The 1979 “Rockford Files” Episode that Inspired “The Sopranos”

the-rockford-files--A gang from Newark’s South Side is hiding Vinnie Martine’s body in a restaurant freezer. Tony’s mad because Anthony Jr. got caught pranking another mobster. And a boss who’s trying to reform gets his mansion sprayed with bullets.

Remember that episode of The Sopranos? If you do, your memory’s playing tricks on you, because all these things happened on a 1979 episode of The Rockford Files — written by Sopranos creator David Chase.

Chase signed on to James Garner’s hugely popular NBC series in 1976 and remained until its premature conclusion midway through the sixth season in 1980, writing and/or producing nearly two-dozen shows. And Rockford’s penultimate installment was actually a backdoor pilot for what would have been a Chase-produced spin-off about New Jersey mobsters – nearly two decades before The Sopranos premiered on HBO.

CouplaBroadcast on December 14, 1979, Just a Coupla Guys is the story of a pair of loveable losers trying to make names for themselves. Because they’re from the Garden State, that means one thing: they gotta get mobbed up. Eugene Conigliaro (Greg Antonacci) is the stylish but malapropism-inclined brains (sort-of) of the duo, and Mickey Long (Gene Davis) is the dumb but genial brawn.  The mostly useless pair of wiseguy wannabes operates from the back room of a deli – you might even call it a pork shop – in Newark, owned by Eugene’s hot-tempered Uncle Beppy (Simon Oakland, who played Tony Vincenzo on the Chase-penned Kolchak: the Night Stalker in 1974-75).

What does L.A.-based private eye Jim Rockford have to do with this? Not much, but since his name’s in the title, he has to show up.

Rockford flies to Newark at the request of a retired mob boss’ daughter (Lisa Bowman) only to have his rental car and luggage stolen upon arrival. This leaves the storytelling spotlight open for Eugene and Mickey, who can be seen as younger prototypes of Paulie (Tony Sircio) and Silvio (Steven Van Zandt), two of The Sopranos’ more memorable characters. But the similarities between Chase’s failed NBC pilot and his HBO series (which ran for six seasons and 86 episodes) don’t stop there.

postIn Just a Coupla Guys, Tony the mob boss (Antony Ponzini) is a doting father who also happens to be a killer. Anthony Jr. (Doug Tobey) is a good kid acting up to get his dad’s attention.  Jean (Jennifer Rhodes) is the long-suffering mob wife, trapped in a suburban mansion. And Mr. Lombard (Gilbert Green), is an aging former boss who may or may not have lost his marbles. There’s even a Catholic priest (Arch Johnson), although he’s nowhere near as attractive as Father Phil, the clergyman who caught Carmela Soprano’s eye.

The shared character types between the two stories are striking, though not surprising, considering Chase was a Jersey boy who grew up watching classic gangster films. Unfortunately, the Coupla Guys he cast are (or at least, were, to put it mildly) not particularly engaging screen presences, a fact that’s painfully obvious when they share scenes with the charismatic Garner, who died on Saturday at age 86. And, while The Sopranos managed to balance light comedy with occasionally horrific violence, Just a Coupla Guys is dopey and contrived, meandering through 50 minutes like an endless sitcom with no punchlines.  I kept waiting for the show to be rescued by a laugh track, which was not uncommon in hour-long dramedies of the era, like The Love Boat and Eight is Enough.

Ironically, Antonacci and Long had first appeared together a season earlier on Rockford, as harder-edged versions of the same characters. In The Jersey Bounce, also written by Chase, Eugene and Mickey are drug dealers who move in next door to Jim’s dad Rocky (Noah Beery Jr.), kill a guy, and frame Rockford for the crime – a fact which the P.I. conveniently forgets when he meets them again on the other side of the country in Just a Coupla Guys. 

AntonnaciSopranos DNA also runs through The Jersey Bounce, with a reference to Carmela, a bald guy named Artie, meta conversations about movie gangsters, and a character who says, “Bada-bing.” Antonacci, a native of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, is more of a stereotypical cugine in the earlier episode, and far more menacing; he both wears a wife beater and beats his wife (actually his girlfriend, who’s played by Doney Oatman, better known as Felix’s daughter Edna on ABC’s The Odd Couple). A year later, Chase and series creator Stephen J. Cannell gave Antonacci a perm and a sweater vest, and forgot that Long’s character had been introduced cutting lines of coke.  Sadly, the end result is like lukewarm ziti. Daily Variety called it “amateurish tedium” and NBC passed on the series, which is probably for the best.

To be clear: no network would never have allowed David Chase to do anything remotely resembling The Sopranos on primetime television in 1980. But Hill Street Blues was only a year away, and St. Elsewhere two, and with them (and others) came a new wave of primetime realism. If Chase had chosen to keep the lead characters in Just a Coupla Guys more anti-heroic, who knows what might have happened.

Greg+Antonacci+HBO+Caesars+Revisit+1920s+Celebrate+0AqhiyURpGFlBest of all, the story has a happy ending. An older, wiser Chase gave us the The Sopranos in 1999, kicking off what is now widely considered to be The Second Golden Age of Television. And, nearly three decades after Just a Coupla Guys, Chase cast Greg Antonacci again – in The Sopranos. The then-60-year-old actor played Phil Leotardo’s underboss Butch “The Little Guy” DeConcini, the rival mobster who cuts the deal with Tony that saves his life in the series’ final episode. Considering that (SPOILER ALERT!) Phil meets his maker in the finale, it’s likely that Butch became the boss of the Lupertazzi crime family.

It may have taken him thirty years, but Eugene Conigliaro ended up on top after all.

The Rockford Files airs weekdays at 12 p.m. (ET) and Sundays at 6 p.m. on Me-TV. The entire series is streaming in HD on Netflix, and the seasons 1-3 are available (with commercials) on Hulu.

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Posted in Classic TV | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Classic Soap Opera Comes Back From the Dead – Will Others Follow?

Cinematically Insane v2Here’s something I probably shouldn’t admit, but what the hell: in 1982 I was a regular viewer of six daytime soap operas: The Edge of Night, The Guiding Light, As the World Turns, Search for Tomorrow, Another World, and Texas (a daytime knock-off of Dallas.)

When I tell people that, as a 13-year-old eighth grader, I watched five hours of soap operas every day, they look at me like I’m a survivor of child abuse. And yes, my obsessive (what else is new?) daytime drama habit was entirely the fault of my mother. When she went back to work in the late ‘70s, my job was to watch her “stories” after school and report on what happened. By the time we got our first VCR in 1979 I was hooked like a playground crack head.

Sister Dorothy, my teacher and tormentor, didn’t think this was a good idea, of course. And, as with most things, she was proven wrong. As I got older and began enduring epic battles with my mom over otherwise trivial matters, we’d call a truce every night to watch our time-shifted soaps. Then we’d go back to fighting. No wonder my father used to go to bed early.

Screen Shot 2014-07-18 at 10.52.02 PMAll of this has been on my mind because Retro TV, “the original classic programming digital network,” announced this week that they’ll be airing the Emmy-winning 1963-82 NBC soap The Doctors beginning later this year. Sadly, this was one of the few soaps I didn’t watch as a kid, so I’m not as over the moon as I might be if some of my old friends from Monticello, Springfield, Oakdale, Henderson and Bay City were coming back from beyond the cancellation grave.

But still, Retro’s announcement is significant for a number of reasons.

First: daytime soap operas are almost never rerun, particularly on broadcast TV. A few have bucked this trend, notably the 1960s supernatural sudser Dark Shadows, which I first discovered in syndication on WNBC in 1982. (So that really makes seven soaps I watched that summer before high school). The Edge of Night and Search for Tomorrow also got second lives on the USA Network cable channel in the late ‘80s, and rebroadcasts of NBC’s Another World and ABC’s Ryan’s Hope graced the airwaves of SoapNet, which faded to black at the end of last year. Sadly, despite its content, the first and only 24/7 cable soap channel has not yet come back from the dead.

Also: the networks are slowly killing off the art form, going from a high of 19 daytime dramas in 1970 to four in 2014 (despite the ratings renaissance the contracted genre is experiencing). And, as each long-running series comes to a close, thousands of episodes and decades of storytelling history sit on a shelf gathering dust, awaiting rediscovery. (Sadly, most episodes of Procter and Gamble-produced soaps only exist post-1978; prior to that, videotapes were routinely “wiped” as a cost-saving measure.)

BN-AG090_1101ct_DV_20131101192642Finally: Today, thanks to digital technology, and the wealth of programming opportunities offered by free, over-the-air digital sub-channels like Retro, a cliffhanger exists for fans of classic soap operas. Will modern audiences look beyond old school production values and wide lapels and once again get hooked on the continuing stories that captivated viewers a generation (or two) ago? Will the physicians at Hope Memorial Hospital help save a dying patient and kick off a wave of nostalgia that will bring back other long-lost daytime dramas? And will The Doctors last long enough on Retro for us to see Alec Baldwin as Billy Aldrich, a role he first played in 1980?

For answers to these and other exciting questions tune in again…right now for my chat with Matthew Golden, Retro TV’s vice-president of production. (The following is an edited transcript.)

WILL MCKINLEY: When will The Doctors premiere? Will it air during the afternoon in typical soap fashion?
MATTHEW GOLDEN: We haven’t yet announced a premiere date for The Doctors. We’re still in the process of assembling all of the assets; this extends somewhat to the schedule for it, but as it stands right now, we plan to double-strip it Monday through Friday in the early afternoons. (Editor’s Note: “double-strip” means two episodes will air back-to-back.)

WM: Will you start the series from the beginning of the run in 1963? Or, as with many other soaps of the era, are some early episodes no longer extant?
MG: We will begin with the 1967 season, which is the first of the show to be produced in color.

WM: Is this the first time The Doctors has been rerun since its original network broadcast?
MG: I believe this is the first time The Doctors has been rerun in the USA.

WM: Has there been any re-mastering of source material?
MG: We are preparing new air copies directly from original 2” master tapes, digitizing them in archival quality, and doing cleanup where possible.

WM: The fear with fans is often that a network will begin airing a soap and then discontinue it, with no way to see additional episodes. Will your commitment to airing the series in its entirety be based upon ratings/audience response?
MG: There are a great number of episodes, and even double-stripping the series would run over six years with no repetition. We are committed to the series, and our commitment, like all networks’, is rooted in favorable response. That said, this is not a test: we will be running the episodes we’ve licensed, and if the response is good, then we’ll renew and continue.

WM: Daytime dramas, even extremely popular ones, are almost never rerun. Why do you think that is, and why do you think contemporary audiences will care about The Doctors?
MG:I think the largest part is the inherently unwieldy nature of daytime serials; this show alone ran over 5,000 episodes, all heavily serialized. The bounty of episodes produced for a daily serial effectively means that it will never run in repeats on a general-interest or current-programming network. The commitment necessary to re-run something like a soap opera is something Retro TV can offer, and a lot of other broadcast outlets can’t (or don’t). We have an opportunity with Retro TV to return this kind of serialized drama to audiences on a large scale. The bottom line is that enjoyable storytelling is universal and timeless, and can captivate audiences of any era. We believe The Doctors to be one of the series that most typifies these qualities.

WM: Will you be editing the individual episodes?
MG: I doubt we’ll have to cut much, if anything.

DarkShadows02-00cvrWM: Dark Shadows is the only soap to be extensively rerun, and it retains a large fan base today. Would you consider airing it, and have you made any overtures to MPI Media Group regarding it?
MG: We have not, but I’d certainly be open to speaking with them.

WM: If fans of a particular soap (like Dark Shadows) would like to see their favorite show on Retro, how can they communicate those wishes to you?
MG: Programming suggestions are best submitted to info@luken.tv. Side note: since announcing The Doctors, soap fans have vociferously been advocating for their own favorites, and I have been delighted to find that they are uniformly pleasant and polite.

WM: After our chat about Retro’s airing of classic Doctor Who episodes beginning later this summer, readers have asked how they can get the channel in their city. What’s the best strategy?
MG: Retro TV is a broadcast network, not direct to cable, satellite, or Internet. We require local stations to affiliate with us on one of their channels, and often cable or satellite providers in those markets pick up and serve the channel on their offerings. The best way to get Retro TV in your area is to call and write your local TV stations and let them know that you want Retro TV. Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve welcomed new affiliates in Albuquerque/Santa Fe (KYNM) and Tri-Cities, TN-VA (WLFG), and next week should hopefully bring even more. Stations have been very receptive and excited about the new programming coming to Retro TV.

WM: Last question: Am I speaking with Matthew or his evil twin?
MG: I’m not entirely certain. The acute amnesia I experienced after the car crash that resulted in me being lost at sea and declared legally dead for three years makes it impossible for me to know for sure.

For more info on Retro TV, visit their website. For some background on The Doctors and its best known cast members, click here

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Posted in Classic TV, Retro TV | Tagged , | 30 Comments

How a Fox/Time Warner Merger Might Impact Classic Film Fans

Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 7.45.29 PM“There’s a storm blowin’ up – a whopper, to speak in the vernacular of the peasantry!” Professor Marvel (Frank Morgan) says to Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) in THE WIZARD OF OZ.

If you’re a fan of that beloved 1939 MGM film, or of Warner Bros., the studio that now controls it, or of Turner Classic Movies, the cable network that frequently airs it, it may be time to start paying attention to business news. Because a corporate twister is on the horizon – one that could completely change the media landscape, particularly for classic film fans.

Time Warner, the parent of Warner Bros. and Turner Broadcasting, announced today that they had rejected an unsolicited $80 billion takeover offer from Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox. In a video message posted to YouTube, CEO Jeff Bewkes revealed that the company’s board had rejected Fox’s cash-and-stock bid, issued in June, which valued Time Warner at roughly $85 per share.

TW“The board, after consulting with our financial and legal advisors, determined that it is not in the best interest of Time Warner or our shareholders to accept the proposal, or to pursue any discussions with Fox,” Bewkes said. “The board concluded that continuing to execute our strategic plan and our business plans will create significantly more value for the company and our share holders, and that that’s superior to any proposal that Fox is in a position to offer.” (The bolding is mine, not his.)

End of story, right? Not necessarily, according to CNBC analyst Jim Cramer.

“The company is going to get sold, I really believe that,” Cramer said on CNBC today. “I think it’s very hard to fight a guy who has unlimited firepower, and Murdoch has unlimited firepower.”

Ken Griffin, founder and CEO of the Citadel hedge fund, appears to agree with Cramer.

“We’ll get to a yes,” Griffin said this morning in the keynote address at the Delivering Alpha conference in New York City.

Citadel owns stock in both companies, as do 70 percent of Time Warner’s shareholders. Time Warner (TWX) stock rose on the news of the potential merger, closing at $83, up more than 12 percent.

For some, a merger of Fox and the now-Time-less Time Warner is a dream more than 80 years in the making, ever since Warner’s head of production Darryl F. Zanuck left the Burbank-based studio in 1933 to form the pre-cursor of 20th Century Fox. For others, the concept of the controversial Australian mogul owning CASABLANCA, GONE WITH THE WIND, and a majority of the films made during Hollywood’s Classic Era is akin to the Wicked Witch winning.

launchFor TCM, the corporate revolving door is nothing new. In fact, the channel was created by an acquisition: Ted Turner’s $1.5 billion purchase of MGM/UA in 1986, a controversial deal that transferred ownership of more than 2,000 MGM, RKO, and pre-1950 Warner Bros. films to the Atlanta-based cable TV mogul. Initially these films served as programming for Superstation WTBS, and then later for TNT (launched in 1988) and TCM, which debuted in 1994. (Turner later sold MGM, UA, and the historic backlot, but kept the film library.) In 1996, Turner cashed out and sold the company that bore his name to Time Warner, which itself had been formed by the merger of Time Inc. and Warner Communications in 1989. AOL (remember them?) then bought Time Warner for $164 billion in 2000 (at the time the largest merger in corporate history), a disastrous deal that was finally un-spun nine years later. And earlier this year, Time Inc. was spun off, leaving Time Warner in the awkward position of being half-named after a company it no longer owned. (Time Warner Cable was also spun off in 2009, and now has nothing to do with Time Warner, despite its name, which will likely disappear if/when it merges with Comcast.)

Got all that?

Even if you don’t, here’s the point: TCM has survived through two decades of mergers and acquisitions, with a vast library of films it once owned and then no longer owned (it now licenses those movies from Warner Bros. Entertainment). And it has remained, at least on-air, remarkably unchanged.

But here’s where a potential Fox/Time Warner team-up may be different.

“The company estimated that a combination would create $1 billion in cost savings and possibly more,” Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote in the New York Times today. And Fox, the owner of the Fox News Channel, has indicated that they would sell CNN, the 24-hour news network Ted Turner founded in 1980, to smooth potential regulatory concerns.

Throughout its 18 years as a unit of Time Warner, Turner Broadcasting has largely remained autonomous. But if a merged entity begins to shed key Turner assets, that autonomy may change. Would TCM survive? And, if so, would the network’s management remain empowered to program a niche cable channel as they do today, with no regard for ratings or advertising revenue? Or will TCM suffer the same fate as the late, lamented Fox Movie Channel, which began life as a commercial-free classic film channel and recently rebranded as FXM, with (mostly) contemporary films – edited “for content” – and plenty of commercials.

MoviesAnd what about MOVIES!, the digital broadcast network programmed with classic films that Fox launched a year ago? Available over-the-air in 49 percent of the US, often as a sub-channel on Fox owned-and-operated local stations, MOVIES! airs Fox releases from the 1940s through the ‘80s, many of which formerly appeared on the Fox Movie Channel. A combined Fox/Time Warner could eventually augment MOVIES! with the library Turner bought nearly 30 years ago, and which Warner Bros. now controls. And, considering that MOVIES! and TCM target the same viewer base, there’s even the possibility that programming and branding could be shared between the two channels. Might we see Robert Osborne and Ben Mankiewicz hosting on MOVIES? I’d do that in a heartbeat, if I were in charge. (I’m available, by the way, and thoroughly qualified.)

And what about Warner Bros.? A merger of two of the Big Six movie studios would give the new entity roughly 30 percent of the theatrical market share in the United States and Canada (based on 2013 numbers). But where the merger may have a larger impact, at least for classic film fans, is in home video and digital distribution.

logoIn 2009, the studio launched the Warner Archive Collection, a manufacture-on-demand DVD service that has gone on to release thousands of rare movies and hundreds of hours of TV shows, many restored or remastered for the first time in decades (or ever). Much of that content is also available on a subscription video-on-demand streaming platform, Warner Archive Instant, launched last year. Considering that WAC is a small, efficiently run organization generating revenue out of previously-under-exploited assets, it’s probable they would continue. But, even better, a post-merger WAC might gain access to the deeper cuts in the extensive Fox library, which heretofore has largely been (mis)handled by Fox Cinema Archives, an MOD service notorious for releasing sub-par transfers that are often in the incorrect aspect ratio.

Considering the recent success WAC has had with licensing and releasing titles from the Paramount library, access to 80 years of Fox assets would be a boon – and classic film fans would rejoice. And Warner Home Video, with their industry leading market share, would also likely take the lead in exploiting the better-known Fox classics on Blu-ray and across new media distribution platforms, like V.O.D.

There are a lot of questions regarding a potential merger of Fox and Time Warner, but one thing is always certain: content is king. That was true when Ted Turner paid $1 billion for 2,000 films in 1986, and it’s true today. And at first glance, it appears to me that this merger would only likely increase access to, and availability of, classic films and TV shows. Does it matter who owns them? Probably not. What matters most is that we can continue to see them with friends and family.

Because, regardless of who you send the rent check to, “There’s no place like home.”

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Posted in Contemporary Film, TCM | Tagged | 13 Comments

My Anniversary Gift to You

BoMS-FRONTOver the past three years I’ve written more than 200 articles, reviews, and essays for this site and others. I’ve had a lot of fun and made a lot of money (just kidding), but the best part of the process has been the opportunity to collaborate with people who creatively inspire me and whose work I respect.

And, as I celebrate the second anniversary of Cinematically Insane this weekend, I’m proud to announce that one of my favorite pieces of writing has been included in a new book – one that also features the work of some of my favorite colleagues.

My essay What I Learned from ROSEMARY’S BABY is featured in Bride of Monster Serial, a new anthology of writing about horror movies past and present. Edited by the lovely and talented Wallace McBride, the book covers an eclectic collection of fright films, from early Talkies like DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1931) to contemporary creepfests like HOSTEL: PART 2. Most of the movies were released in the the 1970s and ‘80s, when many of us first cut our fangs as fans. And some, like NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955), expand the definition of the word “horror.”

postContributors include McBride (who also runs the award-winning Collinsport Historical Society blog, a must for fans of the Dark Shadows TV series), Pre-Code film expert Danny Reid, Professor Frank Jay Gruber (my go-to for classic TV knowledge), comic book author and man-about-town Patrick McCray, Badass Digest writer Phil Nobile Jr., humorist Morgan Ashley Harrell, filmmaker Ansel Faraj, graphic designer Jonathan M. Chaffin, podcast personality Sara McBride, Desmond Reddick from DreadMedia.net, and Jim MacKenzie and Sarah Giavedoni, creators of StuffMonstersLike.com

The book also features an introduction by Peter H. Gilmore from the Church of Satan, which I probably won’t mention when I donate copies to my old Catholic school for summer book club. It’s also got cover art by McBride and some inventive, smile-inducing layout, done in the style of retro newspaper advertising. Bride of Monster Serial is available in ye olde print form, with a Kindle edition to come. And if you buy a copy (and send me proof) I will email you an exclusive picture of me as a teenager, dressed up like a vampire (with hair).

Seriously, how can you resist? It’s like the best anniversary present ever.

Best of all, as befits a book about genre films, Bride of Monster Serial is a sequel. The first installment of Monster Serial, published earlier this year, is also available in paperback and Kindle formats. And it also features an essay by me, of course.

Here’s a list of the shocking, horrifying, etc. films reviewed in Bride of Monster Serial:

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DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1931)
THE BLACK CAT (1934)
SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR (1947)
BRIDE OF THE MONSTER (1955)
NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955)
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962)
THE RAVEN (1963)
THE TOMB OF LIGEIA (1964)
SPIDER BABY (1967)
QUARTERMASS AND THE PIT (1967)
ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968)
THE DUNWICH HORROR (1970)
THE OMEGA MAN (1971)
NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS (1971)
DON’T BE AFRIAD OF THE DARK (1973)
SEIZURE (1974)
THE DEVIL’S RAIN (1975)
SUPERVIXENS (1975)
KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS (1977)
SUSPIRIA (1977)
THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (1980)
HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH (1982)
THE THING (1982)
THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE (1982)
SLEEPAWAY CAMP (1983)
THE TOXIC AVENGER (1984)
THE STUFF (1985)
RE-ANIMATOR (1985)
THE FLY (1986)
ANGEL HEART (1987)
PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987)
THE EXORCIST III (1990)
THE LAWNMOWER MAN (1992)
DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE (1994)
HOSTEL: PART II (2007)
DIARY OF THE DEAD (2007)
MURDER PARTY (2007)
THE LAST EXORCISM (2010)

As always, thanks for reading.

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Posted in Books | Tagged | 15 Comments

Ian McKellen & Derek Jacobi Get “Vicious” in New PBS Sitcom

vicious1Last Updated: 7/9/14 10:30 a.m.

In the second episode of Vicious, a new British sitcom on PBS, over-the-hill actor Freddie Thornhill is invited to a fan club screening of an old Doctor Who episode in which he played a villain.

“One of the most iconic roles of my career!” Freddie boasts to his flatmate, Stuart.

“The only,” Stuart hisses dismissively.

The fact that the has-been is played by Sir Ian McKellen, an actor still drawing throngs to the multiplexes as Gandalf in THE HOBBIT films and Magneto in the X-MEN franchise, is only part of the inside-joke charm of this delightfully meta Britcom. In fact, there’s a lot to love here, including the great Sir Derek Jacobi (PBS’s I, Claudius) as Freddie’s catty partner Stuart, Frances de la Tour (Madame Maxime from the HARRY POTTER series) as their sex-starved friend Violet, and Iwan Rheon (Game of Thrones’ Ramsay Snow) as the straight hunk who is lusted after by practically everyone else in the cast.

Most of the action in Vicious takes place in the Covent Garden flat Freddie and Stuart have shared for nearly half a century, decorated with mementos of Freddie’s not-so-brilliant career (my favorite is a handbill for a play called Quick! Get Me A Vicar, which isn’t real, but should be). The two episodes I’ve seen both open with Stuart on the phone with his (unseen) elderly mother, who still doesn’t realize the two men are a couple.

“I’m waiting for the right time,” says Stuart.

“It’s been 48 years!” Freddie protests.

Screen Shot 2014-07-08 at 11.34.30 PMCreated and written by American Gary Janetti, a writer and executive producer on Will & Grace, Vicious seems like an intentionally dated throwback to an earlier era, in tone, pacing, and production style. With its stage-bound sets and multi-camera, live-switched, shot-on-video patina, the show has the look and feel of a 1970s sitcom, with one key difference: the constantly bickering lead couple is gay. But while a same-sex relationship lies at the center of the comedy, it doesn’t bear the brunt of the punchlines, as it might have a generation ago. This is a sitcom about a delightfully dysfunctional couple, co-dependently conjoined for nearly half a century. That they happen to be gay is not what is inherently funny about the premise.

McKellen and Jacobi, both out gay men, invest the broad banter and contrived situations with a Noel Coward-level comedic gravitas. And the stage-like main set – which often features McKellen making dramatic entrances via a grand staircase – only contributes to the theatricality, lending the proceedings an air of pre-War, West End farce. McKellen, Jacoby, La Tour, and co-star Marcia Warren (as the dotty Penelope, an elderly neighbor who can’t remember Stuart’s name, despite knowing him for 50 years) are all award-winning stage veterans, and their quippy banter is unlike anything else you’re likely to see in another contemporary sitcom.

Vicious airs Sunday nights at 10:30 p.m. on PBS, and is streaming at PBS.org and via the PBS apps for iPhone, iPad, Roku, and Apple TV.  The entire first season is also available on DVD from PBS and digital download from iTunes. There are five more episodes to come this season, with a second series expected. Pour yourself a very dry martini and enjoy.

Update: 7/9/14 10:30 a.m. - This Friday, July 11, Ian McKellen will host a live Q&A with Vicious viewers on Twitter. Tag your tweets with #ViciousPBS.

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Posted in Contemporary TV | Tagged , , , | 16 Comments

July 4th Classic TV & Film Viewing Guide

tumblr_lnqx3ni8pw1qbrdf3o1_500Last Updated: 7/4/14 3:30 p.m.

Most people go to the beach, or a bar-b-que, or engage in some sort of healthy, fresh airy, outdoorsy activity on July 4. Well, call your loved ones (if you have any) and scrap those plans, because there’s way to much good stuff on TV on Independence Day to leave the comfort of your couch.

National holidays have become a great excuse for broadcast and cable TV networks to feed the binge-watching beast that is now the American viewing public. And this July 4 is no different, with all sorts of marathons competing for your ocular attention on our nation’s 238th birthday (but we don’t look a day over 229).

For fans of contemporary TV, AMC brings you The Walking Dead: Dead, White and Blue weekend, with every episode of the series beginning Friday at 9 a.m. (ET) and continuing through Sunday night. Pivot airs Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) all day until midnight. USA Network has 14 installments of NCIS until 8 pm. E! airs ten installments of Sex and the City starting at 2 p.m.  Centric has nine episodes of CSI:NY until 6 p.m. Sundance airs eight hours of Law & Order (1990-2010) starting at 4 p.m. And the INSP Channel (which I think used to be religious, and maybe still is) counters with 18 episodes of the not-particularly-religious JAG (1995-2005, CBS) beginning at 8 a.m. on Friday and continuing until 2 a.m Saturday. And yes, I consider series that debuted in the 1990s “contemporary.”

Adam-West-and-Yvonne-Craig-on-the-set-of-Batman-1967Warner Bros. announced this week that Batman, the beloved 1966-68 ABC-TV series starring Adam West as the Caped Crusader, will make its long-awaited debut on DVD and Blu-ray in November. The IFC Channel capitalizes on the breathless fanboy press the series has gotten in the last few days with a marathon of the first 22 episodes beginning at 6 a.m. (ET) Another block airs Saturday from 8:30-11 a.m. and Sunday from 9:30 am until 1 p.m. Beginning Monday, the series joins the IFC schedule with four daily airings, twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon. There is no home video release that I have been, or ever will be, this excited for. And catching a few episodes on IFC today will only whet my appetite.

Classic TV fans will have some tough choices to make today as SyFy sends you to The Twilight Zone with a 32-episode marathon. The day begins at 8 a.m. (ET) with the Five Characters in Search of an Exit, a season 3 episode starring William Windom. Other highlights include Time Enough at Last with Burgess Meredith (and his glasses) at 5 p.m. and Nightmare at 20,000 Feet with William Shatner (and a fuzzy guy on the airplane wing) at 7:30 p.m. Note: SyFy interrupts the marathon from 8 p.m. to midnight for WWE Smackdown and Spartacus: Blood and Sand. (I’m not recommended either of those, but if dudes in tights are your thing, have at it.)

tumblr_mp7pxrRC471qf826yo1_400Also on the classic tip, TV Land counters with 21 episodes of The Andy Griffith Show beginning at 9:o0 a.m. (ET). Interesting point: TV Land is airing the first nine shows in 36-minute timeslots, which may mean that they’re un-edited. As we’ve discussed before, any classic series airing on a commercial TV network (broadcast or cable) is likely edited to a degree that will incense longtime fans, in order to squeeze in more ads. The rest of the shows are airing in standard, 30-minute slots, so I assume they’re edited. (I’ll update this if I learn otherwise).

Update: 7/4/14 3:30 p.m. -  TV Land is editing The Andy Griffith Show, even in the extended time slots. Boo TV Land.

If you’re a classic Western fan, the COZI-TV digital sub-channel dusts off the Hopalong Cassidy TV series (1952-54) with William Boyd and 11 of his feature films from the 1930s and ’40s for the Hopalong All Day Long-athon, with a full day of programming beginning at 7 a.m. If you’ve never seen Hopalong Cassidy, it’s interesting stuff, of the B-grade variety. There was no bigger phenomenon for kids in the early 1950s than Hoppy, and the mania even extended to a theme park in Los Angeles. (Note: some COZI affiliates, including the New York station, will pre-empt portions of the marathon for local programming.)

Also:  Ovation airs all six-plus hours of the 1982 TV mini-series The Blue and the Gray beginning at 10 a.m. Set during the Civil War, the 3-chapter film stars Gregory Peck as Abe Lincoln, with countless other recognizable faces, including Robert Vaughn, Lloyd Bridges, and Warren Oates.

TV One is keeping the 4th dy-no-mite with six hours of Good Times (1974-1979) from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. And BBC America airs 22 episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94), even though the British probably shouldn’t be celebrating anything today.

Yankee+Doodle+Dandy+(James+Cagney)If you’re feeling filmic on the 4th, TCM has an entire day of historical dramas, comedies and musicals beginning with the two-reel short GIVE ME LIBERTY (1936) at 6 a.m. Highlights of the day include the film adaptation of the musical 1776 (1972) at 1:30 p.m., James Cagney in Michael Curtiz’s YANKEE DOODLE DANDY at 4:15 p.m., and William A. Wellman’s epic war drama WINGS (1927) at 2:15 a.m. The primetime schedule kicks off the Friday Night Spotlight on the 100th anniversary of World War I, with four weeks of films hosted by General Wesley Clark.

If your tastes run a bit redder (as in the color of the states), the getTV digi-net will air two films on Friday night featuring actress Nancy Davis, better known today at Nancy Reagan – and one of them co-star her famous husband. The military potboiler HELLCATS OF THE NAVY (1957) with Ronald Reagan airs at 7PM (ET) and CRASH LANDING (1958), the future First Lady’s final film, follows at 8:50PM

Neil Simon movies air on the Sony Movie Channel all day Friday, beginning with MURDER BY DEATH (1976) with Peter Falk (and a cast of thousands, or at least hundreds) at 9 a.m. and concluding with SEEMS LIKE OLD TIMES (1980) with Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn at 6:15 p.m. And last but not least, Indiana Jones whips the Nazis into shape on Spike TV with RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) at 6:30 p.m. and INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984) at 9:12 p.m.

So have a happy and safe Independence Day where it’s happiest and safest – in your living room.

This article was updated with additional information on 7/4/14. Special thanks to Mitchell Kade for contributing. 

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Adam West vs. “Alice” in 1976

castRemember that episode of Alice with Batman’s Adam West as a Sex Ed teacher and Lara Parker – Angelique the witch from Dark Shadows – as a sexually permissive mom?

If you’re under 40, you may have answered “no” to that question, because the 1976-85 CBS sitcom has only been broadcast sporadically in reruns over the past three decades (most recently on the pre-Kardashian E! Channel and Ion Television).

But fear not, nostalgia loving Millennials and latter-era Gen X’ers! Because unlike Mel’s Diner, Warner Archive Instant delivers. The subscription video-on-demand service is now streaming all 24 episodes from the first season of the long-running series, which featured actress and singer Linda Lavin in a role originated by Academy Award-winner Ellen Burstyn in Martin Scorsese’s ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (1974).

alice-linda-lavin-1And best of all, the episodes are completely uncut, clocking in at more than 25 minutes. While it’s great news that so many nostalgia-themed digital sub-channels have popped up in recent years, Me-TV, Antenna TV, and COZI-TV often edit classic series in order to squeeze in additional commercials. This can mean as many as three minutes cut from half-hour sitcoms, bringing the running time down to 22 minutes and removing key plot points.

In the case of Warner Archive’s release of Alice (which is also available on DVD, along with seasons 2, 3, and 4), the episodes are likely being seen in their original broadcast length for the first time since their network broadcast. If you’re a longtime fan, that’s a huge selling point. And if you’re new to the show, intact episodes are a far better introduction.

West_LavinIn Sex Education, originally aired on November 6, 1976, single mother Alice Hyatt (Lavin) discovers a picture of a naked lady in her 12-year-old son’s wallet. When Tommy (Phillip McKeon) starts “studying” behind closed doors with a pretty classmate (Michele Tobin), Alice begins to fear that her little boy is engaging in extracurricular activity.  She decides to talk with Tommy’s teacher Mr. Turner (West), who offers to show Alice the instructional film he screened for the class. Alice suggests they use Mel’s Diner, which is convenient, considering that the show only has two sets.

For reasons unexplained by the writers (and probably prohibited by the Phoenix School Board), Alice’s boss Mel (Vic Tayback) and her co-workers Flo (Polly Holliday) and Vera (Beth Howland) also watch the movie, gawking away at the (unseen by us) 16mm footage of seemingly explicit sexual congress. All the while West narrates in tight slacks, disco shirt, and his trademark stoner baritone

“I liked it,” Vera says when the lights come up. “But there really wasn’t much of a plot.

Lara_ParkerAlso in attendance at the diner is Mrs. Randolph (Parker), a mom who has put her 14-year-old daughter on the birth control pill. Alice is horrified at the wealthy woman’s liberal attitude toward sex and takes the opportunity to engage in some down-home moralizing. Demonstrating some of the attitude that made her a formidable foe for Jonathan Frid’s vampire Barnabas Collins, Parker’s character shoots back at our heroine with ferocity in her eyes:

“We have to face the fact that we’re living in the ‘70s.  There’s movies and television and kids are just turned on earlier,” she says.  “My daughter knows what it’s all about.”

Surprisingly, the writers give the last word in this argument to West’s Mr. Turner who schools Alice on her responsibilities to her child.

“Values must come from the home; we can only do so much in education,” he says. “The rest is up to you.”

The episode wraps up with Alice and the notoriously promiscuous Flo giving Tommy a speech about commitment, followed by a hug, in true “very special episode” style. Ironically, Alice waxes poetic about Tommy’s late father and how much she swooned for him. In Scorsese’s far darker film, Tommy’s dad is a complete asshole whose death is something of a blessing for Alice and her son.

Alice will never be regarded with the same reverence as Mary Tyler Moore, The Bob Newhart Show, M*A*S*H, or even shot-on-video contemporaries like All in the Family and Maude, but it’s a fun workplace comedy with very likeable performers. Polly Holliday is the typical second banana that steals the show, and she and Lavin make a great duo. (Holliday’s short-lived spin-off Flo is also available on DVD from Warner Archive.)

WestIt’s fascinating to see Adam West in 1976, during his post-Batman lean years as a working actor, before his icon status took hold. And it’s a real treat to see Parker, who turned on every Dark Shadows fan – male, female, straight, and gay – with her evil vulnerability as Angelique. She had a thriving career in film and episodic TV after Dark Shadows ended in 1971 and she should be better known than she is. (Today, she’s an author of novels that continue the exploits of her most famous character.)

This was such an interesting time in TV, as writers tackled previously taboo topics sometimes with a light touch, and sometimes with a heavy hand. If you can look beyond the ugly 1970s videotape (which looks better here than it probably ever has before), there’s a lot to learn about television and its impact on the national conversation 40 years ago.

Plus, there are plenty of dirty jokes from Polly Holliday to keep the grits nice and light. So start enjoyin’, cause life’s too short.

Warner Archive Instant is available on PC, Mac, iPad, Apple TV (via Airplay) and the Roku Streaming player. A free 30-day trial is available for new customers. For more information, click here

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Posted in Classic TV, Warner Archive Collection | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments