Monday, August 12, 2013

"The Jimmy Stewart Show" on Warner Instant

I have been binge-wat--uh, seeing a lot of a certain TV show lately. It has a prominent name, many well-known faces, it hasn't been seen in years, and it is currently only available via online streaming.

That show of course is..."the Jimmy Stewart Show!"

Bet I threw a few of you there, huh? I was excited about the return of "Arrested Development," but I was more enthused to discover Warner Instant Archive had all 24 episodes of "The Jimmy Stewart Show" available for viewing. In fact, it's what made me go ahead and sign up for the free trial...and partly what made me PAY for the blamed service after those two weeks.

One of my favorite TV reference books is "Harry and Wally's Favorite TV Shows," a fun book loaded with capsule reviews of just about everything that aired up until the book's publication. But the guys, hamstrung by their format, sometimes really drop the ball. Their entry on this series begins:

"Hollywood film star Jimmy Stewart is wasted in this mundane sitcom. Stewart plays James Howard, a college anthropology professor who learns some new facts about life when he allows his married son to 'temporarily' move back home, along with a wife and child. this doubling of the Howard household population results in TV sitcom mayhem."

OK,. well, most of that is true enough, though it neglects to mention that Stewart "allows" his son to move back in after he burns down his son's house by falling asleep with a cigar, which puts things in a different light and gives the whole thing a little more tension and meaning. Plus Stewart already has a much younger son living with him and his wife, meaning the two 8-year-olds in the house are uncle and nephew.

So, really, the book's capsule is pretty skimpy. I mean, come on, it's Jimmy Stewart! In a sitcom! Don't you want to know more about this show? I sure did. Like the basic fact that it's shot single camera and not before a live studio audience. There is no laugh track. The book does tell us that it's in color and that it appeared in the 1971 fall season. It's set in California.

You can tell by the fact that I kept watching episodes after the trial ended that I either like the series or am a masochist. Well, the fact is I do enjoy it, and it grows on me with each installment. But before I get to its good points, let me list some of the factors that might make you wary of the whole endeavor. You see, the series is loaded with *WHIMSY*. When done wrong, whimsy can be pretty overbearing, and here are some factors that threaten to make the series insufferable:

*Stewart, as himself, introduces each episode and frequently addresses the camera.
*He also closes each episode in character by saying he and his family wish you "love, peace, and laughter."
*The opening credit sequence shows Stewart's character riding a bicycle home..
*That same open features a whimsical-sounding instrumental theme.
*The credits list the names of the cast and close with not an "And..." credit but a "And quite often John McGiver as Dr. Luther Quince."
*Stewart's character insists on wearing a cowboy hat to work, an angle that is pushed pretty heavily at first, likely to establish his uniqueness.
*Stewart plays the accordion. Not only that, he gives lessons to his nephew.

OK, if I had read all of that in a book, I might have seen an episode out of curiosity (I mean, come on, it's Jimmy Stewart! In a sitcom!), but I would have had low expectations. Yet despite the sometimes strained efforts to bring that whimsy, I find this gentle sitcom quite digestible. Let me discusssome of the stronger aspects of the show, ones that either refute or hold in check the whimsy:

Stewart's direct address gimmick is often fairly effective. It is often used to just let Stewart be Stewart, but it's sometimes pretty amusing in its own right. And I notice its use diminishes as the series progresses. Besides, Stewart IS Stewart, and he's always fun to watch, so it would be hard for me to say he's "wasted" here. I for one welcome the chance to see the kindly but wry everyman version of Stewart do a sitcom-style comedy take every now and then. Sometimes other characters comment on it, asking him if he's talking to them or telling another character, "He's talking to himself again."

There's also this somewhat troubling yet also somewhat fascinating aspect of the James Howard family: He's married to Julie Adams, who is in her mid-40s during production but still looks foxy as all get out. I assumed at first that she was Howard's second wife, but, no, he apparently had both sons with her and  had the second later in life. At least once he mentions having been married 30 years to her. In fact, at the time of production, Stewart is nearly 20 years older, and, boy, he looks it.

This creates an interesting dichotomy: On one hand, you get odd situations like the writers apparently trying to age Adams by calling her character "Martha" and, in one episode, lametning that she cant do the things she used to. Yet on the other hand, she says that right after the camera shows her bent over in a hot yoga pose, proving that, yeah, she's still got it. Then again, you kind of don't want her to show it off because she's married to Jimmy Stewart. So when she shows him a bathing suit she bought for him and he makes a comment about why would he need a bathing suit and she tells him she thought he would appreciate seeing her in it, you're pretty much thinking...Ewww.

There is a veteran team of talent assembling ths, led by Hal Kanter, who created the series and also writes and directs many episodes.The supporting cast is led by Adams and McGiver, who is supposed to be a shade curmudgeonly but really comes across as so likable that it's hard to picture his supposed Nobel-winning chemistry prof is anything but a big teddy bear. Really you kind of feel sorry for the guy. He hangs out at the family's house virtually every night, sponging off them for dinner and then posing for portrait painting by Martha, often while playing chess with James. When the girls in the house try to fix him up, Luther is enraged by their meddling with his confirmed bachelorhood. About a handful of episodes later, the show changes its mind and lets Luther fall in love, which is either a sign of how effective the character is and how committed the show is to him...or a sign of how hard it was to come up with original plot ideas. Another notable thing is that Luther often makes frequent "joking but not really" references to how he wishes Martha were his. I keep waiting for the episode in which Luther poisons everyone at the dinner table but he and Martha in a misguided attempt to take her away.

Stewart's son P.J. is the uptight conservative who contrasts with his father's casual, liberal persona. As played by Jonathan Daly, the character never gains much traction. His most distinctive feature is his speech pattern, which makes him seem like he's sputtering each line. Somehow this links him a little to Stewart's famous halting (although not so much on this show) speech pattern. P.J.'s wife Wendy is played by Ellen Geer and has a rather odd air about her as well. There is something slightly off kilter about this couple, though perhaps much of it comes from the sometimes corny dialogue. As for the kids--well, they're kids, and they're adequate. The gimmick of one being the other's uncle is emphasized less often as the series rolls on.

Speaking of the ongoing continuity, halfway through the run of 23 episodes presented here (one of the 24 episodes is skipped for some reason--yes, there's a LOST EPISODE of "The Jimmy Stewart Show"), we get a couple of apparent flashback episodes. Stewart resets the premise for everyone as a way to explain why we're covering ground that has already been covered. Apparently the programs were broadcast out of production order, and  I can see why; at least one of those midseason reset episodes is one of the weakest of the lot and was probably delayed for artistic reasons.

The situations are fairly standard here: One of the kids struggles with self-esteem, PJ disagrees with his father politically, a comely student propositions James...There are lessons learned, and it's all very pleasant. The "edgiest" episode I've seen so far features Jimmy's struggle to get a bathroom in the morning. It's not exactly Archie Bunker flushing the john to uproarious laughter, but, hey, it is bathroom humor.

The guest stars are mostly more of the Herbert Anderson and Pat Buttram variety than the superstar variety, and I suppose it was a bit of a coup to get Regis Philbin (who plays a late night talk show host in a funny episode), though later in the run you get Ruth Hussey and Vincent Price as himself. But Vincent Price guested on everything in the 1970s, didn't he? The bottom line is, why do you need guest stars? It's Jimmy Stewart! In a sitcom!

Call it nostalgia for an era before my time, call it my love of the novelty of it, call it my desire to justify the $10 a month for Warner Instant, but I LIKE this series. The writing is often a tad too precious, and the whimsy does threaten to overwhelm the entire experience, but it's difficult not to at least smile at the results. Of course there's always the joy of watching the great Jimmy Stewart. It's rarities like this that make Warner Archive Instant such a potentially interesting proposition.

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