Archive for June, 2018


An appreciation by Brian E. Wilson

When we first meet Lorelai Gilmore (played by the divine Lauren Graham), the effervescent fast-talking heroine of this wondrous dramedy that ran 154 episodes over 7 seasons, she enters Luke’s Diner and orders, no, begs the grumpy, perpetually stubbled Luke (an enjoyable gruff Scott Patterson) for, of course, coffee. He sees that this java junkie has already downed several cups, and wants to deny her, like a good bartender cutting off one who has had too many drinks. But she needs an even stronger caffeine fix. His coffee rocks. He grumbles as she charms him into surrender. Fueled by The La’s unforgettable power pop song “There She Goes,” this opening sequence beautifully sets the tone for what would be one of the most captivating and unique network series ever to air.

Created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, who (for the first 6 seasons; David S. Rosenthal was show runner during the 7th season) would work with her husband Daniel on the series along with many extremely talented writers, directors, and a remarkably gifted technical crew, this zippy show gives the viewer that feeling of a coffee high. The characters speak as if in a 1930s screwball comedy, whipping from one witty quip to the next. I myself quit coffee cold turkey in 2010, but almost felt the need to grab a mug of the strongest coffee I could find to write this blog post about what makes this show special. Instead I revisited a few episodes (the “Pilot,” season 2’s “I Can’t Get Started,” and season 3’s beyond great “They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They?”) to get that Gilmore feeling again. Better than coffee! I arrived late to the party, didn’t start watching the show until the mid-00s on DVD, and finished just a few years ago. So unlike a lot of older shows I wrote about for this epic countdown of TV’s best, this creation is still relatively fresh in my pop culture stuffed brain.

I mentioned screwball comedies in the last paragraph, but I can easily compare Gilmore Girls to other TV shows of the ’90s, ’00s, and 2010s that move with amazing celerity. Lorelai Gilmore, her brilliant bookish daughter Rory (played with wide-eyed charm by Alexis Bledel), and all of the others dwelling in and around the fictional town of Stars Hollow, Connecticut could easily keep up with the fast talkers populating Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, The Simpsons, 30 Rock, Arrested Development, Veep, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, The West Wing, Community, The Good Place, and others. This is TV that requires the viewer to keep up. Tune out for one second and you miss a key line of dialogue. Instead of exhausting, the show exhilarates.

Gilmore Girls is known for its pop culture references, and wow, they are ever eclectic. The Pilot has verbal references to Jack Kerouac, Officer Krupke, RuPaul, Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time” video, Ruth Gordon’s character in Rosemary’s Baby, Moby-Dick, FloJo, Mommie Dearest, “The Little Match Girl,” Madame Bovary, Eminem, and others. Another episode (“They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They?”) mentions Riverdance, Tiny Tim from Dickens, the Who’s Quadrophenia, Jennifer Lynch’s obscure cult film Boxing Helena (its star Sherilyn Fenn would later appear as a guest star), Bobby Brady, the Rocky theme, Tommy Tune, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. (more…)

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by Dennis Polifroni

So many negative things have been said about the AMC flagship show, THE WALKING DEAD.

“It’s been on too long” (now moving into its 9th season).  “The show treads the same water again and again”. Finally, and most infamously, “what is all this about?”

As a fan of the show, who has stuck by each episode and season with unabashed loyalty, I can honestly say I can see and understand the gripes. I feel the complainers pains. However, in order to truthfully navigate the filmic adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s smash-hit comic book series, one has to look with better eyes.

On the surface, and this is the reason for its initial success for the first 6 seasons, THE WALKING DEAD is a tight, taught intense horror show about the end of the world as we know it by a plaque that turns the recently deceased into flesh eating zombies. Loaded with thrills and chills, and NOT too little gore and guts, the series presents itself as a thrill-ride chiller with characters we can relate to and care for. The story of Georgia cop Rick Grimes (the fantastic Andrew Lincoln), who awakes from a gun-shot induced coma to find the world dead in its tracks (shades of Danny Boyle’s marvelously creepy 28 DAYS LATER), and the people he bonds with on his quest to find his family and a safe home amid the deadly chaos, is the stuff of horror movie legend.

Characters that we love die, and are replaced by characters we will love as well. When one prospect for a home goes sour, Rick and his tribe move on to another.

I admit. Describing it this way, one would think the naysayers are right and the show can only suffer from repetition.

Ahhhhh. That’s where so many go wrong…

The beauty of Kirkman’s basic plot, and what is misconstrued as mind-numbing, repeated narrative structure, is that by keeping the basic outline simple the series writers are able to weave in intricate observations about democracy and how the conservative rule hits hysterical proportions in a time of crisis. It shows us how easily forms of racism flare in emergency mode and, most of all, how we take for granted the little things that will become luxury in a world turned into a graveyard.

On an artistic level, the repetition allows the technical crew and directors to play with the visual and sonic aspects of the series presentation so no single season looks or sounds like the other. THE WALKING DEAD is, without a doubt in my mind, one of the most visually daring and creative works of filmic art on the tube.


(2010-present AMC/Netflix Streaming, DVD/Blu-Ray)

p. Frank Darabont, Gale Anne Hurd, David Alpert, Robert Kirkman, Scott Gimple developed. Frank Darabont based on the comic by. Robert Kirkman w. Robert Kirkman, Frank Darabont, Scott Gimple, Angela Kang d. Frank Darabont, Ernest Dickerson, Phil Abraham, Guy Ferland, Michelle McClaren, Clark Johnson m. Bear McCreary photo. Ron Schmidt, David Boyd, David Tattersall e. Julius Ramsay, Hunter Via, Dan Liu

Andrew Lincoln (Rick Grimes), Chandler Riggs (Carl), Lennie James (Morgan), Steven Yuen (Glen), Norman Reedus (Daryl), Lauren Cohan (Maggie), Danai Gurira (Michonne), Melissa McBride (Carol), Sarah Callie (Lori), David Morrissey (The Governor), Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Neeghan), Jon Bernthal (Shane), Jeffrey DeMunn (Dale), Micheal Rooker (Merle), Scott Wilson (Hershel)


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by Lucille Juliano

It is hard to believe that 40 years have gone by since Taxi began its run on ABC with its final season on NBC. The show was produced by the John Charles Walters Company, in association with Paramount Network Television, and was created by James L. Brooks,  Stan Daniels, David Davis, and Ed Weinberger.  The series won 18 Emmy Awards including three for Outstanding Comedy Series.

Taxi is a sitcom that reveals the world of a crew of NYC taxi drivers who work for the Sunshine Cab Company.  Many of the cab drivers consider their job with the cab company as interim until they are able to realize their true dreams. Elaine Nardo (MaryLu Henner) is a single mom working at an art gallery. Her dream is to have one of her own someday.  Tony Banta (Tony Danza) is a boxer with the dream of becoming a champ. Bobby Wheeler (Jeff Conaway) is an actor waiting for that big break.  “Reverend” Jim Ignatowski (Christopher Lloyd) is an aging hippie minister, a 1960s drug abuse survivor, who seems to be in his own world. Alex Reiger (Judd Hirsch) is the “leader” of the group.  Everyone goes to him for advice. He is the only member of the crew that considers himself to be just a cab driver. The cast is rounded out with Latka Gravas (Andy Kaufman) a naive and simple-minded mechanic from some unknown country and Louie De Palma (Danny DeVito) the tyrannical, short-tempered dispatcher. (more…)

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By Stephen Mullen

When I was growing up, in the 1970s in Maine, baseball on television meant NBC’s game of the week, ABC’s Monday Night Baseball, and maybe a Red Sox game a week. That plus Mel Allen’s This Week in Baseball, and whatever info turned up on the news. Baseball was a radio sport – that’s where I followed it. The Sox were on every single night, Ned Martin’s voice was part of the family. I followed the game on the radio and through magazines and box scores, and I followed it intensely. But all that completely changed by the end of the 1980s. Cable TV changed everything about baseball – changed all sports, probably, except football, which was always a television sport, with its weekly games and predictable schedule. In 1980, cable was a luxury – I don’t remember anyone who had it,or very few; by 1990, everyone had cable TV. And by 1990, baseball had moved to cable. All the Red Sox games were on NESN by then, and cable brought all kinds of baseball to my TV – I could get the Braves and the Mets; other towns, other packages around New England could get you the Yankees and Cubs as well. And ESPN showed games every day, and covered baseball intensely – Sports Center; Baseball Tonight – we were soaked in baseball. Back in the 1970s, I could see about 3 games a week; in 1990, I could watch every single game from three different teams, plus a couple other games every single night. This has only grown since. You might have to pay more to get all the games – but you can get all the games, from all the teams,all of it at the same high production level. Even with basic cable, you get 2-3 games a day, and more on the weekends. We are soaked in baseball on TV.

One of the stranger aspects of Ken Burns’ Baseball series, from 1994, is that it doesn’t talk about this change. The 9th Inning episode covers 20 very eventful years of baseball – free agency and all that brought to the game, drugs (coke, particularly), Pete Rose, as well as all the on field events of the era. The great world series’ – Brooks Robinson beating the Reds in1970, the Red Sox and Reds in 1975, Sox and Mets in 86, Twins and Braves in 1991; Clemente’s last games; the 1989 earthquake; Kirk Gibson vs. the Eck. But there’s very little about television, about cable TV’s transformation of what baseball on TV was. (And its transformation of baseball itself.) It is a huge omission – take that 1991 world series, one of the best of all time, with its two last to first teams – how do you do justice to it without acknowledging that one of the teams was essentially a national team? TBS brought the Braves to everyone – they deliberately claimed that they were baseball’s version of the Dallas Cowboys – America’s team. I admit to being part of it – I picked up on the Braves when they were in last place, because even before they started winning, they were loaded with young players who were going to make something of themselves. I could watch slow, mediocre, white, Boston win 88 games a year and nip or be nipped by the sightly less bland (but Clemens-less) Blue Jays at the wire – or I could watch Ron Gant and Otis Nixon, watch Tom Glavine and John Smoltz develop into stars, watch Steve Avery and Derek Lilliquist come up and maybe become stars, wonder when Justice and Lopez and the rest were going to make it – they were fun to watch. And I could see them, every game if I wanted; I could follow them as closely as I could follow the Red Sox.

I have a confession: when I saw this assignment, I thought it was about baseball on television, not about the Burns series. I thought, this is very cool, really – why shouldn’t “baseball” be a topic? or any sport, or even just, “sports” – that is a massive part of what television is. And you might as well take it whole – you can’t make a really clean division, to pick one show – “The 1986 World Series” say – it doesn’t work like that. But baseball on TV? or football, or sports – things like that should be considered in this countdown. Sports – the 7 o’clock news – even whole channels, like CNN – are integral to what TV is. TV is as much the medium as the content, and the content itself is often spread out like this – types of shows, that fill up the hours. And many of them, filling the hours with as much excitement and drama as any actual shows. The advertisers know it, NESN hypes the Red Sox by comparing them to Game of Thrones and the like – why not? We’ve had a few entries like this, game shows and the like, but why shouldn’t baseball be one of them?

Personally, I love baseball on TV. It allows you to engage at whatever level you want. You can leave it in the background, dip into it when something happens, let it drift when nothing’s going on; or you can hang on every pitch, on all the stuff between the pitches (the decisions about pitches, the psychological battles between pitcher/catcher and hitters, and so on). You can go back and forth between these approaches; you can supplement what’s on TV – fire up baseball reference and look up just how good Mike Trout is this year. Compared to other sports, baseball suits me more – hockey has more consistent excitement and action; basketball has spurts of spectacular action, but a lot of standing around, that doesn’t quite have the drama of a baseball game; I am no fan of football, though it is probably the quintessential television sport – with everyone in the country (who cares about it) watching the same thing at the same time every week), with well defined self-contained plays, everything happening in an orderly manner. (Violence and committee meetings, as George Will described it.) I understand its appeal, though I don’t share it. I like the fact that baseball is diffuse – that all those games going on every day means that all the people around the country watching baseball are watching something different; I like that you can engage with it on so many different levels; I like that the pace of it leaves so much time for consideration – looking up stats; telling stories; speculating about strategy; comparing players to one another, to all the long history of the past – it’s like that. It is intellectually stimulating because it lets you bring whatever you want to it – it stimulates your imagination, your curiosity, it leads you down a dozen pathways. I like that.

That, I suppose, is one of the things Ken Burns does best: he gets at the endless digressiveness of baseball. He likes to meander in his documentaries, takes his time, dwells on stories and images, sometimes on analysis, sometimes just on contemplation or reflection – all of his shows have some of the ordered digressiveness of baseball. And Baseball is a fine series: beautiful, informative, deep and broad, with well chosen and organized imagery, itself lovely and fascinating. His talking heads? well – I think the world could do without another chance for George Will and Bob Costas to bloviate on camera – but then you get someone like John Sayle, Curt Flood (who’s magnificent, really), or the inimitable Bill Lee – well, I can forgive… Still – for all their good qualities, I sometimes find Burns’ documentaries a bit frustrating – there sometimes seems to be less than meets the eye. Or I should say – the more I know about the subject of the show, the less satisfying they can be. Both The Civil War and Baseball have this quality. Those are subjects I know about – longstanding enthusiasms. I’ve been obsessed with the Civil War for most of my life; and I have always been absorbed in baseball. I spent many hours in my youth poring over old baseball magazines, reading and rereading baseball histories, talking about it to anyone who cared, all my life; I have spent many more hours in my dotage rooting through any piece of information I can find about the sport – online, books, and so on. And always living on stats, as baseball fans do, from the Baseball Digests and annual guides (what a surprise it was to learn that Bill Mazerowski was a ball player and not just a guy who put out a yearly baseball preview!) that came out in the 70s, to Baseball Weekly and USA Today’s stat pages in the 90s, to Baseball Reference and ESPN and MLB online now. So I have heard the big stories he tells – I know most of the historical developments of baseball – I know some developments in the game better than he covers them. I sometimes feel as though his shows are a kind of preaching to the choir – he repeats the stories baseball fans know, Snodgrass’ muff, and Babe’s called shot; what a prick Ty Cobb was and what a gentleman Christy Mathewson was; Jackie Robinson’s arrival, the Miracle Mets, the ’75 series and Fisk’s home run, and so on – repeating them as much to spark a kind of sentimental recognition as to teach you anything. They have a self-congratulation to them, which, admittedly, is what we baseball fans do all the time anyway! Sit around and remember the touchstones of watching baseball – but I don’t need Ken Burns to do that. The truth is, my favorite Burns series is probably the Vietnam series from last year – that’s a subject I know in the outline, but not in the particulars – I could follow along, but I didn’t know more than he was telling me, and it felt like I was learning something. I learned plenty from Baseball, or the Civil War – but not the same. And not as much as I already knew.

But saying that, it points to the best things about Baseball – when it talks about things I don’t know. The Shadow Ball episode, mainly about the Negro Leagues, is the strongest example. It’s a subject I know something about, but nowhere near enough. Burns covers it in some depth – and it is fascinating. I learned something – I didn’t know most of it; I knew some names (Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson and so on), some team information (I even have a Cuban X Giants hat), but nothing about the history of the leagues, their development, their progression. I do now. That is a great episode, for this reason, as well as just because of the fine collection of footage and photographs he has.

Burns is very good on covering the social aspects of the game. The roots of its racism, the sociology of the players, the various shifts in the demographics of its fans. He’s good on the labor issues, giving them attention, tracing their evolution (though it’s a miserable story to tell, almost as miserable as the game’s racism, given the corruption of the owners through the first half of the 20th century and beyond). These pieces are good, though often short – his treatment of the media’s role in baseball is often very good as well, though even briefer, frustratingly so. There are bits about radio and Red Barber; lots of quotes from sportswriters, and allusions to them; some discussion of television – but shouldn’t there be more? And that last episode missed the ball badly – cable television is a huge change, for all the reasons I’ve said. It’s a change that was more noticeable in baseball than in other sports – daily games saturates you with games; and that saturation was on radio in the 70s; it is on TV now. He touches on this in earlier periods – on the ways technology spread the games in the old days – newspapers printing partial scores in multiple editions; the scoreboards at newspaper offices, updated from the telegraph wires – you could follow games in lose to real time in the 1920s, just like now – though you might have had to leave the house. That happened on television in the 80s – he ignored it.

It’s interesting to think about baseball as television. I’ve posted about this before, way back when, on the 20th anniversary of Roger Clemens’ first 20 strikeout game. That’s 12 years back now – how much has coverage changed since 2006? less than it had changed since 1986, I think. Most of the trends in 2006 are still going strong – lots of crowd shots, dugout shots, sideline reporters, closer shots of players. High definition has changed how baseball looks on TV as well. I think has reined in some of the more annoying features of the game on TV – the camera work is less frenetic and annoying now; the images are so good, with contemporary technology, that you don’t need gimmicks to try to catch something interesting. You don’t miss much with a plain shot of the field, so why keep moving the camera and zooming around? These days, of course, the screens are full of stuff – K-zones, stats and numbers and info everywhere on the screen, constant crawls under the picture, graphics to show movement of players (red and blue circles to show shifts, or a players’ route to a fly ball, or what have you). Stats are ubiquitous, all kinds of stats. As are advertisements – no chance to sell something is neglected. The game on the field has changed a bit – there are some new rules, mostly about who you can tackle, that mostly just try to keep catchers and second basemen out of the hospital; the big on field difference is replay, which, of course, relies integrally on television. (It is also one of the best innovations in the game: replay has almost ended the classic argument with the umpire – and good riddance! Earl Weaver or Billy Martin made for great theater,buut you see one argument, and you don’t need to see any more. If you can resolve questions honestly, why shouldn’t you? I like replay!) But as Burns might say – for all the changes, the game is recognizably the same. There are even more stats in the game now than ever – different stats – both the measures of the players results (emphasis on on base and slugging over batting averages; emphasis on WHIP – walks and hits per inning pitched, for pitchers), and things like exit velocity, launch angles, barreling percentages. But for all that, all those new stats – you can still compare them to the old time stats and get a pretty good idea of what was happening then and now. Sure, it’s good to know how often Mookie Betts gets the barrel of the bat on the ball – but you don’t really have to see that stat to guess what that stat is going to be. For players I see a lot – the Red Sox, the Yankees – I don’t need someone to tel me what their exit velocities are, r their barreling percentages are. You don’t need to hear the exit velocity Aaron Judge or Gary Sanchez get when you can see what happens when they get a good swing on a ball. And honestly, for players I don’t see as much – Mike Trout say – I can guess what kind of bat speed and how often he gets the barrel on the ball just by looking at those 23 homers, .328 average, .688 slugging percentage. I can hazard a guess what kind of exit velocities Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron got, from the stats they put up – and definitely from watching them swing.

In the end, though, that is what is best about living in today’s TV environment – with all those games on TV, you can see anyone fairly regularly. Back in the 70s, when there were tow or three games a week on – you got to see lots of the Yankees and Dodger and Reds, Red Sox and Orioles, Phillies maybe – but good luck seeing Andre Dawson or young Jack Clark. The only way you could see them was if they turned up on This Week in Baseball.

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LOST IN SPACE title card

by Robert Hornak

The faddish and fun story of the Space Family Robinson, which happens to be the name of the comic book the show was first based on, one whose creators had to sue to rectify the ignominious swiping of the concept (perhaps inadvertently) by mega-producer Irwin Allen. Long story short, Allen got to keep the concept and the comic book got to change its name to the now-more-cash-creating Lost in Space. The show is a beloved totem from that golden time when the moon missions of old-school sci-fi overlapped with daily updates of real men in real space suits in real danger, flinging themselves around the planet in tiny intrepid buckets, stoking the imagination of an entire generation of Cold War kids and preying upon the fantasy-tinged optimism of dreamers. Surely from the vantage of the pilot episode in 1965, the show’s setting of 1997 seemed too far in the future for this to finally be happening – surely we’d be launching families into space by 1975!   (more…)

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by Dennis Polifroni

Many years ago, my aunt died.  She had been suffering from an extremely aggressive form of cancer. She left behind a husband and two young children.  To call her passing a tragedy was to only walk into the funeral parlor for her wake. Family and friends were wailing in pain and grief over her death and, so often is the case, questions about why this death occurred ran rampant around the room.

Very surprisingly, my uncle, normally a very emotional man, was silent for most of the funeral.  He greeted each mourner with a hug, or a handshake, and a smile. For the life of me, and I was a wreck for much of the time involved, I was bowled over by this man’s grace and cement-like solidity.  His wife of many decades was laid out in a coffin like a jewelry display at a department store and, with all of the raw emotions splaying across the room, he didn’t budge, he didn’t cry, he didn’t scream out in despair.

On the third and final day of the wake, as the coffin was being closed in preparation for burial, I asked my uncle if he was ok?  He took my hand in a firm handshake and pulled me close for a hug. (more…)

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by Adam Ferenz

Not the first ever miniseries on American television, but perhaps the best. It may be somewhat dated today, a tad to the melodramatic side, but for the time, it was a necessary part of the maturation of American television. We meet Kunta Kinte as an infant, held by his father before the moon, which his father tells that infant “behold, the only thing greater than yourself” and this becomes the thesis of the series.

From the shores of west Africa, to the plantations of Virginia, the Carolinas and a farm in Tennessee, to the battlefields of the first world war, and the jungles of Kunta Kinte’s home, the series spans the centuries and globe in an effort to tell not just the tale of the Alex Haley’s maternal family, but to give an impression of what every African American descended from the chained days of slavery has experienced.

The second volume is no less effective, an epic of a family struggling to find their place in a land that is now home, without being their own. From the horrors of The Reconstruction to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, covering African Americans in the armed services in both World Wars, the struggles of black academics to make inroads in their chosen profession, Haley’s research into his family, and the slow pace of progress during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Next Generation is no less epic, and perhaps even more urgent than the original. (more…)

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by Adam Ferenz

This epic of northern English life, set between 1964 and 1995, focuses on the lives, loves and losses of a group of four friends as they experience the shifting tides of late twentieth century existence. While the cast is outstanding, each part perfectly matched with the correct actor, the scripts and direction are what will keep you coming back, for the characters are so well defined that once it is over, a viewer may well feel they have been forced to say goodbye to family.

British television has always excelled at the epic, short form serial. Examples, among others include Jewel in the Crown, The Forsyte Saga, Brideshead Revisited, GBH, and I, Claudius and while there have been others, before and since, few have ever had the cast, the vision, and the scope, of Our Friends in the North. In this cast were a young Gina McKee, Mark Strong, Christopher Eccleston and Daniel Craig. They were joined by Peter Vaughn, Malcolm McDowell, Alun Armstrong and David Bradley, among many others. Simon Cellan Jones, Pedr James and Stuart Urban provided the concise direction, while Peter Flannery delivered nine nearly perfect, thought provoking and absorbing scripts.

These are not characters you will always be rooting for, because each of them are nearly tragically flawed, perhaps none more so than Craig’s George Peacock, who goes from aspiring musician, to low level gangster to something else entirely, something this author will not spoil for those who have not seen it. Indeed, while there are elements of soap-Eccleston’s Nicky loses McKee’s Mary to Strong’s Terry in a rather sudden and stupid manner, which then begins decades of near misses-the series is largely focused on how the events of their lives and the decisions they make affect not only each individual but their families, and how the changing tides of social and political upheaval affect the decisions they make. Nicky,  for instance, becomes a journalist, while Mary eventually finds herself entering politics and Terry never quite keeps any of his many business ventures afloat long enough to feel secure. (more…)

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by John Grant

A train on the Chicago El clatters past the windows of the Independent News Service (INS). Within, investigative reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) is having his millionth stand-up row with his boss, agency manager Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland). Their problem is that the two men have entirely different worldviews: Kolchak will follow a story to wherever it might lead him, even if he discovers that at its heart lie ghosties or ghoulies or, anyway, something that goes bump in the night. Vincenzo, more pragmatic, just wants some usable copy he can file to head office.

The pair are old adversaries. They met in Las Vegas in The Night Stalker (1972), where Kolchak managed to settle the hash of a vampiric serial killer. Next time their paths crossed was in Seattle, in The Night Strangler (1973), where this time it was a seeker after the elixir of life whose murderous exploits had to be terminated with extreme prejudice. Needless to say, in both instances Kolchak had the adventures and the girl while Vincenzo had the office job and the (apparent) security.

Darren McGavin as Carl Kolchak.

As often happens between old adversaries, they’re in a sense the best of friends. But at the same time they really, really can’t stand each other:

Kolchak: “What don’t you like about this hat?”
Vincenzo: “What’s under it.”
(from #7 “The Devil’s Platform”)

Kolchak: The Night Stalker first aired on ABC in 1974–5, which was fine for US viewers but not so very much use for me, because I lived in the UK at the time. It’s possible that either the BBC or ITV aired it over there soon after its ABC appearance, but my guess is they didn’t. I first became aware of the series in the early to mid-1990s, when it was my job to write a brief entry on each of the two TV movies for The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997), which I edited with John Clute; the even briefer entry on the series itself was passed along to our TV specialist, Bill Cotter.

So I was surprised to discover, on blitzing through the twenty episodes of the series more recently for the purposes of this countdown, that at some stage I’d watched them before—if not all, then at least most of them.

Simon Oakland as Tony Vincenzo.

The Kolchak/Vincenzo dynamic is a constant of the series. The series tried hard to build up similarly adversarial relationships for Kolchak with milksop fellow-reporter Ron “Uptight” Updyke (Jack Grinnage) and Monique Marmelstein (Carol Ann Susi), an intern of staggering incompetence employed by Vincenzo because her uncle’s one of the INS’s top management.

“Uptight,” who’s present in almost all the episodes, is merely an irritant for Kolchak, too slight a character to be anything more than verbose office furniture. Monique, on the other hand, represents a challenge to our hero . . . the challenge of how to get her out of his thinning hair whenever events start heating up. The character lasted just three episodes: #2, #3 and #6. (Rather confusingly, she was pitched from the INS at the end of #3 but then reappeared without comment for #6. We have to assume the episodes were aired out of order.)

Jack Grinnage as Ron Updyke.

Carol Ann Susi as Monique Marmelstein.

A further regular character was the elderly Emily Cowles (Ruth McDevitt); just to confuse matters, (a) “Miss Emily” is sometimes credited as Edith Cowles and (b) McDevitt’s first appearance in the series, in #1, was as a quite unrelated character, an elderly witness to a crime. “Miss Emily,” who sets the puzzles that the agency syndicates to its clients, eagerly aids Kolchak in his various subversive activities, because he’s a nice boy whom someone should take proper care of.

Ruth McDevitt as Miss Emily.

The episodes by and large follow a single format. There’s a murder or series of murders; sometimes an inexplicable disappearance instead. Vincenzo doesn’t think there’s much of a story there; Kolchak’s grizzled old crime-reporterly instincts lead him to think otherwise. There’s at least one knockout beautiful woman involved. The cop in charge of the case is hostile to Kolchak’s interference, but the journalist persists nonetheless—and discovers that the perpetrator of the atrocities is a witch, a werewolf, a ghost, a reincarnated Aztec demigod, a nigh-immortal Jack the Ripper, a visiting extraterrestrial . . . but never, never, never yer average Joe Schmoe human sociopath.

The solution to each case is thus a mindblowing revelation, and would hugely expand humanity’s view of the universe’s fundamental reality if ever it became widely known, but Vincenzo doesn’t believe it and spikes the story and/r the authorities anyway clamp down on it, so the world never learns of it. This reversal does nothing, however, to dampen Kolchak’s world-weary resolution when the next case comes along . . .

From this brief description of the formula, it’s obvious Kolchak: The Night Stalker can be seen as, so to speak, a dry run for the far more successful and better-developed series The X-Files (nine seasons 1993–2002, spinoff tenth and eleventh seasons 2016 and 2018). Chris Carter, the later series’ creator, acknowledged this, and indeed wanted McGavin to appear in The X-Files on a semi-regular basis as an elderly Kolchak. McGavin declined, though he did accept another occasional role, that of Arthur Dales, the supposed progenitor of the titular files.

For a series that has earned such a measure of cult fame, Kolchak: The Night Stalker had a surprisingly brief original run: just a single season of twenty episodes. (The episodes were aired at somewhat random intervals/times, too, which cannot have helped ratings.) A number of further episodes made it to varying stages of production but were left unfinished. Two of these—“Eye of Terror” and “The Get of Belial”—were later adapted as graphic novels by Moonstone Books, as has been the screenplay for a third Kolchak TV movie, developed but, again, never produced: The Night Killers, set in Hawaii, in which invading aliens, Body Snatcher-style, murder important personages and replace them with androids. (You can find the relevant page of the Moonstone Books site here.) Richard Matheson’s screenplay for The Night Killers has appeared from Gauntlet Press alongside those of the two earlier movies.

Two movies were produced by cobbling together episodes of the TV series:

  • Kolchak: Crackle of Death (1974 TVM), combining #6 “Firefall” and #10 “The Energy Eater,” and
  • Kolchak: The Demon and the Mummy (1975 TVM), combining #16 “Demon in Lace” and #17 “Legacy of Terror.”

In Kolchak’s concluding monologue for #20, “The Sentry,” there’s a sense of futility, as if McGavin were acknowledging that this was the end of the line, that the formula had delivered as much as could have been expected from it and indeed rather more: “Don’t walk, run to the nearest exit,” are his final words to us. The rumpled, rebarbative investigative reporter would be absent from our screens—aside from reruns, of course—for another thirty years or so, until the short-lived 2005 series Night Stalker attempted to breathe a new lease of life into him.

That series would, alas, be something of an audience disaster; it was pulled after just six episodes had been aired of the ten that were made. (All ten are available on DVD.) Yet again the Kolchak saga has reached its finish, dying with a whimper rather than a bang.

Or has it?????

As Carl Kolchak would be the first to remind you, death is not necessarily the end . . .


When Wonders in the Dark’s genial host, Sam Juliano, asked me if I’d like to contribute a piece on Kolchak to the countdown, my first instinct was to say no. I’d already said no to the idea of contributing to the countdown at all, since I’m even less informed about TV than I am about most other things. However, Sam knew how to lure me: sure enough, the thought of revisiting Kolchak proved to be just too tempting to pass up.

And, me being me, and thanks to a publisher pissing me around so that I had a bit of free time where I didn’t expect any, I went a bit over the top. I soon realized I was producing far, far too much stuff for a countdown entry. I decided accordingly to put my accounts of the two Kolchak movies, the twenty Kolchak episodes and the two Kolchak novels as a sort of archive on my own Noirish site, whose owner would be in no position to beef about all the space I was hogging.

You can find those individual discussions as follows:

The Movies

The Night Stalker (1972 TVM)
The Night Strangler (1973 TVM)

The Series Episodes


The Novels

Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1973) by Jeff Rice
Kolchak: The Night Strangler (1974) by Jeff Rice, based on a screenplay by Richard Matheson

I was hoping to find the time to watch and report on the Night Stalker TV series as well, but then the publisher, breaking with centuries of professional tradition, stopped pissing me around, and since then things have been a bit harum scarum as I try to finish the book in question by what’s now a very tight deadline. Maybe one day . . .

—John Grant


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 © 2018 by James Clark

 The truest way to the heart of Kelly Reichardt’s film, Wendy and Lucy (2008), may turn out to be its penultimate moment. This was not always my approach, as a reading of the Wonders in the Dark blog from February 15, 2012—A Dangerous Devotion: Lars von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark” and Kelly Reichardt’s “Wendy and Lucy”—would show. There I was intent upon engaging the protagonists of each work having risked everything (like Joan of Arc) for the sake of getting to the bottom of a dilemma unfortunately even beyond their very alert and brave powers. What, specifically, drives such souls to the brink of destruction?

There are ways of taking a closer look at the phenomenon, and Wendy and Lucy shows the way. Like Mouchette, a classic film figure under heavy fire, Wendy can no longer stand her emotionally violent, Midwestern blue-collar family and neighbors and their Rust Belt home base spanning Muncie and Fort Wayne, Indiana. Unlike Mouchette, the famous waif, she does not choose suicide as a meaningful change (nor is she destined to be immortalized by a forum of movie buffs). She hits the road with 500 dollars in savings from unspecified jobs, and a clunker supposedly capable of reaching that land of fool’s gold, Alaska. (Where others dream of gold, she—speaking volumes—dreams of a job in a cannery which, at least, does not resemble Indiana.) However, she does also bring a stunningly vast fortune in the form of her golden retriever, Lucy (a born retriever of buried treasures). (more…)

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