TV CRIME, SMART OR STUPID?

Mr. Robot’s protege revolts – Slater and Malek

What follows is a survey of some of the current fictional crime shows on TV. Not all. Cable is long and life is short. Also, instead of labeling series as good or bad, I like to think of them as being smart or stupid, with gradations, of course. The former would be a show that, bottom line, works in every aspect – writing, casting and presentation. Binge- and even DVR-worthy. The latter is a show that is a painful mistake from opening credits.

MR. ROBOT (USA) is the ultimate example of a smart TV show. It’s currently on hiatus but probably available on demand somewhere and I suggest you hunt it down. Sam Esmail has created a brilliant,  anarchistic , savagely satiric and FUNNY series about a mentally-disturbed computer programmer (Rami Malek) who is lured by a scruffy man of mystery (Christian Slater) into leading a group of malcontent hackers hell-bent on doing what Ted Koppel fears the most – using the Internet to bring down America. The acting is extraordinary. The writing is exquisite, full characters, knife-sharp dialogue, shocking surprises and a continuing plot that is as neatly worked out as a perfect puzzle. On top of that, the direction is as effective as it is unusual, with the camera placed at positions that initially seem arbitrary, but, in fact, add much to the effect of the scenes. A BIT OF CAUTION: because of the intricacy of the complete season, this is not a series you can pick up at episode four or five. More than HOUSE OF CARDS, this is a series ideal for binging.

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Queens, in silent mode.

As for stupid shows, look no further than SCREAM QUEENS (Fox). Ignoring the performances, which may be acceptable for all I know, the show isn’t funny enough to be a comedy, or tense enough to be a thriller. The creators should take a look at the competition, SCREAM (MTV, currently on hiatus), which isn’t exactly Hitchcock material but manages to stir up enough suspense to get you through the commercials. And, unlike QUEENS, it keeps the camp and bitchiness at a reasonable level.

minority_report_tv_show_review_under_the_radar_2MINORITY REPORT (FOX) is so overly-clever, it’s stupid. A science fiction series based on a Stephen Spielberg-Tom Cruise movie about visionary cops who can predict crimes before they happen, it is simply too complicated for TV. The only reason I can tag line the show is because I saw and sort of understood the premise of the movie. The series pilot kept circling the main gimmick, and, not incidentally, shifting the emphasis from the Cruise character to that of his handler. Bottom line: it seemed too muddled to be worth the effort of sticking with it.

quantico

Chopra (l.) and company

While all stupid shows are bad, not all smart series are good. Case in point: QUANTICO (ABC). Judging by its pilot, it’s about a class of FBI recruits, one or more of whom engineers a terrorist plot on US soil. It features a young woman, Alex Parrish, (played by Indian actress Priyanka Chopra) who becomes the number one suspect and has to find the real terrorist to clear herself. The pilot was smart. Sharply directed and written. Well-acted. Twists, Crisp dialogue. Judging by the ratings, people like the show. But I didn’t much care about the self-serving, overly-aggressive Alex or any of her fellow recruits enough to spend any more time on them and their no-doubt multiplying problems.

FARGO'S Wilson, Smart and Danson

FARGO’S Wilson, Smart and Danson

This year’s FARGO is as smart as the last. Taking us back to a time when the first season’s heroine was but a little girl, it is properly quirky, shocking, brutal, and strangely endearing. There’s a much-feared, above-the-law family, the Gerhardts, headed by the always reliable Jean Smart. The equally-reliable Jeffrey Donovan plays one of her ferocious, dim-bulb sons. Kirsten Dunst is a bubble-headed but surprisingly adaptive hair stylist who accidentally rolls over the youngest Gerhardt (Kieran Culkin) just as he’s trying to make his getaway after mowing down a judge and the employees in a diner. Dunst doesn’t just hit and run, she drags the body home. Then she and her butcher husband (Jesse Plemons) cut the corpse into steaks. It’s that kind of show. There are big city mobsters (Brad Garrett and Bokeem Woodbine, to name but two) out to remove the remaining Gerhardts. The law is represented by a fearless, no-nonsense, heroic cop (Patrick Wilson playing a younger version of last season’s Keith Carradine) and his father-in-law, a wise and observant sheriff (played by Ted Danson behind a white beard). The story, so far, is as strong as the cast.

Carpenter, McDorman and Cooper

Carpenter, McDorman and Cooper

In the film version of LIMITLESS, Bradley Cooper was a writer who, according to the IMDb, uses a mysterious pill “to access 100 percent of his brain abilities.” Since the movie had a, well, limited effect on the box office, a TV version seemed a dubious bet. And some critics who saw the pilot gave it a thumbs down. But they were wrong. The show (CBS) is not only smart, viewers like it. As they should. It has the fairly familiar setup (MINORITY REPORT, iZOMBIE and, I suppose CASTLE, FOREVER and WHITE COLLAR) of official lawperson teamed with brilliant but quirky partner who uses an unusual skill to solve crimes. But it’s developing a unique set of complications. The pills (called NZT) keep our hero Brian Finch (winningly played by Jake McDorman) at the top of his game, but can result in an excruciatingly painful death if he is not given a different pill to counteract that unpleasant aftereffect. Just another example of modern medicine. Until recently, the savior pills were doled out by Mr. Sands, a cold villain played by Colin Salmon, a British actor with an extremely dynamic presence. But Bradley Cooper, who drops by the show every now and then (pilot, sweeps week), has just given Brian a supply of the antidote. We’re still not sure if Bradley is good or sinister, but we now know his “assistant,” Mr. Sands kills people. Brian and his FBI handler (played by Jennifer Carpenter, late of DEXTER) have the right chemistry. Therein lies a complication. Her dad, who died recently, had been taking NZT. With Brian’s help, she’s investigating the death. Mr. Sands doesn’t want that. So – long story short – I’m in.

Alexander, Stapleton and neckbeard

Alexander, Stapleton and neckbeard

BLINDSPOT (NBC) is kinda like a combination of Ray Bradbury’s THE ILLUSTRATED MAN and NBC’s smarter offering, THE BLACKLIST. It’s about a an amnesia victim (Jaimie Alexander) who appears in Times Square covered with tattoos and little else. Each tat has a meaning. So far they’ve been clues to plots to take down America, but one on her back refers to her FBI handler, Kurt Weller (Sullivan Stapleton). He’s a bit of a sad sack who’s convinced the illustrated Jane Doe is a girl he had feelings for in his youth and whose mysterious disappearance somehow involves his father. The show’s premise is intriguing enough that I’ve stayed with it, but the plots are starting to seem awfully familiar – tat leads to terrorist who almost succeeds until Jane Doe, using remarkable fighting and gunplay skills, saves the day. Alexander is beautiful (think Audrey Hepburn with even better cheekbones) and does sincere and karate as well as anybody. But Stapleton, whose long suit – ebullient, flamboyant action – was well-used in the Showtime series STRIKE BACK and one of the 300 flicks, here is being held back, limited to casting sheep eyes at Jane Doe, watching her beat up terrorists, and being generally moody. Also, the neckbeard was no prob in STRIKE BACK’s third world settings but seems a bit much for FBI’s Manhattan office. Ashley Johnson’s vivacious tech whiz has become more and more prominent as the series progresses. Probably because she’s the only one in the FBI office who seems to be fully awake and invested in the work.

Kohli and McIver, looking properly aghast

Kohli and McIver, looking properly aghast

iZOMBIE (CW). Any show that can get me to watch its protagonist dine on brains more than once (and with a smile on my face) gets my vote. Creators Diane Ruggiero and Rob Thomas gave us VERONICA MARS, another very smart series with a strong female lead, witty dialogue and twisty plots. Casting is one more secret to their success. Here, Rose McIver is the hapless but heroic Olivia “Liv” Moore, former med student, who is infected during a zombie attack on a yacht party. But, though chalk pale, she looks, feels and acts a whole lot healthier and upbeat than those monsters on WALKING DEAD. She’s also much more fun to watch as, working as assistant to a glib coroner (Rahus Kohli), she dines on gourmet-prepared grey matter that provides not only sustenance but temporary memory and attributes of the corpse. This allows Liv to assist Detective Clive Babineaux (Malcolm Goodwin, recently of the gone-too-soon BREAKOUT KINGS) in solving crimes, while providing actress McIver the opportunity to display an amazing thespian diversity. Not quite as impressive as Tatiana Maslany’s multi-character turn in ORPHAN BLACK, but close enough. Aside from Kohli and Babineaux, both of whom capably add to the series’ lightning pace and patter, Robert Buckley, as Liv’s former and now current (if very careful) flame, has stalwartly gone through hell battling zombies, anti-zombies and drug addiction, while David Anders essays the villain of the piece, the former zombie we love to hate who infected Liv and continues to plague her with relentless glee.

Davis about to misuse justice once again

Davis about to misuse justice once again

I can understand the success of the Shonda Rhimes duo, SCANDAL and HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER (both ABC). They’re  flashy, highly-exploitable series, their main products being the always marketable shock and sex. A while ago, after happily binging on the first two seasons of SCANDAL, I suddenly realized, admittedly a bit late, that the writers had reduced the main elements – the on-again, off-again romance between the series protag, DC fixer Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), and US President Fitz Grant (Tony Goldwyn), Olivia’s equally o-a,o-a relationship with her powerful and sinister father (Joe Morton), and the secondary problems of her staff and the prez’s – to the moves of a video game. Press a button and this happens, press another and that happens. Plot construction be damned. Even worse, as Olivia’s moral standards, at the White House and on the job, began to wane, there became no one character to root for in the series’ large, roiling cast. That problem was apparent almost from the start of MURDER, where the lead, defense attorney and teacher Annalise Keating, does everything she can, including maybe even murder, to a) win her cases and b) hide her past and present indiscretions. And, as the show progresses, she proceeds to batter and berate her hand-picked class of future barristers until they dismiss any hint of decency they once possessed. The fact that Viola Davis, the actress portraying Annalise, is so skillful and presents such a powerful presence only helps to highlight the character’s lack of the right stuff. Her protégés, not exactly nature’s noblepersons from episode one, have become as vile and venal as they wanna be. I don’t know what the point of this series is, unless it is to shake the already flimsy stature of members of the legal profession.

Winchester and Snipes

Winchester and Snipes

The preview of THE PLAYER (NBC) led me to hope that it would be a different, better series. It looked like it might be a sort of Ross Thomas setup with a cool, immaculately-dressed Wesley Snipes somehow forcing rugged, raffish man-of-action Philip Winchester (STRIKE BACK) to do ridiculously dangerous things for . . . the good old USA, maybe? Instead, the dangerous deeds are part of a reality show-game played by big time gamblers. In other words, crimes are allowed to take place and info is being withheld from professional law enforcement so that international one-percenters can amuse themselves by betting on whether a single man can stop killers or terrorists within a specific time allotment. What could have been fun with these guys and Charity Wakefield, the hot British actress who plays Snipes second-in-command, now seems cynical and cheesy. Stupid.

Chestnut, Ortiz, Toussaint and Lombardozzi

Chestnut, Ortiz, Toussaint and Lombardozzi

ROSEWOOD (Fox) has an old-fashioned format: heterosexual, seemingly antagonist teammates solve crimes. It relies heavily on Morris Chestnut’s outgoing performance as a high-flying pathologist with health and mom issues, but, combined with good, combative dialogue between him and abrasive Miami Detective Annalise Villa (Jaina Lee Ortiz), it’s enough to keep one moderately amused until EMPIRE. And there’s the added pleasure of Lorraine Toussaint as Rosewood’s mom and Domenick Lombardozzi (another ex-BREAKOUT KINGS stalwart) as the couple’s frustrated police captain.

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Moura giving that Escobar deadly stare

NARCOS (Netflix), created by Chris Brancato, Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro, is a riveting semi documentary that makes for an ideal weekend binge. Ten episodes, running about fifty minutes each (though they seem much shorter, a key binge plus) cover the rise and fall of Medellin crime lord Pablo Escobar, told from his POV and that of two near-obsessive American Drug Enforcement agents, Steve Murphy and Javier Pena. The acting — led by Wagner Moura as Escobar, Boyd Holbrook as Murphy and Pedro Pascal (whose head, you may remember was popped like a Oogie doll’s in GAME OF THRONES) — is terrific. The pace is breathless, the execution (like the drama’s frequent executions) is swift and efficient. Evidently the guys at Entourage were correct in thinking that the Escobar story  would make for compelling viewing. Way more compelling than a feature film of Entourage.  One caveat: though the season ends well, there is a vaguely open end that, alas, has given birth to a season two. It seems as if that might be pushing it, but I hope not.

As I said at the start, there are just too many shows.  I’ll end with a few short opinions:

* critics seem to love JESSICA JONES (Netflix) but I don’t get it. The show plays like a series of depressing experiences for the heroine — not my idea of a good time — and  the continuing plot seems heavy-handed and predictable. Not ideal for binging.

*I like both THE FLASH and GREEN ARROW, (CW), but evidently the Warner folks used up all their innovation when it came to transferring SUPERGIRL  to the home screen (CBS).  I don’t think there’s ever been a sillier,  less interesting comic book adaptation  including HOWARD THE DUCK. I  suppose the show may appeal to pre-teens, but it will not serve as a feeder to anything created by Lena Dunham.

Saving America one week at a time

Saving America one week at a time

*AGENT X  (TNT) — closer to MAN FROM UNCLE than SECRET AGENT, it’s entertaining, often witty  and is blessed with a strong cast led by Sharon Stone as this country’s Vice President, Gerald McRaney as the old pro spymaster, John Shea as the president and, just to stack the deck, semi-regulars Jamey Sheridan and James Earl Jones. Jeff Hephner is the title character and more than fills the swashbuckling bill.

I love talking TV, so iff you agree or disagree with any of the above. or have your own takes on the current crime shows, please drop a line.

 

Goldberg Variations

 

Lee and Joe Wambaugh, one author with whom, to my knowledge, he has not collaborated

Lee and Joe Wambaugh, one author with whom, to my knowledge, he has not yet collaborated

It was on an evening in 1950 when, as something of a surprise, my father showed up after work accompanied by a large man toting a large television set. The set was big, the screen small. I’m guessing 12”, more round than rectangular, with a black and white image, of course. Later, we would buy a clear plastic sheet that was tinted blue at the top, green at the bottom and a sort of pale orange in the middle. With it taped to the screen, on rare occasions, an outdoor scene seemed vaguely colorized. Most of the time, it resembled a Facebook profile picture tinted by a modified LGBT rainbow.Admiral-Model-1617

There was only one local channel in New Orleans, WDSU-TV, the NBC outlet, but they managed to sneak in a few CBS and ABC shows. If memory serves, the broadcast schedule included Milton Berle’s comedy hour on Tuesday nights, Ed Sullivan’s TOAST OF THE TOWN on Sundays, KRAFT THEATRE, STUDIO 1, PHILCO PLAYHOUSE and on Saturday mornings Hopalong Cassidy movies, Gene Autry in

imgresTHE PHANTOM EMPIRE or a serial featuring Don Winslow (the Coast Guard officer, not the crime writer).

It took me about five minutes to become a lifelong TV addict. These days, there is so much available content that, were if not for intermittent fits of self-control, I would probably be watching the box right now, instead of hunting and pecking computer keys.

It’s not that the new shows are all that compelling, though some are. What commands my devotion are the reruns of favorites from the past. I’m talking primarily about the dramatic series. Comedies – even classics, like I LOVE LUCY or THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW– don’t engage me as much these days as PETER GUNN or MIKE HAMMER or THE THIRD MAN 51epmhPWByLor, personal favorites, THE SAINT and SECRET AGENT.

For my money, all crime shows are binge-worthy. I recently spent too many hours watching the 1989 Burt Reynolds series, B L STRYKER. I might have felt a twinge of self-loathing for wasting so much time were it not for the discovery that a remarkable gallery of writers crafted the BLStryker_S1scripts, including my late friend Joe Gores, Tommy Thompson, and Joan and Robert Parker.

All of this backstory is leading finally to the point of this piece:  my  delight that author, television writer and producer Lee Goldberg has recently put three books full of TV info into digital and paperback format.  Lee obviously shares my love of television past and knows more about small screen history than any sane person should. Lee, I should note, has always been something of a mystery to me. How can he write so many books (they number in the hundreds, including a bestselling series he’s co-writing with Janet Evanovich) and Janet-and-Lee-on-Set-for-TV-interviews-1-300x224so many scripts (forget about counting), all while simultaneously producing TV series, blogging, contributing incessantly to all of the social networks and, creating and running with partner Joel Goldman, Brash Books, a publishing house wise enough to keep my books SLEEPING DOG and LAUGHING DOG in print.

On top of that, he seems to have time to watch a lot of TV, read and report on books, go to movies and take frequent vacations with his family. How does he find the hours? Is he a time lord? Has he been cloned? Has he minions? Is he, like Larry Block’s Tanner, a man who has no need of sleep?

In any case, as I mentioned  Lee recently digitized and paperbacked a few of his past books.  No big surprise: he’s been doing that for a while. What makes these special to those of us addicted to “scripted” television is that they’re updates to his classic compilations UNSOLD TELEVISION PILOTS: 1955-1989, THE BEST TV SHOWS THAT NEVER WERE and TELEVISION FAST FORWARD. They’re jam-packed with so much fascinating information, they’ve forced even me to spend a few nights without turning on the TV.

More than just an entertaining, informative compilation of television pilots that didn’t make the cut, Lee’s UNSOLD TELEVISION PILOTS, which he claims he began writing at the age of nine, also serves as an offbeat history of the medium during its formative post-live TV decades. Successful television has always been dependent on the just-right combination of cast and concept and Lee not only lists the log lines and talent involved in over two thousand shows, he frequently provides suggestions of why many of them failed. But the main fun is in the listings themselves. My favorite example is an entry that seems to indicate a) TV originality is a sometime thing and b) when it comes to a series showdown, ER notwithstanding, George Clooney can’t hold a candle to Charlie Sheen. In 1987, roughly six years before Sheen and Jon Cryer made TV history of a sort in TWO AND A HALF MEN, a pilot titled BENNETT BROTHERS had the lifestyle of a swinging bachelor brother, played by George Clooney, rudely interrupted by the arrival of his nebbish brother (Richard Kind) whose wife had thrown him out.

The Brothers Bennett

The Brothers Bennett

As Lee notes, BENNETT BROTHERS was intended as a follow up to THE ODD COUPLE, but, according to an exec at NBC “the chemistry of the two leads just wasn’t right.”

If you’re really into busted pilots, UNSOLD is the book for you. But if you’re willing to take Lee’s opinion on the 300 best and worst of the failed attempts — and who would know better? — THE BEST TV SHOWS THAT NEVER WERE should be just the ticket. It consists of concepts (usually high), characters and casts, with a humorously acerbic comment inserted by the author on occasion.

One of my favorite failures was a show that ABC was hoping to present in 2005. The futuristic BADLANDS featured a US Marshal (Lewis Smith) and his cyborg partner (Miguel Ferrer) working for their tough boss (Sharon Stone?????).

Sharon Stone, presumably NOT in Badlands

Sharon Stone, presumably NOT  from TV’s  Badlands

The ultimate gimmick here is that the marshals are patrolling out west where a drought has sent the population eastward and turned the territory to MadMaxland. It’s a situation that doesn’t seem so impossible these dry days.

For TELEVISION FAST FORWARD, Lee focuses on dozens of sequels and remakes of successful American TV series — not just the credits –casts, producers, directors and writers — but mini-essays about how the new versions of the shows were changed and why. The collection begins with ADAM-12 which became THE NEW ADAM-12 (with a new set of actors) to WKRP IN CINCINNATI which re-emerged in syndication as THE NEW WKRP IN CINCINNATI, with a surprising number of cast members re-enlisting. A few other surprising entries:

*ESCAPADE (1978) was an attempt to Americanize THE AVENGERS.

Fairchild, as happy as the day is long

Fairchild, as happy as the day is long

Producer Quinn Martin (THE FUGITIVE, CANNON, THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO) hired the creator of the popular British series, Brian Clemens, to concoct an hour-long pilot. Set in San Francisco, it starred Granville Van Dusen as the Steed-like character and, as a sort of American Mrs. Peel, the one and only Morgan Fairchild.

*RETURN OF THE MOD SQUAD (1979) This was a 2-hour movie that appeared six years after the show had gone off the air. It starred original trio of Michael Cole, Peggy Lipton and Clarence Williams III, along with their original handler, Tige Andrews, and a guest roster that included a host of other series favorites like Roy Thinnes, Ross Martin and Tom Bosley.

*PETER GUNN (1989) The popular Blake Edward-produced original series left the air in 1961. It starred Craig Stevens as a very Cary Grant-like private eye. (The Grant thing may have been prompted by Raymond Chandler’s comment that the actor best typified his idea of Philip Marlowe.) It left the air in 1961 and was turned into a feature film, also starring Stevens, in 1967. But it wasn’t until two decades later that Gunn returned to TV in a 2-hour pilot produced, directed and written by Edwards, starring Peter Strauss. No series followed, possibly because Strauss, for all his thespian skills, didn’t look a bit like Cary Grant.Video Peter Gunn 1

The one disappointment resulting from  these books is the fact that very few of the pilots mentioned are available for viewing.  I suppose that even in this age of conglomeration, it would take a lot of effort to compile a few DVD collections.  Maybe it’s something Lee could do in his spare time.

Goodbye, John Steed

chapeau melon et bottes de cuir the avenger 1961 1969 Patrick Macnee

So another hero bites the dust.

Even though he was ninety-three, Patrick Macnee’s death notice today was a painful surprise. Not only was he responsible for hours and hours of the kind of smart TV that had a powerful influence on my, well, apres-formative years, but I was lucky enough to meet him a few times in the past few decades when we were both flogging books.

Memories play tricks and mine can be a virtual prankster, but I think the first time we met was a day in September of 1989. We were early for an authors’ luncheon at the Balboa Bay Club in Newport, I, with my second novel, LAUGHING DOG, Patrick with, I believe, his BLIND IN ONE EAR. The dining room was filled, mainly with ladies from the OC, lured by the announced appearances of Patrick and Steve Allen, who was promoting one of his mystery titles.

I was about to enter when I was aware of someone, Patrick, standing just to my left. He was studying the crowd, and the empty dais. As soon as I introduced myself, he suggested we adjourn to the lounge where, for the next fifteen or twenty minutes I tried desperately not to appear to be the simpering fanboy I was, sharing a table with an idol who was, if anything, more charming and witty than the character he’d played.

Eventually, a  hostess for the event sought us out and wondered if we’d care to “come and meet the members.”

Smiling pleasantly, Patrick inquired, “Has Mr. Allen arrived?”

“Not yet,” the hostess replied.

“Ah, well, give us a few moments here to finish up,” Patrick said. “Dick and I will be in shortly.”

Watching her return to the dining area, he said to me, “I think we’ll just wait for Mr. Allen to arrive. At these affairs, It’s better if one isn’t the first into the room.”

This morning’s obit in the LA Times mentions that Patrick “fell in love with acting” while he was at Summer Fields prep school. One of his classmates, with whom he acted in student productions, was Christopher Lee.  Much later, the duo would appear as Sherlock (Lee) and the good doctor (Patrick) in two television films, “Incident at Victoria Falls” and “Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady.”

Lee passed away earlier this month, so, once again and, alas, for the last time, Patrick will not be the first into the room.

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Ye Gods!! Dick Tracy Sleuths On

Tess and Olive watching their husbands, Dick Tracy and Popeye, fishing on a lake

Tess and Olive watching their husbands, Dick Tracy and Popeye, fishing on a lake

Steve Canyon has been grounded. Little Orphan Annie quit the biz after a Broadway run. Brenda Starr retired. Captain Easy, Smilin’ Jack and Terry Lee have settled in at the old soldiers’ home. Alley Oop evolved.  Tarzan left the jungle and moved to Tarzana.  Flash Gordon found a home on Mongo.  Kerry Drake and Rip Kirby have turned in their gumshoes. God only knows what happened to Steve Roper and Mike Nomad.

But Dick Tracy is still on the job.

Decades after the passing of his creator, Chester Gould, in 1985, several creative folks, primarily Max Allan Collins and artist Dick Locher, have kept the world’s greatest detective armed and dangerous  Since 2011, the team of artist Joe Staton and Mike Curtis have turned the strip into something quite unexpected — a beautifully drawn, smartly propelled entertainment that successfully maintains, perhaps even burnishes, the elements that have made the comic so iconic, while playfully treating it to a fresh layer of 21st century humor  and (gulp) sophistication.

Not only have Staton and Curtis re-introduced a vast assortment of characters from even the early days of the strip, allowing them to have become as bad as they want to be, or as good (The Mole is now a sort of hero to the children of his neighborhood), they’ve concocted a Gould-worthy lineup of new villains. My favorite is Melies who has a round pale gray head that resembles French film pioneer Georges Melies’ famous moon (minus the spaceship stuck in the moon’s eye socket).

Melies and Venus

Melies and Venus

The new team has also opened up a section of the panel frame to allow characters to wander in from other classic strips. There was a particularly wistful appearance by Walt Wallet from Gasoline Alley. By anybody’s count, Walt would be well over 100 by now, and, as Staton and Curtis would have it, he looks it, bent and with a hair loss that resembles molting rather than male pattern baldness,  Currently, as the  11/1/2013 panel section above indicates, Dick and Popeye are on a fishing vacation with their wives. (Incidentally, at Popeye’s suggestion, they’re baiting their hooks with spinach.) 

But if you think the strip is all grins and goofs, be aware that Tracy is fighting two ruthless gangs, each hellbent on taking over the Second City, As indicated above, Melies’ crew is called The Black Hearts.  Many of Tracy’s old nemeses populate the opposition.

The current strips are available from GoComics.com, if not from your daily newspaper. And you can get a dirt-cheap strong sampling of the new Tracy in the Kindle book, Calling Dick Tracy!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Lotus Land Literati

Francis Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), American novFor about ten years I wrote a column with the unimaginative but totally accurate title Book Notes for the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Heady days? Well, maybe. Definitely busy, doing the odd interview,  keeping track of thousands of books, authors, movie adaptations of lit works, local signings, national trends, etc. etc.

I collected the columns, as I have everything I’ve ever written, pasting them in scrapbooks as neatly and obsessively as if I were stalking my creative self. Among the yellowing pages are a few items that may still have some vague, lingering currency. For example, herewith, a column from March 14, 1976,  “Literati in Lotus Land.”

 ***

How much did Hollywood contribute to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s decline? What made William Faulkner put up with the boredom and inanity of hack screenwriting? Was James Agee really the screenwriter of “The African Queen?”

The answers can be found in Tom Dardis’ “Some Time in the Sun,” a Scribners title that promises to feed the fascination many of us have for stories about writers in the halcyon days of Hollywood.Some time in the sun17454_f

Last year, Fred Lawrence Guiles’ “Hanging on in Paradise” (McGraw-Hill) covered a wider cast of characters, including Dorothy Parker, Ben Hecht, Charles McArthur, Christopher Isherwood and other members of the literati in lotus land, circa the ‘30s and the ‘40s. Dardis’ subtitle clearly indicates his more concentrated concern with: “The Hollywood Years of F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Nathanael West, Aldous Huxley and James Agee.”

One of Dardis’ intents is to debunk the myths that have been perpetuated about those authors’ Southern California sojourns. He gave Robert Dahlin of Publisher’s Weekly a for-instance involving Fitzgerald’s supposed failure on this coast. “Those last three years were excellent for him, certainly when compared to the previous ten. Fitzgerald overcame his block and was able to write again. He had a better sex life with Sheilah Graham than he’d had with Zelda and in one year he earned $78,000, enough to pay off his old debts.”

Hollywood's version of Fitzgerald's good year.

Hollywood’s version of Fitzgerald’s good year.

Fitzgerald, Faulkner and West, according to Dardis, signed on for films strictly for the loot. But, of  the five writers profiled, only Agee was able to achieve a truly happy, creative  screenwriting experience, and this was while working on “The African Queen.”

But if the others’ influence on Hollywood was negligible, Hollywood’s influence on them resulted in such achievements as “The Last Tycoon,” “The Day of the Locust” and “A Fable.”

Not a total loss, certainly.

 ***

Looking back on this stunted reportage, I’m unable to recall if Dardis purposely left Agee’s work on “The Night of the Hunter” out of the happy experience category or if, in my zeal to meet a deadline, I failed to   list it, too, as a happy experience. It certainly must have been a creative one.

Robert Mitchum displaying some of Agee's creativity.

Robert Mitchum displaying some of Agee’s creativity.

The column also reminded of something that happened during my first screenwriting venture with Henry Hathaway in Europe. (See earlier blog entry, Burning Daylight, Henry Hathaway and Me). Like Nero Wolfe, Henry didn’t believe in talking about business while at table. But he did like to talk. So, in the course of breakfasts, lunches and dinners, he kept me entertained with show biz stories about folks like John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock,  Marilyn Monroe and John Wayne. One evening he mentioned William Faulkner.

“I gave him the idea for his  book,” Henry said, “the one that got the Pulitzer Prize, ‘A Fable.’”

To me, that was a jaw-dropper. I was having a hard enough time just picturing Henry and Faulkner in the same city. “A Fable” was not what anyone would call an easy read — a very dense allegorical novel about insurrection in the French Army during the Great War in which a corporal and his twelve followers wander the battle field preaching peace. Faulkner considered it his best work.

51gLOKHJxJL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-66,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_“Let me get this straight, Henry. You provided William Faulkner with the concept for ‘A Fable’?”

“Well, yeah, kid. My idea was that the Unknown Soldier was a resurrected Jesus Christ. Bill tried to turn it into a script, but when that didn’t work, he wrote a novel. He dedicated the book to me.”

Most of Henry’s stories I assumed to be true or at least in the wheelhouse of truth. But this one seemed, well, more fable than fact.

I forgot about the conversation. A few years later, in a book store, pawing the merchandise, I spied  a trade paperback of “A Fable,” immediately grabbed it and turned to the dedication.

It read: “To William Barclay and Henry Hathaway of Beverly Hills, Ca., who had the basic idea from which this book grew into its present form …”

 Go figure.

“A Fable” and “Some Time in the Sun”  are both available in trade paper and Kindle formats. 51+cAmxxPuL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_“Day of the Locust,” African Queen,” “Night of the Hunter” and “Beloved Infidel” are all equally available on DVD and in print, along with several other books that cover the making of the movies and  both Fitzgerald’s and Faulkner’s lively but not always blissful  romantic adventures.

LEGENDARY: An Interview with Richard Matheson

richard_matheson1Back in 2005, I spent a couple of hours chatting with the great. and now, alas, late suspense novelist and screenwriter Richard Matheson for an article that ran in the Los Angeles Times Magazine. The following is a slightly longer version of that interview that ran in Mystery Scene Magazine.

It’s hard to believe that anyone interested in suspense or fantasy fiction, film or television would be unfamiliar with the name Richard Matheson. But, for the record, the prolific writer is responsible for  I Am Legend, the seminal science fiction novel about the last human in a world of vampires that has spawned numerous films – official adaptations like The Last Man on Earth, Omega Man and a more recent version starring Will Smith and “homages” like Night of the Living Dead. His Shrinking Man has been filmed several times, too, including one version that starred Lily Tomlin. The romantic fantasy, i_am_legend_2Somewhere in Time, is based on his novel, Bid Time Return.

 Matheson, born in 1926 in Allendale, New Jersey, has worked in a variety of other genres , including westerns (Journal of the Gun), horror (Hell House),  suspense (Ride the Nightmare), metaphysics (What Dreams May Come?)  and even a war novel (The Beardless Warriors) based in part on his experiences as a young infantryman in World War II. He has won Edgar, Hugo, Golden Spur and Bram Stoker Awards. His long list of screenplays include those penned for Roger Corman’s Poe-inspired films, the creepy ones (House of Usher, Pit and the Pendulum, Tales of Terror)  and the comedic (The Comedy of Terrors and The Raven).

ShatHe was one of the select group of writers who helped Rod Serling create The Twilight Zone and was responsible for one of the series’ most fondly recalled episodes, Nightmare at 2,000 Feet, in which a wing-walking gremlin taunts airline passenger William Shatner to distraction.  His television movie script, Duel, in which a hapless motorist engages in a battle for survival with the never-seen driver of a giant semi, launched Steven Spielberg’s directorial career. His teleplays for The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler were turned into two of the medium’s most popular movies and prompted the cult Kolchak the Night Stalker series.

Stephen King cites Matheson as his biggest literary influence. Ray Bradbury calls him “one of the most important writers of the 20th century.”

I met with the author at his home in Southern California, on the occasion of the publication of his then latest novel, Women, an apocalyptic fantasy about what happens when the war between men and women enters the T Zone. I began by asking a basic question: 587953why did he choose the writing profession?

RM: I think creative people are born that way. Depending on the circumstances, I could have gone in any direction. I wrote music when I was in college, the Missouri School of Journalism. If I had come from a family of composers, I undoubtedly would’ve been a composer. If they had been painters, I would’ve been a painter. Since the Depression was on, the family couldn’t afford anything elaborate. What I had to work with was a pad and a pencil.

DL: When did you sell your first short story?

RM:  Born of Man and Woman appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1950, the year after I graduated. It was odd enough and different enough to call attention to me and I got an agent through it. Then it was just a matter of putting out the material.

DL: Was that what brought you to the West Coast?

RM: Not exactly.  I had what they used to call trench foot. Frost bitten feet. That gave me an excuse to leave the cold climate for California. I was always fascinated by movies, and I think that was an ulterior motive for coming out here.

DL: How did you break into screenwriting?

RM: I didn’t push it. I figured it would be easier if I had something they wanted. That turned out to be my novel Shrinking Man. It has been erroneously stated in some articles that the film came first. That’s not true. I sold the novel with the stipulation that I write the script. They made changes, of course. Not for the better. I wanted to move right away into the main story and use flashbacks. They changed that and the first part of the movie is a little dull.1957-TheIncredibleShrinkingManGreat1

DL: I’ve heard they’re remaking it.

RM: With Eddie Murphy, I believe.  I suppose it’ll be similar to the version they made with Lily Tomlin.  I didn’t object to the fact that they turned that one into a comedy. I just didn’t think it was very funny. 

DL: I was surprised to see you’d written a script called The Beat Generation. It’s not too often a movie features both Louis Armstrong and Mamie Van Doren.

tumblr_milu3js4lb1qj58uko1_500RM: That was terrible. The producer of that, Al Zugsmith,  had produced The Shrinking Man at Universal. He showed me this article in Cosmopolitan, an interesting account of a man who hitchhiked around the country, a very open and friendly man. While he was talking to people he got all this information about them, when the wives would be at home alone, etc.  He would go to their homes and rape their wives and rob them. Murder them. It was an interesting story, and that’s the way I approached it, as a true crime story. But Al decided he was going to make it about the beat generation. He had a glossary of beat generation words. He went through my script and every place I had ‘police’ he would substitute ‘fuzz.’ Like that.

DL: It wasn’t long after that that you became one of The Twilight Zone’s most frequent contributors.

RM:  I think the fist call I went on when I started writing for TV was to watch the Twilight Zone pilot.  After that, I’d come in, pitch ideas and they’d send me off to write them.  When CBS did a history of television and, naturally, brought up The Twilight Zone, the sample of it they used was the one with Bill Shatner on the airplane.

DL: That’s the one everybody remembers. Do you recall where the idea came from?

RM: No surprise, I was on an airplane. I looked out of the window and saw clouds like snow and started to wonder: what if I saw a guy skiing there. That wasn’t very scary. So I had to make the image a little grimmer.

DL: They remade it for the movie version.

RM: Yeah. George Miller the director of that segment has done some terrific movies (Mad Max, etc.). In my story, Bill Shatner had had a nervous breakdown and he was afraid that it was recurring. In the movie, John Lithgow was simply afraid of flying. And he started out at 1000% terrified. Where could he go from there?

DL: You’ve worked with Shatner several times.

RM: Two Twilight Zones.

DL: And a Star Trek.

RM: Right. My one Star Trek.

DL: It was one of the better-known episodes, where Kirk undergoes a split personality. Why not another?

RM: I don’t know. I kept submitting ideas to Gene Roddenberry and he didn’t care for them. Maybe he didn’t like it that I disagreed with him. I’m not an advocate of “B” stories. They do it all the time in television: an episode has an “A” story and a “B” story. My feeling is if you have a great “A” story, you stay with it. I wanted to stay with Kirk and his effect on the crew.  Roddenberry wanted me to add that “B” story.

DL: Getting back to the sources for your ideas: I suppose you were out driving when you came up with Duel?

duel-movie-poster-1971-1020230792RM: That’s it. It was the day John Kennedy got shot. A friend of mine, science fiction writer Jerry Sohl, and I were playing golf when we got the news. We were driving home and this crazy truck driver started tailgating us through the canyon. Going faster and faster. I don’t know why. Maybe he was mad about Kennedy being shot. Finally, Jerry zoomed off to a side part of the road, and we spun around in the dirt. Between being furious at the driver and being totally upset and traumatized by Kennedy’s assassination, we were screaming out the window at this guy as he went roaring past.

Then, having a writer’s mind, my fear immediately transcribed itself into a story idea. I grabbed an envelope of Jerry’s and wrote it down. That was ten years before Playboy published it. 

DL: I read somewhere that you’re not too fond of a couple of your  T Zones, even though they’re considered classics. One example is The Invaders (Agnes Morehead is a virtually silent, hard-bitten  country woman whose shack is invaded by tiny space critters.)

RM: I just didn’t like the looks of the invaders. I kept thinking about imgrescartoons where some derelict is on a street corner with little dolls hobbling around. My script indicated that you barely saw them. Just a flash. I always think that less is better, an attitude that instantaneously cost me an important screenwriting job. I was called into Alfred Hitchcock’s office to discuss a script for The Birds. I said, ‘Mr. Hitchcock, I don’t think you should show the birds too much. ‘Oh, no. NO,’ he cried and that was the end of that.

DL: Tell me about Night Stalker, how that came together.

RM: Well, originally (producer) Dan Curtis wanted to make Beardless Warriors (Matheson’s WWII novel). Somehow he’d got a copy of the manuscript and made what I thought was an insultingly low offer for the whole thing, and I got ticked off. So when I met him at ABC to discuss The Night Stalker, which wasn’t called that at the time, I was very rude. That was like risking my life, because Dan had a very volatile temper. He was also a talented man with a big sense of humor, which tends to even things out. Anyway, he showed me the then unpublished novel by Jeff Rice and that was that.

DL: How closely did you adhere to the novel?

castRM: It was good enough that I didn’t try to change it much. The main difference was in the character of Kolchak. In the book, he’s sorta like an old boy Hungarian who believes in vampires. I didn’t want to do that, so I changed him to a Front Page type. And Darren McGavin took it from there. He was wonderful.

 DL: Was the sequel, The Night Strangler, also based on a novel?

RM:  No. It was based on a trip my family took to Seattle. We went on an underground tour and that’s where I got the idea. It was perfect for Kolchak, but McGavin wasn’t anxious  to do it, because he thought it was just a rehash of the first one. Which it was, of course. Bill Nolan and I wrote a third script that was never made.

DL: But there was a series. Why weren’t you involved in that?

RM: I would have done it if Dan had produced it, but he didn’t. In fact, with the second movie, I remember a bunch of us sitting in an office at ABC, trying to come up with a monster. At one point, I said, “Isn’t this ridiculous? Five grown men sitting in this elaborate office, trying to come up with a monster. How about a vampire? Or a mummy?” No, that’s not good.

I wanted to use Jack the Ripper – the original Jack the Ripper who had survived after all those years. So I called my friend Robert Bloch, who’d written the short story, Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper, to see if he’d mind. He said it was okay, but I could hear in his voice it would have disturbed him, so I made it something else.

Anyway, I didn’t see how they could come up with a new monster every week. Strain their brains.

DL: Tell me a little about the Poe movies.

RM: I did the first one (The Fall of the House of Usher) and everybody assumed I was an ardent fan of Edgar Alan Poe, which I wasn’t.  But I tried very hard to catch the flavor of Poe’s story. I had to add a character, a suitor for the sister, or there would have been no story. It starred Vincent Price. I have said before, and it’s true, he’s the most charming man I ever met in the business. Generous and warm-hearted.

One of those films rarely gets mentioned, A Comedy of Terrors. comedy_of_terrors_posterJacques Tourneur just took the script and shot it. The actors all liked that one, especially Basil Rathbone, who hadn’t had a good script in ages. He was a marvelous man, too. He was older than Boris Karloff, but they had to switch roles, because Karloff couldn’t do all the physical moves the role called for. 

DL: The stories you’ve written – about vampires, haunted houses, shrinking man, etc – have become standards of a sort. They’ve influenced so many filmmakers. George Romero, for example.

RM: I was watching television one night and caught a section of Night of the Living Dead and wondered, ‘When did they do this version of I Am Legend? Later, when I was a consultant for Amazing Stories , there was one I felt might be right for George Romero. So I met him for lunch at Delmonico’s. The first thing he said when he saw me was, “It didn’t make any money.” I guess he thought I was going to punch him out. But I wasn’t that upset. That sort of thing happens out here all the time.

DL: Not long ago Gauntlet Press brought out three collections of yours.  Some of the stories seemed unfamiliar. Are they recent?

RM:  No. Since 1970, I haven’t had any desire to write short stories. In that form, I mean. But Barry (Hoffman, Gauntlet publisher) is always asking if I have anything more in my file cabinet. There were stories I wrote long ago that had never even been submitted.  Having grown up in the Depression, it’s hard for me to say no. Especially when Barry does such a beautiful, physical job of presentation. But they were written a thousand years ago.

DL: Any more in the cabinet?

RM: I’ve come to the bottom of the drawer. Nothing left.

DL: Not even ideas?

RM: Oh, yes. I have a novel laid out in file cards that I’ll probably get to sometime. I haven’t written in a while. I had a heart valve replacement surgery. I had back surgeries. You just don’t feel like sitting down and writing.  But that can and probably will change.