Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The channel's the same, but the name isn't

Back in July, NBC-Universal rebranded the 17 year old Sci-Fi Channel as Syfy, hoping to keep the channel relevant to the youth demographic advertisers supposedly covet more than anything. It was a cosmetic change, nothing more. The network's content remains the same. Cheesy direct-to-video horror movies, ECW, and original series like Ghost Hunters and Scare Tactics. The latter, now hosted by actor-comedian Tracy Morgan (30 Rock) begins a new season on Oct. 6, and is Syfy's answer to Punk'd and all of the other prank shows inspired by Candid Camera.

Earlier this week, Nickelodeon decided to give itself a bit of a facelift. Gone is the splotch logo that has been Nick's trademark for 30 years. In its place is a trade dress logo that is also used on sister networks Nick, Jr. (formerly Noggin) and Teen Nick (formerly The N). Again, they're cosmetic changes, in this case to better identify the channels, as the content remains the same.

At the same time, MTV Networks, which owns the Nick trilogy, also changed BET-J (formerly BET Jazz) to Centric. This change, on the surface, is more than cosmetic, such that certain cable providers have not been given the channel's current program schedule. Instead, all they give is a steady stream of "To be announced" listings. This should last through the end of the week at the very least. BET-J played some of the same R & B and hip-hop videos that sister network BET does, plus reruns of shows such as The Montel Williams Show and Judge Karen. I am not sure if Centric will maintain the same lineup or make wholesale changes in order to distinguish itself from BET.

Meanwhile, while it hasn't changed its name----yet----Cartoon Network might be inclined to do just that, given how it's integrated live-action programming into their schedule the last couple of years. Their Adult Swim division has run repeats of Pee-Wee's Playhouse and Saved by the Bell, the latter to help sister network TBS with their contract. CN, meanwhile, experimented with original programming, but Out of Jimmy's Head fell victim to the writer's strike of 2007-8 and was cancelled, and the much ballyhooed "CN Real" block hasn't performed as well as hoped. And, yet, CN suits insist on forging ahead, ignoring the pleas of long time viewers who'd rather see the channel adhere to its mission statement.

Back to MTV Networks. MTV itself plays mostly reality TV reruns, be it their own or repurposed from either their sister networks (i.e. VH1, CMT) or elsewhere, confining music videos to morning hours. If you want your video fix, you have to basically go to their website, which is the only way they can justify continuing their Video Music Awards every September. The 16th annual edition elicited some controversy earlier this month, but it would generate more buzz if the suits actually gave a rat's tail and reversed course. MTV, and for that matter, VH1 & CMT, have become shells of their old selves because of the corporate obsession over using reality shows to get ratings. In time, reality TV will become irrelevant again, and then, the suits will have heavy decisions to make. Those decisions have to be the right ones, as far as the viewers are concerned, because they're the ones who matter the most, not the ratings and ad dollars generated. It's time these clueless executives learned that basic tenet, before it's too late.

Dick Durock (1937-2009)

It has come to my attention that actor-stuntman Dick Durock, best known for bringing the DC Comics character Swamp Thing to life in 2 movies and a fairly successful TV series, passed away on Sept. 17 from pancreatic cancer at 72. Durock also worked on several other films, including "Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze" with Ron Ely (1975), and made guest appearances on shows like "The Incredible Hulk".

I am not sure if Durock had too many acting or stunt jobs after Swamp Thing ended its TV run. The fact that his passing went under-reported speaks to how his work has been largely forgotten by the mainstream. Otherwise, there might've been a Swamp Thing marathon by now, on either Syfy or Chiller.

Rest in peace, Dick. You will be missed.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

On DVD: "The New Adventures of Superman" (1966)

Filmation Associates went from being a small, independent studio to major players in the Saturday morning ratings race with their initial network entry, The New Adventures of Superman, which premiered on CBS in 1966. It wasn't until I was a teenager seeing these cartoons in syndication that I finally found an appreciation for the series.

Producers Norm Prescott & Lou Scheimer and director Hal Sutherland had previously worked with Larry Harmon (Bozo the Clown) during his run at King Features producing Popeye shorts earlier in the 60's, then spun off and started their own company, bringing some of the same animators with them. It wasn't until recently that I discovered that Superman wasn't their first series. That would be the short-lived Rod Rocket a couple of years earlier.

Anyway, Filmation reassembled the radio cast of Adventures of Superman, with Bud Collyer (To Tell The Truth) as Superman & his alter-ego, Clark Kent; Joan Alexander as Lois Lane, and Jackson Beck (Bluto/Brutus in the Popeye series) as the narrator and some supporting characters. Jack Grimes (Speed Racer) was the voice of Jimmy Olsen.

The upside:

Classic Superman foes like Brainiac, Lex Luthor, & Toyman were the most prominent villains, along with the made-for-TV foe, the Wicked Warlock. That made New Adventures a significant upgrade from its live-action precursor of a decade earlier.

The downside:

Luthor, for some reason, was given a gruff, slightly accented voice (presumably Jackson Beck), unlike his later animated incarnations. It just didn't have the right kind of menace to match the character. Also, Filmation's notorious use of rotoscoping is evident in every short.

The DVD I have only covers the 1st season, as a sort of preview of the larger, complete series volume also available. Joan Alexander left the series after the 1st season, paralleling the casting change in the live-action series (Phyllis Coates left after 1 season, with Noel Neill taking over). Due to legal issues, the Superboy backup feature isn't included, even though the closing credits remain intact.

Rating: A-.

Edit: 4/11/14: Here's the open everyone knows:


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Old time radio: Pat Novak For Hire (1946)

A few months back, I ordered a 2-CD set of Pat Novak For Hire from Radio Spirits. The hook is its star, Jack Webb, better known of course for Dragnet. Earlier today I pulled Novak off my shelf and played the set again.

If you've ever wondered how Webb perfected the hard-boiled detective persona he would further cultivate on radio & television as Sgt. Joe Friday in Dragnet, Novak is a good place to start. Pat Novak makes most of his living renting fishing boats in San Francisco, but, like most gumshoes of the era, like Philip Marlowe & Sam Spade, Novak gets tangled up in one murder after another, and has to deal with an ornery police detective, in this case Inspector Hellman (a pre-Perry Mason Raymond Burr). In the grand tradition of Spade, Marlowe, et al, Novak fires off some choice putdowns of Hellman (example: "You couldn't smell a rat in a basement full of cheese!") that aren't meant to be funny, but I do find them amusing.

It's a pity Webb didn't create or obtain the rights to Pat Novak himself, as this might've been a worthy TV entry. It still could be, transposed to modern times if need be. However, with the oversaturation of the CSI & Law & Order franchises on the air today, Pat Novak would be considered an anachronism, out of place in today's television universe.

Worth noting is the fact that actress Virginia Gregg, who played virtually all of the female characters on Novak, would become part of Webb's repertory company, making frequent appearances on Dragnet & Adam-12, among others.

Rating: A.

Updated, 9/23/13: I've added the episode, "Go Away, Dixie Gillian". Webb originated the role on a regional broadcast in 1946.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Can politics & wrestling come together?

11 years ago, former pro wrestler-actor Jesse Ventura was elected Governor of Minnesota, running as an independent. Ventura opted not to run for re-election, and has become an author and outspoken political pundit since. He wasn't the first wrestler to try to run for public office, but he, because of his national celebrity status, proved that success was possible.

In the last couple of months alone, we've heard about no less than three wrestling personalities making bids for political office. The least known of the three is Austin Idol, better known as the "Universal Heartthrob" in his heyday during the 80's. Idol is making a bid to run for mayor of his hometown of Tampa, where a lot of current and former wrestlers currently are based. Idol's run won't be for at least another year, and it hinges on what happens elsewhere first.

Jerry "The King" Lawler is making his 2nd bid for mayor of his hometown, Memphis, where he is as much a cultural icon as that other "King", Elvis Presley. Lawler last attempted to run 20 years ago, and lost, well before he signed on with the WWE, where he has been a commentator and part-time wrestler since 1993, save for a 10 month hiatus in 2001. While Lawler is still an active performer, wrestling mostly in the Tennessee area, he knows that the curtain is slowly drawing closed on his competitive career. This may be his last chance to make a greater social impact.

Speaking of the WWE, that brings us to Linda McMahon, who on Wednesday announced her bid for the US Senate from her home state of Connecticut. Mrs. McMahon, who was appointed to the Connecticut Board of Education earlier this year, has resigned her post as Chief Executive Officer of WWE, a position that her husband, Vince, has assumed in addition to his role as Chairman of the Board, at least in the short term. Of the three, Mrs. McMahon has the best chance of succeeding, largely because she has, for the most part, stayed far away from the fray in the WWE, save for those occasions where Vince has, shall we say, signed her up for hazard duty.

But consider also the warped, frenzied imagination of Vince McMahon, who has a habit of expressing his disgust if things don't go his way via lame comedy skits on Monday Night Raw. Back in June, he hired a California ring announcer to impersonate Denver Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke in order to embarrass Kroenke for bumping Raw out of Denver's Pepsi Center in favor of the NBA playoffs. Kroenke had the last laugh that night, as Denver beat the Lakers while McMahon played human chess on Raw, dressing 10 of his wrestlers in knockoff Laker & Nugget jerseys, and having his "Lakers" win the main event. What if Linda fails in her bid for the Senate? What if she doesn't become the highest profile junior Senator this side of Hillary Clinton? Internet fans are already speculating, based on some of Vince's wackier stunts. They don't paint a pretty picture, and neither does reality. Lawler, to his credit, has kept his political aspirations separate from his WWE duties, largely because he is only aiming at the regional level.

But if Mrs. McMahon does succeed, she may find a kindred spirit in Washington in the form of a former amateur wrestler who became a Senator from Minnesota earlier this year. Fella by the name of Al Franken. He knows first-hand how difficult it is to transition from one occupation (Franken being a former comic and radio personality) to another under a large media microscope. In the very least, when WWE does relaunch its "Smackdown Your Vote" campaign next year, it'll have a vested interest more than ever. And it may be their only chance.

Some say wrestling and politics are a lot alike. The only real difference is that politics is more like a reality show than wrestling pretends to be.

Henry Gibson (1935-2009) & Mary Travers (1936-2009)

As Ivan Shreve wrote on his Thrilling Days of Yesteryear blog, the Grim Reaper must be working overtime this week. On the heels of Patrick Swayze's passing on Tuesday, we said goodbye on Wednesday to two icons of the 60's.

Henry Gibson was the poet laureate of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, carrying a large flower as he read his poems. Fortunately, he wasn't typecast in that role. Prior to Laugh-In, Gibson appeared with the Three Stooges & Adam West in "The Outlaws is Coming" (1965), but is better remembered for his post-Laugh-In work, including films such as "The Blues Brothers" (1980), the animated musical "Charlotte's Web" (1973), "Nashville" (1975), and "The Incredible Shrinking Woman", the latter two reuniting Gibson with fellow Laugh-In alumnus Lily Tomlin. Gibson's other television credits included guest appearances on shows as diverse as F-Troop, The Dukes of Hazzard, and, most recently, Boston Legal. Gibson was 73.

Mary Travers, 72, was 1/3 of the folk trio Peter, Paul, & Mary. Even though Travers, Peter Yarrow, & Noel "Paul" Stookey split in the early 70's, they would reunite periodically, usually at the beck & call of PBS for pledge drive concert specials, it seems. Peter, Paul, & Mary's biggest hits were the children's classic, "Puff, the Magic Dragon", and the John Denver-penned #1 hit, "Leaving on a Jet Plane". Mary passed away after a lengthy battle with lukemia.

We'll see how many "classic oldies" radio stations pull out some Peter, Paul, & Mary tracks over the next few days in tribute. Rest in peace, Henry & Mary. You will be missed.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Patrick Swayze (1952-2009)

He was given just a few months to live, or so we were told, when Patrick Swayze was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a year and a half ago. Today, Swayze lost his battle with the disease at age 57.

Swayze will be best remembered for a string of hit films between 1987 and 1991, including "Dirty Dancing", "Ghost", and "Point Break". Swayze also co-wrote and recorded the song, "She's Like The Wind", for the "Dirty Dancing" soundtrack, and recorded a track for the "Road House" soundtrack a year later. Swayze transitioned to television last season in A & E's The Beast, which was not renewed despite respectable (for cable) ratings.

Swayze also starred in the mid-80's miniseries, North & South. Doubtlessly, there will be references to either "Ghost" or "Dirty Dancing" in mass media articles in the next week, including the predictable tabloid coverage.

Heaven just got a dance teacher. Rest in peace, Patrick.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A mind wasted is a terrible thing

On August 23, Jeff Hardy lost the WWE World championship to CM Punk. Two nights later, after taping WWE Friday Night Smackdown for broadcast later in the week, Hardy ended his 2nd tour of duty with WWE by losing a cage match to Punk. After a promo that hinted at a possible future return, Hardy was blindsided on the stage by Punk, which suggested that Hardy would return sometime in the next year, perhaps as early as Wrestlemania 26 in March.

As of September 11, however, that picture has been erased. Hardy was arrested by sheriff's deputies in his home in North Carolina. What was the problem? Drugs. The very thing that was at the center of his feud with Punk, and before that, with Edge, who was forever ripping Hardy as a screwup and failure in TV promos. Hardy has been accused of not only possession, but drug trafficking. They found Vicodin, Somas, and some anabolic steroids in the Hardy house, all of this coming 2 weeks after his last match. Reports have stated that there had been an investigation while Hardy was still under contract to WWE, and if Hardy knew about it, this might explain his reluctance to sign a new deal with the company, choosing instead to let his last deal expire on August 25. He might have been aware the law was closing in, and didn't want to have the company involved. That much is just speculation on the part of this writer.

On television, Punk, who had been turned heel to feud with Hardy, was trying to convince the audience that his straight-edge ways would be a sort of cure for their ills, going so far as to refer to the daredevil Hardy as the "Charismatic Enabler", a play on "Charismatic Enigma", the nickname Hardy picked up while with TNA a few years ago. Punk dusted off Nancy Reagan's "Just say NO!" campaign from the 80's, but was met with derision and boos. In the saddest of ironies, one of Punk's promos vs. Hardy was so frighteningly prophetic, in which he said Hardy, presented as a "recovering addict", would backslide into drug use, effectively sabotaging his own career in the process. As fate would have it, and not even Punk and the creative team realized this at the time, it turns out the current champion was right.

Only in the twisted bizarro world of WWE could this possibly happen. A "recovering addict" is hailed as a hero, flaws and all, and a man who was a friend, trying to lead him away from his "demons", is considered a villain for "trying to do the right thing". The chances of Hardy returning to WWE now are minute at best. I would venture to guess that if he does end up serving jail time----and that does seem increasingly likely----his career is effectively over at age 32. The case already has garnered some national attention, covered initially by TMZ on television and on its website, and other outlets have picked up the trail. It would be a long time, well into the next decade, I'd suspect, before Hardy next enters a wrestling ring.

Larry Gelbart (1928-2009)

Larry Gelbart is best remembered for having written or co-written films like "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and "Tootsie", and, of course, brought M*A*S*H to television all the way back in 1972, and we all know how that became a television icon.

Gelbart passed away Friday from cancer at 81. He started his career as a writer for Sid Caesar on Your Show of Shows, back in television's Golden Age, and has been hailed as one of the greatest----and funniest---writers of all time. Thanks for the memories, Larry. You will be missed.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

In the Boombox, volume 1

Before I went to work this morning, I put my Walkman and some cassettes into my duffel bag, so I'd have something to listen to on the bus going to and from my job. Today, I popped in a 1996 Southern Gospel tape, "I Love to Tell The Story". The artist may be a surprise to some of you. No less an icon---in television moreso than music---than Andy Griffith.

I remember seeing commercials promoting the album--or at least one along the same line--via mail order. I tried to picture in my mind Griffith covering traditional hymns like "Sweet Hour of Prayer" and "How Great Thou Art". I played the tape, and it was, dare I say it, a revelation. Griffith's rendition of "How Great" is up there with Tennessee Ernie Ford, for example, a highlight of the set.

Most of Griffith's albums back in the day were culled from his stand-up comedy routines, but I'm not sure if there was any music mixed in. Not only that, but on his self-titled sitcom in the 60's, Griffith was known to pull out a guitar to do some pickin' at the end of an episode every now and then, most notably jamming with the "Darling family", a group of guest actors, including a pre-Dukes of Hazzard Denver Pyle, whose characters were also a jug band. I think he also slipped in some guitar playing on Matlock during its run. While Griffith still does some acting periodically, I'd not be surprised to find him turning up on TBN somewhere down the road. As for the album? It's a treasure.

Dancing into Idolatry

Fox took the "Help wanted" sign off the judges' table on American Idol earlier today with the announcement that Emmy winning actress-talk show host Ellen DeGeneres would take over for Paula Abdul when Idol returns for its 9th season in January.

Ellen seems to be everywhere these days. Her talk show is about to start a new season, she's got an endorsement deal with Procter & Gamble (Cover Girl---who'd have thought?), and now she gets to verbally spar with Simon Cowell on a weekly basis for 5 months. Nice work when you can get it.

Idol resurrected Paula Abdul's career, although the single she released several months back, produced by Idol judge Randy Jackson (no relation to you-know-who), didn't go very far. What being on Idol does for Ellen is one important thing. Leverage on her biggest rival, Oprah Winfrey, in the form of possible exclusive interviews with Idol finalists as they're eliminated during the competition, which in turn will generate larger-than-normal ratings during the 5 months Idol is on the air. It only makes a hot commodity that much hotter.

Weep not for Paula, however. Reports have her hosting a VH1 "Divas Live" concert special, something the network hasn't done in a few years. After that, well.......you don't suppose Vince McMahon might be calling?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Icon & the Twit

More than 40 years ago, Andy Warhol postulated that "everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes". In some respects, that's true, but some of the ones getting their time in the sun now have no idea that their time has run out.

This is certainly true of Tila "Tequila" Nguyen, former MTV reality show starlet, who was back in the news over Labor Day weekend, claiming that she was being choked by San Diego Chargers star Shawne Merriman. Early reports assumed that Nguyen was Merriman's girlfriend. That is not the case. Nguyen, according to Merriman's lawyer, was intoxicated and Merriman was trying to help her. To paraphrase Barry Manilow, some kind of friend she turned out to be.

Even though her MTV series, A Shot of Love, was cancelled after 2 seasons, Nguyen is making sure she stays near the celebrity radar by indulging, some say excessively, in the popular social networks like Twitter and Facebook. She's getting her side of the story out, however skewed it might turn out to be. Merriman, on the other hand, now has to deal with this distraction as he prepares to return to action after missing most of the '08 season with an injury. This time, his comeback could be curtailed if the NFL's Marshal Dillon, Commissioner Roger Goodell, decides to sit Merriman down for a few games in light of the criminal charges brought against him. We'll just wait and see, but we already know who stands to benefit the most from this drama, and it's Nguyen, gaining sympathy points while she plots her comeback.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the fame spectrum, game show legend Bob Barker was lured out of retirement to emcee WWE Monday Night Raw on Labor Day. Barker, promoting his autobiography, "Priceless Memories", was introduced to a loud, lengthy standing ovation by the fans in Chicago. Barker, 85, retired from The Price is Right 2 years ago, but the show was built around Price anyway, just as it could again down the road if current Price host Drew Carey, is brought in for a similar gig.

There was a point, though, where Barker's age became a factor, as he couldn't immediately discern the conclusion of one particular match while still on stage. That should come as a warning sign to WWE Chairman Vince McMahon, 64, that his own time as a viable presence in the WWE is nearing an end. Whereas McMahon at present needn't worry about his eyesight, it's the mind's eye that would be of greater concern. Back to Barker. He appeared to be legitimately flattered and happy with the reception he got, and did his level best to keep his segments from dragging too far off point. Not quite the best guest host Raw's had so far (that would be Shaquille O'Neal), but pretty close.

The difference between the legendary Barker and the attention-starved Nguyen couldn't be more obvious. Nguyen wants to stay in the spotlight, even though MTV is unwilling to enable her any further. Barker, doubtlessly, will hit the talk show circuit to plug his book, and then return to the quiet of retirement. The odd thing is, most casual viewers didn't realize that Barker, who'd made a return visit to Price last year, was still alive. It's not that Barker had been forgotten, it's that his retirement didn't require any unnecessary fanfare, and when he passed the torch, shall we say, to Drew Carey, he walked off gently into the sunset, content. Would that today's generation of instant celebrities would learn from his example.