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?

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Knots Landing season 10

It's a little hard, when looking back at Knots Landing Season 10, to separate fact from fiction. It's famously the season when the ratings increased -- something that simply didn't happen in the late '80s, in the twilight years of the once-formidable primetime soaps. Like most of its soap counterparts, Knots had been shedding viewers for years (its ratings had peaked, fittingly, during its best season, in 1983-84); since 1986, when CBS bumped it up an hour, then, recognizing its error, returned it to 10 PM, it had been eclipsed in its timeslot by NBC's L.A. Law. So the show's ratings rebound, from a 15.8 in Season 9 to a 16.1 in Season 10, was the industry equivalent of a miracle, and it prompted some heady press coverage at the time -- not just from fan magazines like Soap Opera Digest, but from mainstream publications like The Wall Street Journal. Knots Landing had bucked the trend of declining ratings; Season 10 must be one great season, right?

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Classic Doctor Who: in defense of "Attack of the Cybermen"

The sixth of seven neglected or maligned Classic Who serials that I consider worth revisiting, one for each Doctor. The series commences here, with "Terminus," then continues with "The Ark," "Delta and the Bannermen," "Death to the Daleks" and "The Wheel in Space."

Instead of beginning this essay by launching into reasons "Why I Like Attack of the Cybermen," let's indulge in a bit of fan fiction. Recall, if you will, the end of the Fifth Doctor's final serial, "The Caves of Androzani." Having obtained enough serum to counteract the poison that's killing his new companion Peri (and himself), the Doctor tracks her down at Sharaz Jek's lair and carries her back to the TARDIS, where he administers the cure. But he's committed the ultimate sacrifice, as there's not enough left for himself -- and as memories of his former companions and his oldest enemy swirl around in his brain, he expires and regenerates, and in his place, the next Doctor, Colin Baker, rises to announce "change, and not a moment too soon."

Monday, January 15, 2018

Rhoda season 3

Rhoda Season 3 is daring and wonderful and strange. It's arguably the most adult and uncompromising sitcom season of the '70s, and since nothing like it has come along since -- the dissolution of a fairy-tale marriage, told in real time -- it remains one of the most bold and unconventional seasons of any sitcom, period. It's also a bit of a mess. Its aspirations are heady, but they're undermined by self doubts, second thoughts and apparent audience pandering. Beneath the unraveling of Rhoda's marriage is a creative team discovering -- much like Rhoda herself -- that intelligence and conviction only take you so far, and reacting with the same muddled insecurities as their heroine. Season 3 is a world where seemingly everything is falling apart -- before and behind the camera -- but that duality energizes the season as much as it hobbles it, giving it a complexity that's uncommon and startling. It's beautiful chaos: restless and alive in a way sitcoms rarely are.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Baker's Dozen: The Best of 2017

My annual year in review, following overviews of 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016.

I gave up on a whole lot of shows in 2017: Preacher, NCIS: Los Angeles, The Magicians, This Is Us, Ray Donovan, Riverdale. There were bad creative moves that seemed to drag on endlessly, or a string of sub-par episodes that wore me down. Typically, when I do these year-end posts, I start with a quick round-up of the series I watched: the trends I noted, risks I respected and mistakes I lamented. And then I devote the rest of the essay to "the year's best," arranged by genre. But doing that sort of overview of 2017 stumped me. Shows seemed either toweringly good or thumpingly disappointing -- there was so little middle ground -- and I really didn't want to devote multiple paragraphs to series that gave me little pleasure. So I'm revising my format: eliminating the negative, as Johnny Mercer put it, and accentuating the positive.

And so, here are thirteen shows that represent the very best of my TV viewing in 2017. (As always, I do not purport to have watched every series that aired this past year; these are merely the ones I was drawn to, that didn't disappoint.) Some are just getting underway, and show enormous promise; others are nearing the end of their run, and going out in style. All were extraordinarily entertaining.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Knots Landing season 2

Previously, on Knots Landing:

At its best, Knots Landing Season 1 encapsulates a sexual freedom emblematic of its time, and a middle-class malaise specific to its setting. But although the series is steadily improving as it reaches the end of the season, the challenges are clear. Now that you've re-imagined married life in a way that speaks to present-day audiences, once characters have grown comfortable with the flirting and even the cheating, where do you turn for conflict and suspense? And if seemingly nothing is taboo, what's going to stop the characters from acting on every impulse -- and if they do, will you be able to rein them in? The end of Season 1 finds the writers on a dangerous precipice. What's most remarkable is that they don't seem to notice; as they head into Season 2, they seem unaware that -- in a perfect metaphor for a domestic drama about to go serialized -- they are figuratively hanging from a cliff. Will they survive?

Well, they survive, but the patient spends most of the season in a coma. With its parent show Dallas enjoying record-high ratings in the wake of J.R.'s shooting, the Knots writers decide to embrace a similar format: juggling three or four salacious story-lines at a time. But the plots lack credibility and variety, and worse, they make most of the characters look dense or deplorable.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Five Foreign TV Dramas You Shouldn't Miss

The TV landscape felt unusually barren this past summer, as opposed to just a few years ago, when it was bursting with good programming. None of the new summer series won me over, and old favorites -- from high-end dramas (Ray Donovan) to low-rent pot-boilers (Zoo), from sci-fi reliables (Dark Matter) to soapy historicals (Poldark) -- were no longer holding my interest. Little by little, my husband and I found ourselves gravitating towards foreign TV series, particularly when we discovered that we could access the streaming service Walter Presents (which imports some of the best in international programming) through Amazon Instant Video. Below are five foreign dramas unlikely to have crossed your path, but well worth seeking out. I haven't included the more popular, long-running series; you've probably heard of those: Denmark's Norskov and the Netherlands' Black Widow, to name two of the best. These are series that came and went in a season or two, but that gave me as much pleasure as just about anything I watched in 2017. (U.S. audiences can access them via Amazon Instant Video, with a subscription to Walter Presents; in the U.K., they're available On Demand through Channel 4.)

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Knots Landing season 13

By the late '80s, my passion for Knots Landing had become more like an obsession. I wasn't just watching it live and taping it to VCR in case I wanted to have another look (which I invariably did); I was watching it live and taping it to two VCR's, in case one broke down. I couldn't imagine a fate worse than missing an episode of Knots.

Then Season 13 rolled around, and within a few weeks, I stopped taping it to two VCR's. Was it even necessary to tape it to one? I remember being rather shocked at how quickly my devotion faded into disinterest. It's not like Knots hadn't gone through rough spells; I mean, even then, as I looked back at the history of the show, I was able to spot a half-dozen dry patches -- some of them bone dry. But there had never been anything like the first fifteen episodes of Season 13: a perfect storm of mediocrity. New writers, none with soap experience, let alone an understanding of these particular characters -- and an outgoing team who had left them with nothing to work from, merely a set of unpromising cliffhangers and compromised characters.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Classic Doctor Who countdown: the index

In sixteen entries this past summer, I ranked and reviewed all 158 serials from the classic era of Doctor Who, from my least-liked to my most-loved. In case you want to know where a particular serial falls in my countdown, and jump to that review, I offer the following alphabetical index. The links on the numbers will take you right to the reviews.

Abominable Snowmen, The: #10
Ambassadors of Death, The: #9
Android Invasion, The: #58
Androids of Tara, The: #8