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Most Memorable Moments

06.05.16 - CHiPs 2

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

It plays better when you can hear the crunching metal.

It plays better when you can hear the crunching metal.

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

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

Ah, Molly. I never forgot you.

Ah, Molly. I never forgot you.

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

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

That's one savage rug.

That’s one savage rug.

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

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

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

Blind dates can be awkward.

Blind dates can be awkward.

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

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

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

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Have lion, will travel.

Have lion, will travel.

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

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

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

Dallas (7:30, “End Game,” May 1984)

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

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

06.05.16 - CHiPs elephant 2

 

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TV Shows Referencing Other TV Shows

05.01.16 - Emergency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Someone wants to watch Wagon Train.

Someone wants to watch Wagon Train.

 

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