Friday, June 15, 2018

Television: No Longer Something to Talk About

I’ve been a subscriber to Entertainment Weekly magazine for more than 20 years, though lately my love/hate relationship with the publication has been mostly hate. That’s what happens when every staff writer can’t resist the urge to shoehorn his or her political views into stories where they are not relevant. But that’s another topic.

Earlier this month the magazine revamped its television section, dividing the listings into three categories:

“Watch it Live! Everyone will be talking about it tomorrow.”
“Save it! It’s okay to let these build up on your DVR.”
“Binge it! Devour it all at once.”

It’s a testament to how much our TV viewing experience has changed that both “Save it” and “Binge it” would not have been possible for much of the Comfort TV era. “Watch it live” was our only option.

I admit I felt a nostalgic twinge reading what followed: “Everyone will be talking about it tomorrow”, because I remember a time when that would have been true.

I have memories of going to school and knowing with absolute certainty that there would be classmates quoting lines from the previous night’s Happy Days or Welcome Back, Kotter episode. If you’re a bit older or younger than I am, you have those same memories about different shows. 

But such programs do not exist anymore.

In case you’re curious, three of the shows Entertainment Weekly predicted “everyone would be talking about” were Legion on FX, Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce on Bravo, and Ghost Adventures on Travel Channel. Try walking into your office and proclaiming, “Hey, how about last night’s Ghost Adventures!” You would receive the kind of blank stare I used to give my algebra teacher. 

Television really used to be something that brought us together as a nation, whether it was to find out how Richard Kimble was going to get out of another tight scrape, or to share a collective ‘what were they thinking’ at Rob Lowe opening the Academy Awards by singing and dancing with Snow White. 

Of course, even in the days of just three networks there was no series watched by everyone. But with many of the most popular shows from that era, there was a statistical likelihood of entering a crowded room and running into several people who watched what you watched last night.

So when was the last time you could say with confidence that “everyone will be talking” about a show? Of the 20 most watched U.S. television broadcasts of all time, 17 of them are Super Bowls. For the most watched scripted series episode, you have to go back 35 years, to the series finale of M*A*S*H

Next on the list –the final episode of Roots, which aired in 1977.

Such milestones were exceptions, and there have been similar moments in the post-Comfort TV years, including the final episodes of Cheers, Friends, The Cosby Show and Everybody Loves Raymond

But when you go back to the television era that began in the 1950s and continued through the early 1980s, there were shows on every night that were widely discussed around the water cooler the following day.

And even if you didn’t have those discussions, you still had that sense that when you were watching a popular prime time network series, you were sharing that experience with tens of millions of Americans doing the exact same thing at the exact same time. If you were watching Carol Burnett on Saturday night, you just felt that everyone else who was home at the time was doing the same.  

Dallas was a national obsession from its first season through that moment when Bobby stepped out of the shower. And if you looked out your window after your late local news, you could be fairly confident that any lights emanating from darkened living rooms and bedrooms were produced by TVs tuned to The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. 

Here’s the part of all this that will probably seem odd to those who grew up after this time had passed: It felt good. There was something reassuring about being part of something bigger, and feeling some tangible connection to people from one end of the country to another, even though you were doing something as inconsequential as watching a TV show. Those experiences have, many years later, become memories we all share, and still talk about.

Such connections, such common threads, are beneficial for a culture. Television was just one of many that have disappeared over the past two or three decades, with nothing substantial emerging to replace them. Perhaps that’s one reason why we’re in the state we’re in now. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Top TV Moments: Arlene Martel

New York City is home to the United Nations. It is also the birthplace of Arlene Martel, an actress who seemingly played characters from every country represented in that (once) august assemblage. 

She was French on Hogan’s Heroes, Native American on Route 66, Italian on The Untouchables, Hungarian on The Fugitive and Russian on I Dream of Jeannie. On Have Gun Will Travel she played a princess from Montenegro; on The Outer Limits, she was a Spanish cleaning lady. And on Star Trek, of course, she was Vulcan; “Amok Time” may be the best known of her dozens of Comfort TV appearances. If nothing else, it’s the one that gave her a lifetime pass into lucrative convention appearances.

An exotic beauty regardless of heritage, Martel is another of those perennial guest stars from the classic TV era who was equally engaging in broad comedies and serious drama. It’s not mere coincidence that many of the episodes listed below rank among the very best from their respective series.

Death Valley Days (1960)
“Human Sacrifice” is the earliest Arlene Martel appearance I’ve had a chance to see, and it’s one of the more substantive roles from the early stage of her career. She plays the wife of a Shoshone Chief who discovers that, after her husband dies, tribal custom requires she be put to death as well, so she can join him in the afterlife. Not surprisingly, she isn't a big fan of that custom.

Have Gun Will Travel (1961)
Unlike Death Valley Days, a pleasant but by-the-numbers western where the performances are on the stiff side, here Martel has to hold her own in what is nearly a two-character story opposite charismatic Richard Boone, and she is wonderful. Paladin is hired to track down the runaway Princess Serafina; at first she is openly antagonistic, but after a night in the desert she’s cooking him flapjacks and contemplating giving up her kingdom.

I love the writing in the episode’s middle third, as the unlikely duo share a meal and Serafina laments her regimented life, while Paladin suggests that no one, regardless of their station, is truly free. The Roman Holiday overtones in “The Princess and the Gunfighter” are obvious, especially in the closing moments: “If there were no such thing as duty…if there were only wishes…I would wish away every kingdom in the world but this one, and I would never go back.” 

The Twilight Zone (1961)
The Rod Serling-scripted “22” can still scare the bejeezus out of first-time viewers. Barbara Nichols plays a dancer hospitalized for fatigue. During her stay she is traumatized by a recurring nightmare, in which she follows a shadowy figure down to the basement, where the morgue is located. Just as she approaches the entrance a severe looking nurse appears and says, “Room for one more, honey.” But is it just a dream? Arlene Martel plays the creepy nurse. It’s a small part but one not easily forgotten. 

The Outer Limits (1964)
Here’s an interesting trivia question (and no, I don’t have the answer): How many actors appeared in all three of the landmark science fiction/fantasy shows of the 1960s: The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and Star Trek? Martel not only accomplished this, all three of her episodes would likely rank high with each respective fanbase. Here, it’s the powerful and poetic “Demon With a Glass Hand” starring Robert Culp as…well, that would be telling. The script was by Harlan Ellison, who (as usual) spent the next 30 years griping about how television butchered his genius. 

Hogan’s Heroes  (1965)
Martel debuted as the plucky French resistance fighter Tiger in the series’ second episode (“Hold That Tiger”) and it’s easy to see why they brought the character back in four more episodes over the series’ six-year run. In her final appearance (“Operation Tiger”), she is captured by the Gestapo and Hogan defies a direct order, risking his life and his team’s greater mission, to come to her rescue. Was he driven by loyalty to their cause, or something more? Just another unanswered question in a series that ended with too many of them. 

I Dream of Jeannie (1965)
“Russian Roulette” was one of the more ambitious episodes from the show’s first season, before the series fell into a repetitive formula that did not serve its talented cast well. Martel is Sonya, one of two Russian cosmonauts visiting NASA. She falls for Tony (of course) and Jeannie is jealous (of course), but she’s powerless to intervene after her bottle winds up in Russian hands, and Sonya becomes her new master. With limitless power in her grasp, Sonya’s first command to Jeannie is to have Tony kick a General in the keister. 

The Monkees (1966)
Apparently someone casting this series enjoyed “Russian Roulette,” as Martel is once again asked to play a comic Russian villain in “The Spy Who Came In From the Cool.” As Madame Olinsky she happily throws herself into the musical montage silliness, and has a fun rapport with her evil but not very bright sidekick, Boris.
Boris: A teenager just stopped me and wanted a date. 
Madame Olinsky: Teenage girls are very aggressive in this country. 
Boris: It wasn't a girl.

Star Trek (1967)
“Amok Time” was a real bell-ringer of an episode (little Vulcan humor there) featuring the famous Kirk vs. Spock battle to the death, put into motion by Arlene Martel as the haughty T’Pring. An interesting footnote is that this is not the only time Martel appeared with Leonard Nimoy on television. Both are featured in a 1960 episode of the western The Rebel, and three years after “Amok Time” you’ll see them again in the Mission: Impossible episode “Terror,” though sadly their characters never share any scenes. 

The Wild, Wild West (1967)
Arlene Martel has a smaller role in “The Night of the Circus of Death,” but it’s a rare instance where she gets to speak in her own sultry voice, without a foreign accent. She’s radiant here as circus performer Erika, in an episode with colors that really pop on DVD. It’s not surprising at all when Erika earns the coveted invitation back to James West’s train after the case is solved. 

Columbo (1974)
“A Friend In Deed” featured Martel’s third appearance in this groundbreaking detective drama. Here she’s just one of the ensemble, but once again good fortune seems to follow her into the episodes in which she appears; Columbo fans always rank this one among the series’ standouts. 

Monday, May 28, 2018

The Unshakeables: Tootie’s Tantrum

When I introduced the idea of The Unshakeables in an earlier blog, I used the term to describe episodes of TV shows that lingered in the memory long after they had ended. They were powerful in a way that most shows – even good shows – are not.

My first nominee was a potent and prescient episode of The Bold Ones: The Lawyers. So you might be surprised that the next episode selected for this status comes from a sitcom that was not award-winning, groundbreaking or even consistently funny. In fact, The Facts of Life was often mocked for its frequent reliance on “very special episodes” that tackled weightier topics in such a heavy-handed way that it undercut their sincerity.

But the season three episode “Starstruck” stuck with me because of a scene that would normally be the last thing I’d want to watch ­­– a temper tantrum. 

It is triggered when Mrs. Garrett tells Tootie that she cannot attend a Jermaine Jackson concert, despite Tootie being president of his fan club, and receiving free tickets from the concert promoter. There is a charity event scheduled for the same night that they had agreed to attend prior to finding out about the show, and Mrs. Garrett believes that commitment should be honored.

But Tootie is having none of it. 

This was a scene that, had it been played at the same level as every other scene in the series, would not be particularly memorable. Like most Comfort TV era sitcoms, The Facts of Life was content to stay within an established emotional range. There would be scenes when characters would be joyful or sad or angry, but their feelings would be expressed in a way that was consistent with how its stories are told.

Here, however, Kim Fields was allowed to break through those limits. Tootie’s desperation to attend that concert reaches a frenzied emotional pitch that takes not just Mrs. Garrett by surprise, but the viewers as well.

I remember that moment from when the episode first aired. I was doing something else at the time, but the frantic sounds coming from the TV drew me back into the show, and startled me with their intensity even then.

Charlotte Rae also plays the moment well: “We’ll go,” she says quietly, visibly shaken, as Tootie collapses into her arms, sobbing. “It’s all right. We’ll go.” Any anger over Tootie’s defiance has been displaced by disbelief. 

That decision doesn’t sit well with the other girls, who deride Mrs. Garrett for giving in. “I’ve got to work on my kicking and screaming,” Natalie quips.

“This wasn’t a tantrum, girls,” she responds. “You didn’t see her. She was…hysterical. Oh, she was going to go to that concert if she had to jump out the window and run all the way to the city.”

Jo: “Come on, Mrs. Garrett, not Tootie.”

Mrs. Garrett: “That’s right. Not our Tootie. But right now, she’s not our Tootie.”

Blair: “Do you think taking Tootie to the concert’s gonna help?”

Mrs. Garrett: “At this point, it’s the only thing I can do.”

If “Starstruck” delivered only a study of the force of celebrity worship, it would be memorable. But it also shows what can happen when that fantasy of meeting your idol crashes into a hard reality. 

After the concert Tootie goes backstage to meet Jermaine. It doesn't go well. 

It's a scene that will likely resonate with a lot of people who got to have a moment with someone famous they have admired from afar - myself included. At one point I felt a strong attachment to a particular TV personality, and after a period of time established a connection with that person – but it turned out little better than what happens to Tootie here. Long time ago, well over it, but it’s soul-crushing at the time.

Yet another reason why, in this case, a very special episode of The Facts of Life actually is kind of special.

Friday, May 18, 2018

New Episodes of Classic TV Shows: Would it Work?

If you visited Las Vegas this year, you may have seen some of these shows playing at various resorts on and off the Strip:  

The Australian Bee Gees
MJ Live: Michael Jackson Tribute Concert
Bruce in the USA: Bruce Springsteen Tribute
Purple Reign: The Prince Tribute Show
Abba: The Concert – a Tribute to Abba
Wanted: A Tribute to Bon Jovi
Jay White is America’s Diamond: Honoring Neil Diamond

There were more, but you get the idea.

When I moved to Las Vegas back in 1982, the only tribute show that drew an audience featured an Elvis impersonator. But today, it seems there is a much greater interest in celebrating the music of previous generations.

So I can’t help but wonder: Could the same thing happen with television shows?

Classic shows are already revisited in myriad ways. There have been parodies, like The Rerun Show (2002) and The Real Live Brady Bunch stage show. We’ve also had a wave of (mostly lousy) feature film adaptations, where the original series is a starting point from which to take the concept into new territory.

Remakes? Tim Daly headlined a new version of The Fugitive in 2000. Family Affair was revived in 2002 with Gary Cole as Bill Davis and Tim Curry as Mr. French, and Charlie’s Angels returned to television in 2011. None of these attempts were successful. New takes on Dragnet and The Bionic Woman also flopped. The new Dallas had its moments. The new Dynasty did not. 

More recently we’ve had something that comes closer to a true continuation of a classic series, with the new episodes of Roseanne and Will and Grace now airing, and more Murphy Brown coming soon. Ratings have been very impressive, suggesting audiences are glad to be reunited with TV characters they first met decades ago. 

So would audiences be equally happy to spend more time with Ann Marie and Don Hollinger, or James West and Artemus Gordon, or the Cartwright family?

There are obvious reasons why these projects could not be attempted with the original stars. But if you carefully and respectfully recast the roles, reproduce every other aspect of the original show, and resist any urge to "re-imagine," "update" or "modify," would that result in a successful revival? If the right tone was captured would there be an audience for new episodes of Gunsmoke or Mannix, I Dream of Jeannie or Father Knows Best, Perry Mason or The Man From UNCLE

I think so – if the new episodes stayed true to what made the source material successful, with no self-awareness, no casting or scripts based on 21st century sensibilities, and no winking at the audience. The only goal should be not to remake but to revive, with as much authenticity and attention to detail as possible.

Think about The Brady Bunch Movie (yes, I know, I always come back to The Brady Bunch). While that project had its own satriric slant on the material, consider the possibilities of putting a lookalike cast like that one into a new 30-minute script with the kind of plot viewers came to expect from the series, and without exaggerating aspects of their characters for comic effect. Would the result be close enough to the actual show to satisfy fans? 

Since the objective is to produce new episodes that would fit comfortably into the series’ original runs, that requires setting them in the same era; so no cell phone for Joe Mannix, no GPS for Bo and Luke Duke, no Chip and Ernie Douglas doing homework on a computer. And no updated wardrobe for Mike Brady.

Again, would it succeed? Could a sincere attempt to write, produce and perform new episodes of old shows capture enough of the flavor of the originals – or would the hurdle of accepting a new cast in iconic roles be too great to overcome?

I think it would work. And I think the ratings success of networks like MeTV proves there is an audience that would embrace a continuation of shows that ended decades ago. I also believe there is an audience eager to have more family-friendly viewing options, and most of the series from the Comfort TV era fit into that category.

There is another option for reviving classics, and that is through the same technology that will soon be used to bring Marilyn Monroe back for a new movie about her life. Today’s CGI can create digital avatars of characters as they appeared in a show from 50 years ago. Voices? Those can be recreated as well. Many films now combine practical sets with digital effects, and most viewers can’t tell where the real parts of a frame stop and the CGI starts. 

Far too expensive to do for a TV series now, but there was a time when videocassette recorders were cutting-edge technology that cost $1,500. 

I’m not saying it might happen for classic TV shows – I’m saying it absolutely will happen. And I for one cannot wait.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The Magician: Purchase or Pass?

The Magician is one of those shows with a notoriety that endured well beyond its brief run.

Just 22 episodes aired from 1973-1974, but 40 years later the series could be found on many classic TV fans’ “most wanted” lists for a DVD release. Those wishes were finally granted last year.

I recently completed my journey through the set. Here are a few random thoughts.

New Missions
If you’re a credits-watcher as most classic TV fans are, you’ll notice a lot of producers, writers and directors associated with The Magician that used to work for Mission: Impossible, including Paul Playdon, Bruce Lansbury, Reza Badiyi, Stephen Kandel, Laurence Heath, Barry Crane, and Sutton Roley. Perhaps it’s not all that surprising, since for a time M:I also featured a magician character (Leonard Nimoy as The Great Paris). Seeing those names raised my expectations for the series, as they are the television equivalent of The Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

The Pilot – Not So Magical
As is typical of a TV movie that doubles as a pilot, “The Magician” delivers a more ambitious story and bigger-budget action sequences to help secure a series order. It’s an adequate introduction to Anthony Dorian (prudently changed to Anthony Blake for the series), a successful, wealthy magician compelled to help people in need, even at the risk of his own life. His friend, journalist Max Pomeroy (Keene Curtis) provides the backstory; Tony was once arrested on a false charge and sentenced to prison in South America. That ordeal transformed him into a crusader for truth and justice.

Chase scenes with helicopters and speedboats and Tony’s (very sweet) Corvette Stingray provided sequences that would play during the opening credits for the entire season. But the meandering, bloated story is not emblematic of the much better series that would follow. 

Bill Bixby
The series works because of Bill Bixby. He was so intrinsic to my enjoyment of every episode that I can’t imagine anyone else as Blake.

Bixby was already a familiar and well-liked TV presence after The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, and I wonder if it seemed a stretch at the time to cast the sensitive, sentimental father figure into a role that required more than a dash of James Bond cool. But he pulls it off. No other actor could intone such a wide range of responses into a simple “Yes” as an answer to a question. Sometimes he’s imparting empathy, sometimes resolution, and other times, said with a wry smile, it clearly means, “I’m not buying any of your crap.” 

Real Magic (Maybe)
One of the show’s selling points was that every illusion, from simple card tricks to elaborate feats of prestidigitation, was achieved without film editing or special effects. Bill Bixby was a magic fan and a talented amateur magician, who likely received additional pointers from frequent series guest Mark Wilson. But there were some potentially dangerous sequences, including an underwater stunt in “The Illusion of The Evil Spikes,” that I can’t imagine would be trusted to a series star to perform solo.

The First Season is Better Than the Second
While there are standout episodes from both seasons, I liked the first year’s shows better because of its supporting cast – the aforementioned Keene Curtis as Max Pomeroy, Todd Crespi as Max’s son Dennis, and Jim Watkins as Tony’s pilot Jerry Anderson. Why did Tony need a pilot? Because in season one he lived on his own plane, which was a great set in the episodes where the interior is seen. But in season two Curtis and Crespi are gone along with the plane, and Tony takes up residence in L.A.’s Magic Castle. Jerry is still around but rarely gets anything to do, and I didn’t care much for new regular Joe Sirola as club owner Dominick. 

Familiar Faces
As with many series from this era, The Magician earns bonus points from me for its guest casts, including Comfort TV favorites Carl Betz, Brooke Bundy, Lynda Day George, William Shatner, Anthony Zerbe, Susan Oliver, Yvonne Craig and Joseph Campanella.  

Best Stories
From the first season I particularly enjoyed “The Vanishing Lady,” filmed on location in Las Vegas, the twists and turns in “Lady In a Trap,” and the elaborate heist Tony foils in “Nightmare in Steel.” Season two highlights include “The Illusion of Black Gold,” with Eric Braeden as a particularly charismatic villain (who doesn’t find Tony’s tricks at all amusing), and “The Illusion of the Cat’s Eye,” which opens with a stunning museum theft, with a clever solution that would have not been out of place on Mission: Impossible.

The Verdict
Purchase or pass? This was an easy purchase decision for me. The Magician has the re-watchability I require for any series that takes up permanent residence in my DVD collection. 
 If you have checked it out or plan to, let me know your thoughts. 

Monday, April 30, 2018

Top TV Moments: Ken Berry

The term “song and dance man” belongs to a bygone era in entertainment. You’d never hear Bruno Mars, who can indeed sing and dance, described that way. But for Ken Berry it’s a label that fits just right. 

Even without his musical talents, which were rarely featured in his series work, the Moline, Illinois native was always a welcome TV presence due to his Midwestern manners and everyman likability. And if you watch the Archive of American Television interview where he reflects on his career, you’ll discover his genial personality was not a result of acting. He’s just a really nice guy.

He starred in three successful series, which by itself puts him in elite company among television stars. But viewers who know him only from those shows have never seen Ken Berry at his best, electrifying an audience with athletic footwork reminiscent of Gene Kelly. Yeah, he was that good. 

The Ann Sothern Show (1960)
Ken Berry’s proverbial big break came when he was spotted by Lucille Ball in a musical stage revue, and invited to join a stable of up-and-coming talents at Desilu. That connection led to his first recurring TV role in a series headlined by one of Lucy’s best friends, Ann Sothern. He played Woody, the eager young bellhop at the Bartley House, in 11 episodes of The Ann Sothern Show. It was a part anyone could play – he usually had one scene and three or four lines – but everybody has to start somewhere.

Dr. Kildare (1961)
My Dr. Kildare knowledge is embarrassingly limited, so I can’t say much about Berry’s character of Dr. John Kapish, who appeared in 25 episodes between 1961 and 1964. Since his name did not appear in the opening credits, I presume it was an incidental role. 

The Dick Van Dyke Show (1964)
Berry made two appearances as Tony Daniels, a dancer and choreographer on The Alan Brady Show. Normally that wouldn’t be substantial enough for a top TV moments list, but “My Mother Can Beat Up My Father” is a really funny episode, with a script that would now be deemed offensive, which makes me like it even more. There’s an amusing scene about halfway through with Berry and Dick Van Dyke that unites two of TV’s nicest guys – as they discuss the best way to clobber Rob’s wife.

F Troop (1965)
Everyone thinks F Troop ran longer than two seasons because it spent decades in continuous syndication, including as part of Nick at Nite’s celebrated classic TV line-up. The role of amiable, clumsy Captain Wilton Parmenter gave Ken Berry his first real taste of TV stardom, as well as a reputation for nimble pratfalls, which for a dancer are just another form of choreographed movement. 

The Hollywood Palace (1965)
During F Troop’s run Berry appeared on The Hollywood Palace with costars Forrest Tucker and Larry Storch. Most of his ‘60s and ‘70s variety show appearances with everyone from Jim Nabors and Andy Williams to Leslie Uggams and Julie Andrews are out of circulation. Thankfully, at least part of this one’s on YouTube. 

Mayberry RFD (1968)
Perhaps this underrated series never achieved the iconic status of The Andy Griffith Show – but it wasn’t AfterMASH either. Mayberry was always a pleasant place to visit, and Ken Berry as farmer turned town councilman Sam Jones fit comfortably into that hospitable setting. This is my favorite of his series work, as the material is more suited to his easygoing character, and is more understated than the broader comedies at both ends of his career.  

The Lucy Show (1968)
Outside the variety show genre, “Lucy Helps Ken Berry” offers the best showcase for the actor’s song and dance skills. He plays Ken Jones (any relation to Sam?), a dance school owner who needs to save his business by teaching a dance routine to some clumsy truck drivers in just one week. It makes sense in context. In the finale Berry dons a dapper straw hat and cane and performs “Steppin’ Out” (the Fred Astaire one, not the Joe Jackson one).

Kinney Shoes Commercials (1970s)
To be honest, I enjoy Berry’s musical tributes to the “Great American Shoe Store” more than any episode of F Troop

The Brady Bunch (1974)
I discussed “Kelly’s Kids” already in the Top TV Moments piece on Brooke Bundy. She and Ken Berry play Brady neighbors Ken and Kathy Kelly, who adopt one son from an orphanage, then go back to adopt his two best friends – one is African-American, the other is Asian. The show was a spinoff attempt written by Sherwood Schwartz, trying to recreate his Brady success with another variation of a blended family. Despite the likability factor of both Berry and Bundy, it likely would not have lasted long. 

The Ken Berry ‘Wow’ Show (1972)
This was the one that got away – a chance to headline a summer variety series and finally showcase all of his musical talents to a national audience. 

The result was silly and hokey but those weren't the worst sins in the world back then, and Berry as expected was among the most gracious of hosts. The cast included Steve Martin, Teri Garr and Cheryl Ladd, which sounds impressive now but meant nothing in 1972 because nobody knew who they were yet. Unfortunately, shows that debuted in summer rarely drew enough viewers to earn a fall pick-up, especially those that aired on Saturday nights when most people had better things to do. It was gone after five episodes.

Fantasy Island (1979)
IMDB lists seven visits to Fantasy Island on Ken Berry’s resume, no less than three of which have him playing an average Joe looking to walk on the wild side. If you were curious I’d start with season three’s “The Lookalikes/Winemaker” as it gave Berry a chance at a dual role – one good guy, one hard-hearted, womanizing gambler. But even his bad guys aren’t all bad.

Mama’s Family (1983)
By number of episodes and length of run, this is Ken Berry’s most successful TV venture – and it’s the one I have the least interest in watching.  

The Carol Burnett Show sketches that introduced Vicki Lawrence’s ‘Mama’ were not just funny – there was an undercurrent of desperation in the dysfunctional family relationships that delivered some unexpectedly dramatic moments within the laughter. Mama’s Family had no such subtext. It’s a dumb comedy that is inexplicably loved by several people I know with otherwise admirable taste. So maybe it’s me that just doesn’t get it. 

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Classic Family Sitcoms: Are They Unrealistic?

Perhaps the most frequent observation about family situation comedies in the Comfort TV era, especially among those who dislike them, is that they are unrealistic because they present an idealized view of family life. In fact, this viewpoint is now so ubiquitous that even folks who enjoy these shows largely accept it. 

But I don’t. Never have, and never will.

Before anyone objects, let’s take a closer look at the term ‘idealized.’

The Oxford Dictionary defines something idealized as “regarded or represented as perfect or better than in reality.”

That’s actually two definitions, as “perfect” is hardly the same as “better than in reality.” Marilyn Monroe was better than reality. Audrey Hepburn was perfect.

So thinking back on any of these shows from the 1950s - 1970s, did they portray an American family as perfect? I don’t think so.

To me perfect connotes an absence of conflict; a life free from worry over health issues or money issues or relationship troubles.  But these topics were frequently explored in sitcoms from this era. Granted, problems were almost always resolved with no real harm done, but I can provide dozens of examples of episodes where a dream job didn’t come through, or the boy a young girl had a crush on didn’t ask her to the dance, or a chance at public acclaim turned instead into a moment of embarrassment.  These were struggles that would have been familiar to any viewers at home.  

With “perfect” off the table, those seeking to make this case must now try and prove “better than reality.” That should be pretty easy, right?

This is where you get people saying things like “Father Knows Best was idealized because Robert Young was a kind, understanding dad, but my dad was a drunk with a bad temper,” or “the kids on The Brady Bunch always had money to buy new clothes and go out on dates, but in my family we had to struggle just to pay the bills and put food on the table.”

Well…okay. But we have to acknowledge that no television show could ever encapsulate a recognizable reality for everyone in such a large and diverse nation. So it’s unfair to expect Leave it To Beaver or The Donna Reed Show or The Cosby Show to epitomize everyone’s personal experience. 

But if these shows managed to approximate the real lives of some families in America, then that “better than reality” indictment is nullified. And I believe they do.

If you disagree, then you would need to offer examples of situations or behaviors from episodes of these shows that would not be achievable by a real family in the era the episode aired. If anyone tries, I’ll look forward to those responses.

Shows like Roseanne have exacerbated this assessment. “Now that’s a real family!” you hear critics rave, and perhaps those caustic (but still loving) relationships are indeed more familiar to a higher percentage of the viewing audience. My parents never spoke to each other the way the Conners do, so for me that show was a reality I didn’t recognize. 

What saddens me most about this topic is how readily we dismiss happy, loving, well-adjusted traditional families as an impossible fantasy. What does that say about us: that a series about a middle-class couple and their kids can be put into the same category as a show about a man with a talking horse?

The more this perception persists, the more grateful I am for these shows, and for the DVDs and cable networks that continue to air them every day. In a culture that continually celebrates the lowest common denominator, they represent what is possible when we treat those closest to us with patience, tolerance and compassion. 

If you see your childhood in these shows, as I often do, then you have been blessed. If you didn’t, then aspire to them as a reality worth pursuing, and a road map for how to get there. It's not as hard as you might think.