Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Rolling Stone’s Top 100 Sitcoms List – What it Got Right – And Wrong


Rolling Stone magazine recently put out a list of the 100 greatest sitcoms of all time. You can see the results here


My gut reaction as a classic TV fan was to bemoan the selection of so many recent and even current shows, including several that debuted after 2015.  It wouldn’t be fair to dismiss them completely, as I’ve never watched them. That said, when the objective is to select the very best efforts within any artistic endeavor, one of the criteria that should be considered is eminence that lasts beyond a moment in time or even a generation. Will Derry Girls, Bluey, and Party Down (yes, they all made the list) still be celebrated (or even remembered) by millions of fans in 25 years?


On the positive side, the list was not as tainted by recency bias as most “best of” television lists published since the millennium. The inclusion of The Jack Benny Program and The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show indicate that someone at Rolling Stone is over the age of 30, or cognizant that great television didn’t start with The Simpsons



Speaking of which – that’s the show selected at #1. And that is also my first critique. I know several people with excellent taste who think the show is brilliant. It has never been my cup of tea, but that is not the basis of my objection. I simply don’t believe that any animated series, regardless of quality, should finish first in a category dominated by live-action productions.


Last week’s blog mentioned the similarities between The Honeymooners and The Flintstones, but they remain fundamentally different entities. Animation opens up story, setting and character possibilities that a live-action series could not create. With 100 open slots I’m fine with The Simpsons landing on the list somewhere, but not in the top spot.


Cheers ranked #2, which I guess means it is considered the best live-action sitcom ever made. But I’ve never met anyone who thought so. 



I’ve written several top 100 lists on various topics for various publications. My 2004 book, What Were They Thinking? The 100 Dumbest Events in Television History was basically one long list (with hopefully some good insight and humor thrown in about each entry).  I know – it’s hopelessly out of date now. Television has done countless stupid things since, from that short-lived comedy series starring the Geico cavemen to calling Brian Stelter a journalist. 



But I’ll let you in on a secret about these things: there really isn’t a lot of difference between #32 and #46 and #59. What you choose as #1 is important, as are the top five and top ten, and then you want to pick a few choices at the bottom of the list that may be borderline, but will generate angry letters if they’re not included.


That being the case, this is not a terrible list. I Love Lucy, All In the Family, MASH, The Honeymooners and The Mary Tyler Moore Show deservedly ranked in the top ten. The Dick Van Dyke Show should have been there as well but just missed at #11. 



Rather than quibble any further about rankings, let’s look at the more considerable error of omissions. I can make a case for a lot of vintage shows that were left off the list to find space for shows that satisfy the inclusion/diversity directive. But these are the most egregious:


Green Acres

The three rural comedies created by Paul Henning were all omitted from the Rolling Stone list. Much as I like them I’m fine with not including The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction, but not acknowledging the twisted genius (yes, genius!) of Green Acres suggests no one at the magazine is aware of its cracked brilliance. It’s the closest TV has ever come to the kind of surrealism captured by Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland, without the crudeness or cruelty inherent in more recent exercises in absurdism.



The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet

It is television’s longest-running live-action situation comedy, and the only one to star a real family.  It also features dozens of classic music performances from Ricky Nelson, now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. You’d think that would appeal to Rolling Stone. But even without “Travelin’ Man” and “Hello, Mary Lou,” this is a series that finds life-affirming joy in the mundane, and clever humor in everyday tasks.  Nearly 70 years after its debut, it is still as laugh-out-loud funny as I Love Lucy



The Monkees

Speaking of the Rock Hall of Fame, it is widely believed that RS publisher Jann Wenner is the reason why The Monkees have not been inducted, so perhaps it’s not surprising that the magazine he founded didn’t care for the group’s TV show either. But The Monkees won the Emmy for Best Comedy Series in its first year, played a pioneering role in the evolution of the music video, and opened up situation comedy into a freeform exercise that was cutting edge at the time and still seems pretty fresh now. 



The Brady Bunch

A sentimental choice? Fine. But why should that be a deal-breaker? If you set out to create a television show, which would be more difficult, and which would be considered a greater success – to create a series that critics call brilliant but lasts a year or two and is watched by a few thousand, or to create a series that millions love, because it makes them happy in a world where happiness is too often in short supply? A show where fans can identify the episode within the first ten seconds, and still look forward to watching that same story unfold again? The Brady Bunch is not a “great” show by any standard yardstick of how television achievement is measured; but it mattered to people. I believe that should count for something. 



Monday, May 3, 2021

The Classic TV Club Scene


One element of classic TV I find especially appealing is how it depicts aspects of everyday life in America that were familiar to viewers when the shows first aired, but no longer reflect how we live.


Whether it’s hanging out after school at the malt shop or going on a scavenger hunt, how we spend our free time today seems far removed from what our parents and grandparents were doing.


For instance – back then, a lot more people belonged to clubs. 



On The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, Ozzie was in a Men’s Club, Harriet in a Women’s Club, and both figured prominently in dozens of episodes over the show’s 14-year run. In doing so, the series gave us more insight into what these associations were like than any other vintage show.


The Men’s Club organized fishing trips and golf outings, and the Women’s Club held dances and fashion shows. But they also participated in civic improvement causes and charitable campaigns, and hosted guest speakers who gave educational presentations about a wide range of subjects, or just shared slides from their trips to exotic places.


Each member paid dues to finance club activities, and there was some prestige attached to those who were elected to high office. Ozzie frequently served as treasurer, though no one looked forward to his annual reading of the financial report.


On I Love Lucy, Lucy and Ethel were both members of the Wednesday Afternoon Fine Arts League.


Ethel: I came up to tell Lucy that the Wednesday Afternoon Fine Arts League is meeting on Friday this week.

Ricky: The Wednesday Afternoon Fine Art Leagues is meeting on Friday.

Ethel: Yeah.

Ricky: I thought you always met on Thursday.

Ethel: Oh, no. We never met on Thursday. We usually meet on Tuesday.

Ricky: Well, look, this is probably a very stupid question, but, eh, why couldn't the Wednesday Afternoon Fine Arts League meet on Wednesday?

Ethel: We tried it, but nobody could make it. Wednesday afternoon isn't a good day for club meetings.


This was a club focused more on staging shows, which gave the series’ writers an easy excuse to add comedy and musical numbers to episodes like “The Operetta.” 



Wednesday was a popular day for clubs in Hooterville as well; Green Acres and Petticoat Junction featured meetings of the Every Other Wednesday Afternoon Discussion Club. Sadly, Lisa Douglas’s quest to launch a symphony orchestra never came to pass.


A lodge was basically a club that required members to wear funny hats. On Newhart, Dick Loudon was a (reluctant) member of the Beavers – not to be confused with the Secret Order of the Beavers,  where Schneider served on the Entertainment Committee on One Day At a Time.


On The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Herbert served the Benevolent Order of the Bison Lodge. Happy Days’ Howard Cunningham was the Grand Poobah of the Leopard Lodge.


Perhaps these institutions were most famously represented in TV Land on The Honeymooners and its unofficial animated counterpart, The Flintstones



Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton were members of the Raccoon Lodge; in Bedrock, Fred and Barney served in the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes. 



The objective seemed to be having a place where men could get away from their wives for a while, which was certainly not the case on Ozzie & Harriet. It is suggested that the annual Raccoon convention can get pretty rowdy, though that just meant throwing water balloons out the hotel window.


Not surprisingly, the kids on many classic TV sitcoms started organizations of their own. With girls, what we usually see is an attempt to emulate the clubs their mothers joined – that means proper dresses, tea and finger sandwiches, and refined conversation. On The Donna Reed Show, Mary’s induction even required formally introducing her mother to the group (“Three Part Mother”).  It’s very prim and proper and 1950s, but 20 years later on The Brady Bunch Marcia sought entry into a similarly snooty club called The Boosters (“Today I Am a Freshman”). 



On Family Affair, in an episode called “The Joiners,” Buffy desperately wants to be a member of the Mod Maidens. Uncle Bill tries to pull some strings to get her in, but quickly realizes these situations are best left to the kids to resolve on their own. 



Interesting trivia note on this episode – one of the Mod Maidens (the blonde girl in the yellow dress ) is played by Kathleen Richards, who would grow up to become Paris Hilton’s mother. 



With boys, club initiation usually involved taking on some sort of challenge or dare, to separate the worthy from the unworthy. Examples abound. It was a little easier on Leave It to Beaver – all Beaver had to do to join Wally’s club was scrape up $3 (though that adds up to more than 28 bucks in 2021 capital).


The kids’ clubhouses in these shows were interesting as well – the boys just seemed to hammer together whatever lumber they could find into a structure that appeared ready to collapse any moment. The girls preferred life-sized versions of their dollhouses – pink paint, curtains, flowers and proper furniture. 



I really have no clue as to whether any of these things are still prevalent, though I’d be surprised to find they were. Certainly the very idea of gender-specific organizations would trigger lawsuits now.


There are country clubs, but they belong to different social strata. Book clubs are around but are usually more intimate gatherings – 4-6 people at most – not the same as the clubs that counted their memberships in the dozens or hundreds. Some of the lodges that date back to the previous two centuries, like the Elks and the Kiwanis, are still in business, but we don’t hear about them very often.


We seem less communal now, less open to socializing and meeting new people, and that was the case even before COVID forced us to stay away from each other. Technology enables face-to-face communication without gathering in person, but that’s not the same.


What these “club” shows impart is a sense of community that likely carried over into other aspects of life. If you were sick at home, dub members would stop by to brighten your mood. If playground equipment needed painting and the school didn’t have the funds in the budget, a weekend project could be organized to donate the time, materials and labor to get the job done.


Like so many other things, it seemed a whole lot nicer than what we’ve got now. 



Friday, April 23, 2021

Terrible Shows I Like: Eisenhower and Lutz


Allan Burns died back in January of this year, something that should have been acknowledged in this blog.


Burns was the co-creator of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and the writer of some of its most memorable episodes, including the Christmas show and the episode that introduced Nancy Walker as Rhoda’s mother. He also co-created Lou Grant, a series that ranks in the top three of my personal favorites.


That alone would be an impressive legacy; but Burns was also among the genius stable of writers for The Bullwinkle Show, and contributed standout scripts for Get Smart and Room 222.


Given his track record, one would be tempted to blame someone or something else when a series he creates doesn’t work – perhaps a mistake in casting, or too much interference from clueless network executives. However, Burns surprisingly also created a lot of shows that didn’t last very long, starting with the infamous My Mother The Car, followed by Paul Sand in Friends and Lovers, The Duck Factory, FM, Cutters, and our topic for today, Eisenhower and Lutz



 That series debuted in the spring of 1988 and was canceled after 13 episodes. I missed it then but watched it for the first time a few years ago, and have recently gotten reacquainted with it courtesy of YouTube. If it’s rarely great and sometimes barely good, I still always find it interesting, as the cast is comprised of actors who all went on to greater TV success.


Scott Bakula starred as Bud Lutz, Jr. a slick case of arrested development who coasted through school on his looks, and somehow managed to secure a law degree from a low-rent college. He’s “short on smarts, long on cute,” according to the show’s theme song.


After trying to hang out a shingle in Las Vegas, he moves into a seedy storefront office in Palm Springs, where he scams personal injury settlements and offers discount specials on immigration cases (“If you get deported, there’s no charge”). The firm’s name is Eisenhower & Lutz, even though there’s no Eisenhower, because Bud’s dad thought it sounded classier. Callers asking to speak with Mr. Eisenhower always wind up with Mr. Lutz.


In the two-part opener “The Whiplash Kid Returns,” written by Allan Burns, Bud gets an unexpected referral from Kay Dunne (Patricia Richardson), one of his high school conquests, now a successful attorney at a prestigious firm. The attraction is rekindled, and complicated by Bud being in a relationship with tiki bar waitress Megan O’Malley (DeLane Matthews).


The “which one will he choose” question hangs over every episode, alongside the more obvious question of why either of these perfectly nice and attractive ladies would want him in the first place. 



A lesser show would have played up the battle between Megan, the slightly ditzy blonde who wears a sarong to work, and Kay in her ‘80s power suits and shoulder pads. But this series was smart enough to back burner any direct conflict. In “The Hernia Chronicles” they even get drunk together in Kay’s office and compare notes about Bud’s foibles and fear of commitment.


It has its moments. “Play It Again, Bud” features a Three’s Company worthy misunderstanding when Bud moonlights as a piano bar singer, and Megan thinks he’s working as a gigolo. And Elizabeth Ashley adds a spark to “Pride and Prejudice” as Kay’s mother, who also makes a play for Bud.


It didn’t work for the reasons most shows don’t work. But I enjoy seeing so many likable actors doing their best with marginal material, knowing they all had success in their future: Scott Bakula in Quantum Leap and Enterprise and NCIS: Tacoma or CSI: Wichita or whatever he’s in now; Patricia Richardson in Home Improvement, and DeLane Matthews in Dave’s World.


Here’s my theory on why it failed: Bakula cannot help but project innate decency, so he’s not convincing as an amoral character. Bud should have been played by someone who could be charming but still believable as a rat – Jay Thomas perhaps, or Steven Weber. He’s good here, but he’s just not right. 



The series never tips its hand on which lady he should stand by, but Megan always seems like the more natural choice. Or maybe I’m just partial to DeLane Matthews’ lilting, melodic voice and killer legs. It’s obvious the show wanted their own version of Sam and Diane from Cheers with Bud and Kay but the chemistry isn’t there, though I liked Richardson’s dry delivery of the occasional joke that lands.


The supporting cast is pretty good, too: Rose Portillo as Bud’s sassy secretary, Leo Geter as the unpaid intern who winds up doing most of Bud’s work, and Henderson Forsythe, who appeared on and off on As the World Turns for decades, as Bud’s lecherous father.


One interesting postscript: Allan Burns must not have thought the cast was at fault, as he reunited Richardson, Matthews and Geter for his next short-lived sitcom, FM, which starred Robert Hays as the program director of a public radio station. 


If you missed Eisenhower and Lutz like nearly everyone else did in 1988, check it out on YouTube. Maybe it will be a terrible show you’ll enjoy as well. 



Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Banacek – And the Art of the Locked-Room Mystery


An armored car carrying gold bullion vanishes in the middle of a deserted Texas highway.


One million dollars in cash disappears from inside a sealed case on display in the middle of a busy Las Vegas casino.


A DC-8 airplane makes an emergency nighttime landing at a desert airfield. When the crew returns the next morning to assess the damage, the plane is gone.


These spectacular crimes all occur in the opening moments of episodes of Banacek, the only series to focus almost exclusively on locked-room mysteries. 


Wikipedia defines the locked-room mystery as “a subgenre of detective fiction in which a crime is committed in circumstances under which it was seemingly impossible for the perpetrator to commit the crime or evade detection in the course of getting in and out of the crime scene.” Examples abound in literature dating back to the 1800s, among the most famous being “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” by Edgar Allan Poe.


On television you’ve seen them in episodes of Ellery Queen (“The Adventure of the Disappearing Dagger”) and The Magician (“The Illusion of the Cat’s Eye”). On Mission: Impossible, the IM Force often devises locked-room mysteries to accomplish their missions (see “The Glass Cage,” “Chico” and many others). If you grew up with Saturday morning cartoons you may remember them from The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan (“The Crown Jewel Caper”) and Clue Club (“The Dissolving Statue Caper”).


But Banacek, which debuted in 1972 as one of the rotating programs on the NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie series, made these stories their raison d'ĂȘtre. And what a brilliant ploy – if you tuned in to watch what seems like an impossible theft, there was no way you were going to change the channel until you find out how it was done. 



George Peppard starred as Thomas Banacek, a freelance insurance investigator. That job title doesn’t have the cache of private investigator or consulting detective, but the same skill set is required. One difference – Banacek’s motivation was not justice, but money. If he solves the case, he gets 10% of the value of the insured property, and that’s how he can afford to live in such refined style at Boston’s fashionable Beacon Hill.


It’s also why no one is happy to see him when he shows up at the crime scene.

Not the police, who don’t like being outsmarted, and not the company’s full-time insurance investigators that don’t get the same generous commission on any recovered valuables.


Banacek doesn’t mind – he’s only there to collect a paycheck, and to bed any beautiful woman in the vicinity, even if she’s the guilty party. Having a hero that’s sometimes less than likable may be why the series was more popular with critics than viewers. Peppard was convincing as its smug, sexist hero, but he didn’t always project enough charisma to offset those negative qualities. 



If only Cary Grant had been available – he could have effortlessly played the suave and sophisticated traits of the character, while softening his arrogant edges. Grant had already retired from acting, but even at age 68 he could have pulled it off. 


Of course, wishing any actor was more like Cary Grant is like wishing any weekend golfer could hit a 2-iron like Tiger Woods. For the most part Peppard is more than adequate, and really this is a series that is more about how something was done than about who figures it out.


When a locked-room mystery is done well – as these are – the viewer sees everything the investigator does, so they should have enough information to put the puzzle together. When Banacek delivers the explanation, usually in classic detective fiction style to a gathering of suspects, the moment shouldn’t play like a magic trick that loses its fascination when you learn how it’s done. Most of the time that doesn’t happen here: the series’ writers devised some very clever schemes that become more impressive when revealed. 


The best of the lot could be “The Greatest Collection of Them All,” in which a priceless collection of French impressionist masterpieces is transported by truck from Boston to New York. Security vehicles escort the shipment in front and behind, so the truck is never out of sight. But when it arrives at its destination, the paintings have vanished.


 “Project Phoenix” features two of my favorite guest stars in Joanna Pettet and William Windom, and has Banacek trying to figure out how an expensive experimental car disappeared from a moving train. 


In “Ten Thousand Dollars a Page” he deduces how someone managed to steal a priceless book encased amidst high-tech alarms. David Wayne delivers an Emmy-worthy guest performance as the book’s irascible owner. I also really liked “To Steal a King,” in which a valuable coin collection is taken from an impossible-to-open vault in a hotel room that is never left unoccupied by its guests.


I confess I’m never very good at guessing the right answers to mysteries, but I did figure one of them out, though it took me to the very last episode to do so – in “Now You See Me, Now You Don’t,” a banker disappears while performing a magic act at a charity performance, after stealing millions in securities. If you’re a Dr. Shrinker fan as I am, you may figure it out as well.


Banacek was picked up for a third season, but George Peppard was in the midst of a bitter divorce from Elizabeth Ashley, so he took his white turtlenecks and old Polish proverbs and walked away instead of giving her half his salary. 


As a result there are only 16 episodes, making the series perfect for binging if you’re into that sort of thing. Banacek is available on DVD, or is streaming for free on IMDB TV. 



Monday, April 5, 2021

Do You Agree With IMDB’s Top Rated Classic TV Episodes?


As often as I’ve visited the Internet Movie Database, I never cared about its selections of “Top Rated Episodes” for TV shows. But when I was there last week to look up an episode of Soap, I noticed the list was not in its customary place at the upper right of the page. Ironic – the one time I pay attention to it is when it’s not there. But that was enough to finally pique my curiosity.


I started looking up shows from the Comfort TV era to find out which episodes were rated highest by those who took the time to grade them on IMDB’s 1-10 scale. They got a few obvious calls right: “Lucy Does a TV Commercial” for I Love Lucy, “Turkeys Away” for WKRP in Cincinnati. Others? Well, that’s what we’ll take a closer look at now.


The Dick Van Dyke Show

“That’s My Boy?”

Those who know the series will recognize the title – it’s the episode in which Rob becomes convinced that after Richie was born, they brought the wrong baby home from the hospital. The scene when Rob discovers the truth produced the longest audience laugh in the show’s history so that lends some credence to the selection- but not enough. Another flashback episode about Richie’s birth, “Where Did I Come From?” was even funnier, as was “The Curious Thing About Women,” which for me was the best show in one of television’s all-time classics. 



The Fugitive

“The Judgment: Part II”

This was the final show of the series, and it thankfully delivered closure for fans that had watched Dr. Richard Kimble’s adventures on the run for four years. 



But that alone does not make it the show’s best episode. Among those I’d rank ahead of it: “Nightmare at Northoak” – the first time Lt. Gerard caught up with his fugitive prey, and “The Girl From Little Egypt,” which filled in some important missing information about the night Helen Kimble was killed.


The Brady Bunch

“The Subject Was Noses”

My personal favorite will always be “Amateur Nite” featuring the Silver Platters’ performance of “It’s a Sunshine Day,” but I’m good with this pick as well. There are important life lessons that can be learned from wholesome family sitcoms, and here Marcia was reminded of honesty being the best policy, and that it’s not looks but what is inside a person that really counts. 



Charlie’s Angels

“Angels in Chains”

Another obvious selection – I’d have been shocked if something else took the top spot. 



But it’s interesting that “Caged Angel,” fthe only other episode largely set inside a prison, ranked third on IMDB’s list, behind “Three For the Money,” another episodes from the show's fourth season that introduced Shelley Hack. Apparently for these Angels fans there was life after Kate Jackson.



“If They Never Met”

This was a surprisingly astute choice, when there were more obvious candidates such as the pilot episode or the birth of Tabitha. Remember the story? Endora shows Samantha what would have happened to Darrin had she never met him. Sam and Darren’s argument in the opening scenes seems more serious than their other occasional spats over Endora’s nasty spells, which adds gravitas to what happens next. Plus, it’s great to see Nancy Kovack back as Darren’s former fiancĂ©, and the “love conquers all” climax is well-earned. Nicely done, IMDB people. But I still would have opted for “A is for Aardvark.” 



The Wild Wild West

“The Night of the Burning Diamond”

I didn’t even remember this episode from reading the title. I watched it again and enjoyed it, but top-rated? Off the top of my head I’d opt instead for “The  Night of the Grand Emir,” featuring Yvonne Craig as an assassin named Ecstasy (and she was), or “The Night of the Vicious Valentine,” which brought Agnes Moorehead an Emmy, or just about any of the shows featuring Dr. Loveless.


That Girl

“Counter Proposal”

This was the first episode in the show’s fifth and final season, in which Don proposes to Ann and she says yes. But since they never actually get married, who cares? There were at least 20 better shows than this one, including “Pass the Potatoes, Ethel Merman,” “My Sister’s Keeper’ (featuring Marlo Thomas’s real-life brother, sister and father) and “Dark On Top of Everything Else.” 



Happy Days

“Guess Who’s Coming to Christmas”

As with another long-running sitcom, The Facts of Life, IMDB readers chose a holiday episode here as their favorite. I haven’t watched this one in at least 15 years, yet I can still clearly picture that shot of Fonzie, alone in his garage, opening a can of beans over a hotplate for his Christmas dinner.


The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

“The Mad, Mad Tea Party Affair”

Before looking I assumed a first-season episode would take the top spot, and that turned out to be the case. This was essentially a “bottle” show, meaning it was set almost entirely in one place – U.N.C.L.E. headquarters. But this twisting tale of saboteurs on the loose features action, style and clever quips in just the right mix, something that happened less frequently as the show got sillier in later years.


The Andy Griffith Show

“Convicts at Large”

No, no, no. Any choice other than “Opie the Birdman” is wrong. But not only did that amazingly written and unforgettable episode not rank #1, it’s not even among the top five selections.


The Mary Tyler Moore Show

“The Last Show”

Over “Chuckles Bites the Dust”? Seriously? 



By the way, my book When Television Brought Us Together contains my picks for the five best episodes of 50 classic series, as well as chapters that talk about why so many of us still prefer the classics to what’s slithering out of the industry these days. I hope you’ll check it out – and let me know what you think.

Friday, March 26, 2021

The Twelve Most Memorable Commercials Featuring Classic TV Stars


I love old TV commercials, for reasons that would take too long to explain here. The short answer is they were generally quieter, more sincere, and a lot less annoying than the commercials we get now – and that includes the ones featuring celebrities.


Since the earliest days of the medium, television stars leveraged their audience appeal to sell anything and everything. 



It still happens but when I see some of these spots today they don’t resonate the same way. When Jennifer Lopez says “I look for the Well Health Safety Seal at my favorite places,” I’m fairly convinced she’s never looked for it once in her life. Robert De Niro appears in that same ad, and I wouldn’t believe him if he told me my house was on fire.


But when Robert Young promised that Sanka tastes just as good as regular coffee, I was sure he was telling the truth – even when I was too young to know what coffee tasted like.


Here are 12 celebrity endorsement ads from decades past that I still remember well. I bet most of you remember them too.


Robert Young

The warm, kindly present of Robert Young, cultivated over more than a decade of classic television on Father Knows Best and Marcus Welby, M.D., made him an ideal spokesperson for Sanka, the caffeine-free coffee that wouldn’t make you jittery. 



Florence Henderson

Audiences associated Florence Henderson with a home and hearth ideal conveyed by The Brady Bunch, even though Alice did the cooking for that family. In a decades-long series of spots for Wesson Oil, Henderson spent more time in the kitchen than she ever did as Carol Brady. But no one had more Wessonality. 



Robert Conrad

TV’s top tough guy was always itching for a fight, whether he was beating up a half-dozen goons on The Wild, Wild West, getting in Gabe Kaplan’s face on Battle of the Network Stars, or selling Everady batteries. 



Staring down viewers and daring them to buy a competitor’s product was a unique approach – but it worked. 



William Shatner

If any celebrity deserves a commercial pitchman lifetime achievement award it is William Shatner. For more than 50 years he’s been a near constant presence in TV ads, both when his career was thriving and when it hit the skids. He has apparently never met a product he didn’t want to sell. At age 90 he’s still going strong, extolling the benefits of sleep apnea equipment.


My favorite Shatner commercials are the ones he did between the cancellation of Star Trek in 1969, and the career revival that accompanied the 1979 release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In these spots he doesn’t say “Hi, I’m William Shatner for (insert product name here)” – because his celebrity status at that point was minimal at best. Instead he was just the guy who beat out the other applicants for the job.


Ricardo Montalban

If Captain Kirk can sell cars (and he did), why not his arch-nemesis from “The Space Seed?”


Say it with me – “rich, Corinthian leather.” The idea was to sell Chrysler as a luxury vehicle that rivaled traditional elite manufacturers like Cadillac and Lincoln Continental, but at a more affordable price. The rich backdrops and the impeccably dressed Montalban all helped sell that image of class and refinement. 



Anthony Geary

At the height of Luke and Laura-mania on General Hospital, Members Only jackets had the foresight to sign Anthony Geary, and leverage his rebel image, to help move the merchandise – and boy, did it work. Those jackets were everywhere at that time – and yes I owned at least a half-dozen in different colors. 



Robert Blake

As with Tony Geary, what makes a Robert Blake commercial effective is the novelty of seeing a renegade like Blake, who was always mocking “the suits” and the business side of show business, pimping himself out to sell a product. He always sounded like he was just talking to people instead of reading from a script, which gave more credibility to his pitch for STP oil. 



Annette Funicello

After her iconic membership in The Mickey Mouse Club and her years riding the surf with Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello became “the peanut butter lady” to a new generation of fans. 



Bill Cosby

I know, I know. But before we knew about all that stuff Cosby was as beloved a star as TV produced, and his commercials for Jello Pudding highlighted his remarkable rapport with kids. 



Jaclyn Smith

K-Mart brought Jaclyn Smith aboard to class up a brand associated with bargain basements and blue light specials. After promoting and modeling her line of affordable women’s fashions, she’d read the slogan “From K-Mart. Yes, K-Mart,” as if no one would believe they’d find anything stylish there. Smith was already a pro at commercials by then – I know most people probably recall her K-Mart ads first but I still remember when she lent her stunning looks and sultry voice to an unforgettable Martini & Rossi ad. 



James Garner and Mariette Hartley

I saved the best for last. The Polaroid commercials featuring James Garner and Mariette Hartley were often better than the shows they sponsored. 



Their playful chemistry seemed so natural that many viewers assumed the couple had to be married. They’ll never put them out on DVD, but if they did, I’d buy it. 




Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Wait – That Show Was a Hit?


“The Top Ten” is a phrase synonymous with success. Whether it’s a reference to Billboard music charts or weekly box office figures or Nielsen ratings, if you crack that list, it’s an impressive accomplishment.


So it may surprise you to discover that several Comfort TV era shows that achieved that exalted status are either not remembered fondly now, or have been completely forgotten.



 How did that happen? Let’s find out.


Note: Ratings information taken from The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-present by Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh


The Restless Gun (1957)

The late 1950s was a television era when westerns reigned supreme, so anything with a horse could probably find an audience. The top ten in 1957 included not just The Restless Gun but also Gunsmoke, Tales of Wells Fargo, Have Gun Will Travel, and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp.


Even casual classic TV viewers are likely to be familiar with those titles, all of which are still finding new fans on nostalgia networks and homevideo. But The Restless Gun is not as easily recalled and has not aged as gracefully, and if you watch a few episodes as I have it’s easy to see why.


There’s no real premise to the series, outside of cowboy Vint Bonner roaming the American southwest after the Civil War. He’s not a lawman or an outlaw, he’s not on a quest for revenge or a peaceful existence – he just doesn’t like to stay in one place very long. That doesn’t give viewers much reason to take an interest in his adventures. Bonner is played by John Payne, who is not a charismatic lead – in fact he delivers most of his lines with a near expression-free stare. Surprisingly, the show has received a DVD release – 78 episodes on nine discs. If you’re curious I recommend checking it out for free on YouTube first. 



Funny Face (1971)

From the moment she appeared as a teller in a delightful series of United California Bank commercials, it was obvious that Sandy Duncan had star quality.


After Time magazine called her “one of the most promising faces of tomorrow,” she costarred in two movies that didn’t do well, and then tried television. Funny Face was essentially a west coast version of That Girl – she played Sandy Stockwell, who leaves a small town in Illinois headed for Los Angeles with dreams of a career as an actress.


Was it good? No clue. I’m guessing it was at least pleasant, as I can’t recall seeing Duncan in anything where she wasn’t enjoyable to watch…except maybe that Love Boat episode where she played a grieving mother still mourning the loss of her child – but that story was doomed from the start.


I’d love to tell you more about Funny Face but no clips have escaped to the internet beyond the opening credits, and none of my unofficial sources have been able to snag a copy. 


The show ranked at #8 in its first season and earned its star an Emmy nomination, but only 12 episodes were filmed before Duncan required a medical leave to remove a benign brain tumor. After she recovered the show returned as The Sandy Duncan Show with a slightly altered premise, and was canceled shortly thereafter. Duncan emerged unscathed to battle monsters with Scooby-Doo, soar as Peter Pan on Broadway, and sell a lot of Wheat Thins.  



Bridget Loves Bernie (1972)

We’ve talked about this show before. Meredith Baxter played Bridget Teresa Mary Colleen Fitzgerald, an Irish Catholic schoolteacher who falls in love at first sight with cab driver Bernie Steinberg. “I think we have a problem,” they realize, and that was the introduction to this sweet and gentle sitcom about an inter-religious marriage and the culture clash of their respective in-laws.



 Despite being ranked fifth in the ratings among all shows in 1972, CBS shut it down out of concern over adverse reactions from a vocal minority of intolerant viewers. More than 40 years later it’s still the highest-rated TV series to be canceled. Not one of television’s prouder moments.


Phyllis (1975)

The Ropers (1978)

Flo (1979)

Three shows, all top-ten for a while then canceled soon after, with one obvious common trait – they were spinoffs from more successful, long-running series.


Phyllis was always going to be a tough sell on her own, as the character played by Cloris Leachman was best tolerated in smaller doses. Fans of The Mary Tyler Moore Show always enjoyed when she knocked on Mary’s door, but they didn’t root for her as they did for Rhoda, one reason why Valerie Harper’s spinoff succeeded and this one didn’t. 



Very few shows survive with unsympathetic leads. Making Phyllis a widow wouldn’t generate audience sympathy because we’d never met Lars anyway. So Leachman had to tone down the character’s grandiose, elitist tendencies, and then she really wasn’t Phyllis anymore.


Flo, by contrast, was an audience favorite on Alice, so one would think her solo prospects had a better chance. Was the problem having Flo make the transition from labor to management after she opened her own bar? That’s probably overthinking – the most likely answer the ratings did not remain high is the show just wasn’t funny.



Say this for The Ropers – at least the characters were the same as they were on Three’s Company. Didn’t really matter, as the series was a dud. Outside of learning that the girl that played the Bad Seed grew up hot, and its annoying yet somehow unforgettable opening credits sequence, I always feel bad for Norman Fell when I think about the show. It took months for the network to convince him to agree to the spinoff, and he was told if it bombed he could return to Three’s Company. But then it bombed and by then Don Knotts was living in his apartment. I hope he was paid well to sabotage his own career. 




House Calls (1980)

Next to Bridget Loves Bernie this is the best show on this list, and it’s a mystery to me why its 57 episodes never got a DVD release. There was great chemistry between Wayne Rogers and Lynn Redgrave as hospital coworkers in love but constantly bickering, and when things got too sweet David Wayne hijacked his scenes as a crusty older doctor with rapidly failing faculties. Back then senility, like being drunk, was a condition that could be fodder for comedy without someone forming a committee of angry concerned citizens.