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.

 

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.

 

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.

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.