Monday, June 20, 2016

The Legacy of Lou Grant

Journalism – real honest-to-God journalism – is dead. I can’t pinpoint an exact time of death, but it’s been on life support since the escalation of the Internet, and about ten years ago finally gave up the ghost. There are still reputable journalists plying their trade, but they do so in opposition to a tsunami of predetermined agendas, arrogance and flat-out incompetence.

Which makes the experience of watching Lou Grant (1977-1982) the best dramatic television series about the profession, a bittersweet experience.

Lou Grant understood the significance of responsible journalism without indulging in self-aggrandizement. The whimsical opening credits sequence, in which the lifespan of a daily newspaper is followed to an ignoble end, lets you know this won’t be a genuflection to the Fourth Estate.

The show also got what made print journalism interesting. It’s not the big “scoops” that win Pulitzers and bring down governments. It’s the research and the legwork that are necessary even for a lifestyle feature that will run on page 24. It’s the running down of dead ends and interviewing people who don’t want to talk to you. It’s working on a story for days and then having something happen that renders it useless.

The show is a procedural, like Dragnet was a procedural. It takes the mundane parts of a glamorized job and makes them compelling. When you watch it you’ll understand how it was once possible for biased and imperfect people, working within a clear chain of command, to produce something that could accurately be called “news.”

We see this system at work in the first episode. Reporter Joe Rossi (everyone’s favorite character unless you had a crush on Billie) exposes a police department sex scandal. Rossi has a strong anti-establishment streak and can barely conceal his delight when he writes it up. Lou knows the story is legit, but orders Rossi to rewrite it so the facts are more prominent than the reporter’s colorfully crafted condemnation. The paper’s publisher, Margaret Pynchon, believes there are already too many negative stories about the police and would rather not run it at all. But she prints the article, because it’s the proper thing to do.

It’s a tribute to the quality of the series that the novelty of building a drama around a sitcom character almost seems like an afterthought.

This is not the grouchy teddy bear Lou Grant from WJM News, who spent his days yelling at Ted Baxter and ducking Sue Ann’s advances. There are occasional references to Lou having moved to Los Angeles from Minneapolis, but when he takes the city editor post at the Tribune, he becomes a real newspaperman. And you don’t question it for a moment.

Ed Asner leads a sterling cast; Robert Walden’s Joe Rossi became an archetype for bulldog journalism. Fans so fondly recall Linda Kelsey as reporter Billie Newman that they may have forgotten (as I did) that she replaced Rebecca Balding, who appears in the show’s first three episodes. 

Mason Adams, as Tribune editor Charlie Hume, brings some of the good-natured cynicism inherent to portrayals of journalism since The Front Page in 1931. At a city desk meeting someone brings in a story about a train wreck in Romania with numerous casualties. It is relegated to an interior page, until someone mentions there were two people from Los Angeles on the train. “Now, it’s a tragedy,” says Hume, and it goes on page one.

In another episode, Charlie explains to Billie his hesitation to approve a feature article on the gang problems in East Los Angeles. “The people in West L.A. get nervous when we write about the Chicanos,” he says, “and the Chicanos don’t read the Tribune.” 

As wonderful as Adams is in this, I can’t watch any of his scenes without hearing “With a name like Smuckers, it has to be good.”

Lou may have left the sitcom world, but Lou Grant can be a very funny show when it’s appropriate. Much of the humor is provided by a photographer nicknamed Animal (Daryl Anderson) and assistant city editor Art Donovan, a dapper horndog played by Jack Bannon.  Bannon happily inherited the comic timing of his mother, TV icon Bea Benaderet.

Nancy Marchand may be better known to TV audiences from The Sopranos, but as Mrs. Pynchon she also brought humor to the series, especially when Lou and Charlie are summoned to her office the way first-graders are ordered to see the principal. 

I just love this show. So did enough viewers to keep it on for five seasons, and it would have continued if CBS had not become fed up with Asner’s politics.

Lou Grant won more than 25 Emmys, as well as Humanitas Prizes and Peabody Awards among other accolades. By any measure this was outstanding television. But I think it plays even better for anyone who worked in journalism – or ever wanted to. 

If the sounds of a typewriter make you more nostalgic than the songs played at your prom, this is the show for you. After a few episodes you’ll long for the days when news came from a newspaper, and not from a million websites and politically charged blogs of dubious intent.

We have access to so much more information now, and that’s good. But when you can’t tell the Onion headlines from those in the New York Times, it seems like we’ve lost something even more precious. In its original run, watching Lou Grant helped the masses to understand what goes into putting together that morning paper that arrived on all of our doorsteps. Today, it plays like a eulogy for a once-proud vocation. 

Monday, June 13, 2016

Ten TV Moments: David Wayne

Two years ago I wrote a blog about Meredith Baxter. It was not related to a new project or any other milestone – I just felt like celebrating an impressive and diverse television career. That’s the best thing about having your own blog – no editors to tell you what you can or can’t do.

Such pieces will now be a recurring feature here. There have been so many wonderful actors who, while not icons in the medium, have built a remarkable legacy of fine work. If, like me, you have access to enough classic television to create programming nights focused around a particular star or theme, perhaps these pieces will provide some inspiration.

I’ve selected David Wayne because I’m now enjoying a second journey through the classic and sadly short-lived Ellery Queen series, in which he costarred as Ellery’s father. 

Not every actor has a screen persona but some certainly get repeatedly cast into specific types of roles. With David Wayne, it was intelligent but temperamental men who were always annoyed about something – usually the vacuousness or incompetence of others.  That was certainly the case with Police Inspector Richard Queen, as well as several of these other moments that are worth revisiting.

The Twilight Zone (1959)
“Escape Clause” is not in the first tier of TZ classics – you may guess the twist in Rod Serling’s script before it is revealed – but Wayne is ideally cast as Walter Bedeker, a surly, self-centered hypochondriac who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for an extended life span of “a few hundred, or a few thousand” years. 

Naked City (1962)
One of the best DVD investments I’ve ever made is 80 bucks for 138 episodes of this groundbreaking 1958-1962 series, shot in evocative, atmospheric black and white on the streets of New York City. “The Multiplicity of Herbert Konish” is a typically strong outing, with Wayne as the title character – a mild-mannered broker who creates several other identities for himself. It’s up to Adam Flint to discover whether any of Konish’s aliases are also criminals. The answer is not what you might expect.

Batman (1966)
Since I have memories of watching Batman when I was 8 or 9, this was probably the first David Wayne performance I ever enjoyed. As with the series’ other famous guest villains I had no idea at the time that he had a career before arriving in Gotham City. To me he was just the Mad Hatter. The first of his two appearances (“The Thirteenth Hat/Batman Stands Pat”) is more memorable, as Jervis Tetsch is joined in his criminal escapades by a statuesque hat-check girl played by the stunning Diane McBain. 

The Good Life (1971)
I’ve never watched this series but I’ve seen clips on YouTube. It’s listed here because the concept and cast are so intriguing that I can’t imagine it not being enjoyable. Larry Hagman and Donna Mills play a middle-class married couple who take jobs as a butler and cook for wealthy industrialist Charles Dutton (played by David Wayne). Just 15 episodes were made before everyone moved on to more successful projects. 

Banacek (1973)
This is one of those shows I’ve wanted to write about for years but haven’t gotten to yet. Consider this a start: “Ten Thousand Dollars a Page” finds insurance investigator Banacek trying to discover how someone managed to steal a priceless book encased amidst high-tech alarms. David Wayne plays the book’s owner, a self-proclaimed tyrant. It was Emmy-worthy work, and from an acting-with-a-capital-A standpoint his best performance of those on this list. 

Ellery Queen (1975)
Wayne possessed one of those resonant golden-age Hollywood voices, instantly recognizable, which fit perfectly into this 1940s-set series where distinctive voices abound. Jim Hutton had the easygoing cadences of Jimmy Stewart, John Hillerman the cultured tones of William Powell, and the gung-ho reporter played by Ken Swofford would have blended right into His Girl Friday

Family (1978)
Ellery Queen may have temporarily trapped David Wayne in the “dad” zone with casting directors, as he would play several more fathers over the next few years. In “The Covenant” he played the ailing father of Doug Lawrence (James Broderick). It’s a typical Family episode, which means it’s better than 98% of everything else that has ever been on television.

Dallas (1978)
Full disclosure: I actually think Keenan Wynn’s take on embittered drunk Digger Barnes seemed more authentic than that of David Wayne, who originated the role. But Wayne had better material to play in the series’ early seasons, as he had to contend with his daughter Pamela marrying into the family he blamed for all his misfortune. 

Eight is Enough (1979)
In “Fathers and Other Strangers” the Bradfords vacation in Hawaii and Tom confronts his estranged father (played by you-know-who). There’s a bit too much filler in this stretched-out two-part episode, but its best scenes are shared by David Wayne and Willie Aames. Unless you count the scene with Elizabeth in a bikini. What, you’re just finding out now that I’m shallow?

House Calls (1979)
Now in his 60s, his cranky persona gracefully aging like vintage Port, David Wayne added some much-needed cynicism into this romantic sitcom about the romance between hospital coworkers played by Wayne Rogers and Lynn Redgrave. Wayne’s Dr. Amos Weatherby was going senile but preferred to think he was the last sane person in a world that was going crazy. I can relate. 

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Five Firm Rules of Classic TV Reunions

I’m looking forward to the return of The Gilmore Girls later this year. It’s one of my favorite post-Comfort TV era shows, and I am very happy for this chance to get reacquainted with its wonderfully smart and appealing characters.

It also got me thinking about how many classic television shows attempted a reunion movie or special with less than satisfying results. If the shows were successful the first time, why do these projects with so many built-in feel-good moments so often miss the mark?

As someone who has sat through more of these attempts than most, I think the problem is they violate one of five rules for a successful reunion. Rules I just made up. File this blog under the heading of good advice, delivered too late to make a difference.

1. Don’t Wait Too Long
The Patty Duke Show ran from 1963-1966. The Patty Duke Show: Still Rockin’ in Brooklyn Heights aired in 1999. Audiences who met Patty Lane as a feisty teenager now were seeing her again for the first time when she is old enough to join AARP. While it was heartening to see the entire cast back after 33 years, watching Eddie Applegate (as Patty’s high school boyfriend Richard) still pining for Patty at age 64 comes off more sad than nostalgic. 

This was also an issue with The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited (2004). Here the gap was 38 years, clearly too great a span for Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore to fall back into the urbane chemistry they shared as Rob and Laura Petrie, even with Carl Reiner providing the words as he did when he created the show.

2. Don’t Do It Too Soon, Either
The Waltons finished an impressive nine-year run in 1981. A Wedding on Walton’s Mountain aired eight months later, followed by two more 1982 revivals, Mother’s Day on Walton’s Mountain and A Day of Thanks on Walton’s Mountain. Fans didn’t even have time to miss the family before they were back together. 

3. Don’t Do It With Half Your Cast
Back in 1985 I’m sure many Comfort TV fans were excited about getting reacquainted with Jeannie and Major Nelson in I Dream of Jeannie: 15 Years Later…until they learned that this time Major Nelson would be played by Wayne Rogers. 

With a large enough cast you can still pull one of these off if just one person is missing: Eight is Enough: A Family Reunion worked with Mary Frann as Abby because the rest of the Bradfords were there. And Jennifer Runyon ably filled in for Susan Olsen in A Very Brady Christmas.   

But if the point of a reunion is to bring back the same actors in the same roles, there is certainly a tipping point on recasts and nonappearances that should not be crossed. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop The Return of the Beverly Hillbillies (1981), despite the absences of Irene Ryan, Max Baer Jr. and Raymond Bailey, or Back to The Streets of San Francisco (1992) when the only cast member back was Karl Malden.

4. Have a Good Reason for Reuniting
No classic TV show had a more ideal revival motive than Gilligan’s Island.
Rescue from Gilligan’s Island (1978) turned out to be dreadful, but that didn’t make it any less necessary given the unfinished business addressed. 

Too often the thinking behind these projects is just to get the cast back together, which could be accomplished at an autograph show for a lot less money. A reunion movie also requires an interesting script – preferably one that remembers what made the original series successful.

Examples? Too many to mention: The Father Knows Best Reunion (1977) comes to mind, in which half the film is seemingly spent picking up or dropping off people at the airport; Halloween With the New Addams Family (1977) drags even at 75 minutes, though it was a treat to see the original cast in color. And Return to Green Acres (1990) lobotomized one of the 1960s’ most brilliantly subversive series. 

5. Don’t Make Every Joke About Being Older
This trope is especially prevalent with westerns and action shows. You can set your watch by the scene where the hero needs extra effort to subdue hired muscle that he wouldn’t break a sweat over in his prime, and then you’ll get some variation on Danny Glover’s famous Lethal Weapon line, “I’m getting too old for this…”

That’s just one of the issues with The Wild, Wild West Revisited (1979), which too often crossed into camp. It also applies to The Return of the Man From UNCLE: The 15 Years Later Affair (1983), which was apparently written by someone who was paid by the word. 

This doesn’t mean these jokes don’t work when they’re done right: I Spy Returns (1994) was loaded with them but the partnership between Kelly and Scotty has aged with remarkable grace. And when the passage of time is acknowledged in a more poignant way, as in the eternal romance of Matt Dillon and Miss Kitty in Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge (1987), it can break your heart. 

Which reunions worked? Sounds like a great topic for a future blog. Let me hear your suggestions.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Television’s Most Beautiful Music

The most beautiful music ever written for television was composed to underscore a commercial for a Canadian tea manufacturer.

But before we finish that story…

One of the more interesting aspects of growing older is how it changes your perspective on any number of things. Some people change political parties. Some move closer to or further away from religion. Some discover the joys of golf after racquetball becomes too strenuous.

My change of heart concerns what used to be called “muzak,” particularly by me in my teenage years.

I used to hate it. Now the lush instrumentals of Ray Conniff, Percy Faith and Paul Mauriat have become a peaceful refuge from a world that keeps growing louder (Dear everyone: I have no interest in your cell phone conversations; why are you forcing me to listen to them?).

Sirius XM channel 69 (“Escape”) – no better way to chill out after a stressful day. 

Television has inspired many serene compositions that would fit comfortably into the easy listening genre. Some of my favorites include:

Quentin’s Theme (Shadows of the Night)
Bob Cobert’s melancholy waltz, introduced on Dark Shadows, was recorded by more than 20 artists, including Andy Williams, and earned a Grammy nomination in 1969. 

You’re My Greatest Love (Theme from “The Honeymooners)
Written by series star Jackie Gleason, this romantic orchestral piece admittedly seemed at odds with the thunderous arguments in so many episodes. 

Angela (Theme from “Taxi”)
I’ve been a fan of smooth jazz artist Bob James for years. This is his best-known composition. As with The Honeymooners it’s a gentle theme for a volatile show, but somehow it works. 

Laura’s Palmer’s Theme (Twin Peaks)
Angelo Badalamenti’s music is too ominous for relaxation, but one cannot deny its sway. The sadness of the subject is expressed in somber, heartbreaking tones, with piano interludes that bring some hope of light amidst the darkness. When the piece ends, however, you know which side won. 

But for me, the most beautiful song ever written for television (See? I didn’t forget!) is “The Homecoming,” written by Hagood Hardy and introduced in a 1970s commercial for Salada Tea.


It can be difficult to put into words why a piece of music resonates – or fails to resonate. I guess that’s why in nearly 40 years of rating records on American Bandstand, almost every answer to Dick Clark’s question about a new single was, “I like the beat, and it’s easy to dance to.”

In this case neither of those attributes apply. “The Homecoming” has no beat and I doubt anyone has ever danced to it. It’s more Mantovani that Mozart but there is a sublime classical quality to the piece that is part of the reason it appeals to me. The opening strains in particular remind me of a Debussy nocturne. I love the gentle, wistful melody. I love the glissando of strings at the 1:46 mark. I love that it sounds like a walk through a forest.

I’m still not sure what it has to do with tea. The original commercial in which it was introduced is not on YouTube, but I hope to see it one day and fill in the rest of that story.

The music also has no connection to The Homecoming, a 1971 made-for-TV movie of the same name that introduced the Walton family to television. It’s still worth watching if you can get past Patricia Neal as a much bigger sourpuss than Michael Learned ever was as Olivia Walton.

Hagood Hardy’s musical legacy includes one other gift in his contribution to the revered 1985 television adaptation of Anne of Green Gables

Composing music as spectacular as the series’ Prince Edward Island setting was a formidable challenge. I think he succeeded. 

Sadly, Hardy died in 1997 at the far-too-young age of 59. His 2012 CD “All My Best” is recommended for anyone who shares my appreciation for his work.

What do you think is the most beautiful music written for television?

Sunday, May 15, 2016

10 Wonderful William Schallert Moments: a Comfort TV Tribute

The recent passing of William Schallert is a poignant reminder that our living links to the original classic TV era have dwindled down to a precious few. 

The Internet Movie Database lists 375 acting credits for Mr. Schallert, the preponderance of which were for television. His first TV appearance was in the 1951 anthology series Family Theater; his final bow came 63 years later, as an elevator operator on Two Broke Girls.

In between he appeared on more Comfort TV shows than any actor. That is a testimony to talent, certainly, but also to versatility and professionalism, and a work ethic once viewed as conventional that now seems almost heroic. For those of us who treasure this time in the medium’s history, he was always a welcome presence in any role.

Here are ten memorable moments from a stellar career.  

“Do You Trust Your Daughter?”
The Patty Duke Show
William Schallert’s most prominent Comfort TV role was Martin Lane, editor of the New York Chronicle and father to precocious Patty Lane.

The Patty Duke Show aired for three seasons, and next to Duke’s virtuosity in a dual role, one of its greatest joys is the loving relationship between Patty and her “Poppo.” “Do You Trust Your Daughter?” opens a rift between them that reminds us how great comedy shows could also produce potent dramatic moments. When Martin realizes he had mistakenly accused Patty of lying, he expresses his mea culpa through an oddly beautiful 19th century song called “Keemo-Kimo.” Schallert’s tender performance and Duke’s emotional reaction makes for one of those scenes that justify the love we share for television classics. 

Goodbye, Mr. Pomfritt, Hello, Mr. Chips”
The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis
Schallert appeared in 24 Dobie Gillis episodes as teacher Leander Pomfritt, who tenders his resignation in this season-two show, admitting he cannot support his family on a teacher’s salary (some things never change). Dobie and Maynard host a testimonial dinner in his honor, and invite as many of his former students as they can find. Of course Maynard fails to mail the invitations, but the event still rekindles Pomfritt’s calling to the classroom.

“A Word a Day”
The Dick Van Dyke Show
William Schallert received the second biggest front door laugh in the history of this series (the first belongs to Greg Morris in “That’s My Boy??”).  In “A Word a Day,” a distressed Rob and Laura are concerned over their son Ritchie’s sudden use of profanity, and wonder where he is picking up such language. Suspicion falls on a new boy in the neighborhood. Rob invites the boy’s parents over to see what kind of people would allow their kid to corrupt a nice neighborhood. When he opens the front door there’s William Schallert – played Reverend Kirk.

 “A Man Called Smart, Part Two”
Get Smart
This classic three-part story introduced Schallert as 91 year-old Admiral Hargrade, the original leader of CONTROL. As a clumsy, addled senior in the style of Arte Johnson’s Tyrone Horneigh character on Laugh-In, this was broader comedy that Schallert usually tackled. But as always he settles right into the tone of the show and creates another memorable character, whose hobbies include “chess, and burying old buddies.” 

“The Lady Plays Her Hand”
Bat Masterson
We should have at least one of Schallert’s western credits on this list, as he appeared on many of the best shows from the genre’s heyday (Wanted: Dead of Alive, Lawman, Maverick, Wagon Train, Gunsmoke). Here, he plays George Winston, an eastern gambler who breaks the bank at Bat’s casino – though Masterson suspects Winston’s “system” had some inside help.

“The Trouble with Tribbles”
Star Trek
One of the series’ most popular episodes features William Schallert as a bureaucrat ready to haul Captain Kirk before a Board of Inquiry after a grain shipment is devoured by the Tribbles invading the Enterprise. Schallert played a lot of these button-down company men, but rarely amidst such bizarre circumstances. 

“Quiet Sam”
The Andy Griffith Show
Could someone actually be growing marijuana in Sheriff Andy’s town? That’s what Deputy Barney Fife believes as he investigates Sam Becker (Schallert), a newly arrived farmer who prefers to keep to himself. Given his body of work it is probable Schallert played a pothead at some point, but the reasons for his character’s reticence here have nothing to do with trying to mellow out Mayberry.

“Samantha’s Curious Cravings”
There were several mentions of Samantha’s obstetrician, Dr. Anton, during her pregnancy with Tabitha, but the character was never seen. We finally meet him before Adam is born, giving William Schallert yet another classic TV credit. This is one of the better late-season episodes of the series, as Anton finds himself at odds with Sam’s other family physician, Dr. Bombay. 

“Fathers and Sons”
Room 222
Having played so many warm and caring dads, it can be disturbing at first to see Schallert as Dr. Charles Garrett, a belligerent, conservative father yelling at his impressionable son, who is drawn to the more progressive outlook of history teacher Pete Dixon. Garrett tries to get Dixon fired, but ultimately takes a more encouraging approach to the generation gap issue.  

“The Red Woodloe Story”
The Partridge Family
While attending church, the Partridges are surprised to hear a performance from Red Woodloe (Schallert), a once-promising folk singer who disappeared from the spotlight decades earlier. They urge him to attempt a comeback, but Red has issues with commitment…and stage fright. If you liked Schallert’s singing on The Patty Duke Show, you’ll enjoy a lot more of it here. 

For those interested in even more of William Schallert’s work, here are ten additional credits that are also worth a look:

“Lucy and the Little League”
The Lucy Show

“The Case of the Sulky Girl”
Perry Mason

“All Mothers Worry”
The Donna Reed Show

“The Clones”
Land of the Giants

“Keep the Faith, Baby”
The Mod Squad

“The Night of Winged Terror, Parts 1 & 2”
The Wild, Wild West

“The Travelling Man”
The Waltons

“The Mystery of Pirate’s Cove"
The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries

Police Story

“Family Ties”
St. Elsewhere

Godspeed, Mr. Schallert. While many of us are still mourning the loss of Patty Duke, it does help to know that she was there to welcome her Poppo home. 

Monday, May 2, 2016

The Museum of Comfort TV Salutes: The Cone of Silence

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

Introduced in the first episode of Get Smart, the Cone of Silence would inspire some of the biggest laughs on what many would argue is still the funniest television series ever created. 

Was this merely an inspired visual gag by series creators Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, or a subtle comment on government incompetence? Imagine how many taxpayer dollars were poured into research and development on something that never did its job. Not the first time, and certainly not the last. Fill in your favorite boondoggle here.

Its presence in the series’ pilot suggests that this was a moment that would help sell the show: Maxwell Smart, dedicated and eager but also clumsy and dense, awaits assignment from the head of the secret government espionage agency CONTROL. The Chief, Max’s boss, hints at how vital this upcoming mission will be. Not willing to take any chances, Max demands his orders be given only within the security of the Cone of Silence. The Chief, exasperated as if he already knows Uncle Sam got stuck with a clunker, calls for it anyway.

That is a perfect classic TV moment.

The scene works so well that it could have been reprised with only minor variations in future episodes and still earned a laugh. But that would have been too easy for a show with this much genius in its origins. The Cone of Silence would make ten more appearances over the show’s five seasons, and the question was never whether it would function as designed, but how it would fail once again.

In “KAOS in CONTROL,” the Cone still impairs communication between Max and The Chief, but those outside can hear every word they say. 

It appears once again in “My Nephew the Spy,” after Max insists that regulations call for all security measures to be taken in such vital circumstances. The Cone is lowered, and the Chief asks Agent 86 what he discovered about KAOS headquarters. Max responds, “Nothing.”

“Too Many Chiefs,” from season one, is my favorite Cone of Silence moment. Here's why:

“Hubert’s Unfinished Symphony” features the debut of the portable Cone of Silence, which looks even more ridiculous than its predecessor. Which is unfortunate for the Chief, who spends most of the episode stuck inside. 

When Max and 99 are on assignment in England in “That Old Gang of Mine,” the London CONTROL office provides its own variation, the Umbrella of Silence. Surprisingly it’s up to the task, but other complications ensue. 

In the season four episode “A Tale of Two Tails” we learn that the Cone was invented by Professor Cohn. “The Cone of Silence was invented by a Professor Cohn?” Max asks, as he looks up at it; “That’s funny…it doesn’t look it.” One more example of a joke that worked 40 years ago and would now generate demands for apologies and sensitivity training.

With the Cone on the fritz again, Max and the Chief opt for the CONTROL secret word file. Once you see how that works you’ll wonder if it was created by the same guy who wrote the federal tax code.

And though it’s not canon I should mention that a high-tech version of the Cone appears in the 2008 Get Smart film with Steve Carrell. Here at the Museum we’re content to own the original, but if you don’t see it on your next visit don’t panic – most likely it just needs yet another tune-up. 

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Did You Really Watch All These Shows?

This is a question often heard by those of us with substantial TV-on-DVD collections. Especially when those collections are prominently displayed in the room with the biggest television.

The answer is yes – I’ve watched everything you see in the floor to ceiling shelves on both sides of my TV – unless you happened to get here a few days after a new box has arrived, but by your next visit I’ll have that one finished as well. In fact, I’ve watched most of the episodes multiple times. That’s the litmus test for whether a series is worth buying – will I want to watch it more than once? 

Not my Actual Collection - but You Get the Idea

The next question, almost inevitably, addresses how that could be possible. A more diplomatic guest will opt for something like, “Doesn’t that take up a lot of your time?” while those prone to snark prefer “Don’t you have a job? Or a life?”

It’s an understandable reaction. Taken in its totality, the prospect of watching about 10,000 episodes of television seems like a formidable task. 

But it’s not – really! The reason for this blog entry is not just to provide some insight into my viewing habits. Rather, it’s to offer encouragement to anyone who has read some of my pieces, and those of my fellow TV bloggers, and had an interest sparked in re-watching a favorite show from the past, or checking out one that you’ve never had a chance to experience:

“I liked the Mission: Impossible movies – wonder what the original series was like?”

The Donna Reed Show sounds like the perfect antidote to the smart ass tone of sitcoms now.”

“I remember how much I used to enjoy watching The Waltons with my parents. I wonder if I’d still enjoy it.”

But then you consider the time required – seven, eight, nine seasons, each with anywhere from 24 to 30+ episodes. This is not like just watching a movie on a friend’s recommendation.

My suggestion is don’t be intimidated by the time commitment – go for it.

Yes, I’ve watched a lot of TV, but I probably average about three episodes out of my DVD collection per day. With half-hour shows at about 25 minutes each, that’s just one hour and 15 minutes, less time than it would take to watch most movies. But over the course of a year that adds up to more than 1,000 episodes. And I’ve had most of these sets for more than a decade – that’s how you get to 10,000 shows, if you also have a job, and a life.

Choose a series, and start the first season with one or two episodes a night. I know binge-watching is popular now with stuff like House of Cards, where each episode is like a chapter in a novel and viewers can’t wait to see how it ends. It’s a different kind of television. But I don’t believe that approach serves the older shows as well.

Still, there is something appealing and satisfying about watching every episode of a classic series in order. My friends and I call it “taking the journey,” one with a starting point and an ending point, and unexpected detours along the way. 

It also deepens one’s appreciation for the talent both on display and behind the scenes. Whenever I return to Father Knows Best, with its 203 episodes over six seasons, I am astonished that more than 150 of them were written by just two men, Roswell Rogers and Paul West. Sometimes it takes me two weeks to write one of these blogs.

You’ll notice credits more watching shows this way. You’ll see guest actors return in different roles, sometimes during the same season. You’ll spot continuity errors aplenty. You’ll enjoy seeing how grocery stories and department stores and banks looked 30-50 years ago – and if you have some memory of that time you’ll miss them. In fact you may spot a number of social and cultural traits that we’ve long since abandoned. 

Best of all, you don’t have to own the shows to watch them anymore, thanks to libraries and Netflix and streaming services. But if you do buy (and prices have plummeted over the last few years), you may be surprised at how often you return to these fictional worlds. We all deserve a break from 2016 sometimes – at least until the election is over.