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?

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

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.