Thursday, October 27, 2005

There are no stupid TV shows PART II Halloween Edition.

Last week I said in my column (There are no stupid TV shows, just.... Okay some are stupid.) That,

"I was reminiscing with friends about our favorite episodes of Gilligan's Island and Get Smart. Then I remembered that many of the adults in my life (not children of television) dismissed the two shows as stupid. Both of these shows were on the air when I was born and have been airing ever since. The wealth of talent in front of and behind the camera has to be a huge contributing factor to a show's longevity. I was able to enjoy both shows in syndication. Both Gilligan's Island (1964-1967) and Get Smart (1965-1970) were on when I came home from school. These were shows that I enjoyed on one level then and on a different level now."

I realized that I had made similar statements about other classic TV sitcoms. In the spirit of Halloween I wanted to revisit some of the comments I made about some macabre shows. In Not a Black and White Issue. I mentioned that,

"Samantha & Darrin Stephens were the first mixed married couple on a television show Bewitched to actually discuss their differences. The show featured a witch (Elizabeth Montgomery) who married a mortal (Dick York & Dick Sargent). Underneath the mother in law jokes, nosey neighbors and special effects, serious issues like prejudice, negative stereotypes and tolerance were covered. How many times did we see Endora (Agnes Moorehead) tell Samantha that she disapproved of her daughter marring a mortal, what mortals did to them in the early days of Salem, or how mortals depict witches with hooked noses and warts. If you did not know that I was talking about TV witches, you might think that I was talking about one of a number of disenfranchised minorities.

If you think that I am connecting the dots incorrectly like some conspiracy theorist, I would encourage you to do a Google search and type in "Bewitched" and "Mixed Marriage", see what you find. I also want to point out that when Bewitched first premiered in 1964 it was not without controversy. Some stations refused to carry the show under pressure from religious groups that did not like the idea of a fine red blooded American male marrying a witch, a witch seen in a positive light, or an attractive witch (a problem that also pledged Glinda the Good when the 1939 MGM production of the The Wizard of Oz aired on TV). After Dick Sergeant joined the cast there was a concern that the public might find out that he was gay, even though no one was concerned about Uncle Arthur (Paul Lynde)."

I also mentioned that, The Munsters (Fred Gwynne & Yvonne De Carlo) were a mixed marriage of a vampire (descended from nobility) and the Frankenstein monster. Because the characters were monsters, their diversity was never made an issue either. Nor was it made an issue that they were the first married couple on TV to sleep in the same bed." I would later mention in The Beauty of The Munsters & The Addams Family.

The Addams Family
"The show mocked other TV families by being their polar opposite. This family would do everything from sword fighting to blowing up model trains in the middle of their own living room. If Fear Factor was around then, they would have the home version. I don't think anybody knew where John Aston began and Gomez Addams ended. Everything gave him a rush and his love for Morticia can only be described as horney monogamy. With all the craziness the show had moral high ground. Not only did you see a loving family where the parents were not afraid to show affection in front of the kids, you got to see so called "normal people" compromise their principles in order to do business with Gomez followed by humorous consequences.

The Munsters
"The Show is a brilliant mix of three key ingredients.The classic Universal Studios Monsters from the 1930 & 40's (that were finding a whole new audience thanks to Saturday Matinee "Creature Features" on TV)The placing of these monsters in the world of Leave It to Beaver (In fact the Munster's house is still across the street from the Cleaver's house on the Universal Back Lot only now Desperate Housewives have moved in). The "normal people’s" reactions to our family similar to those seen in Casper cartoons. The patriarch is the Frankenstein monster who married Dracula's daughter and live in the states as an "Typical American Family". There is more to Herman than a big stupid baby who throws tantrums by saying, "Darn! Darn! Darn! Darn!" Here is a character that is the Frankenstein monster, but he really thinks he is Fred MacMurray from My Three Sons. Fred Gwynne could deliver Ward Cleaver (Hugh Beaumont) type dialogue totally straight and was incredibly funny doing it. He was also able to play the stooge to Al Lewis in one scene, and then straight man to guest stars Paul Lynde or Harvey Korman in another.

Because of the macabre settings of the show, I think the writers were able to slip things under the censor’s radar. The wild look in Gomez’s eyes when he and Morticia played with whips and chains came very close to S&M. The Munsters did jokes about Vietnam, nuclear war and drugs. Herman & Lily were also the first TV couple to sleep in the same bed while Gomez & Morticia had twin beds of nails."

It’s scary how many topics that are still taboo today were used on these shows decades ago. All three of these shows have been remade in one form or another, and perhaps with the exception of the 1991 The Addams Family movie, the projects lacked the heart or intent of their original.

To quote Samantha Stephens, "Well?"

Stay Tuned & Happy Halloween.

Tony Figueroa

Thursday, October 20, 2005

There are no stupid TV shows, just.... Okay some are stupid. (Click PODCAST)

As I said in my Pre-ramble, "I represent the first generation whom, when we were born, the television was now a permanent fixture in our homes." That also means that the generation prior to ours did not grow up with a TV set as a permanent fixture in their homes. It seems that TV helped widen the generation gap as well as bond our generation in ways that nothing else had before (If you don't believe me try going to STAR TREK convention). At least my generation used to watch TV with their families. I could watch Happy Days with my mother. I thought The Fonz (Henry Winkler) was cool and she saw the show as nostalgic. Back then if I did not get a joke or a 1950's reference she would explain it to me or have me look it up in a dictionary or an encyclopedia (this was before Google). There were also primetime shows and after school specials that would encourage parents to watch with their kids. The episodes would cover a variety of topics like death, divorce, teen pregnancy and starting in the mid 1980s, AIDS. I find it amazing that in the past twenty years (I'm starting the clock with the news of Rock Hudson having the disease) that the subject of AIDS awareness has been discussed on TV through PSAs, news programs, documentaries, dramas, sitcoms, soaps and Movies of the Week. The ignorance of the disease is still high. Nowadays every family member has a TV in his or her own room. If a child asks their parents to explain something he or she saw on TV, the parents block the show with the V-chip, start a letter writing campaign or both. I sometimes forget that my mother was progressive and did not want to shield me from uncomfortable subject matter. If there was something that she really did not want me to see she would know beforehand through the newspaper or TV Guide.

Following the recent deaths of Bob Denver and Don Adams I was reminiscing with friends about our favorite episodes of Gilligan's Island and Get Smart. Then I remembered that many of the adults in my life (not children of television) dismissed the two shows as stupid. Both of these shows were on the air when I was born and have been airing ever since. The wealth of talent in front of and behind the camera has to be a huge contributing factor to a show's longevity. I was able to enjoy both shows in syndication. Both Gilligan's Island (1964-1967) and Get Smart (1965-1970) were on when I came home from school. These were shows that I enjoyed on one level then and on a different level now.

Gilligan's Island is possibly the most maligned situation comedy in the history of television. Sherwood Schwartz created a microcosm of American society with a military man, a millionaire, his socialite wife, a celebrity, an intellectual, a wholesome farm girl, and Gilligan. The idea was each week to show how these very different people had to work together as a cohesive unit in order to survive.

Mr. Howell: Do you think I began a dozen international corporations by stooping to thievery?

Professor: Well, of course not.

Mr. Howell: Shows how naive you are. How else do you get to the top of the corporate ladder!

In other words there was more to the show than the castaways almost getting off the island and Gilligan screwing it up. It's not like the viewers hoped that maybe, just maybe, this week they might actually make it off the island then felt bamboozled when it didn't happen. Everyone knew that if the castaways were rescued, the show would be over.

In an in an interview, I once heard Get Smart's creator Buck Henry describe Maxell Smart as the child of James Bond and Inspector Clouseau. Along with great parodies of popular secret agent movies and TV shows, Get Smart contained some highbrow social and political satire. There was more to the show than pratfalls and quotable catch phrases. Here is an example of the show’s wit. An anti-bomb statement is made in the episode titled Appointment in Sahara. Behind Max and 99 is a mushroom cloud:

Agent 99: Oh, Max what a terrible weapon of destruction.

Max: Yes. You know, China, Russia, and France should outlaw all nuclear weapons. We should insist upon it.

Agent 99: What if they don't, Max?

Max: Then we may have to blast them. That's the only way to keep peace in the world.

It’s funny that the same people who taught me to never judge a book by its cover could easily dismiss these shows as stupid. I can forgive them because the show’s humor may have been lost on that generation. It’s sad that now when someone sees a show that they don’t like because they don’t understand it or it conflicts with their beliefs, they can easily dismiss the shows as stupid. I can’t forgive that type of thinking. It’s not the show that’s stupid.

Stay Tuned

Tony Figueroa

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Buffalo Bill on DVD. (Click PODCAST)

As many of you know I love sitcoms. In the past I’ve talked about the importance of good writing, good acting, taking risks, being edgy, comedy coming from the situation and knowing everything you need to know about the show from it's pilot. I am surprised, almost embarrassed even that I never mentioned Buffalo Bill. This brilliant but sadly short lived sitcom aired from 1983 to 1984 and stared Dabney Coleman as Bill Bittinger, a local talk show host in Buffalo NY.

I remember back in 1983 NBC promoted the show by saying, Buffalo Bill makes "J.R. Ewing look like a Boy Scout" That was enough to make me want to watch the show. The shows opening told you that the title character was a sleazy guy with a good public image. The pilot actually delivered on the network's promise (although I saw Bill more as a white collar Archie Bunker without the moral high ground). Bill was truly the man you loved to hate. The show did not last long, a real shame because I have never met anyone who did not like the show. I used to say that the show was ahead of its time. I've since had to amend that statement because 22 years later that time has still not come.

When I found out that Buffalo Bill was coming out on DVD I went to the store and got the last copy. I had to wait a few weeks to watch the DVD because I was watching the new fall shows, the returning shows and besides I HAVE A LIFE! Both my wife and I have a favorite episode, #13 Titled: Hit the Road, Newdell. In this episode the racist Bill fires Newdell (Charles Robinson) then has a nightmare where he is persecuted by a roomful of African Americans while lip syncing Ray Charles’ Hit the Road Jack. For legal reasons (music rights) the nightmare scene was cut. Why was there not any mention of that on the DVD case? That episode was one of the reasons why I bought the DVD in the first place. I also wish the DVD had some extras like interviews with the shows actors and writers. They must have some great stories. Maybe we will see that on TV Land Confidential.

To quote Bill Bittinger, "Be good to yourself and be good to Buffalo".

Stay Tuned

Tony Figueroa

Thursday, October 06, 2005

I’m The REAL Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio. (Click PODCAST)

Last week I went to see the Go Fish Pictures (DreamWorks) production of The Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio. The movie stars Julianne Moore and Woody Harrelson. It is biased on Terry Ryan's best selling book about how her mother raised ten kids on twenty-five words or less. I really enjoyed the book and thought that Jane Anderson did a nice job adapting the screenplay. I only wish that the movie could have captured the town of Defiance better. In the book the town was it's own character. I fully realize turning a 351-page book into a 90-minute screenplay requires some streamlining.

Now you may ask, "What does this have to do with me or my CHILD OF TELEVISION column?" Well, I lived in Defiance Ohio from 1965-1972 and until recently I would visit the town often. Defiance Ohio is the inspiration for the fictional town of Compliance Ohio in my pilot RED STATE. My childhood memories of Defiance were very romantic it was like Mayberry from The Andy Griffith Show. It was quiet, everybody knew everybody, and kids played safely in the street. The people who lived on my street were like the Nelsons from The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, or the Cleavers from Leave It to Beaver, Defiance was the ideal that television presented to America. When I was small, I was not aware of the many un-Mayberry like elements connected to Defiance. For example, there were other Puerto Ricans and even some blacks living in Defiance when I arrived, but they literally lived on the other side of the train tracks. Since I was half-Swedish, I was allowed to live on the good side.

In my adulthood I saw Defiance make the national news several times. Once when the KKK went to recruit members (unsuccessfully) at the Defiance courthouse. Another news story involved a run-a-way train coming through town. The cops decided to shoot out the tires. Proof alone that we are not dealing with the smartest part of the country. Then there was the Christmas when Santa Claus was physically thrown out of a church by four guys. Santa spent the holidays in traction because some Defiance residents take their religion very seriously. The best restaurant in Defiance is the Defiance Hospital Cafeteria. It has been written up in all the local papers. I never heard my grandparents mention Defiance Hospital in conjunction with quality health care, but it's cafeteria gets 5 stars from the Toledo Blade food critic. I have a friend who did a lot of TV in Puerto Rico. While doing a Google search and typed in his name, Johnny Ray Rodriguez, that another Johnny Ray Rodriguez, is one of thirty or so sexually oriented offenders living in Defiance Ohio. I'd seen news stories about registered sex offenders who would try to move in to a neighborhood only to be run out by the residents. I always wondered where they wound up. Now I know.

"What are they? High?" I asked. Then I remembered something historically significant that my Grandfather told me. During WWII there were huge fields near my grandparents house that the government used to grow hemp to make rope. When the war was over they didn’t do a very good job of clearing the hemp. No wonder hippies would go camping in these fields (maybe that's what attracted Woody Harrelson to the movie). Birds and the wind spread the seeds all over town. For years my grandmother kept pulling these weeds out of her flower box. "What are these things?"

Grandpa knew. After he died I was going through his tool shed and I found this little pipe. He was in constant pain towards the end of his life and hated the care he was getting at Defiance Hospital (probably because he could never get a reservation). Perhaps Grandpa was self-medicating. I think that hemp seeped into the ground water. I see myself as the Real Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio. I got the hell out of that town.

I wish Terry Ryan continued success and have to admit that I have some professional jealousy. I had wanted to be the first to put Defiance, Ohio on the map by making fun of the town. Instead, she has used the town as the backdrop for a very inspirational story. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned in that... Naah!

There is a scene in the movie where Evelyn Ryan (Julianne Moore), while leaving town for the day, passes by a sign that reads, "Defiance is a nice place to live". Evelyn turns to her daughter Tuff (Ellary Porterfield) and says, "Defiance is a nice place to leave!"

Stay Tuned

Tony Figueroa