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.

The Mail I Get – Career Advice Edition

question-markI get lots and lots of questions asking for career advice from readers. Here are a few that came in recently.

Q: Wanted to ping you for some advice, if you don’t mind.  I think I’m ready to live by my pen/keyboard starting this summer. My house is already paid off, I’ll have about a year’s worth of savings in the bank, and I’ve figured out the costs of healthcare and retirement already. This is a new world for me, as I’ve been in a stable job in corporate America for the least 22 years, so it’s a big jump and one that I’m excited about but also nervous as well. I’d like to make sure I understand all the pro’s and con’s to be sure my exit plan from Intel is solid. From your perspective, what are the risks/benefits and if you were about to make a decision like this, what are some of the things you’d want to have in place prior?”

I’ve been doing this my whole life… so I am probably the wrong guy to ask for transitional advice.  The pros and cons are basically that you have to be entirely self-motivated and relentless about generating work & opportunities for yourself. You have no boss to drive you…and no company’s resources to back you up. It’s your own time and money. You’ll need to surround yourself with top professionals … lawyers, accountants, agents, copyeditors, etc…. that you can trust to handle your business affairs. And you will have to be a harsh task master on yourself to keep churning out material and drumming up new business. Don’t expect to succeed overnight. It’s going to take a while.Get Answers Button

Q: Since you’re a Tv producer cant you view my Tv show script and break it into the Tv biz? I mean I’m just carious.”

No, I can’t.

Q: I’m 42 years old and live in NYC.  Because of some personal issues I dealt with in my twenties and thirties, I’m a late bloomer. […] I would appreciate it if you could give me some straight talk about whether or not I am too old to consider a career in TV writing. I work as a copywriter, and I understand the next step is to work hard on specs for my portfolio. However, if the opportunity has passed because of my age, I would rather let go and focus on something else.”

Age has nothing to do with it if you write an incredible, kick-ass spec screenplay and episodic sample. But I would be deceiving you if I said ageism isn’t a issue in TV. The networks and studios do favor the young, so if you’re good, but not great, your age will knock you out of the running. But if the development execs love your scripts, they will look past a few gray hairs.

Why I Love Crime and Investigation TV

CSI has been nominated multiple times for industry awards

A guest post from Kate Naylor.

My friend Kate loves crime shows. She’s given her passion for the genre a lot of thought, which she shares with us today. Why do you love crime and investigation TV? I’d be interested to know, so leave a comment…

Good old telly. It’s a microcosm of the world at large, covering every human foible and failing, triumph and disaster, from domestic-scale to universe-wide. But crime and investigation TV is my favourite. Here’s why.

People get so snobbish about TV. Some turn their noses up at soap operas, others get sniffy about less-than-classy B movies. You can gussy it up any way you like, and be as pretentious as you like, but at the end of the day it’s all about storytelling. Great stories, dull stories and everything in between.

CSI has been nominated multiple times for industry awardsCrime stories are amongst the most popular TV shows. Take CSI, by CBS, which has run for years and years and is now at season 14. As revealed by Wikipedia, it’s incredibly popular stuff:

“CSI has been nominated multiple times for industry awards and has won nine awards during its history. The program has spawned several media projects including an exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, a series of books, several video games, and two additional TV shows.”


Here’s what CBS says about the series:

“CSI is a fast-paced drama about a team of forensic investigators trained to solve crimes by examining the evidence. They are on the case 24/7, scouring the scene, collecting the irrefutable evidence and finding the missing pieces that will solve the mystery.”

Wikipedia also features a list of police TV dramas, with literally hundreds of entries. But why do so many millions, if not billions, of people watch it and similar series every day of the week, all over the world?

Crime investigation TV – Fulfilling an ancient need

Humankind has told stories from the beginning of time. Hundreds of thousands of years ago we huddled around campfires, safety in numbers, trying to avoid the terrifying, predatory megabeasts lurking out there in the darkness. And we still love being entertained whether it means being scared out of our wits, thrilled, perplexed, mystified, disgusted, horrified, amazed, shocked, or even offended.

That’s my number one reason for loving crime investigation TV. It’s excellent entertainment, populated with remarkable plots, scarily bizarre protagonists and eccentric criminologists. Baddies versus goodies always makes for a great tale. The less predictable the outcome, the better. And the best crime drama TV show plots are nothing if not unpredictable.

Crime TV series as workouts for the brain

Most brain training products have been thoroughly myth-busted. You can tap away on a little screen answering questions and playing games all day, but apparently it doesn’t do much good. As a report in New Scientist magazine says:

“Brain-training software may be a waste of time. People who played “mind-boosting” games made the same modest cognitive gains as those who spent a similar amount of time surfing the web.

“It didn’t really make any difference what people did,” says Adrian Owen of the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, UK, who tested brain-training software on volunteers recruited through a BBC television programme.

Skills learned via the programs didn’t transfer to the cognitive tests, even when they relied on similar abilities, says Owen. For instance, people who played a game in which they had to find a match for a briefly overturned card struggled at a similar test that used stars “hidden” in boxes.

“Even when the tests were conceptually quite similar we didn’t see any improvement,” says Owen. He concludes that brain-training software only makes people better at the specific tasks they have been practising.

Torkel Klingberg, a psychologist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, agrees – to a point. “A lot of what is currently marketed as ‘brain-training’ is not created based on scientific evidence and not properly tested,” he says.”

Having said that, other reports indicate that, as a general rule, keeping your body and brain busy and entertained does seem to have physical and mental benefits. I reckon a beautifully tangled plot is just one way to keep the old grey matter moving.

Crime TV shows as vicarious adventure

If you live in the western world, life these days is pretty safe. We’re protected and policed at every turn, and we hunted the megabeasts to extinction a very long time ago. Survival isn’t so much of a struggle. We’ve evolved amazing reflexes and multiple senses designed to help us discern and avoid danger. But in everyday life, we don’t really need them any more.

Very few of us have proper adventures. Unless you happen to be an adrenaline monkey hooked on sky diving or one of those crazy people who leaps off cliffs in a bat-like flying suit, our fight or flight responses are mostly under-used. To me, crime TV shows deliver a vital taste of danger that just isn’t present in modern life. It might be a vicarious thrill. But it’s better than no thrill at all.

Crime drama TV shows reveal the human condition

Crime SceneEveryone has their own sense of morality, immorality or amorality. If a psychopathic murderer turned up on our doorstep, I’d probably run screaming to the nearest cupboard and shut myself in. But we’re all different. You might grab a weapon and slot neatly into ‘kill’ mode. Someone else might collapse into a terrified jelly, unable to move. Others might ignore him, hoping he gets bored and goes away. You might try to make friends with it, more fool you. But we’re all different, and one of the greatest pleasures I get from watching crime drama TV is the insight you get into the way other people react to situations. Last time I ran away from the baddie. But next time, having seen someone in a similar situation survive, I might feel confident enough to grab an axe.

Crime investigation TV and social interactions

TV is a useful conversation point, a place you connect with your fellow humans. If you’ve ever found yourself at the water cooler, or at a party, talking about the new crime series you caught last week, you’ll know common experiences like that act as social glue. If you’re stuck for small talk, telly delivers, especially when it’s compelling enough to drive a satisfyingly interesting discussion.

Crime drama as therapy

The best crime TV shows draw you in so you’re unaware of the outside world. Your life might have either turned to shit or become magical. You might have lost your job, or be unbearably excited about a new career. You could be feeling hurt, sad, furious or furiously horny. Either way, a jolly good crime series helps you forget your current state of mind and become totally engrossed in something completely different. Therapy, if you like.

When you’re immersed in a TV crime show you love, time stands still. You’re living 100% in the present, with no pointless worrying about the past or trying to second-guess the future. Weirdly, despite the excitement, it’s an incredibly peaceful place to be. Just like a good book.

Why do you watch crime and investigation TV series?

We’re all different. Why do you watch crime drama TV? And if you don’t, why not?

Pondering the Ponderosa


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 PRODUCTIONS.