Friday, February 26, 2021

The Subversive Pleasure of Watching Christmas Shows After Christmas

 

March is right around the corner, but this week I watched two classic Christmas episodes: “The Angel’s Sweater” (Father Knows Best) and “The Voice of Christmas” (The Brady Bunch). 

 


 

Why? Because I can remember a time when doing so wasn’t possible. 

 

I think you would have to be over the age of 50 to understand the satisfaction that comes with watching a Christmas show out of season.

 

Until the first videocassette recorders hit the consumer market, watching any episode of television – especially a Christmas episode – was often a one and done experience. Holiday shows were rarely rerun over the summer, and usually left out of the line-up when that show went into syndication.

 

That’s why, even after decades of watching The Brady Bunch in reruns, I did not see “The Voice of Christmas” until sometime after the year 2000. That’s more than a decade after A Very Brady Christmas aired in 1988.

 

When I watched it the other day, I remembered as I always do what it felt like to finally see it during a holiday marathon on TV Land, and what a treat it was to experience a “new” episode of this show so many years after it ended. 

 


 

I enjoyed every moment: Carol’s excitement over singing a solo in church jeopardized by a sudden case of laryngitis; the Brady boys trying to shove a huge Christmas tree through the front door, until their dad shows them an easier way; Mike, confident that he lived in a healthy, functioning society, leaving his six year-old daughter alone in a department store while she waits to meet Santa; that greedy little brat in line next to her, with his pretentious ascot and his mile-long want list. Cindy’s shining blue eyes after Santa promises her mommy will get her voice back in time: “He’s better than a doctor. He’s Santa Claus.”

 



 

From the opening scene of Alice wrapping presents to Florence Henderson’s rendition of “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” it’s everything I could have wanted from a holiday episode of a Comfort TV classic.

 

“The Angel’s Sweater” is another standout Christmas episode, which I saw for the first time when the third season of Father Knows Best was released on DVD. It features a lovely and even profound fairy tale within the story (written by Roswell Rogers) that begins in the Anderson home with the pending arrival of Jim’s sister Neva. 

 


 

It’s apparent from the reactions of his family that this is one of those annual holiday relative visits that happens more out of obligation than preference: Neva is a dour woman who no sooner arrives than she starts complaining about “kids running around” during her travels. Kathy bears the brunt of Neva’s barely-suppressed anxiety around children. After the inevitable blow-up between them, Jim has no time to moderate a truce because of a burst water pipe.

 

Finding a repairman to make a house call on Christmas Eve? Seems unlikely – but not in Springfield. Enter Mr. Fix-it – a jolly old man with an accent from the old country who fixes the pipe, while telling Kathy a story about Katrina, a little girl just like her. 

 


 

The tradition among residents in Katrina’s small fishing village is to buy the nicest Christmas gift they could find and give it to the church as an offering for the poor. Katrina agonizes over what should she give, “What is the greatest gift?” she wonders. An angel tells her it’s a secret that everyone learns in a different way. And when Katrina learns that lesson, Kathy does as well.

 

It’s a beautiful story, no less resonant in March than it is in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

 

So many of the trappings of the season can only be enjoyed in November and December: the egg nog that suddenly appears in your grocer’s freezer between the milk and the cream, the carols added to radio station playlists; but it’s nice to live in a time when these Christmas classics are accessible whenever I need a holiday spirit booster. I’m already looking forward to July, when it will be 110 degrees in Las Vegas, and I’ll be watching Bob Hartley get stranded in a Chicago blizzard.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Feeling Sad? Watch The Nelsons Host a Fraternity Party

 

Before we get started…

Last week’s piece on the censorship of classic television generated several hundred comments on social media, almost all of which expressed a strong preference for allowing these shows to play as originally intended. I was gratified both by the magnitude of the response and the consensus viewpoint.

 

I was also not surprised to find a couple of 1-star ratings for my book suddenly posted that same week on amazon, when all the previous ratings for the past three months had been 5 stars. There were no reviews attached to those low ratings, of course. This is the way cowards chose to anonymously express their disapproval on that blog, and this is the backlash anyone risks for taking a position that runs contrary to that which is, sadly, currently in vogue.

 

But now is the time to speak, more loudly than ever, lest that privilege be forbidden as well.

 

And now, back to our regularly scheduled program.

 

Whenever I feel depressed, I have a handful of Comfort TV episodes I know I can always re-watch to lift my spirits. One of them is “The Kappa Sigma Party,” a 1956 episode of The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet that was written, produced and directed by Ozzie Nelson, and was supposedly based on a true story that happened to his family. 

 


 

 Usually, on any show where the plot revolves around planning a party, viewers know they can count on some unexpected calamity to threaten the festivities. This series also gave us “Halloween,” in which Ozzie and Thorny forget the most basic essentials of party planning after taking charge of the annual Halloween get-together. And in “The Balloons,” Ozzie and some neighborhood kids spend an afternoon blowing up oversized balloons for a women’s club dance that night, and then realize they have no way to transport them from the house to the auditorium.

 

So when David, “the eldest of the Nelson boys,” as the credits remind us, meets two friends on campus worried about having to find a place to hold a fraternity party the next night, and David gets talked into hosting it at his house, we sit back and wait for what is bound to come next: the parental objections, the last-minute scrambling, the house getting torn apart, and whatever other mishaps that could result from 30 or so college kids overrunning your property. 

 


 

Except…none of that happens. Ozzie and Harriet are taken aback at first, but

Harriet quickly decides, “If we’re going to have a party here, let’s make it a good one.”

 

The whole family pitches in; Ricky wants to play his drums, Ozzie sets up games in the yard, Harriet stocks up on burgers and other provisions. That’s the first half of the show. In the second half the guests arrive, the Nelsons greet them, there’s music, food, dancing, conversation, everyone has a wonderful time and when they leave they say that’s the best party they’ve ever attended.

 

That’s it. That’s the show. And it’s wonderful. 

 

  

 

One of the appeals of classic TV to me is spending time in the worlds these shows inhabit. I don’t even need a storyline to enjoy the experience; it would be enough to just visit the home of a family like the Bradys or the Nelsons, or peer over Perry Mason’s shoulder as he meets with potential new clients, or watch the crew of the Enterprise go about their daily tasks.

 

“The Kappa Sigma Party” may be the closest any show gets to that type of exercise. It’s an almost completely conflict-free episode. I guess you could say it’s a show about nothing, or at least nothing remarkable – a quality hailed as revolutionary when Seinfeld did it 30 years later. It’s another reason I believe Ozzie Nelson should be remembered amongst the giants of 1950s television alongside Sid Caesar, Ernie Kovacs and Rod Serling. 

 

 

I do wonder how someone in their teens or 20s would react to this show. Would they find it corny, or wonder what the point is in spending 30 minutes watching a nice family plan a nice party, and everyone showing up and enjoying themselves?

 

Would they also find it unrealistic? That’s the charge most often leveled at these soothing vintage sitcoms. But we forget that there were also troubling events going on in the wider world when this episode aired in 1956 – the Cold War was escalating, Elvis Presley had some parents nervous about what their kids were idolizing – but even in tumultuous times it shows how it is possible to still celebrate the values of kindness and good manners and treating others with respect. There should never be anything unrealistic about that.

 

“The Kappa Sigma Party” can be viewed on YouTube.  

Monday, February 8, 2021

Censoring Classic TV

The other night I was watching an episode of Room 222 entitled “What Is a Man?”

The story opens with Alice (Karen Valentine) proposing a reading of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in the way it would be performed in Shakespeare’s day, with all the parts played by men. 

 


 

Howard, a student in the fine arts program, takes on one of the female roles and reads the lines with conviction the way any talented actor would.

 

But that performance, plus the fact that he’s not a good athlete and is shy around girls leads some of his male classmates to suspect he might be gay. That generates whispers in the hallway and some jokes in poor taste, culminating in a scene where Howard and Mr. Dixon (Lloyd Haynes) leave the classroom and notice a crowd around Howard’s locker.

 

Those gathered silently part, as Howard approaches his locker and sees a word scrawled on it by an unknown vandal. What did it say? I can make a guess, but that’s all I can do because the word was blurred out by the cable network Aspire TV.

 

How do you feel about that?

 

I’m tempted to stand up on an anti-censorship soapbox and rail against this current culture and its spoiled oversensitivity, and this ridiculous expectation that artistic works from decades ago must be altered to reflect the mindset of our more “enlightened” 21st century times.

 

But taking a scissors to art is nothing new, and did not start with the generation that invented safe spaces. For decades, when theatrical films aired on network television, profanity and scenes of nudity or extreme violence were altered or cut. When a television show goes into syndication, the full episode is routinely trimmed by a few minutes to accommodate more commercials.

 

Still, what happened with this Room 222 episode seems worse. This was not censorship required by FCC broadcast standards, or the result of economics. This was someone deciding they didn’t like that word, so no one should be allowed to see it.

 

It made no difference that the scene at Howard’s locker was intended to have a specific and powerful impact on those who watched it when it first aired 50 years ago. That word was there to jolt the viewer, especially at a time when any reference to homosexuality was still rare on network television. Within the context of that moment, blurring the word was a gross disservice to the episode’s creators, and to its audience. There was no plausible reason for it to happen. But it did.

 

And if you haven’t noticed, edits like this are becoming commonplace on cable networks like Aspire and MeTV. It’s a topic I discuss in a couple of places in my book When Television Brought Us Together. Whether it’s the Confederate flag on the roof of the General Lee in The Dukes of Hazzard, or a comedic take on characters of varying ethnicities on Get Smart, the shows of a bygone era are no longer deemed suitable for a general audience. 

 


 

I think it’s a disturbing trend, and one that gets worse the more it is tolerated. Words and symbols that almost everyone dislikes are always first to go, and then the movement expands to those that may not be as negative, but still don’t fit the agenda of those who wield the levers of cultural power.

 

Power – that’s what is almost always at the root of censorship. And it is almost always wrong. When art offers something uncomfortable, it should inspire a teaching moment, or an opportunity for discussion. When a series as progressive and inclusive and empathetic as Room 222 is deemed too offensive, that should be a sign that perhaps there is a better way to deal with situations like this. 

 


 

My suggestion: let “What Is a Man?” play unaltered, and air a parental guidance warning before it starts that the episode contains material that may be too mature for younger or more sensitive viewers. The easily triggered can then change the channel or proceed at their own risk.

 

This way, the station is absolved from having to decide what to air and what to cut – and that is as it should be. Purchasing the rights to broadcast a series should not come with the authority to deface it. When Room 222 is picked up by other cable stations, will they each get to make their own round of corrections? In another ten years there may not be enough left to fill a 30-minute time slot.

 


 

Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” hangs in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, but that doesn’t mean the curator should be allowed to remove a few swirls from the moonlit sky, because he thinks it looks better that way.

 

Leave our TV shows alone.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Banks – For the Memories

 

In most classic TV series there will eventually be a scene in which someone goes to the bank. Like many such moments, it depicts an activity both immediately familiar and yet very different from how banking is conducted now. 

 

Back then, your bank was part of your neighborhood. Most were owned and operated locally and competed with other banks by offering incentives for your business (for some reason, the promotion usually included a free toaster). There were no ATMs, no online banking and no debit cards, so you got to know your tellers when you needed to put money in or take it out. You learned early on to fill out your withdrawal slip at home, because the pens chained to their desks rarely worked. 

 

Maybe you opened a Christmas Club account to help you save for the holidays. Maybe you remember as I do when you opened your first savings account, and received a passbook to keep track of your deposits. It was a rite of passage, like getting your first library card. 

 

What’s the first thought that pops into your head when you think about banks and classic TV? If I were to guess, I’d say you are now picturing either Mr. Mooney (Gale Gordon) on The Lucy Show, or Mr. Drysdale (Raymond Bailey) on The Beverly Hillbillies

 


 

The characters were remarkably similar, and together characterized the profession for their era: they were loud, quick-tempered, money-obsessed but personally cheap, abusive to their secretaries, and willing to grovel and sacrifice their dignity to land a big account. 

 

I wonder how real branch managers and loan officers felt about being defined that way, while doctors and lawyers were glorified by the likes of Ben Casey and Perry Mason.  

 

We saw more of Mr. Drysdale’s home life, and perhaps that elicited some viewer sympathy, though not enough to overlook how awful he was to Miss Jane. 

 


 

His wife Margaret (Harriet MacGibbon) was a shallow snob, and his son (Louis Nye) was a spoiled, narcissistic loser. 

 


 

But if this is a Ginger or Mary Ann type competition, put me in the Theodore J. Mooney camp. On some level he did seem to care for Lucy, at least enough to keep her employed despite her obvious incompetence. Plus, he was usually on the receiving end of more abuse than he dished out, whether from his boss Mr. Cheever (Roy Roberts) or from getting caught up in Lucy’s various schemes. If she wasn’t locking him in the vault (“Lucy and the Safe Cracker’), she was accusing him of embezzlement (“Lucy and the Bank Scandal”). 

 

While banks were prominent settings throughout the runs of The Lucy Show and The Beverly Hillbillies, on other shows they seemed to exist for one of two reasons: either they were being robbed, or they were rejecting a loan request from one of our favorite TV characters. 

 

If someone enters a bank on a cop show or a western, usually you can begin counting the moments until it’s held up. Some, like the banks in Hazzard County on The Dukes of Hazzard and Gotham City on Batman, got hit so often you wonder why residents didn’t start keeping their cash under their mattresses. 

 

When I think of bank robbery stories there are two that emerge as especially memorable. From 1962, “A Case Study of Two Savages” was an episode of The Naked City about a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde played by Rip Torn and Tuesday Weld. 

 


 

The robbery itself takes place in the final five minutes; before that viewers have spent most of their time accompanying the amoral couple as they arrive in New York City and set out on a murderous rampage. They’re in love, they’re not very smart, and their story ends with a fate that’s entirely appropriate for sociopaths who steal and kill. 

 


 

A 1974 Police Story episode entitled “Glamour Boy” features Larry Hagman as Alan Robert Richardson, who robs banks without a gun. He uses his charisma and soft-spoken threats to convince victims that they’d better hand over the money…or else. When he’s picked up by Detectives Calabrese (Tony Lo Bianco) and Jameson (Don Meredith), they are taken aback by his carefree personality and impeccable manners. Jameson in particular takes a liking to his collar – and continues to admire him even after he escapes custody. 

 

This was still an era of television when criminals could not be portrayed as admirable, so the climax reveals how even Richardson’s modus operandi can claim an innocent victim. Still, you can’t help but be charmed by Hagman’s work here, and to see the first hints of J.R. Ewing, who was still four years into his future. 

 


 

Speaking of Hagman – he also figures in our second popular TV bank trope; as Major Nelson he was shot down for a loan by John McGiver in the I Dream of Jeannie episode “Jeannie Breaks the Bank.” And on The Brady Bunch, Bobby and Cindy didn’t fare any better with Mr. Goodbody (seriously?) when they tried to borrow $56.23 from the Winston Savings & Loan. But at least they left with a dime apiece, which is more than Major Nelson got. And we can all thank Mr. Goodbody for his rejection - without it the kids would not have tried to raise the money by appearing on The Pete Sterne Amateur Hour.

 


 

Perhaps they would have had better luck with Shirley Partridge, who worked at a bank before she joined the family band. Remember? 

 


 

I have one last bank scene to bring to your attention as, given my incurable impatience,  it’s my personal favorite. You’ll find it in an episode of The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet called “Rick’s 21st Birthday.” Ozzie goes to the bank to pick up a $50 bill for his son’s birthday. When he arrives he does what we all do – try to pick out the shortest line. The result is a wonderfully choreographed little ballet of urban frustration, as he keeps switching lines only to find himself further back each time. Of course, as soon as you see a bank that has more than two tellers working at the same time, you know you’re watching a show that’s at least 50 years old.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Why Didn’t "Please Don’t Eat the Daisies" Work?

 

A few months ago I decided I had waited long enough for some TV shows to be released on DVD. Life is too short and with certain short-lived series, the likelihood of an official release seems more unlikely with each passing year. It was time to seek other sources. My first acquisition was Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, which debuted in 1965 and lasted two seasons. 

 


 

My hopes were high because I’ve always liked Pat Crowley, whether she was breaking Little Joe’s heart on Bonanza or seducing Bosley on Charlie’s Angels. Plus, the source material (a novel by Jean Kerr) had already been adapted into a delightful movie starring Doris Day and David Niven.

 

I expected more of the same – smart, witty comedy about the adventures of Jim and Joan Nash (Mark Miller and Pat Crowley) who pack up their sons and sheepdog and relocate from a chic Manhattan apartment to a ramshackle country estate. But something was sadly lost in the translation. 

 


 

Start with this: you can’t have a family situation comedy when the dog has more personality than the four Nash boys – Kyle (Kim Tyler), Joel (Brian Nash) and twins Trevor and Tracey (Jeff and Joe Fithian).

 

From Beaver Cleaver to Alex P. Keaton, the children in TV families must be developed as real characters with personalities that impact how stories unfold. But the Nash boys are non-entities.

 

Granted, that was true in the movie as well – the boys were either rambunctious or rotten depending on your general view of kids, and seemed to exist only to cause trouble. But that won’t suffice on a weekly series – nor would the banter of their exasperated parents. David Niven’s reflections on how elementary school only exists to give adults a break from their children was a sentiment you’d never hear Jim Anderson or Mike Brady express. And Doris Day’s reaction to a commotion in the next room – “If they broke any important bones, they’ll yell” – is something Donna Stone wouldn’t dream of saying. 

 


 

Once Roseanne and the Bundys hit TV, those rules changed. But in 1965 parents couldn’t trade such bon mots over martinis like Nick and Nora Charles. The Nashes had to be domesticated.

 

And this was not the only change from the film. Jim Nash was no longer a feared New York theater critic, which had him crossing paths with eccentric actresses and angry producers and cab drivers who wanted him to read their plays. Instead, he teaches theater at a small college. Joan is a writer, which makes sense as Jean Kerr based this story on her own family. 

 


 

They didn’t go there in the movie but it was a good idea for the series – or at least it would have been had that actually committed to it. But not enough scripts revolve around her getting a story published, or working to write one.

 

Crowley and Miller are both likable and are believable as a married couple. But I rarely found it interesting to follow them into the same sitcom plots I enjoyed on other shows. What was missing? Why did my mind keep wandering to how, if you closed your eyes, Miller sounds exactly like Carl Betz on The Donna Reed Show, and when Crowley tries to inject some life into a tired punch line, her voice goes up an octave and she sounds like Eve Arden?

 

The most obvious culprit is the writing, which is surprising since scripts were submitted by such prominent and respected folks as Paul West, Lee Erwin, Austin and Irma Kalish, Bill Freedman and Ben Gershman.

 

Take Jack Raymond’s “The Holdouts”, which should have been a standout episode. The kids realize that Mom is selling stories to magazines based on the cute and funny stuff they do around the house, and decide they should get a share of the profits. That was a great idea that was tailored for the specific attributes of this TV family – but the standoff is not well developed and the resolution falls flat.

 

There were a few bright spots along the way. Burgess Meredith guest stars as a Shakespeare-quoting hobo in “The Magnificent Muldoon,” written by Mark Miller. And there’s an out-of-left-field crossover with The Man From UNCLE (“Say UNCLE”) featuring appearances from Robert Vaughn and David McCallum. Once in a while in an otherwise mundane episode there will be a smart dialogue exchange that reveals the potential that was here and went undeveloped.

 

More than anything else, watching all 58 episodes of Please Don’t Eat the Daisies served as a reminder of how we shouldn’t take the classic shows from the Comfort TV era for granted. Creating a series that can still entertain audiences 50 or 60 years later doesn’t happen easily. Even when you combine blue-chip source material with talented actors and talented writers and directors, success is not a sure thing. There is another component that must also be present but is harder to define, and that either happens almost as if by magic, or it doesn’t. Your mileage may vary, but for me it just didn’t happen here. 

 


 

 

Monday, January 11, 2021

Purchase or Pass: The Eleventh Hour

 

Full disclosure: I do not own any medical shows on DVD. There are several I like, and I’ve watched episodes here and there online and on nostalgia networks, but for me they don’t have the “re-watchable” factor that makes a series worth purchasing. Plus, I’ve always been a little skittish about doctors and hospitals, so that’s not a setting I find applicable to comfort TV.

 

However, having read some persuasive praise of its quality, I made a blind buy on The Eleventh Hour, a short-lived 1962 series that focused on patients struggling with mental health issues, and the doctors who try to help them. After 2020 tested our individual and collective sanity, this is either the most appropriate show to explore, or the least. 

 


 

Wendell Corey stars as Dr. Theodore Bassett, a psychiatrist on staff at County General Hospital. On many cases he collaborates with Dr. Paul Graham (Jack Ging), a clinical psychologist. Together, as it says on the DVD box, they “boldly venture into the last great frontier – the human mind – to help the desperate, heal the mentally ill, and aid the forces of law and order.”

 

Corey was a journeyman actor and a decorated officer in World War II, who could use his commanding demeanor to stare down a violent patient, but also show the patience and compassion necessary to work with the troubled souls he met. Ging had more conventional leading man appeal, though Dr. Graham often fell into the cliché that many TV psychologists do of answering questions with questions.

 

“What do you think, Doc?”

“I don’t know, what do you think?”

 

The two rarely differed in their patient assessments, though Graham was more open to trying new methods like family therapy and group therapy, as was explored in the episode “Five Moments Out of Time.” 

 


 

Both leads are sufficient guides into this type of medical practice, but they’re not the reason The Eleventh Hour works. The series earns an enthusiastic “purchase” recommendation from me for its intelligent scripts and truly remarkable array of guest stars in nearly every episode.

 

“There are Dragons in This Forest” features Steven Hill as a World War II deserter who may have been insane at the time of his desertion; in “Make Me a Place,” David Janssen portrays a husband concerned about the fragile mental state of his ex-wife (Barbara Rush); George C. Scott plays a former Communist agent, defected to the U.S., who suddenly decides he needs to return home, much to the chagrin of his wife (Colleen Dewhurst).

 

Television A-listers abound: Robert Vaughn and Inger Stevens in “The Blues My Babe Gave to Me,” a powerful portrait of post-partum depression; a family seeking therapy for their troubled youngest son is comprised of parents Angela Lansbury and Martin Balsam, and siblings Roy Thinnes, Tuesday Weld and Don Grady. 

 


 

Two episodes stood out for me among this distinguished field. “Hooray, Hooray the Circus is Coming to Town” stars Burgess Meredith as the free-spirit black sheep son of a wealthy family, who inherits the family business and family fortune even though he has no interest in either. Does not caring about money or responsibility make a person crazy? Dr. Bassett has to find out, and seems to have a great time doing so in this, the only show in the season that offers a few moments of comedy. Meredith is amazing – this should rank alongside The Penguin and the Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough At Last” as his best TV work.

 

Even better is “A Tumble From a High White Horse,” in which Walter Matthau plays a father who kills the pusher that turned his son (Frankie Avalon) into a heroin addict. His lawyer (Telly Savales) wants him to plead temporary insanity, but Matthau insists he did the right thing. Possibly the most impressive hour of television I watched all of last year. 

 

And in case you haven’t picked up on it already, this series also specialized in unique episode titles. Season one gave us “Beauty Playing a Mandolin Underneath a Willow Tree,” “Try to Keep Alive Until Next Tuesday,” and my personal favorite, “I Feel Like a Rutabaga.”

 

One aspect of the series I found interesting is how these doctors rarely prescribed drugs to their patients. I’m not an expert but it seems like many people in therapy now get pills to alter their moods or help them cope with stress. But here the approach is to find the root cause of a patient’s problem, and help them to confront it and overcome it without pharmaceutical assistance. Did they do that because better drugs weren’t available back then, or did they understand that mood-altering prescriptions might be exchanging one problem for another?

 


 

Another surprise is how hypnotism was considered a mainstream course of treatment. One day I’ll research if that was really the case in the 1960s, or if the show went there for dramatic license. Is it still widely used? I’ve never been in therapy (shocking to some, I’m sure) so I wouldn’t know.

 

One last point: I read the positive reviews of The Eleventh Hour on IMDB and noticed several commentators who wrote “They don’t make television like this anymore.” One reviewer took exception to that, believing shows from different eras should be judged on their own merits, and based on the times in which they were made. Fair enough. Would be nice if we applied those same criteria to historic figures. 

 


 

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Classic TV 2020: The Year in Review

 

On January 1 of 2020 I posted a review of the most memorable classic TV-related moments from the previous year. How little we all knew then about what lay ahead of us.

 

I almost didn’t bother with a 2020 year in review piece, because most of us just want to turn the calendar page and never look back. But I enjoy a challenge, so let’s see if we can find anything pleasant to recall from a year of viruses, violence and political turmoil.

 

Best Classic TV Moment: Comfort from Old Friends

The pandemic kept many of us home for much of 2020, either by choice or government edict. And during those seemingly endless months of isolation and anxiety, millions of Americans found temporary relief from their troubles in episodes of their favorite classic shows.

 

Evidence for this trend isn't just anecdotal, according to a story on NPR. A Nielsen study examined the impact of COVID-19 on entertainment consumption and concluded that more than half of consumers sought comfort in familiar music and television shows. More than 50% said they'd recently re-watched episodes of an old favorite series.

 

“Knowing how something ends makes us feel at ease,” the study found. “Marcia Brady getting hit in the nose with a football has the same outcome today as it did when that Brady Bunch episode first aired in 1973. 

 


 

 

"Spoiler alert: she ditches ‘big man on campus’ Doug Simpson for nice guy Charlie. The level of uncertainty on old TV shows is pretty low, and during these unpredictable, always changing times, we like it that way.”

 

Shows such as The Andy Griffith Show and Little House on the Prairie were among those most frequently cited. Understandable. 

 


 

 

Worst Classic TV Moment: Star Trek: Lower Decks

We’ve seen this before: Hollywood hacks borrowing a familiar name with a built-in fanbase and then arrogantly destroying everything that made the original version successful. As a continuation or reboot or reimagining of Gene Roddenberry’s optimistic version of our future, the animated Star Trek: Lower Decks was as authentic as Hilaria Baldwin’s accent. As one reviewer wrote, “This is a show that's trying to be something it shouldn't be, for an audience that doesn't exist.”

 

Revivals

Thankfully, 2020 also added a more appropriate new chapter to Star Trek lore with Picard, which featured not just Patrick Stewart back in the title role but guest appearances from Jonathan Frakes, Marina Sirtis, Brent Spiner and Jeri Ryan as Seven of Nine. Though inconsistent at times, with a departing message that might be troubling to some viewers of faith, it was nonetheless delightful to see everyone again. The series’ seventh episode, “Nepenthe,” was the best new hour of television I watched in 2020.

 


 

 

Last year also saw a prequel revival of Perry Mason on HBO, which came and went without much fanfare like so much of 21st century television. And most of the old gang from Bayside High reunited for Saved By the Bell (which debuted in 1989 so just slides in under our 1980s Comfort TV limit).

 

Classic TV Character Sightings

The only one that comes to mind is Lynda Carter’s appearance in the new Wonder Woman movie. Hopefully that still doesn’t require a spoiler alert. 

 


 

 

New on DVD and Blu-Ray

The first season of My Three Sons debuted on DVD in 2008. It took 12 years, but season five finally came out last year. Only seven more seasons to go – perhaps a complete series set will be available in 2046. 

 


 

 Western fans celebrated the release of all 20 seasons of Gunsmoke in one gargantuan set, and I was happy to finally pick up Head of the Class, even if it was a little better in my memory than it played on DVD. Another pleasant surprise was a release of the short-lived 1971 series The Smith Family, starring Henry Fonda.

 

On Blu-Ray, there were complete series sets for The Flintstones, Mission: Impossible, Police Squad, Josie and the Pussycats, and Wonder Woman

 


 

 

In Memoriam

We continue to mourn Dawn Wells, (and I’m still not over the passing of Diana Rigg), while fondly remembering many other stars that made television a nicer place to visit. Last year we said goodbye to David Lander, Alex Trebek, Wilford Brimley, Regis Philbin, Carl Reiner, Marj Dusay, Ken Osmond, Phyllis George, Jerry Stiller, Robert Conrad, and Scooby-Doo co-creator Joe Ruby. 

 


 

 

Most Popular Comfort TV Post of 2020

I’m always surprised when I run the numbers on a year’s worth of posts, and this time out was no exception. The most-read piece from 2020 was about the five most annoying kids from the classic TV era. I guess we were all a little grouchy this past year, so it felt good to kick a few little brats around while being stuck at home. 

 


 

 

Least Popular Comfort TV Post of 2020

Okay, no more quizzes in the blog, considering how my Which Shows Featured These Characters quiz back in August didn’t get much traction.

 

 

What’s Ahead in 2021

Hopefully the end of lockdowns, masks, despotic governors, colorful circles on the ground marking out social distancing space, and other tribulations ushered in by 2020.

 

If that doesn’t happen? Well, there’s a new book out about the classic TV era you might enjoy, and after you’ve read it I’ll meet you in front of the TV for the forthcoming Punky Brewster reboot.