Monday, July 24, 2017

Comfort TV Coast to Coast: 50 States, 50 Classic Moments (Part 5)

Like all summer trips, our state-by-state classic TV tour of America must come to an end. But at least we’re finishing up strong with visits to Mount Rushmore, Southfork Ranch and the Double R Diner, where they make some damn fine coffee.

South Dakota
Did you know there was a secret base inside Mount Rushmore, where the President can hold clandestine meetings away from the fake news-generating media? This national security secret was leaked not by the Deep State, but in a 1981 episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century called “Testimony of a Traitor.” Somehow the republic survived. 

The choice here is between two iconic shows from the 1950s. From Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, Fess Parker starred in a series of telefilms as the legendary Tennessee frontiersman Davy Crockett. 

They launched a Crockett craze that had millions of school kids wearing coonskin caps. 

Classic family entertainment, but I’m going to instead select “Tennessee Bound,” a 1955 episode of I Love Lucy. En route to Hollywood, Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel get caught in a speed trap in Bent Fork, Tennessee and wind up in jail. Fortunately there’s an old friend nearby in Lucy’s cousin Ernie, played by Tennessee Ernie Ford. The episode also features Aaron Spelling before he became one of TV’s top producers, and the unforgettable Borden Twins as Teensy and Weensy. 

Like New York, Texas is a state with many choices but one clear winner. Dallas captured the cowboy roots, oil-fueled opulence and outsized swagger of its namesake. 

And it earns bonus points for authenticity as the Ewing homestead of Southfork Ranch is actually located in the Lone Star State and not on some Southern California backlot. It’s still a popular tourist attraction. 

We haven’t cited a musical variety show yet, so Utah goes to Donny & Marie, which debuted in 1976 and moved production to the Osmond Studios in Orem, Utah the following year. As with most variety shows from the 1970s it’s a mix of sometimes cringe-worthy comedy segments, wonderful guest stars and nostalgic musical moments. I know more than a few guys my age who were in high school then and crushing hard on Marie, though they were too cool to admit it. 

After playing a character perfectly suited to his talents on a sitcom considered a classic in its own time, I had my doubts about Bob Newhart’s next series attempt. But Newhart surrounded the actor with another memorable cast and even more outrageous situations than he faced on The Bob Newhart Show

Wonderful Henry Mancini theme song, too. The show was set at Vermont’s Stratford Inn. The hotel used for the exteriors is called the Waybury Inn and is indeed located in East Middlebury, Vermont. 

I think we’ll have to go with The Waltons here, which is not to say it’s a choice I made reluctantly. It was a wonderful show but it ran at least two seasons too long, after many of the core cast members either left or passed away. Plus, it ruins a little of the magic to find out Walton’s Mountain is actually in Burbank. 

“Comfort TV” are two words that will never be associated with Twin Peaks

And we do have a more wholesome alternative for Washington in Here Come the Brides with David Soul and Bobby Sherman. 

But here we’ll let authenticity and excellence carry the day. Many of Peaks’ most iconic locations are in Snoqualmie, Washington, including the Double R Diner, the Great Northern Hotel and the Reinig Bridge, where we first saw Ronette Pulaski in the show’s stunning pilot. 

West Virginia
With no viable option we will once again return to The Fugitive. In the series’ third episode, “The Other Side of the Mountain,” Dr. Kimble barely eludes Lt. Gerard inside a long-abandoned coalmine shaft. This is one of the best Gerard episodes in the run, though it won’t stop viewers from hating him. 

Happy Days is the obvious choice (unless you were partial to Laverne & Shirley). 

But I don’t think of it as a Milwaukee show the way I associate The Mary Tyler Moore Show with Minneapolis, or other classics with their settings. Maybe that’s just me. Either way, the series did make its mark on its adopted hometown, most notably with a truly ghastly bronze statue of The Fonz on the Milwaukee Riverwalk. 

The challenge for western fans with Wyoming is choosing from an impressive field of genre series set there, including Cheyenne, Laramie, Lawman and The Virginian

Rather than face such a difficult selection, let’s instead celebrate one of the most memorably fragrant slices of 1970s cheese that also took place in Wyoming: “Death Probe” was a two-part episode of The Six Million Dollar Man, in which Steve Austin squared off against a “fearsome” evil Russian space probe. 

The probe looks like the offspring of a Dalek and an igloo, but it made enough of an impression to inspire a home version by Kenner. 

 And that's it - 50 states and we all made it back safely. Thanks for taking the journey.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Comfort TV Coast to Coast: 50 States, 50 Classic Moments (Part 4)

Four weeks in and our state-by-state Comfort TV tour rolls on. If this were a real tour we’d be racking up frequent flyer miles this time around, with trips from New Mexico to New York, and from Oregon to Pennsylvania. But I’d still rather visit all ten states without getting off the couch.

New Mexico
We begin this week’s trip in North Fork, New Mexico, where widower Lucas McCain is raising his son and taking down outlaws that the inept local law enforcement can’t handle. The Rifleman is a western show that appeals to people who don’t care for westerns, because it’s as much about family as fast draws. 

New York
Next to California, New York offers the most options as a setting for television classics. Even if we consider only those series filmed in New York, the list of contenders is formidable. Actually I’m just artificially inflating the suspense because the choice is easy. It’s Naked City, because it features not one New York location but just about all of them. From the skyscrapers to the sewers, Broadway to the bowery, Wall Street to Madison Ave., there isn’t a Big Apple locale that didn’t provide a backdrop for one of its eight million compelling crime stories. 

North Carolina
The most beloved town in North Carolina can be found in TV Land but not on Mapquest. Mayberry, the setting for The Andy Griffith Show (and Mayberry R.F.D.) was inspired by Griffith’s actual hometown of Mount Airy, where you can still attend the annual Mayberry Days celebration. 

North Dakota
Our first challenge for this list, as no classic TV era options exist for a full series. So once again we’ll turn to The Fugitive. The episode “When the Bough Breaks” finds Kimble in Grand Forks, North Dakota, where he gets mixed up with a mentally disturbed young woman (Diana Hyland) who is also on the run after kidnapping a baby.

Two very obvious and deserving choices emerge: WKRP in Cincinnati and Family Ties. But there are two other options that feature on-location footage in Ohio’s King’s Island amusement part – The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family

As we already used the Bradys for Hawaii, we’ll go with the Partridges here, in the delightful episode “I Left My Heart in Cincinnati.” 

Thursdays in 1967 proved too tough a trail for Cimarron Strip, a short-lived but impressively mounted western set in the border region between Oklahoma and Kansas. Viewers who opted for Batman and Bewitched missed an epic opening credits sequence, brilliantly underscored by a stirring Aaron Copland-esque theme. Everything about Cimarron Strip was grand and cinematic, from its 90-minute running time to Stuart Whitman’s rugged, self-assured portrayal of Marshal Jim Crown. 

With no better options we are left with Hello Larry. Sorry about that, but as its theme song acknowledges Portland is a long way from L.A.. The show limped through two seasons which still comprise the most successful of McLean Stevenson’s post-MASH work. And it has Kim Richards before she became one of those Real (obnoxious) Housewives.  Sometimes you can go back and look at these older shows and appreciate them more in retrospect. Sometimes. Not here. But I’d still rather watch Hello Larry than Portlandia

It’s between Thirtysomething and Angie for me, two ABC shows set in Philadelphia but not filmed there. But you do get to see Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell in the opening credits of Angie, and any time I have a chance to play "Different Worlds" I am not going to pass it up. 

Rhode Island
Why don’t more people remember Doctor Doctor with Matt Frewer? It was a very smart sitcom about physicians at a group medical practice in Providence, Rhode Island. It debuted in 1989, the same year as Seinfeld, and had the same freshness and edginess about it, but lasted just 40 episodes. TV, like life, isn’t always fair. 

South Carolina
Sometimes it’s worth stretching the limits of the Comfort TV timeline, when a quality TV series provides an especially unique and insightful look at the state in which it is set. For South Carolina, such a series was Gullah Gullah Island, which debuted in 1994. 

I took AP History in high school and never learned about the Gullah language and culture, or the African-American communities on the Sea Islands off South Carolina that are home to descendants of former slaves. This award-winning Nickelodeon children’s show also featured some of the best original music for a kid’s show since The Wiggles. 

Next week: The final ten states of our tour!

Monday, July 10, 2017

Comfort TV Coast to Coast: 50 States, 50 Classic Moments (Part 3)

Another week, another ten stops on our cross-country tour of classic TV America, state by state. My guess is that some of these choices may be shows you’ve not watched (or perhaps even knew existed). But we’ll also salute a couple of all time classics.

Sure, there’s that bar where everybody knows your name. But Cheers, like St. Elsewhere, Beacon Hill and James at 15, never spent any time in Massachusetts outside of collecting a few establishing shots. Fortunately, we have a couple of memorable shows filmed in Boston. There was Zoom on PBS, featuring kids in rugby shirts, one of whom could do strange, supernatural things with her arms. 

And there was Spenser: for Hire with Robert Urich and Avery Brooks. 
It was filmed largely in Boston and authentically captured the accents of the locals and the locales described in Robert B. Parker’s source novels. Spenser gets the nod. 

With Freaks and Geeks and Home Improvement coming along too late for comfort TV, Michigan goes to The Fitzpatricks (1977-1978). 

This was CBS’s attempt to emulate the success of Family; they even cast Family star Kristy McNichol’s brother Jimmy (pretentiously billed as James Vincent McNichol) as one of the Fitzpatrick brood. Helen Hunt played the girl next door who ignites Fitzpatrick sibling rivalry, back when she was getting all the scripts for wise-beyond-their-years teenagers that Jodie Foster turned down. 

The series was clobbered by Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley, but if it came out on DVD I’d buy it. It’s from that TV era when families displayed kindness and support for each other without always covering sincerity with snark. 

With all due respect to the moose and squirrel from Frostbite Falls, there is really only one choice here. The Mary Tyler Moore Show put Minneapolis on the classic TV map, though it didn’t do much for the city’s broadcast journalism reputation. 

I wrote In the Heat of the Night down immediately because I recall the show looked like it was filmed in the South – and it was, just not in Mississippi. Second choice: the legal drama The Mississippi with Ralph Waite, filmed entirely on location in the state of its title. No, I’ve never watched it. But it has Ralph Waite so I’d probably like it. 

Remember how excited we were to follow Col. Potter back to Hannibal, MO in AfterMASH? That didn’t last long. 

There was one comfort TV era show filmed in Missouri – that was Lucas Tanner, starring David Hartman as a high school teacher. But I’m going to call an audible here and instead select “There Sure Are a Bunch of Cards in St. Louis,” a two-part episode from That Girl’s fifth and final season. It may not have been shot in Missouri but it features one of the state’s most beloved icons in St. Louis Cardinals Hall-of-Famer Stan Musial. 

Buckskin was a short-lived 1950s backlot western set in Montana that almost no one remembers. Instead, let’s select an outstanding episode of The Fugitive entitled “Passage to Helena.” Dr. Kimble is arrested for stealing a truck and realizes it’s only a matter of time before the local deputy discovers his identity. In the adjoining cell sits a convicted killer (James Farentino) who has already figured it out. Great stuff. 

There wasn’t much of a market for westerns in 1989, but The Young Riders was a kind-of successful series (three seasons, 68 episodes) with Stephen Baldwin as a young Buffalo Bill Cody, and Josh Brolin as Wild Bill Hickok. It was set in “Nebraska Territory,” but filmed in Arizona. As with many western shows it retains a loyal fan following. 

Bonanza is certainly the most successful classic TV series set in Nevada (Virginia City). But it wasn’t filmed there and, let’s face it, to 99% of the population Nevada is just a word that comes after Las Vegas. 

That makes Vega$ the more appropriate choice, not just because it was shot there but because it captures that city in the final throes of its golden age, before the mob moved out and Steve Wynn moved in. Two Robert Urich shows in the same list – what are the odds? 

New Hampshire
I could find only one option: Northwest Passage (1958-1959), a series based on the 1940 Spencer Tracy film. Buddy Ebsen was in it, six years before he loaded up the truck and he moved to Beverly.

New Jersey
I don’t have the guts to select Makin’ It, though I still kind of want to. 

I have no similar compunctions about passing on Charles in Charge. No, I think New Jersey will be claimed by Toma, the excellent urban crime show starring Tony Musante as real-life undercover Jersey cop David Toma (who also sometimes appeared on the show). Musante left the series after one season, and the concept was reset as Baretta with Robert Blake. 

Next week: The picks for New York, Pennsylvania and Little Rhody

Monday, July 3, 2017

Comfort TV Coast to Coast: 50 States, 50 Classic Moments (Part 2)

Welcome back to our classic TV tour of the United States. Sadly we’ve hit some bumps in the road, as only two of the selections for the next ten states feature any location filming where they were supposed to take place. Let’s start with one that does.

For our photogenic 50th state the choices include series that were filmed there (Hawaii Five-OMagnum PI), shows that were set there (Hawaiian Eye) and shows that dropped in for an extended visit. I am tempted to select “Angels in Paradise,” the Charlie’s Angels season two opener that introduced Cheryl Ladd as Kris Munroe. 

But if you are a long-time reader of this blog you probably already know where this is going. Season four of The Brady Bunch opened with a three-episode Hawaii adventure featuring a cursed tiki idol, Greg surfing, Alice hula-dancing and Vincent Price committing several felonies against the family, and still being invited to their farewell luau. 

I’m certainly open to suggestions here. The only appropriate option I could find is “Idaho a Go Go” from Wacky Races, in which Penelope Pitstop and company race through the town of Baked. The episode features the usual inventive sight gags, and a come-from-behind win for the Slag Brothers (spoiler alert). 

As an Illinois native I’m not surprised at how many television stars from Chicago wanted their shows set in the Windy City, including Jim Belushi, Bonnie Hunt and Bob Newhart. And while The Bob Newhart Show only filmed on location for some of the opening credits sequences, references to its setting (The Cubs, Marshall Field’s, The Pump Room) were weaved through several episodes. Plus, it’s one of the best sitcoms ever, so another easy choice. 

The Hoosier state is not a hotbed of television production, but it does have one prominent classic TV link as the home of Dr. Richard Kimble – wrongly convicted of murdering his wife and sentenced to death. Kimble make a dangerous trek home in several classic episodes of The Fugitive, including “Home is the Hunted” and the series’ two-part finale, one of TV’s highest-rated shows of all time. The Kimble family residence shown on the series is actually on Ethel Ave. in Studio City, California.   

The sophisticated globetrotting espionage show The Man From UNCLE is one of the last shows you’d expect to set an episode in Iowa. But that’s where Agent Napoleon Solo landed in the series’ second episode, “The Iowa-Scuba Affair.” There’s a James Bond in Mayberry quality to the episode that makes it one of the more memorable first season outings, helped along by Richard Donner’s brisk direction and the always interesting Slim Pickens as a rodeo cowboy with secrets.  

As Marshal Matt Dillon, James Arness kept the streets of Dodge City safe for 20 years on Gunsmoke. Dodge City remains a popular tourist draw in part because of this series, which filmed in Utah, California and Arizona but never in Kansas. But if you go there you can visit Gunsmoke Street, dedicated back in 1959. 

The life and legend of Daniel Boone is celebrated most in Kentucky, where the famed frontiersman’s name is still prominent (Boonesborough, Booneville, Boone County, etc.). So we almost have to go with the Daniel Boone series starring Fess Parker, even though most of it was shot in California’s Big Bear. 

It’s surprising that a colorful city like New Orleans has not attracted more on-location filming of shows set in Louisiana. As a result we are left with two choices, both set there but not filmed there. As few people still remember Bourbon Street Beat, I’ll select the smart, laid-back and sadly short-lived Frank’s Place, a sitcom that deserved a better fate. Married couple Tim and Daphne Maxwell-Reid played New Englanders who inherit a restaurant in New Orleans. 

“My name is Victoria Winters. My journey is beginning, a journey that I hope will open the doors of life to me, and link my past with my future. A journey that will bring me to a strange and dark place, to the edge of the sea, high atop Widow's Hill, a house called Collinwood.”
The small fishing village of Collinsport, Maine is not a real town but for five years it was one of the most fascinating places on earth for devoted viewers of Dark Shadows

While recent shows like The Wire and Homicide: Life on the Street have enjoyed successful runs in their Maryland settings, in the classic TV era Baltimore was a kiss of death. Among the series set there and canceled within one season: The Ellen Burstyn Show, In the Beginning (McLean Stevenson as a priest!) and Men with Ted Wass and Ving Rhames. No real winners here, but one of the failures is memorable as Norman Lear’s first TV bomb. From 1975, Hot l Baltimore pushed the envelope on mature content so far that the first episode was preceded by a ‘viewer discretion’ warning. There are a couple of clips on YouTube if you’re curious. 

Next Week: Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey and more!

Monday, June 26, 2017

Comfort TV Coast to Coast: 50 States, 50 Classics (Part 1)

Summer is a time to hit the road, so I thought it would be fun to tour the United States through the TV shows celebrated by this blog.

New York and California have been on TV since the medium’s inception; but what about Idaho and West Virginia? Maryland and New Mexico? Would it be possible to find at least one memorable moment for all 50 states?

That was the challenge. The real dilemma was usually not finding one but choosing among many. In these cases I was guided by whether the series or episode was actually filmed in the state where it was set. However, I occasionally let iconic shows and moments trump authenticity, and as always I’m open to opposing viewpoints.

We’ll do this in alphabetical order. Here are the first 10 states.

We start with one of the most difficult stops, as no comfort TV era shows were set in Alabama, and it was rarely mentioned as a place to visit. From a very limited field I’ve selected a 1989 episode of Quantum Leap entitled “The Color of Truth.” It’s 1955, and Sam (Scott Bakula) finds himself in the identity of an elderly African-American chauffeur. You can probably put the rest of the plot together from that premise. It’s a bit heavy-handed but remains one of the best-remembered episodes among QL fans. 

With apologies to those who remember Kodiak with Clint Walker, I pick the season 3 opener of The Love Boat. This special two-part wedding episode (the happy couple played by Mark Harmon and Lisa Hartman) offered some wonderful travelogue footage of Alaska’s majestic glaciers and natural wonders. And the large cast (Lorne Greene, Eleanor Parker, Ray Milland, Audra Lindley) all seemed to enjoy their working vacation. The episode also brought back Tony Roberts for an unexpected climax to Julie’s only serious shipboard romance.

To those already humming “There’s a New Girl in Town,” remember that deference will be given to shows filmed in each state rather than just set there. So we’ll leave Alice at Mel’s Diner and instead select Petrocelli, starring Barry Newman as the Harvard lawyer who abandons the Manhattan rat race for the town of San Remo, Arizona. Shot in Tucson, the series made great use of desert landscapes, particularly around the trailer where Tony lived as he built his dream house one brick at a time. 

Arkansas belongs to Evening Shade, even though the opening segment (filmed in Hot Springs) is the only glimpse of the state you’ll get.  It’s surprising how forgotten this Emmy-winning show has become, despite a cast that includes Burt Reynolds, Marilu Henner, Michael Jeter, Hal Holbrook, Charles Durning, Elizabeth Ashley and Ossie Davis. Only the first of its four seasons is available on DVD. 

Obviously most TV shows are filmed in California and many are set there as well, so we’re starting with hundreds of possibilities. Let’s eliminate the northern California shows such as Eight is Enough, The Streets of San Francisco and The Doris Day Show. It’s not fair, but when most people think of California they visualize the orange and palm trees swaying in Los Angeles. 

So which elements should be found in the quintessential southern California show? You’ve got to see the ocean and the beach, (Gidget, Baywatch) and the opulence of Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive (The Colbys). An outsider’s perspective helps viewers see the state with the wonder of characters experiencing it for the first time (The Beverly Hillbillies). And thanks to the Beach Boys it should have at least one blond California girl (Three’s Company). Only one show I can think of has all of those components: Beverly Hills 90210. Watch this opening and tell me what other series has ever made the Golden State look more idyllic. 

There are more contenders for Colorado than you might think – Dynasty, Mork & Mindy, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. But in the brilliant 1978 miniseries Centennial, Colorado is a principal character in the story. Based on the book by James Michener, Centennial chronicles the history of one Colorado town from the late 18th century to present day. Much of it was shot in the city of Greeley. Centennial unfolds over 26 hours and it’s never dull for a second. This is one of TV’s true masterpieces. 

While the house familiar to classic TV viewers as 1164 Morning Glory Circle is located in Burbank, on Bewitched it was in Westport, Connecticut – usually. 

The series’ early seasons suggested that the Stephens family lived in New York, but the episode “About a Boy” confirmed Connecticut as their home. Granted, it’s not a renowned association even the statue of Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha is located not in Connecticut but in Salem, Massachusetts. 

In a 1965 episode of Candid Camera, Allen Funt and his crew traveled to the Delaware/Pennsylvania border, set up barricades on the road, and had an actor holding a clipboard tell drivers that “Delaware is closed today.” Most people fell for it. One woman inquired whether New Jersey was still open.  

I love I Dream of Jeannie and it was set in Cocoa Beach, but do you really think of it as a Florida show? Neither do I. That leaves us with two prominent alternatives, both of which were shot in the state. There’s Flipper from the 1960s, and Miami Vice, filmed in the 1980s when South Beach was still largely a pit. Should we select the sunny one or the seedy one? Comfort TV always opts for the sunny side, so it’s Flipper for the win. If you don’t like either choice go with Good Times, since Florida appeared in every episode. 

The first five episodes of The Dukes of Hazzard were filmed in Covington, Georgia, and many fans believe that gave the show a southern authenticity that was lost when Hazzard County was relocated to the Disney Ranch in Lake Sherwood, California. Of those Georgia shows “Daisy’s Song” makes the best use of its locale, as it gives us both rural dirt roads and a shot of the General Lee on a highway headed into Atlanta.  

 Next week: Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine and more!