TV Series Boxed Sets Review: Most Wanted, Raven, Lucan, The Master

I have a huge collection of  TV series boxed set DVDs. I am particularly fascinated by short-lived TV series… bombs like FUTURE COP, CHOPPER ONE, CORONET BLUE, THE OREGON TRAIL, THE MAGICIAN, THE YOUNG LAWYERS, and SPENCERS PILOTS are just a few of the failed series in my collection. Here are a few recent additions:

RAVEN: The Complete Series – This show is very much an artifact of its time and is heavily influenced by previous TV hits written, created & produced by Stephen J. Cannell (ROCKFORD, A-TEAM etc) and Glen A. Larson (MAGNUM PI, SWITCH)…which is no surprise, since RAVEN writer/creator Frank Lupo worked for them both for many years. Jeffrey Meek was a white ninja looking for his lost son and helping people in trouble in Hawaii. He was aided in his search, and his do-goodery, by his Army buddy “Ski,” played by Lee Majors. RAVEN is pure, escapist fun that doesn’t take itself too seriously (in fact, its much better than I remembered it). Majors pretty much stole the show from Meek, which wasn’t too hard. Meek was likeable, and a talented martial artist, but didn’t have much charisma. Nobody would mistake him for the next Tom Selleck, James Garner, or even Lee Majors (in his glory days). Even so, I’m surprised the series didn’t last longer…perhaps it was a matter of timing, hitting the scene just as this style of television was becoming dated and stale (at least for the time being). This was Meek’s second attempt at TV stardom (having previously starred in the short-lived latenight series THE EXILE) and would have one more failed shot (MORTAL COMBAT) before the networks gave up on him as a series lead. The kitschy main title sequence and Christopher Franke’s theme truly capture the flavor of the show.

MOST WANTED: The Complete Series – I had to buy this. I am a sucker for any series Quinn Martin produced, especially the really obscure ones (I can’t wait for A MAN CALLED SLOANE, CARIBE, BERT D’ANGELO: SUPERSTAR, and BANYON to come to DVD. How pathetic does that make me?). Robert Stack didn’t show a lot of range on television. He played the leader of an elite crime fighting force in three series (THE UNTOUCHABLES, MOST WANTED, and STRIKE FORCE) and a crime reporter in another (THE NAME OF THE GAME). MOST WANTED, which aired on ABC in 1975, is easily the worst of Stack’s four TV series and assembly-line Quinn Martin fare — in fact, the police station set is identical to the one in THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO. By far the best thing about the show is Lalo Schifrin’s terrific theme…and the most interesting aspect of the show is how the main title sequence changed between the one used for first two episodes and the one used for the rest of the short-lived series — the action sequences in the first one were replaced by shots of Stack awkwardly attempting to smile. Still, as bad as the show is creatively (and perhaps explicitly because of it), I enjoyed the set, which says a lot, given how technically awful the transfers are.  I realize CBS isn’t going to spend the money to digitally remaster prints for a set like this, which appeals to a very narrow niche of customers. That said, I wish the studio would still put a little effort into it and find prints that weren’t run through sand paper before being transferred. The image clarity, color levels, and sound quality are wildly uneven/inconsistent from one episode to another. It’s as if they just slapped this together in an afternoon. The studio could have taken more care and produced a quality product. 

THE MASTER: The Complete Series – For some reason, I had fond memories of this show…which is why I bought the set. What was I thinking!? The show itself is absolutely awful by just about every measure. Lee Van Cleef doesn’t even bother to act, seemingly reading lines off some distant cue card and repeating the words as if English was his second, or perhaps third, language and doesn’t understand what he is saying. The scripts are terrible. The direction is perfunctory. The martial arts sequences are poorly staged and edited…it’s laughably obvious when Van Cleef steps out and the stunt man steps in. Bill Conti’s music is a rehash of his FOR YOUR EYES ONLY score. It’s easy to see why this show bombed. Oh, I forgot to mention the concept. Van Cleef is a white ninja searching for his long lost daughter. He is aided in his do-goodery by Max (Timothy Van Patten), wise cracking kid tooling around the country in what look like Scooby Doo’s van. The DVD set itself is exceptionally well-produced with pristine picture and sound. 

LUCAN: The Complete Series – I didn’t buy this set because I was LUCAN fan (though I did  fondly remember composer Fred Karlin’s theme, which was only used in the pilot and first episode. I had it on a cassette tape). It’s one of those wonderfully awful, totally deriviative series from the 1970s that inexplicably fascinate me. LUCAN only lasted for 13 sporadically aired episodes and, to my knowledge, has never been rerun. The pilot starred Kevin Brophy as a man who was raised by wolves…and ends with him setting off to wander the country in search of his parents and, spirtually, himself. Sort of ROUTE 66 meets TARZAN…and is every bit as awful as it sounds. That quickly changed…the concept, that is…and the show became steadily worse throughout its short run.  In fact, the most memorable thing about the show was how often the format changed. After the second episode, there’s a new theme by JJ Johnson and now authorities, concerned Lucan might “revert to wolf,” have hired a bounty hunter to track him down and imprison him. And four episodes later, the concept changed again...now the bounty hunter had inexplicably become a cop and Lucan was being pursued for a murder he didn’t commit. It became a poor man’s THE FUGITIVE with a touch of THE INCREDIBLE HULK thrown in (THE PHOENIX, HOT PURSUIT, STARMAN and a dozen other short-lived series of the 70s and 80s also had the same, basic premise and were just as awful). 

DVD Reviews: DECOY and CORONET BLUE

Two short-lived, NY-based crime shows have finally come out on DVD…and they are both gems.

DECOY stars Beverly Garland as police woman Casey Jones and was the first TV series to shoot on location in New York. It was also the first series to feature a police woman in the lead role. All 39 episodes from its brief, 1958 run are included in this boxed set, which also comes with a nicely detailed brochure of synopses, brief episodic credits, and some interesting background on the series — one I have to admit I wasn’t familiar with at all. I’ve always been a fan of Beverly Garland, and was fortunate to work with her on the “Mannix” episode of DIAGNOSIS MURDER, but I’d never seen this series before. I’m glad I took the gamble and bought the DVD set. Think of DECOY as a grittier DRAGNET…but with a female star. The series is straight-forward, ripped from the case files, police procedural storytelling. But unlike DRAGNET, Garland manages to give her character an emotional life beneath the action and dialogue purely through her facial expressions, dialogue delivery, and body language. Her acting strengths, some sharp writing, and the consistently excellent NY location shooting make this a dandy piece of TV crime noir well worth your time. I’d argue it’s actually a far more realistic and interesting series than POLICE WOMAN, which came decades later. You’ll also see early guest appearances from future stars Peter Falk, Suzanne Pleshette, Martin Balsam, Diane Ladd and Larry Hagman.

 

 

CORONET BLUE is primarily remembered for its cool theme song…if its remembered all. Which I guess is fitting, given what the show was about. Frank Converse stars as a guy who is shot, thrown in the Hudson river, and left for dead. He survives, but can’t remember anything about his past except the words “Coronet Blue.” The 13 episodes followed his efforts to discover who he is and, as is customary in series like this,  help other people in trouble along the way. This boxed set lives up to my memory of the show…pun intended. The theme song and score are great, the writing is strong, the location shooting is excellent, and the casting is top-notch.  It’s a real time capsule of talent — lots of future writing, acting, and directing stars worked on this series including Roy Scheider, Jon Voight, Candice Bergen, Billy Dee Williams, Albert Ruben (writer of KOJAK, etc), Lamont Johnson (director of EXECUTION OF PRIVATE SLOVIK, etc), Alvin Sargent (writer of PAPER MOON, SPIDERMAN 1, 2, 3 etc) . The prints are good and the DVD has one extra, an on-camera interview with creator Larry Cohen, who is perhaps best known for creating BRANDED and THE INVADERS…and directing IT’S ALIVE.  It was nice to have the interview  — I just wish he’d gone into more depth. It’s also a shame that they didn’t interview some of the other surviving actors, writers, directors who worked on the series. Even so, that’s a minor quibble. This is a terrific boxed set, one I have been waiting on for years.

 

Binge-watching THE AMERICANS

the_americansWhile my wife is away, I’ve been binging on THE AMERICANS because so many people have told me it’s a great show. I am now at the end of season 3. There are things I like about the series, but I think it has a fatal flaw. The producers are asking the viewers to sympathize with, and root for, a married couple of Russian spies who routinely kill innocent American civilians. I find myself actually rooting for the couple to get caught. One particular storyline in season two had them pursued by a “killer” in the U.S. military … a gay officer blackmailed into betraying his country. He kills a Russian spy who tries to kill him…and, when several innocent Americans are killed as a result of intelligence he provided, he starts murdering Russian spies. As much as the producers tried to portray him as a bad guy who was putting our “heroes” in jeopardy, I actually saw him as the hero…a man who realizes he has made a terrible mistake and seeks justifiable vengeance. I just saw a season 3 episode where the heroine forces a sweet, innocent old lady to kill herself. The heroine sheds a tear over it, but that hardly redeems her character, who has killed so many innocent people that I’ve lost count. What keeps me watching are the storylines involving a decent but tormented FBI agent, but it’s hard to watch a series when you loath the central characters. I’ll finish Season 3 but I’m not sure I will stick around for season 4, which is waiting on my Tivo.

2016-2017 TV Season Review: NOTORIOUS and WESTWORLD

NOTORIOUS - ABC's “Notorious" stars Piper Perabo as Julia and Daniel Sunjata as Jake. (ABC/Kevin Foley)
NOTORIOUS – ABC’s “Notorious” stars Piper Perabo as Julia and Daniel Sunjata as Jake. (ABC/Kevin Foley)

I missed the pilot of NOTORIOUS but I watched episode two… or I should say, I endured 3/4s of the episode before I decided to stop torturing myself.  It’s a show about a TV news show producer (Piper Perabo) and a celebrity lawyer (Daniel Sunjata), and how their two worlds, media and the law, are entwined. The series wants so desperately to be shocking, racy and daring… but it feels like a rehash of the worst elements of SCANDAL, DYNASTY and LA LAW all mixed together in a blender with a book of cliches. It’s all beautiful, cardboard characters in gorgeous clothes in brightly-lit sets being oh-so-naughty…and yet it feels so tame, so forced, so fake. A behind-the-scenes moment with the female newscaster, playing strip poker with a camera man, is just one of the cringe-inducingly-fake situations that make this show so painful in its attempts to be scandalous.  NOTORIOUS is the television equivalent of the fake wood trim that’s supposed to make the interior of a Chevy Impala feel luxurious. The only thing notorious and NOTORIOUS is that it got on the air at all.

After a week or so of slogging through dreck,  I have finally seen one new fall show that’s worth watching. Not surprisingly, it’s on HBO and not one of the broadcast networks. WESTWORLD takes a familiar premise — an amusement park full of robots where nothing can go wrong — and gives it a twist. In this telling, it’s the robots who are the  heroes… and the guests who are the bad guys. Imagine a version of JURASSIC PARK where everybody is rooting for the dinosaurs and that’s the conceit of WESTWORLD (both WESTWORLD and JURASSIC PARK were creations of Michael Crichton). But it’s clear the writers are going for something deeper and richer than simply shifting your rooting interest…and I’m eager to discover what it is. And that they are doing it with WESTWORLD, the 1970s movies that essentially started the “robot amusement park goes wrong” genre, makes it even more subversive.

My only problem with the show is that, at least in the pilot, they’ve tipped those scales too far the other way. All the human characters are unlikeable. They aren’t nuanced at all. The humans are bad, bad, bad…while the robots are tragic, imprisoned figures being horribly, and repeatedly abused in just about every way.

The production values, starting with the stunning main title sequence, are top-notch, so much so that you can almost forget, but not quite, that you’re seeing the same western sets that have been used in dozens of other TV shows and movies.

The cast is exceptional, too, though it’s a shame to see Sidse Babett Knudsen, the wonderful star of BORGEN (one of my favorite series) playing such a one-dimensional baddie. It’s a waste of her considerable talent but a joy to see her again nonetheless. I hope we’ll see her “human” character become less robotic…as the “robots” become more human.

2016-2017 TV Season Review: BULL

Michael Weatherly as Dr. Jason Bull in a drama inspired by the early career of Dr. Phil McGraw. Photo: Patrick Harbron/CBS ©2016 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Michael Weatherly as Dr. Jason Bull in a drama inspired by the early career of Dr. Phil McGraw. Photo: Patrick Harbron/CBS ©2016 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

CBS has been riding high on crime procedurals now for several decades and its getting harder and harder for them to find  fresh franchises that aren’t just new editions of CSI, NCIS or CRIMINAL MINDS in different cities…or reboots of old procedurals. BULL isn’t it. The series, based loosely on the life of Dr. Phil, is about a shrink (Michael Weatherly) who uses psychology, surveillance, investigation, computer hacking, and manipulation to select and influence juries.  The problem, at least in the slickly-produced pilot, is that there’s nobody to root for.  It’s a show about how obscenely rich people can manipulate/game the justice system to get the result they want. And, in the pilot, it’s all about a  smug, obnoxious, rich kid accused of killing a teenage Asian girl, herself a drug dealer, that he had sex with at a party (he hog tied another naked girl in an S&M pose, and posted pictures of her on social media, but didn’t sleep with her). Bull doesn’t know if the kid is innocent or not — his job is just to get the kid off. Everybody involved on the story, including Bull and his TV-perfect team, is either unsympathetic or repugnant…nobody is the least bit likeable. So who are you supposed to root for? Of course Bull discovers late in the game that the kid is just horribly misunderstood, unloved, sexually conflicted and innocent of murder…but that doesn’t change the fact that there’s nobody in the story for the viewer to give a damn about. So what’s the franchise? I assume that each week Bull is hired by someone very rich to influence and manipulate the jury in the criminal trial of someone who may or may not be innocent (but who, of course, will always turn out to be innocent, because our hero can’t be seen using his superpowers to get a bad guy off). Is that a series? Maybe it is. But not one I’m interested in seeing.

2016-2017 TV Season Review: MacGYVER

 Lucas Till. Photo: Annette Brown/CBS ©2016 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Lucas Till. Photo: Annette Brown/CBS ©2016 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved

I don’t think I’ve seen more than a couple episodes of the original MacGYVER, so I went into CBS’ new reboot with a totally open mind and no nostalgic baggage. I could look at it as a new series, rather than comparing it to my memories of a beloved old show. I wasn’t wowed. In fact, it was a battle to keeping watching and not check my email, browse my Facebook feed, or nod off. Without the existing IP to ride on, I doubt this pilot would have sold.

The episode opened with a James Bond-esque action sequence…featuring young, tuxedoed secret agent Angus MacGyver (played charmlessly by Lucas Till) who uses found objects as weapons, tools, etc. and who never seems to take the danger around him seriously. The same could be said for his back-up Jack Dalton, (George Eads from CSI), who presumably is the muscle and the comic relief…though he didn’t offer any muscle and or laughs. He was MacGyver’s ride…driving the boat, or van, or chopper while MacGyver did his heroics. MacGyver’s expositional and cheerleading team also includes the default procedural character: the smoking hot female computer hacker with a criminal past (the other choices for this default computer hacker being 1. a clever kid, 2. a smart ass in a wheelchair or 3. a geeky with no social skills) who can get into any system in a split second. And all three agents have a cold, but thin and attractive, female boss (Sandrine Holt) who is a boss in title only since she takes orders from MacGyver, Dalton and the smoking hot computer hacker…and apparently has no other agents under her command. Her job is to assign the missions, stress the stakes, and then tell them all the things they can’t do, but that they will do anyway, and that she will then agree with, as if she’s under a spell. Come to think of it, the boss seemed to be in an expressionless trance for most of the episode.

The pilot story was simple, and the “twist” obvious, but it worked as a simple springboard for the action sequences that probably read big on paper but somehow played small on screen. It all adds up to the TV equivalent of Captain Crunch. I don’t think I’ll be going back for a second bowl.

BTW, this was actually the second pilot shot for this reboot — the original pilot was entirely scrapped along with everyone in the cast except Till and Eads. That said, the promotional clip from the scrapped pilot looked a lot more entertaining than the episode I saw.

 

2016-2017 TV Season Review: THIS IS US and LETHAL WEAPON

LETHAL WEAPON: L-R: Damon Wayans and Clayne Crawford in LETHAL WEAPON coming soon to FOX. ©2016 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Richard Foreman/FOX
LETHAL WEAPON: L-R: Damon Wayans and Clayne Crawford in LETHAL WEAPON coming soon to FOX. ©2016 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Richard Foreman/FOX

THIS IS US is an unbearably schmaltzy dramedy about–actually, I don’t know what the hell it’s about. The pilot showed us three cardboard characters on their 36th birthdays trying way, way, way too hard to be lovable, thoughtful, tender and sympathetic while dealing with all kinds of cutesy, cliche-ridden, TV-show problems… contrasted with a lovable, thoughtful, tender, and sympathetic couple about to give birth to triplets on the father’s 36th birthday. It’s enough to make you wish the show came with air sickness bags. The big twist at the end of the pilot was obvious from the get-go. This felt like a feature script cut down to 44 minutes, but was too long even at that length. It’s not clear to me where the series is supposed to go from here. All I know is that I won’t be going with it.

LETHAL WEAPON isn’t the worst buddy cop movie-to-TV series adaptation, but it may be one of the dumbest. It’s every bit as watered-down and unmemorable as the TV versions of FOUL PLAY, FREEBIE & THE BEAN, MIDNIGHT RUN and last season’s RUSH HOUR…and nowhere near as good as ALIEN NATION, which actually bested the movie. Clayne Crawford isn’t bad as Martin Riggs, the role originated by Mel Gibson, but he has zero chemistry with Damon Wayons, who is utterly unconvincing as Roger Murtaugh, played in the movies by Danny Glover. Wayons treats the role like he’s in a skit, giving a superficial performance that gives Crawford nothing to work with. That said, neither actor is helped by the lazy script, which does fine with the action scenes but offers a truly lame “mystery” for the cops to solve that undermines the integrity, such as it is, of both characters. Riggs and Murtaugh are presented as two very dumb cops, matched only by the stupidity of their boss and the medical examiner. Audiences today, schooled by decades of CSI and LAW & ORDER, might be willing to suspend their disbelief for a show, but this one requires a frontal lobotomy.

 

 

 

 

2016-2017 TV Season Review: DESIGNATED SURVIVOR

neon_0001_largeI’ve only watched one new show so far among the many debuts that are cramming my Tivo… DESIGNATED SURVIVOR. It’s a great idea, but the execution left me cold. it’s a show about a low-level cabinet member, played by Kiefer Sutherland, who becomes president when the U.S. Capitol is bombed during the State of the Union address. You know he’s unprepared to lead because he wears glasses.

I was intrigued by the politics of the concept but the cliche mad general, the network-required family crap (the perfect wife, the adorable daughter, the the drug dealing son, seemingly all computer generated by screenwriting software), pulled me right out of the show. So did the lame stuff with the hero’s chief of staff,a supporting character who couldn’t get into the White House… and then somehow did in the midst of a nightmare terror scenario. Then she couldn’t see the president…then somehow got into the Oval Office. That’s either sloppy writing or sloppy editing — it’s a toss up which is to blame. I won’t be returning for episode two.

On a side note, it seems to me that we now have a record number of shows about the White House on television — HOUSE OF CARDS, SCANDAL, VEEP, MADAM SECRETARY, 24: REBOOTED, and now DESIGNATED SURVIVOR. (Maybe I’ve even overlooked a couple). I think before THE WEST WING came along, the only network show about the White House was Fox’s short-lived MR. PRESIDENT…but I could be wrong about that.

Television Fast Forward: Book on TV Revivals is Revived

Television Fast Forward by Lee Goldberg

Television Fast Forward by Lee GoldbergI’ve just re-published a revised, and substantially updated, edition of my book Television Fast Forward: Sequels and Remakes of Cancelled Series in ebook (Kindle, Apple, Nook) and trade paperback.

This book was originally published in 1992 under the title Television Series Revivals and was a labor of love for me. It was a book I wanted to read and, since nobody else had written it, I wrote it myself out of frustration.

There have been dozens of television series revivals since the book came out… enough for another book, which I hope to write some day, because I am still a big TV geek. In the mean time, I’ve only updated series that were in the first edition that have been revived yet again since then. All of the other TV revivals and remakes produced since 1992 are listed in two appendices at the end of the book…which will have to do until I get around to writing a new volume. I’ve collected all the information…and most of the shows themselves in one form or another (DVD, VHS, digital) I just have to sit down and write it.

In addition to adding that new stuff, I’ve also deleted the entries on the new Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock and Ultraman that were in the previous edition because they did not meet the inclusion criteria for the book. So why were those shows included in the first edition? My ego got in the way of my good sense. I’d written articles about those three shows, interviewed the key creative talent involved, and even visited the sets of the new Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock during production. I thought I had some really good stuff and I wanted to save it for posterity. So I came up with a lame justification for shoe-horning the material into the book. That was a mistake. I’m older and wiser now or maybe my ego has simply defalted a bit, though I think that’s unlikely.

Anyway, I hope you like Television Fast Forward….. Maybe I’ll do another edition between writing Fox & O’Hare novels.

The Best of the Worst is Back

The Best TV Shows That Never Were by Lee Goldberg

The Best TV Shows That Never Were by Lee GoldbergI’m delighted that my book  The Best TV Shows That Never Were was published this week in slick ebook and trade paperback editions.  But it’s not a new book. It was originally published back in 1991, following the enormous success of my big, fat hardcover Unsold Television Pilots 1955-1989 (which is coming out very soon as an ebook, for the first time ever, and for the first time in a new, single volume trade paperback edition). The original plan by Citadel Press back in ’91 was simply to release that book as a paperback. But when that proved too costly, the publisher decided they wanted a slim “Best Of” edition instead. I thought it was a mistake, but reluctantly went along with the idea, figuring it might be the first in a series of books. A pilot of its own, so-to-speak…

They gave the book the unwieldy and misleading title Unsold TV Pilots: The Almost Complete Guide to Everything You Never Saw on TV, 1955-1990. Even so, the book was a big success and established the format for the two, hour-long network TV specials that would follow: The Greatest Shows You Never Saw on CBS and The Best TV Shows That Never Were on ABC. I figured TV specials made much more sense than book sequels, and were also a lot more lucrative financially, so that was where I focused my energy (that said, the section in this book on TV series revivals did inspire me to write a spin-off book on the subject, which was published in 1993, and that I’ll soon be re-releasing, updated and revised, as Television Fast Forward).

There have been hundreds of great … and truly terrible… unsold pilots in the years since this book was first published, but I haven’t added any of them to this edition, though I’ve added some new information here and there. Perhaps I’ll do a new, sequel volume some day…or, more likely, another TV special. Until then, I hope you enjoy the 300 pilots in this book!