Monday, August 30, 2010


The passing of writer Jackson Gillis at the age of 93 could be viewed, if one were prone to overwrought metaphors, as symbolic of the death of a whole era of television.

His list of credits is astonishing.  He wrote for more prestigious shows like Perry Mason and Columbo, but he also contributed scripts to Lost In Space, Longstreet and, for God's sake, Jason Of Star Command.  He penned many episodes of the old George Reeves Superman series, as well as a script for its snarky modern update, Lois & Clark.  In a way, he was TV history.

But now, it seems, ancient history.  Though Gillis occasionally landed regular gigs on particular shows--he was a story editor on Perry Mason--he mostly made his living as a freelancer.  Until sometime in the eighties, most programs depended on freelance writers for scripts, particularly one-hour dramas.  (Sitcoms were more likely to be written in-house, but even then, most of them would routinely feature a few episodes per season written by outsiders.)  Then as now, the vast majority of programming was formulaic--cop shows, medical shows, lawyer shows, westerns.  The regular characters were pretty much set in stone, unchanging from episode to episode, there only to drive this week's storyline. 

That's where somebody like Gillis came in.  Unlike some of the more densely-packed series of today, when even the relentlessly disposable likes of CSI: Miami comes complete with a ton of backstory to its characters, it didn't really matter to a freelancer if they weren't up on the show's bible.  If Gillis sold a spec script to Barnaby Jones, but producer Quinn Martin was short on storylines for Cannon that season, eh, no problem, it was easily retooled.

If Gillis could devise an airtight plot, producers were interested--that's what their shows were about.  It was the story that kept a viewer hooked.  Nowadays, almost every TV drama is primarily character-driven--not just the good ones, like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, but shows like House and the Law & Order franchise, which spend way too much time on the ongoing personal lives of not very interesting characters, and give short shrift to the stories they presumably mean to tell.  Almost all of these shows are scripted by staff writers, and then filtered through the sensibilities of whatever powerful writer-producer is in charge.

Which is fine, for shows where it makes sense.  The Sopranos and Deadwood, or to go back farther, Wiseguy and Homicide: Life On The Streets, were mostly written by a small staff who knew the characters intimately, and produced some of the best dramas ever.  But when the same approach is taken to what should be fun junk food, something's wrong.  A program like Criminal Minds has pretensions it hasn't earned, and its undernourished storylines, buried under a mountain of character details, are grindingly predictable.

Which is why producers use to wisely depend on Jackson Gillis.  If nothing else, he knew how to tell a story.

Saturday, August 28, 2010


Noel Murray's A Very Special Episode series at The AV Club has been indispensable from the get-go, but the latest installment, on the history and influence of MASH, is less interesting for the article itself than the response of its readers.

Murray's article has generated over 400 comments as I write this, and the big surprise is how obviously familiar with the show the readership of The AV Club appears to be.  Though it is popular with people of all ages (hey, I'm a regular!), the site is geared largely to people in the early twenties to late thirties demographic.  Many of its readers would not even have been born when MASH was in production.  They would have to come to it through syndication, or DVD.  And evidently it struck a chord in many people.  Which is a surprise to me, because this show is a prime example of a once-revered program that simply doesn't hold up..

When it originally aired, MASH was regarded as an example of "Quality Television", one of the few bastions of quality writing and acting to be found in the vast Wasteland of primetime TV.  But it was always a bit of a mongrel, aspiring to innovation while remaining thoroughly conventional, straining for pathos while relying on punchlines.

Early in its run, it tried for a looser, more free-form vibe, somewhat akin to the Robert Altman film that inspired it.  But the show's developer, Larry Gelbart, while a certified comedy genius (and I'd like to take this moment to heap mountains of praise on his script for Stanley Donen's Movie Movie, one of the greatest comedies of the seventies), had the instincts of a Catskills tummler, always ready with a snappy quip or pun.  Thus the show always felt self-consciously written, which tended to clash with its more serious war-is-hell attitude.  The best early episodes have the feel of a more acerbic Sgt. Bilko, only not as good.

Because Bilko, after all, had no particular pretense to realism--it was shot in front of a studio audience.  MASH was shot one camera-style, on locations or on relatively detailed sets, and seemed to be striving for...what?  Authenticity?  No, that can't be right--the very seventies hairstyles of most of the actors undermine any such notions.  And the performances were anything but subtle, with the actors braying the dialogue as if trying to project to the back rows.

In a way, MASH most closely resembled the work of Gelbart's old writer's room cohort from the Sid Caesar days, Neil Simon.  His plays--wildly popular in the seventies, almost completely forgotten now--were similarly machine-tooled for laughs and pathos, with the comedic and dramatic beats arriving at exactly the expected times.  It could be effective, but it was inorganic by nature.  Gelbart's jokes were funnier than Simon's, but his show felt similarly forced--characters were constantly having dramatic revelations that would be completely forgotten about by the next episode.

Of course, that was the convention of the time.  TV shows in the seventies lacked the continuity of even the least distinguished shows today.  There were no continuing storylines or callbacks to previous incidents.  Every episode was self-contained.  Or at least, that's what many TV historians claim.  But it's not entirely true.

For instance, there was episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show where perpetually wisecracking loser Murray risks everything--his marriage, his job, his happiness--by openly declaring his crush on Mary, his co-worker.  She's flattered and embarrassed, doesn't know how to deal with it, and the whole episode is kind of squirmy and uncomfortable.  And, in true seventies sitcom fashion, after that installment, it's never spoken of again.  BUT...if you saw that episode, you could never look at Murray and Mary, sitting side-by-side at their work desks, the same way again.  It was a character revelation that continued to resonate and didn't need to be stressed.

On the other hand, MASH would have its characters have some sort of epiphany just because it made for a nice dramatic storyline.  They'd remember a childhood trauma, or become obsessed with death, or have a crisis of faith--the type of thing that, in anything resembling the real world, would pretty much define your very existence--then have a little speech at the end of the episode (perfect for an Emmy highlight reel) and be ready for next week's episode.  Nothing ever resonated, nothing ever mattered.

After Gelbart's departure, MASH became much, much worse, limping along year after year in a neverending loop of static camera set-ups, mechanical wisecracks and high school play-level dramatics.  The last three or four seasons--with the actors visibly much older, and situations often repeated from earlier episodes--were and are actually painful to watch.  Yet the show's acclaim seemed to grow exponentially.  Why?

Seventies TV was much maligned at the time, and still is now, sometimes unfairly.  The best shows of the era--just off the top of my head, Mary Tyler Moore, Columbo, The Rockford Files, WKRP In Cincinnati--stand up to even the very best of what's being done now.  But yeah, there was a lot of crap, and in particular, there were a lot of shows essentially designed to be nothing but time-killers.  And as sometimes happens, in a sea of mediocrity, something that aspires to better things stands out.  In concept and execution, MASH wasn't really significantly better than anything else, but it claimed to be, and once upon a time, good intentions really were enough.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


So I made an offhand comment on my Facebook page last night suggesting that anyone who uses the word "chillax" deserves to be taken out and shot.  A number of friends responded with what I'm going to hope was mock indignation, and I offered a half-assed apology, and that was that.  Still, as close as I've come to being involved in one of those exciting internet dust-ups the kids seem so fond of these days.

But it also got me thinking--if use of meaningless slang terms could be punishable by death, what other Draconian laws would be enacted if I were in charge of things?  Obviously, Marc Cohn and Jason Mraz would be subjected to slow, exquisite punishment--they'd be forced to listen to their own music.  Other grave offenses would include use of Ke$ha songs as ring tones, wearing flip-flops to work and of course, cleaning your gutters at 5 AM.  (That last one would only apply to my neighbors.)

But I wouldn't be wholly despotic.  Many would benefit from my rule.  Joe Dante, Brad Bird and Paul Thomas Anderson would be given unlimited funding to make whatever the hell movies they want.  Donald Fagen and Walter Becker would be hustled into a recording studio on a regular basis, thus assuring new Steely Dan albums would appear more frequently than every decade or so.  (There would, however, be a bylaw mandating Becker play every bass and guitar part himself, and forbidding him from ever singing.)  TV would be full of however many shows Jay Tarses wants to create.  Best of all, a team of scientists would work around the clock trying to figure out how to bring Kurt Vonnegut back to life, because I can't stand living in a world without him.  Also, though polygamy would be illegal for the general public, it would certainly be allowed for me, thus freeing me up to marry Lauren Graham, Thora Birch and Neko Case simultaneously.  (They'd all be cool with it, I'm sure.)

Cracks would eventually appear.  I'd become hated, my regime despised.  An underground resistance would materialize, and Walking In Memphis would become a song of defiance.  Jason Mraz, his dead eyes betraying the emotional scars of someone who has spent years in a dungeon listening to an endless loop of I'm Yours, would appear in the palace (I'd have a palace, right?) with vengeance on his mind, and not even my personal bodyguard--Kurt Russell, of course--would be able to stop him.  It would be a thuddingly obvious twist ending, like a bad M. Night Shyamalan movie.

Of course, there'd be none of those in my personal world, either.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


Presumably his spiritual heirs have been too busy protesting gay marriage and spreading lies about Islam to note the death of James J. Kilpatrick at the age of 89.

A long-time spokesman for the lunatic right, he spent the forties and fifties toiling at various newspapers in the segregated south.  When the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Brown vs. The Board Of education, Kilpatrick thrust himself onto the national stage, becoming a go-to spokesman for segregation.  As late as 1963, when it must have been obvious to Kilpatrick that the tides of time and common sense were turning against him, he submitted an article to The Saturday Evening Post arguing that, in his words, "the Negro race, as a race, is in fact an inferior race."

That piece never ran, but the fact that a blandly mainstream publication like The Post even considered it proves that the hijacking of the media by right-wing extremists is nothing new.  Indeed, Kilpatrick parlayed his noxious celebrity into a sweet gig on 60 Minutes, on which he and the supposedly liberal Shana Alexander indulged in pointlessly argumentative back and forth of the exact kind so favored by news networks today.

60 Minutes producer Don Hewett would no doubt have claimed that he used Kilpatrick as a way of proving that his show had no agenda, that it aired all points of view.  But do all points of view need to be aired on a network forum, especially when those views are hateful and ill-informed?  Kilpatrick's run on CBS was an inspiration for CNN's Crossfire, which gave Pat Buchanan a forum for launching his hateful bile, which led, inevitably, to Fox News--ideology presented as fact.

And we are living with the results of all this.  When the views of hate-minded lunatics are given the patina of legitimacy by the mainstream press, they become part of the mainstream debate, and open hatred of other religions and races is made acceptable.

Saturday, August 14, 2010


1) Another Larry King quote, another Random Thoughts post.  This particular Larry utterance comes from an interview he did with Harper's Bazaar, focusing on The Great Man's fashion sense.  Because after all, when I think of all things cool and stylish, I think of Larry King.

2) I live in Iowa, so there's no way to avoid it: Floods.  The rain has seemed almost endless since the spring, and the ground has been saturated the whole time.  At its most benign, water is seeping into people's basements because where else can it go?  The ground can't hold anymore.

At its most malignant, of course, water leaps the banks of rivers, cascading down streets, wiping out homes and businesses, short-circuiting power grids and poisoning water supplies.  These are replays of actions that happened all over the midwest only two years ago, and which devastated most of Iowa fifteen years before that. 

Flooding happens, of course, but not generally on this scale, not this often.  The floods of '93 were a supposedly once-in-a-lifetime happening, but it seems the unthinkable is becoming routine.  And humans will react as they always do, by gritting their teeth, soldiering on and refusing to admit that nature is in charge.

3) Any TV news show that includes regular comments from a right-wing pundit--which is to say, any TV news show--will feature the right-winger saying something along the lines of, "Oh, it's so offensive that people think Tea Partiers are a bunch of racists.  That's offensive!  That's reverse racism!"

At which point, the host of Generic News Show will back off, perhaps feebly suggesting that there may be some people sympathetic to the Tea Party cause who are perhaps a bit less than racially sensitive, and the right-winger will say something like, "What are you, the NAACP?" and everyone will laugh. 

Because, yes, darn it, the Tea Party types are totally NOT racist.  Oh, sure, they'll refer to Obama as the "coon-mander in chief" and yeah, they might email each other hilarious doctored photos of the president eating watermelon or rolling dice, and they might glower at the number of interracial couples around them and mutter, "Time was, you could lynch a boy for doing that to a white woman"--but they're not racist!

And in case you're wondering, yes, I've encountered all these things in person.

4) Geez, this has been a pretty depressing post so far.  So let's talk about something cheerful and upbeat.  Specifically--Beagles!  More to the point, let's talk about Bella, who consistently brightens my day with the near-maniacal exuberance she brings to something as simple as jumping up on a chair.  Between her insane leaping, desire for attention and endless energy--not to mention the fact that her antics often reduce me to helpless laughter--it's like living with a furry, four-legged Jerry Lewis.  (Which presumably casts me in the Dean Martin role.  I'd better learn how to sing.)

So I was walking Bella the other morning, and she caught a scent of something or other, as she often does, but her reaction to this particular odor was unusually intense--it caused her to rear up on her hind legs.  And then--she just started trotting along on her hind legs, as if it was the most natural thing in the world!  She stopped, eventually, turned and and looked at me, as if seeking approval.  Or more like, she was saying, "See?  Here's another cute thing I can do!  Is there no limit to how adorable I can be?  Could you possibly love me any more?"

And no, of course, I couldn't.  I couldn't imagine how it would be possible to love anyone or anything more than I love Bella.

5) But then there's poor Delmar.  He nuzzles Bella occasionally, and tries to show some sort of affection for her, but he just can't.  If I had any other cat in the world, it would probably have bonded with Bella by now, and they'd curl up together in the recliner, or at least peaceably co-exist, each in their own little world. 

But any other cat wouldn't be Del, my furry little malcontent, a black-and-white bundle of neuroses.  I couldn't love him any more than I do, either, but he'd never believe me if I told him that.

6) This post was originally going to be all about the new CGI/live-action Bugs Bunny film that the soulless suits at Warner Bros. intend to put into production.  But when I tried to actually say something about it, I found myself speechless.  Some ideas are so transparently awful, they can't even be properly mocked.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


It doesn't happen much anymore.  In a way, that makes it worse: Something is seen on TV, something is read somewhere, a joke is heard, and I think, "I'll have to tell Mom about that."

What follows is even more terrible, as that minor blip in my brain is immediately followed by another, that says, "No, you can't.  She's dead."  Simple as that.  No sobbing moment of remembrance, no flood of grief, just a calm, sober reminder.

That is, I guess, the way of the world.  People die.  We grieve, then move on.  It's a process we all must endure in order to continue to make our way in the world.  If we continued to mourn, if we spent every waking moment missing the people we loved, we'd never be able to function.  We would spend all our lives in darkened rooms, weeping uncontrollably.

But sometimes that very process of moving on is itself the source of despair.  For me, that usually comes a few moments later.  "I have to tell Mom about that," "Oh, right, she's dead," followed by the realization that I had just casually dismissed the passing of one of the most important people in my life, as indifferently as if I'd noticed it was a rerun of a favorite show, or the computer was running slow, or the neighbor's dog was barking.  I'd treated a major turning point in my life as a minor nuisance.  How dare I?  How dare I?

And then, at last, comes the flood of grief, and with it, the oddly comforting realization that I haven't moved on, and never will, that as long as I continue to grieve, her memory is still honored, and she still lives in my heart.

Monday, August 09, 2010


Without question, the death of actress Patricia Neal is occasion for sadness, due in no small part to the impression that she was never fully allowed to give us as much as she might have.  True, she was cut down by a stroke in the prime of her life, which robbed her of some productive time, but let's face it: How many great roles did she really get on screen?  HudThe Subject Was Roses.  You could throw in The Day The Earth Stood Still, probably her most famous film, but it doesn't require her to do much heavy lifting in the performance department.  Then again, maybe it didn't need to: She managed to convey great intelligence even when just standing there, and that, combined with a certain remote quality she projected, made her endlessly fascinating to watch.  Even when the movies weren't worthy of her, she was still there, and that was enough.

Neal's death is the latest in a terrible run of recent deaths of people who had a lot to do with some of the best or most influential movies ever made.  They weren't actors, they weren't famous to the general public, but their work mattered.

Take Robert Boyle, for instance.  The term "production designer" sounds more industrial than creative, but Boyle's magnificent collaborations on some of Alfred Hitchcock's most iconic films marked him as a true artist.  Consider James Mason's weird house situated somewhere atop Mt. Rushmore in North By Northwest, or the ironic facade of a welcoming small town in Shadow Of A Doubt.  Consider, too, his work with other great directors: For Joe Dante's Explorers, Boyle had to design an alien spacecraft that would be convincingly otherworldly and effectively ominous, all while still seeming reminiscent of something from a fifties sci-fi cheapie.  Lord knows how he pulled it off, but he certainly did.

Suso Checchi D'Amico worked as a screenwriter with many of the best Italian filmmakers--Francesco Rosi, Michelangelo Antonioni, Vittorio DeSica.  Her most frequent collaborator was Luchino Visconti, with whom she wrote several films, including The Leopard.  She wrote a lot of lesser films, too, of course, as a working writer must, but even if her voice is not the dominant one in the great films she worked on, it is still in the mix.

Nobody would ever confuse the films Tom Mankiewicz wrote with The Leopard, but the fact remains that one of those movies--Superman or Superman II, or one of the lesser Bonds like Diamonds Are Forever or Live And Let Die--are always being watched somewhere.  They're the work of a competent journeyman, and nothing to be sneezed at.  The fact that they are so popular means they have meaning to people on some level.

That's what unites all the people on this list.  The size and quality of their contributions may vary, but they've all been part of our dreamworlds as lived on screen, and for that, they can't be thanked enough.

Sunday, August 01, 2010


Thing is, as I'll be dog-sitting for a week or so, my attention will be elsewhere.  Writing is easy enough, but staying focused...yeah, probably not.

For instance, I thought I'd simply write about the current canine situation.  The dog being sat is Brody, Tabbatha's rat terrier, whose unfailing awesomeness I've gone on about before.  But the first few times he was here, I had no dog of my own.

But now Bella is here, and her pack-dog mentality initially required her to prove her dominance over poor Brody, which she did by humping him constantly.  The image of a spayed female riding a neutured male is like something from Female Trouble-era John Waters, but eventually Brody started fighting back, and the result has been endless good-natured roughhousing.  (At least, I think it's good-natured.)  They wrestle endlessly, then pause, heading to the kitchen to lap up some water, then BOOM, right back to it.  So it's basically like this classic scene from John Carpenter's They Live:

See, but this is where my attention wanders.  I'm ostensibly writing about the dogs, but I can't let that clip pass without commenting on the greatness of John Carpenter.  This scene was fairly notorious back in '88, when They Live was released, as almost comically pointless, an excuse to let the movie's star, pro wrestler Roddy Piper, do his thing.

But taking the scene on its own terms, it's a small masterpiece of staging, with Carpenter's casually elegant wide-screen framing and precise editing a textbook example of how to block and shoot an action scene, an example more of today's directors, with their addiction to shaky-cams and whiplash editing, would be wise to study.  Less is always more.

All well and good, but then the other thing is, I also can't let a mention of They Live pass without mentioning the fact that it remains one of the few mainstream American movies to even acknowledge class divisions in this country.  This goofy, lowbrow sci-fi epic about alien invasion is also a bracing portrait of a world in which the human race has been enslaved by capitalism run wild, one vast, ecumenical system...well, let's let Ned Beatty explain, in this terrifying speech from 1976's Network, brilliantly crafted by Paddy Chayefsky.

But here again, my attention wanders.  I post this scene because I think it makes an important point, but watching it, I mostly focus on Beatty's perfectly modulated performance.  This is his only scene in the whole film, and like a high-priced hitman, he just comes in, totally nails it, then leaves.

And why not?  Beatty is one of those actors incapable of giving a bad performance, which gets me to thinking about other actors who are always great, which...but what does any of this have to do with the dogs? 

Nothing, I'm afraid, which is why posting will likely be light this week.  When rasslin' puppies are nearby, it's hard to focus on anything else.