Friday, October 26, 2007

New Versus Old: TV On DVD

Well, this has been a BIG issue since TV shows on DVD became such a money maker for the studios.

When season sets of TV shows started showing up on DVD, like so many others, I was excited by the prospect of owning my favorite TV shows complete and uncut. So, for the studios to break into the market they started releasing mostly newer shows or shows that had rabid fan followings. Think Star Trek. Made sense to me. Classic TV shows fans like myself would just have to wait for our favorites to be released. It was only a matter of time, right?

Wrong. What everyone found was that releasing older (I’m talking pre 1990 here) shows on DVD opened up a whole can of worms. There were rights issues. Universal let their rights to The Six Million Dollar Man lapse and to this day that show has yet to be released here in America. Sure, you can by the first two seasons from the UK, if your DVD player will play UK discs. Fox and Warner are still quibbling over the 60s Batman TV series. Then there were the pesky music licensing costs for older shows. This really sent the studios into a tail spin. It was a forgone conclusion that shows like The Wonder Years and WKRP in Cincinnati would probably not ever be released on DVD. Even if they did, they would most likely not appear in their original uncut versions. Anyone who has watched the WKRP season 1 DVD set can tell you the show was butchered beyond belief. I was fortune enough to borrow the set from a friend so I could decide if I wanted to buy it or not. I decided not to purchase it. It’s a shame too, because I love WKRP.

Then there is the almighty dollar factor. Some older shows just weren’t meeting the studios sales expectations. Case in point: The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Fox released season 1 with really nice packaging, great extras and beautiful sound and picture. It wasn’t a big seller. I don’t know what the sales figures were or what Fox expected, but whatever it was it didn’t come up to scratch. So Fox refused to release any further seasons. Even though season 2 had already been remastered and was essentially ready for release. Well, Mary would get a second chance three years later. Seasons 2-4 did get released, but once again poor Mary has been dropped from further releases. The same thing has happened to The Bob Newhart Show, McMillan and Wife, Quincy, Kojak, Charlie’s Angels and many, many others. With the apparent deaths of Mary, Bob Newhart and, I believe WKRP, it looks like the chances for Rhoda and Phyllis to be released on DVD are very, very slim. It just breaks my heart. Rhoda is one of my all time favorite 70s shows. With only two seasons left for Bob Newhart and three seasons for Mary, I’d really, really like to see them completed. Seems doubtful at this point.

Setting aside the sales issues for a moment, there is another major issue with classic TV on DVD. The snails pace at which each season is released. It took Fox six years to release all 11 seasons of MASH. While Paramount released all seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation in just one year. Sony is another studio that just drags its feet with DVD releases. They have regulated All In The Family and The Jeffersons to just one season release a year. At the moment we’re lucky if we get two seasons of Bewitched a year. With the release of the 5th season and the end of the Dick York years, I’m worried that the rest of Bewitched may not see the light of day. I don’t know if these types of decisions are precipitated by sales numbers or not. I would think that they are. I’m glad that I’ve finished with The Jeffersons. I bought the first 6 seasons which covered the years 75-80. I’m not interested in getting the rest of the series (80-85). I do want the final three seasons of All In The Family.

Some independently produced shows like That Girl, Roseanne, Family Affair, The Doris Day Show and a few others have been released by smaller independent studios (Shout Factory, MPI, Anchor Bay). These releases seem to have been profitable for these smaller studios because Roseanne was completed on DVD and The Doris Day Show will be completed this year as well. I’d like to see more classic TV shows released on smaller labels. They seem to take extra care to do the releases right. Not always. Season 1 of Roseanne was released with only syndicated cuts versus complete versions. Fan were outraged and Anchor Bay quickly responded by stating that the rest of the series would be released complete and uncut. They stuck to their word until seasons 8 and 9 were released with cuts do to music licensing rights issues. Anyway, I think the use of smaller studios could be the answer to getting some classic shows released or finished. Some of my favorite shows are still just rotting in the studio vaults. Room 222, Angie, Chico and the Man, Eight is Enough, Rhoda, Phyllis, Vegas, and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father are just collecting dust somewhere. And those are just shows from the 70s. I can’t even begin to think about what 50s, 60s, and 80s shows that are just wasting away locked up in some studio vault. Something needs to be done about this situation.

Then there are the ever popular arguments about ‘Best of’ releases versus complete seasons, half seasons versus full seasons, and complete series sets versus season by season releases. Each one has it merits. For me, shows like The Sonny and Cher Show should be released as ‘Best of’ collections to keep the music licensing to a minimum. Several variety shows of the 70s have been released this way and I’ve enjoyed each and every one of them. Unfortunately in the case of Sonny and Cher I was just left with wanting more. Sadly it was not to be. I believe that shows that only lasted between one and three seasons should be released in complete series sets. My stance on full seasons versus half seasons is that only full seasons should be released. I understand why studios like to release half seasons. It’s a way to gage the market and see if a series has the potential to sell well. If not, then the studio has released only half a season and not lost all that much. This ‘half season’ thing is something that Fox started doing along time ago. Now Paramount has jumped on the bandwagon. I’m currently only collecting one series that is being released this way: The Streets of San Francisco. However, next month I will be starting my second series with ‘half season’ releases when Love American Style is released. As much as I love, Love American Style, the little voice inside me says that this release is doomed to failure. I really hope not, but I can’t shake the feeling that this one release is all I’m going to get of Love American Style.

So what is the whole point of this? I’m not sure, but I just felt the need to get some of this off my chest.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

This Is The Story Of Two Sisters

My favorite TV show of all time is Soap from 77.

For those who weren’t around in 1977, Soap was the most controversial show to hit the airwaves since All In The Family. The sexual revolution that began in the 60s was in full swing by the 70s. And no Television show better exemplified the free wheeling, sexual 70s like Soap did. You see, the main emphasis was…gasp…sex! Soap managed to offend just about every right wing conservative from Maine to California. And all before it ever went on the air. ABC received thousands of letters and eight of their affiliates refused to run the show. Then on September 13, 1977 at 9:00 pm, America finally got to see what all of the fuss was about. That first episode received an estimated 19 million views nationwide.

My first exposure to Soap came from the ABC fall preview show in August of 77. Right away, my mother wouldn’t let me watch it. Since my bedroom was just off of the living room I was able to catch a few bits and pieces during the first few weeks that it was on. Much to my mother’s chagrin. It would be a few years before I was able to see the show and judge it for myself. Upon my first viewing, I was hooked and the show has stuck with me all these years. In fact it is my all time favorite show.

Why? Katherine Helmond as Jessica Tate. From the moment she breezed into the Tate kitchen in that first episode she had me in stitches. I had never seen her before and she really made me sit up and take notice. Not only was she hysterically funny, but she was also sweet, vulnerable and just plain charming to watch. However, Katherine Helmond was only as good as the director and the writers for Soap. While Katherine Helmond was just one member of a great ensemble cast, she was a stand out. For me, anyway.

Of course the other stand out cast member was Robert Guillaume as Benson. Benson’s irreverent humor and wisecrack’s were scene stealers to be sure. Who can forget the scene in the very first episode when no one ate Benson’s Eggs Benedict for breakfast that morning? Jessica then asks Benson if he’d like to take them home on his day off. Benson replies in the most stereotypically black voice I’ve ever heard, ‘Oooh, I’d sure like dat Miz Tate. We just loves three day ol’ Eggs Benedict down in the ghetto. The little chillin’ can use ‘em for hocky pucks.”

That is another reason why I love Soap. It is so non PC. Chuck and Bob, well actually Bob even called Benson ‘Sambo’ once. Eunice called Jody a ‘thieving little fruit.’ The list just goes on and on.

And dysfunctional? This show had the mother of all dysfunctional families. Check out this rundown. First we have Chester and Jessica Tate. Chester sleeps with anything that breathes except Jessica. Jessica is so deeply in denial about Chester’s infidelities that when she witnesses it for herself she falls apart. Only to turn around and blame it all on a family curse. Jessica’s father still thinks that World War II is still going on. And Chester and Jessica’s children? Corrine Tate, the middle child, sleeps around just as much as her father. Eunice Tate, the oldest child, has taken up with a married congressman. The youngest child, Billy Tate seems to be the only one with both oars in the water. That changes as the series goes along. He’s just as screwed up as the rest.

Jessica’s sister Mary Campbell and her family are another mess all together. Burt, Mary’s husband, is impotent because he murdered Mary’s first husband. Mary doesn’t understand what is going on and really doesn’t do much in the way of helping the situation. Mary’s oldest son, Danny, is in the mob and the only way out is for him to murder the man who murdered his father. Mary’s second son, Jody, is gay and Danny thinks the whole thing is a big joke. Neither of Mary’s sons can stand Burt. Then into this whole mess Burt’s son Chuck and his little wooded doll, Bob arrive. Unbeknownst to Burt, his oldest son, Peter (who’s a tennis pro), arrives in town and starts giving more than tennis lessons to every woman in town. Including Jessica and Corrine.

And all of this information is thrown at you with lightening speed in just the first two episodes. To this day, I don’t know how the cast performed this stuff without cracking up every time they opened their mouth. I’d love to see some bloopers from this show. They had impeccable timing. Sometimes you had to really listen to catch everything that was being said. I’ve watched the entire run of Soap several times and there are still things that I’m hearing that I didn’t catch the first time or even the sixth time through the show.

Then as happens with most sitcoms, the show started to head south. Most fans point to Benson’s leaving as the turning point in the series. While I do agree that Benson leaving left a big hole in the cast, but I believe that the problem lies elsewhere. It’s my opinion that the show just became too ordinary by the time the third season started. It just didn’t walk that fine line between naughty and shocking anymore. And that’s all the show ever really was. Naughty. It wasn’t dirty. It wasn’t filthy. It wasn’t all that shocking. Heck, most of the time it wasn’t even all that sexual. It was just a naughty little show that everyone blew out of proportion. I also think that by the third season, people just weren’t talking about it anymore. As I said, it just became ordinary. In the end, it was just another sitcom on a network full of sitcoms. Without its controversial edge, fewer and fewer people were tuning in each week.

Also, during the third season there was a distinct shift. I think that this was brought on by the departure of director Jay Sandrich. John Bowab directed one episode in season 2 and J.D. Lobue directed a couple of season 2 episodes, but the main director was Jay Sandrich. Jay only directed the first 6 episodes of season 3 before moving over to direct Benson. After that, J.D. Lobue took over until near the end of the 4th season. By that time, the show was sunk. Also, Susan Harris (who created the show) wasn’t writing as many episodes as before because she was concentrating on the series Benson.

Once one of the best shows on TV, Soap limped its way to the end of its third season. Story lines about Burt being abducted by a UFO and a horny duplicate of him being sent down to Mary, were funny they just didn’t have the same spark as before. Season three finished 25th in the overall ratings, but the writing was on the wall. For Soap, the 70s were over. The 80s were about to kill it. The season finale for season three was big, but also on the bland side. Jessica slipped into a coma, the custody battle over Jody’s baby was about to be decided, Lesley was about to shoot Billy, Mary was about to give birth (and it wasn’t sure if it would be human or an alien) Dutch had to choose between Eunice and Corrine and Burt and Danny had been knocked out and abducted by gangsters. Most folks didn’t really care to tune in the next season to view the outcome.

The 4th season opener would resolve most of these stories but leave one sort of dangling for the rest of the entire season. It’s never revealed weather or not Mary’s baby is an alien or not. You get hints along the way that she is perhaps right and the baby is indeed an alien, but no solid evidence is shown. Anyway, if by the end of the third season the show as limping along, in the fourth season the show had been reduced to a crawl. The Jessica and El Puerco story was just ridiculous. I didn’t by the relationship for a minute. Eunice and Dutch getting married was totally unbelievable. Lesley’s continued attempts to kill Billy was stupid. The whole season just didn’t seem to have any direction any more. I was sorry to see it get cancelled. Especially since they didn’t come back the next year to at least resolve the cliffhangers. So, for the last 20 years, Jessica is still in front of the firing squad, Burt is about to get ambushed, Chester is about to kill Danny and Annie and Jody is trapped in a past life. And that is where they remain.


A once great show simply faded.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Enough All Ready!

Ever since I can remember I’ve been hearing about how great the 60’s were. Well, to be perfectly honest, I’m REALLY sick of hearing about the 60’s and everything that went along with them. Ok, yes the 60’s was a period of change for America. The youth of that decade found their voice and they let us know it. And they haven’t shut up since. We’re still celebrating Woodstock and the Summer of Love. It’s been 40 years. Can’t we give it rest by now?

Being born in 1966, I have zero memories of the 60’s. Maybe that’s why I really have no connection to that period of my life. My earliest memory is from the summer of 1970. Possibly before I turned 4, I don’t really know. I know that my Great-Grandmother is in that memory and she died in 1970. So, it’s anyone’s guess when that memory took place. It could even have been in 1969 but I don’t think so. I would have only been 3, so I find it very unlikely that I remember anything from that far back. I could, but I don’t think so.

Keep your tie-dies and your love beads.

I'll keep my bell bottoms, platform shoes and mood rings. Thank you very much.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Halloween...70s Style

It’s that time of year again. Trick or treat. I love Halloween. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t. This year I added to my 70s TV on DVD collection a little known variety special from 1976: The Paul Lynde Halloween Special. Yes, you read that right. In 1976 Paul Lynde did a Halloween special for ABC. This was not the first special that Paul had done for ABC. And it wasn’t the last. As with most holiday themed specials from the 70s, this aired only once in 1976 and was never seen again. Until now.

The guest stars line up is…well…rather…odd. First you have our host Paul Lynde. Now I love Paul Lynde. He was fabulous on Hollywood Squares and in Bewitched. His prissy, sarcastic wit was something to see. However, on this special he kind of seems out of place. Anyway, the rest of the guests were (hold onto your seats for these), Tim Conway, Roz Kelly, Betty White, Margaret Hamilton, Billie Hayes (you know, Witchiepoo from Pufnstuf), Billy Barty, Donny and Marie and in their first Television appearance Kiss. Yes, Kiss. Paul Lynde and Kiss. Once I knew that, I just had to have this DVD. The fact that Kiss was on this show has made it somewhat of a collector’s item for Kiss fans. Part of the show has been pirated for years. In fact, one of their three performances on the show is included on Volume 1 of the Kissology DVD. However, until now their entire performance hasn’t been seen since this special originally aired. Anyway, enough about Kiss.

The show begins with Paul dressed as Santa and decorating a Christmas tree. Margaret Hamilton comes in and informs ‘Mr. Lynde’ (She plays his housekeeper) that it isn’t Christmas. At this point he tells her to ‘go dust something.’ Next he comes out dressed as the Easter Bunny singing Peter Cottontail and…anyway, long story short he finally realizes that it’s really Halloween. Opening credits roll. Interestingly enough, Roz Kelly is billed as Roz ‘Pinky Tuscadero’ Kelly. I guess she was still milking that one appearance on Happy Days.

After a short comedy monologue (I use the term ‘comedy’ lightly) there is the big opening production number. I don’t remember what the song was Paul…um…sang, but it wasn’t all that great. It tired to be funny, but really missed the mark. It ended with him being put in a trash can with the lid being placed on by Donny and Marie. This is the only time that we see them. I guess that is a blessing. The trashcan blows up and the shows cuts to commercial.

From this point on, the show tries to have somewhat of a story line. Albeit a bad one. Paul accompanies Margaret to her sister’s house to escape all of trick or treat nonsense in the city. Of course, the house is your typical spooky old house. Then we meet Margaret’s sister, the fabulous Billie Hayes in her Witchiepoo persona. Throughout the entire show it very obvious that Billie Hayes is just having a ball. For me she is the only real bright spot in this special. She truly gets into this character. As a side note, Billie’s make up seemed to be a bit off. It wasn’t the classic Witchiepoo make up that I’m more familiar with. That and her hat was grey instead of black. Anyway, Paul realizes that these two sisters are witches. Margaret Hamilton even appears in green make up and a pretty good rendition of her Wicked Witch of the West costume from The Wizard of Oz. Of course there are the obligatory Oz jokes. Margaret tires a couple of times to get her voice to sound like it did in 1939. The results are not that effective.

So, Betty White then appears as Miss Halloween 1976 and just as quickly as she appears, she vanishes never to be seen on this special again. So, because of his kindness to witches the sisters grant Paul three wishes. Paul’s first wish is to be a trucker. This part of the special is so bad that I can’t even describe it accurately. The one thing that stands out is that Paul wears a red wig, large red eyebrows and this ridiculous long red chest hair piece. The whole thing is just beyond silly. It’s at this point Roz Kelly and Tim Conway make their first appearances. No, it won’t be the last. We will see them again.

Paul’s second wish to be an Arab Sheik. Florence Henderson makes her first appearance and Tim Conway makes his second. This too is just pure silliness. By this time, I was getting pretty bored with the whole thing. Then Kiss comes on and sings Detroit Rock City. Of course it looks like they’re lip-syncing. It’s kind of hard to tell, but I’d lay money on the fact that they are. More silliness follows and Paul introduces Kiss again. This time they sing Beth. Finally Paul gives his final wish to the witches. They want to go to a Hollywood Disco. Well, this was 1976. No TV special would be complete without a Disco set.

Here’s where the show really just heads off into the ether. Just picture it. Paul Lynde, Margaret Hamilton, Billie Hayes, Roz Kelly, Tim Conway and Florence Henderson all trying to sing disco songs and dancing. It made my hair hurt. Well, that and Florence singing a really bad version of That Ole Black Magic. Then Kiss comes back for their final number. During this song there is not a doubt that they aren’t singing live. Paul Stanley even messes up the words. After this, the show thankfully comes to a close.

Now don’t get me wrong. I had a great time watching this last night, but it was really bad. It was bad in a good way. I think. It’s not any worse than, say, The Star Wars Holiday Special or just about any other 70s Holiday specials. It’s very, very 70s. There is no way around it. And I recommend it to any 70s fan. You’ll never see anything else like it.

One word of caution: the video quality on this DVD is not the best. Apparently the original master tape is lost. The DVD is the complete show and probably the only copy in existence. If I had to venture a guess as to the source, it’s probably from a back up VHS copy that someone involved in the production made and kept for all these years. The picture is kind of fuzzy. You can tell it’s a copy of the original tape. There are also some noticeable video and audio disturbances that they couldn’t eliminate. Oh well. At least the entire show was found. I’m really grateful to have it. I think I will add this to my yearly holiday viewing. Right along with the Donny and Marie Christmas Special, the Sonny and Cher Christmas Shows and the Captain and Tennille Christmas Show. Bring on more of this great kind of 70s kitsch.

Monday, October 22, 2007

That 70’s Show….Not So Much

I like to consider myself to be a pretty good expert on the 70’s. I was born in 1966 and have a good memory of the 70’s. This was, after all, my childhood. So, for my first bog on That 70’s Blog, I’ve decided to rant about something that really sticks in my craw. That 70’s Show.

I’ve been watching That 70’s Show on DVD and I just got the 7th Season DVD set. Ok, when this show first started, I thought it was stupid. In fact, I used to call it That Stupid Show. Then the same folks that brought us That 70’s Show decided the time was right for the same thing but only focusing on the 80’s. Thus That 80’s Show was born. Or as I called it, That Even More Stupid, Stupid Show.

So any way, I have started watching the 7th season and the same old problems with this series keeps popping up. For anyone familiar with this show, the series begins in May of 1976. Ok, that’s the first major problem. Why is it that practically every 70’s nostalgia movie, mini-series and now sitcom always begins in 1976? Did 1970-75 have zero nostalgia value? Did nothing of any significance happen in the first five years of the decade? And considering that this show lasted eight seasons, I think it would have been much better served had it started in 1971. I happen to think that the entire decade was pretty fascinating. But, that’s just me.

Anyway, the series begins in May 1976. Now, the time line was noticeably slowed down. This is something that both MASH and Happy Days did as well. This isn’t a problem, per se. It usually happens with any period television show. The show lasts longer than the time period that it is set in. So, by the early part of the sixth season the show finally arrived at the final year of the 70’s: 1979. The seventh season also begins in 1979. That’s all fine and good, but as usual with this show, they don’t stick to the time line in the writing.

Let me illustrate. Ok, in Wisconsin in 1976 or even in 1979 (I was raised in Indiana, so I can certainly relate to the mid-west in the 70’s) believe me no one but no one walked around saying ‘awesome.’ We used terms like, ‘out-a-sight,’ ‘right on,’ and the ever popular ‘far out.’ I don’t know where these writers came up with that. Pre 80’s teens did not say things like ‘awesome.’ Maybe they did in New York or California, but not Wisconsin. It’s not just the whole ‘awesome’ thing either. I don’t know where the writers came up with this whole ‘burn’ expression that is constantly shouted at least once every episode. The expression was ‘burnt’ not ‘burn.’ Anyone growing up in the mid-west in the 70’s knows that. I mean, come on people do a little bit of research. It’s not hard to write period sounding dialogue for these characters. It really pulls me out of the show when I hear post 70’s cliché’s and phrases in a show that supposed to be in the 70’s.

This brings me to my next pet peeve about this show. When the show first went on the air, it tried so VERY hard to be 70’s. There was always some ridiculous reference to something 70’s that it felt like I was being hit over the head with a hammer. Ok, it’s the 70’s. I get it. Stop trying to ram it down my throat. The show was at its best when it wasn’t trying so self consciously to be 70’s. That’s when the show usually achieved its goal and wound up being very 70’s. In the 7th season however, the show has all but superficially stopped being 70’s. More and more references to non 70’s things are popping up. For example, one character (Hyde, I think) mentioned to Eric that the most embarrassing thing Eric ever wore was an Air Supply T-shirt to an Aerosmith concert. Air Supply?!? Air Supply?!? To use a more modern term, an Air Supply T-shirt in the 70’s…NOT! Yes, Air Supply did release their first album in 1976…in Australia! Hello! Research people. Research! The joke, first of all, wasn’t that funny. Secondly, it would have been just as effective had they mentioned wearing a Carpenters T-shirt, a John Denver T-shirt, a Barry Manilow T-shirt, a Starland Vocal Band T-shirt or almost any soft rock group from the 70’s. Anything but Air Supply. This kind of shoddy writing happens all too frequently on this show. The writers really need to be slapped for these really obvious blunders. I won’t even discuss a passing reference to the 1980 book, The Jane Fonda Workout Book. Just sloppy.

Finally we get to another big problem with this show. The props. Ok, for the most part I will give the show its due when it comes to props. They do a pretty good job of sticking to the period. With one glaring exception: The Star Wars toys. Nope. Not even close. Come on, with tens of thousands of vintage Star Wars toys lying around, and the producers couldn’t be bothered with trying to be historically accurate? What’s the deal? One episode even had Eric looking at his Star Wars figures in a Millennium Falcon figures carrying case. Sorry, but that’s a 90’s item. Once again, research, research, research.

Most, if not all, of these problems could have and should have been fixed before the script was even given to the actors. 90% of this shows problems is just sloppy writing and a serious lack of research. I mean, how hard is it to find a few people who actually grew up in Wisconsin from 1976-79 and talk to them? How about opening up a 1978 Sears, Wards or JC Penny Christmas catalog to see what the original Star Wars toys looked like? This is not difficult stuff people. In fact, I would almost think that doing research to get the period right would have been essential for this show to be believable. Maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps it just indicative of the general laziness of television productions today. That whole mentality of get it on and get it on quick. Forget making it historically accurate. That all important young demographic doesn’t care about history or if the show is accurate. And above all, forget about making it intelligent.

I guess this show bothers me because I’m a true fan of the 70’s and I’ve done research on the period. I’ve tried to learn all that I can about this period, and not just as part of our nation’s history, but because it is part of my own personal history. Also, I think the 70’s were just cool. Sadly, That 70’s Show doesn’t show the period as cool or even interesting. I’m sure true 50’s aficionados felt the same way when Happy Days went on the air. I was too young to notice if there were any glaring historical inaccuracies with Happy Days. I’m sure that there were. After all, this is television.