Monthly Archives: July 2012

Review: THE BORGIAS, Season 1

About a century ago, a mildly interesting novelty called the motion picture began transforming itself. Within just a few years, it became the most popular of the popular arts— the one with the widest and deepest appeal worldwide.

To a large extent, that was due to a formula called hokum. Charismatic performers enacted stories that were a blend of drama, melodrama, romance and sentiment. There’d be some action, a joke or two, and some sort of compelling conflict. The stories were tailored to present heroes or heroines that an audience would identify with, and root for. Sophistication was strictly optional.

Jeremy Irons demonstrates the posture in which one watches The Borgias.

Today, of course, none of that will do. And sophistication is a difficult target to hit— cynicism is much easier to muster and most people don’t know the difference anyway. Generating sympathy for your story’s characters is so Twentieth Century. If lust and hate and blood are the candy everybody wants… give ’em what they want.

Which brings me to The Borgias, a sumptuously produced and well-acted series that’s so barren of any human value that it can only be watched with detachment. Yes, I know the series is based on history, I know these characters really lived and that they really were about as venal as they’re portrayed. But in this show, everyone is as bad as they are. All rulers are bloodthirsty lunatics, all religious figures are rutting, power-crazed hypocrites, and the commoners are debased, slack-jawed oafs.

And none of this is presented as a moral indictment, but as just the way the world works. The thrust of The Borgias‘ saga is not about somehow rising above all of this, but to hold power by being the worst of the worst. This is what the viewer is expected to cheer for.

And let me say upfront— I have no problem with violence, sex, profanity and nudity in my TV shows. The more the merrier. And there are plenty of great shows, from Dallas to Deadwood, with venal leading characters in them. I don’t object at all to The Borgias‘ subject matter, but to its blase resignation in presenting it all.

Depicting romance is not the same as conveying it.

There’s ultimately nothing here except dreary people conspiring to crush each other, simply because having the power to do so is wonderful— I guess. And we’re expected to root for the assorted Borgias to prevail because, well, it’s their show. We don’t identify with them. The filmmaking may be very skillful but it can’t generate any sympathy for the show’s characters, or suspense over what might happen to them next. It’s all just a historical pageant, with a rape or a garroting now and then to keep us from nodding off.

Having said all that, it’s only fair to add that Jeremy Irons is quite good as Papa Borgia. He chews the scenery just enough to hold our attention, and I like the way he delivers all his lines in a gutteral Boris Karloff impression. But Francois Arnaud makes for a very colorless Cesare Borgia, and the Lucrezia Borgia enacted by Holliday Grainger is long on pretty, short on poison.

The settings— many of them staged in old cathedrals in Eastern Europe— are often amazingly beautiful. The costumes and stuff are nice to look at, too. Some very capable special effects bring a French army of 25,000 soldiers to vivid life. There’s always something happening. But none of it ever draws you in.

An ounce of hokum would’ve gone a long way.


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Posted by on July 8, 2012 in 2000s Shows


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My Television Diary: 7/1/12

The tailor’s dummy is not happy.

Thriller (2:04, “The Weird Tailor”) October 16, 1961

I’ve always liked The Twilight Zone, but the contrarian in me has begun to rebel against its exalted reputation. And as a matter of fact, the show does have its shortcomings. Rod Serling wrote a lot of scripts that were earnest but preachy, and the show did a lot of stories that were basically a long set-up for a twist ending— and while some of those were memorable (“It’s a cookbook!”), others weren’t, and once you’re tuned into the world of Twilight Zone you begin to anticipate those endings long before they arrive.

Anyway, I’ve been keeping my Twilight Zone discs on the shelf and trying out Serling’s competitors. The Outer Limits leans more heavily toward science fiction but is still the closest thing to an outright Zone imitation, though its hour-long format makes for a lot of padded-out stories. Alfred Hitchcock Presents tethers itself so tightly to the conventional murder mystery that you have to watch a lot of them to find one that really stands out. One Step Beyond is a milder series, never very interested in scaring or shocking you, but it’s better than any of the others at drawing you into the paranormal. You don’t get a lot of guys in rubber monster suits, but you are more likely to get a story that lingers in your memory. And then there’s Thriller.

Thriller started out as a Hitchcock imitation, but after its first season produced middling ratings, Revue replaced the creative team. The ratings still didn’t come to life, and the second season would be its last— but it produced some of the creepiest, most effective horror/fantasy television of the Golden Age.

You don’t want to step inside that five-pointed star.

“The Weird Tailor” really hits the bulls-eye, with a script by Robert Bloch (based on his short story), strong direction from Herschel Daugherty, and fine performances from Henry Jones and Sondra Blake (in her earliest known TV role).

I want to step carefully here, and not give away any spoilers. But this episode involves sudden death during a Satanic ritual, and a used-car salesman peddling an ancient book on black magic… all before the story really gets rolling! It’s one unexpected turn after another until the end. (Okay, the topper wasn’t hard to see coming, but it was effective just the same.)

I don’t know how in the world NBC wasn’t inundated by protest letters about the Satanic ritual scene. Not only is it presented as an effective way to conjure up a supernatural power (as opposed to the Scooby-Doo approach, in which it would all turn out to be an elaborate hoax)— it’s a SATANIC RITUAL on NETWORK TELEVISION in JOHN F. KENNEDY’S AMERICA.

But apparently you could get away with a lot, when most viewers were busy watching Ben Casey.

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This will be tough to explain to Ward and June.

Adam-12 (3:05, “Cigarettes, Cars and Wild, Wild Women”) October 17, 1970

I’ve already run on at length about Adam-12, and while it’s an unbeatable show to watch while devouring pizza and ice cream on a Sunday afternoon, you don’t expect it to present a familiar face from another series.

So I was surprised to find the instantly-recognizable Tony Dow in this episode. Here he’s a soldier, just returned from Vietnam and driving a new car with only eight miles on the speedometer, when he picks up a hitchhiker in a miniskirt. Almost immediately she asks him to pull over, hop out and buy her a pack of smokes— and when he does, she steals the car.

You’d expect this to happen to Lumpy Rutherford or Eddie Haskell, but not to a Cleaver. No wonder the embarrassed corporal claims to be “Wayne Miller.” Somewhere the Beaver must be laughing his ass off.

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Tough crowd— a premature baby in the hospital only rates a 5 on the applause meter.

Queen for a Day, undated episode (fall 1960)

When is a game show not a game show? When the “game” is to confess to a nationwide television audience how miserable your life is, in hopes that the audience will find your misery sadder and more ghastly than that of the other contestants. The “winner” gets a bunch of prizes.

Queen for a Day began a twelve-year run on radio in 1945. Its producers flirted with a television version very early on, telecasting the radio proceedings in May 1947 on an experimental basis. From there it grew to a separate TV production in 1950 in the Los Angeles market, which was soon picked up by other stations on the West Coast. In early 1956 it went national, airing on NBC until September 1960 and then on ABC until 1964.

Apparently it was never the practice to film kinescopes of Queen for a Day, and as a result only a handful of TV episodes still exist. Judging from a plug for the new movie Spartacus, this particular episode must date to late 1960. It bears an ABC trademark, so it’s got to be one of the earliest ABC episodes, possibly the very first one. You can see it on YouTube.

Anyway, a tackier, more exploitative show would be hard to imagine. Producer Howard Blake recalled in 1966, “Sure, Queen for a Day was vulgar and sleazy and filled with bathos and bad taste. That was why it was so successful; it was exactly what the general public wanted.”

Let’s dive in. Contestant #1 is Viva Birch of San Bernardino, a grim-looking middle-aged woman. She’d been a waitress for 25 years, until her legs gave out and she needed surgery on them. She’s out of the hospital now, but her salesman husband isn’t making any money, she’s trying to raise two kids and one of them is “all crippled up with cerebral palsy.” If the audience crowns her Queen for a Day, she hopes to win a wheelchair and an exercise bike for him. Host Jack Bailey feigns sympathy and peppers her with questions before it’s abruptly time for a commercial break.

Contestant #2 is Kate McGrath of Canoga Park. She was already the mother of four young children when she gave birth to triplet preemies. The heaviest of the triplets was only five pounds at birth, and is now in the hospital. She hopes to win diaper service for her children.

Contestant #3 is Marguerite Hilton of Van Nuys, a professional caregiver. That’s sadly ironic, because not only has her invalid employer died, but her parents, husband and two handicapped children have all died as well. She would like to win a vacation. (Perhaps in a country that won’t send her back to face charges of multiple homicide.)

This must be the happiest day of her life.

Contestant #4 is a chipper North Hollywood housewife named Arlene Harding. Life’s been relatively generous to Arlene. She has three kids, two of whom are in the Navy—- they bring home their sailor buddies every weekend. She hopes to win “bunking equipment” so she can accommodate all the weekend visitors.

The show is heavily weighted by commercial pitches, and after the umpteenth commercial break, it’s time for the voting. The people in the audience are asked to applaud for their favorite. As they do, the camera pans from one contestant to another and an “applause meter” indicates who’s getting the loudest reception.

Perhaps significantly, the one contestant who never smiled becomes the winner— Contestant #1. She is crowned, seated upon a throne and presented with an abundance of roses. Host Jack Bailey now feigns delight and begins reading off a long list of prizes she’s won. Her expression— that of a woman who’s been to heartbreak hell and back— seldom changes.

I’ll bet Bob Barker never gave away a wheelchair.

Leading off the prize parade is a new wheelchair for her son. Before you can wonder how it is that the producers happened to have a shiny new wheelchair waiting backstage for the one and only contestant with a use for it, the cascade of presents continues— a tour of Hollywood, a camera, a slide projector, a gift certificate for the Spiegel catalog, some kitchen appliances, some cookware, a sewing machine, a dishwasher, and a freezer stocked with enough frozen dinners to last her family a month. (Happily, one of the sponsors is Ex-Lax, whose product is sure to come in handy.)

Apart from the wheelchair, none of these prizes will improve her lot in life. She’s still going to be broke, with bad legs, a handicapped child and a very uncertain future.

The other contestants will be returning to the living hell of their daily lives too. The token consolation prizes include an electric griddle, a meat grinder, a floor polisher and a bottle of perfume— none of which will be of much use when visiting a sickly baby in the hospital.

Queen for a Day was telecast from the Moulin Rouge Theater in Hollywood (6230 Sunset Boulevard). Contestants were simply selected from the hundreds of hopefuls who turned up to see the show. The convenient appearance of the wheelchair tells me that the “applause meter” may have been a scam, that the winner was pre-determined. If so, it’s yet another sleazy element in a show that’s already full of them, but at least it was nice of the producers to offer one prize that would be of practical use in the sad life of a contestant.

All the other prizes were provided free by the sponsors, in exchange for a plug. Queen for a Day was a popular show, and evidently the producers were raking in the money. Would it have been too much to ask for cash grants from the sponsors, instead of their useless, pointless products— so the contestants could be presented with enough money to cover, say, a hospital bill… with the sponsor’s compliments?

I guess show business doesn’t work that way. And in fairness, a few contestants may have invented their sad stories in hopes of scoring that free dishwasher.

But not all of them. One contestant on the radio show was a concentration camp survivor who hoped to have the identification tattoo removed from her arm. I don’t know if she got her wish or not, but I’d like to think she did. Not even a show as crass as Queen for a Day could’ve let her leave with just a floor polisher.

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Posted by on July 1, 2012 in My Television Diary


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