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Archive for August, 2017

The Simpsons (Fox) TV Series
1989-
Shown from left: Lisa, Marge, Maggie, Homer, Bart

by Brandie Ashe

     From its humble beginnings as a series of intermittent shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show, through the over six hundred half-hour television episodes it has produced to this date, to its upcoming twenty-ninth (!!) season this fall, it remains a beloved pop culture juggernaut. Its achievements are numerous: it is the longest-running animated series, longest-running scripted primetime series, and longest-running sitcom on American television. A monster hit with audiences almost right out of the gate, it can be credited with finally making Fox a legitimate force among the major broadcast networks (after nearly five years of playing catch-up with CBS, ABC, and NBC). It has dominated the animation categories at the Emmys for years, winning a total of 31 awards to date; it has likewise dominated the annual animation awards, the Annies, winning 30 of those. The series even received a Peabody Award in 1996 for its “exceptional animation and stinging social satire, both commodities which are in extremely short supply in television today.”

It is, of course, The Simpsons, and frankly, I’m flabbergasted that the show did not rank higher on this countdown. Okay, yes, yes, I hear those of you who criticize the show for its admitted decline in quality in its most recent seasons–the satirical edges that marked the show in its first decade have been filed down in the last fifteen or so years, and the repetitiveness of the plots and the show’s flagrant disregard for series canon can be jarring to longtime viewers (then again, it is about a family that never ages yet celebrates multiple holidays, birthdays, and other age-related milestones, so what more do you expect from them?). Do we hold the show’s longevity against it, or do we recognize that, tired as it may be these days, those so-called “golden age” early seasons nonetheless contain some of the best-written, best-performed, and most cleverly-animated television episodes of all time?

I’m a huge fan of The Simpsons, and have been pretty much since it premiered in 1989, when I was ten years old. I don’t think I was supposed to be watching the show at that young an age (even though it’s downright tame compared to some of the shows floating around these days), but since my parents put a television in my bedroom at that young age–well, that’s all on you, Mom and Dad. I loved the show from the beginning, and while everyone else seemed to love Bart and his crazy antics (“Do the Bartman,” anyone?), I gravitated toward sensitive Lisa, finding in her a kindred know-it-all spirit, recognizing her as another misfit young girl who didn’t quite fit in with the rest of her family, but loved them all the same.

Hell, I’m 38 years old, and I still identify with Lisa more than most television characters I’ve ever come across in all my years of endless channel surfing. (more…)

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Letterman Late NIght bumper 2

by Robert Hornak

“It’s a late night world…”

To acknowledge the importance of NBC’s Late Night with David Letterman is to counter the propulsively simple engine of the show. Nobody wants to declare with seriousness that a man in an outfit made of Alka Seltzer being lowered into a huge vat of water, or wearing a suit of Rice Krispies and getting dunked into a giant bowl of milk is groundbreaking television. Indeed it wasn’t groundbreaking, as Steve Allen (an early Letterman hero) had done similar stunts, like dressing as a “human tea bag” and a “human kite”, as far back as his iteration of The Tonight Show in the mid-’50s, at that time just called Tonight. Even earlier than that, acts like Martin & Lewis on the Colgate Comedy Hour of the early ’50s were trading heavily in a parody of the medium and doing very Lettermany things like calling attention to bad writing right in the middle of a bit and fourth-gearing poorly-received material and real-time staging snafus for the benefit of a savvy live audience.

(more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Host:  “Odds & Ends” for $2,00. Debuting in 1972, it is the longest running game show in history.”

Contestant #1:  (Buzzer sounds).  “What is Jeopardy?”

Host:  “I’m sorry, that is an incorrect answer.”

Contestant #3:  (Buzzer sounds).  “What is The Price is Right?”

Host:  “Right you are!  The Price is Right has been running unabreviated for 45 years now.

Contestant Number 1 may have flubbed the most expensive question in the “Odds & Ends” category, but it is the answer most television fans would have given, all facts and perceptions considered.  Entertainment business magnate Merv Griffin conceived Jeopardy!, which first aired on March 30, 1964.  The show ran on NBC for eleven years before a cancellation in 1975 that had nothing at all to do with floudering ratings, but just a network desire to shuffle and bring some new shows aboard.  That now legendary first incarnation of America’s favorite game show was hosted by the silver-voiced natural Art Fleming, who was introduced by the booming backstage announcer and erstwhile Saturday Night Live luminary Don Pardo – And here he is – the star of Jeopardy – Aaaart Fleming!! – who also handled any technical considerations that may have arision during the show’s half hour running time.  The show attracted viewers of all ages and professions, was equally popular with both sexes and with those on either end of the sociological tracks, running the gamut from those with grade school educations to those with advanced college degrees.  What it usually required was a competitive spirit and a hankering for boasting rites.  Those wanting to engage could either request an audition to be on the show (most of us know at least one person who succeeded on that front) or buy there own Jeopardy! board game to be used with friends or family members.  Or just tune in to the show.  In the long if truncated run of this irresistible game show, several time slots were employed.  In the late 60’s and early 70’s NBC ran it at noontime, but once it permanently went into sydication in 1984, it was seen in most markets at 7:00 P.M.  In 1978 when it came back in primetime for a single year it was seen later in the afternoon.

The thing with Jeopardy! is that it was probably the only show in every conceivable genre one could watch just as attentively as a tardy observer as one who is tuned in from the opening seconds.  That’s because the show by its very construction is challenging the viewer by the minute.  Such is the nature of a question and answer program, where everyone can play along without any necessary cumulative rewards.  The show’s famous deceit is of course that contestants are given the “answers” and are asked to provide the “questions.”  While this method is basically a matter of semantics, contestants who don’t use the proper interogative statement are declared incorrect, even if they give the right answer.  However, because the moderator gives the players a second chance to state their answer by the rules, the only time this bizarre occurance has actually cost players dearly is during Final Jeopardy, when they write their answer with a black marker on a slate.  At that point there would be no possible way to grant a reprieve, what with answers being exposed to the audience. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

 There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission.  If we wish to make it louder, we will bring up the volume.  If we wish to make it softer, we will tune it to a whisper. We will control the horizontal.  We will control the vertical. We can roll the image, make it flutter. We can change the focus to a soft blur or sharpen it to crystal clarity.  For the next hour sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear.  We repeat: there is nothing wrong with your television set. You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to… The Outer Limits.

Trent:  The control voice intonation that ushered in one of the most unique television shows ever conceived has over the years become as famous as the individual episodes it introduced.  Today the deceit of course seems a bit dated and laughable, but in a remarkable twist a great many know it without even having seen a single epsiode of the show that spawned this all-too-familiar catch phrase.  I’d like to introduce myself.  For purposes of today’s panel discussion I will be going by the name of “Trent.”  I will be moderating a brief discussion of the classic science fiction series with three others, who will hereby be known as “Judith Bellero”, “Gwyllm Griffiths” and “Andro”.  I would like to extend my appreciation to the organizers of today’s science fiction convention for giving our panel disccussion the green light and to the workers at the Javits Center here in Manhattan for their yeoman work in setting up the chairs and audio equipment.  Our fearless quartet, three men and one fair lady can be accurately framed as baby boomers, those who grew up at the time The Outer Limits and other renowned anthology shows were being aired.  While we are fans of science fiction and horror, we also favor shows with supernatural and fantastical elements, both of which are manifested in today’s cerebral, all-encompassing talk.  Judith I would like to get this discussion started by asking you what attracted you to the show?  I won’t dare ask you your age, but as a Baby Boomer you are right there with the rest of us  so to speak.

Judith:  I am not one of those vain women who devote their lives towards concealing their age.  I am 59 now, and discovered The Outer Limits a few years after its short initial run had concluded as a very impressionable young girl.  A local station in Cincinnati, where I grew up picked up the 49 shows in a syndication package, and because my father was such a passionate science fiction adherent, I sat next to him on the living room couch sitting as quietly as the control voice demanded, though the austere tone of the show somewhat unerved me.  (pause) I was also kind of a tomboy at that age and shared my feelings about the show in the schoolyeard with some boys who counted The Outer Limits as a regular obsession.  I was too young at the time to realize that one of the two men who conceived the show -and wrote some of the very best episodes- was none other than Joseph Stefano, who wrote a little horror movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock called Psycho.  But my first run through the show was uncomplicated and in a sense it meant more to me than the re-viewings and introspection encountered years later.  Even with the phony rubber masks and cheesy sets, it was an incomparably imaginative show with a rich and expressionistic visual scheme – I dare say it eclipsed the more famous The Twilight Zone strictly from that visual standpoint.  Nothing like The Outer Limits was ever done, nor even attempted later on, not even in the inferior, if occasionally impressive re-make of the 90’s.  The Outer Limits, at its peak, was one of the most unique shows on the small screen: Created by Leslie Stevens but produced during its superior first year by Joseph Stefano, the show told sci-fi stories through a lens of Gothic horror, using surreal imagery and stark, sometimes expressionist cinematography to create an eerie mood and look. (more…)

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Dino Risi’s 1962 “Il Sorpasso”

by Sam Juliano

R.I.P horror film legend Tobe Hooper passed away on Saturday at age 74.  His terrifying Texas Chainsaw Massacre was one of the most influential films ever made, and Poltergeist has likewise earned his classic status.  The last few months has been sadly tough on horror icons

Labor Day is only one week into the future, so the summer respites being enjoyed are reaching their conclusion.  Weather-wise it doesn’t seem like autumn is close at hand, but at this time of the year anything can change fast.  Halloween decorations and back-to-school displays are all the rage.  Interesting films are beginning to show up at the art houses, and serious film buffs are beginning to take note of the films they think will be in the running for year-end awards.  But this may be jumping the gun as we have four culturally rich months ahead, that we need to nurture not rush.

As to the ongoing Top 80 Television Countdown, all is going extraordinarily well.  Solid essays, active comment threads, impressive page view totals point to a successful project as we approach the final 30 leading up to the late September unveiling of the Top 5.  Plans have been finalized for Part 2, which is even more massive than the one we doing at present.  Additions have been made numerous times, and the currect number is 141 shows for Part 2, meaning a grand total of 221 when the currently-running 80 is added on.  The tentative starting date for the second part will be around December 21, and it will run everyday until sometime around May 9th or 10th.  To say it the most massive and auspicious project in the history of the site would be an understatement.  As always, ace writer Jim Clark has been and will continue to post his great essays every third week.

Writing and viewing for the Television Countdown has prevented me from seeing more films in theaters, but I am determined to reverse that this coming week.  My son Danny, a friend Tony Lucibello and I did attend a great double feature of Italian black and white masterpieces at the Film Forum – Dino Risi’s Il Sorpasso and Mario Monicelli’s The Passionate Thief in gorgeous restored prints: (more…)

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32. Frasier (1993-2004)

Frasier1

By Patricia Perry

As Cliff Clavin, the know-it-all mailman from Cheers might say: “Here’s a little-known fact:” Kelsey’s Grammer’s Frasier Crane enjoyed the longest unbroken run of any comedic character in television history – a full two decades, to be exact. Expand that distinction to include all genres, and only Marshall Matthew Dillon (portrayed by James Arness on the very long-running Gunsmoke) can match Grammer’s impressive longevity.

It would have been hard to see that run coming based on Grammer’s first appearance on Cheers in 1984. (And here, I’m going to assume that readers are already familiar with that series.) In the Season 3 opener, Frasier was mostly seen in the background and around the edges of the barroom scenes. He’d easily be mistaken for an extra until the final few minutes where he’s revealed to be a psychiatrist brought in by former waitress, Diane Chambers, to help Sam overcome a drinking problem.  He’s also revealed to be Diane’s new beau.

Frasier Crane was meant to be a temporary character, appearing for only a few episodes  to stir up some jealous rivalry between Sam and Diane.  But the producers loved Grammer and kept his character around for all of the third season – and then for the entire remaining run of the series. After Diane left him at the altar, Frasier became a fixture at the titular tavern, eventually meeting and falling for a frosty fellow psychiatrist, Lilith Sternin (Bebe Neuwirth). If you look at Grammer’s first season on Cheers, you can understand why he became an integral part of the show’s illustrious history. Both Shelley Long’s Diane Chambers and Grammer’s Frasier Crane were pompous and pretentious, meant to be fish-out-of-water amid the lowbrow bonhomie of the Cheers bar. But where Long’s fussy, mannered performance always kept her palpably aloof her from the rest of the cast,  Grammer projected a more sympathetic, vulnerable, quality – even while blathering away about Freud and Jung.  It’s instructive that the gang at the bar take a liking to Frasier fairly quickly and even laugh at most of his jokes. He fits comfortably into that estimable comic ensemble almost from the get-go.

When Cheers ended in 1993, the creative team of David Lee, David Angell and Peter Casey originally conceived an entirely different show for Grammer, in which he would play a paraplegic billionaire with a sharp-witted live-in nurse. When that idea didn’t pan out, they determined to do a spin-off show for the Frasier Crane character, but with significant changes to differentiate it from Cheers.  To start, Frasier and Lilith were understood to have divorced off-screen, with Lilith retaining custody of their son. The setting was moved from Boston to the character’s hometown of Seattle. For local flavor, the series established a coffeehouse – Café Nervosa, typical of the burgeoning  gourmet coffee scene in Seattle  – as the characters’ gathering place. And the idea of having Dr. Crane working in private practice was rejected as being too similar to the beloved Bob Newhart Show, so Frasier was given a radio call-in show to host instead. (more…)

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The satirical comedy sketch program SCTV inhabited a universe unto itself, a small-town TV station that broadcasted mostly second-rate programming. A contemporary of Saturday Night Live, the program won two Emmy Awards for writing, including one for an episode titled “Moral Majority,” which satirized conservative Christian groups who placed economic pressure on television sponsors to withdraw advertising from programs they objected to on moral grounds

 by Pierre de Plume

“For us, art is not an end in itself, but it is an opportunity for the true perception and criticism of the times we live in.”— Dada poet Hugo Ball

If we entertain the notion, for a moment, that art mirrors contemporary society, we may find that the satirical sketch comedy series SCTV reflected —even uniquely so — the social and political upheavals of Western culture that took hold during the 1970s. This historical period underwent fundamental shifts in attitudes, for example, on social mores, marriage and sexuality. In North America, where memories of the Senate Watergate hearings and the downfall of President Nixon were fresh in people’s minds, we grew to regard our political leaders and institutions with not just cynicism but also as an absurd joke.

Overlaying these phenomena were fundamental changes in the delivery of our news and entertainment. Reporters like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein popularized investigative journalism to a degree not seen before. Films like All the President’s Men, Network, and Harlan County, USA each highlighted in some way the dichotomies of our prosperous, free society.

For television audiences in particular, our landscape of options took a leap upward as cable and satellite TV services, along with multiple basic cable and pay networks, became widely available. Augmenting this effect was the fact that vanguards like SCTV and Saturday Night Live placed on our screens — for the first time — artistic efforts of actors and writers who had grown up watching television. This generation was the first whose views and sensibilities had been imprinted by the new and ubiquitous medium, television. (more…)

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