Tuesday, February 10, 2015

What Might Have Been: TV: The Top Three

Over the past three decades I’ve had 14 books published. I’ve also had several ideas for books rejected by every publisher that reviewed them. It’s an occupational hazard to which writers adjust, even if we never stop thinking we know better. 

Of all the ones that got away, the project I had been most excited to tackle was pitched as “TV: The Top Three.” The concept was simple: a ranking of the top three episodes from more than 300 television series – sitcoms, dramas, westerns, cartoons, sci-fi, Saturday morning, cult favorites – all selected by me.

I still think it’s a good idea. Top 5 and top 10 lists are click-bait for thousands of websites, and similarly themed articles are a staple in entertainment publications. The appeal of the book, I argued unsuccessfully, was not another man’s opinion of the best 3 episodes of Star Trek or I Love Lucy, both fairly well-trod territory by now, but the selection of outstanding episodes from shows that rarely get books or magazine articles or blogs devoted to them.

Here are two examples of what typical entries would have looked like, for the classic shows Maverick and The Adventures of Superman.


1. Shady Deal at Sunny Acres (November 23, 1958)
 “If you can’t trust your banker, who can you trust?” says Mr. Bates the banker (John Dehner), who’s as crooked as they come, as Bret Maverick (James Garner) discovers after his $15,000 deposit disappears. To retaliate, the ultimate man of inaction pulls up a rocking chair across from the bank and spends the next several days whittling. When the sheriff and various passersby ask if he’s recovered his money yet, Maverick smiles and says, “I’m workin’ on it.” By episode’s end the money is back in his wallet, and Bates is in jail for embezzlement. "You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time," concludes Bret,  "and those are very good odds." 

2. Three Queens Full (November 12, 1961)
Throughout its five-season run, Maverick would occasionally take a break from making fun of its own characters and have a laugh at somebody else’s. “Gun-Shy” was a parody of Gunsmoke, and “A Cure for Johnny Rain” opened with a monotone narration meant to suggest Jack Webb on Dragnet. But the best of the Maverick send-ups was the Bonanza-inspired “Three Queens Full,”guest-starring Jim Backus as Joe Wheelwright of the Subrosa Ranch. The story has Bart Maverick facing a jail sentence unless he chaperones the three brides of Joe’s sons, Moose, Henry and Small Paul. 

3. Hadley’s Hunters (September 25, 1960)
Imagine the reaction today if characters from Friends, Seinfeld and Will & Grace all got together to swap stories at New York’s Central Perk. The 1960s equivalent of this crossover extravaganza happened on Maverick, in which Bart summons help to escape the wrath of a trigger-happy sheriff, played by Edgar Buchanan. Answering the call: Will Hutchins (Sugarfoot), Clint Walker (Cheyenne) and  John Russell and Peter Brown (Lawman).

The Adventures of Superman

1. Panic in the Sky (December 5, 1953)
A meteor hovers perilously close to earth, threatening to crash into Metropolis and cause untold devastation. Superman (George Reeves) tries to fly to the rescue, but there’s Kryptonite in the meteor, and he falls back to earth, suffering from amnesia. In one of the series’ best scenes, the confused Clark Kent starts to undress in front of Jimmy Olsen, and opens his shirt to reveal the Superman costume underneath. Meanwhile, the meteor remains, ominously close to earth, playing havoc with weather patterns around the world. Where, the citizens of earth wonder, is Superman? Those who wonder why the most knowledgeable fans of this series treasure the episodes written by Jackson Gillis need look no further than this superb sci-fi adventure. 

2. Crime Wave (February 27, 1953)
With its atmospheric night shots of rain-slicked streets, and its killing of a half-dozen people before the first line of dialogue, viewers may wonder if they’ve tuned into The Untouchables by mistake. In this gritty, action packed episode, typical of the series’ first season, Superman pledges to cleanse Metropolis of organized crime. His crusade is threatened when a top mob boss discovers his secret identity. Reeves plays the angry scourge of the underworld with conviction, though he is better remembered today as the kinder, gentler Superman of the series’ later seasons.

3. Around the World With Superman (March 13, 1954)
The series’ emotional zenith is achieved in this gut-wrencher written by Jackson Gillis. A little girl is blinded in a car crash and her father, guilt-ridden over the accident, deserts the family. The girl writes a letter explaining her plight to the Daily Planet. Superman uses his x-ray vision to locate fragments of glass in the girl’s optic nerve, and helps surgeons to restore her vision. He then sweeps the girl in his arms and flies her around the world. The rear-projected shots of the Eiffel Tower and the Himalayas may not be state-of-the-art, but the impact of the moment is undiminished by primitive special effects.

I’ve already written dozens of other entries, which I may incorporate into future blog posts about those shows.  In the meantime, if there are any publishers among my readers, I’m still game if you are.


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  2. How about the top three episodes of shows like "The Rat Patrol," "Cannon," "Barnaby Jones," "The Streets of San Francisco," "General Hospital," and "S.W.A.T."? BTW, you meant to say "Central Park" instead of "Central Perk," correct?

    1. If the book is ever completed and published, all of those shows will be included. Certainly would be fun to put all of those lists together.

  3. I think that's a great idea for a book, but unfortunately I'm not a publisher. I wholeheartedly agree with your #1 pick for Maverick, Shady Deal is my favorite episode of that series so far. I'm about 1/3 of the way through the third season and I don't think it will be topped. I'm on the fence about season 4, because Garner as Bret Maverick is the draw for me. So I probably won't be seeing your picks for numbers 2 & 3.

    @ Mr. Stuart: Central Perk is the coffee house on the edge of Central Park at which the Friends congregate (my wife was a big fan of that show).

  4. Terrific idea! We have to find out a way to make it happen!

  5. Terrific idea! We have to find out a way to make it happen!

  6. Great, great idea for a book. I'd buy it. :)

    I'd actually agree with your three SUPERMAN choices, though I have a soft spot in my heart for the cheesy "Great Caesar's Ghost" which is almost as insane as everyone thinks Perry is during the episode.

    Watching all 5 seasons of MAVERICK gives me a great appreciation for Jack Kelly's always improving work as Bart. I'd agree with your number one choice, though I think Gun-Shy is a better spoof than Three Queens Full (which is really good too). That series has at least 20 solid contenders for three spots. It'd be hard for me to leave out Two Beggars on Horseback or Duel at Sundown, just to name two.

  7. @SaturdayMorningFan: I think MAVERICK's weakest episodes are during Season 4, due to inconsistent writing more than anything else. Roger Moore did a good job with what he was given, but ultmately bad creative decisions were costly. Season 5 rebounded pretty nicely, with some fine recurring guest work from Mike Road and Peter Breck. I'd still recommend watching all 5 seasons, there is one more Garner episode during the 4th, The Maverick Line.

    Particular standouts during S. 5 in addition to Three Queens: A Technical Error, The Maverick Report, Dade City Dodge and The Golden Fleecing.

  8. @Hal Horn: Yes, I was aware of that final Brett Maverick episode in season 4. If that season were available in the $12-$15 dollar range like seasons 1 & 2, I'd have bought it by now just for that one episode. But since season 4 is a MOD DVD set, that drives its price up into the $45 range, and I'm not willing to pay that for one episode of interest to me. Good to know that Jack Kelly's Bart improves (not that he was bad to begin with) - maybe when I run out of DVDs on my wishlist, a time that is fast approaching, I'll consider buying the last 2 seasons of Maverick.