Sunday, December 5, 2010

T.V. or not T.V.? - Part II - Sitcoms and Shenannigans

Wagwan, my brothas!

My early preference for T.V. wasn't just limited to sci-fi or animated fare.  No, I also loved action/drama type shows like Emergency!: (1972-1977)

My mom used to keep a childhood scrapbook for me and every year I'd write in what I wanted to be when I grew up.  It's because of Emergency! that "Paramedic" and "Doctor" was added to an ever-changing litany that changed every year. (and regrettably, still does!)

I have so many found memories of this show.  I loved the red emergency vehicles, the tackle boxes filled with meds and the ultra-cool "Biophone":

This bad-boy's on my Christmas list this year.

Although Emergency! was technically aimed at adults, I'm sure it's was still responsible for selling an ass-load of "Hot Wheels" fire engines and "Adventure People" rescue trucks:

And to make sure law enforcement was well-represented I also had a huge interest in CHiP's: (1977-1983)

Wow.  Sometimes it's strangely comforting to be reminded that Erik Estrada once had a career.   

Even as an seven year old kid, this next show held a certain inexplicable fascination for me.  It's a shame that it many ways it set the role of women back to the Dark Ages.   

Charlie's Angels (1976-1981)

Mmmmmm, Jaclyn Smith.  Er, sorry

Before David Hasselhoff held court over a parade of blond, bouncy, beach bimbos (and w-a-a-a-a-a-y before he developed a penchant for Formica-flavored fast food), he was totally pimp as Micheal Knight in Knight Rider(1982-1986)

Hey, what guy wouldn't want to drive around in a self-aware, indestructible bitchin' black car with a cylon eye, a boost button and a stuffy British personality like C-3P0?

Well, okay, maybe if you replaced the car's personality with that of Julie Benz, then it would be perfect...  

Between 1982 to 1987 if you had a problem, if no-one else would help, and if you could find them, maybe, just maybe, with a miracle, you might, if you were really, really lucky, be able to hire (if you were nice to them)... The A-Team:

Although for the life of me I have no idea why you would want to hire these clowns.  Collectively they had worst aim than Special Edition Greedo or the entire animated cast of G.I. Joe

And talk about the law of diminishing returns: as goofy as the show was during it's first season, it got progressively sloppy and moronic as time wore on.  I seem to remember a stunt during the fifth season which had the A-Team going over a ramp in a jeep, crashing and then tumbling over a few times.

The dummy used to represent Mr. T was white. 

And who could forget V? (1983)

This was indispensable viewing back in the day.  Originally inspired by It Can't Happen Here, the Sinclair Lewis novel warning of a hypothetical fascist takeover in the United States, Kenneth Johnson's gritty and contemporary first-draft script was rejected by the network because it was (*GASP!*) "too cerebral".

So, Johnson substituted real-life fascists for extraterrestrial, man-eating lizards to take advantage of the 80's sci-fi boom and the rest, as they say, is history.

I gotta tell ya, when Marc Singer's Mike Donovan sneaks into the alien ship in the first mini-series, gets into a scrap with a Visitor and his opponent's face falls off to reveal a giant iguana underneath, a fuse in my brain kinda burnt out.

V and it's follow-up mini-series served as a tremendous warning reminder of Nazi trappings.  The uniforms, symbolism, youth programs, information control, collaborators, propaganda broadcasts, and systemic persecutions were all hoisted up as symptoms of a sick society.
Regrettably original scribe Kenneth Johnson was alienated (no pun intended) from the project over a budget battles with the network when it came time to shoot the sequel miniseries V: The Final Battle (1984).  He had no input at all by the time V: The Series came along, and lemme tell ya, it shows.   Pee-yew!  The only good thing about the series was the presence of Michael Ironside.  He was totally bad-ass, yo.

I've given the re-make/re-imagining a whirl and I think it's brilliantly updated to reflect our times.  Instead of it being a dissertation of external fascism and race relations, the new incarnation of V has a lot of interesting things to say about our blind faith in authority figures who we assume have society's best interests in mind.  The show seems to be telling us that there are a lot of concealed, real-life reptiles out there growing nice and fat off of our ignorance and apathy.  Just watch the documentary Inside Job and you'll know what I'm talking about.

Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994)

It's hard to believe that it took nearly twenty years for a new iteration of Star Trek to hit the small screen.  Although destined to succeed the first couple of seasons under Gene Roddenberry's direct guidance were pretty poopy.  In retrospect that inaugural season is rife with the sort of cheese that hobbled many of the worst episodes of the original series.

Nevertheless, by the early-Nineties, the show had hit it's stride and everybody on our floor in residence tuned in every week to watch the new episode.  It wasn't perceived as a geeky thing back then, everybody liked this show.  We couldn't wait until the following week and would often spend days discussing the minutia or implications of every new episode.

Having said that, if you re-watch it now, it could be argued that there were a lot more crap episodes then good, but the good stuff was really friggin' awesome.

Some people thought that it packed it in too soon.  Many thought that the writers had gotten a real handle on the characters and plot threads and it certainly shouldn't have segued into a series of mainly forgettable films.

But sometimes it's wise to shuffle off stage versus being dragged off.  Just ask Danny Williams.
Here's an early promotional clip hyping the premiere of the debut episode:

Now, it wasn't always so serious with me.  If I have any sense of humor at all (a point, I'm sure, which is still up for debate), it's due to these memorable shows.

Three's Company  (1977-1984)

Although most of the scenarios were completely moronic, the comedic timing of Joyce DeWitt, Suzanne Somers, Norman Fell, Audra Lindley, Richard Kline, Don Knotts and the late, great John Ritter made this show greater than the sum of it's naughty parts.  I didn't really understand all of the sexual innuendo at age seven, but I loved the pratfalls and generally goofy behavior of supposed adults.

Threes Company Episode 1
Uploaded by Paulleahs. - See more comedy videos.

The Carol Burnett Show (1967-1978)

Although the skits could be uproariously funny in and of themselves, it was Tim Conway and Harvey Corman trying to bust each other up during the show's life tapings that resulted in maximum hilarity.

The first time I watched the following skit I nearly laughed myself into a hernia when Tim Conway tells the story about the wife he lost in Hawaii at the 5:50 mark:

"Good luck ham" = Win.   

And here's my favorite sitcom of all time: W.K.R.P. in Cincinnati (1978-1982)

Why did I love this show so much and continue to love it to this day?  Simply put, I don't think any sitcom before or since has been nearly this slick, sly and true to it's subject matter.  I hate sitcoms like Friends and Will and Grace that constantly batter the audience with one-liners, bòn móts and innuendo like we're all kids with attention deficit disorder.  With W.K.R.P. the humor came organically from the character interaction and story lines and often built up to a gut-busting crescendo.     

For example, the episode "The Painting" in which slimy sales manager Herb Tarlek purchases a work of art for all the wrong reasons and then spends the entire show trying alternately to unload it or buy it back again, is a hilarious morality tale that the Bard himself would have been proud of.

As a side note, I also patterned my entire wardrobe, personality and ethos in High School after the teachings of Johnny Fever.  Hey, it was a noble pursuit.  After all, he was a Doctor!  

A word for truth in advertising: although I posted a link below to the first season on DVD, the thing is pretty awful.  Since it would have cost a fortune to license the original music, the DVD was released without the original artist's tunes, removing the show's character, crippling it's realism and even making some scenes nonsensical.

Man, it doesn't make any sense to me to make licensing music so friggin' expensive.  If I were a musician, I'd be thrilled have one of my tunes included in a classic T.V. show DVD release.  It's free promotion, fer Chrissakes!    


Y'know, sad to say but there was a point in time in my life when I lived for Thursday night's "Must See T.V.".
It usually started with Family Ties: (1982-1989)

Why is my brain hardwired so that I can recite the names of the entire cast of Family Ties yet I can't even remember my online banking password?

In many ways Family Ties was a typical 80's sitcom, but it also had the cajones to tackle some serious issues.  Like when a certain future Academy Award winning actor made an appearance as Elyse's alcoholic brother Ned in a few episodes:

Cheers (1982-1993) was also great during it's heyday.

I can credit an episode of this show for my disproportionate knowledge regarding a certain former Eastern Bloc nation:

No slight to Woody Harrelson, but, man, I loved Coach.

Similarly I was there when both Selma Diamond and Florence Halop died within three seasons of each other on Night Court (1984 -1992).  Finally the producers of the show decided not to hedge their bets any longer and retained thirty-two-year-old Marsha Warfield as a replacement bailiff.  After all, having to acknowledge death in a sitcom not once but twice certainly put the brakes on the ole' yuk-train.

Here's the funky theme song intro:

John Larroquette's Dan Fielding was perhaps the most reprehensible character in an 80's sitcom, an unrepentant ripe bastard who's very presence was a refreshing change from most of the non-threatening, underwritten and saccharine automatons that populated 90% of the T.V. shows of the time.

Here's a bit of little-known Larroquette lore.  In addition to playing the Klingon Maltz in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock:

 John also provided the intro voice-over for the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre:

One last Night Court/Star Trek crossover.  See if you recognize this morose mother-f#@$%^:

And who could forget The Cosby Show (1984-1992)?  In the early goings this had some genuine moments of wit and edge.   

Check the 7:45 mark of the Pilot Episode and you'll instantly be reminded of why this show was so great:

Y'know, when I was a teenager I wasn't above procuring a giant bag of potato chips ( "Look out, they're ruffled!"), a keg of dip and a two-liter of Coke and nestling into a recliner to watch Much Music's fifth or sixth broadcast of Woodstock.  I loved the history captured here in video amber: The Who, Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix are all preserved in suspended animation at the height of their powers.

Oh, and the occasional appearance of naked, mud-covered hippy chicks didn't hurt the viewing experience either.  

And then there was this Cosby-killer and cultural smart-bomb The Simpsons (1989-present).  

During the first eight seasons or so, The Simpsons was a hilarious show that just to happened to be animated. It's also odd to describe an animated show as well directed, but it was.  At first it employed an amazing  repertoire of visual nods to other shows and films and seemed to avoid broad and obvious jokes.  It's been on for so long now that it's moved away from character-driven plots and has degenerated into a wacky cartoon sitcom version of itself. 

It isn't the worst thing on T.V., but man, do I miss the subversive and cock-eyed sense of humor that characterized those earlier years.   

It also amazes me how much of a whipping post The Simpsons was for religious and parental watchdog group that thought it was mental nitroglycerin for kids.  It's because of this show's groundbreaking efforts that lesser programs like Family Guy (which is ten times worse for content) basically gets a free controversy pass nowadays. 

By the time I hit university, my floormates often used me as a walking, talking T.V. Guide.

"So, Dave, what's good on Tuesday nights?"

"Hmmmm, in think ABC is your best bet tonight.  How early you start is gonna depend on how much you can tolerate Tony Danza and how hot you think Alyssa Milano is.  You've got Who's the Boss at eight, The Wonder Years at eight-thirty and then Roseanne at nine.  But for the love of god, get the f%$#^ out of there after that unless you're a huge fan of Coach and eeeeesssh, thirtysomething."

Yeah, you could say I watched a lot of T.V.

But something happened to me when I was about twenty-five.  After encountering some more sophisticated  forms of entertainment (good books, independent films) the lure of the boob tube wore off for me.  I looked back on some of the dreck I'd watched and lamented on how I could have better spent that time doing more productive things.

So, for many years I wrote off network television as a giant waste of time.

But, as a famous man once said...

Emergency - Season One CHiPs - The Complete First SeasonCharlie's Angels - The Complete First SeasonKnight Rider - Season OneThe A-Team: Season OneV: The Complete SeriesStar Trek The Next Generation - The Complete First SeasonThe Carol Burnett Show - Show StoppersWKRP in Cincinnati - The Complete First SeasonFamily Ties - The Complete First SeasonCheers: The Complete First SeasonNight Court: The Complete First SeasonThe Cosby Show - Season 1Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music (40th Anniversary Edition) [Blu-ray]The Simpsons - The Complete First Season


FAIL: This was nearly as bad as Small Wonder.  That theme song alone is enough to send a body into a diabetic coma...

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