Sunday, September 29, 2019

Lost 'Doctor Who': in praise of "The Abominable Snowmen"

When I did my Classic Who countdown in the summer of 2017, I noted that many of my favorite stories remain missing. And I quoted a Whovian who had recently dismissed the lost serials by insisting, "There's no way of knowing what they're really like." Of course there is, I argued. If the surviving audio is engrossing, if the telesnaps and production photographs reveal a credible design, if the director's talents are well-established or the dialogue feels well-played and well-paced (suggesting he had a good grip on the material), then the reconstructions tell you most of what you need to know. Since I started watching Doctor Who, quite a few missing episodes have been unearthed, and not once has a discovery made me radically rethink my impression of a serial. My favorite Cybermen story, my two favorite Dalek stories, and my four favorite historicals are partially or fully missing. Let's pray they're someday recovered, but in the meantime, the lack of video footage doesn't impair my enjoyment. So in that spirit, I thought I’d delve into four of my favorite “lost serials” (four that, to my mind, don’t get the attention that they deserve), starting here.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Crime Pays: The Best of 2018

My annual TV year-in-review, the key difference this year being that the essay is ten months late. But truth be told, when I finished my final Knots Landing essay in July of 2018, I felt perhaps it was time to lay this blog to rest. Maybe I’d said everything I needed to say. I’d written up all fourteen seasons of my favorite series, and the other show that had most inspired me — Doctor Who — had fallen into a creative black hole that rather dampened my desire to discuss it. But recently I was moved to start writing again, and came across a list I had meant to publish last January, of the ten series I’d most enjoyed in 2018. So I’ve written it up. As always, this is not the sort of “best of” list proffered by formal TV critics, who have to watch (and have access to) every quality show they hear about; I never purport to have “watched everything.” These are simply the shows I saw that I loved the most. As always, they’re a pretty eclectic bunch. And happily, since time isn’t a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff, all ten series are still available for streaming, ten months later.

But first, a warning:

Monday, September 16, 2019

My Top-Ten One-Season Wonders (part 4)

The final installment of a four-part series, this latest set constitutes #15-20 of my “top-10” one-season wonders: a numerical oxymoron that only makes sense if you’re counting in the vigesimal numeric system — or if you know my aversion to rules and common sense. As I noted in Part 3, I published my top 10 back in 2016, but so many late, lamented series have since reemerged on YouTube, Daily Motion, DVD and streaming channels that I decided the initial list was worth expanding. So here are my final five series — spanning more than 50 years — that vanished much too quickly.

Love on a Rooftop (1966-67): After he finished story editing the second season of Bewitched, writer Bernard Slade signed a deal with Screen Gems to churn out three pilots every year. A half-dozen went to series — the longest-running was The Partridge Family; the most controversial, Bridget Loves Bernie; the most preposterous, the Sally Field starrer The Girl With Something Extra (the "something extra" was E.S.P.) — but nothing as charming as his very first effort, Love on a Rooftop, with Judy Carne and Peter Duel (then Deuel) as a pair of opposites who fall in love and marry.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Doctor Who: in defense of "The Leisure Hive"

A set of seven underrated Classic Who serials that I consider worth revisiting, one for each Doctor. The series commences with "Terminus," then continues with "The Ark," "Delta and the Bannermen," "Death to the Daleks", "The Wheel in Space" and "Attack of the Cybermen."

The last of my seven “neglected or maligned” Classic Who serials, perhaps “The Leisure Hive” is the least likely entry. When its author David Fisher died in January of 2018, most fans hailed “Androids of Tara” or “Stones of Blood” as their favorite of his Who stories, but I saw quite a few single out “Leisure Hive.” And when the serial’s director Lovett Bickford passed away six months later, there were polls asking folks how they felt about his “Leisure Hive” helming (the serial went wildly overbudget, and Who producer John Nathan-Turner never asked Bickford back), and most thought quite highly of it. So I couldn’t argue that “Leisure Hive” is a maligned serial. But neglected? Yeah, I think so. I suspect if fans were asked to name their favorite Tom Baker stories, “Leisure Hive” wouldn’t make a lot of top-10 lists, but when I did my Classic Who countdown in the summer of 2018, “Leisure Hive” was my sixth favorite Fourth Doctor serial. It’s easily my favorite story of Season 18, and sits comfortably among my top-30 serials in the entire Classic Who canon.

How many fans would say that?

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Knots Landing season 5

Knots Landing Season 4 was a transitional year, in which the tone was heightened and the format broadened, but the story-lines themselves -- Karen's romance with the local DA, Val and Gary's tumultuous divorce, Richard's failed restaurant venture, Kenny's quest for a hit album -- remained as comfortably middle-class as ever. Season 5 serves up the last piece of the puzzle -- the enlarging of the situations -- required to bring the series closer in content to the other, higher-rated primetime soaps. But Knots never loses its identity or its way; on the contrary, the result is the series' most exhilarating and satisfying season.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Doctor Who: the Doctors' best and worst performances

When I published my Classic Who countdown last summer, serving up capsule reviews of all 158 classic serials (from my least-liked to my most-loved), friends asked if I had plans to do the same for NuWho. "God, no," I responded -- but I did want to start branching into more NuWho essays, or at least essays that embrace the entire history of the series, from 1963 to the present. And I knew where I wanted to start: with the actors who've played the Doctor, and taking a hard look at their best and worst performances in the role -- the times when they especially shined, and the times when they notably did not. The truth is, Doctor Who has, by and large, been blessed with such extraordinary actors in the title role that it's easy to take their work for granted -- to presume their performances are uniformly strong, and not focus in on the highs and the lows. But actors, like the rest of us, have good days and bad days, and in the case of Doctor Who, there are all kinds of factors that can contribute to the quality of a performance -- just as there are all kinds of criteria I have for judging them. So below, the eleven actors who've essayed the title role (excluding the Eighth Doctor, who had only one full-length appearance), and what I'd consider their best and worst performances -- and why. (In the paragraphs below, I've bolded the stories that contain their best and worst work, but I vary the order in which I present them. Sometimes, I list the good before the bad, sometimes vice versa; if you only look at the titles bolded, you might be surprised, when you ultimately read the text, to discover which is which.)

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Knots Landing season 12

The first half of Knots Landing Season 12 is a shot of pure adrenaline. The rest is what happens once the rush wears off.

In my essay on Season 10, I noted that Lechowick and Latham -- the series' longest serving, but most erratic headwriters -- never seemed to be able to sustain excellence for more than twenty episodes at a time. Season 9 starts strong, as the show gets back to basics after a couple of unrecognizable years -- then the mobsters move in, and the younger cast members migrate to Santa Tecla, and things start to fall apart. Season 10 extends the Jill-Val story-line for nineteen impressive episodes -- quite a feat -- but then we get Mack and Paula, and Sally's friend, and a few other misfires that threaten to drag the season down. And finally there's the team's last gasp of greatness, a string of 22 episodes cutting across two seasons. It begins when former story editor Dianne Messina returns to the fold twenty episodes into Season 11 to carry out a late-season overhaul alongside Lechowick, Latham and (her eventual husband) James Stanley. The foursome manage a successful course correction, and their energy and creativity continue a dozen episodes into Season 12. And then -- as ever -- it all goes to pot: this time not because of a lack of ideas, but because of a distressing lack of attention from the four writers, who were consumed with readying their new ABC period soap Homefront.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

My Top-Ten One-Season Wonders (part 3)

I first published My Top-Ten One-Season Wonders in the spring of 2016; they ranged from an '80s soap to a '90s sitcom, from a vampire drama to a whodunnit to a romcom masquerading as a sci-fi caper. I noted at the time that there were quite a few other short-lived series that I remembered fondly from my 50 years of TV viewing, but that I simply couldn't find enough extant episodes -- and unless I was able to watch at least half the episodes filmed, I didn't feel right about including the series among my top 10. (I didn't want to be relying mostly on my memory.) Remarkably, in the two years since I published that entry, nearly a dozen shows that I'd thought about including but didn't -- because episodes weren't available for re-viewing -- have reemerged: via DVD, YouTube, Daily Motion or private collectors. So although I'm still calling this post My Top-Ten One-Season Wonders, because it sounds nice, I'm extending the number of entries from 10 to 20 -- the kind of numerical nonsense you get to indulge in when you have your own blog.

Below, #11-#15 in My Top-Ten One-Season Wonders: five more shows that I adore, that it's been a delight to revisit recently, as they've reemerged from the celluloid void.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Bewitched season 2

For many of us who grew up in the '60s, Bewitched was a fascination bordering on an obsession. For years after it went off the air, if I was sick with a cold or flu and getting out of bed was a struggle, I would wave my arm to see if I could get the book across the room to fly over to me. I believe that's Einstein's definition of insanity.

The effect of Bewitched on pop-culture sensibilities can't be overstated; when it premiered in September, 1964, it quickly became ABC's biggest hit series to date. I'd be remiss, in discussing the series, if I didn't start by singling out writer-producer Danny Arnold, who (Sol Saks' onscreen credit to the contrary) pretty much created Bewitched and masterminded its first season. Arnold viewed Bewitched as a romantic comedy (its antecedents were clearly the screwballs of the '30s) about a man and a woman from different backgrounds: a "mixed marriage," as it were. He was Darrin Stephens, an up-and-coming advertising executive; she was Samantha -- and she was a witch. Fantasy sitcoms ruled the airwaves in the '60s, but Bewitched, as originally conceived, was no Mister Ed or The Flying Nun-type kiddie show. The witchcraft was used sparingly; mostly it allowed Arnold to imbue a familiar premise (the trials of a young married couple) with fresh details.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

The 10 Best "Murder, She Wrote" Mysteries

This is a post I've been wanting to do for a while, as a fan of Murder, She Wrote for all twelve seasons. In my write-up of Cold Case Season 4, I noted my love of classic detective novels; I included the short-lived TV series Ellery Queen in My Top-Ten One-Season Wonders because, despite any reservations I had about the production design and acting style, the mysteries were mostly top-notch. So I thought I'd take a look at Murder, She Wrote and figure out which were the best fair-play whodunnits. Not (necessarily) the best episodes -- the strongest showcases for Angela Lansbury, or the scripts that allowed for the most star-studded casts, or even the episodes that were most engaging in their own right -- but the ones that best upheld the Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction as put forth by Ronald Knox in 1929. Mysteries where clues are dropped regularly (although frequently in such a clever manner that the untrained eye might miss or misinterpret them), permitting the sharp reader (or in this case, viewer) to potentially solve the crime ahead of the detective. And although I'm focusing on the puzzle design, I'm also considering its execution -- in particular, how well the characters are delineated and portrayed; after all, if the blueprint is impressive, but it's never properly fleshed out and brought to life, how engrossing is the mystery going to be?