Wednesday, September 18, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 9, 2019

Why Rhoda Was Necessary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 26, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 16, 2019

When Classic TV Saved the Planet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Purchase or Pass: The New Scooby-Doo Movies

What is it about Scooby-Doo?

No, really, I’m curious – why exactly has this been such a popular, enduring franchise? 

I am as fond of Scooby and the gang as any baby boomer that grew up on Saturday morning cartoons, but I find it hard to identify any outstanding qualities in the show that validate its continued prominence for 50 years. 

This video collects all of the opening credit sequences to all of the Scooby shows. It’s more than 20 minutes long – and it doesn’t even count the dozens of direct-to-DVD movies, beginning with 1998’s Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island, or the two live-action films from 2002 and 2004.

Some of these versions tried to add layers of depth to the stories or more mature personality aspects to the characters (such as 2010’s Mystery Incorporated), but fans seem divided on whether that’s necessary. Most prefer the basics: Fred driving the Mystery Machine (and usually getting lost or running out of gas), Daphne tripping over something that triggers a trap door, Velma losing her glasses, Shaggy in desperate search of food, and Scooby mixing occasional moments of bravery with consistent cowardice.

And running. Lots and lots of running.

Familiarity accounts for some of why my generation remains loyal – if you grew up with the Scooby gang it’s somehow reassuring to know they are still having new adventures. But in this current age of edgier kid shows I have no answer to why today’s kids enjoy Scooby-Doo mysteries as much as I did back when the Beatles were still together.

New to the Blu-ray market is The New Scooby-Doo Movies: The (Almost) Complete Collection

It’s a vast improvement over the first DVD released for this 1972-1973 series, which left out about half the episodes. Here, you get all but one – “Wednesday is Missing,” featuring The Addams Family. Rumor has it that its deletion was due to John Astin holding out for more money, but you can’t always believe the internet.

If you bought the first set you’ll certainly want to upgrade here. I did, though even as a kid this was far from my favorite iteration– the shows are longer (about 42 minutes) to accommodate the guest stars, but the plots certainly are not any more intricate. Still, this is from the pre-Scrappy era, which automatically places it within the upper echelon of Scooby shows.

What strikes me most in watching it now is the downright strangeness of the guest star selections. Were kids in the early ‘70s really excited to see Scooby-Doo meet Phyllis Diller or Jerry Reed? 

The team-ups with Batman and Robin were a better fit (and are two of the highlights of the set); in fact most of the shows featuring other animated characters – Josie and the Pussycats, Jeannie and Babu, Speed Buggy – have a more organic feel, as if they all existed in the same universe already. 

With other guest stars, the results are decidedly hit-and-miss: Don Knotts (two episodes, both awful), Davy Jones (dull, though it does feature one song from the former Monkee), Jonathan Winters (better than expected), Sandy Duncan (delightful), Sonny & Cher (dreadful – you can picture Cher rolling her eyes at her corny dialogue as she reads the script) and Dick Van Dyke (breezy fun).

In watching them again after many years, I was surprised that my favorite episode was one that didn’t seem to have a chance of succeeding. The guest stars were cartoon versions of Laurel & Hardy, whose heyday was the 1920s and ‘30s. Both members of the iconic comedy team had passed away, so their voices were not original. And yet, everything seemed to work – story, setting, sight gags – even the monster of the week had a few original tricks up its sleeve before his inevitable unmasking. It made me curious to check out the previous cartoon shorts featuring Laurel & Hardy. 

The show looks great on Blu-ray, but don’t expect the same dramatic upgrade in sharpness and definition that was apparent on live-action series like I Love Lucy and Star Trek: The Next Generation. There are a couple of extras but nothing to write home about.

So purchase or pass? If you’re a Scooby-Doo fan, you’ve probably already bought it. If not, this isn’t the best place to get started. 

Monday, July 29, 2019

Top TV Moments: Denny Miller

If Denny Miller had a specialty, it was playing guys who were wound a little too tight. 

Blonde and blue-eyed, 6’4, with a chiseled, muscular frame, Miller looked like the bruiser that skinny bookworms dreamed of becoming if they answered the Charles Atlas ad on the back of their Spiderman comic. 

That imposing physical presence helped him secure his breakthrough role as Tarzan in a 1959 film, followed by a compendium of television characters with names like Duke, Moose and Tank. 

He was a regular on the nostalgia and collector’s show circuits, enjoyed interacting with fans, and happily signed copies of his autobiography, amusingly titled Didn't You Used to Be...What's His Name? Those who met him said he was a jovial, laid-back, down to earth guy with a healthy streak of self-deprecation – the exact opposite of the brutes and lunkheads he often played.

Sadly, Miller passed away five years ago after a battle with ALS – a cruel fate for anyone but particularly for an actor renowned for his powerful physique. Thankfully, he left behind a rich legacy of roles from more than 40 years in the Comfort TV universe. Here are some of the most memorable.

Northwest Passage (1958)
Years ago I interviewed Dirk Blocker, son of Bonanza star Dan Blocker. He told me his dad was able to move to Hollywood and find work quickly, because there were dozens of westerns on TV in the 1950s, and they all needed “big guys to beat up.” Denny Miller fit that profile as well, so it’s not surprising that almost all of his early credits were westerns, including his first, in this short-lived frontier series set against the backdrop of the French and Indian War. The episode was entitled “Fight at the River.”

Wagon Train (1961)
Following guest spots on Riverboat, The Rifleman, Have Gun, Will Travel, Stagecoach West and Laramie, Miller landed steady work as Duke Shannon on the final three seasons of this long-running and underrated series. In more than 100 episodes Duke served as a faithful scout, helping to protect travelers from robbers and Indians and assorted renegades. 

Mona McCluskey (1965)
After three seasons on Wagon Train, Miller’s stock had risen enough to be cast in another series, albeit one very different from its predecessor. The only footage I could find online for this one-season situation comedy was its opening credits – and those were not encouraging. Interesting cast, though: glamorous dancer Juliet Prowse plays a wealthy Hollywood star who agrees to live within the paltry salary brought home by her military man husband, played by Miller. Sounds like a strained premise, but many shows have risen above such limitations. One day I’d like to find out if this is one of them. 

The Fugitive (1966)
The world is always hostile to Richard Kimble, and in “Approach With Care” it’s also hostile to Willie Turner, a huge man with the mentality of a child. On the run from the law he befriends Kimble while they both work at a traveling carnival, pitting the doctor’s desire to help against his self-preservation. Willie is atypical from the self-assured and headstrong characters Miller plays, and it’s also one of the more effective performances on his resume. 

Gilligan’s Island (1967)
Somehow Denny Miller came and left twice on this show while the castaways remained stranded. He is certainly best remembered as Tongo the Ape Man in “Our Vines Have Tender Apes.” 

It was a chance for Miller to send up his breakthrough role, and play the famous “Me Tarzan, you Jane” scene opposite Tina Louise as Ginger. 

I Dream of Jeannie (1970)
With just four episodes to go before the series finale, “Eternally Yours, Jeannie” revived the oft-used “Jeannie is jealous of one of Tony’s old girlfriends” plot. Here, Jeannie poses as Tony’s high school sweetheart, Bonnie Crenshaw, to test her master. And as they say, hijinks ensue. Miller plays Moose Murphy, Bonnie’s husband, who hopes to get a meeting with NASA out of the reunion so he can secure a sales contract. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, but it’s energetically played and elevated by the guest spot of Miller in one of his god’s gift to women roles.

Gunsmoke (1971)
What makes “Lijah” work is Miller’s powerful work as the title character, a mountain man falsely accused of murder, and the tender relationship he develops with Rachel. the young girl who witnessed the murders, played by Erin Moran. This is my favorite of Miller’s dramatic TV roles. Not quite Emmy-level but pretty darn close.

The Brady Bunch (1973)
And this is my favorite performance from Miller’s sitcom appearances. “Quarterback Sneak” finds him barreling into the Brady home as Tank Gates, teenage sweetheart of Carol Brady, aka “Twinkles.” Mike’s reactions are particularly amusing as Carol is swept up by this case of arrested development in a ghastly two-tone leather jacket. Who hasn’t known a ‘Tank’ in their life – one of those guys that peaked in high school and is still boring everyone with stories of his gridiron heroics? 

Wonder Woman (1977)
“The Pied Piper” is a 1970s camp classic about idolized rock singer Hamlin Rule (played by…wait for it…Martin Mull!), who hypnotizes his female groupies into robbing the arena safe during his concerts. Eve Plumb plays one of his acolytes and Denny Miller costars as Rule’s bodyguard, Carl Schwartz (funny, he doesn’t look…). It’s a standard hired muscle role, though Miller spends much of his screen time dressed like Aladdin. And in one scene he challenges Wonder Woman to a fight – “Let’s see how strong you really are.” That doesn’t end well. 

The Rockford Files (1978)
Bearded Denny Miller is generally more menacing  than the non-bearded version, as evidenced by the two-part episode “Black Mirror.” Rockford has a meet-cute with a blind psychologist (Kathryn Harrold) who is being stalked and threatened. He figures it’s one of her patients, but medical ethics won’t let her discuss her cases. The premise is straight out of Wait Until Dark, though not as suspenseful. In one therapy session, Miller comes across as a guy with so many twisted anger issues that you’ll eliminate him right away as a too-obvious suspect. But will you be right?

Gorton’s Seafood Commercials
For more than a decade, Miller played the fisherman you can trust to steer your family toward the best fish sticks in your grocer’s freezer. Interesting classic TV trivia note: he was replaced in 2005 by Craig Littler, who played Jason in Jason of Star Command

Magnum P.I. (1982)
Nearly 25 years after his TV debut, Miller still cut an intimidating figure  In “Three Minus Two” he plays Ox, a building security guard who decks Magnum twice. Toss in Jill St. John, Beverly Garland and Hawaii, and who could ask for a better way to spend an hour? 

Friday, July 19, 2019

Looking Around the Frame

In The Electronic Mirror, the fine book written by my fellow classic TV blogger Mitchell Hadley, there’s a section in which Mitchell discusses program clichés, and uses this TV Guide listing for an episode of Daniel Boone as an example:

“Daniel, the fort’s best runner, sprains an ankle, which spells bad news for the settlers who have bet on him to win the hotly contested annual foot race with the Indians.”

That is certainly a familiar trope – an unexpected calamity that precedes a big event.

Hadley continues: “Did you ever notice that you never see a listing like, ‘Daniel sprains an ankle, and is grateful he doesn’t have anything planned for the week’? No, of course not – that doesn’t make for very interesting television.”

But here’s the thing: I’d watch that episode too.

With my favorite Comfort TV shows, no plot would be no problem – I am content just to spend that time in their worlds.

No such shows exist of course, but I find that mindset comes in handy when I’m watching an episode of a series I’ve seen a zillion times, or when I’m watching one that’s not that compelling, I ignore the plot and spend my time looking around the frame. 

With some shows I remember having the same kind of furnishings in the homes where I grew up. I know when it's a '70s show I'll see more plants everywhere. I try to read the titles of the books on the shelves. I am amused by how shelf paper in kitchen cabinets was once a higher priority than it is now. 

For me no series lends itself better to this pastime than Star Trek: The Next Generation (as well as Voyager and Enterprise). While I’ve never considered myself a hardcore Trekker, I am endlessly fascinated by the ship’s multicolored display panels, the decorative touches in the various crew quarters, and the recessed lighting in the Ten Forward lounge.

It’s not surprising to me that the wealthiest and most ardent Trekkers have recreated the bridge and sickbay and other sets in their homes, just to feel like they can access that space. I would never do something like that, but I certainly understand the impulse. 

But even with shows set in their present day, in recognizable homes and offices, I wish we had at least one episode for each series when we could simply observe the characters going through the course of an uneventful day.

How does Mr. French organize his time as he deals with the responsibilities of shopping and cleaning and cooking and taking the twins to the park? Could I follow Rob Petrie as he drives to the train station to travel into Manhattan, and watch the writer’s room kick around ideas? And how does Ozzie Nelson wile away the hours between breakfast, lunch and dinner?  

I also wonder about the places we never get to see. What does that guest bedroom in Bob and Emily Hartley’s apartment look like? How long is the hallway that leads to the elevator outside the WJM-TV newsroom? 

Virtual reality technology may one day allow us to ‘enter’ these fictional realities. But they probably won’t have that perfected until a time when few people still care about these shows.

But perhaps part of one such world may be unveiled when the Brady Bunch home renovation, now being documented by HGTV, is complete. What will they do with the property when the show is over? Open it to the public as a retro bed & breakfast? The home is in a residential area so I doubt they can legally turn it into a business. But if they do, I’ll be the first in line.