The career of Richard Dawson, who died Sunday at age 79, breaks down, broadly speaking, into two not unrelated parts, each of which displayed and depended upon a certain roguish, vaguely foreign charm. American audiences first got to know him as Cpl. Peter Newkirk on the prisoners-of-war sitcom "Hogan's Heroes"; later we grew to love him as the first and still most famous host of "Family Feud" for the entirety of its first run (1976-85) and for the final season of its second (1994-95), after which he retired from show business.
The mid-1960s was a good time to be English in America. (Even if you were only halfway so: the British-born Dawson's father was American.) It was the age of the Beatles and Bond, and to my own impressionable eye, this made Dawson's Newkirk (even more than star Bob Crane's Col. Hogan) the most attractive member of the cast. (I was little enough to take its nonsense seriously.) There was a knowingness to the character that was not quite a naughtiness, a Cockney cocksureness, a streak of larceny appealingly turned to heroic ends.
These qualities Dawson imported, because they may have in some way been native to him, into his post-"Hogan" career, first as a cast member on "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In," already in progress, and then on the deceptively hip '70s version of "Match Game," where the contest itself was less the point than the loose banter of the panelists. Then came "Family Feud" -- perhaps the most American of great American game shows, with its contestants representing unity and diversity -- where he dispensed innumerable kisses and compliments and kept order with a gently ironic edge.
Apart from "Hogan," Dawson's other acting appearances, which included several episodes of the underrated "The New Dick Van Dyke Show" and a dark inversion of his "Family Feud" persona in the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi film "The Running Man," were few; a psych-pop single, "Apples and Oranges," from 1967, led nowhere, but it remains an interesting artifact of its time.
He was above all a television personality, which has sometimes been described as "being famous for nothing" but in fact requires a particular set of talents, by no means easy to come by: quickness, confidence and the ability to be amusing, accessible and alive on a TV screen. The sort of programs in which Dawson specialized for most of his career are those in which viewer and viewed are at their least remote, where living room and stage set become a single shared space: You don't watch these shows so much as hang out in them.
He has sometimes been compared to Groucho Marx, whose "You Bet Your Life" he once was briefly set to revive -- but his bearing, in his later years especially, reminded me more of a friendlier, happier W.C. Fields. Respecting the game while not taking it too seriously, maintaining control without superiority, mocking without derision, intelligence without ostentation -- these are the qualities that defined Richard Dawson and keep him fresh in memory.
There is something sweetly old-fashioned about the phrase "talent show" -- like "quilting bee" or "sack race" or "bake off," it calls up images of small-town fun, of ordinary citizens showing off that extraordinary thing they do. And for all the audiovisual Sturm und Drang of the modern televised variety, it remains humble at its core.
NBC's "America's Got Talent," whose seventh -- seventh! -- season began Monday night, is the purest expression of the form, making room as it does for all manner of performing arts and crafts. The big news in its seventh -- seventh! -- season is the arrival of new judge Howard Stern, the self-proclaimed "king of all media," a claim that may or may not be taken as ironic. (It is not without some factual basis.)
Stern's deserved reputation for vulgarity -- and I intend no criticism -- has led some to worry, sincerely or for practical effect, that his presence would dirty a wholesome brand. The ever- if not over-vigilant Parents Television Council preemptively called for all the show's past advertisers to consider how this unholy alliance would reflect on their products, citing his "decades-long penchant for profanity, his affinity for degrading and sexualizing women.... There can be, and there must be, a presumption that Mr. Stern will only continue to conduct himself in precisely the same manner as he has done for decades."
That is, of course, a foolish presumption, which sells short the show's producers and misreads Stern, who has shown himself perfectly capable of good behavior on other people's turf. On his own shows, he (partially) plays a character named Howard Stern, who lives out the fantasies of the less imposing person he sees in the mirror. (On his first night on "AGT," he managed to impugn both his face and, an old theme with him, his genitals, as well as his relationship with his father.)
He was introduced, nevertheless, in a montage, set to the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil," that referred to his reputation. Stern himself played the part, for a minute: "These executives at NBC must be out of their mind taking a risk on me." To the audience: "I say I won't make it through the first show -- what do you think?" But it quickly became evident that, like fellow judges Sharon Osbourne and Howie Mandel, he meant to play the game the way the game is meant to be played, because, to a deep degree, he believes in it.
Contestants on the opening night, appearing before large and noisy crowds in old, majestic theaters in Los Angeles and St. Louis, included a magician-cum-stripper; a crossbow artist; a man who put a scorpion in his mouth; a ventriloquist whose dummy was a live dog; a little girl on aerial silks; a bad Michael Jackson knockoff; a shirtless saxophonist; the player of a large "earth harp" strung from the stage to the balcony; a woman who sang covered in birds; and the usual dance crews and singers. (One, who called himself Simply Sergio, failed singing "The Girl From Ipanema" but snatched victory from the jaws of defeat by slipping in an operatic "God Bless America" that brought Stern, who had earlier deemed the singer "dreadful," onstage to embrace him.)
Monday's last act, not surprisingly, was the one that best fit the show's rags-to-riches theme, a father-and-daughter team of street performers who brought the crowd, themselves and at least one television critic to tears with a fine reading of "You've Got a Friend."
Some of them will be "going to Vegas" and the next round of competition. Others will fall back on other dreams.
"This is going to sound all sappy," Stern said, giving a thumbs up to one group, whose dance-and-light performance in which they seemed to become dinosaurs and flowers would take too long to accurately describe, "but we are the greatest country in the world; we have the most creative people."
In what must be the most talked-about licensing of a song in television history, "Mad Men" ended its Sunday episode with "Tomorrow Never Knows," the last track on the 1966 Beatles album "Revolver." Acquired for a reported $250,000, this track -- which Depression-child Don Draper, listening at home on the suggestion of his young wife, takes off halfway through -- capped an hour that played, like the song, with themes of death and transfiguration, being and nothingness. (The episode took its title, "Lady Lazarus," from a Sylvia Plath poem about suicide.)
A quarter of a million dollars is a lot of money to pay for a song, you might reasonably think -- the hour also had the ad men discussing cheaper alternatives to licensing a track from the Beatles -- but one can see why creator Matt Weiner, who also wrote the episode, found it necessary: Even as psychedelia, "Tomorrow Never Knows" resists nostalgia; no other track on "Revolver," or any contemporaneous recording, would have said so well that the world had changed or betokened the historical moment's combination of existential ecstasy and dread. With its insistent, jagged drum pattern, its dropped-in tape loops, pedaling bass and oceanic C major drone, it is a blast from the future; formally, it has more to do with millennial electronica than with the pop music of its time, or, indeed, anything else the Beatles would record.
This was not, however, the first time, the song was used in a TV show. Back when the Fab Four were not even halfway through their recording career, they licensed their images and catalog to an American cartoon series, "The Beatles." (The mind reels, a little.) It had already been airing for a year, Saturday mornings on ABC, when "Revolver" was released. With speaking voices performed by Paul Frees (the voice of Boris Badenov, Ludwig von Drake and Disney's Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean rides) and British actor Lance Percival, the animated moptops enjoy brief Hope & Crosby/Bowery Boys-type adventures, each thematically linked (by a hair) to a Beatles song, make fun of Ringo's nose and are chased by girls.
“In Plain Sight,” the USA Network series about witness protection, came to an end last Friday after five fine seasons. Although it was, in its broad outlines, a familiar thing, a basic-cable cop show with comically bantering leads -- Mary McCormack and Frederick Weller as Albuquerque-based federal marshals -- it had its own peculiar rhythms. At its best it was as smart and rich and complex as any of television's more outwardly serious and loudly celebrated cable dramas; I followed it, purely for pleasure, from first episode to last.
Every television show is eventually about family, whether it is about “a family,” and the more so the more it goes on, as the characters and the people who play them -- and we, the people who watch them -- accumulate shared history. “In Plain Sight” was about three sorts of family: the blood relations of McCormack's Mary Shannon; the people she worked alongside; and the clients it was her job to protect, from those who would do them harm but more often from themselves. Each had its challenges.
Creator David Maples departed after the second season over disagreements with the network about the show's tone; USA, whose slogan is “Characters welcome,” wanted something lighter. But if the series that ended last week was more comedy than drama, it was still informed by Maples’ grittier vision. Without that early groundwork, without the characters having been sent to extremes – the first season ended with a long confrontation between Mary, her alcoholic mother (Lesley Ann Warren) and trouble-magnet sister (Nichole Hiltz) that had the weight and intensity of an O’Neill play -- it would have been less substantial, believable and genuinely affecting.
It seems inconceivable that Dick Clark -- eternally youthful, frightfully busy Dick Clark -- has died. It's as if, through some cosmic foul-up, Death did not get the memo excusing him from such a mortal distraction.
And yet, he has, Wednesday in Los Angeles, of a heart attack at the age of 82. New years will still come and go, but we have come to the end of “Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve” -- a holiday he managed to brand in pop consciousness as his own -- or, at any rate, one which he is available to host. America, you will have to make other plans.
More than the bare recitation of his on-screen and behind-the-screen credits would suggest -- he was a television personality, the host of a dance party, of game shows (most notably of the “Pyramid” franchise, over some 15 years) and of a series called “TV's Bloopers & Practical Jokes” -- he was a force not only in the history of the medium, but of the culture at large.
In the years before MTV, Clark's was the name most associated with rock 'n' roll music on television, although there was nothing much rock 'n' roll about the man himself. Born in 1929, he was a teenager not in the era of Elvis but in the twilight of the big bands, and as the host of “American Bandstand” for more than 30 years -- a show he did not create but came to own, in the vernacular and the literal sense of the word -- he played the role of chaperone to generations of teenagers at a kind of national hop.
Indeed, what made him compelling was the way the dual strands of his nature and his businesses combined in the person you saw on screen, entertainer and executive, agent of fun and serious businessman. He was an adult involved in childish things.
Often called “America's Oldest Teenager,” he retained his thick-maned, white-smiled, boyish looks into an age that visibly crumpled his peers into senior citizenry. And yet, even in the days when pop music was his daily bread -- even in the earliest days, when he looked not much different from the kids that crowded around him on the “Bandstand” set -- he never came across as a kid.
Rather, Clark was a voice of friendly authority. (An authority, one also felt, that could turn stern in a minute -- that was the mogul you could glimpse through the mouthpiece.) That voice, bruised but not broken by a stroke in 2004, was a trained instrument whose sound caught his doubleness: perfectly warm, perfectly cool.
There was always a poise about him, a pressed quality that a cyclone could not ruffle. You felt that he wouldn't break a sweat on a summer's day in the Sahara. But he rarely seemed stiff.
As a sideline, he occasionally appeared in dramatic roles in episodic television series, including “Lassie,” “Adam-12” and “Perry Mason,” in which he played a killer. He played one again in a film he co-wrote, “Killers Three,” from 1968. I don't want to read too much into that, but I find it not uninteresting.
You can't rate a life as you could a record, but one would say, after all, that this one had a good beat.
"Doc Martin," the globally popular British series about an antisocial big-city surgeon working as a general practitioner among boundary-disrespecting neighbors in a Cornwall fishing village, has just begun its fifth season. Over the last couple of years it has become a staple feature of American public broadcasting -- the second episode of the new season premieres locally tonight on KCET -- and has been widely available online, offered free to subscribers of Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus. Acorn Media, which has released the previous four seasons on DVD, will add the fifth in June. (I earlier wrote about the series here.)
Martin Clunes (whose "William and Mary," an earlier series in which he plays a cuddly undertaker, has also become a PBS favorite) stars as Martin Ellingham, the eponymous doctor. Caroline Catz is Louisa, the teacher he inarticulately loves, nearly marries and, at the close of Season 4, has a child with. This year also sees the arrival of the great Eileen Atkins ("Cold Comfort Farm," "Cranford" and a co-creator of "Upstairs Downstairs") as Martin's Aunt Ruth, a psychiatrist who shares his dry, logical, suffer-no-fool-gladly temperament.
I spoke with Clunes recently, by phone to his home in England. He is clearly a different man from the one he currently plays on television. You should imagine hearty laughter coloring his responses below.
Your character is unusual, in that it's a variation on a different Cornwall-based doctor named Martin you played in the film "Saving Grace" and two subsequent TV movies. Can you talk about how you got from there to here?
Martin Clunes: It was quite simple and sort of market-led. Sky, which is Fox I guess over here, had some money in "Saving Grace," and Elizabeth Murdoch, Rupert's daughter, set up a thing called Sky Pictures, which was terrific because it meant the industry was very buoyant and lots of people were making films [for television]. And we got picked up -- they did some research and thought that the character of the doctor in "Saving Grace" had legs, and so they asked us if we'd make some films based on him. And then they folded while we were making them. We sort of knew somebody at ITV, which is an independent broadcast channel over here, and said, "Are you interested in picking up this franchise, 'cause we're kind of set up." We'd made these two films ["Doc Martin" (2001) and "Doc Martin and the Legend of the Cloutie" (2003)]. The tone of it, the kind of dope-smoking aspect, didn't appeal to them, and they didn't think it would suit their audience. But they said they didn't mind me being a doctor in that place. So we had the license to take it apart and create something from the ground up. We didn't want to do the "Doc Hollywood" thing of "smart town city doctor being amazed and bemused by his quirky neighbors"; we kind of wanted to turn that on its head, and that was a small community united in horror by this vile GP.
Were you aware of the American show "Northern Exposure"?
MC: Well, yeah, we were, and it was tonally in the back of our minds. Although we couldn't say it flat out loud, because if we'd said, "We're going to do a kind of 'Northern Exposure thing'," I don't think ITV would have gone for it. But in our minds it was that kind of thing, and maybe a little bit of Twin Peaks," too. Both shows I loved, and I loved the kind of -- is otherworldly the right expression, I don't know -- not off-planet, but its own little world.
A few weeks back, I wrote about "Poldark," a BBC series from the mid-1970s that had recently been released in a complete-set package on DVD (by Acorn Media), as a cure for "Downton Abbey" withdrawal. A tale of romance and class war, of tradition and nonconformity in Cornwall before and after the turn of the 18th century, it's hugely romantic, highly intelligent and continually suspenseful.
Coincidentally, Robin Ellis, who played the proud, dashing and sometimes thick-headed Capt. Ross Poldark and lives now in the South of France, was in Los Angeles not long after to tour to promote a cookbook he'd written,"Delicious Dishes for Diabetics" (Skyhorse Publishing). (His 1978 memoir of the series, "Making Poldark" is also about to be republished in an expanded form.)
We met over breakfast to talk about the series that in 2007 American fans of "Masterpiece Theatre" voted their seventh favorite ever, but whose debut, recalled Ellis, was not universally well received at home.
Robin Ellis: Do you know Clive James? Wonderful writer poet and a provocative TV critic at the time. His review on the Sunday after the first program came at the end of three columns reviewing something else at great length, and read, "And, oh yes — there is 'Poldark,' which I notice is an anagram for Old Krap. I rest my case."
No critics were taking it seriously?
The press had a different attitude to "Poldark" in Britain as opposed to America. In Britain it was a Sunday night comfort television series, of which there are many. It got fairly good reviews, I think, and the audience built over a period of two months from 5 to about 15 million. So it was a success it terms of the public, a big success, but it never had the cachet of a "Downton Abbey." It wasn't one of those must-see programs.
Were you aware of the books beforehand?
No. I suppose I must have heard of Winston Graham. He was a very considerable storyteller. He wrote "Marnie," which Hitchcock made into a film. His high writing time was maybe 20 years before, but then this revived it, and he wrote another eight Poldark books. The last one he wrote at the age of 92. It's called "Bella Poldark," and it's about Ross's youngest daughter and it's really good. Graham fell in love with Bella as he had fallen in love with Demelza [the series' heroine, played by Angharad Rees], and it revived his juices. She ends up playing Ophelia at the Old Vic! It's absolutely wonderful. I mean, that's an author having fun, at the age of 92. He wrote the first Poldark book in 1945, and attempt after attempt was made to make a film. But because it was four books originally, I think they just thought, "This is too difficult to compress into one two-hour movie." And eventually in 1975 the BBC picked it up and went ahead.
In writing about the death of Davy Jones last week, I made reference to "Big Time Rush," the Nickelodeon boy-band series that takes most of its formal cues, and many informal ones, from "The Monkees." Saturday coincidentally brings a feature-ish-length film (the series' fifth), "Big Time Movie," which takes the group, also called Big Time Rush, to London into what used to be called a spy spoof, a welter of Beatles references and a pocketful of Beatles covers.
In the least generous terms, Big Time Rush -- or BTR, which takes just as long to say though is quicker to text -- is an imitation of an imitation, but the models (which were temporally coexistent) are both solid, and the imitation is sincere. Those were different times, to be sure. There are too many avenues now, too many insular niches, too much possibility to create even a roughly cohesive counterculture that might find room for Beatles and Monkees under the same umbrella.
In the smaller world into which "The Monkees" was born, any music you could call "pop" was driven through the same narrow funnel of Top 40 radio; at its best, this system created an energetic mix of the ridiculous and the sublime, the avant-garde and the rear-guard, the carefully crafted commercial and unexpected left-field weirdness. (The Beatles, to whose songs "Big Time Movie" applies modern dance beats and the sanitizing filter of Auto-Tune, in a not totally bad way, were all those things by turn -- as were the Monkees, as they walked in their booted footsteps.)
"Big Time Rush" belongs to a new age of industrial kid-pop, when the circular formula the Monkees exploited -- the show sells the band that sells the songs that sell the show -- is just established good business practice. It's the engine that drives or drove "High School Musical" and "Hannah Montana," "American Idol" and "Glee" and all their many variations. What's different about "Big Time Rush" within this context is that it's smarter and weirder than it needs to be, and creator Scott Fellows, who also thought up "Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide," remains fiercely protective of its profound goofiness.
Davy Jones, who died Wednesday of a heart attack at the age of 66, was, from 1965 and on and off for the rest of his life, a member of the Monkees, a pop group invented for a television show: "Davy, the little short English one," as bandmate Micky Dolenz described him in one episode of "The Monkees," which ran from 1966 to 1968 on NBC.
Designed to channel the energy of the Beatles film "A Hard Day's Night" into an American sitcom, it was at once a product of old-school show business and an emerging Hollywood counterculture, created by Bob Rafelson, who would direct "Five Easy Pieces," "The King of Marvin Gardens" and the revisionist Monkees movie, "Head" (co-written by Rafelson and Jack Nicholson), and Bert Schneider, who would produce those movies along with "Easy Rider" and "The Last Picture Show." A human cartoon whose main attraction was the self-aware naturalism of its leads, the show was of two worlds, and, to a remarkable extent, was successful in each.
Although their success was undoubtedly an influence, it is too much to class the Monkees with such subsequent whole-cloth pop creations as the Archies, the Banana Splits, Josie & the Pussycats, the Partridge Family and, some would say, the Spice Girls -- though it is clearly the model on which Nickelodeon's successful, and not bad at all, "Big Time Rush" is based. Pop has always had its industrial wing. The band was itself split between, as it were, the raw and the cooked. Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork were Sunset Strip cowboys who came to the project as musicians looking for a break; Jones and Dolenz were actors. Dolenz had already starred in his own TV series, "Circus Boy," and Jones had been in the business since the age of 11; he'd worked on British television before taking over the role of the Artful Dodger in the musical "Oliver!" on the London stage. He coincidentally appeared with its Broadway cast on "The Ed Sullivan Show" the night the Beatles made their American television debut there, in February 1964.
When "The Monkees" went into pre-production, Jones was already signed to Screen Gems, the TV arm of Columbia Pictures, which produced the series, and recording for its record label, Colpix, a multimedia strategy that was not uncommon then and is standard practice now, in the post-Miley Cyrus world of tween television. Still, in the world the Beatles remade, it had become newly important for musicians to write the songs they sang, and to play the instruments on their records, and to be the people they seemed to say they were.
The question of whether the Monkees were a "real" band -- a false question, the history of pop repeatedly shows -- dogged them from the beginning; indeed, it was an issue between the group and their bosses, and within the group itself. (They came to actual blows at times over their meaning and direction; but such disunity is something they share with every band that ever was.) It has been enough to some to keep them out of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and yet to the many more who watched their show, bought their records and, as late as last year, attended their concerts, it is entirely beside the point.
In Beatle terms, Jones was the Paul, the cute one, the one who sang the pretty melodies and let his music-hall roots show; he could dance, as well as sing. ("I Wanna Be Free," "Daydream Believer," "Valleri," "A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You," and the Harry Nilsson-penned "Cuddly Toy" were among the songs on which he took the lead.) His Englishness, at a time when pop consciousness was dominated by the Fab Four -- many young American musicians who would have considered themselves authentic to the core strove to sound as if they were just off the boat from Britain -- gave the Monkees a kind of Limey cred.
That he was short -- at 5-foot-3, he had apprenticed as a jockey -- just made him a more comfortable fit for the daydreams of the little girls who bought Tiger Beat and 16 Magazine and pasted his picture on their walls or in their scrapbooks; he was a pre-teen idol, and the series' designated romantic lead. (If in Marx Brothers terms -- the other great influence on "The Monkees" -- this made him Zeppo, he also got his fair share of comedy to play.)
Still, becoming famous as a version of yourself is a hard legacy to escape. As a performer in subsequent years, Jones was often asked to play Jones: Once a Monkee, always a Monkee. Did this bother him? I don't know. But when there was Monkee business to do, he always showed up smiling.
[For the record, 6:50 p.m. Feb. 29: An earlier version of this post incorrectly credited Davy Jones with creating the role of the Artful Dodger on the London stage. Martin Horsey was first to play the part, which Jones later took over.]
Without doing any real research into the matter, I imagine we are going to experience a flurry of articles/lists/promotions on the subject of what to watch now that "Downton Abbey" is, for the moment, done. A Google search of the words "what to watch now that 'Downton Abbey' is done" does in fact fetch back some hits.
Given that a wealth of old television is perennially available by DVD or download, there is no lack of candidates for this position, not least because "Downton Abbey" is as much of an expression of a tradition of British television as it is of a British way of life. Indeed, its very success recalls the way that High-Class British Period Dramas of the '60s, '70s and '80s invaded the cultural consciousness; some came with literary pedigrees, some were pretty soapy, and all, like "Downton Abbey," were imported to these shores via "Masterpiece Theatre" (now simplified and complicated as "Masterpiece," in three flavors: Contemporary, Mystery and Classic). These included "The Pallisers" (adapting six novels by Anthony Trollope), "The Forsyte Saga" (three novels and two "interludes" by John Galsworthy), "Jewel in the Crown (Paul Scott's "Raj Quartet"), "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" and, of course, "Upstairs Downstairs," that proto-"Downton" drama of relations among and between the served and serving classes in the early 20th century.
One of the most successful of these series was "Poldark," originally broadcast here in 1977 and 1978 but which I am just now watching for the first time, at a gallop, in a 25-hour, eight-disc DVD set from Acorn Media. (Its two seasons have been available on DVD separately since 2010 but have just been boxed together under that irresistible term, "complete.") Based on a series of novels by Winston Graham and set in Cornwall — England's far-flung southwestern extremity — in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, it is a big box of chocolates that was reportedly so popular in its initial British run that some vicars rescheduled Sunday evening services in order not to compete with it
"Foyle's War," the World War II-set British detective series last seen here in 2010 under the banner of PBS' "Masterpiece Mystery," will return for an eighth season in 2013, with three new feature-length episodes. Creator Anthony Horowitz, producer Jill Green and star Michael Kitchen, as Det. Chief Supt. Christopher Foyle, are all back on board, with costar Honeysuckle Weeks, as Foyle's former driver, Samantha Stewart, "expected to return." I suppose that means she might not, but she ought to; this has been a marvelous show, rich in character, local color and period detail. (Kitchen's official statement of enthusiasm: “It’s great to be wanted and a pleasure to be back.”)
With its first six seasons set during World War II mostly in and around the English seaside town of Hastings, "Foyle's War" mixes the usual stuff of detective shows (i.e., murder) with what might be called historical topicality. The last season -- which saw the show brought back to life after a much-protested 2007 cancellation and a later change in management at ITV, the producing network -- took place in the months after VE Day; the new films, set in 1946-47, will take Foyle, now a "senior intelligence officer," into the early days of the Cold War. We are promised tales of atomic spies and government corruption, "firmly based on true stories."
As he did in season seven, Horowitz -- who also created the temperamentally similar "Midsomer Murders," writes novels (for kids and for adults) and is slated to script the next big-screen "Tintin" adaptation -- will pen the opening and closing episodes, with David Kane writing the second. In reviewing that last season, I wrote of its hero, "Though he is small and quiet for a TV cop, he possesses a fearsome decency, not to be swayed by rank or authority, that borders on the superheroic. He's clear-sighted and dogged, courteous where it's merited and cutting where it's not, and it is pure joy to watch him go."
The 1960s cartoon superhero Underdog, who as a giant balloon flew the streets of New York every Thanksgiving morning for two decades, has had all his adventures collected, in chronological order, in a nine-disc box set released Tuesday by Shout Factory, "Underdog: Complete Collector's Edition." Together with the 6-DVD "Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales: The Complete Collection," to be released March 6, it will represent, if not quite the totality of the work of Total TeleVision Productions, as much of it as all but a literal few will ever need.
"Underdog," for younger readers who might not recognize the name — and do not let the 2007 live-action film distract you — was an early expression of the '60s ironic-nostalgic mania for old-school superheros. This was the decade that later produced a "Batman" sitcom and a "Superman" Broadway musical.
Like Superman, whose powers he reprises, he has a meek alter ego, "humble and lovable Shoeshine Boy," and a reporter sort-of girlfriend, Polly Purebred, a lipstick-wearing pooch in a tight skirt and heels. When Underdog flies overhead, gawking citizens cry, "It's a plane, it's a bird ... it's a frog," to which Underdog, who speaks always in rhyme, replies "Not plane, nor bird, nor even frog / It's just little old me, Underdog." Wally Cox, who gave him a voice, made (or was condemned to) a career playing mild-mannered milquetoasts, and Underdog, even at full power, remains visually a pipsqueak, his costume hanging loose as if cut for muscles that will never come. This lets him battle villains without ever seeming less than sweet.
And like "The Powerpuff Girls," who borrowed a thing or two from the look and the meat of "The Underdog Show," he has a habit of entering through a wall when a door is available.
Even as a child — admittedly a child who thought unusually much about how cartoons were made and who made them and what made one better than another — I was aware that the TTV cartoons resembled those of Jay Ward without quite living up to what I regarded as Ward's higher standard. Apart from the obvious benefits of copying a successful model, there were systemic reasons for the similarities: Like Ward's "Rocky and Bullwinkle," the TTV productions were sponsored by General Mills — this is the old model, where companies actually commissioned content — and animated by the same Mexican studio, Gamma Productions, created by Peter Piech, an executive producer of both the Ward and the TTV cartoons, for that express purpose.
If these are not the cleverest cartoons in the history of animation — that they are barely animated is beside the point (viz. "South Park,") — they are certainly among the most memorable. Built on repeating jokes and story forms, with catchphrases and theme songs that stick in the head for years and years, they forgo the satire and "sophistication" of the Ward cartoons (which at times seem only incidentally to be for children) for a gentler, sillier storybook lyricism. (Compare the lullaby tones of "Underdog" narrator George S. Irving to the more aggressive work of "Rocky and Bullwinkle" narrator William Conrad.) Though they have their small share of over-junior's-head puns and inside jokes, they tell their stories straight; they are, quite consciously, kids' stuff.
The cartoons that filled out each half-hour of the "Underdog" and "Tennessee Tuxedo" shows fill out the new box sets as well. The "Underdog" collection gives you episodes of "Go Go Gophers" ("Watch 'em go, go, go"), in which coyote cavalry officers attempt unsuccessfully to oust gopher Indians from their land; "The World of Commander McBragg," a series of impossible tall tales each of which lasts less than two minutes (and in their invention and speed are some of the best work here); "Klondike Kat," a kind of "Dudley Do-Right" by way of "Tom & Jerry" (catchphrases: "I'm going to make mincemeat out of that mouse," "Savoir Faire is everywhere!"); and "Tooter Turtle," in which a lizard wizard magically sends a young turtle into various eras and occupations (catchphrases: "Help me, Mr. Wizard!" and "Drizzle, drazzle, drazzle, drome/ Time for this one to come home").
The "Tennesse Tuxedo" set includes episodes of "The King and Odie" (whose original own show, "King Leonardo and His Short Subjects," was the first TTV production), featuring leonine King Leonardo, his skunk minister Odie Cologne and the villains Biggie Rat and Itchy Brother; "The Hunter" (dog detective versus sly fox); and more "Tooter Turtle" and "Klondike Kat."
Although "Underdog" was the bigger success, "Tennessee Tuxedo" is to my mind the better cartoon. Don Adams, soon to become the star of "Get Smart!," voices the titular character, a highly self-confident penguin who gets into various sorts of trouble with his more plainly dimwitted walrus pal, Chumley, in and around the Megapolis Zoo. As they try to increase their fortune or comfort, they are forced in every episode to call for help on "answer man" Phineas J. Whoopee (Larry Storch, doing an impersonation of Frank "Wizard of Oz" Morgan), who will school them in the science or history or technology relevant to their problem — though this knowledge is never enough to overcome their native incompetence. ("Tennessee Tuxedo will not fail" is the penguin's unknowingly ironic battle cry, which is about as ironic as these shows get.)
The pointedly and actually "educational" passages — rare now, when networks cynically define any old "life lesson" as educational to satisfy FCC requirements for children's programming — are well organized and pleasurably informative, even to the adult mind. Mr. Whoopee narrates these, with the aid of his "three-dimensional blackboard": You will learn how telephones and lightbulbs work or used to; how to fix a leaky faucet; and a thing or two about life among the Aztecs and the dinosaurs, among 65 other interesting things. (There are 70 "Tennessee Tuxedo" cartoons in all.)
Each set includes a handful of episode commentaries featuring voice actors and co-creator (and theme song composer) W. Watts "Buck" Biggers as well as a historical featurette. With a few exceptions, the cartoons look and sound terrific.