Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The 100 Most Memorable Songs Introduced by Classic TV

It’s been a while since we’ve tried a multi-week feature, and anything related to music here usually draws an enthusiastic response. So over the next few weeks let’s take an in-depth look at some memorable moments when television and music came together. 

First, a couple of ground rules: to qualify a song must have both music and lyrics. That means no Twilight Zone or Route 66 themes, awesome as they are. Also, as a list like this could easily be dominated by a handful of music-themed shows, I’m going to limit the number of songs from any one series to just three.

Let the countdown begin with our first 20 entries – in reverse order. Don’t get too hung up on the rankings – the only real goal here is to bring back some happy memories. And if you don’t see a personal favorite by the time we get to #1, my apologies. Your musical taste is probably better than mine anyway.

“Country Magic”
Here’s Lucy

If you checked out the Here’s Lucy episode referenced in my previous blog entry on commentary tracks, then you heard this song with a Bo Diddley beat, performed by Desi Arnaz Jr. and Ann-Margret. Admittedly the visual of the performance is better than the song, but that’s what happens when two objects of a million crushes join forces.

“Goolie Get-Together”
The Groovie Goolies

Many Saturday morning series incorporated music into their weekly adventures (as we’ll see as we work our way up this list). Some just did it to fill time; others actually put some effort into finding catchy tunes. Filmation shows like The Groovie Goolies happily fell into the latter category. The theme is the one most baby boomers best remember, but also check out “Midnight” and “Save Your Good Lovin’ For Me” on YouTube. 

“The Kelly Song”

It’ll never become a standard or win a Grammy, but you’re already hearing the “Kelly, Kelly, Kelly” refrain in your head. So it did its job. 

“How Will I Know My Love?”
The Mickey Mouse Club

Annette Funicello sings this country-tinged ballad in the Annette serial, which aired on The Mickey Mouse Club in 1958. The public response was massive, and resulted in the song being released as a single, and Annette (who by her own admission was not an accomplished singer) having a successful recording career. It’s a very sweet tune, but it’s okay if you still prefer “Tall Paul” or “Pineapple Princess.” 

“The Hooterville Hop”
Petticoat Junction

This was a half-hearted attempt to launch a dance craze by adding new lyrics to the series’ theme song. It didn’t take, but it’s the kind of moment that is quintessential Comfort TV. 

“I Love You, You Know”
The Love Boat

While no one has ever clamored for more of the song stylings of Richard Dawson, this poignant ballad has a '3 a.m. in the piano bar' vibe that makes me think it could have been a hit if Sinatra sang it 20 years earlier. 

H.R. Pufnstuf

Decades before Cartoon Network thought they cornered the market on hipster Dadaist kid shows, Sid and Marty Krofft were expanding the horizons of impressionable young minds with bizarre puppetry and psychedelic landscapes. While I liked Jack Wild’s English dancehall songs on Pufnstuf, none of them were as unforgettable as Witchiepoo’s musical list of rhymes for oranges. 

It’s a Living

The show may have been about struggling waitresses in Los Angeles, but its boisterous theme sounds like something that came out of a classic 1940s Broadway musical. I always see a line of chorus girls dancing as they belt this out. 

“A Little Bit Country, A Little Bit Rock and Roll”
Donny & Marie

It was a song created to introduce medleys of other songs, but along the way it became the most memorable moment in this popular variety series. Forty years later, the Osmond siblings still sing it every night on the stage of the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas. 

Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors

1980s kids grew up with cartoons created primarily to sell toys. The themes were mostly generic, but the intro to Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors had an over-the-top hair metal vibe that still sounds great. And the toys were underrated too. 

“Milwaukee Moon”
Laverne & Shirley

This song, performed in a tag scene from an otherwise typical season three episode (“Bus Stop”), features the entire cast, harmonizing on a doorstep on a hot summer night. It was written by Michael McKean (Lenny). 

“When It Hit Me (The Hurricane Song)”
The Kids From C.A.P.E.R.

This was one of those short-lived series from the 1970s that probably deserved a better fate. This was its biggest song, and the video invites you to stare lovingly into the eyes of Tom Hanks’ future wife. 

“And Then There’s Maude”

A great TV theme song should catch your attention while also providing an introduction to the show that’s about to start. Donny Hathaway’s voice here accomplishes the former, and a great lyric tells you everything you need to know about Maude Finlay. Right on, Maude. 

“Make a Wish”
Make a Wish

Tom Chapin (brother of Harry Chapin) wrote the music for this inventive, ingenious Sunday morning series about the joys and quirks of the English language. I’d sell a kidney to get this series on DVD. 

“Bump a Dump”
Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In

There was a lot of original music in Laugh-In, and I don’t know why this is the tune that stuck with me – though I’m sure it has something to do with the impossibly cute Goldie Hawn. The line “Maybe we’ll both star in a movie” in this bouncy duet with Henry Gibson was prescient, as within about a year Goldie would win the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for Cactus Flower. Watch for yourself – the song starts at about the 3:10 mark in this video. 

“The Preamble”
Schoolhouse Rock

Thanks to Lynn Ahrens, now a composer of Broadway musicals, every kid who came of age in the 1970s can still recite the Preamble to the United States Constitution from memory (even if they have to sing it). 

Nanny and The Professor

This is a very loopy but undeniably catchy tune written and performed by The Addrisi Brothers, who sound slightly British (fitting for a show about an English nanny) but are actually from Massachusetts. They had one other claim to fame by writing “Never My Love,” a hit for The Association. 

“Thank You For Being a Friend”
The Golden Girls

There were still a lot of TV theme songs in the 1980s, but this is when they started to become somewhat generic. There’s a nostalgic appeal now to the themes from shows like Growing Pains and Family Matters and Perfect Strangers, but they all sounded like they rolled off the same factory assembly line. Andrew Gold’s “Thank You For Being a Friend” has stylistic similarities but it’s still a cut above its contemporaries. 

“Eep Opp Ork Ah Ah”
The Jetsons

From the classic episode “A Date with Jet Screamer,” this song was revived in the 1990s with a great cover by the band Violent Femmes. 

“Friday Night”

Given how many talented singers packed the cast of Fame, it’s always struck me as ironic that one of the series’ most popular songs was performed by one of its least vocally trained actors (Carlo Imperato as Danny). 

One Day At a Time

The best TV show theme songs are those that merit (and often achieve) full-length versions that could hold your interest beyond the time it takes to introduce a series. I’m not sure this one qualifies, but for about 45 seconds it’s perfect for getting you up on your feet. 

 Next Week: #s 79 through 60

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

My Three Favorite Commentary Tracks – and One That Should Have Been

As the DVD market continues to contract, it takes with it not just the pleasure many of us feel in owning the shows we love, but the bonus content packaged on many television season sets that adds to our appreciation of each series. 

Among the most enjoyable of these features are commentary tracks, featuring series creators, writers, directors and cast members.

They’re not always done well, but when they are they give the viewer the experience of watching an episode alongside some of the talented people who made it special.

What makes for a good commentary track? It might seem obvious, but it starts with actually watching the episode. My favorite tracks are those in which you hear the participants reacting to what is happening – laughing at the jokes, sharing behind-the-scenes stories, and describing locations where scenes were shot. I don’t mind the moments where they get so caught up in the story that they stop talking – it’s a testament to the enduring quality of the show.

Here’s how you know you’re hearing a bad commentary track: After long stretches of silence, the commentator will start talking about how they were cast on the series, or why they believe the show is still popular decades later. They’re being prompted by someone supplying topics to discuss, because they can’t think of anything to say.

I’m always disappointed when that happens. And it happens more than you might expect.

But let’s focus on the positive first. Here are three of my favorite commentary tracks.

“What? And Get Out of Show Business?”

The Partridge Family

Commentary by Danny Bonaduce

“There’s something you almost never see – Susan Dey eating.”

Part tribute and part roast, Danny Bonaduce watches the first Partridge episode more than 20 years after it debuted, and can still quote most of his lines from memory. 

He mocks his own fake bass playing, asserts his certainty that David Cassidy could beat up Bobby Sherman, and expresses great admiration for costar Dave Madden (“Every muscle in that man’s face acts”). “This is so fun,” he says while he watches the moment his life changed. His observations, appreciations and wisecracks are delightful from start to finish. 

“Those Friars”

That Girl

Commentary by Marlo Thomas and Bill Persky

There were five seasons of That Girl, each packaged in season sets with four DVD discs. 

Every disc contains at least one episode with a commentary by series star Marlo Thomas and series co-creator Bill Persky. Their mutual admiration for the show and each other makes every one of these tracks a gem. I selected “Those Friars” for a moment that illustrates how memorable a commentary can be. Marlo’s father Danny Thomas appears in the episode as himself, and the story ends with Danny and Ann Marie performing a vaudeville skit together. At one point Ann says, “I was afraid you were going to go and leave me out here all alone.” Danny responds, “Me? Leave you? Are you kidding?” 

Marlo, hearing those words, falls silent, and then you hear sniffles. “You don’t have to talk, you can cry,” Persky tells her. It’s such a sweet moment, but Marlo quickly recovers like any showbiz trouper. “I’m having a lovely afternoon” Persky says as closing credits roll. So are we all.

“Lucy and Ann Margret”

Here’s Lucy

Commentary by Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz, Jr.

For the children of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, watching all the classic Lucy shows is like watching home movies. On this track you’ll get some fun backstage stories from TV’s first family about how Ann-Margret was booked for this episode, and the crush Desi Jr. had on her, inspiring the show’s funniest scene. 

But you’ll also get Lucie and Desi Jr. both doing their best Desi Sr. impressions, and poking fun at each other like any brother and sister:

Desi: “They don’t make suits like that anymore.”
Lucie: “There’s a reason for that.”

The episode closes with a big musical number, in which Desi informs viewers that the guitar he’s playing belonged to James Burton, a Rock Hall of Fame member who played for Elvis and Rick Nelson. Responds Lucie to what was obviously a pre-recorded music track, “The guitar started playing before you did.” 

I’m so glad that so many of these commentaries were recorded during the heyday of classic TV on DVD releases. But sometimes they don’t live up to their potential.

“The Lady In the Bottle”

I Dream of Jeannie

Commentary by Barbara Eden, Larry Hagman and Bill Daily

This should have been time capsule stuff. To have the three stars of a TV classic come together more than 30 years later and watch the pilot episode – it’s something that sadly was not even possible with so many other shows from this era. 

But here it just doesn’t work. Barbara Eden is cordial but quiet too often, Larry Hagman was never a fan of the series and also didn’t have much to say. That leaves Bill Daily to carry the conversation. And he rarely offers anything more insightful than “Oh wow!”, “Oh boy!” and “Gorgeous! You guys look great!” These expressions are repeated multiple times throughout the episode, to the point where they become more annoying than affectionate. If that’s the best they could do, they should have brought in Danny Bonaduce. 

Friday, March 29, 2019

Comfort TV Delivers Its Elevator Pitch

Most of us don’t approach elevators with any sense of wonder. But in the Comfort TV era, these simple conveyances provided a plethora of plot lines and punch lines.

The most recurrent option, used almost to the point of cliché, was to trap incompatible characters in a stuck elevator and let the sparks fly.

The gold standard for this trope, not surprisingly, comes from The Dick Van Dyke Show. The flashback episode “4½” finds Rob and a pregnant Laura trapped in an elevator with hold-up man Lyle Delp, played by Don Rickles. 

This is arguably the best of Rickles' many 1960s sitcom guest spots, and the entire episode is packed with quotable lines (“They should have stuck with Sidney!”) and classic physical set pieces – I’m not sure anyone ever got more laughs out of an umbrella than Van Dyke does here.

Less satisfying is “Fire” from the final season of WKRP In Cincinnati. Of course it’s Herb and Jennifer that get trapped, so no bonus points for not going with the obvious. The execution fell short of the potential.

Night Court could have told the same story with Dan and Christine, but instead, in “Earthquake,” they put Dan with Roz on that stuck elevator, along with two hungry sumo wrestlers. That’s more like it. 

The final episode of That Girl, “The Elevated Woman,” finds Ann and Don in the same predicament (without the sumo wrestlers), but this one is mostly a clip show. Marlo Thomas preferred to end the series with a strident women’s lib message instead of the wedding of two characters that have loved each other for five years.

And from the “you couldn’t do that now” department of sitcom storytelling, there is “Porko’s II” from Gimme a Break, in which Nell and her weight loss support group all crowd onto an elevator, that gets stuck because they exceeded the weight capacity. You’ll hear fat jokes aplenty, but the only funny scene is when Nell hears an echo in the elevator shaft.

Two shows stand above the field in their creative use of elevators. First, The Bob Newhart Show, in which the elevators in Bob’s office building provided dozens of memorable gags over six seasons. Case in point, the ever-neurotic Mr. Carlin, waiting for the elevator, tells Bob he always thinks other people are laughing at him; Bob says he’s just imagining it, and right on cue the elevator doors open behind him, and we see a crowd of laughing passengers.

But that show’s record for most elevator moments in one episode belongs to “Death Be My Destiny.” That’s the one where Bob steps into an empty elevator shaft.

Bob: “I was almost touched by Father Death”
Emily: “That’s Father Time, Bob, it’s Old Man Death”
Bob: “No, it’s Old Man River”
Emily: “Are you sure?”
Bob: “Whoever he was, I felt icy fingers up and down my spine”
Emily: “That’s Old Black Magic”

Bob vows to never get on an elevator again, but as he counsels a patient on how to conquer fear, he finally takes his own advice. But the elevator still has a few more surprises in store.

Of course, the most famous empty elevator shaft scene belongs to L.A. Law, in an episode brilliantly titled “Good to the Last Drop.” But that aired in 1991, so it’s out of our jurisdiction.

The other series that made optimal use of elevators was Mission: Impossible.

From the staged elevator crash in “The Widow” to Rollin’s quick-change from an old man to his regular self during a 30-second elevator ride, the show found several ways to incorporate this everyday object into its arsenal of espionage tricks. The best example of this is “Doomsday,” in which Barney spends nearly the entire episode in elevator shafts, and in doing so helps to prevent World War III. 

Perhaps the most famous non-working elevator in the classic TV era is the one in the lobby of the Shady Rest Hotel on Petticoat Junction. It won’t transport guests to their rooms, but Uncle Joe likes it because “It gives the hotel class.”

There’s an elevator in the opening credits of Get Smart though we don’t actually see it. One assumes that’s what takes Max from a phone booth into CONTROL headquarters.  Here’s how naïve I can be – for years I figured they got that shot with a trap door, and only later found out it was achieved in a much simpler way, by Don Adams simply ducking out of frame. 

Another unseen but occasionally referenced elevator is the one that allows Alfred to dust the Batcave in Batman (you didn’t really think he used the Bat Poles?).

The elevator in Police Squad!'s station house was a go-to visual gag, as the doors would open to show a swimming pool or an opera house.

Across the pond, the Britcom Are You Being Served? used elevator floor announcements as the lyrics to its theme. And the elevators in Grace Brothers often became mini-stages, with the doors opening like a theater curtain to reveal cast members making entrances in strange costumes to match the theme of the episode. 

Both Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation proved there are still elevators in the future, and that even in the 24th century they still haven’t got the bugs out. 

And if you enjoyed this piece, you’re sure to love my riveting in-depth look at classic TV escalators, coming soon to a blog near you. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Top TV Moments: Gregory Sierra

We live in a time when diversity and inclusion are paramount when it comes to television casting. Those who champion this approach often cite the contrast between our current era and what they consider to be less enlightened times, when (they assert) actors of non-white races and ethnicities did not have the same access to significant series roles.

At a macro level this is undeniable – yet I always cringe when the classic TV era is dismissed as one that denied acknowledgement and opportunities to what we now refer to as “people of color.” There are just too many examples to refute that condemnation.

The career of Gregory Sierra, born in New York and of Puerto Rican descent, is one that could be cited by both sides of this debate. 

His TV resume is dominated by Latino roles, ranging from servants to South American dictators. But he also played doctors and police officers and other characters where his heritage was not a defining characteristic. He worked steadily and often across a 40-year span, and was not limited to portraying one ethnicity, though he'd likely be even more fondly recalled today were it not for some unfortunate career choices. Let's take a look at some of his most memorable TV moments.

It Takes a Thief (1969)
In “Rock-Bye, Bye Baby,” reformed thief Al Mundy has to break into an un-crackable safe to steal the little black book of a mob boss. In his first TV role Gregory Sierra’s character gets a name – Fletcher – but no lines. He appears in one short scene, mostly with his back to the camera, as a hood fencing stolen jewelry. The best part of this substandard episode is Gavin McLeod as a sniveling hood that Mundy repeatedly humiliates, even while being held at gunpoint.

Sanford and Son (1972)
Sierra made his first of 12 episodes appearances as Fred’s neighbor Julio Fuentes in “The Puerto Ricans are Coming!” Fred’s reaction?  “There goes the neighborhood.” “There wasn’t one cockroach in Harlem before the Puerto Ricans moved in,” he tells Lamont, and he was just getting warmed up. “Julio Fuentes? That don’t sound like no name – that sounds like somethin’ you get from drinkin’ their water.” The entire episode is mainly Redd Foxx, a force of nature here as always, going full Don Rickles on Puerto Rico, at a time when it was still safe to laugh at this stuff. Sierra’s Julio does not respond in kind, and thus emerges as the better man, but not the more memorable character. 

All in the Family (1973)
Norman Lear must have liked something in Sierra beyond Julio, as he offered him a more substantial role in his flagship series. In “Archie is Branded,” Sierra plays Jewish radical Paul Benjamin, who believes in meeting violence with violence against the modern-day Nazis who paint a swastika on Archie’s door. 

This episode ranks among the most memorable with many series fans, especially with its powerful ending, and Sierra makes his biggest and best impression yet as a talented character actor. 

The Waltons (1973)
From Puerto Rican to Jewish to Roma, as Sierra here plays one of a traveling band of gypsies that arrive on Walton’s Mountain and crash at the Baldwin home while the sisters are away. Some of the locals are hostile but John-Boy invites the gypsies, led by Sierra’s tempestuous Volta, to camp on their land. It’s a nice little culture-clash story and the best dramatic credit on the early part of the actor’s resume. 

Barney Miller (1975)
For casual TV fans, Detective Sergeant Chano Amenguale is certainly Gregory Sierra’s most familiar role. Barney Miller had one of those magical ensembles that clicked from day one. The series shined with smart writing, diversity that seemed natural and not forced, and what was probably a more realistic take on urban police work than some law and order dramas. I always enjoyed the camaraderie not just between the men of the 12th but between the cops and crooks, who often seemed to commiserate as they all tried survive another day in New York, at a time when that was no easy task. Chano was there for just the first two seasons. Why? That brings us to our next show. 

A.E.S. Hudson Street (1978)
Sierra left Barney Miller for a more prominent role in this new ABC sitcom from the same creative team. He played Tony Menzies, chief resident of a rundown New York hospital. I never saw it, so I don’t know if it deserved to be canceled after just five episodes. I do know that comedies set in hospitals have always been a tough sell on TV, at least until Scrubs. I never saw that one either.

Soap (1980)
“When there is a lady in distress
El Puerco will get into her dress”

Unlike on Sanford and Son, where Sierra merely did his best with a stereotypical role, he seems to be having the time of his life here as Carlos "El Puerco" Valdez (his friends call him “El”) a khaki-clad revolutionary clearly modeled on Fidel Castro. Soap’s fourth and final season probably holds up better than you remember, and it still amazes me how it can switch from the silliest comedy to straight moments that really make you care about the characters. 

Lou Grant (1982)
Based on Sierra’s resume you might expect an episode titled “Immigrants” to focus on the Southern border, giving the actor another opportunity to play someone from a Hispanic nation. Surprise – the show is about the challenges faced by Vietnamese immigrants, one of whom becomes a Tribune photographer. Sierra plays a state investigator looking into a welfare fraud scheme tied to the Vietnamese community. It’s just a two-scene appearance, but he’s proficient as always, and I’ll never pass up an opportunity to put in a good word for this series.

Hill Street Blues (1983)
Sierra appears as ADA Alvarez in four episodes of this acclaimed series’ third season. Like so many others who pass through this fictional world, Alvarez seemed fully formed after just a few moments on screen. He’s a small cog in an unwieldy criminal justice machine, who does the best he can while always aware it’s not enough. Once again, Sierra shows a chameleon-like quality in joining an established group and appearing as if he’s lived in that world the whole time.

Zorro and Son (1983)
Five years after A.E.S. Hudson Street, Sierra found his luck as a series regular had not improved. He plays Captain Paco Pico opposite Henry Darrow as Zorro, but once more it was five episodes and that's all she wrote. I loved that the show used the same theme as the 1950s classic starring Guy Williams. After that? Well, “hit and miss” might be generous, but with a game Sierra and a cast of comedy vets like Bill Dana, Barney Martin and Dick Gautier (as “El Excellente”) giving their all, you’ll likely laugh at least twice per episode. 

Miami Vice (1984)
This is the one that got away for Gregory Sierra, though he might not see it that way because he made the decision to leave. Had he not, he might be as well remembered today as Lt. Lou Rodriguez as he is for Chano. But he asked to be written out after just four episodes, apparently because he hated living in Miami. He was replaced by Edward James Olmos, who apparently liked the climate just fine. 

Monday, March 11, 2019

The Unshakeables: The Monkees on Tour

I’m sure the passing of Peter Tork sent many of us back to our Monkees CDs and DVDs and playlists. They remind us of happier, more innocent times, and ease the realization that 50 years have passed, and the icons of our childhoods are approaching their final bows, at least here in this imperfect world. 

Those who own the series or are catching up via Me-TV will likely begin their homage with “The Devil and Peter Tork.” It’s arguably the best of the show’s 58 episodes, which is surprising as it aired in the second and final season, when the group had already become indifferent to the series (something that, thankfully, never happened with the music).

But for me the most memorable episode was “The Monkees on Tour,” which closed out the first season on April 24, 1967. 

When Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider created the show, they never could have imagined a season one finale like this. But things happened fast in Monkee-land, as the series about a fictional band evolved in just months into a series featuring one of the most successful pop groups of the 1960s.  

By April of 1967, the Monkees had scored two #1 hits and two multi-million selling albums. Like Pinocchio after a visit from the Blue Fairy, they found themselves unexpectedly transformed from something fake into something real.

“The Monkees on Tour” chronicled the culmination of that realization. It’s an unscripted documentary that follows the group as they land in Phoenix for a live concert before more than 10,000 fans. 

Here, for the first time, the television audience is not seeing the Monkees as characters – dry-witted Mike, love-struck Davy, manic Micky and lovably dense Peter – but four talented singers and musicians with their own outside interests and personalities.

After an intro segment filmed in Samantha and Darrin Stephens’ living room, we cut to an airport in Phoenix, where the band arrives by Lear jet, separated by a chain-link fence from throngs of screaming fans. 

What follows is an oddly compelling mix of schtick, sentiment and Cinéma vérité, as cameras follow the quartet through room service breakfasts, horseback rides and dirt bike jumps, shenanigans at department stores and radio stations, and finally backstage for the concert. 

As this is the only footage that exists of the first Monkees concert tour, my only regret about this episode is that we don’t see more of it. Granted, the snippets we get of “Last Train to Clarksville” and “Steppin’ Stone” are almost inaudible over the cacophony of audience shrieking. But it still would have been a treat (as well as a rejoinder to those who claimed the band couldn’t play) to show at least one song performed from start to finish. 

More interesting is the clips of each Monkee’s solo performance: Peter plays banjo and sings “Cripple Creek”; Mike plays maracas (!) and sings Bo Diddley’s “You Can’t Judge a Book By Its Cover”; Micky sings Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman” while imitating James Brown, complete with cape routine; Davy is the only one who actually performs a Monkees song (“I Wanna Be Free”). 

The audience loved everything, of course. They could have read excerpts from Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and teen girls would still swoon. But the fact that they were allowed to do what they wanted in those solo spots is what makes them interesting. Here was a moment in Monkee history when these four guys went from being along for the ride to deciding they’d rather drive the car.  

I’m not the only one who thought this episode was noteworthy. On the DVD release there are three separate commentary tracks for “The Monkees on Tour” from Peter Tork, Mike Nesmith and songwriter Bobby Hart.

“This is the only show where we weren’t pretending to be four starving, struggling musicians, but actually were a performing band,” Tork says. “It was our ability to play on stage that led us to think we could play on the records, which led to the recording of ‘Headquarters.’”

The episode closes with a reprise of the group at a Phoenix radio station, where Mike tells listeners “We'd like to thank everybody, for making it a great stay. We'd like to thank The Rolling Stones for being a great group. We'd like to thank The Mamas and Papas for making it good. We'd like to thank Lovin' Spoonful for making it happy, but most of all we'd like to thank the Beatles for starting it all up for us.”

Fifty years later, Monkees fans would like to also thank The Monkees, for adding so many songs to the soundtracks of our lives. 

Friday, March 1, 2019

The De-Valuation of Television

‘Last Call With Carson Daly’ to End NBC Run After Nearly Two Decades’

I was shocked by that headline in Variety. Not because the show was ending, but to learn that it had been on that long. Has it really been 17 years? I still think of Daly as the guy who played Britney Spears videos on MTV.

It’s amazing to me how many network shows (like that one) have been on 5-10 years or more, and I’ve never watched an episode of any of them. Same with the new shows that seemingly debut every week on Hulu and Netflix and other services.

Obviously I spend more time than most watching older shows, so it’s not surprising that I would not be aware of many current series. But I have a feeling I’m not alone. 

In fact, I’m pretty certain that hundreds of television shows have debuted and disappeared over the past 20 years, with the majority of the country unaware of their existence.

These include critically acclaimed series like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, winner of eight Emmys, plus Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild awards. According to Nielsen, that series averaged 1.9 million viewers per episode. That is 0.57% of the U.S. population.

Imagine what would happen if someone made a reference to The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel at a party or a business meeting: what is the likelihood that those in attendance would get it? And that’s a current show – what if someone made that reference 20 years from now? 

For most of its history that’s not how television worked. While there have always been movies, plays and books that went virtually unnoticed, television was different because all of it emanated from a single source, located in almost every home in America. Within that source there were just three national networks and a few local stations, so programming options were limited. We were all watching the same stuff.

That’s why references to popular shows from the 1950s through the early1980s are still fairly common. It’s why generations of tourists who booked cruises thought about The Love Boat as they began their trips; it’s why an overzealous cop might still be labeled a Barney Fife; it’s why Fuller House in 2018 could do a riff on Charlie’s Angels knowing most of its audience would be in on the jokes. 

You see the outpouring of sadness that followed the passing of Peter Tork, who starred on a series that debuted 50 years ago and lasted just two seasons. Sure, there was a musical component to The Monkees that increased its pop culture profile, but the television show was the catalyst for those million-selling records. 

I just finished writing an article on Hee Haw that will be published in a magazine this summer. Maybe you loved the show, maybe you hated it, but you know what it is.

That’s what TV used to be. It was good or bad, but never invisible. It was prominent. It was important. It was arguably the primary source of entertainment and information for three generations of people throughout the western world. 

Today television creates more shows than ever, but its impact on our culture is fleeting. It’s sad to think that quality shows are being missed by 99% of the country. And given the sheer volume of them, and the rapidity with which they come and go, we are at a point I never thought I’d see: a television series has been reduced to the impact of a YouTube video. It’s holds your interest for a few seconds, and then it disappears from the memory.

I know I’ve written about this before. But I think it’s a topic that is worth exploring more than once. It’s not every day that a major communication medium delivers more content than at any time in its history, while simultaneously becoming less relevant. I’d say that’s not a trend that bodes well for the future.