Showing posts with label television. Show all posts
Showing posts with label television. Show all posts

09 January 2018

Rest In Peace, Major Crimes


SPOILER ALERT. If you watch the TV show Major Crimes and haven't seen the episodes that aired on December 19th, stop reading and go watch. Then come back.
For nearly thirteen years, I have been invested in the Major Crimes squad of the Los Angeles Police Department--the fictional one, as depicted in two series on TNT: The Closer, which ran from 2005 - 2012, and its spin-off, Major Crimes, which began in 2012 and which will air its final episode tonight. I have loved these two shows because of the writing and the acting, because the audience was allowed to become invested in the characters as well as the cases, and because the people behind the show--until recently--were able to give the audience a good balance of episodes, some serious, other lighthearted. Put simply, these shows made me happy.

But with the final episode just hours away from being aired, I must confess I'm not happy anymore. I'm not happy that the powers behind the cable network apparently put pressure in the last year on the people behind Major Crimes to make the show darker and edgier and to come up with story lines that wouldn't be resolved in a single episode but instead dragged on and on and on.

While I'm okay with overarching character issues that continue throughout a series--seeing Sharon and Andy, for instance, grow from friends to husband and wife--and while I'm okay with larger plot issues that reoccur from time to time (such as the ongoing case involving serial killer Philip Stroh), I didn't like that Major Crimes changed its format recently from having a murder that was solved each week to a murder case that would take several weeks to be solved. Those multiple-episode cases became too hard to follow, and they were all so so dark and serious.

I'm also unhappy because Major Crimes killed off the star of the show, Sharon Raydor, a few episodes ago. It was shocking and heartbreaking and completely unnecessary. When a canceled show goes off the air, I like to think that the fictional characters are still out there, doing their jobs, living their lives. I might not get to check in with them anymore, but in my mind, they are riding off happily into the sunset. But when the main character of a TV show is killed off, there is no happily ever after. There is no joy any longer.

I read a Variety article a few weeks ago in which the amazing Mary McDonnell, who played Major Crimes's star, Sharon Raydor, talked about the decision by the show's executive producer and creator, James Duff, to kill off Sharon. The death wasn't done for shock value or as an F.U. to the network. It appears the decision was made thoughtfully and with the audience in mind. Duff wanted to allow the audience to grieve, and he thought this would be a good-send off for the character. Maybe there are viewers out there who enjoyed this closure. But for me and for every person I've talked to about this, it was a kick in the gut--a major miscalculation. I didn't want grief forced on me. I wanted to believe Sharon and Andy would live happily ever after. I wanted Sharon to continue leading her squad. If I had to put up with the show being canceled, I at least should have been given the ability to believe that everything would continue to be well with all my favorite fictional police detectives. That would have left me satisfied.


All of this agita leads to an interesting question. When a series is ending, be it a TV show or a mystery novel series or any other type of series, how much does the author/showrunner owe to the readers/audience? After nearly thirteen years as a viewer of these two TV shows, I feel ownership of the characters and want them to have a happy ending, as I expect most loyal viewers do. But if I put on my author hat, I realize that my reaction is quite presumptuous. I might be a loyal viewer, but these are not my characters, not my story lines, not my shows. I don't own the copyright. I didn't dream up these dramas. I didn't bring the characters to life. As an author, I own the stories I write, and while I keep my readers in mind as I write, I choose the twists and the endings, and I would be aggravated if readers started telling me that I should craft my stories differently. My stories are mine. So from this perspective, I can understand Duff's desire to end the show on his terms. I just wish his terms weren't so different from mine.

Major Crimes certainly isn't the only series (TV or books) to end on a note that readers didn't like. (And I should add that while I'm unhappy with Duff's choice to kill off Sharon, the episodes since then have been wonderful, and I expect the final episode tonight too will be good.) The final episodes of other shows and books have not been so well received either. The last episode of Seinfeld, for instance, was terrible. Viewers wanted to imagine Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer living out their lives in New York, going about their days where nothing happens in an amusing manner. No one wanted to imagine those characters in prison. And when Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes, readers were so unhappy, thousands apparently canceled their subscriptions to The Strand magazine, in which the offending story appeared. I read that Conan Doyle wanted to send Holmes off with a bang. But what about what the readers wanted?

It's a hard line for writers to walk, wanting to keep strong to your artistic vision as you wind up a series, yet give your readers/viewers the payoff they want. It must be especially hard when the decisions are made with care, yet they aren't received as expected, at least by some.

So it will be with a heavy heart that I watch the last episode of Major Crimes tonight. I expect that the serial killer Stroh will finally be caught. I expect that justice will prevail. I expect that no other characters in the squad will die. And I expect that no matter what happens in the episode, I will be in mourning as the final credits roll, because these are characters whom I've grown to love, and I'll miss them. And that is something Duff and McDonnell and everyone involved in Major Crimes and The Closer before it can be proud of. It's no small thing to create a world that brings others joy, even if some readers/viewers don't love every aspect of the way the story comes to an end.

26 July 2017

Old Dogs


Even before Rob Lopresti mentioned it last week - is there a rule about blondes? - I'd been watching the Brit cop show New Tricks, starting at the beginning of the series and working my way forward. I remember catching some episodes when they were broadcast on A&E or maybe Mystery, but I wasn't a regular. Just like discovering a new writer when they're already established (picking up a book from the middle of their catalog, and then going back to read all of their books in order of appearance), you get a stronger sense of brand loyalty, not to mention story dynamic and character, when you watch a series from the start. You see them correct the seasoning, too, and find the right beat. Riker is better with a beard. Barney Miller doesn't need a home life.

New Tricks was camera-ready pretty much right out of the box. They established a framework, furnished it with familiar devices, and peopled it with a comfortably solid crew. And something unpredictable happened. The show got legs, yes, but the anarchic energies of the game team, or whatever was in the water, made for an eccentric orbit. This is immediately obvious in the chemistry between the four character leads, and the writing plays off this as the series builds on itself. It's a symbiotic process.



The premise is reasonably straightforward. A fast-track Detective Superintendent is given the job of recruiting a cold case squad for the Met. She lines up three retired cops, each with particular strengths and weaknesses. They are, in fact, past their sell-by date, and the tensions between the three older guys and their younger, ambitious boss are about gender, and generations, and not a little about style. Which makes for easy targets, on the one hand, but some quieter subtext, on the other. The show can be surprisingly dark, comic relief a way to depressurize. The pilot for New Tricks came on in 2003, the same year as the American series Cold Case. Cold Case, though, was pretty relentlessly grim. Also the American show used flashbacks as a regular feature, reconstructing what might have happened.  New Tricks takes place entirely in the here and now, using only the POV of the detectives.




What makes it effective? The casting. This is as true of Jim Garner in Rockford as it is of Angela Lansbury in Murder, She Wrote. In this this case, it's the ensemble, and the way they rub off on one another (or rub each other the wrong way). Four old pros, basically. Alun Armstrong is one of those English supporting actors you recognize immediately, without remembering quite where it was you saw him last. Something of Dickens, maybe? You look him up, it's amazing, the range of stuff he's been in. James Bolam runs a close second. (It surprised me to see he once even did Andy Capp, the working-class comic strip character.) Amanda Redman has done Diana Dors, she was Ray Winstone's wife in Sexy Beast, and she's got a long line of British TV credits. Lastly, there's Dennis Waterman, with a career going back to the 1960's. Waterman was the second-billed lead (after John Thaw) in The Sweeney, a cop show that overturned convention, at least in the UK. Up until then, the idea that a cop would bend the law to put a villain away wouldn't have been spoken above a whisper. It's hard to overstate its influence. As big as Miami Vice here in the States, ten years later? Let's just say it's a name cast, so far as British viewers go. (Nor to scant the wonderful Susan Jameson, either, who plays Alun Armstrong's better half, and is married to James Bolam, in life.)



And part of the fun, on either side of the Pond, is the list of guest shots. Ooh, look, there's Patrick Malahide  (Inspector Alleyn, Balon Greyjoy), or Clare Holman, from Morse, and Lewis, and Lewis himself, Kevin Whately, playing against type as a rather dodgy school headmaster. Jon Finch, Rupert Graves, Phyllida Law, Claire Bloom, Peter Davison, Anthony Head. Cherie Lunghi, Jane Asher, Victor Spinetti, Art Malik, Honor Blackman, Camille Coduri, Rita Tushingham, Sylvia Syms, Jenny Agutter, James Fox, Nicholas Farrell, John McEnery, Roy Marsden. Sheesh.



The scripts are very canny, and consistent. They have the satisfaction of good joinery, tightly fit and pleasingly shaped. The usual red herrings, and the least likely, but the stories play fair. The procedural and the personal are interleaved, and they inform each other. The funny stuff surfaces in unlikely places, too, catching you with your guard down. Dennis Waterman's Jerry, who fancies himself something of a ladies' man: "I used to have a thing for older women." Amanda Redman's Sandra: "And now there aren't any." (The exchanges between the two of them given a slight extra edge by our behind-the-scenes knowledge that they were briefly an item themselves, back in the day.)

The show ran its course. At mid-point, it was one of the most-watched series in the UK. But after eight seasons, James Bolam left, and Alun Armstrong and Amanda Redman hung up their spurs after season ten. Dennis Waterman lasted into the opening episodes of season twelve, and then he too turned in his badge. New Tricks folded.



The lesson here isn't about losing stamina or overstaying your welcome. The lesson is about how they got it right in the first place. We know it's not as easy as it looks. Part of it's luck, part of it's having good material, part of it's showing up on time. The writers, the cast, the production values. They knew they were onto something, and it shows. What it is, is heart. They delivered.

26 April 2017

Life on Mars


Life on Mars is another one of those oddball Brit TV shows you come across from time to time. It ran in the UK from 2006-2007, and then fell off the radar, although David Kelley produced a short-lived American remake, and there were Spanish, Russian, and Czech versions. Later on, the original creative team developed the sequel Ashes to Ashes, which BBC One broadcast from 2008 to 2010.

I came to Life on Mars backwards, by way of an entirely different series called Island at War, about the WWII German occupation of the Channel Islands. Island at War had a high-powered cast, for those of you familiar with British TV - Clare Holman, Saskia Reeves, James Wilby, Laurence Fox, along with a guy who hadn't caught my eye before, Philip Glenister. The show's a little reminiscent of Foyle's War, because of the period, for one, but also the slightly off-center POV. The crushing weakness of Island at War is that it stops dead after six episodes (it apparently didn't pull in enough audience share), so what happens to these characters we've become invested in can never be resolved. They're marooned, foundlings, lost from view. The fates we imagine for them go unsatisfied.

What's a boy to do? I went looking for more Philip Glenister. There's a fair bit of it, he's got a solid list of credits, and as luck would have it, the first thing to turn up on my researches was Life on Mars, two sets, eight episodes each. I could see heartbreak ahead yet again, but I took the plunge.

Here's the premise. The hotshot young DCI, rising star Sam Tyler, is knocked flat by a hit-and-run, and when he wakes up, the time is out of joint. It's thirty-odd years in the past. 1973. Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, Mott the Hoople. There are basically three alternatives. Sam has actually traveled back in time? Um. He's stark raving nuts? Could be. Or is this all a figment of his imagination, because in the real world, his own world, he's in a hospital bed in Intensive Care, in a coma? Which is what Sam decides to believe. He's hearing voices, having hallucinations. He must be elsewhere, if he's somehow generating this fiction, this vivid alternative reality.

And into this vivid fiction swaggers Philip Glenister, playing the juiciest part in the show, DCI Gene Hunt, the 'guv,' or as the local Manchester accent has it, Dee-See-AH Hoont. Life in Mars, see, is a police procedural, but the era of Hawaii Five-O, if not Barney Miller. In point of fact, what Sam wakes up to is a cop shop filtered through a TV sensibility. There's enough "Book 'em, Dan-o" to go around, and a grab-bag of generic conceits, but the characters play both into and against type - at the same time - which keeps you guessing. Glenister certainly plays Hunt as larger than life, and Hunt is often shot from a lower camera angle. He looms. Glenister voices him at a rough pitch, too, so he seems more villain, in the Brit sense, than copper. Which makes the moments when he unbends all the more affecting. Hunt isn't confessional, he doesn't admit his vulnerabilities, you'd never catch him getting teary. Sam puts a sympathetic hand on the guv's shoulder in a scene, and Hunt shrugs it off. "Don't go all Dorothy on me," he says.

I'm showing my own hand here, because one of the guilty pleasures in watching Life on Mars is its gleeful political in-correctness. The coarse jokes, the raw vocabulary, the constant smoking - somebody's always lighting a cigarette or putting one out, it's a signature. Less comfortable is the casual violence. The lack of self-discipline is itself corrupting. This isn't a subtext, either, it's front and center, woven into the fabric. I might be reading the signs too closely. Then again, the reason a show like this strikes a nerve, and creates brand loyalty, is because it reflects some hidden thing or open secret, whether it's played for laughs or not. Life on Mars doesn't take itself too seriously, but it invites our complicity.

What, then, accounts for its extended shelf life? People keep discovering or rediscovering the show, the sixteen episodes of those two seasons out on DVD. (Ashes to Ashes, the sequel, is only available so far on Region 2, which makes it more or less out of reach in the U.S. Get a clue, guys, this is a neglected market.) For one, maybe I haven't made it plain that Life on Mars is extremely funny. Sometimes it's gallows humor, sometimes pure burlesque. For another, the cast is terrifically engaging. Glenister owns DCI Hunt, but John Simm as Sam Tyler is the tentpole character. And counter-intuitively, maybe we don't want all those loose ends tied up, everything unambiguous, the answers packaged and portion-controlled. Always leave them waiting for more.



30 January 2017

Oops! That Worn't Work


Mary Maloney is a devoted wife and housekeeper. One day her husband, the police chief, announces that he wants a divorce because he has met another woman. Mary is quite angry and kills him with a blow from a frozen leg of lamb. She calls the police and provides am alibi for herself with the story that she'd been out to the store when the murder took place. The investigating officer, Lieutenant Noonan is further frustrated when he cannot find the murder weapon. Knowing of the long and hard hours spent looking into the case, Mary invites Noonan and the other investigators for a bite to eat. They dig into Mary's leg of lamb and Noonan, still thinking about the missing murder weapon, says, "For all we know, it might be right under our very noses."
— Plot summary of LAMB TO THE SLAUGHTER, Alfred Hitchcock TV, Season 3 Episode 28. Apl. 58, written by Ronald Dahl (story) Ronald Dahl (teleplay).
What then of Edgar Allan Poe's 1843 story of THE TELL-TELL HEART. The narrator is trying to convince us he is not mad, because he so cleverly treats the old man with such caring and delights. Although that blue eye with the film over it is still looking at him. He plans for a whole seven days. Going so stealthily at mid-night every night to the old man's room and looking in on him. Until finally the great plan comes together and as he quietly opens the door the blue eye looks a him. and after not moving for over an hour begins to hear the beating of the old man's heart.  That only adds to his fury,  he jumps on the old man, the old man screams. He pulls the man to the floor and kills him. The heart is silent.

Then he carefully cuts the corpse up and deposits it under the floor boards of the bedroom chamber. Can anyone who is mad clean up everything and it only took until 4 am. Just as he gets to his own bedroom, there is a loud knocking at the door, A neighbor had reported hearing a dreadful scream.
Three policemen come in. He explains he was the one who screamed waking from a nightmare. He tells then the old man has gone to the country. He takes them all over the house ending in the old man's bed chamber to show them all the old man's precious things are still there. He invites the police to sit and he puts his own chair right over the spot where the dismembered body is located. They sit and talk but after a time he begins to hear a ringing in his ears and then hears the heart beat. It gets louder and louder. he talks more animated and the police keep talking and act as if they don't heat the heart.

Finally he jumps up, rips up the boards and tells the police. "Here, here. I did it and here's the beating of his hideous heart."

Could we ever be as calm and collected  as Mary Maloney? To murder her husband with a leg of lamb then cook and serve it to the policemen who have been investigating?

Or are we as mad and strange as the man committing murder then when he has gotten away with it, slide into total and complete madness because he still hears the heartbeat of the man he killed?

Probably not. But we can write character's who are calm and collected and get totally away with murder. Or a character like the mad man in Poe's story.

However, in real life, just keep your imagination running when you're committing a murder on your laptop. And tell your muse to take a break your are going to cook dinner. You have everything assembled in the crock pot but the final step and notice you need a little more water. You turn the water on and nothing happens. How can that be? You were just using water about five minutes ago.

And your muse says, "How will you clean up all that blood from the kitchen floor if you don't have any water?" And there is quite a lot of blood when you shot your ex-husband who broke into your house, planning to do you bodily harm.

You look up the phone number in the local directory for City Hall to send a crew out to check out what is wrong, but you accidentally dial the police department because the print in the phone book is so small you had placed your finger on the wrong similar number.

"Oops, I dialed the wrong number, Lieutenant. I have a mess on my kitchen floor and suddenly I don't have any water."

24 September 2016

Things that drive Crime Writers CRAAAZY


I’m a crime writer. Hell, I’ll put on my other hat (the one with the pointy top) and say it. I’m even a fantasy writer (my corvette reminds me every day, as those are the books that bought it.)


So I know about suspension of disbelief. I’m willing to admit that as an audience, we might agree to ‘suspend belief’ for a little while.

But enough is enough. Television, you go too far. CSI Hoboken, or wherever you are, take note. Here are some things that drive otherwise fairly normal crime writers (oxymoron alert) crazy:


1. Crime scene people in high heels and raw cleavage.

Of all the !@#$%^&* things that television distorts, this is the one that bugs us the most. Ever been on a crime scene? Ever been in a LAB?

For six years, I was Director of Marketing for the Canadian Society of Medical Laboratory Science. I’ve been in a friggin’ lab or two. Take it from me: it ain’t a place for fuck-me shoes and long loose hair. You want my DNA messing with your crime results?

Network producers, stop treating us like ignorant adolescents who need to be sexually charged every single moment. Stop. Just stop. It’s insulting.

2. Gunshot victims who give their last speech and then die, Kerplunk.

Full disclosure: I was also a hospital director. People who get hit with a bullet to the heart die, kerplunk. They aren’t hanging around to give their last words. People who get hit in the gut may take many hours to die. It’s not a pretty sight. Take it from me. They usually aren’t thinking sentimental thoughts.

3. Where’s the blood spatter?

If you stab someone while they are still living and breathing, there is going to be blood spatter. Usually, that spatter will go all over the stabber. So sorry, producers: your bad guy is not going to walk away immaculate from a crime scene in which he just offed somebody with a stiletto. You won’t need Lassie to find him in a crowd, believe me.

4. Villains who do their ‘Fat Lady Sings’ pontification.

Why does every villain in boob-tube-town delay killing the good guy so he can tell the soon-to-be-dead schmuck his life story? I mean, the schmuck is going to be offed in two minutes, right? You’re going to plug him. So why is it important that he know why you hate your mother and the universe in general?

Someday, I am going to write a book/script where one guy gets cornered and before he can say a word, this happens:

<INT. A dark warehouse or some other cliché. >

BLAM.

The smoking gun fell to my side as Snidely dropped to the floor.

“Dudley!” gasped Nell. “You didn’t give him a chance to explain!”

I yawned. “Bor-ing. All these villains go to the same school. You heard one, you’ve heard them all.”

“Isn’t that against the law?” said Nell, stomping her little foot. “Don’t you have to let the bad guy have his final scene?”

BLAM.

The smoking gun fell to my side as Nell dropped to the floor.

Melodie Campbell writes silly stuff for newspapers and comedians, and usually they even pay her. You can catch more of her comedy on www.melodiecampbell.com, or better still, buy her books.

04 October 2015

SOS


by Leigh Lundin

The Prisoner
For a writer who doesn’t own a television, I’ve been watching a lot lately. Friends Steve and Sharon offered their home as an autumn retreat in exchange for house-sitting. And recently I was granted nearly unlimited access to television archives from the past decade, including difficult-to-find productions such as the 2009 update of The Prisoner.

Watching an entire miniseries or season at once offers advantages.
  • Without having to wait a week between episodes and potentially forget clues that occurred in the interim, the viewer gets the full, undiluted impact of the program.
  • Ads become a non-issue. Even with current, prime-time shows, I record episodes and watch them an hour or two later when I can skip ads.
  • Networks have a nasty habit of cancelling series, especially science fiction, but crime-related programs as well. Far too often, these series start with an over-arching plot that never gets resolved. Occasionally long-running programs sour. By having entire seasons on tap, the viewer can decide whether they wish to vest time in watching many hours of television programming that may go nowhere.
Longmire
The disadvantage is that such a viewer chatting with the water cooler set might not be au fait with the latest episode. Not just bubbly conversers, of course, because conversations continue on-line in blogs and Facebook. In this case, TV becomes a shared activity, a social glue that becomes part of our societal fabric.

It’s a choice of course, but I’ve greatly enjoyed the impact of Longmire for an hour or two, night after night for the duration.

SOS

My most serious complaint about television is what I call soap opera… well, to use the British spelling, soap opera shite. SOS is a catchall for the tacky interpersonal dramas inserted by hapless writers to pad out 47 minutes amid a dearth of ideas. While couched as characterization, SOS is a poor parody of characterization through a Bizarro ray, a devolution of unlasting relationships into superficiality, a script device that muddies everything it touches.

Perry Mason
Among the worst offenders have been legal dramas– LA Law, The Practice, Boston Legal, The Good Wife, etc. But also consider the grand exception, the 1957 original Perry Mason series, purist plots in black and white. If the show was re-imagined today, Paul Drake would be shedding his briefs with Della Street who is having an affair with the wife of a hitman hired by Hamilton Burger who’s the father of Perry and Paul’s love child secretly married to Lieutenant Tragg, sleeping with Judge Barlow’s court reporter who’s a secret CIA operative…

To be sure, some programs are deliberately set up to explore relationships between characters, the Sherlock series offering one example and Twin Peaks another. But, as we learned, Twin Peaks followed spiraling devolution as show runners encouraged mattress mix-and-match, pajama plug-and-play. SOS relationships have less structural integrity than a politician’s promise. In another hallmark, when writers can think of nothing else, one character will be found to work for the CIA (or NSA or MI-5).

Murder One
The Minimal Maxim
The axiom regarding television dramas is that creativity decreases as the number of episodes in a series increases and, as a corollary, increases the likelihood of SOS.
Over time, most television dramas descend into SOS, but a few manage to avoid the pitfalls such as the 1993 Murder One and the recent Murder in the First. True Detective also evaded the trap by devoting each season to one story but took matters a step further by completely revising season two with a new cast, plot, location, and theme music. Only its title remained the same.

Promising Premises

The premises of Limitless, Blindspot and Quantico are auspicious although the latter two show early signs of SOS peril. Viewers can hope for the best, but I want to touch upon another program.

The Player
The Player could turn out to be very, very good or really, really bad. It’s a combination of the once brilliant Person of Interest and… remember Admiral Poindexter’s Policy Analysis Market? For that alone, I’d give it a shot while wondering if something like PAM may secretly be happening. The Player's Vegas-based on-line casino gives high-rollers the opportunity to bet on the outcome of terrorism and police action, on life and death itself.

While I find the setup intriguing, the program needs to rapidly build characterization, something beyond fast cars and slow-mo fights. While star Philip Winchester has fully deployed all his first semester drama class skills, Wesley Snipes is its most interesting character. Well played, Mr. Snipes. Critics are betting against it, nearly 2-to-1, and they may be right.

Pure Escape

Escape Plan
I mentioned Person of Interest, which co-starred Jim Caviezel as quiet-spoken John Reese along with unassuming Michael Emerson as Harold Finch. Caviezel appeared as a hard-ass prison warden in a 2013 movie, Escape Plan. I was unaware of it when it made its initial rounds, but I caught it in one of those 3AM BlahTV channel reruns.

Normally, I wouldn’t expect to recommend a film starring Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger but, while the Escape Plan isn’t genius (50% positive rating), it takes an intelligent stab at plotting. It’s entertaining watching Stallone, who tests security by breaking out of prisons, do his jailbreak thing.

What is your take?

30 August 2015

Rocky King: Murder, PhD


With this, the fifth and final in our Rocky King, Detective series, we’ve brought you the five examples available in the public domain. UCLA archives contain about two dozen more episodes salvaged before a disingenuous lawyer destroyed DuMont’s film library, virtually erasing collective memory of the pioneering broadcaster and its teleplays.

In this episode, you may wonder about the haunting blues harmonica that starts off as a nice touch but grows slightly tedious. It’s not used as filler in the ordinary sense. Besides giving organist Jack Ward a break, the jail cut-scene serves a purpose: a staged transition giving actors a chance to rush to their next location, sometimes on a different floor of the DuMont Tele-Centre in Manhattan. The harmonica/jail insert at the four-minute mark gives Roscoe Karns time to jog from the domestic setting of his house to meet Detective Sergeant Lane (Earl Hammond) in their office. Imagine writers and directors forced to not only plot a viable story, but to plan for actors reaching their scenes in time as designated cameras went live.

Mistakes were inevitable, although this episode is relatively free of errors. As we saw in an earlier episode when a picture fell off a wall, things sometimes went wrong during live presentations. Falling props and scenery were not uncommon. Not only did scenery problems afflict the early 1949 BBC broadcast of Miss Marple, the murdered victim rose and walked off the set in the middle of the broadcast.

Tip back your chair and watch how crime stories appeared in homes in the nascent days of television in this episode titled…

Murder, PhD
broadcast: 1953-Dec-13


in which a possibly innocent man is due to be executed in 180 minutes…

23 August 2015

Rocky King: Death Has Dark Hands


This is the 4th of five episodes of Rocky King, Detective found in the public domain. Some readers are cheering and some are groaning, all muttering, “Only one more to go!” Today’s presentation is also the most obscure and difficult to locate.

It can’t be argued that crime shows proved at least as popular in the nascent television market as they had on radio, before that on stage, and today on our fancy wide-screen entertainment centers. Fortunately for mystery writers, the public’s appetite proved voracious. The DuMont Television Network led with their own stable:


Adventures Of Ellery Queen
Chicagoland Mystery Players
Famous Jury Trials
Front Page Detective¹
Hands of Murder/Mystery

Man Against Crime¹
The Plainclothesman
Rocky King, Detective
They Stand Accused
Trial By Jury
²


¹ syndicated
² reality courtroom show

Early television programming was noted for live action. Soaps with their few set changes seemed reasonable enough, but detective dramas took considerable planning to accomplish seamless transitions, when a director earned his keep. Occasionally sets were found on different floors, requiring actors to run up and down stairs to meet the story requirements. Not until the 1970s would wild car chases become popular enough to obscure muddled plots.

The Plainclothesman appeared in the 9:30 Eastern Time slot immediately following Rocky King. That program innovated ‘subjective camera PoV’, adding a level of complexity and sophistication to live on-camera work. Rather than the audience passively observing a show put on for their benefit, they could participate through the eyes of the protagonist, looking at scenes, actions, and clues as he would see them.

It’s 9 o’clock of a Sunday evening where family gathers around that fascinating new piece of furniture, the DuMont television set. Mom has opened its cabinet doors and Dad switches on the set. The screen brightens, wriggles, and then takes shape… Come with us now for another Rocky King adventure …

Death Has Dark Hands
broadcast: 1952-Oct-19


in which dies a chemist with a glowing reputation…

16 August 2015

Rocky King: One Minute for Murder


The show must go on: In this episode, Rocky King does not appear in Rocky King.

Roscoe Karns found himself ill and could not go on the air. A popular misconception claims his real-life son, Todd Karns, took over the lead rôle for that episode. Todd, however, had not yet joined the cast. Instead Earl Hammond, who portrayed Sergeant Lane, led the investigation that day.

The series was noted for sly touches of humor and in this case, the inspector made an appearance of sorts… banging on the wall. The dialogue also references live performances going on, no matter what.

Careful listeners could catch little quips to the audience. One of the cleverest subtext jokes came in the episode, ‘Return for Death’ in the domestic badinage between Rocky and his beloved wife, Mabel. As they discuss growing older and the wisdom of picking out a burial plot, Detective Hart phones in to say that a case has erupted in the local cemetery. Hart fumbles a joke about the graveyard shift, and then we’re treated to this double entendre:
Mabel: “Do you think you should go there, dear, after our conversation?”
Rocky: ”Yes, dear. We should plan on having a little plot somewhere.”
During the homicide investigation of a famous mystery writer in ‘Murder in Advance’, Hart asks Rocky King to name his favorite television mystery. King says, “It’s kind of personal.”

Of course it is!

One Minute for Murder
broadcast: 1952-Sep-28


in which a scandal sheet gossip columnist is found murdered in the theatre. Shockingly some people regard that as a crime…

09 August 2015

Rocky King: The Hermit’s Cat


As mentioned last week (2nd August), Rocky King, Detective was shot live. Besides the thread of the plot, it adds a level of interest for me as I figure out how they managed the telecast on live television from the DuMont Studio premises.

This episode contains an outdoor scene utilizing a couple of different shots. The oncoming car headlights sequence is cleverly done. I imagine a couple of small light bulbs on a black-painted board moving closer to the camera. The camera shows a car wheel, not an actual car itself, rolling to a stop against the victim’s body. The scene in the garage was assembled with only a few props; at no time did the cameras leave the studio.

Note the touches of humor, some of it self-deprecating.
Norton (gardener): “I like to read these and sometimes I get scared.”
R.King: “Oh, detective magazines, huh. You can find out a lot from these, here.”

Norton: “They sure kill people funny ways, don’t they.”
R.King: “That depends on your sense of humor.”
Notice the hideous clown picture in the King family’s house at the beginning of the episode… it will come up again before the episode ends.

My apologies to Bonnie Stevens; even Rocky King, Detective, wasn't able to save the cat.

Grab your popcorn, settle in your armchair, and watch…

The Hermit’s Cat
broadcast: 1952-Aug-31


in which a cat dies and a lawyer loses the will to marry…

02 August 2015

Rocky King: Murder Scores a Knockout


Rocky King, Inside Detective, did not take himself too seriously. He was, after all, working for the DuMont Television Network, which was constantly starved for cash. Unlike flashier big-screen dicks, the down-to-earth detective proved popular with audiences. Played by Roscoe Karns, he enjoyed the domestic life, scraped by financially, and took his lunch to work.

Rocky’s wife Mabel never appeared on screen originally due to cost-savings measures so she could appear in other rôles without changing costumes. The audience loved that little twist and actress Grace Carney developed her own fan following. At the end of each program, actor Karns would ad-lib a conversation with his wife usually over the phone, ending with a signature sound bite, “Great gal, that Mabel.”

Roscoe Karns’ real-life wife Mary appeared at least once in the show. Their real-life son, Todd Karns, would eventually take over the rôle of Sergeant Lane, presently played by Earl Hammond in the episode presented below.

In the next few weeks, I’ll share more about Rocky King, but take note these broadcasts were performed live, mostly in the DuMont Tele-Center, often using the offices as impromptu sets. While live television suffered from miscues and occasional dropped lines, it’s fascinating to imagine the planning and logistics involved in telecasting a drama like this. Note this as we watch …

Murder Scores a Knockout
broadcast: 1952-Jul-13

In which a magician takes one drink too many…

12 July 2015

Techno-dull


Mr Robot
Edgy. It’s what a new USA Network television, Mr Robot, is trying for, so edgy that producers are getting ulcers trying to make it happen. And cyberpunk. It’s oh, so cyberpunk, rebel without a clause, pass the opiates please. It’s new, it’s now, it’s different, and it's supposed to be ultra-tech-savvy. It has exciting technology working for it… or does it?
One of Dorothy Sayers' novels, The Nine Tailors, is noted for its portrayal of campanology– professional bell-ringing. Sayers was largely complimented for her accuracy of detail. In a small way, she created kind of a techno-novel. Since then, many authors have created stories detailing technology of one kind or another– military, espionage, aerospace, medical, or computing.

Bluffing computer experts is tricky, especially the ‘leet’, the priesthood as it were, the 1% of 1%, the dei ex machina, code-slingers, bit busters, programmers of the programs that run programs. Rendering a story about computers takes more than networking verbiage and Unix gibberish. Bear with me as I wade into technical detail.

Going Viral

John Brunner’s Shockwave Rider introduced the concept of viruses, but most novels and virtually all movies get the technology wrong. That doesn’t mean a reader can’t enjoy some stories. Thomas Joseph Ryan’s The Adolescence of P-1 was a good read. 2001 A Space Odyssey was smart, the letters HAL being one displaced from IBM. And for hopeless romantics, Electric Dreams gave movie-goers a Cyrano de Bergerac love triangle featuring a computer named Edgar.

But a story shouldn’t pretend to be something it isn’t. An Amazon review about a computer novel by a top-rated mystery writer said the commenter got laughs reading aloud excerpts to employees in the company lunchroom. That’s not the kind of critique anyone wants.

Dennis Nedry
Dennis Nedry from Jurassic Park
Casting Stones

Casting is another problem with computer shows. Techno-geeks’ IQs typically run high, but that’s seldom how computer experts appear on the screen. One example of awful rôle selection occurred in Jurassic Park, that of an unlikely computer sysadmin, the oafish and creepy Dennis Nedry. We’re going to talk about lack of subtlety: Nedry / nerdy, get it?.

If Hollywood doesn’t stereotype a sallow, shallow wimp with taped glasses, they opt for the opposite, a busty beauty in a skin-tight action figure costume. Movie makers think an eye on the décolletage prevents audiences noticing thin characterization.

When I think of actual top geeks (someone without my movie star looks– stop laughing), I think of colleagues like my friend Thrush, programmer Bill Gorham, software architect Steve O’Donnell, or a handful of others. These ordinary guys possess the extraordinary ability to make machines dance to their own tune.

Robin Hoodie

The show’s idea of characterization appears twofold. First, dress the part: Make the protagonist, Elliot Alderson, sullen, slurring, antisocial, slouch through life in his hoodie. Have ruthless, junior exec Tyrell Wellick wear designer ties and suits. Decorate drug dealers with lots of tats. Mission accomplished.

The other part of the simplistic characterization is the creation of a polarized ‘them versus us’ atmosphere: hoodies v suits, punks v preppies, young v old, crackers v hackers, morphine users v tweakers v coke-heads, Anonymous v the establishment, bad guys v the other bad guys, capitalists v socialists v nihilists v anarchists… which might be interesting if someone had bothered to delineate a bit.

Elliot, the main character, is a morphine-addicted presumed programmer– he once mentions source code. The guy is a pathological liar who lies even to himself, then follows up by telling people in slurred speech, “I’m just being honest.” He drinks ‘appletinis’ and tells his shrink he’s not a junkie, even as he snorts his drug of choice. Supposedly this doesn’t impair his ability to dig into the bowels of computer networks.

A major problem here is that mainly druggies find drug users entertaining. One shouldn’t have to be stoned to appreciate a television show, but drug use and overuse underlies a major theme of Mr Robot. Elliot’s Asperger’s syndrome one can deal with, but his continuous mumbling is hard to stomach.

Of all the cast, only the female characters appear likable and worthwhile, Elliot’s shrink, Gloria, and his childhood friend and co-worker, Angela. Elliot and Angela telegraph to the audience their unrealized attraction as in a third-rate romance novel.

Tyrell Wellick represents the only alpha male in that universe, a ruthless junior exec but one who keeps his eye on the prize. As the best drawn character, he’s a sadomasochistic and exploitative bisexual who goes all out for what he wants. The actor speaks fluent Swedish but god-awful French, more than once butchering the word ‘bonjour’. Wellick does win on other points: When his pregnant wife asks for a bondage session, he’s reluctant to proceed, trying to be gentle.

Anonymous

A major factor– or malefactor– in the series is Mr Robot, a sociopathic anarchist played by Christian Slater looking exceedingly bored throughout. ‘Mr Robot’ is the name of a tech support company, passed on to Slater.

He’s formed ‘fsociety’, a squad of hackers patterned after the group Anonymous. Instead of Guy Fawkes masks, fsociety uses the likeness of that Parker Brothers’ mustached tycoon, Rich Uncle Pennybags aka Mr Monopoly.

Uncle Pennybags © Parker Bros.
In reality, fsociety is disappointingly unlike Anonymous. The latter is focused on justice and exposing inequity and corruption, not anarchy for its own sake. Anonymous gives an impression it values human life, unlike the show's producers who suck hours out of your life never to be returned.

Unsubtle

Those of us in the US tend to confuse and conflate capitalism with a free market economy; Mr Robot drops any distinction at all. Fsociety is dedicated to gutting Evil Corp (which deserves it) within a larger goal of bringing down the economy.
  • E: Evil Corp– that’s its unimaginative nickname– is the company that Elliot, Angela, and Tyrell work for. Obviously, subtlety isn’t held in high regard among the writers. The company’s E logo simultaneously hints at an actual secretive government provider and evokes ‘E for everyone’ entertainment ratings.

  • F: Two guesses what the F in fsociety stands for, subtle like a sledgehammer.

I tried to imagine the original cocaine-fueled pitch for the series. I think it went something like this:
“Like okay, man… (sniffff) There’s this guy, hacker dude, we’ll dress him in a hoodie so everyone thinks Robin Hood, see. (sniffff) And there’s this evil corp, we’ll call it Evil Corp so the audience can’t miss it. (sniffff) Listen, I confuse free markets and capitalism, but let’s say we burn down the economy… What do you mean, how would I cash my paycheck? What does that have to do with anything? Oh, irony, I get it. That’s good, that’s good. We’ll include irony.”

Verisimilitude

The series makes a stab at hi-tech realism, not particularly savvy, better than some shows, not as good as others. Writers drop a few Unix buzzwords (Gnome, KDE, TOR) and gloss over how their network was penetrated.

Elliot identifies a supposedly infected file that fsociety wants him not to open: fsociety00.dat. Amusingly, the IP address associated with the bogus file is 218.108.149.373, an impossible address like movies using 555-1234 as a phone number. (Geekology trivia: An IP address resolves to four bytes in binary, so each number of the group must be less than 256.) Mr Robot offers no specifics how Elliot tracked down the file in error, but the date and a bogus IP address should have clued in even a noob, never mind our ersatz hero.

Elliot passes the file on to a colleague, saying he’s done the hard work and ‘all’ that’s left is the encryption, as if that’s nothing. *bzzz* Wrong answer.

The program promulgates the notion that if someone has a root kit or hacker tools, they’re somehow an ultra-savvy user instead of being like any other mechanic with the right toolbox. The real guys with the smarts are the black hats who write the hacker tools and the white hats who find ways to combat them.

The show also advances the prejudice that ‘old people’ (presumably over 25) can’t deal with technology. A little reflection would have shown that the very systems Elliot and his hacker friends are using were designed by the old guys who themselves built on the shoulders of greater giants. (Articles on Anonymous have shown that the inner core of the organization isn’t strictly young guys as popularly imagined, but largely socially conscious programmers from the late 1960s and early 1970s who range upwards in age into their 50s and 60s.)

Elliot sneers at the CEO of E-Corp for carrying a Blackberry, ignoring the fact that an executive can run a company or tinker with technology, but probably not both, not at the same time. The US State Department deliberately uses Blackberries because they’re less susceptible to hacking… but that sort of realism would cut the series short.

Later, Elliot denigrates a hospital IT manager, William Highsmith, but even as he’s disparaging the IT guy, Elliot uses his supposed superior hacking skills to type the word NEGATIVE into his drug screen. Nothing screams phony like spelling out a presumed binary value instead of clicking the bit setting like true experts and their grandmothers would have done.

In the third episode, Elliot gives a stoned soliloquy on debugging. He’s correct in that finding a bug is usually the hardest part of the problem, but then he awkwardly extends an analogy of bugs into the real world of people and society.

Commodore 64
Halt and Catch Fire

Based on a single episode, a competing series Halt and Catch Fire has a much better and more realistic grip on technology and story-telling. Their team planned how to fake an AT&T computer by kludging together parts from a Commodore 64. Unlike the vague buzzword-dropping, watch-the-other-hand unexplained ‘magic’ in Mr Robot, the HCF scheme could actually work.

From both a writing standpoint and a hi-tech background, Mr Robot disappoints. I expect more… more characterization, more plot, more realistic tech. And less morphine, please, much less. I’m a minority, but my tech-savvy friend and colleague Thrush, who still keeps his hand in the land of Unix, also expressed dismay, finding the show dark and dismal with a poor handle on technology.

Mr Robot is like a 1960’s drug culture anti-establishment film, entirely unentertaining. But that’s my take. What is yours?

18 June 2015

Having Fun Being Bad


Frank Underwood - House of Cards.jpgI have, like so many people, been watching House of Cards via Netflix DVDs.  The first season was hypnotic.  The second season not so much.  I may not watch the third season.  Why? It's real simple: Nobody seems to be having any fun. Not the President, not his wife, not the staff, not the Secret Service guys, and especially not Francis and Clare Underwood.  I mean, what's the point of pursuing power by any means, if you're not going to have a good time screwing everyone over?  Even the sex romps are grim. More on that later.

Think about prime-time TV these days.  Who's enjoying the game on Game of Thrones?  Did Walter White ever kick back and watch trash TV on Breaking Bad?  I experienced the world of Mad Men, and the people I remember had a lot more fun drinking and screwing than Draper and pals ever did. Do The Americans ever just go fishing? Wayward Pines is so dark you can't see the road, much less the actors.  Every plot is convoluted, everybody is up to their necks in conspiracies, everyone is always plotting their next move, and everyone is soooo serious...

But that isn't the way the real world works.  People go fishing.  They relax.  They get hooked on Candy Crush or Triple Town.  They binge-watch anything they can.  Joseph Stalin liked cowboy movies, Charlie Chaplin, Georgian wine, and billiards.  The man knew how to relax.  So did others: Mao Zedong was a master calligrapher and a fairly decent poet. He also really enjoyed women. Hitler loved listening to Putzi Hanfstaengl play piano, and apparently had a fondness for dogs.  Osama bin Laden wrote love letters in between calls for jihad. Napoleon loved Josephine and cheating at cards. In other words, in the real world, even totalitarian monsters take a break once in a while and have a good time.

Meanwhile, Francis Underwood even gave up ribs.  (And considering how solemn everyone was before and after, that three-way didn't do much to loosen anyone up.)

Nathaniel Parker as Harold Skimpole
in the 2005 BBC production of
"Bleak House"
I miss the villains of yesteryear.  Count Fosco, hugely fat, delighting in pastry, the endless cigarettes his wife hand rolls for him, great glasses of sugar water, and playing with his tiny little mice while he works [successfully] to have Lady Glyde declared dead after he imprisons her in a madhouse.  And all despite his deep admiration, love, passion, for her sister, Marian Halcombe. Now there's a villain who is not only ruthless - read The Woman in White and see - but knows how to have fun while doing it.  Or there's Harold Skimpole, the middle-aged "child" who cannot understand why people are so cruel and harsh as to not supply him with his daily needs, gratis, so that he can live like the charming butterfly he is, while betraying everyone in Bleak House in the worst possible way.  (He is the reason that the child street-sweeper Jo dies.)  You want to kill him, but he's certainly having a great time.  Of course, Dickens really knew how to write hand-rubbing, chuckling, glint-in-the-eye villains:  Ebenezer Scrooge, the Marquis St. Evremonde, Fagin, and that ultimate hypocrite, Josiah Bounderby.

Or, on screen:
  • Henry Fonda's Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West,
  • Basil Rathbone's Andre Trochard in We're No Angels
  • Lionel Barrymore's Harry F. Potter in It's A Wonderful Life
  • Peter Ustinov's Nero in Quo Vadis, and, of course, 
  • Charlton Heston's Richelieu in The Three Musketeers/The Four Musketeers.
  • The late, great Christopher Lee in The Man With the Golden Gun.

Now granted, there was a lot of over-acting in these - Henry Fonda and Charlton Heston were obviously having the time of their lives as they FINALLY got to play the villain!  But I think there's a lot of over-underacting today.  It's the latest style:  very self-controlled, laser-serious, apparently clinically depressed villains who don't take pleasure in anything, even power once they get it (if they ever do). But if you go back a few decades, and you find villains who smirked, sneered, sauntered, and basically acted like Bette Davis in The Little Foxes.

Francis Urquhart.jpg
Or you can always go back to the original:  Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart in the original, UK House of Cards, who was ruthless, deadly, witty, with a smile like a silver-haired Puck.  "You might very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment."  Watching Richardson's Francis, I always felt that, while he'd definitely sold his soul to the devil, he got full price for it. (And it was a hell of a lot more than one shared cigarette a night...)  And he enjoyed everything he got.

Still available on Netflix, here's a preview of Francis Urquhart's best monologues to whet your appetite:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zRNNhcQutTQ




11 February 2015

The Lovejoy Mysteries


Some time back in the late 1980's, when the A&E network was getting off the ground, they recycled a lot of Brit TV, and one of their shows was LOVEJOY. I watched it faithfully. It had a cool hook, in that the guy was an antiques dealer, and sometimes on the shady side of things. He wasn't averse to the occasional con.

LOVEJOY had a funny broadcast history in that its first season on the BBC pulled in viewers, but then there was a four-year hiatus before they brought it back for another five seasons, and then it picked up legs both in the UK original and in US syndication.

If you're unfamiliar with the show, the concept is that Lovejoy worked estate sales and auctions – and was often asked to give an opinion of value or to broker a deal – with an eye to the main chance, of course, but his saving grace is his fierce passion for the real thing. The mysteries often turned on questions of provenance and authenticity. Is such-and-such the genuine article or a forgery? A pair of eighteenth-century dueling pistols, a watercolor attributed to Constable, a manuscript copy of the Magna Carta that's fallen out of a library book, and each episode involved a learning curve. One's reminded of THE BRASHER DOUBLOON, say, or the story where one collector buys the last but one rare
stamp from another collector and then burns it, so he now owns the only one left in the world. (Can somebody help me here? I don't remember who wrote that story.) There's something obsessive about this hermetic crowd, too, the idea that you'd be willing to kill for a Queen Anne chamberpot or a Hogarth etching. 


I've been binge-watching the show recently, on DVD, and the first thing you notice is how well it stands up. The production values are high, for one, nice location shoots, stately homes and so forth, but the level of the scripts is consistently strong. If you look back on
some of your old faves, you can be disappointed. HAVE GUN, WILL TRAVEL is still terrific, but WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE is cheesy, Steve McQueen notwithstanding. Jack Lord's HAWAII FIVE-O is truly dreadful (with the exception of Khigh Dhiegh as Wo Fat), while MAGNUM, P.I. works well, in spite of its being something of a period artifact. LOVEJOY the series was put together by Ian La Frenais, and based on the Jonathan Gash books. La Frenais worked with a stable of writers that kept a very sharp tone, both mischievous and sinister. The stakes were often high. Antiques ain't small beer.

The trick's in the casting. Lovejoy himself is played by Ian McShane, a guy I've been queer for ever since the Richard Burton gangster picture VILLAIN, not to mention SEXY BEAST and DEADWOOD, and McShane gives the character enormous charm. It helps that Lovejoy is also a little slippery.

He's not always a reliable narrator - Lovejoy often addresses the viewer directly, turning toward the camera - and you're never entirely sure whether he's only in it for himself, or answers to some higher persuasion. If not a bounder, certainly a rogue.

The appeal of a series character has a lot to do with how the audience relates to them, and where your sympathies lie. James Garner as Rockford, Tom Selleck as Magnum, or Bob Urich as Spenser. It's about your comfort zone, in large degree. How far can they push the envelope? You can't break faith. Network standards and practices aside, Jim Rockford isn't going to betray your trust in him, shoot an unarmed guy in the back, for instance, or leave a stray dog behind for predators. Lovejoy's cut from the same cloth. Maybe he's not the most upright, and he even spends too much time on the horizontal, but he plays fair, even if 'fair' is in the eye of the beholder. When he pulls off some complicated skin game, and takes a bigger fish to the cleaners, you get a lot of satisfaction out of it - payback.

One last note. I wasn't all that hip to the milieu, when I first watched LOVEJOY, but having spent the last fifteen years in Santa Fe, and somewhat on the fringes of the art world (a friend of mine owns a frame shop here), I find the details ring all too true, the narcissism, the competing egos, the schadenfreude. It's hard to exaggerate, or lampoon. You think LOVEJOY goes over the top? Believe me, you can't make this stuff up.

www.davidedgerleygates.com

11 December 2014

The 8th of November, 1951


    Sometimes when I settle down in the evening in front of the television I think back to the origins of this strange little device that we have welcomed into our homes over the past 65 or more years.

    Television actually got its start even earlier, in the 1920’s, and for several years what was the first television station sending out commercial broadcasts, WGY – broadcasting out of a General Electric plant in Schenectady, New York -- contented itself with showing Felix the Cat riding around on a turntable for two hours a day.  But regular commercial broadcasting likely dates from 1948, the year that Texaco Star Theater starring Milton Berle became the first “must see” TV.

    The early years of television saw an avalanche of new programming hit the airwaves, some original series and some transplanted from the about-to-be-supplanted radio airwaves.  Mysteries were a staple of radio and many moved readily to this new medium as well.  Included in this rush to offer televised entertainment were three different series featuring my personal favorite, Ellery Queen, making the jump from radio.  Ellery Queen series variously aired on the old Dumont network, as well as on ABC and NBC.  These early television attempts at conquering the whodunit were a far cry from NBC’s 1975 Ellery Queen series that graced the Thursday and then Sunday night schedule for one short year.  The 1975 series is now available in a great DVD collection, but most of these early Queen televised adventures are now lost to us – they were either performed live, or on lost kinescope tapes.  You can read about them, and their radio predecessors, either in Francis Nevins magnum opus Ellery Queen:  The Art of Detection, or on Kurt Sercu's website Ellery Queen:  A Website on Deduction.  But watching those early shows, that's another matter.  Well, maybe . . . .  There are always exceptions, bits of the past lurking out there ready to be discovered (or re-discovered) by the intrepid detective.

    So step with me, now, into Mr. Peabody’s wayback machine, as we set the dial for November 8, 1951.  When we get there, get comfy on the couch, or on the floor with a pillow.  Pull the popcorn bowl up close.  All eyes on that magnificent 9 inch black and white screen as we eagerly await tonight’s Ellery Queen adventure -- “Murder to Music.”




Note that Dale Andrews returns to SleuthSayers the last Sunday of the month, commencing 25 January 2015.

25 November 2014

Important Thinking On British Televsion Mysteries


Being a trained observer from my police days, it has not escaped my notice that many of my fellow  SleuthSayers are fans of British television mysteries.  It helped that several of you wrote articles on this very subject--these were my first clues.  I suspect that many of SleuthSayers' readers are fans, as well.  I don't have enough evidence to make an arrest, but I think that it's a reasonable suspicion.  So, knowing that I am in good company, I am ready to confess without benefit of counsel, that I, too, enjoy these programs from the misty home of the English language.
English TV Policemen with authentic accents

I've heard, or read, several very good reasons for liking the Brit mysteries (as well as some of their other programming such as "Call The Midwives"), and I have a few of my own which I'm anxious to share.  Firstly, everybody speaks with these really great accents, though sometimes they are difficult to understand.  I have advocated subtitling, but this has not yet been enacted.  What is it about their accents, anyway?  There are dozens of "English" accents being spoken around the globe, from the U.S. to South Africa, but not one of them sound as smart as Englishers themselves.  That's just not fair.  I want to sound smart, too.  But since I can't, I like to watch the British being cultured and savvy.  Sometimes I try on an English accent at home, but Robin either studiously ignores me, refusing to respond to any of my extremely pithy observations, or tells me to stop embarrassing myself.  I feel smarter when I do this, though she says that I don't sound, or look, smarter at all.  She is of Irish descent on both sides of her family and is unreasonably hostile to the English, I think.  Things only get worse when I switch to an Irish accent.

Dreaming Spires
So, the accents are cool, but that's not the only reason I like British television.  There's also the locations.  My absolute favorite is Oxford, the setting of the Inspector Morse, and latterly, the Inspector Lewis, series.  Notice how I worked in "latterly"?  That's how they talk.  Besides being an incredibly beautiful city with its "dreaming spires" (don't ask), it also puts the lie to British weather being lousy.  It's sunny nearly every episode--and this show (in both its manifestations) has a decades-long history!  I can't understand why all the Brits want to move to Spain when they've got Oxford.  If you follow the adventures of Rosemary and Thyme, you'll find that they too walk in beauty beneath a glorious sun and flawless sky.  As soon as Robin retires, we're saddling up for some of that gorgeous English weather!  To hell with Ft. Lauderdale!


Rosemary and Thyme
But the main reason that I like British programming may surprise you.  Yes, the wonderful acting is certainly a draw, but that's not it altogether.  It has to do with the casting.  Have you ever noticed that, unlike American television, British actors are not uniformly attractive?  In fact, in many cases even the actors and actresses in the leading roles of British shows are not in the least bit glamorous.  They're allowed to look like me over there, and still work.  Inspector Robbie Lewis would never be confused for an American television detective.  He might, however, be mistaken for an actual police officer.  Neither Lewis and Hathaway, nor the inspector/sergeant duo on Midsomer Murders appear as if they run ten miles a day and spend an hour every morning in the gym.  I've never seen any of them beat anybody up, which is a daily requirement of their American TV counterparts, and very calorie-consuming.  And since they don't carry guns, they can't shoot any villains.  They actually say that, you know--villains.  As for R and T, they spend all their time investigating murders at various castles, hotels, and estates across England while doing some light gardening, and taking numerous breaks to snack and drink wine.  These Brits appear to drink a lot of wine!  I always thought they were big on warm beer, but no, it's wine for these folks, and it's always being served at things called fetes, which no American knows the meaning of; though they look a lot like parties.  They seem to be held mostly on village "greens" or in gardens.  Though, when the weather doesn't permit (which is almost never--see above) they are held in drawing rooms.  No American knows what kind of room that is either, but it doesn't matter.  This is another thing I like about English life on the telly (sorry, Robin, old girl); they do a lot of partying!  The down side is that the guys almost always have to wear a tux, though they call them something else, I think.  Anyway, it's kind of nice to see men and women who could pass for what I call "normal" populating the screen, with nary a "six-pack" ab between them. 

So there you have it, all the good reasons to watch British television.  Oh...were you thinking it was the clever writing and convoluted plots that form the centerpieces of these programs?  How the hell would I know?  I can't understand half of what they're saying.  I just like how they say it.   
                   

19 October 2014

DuMont Episode 3 ~
A Fate Worse than Death


DuMont Television Network
Continued from last week

The Fate of DuMont’s Library

Today, only 1½% of DuMont shows survive, one or two episodes of a series here and there, three or four of another. Of most programs, none at all remain. Only Jackie Gleason’s Honeymooners, which was stored separately, remains largely intact.

Often, recordings were simply recycled to recover the silver halide in the film itself. Even so, DuMont had saved more than 20 000 individual shows recorded by kinescope, a process where a broadcast is captured on film directly off a television screen. Through other acquisitions, this historic library ended up in the hands of ABC.
Edie Adams
Edie Adams
Ernie Kovacs
Ernie Kovacs

Here is the testimony of Edie Adams, wife of DuMont television star Ernie Kovacs, before a Film Presentation Board public hearing:
In the earlier ’70s, the (former) DuMont network was being bought by another company, and the lawyers were in heavy negotiation as to who would be responsible for the library of the DuMont shows currently being stored at the facility, who would bear the expense of storing them in a temperature controlled facility, take care of the copyright renewal, et cetera.

One of the lawyers doing the bargaining said that he could “take care of it” in a “fair manner,” and he did take care of it. At 2AM the next morning, he had three huge semis back up to the loading dock at ABC, filled them all with stored kinescopes and 2" videotapes, drove them to a waiting barge in New Jersey, took them out on the water, made a right at the Statue of Liberty and dumped them in the Upper New York Bay.
That corporate attorney destroyed the earliest and priceless television film library, 20 000 irreplaceable kinescope recordings.

And that concludes the story of the world's first television network.



Today’s Video

This is another for Dale Andrews and his friend Kurt Sercu, experts vis-à-vis all things Ellery Queen. Today, I present the third of three episodes of an early Ellery Queen television show from when Dale was a wee lad, an episode broadcast 08 November 1951.

Of the three available episodes, this is my favorite although Ellery appears dismayingly gullible. However, it had been only a decade since Mary Astor, in the form of Brigid O'Shaughnessy, planted the notion that occasionally women can be bad guys. The title sequence certainly sets an atmosphere. I doubt it was intended to be so noir, but I like it.


Note that Dale Andrews will return to SleuthSayers the 25th of January 2015.