Friday, January 21, 2022

Top TV Moments: Teri Garr


I’m in the midst of writing an article on the TV series McCloud for a magazine, and doing so has reacquainted me with the happiness I always felt whenever I see Teri Garr, who appears in several episodes as Sgt. Phyllis Norton.


Like Betty White, whose passing we just acknowledged here, she was someone that audiences always seemed to like, not just in the roles she played but for the person she is. Unlike Betty, however, she never found a classic TV role that perfectly matched her quirky persona. Yes, casting her as Phoebe’s mother on Friends was inspired, but that happened after the Comfort TV era.


You had to buy a ticket to the movies to see Teri Garr at her best ­­– Young Frankenstein, Mr. Mom, One From the Heart and Tootsie. But if like me you’d rather stay home and watch TV, here are some of the shows she’s visited over the years.


Mr. Novak (1964)

Teri Garr made her TV debut as high school student Lisa Calvert in “How Does Your Garden Grow?” The episode is an affectionate character study of a socially awkward teacher (Barbara Barrie), but you’ll have no trouble finding Garr in the episode’s first classroom scene, as she looks the same here as she looked 30 years later.


Shindig (1964)

Most fans know that Garr started her career as a dancer, but you’ll have to look closely to spot her in this series shimmying behind Jackie Wilson, The Righteous Brothers and Johnny Rivers. She also performed in several Elvis Presley musicals, including Viva Las Vegas and Roustabout.


Star Trek (1968)

“Assignment: Earth,” the final episode of Trek’s second season, was a backdoor pilot for a spinoff series about a time-traveler and his attractive female companion (Hmmm…where have I heard that concept before?). Fans aren’t crazy about it as it reduces Kirk and Spock to background characters, while Gene Roddenberry hoped audiences would embrace the dashing Gary Seven (Robert Lansing) and his secretary Roberta (Teri Garr) enough to follow them into further adventures. One can only imagine how Garr’s career might have been different if the series had materialized.



The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour (1972)

Garr was the only female member of the ensemble featured in this variety series’ music and comedy skits. And according to Cher in her episode DVD commentaries, the boys put her through a lot of affectionate ribbing. You may remember her best as Olivia, in the pink dress and with curlers in her hair, from the “At the Launderette” sketches with Cher as Laverne.


The Girl With Something Extra (1973)

This was Teri Garr’s first recurring TV role, though that amounted to just four appearances in 22 episodes. Sally Field and John Davidson played young married couple John and Sally Burton. Sally’s ESP was the something extra that often complicated their lives. Garr played Amber, girlfriend to John’s brother Jerry (Jack Sheldon).


M*A*S*H (1973)

In “The Sniper” Garr overcomes some cringe-worthy dialogue (“Does every new nurse fall in love with you here?”) as Hawkeye’s latest conquest. 



The Bob Newhart Show (1973)

Garr has a short scene at the beginning of “Emily In for Carol” as a prospective temp replacement for Carol at the reception desk. Producers must have liked her as she returned later that season in the same role in “Confessions of an Orthodontist.” This time she nails a more substantive scene opposite Newhart, in the type of ditzy role she played most frequently throughout her career. 



Late Night With David Letterman (1982)

Both Johnny Carson and David Letterman knew they’d get a fun conversation out of Teri, hence her more than 70 combined appearances on their shows. But her chemistry with Letterman was especially delightful. 


He was so clearly smitten with her, and yet, like an 8 year-old with a crush on the girl that sits in front of him in class, he couldn’t stop himself from making fun of her at every opportunity. Hard to tell whether she felt the same about him, but one night she let Dave talk her into taking a shower on national television, so there had to be some affection there. 



Fresno (1986)

This was a five-episode miniseries that parodied the popular prime time soaps then dominating the Nielsen ratings – Dallas, Dynasty, Falcon Crest. Two wealthy families – the Kensingtons and the Canes – battle over an empire built on raisins. All the staples were there – mysterious deaths, secrets, romance, betrayal, catfights, and illegitimate heirs demanding a share of the fortune. 



Some of the jokes hit – the repeated tossing of drinks in faces after an argument, Gregory Harrison as “Torch,” who appears shirtless in every scene regardless of the circumstances. But it’s hard to send up a genre that was already over the top in its histrionics. A game cast led by Carol Burnett, Dabney Coleman, Teri Garr and Valerie Mahaffey almost pulls it off, but someone should have told Charles Grodin that under-playing material this silly is the way to make it funny. Garr played Talon Kensington, Grodin’s trophy wife who was always on the lookout for her next sexual conquest. 



Fruit of the Loom Commercials

For those who never stopped fantasizing about “a roll in ze hay” with Inga from Young Frankenstein, Teri Garr’s Fruit of the Loom commercials were probably as exciting as early Cinemax. They played exceptionally well to her combination of sexy and approachable. 



Thursday, January 13, 2022

Why We Loved Betty White


The many tributes to Betty White that have appeared in the wake of her death tended to either lead with her proximity to her 100th birthday, or remembrances of her Emmy-winning roles in two classic situation comedies – The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls.


I get that. But I would suggest that neither of these were the primary reason for the outpouring of sadness that so many classic TV fans felt when we heard the news. 



Sue Ann Nivens and Rose Nyland were certainly the two best roles she played, and the first two examples anyone would cite to celebrate her talent as a comedic actress. Such was the remarkable length of her television career that there will also be those who go back with Betty to 1953 and her first sitcom, Life With Elizabeth, and those who first discovered her on Hot In Cleveland, which ended in 2015. 



But to me, and I’d wager to many of us, Betty White was most famous for being Betty White. Viewers came to know her – the real her - through talk shows and game shows, where we learned that she didn’t need a well-written script to be charming and funny – and occasionally a little bawdy.


Her status as a sought-after panelist dates back to 1955, and the forgotten series Make the Connection. She made the rounds on the decade’s most popular panel shows – What’s My Line, I’ve Got a Secret and To Tell the Truth, and appeared on more than 100 episodes of Password, most while that series was still hosted by her husband, Allen Ludden. Together they were also frequent guests on Tattletales, a show in which married couples discovered how much they knew (or didn’t know) about each other. 



As on Password, The $25,000 Pyramid (later $50,000 and $100,000) paired celebrities with contestants hoping to win money, in a game that required a quick wit and a firm command of the English language. It didn’t take long to figure out which stars had the skills to fatten their partners’ bank accounts, and which became synonymous with lovely parting gifts. Betty White was always good at the games she played, and that put viewers at ease knowing that the next 30 minutes would be free from uncomfortably embarrassing moments. 



But her most frequent stop on the game show circuit was Match Game. She appeared on more than 300 episodes, almost always on the bottom tier in the sixth and final chair – that was the spot where her answer could make or break a contestant’s chances at playing the Super Match for big bucks. Unlike Patti Deutsch, who often occupied that chair when Betty was otherwise occupied on Hollywood Squares, she understood that the object of the game was to match the contestant’s answer, and not to generate the biggest audience laugh with a silly response.


Of course, Match Game wasn’t as serious about its game play as Password or the Pyramid. It was like a daily afternoon version of the Golden Globes, where celebrities engaged in witty banter and comic putdowns, all fueled by a backstage open bar. Betty’s good-natured feuds with Brett Somers were the highlight of many an episode. 



So yes, we should celebrate the talent of Betty White as it maximized the comic potential of Sue Ann’s insults of Murray and Rose’s St. Olaf stories. But her connection to millions of TV lovers across three generations goes deeper than that. Like soap opera actors she was a near daily presence in their lives, whether it was a cooking segment during a guest spot on Dinah Shore’s afternoon series, or participating in one of Johnny Carson’s comic skits, or co-hosting The Mike Douglas Show. We felt like we knew her, and to the extent she was the same person after the camera stopped, we did. And we liked her and were always happy to see her.


I’d close this tribute with “Thank you for being a friend,” but too many others have already gone there. So I’ll simply say thank you. 



Monday, December 27, 2021

The Classic TV Year in Review: 2021


In a year when everything costs more, viruses refuse to leave and justice seemed blinder than usual, the positive news emanating from the classic TV world has never been more welcome or uplifting. In challenging times the Comfort TV shows of the past offer an oasis of sanity and civility, and sometimes even manage to bridge the gap between their world and ours, as in our first item below.


Best Classic TV Moment #1: Captain Kirk Finally Explores the Final Frontier

Raymond Burr played Perry Mason but he never won a court case. Robert Young played Dr. Marcus Welby but he never performed surgery. But earlier this year William Shatner, whose iconic portrayal of Captain James T. Kirk helped launch a sci-fi franchise that endures to this day, finally got a real glimpse of outer space, thanks to technology that did not even exist when his Enterprise began its five year mission. 



We will never know how many young men and women were inspired to pursue a career in science and exploration because of Captain Kirk and Star Trek. Offering him one of the first seats on a spacecraft was both a gift bestowed and a debt repaid. And in these divisive times it was one of the rare news stories that made everyone happy.


Best Classic TV Moment #2: WandaVision

We talk a lot about how classic TV shows can provide a temporary escape from the fears and tragedies of the world, and that topic has never been explored as provocatively as in this Marvel/Disney+ series. The life of Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) has been marred by one devastating loss after another. But unlike the rest of us she has the power to insulate herself from further heartbreak by transforming one small town and its residents into a trouble-free environment inspired by the shows she grew up watching – The Dick Van Dyke Show, Bewitched, The Brady Bunch, Family Ties



As a fan of those vintage series I appreciated the great affection expressed for them, and how they still live within our shared memories. But I also wonder whether WandaVision is warning us that too much exposure can result in unrealistic expectations for our own life and times. One could also ask if Wanda’s versions of their premises were a fair representation, or if she added an extra layer of sugar coating that rendered them more unsophisticated than they actually were. It has been several months since I first watched WandaVision, and I find myself still pondering these questions.

Best Classic TV Moment #3: Time Life Celebrates The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet

Sam Nelson, grandson of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, had been promising a first-class DVD release of this landmark series for more than a decade. Fans had all but given up before Time Life finally stepped in to help. While that company had released several classic TV sets already, from Get Smart to The Flip Wilson Show, it was still surprising that they’d be willing to make a sizable investment in re-mastering a show that was nearly 70 years old. 



That they did so is a great cause for celebration, as The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet is one of television’s most clever, unique, observant, intelligent, well-written and well-acted situation comedies. Time Life offers both 50- and 100-episode collections, and if you opt for the bigger one and like what you see, you’ll still have more than 300 more episodes to discover in the many public domain sets also available.


Worst Classic TV Moment

I might have opted for the recent “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” versions of Diff’rent Strokes and Facts of Life episodes, but it justified its existence thanks to the apparently ageless Lisa Whelchel donning her Eastland uniform and singing her show’s theme song.


New on DVD and Blu-Ray

Streaming options have now clearly surpassed home video sets for many as the preferred way of watching classic shows. But for those of us who still prefer to have these series on our shelves, there were a few welcome opportunities to add to our collections. I Dream of Jeannie, The Incredible Hulk, and Kolchak, The Night Stalker all debuted on blu-ray, And the aforementioned Ozzie & Harriet release renews our hope that other lost treasures, such as The Defenders, will one day get the DVD treatment they deserve.


In Memoriam

This is always the toughest section of these pieces to write. As always we lost several fine actors who helped make our favorite Comfort TV shows the classics they have become. The passing of Ed Asner struck particularly close to home for me; As I wrote earlier this year, “when the character (of Lou Grant was) spun off into a drama set at the Los Angeles Tribune, every episode of that series taught me what it means to be a journalist, every bit as much as the journalism teachers I had in high school and college (and I had some good ones). It didn't inspire my career choice - I was writing for the school newspaper in junior high - but it made me a lot better at it.”


The death of Mike Nesmith was also deeply felt, as I grew up on Saturday morning reruns of The Monkees, and I doubt a month has gone by since then when I haven’t listened to any enjoyed their music. Mike was the smart Monkee, sometimes the reluctant Monkee, and arguably the most talented Monkee, but I’m glad that toward the end he embraced that legacy and understood how much it meant to a generation of fans. 


In 2021 we also lost Ed Asner’s Mary Tyler Moore Show costars Gavin MacLeod and Cloris Leachman, Betty Lynn, who played Thelma Lou on The Andy Griffith Show and spent her final years in the town on which Mayberry was based; Markie Post (The Fall Guy, Night Court), Peter Scolari (Bosom Buddies, Newhart), Hal Holbrook (The Bold Ones: The Senator), Frank Bonner (WKRP), Eddie Mekka (Laverne & Shirley), Clarence Williams III (The Mod Squad), Norman Lloyd (St. Elsewhere), Billie Hayes (H.R. Pufnstuf), Felix Silla (The Addams Family), Michael Constantine (Room 222), Johnny Crawford (The Rifleman), and Cicely Tyson, whose TV credits include Roots and one of the best TV movies ever made, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.


Most Popular Comfort TV Post of 2021

I thought I knew the winner here even before I checked the archives: A piece I wrote back in February about the censoring of classic TV shows in syndication. For the record, I was against it – and so was just about everyone who read it. When I posted the link to it on social media it generated thousands of responses and several interesting discussions.


But to my surprise there was a piece posted in May that edged that one out by about 200 clicks – my review of Rolling Stone’s list of the top 100 sitcoms. Maybe someone linked it in the comments section of the magazine’s website.


Least Popular Comfort TV Post of 2021

From October, a post entitled I Love Lucy at 70 generated very little interest. Maybe the number will pick up after more people watch Being the Ricardos.


What’s Ahead in 2022

Last year when I looked ahead to 2021, here’s what I wrote: “Hopefully the end of lockdowns, masks, despotic governors, colorful circles on the ground marking out social distancing space, and other tribulations ushered in by 2020.”


Can I just recycle that for the coming year as well?


One certainty I know is forthcoming in 2022 will be the tenth anniversary of this blog. While I know I’ve enjoyed writing everything you’ve read here, I’m honestly not sure whether this venture has been a success. Comfort TV is rapidly closing in on one million total clicks, which sounds impressive, but Korean boy bands generate one million views in 24 hours. Everything is relative.


For the moment the plan is to keep going into our second decade, and perhaps explore other ventures, such as a podcast. We’ll see what happens. For now, I thank all of you for your support and kind words over the years, and wish you a happy and healthy 2022. 



Friday, December 17, 2021

The Unshakeables: Will Robinson Meets Santa Claus


I’ve mentioned before that “A Vision of Sugar Plums” from the first season of Bewitched is my favorite Christmas-themed episode of any classic television series. But I don’t think I’ve ever explained why. 


Start with the obvious – it’s a smart and imaginative script (as most of them were in the series’ early seasons) and it’s a welcome break from the formulas that were recycled through so many episodes over eight years (One of Sam’s eccentric relatives pops in, Endora zaps Darrin with a spell that will embarrass him at work, etc.).


Beyond that, it’s a show that endorses a very interesting position on the existence of Santa Claus. I suppose if your audience is already on board with witches, it’s not that big a leap to Santa being real as well. But they took such a bold and definitive stance on the question that, when I first watched it at an age when my own belief was fading, it restored my faith. Sometimes it still does.


The story opens with the Stephens’ and the Kravitzes both visiting an orphanage, where each couple will take a child home to spend the holidays (do people still do this?). Darrin has his doubts about Michael (Billy Mumy), who starts a fight with another boy who still believes in Santa. Michael has been through some rough times, not the sort likely to be specified in a sitcom from this era, but clearly they left their mark. Samantha convinces Darrin that this is exactly the kind of boy who could use a couple of days in a happy home.


It does not begin well. Michael is polite but sullen, seemingly uninterested in any of the Christmas festivities the Stephens’ have planned. And when Darrin dresses up as Santa, he finally snaps.


Darrin: “Don’t you want to see what Santa brought you, son?”


Michael: “I don’t care what you’ve brought me. And I’m not your son.” 



That’s the last straw for Darrin, but Samantha has another idea. She gently asks Michael why he’s so sure that Santa Claus is just a fantasy, and that’s when we learn that Michael once had a father who told him so and…the episode doesn’t reveal what happened to that clearly-departed dad, but we can only assume it wasn’t good.


“Suppose I were to tell you it really isn’t exactly that way?” Samantha says, to which Michael responds. “Prove it.” And that’s when Sam does something she rarely did over the course of 254 episodes: she reveals her identity as a witch – and then offers to fly Michael to the North Pole to visit the real Santa Claus. 



And then another surprise – Darrin, who lives in perpetual fear about anyone learning his wife’s secret, not only assents given the circumstances, he can’t resist taking the trip with them.


What follows I will leave for those who have never seen this classic to discover. But as one might expect Michael is transformed by the journey after learning the true meaning of Christmas.


But did it really happen? Sam later finds Darrin and Michael both asleep on the living room couch, and then Darrin tells her the crazy dream he had about visiting Santa. So that settles that…except for those slushy footprints on the carpet…



And as an extra bonus, “A Vision of Sugar Plums” also gives us one more “almost gotcha” with Gladys Kravitz, and a brief guest appearance by Bill Daily one year before I Dream of Jeannie.


Billy Mumy is believable, as he was in everything – one of those child actors with a maturity that never seems inauthentic to his age. It’s admirable how Darrin does what he thinks is the right thing by giving Michael a cheerful holiday of sugarplums and giftwrapped presents. But Samantha recognizes how that’s not going to suffice, and relates to Michael with a more direct approach, and in doing so restores his sense of hope and wonder.  Life had knocked him down a few times, but now we can see that he is going to be just fine.


This would not be Sam’s last meeting with Santa or her only visit to the North Pole. She flew grumpy old Charles Lane up there in another classic holiday episode called “Humbug Not to Be Spoken Here” (1967). But for me “A Vision of Sugar Plums” has just a little more magic than all of the other Christmas stories I watch every year. And it’s all the proof I need that Santa Claus is real – at least in TV Land. 



Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Five Classic TV Sights That Have Disappeared From America


As I’ve frequently mentioned, one of the reasons I enjoy classic TV shows is the window they provide into life in America in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. I am fascinated by how we lived, worked and played back then, taking note of which traditions and behaviors from that time are still commonplace, and which have been discarded in favor of (allegedly) preferable options.


Watch any show, drama or comedy, from the classic TV era and you’ll see abundant examples of how the nation has changed. And we’re just focusing here on the cosmetic changes, not the political, social, cultural and religious divergences that would require a book to explore.


To walk that path would be too dispiriting, so instead let’s take a more light-hearted look at five once common phenomena that, as far as I know, are either highly endangered species or entirely extinct.


Listening Booths in Record Stores

I know, even record stories themselves are hard to find anymore. But from the early days of the 20th century when music became available for purchase on vinyl, many stores offered booths in which patrons could listen to records before deciding whether to buy them. 


By the 1950s, when sitcom teenagers were embracing music their parents didn’t understand, you’d see these booths pop up on shows like The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet. They were still around in 1966, as that’s where Dan Briggs once received his mission instructions in the first season of Mission: Impossible. An homage to that moment appears in the 2015 film Mission Impossible - Rogue Nation.


Slide Projectors

When it came to viewing and sharing special images of exciting vacations or family get-togethers, bigger was always better. That’s why TV families had their photos developed as slides that could be projected onto a screen or wall. 


They’d invite friends over to see the show – and sometimes those friends would be delighted and sometimes they’d be bored. But this was the standard practice at least into the 1970s, as I certainly remember seeing photos of my kindergarten and first grade birthday parties via our slide projector. And if you were clever like the boys on The Brady Bunch, you could project an image of a ghost outside the girls’ bedroom window, though that practical joke would later come back to bite them (“Fright Night”). 



Today, people seem content to sacrifice scope for convenience, and share their photos via the small screens on their phones. And they can email the pictures to anyone who wants to see them, instead of having the neighbors over, popping some popcorn and making an evening out of the presentation. 


Service Stations

From the ‘ding’ of the hose as you pull up to the pumps, to the attendant who fills your tank, cleans your windshield and offers to check the tires, to the quarts of oil stacked in pyramid shape in the window, the classic TV gas station is a veritable fount of nostalgia. Let’s not even talk about the under $1 a gallon price for gas back then. They also provided employment for many Comfort TV characters, including Bud Anderson on Father Knows Best



Sadly, self-service stations began to dominate the marketplace as far back as the late 1970s, though at least they continued to offer consumers a choice between full and self-service islands. If you still want to have the experience of having your tank filled by a professional, you’ll have to move to New Jersey or to Oregon, where laws forbid the public from pumping their own gas. But even these facilities bear little resemblance to what used to be called service stations, with the emphasis on service.


Kissing Booths

In the land of classic television, when a school or a club wanted to raise money for a particular cause, they might set up a kissing booth. There a volunteer, usually an attractive girl, would offer up a kiss for a donation. 



You’ll spot these booths on several shows including Happy Days and the Saturday morning live-action series Magic Mongo.


Do I even need to explain why these have disappeared? Even had they survived the gender battles amid the culture wars, COVID would have still finished them off for good.



You could say they just moved to the internet, but that would be erroneous, as the most popular online version is open to editing by anyone with no knowledge or experience required. 


There was a time when a leather bound, gold foil set of volumes from Encyclopedia Britannica was a source of pride, as well as education. 



You’ll spot them in t bedrooms and dens in shows such as Family Affair.  



Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In turned the Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia into a running joke for years. And several shows also featured door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen – an occupation usually portrayed as an entry-level position taken by a fast-talking con artist or someone who couldn’t find work anywhere else. That trope somehow survived into the 1990s, when Joey bought the ‘V’ volume of an encyclopedia on an episode of Friends



Do you still miss any of these bygone institutions? I know I do.

Monday, November 29, 2021

Comfort TV Court: Three More Cases


In the compendium of classic TV tropes, a courtroom episode is right up there with amnesia and visits from eccentric relatives. In fact it's actually more difficult to find shows that never featured a character standing before a judge. So let's delve into the docket once more for three memorable visits to Comfort TV Court.


Data vs. Starfleet

Star Trek: The Next Generation


From season two, “The Measure of a Man” is almost universally regarded as the moment this series first achieved greatness. It had been very good before that (“The Big Goodbye,” “Datalore”), but here was an episode that would rival the best entries from every Star Trek franchise.


The story: robotics expert Bruce Maddox wants to dismantle and study Data, with the hope of replicating the technology that created him. Data doesn’t believe the expert is up to the task, and Captain Picard does not want to lose a fine bridge officer.  But Maddox claims Data is the property of Starfleet, and doesn’t have the right to refuse his orders, any more than a starship gets to decide where it wants to go.


The conflict is resolved at a makeshift trial, with Picard arguing Data’s case, and (because of a technicality dictated by the circumstances) Commander Riker heading up the prosecution. 


The brilliant Melinda Snodgrass script delves into opposing ideas regarding sentience, ethics, and self-determination, and even sort of acknowledges the possibility of individuals having souls, a rare departure from a series with a stubbornly humanist perspective. 



Who’s That Judge?
Amanda McBroom is best known as a singer-songwriter whose shows always sell out at New York cabarets, but she’s also wonderful here as JAG Captain Phillipa Louvois. 


Her antagonism with Picard dates from a previous judicial run-in, and she clearly delights in taking the supercilious Captain down a peg or two. But there is clearly mutual respect there as well.


Blair Warner vs. Jo Polniaczek

The Facts of Life


In “The Rich Aren’t Different,” Jo borrows Blair’s watch (without asking) and breaks it during a basketball game. “At least it’s no great loss,” she tells her. “How many watches do you have? 20? 30?” That cavalier attitude toward the matter angers Blair enough to take her to small claims court.


Usually if there’s a lesson to be learned from their clashes, it’s Blair whose spoiled outlook needs adjusting. But here it’s Jo who comes to the realization that her actions were insensitive, regardless of how easily Blair could afford to replace the broken watch: “Okay, I’m rich. But my things still deserve respect.”


As with so many Facts of Life episodes, the story unfolds with crisp, quippy dialogue and punch lines every 20-30 seconds, and then slows down for one scene in which the writers dig deeper for a more substantive conversation that brings characters out of their simple stereotypes and reminds us of why we care about them in the first place.


Unfortunately, to get to that scene you’ll have to endure several silly grandiose courtroom outbursts from Tootie. “One more word out of you and I’ll send you to traffic school!” the judge cautions, much to the relief of the audience.


Who’s That Judge?
Elliot Reid was a veteran character actor who once starred opposite Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and also wrote episodes of The Love Boat and Lou Grant. Not sure what’s he’s doing slumming here.


Peter Tork vs. Mr. Zero

The Monkees


Peter admires a beautiful harp in a pawn shop window. The shop’s owner, Mr. Zero, gives it to him, along with the knowledge on how to play it - in exchange for the deed to his soul. 



“The Devil and Peter Tork” is a fan-favorite episode from the series’ second and final season that contains some of the best dialogue in any Monkees show. By this time the quartet had stopped caring as much about the series, as they were more focused on the music once they were given creative control.  But they must have recognized something in this script that deserved their best effort. Mike’s speech at the end of the trial still resonates with anyone who loves to make music. 


Who’s That Judge?

Billy Beck as Roy Bean, the infamous hanging judge of the Old West (though that reputation, like that of so many others within that historic era, was greatly exaggerated). Over more than 50 years Beck appeared in guest spots on dozens of shows, including The New Monkees.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

The Challenge of Three-Part Stories


I’ve done a few pieces about two-part episodes of classic shows and how, when they’re done right, they often rank among the most memorable entries from their respective series.


But it doesn’t happen all the time. Looking back it seems that for every successful two-part tale there is one that did not merit the extra running time, resulting in a story with superfluous subplots stretched with stock footage and other filler.


So if the track record for two-part stories is spotty, what must the verdict be for those with three parts?


Not as bad as you’d think, surprisingly. The reason, perhaps, being that many two-part shows start out as single episodes that get expanded somewhere along the way, while three-part stories are plotted from the beginning to fill a feature-length running time. The risk is in hoping viewers will return for all three installments. Today with DVRs that’s not an issue; but in the Comfort TV era before the VCR audiences had to watch the show when it was scheduled, so part one and part two better be intriguing enough to bring everyone back for the finale.


Here are six examples of shows that pulled it off – and one that did not.


The Hawaii Trilogy

The Brady Bunch

Travel is a common theme in these super-sized stories, and the Brady Bunch’s fourth season trip to Hawaii offers a prime example of how to do it right. From the beautiful beaches to the Pearl Harbor memorial, viewers enjoyed a virtual tropical vacation as the story unfolds. 


The final installment was certainly over-the-top for this series, with Vincent Price hamming it up as a paranoid archaeologist, but all is forgiven when he joins the family at the luau that ends their eventful trip. Replicas of the “tabu” idol Bobby finds at the construction site have become popular collectibles among Brady fans. 



Batman Vs. Lord Ffogg


Another travel adventure, as the Dynamic Duo visit “Londinium” after the mysterious thefts of historic treasures. But in this case there was no actual visit to London, which almost becomes a running joke within the story – witness the barely redressed set for Commissioner Gordon’s office serving as the office of Gordon’s British counterpart.


Batman deduces the guilty party within minutes of his arrival, suggesting the Londinium police are no more capable than those in Gotham City. It’s the infamous Lord Ffogg (Rudy Vallee) and Lady Penelope Peasoup (Glynis Johns), who run a school for shoplifters in training. This is one of the better third-season stories, and provides a better-than-usual showcase for Yvonne Craig’s Batgirl.  



“Lost in Spain”

Family Affair

One more travel story, as the Davis clan visits Spain, where a bus mix-up separates Buffy and Jody from Mr. French. It’s all shot on the studio backlot but it feels more authentic than many Europe-set shows, especially as the twins wander through the rural countryside while the rest of the family continue their desperate search. Eventually they find their way to a farmhouse, where the couple inside feeds them but is wary of reporting their location to the police. As always, Family Affair takes a more grounded and realistic approach to plots that have played out on dozens of other sitcoms, resulting in a story in which everyone’s fears feel more genuine, even though we know everything will end happily.


“Kill Oscar”

The Bionic Woman

This was the story that introduced the Fembots, which in the 1970s were popular enough to inspire their own action figures. No one who watched these shows first-run could forget when the Fembot’s face plate was removed, revealing electronics circuits and wires surrounding two creepy bulging eyes. 



The female robots were created by Dr. Franklin, a slightly mad scientist with a secret island base who plots to steal a device that can control the weather. That’s the kind of role that screams for a veteran scenery-chewer like Ross Martin – but instead they brought in the great John Houseman to give the part more gravitas –and it works. 



“Gold Train: The Bullet”


Matt has a bullet lodged near his spine, and Doc doesn’t want to risk performing an operation to remove it. They put the marshal on a train so he can see a specialist, and the train is held up by a gang led by guest star Eric Braeden. It took 17 seasons for this venerable western to serve up a three-part story, so no one should be surprised that it delivered plenty of action, drama and romance. Fans were delighted to see Milburn Stone return as Doc, after an extended absence following the actor’s bypass surgery. But the most memorable moment featured Amanda Blake, as Kitty (finally!) talks to Matt about the love she felt for him throughout the years.



A Man Called Smart

Get Smart

Of course you’ll want to watch all three parts of this story, which was originally intended for theatrical release. But it’s the first installment that features a masterpiece of slapstick comedy starring Don Adams, a stretcher and a revolving door. Adams, whose distinct voice and catchphrases were a big part of the show’s success, never utters a word throughout the sequence, and still earns huge laughs. There is also an innovative opening chase scene that portends Adams’ association with Inspector Gadget. 


The Falcon

Mission Impossible

Here’s the one that didn’t work, which isn’t surprising as Mission: Impossible also struggled with two-part stories. Fans already missing Martin Landau and Barbara Bain would have their patience with the series further tested by this bloated assignment: the team must stop a usurper’s plot to steal the throne of a princess. When M:I starts lifting plots from Disney, it’s not a good sign.