Thursday, July 2, 2020

Classic TV Statues: Leave Them Alone

We are either in the midst of a cultural revolution or a crime wave, depending on your perspective. And while the damage to real people and property embodies the most regrettable aspect of these uprisings, there have been other victims as well.

Statues. Lots of statues.

I know – this isn’t the place for politics. “Save it for your book!” Okay – I will. And that book will be out next year. Details to follow in another month or two.

But as this is Comfort TV let’s talk about the statues that have been erected to honor performers and characters from many of television’s most memorable series. Thus far they have escaped the carnage. But who knows what tomorrow might bring? This could be a good time to plan a road trip to visit some of these monuments before they meet their fate.

Jackie Gleason as Ralph Kramden
New York City
Erected: 2000

This was the first statue commissioned by TV Land – hard to believe it’s already 20 years old. And what better place to honor Ralph Kramden than at New York’s bustling Port Authority Bus Terminal? It’s a wonderful likeness of Ralph, with lunch box in hand, chest out proudly, ready to start another shift. Or as Alice would say, “That’s not his chest, that’s his stomach, and it’s always out!”

Could it Come Down?
No statue in New York appears to be off limits at the moment. Fortunately, Its Port Authority location means it will be seen primarily by those traveling to or from work – and most rioters have an aversion to honest employment.

Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards
Erected: 2001

Few classic TV freeze frames are as famous as the one at the end of the opening credits to The Mary Tyler Moore Show. A jubilant Mary flings her cap into the air, while a sourpuss woman in the background scowls in contempt. 

That was the moment the sculptor attempted to recreate, with a statue located near the place where that scene was shot – the corner of 7th and Nicollet in Minneapolis. On the base is written, “Who can turn the world on with her smile?” 

Sadly, the artist who created the bronze statue, Gwendolyn Gillen, died just two days after Mary Tyler Moore passed away in January of 2017.

Could it Come Down?
Minneapolis was the epicenter for the ongoing national protests, so anything is possible.

Andy Griffith and Ronny Howard as Andy and Opie Taylor
Erected: 2003

There are two statues depicting the same famous moment of Andy and Opie going fishing, as shown in the opening credits of The Andy Griffith Show. After TV Land erected the original in Raleigh’s Pullen Park, residents of Mount Airy protested the location. They had a point – Mount Airy was Griffith’s hometown and the city that inspired Mayberry. So a second version went up there, in front of the Andy Griffith Playhouse. I think they did a wonderful job with this one. 

Could it Come Down?
Let’s see – which side did North Carolina support in the Civil War? Uh-oh. Maybe this should be the first stop on your tour.

Bob Newhart as Bob Hartley
Erected: 2004

This subject always struck me as an odd choice, though I have always loved The Bob Newhart Show. Certainly the interactive quality is fun – how many thousands of people have taken a seat on the couch next to Dr. Hartley and shared their problems? After it first appeared on Michigan Ave. it was moved to Navy Pier, one of Chicago’s most popular spots for tourists and locals.  

Could it Come Down?
I doubt it will get torn down. But it might get shot.

Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha Stevens
Erected: 2005

From a distance, this nine-foot, 3,000-pound bronze of Samantha astride her broom looks pretty amazing. 

But it loses a little something up close. Still, we should be happy it’s still there in Lappin Park, as some local residents thought it was a disrespectful reminder of those who were persecuted at the actual Salem witch trials. See? People who don’t know the difference between fantasy and reality are nothing new. 

Could it Come Down?
Salem survives on tourism, and even the grumblers have noticed how many visitors enjoy taking selfies with Sam. She should be safe.

James Garner as Bret Maverick
Erected: 2006

This may be the biggest statue on the list, standing more than 10 feet tall. Norman, Oklahoma was James Garner’s hometown, and this was an appealing tribute to both a favorite son and a classic TV character. 

Could it Come Down?
The Old West? Do we really need to honor another intolerant historic era? Thankfully, very few professional agitators live in Oklahoma.

Henry Winkler as Arthur Fonzarelli
Erected: 2008

The Fonz in bronze! TV Land was going to move forward on this but changed its mind, probably around the same time they stopped airing any TV shows worth watching. So the city’s tourism board stepped in, raised $85,000, found a local artist that knew cool when he saw it, and the rest is history. I’m still not sure if the coloring on the leather jacket and jeans was a nice touch or an overreach. 

Thankfully, despite the Riverwalk location, he’s not wearing water skis.

Could it Come Down?
Does he represent the oppressive 1950s? Those weren’t happy days for everyone, you know.

Noel Neill as Lois Lane
Erected: 2010

Yes, Metropolis, as in Metropolis, Illinois. The statue immortalizes The Daily Planet’s ace reporter, as played by Noel Neill on The Adventures of Superman. Neill was pushing 90 when it was unveiled, but she was there to see it. That’s awesome. 


Could it Come Down?
Try it and you’ll have to answer to you-know-who.

Lucille Ball as Lucy Ricardo
Erected: It’s Complicated

At last, a statue that disappeared and no one, regardless of race, creed or political affiliation, ever missed it. The original Lucille Ball statue by Dave Poulin was so hideous it was dubbed “Scary Lucy,” and even the rioters and the pigeons wouldn’t go near it. 

Poulin died at the too-young age of 58, and it’s sad that this became his best-known work, as he really was quite talented.

Still, that version had to go, and a much more flattering bronze sculpted by Carolyn Palmer was unveiled on August 6, 2016, Lucy’s 105th birthday. 

Could it Come Down?
I Love Lucy may be the most iconic situation comedy ever created, but one of its running gags was having Lucy mock Ricky’s Cuban accent. People now lose their jobs for doing that.

Who needs a statue next? My nominees:

Maxwell Smart
How many times does a man have to save the world from the forces of KAOS to get a little respect? Besides, Washington D.C. is going to need something to fill all those empty pedestals.

Emma Peel
London loves its statues. They’re everywhere – from Sir Thomas More to Sherlock Holmes, Prince Albert to Paddington Bear. So why not honor the English rose that has been described as the ultimate ‘60s style icon? Diana Rigg would look great in bronze, because she looked great in everything. 

Captain James T. Kirk
Max saved America – Kirk saved the whole galaxy, and slept with half of it too. There’s probably a statue of him already on Rigel II, aka the “pleasure planet,” but we need one on earth as well.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Purchase or Pass: Head of the Class

Just two months ago, in a piece about retro TV program lineups, I mentioned how Head of the Class was the lone holdout for those wishing to recreate a Wednesday in 1986 on ABC.

And now it’s here. You’re welcome.

I wish I could take credit for it. If this blog had that kind of clout we’d have the rest of The Defenders on DVD by now, and season sets for The Farmer’s Daughter and My World and Welcome To It.

But let’s get back to Head of the Class, which I was delighted to start watching again. I was a fan in its first run and was curious how well it would hold up more than 30 years later.

For the uninitiated, the series is set primarily at New York’s Fillmore High School. The twist is that the students were the anti-Sweathogs: geniuses and super-achievers who were often ostracized for their intelligence. Into this classroom of high-maintenance kids ambled Charlie Moore (Howard Hesseman), the ultimate laid-back history professor who was not intimidated by the fact that his students were already smarter than he was.

Good premise? Sure. Did they hit a home run with it? I thought so in 1986. Now – I’d pull that back to a solid double. I think the show got better in the next couple of seasons, so we’ll revisit that box score if and when they are released.

The students are well-cast and none of them are annoying (at least until Rain Pryor shows up), but they’re one-note types instead of nuanced characters: class clown Dennis (Dan Schneider), nerdy Arvid (Dan Frischman, who was 27(!) when the show started), poetry-loving romantic Simone (Khrystyne Haje, be still my heart), preppy Alan (Tony O’Dell), pampered rich girl Darlene (Robin Givens), tough kid Eric (Brian Robbins), etc. When an episode revolves around one of them they might dig an inch or two below that surface, just enough to get to the “Gee, I really learned something today, Mr. Moore” denouement, and then it’s back to business as usual.

The stories are superficial as well, with plots you’ve seen on many other shows – Charlie meets up with an old flame; jokester Dennis discovers that humor can be hurtful sometimes; Maria (Leslie Bega) gets asked out by a rival school’s Academic Olympics team captain, and her classmates wonder if she’s being set up.

Such repetition is inevitable in television, I know. But when a story is told cleverly and well it doesn’t matter if you’ve seen it somewhere else. Head of the Class rarely puts its own spin on these warhorse plots. This is blunt force comedy – which doesn’t mean it can’t sometimes be funny. But as a viewer I often found myself hoping they’d try something more imaginative with the situations they introduced.

Case in point: in “You’ve Got a Friend,” Arvid and Sarah (Kimberly Russell) collaborate on a science project and develop feelings for each other. So far, so good. But from all the directions open to that scenario, the series opted for a lazy Rashomon rehash in which they both share different memories of their disastrous first date.

But there are positives here as well. I said the show rarely finds a new take on an old trope, but they did so in “Love at First Byte,” in which Charlie starts getting romantic notes in his school mailbox, and tries to deduce which of his students is sending them. The ‘byte’ in the title refers to computers at a time when they were about to change the world, and it’s fun to see how they are viewed at this nascent stage.

In “The Way We Weren’t” Darlene discovers that she may be a descendant of Sally Hemmings. That’s not the focal point of the episode, but in the classroom scene that touches on the topic of slavery, intelligent opinions are exchanged in a way that was more constructive and understanding of the context of earlier historical eras than anything I heard from the media in the last few weeks.

“Ode to Simone” introduces the attraction between Eric and Simone, which is developed well over the course of the series. It also offered the revelation that many of Emily Dickinson’s poems can be sung to the tune of “Yellow Rose of Texas.” That may have been known in poetry circles at the time but it was new to me. I’ve also since learned that “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” scans perfectly to the Gilligan’s Island theme.

“Past Imperfect” is the kind of episode that should have appeared more often: Charlie needs to pass a tough economics course to keep his teaching credentials, and his students help him prepare because they already know this stuff cold. Here at last was a story unique to the series premise that couldn’t just be pulled from another school show. It’s the only first-season script from Jerry Rannow, who also wrote for Room 222. He also wrote a Small Wonder episode, but nobody’s perfect.

“The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming” features the only scene in which the honors class competes against a rival school, It’s another episode I liked as much as I did when I first saw it back in college.

But the season highlight for most viewers may be “Video Activity,” in which the class is asked to contribute something to a time capsule that will be opened in the year 2100. The principal wants a stuffy dissertation on the Individual Honors Program, but instead the kids shoot a music video to “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades.” 

The esprit de corps that emerges in this group of different students with different backgrounds, united by superior IQs, is a consistent series strength. I still wish they would have let some of the classroom scenes breathe a little more, but I get the challenge of balancing screen time (and actor egos) with such a large cast.

So close call, but it merits the purchase recommendation. How can I give students this smart a bad grade?

Plus, it’s got to be better than the remake now shooting for HBO Max. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

The Most Important Lesson Taught By The Brady Bunch

I believe we can learn a lot from the classic shows of the past. Granted, many of the lessons they teach are pretty basic – honesty, courtesy, good citizenship; perhaps back then viewers wondered why such obvious positive character traits even had to be imparted – didn’t everyone already know how to behave themselves?

Welcome to 2020, when it’s obvious some folks need a refresher course. Especially in the one message that, by accident or design, The Brady Bunch conveyed most frequently. 

Don’t play ball in the house? 
No, but that’s still good advice.

Don’t pick up small carved totems from Hawaiian construction sites?
I doubt anyone has tempted fate like that for decades.

Don’t bring a frog to a drive-in movie?
Now you’re not even trying.

If there is one tenet The Brady Bunch wanted all of its young viewers to understand, it was the danger inherent in developing a sense of entitlement.

That lesson was taught six times in six different episodes, each featuring a different Brady kid. For such a well-adjusted family, it’s surprising they had to keep learning it.

Peter was the first Brady to fall into this trap, in a first season episode entitled “The Hero.” It begins at Driscoll’s Toy Shop, where he pulls a little girl out of the path of a falling shelf.

Had this been a more recent series, the girl’s mother would have sued Driscoll’s into bankruptcy, and no one would ever get to buy toys there again. But this was a different time, and instead the mother was grateful to Peter and made sure he received the accolades he deserved for his heroism. 

The story makes the front page of the newspaper (slow news day!) and that’s when Peter begins to believe that his heroic act affords him special status within the family. “He doesn’t think heroes should put the garbage out,” says Bobby, on why Peter’s chores are now his. Then Peter wins a citizenship award with a $50 prize, and uses the money to – get this - throw a party to honor himself. Most Un-Brady-like. He finally gets the message when none of his friends show up.

Cindy’s brush with entitlement occurs in “You Can’t Win ‘Em All” when she is selected to represent her school on the television quiz show ‘Question the Kids.” From the moment that happens, she starts referring to herself as a television star: “Would you boys like to be the first to get my autograph?” she asks her incredulous brothers.

Throughout this episode Cindy expresses the belief that, when you are on television, everything you say or do is automatically more important. Sadly, many of the people who work in TV still believe that as well, as do many of their viewers. But Cindy’s brush with fame does not end well – when the quiz show begins she goes catatonic, with the worst case of freezing on camera until Admiral James Stockdale participated in the 1992 Vice-Presidential debate. 

Unlike Cindy, Bobby never sought any special recognition, but had it thrust upon him. In “Law and Disorder” he is appointed to the post of school safety monitor. At first he is appalled at the prospect of finking on his friends. But that hesitation doesn’t last long. Not only does Bobby come to embrace his man-with-a-badge status, he decides to start writing up his siblings at home for rules violations. Even Alice ends up on report. 

Of course, this episode is best remembered for the scene where Bobby floods the laundry room with soap suds. That happens because Bobby is put in a position where he has to break a rule with good reason. Lesson learned.

Certainly, the Brady most susceptible to entitlement is Marcia. “Every time she turns around they hand her another award!” Jan once said, and it seemed to be true. Still, Marcia maintained a level head through all of her various achievements until she was cast in the lead in her school’s production of “Romeo and Juliet.”

Reluctant at first to accept the part, she rapidly turns into a Fillmore Junior High version of Katherine Heigl. She berates her costars, changes stage direction, and even rewrites Shakespeare to suit her preference. And she plays the diva at home as well, especially when reminded of how she is expected to help Peter clean out the garage: “Do I have to remind you that I am the star of our school play? Juliet wouldn’t do such menial labor.” 

Result? She gets fired from the play on the day of the performance. That does the trick.

Jan, of course, never amassed the same accolades as her older sister, and frequently suffered from low self-esteem as a result. But in “Miss Popularity” she finally does something right, and still manages to screw it up. Nominated for “Most Popular Girl,” she wins the title by making campaign promises she has no intention of keeping: “The election’s over now, and I won. That’s the important thing.” 

Spoken like a true politician.

In the first draft of her victory speech, she accepts the title by acknowledging how this honor confirms she has more “charm and personality” than any other girl in school.

“We’ve got five other kids – can we put her up for adoption?” Peter asks. 

Thankfully it doesn’t come to that – like all of Jan’s other meltdowns and misadventures, this one also ends with a return to normalcy – or as close as she gets.

Last but not least, we have Greg deciding he no longer needs college and may not even bother with finishing high school. In “The Dropout,” Dodger great Don Drysdale compliments Greg’s slider, and from that moment nothing else matters to him but baseball: “I’m going to be a baseball player – they don’t have to know anything.” 

That life-plan proves short-lived after he gets clobbered in a Pony League game, leading to the best father-son scene of the series.

Say this in the Brady kids’ defense – all of them snapped out of their entitlement attitude pretty quickly. And at least they all achieved something first before their collective heads swelled.  Today, we have too many people that trumpet their entitlement without accomplishing anything to deserve it.

Sometimes I think this whole country should take a seat in the family room and listen to a stern talking-to from Mike Brady.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Top TV Moments: Don Ho

As soon as a series from the Comfort TV era decided to shoot an episode in Hawaii, only one question remained – how could we fit Don Ho into the story?

At least that’s the way it seemed in the 1960s and ‘70s. And yet – the two shows that spent the most time in Hawaii – Hawaii Five-O and Magnum, P.I. – remained completely Ho-less for a combined 20 years and more than 440 episodes. Go figure.

I wonder how well known he is in the culture now. Certainly in Hawaii his name conjures fond memories of songs like “Tiny Bubbles” and his long-running nightclub show at the Beachcomber Hotel at Waikiki. But on the mainland he may be trending downward like Wayne Newton, who was a must-see in Vegas for decades just as Ho was in Hawaii. Thankfully, we’ll always have the following classic TV shows to preserve his legacy.

Hawaiian Eye (1963)
This series debuted in 1959, the same year Hawaii became a state, and also the year that Don Ho began his musical career at a club called Honey’s. While this series was not actually shot in Hawaii, it’s certainly a fitting place for him to make his first television appearance – though not as himself. He played a character called Kamaki in the episode “Maybe Menehunes.”

Valentine’s Day (1965)
If you had asked me a week ago when Don Ho began making TV guest spots as himself, I’d have said I Dream of Jeannie. And I would have been wrong. IMDB tells me he started two years earlier, in the episode “Viva Valentine” from the long-forgotten sitcom Valentine’s Day. The show starred Tony Franciosa as a dashing New York publisher who was constantly being chased by women with romance on their minds. I’ve had more than 15 books published, and I don’t think I’ve ever looked on publishers as a particularly dashing sort.  But that’s neither here nor there.

Batman (1966)
Do Ho is in the select company of Dick Clark, Jerry Lewis, Sammy Davis Jr. and other stars to pop out a high-rise window for a chat with Batman and Robin as they climb up the side of a building. The episode was called “The Bat’s Kow-Tow”and also features one of Julie Newmar’s delightful turns as Catwoman, plus ‘60s vocal duo Chad and Jeremy

I Dream of Jeannie (1967)
This is the most substantive of Ho’s guest spots, and also the strangest. In “Jeannie Goes to Honolulu” he performs “Ain’t No Big Thing” from a nightclub stage, and that scene leads into a dream sequence in which Don and his son (not sure which one – he had ten kids) wander the island to his ballad “Days of My Youth.” It’s never clearly explained why Jeannie would be dreaming about this. But as a result Don gets six minutes of uninterrupted screen time – more than Major Healey or Dr. Bellows. 

Malibu U. (1967)
Never saw it? Oh, yes you have. If you’ve ever watched that clip of Leonard Nimoy singing “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins,” which makes the rounds on Facebook every few months – this is the series where it came from. Malibu U. was a summer music show shot at Malibu Beach, hosted by Ricky Nelson. Besides Don Ho, guests included Marvin Gaye, Dionne Warwick, Stephen Stills, Frankie Valli, Neil Young, Lou Rawls, The Turtles and The Doors. Sadly, all those music clearances mean it will never hit DVD.

The Brady Bunch (1972)
In “Hawaii Bound” Don Ho just happens to be strolling by while Bobby struggles with playing a ukulele. 

He gives the kid a lesson, and he and companion Sam Kapu, Jr. sing “Sweet Someone.” Eventually Bobby recognizes him, as so many 11 year-olds were apparently big Don Ho fans back in 1972.

Bobby: “You’re Don Ho!”
Cindy: “Don Who?”

The song was the highlight here, as the comedy certainly was not. 

Sanford and Son (1976)
In the three-part adventure “The Hawaiian Connection,” Fred and Lamont go to Hawaii for the Associated Junkmen of America convention, and get mixed up with a gang of diamond smugglers. Don Ho appears as they’re being chased through a nightclub, where he performs that Polynesian classic, “Beer Barrel Polka.” Full disclosure – Don may be the least interesting aspect of these shows, which went all-out on the guest casting. The crooks are played by Sheldon Leonard, Greg Morris and Barbara Rhoades; the cops by James Gregory and David Huddleston, and there are also appearances by Hal Williams and Pat Paulsen. My favorite moment is when Morris begins planning the heist with a second decoy suitcase, and the Mission: Impossible theme starts playing.

Charlie’s Angels (1977)
In “Angels in Paradise,” Charlie Townsend is kidnapped in Hawaii, and the Angels travel there to get him back. “I think I know somebody who can help us,” Sabrina Duncan says. “He knows everyone in Hawaii, and he just happens to be a friend of Charlie’s.” 

This appearance by Don Ho is my favorite because they don’t just trot him out to do a song as if it was some contractual obligation. Instead, he’s utilized in a role that makes sense given how audiences knew him by now. Why wouldn’t someone who worked nightclubs for years know the major players among the Islands’ criminal element? It’s a good scene in one of the series’ best episodes.

Fantasy Island (1979)
You know "The Wedding" is a very special episode of Fantasy Island when Mr. Roarke is getting married, and Don Ho is there to sing “The Hawaiian Wedding Song.” This show gave Ricardo Montalban something different to play in the normally inscrutable Roarke. I won’t spoil the ending, but since Roarke isn’t coming home to the wife for the remaining five years of the series, you can probably guess what happens. 


Aloha Scooby-Doo! (2005)
I know we’re well outside the era usually covered with this 2005 direct-to-video movie. But Scooby-Doo is a Comfort TV icon, and this was one of Don Ho’s final projects, coming 40 years after his first became one of Hawaii’s favorite sons. That’s him performing the opening song.

 If you're ever in Hawaii, be sure to put a lei around the neck of the bronze statue erected to honor him. It's at Waikiki's International Market Place. 

Friday, May 29, 2020

Purchase or Pass: The Smith Family

In December of 2017 I wrote a piece about ten forgotten television shows I’d like to watch. One was The Smith Family, a 1971 series starring Henry Fonda as a police detective.

What I said then:

“The Smith Family lasted 39 episodes, and you’d think that many shows coupled with such an impressive pedigree would have earned it a DVD release by now. It could still happen.”  

For once, I was right.

Was it worth the wait? I think so – though it certainly wasn’t what I expected.

The DVD box describes the series as “a light-hearted comedy.” That’s an understandable assumption, as first season episodes begin with an animated opening credits sequence, accompanied by a jaunty tune called “Primrose Lane,” which had been a top-ten hit in 1959. 

The first episode opens in the California ranch home of Sgt. Chad Smith (Fonda), who is with his family at the breakfast table: wife Betty (Janet Blair), their college student daughter Cindy (Darleen Carr), son Bob, who’s in high school (Ron Howard) and nine year-old Brian (Michael-James Wixted).

Their conversation is typical of a family sitcom – dad doesn’t get the lingo of the younger generation. The clash of values with the counterculture is a recurring theme, as Chad’s older kids often talk of fighting the establishment and “sticking it to the straights.”

But then Chad goes to work at the police station, where a distressed family friend explains how she found marijuana cigarettes in her daughter’s bedroom, and wants Chad to arrest the girl to scare her straight. Chad visits the home and finds the dope, and then his daughter emerges from the bedroom and he may have to take her in as well.

That was interesting to me, because none of this is played for laughs. It was a discordant change in tone after the opening scene. And when the story took another nasty turn I was even more intrigued.

Dramedy – was that a word back in ’71? That’s what this is, with emphasis squarely on the drama. In “One More Goodbye” Chad spends some quality time with each member of his family, before heading out on a dangerous stakeout from which he may not return. In “Desk Job” he apprehends a couple of burglars, takes a beating in the process, and wonders after 25 years on the force if it’s time to stay out of the field. In “Where There’s Smoke” he is framed for sexual assault.

With such sobering stories it’s not surprising The Smith Family didn’t fare well on ABC’s Wednesday night schedule following Bewitched and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. This was not a typical 30-minute series. But that’s what makes it interesting now.

That, and, of course, Henry Fonda.

The actors from Hollywood’s golden age that tried TV – Jimmy Stewart, Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck – always brought star quality with them, regardless of whether their shows worked or not. Here Fonda is instantly believable as a good and honest cop, because audiences had already accepted him as Tom Joad and Abe Lincoln and Wyatt Earp. When he reads an essay his daughter wrote about him in that distinctive, folksy cadence, he has earned my undivided attention. 

The serene confidence and integrity of Chad Smith may seem too unflappable for viewers raised on shows about deeply flawed heroes. But this series was from a time when adults still acted like adults, and that’s what maturity looks like, kids.

Janet Blair is fine as Mrs. Smith, and in her best moments has the conviction of Jane Wyatt in Father Knows Best. As a policeman’s wife she too bears much anxiety with a quiet dignity.

Among the cast Ron Howard certainly had the most name recognition after Fonda, after growing up on The Andy Griffith Show. Once again he plays the son of a lawman, but surprisingly he’s not utilized particularly well or often. Here he is what Eddie Murphy once called him – Opie Cunningham. An awkward teen marking time between his two iconic TV roles, and having no clue what to do with his hair.

Instead, the series was giving Darleen Carr what’s known in wrestling as the main event push – she is featured in several episodes including the pilot. Had the show lasted 4-6 seasons she’d probably be remembered fondly by teenage boys like Susan Dey and Maureen McCormick. It feels strange to be introduced to her work here, and realize that this lovely young ingĂ©nue with the luminous, intense eyes is going to turn 70 this year. Time sucks. 

And then there’s the kid, who I disliked instantly, as mentioned in my previous blog. Michael-James Wixted always has a wounded expression on his face like his dog just died. He brings down the whole room even in a happy scene. Casting kids was a proven forte of Don Fedderson Productions, as evidenced by Family Affair and My Three Sons. But someone dropped the ball this time.

At the start of its second season, The Smith Family switched up its introduction. Gone is the animation and “Primrose Lane,” replaced by a montage of Fonda in action scenes that plays like an SCTV parody of a Quinn Martin show.

More encouraging is how the writers were finally figuring out how to blend the workplace stories with the family stories. Both worked for me separately, though sometimes it felt like watching two different shows.

But now we get episodes like “State’s Witness,” in which Chad testifies in court against a top defense attorney and old college buddy, who has dinner with his family and uses that access to bolster his case. And in “Stakeout,” Chad is assigned to go undercover with a police woman to catch a hold up man working lover’s lane – when his kids spot the two together they think dad’s having an affair. In “Ambush,” Chad brings a witness to a police shooting into his home for protection.

And while Ron Howard deserved more screen time, he is featured well in “The Peer Group,” another outstanding show about the pressures the son of a cop feels in high school at a time when “the fuzz” was the enemy.

Purchase or pass? I’m happy with the purchase. I was in good hands with a seasoned stable of writers (Paul West, Austin and Irma Kalish, John McGreevey), some welcome guest stars (Tim Considine as a long-haired hippie was a shock) and Fonda’s firm hand guiding viewers through stories good and adequate. Also, it was fun to see Erin Moran pop up twice in guest spots, though never in a scene with her future TV brother.

Overlooked classic? Maybe not. Comfort TV? Absolutely. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Comfort TV To Five Annoying Sitcom Kids: Get Off My Lawn

I’m in the midst of watching a new DVD release of an old TV show I’ve never seen before – a “Purchase or Pass” review about that series will appear in the blog next week. I mention it here because, as I started viewing the first couple of episodes, I took an instant dislike to one of the kids in the cast.

Does that sound awful?

It happens sometimes, with characters of all ages. It’s certainly not an aversion to TV children in general – most have made indelible contributions to their respective series. Even at my advanced age I wish I were as cool as Jeff Stone (Paul Petersen) on The Donna Reed Show.

If the task at hand is to single out five annoying kids, there is an easy way to do it -  focus on characters that were cast in the waning seasons of a series headed toward cancellation, such as Cousin Oliver on The Brady Bunch, Quinn Cummings on Family and Brian Bonsall on Family Ties. These actors faced the daunting task of bringing new viewers into a sagging series, while disrupting an on-screen family dynamic that was working fine before they got there. 

But that would be cheating. Instead, here are five choices that were part of their shows from the very first episode.  They all still get on my nerves.

Kathy (Kitten) Anderson
Father Knows Best
Anyone who thinks the children on 1950s sitcoms were all perfectly behaved automatons has never watched Lauren Chapin as the Andersons’ youngest daughter. She was TV’s first spoiled brat, prone to whining and temper tantrums when she didn’t get her way. 

Chapin barreled into nearly every scene she was in, projecting her lines at extra high-volume, and in episodes like “The Promised Playhouse” her character shows an utter disregard for the feelings of her parents and her siblings. 

Father Knows Best aired for six seasons, enough time for Kitten to outgrow some of her less appealing traits. And she did have some moving moments in “Kathy’s Big Chance,” which featured a memorable guest appearance by the ever-graceful and elegant Greer Garson. But generally, when I feel like revisiting this series, any episode with Kathy’s name in the title is likely going to be skipped.  

Ross Lane
The Patty Duke Show
It’s hard to figure out what purpose Ross served on this series, or even if he had one. He seems like an afterthought even among members of his own family.

Just six of the show’s 106 episodes focus on Ross. That’s a sign that the writers realized the character wasn’t working. He’s still in most of the shows, but usually turns up only to deliver a cheap shot at his sister. To be fair, she doesn’t seem to care much for him either. 

What made this show special was the remarkable performance of Patty Duke as cousins Patty and Cathy Lane. She received able support from William Schallert and Jean Byron in the parent roles. And then there’s Paul O’Keefe as Ross, who…was also there. I’ll give him this much though: he was the only member of this Brooklyn Heights family who actually had a New York accent.

Richie Petrie
The Dick Van Dyke Show
Richie, played by Larry Matthews, is the least annoying character on this list, though I could do without his tendency to run yelling out of a room. But like Ross Lane he is rarely featured, and even when a story revolved around Richie, it focused more on how his parents reacted to the situation. 

In “Washington vs. The Bunny,” Rob is torn between a business trip for his boss and attending a school play in which Richie plays a bunny. In “Where Did I Come From?” Richie asks that provocative question to his parents. In “A Word a Day” the Petries get a call from Richie’s principal, reporting that their son used a curse word in school. In “What’s In a Middle Name?” Richie wonders why his middle name is Rosebud.

All of these episodes are classics because the kid kicks off the plot and then fades into the background amidst hilarious dream sequences, flashbacks, and parental debates.

When he is featured more, such as a show like “Never Name a Duck,” the results are not as favorable. And his shaky, off-key performance of “The Little Drummer Boy” is the only part of the series’ Christmas episode you’ll want to skip.  

Julie Cooper
One Day At a Time
Oh, good lord, the yelling. Somebody please make it stop. Julie was a drama queen who never missed an opportunity to make her mother’s life more stressful.

Ann Romano already had enough challenges with starting over after a divorce, getting a job, and raising two daughters on her own. Julie was old enough to be sympathetic to her struggles, yet she couldn’t get past her own issues – and there were lots of them: jealousy, self-centeredness, terrible taste in boyfriends, truancy, gullibility, and more teenage angst than all six Bradys and all eight Bradfords put together. 

My favorite Julie moment happened in “The Runaways” – a four-episode story that follows Julie and latest loser boyfriend Chuck, as they set out to make it on their own. When Ann pleads with Julie to stay, her defiant daughter quotes a list of unreasonable terms before she’ll agree to do so. “Okay, Julie,” Ann responds. “Go.” Both Bonnie Franklin and Mackenzie Phillips play the moment beautifully, and the audience applause reveals which side they’re on. 

Wesley Crusher
Star Trek: The Next Generation
There’s a reason why “Shut up, Wesley” may be the most famous quote from this series in seven seasons.

It’s become clichĂ© to bash Wesley so there’s not much I can add to this topic. And to be fair Wil Wheaton plays the character well and does figure prominently in several great episodes, including “Final Mission” and “The First Duty.” He’s also featured in a couple of the show’s worst installments: “The Dauphin” and “Evolution.”

The annoyance with Wesley emerges mostly from stories that have him discovering solutions to life-or-death perils ahead of seasoned officers, including Data, an android with a total linear computational speed of 60 trillion operations per second. That just shouldn't happen - and certainly not more than once.  

And if that wasn’t enough, he is recruited by a superior alien race because he is “special” to ascend to a higher form a life. I quote a contributor to IMDB: “In light of what an annoying idiot he’s become, there is no way ANYONE could believe this!!”

No wonder there are fans who, when Wesley was sentenced to death in the first season episode “Justice,” still wish that sentence was carried out. Beverly would have gotten over it eventually.

P.S. Since I limited myself to Comfort TV era characters, I could not also call out Dawn on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Maddie on Nashville, and Connor on Angel. But they are all just as awful.