Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Mr. Novak: Purchase or Pass?

At a time when DVD sales are plummeting and the audience for shows more than 50 years old dwindles every day, it seems almost miraculous that Warner Archives would dig Mr. Novak out of its vault. The series aired for just two seasons from 1963-1965, and has not been syndicated often enough to build a following in the decades since. 

Yet here we are. And how fortunate we are at that.

I’ve always been a sucker for shows about teachers, and Mr. Novak ranks alongside Room 222 as the most admirable portrayal of that profession at the high school level. Taken together the two shows effectually bookend the 1960s, as turbulent a decade in education as it was everywhere else. 

Here is another example of a television series from an era when the medium was perceived as not just a source of entertainment, but one capable of contributing to the betterment of society. As I wrote about The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet a few years back, this was a time when shows about professions like that of teacher, or doctor, or police officer, would depict its subject in a way that would engender respect from the viewing public. It wasn’t done overtly to send that message; it was, rather, a natural consequence of the way a self-assured and principled nation would portray itself.

Mr. Novak stars James Franciscus as first-year teacher John Novak. The story goes that he was a finalist for the role of Dr. Kildare, but when that went to Richard Chamberlain he was given this series as a consolation prize. Franciscus was an actor with leading man looks, but not leading man charisma. This is the best credit on his resume, and thankfully he was able to raise his game enough to match the quality of the material. 

One could see why he was considered for Kildare, as Novak is essentially the same character in a different profession. He’s a young crusader not yet beaten down by the pressures of the job, whose older colleagues sometimes become frustrated with his self-righteous rants. More than one teacher tells Novak he’s still “wet behind the ears.” There’s an expression you don’t hear much anymore.

Perhaps the best example of this is also one of the standout episodes of the first season. In “Pay the Two Dollars” Novak breaks up a fight between students and in the fracas one of the students is injured. The kid’s father sues the school district, and the district’s lawyer (Martin Landau, wonderful as always) suggests offering a settlement and quickly disposing of the case. Novak refuses, much to the consternation of the attorney and the entire district.

The 30 episodes that comprise season one take us through Novak’s first year at Jefferson High, from day one through the senior prom. Many feature stories that are staples of high school shows, from drug addiction to teacher crushes to teen pregnancy. There was also an apparent bigotry issue at Jefferson, as we get episodes about an African-American girl who is victimized by racial taunts, a Jewish student who faces anti-Semitism, and a Mexican student who believes his poor grades are a result of racism.

Thus far the Asian kids seem to be ok. But I haven’t watched season two yet.

My facetious tone aside, all of these stories are handled extremely well. The story about the attack on the African-American girl (“A Single Isolated Incident”) is particularly remarkable, especially in its closing assembly scene presided over by Principal Albert Vane, masterfully played by Dean Jagger. 

It is Jagger who elevates Mr. Novak from a good series to a classic. There’s not a false note or moment in any of his scenes, which he dominates through the sheer power of his commanding personality. Plus he just looks like everybody’s high school principal. Jagger, who had already won an Academy Award, was nominated for an Emmy in both of the show’s two seasons. But back then the Emmys had temporarily abolished separate categories for comedy and drama, so he lost to the equally deserving Dick Van Dyke in The Dick Van Dyke Show.

High school shows are challenging because to do them realistically (and that was certainly the goal here) you need a lot of extras to fill out the classrooms and the hallways and the cafeteria. You also need a faculty of other teachers, which requires a supporting cast that remains available to pop up for one scene here and there over the course of several months.

The series succeeds on both these criteria, with fine recurring appearances from Jeanne Bal (especially good as Assistant Principal Jean Pagano), Vince Howard, Stephen Franken and Marion Ross. Without a lot of screen time, all of them are interesting and believable as colleagues trying to keep chaos at bay every day in their respective offices and classrooms.

Special mention should also be made of Marian Collier as Miss Scott, the comely home economics teacher with whom Novak has an on-again, off-again romance. He could do a lot worse.

You’ll also spot several familiar faces among the student population, including Shelley Fabares, Tony Dow, Frankie Avalon, Kim Darby, Bonnie Franklin, Walter Koenig, Brooke Bundy, Beau Bridges, Eddie Applegate and Marta Kristen.

The answer to the “purchase or pass” question is an enthusiastic “purchase.” This is a superbly written, honest series that may feature an idealized English teacher, but doesn’t avoid the harsh reality that some problems can’t be solved by a teacher, and some kids can’t be saved.

And for me, it is also a glimpse into a path not taken. Had I stayed with teaching 20 years ago I see in Mr. Novak what my day-to-day life might have been. I think I made the right choice. The only teachers that are truly great are those that can’t imagine doing anything else for a living. That wasn’t me – but it does describe John Novak. 

Monday, February 11, 2019

Terrible Shows I Like: Pink Lady and Jeff

Fifteen years ago I was in the midst of writing a book called What Were They Thinking: The 100 Dumbest Events in Television History. Research required the tracking down of several infamous TV moments on videocassette, from Joanie Loves Chachi and Dusty’s Trail to The Goddess of Love and The Star Wars Holiday Special.

One of the few series covered in the book that had already been released on DVD was Pink Lady and Jeff

Today, I’m not sure where all those VHS tapes with the other shows went, but I still have my Pink Lady DVDs. And I’ve watched them several times since that book was published. Yes, it’s a (mostly) terrible show. I said so in the book. But there’s something about the whole endeavor that I find irresistible.

I feel the same way about all of the variety shows from this era, so my defenses are down even for what is arguably the worst of them. They’re just so eager to please with their bright lighting and big smiles and upbeat songs. Disparaging all those happy faces feels like kicking a puppy.

I cannot help but be impressed by the audacity of the concept. A major network takes a Japanese singing duo, who are unknown in America and can’t speak English, pairs them with a third-rate comedian, and gives them a weekly one-hour series.

But when you learn it was launched by Sid and Marty Krofft, suddenly it makes sense. Crazy for them is just another day at the office. 

According to David Martindale’s book about Krofft TV, Pufnstuf & Other Stuff, Sid’s plan was to make the show even stranger than its premise, but his eccentricities were curbed by Fred Silverman, who just wanted to follow the format the Kroffts used for Donny & Marie. One can only wonder what might have happened had Sid been given free rein. It likely still would have failed, but it would have done so even more unforgettably. 

What emerged instead was as standard a variety show as one could expect from its assembled talent; Pink Lady, aka “Mie” and “Kei”, would open with a current hit like “Boogie Wonderland” or “Knock on Wood,” and then engage in comedic banter with Altman. They learned their lines and their songs phonetically, so most of the time they had no idea what they were saying.

There were recurring skits, many featuring Jim Varney before he found fame in the Ernest movies. Altman’s imitations of Richard Nixon, Howard Cosell and Johnny Carson will only make you appreciate Rich Little more, but he does make me laugh as Art Nuvo, a fast-talking salesman in a rundown strip mall selling knockoffs of classic works of art. “Here we’ve got Gainesburger’s ‘Blue Boy.’ Don’t like blue? We’ve got it in green, in beige…” 

And of course there were guest stars. That’s always part of the fun. Within these six episodes (that’s all there were) you’ll spot Jerry Lewis and Lorne Greene, Sid Caesar and Florence Henderson, Larry Hagman at the height of Dallas-mania, Teddy Pendergrass (whose cover of “On Broadway” is the series musical highlight) and Hugh Hefner singing “My Kind of Town (Chicago)” with Pink Lady dressed as Playboy bunnies. 

Pink Lady and Jeff debuted on March 1, 1980 and was gone by April. Even if it hadn’t aired opposite The Dukes of Hazzard, it’s hard to imagine any scenario under which it would have lasted longer.

And yet, I think some of the criticism of the show is unfair. It’s easy to mock Pink Lady’s pronunciations when they sing, but the problem was asking them to try in the first place. How many American singers could go to Japan and convincingly sing their top 40 in their native language? Late in the run they perform a couple of songs in Japanese, and you realize why they became so popular.

Most of the sketches don’t hold up. But you could say that about every variety series from Sonny & Cher to Tony Orlando & Dawn. The Carol Burnett Show is the only exception, and that’s the gold standard of the genre. 

Jeff Altman is no Tim Conway, but it’s hard to be funny when you have to respond to Mie saying, “You’re so handsome” with “You just get turned on by my sexy round eyes.” Every time I return to this series I appreciate a little more the effort he puts into trying to make this material work. I also like the self-effacing introductions he recorded for the DVD release back in 2001: “If you enjoyed episode one, you’ll drool over episode two. It’s really horrible.” 

The DVDs go for nearly 200 bucks on Amazon, making Pink Lady and Jeff a hot commodity at last. Only took 40 years. Put it on your shelf next to documentaries about Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, because seeing the footage for yourself is the only way to believe something this bizarre actually once existed. 

Friday, February 1, 2019

The Unshakeables: “Twenty-Four Hours in Tyrantland”

“Twenty-Four Hours in Tyrantland” ranks among the most memorable television episodes ever created. Why? Two reasons:

1. It’s a situation comedy with no intention of being funny.

2. It was never actually broadcast on television. 

In 1959, the U.S. Department of the Treasury approached the producers of Father Knows Best about filming a special episode of the series that would promote the sale of United States savings bonds. Their request was granted, with the AFL-CIO union covering production costs, and the actors donating their time and talents.

The finished episode was distributed to schools, churches and civic groups, to encourage viewers to buy bonds as a sound investment, as well as a way to protect the nation from foreign enemies.

Such a scenario could never happen now, another reason this episode is so interesting to me. If any department of the federal government tried to get a pro-patriotism message out to the public through a television show, it would immediately be distrusted and dismissed by half the population. Its cast would be condemned for taking sides, and its network and sponsors would race to see which would be first to issue a carefully scripted apology.

For decades, “Twenty-Four Hours in Tyrantland” was considered a “lost” episode that few viewers were aware existed and even fewer ever watched. But that changed in 2008 when it was included in Shout! Factory’s DVD release of the series’ first season.  

When I first watched it, based on the little I had heard, I expected some shallow piece of propaganda, with dire warnings of the Communist threat expressed in fevered tones reminiscent of Reefer Madness. I should have known better.

The episode was written by Roswell Rogers, the series’ most talented and prolific scripter. He wasn’t capable of hackwork, and he got the story’s message across without pushing any of the Anderson family to act differently from their established characters. I found it to be compelling drama, and not just because Russia is back in the headlines every day.

The story opens with Jim (the ever-engaging Robert Young) arriving home with an exciting announcement: he’s been asked to head up Springfield’s savings bond campaign, and he’s eager to recruit his family into the endeavor. "We have to convince every family in town, even the kids themselves, what we Andersons already know about bonds," he tells them.

But while his wife Margaret is ready to help, the kids are predictably less than enthused. Bud was already TV’s prototypical teenage slacker, Betty’s highest priorities were usually boys and a new formal for every dance, and little Kathy was always self-centered. 

Jim is understandably disappointed in their lackluster response. "Do you kids realize what would happen if everyone in America was as little concerned with our way of life as you are? Why, freedom would go zinging right out the door! It could happen much easier than you think. And if it did, if this freedom was suddenly taken away from you…you couldn't take it. I don't think you could handle it for 24 hours.”

Bud responds, "How much you wanna bet?"

And that gives Jim an idea. If the kids endure 24 hours under tyrannical rule, they’ll each win $18.75 (over 100 bucks in 2019 money) to spend any way they want. If they lose, they’ll have to spend that money on a savings bond, and help Dad with his campaign. The kids jump at what appears to be a cinch bet – they have no idea the lengths to which good ol’ Dad is about to go to prove his point.

The children are given numbers instead of names and assigned household chores. Bud has the morning newspaper ripped from his hands (“You only read what we want you to read”). Eager to get back to their carefree regular lives, Bud and Betty plot an escape. But Dad had monitored their phone calls (like the secret police would in a totalitarian regime). As punishment Bud is exiled to the garage and given a dinner of crackers, water and one cube of sugar.

I always wonder when to stop with the plot points, so anyone interested can discover this episode’s pleasures without too much spoiling.

I’m also aware that my descriptions of the trials Jim puts his kids through may lack the gravitas of seeing them imposed. This is not just another sitcom story. There is no humorous undercurrent to the children’s plight, or to the parents’ authoritarian rule. When Bud offers a sheepish “Thanks, Mom” for the crackers she delivers to the garage, it’s unsettling watching Jane Wyatt turn and announce, “I am NOT your mom.” Though she feels a twinge of conscience afterward.

"This is the most important lesson they've ever had,” Jim says to reassure her. “If our young people don't think enough of our way of life to try to preserve it, I shudder to think what's going to happen to America.”

Are you shuddering yet, Jim?

As the clock ticks toward the 24-hour time limit, it seems as if the kids are going to win their bet. But Jim has one more revelation that crushes the resistance once and for all. It is brilliantly played. Betty’s quiet “I give up” has a resignation meant to resonate with any viewer that takes the blessings of America for granted. 

As in episodes like “The Bus to Nowhere,” this is a Father Knows Best episode that dares to confront real-world circumstances rarely acknowledged in escapist entertainment from the 1950s. 

Maybe “Twenty-Four Hours in Tyrantland” would seem corny to Millennials. But that’s probably how they’d react to any Father Knows Best episode. The world has changed so much since then – for the better in some ways, regrettably so in others.

But so what? This was a show written at a time when no one would have anticipated there would be interest in Father Knows Best 60 years later. It was directed solely at a Cold War audience that had watched the Soviet Union invade Hungary, and heard Nikita Khrushchev openly and repeatedly threaten the West with nuclear annihilation. What could someone living in a quiet Midwestern town do to prevent such a catastrophe? Buying a bond wasn’t going to reduce Soviet aggression. But perhaps it was a way to feel a little less powerless.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The 10 Most Iconic Costumes in Classic TV

Throughout the entire Comfort TV era, television has introduced characters that will forever be associated with the clothes they wore. 

When we think of Laura Petrie we picture her in those snug capri pants, and we always remember Col. Robert Hogan in his bomber jacket. Some characters even inspired fashion crazes among viewers, from Davy Crockett’s coonskin cap to Alexis Colby’s shoulder pads. 

All of these looks are familiar to fans, but which costumes are the most iconic?

After giving that some thought, here are my selections. I disqualified animated characters, so Fred Jones’s ascot and Fred Flintstone’s orange animal skins will not be included. The list is in chronological order, as it would be too difficult to select a favorite from such a striking field.

The Lone Ranger (1949)
One of TV’s most successful early westerns had visual cues to follow when it came to the masked rider of the plains – the character had already been depicted in comic books, big little books and a newspaper comic strip dating back to the 1930s. 

However, artists could never reach a consensus on the color scheme, which is why you’ll find versions in red, blue, yellow and brown. But once Clayton Moore saddled up, blue got the nod. 

The Mouseketeers (1955)
“I owe everything to those ears” – Annette Funicello

The costume designer on The Mickey Mouse Club was a man named Chuck Keehne, but the creation of those famous Mickey Mouse ears is credited to series regular Roy Williams. 

According to The Official Mickey Mouse Club Book, they were made from soft felt and wired so the ears wouldn’t flop. “Every time we lost a pair we were docked fifty dollars from our paycheck,” Annette recalled. “I personally paid for three pairs, but I guess it was a great way to teach us kids to be responsible.” If Roy had a cut of every pair sold at Disneyland over the last 60 years, his family would be as wealthy as Bill Gates. 

Gilligan and the Skipper (1964)
Obviously some people pack better for three-hour tours than others. While Ginger and the Howells spent their years in exile selecting from an inexhaustible supply of outfits, Gilligan and the Skipper stayed in the same bold primary colors they wore when the Minnow set ground on an uncharted desert isle. 

Jeannie (1965)
Gwen Wakeling won the Best Costume Design Oscar in 1950 for her work on the film Samson & Delilah. But to Comfort TV fans, she should be revered for creating the pink and maroon harem outfit worn by Barbara Eden on I Dream of Jeannie. While it’s not radically different from the kind of harem garb glimpsed in countless movies – velvet bolero top, chiffon pantaloons, satin shoes – the bold colors and Eden’s obvious charms made this costume among the most recognizable ever designed for TV. No expense was spared either – the shoes were imported from Italy and the braided cording trim was imported from France. If you look closely you’ll see that Eden is also wearing a teardrop diamond on a herringbone chain, a gift from her husband Michael Ansara. 

Starfleet (1966)
Many costume designers accepted the challenge of speculating on what humans would be wearing in a distant future century. I’m guessing they’re all going to be wrong, though none of us will be around to verify it. An accurate prediction was not the objective here anyway – it was designing uniforms that would pop on the color televisions people were buying in 1966. The color-coded ranking tunics introduced in the original series, with basic black slacks and boots, remain the gold standard for Star Trek uniforms. 

Mr. Rogers (1968)
There has been a renaissance of appreciation toward Fred Rogers over the past few years. Maybe that’s due to the critically acclaimed documentary released in 2018, or just a general sense that the kindness, patience and empathy he expressed through his PBS series have disappeared from the public discourse. Either way, the generations who grew up with his life lessons always remember him the same way – saying hello to his neighbors as he changes from a sport coat into a brightly-colored cardigan, and slipping out of dress shoes to put on comfortable tennis shoes. It makes me feel better just to think about it.

Columbo (1968)
Proving that clothing doesn’t have to be stylish to be memorable, we present Lt. Columbo. In his rumpled garb and dirty trenchcoat, he looks like the downtrodden guy you hand your restaurant leftovers to before ascending the highway on-ramp. The coat appears heavier than it is because Peter Falk is always slouching, as if his body is folding in under its weight. 

The Partridge Family (1974)
They didn’t always wear the maroon crushed velvet pant suits and ruffles for their (allegedly) live performances, but it’s the look that will always be associated with TV’s best fake band. Only Paul Revere & The Raiders looked more ridiculous on stage. But at least the music holds up.

Fonzie (1974)
Fans recall that Arthur Fonzarelli spent much of Happy Days’ first season wearing a white windbreaker. 

But when his t-shirt and jeans were paired with a black leather jacket, he became The Fonz – and arguably the most famous television character of the 1970s. And while many recall that “jumping the shark” was a phrase connected to this series to denote the moment when good shows started going bad, real fans know that the turning point for Happy Days was when Fonzie switched to a black t-shirt. 

Wonder Woman (1975)
Her patriotic outfit had been around for decades in the comics, and it is to our everlasting gratitude that television, for once, decided it didn’t know better, while creating a radical re-design that was more practical for fighting crime. As great as Gal Gadot was in the recent film, Lynda Carter still personifies Wonder Woman for the Comfort TV generation. 

Daisy Duke (1979)
The original plan was for Catherine Bach to wear vinyl boots and a miniskirt that matched the tablecloths at the Boar’s Nest. Instead, Bach designed her own costume, based on the outfits she saw waitresses wearing in the roadhouses of Georgia. She sewed the first pair of denim shorts she wore on the show, which came to be known forevermore as ‘daisydukes.’ When the outfit is named after you, that’s as iconic as it gets. 

Monday, January 14, 2019

Are These the 25 Best Classic TV Shows of All Time?

Just before Christmas I received an email from the Classic TV Blog Association, requesting input from members about the greatest classic television shows ever made (“classic” in this case meaning pre-1990). Each of us submitted our lists, and then ranked our favorites from all the shows selected.  

Here are the results, based on enduring popularity, social impact, and influence on other TV shows.

1.   The Twilight Zone
2.   I Love Lucy 
3.   The Mary Tyler Moore Show
4.   Columbo
5.   All in the Family
6.   Dragnet
7.   Monty Python’s Flying Circus
8.   Star Trek
9.   The Prisoner
10.  M*A*S*H
11.  The Dick Van Dyke Show
12.  The Fugitive
13.  Dallas
14.  Doctor Who
15.  The Andy Griffith Show
16.  The Defenders
17.  The Golden Girls
18.  Perry Mason
19.  SCTV
20.  The Honeymooners
21.  Alfred Hitchcock Presents
22.  Hill Street Blues
23.  The Odd Couple
24.  The Outer Limits
25.  The Avengers

This was not my final list, but what emerged after all the votes were tabulated and ranked. If you disagree with which shows made it and where they placed, you’re not alone – but then that’s the fun of projects like this.

Let’s take a closer look at the results:

1.         The Twilight Zone
I believe it is harder to maintain the quality of a series with the same premise and the same characters. An anthology series like The Twilight Zone can create new worlds every week, so each episode seems fresher and offers more surprises. And for that reason, while I certainly expect to find this show in the top 25, I would not have put it at #1. I had it at #7. 

2.         I Love Lucy 
This was my top show, but six of our members left it completely off their lists. I find that astonishing. No other situation comedy had more impact on its genre, from the three-camera filming process it pioneered to the invention of the rerun and syndication package. Plus, I Love Lucy may be 60+ years old but it’s no museum piece – most episodes are still laugh-out-loud funny. 

3.         The Mary Tyler Moore Show
No argument here. I ranked it #4. 

4.         Columbo
I was delighted to see Columbo ranked this high. Detective shows are a dime a dozen, but this is the only one to add a novel twist to the genre. Instead of viewers trying to solve the mystery with the investigator, Columbo showed us the crime and the criminal, and the fun was in watching how the detective figured out what happened. Theoretically it’s a concept that shouldn’t work, especially with a lead character that spent 90 minutes annoying the hell out of his suspects. I had it #8 on my list.

5.         All in the Family
Popular, influential, award-winning many times over, though not a series I enjoy revisiting. For me, an all-time great show should have a timeless quality to it. Norman Lear’s shows were very much products of the era in which they were created. I get the support it received from so many of my fellow TV historians, but this one isn’t for me. 

6.         Dragnet
I’d be curious to know how many votes were based on the police procedural’s original 1950s run, and how many were inspired by the late 1960s revival, which played for years on Nick at Nite and remains the only Dragnet available in DVD season sets. Either way, it’s another deserving choice. 

7.         Monty Python’s Flying Circus
My understanding was that this would be a ranking of prime time shows, so I was surprised to see Python here. Brilliant show – as quotable among my junior high school peers as any series ever broadcast – but it wasn’t on my list. 

8.         Star Trek
Absolutely – even though I find myself reaching for my Next Generation DVDs more often these days. It was #5 on my list. 

9.         The Prisoner
I don’t know about this one. There were just 17 episodes – is that a series or a miniseries? Plus like Python it’s an import that wasn’t aired in prime time, so well off my radar when I made my selections. Those who revere The Prisoner get frustrated with people like me who would have preferred a less ambiguous ending. I know – it’s deep! It’s symbolic! It’s allegorical! It’s also more than a little self-indulgent. 

10.   M*A*S*H
This one just missed my top 10. I prefer the later seasons, with Hawkeye, B.J. and Winchester in the swamp, Col. Potter in charge and Margaret as a sympathetic character and not a caricature. However, this is also when the stories became more pompous and preachy. Still, I can’t think of another series that balanced comedy and tragedy with the same finesse. 

11.      The Dick Van Dyke Show
Another lock. After I Love Lucy it’s perhaps the best sitcom of all time. It was #2 on my list. 

12.      The Fugitive
Like Columbo, here was a show with a premise that probably shouldn’t have worked. It asked audiences to root against the police in an era when that wasn’t as popular as it is now. It had to tell stories where Dr. Kimble would be almost apprehended or exonerated, while the audience knew full well that the show would be over if that happened. But with brilliant writing, top-tier guest stars and an unforgettable performance by David Janssen, The Fugitive surpassed any perceived limitations to become one of TV’s crown jewels. It was #6 on my list. 

13.      Dallas
Was Dallas a truly classic show, or a flavor of the month that rode a memorable cliffhanger into the record books? I’ll have to think about that for a while. 

14.      Doctor Who
I’ve been watching since Tom Baker piloted the TARDIS, so I understand the support it received. Had I considered non prime-time series, it might have made my top 10 as well. And I still miss Elisabeth Sladen. 

15.      The Andy Griffith Show
It’s easy to explain the love for this one. If you offered classic television fans a chance to jump through the TV screen into the world of any show, I think many of us would select Mayberry. 

16.      The Defenders
It seemed inappropriate to select this show when I’ve only watched one of its four seasons. But I was glad to see it here.

17.      The Golden Girls
I don’t dislike it but I’ve never been a fan either. I’ll give it another shot when my social security checks start arriving – by then I won’t have any patience for shows about young whippersnappers.

18.      Perry Mason
Not sure if we need two legal dramas among the top 25, though a case could be made for both Perry Mason and The Defenders. I’d keep one and give the other slot to a western like Gunsmoke, given how that genre ruled television in the 1950s.

19.      SCTV
Over Saturday Night Live? That was a surprise. 

20.      The Honeymooners
The classic 39 are still comedy gold. No objections, your honor.

21.      Alfred Hitchcock Presents
Not on my list. The quality here was not as consistent as The Twilight Zone. When it was good, with episodes like “Lamb to the Slaughter” and “An Unlocked Window,” it was brilliant. But it didn’t get there often enough in 268 episodes.

22.      Hill Street Blues
I had this one at #10. It felt like a sea change in television, with the way the series was shot and the more mature content. It felt closer to reality than most cop shows up to that time. 

23.      The Odd Couple
The Odd Couple was one of many sitcoms that deserves “classic” status, but that is not quite up to the “best of all time” criteria. If I had another sitcom I could add to the list, I’d go with either Bewitched or The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet.

24.      The Outer Limits
This was television’s first important science fiction series, and thus another worthy selection.

25.      The Avengers
The more I watch The Avengers, the more I wonder whether it’s really the show people love, or spending time with two of the most wonderful, witty, charming, and eminently watchable characters ever created. My affection for John Steed and Emma Peel far surpasses my recollection of the cases they tackled. 

Only one show from my top 10 list did not make the top 25 (and no, it was not The Brady Bunch). I nominated The Ed Sullivan Show, for its longevity (24 seasons!), and for the role it played in introducing Elvis, The Beatles, The Supremes and countless other iconic entertainers to a national audience.

Well, how did our little group do? Compliments and complaints are always welcome.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Top TV Moments: Suzanne Pleshette

To classic TV fans, the dark-eyed, husky-voiced Suzanne Pleshette will always be associated with the series that made her a household name. But remove The Bob Newhart Show from her IMDB entry and you are left with dozens of rich and varied performances also worth discovering. 

She has a handful of high-profile credits outside of television, most notably as Anne Brancroft’s replacement in the Broadway production of The Miracle Worker, and in the Alfred Hitchcock classic The Birds. But TV is what kept her busy, beginning in 1957 with her first professional credit, in an episode of the Barry Sullivan series Harbormaster. I couldn’t find a copy, so we’ll have to start our salute four years later.

Dr. Kildare (1961)
Young, vibrant Julie dabbles in art and theater, still trying to figure out which path she wants to pursue when she is diagnosed with leukemia. “A Shining Image” is the first of Suzanne Pleshette’s three appearances on this landmark medical series, all of which are worth seeking out. I chose this one for the wonderful scene with Pleshette and a priest played by John Fiedler, later one of Dr. Hartley’s group patients on The Bob Newhart Show

Route 66 (1960)
I haven’t written much about Route 66 in this blog, but that’s not for lack of interest or appreciation. I’ll try to remedy that in the coming year. For now, I can say that “The Strengthening Angels” is a typically memorable first-season episode with impeccable credentials – script by Stirling Silliphant, direction by Arthur Hiller, and a guest performance by Suzanne Pleshette that may be my favorite of her non-Newhart moments.

Lottie Montana is a bit of a mystery for much of the story – she flees a tent revival meeting in pouring rain, hops into Tod and Buz’s Corvette and pleads to be taken away, leaving her young daughter behind. When the sheriff catches up to them, he charges Lottie with murder. Is there more to the story? You bet. When you first see Pleshette, you may be taken aback at how much she resembles Elizabeth Taylor. 

The Fugitive (1964)
Eleanor Burnett, an old friend of Dr. Kimble’s who believes in his innocence, may have found the one-armed man. Will “World’s End” mark the end of Kimble’s flight? This was a season two highlight because of the palpable chemistry between David Janssen and Suzanne Pleshette. According to Ed Robertson’s book The Fugitive Recaptured, before Janssen’s untimely passing there was talk of the couple costarring in a series. We can only wonder what might have been. 

The Wild Wild West (1965)
Suzanne Pleshette appears in the pilot episode “Night of the Inferno,” as a former paramour of James West who may or may not be helping a Mexican revolutionary start a war with the United States. It’s a solid first outing for a successful series, with Pleshette well cast as a formidable frenemy. She sets the bar high for all of West’s future conquests over the next four seasons. 

The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1970)
Of all the one-episode romances for Tom Corbett in this series’ three seasons, Valerie Bessinger may be the one that cut the deepest when it ended. “Hello, Miss Bessinger, Goodbye” features Suzanne Pleshette as a bohemian of means who charms young Eddie and enchants Eddie’s dad.

Along Came a Spider (1970)
This is pretty florid melodrama, and viewers may disagree about whether there’s one too many story twists at the end. But while it’s on you’ll definitely be along for the ride. Pleshette plays a college student who has a meet-cute with a dashing professor, and then frames him for murder. There’s a lot more to it but the less you know the better. As with many made-for-TV movies from this era, half the fun is spotting all the familiar faces in the cast, including Richard Anderson, Virginia Gregg and Comfort TV favorite Brooke Bundy

The Bob Newhart Show (1972)
It’s hard to believe anyone went out on Saturday nights in the 1970s, when television offered moments with Mary Richards, Hawkeye Pierce, Archie Bunker, Carol Burnett, and Bob and Emily Hartley. This classic sitcom provided a perfect showcase for Newhart’s subdued comic gifts, and the sassy, sexy Pleshette made the scenes in the Hartley apartment as memorable as Bob’s group psychology sessions. Having recently watched a slew of situation comedy episodes from the early 1970s, I can tell you that this series is aging more gracefully than just about any of its contemporaries. 

Suzanne Pleshette is Maggie Briggs (1984)
I don’t know if that billing was her idea or the network’s, but it didn’t generate enough interest to keep the show around very long. Pleshette received co-creator credit for this sitcom, in which she played a tough veteran news reporter forced to write fluff pieces for a newspaper’s lifestyle section. It failed for the usual reasons – uninspired writing, a nondescript supporting cast – but for anyone like me who always thought Suzanne Pleshette would have made a perfect Lois Lane, it’s a hint of what might have been. And I’d still rather watch it than the Murphy Brown revival. 

Leona Helmsley: The Queen of Mean (1990)
There was a time when hotel magnate Leona Helmsley was as infamous in the tabloids as any Kardashian. This made for TV biopic follows her rise from ambitious real estate broker to the most hated woman in Manhattan. The casting of Pleshette was more flattering than Helmsley deserved, even with the caked-on clown makeup she wears throughout the film. It was not a role that called for subtlety, but Pleshette is up to the task. The “wet lettuce” scene ranks with the wire hangers scene in Mommie Dearest for over-the-top histrionics. 

Newhart (1990)
I presume we no longer need spoiler alerts for Pleshette’s brief but unforgettable appearance in this series’ final episode. There is still some debate over whose idea it was for Dick Loudon to wake up as Bob Hartley, and whether that finale does a disservice to a series that ran for eight seasons; I always wonder what Mary Frann was thinking when the studio audience erupted at the first glimpse of Suzanne Pleshette. But for many classic TV fans it remains the best final scene in sitcom history.