Monday, March 29, 2010

Beat The Clock – 2010 Style

If you're as old as I am – somewhat younger than dirt but older than some of the hills, at least in my neighbourhood – you will probably remember an old TV game show called Beat The Clock. The premise of Beat The Clock was incredibly simple. Contestants had to perform a simple task or a stunt within a certain time limit. Of course the task always involved a twist, like you had to stuff ten balloons into a pair of oversized pants, but you had to do it while wearing boxing gloves. If you succeeded you won some money. It wasn't a lot of money – usually around $100 or $200 – but the major thing was being on TV. When I was watching Beat The Clock it was as old as the hills; the original version of the show debuted in 1950, and while the first version ended in 1961 a second version, made in Montreal debuted in 1969. I bring up Beat The Clock because 60 years after that show debuted a new series called Minute To Win It has debuted on NBC in which people perform an assortment of party games for money.

The basic elements of Beat The Clock are found in Minute To Win It. Contestants are given stunts to perform within a given time limit. While the time limit in Beat The Clock often varied, on Minute To Win It the time is obvious – one minute. But the stunts are pretty much the same. On Sunday's episode one contestant had to move three cotton balls from a bowl full of cotton balls... using only his nose. He first had to dip his nose into some Vaseline and then putting his nose into the pile of cotton balls to pick one up. Too little Vaseline on his nose could let the cotton ball drop off before he reached the other side of the stage, while too much would make it extremely difficult to get the cotton ball off of his nose.

There a some significant differences from Beat The Clock of course. Most are made to conform to the modern vision of game shows. Instead of contestants having to complete a single task for a set amount of money (in the old show it was about $100, and in some versions there was the option for the most successful players of the day to come back for another task for more money) there is a "ladder" system by which a contestant who completes a task for a sum of money can either take that money and leave or do another, more complex task for a higher amount of money. In theory at least a player can win $1 million, although the highest I've seen is $125,000. And while a contestant on Beat The Clock had only one chance to complete his task, contestants on Minute To Win It have three "mulligans" or "do-overs" (in this game called "lives") over the period of the game to do tasks. So, if a contestant fails to stack three golf balls on top of each other without any sort of mechanical aid (which a contestant on Sunday was able to do – I've only been able to do two) the first time he gets another chance (and if he has the lives left, another and another). Contestants who fail to complete their tasks and run out of lives go down to base levels. If they haven't reached the $50,000 level they get nothing; if they're above the $50,000 level when they use up their last life they win $50,000. And of course they have the opportunity to quit and take their money, but not if they've tried and failed and still have lives left.

Minute To Win It has done a very interesting thing with their games. All of the games use common household items – coin, ping pong balls, cookies, golf balls, and so on – and the producers have posted video instructions for the games online so that viewers can try the games. They are encouraging viewers to submit videos of them performing the various stunts. In addition to open casting calls for people in the Los Angeles area, and e-mails to the casting department, the show is accepting those video submissions as a way to audition for the show.

Minute To Win It is hosted by LA restaurateur and Food Network star Guy Fieri. He's hosted several shows for that network, most notable Diners Drive-Ins And Dives. Minute To Win It is a major departure for him, but his energy and personality make it work. He's a bit off the wall but this sort of show needs someone who is personable and energetic. It wouldn't work with a host like Howie Mandel (Deal Or No Deal) or Regis Philbin (Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?). The show isn't a static production where a host can stand or sit behind a table or desk. Fieri talks to contestants wherever they are in the playing area, but then usually has to back off while they are performing the task. He does manage to keep a high energy doing commentary for the various tasks and keeping the viewers interested.

A major difference between the old Beat The Clock and Minute To Win It is in production values. I'm not sure that the change is for the better. The set for the show is what you might want to call a generic "game show modern." The playing area is a circle in the center of the set which is set up in a faux theatre in the round style, so that we always see the audience. Everything is done in black except the railings around the playing area which are in chrome, or something resembling chrome, and underlit with blue neon lights. There are big projections screens above the audience which sometimes convey information but more often are used to create the impression that there is a second tier to the audience. The player receives his instructions, called the blueprint for the stunt because it is drawn rather than photographed or shown in video, on a large screen. The blueprint is presented by a female, apparently British voice, which seems at time to be mimicking a computerized voice rather than a real woman. The whole thing is more than a bit overproduced.

One area where there is a problem is in resetting the stage. Frequently, when a task is completed the playing area is more than a bit messy. And because of the theatre in the round style of the set there is no moving to a different area of the set while the one that was most recently used is being set up for a future task. Consequently there are times when Fieri introduces the blueprint for the next task amidst the detritus of the task that has just been completed, and when the blueprint is completed the set is miraculously cleaned up and set up for the next task, a chore that obviously could not be completed in the time that it took the blueprint to run. The result is sometimes rather unsettling, particularly when they set up the new stunt and then break for commercial before the contestant starts the next task. For me this makes the editing more than a bit choppy and it can come across as a bit amateurish.

Minute To Win It is not doing well in the ratings with the episode on March 21st drawing 5.16 million viewers and a 1.8/5 rating in the 18-49 demographic. That put it into fourth place for the first half hour and third place for the second when it beat the animated Cleveland Show on Fox. It did not beat time slot winner The Amazing Race or the more than somewhat cloying Extreme Makeover Home Edition. I certainly can't disagree with the results. While the show has more than a few fun moments, and the challenges are something everyone can try, they don't hold a candle to the scenery and experiences on The Amazing Race or the deliberately heart-tugging stories that make up Extreme Makeover Home Edition. While I scarcely regard Minute To Win It as original or compelling TV, I have seen worse game shows – remember The Singing Bee, or that series that Shatner hosted Show Me The Money – and even worse scripted shows. This show just doesn't seem like a real contender for the Sunday night time slot and totally doesn't fit with either its lead-in, the news magazine Dateline or the show that follows it Celebrity Apprentice. I'm afraid that the show would do well in the sink hole that Friday night has become on every network except CBS, but maybe a better alternative would be for the show to enter syndication as a daytime game show. The show is pleasant enough, has the right type of host, and I think if it could find the right audience it would do reasonably well. The problem is that it isn't going to find that audience in the Sunday night time slot it now occupies.

Here's a clip of one of the blueprints for a stunt on the show.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Saturday Videos – Spy Show Themes

We lost another favourite actor from my 1960s childhood. Robert Culp died this past week at age 79. He apparently collapsed and struck his head on the sidewalk outside his home. For those who grew up in the 1980s he may be best remembered for playing the hard bitten, sardonic FBI agent Bill Maxwell in Greatest American Hero with William Katt and Connie Sellecca – of the three he was undoubtedly the best actor. More recently he had a recurring role on Everybody Loves Raymond playing Ray's father-in-law Warren, opposite Katherine Helmond. His first series was the 1957 CBS western Trackdown, in which he played Texas Ranger Hoby Gilman. The series featured a number of noted directors and guest stars including directors Richard Donner and Sam Peckinpaugh, and Oscar winning actors James Coburn and Rita Moreno. The series may be best known for an episode that introduced bounty hunter Josh Randall, played by Steve McQueen. The Randall character was spun off into a series the next year, called Wanted Dead Or Alive which is generally credited with being McQueen's breakout role. However, for people like me, who grew up in the 1960s, Robert Culp is best known for playing CIA agent Kelly Robinson opposite Bill Cosby as Alexander Scott. Rhodes Scholar Scott was the brains of the team while Culp's Robinson was the athletic playboy. Culp not only starred in the show but wrote seven episodes including the first episode to be broadcast (So Long, Patrick Henry) and directed one of the episodes. The series spawned a lifelong friendship between Culp and Cosby, who later teamed up again in the theatrical movie Hickey And Boggs, which Culp directed, and Culp appeared in single episodes of both The Cosby Show (playing a character called "Scott Kelly" – taken from the names of their two characters in I Spy) and Cosby, where he reprised the character of Kelly Robinson in a dream sequence (with Cosby's name being replaced in the show credits with the name of his character in the show, Hilton Lucas). As Mark Evanier explained in his obituary, Culp was very active in union work, both with the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild.

It would be very easy to do this Saturday videos segment using just the themes of I Spy and Greatest American Hero, and maybe trying to find a few clips from both. The one really good clip that I've found of I Spy features a great deal of Walter Koenig (just before he was tapped to play Chekov in Star Trek and very little Cosby and Culp. However in an interesting turn, the first five episodes of I Spy are available in their complete form on YouTube, courtesy of Image Entertainment which has the home video rights to the show. This includes So Long, Patrick Henry.). But just playing those two themes seems a bit pedestrian. In that mid-Sixties period there were a number of series based around spies and espionage on American TV – by 1966 there were a dozen such shows on the American networks. Many of them were done with a varying amount of tongue in cheek humour, ranging from I Spy through Man From U.N.C.L.E. all the way to Get Smart. There was even an odd blending of genres with Wild Wild West, a series that blended the Western with spies. In fact, about the only people who took the espionage genre the slightest bit seriously were the British. Two British series, Danger Man – renamed Secret Agent when it came to CBS – and The Avengers were bought by American networks. The decade ended with one of my personal favourites, It Takes A Thief.

Let's start off our tour of 1960's spy show themes with the one that got me to thinking about this topic, I Spy even though it debuted a year after The Man From U.N.C.L.E. All of these shows drew their inspiration from the James Bond films, particularly Goldfinger, but as we'll see, the title sequence for the first season of I Spy is practically grand theft intro rather than an homage. Subsequent seasons dispensed with this sequence and replaced it with clips from the episodes (and included the title "Emmy Winner Bill Cosby"). In this sequence the emphasis is definitely on Culp's character, who is the one seen in silhouette, but I swear that producer Sheldon Leonard gets the biggest credit of all.

Next up, here's an extended clip, including the opening theme to the British series Danger Man starring Patrick McGoohan as John Drake. The series ran in Britain from 1960-1962 as a half hour show and then from 1964-1968 as an hour series. Thus, in its original incarnation it predated the James Bond phenomenon, while its revival was at least partially because of the James Bond phenomenon.

CBS had been involved in financing he show's first version , which they aired as a summer replacement for Wanted Dead Or Alive but pulled out after the first season. When the show was revived the network again acquired it, and replaced the original theme with its own sequence featuring Johnny Rivers singing Secret Agent Man. Here's the American version of the same episode with the original theme reduced to incidental music (so don't stop the player when the commercial starts).

The biggest of the American made spy series that at least tried to be semi-serious was Man From U.N.C.L.E. which starred Robert Vaughan as Napoleon Solo, Leo G Carroll as Alexander Waverly, and Robert McCallum as Ilya Kuriakin. The show was apparently based on an original concept created by James Bond creator Ian Fleming, and the original plan was to tie the show more closely to the Fleming name. The show itself got increasingly campy as the seasons went on for a variety of reasons, and the quality took a definite downward turn. The show's first season was done in Black & White while subsequent seasons were done in Colour, but while the slide of the show into camp may have coincided with the introduction of colour, the two states were entirely coincidental. The show had a variety of opening sequences during the four seasons it was on the air, but this sequence featuring the bullet proof glass is probably my favourite.

The other big British import was of course The Avengers. The show started in 1961 and actually starred two men – Ian Hendry had the lead role while Patrick Macnee was his partner but his role was secondary to the point where Steed didn't appea in some episodes. It soon became apparent that MacNee's character John Steed was popular and he increasingly became the co-lead. When Hendry quit to do movies after the show's first season Macnee took his place seamlessly. Steed had a number of partners, notably Honor Blackman as Connie Gale, before he started working with "talented amateur" Mrs. Emma Peel, played by Diana Rigg. The two had a definite chemistry, even though Rigg was only on the series for three years. She was in turn replaced by Linda Thorson for the show's final two season... the less said about the better. This was actually the second theme for the series; the first was composed by John Dankworth and was used for the Hendry and Gale episodes. This version of the titles was for the Black & White Emma Peel episodes. The colour title sequence is probably better known but this one features Rigg in her iconic leather cat suit. Edit: Oops, the character played by Honor Blackman was Cathy Gale. There is a character in the current run of the Annie comic strip called Connie Gale and I mixed up the names.

Finally, here's the title sequence for one of my favourite shows of the genre. It Takes A Thief ran for three seasons and featured Robert Wagner as Alexander Mundy, a professional thief who was arrested and given the choice; he could go to prison or he could steal for the government – specifically an agency called the SIA, where his boss would be Noah Bain, played by Malachi Throne, who was replaced by Ed Binns as Wallie Powers in the show's third season. It's not clear when this version of the title is from – I was hoping for a clip from the third season which featured Fred Astaire in a recurring role as Alistair Mundy, Al's equally larcenous but more successful (he never got caught) father, but I can't seem to find one.

Update: This is in fact a third season episode, just not one with Astaire in it. The first two seasons featured the voice of Noah Bain saying, "Hey, look, Al, I'm not asking you to spy... I'm just asking you to steal!"

As I've said, there were a dozen spy shows on TV in 1966 alone. These clips have only scratched the surface of what's out there and I may revisit this area at a later date.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Saturday Video Clips

So I guess it was the other day, when I heard that Fess Parker had passed away, that I had the idea of doing some sort of YouTube video tribute to him. It was an idea that quickly morphed – because just about everyone else was doing just that – into an idea of doing a YouTube based post every weekend. The idea would be to find several TV related videos and posting them on Friday night-Saturday morning. These videos might be related to some news item, like casting for a new version of the Rockford Files, the death of a TV icon like Fess Parker, or just anything that tickled my fancy (or fancied my tickle – no, that doesn't work in this situation). Maybe this won't last long, or maybe it will – let's give it a try.

First up of course is Fess Parker, who passed away on March 18th at age 85. Parker was born in San Angelo Texas, and after brief service in the Marines in World War II (he wanted to be a pilot but at 6' 6" he was too tall to fit into a cockpit or even serve as an aviation gunner in a bomber) he graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in History, and moved to California to get a Masters in theatre History at USC. He soon found himself too busy because of acting jobs. Initially under contract at Warner Brothers he was nominated for an Emmy in 1954 as "Outstanding New Personality" – he lost to "Lonesome" George Gobel. In December 1954 he debuted in the role that would shape his later career – Davy Crockett. Some people classify Davy Crockett as the first TV miniseries. In three episodes the series told the story (or a highlighted version) of the frontiersman, politician and soldier who died at the Alamo. The series was so popular that it is said to have revitalized part of the fur industry – there was a sudden need for racoon fur for coonskin caps. It also spawn two follow-up episodes – set before the Alamo or even Crockett's time in Congress – in which he was involved with legendary keel boat skipper Mike Fink. Parker was soon under contract with Disney, but the contract restricted the parts available to Parker – he was typecast in roles like Boone in movies for Disney while the studio refused to loan him out for roles outside that persona. Thus he missed parts in films like The Searchers with John Wayne and Bus Stop with Marilyn Monroe. So first up we have the complete version of the Davy Crockett theme song. Unfortunately there are no clips of the show on YouTube but this clip includes the complete Davy Crockett Theme (more complete in fact than I can remember it being!).

In 1962 he appeared in the TV version of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington on ABC. The show isn't notable for much, but it did feature the final TV appearance of Harpo Marx. It lasted one full season but it did clear the way for Parker to do the other part for which he was famous, Daniel Boone which ran from 1965-1970. The series is a highly fictionalized version of the life of the legendary frontiersman who pioneered the settlement of Kentucky. The show was hardly historically accurate but as a kid in the 1960s I found it great fun. It was Parker's last hit. After Daniel Boone ended he turned down the role of Marshal Sam McCloud which went to Dennis Weaver he did a short lived sitcom called The Fess Parker Show for CBS before leaving acting to run a well respected vineyard, the Fess Parker Family Winery and Vineyards. Here's the theme from the first season of Daniel Boone with both the opening and end credits.

Casting continues for the new version of The Rockford Files, with Beau Bridges being cast as "Rocky" Rockford (originally played by the great character actor Noah Beery Jr.), Jim Rockford's father. He joins Dermot Mulroney in his first major TV role as Jim Rockford (the role immortalized by James Garner), and Alan Tudyk (best known for playing Wash on Firefly) as Jim's police contact Dennis Becker. Among the parts yet to be cast are the roles of Angel, Jim's slightly less than legitimate former cellmate, Beth Davenport, Jim's lawyer and occasional romantic interest, and Lt. Doug Chapman, Becker's boss who was constantly getting on Dennis's case for helping Rockford...and then taking credit for any arrests that resulted from the work that Dennis and Jim had done. This is being done as a pilot for NBC and while I'm not particularly enthusiastic about the idea of remaking this absolute classic of a show, I have to admit that the casting looks extremely good. Here's the original Rockford Files Theme. I was hoping to find one of the opening segments with the answering machine but any of those that were posted appear to have been taken down at the "request" of NBC. This is a pretty good version of the theme though.

Finally, Nikki Finke reports that there is going to be a big screen remake of 77 Sunset Strip coming from Warner Brothers. Normally the very idea of these things leaves me cold, and for the most part this one does the same. Of interest is that the studio, which produced the original series, will be giving it a period feel. This will presumably include references to the Dodger moving from Brooklyn to Los Angeles (which happened at the end of the 1957 baseball season) and period movie stars. The series, based on several books written by Roy Huggins during the 1940s (and legally stolen from Huggins by Jack Warner who screened the pilot as a feature film in the Caribbean to "establish" that the series derived from a theatrical feature not Huggins's books), featured two former secret agents working as private detectives and "assisted" by hipster speaking Gerald Lloyd Kookson III, better known as "Kookie", who worked as a parking valet at the night club next to their offices – it was a real night club, Dino's, owned by Dean Martin. The original show starred Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as Stu Bailey, Roger Smith as his partner Jeff Spencer, and Edd Byrnes as Kookie. Here's the intro to the series.

And here is a clip from the show in which Stu and Kookie "talk." Funny, I vaguely remember the series from my youth, but I don't recall Kookie smoking. The cars and his ever present comb I do remember.

Let's see what next week brings.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Shaking The Family Tree On Network TV

Last Friday night I saw a new NBC series called Who Do You Think You Are? It could I suppose be labelled under the catch-all soubriquet of "reality show" but that would be doing it a disservice. It is perhaps the most unusual show to appear on a commercial broadcast network since the early 1950s (there were some truly bizarre concepts that were tried back then including at least one series about toy trains!). That a show is unusual is not necessarily a good thing and the case of Who Do You Think You Are? is a perfect example. Who Do You Think You Are? is a non-fiction series about genealogy. When was the last time that any commercial broadcast network in North America has done a non-fiction series about genealogy? Frankly it is a poor fit for just about any commercial network. (Okay, I just checked; CBC in Canada did their version of Who Do You Think You Are? Back in 2007.)

I'm not saying that you can't make an interesting program out of genealogy. Alex Haley proved that fact with Roots. The series made from his quest to discover his family history dating back – somewhat improbably according to some experts – to the Kunta Kinte, the first member of his family to come to America as a slave made compelling television. But a non-fiction treatment? I honestly don't think that it will work on commercial broadcast network TV. Despite the fact that this is an import from Britain, where it has run for seven seasons, the format and the concept seem to be totally at odds with what a commercial network should be doing. Not that there isn't room for a show of this sort, but my feeling is that it is better suited to PBS than it is to NBC.

Not that the show is without merit. In the episode that I saw on March 12th we followed former football player Emmitt Smith as he attempted to trace his family history back to "mother Africa." As is the case with most African-Americans he was unable to fully trace his history with historical records. He progress was not without some interesting revelations however. Starting with his father's mother he was able to trace his way back to a small town in Alabama; really just clutch of abandoned buildings and a small store, operated by a second cousin of Emmitt's, who gave him a clue about where to find more information about his grandmother. This led him to the country courthouse where he was able to find records of his family going back to the 1870 census, the first census after the Civil War and also the first in which African American names were recorded. This gave him further information, particularly related to the racial designation used at the time. His ancestors were classed as "mulatto" meaning of mixed race. It also led him to the white family that had owned his ancestors, the Puryears. He was finally able to trace his family back to Mecklemburg County in Virginia in 1815 and the identity of the probable white father of his ancestor Mariah, Samuel Puryear, who Smith and the local expert who was working with him assumes was a child of rape. It was there that the records apparently ended. However at the beginning of the episode Emmitt had taken a DNA test, the results of which were available at the end of the episode. This revealed that he was 7% Native American, 12% White and 81% African. According to the person explaining the report to him, this is an incredibly high percentage – this person has never seen an African-American who is 100% African. The DNA researcher also suggested that his family probably originated from the "slave coast" of West Africa, probably in the region of Benin. Smith's journey took him through a series of emotions. In visiting the part of Alabama where his family had lived, he was sad that while the grave of the white woman in whose will they have found the name of his ancestors was still in existence and visible, the graves of the slaves, presumably including some of his ancestors were unmarked and abandoned in the woods around the white cemetery. His disgust related to Samuel Puryear, who it was assumed had raped an unnamed ancestor and fathered Mariah, the earliest ancestor he could find, was also palpable.

Now I'm just guessing here, but I suspect – based on what little I've been able to see of the BBC show on YouTube – that Emmitt Smith himself hasn't done all, or even much, of the research on his family described in the show. I don't think that this is really a bad thing although in the British show it appears to be openly stated that the research on a participant's family tree has been previously researched by "professionals."

Who Do You Think You Are? is apparently doing well in the ratings, "well" being a relative term when it comes to Friday night programming on network TV. The second episode actually improved on the ratings for the first episode, which is unusual for any new series. The show finished second in its timeslot and apparently tied for first in the 18-34 demographic. This is surprising – amazing even – given the subject matter. And still I don't really think that the idea is well suited to commercial TV. Remember that the British series is done on BBC2, which is a popular but non-commercial network. Emmitt Smith's story was a compelling one but would the telling of that story have been more compelling if it hadn't been interrupted every ten minutes or whatever for a commercial from an insurance company or whoever was sponsoring the show? A more seamless retelling of the story would have been the result and perhaps we as an audience would have had a greater sense of the passage of time in Emmitt's search. This is the sort of programming that PBS does so well, and which commercial TV, because of its dependence on commercials and both the resulting demand for ratings and the necessary series of interruptions for commercials, has trouble doing well. As I've said, this show – in this episode at least, because of the subject matter – is relatively compelling and capable of holding viewer interest. I just don't think that it is as well done as it could have been were it not for the demands of commerce.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Five For Fighting

Usually it's a good thing when people say that something isn't as bad as they expected... but not always. Case in point, the new NBC show The Marriage Ref which was previewed on NBC on Sunday night after the Closing Ceremonies of the Winter Olympics. And it wasn't as bad as I had expected. The problem was that I was expected an utter and total train wreck. Marriage Ref was not in fact a total and complete train wreck. Does that mean it was good though? Hell NO! It was bad if sometimes funny, and I'm convince that it will be even worse when it is expanded – or rather inflated – into its full hour long format to replace the prime time Jay Leno Show on Thursday night. It just wasn't as bad as I had expected it to be.

In part I blame Marc Berman's podcast for my extremely low expectations for this show. For the past two weeks Marc has been talking about the Olympics and about how NBC has been on an extreme high in terms of rating because of the Olympics – although not so great a high that they've were able to beat American Idol during the Games – but that the network had nothing to follow up their success with. Which is, of course, totally true. If I were in charge of the network I'd have a nearly completely new line-up in place after the Olympics. NBC has a couple of new shows, one of which is The Marriage Ref. And The Marriage Ref attracted much of Marc's scorn. He didn't like the concept of the show, he didn't like that it was created by Jerry Seinfeld, and he most assuredly didn't like the fact that Alec Baldwin, whose split from Kim Bassinger was one of the dirtiest and messiest divorces in recent Hollywood history, was doing a show that was "saving people's marriages." In short a train wreck that would be the equivalent of the 20th Century Limited smashing into the Super Chief and then getting T-boned by the City of New Orleans. The problem is that, having seen the show, I have to acknowledge that it isn't quite that bad for a lot of reasons.

The big thing is that no one but no one is taking this thing seriously. The "Marriage Ref" is Tom Pappa, a stand-up comedian rather than a "relationship expert," who just happens to be a close friend of producer Jerry Seinfeld's and has been the opener for Seinfeld's stand-up act for years. On a set that looks as though it was borrowed from a late, late late talk show (like Carson Daily's maybe) he is joined by "experts" which in the show's definition is anyone who is married, has been married or has ever thought of getting married. This is why you can get Seinfeld (married), Kelly Ripa (famously married to her former All My Children co-star and on-screen husband Mark Consuelos), and of course Alec Baldwin as marriage experts. Also in the cast was Natlaie Morales of the Today Show as the "fact checker" – apparently this will be another "celebrity" role – and announcer Marv Albert who seemed embarrassed to be there rather than in Vancouver (and to my eyes at least didn't look particularly well; that may be because I haven't seen him in a while).

And the "problems" that Pappa and the celebrities had to resolve are scarcely the stuff of Dr. Phil or even Jerry Springer. The first episode featured two couples with stupid/funny problems. The first couple was from an obviously affluent part of Long Island. The cause of stress in their marriage was his dog Fonzie. Or rather his late dog Fonzie. Fonzie, a Boston Bull Terrier, was pining for the fiords – or in his case probably pining for the bleachers at Fenway – and the husband decided to have the dog stuffed by a taxidermist and located in a place of honour, a shrine if you will, in the family living room. The wife, who didn't like the dog when it was alive (because as the celebrity fact checker informed us, it bit her more than once and had a habit of peeing on guests) certainly didn't want it in the house dead. The panel, in a session filled with quips and funny comments that included questioning what the husband might do with his wife when she died if he was willing to stuff his dog, decided that the whole idea of keeping the stuffed dog around, particularly in the designated "shrine area" was utterly creepy and he shouldn't do it. Pappa then rendered his decision to the couple, who were shown "live" in their home in front of the "shrine" with the stuffed dog enshrined (and looking worse than the first time we saw it in the video presentation of the family problem). Pappa said that the man could keep his dog but had to put it in the "open air attic," where part of the episode was shot.

The second problem was a man from Atlanta who wanted to put a stripper pole in the family bedroom for his wife to "work" on. His wife, who wasn't exactly stripper material in the weight department (a little heavy thanks to giving birth to at least two kids) told him that there was no way in Hell that that was going to be in her bedroom. In the course of the presentation and analysis of the problem by the panel, we learned that the man had bought his wife something like 60 thongs, and that working a stripper pole can burn about 200 calories, and is considered good exercise. In fact the husband in this case went from saying that they could put the pole in the garage and tell people that it was a fishing pole (what kind of fish does this guy go out for!) to saying that it wasn't a stripper pole, it was an exercise pole. Alec Baldwin pointed out that even if they did put the pole in the bedroom, she'd never be happy using it and that who wanted to be danced for by an angry resentful and disinterested stripper. Kelly thought that it was just plain creepy, but Jerry Seinfeld thought it was a great idea. When Pappa rendered his decision he told the man that he couldn't have his stripper pole.

The Marriage Ref is a rather obvious satire of the pretentious nature of a lot of afternoon talk shows, in particular Dr. Phil's show. Viewed in that way I think that it works well enough, but I can think of better ways to work something like that. I don't think that the show was entirely without merit. There were some very funny moments, but several of those came from the "civilians" rather than the celebrity panellists. Selection of "problems" for this series has to be key. It stops being valid if there is even a hint that the problems are really big enough to cause these people to come anywhere close to divorce or any real emotional distress. Fighting over whether or not to put up a stripper pole hardly qualifies. That said, I think that the premise is rather thin and the longer you string it out, either in episode length or in the number of episodes in an order the more threadbare it's going to appear. I think that the premise would work brilliantly as an entirely scripted regular segment on a show like Saturday Night Live. As it was presented on Sunday night, with two problems in one half hour it works adequately. One couple in a half hour episode would have spent too much time on either of the problems that these people had. Basically the problems should have been "no-brainers" for anyone anyway. My opinion is that taking this show to an hour format, whether they look at four problems or even three problems is stretching things to the breaking point, though I can see people getting bored with it at that length. If they are foolish enough to try to do just two problems in an hour, well they'll soon discover that some things just won't stretch that far. NBC should keep this show at a half hour, find something else to fill the other half of the old Leno slot on Thursday nights and hope and pray that it gets an audience. I just don't think that an hour of this is going to fly; a half-hour was testing my patience.