RSS

Category Archives: 2000s Shows

Slap Leather!

06.12.16 - GunsmokeVintage TV westerns tend to be violent. Really violent. And considering all the gun violence that rages across the network frontier, it was inevitable that a government official would step in and demand that everybody lay down their firearms. That’s what happens in a Gunsmoke I saw recently (2:25, “Bureaucrat,” March 1957). Marshal Dillon is ordered by a visiting supervisor from Washington to make Dodge City a gun-free zone. The idea is to eliminate the shooting deaths which are a weekly feature of this show.

So far, the script doesn’t care whether you see this as a common-sense step toward public safety, or as an assault on the Second Amendment. The citizens of Dodge see it as a means of being rendered helpless to defend themselves against the sort of people who don’t obey gun laws (or any other laws). I won’t bury you in plot details but in the end, the experiment in gun control is dropped after failing completely.

The script was based on a Gunsmoke radio play by John Meston, offering a muscular defense of frontier justice along with a swat at government intrusion. A lot of these early Gunsmokes are steeped in the grim insecurity of the Cold War, when the threat of sudden death on a massive scale was a very real danger. From that danger come these masculine studies in keeping the wolf from civilization’s door.

If this episode had been from the late-‘60s, written by someone from the Rod Serling – Sterling Silliphant School of Earnest Social Commentary, we’d probably see Dodge City’s loudest gun rights advocate accidentally shoot his own little girl to death. Or maybe he’d lead an angry mob to gun down an Indian suspect (who turns out to be innocent), as the wise old government bureaucrat sighs. Personally, if I have to choose, I prefer the Meston approach, but the level of violence would be about the same either way.

I’m not sure that you can have a really compelling western series without violence. Dramatically, threatened or implied violence can be more effective than the real thing. For example, take this episode of Wanted: Dead or Alive (1:15, “Rawhide Breed,” December 1958), one even grittier than usual for this two-fisted series. Steve McQueen’s bounty hunter character is stranded in the Arizona desert with a companion. Hostile Apaches are scattered everywhere, and the sanctuary of an Army fort is many miles away. McQueen and friend are traveling on foot. They’ll die if they don’t find water. They manage to capture a young Apache, and McQueen tries to intimidate him into revealing the location of the nearest water hole.

Any other show would have the hero shout at the Indian, or appeal to his sense of mercy. But this is Wanted: Dead or Alive, so McQueen threatens to slice the Apache’s nose off.

A scriptwriter from the Serling-Silliphant School would now have McQueen be overwhelmed by remorse for resorting to such a brutal display: “Look what I’ve become! The savage one is me!” He’d recoil in shame and drop to his knees, whereupon the unexpectedly kindly Indian would point out the water hole, and both would drink together.06.12.16 - Wanted Dead Or Alive

But this is a Samuel Peeples script, the product of an earlier era. McQueen never does slice off the truculent Apache’s nose (imagine getting that past Standards and Practices!). He drops the knife with a sigh of resignation— not over his own violent impulses, but because the threat doesn’t work. The first moment McQueen is distracted, the Apache runs away. Soon there are encounters with other Apaches, all of whom are gunned down just before they can kill our protagonists.

There’s no attempt to explain why the Apaches are out for blood. They’re just there to move the action along. Is that bad? Is it lazy writing? Not necessarily. Westerns exist in a universe in which violence spurs action, and actions spur violence. If we can accept those ground rules in Game of Thrones, we can certainly accept them in a ‘50s western. (Admittedly, I’d probably feel differently about this episode if I were of Apache descent.)

The paradox about westerns is that if you take out the violence, all you have left is a travelogue, whereas too much violence reduces your story to a Punch-and-Judy show of monotonous gunfire and men endlessly wincing and falling over. You have to strike the right balance. The producers of Rawhide liked to tackle character studies in which complex people confront their inner demons in a parched landscape, but viewers would write in and complain that they weren’t seeing enough killing (or cattle). Similarly, Chuck Connors recalled how the fans felt a little cheated whenever The Rifleman was able to resolve the week’s conflict without resorting to his awesome rapid-firing rifle.

Some observers would crown the HBO series Deadwood as the greatest TV western of all, and if ever there was an adult western, it’s this one. You get a good measure of historical authenticity, and complex characters whose personalities are revealed slowly over time. Nobody’s purely good or bad, and every relationship includes a degree of conflict. There’s violence to be sure, but primarily there’s misery, a grueling unpleasantness that makes this the least fun western ever. (Its most memorable episode is all about a guy trying to pass a kidney stone, an hour of agony for character and viewer alike.)

Is it art? Maybe. But I guess it’s art that I can get along without. It’s not the level of violence that gets oppressive, but the ugliness and the ennui. There are unforgettable things in Deadwood, but I lost interest in the show. It spends so much time gazing into its own filthy navel that it stopped entertaining me and I drifted away in the middle of the third season.

For the most part, I have even less interest in the antiseptic old kiddie westerns like The Roy Rogers Show and The Gene Autry Show. The dopey sidekicks are incredibly annoying, and the stories tend to be uninspired. I need a western with a little more meat on its bones than that. But there are juvenile westerns worth watching, especially if you really, really like dogs (The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin), horses (Fury, The Adventures of Champion) or trains (Casey Jones).

There are also women’s westerns. Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman is the most conspicuous example, but I’d add Here Come the Brides and Little House on the Prairie to that category and maybe The Big Valley too. The Virginian crosses into that territory pretty frequently as well. There’s nothing wrong with this sub-genre, but it just doesn’t appeal to me and I’m not sure why. There are plenty of shows I like that explore love, relationships and family life. But I don’t want that stuff to crowd out the shoot-outs and the saloon fights, so we’re right back to the dilemma of striking the right balance.

The level of violence isn’t really a concern, at least as long as my young son isn’t watching it with me. I want whatever level of violence the story needs.

For me, the perfect TV western will have the advantages of brevity, authentic location shooting, plenty of action, a hero I can admire, and plots that are complex enough to be intellectually stimulating without sagging under the weight of extraneous detail. Gunsmoke comes close, but it’s too frequently formulaic (stranger comes to town —> conflict ensues —> someone gets killed).

06.12.16 - Have GunA few sentimental favorites aside, a clear winner emerges. It’s Have Gun – Will Travel. It avoids the genre’s fatal extremes: the simple-minded shoot-‘em-up horse operas of the classical tradition, and the tiresome brooding, self-absorbed anti-heroes of the modern. Violence is only used for dramatic impact; it’s there as often as the story requires it, but no more. It’s got Richard Boone and that perfect voice of his.

The show doesn’t preach at me. It isn’t trying to save the world. It’s entertaining without ever being silly. It’s intelligent enough to be compelling without being ponderous. It’s got the authentic western scenery, and at 25 minutes an episode, it moves.

Usually the bad guy gets blown away in the end. Sometimes he only gets exposed, shamed and shunned, which can be just as well. Whatever works.

There are episodes here and there in which Paladin describes how his gun was hand-crafted to his exact specifications to ensure perfect balance. That describes the show itself… perfect balance.

Advertisements
 

Tags: , , ,

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.

……………………………………………………….

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.

……………………………………………………………………..

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.

……………………………………………………………………..

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.

………………………………………………………………………

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.

…………………………………………………………………..

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.

………………………………………………………………………….

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.

………………………………………………………………………..

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.

………………………………………………………………..

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.

……………………………………………………………………………..

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.

………………………………………………………………………….

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.

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

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.

………………………………………………………………

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.

…………………………………………………………………….

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.)

……………………………………………….

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.

………………………………………………………………….

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.

……………………………………………………………

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.

…………………………………………………………….

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.

…………………………………………………………….

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.

…………………………………………………………..

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.

…………………………………………………………….

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

…………………………………………………………….

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.

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

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.

 

 
1 Comment

Posted by on July 8, 2012 in 2000s Shows

 

Tags: ,