Sunday, November 28, 2010

T.V. or not T.V.? - Part I - My Poor Defenseless Brain


Y'know, looking back I've watched a godawful amount of television as a kid.

Even before Star Wars had it's Armageddon-like impact on my childhood I was still drawn to imaginative T.V. shows.  As such I lived on a steady diet of programs like...

Sesame Street (1969-now)

I've been watching this show for so long I remember when Oscar the Grouch was orange, Hooper's store was staffed by it's namesake, Bert and Ernie weren't dodging Brokeback Mountain rumors and certainly waaaaaay before Luis and Maria started knockin' boots.

Hey, who doesn't love Oscar's bitchiness, Super Grover's can-do attitude, and the Count's clear level of job satisfaction?  

The Six Million Dollar Man (1974-1978)

Just as Farrah Fawcett represented the pinnacle of late 70's female beauty, her husband at the time Lee Majors embodied the template of male perfection.  Square-jawed, cock-eyed and cut like a bag of milk, Majors also cultivated a veritable black forest of chest hair which was displayed as often as the scripts would allow.

How could a kid not like a show about a wise-ass bionic dude with super-strength who was constantly getting into slow-motion Pier Six brawls with Sasquatch?  Money...

Space: 1999 (1975-1977)

In the mind-bogglingly distant future of 1999, Moon Base Alpha gets blown out of Earth's orbit and goes spinning into space where the crew encounters all sorts of far-out threats Star Trek style.  Notwithstanding the wonky science, this show had impeccable special effects, amazing sets and stellar model work that, in some ways, trumped Star Wars which followed two years later.

I remember some of the stories being kinda scary for a five year old kid, what with all the weird aliens, people transforming into bizarre creatures, or the base getting swamped with killer foam (presumably after someone put too much Space Woolite in a Space Washing Machine and left the Space Lid up, I guess).

When watched today, however, a lot of the episodes alternately cheesy and/or pretty pedestrian.  Plus the cast wouldn't forfeit the WORST POLYESTER UNIFORMS IN A SCI-FI PROJECT AWARD until five years later when Star Trek: The Motion Picture's "Starfleet Jammies" came down the pike.

Here's an interesting tidbit to ponder, though.  When the show started in 1975, the series three leads (Martin Landau, Barbara Bain, and Barry Morse) were 47, 44, and 57 respectively.  Can you imagine a sci-fi series starting on T.V. nowadays with a similar cast age demographic?   Not bloody likely...

The Muppet Show (1976-1981) 

As a Sesame Street alumni I was certainly predisposed to this, certainly one of the high-water marks of Jim Henson's amazing career.

If not for The Muppet Show my generation would be completely devoid of culture.  To drive this point home, here's an alphabetical list of the show's guest stars, most of whom we would never have been exposed to if they hadn't tripped the light fantastic on Kermit the Frog's stage: 

C'mon, do you really think that people of my generation would have had a chance to hear Ethel Merman sing "There's No Business Like Show Business", see Rudolf Nureyev dance "Swine Lake" (?), and witness Señor Wences perform his classic characters Johnny and Pedro if Jim Henson didn't think it was important for us to see this?

The man was a friggin' genius and I was pretty beat up for about a week after he died prematurely at age 53.  

The Man From Atlantis (1977-1978)

A.K.A. "Bobby Ewing Sure Do Swim Funny".   Like Space: 1999, this was also kind of intense for a little kid to watch at times.  There was one really hairy episode I remember when the MFA was kept out of water for too long and started to get all pink and wrinkly like an overdue baby with a jerry curl.  

Battlestar Galactica (1978-1980)

As a kid I really didn't care if this was a thinly-veiled Star Wars knock off.  I loved the ships, sets, costumes, Ovions and Cylons.  Oh, and Maren Jensen made me feel funny in my pants, like when I used to climb the rope in gym class. 

Aaaaaand, the less said about the dialogue and stories when viewed though adult eyes, the better.   

The Amazing Spider-Man (1978-1979)

Ahhh, the Seventies.  We didn't need CGI back then!  If someone wanted to make a superhero show, we just put some poor bastard in a Halloween rental costume and dragged him up the face of the Empire State Building on a rope.

Speaking of shows where the cast skews old, Peter Parker here is supposed to be a university student but he looks old enough to be getting regular prostate exams.

This thing was pretty shabby.  It didn't have much of a budget, so instead of Spidey battling his usual Rogues Gallery of villains like Sandman, Electro and the Green Goblin he'd often be seen tangling with new age hypnotists (?), ghosts (??), and the Chinese Government (???).  

Sam Raimi probably sat his cast and crew down before filming the first Spider-Man feature and said "Okay, this is what we won't be doing. Wellllll, at least not until the third film."

Buck Rogers in the 25'th Century (1979-1981)

Remake of the Golden Age sci-fi pulp action hero from the producers of Battlestar Galactica.

Gil Gerrard plays Captain William "Buck" Rogers, an astronaut from 1987 who, after being propelled five-hundred years into the future, battles evil Draconians, confounds his co-stars with anachronistic dialogue and turns every female within a fifty foot radius into an unspayed cat.

Buck was pimp, yo.  
Let me tell ya, folks, you haven't lived until you've watched Gil Gerrard share a scene with the robotic Dr. Theopolis, who looks like a cross between a Martha Stewart Living © clock, a Lite-Brite set and a pie plate.

Young male viewers numbed by the inane plots, recycled special effects, forced sci-fi trappings and cringe-inducing dialogue could at least find solace every time Erin Gray's Wilma Deering was on screen.  Erin still ranks towards the top of the Hottest Sci-Fi Goddesses of All Time list.

Ahhh, those were the days when women on television had bodies like women and not twelve year old boys.

And I'll never forget the super-obscure Cliffhangers! (1979), which only lasted ten episodes.

It attempted to revitalize the cliffhanger serials which I'm sure most television producers at the time were probably weaned on as kids.  It featured three separate twenty-minute segments.  The first was usually "Stop Susan Williams" featuring hottie-of-the moment Susan Anton as the title character.  She played an investigative journalist trying to unravel the mystery of her brother's murder while dark forces attempted an afterlife family reunion every week in a myriad of creative and sadistic ways.

The second segment was called "The Secret Empire".  It was kind of an update of  "The Phantom Empire", the old Gene Autry serial where cowboys discover an ancient alien civilization dwelling underneath the earth (as cowboys are want to do, I guess, between all the fightin', fuedin' and moseyin').

But my favorite part of the show by far was called "The Curse of Dracula", a modern retelling of the vampire yarn which saw the good Count posing as an Eastern European History professor (?), clashing with a relative of Van Helsing and attempting to enthrall the beautiful Mary.  It was one of my earliest exposures to the horror genre and sort of kicked-started my interest in being periodically scared shitless.

Of course, each segment would result in the main characters in terrible jeopardy, forcing audiences to tune in next week to see what happened.  Although it didn't catch on with the mainstream, my half-baked brain lapped it up.  And, let me tell ya, folks, back then a week felt like a friggin' eternity!

Here's a bit more info on it:

Then there's this cultural nadir that could only have been cooked up in the fevered brains of coked-out 70's television execs: a live action, prime-time DC superhero television variety show called Legends of the Superheroes (1979).  This shit has to be seen to be believed:

Hey, who needs the new Ryan Reynold's Green Lantern movie when you can just have some masked dude in spandex being roasted by a character called Ghettoman?  Don't believe me, then look henceforth into this mouth of madness... 

Saturday morning fare was also consumed voraciously. Like the infinitely superior NON-animated Superfriends (1973-1977):

Please note that I'm endorsing the pre-Wonder Twins iteration of the program.  Too bad there wasn't a version without that sea-horse-riding, cow-licked, useless tit/fifth wheel Aquaman.

"Hey, Aquaman!  Some dude just jumped out of that twelve story building!  Maybe you should put down that hot dog and rescue them!"

"Well, um, I mostly just talk to fish n' stuff." 
And here's my first (and subsequently very regrettable exposure) to Asian culture via Hong Kong Phooey (1974-1976)

Eeeeeee-yow, I'm sorry but that's just bad.  

Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends (1981-1986)

Despite shoehorning two castoff X-Men in with the traditionally lone-wolf Spider-Man and never bothering to explain how Peter Parker could possibly afford to have a secret transforming science lab installed in his apartment on his meager freelance photographer salary, this was a fun show that really improved on it's predecessors.   

Star Blazers (1979):

OMG, I loved this show!  Why?  Three words, sparky: WAVE MOTION GUN.  Man, I wish I had one of those suckers strapped to the front of my Corolla sometimes... 

Land of the Lost (1974-1977):

Despite how rubbery the dinosaur puppets looked and how friggin' annoying Holly could be, this gave me nightmares because of the god-damned Sleestaks.

If you don't know what a Sleestak is, here you go:

Here's a hint, the sleestak is the thing on the left.

Here's the corn-pone intro complete with it's pickin' and/or grinnin' theme song:

Godzilla: (1978-1981) 

I had a huge Godzilla fetish as a kid and since I couldn't see any of his movies, this cartoon had to suffice.  In this one, the crew of the exploration ship Calico use a signaling device to call the "Big G" to their defense whenever threatened by monsters during their scientific travels. 

Stupid, f#@$%^' Godzooky.  Jesus, he's like the Scrappy-Doo of the giant monster set...

Speaking of, here's Scooby-Doo: (1969-1984)

I just love how subversive the old shows were.  You just know that Shag and Scoob were constantly duckin' just off-screen to spark up a big fatty as soon as Fred, Wilma and Daphne's collective backs were turned.  What else would explain the duo's methadone-style craving for Scooby snacks if they weren't high as f$#@% and had the munchies all the time?  

The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show (1962-1973, 1975-2000)

Wow, talk about subversive, just have a look a this: cross-dressing, a blurring of gender roles, backhanded racism and Tarantino-esque bursts of extreme violence.  Politically incorrect?  Probably.  Funny as all get out?  Definitely.      

Battle of the Planets (1978-1985):

A team of superpowered teenagers fly all around the galaxy in a cool vehicle that breaks up into a bunch of smaller cool vehicles.  Ripped off shamelessly by a myriad of lesser shows years later.

"Hey, Voltron, can you burst into flames, become invulnerable and gain the power to destroy just about anything like the Fiery Phoenix?  No?  Okay, then you suck..."

The Smurfs (1981-1990):

I loved this show, but always hated how the one Smurf with glasses was such an insufferable dick.  Sometimes I'd catch myself as a kid screaming at the T.V.: "Brainy, what the eff, dawg?  Why you gotta be frontin' like dat?  You makin' all us bespectacled mother-f$#@%^& look like bitches, yo!"

Okay, I didn't say it exactly like that, but the mental picture it conjures up is pretty funny, huh?

You gotta like any show which allowed a generation of stand-up comedians to say things like "Last night I smurfed her until she told me to smurf all over her smurfing smurfs" and audience members my age know just how dirty that was.

The original Spider-Man cartoon (1967-1970):

Besides the groovy theme song, the first season of this show was bright and well-animated with some solid voice talent  But when the original animation studio went belly-up, the show was produced with the Skid Row sensibilities of Ralph "Sure I Can Do That For Forty Cents" Bakshi, who's adaptation of Lord of the Rings was also a turgid and joyless affair.   The show became increasingly grim, dark and inexplicably psychedelic, often recycling footage from the equally murky-looking Rocket Robin Hood.   

Some of the episodes produced in this era (like "Revolt in the Fifth Dimension", "Swing City" and "Phantom From The Depths of Time") seem barely appropriate for kids since they're obviously the product of massive chemical consumption.  Viewed now they look like Spider-Man cartoons produced in some former Eastern Bloc nation that doesn't exist anymore.  Seek them out if you want a wall-crawlin' walk on the wild side, just stay away from the brown acid before you start watching or you might try and claw your own face off.

Here's the famous theme song intro: 

Dungeons & Dragons (1983)

I was heavily into the game at the time and thought this show was the shiznit for depicting some of the monster's I'd fought in the game and incorporating the character classes featured in "new" Unearthed Arcana manual (like the barbarian, acrobat and cavalier).  Some of the stories were also pretty good, especially "The Dragon's Graveyard", "Dungeon at the Heart of Dawn" and "City on the Edge of Midnight".  Often we'd, borrow, elements from the shows to incorporate in our own in-game adventures.

There were some demerits that made the show a bit silly.  The Reagan-era hysteria that permeated all cartoons at the time dictated that characters could never strike one another with fists or weapons so there was a lot of "indirect damage", with bad guys falling into pits when one of the good guys breaks the wooden bridge they're walking across or burying the villain under some falling rocks or some other slap-happy shit.  It wasn't until 1992 when the watershed Batman animated series (the greatest television cartoon of all time, IMHO) came along and mercifully blew that taboo out of the water.   

Could you imagine a Batman cartoon where Batman couldn't actually beat ass?  It would have sucked like a Dyson...

And, naturally, all shows of that era seemed to have some annoying marketable character that existed just to hit some sort of imaginary demographic hot button.  Enter Uni, an orphaned baby unicorn who's incessant bleating drove viewers into fits of homicidal mania.  Coupled with young Bobby's tireless whinging, there were some real moments of irritation here.

Still, this is one of my all-time favs and the beautifully produced DVD boxed from a few years back is one of the crown jewels of my collection. 

Robotech: (1985)

Finally producers realized that North American kids will follow an animated show with a consistent storyline, especially if it's a good one.  The Macross Saga pulled Rick Hunter, Lisa Hayes and Max Sterling through the wringer as members of the Robotech Defense Force as they sought to defend earth from invasion at the hands of the evil alien Zendraedi Empire.

The second series (The Robotech Masters) featuring Dana Sterling wasn't quite as good but the storyline  was still more advanced then Transformers, which I'd kind of outgrown by then.  Regrettably, the third series was never broadcast to completion because, by that time, crap like He-Man had created a new economic model for animation: television cartoons now had to be driven by toy sales. 

Yeah, and we all know what great bedfellows commerce and art are, huh?      

But, I have to admit, as great as some of this stuff was, a lot of it was total dreck.  Look, I know the human brain is capable of tremendous recuperative powers, especially at a young age, but there's no way you can recover from some of this stuff.

It's a wonder all my shoes aren't tied with velcro.  

Sesame Street: Old School, Vol. 1 (1969-1974)Space: 1999: The Complete Season One [Blu-ray]The Muppet Show - Season One (Special Edition)Battlestar Galactica - The Complete Epic SeriesBuck Rogers In the 25th Century: The Complete Epic Series

Super Friends!: Season One, Vol. OneHong Kong Phooey - The Complete SeriesStar Blazers - The Quest for Iscandar - Series 1, Part I (Episodes 1-5)Land of the Lost: The Complete SeriesScooby-Doo, Where Are You!: The Complete First and Second SeasonsLooney Tunes - Golden CollectionThe Smurfs - Season One, Vol. OneSpider-Man - The '67 Collection (6 Volume Animated Set)Dungeons & Dragons: The Complete Animated SeriesRobotech - Protoculture Collection

FAIL:  To prove my point, see if you can get through this 32 second clip with all of your brain cells intact:

1 comment:

msg said...

fun article. got me off on a tangent for an hour and a half, ha :)