Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Dean's List: My 100 Favorite TV Shows (#80 - 71)

Okay, we're gettin' up there! Some very personal picks highlight #80 to #71 today:

80) Great Chefs of the World (1982-1996) The first of three cooking shows on my list is certainly the most sophisticated of the three, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun. The concept of this USA (and later PBS) show was simple.
Narrator Mary Lou Conroy—one of the most soothing voices ever heard--would usher us into a great eatery in Chicago, or Paris, or Napoli, and the camera would catch the restaurant’s chef concocting their signature dishes. The guidance through the process would bounce back and forth between the chef and the narrator, and it really made complicated cooking seem manageable and fun. Expertly edited and scored with barely audible background music appropriate to the locale, Great Chefs, in its mercifully quiet way, always has me riveted to the screen. Visit the show website at www.greatchefs.com--excellent cooking reference material!

79) Cash Cab (2005-present) A completely original idea for a game show. Driver/host Ben Bailey bombs around New York, picking up passengers and surprising them (I wait eagerly every time for the varied weird reactions to this shocker) with the opportunity to win cash as they reach their destination. It’s got an inventive time element--you get three wrong answers and then you’re outta the cab, whether you’ve gotten where you’re goin’ or not—as well as a sliding scale of challenging questions, a witty host and a wide array of contestants, all playing out this drama as the picturesque backdrop of New York City rushes by the cab’s windows. I love it! My only complaint: poor people who really need free money rarely hail down cabs. But that’s nit-picking, now, isn’t it? After all, these ladies claim to be poor...

78) Space:1999 (1975-77) Now I KNOW I’m gonna get raked over the coals for this—no Star Trek on the list but I do have Space:1999? What am I thinking? Well, naturally, I respect Star Trek, but it always put me to sleep (something about the background beeping on the bridge and the pastel colors are quite lulling). Sorry, guys. The syndicated Space: 1999, though, holds me enthralled despite its preposterousness--the moon breaks away from Earth’s orbit and floats away? Come on…! Given its years of production, it has to have been at least an FX influence on Star Wars, which would make it a landmark in and of itself. Watching it with my childhood friend Juan Salazar (who marked it then as his favorite show and collected all the very cool toys connected with it), I liked its Brit flavor (it was produced by Thunderbirds creators Gerry and Sylvia Anderson), its 2001-inspired
effects (by Alien and Empire Strikes Back soon-to-be veterans Brian Johnson and Nick Allder), its effective scoring by Barry Gray (rockin’ theme!), its top-notch set and costume design, its thoughtful writing (particularly in its first season), and the cast, led by husband-and-wife team Martin Landau and Barbara Bain (reuniting on TV post-Mission: Impossible) and British character actor Barry Morse. Also, they’re lots of great UK guest stars popping up like Roy Dotrice, Margaret Leighton, Brian Blessed, Joan Collins, Christopher Lee, and Peter Cushing. What’s not to like? Again, sorry…(head bowed down now…)

77) Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist (1995-2000) It’s weird. This Comedy Central show, leisurely paced with a singular quietude about it and minimally animated in something called “squigglevision,” has a supremely relaxing effect on me. If I ever find myself in some sort of unmanageable mood,
I know I can go to Dr. Katz and feel alright—which means it matches the experience of therapy perfectly. Katz's voice, the music cues, the clinking sounds of forks on plates as the character's eat, Katz's hilariously precious little folk tunes... it's all like listening to the ocean for me. Jonathan Katz, of course, plays the title character who counsels a wide array of comedians—Steven Wright, Laura Kightlinger, Ray Romano, Joy Behar, and on and on--as they do their routine on his couch. At home, he deals with his lay-about son Ben (voiced expertly by H. Jon Benjamin) and at work he struggles with his consistently underwhelmed receptionist Laura (Laura Silverman, Sarah’s sister). In the annals of animation, there’s rarely been a character I love more than the childlike Ben (his attachment to his favorite stuffed animal, a bull named “Bully,” is always a highlight). Likewise, there’s never been an animated character I wanted to have sex with more than Laura. Say what you will—she’s smokin’.

76) Tush (1980) Another obscure Turner-based show premiered in 1980 when WTBS was still known as WTCG. Bill Tush, the start-up station’s one-time late-night comedy newscaster and early-morning host of Academy Award Theater (a baby version of TCM that should also be on this list, dang it—well, now it’s entry #101), was the host of this free-for-all comedy revue that launched the careers of former SNL writers Bonnie and Terry Turner (creators of 3rd Rock from the Sun and That 70s Show) and former SNL member Jan Hooks (whose always been a darling of mine). Bill would come out a door situated in a long, creepy, door-lined hallway and act as ringmaster for this craziness that included running skits
like “Captain Space” (where everyone had big water bottles as space helmets), inspirational gospel show host Tammy Jean Pickett (a Jan Hooks highlight—one IMDB denizen sites a gut-busting line: “And remember, it only costs 15 cents to send us a check for a hundred dollars”), and the blooper-prone Tri-Cities Action News team, led by Tush himself. My favorite memory of the show involved white-bearded, Atlanta-based actor/playwright Eddie “Levi” Lee as he played out a dead-on imitation of Kenny Rogers, complete with a choppy, fantastically funny medley of Rogers’ hits. Unfortunately this masterpiece of TV comedy has been largely lost to the ages, sitting now only in the ancient VHS collections of some devoted fans (even Tush says he doesn’t have copies). But you can still see some of Tush at www.billtush.com and on YouTube, where I hear there are some “Captain Space” episodes floating around. Check ‘em out! In the meantime, here's three clips for you, including a funktastic musical break with James Brown!!!

75) The Joe Franklin Show (1950-1990) I thought about putting The Ed Sullivan Show in at #75, but at the last minute I nixed it because I realized I’d never really seen but one or two full episodes—just clips and compilations. So I did the next best thing, and I think I made the more original choice in doing so. Joe Franklin was a contemporary of Ed’s whose long-running (the longest running TV show ever, next to The Tonight Show!!!!), New York-based talk show was featured on WOR for many a year. It stands as an idiosyncratic alternative to Sullivan, with Franklin playing fawning host to an often motley but adorable set of B- and C- and sometimes A- and Z-list celebrities and newcomers (still, a lotta famous people first appeared on the show, including Woody Allen and Barbara Streisand). Many TV nuts will recall Billy Crystal’s loving and accurate imitation of the memorably dry Joe Franklin on Saturday Night Live. But unless saw it for yourself, you might not believe this show was for real. Well, it was, and it was wonderful TV. I count myself proud to be best friends with Brian Matson, whose 80s-era doo-wop group were guests on the show! Lucky duck…if only I could show you that...oh, well...Spinal Tap and Arthur Prysock will have to do.

74) Father Knows Best (1954-63) Some people like Leave It To Beaver more. I like that show, too, but no 50s/60s era family sitcom oozed more sheer class than this affectionate series headlined by two great actors, Robert Young and Jane Wyman, portraying (take note, Simpsons fans) Springfield parents Jim and Margaret Anderson. They doted adoringly over their three kids: Betty (whom dad deemed “Princess”), played by the achingly beautiful Elinor Donahue, Bud (the real comedy heart of the show, played by Billy Grey), and young, cute Kathy (nicknamed “Kitten”). More than in Beaver, where the kids seemed more of a burden than a joy to their parents (which, admittedly, was funny), Father Knows Best seemed to operate on a surplus of love and understanding, which endeared it forever to my mother and I, who watched it religiously over dinner. Beautifully photographed in black-and-white, it ran for 9 years (not including its run as a radio show!) and was shipped off at the height of its popularity. Trivia note: it’s the only show I know of that was produced, at various times, for ABC, CBS and NBC--and deservedly so. Recently, and finally, released on DVD! Here's a whole episode of the show, all about Bud getting a set of bongo drums so he can snag some girls! Perfect!

73) The Goodies (1970-81) One year after the 1969 premiere of Monty Python’s Flying Circus came this oddball variation, a mash-up of Python and The Monkees. By 1974, the Pythons had called it quits for TV and shuffled off to the movies. But The Goodies stuck around on Brit tubes until 1981! Yet absolutely no one remembers this chaotic circus spearheaded by Tim Brooke-Taylor, Bill Oddie, and Greame Garden. The series wasn’t skit-based; it was, like The Monkees, about our heroes as they got themselves in and out of bizarre situations that largely were excuses for a series of over-the-top sight gags. I remember first running across The Goodies when I stayed home sick
one day from school. As I was forcing down some chicken noodle soup and waiting for Sesame Street to come on, up popped the most bizarre and out-of-hand comedy show I’d ever witnessed. I laughed that flu right outta my body, I gotta tell ya. But try as I might, I could never find the show ever again on the PBS affiliate I was watching. I mused over it for years, thinking that maybe it was some sort of fever dream I’d had. But then, in the 1990s, I ran across a patently insane Goodies book called The Goodie’s Disaster Movie (which I let some guy borrow and never got back, dammit). Upon my recent move to New York, I joyously located a three-episode DVD that confirmed I wasn’t slipping into chicken-poxed madness all those years ago. I still found it stupendously funny, particularly the episode “Kitten Kong,” where the Goodies adopt a white kitty, only to somehow see it grow to enormous, city-terrorizing size. The lame-o, dated special effects and Benny Hill-styled fast motion sequences made me almost pee my pants, I was laughin’ so hard. Do yourself a favor and add some years on to your life by finding and buying The Goodies post-haste!
Here are two great scenes: one is a spoof of an Arthur C. Clarke show on Bigfoot! And, of course, I have to put the climax to "Kitten Kong," with its groovy soul music score, on here.

72) Mythbusters (2003-present) Mr. Science for the new generation. Discovery Channel’s monumentally entertaining reality/educational series has former special effects guys Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage leading a team of specialists to finding out if certain urban myths, movie stunts, and old proverbs have any basis in reality. I know that some fans are miffed at the abandoning of the urban myths angle, but let’s face it: there are only so many “baby exploding in a microwave” stories out there. I think it’s fascinating to see if Indiana Jones or James Bond stunts could actually be performed in real life, without the SFX hocus-pocus (movies form the basis of a lot of modern “myths”), or if you can “teach an old dog new tricks.” Anyway, the point of the show is the charismatic interplay between the Mythbusters team members, who alternate between sanguine sloppiness and outright genius. And, of course, let’s not forget a key element: its spellbinding direction and writing.

71) The Flintstones (1960-66) Almost every day when I was a youngster, my best friend Juan Salazar and I would walk over to his house, nearby to our elementary school, and laugh our heads off at this Hanna-Barbera-animated 60s classic. Fred and Wilma Flintstone and their neighbors Barney and Betty Rubble were either at odds or inThe Flintstonescahoots with one another as they made their rocky way through Stone Age life. It was, obviously, a take-off on The Honeymooners, but Gleason’s show didn’t have guests like Ann-Margrock (voice: Ann-Margret), Stony Curtis (voice: Tony Curtis), Cary Granite, Rock Roll (“The Bedrock Twich”) and The Way-Outs (voiced by, I believe, 60s
band The Beau Brummels), nor did it have amazing gags involving a wooly mammoth as a vacuum cleaner or a prehistoric bird’s beak as a phonograph needle (“Eh! It’s a living.”). All the punny, caveman-based humor was priceless to Juan and I, too. And we treasured the animation—the excellent character reactions and hand movements and the endlessly repeating backgrounds! Then there was the heroic voice work by Alan Reed (Fred), Jean Vander Pyl (Wilma), Bea
Benaderet (Betty) and the last great creations by cartoon vocalist extraordinaire Mel Blanc (as Barney and Dino, the Flintstones’ “dog”). We loved Harvey Korman’s snarky Great Gazoo, and the endless array of legendary HB talent like Daws Butler, Howard Morris and Don Messick. And the series’ wacked-out sound effects and incidental music (by Hoyt S. Curtin, with a staggeringly
memorable theme by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera themselves) would always have us rolling. I haven’t watched it in years (the horrible, terrible, criminal live-action movies saw to that) but I bet I’d still laugh my butt raw if I rented it tomorrow. Here's the show's original intro, which is obviously the template used for The Simpsons opening:

And since we've been discussing commercials on the NOSE, here's the classic Winstons cigarette ads featuring the Flintstones! If you haven't seen it, you're reaction will be: "Whaaaaa? Nooooo!! My eyes! They're burning!" And that shot of Wilma and Fred at the end...have they been doing what I think they've been doing?! She's all seductive and everything. Most hilariously in this also very sexist ad (Fred and Barney go and smoke while the women work their rears off) is the fact that they use real photos of the cigarettes in the animation! Weird. And wow.

See ya in a few days with #70 through 61!!


Jane said...

My dear Mr. Treadwell. May I call you Dean? The original Star Trek did NOT have pastel colors. Perhaps you are referring to The Next Generation? The original had vibrant, pulsating, primary colors (Spock's electric blue uniform top? Kirk's Yellow one...McCoy in Cardinal Red?) Like all color TV programs in the mid-60's it was virtually required that they have splashy colors in order to sell more color TV sets, which were still relatively rare at that point in time. That said, nice call on Cash Cab (which I adore and did a post on a few months ago) and the Flintstones. I suppose this means you will not have Star Trek anywhere in the top 100? Ah well, lists are meant to be subjective and contentious!

Jane said...

I suppose I should add, that I am a bit more cranky than usual, having consumed next to nothing all day other than a hideous dry turkey sandwich and a granola bar. I wanted to eat the pictures you attached to the Great Chef's post.

Dean Treadway said...

I knew you'd hate this, Jane. And Lisa. I respect Star Trek immensely and, yes, you are right about the color scheme...primary colors it is. I am very much entertained by STar Trek: The Next Generation (which would make it in at around 110 on my list, were it bigger), but the original Star Trek just has no place in my conciousness at this age. Perhaps I'm saving my appreciation for it at a later date. You know, sometimes these things happen.

But Star Trek gets plenty of lip service from lots of people. And no one disputes its power or influence. But I like to stand up for the little guy every once in a while, and to me, Space 1999 is the little guy here.

Yes, lists can be controversial...

Ugh. Dry turkey sandwich? Hope you got you a nice meal in ya (may I recommend a nice steak with onions?) Me, I had chicken flautas for dinner! YUM!

Lisa said...

Amazing choices, as always, Dean! Great picks, and as unique as you are! :-) I, too, wish to eat those pictures on the "Great Chefs" entry. Chicken flautas? I am SO jealous! We have NO Mexican restaurants around here except in Halifax so I have to make my own Mexican food, which is good but I'd still love to be able to go and order flautas someplace! Now I'm really hungry -- always am, in fact! For some reason I never held your lack of affection for "Star Trek" against you, Dean; I'm sure it's also an age thing since you're a bit younger than Jane and a fair bit younger than me! Again, wonderful and informed choices, Dean!

Hepcat B said...

Another great eclectic list!

Being on The Joe Franklin Show was even more surreal than watching it. And a classic JF guest line-up: Ink Spot Ray Pollard, Tiny Tim, and Joceline, psychic to the stars! Franklin had just moved to a new studio facility somewhere within the urban sprawl of New Jersey (I think) and he was beamingly proud of the new production space. Sweet guy and quite a character.

I have nearly identical experiences to yours with Star Trek (Influential! Ground breaking! God I'm sleepy!) Flintstones & Katz (simple animation done right - fun and funny.)

And oh my God, The Goodies. I'm so glad to confirm I didn't hallucinate that on a Kool Aid sugar high. My family caught that when I was about 8 during a visit to my grandfathers' house in W VA. While I found Python intriguing at that age, much was still over my head, but me and my bros thought The Goodies was the funniest sh*t we had ever seen! And then...never again. No one in Cincy ever ran it and it remained a brief memory of sublime zaniness. (One gag I still recall had them wearing Viking Hats with wings that eventually started flapping as the hats flew off their heads into the air. How can you not freaking love that???)

Must get DVD's!

Scott said...

Dean, wonderfully eclectic as always! Great clips! I love your style.