Monday, April 27, 2009

1973 – The TV Guide Fall Preview

When I looked at the 1972 TV Guide Fall Preview I described the 1972-73 season as being one of TV's golden years – the equivalent of a year like 1939 in the movie business – when a string of truly memorable series burst onto the scene. If there is an equivalent to the 1973-74 season in movies, I'm not aware of it. Perhaps because it would be the sort of year that no one writes about and few talk about except in the deepest darkest recesses of a studio's executive suites, and even then in hushed, conspiratorial tones. How bad was the 1973-74 season? This bad: out of seventeen series that debuted in September of 1973, on all three networks, only two were in the line-up for the 1974-75 season. Of the fifteen new shows that were cancelled ten were gone after thirteen episodes. Mid-season replacements did slightly better – but not much. Four of eight shows in that group were cancelled at the end of the season. The word carnage springs immediately to mind.

It's difficult to know where to start with a season that was this bad. Do you go with the shows that succeeded? The shows that failed? The trends? Or do you go network by network? Maybe a combination of all of them is the best way to go.

CBS was the network that had the most successful show to debut in the September 1973 with Kojak but not by much. Kojak ran for five years, and even though it debuted a month after NBC's Police Story and ended its run ten days before that show, it had twenty-two more episodes (118 for Kojak; 96 for Police Story). The basis of Kojak was an Emmy-winning made for TV movie called The Nelson-Marcus Murders which had aired during the 1972-73 season. The show was brilliantly cast, with Telly Savalas in the lead role of Theo Kojak and a supporting cast that included Dan Frazer as the detective commander at New York's 13th Precinct, and Kevin Dobson, Mark Russell, Vince Conti and George Savalas (billed for most of the series' run as Demosthenes to avoid confusion or allegations of nepotism). But it was the charismatic Savalas who was the absolute focus of attention. Kojak was full of character traits that made him stand out from the assorted detectives on TV at the time. (The 1973 Fall Preview puts it this way, even though it doesn't really convey the strength of the character: "Television has a fat detective, a rumpled detective, a Hawaiian detective, a Polish-American detective, black detectives, a detective in a wheel chair, a detective in a loud sports coat. . . . And now at long last television has a bald detective. Let's hear it for Theo Kojak!") Not only was Kojak bald, he stood out in other ways. There were the clothes. Kojak always looked like he was wearing his entire pay check on his back, with beautifully tailored clothes and hats to go with them. And he was never at a loss for feminine companionship, though never the same woman twice. Then there were the lollipops. Not initially a feature of the character – like Savalas, Kojak was a heavy smoker – it was decided to have the character suck on a lollipop as a replacement for the cigarettes (or were they small cigars) that Kojak was always smoking. Finally there was the catch-phrase that couldn't have been adequately delivered by anyone except Telly Savalas: "Who loves ya baby!" No, Kojak was the stand-out series of the 1973-74 season.

Unfortunately the rest of the CBS line-up was nothing to write home (or articles) about. Someone at CBS decided that there needed to be a revival of the character Perry Mason, and with Raymond Burr still occupied with Ironside, it was decided that the series would be totally rebooted as The New Adventures Of Perry Mason. The cast wasn't horrible – Monte Markham played Mason, Sharon Acker was Della Street, Harry Guardino was Hamilton Burger and Dane Clark was Tragg. Up against Wonderful World Of Disney on NBC and The FBI on ABC it died after fifteen episodes. On Tuesday the network had a movie series that alternated with two series that each aired once a month. One was Shaft starring original cast members Richard Roundtree and Eddie Barth. The show altered the character of John Shaft. Instead of being at odds with the cops, he cooperated with the cops, personified by Eddie Barth's character Lt. Al Rossi. The other show in the timeslot was Hawkins, starring Jimmy Stewart as lawyer Billy-Jim Hawkins and Strother Martin as his investigator cousin R.J. Stewart's character was a country lawyer from West Virginia with a national reputation as a defense attorney. Even though the series was loved by the critics and won a Golden Globe for Stewart as Best Actor in a Drama series, the show only aired for eight episodes. CBS also debuted two comedies on Friday night. One was Calucci's Department starring the great James Coco as Joe Calucci, the supervisor of a New York City unemployment office. The most interesting part of this show wasn't the cast, which also included Candy Azarra, Peggy Pope and Bill Lazarus, but the fact that it was written by actors Joe Bologna and his wife Renee Taylor, with music by Marvin Hamlisch. It lasted thirteen episodes against Sanford And Son. The other comedy was just as successful. Someone at CBS apparently decided that M*A*S*H meant the time was ripe for a revival of service comedies so they came out with Roll Out! The show detailed the happenings at the 5050th Quartermaster Trucking Company of the famous Red Ball Express, which transported supplies and fuel to the American armies after D-Day. The unit (like the units of the real Red Ball Express) was made up of Black enlisted men with White officers. Among the actors were Garrett Morris, Mel Stewart, Stu Gilliam, Val Bisoglio and Ed Begley Jr. It died a quick death against The Odd Couple.

CBS fared somewhat better with their replacement series. The New Adventures Of Perry Mason was replaced with Apple's Way, a family drama with Ronny Cox, Vince Van Patten, and Kristy MacNichol as part of a family that left the hustle and bustle of LA for the calm of the small town founded by one of their ancestors. The show, created by Earl Hamner Jr. who did The Waltons, was strong enough to outlast The FBI but not strong enough to last against The Wonderful World Of Disney. It ran for 28 episodes, from January 1974 to January 1975. The western Dirty Sally replaced Calucci's Department. Dirty Sally was amazingly enough a spin-off of Gunsmoke, starring Jeanette Nolan and Dack Rambo as a mismatched pair travelling to California to pan for gold. It lasted thirteen episodes. Replacing Roll Out! was the biggest success that CBS would have in the entire season: Good Times. A spin-off of Maude, starring Esther Rolle as Florida (Maude's former maid) the matriarch of the Evans family, Good Times ran for six seasons and 133 episodes. It was also the break-out role for a young stand-up comic named Jimmy Walker, who played the eldest Evans son, J.J. JJ's catch-phrase "Dy-No-Mite! became extremely popular as did the character, much to the irritation of Rolle, and John Amos (who played Rolle's husband James for the first three seasons of the show). The show was the first to show an African-American family living in the poverty of the Chicago housing projects, with the Evans family struggling to get by.

Turning to NBC the big success was – as previously mentioned – Police Story. The show was an anthology program created by novelist and (at the time) LAPD detective Joseph Wambaugh who had already written The New Centurions, The Blue Knight and the non-fiction Onion Fields. The series told stories about various LAPD cops. While there were no regular characters there were a number of characters who made repeated appearances. My personal favourites were the episodes starring Tony LoBianco and Don Meredith (yes, the Don Meredith who worked alongside Howard Cossell) as a pair of Robbery Homicide detectives, and the episodes featuring Vic Morrow as a surveillance expert. The series spun off three different series. The most successful of these was Police Woman, starring Angie Dickinson. The other two were less successful. Joe Forrester, starring Lloyd Bridges lasted one season, while Man Undercover with David Cassidy only lasted ten episodes.

NBC debuted three hour-long dramas, The Magician starring Bill Bixby as a playboy philanthropist and magician who uses his stage magic skills to solve crimes and help people in need. Initially the character travelled around the world in a Boeing 720 airliner – which he described as being "like any other mobile home, only faster" – but later moved into an apartment in LA's Magic Castle (a favourite haunt of one of my favourite bloggers Mark Evanier) with an entirely new supporting cast.. Interestingly enough, Bixby did all the magic himself, without trick photography. It lasted the entire season though it moved from Tuesdays at nine to Mondays at eight at the mid-season (about the same time that the location and supporting cast changed). So did another hour long series, Chase, starring Mitchell Ryan, which came from Jack Webb's Mark VII production house. The show started out with Ryan's character Chase Reddick heading a team of young cops who basically used a variety of "alternate" transportation methods to "chase" criminals. About half way through the season the show, which initially aired before The Magician, was moved to Wednesdays at eight (swapping time slots with Webb's Adam-12 as well as the first half-hour of the Wednesday Mystery Movie, which also moved to Tuesday). When Chase moved it also changed its supporting cast. The changes didn't help either series. The third hour-long series was another anthology series, Love Story. There's not much that can be said about this show – literally., which is usually a good source for such material, can only manage cast lists for the episodes but not even a bare synopsis of the twelve episodes. This is only slightly better than the website's entry for The NBC Follies, a vaudeville style series that had rotating hosts, although most episodes were supposed to be hosted by either Sammy Davis Jr. or Mickey Rooney. It lasted thirteen episodes.

NBC's big push in the 1973-74 season was in the area of sitcoms. NBC had four of them none of which lasted more than a full season. Diana, starred Dianna Rigg as a newly divorced woman who moves to New York and lives in her brother's apartment. The show lasted thirteen episodes, including one in which Dianna's former flame appeared. He was played by Patrick MacNee in an obvious attempt to gain ratings. It failed (but I'm still running Dianna Rigg's picture here because it's my considered opinion that I should use any excuse to run a picture of Dianna Rigg that I can find). Needles and Pins Featured Norman Fell and Louis Nye as feuding partners in the New York rag trade who hire a young designer from Nebraska. In spite of Fell and Nye, the show died a swift and well-deserved death after thirteen episodes. Lotsa Luck, which started out on Monday nights, was an Americanization of the British show On The Buses, starring Dom Deluise and Kathleen Freeman. TV Guide didn't think too much of the pilot of the show. In their review, the stated that "Bill Persky and Sam Denoff (That Girl) are producing, and Carl Reiner (The Dick Van Dyke Show) wrote the toilet – er, pilot – episode." Despite the cast and the crew it only lasted one season. The Girl With Something Extra also lasted a single season. The show was the sort of sitcom that had been popular a few years before, a domestic situation with a young married couple with a gimmick. The couple were played by John Davidson (?!) and Sally Field, and the gimmick was that Sally Field could read people's minds.

The 1973-74 season was also the second and final season of NBC's Wednesday Mystery Movie. Cool Millions and Madigan were both gone while Banacek was retained for the second season. Added to the rotation were: The Snoop Sisters, with Helen Hayes and Mildred Natwick as a pair of elderly sisters who were also mystery writers and solved crimes; Tenafly, starring James McEachin as a happily married private detective who is a cog in the corporate machine; and Faraday & Company, about an old time private eye who escaped from a South American jail after 25 years and found it hard to adjust to a world where cars didn't have hood ornaments let alone the fact that he had a son with his former secretary who had taken over his agency and made it into a big company. None of these shows was particularly successful, and when the line-up had to be juggled after Diana and Needles and Pins were cancelled Wednesday Mystery Movie moved to Tuesday nights (and was suitably renamed)... and didn't do any better than it had on Wednesdays.

ABC had, marginally, the worst line-up at the start of the year, although it's worth noting that one of the series listed in the Fall Preview issue was a success, but it can't be strictly speaking be lumped in with the rest of the ABC Fall line-up. And in truth there was one show which under ordinary circumstances was a sure thing to be renewed for a second season. That show was called Toma and dealt with the real life of a Newark undercover detective named David Toma. The show, which starred Tony Mussante and Susan Strasberg, was about an undercover cop who was a master of disguise and achieved a tremendous arrest record without once firing his gun. The show earned both critical accolades and strong ratings from the beginning, even as there were complaints about the show's violence. However, in a move which rivals just about anything that David Caruso has managed to pull off in terms of busting his own career, Mussante refused to do a second season of the show. True he had stated that he only intended to do a single season of the series when he signed on for it, but the producers figured that if the show was a success he'd change his mind. When he didn't they looked around for another actor to take over the role of Dave Toma, and settled on Robert Blake. Except that Blake refused to do it. He wasn't going to take on a role that had been created by another actor. So the show was cancelled and retooled to fit Blake, ditching the character's wife and two kids and replacing them with a cockatoo – but that's another story.

ABC put two sitcoms into their Fall line-up that were movie adaptations. Neither ran more than thirteen weeks but they still had some "interesting" qualities. The first was an adaptation of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice – the movie about two couples who experiment with swinging. This version starred Anita Gillette, Anne Archer and a young Robert Urich in his first starring role in a series. One can pretty much guess what the PTC would have said about this show – sight unseen of course – had they existed at the time. The other adaptation was Adam's Rib, an adaptation of the Spencer Tracy-Katherine Hepburn movie. This one starred Ken Howard as the prosecutor and Blythe Danner as his activist defence attorney wife. They had appeared as a married couple the previous year in the movie 1776, as Tom and Martha Jefferson. (In looking at the publicity photos for Adam's Rib one is struck by how much Danner resembles her daughter Gwyneth Paltrow.) The other new ABC show was Griff, which starred Lorne Greene as a former police captain who became a highly paid private detective. Ben Murphy played his associate, the son of a cop killed in the line of duty. The show ran thirteen episodes.

ABC cancelled a number of shows at the mid-season in addition to the new series that they dropped. These were The New Temperature's Rising, Room 222, and Love American Style. Three of the replacement series the network put on, The Cowboys (a continuation of the John Wayne movie of the same name), Firehouse (about a small inner-city fire station, produced by Leonard Goldberg and Aaron Spelling), and medical drama Doc Elliot (starring James Franciscus), were cancelled by the end of the year. Doc Elliott originally once a month in the Wednesday time slot held down by Owen Marshall: Counsellor-At-Law and so was included in the Fall Preview issue. However, when Griff was cancelled Owen Marshall was moved to Saturdays and Doc Elliot took the Wednesday time slot for the rest of the season. Pretty much the same thing seems to have happened with The Six Million Dollar Man. The show, which starred Lee Majors (who was also on Owen Marshall) as Colonel Steve Austin, was originally scheduled to replace the Saturday Suspense Movie once a month, but when Room 222 and Adam's Rib were dropped it became a weekly series. The show ran for five years, made a star of Lee Majors, and made the words "we can rebuild him" something of a catch-phrase.

As for the other series to debut in the winter of 1974, well it had started as a failed pilot that had been converted into an episode of Love American Style. When the teenaged star of the episode was picked by George Lucas to appear in a major motion picture called American Graffiti, it was all that the network needed to revive the pilot, now named Happy Days after the Love American Style episode that spawned it – Love And The Happy Days. There were a couple of changes in the cast, with Tom Bosley replacing Harold Gould as Howard Cunningham, and the addition of a couple of supporting characters named Ralph Malph and Arthur Fonzarelli (initially a minor supporting character who worried the network censors – the forbade the producers to put him in a leather jacket), the circumstances were set for a series that would run for eleven years, and spawn expressions ranging from "Ayyyy" and "sit on it" to "jump the shark." Not bad for a busted pilot.

The end of the 1973-74 season also brought the end for a number of long-lived shows. ABC dropped the venerable – if by now hopelessly elegiac – FBI as well as Owen Marshall: Counsellor at Law, and both The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family. NBC dropped both of their surviving variety shows, Flip Wilson and Dean Martin. As for CBS, Sonny and Cher's divorce ended not only their marriage but also their TV show (at least temporarily) but the big shocker (in its own way) was the cancellation of Here's Lucy. With the exception of a two year break between 1960 and 1962, Lucille Ball had been a staple on CBS since 1951.

(By the way, the missing mid-season shows for this season are ABC between 8 and 8:30 on Thursday, and NBC Thursday between 10 and 11. I'll just assume that the Wednesday from 9-11 time slot was given over to yet another movie package.)

Oddly enough there doesn't seem to be a 1973 ABC Fall Preview posted on YouTube, but I have managed to find a copy of the CBS preview for that year. Quality of the promo reel isn't great but it's there.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

I Lost A Friend

A friend I never met died on Tuesday. Sam Johnson of Savannah Georgia was 42.

I was away from the computer for most of the day so it wasn't until a few minutes ago that I checked Ivan Shreve's blog, Thrilling Days Of Yesterday. When I read the top item a nasty chill ran through my body. Ivan had received the news of Sam's death from a commenter on his blog. Apparently Sam's older brother Anthony found him dead in his apartment.

Sam, along with Ivan and a handful of others was one of the first people that I encountered when I started this blog. In fact I can't remember when I first encountered Sam because the comments from before I went over to Haloscan seem to have disappeared. It doesn't matter. Sam always always knowledgeable and usually had something interesting to say when he commented on what I wrote.

The real revelation was when I started reading his blog. Sam's writing was more far ranging in subject matter than mine and touched on just about everything. I learned a lot about Sam and his life, the mother he loved and the father he hated, the illnesses that be battled, his love for working in radio which he only recently gave up, his feelings on life the universe and well, everything. He was an interesting writer and he could pull you in. What turned out to be his last post was an open letter to Miley Cyrus about how to treat his city. Sam had rules about how to behave in Savannah and you damned well better not disrespect his town.

Sam suffered from severe kidney failure. Every few days he went for dialysis which sometimes didn't always go as smoothly as it might have. He raised money for the National Transplant Assistance Fund Southeast Kidney Transplant Fund, and was hoping to get a transplant. He needed to lose some weight before he could get the transplant and of course he needed money to pay for it. As a Canadian the latter part breaks my heart. While Canada has one of the lowest rates of organ donation in the western world, cost would not be an impediment. Finding the kidney might, but for someone whose need – in terms of the seriousness of his case – was as great as Sam's the other impediments (money and the waiting list) probably wouldn't have been as great. For those of you who read this, maybe consider giving a bit of money in Sam's name either to the National Kidney Foundation in the United States, The Kidney Foundation in Canada, or to your local fund of the National Transplant Assistance Fund.

Sam Johnson loved radio, comic books, old cartoons on TV, bacon, and his town, and he had opinions on all of these subjects. I was interested in reading about what interested him. I'm really going to miss you Big Man.

Monday, April 13, 2009

TV Guide Fall Preview 1972 – The Comments

First up some comments from Todd Mason:

Actually, the bitter Serling line about NIGHT GALLERY was that it was "MANNIX in a shroud."

Me: I grabbed the Serling "Mannix in a cemetery" quote from Wikipedia (naturally). I should have expected Serling to come up with something better.

Leaving aside social pressures on the brass at CBS, the rationale for dumping
BRIDGET LOVES BERNIE was presumably the amount of the audience BLB was losing from ALL IN THE FAMILY, a consideration that would, for example, later doom any number of NBC sitcoms on Thursday nights in the '80s into the '90s, good, bad and indifferent.

Me: I'd accept that point – which I think was the point that Mike Dann was trying to make – except for a couple of things. First of course is that Dann was wrong about the show hammocking because it did finish the year with a higher rating than Mary Tyler Moore. If you cancel Bridget Loves Bernie wouldn't you cancel MTM following the same logic? The second thing is probably a bit more important. The show finished in fifth place for the year, ahead of MTM and every other show on CBS except Maude and Hawaii Five-0. Even if you think that the show can't stand on its own without the lead-in of All In The Family, surely it seems too highly rated to not at least try to keep it in the line-up by moving it to another night (a modern example was CBS's decision to move Shark out of the post CSI timeslot on Thursday night to Sunday night; it had strong ratings on Thursday but died on Sunday, but at least the network tried). And given the fate of CBS's new comedies launched on Friday nights in September 1973 – Calucci's Department which was cancelled after 12 episodes and Roll Out! which lasted 13 – I think it's fair to say that a relocated Bridget Loves Bernie couldn't have done worse. So why wasn't it tried unless there was pressure on CBS to dump the show.

(Of course, any reason to dump David Birney is usually a good one, as ST. ELSEWHERE would later discover.)

Me: Not to mention Meredith Baxter

Serling had his own side project at about this time...his radio serial ZERO HOUR.

Me: Serling's writing would be perfect for radio.

Certainly, my Saturday nights didn't improve after the move of M*A*S*H back out of the 8:30 slot till 1975, when I was able to watch AITF, the placeholder CBS put in behind AITF, MTM, BOB NEWHART, BURNETT, MONTY PYTHON on the local PBS affiliate, and over to NBC for the first season of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE or, every fourth week, WEEKEND. As a kid, a great if marathon night.

Me: That show at the start of the 1974-75 show would have been Paul Sand In Friends And Lovers. Not a show I ever warmed to, mostly because I couldn't stand Sand. It was replaced in the time slot by the All In The Family spin-off, The Jeffersons. Then the next season – 1975-76 – the FCC regulation on "The Family Hour" forced All In The Family to move to Monday nights at 9 p.m., which was deemed a "suitable" time for the show.

Todd caught this before I had a chance to post on the subject:

funny how memory goes. By the time SNL debuted in 1975, ALL IN THE FAMILY would've been moved to its Family-Friendly Monday slot, so it would've been an hour of relatively bland CBS programming, which I would still watch, before the MTM/BOB NEWHART/BURNETT/PYTHON/SNL (or WEEKEND) marathon for me.

Me: The thing about what I've dubbed as one of the greatest TV line-ups ever is that it only lasted for the 1973-74 season before the "broke up the Yankees" so to speak. The 1975-76 CBS Saturday schedule started with The Jeffersons, followed by Doc (starring Barnard Hughes), and then MTM, Bob Newhart and Carol Burnett. Speaking of SNL there were actually two shows of that name in the Fall of 1975; the NBC late night show that everyone knows, and a primetime ABC variety show opposite The Jeffersons and Doc hosted by none other than Howard Cosell! I'm enough of a masochist to want to know what that show was like!

The attempt to humanize the
M*A*S*H characters killed the comedy, as far as I was concerned. Sharp satire became often bland cuteness.

Me: Or worse, pretentious dramedy.
It's safe to say that the show changed significantly when Wayne Rogers and MacLean Stevenson left. Potter and BJ were interesting characters to be sure but they had what could probably be described as a more realistic quality. They also made Major Houlihan more human – more Margaret and less Hot Lips you might say – so that increasingly Frank Burns seemed out of place; like Yosemite Sam in a live action movie. Winchester was his "human" replacement. I'm not saying that he show didn't work with these changes because quite patently it did, but it was hugely changed (beyond effectively becoming the Alan Alda Show). However you are right that the sharp satire was gone. Maybe for satire to work it has to be largely populated with cartoon characters like the largely incompetent middle management bureaucratic (Colonel Blake), the hyper-efficient "secretary" (Radar), the by the book professional (Major Houlihan),and the gung-ho type with a little power and slightly less intelligence (Frank Burns), that the one or two "humans" (Hawkeye and Trapper) have to do battle with.

Next up more from "Mr. Television" Mike Doran:

The NBC replacement on Tuesday ... surprise, surprise - a movie! NBC had the biggest backlog of theatrical fims , and its long-standing sweetheart deal with MCA-Universal for TV movies, so when two hours opened up anywhere on the schedule, what could be easier? On other fronts, I was a liitle surprised that you didn't mention BANYON's replacement: Bobby Darin's variety show, brought back from the previous summer. The show fared badly and was dropped, and Darin's death followed not long thereafter (but I don't believe there was a connection). One other quick point: if you're wondering why there was so little about Robert Conrad's third of THE MEN, ASSIGNMENT: VIENNA, as opposed to the other two shows, that's because Conrad was a last-minute replacement for Roy Scheider, whose price went up dramatically when FRENCH CONNECTION became a huge boxoffice hit. It was probably still being retooled while ABC was putting the promo together. Back to the vaults now to await your next installment...

Me: Figures that NBC went with movies. Why bother to produce new shows when you can just slot in movies and probably get great ratings with them. And of course any new movies could be potential pilots for next year. Still, it kind of helps to explain why so much of NBC's product in the 1970s was – how should I put it – rather dismal.

The Bobby Darrin Show didn't get a mention because I really haven't been mentioning these short lived shows that often. I probably would have written more about it if I had remembered that he had died so soon after the show ended (about eight months later). And no, the TV work didn't have a connection to his death; it was a series of events starting with forgetting to take prescribe medication after dental work which led to blood poisoning, which led to damage to one of his heart valves which led to his eventual death.

I was wondering about the lack of material for Assignment: Vienna in the ABC preview show. The other two shows were given a lot of time in the show, and Jigsaw in particular looked interesting. Interesting to find this out about Roy Scheider. Twenty years later he wasn't so choosy about TV work (Seaquest DSV of course, a show which I'm sorry to say got progressively worse the longer it ran). It reminds me of the story of the Canadian version of Howdy Doody. The actor originally cast in the role of Timber Tom, James Doohan, wanted more money than the CBC was prepared to pay, so he had to be replaced. The eventual replacement wasn't available for the first week or so of the show so they brought in a temporary replacement named Ranger Bob...played by William Shatner.

And now a little conversation between Mike and Todd:

Mike: In the early to mid 70's ABC aired a program which was similar to Laugh In. It was so over the top it only lasted one episode. I sort of remember watching it. Do you have any idea what it was called?

Mike, that was TURN ON. Only ott by the standards of a nervous ABC, but it was they who mattered.

Me: Turn-On was 1969 and Tim Conway, who was the guest host on the one and only episode, has dined out on this story ever since. He has always claimed that the show was cancelled midway through the episode. Not true, well not totally true. ABC officially dropped the show two days after it aired, but there were two local affiliates, in Cleveland and Denver, went to the first commercial break and didn't go back to the show, while some stations outside the Eastern Time zone simply refused to run the show at all while some stations that aired it told the network that they wouldn't be back the next week. To be fair to ABC (Me? Being fair to a network? Well bite my tongue!) this represented a mutiny by affiliates which makes the current business with NBC's Boston affiliate refusing to air the prime time Jay Leno show look minor by comparison. At the time station ownership was restricted to five stations per owner, so no network could afford to have stations dropping one of its shows so publicly. They could stand on principle and air a full 13 episode season on a dwindling network, or they could knuckle under and dump the show. Guess which one they chose? Turn-On was replaced by the squeaky clean King Family Show.

Turn-On was created by Ed Friendly and George Schlatter, who had also created Laugh-In. They had previously offered the show to NBC and CBS, both of which rejected it. A CBS executive reportedly stated that, "It was so fast with the cuts and chops that some of our people actually got physically disturbed by it." This may be a reference to Photsensitive Epilepsy. In 1977 Schlatter went on to do a revival of Laugh-In, sans Rowan and Martin. It too ran for one episode, largely on the strength of one of the cast members, Robin Williams, who between the time that the show was made and the episode was shown had became a superstar thanks to a little show called Mork & Mindy.

And now, some show themes. First up we have a persona favourite of mine, with music by Patrick Williams. Note the first guest star.

Next up, since we talked so much about it, here's the first couple of minutes of the very first episode of Bridget Loves Bernie. If nothing else, it's a pretty damned good cast. By the way, the pilot episode can be found, in three parts on YouTube.

Next week (or so) 1973. It wasn't the year 1972 was, but it wasn't too bad.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Too Unusual For Me

Sometimes you run into a show that sort of reminds you of another show but is totally different from that show. For reasons that I can't really explain beyond the setting in the detective's part of a New York police precinct, The Unusuals reminds me of NYPD Blue sort of, kind of, in a way, but not really. I get the feeling that this is going to be hard to explain. And that, somehow, seems oddly appropriate.

Pilot episodes are inevitably about introducing characters and setting up the premise for the show, and the pilot of The Unusuals is no different. We first meet Detective Casey Schraeger when she's posing as a street hooker in a "John sting." Her career as a Vice cop comes to a sudden and surprising end when a supposed client comes up. He's Sergeant Harvey Brown, who runs the detectives unit at the 2nd Precinct. He needs a new homicide cop since one of his cops has just been murdered – as in the body was only found a few minutes ago. Casey's the replacement. As we'll discover it's not as random a choice as it seems. The first person that Casey meets at the precinct is her new partner, Jason Walsh. Walsh is in the process of "sanitizing" his old partner's locker to get rid of stuff that his wife – not to mention Internal Affairs – would find objectionable. And there's a lot that would upset both the widow and the investigators. Our initial impression of the late Detective Kowalski is that he was a corrupt cop who wasn't very good about hiding the drugs he stole, or the cash that he got as pay offs or the girls he had on the side. They go to see his wife, who knows that Kowalski had at least one mistress but loved him in spite of it all. She tells them that there had been some mysterious hang-up calls. Walsh and Casey then go to visit the mistress, who greats them at the door wearing a bra, panties and a smile – she thinks they're the pizza guy. Walsh makes it very clear that she's not to attend the funeral, and pays her off with money that he found in Kowalski's locker.

By the time that Walsh and Schraeger get back to the precinct they've missed the morning meeting where we meet the rest of the detective squad. This includes partners Eric Delahoy and Leo Banks. Banks constantly wears a bullet-proof vest. This seems to be because he's 42 and most of the men in his family die when they hit 42 – usually by accident. Banks figures that he's in a high risk occupation so he'd better not take any chances. Delahoy is the exact opposite of Banks in that he seems to court danger. We know that this is because he has a brain tumor and has no intention of treating it since he figures that if he gets treatment he'll end up only delaying the inevitable. No one else in the squad knows this of course. The other detectives are Henry Cole, a born again Christian who will pray at the drop of a hat, Eddie Alvarez, who speaks of Eddie Alvarez in the third person and hijacks any opportunity to get himself into the public eye, and Allison Beaumont who seems to be the most normal one of the lot. She fills Casey in about some of the quirks of the others, including the fact that Walsh doesn't stare at her boobs like the rest of the guys, which is different but kind of suspicious because she's got great boobs.

Naturally Eddie Alvarez makes Eddie Alvarez the lead detective in investigating Kowalski's murder, because cop killings are high profile cases and that means publicity for Eddie Alvarez. Not that Sgt. Brown is disagreeing too loudly. I suppose that's because he knows that Walsh is going to be investigating no matter what he says, and he's smart enough to derail Eddie Alvarez and Eddie Alvarez's theory – that it was a random attack. The first lead they track down from the contents of Kowalski's locker is a storage space the cop, who lived in the Bronx had in Brooklyn. There had been a fire in the locker, but much of the stuff didn't burn. There was plenty there. Kowlaski had been keeping files on his fellow cops. What he knew about Walsh is that he had been a baseball player with the Yankees at least for a short time (long enough to get his own baseball card at least), but the big surprise is about Cole. He is linked somehow to someone called Navan Granger who stole an armoured car out in the Midwest. When Walsh, con his own, confronts Cole about it, Cole admits that he in fact was Navan Granger but that he hadn't been able to break into the armoured car to get the money and that the experience had led to him being born again. Then they went after the person who has been calling and hanging up on Kowalski's wife, a 16 year-old drug dealer that Kowalski busted. They figured that he had motive, but it turns out that the kid is in a wheelchair and the elevator at his apartment building, where he lives with his mother, was out of order, so even if he wanted to kill Kowalski he couldn't. And he most assuredly didn't want to kill Kowalski because after the accident that put the kid in the chair Kowalski had become something of an unofficial big brother for him, taking him to Yankees games and helping him get his GED.

Figuring that if Kowalski had mentored one kid he might have tried to help others, Walsh and Casey look through some of his cases. They find a guy named Leon Wu who had been arrested by Kowalski along with Wu's brother. After the brother died in Joliet, Kowalski wrote a letter of recommendation for Leon's early release. Someone resembling Leon was seen leaving the scene of Kowalski's murder. So the detectives head off to arrest Wu – or at least confront him – along with a SWAT Team. However Banks is so terrified at the prospect of going through the door against a heavily armed guy that he loses it and just can't go in. We later see him emptying his guts into a garbage can. The cops go in and shots are fired, with Casey eventually gunning down Wu. But did Leon Wu kill Kowalski? It's made pretty clear that he didn't because we see Cole slipping Kowalski's gun and badge into a hole in the wall at Wu's place and then "suddenly" discovering them. But of course no one bothered to ask how or why the files in Kowalski's storage space got torched, and more specifically how Leon Wu could get at them.

The "B" plot in the episode concerns Banks and Delahoy. They're called out to a city councilman's house, supposedly to investigate a threat against his daughter. As it turns out it has nothing to do with the guy's daughter...someone has killed his cat and "obviously" it is meant as a warning/threat directed at him. Banks and Delahoy refrain from telling this guy what he can do with his cat and his threat – he is one of the people who votes on the NYPD budget after all – and go off to find out who killed the councilman's cat. Outside, they notice a lot of notices about cats who have disappeared with rewards posted. Maybe there's something more than meets the eye here and it isn't just related to the councilman. Looking around the neighbourhood they find a guy trying to stuff a cat into a bowling bag. Clearly this is the guy they're after (because anyone who knows cat's knows that stuffing a cat into a bowling bag is a good way to get your arm shredded). And so they give chase. They chase him into the subway and Delahoy follows him across one of the tracks when he sees a train coming. Figuring that this was a better way to go than a brain tumour he stands there waiting for the train to hit him. It stops within inches of hitting him. Meanwhile Banks has stopped the cat-killer in the next train, using a taser so he doesn't risk contact with the guy who might someone kill him. Once they get the guy back to the precinct they start interrogating him. They use the old "photocopier as a lie detector" trick (with an all-in-one printer instead) that some of the more knowledgeable reviewers link back to The Wire and Homicide: Life On The Street, but I've never seen The Wire. This gets him to admit some of the things he's done, but they get him to break by spraying him with something to attract cats and sticking him in a cruiser filled with them. Turns out his wife had lost their unborn child as a result of a disease she caught as a result of cleaning a cat litter box.

A major theme in the show is the secrets and mysteries that the cops have. These are the things that Kowalski was collecting. Some we know, like Banks and his fear of dying at 42 like the rest of the men in his family, Delahoy and his brain tumour. Delahoy's resulting death wish leads to him going into the raid on Wu without a bulletproof vest. (The real mystery with Delahoy is how he survives: the subway train stopping within inches of him; a shotgun blast from Wu, fired at point-blank range, misses him entirely but leaves a pattern on the wall of a human body with a halo – seeing it Cole says "Jesus.") Some are well hidden. Walsh was a New York Yankee but why did he become a cop, and why does he "run" a deli (that he lives behind) where he only cooks when he feels like it and whatever he, and not the customer, wants? As for Casey, she has a secret she's desperate to protect. She's rich, or at least her family is. We get hints of it throughout the episode – her mom calls her claiming that the maid is stealing from her; Eddie Alvarez's girlfriend recognizes Casey from a high end prep school, and Casey makes it abundantly clear that if she tells Alvarez, Casey will reveal every little secret about her to him – before the big reveal at her father's birthday party. (And a special tip of the hat for the casting of Chris Sarandon as Casey's father. He's the husband of Joanna Cassidy who played her mother. Of course if Monty Hall – Cassidy's father – shows up as Casey's grandfather it will be too much of an in-joke.) Turns out that the fact that her family's rich, and that she was booted out of six private schools and dropped out of Harvard to become a cop is exactly why Brown wants her to help him clean up his squad. Because of all that, she can't be corrupted.

I can't really recommend this show, based on the pilot (and that may explain why it has taken me so long to crank this review out). A press release from ABC claims that the show is, "like a modern day M*A*S*H that explores both the grounded drama and comic insanity of the world of New York City police detectives." I don't see it. ABC has hyped this series as a "dramedy." I really don't see the "...medy" part either. The writers are clearly going for a black humour sort of comedy which is apparent from the Banks and Delahoy characters. The idea of partnering the vaguely suicidal Delahoy – who presumably wants to die in the line duty so that his badge will be retired (as explained by Walsh at the wake for Kowalski badges get passed from officer to officer until the badge "kills" its owner) – with Banks, who is obsessed with staying alive to the point where he constantly wears a bulletproof vest and becomes physically ill at the prospect of going through a door presumably struck the writers as funny, but it didn't work for me. The way that Delahoy survives certain death – when he's nearly hit by the train and when Wu shoots him – seems to fit in the same sort of black comedy mould. Eddie Alvarez reminds me of Frank Burns from M*A*S*H, the character that you absolutely know will be the butt of every joke in the precinct. The business of Walsh running his deli when he felt like it, and feeding his customer whatever weird combinations that he wanted (food that no one but he could possibly stomach), felt tremendously forced. Making the character of Casey Schraeger a rich girl hiding the fact that she's wealthy to be "one of the guys" is frankly rather trite. As for the "dram..." part of the show that was probably a bit better but not by much. The contrast between the serious case of tracking down Kowalski's killer and the "comedy" case of tracking down the cat killer didn't work for me.

Turning to the acting, I'm not really impressed. None of the four principal actors – Amber Tamblyn as Casey, Jeremy Renner as Walsh, Adam Goldberg as Delahoy, and Harold Perrineau as Banks really didn't impress me either. In Tamblyn's case, she's meant to be something of a blank slate, without any of the quirks that has left the precinct in disarray. Renner basically has a weary, deadpan quality about the way that he plays Walsh. It's fine and probably works for the character but it doesn't excite me. He seems bland. Goldberg's Delahoy is brash, loud and annoying to me but the truth is I've never really been a fan of Adam Goldberg's so I'm prejudiced. The one actor that I really didn't mind was Harold Perrineau. The fear of dying that Banks has is irrational and mostly only somewhat less annoying than Goldberg's Delahoy. However there was that one moment when Banks broke down to his partner about not being able to go through the door that worked for me, and that was largely due to Perrineau being able to really make us feel the terror that Banks had of dying in that situation.

I'm more disappointed with The Unusuals than I probably have a right to be. I suppose it's because at some level I bought into the hype that ABC built up for this show and it really doesn't work all that well in my opinion. My hope is that it will improve with time; that they can make the characters more dynamic and the quirkiness at once more realistic and less heavy handed. That's my hope. My expectation is that the show will continue on the course that was set in the pilot, and that's a shame because there are better shows out there than what I saw in the first episode of The Unusuals, including a number that look like they're going to be cancelled, and while I'll keep watching the show for a while in the probably vain hope that it will improve, I much rather be devoting my time to the shows that I really prefer.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Another Apology

Those of you who follow me on Twitter (and if you're not please, please do) know this already but for those of you who don't here goes. I was hoping to get a post on The Unusuals up on Friday, but I ran into a problem in that my Internet connection went out for most of the day, and given that it was Good Friday, I didn't even bother to try to call customer service (which is actually located here – stunning). So instead I did things that didn't involve the Net (and I confess that I loved it, at least as a change for a while). I suppose I should finish the Unusuals post today, but after that I'll probably revert to my regular post on the TV Guide Preview comments and save the reviews of Southland and Harper's Island for next week. In the case of Southland that's probably not such a bad idea, because I really need to get a better handle on that show. As for Harper's Island, it's still unviewed on the DVR (which desperately needs some content pruning and a DVR Expander, but will probably need another airing to get a real sense of it (but it features one of my favourite character actors, Jim Beaver, so that's a mark in its favour in my book). But this sort of thing (as well as what I laughingly call real life) is really throwing my TV reviewing out of whack.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

1972 – The TV Guide Fall Preview

There are those who say that 1939 was Hollywood's "greatest year" or its "golden year." I know; I bought the book, Hollywood's Golden Year: 1939. It's not a thesis that I'm entirely willing to accept because it is my belief that there have been other years – before and after 1939 – when Hollywood achieved artistic and commercial high points. Similarly I don't wish to suggest that any given year was "TV's Golden Year" but I would suggest that if someone were to come up with a list of "Greatest Seasons," 1972-73 would be very near the top. Even some of the failures were in their own way brilliant. With the possible exception of NBC, 1972 was a hell of a good year for just about everyone, in particular the viewers.

Let's take a look at the network with the biggest problems first. On the surface it didn't look as though NBC was having problems. They debuted five new series in 1972 compared to seven each for CBS and ABC. The problem was that of the new shows only two stuck, and both of them needed major surgery to stay in the line-up. In addition three series that started the season ended their seasons in January 1973. One of these was Rod Serling's Night Gallery. By this point Serling had essentially disowned the series because his contributions were being ignored and his complaints to producer Jack Laird were essentially being ignored. By the final season Serling was so dissatisfied that he labelled the show "Mannix in a cemetery." The situation with Bonanza was even worse and very similar to what happened with Petticoat Junction. The death of Dan Blocker after the 1971-72 season seriously damaged the dynamics of the show – which had suffered a significant ratings loss the season before – and competition from the new CBS series Maude were enough to kill it. As for The Bold Ones, the shows fourth season retained only the New Doctors segment after going to two segments the previous season. It also lost John Saxon as one of the characters, who was "replaced" by Robert Walden (yeah, not really much of a replacement). It ran sixteen episodes and I'm going to suggest that maybe the quality of the scripts was hurt by having to have new scripts every week rather than every other week (or every third week in the first two seasons). Me, I preferred the episodes with Burl Ives and company.

As for the new shows that NBC had that season, the only two shows that got a second season were The Little People with Brian Keith and Shelley Fabares, and the Wednesday Mystery Movie. In The Little People Keith play a pediatrician working with his daughter in a practice in Hawaii. The show was a comedy and did well enough in the ratings to get renewed. However when the show was renewed the decision was made to add a couple of new characters, a child-hating and very proper doctor, played by Roger Bowen, and the woman who owned the clinic – and much of Hawaii – played by Nancy Kulp. This changed the focus from the relationship between the two doctors and their patients (and the patients' parents) to the conflicts between the adults. (They also changed the name of the show in that season to The Brian Keith Show) further distancing itself from the original intent of the series. The Wednesday Mystery Movie was an attempt to expand the Mystery Movie franchise. The original group of shows – Columbo, McCloud, and MacMillan & Wife – were moved to Sunday night. They were supplemented by a fourth show, Hec Ramsey which starred Richard Boone as a former gunfighter and lawman (who in one episode claimed that he once worked under the name Paladin) who had left the west to study modern (for 1900) methods of detection, stuff we now call forensics. The show lasted two seasons and died not because of poor ratings but because star Richard Boone had disagreements with the studio (that doesn't seem to be an uncommon thing with Richard Boone). The Wednesday Mystery Movie was entirely new. It featured three shows; Cool Millions with James Farentino as a globe-trotting private detective who charges a million dollars to take a case (back when a million dollars was big bucks), Madigan with Richard Widmark recreating his role from the 1968 movie of the same name (although in the movie, Madigan dies at the end), and Banacek with George Peppard as freelance insurance investigator out to stick it to the insurance company that his father had worked at for years before. Banacek ran for two years and was picked up for a third...until Peppard quit to keep his ex-wife Elizabeth Ashley from taking a large percentage of his income in her divorce settlement.

As for the rest of the NBC shows, Banyon, was 1930s period piece starring Robert Forster as the title character and '30s movie star Joan Blondell as the owner of a secretarial school that provides Banyon with office employees. The show ran fifteen episodes. The other two NBC shows lasted a full season but while Search – about a high tech detective agency that constantly monitors its operatives – and the anthology Ghost Story (renamed Circle of Fear at the same time that it dropped host Sebastian Cabot) but weren't popular enough to pick up.

NBC also had one show that didn't make it beyond the 1972-73 season, but that was because it had literally run its course. That was America: A Personal History of the United States, writer-broadcaster Alistair Cooke's love letter to his adopted homeland which alternated with the NBC news show NBC Reports. Today no commercial network would put a show like America on; it would be relegated to PBS or to some cable network (after all opponents of PBS constantly say that cable can and will do everything that PBS does). In 1972-73 not only was it a popular success, it won the Emmy for the Outstanding New Series beating The Julie Andrews Hour, M*A*S*H, Kung Fu, Maude, and The Waltons, and was actually nominated in the Golden Globes as Best TV Show – Drama.

Over at ABC, the network unveiled some impressive new shows. In what may be one of the earliest examples of placing a show as a lead-in because of the gender of fans it would attract, the network put the male oriented cop show The Rookies as the lead in for Monday Night Football. The show fit the standard formula of a group of young people, three (male) rookie cops of various backgrounds (Georg Stanford Brown, Michael Ontkean and Sam Melville), being mentored by an older superior officer, played by Gerald S. O'Laughlin. Kate Jackson played the lone woman in the regular cast, a nurse married to Melville's character (years later he played her ex-husband in Scarecrow & Mrs. King). Another highly successful show for ABC was Streets of San Francisco the entire cast of which consisted of a former and a future acting Oscar winner. Karl Malden (Streetcar Named Desire) played Lieutenant Mike Stone, a veteran of over 20 years on the San Francisco PD while his partner, Steve Keller, was played by Michael Douglas (Wall Street). Keller was college educated but had no experience as a cop. Stone was (yet again) a mentor for the younger cop.

The third huge success for ABC was Kung Fu. Supposedly the show was based on a concept created by actor Bruce Lee (this is according to Lee's wife Linda who claimed that Warner Brothers stole the idea) and Lee had been considered for the part of Kwai Chang Caine – the producers decided that they needed someone "serene" for the role and that the only reason Lee was considered for the part was because the network wanted someone more muscular. The producers claimed that they wanted David Carradine of the role of Caine from the beginning even though he wasn't Asian (which stirred quite a bit of controversy in the Asian American acting community). At the time Carradine was in the middle of what can probably be called his "hippie phase" so the part of Caine seemed to be a perfect fit for him. The show was a perfect fit for the early 1970s with its mix of social responsibility, spirituality, Buddhist thought, and pacifism (at least until forced into action).

Kung Fu was initially scheduled to run once a month, alternating with ABC's other western Alias Smith & Jones on Saturday nights. However, the ABC line-up underwent a major reshuffle when the third hour of the Saturday night line-up, the paranormal thriller Sixth Sense died. Alias Smith & Jones was also dropped and Kung Fu and Streets of San Francisco moving to Thursday night in the second and third hours of primetime respectively. Owen Marshall: Counsellor At Law moved to Wednesday night while The Julie Andrews Hour (a variety show that was a major break for impressionist Rich Little) moved to the second hour of Saturdays replacing Kung Fu. The Men, a wheel show featuring Assignment: Vienna (Robert Conrad as an undercover spy in Vienna), Jigsaw (James Wainwright as a cop who chafes at standard police procedures but is effective in finding the missing persons he seeks), and The Delphi Bureau (Laurence Luckinbill as a counter-espionage agent with a photographic memory) moved to the third hour of Saturday nights. Both The Julie Andrews Hour and The Men were cancelled at the end of the season. The other new show cancelled at the end of the season was The Paul Lynde Show, in which Lynde played a family man who had to deal with his wife and two daughters as well as his eldest daughter's new husband Howie, the bane of Paul's existence.

The other ABC show to survive the season was Temperatures Rising, produced by William Asher.It probably shouldn't have survived given what happened to it. In the first season the show starred James Whitmore as the chief of staff at Capitol General Hospital in Washington, with Cleavon Little as Dr. Jerry Nolan, a resident who is also the hospital's chief "operator" (if there was a card game or a wheelchair race in the hospital, his character knew about it). Reportedly the public disliked Whitmore but liked the show and liked Lynde but hated his series so Whitmore was dumped – along with everyone else in the first season cast except Little – and Lynde and a new cast (including Mister John Dehner) were inserted. The result was a mess. Lynde's character, Paul Mercy, was thoroughly dislikeable but not as unpleasant as his invalid mother who bought the hospital. The series was cancelled and then revived, with the mother character dumped and replaced with a previously unknown sister played by Alice Ghostley. Of course, both Lynde and Ghostley were veterans of Asher's previous hit for ABC, Bewitched.

Of course it was CBS that had the greatest success in the 1972-73 TV season. Consider the CBS shows that debuted that year – M*A*S*H, Maude, The Waltons, and the Bob Newhart Show. Even when they failed something good came out of it. Consider the network's only mid-season cancellations of the year; Anna And The King starring Yul Brynner and Samantha Eggar in a non-musical (and allegedly a sit-com!) version of The King And I, and The Sandy Duncan Show which was an attempt to revive Duncan's earlier series Funny Face (which ended when Duncan was hospitalised due to cancer which took the sight in one eye). Both aired on Sunday nights along with M*A*S*H, The New Dick Van Dyke Show, and Mannix. When they cancelled the shows, CBS moved The New Dick Van Dyke Show from 9 p.m. Eastern to 7:30 p.m., shifted Mannix to 8:30 and added Buddy Ebsen's return to TV as a dramatic actor, Barnaby Jones. The show, which had ties to another CBS detective series Cannon, ran for a more than respectable eight years.

I don't think that much has to be said about most of the successful CBS shows in the 1972-73 season. Each of them achieved an iconic status. Who can forget Maude, the "liberal" spin-off of All In The Family where the lead character was the much married, opinionated, liberated force of nature who just happened to be the cousin of Archie Bunker's wife Edith. Then there was The Bob Newhart Show, which wasn't as politically opinionated as All In The Family or Maude but which meshed beautifully with its lead-in The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Both shows managed a near perfect blend of their respective characters' work and domestic lives, filled in each case with interesting and quirky characters in both areas. And of course what can really needs to be said about M*A*S*H, the comedy with dramatic overtones set during the Korean War but really an allegory for Vietnam and the illogic of the military in general. M*A*S*H was one of the most honoured and respected TV shows ever even as it metamorphosed with the various cast changes over the years. Certainly the M*A*S*H that debuted in 1972 was far different from the show that ended its run in 1983, with the regular characters becoming increasingly realistic in tone, and the storylines becoming increasingly dramatic. And, I suppose, with the network becoming increasingly aware that they didn't have an "ordinary" sitcom on their hands (as we'll see in the 1973 season this realization took a while to dawn on them).

Then of course there was The Waltons. It may seem a bit surprising that CBS began airing a new rural series just two seasons after the great "Rural Purge" but I suspect that there were reasons for the network putting it on the air. I have a theory that its period setting allowed it to focus on what today would probably be called "traditional family values"; the children are polite and responsible and obviously don't become involved in drugs or protests, they respected their parents and their elders and the whole family eats dinner together every night. Might I suggest that the material is the sort of thing that would appeal to the Nixonian "silent majority?" At the same time of course writer Earl Hamner Jr. was able to develop storylines that related to the issues of the day. In its own way, The Waltons examined women's rights, race, addiction (in the form of alcoholism) and other issues that people could relate to. And perhaps the most impressive thing about the show is the way that its success seems to have come as a surprise. The 1972 TV Guide Fall Preview issue says the following about The Waltons: "They're descended from pioneer stock and they'll need all the strength they can muster – they're up against Flip Wilson and The Mod Squad." In fact it was those two shows that needed the strength; The Mod Squad was cancelled at the end of the 1972-73 season, while The Flip Wilson Show was cancelled the next season.

CBS cancelled two of its new shows at the end of the season. One was the low rated New Bill Cosby Show which, along with the fifth season of The Doris Day Show, hadn't been able to thrive opposite Monday Night Football. The other show was Bridget Loves Bernie which occupied the Saturday time slot between All In The Family and Mary Tyler Moore. The show was a variant on the 1922 play Abie's Irish Rose, which had been made into a movie twice and even been a radio series from 1942-1944, and dealt with a young Jewish cab driver and writer (David Birney) who married a wealthy Catholic girl (Meredith Baxter). The format is an old one that has been adapted to other situations over the years (the Canadian series Excuse My French dealt with a poor Quebecois girl who married the son of a wealthy Anglophone businessman and had to deal with both of their families; Dharma & Greg was about the son of a wealthy conservative family who married the daughter of unreformed hippies). Bridget Loves Bernie has the distinction of being the highest rated series ever cancelled by any American network. According to the 1972-73 ratings list on the Classic TV Hits website the show finished fifth overall with an average 15.681 million viewers, which means that it finished ahead of The Mary Tyler Moore Show which had an estimated audience of 15.293 million viewers. One suggestion is that the writers ran out of ideas after the first season, but it's generally accepted that CBS cancelled the show because of hate mail and protests from opponents of inter-religious marriage, supposedly various Jewish groups. However, at the time CBS denied the allegation. According to Robert Metz's CBS: Reflections In A Bloodshot Eye Mike Dann claimed that "though the ratings were good they weren't good enough. The show caused a "hammock effect" on the Saturday-night schedule. Sandwiched between Family which drew 46 million homes and The Mary Tyler Moore Show which drew 41 million, Bridget Loves Bernie only managed to attract 31 million." This assertion in particular seems erroneous (to say the least) given the data listed both by Classic TV Hits and The Complete Directory To Prime Time Network And Cable Shows 1946-Present. The story of protests by people who vehemently objected to the show seems most plausible. Whatever the truth, the cancellation of Bridget Loves Bernie, together with mid-season moves that moved the aging Mission: Impossible (which would be cancelled at the end of the season) from Saturday to Friday (for Sonny & Cher) and The Carol Burnett Show from Thursday (where it's time slot was occupied by Sonny & Cher) would set up one of the greatest nights of TV ever, the CBS Saturday night line-up of All In The Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, and The Carol Burnett Show.

(I'm still doing a bit of research on a couple of replacements for cancelled shows in the season. I need the show that filled the 8:30-9 p.m. slot on ABC and the two hours between 8 and 10 p.m. on Tuesday night on NBC. Help would be appreciated.) (Update: I found the ABC 8:30-9 show. It was A Touch Of Grace starring Shirley Booth, J. Pat O'Malley and Marian Mercer. I still need the NBC show(s).)

Below is the 1972 ABC Fall Preview in three parts. Sorry, no TV criticism from President Nixon this time.

New Harper’s Island Trailer

Normally I don't post trailers for new shows that are coming up in the next few days, but I'm making an exception for Harper's Island. There are a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that the show features one of my favourite character actors, Jim Beaver (Jim is a favourite of mine not only because he's a first rate actor but because he's an extremely knowledgeable guy who used to post a lot in newsgroups like rec.arts.movies.past-films; it doesn't hurt that he was Don Adams's son-in-law either). The show looks to be a great combination of gothic horror and mystery with a ton of atmosphere.

It's possible that the show could represent a fundamental change in the way that American network TV is done, if it's successful. It will tell a close-ended story in a thirteen week run which is similar to the way that British TV is done. It seems very close to the original concept of a mini-series. However, unlike a miniseries there is the possibility that the show could be renewed for another thirteen week run. If so, most if not all, of the cast would be replaced and the setting would be different. Even the name would change.

I have a couple of worries about Harper's Island. One is the way that the network has chosen to handle it. Starting the show in April and having the finale run on July 2 seems to me to be something of a vote of non-confidence in the series. If CBS felt sure about the show wouldn't they have started during the "February" sweeps (which happened in March this year) and ended it during May sweeps? Or were they worried, once they decided to put it in the prime Thursday night slot following CSI that the show would suffer against the final episodes of ER and wanted to put it against the (supposedly) weaker competition of NBC's new series Southland? My other worry about the show has to do with whether or not the serialized nature is going to have a negative effect on its performance. Will an audience that seems with only a few exceptions to be dialled in to procedurals (here defined as "a genre of programs in which a problem is introduced, investigated and solved all within the same episode") be willing to invest the time and thought needed for this type of drama which requires an extended attention span. A plus for the show in this area is that it will be running for thirteen weeks without a hiatus. Still, it does seem to be a risky move.

Anyway, here's the new Harper's Island trailer. (I hope to have the 1972-73 TV Guide Fall Preview material posted later this afternoon.)

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

On April Fools Jokes

For a textbook example of how to set up and sell an April Fools' Day joke, see the series of posts from American-born Canadian screenwriter Dennis McGrath. He started slowly with a vague rumour about possible changes as Canwest-Global. Next he moved on to a more detailed rumour involving real places people and events but still eminently plausible. And then he sprang the trap, "revealing" a merger between Canwest-Global and CTV-Globemedia to become CTV Canglobe Media, reshuffling their programming assets to form the ultimate in demographic targeting. One network would be Global Dude, featuring programming oriented to a male audience, while CTV would retain the female oriented shows. The only sticking point was supposedly which network would get House. In addition to his website, Dennis also used other assets – notably his Twitter account – to tease the story.

A nice addition – apparently triggered by the April Fools' Day joke from another site was the story that the new company would also integrate the assets of Toronto based Naked News Broadcasting Network (NSFW of course), with the Global Dude news being done by nude anchors both male and female. (Actually this isn't a totally absurd idea; Naked News has a reputation for excellent news coverage in addition to the nudity. Based on past rulings from the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council, the Naked News could easily be shown on broadcast stations – and was seen for a time on CITY-TV in Toronto – since the nudity is in a non-sexual context, although the duration of the nudity force it to be aired later than the 9 p.m. watershed.) I'm ashamed that I didn't think of it.

Of course, in keeping with Canadian traditions related to April Fools' Day Dennis did reveal that it was all a joke at Noon and used the opportunity to show readers how this applies to screenwriting:

  • Basic plausibility allows you to slip in the ridiculous; just like a spoonful of sugar making the medicine go down.
  • Let the rope out slowly.
  • Details, details, details.
  • There's always a spoiler.
  • Reward your audience.

Dennis's series of posts are a beautiful example of how to subtly play with your audience, and why – really – you can't do a great April Fools' joke on the spur of the moment like I did with mine (I had been too busy labouring over the PTC thing to really work on this one). I bow in the presence of a master.

Because We’re Canadian And We Can

Canwest Global press release (not) – hold to 1, April:

Fooled by the size of the company's debt many analysts have expected the Global television network to retrench and to become even more of a bastion of American network shows than it already is, in spite of CRTC regulations. The opposite seems to be the case as Canwest today announced that starting next season the network will only broadcast Canadian programming.

The new policy was announced by the new director of media relations for Global TV, Avril Poisson:

"Global Television is just pleased as punch to announce our new programming plan which will be effective immediately. The slogan for our network's new policy is 'Because we're Canadian and we can.' This new slogan recognises the differences between Canadian broadcasting regulations and what goes on in the United States. This new policy presents a comprehensive redirection for the network and encompasses drama, reality-competition, and something called comedy which I'm not really familiar with.

"In the field of drama we recognise that our current business model is broken. In the past we have been focussed on the first run syndication market as a way to create Canadian content without actually spending our own money. Even if we were able to sell a piece of crap show for two years it represented Canadian content and we were able to run it for years after production wrapped up. However the first run syndication market is no longer what it was thanks to things like The CW and MyNetwork TV taking our market away. So we've decided to switch our focus to co-productions with American cable networks such as FX, Showtime, MTV, TNT, Spike and so on. In fact we'll be aiming our sales at just about every network that has ever been criticized by the Parents Television Council. The shows we are producing will be gritty and real and will of course include strong language and nudity. They should produce strong ratings as they are shows that American broadcast networks can't show but aren't a problem here because we're Canadian and we can!

"This part of our drama plan won't be available to the network for between six months and a year depending on the contracts we sign with the American nets which want to present all of the episodes before they go free to air, particularly in areas such as Windsor-Detroit and Vancouver-Seattle where our stations can be picked up with an antenna by poor people who don't have cable or satellite dishes. As a stopgap measure we will reaching back into the history of the network. Back when Canwest-Global was just CKND in Winnipeg we won many many Gemini Awards, and Nellies before that with small dramas that worked as an anthology show. Sure, they only aired during the summer when no one was actually watching TV but they were cheaper than dirt to make and earned us a lot of prestige while not actually having anyone in them you'd know. We're going to make a new series of these shows and may even be able to find a market for them in places where American culture isn't really available, like Cuba. because we're Canadian and we can.

"Producing reality-competition shows are a new area for us, but from what we've observed this is an amazing growth area and we're really surprised that no Canadian producer has done anything with it. We will be licensing a couple of ideas from several producers including a Canadian Big Brother, which will be more free-wheeling, profane and sexy (that means swearing and nudity won't be censored), and a Canadian Last Comic Standing which will feature jokes that can't be used on an American show, because we're Canadian and we can. Still most of our reality-competition shows will be original to our network. We've observed that many American reality-competitions are thinly imitations of other shows that are just different enough that no one can sue. So we will be making The Great Canadian Race – a show where competitors go across Canada, from Ottawa to Lake Nipigon and from Point Pellee to Kirkland Lake (what do you mean there's more to Canada than that – that's crazy talk); The Intern in which competitors live in a Toronto loft and have internships with Global Toronto with the winner getting a job at one of our stations away from Toronto – we'll see them at work and at play. Since people like dancing shows we have Anyone Can Dance in which ordinary people instead of celebrities compete with professional partners. There's Strip Poker After Dark which is pretty much self-explanatory. And there are many more that we're not ready to talk about, but they'll be smart (well smart for reality-competition shows – these things are relative) and sexy (meaning lots of naked flesh) which is allowed because we're Canadian and we can.

"In terms of comedy, well umm, well uh, well to be honest with you we've never really done much comedy. We've got Howie Do It of course which we do because we can sell it to NBC and maybe they'll let us do Deal Or No Deal Canada again. I sincerely apologize to my American friends but that's what happens when you make a deal with the devil...or Jeff Zucker and Ben Silverman which is much the same thing. As for sitcoms, well I suppose we can steal some ideas from somewhere, but I don't suppose they'll be successful, because we're Canadian and we can't. Well at least not the people Global can afford to hire.

"So there you have Global's master plan for restoring financial viability to the network. If this doesn't work we have a few other ideas. We're looking at CRTC regulations and there may be a loophole that will allow us to fill the line-up with British and French shows because they're considered Canadian. If that doesn't work we can always sell our entire network to some sucker entrepreneur while we keep the profitable specialty cable services, because we're Canadian and we can!

"One thing is sure: this isn't not a joke."