Wednesday, March 30, 2016

When the Real World Peeks In

Most of my fellow Comfort TV fans don’t have much use for reality TV.

The issue used to be that these shows cut into the valuable prime time real estate reserved exclusively for sitcoms, dramas and procedurals. Now that we have 8000 channels this is no longer a problem.

Maybe we just like the old shows because they provide an escape from reality. But sometimes, even within these enclosed fictional settings, the real world found a way in. It didn’t happen often, and with some shows you’d never know the difference if you did not know the backstory. Other times it was very clear that something unique, and very special, was taking place.

“Lucy’s Big Break”
Here’s Lucy
Before filming began on the fifth season of Here’s Lucy, Lucille Ball had a skiing accident and broke her leg. As she was carried off the Aspen slopes, she was distraught at the prospect of putting the cast and crew of her show out of work (according to daughter Lucie Arnaz, who was there when it happened). How could she do the physical comedy that was such an integral part of the series? CBS briefly considered canceling the show, but instead scripts were rewritten and Lucy returned to the set in a cast and a wheelchair for the first five episodes of that season. 

“Happy Birthday and Too Many More”
The Dick Van Dyke Show
In the sophisticated and attractive Rob and Laura Petrie, many TV fans saw a parallel with another appealing young couple – President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie. President Kennedy was assassinated during production of a show about Richie’s birthday party. Four days later the episode was shot, but not in the traditional way in front of a studio audience. “No one’s mind was really on doing a comedy show,” said series writer Bill Persky. Next time you watch it, see if you can spot any signs of a grief-stricken cast at work. 

“Maynard’s Farewell to the Troops”
The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis
Imagine being a struggling young actor and getting the break of a lifetime – a costarring role in a new series. Then imagine being drafted after filming the first four episodes. That’s what happened to Bob Denver, as he began his portrayal of Maynard G. Krebs on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. The situation was written into the series, when Maynard is drafted as well. Actor Michael J. Pollard was brought in to play Maynard’s cousin, Jerome. But then Denver was declared ineligible for military service because he had broken a vertebra in a car accident years earlier. Maynard returned and Jerome disappeared after two episodes, never to be seen or heard from again.

Dan Blocker, who played the beloved Hoss Cartwright on Bonanza, died before production began on the series 14th and final season. The script for “Forever,” the first episode of that season, had already been written by Michael Landon. The story had Hoss falling in love with a woman, who is killed by a ruthless gambler. Landon rewrote the script with his character of Little Joe suffering the loss. The episode ends with a moment where Joe and his father Ben weep over her passing, but viewers knew the tears were really for their departed friend. 

“Lucy is Enciente”
I Love Lucy
This turned out to be a more depressing entry than I anticipated, so let’s at least end on a happy note, by returning once again to Lucy, and perhaps the most famous and heartwarming “real” moment to emerge from a scripted TV show.

The decision to have Lucy Ricardo “with child” seemed logical given Lucille Ball’s pregnancy, though at the time such things were not always discussed on television.
“Lucy is Enciente” was the episode in which she tells Ricky they’re going to have a baby. After several failed attempts to do so, Lucy attends Ricky’s nightclub show and has an associate slip him a note that someone in the audience is expecting. In the original script, Ricky was to realize it was Lucy, almost faint, and then recover enough to start singing. But that didn’t happen. Writer/producer Jess Oppenheimer explained in The Lucy Book:

“Lucy and Desi got to this point in acting out the script and then this strange thing happened: Suddenly they remembered their own real emotions when they discovered that at last they were going to be parents, and both of them began crying. We had to yell at Desi to keep going and do the baby song. (Director) Bill Asher thought the scene was ruined and had it reshot. When we saw both versions, we knew we had to go with the emotional one.”

Sometimes the real world isn’t so bad after all. 

No comments:

Post a Comment