about 100 things I want to say. But you don’t have that kind of time and I’m not getting paid by the word (or at all), so a condensation will have to suffice.

This is a legal show but not a formulaic one. “The Trial of Jenny Scott” is set almost entirely in a courtroom, on Lawrence Preston’s cross-examination of one witness. In the next episode, “The Man With the Concrete Thumb,” there is just one brief court scene peripherally related to the main story.

Sometimes there’s no trial at all. Sometimes there’s a familiar premise and you’ll think you know how the rest of the story will play out – but then it gets there in the first 20 minutes and you’ll wonder where it’s going next. This 55 year-old show will surprise you, constantly and pleasantly. 

Something else you get here that has practically disappeared from scripted television is substantive discussion. In “The Point Shaver” the Prestons return to Larry’s alma mater and offer to help when a college basketball player is suspected of taking money from a gambler.  Larry and Ken meet with the Dean, and what follows is an in-depth exploration about the hazards of relying on athletics to pay for academics, and the pressures and temptations that face student-athletes – a debate that is still going on.

One last brief point about content: The Defenders exposes the fraudulent claim that stories about the dark side of humanity require graphic visual detail for sufficient impact. There are some very unsavory topics in these episodes, but they are handled effectively and without exploitation, in a way that satisfied 1960s broadcast standards. Today, good luck finding any network capable of such discernment.

The casting and performances complement the high standard of writing. E.G. Marshall: I’m sorry I never paid more attention to you. My awareness of him stemmed mainly from a few episodes of The Bold Ones: The Doctors, and when he kneeled before Zod in Superman II. His work here is a revelation. 

Marshall deserved and won the Emmy for episodes like “The Search,” an exploration of the flaws of the legal system and capital punishment. Preston learns that a man he represented who was executed for a murder may have been innocent. He embarks on a quest to find out why it happened, tracking down former jurors and witnesses and confronting the prosecuting attorney. Marshall runs the gamut here – devastation, disgust, fury, and ultimately resignation with sometimes imperfect justice.

Now, Robert Reed – that took some adjusting on my part. This was my first acquaintance with him as Kenneth Preston, but I’ve lived with his portrayal of Mike Brady since I was in kindergarten. It’s odd seeing perhaps TV’s most iconic father, looking much the same as he does on The Brady Bunch, playing a son that still has lessons to learn. He’s wonderful in this, and now that I understand the quality of material he became accustomed to playing, it puts his recurring complaints about Brady scripts into a more reasonable perspective. 

Confession: the first thing I did when I finished The Defenders was to rewatch “The Slumber Caper,” the Brady episode where Reed and Marshall are reunited for one scene.

Guest casts are also impressive: The first episode features Jack Klugman, Gene Hackman and Joan Hackett, and most movies don’t have casts as good as “The Attack”: Martin Sheen, Richard Kiley, Barbara Barrie, Nancy Marchand and Michael Constantine.

Out of 32 episodes there is only one clunker – “Gideon’s Follies” – but even that has Julie Newmar and Eva Gabor. Other than that there isn’t much to criticize. Yet those who know the show better than I insist that season one is the most inconsistent. They say the series really hit its creative stride with season two and maintained that level of excellence for the remainder of its run.  

The question now is whether we’ll get to see it.

It's unfortunate that quality is not the most significant contributing factor as to whether a television series is made available on DVD. If that were the case, every season of The Defenders would have been out a decade or more ago. It’s even more frustrating when you consider how every crap movie ever made finds its way onto Amazon, while many of television’s best shows are still locked up in a studio vault, thanks to conversion costs and legal snafus.

There are already rumblings on some TV message boards that season one sales are good but not yet sufficient for Shout to move forward with the rest of the series. I’ve been through this frustration with them once already when they pulled the plug on Room 222. It’s easy to get indignant when they don’t finish what they start, but business is business.

It’s not my place to tell you how to spend your hard-earned money. And I know this will be a blind buy for almost everyone, but I cannot stress enough what a sure thing this show is to anyone who appreciates good writing, good acting, ambitious stories, and entertainment that actually expects viewers to have an IQ above double-digits. 

Give The Defenders a try. You won't be disappointed.  

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Top TV Moments: William Windom

William Windom’s name in a TV show’s guest cast instantly raises my attention level. Now, I think, this episode stands every chance of being worth watching. 

Windom had several prominent film credits, including the attorney opposing Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. But television offered the steadiest work, and a glance at the diversity of his credits suggests that he was happy to take whatever was offered and make the most of it. Often that was more than it deserved. But when he got a good part, he made it better.

He was often described as an everyman, though that seems like dubious praise. He could indeed elevate a “regular guy” role with his natural gravitas, but as you’ll see from the ten TV credits I selected, he played a wide range of whimsical and extreme characters as well.

The Twilight Zone (1961)
“Clown, hobo, ballet dancer, bagpiper, and an army major. Five improbable entities stuck together into a pit of darkness.” Thus begins “Five Characters in Search of an Exit,” one of the series’ most brilliant and surreal episodes. Windom plays the soldier, whose “We’re in hell” speech offers one possible explanation for their plight – but not the correct one. 

The Lucy Show (1962)
“Lucy Digs Up a Date,” the series’ second episode, is not a standout moment for Windom or anyone involved, but it’s interesting in how it reveals Lucille Ball’s newfound command of her set. Content to let husband Desi call the shots on I Love Lucy, Ball was clearly in charge from here on out, and part of that was reflected in her guidance of guest stars. She believed broader comedy had to be played at an exaggerated volume, so here you have William Windom playing a math teacher, and projecting conversational lines in a way that borders on the unnatural. It's a chance to see a good actor being directed into a less than polished performance.

The Donna Reed Show (1962)
In “Wide Open Spaces” the Stones take a trip to the country to visit friends David and Millie Adams (William Windom and Patricia Breslin), who left the city (against Millie’s wishes) to fulfill David’s dream of living on a farm. This Green Acres prototype was a back door pilot for a series that would have replaced The Donna Reed Show, had Reed followed through on her plans to retire from TV after this season. She didn’t, so we’re left with what-might-have-been questions on a promising concept. Fortunately, Windom didn’t have to wait much longer for series stardom.  

The Farmer’s Daughter (1963)
William Windom plays widowed Congressman Glenn Morley. Inger Stevens plays Swedish-American farm girl Katy Holstrum, who comes to Washington hoping to secure a Peace Corps post, but instead becomes governess to Glenn’s two young sons. 

It’s a mystery to me why some 1960s shows have been rerun for 50 years while others vanished, rarely to be seen again. The Farmer’s Daughter lasted three seasons and just over 100 episodes, more than enough for syndication. What’s more, it was a warm and uplifting situation comedy with a sweet romantic chemistry between Windom and Stevens. It deserved a better fate. 

The Invaders (1967)
The two-part “Summit Meeting” finds David Vincent working with defense contractor Michael Tressider (Windom) to save the world from an alien plot to destroy humanity with elevated radiation. This was always an intense series, and Windom works well with star Roy Thinnes in escalating the tension as their characters join forces to prevent disaster. Great guest cast here – Ford Rainey, Diana Hyland and Michael Rennie.

Star Trek (1967)
In “The Doomsday Machine” The Enterprise finds the U.S.S. Constellation adrift, with Commodore Matthew Decker (Windom) as the only surviving crew member. Windom is masterful as the Captain Ahab-like Decker, clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress before that condition was even widely known. It is arguably the single best performance by a guest actor in the original series. 

My World and Welcome to It (1969)
It was billed as a series “based on stories, inspirational pieces, cartoons, and things that go bump in the night by James Thurber.” 

And it was all that and more…and still got the axe after one season. Maybe audiences just weren’t ready for a fanciful family sitcom about a cartoonist who has conversations with his drawings, talks to the viewers, and drifts in and out of fantasy sequences. As said cartoonist, William Windom won the Emmy for Best Actor in a Comedy Series. His affinity for Thurber endured after the show was canceled – he toured the country with a solo show based on the author’s works. 

Night Gallery (1971)
The first time I watched the Rod Serling-penned “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar,” I didn’t get it. Night Gallery was supposed to be a scary show. What was frightening about the plight of Randy Lane (Windom), a widowed businessman pushing 50, who falls into a deep depression when he learns his favorite watering hole is about to meet the wrecking ball? It took a second viewing to get over my misplaced expectations and appreciate Serling’s sentimental story, and yet another amazing performance by William Windom.   

The Partridge Family (1973)
In “Bedknobs and Drumsticks” the family agrees to film a commercial for Uncle Erwin’s Country Fried Chicken. Erwin (Windom) rejects the classy first attempt and insists on a second version – with the family wearing chicken suits. 

The cast hated this episode because of those suits but it’s one of the funnier third-season shows. From a one-note role, Windom manages to create a complete character that you can easily imagine having a real life beyond his few minutes of screen time. 

Murder She Wrote (1985)
For a generation of ‘80s kids forced to watch Murder, She Wrote with their parents (or because they wanted to – come on, Angela Lansbury was cool!) William Windom is best known as Jessica Fletcher’s portly, white-haired friend and chess partner, Dr. Seth Hazlitt. He was a resident of Cabot Cove for 11 years and appeared in more than 50 episodes. 

Thursday, August 4, 2016

More Retro TV Nights

Back in 2013 I posted a piece about some of the ways classic TV fans watch their DVD collections. One of the most intriguing methods is recreating an evening of network television as it was broadcast 30 or 40 years ago. It’s a way to vicariously travel back into the past and watch the programs that people watched back then, in the order in which they watched them.

Since then, more classic series have become available on DVD, as well as via such nostalgia channels as Me-TV and Antenna. That means it’s now possible to enjoy even more retro TV nights.

Journey back with me to a time when there were just three networks, TV Guide was a quality publication, and you’d never see a commercial that contained the phrase “Ask your doctor about…”

NBC: Wednesday, 1971

NBC Mystery Movie
Night Gallery

One of the benefits of this lineup is variety, as with the Mystery Movie you can alternate as NBC did between Columbo, McMillan & Wife and McCloud. Adam-12 is one of the better police procedurals, and as you’d expect from a Jack Webb series finds much to respect in the job of law enforcement. Rod Serling’s Night Gallery was inconsistent, but its best installments make the series a worthy successor to The Twilight Zone

CBS: Monday, 1974

Medical Center

I’d be curious to hear the strategy behind these pairings – if indeed there was any. How many viewers of a traditional western like Gunsmoke, now nearing the end of its 20-year run, did CBS believe would stick around for the liberal politics of Maude? That’s like following The Lawrence Welk Show with MTV’s Headbangers Ball

From there it’s an easier transition to Rhoda, another sitcom with a strong-willed and charismatic female lead, before delving into disease of the week drama with Chad Everett on Medical Center

ABC: Tuesday, 1987

Who’s the Boss
Growing Pains

The theme for this evening could be “shows that didn’t age as well as we expected.” Who’s the Boss and Growing Pains ran eight seasons and seven seasons, respectively, and together still provide a likable hour of family sitcom fun. Classics? Not on my scorecard but yours may vary. Moonlighting was a revelation in its day – a brilliant speedball of detective fiction and fourth-wall breaking anarchy. The magic was short-lived (barely three seasons, though the show ran five) and the series ended awkwardly amidst declining quality and star ego turmoil. Thirtysomething, likewise, seemed like something brand new when it debuted – a postmodern baby boomer domestic drama. It was popular and critically acclaimed, but was also derided for too much navel-gazing. I wouldn’t revisit this lineup often, but it makes an interesting diversion from the warhorses in my collection. 

NBC: Thursday, 1964

Daniel Boone
Dr. Kildare

Here you have three shows with absolutely nothing in common, begging the question of why some long-forgotten NBC programmer decided to put them together. I tried this rotation once and it didn’t really work for me. But if your tastes run to the eclectic you may enjoy an evening that starts in 18th century Kentucky, segues into medical crises in 20th century Blair General Hospital, then lightens the mood with a mouthy maid, Missy and Mr. B. 

ABC: Tuesday, 1975

Happy Days
Welcome Back, Kotter
The Rookies
Marcus Welby, M.D.

It’s Tiger Beat night! Henry Winkler and Scott Baio were always in the teen magazines, as was John Travolta in his Barbarino days. And Michael Ontkean was considered quite the dreamboat on The Rookies (he left before the 1975 season, but if you're going to try this lineup it's acceptable to cheat with a 1974 episode). With Marcus Welby it wasn’t Robert Young that made the girls swoon but costar James Brolin as motorcycle-riding surgeon Steven Kiley. Back in the day he was cooler than Clooney on E.R

CBS: Friday, 1981

The Incredible Hulk
The Dukes of Hazzard

Now we’re talking. Happy memories for me here, as in 1981 Friday meant sleeping late the next morning and no school for two days. I was primed for escapist entertainment and CBS obliged. The Incredible Hulk found an audience in an era when comic book adaptations were scarce, thanks mainly to Bill Bixby’s poignant portrayal of David Banner. The Dukes of Hazzard wasn’t based on a comic book but it might as well have been, while Dallas offered a more upscale take on Southern pride. For different reasons none of these shows could be taken seriously – just the way I liked them. 

Monday, July 25, 2016

Pilot Casualties: The Casting Coulda-Beens of Comfort TV

Casting was a critical component in every Comfort TV show. Today we can’t imagine other actors in many iconic roles, yet it’s fascinating to contemplate how close we were to watching Gene Hackman as Mike Brady, Lyle Waggoner as Batman, or Stephen Stills as one of The Monkees.

Once a pilot is shot there is usually no turning back. But post-pilot cuts happen for any number of reasons, as we’ll see in this look at some of the more intriguing examples from the Comfort TV era. We all know how these shows turned out – the more intriguing question is whether they would still been successful without the last-minute change. Let's take a brief glimpse into an alternate classic TV universe. 

Mark Hamill as David Bradford
Eight is Enough
Shortly before filming began on the show’s second episode, Mark Hamill had a rollover car accident on a highway off-ramp, fracturing his nose and cheek. As he was too injured to come back he had to be replaced by Grant Goodeve. And he was never heard from again. 

Would it have worked?
Probably, based on the pilot, though it would have been a different series. Grant Goodeve is a year younger than Hamill but on the show he appears older and more mature. David has several verbal altercations with his father in the first season, and with Goodeve those scenes play like quarrels between two adults. Hamill plays David more like Willie Aames would play middle son Tommy – a hotheaded teenager with an antiestablishment attitude.

And consider this: if Hamill had been a better driver, we wouldn’t have this version of the theme song.

Sharon Tate as Billie Jo Bradley
Petticoat Junction
No pilot was requested for this series, which CBS purchased sight unseen based on creator Paul Henning’s success with The Beverly Hillbillies. Sharon Tate was given the role of flirtatious Billie Jo Bradley, and appears in early publicity photos with the rest of the cast. 

But when the network discovered Tate had also posed for some much racier photos, she was dropped and the role recast with Jeannine Riley.

Would it have worked?
Without any footage it’s hard to tell. The series featured three Billie Jos in seven seasons, so it was certainly durable enough to survive no matter who was cast (Riley was replaced after two seasons by Gunilla Hutton, who one year later was replaced by Meredith MacRae). However, based on Tate’s somewhat stiff and unmemorable Beverly Hillbillies appearances as secretary Janet Trego, she wasn’t yet ready for a series lead.

Liberty Williams as Tabitha Stevens
Bewitched fans might enjoy the original Tabitha pilot more than the version with Lisa Hartman, as the story offers parallels to the first Bewitched episode. Here, it’s Tabitha “coming out” as a witch to a significant other, who retreats to a bar to ponder his new normal.  But when it didn’t work ABC scrapped the entire concept and started over – new supporting characters, new workplace, and even a spelling change – in this pilot she’s “Tabatha.” 

Would it have worked?
Considering the series didn’t last with Lisa Hartman, it was likely beyond saving. But Liberty Williams was hardly the weakest link in a show with multiple issues. You may not be familiar with her but if you’ve seen Joyce Dewitt on Three’s Company you know the type – similar look, similar plucky charm. And yes, a brunette, which is a superficial objection to her playing a grown-up Erin Murphy, but still one of those details that bothers me, like changing Bruce Banner to David Banner on The Incredible Hulk.

As for Liberty, billed for most of her credits as Louise Williams, she later tested for and almost got the role of Shirley in Laverne & Shirley, then went on to voice Wonder Twin Jayna in Superfriends.  

Tim Dunigan as Templeton Peck
The A-Team
Dwight Schultz (Murdock) has often told the story about how he was certain he was going to be fired from The A-Team. It was Tim Dunigan who kept reassuring him throughout filming the pilot that his job was safe and he was going to be fine. Ironically, it was Dunigan who was replaced by Dirk Benedict, when producers decided he looked too young for the role of a Vietnam vet. 

Would it have worked?
Not this time. In the pilot Dunigan assumes a number of roles as the team’s resident con man, from a priest to a millionaire cowboy. And it just doesn’t resonate. This was material that had to be played with a wink, but his scenes with the rest of the team lacked the camaraderie that sustained The A-Team through years of repetitive scripts. According to IMDB he quit acting and now works as a mortgage broker.

Elizabeth Ward as Carol Seaver
Growing Pains
Elizabeth Ward had appeared in a couple of lesser-known ABC Afterschool Specials prior to being cast as Carol Seaver in the original Growing Pains pilot, shot in 1985. She didn’t click with test audiences, and was replaced by Tracey Gold, who hesitated to come back after being rejected once already. She changed her mind and rejoined a series that aired for seven seasons. Elizabeth Ward guest-starred in a Simon & Simon episode the following year, and never got another job. It’s a rough business. 

Would it have worked?
I think so. In the original pilot Ward was even more bookish than Gold in the show’s early seasons, but there’s no reason to assume she couldn’t have guided Carol through adolescence much like her replacement.

Susan Lanier as Chrissy Snow
Three’s Company
Three’s Company needed three pilots before finding the right combination of roommates. John Ritter was there from the start, and was originally joined by Valerie Curtin and Susanne Zenor (playing Samantha, not Chrissy). Pilot #2 brought in Joyce Dewitt, and Susan Lanier as Chrissy Snow. Neither pilot ever aired, though both are available on various Three’s Company DVD releases. 

Would it have worked?
I may be in the minority here, but I think so. To be fair, we may not be seeing Lanier’s best effort, as she was called in as a last minute substitute for another actress invited to audition. And if you’ve seen her in other shows playing similar characters, it’s clear she has some comedy chops. But at the time Suzanne Somers had more experience and professional credits, and one can’t deny the chemistry she developed with Ritter and Dewitt.

Louie Anderson as Larry Appleton
Perfect Strangers
There was never any doubt about the casting of Bronson Pinchot, as Perfect Strangers was developed (after several false starts) around his offbeat immigrant character. Finding the right foil would be critical, and the network’s first choice was comedian Louie Anderson. 

“They hated me,” is all Anderson said in a TV interview about the filmed and then buried pilot. Mark Linn-Baker, invited to test after a guest spot on Moonlighting, proved a more popular choice.  

Would it have worked?
Having not seen the Anderson pilot it’s difficult to speculate, but I would guess that ABC made the right call. Perhaps the objective was to develop a modern-day Laurel & Hardy with this duo, but Anderson’s persona of a self-deprecating gentle giant was already in place from his standup – if he played Larry that passively it would not have worked opposite Pinchot’s more manic Balki. Certainly he could have been asked to try something different, but on a TV series it’s always the actor that shapes the character more than the character dictates an actor’s choices. Sooner or later writers would have started playing to Anderson's traits, which are different from those that Mark Linn-Baker brought to the role.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Top TV Moments: Brooke Bundy

In Gods Like Us, film critic Ty Burr examines the history of media stardom, and why some actors become stars while others, for all their talent, remain merely actors. The phenomenon dates back before 1910, a time when performers in movies were un-credited but audiences noticed some of them anyway. Burr writes: “You discovered that you wanted to see this person again, not because of the part he or she played but because of who he or she was.” 

That is how I have always felt about Brooke Bundy.

Why? I don’t know. Why are any of us drawn to certain actors or singers or comedians more than others? There is a quality in her that resonates with me, and I have no desire to subject that condition to deeper analysis. What would be the point? I just like Brooke Bundy.

I hope to see all of her television performances one day, though that’s likely impossible given her guest appearances on obscure 1960s series like Firehouse and My Friend Tony. The ones listed here I’ve seen many times. In fact I could have written this tribute from memory, but I went back and watched them all again because I can never spend enough time in her company.

The Donna Reed Show (1962)
In “To Be a Boy,” Jeff swears off girls just before Mary tries to introduce him to high-IQ introvert Joanne, played by Bundy as her first professional acting credit. The highlight is an extended scene where Joanne hides under Jeff’s bed. It’s played mostly in silence but Bundy’s expressions are captivating.

Mr. Novak (1963)
This is one of my favorite forgotten shows of the 1960s. James Franciscus plays an idealistic high school English teacher in a forerunner to Room 222, albeit without the ethnic diversity. Bundy makes the first of three series appearances in “X is the Unknown Factor” as Patrice, girlfriend to a brilliant but amoral student. With Franciscus, Dean Jagger as the principal, and guest stars like Ed Asner, Kim Darby, Kevin McCarthy and silent screen legend Lillian Gish, the acting bar was set very high throughout this series. Bundy more than holds her own in a scene where she confesses to cheating on a test to save her boyfriend from risking his scholarship. 

Gidget (1965)
If you took my suggestion in last week’s blog about a summer Gidget marathon, you already encountered Brooke Bundy as Inge, a demure Swedish student engaged to a domineering young executive (played by a pre-Star Trek Walter Koenig). In “Gidget’s Foreign Policy,” Gidget vows to liberate her repressed houseguest before her husband-to-be returns in one week. Inge learns her lesson so well that she steals Gidget’s boyfriend and calls off her wedding. 

Dragnet (1967)
It’s a tough segue from a lighthearted sitcom like Gidget to “The Little Victim,” a grim story about child abuse. Brooke Bundy plays the insecure, damaged young wife of an abusive husband. Her frightened, intense outbursts punctuate several powerful scenes, and the conclusion is almost too difficult to watch. 

Daniel Boone (1968)
I can’t say I’m a huge fan of this series, but Bundy’s appearance in “Be Thankful for the Fickleness of Women” is one of my favorites of her performances. She plays Sarah, an indentured servant that Josh (Jimmy Dean) purchases so he can protect her from an abusive lout. But once he owns Sarah, he has no idea what to do with her.  

Mission: Impossible (1969)
“The Controllers” is a two-part M:I episode, something I’ve already asserted the series does not do well. The team must put a stop to experiments with a dangerous mind control drug being conducted behind the Iron Curtain. Bundy plays Katherine, a prisoner subjected to the treatment. She doesn’t do much more than suffer through these two episodes, but like Garbo she does it memorably.

My Three Sons (1971)
Brooke Bundy made four appearances on this long-running sitcom, ranging from 1963’s “Robbie Wins His Letter” to “Debbie” in 1971. The last one is my favorite because she rarely ventures into Tuesday Weld territory – a flirty blonde using her wiles to get out of trouble. In “Debbie” she turns the heads of all the Douglas men, though Ernie is particularly smitten. 

The Partridge Family (1973)
Keith Partridge shares my Brooke Bundy infatuation. In “Heartbreak Keith” he falls hard for college classmate Dory, an “older woman” of 23. He mistakenly believes she loves him too – and then finds out she’s married. 

The episode is worth watching not just for Bundy’s performance as Dory but for the unique set design of her character’s home – it’s like the entire ‘70s exploded in one room. The episode also features one of the best fourth season Partridge tunes, “I Heard You Singing Your Song.” 

The Brady Bunch (1974)
“Kelly’s Kids” is an episode most fans skip because the Bradys are hardly in it. Ken Berry and Brooke Bundy play Brady neighbors Ken and Kathy Kelly, who adopt one son from an orphanage, then go back to adopt his two best friends – one is African-American, the other is Asian. The show was a spinoff attempt written by Sherwood Schwartz, trying to recreate his Brady success with another variation of a blended family (The Benetton Brood?). Berry and Bundy are eminently likable, but I’m not sure the series would have lasted. 

Land of the Lost (1975)
In a misty marsh, Rick and Will find the remnants of a strange spacecraft out of which appears Brooke Bundy (in a most unfortunate hairstyle) as Sharon, a woman who claims to have lost her way. Rick takes a liking to her, but Will and Holly suspect there is more to Sharon’s story. “The Zarn” is typically trippy Krofft fun, with a bizarre ending that baffles as much as it impresses. 

Charlie’s Angels (1977)
In “The Vegas Connection,” one of the better first season shows, the Angels bring down a blackmailer working out of a Vegas casino showroom. Sixteen years ago, I wrote this in The Charlie’s Angels Casebook: “As Elsbeth, a tough girl with a soft heart who helps the Angels…Brooke Bundy contributes one of the most memorable single-episode guest appearances of the series’ run. Her introduction as a potential love interest for Bosley could have been explored further, perhaps in a subsequent episode.” I still wish they had gone there. 

Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987)
Twenty-five years after her TV debut, and just four years before she left the business to become an acting teacher, Brooke Bundy served on the Starship Enterprise. In “The Naked Now,” the crew falls under the influence of a virus that causes everyone to act drunk and silly. A good idea but one better saved for a later show (this was just the second episode broadcast): if viewers had been given time to get to know these characters, it would have been more fun to watch how their behavior changes. Also, Wesley saves the ship, setting an unwelcome precedent for future stories. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Three Tips For a Groovy Classic TV Summer

It seems like July got here awfully quick, doesn’t it?

Here we are already in the most summery of the summer months – the season change from spring is now a distant memory, and fall still seems a long way away.

For classic TV fans, summer was the time when our favorite shows went away. And that was our cue to turn off the TV and stumble outside into the sunlight. The broadcast networks still adhere to this schedule, but with cable and streaming services launching new series year-round, those old viewing patterns are as much a relic of the past as this 1974 Zenith Console.

Summer never got much recognition in the shows from the Comfort TV era. Since the broadcast season of September through June paralleled that of the school year, we rarely saw families on sitcoms enjoy their summer vacation.

Of course, back then seasonal acknowledgments of any kind were inconsistent at best. There would be occasional references to Midwestern winters on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Laverne & Shirley, but most of the time mild temperatures prevailed in TV Land. The only time you saw snow was for the Christmas episodes.

Need a break from the summer sunshine? Here are three ways to commemorate the season with Comfort TV.

1. A Gidget Marathon
No classic TV series celebrated carefree, endless summer fun more than Gidget (1965). Loosely based on the 1959 film starting Sandra Dee, this was a series about the teenagers who surfed California’s beaches, at the very moment The Beach Boys immortalized them in song. 

The only thing that could make this mythical era even more delightful is having 18 year-old Sally Field as your tour guide. She was the ideal Gidget – adorable, especially when she spoke directly to the audience during each episode – sassy, spunky and ever loyal to her understanding dad (Don Porter). Together, they created some of the best father-daughter sitcom moments ever captured. 

The series was a flop the first time around, but audiences found it when it was rerun during the summer – not surprising in retrospect. In fact, the ratings were so big that ABC regretted the cancellation, and scrambled to find another vehicle for its suddenly hot star. Result? The Flying Nun, which ran three years. No, I don’t get it either.

There were just 32 episodes, so it won’t take you all summer to finish, and the DVD set features a new interview with Sally Field, who happily reflects on her beach bunny days. 

2. Create Your Own Nick at Nite Block Party Summer
Back in the 1990s, when Nick at Nite was still dedicated to preserving our classic television heritage, the cable network launched the annual Block Party Summer celebration, replacing its regular programming lineup with prime-time five-episode marathons of its most popular shows.

Presented in “VertiVision” (a reference to absolutely nothing, but it was fun to say) a typical week would consist of “Munster Mondays,” “Lucy Tuesdays,” “Bewitched Be-Wednesdays,” “Jeannie Thursdays” and “Sgt. Joe Fridays.” Choose your own Block Party Summer lineup and get reacquainted with some old favorites. If a season-long commitment is too much, just try it for a week. 

3. Hang Out at the Peach Pit
Beverly Hills 90210 debuted in 1991 – just outside our Comfort TV window, and a time in history when it wasn’t as fashionable to hate rich people as it is now. But it’s been 25 years since Brandon and Brenda Walsh moved to America’s best-known Zip code, so one cannot avoid a rush of nostalgia in returning to West Beverly High.

It’s listed here because the series owes its success to summertime. First season ratings were iffy, so the FOX Network broke with broadcast tradition and aired a summer season of new episodes. Bereft of competition, more people checked it out and a phenomenon was born – 90210 ran for ten years and 293 episodes. 

I was not among those original viewers, and was already out of its targeted age group by the time I first saw it on DVD. It was easy to understand the show’s appeal; even with higher rates of shagging and alcohol consumption, the series shares common DNA with the more innocent high school shows of previous eras, from Dobie Gillis to Degrassi.

Plus, at a time when merchandising of prime-time series had all but ceased (would you buy a Jake and the Fatman lunch box?) 90210 brought back the glory days of 1970s tie-ins. There were posters, dolls, school supplies and everything marketers could think of to capitalize on the show’s photogenic cast.

You probably won’t want to revisit all ten seasons. I watched the first four and then bailed when Shannen Doherty left. Among the highlights: The Breakfast Club-like breaking down of cliques in “Slumber Party,” the first appearance of crazy Emily Valentine in “Wildfire,” and Cathy Dennis headlines the West Beverly senior prom in “A Night to Remember.” 

 Do you have any favorite summer shows or viewing habits you’d like to share? We still have two months before the fall season begins!


Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Hey You Guys! It’s the 20 Best Songs From The Electric Company

As I’ve been reading since the age of four, I don’t need to watch The Electric Company for the lessons it imparts. But I own both of the Shout! Factory “Best of” DVD sets, as well as several more episodes taped off the Noggin network, and revisit all of them often. 

The show brings me back to my childhood, but beyond that nostalgic quality it also boasts a remarkably versatile and talented cast, sketches that are still funny and wonderful original music. As with its PBS predecessor, Sesame Street, The Electric Company had access to truly gifted composers, such as Joe Raposo, Tom Lehrer, Gary William Friedman and Clark Gesner.  The songs may have been specifically written to illustrate the sound of whatever letter combination or grammar lesson was being taught, but it’s remarkable how they accomplished this with such cleverness, catchiness and humor.

Let’s make like the show’s disc jockey Mel Mounds, with a top 20 countdown of the groovy sounds from this Emmy-winning classic. Unfortunately I couldn't find clips of all of them - which I'm going to blame on J. Arthur Crank. I just wish this was a top 21 list so I could include “Pete’s Pickle.”

20. The Corner
The Short Circus was The Electric Company house band, so you’ll see them more than once in this ranking – but not as often as you might think. A lot of their songs (“Boom,” “Stop,” “Jelly Belly”) were ok as filler but not anything that would catch your ear on the radio. “The Corner” is one of the exceptions, with its lilting “la la” earworm and a lyric about the everyday fun experiences of being a kid.  

19. The Barley Farmers’ Bar
This country duet featuring Skip Hinnant and Judy Graubart appeared in a Hee Haw style skit about a farmer whose “mind is far from farmin’ when he’s arm-in-arm with Carmen.” Even in the less PC ‘70s a reference to a bar on a children’s show was iffy, so Skip adds the quick aside, “Milk bar, that is.”

18. That’s All
This was the last song in the last segment of the last episode of the series. The entire cast (except Rita Moreno) perform together, with some soft shoe dance interludes, and then take a final curtain call as one closing lesson is taught about the word “all.”

We're glad you came to call
We really had a ball
The show is done
We hate to run
We're sorry, but that's all

17. The ‘Ly’ Song
You really need the animated visuals to fully appreciate this Tom Lehrer tune about how to change adjectives into adverbs.  Why couldn’t this lesson be taught in school in a way that was this clever and entertaining? 

16. Nitty Gritty
Hattie Winston channels her inner Chaka Kahn for this R&B rhyming song. It should be penalized for support from the least interesting incarnation of the Short Circus, but Hattie’s soulful lead vocal makes it impossible to leave this one off the list. 

15. The Sign Song
Clark Gesner’s best-remembered EC contributions were several singalong songs that accompanied a montage of signs from around New York City. People who haven’t heard this in 30 years may instantly recall the words when they see it again. 

14. Whimper and Whine
In addition to teaching the “wh” sound, this song performed by June Angela and Stephen Gustafson also warns kids not to be spoiled brats, or they might wind up without any friends. 

13. Randy
Yes, it’s three adult men singing a love song to a teenage girl. Get your mind out of the gutter and just enjoy Skip Hinnant’s smooth baritone on this ‘50s inspired ballad. No clip available, sadly, but it's on the first "Best of" DVD set.

12. Shoo Shoo Sunshine
Even the Children’s Television Workshop gets the blues. Morgan Freeman sings this downbeat saga of a guy at the train station, preparing to leave town after his girl left him. “Don’t show me no more light – till I find my baby, who’s drifted out of sight.”

11. Kelly and Buddy
One of the show’s recurring bits was the throwback musical performances on a vaudeville-style stage. “Kelly and Buddy” was the best duet between Stephen Gustafson and the Annette Funicello of the Short Circus, Bayn Johnson. Their voices always blended well. 

10. I Was Young Once Too
How many shows aimed at children just learning to read would introduce a wistful song (by Joe Raposo) about an old man reflecting on his long-lost youth? That little crack in Jim Boyd’s voice on the last line can reduce a grown man to tears. 

9. “Hard, Hard, Hard”
Given the Gold records in her future, it’s surprising that Irene Cara received so few lead vocals in her Short Circus days. This song offers an early glimpse into the belter that would top the hot 100 with the title tracks from Fame and Flashdance

8. Grease
Not the Frankie Valli song from the film, of course, but one of the energetic 1960s-doo-wop rockers performed by “Phyllis and the Pharaohs,” a.k.a Rita Moreno, backed by Morgan Freeman, Skip Hinnant, Jim Boyd and Luis Avalos. This one just edges out “Phantom of Love.” 

7. Snore, Sniff and Sneeze
Even if Tom Lehrer didn’t perform this tune, about a wolf who likes to “do things that begin with ‘sn,’” you’d know he wrote it from the sardonic wordplay of the lyrics: “Whenever I have a few moments to spend, I can snoop on a neighbor, or snitch on a friend.”

6. My Name is Kathy
This is the EC song that sounds most like the time it was written. The Short Circus skip the orange and yellow costumes and fake instrument playing to sit in a circle and trade verses about who they are and what they like to do. It has a laid-back, folk hippie vibe, like the music in Free to Be…You and Me. The Barbara Eden cameo at the end adds a perfect grace note to a lovely song.

5. N Apostrophe T
Jim Boyd and Lee Chamberlin play kids as they duet on this Tom Lehrer ode to contractions. Imagine trying to write a two-minute song incorporating “isn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t, didn’t, can’t, won’t, haven’t” and several others into the words. You "couldn’t" do it better than this. 

4. Punctuation
“They are the little marks that use their influence…to help a sentence make more sense.” I can’t think of a cooler way to learn about periods, commas, question marks and exclamation points than this song, performed with Latin flair by Rita Moreno and in calypso style by Lee Chamberlin.

3. Lick a Lolly
This jet-propelled song with the tongue-twister lyric sounds like a lost track from Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound glory days. I’d love to know how many takes they needed to get through it. The vocalists seem out of breath at the end and I don’t blame them. 

2. The Menu Song
There’s a lot of Tom Lehrer on this list, and that’s because he’s a genius. This is my favorite of his Electric Company contributions, for the escalating insanity of the menu selections, and for the performances by Morgan Freeman and Rita Moreno. Let's watch two Oscar winners at work.

1. The Sweet, Sweet Sway
The Short Circus started our top 20 and they take the top spot as well. From the way the song is presented you suspect the show knew they had something special in this Joe Raposo gem: Mel Mounds does a live intro of the group, who emerge from behind an elegant blue curtain. Other EC cast members are also there to watch the performance and try the dance. The lead vocal is by Denise Nickerson of Dark Shadows and Willy Wonka fame. If they had put “The Sweet, Sweet Sway” out as a single, it might have outsold Sesame Street’s “Rubber Duckie.”