…but what have we learned?

Something remarkably strange and surprising happened yesterday morning. Our son came down for school, I asked him how he slept, and, blearily and with a lower lip trembling, he told me that he had a very hard time getting to sleep, because “I don’t want you to stop the blog.” He wouldn’t say more.

A co-worker – I’ve been working from home for almost two years and have a running chat with my colleagues – suggested that he thought I was giving up something that I love and he couldn’t understand why I would do that. She was right! He and I had a good talk about how I’m looking forward to watching as many more hours of TV and movies with him as he’ll allow, and that yes, I do love this blog, but I decided a long time ago that we’d go this far, and no farther.

Why? Well, for starters, the overwhelming majority of blogs – including the six or seven I’ve written previously – don’t get to an end, they just peter out, and I’ve never liked that. Good stories should have an ending. This isn’t much of one, true, but a couple of thousand words looking back on this experience will do. I also knew, in 2015, that this would one day stop being a pleasure and turn into work. It always does with me, it’s just a question of when. And of course, there will come a day, and I hope it’s such a long way away, when the kid will conclude that he’s too busy and we’re too old and square and we’ll ask him if he’d like to watch something with us, and he will say “Not really.” And I don’t want to tell my small audience that our favorite four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten year-old critic has grown up to the point where he has broken my heart.

And so I knew that I would start probably start itching to end this in seven years, and age ten would be a good time, and so this day would always come, and that I’d enjoy looking back at what I’ve enjoyed about this project.

Actually, an interesting discovery is learning that two chestnuts thrown around by various cultural critics are completely wrong. First of these is the claim that children today don’t have the patience or understanding to enjoy old movies and TV. That’s always been wrong and my kid’s living proof. And the related one is that children today don’t know what they’re missing, that the media we enjoy was somehow better in the old days, and that today’s kids are stuck with a diet of pablum.

Let’s talk about the first one. Sure, we watched some shows and a couple of movies that our son really didn’t enjoy at all. Yesterday he singled out The Feathered Serpent and Danger Man. What he really hated even more were Barbary Coast and King of the Castle. Not everything’s going to register, and I don’t fault him for not enjoying some of what we sampled. But the key is you have to introduce a young audience to so much of that long-lost world of the past as you go. It’s no good to just say “I loved this old show, here it is!” and expect adulation. Children have their own cultural heroes, but children are also fascinated in what their mommies and daddies love, or once loved, as well. You start a kid with something old, and tell them about it, and tell them why you liked it, and you help them understand the cultural touchstones that just don’t make sense anymore, and they will often make the effort to love what you loved. There’s a possibility of a connection, but you have to take the effort to make it. I think lots of people don’t. And you have to start early! That’s so important!

Even then, these looks into the past will often reveal more changes in society than a modern audience is perhaps ready to explore. If I ever get the craving to watch some more Twilight Zone, I’m going to ask somebody who knows it inside and out to curate it for me. When Zone was on fire – “The After Hours,” “Night Call,” “Jess-Belle,” anything with John Dehner – it was better than sliced bread. When it was showing us the hideous romantic relationships of the 1950s, it’s terrifying in a way I doubt its creators intended.

It’s funny, because I’ve read that Rod Serling had one of the happiest and most successful marriages anybody could wish for, but he and Richard Matheson and everybody else on that show must have seen a lot of misery around them to create the hellworlds that they did… and that’s the way it was! I’m not sure which was worse, the constant parade of lovesick young women hopelessly besotted with mediocre white men who can’t shut up about the way things used to be, or the lovebirds in horrors like “Time Enough at Last” or “Pamela’s Voice” on Night Gallery who clearly never should have married in the first place. Serling wrote in a day when society didn’t want you to get divorced, but society didn’t want you to get to know any potential partners before you made a cataclysmic mistake either. What a rotten society that was.

So no, you can’t just expect younger people to just jump in to Zone or absolutely anything like it, because they don’t understand the way society worked back then. They probably don’t understand hitchhiking. They certainly don’t understand answering the telephone in the middle of the night. They’ve also had all the classic twists spoiled, no matter how hard you try to beat them to it. The past was a different country. Kids don’t want to visit without a tour guide.

But were Zone and all the shows that followed somehow better than what’s available for modern viewers? Oh, sure, you’ll often find things that are untouchably good in media from the past, but that doesn’t mean that the people working on media today are slacking. The kid has plenty of modern favorites on Netflix and Disney+. He really enjoys ongoing documentaries like Draining the Oceans and River Monsters and some of his favorite fictional shows include Garfield, Jurassic Park: Camp Cretaceous, and several of the Star Wars series, particularly The Clone Wars. These are all really good programs. I’d rather watch a half-hour of any of them with my kid than revisit a bad-marriage Zone.

As for a more direct comparison, I might well have enjoyed Shazam! and Isis and CBS’s prime-time seventies superheroes like Wonder Woman, The Incredible Hulk, and the Nicholas Hammond Spider-Man when I was a kid, but not a week went by when I didn’t say that these shows would have been a hundred times more entertaining if they had Dr. Sivana and Mr. Mind and Ares and the Abomination and the Rhino in them. Kids today get the shows we’d have killed for. They get crises on infinite earths. We got counterfeiters in turtlenecks and waiting half an hour after dinner before you swim.

Sure, there’s all kinds of great, great entertainment from the past. Like, you know, “The After Hours,” “Night Call,” “Jess-Belle,” and anything with John Dehner. I think television’s very best year might have been 1975. A few months ago, we watched two films from 1935 which were more entertaining than anything else I saw that month. But while many writers and directors today are stuck in the world of reboots and reworks and other corporations’ endless media franchises, like, you know, Garfield, Jurassic Park, and Star Wars, not only are many of them coming up with really clever and inventive television and movies within those confines, pushing borders that teevee writers fifty years ago couldn’t have imagined, there are scores and scores of incredibly interesting projects out there, really neat independent films and small-audience streaming shows that old fogeys shouldn’t dismiss. I just don’t have the hours or the energy, but I haven’t seen nearly enough of what’s out there that sounds so amazing. The Americans, Ozark, Bridgerton, anything with Donald Glover. The new Dalgliesh? I like it better than the eighties version. Kristen Bell in The Woman in the House Across the Street from the Girl in the Window? Sign me up.

As I keep telling people, you know why every single person in their fifties can name all six kids on The Brady Bunch and all the castaways on Gilligan’s Island? Because there was nothing better on, that’s why.

The beautiful thing about media is that there is always something worth watching, because there are always talented directors and writers who are hungry and making magic. Is there garbage? Of course there is, there always is, there always was. There’s this new Robert Pattinson Batman movie coming out, and if the last thirty-three years have taught me nothing else, they’ve taught me that the only Batman movie worth watching has Adam West in it.

But you know how you, the reader, at some point in your life quit buying new music by new artists because one day in your past, you had enough, and you only looked forward to reissues and the new release from somebody who thrilled you when you were nineteen? Do this. Turn to the left of the dial and listen to your town’s college radio station for a while. You won’t recognize it, but that’s what the kids are listening to, and the kids are all right. They’re championing it, they’re selling the merch, they’re seeing the shows, and from time to time some of them will discover Miles or McCartney or Brown or Bowie, and it’ll all be okay. The kids are all right.

(Remind me to tell you about the crummy college radio in Chattanooga one day, which is not all right.)

Films and television are the same way. For an hour in the evenings, we’ve looked back at what thrilled audiences before our son was born. Often, he’s been thrilled as well. Maybe when he gets older, he’ll want to revisit what we’ve watched. He doesn’t believe me, he can’t believe me, but I’m fully expecting him to outgrow Doctor Who and abandon it for girls and guitars in about six years. I hope he’ll see lots more Silver Scream Spook Shows before he decides against them. But when he’s an adult? Nothing lasts forever. Maybe he’ll ask to borrow Jason King, maybe he won’t. Maybe something we enjoyed will become some new weird streaming obsession in fifteen years, like Columbo did in the last couple of years.

And it’ll be okay, because he’s going to have a wild world of newer, weirder, groovier entertainment available in the 2030s and the 2040s. And maybe, just maybe, we’ve taught him enough about the strange way that television used to be made, about networks and affiliate stations and ratings and syndication and videotape interiors and 16mm film exteriors and VHSs that had two episodes and cost fifty bucks and all the old ITV franchises, and about the strange world of the past, about pay phones and International Rescue’s fear of cameras and men wearing suits and ties everywhere and people smoking like chimneys in restaurants and couples who really need to talk to a divorce lawyer, that he can sit back on his sofa with his pals or his partner or my grandkids and watch his new thing on his 50-inch holovision streaming 3-D eyeball interface and say…

“TV has never been better than it is right now.”

And he’ll know because he’s seen it.

As for me, friends, this has been a pleasure and an experience. Fire-Breathing Dimetrodon Time never became anybody’s top-ranked blog in Google SEO, so maybe I should’ve answered all of that spam I got promising it. No, of course I shouldn’t have. I did this for me, and for our son to maybe revisit sometime down the line. We kept a pretty steady 200-300 visits a day, sometimes a little more when MeTV reran a Buck Rogers that we’d watched.

The most viewed article at this site? You won’t believe me, but it’s the story about Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, which gets between 20 and 30 visits every single day, mostly from a link at IMDB. (Similarly strange, over at our food blog, the # 2 story is, of all things, the one about Bell’s Hamburgers in Toccoa GA, because various Toccoa Facebook groups have posted dozens and dozens of links to it.)

But views and SEO were never important to me in this. I’m glad that my stories entertained so many people, and honestly, a good 99% of the few comments that I’ve received have been really entertaining to read. My favorite is probably the fellow who wrote in very upset about the possible lingering psychological threat still posed by the Fembots in The Bionic Woman, though. About the only things I didn’t like were writing obituaries, and when some jerkwad other blogger started pilfering my screencaps without credit or a link. I hope somebody does that to his books one day.

But because I’m obsessive and a little ADD, I decided when our boy was born that I would one day devote a little time each evening to watching something with him as a family. Most of the time, it worked fabulously. Sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes, even a show that he otherwise really enjoyed, like SG-1, up and betrayed him with an hour full of ravenous cockroaches. So I kept a spreadsheet, and adjusted and reworked things as interesting new possibilities came open. Various sources, most especially all the great people at Roobarb’s Forum but also those devilish minds behind Scarred For Life, got my thrill-circuits buzzing, so we added quite a few older and very entertaining series that I’d never seen to the lineup, including Catweazle, Sky, The Clifton House Mystery and The Ghosts of Motley Hall. And The Feathered Serpent and King of the Castle, which our son hated, but they can’t all be winners.

Of course, I’m pleased beyond words that the kid loves Doctor Who as much as he does. He’s amassed a pretty nice army of action figures, and has rewatched several stories on his own. Mostly the ones with Daleks, of course. He knows the show inside and out and doesn’t see a quality difference between the original run and the modern stories. If anybody spills the beans in front of him on who may or may not be leaving or returning to the show, I will bloody your nose.

The kid didn’t enjoy Barbary Coast at all, but that’s a purchase I’m really glad I made. It’s completely forgotten, except as a punch line when people feel like making fun of William Shatner, and I wouldn’t call it great, but you can see the seeds of a potentially very fun series there, Mission: Impossible in the old west. Not bad at all, and it’s a shame it didn’t last long enough to get better.

Logan’s Run was another interesting surprise. Again, certainly not great, but better than I had led myself to believe a long time ago, with a good cast, and that episode that David Gerrold wrote and took his name off was a lot better than you’d think from an episode that annoyed its writer enough to erase his name from it. And speaking of leading myself to believe the worst in something, I’m still amazed that the Gary Coleman episode of Buck Rogers was so good, easily among the best installments of that series.

I was also pleased to learn that Tales of the Gold Monkey was better than I ever knew, and that, from time to time, the much-mocked MacGyver was really a perfectly entertaining and charming show. It could also be utterly unbearable sometimes, so there’s an example of something being worse than I expected. And then of course The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh just blew my mind with its greatness this month, so this whole experience has honestly been even more satisfying for me than I’d hoped. Maybe one of these days we’ll finally have time to check out The Americans, Ozark, Bridgerton, and anything with Donald Glover. (Us grownups are slowly working our way through Burn Notice and Elementary though, with lots and lots of episodes ahead of us. I’d also like to see True Blood one of these days. Never enough time.)

And of course, it’s always a pleasure to revisit old favorites like The Avengers and Eerie Indiana, and to take a deeper look into old shows like Randall and Hopkirk I’d never seen in full before. I gave the color Mrs. Peels another spin afternoons after work in October and November. Those never disappoint.

Probably the best blog decision I made was investing in Worzel Gummidge. I was so afraid of reviews that said the picture quality was really poor that I didn’t want to risk it. It certainly didn’t look great, and it could use a magician like Mark Ayres to do something about the sound, but that show could be so screamingly funny that it could have looked and sounded half as good and still have been worth it.

In films, 1962’s The Fabulous Baron Munchausen was an amazing surprise. We all had a ball with that, and we’re going to watch another Karel Zeman movie in a couple of months. As for unhappy surprises, I was disappointed in most of the Lupin III films, which were all over the map in quality. Somebody needs tighter oversight on those, I think. I remain a little amazed that the kid didn’t enjoy Creature From the Black Lagoon, but that’s okay, because he liked Spirited Away enough for the both of us.

One area that I got completely wrong was that comparatively very little of what we saw really frightened our son, and what did upset him was forgotten as though it never existed. I dunno how anybody could possibly forget the Child-Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but even after all those tears, this kid sure did. He never once came to us with media-induced nightmares, never once wanted to sleep in our bed. Witchiepoo and the Sleestak and the Mad Hatter all unnerved him in their day, but by the time we got to Return to Oz at age seven, I was the one more unnerved by what was happening onscreen.

I mention this because when the kid was four and I started all my planning and manipulating and scheming, I was expecting a lot more frights and freakouts than we got. And I planned, then, to end on a high note, and something guaranteed to knock him over and really upset him. I no longer believe that will be the case. So while this is the end of the blog, it is not quite the final chapter. There is one last post that I wanted to make, one to end it on, even if I’m sure now that it isn’t going to have anywhere near the impact that I thought it would.

I’d like to thank you all so much for reading, and I hope that my silly and egotistical nostalgia-fest has amused you and maybe encouraged you to get yerselves Region 2/B-capable players in order to see all the wonderful shows that we have enjoyed. Thank you for your time, thank you for your comments, and I hope that you’ll come back Sunday afternoon to see what I’d been saving for last as our final post.

Happy viewing, stay tuned, good night, and pleasant dreams.

Interview With the Audience

As our blog is wrapping up, our son waves goodbye to all you readers who’ve been following along. I actually took this photo in June 2016, when we were watching Electra Woman & Dyna Girl, Land of the Lost, and Shazam!, for him to wave goodbye to my former employer, but I’ve always liked it and thought you might like to wave back.

Our kid is not really a very nostalgic type, as the occasional strangeness of his memory suggests, but I asked him to sit down with me for a moment and reflect on some things that he enjoyed, didn’t enjoy, and might surprise us a bit.

On movies, I asked whether he stands by his statement that Ghostbusters is one of his three favorite films, and whether he’d like to share what the other two are yet: “Yes, Ghostbusters is amazing. My other two favorite movies are It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

But wait a minute, you hadn’t seen Mad World yet when you told me that. What movie did it knock out of the top three? “The Doctor Who movie.”

Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 AD? You walked out on that! “No, I mean the other one, the one with the Eighth Doctor.”

On which Doctor might be his favorite: “Uhhhh, I’d have to break my brain to tell you that.”

On his favorite companion: “Probably Sarah Jane Smith, and Rose.”

On whether he prefers recurring villains or new ones: “I like it when older monsters come back!”

On whether he has a favorite or a least favorite ITC series: “I don’t know which one I liked best, but the one that I didn’t like was Danger Man.”

On what we’re going to rewatch in evening rotation over the next couple of months: “MacGyver and The Ghosts of Motley Hall. I was so upset when that one ended, because I loved that one.”

On which scarecrow is the best: “The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh is not as good as Worzel Gummidge.”

On other TV series that he particularly enjoyed: “I loved The Bionic Woman and The Six Million Dollar Man. I really didn’t like The Feathered Serpent. I don’t remember Into the Labyrinth. I liked about 64% of Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Thunderbirds and Thunderbirds are Go, yes, yes, a million times yes. I know that we watched Pippi Longstocking but I don’t remember much about it.”

I was telling him that if he’d like to see Pippi again, we’d have to track it down, because those came from the library when he interrup–: “SILVER SCREAM SPOOK SHOW! YES!!! I LOVE THE SILVER SCREAM SPOOK SHOW!”

We’re certainly hoping that they’ll announce another one soon. Any of these Disney films ring a bell for you? “I liked Tron and Mary Poppins Returns. I don’t really remember the original. I like Star Wars but not the Star Wars cash-ins.

What about The Black Hole? That was Disney’s Star Wars cash-in. “Oh yeah, that one I did like.”

Other things I showed him pictures of that he did not remember: Dr. Shrinker and Napoleon and Samantha

On Hayao Miyazaki: “I liked Spirited Away best, and I really like all the food. Also Howl’s Moving Castle and Nausicaa.”

I’m glad you like Miyazaki, because we’re going to start watching Future Boy Conan Sunday night. “Coooool.”

We’ll be continuing to watch TV for many, many months to come. Tomorrow, I’ll have a few closing thoughts of my own.

The Paul Lynde Halloween Special (1976)

Are you ready to spend fifty minutes checking your wristwatch? Then have I got a Halloween special for you! In 1976, the endlessly prissy Paul Lynde was a recurring guest on ABC’s Donny & Marie, when he wasn’t the center square on – is this right? – 828 episodes of Hollywood Squares. Apparently to give the Osmonds a week off, the production team taped a Halloween special with Lynde instead, with guest stars Florence Henderson, Tim Conway, and Roz Kelly, who had found an “I Didn’t Do It Kid” level of fleeting fame in the role of Pinky Tuscadero for three weeks on Happy Days and tried keeping it going here.

With musical guests Kiss, who made their national TV debut that October night, they made the least funny and most 1970s thing ever. Jokes, such as they are, are built around Baretta and The Legend of Billy Jack, at least when Lynde isn’t sneering about Kiss’s makeup and elevator shoes, because hey, moms in Peoria and Des Moines, these rock and roll stars are weird people. Within weeks, the horrifying rumor that Gene and the boys never took off their makeup had cemented. I have no idea why that was meant to be so frightening, but my folks were really bothered by it. Yours as well, I imagine.

We didn’t watch every minute of this monster. I asked to zoom through Peter Criss’s performance of “Beth,” because while I can smile through or ignore most of the Kiss catalog without incident, the only thing that song was good for was inspiring a funny Evan Dorkin comic strip about “the Kiss Navy.”

So why in creation did we watch this thing? Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it?

Billie Hayes plays Witchiepoo and Margaret Hamilton plays the Wicked Witch of the West. The writers gave them some of the worst dialogue you’ve ever heard. Good grief, who was responsible for this mess? Bruce Vilanch, you say? Oh, yeah, he’s credited at least in part for The Star Wars Holiday Special and all nine – all nineBrady Bunch Hours. Good Lord. And the man writes for the Academy Awards these days. There’s a career arc.

I enjoyed prepping our son for this more than revisiting it. I asked him last week whether Witchiepoo or the Wicked Witch was worse. He had settled on Elphaba (for that’s her name, damn your eyes) before I reminded him that Witchiepoo actually made him cry once. Earlier this evening, serendipity was on our side. We went by a Halloween Express to buy him a Hulk costume and there was a welcome mat that read “I’ll Get You, My Pretties.” I had fun with that.

He giggled a bit through this, because this is television for six year-olds, and there’s great comedy for that age bracket when you’ve got Billy Barty biting Paul Lynde in the leg and a Peterbilt crashing through the wall of a diner. He really enjoyed the other two of Kiss’s songs, specifying that he likes “hard rocking music.” But the look on his face when Witchiepoo turned up was priceless.

And honestly, I’d sit through just about anything to hear the lovely Witchiepoo cackle. Just about anything. I don’t believe she’s in any Pink Lady & Jeffs, but if this family’s ever not nice to me, I’ll make them watch those.

Fire-Breathing Dimetrodon

Assumption A: The quality of any piece of television, especially children’s television, is improved by the presence of a fire-breathing dimetrodon.

Example: Season three of Land of the Lost is, frankly, more than a bit awful until Torchy, the fire-breathing dimetrodon, shows up.

Unfortunately, no other examples are known to exist. The assumption may never be truly proven.

But can you just imagine?