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Monthly Archives: May 2010

One of my favorite current shows (and not eligible for the blog, considering its third season begins airing in mid-June) is the TNT network show Leverage.  It concerns a quirky group of con artists and thieves, each with their own special talents,  brought together into a team who, in the course of their adventures, end up forming into something of a family, albeit an occasionally dysfunctional one.  Executive Producer Dean Devlin (Independence Day, Stargate) has created a terrific production, with a group of writers and performers who really work well together to create a fun, adventurous, and wonderfully watchable show.

And the interesting thing is that, back in the 1980’s, before becoming a producer, Devlin had a short-lived acting career.  And in 1985, he had a featured role in an episode of a series that ALSO was about a quirky group of specially talented individuals, brought together into a team who, in the course of their adventures, end up forming an occasionally dysfunctional family, in a fun, adventurous, and wonderfully watchable show.

They were the Misfits of Science.  Cue the ’80’s music.

Imagine Heroes played for laughs and light-hearted action, instead of personal angst and dark drama.  Imagine a gathering of offbeat characters, with unusual powers, involved in off-the-wall adventures.  Imagine a series that, from the beginning, knew that “different” was just another term for “fun”.

“Weird R Us” was scrawled on their building.  What more could you ask for?

The Misfits of Science Team

“The original idea was just a high-concept notion about a bunch of weird super-heroes.  Originally there was even a flying dog – that was Brandon’s idea.  I told him I would do the show as long as I could have fun with it and not play it straight… We want to be hip and funny.”
–James Parriott, producer

Dr. Billy Hayes (Dean Paul Martin) was the leader of the team, a researcher and scientist working at the Humanidyne group, studying the possibilities of humans with augmented and unique abilities.  That’s a glorified way of saying he specializes in the “misfits of science”.  (The pilot concerns such a man, who’s been deep-frozen since around 1940, and, after being slightly thawed, has the ability to freeze anything else that he touches.  Just to be really weird, he’s also searching for Amelia Earhart.  Really.)  Hayes has no intrinsic “strange” ability of his own, but any good team needs someone to direct, to organize, to LEAD… and in this respect, Hayes is unconventional, but somehow effective.

His best friend is Dr. Elvin “El” Lincoln (Kevin Peter Hall), another researcher at Humanidyne, who just happens to be 7′ 4″ tall.  Teased all his life about his height (and lack of basketball skills, despite being that tall), all he wants is to be… small.  Really small.  “El” creates a chemical and injects himself (like scientists do in all good comics).  Now, he can physically activate the release of the chemical in his body and, for a limited time, become the size of a Ken doll (and be stuck wearing Ken’s clothes as well).

The muscle of the team is former rock musician Johnny B (Mark Thomas Miller), who’d been electrified by his guitar/amp system.  This allows him to collect and store static electricity in his body, and throw bright blue “lightning”.  He also has super-speed, thanks to the stored electricity.  But when the juice is used up, he has to “recharge”, which means he’s weak, vulnerable, and no longer the protection for the group.

Gloria “Glo” Dinallo (Courteney Cox) is a young girl with a history of shoplifting and the power of telekinesis.  She’s also got something of a crush on Johnny B, at least initially, and only wants to control her power and be “normal”.  Of course, the adventures of the group means she has to use her ability, usually to stop speeding cars or knock the baddies out of play.

Dick Stetmeyer (Max Wright) is Billy’s boss, and the guy in charge, supposedly, of Humanidyne.  He’s the inept bureaucrat type, who just wants things to run smoothly and with no problems, which is the exact opposite of the circus run by Dr. Hayes and his menagerie of Misfits and their adventures.

“We’ll rely on the National Enquirer for story ideas.  It’s loosely inspired by the dynamics we saw in Ghostbusters… sort of a kick-back, Friday type of show.”
–Brandon Tartikoff, NBC Programming Chief

Not quite the National Enquirer, but....

Oh, they got the tone right.  Sure, there were serious moments, but the situations they got involved in were usually outrageous, such as trying to find an ancient Mayan city of treasure… apparently buried underneath Beverly Hills.  Or dealing with a pro wrestling fan who mistakenly believes that he really is the superhero character he’s always wanted to play in the ring, thanks to the unknown “help” he got from Glo.  Or protecting a dolphin who can communicate with humans from being used in a drug-smuggling scheme.

Did I mention that the team traveled around in an ice cream truck?  Called the Fundae Sundae?

These are not ordinary stories about ordinary people told in ordinary ways.  This is a show that celebrated strange, those people who didn’t fit in, and invited each and every one of us “misfits” at home to join them.  To become part of the family.  Part of the team.

After having produced the original Bionic Woman, The Incredible Hulk, and Voyagers!, James Parriott got the call from NBC Programming Chief Brandon Tartikoff to develop Misfits.

Misfits of Science was a kick.  That was Brandon’s idea.  He didn’t know precisely what he wanted, but he said, ‘OK, I want to do this show about all these people with superpowers.’ … We agreed it was either going to be a huge hit or a big flop, but we decided to take a chance on it.  Directing the pilot was a hoot.  That entire cast was just really fun to work with.”
–James Parriott

Like the group of characters you populate it with, a show is only as good as the team you also get to make it.  Producer Parriott was a veteran at this point, and found some terrific people to help him make Misfits, both experienced and new.  For example, a number of the episodes were directed by Burt Brinckerhoff, a three-time Emmy nominee for Lou Grant, and who went on to direct numerous episodes of light-hearted series such as Remington Steele, Scarecrow and Mrs. King, Matlock, and 7th Heaven before retiring in the mid-2000’s.  Music composer Basil Poledouris had composed for the Conan movies, and later went on to compose for The Hunt for Red October and the Robocop franchise, as well as other movies.  Director of Photography Frank Thackeray went on to do the cinematography for most of the episodes of both Matlock and Diagnosis:  Murder, as well as some of the Perry Mason TV movies.  The Production Designer was John D. (Matt) Jefferies, who performed the same function on Matlock, The Greatest American Hero, and, most famously, on the original Star Trek series (where the engineering crawlspaces, throughout all the Trek series, became simply known as “Jefferies Tubes”).

It’s all about the team.  But a team is also only as good as the tools it gets to use.  And unfortunately, in 1985, the tools weren’t nearly as advanced as they are today, no matter what the talent of the workers who used them.   The biggest problem was that, despite the advances brought with the Star Wars movies and such, the state of the art for special effects on television was simply not very good.  And here, in Misfits, was a show that was going to need a LOT of effects….

“They weren’t easy.  Today, they could make that series with no problems.  They are doing it with Heroes.  You can do so much more today with computers that you could not do then.  Back then, it was all done on film.  The character of Elvin, the shrinking guy, was tough.  Just trying to coordinate the blue-screen work was an ordeal.  In the days of film, you couldn’t composite things quickly to see if they were going to work or not.  It was a big, long, expensive process.  So the effects were as good as we could make them on a television budget with our time constraints.  Today, we could have done a much better job.”
–James Parriott

Today, they could even have had the flying dog….

Despite the best efforts of cast, crew, and everyone involved at NBC, there was just no way that Misfits was going to survive, no matter what super powers they might have.  Critics were… less than nice, to say the least, but then, Misfits wasn’t exactly designed to be a critic’s cup of tea anyway.  Fans, or at least the ones who found it, were delighted with the wild adventures and off-the-wall comedy, but it wasn’t enough, and maybe the show was just too different to be a mainstream hit anyway.  But for those of us who loved the odd, the different, the strange, for those of us who found inside each of us that little bit of special that the mundane world always ignored, we might have been the ones who wrote that “Weird R Us” sign outside the lab door.

And every once in a while, one of those Misfits grows up, starts his own lab (so to speak), and gets the chance to produce a team of his own, one that starts out as loners and ends up as a family.  Thanks, Dean Devlin, for doing that, for starting out looking for an ancient Mayan city with the Misfits of Science, and now creating a new world for that same type of “misfit” in Leverage.  Dean recently said something about Leverage, but I think it applies to Misfits of Science as well:

“I said to myself, I want to live in that world, I want to go there, I want to be there.  And [the fans] joined us.  And now we’re all living in that world, and I want to tell you, I never had so much fun in my life.”
–Dean Devlin

Hey, guys… we’re all Misfits, whether we admit it to everyone else or not.  We all just want to be part of the team.

DEAN PAUL MARTIN (Dr. Billy Hayes) was the son of entertainer Dean Martin, and in his teens formed the musical group “Dino, Desi, and Billy” with fellow star offspring Desi Arnaz Jr., earning a couple of minor hits.  His athletic career included playing the Juniors at Wimbledon and the US Junior Circuit, and he combined this with his acting ability in a Golden Globe nominated performance in the tennis movie Players.  An active pilot in the California National Guard, he was killed at the age of 35 when his jet crashed during a snowstorm in the mountains.  He had briefly been married to Olympic skating star Dorothy Hamill.

KEVIN PETER HALL (Dr. Elvin Lincoln) was often in the “monster” suit during his acting career, due to his height, so you may not have recognized much of his work.  He played the “monster” in the TV movie Mazes and Monsters, the Predator in first two Predator films, and Harry in both the movie and TV versions of Harry and the Hendersons.  Hall died, also at the age of 35, due to pneumonia, a complication of having earlier contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion.

MARK THOMAS MILLER (Johnny B) has performed sparingly in the years following Misfits, and went into the business of product and manufacturing engineering, having been awarded several patents for his inventions and designs.  He currently lives in Los Angeles with his wife, and also works as a part-time rescue diver.

COURTENEY COX (Gloria Dinallo) has had a tremendously successful career.  First discovered in Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing in the Dark music video, following Misfits she was a regular on Family Ties for three years. Then she became part of the Friends cast for 10 seasons, becoming one of the highest paid actresses ever on television.  In addition to the Scream series of movies, recent series have included Dirt and the current ABC series Cougar Town.

MAX WRIGHT (Dick Stetmeyer) is best known for being the father on the five-season sitcom ALF, beginning the year after Misfits was canceled.  He was also a regular cast member of Buffalo Bill and Norm.  He now lives with his wife in California.

Die Spezialisten Unterwegs

Misfits of Science is, believe it or not, available on DVD, but you’re going to have to jump through a special hoop to get it.  It’s only been a Region 2/PAL format DVD set released in Germany, known as Die Spezialisten Unterwegs (translation:  Specialists on the Way), although the English soundtrack is one of the choices in the audio menu, so you can watch the show in the original form.  There’s also a fantastic site devoted to the show, the Science of Misfits, and I want to especially thank the site and its creator and contributors for their help with this article.  Go visit it, it’s fun, and there’s more info there than I could possibly put here.  Thanks, guys.  Finally, if you promise not to tell anyone, there’s a site that has some of the episodes available for streaming online, and although the pilot is not the best quality, there are 10 other episodes available for viewing if you want your fix of Misfits.

There’s one more modern connection you may not be aware of for Misfits of Science.  The first story ever sold by writer R. Timothy Kring was the story for the Misfits episode Twin Engines.  Twenty years later, that now-veteran TV writer, under the name Tim Kring, created and produced the series Heroes, about (you guessed it) a group of individuals with unique abilities that find each other, and many of them form something of a team, as well as a rather dysfunctional family.  Misfits might turn into Heroes, or they might end up providing Leverage, but they’ll still be a family.  They’ll still be a team.

Vital Stats:

16 episodes aired.  1 episode unaired originally, shown later overseas and on the SciFi Channel.
NBC network
First aired episode:  October 4, 1985
Last aired episode:  February 21, 1986
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  Oh, yeah!  It premiered there.  One of the best examples ever of this type of show, and one of the true reasons this blog even exists under this name.  You’d better believe it.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

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Coming up this week:  Fun, adventure, and just plain weird, all with an ’80s soundtrack.  This show is one of the reasons I wanted to do this blog in the first place.  Enjoy!

Five quotes:

“I told him I would do the show as long as I could have fun with it and not play it straight… we want to be hip and funny.”

…usually to stop speeding cars or knock the baddies out of play.

“We’ll rely on the National Enquirer for story ideas.”

Today, they could even have had the flying dog….

Die Spezialisten Unterwegs (translation:  Specialists on the Way)

Since Grapevine was SO hard to guess last week, I decided to make this one a bit easier… I even gave you the name of the show (OK, so it’s in German.)  I hope all of you join our team, and flashback to the ’80s with me this week for another great show on Friday 8/7 Central!

–Tim R.

“It’s almost like a time warp.  We’ve got a lot of the same crew and same producers [from 1992].  Bottom line, relationships are timeless and so are problems with them… and Miami exudes this sexuality that’s very enticing.”
–actor Steven Eckholdt, Grapevine (both versions)

In 1992, CBS had a mid-season comedy called Grapevine.  Way, way before its time, it honestly would do better now, with a twitter universe and a facebook world.  Unfortunately, as far as building a lasting audience relationship, it’s already struck out.  Twice, in fact.

And yet, I loved it.  Really, I did, though almost nobody else even remembers either version of the show.  It’s like that secret fling that no one else knows you had, way back when.

The premise of this half-hour comedy was a group of three friends talking (gossiping?) about people in their lives and their romantic relationships.  It interspersed quick, one-liner comments from these friends (made directly to the audience) with various scenes of the relationship-in-progress, eliminating the need for some of the boring set-up and exposition.  This made the story about the couple-of-the-week much faster, and much funnier.  Each episode concerned a different couple, making the show really a romantic-comedy anthology, with commentary by the regular cast, set primarily in the sunny resort area of southern Florida.

The three friends are Susan, David, and “Thumper”.  Susan (Lynn Clark), who works for a cruise line, is dating restaurant owner David (Jonathan Penner), while “Thumper” (Steven Eckholdt) is a TV sportscaster and David’s dedicatedly single younger brother.  So, between the cruise line, the restaurant, and sports, there are lots of avenues for particular stories to arrive, and the make-up of the regulars insures that we have commentary (and snark) from many points of view, be it male, female, single, committed to a relationship, etc.  And so, we’ve taken 1970’s Love, American Style romance vignettes and moved them into the MTV age.  (And this version would still be ahead of its time today, in my opinion.)

This show’s pace was very fast, with quick cuts and isolated quips, so you really wanted to be paying attention.  It was designed like a music video, bouncing from scene to comment to comment to scene again.  For example, most half-hour comedies have maybe a dozen scenes during their 22-minute running time (after subtracting commercials and credits).  Grapevine had between thirty and thirty-five.  This thing moved!

Doing a show in this manner was unheard of on network television at the time, especially when the show was also filmed entirely on location in South Beach, with a single camera like a theatrical film.  (Most sitcoms are filmed like a play, with multiple cameras for character reactions and such.)  Oh, and no laugh track.  You had to pay attention to figure out where the jokes were.  It was like you’d taken The Real World:  Miami from MTV and made it into a scripted romantic comedy.

The other thing that Grapevine borrowed from MTV was a rather frank and open emphasis on sexuality, both in the plot twists and in the conversations of the friends.  Most of the episodes dealt rather significantly with not just the relationship of the week, but with the topics of temptation, affairs, the loss of virginity, friends becoming lovers, and other questions concerning intimate personal relations.

“I’m not being coy by saying this, but this show is a romantic comedy about relationships, and it would be naive to say that most relationships, especially passionate relationships, don’t involve a great deal of sex, or thinking about sex.  Since my goal was to tell stories as lifelike as possible, they think and talk as much about sex as people who are caught up in a relationship might.”
–David Frankel, creator and producer

Realize that the show wasn’t on cable, and that the environment of network television at the time wasn’t really as radical as one might think.  The show aired between Murphy Brown and Northern Exposure, and Candice Bergen’s Murphy Brown character received significant criticism from then Vice-President Dan Quayle concerning her becoming a single mother on that show.  If single motherhood was going to get high-profile criticism, imagine the attention infidelity and temptation as regular plot elements would receive, let alone just the relatively free commentary about those subjects, be it humorous or not.

And Grapevine debuted only about a month after Quayle’s remarks.

guest star Dean Cain

It also didn’t help that the series was an anthology, with minimal interaction with the regulars (besides the continual commentary, of course).  The practical effect was that the show really lived or died on the basis of how good the guest cast was each week.  In this respect, Grapevine actually lucked out to a degree, as the list of guest actors in the original six episodes looks like a TV casting agent’s dream, although most were still unknowns at the time.  Courtney Thorne-Smith (Melrose Place, According to Jim), Terry Farrell (Star Trek: DS9, Becker), Dean Cain (Lois and Clark-The New Adventures of Superman, Las Vegas), Mariska Hargitay (Law & Order:  Special Victims Unit) and Patrick Warburton (The Tick, Rules of Engagement) all appeared early in their careers in individual episodes.

guest star Mariska Hargitay

CBS (which had always been relatively conservative, compared to the other networks) was probably not the best place for Grapevine anyway, and so, choosing which battles to fight, the veteran Murphy Brown would continue on, and Grapevine died on the vine, airing only six episodes.

And yet…. and yet….

“If it doesn’t work, okay… we did our best.  That’s the only thing you can ever do… work on something that entertains you, and hope there’s enough other people out there to keep it alive.”
–David Frankel

Never count out romance.  Frankel knew the show was ahead of its time in ’92, so he kept pitching a revival to network honchos every year, and finally, in 2000, CBS decided that they were ready to try the relationship again.  Like doing The Real World:  Miami once more, only with a new cast.

cast of the 2000 Grapevine -- Eads, Eckholdt, Swanson, and Sutcliffe

Lo and behold on CBS’s schedule for January that year was Grapevine, with pretty much the same premise and presentation, but it’s now 8 years later.  TV has become a lot more open about sexuality and the topics it can discuss and make fun of.  Still airing on Mondays, but an hour earlier, the set-up is mostly the same.  There’s one new character, Matt (David Sutcliffe), manager of an upscale South Beach hotel, and newly divorced, for a new perspective.  Just to confuse the issue a bit, though, we’ve got a new Lynn (Kristy Swanson), a new “Thumper” (George Eads), and the previous “Thumper” is now playing older brother David (Steven Eckholdt).  The show is still an anthology, although there is more involvement in the stories from our main characters, and the pace is still quick.

In ’92, there were local CBS stations that had refused to run Grapevine, citing the racy content, and some companies had deliberately avoided advertising on the show.  But, it’s now 2000, a new century, with the biggest hit on television being  HBO’s Sex and the City, and there’s much more openness on the topic of sex.

The anthology aspect was still there as well, although the continuing characters were a bit more involved in each story.  But it still really lived or died on the relationship-of-the-week.

“It was very important for me to do an anthology show where the guest characters are the stars, and each story had a beginning, a middle, and an end.  That way, people can behave as they do in life.  They make mistakes.  They do bad things to other people.  Sometimes the people who do bad things are not punished, sometimes the people who make mistakes are not redeemed.  That’s the nice thing about an anthology:  Since the characters aren’t coming back, they don’t have to be saved each week.”
–David Frankel

Unfortunately, the show couldn’t be saved either.  While the TV world got sexier, Grapevine got a bit tamer in comparison to the world around it.  Almost like trying to go back to the beginning of a relationship, but the people have changed, and the things that worked before aren’t quite the same now.  And so, despite getting an extremely rare second chance, Grapevine again ended after only six episodes.

Theoretically, the spiritual descendant of Grapevine (and its granddaddy, Love, American Style), is a new show called Love Bites that will be airing on NBC in the fall of 2010.  It’s described as an hour-long romantic anthology, with two continuing characters and the relationships that surround them, and their efforts to help those romantically challenged souls find each other.

I’ve seen clips of Love Bites.  And… yuck.  Just, yuck.  Honestly… are you sure we can’t get Grapevine back again instead?

LYNN CLARK (1992 Susan) was best known as a soap opera actress, appearing on both Santa Barbara and Days of Our Lives in for multiple years.  After guesting on Seinfeld and Friends, she did come back for a guest shot on the 2000 revival of Grapevine for one episode, playing Matt’s sister.

JONATHAN PENNER (1992 David) was a regular in both Rude Awakening and The Naked Truth, and can still be seen in guest roles on shows like CSI and the upcoming The Colony.  He also appeared in the pilot for the 2000 Grapevine in another role (the producer of Grapevine, David Frankel, is loyal to a fault).

STEVEN ECKHOLDT (1992 Thumper, 2000 David) is the king of recurring roles, playing in multiple episodes of shows like Providence, Friends, The West Wing, and The L Word.  He was most recently seen guesting on the police drama Southland.

After starring in the series Nightingales, KRISTY SWANSON (2000 Susan) was the original Buffy, the Vampire Slayer in the 1992 movie version.  She was also a regular on Early Edition, and appeared in episodes of 3Way and The Closer.

GEORGE EADS (2000 Thumper) went from romantic relationships to forensic science, playing Nick Stokes for the past 11 seasons on the original CSI.

DAVID SUTCLIFFE (2000 Matt) became an actor after a back injury forced him to quit his college basketball team.  He appeared on multiple episodes of The Division as well as I’m With Her, Gilmore Girls, and Private Practice.

Grapevine resources almost don’t exist, as quickly as both versions of the show came and went. The show isn’t on DVD, and the only good information is from Stefan’s Grapevine site, with a few pics snapped from a TV but lots of episode info (and I wish to credit Stefan for the picture of “Thumper” above).

This is how desperate I am to show you SOMETHING of Grapevine, just to prove it actually existed:  Here is a commercial break from Spring 1992, and you have to wait until the 2:00 mark for the actual :30 CBS promo.  The final three people shown in the commercial are the original David, Susan, and “Thumper”.  At least it shows you something of the style of the show, and the scene/comment/breaking the fourth wall dynamic.

“Okay, [Grapevine] is also a show about young, attractive people who have a lot of relationships and… a lot of sex.  But there’s an anti-cynicism.  They are all deep-down romantics at heart… looking to find that right person.”
–David Frankel

Like lost loves, shows come and go.  Some return to us.  Because when it concerns love, what else is as eternal, as joyous, and as just plain wonderful as a love found once more?  And who knows… maybe, in another 10 years, there will be another Grapevine.  Don’t bet against it, because television loves second chances (and even thirds), and one of the best things to discover is the return of a lost love.

Vital Stats

Grapevine (1992)
All 6 episodes aired
CBS network — Monday 9:30/8:30 Central
First aired episode:  June 15, 1992
Last aired episode:  July 27, 1992
Did not air on Fridays at 8/7 Central

Grapevine (2000)
All 6 episodes aired
CBS network — Monday 8:30, 7:30 Central
First aired episode:  February 28, 2000
Last aired episode:  April 10, 2000
Did not air on Fridays at 8/7 Central

Comments and suggestions, as always, are appreciated.

–Tim R.

Coming up on Friday 8/7 Central:  A very unusual romantic comedy.  Times two, actually.  And it’s a show almost no one has ever heard of, but I loved it just the same.  Five quotes:

It’s like that secret fling that no one knows you had, way back when.

“…it would be naive to say that most relationships, especially passionate relationships, don’t involve a great deal of sex, or thinking about sex.”

…the list of guest actors… … looks like a TV casting agent’s dream, although most were still unknowns at the time.

“That way, people can behave as they do in life.  They make mistakes.”

Imagine MTV’s The Real World:  Miami as a scripted romantic comedy.

See you later this week, for something you missed.  You might have loved it, too.  I know I did.

–Tim R.

There’s a truism about Hollywood that goes something like this:  You can have it good, you can have it fast, and you can have it cheap.  But you can only get two out of three.

That sounds like a recipe for junk television, especially when networks would like to have things cheap and fast first, and any quality that still exists as part of the final production is almost by accident.  Of course, sometimes, you just need to figure out how to get someone to actually WANT to see your junk, to sell it properly, with a big idea that would gloss over some of the little faults.  And here’s a big idea:  a junkman with a dream….

“I want to build a ship, fly to the moon, salvage all the NASA stuff up there, bring it back to the earth, and sell it.”
–Harry Broderick (Andy Griffith)

Harry Broderick (Andy Griffith) and the "Vulture" spaceship

In January of 1979, ABC premiered a TV-movie called Salvage.  It detailed the rather fantastical tale of that “junkman with a dream”, Harry Broderick (played by beloved actor Andy Griffith).  Harry’s dream, as you can see from the quote above, was rather far-fetched, but he was determined.  Gaining the assistance of former astronaut Skip Carmichael (Joel Higgins) and fuel/tech expert Melanie Slozar (Trish Stewart), these three went about building a spaceship in a junkyard, traveling into space, collecting NASA’s leftovers, and returning safely home again (with a few dramatic complications along the way).  Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?

It found a terrific tone between some obvious comedy moments and fun action-adventure drama, and although the actual science was…well…crap, it was dressed up in enough psuedo-realistic explanation that it was easy for the audience to just suspend their disbelief and take the story for exactly what it was:  pure fun.  The suits at ABC knew that they had a potential winner on their hands when they saw the pilot, and decided at once (before it aired) that the slightly renamed Salvage-1 would go to series.  Oh, and by the way, our current schedule is bombing, and we want it for summer, shortly after the pilot movie.  And can you get started filming yesterday?

We're gonna go to the moon!

ABC ordered 12 episodes (almost immediately, in TV terms), and then summer suddenly turned into “late January”, making immediately even shorter.  Co-creator Mike Lloyd Ross was originally a Navy engineer, who brought the concept of the original pilot movie to producer Harve Bennett (best known as the man who killed off Mr. Spock a few years later in Star Trek II:  The Wrath of Khan).  Ross was not an experienced TV person, but after the studio green-lighted the series, went on to become the supervising producer for the first few episodes.  Having to put together a writing and production staff in a hurry, with no experience, was only one of the tasks necessary for the show.

The series was difficult to write for because it wasn’t a “franchise” show (like a traditional cop/private eye, doctor, or lawyer show), where potential cases (and storylines) simply walked in the door.  You really couldn’t just take an idea for a different show that was lying around and craft it for Salvage-1.  It didn’t work that way, not when your characters main mode of transportation was a homemade rocket ship!  Unless you count the sitcom Sanford and Son, there had never been a show about a junkman before, let alone one who built a rocket to the moon.  We were in uncharted territory here, with unproven production people.

Joel Higgins, Andy Griffith, and Trish Stewart

Fortunately, we had Andy Griffith.  A television veteran (and a veritable legend in the business even then), Griffith had the talent and ability to make even poor scripts watchable, with his easygoing charm and likable manner.  Adding in Joel Higgins (who would later go on to a successful run as the dad in Silver Spoons with Rick Schroder) as the young astronaut Skip, gave the series its handsome action figure, with occasional romantic elements with the lady guest of the week.  Trish Stewart, as the tech expert Melanie, got stuck with much of the expository technobabble, but made the most of it and came off as spirited, attractive, and always ready for the next adventure, wherever it may be.  Trish talks about trying to work under the production time pressure:

“Last night, we were all standing around trying to film a scene that was very static.  Andy is just supposed to hand out mail–very static.  But now, instead of that, when Andy comes in, I’m going to be doing yoga, and Joel is going to be playing the guitar–so that we are active and not static.  We three actors worked that out together.  If the script just doesn’t track, if it doesn’t work, we all sit down and try to work out some hook, some joke, that will pull it together.  It’s like this all the time.  We’re always working to improve the show.  It’s not that we get bad scripts, it’s that everything has been so rushed all season.  We did the pilot, and then a week later got the go-ahead for the show.  They just didn’t have time to get those scripts together.  They’re still working on the scripts while we’re shooting it.”

And yet, with all that rush and potential for disaster, Salvage-1 actually works, at least most of the time.  Whether it’s the charm of the lead characters, or the pure quirkiness of the premise, or just the wide variety of possibilities that suddenly become fodder for episodes, the show ends up as enjoyable television, and is remembered fondly.

Making up the science

The faux science on the show wasn’t necessarily because of any hesitancy on the part of the production staff to be scientifically accurate (Isaac Asimov was a scientific advisor, at least on the pilot), but more because of the production realities of weekly television.  You simply couldn’t afford to launch and land your own rocket ship every week, unless you fudged the science more than a bit.

In order to save time and money (and prevent the production company from falling farther behind than they already were), the pilot established that the “Vulture” used the “translinear vector principle” of constant, slow acceleration to reach escape velocity.  What this really means is that you could just put the ship on a crane and film it, slowly, inching upward (or downward, for landing) and not have to mess with the expense and time of NASA type explosive launches that were just too prohibitive for filming.  Believe it or not, the scientific basis of the “translinear vector principle” is sound, but there just isn’t any type of fuel practical for such a venture, so the producers simply made one up.

Then again, we can’t just go to the moon every week….

“Once you have been to the moon, some astronauts say, everything afterward is a letdown.  That should have provided a clue to the makers of this ABC adventure series.”
–TV Guide critic Robert Mackenzie

So,  what do you do for an encore?  Yes, there was a running gag, set up at the end of the pilot, about moving an iceberg to the coast of California to provide water during a drought.  But that would cost a bundle to shoot, let alone the logistical problems involved with the SFX, and remember, we’re in a hurry here, people!  Oh, and don’t spend too much money while you’re at it….

Harry and his WWII bomber

Surprisingly, there were a lot of alternatives.  A treasure map hidden in a classic car that might lead to a buried stash of Conquistador gold, a long-lost WWII bomber with personal memories for Harry, a spooky haunted house story, and another about a bomb shelter style house that becomes a potential death trap.  You never knew what the team was going to face next, and that was part of the charm of the series.  It also meant different sets, or locations, every week.  So even if you’re going to do a “bottle show” on standing sets to save money, when your standing sets include a rocket ship, you’re going to have to have special effects and blow the budget anyway.

Somehow, those first 12 episodes were finished, and aired on ABC from January through May of 1979.  When ABC announced their schedule for that fall, Salvage-1 was nowhere to be seen, and many thought the show had been canceled.  ABC ended up ordering 7 more episodes, intending to use it as a mid-season replacement again.  Because the show got a late order, the production team was once more trying to do the impossible, cheaply, and by yesterday.  ABC’s first failure of the season happened quickly, meaning that the two-part “Hard Water” episode (the aforementioned iceberg story) was pushed forward, even though it was actually the last story shot.  It aired on consecutive Sunday nights in November of that year, against #1 show 60 Minutes.  Although 4 other episodes were in the can, ABC grounded the “Vulture” and ended Salvage-1, stopping filming as fast as they had begun it.

The Salvage Team

ANDY GRIFFITH (Harry Broderick) is one of the few who can honestly be called a legend of television.  After starring in the eponymous Andy Griffith Show from 1960-68, he guested on numerous series until returning to regular TV with Salvage-1.  From 1986-1995 he played the lead in the series Matlock, playing a sharp-minded lawyer with a laid-back southern manner.  He has appeared in selected projects since, including the movie Waitress and, of all things, a Brad Paisley country music video called Waiting on a Woman (and believe me, for a music video, the performance is outstanding).

JOEL HIGGINS (Skip Carmichael) started in soap operas, appearing on both Search for Tomorrow and One Life to Live.  After piloting the “Vulture”, Joel starred in the short-lived series Best of the West (with Meeno Peluce from Voyagers!) and followed that with his best known role, playing Edward Stratton III for five years on Silver Spoons.  Joel is also an accomplished singer/songwriter, and has written a number of advertising jingles, including for M&M’s and Kool-Aid.  Most recently, he wrote the music/lyrics and directed the musical stage adaptation of cult western movie Johnny Guitar, which won Best Off-Broadway Musical for 2004.

TRISH STEWART (Melanie Slozar) studied at the Sorbonne in Paris during the 60’s, and after a brief career as an airline hostess, went into acting.  In 1973 she created the part of Chris Brooks Foster on The Young and the Restless, as part of the original cast, and stayed with the show for five years before landing (literally) the “Vulture” in Salvage-1.  After a few more guest star parts in the following couple of years, she returned briefly to Y&R in 1984 before she left the business and returned to her home in the midwest.

"Vulture" resin kit

And then, of course, there’s the “Vulture”.  One of the most well-remembered and distinctive spaceships ever created, it’s probably the iconic image from the show.  And although it was never officially released, the Estes model kit company had prepared designs of the “Vulture” for the home hobby market, so you too could put together your own “junkyard spaceship”.  Some fans made resin kits (such as the picture on the right), but these unlicensed products are no longer available.  Those willing to settle for paper modeling (even though it’s still a bit elaborate) can download a file that will give you the specifics to do so.  Blueprints (done with AutoCad, no less) are here, but if you REALLY want to play SFX wizard and have the “Vulture” fly in your own show, there’s a CGI version that, given the right programs, you can download and use to create your own visual effects.  (I told you this show was fondly remembered, and the amount of work some people have done because of it is truly amazing.)

The series ran for a total of 14 aired episodes, plus the 2-hour original pilot movie.  There were four episodes that were made and never shown on the ABC network run, but aired in repeats on the Sci-Fi Channel and overseas.  There is, as yet, no DVD available, although one has been rumored for quite a while, due to the fondness with which the show is remembered and the longevity of star Andy Griffith.  Multiple scenes are available on YouTube.  Actor Peter Brown had a part in the pilot, and his website has a page with numerous pictures and descriptions of the series.

Sometimes, it’s a great show that we remember.  Sometimes, just an iconic image, like the “Vulture”.  Or maybe certain moments, or just the joy of being able to share some long-lost memory with a friend who never had that experience.  And sometimes, although it may be a bit cliché, it’s still true.  All it takes is a dream.

Vital Stats:

14 aired episodes, plus the two-hour pilot movie — 4 unaired episodes (not yet available on DVD)
ABC network
First aired episode:  January 20, 1979
Last aired episode:  November 11, 1979
Actually aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  No.  The pilot aired on a Saturday, and the majority of episodes aired on Mondays at 8/7 Central.  The final two-part finale (“Hard Water”) aired on consecutive Sundays at 7/6 Central.

As usual, comments and suggestions are welcomed.

–Tim R.

Here’s what’s coming this week at Friday, 8/7 Central.–A real blast from the past, going all the way back to the late ’70’s.  Featuring these five lines:

…any quality that still exists as part of the final production is almost by accident.

It found a terrific tone between some obvious comedy moments and fun action/adventure drama…

…best known as the man who killed off Mr. Spock…

“It’s not that we get bad scripts.  It’s just that everything has been so rushed all season.”

…well-remembered and distinctive, it’s probably the most iconic image from the show.

Well, I hope you enjoy it.  You may have heard of it, you may not have.  But I have fond memories of this one, truly.  And I hope you like my take on it as much as I enjoyed the series the first time around.

–Tim R.

PS. Oh, and any model makers out there will love it.  Just saying….

Jimmy, Kevin, Tommy, and Sean. The Donnellys

Family above all.

Words that the Donnelly brothers have lived by.  And by the time it’s over, they may end up dying by them as well.  Growing up in New York City, Irish through and through, they’re ready to rough it up at the drop of a hat.  They’ll fight each other if they have to (often, it seems), but if you want to mess with one of them, well…. they are family, above all.  And you?  You’re not.

“I thought, well, this speaks to what we’re doing here, because we’re asking you to empathize with murderers and drug-dealers.  But then, this definitely is a tragedy.  You pretty much get the sense of doom from the first frame.  This ain’t going to end well for anybody.”
–co-creator Paul Haggis, The Black Donnellys

We hear their story through the words of Joey Ice-Cream (played by Keith Nobbs), a small time (and rather inept) hustler who “always wanted brothers like that.”  Joey’s nickname comes from the giant bucket of ice cream he helped the Donnellys steal as a kid, and then promptly dropped in the middle of the street… although Joey says that the nickname is “because when the heat’s on, I’m like ice.”  (He’s not even close.)  As we see repeatedly, even in the introduction of the show, Joey is not the most reliable narrator in the world.

Despite this, we still see the episodes through him, as he tells the stories of the Donnelly brothers, both their current exploits and flashbacks of their growing up, and how those childhood experiences made them into the men they are becoming today.  The events of those dubious narratives, both then and now, are emotional, dramatic, and at turns darkly funny and incredibly violent.

The Donnellys grew up in one of the poor ethnic neighborhoods of New York City, and are now caught between the Italian mob that runs some of the streets, and the Irish mob who run the rest.  And thanks to circumstances both of their own making and beyond their control, they walk the fine line of playing both sides and trying not to end up dead in the middle.

All for one, and one for all

First, there’s Tommy (Jonathan Tucker).  He’s supposedly the good one.  The smart one.  He’s going to art school, trying to get out of the neighborhood and make a better life, but still attracted to his childhood sweetheart Jenny (Olivia Wilde) who’s already treated as part of the family.  There’s just one problem.  Guilt over something in that childhood makes him the one who has to bail his ne’er-do-well brothers out of the scrapes they get into, and ultimately force him to become all of those things he’s wanting to leave behind.

His biggest problem is eldest brother Jimmy (Thomas Guiry).  Jimmy won the bar the boys use as their base, complete with a tax lien and rotting floors, and would likely fight you as look at you.  Often drunk, now on drugs, and with a history of theft, he was dealt a crummy hand early in life (his leg having been permanently damaged by a hit-and-run driver).   He has fought the world to make whatever he could of his existence in it, and damn the methods to do so.  Jimmy also, unknowingly at the time, played a part in the death of his own father.  More reason for his pain and anger.

Kevin (Billy Lush) has, in the words of Joey Ice-Cream, “…thought of himself as a gambler.  He always believed he was lucky.  The fact that he’d never won a bet in his life somehow never dissuaded him of this notion.”  In other words, smarts always took a back seat to playing the big odds.  And so, when Kevin ends up in Dutch to a local bookie, the brothers try to help, in ways legal and illegal.  And that’s where the action starts….

Did I mention action?  The brother who’s busy getting some action is baby brother Sean (Michael Stahl-David), the looker of the bunch and the one you didn’t leave your girlfriend alone with, or you didn’t have a girlfriend for long.  Like Kevin, Sean’s not the brightest neon sign in the bar, since he’s always had looks and charm to make it through instead.  Those attributes, however, have a habit of charming the wrong/attached/married girl along the way… or just placing him in the absolutely wrong place at the absolutely wrong time….

“I think we just look for great stories, fabulous dilemmas, I mean that — and questions that are unanswerable, and we tried to put our characters into situations where we wouldn’t want to be and then help them make choices that we wouldn’t ever want to make, and that we always do.”
–Paul Haggis

Tommy has to choose his path

Choices.  Legal or illegal choices, angry or compassionate choices, life or death choices.  Dealing with what you want out of life, what life deals to you along the way, and the people and circumstances that help or hinder those choices in wonderful, terrible ways.   The Black Donnellys was all about choices.  The coming train wreck was certain.  You didn’t know exactly how, or exactly when.  But you knew, you KNEW, that out of the four brothers, at least one, and perhaps all of them, were bound to choose, or be forced to choose, very badly.  And like a train wreck that you can see coming, you can’t tear your eyes away… even, or maybe especially, when there’s nothing you can do about it, no matter how hard you want to try to save them all.  These are not only the choices of the Donnellys, but also of the creators and viewers as well.

“I want to make it clear that this is not a biography.  I was one of those guys who were out in the streets.  I had five brothers growing up… and I spent a lot of my life trying to understand how people that you love and respect and honor can do monstrous things and become monsters, but then be the people that you thought you loved, and that’s a strange dichotomy to try to get hold of.”
–co-creator Bobby Moresco

Bobby Moresco had seen that life.  He’d seen the choices people had made in that environment.  Did those memories really happen, or are they just his fabricated stories with a simple veneer of truth?  It is the same choice the viewer has to make in deciding if Joey Ice-Cream is relating the stories honestly or not at any given moment.  Are the Donnellys really that bad?  Are they worse?  Is there hope for redemption?  Are they heroes, villains, or just caught in circumstance and trying to stay alive?  When watching the show, you don’t get to just let it wash over you.  You have to be involved, and you have to decide who you want to root for, who you hope falls in love, who should sacrifice themselves, and is the price someone pays for family worth the cost?  The choices, and the answers, are always involving but never easy.  In this coming-of-age story, set against the backdrop of the criminal world of good and bad and the grey in-between, there are never any guarantees.  Just family, above all.

Tommy and Jenny... and hoping for better.

JONATHAN TUCKER (Tommy Donnelly) started appearing on screen at the age of 13, and has played in movies such as The Virgin Suicides, Hostage, and Pulse.  He has also guested on a number of TV series, including 2 versions of Law and Order (SVU and CI), the wonderfully quirky Six Feet Under, and most recently on White Collar.

THOMAS GUIRY (Jimmy Donnelly) started even younger, appearing in the movie The Sandlot at the age of 12.  As an adult, he had roles in Black Hawk Down and Mystic River, and most recently was seen in the NBC series Kings.

BILLY LUSH (Kevin Donnelly) was in the miniseries Generation Kill, and has many TV guest appearances as well, including, similarly to Jonathan Tucker, both L&O SVU and L&O CI, Six Feet Under, and CSI.  The man could use mostly initials on his resume, and lots of television casting agents would understand.

After MICHAEL STAHL-DAVID (Sean Donnelly) finished trying to run from various mobs, he ran from a monstrous “something” in the movie Cloverfield.  Finally getting a “normal” role, he’s in the pilot for an ABC dramedy this coming fall called Generation Y.

OLIVIA WILDE (Jenny) had been in the teen drama The O.C. prior to The Black Donnellys, and went on to be the infamous Thirteen on the medical drama House.  She will be in the TRON Legacy movie this winter, as well as the already announced sequel TRON Evolution and the upcoming comic book film Cowboys and Aliens.

Assuming he’s telling the truth this time, KEITH NOBBS (Joey Ice-Cream) has been in a number of different TV shows, including In Plain Sight, Numb3rs, Fringe, and (here we go again) L&O SVU and L&O CI.  Most recently he has appeared in six episodes of the HBO miniseries The Pacific.

Creators PAUL HAGGIS and BOBBY MORESCO first worked together on the critically acclaimed TV show EZ Streets (another crime drama which someday hopefully will be covered by this blog), but are best known for winning the Oscar for co-authoring the movie Crash, as well as producing the TV series of the same name.  They also produced/wrote the Best Picture winner Million Dollar Baby.  Haggis is a TV veteran, having co-created Walker, Texas Ranger and Due South, while Moresco was a producer on Millennium, and even once acted on (wait for it….) the original Law and Order!

The Donnelly Brothers, with Joey Ice-Cream

The show is available on DVD, and iTunes and Amazon both have the individual episodes available for individual purchase and downloading.  There are no extras on the DVD but the super-secret NBC site (which you can’t access from the main NBC site anymore) still has some commentary available.  Only six episodes of the series actually aired by NBC in 2007, with the other seven being run weekly on the web after the show was canceled (one of the first shows to do so, and rather successfully for the time).  Later that year, the entire series was shown on HDNet.  One episode, titled “God is a Comedian”, wasn’t allowed to air on NBC for content reasons and the NBC synopsis only has one picture and the 2-line TV Guide tag-line.  Thankfully, the entire episode is on the DVD.

This is what I call a “challenge” show.  Shot on location in New York, it was a challenge to write, to shoot, to produce, and to finally get it on the air.  The characters are not heroes, sometimes not even likable, and you’re not always certain who you should be rooting for.  You don’t even know if you should believe the narrator or not.  It makes the viewer do the same thing it makes the characters do:  make a choice.  In the viewer’s case, the choice is to become actively involved.  Viewers must choose to devote themselves to watching a densely plotted, numerous character, occasionally unattractive and violent show.  But viewers who make that choice are rewarded with rich, emotional, and strong stories about people who we hope against all odds will find a way to make their lives have meaning.  One more quote from Bobby Moresco:

“The most abiding lesson that I think I’ve taken is that you pay a moral price for each and every act and each and every choice you make in life.  You don’t know what that price is going to be, but you’re going to pay it.”

Some people won’t even watch certain new shows anymore, especially shows that are challenging, because they think “it’ll just get canceled”.  Some shows are worth falling in love with anyway, even if your heart gets broken.  Some shows are worth the price.  Like The Black Donnellys.  At least, that’s what Joey Ice-Cream told me, and he’d never lie.

Vital stats:

6 aired episodes — 7 unaired episodes (available on DVD)
NBC network
First aired episode:  February 26, 2007 (Mondays at 10, 9 central)
Last aired episode:  April 2, 2007
Actually aired on Friday at 8/7 Central:  no, unless you started it at that time for the web only episodes!

Odd trivia:  The original name for the show was going to be The Truth According to Joey Ice-Cream.  The Black Donnellys were, in real life, a family of Irish thieves that ultimately were brutally murdered in their adopted home in Ontario, Canada.  NBC never really made clear what the series was truly about in the early promos, and the series title was supposed to simply evoke the idea of being both right and wrong, and heroes or victims depending on how you viewed the law.  All the promotional effort really did was confuse the potential audience.

Comments welcomed and encouraged, as always.

Tim R.

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