TV Book Reviews: Mr. Novak and Movies of the Week

I love TV and I have a secret addiction (okay, not so secret if you are reading this blog) to TV reference books and books about individual, often obscure TV shows. Here are reviews of two recent books that fit the bill.

Mr. Novak by Chuck HarterMR. NOVAK: An Acclaimed Television Series by Chuck Harter (Bear Manor Media)  Chuck Harter’s MR. NOVAK is a terrific book on the making of a short-lived, little-known (because it’s hardly been rerun), but widely-acclaimed (in its time) TV series that starred James Franciscus as a teacher and Dean Jagger as his principal. MR. NOVAK followed the successful DR. KILDARE template, a series made by the same studio and developed by E. Jack Neuman, the writer/creator of this series, and it was undoubtedly an inspiration for the much-more sucessful ROOM 222, which came along years later. Harter’s book benefits enormously from his extensive research and numerous interviews with the key players of the show, both behind the camera and in front of it (some interviews were conducted personally, others gleaned from press reports and other sources). In many ways, MR. NOVAK is a story of opportunity lost — the series was a critical and popular hit in its first season, but then was sabotaged by financial and creative studio and network meddling in the second season, which included a misguided change in the writing and the loss of key cast members. You don’t have to be a fan of MR. NOVAK to enjoy this book — in fact, I’ve never seen a single frame of the program. But I found the book fascinating anyway. The book comes with a detailed episode guide and two great bonus features — E. Jack Neuman’s “bible” for writers on the series and the synopsis of a two-part cross-over episode with DR. KILDARE about VD that was nixed at the last second by skittish NBC (the synopsis is inexplicably titled “a novelization” by Harter, which it most certainly is not). There are a lot of valuable lessons that current TV professionals — writers, producers, and executives — could learn from reading this detailed examination/appreciation/history/post-mortem of what could have been a landmark series in TV history if not for its death from self-inflicted wounds.

Note: This is a minor quibble, but two errors jumped out at me. In discussing the post-NOVAK career of James Franciscus, Harter says that LONGSTREET ran for two seasons and that HUNTER, an episionage series co-starring Linda Evans, ran for 13 episodes on SyFy. In fact, LONGSTREET only ran for one season and HUNTER aired on CBS for eight episodes (13 were shot, five never aired) in 1977…decades before SyFy channel even existed.

Are You In the House Alone coverARE YOU IN THE HOUSE ALONE? A TV Movie Compendium 1964-1999, Edited by Amanda Reyes (Headpress)   This book is a lot of fun and wonderfully captures the cheesy delight of the 1970s TV movies (the “scary Zuni fetish doll” from the classic movie-of-the-week Trilogy of Terror is mentioned four times in just the first 16 pages of the book!).

But the MOWs, as they were called, were more than just the TV equivalent of “grindhouse”/ “exploitation” movies. They were also a vivid reflection of our society at the time. Sadly, these often terrific movies are very hard to find, rarely showing up either on DVD or in syndication, and are very underappreciated. And that’s a shame, because as editor (and Made for TV Mayhem blogger) Amanda Reyes notes, “the seventies are considered the heyday of the made for television movie…the phenomenon of the television movie, while fairly well known, still struggles for recognition and remains one of the most overlooked mediums.” MOWs were also, as she observes, “a welcoming place for classic actors hoping to make a fast buck” and for “TV actors to break the mold of a long-running series in which they were often trapped.” Those of us of a certain age still remember the delight of seeing wholesome Andy Griffith become a baddie in the classic MOW Pray for the Wildcats or the spectacle of a faded big screen star like Bette Davis in the awful Madame Sin

Are You in the House Alone? is essentially a collection of hit-or-miss essays leading into a large section of reviews of some of the most memorable TV movies. The best essays are those focusing on the heyday of MOWs, the 1970s, and some of the thematic issues they tackled. The essays on “World War III in Television Movies” and “The Plight of the Small Screen Superhero” feel more like blogposts that the authors didn’t bother to flesh out for the book. And the section on mini-series (this is a book about TV movies, isn’t it?) and the TV films of Wes Craven read like filler.

Perhaps the best portion of this 338-page paperback is devoted to movie reviews, even if some of the choices are rather perplexing. I can see why Reyes included reviews of MOWs that were failed pilots for TV series (like Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby, Baffled, or Men of the Dragon), but I don’t get why include they also included a few that became series (like the MOW pilots for HAWAII FIVE-O, COLUMBO and HARRY O)? I would have preferred to see reviews of more obscure, unjustly forgotten MOWs. My other quibble with the reviews is that they all list the director and principal cast — but not the screenwriter. That strikes me as a major oversight (though, in some cases, the screenwriter was mentioned in the course of the review).

That said, this book was a giddy delight (a feeling clearly shared by many of the authors towards the movies),  thought-provoking….and a welcome bit of nostalgia. It had the same effect on me as hearing Burt Bacharach’s ABC Movie of the Week theme has on Reyes… “it brings back more than just the movies…it brings back a time, a place and a moment when your television set turned into a bonafide movie theater and anything was possible.”

 

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TV Books A-Go-Go

Sometimes I think Richard Irvin is writing books just for me. It’s almost like I’m holding him prisoner in my basement, feeding him Cheetos and forcing him to write TV reference books on delightfully obscure subjects for my personal amusement. His credits so far include such gems as Forgotten Laughs: An Episode Guide to 150 Sitcoms You Probably Never Saw, George Burns’ Television Productions: The Series and Pilots, Spinning Laughter: Profiles of 111 Proposed Comedy Spin-offs and Sequels That Never Became Series.  Now he’s back with two more winners…

The Early Shows: A Reference Guide to Network and Syndicated Primetime Television Series from 1944-1949 (Bear Manor Media) This is an amazing work of television search and scholarship, tracking shows from the dark ages of television that few people have seen or ever heard of. Irvin is the consumate researcher and goes into astonishing detail on each show. But this is far from a dry, boring reference book…it’s hours of fascinating reading, it’s also a time capsule offering a glimpse into the cultural, historical, technological issues of the day…and an intriguing foreshadow of what was to come in television’s future. It’s full of cool trivia — for example, in the sitcom Mama (1949-1956), Dick Van Patten played the eldest son, but when he had to miss a few episodes James Dean stepped in to play the character in his place. And guest stars in the sitcom included Paul Newman and Jack Lemmon. One of my favorite discoveries in the book is a series called Off The Record, which ran for two episodes in September 1948. It starred Zero Mostel as a millionaire DJ broadcasting a radio show from his lavish Manhattan penthouse apartment. Mostel walked off the show when the producer failed to deliver a promised live audience to fill the theater where the sitcom was filmed.  Another intriguing show is the dark drama anthology Mr. Black, which aired for a just few weeks in the fall of 1949, and was written entirely by novelist and prolific television writer Bill Ballinger. Mr. Black was the Devil’s emissary on earth and he took particular delight in  pitting people against one another and seeing just how much death and misery he could cause. So little is known about the show that there’s some dispute over who actually starred in it.  I know I say this a lot, especially about Irvin’s books, but this is a must-have for any television reference collection. But wait, there’s more…

Film Stars’ Television Projects: Pilots and Series of 50+ Movie Greats 1948-1985 by Richard Irvin (McFarland & Co). I went into this thinking there wasn’t going to be anything here of interest to me…after all, I wrote Unsold Television Pilots 1955-1989. What could he tell me about the pilots by film stars that I don’t already know? Quite a bit!  I loved this book. He gives deep background and detailed synopses of the TV series (and would-be series) projects of some big screen stars who hoped to revive their careers on the small screen with, in most cases, little success. The stars include Claudette Colbert, George Sanders, Peter Lorre, Zachary Scott, Joan Crawford, Alan Ladd, Orson Welles and Bette Davis. One of Davis’  failed TV projects in the 1950s was a proposed series entitled Morgan & McBride, written by Fay Kanin and produced by Jack Webb, that would have cast Davis as a lawyer with a younger partner played by William Shatner. It’s a tragedy that it was never shot for the camp value alone. The concept was tried again with Greer Garson & Peter Falk as the leads, and was ultimately shot in 1972 with Susan Hayward (also profiled in the book) and James Stacy. This is a marvelous little book (only 223 pages but it feels like its packed with 500 pages of information) that I strongly recommend. I can’t say the same for the next book…

Mad About Mysteries: 100 Wonderful Television Mysteries from the Seventies by Donna Marie Nowak (Bear Manor Media)  “Mad about Mystery” is an appropriate title for this very strange book… the random musings of a mystery fan about mystery television in the seventies mixed in with a few interviews and drawings (yes, drawings). There is no real organizing principle beyond her love of 70s mystery television (though she stretches “mystery” pretty broadly to include a lot of other stuff, like Scooby Doo, Salem’s Lot, and Satan’s School for Girls). The introduction by Stefanie Powers isn’t an introduction at all, but rather a rambling, informative Q&A about the actress and her involvement in Hart to Hart, among other shows. As for the rest of the book, the author has selected some “mystery” TV movies and series that I suppose she feels represented the genre in the decade, then offers her personal review and synopsis of each one, along with some bits of information that are well-known (and, in some cases, inaccurate. For example, she mentions that the TV movie Dear Detective starring Brenda Vaccaro was an unsold pilot for a series that never happened…but she’s wrong, there was a series, something a simple Google search would have revealed in a less than 2 seconds). Her list of mystery movies & TV series includes horror, animation and Wonder Woman, so her criteria for inclusion is a real head-scratcher. But she knows the programs well and her reviews are knowledgeable, though they don’t offer any fresh insights, information or trivia. By far the best part of the book, and the only real reason to read it, is her section of informative Q&A interviews with actors, writers, and stunt men of the era (from which the Powers interview was presumably pulled and moved to the front of the book for the “introduction”). The interviews with Sharon Farrell, Diana Muldaur, Tom Sawyer and Peter S. Fischer are especially interesting (though the Q&A’s with Sawyer and Fischer rely too much on excerpts from *their* books…especially for me, since I read both of their books). The author would have been better served scrapping her “reviews” of 70s TV movies and series and focusing instead on more interviews.

 

Book Reviews: Thirtysomething and Petrocelli

After delivering my new novel to my editor, I treated myself to two non-fiction books about TV shows — THIRTYSOMETHING and PETROCELLI.

THIRTYSOMETHING AT THIRTY: AN ORAL HISTORY by Scott Ryan. This a fantastic book, full of insights into every aspect of the show, and told in a unique and truly compelling fashion: almost entirely in stand-alone, capsule quotes from actors, writers, directors and producers who made the series. The author acts more like a film editor, arranging the quotes in the best order to tell the story but also to maintain narrative tension. It’s brilliantly done…and is not only informative, but very entertaining, like listening in to a fascinating, Hollywood dinner party. The book tracks the show season by season, episode by episode, and goes into remarkable, behind-the-scenes detail. There’s a feast here for writers, directors, actors, producers and fans of the show to devour. Particularly fascinating and revealing for me was the story, told almost in a Rashomon fashion, behind the fifth season that the network and studio wanted…but that the showrunners didn’t…and all the emotions, creative conflicts, and politics that led to the series’ premature demise. The book even includes the script pages for the unshot, final scene of the final episode. The author clearly put enormous work into the book, engaging in hundreds of hours worth of interviews.  You don’t need to be a fan of Thirtysomething to learn something from this book…especially if you’re a student of TV history, or contemplating a career in TV, or are even an established writer/producer about to embark on running your own show. This is one of the best books I’ve ever read about a TV show and should be required reading in classes about writing and producing series television. The only drawback is that there’s no index…which isn’t a problem is you’ve got the ebook edition, but if you have a print copy, it’s definitely missed.

PETROCELLI: AN EPISODE GUIDE AND MUCH MORE by Sandra Grabman. The book is thin, a mere 129 pages, because it’s really not much more than a general episode guide, despite the subtitle “and so much more.” I really wish there was “so much more,” because I’m a huge fan of the series and was thrilled when it finally came out on DVD. There’s not much information here besides random quotes from articles about the show and broad synopses of the episodes. There’s very little about the development of the original theatrical movie, The Lawyer, or what prompted the studio, network or producers to adapt the only modestly successful film into a series four years after its release. Why did it take so long to happen? Did the idea to do a series originate with the studio? What network did they take it to first? Why did they shoot a pilot rather than use the movie as the pilot (given that they had the same star)? It’s also never explained why the writer & director of the movie seemingly weren’t involved in the pilot or series, nor why key cast members from film weren’t retained for the pilot (besides Barry Newman). There’s no discussion of how the pilot, entitled Night Games, was developed creatively, or how the showrunner was selected, or what elements they decided to keep and/or discard from the movie and why. Only perfunctory is attention is given to the writing and production of the TV series, which was shot on location in Tucson. Perhaps the lack of details is because many of the key production personnel have passed away…but that obstacle hasn’t stopped other authors from doing far more thorough and satisfying books about much older shows that this one. It would have been nice if the author sought out more of the writers, directors and actors for in-depth interviews and did a much more thorough job of exploring the nut-and-bolts of the series. There’s no mention, for instance, of Lalo Schifrin’s theme or his scoring of the series. Also, very little attention is given to the reasoning behind the show’s near cancellation after the first season, or the creative changes made in the second season, or what elements, besides ratings, factored into the show’s ultimate cancellation. Again, it would have been helpful if the author had talked to studio or network executives, assuming any of them are still with us, rather than just speculating. Overall, the book comes off as a very half-baked work…worthwhile only for the most ardent Petrocelli fan who merely wants a printed episode guide to refer to. This book was truly a missed opportunity.

TV Books They Wrote – Books on Sitcoms of the 1970s & 80s

The Bradypedia: The Complete Reference Guide to Television’s The Brady Bunch by Erika Woehlk. There have been dozens of books written about The Brady Bunch and its many sequels, spin-offs, and reboots. This one is not the best and it’s not the worst. I’d say it falls somewhere in the middle. The bulk of the book is an episode guide to the Bradyverse… with plot descriptions of every episode of every Brady program that starred the original cast, a list that includes  The Brady Bunch, The Brady Kids, The Brady Bunch Variety Show, The Brady Brides, the reunion movies, and the misguided The Bradys drama. There’s also a “character encyclopedia” with descriptions of every character who ever appeared in the shows, biographies of the core cast, and a catalog of all the Brady Bunch songs & records (as well as other memorabilia). As far as providing new information, there’s not a whole lot beyond general trivia, at least when it comes to the production, writing, directing, etc. of the various series. Nor is there much in the way of interviews to provide an inside perspective. There are some interesting projects touched on in the section about unproduced spin-offs and continuations…but that’s also where you’ll find a big error. The author states that the proposed spin-off “Kelly’s Kids,” which aired as a last season episode of The Brady Bunch, “never came to fruition” as a series beyond the pilot. She’s wrong. Many years after The Brady Bunch ended, “Kelly’s Kids” became the CBS series Together We Stand. Writer/producer Sherwood Schwartz, the creator of The Brady Bunch, talked about it at length in an interview with me…and in many other press interviews… and it’s always been common knowledge among Brady fans and followers of his career. I’m surprised that the author is unaware of it (in fact, it’s covered in detail in one of the books that I review below). That quibble aside, the book is a handy, worthwhile resource for Brady fans.

Single Season Sitcoms of the 1980sSingle Season Sitcome of the 1980s and Single Season Sitcoms 1948-1979, both by Bob Leszczak. I could swear that I reviewed Single Season Sitcoms 1948-1979 here when it came out in 2012, but since I can’t find the review, and just in case I never actually reviewed it, let me just say that I loved it. It’s one of my favorite TV reference books. Like the title says, it focuses on comedies that didn’t survive to celebrate a second birthday, a TV niche so obscure that it’s irresistable to me. I hoped, but never expected, that Leszczak would do a sequel. I’m delighted to say that I was wrong. Leszczak has returned with the marvelous Single Season Sitcoms of the 1980s…but the book is so much more than the straight-forward title suggests (though I would have been satisfied with just what the title promises). Yes, it’s a encyclopedia of every single-season sitcom of the decade…and provides all the rich details you could hope for (cast and crew, synopsis, air dates, episode titles)… but there’s so much more. The book is full of interviews with actors and key creative personnel (writers, producers, directors) who give us the surprisingly candid, inside scoop on the development, production and demise of the shows.

Baby Boom producer Charles Shyer shares, for example, that it was hell working with star Kate Jackson. “Things got so tense that Kate quit and flew to Aspen. The studio begged us to cajole her back with balloons and flowers, but we weren’t going for it.” The feelings can go both ways. One of the actors on Hello Larry says that “yes, McLean Stevenson  was extremely difficult to work with. However, in light of the bad to mediocre scripts, I felt he was right.”

Single Season Sitcoms, 1948-1979Hey, wait a minute, didn’t Hello Larry last two seasons? Yes, it did, which brings me to one of the great bonuses in this book. There’s a lengthy appendix entitled “Shows Invited Back for a Truncated or Vastly Different Second Season” that covers scores of comedies that returned for a second season (and in some cases many more seasons) in a very different form, either completely reformatted and/or recast. It’s like getting two books for the price of one. A good example of one such revamped series is Goodnight Miss Bliss, a comedy starring Hayley Mills as a school teacher, that was canceled after one season. The show returned with the students and  minus the teacher as the Saturday morning comedy Saved by the Bell and became a big success.

But wait, there’s more. Single Season Sitcoms of the 1980s also covers many one-hour shows with comedic elements, like Tenspeed and Brownshoe, Fitz & Bones, Foul Play, and Breaking Away to name a few. It’s all written in a breezy, immensely readable tone that only occasionally gets snarky (Of The Charmings, he wrote: “The setup for this series takes longer to explain than the program lasted..”)

I love this book even more than the first one. The only downside to these two terrific TV reference books is that you might get sticker shock when you go out to buy them. That’s because they are from McFarland & Company, a fine publishing company that caters to the library market, which is so narrow that they have to price their books high to make any money. The paperback edition of the first, 250 page volume is $45, which is absurd and unjustifiable outside of the library universe, and the price for the 272 page follow-up is $38, which is only slightly less ridiculous for the general consumer. But the good news is that you can get the Kindle editions of these books for $14 each, which is affordable and worth every penny.

I hope Single Season Sitcoms of the 1990s and a book on Single Season Dramas are on the way.

 

TV Book Reviews: Jan-Michael Vincent and Steven Bochco

dd398b643956db4f79a194fcd69d0772139c8055I recently read the stories of two TV celebrities.. one a star in front of the camera (Jan-Michael Vincent), one a star behind it (Steven Bochco). One is a biography, the other a memoir…and both were fascinating.

Jan-Michael Vincent: Edge of Greatness by David Grove

Grove missed his calling. He should have been a novelist. Thanks to Grove’s vivid prose and keen eye for emotional detail, Edge of Greatness reads much more like a tragic novel than the standard biography of a mildly talented actor’s rapid rise and horrific downfall. This is the all-too-familiar story of a self-destructive actor undone by all the temptations of Hollywood — sex, drugs, alcohol — and his own hubris.

The book tracks Vincent from his humble beginnings in the central California farming community of Hanford, through his years of stardom, and up to his current squalor, which is physical, mental and financial. As Grove puts it:

“A black Mustang convertible and a patch of roses out front offer the only clues to his past life, when his aquamarine eyes, chiseled features, and sun-streaked hair sang of creamy sand and sweet sex. He has long ceased being beautiful or strong.”

Vincent today is confined to a wheelchair. He has lost a leg, the result of peripheral artery disease, and he struggles with diabetes, epilepsy, and the ravages of “countless episodes of alcoholic poisoning and toxic shock.” Grove goes on to say that Vincent “barely weights 100 pounds, his teeth dangle in his jaw, brittle and emaciated”  and that the condition of his liver “has moved far beyond the simple characterization of cirrhosis. It’s a celebration of rot.”

And all of those quotes are just from page one, effectively setting the stage for the tragic story to come. Sure, he gives away the ending, but it puts the actor’s entire rise and fall into horrific perspective that haunts the book. What makes this tragedy compelling reading, as opposed to the literary equivalent of watching a train wreck, is Grove’s writing and reporting skills. Perhaps that’s due to this startling admission from the author, at the very end of the book, when he asks himself if he likes Vincent:

I don’t like myself, which is what we have in common and why I was drawn to him.

And he goes on to conclude:

It’s obvious now that he was not born; he was invented. I thought there would be more, but this is it. He got what he deserved.

Wow. It’s hard to turn your eyes away.

51lakxruydlTruth is a Total Defense by Steven Bochco

Bochco is one of the most talented, influential, and deservedly celebrated writer-producers in the history of television. It’s not hyperbole to say he has reshaped the medium, not just through the ground-breaking dramas that he wrote and co-created (Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, NYPD Blue), but also by virtue of the many amazing writers that he discovered and nurtured (like David E. Kelley and David Milch).  I’m among his biggest fans, speaking both as an appreciative viewer and a TV writer/producer who was inspired by him (and yet never rose to anywhere near his level of success, creatively or otherwise). That said, while there is much to learn from his revealing memoir, this self-published book is difficult to read, not because of the subject matter, but because of crippling editorial issues.

But let’s talk about the pluses first. The memoir works not just as the story of one writer’s rise through the television industry — from Universal Television staff writer to a celebrity show runner — but also as insider’s look at the massive changes that have happened in the industry and how it has affected programing. It’s also an in depth, inside look at how television shows are conceived, developed, written, and produced from the creative, business and political sides. Bochco not only examines how his shows succeeded… but also how and why they failed. And he can be brutally honest about it.

He goes into detail about his working and personal relationships with actors, directors, network and studio executives…and doesn’t always come out looking very good himself (more about that later).  There are many memorable stories in the book — one of my favorites is the one about why he fired actor Daniel Benzali from Murder One. All I’ll say is that it comes down to when and where Benzali wanted to take a crap. Another favorite is the story of his encounter with William Paley, who ran CBS.  Those are just a few of the great anecdotes in book that, as far as I know, haven’t been shared before. But Bochco also goes into more well-known controversies, like replacing David Caruso on NYPD Blue, and talks candidly about his intimate working and personal relationship with writer David Milch, who he discovered on Hill Street Blues and who battled with many demons, including a gambling addiction

Now let’s go into the negatives, which are substantial and detract from what otherwise could have been a great book, perhaps one of the best ever written about the TV business.

The book is amateurishly produced on every level.  The title of the book, at least on the cover and on the spine, is Truth Is a Total Defense. The title of the book on the two title pages, however, is Truth is a Total Defense: My Fifty Years in Television. That’s a minor quibble, but it’s your first clue that this is not a professionally published book (it’s also missing a copyright page, which is pretty astonishing in itself).

caption: Daniel Benzali Photo: Tony Esparza/CBS ©2002 CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved
caption: Daniel Benzali Photo: Tony Esparza/CBS
©2002 CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved

Bochco is a very wealthy man, as he often mentions in the book. So I don’t understand why didn’t spend the money to have the book professionally edited. For a guy who prides himself on his attention to detail in his shows, he doesn’t exhibit the same care when it comes to his book. He appears to have done little or no copyediting.  For example, titles of shows are not italicized or in quotation marks… though sometimes, for no reason at all, they are in all-caps. It’s a very strange choice and makes it difficult to read the book.

Typos and other errors abound. He refers to John Wells, executive producer of ER as “John Welles.” He even misspells the names of characters he created, alternating between “Goldblume” and “Goldbloom” when talking about the character from Hill Street Blues.

There are also a lot of factual mistakes. For instance, Bochco was a story editor on McMillan and Wife, which he describes as Rock Hudson playing “the D.A. of San Francisco” when, in fact, he played the Chief of Police.  He mentions releasing David Caruso from a clause in his post-NYPD Blue agreement, one that prevented him from doing another series for five years, to let him do a CBS pilot. He says the CBS pilot didn’t sell, but that the next show Caruso did was CSI Miami, and it was a big success. Actually, the CBS pilot did sell. It was called Michael Hayes, and the series ran for 21 episodes before being cancelled.  There are errors like this throughout the book that could have been easily avoided if he’d hired a professional copy editor.

There’s also an interesting omission. He talks about nearly every show he worked on at Universal Television… and says the first show he ever created was Griff in 1973. And yet he never mentions that in 1969 he co-created The New Doctors segment of The Bold Ones, the most successful series spoke in that drama wheel.  I wonder why he completely skipped over that.

He does something in the book he would never do on his TV shows — he uses lots of cliches, like “moved so fast our heads were spinning,” “it was no day at the beach,” “I didn’t want to rock the boat,” “necessity is the mother of invention,” etc.  It’s laziness he would never tolerate in a script but lets slide in the book. I mention it not to be petty, but because its a sharp contrast to what he says throughout the book about his standards of good writing.

Structurally, the book is mess. He starts with the moment, a few years ago, that he learned that he had leukemia, and then goes into his disappoint and anger that his sister wouldn’t donate bone marrow.  From there, he shifts into the story of his TV career, jumping forward, backwards, and sideways so it’s often hard to keep track of where you are in his career and personal timeline. And then he returns to his leukemia, and his difficult battle over the disease. As part of that story, he shared the emails he wrote to his family and friends while he was being treated…some of them cringe-inducing, particularly those where he rips his sister yet again for not giving her bone marrow to him.  Is this his autobiography? A book about his career in television? Or a book about his battle with leukemia? He can’t seem to decide.  This is where a strong editor would have really helped the book.

He likes to depict himself as a nice guy, someone who is supportive of other writers and who strives to bring out the best in everyone around him. Often, he probably is the person he describes…and there are plenty of examples of that kindness and supportiveness in the book.  But he also clearly delights in trashing people, particularly network and studio executives, some of them by name, who had the temerity to disagree with him or pass along notes from their bosses. Many of the people he trashes are small fish, individuals far less powerful and wealthy than he is….and, as a result, he comes across as a bully taking advantage of his stature to beat on those who aren’t able to defend themselves.

He repeatedly claims he doesn’t carry a grudges, but he clearly does. He rips into his first wife’s boyfriend, actors Kiel Martin, Daniel J. Travanti, and Daniel Benzali, writers Mike Kozoll (co-creator of Hill Street Blues), Terry Louise Fisher (co-creator of L.A. Law), Eric Lodel (co-creator of Murder in the First) and David Milch (co-creator of NYPD Blue) to name just a few of the people who get singled out for his righteous and often brutal wrath. Some of them undoubtedly deserve his harsh words, and this is his memoir after all, but he doesn’t come out looking particularly good himself in many of these stories. He also repeatedly savages, perhaps rightfully so, his sister for not donating bone marrow to him when he needed it (also trashing her husband, actor Alan Rachins, in what can best be described as collateral damage).

So when all is said and done, yes, Truth is a Total Defense, is a fascinating book for anyone interested in Steven Bochco and the business of television. There’s is much to learn from the book about writing, show running, and the television business. But it’s also a deeply flawed work that’s in desperate need of professional editing.

 

Three New TV Books Reviewed

front-lis-cover-final-16-6-30_7_origI’m a sucker for TV books, even those about shows I didn’t watch or don’t particularly like…because, often, I can learn something new about the development, writing and production of TV series that I didn’t know before despite my own experience in the biz.  Here are some short reviews of three recent releases.

Irwin Allen’s Lost In Space: The Authorized Biography of a Classic Sci-Fi Series Vol. One by Marc Cushman. Jacobs-Brown Publishers. This is a monumental work of TV history…one of the best TV reference books ever written. That’s no surprise, since it’s from the same people who did These Are the Voyages, the three volume, definitive work about the TV series Star Trek and that is also a stunning achievement.  I didn’t think that series of books could be topped or even matched. I was wrong. This nearly 700 page paperback covers the first season of Lost in Space, and as a bonus, the development of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, the Irwin Allen series that preceded this one.

I am not a fan of Lost in Space, but that didn’t limit my enjoyment or appreciation of this book one bit (though I have to admit I haven’t finished it). The book is a remarkable achievement that exhaustively covers every detail of the creation, writing and production of the show, relying on interviews, memos, scripts, letter, photos… the amount of material they uncovered and examined is incredible and, at times, overwhelming. And yet, it doesn’t feel like overkill and it’s never dull. The author has an engaging style that rises above similar books.

Each episode is examined in-depth, from idea, through all stages of production, right down to the ratings and critical reaction to the final airing. What makes this book even more special is that, unlike Star Trek, the authors aren’t following a well-trodden path…so much of this is new and fascinating information. Yes, this show has been examined before, in documentaries and articles, but never in such detail and, surprisingly, with such objectivity. The authors aren’t slavishly devoted fans… they don’t hesistate to point out how awful some of the episodes were.

This book is a must-stock for any library and a must-read for anyone interested in the business behind the TV business. You don’t have to be a fan of Lost in Space, or have ever watched a single episode, to benefit from this great book. I can’t wait for the volumes 2 & 3.

bc8420Cop Shows: A Critical History of Police Dramas on Television by Roger Sabin & others. McFarland & Co.  I had high hopes for this book because I’m a huge fan of cop shows. I was expecting to glean some new insights into familiar and obscure shows, and new details about how these shows were made, the impact they had on culture, etc. What I got instead was a very scholarly, very broad series of superficial essays about individual shows that revealed nothing new…besides the authors’ opinions, which I don’t really care about.  I was also dismayed by the sloppy errors, which made me wonder if they actually watched the shows they were writing about…or were simply lazy in their research. For instance, in their chapter on Hawaii Five-O, they make a passing reference to Stephen J Cannell’s unsold reboot pilot, which was shot but never aired. They say that Gary Busey starred as McGarrett. In fact, nobody played McGarrett in the pilot…and Busey was co-lead with Russell Wong. This information is easily found on the Internet and in other reference books. Later, in their short summary on TJ Hooker, they say “CBS picked up the show’s final season, which was a marked by grittier plotlines and a location shift to Chicago. .. the changes proved deeply unpopular with fans.” That is absolutely wrong. The final episode of the ABC season was set in Chicago, and was a pilot for a potential reboot, but when the show moved to CBS, they kept the original concept, setting, and storylines (going so far as to only use car chases from previous episodes instead of shooting new ones!). The only thing that changed was that Adrian Zmed was dropped from the cast. So not only are they factually wrong, but the conclusions they came to about “grittier storylines” and the audience dissatisfaction with them is total fiction. If that is an example of their academic rigor, I grade this thesis a C-.

Seinfeldia: How a Show about Nothing Changed Everything. by Jennifer Keishan Armstrong. Simon and Schuster. I totally get why this book has become an unlikely bestseller. For one thing, it’s about one of the most popular and beloved sitcoms in TV history. But most of all, it’s because the book is so readable…so entertaining…that it almost feels more like a novel about a show than a book about TV history. Even so, there’s lots of meat here for people interested in how the TV business works, how a TV series develops and evolves, and, most of all, how a series is written. What this book is really about is the writing of a TV series and, as a writer myself, I found it irresistible and fascinating. There have been other books written about Seinfeld…but none of them are as good, or as useful, or as educational as this one. You should also grab Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, her terrific book about The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Binge-Reading TV Books

12525180-spinning-laughter-smallI love books about television shows, and occasionally movies, and after delivering the manuscript of my latest novel I binged on them. Here are some of the ones that stood out, for better or worse.

Spinning Laughter: Profiles of 111 Proposed Comedy Spin-offs and Sequels that Never Became a Series by Richard Irvin

I fell in love with this book the instant I read the title. It was as if this book was written specifically for me…a guy who once wrote a book on every TV series idea rejected by the networks since the dawn of the medium. I mean, who else would buy a book about 111 sitcom spin-off pilots that went nowhere? Well, you should, my friend. Because if you love television, and if you’re interested in how this crazy business works, this is a must-read. This is virtually a sequel to Irvin’s marvelous Forgotten Laughs, his book about extraordinarily short-lived sitcoms and written with the same breezy style and indepth research, which involves more than just sorting through old TV Guides (as so many writers of TV reference books do). Irvin has gone out and, in many cases, interviewed the key writers, producers and actors involved in the aborted spin-offs. Where else will you learn about the aborted spinoffs from such short-lived failures as It Had to Be You, That’s My Mama, and All American Girl? Or learn about the five, count’em FIVE, intended spin-offs from The Facts of Life (itself a spinoff from Diff’rent Strokes?) You gotta get this book. And, if you are a true student of television, also buy Forgotten Laughs and Irvin’s George Burns TV Productions.

512Y7hFq7fL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_TV Finales FAQ by Stephen Tropiano and Holly Van Buren

This an informative and useful book… despite some clunky writing, poor editing, and puzzling omissions. The writers do a good job giving detailed information on the creative arc of each series leading up to their finales, which are explored in-depth. The critical and “fan” response to the finales is also explored in detail. Series finales aren’t limited to dramas or sitcoms. They cover many genres, including talk shows and soaps. Most of the content appears to be based on personal viewing and quotes lifted from previously published material…other reference books are frequently quoted and cited. Few interviews appears to have been done specifically for this book, which is a weakness and gives the book a “reheated leftovers” feel, as if its simply an accumulation of data already covered by others.. Most of the finales you expect to be discussed in a book about TV finales are discussed (Newhart, Mary Tyler Moore, St. Elsewhere, Sopranos, The Fugitive, etc.  etc)… but, strangely, they also include final episodes that were never intended by the producers as finales (like “The Sharecroppers” episode of Gunsmoke) and finales for shortlived shows like I Married Dora  and Ugly Betty, and yet totally omit the blockbuster final episodes of popular shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation, Law & Order, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Jag, Who’s the Boss  and Star Trek Voyager. It’s not clear what the authors’ criteria for inclusion or exclusion was in their book.

The biggest problem with the book, however, is the clunky writing and terrible editing. The listing for Magnum PI is a perfect example of the editorial problems that plague the book. On page 59, they mention that the original pilot featured a hero who had gadgets, “including a hand glider that doubles as a machine gun.” Hand glider?? That’s a typo, and could be forgiven, if there weren’t so many other editorial problems with the book.

On the same page as that typo, there’s this inane sentence: “Selleck liked Bellisario’s writing as he had read his script for a proposed series entitled Gypsy Warriors (1978) in which Selleck and James Whitmore Jr. played a pair of World War II espionage agents posing as gypsies in France and Germany.” Well duh, OF COURSE Selleck read the script. It would be difficult to star in the pilot film WITHOUT reading the script, wouldn’t it? Lame sentence. An editor would have caught that…assuming the book was edited.

There’s more. On the same page, the authors write about how Bellisario purportedly rewrote Glen A. Larson’s Magnum pilot by using a busted pilot of his own as a starting point: “A few years back, Bellisario had written a script entitled H.H. Flynn about three Vietnam vets: Rick, a club owner who idolizes Humphrey Bogart; TC, a helicopter pilot; and Magnum, a private investigator who lives in a guest house on a Bel Air estate owned by the ‘florist to the stars.'” Really? The hero’s name was Magnum in a pilot called H.H Flynn? C’mon, guys.

The book is rife with bizarre sentences like those and its a shame. Even so, I would still recommend this book for your TV reference library.

512mjlH9VSL._AC_UL320_SR214,320_Bronson’s Loose Again by Paul Talbot

I didn’t think Paul Talbot could top Bronson’s Loose … but he’s managed to do it in Bronson’s Loose Again, his terrific over view of Charles Bronson’s films outside of the Death Wish franchise. It’s full of great interviews and insights into the development, production, and ultimate success (or failure) of his films and TV movies. You don’t have to be a Bronson fan to enjoy this book…it’s a must-read for anyone interested in the business behind how movies get made…and why they don’t. For instance, there’s a fascinating anecdote in the chapter on Love & Bullets about the unfilmed Bronson project Power…based on a rejected script in the Dirty Harry franchise. The movie was later made as Firepower starring James Coburn. And here lies the seed of what could be Paul’s next great book…the inside story on all the films made from rejected Dirty Harry scripts (like Chuck Norris’ Code of Silence and Fred Williamson’s The Big Score).

The World of Shaft by Steve Aldous 

A wonderful, fascinating, well-researched, and extremely detailed look into every permutation of Shaft… from the books, to the feature films, and on through the TV movies. It’s everything a Shaft fan could want, filled with terrific details on the writing and development of the books and films. An excellent resource for anyone interested in Shaft or simply how a franchise is handled — or, perhaps, mishandled — across various mediums. Strongly recommended!!

My Life as a Situation Comedy by Bill Persky

I so, so, so wanted to love this book. I have been a big fan of Persky’s work for decades. I was hoping for a memoir that offered a behind-the-scenes look at the writing and production of his shows. There’s some of that in this book… but for the most part it’s a meandering, rambling, unfocused, and ultimately deeply disappointing, mess. There’s a lot of stuff about Persky’s personal life and not nearly enough about his professional life. That said, even as a personal memoir, it’s a meandering, rambling, unfocused mess. So it doesn’t really work on any level. A real missed opportunuty.

My TV Book Addiction, Part II

Temple HoustonI love Bear Manor Media. They publish TV books that no publisher in their right mind ever would. Who else but Bear Manor would publish books about the western Temple Houston and the sitcom Good Morning World, two shows that barely survived for a single season each back in the 1960s? You could probably fit all the potential readers of those two books comfortably in a motor home for a dinner party. I’ve never seen either one of those two shows, but I still bought the books… another illustration of my raging, TV book addiction. Bear Manor Media and, to a lesser degree, McFarland & Co, are my pimps. But enough about me. Let’s talk about the books.

Jeffrey Hunter and Temple Houston: A Story of Network Television by Glenn A. Mosley is a mess of a book (though much better than his book about the TV series The Deputy). As the title suggests, the book isn’t quite sure what it’s about. Is it about Jeffrey Hunter? Is it about Temple Houston? Or is it about network television? Basically, it’s three lengthy magazine articles — one on the very short-lived Temple Houston, one on aborted The Robert Taylor Show, and one on actor Jeffrey Hunter’s disappointing career, stitched together into a thin, and yet very padded, book. But the stories of  Temple Houston, and the never-aired Robert Taylor Show are fascinating and well-worth the time, and the $14.95 purchase price of this book, for any student of the television history.

The apt title for the book might have been A Perfect Storm of Bad Decisions. It’s the story of how Warner Brothers’ decision to replace the president of their TV division with actor/director Jack Webb, and NBC’s decision to cancel the drama The Robert Taylor Show four episodes into production without ever airing an episode, and the network’s decision to rush Warner Brothers & Four Stars’ Temple Houston into production to fill the void, doomed them all.  Mosley sums it up in his introduction.

In making the decision in the manner that it did, NBC effectively sealed the fate of two television franchises. The Robert Taylor Show would never see the light of day and, in the end, Temple Houston hardly stood a chance. NBC, Warner Brothers, and even Four Star would all end up in weaker positions as a result […] Temple Houston has most often been dismissed as simply a failed, one-season western on television. Fair enough– so it was. But the story of Temple Houston is more than that; it is also the story of the intersection points betwen careers, Hollywood Studios, and network television.

And it’s a great untold story, one that neither NBC, nor Warner Brothers nor any other network or studio learned from… and were doomed to repeat many times over. Good Morning World

The first 44 pages of this 121 page book (not counting the bibliography and index) chronicle the story behind the development and production Temple Houston, and its great stuff. I ate it up. Another ten pages later in the book cover the story of the never-aired Robert Taylor Show in more detail…and it’s also great stuff, maybe even more interesting than the Temple Houston story. Everything else in the book — the biography of Jeffrey Hunter, the episode guide to Temple Houston, the pointless rehash of  Temple Houston episodes — is filler that doesn’t really convey much and often repeats material mentioned by the author before. But on the strength of the Temple Houston and Robert Taylor Show stories alone, I recommend this book for your TV reference book library.

Sadly, I can’t say the same for Good Morning World by Tim Colliver, who wrote this very thin, heavily padded book because the short-lived 1967 sitcom about a radio station inspired him to become a DJ. The problem is, the show just wasn’t very good and there wasn’t anything remotely interesting about it on any other level. As both Joby Baker, the long-forgotten star of the show, and the author of the book put it:

[Baker] also thought the scripts could have been better… a lot better.

“The reason I had trouble memorizig the lines is that they were horrible fucking lines.”[…]Throughout the course of the series, Baker thought the scripts were “corny” and the show “not really funny at times.” In all fairness, in looking back on the episodes now that they are on DVD, he was on to something.

Which begs the question, why write a book about a lousy show? Or better yet, why read one? My answer to both questions is: Don’t.

 Note: I bought both of these books. They were not provided to me for review. 

 

My TV Book Addiction

here comes the bridesI have an addiction — I love books about TV, even if they are about shows I don’t like or have never watched. I buy them on the off-chance I will learn something about the business, or about production, or about writing that I didn’t know before. I especially like books about old TV shows, because then I also learn something about television history. I’m telling you all of that so you’ll understand what possessed me to buy Jonathan Ether’s 640 page book devoted to Here Comes the Brides, a boring, utterly forgettable western series that lasted a mere two seasons in the late 1960s that is known, if at all, for a catchy theme song (“Seattle”) and for featuring Bobby Sherman and David Soul in the cast.

I don’t care about the show — the few episodes I’ve seen were lousy — but I really liked Etter’s The Here Comes the Brides Book: A Behind the Scenes History of the 1968-70 ABC TV Series from those crazy folks at Bear Manor Media (they’ve got to be crazy to publish books like this… but I love them for it). So why did I like the book if I could care less about the show? Because it’s packed with fascinating information about other shows. For instance, William Blinn, creator of Here Comes the Brides, spends a lot of time in the book talking about writing the TV series Bonanza and Shane….and that’s great stuffAnd Brides’ star Robert Brown talks about almost starring in Hawaii Five-O, and his work on the unsold pilots The Yellow Bird with Carroll O’Connor and Colossus with William Shatner, among others. So it’s for those golden nuggets that I was willing to slog through seemingly endless, pointless chapters about actress Bridget Hanley (who?) and her marriage to director E.W. Swackhamer, or the tragic details of Mark Lenard’s multiple melanoma that took his life long after the series was over. The book desperately needed a good editor, but I’m glad it didn’t have one, because it’s the stuff that had nothing to do with the show, that should have been cut, that I liked best. But if you are one of the dozen living fans of Here Comes the Brides, you will absolutely love this book. Every episode is examined in-depth and every regular and guest cast member, and almost every crew member, with the possible exception of the caterer,  are interviewed about their lives and careers. gunsmoke chronicles

Here’s the irony of me liking a book so much about a show that I could care less about: I bought David R. Greenland’s The Gunsmoke Chronicles: A New History of Television’s Greatest Western from Bear Manor Media because I love Gunsmoke, and yet I got nothing out of it at all. It’s a pointless book, a bland rehash of material presented better, and in more depth, by other books about the show. Oddly enough, Greenland acknowledges that fact in his preface: “By 2006, three books about the show had reached the marketplace, and even I conceded that the world did not need another.” And yet, he wrote one anyway, and shouldn’t have bothered, because he adds nothing new or particularly interesting about the series. It’s filler masquerading as content. Unlike the Here Comes the Brides book, there’s no gold here about other shows to make it a worthwhile purchase. Skip it.

Time TunnelMartin Grams Jr’s The Time Tunnel: A History of the Television Program, also from Bear Manor, is much like the book on Here Comes the Brides. It’s massive book (nearly 600 pages)  about a TV failure (it lasted a single season) that’s packed with lots of interesting information…about Irwin Allen and his other shows and about the TV landscape in the late 1960s. Everything you could possibly want to know about Time Tunnel is here, from the original pitch to information on all of Allen’s attempts to do another time travel series after it was cancelled, from the number of pages shot on a particular day to the cost of individual props, from the notes from ABC censors on each script to lists of the stock music cues in each episode, from exhaustively detailed synopses of each of broadcast episode to detailed descriptions of the episodes that weren’t shot. There’s almost too much stuff.  It’s as if Grams decided he had to put every single fact that came across his desk into the book just because he had them. The upside is that there’s something for everybody here, whether your interest is in TV production accounting or screenwriting. The downside is that it makes for tedious reading, even if you are really into the show or into TV history.

NOTE: I bought all three of these books. They were not provided to me for review.

These are the Voyages

51ujI2AttuL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_After nearly fifty years, I thought there wasn’t anything more to be said, or any more books that could possibly be mined, from the original Star Trek. Hasn’t that show been talked about, and examined to death, down to every last detail?

You’d think so. But then along came These Are The Voyages: Season One by Marc Cushman and it may be the best book yet about the production of the series and one of the best books ever written about any TV show. It’s a shame the book is presented as yet another fan-written curio for the diehard trekker…because it’s a must-read for students of television, and aspiring TV writers, regardless of whether they watched, or liked, Star Trek.

These Are The Voyages is an exhaustively detailed look at the writing and nuts-and-bolts production of every single episode, from the first, failed pilot onward. Everything in the book, like a TV series, starts with the scripts…and Cushman walks us through every draft and every change, whether they were prompted by creative issues, budgetary concerns, production issues, or network notes.

The author relies on extensive interviews with the show’s surviving writers, producers, directors, and actors (and archival interviews with those who have passed away) and never-before-released memos, budgets, shooting schedules, and other internal documents. Best of all, Cushman manages to remain, with only a few slips, remarkably objective and scholarly about his subject, leaving the book refreshingly free of the kind of cringe-inducing, fannish drool that usually typifies books about “cult” shows and Star Trek in particular.

These Are the Voyages is a treasure trove of information and a fascinating look at how a TV show is written and produced…and all of the forces that shape it. I’m eagerly looking forward to the next two volumes.