Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Classic American Television

Doug: Today's post spins out of a comment our pal david_b made last Friday on our Comics Code post. In the midst of his pontification David slipped in a reference to the television program Dragnet, which (for most of us who see it in reruns; there were earlier radio and TV versions) ran during the 1967-70 seasons and featured Jack Webb and Harry Morgan as LA policemen. That made me smile, and immediately got me to thinking of some programs my wife and I enjoy.

Doug: One of my favorites that I actually watched in reruns when I was a child is The Dick Van Dyke Show. Now that I'm older and fully understand the plotlines I really appreciate it. Van Dyke was so gifted at physical comedy, and it's that aspect of the program that stands out to me. Of course we were of the age that The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family were still being first-aired when we were little. Watching those today is a bit different from viewing "Dick Van Dyke" or The Mary Tyler Moore Show; the Bradys are a part of our personal history -- can you think of another program in the lives of people born in the mid-1960's that has been watched for virtually forever, as in the case of The Brady Bunch? Sure, it's not particularly fine as literature or cinema, but each show was it's own little whitebread morality play.

Doug: These are just a few examples -- I could go on with the sitcoms and then on into a few old dramas that we'll sometimes sit back and watch. But I'll let the conversation begin to flow through you, our readers. Which series of decades past did you enjoy, and perhaps still watch in reruns -- Green Acres (also mentioned by david_b last week), I Love Lucy, M*A*S*H, Mr. Ed, Happy Days, or The Honeymooners? Are there classic series that you've purchased on DVD? And, just to balance the equation, are there some shows that just make your eyes bleed? -Why in the world would any producer have wasted the celluloid? Thanks in advance for your comments!

NOTE: We certainly don't want to exclude our international friends from the conversation. Sidebars for British television, etc. are perfectly appropriate to today's topic. I'm sure if the comments get to flowing, there will be something that comes along that we can all get involved with.


dbutler16 said...

Since you mention some 60’s comedies, the first one that jumped into my mind was The Andy Griffith Show. The ones with Barney Fife are great, but it really dropped off after he left the show. I used to like Leave it to Beaver, also, though I haven’t watched it in a long time and am wondering if I’d still enjoy it. Star Trek was certainly my favorite show as a kid. I also used to love Hogan’s Heroes, though with the wisdom of age, I can see that it probably wasn’t a very good show. Some shows I used to watch, even though as a dumb kid I could tell they weren’t very good, were Giligan’s Island and Three’s Company. They didn’t show Dick Van Dycke where I live until well into my teens, but it was a good show, and the Honeymooners was only shown very late – well past my bedtime, so I wasn’t able to watch many of those, either. I knw MASH was a good show, but I could never get into it, for some reason. All in the Family was a classic, though. Dragnet was a god show, but also wasn’t shown locally until later in my life. I used to enjoy Happy Days, also (until Fonzie jumped the shark!!) and Laverne and Shirley, as well. I used to like Brady Bunch and the Partridge Family, though neither was really my favorite. I also watched the Mary Tyler Moore Show, but was probably too young to fully appreciate it at the time.

david_b said...

I lived at the time where the 60s shows were evaporating and the 1971‘Rural Purge’ occurred, "the year CBS killed everything with a tree in it," a quote by Pat Buttram, who played Mr. Haney on CBS's Green Acres. It was simply down to CBS advertisers wanting different demographics. Initially loathing the country shows, it’s always ironic when you start hunting for ‘em on cable once you bought your first house. Ah, comfort food, ‘All my love to long ago’, so to speak.

Some shows were quite sobering to me. Watched ‘Beaver’ quite a bit, and meekly observed/verbalized as a 7yr old when my parents split, ‘How come we can’t have a ‘normal family’ like that..?’. Aside from such ponderings, humbled to admit to you more literary types, but most of my heroes came from the tube, such as John Robinson of LIS, Race Bannon on ‘Jonny Quest’, Micky Dolenz, etc. The Smothers Brothers being another favorite.

I deliberately hated the onset of ‘tough, gritty, urban’ shows of the 70s. The sixties sitcoms and adventure shows were not just ‘escapism’ as they were often lamented as, they were solidly good shows with great ensembles and great directors. Plain and simple.

And they had STYLE and poise. In the 60s, we had UNCLE and Robert Wagner as Alexander Bundy; come the 70s, we had Ironside, Mod Squad and Baretta, detectives with a handicap or gimmick. Granted, they were more urban realism and arguably ‘self-important’ but the poise and charm of the shows I enjoyed were gone.

Now don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of GREAT casts in the 70s, I’m just making an observation. I did get very annoyed when the ‘pity-us-because-we-are-poor’ shows were running rampant, such as Good Times, Chico and the Man and others. Hey, just because my family could afford to go to Disney World every few years, I don’t stomach guilt trips mixed in with my comedy well, thank you.

As for my mention of ‘Dragnet’, just watch an entire episode. The first 2 minutes are spent with a history lesson of Los Angeles, or interesting perspectives on its highway system, etc. Then Jack Webb turns his narration to something dark and says, ‘that’s where I come in. I carry a badge’..(cue music). It’s a clean and polished show, where at times cynical humor is over-the-top (such as Harry Morgan explaining some crazy sandwich recipe to a bewildered Webb…), and because of its deadpan approach, it’s incredibly appealing in view of today's entertainment.

Edo Bosnar said...

Quark - how many people even remember that all-too-brief (8 episodes) Star Trek/Star Wars spoof from the mind of Buck Henry? Too bad it never caught on, nor developed a cult following like Police Squad! - I would have loved a Quark movie...

Anonymous said...

Hi William, regarding our MASH debate:

Why is Winchester superior to Frank Burns?

The Burns of the movie (Robert Duvall) was a more complex, uptight, religious hypocrite. The Frank Burns of the series was just a weasel, whose place in the show revolved around 2 things: his relationship to Margaret, which had logic in the film, but was wholly unlikely in the context of the show, and as a foil for Hawkeye and Trapper, but he was never a match for them, he was really just a straight man / punch line for their gags.

Winchester was a rounded (!) character with a rich back story and family history who was a real sparring partner for Hawkeye and BJ and often got the better of them in verbal jousts. Also, his character developed as he accepted his situation. Burns was a 2D cartoon character who did not change one iota from the start to the finish. Larry Linville said on leaving the role that he had done everything he could do with it, and left from choice. Another interesting change was that whereas Burns was an appalling surgeon ( ‘if you hadn’t been a surgeon, you’d have been a pastry chef’), Winchester was actually a better surgeon than Hawkeye and BJ. Again, more tension, more opportunities.
In the context of the previous thread (stay a little bit longer), if Burns had gone on for another 6 series, plots would have reached ludicrous levels of contrivedness and boredom.

Why is Potter better than Henry?

Regarding Henry, I think there was a problem of balance. Henry seemed to be a draftee commanding a military unit, which never made much sense to me, but also with Hawkeye, Trapper, BJ, Charles, Radar, Klinger and most of the cast hating the army, it provided a better foil, better conflict, to have a dyed-in-the-wool military man running the camp, so Potter offered a lot more comedy opportunities. And made more sense. Henry was an authority figure with no authority.

McLean Stevenson actually left by choice because he felt he was just a straight man to Alda & Rogers, which I think reinforces this point.

Also, I think a change was good. There were certain opportunities to be had from a CO who was non-military, and different opportunities to be had from one who was very military. Why stick to one when you can have both?

Why is BJ better than Trapper John?

Trapper John was basically just another Hawkeye. They got into lots of scrapes together, got drunk together, womanised together, etc. He was just more of the same. Wayne Rogers left because he felt Hawkeye had all the focus. When BJ arrived , he was a family man who passionately loved his wife and was tormented by the fact that he was missing his daughter’s childhood. He was very different to Trapper, but more importantly very different to Hawkeye and opened up a lot more possibilities. In the episode where Radar leaves and BJ’s daughter thinks Radar is her daddy, BJ goes crazy and Margaret gives him an excellent telling off which delineates the difference between him and the rest of them: ‘maybe you did have the most to lose, but that was only because you had the most to begin with’.

Mike Farrell had the name of BJ’s daughter changed to Erin (his own daughter) and when he acted a phone conversation with them, his real wife & daughter were actually on the other end of the phone. Trapper just made more martinis.

I’m not arguing that the show got better as it went on. It didn’t. It got less anarchic, less interesting, and further from its roots, but I think these character substitutions were a very positive attempt to bring different characters in and change the dynamic between the existing character relationships, rather than just having Klinger jump a shark in a ball gown (I know.....Klinger or the shark? Depends how desperate they were).


Anonymous said...

A lot of kids watched Star Trek and Batman for the action and adventure. Years later, as adults, we saw them in syndicated reruns and appreciated stuff that had gone over our heads before: the camp comedy and satire in Batman, and the social commentary, drama, and character interplay in Star Trek.

Anonymous said...

I remember the 1971 "Rural Purge." CBS and the other networks were trying to appeal to the yuppies (although I don't think that term came into use until about 10-12 years later). Out went Mayberry and Hooterville and in came the young lawyers, the young doctors, and the hippie cops. There was a similar relevance fad in comics, e.g. the Denny O' Neil/Neal Adams version of Green Lantern-Green Arrow. Of course, the fad passed. Harlan Ellison submitted a TV script and it was rejected because it was relevant. "We're not doing relevance this year. We did relevance last year."

Anonymous said...

My prize Christmas gift this year - Kung Fu the Complete Collection. I've gotten through the first 6 or so episodes. I enjoyed it when I was 12-14 years old and maybe moreso now. Master Kan and Master Po are the coolest TV characters ever.

Watch out Peter Gibbons.


Inkstained Wretch said...

Impressive rundown on M*A*S*H, Richard. I can't argue your points. It was a better, deeper series in the later years, but the earlier episodes are still more fun. They are closer to the anarchic spirit of the movie without its lapses into cruelty.

(Another odd thing about the series as a whole: It got the period detail much better than the film. You'd think it would be the other way around.)

The old series that I love are the anthology ones, particularly Outer Limits. The Twilight Zone gets all the kudos but its stories are too pat and too moralistic for me. Outer Limits really stretched, ahem, the limits of the genre with some truly outstanding writing and gorgeous black & white cinematography.

In the 70s my favorite was the In Search Of ... series. That's the one hosted by Leonard Nimoy where each episode looked into some "paranormal phenomenon" like Bigfoot, ESP or aliens. It was an incredibly hokey mish-mash of pseudo-science, re-enactments and kooky "eyewitnesses." It was also great fun. Most of the episodes are on youtube now.

david_b said...


I LOVED Quark.. The best cast member was Ficus, another favorite 'hero' of mine.. Such a shame the actor died in a year or so later. It was cool spotting him on Charlies Angels and other shows posing as a thug.

Richard, nice complete analysis on MASH. As for Frank, totally agree with his disintegration as a character, but the writers did that, not Linville. They could have expanded his character, but I understand he was more a 1-dimensional character to begin with, but so was Trapper and a few others. They gave some depth elsewhere, but not to Frank Burns.

However, there are other great characters whose actors portraying them keenly insisted they stay as is. Werner Klemperer said many times that as COL Klink, he refused any attempt to have him win over Hogan. An accomplished actor, he KNEW the gist of the show and what made the formula work. As for playing Klink, he also said, "I am an actor. If I can play Richard III, I can play a Nazi." John Banner (Schultz) summed up the paradox of his role by saying, "Who can play Nazis better than us Jews?"

Another personal favorite of mine was Russell Johnson (as the Professor). A few years back, I bought an autographed pic of his off his website, of which he added a latin verse. I of course looked it up on-line and it basically translated as 'From Life springs Knowledge'. I found that so wonderful that I emailed him later that year to wish him a wonderful Thanksgiving, and to let him know that as a veteran (and working at the VA here), that his body of work was so inspirational and gave me much joy that the solution to any problem is just 'the right question away'. Well, he wrote back to thank me for MY service to our vets, himself an old WWII aviator.

WOW, and WOW. To have a hero personally write you, and thank you for your service. Suffice to say, I was floored.

People tend to forget that a lot of actors on 60s television served in WWII. It just seems surreal, as they looked so young on screen.

dbutler16 said...

Inkstained Wretch, great call on In Search of... I used to love that show!

Garett said...

I picked up the Rockford Files season 2 recently, and thoroughly enjoyed it. It's a show that was always around, but I don't remember actually watching as a kid. Humour, James Garner's acting, well-written plots and dialogue.

Used to like Three's Company--can't stand it for more than 15 seconds now.

Buck Rogers was a favorite, and I'm just about to check out season one again.

My family recently got into Sliders and Quantum Leap again, watching whole seasons.

I prefer early MASH. That's one show that did well though with a whole new roster of actors--not many shows can make that transition into later seasons.

I'd like to get Maverick, as I did see reruns of that as a kid and remember it being good. Have Gun Will Travel also played around the same time, and it's aged well--picked up a season a few years ago, and enjoyed the intelligent writing.

dbutler16 said...

Yeah, Garett, I used to love Rockford Files also, as well as Buck Rogers, not to mention the short lived Space: 1999.

david_b said...

Space:1999 (Year 1) will always be 'my show' and my personal favorite for a few reasons..:

1) It was the only quality sci-fi show that I waited for, via TV promos, advertisements, etc.., so my anticipation was strong. Trek was already in reruns when I discovered it, so there was no 'build-up' of suspense.

2) It was presented in a very mature fashion, no hamming, no over-acting, no cute kid characters, just what seemed like straight, cerebral scifi. Barry Morse (who I had a long discussion with a year before he died) was my favorite. Sort of 2001 meets Outer Limits, and it was shown at 10:30pm Saturday nights (after the news), which lights out made everything a bit creepier.

3) Awesome effects throughout, not some show that had all the cool, extravagant special effects in the first episode, then was primarily land-based (like POTA, SMDM, Logans Run, LIS at times, etc..).

4) Best darn opening for any sci-fi show (Year 1). Ever.

5) Those Eagles, STILL my favorite spacecraft ever. (Hint for another column, Doug..)

Karen said...

All these fond memories of TV shows makes me want to revive our early efforts at semi-regular reviews of old shows. Way back in the early days of BAB we covered In Search Of ( and Kung Fu ( What do you think? Would you guys like to see us revisit this concept?

ChrisPV said...

For me, it all comes down to Star Trek. Big part of my childhood, bonding over the original series with my dad. The characters on that show really sold it, especially since the effects often couldn't. I've heard stories that the Klingons' belts were bubble wrap held in place with velcro. Also, words cannot express how awesome it was to see a multiracial cast like that. I was a kid in the 80's and 90's, and even then there wasn't that much diversity on a lot of shows.

Also, speaking of David's story, I always thought it was kinda humorous the lengths they went to hide James Doohan's missing finger on Star Trek. He lost it during his WWII service; at Normandy if memory serves. Dude played an engineer, surely there could be a story there. But no, poor guy's always got his fist clenched like he's holding on to the last lifeline on the boat.

Finally, no love for Doctor Who? Granted I came into it late with David Tennant, but I've been, say we say, diligently digging into the back catalog. Jon Petwee and Tom Baker were phenomenal, and Pat Troughton not being better represented is flat out criminal.

david_b said...

ChrisPV, thanks for mention of DW, I suggested a column to Doug and Karen last year when Elizabeth Sladen past on.

Her and Tom Baker were a wonderful combination..!

Doug said...

david_b --

This weekend it's all you, brother! Vehicles on Saturday, Dr. Who on Sunday.

And sorry if it seemed like we blew off the Dr. Who suggestion. I can't speak for Karen, but I know I've never had an interest in the program. So I have neither a positive or negative impression of it -- just wasn't on my radar screen. We shall rectify that in a few days.



Inkstained Wretch said...


Thanks for posting the In Search Of ... link. I had no idea you guys had covered this in the past.

To answer your question: Sure, why not the occasional TV-related post? It is always a good idea to mix things up a little every once and a while.

Redartz said...

Tom- I too am a big Kung Fu fan; my wife and I bought the whole series on DVD over several months, watching a couple episodes at a time. It really holds up well even today. The show never relied on special effects, emphasizing rather the characters and Kaine's development as he wandered the west. Kung Fu taught quite a few moral lessons during it's course, well couched in entertaining fashion.

One favorite of mine from the late 70's was WKRP in Cincinnati. It featured another great ensemble cast, great music and occasional references to my beloved Cincinnati Reds! We purchased the DVD collection of season one; was somewhat disappointed that the original music had been replaced do to copyright issues.

Finally, a nod to Monty Python's Flying Circus. Always enjoyed a weekly dose of British lunacy. A list of classic skits would take many columns, but my personal favorite was the Argument Clinic. Just try to watch that without laughing out loud...

Garett said...

I'd like TV reviews, Karen.

Edo Bosnar said...

I'm glad Monty Python's getting some love - PBS really did a service for us Yanks by showing that, plus Fawlty Towers and a few other British series. On that topic, one British series from the 1960s I feel I have to mention - even though I only first heard of it when I was in college and only watched it a few years back - is The Prisoner. Fantastic espionage/psychological drama that was way ahead of its time.

Rip Jagger said...

I've been catching up on some vintage old British shows like Gerry Anderson's UFO and Captain Scarlet lately. I was lucky enough to get them for Christmas and it's been a hoot the last several weeks catching up.

I grew up in a rural area with extremely spotty reception and we had a choice either to watch NBC (which came in great) and ABC (which came in okay) or CBS (which didn't hardly come in at all). That was it, no other options were available. When I got to college and discovered cable (so many shows, so little time) I think it contributed to my getting my ass kicked out of college the first year.

PBS was great and allowed me to witness the greatness of Dr.Who which despite all the charm of the modern versions had a special magic they just cannot replicate these days.

Great stuff!

Rip Off

david_b said...

Edo, GREAT mention on the Prisoner. When it reran on PBS in the 70s, NEVER missed an episode. Very cerebral, yet cat-and-mouse, and Patrick McGoohan was perfect in the role (..of course, the show was his idea..). Great backstory involved there too.

With Python, UFO/1999 and DW, this should almost generate a series of posts on British imports to these shores, and how they took off in the 70s.

Doug, I'm humbled by your choice of topics this weekend. 'Course I have military duty this weekend, so I'll enjoy all the comments on the road..

Oh, and no 'slight' interpreted at all regarding passing on the DW idea last year when the lovely Ms. Sladen passed on. I was just a bit surprised at the non-interest, no worries.

ChrisPV said...

+10 points for mentioning Captain Scarlet. That theme song is still embedded in my brain.

DougK66 said...

No mention of Mission:Impossible? I still love that show. My DVR is crammed with with recorded favorite episodes.

Anonymous said...

When I was 7-8, I liked Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Years later, I saw some of the later episodes in syndicated reruns and was horrified at how cheesy and silly they were. More recently, I saw some first season episodes on MeTV and was surprised that they were not half bad.

Anonymous said...

A lot of action shows in the sixties got sillier as time went on. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea degenerated into the monster-of-the-week, and even Star Trek seemed to be heading in that direction in its last season. The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Wild Wild West, and Lost in Space all became more and more juvenile, at least partly because of the Batman fad. Maybe its just as well that the Green Hornet and Time Tunnel did not last longer.

Anonymous said...

I liked Three's Company and Charlie's Angels when I was a teenager. I probably couldn't sit through an episode of either one now. Dragnet deserves credit for trying to depict police work realistically, although some of the later episodes got a little preachy.

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