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Category Archives: My Television Diary

My Television Diary: 4/3/16

Apart from The People vs. O.J. Simpson and The Walking Dead, I don’t think I’m watching any contemporary shows these days… with one oddball exception: the shows that CNBC has been coming up with lately. The network has more or less invented a new TV genre, businesstainment, to fill its evening timeslots when the markets have closed and Jim Cramer is done yelling his stock tips.

It’s been a rough road for CNBC. All of its early efforts sank quickly into the murky depths of television oblivion, and you can only run so many repeats of Shark Tank before people stop watching. Money Talks (2013-2014) was a standout exception, a reality show following the lives of professional sports bettors in Las Vegas. I didn’t expect to like it, but its central figure, Steve Stevens, is too fascinating not to watch— a fast-talking pitchman who never stops selling his purported skills at picking winning football games. He’s a  21st Century Damon Runyon character.

04.03.16 - Money Talks

Money Talks… but bad publicity talks louder.

The premise is that his boiler room cold-calling team ultimately lands a wealthy gambler who signs on, flies into Vegas, bets heavily on Stevens’ pick, sweats bullets in a luxury hotel suite while watching the game and hopefully wins (with half of the proceeds going to Stevens). I never care much whether the sucker (sorry, client) wins or loses. Just listening to Stevens’ breathless hustle is all the entertainment one could ask for. Unfortunately, Money Talks rolled snake-eyes as soon as his past indictment for wire fraud and subsequent jail time became known. In spite of a growing audience, CNBC abruptly dropped the show and scrubbed its website of any reference to it. (Complete episodes can be found on YouTube.) Ironically, the network’s near-nightly airings of scammer-centric American Greed continue.

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The Profit (2013-present) has proven to be a home run for the network, and while recent episodes have been hit-or-miss, the first season was outstanding and I remain a big fan. Its basic format (wealthy angel investor tries to make small businesses more successful) has been borrowed for the new Billion Dollar Buyer, which looks good so far. Similarly, the formula behind Shark Tank (nervous entrepreneurs hope to wrangle an investment from wealthy backers) has been recycled into West Texas Investors Club (2015-present). In this case, the entrepreneurs are summoned to a dark barn, where a trio of grizzled, drawling and improbably wealthy investors grill them on the details of their businesses. The entrepreneurs look like they mainly just want to escape, and I can’t blame them.

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I think my favorites on this network are a pair of shows which cleverly update the old Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous (1984-1994) format. You may remember Lifestyles, or at least its host Robin Leach (and if you’re like me, you’re wondering why one of the most successful syndicated shows of all time has vanished, with little or nothing available on cable, YouTube or the collectors’ market). Anyway, Secret Lives of the Super Rich (2013-present) profiles the ultra-high-end houses, cars and trinkets that the very, very wealthy spend their money on. The show is diplomatic about whether buying that $200 million super-yacht makes you a master of the universe or a complete idiot; it simply shows you around and lets you make your own judgment. Admittedly, these mansions and sports cars are usually beautiful and highly impressive.

04.03.16 - Filthy Rich Guide

If you’ve got it, flaunt it. Or maybe just squander it.

The show’s success led CNBC to present a me-too program called The Filthy Rich Guide (2014-present) which is roughly the same thing, just dumbed-down somewhat and suggesting an attitude of amused disapproval. Unlike Secret Lives, it uses a lot of stock footage with fast MTV-type editing, accompanied by narration provided by a handful of redundant on-screen commentators. They’re redundant mainly because the show already has a perfectly good host, Robert Torti, an actor who plays the role of spoiled billionaire beautifully. When you first meet him, his impeccably tailored suits, overly-moussed hair and hoity-toity speaking style are irritating. But that’s the joke, and you catch on soon enough. He brings a lot of panache to the role, and I wish there was more of him on the show.

Move over, Cramer. CNBC has a new king.

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Posted by on April 3, 2016 in My Television Diary

 

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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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My Television Diary: 6/10/12

The Rifleman (2:29, “Shotgun Man”), April 12, 1960

I’ve been on a film noir kick lately. I love the style— the shadows, the darkness, the suspense of wondering when the hero’s impending doom will finally come crashing down on him. But as usual for me nowadays, I’d rather get my fix from a tidy 25-minute TV episode than from a movie that pads the same basic story out to three times that length. And I’d rather find something new than watch the same handful of movie classics over and over. But TV noir isn’t as easy to find.

Director Joseph H. Lewis of Gun Crazy fame did a lot of television work, particularly on The Rifleman. He made more than four dozen episodes (nearly a third of the show’s total), and he deserves a lot of credit for making it stand out from all the other TV westerns. Complementing Lewis’ shadow-heavy visual style, and Herschel Burke Gilbert’s somber music, is a recurring theme of impending death. Our rifle-slinging hero Lucas McCain is a magnet for violent, grimly obsessive gunmen itching for death— ostensibly McCain’s death, but in many cases you have to wonder if these guys even care deep down who dies, as long as somebody does.

The “Shotgun Man” of this episode is a half-blind old ex-convict, newly sprung from the pen. His only ambition now is to kill McCain, and he means to do it with a powerful shotgun that never leaves his hand. Whereas McCain’s modified Winchester fires repeatedly with speed and precision, the Shotgun Man’s weapon blows a cannonball-sized hole in anything he shoots at, including chameleon-eyed barfly Jack Elam.

In short, McCain’s Bang! is outclassed by Shotgun’s BLAMM!!!, but our Rifleman has more going for him than just a weapon. Among other qualities, he’s got right on his side. Plus, it’s his show. Shotgun came to town looking for death. He finds it.

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M Squad (1:05, “Face of Evil), October 18, 1957

Death is also busy in Chicago— very busy— and that’s why there’s an M Squad, an elite crime-fighting team of which only one member ever matters. That’s Lt. Frank Ballinger, a police detective played by the young and remarkably lanky Lee Marvin.

M Squad is more reliably noir than just about any other show, and if Dragnet‘s Sgt. Joe Friday had been conceived by Mickey Spillane, he’d be Frank Ballinger. He’s a laconic, street-wise, chain-smoking, fedora-wearing gumshoe in the classic pulp fiction tradition. He gets shot occasionally, and roughs up a suspect when he needs to, but he always gets the job done.

The job this time is to catch a serial killer who’s been roaming one particular neighborhood on sweltering summer nights, killing one woman after another. The husband of one victim looked up at the window and saw the killer, but can only describe what he saw as a “face of evil.” The hunt is on— and it’s a good one, with red herrings and a surprise ending.

I can’t tell you too much more about the episode without giving it all away, but any fan of hard-boiled detective action should enjoy it. On top of everything else, I loved it for the array of character actors, including Werner Klemperer, Madge Blake, Barney Phillips and even Russell Thorson from radio’s I Love a Mystery. Besides, it’s always fun to watch how Lee Marvin moves in these M Squads. His suit disguises how skinny he was in those days, and when he walks his arms swing and sway, like a slack marionette.

If you’ve read the Amazon reviews for the pricy DVD set of the complete M Squad, you know that the image quality leaves something to be desired. The quality varies from episode to episode, and they’ve all been transferred from 16mm prints, since apparently the original 35mm elements are now lost. Somehow these episodes are consistently light on contrast, including this one. (The framegrabs here have been Photoshopped to fix the contrast.) M Squad is such a good show that I recommend it to anyone, but if you’re picky about image quality, you’ll need to be forgiving.

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Gang Busters (2:xx, “The Red Dress”), late 1952

Together again— and for the last time— are Tom Neal and Ann Savage, stars of the landmark noir Detour (1945). I’d like to think that this casting was more than accidental, but it doesn’t seem likely; both were well on their way down the career ladder at this point.

Anyway, Gang Busters was just about the perfect show for them to appear in. Unlike most crime shows of the ’50s, this one is all about the crooks— the police only appear near the end, as faceless, nameless instruments of justice. Until then, crime runs wild. While Gang Busters had been a long-running success on radio, the TV version reminds me more of the carnage-crazy crime comic books of the early 1950s. It’s all about tough guys and rebels who live by their own rules, making lots of easy money by taking it from suckers and chumps, letting the bullets fly where they may. (And then they get killed, or sent to San Quentin.)

Gang Busters appeared throughout most of 1952 in Dragnet‘s time slot, alternating with Jack Webb’s show. Ratings were high, but the show disappeared near the end of the year, and now nobody seems to know why. Maybe NBC was taking heat for the show’s ill-concealed glamorization of crime, or maybe creator Phillips H. Lord was proving too costly or difficult to deal with. Your guess is as good as mine.

Anyway, this is a great episode, though the payoff is a little less than the build-up had promised. Tom Neal walks out of prison and into the arms of his moll (Savage), who’s kept their criminal gang together while he was in stir. She’s got big plans for new heists— and for a romantic future with him. But he’s lost that lovin’ feelin’, and things don’t end well for either of them.

Like the radio version, TV’s Gang Busters always concluded with a “be on the lookout for” announcement about a real-life crook on the loose. Oddly, the choice for this episode is Theodore Cole, an Alcatraz inmate who in 1937 escaped from one of the island’s workshops, reached the cold, current-swept waters of San Francisco Bay and was never again seen in this world.

It might be on YouTube or somewhere, but this episode can be found, in nice shape, on Alpha Video’s Gang Busters Volume 3.

 
 

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My Television Diary: 5/23/12

The Best of The Jimmy Dean Show (highlights, circa 1963), Time-Life Video

Apart from a handful of YouTube clips, and a pair of Best-Of DVDs, there’s very little in circulation from The Jimmy Dean Show. That’s a shame, because this humble little ABC variety series seems to have been pretty good.

It debuted in September 1963 and ran for three seasons. It might have lasted longer, had ABC’s programmers given it a fighting chance. It was moved from Thursdays at 9:00, to Thursdays at 10:00, to Fridays at 10:00, consigned to inevitable ratings defeat at the hands of Perry Mason, The Defenders and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. respectively.

Anyway, until Hee-Haw came along, The Jimmy Dean Show was the television home of mainstream country music in the 1960s. And unlike later variety shows like The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour and The Johnny Cash Show, it seems to have been perfectly willing to keep the music virtually all country, all the time. This DVD includes fine performances by Eddy Arnold and series regular Molly Bee, and a terrific set from Buck Owens and the Buckaroos— reminding us what a great singer/songwriter Buck was, until… well… Hee-Haw. There’s also a delightful interlude with Homer & Jethro, and if you’re guessing from their names that they were just a hayseed Dr. Demento act, you couldn’t be more wrong.

The show did break from country TV tradition in one way, by showcasing mainstream comedians like Don Adams and Jackie Mason— and thankfully so, because as much as I love vintage country music, I find the country comedians (Rod Brasfield, Minnie Pearl, the Duke of Paducah) uniformly excruciating.

Reputation informs us that the reliable comedy highlight of The Jimmy Dean Show was Jim Henson’s early Muppet “Rowlf,” and his scenes in this DVD really bear that out. Yeah, I know— it’s a puppet and you’re not six years old anymore— but Rowlf is funny as hell.

As for Jimmy Dean himself, he’s agreeable and friendly, always slightly nervous but charmingly so. He fidgets at his necktie, as if he’s really not used to wearing one, which I can well imagine. He looks like a cross between James Dean and a non-psychotic Richard Speck, and his singing is better than adequate. (There’s also a noticeable scar over his left eyebrow, and I kept wondering how it got there.) But he’s a very likeable guy, and he had a very likeable show. I wish I could see more of it.

The material on this DVD is all taken from outstanding kinescopes, evidently from Jimmy’s estate.

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The Rosemary Clooney Show: Girl Singer: Songs from the Classic Television Series (highlights, 1956-1957); Concord Records

More or less right at the peak of her career, Rosemary Clooney did a syndicated TV series. It was shot on 35mm in Hollywood, and while it had certain limitations (second-rank guest stars and a lot of dead-on-arrival comedy bits), it could hardly have been better from a musical standpoint. Not only do you get Rosemary at her vocal peak (and looking gorgeous), there’s also harmonizing by the Hi-Los and the music of Nelson Riddle’s orchestra. The arrangements are all Riddle’s too.

The show is a little obscure, but it could still be found in scattered syndication right into the 1980s. Most of its 39 episodes can be found on the collectors’ circuit, transferred from Nth-generation VHS dubs, but they’re for die-hard fans only, as the quality of these bootlegs is pretty rough. Happily, the original 35mm elements survive in beautiful condition, and this Best-Of disc is a worthy tribute. Sound and image are both top-notch.

Admittedly, it’s a bit too much of a video valentine, as each clip is book-ended by modern-day interview footage of Clooney descendants and admirers, gushing at length about her. And gushing. And gushing. Not that I disagree with them, but I’d have gladly traded the bulk of that for another two or three songs.

It would also have been nice to see her working with a few of her guest stars. As I mentioned, most of them were ho-hum, but there were exceptions, like Buster Keaton, Boris Karloff and Julie London.

Rosemary’s career in the 1950s was hectic and productive, but it had to be put on hold during her frequent pregnancies. She was carrying son Gabriel during part of this series’ run, and you can see the evidence in a couple of the clips selected here. Suddenly she no longer appears in glamorous slim-waisted gowns, but in ballooning blouses— and only from the chest up.

Once production on young Gabriel was completed, she returned to the small screen in September 1957, starring in The Lux Show, airing in color on Wednesdays on NBC. Unfortunately for Rosemary, the dial was suddenly crowded with pop singers that season. Perry Como, Gisele Mackenzie, Nat King Cole, Guy Mitchell, Pat Boone, Tennessee Ernie Ford and Dinah Shore all had shows of their own (not to mention the amateur hours, guest shots and Lawrence Welk’s orchestra), and The Lux Show faded away the following spring. Unfortunately for us, it was aired live and very little of it’s in circulation today— and then only in grungy black-and-white kinescopes.

Anyway, this Best-Of from the syndicated Rosemary Clooney Show is a real treat, presenting twenty songs— ballads, show tunes and lots of swinging 1950s pop.

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The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn (August 2004)

Craig Kilborn had been a rising star on ESPN and Comedy Central when he was tapped to replace Tom Snyder on CBS’s The Late Late Show in 1999.

Essentially, the man who hired Kilborn had been David Letterman, whose Worldwide Pants produced the show. While today Letterman may be only a grumpy shadow of his former self, thirty years ago he was a real maverick. As always, being a TV maverick means that some critics like you, others scorn you, and millions of viewers find something else to watch— except for a number of intrigued new fans who stick around, tell their friends, and make a cult favorite out of you.

I was part of that cult from the summer of ’82 onward. I loved the playful eccentricity of the show, the freshness of the humor and the sense that anything might happen. The guests were people you never saw on talk shows— Hal Roach, Viva, Henry Morgan, Tom Waits, Harvey Pekar— and while the show fell into a certain routine after a while, it was always worth watching. And then, Dave jumped to CBS, and suddenly his show went very mainstream. Goodbye, Ka-Mar the Discount Magician… Hello Tom Cruise. It wasn’t a bad show at all, but I lost interest and stopped watching.

Throwaway bit in three.. two…one…

Anyway, Letterman’s clout at CBS is such that the hour after his show more or less belongs to him, and when Tom Snyder left The Late Late Show, Letterman hired Kilborn. In many ways this was a reincarnation of the original Late Night with David Letterman, but Los Angelesized and shrunk down to one-eighth scale.

Once again we got a host that many (or most) of us had never heard of, one who rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. Kilborn’s humor was sharp and spontaneous, but it could also be mean. Whereas the young Letterman had an appealingly Midwestern innocence about him, Kilborn always seemed fully confident in himself, sometimes a bit too much so. Personally, I’ve always liked him, but that opinion was not unanimous.

What really won me over was the style of the comedy. It was like the good old days again. Fresh, different, quirky, sometimes edgy, sometimes silly, and no other show was serving up that flavor of humor.

“I say, young lady— wiggle it. Shake it prop-pah”

The show was set up like a regular late night talk show, but in a tiny studio seating maybe (maybe) 150 people. No band. No announcer, either— the guy introducing the show over the opening credits was Kilborn himself. There were famous guests now and then, but the emphasis seems to have been on fresh faces and beautiful faces (no Larry “Bud” Melman ever emerged from this show).

Kilborn always opened with a short monologue, then repaired to his desk for idle chatter before rolling ahead with “In the News,” which was basically  Weekend Update with an extra layer of sarcasm. I loved all of this. Between or after these segments, there’d be some sort of offbeat comedy bit, which could be absolutely anything. (One night a Kirstie Alley fat joke was swiftly condemned by a midget referee appearing out of nowhere who threw a flag on the play and penalized the host for being out of bounds.) I especially loved the visits from “Sebastian, the Asexual Icon,” a Morrisseyesque character spouting fey pronouncements (Kilborn in librarian glasses and a scarf), but I can’t articulate for you why this was funny. It just was— and I usually found Kilborn as compelling when rambling spontaneously as he was when doing scripted material.

As much as I enjoyed Kilborn’s stuff, I tended to wander away from the show for long periods. A great many of the guests were aimed at a younger demographic than mine, and I usually never knew (or cared) who the hell Akon, Oleta Adams or Shannyn Sossamon were. Some of those unknowns became conventionally famous later on (Danica Patrick, Anna Kournikova), but unlike the unique guests on Letterman’s old show, these people seldom had anything interesting to say.

I was shocked in the late summer of 2004 when Kilborn announced he was leaving the show. It wasn’t a case of being gracefully fired. He was in negotiations to renew his contract when he unexpectedly announced he’d rather move on instead. I hastily recorded some scraps of his last couple weeks of new shows. I wish I’d saved a hundred times as much.

He came back in 2010 for six weeks of a more-or-less doomed early evening talk show on some (but not all) Fox stations, and he’s popped up in a couple of movies, but for the most part he’s kept a very low profile since the end of The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn. He’d like to do a sitcom or something— if it can be done his way, producing or writing it himself— and every now and then something like this is tentatively announced, but somehow nothing comes of it.

Today a really fine talent is ensconced in a Hollywood Hills living room, watching a lot of basketball and waiting for the phone to ring with the right offer. I hope it does.

 
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Posted by on May 23, 2012 in My Television Diary

 

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My Television Diary: 5/16/12

The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. (1:1, pilot), August 27, 1993

I never watched this tongue-in-cheek western during its run, but when it was slammed by the usual finger-waggling do-gooder watchdogs for being the most violent show on TV, I made a mental note to check it out. I’ve finally gotten around to watching the pilot episode, and it’s reasonably good fun. The violence is part shoot-’em-up and part Looney Tunes, really nothing that anyone should’ve gotten worked up over.

Bruce Campbell is appealing, and I loved his Evil Dead movies. But though he tries hard, he’s just not a very good actor. Fortunately, this show is such a circus that acting isn’t something it really needs a lot of. What it does need is non-stop action, and there’s plenty of it here. What it needs less of is the goofball comedy, which must have seemed pretty funny on paper but doesn’t translate to the screen too well.

What really got my attention was the supporting cast. Besides R. Lee Ermey, James Hong and John Astin in fairly substantial roles, you also get a few stars from TV westerns of the past: James Drury (The Virginian), Paul Brinegar (Rawhide), Robert Fuller (Laramie) and Stuart Whitman (Cimarron Strip). Also on hand is old Sierra Number 3, the same locomotive that starred in everything from Petticoat Junction to Casey Jones to Iron Horse. There’s even a Barnabas Collins wolf’s-head cane on display. I was less happy with the cast members who carried on into the regular series— Kelly Rutherford is terrific as a crafty saloon vixen, but Julius Carry is loudly annoying as Brisco’s inevitable black sidekick.

Anyway, this would be a better show if it took itself more seriously. It wants to be a rollicking good time, and it succeeds to a point, but you can’t build any suspense or dramatic tension when everything’s one big joke. Even so, its heart is in the right place, and I’ll probably watch a little more of this show.

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Night Court USA (untitled episode, date unknown), circa 1957

Some of you might suspect that I love anything and everything from the vintage era of television. Well, Exhibit One in my defense is Night Court USA.

The show’s premise is that you’re a spectator at an actual night court, in which an actual judge hears actual cases and passes judgment. That probably would be a good show, except that you don’t get that here. Instead, you get a Hollywood set dressed up as a courtroom, with Jay Jostyn playing a grumpy judge, and defendants who seem to have all been dropouts from the Ajax Acting School.

There are attempts at cinema verite, and those are superficially successful. Clerks wander back and forth around the courtroom, muttering to each other. The defendants’ dialogue sounds semi-improvised. But nothing deflates faster than a reality show that’s all phony. This one became a boring waste of time in its first sixty seconds, and stayed that way right down to the end.

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The Red Skelton Show (9:30, “Clem and the Beanstalk”), May 24, 1960

Like Lucille Ball, Red Skelton ended a long and legendary TV career in the early 1970s (let’s overlook the attempted comeback Life with Lucy for the moment). But while her reputation stayed aloft in the upper atmosphere of stardom for a generation or two, Skelton’s reputation began sinking the minute he left the air, and it’s been descending ever since.

The simple reason for this is that the best work of Lucy’s career has been in perpetual re-runs, while Skelton’s stuff has languished on the shelf. His weekly show had been done live right into the 1960s, and no one ever wanted a syndication package of kinescopes, so it’s gone largely unseen. What’s unseen doesn’t get written about. No buzz, no reputation.

Well, any comedian who could stay on the air for twenty years (on TV, not even counting radio) had to be pretty good, and Skelton was great. I selected this episode because of the guest stars (the irresistible duo of Peter Lorre and Mamie Van Doren), and it didn’t disappoint me. The script is very good, but the show works mainly because of Skelton himself. Jerry Lewis would have been just as good at the physical comedy, but not as good with the verbal stuff. Bob Hope would’ve done well with the verbal, but not with the physical. Jack Benny would have played everything too deliberately and Jackie Gleason would have made everything subordinate to his own performance.

Skelton makes it all work while keeping everything in perfect balance: the verbal, the physical, the pacing, the tone, and he keeps throwing in ad-libbed lines and bits of business to keep it all fresh. (In fact, everyone playing a scene with him eventually breaks into spontaneous laughter at some point, which is probably the most delightful thing of all.)

The centerpiece of the episode is a “Jack and the Beanstalk” tale, updated for the space race era of 1960. It all ends with a surprise cameo by Rod Serling, who’s there to deliver a pensive postscript a la The Twilight Zone— except that he’s laughing so hard that he can’t deliver his lines, and the show is running so short of time that it fades out all too soon. It’s wonderful stuff.

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Dallas (6:28, “Ewing Inferno”), May 6, 1983

I’m not articulate enough to sell anybody on the idea that Dallas is something better than a bloated soap opera. But it is.

Scoff if you want to. But when this show is firing on all cylinders, it’s highly compelling television. As usual, it’s telling half a dozen narratives simultaneously throughout Season Six, and that’s not an easy thing to do well. But as the season winds up to its finale, the individual narrative threads suddenly knit together, unexpectedly and beautifully, making it all seem inevitable. Then, all hell breaks loose.

The Sopranos beats Dallas cold in terms of dialogue and intimate character interaction. But not in terms of a story arc. That’s where modern television keeps falling down. Not just the run-of-the-mill shows, but the acclaimed ones the critics yammer on about— Big Love, Lost, Deadwood, Boardwalk Empire, you name it— they often shine in terms of dialogue, characterizations, concepts or individual scenes, but eventually the narrative makes a crash-landing. On the other hand, the writers and producers of Dallas really knew how to keep it flying— or at least they did for the 131 episodes I’ve seen of it so far.

Dallas is not the greatest show ever, and it has its faults. But I’m constantly in awe of how well it tells its story.

 

 
 

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My Television Diary: 5/6/12

I was out of town for most of the past week, and didn’t get to watch much of anything. Nothing vintage, anyway.

I spent a couple of evenings surfing the 2012 cable TV line-up. Having dropped almost everything from my own cable service, I’m not very familiar with what’s on the air these days. Fortunately, A&E was running marathons of two “reality” shows that won me over.

Duck Dynasty is a show I’d never heard of, about a family of very backwoodsy folks in Louisiana. I decided to try it for a few minutes, to see if it was as bad as I expected it to be. But in fact, it was hilarious and I’d love to see more. Less funny, yet inexplicably riveting was Storage Wars, about seven or eight fringies in Southern California who buy the contents of deadbeats’ storage units at auction, in hopes of selling the stuff for a profit later. I’m skeptical about how much “reality” there is in this show, as most of these units hold nothing but absolute crap except for one fabulously rare collectible tucked way in the back. The show’s real attraction is the mix of personalities among the guys bidding against each other, the most fascinating of them being the elderly hipster Barry Weiss. I’d watch him in anything.

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You Asked for It, 1951; exact date unknown

I wouldn’t risk a nickel on the public domain movies sold on DVD by Alpha Video, but Alpha also carries a large line of 1950s TV episodes, and the quality on these is pretty good. Alpha sells some rare episodes of You Asked for It, and as far as I can tell they’re all from the show’s first season, when it aired on DuMont. (The show then moved to ABC, which seems to have been more diligent about renewing its copyrights.)

Like all the others, this episode is a hodgepodge. It opens with a segment pitting an abacus against a modern, electric calculator (modern for 1951, that is— it’s bigger than a Thanksgiving turkey). A young gal in granny glasses operates the calculator, and the abacus is operated by an Asian guy who tells host Art Baker that he uses it all the time. Baker gives them both a sheet of formidable-looking addition and multiplication questions, produces a stopwatch, hollers “Go” and the race is on. In the end, the calculator does beat the abacus— by a mere six seconds.

The show closes with a surprisingly good assortment of card tricks performed by wrestler Gorgeous George, whose regular bouts on DuMont’s Wrestling from Columbia Park made him one of the tube’s biggest early stars. This appearance must be one of the medium’s earliest examples of craven cross-promotion, but it’s a treat, and George himself is oddly charming. Whereas the typical wrestler today adopts a hulking, knuckle-dragging Cro-Mag persona, George is quite the gentleman.

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The Outer Limits (1995 revival) (1:16, “Caught in the Act,” July 1, 1995)

I’d never seen anything of the 1990s Outer Limits revival, and I was curious to see how it compares to the original. The answer is “not very well,” though creator Leslie Stevens is credited as a “program consultant” (yeah, right)— as if the six credited producers, associate producers and executive producers on this thing weren’t enough.

Cannily, I selected an episode featuring Alyssa Milano, gambling that an hour of tedious Canadian science fiction might be offset by one of her trademark topless scenes. At least she delivered, playing a college student who suddenly becomes a nymphomaniac after a chunk of meteorite crashes through the ceiling of her dorm room.

But the episode doesn’t really work. Like Dead Man’s Gun (another 1990s Canadian-made series), the Outer Limits revival has all the potential in the world but falls down on execution. The actors never seem to be the characters they’re portraying. They’re just going through the motions and reciting lines, and superficially at that. The story sputters along without being very engrossing or believable, which is bad enough for any show, but it’s the kiss of death for science fiction. On the other hand, you do get to see Alyssa Milano topless, so I can’t complain.

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Town Hall Party, August 8, 1959

This show would probably be torturous for anyone who doesn’t care for 1950s country music. Fortunately for me, there’s no music I like better, and I can’t tell you how much I loved this broadcast!

With legions of transplanted Okies, Arkies and Texans in the area, Los Angeles became an unlikely hub of country music after World War II. Local radio shows nurtured a crop of promising country artists (Merle Travis and Tennessee Ernie Ford among them), and created a local scene that was rich and distinctive.

Cliffie Stone led the march from radio to television with Hometown Jamboree in late 1949. While it’s an obscure show today (apparently only two kinescopes survive and I’m dying to see them), it ran for a decade. Western swing bandleaders Tex Williams and Spade Cooley got shows of their own in the early 1950s, and August 1953 brought the most familiar of the local country TV shows, Town Hall Party.

It’s the most familiar mainly because it’s the one for which we have the most kinescopes. In Germany the acclaimed Bear Family label has issued a number of them on DVD. Like everything else from Bear Family, they’re pricy but impressive, with extensive liner notes.

This DVD presents one episode of Town Hall Party, essentially complete but with the commercials edited out. As usual, the show is a straightforward telecast of a live performance held at the old Compton Town Hall (now long gone). The cameras are simply spectators; announcer Jay Stewart (later of Let’s Make a Deal fame) seldom looks into a camera, and the performers never do.

I’m sure Bear Family selected this episode for DVD because the guest that week was Johnny Cash, newly free of Sun Records and still at his absolute creative peak. He performs two sets of about a half-dozen songs each, and the live audience (of several hundred at least, and possibly many more) goes wild for him.

But the line-up in this episode is a virtual Hall of Fame of 1950s California country. The legendary Joe Maphis backs up most of the vocalists on his trademark double-necked guitar. Among those vocalists are Skeets McDonald, Johnny Bond, Jeannie Sterling and Tex Ritter. It’s not all country and western, by the way. The blind pianist Jimmy Pruitt performs a blistering barrelhouse number, there’s a Southern gospel song by the dynamic Martha Carson, and a hot rockabilly song from Gordon Terry.

All of these are wonderfully well done, the pace is brisk and it’s all live. No retakes, no camera effects, and everything happens on a small stage. It’s happening on one hell of a sweltering evening, too. Most of the performers are visibly sweating up a storm, wiping their brows after each song and often in the midst of a song. (Cash wears a different outfit for his second set, apologizing that his “skin was leakin’ so much that I had to take that shirt, tie and coat off.”).

Occasionally the camera pans around the audience, which looks like it’s about as overheated as the performers are (note the shirtless tot). And yet, it really is a Town Hall party for the crowd, which cheers, howls and shrieks its appreciation throughout the show, especially for Johnny Cash.

Still, the times were changing. Hometown Jamboree would be off the air a few weeks later, and Town Hall Party itself would die in January 1961. The local country shows had all aired on Los Angeles’ independent stations, and were getting expensive to produce. It didn’t help that rock and roll was luring away younger viewers.

This trend wasn’t just an L.A. phenomenon, either. Springfield, Missouri’s Ozark Jubilee, which had been broadcast nationally on ABC throughout the latter half of the ’50s, went off the air about the same time, in 1960.

In my opinion, the disappearance of these local country TV shows coincided with a steep decline in country music itself. The Nashville sound took over, bringing in string sections and vocal choruses, banishing country’s honkytonk and hillbilly roots to the margins of the industry. Western music, which had been ubiquitous a decade earlier, essentially vanished. And in Los Angeles, the country music scene splintered and faded away. All that remain are 78s, a few kinescopes… and memories.

 

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My Television Diary: 4/23/12

I don’t watch as much TV as you might think. Not as much as I’d like, anyway. On a work night I’m lucky to see more than two episodes of anything— there’s never enough time. But until today, I got to enjoy a blissful three-day weekend with nothing I had to do, and nowhere I had to go. Our first heatwave of the year discouraged any outdoor adventures. So I filled the idle hours with pizza, ice cream and vintage television. Lots and lots of all three.

Thriller (2:03, “The Premature Burial”), October 2, 1961

I’ve been wading into the legendary second season of Thriller for the very first time, and I like what I’m seeing. This episode had Boris Karloff in it, but in a supporting role, which turned out to be just as well. For once an Edgar Allan Poe story didn’t have the actual Poe content stripped out of it, and Douglas Heyes did a superb job of directing. Moody and spooky, there was a lot to enjoy here, not the least of which was a fortyish but thoroughly sexy Patricia Medina as the female lead. Last but not least, the transfer on this Image DVD was outstanding, a major improvement over the ridiculously out-of-sync episode I’d seen a week earlier (“The Guillotine”). But what’s with the theme music for this show? Who decided that an upbeat jazz score would be the perfect theme for a horror series?

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One Step Beyond (1:10, “The Vision”), March 24, 1959

I don’t watch One Step Beyond for thrills, but to enjoy an offbeat story about the paranormal, one that’s purportedly true and might actually be true. This one, about the effects of a curiously bright light in the night sky on November 14, 1915, was just okay and never really came to life for me. An unusually heavy and balding pre-Bonanza Pernell Roberts headed the cast. Apparently, something unusual really was seen that night, but a cursory Google search didn’t turn up much, and by then I was too sleepy to dig any further.

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The Streets of San Francisco (1:16, “The Set-Up”), January 25, 1973

I have only the faintest memories of this show’s original run and I never watched it. But now that I live in the San Francisco area, I’m addicted to it. Karl Malden is terrific, and I love the location shooting. For all I can tell, it was shot entirely on location, even the interiors.

I’ll have more to say about this series another time, but this particular episode stood out more for the supporting cast than for anything else. Jack Albertson was on hand as a blind barkeep, Stuart Whitman rode out from his sadly cancelled Cimarron Strip to play a hit man, and there was even an appearance by Claudine Longet, of all people. She’s confined to one short scene, but the fairly pedestrian script sprang to life for it. I wish Quinn Martin had cast her as the shooter, considering her later experience with loaded firearms, but you can’t have everything.

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Suspense (1:02, “Suspicion”), March 15, 1949

I got to wondering what the oldest broadcast in my collection is, and so far this is it. I’d just gotten the Infinity boxed set of 90 episodes, transferred from an unexpected cache of kinescopes that someone turned up somewhere, and I was eager for a taste. (Just for the record, you don’t get 90 episodes of this series; you get 88, plus an episode from an unrelated 1963 series of the same name, and an episode from some other series, I forget which.)

Anyway, this was a Dorothy Sayers story I’d already seen on Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1:08, “Our Cook’s a Treasure”), so there wasn’t a lot of suspense in store for me. But it was all right. Playing the leads were Ernest Truex, an actor who’d worked with Mary Pickford in 1913, and Sylvia Field, who would later become familiar as the sweet old neighbor lady on Dennis the Menace. Not a bad show, and staged pretty well too.

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Overland Trail (1:01, “Perilous Passage”), February 7, 1960

This was a mid-season replacement that didn’t get picked up in the fall, so I was prepared to be disappointed with this. But it was really pretty good.

First, the negative. Series star William Bendix is just plain miscast as a stagecoach boss in the Old West. He doesn’t do a bad job, but he’s just wrong for the part, and there isn’t any chemistry with the second lead, played by a young Doug McClure. Now McClure is perfect, as Bendix’s stage-driving employee, and everything else about the show works too. It was produced by Samuel Peeples, best remembered as one of the creative spirits behind Star Trek.

Guest-starring in this debut episode is Harry Guardino, who doesn’t make much of an impression. Far better is perennial outlaw Robert Foulk, who outdoes himself here as Cole Younger. Menacing and psychotic, he opens the episode by heaving a load of dynamite into the path of an oncoming stagecoach, which blows up noisily practically beneath the hooves of the unfortunate horses.

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Also this weekend, I saw a startlingly bad episode of an obscure series which has otherwise been a joy for me to discover. I hate to poison the well by mentioning the series now, but I’ll have more to say about it later. It’s a good little show, believe me.

I expected the highlight of the weekend to be the Twin Peaks pilot. I’ve only seen the series twice, and not at all in the past decade, so it’s high time to revisit this old favorite and watch it again from the very beginning. Only when the moment arrived, and I had a warm pizza box in my lap did I discover to my dismay that the old edition of Season One on my shelf didn’t include the pilot. It kicks off with the first episode of the regular series, whose “Previously… on Twin Peaks” opening flashback sequence only irritated me about what I wasn’t getting to see.

I made a hasty substitution and watched Deal (1977) instead, a behind-the-scenes documentary about Let’s Make a Deal that was bound to be mostly boring and was.

Oh well. There’s always next weekend.

 
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Posted by on April 23, 2012 in My Television Diary

 

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