Original Airdate: December 2nd, 1962 on ATV
If you’re familiar with any creation of the husband and wife duo Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, it would have to be 1965’s Thunderbirds, the James Bond-esque marionette adventure series. It spawned a terrible 2004 film reboot as well as a salty parody in the form of Team America: World Police, but other than that, Thunderbirds has faded into nostalgic obscurity. But in the 1960s, the Andersons made a cottage industry out of what they called “Supermarionation,” producing a whopping eight series. Fireball XL5 was third in the lineup, giving us a choice example of early science fiction for kids on TV.
- High level of craftsmanship. Okay, so the marionettes and the elementary-school-diorama-style sets don’t exactly look sharp. In fact, the production values are jarringly bad—a devastating explosion bears a striking resemblance to a handful of firecrackers detonating, the limited range of motion inherent in a marionette leads to risible action sequences and when Doctor Venus (Sylvia Anderson) is tied to a sacrificial altar, her permanently cheerful rictus undercuts some of the tension. But there’s genuine love on display here. This is as good as marionettes can possibly get, and the starship vessels and sets are at least as immersive as what you might find on Fireball’s low-budget sixties sci-fi cousin Star Trek. I think a good comparison here is Max Steel. The people behind Steel had 38 years of added wisdom and experience when it came time to create a visually appealing science-fiction show for kids, and it came out looking like Max Headroom had a back-alley abortion. It probably cost a hell of a lot more than Fireball, too. The moral here is that even if you’re working with antiquated technology on a shoestring budget, you can still create a (mostly) captivating aesthetic.
- Sludgy pacing attempting to compensate for an underwritten story. Do we really need to see the entire countdown for the rocket’s launch sequence all the way from 30 on down? How about the endless interstitial shot of everyone on board the Fireball sleeping? And of course it takes a goddamned eternity for Col. Steve Zodiac (Paul Maxwell, Aliens) to find his way into the titular Sun Temple. How hard is it to fill 25 minutes with actual content? Of course, once you hear what the actual story is, you may find yourself wishing that they had spent more time dicking around…
- Colonialist racism. Okay, any story about alien contact where there’s a vast disparity in technological aptitude risks flirting with colonialist themes. You can be conscious of that and try and address those themes intelligently, you can do your best to elide the issue or you can stupidly blunder right into the heart of the matter due to lousy writing, and that’s almost certainly what happened here. Now, I’m not sure that’s better or worse than deliberately writing an artful tome about The White Man’s Burden but with aliens like Arthur C. Clarke did in the landmark 1953 novel Childhood’s End. It’s certainly just as annoying. You see, this episode tells the story of Zodiac’s team launching missiles carefully calibrated to break up asteroids that imperil Earth’s space program. These missiles come close to the planet of Rajusca without actually harming anyone there. Rajusca is unexplored but known to be inhabited, and the missile attracts the attention of a pair of bumbling, dark-skinned sun-worshipping cultists. In a hastily appended coda, we learn that these two were exiled from Rajuscan society “because of their evil hocus-pocus.” Needless to say, much is unclear about Rajusca and how technologically developed they are in general, but the cultists know that the missile came from Earth and retaliate by destroying the World Space Patrol’s launching pad using some sort of giant mirror apparatus. The Fireball is dispatched so that the WSP can see what’s the big idea, pally, and the cultists promptly grab the first white lady they see so they can sacrifice her to their god. Look, you have the entirety of space to work with and any number of outlandish aliens to create. Do we really have to recreate this particular flavor of tedious Earth bullshit on our distant sci-fi planets?
Motivation: Welp, once you’re strapped to the good old sacrificial altar, it’s hard to think much past survival.
Final Judgment: 3/10. Excellent if you like puppets. Terrible if you like anything else.
Original Airdate: December 3rd, 1983 on NBC
Previously on this blog, I’ve taunted you with a link to this list, poetically titled by Wikipedia “List of television series considered the worst.” Despite all the garbage I’ve already covered here, I’ve yet to encounter one of these—until now. And the really surprising thing here is that Manimal isn’t even THAT bad. It’s definitely not great. But I laughed a lot harder at this than I did at See Dad Run, that’s for sure. Sure, I was laughing at the show and not with it, but I’d rather be laughing at something than be pissed off or annoyed.
- Fun action sequences. Anyone looking to enjoy entertainment intended for a popular audience needs to be willing to engage in a certain amount of suspension of disbelief, and that need is more pronounced in the action/adventure genre. If you’re worried about the amount of time and energy the Inca would have to put into mechanical traps to foil Indiana Jones, you’re missing the point. Now, Manimal is no Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Any attempt to think about the story being told in Manimal actively repels thought like drops of water on those fancy khakis. But there’s car chases. There’s dune buggy chases. Manimal himself, Dr. Jonathan Chase (Simon MacCorkindale), dangles precariously off the pontoons of a seaplane mid-flight. It meets the basic criteria of an action-adventure show, and it even displays a certain amount of panache in the process.
- Original idea. Sure, the fantasy genre is lousy with shapeshifters, but as far as I can tell this is the first instance on TV of a protagonist with the ability to change into any animal he wants. While the Animorphs book series would perfect the idea a decade later, it’s still a tantalizing concept. Of course, the show doesn’t do anything interesting with the idea, but some shows don’t have any ideas at all.
- Cartoonish & juvenile. I’m going to go ahead and generously assume that Manimal was aiming to appeal to the whole family and not just criminally stupid adults. I would feel sure that this was intended for children if it wasn’t a live-action series airing in primetime. The show opens with Manimal and friends exploring the magic of tide pools at a beach when they uncover a skeleton clutching a walrus tusk. At first I thought they were going to try and find out who killed the deceased, but it turns out that, no, the tusk is scrimshawed with a treasure map, and the rest of the episode is devoted to avoiding a villain who’s willing to kill for doubloons. At one point our heroes visit a bar patronized by grizzled sailors, and Manimal associate Ty Earl (Michael D. Roberts, Rain Man) is forced to play a game of five finger filet for some reason. Later, Manimal’s friend Brooke Mackenzie (Melody Anderson, Flash Gordon) gets caught in honest-to-god quicksand, which would be stupid enough, except for the fact that the show gets quicksand confused with sinkholes. This plot might pass muster for an episode of Johnny Quest, but when you’re putting it forward as something actual adults might watch, it’s a real fucking stretch.
- Terrible special effects. Since there have been plenty of TV shows with stupid storylines before and since Manimal, I’m guessing the ludicrous SFX on display are what earned this show its abysmal reputation. They’re hilariously bad, and since the premise of the show is that Manimal turns into animals, we get to see quite a bit of them. The most laughable part of the transformation inevitably involves stock footage of animals completely removed from the scene and without any other actors present. Using movie magic to wrangle dangerous animals is no problem these days—look no further than Zoo, or better yet, don’t look at Zoo at all—but for something with Manimal’s budget it was an impossible dream to have a panther plausibly resolve a hostage situation.
Motivation: Manimal and his buddies are desperate to uncover the secrets of the scrimshawed tusk, and despite this they are not inside a Hardy Boys novel. Knowledge.
Final Judgment: 3/10. Based on its reputation, I was expecting this to be irredeemable, but anything that makes me laugh is at least somewhat endearing. So Bad It’s Good beats So Boring It’s Bad any day of the week.
NEXT TIME: Bring on the puppets, because I’m watching Fireball XL5!
Original Airdate: May 8th, 1998 on BBC
Tonight’s offering is a six-episode miniseries about an alien invasion. It was a co-production between BBC Scotland and the network now regrettably rebranded as Syfy. Let’s see if you can predict how this is going to go—it’s the late 90s, you’re a producer at BBC, it’s been nearly a decade since there’s been any new Doctor Who outside of a terrible made-for-TV movie, and you’re making a sci-fi miniseries about alien invasion. Is it any surprise when it centers around two government employees, one of whom is a headstrong man determined to Believe and the other is a more circumspect lady scientist? Will you be surprised when there turns out to be smoldering sexual tension? Or when the lady gets abducted by aliens and interfered with in possibly compromising ways? Will you be surprised when it turns out that it’s not nearly as good as The X-Files? I submit that you will not, in fact, be surprised by any of this.
- An intrinsically interesting premise. Anyone with any inclination towards science fiction or astronomy has surely had their own fantasy about what it would look like if aliens made contact. People have been writing fiction about alien encounters since at least the 2nd century and even when we’re rehashing X-Files it’s still just as fun now as it was then. What will be the first sign? Will we know it when we see it? How will we respond? What will the aliens be like? How will they treat us? How will we treat them? Over the course of six episodes, Invasion proceeds to offer its own answer to each of these questions in a reasonably satisfying way, so that already checks a lot of boxes for any sci-fi fan tuning in.
- Consistent thematics. One advantage a six episode miniseries has over a sprawling 208-episode-and-counting-with-no-resolution-or-ending-in-sight affair like X-Files is that you can have neatly planned and executed thematics that extend over the entire run of the show. The end result is something well-drawn if not particularly deep. The theme on offer here is in the same family as the one developed in Gundam: while Gundam explored the dangerous intersection of war and public science, Invasion deals with the dangerous intersection of the military and the cutting edge of science, or at least those sciences that pertain to First Contact, anyway. Invasion makes a pretty persuasive argument that if we put the armed forces in charge of dealing with any aliens we happen to meet it’s not going to end well for anyone involved. It also makes a persuasive case for the fact that it’s entirely likely and realistic that the responsibility will fall to the army nevertheless. After all, if a UFO enters the atmosphere, who’s going to be the first to notice? The people with radar, of course, and that’s exactly what happens here. Later episodes in the series explore this theme in more depth, but there’s plenty of groundwork being laid here. Most of the episode takes place in the present day, but we learn from the first scene that the aliens first made contact in 1944 during the Blitz, where a soldier with a quick trigger finger promptly guns one of them down. The fate of the second alien will be detailed later in the series, so we quickly move to the scenes of the episode that portray the radar discovery and introduce us to our hero, Flight Lt. Chris Drake (Vincent Regan, 300.) Drake and his navigator, Flight Lt. Gerry Llewelyn (Stuart McQuarrie, 28 Days Later) proceed to investigate the unknown craft from several miles up. Through means unknown, the alien craft disables the instruments in Drake’s plane, and despite orders to the contrary he shoots it down in retaliation. The blowback damages Drake’s own plane. He and Llewelyn have to eject. Llewelyn dies and the entire miserable chain of events the show chronicles begin to spiral out of control. This episode and the next involve the requisite tug of war between Drake and his superiors over whether or not this encounter was in fact unearthly, and of course the chain of command isn’t particularly inclined to listen. Eventually, the army tracks down the occupant of the downed craft and shoots him as well. Miraculously, they haven’t killed Earth’s third alien* visitor, but they have wounded him sufficiently so that he’s ripe for the picking when the other, evil alien race abducts him. Even the most relaxed alien race would probably be reaching for the gigantic ray gun about now, but the series ultimately adopts a less direct route. Explaining that, however, would push me outside of my jurisdiction, which leads me to my major complaint…
- Wasting time on paper-thin characters. The first episode of this show put me in the shoes of Milhouse van Houten, and that’s never a good thing. Usually when I summarize part of the plot of an episode in the service of making a point, I’m only scratching the surface. Well, that last paragraph is pretty much all the meat hanging off this particular bone. Sure, some other stuff happens. We’re introduced to other main characters. But the show is terrible at characterization. There’s nothing remotely interesting or three-dimensional about any of them. Now, I love a well-developed character study. I also think the stereotype about sci-fi/fantasy being all about plot and ideas with no time for well-drawn characters is a bunch of crap. Sadly, Invasion fits this stereotype to a tee. The Scully to Drake’s Mulder is Dr. Amanda Tucker (Maggie O’Neill, Shameless), who is technically an applied mathematics professor but who is for all intents and purposes a Swiss Army Scientist who can handle any problem that arises when presented with invading aliens using inconceivably advanced technology. (Mercifully, they have someone else on hand for biology-based problems.) Tucker’s chunk of this episode involves her discovering anomalous signals, going to Scotland to investigate, stumbling upon the military base, meeting Drake and showing up at the alien’s hospital room just in time for him to be abducted by the other aliens. I’ll grudgingly accept that Invasion as a whole is not too concerned with well-developed characters and that it can only excel in story and theme. I am not pleased about the fact that we get short-changed on story and theme in this hour so we can get introduced to Tucker and a handful of other supporting players. If you’re going to give character development short shrift, you might as well commit to it and truly play to your strengths.
*Despite having recently stumbled out of a UFO, the guy isn’t actually an alien, but we don’t learn this until later.
Motivation: What could be more tantalizing than the knowledge of a forthcoming alien invasion? Of course, pretty soon everyone’s priorities shift to survival.
Final Episode Judgment: 5/10. Part of the problem here is pilot syndrome: the show’s still getting its feet under it and it has to lay groundwork to a certain extent. But it’s nearly 20% of the show’s entire runtime, so any amount of wasted time is going to put Invasion at a disadvantage.
Final Series Judgment: 6/10. The story does get deeper and more satisfying as things develop, but the characters don’t. There’s also the matter of an undercooked romantic subplot between Drake and Tucker. But if you want aliens and you’ve already seen every episode of X-Files and Who twice, you could do worse.
NEXT TIME: I continue my ongoing investigation on the theme of How Campy Is Too Campy by reviewing Manimal!
Original Airdate: September 18th, 1960 on first-run syndication
I doubt that Huckleberry Hound is anyone’s favorite cartoon character. Hell, I doubt he’s anyone’s favorite Hanna-Barbera character. But he plays a relatively prominent role in the history of western animation. Hanna-Barbera was one of the first studios to make cartoons specifically for television, and Hound was their second offering and their first big hit. If my reviews have demonstrated the lowlights of children’s fare from the 2000s, 90s and 80s, trust me that before 1960, kids TV was a vast wasteland of hideous puppets and Krusty-esque clown shows on local TV stations. There were cartoons like Looney Tunes and Mighty Mouse, but they had first appeared in movie theaters back in the days when a two-hour feature film was the culmination of an entire evening’s worth of entertainment. William Hanna and Joseph Barbera got their start in this world, making theatrical cartoons for MGM Studios, including the smash hit Tom & Jerry series. In the late 1950s, MGM decided they had a sufficiently robust catalog of animated features that they could just start reusing them and that there was no need for Hanna & Barbera to keep making cartoons. The animators scrambled to get the backing to start their own production company. They didn’t have the natural pathway into movie theaters that animation studios run by MGM, Warner Brothers or Disney did—so they looked to television. The rest is history, but how closely should we revisit this particular history? Well…
- Unique, if esoteric, setups. Okay, so it doesn’t speak highly of Hound that its solitary strength is also something of a deficit, at least for anyone wondering if their kids would like the show. But I’ll tell you one thing—you don’t see many cartoons about dogs/stereotypical Southerners fighting with the French Foreign Legion in the Algerian War. Nowadays, you don’t hear much about the French Foreign Legion—I didn’t even know what it was until high school—but when they were on the front lines of an exotic desert war, they had more pop culture cachet. There was even a TV show on NBC a scant three years prior to this episode, but nowadays kids might just find this setup baffling. The other two segments are equally charming in their dated/unhinged nature—the cumbersomely named “Pixie & Dixie and Mr. Jinks” feature has Jinks (Daws Butler) selling his mouse friends to rocket scientists intending to qualify them for status as Laika-esque animal astronauts. Jinks is the one that eventually gets sent to the moon, and if he follows in Laika’s pawprints and dies from hyperthermia it happens off screen. The premise of the “Hokey Wolf” installment is less topical but no less bizarre–Hokey (Butler) tricks three little pigs (uncredited) into relinquishing their home to him by posing as the ghost of another wolf they fucking murdered and haunting them. Okay then!
- Unfunny. I will credit Hound by saying that this isn’t the obnoxious, toxic “humor” where you’re peppered with an endless stream of try-hard non-jokes in the manner of Danny Phantom. Instead, Hound mostly doesn’t try at all. It’s very gentle. The proceedings mostly take the form of the classic Looney set-ups of hero vs. antagonist, but these shorts don’t have the anarchic joie de vivre that made Looney and its siblings famous. They’re generally much more sedate—while your typical Bugs/Fudd stand-off involves at least 5 or 6 encounters and opportunities for Bugs to outsmart and flummox Elmer, when Huckleberry (Butler) confronts Powerful Pierre (also Butler) there are only two confrontations until Huckleberry has the matter in hand. Huckleberry is also a less compelling hero than Bugs. Bugs outwits his rivals, while Huckleberry only manages to prevail through dumb luck. Bugs moves quickly, while Huckleberry moves at the pace of the South. This one probably won’t matter as much to the kiddies, but Bugs Bunny, Roadrunner and Jerry the mouse are underdogs fighting for their survival, whereas here Huckleberry is an officer on the side of a colonialist government in a war of liberation and Pierre is a renegade insurgent. Regardless, here’s an example of Hanna & Barbera failing to recapture the magic of their more famous film counterparts.
- Derivative. It’s common knowledge that the most famous Hanna-Barbera creation, The Flintstones, was a thin gloss on The Honeymooners, and one of their other famous creations, The Jetsons, transparently relocated the Flintstones to the distant future instead of the distant past. If you add that to the creativity on display here, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Hanna & Barbera never had an original idea in their lives. Hokey Wolf bears a suspiciously strong resemblance to Yogi Bear, the woodland animal he replaced in the lineup, right down to his porkpie hat, neck-tie and diminutive sidekick (Doug Young, The Flintstones.) Pixie et. al seems like what would happen if a particularly uncreative writer’s room pitched “Tom & Jerry, except there are two mice!” At first blush, Huckleberry himself passed this test, but that was until I saw a clip of Southern Wolf, a character that animation legend Tex Avery created during his time working alongside H & B at MGM. It doesn’t help that all three of the originals are funnier than what we see here.
- Poorly plotted. There are two moments in these cartoons that really test one’s suspension of disbelief, even considering that we’re extending a fair amount of cartoonist’s license as a matter of course. The scientists (uncredited) in the Pixie & Co. short are looking for animals smart enough to send into space, and yet when they first meet Mr. Jinks they don’t seem to consider him as a candidate, despite the fact that he can talk. It’s only until later, when Pixie (Don Messick, The Flintstones) & Dixie (Butler) aren’t working out, that Jinks seems perfect for the job. Geez, if you’re determined to murder super-intelligent animals, you could have saved a lot of time by paying attention to the cat smart enough to exchange mice for cash. The Hokey Wolf story is even flimsier. As mentioned, Hokey hopes to acquire real estate via the time-honored method of simulated haunting, and all goes well until the pigs are confronted by the original wolf, who is somehow still alive despite the fact that he climbed down a chimney and into a burning fire. Sure, it’s a cartoon and he probably got away with some singed, sooty fur, but how did that happen without the pigs noticing? I had assumed all along that they had buried his charred corpse in a shallow grave and resolved to hide their shameful secret from the public. I know it’s pointless to argue with cartoon logic, but it’s an awfully big hole in the story and everything hinges on the wolf’s miraculous return to life, and there’s not even a single line of dialogue attempting to explain.
Motivation: Mr. Jinks and Hokey both want money (in the form of cash and real estate, respectively) and Huckleberry is questing for the power of the French empire.
Final Episode Judgment: 3/10. There’s hours and hours of classic Warner Brothers cartoons for free on YouTube. Maybe stick to that?
NEXT TIME: What happens when aliens invade England during the Blitz? Find out as I review Invasion: Earth!
Original Airdate: May 29th, 2013 on Cartoon Network
Star Wars is one of those unstoppable action/adventure mega-franchises that I end up discussing oh-so-frequently—much like Dragon Ball, Gundam, Marvel and DC. After having lain dormant for a decade, the film franchise is undergoing a revitalization, hewing to the Marvel Cinematic Universe formula of being bought out by Disney and having a constant stream of movies in various stages of production orbiting around one central, tent-pole series. In a complete coincidence, today brings us the trailer for the second outing in the brave new world of ceaseless Star Wars titles. But 2005 to 2015 was a good decade for Star Wars offerings on the small screen, even if they were pitched squarely at the kiddie market. Two separate versions of The Clone Wars filled the hours on Cartoon Network, successfully banking on the notion that kids didn’t know any better when it came to avoiding the prequels. But they set the stage for the current incarnation of Star Wars on TV, Star Wars: Rebels, which is apparently well-crafted enough to draw an adult audience, or at least an audience of adults willing to watch cartoons intended for children, which is a group that I would not have previously put myself in and yet here I am nonetheless. Regardless, the Lego-based video game adaptations of the Star Wars franchise seem to have spawned their own crop of TV shows. This may seem like an odd choice, considering the characters in the Lego Star Wars games don’t talk and the levels of meta-merchandising are starting to get rather cumbersome when you have a cartoon cash-in based on a video game cash-in based on a plastic-toy cash-in based on a film franchise designed to sell stuff. But it’s a choice that, for the most part, worked out pretty well.
- Funny. I’ve shown on this blog that time and time again entertainment–especially entertainment for kids, which is by definition not sophisticated–lives or dies based on how successfully it pulls off comedy. This is not to say that something has to be funny to be good, but it never hurts. It is true, however, that the most maudlin, sentimental melodrama will never be nearly as obnoxiously bad as something that tries to be funny and fails abjectly. In any case, it’s a trademark of the Lego game series to take the piss out of overly serious media franchises, and nothing is more overly serious than an epic battle between good and evil with the fate of the universe hanging in the balance. The series even manages to avoid leaning too heavily on C3PO (Anthony Daniels,) which is great because C3PO is right up there with Carrot Top, Gallagher and Daniel Tosh. The best bits are tried-and-true comedy staples given new life by being inserted into the typically dour Star Wars setting. Yoda’s (Tom Kane) lack of shoes make it hard to run in the rain, leading to slapstick gold. When Yoda and Mace Windu (Adrian Holmes, Debug) are trying to piece together the identity of the undercover Sith Lord operating from inside the Republic and R2-D2 frantically holo-projects an image of Chancellor Palpatine (Trevor Devall, Kid Vs. Kat,) Windu and Yoda agree that asking Palpatine who the undercover agent might be is a great idea. There’s even a reprisal of that hoary old bit where a person tries to maintain two divergent conversations via call-waiting, except it’s a million times funnier when it’s a three-way phone call between Palpatine, Yoda and General Grievous (Kirby Morrow, Lego Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu) and Palpatine’s Lego-head is spinning between a nice face and a mean face depending on who he thinks he’s talking to. Which brings me to…
- Unique aesthetic approach. The Lego-riffic nature of the whole affair is also redeemed through clever, detail-oriented use of distinctive visuals. When Grievous attacks C3PO and a roomful of padawans offscreen, we see the outcome of the battle when C3PO’s detached Lego-head comes bouncing down the stairs. When a gunship makes an ill-fated jump into hyperspace, Yoda, Windu and R2D2 are stranded in space as the gunship breaks into a million little Legos. The animators really committed to the distinctive Lego aesthetic, and it shows from the very first moments of the episode, as the opening shot places us beneath Grievous’s Starfighter–where we can see Lego divots. Hee!
- Gigantic plot hole. Much like The Wrong Mans, Lego is trying to succeed at both comedy and action, but unlike Mans, Lego only pulls it off on one front. And while that’s better than failing at both things, if Lego wasn’t attempting to tell a credible adventure story about saving the galaxy and so forth, there’d be more time for jokes. Grievous and Palpatine’s whole plot centers around Grievous stealing the Kaiburr crystals from the padawan’s lightsabers. Now, maybe the phrase “Kaiburr crystals” means something to you if you’re a hardcore Star Wars nerd, but I asked the nerdiest Star Wars nerd I could find and even he was only able to come up with the fact that lightsabers are powered by focusing crystals and by inference that’s what a Kaiburr crystal must be. The reason this distinction is important is that if there’s something special about the damn Kaiburr crystals I have no idea what it is, because the show never bothers to explain, and apparently Kaiburr crystals are only found in JEDI lightsabers, and only they can power the Central McGuffin, and again none of this is ever actually made explicit. In other words, there needed to be a reason for Grievous to get involved with Yoda and the padawans, so the writers slapped some bullshit together and hoped no one would notice. I understand that it’s a Star Wars cartoon and some familiarity with the source text is to be expected, but if it’s something I would have to be a religious viewer of the various animated series or a dedicated student of the canonical novels to understand, you’re setting the bar too high for most people, resulting in a pretty unsatisfactory adventure.
Motivation: This is Star Wars, after all, so the survival of the entire universe depends on Yoda’s actions here.
Final Episode Judgment: 6/10. This is an amusing way to spend 22 minutes if you’ve got a Star Wars superfan in your house who isn’t too picky about actual storytelling.
NEXT TIME: I plumb the depths of Hanna-Barbera to bring you the coverage of Huckleberry Hound that 2016 so badly needs!
Original Airdate: February 17th, 1973 on NBC
Jack Webb was to 1970s NBC procedurals what Paul Henning was to 1960s CBS sitcoms, except unlike Henning, Webb got his start in front of the camera. He was the perfect straight arrow for the hard-boiled realism of the 1950s version of Dragnet, which had originally been a big hit on radio. The franchise went dormant for much of the 60s, but it was brought back in a big way in 1967 in response to a growing appetite among reactionary types for a law & order approach to hippies and free love. It was the start of a successful stretch for Webb’s production company, Mark VII Limited. Dragnet begat a spinoff in the form of Adam-12 and Adam-12 apparently exhausted the potential of police procedurals for Mark VII, which resulted in a new spinoff, the medical procedural Emergency! And that’s the last time I’m using that over-enthusiastic exclamation point.
- Realism. One of the most exciting things that a procedural can offer viewers is a peek inside something they wouldn’t otherwise get to see–a homicide investigation, open-heart surgery, a contentious lawsuit. If the procedural is more realistic, it seems more authentic, and that authenticity is satisfying for the viewer. This was behind the success of Dragnet and it’s what made Law & Order an unstoppable franchise that’s existed for decades. As ER grew away from realism, it got less satisfying (helicopter crashes, anyone?) This doesn’t mean that realism is the only way to have success with a procedural–NCIS has remained massively popular and it’s more characteristic of an action thriller than a traditional police procedural. It’s not that it failed to be realistic–it offers different pleasures. But Emergency is banking on a realistic depiction of the lives of paramedics and firefighters, and delivers an experience with an air of authenticity. I’ve never been a firefighter or a paramedic, so I can only offer so many assurances, but I was convinced and I expect the average viewer outside those professions would be as well.
- Didactic, meaningless approach to its theme. The fact that the title of the episode clunkily announces the theme of the program bodes ill for things to come. You see, our hero John Gage (Randolph Mantooth) becomes fixated on the idea that human misery would be alleviated if only we could all be perfectly honest all the time. Get ready for a pointless dimestore interpretation of virtue ethics! Each and every situation addressed by the paramedics in this episode has an obvious, lampshaded connection to honesty, though some of those connections are pretty tenuous and there’s never a probing or meaningful exploration of any of the examples that are thrown at us. Gage makes his honesty vow in the cold open when paramedics respond to the site of a kitchen gas explosion. The wife (Beverly Sanders, Scooby Doo! Curse Of The Lake Monster) in a newlywed couple had left the gas on before having a 20-minute argument with her husband (Michael Lerner, 1998’s Godzilla) about his cigars. You see, back when they were dating she pretended to like his stinky cigars but it turns out she doesn’t really like them. The argument culminated in him spitefully lighting a cigar, blowing the damn house to kingdom come. The moral that Gage takes away from this is not that the husband is an asshole but rather that the wife should have been honest about the cigars from day one. Maybe Gage is one of those Ayn Rand enthusiasts who don’t see the downside to “brutal honesty”–where being “honest” is more important than not being a jerkass–because he’s not persuaded about the downsides when he sees Dr. Morton (Ron Pinkard) bluntly tells worried mother Patricia Epps (Anne Whitfield, White Christmas) about her son’s grim prognosis, reducing her to a heap of quivering Jell-O. But it turns out Ms. Epps was the dishonest one all along–in a twist that the writers on House would be proud of, it turns out that she doomed her son by not telling doctors about medicines she had already tried giving her son at home. Dishonesty! Or, you know, just getting flustered and confused in the wake of a medical emergency, or something. But it’s so fun to blame women for everything! Also coming in for the blame is Cheryl Olmstead (Ondine Vaughn, Carola), a tenant who didn’t tell her landlady that the landlady’s 13 year old son likes to take the car for joyrides. Sure, this is a reasonable, if somewhat obvious, example of the negative consequences of dishonesty, as Gage points out later in a conversation with his colleague Roy DeSoto (Kevin Tighe)…but DeSoto’s rebuttal about the negative consequences of honesty doesn’t make any damn sense at all. He refers back to another case they responded to where some idiot tried to do a somersault off the roof of a hotel into the pool and broke his neck. Somehow, this is because his girlfriend (Hilda Wynn, A Woman For All Men) told him the truth by telling him that he was a “phony.” My point here is that many of these supposedly revealing vignettes about the value of honesty are neither meaningful nor very interesting, and while the show is very ham-fisted about pointing out how every stupid thing in these people’s lives revolves around the honesty of others it all feels hollow.
- Boring. You’d think a show called Emergency would be suspenseful and action-packed, but some of these sequences drag on forever. Maybe I’m spoiled by today’s world of quick cuts and short scenes, but it seems like an eternity when the paramedics spend 7 minutes fishing dumbass out of the pool, especially since there’s no payoff other than a fatuous moral about the dangers of being honest with fragile male egos. And apparently the writers have never heard of the drawbacks of “shoe leather” in a screenplay–ie, when you spend valuable screen time showing people going to and from a location. There are so many shots of emergency vehicles navigating the streets of Los Angeles that I began to think I was playing Grand Theft Auto V, except then I’d be entertained. Perhaps if the scenes were tighter we’d have more time to develop one of our 17 pointless storylines.
Motivation: Gage’s pseudo-philosophical ponderings may be boring as hell, but at least he’s trying to search for knowledge.
Final Episode Judgment: 4/10. There’s something fascinating about watching professionals try to save a life, and it’s always interesting to see the events that led to medical mayhem reconstructed, but Emergency only manages to embrace its virtues in spite of its ponderous script.
NEXT TIME: Is there a children’s television franchise I’ve somehow managed to overlook? Yes. Yes there is. Tune in next time for Lego Star Wars: The Yoda Chronicles!