Monday, March 23, 2015

Terrible Shows I Like: The New Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

I thought I knew my Hanna-Barbera. Not just The Flintstones and Jonny Quest and the other big guns, but all the Scooby knock-offs that filled my Saturday mornings in the 1970s – Clue Club, Funky Phantom, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kids. I can banter on The Hair Bear Bunch, discuss the finer points of Devlin and name each member of the Chan Clan.

So it was humbling when, last year, I discovered an H-B series that I had not only never watched, but never knew existed.

The New Adventures of Huckleberry Finn debuted in 1968 on NBC, airing Sunday nights at 7pm. Canceled after 20 episodes, the series was rerun as part of The Banana Splits Hour in the 1970s. 

That’s the part that confuses me because I watched the Banana Splits as a kid and remember several of the features between the Splits’ skits, like The Three Musketeers (who could forget that annoying pissant, Tooly?), Arabian Nights and the wacky serial Danger Island. But if I had watched Huckleberry Finn I would remember, because bizarre concepts like this one are hard to forget.

For those as oblivious to its existence as I was, here’s a brief introduction. Mark Twain’s iconic literary characters Huck Finn, Becky Thatcher and Tom Sawyer (all played by real actors) are chased into a cave by the villainous Injun Joe. They emerge on the other side and become lost in an ever-changing world of Hanna-Barbera animation. 

For the remainder of the series, the three young friends wander into jungles and deserts and pirate ships and frozen wastelands, surviving various escapades while always trying to make their way back to Hannibal, Missouri.

I found it all rather ridiculous on first viewing. Why these characters, and not three present-day teenagers with whom young viewers could more easily identify? Perhaps the idea was to leverage their built-in name recognition (this was the era before Huck Finn was banned from school libraries). But while it’s more enjoyable to read Twain than most novels assigned in English class, I doubt there were many students eager to follow Tom, Huck and Becky into more adventures.

The cast was unable to convey the same qualities that made the characters memorable in the books. Michael Shea’s Huck is not the crude outcast Twain envisioned, but a wide-eyed, easygoing country boy given to exclamations of “Criminy!” while fleeing from Mongol hordes or Egyptian mummies.

Lu Ann Haslam’s Becky is sweet but not as clever as she had to be in the book to catch Tom’s eye. Here she’s given little more to do than cheer on the boys as they deal with the villain of the week (“Hurry, Tom!” “Watch out, Huck!”). Only Kevin Schultz’s Tom Sawyer retains some of the mischievous wit and heroic streak he had in Twain’s novels.  

The blend of live-action with animation was uncharted territory for Hanna-Barbera, though audiences had certainly seen this trick before – most famously perhaps in Mary Poppins. It’s handled well here, which is surprising as the H-B studio has never been synonymous with technological wizardry.

The young leads do their best to react to hand-drawn backgrounds and characters, with inconsistent results. In “Menace in the Ice,” you would think barefoot Huck might look a little more uncomfortable after walking across miles of snow.

So, not a great show, though I will understand if I hear opposing views in the comments from those who grew up with it. Nostalgia certainly makes it easier for me to happily overlook the flaws in Wonderbug and The Secrets of Isis.

But against my better judgment, I do enjoy it.  There’s irresistible comfort in watching H-B animation from this era, and hearing the familiar voices (Don Messick, Janet Waldo, Daws Butler, Paul Frees) featured in all of the company’s shows.

And just when you think you’ve got its formula figured out, The New Adventures of Huckleberry Finn will surprise you. In an episode called  “The Gorgon’s Head” there’s a quiet moment when Huck and Becky talk about how long they’ve been away, and how summer has turned to fall back in Hannibal, and about the people that must be missing them. You’d never see that kind of raw emotion in Speed Buggy.

I also really like the theme song, another H-B asset (sometimes their songs are better than the shows!). It plays over a live-action closing credit sequence set on a Mississippi steamboat, which makes me wonder if it takes place before the characters got lost, or is meant to be reassurance that they eventually do find their way home. It’s the only time you see the three friends really happy.  

Sadly, there was no final episode to provide any resolution. But how great would it have been if Hanna-Barbera characters had been included in 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit? When Eddie Valiant drives into Toon Town, we might have glimpsed Tom, Huck and Becky, now in their 30s but wearing the same clothes, still trying to find that elusive cave that will take them back to Missouri.

Other Terrible Shows I Like:

Monday, March 9, 2015

Classic TV Two-Part Episodes: Hits and Misses

Theoretically the two-part episode is an option that should be utilized only in conjunction with a major milestone in a series (births, deaths, new character introductions, weddings, big name guest star) or when a writer comes up with an idea that is so good, it deserves a little extra breathing room to be fully explored.

But think back over the hundreds of two-parters presented in the Comfort TV era – how many of them really needed more time to tell their stories?

Having conducted my own informal study, I would say the results are about 50/50. Too often, these shows were a marketing ploy to leverage the built-in ‘event’ status afforded to super-sized episodes. That’s why they were used so often to open or close a season.

When there is legitimate reason for a “continued next week” freeze-frame, the result is often one of the most memorable moments in a series – think “The Menagerie” on Star Trek, “Fearless Fonzarelli” on Happy Days or “Carnival of Thrills” on The Dukes of Hazzard.

And when there is not enough content to justify a second episode, we’re left with a story that might have worked as a single show, padded and stretched to fill out a longer running time.

This is a big topic and one that may be revisited in a future blog, but for now here are five examples of when TV got it right – and five underwhelming misses.

Good: Family Ties: “The Real Thing”
Alex Keaton had no shortage of girlfriends in the first three seasons of Family Ties, but when he meets Ellen Reed early in season four, the show wanted to make sure we knew this was going to be different. Their opposites-attract romance, bolstered by the strains of Billy Vera’s “At This Moment,” was a major turning point for Alex and for Michael J. Fox, who is still married to the girl that played Ellen, Tracy Pollan. 

Bad: Charlie’s Angels: “Terror on Skis”
A typical Angels plot – protect a government agent from foreign radicals – is hampered by scene after scene of monotonous stock footage of people skiing during the day, at night, and in freestyle competitions. I had a little inside information on this one, having interviewed the episode’s writer, Ed Lakso, for my Charlie’s Angels book. He readily confessed to padding out the story to justify a location shoot in Vail, Colorado, because his wife wanted to go skiing. 

Good: The Dick Van Dyke Show: “I Am My Brother’s Keeper/The Sleeping Brother”
These episodes introduced Dick Van Dyke’s brother Jerry, playing Rob Petrie’s brother, Stacy. The bizarre plot has Stacy trying to break into show business but only being able to perform while he’s asleep (due to a rare, advanced form of sleepwalking). Despite that contrivance the shows are smart and funny, particularly during the cast performances at those Bonnie Meadow Rd. house parties that always made the suburbs looks so cool and sophisticated. 

Bad: Eight is Enough: “And Baby Makes Nine”
Flashbacks are a convenient way to stretch a story, but no two episodes abused that privilege more than the Season 5 opener of Eight is Enough. The saga of Susan’s difficult delivery of her baby not only offers numerous looks back at her romance with and marriage to Merle, it also reprises scenes that aired just ten minutes earlier in the same episode. Why not just play the theme song again while you’re at it?

Good: Get Smart: “A Man Called Smart”
The only thing tougher to pull off than a great two-part episode? A great three-part episode. But the laughs never fizzle in “A Man Called Smart,” an adventure originally conceived for theatrical release but re-cut for the series. One physical comedy sequence with a stretcher and a revolving door is as funny as anything that’s ever been on television. 

Bad: Mission: Impossible: “The Contender”
For all its many outstanding qualities, M:I never got a two-part episode right. I chose “The Contender” because the plot was particularly weak – capturing a guy who fixes prize fights seems beneath the IMF – but I also could have gone with “The Slave” or “The Council” or “The Controllers.” Viewers were accustomed to seeing the team solve any problem in an hour, and writers could never dream up any good reason for some missions to take longer.

Good: The Bionic Woman: “Doomsday is Tomorrow”
Where Mission: Impossible struggled with the two-part format, The Bionic Woman flourished. From the irresistible “Fembots in Las Vegas” to “Deadly Ringer,” the shows that earned Lindsay Wagner an Emmy, the series was always at its best with multi-episode storylines. My favorite is “Doomsday is Tomorrow,” in which Jaime must figure out how to shut off a computerized weapon (with a HAL 9000 voice) capable of destroying all life on earth. 

Bad: The Facts of Life: “Teenage Marriage”
So many shows have built two-part episodes around potential crises that cannot possibly come to pass, lest it mean the end of the series. Here, Mrs. Garrett and the Eastland girls try to prevent Jo from marrying her boyfriend. Had Nancy McKeon announced she was leaving the show, we might have bought into the conflict; but this was her first season, and we all knew she wasn’t going anywhere, extra episode or not.

Good: Little House on the Prairie: “I’ll Be Waving as You Drive Away”
The Ingalls family face their darkest hour when Mary loses her sight after a bout with scarlet fever. The scene where Charles must tell his daughter the diagnosis, while barely able to control his own heartbreak, is devastating. Mary attends a school for the blind, where she gradually comes to terms with her fate in a hopeful finale.  

Bad: Laverne & Shirley: “The Festival”
When a two-part episode is inspired by a road trip, it helps if we actually see the characters go somewhere. Here, Laverne, Shirley, Lenny, Squiggy, Frank and Edna all “travel” from Milwaukee to New York, but all they really do is visit a different part of the studio backlot. Not much fun to be had, unless you enjoy watching Penny Marshall climb a greased metal pole.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Sleuthing in the ‘70s with The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew

Note: This is Comfort TV's contribution to The Classic TV Detectives Blogathon, hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Read more about it here!

What is it about some fictional characters that makes their popularity persist over decades and generations, while others capture our attention for a season, only to be quickly forgotten?
Whatever the criteria may be for such cultural endurance, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew are charter members in that elite company. The first Frank and Joe Hardy mystery novel was published in 1927. Its immediate success inspired the publisher to launch a new series with a female lead, and Nancy Drew was introduced in 1930. New adventures in both series were published in 2013.

Neither of their “creators” – Franklin W. Dixon for the Hardys, Carolyn Keene for Nancy – ever existed. They were pseudonyms under which hundreds of books were written by dozens of different authors who labored largely in anonymity. But the stories they told have influenced generations – Nancy in particular has been cited as a formative influence by everyone from Hilary Clinton to Oprah Winfrey to Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Hollywood rediscovers the characters about every 20 years; the Hardy Boys first came to television on The Mickey Mouse Club in the 1950s. The most recent version debuted on Canadian television in 1995. Guess we’re about due for another one. The first Nancy Drew was Bonita Granville, who played the teen sleuth in a series of films beginning in 1938. The most recent Nancy Drew was Emma Roberts in 2007.

For my generation, the characters were personified by Shaun Cassidy, Parker Stevenson and Pamela Sue Martin on The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries (1977-1979). It aired Sunday nights at 7pm on ABC, where theoretically it should have found an audience among teens who thought they were too old for The Wonderful World of Disney on NBC, and too young to watch the grumpy old men on CBS’s 60 Minutes

That didn’t happen, and even now it’s hard to figure out why. Cassidy and Stevenson could not have been more poster-ready, with Cassidy’s teen idol status amplified by a string of hit singles that not surprisingly found their way into the show. 

And while Martin seemed to always get the weaker stories, she tried to capture some of the intelligence, resourcefulness and New England pluck that made Nancy so appealing in the books. 

No, it wasn’t a great show, but quality has never been a pre-requisite for TV success. Anyone expecting meticulously-plotted mysteries with shock twists and clever reveals left disappointed by whodunits that were more Scooby-Doo than Agatha Christie. By season two even the rudimentary mystery format was largely abandoned, in favor of dropping the characters into exotic (backlot) locales and telling the same kinds of stories you’d see on Barnaby Jones.

Despite the dearth of classic episodes the series did provide a few memorable moments. “The Mystery of the Diamond Triangle” is the best of the Nancy Drew mysteries – Nancy sees a car disappear after an accident, and launches her own investigation after no one believes her story. Rick Nelson, the Shaun Cassidy of an earlier era, meets the Hardy Boys in “The Flickering Torch Mystery.”

“A Haunting We Will Go” is a broadly played Nancy Drew whodunit with a fun guest cast – Bob Crane, Victor Buono, Carl Betz and Dina Merrill. “Sole Survivor” begins with Joe Hardy waking up in a Hong Kong hospital, where he is told he’s been in a coma for a year, and his father and brother are dead. 

It's also a great show for playing "spot the '70s guest star," with appearances from Debra Clinger ("Oh Say Can You Sing"), Joan Prather ("The Mystery of the Ghostwriters' Cruise"), Howard Cosell ("Mystery of the Solid Gold Kicker"), Casey Kasem ("Mystery of the Hollywood Phantom"), Maureen McCormick ("Nancy Drew's Love Match") and Maren Jensen ("Death Surf").

The show actually made one important contribution to Hardy/Drew lore, by allowing the characters to meet for the first time. 

Shockingly, despite sharing the same publisher for decades, Nancy and the Hardys never worked a case together in the books. That changed with the season two opener “The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew Meet Dracula.” In this two-part adventure, Frank and Joe trace their missing father to Dracula’s castle, which has been rented out for a superstar rock concert (said superstar played by Paul Williams). Nancy, who had been working for the brothers’ dad on a case, joins the search, and sparks fly between her and Frank.

Several subsequent crossover episodes followed, but they couldn’t bolster the popularity of the Drew stories, which were dropped in the series’ final season. Pamela Sue Martin apparently saw it coming as she left before the end of season two, after appearing in a trench coat (and nothing else) on the cover of Playboy

Eighteen year-old Janet Louise Johnson took over the role for the final three stories featuring Nancy Drew. By then the show had already endured more recasts than Petticoat Junction. Susan Buckner replaced Jean Rasey as Nancy’s sidekick George, and Rick Springfield replaced George O’Hanlon, Jr. as the Nancy-smitten Ned Nickerson. Only the ever-stalwart William Schallert, as Nancy’s detective dad Carson Drew, went the distance.

Television eventually did get Nancy Drew right, but by then it was called Veronica Mars.

Flying solo again in their final season, the Hardys found themselves in somewhat darker stories, beginning with the murder of Joe’s fiancée, probably not the kind of tale that appealed to the show's teen girl demographic. The plug was pulled after eight episodes.

We will certainly see more attempts at reviving and updating Frank, Joe and Nancy, but until then The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries arguably remains the definitive treatment, despite its shortcomings. Why it didn’t connect with a wider audience may be the only mystery our trio of young sleuths could not solve. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Checking in with More Comfort TV Facebook Friends

In 2013 I wrote about how I enjoyed connecting via Facebook with television stars that, when I was young, seemed to live in a very different world. It’s another reminder of how much we take for granted that was unimaginable 20 years ago.

As you may know, Facebook has two statuses in the case of celebrities – “Friends,” which is the same status as you have for your family members and coworkers and all the people you knew in high school, and “Follow” which means their messages appear on your wall, but yours do not appear on theirs.

I don’t do follows. I get why they’re necessary – Taylor Swift probably wouldn’t enjoy logging on and being told that another 230,000 of her 74 million followers are having a birthday – but to me “follower” status is no different than the mail order fan clubs of yesteryear. It’s a way for the star’s team to keep you informed about new projects, but there’s no real interaction. You’re just another potential customer. 

Let me introduce you to a few more of my famous Facebook friends.

Maureen McCormick
Yes, this was a big deal to me, as it would be for anyone who grew up on The Brady Bunch. She is a fairly recent convert to Facebook, and her posts thus far have been unfailingly cheerful, optimistic and supportive. Given the trials she’s faced in her life, it feels good to know that someone who brought so much joy to others through her career is now in an equally happy place herself. Meanwhile, Susan Olsen continues to ignore my “Friend” request. Maybe she got lost in the Grand Canyon again. 

Barry Livingston
He was the bespectacled Ernie on My Three Sons, but you’ll also see him pre-Ernie in reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show and Ozzie & Harriet and The Lucy Show, and on Room 222 and Ironside and many more in the years that followed. What is so admirable about Barry is that he is just as busy now. Many of his frequent FB posts are new job announcements, which have included parts in such films as Argo and Jersey Boys, and on shows like Glee and Rizzoli & Isles. He remains the very definition of a working actor. 

Donna Loren
Singer-actress Donna Loren was one of the quintessential all-American teenage dream girls of the 1960s. She appeared in some of the “Beach” movies with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, starred in the music series Shindig! and was the Dr. Pepper girl in a series of impossibly cute commercials. Loren was also Suzy the felonious cheerleader in a memorable Joker episode of Batman (finally on blu-ray!). This is where Facebook can be a wonderful thing – it gives Donna a chance to stay connected to fans new and old, and provides a way for long-time admirers like me to acquire an autographed CD. 

Kathryn Leigh Scott
I first met Kathryn pre-Facebook when I interviewed her for an article on Dark Shadows (she played Maggie Evans and Josette du Pres’ among other characters). Subsequent meetings at Dark Shadows conventions eventually led to her publishing my Charlie’s Angels book. She’s out of publishing now but not out of writing – her new mystery novel, Jinxed, is getting great notices. 

Dean Butler
He’s closing in on 2,000 Facebook friends now, a testament to the enduring popularity of Little House on the Prairie. Dean Butler played Half Pint’s husband, the unfortunately named Almanzo (or “Zaldano” if you’re Harriet Oleson). He’s not online as much these days but he still makes all the cast reunions and conventions.

Amy Yasbeck
My affection for the perennially underrated Wings is already well established, so it was a treat to have one of its cast members accept my “Friend” request. I don’t think Amy has mentioned the series once since we’ve been connected online, but she does like to share funny photos and memes just like us regular folk. She also regularly promotes the John Ritter Foundation for Aortic Health. At the moment that means selling t-shirts to support Team Ritter in the 2015 Los Angeles Marathon. I ordered mine – here’s where you can order one too.

Susan Buckner
When we connected on Facebook I knew Susan Buckner almost solely as the school spirit-obsessed Patty Simcox in Grease. I have since learned that she sang and danced behind Dean Martin as a member of the bodacious Golddiggers, and was one of the swimming Kroftettes on The Brady Bunch Hour. Working in a variety series from that era put her in contact with an amazing array of talent, from Farrah Fawcett to Tina Turner to Milton Berle. Susan is one of the most active and engaging posters on my wall, and is always passionate about the causes she believes in, whether its calling out bullies on social media or getting the band War into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. 

And here’s a rare combination segue/teaser: Susan also appeared in a few episodes of The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, which will be the topic of the next Comfort TV blog. That piece will be written for the Classic TV Detectives Blogathon, hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. See you there!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

What Might Have Been: TV: The Top Three

Over the past three decades I’ve had 14 books published. I’ve also had several ideas for books rejected by every publisher that reviewed them. It’s an occupational hazard to which writers adjust, even if we never stop thinking we know better. 

Of all the ones that got away, the project I had been most excited to tackle was pitched as “TV: The Top Three.” The concept was simple: a ranking of the top three episodes from more than 300 television series – sitcoms, dramas, westerns, cartoons, sci-fi, Saturday morning, cult favorites – all selected by me.

I still think it’s a good idea. Top 5 and top 10 lists are click-bait for thousands of websites, and similarly themed articles are a staple in entertainment publications. The appeal of the book, I argued unsuccessfully, was not another man’s opinion of the best 3 episodes of Star Trek or I Love Lucy, both fairly well-trod territory by now, but the selection of outstanding episodes from shows that rarely get books or magazine articles or blogs devoted to them.

Here are two examples of what typical entries would have looked like, for the classic shows Maverick and The Adventures of Superman.


1. Shady Deal at Sunny Acres (November 23, 1958)
 “If you can’t trust your banker, who can you trust?” says Mr. Bates the banker (John Dehner), who’s as crooked as they come, as Bret Maverick (James Garner) discovers after his $15,000 deposit disappears. To retaliate, the ultimate man of inaction pulls up a rocking chair across from the bank and spends the next several days whittling. When the sheriff and various passersby ask if he’s recovered his money yet, Maverick smiles and says, “I’m workin’ on it.” By episode’s end the money is back in his wallet, and Bates is in jail for embezzlement. "You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time," concludes Bret,  "and those are very good odds." 

2. Three Queens Full (November 12, 1961)
Throughout its five-season run, Maverick would occasionally take a break from making fun of its own characters and have a laugh at somebody else’s. “Gun-Shy” was a parody of Gunsmoke, and “A Cure for Johnny Rain” opened with a monotone narration meant to suggest Jack Webb on Dragnet. But the best of the Maverick send-ups was the Bonanza-inspired “Three Queens Full,”guest-starring Jim Backus as Joe Wheelwright of the Subrosa Ranch. The story has Bart Maverick facing a jail sentence unless he chaperones the three brides of Joe’s sons, Moose, Henry and Small Paul. 

3. Hadley’s Hunters (September 25, 1960)
Imagine the reaction today if characters from Friends, Seinfeld and Will & Grace all got together to swap stories at New York’s Central Perk. The 1960s equivalent of this crossover extravaganza happened on Maverick, in which Bart summons help to escape the wrath of a trigger-happy sheriff, played by Edgar Buchanan. Answering the call: Will Hutchins (Sugarfoot), Clint Walker (Cheyenne) and  John Russell and Peter Brown (Lawman).

The Adventures of Superman

1. Panic in the Sky (December 5, 1953)
A meteor hovers perilously close to earth, threatening to crash into Metropolis and cause untold devastation. Superman (George Reeves) tries to fly to the rescue, but there’s Kryptonite in the meteor, and he falls back to earth, suffering from amnesia. In one of the series’ best scenes, the confused Clark Kent starts to undress in front of Jimmy Olsen, and opens his shirt to reveal the Superman costume underneath. Meanwhile, the meteor remains, ominously close to earth, playing havoc with weather patterns around the world. Where, the citizens of earth wonder, is Superman? Those who wonder why the most knowledgeable fans of this series treasure the episodes written by Jackson Gillis need look no further than this superb sci-fi adventure. 

2. Crime Wave (February 27, 1953)
With its atmospheric night shots of rain-slicked streets, and its killing of a half-dozen people before the first line of dialogue, viewers may wonder if they’ve tuned into The Untouchables by mistake. In this gritty, action packed episode, typical of the series’ first season, Superman pledges to cleanse Metropolis of organized crime. His crusade is threatened when a top mob boss discovers his secret identity. Reeves plays the angry scourge of the underworld with conviction, though he is better remembered today as the kinder, gentler Superman of the series’ later seasons.

3. Around the World With Superman (March 13, 1954)
The series’ emotional zenith is achieved in this gut-wrencher written by Jackson Gillis. A little girl is blinded in a car crash and her father, guilt-ridden over the accident, deserts the family. The girl writes a letter explaining her plight to the Daily Planet. Superman uses his x-ray vision to locate fragments of glass in the girl’s optic nerve, and helps surgeons to restore her vision. He then sweeps the girl in his arms and flies her around the world. The rear-projected shots of the Eiffel Tower and the Himalayas may not be state-of-the-art, but the impact of the moment is undiminished by primitive special effects.

I’ve already written dozens of other entries, which I may incorporate into future blog posts about those shows.  In the meantime, if there are any publishers among my readers, I’m still game if you are.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Mornings with The Price is Right

Last year Bob Barker celebrated his 90th birthday by returning to The Price is Right, the series he hosted for 35 years. 

I didn’t watch.

I feel like I should have – as a kid I spent countless sick days and snow days and summer mornings with Bob and The Price is Right, back when it was one among dozens of game shows that came and went over three decades. Who remembers Concentration and High Rollers? Or Gambit and Sale of the Century? How about Double Dare, Card Sharks, Blockbusters and Treasure Hunt?

Gradually they all ended their morning runs but The Price is Right soldiers on. It remains a true TV anachronism, and one of the very few series that have been on television longer than I have been alive.

Viewers today will find much of the format unchanged under current host Drew Carey. There are male models now and some high tech bells and whistles, but many of the same pricing games from Barker’s first episode are still being played.

And yet – it just doesn’t feel the same. The current incarnation seems too forced in its enthusiasm, too marketing driven, too assembly line in its progression from calling down the first four contestants to the fadeout after the showcases.

Shows like this used to thrive on the intimacy of their relationship with the viewers at home. They presented the façade of a happy family of coworkers who seemed sincere when they would thank you for inviting them into your home. They felt like friends.

Maybe it wasn’t authentic, and we’ll get to that in a moment, but the incarnation of The Price is Right that I still treasure featured the steady, reliable presence of Barker as host, Johnny Olson as announcer, and a trio of models – Janice Pennington, Dian Parkinson and Holly Hallstrom – that viewers came to know over the years as more than just eye candy.  

 It was the longevity of the show and this cast that, as it did with soap operas, made The Price is Right so special. Janice was pointing at “brand new cars!” when I was 8 years old. She was still doing it when I graduated high school. And she was still doing it when I graduated college, and for more than 10 years after that.

She always seemed like the oldest of “Barker’s Beauties,” as they were once called, at a time when that kind of label didn’t trigger outrage. Actually, Janice is just two years older than Dian, but she had a classiness in how she carried herself as she fondled an Amana Radarange that always distinguished her from her fellow prize pointers.

Dian was Cinemax before that was even a word. No one ever wore a bikini better, and when she was showing off a sailboat or a hot tub it was like Christmas coming early.

 Holly was kid sister cute and more approachable. She screwed up a lot, too, which only made her more endearing. 

Johnny Olson’s voice is part of so many collective childhoods. The Price is Right was the only show where he also regularly appeared on camera, for the contestant introductions and the silly showcase skits at the end of each episode. He played priests and doctors and big game hunters and Roman emperors, but no matter how they dressed him up he always looked like your tax attorney. 

And Bob? He was always genial, always patient with the more addled contestants, always sincere in his requests to have your pets spayed or neutered. While you could occasionally detect glimpses of a control freak beneath the ever-present smile, Barker remained the consummate host.

We have all realized by now that a celebrity’s public persona may not be the truest representation of their character. The Bob Barker who returned to CBS last year is one whose name is now inextricably linked to rampant egotism, wrongful termination lawsuits and sexual harassment.

Some of it may be true. Some of it may just be piling on for a quick buck once the network opted for confidential settlements instead of trials. I don’t know. I wasn’t there.

Should I not like Barker anymore because he was probably a jerk sometimes? When you start down that road, it’s going to cut deeply into any classic TV library. Pretty soon you end up only watching shows with Art Linkletter, Annette Funicello and Mr. Rogers. June Lockhart too. Maybe Lucie Arnaz.

I may not watch The Price is Right anymore, and the version I fondly recall may be somewhat tainted, but I’m glad the show is still around. Even if I’m no longer downing Captain Crunch in front of the TV and trying to guess the manufacturer’s retail price of Turtle Wax without going over, I know it’s still preferable to Maury Povich announcing, “You are NOT the father” to yet another irresponsible moron. Thankfully, at least Barker has yet to appear on that show. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

Creating a Comfort TV Viewing Night

Winter before Christmas is delightful. Picturesque snowfalls and brisk temperatures enhance the holidays and traditions of the season. But come January most of us have had enough. Unfortunately, winter never gets that memo, and lingers like an unwanted houseguest for months.

Television becomes a more desirable (or at least, more attainable) entertainment option on cold winter nights. Maybe that’s why I’ve always felt that classic TV viewing, which is hardly a seasonal pastime, somehow feels more satisfying when it’s cold outside.

Of course, no advance preparation is necessary for spending a few hours with the great programs of the past – just pop in a DVD or find a few vintage shows on your streaming service of choice, or on nostalgia networks like MeTV and Cozi, and you’re good to go. But with a little extra effort you can turn this activity into a memorable evening perfect for sharing with family and friends, or even when you’re by yourself. 

As someone who spends more time in TV land than the average citizen, I’ve developed a few viewing habits that always accentuate the occasion, which I now humbly share for your consideration.

Let’s start with room preparation. Some prefer to watch TV in the dark, as a way to create a more theatrical experience and to help center everyone’s focus on the program. There is something to be said for this, but watching television is not the same as watching movies, and most of us are more accustomed to normal room lighting. My preference is to split the difference – low light, perhaps from one lamp not too close to the screen, so the room is somewhat darkened but still bright enough that you won’t bang your shin on a coffee table en route to the bathroom.

I like to keep the temperature on the cool side, as this creates an appropriate environment for the incorporation of pillows, quilts and blankets, the ultimate comfort providers for comfort TV viewing. Two options here: drape them over the couch, or toss them into a haphazard pile on the floor in front of the screen. If you grew up with the shows you are watching, that’s the vantage point from where you probably saw them for the first time. 

Pajamas are the obvious choice of attire, even if your evening is a communal occasion. Tell those you invite to come prepared. There’s nothing wrong with a slumber party even at your age.

Food and drink are also necessary, and there are no restrictions on your menu options save one ­– nothing that is served should in any way be considered healthy. Pizza delivery is never a bad idea, served with anything from wine to soft drinks. If snacks are more appropriate there’s chips, popcorn (try a caramel/cheddar mix) or sugar-coated cereal served in bowls on (what else?) TV trays. If you dwell in one of those regions where January isn’t fooling around when it comes to frozen conditions, another option is hot cocoa paired with a bakery item like spice cake. 

And now, with everything else in place, all that is left to determine is what to watch.

Even when a small gathering of classic TV fans get together, it may not be easy to reach a consensus. One solution would be to have everyone bring a DVD with a favorite episode of a favorite show. Or choose a theme –perhaps detective shows or family sitcoms, or television from the 1950s (or 60s, 70s. etc.).

Another suggestion is to recreate a network program lineup from decades past, something I’ve often enjoyed doing (as covered in a previous blog). Or build an evening around guest-starring roles from one actor – for instance, check out John Wayne’s appearances on I Love Lucy, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Dean Martin Show and Maude

Do you have any rituals or comfort TV viewing preferences? Please share them – we could all use some fresh ideas for getting through what’s left of these long, dark winter nights.