Book Review: Three Good TV Reference Books

The Case of the Alliterative Attorney: A Guide to the Perry Mason TV Series and TV Movies by Bill Sullivan and Ed Robertson. The mammoth, 700-page size of this substantial TV reference work befits the big man Raymond Burr and his long-running series. It’s a great, breezily-written book from two solid pros that’s well-sourced with original interviews and is full of detailed, useful information on each episode of the original series and the TV movies… including “expert testimony” from the writers, actors, directors and producers. There’s something here for everyone — the casual fan, students of television history, and anyone interested in the machinations behind the production of a successful television series. My one quibble is that only two-and-a-half pages are devoted to The New Perry Mason (I should disclose those pages include a quote from me and I am thanked in the acknowledgments). I wish the authors had done a detailed drill-down into the show, discussing its doomed production and analyzing its episodes with the same sharp focus that they gave the Burr-centric programs. Then again, I may be the one person still living who was a fan of the reboot. This is a must-have for any Perry Mason fan and belongs on the shelf of any TV reference library.

The Streets of San Francisco by James Rosin.  Usually I steer clear of Rosin’s TV books, which are notoriously sloppy, slim, cheap-looking, poorly researched and pretty much worthless as reference material for anyone with access to Google (and outrageously over-priced as well). But since Brash Books, the publishing company that I founded with Joel Goldman, owns the underlying rights to the TV series, I felt an obligation to read this. I’m delighted to say that the book is pretty good (though it’s poorly copyedited and fact-checked. For example, he lists Michael Douglas as a cast member in an episode long after he left the series). It’s filled with interesting production information gleaned from interviews with the cast and crew, some freshly done by the author himself while other quotes are lifted from previously published books and articles. It’s an enjoyable, informative read for fans of the show as well as students of television that benefits enormously from the insights provided by writer-producer John Wilder. I especially liked the details on script development.
There’s actually real meat-on-the-bones this time and, I hope, it’s a sign that Rosin is taking his TV scholarship, and the books he publishes, much more seriously. My only reservations, aside from the sloppy proofing and sticker shock, is that I wish he’d examined in much greater detail the creation, production and demise of Bert D’Angelo: Superstar, the short-lived spin-off from Streets of San Francisco and the development, writing, and production of 1991 revival movie, Back to the Streets of San Francisco. He also makes no mention of the written, but unshot, second Back to the Streets of San Francisco movie (I once had a copy of William Robert Yates’ script because, in full disclosure, he was considering me & William Rabkin as writers for the third one) or the 2007 written, but unproduced, CBS pilot for a proposed reboot.

Who is The Falcon by Ian Dickerson. I am cheating a bit including this book in an overview of TV reference  books since The Falcon didn’t make much of an impact on the small screen…certainly not the way it did on the big screen. But it’s still a fascinating read, covering a character few people today are familiar with and that many dismiss, perhaps unjustly, as a blatant and crass rip-off of The Saint. That said, it’s probably thanks to the many associations between The Falcon and  The Saint films, including sharing the same studio and actors, that the character is remembered at all. It certainly explains why renowned Saint expert Ian Dickerson tackled the book, which works as both the business and creative story behind the success and failure of a franchise character and makes it fascinating reading whether you are familiar with The Falcon or not.

First Responders

FirstResponders_cov-500x500I'm a big sucker for books about TV series, especially encyclopedic works on particular genres (like Wes Britton's The Encyclopedia of TV Spies, etc.) so I would have grabbed Richard Yokley's The First Responders of Television,  which covers series about firefighters, medics, and lifeguards, even if Bear Manor Media hadn't been sent me a review copy.  And before I tell you what I think of it, you should know that Yokley is a frequent commenter on this blog and that I played a small role in getting his book published.

First Responders is a massive and ambitious undertaking, covering every U.S. TV series, unsold pilot, reality show, dcumentary and TV movie about first responders (mostly firefighters, but also lifeguards, medics, forest rangers,highway patrolmen, etc), produced from the 1950s to early 2011. If that wasn't enough, the book also covers major and minor TV series about first responders produced all over the world and has appendices on such things as firehouses on television, rescue vehicles on TV, and on technical advisors.

Yokley is primarily interested in  how authentic the shows were, particularly the vehicles, equipment, and locations they used, and other details relating to how the rescues and fires were depicted. It's fascinating stuff, but for me, I would have appreciated knowing a lot more about the shows creatively,  how they were developed and written, and how they ultimately went right or wrong. So, for me, the book was a little unsatisfying…but even so, I loved it. It's truly a great TV book. The depth of Yokley's research, his personal knowledge of the rescue field, and his appreciation of first responders (fire fighters in particular) comes through on every page. This is a major work of television scholarship, something Bear Manor Media specializes in publishing, and is a must-have for any television reference library. 

A Book Made For Me

51lYvEwlv-L._SS500_ I'm a sucker for unusual reference works about the media, whether its books, movies or TV shows (and you gotta love McFarland for publishing so many of them). Bradley Mengel's "Serial Vigilantes of Paperback Fiction" was a must-have for me, even before I read the rave reviews on Bookgasm and Bill Crider's blog.

I've always loved pulp novels like "The Executioner," "The Penetrator," "The Death Merchant," and "The Destroyer." In fact, I did a scholarly, unpublished examination of the vigilante genre myself many years ago for a UCLA class…and as research for writing my first novel, .357 Vigilante, under the pseudonym "Ian Ludlow" (yes, it's covered in this book, and accurately, too. And notice how similar the cover of his book is to mine).

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For me, the best part of Mengel's book is discovering who actually wrote the novels written under "house" names…and learning the inside story on the development of so many obscure pulp series. This book is clearly a labor of love, but it leans more towards scholarly analysis than fannish drool. It's a great book for fans of pulps, rich with details and background information, and offers a historical overview of a genre, and a class of mass market paperbacks, that are all but dead today (except for Gold Eagle's "Executioner" books). Many of these books, and their authors, would have been forgotten if not for this one-of-a-kind reference work, which also offers a glimpse at the influence and workings of book packagers/"creators" in the 60s,70s & 80s.

The only drawback of this book is the steep $45 cover price. To save a few bucks, I bought the Kindle edition, which was also inexcusably pricey at $16, especially since the book doesn't really lend itself to easy reading on an e-reader. Even so, I'm glad I bought it.

Pondering the Ponderosa and Steve Cannell

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I've been reading a bunch of TV and movie reference books lately, most of which have been a disappointment. 

There's a great book to be written about the writing and production of BONANZA, something akin to the brilliant and comprehensive GUNSMOKE: A COMPLETE HISTORY. Sadly, A REFERENCE GUIDE TO BONANZA by Bruce Leiby and Linda F. Lieby, now out in paperback, isn't it. A scant eight pages — eight pages!– are given to the creation, writing and production of the show. The bulk of the book is a workman-like episode guide to the 14 seasons and brief synopses of the TV movies, hardly worth the price of purchase. The only thing interesting and worthwhile about the book are the appendices listing various BONANZA merchandise, books, comics, and records. However, I wish the effort the authors put into gathering so much pointless information — like listing all the shows available on video featuring Tim Matheson — had been focused instead on giving us the definitive history of the show. Consider this a lost opportunity.

The same can be said of STEPHEN J. CANNELL TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS: A HISTORY OF ALL SERIES & PILOTS by Jon Abbott. While the book is far more substantive and detailed than the BONANZA book, it draws entirely on previously published articles and books. The author, based in the UK, doesn't appear to have actually interviewed anyone himself, either at Cannell or at studios or the networks that Cannell worked for. The one person he should have talked to, and didn't, was Steve Cannell, the subject of his book. That is a glaring and crippling fault, obvious in every chapter. The author tries to make-up for that major weakness by relying heavily on his own ponderous and uinformed commentary (often repetitive, obvious and pointless), his critical overview (often meaningless and ridiculously fannish) and his interpretation of events (often dead wrong). That was a big mistake. What is especially irritating is the author's tendancy to make an assumption, and then afterwards treat it as fact. For example, in the RICHIE BROCKLEMAN chapter, he writes:

"The intention may have originally been to introduce the aggravating Brockleman into THE ROCKFORD FILES as a semi-regular partner for Rockford (to take some of the pressure off Garner's aching back). Fortunately, reason prevailed, and the character was instead written into the 1976 pilot film before surfacing in a double-length 1978 episode of ROCKFORD."

Most of the Cannell series, even from his days at Universal, are given full chapters and sketchy (to the point of almost being useless) episode guides…but after UNSUB, for reasons not explained, only passing reference is given to TOP OF THE HILL, BOOKER, BROKEN BADGES, 100 LIVES OF BLACK JACK SAVAGE, PALACE GUARD, MISSING PERSONS, THE LAST PRECINCT, COBRA, STREET JUSTICE, HAWKEYE, MARKER and three of his all-time biggest hits, RENEGADE, THE COMMISH and SILK STALKINGS. Perhaps the author just wasn't able to get video tapes of those shows from his circle of collectors, who he thanks in his acknowledgments, which noticeably doesn't include the names of any people associated with Stephen J. Cannell Productions or his shows. It begs the question — why didn't he actually talk to anybody? I know many of these writers, producers and directors, and I can tell you, they aren't hard to find or unwilling to share their experiences. Maybe he couldn't afford the long-distance phone calls. 

All that said, there is a lot of useful information in the book and, since the definitive book on Cannell has yet to be written, this is not a bad place-holder until somebody writes it (hopefully, Cannell himself will do it some day!). 

I Spy a Great Book

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Open Channel D! Wesley Britton has accomplished a mission impossible — he's written the ultimate reference work on TV Spies on-the-air, in print, and even in music. Get Smart — the ENCYCLOPEDIA OF TV SPIES is now available for pre-order from the publisher and you should grab it. 

Britton’s book is a long overdue and desperately needed reference work is not only a detailed and complete listing of every spy show on TV, it also includes appendices on TV spy soundtracks and novelizations that, on their own, are well worth the purchase price.  This richly detailed encyclopedia will satisfy both the curiosity of fans and the scholarly needs of researchers. But it's not fanboy drool nor is it dry and academic. Britton clearly loves his subject and approaches it with enthusiasm that comes through on every page. I strongly recommend it!