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Archive for April, 2018

by Jared Dec and Trevor D. Nigg

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by Adam Ferenz

I am going to try my hardest not to spoil this series but it is nearly impossible to talk in depth about this series without some spoilers, so be warned.

Until Babylon 5 came around, Science Fiction Television in the United States was usually one of two things-at least when it was good-and that is either Star Trek or Twilight Zone. Otherwise, you had Captain Video, Battlestar Galactica or dozens of other cheap, forgettable and uninspired series. In 1993, Joseph Michael Strackzynski, a writer and editor with extensive background in both children’s programming, such as Ghostbusters (based on the film) and adult hits like Murder, She Wrote, launched a series that would change everything about the television science fiction landscape.

For one  thing, this series would be plotted out in full before the first episodes was shot, though the vagaries of television production necessitated the adjusting of portions of that plot-what JMS, the acronym the fans used for him-had created, called trapdoors. These allowed, say, Kodath to vanish after a single episode and be replaced by Na’Toth, who in turn was able to exit and be assumed dead for much of the series. Or, in the series most memorable examples, to have Commander Sinclair replaced after the first season, to have Ivanova replaced after the fourth season and indeed, for Ivanova to become 1st officer in the first place, replacing the original character of Laurel Takashima, after the troubled pilot film, The Gathering. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

The annual Tribeca Film Festival is set to launch mid-week and Lucille, some friends and I will be attending on Thursday onward through Sunday the 29th.  During this period the Greatest Television Series Countdown Part 2 will be temporarily suspended but will resume on Monday, April 30th.  Many thanks to all the writers (which a particular shout out to the tireless television specialist Adam Ferenz) who have again risen to the challenge with this project extension.

The second annual Allan Fish Online Festival will also be underway late in May, and we already have around a dozen volunteers including Adam, whose name was accidentally left off last week’s scroll.  Again we are expecting another inspired enterprise in tribute to our beloved film expert.

With the movie bonanza of 2018 facing us square on, we decided to rest up on the theatrical movie front this past week, though in any event it seems this was a release lull.

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Acclaimed author Jonah Winter discusses the difficulties—and necessities—of introducing picture-book readers to tough topics.

Jonah Winter’s career as a children’s author began with Diego, a 1991 picture-book biography of the famed Mexican painter. Since then, Winter’s penned more than 30 titles, including The Secret World of Hildegard (2007), Jazz Age Josephine (2012), and Lillian’s Right to Vote: A Celebration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (2015).

There’s no doubt: with his signature style, sometimes spare, sometimes exuberant, Winter has a knack for converting challenging subjects into compulsively readable, eye-opening texts for young readers. We last spoke with Winter following the publication of Peaceful Heroes (2009), a tribute to peace activists around the world. Here Winter offers insight into his more recent works, particularly The Secret Project (2017), as well as the ever-changing landscape of kidlit.

SHEMROSKE:  The Manhattan Project—and the havoc it wreaked—is difficult enough for adults to grapple with. Yet, in   The Secret Project    (2017), you deftly translate the subject for children. Can you talk a bit about your writing process? How do you decide which parts of a story to keep and which to leave out?
 
 WINTER: Your question gets to the heart of writing picture-book nonfiction. Due to the constraints of the genre, a nonfiction-picture-book author always has to pick and choose what elements to include and what to leave out. With the best subjects, there is an obvious story that is begging to be told.

I will admit that the story I chose to tell in The Secret Project is not what most authors would consider an obvious picture-book story. First of all, it doesn’t have a happy ending. In fact, the ending is about as devastating as anything I can imagine. Second, it’s about what most people consider to be an incredibly complex topic—nuclear physics, and specifically, the invention of the atom bomb commissioned by the U.S. government during WWII.

I happen to believe that children can and do, constantly, handle a lot more than most adults give them credit for. They don’t need everything to be sugar-coated. They don’t need to be lied to. Sometimes they need to be challenged. Sometimes they need books that broach, head-on, their worst fears. They need adults to talk to them and treat them like the smart, brave, curious beings that they are. And so, I wrote a picture book about the atom bomb.

In terms of how I made decisions on what to keep and discard in this complex topic, the age level of my readers helped determine much of that. And the story I wanted to tell, after my visit to the Bradbury Science Museum, in Los Alamos, was essentially a very simple story. In fact, I immediately saw the picture-book format as the perfect format for the story I wanted to tell.

I’m not a nuclear scientist, and I’m not exactly what you would call a huge fan of the American government as reflected in American foreign policy. So: American government takes over boys’ school in an incredibly beautiful, peaceful part of the world—and then they hire some scientists to build, in total secret, the most evil, powerful weapon ever created. Then—kaboom—they blow it up.

“Brought a quick end to the war” is propaganda, and ever since I was a little kid, I never believed it. The “saved lives” argument has always struck me as even more ludicrous. My goal in writing this very simple story about a very complex topic was to remove the story from the usual context in which it is usually safely placed in American history books (one that promotes a positive image of America and presents the bomb as a necessary evil) and put it in the context that I believe is the real context: a beautiful world, full of life, art, peace, Katsina dolls. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

There are two ways to frame The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. The first is to categorize it as an extension of sorts to the seven-season Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which it immediately followed.  the other is to count it as a standalone show with many distinct contrasts, including the obvious running time, temperament and general disavowal of the patented twist ending that was common with its celebrated predecessor.  It could be argued that the three season Hour had a more persuasive kinship with Boris Karloff’s Thriller, which ran in 1960-61, even if Gothic horror is only part of the Hitchcock equation in this sadly underrated and under aired television property.  In addition to dual categorization there is a similar disagreement among television fans about the quality of the final product.  Some prefer the taut, economical and more pointed Presents while others see the successor as the opportunity to expand material and develop stories more comprehensively.  While I do appreciate Presents greatly, and consider it one of anthology television’s finest entries, I am with those who find that at its very best Hour eclipses Presents, but there is as there would be with the daunting challenging of maintaining quality every week in a one-hour shows far more duds and shows that simply do not work.  To be sure the scripts are generally more complex, and the production values more elaborate and interesting, not to mention character development obviously a stronger thrust with extended duration.

Yet writers for the most part were partial to Presents.  Says Henry Slesar:  “There was always the possibility of doing what I call ‘gems.’  The half-hours were compact and full of sharp point-making, bringing the audience in at the middle, and then hitting them with the climax.  Very clean.  This got a little difficult to achieve in the hour shows, which  were more like features except that they weren’t, not really.  They were actually more like extended half-hours.  More was told about the same thing.  I think the show suffered because of it, and I think the Hitchcock people felt so too.”  Still there were some that disagreed.  Gilbert Seldes in TV Guide opined “When Alfred Hitchcock decided to extend his show to a full hour, he ended one of the best series in television history and brilliantly began another which is even better.  With more time at his disposal, Hitchcock adds a new dimension to his work.  You may call it depth and you may also say that to the mystery of action, of which he is a great master, he now adds to the mystery of human beings.” (more…)

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by Adam Ferenz

When, following the success of Winds of War, Dan Curtis met with ABC executives to discuss also bringing War & Remembrance to the screen, he told them in no uncertain terms that he would agree to it only if he was given carte blanche to present the history as starkly as he could. Despite worries about FCC interference, the eventual series came off beautifully, and won the Emmy for best miniseries. That sort of dedication is apparent for the entire nearly 40 hour run time of this series. Curtis had been uncertain if he wanted to do the sequel-Winds of War had exhausted him-and was eventually convinced by those around him to speak with ABC, a development that often makes for less than enthusiastic film-making. Not here.

Why is such an often emotionally overwrought and soapy story placed on this list? Because of the Holocaust sequences. Period. These are etched in the memory as holding a special power because of their honesty, stripped of sensationalism. The sequence (spoilers) in which a character we have watched for 38 hours, is taken from a ghetto, loaded onto a train, hauled hundreds of miles to Auschwitz, unloaded, herded into a line, forced into a building, stripped of his clothing, and then gassed, before being cremated and his ashes poured into a river, is a sequence few will forget once they’ve seen it.

The casting of the two sides of this epic is something of legend. Robert Mitchum came in as Pug Henry, the head of the Henry family. In “Winds of War” his son, Byron, was played by Jan Michael Vincent, while Natalie Jastrow, Byron’s Jewish girlfriend, was played by Ali McGraw. All three were too old for the roles. Only Mitchum survived. Hart Bochner and Jane Seymour took over the parts for “War and Remembrance” and it is Seymour’s face, the horrors of living through the Holocaust etched on her face, that is among the final and most powerful images in the saga. Oh, and the series also cast John Houseman as her uncle, Aaron. Houseman was replaced in War and Remembrance by Sir John Gielgud, who, like Seymour, made the character his own. His passion and pain during the sequences set in the Theresiendat ghetto, is another in a long line of unforgettable moments linked to the Holocaust in this one.

There’s the White House Cottage gassings sequence, and the Babi Yar massacre, too. The later saw German officers and their wives lining up on the hillside of a ravine to watch Jews and others be mowed down by machine gun fire. There is also, of course, Pacific and Atlantic war footage, including some tense moments when the fleet Pug is in charge of is attacked, and a brilliant remounting of the attack on Pearl Harbor, in which Curtis seamlessly blends footage from Tora! Tora! Tora! Unfortunately, the series is not all about the historical events. (more…)

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by Adam Ferenz

(Due to hilarious circumstances caused by the powers that be, a gap was left in the schedule and somebody had to fill it with something. The result is the following essay)

This classic sitcom from television’s first golden age is set at the fictional Fort Baxter, a base in fictional Roseville, Kansas and concerns the machinations of master sergeant Ernie Bilko, who lives up to his name, as he is an inveterate gambler, scoundrel and cheat. Yes, he’s a bit of a bum, but he is our bum, and as much as he loves taking his “pigeons” for all their lettuce-cash-he will be damned if anyone else takes advantage of them. At heart, he is a selfish man but not an evil one, except in terms of that banal evil that comes with his special brand of self interest. This is offset by his charm and the manic energy and immaculate timing of Phil Silvers, who along with a crackjack cast-including more women and  ethnic and minority types than television had ever seen or would see again for thirty years or more-gave life to a series of brilliant scripts headed by creator Nat Hiken, who would go on to create Car 54, Where Are You? As a bit of trivia, actor George Kennedy, who played a policeman in several episodes, served as army technical advisor for the series, which, at the insistence of its creator, was filmed in New York City, and it shows in both the casting and the energy of the series, which has a decided urban and often working class flavor to it.

The series indeed broke ground, for many reasons, but not the least of which was showing an integrated unit at a time this was ignored in films and television and when African American actors, particularly on television, were relegated to butlers, stickup men or Amos and Andy types. Elizabeth Fraser, as Joanne Hogan, was a rare recurring love interest in a story that found both Bilko and Hogan dating other people, making one another jealous, and obviously physical with one another, though given the mores of the day, and the tight reigns of censorship through Standards and Practices, directly referencing the sex these two-and others, because let us face it, this was one horny and lucky base-were having, was not going to be clearly stated. Indeed, one of the series funniest episodes is Furlough in New York, in which the two take a few days in New York City, without realizing they are so close, constantly missing one another by inches. If you have not seen it, the episode is highly recommended. (more…)

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