TV for Dunces

Whatever Happened to Real Stories?

Whatever Happened to Real Stories?

Television used to be first class entertainment. There was great comedy (Sid Caesar and Milton Berle), great speculative fiction (Twilight Zone), great whodunits (Perry Mason), and great quiz shows (You Bet Your Life). The shows were either scripted or with great impromptu acting. There was talent in front of the camera and in the smoke-filled rooms where the shows were planned.

That was then. Somewhere along the line, the TV producers decided that reality TV was cheaper to produce and would be accepted by the viewing public. And it was: with hundreds of channels of cable, there were scads of shows like Antiques Road Show, The Kardashians, Dog the Bounty Hunter, Pawn Stars, and a million forensic crime shows reprising old crimes.

Instead of entertaining the viewers, these shows sedated them. One of the stars of the genre was Donald J. Trump of  The Apprentice. All he had to do was glower and say “You’re fired!” and everything was golden.

Now this same Donald J Trump is our next (and perhaps last) president. All he has to do to solve the problems of this poor country is strike a few attitudes and tweet his uneducated opinions in the middle of the night. Advance planning no longer exists. We are now being governed by a bunch of untalented poseurs.

A REMINDER: Don’t forget to turn off your TV for tomorrow’s inauguration. Reality TV types hate having a bad Nielsen rating.

Playhouse 90

Rod Serling with Playhouse 90 Logo

Rod Serling with Playhouse 90 Logo

Almost sixty years ago to the day—on October 4, 1956—CBS presented its first Playhouse 90. It was called “Forbidden Area,” written by Rod Serling, directed by John Frankenheimer, and starring the likes of Charlton Heston, Tab Hunter, Diana Lynn, Vincent Price, Victor Jory, and Charles Bickford.

As he did later with Twilight Zone, Serling takes us to the heart of the Cold War and a projected Christmas Eve nuclear attack by the Soviet Union on major cities across the United States. Charlton Heston is trying to discover why eight B-99s of the Strategic Air Command suddenly disappeared without a trace from radar screens.

Playhouse 90 was live television: There were no rehearsals. While American viewers were watching, the actors were acting. As difficult as it was, this was the Golden Age of Television. Now there are hundreds more channels, dozens of content providers, and tens of millions more viewers, what they are watching is nowhere near as good as during those heady days of the 1950s and the early 1960s.

I love television as it used to be. As it is today, I would rather leave the remote to Martine and go read a good book.

Tonight, the UCLA Film & Television Archive put on a double bill of Playhouse 90 episodes written by Serling. It was introduced by Matthew Weiner, creator of Mad Men, who gave an excellent speech about why those days were the artistic pinnacle of television as an art medium.

Once When Things Were Different ….

Maurice Evans as MacBeth and Judith Anderson as Lady MacBeth

Maurice Evans as Macbeth and Judith Anderson as Lady Macbeth

There was a time when there were only a few television channels, and one could see wonderful material that presupposed a literate audience. In honor of Shakespeare’s birthday on April 23, the Paley Center for Media put on screenings of six of Shakespeare’s plays on Saturday and Sunday of this weekend. It was my good fortune to see two of the plays.

The better of the two was a Hallmark Hall of Fame production of Macbeth fist aired on November 20, 1960. It was directed by George Schaefer and starred Maurice Evans as Macbeth, Judith Anderson as Lady Macbeth, Michael Hordern as Banquo, and Ian Bannen as Macduff. It was shot in technicolor on location in Scotland.

Richard Chamberlain as Hamlet and Ciaran Madden as Ophelia

Richard Chamberlain as Hamlet and Ciaran Madden as Ophelia

Also produced for the Hallmark Hall of Fame was a 1970 Hamlet directed by Peter Wood and starring Richard Chamberlain as Hamlet, Michael Redgrave as Polonius, Margaret Leighton as Gertrude, and Richard Johnson as Claudius. John Gielgud had a walk-on role as the Ghost.

Both productions were highly professional. So professional that I was stunned seeing the two great tragedies one after the other. I thought to myself, “What would it take to have something like this on cable television today?” I would say close to zilch. Perhaps if Ophelia were in the nude and we saw a slo-mo close-up of Banquo being knifed in the head, but otherwise, no.

I think we may have to assume that the audience for these two great 1960 and 1970 productions no longer exists, or else they don’t allow patients in nursing homes to watch anything quite so exciting. Not when Lawrence Welk and Matlock reruns are available.

It’s strange that I have to drive to the Paley Center in Beverly Hills to see what television can do. As for my own television, I’d rather read a good book.




“The Longing for Impossible Things”

Ernie Kovacs and Edie Adams

Ernie Kovacs and Edie Adams

One of the most poignant things about watching old movies and television programs is that, quite suddenly, the veil of years disintegrates, sometimes leaving an image of inexpressible beauty. That happens when I see films with Louise Brooks, Mabel Normand, Marilyn Monroe, and now Edie Adams.

Sunday was a rare wet day in Los Angeles, so Martine and I spent it at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills. While Martine watched some of her old faves, for three hours I watched nothing but the old Ernie Kovacs show. While she was married to Ernie, until he died in a spectacular car crash in West Los Angeles on my 17th birthday, she was in her late twenties and drop-dead gorgeous. The above picture doesn’t do her justice. In the earlier shows on the Dumont and NBC networks, she was cute and obviously in love with her tall Hungarian madman.

Although she had a long and distinguished career in showbiz after the accident, she is buried at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills next to her late husband.

As a child, I remember watching Ernie because, well, we were Hungarians; and Ernie was our hero. I recall Edie as being lovely. Years later, she still is in those old kinescopes.

As Portuguese writer and poet Fernando Pessoa wrote, “The feelings that hurt most, the emotions that sting most, are those that are absurd—The longing for impossible things, precisely because they are impossible; nostalgia for what never was; the desire for what could have been; regret over not being someone else; dissatisfaction with the world’s existence. All these half-tones of the soul’s consciousness create in us a painful landscape, an eternal sunset of what we are.”

Neither Rare Nor Well Done

Perhaps the Most Inventive Funnyman in Television

Perhaps the Most Inventive Funnyman in Television

Because it was a drizzly day (courtesy of El Niño), Martine and I spent the afternoon at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills. While Martine was bringing up episodes of “Superman” with George Reeves, Captain Kangaroo, and “My Little Margie,” I was watching a number of episodes of “The Ernie Kovacs Show.”

What Georges Méliès was to the cinema, Ernie Kovacs was to the medium of television: He was brilliantly inventive and something of a magician. All the other comedians on early TV came up from vaudevillian comedy skits, Kovacs started with the new medium itself. He was not only the starring actor: He was also the director and, if the show had one, the main writer.

Music was a recurring unifying theme to the strange collection of cutaways which might include:

  • A cute young woman taking a bubble bath, with strange things happening in the tub
  • The Nairobi Trio, three apes playing music and annoying one another
  • The furniture in an office acting as instruments, from the filing cabinet to the typewriter to the telephone switchboard to the water cooler
  • Artistic variations on a cowboy gun duel

One recurring piece of music used was “Mack the Knife” sung in German, but he has also used the 1812 Overture (during which we cut to Kovacs breaking a stalk of celery at key junctures), and “The Tennessee Waltz” sung in Polish—or was it Slovenian?—while he unsuccessfully lowers a chained escape artist into the river who never manages to re-emerge.

For the three hours that I watched the shows, I was in seventh heaven. Kovacs is a fellow Hungarian (though he, like me, was born in the U.S.), and he occasionally inserts some phrases in Magyar.

On the way home, I drove by the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Beverly Glen where Kovacs died in an auto accident on my seventeenth birthday in 1962.

The one quote that he is remembered for is typical Ernie: “Television: A medium. So called because it’s neither rare nor well done.” Well, when Ernie Kovacs was on the job, it was well done.

The Middle Ground Between Light and Shadow

Rod Serling at Work

Rod Serling at Work

“There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition.” It is this middle ground that television writer Rod Serling ruled in he years between 1955 and 1975, when he died at the age of 50 of a heart attack.

After the Second World War, Americans were delighted they had won, but frightened by the devil’s bargain we had made with the atomic bomb. And once the Russians were able to not only produce their own super weapons but match us megaton for megaton, there was a sick feeling in the pit of our stomachs. I remember that period vividly, especially around the time the Berlin Wall was erected. Between then and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, I was convinced that the world would end in mutual nuclear destruction.

Apparently Hollywood thought so, too. There were films like Them (1954) about giant ants affected by nuclear radiation; The Giant Gila Monster (1959); and the many films of Bert I. Gordon such as The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) and Village of the Giants (1965). The uncertainty spread to visitors from outer space who may or may not have been drawn to us by our discovery of nuclear power. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and The Thing (1951) are classical examples.

It was into this world that Rod Serling came with his great television series, The Twilight Zone. He scripted many of the episodes himself, and it quickly became evident that he was a master of the genre. Today alone, I saw four episodes at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills. The best of the stories was “And When the Sky Was Opened” (1959) starring Rod Taylor about three spacemen who crash land back on earth after their ship temporarily disappeared from radar screens. The three not only start disappearing one by one, but all memory of each one is wiped clean as if he never existed, both from the minds of the people who knew them and from the documentary record of their existence.

In my opinion. The Twilight Zone is one of the best five shows ever to appear on TV. Some day, I hope to buy all the episodes on DVD (which costs a pretty penny) because I know that the stories are great and will always affect me every time I see them.

What, No Tarzan Yell?!

Vicki Lawrence as Thelma Harper and Carol Burnett as Her Daughter Eunice

Vicki Lawrence as Thelma Harper and Carol Burnett as Her Daughter Eunice

As you have heard me say on a number of occasions, I do not watch television—but I used to. That was back when the audience was less fragmented and less monopolized by navel-gazing “indies.” And, as the siege of furnace-level heat continues in Southern California, Martine and I decided to pay a visit to the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills.

The last time we were there, about four or five years ago, it was call the Museum of Television and Radio. A lot has changed since then. For one thing, it is much easier to use the library. Instead of just calling for videotapes to be mounted by some operator in the basement, some 40% of the content is now digitized and can be accessed by an interface similar to YouTube.

While Martine sat at one console watching the old Lassie show, I was watching 1970s comedy in the form of the Carol Burnett Show and Saturday Night Live. From the same console, it is also possible to call up old radio programs.

We enjoyed our visit so much that I signed Martine and I up as members, which gives us additional privileges.

If you perchance find yourself in Beverly Hills, the Paley Center is worth a visit—particularly if you enjoy old television and radio. An extra bonus: It’s located on the same 400-block of North Beverly Drive as Nate ’n Al’s, a Jewish deli that is as old as I am (Pleistocene Era) that has managed to maintain a high level of quality.

Television IS News?

Look What’s Popping Up on TV News Websites?

Look What’s Popping Up on TV News Websites?

It was bound to happen sooner or later. Now that the same corporations that own television news also own popular television series.One can’t look at or without running into articles about the latest developments in “Man Men,” “Breaking Bad,” or even the dwindling “American Idol.” That never used to happen before. Even Salon.Com, which insofar as I know, is unaffiliated with any entertainment producers, is heavily interlarded with references to popular shows.

Since I have deliberately abandoned television programming over ten years ago, all these references in the news mean nothing to me. They end up as descriptions of cultural phenomena that are meaningless to me. In no case do I ever become interested enough to see what all the hoopla is about. I think the last time I tried was a few years ago when I rented the first season of “The Sopranos” from Netflix. I thought it was all right, but not good enough to maintain my interest.

Instead of television series, it would be interesting to see more news articles about books. That occasionally happens on Salon.Com, but almost never on the mainstream media websites. Oh, well, you can always come here and look at what I am reading. You are bound to encounter quite a few books. I have made a commitment to Goodreads.Com to read 106 books this year. So far, I am 16 books ahead on my goal. Maybe I should alert CNN?

Theta, Goddess of Television

What Happened to the Promise?

What Happened to the Promise?

Back in the 1970s, the first truly great television channel was born. It was called the Z Channel, and it was available only through Theta Cable Television, a subsidiary of TelePrompTer Corporation. Here was a channel made for film freaks such as myself. I could watch not only popular films, but film classics, including French, Italian, and Japanese classics with subtitles.

The trucks belonging to Theta Cable bore the following logo, of which I could find only this very imperfect example on the Internet:

Theta, Goddess of Television

Theta, Goddess of Television

The Z Channel ended badly with a murder/suicide when program director Jerry Harvey shot his wife and then turned the gun on himself.

Around then, the Z Channel segued into the Sports Channel, which interrupted their movies with Stanley Cub playoffs. I remember calling my cable provider and demanding to cancel the hockey channel. They knew what I was talking about.

There were other hopeful beginnings, such as Headline News, CNN, Bravo, TNT, and even MTV at the beginning. Now the only cable channel of any worth is Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which still has no advertising, and which shows films uncut and unscanned (i.e., letterbox versions). As far as I am concerned, the rest is mostly sports (way, way too much sports), right wing news, and celebrity gossip. I would be in heaven if all that mattered to me were Kim Kardashian’s ass and how the Cubs are faring against the Hornets. Oh, yes, and Benghazi!

Cable television was once a land of promise. Then, I suppose, Eve ate the apple; and we were all drummed out of paradise.


Breaking News—Floating Debris in Ocean!

... And Still They Go On and On and On

… And Still They Go On and On and On

The death of all those passengers and crew on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is a legitimate disaster. And trust me, they are all dead. No one’s going to call the news services that they landed safe and sound in Timbuktu, Kathmandu,  or the Rings of Saturn. Something happened, and we won’t know what for some time to come. In the meantime, we are bombarded by the media noise machine which is using the event to sell us soap. By the time we find out what happened, there’ll be a different news orgy: Perhaps another Kaylee, or another Scott Peterson, or another Michael Jackson. It almost doesn’t matter. To re-use the name of a bygone, late-lamented series, TV News is the ultimate Short Attention Span Theater.

You may want to resolve not to watch the news on TV. After all where does it get you? Well, for one thing, floating in the Indian Ocean 1,500 miles southwest of Australia.