Monday, October 14, 2019

Two-Part Episodes: More Hits and Misses

It’s been a while (four years, actually!) since we last appraised a roundup of memorable two-part stories from the classic TV era.

As mentioned in a previous write-up, the two-parter is an option that should be utilized in conjunction with major milestones in a series, or when a writer comes up with an idea that is so good, it deserves a little extra breathing room to be fully explored. 

But that didn’t always happen.

Let’s take a look at more two-part episodes that worked, and an equal number that did not live up to their ‘special episode’ status.

Good: Rhoda: “Rhoda’s Wedding”
I watched this again recently after Valerie Harper’s passing, and enjoyed it as much as I did when it first aired. “Rhoda’s Wedding” has everything you could want in a two-parter – a special event, location shooting from a studio-bound series, flashbacks, and best of all a reunion of Rhoda with her Mary Tyler Moore Show cast mates – Mary, Ed Asner, Gavin McLeod, Cloris Leachman (especially hilarious here) and Georgia Engel.

The wedding of Rhoda and Joe is the highlight, but it’s almost an afterthought following all the delightful moments leading up to the ceremony. Rhoda’s really long and frantic run through New York in her wedding dress borders on filler, though that’s a small quibble in one of the best two-part shows of the 1970s. 

Bad: The Lucy Show: “Lucy and Carol Burnett”
You wonder how it could miss with two of television’s iconic comediennes, but as with all of their collaborations this one falls short of even modest expectations. The story has Lucy and Carol training to be stewardesses (still the accepted term at the time). The gag is that Carol is afraid of heights, which predictably triggers a panic attack when the plane takes off. 

Half the show is musical numbers, which are hokey in the best possible way. If you’re in the right mood this schmaltzy stuff goes down easily – but it’s sad that Lucy and Carol were not given one moment to shine that would rival the best of Lucy and Ethel, or Carol and Harvey.

Good: The Dukes of Hazzard: “Carnival of Thrills”
Three words: Bo vs. Luke. The only time the two cousins ever fell out was after Bo fell for Diane (Robin Mattson) owner of a traveling carnival. She convinces Bo to take the place of her injured stuntman and attempt the dangerous “Leap of Life” over 32 cars. Luke thinks it’s too dangerous and lets Sheriff Rosco impound the General Lee so Bo can’t go through with it. That prompts a well-shot knock down, drag-out brawl, and Bo moving out of the Duke farm. A better-than-usual script and a thrilling climactic stunt are among the highlights of the series' third-season opener. 

Bad: The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries: “The Mystery of the Hollywood Phantom”
Sure it’s always fun when Nancy and the Hardy boys team up on a case, especially when the action takes place on the Universal Studios backlot and sprinkles in guest appearances and references from other ‘70s TV shows. But if there’s one thing that irks me it’s when characters that are supposed to be smart are written to act dumb to keep a plot from being resolved faster. That happens more often with two-part stories because there’s even more time to fill. And the stupidity reaches epidemic levels in this story of a masked phantom causing mischief at a detective convention. Viewers will be way ahead of the teen sleuths on this case. 

Good: Taxi: Fantasy Borough
Most people still remember Elaine’s fantasy, presented in the “Lullaby of Broadway” musical finale, but both episodes feature fun daydreams, from Latka switching places with Louis (and putting him in front of a firing squad), to Jim’s close encounter with aliens, to pragmatist Alex struggling to formulate a fantasy that doesn’t end badly. 

Bad: M*A*S*H: “Snap Judgement/Snappier Judgement”
It was season 10, and by then any series can be forgiven for starting to run out of ideas. Here, Klinger is threatened with a court-martial and jail time when he is accused of stealing a camera. Winchester serves as his attorney, while Hawkeye and B.J. play detective to trap the real thief. This might have been enough plot for a passable single episode, but it’s baffling what made anyone think this deserved two-part status.

Good: The Fugitive: “Angels Travel on Lonely Roads”
Richard Kimble hitches a ride with Sister Veronica, a nun who is traveling to Sacramento to renounce her vows. What makes these shows work is a wonderful performance by Eileen Heckart as Veronica, and the conversation she shares on the road with Kimble about the existence of miracles, and chance vs. faith. The shows works so well that this was the only Fugitive episode to inspire a sequel, “The Breaking of the Habit.” 

Bad: Charlie’s Angels: “Love Boat Angels”
The special elements were there – fourth season premiere, introduction of a new character, crossover with another hit series – but to paraphrase the poet W.B. Yeats, when the center cannot hold, things fall apart. The center in this case being Tiffany Welles, Charlie’s new angel, played by Shelley Hack. Hack simply wasn’t ready for her debut, and this was so apparent as the episode filmed that the script was rewritten to focus less on Tiffany and more on Kris. Hack did get the hack of it as the season progressed, but never overcame such a disappointing first impression. 

Good: Star Trek: “The Menagerie”
The old adage about turning lemons into lemonade has never been captured better than in this story, which took footage from a pilot that didn’t sell and re-purposed it into a new adventure that became a classic. Watching it again it’s amazing how much of Trek lore was already envisioned in Gene Roddenberry’s original treatment. 

Bad: Star Trek: The Next Generation: “Encounter at Farpoint”
We forget now how this series was considered a bold and risky undertaking, after the original Star Trek had becoming iconic. Would it build on the legacy of its predecessor or wind up an afterthought like The New Monkees? We know the answer now, but based only on that first mission the jury was still out (as guest-star John de Lancie’s judicial-minded ‘Q’ might say). There was certainly potential in this new crew and its Shakespearian captain, but it would take the better part of the show’s first season to find its rhythm. 

Click on the 'Labels' link below for previous Comfort TV assessments of two-part episodes.

Friday, October 4, 2019

After A Very Brady Renovation, What’s Next?

One of the most famous lines of modern literature belongs to Thomas Wolfe: “You can’t go home again.”

The Brady kids respond, “Oh, really?”

No other television show this year – current, classic or Comfort – gave me more pure viewing pleasure than A Very Brady Renovation on HGTV.

Each of its four episodes was a sugar rush of the sweetest kind of nostalgia. It also exemplified everything this blog has been about since its inception in 2012: celebrating that pull we feel from the shows we loved growing up, and how familiar they have become, right down to their smallest details. How they brought joy into our lives even during troubled times.

It acknowledges, even if it doesn’t fully understand why, that this 50 year-old series that never ranked among TV’s highest rated or most honored shows has become both significant and beloved, beyond any expectations anyone involved with its creation could have dreamed.

Why else would so many people take so seriously this quest to recreate a home that never existed? Why did it matter that the angle of the staircase was precise, or that the chairs in the kitchen were painted the perfect shade of avocado?

The entire project was a completely impractical thing to do, requiring thousands of hours and millions of dollars. But seeing the results, it feels like time and money well spent. I only wish that all of us who love the show would have an opportunity to visit this treasured TV Land artifact that now, most improbably, actually exists in our mundane real world. 

So, what’s next?

Will this be a one-off experiment in relocating TV land to reality land? Or will the response and ratings this series received inspire similar attempts? And if it does, what other shows would be considered?

We all have personal favorites and I’m sure a survey would bring a wide range of choices, from the Long Branch Saloon to the Monkees’ beachfront pad to the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. 

But for enduring, cross-generational appeal, it’s difficult to find one that would be equivalent to the Brady residence. 

In reviewing my mental rolodex of classic shows, I eliminated those broadcast in black and white, because seeing those sets in color feels more odd than familiar. 

 What’s left? Perhaps the apartments shown on Friends, which has exhibited impressive staying power 25 years after its debut. But it debuted in 1994, so it’s outside the Comfort TV era. 

I thought about the Morning Glory Circle home of Samantha and Darrin Stephens, as like the Brady home every room was utilized often enough for viewers to become familiar with its features. But the décor changed regularly throughout its run, to the point where it would be hard to satisfy fans with one definitive version of the Bewitched house. 

So I’d say there’s just one other choice – the studio apartment inside a Queen Anne Victorian building, occupied for five seasons by Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show

I’m not an architect like Mike Brady so I don’t know what renovations would be necessary to fit that space within the existing structure, but the good news is that there’s only one room, so the makeover should be easier. Of course, I’d demand the same level of exacting detail that HGTV lavished on the Brady house, from the Palladian windows to the high, vaulted ceilings, to the sliding stained glass window divider that hides the kitchen. 

Will it happen? Probably not. The Brady home seems to occupy a unique space in our television viewing memories. We may see more attempts to bring classic shows back in some capacity, like the recent remakes of All in the Family and Jeffersons episodes, but I don’t foresee another large scale, multi-million dollar project like A Very Brady Renovation.

There has, unfortunately, been one regrettable postscript to that delightful series. A friend of mine drove by the home the other day, and was sad to see it is now surrounded by a high, ugly chain link fence, with prominent warning signs about trespassing and violators being prosecuted. I think HGTV should have foreseen the interest in the property that would result, and come up with a more aesthetically appropriate safeguard. Now, it’s like they created a perfect reproduction of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, and then drew a mustache on it on the way out the door. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Top TV Moments: Sherry Jackson

In an interview looking back on her career, Sherry Jackson recalled what it was like to be a child star in the 1950s: “I couldn’t stand it when they called me “pigtailed moppet Sherry Jackson,” she said. “I said, ‘Someday, I’m going to change that.”

As anyone familiar with her memorable 1960s TV roles can attest – mission accomplished.

After appearing in about 130 episodes of The Danny Thomas Show beginning at age 11, Sherry Jackson blossomed into a stunning chestnut-haired beauty who could act, but wasn’t always challenged to do so by the decorative roles she played. She was classic TV’s Elizabeth Taylor, though Taylor at least did break through occasionally and won two Oscars. Sherry had no such luck, though her appearances in several classic and cult TV series have earned her a loyal following.

Fireside Theatre (1949)
Jackson was seven years old when she made her first TV appearance on this, one of television’s first anthology dramas. The series featured two 15 minute stories in each episode. Jackson played a little girl in “The Doll.” I know that’s not a very detailed description, but 70 years later it’s all we’ve got.

The Danny Thomas Show (1953)
This is the incarnation of the series that predates the one with Marjorie Lord and Angela Cartwright, which still shows up in syndication from time to time. The original had Jean Hagen as the wife of nightclub entertainer Danny Williams, and Sherry Jackson as his pigtailed (and often emotionally distraught) daughter, Terry. Terry’s little brother (Rusty Hamer) got most of the punch lines, though his bad attitude never wore well with me. 

Jackson left the show after Jean Hagen’s departure and was almost replaced by Mary Tyler Moore. She reprised the role of Terry in a 1970 episode of Make Room for Granddaddy.

The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1960)
Dobie’s dad needs a bank loan to keep his store open. The banker’s daughter takes a liking to Dobie, who she plans to mold into a man worthy of her. “The Prettiest Collateral in Town” is a typically fast-talking, cynical episode of this outlier series from the cozy Comfort TV era, and Jackson is delightful as yet another beautiful girl beyond Dobie’s grasp.

The Magical World of Disney (1960)
 “The Swamp Fox,” starring Leslie Nielsen as Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion, Never caught on the way Davy Crockett did, though it wasn’t for lack of trying on the part of Walt Disney. Leslie Nielsen made a dashing hero in his pre-Police Squad days, and no studio did this type of un-ironic patriotism better. I love Walt’s reverent introductions to each episode almost as much as the shows themselves.

Sherry Jackson appears in two episodes in this eight-show miniseries as Melody, a young schoolteacher betrothed to one of the Fox’s young officers (Disney favorite Tim Considine). This is Jackson amid the transition between her ingénue and pin-up phase, and she couldn’t be more charming.

Mr. Novak (1963)
She doesn’t have a lot of scenes or lines in “The Risk”, but in that limited screen time Jackson creates a moving, tragic figure in Cathy Ferguson, the young wife of a schoolteacher. When she shows up drunk at the school where he’s trying to make a good impression and creates a huge disturbance, it’s a devastating scene to watch. And yet amid the discomfort and embarrassment it’s a powerful thing to witness how the principal and faculty react not with anger or judgment, but compassion for both Cathy and her husband. I haven’t seen all of Jackson’s film and TV work, but I’d be surprised if she was ever better than she was here.

Lost in Space (1966)
Conventional wisdom on Lost in Space is that the first season, shot in black-and-white, offered more straightforward science fiction adventures, and the following two seasons shot in day-glo pop art color took a turn for the wacky. But “The Space Croppers” was a season one show that would have fit right in amidst such later ‘classics’ as “Space Circus” and “The Great Vegetable Rebellion.”

The story has Will Robinson and Dr. Smith tracking a werewolf, and instead running into a family of intergalactic hillbillies. Oscar-winner Mercedes McCambridge, clearly getting bad advice from her agent, plays the family matriarch. Jackson, in the first of three memorable 1966 guest spots, plays her daughter Effra, the Elly Mae of the Milky Way. Between takes, I wonder if she swapped Danny Thomas stories with Angela Cartwright. 

Batman (1966)
“Death in Slow Motion”/“The Riddler’s False Notion” returns Frank Gorshin as The Riddler, unleashing a crime spree based on silent films. Sherry Jackson plays his sidekick, Pauline – and I’m not sure if this was intentional, but her resemblance to Paulette Goddard, when she played opposite The Riddler dressed as Charlie Chaplin, was a nice extra touch for silent film buffs. 

This was a bigger part than usual for that type of role – Pauline even gets to visit the Batcave along with Commissioner Gordon. That’s where Batman subjects her to a lie detector test that was probably illegal, and will let her walk out of court when her case comes to trial.

Star Trek (1966)
A fan favorite episode from the series’ first and best season, “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” presents Sherry as Andrea, an amorous android serving a scientist who thinks humanity would be better off without bodies that wither and age.

Her performance is fine, but it would be silly to not acknowledge that what most viewers remember is her costume, one of the greatest feats of modern engineering since the Suez Canal. She later revealed that William Shatner hit on her frequently while they shot the episode, which is not at all surprising. 

All of these high-profile 1966 roles didn’t lead to better parts, but it did get her a pictorial in Playboy in 1967.

The Wild, Wild West (1967)
“The Night of the Vicious Valentine” is one of the series’ most celebrated shows. Agnes Moorehead earned an Emmy for playing society maven Emma Valentine, who recruits beautiful young women to marry America’s wealthiest men, who then inherit their fortunes after they are mysteriously murdered. Jackson is Michele, who has second thoughts about her mission on the way to the altar. 

Charlie’s Angels (1980)
Yes, we just skipped the entire 1970s. Jackson worked steadily through that decade but usually in standard guest appearances, where she was often cast for how good she looked in a skimpy wardrobe – fans will certainly recall how she rocked a red bikini in both The Rockford Files and Fantasy Island

So perhaps it’s ironic that Charlie’s Angels was the series that found a more substantive use for her. In “Homes Sweet Homes” she played Tina Fuller, who works for a real estate agency that loots the homes of its Beverly Hills clients. It’s not great art but it sure is fun.

Two years later, she was done. While Jackson still gives an occasional interview, she hasn’t played another role in nearly 40 years. But if you’re ever in the vicinity of 6324 Hollywood Blvd., you can check out her star on the Walk of Fame. 


Wednesday, September 18, 2019

What’s Wrong With “Fan-Friendly” Television?

One of my favorite post-Comfort TV era shows is Veronica Mars. So I was elated when I heard fresh episodes were coming this year. Then I read a spoiler about how the new story arc ended, and it diminished my desire to watch. I still haven’t gotten around to it.

It appears I wasn’t alone. Most fans (at least according to those places where they congregate online) hated the “shock” ending. But critics praised the decision by series creator Rob Thomas, because it wasn’t “fan-friendly.”

Thomas himself echoed these sentiments, and remained defiant in the midst of the backlash. “I understand that there will be big a section of the Veronica Mars fan base that will not forgive me for this,” he told the Collider website.

This is another example of how the Comfort TV era differs from today’s television landscape. Think about any popular show from the 1950s through the 1970s; can you imagine a writer or producer saying “I’ve got an idea for a story that will really devastate the audience. It will make a lot of them angry and they may stop watching, but I still think it’s the right thing to do.”

That was not an option. And with very few exceptions I don’t think it should be. The idea back then was to create a series with characters the audience would embrace, and return each week to find out what’s happening in their lives. With cop shows or detective shows there was an element of danger, but deep down viewers knew that nothing was going to happen to Amos Burke or Joe Mannix, no matter how dire the situation seemed.

Now if any of these characters fell in love, viewers knew the woman might not survive the closing credits. But sidekicks and secretaries – those were off-limits.

These were the unspoken rules of Comfort TV shows. In a family sitcom a kid might struggle with a bad grade in math but never with a life-threatening illness. An occasionally unethical boss might fire a breadwinner dad like Darrin Stephens, but he’d have his job back by the final scene. No one’s mortgage payment was ever in jeopardy. 

Is this lazy writing, or boring to watch? To a modern audience it might be. I recall a Friends episode when Chandler mockingly asked “Is this the episode of Three’s Company where there’s a misunderstanding? Yes, Chandler, it probably is. Misunderstandings were surprisingly plentiful in that beachfront apartment. And the fans didn’t mind at all. 

Even the most loyal viewers of classic television would not dispute that these shows are formulaic – they just don’t view that as a fault. “Fan-friendly” was a phrase that may not have even existed back then, but the question of whether a series should please its audience would have seemed absurd.

If you asked Ozzie Nelson or Sherwood Schwartz or Quinn Martin, they’d tell you that escapism was what they tried to offer.  The philosophy was that viewers had their own problems. When they settled in for a night of TV, the last thing they wanted was to watch characters going through the same stressful realities that they had to endure. 

Yes, there are exceptions. The biggest shock to viewers in that era that I can recall was the death of Col. Henry Blake on MASH. But there were two factors to consider – first, McLean Stevenson wanted to leave the show, so one way or another his character was not going to be there anymore. Second, this was a series set against the backdrop of a war where people died every day. So from a practical standpoint and a storyline standpoint, it was a decision that seemed fitting. 

That was not the case on the Veronica Mars revival. The last-minute, out of left field killing of a major character was a cheap stunt that removed a popular character from the landscape for…what, exactly? Because Veronica is more interesting when she’s miserable?

There are those who say killing a major character is brave – I think it’s lazy. If you want to engage viewers, an event that dramatic makes it easy. But telling stories week after week, season after season, without resorting to such tactics, and still keep fans coming back for more – that’s an achievement.

When did “fan-friendly” become something to avoid? Probably around the same time that a lot of things we used to rely on began disappearing. Times change – so let them. We’re 50 years past the debut of The Brady Bunch, a series that never introduced a crisis more serious than a football to the schnoz. And judging by the ratings of A Very Brady Renovation, people still care about it. 

If you have to shock your audience to get attention, maybe you didn’t have that much to say in the first place.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Why Rhoda Was Necessary

The precept of casting today decrees that roles should be filled by actors who share the ethnic and cultural experiences of their characters. We are told it is more appropriate and more inclusive.

But had that directive been in place in the 1970s, we might never have met Rhoda Morgenstern – at least, not as unforgettably played by Valerie Harper. 

Harper was not Jewish but she created perhaps the most famous and beloved Jewish character on television. And that’s not something to just acknowledge in passing, especially at a time when anti-Semitism is sadly on the rise again.

She wasn’t the first – The Goldbergs debuted two years before I Love Lucy, and the show's writer, producer and star, Gertrude Berg, ranks among television’s pioneers. In the 1960s, Buddy Sorrell honored his heritage on The Dick Van Dyke Show with a decades-belated bar mitzvah (“Buddy Sorrell Man and Boy”). 

But even by the 1970s there were shows that depicted Jewish families as something “other”; I recall episodes like “Danny Converts” on The Partridge Family,” and “Bitter Herbs” on the Saturday morning superhero series Shazam. The lesson of these shows was always that while some people have different beliefs and traditions they’re just people like the rest of us. It’s sad that this even had to be communicated – and even sadder that there are still a few idiots in this country that haven’t gotten the message. 

So it was no small thing that when viewers met Mary Richards in the first episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, they also met Rhoda. And near as I can recall, no one had any concerns or complaints. Everyone just liked her.

As much as we must always acknowledge the show’s writers for Rhoda’s witty dialogue, the credit for the character’s acceptance and the affection she engendered in viewers belongs entirely to Valerie Harper. 

By the show’s second episode one of TV’s most enduring opposites-attract friendships had been established. Where Mary was upbeat and optimistic, Rhoda was cynical and self-deprecating. Where Mary seemed to get asked out by every eligible male in Minneapolis, Rhoda attracted nothing but losers. Where Mary always seemed stylish and pulled together, Rhoda struggled with her looks and her weight.

Mary: Why don't you eat something? 
Rhoda: I can't. I've got to lose 10 lbs. by 8:30.

But these perceived flaws and insecurities never made Rhoda the butt of jokes. Phyllis took her shots but she always ended up on the losing end of the skirmish. Audiences eagerly sided with the plucky Jewish girl over her pompous WASP-y landlord.

The contrast wasn’t always religious as much as it was geographic – Mary was a product of the friendly and wholesome Midwest, while Rhoda’s roots were planted in the kill-or-be-killed streets of The Bronx. But religious intolerance was front and center in the season two show “Some of My Best Friends are Rhoda,” in which Mary's new friend belongs to a tennis club that doesn’t welcome certain types of guests. Mary’s response spoke for all of us.

Maybe this wasn’t the same type of door that opened when Bill Cosby was cast in I Spy, but there is a parallel in finding the right actor with enough talent and charisma to bring a non-traditional character into America’s living rooms, when safer choices were a less risky option.

Today we think of Mary and Rhoda with the same affection as Lucy and Ethel or Laverne and Shirley. But that was no sure thing in 1970, and for proof one need only look at the fate of Bridget Loves Bernie, the CBS sitcom that served as the lead-in for The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1972.

Meredith Baxter played Bridget Teresa Mary Colleen Fitzgerald, an Irish Catholic schoolteacher who falls in love at first sight with Jewish cab driver Bernie Steinberg. The couple’s inter-religious marriage and the culture clash of their respective in-laws was the launching point for many episodes.    

The network canceled the series after 23 episodes, though it ranked fifth among all shows that season. Adverse reactions from a few anti-Semitic viewers? Certainly. But there was also an objection from The Rabbinical Assembly of America, which described the series as "an insult to the most sacred values of both the Jewish and Catholic religions."

More than 40 years later Bridget Loves Bernie remains the highest-rated TV series to be canceled. That same year, Valerie Harper won the Emmy for Best Supporting Actress, and Rhoda left Minneapolis to headline her own CBS series, in which her Jewish character would marry a non-Jewish man. Maybe there were grumblings about that too, but for each one there were 500 viewers looking forward to the wedding.

Was Rhoda a good show? Yes, as was The Mary Tyler Moore Show after Harper’s departure. But there was magic when Mary and Rhoda were together that was not there when they were apart.

Unfortunately, when they reunited in the 2000 TV movie Mary and Rhoda, that special something had disappeared. Disappointing, but now it’s little more than a footnote, easily ignored for a character that appears in more than 150 episodes of classic television.

Can we say that Rhoda paved the way for Fran Fine and Monica Geller? Perhaps, or perhaps not. But more than one generation of TV fans is still on a first-name basis with her, and for that we must say one last thank you to Valerie Harper – who also turned the world on with her smile. 

Monday, August 26, 2019

The Unshakeables: “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar”

I’ve always believed that if you are an adult of at least average intelligence, a great work of art will speak to you. 

Wherever you’re from, however you were raised, and whichever demographic box you check on a census form, there is a universal truth in extraordinary creative expression that will be recognized, and will resonate. 

But there are exceptions. “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar,” an Emmy-winning 1971 episode of Night Gallery written by Rod Serling, cannot be fully appreciated by anyone under the age of, say, 45. You may understand what it’s about, and comprehend the emotions of its protagonist, but you won’t feel them in your soul until you reach the age where you can see the world through his eyes. 

Maybe that’s why I was so confused the first time I watched it, back when I was in my 30s. I was relatively new to Night Gallery then, but from the other episodes I’d watched I expected something scary, or at least unsettling. There are no monsters here, no haunted houses, no veteran TV actors and slumming film stars jumping at creaking floorboards. 

But now that I’m 55, I understand how frightening it is. It’s not an external fear – of something chasing you down a dark alley, but an internal one – of feeling out of step with the world, of being left behind, of the things that matter to you no longer mattering to anyone else. 

These are the emotions that haunt Randy Lane, who has spent the last 25 years selling plastics for the same company. He is played by William Windom, who is brilliant from the first moment Lane staggers back to his office, late, hair askew, testing the patience of his boss (John Randolph, who specialized in blowhards) but not Lynn, his loyal secretary (lovely Diane Baker, who turns up in the best episodes of many shows). 

Why was Randy late? Because he spent the last hour standing outside Tim Riley’s bar, which is about to be demolished and replaced by a 20-story bank building. He is consumed by melancholy over the loss of this special place, where he was welcomed back from his time in the military, and where he had the first date with his beloved wife, now long since passed.  And a year from now, he tells Lynn, no one will even remember that it was there. 

Drawn back to the site again after work, he peers inside and for a moment sees the party held in his honor all those years ago, back in full swing. But it disappears before he can go inside. Over the next few days he finds himself reliving other significant moments from his past – some happy, some hopeful, some tragic. 

Is he losing his mind? Having a nervous breakdown? Or, this being Night Gallery, are the ghosts and time-shifts really happening? 

Every scene in this 41-minute drama is beautifully written. There’s a moment outside the bar where Randy commiserates with the cop who has walked that beat for as long as the bar has been around, and also laments its loss. He remembers how, back in the day, he dreamed about being the hero who would capture Al Capone. “Now,” he says, “I walk a little slower and pray for a quiet night.” 

There are parallels here to my favorite Twilight Zone episode, “A Stop at Willoughby”, as well as “Patterns,” the acclaimed 1955 episode of Kraft Theater that first brought Rod Serling to critical and popular acclaim. All of them find something merciless and dehumanizing in executive suites. All of them feature workers under stress grasping for an escape, whether that’s into a simpler, happier time, or into a bottle of booze. All of them give us sympathetic characters who desperately wish to hold on to the past, believing it’s better than the present. 

Obviously, that’s a theme that hits very close to home with this blog. 

Surprisingly, however, “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar” is the only one of these three stories to end on a hopeful note. One might expect the opposite had Serling become more cynical with age (as so many of us do). But here, 16 years after the grim final act of “Patterns,” Randy Lane is granted a moment of appreciation that, we hope, will help him cope with the loss of Tim Riley’s bar, and lighten his ennui. 

I’ll leave it to you to judge whether that final scene works. I’ve had discussions with fans on both sides of the divide – and to be honest I’ve been on both sides myself. As of my last viewing, I’m good with it. And I wonder if Serling, then about the same age as Randy Lane, found an empathy with his beleaguered protagonist that wasn’t accessible when he wrote “Patterns” while still in his 30s. I’m glad he threw a lifeline to a fellow traveler, at a moment when the journey no longer seemed worth the heartache. 

Sadly, Serling’s journey would last just four more years – he died in 1975 at the age of 50. 

“They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar” is one of those little masterpieces that I wish more people knew about. And it’s probably the only reason I’m holding on to my Night Gallery DVDs. I hope shows like this will one day be discovered by millennials, amidst the 300 new shows TV cranks out each year (and that’s probably just Netflix). Maybe by the time they find it, they will be old enough to appreciate what it has to say. 

Friday, August 16, 2019

When Classic TV Saved the Planet

If you think there’s never been more concern about the environment than there is now, you obviously weren’t watching television in the early 1970s. 

Ecology is not a word you hear much anymore but it was everywhere back then, defining a movement with its roots in books like The Population Bomb and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The Environmental Protection Agency was founded in 1970, the same year that the first Earth Day was celebrated. 

1970 was also the year that television picked up on the crusade, beginning in January with an episode of Room 222 called “Once Upon a Time There Was Air You Couldn’t See.” 

The setting is Pete Dixon’s class at Walt Whitman High School in Los Angeles, a city already infamous for its air quality thanks to all the smog jokes in Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show monologues. Two of Pete’s students raise more than $600 to film a 60-second TV commercial, urging viewers to support upcoming legislation to study the smog problem. 

What I like most about the result is how the ad sounds exactly like what two inner city kids would create, without the help of the episode’s writers to make them sound more polished. It’s arguably more effective because it is simple and sincere. 

Two months later, That Girl aired “Soot Yourself,” in which Ann joins an anti-pollution group that pickets the magazine where her fiancé works. 

There’s not much comedy here, just lots of self-righteous speeches, culminating in a wintertime dinner party during which Ann shuts off the heat to freeze her guests (because the building furnace is killing birds and grass and flowers and trees), and serves rancid food because…whatever. 
This kind of hammer-over-the-head approach, when people are just hoping for a pleasant 30 minutes of entertainment, tends to alienate more than it rallies the troops. Episodes like this are a reminder of how some people can become obnoxious even in support of a good cause. There’s still a lot of that going around. 

That same month another take on the same topic aired that was even more impassioned, but also more embarrassing. 

A Clear and Present Danger was a 90-minute pilot for the Hal Holbrook series The Senator. That show was a remarkable look at Washington politics that still holds up, but it stumbled badly out of the gate with a story that plays like the Reefer Madness of air pollution. 

It opens with prospective senatorial candidate Hayes Stowe arriving in Los Angeles to visit a beloved law professor. He arrives just after the man has died in the hospital. His doctor intones somberly, “I think he would have made it…if it weren’t for the smog.” 

That sets Hayes out on a mission to make pollution the central issue of his Senate campaign, which results in his being dubbed “the Paul Revere of smog.” 

The nadir of the drama comes when Hayes allies himself with a wild-eyed college professor who insists that breathable air on planet earth will not be around much longer. It reminded me of a 1962 Donna Reed Show episode in which an astronomer predicts that man will have visited Mars and Venus by the 1980s. It’s never a good idea to take television’s predictions about our future too seriously. 

A key component of the ecology movement was getting the message out to the next generation, so they would grow up to be responsible stewards of the planet. It was certainly a prominent classroom topic when I was in elementary school, and was incorporated into many of the children’s shows back then, once again beginning in 1970. Remember the Willie Wimple shorts on Sesame Street

That same year, The Archies sang about how “the little fish ain’t growin’, cause the dirty river ain’t flowin’” in a song called “Mr. Factory.” 

The Bugaloos (1970) was Sid and Marty Krofft’s contribution to the movement. The entire series is a paean to the superiority of natural landscapes over man-made urban jungles. The Bugaloos live a carefree life in Tranquility Forest, singing and celebrating the simple joys of nature. They are constantly under threat from Benita Bizarre (Martha Raye), loud, crass, and garish, like the city where she lives. 

The episode “On a Clear Day” has Benita pumping orange smog into the forest after they refuse to let her perform in a rock festival. If you’ve heard her sing you know they made the right choice. 

Would the ecology message get through to the kids? Filmation’s Ark II presented a future in which it didn’t. The opening narration describes its cataclysmic premise:  “For millions of years earth was fertile and rich. Then, pollution and waste began to take their toll. Civilization fell into ruin. This is the world of the 25th century.” 

By 1971 it wasn’t just the shows but the commercials between the shows that delivered a planet-saving message. That was the year Woodsy Owl made his first appearance and exclaimed: “Give a hoot, don’t pollute!” And if that didn’t get your attention, this one surely did:

It remains one of the most famous public service announcements of all time. In fact, let’s be honest – given how often it ran and for how many years, it was certainly more memorable and effective than any of the shows previously described. 

But did any of these efforts have any real lasting impact? The United States did pass many pieces of environmental legislation in the early 1970s, such as the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act. Perhaps television served to educate the public as to why such measures were necessary.

Has the climate change debate produced a similar spate of sitcoms and dramas about that issue? I’m not the best person to ask as I watch very few current scripted programs. What I do know is that once again we are in a moment when some prominent politicians are putting timelines on the end of the world. Even with TV’s spotty track record in prognostication, If I were betting on when civilization was going to fall into ruin I’d put my money on Ark II over Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez.