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Born Free (1966)
8/10
Enjoyable Animal Drama, Though also Mired in its Time Period
7 March 2019
Warning: Spoilers
This gentle 1966 drama, about the raising and repatriation to the wild of Elsa the Lioness by Joy and George Adamson, is an enjoyable family film -- part Disneyesque, part family drama, and partly an interesting window into the time period depicted. The Adamsons lived in the newly-independent Republic of Kenya, where George was a game warden and his wife was a painter and writer.

It's not really a spoiler to say that George unintentionally orphans three lion cubs when he kills a lioness in self-defense, leading him and his wife to decide to hand-raise the trio. Joy Adamson becomes particularly attached to the runt of the litter, whom she names Elsa after a school acquaintance, but finds it increasingly difficult to accept that she will have to part with the growing cub as she reaches maturity. And, as the saying goes, thereby hangs the rest of our tale.

Contemporary viewers, especially adults, are likely to be somewhat jarred by some aspects of the film that seem quite dated today. With one exception, the Adamsons' native staff are interchangeable figures with no role except to provide -- well, one is almost tempted to say "local color." At one point George is even referred to as "bwana," which sounds like a term one would associate with a movie of the 1930s, not the 1960s. One also wonders why the lion that attacked a woman at the beginning of the film wasn't darted and relocated to a more remote area instead of being hunted down and killed, which (one would hope) would be done today. It's important to remember, however, that although this was filmed in 1966, it's based on Joy's 1960 memoir about raising and then trying to return Elsa to the wild; that publication date confirms that these events occurred even earlier, in the mid-1950s.

Still, the most enjoyable part of the film is undoubtedly the animal antics involving the three cubs, especially when they are young and still manageable. Disney, in particular, used to spool out films reminiscent of this part of "Born Free" almost effortlessly during this same time period -- think of "Charlie, the Lonesome Cougar," "Joker, the Amiable Ocelot," or "An Otter in the Family." But any notion that this might have been a Disney film is soon dispelled -- how many Disney films, after all, depict a human killed by a lion, and two great wild animals shot to death, all in the first 10 minutes?

The two main actors nevertheless do a fine job, abetted no doubt because Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna were a real-life married couple when this was filmed. They have great chemistry together, and their relationship seems almost too good to be true; indeed, when George turns on Joy angrily at one point, it's a jarring moment because it's unlike anything that's come before.

Things were not quite so idealized between the actual couple -- although they never divorced, the real-life Adamsons drifted apart toward the last decade of their lives. And Joy (which was a nickname) was actually Austrian, not British, and one suspects that she might not have spoken with Virginia McKenna's clipped British accent. Indeed, according to this very website, the real Joy Adamson did not live up to her nickname, becoming such a problem during filming that she was banned from the film set.

The movie has an interesting legacy. During the 1970s, it became an annual "television event," almost like "The Wizard of Oz." There were several follow-up films -- some documentaries, some scripted -- based in part on later memoirs by Joy Adamson. The real Ms. Adamson, sadly, came to a bad end, as she was murdered in 1980 by a disgruntled former employee. George, too, met a violent death, killed by a poacher (although he saved a woman's life in the process). The happiest consequence were the remaining lives of Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers, who became animal activists, making other animal-related films, and trying among other things to save animals kept in appalling conditions in cheaply-run zoos. They established a foundation, named after the film, that continues their work under the direction of one of their children.
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Penelope (1966)
7/10
Delightful, if Insubstantial, Bit of Mid-Sixties Fluff
1 January 2019
Warning: Spoilers
"Penelope," a Natalie Wood vehicle from 1966, is a pleasant, breezy little film that in some ways fits into the rash of caper movies ("Topkapi," "Kaleidoscope," "Gambit," "Arabesque," etc.) that populated movie screens in the mid-1960s. While it, too, has a one-word title, it differs from those others in that it's more of a character study than a clever "howdunnit" procedural focusing on the title character and her marital relationship with her bank president husband (Ian Bannen).

It's not really spoiling anything to say that Penelope disguises herself as an old woman and makes off with a large haul of cash -- if only because that event happens in the first few minutes. She then cleverly makes her way out of the bank unrecognized, and heads directly for her psychiatrist's office, where she is undergoing heavy psychoanalysis for her kleptomania. Penelope eventually figures out that the reason she decided to knock off her husband's own bank was to get her workaholic husband's attention -- though the audience likely will have figured this long beforehand.

Penelope eventually attracts the attention of a dogged police detective played by Peter Falk. Some reviewers have suggested (after the fact of course) that this was in some ways a pilot for Falk's later role as Lt. Columbo. Falk's characterization here does have some of "Oh, excuse me, excuse me -- one more thing . . ." that came to embody his Columbo role. But no one knew that in 1966, and the pilot for the TV series was still a couple of years away -- and Columbo operated out of Los Angeles, and there's nary a rumpled raincoat nor a dilapidated car in this New York City-based motion picture. So while it's possible that the producers of the later TV series were inspired by this movie, it's likely more a coincidence than anything else.

The "twist," if one can call it that, is that eventually when Penelope decides to come clean and admit her culpability in the bank heist (and in various other thefts over the years), no one (including her hubby) will believe her -- which is also the opposite of the conceit in every episode of "Columbo," where the villain usually gets his or her comeuppance in the final scene. How she makes her way out of that little problem is the nail on which the rest of the film hangs.

In a film of this vintage, though, what's almost always as interesting is the supporting cast, all of whom are now no longer with us. In addition to Peter Falk, there's Dick Shawn as her psychiatrist, who carries his own dark secret that he's smitten with his patient (and apparently keeps his own shrink sequestered in a back room on a lifetime retainer). Those who know Ian Bannen only from his late works as a white-haired elder (in "Waking Ned Devine," "Braveheart," or "Hope and Glory") might be surprised to find him here as a dark-haired Louis Jourdan-lookalike, very much the ladykiller (which is one of the problems that Penelope has with him).

Sadly, Jonathan Winters, though fourth-billed, is wasted in a single 3-minute scene that plays more like a fantasy scene, literally kangaroo-hopping around a college classroom trying to manhandle the young Penelope, eventually tearing off her dress. Any number of unknowns could have played the part without wasting the time and talent of one of the great improvisational actors of all time.

So, what one really finds with this movie is a charming, if insubstantial, confection -- occasionally dated by the notions of its time, as when a detective watching footage of bank-robber Penelope exiting the bank notes that she has a pleasant "wiggle." She does . . . but then, it's hard to image that line of dialogue ever making its way into a motion picture today -- unless it's about the sexist attitudes of the mid-1960s. More substantial, perhaps, are the movie's two songs, the title song by Leslie Bricusse and a folk song written by Gale Garnet that's sung by Wood herself -- allowing her to demonstrate, if nothing else, that she had a lovely singing voice.
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9/10
Clever, Amusing Entry Despite the Show Being in its Final Season
1 September 2017
Warning: Spoilers
By its fifth season, one might have thought that "The Dick Van Dyke Show" would be growing tired. This was, in fact, one of the reasons that Carl Reiner announced at the end of 1964 that the fifth season would be his last. Though he had given up writing almost all of the scripts during the second and third seasons, and had even briefly passed on his producing duties to others while he was off filming "The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming," he and his two stars, Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore were all eager to do other things. The two lead actors were receiving lucrative movie offers, and Reiner wanted to become a movie director.

But despite everyone knowing that the show was coming to an end, the fifth season was still one of its best. Episodes like "The Great Petrie Fortune" allowed everyone to acknowledge that, for better or worse, "The Dick Van Dyke Show" went off the air when it was still on top, while also leaving CBS, some of show's other cast members, and its viewers wanting more.

The episode begins with one of those scenes that rarely if ever happened in real life, at least by 1965. Attorneys no longer gathered the people named as heirs by a deceased relative for a dramatic reading of the will, even though it's a staple of movies and television, whether in the Disney picture "The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin" or "The Lincoln Letter," a 1970 episode of Bill Cosby's original situation comedy. (In fact, "The Lincoln Letter," which also involves a search for a valuable heirloom, may owe something to "The Great Petrie Fortune" in several of its plot points.)

Here, the episode begins with Rob and Laura being greeted at an attorney's office by a variety of Rob's greedy, distant relatives, some of whom are disappointed that they didn't get even more valuable property than they were left by Rob's Great-Uncle Hezekiah. It's a brief showcase for some familiar character actors of that era, including Amzie Strickland and Herb Vigran.

This scene leads to one of Dick Van Dyke's chances to dip into his paint pot to actually play Uncle Hezekiah in old-age makeup, in a short movie supposedly filmed before Hezekiah's death -- borrowing a page from Van Dyke himself, when he played a very similar double-role as Mr. Dawes Senior in "Mary Poppins" to sing, "Fidelity Fiduciary Bank." The two portrayals have a lot in common, except that here Van Dyke got to keep his own hair, touched up with a little grey, instead of a bald cap with a white mop in "Poppins."

Uncle Hezekiah has left Rob (and Laura) an old roll-top desk wrapped up in a bit of mystery -- he tells Rob that he's bequeathing him "riches beyond compare" and then sings him a chorus of "Me and My Shadow" as a clue to what those "riches" might be. The rest of the episode is a series of very funny scenes of first Rob and Laura going through the desk hoping to find those "riches" but not wanting to emulate Rob's greedy relatives; then their inability to solve the mystery leads them to invite Buddy and Sally over to help with the sleuthing, though that's mostly an excuse for the two second bananas to trade one-liners.

Rose Marie gets to utter two lines that likely slip by most viewers today. First she suggests that maybe Uncle Hezzie "left you Ted Lewis," a reference to a singer and band leader (still alive in 1965) who often closed his shows with "Me and My Shadow." And then when Buddy asks, "shadow, shadow . . . what does that mean?" Sally cracks, "Lamont Cranston" and even does a little impression of The Shadow's laugh from the old-time radio show -- another joke that most viewers at the time would have understood, but almost no one today (except aficionados of old radio) would.

And then, after another false lead involving some old coins turns out to be a dead end, the show comes to its gentle climax, in which Rob and Laura solve the mystery almost without trying to. And in the process, they get a lesson in what Uncle Hezekiah really valued . . . and what a real treasure can be. And perhaps, in the process, viewers can discover another treasure here, too -- namely, "The Great Petrie Fortune" itself.
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The West Wing: Five Votes Down (1999)
Season 1, Episode 4
10/10
Sausages and Laws
24 December 2016
Warning: Spoilers
"Five Votes Down" gets "The West Wing" into the nitty-gritty of the legislative process for the first time -- but certainly not the last. In some ways, the episode's theme is revealed in the opening scene, as President Bartlet regales a supportive dinner crowd with jokes and political promises -- especially to pass gun control legislation -- while standing beneath a banner proclaiming "Practical Idealism." It's the introduction to an excellent episode that reveals much about both politics and the lives of the main characters.

While some have taken the banner behind Bartlett as a political "sliding scale" -- that sometimes one must be practical, while at other times idealistic -- the slogan can also be read as a hopeless oxymoron, somewhat like the political motto in "Veep," namely, "Continuity with Change." The late Mario Cuomo (who knew a thing or two about politics) put it more gracefully: "We campaign in poetry. We govern in prose." It's the paradox of democratic politics: to get elected, one must take out mortgages with factions and special interests. Getting elected that way, however, leaves little political capital to accomplish the causes and goals for which one presumably got elected in the first place -- something the White House staff learns in this episode.

And so, even as Pres. Bartlett is charming the crowd, word comes that they are actually five votes short to pass that gun control bill. So, over a 2:00 a.m. late dinner/early breakfast of Chinese food in take-out cartons (something that, apparently, never happens in the real White House -- for security reasons), the senior staffers try to figure out who the defectors are and what it will take to get them back in line.

The first of two subplots line is equally gut-wrenching -- even as Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) deals with the possible consequences of losing this vote, he discovers that the enormous commitment to his job (especially the many, many late nights) has cost him his marriage. And in the second subplot, Toby Ziegler's annual financial disclosure reveals that he made a 2,500% profit on a stock purchase that could violate federal securities law.

Toby's financial problems are played mostly for comic relief, but the first two stories entwine in some interesting ways. Leo admits that, if forced to choose between his marriage and his job, he'll (regretfully) pick the latter. And then, having twice clashed with Vice-President Hoynes in earlier episodes, Leo finds himself needing the vice-president's help to get that fifth vote. Seeing Leo's stricken face just moments after Leo has learned that his wife wants a divorce (and, truly -- no one ever did "stricken" better than John Spencer), Hoynes doesn't exact retribution for Leo's earlier mistreatment of him; instead he's gracious and supportive.

This also gives Hoynes, who knows of Leo's alcoholic past, the chance to invite Leo to Hoynes' own, special AA meetings -- provided discreetly for politicians whose attendance at regular AA would be impossible. It's a lovely scene that allows some of the characters' back-stories to be revealed without fanfare, while also giving new perspectives on both characters. (And indeed, despite his genuine concern for Leo, Hoynes has a political trick still up his sleeve, adding yet another layer to his characterization.) But perhaps it's Leo himself who best summarizes this episode, in a line usually attributed to Otto von Bismarck: "Sausages are like laws. It's better not to see them being made."

Practical idealism, indeed.
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My Favorite Martian: Martian Report #1 (1965)
Season 2, Episode 18
9/10
Excellent Script from Blanche Hanalis, Though Marred by a Silly Sight Gag
30 April 2016
Warning: Spoilers
Blanche Hanalis was easily the finest writer who worked on scripts for "My Favorite Martian," demonstrating time and again that the show could rise above its "out of this world" premise with characters who came to life. Along with "Nothing But the Truth" from early in Season 2 and "We Love You, Miss Pringle" from near the end of this season, "Martian Report #1" fills out a trilogy of Ms. Hanalis' best work. This episode just misses being as good as the other two, however, because it is marred by a silly sight gag at the end that undermines some of the good will that the script had theretofore earned.

The premise is quite simple: Martin suggests that earth children should be "deep frozen" until adulthood to avoid the difficulties of childhood. He explains to Tim that Martians have no childhood, and being "frozen" would spare them the difficulty of not fully understanding the world around them until they are fully grown. (Some of this premise was undermined near the end of the series when the producers introduced Martin's real nephew, Andromeda, in perhaps a vain effort to revive interest in the series, but . . . never mind.)

Spurred on a bit by Tim's skepticism, Martin decides to "study" a real earth child, named Doris (Katie Sweet), whom he and Tim agree to foster from an orphanage. At first, Martin treats her like a lab rat as he compiles the eponymous report -- and Doris responds as one might expect, with defiance and endless mischief. But as he spends time with her, and begins to treat her not just as the subject of an experiment but as a child, Martin softens up and discovers, as most parents do, that the wonder is not the influence that parents have on children, but that which children have on parents. The scene between Martin and Doris in her bedroom after Martin gives her a piggyback ride to bed is a surprisingly poignant moment in what was supposedly a silly comedy series -- though all of Ms. Hanalis' episodes featured at least one moment like this.

The episode's crisis comes when Doris stumbles upon Martin's report. Even though Martin has had second thoughts about both its premise and the whole idea of "studying" a little girl, there's enough of the cold scientist in the report to break her heart, and she runs away. This sets the stage for another moving scene, when Martin has to confront her and apologize for his thoughtlessness.

But along the way, this episode has one of those special effects moments upon which "My Favorite Martian" too often relied. Searching for Doris in an old house during a thunderstorm, an electrical jolt supposedly turns Martin (and later Tim) into see-through skeletal figures. It's an effect that is at once mildly amusing and deeply cringe-inducing -- it adds only a little to the story, but the special effects are particularly bad for "Martian" -- and that's saying something. The skeletons that are supposed to be Martin and later Tim look like the producers borrowed a couple of ape skeletons from a museum -- the skulls in particular are not remotely the same size as Ray Walston's or Bill Bixby's, and there are painfully obvious threads holding them up like the marionettes that these skeletons, in effect, really were.

Still, that silliness is nevertheless redeemed by the rest of the script. Katie Sweet, who played the little girl, does a good job for a child actress -- she conveys the sense that she's a real little kid and not acting. There's also an amusing scene that, unlike the skeletons later on, works very well, involving familiar character actor Olan Soule as a social worker checking on Doris' welfare -- when Martin grabs onto Mrs. Brown to make it look like she's much more involved in Doris' care than Mrs. Brown really is. So, all things considered, it's a worthwhile episode that that one one scene in the old house doesn't damage too much.
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10/10
A High Point of Twilight Zone's Final Season
29 February 2016
Warning: Spoilers
By its fifth (and what would become its final) season, Rod Serling's landmark series had grown a bit tired. Many of the season's episodes are either retreads of what had gone before, or are almost unwatchable (think, for example, of "I Am the Night -- Color Me Black," in which a good idea about the spread of evil is rendered hopelessly didactic). The subtlety Serling showed in the early years too often gave way to on-screen homilies.

Yet, there were a surprising number of bright spots -- "In Praise of Pip," "The Masks," "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," "Living Doll." And there is this episode, which has lost none of its thought-provoking power more than 50 years after it was produced.

The show is set, somewhat amusingly today, in the year 2000 -- although the date is less important than the society that writer John Tomerlin has constructed. (The episode is credited to Charles Beaumont, but at the time Beaumont was already overwhelmed by too many writing commitments, not to mention the onset of a frightening mental ailment that could have been a variation on Alzheimer's Disease, even though Beaumont was only in his mid-30s. Beaumont farmed out the script, based on his own short story "The Beautiful People," to Tomerlin, who shared credit with Beaumont even though the script was entirely his.)

In the society depicted in the episode, the main character, Marilyn, brilliantly played by the late Collin Wilcox, is surrounded by people almost too good-looking to be true. Everyone who turns nineteen can undergo a "Transformation" to make them as handsome or beautiful as every one of their friends and neighbors. This sounds like an improvement over the usual dystopian worlds depicted in science fiction (such as in "Logan's Run," where everyone gets killed after a certain birthday) . . . but the effects of a society that places such a premium on good looks is corrosive in subtler ways that are only hinted at for most of the episode.

To save money on actors with speaking parts, the creators cleverly had each actor or actress play several parts, differentiated by name tags; this not only saved money, but had the added benefit of making it seem as if there were only a limited number of "body models" to choose from. So, while one can become "beautiful" after the Transformation, you'll likely end up -- as the title implies -- looking just like your best friend or neighbor.

Wilcox, although hardly unattractive, is still what might be called "plain" compared to the other players, from whom she gets great support. All of the male parts, including her late father as depicted in a photograph, are played by Richard Long, who would go on to "The Big Valley" and "Nanny and the Professor" before his untimely death in 1974. Her best friend Valerie is portrayed by sometime model and occasional actress Pam Austin, who certainly came closer to what might be called an ingénue than Wilcox. And in a clever bit of casting, producer William Froug had the bright idea to hire Suzy Parker. Parker is largely forgotten today, but in the early 1960s was the highest paid model in the United States, typically earning $200 an hour for her work -- which, as the saying goes, was serious money back then.

As the story progresses, Marilyn, who is on the verge of 19, resists undergoing the Transformation, because she was schooled by her father to resist pressure from society -- including the pressure to become beautiful merely because it's what everyone else is doing. Marilyn also suspects that the Transformation will change more than her appearance, and so fights for her right to remain as she was born -- much to the consternation of her mother, her best friend, and her doctor, all of whom cannot understand why a young woman would not want to become stunningly beautiful.

Unlike some episodes that relied on now-primitive-looking special effects, what makes "Number 12 Looks Just Like You" special is that it really relies on no special effects at all (except for a few split-screens that allow the same actor or actress to appear to be in the same scene twice). The story is all in the dialogue and the psychology, as Marilyn resists this supposedly wonderful Transformation, while everyone around her seems to believe that she must simply be a little addled, and just needs to "see the light."

And unlike some of the series' later episodes that descended into preaching, the message here comes across quietly, allowing the viewer to reach his or her own conclusions. It also brings up some disturbing questions about the ongoing importance of personal appearance in our real world -- a message more pertinent today than in 1964, with ever more effective means of plastic surgery, botox, hair restoration, and the like, the better to "improve" what nature has given you.
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My Favorite Martian: Nothing But the Truth (1964)
Season 2, Episode 4
10/10
Another Fine Script from the Show's Best Writer
31 January 2016
Warning: Spoilers
"Nothing but the Truth" is another episode demonstrating that the first two seasons of "My Favorite Martian" were its best. And it is also one of the three finest episodes of the series, along with "Martian Report #1" and "We Love You, Miss Pringle," both from later in the second season. What all three episodes have in common is that they came from the pen (or typewriter) of a remarkable writer, Blanche Hanalis, who sadly is mostly forgotten today (her listing in IMDb, for example has no biography except for her dates of birth and death) even though she had a hand in many memorable television productions.

Hanalis had already written one episode for "Martian" the previous season and would eventually submit eight scripts, but she never did better than in this episode and in the two named above. What all three episodes share is a light use of Uncle Martin's Martian powers and instead an emphasis on character development and interpersonal relationships. In "Martian Report," Uncle Martin coldly writes about a little foster child whom he and Tim take in for a time, failing to realize -- until it's almost too late -- that she's still a person with feelings. "Miss Pringle," arguably the show's high point, is about an old teacher of Tim's who is about to be forced into early retirement. She's one of those people who would rather be right than well-liked -- even though she often does good that goes unseen.

And then we have this episode, in which Mrs. Brown's sister Dulcy, brother-in-law Henry, and nephew Stanley come for a visit. Their sheepdog George tells Martin (don't ask) that the boy's father, an early computer engineer/programmer, doesn't want to let Stanley have a real childhood. So, Stanley is permitted nothing that comes from the imagination -- only facts, figures, and what can be perceived by the senses.

In many ways, this episode resembles the 1947 Christmas comedy-drama "Miracle on 34th Street," in which Macy's employee Doris Walker similarly prohibits her little girl from any fantasy life whatsoever. While that might not be a bad philosophy for an adult, it's terribly confining for a child, and in both stories someone with magical powers -- Kris Kringle in "Miracle" and Uncle Martin in this episode -- encourages the child to explore that part of life, too.

And maybe not just for kids: Ray Walston has a lovely scene in which he points out to Stanley that Isaac Newton's imagination led him to see beyond the apple that fell onto his head, instead picturing great objects whirling in space, and eventually coming up with the theory of gravity. Or that Ben Franklin's imagination led him to fly that kite in a storm, leading to confirmation that lightning was a form of electricity.

The Franklin story is likely just a myth, but Henry certainly treats it as a fact -- scolding Martin for filling Stanley's head with rubbish, and telling him that Franklin caught a terrible cold in the storm and almost died. Henry is played with just the right touch of brittleness by the late Don Keefer, who also is remembered as the fellow who stood up (at least for a while) to the monstrous, conscienceless child played by Billy Mumy in the "Twilight Zone" episode "It's a Good Life." Of course, like Kris Kringle in "Miracle," someone has to set both Stanely -- and Henry -- right, and Martin is just the person to do it. It's here (and only here) that Martin's talents as a Martian comes into play, a welcome relief from the many episodes in which the entire plot revolved around Martin's powers creating havoc that then had to be undone.

Besides a well-written human interest story, the episode features the only appearance of Mrs. Brown's sister, played by Yvonne White. She and Pamela Britton have a lot of fun acting like two variations on Mrs. Brown's usual ditsy personality, to the point that Martin's mind-reading seems to have gone haywire when he picks up similar readings from both of them at the same time. Another bonus is a comical turn by Stafford Repp (later to play Chief O'Hara in "Batman") -- already playing a police officer!

A final note: besides her contributions to "My Favorite Martian," writer Hanalis also had a role in developing "Little House on the Prairie" for television, wrote the scripts for the two nuns-and-schoolgirls comedies "The Trouble with Angels" and "Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows" from later in the 1960s, and wrote many memorable television movies -- such as "The Children of An Lac" about actress Ina Balin's effort to rescue Vietnamese orphans before the fall of Saigon, or a biography of activist Margaret Sanger played by the late Bonnie Franklin. What these all had in common with her three best "Martian" scripts was that Hanalis managed to create sympathetic characters and stories that gently conveyed a message while being neither preachy nor cloying. More than 50 years later, her best "My Favorite Martian" screenplays stand like redwoods among much of television's forgettable scrub brush of those days.
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The Dick Van Dyke Show: The Man from My Uncle (1966)
Season 5, Episode 27
10/10
The Van Dyke Show's Foray into the Spy Craze
31 December 2015
Warning: Spoilers
Comedian Fred Allen once quipped that "Imitation is the sincerest form of television." His observation certainly held true through the mid-to-late 1960s, when "Dr. No" begat "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.," and the success of "U.N.C.L.E." in turn inspired dozens of imitators. Sometimes they were whole new series (think "Mission: Impossible," "I Spy," or "Get Smart"), and frequently a "spy" episode of other series that were not oriented that way, whether "My Favorite Martian" or "Please Don't Eat the Daisies." Not wanting to be the last on the block to go down that path, "The Man from My Uncle" was the "spy episode" of the "The Dick Van Dyke Show," and it's one of the series' high points.

Though in its fifth season, the Van Dyke Show was showing no signs of strain, and this episode has as much or more to say about the fantasies of middle-aged men as anything about intrigue and skulduggery. The rather down-to-earth premise is that the U.S. Government has information that a relative of the Petries' neighbor may have returned to the U.S. following deportation, and they want to use Ritchie's bedroom as an observation post on the man's house. When the federal agent lets it slip that his people are aware that Ritchie is away with the cub scouts, and Laura indignantly wants to know how they're aware of that, Rob -- who of course finds the whole situation exciting -- stiffly informs her that "they have ways of knowing those things." Ah, the days when folks just assumed that the government's keeping tabs on them was for the common good!

Laura, of course, recognizes the real reason for Rob's keen desire to cooperate with the government -- pointing out that while he talks about being a good citizen, inside he's a little boy jumping up and down saying, "Goodie, goodie, cops and robbers!" Though Rob denies this, when Laura gives her assent, his immediate reaction -- "Swell!" -- betrays exactly what she anticipated.

When the agent actually arrives, of course, this interplay is only heightened as Rob can't keep his hands off the gizmos that Federal Agent Harry Bond ("Please -- no jokes") brings with him, including a walkie-talkie, camera, and an innocent-looking banana that turns out to be . . . a banana. (Long about midnight on a stakeout, of course, one is likely to get mighty hungry.)

Still, the real gem in this episode is the casting of Godfrey Cambridge as Harry Bond. Cambridge, who was a stand up comedian in addition to being an actor, had the best timing in the business, and could project both high energy and somberness. When Rob encourages Bond, who has a bad toothache, to stretch out in a rocking chair, Rob later has to confess that he accidentally has taken a picture of Bond reclining when he was supposed to be on the job. Cambridge delivers the responsive line, "Mr. Petrie, why did you do that?" in a mournful tone that only Cambridge could have come up with. Later in the episode, Bond again has to ask Rob to please "stop playing with our equipment," stretching out "equipment" in a world-weary way to what seems like a lot more than three syllables.

Cambridge would soon bring this same mixture of dedication and sadness to a different kind of spy satire in Theodore Flicker's 1967 "The President's Analyst." But his talents are on full display here, and remind us what a loss it was when he died just a decade later at only 43.
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Mission: Impossible: Submarine (1989)
Season 1, Episode 18
8/10
The Old Formula Still has Some Life
26 April 2014
"Submarine," the penultimate episode of the first season of the 1988-1990 "Mission: Impossible," is credited on-screen only to Australian writer David Duguid. Anyone familiar with the original series, however, will immediately recognize one of its fondest-remembered episodes, also named "Submarine," produced during that series' fourth season and broadcast in November, 1969. As updated for the new version, it demonstrates that the formula that made the original series so enjoyable still had some life in it.

The original version was the only contribution to that series by Englishman Donald James, but his solo effort showed a deep understanding of what made that series work. Both episodes involve what became known as the "false journey" -- that is, the IMF needs information of some kind from its target, and therefore isolates that person by making him think that he's taking a trip somewhere, usually with his collaborators -- via train, aircraft, truck, or -- as hinted by the title -- submarine. Then, using the deception that became the series' hallmark, the target is tricked into revealing his most deeply held secret for what seems, at the time, the most logical of reasons. At the end, the "journey" is itself usually revealed to be a deception.

In the original, Nazi war criminal Kruger Stelman was about to be released from an East German prison after serving 25 years for war crimes. Stelman knew the location of millions of dollars in gold that could be used to spark a neo-Nazi coup, so the IMF "rescued" him and bundled him off to what appeared to be a submarine populated by his allies. The Nazi angle had little believability in 1989, so in the new version the IMF is after a man selling an underwater device that spreads a computer virus to modern ships, including those of the U.S. Navy. That their adversary, Edgar Sheppard (Mitchell Ryan), is himself a U.S. Navy admiral willing to use this device on his own men just makes him seem all the more evil.

Viewed from the perspective of an additional 25 years, the most noticeable thing about the remake is how quaint its technology seems. Sheppard's cohort carries what appears to be a late-1980s version of a laptop that looks almost as large as a manual typewriter. At one point Sheppard waives around a 1.4" floppy disc (anyone seen one of those lately?), and later the IMF captures important information on a VHS cassette. Electronics expert Grant Collier is even given a few lines to explain that a "computer virus" is not the same thing as the biological kind that infect people; there was apparently some concern the audience might not understand this in those pre-Internet days!

Those issues aside, the newer "Submarine" is still great fun today. The sets, both exterior and the false submarine, look great, Ryan is as nasty an adversary as any with whom the IMF grappled, and his descent into their trap seems logical each step of the way -- unlike some later episodes in which the villains seem to fall prey to their own stupidity as much as anything the IMF set up for them. Still, the quality of this episode undoubtedly derives as much as anything from its lineage to one of the best that the original series had to offer.
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Mannix: Climb a Deadly Mountain (1973)
Season 7, Episode 3
9/10
Fine Episode with a Touch of Adventure
13 March 2013
Warning: Spoilers
"Climb a Deadly Mountain," the third episode of the penultimate season of "Mannix," is a rousing adventure story that must have blown the location filming budget for most of the season. It starts with Joe Mannix boarding a private plane for a trip to an undisclosed destination -- on the strength of a $5,000 retainer. But that's all that we learn of Joe's assignment, because his plane is downed in rugged mountain terrain somewhere on its way to Albuquerque. From there, most of the story turns into a cross between "The Defiant Ones" and "The Most Dangerous Game," as Mannix teams up with Luke Whitney, an escaped convict who claims to have been framed, and to have eminently good reasons for his escape.

Filming this episode must have been particularly uncomfortable for the actors, as they struggle over steep terrain, slog their way through mountain streams, and clamber over boulders -- mostly in the hot sun. Luke initially helps Joe by proxy -- staying out of sight and guiding him with notes and trail markers, leaving him a canteen of water, and then, in a critical moment, returning Joe's gun. All of this, coupled with Luke being played by Greg Morris (former electronics wizard Barney Collier of the then-recently canceled "Mission: Impossible") helps make him a sympathetic figure, so that both Joe and the audience will eventually accept his story about how he became a convict and why his former captors are the real villains of the piece.

It's somewhat of a change of pace for the series -- though not entirely, as there had been other stories about Mannix ending up in the wilderness, especially Season Four's "Figures in a Landscape" and "Sunburst." Like those segments, except for a few early scenes when Peggy worries at the office about first Joe's silence and then his disappearance, this episode was filmed almost entirely on location (i.e., not on the studio back lot). Eventually, Mannix and Luke stumble upon a cabin where an old couple live, leading to a showdown with Luke's (and, by then, Mannix's) pursuers.

Part of the fun of an episode like this is finding out that the guest star is Greg Morris, or that the local sheriff is played by Edward Winter, who is best remembered today for more than a half-dozen appearances as the paranoid, over-the-top spook Col. Flagg in "M*A*S*H." Winter could chew the scenery with gusto in a part like that, so it's a rewarding change of pace to see him in a straight role like this. Gail Fisher also deserves praise for her anguished performance as Peggy, whose deep affection for Joe could never be depicted as more than just feelings; but at least she's allowed to let her emotions boil over in the episode's denouement.
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Mannix: The Crimson Halo (1972)
Season 6, Episode 3
6/10
The Return of "Lew Wickersham"
26 March 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Joseph Campanella, who co-starred in the series' first season, makes his one return appearance in this episode, more than four years after his last bow as "Lew Wickersham," Mannix' boss at the private detective firm "Intertect." As the head of Intertect, Wickersham/Campanella had a fondness for state-of-the-art electronic gizmos (well, 1967 vintage, anyway, like tracking devices), including a bank of closed-circuit televisions with which he could spy on his subordinates' offices, including -- especially -- Joe Mannix.

This could have provided an opportunity to have a trip down memory lane, re-visiting the wonders of Intertect's electronic wizardry, and once again contrasting it with lone wolf Joe Mannix' preference to eschew those devices in favor of his fists and his easy charm. It also would have given the series a sense of continuity by bringing back the one continuing character besides the rotating police officers played by folks like Larry Linville, Robert Reed, Jack Ging, or Ward Wood.

But it was not to be. Unfortunately, Campanella is instead cast here in the role of an arrogant, trail-blazing surgeon named Graham Aspinall, who apparently survives an attempt on his life by a prowler, prompting his attorney to ask Joe Mannix to find out why anyone would want the good doctor dead.

Sadly, the story is also riven with lots of plot points that don't hold up well under even cursory examination, and Campanella has some odd encounters with Joe Mannix -- beginning with a confrontation at his tennis club where Mannix, dressed in his usual sport coat and tie, follows Aspinall into the locker room -- and even tries to interrogate him while he's taking a shower! You couldn't wait outside until the poor guy had a chance to get showered and dressed, Joe?

Equally odd are the conversations Mannix has with two of the women in Dr. Aspinall's life -- one with his research assistant played by Laraine Stephens, who trades barbs with Mannix while garbed in a slinky orange dress and then disappears from the episode for good; and one with Irish actress Fionnuala Flanagan as Aspinall's secretary, who offers to let Mannix look at the doctor's patient records apparently because the script calls for it. Weren't medical records confidential back in the 1970s?

Still, if the episode has a redeeming feature (apart from seeing Connors and Campanella together one last time, even in such a disappointing episode), it's that old warhorse Burgess Meredith playing Aspinall's lawyer, who summons Mannix to his office -- which is large enough to play basketball in -- where Mannix finds the leprechaun-sized Meredith hunched over his desk wearing a gold vest. On anyone else the outfit would look pretentious, but Meredith carries it off. Sadly, he's only in the episode for three or four brief (though important) scenes, but his scenery-chewing is reason enough to see this episode, even if Campanella weren't in it.
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Hawaii Five-O: Up the Rebels (1977)
Season 10, Episode 1
8/10
Unintentionally Elegiac Episode Opens the Tenth Season
29 May 2011
Warning: Spoilers
By its tenth season, Hawaii Five-O was beginning to show its age, as there are only so many criminal syndicates, communist spy rings, and serial killers to go after on an isolated island in the middle of the Pacific. But in this season's premier, the show's writers and producers at least made a game try at playing out the string a bit longer, with an unexpected enemy -- terrorists from Northern Ireland.

The episode opens with a heist reminiscent of many others on the show -- a military squad that has just received a new kind of high explosive is ambushed by a group of frogmen, who disable the soldiers long enough to escape with the cache of munitions by boat. But a soldier who is farther away manages to read the craft's registration numbers, giving McGarrett and Co. a solid clue to the hijackers. Then a commander from Naval Intelligence informs McGarrett that among all of the possible places the ordnance could go, it's probably been stolen by a splinter group of Irish Catholic terrorists.

Most of the episode thereafter focuses on the relationship between Casey Fogarty (Elayne Heilveil) an heiress from Boston whose father is reputed to be funneling money to this group, and her contact in Honolulu, Fr. Daniel Costigan, aka Sean O'Rourke, played by Stephen Boyd. Boyd excelled at playing rogues and doesn't disappoint here, investing the character with his usual charm even as he dispatches his former partners one by one, eventually leaving the naive Fogarty in the lurch, too. And he also manages to catch Steve McGarrett off guard when he rattles off the occasional Latin or Gaelic phrase.

Though the episode is well-done and enjoyable to watch, there's a sense of sadness hanging over it today because of two things that wouldn't have been known when the episode was filmed. First, Boyd died of a heart attack less than a month after filming this episode, making this his final filmed appearance. (Indeed, it wasn't broadcast until three months after his death.) Boyd had had a moderately successful career, usually in second leads in major motion pictures (e.g., as Messala in 1959's "Ben-Hur"), as well as leading roles in smaller films during the 1960s (the brooding mystery "The Third Secret" in 1964, 1966's "Fantastic Voyage," or the delightful 1967 heist film, "Caper of the Golden Bulls"). His career had declined somewhat by the late 1970s, however, but it seemed to be coming back thanks to roles like this one, when he died suddenly at only 45.

It was, however, a fitting last role for Boyd who, though effortless at playing an American, actually *was* from Northern Ireland (raised, ironically for this role, as a Protestant), and in his first motion picture had played a similar character, in 1956's "The Man Who Never Was." In that film, Boyd's Irish character is sent to wartime England to determine whether a ruse the British concocted to mislead Germany is real or not. And just as in this episode, he isn't above romancing a young woman to get what he wants.

The other sad point about "Up the Rebels" is that it marks the end of Harry Endo's long run as Che Fong, the master criminalist who aided Five-O during the middle years of the series. During that run, Che Fong demonstrated skills in metallurgy, chemistry, ballistics, bacteriology, acoustics, electronics -- or just about whatever other field of scientific inquiry McGarrett needed. Endo originally played a bank employee in an episode of the second season (amusingly, his real-life job) -- at one point whipping out what would become his trademark telescoping pointer to describe a security diagram.

Once assigned to the part of Che Fong, however (which had been played by other actors to that point), Endo's natural charm elevated what could have been a potentially dull role into more than just a guy in a white lab coat. Like several other continuing roles during those years, his presence gave viewers the sense that this universe wasn't populated just by the three or four regulars. Sadly, unlike District Attorney John Manicote (Glenn Cannon), who was wounded in a shootout trying to save his daughter in his last appearance the previous season, Endo had just a couple of scenes in this episode, a too-brief swan song for an actor who made the role his own, and whose face had become as familiar as many of the show's nominal stars.
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The Forgotten Man (1971 TV Movie)
9/10
Fine Drama -- but it's Not "Welcome Home, Johnny Bristol"
19 March 2011
Warning: Spoilers
This fine drama is about Joe Hardy (Dennis Weaver), a former Vietnam P.O.W. who manages to escape from captivity, only to return home to find that, because he had been reported dead, his wife (Anne Francis) has remarried in the intervening five years, his father has died, and his father's business partner has sold the business his father worked years to build for half its value in exchange for a guaranteed position with the company. The one relatively constant benchmark in his life is his daughter, Sharon (Pamelyn Ferdin), who, although twice the age she was when he was captured, at least is thrilled to see him and hasn't made the life-altering changes that his wife has.

Unfortunately, Joe has great difficulty accepting that his life has changed so dramatically, and he also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder-like symptoms that have him confusing the people and events around him with the scenes from his long years of captivity -- to the point that he occasionally dissociates from reality and believes that he's back in Vietnam either in captivity or on the run after his escape. His ex-wife panics and tries to separate him from his daughter -- which, under the circumstances, is about the worst thing that could happen to him.

On the bright side, Joe gets lots of support from his former debating partner from college, Anne (Lois Nettleton), who lost her fiancé to the war shortly after Joe was reported missing and presumed dead. He follows her to the school where she teaches in Arizona and where, coincidentally, his wife and her new husband send Sharon to get her away from him. Joe, unfortunately, is terrified that he'll end up in another cell -- this time a jail cell -- and that he'll lose that last remaining constant in his life, so he, too, panics and takes Sharon on an odyssey that it seems likely is going to end badly.

Dennis Weaver does a fine job portraying the miasma of emotions swirling around in a man who went off to serve his country and returns home to find the entire world he remembered has been swept away; he conveys a lot with just a flicker of his face or a furtive glance. Lois Nettleton likewise is excellent as Joe's best friend in this brave new world that he faces. Mention must also be made of Percy Rodriques, giving a typically smooth and believable portrayal of a Marine officer who acts as a kind of escort for Joe back into his bewildering new life.

What's remarkable about watching this made-for-television drama 40 or so years on was both how accurate and how prescient it was when it was released in 1971, two years before the real Vietnam P.O.W.s actually came home. Their experiences would have been difficult enough, because even with family members waiting to embrace them, they often found themselves in a kind of Rip Van Winkle world -- their children had aged, loved ones had died, and the world they remembered existed only in a mental time capsule, and was not the world to which they returned. But Joe Hardy's experience is even worse, because no one was waiting for him, and he must instead deal with the awkwardness created by the "good news" that he's still alive.

One point of correction -- another review suggests that the plot summary here is wrong, and that the main character's experiences were all in his mind. That was indeed the plot of a made-for-TV movie of this era, but it was "Welcome Home, Johnny Bristol," which was released just a few months after "The Forgotten Man," and starred not Dennis Weaver but Martin Landau. Because both involved PTSD-haunted P.O.W.s, and were released at almost the same time, it's an easy mistake to make, but this is definitely the movie described in the plot summary you'll find on IMDb's title page for this film.
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Room 222: Richie's Story (1969)
Season 1, Episode 1
9/10
Premier Episode for the Series
12 December 2010
"Richie's Story" is the first episode for "Room 222," and although it has the feeling of being slightly overstuffed with plot, characters, and social commentary, it's nevertheless a good introduction to those characters, their interrelationships, and the kind of stories that this series would present during its five-year run. For anyone who first picked up the series later in the season (or during the rest of its time on the air), this episode has something of the feeling of coming home, because the four title characters -- history teacher Pete Dixon (Lloyd Haynes), guidance counselor Liz McIntire (Denise Nicholas), Principal Seymour Kaufman (Michael Constantine) and Alice Johnson (Karen Valentine) are all dressed in the same clothes as in the opening titles. In fact, the first scene after the titles is a long tracking shot through the main office as we're introduced to the first three, and then we follow Pete into his eponymous home room -- where the class is almost a little too eager to learn.

Later in the episode Kaufman introduces Pete to Alice Johnson, who seems to personify the term "perky," as a student teacher who will understudy Pete -- although in later episodes she will teach English, not American history. Unlike the other leads (and indeed, unlike most of the other actors playing students), Valentine's performance is a bit overdone -- a little too giddy except in one critical scene when she takes over the class in Pete's absence -- but Alice would settle down as the series moved forward.

Also touched upon is Pete's relationship with the lovely Liz McIntire, with whom he has (or would like to have) a social relationship -- though they explain to Alice that they don't want to create an atmosphere for gossip. Of course, if that's their goal, how come he picks her up after work in his convertible right there on campus? His relationship with Liz, and with Principal Kaufman, is one of the several subplots in this episode, as Liz realizes that Pete's most enthusiastic student, Richie Lane, has faked his address to get into this relatively safe and sane environment as a student, and to get out of Pete's own alma mater -- Tyler High, a tough inner city school. Pete wants to keep Richie, who even dresses like him and takes roll in his absence, while Liz and Principal Kaufman feel duty-bound to send him back.

The episode also introduces a few of the student characters who would pop up periodically during the rest of the series -- besides Richie, there's tiny-voiced Helen Loomis (Judy Strangis) and the intimidating Jason Allen (Heshimu) who with his deep voice and slow delivery is probably the most memorable student character from the series. Not yet in the cast were Ta-Tanisha as Pam Simpson (who would play a character with a different name in her first appearance) or David Jolliffe as Bernie, a white kid who sported a giant red-haired Afro larger than any worn by one of the black characters.

Although one could not describe the series as groundbreaking, especially in this pre-"All in the Family" era, it did try to raise issues such as race -- perhaps a little too self-consciously, as when Alice tells Pete that she "thinks it's so significant that you're colored" -- and when he doesn't respond, she follows up with, "Do you prefer 'colored' or 'Negro' or 'black'"? This allows Lloyd Haynes the disarming reply, "I've always preferred 'Pete.'" In this, as in so many other scenes, Haynes' deliver is so quiet and off-handed that it's easy to see how he eventually came to be seen as the epitome of a good teacher; how sad that he's been gone for more than 20 years! His calm demeanor also serves him well in a scene at a P.T.A. meeting when Dick Wilson (later to become famous as Charmin-squeezing Mr. Whipple) is similarly over-the-top as a parent who keeps trying to assure Pete that all of his favorite performers are black.

The only problem with this episode apart from this kind of in-your-face social consciousness is that the visual quality of the episode has degraded considerably. Like the other first season shows, it also features an annoying laugh track, even in scenes and moments when silence would have been the most appropriate background. Happily, the producers had the sense to keep its presence to a minimum when it appears, and by the second season the laugh track was gone, apparently because the they were able to convince the network that this was really more a drama than a comedy. Still, they never lost sight of humor -- indeed, "Room 222" was arguably television's first "dramedy," and helped pave the way for producer Gene Reynolds' later hit, "M*A*S*H." Ultimately, "Richie's Story" is a largely successful introduction to a rewarding show that eventually showed, in its quiet way, that the best social commentary is when there's no commentary about people of different races living and working together.
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Lotsa Luck! (1973–1974)
9/10
Family Strife Outlives Topical Humor
31 October 2010
"Lotsa Luck" is a well-remembered, but sadly failed series from NBC's 1973-1974 television season. It had an extraordinary pedigree, having been created by three of the most respected writers and producers of its day, yet it only lasted a single season. It left behind 22 episodes and what was perhaps Dom DeLuise's best effort at a television series, cut down before its time.

The series was created by Carl Reiner, Bill Persky, and Sam Denoff. Reiner was the creator and producer of "The Dick Van Dyke Show," which arguably was the best comedy series of all time. Reiner decided to take that show off the air in 1966 when it was still getting good ratings and the writing still seemed as fresh and unforced as it had during its early days. Persky and Denoff had started out as a writing team and were, according to one account, the "unlikely saviors" of Reiner, who was facing serious burnout as the end of the second season of "Van Dyke" approached, having not only produced the show but written about two-thirds of its episodes.

Persky and Denoff took on an increasing share of the writing as their tenure on the Van Dyke show went on, and eventually stepped into Reiner's shoes as producers in its final season while Reiner was off making a motion picture. When the Van Dyke show ended, the duo went on to produce other shows themselves, including Marlo Thomas' "That Girl" from 1966-1971.

What had made the Van Dyke show special, as Reiner liked to say, was that he looked for humor in "real life" situations, consciously avoiding the "battle of the sexes" between spouses that had been the staple of so many other domestic comedies, whether on "The Honeymooners" or even "I Love Lucy." When the three of them reunited in 1973, however, television had changed -- it was now dominated by comedies coming out of Norman Lear's stable, including "Sanford and Son," "Maude," and, of course, "All in the Family." Lear's shows were about a different kind of domestic disharmony compared to the shows of the 1950s and 60s, and they also had louder voices than much of what had been on the air a decade earlier. So Reiner, Persky, and Denoff also created what was perhaps a more deliberately dysfunctional situation than they had in their past collaboration.

Like both "Sanford" and "All in the Family," "Lotsa Luck" was borrowed from a British television series, this one called "On the Buses." Dom DeLuise was Stanley Belmont, an unmarried man of about 40 who still lived with his mother, and who indeed worked for a bus company. But Stanley had been promoted off the streets and into the lost-and-found department, the better to build plots around the sometimes crazy things people would leave on New York City's buses -- and occasionally around Stanley's need to "borrow" items from the lost-and-found, usually with predictable, chaotic results.

Rounding out the cast were Kathleen Freeman as Stanley's "Ma," Beverly Sanders as his myopic, slightly overweight sister Olive, and Wynn Irwin as her ne'er-do-well husband Arthur -- or as the other characters put it with a New York accent, "Ahthuh." Freeman had one particular bit that she used at least once per show -- asking Stanley (when he would refuse to do something she wanted him to do), "Do I have a son, or do I not have a son?" Stanley would then respond, in a weary tone of defeat, "You have a son," bringing the follow-up, "You're a good son, Stanley" and a final retort, "You're a real pain in the neck, Ma" from him. Arthur was content to hang around the house all day in his bathrobe, unshaven, still recovering from an otherwise unexplained "operation" -- which had taken place four years before -- while occasionally applying "salve" to ameliorate his unnamed complaint.

The topics the show delved into were certainly more tilted toward bathroom humor than they had been in the "Van Dyke Show" or "That Girl" -- literally so in the case of the show's pilot, in which Olive manages to get her foot caught in the toilet tank (don't ask), and which Stanley then breaks in his attempt to free her. The replacement toilet they purchase is an "orange sherbet" color -- with a purple lid. And further complications, naturally, arise.

As the saying goes, Robert Benchley it ain't -- but the show was frequently hilarious, particularly the verbal battles between Arthur and Stanley, a working stiff who supports three people and resents the real stiff -- his good-for-nothing brother-in-law. All four of the regulars -- especially, of course, DeLuise -- had terrific comedic timing, and all performed well despite the demands of putting the show on before a live audience.

Unfortunately, the three creators also borrowed another conceit from Norman Lear, choosing to shoot the show not on film but videotape, which despite being a "newer" technology (and undoubtedly a cost savings for the show) neither looks as good nor ages as well as film stock. The pilot episode in particular looks terrible, but many of the other episodes have held up reasonably well.

Sadly, the show was canceled after only one season, but happily, the complete series has been available on DVD for several years. For those who were able to see it at the time, it's a fondly-recalled tidbit from an era of the winding down of Vietnam, stagflation in the economy, and something brewing in the newspapers called "Watergate." Of course, none of those things had any bearing on the battle of wits among Arthur, Stanley, and the rest of the Belmont household. In that sense, "Lotsa Luck" holds up better than a topical show like "All in the Family" -- because family strife is always good for laughs even when the political and social concerns of those days have gone forever.
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Mission: Impossible: Action! (1967)
Season 1, Episode 23
The Many Ironies Accumulate
30 September 2010
"Action!" a late episode of the first season of "Mission: Impossible," is an episode drenched in irony. Set in a European dictatorship of some kind, the show actually offers some intriguing behind-the-scenes shots of Desilu Studios during its last year under Lucille Ball's management. The episode helped pave the way for Peter Graves to become Jim Phelps, the head of the Impossible Missions Force. And within a few short years, real world events would overrun the comfortable assumptions undergirding this episode's mission — and perhaps some of the assumptions supporting the entire series.

The story itself is relatively straightforward. Miklos Klaar (J.D. Cannon), the politically ambitious head of an Eastern European motion picture studio, has faked footage of an atrocity in which American troops mercilessly gun down peaceful peasants at a field hospital. The forgery has been carefully spliced into footage of real American troops on patrol in Vietnam. As "the Secretary" (the mysterious unseen figure who appears only as the taped voice at the beginning of most episodes) explains in handing out the mission, "If this film is shown it will seriously damage the United States and our future peace talks."

For the only time in the series, however, someone besides Dan Briggs (Steven Hill) or Jim Phelps receives the Secretary's assignment. Here, it was Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain) who listened to the self-destructing tape, for reasons as interesting as anything in the episode itself.

As documented by Patrick White in his fine book, "The Mission: Impossible Dossier," after two days of filming, series star Hill was supposed to climb a 20-foot staircase to the rafters above the Desilu sound stage. Hill refused to do so, and also refused to explain his refusal, even after being confronted by the series' producers Bruce Geller and Herb Solow. Hill was then suspended for the balance of the episode, rendering useless two days' worth of footage that had already been shot. A new actor had to be brought on to replace Hill, the tape scene had to be redone with Bain in Hill's place, and the production ran late and over budget.

This was not the first time that Hill had delayed production or cost the production company money. Hill had insisted upon, and executive producer Geller had agreed to, a clause in Hill's contract allowing him to leave the studio early on Fridays so that Hill, a devout Orthodox Jew, could attend Friday services — leaving in the middle of filming a scene if necessary.

Of course, those inconveniences were something Geller accepted to get Hill's services in the first place. But the constraints that they imposed on the series, coupled with Hill's behavior on this episode, led the producers to seek a new leader for the IMF. At the end of the season, they announced that Hill would not be coming back as Dan Briggs, and they eventually selected Peter Graves to play Jim Phelps.

Despite the off-screen turmoil, the episode is fun to watch, if only for the use of Desilu (both exteriors and sound stages) as the setting for the show. J.D. Cannon, as always, is good as the oily Klaar, and Cinnamon gets into his office late at night through a unique means of entry: she sits at the end of one of those cranes used by directors and cameramen for high-angle shots, and is hoisted to a convenient window. Once inside the building, she uses a specially-tailored skirt to walk off the dimensions of Klaar's office, so that Barney (Greg Morris), who is waiting in the basement, can run a heating element to the precise spot inside a fire sprinkler to destroy the contents of Klaar's vault. (This is a switch from the normal situation, when the IMF usually has better plans of the villain's headquarters than he has himself!) It went so well, in fact, that a similar gimmick was used in the fourth season episode, "Fool's Gold."

The final irony of the show, though, is that many if not most viewers in 1967 would have accepted without question that the atrocity scene was indeed faked. But almost a year to the day after this episode was broadcast, the My Lai massacre occurred, with the deaths of hundreds of unarmed peasants dwarfing the scale of what was depicted in Klaar's faked film. The assumptions underlying this episode, like that of the series itself — that Americans simply didn't do such things — makes viewing "Action!" today a far more sobering experience than it must have been in 1967.
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The Bad Seed (1956)
7/10
All the Stage's a World
31 August 2010
Warning: Spoilers
"The Bad Seed," 1956's shocker about a homicidal little girl, is another of those motion pictures that, regrettably, a modern audience can't view in the same way as it could have been seen by those who were alive upon its release. So much more is known now about human psychology, and the world has been witness to child soldiers, school shootings, and other crimes perpetrated by children on both adults and other children that the film's shock value has diminished since 1956.

Still, the movie deserves some credit for broaching a topic that, in its time, was both novel and disturbing. It remains a well-acted piece, aided in no small part by having most of the Broadway cast transplanted directly onto the big screen for this effort. And by having the main character be a ten year-old *girl,* who seems outwardly as sweet and perfect as a character out of a Norman Rockwell cover from the Saturday Evening Post, it still plays against one's expectations of how children are supposed to behave -- and what can lie beneath the surface of those childlike appearances.

It is not, of course, without its flaws. As many of the other reviews have noted, it does almost nothing to disguise its stage origins -- characters are forever entering or exiting doorways, there are set-piece moments and speeches for many of the characters (Leroy the handyman even talks directly to the audience a few times), and one can imagine exactly how even the outdoor scenes, such as the picnic by the lake, would be done on stage, likely with a small spotlighted scene on an apron alongside the main stage. It's too bad that director Mervyn LeRoy didn't try to open up the picture more than he did, so that it wouldn't feel as if the movie were filmed while being presented in a theater.

Still, what redeems "The Bad Seed" even for today's viewing audiences is the marvelous acting -- both Nancy Kelly as Rhoda's mother and Patty McCormack as the title character herself are wonderful, and McCormack, who must carry a number of scenes, is remarkably poised for a ten year-old. The film also benefited from having the likes of Eileen Heckart as the mother of the little boy Rhoda is suspected of having killed for a penmanship medal that, throughout the story, she just can't seem to give up.

And for those who grew up in the television generation, there's the added pleasure of spotting a number of actors who would make their marks later on television, including future Perry Mason sidekick Paul Drake (William Hopper), Frank Cady, who would play general store owner Sam Drucker on "Petticoat Junction" and two other television series in the mid-1960s, and the ubiquitous character actor Henry Jones as Leroy, the only character who can see through Rhoda's facade of sweetness. Indeed, in some ways Rhoda presages Eddie Haskell of "Leave it to Beaver," alternately obsequious around adults and creepy around his peers. Considering that Leroy describes himself as the only person who's "just like" Rhoda -- something of a sociopath himself -- Leroy is the one character who allows Rhoda to show herself as she is.
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Mannix: The Sound of Darkness (1969)
Season 3, Episode 10
10/10
The Series Hits its Stride with One of its Finest Episodes
24 July 2010
Warning: Spoilers
"The Sound of Darkness" is one of the best episodes of the entire series, starting out with a puzzling mystery, but then taking an unexpected turn into a character study that almost leaves that mystery behind. The script by Barry Trivers (who also wrote "The Conscience of the King," one of the best episodes of "Star Trek") opens with a man being pursued in a parking garage by a mysterious figure dressed in black and wearing -- in the parking garage! -- dark glasses. After a harrowing pursuit with the victim going level after level through the garage in reverse, when the opening credits begin to roll, it appears that the victim caught half a dozen slugs; but when the show returns, it turns out that the killer merely left a halo of near-misses around the victim's head.

He turns out to be a car salesman named Rudy Marin (Joby Baker), who hires Joe Mannix to figure out who made this threat against his life, and why. But then Marin has a sudden change of heart, offering to pay Mannix for his time and to end their relationship. Of course, Mannix can't help but keep tabs on the guy, following him into a deserted building (actually, the old "New York street" part of the studio lot, which looks for all the world like it really was being demolished). There Marin kills a derelict, only to be killed himself by the same hit man from the parking garage.

Mannix arrives a moment too late to save his ex-client, and in an exchange of gunfire, the killer grazes Mannix' temple with a bullet. This near-death experience induces a bout of psychosomatic blindness, but Mannix fears that the killer -- not knowing of his blindness -- will come after him again to eliminate the last witness.

Both the writing and the acting begin to soar at this point -- Joe is embittered by his newly-handicapped state, but his indomitable secretary, Peggy (Gail Fisher) practically shames him into tackling this obstacle with the same determination he's shown in the past to overcome thieves, swindlers, and killers. It's a bravura turn for Gail Fisher, who breaks into more than one spate of tears as she empathizes deeply with her boss' misfortune, providing a much-expanded role for her compared to her rote function in earlier seasons as a receptionist and typist. Indeed, Fisher won her solo Emmy as outstanding supporting actress for this season, and her performance here alone would have justified it.

At this point, reliable semi-regular Lt. Adam Tobias (Robert Reed) introduces Joe to an ex-Marine friend, Jerry, played by James Edwards (who also had noteworthy roles in "The Manchurian Candidate" and "Patton"). Sadly, Edwards died less than a month after this episode aired, aged but 51 -- but he inhabits this role powerfully as a tough, uncompromising coach who teaches Joe how to adapt to his new life in the dark.

As good as both Gail Fisher and James Edwards are, however, Mike Connors is with them step-for-step, with hesitant body language and an unfocused gaze that convincingly makes him appear blind. Like Peggy's expanded role, it's a leap beyond many earlier episodes in which Connors could rely on an easy smile or a wry frown to do most of his work. Here he throws his whole body into the part, and though "Mannix" called for a lot of physical action (including more than its share of fistfights), Connors rarely seemed to work as hard as he did in this episode.

Kudos, too, to director Corey Allen (recently deceased as this is written), who drew such exceptional performances from his entire cast -- including the steadfast Robert Reed, who also has a larger part than in many of his appearances on this show. Unfortunately, Reed is remembered today largely for "The Brady Bunch," but his occasional stints on "Mannix" are a reminder that he started out as a respected stage actor, and had five years on "The Defenders." "Mannix" at least gave him a chance to stretch occasionally, and he does fine work here.

In many ways, this episode presages the much shorter-lived show, "Longstreet," from a couple of seasons later, in which James Franciscus likewise played a blind detective -- though in the case of the later series, his handicap was permanent. (One wonders whether Stirling Silliphant, the creator of "Longstreet," drew his inspiration here.) In any case, this episode is filled with a number of memorable set-pieces, including an angry confrontation between Peggy and Joe; Joe's first, fumbling efforts to find his way around his once-familiar office; an attempt to decoy the killer by having Joe sit in the driver's seat of a car that's equipped with a hidden set of controls that allow Peggy to do the driving; and the final confrontation between Joe and the killer in his darkened office, the better to even the odds.

"The Sound of Darkness" shows "Mannix" at the top of its form, with excellent writing, directing, and acting. It was in this season that Joe Mannix finally settled into his role as a solo private eye after the first-season's misfire, when he was part of the computerized investigation firm Intertect -- and in this episode, one finds Mike Connors and Gail Fisher also settled comfortably into the roles that would define both of their careers.
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Hawaii Five-O: Murder: Eyes Only (1975)
Season 8, Episode 1
10/10
Crackling Espionage Case Opens Season Eight with a Reunion of Sorts
6 June 2010
Warning: Spoilers
By the eighth season, many television series start to show some wear, but "Hawaii Five-O" managed to go longer than that -- at least nine seasons by most accounts -- before it began to go downhill. And "Murder -- Eyes Only," the two-hour premiere of the eighth season -- presents a slam-bang espionage adventure once again featuring (who else?) Khigh Dhiegh as master spy Wo Fat.

The episode opens with McGarrett boarding ship for a two-week deployment as a reserve Navy commander, but as one might expect, there's only a short interlude until he's assigned back to the islands for a joint civilian-Naval investigation of a mysterious bombing that's killed one intelligence officer and wounded another. Following the trail has McGarrett -- always decked out in his naval uniform -- even going so far as to visit both San Diego and Costa Mesa, California. There are suspects and motives aplenty, and the extra time allows McGarrett, still aided by Danny Williams and Chin Ho, and even Che Fong (Harry Endo), to run each piece of the puzzle to ground. (Curiously, while Danny gets plenty to do, Chin is mostly confined to slapping the cuffs on a bad guy here or there; even Che gets more screen time than the ostensible bigger star, Chin!)

"Murder -- Eyes Only" also was something of a reunion episode, featuring four recognizable character actors, each of whom had already appeared on "Five-O" at least once -- Lyle Bettger as Adm. Dean, David Birney as Woodrow Waldon, a lieutenant in the Fleet Intelligence Service, Harry Guardino as McGarrett's intelligence liaison officer, Commander Wallace, and Lloyd Bochner as Capt. Roger Newhouse, who unfortunately has only a few scenes in his office in San Diego (though one of them with McGarrett). The last three had also all played the villains in their respective earlier episodes -- Guardino as a homicidal Army Sergeant in the Season 2 premiere, "A Thousand Pardons -- You're Dead!," Bochner as another killer in Season 3's "Beautiful Screamer," and Birney as a heroin smuggler in season 4's "Follow the White Brick Road." This time each of them got to play one of the good guys -- Guardino camouflaged behind a pair of glasses and a mustache.

Arguably, the extra time results in some padding -- there's a long, leisurely boat ride to the Arizona memorial where a "drop" of some microfilm is made, and despite the extra time, Wo Fat's isn't given much to do except sit on his hydrofoil boat and talk on the telephone from time to time. Indeed, his chief assistant, Mr. Chong (Robert Nelson), who was once described in an earlier episode as Wo Fat's "chief assassin," probably ends up with more screen time. But because Wo Fat appeared on average less than once per season, any time spent with him and Khigh Deigh's droll characterization is worth the wait.

Of course, another way to look at the added length is that it allows time for the story to develop and for the viewer to get to know all of the suspects. They include Lee Stetson, in a fairly large role as Marine Capt. Fesler; he'd played a creepy gun dealer named Alfie in "Diary of a Gun," one of the final episodes of the previous season, but isn't recognizable here as the same actor -- like Guardino, he's hidden behind a thick mustache. Also doing a competent job as suspects are Donna Mills (her only appearance on the series) as Navy Ensign Marcia Bissell and newcomer to "Five-O" Biff McGuire as her father, playing a wonderfully abrasive character in almost every scene he's in. In sum, "Murder -- Eyes Only" not only demonstrated that there was still life left in the "Five-O" formula, but also provided an opportunity to spend some extra time with an ensemble cast that had frequently conjured memorable performances during the prior seven seasons.
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8/10
More Interesting than Funny
22 May 2010
Warning: Spoilers
"The Nutty Professor," made at the height of Jerry Lewis' writing and directing of his own films, is an anomaly among the Jerry Lewis canon. Although nominally a comedy, the amusing moments to be found here are surprisingly rare. Lewis' fans may laud this as a comic masterpiece, but the title above — borrowed from a Leonard Maltin review of the film — is a better distillation of what it has to offer. But though "The Nutty Professor" may not have many laugh-out-loud moments, it's still a movie that stays with the viewer, because it's ultimately more a thought-provoking film than a funny one.

The plot, such as it is, has been adequately summarized elsewhere. Basically, this is a variation on the Jekyll-and-Hyde theme: Jerry's Prof. Julius Kelp, smitten with the lovely Stella Purdy (Stella Stevens), tries to win her over by concocting a potion that transforms the buck-toothed, awkward Kelp into handsome, debonair Buddy Love — who nevertheless is thoroughly detestable.

Both the contemporary advertisements for the movie, and the film itself, use irony and misdirection to introduce Kelp's transformation. One of those movie posters is split in two: the top portion shows "mad scientist" Kelp gleefully mixing chemicals, while the bottom shows Stella tossing a frightened glance over her shoulder as the tag line asks, "What does he become? What kind of monster?"

Likewise, the first time that the film reveals Kelp's Buddy Love persona, it's done in a long point-of-view shot from Kelp/Love's perspective, as onlookers stop what they're doing to stare at the new "creature" — until, at last, the camera spins around to reveal that Kelp has become, well, basically Jerry Lewis playing himself. This was undoubtedly an on-screen first, as Lewis was no longer playing either the high-voiced "kid" (as he referred to his usual screen persona), and he's no longer the buck-toothed, pathetic Kelp, either. Movie audiences in 1963 must initially have been confused that Kelp's formula turned Kelp into a well-dressed sophisticate instead of the horrible monster hinted at in both that movie poster and in the transformation scene itself (when a hairy clawed hand is shown in close-up during Lewis' vigorous rolling around on his laboratory floor).

But then, as one reflects on the creature that Kelp *does* become, one has to wonder if maybe "monster" isn't the best description of Buddy Love after all. Yes, he's smooth, handsome (Lewis was only 36 at the time, and quite good-looking) and an accomplished crowd-pleaser — but he's also short-tempered, insulting, and domineering toward Stella, at one point ordering her to wipe off her lipstick so he can commence kissing her. It's really a no-win situation: either she can have the clumsy, weak, and awkward professor or the suave, handsome, but ultimately abhorrent Buddy Love.

It foreshadows, in some ways, the relationship between Julie Andrews and James Garner in 1964's "The Americanization of Emily" — Julie Andrews' character Emily is horrified at the thought of Garner's character, Charlie Madison, dying on the beaches of D-Day. But then she's equally horrified at the prospect of him *not* dying when she finds out he intends to take the coward's way out. So she can either have a live coward (in which case she doesn't want him) or a dead hero — but either way, she loses him.

And so it is with the puzzle-box Stella is trapped in with Kelp/Love. In his real persona, Kelp isn't really someone with whom Stella will likely want to spend the rest of her life; Kelp needs a mother (or a keeper) more than a girlfriend. And while she finds the debonair aspects of Buddy Love hard to resist, she still recognizes that, at bottom, he's a rude, arrogant jerk.

The movie doesn't entirely resolve this dilemma. Kelp may make that moving speech at the prom about "being yourself," and Stella may appear to choose Kelp at the end — but she's still got two bottles of Kelp's formula in her back pockets as they run off . . . perhaps to take Buddy Love "out of the closet" occasionally when she grows bored with Kelp.

Despite this not really being a comedy, it does have its amusing moments — Kelp removing his wet shoes to stop their squeaking, only to discover that it's his *feet* that are squeaking; Kelp disappearing into the college president's chair when he sits down, then apparently being able to support his entire weight on the thickness of a magazine; or Kelp putting his entire sleeve into the punchbowl at the prom. (Note, of course, that it's always Kelp, never Buddy Love, who provides the comic interludes.)

And whatever other problems this movie may have, it still *looks* great. The film's colors — whether of Buddy's suits, of Kelp's laboratory chemicals, or of the successive outfits Kelp imagines Stella to be wearing in one scene — are so eye-poppingly bright that Technicolor deserved separate billing as another character.

Though a great comic when he was at the top of his form, Lewis (like Woody Allen) apparently wanted to be remembered for something besides comedy, too. All in all, "The Nutty Professor" — like its characters Julius Kelp and Buddy Love — is a strange amalgam: too often farcical and fantasy-driven to be taken as a serious meditation, yet too serious (and too bereft of funny moments) to really be a comedy, either.
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Stargate SG-1: Wormhole X-Treme! (2001)
Season 5, Episode 12
8/10
Lights! Camera! In-Jokes!
17 April 2010
Warning: Spoilers
For their hundredth episode, the creators behind "Stargate SG-1" decided to pull out all the stops, and to make this episode an homage to, well, themselves and their creation -- part regular episode, part celebration, but mostly enough "SG-1" inside jokes for an "Airplane!" movie. You want cameos of some of the writers and other behind-the-scenes folks? Got 'em. You want a story-within-a-story that eventually tears down the fourth wall? Check. You want more self-referential material than in a Donald Trump autobiography? You've come to the right place.

The plot -- such as there is -- brings back Martin Lloyd (Willie Garson), the balding fellow with horn-rimmed glasses from the previous season's "Point of No Return," who somehow knew about the Stargate and claimed to be an alien, and contrived to meet Col. O'Neill (Richard Dean Anderson) and the rest of SG-1. It eventually turned out that Lloyd knew about the Stargate et al. because he actually *was* an alien, one of a group whose race, having been mostly destroyed by the Goa'uld, chose to desert their kind and settle incognito on Earth. Unfortunately, although his fellow aliens tried to erase Martin's memory, he began to recall bits and pieces, leading him eventually to contact Stargate command.

In this sequel, Martin's memory has again been erased, but his subconscious allows him to come up with the premise for a television show designed around, um, a Stargate, with a team composed of a wisecracking leader, a woman with vast scientific knowledge, an archaeologist who's reluctant to use force, and a member of an alien race who's played by an actor who's black . . . just like in the "real" SG-1. This gets the attention of that "real" SG-1 team, and so we're off to the races.

All of this thin reed of a plot is merely an excuse to lard the episode with those inside jokes, cameos, and behind-the-scenes shots, many of which are documented in the "Trivia" section of IMDb. They include several shots of the real-life Bridge Studios in Vancouver, British Columbia where Stargate SG-1 was produced, and which doubled as the setting for this episode. (Despite what someone slipped into the "Trivia" section on this show, however, the actors clearly didn't think this was a real tryout for a real show -- notwithstanding some clowning to the contrary in one of the outtakes from this episode.)

The folderol in this episode includes the presence of a director of the fictional show-within-a-show played by Peter DeLuise (son of the late Dom DeLuise, who once guest starred on the show) who had theretofore done a lot of brief cameo appearances himself, but who now played a major character in this episode, wearing a bright yellow shirt (the better to stand out) as he constantly shouts "BIGGER!" when one of the spectacular special effects apparently isn't enough to satisfy him. And they include both a quick on-screen appearance by Executive Producer Robert C. Cooper (whom Martin tells to "Go write something!") as well as Cooper's name on a book with an amusing title that reflects Cooper's real-life propensity to pile up more scripts than the producers can use.

There's also Peter DeLuise' brother, Michael, giving a hammy performance that -- so Peter claims on the DVD commentary -- was inspired physically by Richard Dean Anderson but in acting style by that former sci-fi star, William Shatner (particularly in the way that Shatner always grabs his leading ladies by the shoulders). There are also appearances by any number of other real-life behind-the-camera folk getting a chance to appear on-screen as the crew of this fictional movie set by (mostly) playing themselves.

"Stargate SG-1" (despite Col. O'Neill's non-stop wisecracking) was often a deadly-serious show, with both occasional characters and even a regular cast member getting killed off now and then. But it didn't always take itself seriously -- witness the delightful Season 4 episode, "Window of Opportunity," in which O'Neill and Teal'c get trapped in a time-loop that only they are aware of, allowing them to cut loose in "Groundhog Day" fashion. And so it was here, using the time-honored technique of setting an episode on a movie set, so that all that the creators had to do was use their own world as the setting for this story, as they piled up the in-jokes and references.

Self-parody, of course, can be a dangerous road -- in the 1960s, for example, "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." did so and quickly disappeared from the air, while "Mission:Impossible" avoided it and so managed to stay in production for seven seasons. Science fiction, though, is a more flexible premise, allowing even for the occasional high camp that this episode employed. In the canon of "Stargate SG-1" it's like a whipped dessert after all of the entrees and side dishes of the first 99 shows -- but it's handled here with just the right touch of whimsy, and even though the cast (especially the faux SG-1 actors) clearly had some fun with it, they still managed to stay serious just long enough to get through the story while engaging in a rare change of pace.
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Combat!: A Day in June (1962)
Season 1, Episode 11
8/10
D-Day Flashback Adventure is a Good Introduction to the Series
7 March 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Although this was the eleventh episode of "Combat!" broadcast in the fall of 1962, it was actually the first one produced — and its story, tied to the D-Day invasion, is a good introduction to the series, even though some of the regulars (e.g., Tom Lowell as Pvt. Billy Nelson and Dick Peabody as Littlejohn) hadn't been cast in those roles yet. (This is the first episode in the DVD set that was released back in 2004, which also grouped the episodes in production order.)

"A Day in June" also uses an unusual technique for the show — the story is told in flashback. As the episode opens, the squad is holed up in a barn somewhere in France on a rainy night, and someone suggests establishing a betting pool about when they'll reach Paris. This is a springboard for recalling the day of the invasion the previous June, when the character of Braddock (Shecky Greene) was involved in a similar pool. (Look quickly during this opening scene, incidentally, for a brief shot of a young Tom Skerritt.)

The series' earliest shows reflected a preference for ensemble storytelling, and this one is no exception, having *at least* four competing story lines. There's the love-hate rivalry between Sgt. Saunders and Lt. Hanley (who, during the flashback sequence, is just a First Sergeant, although he still outranks Saunders; Saunders, however, is already a decorated veteran of several campaigns, while Hanley has just a "good conduct" medal); there's the reluctance of "Doc" (Steven Rogers) to go into battle; there are *two* separate story threads involving Braddock, one of which has him in a grudge match with a character played by Harry Dean Stanton; there are also a couple of different stories that involve Caje (Pierre Jalbert, referred to here as "Caddy"); and, oh yes, there's the main "battle" story, about their assignment once they get ashore and into France. A lot of territory (literally and figuratively) to cover in just one hour!

Because this was the first episode, the characters were just getting their "sea legs" with their performances and characterizations. Doc is somber throughout, Caje (oops, Caddy) is lively during the early sequences, then mordant later on when his Cajun comrade becomes a casualty; Hanley is nervous commanding the men, and a little tense with Saunders; and Saunders is alternately acerbic and serious.

The Braddock character is clearly intended as comic relief, whether having to abandon his field pack in the landing craft before hitting the beach so that he's constantly complaining about hunger, or always managing to land grenades right near Sgt. Saunders as Saunders sneaks toward the German position. There are also several amusing scenes as Braddock becomes increasingly hampered by his pool winnings as the story progresses. At the same time, the Braddock character does become tiresome, so perhaps it's fortunate that Greene decided he was losing too much money by not working his usual Las Vegas stand-up gigs and quit the series after eight episodes.

Still, the real pleasure in watching "Combat!" is seeing Vic Morrow during his prime. Morrow was such an intense, emotional actor that, when he's on-screen, it's impossible to take your eyes off of him. Although those around him were competent, Morrow was the anchor who held this show in place. It's no wonder that although Rick Jason was ranked higher in credits, and his Lt. Hanley outranked Morrow's Sgt. Saunders, more and more scripts came to focus on Morrow as the series went on. "A Day in June" is therefore a fine introduction not only to the series but also to a fine actor doing his best work — and one who was taken from us much too soon.
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Hawaii Five-O: Welcome to Our Branch Office (1974)
Season 7, Episode 11
8/10
Lighthearted Romp is a Change of Pace
28 February 2010
Warning: Spoilers
"Hawaii Five-O" was often a violent and gritty -- and sometimes even grim -- television show, dealing with international spies, murder, prostitution, and even nuclear blackmail, so its rare forays into something approaching comedy were a rewarding change of pace. There were the two shows featuring Hume Cronyn as the clever thief Lewis Avery Filer, the one with David Wayne as hotel burglar (and disguise expert) 'Monsieur Bordeaux' and the fifth season's "I'm a Family Crook -- Don't Shoot!" with Andy Griffith as the head of a family of grifters.

And then there was this episode, which featured two relatively well-known guest stars (Cameron Mitchell and Frank Gorshin) as another pair of con men. Mitchell and Gorshin's characters bring the swindle uncomfortably close to home for Five-O, by breaking into its headquarters in the dead of night and taking enough pictures of the environs to duplicate it in an abandoned building. In many ways, the con that this pair are pulling is more out of "Mission:Impossible," as they not only perfectly recreate Five-O headquarters, but also manage to find four look-a-likes for Chin, Danny, Ben, and the big guy himself, McGarrett.

Although the episode has its share of (faux) violence, most of the emphasis is on the con game, and is definitely played with a lighter touch, as the crooks try to shake down a variety of recently-arrived businessmen who might not be as familiar with where Five-O headquarters is located as the longer-term residents of Oahu. The story by Jerome Coopersmith is played just straight enough throughout most of the episode to make it seem like it could be a real con, although things become looser and sillier as the episode progresses, leading at one point to what looks like might be the two sets of Five-O detectives -- the real ones and the ersatz -- getting together.

James MacArthur has an interesting double role, playing both himself and his doppelganger (the latter dubbed with a different-sounding voice) for most of the episode, although his mannerisms are pure Danny Williams throughout. There's also regular guest actor John Stalker (who played, for example, attorney Harvey Drew, the chief witness against McGarrett during one segment of the 'Vashon' trilogy during Season 5), complete with a hearing aid, as the first victim of the con who instead goes to District Attorney John Manicote with a wild story about being shaken down for money by Five-O. That could have been an interesting variant on the story, if the con had been intended from the beginning just to discredit McGarrett et al. -- but that's only a sidelight here.

A more jarring note is another frequent guest actor, Doug Mossman, as another victim of the con game, this time with the unusual last name of "Shatner." Unfortunately, Mossman had played one of his more regular stints -- as sometimes-member of Five-O Frank Kemana -- in both of the episodes broadcast just before this one ("How to Steal a Masterpiece" and "A Gun for McGarrett"), so accepting him as a potential crime victim is something of a stretch. (He's also described at one point as a "Caucasian," something that no one on the islands would really have ascribed to Mossman, who looked like he had considerable Polynesian ancestry.) The one regrettable shortcoming of the episode is that the normally over-the-top Frank Gorshin is given nothing out of the ordinary to do, including no mimicry (something that the fake Five-O members have to do in abundance). Gorshin could chew the scenery with the best of them, so it's a little disappointing that here, during his prime, he's given only a conventional role that could have gone to a dozen other actors -- there are only a couple of scenes when he's allowed to show any flash at all (as when he's called upon at one point to switch two briefcases).

Still, despite being in its seventh season, "Hawaii Five-O" continued to show a remarkable capability to mix things up and keep the viewer guessing. It's no doubt one reason -- among several, including the intensity of the acting in most episodes (this one excluded) and the lovely scenery -- that it managed to make it through a dozen seasons, still showing no signs of strain at this point.
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Get Smart: The Man from YENTA (1967)
Season 2, Episode 21
9/10
Amusing Entry by One of the Show's Top Contributors
31 January 2010
Warning: Spoilers
"The Man from YENTA" is the fifth script from Arne Sultan, who would eventually contribute nearly forty during his time with "Get Smart," and would also be executive producer during the series' last two seasons. Although its title is a play on "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.," it owes little to that series except the title; instead, Sultan's script is much more in line with the ethnic humor that was Mel Brooks' most enduring legacy to "Get Smart."

Alan Oppenheimer plays a perhaps too-consciously-Jewish Israeli agent with the curious designation of Agent 498, assisting CONTROL as a "guest agent" for this outing. (Although the joke built into his number isn't in the episode as filmed, Barbara Feldon suggests it during her voice-over introduction on the DVD -- that it's "marked down" from "500" -- as in, "Agent 500 -- but for you, 498.") Another subtle joke is not commented on but just placed there. When the Chief answers the phone from Israel, which is among eight "hotlines" behind a panel in his office, three of the phones -- marked "London," "W. Berlin," and "Tel Aviv" are pale blue or pale green. Three of them -- "Moscow," "Peking," and "E. Berlin" are red; and "Paris" -- perhaps because de Gaulle had recently expelled NATO headquarters from France -- is pink! Oddly, the receiver for the phone to "Peking" is hung at 90° to the phone instead of hanging from its cradle, though what this is supposed to mean is anyone's guess.

The story has the unusual twist of an Israeli agent helping to protect Arab ruler (and oil magnate) Prince Abu ben Bubee from KAOS' assassin Le Moko. Some other jokes are woven in there -- "bubee" is a Yiddish term of endearment, just as "yenta" is Yiddish slang for "a gossip." Oppenheimer speaks with an accent that's more New York than Tel Aviv, and is given several lines that Mel Brooks could have written -- such as suggesting to the Chief that a recent shooting victim be given water, and when the Chief points out it wouldn't help a dead man, he responds, "Wouldn't hoit." Agent 498 likewise tells Max he has to call Tel Aviv right after he reaches the airport, explaining, "I promised my mother I'd call her the minute I arrived -- she worries."

Still, the highlight of the episode is undoubtedly at the end when the Prince, Agent 498, Max, and Le Moko all end up in Max's apartment (don't ask), each dressed exactly alike with beards, sunglasses, and Arab robes -- the further to confuse the Chief. Of course, when the Chief motions "Max, c'mere" for Max to join him from the four, the real Max does so -- and the Chief accepts that it's him without question. This was apparently so that the remaining three could then play an impromptu game of "To Tell the Truth" -- with Max even getting to utter the recognizable line, "Will the real Prince Abu ben Bubee . . . ." There's also an amusing moment when Agent 99 rushes in and (thinking that they're Max) mistakenly hugs both Agent 498 and the Prince in succession, getting from each an audible sigh of satisfaction (a touch that feels like it was added during filming).

Besides Alan Oppenheimer, the episode gets a couple of funny scenes from semi-regular Dave Ketchum as Agent 13 (this time hiding in a chimney in the Prince's apartment) and competent supporting work from Paul Comi as Le Moko and the late voice artist Walker Edmiston as the Prince. It's somewhat of an irony that Le Moko is able to imitate *his* voice perfectly (through the use of looping, of course) to help perfect Le Moko's disguise. In sum, although it's not the best that the series had to offer, it's a memorable and entertaining episode, especially that final scene in Max's apartment.
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The Avengers: The Town of No Return (1965)
Season 4, Episode 1
9/10
Excellent Script and Noir-ish Tone Introduce the Emma Peel Era
27 November 2009
Warning: Spoilers
The first episode to feature Diana Rigg as Emma Peel, the third (!) partner for John Steed (Patrick Macnee) is a fine introduction to what became this series' "golden age." It was also the first episode to use true motion picture film (instead of the ghostly and unsatisfying video tape- transferred-to-film, which had been used both in the Ian Hendry and Honor Blackman eras), allowing the show to be filmed outdoors and even (as in this episode) on location, opening up the series and giving it an immense infusion of realism.

Brian Clemens' ninth "Avengers" script demonstrates why he was the premiere writer for the series. He grabs the viewer's attention immediately with a bizarre scene -- a figure shrouded in black plastic emerges from the sea; then the plastic is torn open from within to reveal a man in a tweed jacket and tie carrying an umbrella! Equally startling is the bearded man on shore who calmly directs the new arrival to the town of Little Bazeley -- as if plastic-shrouded figures emerging from the ocean were a daily occurrence. The brooding skies and sometimes gloomy night-time setting in this small village are the perfect accompaniment as our intrepid hero and heroine try to find out why four agents have disappeared on assignment to this locale.

Still, if nothing else, this episode also illustrates why the two seasons featuring Diana Rigg are the best of this oddball espionage series that, as this season wore one, became something of a comedy-drama. For example, Steed arrives at Mrs. Peel's apartment, where he's first confronted by a peephole that appears to be a giant blinking eye, to find her practicing her fencing moves. She's wearing the first of several of her form-fitting "catsuits," which would become Mrs. Peel's trademark during the series, this one with a leather strip down the middle of the front and back. As if it were the most natural thing in the world, Steed joins her in her fencing, and as they parry and joust suggests a trip to the seashore -- only telling her after she assents that he'd already bought train tickets for the trip the day before.

The rapport and repartee between Macnee and Rigg was already as natural and easy as if they'd worked together for years. It's enhanced by some small touches that signaled where the series would go -- for example, in the train on their way to Little Bazeley, Steed serves refreshments out of a traveling bag that could just as easily be a prop from one of their later "sci-fi" episodes -- at one point providing a boiling tea kettle from a bag that's just sitting on the seat! Later, in visiting the local vicar, Mrs. Peel again wears her catsuit (along with an odd-looking head covering) as if it were a common way to dress in mid-60s Britain.

Even without those touches, though, the episode features a crackerjack mystery, as the two agents split up to investigate the strange goings-on in the town, then reunite near the end for the climactic confrontation with the evildoers. Unfortunately, Mrs. Peel doesn't get to demonstrate the martial-arts moves for which she'd become known -- most of her fight scene is just her and another woman (and later, a man) wrestling around a barren room. Steed's "fight scene" is much funnier -- he's closed off in another room against a half-dozen attackers while the camera sticks with Mrs. Peel; but when she finally reaches him, she discovers that he's dispatched all of them without breaking a sweat!

Both Patrick Macnee and the lithe and lovely Diana Rigg were already in top form that would carry them through their all-too-short two years together. The episode also features an appearance by Patrick Newell, who in the last year of the original series would become the regular agent-in-charge, as the Ironside-like "Mother." Mention must also be made of an appearance by the fine character actor, Alan MacNaughton, who would later play the memorable character "Howarth" in the 1980s mini-series, "To Serve Them All My Days."
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