Night Gallery 1.1 – The Dead Man / The Housekeeper

After a successful pilot, NBC ordered a six episode first season of Night Gallery. They aired the episodes as part of the umbrella series Four in One starting in December 1970 and led with an hour that comprises two absolute turkeys. You can pretty much sum them up as “dated, sexist trash.” I found a thing or two to like about each installment, but nobody else in the house did.

Both installments were scripted by Douglas Heyes, a great, great writer who was responsible for some tremendously good episodes of Maverick. “The Dead Man” is an adaptation of a short story by Fritz Leiber, and maybe it would read better as a creepy little tale. Unfortunately, when you dramatize a story like this, you have to put the story’s lone female character front and center. Fickle and hungry for a younger lover, she’s ready to ditch her older husband, a doctor running a private clinic, for his hunky blond patient.

When the patient dies in an experiment, she loses her freaking mind, and turns hysterical in the way that fiction demands but real life never actually sees. It builds to a creepy crescendo that would tell magnificently around a campfire deep in the woods, but on television leaves the woman looking inhumanly stupid. At least her screams as she runs through the graveyard were sufficient to creep our kid out. It wasn’t the denouement, but the screams, so credit to the actress. (Interestingly, a screaming female villain at the end of a recently-watched Kolchak similarly had him wide-eyed.)

By any objective measure, “The Housekeeper” is even worse, but I got a kick out of Larry Hagman’s performance as the villain. I felt the need to point out to our son that he was the villain because I was afraid he might think that the protagonist was the hero, just a jerk of one! Hagman’s looking for a kind-hearted “old hag” to undergo a magical personality transplant with his younger, sexier, hateful and rich wife, who’s about to leave him and cut him off. Jeanette Nolan, under some heavy makeup and blacked-out teeth, is sweet enough to see his point of view, but maybe that’s not the only point of view that she sees. Again, unfortunately, actually giving the women in the story dialogue and body language underlines what a feeble, male fantasy concept this is. Hagman didn’t need a nice old lady with a kind heart; he needed Lady Macbeth, Norma Desmond, or Cruella de Vil. Better luck next time, you amateur.

Barbary Coast 1.1 – Funny Money

So now we’re time-travelling back to the 1975-76 TV season for the short-lived western/spy/con artist series Barbary Coast. We watched the pilot movie a few weeks ago and I thought it was flawed, but entertaining. For the series, Doug McClure took over the role of casino owner Cash Conover, and they seem to have dropped the shtick of him being incredibly superstitious. Bobbi Jordan was back for this one episode as Flame, but no more than this. The actress was committed to a sitcom on CBS called Joe and Sons.

And speaking of sitcoms on CBS, one reason this show only lasted thirteen episodes is that ABC showed it on Monday evenings at 8, opposite the first half of CBS’s juggernaut comedy lineup of Rhoda, Phyllis, All in the Family, and Maude. But as we saw when we talked about the 1968-69 season of The Avengers, networks can’t just give up and they have to try something. So a Western where William Shatner plays a master of disguise is certainly an original idea for counterprogramming, even if it wasn’t a successful one.

It wasn’t very successful with our son, either. He got hung up on Richard Kiel, in his role of hawker – slash – bouncer, yelling at the crowds on the mud-soaked streets to come in to the casino to see the elephant. Since we had to pause to explain that was just banter and nobody who came in seriously expected to see an elephant, the scheme to get a crooked banker played by Pat Hingle to open his vault in time for treasury agents to enter the room to find it full of counterfeit cash was really over his head. I enjoyed it enough for us all, I think.

But I do want to talk about another possible reason, albeit an oddball one, that Barbary Coast was doomed from the outset: there was too much television to watch that season. In fact, I’ll make the argument that the 1975-76 season might just have been American TV’s best year ever.

Despite this being, by the nature of what we’re doing, a nostalgia blog, I try not to think that the media of the past, generally, is somehow more worthwhile than modern popular culture. But we’ve had decades of evidence in the way that consumers approach media – television and music especially – to see that audiences reach a saturation point, somewhere in their thirties. It’s only very rare individuals, and a very small percentage of the audience, who keep tuning into more and more programming as they age. I spent most of my thirties trying to buy at least two new CDs, from reasonably new artists, every month. Eventually I found that I was listening to them maybe twice, max. I’m happier just listening to college radio when I can. I hear new music, I can thrill at the novelty, and hope it sells well to people half my age.

You should definitely check out my blogroll there on the left-hand side of the page. There are some great blogs that dig over old TV. I often don’t agree with the rose-colored glasses some of my fellow commentators wear, but David Hofstede’s Comfort TV had a stunningly good post earlier this month called The De-Valuation of Television which I found quite interesting. In 1975, for example, pretty much every adult in the country knew what All in the Family was, even if they didn’t watch it. Seven out of eight households didn’t on any given night, but one of eight is still an astonishing number. Now compare that with the current media darling The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which I’m told is a very entertaining and funny show. Fewer than one in a hundred watches it, and don’t tell me that pretty much every adult in the country knows what it is.

The honest fact, as we consider television today, is that there’s more media out there to consume than anybody realistically has time for, unless it’s their job. But that’s always been the case. There are nights where most people do not want to sit down and watch television. Yet in September 1975, there were so many good programs on in prime time that nobody could realistically be expected to watch even half of the good ones. And this was before VCRs were commonplace!

Don’t believe me? Well, set aside the second season of Land of the Lost, which probably wins the argument for this being American television’s best year on its own, and look what was in prime time. If Wikipedia’s accurate, and it often isn’t, then here’s what you could watch, new, every night in 1975. For comedy, CBS ruled everything, with the killer lineup of Rhoda, Phyllis, All in the Family, and Maude on Mondays, and Good Times, M*A*S*H, The Jeffersons, Chico and the Man, One Day at a Time, Bob Newhart, Carol Burnett, and Mary Tyler Moore sprinkled throughout the rest of the week. ABC had Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Barney Miller, and Welcome Back, Kotter.

You want cops and detectives? Quinn Martin’s company alone produced Cannon, Barnaby Jones and The Streets of San Francisco. That’s two amusing shows and a fantastic one. You also had The Rockford Files, Ellery Queen, the second season of Harry O, Kojak, Police Story, plus about ten others I either don’t know or don’t care for. Toward the end of the season, there was the brilliant City of Angels, which nobody remembers, but man, they should. The NBC Mystery Movie had its usual entertaining lineup of Columbo, McMillan & Wife, and McCloud. They were joined this season by a show I would love to see. It was called McCoy, because they needed three Mcs that year or something, and it starred Tony Curtis as a con artist. And if you liked con artists, Robert Wagner and Eddie Albert were teamed up in the mostly-forgotten Switch, which ran for three years. My parents loved that show and I would like to see it somewhere other than YouTube one day.

This was also the year of The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, the World War Two episodes of Wonder Woman, David McCallum in The Invisible Man, and that Swiss Family Robinson show that time has also forgotten. And that’s just the American shows!

So that’s my theory on the bigger picture about Barbary Coast lasting only thirteen weeks. There were so many other things to watch that when Monday at 8 rolled around, just about the entire potential audience wanted to take a break from TV and read a book or go jogging or play a board game or something!

The Barbary Coast (1975)

I kind of enjoy taking a gamble on programs that I don’t really know for this blog. Barbary Coast had been one of those in-one-eye-and-out-the-other shows for many years. I’d seen it listed here and there over time, but when I found it listed cheap, I figured there were only 13 episodes, so it wouldn’t be the big time commitment that its forebear, The Wild Wild West, would be for the blog. (I also don’t really enjoy The Wild Wild West for some reason, despite it being a show that sounds like it was made specifically to appeal to me…)

We’ll start the series proper next month, and just like ABC originally did in 1975, precede it with a look at the pilot movie. The show, created by Douglas Heyes, is a lighthearted secret agent adventure set in the very, very muddy streets of San Francisco in the late 19th Century. It stars William Shatner as a master of disguise named Jeff Cable, and while his whiskers and wigs may not fool any grown-ups watching, our seven year-old son was completely thrown by him several times.

Agent Cable finds a base of operations in a casino run by Cash Conover. Two years before, Cash had killed the son of Louisiana’s governor in a duel and had fled, later winning the casino and becoming a destination on the lawless Barbary Coast. Cable knows Conover’s secret and press-gangs him into working with him to ferret out crime and corruption. In the pilot film, Cash is played by Dennis Cole. He’d be recast when the series started production.

Joining them in this initial outing are a pile of recognizable faces from seventies TV, including Richard Kiel as the casino’s bouncer, and Leo Gordon as the bent chief of police. Lynda Day George is here to cause trouble, as women do, along with Michael Ansara, John Vernon, and, a year before he took the role of Jonah in Ark II, Terry Lester.

Bizarrely, we watched this movie the same week that some bigoted old newspaper editor in Alabama called for the return of the Klan to do something about all these Demmycrats making his life miserable. In the film, Vernon’s character, using the pretty suspect name of “Robin Templar,” has resurrected the eyeholes-in-pillowcase brigade under the name of “the Crusaders” to execute criminals that the law won’t touch. It’s all a scam, of course, because Templar and his closest associates are really scheming to just lynch a couple of people to get the point across, and then extort protection money from all the other targets on their published Death List.

I think our son enjoyed parts of it more than others, and he was a little confused by the opening twenty minutes. They introduce a lot of characters before the plot becomes apparent, and we don’t meet Agent Cable under his real identity for a surprisingly long time. I think they missed a terrific complication: Lynda Day George’s character stumbles on Cash’s secret and sends word to Louisiana in order to collect the reward. There’s a point in the narrative where the agent from Louisiana really should have arrived and thrown the heroes’ plan to destroy the Crusaders into disarray, but the subplot is forgotten about until the very end. The film doesn’t present much of a challenge for Cable and Conover, really. Hopefully the series will give them meatier stories than this.