Thursday, April 20, 2017

None of This Crap Works

How’s that for a title? We’ll get to what it means in a moment.

One of the first pieces I wrote for this blog was about how happy I am to own the TV shows I love on DVD. That has not changed. 

It isn’t just the ability to watch any episode any time I wish. It’s the years spent acquiring them and filling shelves with lines of colorful boxes, and then checking to see what other sets were coming out soon. Just scanning the titles and seasons still makes me happy even between viewings. 

I like the packaging – the photos and logos and designs of the boxes and the disc cases inside.

I like the menu screens on each disc, especially when some effort is put into making them appealing (the sets for Bewitched and Top Cat are personal favorites). 

I appreciate the blooper reels and the interviews and the episode commentaries. With the best sets you don’t just get the shows, you get some history and context for them, and why they worked and why they sometimes didn’t. 

But since I wrote that piece five years ago, the DVD market has collapsed. Complete series sets can now be purchased for less than a single season once cost. And the prospects are dimming that any seasons from any shows not yet released may never be produced at all. An official release of The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet? By the time they get around to it, anyone who remembers the show will be sharing a banana split with the actual Nelson family in one of heaven's celestial malt shops. More volumes of The Love Boat, The Defenders, Room 222, or Family? We can hope, but I don't expect the news will be good. In this era of streaming services, hard copies of shows are deemed a waste of money and space. 

Will DVDs one day be as obsolete as VHS cassettes? I hope not. Especially since streaming offers none of the bonus pleasures of collecting DVD sets. But that is hardly my only issue with this content delivery system. 

The other night I began watching a Netflix series called 13 Reasons Why, an adaptation of a YA novel about a high school girl named Hannah Baker who commits suicide, and leaves behind a box of cassette tapes explaining why she took her life, and who she blames for driving her to such a desperate act.

Like so much contemporary TV, the show features teenagers who are quick with a quip but world-weary beyond their years, while the adults – parents and teachers and guidance counselors – are largely silly and clueless. As each new character is introduced you can almost see the producer marking boxes on his multicultural casting checklist so no group is left out. 

Still, halfway through episode two I was intrigued by where it was going. And then, as often happens with Netflix, the picture froze. And then a swirling red circle materialized in the middle of the screen, with a slowly rising percentage number within the circle. When it reached 25% it stopped, and then this message appeared: “Your device may no longer be connected to the Internet.”

Obviously this is a problem, especially since I have no idea which device has been singled out for derision. Is it the television? The DISH Network box? The modem? I don’t know. All I know is a device that was connected to the Internet a minute ago isn’t anymore, even though I’ve been sitting on the couch the whole time and no one has touched any device suspected of failure.

As I said, this happens often. I should call someone. Netflix? DISH Network? My Internet service provider? I tried one and they referred me to one of the others. At least that’s what the pre-recorded message said after I pressed 1 for technical support. No one at any of these companies wants to talk to me about why it sometimes takes three days to finish a 56-minute program. 

So I went online for answers – fortunately my computer was apparently still connected to the Internet. If you’re having problems with Netflix, one site advised, try the following:

1. Restart your iPhone.
2. Restart your Router
3. Restart your Modem
4. Move your Router to a higher place in the room.

Do I need to restart my refrigerator as well?

Another site offered this helpful advice: Open Netflix and then use your remote to enter, “Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, Up, Up, Up, Up”

Okay, now you’re just putting me on. I’m reminded of the Dick Van Dyke Show episode where a practical joker calls Rob, posing as a telephone repairman, and tells him to fix his phone he should put it in a paper bag, take it outside, wave it over his head, and scream like a chicken. 

It’s not just that all of this stuff was never necessary to watch television. I don’t like feeling stupid when something stops working and I don’t know why. And I don’t think it’s too much to ask that all of these companies get the bugs out of their respective systems before they start charging me a monthly fee to use them.

Right now I’m sure some of you are thinking, “What a moron.” And that’s fine. You’re right, this is not something I know a lot about, and I don’t really care to know more about it. For me technology falls into just two categories: “works” and “doesn’t work.”

My DVD player always works. I insert a disc and press play and that’s what it does. It never stops halfway through the episode and says it can’t play the rest because the oven timer is three minutes off. It just does what it’s supposed to do without making excuses or trying to shift the blame to some other appliance in my house.

“Oh, but with streaming you don’t have to get up off the couch and find the box with the DVD and carry it over to the DVD player and find the right disc and press ‘open’ then ‘close.’ And then when it’s over you don’t have to get up  - again! – and take it out.” 

Yes, what an ordeal that has been all these years.  I’m sure that coal miners from the 1930s would feel sorry for the arduous exertion of energy required to watch a DVD.

If streaming works for you, mazel tov. But even if the technology were perfect, it would not surpass the satisfaction I derive from owning hard copies of nearly all the television shows that were a part of my younger days.

As for 13 Reasons Why, I did eventually finish it. It's a hard show to discuss without spoiling any of its revelations. In fact, there are times it's just a hard show to watch, period. But the performances are excellent, and it paints a vivid but bleak picture of where our culture is now.

There were two aspects I found particularly interesting. First, there is not one mention of God in 13 episodes. That’s not in any way a requirement for me to enjoy a program, but you’d think its preoccupation toward inclusion might extend to at least one character of faith, especially in a story about how to cope with despair and find reasons to live.

The second is its implication of the extent to which Hannah's actions were driven by those around her. As someone who believes the concept of personal responsibility has been replaced by a culture of safe zones, I'm not sure I am comfortable with the message the show is sending. However, if it starts discussions about this and other topics, it will have served a purpose beyond entertainment.

But I have no plans to buy it on DVD. 

Monday, April 10, 2017

Comfort TV Classroom Crushes

One of the most popular family sitcom stories of the Comfort TV era is the student who develops a crush on a teacher.

I wonder, in the wake of so many news stories about inappropriate teacher-student relationships, if this trope is still popular today. Perhaps, like episodes in which characters get drunk in a funny way, it has been relegated to the scrapheap of ideas that can no longer be explored without offending someone.

That would be unfortunate. For decades the teacher crush was a go-to plot because it could naturally accommodate both comedy and earnest, sometimes painful emotion, which most viewers can appreciate having gone through a similar experience.

For me it was Miss Bobbin in second grade, a hippie chick with long dark hair that wore flowery sundresses and taught barefoot. Ah, the ‘70s.

Looking back on a selection of these episodes, there is an almost even divide between boys falling for female teachers, and girls falling for male instructors.
Most happen in high school, which is understandable. And when the series is set in high school at least one story like this is inescapable. Even the nerdy, reedy-voiced Wally Cox, who played a science teacher in Mister Peepers, became the object of a student’s affections in “The Teenage Crush” (1952). 

No series went there faster than The Patty Duke Show. “The French Teacher” was the first episode of the first season, and has Patty failing French (“a moth-eaten drag”) until her teacher leaves to get married and is replaced by dashing substitute Andre Malon (Jean-Pierre Aumont).

Starry-eyed looks turn to genuine hope after Andre offers to show her Paris if she ever visits. But when Patty starts to make plans for their future, Andre turns to her father for help:

Andre: “I think she wants to marry me!”
Martin: “It would serve you right.”

Patty was among the luckier students in these stories – a solution was found that spared her any feelings of rejection. Bud Anderson of Father Knows Best was not as fortunate during his infatuation with a French teacher in “Bud Branches Out.” Now a college freshman at the start of the show’s sixth and final season, he gets herded into French by mistake and decides to stick around after an amour-at-first-sight glance at Miss Luvois. 

Through one of those patented sitcom misunderstandings, a dinner invitation to Bud sent by his girlfriend is delivered by Miss Luvois, and he thinks it’s from her. Standing outside her home with flowers in hand, he learns the hard way that it wasn’t. But don’t feel too bad for Bud, as the girlfriend he returns to is played by gorgeous Roberta Shore.

Heartbreak usually passes quickly in these situations. In The Brady Bunch episode “The Undergraduate” the family can’t figure out why Greg is flunking math. Alice finds a note in his pocket addressed to “My true love Linda,” but after paging through a yearbook they can’t find a Linda in his class. The mystery is solved when Mike opens a school conference invitation from Greg’s math teacher – Linda O’Hara. 

Greg remains smitten until he meets Linda’s fiancĂ©, Dodger first-baseman Wes Parker (playing himself). He offers Greg tickets to the season opener if the kid gets his math grade up, and Greg happily chooses baseball over love.

Such bribery would not work with Cissy Davis on Family Affair; her crush vanished when she learns the object of her affection is a jerk.

In “Think Deep” Robert Reed plays philosophy teacher Julian Hill, the kind of supercilious twit still found in higher education. But he has a goatee and says things like “The true personality is hidden beneath a welter of self-denigration,” and that was enough for Cissy. But then Uncle Bill invites him to dinner and the twins spill coffee on his suit, prompting the outraged Julian to call them “little monsters.” The shattered look on Cissy’s face says it all. 

The show seemed to take another run at this plotline two seasons later in “The Substitute Teacher,” in which Jody develops a fascination with Miss Evans, wonderfully played by June Lockhart. Turns out this time it’s not puppy love, but Jody gravitating toward her because of her resemblance to his late mother. Few shows delivered that kind of emotional gut-punch better than Family Affair

While most crush stories are told from the student perspective, Room 222 explored how the situation can be just as distressing to the teacher. In “The Coat” guidance counselor Liz McIntyre (wonderful Denise Nicholas) helps a troubled student get a job at a department store, and he mistakes her professional interest for something more. He buys her an expensive coat from the store to show his affection (actually he steals it, but it’s the thought that counts). Liz agonizes over the proper response, knowing that the wrong one may drive a dropout risk out of school for good.

Then there are those rare episodes where the student’s attraction is actually reciprocated. On The Facts of Life, the two-part episode “Taking a Chance on Love” has 19 year-old Joe embarking on a romance with her 30 year-old photography teacher. And on Wings, Brian gets to live the dream by spending the night with his ninth-grade English teacher (played by Peggy Lipton!) in “Miss Jenkins.” 

Unfortunately, he gets so caught up in the fantasy he can’t handle reality.

Joe: “You mean…”
Brian: “I got an incomplete.’

Do I have a favorite? Glad you asked. The episode is titled “I Love You, I Love You, I Love You, I Think” and it’s from Gidget. It starts when Gidget meets an older guy on the beach and they start surfing together. 

She loves it when he calls her “a pint-sized adorable doll,” though he won’t admit they have a relationship. “At least for the next five to six years,” he tells her. “Talk to me then and I might make you a serious proposition.”

With school starting next Monday, the mystery man urges Gidget to forget him, and she calls it the perfect romance – “over before it had a chance to begin.” But on Monday she walks into math class and guess who’s her teacher?

This was the pivotal scene, because given the flirting and feelings and the now much more obvious age difference, it could easily play the wrong way. But while the moment is every bit as awkward as it should be, it’s also hilarious, because of some unexpected slapstick moments and because Sally Field is a gifted actress.

Teacher and student finally talk things out, but a lot of stuff implied on the beach is deftly sidestepped in the climax, probably because there was no better way out. Still, this is one of those TV episodes that's a lot more complex and provocative than its creators intended.

If you’d like to plan your own teacher crush classic TV night, you have many other options to choose from:

“Beaver’s Crush” (Leave it to Beaver)

“Another Day Another Scholar” (The Jimmy Stewart Show)
“The Love God” (My Three Sons)
“Love at First Byte” (Head of the Class)
“The Communication Gap” (Nanny and the Professor)

Each one offers its own variations on a story that almost always makes for fun television.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Ranking the Top 20 Partridge Family Songs

The Partridge Family and The Monkees are two Comfort TV sitcoms inextricably linked in my memory. In both cases I thought the songs they performed were even better than their respective shows. 

It took decades for the legacy and talent of The Monkees to be acknowledged, but that has not happened with The Partridge Family, which is understandable as the series was created with no regard for musical authenticity. The concept was to cast photogenic actors who would lip-sync to tracks recorded by professional singers and musicians. It was serendipity that David Cassidy, hired for his teen idol looks, asked executive producer Bob Claver if he could take a shot at singing as well. 

That, along with mixing Shirley Jones’ vocals into the backing tracks, shifted them toward the center on the manufactured TV band scale; they’re behind The Monkees, but still ahead of The Archies.   

How long have I been a fan? This was the first record album I ever bought that didn’t say Disney on the label. 

I bought every album after that, reacquired them all on CD, and their content still comprises one of my favorite go-to iPod playlists.  On this topic I know whereof I speak, and can confidently state that these are the 20 best Partridge Family songs.

#20: Doesn’t Somebody Want to Be Wanted
The group’s second highest-charting single (peaking at #6) is a classic example of the mid-tempo pop sound, escalating from the verses to the chorus, that can be found in many of their most popular tracks. However, it’s best remembered for Cassidy’s cheesy spoken-word bridge, which he hated doing. But producer Wes Farrell (who cowrote the song) guessed that his plaintive plea for love would make the Tiger Beat subscribers swoon, and he was right. 

#19: Brand New Me
It’s the first song on their first album, and was featured in what was arguably the series’ most famous episode (season 1’s “But the Memory Lingers On,” aka ‘the one with the skunk’). The powerful wall of sound arrangement highlights the talent of the top session musicians that play on most of the Partridge tracks, including drummer Hal Blaine, keyboardists Larry Knechtel and Michael Melvoin, guitarists Tommy Tedesco, Louie Shelton, Larry Carlton and Dennis Budimir and bassists Joe Osborne and Max Bennett.

#18: Hello, Hello
I’m kind of alone in my affection for this one, even among fellow Partridge fans. But I love the Dixieland jazz intro, something unique for a Partridge Family record, and the nostalgic feel of the entire track. 

#17: I Heard You Singing Your Song
By the time the group’s final album, Bulletin Board, was released in 1973, the magic was quickly slipping away and Ricky Segall had already started ruining the last few minutes of several series episodes. But this song and its marvelous vocal arrangements, reminiscent of The Beach Boys, offered one last blast of pop heaven. 

#16: I Really Want to Know You
It’s debatable whether any song recorded prior to when David Cassidy took over lead vocals should be considered for a best-of list. But “I Really Want to Know You” is a beautiful Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil ballad, and offers the best glimpse into what the band’s sound would have been had someone else been cast as Keith Partridge. 

#15: Only a Moment Ago
From our current perspective of 40-some years after the series debuted, “Only a Moment Ago” takes on added resonance. It’s a song about longing for happier, simpler times, which is something that many of us do every time we hear Partridge Family music. “Why has the music stopped,” indeed. 

#14: Point Me in the Direction of Albuquerque
No songwriter complimented the Partridge sound more than Tony Romeo. This classic, familiar to even casual Partridge fans, is the first of his songs in our top 20 but it won’t be the last. The evocative lyric about a “lonely little runaway with teardrops in her eyes” tells such a vivid story it’s not surprising it would be dramatized in a series episode (season 1’s “Road Song”). 

#13: I Woke Up in Love This Morning
The first single from the group’s third album, Sound Magazine, stayed on the hot 100 for ten weeks, peaking at #13. Even though I’m making the picks, it surprises me that we had to wait this long for a song featuring the harpsichord, given how the Renaissance-era instrument was a staple of the group’s sound. 

#12: My Christmas Card to You
The only Partridge LP to reach #1 on the charts was their Christmas album. “My Christmas Card to You,” another classic Tony Romeo composition, was the sole original song on the record. It has been a holiday tradition in my home ever since. The album also features the only duet between David Cassidy and Shirley Jones (on “Winter Wonderland”). It’s a shame they didn’t pair their voices more often. 

#11: Bandala
This was the song Keith described as “sort of an afro thing” to Richard Pryor in the memorable season one episode “Soul Club.” At the risk of designating any Partridge Family song that way, there is a street quality to “Bandala” that is about as gritty as this wholesome family band could get. It also features some unique instruments for a Partridge record, including a full brass section, congas and enough cowbell to satisfy Christopher Walken.

#10: “I Can Feel Your Heartbeat”
We kick off the top 10 with the hardest-rocking Partridge song, one that should have been a second single off their debut album. The heavy reverb and Hammond organ accentuate Hal Blaine’s pounding drumbeat and one of David Cassidy’s most impassioned vocals. “I Can Feel Your Heartbeat” found a new audience after being featured in an episode of American Horror Story

#9: Echo Valley 2-6809
Long before Tommy Tutone tried to reach Jenny at 867-5309, the Partridge Family debuted the first classic phone number song. It’s about a boy and a girl who grew up together “with ferris wheels and sunshine laughter,” but who parted on bad terms. Should he call her again? The lush orchestral arrangement on this Rupert Holmes song demonstrates once again the remarkable behind-the-scenes talent that made these records so delightful then and now. 

#8: I’ll Leave Myself a Little Time
This gentle track appears on the group’s second album, Up To Date, which is surprising since it was featured in episode two of the show's first season. There isn’t one particular aspect of the recording to which I need call your attention – it’s just a really lovely song that I’m sure I’ve heard more than 500 times, and it still always makes me smile. 

#7: It’s One of Those Nights (Yes Love)
From the underrated Shopping Bag album (which also includes “Every Song is You” and “If You Ever Go”) this is another great Tony Romeo track that benefits from Phil Spector-levels of orchestration. It was also the band’s fifth and final top 20 song. 

#6: I’m On My Way Back Home
Slow to fast, soft to loud, soaring chord and tempo changes, and one of David Cassidy’s most self-assured vocals help make this track even more memorable than some of the group’s hit singles. 

#5: Every Little Bit O’ You
Bubblegum pop rarely gets sweeter than this blissful tune, written by the team that also contributed “I Woke Up in Love This Morning” to the Partridge catalog (L. Russell Brown and Irwin Levine). It was covered in one of the more eye-catching on-screen performances – from the roof of the Partridge bus under a beautiful blue sky – in the episode “I Can Get It For You Retail.” 

#4:  I Think I Love You
Surprised? Obviously this was the biggest Partridge Family hit, the one song that is probably familiar even to someone who never watched the show. “I Think I Love You” went to #1 in 1970 and stayed there for three weeks. It has everything fans love – memorable words and music from Tony Romeo, that ever-present harpsichord, and another great Cassidy vocal, double-tracked for added impact. It’s just that there are three other songs I like even more. 

#3: Together We’re Better
The best song on the Notebook album was immortalized in the episode where the family visits the King’s Island amusement park and hangs out with Mary Ann Mobley. The playful opening notes of the organ sound like a circus calliope, setting the perfect mood for one of the most ambitious Partridge records. Yes, Tony Romeo wrote this one too. But from that foundation a lot of gifted people crafted an intricate musical arrangement and vocal backing tracks that complement Cassidy’s lead. There’s a lot going on here in just 2 minutes and 30 seconds, and it’s all pretty wonderful. 

#2: I’ll Meet You Halfway
After lavishing praise on 18 other Partridge songs, it might seem strange to commend “I’ll Meet You Halfway” by saying it doesn’t sound like a typical Partridge Family record. But if you’re familiar with the song you know what I mean. There’s sophistication to it, an almost classical quality to the strings and piano arpeggio that set the mood before the singing starts. Wes Farrell wrote it with Carole King’s songwriting partner Gerry Goffin. 

#1: Summer Days
The fifth Tony Romeo song on our top 20 is irresistible from start to finish. From the explosive opening riff to Cassidy’s exuberant vocal to a buoyant chorus that bounds and rolls out of your speakers with unbridled joy. Why “Summer Days” was never released as a single remains a classic TV music mystery. It’s not just my favorite PF song – it’s one of my favorite records from any group and any musical era. The 1970s may not have been as carefree and innocent as the song suggests, but for those three minutes you can close your eyes and pretend they really were that wonderful. 

Friday, March 24, 2017

Top TV Moments: Sid Haig

I confess that when I see an actor from the Comfort TV universe in a project well outside its safe borders, I find it disconcerting.

That doesn’t happen often because I’m not someone who seeks out horror movies with sadistic violence or exploitation films with other graphic content. But sometimes flipping channels you never know what you’ll see. A few months ago I accidentally stopped on a showing of Hostel: Part III, because I spotted Ernie Douglas from My Three Sons about to torture someone with power tools. If I saw that 20 years ago I’d still be in therapy.   

Sid Haig is a more interesting example because he’s achieved his greatest fame as a psychotic murderer in two films I wouldn’t walk across the street to see for free (House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects). I concede that Haig makes an effective villain with his imposing 6’4” frame, swarthy beard and pockmarked visage. I’m just partial to his work as an evildoer who was still family hour friendly. 

Here are some memorable TV moments from Sid before he got really vicious.

The Untouchables (1962)
Sid Haig’s television debut came in “The Case Against Eliot Ness,” a typically violent episode set amidst preparations for Chicago’s Century of Progress celebration. He appears about 25 minutes into the show as Augie, one of Frank Nitti’s hoods. You’ll probably recognize the voice before the face. He’s not around long but the episode (which is on YouTube) is worth a look for Pat Hingle’s fiery performance as a corrupt city councilman. Was there any other kind in Chicago back then?

The Lucy Show (1965) and Here’s Lucy (1969)
Haig appeared twice with TV’s first lady, and coincidentally it was in two of the most bizarre episodes of her respective series. “Lucy and the Monsters” may be the worst offering in six seasons of The Lucy Show, but it’s one of those rare examples of an episode that is so awful it actually becomes rather fascinating. I watch it every Halloween. Haig plays a mummy in the episode’s extended dream sequence that finds Lucy and Viv in a haunted castle.  Only his eyes are visible beneath the bandages.

From Here’s Lucy, “Lucy and the Great Airport Chase” was filmed entirely on location, a rarity for any Lucy episode. The plot here is one long, silly chase sequence around Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), where Lucy is given a secret formula by a spy, and is then pursued through terminals, tarmacs and baggage conveyer belts. Haig plays an enemy agent who vows, “Formula 14 will never reach the so-called free world.” If you ever wanted to see scary Sid Haig take a pie in the face, this is the show for you.

Star Trek (1967)
“The Return of the Archons” is the first of several Trek episodes in which Captain Kirk outsmarts a computer, as well as one of Gene Roddenberry’s more heavy-handed condemnations of socialism. Haig plays the First Lawgiver, one of the hooded figures charged with keeping a brainwashed society in check for its mechanical master. Not much of a part, but over the years I’ll bet he signed plenty of photos from the episode at conventions. 

Get Smart (1967)
Max infiltrates a gang of thieves in London that includes The Turk (Haig) a master of weapons. “That Old Gang of Mine” gave Haig one of his meatier sitcom guest spots, as he works alongside Don Adams in an extended (and very funny) heist sequence played without dialogue. Haig’s reactions to Smart’s bumbling reveal a largely untapped talent for comedy. 

Mission: Impossible (1968)
Given the number of episodes set in fictional foreign lands, it’s not surprising that Haig, with his flexibly ethnic features, would be utilized often (nine times!) on Mission: Impossible as various henchmen and heavies in Arabian, Latin or Eastern European locales. “The Diplomat” didn’t offer much of a challenge beyond the menacing look he had already mastered, but it’s the best episode in which he appears. He plays Grigor, one of three enemy agents in possession of vital U.S. defense secrets. The IM Force must convince them that the authentic information is inaccurate.

Electra Woman and Dyna Girl (1976)
A superhero series always rich in over-acting serves up a Golden Corral Buffet of scenery chewing in “Ali Baba.” Haig plays a nasty genie opposite veteran screen baddie Malachi Throne. He delivers lines like “Soon you will be the most powerful man in the world!” with diabolical gusto, while Judy Strangis (as an evil Dyna Girl) sets a new and yet to be equaled benchmark in maniacal villain laughter. 

Jason of Star Command (1978)
Before his cult movie status kicked in, Sid Haig’s most prominent claim to fame was this serialized Saturday morning sci-fi series. It was ambitious for its time, as were all of the 1970s Filmation live action shows, which is one reason why it’s still so fondly remembered. Haig played Dragos, “master of the cosmos” whose plots to conquer the galaxy were thwarted by Jason and his pocket robot WIKI. There’s a Flash Gordon vs. Ming vibe to these adventures, and Haig impressively maintains an optimal level of villainy – intimidating enough to frighten younger viewers without traumatizing them. 

Charlie’s Angels (1978)
“Diamond in the Rough” is a fun caper episode set in the Caribbean (but shot in the Hollywood Hills) in which the Angels are hired to steal a priceless diamond protected by a high-tech security system and a poisonous snake. Haig plays Reza, who is supposed to be protecting the gem but loses focus when confronted with the seductive charms of Kelly Garrett. Who could blame him?

Fantasy Island (1978)
In “The Sheikh” Arte Johnson plays a meek teacher who dreams of having his own harem. Sid Haig plays Hakeem, palace bodyguard and conspirator in a plot to assassinate the new sheikh. Once again Mr. Roarke nearly gets one of his guests killed without being sued, in a story that offers a perfect blend of ‘70s jiggle TV and dated Middle Eastern stereotypes. 

Sledge Hammer! (1987)
Now more than 20 years into his acting career, Sid Haig still received scripts from shows like The A-Team, The Fall Guy, MacGyver and Scarecrow and Mrs. King, offering the parts of outlaw bikers, scary foreigners and other ne’er do wells that by now he could play in his sleep. He’s a bad guy again here in the funny Robocop parody “Hammeroid,” but at least he gets some laughs as military traitor General Skull Fracture. 

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Battle of the Network Stars: Leave it Alone!

Earlier this week I read a piece on the TV Line website about the ABC network looking into a revival of Battle of the Network Stars. I immediately ceased work on my next blog so I could instead talk about why this will never, never work.

My misgivings should not be taken as disparagement of the original 19 Battles, which aired between 1976 and 1988. On the contrary – I consider them one of television’s crowning achievements, right alongside Roots and Walter Cronkite’s coverage of the first moon landing. 

Where else could you watch Billy Crystal throw touchdown passes to Penny Marshall? Or hear Howard Cosell describe the athletic grace of Cathy Lee Crosby by quoting the John Keats poem “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer?” Or Leif Garrett mock Robert Conrad’s then advanced age of 44, only to have Conrad (who treated these competitions like they were Thunderdome) fire a fastball that dropped Leif’s punk ass into the baseball dunk tank, and stalk away with sublime satisfaction?

These specials were not an early equivalent of Dancing With the Stars, which (much as I love that show) tends to attract a lesser pedigree of celebrity. Back in the day the most popular television stars in the highest-rated television series spent a weekend on the glorious campus of Malibu’s Pepperdine University to compete in swimming contests and kayak races, to sprint and ride bicycles around an oval track, and to represent their networks with pride. 

I could give you 100 reasons of why the original Battle of the Network Stars was awesome. But that still doesn’t mean the concept will work now. Here’s why.

1. Too Many Networks, Not Enough Stars
When the Battles began there were only three noteworthy sources for new television programs – ABC, CBS and NBC. Even if the FOX Network were now included the shows on their current schedules draw about 20% of the audience they earned in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Today’s TV stars are just as likely to emerge from the CW or HBO or Netflix. And even these series attract a tiny fraction of the viewers that watched a first-run episode of B.J. and the Bear. Part of what made the original Battles special was that viewers knew all 24 participants (8 from each network). There is not a single television actor now with the name and face recognition of an actor on a 1970s show that finished last in its time slot. 

2. The Originals Were Unapologetically Sexy
There is no escaping the fact that part of the Battles’ appeal was seeing TV’s most attractive stars in tight-fitting athletic tops, shorts, and lycra swimsuits that became fairly transparent when wet. The feminine pulchritude on display was almost dizzying – Farrah Fawcett, Erin Gray, Suzanne Somers, Catherine Bach, Cheryl Ladd, Victoria Principal, Cheryl Tiegs, Randi Oakes, Donna Dixon, Shawn Weatherly. 

And yes, there were also some appreciative squeals when Tom Selleck and Gregory Harrison stripped down to speedos, so it was equal opportunity ogling. 

None of which is acceptable today, of course. To avoid accusations of objectifying actresses, and prevent Emma Watson from picketing by the swimming pool, participants would have to wear swimwear from the 1920s. Or burqas.  

3. Our Relationship to Celebrities Has Changed
From the earliest days of motion pictures through the era in television when the Battles debuted, celebrities held an otherworldly fascination for much of the American public. We wanted to know what they were really like. We wanted to see the actor behind the character, and the person behind the actor. The Battle of the Network Stars offered a way to do that. Now we get this insight direct from the sources, on their Facebook and Instagram pages. There is no longer any curtain to peek behind.

4. Once, Winning Actually Mattered
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the original Battles was that the stars competed for real financial stakes: $20,000 for members of the winning team, $15,000 for second, $10,000 for third. That was pretty good cheddar 35 years ago. I remember after one ABC victory Heather Thomas jubilantly exclaiming, “Gonna buy a fur coat!” Something else someone can’t say anymore. I’m sure money wasn’t the only reason the stars went all out – there was personal pride and network pride at stake as well. But it didn’t hurt. 

5. It’s Been Tried Before
Remember the 2003 revival featuring only NBC stars? How about the Battle of the Network Reality Stars, with contestants from Survivor, The Apprentice and American Idol? Me neither. I rest my case. Nothing will ever top the original, one and only, never-to-be-forgotten, Howard Cosell hosted Battle of the Network Stars.

Monday, February 27, 2017

The Avengers and Cultural Preservation

May this fair dear land we love so well
In dignity and freedom dwell
Though worlds may change and go awry
While there is still one voice to cry
There'll always be an England

That’s what I see when I watch The Avengers. I see England. 

It’s England awash in sophistication and civility, with respect for tradition and for the crown; a place where gentlemen know about well-bred horses and tailored suits and fine cheese and good wine, prefer vintage cars to new ones, and refuse to get flustered even in the face of killer robots and invisible assassins.

It’s a nation populated by whimsical eccentrics who own shops that sell nothing but honey, or throw Christmas parties where attendees dress as characters from Charles Dickens novels. 

And it is home to John Steed and Mrs. Emma Peel. Have there ever been two characters that better personified an idealized vision of their nation of origin?

Steed could not have come from anywhere but England. His sartorial style, impeccable manners and aristocratic worldview were fashioned by a culture where such traits delineate a gentleman. His wine-tasting duel in “Dial a Deadly Number” is one of my favorite scenes in the series:

“Chateau Laffitte Rothschild…1909…from the northern end of the vineyard.”

Only Steed would find a dead foreign agent on his carpet, and lodge a complaint to his superiors because it’s “very untidy.” 

Such a formidable chap required an equally eminent counterpart, and here The Avengers excelled first with Cathy Gale, and most notably with Emma Peel – scientist, journalist, mistress of martial arts, and an exquisite English rose who shares Steed’s gift for understatement. In “The Living Dead” she describes a nuclear annihilation plot as “highly uncivilized.” 

Their remarkable rapport, consisting of equal parts mutual respect and affection, playful banter and sophisticated romance, remains unsurpassed by any two characters in television.

The England of The Avengers is not England as it is now, and not even the England that existed at the time the episodes were filmed. It’s an enchanting blend of reality and exaggeration, and every time I go there I look for signs of that civilization.

Finding them was always special – one could easily imagine Steed buying a bottle of champagne at Berry Bros & Rudd on St. James’s Street, or spotting Mrs. Peel in the Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon at Fortnum & Mason, where afternoon tea has been served since 1707.  

However, even if this England never fully existed, I think the idea of it is worth preserving and cherishing. But any attempt to explain why will require some tiptoeing, as it brings us in proximity to current political topics that induce people to start shouting at each other.

Let’s try it this way: for many classic TV devotees, part of the appeal of older television shows is their window into a specific place and time that we would love to visit. 

For those of us who didn’t get to travel from an early age, shows set in other countries gave us our first looks at what life was like there. When an episode would be set in England or France or Germany or Italy, we were given a distinct portrayal of those places.

It was different from how our own country was represented on TV; partly because we lived here and didn’t need to learn about it from television, and partly because America has always been a product of people from all over the place, each contributing to the melting pot.

I’m sure most of us realized that all men in London didn’t wear bowler hats and carry umbrellas, and all French waiters didn’t wear striped shirts and berets. But when we saw these European locales, and they seemed so specific and exotic and appealing, it was natural to hope that, for those of us fortunate to go there, they would fulfill those original visions, naive as they might have been. 

The Avengers was quintessentially British, a celebration of a culture that was delightful but not very diverse. Was that national culture and identity important?  Or should culture be what naturally evolves over the decades and centuries?

I don’t know. And as I said this brings us into dangerous territory. But it makes me happy that as long as we can watch Steed and Mrs. Peel, the England in which they lived will always be preserved, whether it was ever real or not.