I’m back, baby! I can’t believe I haven’t written anything on this blog since 2017 and I regret not writing a post-mortem of the “random episode” project at the time that I decided to stop writing. I got hung up on trying to make myself write a review of a truly atrocious episode of The Six Million Dollar Man. I realized there’s only so many ways to say that something sucks and there’s an ocean of shitty television out there with more washing up all the time.
So for a while I wasn’t sure what to write about, but what if I turned the idea inside out? What if I only write about the best television? Part of the reason I did my first project was that I knew writing about popular shows meant I would be competing with every other writer on the internet with a hot take on Game of Thrones, so I decided to dig deep into the bargain bin. Recently, though, it dawned on me–all that great cutting edge television that people watched for all the decades before I was born also won awards and critical acclaim and, compared to today’s fragmented viewership market, a sizable audience.
And nobody remembers most of it.
So I’m going back all the way to 1960 to watch the episodes that won awards–sure, the Emmys and the WGA awards, but I don’t want to overlook genre fiction, so I’ll also be checking out Edgar and Hugo winners. I’m also taking the long overdue step of turning comments on, so if there’s award-winning TV you’d like me to consider, feel free to make suggestions.
Of course, the very first obstacle I encounter is that a lot of those award-winning TV shows are impossible for me to access today, even with all the tools of modern piracy at my disposal. RIP to these forgotten shows, many of which were dramatic showcases sponsored by random corporations. As much as I’d love to dig up the most obscure truffles, the shows I’m reviewing here are the ones that people still cared enough about to make available 60 years later. Usually these are shows that managed to forge an identity for themselves: The Twilight Zone is iconic–Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre or The DuPont Show with June Allyson, not so much.
Another thing I’m noticing as I look at my roster for the first few shows I’m going to cover–the dramas by far outnumber the comedies, at least for 1960 and 1961. This is probably because, unless you’re Aristophanes, comedy has a tendency to age like milk, and I’d rather not spend all my time bashing these shows. People poured a lot of love and energy into making free entertainment for the world to enjoy, and another group of people put a lot of time into selecting the very best examples, and I’d like to shine a spotlight on the end product and not spend so much time burning it all to ashes. Still, I’m not going to be shy about pointing out things that aren’t working.
The Untouchables, S1 E1–“The Empty Chair”
I’m going to be reviewing an awful lot of prestige crime dramas, so why not start at the start? Well, okay, this isn’t really the start of crime dramas–apparently they’ve been a thing since a 1938 BBC program called Telecrime, and Dragnet was a smash hit for most of the fifties–but this feels like a good starting point because it still retains some of the things that make contemporary crime drama compelling.
Sure, to the jaded eye of a 2022 viewer, the idea of starting with a big dramatic incident in the cold open and then winding back the clock to show how we got there isn’t really very impressive, but any show from this era willing to experiment with any kind of non-linear narrative is an encouraging sign, and that sort of thing is exactly what you would expect from a modern prestige drama.
And like many modern prestige dramas, it’s actually quite violent. Blood doesn’t get splattered everywhere, but we’re confronted with some grim plot notes. One of the main characters hacks someone to death with a straight razor and one of the murder victims gets stabbed 40 times with an ice pick before finally getting shot. This isn’t the place to get into a lengthy digression about violence in entertainment, so I’ll just note one thing–viewers and critics often follow a train of thought that goes like this: violence is inappropriate for children, and extreme violence is particularly inappropriate, so therefore it’s only appropriate for adult entertainment, so if the adult entertainment has violence, it must therefore be sophisticated and mature.
Before I get any further, I suppose I had better explain the actual premise of this show. It’s the adaptation of a memoir written by Prohibition-era crime fighter Eliot Ness, played here by Robert Stack in his most famous role outside of narrating Unsolved Mysteries. The Untouchables themselves are the team of law enforcement officers that Ness assembled in his quest to end gangland crime. The first story arc on this show involves the immediate aftermath of the imprisonment of Al Capone, so this episode deals with his remaining lieutenants scheming for the “empty chair” in the title. The two main combatants are the bloodthirsty Frank Nitti (Bruce Gordon) and the calculating Joe Kulak (Oscar Beregi, Jr.) The other main characters here are Kulak’s niece Brandy (Barbara Nichols) and witness-turned-Untouchable Rico Rossi (Nicholas Georgiade).
I like that this is a historical drama, but it doesn’t help the show feel less dated. It’s a double-edged sword–it gives the show character to have the big dramatic murder happen in a old-timey barber shop. It makes sense when the fact that Brandy is working with Ness gets disclosed because of an eagle-eyed elevator operator in the Federal Building, who then proceeds to hustle into the lobby pay phone to whisper furtively into something a Zoomer wouldn’t even recognize as a phone. It’s also an amusing twist when the motherlode of Capone’s hidden treasures is found hidden in a mausoleum. These details give the show texture, but I could see how they could throw off a modern viewer.
Some other things are a little less explicable. There are two moments where the fast-talking narrator (Walter Winchell!) introduces us to a slew of six or seven gangsters or Untouchables with names and capsule biographies that there’s no way for the viewer to keep up with or remember. Sure, it’s interesting to have a lot of characters with competing motives and agendas, but most of them aren’t important for this episode. The smart way to deal with this situation is to not only introduce the characters gradually, but also in a way that feels natural so we get a sense of who these people are and not just that they were a telephone lineman before they became a crime fighter or whatever. Although we are told one of the Untouchables is a “full-blooded Cherokee,” which I’m sure will be handled tastefully in a future episode. This disclosure only does a tiny bit to detract from the fact that as we watch the Untouchables work, they come across like a bunch of indistinguishable white men in suits and hats. I understand that it’s set in the 1930s and it’s unreasonable to expect a rainbow coalition, but this is a distinct difference from most contemporary dramas.
I’m hoping that each one of these old shows yields something unintentionally hilarious, and because I have the mind of a child, I was highly amused to see hardened gangster Frank Nitti exclaim in an outraged, indignant voice that “somebody’s fingering’ me!” There’s also a scene where Kulak defuses some intra-gangster tension with a joke that completely eluded me involving the punchline “That’s some pencil!” I guess you can’t expect everything to translate well over the gulf of decades.
One last thought before I wrap up–are we supposed to despise Eliot Ness? Because he comes across as an enormous asshole. I know, I know, it wouldn’t be an award-winning television drama if the protagonist wasn’t somehow despicable, but it does seem a little extreme to have him literally wave the bloody ice pick in the grieving widow’s face while trying to bully her into betraying the mob. It didn’t really make Ness seem like a hero, nor someone I would want to spend any more time watching. So, what’s the verdict? Does it hold up? Do I recommend it to contemporary reviewers? Sort of. It’s a reasonably compelling mob story. It doesn’t insult your intelligence. The production values are higher than a community theater production of Our Town. But there’s just as much to throw you out of the story as there is to pull you in. Is that the inescapable product of the fact that I’m reviewing a TV production from sixty years ago? I’d like to find out.