Monday, October 15, 2012

TONIGHT'S DVD REVIEW: Big John Little John: The Complete Series (Fabulous Films/VCI, 10/2/12)

(All images courtesy Fabulous Films/VCI)
SYNOPSIS: When John Martin (Herb Edelman) takes his wife, Marjorie (Joyce Bulifant), and son, Ricky (Mike Darnell), on a summer vacation to Ponce de Leon Park in Florida, the science teacher accidentally drinks water from the legendary Fountain of Youth. Sometime after returning to his job at Madison Junior High School, the water works its magic, transforming the forty-something-year-old man* into a younger version of himself at age twelve (Robbie Rist), but only in how he looks and talks (usually). As he labors to find a cure for his affliction, John must cover up his unpredictable changes from big to small (and vice versa) by passing off his youthful form as his visiting nephew, a.k.a. "Little John". Marjorie and Ricky help to keep his secret under wraps from people like John's students Homer (Kristoff St. John), Valerie (Cari Anne Warder) and Stanley (Stephen Cassidy), as well as the school principal, Miss Bertha Bottomly (Olive Dunbar). From there, chaos and shenanigans ensue.

BACKGROUND: BJLJ was produced during the 1970s, when a revived interest in live action shows for Saturday morning was rampant on the three major TV networks (ABC, CBS and NBC), primarily due to a backlash begun in the late '60s by parents, educators and psychologists (like Dr. Fredric Wertham) against the dominance of cartoons (violent or otherwise) on their schedules. With few exceptions, most of the live action shows didn't last beyond one season, but that didn't deter producers from making more, as long as there was a demand for them. So it went that Sherwood Schwartz, creator of  the popular, kid-friendly The Brady Bunch and Gilligan's Island, took a shot at a Saturday morning series.

Herb Edelman

One interesting anecdote I remember reading a while back about the short-lived Saturday morning program Big John Little John (NBC 1976-1977) stated co-creator/executive producer Sherwood Schwartz had developed the series for child star Robbie Rist as an "apology" of sorts for the unexpected cancellation of his hit sitcom The Brady Bunch in 1974. Back then, Robbie had been added on as Cousin Oliver in a desperate measure to inject some fresh youth into the show since the six Brady kids were no longer young or cute, but his inclusion (recognized by the burned-out writers as a mistake after the first "Oliver" story was in the can) didn't save it from getting the ax. Two years later, Sherwood and his son, Lloyd, created BJLJ, giving Robbie a crack at a potential TV smash.

Some apology.

Okay, it's too easy to criticize a '70s low-budget kids' show, but while other ones of the era manage to transcend their frugality (such as Isis and The Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle Show), BJLJ is bogged down by it. Despite having a premise tailor-made for kids and an agreeable ensemble of actors, BJLJ is a cheap, superficial series with a few laughs and not much else. (In my opinion, if Sherwood did the show in the 1960s, the show may have had a better chance at longevity. He certainly would've had enough money behind it to pull off the concept better than how it turned out in '76.)

Homer's backyard, complete with shadows cast on the blue sky.

How cheap is it? Visually, the show looks rough due to the fact episodes were videotaped and then transferred to film, but that's the least of its woes. There's some tacky set construction, lumbering staging, crude editing and even poor lighting--POOR LIGHTING! (I can't hardly recall ever seeing any TV show that wasn't, at least, well lit until I reacquainted myself with BJLJ.) If the comedy was more frequent, these technicalities could be overlooked, but as the gags often come at a slow pace, they distract the viewer unnecessarily. After working on sitcoms that had substantial budgets, BJLJ was like a step backward for Sherwood and company, especially with having to adapt to new technology (video cameras) and being restricted to what appears to be very limited studio space.

Whereas GI and TBB had a finely-crafted balance of comedy, characterization and good storytelling that made them easily accessible to children (then and now), BJLJ makes the mistake of oversimplifying the scripts for the Saturday morning target audience, undermining many good story ideas with thin dialogue, clunky humor and the stretching of comic logic beyond its limits. Sherwood and Lloyd may have done this to appease NBC's Standards and Practices division; in the process, they pulled back too much, and such restraint really neuters the comedy somewhat.

Robbie Rist
The cast members try their best to make the slight material work with mixed results. At times, there are even brief moments when reliable actors like Herb Edelman, Joyce Bulifant, Olive Dunbar and Robbie Rist display (I swear) actual exasperation on their faces as they say something or do a bit of shtick they know isn't funny. Importantly, because they aren't totally committed to their roles, it's hard to warm up to any of the characters, which is a death sentence to a sitcom. Again, this inconsistency in the acting may be related to the budget  (a tight shooting schedule where retakes were rare), but this can't be confirmed. I'll also guess the veteran actors signed on to the series as a favor for Sherwood because of a connection they had with him (e.g., Joyce was once a contender for Carol Brady), as I can't envision anyone but a starving actor auditioning for the show after reading one script.

left to right: Kristoff St. John and Cari Anne Warder
BJLJ isn't a total loss, even if most of the stories don't have good payoffs. Highlights include "Peter Panic", with Big John cast in the school play as Captain Hook...and Little John as Peter Pan; "Very Little John", where Marjorie and Rick believe a baby left in John's care is John in an even younger state; and "Big Scare, Little Scare", where John's students think the Crabtree mansion is haunted, but John and Miss Bottomly are skeptical. However, the best episode is "Abracadabra" (written by David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams), in which aspiring magician Homer is convinced he changed Little John into Big John. Here, like in the other shows, future soap star Kristoff St. John is a scene-stealer as Homer. (It's evident the writers like him, so he's given some choice quips to say, and his buoyant personality enables him to roll with the punches when he has less dynamic lines to recite.)

The 2-DVD set from Fabulous Films (a UK company) was initially available only as an import in 2009, the US release left in a legal limbo until VCI picked up the distribution rights just this year. The video, advertised as "fully restored", isn't quite that, but it looks sort of clean, the picture quality ranging from very good to fair, sometimes from one scene to the next. The audio is in its original mono, which occasionally gets noisy during loud passages, but it's never diabolical. Among the "special features", a show synopsis and an episode guide are also found in the packaging of the DVD case, which leaves a stills gallery as the only true bonus item, and it's a skimpy one. There are no subtitles or closed captioning for the hard of hearing.

Herb Edelman and Joyce Bulifant

BJLJ has the unique distinction of being the first Sherwood Schwartz "flop" series to make it to DVD, but it also may be the one which could've been left in the vault and not missed at all. Whatever warmth I once had for the program dimmed as I watched it again through older eyes. To me, the unintentional laughs now outnumber the intentional ones; others are bound to get more of a nostalgic buzz from it. If you have children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews five years of age or younger, it's an okay show you can watch with them, but they will outgrow it quickly. It's safe for a rental; buy it at your own risk.

POST SCRIPT:  Despite the failure of BJLJ, Sherwood Schwartz's subsequent projects for NBC did bear fruit. In 1978, the first of three Gilligan's Island reunion movies aired (one of those a failed pilot for a new show), followed by The Brady Girls Get Married movie and its spin-off series, The Brady Brides.


Cobweb TV! ranking for Big John, Little John: The Complete Series--


(DC Comics/Warner Home Video)

Keeping it trivial....


* - The catchy theme song has John's age at forty. One episode says he's forty-five. Herb Edelman was forty-two when BJLJ was produced.

Friday, July 13, 2012

TONIGHT'S EPISODE: I have been waiting SO long for this! However....

Jackson Bostwick as Captain Marvel #1. (DC Comics/Warner Home Video)
THE first of Filmation's live-action Saturday morning TV shows is the last to be reissued on a (legit) DVD collection. On July 11, the news came out Warner Archive has Shazam! The Complete Series (a three-disc, Made On Demand set retailing for $34.95) slated to be released on September 17, and they're taking pre-orders for it now. A few weeks later, Amazon will then have it available on a wider scale going beyond US borders.

Original TV Guide listing. (Google images)
When I first got the early indications this was coming out for real (thank you,, I was about as excited as I was when the show originally premiered in September 1974. Back then (when I wasn't so old), as much as I liked watching reruns of things like The Adventures of Superman or Batman, somehow, the imminent arrival of Shazam! (CBS, 1974-1977) felt like a happening, my little mind fueled by those "provocative" commercials for the program CBS kept showing in the time leading up to its debut. Once its first episode was broadcast, I was hooked. To me, Captain Marvel was awesome, and actor Jackson Bostwick looked enough like the comic book character I knew I would be tuning in again and again. Of course, I liked Billy Batson (Michael Gray) and Mentor (Les Tremayne), too, but the good captain was the guy I eagerly awaited to arrive and add needed excitement to the weekly melodramas with the morals tacked onto the end.

 Isis and Captain Marvel #2. (Google images)
Once Bostwick (as I later found out) was unfairly kicked off the series and hastily replaced with John Davey, I know I wasn't the only one disappointed with the change. Compared to Bostwick, Davey looked somewhat doughy (especially during some of the flying sequences when his gut tended to hang out a bit over his yellow belt), but I begrudgingly came to consider him okay. I think it took the crossover shows he did with the foxy super heroine Isis (JoAnna Cameron) to help do so; if she "accepted" him as Captain Marvel, so could I. At any rate, it took three TV seasons to bring forth a mere 28 episodes (not counting the Captain's appearances on Isis) before Shazam! was finally cancelled, though its reruns did air one more time in 1978 before disappearing into the realm of Cobweb TV for several years.

But it wasn't completely gone. Somebody was shrewd enough to actually invest money, time and effort in taping those '78 reruns, and once the VHS era of home video was at full throttle, it was only a matter of time before Shazam! could be had by fans on bootleg tapes. I was one of those who purchased them, buying a seven-tape set of all 28 shows that cost $150.00. (Not surprisingly, the copies of the Bostwick episodes looked like they were played more than the Davey ones.) These tapes helped sustain my memories for years, as they did (no doubt) for many others.

Meanwhile, jumping ahead to the time when TV Land was still cool to watch, Shazam! resurfaced in a scattering of edited reruns. What was notably gone were the morals, which were clipped out years ago (the same thing happened to Isis), the missing film now (presumably) lost forever, though they still exist through the bootleg recordings. (As for the DVD sets of shows currently available on Jackson Bostwick's website, since they are billed as having the "End Tags," I presume the episodes are taken from the old videos. If anybody knows exactly what these DVDs are sourced from, please drop me a line in the comments.)

(DC Comics/Warner Home Video)
Which leads to me to why I have a slight reservation about buying this new Shazam! set. Look at its cover: it says "The Complete Series." What a Shazam! fan considers "complete" may be different than how Warner decides to interpret the word on this compilation. In a perfect DVD world, this collection would have all 28 episodes, plus the Isis crossovers, uncut and digitally remastered from original film prints. However, if the bonus Shazam! disc found in the third season Wonder Woman set (which featured "The Joy Riders") can be considered a fair preview of what's to come on STCS, then don't expect it to be really complete. If the main stories survive intact, that's better than nothing at all, and I think this is how Warner will define "complete." In addition, since this is a MOD product, bonus features of any kind are nonexistent, if not ultra-rare; so it goes I don't see Warner bothering to license the Isis crossover shows from Classic Media. At least, if [what remains of] these episodes get the sound and picture noticeably enhanced like more recent Warner Archive TV shows have been, that will be good enough for most Shazam! fans. Otherwise, by labeling it as "complete," Warner will inevitably upset some people with what will be an incomplete set.

Actually, the misleading packaging isn't a real concern to me: it's the discs themselves. I've read of how MOD discs sometimes have playback issues in certain DVD players, so this investment of mine brings with it the risk the discs won't work in either of my two players, which may mean getting a new one. (Holy moley!) Fortunately, I've been setting aside money for this Shazam! set, so I can afford to take this hit in my wallet, including (if need be) a new player. I'm optimistic I'll have no problems

Sometime in late September, be sure to tune into Cobweb TV! when the box set will be reviewed by yours truly, R.A.M.'67. I'm looking forward to it....

(Google images)


(Fabulous Films/VCI)
Keeping it trivial....


Sunday, May 27, 2012

TONIGHT'S PILOT: [The] Police Story - "Stakeout," starring Vic Morrow, Edward Asner, Diane Baker and Chuck Connors. Directed by William Graham.

(All images courtesy Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, unless noted otherwise.) 

OF all the genres creators of prospective new TV series have pitched to cable or broadcast networks, the hardest sell must be the anthology, which is why there weren't very many in the era of Cobweb TV. Because anthologies typically have no (or few) regular cast members, the kind of stories the creator(s) wish to show from week to week a week had better be attention-grabbing to programming executives, or it won't get green-lighted to the pilot stage.

Vic Morrow
In the case of Police Story (NBC, 1973-1978), it helped it was the brainchild of best-selling author Joseph Wambaugh (The New Centurions, The Blue Knight), who also happened to be a member of the LAPD at the time. He conceived PS as a crime drama that was part character study and part police procedural, depicting a variety of flawed individuals as they worked in law enforcement. To make the stories "gritty" and "authentic" (two words often used to describe the show) like his novels, the series' writers would have input from actual cops for script ideas and in the writing of same. To further draw viewers in, a "who's who" of veteran actors (along with rising stars and promising newcomers) would be utilized as guest-stars in each episode.

So it went NBC was sold on PS...nearly. Risky of a venture as it was (even if  the grittiness was watered down for '70s television), they decided to air the pilot as a TV movie, more or less leaving it up to Nielsen families to decide if it should be a regular series. On 3/20/73, "Stakeout" was broadcast, and TV critics and viewers paid attention, much to NBC's delight.

Chuck Connors
The primary action in "Stakeout" revolves around a special police unit who goes after problematic felons, their latest quarry being the tall, imposing Slow Boy (Chuck Connors). In-between moments of investigation, surveillence and pursuit, we get a glimpse of how working on the squad is taking a toll on the life of Sgt. Joe LaFreida (Vic Morrow). He's been divorced for a few years, and his superior, Lt. Dave Blodgett (Ed Asner), thinks lack of companionship may be affecting his work. As luck would have it, he soon meets Jenny Dale (Diane Baker), though it's under the most awkward of circumstances.

Chuck Connors and Diane Baker
Thanks to a lead from their regular tipster, Gonzales (Sandy Baron), the squad stops Big Boy and his accomplices from robbing a grocery store, but it doesn't go smoothly as he briefly takes Jenny as a hostage. LaFreida, armed with a shotgun, makes him surrender through bluffing to shoot him. Of course, she had no idea LaFreida was bluffing, so she expresses anger at his perfunctory apology, even calling him a "pig." A day later, a remorseful LaFreida tracks her down and gives a more thoughtful apology, and though their exchange gets heated again, Jenny comes around to understanding why he handled the situation the way he did. Eventually, they have dinner together and become a couple.

Vic Morrow and Ed Asner
Meanwhile, with his trial pending, Big Boy's out of jail on bail. Based on his history, the felony detail figures it's only a matter of time before he tries to commit another crime. Desperate to get him off the street, LaFreida tries to nab him by having Sgt. Solly Piccolini (Harry Guardino) pose as a wealthy man in hopes Big Boy may be attracted to the notion of robbing him or burglarizing his mansion (a "loaner" the unit has access to). Blodgett gets wind of this, and knowing the ruse would be seen as entrapment by any court, brings the sting to a halt and chews out LaFreida.

Sandy Baron
The monitoring of Big Boy's movements continues on, and one night, after several days of behaving, he calls in a false alarm that gets the cops watching him out of his hair long enough so he can slip out of his residence unseen. In short order, he kills Gonzales for being a snitch and schemes to attempt the robbery of another grocery store. Coincidentally, a prostitute LaFreida has befriended winds up spending the night with Big Boy, and when she hears about the upcoming heist, she tips him off. The night the caper's scheduled to go down, the squad quietly waits in the store for Big Boy's arrival. He doesn't fail to disappoint them....

Vic Morrow and Ina Balin

Generally speaking, as realism hit motion pictures in the 1960s, so it would on TV, but it took longer to find a foothold. Attempts at showing edginess and the human side of the police on cop shows were tried prior to PS (ABC's N.Y.P.D. is one example that comes to mind), but I think it took the success of The French Connection (1971) to spark network interest in trying out a newer breed of crime drama. (It also helped viewers were beginning to embrace realism by making All in the Family a hit, which also debuted in '71.) With PS, the innovations of showing cops making mistakes and living lives beyond the police station on a weekly basis were ones gradually incorporated into other crime series in the years ahead.

Harry Guardino and Kim Hamilton
Smartly directed by William Graham (who went on to helm the 1980 Emmy-nominated TV movie Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones), "Stakeout" is only dated by the era in which it was filmed. Today, a lot of E. Jack Newman's script comes across as formulaic after the fact, when compared to those of more recent crime dramas (in fact, some of it seems cliched by '70s standards), but it still works because the screenplay has good structure, good characterizations and a suitable (if predictable) ending.The one part I find fault with is the subplot where Piccolini, who had previously stated he still hates black people after six months of lectures in community relations, changes his tune after talking with a black policewoman (Kim Hamilton) who's selected to pose as his date when he goes undercover as the rich man; the conclusion is implied, but the outcome still doesn't ring true. Aside from this misstep, the story held my attention, from the quiet moments to the action-packed ones.

After the script, "Stakeout" stays compelling through great acting, which you don't always get in a pilot, but considering the involvement of Wambaugh, the actors evidently brought their "A game" to the production.

Vic Morrow and Diane Baker
I'm sure any actor could've played LaFreida, but if somebody else did, I think the pilot would never have sold, that's how important Vic Morrow is to the success of "Stakeout." His energy propels the narrative along, and in turn, the enthusiasm he has for the material seems to have rubbed off on his fellow thespians, to positive results. At times, you swear he's acting without acting, and you believe him, even if his dialogue is lacking in four-letter words. As one of the best character actors of his day who should've been a bigger star than he was, Morrow never fails to disappoint me, so my discovery of his work in "Stakeout" was time (and money) well spent.

left to right: Vic Morrow, John Bennett
Perry, Chuck Connors and Diane Baker
Unlike the cops on the felony squad, there are no nuances to the character of Big Boy, so Chuck Connors doesn't have to do much except be a bad-ass, but he does it well without overplaying the part. He even gets to do some stunt work, showing he was in pretty good shape for a guy (then) in his early fifties. Best of all, having the six-foot-five Connors get taken down a peg by the five-foot-nine Morrow makes for a fun variation of David versus Goliath.

To be fair, Ed Asner's performance as Blodgett doesn't seem much different than his portrayal of Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (and Lou Grant), but by being off the screen for all the time he is, he's believable enough as a lawman when he is on. Then again, playing a boss and yelling at his subordinates is something Asner can do in his sleep.

Barbara Rhoades
As for the rest of the ensemble, standouts include Diane Baker as Jenny (she and Morrow have great chemistry together as their relationship evolves from hostile to romantic); David Doyle as an assistant DA; Ina Balin as LaFreida's ex-wife; Sandy Baron as Gonzales; Ralph Meeker as the deputy police chief, and Harry Guardino, Mel Scott and John Bennett Perry as members of the special unit. Hands down, the biggest surprise in casting is Barbara Rhoades (best known for playing Sheldon Leonard's girlfriend on the Sanford & Son three-part "The Hawaiian Connection") in an atypical role as Gonzales' girlfriend; looking anything but glamorous, she displays a range in her acting I never knew she possessed. (I am now in awe of this lady.)

(Shout! Factory)
"Stakeout" is included as a bonus feature on Shout! Factory's  Police Story Season One DVD set. (For whatever reason, the movie is called "Slow Boy" in Shout's packaging but not on the actual film.) Audio quality is fine, while the video is erratic from show to show, but as a whole, they look and sound better than the reruns shown on A&E in the '90s. For the inaugural season, the majority of episodes are winners, including Morrow's second (and last) appearance in the two-part "Countdown" (where the Mob tries to kill LaFreida) and "The Gamble," starring Angie Dickinson in what became the spin-off pilot to Police Woman. The other bonus feature of note is a new interview with Joseph Wambaugh.

Kevin Dobson

One more point of trivia about "Stakeout": there's a cameo by Kevin Dobson as a patrolman. Twelve days prior to the airing of "Stakeout," the TV movie The Marcus-Nelson Murders premiered. Subsequently, it became the pilot for Kojak, which Dobson joined as a cast member months later.


Cobweb TV! ranking for "Stakeout": three and a half stars (out of four).
Cobweb TV! ranking for Police Story Season One: three stars.


(DC Comics)

Keeping it trivial....


Monday, April 9, 2012

TONIGHT'S EPISODE: The short journey that is revisiting Trading Spaces on DVD....

Home Made Simple publicity shot of Paige Davis.
(Procter & Gamble Broadcasting, LLC)

AFTER recently watching Paige Davis on OWN's Home Made Simple, her return to the world of home improvement/lifestyle shows makes me feel nostalgic for Trading Spaces (TLC, 2000-2008). There was more to TS than learning tips on how to redecorate a room cheaply; for those who really got into the show, it was a happening. Week after week, viewers would eagerly await their favorite designers and carpenters (in addition to Paige). They wondered what the two house-trading couples would be like and how they'd got along with TS gang. Most of all, there was always the suspense over if the homeowners would like or loathe their altered rooms. Exactly how they would react wasn't always predictable, and some of the outcomes made for riveting television...on TLC, that is. Since I wasn't one of those TV preservationists who recorded a ton of TS episodes on my VCR when it was originally on (I'm certain I have a few shows on two VHS tapes in a box somewhere), the only way I'm able to reexperience the series now is through the TS DVDs that were released between '03-'08.

The TS Alex set. (Amazon)
I missed out on my first opportunity to get the DVDs because they were gone from the stores long after I got my first DVD player in late 2008. (I'd get a computer a year later.) I could've bought a disc while they were still available, in anticipation of (inevitably) getting a player, but they were expensive, so I had to pass. Jumping ahead to this past February (after seeing HMS), I resumed my search, locating my first TS DVD ($4.99) at a local Barnes & Noble. Satisfied with my purchase, I followed up with a look on Amazon and found more of them there. Remarkably, whether I wanted new or used copies, the other DVDs were all very affordable at substantial discounts, so I wound up buying all new ones. Within two weeks, I got six of the seven DVD sets. (I'm saving for the rare five-disc compilation featuring five episodes with original TS host Alex McLeod, who reigned during the inaugural season. For a used copy, $50 is rather pricey.)

Since I know the TS completists got all the DVDs years ago, for those who'd like a sampling of TS in their video collection, here's a quick rundown of the six sets, along with my recommendations of which ones may be worth your time and money:

(Google images)
The Very Best of Trading Spaces (Artisan, 3/18/03)
Designers and Carpenters: (see cover)
It was the first TS DVD, arriving during Paige's second year on the show when it began to catch fire around the country. To read the Amazon feedback on it, many were disappointed it had no complete episodes; instead, it consists primarily of clips showcasing the TS crew, homeowners, reveals (loved and hated), bloopers, etc. Despite the fact TS was nominated for a Daytime Emmy when Alex was hosting, she is left out of the mix, including getting no mention in a text history of the show. Bear in mind Alex had her fans (she even taped commercials for TLC where she introduced her successor to fans); that TLC decided to completely ignore her contributions to TS on this disc was rude, if not mean. If you enjoy endlessly looking at video fragments, you will love this; if you don't, pass on this clip job.

Viewers' Choice! and They Hated It! (Artisan, both 4/22/03)
Designers: Doug Wilson, Frank Bielec, Laurie Hickson Smith, Genevieve Gorder, and Vern Yip
Carpenters: Ty Pennington and Amy Wynn Pastor
With these, TLC attempted to appease those clamoring for uncut shows. THI has two, and VC has four, featuring designer Doug Wilson's notorious Seattle living room redesign where he covered up the homeowners' fireplace, bringing the lady of the house to tears. The Seattle show would've been better suited to the THI set, but TLC wanted to sell DVDs; so it goes the contents of THI are tame, compared to the fallout after the reveal of Doug's handiwork. (Actually, the couple only hated the concealment of the fireplace, and Doug, to his credit, made sure the cover over it could be easily removed if they wished to do so.) As VC initially retailed for about $35, its new affordability makes it a must have, especially if you desire the Seattle episode.

Great Kitchen Designs and More! and Creative Home Decor with Designer Doug Wilson (Sony, both 4/26/05)
Designers: Vern, Genevieve, Christi Proctor, Laurie, Hildi Santo Tomas, Frank, Doug, Barry Wood, Edward Walker and Kia Steve Dickerson
Carpenters: Ty, Amy and Carter Oosterhouse
These were immediately notable for packaging that made them seem more like authentic "how to" DVDs. GKDAM has five shows with madeover kitchens, and CHDwDDW has five with an emphasis of Doug in action. Of the two, the keeper is CHDwDDW as it contains the Tampa episode where Doug and Hildi make due without a carpenter.

The Specials (Genius, 3/4/08)
Designers: Frank, Hildi, Doug, Frank, Laura Day, Laurie, Genevieve, Barry, Kia, Edward, Christi and Jon Laymon
Carpenters: Amy, Faber Dewar, and Carter
Additional Host: Joe Farrell (on "Through the Roof")
The last DVD (what I bought at B&N) is a mixed bag and the most interesting of all the TS compilations. First, the title is slightly misleading because this is a sampling of TS specials. Next, two of them are Paige-less, the result of her departure from the series during the fifth season. (TLC claimed it was a cost-saving measure, while evidence suggests an incident involving Paige playfully flashing her behind while wearing a thong, which was captured by a tabloid photographer, led to her dismissal. Paige and TLC denied this was why she left.) Then, "Through the Roof" is a longer episode where all the designers and carpenters then on the show, plus Paige and Joe Farrell (host of Trading Spaces: Family, the forgotten spin-off) worked on rooms with $10,000 budgets. Finally, there's "Trading Castles", my personal favorite of all the specials, where rooms are transformed at two castles in Scotland. If you're among the many who changed the channel once Paige was gone, you might want to pass on this disc due to the non-Paige stuff, but I say with the majority of the program containing her (counting the bonus feature "Unglued"), the anomalies are manageable.

BONUS-- Changing Rooms: Trust Me... I'm a Designer (BBC/Warner Brothers, 3/2/04)
Host: Carol Smillie
Designers: Oliver Heath, Lynda Barker, Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, Graham Wynne, Anna Ryder Richardson and Laura McCree
Carpenter: "Handy" Andy Kane
To anyone who watched the show that inspired TS, Changing Rooms (BBC, 1996-2004), when it ran on BBC America around the same time TS was prospering, you might want to check this disc out as well. It's just a broadcast clip show (67 minutes) plus an hour of bonus material, but it's better assembled than TVBoTS. If you liked the TS guest appearances of "Handy" Andy, Anna and Lawrence, you've got another rationalization for buying it. I remember enjoying CR (especially if the foxy Anna was on) as much as I did TS, and that made my getting a copy of this a no-brainer. It's also the sole CR DVD release, so don't wait too long before buying one because it, too, can now be had cheaply.

TOP SELECTIONS (listed in order of importance):
1) Viewers' Choice!
2) The Specials
3) Creative Home Decor with Designer Doug Wilson

Whether you get one or all three, you really can't go wrong with any of these.

Looking back, it could be said TLC screwed up on reissuing TS on DVD. Many have said they should've put out full season box sets. Because of the unique setup of the series, however, I believe a quagmire of rights and clearances (with regards to the participating families and major advertisers) is preventing such a occurrence from becoming reality. Besides, I don't even think there's enough interest in TS this will make it to an "on demand" DVD-R release. It's best to live with what did get released, or if you are one of those who filled several videotapes with nothing but TS, transfer those suckers to DVDs before VCRs become obsolete!

As for Paige, we at Cobweb TV! wish her continued success on HMS; so far, six months after her premiere, she's still around.


Keeping it trivial....


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

TONIGHT'S EPISODE: 1001 Individuals More Memorable than Charlie Sheen.... #99 - Joanna Pettet!

Many apologies for the extended delay, caused by working on my other Blogger page. Intervals between posts shall be shorter from now on....

What you are about to read is a continuation of a feature found on that other blog, but here, the entries will focus on celebrities better known through their work on Cobweb TV. This series serves to remind us of the two simplest reasons why Charlie Sheen (and his ego) was never worth all the money he asked for (and got) while appearing on Two and a Half Men (CBS, 2003-present):

1) There are better performers who can act circles around the guy. (He hasn't had a real acting challenge in years.)

2) Sometimes, hiring a jerk to play a jerk on TV makes them an even bigger jerk.

The people to be profiled here are (or were) good actors and actresses with none (or little) of the hangups Sheen now basks in, and their body of quality Cobweb TV work outpaces Sheen's best work on TV and motion pictures combined. Also, they (more often than not) give great performances at a fraction of the cost Sheen squeezed out of those saps at Warner Brothers Television. (To Sheen's credit, after months of constantly being in the media spotlight, he appears to have calmed some and is currently keeping a lower profile.)

Joanna on Banacek (All Banacek images courtesy NBCUniversal.)

THANKS to the DVD format, one of my favorite Cobweb TV actresses I've had the pleasure to catch up with is the underrated Joanna Pettet. If one considers she (basically) went from an aspiring career in movies to TV, one would think there was something wrong with her. Watching her act in both, however, I feel she consistently delivered good performances, regardless of the scripts. From a visual standpoint, she had a slim, refined (almost regal) beauty made for being seen on a big screen, and once she began appearing on the small screen with regularity, Cobweb TV was more than graced with her presence.

(Google images)
Born in London, England during the Second World War, Joanna eventually came to relocate in the US to study a variation of Method acting with Stanford Meisner. Her first professional acting jobs began with roles on Broadway and TV (debuting on an episode of Route 66 in 1964), but it took being discovered by director Sidney Lumet for his movie The Group (1966) to make her the proverbial household name.

As "Mata Bond" in Casino Royale. (Google images)

Other movie roles followed; the one most familiar to many will be the spy spoof Casino Royale (1967). Though it ranked third among the top moneymakers at the US box office that year, reviewers criticized it for being the troubled, excessive production it was. (CR's reputation would be redeemed some by the passage of time and the Austin Powers movies.) Included in the advertising blitz that helped sell the movie was a Playboy pictorial featuring Joanna.

Despite being featured in such a big hit, film roles began to lessen in frequency around the time she married actor Alex Cord (and gave birth to a son, Damien) in 1968. Fortunately, her TV work began to pick up at the close of the decade into the 1970s. One of my favorite TV guest shots of hers around this time was on the 1972 Night Gallery segment "The Caterpillar", featuring Laurence Harvey as the ill-fated recipient of the title character. (She did four NG storys in total, one where she co-starred with Alex.)

Joanna kept active from the '70s through the '80s, guest starring on shows ranging from Banacek to Murder, She Wrote, even becoming a (temporary) series regular on nine episodes of Knot's Landing. She also starred in TV movies (Pioneer Woman, Winner Take All, The Return of Frank Cannon), a miniseries (Captains and the Kings), Hollywood Squares and even an ABC Afterschool Special (her last TV work, according to IMDb).

Joanna with Alan Bates in 2003. (Google images)
During those busy years, Joanna's life took some tough hits. Her friend, Sharon Tate, was murdered in her home on August 8, 1969, by followers of Charles Manson hours after having lunch there with Joanna and another woman. In 1989, she got divorced from Alex Cord after 21 years. A year later, she retired from acting after a bad experience while filming a movie (for Roger Corman) in the Philippines. In 1995, her son's death by a heroin overdose drove her into isolation for years. This retreat was interrupted when she became the travelling companion of her dying friend, actor Alan Bates, until he passed on from cancer in 2003. As of this date, she is believed to be living in California, still in retirement.

(Shout! Factory)
As for recent Joanna sightings on "TV on DVD" collections, you'll find her on the fifth season of Mannix (released 7/5/11) and the second season of Police Woman (released 2/7/12). In the months ahead, watch for her in the third (and final) season of Night Gallery (arriving 4/10/12). Also, since Shout! Factory has picked up the rights to the remaining seasons of Fantasy Island (the second season arriving 5/8/12), it's likely her three appearances on there will all be available for home viewing soon. (If anybody knows of any other upcoming DVDs with her I've overlooked, please let me know here at Cobweb TV! by a comment. Thank you!)

In closing, let's enjoy some more screen captures from Joanna's appearance on the Banacek episode "Project Phoenix"!

With George Peppard

THE END (Love those patches!)


(Discovery Communications, Inc.)

Keeping it trivial....


Tuesday, October 18, 2011


Joseph Kearns. (All images courtesy Hank Ketcham Enterprises, Inc.
and Shout! Factory LLC, unless noted otherwise.)

THERE is absolutely no way the sitcom Dennis the Menace (CBS, 1959-1963) affected the course of TV history whatsoever. The adaptation of Hank Ketcham's comic strip was so faithful to the original source (except for the dog, Fremont), it inevitably had more comedy than depth. It was one among many, many series produced by Screen Gems (the TV division of Columbia Pictures) in a way similar to manufacturing automobiles in Detroit. It wasn't a monster hit, it never got nominated for an Emmy, and what success it had eventually came to complicate the life of star Jay North. (Don't think for a moment I wrote all of this to intentionally annoy anybody who really enjoys the series. It just needs to be discussed in the proper perspective. Be thankful I'm not diving into the "hornet's nest" of how Mr. Wilson's nerve tonic probably had alcohol content in it, like cough medicine used to. With Dennis around, you know he had a lot of nerve tonic, and you can guess what resulted from that.)

With those facts established, I'll go on to say I'm partial to the show. At its best, a typical episode is guaranteed to have a steady run of belly laughs and a calvacade of talented character actors (including one of my favorites, Mary Wickes) who participated in each story. If DtM is like a car from off an assembly line, it was a well made product people are still interested in long after the last one came out in '63. Best of all, the show didn't overstay its welcome, though it had to stop at four years due to the aging of the juvenile cast members and a dip in the TV ratings. While North has had a rough go of adulthood, a pall doesn't hang over my enjoyment of DtM because back then, his troubles had yet to manifest, and he was a professional (albeit young) actor who always gave those who tuned in what they wanted: the hell-raising (by TV standards) Dennis Mitchell, who also loved his family and friends. No more, no less. (You want a more complex, emotional kid? Try "Beaver" Cleaver.)

P.S. - The slingshot
wouldn't be around long. 
Almost seventeen years after I last saw reruns of DtM on Nickelodeon, they began airing on Antenna TV this past January. Even better, Shout! Factory caught me off guard (and more than a few steady viewers of Cobweb TV) with the release of season one of DtM back in March. Since then, season two came out in late July, and the remaining seasons are on their way like clockwork. (Season three has a street date of October 25, with season four arriving on January 10, 2012.) So far, the quality of the digital mastering for the episodes is very good, but it's not stunning. (To my eyes and ears, the picture and sound are only slightly improved from the Nickelodeon broadcasts.) The main selling point is all episodes are uncut. Bonus features have been limited on the two available collections, and like a lot of TV shows that have been reissued on DVD, the season one set has the most.

left to right: Stu Shostak,
Jeannie Russell and Gloria Henry
Indeed, season one is a must-have for DtM fans because of two "extras" featuring TV historian Stu Shostak talking with Gloria Henry (Alice Mitchell, Dennis's mom) and Jeannie Russell (Margaret, the arch nemesis of Dennis). Of these, I'll spotlight the shorter one recorded in 2010 on HD video (the other was done in 2007 for radio), which I watched first. For any avid follower of DtM, if they haven't heard much behind-the-scenes stories about the show in a while, one of the specific tidbits mentioned during this interview will surely stun them.

When the topic turned to talking about Joesph Kearns, forever to be remembered as the first Mr. Wilson, Russell and Henry did speak fondly of him. Along the way, there was this exchange (minor edits inserted for the sake of clarity)....

SHOSTAK: Now, did [Kearns] go on a diet, because--

HENRY: Yes, yes--

SHOSTAK: --because of the fame of the show?

HENRY: Yes, he decided he [was]... the star, so he should slim down and look more like a star, and so, he went on the diet of that-- What was that drink [powder] you [mixed] with [water]?

SHOSTAK: Metrecal.

HENRY: Metrecal, and he had that for breakfast, lunch and dinner. That's all he had for about six weeks in a row, and you can't lose that much weight, that fast, healthily. So, he had a stroke.

(Find A Grave)
All biographical profiles of Joseph Kearns I've read mention his death at 55 from a cerebral hemorrhage and don't elaborate on it. (He always looked much older than that to me.) These remarks from Gloria Henry (also brought up in the radio interview) not only explains what contributed, in part, to his early demise, it also raises questions about what Kearns was thinking when he decided to take such a risk with his body.

It was midway through the production of the third season, and all of a sudden, Kearns felt the need to drop some pounds to "look more like a star." He must have picked up on how other people did so successfully through a liquid diet, so he favored doing it the reckless way, without consulting a doctor. To observe his body on any DtM episode, it's evident he didn't measure up to Jack Lalanne, and he likely hadn't done any real physical exertion in years. So it goes that by having only Metrecal for sustenance and continuing with the same limited activity, the results took a toll on his person as he lost (according to Henry in the radio interview) 40 pounds within six weeks. Also, Henry's statements suggest more than a few of the cast and crew knew what he was up to. Why didn't somebody intervene? Was it because of his known shyness that they decided to respect his privacy?

(Google images)
As for the protein-loaded Metrecal, long after its popularity peaked in the mid-'60s, it was discovered the food substitute wasn't necessarily the best thing for people to be digesting. According to a September 7, 1986 New York Times article, by the late '70s, a health scare kicked up when "The Government forced all liquid protein products off the market after they were implicated in 59 deaths." This happened some time after the Food and Drug Administration issued warnings about Metrecal and other dietary items like it. As a result, Metrecal was soon gone from store shelves forever. Of course, for every reported fatality, there are the unreported ones; back on February 17, 1962, it's possible Metrecal helped to do in Kearns (five days after his birthday), in addition to an unidentified number of other consumers prior to the later documented fatalities. (Bear in mind there's always been controversy over protein diets in general. The debate about them is ongoing, as is the scientific research.)

We occasionally read about (or hear of) women who go to extreme measures to lose weight (real or imagined), ranging from supermodels to little girls of elementary school age. We rarely encounter the same kind of tales being told of (or by) men, but as the tragedy of Joseph Kearns serves to remind us, men can also have problems with their body image. It's sad and astonishing to consider a reliable, likeable actor like Kearns wasn't content with himself in a similar manner. (If Kearns died today, a tabloid headline might read, "Mr. Wilson: He Died to be Thin!") Most importantly, Kearns's fate was preventable, which makes his death all the more pointless. By comparison, it's as heart-wrenching stuff as any suffering Jay North has gone through. (Heck, Jay recently turned 60; so far, he's outlived Kearns by five years, and I suspect he'll live on for many more.)

(Google images)
At any rate, everyone knows the rest of the story. As the producers of DtM mourned over the loss of Kearns, they scrambled to find his replacement. A handful of episodes later, they obtained the talents of Gale Gordon, who was cast as George's brother, John, as well as Sara Seegar, who played John's wife, Eloise. For obvious reasons, the writers wrote George and Martha Wilson out of the show, having them move and John buying his brother's house. Awkwardly, Sylvia Field (Martha) was eased out of the scenario in a rush, much to the disappointment of her co-stars, who initially gave Seegar the "cold shoulder" for taking her place. (Later, they apologized to her, and Seegar understood their behavior was attributed to the passing of Kearns.) Gordon gave his all with typically fine performances from the end of the third season into the fourth, but it was all for naught; he was no Joesph Kearns. (He did resemble the comic strip Mr. Wilson more than his predecessor, however.) Combined with the maturing of the lead kid actors and declining ratings, CBS cancelled DtM, the last new episode airing July 7, 1963.

Considering people haven't stopped watching DtM fifty-plus years after its network debut, it can't be easily dismissed as a black and white antiquity from the golden age of television. There's more to it than nostalgia, but I won't deny that's the driving factor. Arguably, it's as close as television ever got to a "squeaky clean" comedy; even then, the world Dennis and company lived in wasn't perfect, but a lot of it must look good to modern audiences in these economically, politically and socially questionable times. It's best described as a weekly, watered-down version of Tom Sawyer in a modern (late '50s-early '60s) setting, as fabricated by Screen Gems. While each show was "fabricated", it was done so by writers, directors, actors and other personnel who knew their respective crafts well. Some episodes wound up working better than others, but even the worst ones have a few chuckles.

Unfortunately, the two people who contributed most to the popularity of DtM were also overwhelmed by it. The untimely death of Joseph Kearns affected Jay North deeply years after the fact. It would only be until the 1990's when North came to grips with all the pent-up emotion over the bad events that occurred in his childhood, thanks to the efforts of Jeannie Russell and Paul Petersen ("Jeff Stone" on The Donna Reed Show). As of today, it's safe to say both North and Kearns (God rest his soul) are no longer menaced by Dennis.



Keeping it trivial....