Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Vegas Episode

What happens when you take classic TV characters out of their familiar surroundings and send them to Las Vegas?

The question has been posed in countless writer’s rooms over the past 50 years, resulting in enough Vegas episodes to fill a week-long marathon.

However, a distinction should be drawn between shows that say they’re going to Vegas, and those that actually do it. It’s just a 50 minute flight from L.A., but the logistics of moving a show that far for one or two episodes was obviously too daunting for most budgets and shooting schedules. 

Of all the series with a Las Vegas episode, 90-95% relied on a stock montage of Strip resorts and Glitter Gulch neon, followed by an interior establishing shot of characters entering some sorry-looking fictional casino, hastily assembled on a soundstage, with one blackjack table and five slot machines.

It could work when it was done right – Perfect Strangers had a hilarious show that pretended to be set in – let’s all say it like Balki – “Vay-gaaaaaaaaas.” But usually the most memorable episodes are those where you actually see the characters in the city.

Let’s take a look at four stand-outs from this much smaller sample size. Having lived in the Las Vegas area since 1982 I have a particular affinity for these shows. They captured a moment in time before recent building booms robbed the resort areas of so much of their colorful heritage.

That Girl (“She Never Had the Vegas Notion, Pts. 1 & 2”)
Ann Marie gets a job in a Vegas show supporting headliner Marty Haines (Jack Cassidy, as always playing Jack Cassidy). Strait-laced Donald Hollinger has too much to drink, and Marty tricks him into believing he married another of the star’s entourage, as a way to prove to Ann that even the most virtuous man can lose himself in Vegas.

The episodes were filmed in 1969, a great time in the city’s history. You’ll see Ann and Donald dodging cars while crossing Fremont Street (no longer necessary as it’s now closed to traffic), and riding a merry-go-round outside Circus Circus. But most of the filming was done at the legendary Sands, where the Rat Pack reigned throughout the 1960s. If you love that era of show business, it’s a thrill to see the lush hotel grounds and the lavish casino, and a sign outside the showroom that promotes an upcoming appearance by Louis Prima. 

The Partridge Family (“What? And Get Out of Show Business?”)
Nothing like starting at the top: in the first episode of this classic series, the Partridge Family appears at Caesars Palace.

As their iconic bus approaches the resort’s main entrance, we see their name in huge letters across the marquee; below, in smaller letters, two other shows are promoted – one for some guy named Duke Ellington. As this was the pilot, filmed before anyone had heard of the series, I can only guess how many passers-by wondered about this group that was top-billed over one of the legendary jazz composers and bandleaders of the 20th century. You can also make out the marquee for the Flamingo Hilton across the street, where Sonny & Cher were appearing.

The performance that follows this scene was not shot in the resort’s famed Circus Maximus Showroom or anywhere else in the city. In fact, the Vegas footage comprises just one minute of the episode. But the sequence adds an authenticity to the family’s show business success. 

The Bionic Woman (“Fembots in Las Vegas, Pts. 1 & 2”)
In which Jaime goes undercover (but not much cover) as the strongest showgirl in Las Vegas history, and chases a Fembot past the fountains outside Caesars Palace. If you couldn’t tell from the title alone, this is a classic slice of Comfort TV cheese.

The casino sequences were filmed at The Maxim, which was located across the street from the original MGM Grand. It closed in 2001. 

Charlie’s Angels (“Angels in Vegas, Pts. 1 & 2”)
The series’ season 3 debut had something for everyone – a cameo from Las Vegas’s most famous detective (Robert Urich as Dan Tanna), Kris Munroe singing with Darren Stephens (Dick Sargent), Kelly Garrett joining the famous Folies Bergere revue, and Sabrina Duncan romancing a casino owner played by Dean Martin, who between takes was romancing Kate’s stand-in, Camille Hagan.

Granted, the whodunit payoff at the end is pretty weak, but there’s much fun to be had along the way, including a great speedboat chase and shoot-out at Lake Mead. Most of the action was shot at the Tropicana Resort, which is still here, and the Dunes, which sadly is not. 

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Bewitched Continuum, and Other Outstanding Classic TV Episode Guides

I love episode guides.

There are dozens of television show companion books in my library, and I particularly enjoy revisiting those that devote most of their pages to an in-depth examination of each episode from their respective series.

Books like this were plentiful 15-25 years ago, when there was more of a market for TV companion volumes. Back then, you could go into any bookstore and the “Film/TV” section would comprise an entire aisle. Today, that subject is lucky to secure a single shelf in the six or seven bookstores still in business. 

Since the advent of the Internet, episode guides have moved online – and almost all of them are crap. There are exceptions – “Family Affair Fridays” over at Embarrassing Treasures offers wonderfully insightful and frequently hilarious analysis of that charming sitcom, but most website guides provide nothing beyond episode titles, airdates and guest cast listings.

That’s why I was delighted when Adam-Michael James’s new The Bewitched Continuum landed with a Yellow Pages-like crash on my doorstep. It delivers more than 600 pages of Bewitched episode guide. That will either strike you as overkill or “Oh, yeah!” If you’re in the latter category, you’ll definitely want to check out this exhaustively researched chronicle. 

An episode guide does its job when it makes you want to take the journey through the series again. Not that most classic TV fans ever need an excuse. But a well-written guide offers the possibility of seeing something new in a 40 year-old TV show, or better understanding how a single episode fits within the context of the entire series. It adds to our appreciation of a creative work.

As I began reading The Bewitched Continuum I found myself learning things about shows that I have watched a dozen times. James provides a synopsis of each episode, followed by a review that focuses primarily on how consistent the show played by the rules it established for witches and witchcraft (short answer: not too well).

The author also points out the best moments in each show, offers renewed appreciation for the series’ still-impressive special effects, and cites examples of inspired dialogue (writers always appreciate good writing). In addition to the episode guide, he provides a by-the-numbers overview of Bewitched that tells us how many times Darrin was fired by Larry Tate (15) and how many times Endora calls Darrin “Durwood” (133!) among dozens of other trivia nuggets. 

If you enjoy books like The Bewitched Continuum, here are five other classic TV tomes with episode guides done right. I’ll refrain from including my own efforts in my Dukes of Hazzard and Charlie’s Angels books – that is for others to judge.

1. The Lucy Book (Geoffrey Mark Fidelman)
In one volume you’ll get detailed episode guides to I Love Lucy, The Lucy Show, Here’s Lucy and Life With Lucy. The author is a  fan of his subject, but he is not afraid to call out episodes where Lucy was just going through the motions. 

2. Growing Up Brady (Barry Williams)
Very few classic TV actors would have any interest in sharing their thoughts on every episode of the series that made them famous. But here, Barry Williams offers the ultimate insider’s view of The Brady Bunch, including the episode where he was stoned on camera. 

3.  The Fugitive Recaptured (Ed Robertson)
One of television’s crown jewels deserves an episode guide worthy of its status. Ed Robertson delivers with discerning show reviews and interviews with cast members, producers, writers and series creator Roy Huggins. 

4. The Avengers Dossier (Paul Cornell, Martin Day and Keith Topping)
It’s quirky, with star ratings for such categories as “Kinkiness Factor,” “Champagne” and “Eccentrics.” But The Avengers was a unique show that merits an equally off-kilter appraisal.

5. The First 28 Years of Monty Python (Kim “Howard” Johnson)
Monty Python historian Kim Johnson has written five books on the British comedy troupe. Here, every episode of the Flying Circus is described and dissected, along with quotes from all six Pythons on the stuff they liked, the stuff they didn’t, and what was censored for American broadcast. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

James Best: Remembering Rosco

I have already posted that Comfort TV is not a place for obituaries, but I felt compelled to write a few words about James Best, whose death was announced today. I don’t want to break my own rule, so let’s call this a remembrance instead.

When I wrote my book on The Dukes of Hazzard back in 1998, James Best was the only actor involved with the show who asked whether he would be paid for doing an interview. I’m not saying this to disparage the man so close to his passing – because then, as now, I understood why he felt entitled to ask that question.

Like so many television stars of that era, who watched with disbelief as the cast of Friends negotiated themselves a deal that paid each of them $1 million per episode, Jimmie Best always felt that he was not fairly compensated for his talent and his contribution to a classic and much-loved television series.

We’re not comparing shows from the 1950s to those 30 years later, when such salary escalation would be expected: Dukes ended in 1985; Friends debuted in 1994. There is less than ten years between them. And now that both have ended their runs we think of them in the same terms, even if they appeal to different fan bases – classic, long-running shows, that still air on TV every day, and that still make us happy every time we get a chance to be reacquainted with old friends. 

How much of the enduring love for The Dukes of Hazzard can be attributed to James Best? I was a teenager when the show debuted, so for me at first it was all about the Dukes themselves. Bo and Luke, so cool, fighting the good fight, outrunning the hapless Hazzard cops, jumping the General Lee over rivers and trains and whatever else stood in their way to clearing their names following yet another crime they did not commit.

And then there was Daisy. No explanation needed for the impact she made on a young man at the time.

But when I revisited the show as an adult, in preparation for writing the book, I gained a renewed appreciation for Best’s remarkable, ever-sputtering portrayal of Sheriff Rosco. Together with Sorrell Booke as Boss Hogg, the pair was one of the most underappreciated comedy teams that television ever produced.

I’m sure I thought they were funny the first time around – but then those scenes played more like filler between car chases and hot pants sightings. Today, they are the highlight of every episode. The timing, the physical comedy bits, the way Rosco’s affection for Boss never wavered despite the treatment he received. Boss and Rosco were a redneck version of Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton – frequently at each other’s throats but the best of friends beneath the bluster. 

One need look no further than the season two episode “Granny Annie”  to appreciate Rosco’s affection for his “little fat buddy.” Boss has been kidnapped and Rosco tied up at the sheriff’s station, but he gets to the CB radio and pleads with Bo and Luke to rescue his friend, despite all the trouble Boss has inflicted on the Duke family. 

It’s a poignant and beautiful moment in a show that never liked to get too sentimental. And it’s a reminder of what actors can bring to scripts that don’t have much else going for them. No other series illustrated this more clearly than The Dukes of Hazzard. The show’s writing was generally weak and the plots mind-numbingly repetitive. But we never got tired of watching as long as it was Boss and Rosco (and Enos) taking on Bo, Luke, Daisy and Uncle Jesse. 

When John Schneider and Tom Wopat walked out for most of the series’ fifth season, and were replaced by two lookalike actors, the show became almost unwatchable. Likewise, when James Best decided he was tired of driving squad cars into lakes and not being given such basic accommodations as protective clothing and ear drops to prevent infection (once again, he was right), he left the show until his demands were met. A parade of substitute sheriffs (Dick Sargent, Clifton James, James Hampton) could not even approach the unique comedic talent Best brought to the role. 

So when James Best asked if he would be paid for an interview, he was saying, “I created a character that millions of people still love. I brought something to this show that no one else likely could have. I didn’t get a cut of the merchandising on a show that inspired thousands of products, and even though you can still watch me play Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane every day on television, the checks from that job stopped coming a long time ago.”

I got it. My book’s publisher predictably refused the request, but Jimmie ultimately came around and did the interview anyway. He wanted to be a part of the book. He wanted to say some kind words about Sorrell Booke, who had passed away. He wanted the fans to know that he loved Rosco, too.

Underpaid? Absolutely. But who can put a price on what is now 40 years of happy memories shared by millions of fans? Even those Friends salaries don’t come close.

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Museum of Comfort TV Salutes: Mrs. Beasley

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.

Let’s start with television’s most famous doll (or at least its most famous non-homicidal doll –sorry, Talky Tina fans). 

Mrs. Beasley was the best friend to Buffy Davis on Family Affair from the first episode of the series until its final episode, five years later. By then, most young girls had started to outgrow their dolls, as illustrated in the most heart-shattering manner possible by Jessie in Toy Story 2 (curse you, Sarah McLachlan!).

But it never seemed odd for Buffy to still care about her constant companion, though one might wonder how Anissa Jones felt about playing some of those scenes when she was 13 years old. 

This is one of those situations where I wonder whether series creator Don Fedderson had a purpose in selecting the type of doll that was right for Buffy, or if it just seems like a wonderfully perceptive choice in retrospect.

Most little girls prefer baby dolls, so they can play the mother; or they’ll be drawn to the wish-fulfillment appeal of Barbie, with her Malibu dream house and square-jawed boyfriend and endless closet full of perfect outfits.

Mrs. Beasley, with her old-fashioned blue polka-dot dress and spectacles, looked like a kindly grandmother. That seems strange at first, but it makes perfect sense that a little girl who lost her parents would be more comforted by the presence of a mature image than by an infant. Here was an older person who cared about her, who was never going to leave her behind. 

The doll’s most memorable appearance came in the first season episode “Mrs. Beasley, Where Are You?” in which Mr. French accidentally knocks her off the terrace ledge of Uncle Bill’s deluxe apartment in the sky. Buffy’s crippling separation anxiety,  a recurring theme throughout season one, is brought back to the fore as Buffy tries to cope with another loss: “People you love always go away. I know.” 

Family Affair. Not for the faint of heart.

Mrs. Beasley also plays a pivotal role in the climax of “The Toy Box” from season two, which starts with Uncle Bill doing his best Rob Petrie impression after tripping over Jody’s skateboard. That mishap inspires a new Davis home rule: any toys not put away properly will be locked up and donated to charity.

You probably see where this is going. One inadvertent jostle as Buffy runs off to wash for dinner lands Mrs. Beasley on the floor, and when Mr. French sees the doll lying there he is devastated at the thought of what happens next (Sebastian Cabot is amazing in this very brief scene). 

Thankfully, Uncle Bill believes the experiment has served its purpose, and not only commutes Mrs. Beasley’s sentence, but also liberates all the other confiscated toys. Whew!

Mattel introduced a 21-inch talking version of Mrs. Beasley to the toy market in 1967, one year after Family Affair debuted. This created another classic TV connection for the doll, as the voice in the Mattel version was provided by Maureen McCormick.  

This was a natural marketing opportunity, but I was surprised at how many other Mrs. Beasley items were also produced, including coloring books and paper dolls and a jigsaw puzzle and even a “Where’s Mrs. Beasley?” board game.

Remco tried to replicate the success of Mrs. Beasley with Kitty Karry-All, the doll Cindy dragged around a few early Brady Bunch episodes. It didn’t work.

If you want a Mattel Mrs. Beasley now, it will cost you more than $200. A lot of the dolls are still in circulation, but very few still talk or have the original black plastic glasses, which broke easily. Of course, the one on display in our Comfort TV museum is safely under glass where it can be enjoyed by future generations.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Terrible Shows I Like: The New Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Terrible Shows I Like:

Monday, March 9, 2015

Classic TV Two-Part Episodes: Hits and Misses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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