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Barbary Coast 1.5 – Guns for a Queen

Joan van Ark guest starred in this morning’s episode of Barbary Coast in something not unlike the Ingrid Bergman role from Casablanca. She even breezes into town with a husband on her arm bound for Tahiti, prompting the piano player to let Cash Conover know that an old flame is in San Francisco by playing their song.

Time marches on. Casablanca was a little over thirty years old when Barbary Coast was made, and that movie was part of the consciousness of just about everybody watching. Everybody, then, knew Casablanca well enough to quote it or misquote it. But Coast itself is now fortysomething. Audiences today have their own ideas of what “an old movie” is: it’s a running gag between Peter and Tony in the Marvel movies. Maybe our son will watch Casablanca on his own and love it or maybe he’ll grow up and decide it’s too old and square for him, but we made sure to pause the show to explain that the scene was a tip of the hat to a classic.

William Shatner celebrated his 88th birthday yesterday. The poor fellow’s been plagued by people making fun of his toupee ever since I was a kid. It was therefore kind of appropriate that during a fight scene that our son absolutely loved, and while wearing the disguise of an arms dealer from Chile, Shatner was briefly doubled by a stuntman. And while Shatner’s wig was fine, that stuntman was wearing the most astonishingly wrong rug in Hollywood. The DVDs caution that there may be some flaws in the original master tapes of this show, but I’d have spotted that fellow on a 12-inch black and white set with a bad signal because his hairpiece was such a mess.

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Barbary Coast 1.4 – The Ballad of Redwing Jail

Tonight’s episode was absolutely delightful. Andrew Duggan guest stars as a not-entirely-trustworthy small town sheriff who may have $20,000 in stolen marked Treasury money hidden in the floor of his jail. Jeff needs to extract it quickly without blowing his own cover, so he poses as a criminal in order for Cash, posing as a US Marshal, to take him off the sheriff’s hands once he’s had enough time to get the money.

Everything goes wrong. Everything goes beautifully, hilariously wrong. The complications that pile up in this mess are as good as you ever get in the genre. They can’t even trust a dog to sniff out the correct lawman. The dog was, of course, our son’s favorite part of the story, but who can blame him? If I were that dog, I’d skip out on joining the posse for tracking duty to stay behind and dig up the money myself.

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Barbary Coast 1.3 – Jesse Who?

This morning’s episode was written by Howard Berk, who also wrote two of my favorite episodes of Columbo. It features guest stars Rosemary Forsyth and Lloyd Bochner, but, as the title gives away, it doesn’t feature Jesse James, though we’re meant to believe it does.

A few minutes into watching this story, it suddenly occurred to me that our son has no idea who Jesse James is. I seem to remember mentioning before, ages ago, that Kids These Days have virtually no exposure to western lore. In the seventies, I would watch western repeats when there was nothing I liked better on, and I heard a fact here or there on the omnipresent commercials for those Time-Life books about gunslingers “with the look and feel of real hand-tooled leather.”

A quick check confirmed he didn’t know who Billy the Kid or John Wesley Harding were, either. He could tell you all sorts of facts about animals, because when he does want to watch TV, he’s mainly parked in front of one of the National Geographic channels watching sharks or something. The old west is confined to Dad’s Old Shows, although he does say that he enjoyed this one, too. It had a very fun bar fight.


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Barbary Coast 1.2 – Crazy Cats

It’s true that our son hasn’t been all that enthusiastic about this show, but tonight’s installment might have won him over a little. The plot was much more straightforward and easier for him to follow, plus it ended with both explosions and a swordfight. He was also predisposed to like it from the outset because our heroes are tracking down a pair of stolen jade cats, and he “just really likes cats!” I was glad to see that they reintroduced Cash Conover’s superstitions. Unlike our kid, he doesn’t like cats at all.

Lots of familiar-to-me faces in tonight’s cast. Eric Braeden plays the villain, and Len Lesser is a clerk at a sleazy motel. Mickey Morton has a small role as a soldier who’s losing big at Cash’s casino, and he gets to tower menacingly over Doug McClure. Weirdly, I mentioned last time that Bobbi Jordan wasn’t able to continue with this series owing to a prior commitment. Well, Sherry Jackson basically takes over her part as a different red-haired dealer at the casino… but she’s apparently only in this one episode. This is an amusing show, but it kind of needs a semi-regular female character.

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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!

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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.

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The Twilight Zone 5.3 – Nightmare at 20,000 Feet

In 1983, there was a film of The Twilight Zone, and the accompanying novelization was the first bit of the program that I ever encountered. I must have read it seven times before the movie came on HBO, and teenage me enjoyed each segment more than the previous one. The remake of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” which starred John Lithgow, was my favorite, in part because of how “cool” the gremlin on the wing was. I saw the original a few months later and scoffed at the TV show’s gremlin, which was just some dude in a teddy bear costume.

But, oh, to be seven. To be sure, when I stopped being a teen idiot and became instead an ordinary idiot, I grew to enjoy this segment greatly. It’s just so darn fun. But I never enjoyed it half as much as I did tonight, when the gremlin scared the almighty heck out of our son. When William Shatner pulled that curtain back, our kid jumped out of his skin.

It has been so fun to enjoy all the programs and movies that we’ve watched together before he starts becoming jaded by dated special effects. He didn’t see anything threadbare in this adventure. He took this at face value and babbled to make himself brave and hid behind his balled-up security blanket.

And speaking of face value, the flight engineer, played by Edward Kemmer, fibs to his frantic passenger and tries to reassure him by saying the pilots are aware of the beast and wish that he would please keep it down and not cause a panic. Our son concluded that gremlins can’t be seen by women, since this one only jumps away when a woman looks out at the wing. We still had to give him an after-show explanation of what a gremlin is. And speaking of movies from 1983-84, he’s far too young to meet Gizmo and Stripe, so we left those gremlins out of the explanation!

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The Twilight Zone 2.7 – Nick of Time

We’re stepping back into The Twilight Zone for a little while. I’ve picked eleven stories from the program’s second season that sound promising. There are a couple that we’re going to watch that I remember fondly. Others I don’t know, but they have memorable actors in them. I picked Richard Matheson’s “Nick of Time” because William Shatner is in it. I never saw this one before, but publicity photos from the production, thanks, perhaps, to Shatner’s later celebrity, are among the most common Zone pictures out there.

Shatner and Patricia Breslin play newlyweds whose car breaks down in a small Ohio city. While waiting for a part to come in from Dayton, they kill time in the local Busy Bee Cafe, trying to enjoy some lousy sandwiches and iced coffee. Shatner’s character is deeply superstitious, and he quickly becomes obsessed with a penny-per-question fortune teller on their table. It’s part of the napkin-holder, a cute and clever way for restaurants to make an extra buck or two a day.

You could imagine a later production doing the same sort of script with a Magic 8-ball. The fortune telling machine could be viewed as stunningly accurate, leading to one very surprising moment and one very funny one involving Stafford Repp, who plays the town mechanic… or are they just coincidences? Shatner coughs up twenty-odd cents, stunned by its power. Breslin urges him to leave it alone and write his own fortune.

Our son really enjoyed this one, more than most Zone stories, and so did I. It’s a simple and uncomplicated episode with an ethical question at its core that viewers of any age can grasp. I liked the straightforward script and the performances. Breslin is very good and Shatner is even better. The Twilight Zone Wiki noted that Matheson had hoped that Breslin would have been available to play Shatner’s character’s wife in the even more famous fifth season story “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” but she wasn’t, and Christine White played that role instead. What a missed opportunity!

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