Monday, March 16, 2015

TV notes: MOZART IN THE JUNGLE, NIGHTMARE IN CHICAGO, MAN IN A SUITCASE, SCHITT'S CREEK and on never having Just Three TV Channels...

Capsule reviews of some of what I've liked a lot over the last few months:

Mozart in the Jungle: a sitcom based on oboist Blair Tindall's memoir, has charmed me, for the most part, and while it didn't change my life nor is it "necessary" viewing, it had most of the good elements of the previous rather good series from producer/supporting actor Jason Schwartzmann, Bored to Death, with less celebration of protracted adolescence than was on display in that series. And, like Bored, it seems to be getting essentially no attention compared to other series on its platform (HBO for the older series, Amazon for this one). Saffron Burrows and her character are only the best of several good reasons to give this a try.

Nightmare in Chicago is a telefilm I've been meaning to see for decades, since first reading about it in an early Leonard Maltin guide (Bill Warren might've written that review for all I know)...originally broadcast in the first season of Kraft Suspense Theater as "Once Upon a Savage Night" (and based, as it turned out, on William McGivern's novella "Death on the Turnpike"...I keep running into McGivern texts, he the too-forgotten Chicago/Philadelphia noir master; the director was the young Robert Altman).  Unfortunately, neither the full cut of Nightmare, beefed up for syndication from the Kraft episode, nor any form of KST episodes seem to be available outside the gray market,  nor does the episode version seem to be in the Crisis/Suspense Theater package that the Antenna TV network reran recently (a few scattered stations, broadcast and cable, might also be offering it). The link above is to a blurry black and white taping that I suspect was one of those made (several duplicate generations back?) on the fly to reassure Kraft and their ad agency that all the ad spots ran properly during broadcast...so, better than nothing, if not enough better (you do get the full complement of Kraft food ads, and the recipes are often as unnerving as anything about the episode itself). Barbara Turner is particularly good as the kidnap victim of a serial murderer of young women, and Ted Knight is full of appropriate bluster as a police commissioner juggling the suddenly newly active psycho and a nuclear weapons convoy coming through town on the QT.  I look forward to seeing a good copy. --Not great, but better, at this link.

Man in a Suitcase is a bit of a mutant version of a typical 1960s ITC spy drama, since it involves an inappropriately disgraced US ex-spy, with an attitude, who now works in the UK as a sort of private detective/fixer or perhaps a bit more like what The Saint would be like if crossed with irritable youngish Ben Casey. It lasted only one season (ran on ABC in the US). I'm mildly surprised how much I'm enjoying these, put together by some of ITC's better talent of the era.  The first episode (in both the UK and US, apparently, though another is the true pilot), as with several Danger Man/Secret Agent episodes, rather anticipates The Prisoner...others much less so...the influence of The IPCRESS File was probably strong. (Wikipedia notes that this was essentially a replacement series for Danger Man on ITV, the UK commercial network, which certainly makes sense.)

Actual pilot:


Pilot as shown:


Schitt's Creek is a new sitcom on the CBC, imported to US cable with language censored (! sigh) by the Pop Channel, which used to be the TV Guide channel, but is now a joint project of Lionsgate (who bought it) and CBS (who more recently bought in).  Catherine O'Hara and Eugene Levy are not breaking too much new ground, but nonetheless are expertly portraying somewhat washed up former Canadian television icons, fallen on hard times and living in the motel in the tiny town Schitt's Creek that is one of their few remaining properties...adding to their joy, their spoiled adult children, a daughter and son, live in the room next door (I've only seen two episodes so far, and missed the pilot, so assume the non-kids had been living on parental largesse till that ran out). Chris Elliott and some fine younger actors (including Levy's son, the co-creator) are the supporting cast. I'll watch O'Hara in anything short of a Home Alone movie (Away We Go would be about the far limit), but this is rather good fun so far.
principals of Schitt's Creek


As things wrap up and the layoffs continue from the corporation where I have served as the national public broadcasting scheduling reporter for 17 years (beginning about six months after I started at what was still TV Guide magazine, primarily), entering and editing the data about PBS, nationally syndicated, Create, MHz Worldview and Deutsche Welle North America programming for products ranging from PBS.org through TV Guide products to Comcast and some other cable systems and sub channel guides, I'm about to join the laid off, and it's hard not to think back about my engagement with television, both professionally and beforehand.  

I'm fifty years old, and one thing I've heard repeatedly from peers over the decades has been how they, when young, had only three broadcast channels to choose from when watching tv, at least till cable became available and was actually subscribed to by their families. Seems strange to me, since I guess I was spoiled, from the age of five onward, to never live anywhere where there weren't at least four network stations (including PBS) and usually at least some interesting independents broadcasting within viewing range. In 1969, my parents and I moved from Fairbanks, Alaska, to the Boston suburb of West Peabody, MA, with a summer stopover in Oklahoma City (we traveled by pickup truck with camper atop it. I spent a lot of that trip, while the car was moving or stopped, in the bunk over the cab, which would probably not be an advisable way of going about such a trip today).

So, in Boston, there were no fewer than eight broadcast stations in 1969 or in the months shortly thereafter, and the relatively fuzzy New Hampshire stations to complement them: on VHF, the four big network stations (with National Educational Television/soon PBS powerhouse WGBH on 2, NBC on WBZ 4, CBS on 7, ABC on 5, and those NH stations WMUR, an ABC affiliate on 9--and run on such a shoestring that it didn't begin broadcasts in color until well into the 1970s, apparently--and WENH, the PBS anchor for the state network, soon on 11), and on UHF the commercial independents 27, 38, 56 (the Kaiser Broadcasting channel) and WGBX 44, the little sibling that ran as much local and syndicated programming as NET/PBS items...if 44 wasn't the first station in the US to run Doctor Who, for example, it was one of the first.  (To be continued.)

11 comments:

pattinase (abbott) said...

I would like to see these new Amazon shows, but boy I hate adding to their attempt at world domination.

Bill Crider said...

Richard Bradford was The Man in a Suitcase, I think. Hadn't thought of that show in many years. Enjoyed it when I was a youngster, though.

Todd Mason said...

Sadly, I was already aiding the Deathstar to get my free shipping before they started commissioning video, but escaping the clutches of Corporate Amurrica is sometimes a fraught process (is it relevant that Apple tried to "correct" my spelling to "excape"?--no joke).

Richard Bradford indeed, Bill. And he's been keeping busier than you might imagine, over the years...

Jerry House said...

As a kid in Massachussets, we received only four channels: NBC (4), CBS (7), Educational Television (2), and WMUR (9). Later ABC joined the group with the start of Channel 5 and Educational Television became PBS. When first married, we added a few UHF stations, but when we built our first house our reception was so bad we were down to three channels (4,5,9).

We didn't watch much television until blessed cable came to our area. What we did watch on occasional was the weather channel on WMUR. The weatherman (Al something or other) was a screeching maniac; you watched him in the same way you would watch a horrifying train wreck. Afterwards, you felt ashamed of yourself.

Those were the days.

Todd Mason said...

Ha! Well, as William Loeb's television station (W Manchester Union-Leader Radio/WMUR), and nationally prominent for the NH primaries every four years, perhaps perfervidity would be the way to play it at WMUR back in the day...though what I remember best from ca. 1970 on Ch. 9 would be the utterly apathetic kids' show host Uncle Gus. Given the depression and suicide of Boston's Major Mudd, perhaps apathy was the way to play that role.

Todd Mason said...

Aha...I assumed too much...ex-Gov. Murphy founded and named the station for himself. And apparently it has always been an ABC affiliate...and only seemed to be in the clutches of Loeb...

RJR said...

I enjoyed Richard Bradford in MAN IN A SUITCASE, one of my favorite P.I. shows. I just finished watching the whole set, including episodes that were never shown in this country. Bradford went on to have a very busy career, first doing the MEDICAL CENTER pilot movie (only to be replaced by Chad Everett in the series) and then a host of movies and t.v. appearances. One of his better roles was in THE CHASE with Marlon Brando, where he puts a helluva beat down on Brando.

Todd Mason said...

Apparently, at least according to the WIKI folks, that role was what drew the eyes of ITC...who were thinking of giving the role of McAllister to Jack Lord, of all people...

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Love Man in a Suitcase - definitely the most emotionally extreme of the ITC shows and I agree, it has a lot in common with THE PRISONER - indeed, it was pretty much made up of all the DANGER MAN staff who didn;t jump ship with McGoohan for his new show.

raito said...

I'm one of those who grew up with limited channels. The big 3 + PBS. And occasionally, I could catch a station out of Rockford very alte on a clear night (but all that was on was Surfside 6). That was until about 1974, when cable arrived with it's then-unheard-of bounty of 10 (count'em 10!) channels.

So on Fridays, I'd watch a Tarzan movie out of Milwaukee, then Ferdy's Inferno at midnight. Those were the days.

Todd Mason said...

And, Sergio, happily the MAN co-creator who also created THE CHAMPIONS pretty much left to run that terrible series instead.

Raito, you remind me also of some early DXing on my part...picking up distant tv or radio signals through some fluke or studious application, mostly the former. And it was always fun to flip around the old analog dials and suddenly find something new, however temporarily...