Saturday, December 30, 2017

Streaming Video Power Rankings Week 93

Welcome to...the end of 2017. 2018 is next week. I am already making resolutions, though. I resolve to not title a post "Straming" Video Power Rankings like I did last week.

1) PIX11: I have a simple rule here: You add 5 vintage clips related to The Honeymooners, you get strong consideration in the rankings. And WPIX isn't streaming its NY Eve 'Mooners marathon, but it is having one, and that's more than I can say for 99% of the country.

2) Netflix: I get a kick out of the fake-out countdown clips Netflix makes for parents to trick tykes who want to stay up to see 2018. Maybe they can make videos that try to trick us into not noticing our rates are going up soon. Wait. Maybe they are...

Black Mirror and Bill Nye are getting the headlines this week, but I am still enjoying playing catch-up on some of the other originals. Also, it's great to catch The Dick Van Dyke Show on here to pay tribute to Rose Marie (though we should all own the excellent DVD set).

3) Hulu: I really want to see Gilbert, which premieres this weekend, and I think Hulu had an outstanding 2017 overall. People are really starting to pay attention. But I have to say that in my household, it's still all about Teen Titans Go! when the kids are over. How many episodes of that show are there? Oh, and The Thundermans is big right now

4) Boomerang: Friends, I am on board for several more months thanks to a super-cheap deal. I enjoyed the Christmas specials on there, but I am hoping Boomerang kicks it up a notch because this is a nice add-on service, but I don't think it's worth 4/99 a month until it adds more rarities...or just more, period.

5) YouTube: Seriously considering ringing in the new year with the 1970s New Year's Rockin' Eve that was uploaded this week. I don't care if it is 40 years old; I don't want Ryan Seacrest to be the first person I see on my TV in 2018.

Also, I give credit to Rassle Reel for uploading several episodes of All-American Wrestling from 1984. I don't see as much of that on YT as other old WWF shows.

6) The CW: Crisis on Planet X  is pretty cool.

7) Amazon Prime: I saw my usual hodgepodge of goofy junk on here this week, and it sure isn't Amazon's fault I wasted 21 minutes of my life with an episode of !st and 10 (the syndicated "clean" version, no less). I am looking forward to wrapping up Red Oak this week.

8) Nosey: I was all set to lambaste them for editing out the Conway Twitty segments on a Joan Rivers Show, but then they added a new batch of Sally, including--yes!--more troubled teens. Could Sgt. Julu finally make his Nosey debut?

9) PBS: Here for one reason and one reason only: I wannatellya I plan to watch that American Masters Bob Hope special. It won't be up for free for very long, I'm sure, but it's up there.

10) Slacker: A final holiday shout-out to what became my go-to for streaming holiday music this year. Yes, I heard the Mariah Carey song at least 3 or 4 times.

Monday, December 25, 2017

TV Time Revisited: A "classic" holiday column from ClassicFlix

NOTE: For those of you looking for a nice long read on this holiday...well, this is long, at least. This is a piece I wrote for ClassicFlix in 2014. Enjoy, and Merry Christmas, everyone!

Even though the 'holiday shopping season' now begins right after Halloween, it flies by more quickly each year. I loved all the Christmas episodes and specials on television as a kid, but they somehow made the wait even more agonizing. Today it's all a blur, but at least with DVD I can slow down and get a dose of yuletide cheer whenever I need it.

Let's examine some of the best Christmas episodes of the classic television era, a simpler time when the medium focused more on telling entertaining, heartwarming stories than shoving us all into stores to buy stuff. Incidentally, did I mention that most of these programs are available here at ClassicFlix and make great stocking stuffers?

The Dick Van Dyke Show , 'Alan Brady Presents': It's no surprise that one of the classiest sitcoms of all time delivers a classy Christmas episode. I love the premise: Mel Cooley convinces his brother-in-law/boss Alan Brady that it would be nice holiday gifts to let the talented people who work on his show perform on it. We're not talking about shuffling them in front of a camera to hum 'Silent Night.' No, Alan hands the entire show over to his writers and their families.

Apparently the only people who work on the show are Rob, Buddy, Sally, and Mel, who just happen to be The Dick Van Dyke Show regulars, and the only family members talented enough to participate happen to be Rob's wife Laura and son Richie. Can't they find a key grip that can carry a tune? Doesn't the show have a costume designer, a lighting technician, ANYONE else who'd like to be on camera?

Other than poor Rich's rendition of 'The Little Drummer Boy,' (it's sweet, but maybe they should have just let him do that old standby, a 'dramatic reading' of ''Twas the Night Before Christmas'), all of the segments are great entertainment, showcasing the gang's talents while keeping them in character. Rose Marie's solo number as Sally includes a Jimmy Durante reference. Rob's duet with Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) includes a nod to Van Dyke's Stan Laurel impersonation. In another fun routine, Rob conducts a vocal rendition of a special holiday song lauding the boss. The only negative I can say about 'Alan Brady Presents' is that when you hear the cast sing 'Al-an Bra-a-dy,' it'll be in your head until St. Patrick's Day.

Adam-12, 'Log 122 Christmas -- The Yellow Dump Truck': We move from the mean streets of New Rochelle to sunny Los Angeles. If you think snow is a prerequisite for Christmas cheer, this might not seem like your thing, but I assure you there is plenty of joy to go around.

Officers Malloy and Reed are delivering bags of goodies to underprivileged households in the community. One child named Harvey Ward just has to have a yellow dump truck. So, of course, the policemen embark on a thrill-packed journey through the streets while tracking the coveted toy, pressuring informants, storming suspected contraband toy warehouses, and roughing up toy smugglers along the way!

Well, actually, no, Malloy just walks into a store and buys the truck, but there is some suspense when someone steals Mrs. Ward's car with the truck still in the back. Finding the criminal isn't the problem, but if the truck is considered evidence, it will be impounded until after Christmas Day. The struggle to free the toy for Harvey is a triumph over the department's true number one enemy: bureaucratic regulations.

Also in 'Log 122' is a domestic dispute between the Buehlers (Bob Hastings and Eunice Christopher) over money. Mr. Buehler urges Mrs. Buehler to be thrifty, but when she orders a chicken for holiday dinner, she discovers he already got 'one of those special hams you have to send away for--.00, .25 a pound!' Her husband fires back that they'll 'get 5 meals out of that ham!' She then reveals something that might well get him carted off to the slammer: 'He's been soaking a fruitcake in brandy since Thanksgiving!'

The officers diffuse the situation and help the couple rekindle their love, but I fear tensions will only resurface next week when Mr. Buehler splurges on Chinese takeout for New Year's Eve. As someone who has long been immune to the charms of turkey dinners, I appreciate the bold stance executive producer Jack Webb takes by allowing Adam-12 to suggest ham and chicken are legitimate alternatives.

Dr. Kildare, 'Season to Be Jolly': On Christmas Eve, the young doctors are hanging decorations in Blair General Hospital at the behest of the public relations department. They're singing, laughing, and generally being festive when chief of staff Dr. Gillespie comes in and barks, 'What is with all this hooliganism?' They're lucky they weren't doing something really delinquent, like marbles or mumblety-peg.

Soon after, a broken-down, alcoholic department store Santa (Dan O'Herlihy) arrives in bad shape and gives Kildare a series of sarcastic responses to routine questions. Gillespie sees this, and all of the sudden he's Mr. Merry, enjoying the give and take and chuckling at the provocation of his young intern. Moments like this must make Kildare wish he had signed up for law school.

Of course, even casual viewers of Dr. Kildare know that Gillespie's heart is not two sizes too small, and that's evident when the veteran doc explores the patient's background to try to understand him. The remarkable thing about 'Season to Be Jolly' from a modern perspective is 1961 television's acceptance of religion. There is a good deal of basic theological discussion as we learn how this Santa became so troubled. You don't see this kind of casual, unironic discussion of spirituality in today's shows. It's tastefully done, in my opinion, sincere and sort of broadly Christian. I can't imagine anybody being offended by the episode, unless it's a female viewer lamenting that the shirtless doctor in the opening scene is Ken Berry and not series star Richard Chamberlain.

The Christmas spirit is strong at Blair General, and a rousing version of 'Joy to the World' is sure to win over any would-be Scrooges by the end, but it's hardly necessary. The series' theme song, 'Three Stars Will Shine Tonight,' is itself a stirring piece of music. When you hear that during the credits as you watch stills from this touching episode, well, you may be 'wiping the glitter out of your eyes' like I was.

Dennis the Menace, 'The Christmas Horse': While Dr. Kildare shows us Christmas as we want it to be, we turn to another classic show to show us Christmas as it really is. Yes, consider the gritty reality of this second-season installment of the adventures of Dennis Mitchell.

 It begins with Dennis, after striking out with pleas for a BB gun and a loud siren, asking a department store Santa for the one thing he wants 'more than anything else in the world,' a horse. Dennis knows he's not talking to the real Santa. Mr. Wilson, we find out, is wearing the suit, and he's not very jolly at the thought of the Mitchell kid getting a horse. I have to wonder what kind of establishment would hire Mr. Wilson to play Santa. And why would a guy who is one step away from a straitjacket whenever his kid neighbor rings the doorbell take that gig? This store must have a pretty sweet employee discount.

On Christmas morning, Dennis and his friends engage in a pastime with which many parents are all too familiar: the ritual complaining about what Santa did and didn't bring them. Dennis got a record player, but no pony. Tommy got a microscope, but not an electric train (though his dad is sure having a blast with that microscope)!

Elsewhere, little Johnny Fleming DID receive a pony despite not asking for one. His dad explains that he does indeed want one. How does he know? Simple: HE always wanted one when HE was a kid! Mr. Fleming (Henry Beckman) can't understand why Johnny fears the animal. After all, when HE was a boy, he had to get a paper route just to get spending money, and his folks couldn't afford a horse.

Dennis naturally assumes that Santa brought Johnny the horse by mistake. After all, he messed up on Tommy's train set. Dennis trades his record player for Margaret's typewriter, and then trades the typewriter to Johnny for the pony. This clever episode reveals how different the perspectives of parents and their children are on Christmas presents, but it ends with a heartwarming resolution that makes everybody happy.

Mr. McGuire, who drives around town selling Christmas trees in a horse-driven cart, is retiring, and the 'deal' he makes to give Dennis his horse is a beautiful example of a grownup manipulating a child into getting--and appreciating--what he needs instead of what he wants. As McGuire, veteran character actor Ernest Truex makes this episode an all-time charmer. He just sounds like the holiday. Each time he opens his mouth, I hear sleigh bells ringing and I see Rockwellian visions of a bundled-up family singing Christmas carols on a brisk winter night. In fact, at the end the Mitchells and Wilsons perform 'Silent Night' in the cart, and even the blatant rear projection can't tarnish a truly heartwarming story.

Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends: The last arc of season 3 includes a Christmas episode of sorts with the original Bad Santa, or should I say Badenov Santa. Boris and Natasha (calling herself 'Alf Elf') pose as Santa and a helper in order to make lots and lots of money. It takes a long time to get to the funny sight of Boris Badenov in Santa Claus gear, so you might want to start the disc, bake some cookies, go out and spruce up the lights, and maybe finish up your shopping while you wait for the Christmas part.

If you stick around, you will see 'Aesop's Fables,' 'Sherman and Peabody,' 'Fractured Fairy Tales,' and countless interstitial bits in addition to an amusing story about, believe it or not, climate change. In this scenario, the North Pole accumulates so much ice that it tilts the Earth, making the tropical island of Riki-Tiki the new North Pole.

Since Rocky and Bullwinkle spending the better part of six episodes debating whether or not it's really getting warmer in Frostbite Falls would be pretty drab television, they set out to make it snow on Riki-Tiki and make the Earth tilt back to where it was. Hey, if you want verisimilitude, watch 'Sherman and Peabody.' If you want classic Rocky and Bullwinkle wordplay mixed with Badenov hijinks, plus an early example of 're-gifting' that ends the saga with a bang, you should see this storyline.

Father Knows Best, 'The Angel's Sweater': Patriarch Jim Anderson's sister Neva is in town for the holidays, and the kids aren't too thrilled about it. You see, Neva just isn't comfortable around children, and when an eager-to-please Kathy drops her suitcase, the overreaction confirms it. She snaps in a prim, mannered way, then quickly adds, 'No harm done. She just shouldn't have attempted it. No harm done.' Distraught, Kathy bolts to her room. Sure, it's overwrought, but we can still identify; who hasn't had an awkward holiday encounter with a relative?

Jim promises to calm everyone a 'big, fluffy Christmas egg nog.' I suspect his glass will have a little extra 'Christmas spirit.' Worse than the Neva-Kathy kerfuffle is the water leak that appears in the wall, forcing a desperate call to Mr. Fix-It, who delights Jim by making a house call on Christmas Eve.

The handyman sees the sulking Kathy and spins a yarn for her about a little girl in a snowy village looking for a special gift to provide as a church offering for the poor. Maybe I'm cynical, but I kept thinking, 'No wonder this guy's willing to come out on a holiday. He's going to charge Jim double time while he sits around and tells his daughter stories.'

His tale is a sweet one, and it may well be the series' gift to the cast. It lets them dress up and play the different characters of the village, with Elinor Donahue (Betty) as the angel who counsels little Katarina (Kathy, as played by Lauren Chapin). It must have been a nice break from the grind of the show for everyone to do something a little different. The villagers' formal speech patterns are a little stilted, but they're still more natural than Neva's earlier 'outburst.'

Kathy learns from the fable what the greatest Christmas gift is, and she shares it with a certain visitor in the house. No, it's not Mr. Fix-It, who demurs when Jim offers to pay him, then adds, 'I'll send you a bill.' I'll bet! You should have asked for a written estimate, Jim! Anyway, when the Andersons exchange a few presents on Christmas Eve, we get an emotional scene that makes me...Darn, there's that glitter in my eye again.

If this assortment doesn't fill you with cheer, there are countless other examples available. In previous columns, I have mentioned two of my favorite Christmas episodes, The Honeymooners 'Twas the Night Before Christmas,' and The Twilight Zone 'Night of the Meek.'. Another perennial classic is The Andy Griffith Show, 'A Christmas Story.' In fact, I could fill a whole nother column or two with classic holiday shows, but for now, let's save something for next year. After all, next year's Christmas season is just around the corner...

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Streaming Video Power Rankings #92

'Twas the night before--aw, skip it. Suffice to say this was a hectic week, but the rankings are heavily influenced by Christmas and holiday fare this time out.

1) Netflix: Bad Santa 2 is something I almost forgot existed. It's more of the same, but possibly more depraved, though not as funny as the original. I'd rather see that than that El Camino thing or whatever with Tim Allen.

I don't even have to mention the apparent garbage that is Bright, and I'd rather not bring up the email Netflix sent me explaining that it's raising prices to bring me "more of the content I want." Fuller House is not the content I want. How about bringing back Quincy, Columbo, and Rockford Files for starters?

Let's move on before I lose my holiday spirit and demote Netflix.

2) Boomerang: Watching the holiday stuff on here has pushed some of the, uh, much better stuff out of my rotation. Yet here's the thing: I have that other stuff on DVD and can watch it anytime. It's cool that Boomerang has a selection of things like The Cabbage Patch Kids First Christmas. I decided to stick around after my free trial and get an actual paid month to explore more of the service.

3) Amazon Prime: At the risk of damaging the "integrity" of these rankings, Amazon gave me (and many others) 7 bucks in video credits this week. It's hard not to like them when they do that.

4) YouTube: High this week on the strength of all the great holiday vintage ads and songs I have enjoyed lately, and not so much on the basis of all those "young people eat disgusting food combinations" clips my kids watched the other day.

5) Hulu: My kids are still all about Teen Titans Go, but I was all about Gotham this week. I want to see Alfred kick the snot out of Young Bruce Wayne pretty much every episode when the show returns.

6) Pub-D-Hub: They fooled me by posting their update two days early this week. It was an "update" consisting of recycling Christmas stuff that has been up before, but it was an update, and again, it's nice to have it all in one place.

7) Pluto TV: I admit I am occasionally mesmerized by the channel on here that shows nothing but crisp images of Christmas lights and decorations.

8) Warner Archive Instant: Do better in 2018, WAI. At least you have some great holiday content like It Happened on Fifth Avenue and Holiday Affair.

9) Tubi TV: Shout out to Tubi for offering The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas, the subject of this week's holiday special edition of Battle of the Network Shows.

10) PIX 11 Archives: The Roku channel has really slacked off in recent months, but I give credit for reposting the Magic Garden Christmas reunion special. If this channel put all the stuff on Roku that it does on its Facebook page, it would be my favorite.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Screengrab Theatre Presents Countdown to Christmas: Yogi Bear's All-Star Comedy Christmas Caper

This is the 1982 Hanna Barbera special that Mark Evanier wrote in two days--literally two days--as he recounts in a great post right here.

My personal favorite part of this special is, without a doubt, the encounter Snagglepuss has with Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble. Snag is in "the big city" trying to find a little girl's parents, and Fred and Barn are sidewalk Santas because...why not? Snagglepuss even asks them if they aren't, oh, about 3 million years away from home. The boys' response--and the special's response--is to ignore it, continue with the scene, and not bring it up again. Works for me!


Monday, December 18, 2017

'Mooners Monday #37/Screengrab Theatre's Countdown to Christmas

From December 19, 1952, it's "Christmas Party," one of the Lost Episodes and a reworking of a previous version on Cavalcade of Stars in 1951. This early version of the "sketch" (seems odd to call anything that goes more than 40 minutes a sketch) is incomplete, so MPI had to use stills to represent the beginning. Once things get going, though, we get one of the best Lost Episodes, IMO, if only because it gives us a chance to see so many of Gleason's other characters, the ones I'd love to see in a Jackie Gleason Show boxed set someday:

First up is Fenwick Babbitt, first with a big keg of beer, then a huge block of ice. What a moax.



Next, guest star Patricia Morrison has Norton so enthralled with her singing that he doffs his hat:


The great Joe the Bartender arrives to let us know what's going on at the bar--even Fatso Fogerty and Gaylord Farquhard are there!


The Poor Soul is here, and he's an even bigger moax than Fenwick Babbitt. Ladies and gentlemen, start your PATHOS:


Underrated double act: Rudy the Repairman and his assistant Whitey:



He's not one of Gleason's characters, but...Frankie Avalon?


He dances, too. He's almost like a young Tony Danza!



Reggie Van Gleason is all class.


It's always a treat to see Gleason Player Frank Marth as a cop:


Merry Christmas, everyone!







Saturday, December 16, 2017

Streaming Video Power Rankings #91

1) Netflix: Enjoy life at the top while you can, Netflix, 'cause Disney is a-coming. First we thought it would merely pull its content and start its own competing SVOD service. Now I suspect it will pull its content, start its own competing SVOD service, AND build up Hulu (of which it will own a majority if the FOX purchase goes through).

Meanwhile, I continue to enjoy Glow, this new Errol Morris hybrid docuseries sounds intriguing even if the word "hybrid" is normally a big red flag, and, hey. Red State America, THE RANCH is back with part 4. What's up with "part 4" and not season 2, part 2 or whatever? How can a series that stars Ashton Kutcher and a disgraced alleged rapist be so pretentious?

Actually, I as amused to see Decider.com screw up and put this description (see #2 on the list) on its site: The Ranch: Part 4 *Netflix Original: A world-renowned martial arts expert and undercover agent for hire comes out of retirement after chance encounter with a long lost flame.

Talk about a change in creative direction! That would be one way to retool the series in the wake of Danny Masterson's firing.

One more thing about Netflix, and it is not related to the Judd Apatow special nor the premiere of the Santa Clause movies: When Ken Levine dropped a Cheers commentary as part of his excellent Hollywood and Levine podcast, he didn't recommend listeners fire up the episode on Amazon nor CBS All Access. He said NETFLIX. And I did so, and I followed along, and it was great.

2) Amazon Prime: I finally started watching the latest and final season of Red Oaks, but I haven't yet seen Jean Claude Van Johnson, which is the true source of that Decider blurb that ran with The Ranch. In truth, I was most excited to dive into the old live Buddy Hackett sitcom Stanley, not to mention adding a bunch of obscure movies I will likely not get around to seeing.

3) Hulu: Now with Bunheads and the most recent season of Younger. I love Sutton Foster, but for some reason I am not sure I really want to watch her shows. I do want to see this Goerge Foreman documentary that just arrived via Epix.

How will the Disney/FOX deal affect Hulu? Who knows. I just want to know when we get those seasons of St. Elsewhere and The Bob Newhart Show that were supposed to arrive this year.

4) Pub-D-Hub: A great week for the Hub as it unveiled its annual Christmas section and also an Edgar Kennedy short (which itself had a Christmas backdrop) and a 1948 episode of Public Prosecutor (which had some pretty cheap backdrops--it WAS 1948, after all).

5) Acorn TV: I know I said good-bye to Acorn last week, but I had it for several more days, and I finished the first seasons of Loch Ness and Grandma's House--solid shows I enjoyed. I say again, Acorn, I will return. Thanks for a nice month of keeping me away from the series I fell behind watching on the services that rank above you.

6) YouTube: I highly recommend Bionic Disco, an uploader who is delivering a lot of great 1970s Christmas ads. The jury is still out on the latest redesign of the Roku channel. Each time I get used to the current one, it changes, though after seeing the battle between Google and Amazon, I tend to be thankful I have YouTube on Roku at all. Then I get angry again. It's a terrible cycle that drives me back to Bionic Disco's channel for more old ads.

7) Warner Archive Instant: Still no new updates, still no Twitter activity (which I only monitor as a sign of life), and I had trouble logging in the other day. Yet how can I (sniff) not rank this (sniff) after seeing the beauty (sniff) of the Eight Is Enough Christmas episode (sniff) "Yes, Nicholas, There Is a Santa Claus"?

8) Slacker: I very much enjoyed listening to Christmas tunes with my kids while we played...until they got tired of it and demanded we switch to "80s, 90s, and Today." I think they may be tired of that Mariah Carey song.

9) Nosey: This is one of the more ambitious (if trashy) free channels out there, adding a bunch of new stuff each week. It just premiered a new batch of The Joan Rivers Show, including one with Howard Stern as the guest.

10) Boomerang: I am going to sign up for a free trial and check this out so I can enjoy a nice, uncut, clean version of the classic Yogi's All-Star Comedy Christmas Caper, and I plan to force my kids to wat--uh, plan to enjoy this with the children. There are a lot of other seasonal toons here.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Rolling Stone remembers Tom Petty

I checked in with Rolling Stone again because of its Tom Petty memorial issue. Well, that's a little misleading. In fact, I check in every issue because I'm a cheap sonuvagun who gets it from the liberry (hence me writing about this issue 6 weeks after it came out). But if I were looking at a mag rack, the Petty cover would have caught my eye.



This issue consists of two things: A Petty tribute and "The Photo Issue." Most of the regular features, even Random Notes and Reviews, are missing, though there is a back-page interview with Annie Leibovitz (who seemingly figures in about 75% of the Photo Issue portion). So if you like pictures, you might be in luck. If you like Petty, you might be in luck. Really, though, both sections were a little disappointing.

The photo collection was nice, but not spectacular, and we've seen many if not most a lot of times, and there wasn't a ton of added insight (nor much text). It's a continuation of the sort of scaled-down but drawn-out 50th anniversary celebration the mag is doing this year.

As for the Tom Petty story, well, it feels churlish to complain about a tribute story.  David Fricke knows his stuff, and he delivers a nice piece. I can't help but think he had to rush it a  bit, though. Rather than being an in-depth musical overview or the kind of cultural legacy piece that, say, a Mikail Gilmore does, this one focuses more on the fact that his peers thought he was a good dude.

And, hey, that's a cool thing and fun to read about. I just hoped for a little more depth, especially considering the lack of words in the rest of the issue. Also, Dhani Harrison is featured heavily in the Petty profile, quoted often. He has some great things to say, but is that another indication they had to crank this out quickly?

Overall, it's a fun but all-too-quick read and another reminder that while  Rolling Stone is still worth reading, it isn't often worth the cover price anymore.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Screengrab Theatre #6: Jack Benny on Laugh-In

One might think that even a show as "irreverent" as Laugh-In would treat a legend like Jack Benny with the dignity he deserved.


Well, hopefully one wouldn't bet their sweet bippy on that:
 
 


For some reason, Jack "dancing" in the party scene saddened me most of all:


Oh, but Jack had all kinds of adventures:















A bigger bomb than "The Horn Blows at Midnight"


If only we had the privilege of seeing Jack Benny on You Can't Do That on Television.


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 #36: 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!)

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Shameless self-promotion: Podcast update

Hey, everyone! Just a quick note to remind you that we are in the middle of our third season of Battle of the Network Shows, the podcast on which my friend Mike and I discuss television of the 1970s and 1980s. As Mike explains in this post, our episodes are now available on YouTube!


This episode from our first season looks at the original In Search Of's treatment of Amelia Earhart and the Loch Ness Monster. This season, we've covered Super Friends, Three's Company, Celebrity Bowling, Knight Rider, and more, and there's more to come!

So just remember, in case I forget to bother--uh, remind you each week, new episodes premiere each Thursday wherever you get podcasts, but you can always find us at www.battleofthenetworkshows.com

Monday, November 27, 2017

'Mooners Monday #35: the Immortal Joe Fensterblau

In addition to its famous "drunk" scene, "Head of the House" brings us one of the great minor characters in iHoneymooners history:  Joe Fensterblau. Start with that name:  Joe Fensterblau. I could sit here and say it about 5 or 6 times in a row. In fact, I just did. Don't judge me.



You know who doesn't care about being judged? Joe Fensterblau, that's who.  This big mouth doesn't care--but, oh, if he DOES care about something, he'll let you  know.



I like that the other fellas congratulate Ralph and cheer him for mouthing off to the newspaper, but Joe barges right in and calls it "malarkey" and says he needs PROOF that what he said was really the case.



Actor Dick Bernie does a great job at getting the essential brash, rather abrasive quality of a guy who would challenge Ralph on his assertion of being king of his castle.  Of course, Bernie will return as another blowhard, Bill Davis, in the last of the Classic 39, "A Man's Pride." For now, though, we can enjoy him trying to pull off the simultaneous feat of showing up his coworker AND sponging a free meal out of the Kramdens.

He just wants something simple: soup, roast chicken with stuffing, rice, a little salad on the side...and a little dessert and coffee.



When Alice doesn't go for it, (Classic line when he gets her on the phone: "Alice, look. Run right home now and start cooking. I'm bringing a friend over.") Ralph figures he and Norton can cook themselves and say Alice did it. Of course, it doesn't go well.




But Alice bails out her hubby by apologizing, blaming the lack of dinner on the stove, and offering a rain check. Joe is actually somewhat chagrined, and he walks away looking at Ralph with newfound respect.





Even though he is somewhat compromised at the end thanks to Alice's maneuver, we still give a hearty Cultureshark salute to Joe Fensterblau, who manages to stand out as an obnoxious blowhard on a show that is about a guy who can be an obnoxious blowhard.

Joe Fensterblau.

I'll type it one more time, and then I think I'll have it out of my system: Joe Fensterblau.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Streaming Video Power Rankings #89

Hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving! Maybe you are still enjoying an extended 4-day holiday weekend. If so...I'm angry because I didn't have one. But I hope you are celebrating the American way--by streaming whatever you can in between football games.

1) Netflix: Kudos to the King of Streaming for premiering a lot of content this holiday week. I mean, much of it looks like garbage to me, but I admire the effort to unload a lot of new stuff when people will be home to watch it.

I should dock Netflix for my daughter watching Haters Back Off  while I was in the same room, but instead, I thank them for the fascinating Jim Carrey/Andy Kaufman documentary, the new Brian Regan special, and the old but always welcome Thanksgiving episodes of Cheers.

2) Hulu: Welcome to the home of Marvel Comics on streaming video! Sure, Netflix gets the headlines (for another few years), but Hulu debuted The Runaways this week, it quietly added Agent Carter (heretofore MIA from streaming), and will add FX's Legion season 1 next month.

Meanwhile, on the DC end of things, my kids sure are loving Teen Titans Go. I think it has made them forget about Disney Now.

3) Acorn TV: Honestly, Doc Martin is coasting at this point, but I still enjoy each episode and will watch it as long as it continues...which I think is one more season. Now that I have finished Series 8, time to move on to Count Arthur Strong and 800 Words.

4) YouTube: Tons of good stuff on here lately, as Sean MC  continues to bring it, plus that Andy Kaufman on Letterman compilation I mentioned last week is a great companion to the Netflix doc.

And I may not be smart to admit this, but I very much enjoyed the random episode of 1984 AWA All-Star Wrestling I watched when I probably should have been catching up on something else.

5) Pub-D-Hub: I always try to give extra credit to a service that offers a nice seasonal collection of content, and the Hub came through again with a Thanksgiving-themed section, though much of it was familiar and I wound up just watching an old Beulah episode.

6) The CW: Still behind on my "stories," but I made some progress this week. Hey, is anybody watching that new Dynasty?

7) Amazon Prime: Not only is it debuting The Big Sick, which is apparently a terrific movie, but it is just about that time of year I consider getting a month of Prime for the holiday shipping. Red Oak, here I come!

8) Warner Archive Instant: Major points for the Eight Is Enough I saw, and I even enjoyed the Dr.   Kildare with Cesar Romero as a crusty old town doctor. Wouldn't you know he'd turn out to have a heart of gold? The official Twitter account still hasn't done anything since October 22.

9) NBC: Thanks, NBC app/Roku channel, for making it possible to get a nice, clean uncut stream of the episode of Knight Rider we discussed this week on Battle of the Network Shows.

10) Brown Sugar: This week, I couldn't help but wish I were a current subscriber so that I could celebrate Thanksgiving the right way by enjoying the recent addition of 1974's Black Hooker.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

TV Time Revisited (firom Classic Flix): Cartoons Go to the Circus

If you are looking for something longer to read on this holiday, here's a piece from the not-too-distant past that originally ran on ClassicFlix. In April, I commemorated the decline of Ringling Brothers & Barnum & Bailey by looking at classic TV cartoon excursions to the circus:

The announcement that Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey is shutting down inspired a lot of discussion about the demise of the circus. While it's true that Ringling was, for years, the most iconic big top operation, the American institution will continue.

Of course, it also survives in classic television. In a previous column, I recommended Woody Allen boxing a kangaroo. Besides that memorable variety program, many sitcom and dramatic episodes centered on traveling circus troupes passing through town, while some entire series were devoted to the spectacle. Super Circus with Mary Hartline was a popular kids show spotlighting genuine performances, while programs like Circus Boy (starring a young Mickey Dolenz), The Greatest Show on Earth (with a young -- well, youngish -- Jack Palance) and oater Frontier Circus were fictionalized depictions of the lifestyle and its inhabitants.

Given the news about Ringling Brothers, though, I wasn't in the mood for stories about sad clowns struggling with the bottle or acrobats chasing ringmasters in jealous rages. I looked to the television cartoon to celebrate the circus. Much to my surprise, I found that the world of animation often sees the big top as a sinister place filled with danger and despair.

Casper the Friendly Ghost,"Keep Your Grin Up:" I am going to start by cheating a bit. That's right, folks, step right up and enjoy one of the timeless circus traditions: the bait and switch! In my defense, while the original Casper cartoons were not made for television, they were shown countless times on the small screen, so it's a legitimate starting point for our journey.

Unfortunately, it's not a joyous beginning despite an amusing premise: Casper tries to make a sad hyena laugh. The thing is this hyena is a caged animal being whipped and beaten by his handler for not guffawing on command. It's a little off-putting seen through a modern lens, but, man, even in 1955, this must have been a downer. Even before Casper enters the circus grounds, he gets bummed out when his appearance (or, being invisible, lack thereof) frightens the ticket seller and the rubber man.

The hyena is more pitiful than the lonely Casper, though we never quite know if he's depressed because he's being whipped or if he is being whipped because he's depressed. Our favorite friendly ghost decides to try to make the hyena laugh, and while his intentions are good, you can't help but think if he really wanted to help, he'd, you know, open the cage.

Casper tries everything to get a laugh, including juggling, imitating a seal, and borrowing the props of an act named "Burpo the Fire Eater." Does Ringling Brothers have a Burpo the Fire Eater? If so, I need to get tickets while I can. The young ghost does all but squirt seltzer down his pants, but nothing gets a smile from the downcast hyena. (I imagine Milton Berle is somewhere in the wings furiously scribbling notes for something he can use on the Buick Hour.)

There's a happy ending when the abusive trainer, startled to see a ghost, shrieks, runs out of his pants and off the screen into the audience who are apparently watching this very cartoon. The hyena starts laughing harder than I do at a Honeymooners episode, and only slightly less obnoxiously. There's a lot more pathos in this brief cartoon than I expected, but its limited view of the circus isn't a pleasant one.

The Perils of Penelope Pitstop "Big Top Trap": At the risk of trivializing mistreatment of animals, there are times while watching Pitstop that I feel like that hyena. There are only so many times I can hear Penelope yell, "HAILP! HAILP!" before I feel like dressing up as a peanut and squatting down in front of Jumbo. Yet "Big Top Trap" offers a compelling glimpse of the circus.

At the beginning, we see Penelope perform in the show. The horse she is standing on throws her into a cannon, which shoots her toward a cage containing a wild "Tasmanian cruncha beast." Fortunately for her, she is able to grab the pole a tightrope walker is using and balance herself to avoid dropping all the way into the cage. We can only assume the poor tightrope walker plummets to his death off camera.

When I was in college, I took a class on live performing arts in which the professor, on the day he discussed the circus, told us the single most dangerous routine was the horse act because of the unpredictable nature of the equines. Somehow he left out the part about combination horse/human cannonball/tightrope/cruncha beast numbers. I tell you, between the disappearance of this kind of thing and the inability to replace Burpo the Fire Eater, it's no wonder the circus ain't what it used to be.

Penelope is snatched by her nemesis, the Hooded Claw, and taken to a swamp to attempt to feed her to a carnivorous plant. Her miniature sidekicks in the Ant Hill Mob eventually help her make it back to the tent to complete her performance and save the day, which makes me think that audience must really be getting its money worth considering how long the show must be.

Sorry, Pitstop fans, but even Paul Lynde can't elevate this. The main character is just too dim. In this episode, the Claw, who has been acting as her attorney in his civilian guise while donning a mask and trying to bump her off to get her fortune for the entire series, gets tired of the routine and basically says, "Hey, by the way, I'm your arch-rival who's been trying to kill you," and Penelope refuses to believe him! She's not the brightest heroine out there, folks...but I will admit she is one heck of a circus performer, and she gets shot out of a cannon like nobody's business.

Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? "Bedlam in the Big Top": "Bedlam" is a word that doesn't surprise you at all when you encounter it in Scooby-Doo, much like "hi-jinks." Both elements are in abundance in this encounter, which features the gang investigating a reported haunting of a circus by a ghost clown. The owner tells the team that his performers are leaving en masse because they are superstitious and think the whole operation is destined for trouble. I love the fact that a ghost clown itself isn't what makes everyone leave, but rather the fact that they see its presence as a bad omen.

You don't need a Scooby snack to figure out it's not an actual supernatural entity, but an embittered baddie with a grudge scaring everyone away. Don't underestimate this erstwhile spookster, though; his potent hypnosis overwhelms Scooby and Daphne, making them believe they are performers capable of doing dangerous stunts like tightrope walking and unicycle riding.


Lucky for Scoob, Penelope Pitstop is nowhere around, so he emerges unscathed, but it's interesting to note the callous nature of the show's laugh track. Is Scooby's precarious footing on a high wire really reason for enthusiastic chortles? The lovable canine earns some real laughs at the end after solving the mystery; he and Shaggy surprise the others by making a surprise cameo in the strongman's act and mugging for the crowd in attendance.

The real takeaway is not the exposure of the ghost clown, but the anti-circus performer stance of Scooby-Doo. The show takes pains to establish that any civilian, albeit under a deep hypnotic spell, can do the same alleged skilled feats as a pro. Then Scooby and Shaggy undercut one of the veteran acts by going for cheap laughs at the climax of his routine. Wasn't there a union of some kind to bring heat on Hanna-Barbera for this disrespect?

The Flintstones, Dial S for Suspicion and Circus Business: Several years earlier, Hanna-Barbera had our favorite stone-age family appear in a sixth-season episode called "Circus Business." Fred expresses his interest in buying an ailing circus and is overheard by the anxious-to-sell owner, who apparently believes an idle statement made in public is a binding verbal contract and accepts Flinstone's income tax refund as payment for the whole business.

Much to Fred's chagrin, things are worse than he thought, as all the performers are walking out after not being paid. Pressured by the sheriff to deliver the entertainment as advertised, the Flintstones and the Rubbles do what anyone would do in such a predicament: attempt to put on a show themselves. Their efforts impress the real performers so much that they decide to come back and work for free, proving that circus folk are great people after all...or suckers. I'm not exactly sure what the message is here.

Several seasons earlier, we get another glimpse into the world of the big top in "Dial S for Suspicion" when one of Wilma's former boyfriends, a knife thrower, spots her at a circus parade and gives her passes to the show so he can check out Fred. The parade is another great lost tradition, right up there with Burpo the fire eater and Tasmanian cruncha beasts -- an unparalleled event in which the cast of the show marches down main street and agrees not to let the elephants rampage through everyone's property as long as they buy tickets. Well, that wasn't explicit, but it was kind of implied, no?

Fred happens to be paranoid about Wilma trying to kill him for the life insurance. One reason I love The Flintstones: You just didn't hear a lot of other cartoons utilizing the phrase "double indemnity" in those days. Fred thinks the sudden arrival of a knife throwing beau is part of Wilma's plan, and it's hard to blame him when she "volunteers" him to be the "target" in his act, and then suggests it be done blindfolded!

Considering Fred goes on to star in numerous spin-off shows and cereal ads, you can rest assured Wilma isn't really trying to off her hubby, but the circumstantial evidence is pretty strong for a while. I'm intrigued by the knife thrower, whose suspicious behavior and shady snicker make me wonder if, regardless of Wilma's intent, he really does mean to give Fred a "close shave."

The Yogi Bear Show, Acrobatty Yogi and Jangled Jungle: Let's close our look at the circus with one more double feature from Hanna-Barbera. Oddly, these Yogi and Snagglepuss shorts come back to back on the DVD. If they really aired like that, they must have caused some confusion among young viewers.

"Acrobatty Yogi" sees the bear run away from Jellystone and join the circus in order to woo his would-be love, Cindy Bear. Hey, we've all done something like that at one time or another. (I'll never have to wonder "what might have been" with Bertha the Bearded Lady.) He's offered a job as lion tamer, and I get a good laugh when he's told the first thing he needs to do is learn what to do with a chair, which he triumphantly folds out and sits in.

I don't quite understand why the impresario sees a talking bear and decides, "Hey, I'll put him in with the lion," but he knows how to run his business. Poor Yogi has to jump off a high wire -- it really does seem like anyone can walk those things -- to flee the crazed cat, and when Cindy tries to compliment him, he mocks her and says, "I might have been seriously killed," before taking off and returning to the relative security of Jellystone.

Next up, Snagglepuss is bored with his own routine at the circus. He's asked to step up, down, up, down, and so on, which makes him "feel like an elevator -- a yo-yo, even." The prospect of getting shot out of a cannon is what makes him quit (in the middle of a show, just like Yogi -- how unprofessional these guys are) and head for the jungle.

He thinks he's the king of beasts, but unpleasant encounters with a Tarzan type and a gorilla make Snagglepuss exclaim, "Arrivederci, jungle! Good-bye, even!" He rushes back to the relative safety of...the circus! So, Yogi finds the circus a terrifying, dangerous place, while Snagglepuss finds it a refuge from the horrors of the outside world? Is this juxtaposition a deliberate statement by Hanna-Barbera? An attempt to provide equal time to those who are pro- and anti-circus? Is it a reflection of the fact that the circus means different things to different people?

Either way, I believe our sojourn through television animation's depiction of the circus teaches us several lessons: It's not all fun and funnel cakes, the animals may be treated both better and worse than we suspect, and above all else, next time you attend a show, keep your eyes on the high wire at all times. There's always something going on up there.