Entries Tagged 'TV reviews' ↓

Merv Griffin, the Moist Happy Visionary

John Leonard and I were as one on many things, especially when it came to television. (Among our shared enthusiasms: The Rockford Files, Bill Russell’s NBA commentary, Dana Delany.) He, as much as I, believed deeply that Ed Sullivan was one of the indispensable figures of the 20th century for making his weekly variety show a spectrum of culture from Broadway to the Bolshoi to the Beatles to the Great Ballantine. But for all the props John gave Ed, he had little use for Merv Griffin, to my mind, as far-sighted and boundary-breaching an emcee as Sullivan.

“Charlie Brown in a Rep Tie” was the handle for John’s withering 1972 Life magazine column on Griffin, whose talk show had just gone back to syndication after a brief late-night fling on CBS. “Embarrassingly personal,” he wrote of Merv’s persona. “…[a] hybrid of Nelson Rockefeller, Kahlil Gibran, Little Beaver, Gunga Din and the Little White Cloud That Cried. Throw this man a security blanket!”

As with similar Leonard tantrums, this came as much from a keen sense of injustice (towards the ratings-besieged Dick Cavett, whom he – and I – preferred at the time to Merv and Johnny Carson) as from distaste. Griffin was indeed every bit as moist as Cavett was dry and I, too, can take only so much moisture on my screen.

But Griffin, as everyone now knows, was soggy like a fox. No one who became as wealthy as he did from inventing Jeopardy!  and Wheel of Fortune could be as needy or as naïve as he seemed to Leonard. Before he became a media mogul, the Mozart of the game show, Griffin was a cabaret/nightclub performer who’d seen a lot of great jazz, R&B, Broadway shows and glossy pop during New York’s post-World War II golden age. He couldn’t avoid bringing such paraphernalia to the mainstream. For instance, Play Your Hunch, the Goodson-Todman daytime game show he hosted from 1958 to 1962, included such cutting-edge legends of the moment as Jon Hendricks and, in this clip, songwriters Jerry Lieber and Burt Bacharach.

Once he got his own talk show, Griffin took even bigger chances, bringing to the desk-and-couch format such unlikely visitors as Bertrand Russell, Norman Mailer, Abbie Hoffman, both Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick (She did most of the talking) and Phil Spector, who managed to piss off every other guest on the panel that evening – including Richard Pryor, who achieved his first nationwide exposure on Griffin’s show as did the more venerable Jackie “Moms” Mabley, whose renown had heretofore been mostly a “black thing” no white person could literally understand. Both would eventually appear on the Sullivan show, but one doubts either of those loose cannons would have made it there without Merv clearing a path to the mainstream.

If you want to know how truly…extraterrestrial Pryor was from the start. Check out this clip where he does some amazing contortions to “The Kid From Red Bank” — and later gushes all over Jerry Lewis. This was regular TV back then. Now it’d be an Event!






No Moms-on-Merv has surfaced yet on the web. except for this unnervingly treacly stream. (“My little Bobby”?) I want more of her on the couch. I used to love the way she would, in mid-gab, suddenly remember to lean to her right and say “Hel-lo, Aw-thuh” to Merv’s Veddy British sidekick Arthur Treacher, who always looked, at best, startled that she bothered to notice.

These days, wet-and-fizzy seems to be the order of the daytime talk show circuit with a new brace of hosts competing for the attention spans of Oprah Winfrey’s lost tribes. These hosts all yearn for the moistness of Merv, but, so far, seem to have little of his vision. They’re hugging the corners, bending over backwards to date people choosy about their fulltime dancing partners. Don’t count on Katie or Jeff or Steve or, for that matter, Ellen or Phil, mining the underground orcruising the cutting edge in search of today’s Edie Sedgwicks or Richard Pryors. Merv, whatever else you may think, was never worried about unnerving the straights. He liked going where no show bothered to go. Now,  these shows seem more interested in telling people what they already know (or think they want to know).


Personally, I think they all (hosts and audience) should  hang out more. Merv would.


Clint Am Us (or US)

I didn’t witness Clint Eastwood’s ride into Samuel Beckett territory last night as I had tickets to see the Best Team in Baseball play the Defending World Series Champions. I heard about it, though, the minute I came home from Nationals Park and patched into the digital hive-mind. And the chatter continues well past dawn (Oh the humanity!): The bitter laughter, the gnashing of teeth, the told-you-so smugness from the Clint haters juxtaposed with the exasperated Clint acolytes who have for decades defended his work despite his politics and whose reactions to last night’s monologue-with-empty-chair range from bemusement to avowals that they’ll never watch his Blu-Rays again.

As Marie Windsor, that great Mormon character actress, once muttered to a randy Jeff Bridges in Hearts of the West, “Lie down and cool off!” Those taken aback by Eastwood’s woozy-looking appearance should have taken the time yesterday afternoon to consult Christopher Orr’s astute preview charting the peripatetic course of Eastwood’s politics. (Note: I said “politics”, not “ideology.” We’ll discuss the distinction further along.) As Orr recounts, Eastwood has always been the Republican equivalent of a “yellow-dog Democrat”, i.e. someone who’d vote for a Democrat even if it were a yellow dog. Indeed, Clint’s been truer to the GOP than many a so-called Reagan Democrat insisting on being the “true” voice of the legacies of FDR, Truman, JFK and so on.

Still, for a lifelong Republican, Eastwood’s made some funny noises over time; the most recent of them coming in a Super Bowl commercial for Chrysler this past February with his “Halftime for America” narration that was so reminiscent of a Joe Biden pep rally that Karl Rove called him out for it. (All Eastwood had to do, apparently, was squint back at Rove to make Ol’ Turd-Blossom say nothing more about the matter.) He cops to being fiscally conservative, but is also pro-choice, pro-gay-marriage and, as his movies, musical tastes and inter-personal relationships prove, sympathetic to multi-cultural concerns.

In short, he’s a lot of things at once and no one thing in particular. When you smile and say, “Hello”, to Mr. Eastwood, you are greeting the American electorate itself whose politics are considered a personal, even an intimate matter because they come not from the brain, or the heart, but from the glands.

The extremist-libertarian Republicans who seek to squeeze Eastwood and, for that matter, the voters into their ideological camp are in for profound disappointment, no matter what transpired last night or will happen over the next couple months. This is because – and let’s read along slowly because some of you have trouble accepting this – America is not now and never has been an ideological country. Let me summarize:
No way!
Aint Happ’nin!
What do you want on your pizza?


Those liberal Lefties in whose consequentiality Newt Gingrich continues to invest a near-poignant belief stumbled into the aforementioned conclusion decades ago, but have yet to figure out what to do about it. Paul Ryan and company will assuredly discover the same thing. The only question being how much damage to Truth and Justice will be done by then.

As confirmation for the glandular state of political life, or at least, the perception of political life, one need look no further than Veep, the HBO sitcom starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a self-aggrandizing, self-sabotaging VPOTUS. As with many critics of the series, I had misgivings early on about the show’s sly avoidance of fixing  Dreyfus’s Selena Meyer in any political party or (of course) ideology. Her pet causes – filibuster reform, the environment – are non-controversial and vaguely ecumenical enough not to distract from the office slapstick that’s the show’s principal attribute.

After several episodes (which I watched in repeats this past week mostly as refuge from Tampa’s muggy rhetoric), even these “issues” become less relevant than Selena’s slow-burning sense of personal affront at every staff blunder, mismanaged transaction and embarrassing gaffe. It’s not about oil or filibusters, dammit, it’s about me! How much more perfect the country would be if everybody was like me! No, not like me! Me! The late Gore Vidal, in his serene vanity, could relate to Selena’s frustration. And so, for that matter, could his old antagonist, William F. Buckley Jr. More to the point, so could most American voters for whom “issues” matter less than whatever it is matters to their own immediate needs.

I’m not saying there aren’t politicians whose actions, unlike Selena’s, are set in motion by something greater than their personal gratifications. I do think, however, that’s what the majority of Americans believe. And they will vote this fall out of the same soft-clay visceral instincts that, apparently, guide even a rock-ribbed, yellow-dog Republican like Clint Eastwood, who, like the Jazz Guy he is, makes his mind up as he goes along. So laugh or howl at the geezer babbling to an empty chair. Just know that you’re also laughing and howling at yourselves.

“The Andy Griffith Show” — Classic Black Sitcom?

It is one of the more peculiar anomalies of American popular culture. Black people, by and large, LOVED The Andy Griffith Show! Judging only from the tweets, postings and random comments I’ve been hearing from African Americans since the show’s star passed away last week, their devotion to the series persists to this day despite the fact that throughout its eight-year run not one African American had a speaking part on the show.
        And we’re not talking about any eight-year period in American history. This was 1960 through 1968, the flashpoint years of the civil rights movement when southern towns more or less resembling Mayberry were stages for some of the bitterest, most violent struggles for racial equality. The southern sheriffs frequently seen on nightly network newscasts during those years were nowhere near as kindly, wise and reasonable as Andy Taylor. I’ve no doubt there was those who thought those distinguished Alabamans, Eugene “Bull” Connor and Jim Clark, were, at rock bottom, decent, professional law enforcers who had the misfortune of being caught on the Wrong Side of History. But that’s not what most folks remember about them now.
       One waited for the wave of revisionism borne by that movement’s legislative and cultural transformations to render The Andy Griffith Show’s wistful depiction of a bucolic, integration-free southern town as anachronistic camp (at best). If anything, the show became even more widely beloved and cherished in Rerun Heaven. African Americans didn’t seem interested in even retroactive picketing against the show’s obvious blank spaces – though said spaces were in the intervening years gleefully, even wickedly mocked by such artists as Drew and Josh Alan Friedman whose two-page comic strip parody of the Griffith show had the whole town of Mayberry lynching a hapless black motorist unlucky enough to have driven into Gomer Pyle’s service station. (“Suddenly Aunt Bee strikes!” was the legend on a panel in which the best cook in town applies a rolling pin upside the nameless negro’s cranium.)
      This raggedly funny short does the same thing with actual clips from the show while this keenly observed piece challenges the presumption that there were no black people whatsoever in Mayberry, N.C. (I did say no “speaking part,” didn’t I? Let me check. Yes, I did.)
      So how come The Andy Griffith Show gets a free pass from the black community for benign neglect even as shows as varied as Downton Abbey and Girls get hammered these days on social networking sites for having no black characters in their respective storylines?
       Here’s a theory. Maybe not mine alone, but I’ll heave it onto the floor and let people stare at it:     

     The laid-back – how to put this – southern-ness of the Mayberry vibe is something that everyone with roots to the region can relate to, Black, White or Other. And even with those aforementioned blank spaces where black actors should have been, there was something funky, occasionally spicy about the show’s comfort food to make me wonder whether The Andy Griffith Show could plausibly be considered a precursor to the black family sitcoms that would start coming in waves in the 1970s. I’ll even go so far as to proclaim this show as the pre-post-civil-rights-era-black-family-situation-comedy.

Yes, I know. But as knotty and awkward as this definition sounds, I bet I’ve got at least a couple of witnesses out there who know what I’m saying here. I keep waiting for a kind of negative-image version of Mayberry to surface on TBS; maybe with Tyler Perry as the wise, kindly and widowed sheriff of a predominantly black working-class town in, say, central Florida. I’ll bet you the national debt that you could cast black faces in every other role in that town and you wouldn’t have to write new scripts – or a new theme song.

Madge was Just OK, the Audi vampires were better & Eli Manning best of all

Actual Dialogue earlier yesterday with a Die-Hard Redskins Fan (DHRF) rooting for the Giants in the SB:

ME: Aren’t you Redskins fans a little conflicted about this?

DHRF: Naw. We aint conflicted. We’re fine with the Giants.

ME: But I thought you hated the Giants.

DHRF: Uh-uh. We hate the Cowboys. Now if it was the Cowboys, it’d be a whole different story.

ME: Ah. And then there’s the fact that the Redskins beat the Giants in the regular season..

DHRF: Beat em twice.

ME: So that means if they win tonight…

DHRF: We win. See? Now you got it.

The Lesson: It’s really not so bad down here.

The Niners (or: Sports? We Do That, Too)

Rooting for a baseball team is a heart-soul function nourished by one’s childhood or community, ideally both. Same goes for a college team in any sport. I am one with the point-of-view that says unless you went to the school you’re rooting for, you’re not a legitimate member of that school’s fan base. I’m willing to expand the rules to include spouses or children who attended or are attending the school in question. But that’s as far as I go.


Professional tackle football, on the other hand, is a different animal; a bigger, furrier, wealthier animal with retractable claws, a broad reach and a twelve-room mansion in Amagansett. The National Football League is a brand-name product with thirty-two littler brand-name products that, whatever their regional loyalties, have the same mass recognition as Colgate, Nissan and Olive Garden. Loyalty to the home team is, for many, a consummation devoutly to be wished. But no one seems to make a big deal if you glom onto a sexier, sleeker product playing the same day as your regional telecast. Hence, your Green Bay Packers fans shouting about the power of cheese in Albuquerque, your Philadelphia Eagles fans in a midtown Manhattan bar throwing darts at LT’s picture or Dallas Cowboys fans in Warwick, Rhode Island who wouldn’t venture south of Delaware on a bet.


So do I have to explain why, this weekend, I shall be rooting for the San Francisco 49ers to beat the New York Giants?  I might, rabbit, I just might…

I am not from the Bay Area, NoCal or anywhere else west of West Hartford,Connecticut. I have visited San Francisco a handful of times in my life and, as has been the case with many visitors before and since, came away every time more in love with it than before. I wanted to live there, maybe could have lived there, but didn’t. I have a few good friends and at least one relative living there now. But I have no ancestral link to Baghdad-on-the-Bay or any of the surrounding territories now served by BART.


Nevertheless, I am a 49ers fan of forty years standing. If you’re counting correctly, that pre-dates the Camelot that came into being thirty years ago last month with Joe Montana’s epoch-making heave at Dwight Clark’s out-stretched hands in the NFC Championship game against the Dallas Cowboys, to whom (as any true red-and-gold-veined Niner fan knows) the team used to perennially lose in perennially heart-breaking fashion in those same title games in the early seventies (and would again in the early nineties, but I digress…) I mention this at the outset to prove I didn’t clamber onto the bus when Bill Walsh and Eddie DeBartolo put it into high gear. I remember rooting for John Brodie launching surface-to-air-missiles to Gene Washington and Ted Kwalik. I know who the Fudge Hammer was and read up on enough team history to know who constituted the Million-Dollar Backfield of the fabulous fifties. I never went to Kezar when the team played there, but showed the proper reverence when I actually encountered the place on one of those aforementioned visits. And I made the trip to Candlestick for the 1984 NFC title and screamed like a banshee when the Big Bad Bears were shut down 24-0.

We get it, you say. You like the 49ers. But why?  A good question, given that I grew up in a New York Giants household. My late father lived and died and, every once in a while, rose from the dead by the G-Men since the distant days when you actually had to say, “New York Football Giants,” to distinguish them from the baseball version, Every fall, through several decades, men-in-blue named Andy Robustelli, Frank Gifford, Sam Huff, Alex Webster, Dick Lynch, Ernie Wheelwright, Homer Jones, Joe Morrison, Pete Gogolak, Carl “Spider” Lockhart, Dave Jennings, Harry Carson and many others showed up for Sunday dinner to either get chewed out or backslapped by the Old Man. In the wilderness period between 1964 and 1980, a.k.a. “Sixteen Years of Lousy Football,” Dad was especially fond of Lockhart, Carson and the now-forgotten Morrison, an all-purpose player whose dogged, unassuming excellence at the nadir of the Giants’ decline was a source of solace and pride.


My younger brother, however, had adopted the then-Los Angeles Rams as his team. I always assumed it was the helmet design that initially grabbed him. (And I admit, the logo’s coolness has traveled well to St. Louis, whether the team sucks or not.) As has been historically the case with younger brothers, he became protective of his Rams to the point of being utterly obnoxious about it. So one October afternoon during the 1969 season, I watched as his belligerence began to wither under the televised assault of a Rams-Niners game during which L.A., by far the better team that year, couldn’t shake their long-time rivals loose, even though the game ended with the Rams winning by a touchdown. I figured any team that could shut my brother up was worth adopting as one’s own.


It was an impulse buy that grew on me in a relatively short time. And here, basically, is why I kept faith: The 49ers played, to me, like artists. Their methods, on both sides of the ball, appealed to my aesthetic sense of what pro football should be: a ground game based on quicksilver slashing over head-first pounding, defense that dueled more with swift, martial-arts flair, especially in the backfield, than with relentless, stone-fisted pummeling. And an aerial attack that looked especially grand when going long and deep in several directions. Win or lose, that style of play was what made the 49ers distinctive, especially during the dynasty years when the Niners were habitually labeled – or, to some, slandered – with the classification of “finesse team.” Fine, we Niner fans insisted. We’ll be your “finesse team” as long as whatever you imply by that image keeps your teams from noticing how beat up and bruised they get from trying to outrun, outshoot and outwit our guys.


Now the 49ers are emerging from their own wilderness years – and doing so mostly with a hard-assed defense and a formidable ground game. As long as I’ve been conscious, I’ve never known a 49er team that entered the playoffs wielding the most dominant defense of any other NFC title contender. Not that our team has never engaged in effective brutality (or do you all need to be reminded after all these years of the Greatest Free Safety in Human History?) But this swaggering brick-wall-and-mailed-fist image is something one will have to get used to, especially now that it seems to have brought the team to the brink of its sixth Super Bowl.


Do I think they’ll get there? Of course I do. That last couple of drives Saturday almost screeched “Destiny!”  I can already imagine an episode of “America’s Game” with Jim Harbaugh, Alex Smith and Vernon Davis, the latter still getting choked up over what I’m calling, “The Catch 3.” Who at this point can you imagine appearing in a comparable installment for any of the other four contenders? I thought not.

The Catch 3

Still…oh, hell, as long as we’re here, let’s weigh all the possible combinations for the Rilly Big Shew in Indy:


1.)    Pats vs. Giants – This is the re-match everybody wants, most especially the respective constituencies of each franchise; the former, to avenge the shocking denial of their bid for undefeated immortality; the latter, to prove to America, the world and maybe even (especially) themselves that the 2007 championship wasn’t a fluke. I’d throw a party for that contest, but you KNOW what happens to games that everyone wants to happen, right? The football gods, including former commissionersBell and Rozelle, believe granting fans’ fervent wishes makes mortals too soft, too spoiled. (In case you’re wondering, in a pinch, the G-Men can always count on my vote in situations such as this. I ate too many Sunday dinners with those guys to cut them out of my life completely.)

2.)    Giants vs. Ravens – This is the re-match that hardly anyone cares about, not even the two franchises. Who’s left of the 2000 Giants on the team now? On the other hand, there are at least a couple of Ravens still active who played in that game. But what’s in it for them besides a sentimental journey to their finest hour? Which, for what it’s worth, won’t be repeated in this hypothetical bowl. Different teams, different times…

3.)    Ravens vs. 49ers – Bro vs. Bro helped fill a couple of Thanksgiving pre-game TV dinners for a day or two. America, be honest: Do you really, really, really want two whole weeks of talking heads breaking down the Harbaugh family tree in search of exotic blood compounds? Me neither, so let’s move on.

4.)    49ers vs. Pats – Unimaginable – and hard to hype unless you want to make it all about Tom Brady playing against the team he grew up idolizing and, by the by, getting psyched to match his hero Joe Montana in the number of Super Bowl wins (four). You know what? That would be altogether ideal for the Niner Nation since the gasbags would be so busy talking about Brady that they’d barely notice the relatively anonymous slugs on the other side of the field. Guess who wins that one.