Sunday, June 01, 2014

TV: The documentary that fails

The sixties?  A crazy heady time that produced TV shows like Bewitched, Batman, The Flying Nun, Gidget, My Mother The Car, Gilligan’s Island, Mission Impossible, I Dream Of Jeannie, The Beverly Hillbillies, Julia, That Girl, The Man From Uncle, Honey West, I Spy, Laugh-In, The Carol Burnett Show, The Smothers Brothers, The Dean Martin ShowThe Doris Day Show, Here’s Lucy, The Lucy Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Star Trek, The Name of the Game, Dark Shadows and so much more.


So much, much more, in fact, than the new series The Sixties bothered to cover in their first episode last Thursday.  Some will argue that each episode is only an hour so there was a limit to what could be included and that is a valid point.

However, there are other valid points to be made as well.

The Tom Hanks produced series didn't, for instance, need Tom Hanks yacking about TV.

Not only did his musings add nothing, but he also didn't appear on sixties television.  Bosom Buddies was his seventies sitcom and when he did guest spots on Family Ties that was the 80s. 

Not only did Hanks not belong, neither did Phil Rosenthal.


Phil created the cesspool that was Everybody Wants To Love Raymond.  Phil isn't a bad person but it needs to be noted that this was one of the worst productions of the '00s.  We're not talking about what was onscreen.

We're also not talking about the cast.  We're talking about the people behind the scenes.  We're specifically speaking of two sexual predators who used the show as a lure for various assignations.  They went around the country doing promo and all they spread was ill will and a few social diseases.

Phil can work again.  The two we're speaking of have no future in the industry because you can only get so many calls to the cops in various cities before the industry isn't willing to risk a scandal for your mediocre talents.

Maybe Hanks can tell us about that when he does a series on the '00s?

But this is a series on the sixties  which underscores why Phil shouldn't have been on.  He produced nothing for TV in the sixties.

But there he was talking about sixties TV and how it changed everything and how you had diversity and –


Did the creator of Everybody Loves Raymond just talk about diversity?

Where was the diversity on Raymond?

Sherri Shepherd's Judy for eight episodes?  Robert's police partner was African-American.  She was barely on -- 8 episodes out of  210 episodes.  And that was it for the otherwise all White cast.

'It was a family show!'  

Well the family had friends.  Why was it that none of Raymond’s friends or co-workers were people of color?  Why is it that Frank and Marie knew so many couples but none included even one person of color?  Why did the ‘liberal’ Deborah not have a friend of color?  Why is that Robert dated and dated and dated but that never resulted in a woman of color?

The Romanos being White doesn't mean that they have to live in an all-White world unless you’re in the mind of Phil.  There was no reason to let Rosenthal yack on The Sixties about diversity (Bill Cosby "made race undeniable!") unless the point was to show hypocrisy.

There was Phil Rosenthal babbling on about the breakthroughs of sixties television as, hopefully, viewers registered that when Phil got around to creating a show, he didn't advance anything, he didn't even stand still.  Instead, he actively turned the clock backwards.

Diahann Carroll was on briefly, speaking about her sitcom Julia which was a break through by being the first sitcom to feature an African-American female lead.

Well, one in a professional, white collar job.  Julia was a nurse.

The 'documentary' forgot Beulah.

That sitcom started airing in 1950 with Ethel Waters in the title role.  The second season found Louise Beavers in the role and then Academy Award winner Hattie McDaniel.  For the third season, the role was played by Beavers.  Julia debuted 18 years later.  Ethel Waters is the first African-American woman to star in a sitcom.

Then you had Petula Clark talking about how she and Harry Belafonte were singing a song on her special and she touched his arm during the performance enraging a sponsor and worrying the network.

They then went to Bill Cosby accepting an award.  Bill, first as a co-star on I Spy, is a television pioneer, no question.  Nichelle Nichols is as well and her Uhura (Star Trek) may be one of the best remembered characters of sixties TV.  But if we’re talking breakthroughs for African-Americans on sixties TV, the list has to include Diahann Carroll, Bill Cosby, Nichelle Nichols and -- pay attention -- Greg Morris.

Morris starred on every season of Mission Impossible.  He was the strong man, the muscle, who intimidated and -- No, he wasn’t.  That was Willie.  Casting Morris in that role would have fit stereotypes.  You still see that stereotype used in multiple TV shows and movies today.  Morris played Barney who was the brains of the show.  Yes, Jim Phelps was the leader but Barney was the brains.  And Morris was playing a smart, dignified and sexy male at a time when African-Americans had been relegated to the roles of servants or criminals.

We can think of others who should have been mentioned but weren't.

Clarence Williams III.  Shouldn't he have been included?   Linc, Julie and Pete?  The three crime fighters of The Mod Squad.  Yes, Claire Danes and company starred in a psyche cringing film remake of the TV show but don’t hold that against sixties TV.  The trio was a team of equals in the series.  How do you forget Clarence Williams III?  Or what about Lloyd Haynes who not only starred in Room 222 with Karen Valentine but who was also nominated for Best Actor in the Emmy's comedy category?  How do you forget him?

Maybe the same way you forget women.

Along with Carroll, Sally Field is among the celebrities speaking to the camera.  She’s funny in her brief moments.  But how do you do sixties TV without mentioning Marlo Thomas and That Girl?  Or talking about what a breakthrough Mary Tyler Moore was as Laura Petrie?

Lucille Ball and Gracie Allen had created pioneering TV characters in the 50s.  While Allen retired in 1958 (and died in 1964), Lucy would continue to show women could be funny throughout the sixties, but this go round playing widows. 

TV wives, with Ball and Burns no longer playing them, were not funny.  They were the straight men for the funny husbands. 

Then came Mary Tyler Moore.

A beautiful woman, she was hired for her looks and charm as well as the chemistry she and Dick Van Dyke had in readings. 

She could have been the latest wife on The Danny Thomas Show except for the fact that The Dick Van Dyke Show had a comedic genius behind it: Carl Reiner.

Reiner knew comedy and loved comedy.  When he saw that Mary could handle some small funny bits, Laura was given more and more to do and one of TV’s funniest comedians was embraced by sixties America.

Marlo Thomas followed in Mary’s footsteps.  She played Ann Marie an aspiring actress in New York City who, in a first, was unmarried and didn’t live at home.

While Mary, Marlo and Diahann deserve tremendous credit and praise for the trails they blazed, we especially wonder where was Lucy who the special never named and only showed briefly at the Emmys presenting an award?

The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy were tremendously popular sixties programs and both have never stopped airing in syndication. 

Women were short-changed over and over in the broadcast.  Goldie Hawn became famous on Laugh-In

To watch the special she did so because she danced in a bikini sporting body paint.

That's not why Goldie Hawn became famous.

Many women danced in bikinis on Laugh-In.

No offense, most are forgotten today.

Goldie became a star on Laugh-In for the same reason that Ruth Buzzi, Joanne Worley and Lily Tomlin became famous on the show – she was funny.

Judy Carne was a good sport, she was not funny.  That was true of many others who were known for the show.

But the women who actually became famous did so because they were funny.

Gracie Allen lived on in Goldie's Laugh-In character.  Goldie’s timing was strictly her own but her character was in the tradition of Gracie's work – much more so than Marilyn Monroe's movie roles. 

How sad that women were so unimportant to Tom Hanks and company.  

TV critics were featured commenting in the hour and they even managed to include one woman.  But they didn't manage to include any critics of color.  Which was rather strange and left actress Diahann Carroll as the only person of color discussing the breakthroughs for people of color in the sixties.  

In other words, Tom Hanks has a lot of Phil Rosenthal in him – and your first clue there probably should have been the overwhelming Whiteness of his films after he becomes box office gold.  (We’d start the count with Penny Marshall's A League of Their Own which proved Big wasn’t a one-shot hit for Hanks.  After he becomes box office gold, he can get anything he wants and, in film after film, he appears to want a White world – plus Denzel as an attorney and another with a bunch of pirates.)

It takes a lot of Whiteness to create a supposed documentary that wants to note racial advancement but only as long as the people providing the commentary and the critiques are White.  

There were over 21 commentators and the only African-American among them was Diahann Carroll.   Diahann was among four women allowed to provide modern day comments.  

Hanks makes clear his disinterest in women and his belief that the story of TV’s Sixties Civil Rights Battle will be told by White America – even though his picks weren't participants and they weren't present for events.

The series tried to argue that you were present for events, we were all present for events, via television.  A nation of couch potatoes were no doubt spawned in the sixties, however, watching TV isn't being present.  The notion that it is would be as ridiculous as Hanks and company claiming television news took over in the sixties and became dominant.

No, it didn't.

They offer Vietnam footage for about 15 seconds in the special and that’s supposed to establish the importance of TV news.  But the bulk of the important Vietnam coverage would come in the seventies, not the sixties.  With the exception of Vietnam, sixties news really didn't have much.

‘Ava and C.I.! What are you talking about!  TV news told us President Kennedy died, it showed us riots in Chicago at the DNC convention! It –‘

It offered ‘coverage’ that was the equivalent of headlines.

Yes, Americans largely learned JFK was shot or that Americans landed on the moon via TV news. 

But that was headlines, that was announcements, that wasn't reporting.  It was stick your head out a window and see what's happening across the street.  Consider that 'displaying' but don't call it 'reporting.'

In the sixties, TV would do better at reporting in documentaries.  But the episode never noted documentaries.  Seventies TV, largely spurred by the model that turned Jessica Savitch into a local media star before NBC News grabbed her, would advance television reporting.

The reality of news was absent.  Even more absent was daytime TV, especially children’s programming and soap operas.

ABC’s General Hospital is currently celebrating its 50th  anniversary meaning it began airing in 1964.  By the end of the sixties, it would be part of ABC’s daytime schedule which also included One Life To Live, The Young Marrieds, The Nurses and Dark Shadows while CBS’ offerings included As The World Turns, Guiding Light, The Edge of Night, Love of Life, Secret Storm and Search for Tomorrow and NBC was airing soaps like Another World, Young Doctor Malone, Days of Our Lives and The Doctors.

In the desire of Hanks and company to promote ‘trippy’ in a family-safe-and-friendly manner, you had an idiot (Hanks) declaring Disney’s ABC offerings in the sixties were like Technicolor acid trips ("acid trip of a show").  But if you wanted the television equivalent of an acid trip, you should have been checking out General Hospital’s recent Nurses Ball episodes.

‘Luke’ (Anthony Geary) married Tracy (Jane Elliot) while Lucy (Lynn Herring) was out of her dress kissing Scott (Kin Shriner) on stage as the curtains went up and her husband Kevin and everyone present looked on.  If that didn’t leave you reeling  Dr. Obrecht (Kathleen Gaiti) should have.

The woman isn't just a doctor or just the chief of staff of General Hospital, she’s also a criminal who, most recently (April) kidnapped Elizabeth and a baby.  Prior to that, she’d kidnapped Robin, Jason and Scorpio.
So when Dr. Obrecht takes to the stage to sing "You were always on my mind . . ." while scanning the audience, you sort of picture the various doctors and nurses assembled shivering in their seats.

Between the plot lines, the casting of Donna Mills as Dr. Obrecht’s sister Dr. Madeline West,  and Dr. Obrecht’s German accent circa MGM’s forties films, things can’t get much trippier.

ABC's last surviving soap opera has an annoying habit these days of offering 30 seconds of a scene before switching to another.  So, for example, someone will be talking about Alexis or Julian and then suddenly the camera cuts to Alexis and Julian for a few seconds before going back to the earlier scene.

These little quick cuts are supposed to create tension and rhythm – something producer Gloria Monty and director Marlena Laird used to do on General Hospital back in the eighties via camera shots – they’d switch shots to add beats to the scenes.

If you’re thinking this cross-cutting serves to advance the storyline, you’re wrong.  Sonny discovered Ava had lied to him about AJ (leading Sonny to kill AJ) and that Ava had killed Connie so he rushes to the island to confront Ava.  It's three episodes after the confrontation starts before Sonny tells Ava he knows she lied about AJ.

Three long episodes.  Start and stop scene after start and stop scene while the viewer waits for Sonny to confront Ava over how he killed his adopted son’s biological father, breaking a promise to his adopted son, because of her lies. 

Three long episodes.

The quick cuts don’t advance the story one bit.

That's also true of The Sixties which also favors quick cuts.  It’s a good thing for Sally Field that she is naturally funny.  If, like a few others, she’d tried to offer insight, she would have come off rather slow.

The Sixties illuminates nothing as it rushes around in a scattershot manner, a never ending conga line of factoids which never register as anything greater than paint droplets splattered on canvas.

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