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.

 

Flop Pilot Bonanza

Warner Brothers is making some hard-to-find busted pilots available for sale on DVD exclusively from their site. The $19.95 titles include Irwin Allen's CITY BENEATH THE SEA, Gene Roddenberry's GENESIS TWO and PLANET EARTH, and  Andy Griffith's two "Sam McNeill" movies – WINTER KILL and DEADLY GAME (the concept was later reworked in two, one hour-long, ADAMS OF EAGLE LAKE flop pilots). They've also got some cool stuff like the pilots for the short-lived series MAN FROM ATLANTIS and THEN CAME BRONSON.  It's a real bonanza for TV geeks like, well, me.

She-Wolf of London Coming to DVD!

SheWolfOfLondon_Complete  I never thought I'd say this…but the 1990 first-run syndicated series SHE-WOLF OF LONDON aka LOVE & CURSES is finally coming out on DVD. TVShowsOnDVD reports that the complete series, the London and L.A. episodes, will be out February 2. William Rabkin and I were the showrunners and wrote almost all of the episodes. 

The show was hardly seen…it aired as part of Universal Studios' fledgling "Hollywood Premiere Network," which basically consisted of KCOP in Los Angeles and a station in New York. Other shows on the "network" were THEY CAME FROM OUTER SPACE and SHADES OF L.A. 

You can find some of the SHE-WOLF scripts, and even the Writers Guidelines for the show, here.

Memory Lane

Tonight I went to a cocktail party and screening at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences to celebrate the Archive of American Television's DVD release of the classic series STUDIO ONE. The boxed set contains 17 episodes, including the original, TV production of "Twelve Angry Men," which was long thought to be lost until a rare kinescope turned up recently in the estate of a deceased trial lawyer who collected books, movies and ephemera about the law. So much our priceless TV history has been lost through carelessness and stupidity, but that's another story…

You never know who you are going to bump into at these events and, for me, this one became an unexpected opportunity to revisit the start of my career in television. I ran into Bruce Bilson, who directed the first script Bill Rabkin & I ever had produced, an episode of SPENSER FOR HIRE. We chatted for a bit, and then I spotted Leonard Stern walking across the room. He was one of the executive producers of MURPHY'S LAW, a short-lived series starring George Segal that was our first staff job. I was pleased and flattered that Stern not only remembered me and Bill, but also my book "Unsold Television Pilots" (Stern, in addition to being a legendary writer/producer, is also a publisher, one of the partners behind Price Stern Sloan and now Tallfellow Press).

Jack Klugman, a veteran of many live TV productions, was also at the cocktail party (he was there to speak on a panel after the screening). I said hello, reminded him who I was, and thanked him again for guest-starring in one of our best DIAGNOSIS MURDER episodes, "Voices Carry." I liked the episode and his performance in it so much, that I ended up writing a prequel — the novel "Diagnosis Murder: The Past Tense," which became the most widely acclaimed of the eight novels in the series.  I told him that, too.  He seemed flattered, or maybe he was just being polite.

For a TV nut like me, being able to go to events like this is one of the great things about living in Los Angeles.

The Verdict is In

51bs1pwmgol_ss500_ There’s no question about it.  Paul Brownstein is the best producer of DVD boxed sets in the industry and he’s proved it once again with PERRY MASON: THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION, which includes twelve episodes (featuring future stars like Ryan O’Neal, Robert Redford, James Coburn, and Burt Reynolds) and is loaded with special features that, on their own, are well worth the purchase price. The extras include the original audition/screen tests for Hamilton Burger and Perry Mason, two Charlie Rose interviews with Raymond Burr, and a late 1950s episode of "Person to Person" in which Burr gives viewers a tour of his L.A. home. As if that wasn’t enough, they’ve also got interviews, featurettes, and the "Perry Mason Returns" TV movie. I wish they’d included an episode of  THE NEW PERRY MASON, starring Monte Markham, for the hell of it.  If you you’re a TV geek like me, you’re going to love this boxed set.  I also strongly recommend Brownstein’s amazing GUNSMOKE, DICK VAN DYKE SHOW and WILD WILD WEST sets.

STINGRAY: THE COMPLETE SERIES, the Steve Cannell series that starred Nick Mancuso, arrived in51enjrxehnl_ss500_
my mailbox today from Amazon in Canada, which sells it for half as much as Amazon stateside ($22 vs $44!). It’s a quirky series that I loved when it aired and that is probably not as good as I remember it, but I’ll let you know.

Mannix comes to DVD

Mannix_s1Back in November, the Washington Post wrote about MANNIX and efforts by fans to get the iconic private eye show on DVD. Well, I guess the publicity paid off. TVShowsonDVD reports that the first season of MANNIX is coming to DVD in June. But that first year of the show was about an "old school" detective Joe Mannix (Mike Connors) working for a "high-tech" computerized detective agency run by Joseph Campanella. The ratings weren’t great so, for year two, it became a straight-forward, old-fashioned, PI show with Joe Mannix on his own, aided only by his secretary (Gail Fisher) and his various friends on the police force. The ratings rebounded and the show ran for seven more years. It was canceled while it was still a hit, making a baffled Connors wonder if then CBS-boss Fred Silverman was simply tired of the show…

I know both sides of the story (I worked with Connors and Silverman), but I’m not telling. Maybe Connors will tell you more about it in the interview that comes as one of the DVD extras.