Monday, October 18, 2021

‘I Love Lucy’ at 70


I saw several posts on Facebook this past week noting the 70th anniversary of I Love Lucy


‘70’ is not a milestone we’re used to in television.


I remember when shows I grew up with celebrated 20th and 25th anniversaries, and how that seemed like a vast passage of time – the kid actors were grown up and married with kids of their own. The attractive young adults once immortalized on bedroom wall posters and Tiger Beat magazine covers still retained traces of their youthful beauty, now tempered by the realities of middle age. The actors who played grandparents and kindly old teachers were remembered in memoriam.


But a 70th anniversary is something else entirely. That’s nearly the span of an entire lifetime – as well as the lifetime of television as it is celebrated in this blog.


While the technology existed as far back as the 1920s, and there were limited broadcasts in the 1930s and 1940s, TV did not become a mass medium with any real mass until the early 1950s.


It was I Love Lucy, along with Milton Berle and Howdy Doody, which helped to transform television from a novelty into the primary source of news and entertainment for every generation since its inception. Most American homes did not have a television when I Love Lucy debuted on October 15, 1951. By the end of that decade, there was a TV in nine of every ten homes.


So how does the series hold up 70 years later?


For most of those in my generation the answer is easy – it’s a classic situation comedy that set the standard for the genre, and that gave us moments as famous as any series past or present. Its characters are beloved; a very high percentage of its 180 episodes are still laugh-out-loud funny. 



But that’s us. We formed these opinions decades ago and see no reason to change them now, even if we haven’t actually watched an episode in years.


I can’t view this series through the eyes of someone in their teens or 20s who were not exposed to it growing up via near constant reruns. I do know that, regrettably, anything in black and white is an automatic deal-breaker for a lot of people under 35. I also know that television, like other artistic entities, is no longer judged solely on the quality of its production and performances. Quotas much be checked, inclusivity must be present, and any attempt at humor must not come at the expense of an ever-expanding list of protected sub-sections of humanity. It’s fair to say I have no idea what people are allowed to laugh at anymore.


Still, for those who keep score on such things one would think I Love Lucy would earn some credibility for being less homogeneous than other shows of its era. Lucille Ball wanted her real-life husband, the Cuba-born Desi Arnaz, to play her husband on the show, and CBS (reluctantly) relented. 


It was an inspired choice not just for the on-screen chemistry between Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, and the musical component incorporated into the series by the veteran singer and bandleader, but also because of Arnaz’s ingenuity behind the scenes. Depending on the source telling the story, Arnaz receives either some or all of the credit for the three-camera set-up that became the industry standard for sitcom production, designing a set that would accommodate the addition of a live audience, and shooting episodes in higher-quality 35mm film, which is why the shows still look fantastic on blu-ray.


However, several episodes featured scenes in which Lucy mocks Ricky’s accent, and people lose their jobs for doing that now.


If you are familiar with reaction channels on YouTube, you know there are hundreds of people in their 20s reacting to songs from the 1950s through the 1980s – and most find them preferable to current music. Some have started branching out into television, usually starting with sketches from The Carol Burnett Show. Would they love Lucy as well? I really don’t know. 



I know that I still enjoy it, and if anything I appreciate its craftsmanship more now than I did when I was laughing at this stuff as a kid. The timing in the comic set pieces; the way Lucille Ball maximizes the humor potential in every prop she touches (a result of meticulous rehearsal to find every opportunity to stretch out a laugh); the bickering Mertzes; the way the show could so easily bring high-profile guest stars like John Wayne and William Holden into its comic orbit.



Seeing those Facebook posts has inspired me to return to the show once again, and I’m already looking forward to some of my favorite moments: the Vitameatavegamin commercial (“Lucy Does a TV Commercial”), Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory (“Job Switching”), the grape stomping in Italy (“Lucy’s Italian Movie”), the performance of “Cuban Pete” (“The Diet”), Lucy being forced to tell the truth for 24 hours (“Lucy Tells the Truth”), Lucy setting her nose on fire at the Brown Derby (“L.A. at Last”), the tobacco shop scene in “The Ricardos Visit Cuba,”, the guest appearance of George Reeves as Superman, and the egg-breaking dance in “Lucy Does the Tango,” which generated the longest laugh in the series’ history. 



And all of that is just for starters.


After 70 years the number of ways the country has changed – culturally, socially, politically, technologically – for better and for worse, could fill a book. Just consider how television itself has changed – those who watched I Love Lucy in 1951 could not imagine doing so in high-definition on 80” screens, with 500 other channels to scan or stream when the show is over.


How future generations will assess the series cannot be determined, but after 70 years it’s a testament to its excellence that a show that debuted at the beginning of the medium’s evolution is not just still remembered, but still enjoyed by so many. 



Friday, October 8, 2021

Classic Halloween TV Movies: Creepy Kids Edition


The pandemic made last year scary enough without all the standard ghosts and witches of Halloween, so we pretty much skipped the holiday here. But this year I feel more celebratory, especially as this is a perfect opportunity to delve into the treasure trove of vintage made-for-TV movies accessible via YouTube.


What makes these movies interesting is how they manage to frighten an audience without the graphic blood and guts mayhem employed by most contemporary horror movies. As I wrote in my review of “Crowhaven Farm,’ they had to comply with broadcast standards that placed strict limits on violence, yet they continue to linger in the nightmares of viewers 50 years later. They are triumphs of artistry over gore, and subtlety and suspense over shock value.’


To get you started, here are three films with a common theme: creepy kids. 



Daughter of the Mind (1969)


“Daughter of the Mind” stars Ray Milland as distinguished professor Samuel Constable, whose daughter Mary (Pamelyn Ferdin) was killed in an auto accident months earlier. One evening, as he is driving back from visiting her grave, he hears her voice calling to him, and then he sees her standing in the middle of the road. “Oh daddy, I hate being dead,” she says before vanishing. 



He reports the unsettling experience to Dr. Alex Lauder (Don Murray), a professor of parapsychology, who moves into the family residence. Before long Mary appears again, and this time they both see her. They also notice that objects in her bedroom are being moved around. Lauder becomes suspicious, however, after Mary warns her father about the “war work” he’s doing for the government, and claims she won’t be able to come back unless he quits.


Are those dastardly Commies behind this? But if they are, how can Lauder explain the perfect wax replica of Mary’s hand – including matching fingerprints - that appears in her bedroom? And before you suggest grave-robbing- the family had Mary cremated, so there was no way to obtain those prints post-mortem.


The cast really helps make this one work – Oscar-winner Milland, ‘70s icon Ferdin, Gene Tierney as Mary’s mother, Ed Asner as an intelligence agent surveilling Constable, and John Carradine, who seems to pop up in 7 out every 10 scary TV movies. 



The People (1972)


Melodye (Kim Darby) wants to be a schoolteacher, but she tends to run away from stressful situations involving family and boyfriends. So she accepts a job teaching farm kids in a remote rural area that can’t seem to keep teachers very long. 



When she arrives for her first day of school, she is met with stern-faced children who rarely speak, never get sick, are not allowed to play music, and who walk by sliding their feet instead of lifting them.


“Don’t you find these people a little…unnerving?” Melodye asks the local doctor (William Shatner). He agrees, but doesn’t believe they pose any danger. 



“The People” was adapted from a series of popular books by Zenna Henderson that explores what it’s like to be different. Maybe that’s why Melodye, something of an outsider herself, doesn’t run away after seeing things that would make other teachers board the nearest bus out of town. Will that prove to be the right decision?

And will Shatner finally return Kim Darby’s affections now that she’s grown up, six years after the Star Trek episode “Miri”? Sorry, no spoilers here.


There has been a trend toward nihilism in modern-day horror – evil wins! No one can help you! Everybody dies! I think that’s why I appreciated how the story in “The People” develops, and how it ends. Hopeful last acts are hard to come by these days.


When Michael Calls (1972)


Helen (Elizabeth Ashley) starts receiving phone calls from her nephew Michael, pleading for her to come get him. But Michael died 15 years ago. 


So who is making the calls? It is her estranged husband (Ben Gazzara), one of the patients at a nearby home for disturbed children where her brother Craig (Michael Douglas) works? Or could it really be Michael, who survived after running away and getting lost in a blizzard? After all, he uses a nickname for Helen that only a family member would know.

This is the scariest of the three films reviewed here, especially after Michael warns about people close to Helen dying. Not everyone in the cast survives to the end credits, and one of the murders at a Halloween festival is particularly shocking.


“When Michael Calls" predates both When a Stranger Calls and Scream, so it might be the first movie to make viewers jump every time a phone rings. Elizabeth Ashley is best remembered for more flamboyant performances but she’s surprisingly (and refreshingly) low-key here, and Michael Douglas is excellent in a movie that debuted  the same year he began his run on The Streets of San Francisco.  



As with most TV movies, these three all get their stories told in less than 90 minutes, so they won’t waste your time. And there are plenty more on YouTube where these came from.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Comfort TV Court – Three Memorable Cases


Any successful situation comedy will likely feature at least one episode set in a courtroom. The reasons are obvious:


1. It’s a familiar setting even for the non-felons in the viewing audience.


2. Conflict between characters drives narrative and intensifies audience interest – the courtroom provides a fitting backdrop for such conflicts.


3. Courtrooms are serious places, and thus ideal to have their solemn procedures upended with comic situations.

I thought about doing a top ten list of courtroom shows, but there are so many examples of this trope that an occasional series of pieces seemed like a better option. So let’s begin with three cases on our docket today. All rise!

Case #1: Duggan vs. Brady

The Brady Bunch


“The Fender Benders” opens after a vehicle accident in a supermarket parking lot. Viewers don’t get to see the crash – the episode opens with Carol and passengers Marcia, Bobby and Cindy returned home in their station wagon, which now sports a dented fender.


What should have been settled amicably escalates into a small-claims court case when Mr. Duggan (Jackie Coogan) gives Mr. Brady an exorbitant bill for $295.11 to cover the cost of car repairs.


Complicating matters is the fact that Bobby and Cindy suspect the accident was their mom’s fault – though Cindy is a known tattletale and Bobby once idolized outlaw Jesse James, so neither make particularly reliable witnesses.


Highlights: Mike reenacts the accident in the Brady driveway to determine who was at fault; Duggan’s courtroom entrance in a neck brace; the verdict triggered by a clever ploy by Mike that delivers one of the more surprising and satisfying climaxes to a Brady episode. 



Who’s that Judge?

Robert Emhardt, who also played judges on several other TV series from this era, including Medical Center and Police Story



Case #2: Petrie vs. Wiley

The Dick Van Dyke Show


In “The Case of the Pillows,” the Petries sue door-to-door salesman Wiley for $80, the price they paid for four pillows that were supposedly made from eiderdown, but were actually filled with, in Rob’s words, “cheap, chopped chicken feathers.”  


Highlights: The judge’s growing exasperation at Rob’s bumbling attempt to play Perry Mason (“Would the introduction of an indication of a misrepresentation be a substantiation?”; Alvy Moore as Wiley – he’s best known as Mr. Kimball on Green Acres, but here gets to channel his inner Mr. Haney. 



At one point, the judge refers to Mr. Petrie as “Mr. Preston,” a  joke I didn’t get until years later, when I realized it was a reference to Lawrence Preston on The Defenders.


Who’s that Judge?

It’s veteran character actor Ed Begley, who won an Academy Award in Sweet Bird of Youth, and was brilliant as a legal professor in an episode of The Fugitive entitled “Man in a Chariot.”



Case #3: The People vs. Addams

The Addams Family


Grandmama is arrested for illegal fortune telling, and is defended by Gomez.



Highlights: just about everything once court is in session. “The Addams Family in Court” is a great showcase for John Astin, and the courtroom provides a perfect backdrop for his wild-eyed, grandiose flights of rhetorical non-sequiturs.


Introduced by Morticia as “The bar’s brightest light, Gomez “Loophole” Addams,” he proceeds to baffle and frustrate the judge with inspired nonsense worthy of the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges. This is definitely the funniest of the three cases on today’s docket. 



Who’s that Judge?

Hal Smith, aka Otis on The Andy Griffith Show and the Santa Claus that Cindy Brady asked to cure her mother’s laryngitis. He’s the perfect flustered straight man for Gomez, though it’s Morticia who finishes him off:


Judge: “In all my 30 years on the bench, I have never seen a more preposterous, idiotic, reprehensible display of court conduct.”


Morticia: “Well it did start that way, but you redeemed yourself.”


Until next time, court is adjourned.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Are Classic TV Fans Introverts?


On an average evening, MeTV attracts about 700,000 viewers. Add in a few hundred thousand more for each of the other nostalgia networks, plus viewers watching classic TV shows through streaming services and on DVD, and I think it’s fair to estimate that every night at least 3-5 million Americans are enjoying TV shows from the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s.


Can we find common denominators within a group that size?


In my book When Television Brought Us Together I surmised that there are classic TV fans from both sides of the political spectrum, but you’d find more on one side of the aisle than the other. Same with the divide between spiritual and secular, where the multitude in one camp may be even greater.


But I think it’s also likely that, if we separated viewership into introverts and extroverts, there would be many more fans in the former group. 



I have no data to back this up, but I believe it’s a reasonable deduction. Start with the obvious fact that watching television is something that can be done at home alone. Everyone has done this from time to time, but introverts are the only people that may prefer spending an evening that way to going out to a party or to a club or restaurant with a large group.


Of course, preferring to stay in or limit one’s social life doesn’t automatically make one a TV fan – those hours could be spent reading or honing one’s baking or gardening skills, among other options. But certainly the potential is much greater for homebodies to develop more of a passing interest in what is on television, and (if they have any taste) what shows are worth watching.


When you’re not around a lot of people all the time, it not only gives you more time to devote to an activity you enjoy, but also a chance to think about why it makes you happy. With the great old shows that means more reflection on why some shows were not just successful in their original runs but have stood the test of time. It means discovering favorite series and favorite episodes, and looking forward to certain guest stars or to seeing certain writers’ names in the credits.


While others may find television convenient only when there’s nothing else to do, those who take that extra time to delve into what Nick at Nite dubbed our classic television heritage will often find it becomes preferable to other options. Anyone is capable of reaching that status, but I’m convinced it would come more quickly and naturally to introverts – like me. 



Is any of this important? I don’t know. But perhaps it should be contemplated at a time when our culture is likely to start creating more introverts than it ever has before, especially after the pandemic. Thousands more people are working from home now. Schools are still closed, cutting off kids from their peers. Social media offers a means to stay in touch with friends and relatives without ever having to go outside. The more we find ourselves in isolated circumstances, the more some people will find they like it that way – or that social situations they used to endure now no longer seem worth the effort.


In my case, I didn’t need a virus or the invention of the internet to realize I favored more solitary surroundings. And once I did the classics became a subject of great interest and appreciation. However, I also enjoy watching them with some long-time friends who are also introverts. And I can bake a really good cheesecake too. 



Friday, September 10, 2021

Ten Forgotten Shows I’d Like to Watch: 1970s Edition


This will be my third deep dive into the strange, enchanted realms of short-lived and nearly forgotten series from the Comfort TV era. You can read the first two here and here.


I was inspired to return to this topic after discovering a YouTube channel that collects opening credits sequences from obscure shows. I watched a couple of videos about shows from the 1970s, and realized again that this is the only decade where I find the flops as interesting as the hits. So this time around, here are ten groovy and far out '70s shows that disappeared faster than earth shoes and “Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific” shampoo.


Loves Me, Loves Me Not (1977)

Two words: Susan Dey. After she gave up the keyboards and left the Partridge family band, Dey was top-billed in this situation comedy as a teacher dating a reporter (Kip Gilman). 


I’d like to see how she handled her first adult role, but I acknowledge that naming the characters Dick and Jane was not an encouraging sign of what the writers considered clever.



Curiosity Shop (1971)

I have vague memories of watching this Saturday morning series first-run when I was five or six years old. All I remember now is that it had songs and educational content, that Pamelyn Ferdin was in it, and that it was the first time I ever heard the word “onomatopoeia.” 


The Mac Davis Show (1974)

I moved to Las Vegas at the tail end of the Rat Pack era and over the next 20 years saw hundreds of showroom performers. One of the biggest surprises during that time was how much I enjoyed Mac Davis at the MGM Grand. Such a wonderfully talented singer and musician, with great comic timing – just the sort of person they gave variety shows to in the 1970s. 



I’m sure the comedy sketches in his series were substandard, as they were on all every show not featuring Carol Burnett and Tim Conway. But the lineup of musical guests could not be topped:  Aretha Franklin, Anne Murray, Loretta Lynn, John Sebastian, Dolly Parton, Dean Martin, Olivia Newton-John and many more. Find me another series that would book Roy Rogers and Dale Evans one week, and Ike and Tina Turner the next.


Gibbsville (1976)

In a small town in Pennsylvania in the 1940s, young Jim Malloy is hired by the local newspaper as a cub reporter. He is mentored by Ray Whitehead, in what had to be an art-imitating-life performance by Gig Young as a newspaperman whose drinking cost him a more successful career. I’ll always check out any show about a newspaper, especially from the days when reporters used typewriters instead of computer terminals. 



Here We Go Again (1973)

Between I Dream of Jeannie and Dallas, Larry Hagman starred in this situation comedy alongside the ever charming Diane Baker as a just-married couple trying to begin their new lives together, despite constant interference from their respective ex-partners (Dick Gautier and Nita Talbot). With that set-up the material could have been played broadly to the point of farce, with a lot of yelling and conflict and over-the-top mugging. But the pilot is on YouTube and it was refreshing to discover how they opted instead for a more laid-back, sophisticated vibe that should have been easier to sustain. 



Miss Winslow and Son (1979)

This was Darleen Carr’s third attempt at a 1970s series that would stick around for a while. She began the decade on The Smith Family with Henry Fonda and Ron Howard, and then headed west with Rod Taylor on The Oregon Trail, a pretty good western that happily is also available on DVD. Miss Winslow and Son was an adaptation of a British series called Miss Jones and Son; the company behind the show hoped for another hit like they had three years earlier, when they turned Man About the House into Three’s Company. But apparently viewers had fewer issues with a guy living with two girls than with an unwed mother. Or maybe the show just wasn’t that good, as it lasted just six episodes. 


Out of the Blue (1979)

Also known as “the Happy Days spinoff that no one remembers.” The episode “Chachi Sells His Soul” featured James Brogan as an angel named Random. In “Out of the Blue,” Random comes to the aid of a family of kids whose parents are killed in a plane crash. Could it be worse than Joanie Loves Chachi


The Interns (1970)

In CBS promos for this medical drama, the network proudly proclaimed: “It’s about…what it’s all about.” Yeah, not encouraging. But the couple of episodes that have turned up online certainly held my interest.  Broderick Crawford plays the gruff but lovable veteran doctor who oversees the ongoing educations of five interns. From that cast only Mike Farrell went on to bigger and better things, but it’s a talented ensemble. I also enjoyed seeing Elaine Giftos, another charismatic ‘70s star who deserved better roles, as Farrell’s wife.




Kingston: Confidential (1976)

Raymond Burr managed to follow up nine years as Perry Mason with eight years as a wheelchair-bound detective on Ironside. But that golden touch did not carry over to this series, in which Burr played a top executive in one of the nation’s top media conglomerates, who habitually left his cushy desk job to track down an important story. One of his assistants is played by Pamela Hensley, who would trade in her business suits for a sci-fi showgirl ensemble on Buck Rogers In the 25th Century. As I previously stated with Gibbsville, I’m always interested in any show about journalism the way it used to be. 


Co-ed Fever (1979)

I have no doubt this show was awful. But sometimes a series looks so dreadful from its opening credits that I can’t resist a perverse curiosity to discover the precise level of terrible it achieves. As with Delta House on ABC, this was CBS’s attempt to adapt National Lampoon’s Animal House into a sitcom, without all the R-rated moments that made the film a hit. Delta House failed despite featuring several actors from the film plus Michelle Pfeiffer. Coed Fever countered with Heather Thomas and David Keith. According to IMDB eight episodes were made, but CBS pulled the plug after just one. If the set looks familiar, it’s because it was recycled with few alterations for the first season of The Facts of Life



Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Top TV Moments: Will Geer


Zebulon Walton was one of the last roles played by Will Geer in a career that spanned nearly 50 years, and its the reason he is mostly remembered by classic TV fans as a old country gentleman with a noble heart and a mischievous twinkle in his eye. 



What’s interesting is how, before that, many of his most memorable roles were characters that projected a kind, gentle image, while concealing a heart of cruelty and deceit. Those contrasts are always interesting to play in a well-written story, and Geer’s best guest spots came in some of TV’s best-written shows.


Even more interesting is the life Will Geer led before, in and around his acting career, some of the details of which are remarkable, admirable, and scandalizing even in our current jaded era. You can dig those up on your own if you’re interested. For now let’s stick to TV.


The Chevrolet Tele-Theatre (1948)

Will Geer’s first television appearance came in an episode of this anthology series titled “Mirage in Manhattan.” According to IMDB it’s about an Oklahoma couple that strike it rich and move to New York, but quickly tire of the phony jet set. You could still tell that same story 70 years later.


East Side/West Side (1964)

This is one of those series I’ve always thought of as being more impressive than good. Meaning, you can admire its ambition and appreciate its craftsmanship, particularly in the compelling performances of George C. Scott and Cicely Tyson. But most episodes were so relentlessly depressing that it’s not surprising it didn’t last. “Here Today,” the final episode of its first and only season, features Will Geer as the maverick publisher of a small independent paper trying to fend off being purchased by a chain. Worth seeing for its depiction of the days when newspapers were locked in cutthroat competition, while also striving for a standard of accuracy and responsibility now long forgotten.


Mission: Impossible (1968)

“The Town” was an intriguing departure episode for a series that usually stuck to one blueprint – IMF team gets mission from Secretary, carries it out flawlessly. But here, team leader Jim Phelps is on vacation when he stops in a small rural town to get gas, and uncovers a plot by foreign agents to assassinate a Soviet defector. Before he can intervene, the town doctor (played by Geer) injects him with curare, leaving him paralyzed. 


Rollin tracks Jim back to the town but Jim has no way to tell him what’s going on – or does he? It’s always fun to watch the team improvise and still come out on top. This is one of the first and best of Geer’s kind on the outside but rotten to the core characters.


The Bold Ones: The Lawyers (1969)

Geer made three standout guest appearances in this superb series, and it’s a toss-up as to which is best.  The one I’ve watched most often is “The Letter Of the Law.” Like “The Town” it’s an outlier for its series, as the story never sees the inside of a courtroom.


Instead, attorneys Walter Nichols (Burl Ives) and Brian Darrell (Joseph Campanella) attend a dinner party at the Haunted Mansion-like estate of a respected colleague, Elliot Leveridge (Geer), who announces that he is dying of a terminal illness, and plans to right a past wrong before he dies. The other guests are all former clients that Leveridge cleared of murder charges, only to later discover that one was actually guilty. What follows is a macabre cat-and-mouse game in which everyone waits to see if the killer will identify him (or her-) self.


The Bold Ones: The Senator (1970)

In  “The Day the Lion Died,” Hal Holbrook’s earnest junior senator Hayes Stowe raises objections to the conduct of ranking member Homer Wydell (Will Geer), a dangerous thing to do to a prominent legislator that can make or break his future. But as Rydell’s mood swings and absent-mindedness worsen, it becomes clear the man is no longer competent. “You even hint at this, do you know what the consequences would be for you?” says Stowe’s advisor. Hayes responds, “And the consequences if I’m right?”


While Geer dives into his character’s flights of fancy with brio, one cannot ignore the acting clinic by Holbrook when Rydell’s condition is exposed during a Senate hearing. He sits observing in silence, knowing he was responsible for triggering the outburst, knowing it was the right thing to do, and yet feeling the burden of responsibility for a great man’s downfall.  How he conveys all of that without saying a word – amazing.


And at least we can thank heaven that the possibility of someone with limited cognitive function somehow maintaining high office in our government could never really happen.


The Jimmy Stewart Show (1971)
While Jimmy Stewart plays college professor James K. Howard in this short-lived sitcom, he also appears as himself to introduce each episode. “A Bunk for Unc” opens with Stewart saying, “I’m pleased to tell you that that fine actor Will Geer joins us this week.” Such a tribute from a man on the Mount Rushmore of great actors is high praise indeed. Geer plays Howard’s Uncle Everett, a seafaring man full of tall tales who drops in for a visit and takes over the household, much to Jim’s dismay. It’s a typical entry in a below-average sitcom, but it’s here because Geer shares scenes with his daughter Ellen, who was a series regular. Maybe these moments were not as memorable as when Danny Thomas appeared on That Girl, but I enjoyed them.


The Waltons (1972)

Name any series about a large family and usually the focus in on stories about the children. While that case can be made for The Waltons as well, I find my memories of the series are most vivid  with the stories featuring parents John and Olivia, and Grandma and Grandpa. They were such a delightfully mismatched pair – stern, Gospel reading Esther (Ellen Corby) and gregarious Zeb, who also loved the Lord but figures he wouldn’t mind the occasional visit to the Baldwin sisters for a sip of their “recipe.” The show was never the same after his passing. 



Night Gallery (1973)

This is a throwaway bit on a hit-and-miss series, but “Die Now, Pay Later” certainly has an interesting backstory. Night Gallery was a one-hour series that was cut into 30-minute episodes for syndication, resulting in about half of its segments being severely edited or padded with stock and cut footage to fill out an episode. As a result this story was one of a handful to never be broadcast in its original running time. It was finally preserved that way when the series was released on DVD. Will Geer plays the owner of a funeral parlor who advertises a huge sale on caskets; Slim Pickens plays the sheriff who wonders if there’s a connection between that sale and a sudden rise in local fatalities. 



Eight is Enough (1977)

At the same time he played Grandpa Walton, Will Geer was busy on another network convincing Nicholas Bradford that he was Santa Claus, before stealing all of the family’s Christmas presents. Sadly, none of the Bradford boys would ever get into Mensa, “Yes, Nicholas, There is a Santa Claus” is a two-parter that conveys all the heartwarming holiday feels we took for granted from our Christmas shows back then. 



The Love Boat (1977)

‘The Old Man and the Runaway” is my favorite Love Boat story. There is nothing original about it: grumpy old man, recently widowed, boards the Pacific Princess for nothing more than “solitude and sea air,” but his plans are upended by a plucky teenage stowaway (Bayn Johnson) hiding out in his cabin. 


That stuff goes back to Shirley Temple – even Mary Pickford. But Geer and Johnson play off each other so well that in less than 20 minutes they tell a fully realized story of two people with nothing in common, who form a bond that will make both of their lives better than they were before.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Some Star Trek Fans are Never Happy


I like to keep the negativity to a minimum here, but the title of this piece seems to me an inescapable conclusion.



It’s not an indictment of all Star Trek fans, of course – only the most vocal. Science fiction always attracts a particularly passionate fanbase, but with that passion often comes demands that no television show could ever satisfy.


These thoughts were reinforced as I’ve been making my way through the original Star Trek series on blu-ray. 


It has become my habit, as it has on all the other Trek shows I’ve watched on disc, to follow each episode viewing with a visit to Jammer’s Reviews, the oldest Star Trek episode review site online (founded in 1995!). Following each review by founder Jamahl Epsicokhan, there is an active comments section where discussions about some episodes have been ongoing for more than ten years.


I haven’t done a count on the thousands of posts there, but in reading most of the threads, some more than once, I’d say the percentage of negative comments outpace the positive ones by at least a 4:1 margin.  


There are a handful of episodes from each Trek series that reverse that trend: “City on the Edge of Forever,” “Measure of a Man,” “The Inner Light,” “In the Pale Moonlight,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” – but even these have their detractors. 



Even more surprising is how often Jamahl himself, aka Jammer, is one of Trek’s harshest critics.  He shares the elitist view of the most annoying ST fans who proclaim that Deep Space Nine can do no wrong, while Voyager and Enterprise could do nothing right. Eventually his visitors called him out on it. His response: “If I didn’t like (Star Trek) why would I spend all this time reviewing it?” That’s a good question, actually, but he did not provide an answer.


Again, I know this can’t be a representative sample of most Star Trek viewers. At least I certainly hope it’s not. What pleasure could someone get from watching any show the way the Washington Post watched Trump speeches, and then taking it as a personal insult when yet another episode didn’t rise to their lofty expectations?


I’ve only been to one Star Trek convention, and I do not recall ever being surrounded by hundreds of grumblers. There was real joy in the air, a sense of shared celebration that unites those in attendance regardless of their race, gender, etc. For that brief time, you could almost believe the dream of Gene Roddenberry had been realized, and that our future held the promise of better days.



No doubt even these colorfully costumed fans had episodes they liked more than others, but this was superseded by an appreciation for the franchise as a whole, of its philosophy and optimism and continuity, that was enough to sustain interest when a particular episode proves less than compelling.


That’s the way I watch Star Trek. I’m fascinated by so many of the elements that were there from the beginning, and how they have evolved through subsequent incarnations: the excitement of exploration into a limitless universe; the science and technology that enables interstellar travel; how the Prime Directive dictates how and when Starfleet acts on behalf of other species – and how often it is violated; how human beings living centuries ahead of us maintain an affection for what we revere now, whether it’s Picard’s preference for books over electronic readers, or Tom Paris’s fascination with 20th century automobiles.


So when I’m not engaged in the plot, I just look around the frame and find that’s enough to get my money’s worth. I wonder what those red and blue liquids are in the giant beakers in Dr. Crusher’s sickbay, what Romulan ale tastes like, and whether the 3D printers we have now are the first step toward every home having a repliactor. 



Surely, that’s a better use of one’s time with a show one supposedly likes, than always explaining in excruciating detail exactly how many ways a particular episode has failed.


This is not to say anyone shouldn’t express an opinion, even a negative one, about any TV show. I guess the message is, if someone really finds only one out of every four or five episodes of a series worth one’s time, why still be a fan? I have no interest in Discovery or Lower Decks or the J.J. Abrams reboot films, so just not watching them seems like a healthier option than watching and then attacking them online.


Even if the franchise cannot revive itself successfully anymore, Star Trek has already given us more than 600 one-hour episodes of thought-provoking television, and a few pretty good movies as well. Nothing else on television is likely to ever come close to that achievement. And it is one that deserves celebration.