Friday, October 12, 2018

Top TV Moments: Vincent Price

The approach of All Hallows’ Eve is an opportune time to remember ten classic TV appearances of Vincent Price. Sorry, no 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo. Hit the bricks, Scrappy fans. 

Price enjoyed a rich and varied career in film and television, but will always be best known for the horror genre. Among his best – a series of film adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe works, produced by Roger Corman, and stylish schlock like The Abominable Dr. Phibes.

Some of that notoriety carried over into his TV work, but Price also appeared in a diverse range of projects. The only real common denominators among his characters are the traits for which Price himself was famous – intelligence, sophistication, and that distinctive, cultivated voice so well suited to eloquent narration. Which brings us to our first selection…

The Christmas Carol (1949)
I rarely get to list credits from the 1940s in these pieces, especially of episodes that not only still exist but still turn up on cable. In his first television appearance, Price is the on-screen narrator for this abridged adaption of the classic Charles Dickens holiday tale. Seated in a festively decorated living room, Price’s recitation of passages from the story are interspersed within a (rather florid) version of Scrooge’s redemption. 

Summer Theatre (1953)
“Dream Job” is one of those buried treasures waiting to be rediscovered amidst dozens of 1950s anthology series episodes now playing on YouTube. Joan Leslie plays a young girl who dreams of the perfect job, working for the perfect man. When writer Cooper Fielding (Price) hires her as his secretary, it appears her dream has materialized. But we know what happens when something seems too good to be true. This is Price at his most charming, and his most frightening.

Playhouse 90 (1956)
This revered anthology series launched in grand style with “Forbidden Area,” written by Rod Serling, directed by John Frankenheimer, and starring Charlton Heston, Vincent Price and Tab Hunter. The grim, suspenseful story concerns a Soviet saboteur who manages to ground America’s first line of air defense, as a precursor to an all-out Russian attack on Christmas Eve. Heston plays a military man who sounds the alarm, while Price is perfect as a feckless bureaucrat who refuses to believe disaster is imminent. 

Science Fiction Theater (1956)
In “Operation Flypaper,” Price is among a team of scientists attending a secret gathering to “mine the treasures of the deep”; but no sooner do they arrive than scientific equipment begins to disappear, while time mysteriously jumps forward after every theft. This is one of the rare 1950s series to actually film a full season of episodes in color.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1957)
One of the few episodes directed by Hitchcock himself, “The Perfect Crime” is basically one long conversation between a vain detective (Price) and a defense attorney (James Gregory) who has seen more than one client executed as a result of the detective’s deductions. This may be the quintessential Price performance – so elegant in speech, sophisticated in manner, and yet with a deep obsession toward the macabre. 

Have Gun Will Travel (1958)
Paladin warns two Shakespearian players against taking their show to San Diego at cattle round-up time, when cowboys tend to shoot first and applaud later. Of course, egotistical actors have to learn everything the hard way. “The Moor’s Revenge” is not one of this western’s better episodes, but the casting makes it worth seeing:  Vincent Price and Patricia Morrison as the actors, plus Morey Amsterdam in a rare serious role. It’s also a treat to watch Price perform Desdemona’s death scene from Othello – even if it’s in a saloon. 

Batman (1966)
It’s a toss-up between Egghead and King Tut for the title of best Batman villain created by the TV series. While Victor Buono’s outsized scenery chewing is hard to top, I’ve always preferred Price’s eggs to Buono’s ham, at least until the character was emasculated by Anne Baxter’s Olga. Introduced as the Caped Crusader’s smartest adversary in “An Egg Grows in Gotham/The Yegg Foes in Gotham” Egghead wastes no time in preparing a profile to uncover Batman’s true identity. His reasoning is so logical and obvious you wonder why the entire Gotham police force was never able to put two and two together. No wonder they used the red phone so often. 

The Brady Bunch (1972)
Most Brady episodes don’t stray far from reality, but that cannot be said of “The Tiki Caves,” the final installment of the show’s three-part Hawaii adventure. The Brady boys try to break an island curse by visiting a burial ground of ancient kings, only to be abducted by an eccentric archaeologist. Just your average all-American family. This is probably Price’s most famous funny/scary TV performance.

The Bionic Woman (1976)
“Black Magic” is as silly as this series ever got, but it’s hard to complain when the results are so much fun. Jaime goes undercover as a long-lost member of a family of crooks, who are sent on a scavenger hunt to secure the fortune of a wealthy, deceased relative. Vincent Price shares several delightful scenes with Lindsay Wagner, amidst the non-stop treachery and backstabbing of their fellow challengers, broadly played by Julie Newmar, Hermione Baddeley, William Windom and Abe Vigoda. 

Time Express (1979)
This miniseries was listed in my “Forgotten Shows I’d Like to Watch” piece from last year. Vincent Price played the conductor of a train that transported people to pivotal moments in their pasts, where they could change decisions they would later regret. Still haven’t seen it. Still want to. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Two Great New Books For the Comfort TV Fan

I’ve written about my favorite classic TV books in the past, and it’s always a joy when new ones appear that deserve a place in your collection. At a time when the market has never been more under-served, I am delighted to offer not one but two enthusiastic recommendations.

First up: The Electronic Mirror, written by my fellow classic TV blogger Mitchell Hadley. If you like Comfort TV you would also enjoy reading Hadley’s wonderful It’s About TV blog. You might even enjoy it more, but if you do keep that to yourself. 

The book’s subtitle is “What classic TV tells us about who we were and who we are.” The short answer to that is “Quite a bit.” For the longer answer, pick up the book.

As someone of the author’s approximate age and life experience, I found myself in agreement with many of his conclusions; the loss of the common cultural touchstones that television used to provide, before there were 400 channels and time-shifting technology; the communal experience of TV watching that has also disappeared; the worldview portrayed and the values expressed in shows from an earlier era, that might seem strange, foreign, perhaps even offensive to current generations ­– and why such condemnation is short-sighted. 

Preaching to the converted? Absolutely. I nodded with every page turn like a Republican watching Hannity. But one does not have to prefer the Clampetts to the Kardashians to enjoy The Electronic Mirror. Anyone with a broader interest in the evolution of pop culture will find much to discover here: how cop shows from Dragnet to Law and Order may influence our perspective on crime and punishment; how one episode of a nearly forgotten series called Medic says as much about views on marriage and family in the 1950s as a sociology textbook; how situation comedies from the 1960s helped America win the Cold War (really!) 

This is a book from someone that gets it – why these shows are not just entertaining but important, and worthy of thoughtful study and reflection.

From this outside look into classic TV, we now turn to an inside look at how some of its shows were created, through the memories of the men and women who wrote them.

Sitcom Writers Talk Shop features interviews with 16 remarkable writers, including Carl Reiner, Norman Lear, Leonard Stern, James L. Brooks, Larry Charles and David Lee. In addition, there are Forewords by Ed Asner and Carol Kane. 

This is familiar terrain for author Paula Finn, whose father, Herb Finn, wrote for
The Flintstones, Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch, among others. Part of her childhood was spent on the sets of such TV classics as The Patty Duke Show, Mr. Ed and That Girl – experiences that surely sound like a dream come true for so many of us who longed to enter those fictional worlds for a little while. 

Finn uses the Q & A format for her interviews, which is one I’ve always liked. Especially here, when the content provided by interviewees is the sole purpose for the existence of a book like this. She asks the questions most of us would ask to these writers, and then lets them take the floor.

There are familiar stories here –  Reiner on creating The Dick Van Dyke Show, Lear on his battles over the controversial content in All In The Family. But there is much else to savor, such as how Leonard Stern recalled the challenges of working for Jackie Gleason, and the hilarious ‘notes’ he gathered from networks. One of them complained that there was “too much dancing” in a Fred Astaire special.

I’ve always liked seeing the names of married couple Austin and Irma Kalish in the credits, so I was especially pleased to get to know them better, and to learn how they could catch the rhythms and sensibilities of sitcoms as different as Family Affair and Maude. And did Treva Silverman really write a couple of memorable Mary Tyler Moore Show episodes with a creative boost from marijuana? 

The one caveat for fans of the Comfort TV era is that the last third of the book focuses on shows that aired in the 1990s and beyond – most notably The Simpsons. But even here it’s interesting to see how the shows have changed but the approach to how they are crafted has not.

One gets the feeling that all of these writers, despite dealing with temperamental stars and humorless network executives and silly censors, still had the time of their lives.

Both The Electronic Mirror and Sitcom Writers Talk Shop are available from Amazon.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Just a Really Good Episode: “Bud The Philanthropist”

In a previous blog I wrote, “There’s something remarkable about Father Knows Best. You can watch any dozen episodes and be entertained by the wholesome charms with which this 1950s sitcom is identified. And then you’ll discover a story that is so compelling in its content that you could write a term paper about it.” 

That piece singled out some of the series’ most memorable episodes, and one of these days I’m going to do an “Unshakeables” piece on “Twenty-Four Hours in Tyrantland.” It is one of the most unique moments of television in the medium’s history.

But the other night I watched “Bud the Philanthropist,” a comparatively typical series offering, and was struck once again by how smart and perceptive and entertaining an “average” episode of this 60 year-old series can be.

When you think about TV shows from that time, and how different life in America is now compared to back then, it may seem unlikely that today’s teenagers could see themselves in their 1950s counterparts. But the situation Bud finds himself in here, and the range of emotions it generates, would be as familiar now as it was in 1954. “Bud the Philanthropist” won’t stay with you for days like “Tyrantland” or “The Bus to Nowhere,” but I found it remarkable nonetheless because of the universal truths it contains.

The episode opens with Bud and his father waxing the family car – or more like Jim waxing and Bud daydreaming. This is not an uncommon scenario on the series as Bud was a quintessential slacker. Five minutes with him in any episode will dispel any latter-day stereotypes on how 1950s sitcom kids were all perfect.

In this case, however, there is more to Bud’s distraction than laziness. He recounts for his dad events from Sunday school class earlier that morning, where the teacher launched a “good deed” project to help a young newspaper boy, who suffered a broken leg in a hit-and-run car accident. The idea is to raise money to buy him a radio, to help him pass the time while he’s laid up in bed.

A box is placed at the front of the classroom to collect the donations. “No one has to contribute,” the teacher says. “You only do this because you feel in your heart you want to.”

Bud has a $10 bill in his pocket that he had been saving to buy new track shoes. Ten dollars in 1954 is about $100 now, so we’re not talking spare change. He has nothing smaller he can give so he walks out, feeling the stares of his classmates behind him. But a few moments later, after the room has cleared out, he returns and, reluctantly, donates the $10.

Jim expresses his pride at such generosity. “Yeah, but nobody saw me!” Bud protests. “Nobody knows I put in anything!” He wants some recognition for giving all that money to a kid he doesn’t even know.

And as the conversation continues, we hear some of the writing (by the brilliant Roswell Rogers) that makes this series so wonderful.

Bud: “Is that so wrong? To want people to say you’re a nice guy?”

Jim: “No, of course not. But if you put in that money merely to get credit, that is wrong.”

Bud: “Yeah, but…even if I do get credit, the money still does the same good deed, doesn’t it?”

Jim: Well, yes, materially…but with that attitude it’s no longer a good deed on your part. It’s a bargain you’re making. You’re using your money to get a good name for yourself.”

Bud gets the point, but still feels a little cheated. “I wish they knew so they’d know I’m the kind of guy who didn’t want them to know.”

Jim laughs. “You want too much for your money. The real reward is something you feel inside of you.” As they go into the house for lunch, he tells his son, “The two most important ones in the world know: you, and (glancing toward heaven) the one who made up all these rules.”

At lunch, Betty mentions sitting next to the Sunday school teacher in choir, and learns about the good deed project. The teacher was delighted, she says, because the donations amounted to…$10.39. The reactions of Bud and Jim are priceless as they realize the other eight boys in the class couldn’t come up with 40 cents between them.

Now Bud is really steamed, but he keeps his contribution anonymous. The following week, the teacher announces that the money has been raised to buy the radio, and that he could tell by “the arrangement of the contributions” that “most of the credit for this project belongs to one of our members. I’m especially proud of this boy. I don’t know who it is, and I’m sure he doesn’t want it known…but his blessings, his reward, is what he feels inside.”

The rest of the class immediately jumps to the conclusion that it was another boy who gave the $10, and he in turn is given the honor of representing the school at a youth conference, and delivering the radio to its recipient. Once again, Bud protests the injustice of it all to his dad: “What do you think we ought to do about it?”

Jim’s response: “Nothing." He reminds his son once again that the good deed itself is all that matters. 

What happens next? I shouldn’t tell you everything, though I’m constantly amazed at how much story can fit into a 25-minute script on a series as well-written as this one.

“Bud the Philanthropist” is a perfect little morality play, of the kind that was prevalent in prime time in a bygone age. Situation comedies don’t seem to care very much about life lessons anymore. And when you see how boorish behavior in our culture is often applauded instead of condemned, it’s easy to see why such stories have fallen out of favor. And why some of us prefer the old shows to the new ones.

A classic TV moment? Not really. Just one of 204 episodes of Father Knows Best, each having something to say about the human condition – what makes us noble, what makes us flawed, and what sometimes makes us inexplicable, even to our fellow humans. But the message, always, is one that reinforces the actuality of objective moral values and why, if we’re all going to get along, it’s important to pay attention to them.

That, to me, has always been the most appealing aspect of Comfort TV. 

Monday, September 17, 2018

Donating To Dawn Wells

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Dawn Wells crowdsourcing campaign. 

If it is successful, as it now appears to be, will we see more attempts to rally fans in support of classic TV stars that fall on hard times? My guess is we will.

How do you feel about that?

I know how I felt when Zach Braff, then earning $350,000 per episode on Scrubs, started a GoFundMe account to get fans to finance his next movie. I wanted to punch him in his smug face.

Of course that’s not the situation here. What we know of Dawn Wells’ plight, from the message posted by her friend who started the campaign, is that she lost her savings in “the banking crash,” and suffered further financial setbacks from a life-threatening surgery that required two months of hospitalization.

The money raised would be used to pay bills and back taxes, and to help her move into an assisted-living facility geared toward those in the film and TV industries. 

It’s sad to think of anyone who gave so much happiness to so many people winding up this way. But life, as the recent viral story about Cosby Show star Geoffrey Owens working at Trader Joe’s reminds us, is not a comfort TV sitcom. At times it seems like for every Angela Cartwright there’s an Erin Moran. For every Bobby Sherman there’s a David Cassidy.

Many classic TV stars are active on social media, where they share photos of their families and homes, talk about their travels (and sometimes, regrettably, their political views), and promote their upcoming appearances at nostalgia and collector shows. Must be nice, the rest of us think, to still be able to monetize a job you had when Lyndon Johnson was president, and charge 25 or 50 bucks just for signing your name to a photograph. 

I guess that’s why my first thought was, “Is this really appropriate?” 

These days we all have different standards by which we answer such questions. As someone who associates crowdsourcing campaigns with stories of regular folks facing sudden calamity, it was startling to see one dedicated to someone who has been in the public eye for half a century.
Is Dawn Wells more deserving than someone who spent 40 years as a schoolteacher or plumber or a mid-level company executive, who also had their retirement savings wiped out by illness or bad investments? Of course not. But she does have a much better chance than those folks in the crowdsourcing arena, because she seems like someone we already know, even though most of us have never met her. 

Are the donations pouring in for Dawn Wells, or are they for Mary Ann Summers, that plucky Kansas farm girl who baked scrumptious coconut cream pies? 

That’s a byproduct of television in general and Comfort TV in particular. You invite characters into your home every day as you would friends, and you look forward to spending time with them. You can remember times when you were home sick from school, and a Gilligan’s Island episode came on that made you forget about your flu for a while.

Is that worth a few bucks? I think so. And if Tina Louise starts a GoFundMe as well, perhaps we’ll decide the “Ginger or Mary Ann?” question once and for all.

As of this writing: The campaign has raised more than $191,000 toward a goal of $194,000.  So as long as Ms. Wells avoids ill-fated three-hour tours, she should be fine. I’m glad. 


Friday, September 7, 2018

The Five Worst Comfort TV Opening Credits Sequences

Remember “Too Many Cooks?” It was a parody of the sweet but corny opening credits sequences found on countless TV shows from the 1970s and ‘80s. 

Like much in this age of fleeting fads it was everywhere for a while and then cast into the pop culture scrap heap. 

I thought they pushed it too far, but before it progressed to twisted extremes it definitely nailed the look and feel of those vintage introductions. You could have inserted the season two credits for Angie into the mix and no one would have been the wiser. 

I’ve always had a particular fondness for credit sequences, because with each new show and sometimes each new season you never knew what you were going to get. It’s an exercise in creative marketing that I compared to movie posters back when I used to collect them.

There is no correlation between the quality of a film and the quality of the poster that promoted its exhibition. Some of the most beautiful and sought-after one-sheets advertised forgettable films, while several classics inspired unimaginative images.

It’s the same with the opening credit sequences. Some matched the quality of the series they introduced. Others did not, but were granted a pass from fans because of their proximity to beloved shows.

No such passes will be given here. In choosing the five worst Comfort TV opening credits sequences, it would be easy to cherry-pick terrible examples from forgotten shows like Sirota’s Court and Misfits of Science. But let’s go after some bigger game. 

This is a show about a smart and free-spirited Southern California beach girl in 1965. Surf rock dominated radio that year, with the Beach Boys releasing “Help Me Rhonda” and “California Girls.” As Chandler Bing might say, “Could there be a more natural tie-in?”

But instead of reverb guitars and odes to Wilson brother harmonies, the theme song by Johnny Tillotson sounds like the kind of 1950s pop you’d expect to introduce My Little Margie ten years earlier. If they had to go in that direction, they should have kept the cocktail pop song used in the 1959 Gidget film, sung by James Darren. Even that one has more oomph. 

It’s not just the music that disappoints. The sequence consists of a succession of still photos, not taken from the series, that accomplish something almost impossible – they make Sally Field look less than adorable. 

The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis
The jazz theme is more appropriate to Dobie’s sidekick Maynard G. Krebs, though by the end of the first season TV’s original beatnik had already begun his transition into Gilligan with a goatee. And the crude animation depicting Dobie as a sinister-looking peeping tom also doesn’t match the girl-crazy but mild-mannered character played by Duane Hickman. 

Here we have the opening credit sequence as a 55-second joke, from set-up to punch line. Maybe you think the idea is funny, but is it still funny by episode 17? 

And even though in 1975 we were not yet the hypersensitive nation we’ve since become, I’m surprised more people were not taken aback by an intro that opens with a line of minstrel show performers in blackface. 

The Ropers
This one almost reaches the point where it’s so bad it almost comes around to being good again. Certainly the music has an earworm quality, but just having the cast stand one by one before different colored backdrops and do silly bits of business makes the whole sequence looks like something that was conceived and shot in about 20 minutes. And why is Patricia McCormack playing tennis?

The Lucy Show
I grew up watching this series in syndication, when every episode opened with the Kaleidoscope-style credits that debuted in season four. But in its original run, The Lucy Show tried and discarded other credit sequences that were unworthy of a TV icon.

The show’s third season was introduced with a seemingly random assemblage of episode clips, both black and white and color, that play to overly whimsical music snippets. According to The Lucy Book the visual discrepancy didn’t matter as the series was still being telecast in black and white – but now it just looks sloppy. However, even that attempt was preferable to the one introduced in season five, which had Lucy’s head popping out of an animated jack-in-the-box, while multicolored balls bounced around the screen, with appropriately cheesy musical accompaniment. 

It was used only on one episode before the show reverted back to the previous season’s credits, but has been preserved for posterity on the season five DVD set.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Top TV Moments: Howard Cosell

Howard Cosell occupies a unique place in the Comfort TV era.

As a sportscaster he was both revered and reviled enough to transcend almost any event he covered. Cosell’s enthusiastic fan base appreciated his no-nonsense candor and rebukes of corrupt institutions. But there were also those who couldn’t stand his big ego and oft-mocked hair, and would change the channel to avoid even a moment in his company. 

Hmmm…sounds like a certain Commander in Chief.

In the pre-cable era, before ESPN turned many sportscasters into household names, Cosell’s was the voice associated with any sporting match of significance that aired on ABC, from The Olympics to the World Series to championship boxing, as well as the famed “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King.

He reached the pinnacle of his profession but remained a deeply insecure man who may have wished to be liked as much as he was respected. That might explain his forays into other types of television, from sitcoms to variety shows to a series of celebrity competitions that are as beloved by this blog as any 1970s TV classic.

Monday Night Football (1970-1983)
If you’re looking for the moment when football began to surpass baseball as America’s national pastime, this is it. These weekly primetime games were appointment TV in homes and bars across the country, especially during the years when the broadcast booth was manned by Howard Cosell, Frank Gifford and Don Meredith. At halftime, Cosell’s narration of Sunday game highlights set a standard that would be emulated by everyone from George Michael to Chris Berman. 

The Partridge Family (1971)
What would any 1970s sitcom be without an ecology episode? “Whatever Happened to Moby Dick?” finds the Partridges singing to save the whales at Marineland. 

When a legal snafu threatens the project, Howard Cosell steps in to help Shirley and her family save the day. It seems like an odd assignment for a famed sportscaster; perhaps ABC figured a little extra star power would help this atypical episode. 

Nanny and the Professor (1971)
What’s odd about “Sunday’s Hero” is that, for the first and only time in a situation comedy, Howard Cosell plays a character other than himself. Here he’s Miles Taylor, a colleague of Professor Everett who arranges a pick-up football game between the faculty and some local college and high school students. 

Fol-de-Rol (1972)
This pilot for a prime-time series from Sid & Marty Krofft is a fascinating failure. Set at a Renaissance-style “pleasure fair,” Fol-de-Rol featured such stars as Rick Nelson, Cyd Charisse, Ann Sothern, Totie Fields and Mickey Rooney interacting with various Krofft plush creations. Cosell appears in a skit about Noah’s ark, in which he describes the journey of “a good little man against a good big storm,” and interviews passengers like “Mr. Lion” and “Mr. Pelican” while a chorus jams to George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord.” You can understand why the show aired once and disappeared, but like any Krofft project it has wonderful music and captivating moments amidst the slapstick and cornball jokes. If you watch it on YouTube, don’t blame me if the opening theme gets stuck in your head for days.

The Odd Couple (1972)
This is the best of Howard Cosell’s sitcom appearances, since the show’s premise lent itself naturally to a guest spot from a renowned sportscaster. “Big Mouth” put Oscar Madison into the Monday Night Football booth next to Cosell, where their long-simmering feud continues during the game. Like many print journalists, Oscar finds the transition to TV difficult, and freezes on the air. “There’s nothing wrong with your television sets, ladies and gentleman,” Cosell says during one of those moments, “It's just Oscar Madison telling you all he knows about football.”

Frank Sinatra – The Main Event ­(1974)
After retiring from the concert stage in 1970, Frank Sinatra made a triumphant return with this live performance from New York’s Madison Square Garden. Howard Cosell’s (allegedly) ad-libbed introduction of Sinatra – which runs nearly three minutes – is nearly as famous as the show itself. Near its climax, Cosell’s voice battles Woody Herman’s orchestra for aural supremacy and doesn’t give any ground. 

Saturday Night Live With Howard Cosell (1975)
With eclectic lineups of actors, comedians, musicians, politicians and sports stars, some beamed in via satellite from remote corners of the world long before that became commonplace, this variety series was an ambitious experiment that would probably be more interesting to watch now than it was back in 1975. How could any show be boring with Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, Linda Ronstadt, Bob Hope, Tony Bennett, Roberta Peters and Evel Knievel? Even the segments that bombed back then would fun to watch, like a singing duet featuring Cosell and Barbara Walters. I want this on DVD now. 

Battle of the Network Stars (1976-1988)
Cosell hosted 18 of the 19 Battle shows, in which he was happily paired with such lovely cohosts as Suzanne Somers, Erin Gray, Donna Mills and Morgan Fairchild. No wonder he kept coming back. Sports purist that he was, this might have seemed like an uncomfortable match at first, but he clearly enjoy his semi-annual visits to Pepperdine University, being kissed by the pretty starlets and teasing Gabe Kaplan on his inability to keep a kayak straight. He also genuinely admired the effort and joy of competition put forth by the actors, having already become jaded by the attitudes of many professional athletes. 

The Carpenters First Television Special (1976)
Unfortunately, we don’t get to hear Howard sing with Karen as he did with Barbara Walters. Instead, he’s calling the action from Riverside Raceway, where Richard Carpenter matches his skills against professional drivers Al Unser and Danny Ongias. Not exactly what fans of the duo’s music hoped to see. Thankfully, the rest of the special is wonderful.

The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries (1977)
In “The Mystery of the Solid Gold Kicker,” college football star Chip Garvey (Mark Harmon) is framed for murder and then blackmailed by gamblers. Thankfully, Nancy Drew is on the case. Howard Cosell’s appearances here are restricted to the broadcast booth, where his fervent play-calling adds authenticity to the big-game atmosphere, but it would have been more fun if he had interacted with Nancy and the other characters. At least he finally met Harmon while celebrating the actor’s remarkable obstacle course runs on The Battle of the Network Stars

Monday, August 20, 2018

An Open Letter to the Worst Entertainment Critic On the Planet

To: Chris Nashawaty
Entertainment Weekly magazine


My blood pressure goes up every time I read one of your articles. That was negligible when I was in my 40s, but now I’m at the age where people take pills for that.

This isn’t about disagreeing with your reviews; everybody has those moments with critics. Ken Tucker, who used to head up your magazine’s TV coverage, hates both The Brady Bunch and Lou Grant, two of my favorite television classics.

That’s fine – I respect people with different opinions if they are intelligently expressed. He watched them and didn’t like them. It happens. I think we’d have some interesting discussions.

Here’s how you are different from Tucker – you write about subjects and assess their artistic merits without having experienced them.

How do I know this – well, let’s go back to the first time I noticed your byline about 10 years ago, as I was paging through the then-current issue of EW while waiting in line at the post office. The topic of the piece was your assertion that no comedy was still funny if it was shot in black and white.

Think of that: in one sweeping generalization you summarily dismissed the entire works of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, The Three Stooges and The Marx Brothers, Laurel & Hardy and the Thin Man movies, His Girl Friday and Some Like It Hot.

And on television, which is close to our hearts around here, you condemned Sid Caesar and Ernie Kovacs, I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, the first two seasons of Bewitched, The Addams Family and The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet; The Honeymooners and The Phil Silvers Show

Apparently, you decided that any film or television show made before a certain date is no longer relevant or worth your time. In this blog, which focuses exclusively on the television from generations past, you can understand how that touches a nerve. 

Wrong Finger, Thing

It also calls into question your credentials as a critic of anything, since one quality essential to that profession is knowledge that surpasses that of your readers. If someone is going to be paid to review Broadway musicals, he or she has to know not just Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen, but also Show Boat and Carousel, and to be really conversant On Your Toes and Lady In the Dark.

Television is the same. You don’t have to prefer old stuff to new stuff, or have the same affection for it shared by those who grew up with these shows. But you need to be aware of them, and have some first-hand experience of them, and understand their importance and their influence on everything that followed. 

When you wrote that piece you lacked that perspective. I’m guessing you were in your 20s, when a lot of writers (myself included) first started getting published, and thought we knew a lot more than we did.

Here’s the good news: If you live to be 100, you’ll never write anything that dumb again. So at least you got it out of your system early.

I had hoped your judgment had evolved in the interim, but that brings me to the reason for this letter: your recent review of Mission Impossible: Fallout confirmed you’re still up to your old tricks.

This was the line that had me asking my doctor about a Beta-blocker prescription:

“Twenty-two years after (Tom) Cruise first rebooted the hokey TV espionage series…”


You could have written “classic” or “popular,” or excised the adjective altogether, but instead you chose “hokey”?

See, that’s something Ken Tucker would never have done. I don’t know if he liked Mission: Impossible but he wouldn’t call it hokey, because good writers know what words mean before they use them. 

What a Hokey Bunch

The Oxford Dictionary defines “hokey” as “mawkishly sentimental.” You would be hard-pressed to find a trace of sentimentality in any of Mission: Impossible’s 171 episodes. The agents of the IM Force carried out their missions with a cold and clinical professionalism, detached from friends, family or any emotional ties. Sure, you saw concern when Cinnamon was captured in “The Exchange,” but the mission still took precedence even as rescue options were considered.

If you thought that description was appropriate, I can only conclude that you’ve never actually watched the show. Or did you just need an insult, and that was the word that popped into your head? What’s the difference, as long as the point was made that Tom Cruise took some silly old TV show and turned it into something worth watching. How fortunate we are that today’s creative geniuses in Hollywood are able to create such masterpieces from such feeble, passé source material.

Where does this hostility toward the past come from? Please tell me you’re not in that group that shuns yesterday’s pop culture because it wasn’t as inclusive and enlightened (some say) as it is now. Is that it? Will you never watch Eight is Enough because there were eight kids and not one of them was gay or adopted from Guatemala? I know those are the only kinds of folks EW is hiring these days, which is why the magazine has devolved into The Huffington Post with an occasional piece on Carly Rae Jepsen. 


In the end I guess it doesn’t matter. You’ll keep writing, and for some reason I’ll keep reading and suffering the potential health risks of doing so. I look forward to your take on the next Star Trek film, when you’ll no doubt celebrate how this stodgy old franchise finally ditched all that talk about ethics and morals, and replaced them with explosions and motorcycle chases. Nothing hokey about that.