Monday, August 10, 2020

When Classic TV Meets Shakespeare


“We have seen better days,” is a quote from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens that seems appropriate at the moment.


Comfort TV provides a welcome diversion from our everyday struggles, and sometimes delivers it’s own unique spin on the Shakespeare canon. Of course, there have been faithful adaptations of the actual plays that have appeared on television through the years, including a fine PBS series that covered just about all of them. But to include those here as well would make this a much longer blog, and brevity is the soul of wit (Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2).


So let’s focus instead on those moments when Shakespeare was incorporated into a classic TV show plot, and what interesting variations were sometimes explored. And let’s start with the one indisputable classic among the attempts.


Moonlighting (1986)

“Atomic Shakespeare”

I had not watched this episode in a long time, and wondered how well it would hold up. Verdict: It’s as brilliant now as it was the first time I watched it – which was also the first time it aired. 




The show’s take on The Taming of the Shrew floors the accelerator in the first scene and never lets up – the quips (“A major plot point cometh”), the sight gags (Wall of Throwing Vases), the pop culture references (everything from The Carpenters to The Honeymooners), the songs, and the inside jokes come as quickly as they do in Airplane! and the Naked Gun films. It helps that Shakespeare’s play was a broad comedy to begin with – but the added dialogue blends so seamlessly with passages from the original play that at times it’s difficult to know which one is being spoken.


Amazingly, this was the lowest-rated episode of the series that season. Go figure.



Eight is Enough (1977)

“The Bard and the Bod”

Joanie lands the part of Titania, Queen of the Fairies, in a local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Halfway through rehearsals, the director decides there should be a scene where all the fairies appear on stage naked. Now Joanie has two choices – should she stay with the play, and if she does should she tell her father?


We only get a few scenes from Shakespeare (Dick Van Patten reads the “What fools these mortals be” passage), but as with the best Eight is Enough episodes this one mixes comedy and drama with an expertise that few other shows can match.


The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet (1954)

“An Evening With Hamlet”

David is studying Hamlet in school. Ricky doesn’t think much of the play, with all its talk about suicide and scenes of people roaming around graveyards: “It’s just not commercial.” When their TV conks out, Ozzie suggests they spend that evening reading the play as a family – and immediately regrets the decision when he’s later invited to a poker game. But the reading commences, and is joined by a stranger that knocks on the door looking for an address – turns out that stranger is an actor who has performed Shakespeare many times, and helps the Nelsons get into the spirit of the material. Like many of this show’s best episodes “An Evening With Hamlet,” is both slightly surreal and laugh-out-loud funny. John Carradine, who did play Hamlet on stage, is wonderful as the lost stranger. 




Fame (1982)

“The Strike”

The kids at the School for the Performing Arts are preparing to perform a musical version of Othello, but that production is threatened when the school’s teachers all go on strike.


So much to like in this typically strong first-season episode: Coco sulks because she loses the part of Desdemona to Julie, and wonders if she would have got it if she had been white – interesting to hear a colorblind casting debate before that became a hot button topic; Leroy, who has enough trouble with modern English, struggles with Shakespeare’s dialogue, to the point where he nearly quits the show. But Gene Anthony Ray nails the scene where Leroy finally gets it. And the performance of “Desdemona” is one of the most elaborate production numbers the show attempted to that date. 




Gilligan’s Island (1966)

“The Producer”

For me this is as good as Gilligan’s Island got, which is not exactly meant as a compliment. Phil Silvers guest starts as producer Harold Hecuba, just one of dozens of people who come and go from the island while the castaways can’t figure out how to leave. During his stay they stage a musical version of Hamlet.


If ever wanted to play’s famous soliloquy sung to the music of Bizet’s Carmen, here’s your chance. 




Happy Days (1974)

“A Star is Bored”

Richie convinces the Fonz to take on the lead role in Hamlet, in an episode that aired right around the time when Fonzie began his ascent to ‘70s icon. So while the formula that would carry the series for several more years begins to solidify, this second season show also offers some unexpectedly serious moments as well, as when Richie explains the meaning of “To be or not to be,” and Fonzie recalls moments after his father walked out when he pondered that same question. 




The Flintstones (1966)

“Curtain Call at Bedrock”

I could have included “Juliet is the Sun” from The Brady Bunch in this piece as well, but as that one was covered recently in another blog we’ll turn instead to Bedrock and a PTA production of “Romeorock and Julietstone.” Apparently Shakespeare has been around a lot longer than we all thought. Barney plays the lead but he’s no Harold Axelrod. Be warned that this is a Gazoo-era episode, so your interest may vary depending on which side you favor in that audience divide.


Star Trek (1966)

“The Conscience of the King”

Star Trek: The Next Generation incorporated several Shakespeare references and performances, no doubt to give Royal Shakespeare Company alumnus Patrick Stewart the chance to look even more awesome than he already did. But the original series offered the first glimpse of Shakespeare on a starship, when a traveling company of actors stages a performance on the Enterprise.



Scenes from both Macbeth and Hamlet are staged, while an investigation is launched into whether the company’s lead actor used to be a brutal dictator responsible for the execution of 8,000 people. As that unfolds, Kirk falls in love with the actor’s daughter (of course). The ending is a bit of a letdown, but this was an ambitious attempt to craft a tragedy in the style of Shakespeare against a backdrop of the Bard’s original plays.

1 comment:

  1. While I admit I've never been a fan of these Shakespearean episodes, I sure did enjoy these synopses--and had a real chuckle over that Gazoo warning! But I DID just see that Ozzie & Harriet episode with John Carradine a couple months ago (on Youtube) and you're right, it was REALLY good. And of course, "Conscience of the King"... I loved that ST episode. Maybe these other shows deserve a second look.