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!)