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Johnny LaRue's Crane Shot
Wednesday, September 21, 2005
Drive-In Memories
I watched a documentary tonight about the rise and fall of the American drive-in theater, and I thought it might be fun to share some of my own drive-in memories. You can let me know if it is.

First, some background, since I know so many people who have never attended a drive-in theater. And even if you do go, today's drive-ins aren't the same, I don't think. You generally get only one movie, as opposed to the two or more that were mandatory in the old days, and the movie is usually some big, homogenous blockbuster that might even still be playing in the multiplexes, so you aren't even getting the thrill of discovering something A) new and obscure or B) bold and exploitative. Drive-ins began to die out in the late 1970's, simply because land became so valuable that it was more profitable for drive-in owners to sell their property to developers to turn into shopping centers.

There are still a couple of drive-ins around here, but, eh, it's just not the same. It doesn't feel special, as it once did, to go to them. There are no promotions or gimmicks or music or any sense of community. You show up, pay money, park, and watch a movie. One. And you're outta there way before midnight.

Champaign-Urbana used to have two drive-ins: the Widescreen, which was on North Cunningham in Urbana, and the Twin City, which was on North Market in Champaign across the street from where Market Place Mall is now, where Heilig-Meyers is. My recollection is that the Widescreen was more likely to show mainstream movies, whereas the Twin City showed harder exploitation items. That's why my family--mom, dad, little brother and me--almost always went to the Widescreen. I only remember going to the Twin City once, in 1981 to see FOR YOUR EYES ONLY (we left before the second feature, WOLFEN). 1981 was also the year the Twin City closed, so I likely saw one of the last features there.

The thing I mostly recall about the Twin City is that you could see the screen from Interstate 74, and I'm convinced the first time I saw a naked woman was as a very young boy seeing all kinds of pink naughtiness bouncing around that silent arena on the way home from a family trip.

My folks used to take my brother and me to the Widescreen a lot. I remember sitting in the back seat in my pajamas eating popcorn out of this gigantic green Tupperware bowl and drinking Coke out of a Tupperware sippy cup. We always brought our own refreshments. This would have been in the early-to-mid 1970's. I don't know if it was on its original release or a re-release, but I clearly recall seeing PAPILLON at the Widescreen. I didn't realize it until I saw the film as a teenager, because I only remembered a beheading (PAPILLON was rated PG) and someone eating a bug. My parents were very strict about taking us to see R-rated films (there was no PG-13 then), and I didn't see one until I was about 14.

We saw a lot of Disney films at the Widescreen: GUS, THE APPLE DUMPLING GANG, NO DEPOSIT, NO RETURN, THE NORTH AVENUE IRREGULARS. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that I saw just about every Disney picture that came out during that time. I also recall my folks being mortified by a PG movie we went to. It was a western about a treasure map that was tattooed on the asses of hot women, and the heroes had to go around stripping chicks to see the tattoos. Again, when I got older, I found out that was THE STRANGER AND THE GUNFIGHTER with Lee Van Cleef and Lo Lieh. It's on VHS, but I have never gone back and rewatched it, although I have meant to for many years. I also recall being bored silly by THE NORSEMAN, a Viking picture I was excited to see because it starred Lee Majors, then the star of one of my favorite TV shows (still is, I guess), THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN.

The Widescreen closed in 1986, and I was just going away to college by then. I transferred to Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, and I was lucky enough to attend the Egyptian Drive-In in Energy, a few miles from Carbondale near Marion, a few times.

I believe the Egyptian had the largest drive-in screen in the world, and my first visit there was for a double feature of RAMBO III and ROAD HOUSE. I also saw K-9 with THE DREAM TEAM there. What was wonderful about the Egyptian is that it was independently owned by the old woman who started it with her husband back in the '40s. The concession stand was covered with autographed photos of celebrities who had visited over the years. It also had a DJ booth, and this woman would entertain before and between movies by playing old rock and country records with patter in between. It was a very festive place to be, and I'm sorry I didn't go more often than I did. My last visit was to see FATHER'S DAY and AUSTIN POWERS: INTERNATIONAL MAN OF MYSTERY while I was in town to help a friend move into an apartment in Carbondale.

Gibson City hosts the Harvest Moon, which I've been to a couple of times (the last was to see THE MARK OF ZORRO), but it just doesn't hold the same allure for me. There are only 14 drive-ins left in Illinois, though, and even if I never go back to one, I hope they last forever.

Posted by Marty at 9:34 PM CDT
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Tuesday, September 20, 2005
Glug Glug
Well, I tried. While I was watching MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL with Chicken last night, I was rolling tape on both PRISON BREAK on Fox and the premiere of SURFACE on NBC. Too bad I didn't get to see either of them. A thunderstorm must have glitched my cable box, because it clicked over to the wrong channel, and I ended up taping LAS VEGAS instead.

I saw the majority of SURFACE, I suppose, but between weather warnings taking up about 30% of the screen and occasionally preempting the show and WAND-TV going off the air for most of the fourth act, I was pretty lost. I should watch another episode or two to give it a fair shake, although I wasn't that thrilled with it, and I don't expect it to stay on the air long anyway.

Formerly called FATHOM, SURFACE stars the improbably named Lake Bell, who not convincingly portrayed a callow young attorney on THE PRACTICE, as a marine biologist who sees what might be a bigass sea monster deep below the Pacific Ocean. A wimp teenager in North Carolina sees some weird shit in the Atlantic, including some kind of alien egg, which he brings home and hides in the family fish tank. That ranks high on the List of Stupid Decisions. There's also a beer-guzzling Louisiana redneck (Jay Ferguson from EVENING SHADE) who has something to do with the show, but since the dumbfucks at WAND were off the air, I don't know what. He must have seen a monster too, because he's packin' up and goin' east to find it.

SURFACE's pilot was written, directed and executive-produced by its creators, twins Josh and Jonas Pate. These guys created a wonderful series called G VS. E, which originally ran for eleven episodes on the USA cable network. G VS. E was a wonderfully imaginative, clever, funny, fast-paced genre series about immortal angels tracking down and destroying Satan's minions in Los Angeles. It fell apart after it moved to the Sci-Fi channel for its second season of 11 shows. It was still decent, but that initial 11 was damn good. The Pates eventually took over L.A. DRAGNET during its aborted second season, which was good, but I felt the Pate brothers were too interesting to waste running a cop show, solid though it may be.

So I'm optimistic about SURFACE, even though the promo for next week's episode looks like a random group of alien-conspiracy cliches, including the government blackout and two kids keeping a baby alien as a pet in the bathtub. Wonder what the odds are of that "cute" pet getting mean and ugly in a big hurry?

NBC premiered MY NAME IS EARL, a very funny new single-camera sitcom starring Jason Lee (MALLRATS) as a New Jersey redneck and ne'er-do-well who decides to change his life after hitting the lottery and sets out to right the wrongs he has committed. The opener found him trying to get a wimp he bullied in grade school laid, which is harder than Earl thought when he discovers the guy is a "Homosexual-American". It's hard not to like Lee in this role, although his bitchy ex-wife (Jamie Pressly) and idiot best pal could get old quick.

I caught THE OFFICE for the first time--the U.S. version with Steve Carell, not the U.K. show. Working in an office, I related to some of the painful bits, but I thought this episode was a little too uncomfortable. It was funny alright, but in an edgy, shift-in-your-seat kind of way that doesn't play very well with prime-time audiences. Carell is obviously talented, and if THE OFFICE is going to follow MY NAME IS EARL, I'll probably check it out again. I can't get away from co-star Rainn Wilson anyway; in the last month, I've seen him in SAHARA and an episode of ENTOURAGE.

LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT opened with a strong show starring Robert Patrick, the T-1000 from TERMINATOR 2, as a just-released rapist who may or may not have attacked a woman he rode a bus with. The episode actually forgets about that rape to concentrate on the ethics of Detective Stabler (Chris Meloni) going undercover in Patrick's therapy sessions and getting close to the ex-con in case he rapes again. It's all very close to entrapment, and the point is made that Stabler's interaction with Patrick may have been the bell that set him off. Some surprising suspense and gunplay mark the climax, but it's the excellent performance by Patrick going head-to-head with the intense Meloni that made this a good show. It was great to see Robert Walden as a guest star too, even though his character disappears right after the opening titles. Walden was the bulldogish reporter Rossi on the old LOU GRANT show, and his retired detective on tonight's SVU was reminiscent of his earlier Emmy-nominated role.

Posted by Marty at 11:48 PM CDT
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Monday, September 19, 2005
Happy Bat-Birthday

Adam West, the greatest Batman of them all, turns 77 today. Someone told me today that if Nike had any sense at all, this photo would be the start of a brilliant new print ad campaign. Nike, make it happen.

Shatner pwns Alan Alda. After losing the Emmy to Shatner last night, Alda made a big show of ripping up his acceptance speech. He was probably just kidding, but there's no shame in losing an acting award to The One True Shat.

This is the most important DVD news of the year. THE ROCKFORD FILES is finally being released before the end of the year. While there's nothing inherently wrong with Season One sets of ADAM-12, BAA BAA BLACK SHEEP, EMERGENCY!, MCCLOUD, MCMILLAN AND WIFE and DRAGNET, why did Universal release these shows on DVD before ROCKFORD, which is guaranteed money in the bank. Maybe it's because...

...they were waiting for some sweet extras. Usually, Universal just dumps these shows with no special features, but according to this menu shot from TV Shows on DVD, they managed to land James Garner for an interview. I'm assuming the 90-minute pilot guest-starring Lindsay Wagner (pre-BIONIC WOMAN) and William Smith will be included. One of the series' defining moments is the great scene where Rockford sucker-punches the bigger and meaner Smith in a mens' room.

Look for it December 6, 2005.

Posted by Marty at 5:34 PM CDT
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Sunday, September 18, 2005
By The Way...
...does anyone actually give a damn to read essays about 25-year-old TV shows that nobody watched the first time they were on? My Comments file is not exactly overflowing with praise.

Posted by Marty at 10:55 PM CDT
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The World's Greatest Living Actor
Now Playing: 2005 Emmys
All hail the great William Shatner, an Emmy winner tonight for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series, BOSTON LEGAL. This is his second consecutive Emmy; he won one for playing the same character, eccentric attorney Denny Crane, on THE PRACTICE last year. He was nominated once before a few years ago for a guest shot on 3RD ROCK FROM THE SUN.

The Emmy show was very dull and uninspired, beginning with an insipid musical performance by Earth, Wind & Fire and the Black-Eyed Peas and including the first "Emmy Idol" competition, where celebrities sang TV theme songs so viewers could vote which was the best. The choice of celebrities and songs was bizarre, to say the least (including Donald Trump and Megan Mullally doing GREEN ACRES and Shatner teaming with an opera star to do STAR TREK), and who gives a damn about voting on stars practicing their karaoke skills? Seriously, who's actually picking up their phone and voting?

What a shock to see the reclusive David Letterman show up to present a tribute to the great Johnny Carson. That clip of Carson performing that magic trick for the little boy is still amazing; when is the last time you saw something that sweet on a late-night talk show? Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather took the stage in a tribute to their retirements and the passing of Peter Jennings. And the "In Memoriam" segment was anchored by an emotional clip of Jerry Orbach's last appearance on LAW & ORDER.

I thought LOST's win as Best Dramatic Series was a surprise. I seem to be in the minority when I say the show isn't very good, despite some expensive production values and a sharp cast, but even so, it's unusual for a series to win after its first year. I also thought DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES, which I've never seen, but dominates the mass media, was a lock to win Best Comedy Series, but lost to EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND.

A few other winners off the top of my head: Felicity Huffman, THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART, Doris Roberts, Brad Garrett, James Spader, Patricia Arquette, Tony Shalhoub, Hugh Jackman, Blythe Danner, Jane Alexander, Geoffrey Rush, THE AMAZING RACE, Paul Newman and others I'm forgetting.

I've said this before, but can we please have fewer teenage flavors-of-the-month like Adrian Grenier, Mischa Barton and Rachel Bilson doing the presenting and more familiar faces? Every year, the Emmys' ratings go down, and I'm convinced that if the show brought on more performers that the world has actually heard of, it would help. I can't be the only person more interested in seeing Jane Alexander than Jennifer Love Hewitt, am I?

Denny Crane.

Posted by Marty at 10:50 PM CDT
Updated: Sunday, September 18, 2005 10:52 PM CDT
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Last Week To Doomsday
Gobby gets married in less than a week, so last night was the bachelor party. It was pretty tame as these things go; only five of us partook (my brother remained in St. Louis), and there were no nude body parts of any kind. It was still a late night and a good time, and who knows when we'll get together like that again.

The festivities began around 5:30 at my place with an array of meat, cheeses, chips, snacks, beer and soft drinks. We chattered while one of my homemade compilations of trash movie trailers played on the Cyberhome. Talk about current musical acts, cars and idiots we went to school with in Mansfiend was frequently interrupted by comments inspired by the trailers, such as "Why do people continue to fuck with Charles Bronson? Don't they watch Charles Bronson movies?" and jokes about Chuck Norris Super Karate Action Jeans.

A little after 7:00, we went to Neil Street to meet our 7:30 reservations at Alexander's Steakhouse. For $20, you pick your own steak and grill it yourself, along with baked potatoes and buttery Texas toast. It's some of the best beef in town, and I don't mind the alleged inconvenience of grilling it. I like the sense of community...and the chance to snack on that grilled toast.

After pounding our 18-ouncers, we cruised through the U of I campus for a few minutes. I often go down there, but it had been years since the rest of the group traveled down there. Campustown has changed a lot in the last ten years, and certainly in the last 20 or so since we first started going down there. Almost everything from our high school years is gone--the movie theater, the arcade, the fast-food places.

We ventured over to the Rose Bowl in Urbana, a bar I'd never been to before. It has been around for decades; my dad told me he hadn't been in there in 45 years. I doubt it has changed much. Even the formica furniture has "1963 kitchen" written all over it. The clientele was very white with men favoring cowboy hats and Harley Davidson T-shirts and the women in hoop earrings, big hair and shirts that didn't go all the way to the waist, no matter how much they weighed. The average age of the band, which was pretty good and played covers by Elvis, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, etc., was about 53. Everybody seemed to be happy, and it really was not a bad little place to be.

Two pitchers of Pabst Blue Ribbon ("Fuck Heineken!"), and time to head back to my place to continue gorging on beer, flaming Cheetos, meat and cheese. I couldn't eat anything after the giant steak I had; I have no idea how those guys could eat.

Gobby had already picked out the first Crappy Movie of the night, a favorite of ours: KING FRAT. There's no way I can possibly defend liking this movie...I just do. It's a low-budget, filmed-in-Florida ANIMAL HOUSE ripoff, and your admiration for it will depend upon how many jokes about beer, farts, vomiting and all-around tastelessness you can take.

KING FRAT is about a fraternity at Yellowsprings College (yes, there's a urination joke there) populated with misfits, drunks, reprobates and party animals that is constantly battling with a fellow frat manned by uptight preppies, tormenting the dean and spying on sorority girls in various stages of undress. There's a corpse-napping, a costume party featuring a girl dressed as Lady Godiva, an inflatable doll, some offensive Native American stereotyping, a fart contest for money ("Holy shit! Fart contest!"), a guy in a gorilla suit and lots of beer-drinking. It's completely unoriginal and predictable, the students are at least a decade too old, the acting is mostly broad and sometimes amateurish, but there's a certain cheekiness in the proceedings that's easy to admire. Actor John DiSanti makes no attempt to disguise the fact that his fat, crude character of "Grossout" blatantly rips off John Belushi. He also wears a Howard the Duck T-shirt throughout the movie. I highly doubt Marvel Comics gave permission to use it.

After KING FRAT, it was REVENGE OF THE NINJA, a favorite of mine that attracted a lot of "ooohs" and "aahhhs" when we saw the trailer earlier. It's an incredible Golan-Globus production starring Sho Kosugi as a ninja who moves with his young son to Los Angeles after evil ninja graphically murder his entire family. He discovers his L.A. business partner and so-called friend Braden is using Sho to smuggle heroin into the country, and that Braden is also an evil ninja. This movie is about 90 minutes of nearly non-stop martial arts action, grippingly directed by Cannon regular Sam Firstenberg and choreographed by Kosugi. Some of the stuntwork looks very dangerous, like Kosugi being dragged behind a van, and even the little boy gets involved in the action scenes. MGM (accidentally?) put the original X-rated cut on the R-rated DVD, meaning there's more gore here than you saw on HBO in 1984.

Some of the party broke up at this point, but a few of us held on for one more: HOLLYWOOD COP, more insanity from the inept Iranian director of SAMURAI COP. And like that picture, HOLLYWOOD COP's entertainment value is hard to describe. It's just as incompetent as SAMURAI COP, but with some slumming stars and not quite as much hilarity. The wretchedness of the film is evident from the first fucking shot, which begins a bit too soon with the actors standing motionless waiting for the director to call "Action!"

Mobster Jim Mitchum (TRACKDOWN) wants back the $6 million a guy named Joe Fresno stole from him, so he kidnaps Fresno's son to hold for ransom. Fresno's ex-wife goes to a cop improbably named Johnny Turquoise (David Goss), or "Turk" or "Turkey" for short, to get the boy back. The investigation takes several ridiculous turns, such as stopping so Turk's partner Jaguar (a mugging Lincoln Kilpatrick) can make some bread oil-wrestling with two hot women. The script, filled with illogic and laughable dialogue (Turk tells a grieving husband whose wife has been raped in front of him, "Look, I know that guy fucked your wife and all, but..."), is matched in its incompetence by the inappropriate sound effects and photography.

It was about 3:30am by the time HOLLYWOOD COP mercifully ended, and sleep came quickly to those of us still standing. Gob's wedding is on Saturday. At least I'll get to have another steak.

Happy 30th to Shark Hunter. Hope your birthday party last night was at least as merry as ours.

Posted by Marty at 4:17 PM CDT
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Saturday, September 17, 2005
The Man With The Pyrite Gut

When NBC lured ABC president Fred Silverman over to take over their third-place (out of three, at the time) network, it expected big things. After all, in his three years at ABC, he made the Alphabet network a money-making machine, launching shows like STARSKY & HUTCH, THE LOVE BOAT, FANTASY ISLAND, LAVERNE & SHIRLEY, THREE’S COMPANY, ROOTS and CHARLIE’S ANGELS.

Magic didn’t strike twice, as Silverman’s Midas touch turned to stone. Some of the programs developed by NBC during his reign from 1978 to 1981 rank among television’s most notorious flops. TV buffs know well what a laughing stock NBC became while pushing shows like HELLO, LARRY, SUPERTRAIN, THE MISADVENTURES OF SHERIFF LOBO, B.J. AND THE BEAR and C.P.O. SHARKEY onto the television audience. NBC’s few hits were in late-night, where THE TONIGHT SHOW and SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, which ripped Silverman a new one in an Al Franken-written sketch called “Limo for a Lamo”, in which John Belushi portrayed Silverman, were the network’s main source of advertising income.

Another Silverman-bred series that didn’t work was A MAN CALLED SLOANE, which was originally created by writer Cliff Gould (THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO) as a light spy adventure like the James Bond movies. The original pilot, titled T.R. SLOANE, starred Robert Logan (77 SUNSET STRIP) as Thomas Remington Sloane, an agent of UNIT battling a megalomaniac who plans to cause havoc with a massive death ray. The villain’s henchman was Torque (Ji-Tu Cumbuka), a 6’5” bald, black man with a mechanical hand who was clearly modeled after Richard Kiel’s Jaws character in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME.

NBC liked the idea and the Torque character, but not Logan, sending Gould and executive producer Philip Saltzman on a hunt for a new leading man. Silverman suggested Robert Conrad, one of television’s all-time most popular stars, who had hit it big in the 1950’s on HAWAIIAN EYE and in the ‘60s on THE WILD WILD WEST. Conrad was ubiquitous during the 1970’s, starring in several shortlived adventure series like THE D.A., ASSIGNMENT: VIENNA and BAA BAA BLACK SHEEP, as well as a ton of TV-movies and pilots. Saltzman reportedly argued that Conrad couldn’t possibly do A MAN CALLED SLOANE, because he was already starring as an ex-boxer in the NBC series THE DUKE. “No problem,” replied Silverman, “I’ll just cancel THE DUKE.” He did, and Conrad became Thomas Remington Sloane.

A MAN CALLED SLOANE was the first television series produced by Quinn Martin Productions after Martin sold his company to Taft Broadcasting. Martin was one of television’s great producers, shepherding successful shows like THE UNTOUCHABLES, THE FUGITIVE, THE F.B.I., BARNABY JONES and THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO. Part of Martin’s deal with Taft, however, was that he had to relinquish hands-on involvement with QM shows, and SLOANE likely suffered as a result of his absence.

Thomas Sloane worked for a government agency called UNIT, which was based out of the back room of a Los Angeles toy store. There he and Torque, now a UNIT agent and Sloane’s sidekick, took orders from The Director (Dan O’Herlihy, held over from the unaired pilot movie) and used gadgetry designed by cute lab assistant Kelly (Karen Purcill). They also received constant field information and advice from “Effie”, a talking computer with the voice of Michele Carey (Elvis’ leading lady in LIVE A LITTLE, LOVE A LITTLE).

Like Conrad’s previous series, THE WILD WILD WEST, Sloane tackled a wide range of kinky baddies, including Roddy McDowall as a terrorist with a robot army, Robert Culp as a cosmetics entrepreneur plotting to take over the world by sending out gorgeous models to murder prominent men with their “kisses of death”, Richard Lynch as a master of disguise and Dennis Cole as a 100-year-old Nazi meddling with cloning. Nearly every episode featured at least one prominent guest star--Eric Braeden, Edie Adams, Monte Markham, Clive Revill (the villain in T.R. SLOANE), Michael Pataki--as well as several sexy women for Conrad to canoodle with. Jo Ann Harris, the striking star of the Quinn Martin series MOST WANTED, appeared in the final episode, “The Shangri-La Syndrome”, which was directed by Conrad and is probably SLOANE’s weakest hour.

It was all pretty silly, of course, but definitely watchable. Conrad’s physicality led to plenty of nifty stunts, chases and fights, and QM spared few expenses in whittling together colorful if cliched plots, sets, guest stars and location shootings. The camera loved Cumbuka, who purportedly didn’t get along with Conrad, but was certainly a striking figure blessed with the neat gimmick of a steel hand that could wield various tools and weapons like a radio transmitter, laser, saw, drill or screwdriver. Some felt Conrad, a rugged man of action, was miscast as a suave secret agent, but I think he’s just fine and has pretty good rapport with Cumbuka.

A MAN CALLED SLOANE began the 1979 fall season with decent ratings, knocking CBS’ PARIS, a Steven Bochco cop show starring James Earl Jones, off the air and spurring ABC to shift HART TO HART to another night. But when ABC shifted FANTASY ISLAND from Friday to anchor its hit Saturday lineup, which included THE LOVE BOAT, SLOANE’s number was up. NBC cancelled the series after just twelve episodes. Conrad continued to star regularly in TV-movies throughout the 1980’s, although he may be as quickly remembered today for his notorious temper tantrum on the first BATTLE OF THE NETWORK STARS, which led to him getting smoked in a 100-yard dash by none other than Gabriel Kaplan!

By the way, NBC eventually dusted off that T.R. SLOANE pilot and aired it in 1981, more than a year after A MAN CALLED SLOANE’s cancellation, as DEATH RAY 2000. This young 13-year-old couldn’t have been the only viewer that night who was confused to see Robert Logan in Conrad’s old role opposite Dan O’Herlihy…and Torque as the heavy!

Posted by Marty at 4:52 PM CDT
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Friday, September 16, 2005
Trees Made Of Glass
Now Playing: THRESHOLD
So far, the new fall television season has been surprisingly good. I've sampled three new series so far, and I enjoyed all three. I've already written about PRISON BREAK in this previous post, which continues to slowly piece together its intricate puzzle of a plot. Unlike LOST, which has garnered inexplicable acclaim, PRISON BREAK's story is actually going someplace, as each episode finds its hero making progress towards his goal of rescuing his brother from death row and escaping from the penitentiary.

THRESHOLD premiered tonight with a two-hour pilot on CBS. Its expensive production values and name cast made it look almost like a feature film; in fact, its action scenes and visual effects put it on about the same level as a decently produced direct-to-video thriller, although its script was tighter than exploitation movies tend to have.

The networks are covered in genre shows this fall, jumping on the supernatural bandwagon started by LOST's success. For some reason, DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES hasn't spawned a gaggle of shows about bitchy middle-aged women, but every network has at least a couple of shows about spooks, monsters, space aliens or paranormal phenomena. THRESHOLD may well turn out to be the best of them.

Carla Gugino, the sexy actress who sparkled as the lead in ABC's late, lamented KAREN SISCO and brought an adult sensuality to the juvenile comic-book fantasy SIN CITY, stars in THRESHOLD as Molly Caffrey, a government contingency expert who concocts emergency plans for nearly any catastrophic event, from the melting of the polar ice caps to an alien invasion. Turns out that last one may have actually happened when a Navy ship is bombarded with unusual sounds and lights from a four-dimensional spacecraft that turns its crew first mad and then dead. Only the first mate (William Mapother, last seen as a psychopath on LOST) survives, and he's not exactly himself, shrugging off several bullets and a fall into the drink 80 miles from shore.

Deputy National Security Advisor Baylock (Charles S. Dutton) rounds up Molly and her crew, which includes Cavanaugh (Brian Van Holt), a soldier; forensic scientist and '60s radical Fenway (Brent Spiner from STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION); lingustics expert Ramsey (Peter Dinklage), a dwarf; and nerdy physicist Pegg (Rob Benedict). The supporting cast is what makes THRESHOLD really stand out so far. Instead of filling the screen with young hotties, CBS has assembled a cast of actors who not only look unlike almost every other show that makes its police squadrooms look like a GQ shoot, but who also actually look as though they can do their characters' jobs. No one believed Rachel Nichols as an FBI agent and serial killer chaser in Fox's ridiculous THE INSIDE or Evangeline Lilly as LOST's improbably able bank robber and fugitive, but there's no question that Brent Spiner, for one, inhabits his fussy doctor entirely. For that matter, Gugino, beautiful though she is, proved in KAREN SISCO that she can project vulnerability, intelligence and strength, as well as sex appeal, and is entirely convincing commanding her band of government-sponsored alien hunters.

The premiere contained plenty of shocks, special effects, chases and gun battles to complement its intriguing story, which opens the door to future THRESHOLD adventures. One interesting twist is that Caffrey's bunch are essentially prisoners of the U.S. government, or at the very least material witnesses. In order to keep a lid on the possible extraterrestrial sightings, Baylock orders that the Threshold group be under surveillance at all times, to the point of having their phones bugged, and prevents them from rejoining the outside world as much as possible. This leads to understandable fear and frustration, particularly from Fenway, whose presumed experience with civil unrest during the late 1960's makes him not particularly trustful of Baylock.

I also appreciated that THRESHOLD put the title of the episode, "Trees Made of Glass" on-screen at the beginning of the show, a practice that used to be ubiquitous, but is now rarely done.

The other series that premiered this week that I really thought was fun is SUPERNATURAL, which represents the first WB series I've ever seen in that network's history. It's basically THE X-FILES Meets ROUTE 66, as two brothers cruise around the country in a classic sports car pursuing monsters and ghosts.

The opener, directed by David Nutter, the networks' go-to guy when making pilots (MILLENNIUM, TARZAN, JACK & BOBBY, WITHOUT A TRACE and many more), casts Jared Padalecki (GILMORE GIRLS) as Sam Winchester, a bright young Stanford student with an improbably hot girlfriend and a free ride to law school. That is, until his older brother Dean (Jensen Ackles from DAWSON'S CREEK and SMALLVILLE) breaks into his house one night with the news that their father is missing. This doesn't surprise or worry Sam very much at first, considering the Winchesters' interesting backstory.

When they were very young, their father heard their mother screaming, dashed up to baby Sam's room, and found her contorted body attached to the ceiling, where she burst into spontaneous combustion, burning the house to the ground. Suspecting some sort of evil supernatural force, the Winchester men went on the run, becoming experts in tracking, weaponry and monster-fighting. In an attempt to discover what happened to their mother, Sam and Dean spent their childhood following their father all over the country, investigating mysterious deaths and paranormal sightings. The interesting conceit is that Sam and Dean know ghosts and monsters are for real, and even though Sam has left the fold to tackle a normal life, concern for his father's safety, as well as an ingrained sense of adventure, lure him to a small California town, where the Winchester patriarch disappeared while apparently investigating the murders of several men by a sexy apparition in a white wedding dress.

The pilot ended on a note as downbeat as it was suspenseful, providing Sam with a believable incentive to chuck law school and accompany Dean to Colorado, their father's destination. Presumably, the brothers won't find Pop for awhile, as they drive around helping strangers FUGITIVE-style and singeing a few creatures in the process.

The dialogue occasionally stooped to tiring, ironic BUFFY-style cracks, and the two leads are too distractingly cute (par for the WB's course), but Ackles and Padalecki are certainly convincing as brothers, and Nutter packed enough style and shocks into the opener to lure me back for the next episode.

INVASION, SURFACE, THE NIGHT STALKER and GHOST WHISPERER are other new fall series with a basis in science fiction and horror, but they'll have to be pretty darn good to stack up next to SUPERNATURAL and THRESHOLD.

Posted by Marty at 11:29 PM CDT
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Thursday, September 15, 2005
A Futuristic Playground

If you think QUARK was a shortlived science fiction series, you should know about BEYOND WESTWORLD. This CBS sequel to MGM’s hit film WESTWORLD lasted just three episodes before it was cancelled in March 1980. Only five hour-long episodes were filmed; I’m don‘t believe the other two have ever been seen publicly.

The 1973 film WESTWORLD was based on a novel by its director, Michael Crichton. Still a well-known author with books like JURASSIC PARK and CONGO under his belt, in the early 1970’s, Crichton gained awareness among film fans when THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, based on one of his books, became a hit movie. Crichton was not particularly pleased with the way Hollywood treated his work, so he demanded a chance to direct. His directorial debut was a made-for-television offering called PURSUIT (1972), a thriller based on a novel he penned under the name “John Lange”, which starred Ben Gazzara as a government agent who has only a few hours to find a homemade nerve gas bomb built by paranoiac E.G. Marshall and dismantle it in time.

MGM must have liked PURSUIT, because they then allowed Crichton to adapt his WESTWORLD for the screen. A forerunner to JURASSIC PARK, WESTWORLD is also about an amusement park gone berserk. In Westworld, visitors dress up in costumes and live out their western fantasies with incredibly realistic robot gunfighters, bartenders, prostitutes, etc. The robots are designed to serve the customer's every whim, but a black-clad robot gunfighter (Yul Brynner) goes haywire and attempts to kill city boys James Brolin and Richard Benjamin for real. The budget was low, but the level of imagination was high, and WESTWORLD was successful enough at the box office to warrant a 1976 sequel titled FUTUREWORLD. Crichton had nothing to do with this American International Pictures release, which starred Peter Fonda as a nosy reporter investigating a plot by evil scientist John P. Ryan (IT’S ALIVE) to use robot duplicates of prominent officials to conquer the world.

BEYOND WESTWORLD’s pilot opens mere hours after the climax of WESTWORLD. Even though the events of FUTUREWORLD are ignored in the series, its premise of a madman using the robots as doubles in an effort to rule the world was recycled by series creator and executive producer Lou Shaw (QUINCY, M.E.). In “Westworld Destroyed”, the Delos Corporation, the conglomerate that built Westworld, calls in its security chief, John Moore (Jim McMullan), to investigate the mechanical catastrophe with the gunfighter and other robots that led to several deaths. McMullan was a reasonably familiar TV leading man who had starred as a helicopter cop with Dirk Benedict in the shortlived 1974 series CHOPPER ONE.

His nemesis in BEYOND WESTWORLD was portrayed by James Wainwright, another TV actor who had played the lead in a detective series, JIGSAW, but specialized in playing rough-around-the-edges heavies. Simon Quaid (Wainwright) is the genius who created Westworld’s robots, but when he discovered Delos was using his creations as expensive theme-park toys, he caused the western ‘bots to malfunction and stole hundreds of them to use as loyal assistants in his bid to make the Earth a better place by destroying it. In the pilot, he even builds a robot rattlesnake (!) that he uses in a clever attempt to destroy Moore.

This scene illustrates one of BEYOND WESTWORLD’s biggest flaws: the robots are too easy to kill. Director Ted Post does a pretty nice job with the scene, which is set in an isolated desert cabin where Quaid has taken the captured Moore to find out how much he knows about Quaid’s operation. He leaves Moore alone with the mechanical reptile, which is loaded with venom and is many times stronger and faster than a real snake. Moore manages to dodge it a few times, but one strike is so forceful that it smashes partially through the cabin wall, where Moore is able to grab it and shove it into a light bulb socket, causing the robot snake to electrocute itself. Even though the robots are supposed to be much stronger and heavier than humans, Moore routinely beats them up and pushes them off great heights.

In “My Brother’s Keeper”, the second episode (which may also be the show’s best), lovely Connie Sellecca joins the regular cast as Pamela Williams, Moore’s sidekick. Sellecca was just coming off a shortlived (there’s that word again) CBS series called FLYING HIGH, where she, Kathryn Witt and Pat Klous played stewardesses who got into all kinds of wild adventures. It’s good for her that BEYOND WESTWORLD was also a failure, as a year later she was co-starring with William Katt and Robert Culp in THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO, likely the show she’s best known for today. William Jordan, who starred in the unusual Jack Webb series PROJECT UFO, was another regular, playing Dr. Oppenheimer, Quaid’s partner in creating the Delos robots.

The series never did nail down one other regular role, that of Quaid’s chief assistant. Three different characters and actors played this role in the five episodes, and it was never explained what happened to each of them. Stewart Moss, who starred in THE BAT PEOPLE, a bad horror film produced by Lou Shaw, played Quaid’s number-one guy in the pilot, but Second City veteran Severn Darden showed up in “My Brother’s Keeper” and the last show to be telecast, “Sound of Terror”. It was cool to see Russell Johnson--the beloved Professor from GILLIGAN’S ISLAND--by Wainwright’s side in the final two episodes; unfortunately, CBS cancelled the series before they could air.

With STAR TREK alumni Fred Freiberger and John Meredyth Lucas wearing producer hats on BEYOND WESTWORLD, you might expect it to live up to that SF classic, but it never does. Thankfully, it does boast CBS’ typically high production values with plenty of location shooting, sharp cinematography, decent special effects and guest stars from TV’s A-list. Actors appearing in the five shows include Denny Miller, Christopher Connelly, Jack Carter, Rene Auberjonois, Ronee Blakely, Monte Markham, Hari Rhodes, Judy Pace, Martin Kove, Julie Sommars, Christine Belford, Michael Pataki, Robert Alda, George Takei and Michael Cole. That’s a helluva lot of talent for a television series with scripts that weren’t up to the level of its actors. In just the second episode, Shaw and director Rod Holcomb had Sellecca both dressed as a cheerleader and meeting her evil robot twin, two tried-and-true TV cliches. “Sound of Terror”, the last to air, found Moore and Pamela digging into which member of a hit rock band (which, of course, sounded lousy) was a robot double planning to blow up a nuclear power plant. “The Lion” put Moore behind the wheel of a racecar after his NASCAR legend buddy (THE MOD SQUAD’s Michael Cole) became paralyzed in a crash caused by one of Quaid’s robots. The formula was already getting stale by the fifth show, “Takeover”, which starred Monte Markham as a police lieutenant who is given a robot chip during a cranial operation and is brainwashed into becoming an assassin for Quaid.

CBS cancelled the series so quickly that, obviously, no finale was produced. That means Simon Quaid and his robots are still out there, orchestrating the takedown of society for Quaid’s own selfish purposes. Let’s hope Delos and John Moore are still interfering.

Posted by Marty at 11:22 PM CDT
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Tuesday, September 13, 2005
May The Source Be With You
Now Playing: QUARK

Here’s a show you may not have heard of. No one does it anymore, but it used to be that the major television networks used the summer season to burn off their busted pilots. These were shows that the networks had paid for, but decided not to turn into a series. So, among a sea of reruns, movies, specials and MONDAY NIGHT BASEBALL on ABC, it wouldn’t be that unusual to see one episode of a show that you would never see again. Since these were pilots the networks chose not to buy, it isn’t surprising that most of them weren’t very good, but every once in awhile, you’d see something not quite like anything else on the schedule.

On May 7, 1977, NBC filled a half-hour with a pilot called QUARK. It was a situation comedy shot with a single camera, unusual since most sitcoms of the era, like HAPPY DAYS and ALL IN THE FAMILY, were filmed with three cameras before a live studio audience. I don’t know what the ratings were for QUARK that night, but it undoubtedly wouldn’t have mattered to NBC anyway. They were just burning off inventory in a dead 30-minute time slot.

Eighteen days later, STAR WARS opened theatrically across the United States, and Hollywood would forever be changed. And among the more insignificant changes was QUARK’s status of busted pilot to regular series.

There can be little doubt that QUARK never would have become a series if not for STAR WARS’ unprecedented box-office success. Science fiction had long been regarded as a dead genre; there had been few successful SF film or television projects in many years, as hard as it may be to believe today. But after the summer of ‘77, sci-fi was everywhere--major studio blockbusters, low-budget independents, even TV shows. BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, which debuted on ABC in the fall of 1978, was the most obvious TV benefactor of STAR WARS’ success, but QUARK got there first.

STAR TREK meets GET SMART is a good way to describe QUARK. The pilot, as written by noted humorist Buck Henry (who also co-created GET SMART with Mel Brooks) and directed by 1776 helmer Peter H. Hunt, cast Richard Benjamin, a talented comic actor (THE SUNSHINE BOYS) whose previous TV experience had been with his wife Paula Prentiss in the critically acclaimed but low-rated sitcom HE & SHE (1967-68), as Adam Quark, the commander of a small spaceship belonging to the United Galactic Sanitation Patrol. Yep, a garbage scow. Among his crew were Gene/Jean, a “transmute” with both male and female chromosomes, portrayed by up-and-coming comic Tim Thomerson (now a very familiar face to fans of exploitation movies); Betty and Betty (Cyb and Tricia Barnstable), a pair of sexy engineers, one of whom was a clone, although neither would cop to it; and Andy (Bobby Porter), a clunky-looking, cowardly robot that would turn on the crew in a second in order to save his metal hide. When QUARK returned to NBC as a weekly series in February 1978, there was a new crew member: Ficus, the “Spock” of the cast, an unemotional plant prone to pontification and long-winded explanations. The crew received its garbage pickup assignments from Quark’s boss, Otto Palindrome (heh), played by Conrad Janis, and his boss, a giant floating cranium known only as The Head (Alan Caillou).

The pilot that aired in 1977 really isn’t very good. It’s less spoofy and less manic than the series that followed, despite its Buck Henry teleplay. Henry appears to have not been involved in the series, which received much acclaim from critics who adored its mixture of slapstick and wit, but few viewers in its Friday night timeslot just before C.P.O. SHARKEY, a mildly successful sitcom starring Don Rickles as a Chief Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy. The writing staff obviously boned up on STAR TREK reruns, drawing many of their plots from that ‘60s series. In “The Old and the Beautiful”, Quark is stricken with a disease that prematurely ages him, much as the U.S.S. Enterprise crew did in the TREK episode “The Deadly Years”. TREK’s “Shore Leave” inspired “Goodbye, Palombus” (a spoof of Benjamin’s movie GOODBYE, COLUMBUS), where Quark and his crew investigate a paradise planet where whatever you wish for comes true.

The best episode is the first shot and aired after the pilot, “May the Source Be With You”. It ran one hour and managed to pack a bit of adventure into its comedy package. The universe is threatened by an evil race known as the Gorgon, and only Quark and his intergalactic garbagemen can stop them. Quark’s secret weapon is “The Source”, an omnipotent force with the voice of Hans Conried that imbues him with mysterious powers. The problem is that the Source only works if Quark fully believes in it, but the Source’s absentmindedness and bumbling doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence. The Head Gorgon was portrayed by the great Henry Silva, a charismatic actor who played hundreds of heavies in Hollywood, but I don’t recall him ever appearing in another sitcom. Projecting a perfect note of comic menace, Silva threatens the galaxy’s safety while wearing a silly helmet that may have gotten him the gig a year later as Killer Kane, Princess Ardala’s sinister chief of staff in BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY. “May the Source Be With You”, directed by veteran Hy Averback from a clever teleplay by Bruce Zacharias (REVENGE OF THE NERDS), is full of funny quips and nifty sight gags, like the scene in which a blinded Quark must rely on the Source’s guidance to rescue Ficus from a pair of Gorgon torturers.

Another good episode is “All the Emperor’s Quasi-Norms”, a two-parter in which Ross Martin (THE WILD WILD WEST) guest-stars as Zargon the Malevolent, another evil dictator searching for a super-weapon with which to destroy the galaxy. His beautiful daughter (a pre-KNOTS LANDING Joan Van Ark) falls for Ficus, who schools her in an alien method of lovemaking (“Beebeebeebeeebeeeeebeeeee…”), and Gene and Andy disguise themselves as scientific lecturers.

The numbers weren’t there for QUARK, and NBC cancelled it after just nine episodes were shot. Except for occasional airings on the defunct Ha! cable network, which eventually merged with The Comedy Channel to form Comedy Central in the early 1990’s, QUARK has not been seen since. A DVD release of these episodes would be welcome, though you can’t really say it’s likely. Sony would appear to be the owners of the show, since it swallowed Columbia/Tri-Star, which has put out a few dramas on DVD, like CHARLIE’S ANGELS and T.J. HOOKER, but I don’t know if they’ve done any sitcoms. QUARK would be perfect for a DVD release, and if there’s a market for obscure ‘70s sitcoms like THAT’S MY MAMA and WHAT’S HAPPENING, it seems as though an audience for QUARK could be out there too.

Posted by Marty at 10:13 PM CDT
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