Friday, May 17, 2019

Recent TV Bingeings

MR. NOVAK - THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Warner Archive): I can't recommend this collection of 30 one-hour episodes highly enough; it's quite simply the best classic television release I've seen since Shout! Factory's THE DEFENDERS of a couple of years ago. 

James Franciscus stars as the new, young English teacher at Jefferson High School - a fairly conservative, tightly run school with daily flag-raising bugle calls and frequent class assemblies. Each episode brings Novak into collision with an outdated school ruling, a troubled but promising student, a moral quandary, or questions about what the boundaries between teacher and pupil should be. The problems tackled include everything from teenage pregnancy and drug addiction to teenage crushes and the panic of producing a senior prom. Sometimes they get the problem licked, and sometimes they are brought to their knees by one and fade-out on the admission that you can't work miracles in an hour but you can certainly raise important questions.

I truly feel that our world is off the rails these days partly because our television programming is no longer interested in giving us this kind of socially responsible guidance, along with assumptions for our intelligence. Dean Jagger (WHITE CHRISTMAS, X THE UNKNOWN) is the school's principal, Albert Vane, and he's the most fascinating aspect of each episode. We may not always agree with him, but he's clearly a sensitive, intelligent man - we feel the pride and the burden of his authority - and he ultimately unfolds as a deeply humane man with a military core, but able to learn from his mistakes and evolve beyond them. I have more than a dozen favorite episodes, but I was most impressed by an episode featuring Brenda Scott as a withdrawn student whose talents for satire and cartooning are discovered, turning up the pressure for her to connect with the school paper.

A number of familiar young actors from this period turn up in class, including Frankie Avalon, Tommy Kirk, Shelley Fabares, Kim Darby, Brooke Bundy, Christopher Connelly, Tim McIntire, and "Terry Garr," and the outstanding adult guest stars include Lilian Gish (as a teacher of long standing whose job is threatened by parents wanting her blood for teaching sex education), Barbara Barrie and Kathryn Hays (absolute magic in an episode that finds Novak in a complex and troubling romantic situation). You owe it to yourself to see this. Co-created by Boris Sagal (THE OMEGA MAN).

FOREVER (Amazon Prime): A somewhat obnoxious, quirky, married couple (Maya Rudolph, Fred Armisen) end up in Heaven, whose eternal sameness begins to grate on their nerves. It's an interesting concept - that the idea of eternal peace may be aggravating to human nature, thus flying in the face of the accepted religious concept of eternal reward. This show takes its premise in some interesting directions - as matters of materialism, plan-making, and even gender begin to break down the characters' earthly personalities and commitments, but it never achieves the same level of exciting complexity as RUSSIAN DOLLS. This might get better with Season 2, but the story feels somewhat self-contained. Catherine Keener, Peter Weller, and Julia Ormond are also in the cast.

SNEAKY PETE, Season 3 (Amazon Prime): This ongoing story of an ingenious and somewhat soulless con man (Giovanni Ribisi), who always seems to have several cons unfolding simultaneously and in frequent conflict, continues to up its ante - ongoing since the first episode - and impress with its three-dimensional complexity. In this season, Marius/Pete continues to find his accidental ties to the Bowman family tightening, and threatening to humanize him, just as the cold-blooded love of his life (Efrat Dor) reappears to tempt him with a wine-based con that stands to make them millions. Naturally, everything goes wrong. This is extremely satisfying bingeing material, and Ribisi and co-stars Marin Ireland and Margo Martindale are fascinating to watch - Ribisi's smile is worth an essay in itself, a kind of pained grimace of pleasure that makes him look almost on the verge of being physically sick. Another point of interest in this latest run of episodes is the last acting role for Ricky Jay, to whom the penultimate episode is dedicated. He apparently didn't finish his role as a card-flashing trickster and is replaced in the final episode by a suitable stand-in viewed from behind, with - I assume - his dialogue looped in from a recorded table reading. I think he would have appreciated the Lugosi-like trickiness of it all. This isn't quite a great series yet, but it's quite an impressive feat of staging and calculation.

A MAN CALLED SHENANDOAH: THE COMPLETE SERIES (Warner Archive): This is a black-and-white Western series that dates back to ABC, 1964; its broadcast coincided with the similarly themed contemporary series CORONET BLUE. It stars WAGON TRAIN's Robert Horton as a man, fast on the draw, who is recognized and attacked by a band of bad guys, led by Richard Devon. He survives the attack but awakens with amnesia - and then rides off into 30-odd episodes in which he follows one clue to the next toward the discovery of who he really is, and whether he is a good man or a bad man. 

This sort of thing can also be traced back to the 1940s radio and Columbia B-movie series THE CRIME DOCTOR, and considering its timing, it may have been partly inspired by the success of THE FUGITIVE, which premiered the previous year, and featured a central character in search of another who might prove his innocence. I haven't watched too many of these yet, but the few episodes I've seen have been let down by their brevity; this really needed to be an hour-long show, given its dramatic and psychological nature. Furthermore, this show - like CORONET BLUE - was not renewed after its initial season, so the big question it dangles before us in each episode is never answered. But it's not the arrival, it's the journey - right? At half an hour, it's reduced to opportunities to see a lot of great talent from this Golden Era of Television, including numerous OUTER LIMITS actors like Martin Landau and Warren Oates. Robert Horton - who was later bound for THE GREEN SLIME - is good, too.

(c) 2019 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

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