Monday, July 26, 2021

How Has Classic TV Inspired You?


Recently I watched an episode of Lou Grant called “Marathon.” It was an outstanding show as most of them are, depicting how a big-city newspaper springs into action when a major story breaks – in this case, a cave-in in Chatsworth, California with workers and students trapped inside.


Reporters that had been sniping at each other that morning were assigned to different tasks and immediately began collaborating as professionals, to make sure the facts were right and the story was covered both compassionately and correctly. Editors who worked the day shift stayed until 2am to get up-to-date content in the earliest edition possible.


As a viewer you can sense how imperative it is for these journalists to get this information out to the public. And even though the details were potentially tragic, there was an inherent feeling of – if not joy, than perhaps satisfaction – in using one’s talent and ability to communicate this story to a large audience.


When the episode was over, I felt compelled to go to my computer and start writing. There were a couple of pending assignments at my regular job that had to be completed, and I was filled with the desire to immerse myself in them and create the most powerful and persuasive prose imaginable. It’s hard to explain the sensation I experienced in that moment, or why that episode of Lou Grant had that effect – I guess, to paraphrase Carl Reiner’s wife in When Harry Met Sally, I just wanted to have what they were having.


I’m certain that variations on moments like have occurred millions of times to millions of people over the decades. It’s just not the sort of thing anyone could ever track.


How many viewers of The Lucy Show watched Lucy Carmichael try to bake a pie in “Lucy Enters a Baking Contest” and were motivated to also try to make one – perhaps for the first time?



How many students read a book about space – or perhaps took an astronomy course – after getting hooked on Star Trek



How people actually tried milk and Pepsi after watching Laverne & Shirley



Did anyone find the courage to audition for a school play or talent show after watching the characters on a TV show perform?


Did anyone try to jump their car over a creek like Bo and Luke Duke? (Probably not, but I’ll bet the temptation was there). 



I think moments like this should be acknowledged, perhaps because my life is full of them. As I grew up watching these shows, I was one of those kids that would hear a reference to a historic figure or entertainment personality that was unfamiliar, and would try to research who they were and why they were important. That wasn’t as easy to do before the Internet. But I had a good set of Encyclopedia Britannica, and we had lots of books about movies and movie stars, so usually I was able to find what I was seeking.


I don’t think any series sent me into reference mode more than…wait for it….Rocky and Bullwinkle. When Fearless Leader was described as Pottsylvania’s answer to Bernard Baruch, I wanted to know who that was. I read a biography of Francis Bacon after Sherman and Mr. Peabody met him in one of their time travel adventures. In that story Bacon hit William Shakespeare over the head with a flower pot, and the outraged Bard of Avon shouted, “Bacon! You’ll fry for this!”


That still may be the funniest line I’ve ever heard on television.


One of their stories was titled “The Ruby Yacht Of Omar Khayyam.” Sounded vaguely familiar, and I found out it was a clever pun on the name of a well-known Persian poem called “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,” which I then read:


Some for the Glories of This World; and some
Sigh for the Prophet's Paradise to come;
Ah, take the Cash, and let the Credit go,
Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum!


Prophetic, and sadly more relevant today than when it was written. Rarely were these research efforts not rewarded with something of value. 



Such are the ways that TV shows impact our lives, even the ones dismissed by elitists as silly and unsophisticated. Watching them today we learn how our culture has changed since then. These lessons have not been as gratifying.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Top TV Moments: Eve Plumb


As with all of its cast members, Eve Plumb will forever be associated with The Brady Bunch, though she also appeared in other popular shows before, during and after that five-year run. 


It’s a toss-up as to which cast member had the most interesting career outside that show, but I think Plumb rates the edge over Maureen McCormick, who popped up in such classics as Bewitched and Honey West. But let’s give Jan a rare win over Marcia this time, and explore some of her other memorable TV moments.


The Smothers Brothers Show (1965)

This is not the Smothers Brothers series that left its mark on the history of television, but rather a lame and largely forgotten sitcom that preceded it by two years. Dick plays an ambitious young executive; Tommy plays his deceased brother, who has returned as an angel trying to earn his wings. Eve Plumb made her TV debut at the age of seven in the holiday episode “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” You’ll spot her about halfway through in a toy shop scene – she has one line (“Do it again!”) and is billed as “Little Girl.”


The Big Valley (1966)

Someone must have liked Eve on this series as she appeared in three different episodes. Her biggest part was in “Hide the Children,” in which she carries an anachronistic Raggedy Ann doll and falls into a well (which is dangerous on any series without Lassie).


But if you just want to watch one of her guest spots, go with “Brother Love” (1967), featuring singer Robert Goulet as a con man acting as a preacher and faith healer. Will Audra (Linda Evans) get taken in by his charms, or help him see the error of his ways? Goulet plays the heck out his charismatic character, and croons a couple of songs along the way. Plus, there’s another fun moment for Brady fans in the brief appearance of Debi Storm as a shopkeeper’s blind daughter. She later played Molly Webber in the Brady Bunch episode “My Fair Opponent.”


The Brady Bunch (1969)

I’m not sure if Jan was anyone’s favorite character, but she may have been the most memorable and was certainly the most broadly parodied in the two Brady Bunch movies. 


She was insecure about her looks, her middle child status, and her lack of scholastic and creative achievement when measured against her seemingly perfect older sister. I’m sure a lot of young viewers in similar situations could identify. 


Plumb didn’t show up for the Variety Hour, which in retrospect seems wise, but despite her status as the most reluctant Brady sibling she has returned for all of the other revivals and reunions, from The Brady Brides to HGTV’s A Very Brady Renovation.


Family Affair (1968)

Having already dismissed the notion that situation comedies always have to be funny, Family Affair now disproves the assumption that Christmas episodes always have to be happy. In “Christmas Came A Little Early” Eve Plumb plays Eve Bowers, a friend of Buffy’s suffering from a terminal illness. With Bill Davis’s help the family plans an early Christmas celebration, knowing Eve is unlikely to survive until December. 


Uncle Bill, a man of considerable resources, brings in a specialist to assess Eve’s condition, and a lesser series might have closed this episode on a hopeful note, or at least spared viewers from its grim outcome. But Family Affair always gives it to you straight; the final scene, of Buffy alone in her bedroom after Eve has died, is one I don’t ever want to watch again.


Here’s Lucy (1972)

“Lucy and Donny Osmond” is one of my favorite episodes of this series. The story has Donny meeting Kim (Lucie Arnaz) after his show and developing a crush on her. I can see it – even with the show putting the 21 year-old Arnaz in dresses and a hairstyle that made her look 35. It’s surprising to see Eve, who plays Lucy’s niece, in a guest spot on a different sitcom during the Brady Bunch run, and it’s fun to watch her share a scene with TV’s first lady of comedy. Plus, you get two musical numbers from Donny at the height of his teen idol fame. 


ABC Afterschool Special (1974)

Based on the book by prolific, award-winning novelist Betsy Byars, “Sara’s Summer of the Swans” explores the challenges of growing up with a special needs sibling. But it’s really also about learning to let other people into your life, even if you’re not sure they’ll like it there. That message resonated with me when it first aired, and it’s one I still need to hear from time to time. This is a simple, heartfelt story that exemplifies how enriching these shows can be at their best. Eve Plumb is only in one scene as Gretchen, the popular girl in Sara’s school who tries to befriend her but is rudely rebuffed. Christopher Knight also appears in a supporting role.


Wonder Woman (1977)

“The Pied Piper” is one of the most pungent slices of ‘70s cheese ever unleashed on an unsuspecting public. Story: rock god Hamlin Rule (Martin Mull!) hypnotizes his young female admirers with his magic flute, and orders them to steal the box office receipts during his concerts. Eve, who gets “special guest star” billing, plays Elena, the daughter of an IADC agent who falls under Hamlin’s spell. 


Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway (1976)

This is one of the rare 1970s TV movies that still get talked about from time to time. But unlike Brian’s Song and The Night Stalker, which people remember because they were really great, Dawn was noticed because it featured a Brady as a teenage prostitute. 



It’s not a good movie, but it is certainly a memorable relic of its time. If you’ve never watched it, proceed with caution – the scene in which Patty Lane’s father takes Jan Brady back to a cheap Hollywood motel room for some afternoon delight can scar a classic TV fan for life.


Little Women (1978)

Even if you know this beloved story from the book or the numerous other film and TV adaptations, this miniseries version is a must for classic television fans because of its cast. The four March sisters are played by Meredith Baxter Birney, Susan Dey, Even Plumb, and Ann Dusenberry. Also appearing: Robert Young, William Schallert, Dorothy McGuire, William Shatner, Virginia Gregg, Joyce Bulifant and John de Lancie, alongside Hollywood royalty in Greer Garson. 


I can recall three occasions when a Brady shared the screen with a Partridge, and this one is by far the most rewarding – and certainly more dignified than when Barry Williams boxed Danny Bonaduce.


The Facts of Life (1983)

“Best Sisters, Pts. 1 & 2” was a very special episode™ in which Blair is delighted by a visit from Meg (Plumb), her unofficial sibling via their respective parents’ multiple marriages. But that joy turns to revulsion when she learns Meg is about to become a nun. Jo has the opposite reaction – she considers joining a convent as well.


Ah, for the days when television knew there were Christians (or any people of faith) in the country. 


Something viewers may appreciate more now is how Lisa Whelchel, who became one of the most openly devout Christians in Hollywood, plays Blair here as someone who vacillates between not believing in God, and being furious with him for not answering a prayer about her parents’ failing marriage. Some frank and insightful discussions about religion follow, mostly between Blair and Mrs. Garrett. Still, this is Eve Plumb’s most substantive non-Brady role until she starred in the 1995 series Fudge.

Monday, July 5, 2021

Thirty Minutes of Sanity


I had just about wrapped up a “Top TV Moments” piece on Eve Plumb, who had the most interesting and varied TV career of the Brady Bunch siblings outside of that iconic series. 


But before I could finish it and post it, the following things happened:


1. I purchased a Honey Baked Ham for the holiday weekend. Before the clerk rang up the $82 purchase, I asked if I could look at the ham. She replied that she couldn’t show it to me “because of COVID.” She did not explain how “COVID” impeded her from taking her plastic gloved hand and lowering one slim layer of gold foil. But one of her fellow clerks chimed in with this helpful suggestion: “You can look at it after you bought it.”


2. I read the details about a new policy in my hometown of Chicago that now prohibits the city’s police officers from chasing after certain criminals. For instance, if a woman is mugged and the thief is fleeing with her purse, an officer is no longer allowed to run after him, and can be suspended or fired for doing so.


Insanity on a small scale, producing only a moment of frustration; insanity on an epic scale, that will likely result in more casualties for a city that already has an obscene murder rate.


This is why the first line of the Introduction to my book When Television Brought Us Together is “Is there anyone else out there who doesn’t understand the world anymore?”


My friend and fellow TV blogger Mitchell Hadley has been publishing a superb series of pieces called “Descent Into Hell” that observe how episodes of classic TV dramas and suspense series from 50 or more years ago could be remarkably prescient in figuring where our culture might be headed.


Classic shows can do that. That’s one reason why so many of us still watch and enjoy them. If they didn’t have something to say to an audience now, there would be no reason to pay attention. But sadly, all they can do is point to a cliff; they can’t stop us from stepping over the edge. Like Wile E. Coyote in every Road Runner cartoon we now seem hell bent on throwing away everything we have to chase something we’ll never be able to acquire, regardless of the cost.


As every week seems to bring another story that adds to the crescendo of crazy, classic TV can also serve another purpose, one that is particularly apt to acknowledge on this Independence Day weekend: We didn’t used to be like this. We were better than this. And we can be better again. 


Television can create fads and catchphrases and even inspire career choices, but it cannot mold an entire civilization. That is up to us. What TV can do, and must do for its dramas and comedies and variety shows to be credible, is reflect an accurate picture of the times, places and characters it portrays – specifically as it depicts their priorities, outlooks and values.


Pick a show – I can’t imagine you’d be here if you didn’t have a few favorites from the Comfort TV era. Why do you still watch them, especially if you have already watched every episode? The stories will no longer surprise you, the punch lines might still be funny but they won’t be as funny as the first time you heard them. So what are you getting from this experience that makes it time well spent? 


I can’t answer for you but I can answer for me, and I would suspect my motivation is not very different from yours.


It’s thirty minutes of sanity; it’s spending time in the company of happy families and responsible fathers and qualified teachers and reliable newspapers and (mostly) honest politicians. It’s where characters learn lessons about forgiveness and humility, honesty and civics (a word that now seems as archaic as CB radio language – 10-4, good buddy).


It’s seeing the best of us – and being inspired again to follow the example being set, even if it sometimes feels like you’re the only one still trying. 


Faith, family and community are part of the bedrock of so many television shows from the 1950s through the 1970s.  I read one author who wrote they have been replaced with a new postmodern trinity – race, class, and gender. It’s interesting how the first three encourage individuals to look outward, to think of ourselves as part of something larger and inviting us to contribute something positive to that collective. And the second set, at least as most commonly expressed, look inward and issue demands – this is who I am, and this is how I expect you to regard me.


I’ll stick with the first option. To me faith, family and community are beautiful things. And I see them in these shows and their portrayal of good people living good lives. 


“For beauty is a source of strength for man. It is inspiration for work, a light that guides us through the darkness of human existence and allows us to overcome all evil, all suffering, with good.”

Pope John Paul II


That’s not the only reason I still watch these shows. But it certainly ranks near the top.


P.S. #1: The Eve Plumb piece will run next week.


P.S. #2: The ham was really good.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

The Almost Classic Wonder Woman Episode: The Feminum Mystique


Last week I finally popped open my Blu-ray set of the Wonder Woman series, knowing the show would look better than it ever has, and hoping that improved picture quality might offset some of the deficiencies in scripts, supporting cast and special effects that, despite Lynda Carter's sheer perfection, have nudged the series into 'missed opportunity' status. 


There was no question about which episode I’d check out first: “The Feminum Mystique, Parts 1 & 2.” These were the shows that featured a German invasion of Paradise Island, the introduction of Debra Winger as Wonder Girl, and one of the very few moments in the series in which Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman displayed superhuman strength on par with Gal Gadot in the movies. 



I’m still not quite ready to call it a classic, but I do think it’s as close as this show got.


We’re in the first season, which was always more interesting than the two that followed because of its World War II-era setting. The dashing but ever-useless Steve Trevor (Lyle Waggoner) is part of a project to develop an experimental aircraft that could help the Allies shorten the war. One of his trusted crewmembers is Peter Knight, played by Charles Frank, one of those all-American type actors that you’d never suspect might be a Nazi spy. So of course that’s exactly what he is.


Meanwhile, back on Paradise Island, Queen Hippolyta (Carolyn Jones, right at home in over-the-top material) decides it’s time Princess Diana stopped cavorting among all those X chromosomes and returned home. She selects Diana’s sister Drusilla (Debra Winger) to deliver the message. 



After the two sisters are reunited Diana ignores the message to leave, and instead allows Dru to discover the joys of ice cream and men (in a family show-friendly way, of course).


Colonel Radl (John Saxon), another German saboteur, sees Wonder Woman in action and realizes the potential in building submarines and tanks from the bullet-deflecting metal in her bracelets. That’s something that never occurred to Steve Trevor, even though he spent more time with Wonder Woman than anyone else. I guess we should be glad he wasn’t in charge of D-Day. 



Radl kidnaps a general to lure Wonder Woman into a trap – he gets Drusilla as Wonder Girl instead, and with Peter Knight’s help tricks her into revealing the location of Paradise Island, the only source for the metal “feminum” used to make the bracelets.


What happens next I’ll leave for you to discover. What makes “The Feminum Mystique” arguably the best Wonder Woman show is how the story unfolds on a grander scale, with more Nazis and more amazons than you’d find in a typical episode, and a challenge more befitting to one of the world’s most powerful superheroes. There is also some really clunky dialogue, but if you ever read sliver age DC comics you know that’s also pretty accurate to the source material.


For some reason, knowing how much Debra Winger allegedly hated her Wonder Girl days just enhances my enjoyment in these shows.  



She didn’t like a lot of her movies and most of her costars so this was true to form, but I thought she fit the part well and I’m glad she returned for one more appearance, in the final first season episode “Wonder Woman in Hollywood.”


There are some nice moments between Winger and Lynda Carter, and between Carolyn Jones and John Saxon, two actors frequently trapped in substandard material that always manage to rise above it. 



Does all of that add up to a classic episode? It still falls short for me, but for what it’s worth, I enjoyed it more than Wonder Woman 1984.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Soap Operas: Daytime Comfort TV


This blog has been around for nine years (no, I don’t believe it either) and in all that time I’ve never devoted a single piece to soap operas – outside of Dark Shadows, which was awesome but hardly a typical example of the genre.


And yet, for millions of people over the past eight decades, daytime dramas are the ultimate comfort television. They may have been parodied, derided, stereotyped as tawdry escapist romance for lonely housewives to watch while ironing. But like a good friend they were always there with new stories to tell, five days a week, twelve months a year. 



And even with the vast expansion of the television landscape and the changing tastes and expectations of a contemporary audience, they are still here.


True, there are just four left on the networks, when there used to be dozens. But show me four other scripted series that debuted in 1987 (The Bold and the Beautiful), 1973 (The Young and the Restless), 1965 (Days of Our Lives) and 1963 (General Hospital) that are still airing new episodes every weekday. 



I began watching General Hospital when I was in high school. I turn 57 this year, and it’s still something I watch almost every day. What’s amazing is that there are actors on the show now who were there when I was still worried about passing algebra. They include Genie Francis (Laura, of the famous Luke-and-Laura), Jackie Zeman (Bobbie Spencer), Leslie Charleson (Monica Quartermaine) and Tristan Rogers (Robert Scorpio). 



Why am I still a regular viewer? Part of it is because these people have been part of my life as long as anyone outside my immediate family. I’ve watched as they’ve coped with marriage and divorce, illness and all manner of violent confrontations. And, yes, amnesia, switched babies, evil twins, and all the clichés so easily (and understandably) mocked by those who look down on them. Somehow, as you watch those daft stories unfold over weeks and months, they still hook you in.


At least now I’m down to just one soap a day. In my 20s I was also all in for All My Children. Back then Greg and Jenny were the popular young couple in love, Tad “the cad” was one of daytime’s most appealing rats, and Susan Lucci’s Emmy losses were still in the single digits. 



Speaking of the Daytime Emmys, it’s remarkable how far that ceremony has tumbled on the pop culture landscape. Once it was a prime time special with the same prestige as any awards show – now, with so few soaps, talk shows and game shows, it can’t even get a TV deal on the Golf Channel or C-SPAN 3.


I only stuck with All My Children for about three years; I stayed with One Life to Live quite a bit longer; partly because it was on right before General Hospital, partly because Erika Slezak was as brilliant an actress as any in film or TV, partly because it could occasionally be as bizarre in its storylines as Dark Shadows (anyone remember the underground city of Eterna?), and partly because at the time I thought Andrea Evans, who played Tina Lord, was the most beautiful woman on television. 



That title now belongs to GH”s Katelyn MacMullen.



And even when I was watching three soaps, I wondered about all the great stories I might be missing on Another World, The Guiding Light and other daytime dramas. Usually I remembered to catch Ryan’s Hope around St. Patrick’s Day to hear Maeve sing “Oh, Danny Boy,” but while I knew about Victor and Nikki on The Young and the Restless I never tuned in to see what made them special. I was perhaps most curious about The Edge of Night, where Sharon Gabet’s character of Raven Alexander was reaching legendary status among soap aficionados. 



Of course, even if there were access to the material now, it’s not like a prime time series where it’s easy to jump in and catch up. Taking the full journey encompasses thousands of episodes, and I just have this one lifetime.


Still, it’s that very longevity that deserves to be celebrated. Whether it’s Joe West umpiring more than 5,000 games, that weatherman on your local news whose hair was black when you started watching him but has long since turned gray, or the hostess at the restaurant who has been showing you to your favorite booth since your kids were small. These are the anchors of continuity in a world that changes too quickly, and not always for the better. I’m happy we’ve had soap operas to provide that continuousness across the decades. 



And for those who still think the entire genre is overheated nonsense, all I can say is this: there was a scene on General Hospital that aired close to 40 years ago, in which Luke Spencer (Anthony Geary) struggled to come to terms with the death of his wife Laura (who was later found alive but that’s not relevant here). Alone on their boat, the Haunted Star, to the strains of “Key Largo” by Bertie Higgins, Luke suffered an emotional breakdown with angry, devastated, violent outbursts that was as difficult to watch as I’m sure it was to perform. It was as moving and memorable a piece of acting as I’ve seen in any film, Broadway theater or television show.


I’m sure that viewers of other soaps could share similar stories about equally powerful scenes. 



Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Oh, Captain, My Captain: Gavin MacLeod’s Top TV Moments


“Veteran supporting actor…”


These were the first three words to the obituary for Gavin MacLeod that ran in most newspapers on the day of his passing. 


Intended or not there’s a dismissive quality to that characterization, one last reminder of the hierarchy in show business that separates Hollywood royalty from mere working actors.


But what “supporting” removes in status is restored by “veteran.” For nearly 20 years he was a welcome presence in our Saturday night TV viewing, first as news writer Murray Slaughter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and then as Captain Merrill Stubing on The Love Boat. Around those credits are dozens more ranging from 1958 to 2014. Gavin MacLeod was as familiar a face as any in the classic TV era, and far beyond through the endless reruns that are still part of our lives. It is that longevity that pulls at us most as we celebrate his life and mourn his loss. It’s also a wonderful legacy to leave behind.


Here are just some of his many memorable TV moments.


The Walter Winchell File (1958)

MacLeod has mentioned in interviews that his first appearance on television was as an extra in the religious program Lamp Unto My Feet. But according to IMDB he made his TV debut in this anthology crime series in a story called “Act of Folly,” as a petty crook that catches the eye of a woman in the midst of marital troubles.


Peter Gunn (1958)

McLeod appears in the first episode of this famed detective series as a mob boss trying to extort money from Mother’s Café. For a guy who usually projected everyman decency, he played a surprising number of scoundrels in his early career. Here he shows a real gift for soft-spoken intimidation.


The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961)

If you look up “obsequious” in the dictionary you could see a picture of Mel Cooley’s cousin, the jewelry salesman played by Gavin MacLeod in the episode “Empress Carlotta’s Necklace.” He is bald in most of his TV roles, which here puts him in the firing line for some of Buddy’s baldy jokes.


McHale’s Navy (1962)

“I had, like, two lines a week,” he recalled of his time as Happy Haines in his interview with the Archive of American Television.  But the show was a hit and such regular appearances are how an audience starts putting a name with a face and (hopefully) a personality that they look forward to seeing every week. 


Hawaii Five O (1968)

Of all MacLeod’s many criminal roles, none were sleazier than his portrayal of a drug dealer known as “Big Chicken.” Whereas some of his other villains had a comic element to them, or were just one-note henchmen, here he is able to create a full-fledged and genuinely despicable character – one that viewers clearly noticed as well. After getting the “Book ‘em, Dano” treatment in “And They Planted Daisies On His Coffin,” MacLeod reprised the role with Big Chicken now behind bars in “The Box” (1969).


Hogan’s Heroes (1969)

Gavin MacLeod guest starred in four episodes as four different Nazi officers. 



“The Witness” was the best of these appearances, as his General von Rauscher is accompanied by Marya (Nita Talbot), who always spices things up around Stalag 13.


The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970)

It’s not completely surprising that Gavin MacLeod never won an Emmy for his role, as he was always surrounded by more outsized personalities among one of TV’s best ever ensembles. But the fact that he was never even nominated seems impossible to believe. What would the WJM newsroom scenes be without Murray’s put-downs of Ted and Sue Ann, and his unrequited love for Mary? 



A Murray-centric episode is not like a Carol episode of The Bob Newhart Show, where there’s chance it will still be good but the odds are not as high. “We Closed in Minneapolis,” “The Slaughter Affair” and “Murray in Love” are all standout shows. Plus, he gets most of the best punch lines in “Chuckles Bites the Dust.”


One more thing about Murray: he’s not the character viewers identify with if they watched the show in their teens or 20s. Back then we had dreams like Mary to be out on our own, hoping we too were going to make it after all. But in middle age we may find our lives wound up more like Murray’s – working at a job we’re good at, always aspiring for something greater, but perhaps not having the luck or talent to reach those heights. And eventually we make peace with that – and take comfort that at least we’re not Ted.


The Love Boat (1977)

How could Gavin MacLeod be eulogized as a supporting actor when he was top-billed on The Love Boat for an impressive 11-season run? 


Because viewers didn’t really tune in to watch the captain of the Pacific Princess – they wanted to see which guest stars would be sailing each week. So even as the star of the show, MacLeod and his crew were there to facilitate, fill in the transitions, provide exposition when necessary, and occasionally play a few substantive scenes. When he got one he nailed it, of course, whether it was a reference to the Captain’s status as a recovering alcoholic, or his reconnecting with daughter Vicki (who doesn’t deserve much of the derision her character gets from some fans). 



As one viewer observed, there were valuable lessons slipped into a lot of Love Boat stories, but they were wrapped in cotton candy.  That’s a nice turn of phrase that even a writer like Murray Slaughter would appreciate.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Which Comfort TV Characters Did You Emulate?


Television had a much greater influence on its viewing audience back in the era where there were just three networks, and everyone was watching the same shows.


One way this manifested itself is in presenting characters that viewers admired, and perhaps tried to emulate.


We’ve all heard stories of attorneys that grew up watching Perry Mason, or astronauts whose fascination with science and space originated with Star Trek. But I’m not thinking about something as profound as a choice of career. By emulate I mean recognizing habits or personality traits in a character that you may lack in your life, and making a conscious effort to be more like that character.


Maybe Pete Dixon on Room 222 inspired you to read more American history. Perhaps Ann Marie’s continual succession of colorful, stylish outfits on That Girl inspired you to upgrade your wardrobe.


The Waltons might have motivated you to complain less about not being able to afford that new car just yet. Maybe you noticed how the Addams Family pay little heed to how the outside world views their eccentricities, and feel more confident in just being yourself. Remembering a life lesson taught by a sitcom dad may help you handle a similar situation with your own kids.


I think these scenarios happen a lot – or at least they did back in the day. And as I look back on my own life I can recall four television characters that at one time exerted some influence on the person I wanted to be. They have very little in common with each other, but perhaps that isn’t unusual since our priorities tend to change, as we get older. Sadly all of these attempts save one were doomed to failure, but I got close with one and am still trying with one of the others.


Hawkeye Pierce


I was still in elementary school when this show debuted, and at that time it was clear to me that the troublemakers and kids who talked back to teachers were also the students scraping by with a ‘D’ average. Hawkeye was intriguing because he had the same open contempt for authority that the kids in detention showed, but he was also really good at what he did. You don’t get to be a doctor, much less a surgeon, much less someone who can adapt his skills on the fly to perform lifesaving procedures under perilous conditions, without being an outstanding student and knowing your stuff. 



So I found that mix of being cocky yet more than competent to be appealing, and it tied into my own natural tendency to diffuse situations with humor. But as I grew older my politics diverged sharply from Hawkeye’s, though not to the extent that I morphed into Frank Burns. At least I hope not.



Happy Days

This one was short-lived, and shared by many, until we all realized that no one could ever be that cool, at least by how that term was defined in the show. And in my junior high and high school years I was well behind the curve already.


When we wanted to emulate The Fonz it wasn’t about donning a leather jacket or trying to turn a jukebox on with a well-placed punch. What made the character impressive is how he projected a steadfast self-confidence, both with girls and with bullies, and got what he wanted without having to prove why he deserved it. In the real world such qualities are forged through struggle; when you find yourself in a desperate situation you either get tough or you don’t survive. Indeed, the references to Fonzie’s childhood and his absentee father suggest that’s how he attained his elite cool status. Like Richie Cunningham, my comfortable suburban upbringing did not require that extra steel in my backbone. 



Lou Grant

Lou Grant

Not the Lou Grant who drank too much after another day of dealing with third-place ratings and Ted Baxter. He was a lot of fun and certainly admirable as well. But when the character spun off into a drama set at the Los Angeles Tribune, every episode of that series taught me what it means to be a journalist, every bit as much as the journalism teachers I had in high school and college (and I had some good ones). It didn't inspire my career choice - I was writing for the school newspaper in junior high - but it made me a lot better at it.


I’ll resist the urge to launch into another tirade about the woeful state of journalism in its present condition. I can’t do anything about that. But I can continue to abide by the lessons Lou stressed to his reporters – objectivity, fact checking, on-the-record sources, and a level of professionalism that brings honor to oneself and one’s trade. I owe Mr. Grant and Mr. Asner a lot. 



Mr. French

Family Affair

It’s not that at this stage of my life I desire to be a butler (or, as French would clarify, “Gentlemen’s gentleman.” What I find so remarkably admirable about him is that he is a man of infinite patience, while I have almost none. In fact it’s one of my worst character traits, though I tried to justify that outlook with this piece I wrote a few years ago.


In “The Unsinkable Mr. French” he has one of those days that we all seem to have, in which he has responsibilities relating to an upcoming important occasion, and everything possible goes wrong. The climax has this proud man collapsing into a cake in front of a group of distinguished guests, and even in that mortifying moment he never loses his self-control. French faces down similar challenges in episodes like “Marooned” and “Mr. French’s Holiday” and never forsakes his dignity.



He also takes pride in the performance of his daily tasks, but is humble in accepting praise. He is always well dressed and well groomed. I wish I had his patience and impeccable manners. Instead, all I’m getting is his waistline.


What classic TV characters did you emulate? Did any of their positive attributes take root, or did those attempts last as long as a New Year’s resolution?