Thursday, July 17, 2014

Mission: Impossible: TV for Smart People

“Please slow it down – I get stomach cramps!”

That quote was taken from a letter sent to the producers of Mission: Impossible from someone who apparently couldn’t take the stress.

I’m glad they didn’t listen. The show’s frenetic pace was one of its greatest assets, comparable to nothing else on TV until Jack Bauer began his first race against the clock on 24. From the lit match that kicked off the opening credits to the final freeze-frame, Mission: Impossible just flat-out moved, and demanded that you pay attention. 

If you did, and your stomach didn’t hurt, your efforts were rewarded. M:I rarely insulted the intelligence of its viewers. Don’t expect the surplus exposition found in other hour-long dramas – you won’t watch scenes in which Jim Phelps turns to Cinnamon and says, “So that means the agent we captured yesterday is planning on contacting his government at midnight, to receive his final instructions on the assassination attempt of General Morales!” No, sorry, you keep up, with no help from the characters.

The title was well chosen because the focus is always on the mission, not the operatives who carried it out. That made casting critical, as an audience used to building familial attachments to TV characters would now have to cheer on a team of emotionless government workers.

Who were they? One-sentence descriptions will suffice: Leader Dan Briggs (later Jim Phelps), a brilliant tactician of stoic demeanor; Barney Collier, electronics genius; Willie Armitage, the team’s muscle, Rollin Hand, master of disguise, Cinnamon Carter, fashion model turned Mata Hari. The characters were not further developed, because their personalities or lives before the Impossible Missions Force mattered not at all. 

Instead, the drama emerged from the high stakes at play; while Mannix was beating up small-time hoods, and Steve McGarrett was chasing Wo Fat on Hawaii Five-O, the IM Force was toppling foreign governments and averting nuclear holocaust.

But it wasn’t just what they did that made them special, it was how they did it. Viewers used to the near misses and lapses of judgment that were written in to pad out 60-minute shows could now watch a team that didn’t make mistakes. The IM Force got its orders in the first scene and then, step by step, carried them out flawlessly. This was a team that triumphed because they were smarter than their adversaries, not stronger.

Because of this, on those rare occasions when something did go wrong, the sense of danger was far more pronounced. When enemy agents captured Cinnamon in “The Exchange,” it wasn’t like Dan Tanna having to rescue Binzer on Vegas. The threat seemed real.

Theirs was a partnership of professionals, who often went about the task at hand in blessed silence and without commenting on their own cleverness. Every episode featured long scenes with little or no dialogue, which ironically constituted some of the best writing in 1960s television.

For those who want the full story of how this series came to be, I would direct you to Patrick White’s outstanding book The Complete Mission: Impossible Dossier. He shares some great stories about the show’s mad genius creator, Bruce Geller, the role that Lucille Ball played in approving the series pilot, and why star Steven Hill left the show after its first season, to be replaced by the actor who became synonymous with M:I, Peter Graves. 

Hill’s episodes, incidentally, are consistently excellent but were rarely syndicated, which thanks to DVD is no longer an issue. Syndication was a lousy way to discover this series anyway, because there was simply no acceptable means to cut even 5 minutes out of its best episodes. 

Not everyone liked it. In its first season more viewers watched Lawrence Welk, and one critic in Saturday Review wrote a scathing piece that condemned agents who break the laws of other nations, and are never brought to justice.

He had a point. At a time when half the nation was incensed about U.S. forces in Vietnam, here was a show that proudly depicted saboteurs getting their marching orders from “the Secretary” (presumably Secretary of State), who then undermined the domestic affairs of other nations by manufacturing evidence, framing and entrapping government officials, and killing with no remorse.  

Heaven knows how many advocacy groups would demand that Mission: Impossible be taken off the air if it were introduced today. But times were different in the 1960s, and I leave it to you to decide if that’s a good thing.

Almost all of the series’ best episodes can be found in its first three seasons, before the quality was diminished by recurrent cast turnover and a shift to more domestic stories. Here are seven superb Missions worth taking again.

The Pilot
The IM Force is dispatched to Santa Costa to recover two stolen nuclear devices. Everything that made the series a classic was already in its first episode – the self-destructing message delivery system, Lalo Schifrin’s brilliant theme, Rollin’s rubber masks, Barney’s technological wizardry, a cracking pace and a plot that kept viewers on the edge of their seats for a full hour. Also joining the team – Wally Cox, in a memorable one-shot appearance as a safecracker. 

Operation Rogosh
This first-season show was the first of many episodes in which the team creates an elaborate charade to convince an enemy agent that he has been transported through time or across a great distance. Here, they have just 36 hours to break an “unbreakable” terrorist planning a series of attacks on Los Angeles.

The Carriers
The team infiltrates a replica of a typical American city, located behind the Iron Curtain, where enemy agents are trained to think and act like Americans as part of a germ warfare plot. Such places actually existed during the Cold War. In the best scene, the Russians teach Cinnamon how to go-go dance. 

The Legacy
Four men, all sons of Adolf Hitler’s most trusted officers, meet in Switzerland to recover a Nazi fortune, which will be used to start the Fourth Reich. Rollin impersonates one of the heirs, prompting many anxious moments. There’s also a great, unexpected twist at the end. 

The Astrologer
Mission: retrieve missing microfilm and a kidnapped freedom fighter; the challenge, do it while 40,000 feet in the air on a two-hour airline flight. The tight quarters, limited time frame and lack of escape route all intensify the suspense.

The Mind of Stefan Miklos
“I don’t think there has ever been a more difficult show to write in the history of American television than Mission: Impossible,” said one veteran TV writer. Episodes like this one, which may be the series’ best, are the reason. The team has to lead a brilliant intelligence officer to a false conclusion, by leaving clues that can’t look like clues. 

The Glass Cage
How do you free someone from an escape-proof glass cubicle that is constantly guarded and video-monitored, in the heart of a maximum-security prison? The Impossible Missions Force finds a way. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Comfort TV Renaissance

Well, this was unexpected.

When I started this blog two years ago, one of the first pieces I wrote expressed my hope that the television shows of the 1950s-1970s would continue to find an audience among future generations. Now, it appears that is already happening.

It’s About TV posted that the MeTV network, which airs classic TV shows 24/7, now ranks 19th among all national cable networks. (source: Nielsen) Among the 25-54 demographic, MeTV attracts more viewers than CNN and 80 other cable outlets. 

Now, I suspect more of these viewers are closer to the ‘54’ side of that 25-54 range, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a growing number of 20- and 30-somethings have started to tune out the loud and coarse celebrations of what is wrong with the world, and are finding solace in a kinder spot on the television dial.

What’s significant about this is that 20- and 30 year-olds did not grow up with shows like Make Room for Daddy, The Donna Reed Show and Petticoat Junction, either in first-run or syndication. These viewers are encountering Leave it to Beaver, Daniel Boone, The Mod Squad, Adam-12, Hogan’s Heroes and Get Smart, among other MeTV offerings, for the first time.  And if the ratings are any indication, they like what they see. 

So why is this happening? I can think of three reasons.

1. Other TV continues to find new ways to suck.

We have more viewing choices than ever these days, and there’s a lot of good stuff out there, but so much of cable has become one big noisy reality show.

Bravo, one of the networks MeTV now bests in the ratings, used to be a haven for performing arts programs and independent films. Today it’s most popular offering is the “Real Housewives” franchise. At one time, TLC was an acronym for The Learning Channel, and described itself as “a place for learning minds.” More recently it has become home to I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

Even the once-proud CNN has seen better days, as evidenced by the two weeks of coverage it devoted to the plane that disappeared over the Indian Ocean. The news is important, but wallowing in tragedy is not.

2. There’s a reason they’re called classics.

While nostalgia and childhood memories can enrich the viewing of a favorite old program, they are not essential.

For some of us these shows have been part of our lives for so long it’s hard to think of anyone having their first encounter with The Twilight Zone or The Brady Bunch. But why wouldn’t someone raised on Friends and Felicity be able to appreciate the brilliant writing of the former, or the simple pleasures of the latter?

The age of the material doesn’t matter, nor will the way our lifestyles have changed in the past five decades (hey, why don’t Greg and Marcia have cell phones?). Put a kid in front of a 3 Stooges short from 1935 and they will laugh (well, a boy will, anyway). Quality is quality. It’s the same reason my generation learned to revere Sinatra after growing up on Led Zeppelin (though we still like them too).

“Better or worse” comparisons are tricky without some qualifiers. Certainly today’s television is often more sophisticated, but it’s also often more cynical. Old situation comedies can be formulaic, but most of them provide a more optimistic view of our life and times. Is The Fugitive better than The Sopranos? Whatever your response, there’s no doubt that the plight of Dr. Richard Kimble is just as powerful today as it was 51 years ago. 

3. There’s always more great TV to discover

I know classic shows can still resonate with a modern audience, because thanks to networks like MeTV and Antenna and Cozi, I’m still discovering many of them myself. I have no personal history with shows like The Bold Ones or Wanted: Dead or Alive, but now they’re staples on my DVR.

Lately I’ve also been enjoying the horror anthologies Thriller and Night Gallery, despite their hit-and-miss nature. Haven’t been able to get into Bachelor Father, but Naked City is a remarkable urban crime drama, and Route 66 has a unique vibe all its own. The location shooting offers a fascinating window into America in the 1960s, just before the dramatic social changes that dominated the latter half of the decade. 

There was a time when I thought the Nick at Nite experiment of building a network around vintage television had come and gone for good. But now I am more confident that whatever the future holds for this medium, there may always be a place to watch Lucy sell Vitameatavegamin, to listen to the Monkees sing “Daydream Believer,” and to find out the results of the trial after Sgt. Joe Friday arrests another lawbreaker.

Now, let’s see if people still care about Honey Boo Boo in 50 years. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Disappearance of Murphy Brown

There is no pre-set formula for achieving classic TV status. But when a series stays on the air for 10 years, earns praise for the quality of its writing and ensemble cast, wins numerous Emmy Awards, and impacts the popular culture in a way that merits reference in nightly news broadcasts, that series almost inevitably qualifies as something special. 

So why has Murphy Brown, which did all of these things, not endured like, say, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, a series with very similar DNA?

I used to watch Murphy Brown every week. I looked forward to the recurring bits and gags, from Murphy’s love of (badly) singing classic Motown to her never-ending quest for a competent secretary. I enjoyed the visits from her mother, played by the wonderful Colleen Dewhurst, and the way the series blended fiction and reality by casting several prominent television journalists (Connie Chung, Linda Ellerbee, Joan Lunden) as Murphy’s antagonistic colleagues.

I remember the milestone episodes, such as when Murphy gave birth to her son, an event that generated headlines when Vice-President Dan Quayle questioned the wisdom of glorifying single-parent households. This inspired a brilliant episode in which Quayle’s comments were incorporated into the story, along with a few shots at the politician’s inability to spell “potato.” 

This was a show that seemed at home in the classic TV universe, never more so than when Marcia Wallace reprised her role as Carol Kester from The Bob Newhart Show. Finally, Murphy had capable help, at least until Bob Hartley (Newhart) arrived to entice her back to Chicago.

And yet, I have no desire to revisit these episodes. And I’m apparently not alone; the first season was released on DVD in 2005, but sales were so low that subsequent seasons are still not available. 

Why is that critical “re-watchability” factor that defines the Comfort TV era missing from this once popular and esteemed series? After pondering this question for a while I’ve come up with three possible answers.

1. It Came Along Too Late
The original run of Murphy Brown (1988-1998) emerged at a time when viewers were no longer embracing sitcoms the way they had in previous decades. While many of the series’ characters had real-world counterparts that were immediately recognizable, the Murphy Brown dramatis personae never became archetypes. Today’s cable news channels have no shortage of attractive blonde females, some with dubious journalism credentials, yet no one would ever refer to one of them as a Corky Sherwood (played on the series by Faith Ford). Despite 10 years and nearly 250 episodes, the characters introduced by the series never penetrated the pop culture as deeply as Ted Baxter or Lou Grant.

2. It Was On Too Long
Speaking of which – even the diehard Murphy Brown fans out there would concede that the show lost its mojo somewhere around season 5 or 6. Series creator Diane English left, as did reliable supporting players Pat Corley and Grant Shaud. The addition of Lily Tomlin probably seemed like an inspiration but it weakened the chemistry of the newsroom scenes. The final season presented a story arc in which Murphy was diagnosed with breast cancer. Several sources report that these episodes triggered an increase in mammograms, so it’s hard to disparage shows that may have actually saved some lives. But would you want to watch them again?

3. It Was Too Current
Name-dropping was a rich source of humor on Murphy Brown. But how many people today would laugh at a Strom Thurmond joke? Combine that dated quality with a stridency of one-sided political opinion, and the result is a series that may have played well in its day but now offers the same experience as reading an old newspaper. Contrast this with The Mary Tyler Moore Show, a newsroom-centric show that aired 20 years before Murphy Brown but resisted taking strong positions on the issues of the day. Back then, the first rule of situation comedy was to entertain, not proselytize; why alienate half of your audience?

Another 15 years have passed since Murphy Brown left the air, and television has since become even more hostile and more divisive. That inspires many of us to return to the Comfort TV of past generations. But where some shows age like fine wine, others sadly spoil like whole milk.

Murphy Brown deserved its praise and its Emmys. I’m glad Candace Bergen finally found a place to stretch her comedy skills after hosting several memorable Saturday Night Live episodes in the ‘70s. But if it’s all the same, I think I’d rather watch Chuckles bite the dust one more time. 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Chronicles of Riverdale: Archie Comics on Television

Seventy years in high school? Even a Kardashian could graduate in that time, but not Archie Andrews. He entered Miss Grundy’s class during World War II and is still there, sitting next to that putz Reggie.

Given the enduring popularity of Archie Comics it’s not surprising that television would try to adapt the saga of Riverdale’s oldest teenager. 

The first attempt was a 1964 pilot that failed to receive a series order. An appealing young cast (including bubbly ex-Mousketeer Cheryl Holdridge as Betty) might have helped the show find an audience, but we’ll never know now. Of course, had Archie been picked up, William Schallert (cast as Archie’s father) would not have been available to play Patty’s “Poppo” in The Patty Duke Show, and that’s an alternative classic TV universe I’d rather not visit. Check it out:

Animation seems like a more natural way to transfer these characters to TV, but despite several attempts the Archie gang never found a proper showcase. The Archie Show debuted in 1968 and was canceled in 1969. It was followed in rapid succession by Archie’s Fun House (1970-1971), Everything’s Archie (1973-1974), The US of Archie (1974-1976) and the Bang-Shang Lollapalooza Show (1977-1978), which I guess featured Jughead joining Jane’s Addiction. 

There were nine shows in all, none of which made a noticeable dent in the popular culture (outside of their musical component, which we’ll get to momentarily). Their failure is even more glaring given that two Archie Comics spinoff shows, Josie and The Pussycats and Sabrina the Teenage Witch, fared much better.

So what went wrong? Filmation did a serviceable job with the look of the various Archie shows – the animation was basic but colorful, no different than most Saturday morning cartoons. But that’s about all they got right.

The voices for the characters were not just ill-chosen, they were atrocious. Both Archie (Dallas McKennon) and Reggie (John Erwin) speak in harsh, grating tones. Veronica (Jane Webb) sounds like Penelope Pitstop on helium. Betty (also Jane Webb) fares somewhat better, but Jughead (Howard Morris) doesn’t sound anything like the laid-back hipster of the comics.

When you think of how well the producers of the Peanuts specials selected voices for their beloved characters, you realize how imperative it was for Charlie Brown, Lucy and Linus to sound right, even if we’ve never heard them speak before. The vocal talent miscasting on The Archie Show and its successors exemplifies what happens when this crucial element is lacking.

The other misstep with the Filmation Archie shows is one that is not uncommon to adaptations of comic books in this era – the errant presumption that the studio knows what makes the characters work better than their original creators. Rather than adapt the kinds of stories that Archie fans had enjoyed for decades – getting dates for the dance, high school sports competitions, Archie trying to keep his jalopy running – the show’s writers opted for more outlandish concepts, like Reggie being chased by Bigfoot on a deserted island. When that didn’t work, Archie’s Funhouse turned the gang into a Saturday morning version of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, with quick fadeout gags and corny jokes.

But let’s give credit where it’s due – the same creative team that botched everything else was much more successful with the shows’ musical component. After bubblegum svengali Don Kirshner helped launch the Monkees, he recruited singer Ron Dante and ace songwriters like Jeff Barry (“Da Doo Ron Ron”) to turn The Archies into a marketable singing group. Debut single “Bang Shang a Lang” stalled just outside the top 20, but “Sugar Sugar” sold 3 million copies, topped the Billboard chart for 4 weeks, and was the #1 single of 1969. 

While the cartoons sputtered, it’s ironic that the only effort that got it right was a live action made-for-TV movie that aired only once, and allowed the characters to do the one thing they could never do in the comics – grow up.

From 1990, Archie – To Riverdale and Back Again was set at the gang’s 15-year high school reunion. In this version, thrice-divorced Veronica returns from Paris, Jughead has become a psychiatrist, Betty a schoolteacher, Reggie a health club owner. Archie, rather like Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, never left his hometown, choosing to put his own dreams on hold to help others.

While 1990 falls just outside the Comfort TV era, thankfully the world had not yet become so cynical and dismissive of the innocent charms of material like this. The movie never condescends or ridicules, content rather to embellish without changing the personalities of these familiar characters; Jughead is still a little off-center, Reggie is still a cad and Betty is still the sweetest girl in town. When “The Archies” take the stage at their reunion to perform “Jingle Jangle,” anyone who grew up with these characters will feel a wonderful nostalgic rush.

Casting was spot on, and you’ll see a few familiar faces – Lauren Holly as Betty, former Saturday Night Live cast member Gary Kroeger as Reggie, and Charlie’s Angels’ sidekick David Doyle as Mr. Weatherbee. Christopher Rich, who played Archie, now costars on Melissa and Joey…I never watched the show, so I wonder if it ever acknowledged a “reunion” between Archie and Sabrina.

To Riverdale and Back isn’t perfect – Jughead’s rap duet of “Sugar, Sugar” with his son seems desperate, but overall the film has it’s heart in the right place, and some nice things to say about the value of friendship and remembering where you’re from. Still no DVD, but the entire movie can be watched on YouTube. 

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Bonanza: A Classic for Every Season (Summer of MeTV)

Note: This review is part of the Summer of MeTV Classic TV Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Click here to check out this blogathon's complete schedule.

After two years, it's long past time that Comfort TV saddled up for a visit to the old west. 

I know that for some classic TV fans, westerns are the only comfort viewing that resonates. The genre thrived in the 1950s, survived the turbulent ‘60s and all but faded out by the disco era. But as with comedies and legal procedurals and medical dramas, its best shows – like Bonanza – are as enjoyable now as in those thrilling days of yesteryear.

America first met the Cartwrights of the Ponderosa on September 12, 1959. Back then there were 27 other westerns airing on the three major networks, which may explain why their adventures were initially lost in the shuffle. But ratings soared after a time slot switch to avoid competition from Perry Mason.  Bonanza became television’s second longest-running western (after Gunsmoke), lasting 14 seasons and 430 episodes. From 1964 to 1967, it was television’s top-rated program.

What made this particular western so popular? It starts with appealing characters, portrayed by an outstanding ensemble cast. 

Eric Cartwright, better known as Hoss (Dan Blocker) was the series’ heart and soul, and despite his imposing presence he was particularly beloved by younger viewers. Ben (Lorne Greene) was a rock of stability, faith and optimism, despite being three-times widowed. Adam (Pernell Roberts) was the intelligent but brooding eldest son. Handsome Joe (Michael Landon) was the youngest, the most hotheaded, and the Cartwright most often left heartbroken by a girlfriend’s death or betrayal.

But Little Joe wasn't alone at being unlucky in love. The inability of any Cartwright to hold on to a girl for more than one episode became a running joke among fans. The series even had its own variation on Star Trek’s doomed red-shirted crewmen; if a woman appears on Bonanza in a blue dress, she will almost certainly disappear or die before the closing credits. 

But it wasn’t all romance and loss on the Ponderosa, nor was it always the same old saloons and shootouts. Bonanza mixed comedies and tragedies, action-packed outings with social commentary. Viewers never knew what type of story they’d find from week to week, which helped the series avoid the formulaic stories of some TV westerns and contributed to its remarkable longevity.

As evidence of Bonanza’s consistency and versatility, I’ve selected one classic episode from each of its 14 seasons – watch for them on MeTV. 

Season 1: “The Henry Comstock Story”
Written by series creator David Dortort, this flashback episode features a memorable performance from Jack Carson as prospector Henry Comstock, one of the founders of Virginia City.

Season 2: “The Gift”
Martin Landau and Jim Davis guest star in this adventure in which Joe is attacked by Comancheros while returning from Arizona with a special present for his father.

Season 3: “The Crucible”
Pernell Roberts is featured in what is arguably the series’ best episode. Robbed and left for dead in the desert, Adam is apparently rescued by prospector Peter Kane, played by Lee Marvin. Adam’s relief turns to terror when Kane is revealed as a madman, who seeks to prove through torture that a morally upright man can be driven to murder. Their twisted battle of wills is riveting. 

Season 4: “Any Friend of Walter’s”
Hoss, en route to see his girlfriend Bessie Sue, is forced to take shelter in a rundown shack that is home to Obie, a mangy prospector (yes, the Cartwrights met quite a few prospectors in their day) and his dog, Walter. Obie insists that the mutt is one of the smartest dogs in the West, but when bandits attack Walter proves he ain’t no Lassie.

Season 5: “Calamity Over the Comstock”
The Cartwrights meet western legends Doc Holliday and Calamity Jane (played with va-voomish appeal by Stefanie Powers).

Season 6: “Old Sheba”
There’s an elephant on the Ponderosa, and no one is quite sure how to get rid of him. This is one of the better comic outings to feature Lorne Greene.

Season 7: “The Other Son”
The Wages of Fear, Bonanza-style. Ben hires an explosives expert to help transport nitroglycerin across a mountain range to the site of a mine disaster. This is one of the series’ most suspenseful episodes. 

Season 8: “A Christmas Story”
I’m always a sucker for holiday episodes – this one has Hoss playing Santa Claus and Wayne Newton singing “Silent Night.”

Season 9: “Showdown at Tahoe”
Ben and Candy (David Canary) square off against an outlaw gang on a paddle-wheel steamboat.

Season 10: “The Wish”
Michael Landon wrote and directed this episode, in which Hoss helps an African-American family (headed by guest star Ossie Davis) fix their farm and deal with racist threats from a neighboring town. 

Season 11: “Caution: Easter Bunny Crossing”
This choice will likely tick off a few fans, but I can’t help it. While it’s been years since I’ve caught this episode, I have never forgotten the sight of Hoss, dressed as a giant bunny, throwing Easter eggs at a gang of stagecoach robbers.

Season 12: “Kingdom of Fear”
The Cartwrights are abducted and forced to work on a chain gang by a sadistic judge. Shot in the week following Robert Kennedy’s assassination, this Michael Landon-penned episode was originally deemed too brutal for broadcast and didn’t air until 3 years later.

Season 13: “The Lonely Man”
The series’ best Hop Sing episode finds the Cartwrights’ loyal cook in love. Sadly, his romance doesn’t fare any better than those of his employers.

Season 14: “Forever”
A heartbreaking story written and directed by Michael Landon that serves as an unofficial tribute to Dan Blocker, who died prior to the season’s start. When Ben and Joe grieve for the latest in a long line of Joe’s ill-fated love interests, their tears were really in memory of their departed costar and friend. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

Seeing Double: Comfort TV’s 10 Best Dual Role Performances – and the 5 Worst

The longer a TV show runs, the greater the temptation to indulge in one of the medium’s most time-honored clich├ęs – having one of its stars take on a dual role. Most of these occasions are little more than one-shot gimmicks, but some shows have elevated this dubious set-up into something unforgettable.

Here, in reverse order, are ten of television’s best double takes, followed by five from actors who should have been content with just one character.

10. Tina Louise as Ginger Grant and Eva Grubb
Gilligan’s Island
Bob Denver and Jim Backus also played multiple roles during the show’s three seasons, but Tina Louise’s dowdy performance as Eva Grubb was the series’ most memorable departure from the usual monotony of foiled island escapes. The episode “All About Eva” also earns bonus points for blending two classic TV chestnuts into one story – the dual role and the “plain Jane becomes a knockout” transformation.

9. James Best as Rosco P. Coltrane and Woody
The Dukes of Hazzard
James Best appeared in more than 80 films prior to Dukes of Hazzard, and was often cast as villains far more menacing than the sputtering Sheriff Rosco.  In “Too Many Roscos,” Best dusted off that steely expression and hardcore persona that served him well in those serious stories.  

8. Barbara Eden as Jeannie and Jeannie II
I Dream of Jeannie
It has taken awhile but of late I’ve been more impressed with Barbara Eden’s one-woman sister act. Beyond the brunette wig and the switch from pink to green harem costume, I think the contrast between her wide-eyed Jeannie and the character’s more sultry, scheming sister is still underrated by classic TV fans. Eden played both roles in several episodes, beginning with 1967’s “Jeannie or the Tiger.” 

7. Patrick Troughton as The Doctor and Salamander
Doctor Who
The Doctor Who adventure “The Enemy of the World” qualifies as a recent addition to any dual role ranking, though the story in which it took place first aired back in 1967. Only one episode of this 6-part story had been known to survive, until the other chapters were recently discovered in a vault in Nigeria. Now reassembled and released on DVD, the story does not disappoint, particularly in the distinction between Troughton’s whimsical, almost childlike Doctor and his portrayal of the brutal dictator Salamander.

6. Lindsay Wagner as Jaime Sommers and Lisa Galloway
The Bionic Woman
You know who really likes actors in dual roles? Emmy voters. In the first-season Bionic Woman episode “Mirror Image,” Lindsay Wagner played Southern belle Lisa Galloway, altered by plastic surgery to look like Jaime Sommers so she could steal some top-secret documents. She won the Emmy for Best Actress over what many felt was more distinguished competition, including Michael Learned (The Waltons) and Sada Thompson (Family). The Los Angeles Times reported there were boos in the pressroom after the winner was announced. With her bionic ear, Jaime probably heard them too. 

5. David Canary as Adam and Stuart Chandler
All My Children
The evil twin story is a mainstay of daytime drama. Fans still recall easygoing doctor Grant Putnam (Brian Patrick Clarke) squaring off against psycho killer Grant Andrews on General Hospital, or Natalie Marlowe (Kate Collins) being thrown down a well by Janet Green, a.k.a. “Janet from another planet,” on All My Children. But David Canary’s work as brothers Adam and Stuart Chandler had more heart and less histrionics than most twin stories. It also won him five Emmys.

4. Jack Larson as Jimmy Olsen and Kid Collins
The Adventures of Superman
Viewers used to Jack Larson’s amiable “Gosh, Mr. Kent!” persona had to be shocked at his transformation into a vicious mobster in “Jimmy the Kid.” His twisted, grimacing smile, clenched teeth and intense stare are a complete departure from that of Superman’s pal. Larson fondly recalled the episode when I interviewed him in 1996: “I’ve had the ultimate compliment of people asking me, ‘where did they get that actor who looked like you?’”

3. Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha and Serena
As is often the case with Bewitched, you can enjoy the show for what it is, a still-funny supernatural sitcom, or you could look just beneath the surface and discover a series that had a little more on its mind. The episodes featuring Serena encapsulate the social and generational conflicts of the 1960s, with Elizabeth Montgomery convincingly playing both sides. Note the contrast between Sam, the sophisticated New England suburbanite who dresses formal for country club dinners, and her free-spirited, flower child cousin who wouldn’t be caught dead with all those stiffs. Note also the barely-hidden glance of admiration Sam betrays toward Serena’s bohemian lifestyle, and consider if Darren is holding her back in ways that have nothing to do with magic. 

2. Brent Spiner as Data and Lore
Star Trek: The Next Generation
It’s the tale of two android brothers, only one of whom can experience emotions. Unfortunately, that’s also the one that needed a factory recall. All of Lore’s appearances are series highlights, but Brent Spiner was never better than in the season 4 episode “Brothers,” in which he played Data, Lore and their creator, Dr. Noonien Soong.

1. Patty Duke as Patty and Cathy Lane
The Patty Duke Show
There’s no way this couldn’t be #1. The dual role here was no gimmick – the entire series was built around the concept of identical cousins, both played by a teenage actress who had already earned an Academy Award. Hardly surprising then that she was able to create two fully realized characters and keep them both interesting through 104 episodes.

Several stories called for Patty to imitate her cousin Cathy, or vice versa, and the modulation that Duke employs here is pretty astonishing. Just by the way she holds her eyes, or the suggestion of a mannerism that doesn’t quite fit, she depicts the character she is playing, and the character her character is trying to play. Even with the sound off, you can always tell what’s going on.

Watch the breakfast table scenes, where Duke makes Cathy left-handed and Patty right-handed, or how natural the conversational rhythm seems when the two characters are talking to each other – after awhile you completely forget the novelty of what’s happening. This is one (or two of) the very best performances in the Comfort TV era. 

The 5 Worst Comfort TV Dual Roles

Christopher Knight (The Brady Bunch)
“Two Petes in a Pod” aired late in the series’ fifth and final season, when everyone seemed to already be phoning it in. Christopher Knight’s transformation from Peter Brady to lookalike student Arthur consisted of nothing more than putting on a pair of glasses. 

Lucille Ball (Here’s Lucy)
One of the strangest episodes in the entire Lucy canon is “Lucy Carter meets Lucille Ball,” in which Lucy, in her usual Here’s Lucy character, wins a Lucille Ball lookalike contest. The show was a 30-minute commercial for Ball’s upcoming film Mame, which was one of the biggest bombs of her career.  Now, if Lucy Carter had met Lucy Ricardo, that might have been something special.

Leif Garrett (Wonder Woman)
Stretching those acting muscles, teen pop star Leif Garrett plays…a teen pop star and his twin brother, who also becomes a teen pop star. “My Teenage Idol is Missing” was an inauspicious start to the series’ last season.

David Hasselhoff as Michael Knight and Garth Knight (Knight Rider)
A classic slice of ‘80s cheese, in which Hasselhoff plays his evil twin by donning facial hair that made him look like Barry Gibb. Rumor has it that The Hoff put an end to Garth’s appearances because the makeup took too long to apply. Ah, nothing like dedication to one’s craft.  

Liberace (Batman)
The flamboyant entertainer seemed right at home as acclaimed pianist Chandell, but as Chandell’s crooked brother, Harry? Let’s just say we’ve seen more intimidating mobsters in our time – like these guys. 

Friday, May 9, 2014

Can TV Watching Be a Hobby?

Before I started this blog there have been times, such as during interviews or in social situations, where I have been asked if I have any hobbies. And my standard answer was usually “golf and tennis.”

It was an honest answer but I did not say anything about watching television – not because I was ashamed of it, but because I wasn’t certain if doing so qualifies as a hobby.

According to Webster (the dictionary, not Emmanuel Lewis) a hobby is “something that a person likes to do in his spare time.” Watching old TV shows certainly meets that minimal standard, but I am not sure that definition really goes far enough.

Engaging in a hobby should mean that you are “doing” something, like playing a sport or going to museums. Or that you are engaged in an activity that is creative or educational or goal-oriented, such as painting, cooking or crochet, or collecting something like stamps or coins or Mego Kristy McNichol action figures (just me on that last one? Ok).  

When watching television, one could argue it’s not really about doing something as much as having something done to you. You’re taking in creative material from a stationary position, while making no contribution to it or embellishing it in any way. If watching TV is a hobby, so is listening to the radio in your car while you’re driving.

However, perhaps some distinction can be made between watching passively for relaxation, and selecting and viewing classic programs with a purpose.

There are times when it’s sufficient to relax on the couch, flip indiscriminately between channels, and let whatever program you land on wash over you, as you put your mind in neutral to decompress after a long work day.

Sometimes I do that too, but most of my evenings of classic TV viewing require advance planning. I choose specific episodes of certain series based on what I’m in the mood for, or if I’m looking to spend a couple of hours in the company of a particular actor or the work of a specific writer.

For instance, when baseball season began a few weeks ago, I enjoyed an evening watching these shows:

“Lucy and the Little League” (The Lucy Show)
One of the series’ best first-season episodes, with a message about overzealous little league parents that resonates as much today as it did 51(!) years ago.

“Leo Durocher Meets Mr. Ed” (Mr. Ed)
Featuring Hall-of-Fame Los Angeles Dodger legends Leo Durocher, Sandy Koufax, Vin Scully, and the unforgettable image of a horse sliding into home plate. 

“The Dropout” (The Brady Bunch)
In which pitcher Greg Brady decides school is no longer important, after Dodger great Don Drysdale praises his curveball. The final scene with Barry Williams and Robert Reed is one of the more touching father-son moments on the series.

“The Mess of Adrian Lissinger” (Get Smart)
Guest-star Pat Paulsen plays Ace Weems, who murders the members of the CONTROL softball team. “They were always throwing balls at me,” he tells Max, who replies, “But Ace, you were the catcher!”

“Take Me Out of the Ballgame” (Family Affair)
Jody’s dreams of joining the neighborhood stickball team are dashed by lack of talent, but Buffy proves to be a natural.

I think there’s some creativity involved in scheduling nights like this.

If I sound a little defensive it’s because those with a connoisseur’s appreciation for classic movies never face this type of scrutiny. Older movies are celebrated as a window into how people lived in different times and places. They have messages inherent in the narrative, and a subtext that reflects a social or political perspective  – sometimes, one that was not intended.

The same can be said for television shows – good television shows, anyway. Beyond their entertainment value I’ve learned something from almost every series I valued enough to collect on DVD – including some shows perceived only as weightless fluff.

So upon further review, I think television can qualify as a hobby, and from now on I will add it to my list of responses. Though at this point, it is probably no longer necessary to do so.