Monthly Archives: August 2010

What if… someone examined all kinds of alternate histories?  What if… someone made a show about social changes that never happened?  What if… we explore what would actually change in those situations, and what needs to remain the same?  What if… I wrote about it on this week’s Friday 8/7 Central?

Five quotes:

How it happened isn’t really that important.

…have the worst of the military brass as their personal enemy… and all they did was stop and ask directions.

“…that makes me think it’s not going to be over soon.”

…not scientific technobabble, a socio-political position, ecological advancement, or even a broken time-machine.

“I want to leave a record behind so that someone will know our story.”

I suppose it could be many different things, with clues like this.  If fact, the show could be many different things even without clues like this.  But one thing held it together.  Find out what that was, this Friday 8/7 Central!

–Tim R.

“It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy… If people are reading ‘the show is tanking,’ they’re less likely to tune in than if they’re ‘gee, there’s this show that everyone is excited about.'”
–Aaron Sorkin, creator, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

The most anticipated show of the 2006 Fall television season was Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.  Critics called the pilot “the best of the season”, NBC pushed it significantly in their Fall promotions, it had a high-profile and well-known cast, and it was produced and written by Aaron Sorkin, who recently had the huge success of The West Wing and the critically acclaimed Sports Night.  Each of those other shows had taken certain settings (politics and ESPN) and treated them as the background for some terrific characters, storylines, and glimpses into worlds that normally don’t get the “television” treatment.  So, there were high expectations for Studio 60 to do the same for the world of television itself, especially the behind-the-scenes craziness of something like a Saturday Night Live styled series.

The cast of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

If Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip had been that kind of success, it would not have ended up on this blog.

On the series, the fictional NBS network has to reinvent their flagship (and former standout) comedy show Studio 60, after its current producer (Judd Hirsch, in an excellent guest-star turn) has an on-air meltdown.  Two former producer/writers are brought in to revamp and revitalize the show:  Danny Tripp and Matt Albie (Bradley Whitford and Matthew Perry, respectively).  They have a history with Studio 60, and not the smoothest one:  Matt used to date current female star Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson), while Danny ended up with a drug problem due, in part, to the pressures of running the show.

Simon and Harriet at the "Studio 60 Newsdesk"

Other stars of the Studio 60 variety show include Tom Jeter (Nate Corddry), originally from the midwest and great at impersonations but not so great at just being himself, especially to the family “back home”; and Simon Stiles (D.L. Hughley), the comedian who’s incredible funny… but who would much rather be taken seriously, both as an actor and as a person.

The other regulars are “behind the scenes” characters Cal Shanley (Timothy Busfield) as the current director of this menagerie, and network honchos Jack Rudolph (Steven Weber), chairman of NBS, and his recent (and young) hire Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet) as President of Entertainment Programming (and the immediate boss of the new producers Danny and Matt).

Yes, that’s EIGHT main characters, and all got featured heavily, and quickly, even in the pilot.  This series was about the behind-the-scenes of a Saturday Night Live type show, and everyone has a lot to do, and every character is under pressure to do it well, and do it quickly.  It’s a signature Aaron Sorkin series, with lots of “walk and talk” scenes with multiple characters, snappy dialogue and something unexpected happening all the time.  It also has lots of supporting players (at least 20 other people appeared at least twice in different episodes, and most appeared in the majority).  In other words, we saw the entirety of how a Saturday Night Live type show like this is put together, and how the fitting of the pieces can be funnier (and more poignant) than the actual 90 televised minutes each week “live from Studio 60” itself.

“I’ve always said on The West Wing, ‘let’s see the five minutes before and after what we get to see on CNN’, and the same thing here.  We all watch Saturday Night Live and other shows on TV, let’s show what we don’t ordinarily get to see.”
–Aaron Sorkin

Danny and Matt, trying to make a sketch (and the show) finally work

We got to see, not just the process, but the inter-personal by-play that made these types of productions pressure-filled, rewarding, and devastating, sometimes all at once.  And it played a bit like Saturday Night Live in that there were both stand-alone stories (sketches on SNL) and continuing narratives (much like recurring characters on SNL).

On the fictional Studio 60, we saw actors figuratively stab each other in the back, entire writing staffs leave en masse, pressure groups objecting to barely objectionable material, and even the strangeness of a giant snake lost in the bowels of the theatre.  Spit-takes are juxtaposed with bomb threats.  Corporate takeovers depend on not just ratings, but on fangirl angst.  And these are just the problems… Studio 60 still had to bring the “funny”, and they did so, consistently.  Studio 60 on NBS became a water-cooler show again, talked about each week, and can’t-miss television.   And although Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip on our home screens did an excellent job of mixing comedy and drama as well, it apparently wasn’t good enough, or the expectations were too high, because the series was canceled by NBC after 22 episodes.

The storyline on the show was how to take Studio 60 (a busted show) and create a new buzz around it, and make it successful again.  Fictionally, it worked, with interesting stories and diverse characters.  But in real life, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip went from buzzworthy to cancellation within a year… and amazingly, the reasons are similar, only in reverse.

When the network has notes, just walk away....

Money is a big reason.  After the success of The West Wing, producer Aaron Sorkin was in demand, and first there was a rather spirited bidding war between networks for his next series, Studio 60.  Struggling NBC won, and poured large amounts of money into promotion to trumpet the fact that they’d gotten the next series “from the creator of The West Wing and Sports Night“.  Eight regulars, and 20 or more semi-regulars, meant more salaries and more money.  Instead of filming on a regular soundstage, the production company actually bought an old theatre and created the entire stage area AND backstage (writer’s room, production headquarters, offices, prop rooms, costume and make-up areas, dressing rooms, etc.) and used them ALL for the “walk and talk” style of presentation  —  on two floors, with stairways (that equipment had to fit through as well).  This meant that you may get an entire five-minute scene in one take, over multiple “locations”, but it took literally three HOURS just to light it, and one mistake while shooting along the way meant you had to do the whole thing over again… which meant the five minutes took five HOURS to film, AFTER the lighting and such. You’ve just spent half a day or more to shoot five minutes of footage.  Stylistically, it looked incredible, but… in Hollywood, time is money.  You’d better be getting the ratings to deserve this kind of money, and NBC was counting on big ratings.

“[The network] have given us some target numbers, and I’m not thinking about back nine [episode] numbers.  I’m thinking about second and third season.”
–Jeff Zucker, NBC President

Cal, trying to direct all the chaos

Unfortunately, there was a laundry list of other problems, some outside the series, but directly affecting it.  NBC was going through their own corporate shake-up at the time, and although the circumstances were different, the effects of pressure and uncertainty were the same, and the spending of money was one of the issues.  The series may have been just a bit too “inside”, as far as TV knowledge and production, for the average viewer.  Pairing it with the first breakout hit of the season, the new (and also expensive) Heroes didn’t help, as they were two completely different animals.  Amanda Peet became pregnant early during production, and the pregnancy had to be written into the show (even though her character was designed to be career-oriented, single, and unattached….).

Oh, and one last thing you should know… television people love to talk about television.  Critics thought this show would be their darling of the season, and then the ratings started to drop off significantly (over 40% from its premiere).  And since television people still loved to talk about television (and the loudest are the critics), the talk went from “how wonderful this show will be” to “how doomed this show is”.  On Christmas Day, Studio 60 got a box of rocks for a present, as a TV critic for the L.A. Times wrote a scathing piece on the show, knowing that the series was on a scheduled 7-week hiatus during the holidays (and therefore unable to defend itself, or even have a presence on television).

“…her headline was ‘Writers Don’t Like Studio 60.’  She was smart to ignore the fact that one week earlier the show had been nominated for two Writers’ Guild Awards, as that would have undercut her thesis.  Secondly, the comedy writers she interviewed are unemployed….  That L.A. Times piece was a piece of nonsense.”
–Aaron Sorkin, commenting on the Christmas Day news story

The series resumed in late January, ran five more weeks, and then was officially “canceled”, with the remaining six episodes burnt off in late May and June, after its fate was already sealed.  In fact, NBC had announced their “new” Fall schedule for that following season already, just before bringing back Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.  This was simply NBC “playing out the string” on shows they’d already spent the money for.  Later, in July, the show was nominated for five Emmy awards (winning one), and also winning various Writers and Directors Guild Awards, and a Golden Globe for Sarah Paulson.  Not bad for a “best new fall series” that had already gone “bust”….

The series is readily available on DVD, with a backstage “tour” included as one of the extras, along with commentary on the pilot episode by Sorkin himself.  Individual clips of various episodes and moments are also available on IMDB as well as the complete season or individual episodes on Amazon on-demand and iTunes.  NBC even had a fictional NBS website to promote not just the show, but the fictional “network” as well.  Unfortunately, all that is left on that site is a “hello” letter from characters Danny and Matt, with thanks for the 20-year “history” of the show, and the promise of its new future with them at the helm.  If only….

BRADLEY WHITFORD  (Danny Tripp) is best identified with his character Josh Lyman on The West Wing, and is currently starring in The Good Guys on FOX as a drunken cop.  He also directed the final episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and has also hosted the real Saturday Night Live.

MATTHEW PERRY (Matt Albie) is, of course, known as Chandler Bing on the long-running series Friends, for which he was nominated for an Emmy.  His current project is a new fall series on ABC called Mr. Sunshine… and he also hosted an episode of Saturday Night Live.

SARAH PAULSON (Harriet Hayes) has come a far way from being the little girl Merlyn Temple on American Gothic (Her “Someone’s at the door” is still one of the best scary moments on TV).  She was also a regular in the series Jack and Jill, appeared in 9 episodes of Deadwood, and played the psychiatrist in the 2009 revival of Cupid.

NATE CODDREY (Tom Jeter) started his TV comedy career as a “correspondent” on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.  After Studio 60, he spent a year in the touring company of the Broadway revival of The Graduate, and is now playing a recurring character on the United States of Tara.

D.L. HUGHLEY (Simon Stiles) hosted the Premium Blend stand-up series for Comedy Central, then went on to produce and star in The Hughleys sitcom for ABC and UPN.  He has appeared on numerous shows as a comic, commentator, and currently hosts a radio program in the L.A. area, in addition to shooting a pilot recently for a game show.

TIMOTHY BUSFIELD (Cal Shanley) scored his biggest success in the series Thirtysomething, winning an Emmy, and now, in addition to acting, is in demand as a director for television.  He was also a producer on the series Lipstick Jungle, Without a Trace, and Ed.  It’s not surprising he played a director on Studio 60, as he actually directed a quarter of the actual episodes.

STEVEN WEBER (Jack Rudolph) started acting in the third grade, and his career has never stopped since.  Best known as one of the stars of the long-running sitcom Wings, he’s also appeared on Broadway (taking over for Matthew Broderick in The Producers) and had recurring roles in series such as Without a Trace, Brothers and Sisters, In Plain Sight, and got the “short series” treatment in Happy Town (as the rest of its episodes are only airing on the internet).

AMANDA PEET (Jordan McDeere) is known more for her movie career than her television work, and for once being named one of People Magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People”.  In addition to being featured in the movie The Whole Nine Yards (and its sequel, The Whole Ten Yards), she’s also starred in the cult film Griffin & Phoenix and appeared on Broadway in the 2006 revival of Barefoot in the Park.  She was recently seen in the big-screen disaster epic 2012.

The other “inside television” item that came out of the airing of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is rather important, as far as exactly HOW television works these days.  The series aired during the first season that Nielsen ratings started tracking numbers for DVR watching of a show for the following week, as well during the original broadcast (now called “live +7” ratings).  Unfortunately, due to the newness of the system, they did NOT include those numbers in the reports of the ratings of Studio 60 that season.  And, according to Nielsen, if those numbers HAD been included (as they are now), they would have added another 11% (almost a million viewers) to the ratings of Studio 60, most likely in more upscale homes (who had the money to AFFORD those newfangled machines then), and the series likely would have been renewed on that basis.

In other words, if television can consistently figure out how its OWN systems should work, maybe we’d end up with better television.  And shows like Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip would still be on.  But until then, the best we can hope for is the organized chaos that goes into EVERY show, and hope they get enough of it right to still be entertaining, interesting, and fun.  And that the bean counters get their end figured out as well, or it’s gonna be “best to bust”, every season, for somebody.

Outside Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Please turn out the lights.

Vital Stats

22 aired hour-long episodes — no unaired episodes
NBC Network
First aired episode:  September 18, 2006
Last aired episode:  June 28, 2007
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  No, All episodes aired on Mondays at 10/9 Central, although the fictional Studio 60 within the series supposedly aired on Friday nights!

Comments and suggestions welcomed, as always.

–Tim R.

A relatively recent show this time, although, according to the show, it’s been on 20+ years.  But that’s the fictional version, of course.  The real thing lasted one season, and went from anticipation to cancellation much faster than anyone would have thought.  A sterling pedigree, a great cast, and (for me, at least), a terrific subject matter.

Five Quotes:

“It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy… If people are reading ‘the show is tanking’, they’re less likely to tune in….”

…the comedian who’s incredibly funny… but would much rather be taken seriously, both as an actor and as a person.

…everyone has a lot to do, and every character is under pressure to do it well, and do it quickly.

Instead of filming on a regular soundstage, the production company actually bought an old theatre and created the entire stage area AND backstage…

“She was smart to ignore the fact that one week earlier the show had been nominated for two Writers Guild Awards, as that would have undercut her thesis.”

Come back on Friday 8/7 Central, go behind the curtain, and see what makes some shows work, in spite (and sometimes because) of everything that happens each week.

–Tim R.

“Who am I?  Ernest Pratt, novelist, ne’er-do-well, tenderloin, man about town, creator of tales that are not real….  who am I to buck reality?  Reality hurts….
–Ernest Pratt, on the value of the existence of a real-life hero Nicodemus Legend

What happens when the whole world decides you are someone who you’re really not?  And then circumstances conspire against you, and force you to do heroic, amazing, and tremendous things… things you’d never thought you’d do, especially when you’re a craven coward who’d rather just sit and drink yourself into a stupor?  Somehow, against all efforts on your part, when push comes to shove, you’ve become…. a Legend.

“No!  I can’t just assume the identity of Nicodemus Legend!”

“Why not?

“Because we’re nothing alike!  He leaps wide canyons, runs like a deer, swims like a spawning salmon… except for the spawning part, I can’t do any of that!”

–dime novelist Ernest Pratt, who’d much rather drink and chase women….

Richard Dean Anderson, of MacGyver fame, decided to play against type for his next part.  He portrayed Ernest Pratt, formerly successful dime-novelist in the old west on the series Legend.  And Pratt had spent most of the money and fame he’s earned creating his “Nicodemus Legend” books on becoming just another womanizing drunk, despite the efforts of his publishing company.

Richard Dean Anderson; Ernest Pratt; or Nicodemus Legend?

Writing in the first person, “Nicodemus Legend” is the supposed “author” of these novels, as well as their dashing “hero”.  And Pratt’s at the end of his rope because, as his liver has become more soaked, his ideas for Nicodemus have dried up.

Apparently, he’s also become a wanted man in Colorado (or, at least, Nicodemus Legend has), which is odd, since Ernest Pratt has, up to this point, never even set foot in that particular state (although Legend has, according to the books).  Therefore, to satisfy both his publishing company (who have threatened to cut off his book advances, and therefore his booze supply), and to find out who or what is messing with the reputation of his creation, he heads to Colorado, and the town of Sheridan….

…where, thanks to the drawings on the back of his books (which the publishing company had him pose for, for publicity purposes), everyone refuses to believe he’s simply Ernest Pratt.  Instead, he’s presumed to be the actual “Nicodemus Legend”, hero extraordinaire of the wild west.  Apparently “Legend” changed the course of a Colorado river to help a group of local farmers, resulting in his status now being an enemy of the robber barons, and a hero of the community.  Plain, ordinary Ernest Pratt is simply ignored and confused, while “Nicodemus Legend” is wanted for arrest by some, threatened within an inch of his life by others, and being followed around by a bunch of people who’ve read his “exploits”, believe in him as a hero, and want the autograph of the famous “adventure hero”, no matter how much Pratt denies their mistaken impression.

John de Lancie as Janos Bartok

The reason for this mistaken impression is one Janos Bartok, a European inventor (played with relish by John de Lancie) and huge fan of the stories of Nicodemus Legend.  Bartok ended up in the old west due to a “slight” difference of opinion with Thomas Edison, who apparently stole most of Bartok’s ideas (Bartok refers to Edison as a “plodding troll”).  And now Bartok is helping the residents of Sheridan against the rail- and cattle-barons who want to take over land, water-rights, rail right-of-way, and anything else they can get their hands on.  That assistance takes the form of using Bartok’s wild inventions to impersonate the infamous Nicodemus Legend (and his amazing adventures) in order to scare off the bad guys and inspire the populace.  And now, Bartok has an even better idea:  He doesn’t have to “impersonate” Legend, when Pratt Legend is now actually HERE, in the flesh.

“So, I decided to give all the credit for my miracles to that imaginary miracle worker… that knight of the Rockies, the paladin of the prairies, the defender of the weak… Nicodemus Legend.  In short, he was tailor-made for the role!”
–Janos Bartok, on why he impersonated the fictional Nicodemus Legend

With Bartok’s inventions behind the scenes, and Pratt reluctantly convinced to play the part of his novel creation, the fictional stories can now become fact, and the great “Nicodemus Legend” can truly become a real life hero.  In fact, Bartok has already created much of the fictional “tech” from the books already, including a steam-powered land-rover (car), the 1800’s version of a taser, and a hang-glider for human flight.

Even though he’s not all that keen on being a hero (Pratt would still rather find a bottle and a skirt to chase, in either order), Pratt’s ego inspires him to help anyway.  After all, who can resist a fan who’s read everything you’ve ever written?  Oh, and being able to play off that “stellar” reputation at times has its perks as well, although the character of Legend is supposed to be truthful, virtuous, and stalwart… all the things Pratt is not.  Plus, these new adventures of Nicodemus Legend are fodder for new written stories as well, which makes publishers, fans, Pratt’s bank account, and everyone happy… except, of course, for the bad guys Pratt (as Legend) now has to face, for real, with more than just a fictional life on the line every time.  Nicodemus Legend may have a superhuman reputation, but it’s still Pratt facing the bad guys, even with Bartok’s help.

“Your celebrity has the power to give our enemies pause.  My science can increase that reputation.  And together… we will create the real LEGEND!”
–Janos Bartok, finally convincing Pratt to take on the role of Legend

Now, don’t get the idea that I’ve sold Pratt short here.  Pratt is a writer, and when he’s not drunk, he’s a pretty good one.  Therefore, he has a way with words, and he can talk his was out of most situations when necessary.  Unfortunately, he also has the ability to talk himself INTO situations that he shouldn’t be involved in, leading to some of his more daring exploits.  He also gets to face bad guys who have targeted “Legend” with lethal intent (although he talks one of them out of shooting him, with a tale of how much more money the gunman would earn writing about previous murderous exploits, if he just lets “Legend” make a deal with his publisher instead of killing Pratt outright).  Bartok and his inventions help significantly, but they can’t do everything.  Sometimes, it is Pratt’s wits that get the team out of their particular jam… but whether it’s Pratt or Bartok, the great Nicodemus Legend still gets all the credit.  Richard Dean Anderson (as one of the producers) never wanted this show to be about the adventures of Nicodemus Legend though… he wanted it to be about the misadventures of Ernest Pratt.

“I’m always playing Pratt.  I’m always the writer.  Part of the humor and part of Pratt’s quirky behavioral aspects come when he has to assume this role.  He has to assume a different posture, a different attitude.  There’s a slight voice change and there’s supposed to be an attitude change when he’s dealing with the outside world.  But, ultimately, he’s still Pratt.  So, sometimes he’s a fish out of water.  It’s an all-encompassing character and, while I like playing both parts of the character, I see them both as parts of Pratt.”
–Richard Dean Anderson

No one will ever remember the name of Ernest Pratt, although they should;  Janos Bartok will simply be a footnote in the career of Thomas Edison, a brilliant inventor who disappeared one day.  But Nicodemus Legend…. Oh, the stories that were written, and the amazing adventures….  Why, they could literally be Legend.

Except, of course, they weren’t.  This was because the show had the unfortunate luck to be one of the first shows ever on the fledgling United Paramount Network (UPN).  Paramount Television has been a production studio for most of its existence.  The problem with being “just” a studio, at least on the television side, is all you could do is sell your shows to a Network (ABC, NBC, CBS), and they made money off YOUR show.  The only way a studio made any money is if the show was successful enough that plenty of episodes got made.  Those episodes then got sold, as reruns, to local stations, and THEN the money came rolling in.  Of course, the NEXT problem is, you have to make an awful lot of UNsuccessful shows before you hit the one SUCCESSFUL show that not only makes you money, but has to bankroll all the failures as well.  And you never knew ahead of time what might succeed, and what might fail.

Paramount actually had this brilliant “network” idea back in the late 1970’s, and floated the idea of a new Star Trek series with the original cast, but there weren’t enough non-affiliated stations available (most of them already having network ties).   Star Wars then hit the movie theaters, and Paramount decided that the audience for Trek had shifted, and they’d missed their chance.

New ideas for new days.

So, Paramount was always “just” a production studio for television (albeit a rather successful one, comparatively), but never one of the “big three” networks.  As the late ’70’s became the early ’90s, there were many more independent stations available, thanks to the utilization of what used to be UHF channels, but were now standard (low number) channels on basic cable.  FOX had entered the network business (in the late ’80s), so they could “cut out the middleman”, sell their own shows to themselves, and sell all the advertising as well, keeping the money.  Both UPN (Paramount) and The WB (Warner Brothers) made deals with the remaining independent stations (sometimes the same ones), and the race for success was on.

While the WB concentrated on younger audiences, UPN tried to use its flagship Star Trek franchise as the centerpiece (Star Trek: Voyager‘s debut in 1995 was the first UPN show ever), they had to fill out at least a limited schedule of something OTHER than Trek… and in April on the inaugural UPN season, Legend began.

UPN wasn’t the success that Paramount had hoped for, only programming two nights a week at the start.  Even then, many times fans couldn’t find what they wanted to watch because programs were moved around, or pre-empted entirely, because the local stations could run the UPN offerings pretty much where they wanted (or run WB shows), instead of creating a more “formal” network schedule.  So between local pre-emptions and an inability to consistently promote anything that wasn’t titled Star Trek, UPN had a very rough first season.

The only show to return on the schedule that fall for UPN was Star Trek: Voyager, although six scripts had been ordered for a new season of Legend.  A change of the top brass at UPN basically meant a clean sweep of what had already been part of the network, and so Legend only got 13 filmed hours (a 2-hour pilot and 11 episodes).  UPN hadn’t yet figured out how to be something other than a producer of programming yet either, and likely never did.  Years later, it merged with The WB to become the CW network, and Paramount went back to being what it was best at:  making programs instead of trying to run a network.  Just as Ernest Pratt had only pretended to be Nicodemus Legend (with limited, but occasionally spectacular success), UPN pretended to be a network with occasional successes and ultimate failure.

RICHARD DEAN ANDERSON (Ernest Pratt/Nicodemus Legend) will always be known, of course, as MacGyver, but he started his career with five seasons on General Hospital.  His move to prime time began when he starred (and sang!) in a TV version of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and joined the Navy in Emerald Point N.A.S.  After Legend, his most recent and long-running stint was as Jack O’Neill in all the versions of the Stargate TV series, the longest running SF show on American TV.

JOHN de LANCIE (Janos Bartok) is best known as the rather arrogant Q (and who wouldn’t be arrogant, if you were essentially omnipotent?) on three versions of Star Trek, most notably as Picard’s constant foil on The Next Generation.  He also started on soaps, specifically Days of Our Lives in the early ’80s, before becoming one of the most sought after guest actors on television.  Memorable spots include everything from Hill Street Blues and The West Wing to Charmed and Sports Night, not to mention a first season guest shot on a series called MacGyver, where he began a lifelong friendship with Richard Dean Anderson.  He’s also been active as an acting teacher, and is very involved in both audio (radio) style performing and appearances with various orchestras across the country doing dramatic readings and performances during concert presentations.

YouTube has the standard few clips of the show available, including at least one full episode (Revenge of the Herd), but your best bet for Legend material is the multitude of Richard Dean Anderson sites out there.  Most have at least a section on Legend, between material on MacGyver and Stargate.  Vidiot has excellent pages on all UPN series, and his Legend page is no exception.  I also recommend a few text articles with producer and creator Michael Piller (who, although he is no longer with us, should still be remembered as someone who helped MOST of the really good TV writers working in the medium today).  Honestly, I could do an article just on Piller alone, with his 500 hours of various Star Trek series, Legend, The Dead Zone, and many other shows, not to mention being a mentor and guide to so many young writers, and fill pages and pages.  Perhaps someday I will, because in addition to creating the uniqueness that was Legend, he really was a legend himself….

There’s a scene near the end of the pilot when both Janos and Ernest discuss Nicodemus Legend, and whether their co-operation (and therefore the “reality” of the adventures of “Legend”) should continue.  And they discover a very important thing about themselves, thanks to “their” existence as Nicodemus.  As Ernest walks away, into the sunset (as heroes do in all good westerns), Janos remarks about their own adventure together….

“Do you honestly think you can go back to the life of Ernest Pratt so easily?  You know, you’re not the same man who came to Sheridan.  Whether you care to believe it or not, a part of you is Legend, and you’ll never be able to walk away from that again.  I know I never will, because you see, Ernest, a part of me is now Legend too.

Don’t you see the incredible possibilities for real adventure?  The practical application of science and invention… I’m a good scientist, I can create what you can imagine… doesn’t that at least intrigue you?

But you know, Ernest, I can’t do it without you… separately, you and I are heroes to no one… together, we could become… legendary.”

Ernest turns back to Janos, instead of heading off into the sunset.  Nicodemus will continue.  There may only be 13 hours of televised adventures… but Legend lives on.

Vital Stats

13 hours (2-hour pilot and 11 hour episodes) — no unaired episodes
UPN Network
First aired episode:  April 18, 1995
Last aired episode:  August 8, 1995
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  Impossible.  At the time, UPN only broadcast a couple of nights a week, with Paramount movie reruns on Friday nights.  Legend aired primarily on Tuesday nights in most of the US, as part of UPN’s “Action Tuesdays”.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

What does it mean to be a hero?  What does it mean when you DON’T want to be a hero, but end up becoming one anyway?  And what’s worse, you never get to enjoy it, or get the credit….  There’s a great show in there, with a couple of great stars as well.

Five quotes:

“Because we’re nothing alike!  He leaps wide canyons, runs like a deer, swims like a spawning salmon… except for the spawning part, I can’t do any of that!”

“So I decided to give all the credit for my miracles to that imaginary miracle worker…”

After all, who can resist a fan who’s read everything you’ve ever written?

Therefore, he has a way with words, and can talk his way out of most situations when necessary.

“He has to assume a different posture, a different attitude.  There’s a slight voice change and there’s supposed to be an attitude change when he’s dealing with the outside world.”

It’s a different time, and a different world… and a different, very reluctant hero.  Tune in Friday 8/7 Central to find out about the hero he was meant to be.

–Tim R.

In this day and age, it’s hard to realize that most of us with cellphones hold more computing power in our hands than NASA used in the 1969 Apollo 11 moon shot.  Science fiction in 1972 showed us tech so advanced that… occasionally, we now laugh at it.  Computers filled entire rooms, communications were limited (even with the best equipment available) and information still took forever to gather, long enough to allow for large dramatic speeches that were necessary in order to stall for the time to get the goods on the bad guys.  That doesn’t make the shows any worse, or the stories any less interesting, just… well, a bit dated.

Welcome to Probe Control, the home of SEARCH

Which now brings me to Search, a “high-tech” spy show that ran on NBC starting in 1972.  Search had the requisite room full of computers, and a tech staff large enough to run the bridge of the starship Enterprise.  It did tell engaging spy stories with a very interesting hook:  Each of the spies was technologically “connected” back to the home base, both with physical “implants” and with miniaturized cameras and microphones.  Those “tech” implements could provide their status back to the base, halfway around the world.  Conversely, their specialized and advanced base team would provide to the agents any and all knowledge and information necessary for their mission.

(Today, you could do this with a Bluetooth-equipped smartphone/camera, maybe a laptop or netbook, and a decent wi-fi connection to YouTube, if you’re really interested in revealing secrets.  More tech shows up during one act of Leverage than ends up on a whole episode of Search, but we’re dealing with 1972 here….)

Besides the “tech”, the other unusual part of the series was that it had multiple rotating leads (and few shows have done this, notably ’60s series The Bold Ones and The Name of the Game).  Instead of building a show around one character or star, Search had three of them (Hugh O’Brian, Tony Franciosa, and Doug McClure), plus a regular supporting cast.  The leads never appeared together in the show–they just starred in their “own” episodes.  Each character had a “specialization” that allowed them to be the “right” agent, depending upon the type of mission (and therefore, whatever type of story the show wanted to tell that week).

“The concept was there from the beginning.  The network requested the three-star idea, which was always an alternative in the project.”
–Leslie Stevens, creator and producer of Search

This was in keeping with what NBC was already doing with its Wednesday night schedule that year.  Search ran at 10/9 Central, immediately after The NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie.  This was significant, because the Mystery Movie ALSO had three “rotating” elements (being Madigan, Cool Million, and Banacek).  NBC could then mix and match (and promote) their preferred style for each evening, depending on which particular “shows” and “stars” they wanted to feature that week.

Cameron, Lockwood, Grover, and Bianco

The leads were Hugh Lockwood (Hugh O’Brian, the lead operative, code-named Probe One), Nick Bianco (Omega Probe, whose specialty was organized crime cases, played by Tony Franciosa), and C. R. Grover (a sort of “jack of all trades” substitute, brought in when a previous field agent had been killed or put out of action in the middle of a case, played by Doug McClure).  They were “connected” to Probe Control, manned primarily by Cameron (“Cam” for short, played by Burgess Meredeth, the only actor who appeared in every episode), who tried mightily to keep the agents on task and give them the info they needed.

Lockwood was more the “brainy” hero, who was good at figuring out whatever scheme might be going down.  Bianco, specializing in criminal elements, had more of a tendency to solve problems with his fists.  Grover, being the “sub”, had this habit of going “off the playbook” and improvising his way through, much to the consternation of the team back at Control.  And believe me, they needed that team.

You see, this wasn’t some government organization, or secret military group.  This was the World Securities Organization, a private company who specialized in recovering and protecting valuable people, things, and whatever else may need protecting… or finding, if it had been lost somehow.  This is why they had all sorts of wonderful tech “toys” to play with, and specialists back at Control to help use them.

Probe Control is watching you....

Primary among the “tech”, each agent was equipped with a miniaturized “scanner”, basically a thumbnail-sized camera that could beam back television pictures to Control.  It was also magnetic, and could be removed and placed in other locations, to be a “lookout” for the agents.  They looked like odd pieces of jewelry, which is why Lockwood’s is on a chain around his neck in the picture above, for example, while the other agents wore theirs as tie-tacks or on rings.  They were not only used for TV pictures, but could be used to “zoom” in on, say, combination locks, or even broadcast medical telemetry back to the technicians at Control in order to tell if a suspect was lying, due to their elevated heart rate or blood pressure.  (Of course, this had the unfortunate effect of working on the agents as well, especially when they “happened” to be in the presence of that week’s beautiful guest star actress… much to the embarrassment of Cam and glee of certain members of Control, who did little to hide their laughter.)

And that laughter was heard by the agents as well, who were “wired” up so that their conversations worked both ways.  In the event that spoken exchanges were dangerous, there were implants in the agents’ teeth that could be used as signals back to base to answer questions and exchange more information.  And the experts back at Control included people educated in medicine, interpretation of languages, psychological tendencies, and all sorts of other resources that might be necessary for the dashing spy of the early ’70s.

Similar to the filming of Voyagers!, the backlot and street sets of Universal were used heavily for this show, which supposedly took place all over the world.  There was only one standing set (Probe Control), although it was remodeled three times during the one-season of the show.  This was both to make it “brighter and more open” (and easier to shoot scenes on) and also to eliminate a seat or two (which meant a few less extras and a few dollars saved, which went straight into the location budget).  But what the show lacked in budget, it made up for in imagination, or at least, 1972 imagination.

Remember that the cold war was still on, so there were political enemies; we had a Probe agent who specialized in criminal investigations; and Mankind was still sending men to the moon, so tech was not an everyday thing for everyman, but something to be marveled at and used as the backdrop for action-packed and exciting adventure stories.  The difference being that, on Search, the “heroes” were being helped from half a world away.  It was amazing then.  Nowadays, we can all watch the World Cup in South Africa, also halfway around the world… and we still wish they had the TV replays of the soccer games at Probe Control, so they could have gotten some of the calls correct….

1972 tech, but it all leads to now....

Search may be dated now… yet it was but a few more years later that we got such shows as The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, which set new standards for TV character “tech”.  Still, Search was the first to prove that there were real applications for those whiz-bang gizmos, and it wouldn’t be all that long before we started seeing them more as regular parts of our lives.  Almost everything that was “new” and “different” on Search now exists, and some of it has been vastly improved upon since then… but somebody had to come up with a way to make it work first, and make it “cool”, and make it worthwhile.  Star Trek communicators may have invented “flip” phones, but Search imagined its own share of today’s “reality”, whether it’s medical telemetry across distances or digital imagery that can be magnified and manipulated.    Not a bad legacy for a show that only lasted a season….

The title sequence is the only time the lead actors all “appear” together on the series, and it’s found on YouTube hereSearch isn’t available on DVD, although the pilot episode was put out on VHS (called Probe, which was going to be the title of the series, until that title was found to be taken by a PBS show), but there are clips around, as well as the excellent Probe Control site.  They have more information on individual episodes, including some scripts, and a very rare collection of actual frame film clips from the show that were offered for sale back in the seventies.  There were also two books written by Robert Weverka, a novelization of the pilot (also called Probe), and a novelization of the second “Lockwood” episode, Moonrock.  (Interesting idea for a sci-fi tinged show, having to Search for a missing moonrock….)

HUGH O’BRIAN (Hugh Lockwood) appeared in eight episodes of Search (plus the pilot), but made his name and career playing Wyatt Earp in the Top Ten series, one of the first true hits of the television era and lasting seven years.  He also was proud of the fact that he was the last man ever “killed” onscreen by his good friend John Wayne, in The Shootist.  He’s dedicated most of his life to his charitable foundation (more about that below.)

TONY FRANCIOSA (Nick Bianco) was both a Tony nominee (for A Hatful of Rain) and Oscar nominee (for the film version of the same show).  Eager to act in any medium, he was also one of the rotating stars in The Name of the Game (mentioned above) and later starred in both TV versions of Finder of Lost Loves and another spy series, Matt Helm, along with his eight episodes of Search.

DOUG McCLURE (C.R. Grover) was also best known for a western series, starring in The Virginian.  In addition to his seven Search episodes, he also appeared in the original Gidget movie, and starred in the blog-fodder ’70s series The Barbary Coast with William Shatner.  He played four years on the syndicated comedy Out of this World in the late ’80’s, and has been immortalized, not just with a Star on the Hollywood Walk-of-Fame, but by being part of the inspiration for the “Troy McClure” character on The Simpsons.

BURGESS MEREDETH (Cameron) had a solid movie career, best remembered as Mickey, the trainer, in the Rocky series of movies (for which he was nominated for an Oscar).  He appeared as a regular in three TV series (Mr. Novak; Search; and Gloria, the spin-off of All in the Family).  Among his many guest roles, he is well-known for his legendary appearances on The Twilight Zone (in arguably two of the best episodes, Time Enough at Last, and Mr. Dingle, the Strong).  And, of course, he appeared in 21 episodes as the most villainous fiendish fowl ever, The Penguin, on the TV series Batman.

The biggest science fiction-turned-fact lesson from Search isn’t actually from the show, but from one of its stars.  Hugh O’Brian has dedicated his life (and his fortune) to a non-profit organization called HOBY (Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership).  Growing out of a meeting he had with famous intellect Dr. Albert Schweitzer, he now sponsors a yearly youth leadership council, an outgrowth of youth leadership development groups in all 50 states and over 20 countries.  It has helped over 350,000 young people become better leaders, and better people, since 1958.  O’Brian said this about the organization, and his hopes for the young people of the world:

“I do NOT believe we are all born equal.  Created equal in the eyes of God, yes, but physical and emotional differences, parental guidelines, varying environments, being in the right place at the right time, all play a role in enhancing or limiting an individual’s development.  But I DO believe every man and woman, if given the opportunity and encouragement to recognize their potential, regardless of background, has the freedom to choose in our world.  Will an individual be a taker or a giver in life?  Will that person be satisfied merely to exist or seek a meaningful purpose?  Will he or she dare to dream the impossible dream?”

“I believe every person is created as the steward of his or her own destiny with great power for a specific purpose, to share with others, through service, a reverence for life in a spirit of love.”

Given the state of the world today, some may still think of this as science fiction.  But I’m one of the few (if you haven’t noticed yet by some of my choices here on this blog) who truly BELIEVE in science fiction.  Not as something yet to happen, but as something that can affect each and every person in their lives right NOW, with ideas as great as you let your imagination believe.  In this case, there really is a “Search”… and it’s not a TV show, it’s a way to choose to live.

Vital Stats

2-hour pilot (called Probe), plus 23 hour episodes.  None unaired.
NBC Network
First aired episode:  February 21, 1972 (Probe pilot); September 23, 1972 (Search series)
Final aired episode:  April 11, 1973
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central:  No.  Wednesdays, 10/9 Central, although it had enough “tech” and SF to easily qualify for the normal Friday Night slot.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

Peabody and Sherman, get your Wayback Machine ready.  We’re going back to the early ’70’s for one of the most high-tech shows of the era… which means, although the shows were interesting, the “tech” could probably be outpaced by your smartphone.  Still, the adventures were fun, and the lead… kept changing.

Five quotes:

the other unusual part of the show is that it had multiple rotating leads

NBC could then mix and match (and promote) their preferred style for each evening…

…being the “sub”, had this habit of going “off the playbook” and improvising his way through…

…whether its medical telemetry across distances, or digital imagery that can be magnified and manipulated.

“I believe that every person is created as the steward of his or her own destiny…”

Look for this lost gem this Friday 8/7 Central, right here….

–Tim R.

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