Saturday, December 9, 2017

Streaming Video Power Rankings #90

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas...in that I take a look outside and think, "Ehh, it's cold out there. Might as well stay in and watch some TV."

1) Acorn TV: Farewell, season 3 of Count Arthur Strong, and farewell, Acorn, for now. Nothing personal--as I have been saying the last few weeks, you offer an admirably hassle-free experience--but I have too much other stuff to watch right now. I did just discover another new find here, though: Grandma's House, a sitcom set entirely in...take a guess. So I look forward to catching up on that these next several days.

But, hey, would it kill you to bring back Drop the Dead Donkey? Hundreds of streaming services, and not one of them has it.

2) Netflix: I suppose many of you are excited about Guardians of the Galaxy and The Crown, but this was a slow week for Netflix. Hey, what's this original Christmas movie with Tim Allen and Jessica Alba? Anyway, in this household, the story is still Backstage, which has hooked my kids. Oh, I may have actually become semi-interested in what would happen next in one of the storylines the other day. Maybe.

3) Amazon Prime: Not saying I didn't enjoy watching the original Pardon My Blooper, but, man, it feels like 90% of it is staged/recreated/outright fake. The Marvelous Mrs. SomenamethatstartswithM is getting some buzz, and I may check that out soon. Silence is a movie that I should want to see because it's Martin Scorcese, but just between you and me, my eyes kind of glazed over when I read it was 161 minutes and remembered that it was about Jesuit missionaries. Hey, at least I admitted it.

The original Point Break just showed up, too, for no apparent reason. While I'm making confessions, I don't think I have ever seen the whole thing unedited and straight through.

4) YouTube: Time to get into the season with some vintage Christmas commercials and toy ads. But first, since I missed the Steelers game Monday night, I am going to get the holiday spirit by watching this upload of a 1980 Steelers/Packers game called by Pat Summerall and Tom Brookshire. Just go with it.

5) Hulu: I didn't actually get to watch any Hulu this week, but it debuted the second season of Shut-Eye, I think much to everyone's surprise, and solidified its status as the unofficial home of Marvel Comics TV on streaming by adding season 1 of FX's Legion.

6) Days of Dumont: Credit to this channel for adding a few shows in the last few weeks. I enjoyed Shadow Stompers, but forgive me for not managing to make it to The John Hopkins Science Review just yet.

7) Best Christmas Channel Ever 2017: A 100% free Roku channel that apparently has a pretty high opinion of itself. I don't think there's much here you can't find on YouTube, but it's nice to have stuff like old Perry Como specials and Captain Gallant in one place. I also give bonus points for the elimination of the charming but aggravating forced opening the channel had last year.

8) Warner Archive Instant: No updates in months, no Tweets since October 22. Is anyone home here? Well, I still rank them because they made possible a future episode of Battle of the Network Shows.

9) The Roku Channel: I remain fascinated by this official Roku joint which poaches content from many free channels and offers them under one roof. Is this a good thing for those other channels? For example. it has some of the content from #7 on this list--you can tell by the packaging of the thumbnails--but it's not initially clear that's the case. A friend just passed along some nice praise for this one, though, so it is gaining momentum. That's probably not a surprise considering Roku can push it in its channel store and give it plenty of publicity on its home screen.

Bottom line: There's a lot of free content here, and it's easy to use. Maybe eventually they will add some kind of watchlist and make it even better.

10) MLB.TV: Just because the Hot Stove talk makes me anxious for the 2018 season.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Brooks on Books: The Platinum Age of Television by David Bianculli

Longtime TV critic (NPR's Fresh Air, TVWorthWatching.com, previously newspapers like the Philadelphia Inquirer and New York Daily News) David Bianculli aims to tell the story of, as his subtitle puts it, "TV became terrific." His approach is to focus on the "evolution" of quality television, choosing 5 or 6 examples that represent a given genre and attempting to connect them to show how they helped advance the medium. Some connections are looser than others, but he weaves in frequent references to other programs and comments from TV talent (especially producers) to support his focus on evolutionary progress.

For example, a chapter on medical shows moves from Dr, Kildare to St. Elsewhere to ER to House to Grey's Anatomy. It also mentions Medical Center, Medic, and Scrubs, among others. One of the interesting categories is "Splitcoms," used to describe comedies that split time between the workplace and domestic life (He includes shows like The Andy Griffith Show and Seinfeld here).

I would suggest that you don't get too hung up on the gimmick, though it works pretty well and offers an interesting framework for the book. The enjoyment here is just reading about so many great TV shows. There is a lot of history, though due to the broadness of the content covered, it's hard to get too much in depth on any particular program. You get some great details about the origins of the best shows on TV, and there are also short chapters profiling notable creators like David Simon, Matt Groening, Vince Gilligan, and many others. Hardcore TV fans and historians may find a lot of the information familiar, but Bianculli is such a skilled writer that it's a pleasure to read the way he arranges all of it.

He adds a personal touch to many of the chapters. For example, he builds his interview with Louis C.K. around the revelation that the comedian's reaction to the critic's harsh assessment of HBO's Lucky Louie was an essential ingredient to the creation of FX's Louie. Well, that's what Louis himself says, anyway. Bianculli relates other anecdotes, both from his personal life of watching television and his professional life of covering it.

He keeps most of the focus on the work itself, though, and it's hard to argue with his choices. He doesn't give every great show its own little section, but he makes so many references to so many different programs that it's hard to think of too much that is left out. I personally would give more credit to Get a Life than just a casual mention in the Judd Apatow profile, but it WAS a low-rated sitcom. Bianculli concedes that some readers will wish there were evolutionary chapters devoted to game shows, anthologies, and TV movies, among others, but says TV is just too broad to cover everything, and I don't fault him for not attempting to include everything.

Some of the chapter organization seems a bit odd at first--for example, the author combines fantasy/sci-fi/horror in one broad section--but he does a good job explaining all of his decisions, though it does seem like the chapters get shorter as the book progresses, almost as if it were running a bit low on steam.

Game of Thrones gets what feels like a cursory mention despite the acknowledgement of its popularity and growing influence. I also question the amount of ink devoted to Larry Wilmore, who is talented but not yet as influential as many of the others profiled in their own chapters.

Overall, though, Platinum Age is a great read that delivers well over 500 pages of intelligent but not academic writing about quality television. It's a delight to see the emphasis on older shows, too, and not just modern work like Mad Men. Bianculli identifies The Sopranos as the true launching point of the modern "platinum age" of excellence, but he gives equal time to the likes of Hill Street Blues, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and Your Show of Shows.

This book will spark interest in digging up all kinds of new-to-the-reader programs or maybe just rewatching familiar ones. Bianculli does a fine job of telling the history of television--specifically, quality television--through the evolution of its programming. It's a fresh approach that pays off in this compelling and entertaining read.

Monday, December 4, 2017

'Mooners Monday #35: Potpourri

Just a few items this week:

ITEM: I have heard very little about the Time Life Jackie Gleason Show DVD collection lately, and I never did run into that half-hour infomercial. I am starting to think terrible things will happen to me in another life, if not this one, for making an open declaration that I wanted to see an infomercial.

I don't have a great feeling about how this set is selling, but I sure hope I'm wrong. I mean, sure, I didn't buy it, but the rest of you lot, please go ahead and buy a bunch of copies so that maybe we can get the black-and-white episodes. Thanks!

ITEM: WPIX New York continues to show love to The Honeymooners, with a recent Thanksgiving mini-marathon. It also confirmed it will be running its annual New Year's Eve marathon. As one of the many, many individuals who grew up watching the show on WPIX, I'm glad to see that the channel will never give up on the show.

ITEM: Amazon Prime has the Lost Episodes, divided into 4 "seasons" for member viewing. This is a recent development, and at first I thought it was an assortment of episodes, but it looks like it is pretty much the entire MPI box set on there. Of course this is one of the best things on Prime Video, which has an apparent streaming agreement with MPI that makes oddities like Phyllis Diller: Not Just Another Pretty Face available.

ITEM: Finally, some kind (as opposed to poor) soul uploaded one of the Art Carney Special episodes to YouTube--an even better deal than Amazon Prime, being free and all.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Streaming Video Power Rankings #90:

1) Acorn TV: I am loving Acorn this month. I may have shed a few manly tears while watching 800 Words, and my decision now is: stick to my plan to only get Acorn for a month or plow on to the second season, which has 16 episodes? I am also laughing out loud at Men Behaving Badly, so I have plenty to enjoy, and the service is easier to use than ever. However, I may not renew because...

2) Amazon Prime Video: Shiny New Toy Syndrome: I just got Prime for a month for the holidays, and I am enjoying an exploration of the weird stuff on there, like the Pat Paulsen Comedy Half-Hour, an  vintage Don Knotts comedy special, and something else that really deserves its own post, even if it's a brief one.

Why should I watch award-winning excusive movies and original TV series when I can see Popeye and Son?

3) Netflix: Man, GLOW is really entertaining. Why did I not watch that when it premiered? The real story lately, though, is my daughter's addiction to Canadian teen drama Backstage. It's an engrossing show thankfully lacking in the "social relevance" of Degrassi.

4) Hulu: Got a bunch of new movies for December, many of them the same old, same old. Why do they even bother cycling those Bond movies and Rocky flicks so many times? For me, though, the big story was me finally beginning the current season of Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

5) Shout! Factory TV: I watched a few more episodes of Starcade, and two remarkable things happened: 1) No commercials! It was glorious, I tells ya. 2) After asking a young contestant what his hobbies were, host Geoff Edwards replied, "Girls and Dungeons and Dragons? Sounds pretty kinky to me."

6) The CW: I failed in my attempt to catch up on "my stories" before the Crisis on Earth-X crossover, but I like that the CW app has everything assembled in one place.

7) Walter Presents: I just love the stones of some guy "in the industry" who creates a SVOD service devoted to curated international TV and names it AFTER HIMSELF. I don't know anyone who even knows this exists, but Walter adds a few shows each month, so give him some credit.

8) BritBox: Mainly here because of their "Britmas" thing in which they are gonna roll out a ton of holiday programming this month. I'm a sucker for timely content adds like that.

9) YouTube: A slow week, but I can't drop it out of the top 10 after being able to come home and watch 4 different versions of "Underneath the Tree" by Kelly Clarkson after the kids and I heard it on the radio.

10) CBS All Access: No, I still don't have it, but it is doing well, it had a free month promotion for Black Friday, and a friend of mine told me the new Trek show was pretty good. I don't think the comedy No Activity is gaining any traction, but all that counts for something. Does anyone else think that Victoria's Secret show was probably the single most streamed item on there all year?

Friday, December 1, 2017

More on "Mr. Novak": An interview with author Chuck Harter.

Please see yesterday's post for my review of the new book about the 1963-1965 TV  series Mr. Novak. THe author, Chuck Harter, was kind enough to answer some questions and share even more insight on his work and on the TV series. Please enjoy, and I highly recommend you hit the links below to check out the book.
 
 
RICK: Thanks for taking the time to talk a bit about your excellent new book, Mr.  Novak: An Acclaimed Television Series. As a classic TV lover and someone who appreciates efforts to preserve and explore the history of the medium, I feel like I need to thank you and your publisher, Bear Manor Media, just for producing a comprehensive account of an underseen gem like Mr. Novak.

You do touch on this in the book, but could you briefly explain what motivated you to not just seek out the show, but to research and write about it?
 
CHUCK:       On behalf of myself and Ben Ohmart (Publisher) of bearmanormedia.com, your thanks for our efforts are very much appreciated.

My interest in pursuing a book project on the Mr. Novak series began with a viewing of a couple of episodes some three years ago. I was so impressed with the excellence of the scripting, acting, directing and production that I wished to purchase a book to find out more about this amazing program that had somehow slipped through the cracks and been largely forgotten. As I viewed additional episodes, I was pleased to see the high level of creativity and presentation maintained which motivated me to expend maximum effort to create a book as good as the series. Another factor was the enthusiasm and generosity of virtually everyone that I was able to contact who were either a part of the program or were fans. The result of my efforts has been a 100% positive reaction to the book which is very gratifying.



RICK: It seems to me that today, the combination of critical acclaim and (I assume from the significant anecdotal evidence in your book) the desirable young demographics of Mr. Novak would give it a better chance to stick around for more than a few years. You point to several different factors to its early demise. Do you think one single decision/factor could have made the show a bigger success, and if so, what?

CHUCK: The one single factor that would have enabled the Mr. Novak series to continue for several more years than it did would have been a different day’s time slot. In the days before vcrs, people were unable to tape a show for later viewing and many homes had a single television.  There have been several cases in the history of TV where a superior show was broadcast opposite an extremely popular series that achieved higher ratings. The result was eventual cancellation despite , in many cases, critical acclaim. The Tuesday 7:30 p.m. time slot for Mr. Novak was ideal but unfortunately it was broadcast opposite  the very popular Combat, which consistently won the Nielsen ratings. If Mr. Novak had aired against programming that wasn’t quite as strong it would have undoubtedly won its time slot and could have continued. It was a case of a cerebral dramatic show versus an action series. The quality of Mr. Novak’s presentation does hold up remarkably well for the two seasons that it did air.



RICK:  One of the fascinating threads you weave into the account of the series' history is the love/hate attitude of the fan magazines toward star James Franciscus. You provide plenty of information contradicting the chatter during the show's run about friction between stars James Franciscus and Dean Jagger, and you indicate that much of it was probably fabricated. How much credence do you give to those rumors? It seems like there was a lot of smoke there.

CHUCK:     James Franciscus did not like the TV and movie fan magazines that published salacious and gossip styled stories about him and his family. He was quite vocal about his distaste for this type of fabricated publicity. His lack of cooperation with these publications twice won him a Sour Apple Award and the writers and editors of the fan magazines were out to discredit him. They not only fabricated a feud between the actor  and Dean Jagger but also published several stories about a feud with Dick Chamberlain. In the case of the stars of Mr. Novak, there was no feud. They were working professionals who were cordial with each other and had a mutual respect. Mr. Novak was a dialogue based show and both actors prided themselves on being letter perfect in their scenes. They wouldn’t socialize  together after scenes were shot because they were running lines in their respective dressing rooms. Franciscus and Chamberlian  also respected each other but moved in different social circles since Jim was married and Dick was a bachelor. While they both filmed their respective series at the MGM studio, the days were long and arduous and they might only briefly exchange pleasantries at lunch in the commissary.
 
 
RICK:  Again, you do get into this in your book, but what do you think ultimately doomed the series to such a brief run? Creative changes? Timeslot difficulty? Is there any single reason that such a quality show fell into the "went too soon" category?
 

CHUCK: I believe there were two main reasons the show was doomed to a brief run. The first was the loss of series’ leads Jeanne Bal and Dean Jagger. An audience identifies with the stars of any program and when there is a departure, it can weaken the viewer’s interest. If they had both stayed, it might have been a different situation of survival. The other reason occurred when series’ creator and executive producer E. Jack Neuman stepped down from a hand’s on approach in the second season. He understood his own concepts of the show and when these were followed, the program was critically acclaimed. When Leonard Freeman became the producer of the second season, he had a different idea of what the series should be. I’m sure he was motivated by the suits since there was a justifiable concern about the lesser ratings situation. The unfortunate result was that there was less emphasis on school life and the involvement of the other teachers. With that said, there are many great episodes in the second season. When Burgess Meredith, replaced Dean Jagger in the middle of the second season, it took some episodes for him to get a grip on his character as the new principal. He was really becoming a major part of the show when it ended. Had there been a third season, I think he would have had as good an impact on the audience as Dean Jagger did.
 
 
RICK: Many of Mr. Novak's key figures had passed away well before you started the book. If you had a chance today to ask something of any of them--whether it be Franciscus, Jagger, or creator E. Jack Neuman--what would it be?
 
 
CHUCK: Three questions for three members of the Mr. Novak family.
 
 
 
 1.       James Franciscus – I would have liked to have asked him about his writing of the columns for ‘TEEN magazine in which he gave constructive advice for his youthful followers. Apparently he took the writing seriously and was pleased that they were well received. He wanted to use his stardom to help his viewing audience which was a very admirable thing to do. I would also have liked to question him about his willingness to cooperate with the teen mags as opposed to his refusal to cooperate with the fan magazines and finally what he really felt about being such a positive influence on the educational community.
           
2.       Dean Jagger – I would have liked to have asked him about his positive influence on the educational communities and how he felt about made a member for life by the  National Association of Secondary School Principals. I would also have liked to ask him about his effective underplaying as Principal Vane. He often would mutter seemingly throwaway lines that would be dramatically effective. Many of his best scenes as Principal Vane are underplayed and are still emotionally moving in the current day.
 
 
3.       E. Jack Neuman – I would have liked to have asked him about his feelings regarding the many awards that the series won . Since this was his vision and creation, this must have been tremendously gratifying for him as a creative artist. I would also liked to have asked him about his views on the portrayals of his leads by Franciscus and Jagger and how he felt about seeing the shows all these years later and how well they stand up.
 
RICK: Do you have any other projects on the horizon you'd like to mention? It looks like you are busy with music and other endeavors, but would you consider giving any other classic TV shows a similar treatment?
 
 
CHUCK:  I am considering another possible book project on a short lived TV series from 1961. I do need to ascertain if there is enough material to justify a modest book on the show so I’ll  keep that close to my vest at this time. I’ll just say that if it does proceed, I’ll expend the same energy and perseverance that I did on the Mr. Novak project. I also plan to return to musical performance and perhaps do some recording.
Please note that the book is available in hardback, paperback and Ebook editions. They can be ordered from amazon.com and bearmanormeadia.com   The book’s website is https://mrnovakbook.com/

 

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Brooks on Books: "Mr. Novak: An Acclaimed Television Series" by Chuck Harter

These days, I am thankful for any appreciation of the history of classic television, let alone a book-length analysis of an unheralded gem. So while I was provided a review copy of Mr. Novak: An Acclaimed Series, any predisposition I have to view it favorably is due to...well, just due to its existence. Fortunately, author Chuck Harter excels at telling the story of one of TV's forgotten classics, supplementing a thorough and engaging history of its production with an episode guide and a host of appendices. The result is a must-read for those with fond memories of Mr. Novak and an irresistible package even for television fans who have never seen the series.

 
 I suspect there are many in that category. Mr. Novak ran from 1963 to 1965 on NBC Sunday nights at 7:30.  As the titular rookie high school English teacher, James Franciscus won over many younger viewers l with his charm and good looks, but the show was far more ambitious than just a vehicle for creating a teen idol. Principal Albert Vane (Dean Jagger) was an integral part of the premise, with his wise authority figure offering a distinct counterpart to the fresh-faced newbie.




Creator E. Jack Neuman was determined to create a realistic and relevant drama about the world of secondary education. As Harter relates, a host of awards and acclaim from scholastic organizations indicate he succeeded. Similarly, the show drew kudos from most critics. Ultimately, a variety of factors--creative and cast changes, timeslot competition, and others--held Novak to only two seasons, which is a shame.


The series has had a limited afterlife, with its highest-profile run a stint as late-night/early-morning programming and filler in the early days of TNT. Scuttlebutt has it that Warner Archive will finally release Novak in 2018; I'd love to see it on Warner Instant before then, but if not, I'll be tempted to pre-order  as soon as it's announced. The handful of episodes I've seen back up Harter's assertion of the series' quality. As a big fan of Dr. Kildare, many episodes of which were written by Neuman and which features a similar mentor/pupil dynamic between Raymond Massey and Richard Chamberlain (to whom the media often compared Franciscus), my wheelhouse has plenty of room for a thoughtful "social issues" drama like this one, and I can't wait for more.




Harter begins the text by talking about just how he got hooked on the series and why he went to Bear Manor with this project. Then he gets right into the history of the show itself, explaining Neuman's ambitions and how he put the project together. Most every major detail of Novak's creation is recounted in detail, and Harter's impressive research is evident.

Though most of the show's  principals had passed away years earlier, Harter spoke with many key figures, such as Franciscus' widow, production personnel like director Richard Donner (who contributes an introduction) and guest stars like Martin Landau and Walter Koenig (who write the foreword and afterword, respectively--Landau died not long after his contribution). He makes excellent use of earlier interviews publications such as The  TV Collector conducted with the likes of Franciscus and Neuman.


Alexander Scourby and Sherry Jackson in one standout episode

In addition to those valuable first-person accounts, Mr. Novak: An Acclaimed Television Series benefits from the vast array of contemporary articles and reviews Harter has gathered. Newspapers, teen magazines, and other sources give valuable context and a sense of time and place for a series that aired over 50 years ago.

However, the book isn't just a triumph of research; Harter's writing is crisp and effective, and he makes the saga of the short-lived series a compelling one. There is an air of regret throughout the book, though, as many of Novak's staff, fans, and the author himself lament what feels like a missed opportunity. The show "should have" lasted longer. Neuman turned his attention away to other projects in season two, and more of a "suit" type came in to oversee production. Leonard Freeman was more concerned with budget issues and other matters compared to the intense attention to verisimilitude preached by Neuman. Jagger, suffering from health issues, left the series, and replacement Burgess Meredith didn't get enough time to fully click.



Harter traces all these developments and interjects some opinions where appropriate, and he offers letter grades and capsule reviews for each installment in the episode guide after the main text. Yet he keeps the focus on the series itself along with its principles, offering insight in a balanced manner.

Novak won a Peabody award and was critically respected, but it was also beloved by its loyal audience, and I think it's important to note that it is a fun show to watch. It has a sense of humor even as it discusses serious topics like alcoholism, the death of a teacher on school grounds, and even less melodramatic issues like the difficulty students can have in choosing a vocation. Similarly, Harter gives you all the facts and then some, but his chronological telling of the series' tale is easy to follow and a pleasurable read.

Robert Culp is excellent in an episode that also features Harry Townes, Tony Dow, and Johnny Crawford

The book is loaded with vintage photographs, advertisements, and production ephemera. An essay from Neuman to potential writers, something like what would be called a "series bible" today, is fascinating. My favorite of the extra material is the rules and description of the 1963 Mr. Novak board game!

Mr. Novak: An Acclaimed Television Series is a triumph that does justice to its excellent subject. I think the only negative I can give is that I am now frustrated I am unable to see all of Mr. Novak. Here's hoping Warner Archive does indeed release the show soon. In the meantime, classic TV lovers can tide themselves over with Chuck Harter's excellent comprehensive guide to the show.

(Come back tomorrow for an email interview  I conducted with the author, who was kind enough to answer some of my questions on his passion for the series, why it only lasted two seasons, the fake "feud" between the two stars, and more!)