Monday, June 30, 2008

"The Flaming Nose" Blows Its Horn

The Flaming Nose isn't just interested in television as reported here on our own blog; we also like to take a stand out in the rest of the TV world. We put our two cents in the comment section for this article at about how television producers are invading the big Comic-Con gathering taking place in San Diego next month. We were happy to see one of our favorite shows The Big Bang Theory mentioned as a geek favorite. Sure is!

Friday, June 27, 2008

If You're Not Depressed Enough Already About the State of the World --

May I suggest that you spent an hour and forty-eight minutes or so watching a TV docudrama that was originally broadcast by the BBC in 1984? Threads is the completely harrowing story of what happens when the British town of Sheffield is caught up in a global nuclear conflict. Written by Barry Hines (Kes) and directed by Mick Jackson, who later came over here and helmed some interesting movie and tv projects including Volcano, The Bodyguard, L.A. Story, Indictment: The McMartin Trial (a great TV movie with James Woods and Henry Thomas), Tuesday with Morrie, Live from Baghdad, and the very recent The Memory Keeper's Daughter, Threads is like the grimmer, grittier, more horrifying version of The Day After -- and that was pretty tough in itself.

I don't think you will find the 1984 setting much of a distraction, and sadly so, the geopolitical squabble that escalates into war is pretty well still relevant. You might have to strain a bit to catch all the dialogue if you're ear isn't tuned well into Britspeak, but it's worth the effort.

GoogleVideo has the whole movie available on their website for viewing here. It's also interesting to check out the Amazon listing for the DVD of the movie to read the recollections of many British viewers who were profoundly affected by this TV movie when they originally saw it and still retain vivid memories of it, disturbing memories which none of them regret having.

A few years before Threads, Mick Jackson directed a documentary for Britain's QED showcase (kind of like our NOVA on PBS) called A Guide to Armageddon, about a nuclear bomb detonating above London. It's available in three parts on YouTube, and I also highly recommend taking a look at this. It's not really the kind of show one would embed lightly, so we're going to make you go to YouTube to watch it.

Why am I doing this to you? To make you ponder, that's all...and to see some really amazing television.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Dean's List: My 100 Favorite TV Shows (#60 - 51)

And on up the list we go, all the time gettin' better and better...

60) Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-62) It’s Hitch himself who propelled this show to its place on the list. I think that ol' Alfred still remains the world’s most recognized director largely on the basis of his droll intros and outros for this delectably morbid anthology series. As far as the stories themselves, peopled with an incredible array of movie and TV stars, well, the series would find its way here simply based on the episode titled “A Perfect Murder.” I won’t spoil things by recounting this segment’s story; those of you who know what I’m talking about will agree, and those of you who don’t have a clue, well, this let's you know you have something to look forward to catching on the tube.

59) Iron Chef America (2005-present) The excitement I feel as this quicksilver approach to TV cooking shows begins each week is heart-stopping. Two teams of culinary pros are assigned to concoct a full meal, in an hour's time, with each course having to include one surprise ingredient. Even if I know who’s gonna win (and it’s like that most every time), I still gobble up the rush I get watching the unbeatable Mario Batalli whipping up some kinda ice cream with rhubarb in it, or some wannabe Iron Chef sizzling a fillet of sole with a delicate sweet potato garnish. It’s perfect TV—a
combination critique, game show, and cooking show! My foodie friend Tom Georganakis and I gorged on it every time we whiled away the late-night hours looking for something good on cable; coming upon this show, the decision as to what to watch was always certain. The Japanese counterpart from which it sprung is good, too, but I feel distanced by its cultural stick-to-it’veness ("The secret incredient is what now? Some kind of slimy bean pod? Ewwwww...") Give me the American version of Iron Chef, which we all can enjoy with relish and, hey, can I get a some onions with that?

58) Saturday Night Live (1975-present) When I was nine years old, this NBC show slammed onto the late-nite airwaves like nothing else before it or since has ever done. Back then, I looked forward to going over to my cousin Greg’s house every weekend to watch it, and I still remember being with him in the darkened TV room, staying up later than any pre-teens had the right to do, drinking Pepsi and withstanding the barrage of oh-so-naughty adult entertainment being thrown at us. Given our age, of course when Walter Williams’ Mr. Bill came on the air (invariably towards the end of the show), me and Greg went absolutely apeshit, we loved it so! Thinking about it now—where the couch was in the room, the position of the TV, the light coming in from the streetlamp outside, the silences as the show came back from station breaks--my heart still races!

I recall reacting in so many different ways to Saturday Night Live’s offerings: I was puzzled and intrigued by “Bad Theater” with the unctuous Leonard Pinth-Garnell; cruelly fascinated by The Nerds (Gilda Radner, Bill Murray and Jane Curtain in full goofball, so-unhip-it’s-hip territory); totally creeped out by Buck Henry as the pervy uncle who comes to babysit for Radner and Larraine Newman, taking pictures of them in suggestive poses as they were joyfully unaware of his real intent (could this skit even be done today?); weirdly touched by the longing tones of the Scotch Tape store sketches, with their quietly funny doodlings of a sad, inevitably failed commercial enterprise; struck dumb by the legendary Star Trek skit, where TV execs came in and stripped Spock of his ears and Kirk of his command; comically horrified by Dan Ackroyd’s Julia Child, heroically keeping on with the show as her life’s blood drained away from a nasty knife wound; extremely hopeful when Lorne Michaels offered the Beatles $4000 to reunite on the show (turns out, Lennon and McCartney were then watching the show in NYC, toying with the idea of hopping a taxi to 30 Rock so's to take Michaels up on the offer—oh, how close we came); sent zooming into outer space by the glorious dance that Steve Martin and Gilda Radner did together as desperately lonely people who exchange glances in a crowded bar (still my favorite moment of SNL's run); deliciously confused by the then-new idea of spoofing TV commercials so well that you couldn’t tell whether they were real or fake until the optimum moment. These memories, and so many more, have become an inextricable part of me, and if the series had ended at its sixth year, this show would be way higher up on the list. I don’t have to tell you what happened; mediocrity and even plain sludge sometimes intervened.

Don’t get me wrong: I still love Will Farrell and Cheri Oteri’s cheerleader bits, Harry Shearer and Martin Short’s indelible synchronized swimming, and absolutely anything that Eddie Murphy, Phil Hartman, Amy Pohler, Tina Fey, the great comic poet Jack Handey, and unofficial cast members Steve Martin and Christopher Walken have contributed. I find that almost every episode, even today, has at least a few laughs in it (I'm really starting to like Kenan Thompson these days). But will Saturday Night Live ever reach the heights it reached in those first few years with Chase, Belushi, Newman, Ackroyd (the series’ single best performer), Curtin, Murray, Radner, Morris, and company? No way. No matter. I love SNL still, and hope it never goes off the air.

57) Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge (1994-95) Ahh-haaaaaa! Yes, it’s Alan Partridge, making his way through bottom-of-the-barrel entertainment drudgery with as much enthusiasm as his nervously toothy grin could muster. Even if most of us stateside have no idea of what this show is, this BBC phenomenon--a spoof of British chat shows--was the Seinfeld of its time and place, the comedy that everyone in the UK was talking about the next day ‘round the teapot. And with good reason. Steve Coogan’s desperate alter-ego is a big ol’ guffaw in the face of the present day tomfoolery surrounding the entertainment biz. I love how he has his bandleader WAYYYYY up in the rafters, a hilariously comic misfire of art direction, as he tries to communicate with him as well as he can. I revel in Alan Partridge's fawning over bigger names (Roger Moore?) supposedly coming to join him as the lesser guests sit uncomfortably on the couches next to him; and his guests are always on to his game, giving him as much crap as he deserves. The brilliant Steve Coogan deserves to be a big star worldwide and I hope he gets that prize ASAP.

56) M.A.S.H. (1972-83) Has any other series, drama or comedy, led double lives like this one? I get just a little bit tired when I hear someone say “Oh, I like the earlier funny episodes.” Well, I like them all. Head writer Larry Gelbart and second head writer Alan Alda did incredible work transforming Robert Altman’s landmark movie into a television show—so much so that I’d bet most people would identify M.A.S.H. as a TV series before they’d note it as a film, too. Now, looking back on it, if Robert Altman had wanted to return to his TV roots, I think he would’ve easily pegged this as a TV-friendly enterprise and jumped on the wagon with it. As it stands, this CBS series, following a group of doctors patching up the wounded during the Korean War, has much more life to it than the very great movie that birthed it. Alda’s Hawkeye was a funny but pained, longing-for-home presence, and when dedicated family man B.J. Hunnicutt (Mike Farrell) entered into his tent, that
longing became much more intense. That’s why I can accept the seriousness of the latter-day entries, when home became some place the characters just couldn't wait to return to. I can recall being a teenager and, biting my knuckles, witnessing the program’s greatest episode: a battle for a single soldier’s life, with a ticking time clock at the bottom of the screen to keep us informed of the situation’s gravity. I’ll never shake the black-and-white documentary episode, with its heartbreaking frankness about the costs of war. I treasure the characters in the show, particularly Gary Burghoff (the only veteran of the movie to make it to the TV show) as the gentle Corporal O’Reilly and Henry Morgan as the stern but understanding Col. Sherman Potter. And never has there been such hoopla surrounding what is still the single most watched episode of any TV series in history: the shattering finale called “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen.” Yes, I revere the laughs the show provided but, in the end, I think I really prefer the more serious M.A.S.H., the one without the laugh track but with a beating heart to it. But I’m thankful for the series as a whole, and it really, to the core, affected America and its politics for the better. Here's a great fan-vid, set to the original song "Suicide is Painless," brought to YouTube by CrazyDiamond1966.

55) Get A Life (1990-92) Whoa! This wackiness was DETERMINED to make you laugh, whether you wanted to or not. Late Night with David Letterman refugee Chris Elliott assayed an incredibly irritating hero as Chris, the housebound, childlike “paperboy” who’s ignorance of the world outside comes up to bite him on the be-hind when he decides to venture out and see what it’s got in store for him. Elliott’s singular style hasn’t found an outlet yet like this one, truly one man’s doggedly warped vision of bringing as much silliness into households as he was allowed by FOX to transmit. I find it very poignant that he gets to play alongside his father, the legendary Bob Elliott, who has just as many laugh lines as his son. Thinking about the series now, I can’t get the image of Spewy, Chris’s vomiting alien friend, out of my mind. If you’ve never seen Get A Life, this clip will let you know what you are in for: unbridled chaos.

54) Pee-Wee’s Playhouse (1986-91) I have to admit, I’ve seen precious few episodes of this incredible kid’s show that takes its place alongside Soupy Sales, Romper Room, Bozo, and Howdy Doody as the premier TV clubhouse where little ones come to run rampant. But that doesn’t stop me from placing this expertly produced CBS program so high up on the list (I’m GLAD I haven’t seen so many episodes—so much more for me to enjoy in the future). I don’t need to see any more than what I’ve already taken in to know that this is one of the finest kid’s shows—hell with it, SHOWS--ever made. The direction, writing, editing, art direction, animation, acting, photography—everything is top-of-the-line in Pee-Wee’s world of play, where adulthood looms just around the corner. Thanks, Paul Reubens, for all you’ve done to bring childlike joy to grown-up hearts, and vice-versa.

53) Extras (2005-present?) At first, I was skeptical. Imagining Ricky Gervais as anyone but the unforgettable David Brent from The Office was a hard sell for me. The first three episodes sailed by on HBO without me giving in to its charms. But then the last three hit me, and something was afoot. When the second season hit, I was hooked, because the show had an arc: What do we do if we want to become famous, and then get what we want? This is why Extras exists. In it, Gervais, as ambitious actor Andy Millman, and his lovely cohort Ashley Jensen as the equally hungry Maggie Jacobs, try to find their way towards success in the most demeaning job imaginable: as movie extras. I find their friendship (and IT IS a friendship, not a boring ol’ love affair, as far as we now know) to be one of most finely illustrated relationships of its kind in TV history. They have an indelible affinity for each other that not even accomplishment can come between, and I find that stirring in the truest, most un-corny sense.

I marvel at the show’s second season, where Andy achieves a success of sorts as the goofy star of a dumb British sitcom (actually, a pretty funny one), and is still unhappy. The Extras Christmas season finale is one of the best hours you’ll ever spend watching television—the tears it brings are true drops of glowing happiness, stung with the bitterness of failure in success. With Extras, Gervais and his new counterpart Jensen (so endearing as she valiantly struggles to maintain her dreams) proved to me that, amazingly and appropriately, there are still excellent actors out there for me to root for. I have to mention here my favorite joke in the show: Andy Millman, in his sitcom guise, doing a series of spit-takes, then going to take another drink to do it again, and finding there’s no more liquid in the glass. How friggin’ funny is that? So, here, against my better judgement (and for those who haven't seen the series, don't watch this because it's a big payoff) is my favorite scene from the series. It's not the funniest bit, but it's the most important.

52) Roots (1977) I have revisited ABC’s Roots only once since its premiere back in the late 70s, when I was riveted for weeks taking in its revelations. Watching it in the mid-80s, I was still struck by how engrossing and important the mini-series was (and I've still never
caught its sequel, Roots: The Next Generation). This is the work that made the idea of a “mini-series” a viable option. But that is a minor point, really. May I just recount a partial list of remarkable cast members here to help transmit the import of Roots? Levar Burton (still unforgettable as Kunta Kinte), Maya Angelou, Louis Gossett Jr., Ben Vereen (in the show’s stand-out performance as Chicken George), Cicely Tyson, Thalmus Rasulala, Moses Gunn, John Amos, Raymond St. Jacques, O.J. Simpson, Scatman Crothers, Olivia Cole, Roxie Roker, Richard Roundtree, Leslie Uggams, Laurence Hilton-Jacobs, Yaphet Kotto, Todd Bridges, and Alex Haley (author of the novel on which the series is based) himself. An amazing collection of black talent who were given the best
material ever with which to work. I now dare to wonder if Roots could be considered the apex of the Civil Rights movement. Not at all to denigrate Dr. King and X's obviously monumental contributions, but Roots really spoke to all of America--at just the right time, when we were all truly ready and starving for it--regarding the most shameful episodes in our history. It still speaks to each of us, reminding white America of something black America has known all along: while Europeans can uncover their family heritage, African-Americans still have yet to, and unfortunately may never, discover their true background. Can a television effort get more consequential?

51) Soap (1977-81) Up to, and ever since this ABC series hit the airwaves, I've been mystified by the appeal of soap operas. I just don’t get their deal. It’s the same thing over and over again—who’s screwing who, either in the bed- or the board-room. It’s not for me (maybe it’s a guy thing). I used to get headaches listing to the drony dialogue of As The World Turns or General Hospital as they polluted the airwaves, and still to this day wonder why my mother and her mother before her--like so many mothers around the nation--put so much stock in this unneeded, ungainly drama. It was such a relief
when 4:00 pm rolled around and we were on to better programming. So when Soap debuted, I was glad there was at least one group of people who found this TV fascination equally as puzzling. The thing is, Soap turned out to be the soap opera for me. In the time of the uproar over Dallas and Who Shot J.R., I was more interested in who killed Peter Campbell (Robert Urich) in the first few episodes (now that I think about it, this came before the J.R. stuff, so I wonder how much of an influence Soap had on Dallas). And when it came time to unmask the killer, I was spellbound, and was so for the entire run of the series. There were no boundaries to where this program would travel. It could get quite outlandish, as when the unbalanced Burt Campbell (the incredible Robert Mulligan) felt he was possessed by an alien power that could make him invisible at will. But then there would be real drama as we followed his wife Mary (Cathryn Damon) and her sister Jessica (an amazing performance from Kathryn Helmond) as they sincerely tried to make sense of all that the world was putting their families through. Add to the mix certified laugh-getters Robert Guillaume as the fed-up butler Benson and Jay Johnson as Campbell brother Bob and his dummy alter-ego Chuck, and I was an unqualified fan.

Monday, June 23, 2008

He is a cop and he's learning-impaired!

Well here's the first of my web TV posts. I will only cover web TV efforts that have more than five episodes, just to let you know. They have to have the air of a serious series about them for me to review them. At any rate...

I YouTubed Retardid Policeman at the advice of a friend and, boy, this is what friends are for. This is a riotous, charming slap in the face of political correctness that has a "challenged" actor (actually, he's better than a LOT of actors out there) named Josh "The Ponce" Perry playing--you guessed it--the Retardid Policeman. There are about ten episodes of this wonderfully funny series on YouTube, and I think it should be a real series (though I do like its present in-and-out, take-no-prisoners approach)! I think Retardid Policeman says a lot about how we all treat people whom we see as less "with it" than we are--but mostly it's just here to make us giggle. In every episode, even the people "The Ponce" stops are funny! Check out these two episodes, with the first one featuring two of Perry's relatives as the set-upon, extremely patient drivers. And the second one (the FUNNIEST!!!) has talented director/co-writer/editor Greg Benson as the driver!

And look at this to-the-point defense of the series, from Josh and Stacy Perry!

At under two minutes, Retardid Policeman episodes packs more laffs than most 30-minute sitcoms these days have, so go to YouTube and check 'em out! Cheers to Benson, The Ponce and all involved!

Comedian George Carlin, 1937 - 2008

Comedian George Carlin never lost his edge. Many years ago I purchased and played again and again his "FM & AM" record album, and gosh, if there were things to rant about in 1972, you can see why he continued to have a thriving career right up until his death. The state of the world never ceased to give Carlin more material than any sage and savage comedian could ever use, and he took full advantage of it. As he became sort of the elder statesman of rage comedy, his shows didn't bring as many laughs, perhaps, but instead rueful exhalations and dismayed shaking of our heads as we agreed with his often bitter but usually dead-on takes on what ails us and the world around us. (Check out this excellent analysis of Carlin's radical comedy, by John Nichols, on The Nation's site.)

Here's a clip from The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson at the time of Carlin's FM & AM album --

His comedy concerts became staples on HBO, and maybe not all of us remember that he had an eponymous sitcom back in early 1994 on Fox. (You can watch some of the episodes on AOL's IN2TV.) Here's a pretty grim but dead-on bit from one of his HBO specials. It's almost hard to call it comedy, really, but at least it's a cogent political rant from a comedian, which is good enough provenance for me.

The world needs angry young men and women, and angry old men and women, and we just lost one of them. George Carlin, dead at 71.

(6/24 Update -- HBO has announced a two-evening tribute to Carlin on HBO2. This Wednesday and Thursday they'll be running a selection of his comedy specials, starting at 8pm. The first ones up date back to the late 1970s, so this will be a wonderful opportunity to see Carlin's progression as a stand-up and the growth of his political acuity. The full line-up is here.)

Sunday, June 22, 2008

A Television Momento is Safely Packed

There is hardly anything more dreadful than moving. The dust. The bursting cluttered boxes in the basement. And the always heightened potential for multiple spider bites. I've been immersed in this least favorite activity all morning, but there has been one silver lining. I lovingly transferred the entire contents of The Humor File from its crumbling cardboard container into a new bright orange airtight plastic box. What is the Humor File? It's about 35 pounds of frantic rambling, written during my tenure at KTLA-TV, many moons ago. There are many, many references to Spock and Kirk and musings about their sexual orientation. There is quite a bit about Bip the Space Boy. I also found a drawing of a pair of simian stuffed overalls, labeled "Monkey Pants", and a note to Lisa asking if she would like to help me conduct a survey during lunch over at Alpha Beta supermarket. Apparently, I wanted to know whether the shoppers were aware that there were entire pig heads wrapped in cellophane, for sale in the meat department.

The Humor File has grown fatter over the years (alas...who has not?), with various letters, essays and souvenirs added when I somehow deemed them indispensable. Therefore, I should not have been surprised to find, at the very bottom of this collection, a Spock Ear. A dusty, flesh colored plastic Spock ear. Is there anything sadder than a single plastic Spock ear? I mean, if there was a whole pair, you could wear them. But nobody would ever slap on a single ear, that would look silly.

The discovery of the ear started me thinking about the relationship people have with their television momentos and souvenirs. Star Trek alone has spawned an entire multi-million dollar industry for program related memorabilia. I had to hop on the Internet (great procrastination device for interrupting the dreaded packing) and search for Spock ears. I stumbled across this amazing fact; some folks are having their ears surgically altered to be pointy like a Vulcan's. I post here the photos, for your entertainment.

Back to the move. Some might have tossed that sad ear in the trash pile, but I did not. It was carefully returned to the Humor File, where it will be ready to be beamed up to Chatsworth in a couple of weeks.

This American Life--Radio Has Never Looked so Good

I suppose there are probably still more than a few people who have not yet realized that the splendid NPR radio program, This American Life, is now featured as a regular series on Showtime. They do not promote it as heavily as some of the other original series like "Dexter" and "Weeds", so you should not consider yourself a failure or a recluse if you haven't heard the news yet. So far, two short seasons of This American Life have already quietly aired and are now available on Showtime-On-Demand if you have that option with your cable company. You can also download full episodes from Season One directly from the website.

I've been a long time fan of the radio version of TAL, which is a quirky and moving microscopic look at the underbelly of American day to day life. It's hosted by the brilliant Ira Glass, who sounds nerdier than a conference room chock full of Microsoft junior executives, but who comes across as distinguished and nice looking on TV. I don't think I've ever heard a segment of TAL that was anything but fascinating, and if nothing else, I would be grateful to Mr. Glass for introducing us all to David Sedaris (best selling author of Me Talk Pretty One Day and hundreds of hilarious essays).

The show has translated well to television, but its style is leisurely and meandering. So if you are in the mood for car chases and explosions, this is probably not for you. Last night I watched the Season Two finale and it was about as charming as television gets. Seven boys and men, all named "John Smith", were featured to depict what life is like at various ages for American men. There was the two month old John Smith from South Carolina, a pudgy pudding of a baby boy whose mom hoped he would grow up and give her 10 grand daughters some day. There was the spunky 9 year old John Smith who wore his Empire State Building costume (even when it wasn't Halloween) and made a science fair project out of different kinds of tape. Young 23 year old John Smith was a troubled man trying to find his way, who found redemption and his true calling as a truck stop cook. There was a 36 year old John Smith from Washington, who never knew his own father and had to watch his mother die of cancer. The 46 year old John Smith struggled with his feelings about middle age, and his contentious relationship with an independent son who had joined the marines. In one of the most moving segments of the entire episode, the 71 year old John Smith recounted the last days of his deceased son, who had died of AIDs at the age of 25. Finally, we had 79 year old John Smith, practically mute and living in a nursing home, his cloudy eyes surveying the final moments of his fading world.

Sometimes it seems like there is not much to admire about the world today, where war and mayhem and cruelty runs rampant on every cable news network, 24-7. If you'd like to take a break from that, and remember why human beings are a pretty good deal after all, you will not find a better destination than This American Life.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

In Honor of Last Week's Tony Awards...

We present this hilarious (I think) parody from The Onion:

Friday, June 20, 2008

Dean's List: My 100 Favorite TV Shows (#70 - 61)

Once again, here we are, trotting our way up the list...

70) It’s Garry Shandling’s Show (1986-90) Given the popularity of Shandling’s The Larry Sanders Show, one wonders why his first TV series, originally on Showtime, hasn’t gotten an equal amount of lip service. Both simple and complicated in its fourth-wall-exploding concept, this sitcom send-up has all its characters realizing that they’re in a sitcom. Shandling, playing “himself,” acknowledges this “apartment” we see is a set, and that there's an audience watching (he’d go on whiny tirades while strolling out into the crowd to have contact with one its members, and he’d even let people hang out on his living room set while he was away). It’s post-modern in the extreme, and I bet it’s only gotten better with age so, please, a DVD release for this soon. In the excellent supporting cast, I particularly liked Paul Willson as Garry’s sniveling, meddling neighbor Leonard Smith (who would come over to complain about the theme song being played too loud). Weird, and funny as all get out, with that excellent opening tune by Flo and Eddie of The Turtles!

69) Sessions at West 54th (1997-99) For live music on TV, it’s hard to beat the roster that PBS’s Sessions at West 54th provided to us--everything from David Byrne to Daniel Lanois, from Tori Amos to Lou Reed. Beautiful production kept the frills down to a minimum, thereby upping the class factor. I like MTV Unplugged, too, but their selection of guests, while sometimes incredible (Nirvana, Tony Bennett), is often uninteresting (Korn, Mariah Carey). Give me the work of the more creative bookers at Sessions at West 54th instead. Here are appearances by World Party and Ben Folds to support my contention:

68) The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle em> (1959-64) Another old Saturday afternoon tradition involved plopping down with my dad as the sun was setting and catching Bill Scott and Jay Ward’s amazing cartoon creations Rocky J. Squirrel and Bullwinkle Moose. Somehow—probably since the show was not included with all the rest of the Saturday afternoon fare—enjoying Rocky and Bullwinkle was an adult pleasure, like sipping on a fruity drink you know has some liquor in it. Even as a grown-up, I’m still in awe of its urbane wit and extremely fast pace—you really have to be paying attention to get all the jokes. As a character, I love Bullwinkle especially (Bill Scott’s voice work is amazing), but R&B are really a warm-up act for the real meat of the show: each episode gave us a “Fractured Fairy Tale” narrated by Mercury Theater veteran Edward Everett Horton, and a visit with Mr. Peabody (an intelligent talking dog with glasses) and Sherman, his boy companion. The voices here—June Foray as Rocky and Natasha, William Conrad as the forceful Narrator, Paul Frees, Daws Butler and so on—are superb. Just to let you know, I'm also a big fan of George of the Jungle and Dudley Do-Right! This "Fractured Fairy Tale" is a stand-out!

67) The Forsyte Saga (1967) One of the four miniseries I have on the list is a work I caught on DVD a few years ago, at my mother’s insistence. The Forsyte Saga is based on three books by John
Galsworthy, and was adapted for BBC TV by producer Donald Wilson. It follows a well-to-do family through their romantic, Victorian-era shenanigans, then drops the 1920s onto them to test how they hold up under extreme social changes. Shot in glorious black-and-white with a live TV feel to it (almost the whole show was produced in the studio, as opposed to the location-filled 1990s remake), The Forsyte Saga is addictive TV. If you don’t think you can get into all the stuffed shirts and tea-drinking, believe me, if you give it half a chance, the show will have you hooked. Its cast—including the wonderful Eric Porter (as the bitter Soames Forsyte), Susan Hampshire (as Fluer), Margaret Tyzack and Michael York—is perfect, and its writing is consistently stunning and epic-flavored. This landmark BBC production was almost as popular in the US as it was in Britain, where it was a television phenomenon; it was the first presentation under the Masterpiece Theater umbrella, and was nominated for an Emmy for Best Dramatic Series—a first for a British program.

66) Sanford and Son (1972-77) It’s all on Redd Foxx, this one. His portrayal of the scheming, heart-attack-having Watts junkman was one of the most complete comic portrayals ever on TV. His shambling
walk, his scraggly grey beard, his irascible sense of humor, his sandpaper-rough voice…all very much belong to this character specifically. Seeing video of a tuxedoed Foxx doing stand-up on stage in Vegas is always a trip because I can’t picture that voice coming out of anyone but the shabbily-dressed Fred Sanford. Of course, there are supporting characters I love on this NBC show—Grady (Whitman Mayo), Aunt Esther (LaWanda Page) and even Lamont (Demond Wilson). And I adore the funkified Quincy Jones theme song and the detailed art direction (I find the junky Sanford living room endlessly fascinating to look at). But I always tuned in—and still do—for Foxx.

65) Green Acres (1965-71) I used to get irritated watching this CBS sitcom. I’d always wonder why one-time city lawyer Oliver Wendall Douglas (played by the always exasperated Eddie Albert) could never achieve any of his goals in his new life as a farmer. Almost everything becomes a massive headache for him. Meanwhile, his elegant wife Lisa (Eva Gabor—VERY funny) floats above it all, and even though she once objected to starting a rural life in Hooterville, it’s she who adapts so well to the surreal quality of this country ‘berg. This show was quite maddening to me as a kid. Then I grew up and realized that, seen as a whole, Green Acres is a metaphor of sorts—and a rather cosmic one
at that. If I may get a little Buddhist here, it’s a show about desire and how freeing yourself from it frees you from unhappiness. The more Oliver wants to be a successful farmer, the further away that aim gets from him. But Lisa wants for nothing—she’s given up everything she had just to be with her husband--and she is perfectly happy. With this in mind, Green Acres achieves a whole new level of success in humor. If you can just accept the fact that Oliver is never going to win against all the Hooterville craziness—Arnold the pig, Mr. Haney (the excellent Pat Buttram), Eb (Tom Lester), handy "men" Alf and Ralph, and all the rest—then you’ll have a fine time with Paul Bettany's show, and if you can get with it on a meta-level, then, well, all the better. It should go without saying that its opening, with that unforgettable theme song, is a classic of TV filmmaking: an iconic spoof of iconography.

64) Schoolhouse Rock (1974-2000) When producers Tom Youe and Radford Stone set out to teach youngsters how to do their multiplication tables through song and animation, do you think they had an inkling of how successful they would be? could they? Who would have thought the Preamble to the Constitution would be so memorably singable? Or that the philosophical concept of
the number zero could be explored so deeply in three minutes flat? Who could’ve foreseen that, because of those songs, even the most uninformed among us would forever know what a conjunction or an interjection is? I mean, I STILL count my fives out like Bob Dourough does in his number about the…ahhh…number. I still recall the path of a bill to the White House, thanks to Jack Sheldon’s inimitable voice. I still get chills thinking about that lonely girl skating in a figure eight while Blossom Dearie’s little-girl voice fills the air. Schoolhouse Rock, produced by ABC starting in 1974, has touched my life in a profound way, and I can only assume there are others that feel similarly. There are more ambitious, far-reaching children’s shows—after all, this one would only last three minutes at a time, played in between longer Saturday morning programs—but I don’t think there has been a more effective teaching tool produced by TV in my lifetime. Just try to get these two songs, for example, out of your head.

63) The Rockford Files (1974-80) There is only one private eye show on my list, because only one had the real-world charm of James Garner to drive it along. His confident smirks in the face of violence or his own failings as a ex-con-turned-P.I. form the
center of this excellent show that was, in the mid-70s, a totally fresh take on the tired “Quinn Martin” formula. Rockford was falable, funny, clumsy, and smart—he could puzzle things out better than he could land a punch. He has independence, but he also has his dad (Noah Beery Jr.) and his ex-con pals (like Stuart Margolin as former cellmate Angel) to lean on. And he had an answering machine instead of a leggy secretary (the answering machine openings and the Top Ten theme song by Mike Post always went a long way for getting me into the mood for the show). Created for NBC by Roy Huggins and Stephen J. Cannell, and an early employer for Sopranos creator David Chase, The Rockford Files chugged with life and vitality. Here's the opening and a few closing scenes from an episode co-starring Isaac Hayes and Dionne Warwicke!

62) thirtysomething (1987-91) This is perhaps one of the most dated shows on my list, but I still love it. I find that the number of TV series dealing with normal people living everyday lives is, at any given time, relatively low. So when a show
dealing with family/friendship issues pops up, I give it my attention, usually. ABC’s thirtysomething was a phenomenon at the time of its release; it really crystallized the late 80s/early 90s for a lot of people--so much so that it now seems like it belongs under glass at a museum. But so what? It still makes me root for Michael Steadman and Elliot Weston (Ken Olin and Timothy Busfield) as they try and play the ad game at work (there was nothing like the string of episodes that had them trying to mount a secret takeover of their company, with the snakey David Clennon as their boss/nemesis Miles Drentell). I
still cry a bit inside as Nancy Weston (Patricia Wettig) battles self-esteem and then health issues, or when Elliot fails his first time out as a commercial director. I still have a massive crush on Hope Steadman (the beautiful Mel Harris), and another one on pixie-cute Melanie Mayron as Michael’s sister, Melissa (who'd undergone a big change since her says as a chubby supporting actress in movies like Harry and Tonto and Car Wash. thirtysomething is nicely shot, designed, and scored. Its direction and writing are always top-of-the-line (it was created by Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskowitz, who went on to some distinguished film work like Glory and Shakespeare in Love and its head writer was Crash/Million Dollar Baby screenwriter Paul Haggis). For those who are still rubbed the wrong way by the series: Maybe it's strange to have a whole storyline devoted to, say, Hope getting mad at Michael for not helping with the laundry but, hey, people DO argue about these things. Why not make a show about it?

61) The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite (1962-81) It’s a cliché, but it’s the truth: no newscaster in my lifetime was ever more trusted and authoritative than Cronkite. He was a riveting joy
to watch and listen to, truly like a trusted father figure. Of course, I remember his speechless, beaming reaction to the Apollo moon landing (from when I was three) and I really remember relying on him for my news during the Watergate era. I was only eight years old then, but I was hooked on that Nixon drama (All The President’s Men and The Final Days are two of my favorite books). Of course, he’s famous for pronouncing the death of Kennedy (his emotional reaction to the announcement is a heroically calming one) and the impossibility of winning in Vietnam, but he was just as surefooted in his reportage of much less earth-shattering news. Almost religiously tuned into every night by a rapt America who’d not yet even conceived of a thing called CNN, Cronkite will live forever as the TV newsman most TV newsmen (and women) desperately, desperately, oh-so-wanna be.

The Candidates Come Together for "Army Wives"

I'm sure you've heard about Lifetime's successful drama series Army Wives which recently entered its second year, the season opener playing to historical rating highs for the network. You also probably heard about the promos done by Presidential contenders John McCain and Barack Obama for the show, and of course how could they have said "no" to the request? Not consenting would have brought their patriotism into question, no doubt. Such is the trivial political world we live in today. I saw the spots on air and had to go to Lifetime's Army Wives website to watch them again (and there are some good links to actual groups involved with supporting military families) .

In case you've missed the two spots, here they are:

(I have to confess, McCain lost me at "...because Cindy makes me watch with her." Ugh.)

Let's hope the television recommendations from the candidates end here. I sure don't want to see either of the fellows touting the fall network line-ups, do you? That's our job, for pete's sake!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Gorgeous People of "The Shadow Riders"

The made for television movie has become almost obsolete in the current landscape of television programming. At one time there was an exquisitely balanced life of options for viewers. Comedy and drama series matched well with variety programs, specials and made for movies and mini-series. Thirty years ago the movie was such a powerful force in the ratings game that there were multiple numbers being programmed on a weekly basis. Many of these films became popular with viewers and spurred on water cooler conversation the following day in the office. "Go Ask Alice" was the first major treatment of drug use on television. "Mr. and Mrs. Bojo Jones" brought the unmarried pregnant couple into focus. "Brian's Song" became an instant classic that is still regarded by almost anyone who saw the original film as one of the great tearjerkers. The television made for movie had a great long run that brought many wonderful films into our homes.

The western was once a staple in movie making and in television program planning. The genre is now used mostly as a place where revisionist history has taken over and made for a new genre. The western isn't the western in the 21st century. Images of John Wayne still exist in the collector plate industry, but no one is out producing the style of film he once made. American Movie Classics has had tremendous ratings success programming old Wayne classics and even success with his lesser titles, but that still hasn't driven many classic style westerns into our theaters or our homes.

With the success of "Magnum, P.I. in the 1980's Tom Selleck used his clout to foster his love of westerns and turned several stories into successful made for television movies. Tom Selleck and his on-screen co-hort Sam Elliott had the looks and the vibe to do this. They looked like western stars. Their passion for the era translated well to the small screen and it afforded those of us with a passion for the American West to ride the trails once again with some good storytelling. I, for one, miss the western. I enjoyed last year's "3:10 To Yuma" starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale and even though it did relatively well at the box office it certainly didn't bust any box-office records. Too bad.

If you read my profile you will know that "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" is my all-time favorite movie. It's a movie I can watch and deliver the William Goldman written lines before Newman, Redford and Ross act them out. I've got this movie down as if it were my own life. Most people cannot remember their own life quite as well as I can remember every single scene from Butch and the Kid.

Of course, I grew up loving Newman since my parents were big fans. Newman had a great on-screen persona. He was cool. Not cooler than Steve McQueen (but then who was or is?), but cooler than everyone else at the time. Just visualize the way he placed his hand on his hip or the way he wore sunglasses slightly tilted on the bridge of his nose.

I fell madly in love with Redford as I watched his masculine, rugged, manly man on the big screen. Redford became my ideal. Every heterosexual woman I ever discussed films with had or has a thing for Robert Redford. If not, they are either lying, dumb or attempting to be different. I have an original poster from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I bought it on eBay. Perfection! The real Harry Longbaugh (The Sundance Kid) was an attractive man. He didn't look like Robert Redford, but then who does?

Last, but not least, I wanted to look like Katharine Ross. Katharine was one of those physically and naturally beautiful women that come along pretty rarely. A woman who both men and women like. The movie actresses from this era were pretty great looking in general. Ali MacGraw, Jennifer O'Neill, Candice Bergen, Jacqueline Bisset and Julie Christie were all pretty stunning, but as a huge movie buff the one I most wanted to look like was Katharine Ross. She was downright perfect. The All-American girl come to life (even though there aren't too many All-American girls who look like that). She had these luxurious long brown locks and delicate features with a smile that lit up the entire screen. William Goldman once wrote about how pretty she was. In hindsight, that was an understatement.

After "The Graduate," "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "The Stepford Wives" you would have assumed Ms. Ross would have had one of the most significant careers of her generation, but it didn't happen. The 1970's were a great decade of filmmaking, but not a great decade for women's roles. Everyone pretty much ended up playing hookers and peripheral girlfriends and few people ended up having consequential film careers. Jane Fonda and Barbra Streisand were the big names of the era even if Faye Dunaway got the best roles ("Bonnie & Clyde," "Chinatown" and "Network.") In a note of film trivia - Fonda supposedly turned town all of these Dunaway roles.

Needless to say, Newman, Redford and Ross were three of the most beautiful people in film at the time, but in 1982 three of the most beautiful people on the television screen were Tom Selleck, Sam Elliott and Sam's wife, the slightly older, but still lovely Katharine Ross.

The other night I'm doing what I'm good at doing during the summer months - I'm flipping the remote. Nine times out of ten there is nothing I want to watch, but there it was on Encore Westerns - the 1982 telefilm, "The Shadow Riders." As I stated earlier, this was a time when both the broadcast and the cable networks were still making lots of Movies and Minis. Louis L'Amour has written so many western sage stories that he probably couldn't have named them all, but many of them translated quite well to the small screen and this was one of them.

Gorgeous man number one, Tom Selleck plays the brother who has just returned from fighting for the Union and gorgeous man number two, Sam Elliott was doing service for the Confederacy. Katharine Ross, the third component of the great looking trio is the love interest to her real life husband, Elliott.

I admit I wasn't paying much attention to the storyline of this film. I was far too engrossed at looking at the faces of the actors. I thought this was highly shallow, but I didn't care about the superficiality of my thoughts since I actually sat there thinking why are there no men out there that look like Selleck or Elliott. I'm not talking about the real world now since we have definitely become a less attractive society of late, but I'm talking about the movie and television worlds. I don't want to look at people that look like the average citizens of the world. I want to look at Tom Selleck, Sam Elliott and Katharine Ross. I had a thing for a guy back in college who loved Katharine Ross. He was like me - a big movie buff who loved Butch and the Kid! Needless to say, he had good taste, but now when I look back at it I will take it as a compliment since he had a thing for me too. Not that I looked like Katharine Ross, but I did have brown hair, green eyes and pretty good historical dental hygiene, so I guess I came about as close as he was going to get.

To make sure I say something other than give my opinion of how good looking these people were I will add that I thoroughly enjoyed "The Shadow Riders." Selleck and Elliott were their usual charming selves and the bad guys were stereotypical outlaws. I love that word - outlaw. It sounds so much more poetic than hood, gangster or thug. Geoffrey Lewis was always an outstanding evil type, although he is bested in this film by some far worse screen heavies. "The Shadow Riders" is engrossing and engaging; and quite honestly I could sit through it again which is my highest compliment for a 26 year old TV movie.

During my television career I've met lots of famous people and I've had the opportunity to meet both Selleck and Ross. I went up to Katharine many years ago while we were both at an environmental fundraiser (I went on the company's dime) and told her that when I was young I aspired to look like Elaine Robinson or Etta Place. She sort of looked at me like I was lost and kooky. I hear she's shy, but maybe she did think I was lost and even kooky. Sam Elliott was sitting right next to her, but since by this time he was looking more like the photographic images of Buffalo Bill Cody I didn't really care about telling him that I thought he was hot in "Lifeguard." About two years ago I saw her riding her horse up in the Malibu hills. I was riding and she was riding and I almost could hear B.J. Thomas singing a verse from "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head."

Fortunately, I had the opportunity to encounter the one time Marlboro Man, Tom Selleck on more than one occasion. I've ridden two elevators with him and I sat in one meeting with him (me and about 20 other people). That's not counting the number of times I saw him at our mutual favorite Italian restaurant. I will not reveal the name of it since I respect his privacy. Selleck isn't just the great male TV babe of all time he is also a very nice man who is a complete gentleman.

If you get a chance try to catch "The Shadow Riders." I noticed it ran again last night, so the odds are it will run again and maybe again on Encore Westerns.

I'm now off to the prairie...I have a horse waiting to stretch his legs.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


Take me to TVLand! Last night I watched the pre-taped 6th annual TVLand Awards, and I simply cannot believe this was the first year I did so. Me, a TV addict and worshipper of Nose-Talgia!

I must start by being a little glib. It struck me how it's not the limos that line up for this star-studded event... it's the walkers! I never saw so many canes and escorts, as one TV legend after another went on stage to accept what seemed like a barrage of back-to-back lifetime achievement awards. Kidding aside, it really was amazing how wonderful so many of our favorite TV stars look in their 80s.

The show really honors what's old, not what's new (although "The Office" won this year's Future Classic award). Categories include "Pioneer Award" (Jonathan Winters), "Innovator Award" (Roseanne), and Icon Award (Lionel Richie). All of them present to accept, btw!

The show started out with a clever opening number. Vanessa Williams (GORGIOUS) sang a reworked version of "I'm Flying" from Peter Pan as Bernie Koppell, Gary Coleman, Jerry Mathers, Dawn Wells, Barry Williams and a bunch of other classic TV stars all flew across the theater on wires! It was quite the spectacle. Bizarre and funny all at once. See clip below.

It was also fun to see today's mega-superstars literally worship their own idols & inspirations... Robin Williams (on his game, as always) presented the Pioneer Award to comic genius Jonathan Winters with a moving, from the heart personal tribute. After looking at the clips of Winters, you can really see his influence on Williams. Then it was Justin Timberlake literally on his knees doing the whole bowing down/hand and arms thing to his new BFF, Mike Myers (who still seems surprised he's such a big star himself). And yes, the pair are endlessly promoting their new movie, "The Love Guru." If you've been under a rock and don't know just how funny, smart, engaging, charismatic and downright charming Mr. Timberlake is, then watch this show and you'll see why the rest of America is in love with this man. Oh, did I mention handsome?

Gary Marshall received this year's legend honor. A great moment for a producer whose contribution to television is unparalleled ("The Dick Van Dyke Show," "The Odd Couple," "Happy Days," "Laverne & Shirley," "Mork and Mindy," just to name a few).

There was also a wonderful tribute to "The Golden Girls" and three of them were there (sadly Estelle Getty is in ill health and could not attend). Also on stage were Dick Van Dyke, Penny Marshall, Cindy Williams, Lindsey Wagner, Ed Asner, William Shatner, Jack Klugman, Henry Winkler... the list goes on.

TVLand will continue airing this for the rest of the week, and much of the show can be seen on their website:


Sunday, June 15, 2008

"Net Nights" from The Museum of Broadcast Communications

I seem to end up on the website of The Museum of Broadcast Communications a lot when I'm doing research, and I just discovered an amazing video offering they're featuring. Called "Net Nights", it's a series of evenings of network television programming, from a different day and year, just as if you were watching at the time. As they say on their intro page, it's a "recreation"; as I say, it's fascinating!

When you've got some time handy, or just want to keep it running in the background as you do other stuff on the computer, "Net Nights" is a wonderful way to get a real taste of the pace and content of television from decades back. There's also a nice bit of information regarding the commercial load increase over the years to put things into perspective.