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Category Archives: 1980s Shows

Most Memorable Moments

06.05.16 - CHiPs 2

When you watch a lot of vintage TV in a sleepy trance long past your bedtime, you find that certain moments make a strong impression— moments that poke the imagination or stir an old memory. These were the five most memorable moments from the eighty-odd vintage shows I watched last month.

It plays better when you can hear the crunching metal.

It plays better when you can hear the crunching metal.

Elephant Squashes a Police CarCHiPs (1:10, “Highway Robbery,” December 1977) – This series ran out of gas long before it left the air, but a lot of weird things pop up in the early episodes. In this one, a circus guy is transporting an elephant on the freeway, which gets loose and lumbers around until it’s finally caught— but not before it caves in the hood of a police car by sitting on it.

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Molly MusicThe Days and Nights of Molly Dodd (1:01, “Here’s Why Cosmetics Should Come in Unbreakable Bottles,” May 1987) – This NBC “dramedy” was a big favorite of mine in the late ‘80s, but I hadn’t seen so much as a clip in the last quarter-century. Because of music clearance issues, it’s never had an official DVD release and it may never get one. I went ahead and bought a set on the bootleg market, fully aware that it would consist of second- or third-generation VHS dubs. Someday I’ll write up a guide to vintage TV bootlegs, or just a review of this particular show. But for now, I’ll just say that it was magical to pop the first disc into the machine and hear the Molly Dodd theme music again after all those years. It’s lilting but jazzy, a little like the Jeeves and Wooster theme (See? I do watch more than just westerns and cop shows). I was surprised to find that I remembered the tune completely, along with the visual vignettes that accompany it. Funny how much you remember without realizing it.

Ah, Molly. I never forgot you.

Ah, Molly. I never forgot you.

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The Beast of Big Ghost BasinCheyenne (2:14, “Big Ghost Basin,” March 1957) – This was definitely an offbeat episode of the Warner Bros. western, really more of a mystery story. A bloodthirsty beast has been attacking people in the middle of the night out in Big Ghost Basin. Nearly everyone who’s encountered it has been crushed to death by it, so no one really knows who (or what) the beast is. It can’t be a bear, because it leaves no claw marks.

While watching this, I was apprehensive that the monster would turn out to be something stupid, like a rustler in a costume or something. But I was hopeful that it would be a cool-looking Sasquatch-like creature. After all, Warner Bros. had some money to spend, and Cheyenne was the studio’s top TV attraction at the time. The suspense builds as the episode slowly reaches its climax. Cheyenne hides out in the Basin with his rifle, ready to stop the monster’s killing spree. He confronts the beast, and kills it with multiple rifle blasts just as it’s about to charge.

That's one savage rug.

That’s one savage rug.

So what does the monster turn out to be? A bear. What? Wait a minute— why doesn’t it have any claws, then? Because this bear, we’re told, had been caught in a forest fire, which burned off his claws and made him really mean. Are they kidding? I stayed up past midnight for this? And when we get to see the thing, it’s nothing but a guy draped in a bearskin rug (funny how the fire burned off his claws but not his fur).

This episode wasn’t the worst thing I watched all month— that prize goes to The Hitchhiker (5:07, “The Miracle of Alice Ames,” July 1989)— but after that great build-up, it was the most disappointing.

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Ponch’s Hot DateCHiPs – The same episode I mentioned above had a remarkable conclusion. Remarkably creepy, that is. Our Highway Patrolman hero Ponch has spent the whole episode lusting after the hot billboard model whose portrait appears in suntan lotion ads all over town. He can’t stop talking about how much he’d love to go out with her, and we can guess what’s running through his imagination. Well, by a wacky coincidence, Ponch’s supervisor is friends with her family. He sets up a blind date.

Blind dates can be awkward.

Blind dates can be awkward.

When Ponch shows up at the girl’s house with a bouquet of roses, he meets her and beholds the same familiar face, that of a 25-year-old woman. But— surprise! She’s got the body of a ten-year-old girl. How old is she? “Fifteen… on my next birthday,” she smiles, taking Ponch’s arm and cozying up to him. (The very odd-looking actress is Wendy Fredericks, in her only known role apart from a failed pilot.) She’s wearing a little pair of shorts and knee socks.

Ponch’s patrolmen pals, his supervisor, and even the girl’s father are all on hand with big grins on their faces. What’s even creepier is that they’re holding cocktails and smoking cigars, as if they’re eager to watch what happens next. That’s where the episode ends.

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Dan Tanna’s DriveVega$ (1:01, “Centerfold,” September 1978) – The great supporting cast includes Morey Amsterdam, Tony Curtis, Abe Vigoda and Vic Tayback, but the really remarkable moment in this show had nothing to do with them, and almost nothing to do with the plot. Never mind the details, but it’s sort of a side-plot, involving the hero’s efforts to find a missing lion (yes, in Las Vegas). Eventually he does, and we’re treated to shots of star Robert Urich driving down the Strip in an open convertible with a live lion in the passenger seat. No process shots, no rear-projection (and no stagehand wearing a lion-skin rug, either); it’s real, surreal, and pure Aaron Spelling. That’s showmanship!

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Have lion, will travel.

Have lion, will travel.

Honor roll: I watched more than eighty episodes of vintage TV last month, and these were the five I liked best:

Lawman (2:35, “The Swamper,” June 1960)

Adam-12 (4:11, “Assassination,” December 1971)

Dallas (7:30, “End Game,” May 1984)

Jake and the Fatman (1:06, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” October 1987)

Frasier (2:07, “The Candidate,” November 1984)

06.05.16 - CHiPs elephant 2

 

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TV Shows Referencing Other TV Shows

05.01.16 - Emergency

TV shows nowadays refer to each other all the time. A character on 30 Rock mentions Community. A character on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air mentions Saved by the Bell. Characters on The Simpsons and Family Guy mention other shows on a regular basis.

Society has become saturated with pop culture, and TV simply reflects that reality. But it hasn’t always been this way.

Go back further— past the last twenty years— and these references become much more rare (at least if we exclude stuff like parody sketches on variety shows). In vintage television, a character might watch TV or talk about a TV show, but it’ll almost invariably be a non-existent show. Even a station’s call letters are fictional. Why? I can understand why phone numbers in Televisionland always begin with 555, but why is it so wrong to mention an actual show that viewers might recognize?

05.01.16 - I Love LucyThere are exceptions to the rule. The most conspicuous is probably I Love Lucy (6:13, “Lucy and Superman,” January 1957) with George Reeves, which is all the more unusual because his The Adventures of Superman was still on the air, and not on the same network. Another familiar reference can be found on The Honeymooners (1:01, “TV or Not TV,” October 1955), in which Norton watches Captain Video. The Honeymooners was on CBS, and Captain Video was on DuMont… or at least it had been. The dying DuMont had cancelled the show six months before Norton turned his set on, but I guess that’s the magic of television for you.

On The Patty Duke Show (1:7, “The Babysitters,” October 1963), Patty babysits a little brat who keeps shouting “I wanna watch Wagon Train! I wanna watch Wagon Train!” That venerable western was still on the air at the time, but without Ward Bond it was lumbering toward cancellation. Patty was whipping it in the ratings, and it had moved over to her network (ABC) anyway, so mentioning it on her show wasn’t exactly plugging the competition.

05.01.16 - Emergency2On Emergency! (1:10, “Hang-Up,” April 1972), the guys at Station 51 are seen enjoying Adam-12 on their TV— and it’s not just a dummy voice-over, but a lengthy clip from the climax of a recent episode (4:08, “Ambush,” November 1971). An emergency call comes in and the guys have to rush away, leaving woebegone Fireman Gage to spend the rest of the show wondering how that Adam-12 episode ended. Ultimately, in a moment of tranquil enlightenment worthy of Kung Fu‘s Kwai Chang Caine, he resigns himself to the need to just wait for the re-run.

Both shows were produced by Jack Webb’s Mark VII Limited and aired on NBC, so the plug makes sense from a business standpoint. Oddly, though, the stars of Adam-12 had already appeared (in character) in the Emergency! pilot. Months later, everyone from Emergency! would appear (in character) on Adam-12 (5:4, “Lost and Found,” October 1972). The fact that these shows exist in overlapping fictional and real-life universes is something even Kwai Chang Caine couldn’t have wrapped his head around.

05.01.16 - CHiPsMore straightforward is an episode of CHiPs (1:09, “Hustle,” November 1977) in which highway patrolmen Jon and Ponch pull over a driver who turns out to be Broderick Crawford, star of Highway Patrol from twenty years earlier. It’s not Crawford’s character who gets pulled over (fat chance of that ever happening), but the actor who played him. Ponch is overjoyed and peppers the visibly annoyed Crawford with old Highway Patrol dialogue. “I don’t believe it! ‘Twenty-one-fifty, over!’ Right? Right?… Boy oh boy… I’ve watched you for years, over and over and over…”

Crawford tries to ignore Ponch, turns to Jon and drawls, “You know, I was making those Highway Patrol shows long before you were born.” Jon replies, “Yeah, they don’t make TV shows like that anymore.” As an in-joke it falls a little flat, because CHiPs isn’t Highway Patrol on motorcycles— it’s Adam-12 on motorcycles with a dash of Car 54, Where Are You? thrown in.

‘Fifties nostalgia was the bread and butter of Happy Days (at least in its early seasons, when the show was worth watching). That included several nods to the TV of the era, most conspicuously the time You Asked for It comes to town to televise Fonzie’s motorcycle stunt (3:3, “Fearless Fonzarelli,” September 1975), and the time Richie attends a Howdy Doody telecast (2:17, “The Howdy Doody Show,” February 1975). Happy Days gets bonus points for bringing in Jack Smith and Buffalo Bob Smith to appear as themselves, but I’d have liked to see Broderick Crawford confront Fonzie even better.

The references I like best are oblique, unspoken. There’s a late episode of Dallas (I think it’s 14:13, “90265,” February 1991) in which a character disdainfully drops hints about a TV show with a backwards-talking dwarf. That’s obviously Twin Peaks, which was waging a doomed struggle to avoid cancellation at the time. Perhaps the fact that Dallas and Twin Peaks were on competing networks (CBS and ABC respectively) explains why the title remained unspoken.

Later, Dallas itself would be subtly referenced, on Walker, Texas Ranger (3:17, “Blue Movies,” February 1995). One character mentions J.R. Ewing in passing, but there are other clues suggesting that this was almost a tribute episode. Making one-shot guest appearances were Howard Keel and Cathy Podewell, former Dallas stars, and the skyscraper housing the office of Dallas’ perennial gadfly Cliff Barnes is prominently seen. Since Walker was produced by longtime Dallas showrunner Leonard Katzman— and this episode was directed by veteran Dallas director Michael Preece— it was inevitable that a little homage would be paid.

Oblique references aren’t always so sentimental. There’s an early episode of Vega$ (1:08, “The Pageant,” November 1978), in which the central character, detective Dan Tanna, is hired by a man who wants to find the thug who beat and raped his daughter. The man is played by Robert Reed, the father of The Brady Bunch; the daughter is played by Maureen McCormick, his Brady daughter. There’s no way that was just a crazy coincidence. Maybe someone in the casting office had a sick sense of humor, but we can at least be grateful that Reed wasn’t hired to play the rapist.

Someone wants to watch Wagon Train.

Someone wants to watch Wagon Train.

 

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Ten Pleasant Surprises

As a companion piece to last week’s post, here are ten shows I liked. They’re not the greatest shows. They’re not even necessarily among my top favorites. But each of them turned out to be a lot better than I expected.

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04.17.16 - Bat MastersonBat Masterson (1958-1961) – A surprisingly slick-looking western from Ziv, with far better-looking costumes and sets than you’ll find in the typical TV oater, Bat Masterson is a real standout. As played by Gene Barry, Bat is an unusual western hero. He’s a cultured gentleman in the William Powell tradition, roaming the West and finding adventure everywhere. He’d rather dispatch the villain with one swing of his silver-tipped walking cane than with a six-shooter, and he’d rather beat a crook at his own game than simply call for the sheriff to arrest him. Barry plays nearly every scene with a twinkle in his eye, and although I tend to prefer two-fisted westerns, Bat Masterson is an unexpected delight, thanks largely to the finesse of his confident, genial performance. It’s the ideal western for people who normally don’t care for westerns (which seems to be nearly everybody these days), and for western fans who are ready for a fresh approach.

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04.17.16 - I Led 3 LivesI Led 3 Lives (1953-1956) – What circulates of this show is sold under the counter from collector/dealers, and the image quality isn’t as good as I’d like. But it’s strangely compelling, presenting the adventures of “Comrade Herb” Philbrick and his dealings with communist subversives in Eisenhower’s Middle America. Our traitor is actually working for the FBI, gathering information and passing it along so the bad guys can be rounded up (typically just as they’re on the verge of discovering his identity and killing him). The show was produced by Ziv right alongside Highway Patrol, which instantly became a durable favorite in syndication. But I Lived 3 Lives collapsed into obscurity, as anti-communism gradually became something most Americans snickered at. Maybe the show got silly later on, but the episodes I’ve seen are surprisingly suspenseful, and vastly more interesting than the avalanche of “secret agent” shows that came along a decade later. I Led 3 Lives was based on a book by the real-life Herbert Philbrick, who really was an undercover operative for the FBI and really did help bring down enemy agents, and those realities keep the show (however barely) from descending into camp self-parody. It’s easy to be amused today, watching Joe Friday lecture hippies on Dragnet about the dangers of marijuana, but the historical reality behind I Led 3 Lives insulates it from the same condescension… somewhat.

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04.17.16 - Jake and the FatmanJake and the Fatman (1987-1992) – Admittedly I’ve only seen the earliest episodes, but you can’t blame me for that; CBS DVD released only the first two seasons (a scant 32 episodes combined) before giving up and locking the vault. The majority of the show’s episodes are out of view, and even the bootleggers don’t seem to have them. I began watching the first season on the hunch that it’d be worth a try. After all, I already loved William Conrad from Cannon and radio’s Gunsmoke, so I knew he wouldn’t disappoint as a cranky prosecutor in Jake and the Fatman— and he doesn’t. The really pleasant surprises are Joe Penny as his suave investigative cohort, and the brisk, witty scripts. Wisely, the producers leave all the legwork to Penny; half of the corpulent Conrad’s scenes are delivered while sitting down or leaning against the witness stand. He could be fairly spry back in his Cannon days, but by this point he’s very heavy, and I bet he waddles across a courtroom pretty slowly in these final seasons. During its original run, Jake and the Fatman was regularly paddled in the ratings by the likes of Night Court and Doogie Howser, M.D.; it also underwent a second-season change of locale, and some turbulence in the producers’ office. In spite of all that, what I’ve seen has been very, very good, and now I love William Conrad more than ever.

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04.17.16 - Make Room for DaddyMake Room for Daddy (1953-1956) – The syndication package and official DVDs of The Danny Thomas Show begin with the show’s fourth season (1956-1957). I’d never seen anything of it until fairly recently, but I enjoyed it, and it got me curious about those missing three seasons. During that period, it was known as Make Room for Daddy, a sitcom about a nightclub singer, his homemaker wife and their two small children. You have to dig a little to find episodes of Daddy, but those I’ve seen are terrific. The most obvious difference between Daddy and the Thomas Show is the presence of Jean Hagen as Danny’s wife. Hagen and Thomas didn’t get along, and as soon as her three-year contract was up, she was gone like spit on a skillet. Surprisingly, she really doesn’t make a very vivid impression in those episodes of Daddy (maybe that’s why she was so unhappy, I don’t know). What does distinguish them are the performances of the children, Sherry Jackson and especially Rusty Hamer. In the first season, Hamer is so tiny that you’d hardly expect him to know his lines, but in fact his comic timing and delivery are outstanding, and he regularly gets bigger laughs than the star. In later seasons, he’s less compelling as he gets older, less cute and less precocious (and as the show truly becomes The Danny Thomas Show in every sense) But the talent is undeniably there, which makes his 1990 suicide all the more tragic. He’s hardly the only thing that’s appealing about Make Room for Daddy, which benefits from some sharp writing as well as Sheldon Leonard’s flair for sitcom production. But he’s definitely the most memorable.

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04.17.16 - Racket SquadRacket Squad (1951-1953) – Hal Roach Studios had a wonderful twenty-year golden age from roughly 1918 to 1938, producing some of the most beloved comedies in film history. But the studio limped into the 1950s as a hub for some very low-rent television production, much of it pretty bad (watch any episode of The Trouble with Father to see how painful 1950s TV could be). Racket Squad was one of its few successes, and ironically the dim lighting and skimpy sets helped rather than hurt it. The show looks so cheap that you pity the people participating in it, but the rock-bottom budget creates a noirish look that’s just perfect for Racket Squad’s shadowy underworld of scam artists and the bunko schemes they run in the bad part of town. The con games are patiently dramatized in full detail, and are sometimes elaborate. Unlike almost every other crime show, Racket Squad is more about the workings of a criminal operation than about the process of gathering evidence and catching bad guys. In fact, the “squad” consists of one officer, “Captain Braddock” (Reed Hadley), who mainly just narrates each episode before stepping in during the final scene to nab the con man. Hadley delivers his lines as if he’s doing a radio drama, clearly enunciating every syllable in a rich velvety voice, and while some will snicker at the old-timey style of his performance, he’s one of my favorite things about the show. You kind of need to be in the mood for Racket Squad. But I don’t think I’ve seen a bad episode yet.

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04.17.16 - Real McCoys, TheThe Real McCoys (1957-1963) – TV history is crowded with situation comedies that never make you laugh, but which are beloved anyway for the characters in them. I usually hate those shows: I might be the only TV buff in America who can’t stand I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, The Munsters, Hogan’s Heroes and the rest of those contrived, heavily laugh-tracked sitcoms. To me, they’re just not funny, and the only interesting character in the lot runs a concentration camp. Maybe I’m just cold on that whole era, because there are sitcoms of the Eisenhower years that aren’t laugh riots either, yet I have far more patience with them (Bachelor Father and The Donna Reed Show, for example). The Real McCoys is usually good for a smile, at least, and I really love the characters in it. In fact, I guess I love The Real McCoys the way everyone else loves The Andy Griffith Show. Americana, country people and rural values all appeal to me. The McCoys are a family of West Virginians who’ve inherited a farm in California’s San Fernando Valley, which was largely agricultural back then. Walter Brennan is his crotchety best as family patriarch Amos McCoy, but regular viewers soon discover that the character is confined by sitcom conventions. You’ll see irascible Amos, headstrong Amos, contrite Amos and reflective Amos, roughly in that order and seldom in any other varieties, but he’s very endearing. Even more lovable is Kathy Nolan as the young wife of the family, and her departure after the fifth season thrust a pitchfork through the heart of the show. Unforgivably, her character’s absence would go basically unexplained in the sixth and final season— not that anyone was paying attention by then, as the show had been moved into a timeslot against Bonanza, which destroyed it in the ratings. But really, the producers’ indifference had killed it already. In its early seasons, The Real McCoys is a pretty good little sitcom, with the potential to be much more. Yes, the scripts are usually boilerplate and it’s lumbered with a laugh track it doesn’t need, but there’s also a sweetness that’s missing from most of TV’s funnier and better-remembered comedies.

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04.17.16 - Simon and SimonSimon and Simon (1981-1989) – I only started watching this show when I learned that it was set in my old home town of San Diego. After being spoiled by the fabulous wall-to-wall location shooting of The Streets of San Francisco, I was disappointed to find very little of San Diego in Simon and Simon’s first season (despite what Wikipedia says). I also found the show to be pretty unfocused in its early episodes. But then it began to grow on me. The two leads are likable and have a good rapport with each other; Gerald McRaney is particularly good. I don’t usually care much for detective shows, but this one takes itself lightly, it has a sense of humor, and it avoids going overboard with gunplay and socks to the jaw. It’s about a pair of brothers who run a small detective agency. Like Jim Rockford of The Rockford Files, Simon & Simon always get their man but you have to wonder if they’ll be able to make the next car payment. Come to think of it, this is a great detective show for female viewers; not because the two leads are pretty-boys (they aren’t), but because the show is more interested in the relationship between them than in high-speed chases and exploding sports cars. That’s not to say that this is the thirtysomething of detective shows, only that neither of these guys is another Mike Hammer— nor do they need to be. I only watch Simon and Simon about once a month, but I always look forward to another hour with Rick and A.J. Just skip the first nine or ten episodes.

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04.17.16 - SpartacusSpartacus (2010-2013) – I don’t watch super-hero movies. I get bored with the endless cartoony fight scenes, thudding soundtracks and oversaturated special effects.  That’s why I was surprised by how well I liked Starz’ Spartacus series. It’s got all of the above, with lots of gratuitous sex and brutality besides. Maybe what saved the show for me was that it’s rooted in history rather than in comic books. I’d found HBO’s expensive series Rome to be lugubrious and uninvolving, but Spartacus has you empathizing with the characters, while doing a better job of explaining the social dynamics of the Roman Empire than you’d expect. But make no mistake: this is anything but dry and intellectual material. You’re seldom more than ten minutes away from the next bloody gladiator sword fight, and you’ll get plenty of naked slave girls, back-stabbing palace intrigue and savage arena battles, all with just enough variation to keep the material fresh. (There are way too many shots of blood spurting out of guys’ mouths in sloooooooow motion, though.) The first season (Spartacus: Blood and Sand) is the best, thanks largely to Andy Whitfield in the leading role. Tragically, unbelievably, Whitfield developed lymphoma before the first season was even off the air, and died a year or so later. He was replaced in the second and third seasons by Liam McIntyre, who’s good but not quite up to Whitfield’s standard. Several of the other actors (notably Peter Mensah) are superb. The final (third) season is almost a re-tooling of the show, in which Spartacus and his gladiator friends lead a slave revolt across Italy, climaxing in a showdown with the army of Julius Caesar. If you know your ancient history, you know how the story ends. That ultimate confrontation is as good as anything in the whole series, but that final season suffers from the absence of some key characters who’d been killed off in earlier seasons. Perhaps to make up for their loss, a lot of attention is lavished on the young Caesar, so much so that I hoped the series would go marching along as a showcase for his adventures, but alas, no.

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04.17.16 - Starsky and HutchStarsky and Hutch (1975-1979) – This show’s whole premise eventually became a cliché: a pair of snarky undercover cops in a fast car bust some heads and bring down the bad guys, week after week. Worse, you really have to work overtime suspending disbelief when watching this show. Starsky and Hutch never have to fill out reports, their car always looks pristine, and most of their investigative work consists of asking their Skid Row pal Huggy Bear what the word on the street is. But in the hands of producers Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg, this wheezy material becomes a lot of fun. The stars have good chemistry, the plots are just involved enough to keep you engaged, and there are car chases and fist fights galore. I’m fascinated by all the location shots in the most wretched areas of 1970s downtown Los Angeles, and I love Lalo Schifrin’s rumbling, ominous theme music and how the stories race along from start to finish. Better yet, the show is a goldmine for appearances by future stars on the rise (Suzanne Somers, Jeff Goldblum, John Ritter) and past stars on the way down (Lola Albright, Joan Blondell, Jose Ferrer, Sylvia Sidney). It’s the television equivalent of a greasy burger and fries, but hey… sometimes that’s what you’re hungry for.

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04.17.16 - Texan, TheThe Texan (1958-1960) – Taciturn western heroes were all over the dial during the Eisenhower/Kennedy era. Most of them failed to really stand out, but one who does is Rory Calhoun of The Texan. He’s got a penetrating stare and when he barks a command, people jump. In the very next scene, he can project warmth and a calm sort of amiability. He’s got a lot of star power, and I don’t know why he isn’t regarded more highly today. Maybe he needed to be a couple of inches taller and twenty pounds heavier, I don’t know. But he carries himself as if he could mop the floor with Steve McQueen of Wanted: Dead or Alive, and I bet he could do it. Calhoun co-produced The Texan himself and it’s a first-class show, with very solid scripts and good performances. I hear it began fraying at the seams in the second season (as audiences flipped the dial to ABC for Cheyenne). But I sure like what I’ve seen. You probably already need to like TV westerns to get into The Texan. But if you do, you may have already seen your share of shows that never got very compelling because they lacked a rugged, dynamic star (I’d put Bronco, Destry, Tate and Cimarron City in that category). Calhoun really owns every scene in which he appears— he’s right up there with Richard Boone of Have Gun Will Travel in that regard— and that kind of power makes The Texan a true standout.

 

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Ten Bitter Disappointments

I have to admit right off that I haven’t watched more than a season’s worth of any of these. If the episodes I haven’t seen are markedly better than what I have seen, then I owe an apology to fans of the following:

I thought Jessica Lange was a fine actress until I saw her in this

I thought Jessica Lange was a fine actress until…

American Horror Story (2011-present) – I love horror shows, and I don’t require them to be scary. But I do need to find myself involved in the story, to identify with the characters, and to feel some tension as things unfold. I really wanted to like the acclaimed American Horror Story, and the opening episode was promising. But I really couldn’t get into this show. It wasn’t just a matter of finding the characters cold and annoying. The horror being attempted was of the dark foreboding variety, which works a lot better in a Lovecraft short story than it does on television. The filmmakers’ attempts to jazz things up with random bursts of gory shock violence just muddied the waters. Not only did I not watch the later seasons, I couldn’t bring myself to sit through more than the first four or five episodes before bailing on it. The show has such a devoted following that there’s got to be something there, but I couldn’t see it. Maybe it’s my own fault for not being patient enough to let things unfold, but when the journey is this tedious, I can’t expect the destination to be any different.

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Baretta goes undercover as a gay man (couldn't you tell?)

Baretta goes undercover as a gay man (couldn’t you tell?)

Baretta (1975-1978) – The tough, gritty crime genre was a perfect fit for the downbeat malaise of the 1970s, and Stephen J. Cannell knew how to put a compelling show together. Baretta has all the right ingredients, and I was eager to dive in. It’s tough and gritty all right— and frequently violent, bleak and ugly besides. Baretta is the kind of show where street hookers get beaten up and babies are born addicted to heroin. It’s compelling and it’s got the “social relevancy” that ‘70s producers were so eager to cultivate. But is it entertaining? No, not really, except when police detective Baretta dons one of his many disguises, such as an Hispanic, a black man or a gay man. These performances are so wildly stereotyped that you’ll either find them hilarious or hideously offensive. That might explain why Universal issued just the first season on DVD (a measly twelve episodes at that), and then abandoned the project. A good number of later episodes are on the black market, but I’ve heard that the entire fourth (and final) season has vanished from the face of the earth, possibly a casualty of the big vault fire at Universal Studios in 2008. Anyway, I was quite disappointed to find Baretta isn’t nearly as appealing as I expected, but Robert Blake is so dynamic in it that I’ll probably revisit the show sometime. I’ll probably even find it compelling, and that’s the name of that tune.

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Billy Barty hits a guy in the crotch. Now THAT'S comedy

Billy Barty hits a guy in the crotch. Now THAT’S comedy

Bizarre (1980-1986) – Like Fridays and Mad TV, Bizarre was an ensemble sketch comedy series created in the wake of Saturday Night Live’s success. It had a competitive edge, being a Canadian production (also airing on cable’s Showtime) which happily presented material that would never get past the Standards and Practices desk of an American network. And I don’t mean just a boob or a bad word here and there, but some really weird humor worthy of the show’s title. You never know what’s going to happen next on Bizarre. That and the talent of its appealing lead comedian, John Byner, are the show’s real strengths. You get the exploits of Super Dave Osborne too, but once you’ve seen his same basic joke five or six times, it begins to get stale. The show was shot on a very tight budget, and the evidence is everywhere— the only music consists of about a half-dozen recorded bits, which are re-used endlessly; the sets are tiny and skimpy. For much of its history, the show had only two credited writers. The cast and crew would bang out 24 episodes in 10 weeks every summer, to be aired throughout the year. Under circumstances like that, it’s no wonder that the show is often disappointing. Still, the only deadly weakness of Bizarre is the same as that of all the other sketch comedy shows: not enough funny material with which to fill all that air time. What keeps the show from being forgettable is that when it’s good, it’s really very good. It’s just not that good very often. Had it been given the resources it needed in order to really succeed, it would be legendary today, and I include it among these Ten Bitter Disappointments only because it had the potential to be so much better than it is. (Ten volumes were released on DVD; Volume One is Bizarre at its best, but I’d say the others are for aficionados only.)

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04.09.16 - CheckmateCheckmate (1960-1962) – From the production company of Jack Benny (of all people!) came Checkmate, an offbeat crime show in which three investigators spend the whole program preventing the crime from happening in the first place. And that’s what’s wrong with the show. The most interesting thing that might happen… never does. What’s left are lots and lots of dialogue scenes. The cast is very good (particularly Sebastian Cabot) and the guest stars are truly exceptional, but I kept waiting for it to get fun.

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04.09.16 - Dead Man's GunDead Man’s Gun (1997-1999) – Very few western shows get made anymore, and I’m not sure whether that’s because the audience just isn’t there, or because the current generation of filmmakers doesn’t know how to make them very well. Deadwood gets by on the strength of the acting alone, but the others (Hell on Wheels, The Adventures of Brisco County etc.) tend to offer good action sequences but little more than that. Those shows at least had interesting continuing characters, something necessarily lacking in Dead Man’s Gun, a Canadian-made anthology series. The premise has a lot of potential: a cursed, hand-crafted gun passes from one owner to another, bringing tragedy and death. In the next episode, somebody else has acquired it and the curse continues. The show was filmed at beautiful, lush locations— no western series ever had such green landscapes— and the acting is pretty good, with everyone from Ed Asner to Michael Moriarty popping up. The trouble is that the stories aren’t very interesting. The scripts are so tame that they could’ve passed muster on The Loretta Young Show, and frankly they’d have worked a lot better in a tidy half-hour format rather than the sixty long minutes allotted to them here. It’s not a terrible show. I’d rather watch all 44 episodes back-to-back than sit through another episode of Californication. But it falls so short of its dynamite premise that it ranks as a real disappointment. I do envy whoever ended up with that beautiful prop gun, though.

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04.09.16 - Death Valley DaysDeath Valley Days (1952-1970) – I was eager to sample this show when beautifully restored episodes began airing on Encore Westerns. And to be honest, a couple of them weren’t bad at all. But the others were pretty tedious. Plenty of TV dramas feel draggy in a one-hour format, but this show is only half that length, and the budgets are too skimpy to do the material justice. Worse, none of them were set anywhere near Death Valley, perhaps an unreasonable expectation on my part. Like most of the shows in this list, it’s not a terrible program. I just found it disappointing. Also disappointing: the package airing on Encore Westerns begins with the episodes from 1963 or 1964 onward, because the surviving elements on the earlier seasons weren’t in good enough condition to be used.

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04.09.16 - DynastyDynasty (1981-1989) – I feel guilty about including Dynasty here, because I’m aware that the show was revamped after the first season, and that’s as far as I could get. Well, I did stick around for the second season’s debut, but I still didn’t care for it. The first season presents two families: a blue-collar family of tedious people moaning about their problems, and a wealthy extended family of ugly people who sleep around on each other when they aren’t shouting at each other. After that season, the blue-collar folks mostly go away and Joan Collins comes on board. I promise I’ll revisit this show, and give it an honest try. After all, Dynasty was the most successful of Dallas’ many illegitimate offspring, and I love Dallas. J.R. Ewing does awful things, but he’s such a charming rogue that his misdeeds make him fascinating. From what I’ve seen of Dynasty, the show is packed with people who do just as much scheming and back-stabbing as J.R., but nobody does it with a twinkle in his eye. This show really needs that twinkle.

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Eat this cast!

Eat this cast!

Fear the Walking Dead (2015-present) – I’m a big fan of The Walking Dead. Occasionally it suffers from flagging energy, and its meandering narrative needs a sense of direction. But it’s been such a great show overall that I had high expectations for its pseudo-spinoff Fear the Walking Dead, especially with the same creative mind, Robert Kirkman, on board. The premise of the show is ideal, exploring how the zombie apocalypse got started in the first place. But things go seriously wrong almost immediately. The origins of the zombie invasion never do get spelled out (most of it unfolds in occasional vignettes in the background), and after just a couple of episodes we’re already past the tipping point and the zombies have taken over. Now what we’ve got is basically The Walking Dead with a different locale and a different set of people. Okay. I’d still be fine with that. But what ruins Fear the Walking Dead are the thoroughly unlikable characters and the things they do. The Walking Dead at least has a moral center which keeps us rooting for its characters. But people on Fear do things like torture a young National Guardsman. They do things like herd thousands of zombies into a National Guard camp in hopes of killing everyone in it. When people do this sort of thing on The Walking Dead, they’re the villains and we hate them for it. But with Fear, the protagonists do them, and we’re expected to cheer them on. And it’s not just what they do, it’s who they are that annoys me. Apart from the vicious Hispanic barber, you’ve got the usual family clichés of contemporary TV: the dad’s a dim bulb, the mom is an impossibly smart, resourceful, sensitive Superwoman and their pain-in-the-ass kids are snarky narcissists (the boy’s a junkie as well). By the end of the first season, I was honestly rooting for the zombies to overcome and devour the entire cast. If ever a show needed a major re-tooling, it’s this one.

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Not quite the font to use for a show set in the Old West

I even hated the main title’s font

Laredo (1965-1967) – A bunch of guys have wild times in the Wild West, in a show that veers from comedy to drama and back again, without ever seeming to know what it is and what it’s trying to do. For me it was jarring to get involved in a western drama and have it abruptly turn into slapstick. I didn’t like any of the characters (even the late Peter Brown’s, although I love his earlier show Lawman) and I didn’t like getting the impression that everyone involved is half-drunk and just goofing around while the cameras are rolling. It’s fine for a show to take itself lightly, but it’s still got to take itself seriously. Grab a Bonanza script and an F Troop script and shuffle the pages together, and you’ve got an annoying mess called Laredo.

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Mr. Lucky (1959-1960) – I love Blake Edwards’ Peter Gunn, and knowing that he more or less stepped away from that show to develop this one, I had high hopes. The first episode was all right and the second was better, but then it went into a downward spiral (at least for me). A guy has a boat and is visited by crooks. That’s every episode in a nutshell. I even found Mr. Lucky’s renowned theme music completely forgettable. John Vivyan doesn’t have the charisma to carry the show, and how many times can you watch someone get conked in the back of the head with a pistol before it gets stale? I guess I owe it to the show’s reputation to return to it at some point. But it won’t be anytime soon.04.09.16 - Mr. Lucky

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Of these ten, I’m probably being the most unfair to Mr. Lucky. The one I’m most likely to watch again is Baretta, maybe Bizarre. Next week: Ten Delightful Surprises.

 

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Review: DALLAS, Season 5

I never watched Dallas during its broadcast run, not even once. It just didn’t interest me. But years later, after I got interested in vintage television, I began to suspect that I’d probably like it, if I gave it a chance.

One day, I saw that an eBay dealer was offering the DVD sets of all fourteen seasons as a package deal. On impulse, I put down a decent bid and won the auction. I started watching this epic from its first episode, and nearly a year later I’m still watching it. I’ve gotten interested in other shows, of course— passionate even— but somehow they’ve all found their way to the back burner after a while. But Dallas has held my attention, for 150 episodes and counting. It’s hardly the greatest show of all time, but there’s something addicting about it.

Season 5 aired from October 1981 to April 1982. As always, it juggles multiple storylines of varying duration, keeping ten or twelve leading characters busy for 26 episodes. That alone is pretty remarkable, and it’s one thing that Dallas consistently did right, at least throughout its heyday. The characters aren’t all uniformly fascinating, but the producers seem to have recognized that problem very early on, and the least-interesting of them (good-guy Bobby Ewing and shrewish pain in the ass Sue Ellen) find themselves dealing with the show’s best character (the devious J.R. Ewing) with remarkable frequency.

Early seasons benefited greatly from the presence of the family patriarch, Jock Ewing. Season 5 isn’t so lucky. Jim Davis, who’d spent a lifetime toiling in mundane low-budget westerns, rather unexpectedly brought that character to vibrant, three-dimensional life, right from the very first episode. While I admire Steve Kanaly’s performance as ranch foreman Ray Krebbs, Jim Davis’ work stood alone for its authenticity. He embodied the character so perfectly that I’d always forget I was watching an actor, and for a potboiler melodrama like Dallas, that’s really something. Sadly, Davis discovered while shooting the third season that he had cancer. He fought the disease and kept working, but sadly he succumbed about a year later, and for a surprisingly long time the producers drew a blank about resolving the character.

Deep into Season 5, Jock’s demise is finally spelled out, then prolonged for an uncomfortably long time as matriarch Miss Ellie refuses to accept it. Meanwhile, Bobby is adopting a baby outside the proper legal channels (flushing all his principles for the sake of keeping the missus happy), and his scheming brother J.R. is having troubles of his own.

Dallas is most successful when J.R. is at his worst, and he’s in rare form this season. Back-stabbing his business associates is to be expected, but here he plunges to new depths of jealousy, pettiness, arrogance and cruelty. Better yet, one of his schemes blows out of control so badly that it’s nearly the ruin of himself, his family and Ewing Oil to boot.

The protracted dogfight between J.R. and perennial rival Cliff Barnes is always a Dallas highlight, and it’s frankly what saved this season from burying itself in a morass of domestic issues that never caught my interest. Admittedly, a lot of viewers (maybe most of them) prefer the domestic drama to the boardroom battleground, and in other seasons Dallas really shines with those storylines. But at least in this season, the romantic and parental struggles of the show’s other characters just seemed to meander for months at a time, creating a lot of dramatic smoke but mighty little fire.

No, the main attraction at this fairground is J.R. Ewing, and this season tests the limits of how nasty the character can become without alienating the audience. Dallas walks that tightrope very well. I also enjoyed seeing the return of Dennis Patrick, playing a minor character that had a lot of potential. I have no idea why the producers didn’t bring him aboard more often, but it’s good to see someone whose grin is even more shark-like than Larry Hagman’s. Newly prominent is Howard Keel, a welcome addition and soon to become a regular member of the cast. As usual, the early episodes (shot on location in Dallas) have by far the most visual appeal, and the season winds up with another cliffhanger ending. Season 5 is not quite Dallas at its best, but overall it’s good stuff. I enjoyed it… and dove eagerly into Season 6.

 
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Posted by on April 2, 2012 in 1980s Shows

 

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