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by Brian E. Wilson

Here in Chicago a film critic named Mark Caro has been running an ongoing monthly film series called “Is It Still Funny?.” He screens a comedy movie from the past at the good ole Music Box Theatre and asks people via ballot if the humor still holds up. He has shown such movies as Harold and Maude, Airplane!, Being There, among others. Caro posts the results on the series’ Facebook page. So far audiences have agreed that most of the comic gems can still be still considered comic gems even if the humor seems a bit, oh, of its time. Proof that in the best of cases, humor is timeless after all.

I thought of Caro’s experiment as I approached writing this essay on I Love Lucy, a monumental task that I am sure to mess up, but hopefully in the endearing way Lucy messes up. This show will be turning 66 years old on October 15 (it premiered on CBS on a Monday night at 9pm EST in 1951). This comedy classic immediately became a huge success, drawing amazingly high Nielsen ratings for its entire six season run. The show has lived on in reruns ever since. People still cherish this delightful slapstick-packed series about Lucy Ricardo (played with sheer brilliance by Lucille Ball) who craves fame and the spotlight, to break out of her role as housewife and make it in show business. The “I” in the title belongs to her husband Ricky Ricardo (the invaluable Desi Arnaz), a Cuban-American bandleader perpetually rattled by his wife’s schemes, plans, quest for stardom, and habit of spending too much cash. Joining in the fun is another married couple from upstairs, grumpy Fred (a properly crusty William Frawley) and busybody Ethel Mertz (the flawless Vivian Vance), former vaudevillians now landlords who get caught up in and/or cause the Ricardos’ comical meltdowns.

I loved loved loved this show as a kid addicted to reruns in the 1970s. An unabashed comedy geek at an early age, I could not wait until I Love Lucy would pop up on the New York City-based TV station specializing in showing reruns of old favorites. Of all the classics on repeat for our enjoyment, I Love Lucy emerged as the show that made me laugh hardest. Watching Lucy getting drunk on Vitametavegamen, squashing grapes in Italy, hanging out with Superman on a ledge, or doing a mirror routine with Harpo Marx had me doubled over with laughter every time. Thanks to Lucille, Desi, Vivian, and William, the sharp writers (Bob Carroll, Jr., Madelyn Pugh Davis, Jess Oppenheimer, Bob Schiller, Bob Weiskopf), and witty directors (mostly William Asher, but also James V. Kern and Marc Daniels), the show has provided so many wonderful memories. Continue Reading »

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by Jon Warner

It’s hard to know where to start on an essay about Seinfeld. Doesn’t everyone already know everything there needs to be known on the show? Google greatest Seinfeld episodes and you’ll unearth a blog post or article from every corner of the globe with everyone offering up their personal take on the show about nothing. It clearly holds a place in our popular culture and remains to this day, unequivocally, the most iconic show of the 1990’s, turning “Yada Yada Yada”, “Shrinkage”, “Double Dipping”, and “No soup for you!” into everyday reference points. It was a legend in its own time, building a sizable following with 30-40 million people tuning into its broadcasts in the final few seasons. By then, it had began to lampoon (maybe not so successfully) its own tendencies and idiosyncrasies turning its simple, everyday observations into gargantuan, cartoon-like (“The Blood”, “The Bookstore”) absurdities. I had a conversation with someone the other day about Seinfeld and they feel like the show hasn’t held up very well. True, not every episode in great, and the 1st, 8th, and 9th seasons are not up to the same par as the best period between seasons 2-7. Yet the simple fact remains that when it was at its best, the exploits of Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer were as funny as any show ever made. Continue Reading »

by Adam Ferenz

Note: Due to unforeseen circumstances, Sammy’s duty as writer for this piece was unable to be filled, and I was called in at the last minute to provide the essay. I hope the following will suffice for such a landmark series.

A series that lasted nearly four times as long as the conflict it was set during, this is one of the great works of television because of the way it constantly evolved. When the show began, it was heavy on the humor, and by the time it ended, it was filled with dramatic tension you needed a knife to cut through. A mountain of cast changes could not stop the series from consistently striving for greatness, and indeed, usually resulted in even better material, or at least, very different material, than what came before. Like the later Cheers and Law & Order, the cast changes not only aided the material, but did so by improving overall chemistry.

Series star Alan Alda is rightly credited-and criticized-for his role as Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce, and as a producer, writer and director on the series. Based on the film of the same name, the series began as a version of the movie but quickly dispensed with characters like Spearchucker, who made executives nervous about backlash due to his name, since he was black. The series toned down the cruder humor that was not going to be allowed on television, yet retained a lot of the cynicism and dark humor of the film. As time went on, Alda would be credited with turning the series into a pulpit for his political beliefs, and making the show far more emotionally manipulative than it had once been. The biggest change, however, may have been switching from Lt. Colonel Henry Blake to Colonel Sherman T. Potter, which was accompanied by the exit of Trapper John-Hawkeye’s friend and fellow trouble maker-and his replacement by the much smoother, and married, B.J. Hunnicutt. Continue Reading »

by Sam Juliano

It was the brainchild of a moderately successful screenwriter who was hoping to achieve a moderate success with a genre program that was essentially aimed at young people, and fans of outer space shows.  The idea was to do well enough in the ratings to allow for an encore season and perhaps serve as a springboard for approval on other tentative projects.  Of course back in the 60’s adventure and fantasy shows were plentiful and very few succeeded beyond a niche market.  Expectations for a long run were virtually non-existent, and there was no persuasive reason to believe that providing viewers with a playground for the imagination, even with strange new worlds, expansive starships and compelling characters in the mix.  Some program executives may have perceived the project as a hybrid between the popular guilty pleasures Lost in Space and the Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.  The early returns were modest enough, but few could have foreseen the phenomenon brewing, nor the influence it would exert over the medium.  More series spinoffs and theatrical films have appeared as a result of the original series, and a multibillion dollar industry, a franchise, has spawned endless lines of merchandise, fan clubs and annual conventions around the world.  After five highly successful television shows enjoyed impressive runs -three of those last seven years before syndication proved they were as desirable as ever- this incomparably unique franchise continues to earned millions on movie screens with a current slew of re-boots following nine movies.  The cinematic incarnations began in 1979, and there is no sign of closure anytime in the foreseeable future.  Only one property, Star Wars has matched it in a cultural sense, but it is hard to make the case that any television show has changed people’s’ perceptions, establishing a template for futuristic conjecture, while at the same time offering the strongest case for

Often referred to as “Wagon Train to the Stars”, “Horatio Hornblower in Space” or a more categorically as a science fiction space opera, Star Trek as per its famous tagline To boldly go where no man has gone before has achieved what no television show has managed.  While timing and luck have played a major role in the show’s spectacular prominence in the entertainment industry, there have been some more tangible factors that paved the way for this singular kind of accomplishment.  The idea of a spaceship traveling to the outer reaches of the galaxy and beyond has built-in intrigue and unlimited fascination not only for the adventures and fantasy it creates but for many a look at a future that may well conceivably occur.  Most envision a day when spaceships will travel long distances and that life aboard will be comparable to that of a passenger train or an airplane flight.  While Star Trek presented a scenario with many original ideas, it followed a long line of space stories, serials, novels, early films and television shows.  George Melies’ A Trip to the Moon (1902), an eighteen minute silent film acknowledged as one of the form’s earliest entries, was based on one of the books from one of literature’s most celebrated science fiction figures, the Frenchman Jules Verne (From the Earth to the Moon).   Space exploration books aimed at a teenage market were all the rage in the 50’s when Tom Corbett, Space Explorer and Digby Allen’s space adventures achieved considerable popularity.  The decade also saw a bevy of science-fiction films set in space: low-budget pot boilers like First Men in the Moon based on H.G. Wells and classics like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet, the film that most influenced Star Trek.  The 60’s brought the master Czech work Ikarie XB-1, and Stanley Kubrick’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey, which released late in Star Trek’s three-year run.  The grandest fantasy of all is deeply rooted in the “final frontier” that Star Trek frames in the opening narration. Continue Reading »

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By J.D. Lafrance

What if James Bond tried to resign?

It is this intriguing premise that lies at the heart of influential British television series The Prisoner. Coming off the spy show Danger Man, actor Patrick McGoohan and writer George Markstein created a decidedly unconventional follow-up (some say sequel) that turned the espionage genre on its head. It was a show unafraid to defy expectations right down to the uncompromising final episode that so infuriated viewers back in the 1960s that McGoohan famously went into hiding. It’s legacy of messing with viewers’ minds lives on to this day in T.V. with the likes of The Sopranos, Mr. Robot and the recent revival of Twin Peaks, but no one did it better than The Prisoner.

The opening credits are a marvel of efficient visual storytelling by brilliantly establishing the premise in only a few, dialogue-free minutes. Top-secret government agent Number Six (McGoohan) resigns rather emphatically from his job. Unbeknownst to him, he’s followed home and as he packs to leave for somewhere else, smoke is piped into his place. He loses consciousness and so it begins….
Continue Reading »

by Dennis Polifroni

Let me just get this first statement out of the way and we can move on from here…

ALL IN THE FAMILY is, without question, the single most important TV series to come out of the United States, post 1966.

This one is not up for debate.  It’s not something we can mull over coffee, argue over drinks and cigarettes, or apologise for after really good sex.  The whole crux of Conservative American television programming was smashed, reshaped, re-invented and over-hauled when Norman Lear bravely presented his “little” situation comedy/drama that introduced us to the residents of 704 Hauser Street in Astoria, Queens (the exterior footage used on the show was actually taken in an area close to Jackson Heights, my current place of residence).  The people that occupied that address were people like you and me and they lived, laughed, hurt, bled and died the way we all do and, eventually, will.

Meeting the people that live at that address is like a mirror reflecting images of ourselves back at us.  They are us.  We ARE them.

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CHAPTER 1: NORMAN

“When I was a boy, I thought if I could turn a screw in my father’s head just 1/16th of an inch, one way or another, it might help him tell the difference between right and wrong.”

-Norman Lear, from his memoir: EVEN THIS I GET TO EXPERIENCE

In order to truly understand the impetus of ALL IN THE FAMILY you need to know quite a bit about the life of its creator and head writer, the most important and influential producer in television history: Norman Lear. Continue Reading »

by Adam Ferenz

The premise sounds like it should not work. Yet work it does, like a Walter White master plan. A man, dying of cancer, decides to take his skills as a Nobel-winning chemist, and apply them to cooking meth, to leave money for his family after he dies. Oh, and he is also a high school chemistry teacher, with a disabled son, pushy in-laws and a very pregnant wife that is never satisfied with anything or anyone. At least, that is how it appears, on the surface. It seems to be full of clichés. Yet, as the series progresses, those clichés reveal themselves as anything but, and therein lies a fraction, though crucial fraction, of the genius of this series.

Walter White kills his first person at the end of the pilot, gassing a fellow dealer, and then, two episodes later, strangles another, who had survived the same gassing. By the end of the series, he has notched an impressive kill list, including but not limited to, deaths by explosion, vehicle and Ricin. He is directly or indirectly responsible for dozens of deaths, including his brother-in-law and that brother-in-law’s partner, agents of the DEA. He has also alienated everyone he claimed to love, and taken on the literally black-hat persona of Heisenberg, his alias in the drug world. The first time we see Heisenberg, coincidentally, is not the first time Walter puts on his hat, but when he goes home to his wife at the end of the pilot and, energized by the brush with danger he has had, has a forceful bit of sex with his wife, causing her to exclaim “Walt, is that you?” The truth is yes, and he is more himself than he ever has been.

The journey of Walter White is an awakening. This is not an awakening for him, only, but those around him, as Jesse learns to become a better person, his wife learns to accept that she is not so innocent and her brother-in-law that he is not the biggest dog in the yard. It is about chemistry, in the way that things work together or pull apart. It is a story not of redemption but of self awareness. Here is a man that when we meet him, is the butt of many jokes. His wife ignores him and his son, who loves him, is not especially close to him. Neither is Walter, who seems distant from everyone, even a family he claims desperately to love more than anything. Walter’s brother in law, Hank, a macho member of the DEA, who is also a bit of a cowboy, and rather a bully. Hank gains pleasures from those moments in which he emasculates Walter, his partner and others. He does this, supposedly, out of a ritual of male bonding, but it amounts to bullying and is his own way of marking out territory.

That Hank does not realize Walter is unappreciative of the teasing shows his own disconnection from the world. The two men will become adversaries, joined by marriage, separated by outward views and joined again by a drive to prove themselves, as some sort of primal male. This is a dark and difficult journey, anchored by Emmy winning performances throughout. Indeed, just about the entire main cast did or should have, won awards. Not that awards mean much of anything but this was one series which earned the trophies it was given. For a few years, it was the best show on television, and nothing else was really close. Not Game of Thrones, not the final years of Mad Men and not the popular yet overrated House of Cards. Continue Reading »