Sunday, November 22, 2009

Television that mattered to me...

A number of television series, and even a few one-offs (or One Time Onlies as at least one clangorous publication officially dubs them) have had an important effect on me, even if it was only to entertain so adeptly that I had to marvel.

1. Children's educational television: Mr. Wizard, Romper Room, and particularly those long-haul veterans Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and Captain Kangaroo certainly helped get me hooked on the medium in my earliest years...as did such local hosts in New England as Major Mudd and Uncle Gus (an irritable-seeming fellow in a fishing hat, sitting in front of a wall that read The Uncle Gus Show...he was out of New Hampshire, while Major Mudd was a supposed astronaut, a Boston fixture for a while). Post-Sesame Street, a number of the networks and syndicators stepped up their game, giving us Zoom, Make a Wish, Big Blue Marble, and other kid-oriented, fairly elaborate, heavily-edited and quickly-paced programming...to augment the older, slower-paced kids' shows (Hodge Podge Lodge, anyone?). Why, they even rivalled Bullwinkle, Flipper and Lassie for engagement.

2. Adult educational television: Simultaneously, there were some interesting if sometimes puzzling (The Great American Dream Machine) series rolling in that were clearly aimed at grownups, that nonetheless (particularly when about the sciences, such as Nova, the National Geographic Specials and the syndicated Time-Life Wild, Wild World of Animals), that were compelling, none moreso than Nat Geo spinoff The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. And, in 1973, the grim facts of recent world history were packaged impressively in the Granada (syndicated) UK import, The World at War--my cohort in elementary school wouldn't miss it, though my mother was concerned about my seeing the battlefield and aftermath footage, till after she tasked my father with vetting it as well (he soberly suggested that it was precisely what was needed to be said about war).

3. My mother had had similar concerns when she noted I had discovered in 1972 this oddly-named sitcom M*A*S*H, which was one of several funny and sophisticated-seeming newish series being concentrated on Saturday night, when I could stay up long enough to catch them all...she was thinking of Sally Kellerman exposed in the film, but realized that they weren't Quite going that far with the television series, even if the best first few seasons were not the most enlightened statement about feminism in television history. However, such vignettes as when after a grueling surgical session, Trapper John and Frank find themselves trying to catch quick naps on stretchers in the entryway of the surgical tent, and Frank offhandedly gives Trapper a picture of how to create a Frank Burns ("If we spoke during dinner, our father would punch us in the throat."), and how even a wiped-out Trapper has no choice but to accept that understanding...well, it left an impression. As did the other Saturday programs, which by the fall of 1975 had lost All in the Family and M*A*S*H to other days on the CBS schedule, but still could boast, at least in Northern Connecticut, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show and The Carol Burnett Show on CBS, Monty Python's Flying Circus in its first full run on the local PBS stations (syndicated by the Eastern Educational Network, which was also importing this BBC kids' show Doctor Who and a few more obscure items, such as The Goodies), and NBC's new series Saturday Night and Weekend (the latter being an excellent newsmagazine that ran every fourth week in the 11:30p slot).

4. The Really Good repeats. Quite aside from the good movies one could see, popping up here and there, there was a lot of fun old stuff that seemed to a Lot better at certain things, for example being scary, than the current shows such as Night Gallery. There were Saturday afternoon repeats of The Outer Limits on the Boston station that would follow that with The Creature Double-Feature--some of those episodes were more mind-blowing than scary, but it definitely leaned toward monsters and what one critic would term "Television Noir" when looking back from the '70s--and the Hartford station that ran Thriller, hosted by Boris Karloff--still unmatched as a showcase for decent to brilliant horror and suspense drama. There were any number of British series that were at least kind of cool, particularly The Avengers, The Forsyte Saga and this very weird thing called The Prisoner (and The Champions, which struck me as goofy even when I was a kid who could watch Land of the Lost without cringing, but it was fun).

5. The thread of genuinely good, by any reasonable standard, work through the decades...series such as The Rockford Files, Frank's Place or SCTV would stand out even if they hadn't run in very fallow times otherwise...and that the latter series ended its original run in the US on Cinemax "premium" cable was indicative of what was to happen to television, which as stations proliferated and alternatives to broadcast television did also, led to an efflorescence of rather good to brilliant television in the latest 1990s and earliest 2000s, hurt somewhat by the contraction of the networks and cable stations in the wake of the 9/11 and other Bush-era recession-drivers, in attempt to see if sophistication might work again...even the bubblegun series from that period would've tended to look remarkable by the usual standards in the early '80s (say, Witchblade or Brimstone).

In that ferment, such series as Once and Again, Homicide: Life on the Streets, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer were setting the pace for a pack of extemely sophisticated series, often dealing with subject matter that had too often been Starsky and Hutched or Kolchaked in previous series (which is to say nothing about the two excellent television movies that led up to the dismal Kolchak: The Night Stalker series). But the one which continues to impress me more than any other US dramatic series, at very least, was the nearly pitch-perfect blended family serial Once and Again, with its cast of more or less adult adults (as opposed to, say, the superannuated teens of Mad Men or even most of the best sitcoms) and their well-drawn children, coping as best they might with the aftermath of two marriages that end in divorce, and the romance between two of the divorced parents and how this affects the lives of everyone around them. And, eventually, even how it doesn't affect the others' lives, as those lives are sketched in with sufficiently complexity of their own. Excellent cast, writing and production...the pinnacle, so far, of the work of the Herskowitz/Zwick team who had previously been responsible for the series, each better than the last, Thirtysomething, My So-Called Life, and Relativity, and who would go on to the pleasant but relativelty minor web series experiment quarterlife.

Really, just a smashing series. I miss it.

(This in response to another Patti Abbott challenge, to write up one of television series that had a lasting effect or least left an impression on one.)

9 comments:

Laura K. Curtis said...

Wow, Todd, you and I watched a lot of the same television. We were all allowed (encouraged, even, to get us out of our parents' hair) to watch Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, which I imagine was like Wild, Wild World of Animals.

The only children's programming I really remember were Wild Kingdom and Sesame Street. I also loved Jacques Cousteau, though.

Then M*A*S*H*, Carol Burnett and Monty Python were all favorites in our house. My older brother introduced me to Thriller and even though it scared the pants off me, I loved it.

Today, I wrote about The Prisoner, which was one of my favorites, above even the Avengers, which was pretty darned good.

Although I watch a fair amount of TV today, none of it has the "fun" aspect of some of the shows I used to watch. It will take quite something to measure up to Buffy, and none of the current crop of vampire stuff does it.

Todd Mason said...

Well, WILD KINGDOM was much about Marlon telling Jim what wildlife to wrestle...I certainly watched it, particularly when it was still on NBC, before DISNEY, around the turn of the '70s...while WILD, WILD WORLD was more like a very well-written half-hour weekly NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC.

Yes, I barely remembered watching THE PRISONER with my folks in its first US run (1968, I think, when I was about four), and being very freaked by Rover...then caught up with it again as public stations started running it in the latter '70s...

You're right, it's tough to find a supernatural series that's quite up to BUFFY...and when we get one, such as JOURNEYMAN, it's cancelled after a season. THE MIDDLEMAN was nearly as much fun as BUFFY, and also got spiked after a season...and both were scheduled against (and swamped in ratings by) that home of bad acting and excellent cinematography, CSI MIAMI...JOURNEYMAN is up on Hulu, THE MIDDLEMAN is available on DVD, at least...

pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks, Todd. That Saturday night lineup in the early seventies was truely a reason to stay home-esp. with young kids.

Todd Mason said...

Indeed. CBS put ALL IN THE FAMILY and M*A*S*H initially on Saturdays because they, the network that had been coasting on THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES and HEE HAW as much as on anything remotely Tiffany-esque, were scared of them. Well, it was a gamble that paid handsomely. No one has had a strong Saturday since. I wonder if a lot of early-Boomer families, just beginning to raise the Gen X offspring, weren't the bulk of those audiences, now that you mention it...

K. A. Laity said...

Yeah -- Wild Kingdom and Jaques Cousteau! Saturday nights with MTM, Newhart and Burnett! That's my childhood. I was old enough to attend an adult party with real drinks when M*A*S*H ended (I think I was old enough?).

In different ways Buffy and Spaced will never be equaled in the touchstones they were.

Comedy is a whole other thing: yes, it all goes back to Python and the Goons, but also the Goodies and the Marty Feldman show (how on earth did I see that at the time?). AbFab...Black Books...Blackadder. Sigh. No comparison at present.

Todd Mason said...

You should do your own entry, Kate...you certainly remember THE GOODIES better than I do (and I suspect the Midwestern stations loved to dig into the Brit sketch shows)...M*A*S*H wrapped in 1983, if that helped (I could drink legally, by then, removing most of the fun of it).

Hmm...what are the best comedies now? We'll see how SCRUBS 2.0 goes...THE VENTURE BROS. might be losing steam...THE MIGHTY BOOSH is certainly manic enough...BORED TO DEATH is pleasant enough...I think THE COLBERT REPORT and THE DAILY SHOW might be my favorite video fixes now, but I treat them mostly as radio shows, to go with LE SHOW, WAIT, WAIT, DON'T TELL ME, WHADDYA KNOW?, WIRETAP, THE SOUND OF YOUNG AMERICA and whatever I might dig out on BBC...

Evan Lewis said...

Man, you covered a lot of ground. Of everything you mentioned, the one that's touched me most deeply is Monty Python's Flying Circus. It made me crazier than I was already.

Donna said...

That brings back a lot of memories of 60's television in New England. I remember Uncle Gus more than Major Mudd. It's kind of a shame there's no real local TV kids shows any more. And even if there were, they'd be slick and pre-tested. You'd never get anyone like gruff-looking Uncle Gus, who might have been just a guy working at the station and someone said, "We need a guy to host a show and do bits with the kids in between the cartoons. Hey, you, over there, get in the chair!"

Did you forget Boomtown with Rex Trailer?

I was a big fan of The Creature Double Feature too. And channel 27's airing of Abbott and Costello movies every Saturday at 6. One of the UHF stations used to show a lot of Bowery Boys too, and The Little Rascals on weekdays.

Kids today don't know what they've missed!

Todd Mason said...

Evan:
I think PYTHON touched a nerve for A Whole Lot of Us. Did you see them on ABC'S WIDE WORLD OF ENTERTAINMENT late night package before the public broadcasting run? I did, and was very happy to see them again, unexpurgated this time.

Donna:
Didn't forget BOOMTOWN...I don't think I was around for it (I hit the Boston 'burbs in '69). THE UNCLE GUS SHOW ran for decades on WMUR, historically Channel 9 in Mnachester (your home for New Hampshire primary coverage, and originally William Loeb's station, the old SOB of the MANCHESTER UNION LEADER--WMUR--infamy...and if you wanted an ironic name for a newspaper, need look no farther than that rabidly rightwing sheet during Loeb's reign). In the '70s, whenever the Red Sox games were rained out on WSBK 38, an indie then (and again, I think), they'd run films such as KILL THE UMPIRE with William Bendix, which I'd enjoy more.

Check this: http://www.toyring.com/unclegus2.htm ...it seems that someone's UNCLE GUS page, up a few years ago, might be down now.