Archive

Monthly Archives: October 2011

In America, it’s Halloween weekend, filled with youngsters dressing up in costumes and visiting door-to-door, gathering candy and listening to spooky tales.  The tradition comes, at least in part, from old Gaelic festivals, in particular one called Samhain.  It marks the end of the harvest season, and in some places begins the Gaelic New Year.  It is also the dividing line between what is known as the “lighter” and “darker” halves of the year.

While many think of the time as one for spirits and ghosts, the Samhain interpretation would mean the beginning of darkness, when the lines between the two worlds are the thinnest.  Bonfires are lit to preserve the light, and the forces of evil, in disguise, come to visit the earth.  In the case of one FOX television show in 2005, it would remind us of one girl’s future also on the edge, and her fate and behavior very much depends on the road taken from here.  Ultimately, the influences upon her and the people she meets, both good and bad, might change the entire world.  The sad part is, as the old proverb goes:  Sometimes, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

What path to take?

Welcome to the small coastal town of Point Pleasant.  A sleepy little bedroom community an hour or two south of New York City, the town’s peaceful existence is suddenly interrupted by a freak storm, which washes up the body of a teen-age high-schooler named Christina Nickson (Elisabeth Harnois).  She’s revived by a local lifeguard, Jesse Parker (Samuel Page), and brought to a nearby doctor’s house to rest and recoup.  Taken in by Dr. Ben Kramer (Richard Burgi) and his wife Meg (Susan Walters), she becomes friends with their tomboyish youngest daughter Judy (Aubrey Dollar).  Christina’s reluctant to even remember her past, let alone be returned quickly to her mysterious, usually absent father.

Christina has an odd effect on those in Point Pleasant, as tendencies are amplified, feelings are given voice, and inhibitions are unknowingly ignored in those around her.  Jesse’s girlfriend Paula (Cameron Richardson) is jealous of the relationship that might be growing between Christina and Jesse, and ends up with another boy, Terry (Brent Weber), causing a love triangle. (The sparks erupt at the end-of-summer bonfire — any references to Samhain are purely on purpose!)  Meanwhile, Paula’s mom, Amber (Dina Meyer), is a former classmate of Dr. Kramer, and she decides that the good doctor should provide some tender loving care for her… especially after she’s dismissed by her latest target, Lucas Boyd (Grant Show), who’s just moved into the town as well.

Lucas and Christina

It turns out that Boyd has a different target… he’s not only threatening Jesse’s religious mother Sarah (Claire Carey) because of her crusading son’s feelings toward Christina… but he’s ultimately trying to influence Christina towards darkness, as he works for her absent father.  Of course, daddy’s rather busy, as daddy dearest is apparently Satan himself, which would make the lost Christina the devil’s daughter.

She’s also the daughter of a human woman, who left shortly after Christina was born.  Christina’s search for her, and her interactions with the locals, will guide her towards either good or evil… and therein lies the conflict of the series.  Which path will Christina ultimately choose, and what will happen to the others in the process?

“It feels good having her here.  I feel good.”
–Meg Kramer, when Christina arrives in their home

While the Kramers are people of good heart, they’ve also dealt with tragedy along the way, as their daughter Isabelle died a few years earlier.  Christina’s entry into their life seems to have brought new hope to Meg… but temptation is finding its way towards her husband, thanks to Amber. Burgeoning boyfriend Jesse and new companion Judy are trying to help, but have their own issues to deal with.  The junior love triangle is starting too, but all these things are being nudged along by Boyd’s machinations and Christina’s emotions… and heaven (or hell) help those who get her angry.

Christina doesn’t know her capabilities early on, let alone the abilities of Lucas Boyd.  Her presence seems to erase inhibitions, letting the true nature of the people around her come into play.  And more often than not, there are other than just pure reasons for any particular action taken along the way.  Christina is learning… but is she learning the strength of good?  Or the anger and betrayal of evil?

“One of the challenges is to make it seem like it could happen to you.  That struggle in the Christina character between the dark and the light seems to us to be a very good metaphor for being an adolescent.”
Point Pleasant Creator Marti Noxon

Little do they know what's coming....

Marti Noxon was one of the people behind Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and Angel.  Just as fighting otherworldly forces was seen in Buffy as a metaphor for the alienation of high school and the trials of those young people finding their way, so too were the efforts of Christina and the residents of Point Pleasant to be seen as a supernatural search for morality and meaning.  The struggles of each of the characters adds to the choices Christina ultimately has to make, and whether she comes down on the side of good or evil depends more on their natures than any one of them realizes.  And once Christina makes her final choice, the fate of the world could depend on it.

“It’s all about duality, it’s about the best of people and the worst of people.  The fate of the world is going to come to a head in this really ordinary place.  It’s kind of fun, because it gives you an excuse for people to really look at themselves and say, you know, what do I want to be?”
–Marti Noxon

This is just a much more modern-day approach to the whole idea of Halloween, and some of its antecedents.  The observance of All Saint’s Day in many Christian religions is also traditionally the same weekend as Samhain, giving the “holiday” a feeling of yin and yang, of dark and light… a duality, just as Noxon and Point Pleasant were going for.  Characters did things you didn’t always expect, and even the best person in town had, if not evil, at least some doubt as to their own place in the occurrence of events larger than themselves.

This wasn’t necessarily even the big battle between good and evil, although the outcome would portend such a thing.  The battle on Point Pleasant could be likened more to the preliminaries of a chess match, where certain characters (instead of chess pieces), each of different strengths and weaknesses, fought more for position and possibilities than for ultimate domination… although such a thing might ultimately come.  And, opposed by enough lesser pieces, even the best and brightest of those among us could fall.

Who's influencing whom?

These are sometimes uncomfortable choices for everyone, and yet they are choices each of us makes every day, in matters large and small.  Unlike the characters on Point Pleasant, we aren’t archetypes on a canvas where we’re influencing the anti-Christ, but we are in a position where our choices influence those we love, those we interact with, and most importantly, how we see the world each day.  Marti Noxon is right when she sees Point Pleasant as a metaphor for these types of things, but they’re not just symbolic of choices for adolescents.  As soon as we are responsible for ourselves, we are responsible for shaping our own views on the world around us.

The scariest part of all this is not even how our choices affect us, but how they affect those in our lives.  For that is the part which is really out of our control, and yet all we can do is present, hopefully, the best of ourselves to everyone around us, to display the virtues of compassion, empathy, love, and honor, even when our own natures (and our own dualities) want us to do otherwise.  Perhaps this is reading too much into a prime-time television series like Point Pleasant, and yet it is part-and-parcel of the influences of viewers’ lives, and one would hope that the lessons learned there would be good ones.  Because otherwise, television becomes the good-intentioned road to Hell its worst critics believe it to be, instead of what its supporters hope for… a path, not to Hell, but to a better place for all.

ELISABETH HARNOIS (Christina Nickson) was almost born an actress, starting her career in front of the camera at the age of three.  As a tween into a teen, she was Alice, the lead in the live-action TV version of Adventures in Wonderland for The Disney Channel.  After Point Pleasant, she appeared as a recurring character on One Tree Hill and is now a regular on the current season of CSI.

SAMUEL PAGE (Jesse Parker) earned a college degree in ecology, and promptly came home and announced to his family that he was moving to Hollywood to become an actor.  The move turned out successfully, as he’s played regular and recurring roles on American Dreams, Shark, Mad Men, Desperate Housewives, and Gossip Girl.  He’s also modeled, and appears on the cover of the current Xmas catalog for the J. Crew clothing brand.

RICHARD BURGI (Dr. Ben Kramer) was the star of one of the few UPN hits not named Star Trek, in the 3 1/2 seasons of The Sentinel.  He’s also had runs in Judging Amy, The District, Harper’s Island, and Desperate Housewives.  Fans of short-lived series almost saw him as another hero, as he was one of the rumored candidates for the lead in the CBS series The Flash.

SUSAN WALTERS (Meg Kramer) was a regular on both Hotel and Nightingales before finding a lasting series in Dear John.  After Point Pleasant, she was seen in both One Tree Hill and The Vampire Diaries, in addition to a soap role on The Young and the Restless.  During an earlier stint on the daytime series, she’d met her soon-to-be-husband in real life.

AUBREY DOLLAR (Judy Kramer) has been featured previously on this site as the young reporter Cindy Thomas on Women’s Murder Club.  Another actress who started young, her first movie appearance was just prior to her teens.  She appeared for three seasons on Guiding Light, and also had a recurring role on Dawson’s Creek.

GRANT SHOW (Lucas Boyd) also started in soaps, playing on Ryan’s Hope for three years.  He hit prime-time stardom on the original Melrose Place, and was later seen in Swingtown, Accidentally on Purpose, Dirt, Private Practice, and Big Love.

CAMERON RICHARDSON (Paula Hargrove) started as a model before making the jump to acting.  Her first role was as a regular on the series Cover Me, which was later followed by Skin, 12 Miles of Bad Road, and Harper’s Island.  Now a new mother, she recently modeled for Forever 21’s maternity line during her pregnancy.

DINA MEYER (Amber Hargrove) has been featured on Beverly Hills, 90210 (the original) and Miss Match.  She’s likely more familiar to genre audiences, having appeared in Johnny Mnemonic, Dragonheart, Star Trek: Nemesis, Starship Troopers, and the Saw movie series, as well as starring on the TV series Birds of Prey.  Athletic by nature, she has performed many of her own stunts on-screen, and suffered a concussion during one particularly nasty stunt on Starship Troopers.

BRENT WEBER (Terry Burke) was discovered by a modeling agency when he accompanied his sister to an open call.  His career includes guest spots on Scrubs and CSI: Miami, and a featured role on the daytime soap All My Children.

CLARE CAREY (Sarah Parker) was a featured player on the comedy Coach, playing daughter Kelly Fox.  She was the “mother” of the Olsen Twins in the series So Little Time, and also a regular on the first season of Jericho and Crash.  She’s most recently been featured in multiple episodes of Chuck.

Point Pleasant is, thankfully, available on DVD, including five episodes never broadcast during its original run.  Since it was designed as a mid-season replacement, there’s a definite conclusion to the series if you get to watch all thirteen episodes… and a choice is made, although there’s plenty of room for more of the series to continue, had it been successful.  Alas, it was not, as FOX pulled the plug after Point Pleasant failed to garner the desired ratings, especially up against hits like Grey’s Anatomy and the original CSI.  Somehow, a series all about choices wasn’t one viewers made the choice to watch.  Maybe some of the less than perfect decisions of the characters hit a bit too close to home….

“I’ve found that evil usually triumphs unless good is very, very careful.”
–Dr. Leonard McCoy, Star Trek

OK, so I’m a Star Trek fan from way back… so sue me.  But in this case, I think this is the most appropriate quote to describe Point Pleasant, and the displayed duality between good and evil.  If you wish to go another route, famed Christian writer C.S. Lewis (author of The Chronicles of Narnia) described in his book, The Screwtape Letters, how ethics really fell into four categories… and how “good” only fit one of them.  A person making the right choices for the right reasons is doing “good”.  A person doing the wrong things for the wrong reasons is obviously evil.  But “right things for the wrong reasons”, and “wrong things for the right reasons”, are, to Lewis, simply rationalizations for evil masquerading as good.  Hence, the old saying about how “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”

As we examine ourselves and the lives we lead, how many choices do each of us make which would fall far too easily into the “rationalization” categories?  Those are the ones which cause each of us doubt, and reflect upon those around us, positively or negatively… and we don’t always know how they’re seen.  Even if you aren’t religious in any way, those choices in life still have to be made, and still will be part of how we know ourselves… and how others come to know us.  We all have a duality inside… it’s what we create from it that makes our entire world… for good or evil.

Vital Stats

13 hour-long episodes — 8 aired — 5 unaired (all available on DVD)
FOX Network
First aired episode:  January 19, 2005
Final aired episode:  March 17, 2005
Aired at Friday @ 8/7 Central?  No, FOX premiered the series on a Wednesday night, before the series settled into its regular Thursday night slot at 9/8 Central.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

Halloween weekend is upon us once again.  Unlike last year’s rather more gentle Eerie, Indiana, this year it’s time to take a look at a show that might portend the end of the world… if the right choices aren’t made.  There’s a point to everything, as you’ll see….

Five quotes:

Sometimes, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

“One of the challenges is to make it seem like it could happen to you.”

“The fate of the world is going to come to a head in this really ordinary place.”

…we are responsible for shaping our own views on the world around us.

“I’ve found that evil usually triumphs unless good is very, very careful.”

OK, so one of those quotes isn’t from this particular show… but it still fits so very well.  You never know what might enter your life unexpectedly, for good or evil… and how decisions both large and small make a difference.  See what I mean, this week on Friday @ 8/7 Central.

–Tim R.

“Space, the Final Frontier.  These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise.  It’s five-year mission:  to explore strange new worlds… to seek out new life, and new civilizations… to boldly go where no man has gone before!”
–The opening words to the original Star Trek series

Certain shows are just exciting to me.  Just the first two minutes prepared me for adventures, drama, laughter, and suspense.  I was excited just to start watching.  And those shows often become “destination television” for me, especially long before the existence of the DVR, let alone the VCR.  If you wanted to watch a certain program back in those days, you were either in front of the screen at the appropriate scheduled time, or you simply missed it completely.  And there was no Hulu, no internet, no DVD release where you might be able to catch up on the adventures of your favorite characters.  If you weren’t in front of the screen, you missed out.

People weren’t able to find out all the information they can now about upcoming programs, or even ones that have already been on the air for a while.  If your newspaper didn’t have a television critic, you pretty much didn’t know anything beyond the two-line description in TV Guide about what was going to be on until you actually watched the show.  Producers knew this and, as a result, they made certain there was a way to gently ease viewers into the experience, and that became known as the saga sell.

Although some also refer to it as the “saga CELL”, the saga sell is that bit of television during the opening credits that tell you EXACTLY what the premise of the show is.  It literally “sells” the audience on what’s about to happen.  A narrator would come on, providing a voice-over description of the star character and his usual predicament.  If you’d missed the pilot episode (which was usually an “origin” story, about how this all started up in the first place), the quick-and-dirty explanation gave the neophyte viewer enough information to get started on the adventures.

“Faster than a speeding bullet!  More powerful than a locomotive!  Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!  It’s a bird… it’s a plane… it’s Superman!”
–radio opening to Superman

Many believe these openings came from radio, and the habit of making recognizable set pieces for the beginnings of various programs.  Since there was no visual available, the only method to announce a show was, literally, a description of the show.  So began some of the more famous openings, many of which made the transition along with the presentations from radio to television.

“Return with us now to the thrilling days of yesteryear.  From out of the west with the speed of light and a hearty hi-yo Silver.  The Lone Ranger rides again!”

This opening was featured on radio, and became the clarion call for millions of viewers when The Lone Ranger made the move to our homes and a visual medium.  Accompanied by action shots of Clayton Moore riding his faithful Silver across the western plains, everyone watching was ready for the latest adventure to begin.

Shows in the ’60’s turned this into an art form, complete with music and specially filmed inserts to create memorable moments.  Theme songs on television reached their heyday in the next twenty years, with more than a few of them starting out with some variation on “Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale…”.  These really were letting the viewers know the entire setup of the series, in catchy musical form.  From “Let me tell you all a story ’bout a man named Jed…” from The Beverly Hillbillies to “Here’s the story… of a lovely lady…” from The Brady Bunch, audiences everywhere learned these songs as they watched the shows associated with them.  (It was said once that more people could recite the theme to The Brady Bunch than could remember the Preamble to the US Constitution… but then, Schoolhouse Rock came along and set that to music too!)

“It’s a sea shanty with foreshadowing (“A three-hour tour”), suspense (“The Minnow would be lost”), a key change when they make it through the storm and a convenient way to introduce the characters…”
–Paste Magazine.com, about “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Isle”, in their list of greatest TV themes

And, as in radio, that’s what many of these openings became:  more of a well-known clarion call for people to gather (especially when there was still only one TV in the house), because their familiar friends from television had arrived in their homes for the weekly visit.  Without pause buttons, it gave viewers time to get settled, knowing their favorites were about to begin.  Many of these sequences ran two minutes or more, allowing audiences necessary time and giving producers precious minutes that didn’t have to be filled with original (and expensive) programming each week.

In a business where time literally is money, shaving an extra minute or two off a produced episode means saving thousands of dollars, even as far back as the ’70’s or before.  This practice was mastered by legendary producer Stephen J. Cannell, whose action-adventure shows are some of the most remembered in the television business.  But Cannell knew it was a BUSINESS, not just an artistic venture, and some of his shows (The Greatest American Hero and The A-Team being the best examples) developed ways to fill time when episodes couldn’t.

The Greatest American Hero

Especially with action-adventure, it’s difficult to time scripts precisely.  There are methods to time out dialogue, to figure out how long a speech will likely run on film.  But stunts, various cut-aways, reaction shots for other characters, and special effects aren’t nearly so neat and tidy when it comes to length, and Cannell’s shows were heavy on these elements.  So opening and closing credits were adjusted to shorten and lengthen depending on the running time of the episode involved.  Cannell shows were famous for re-running clipped versions of scenes during closing credits, then having a “freeze-frame” with the actual credits on-screen.  While it may have been a fun reminder to the audience of the sequence of events they’d just watched, the business reason was simply to fill time (and save money) on a show that came in “short” of appropriate length.

While some of Cannell’s shows used the saga sell as a shortcut, others found it a necessary addition.  Some shows NEEDED beginning sequences, simply because the premise of the series threatened to be too complex for a viewer to simply be “thrown in” without warning.  My favorite of these is Quantum Leap, a show about time-travel, a hologram for an assistant, and a hero who appears as someone else to those in the story, but as himself to us.  Imagine not knowing these things and just tuning in… it’s very possible you’d be lost.  Fortunately there was a saga sell at the beginning of every episode to let us know how it worked:

“Theorizing that one could time travel within his own lifetime, Dr. Sam Beckett stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator and vanished.

He awoke to find himself trapped in the past, facing mirror images that were not his own, and driven by an unknown force to change history for the better.  His only guide on this journey is Al; an observer from his own time, who appears in the form of a hologram that only Sam can see and hear.  And so, Dr. Beckett finds himself leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong, and hoping each time that his next leap, will be the leap home.”

Four sentences, and the entire series premise in a nutshell.  And the saga sell for the show wasn’t just a tool to help viewers, because an earlier version actually got Quantum Leap on the air in the first place.  While Brandon Tartikoff, head of NBC at the time, was impressed by the pilot, he wouldn’t OK a series until he was sure the audience would “get” what was being portrayed quickly and easily.  He challenged series Creator Donald P. Bellisario to write a version of the saga cell, introducing Sam, Al, and the idea of “leaping”.  It had to be quick enough to not interfere with the episodes, and complete enough for someone with no background in the show to understand.  Tartikoff said he would approve the series if Bellisario could come up with a description that even his own 80-year old grandmother would understand…. Bellisario did, and the series ran five successful years.

style over substance

The “art” of opening credits also was used to create a certain tonality for a series.  Shows that didn’t use a narration or saga sell used musical themes as a way to “set the mood” for audiences.  Music writers like Mike Post and others were in high demand for their ability to present, quickly, the ideas and style of a series.  The idea of “MTV Cops” became “Miami Vice”, but it really was all encapsulated in the presentation from the outset, and the driving musical opening paired with the fast cuts and quick edits seen in music videos.  Credit sequences became more about flavor, more about tone, and the faster pace meant less opening and more actual show.

While at first networks didn’t think this affected anything, along came electronic monitoring of audience for ratings purposes to change their minds.  Once this ratings practice became standard in larger cities, the bean-counters at networks discovered something that alarmed them about the “opening credit” practice.  Viewers, now armed with “remotes” that previously didn’t exist, were using this time (and the time during the standard opening credits) to quickly and easily flip channels and see what else might catch their fancy.

“Back in the day, we used to have “remotes”.  We called them “kids”.”
–unknown comic

Combined with the spreading of the internet, the proliferation of cable, more programming choices, and the availability of more information about various shows, this all meant viewers knew what was out there, and what they wanted to see.  And programmers, selfish enough to want THEIR shows to be the ones chosen, were trying to find ways to keep people at home on their own channel.  So, why give them opportunities to switch?

Thus began the dreaded seven-second opening.  It’s almost de rigueur for television shows these days, especially on a network, to have as little opening as possible.  Saga sells may still exist, but actual credit sequences are little more than the name of the series, and a musical sting of some kind denoting the style or flavor of the show.  (Lost is the biggest example of this, with nothing more than the title shown in a mysterious ghostly form, the camera “floating” through the “O”, and ONE ominous chord played alongside.)  Instead of being a buffer to transport us into the world of the series, we are simply plunged into the adventure.  Most are used to it by now, but even seven-second openings can be changed as appropriate (as witnessed on Castle this past week, where the slightly jazzy opening was changed to a more somber one, without any usual brief animation, to reflect the tone set by the episode… which had already run for an act).

Viewers now no longer have the time to change channels during an opening without missing part of the actual show.  (Of course, many change during commercials, or even speed through the openings and ads with DVRs and such, even while other shows are recording… so the necessity of “seeing what else is on” is debatable.)  Cast and crew are noted on-screen during the next act of the episode, supposedly unobtrusively, but still occasionally distracting from the story being told.  But for some reason, opening credit sequences are now seen as unnecessary filler, something which gets in the way of the show rather than providing it a service.  Their lack also deprives a splintered audience of a uniting moment, a theme which can be used as a touchstone for those who watch.  Much like the idea of episode titles shown on-screen, theme songs and show openings have fallen by the wayside of modern television.

But all of television is cyclical, and when the need arises again for some catchy tune or necessary exposition, the saga sell and the theme song will return.  It will more likely be used as a marketing tool, a song available for download on iTunes along with the episode, but for those of us who celebrate the hits (and misses) of the past, television themes have always been our own shorthand to connect with others who share our passions.  And one has to wonder, how fans of various shows will feel with no clarion call, no explanation, no touchstone of their own for their favorites.  There’s a reason we remember some of these shows so well, and sometimes, it was for those first two minutes.

Just sit right back, and you’ll hear a tale….

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

Time for a more general piece, and we’re going to start this one off right.  Gather everyone around the set, because it’s time for our favorite shows.  (You can tell… just listen!)

Five quotes:

If you weren’t in front of the screen, you missed out.

…the quick-and-dirty explanation gave the neophyte viewer enough information to get started on the adventures.

Schoolhouse Rock came along and set that to music too!

“He awoke to find himself trapped in the past…”

“Back in the day, we used to have “remotes”.  We called them “kids”.”

A trip through the history of a very important part of television, one that’s practically lost today.  (Or is that Lost today?)  Either way, you’ll see (and remember) what I’m talking about, this week on Friday @ 8/7 Central.

–Tim R.

The Simpsons just got renewed for their 24th and 25th seasons, and sometime next year they will air their 500th episode.  They’ve been such a continuous force on Sunday nights that FOX built their entire evening around the theme of “Animation Domination”.  But with that singular evening exception, most adults think of traditional cartoons as something reserved for the kiddies on Saturday mornings.  This wasn’t always the case….

“Making cartoons means very hard work at every step of the way, but creating a successful cartoon character is the hardest work of all.”
–Joseph Barbera, animation producer

Jonny Quest

“Animation Domination” meant different things back in the early 1960’s.  Oh, there were still cartoony-style shows, even successful ones like The Flintstones (and to a certain extent, its sister show, The Jetsons).  But in one case, the “Animation” part was different, because instead of the humorous, abstract drawing style seen currently on Family Guy and more traditionally drawn cartoons, this show took its cue from the style of then-current comic books.  Much more realism was shown, even if the plots concerned mad scientists and cannibals.  And, of course, the “Domination” part was both the ratings, and the schemes of the villains who all seemed to want to dominate the world.  Who was called on to help fight for the forces of good each week?  Jonny Quest!

Jonny Quest aired initially (much to the surprise of many people these days) in prime-time, Friday nights on ABC.  Jonny (voiced by Tim Matheson) was eleven years old, the son of a famous scientist.  While clever and inventive, he’s also a bit too inquisitive for his own good, which leads him into intrigue and danger, along with his family and friends.

Family is the aforementioned scientist/father, Dr. Benton Quest (voiced first by John Stephenson, then by Don Messick).  One of the most brilliant scientists in the world, his government and scientific connections often lead to dangerous situations, as nefarious individuals or groups wish to co-opt these scientific discoveries for their own uses.  He’s protective of Jonny (and can hold his own in a fight if necessary), but also knows that he can’t be everywhere all the time, and his work is of vital importance.

An attempt on Dr. Quest’s life is made on the streets of Calcutta, but is foiled by a boy named Hadji (voiced by Danny Bravo).  In gratitude, Quest adopts the orphaned boy, and Hadji and Jonny become best friends.  Hadji might have some mystical abilities (or he may just be a clever fake), but he and Jonny find themselves in hot water often enough that they occasionally need rescuing.

Coming to their aid is Roger “Race” Bannon (voiced by Mike Road).  He’s assigned by the government to be a bodyguard for Dr. Quest and his extended family, especially since Quest’s work and their world travels put the group’s lives in danger repeatedly.  Bannon is the muscle to the brains of Dr. Quest, and together they all find intrigue and mystery at every corner.

For a bit of comic relief, there’s Bandit (“voiced” by Don Messick), Jonny’s pet dog.  Named because of the distinctive raccoon-like “mask” of black on his otherwise white fur body, he’s just as inquisitive as Jonny, and much more prone to finding trouble.  He’s a part of the group too, even to the point of gaining a spot in the opening credits.

The Robot Spy

While the group was based in Dr. Quest’s compound in Florida, their adventures took them all over the world, from darkest Africa to American military bases, and from middle Europe to the wonders of the Orient.  They faced everything from supposedly alien probes to re-animated mummies to pterodactyls, all with a 1960’s sense of style and action-adventure.

During that decade, when there were only three channels available, television was designed to appeal to everyone in the family, adult or child.  Ratings hadn’t been refined enough to measure specific demographics, and a youngster counted the same as an adult as far as the networks were concerned.  Animation was aimed accordingly, as a venue which appealed to everyone in the living room.  And Jonny Quest was a ratings hit, even up against established western favorite Rawhide.

"Race" Bannon, in action

This type of environment was ripe for animation featuring action, adventure, and both kids and grown-ups.  Hanna-Barbera Studios (who had, previously, been known for Yogi Bear and Huckleberry Hound) teamed with Screen Gems to create a new and different type of animated series for prime-time.  Calling on the work of comic artist Doug Wildey, a show was created based on the Jack Armstrong radio adventures, but the rights couldn’t be secured (although parts of Wildey’s test footage made it into the end credits of Jonny Quest).  Wildey’s ideas morphed into this new series, featuring “realistic” characters and settings rich in color and style. Emulating cinematic visualization and more lifelike depictions, his designs would mean a new and different kind of show for television… but could it really be done properly?

Now realize that animation is NOT cheap.  Most animation studios up to that time (such as Disney, M-G-M, and Warner Brothers) had been developed with theatrical features and shorts in mind, and not the small screen.  Drawing every single frame of action means 24 pictures adds up to only a second of finished film… and after subtracting for commercials and repeated credits, each episode of a half-hour series at the time ran roughly 25 minutes.  Doing the math, over thirty-six THOUSAND individual pictures would be needed per show.  That’s far too much time and money to spend on a television series (as many series of the day would only spend thirty-six thousand DOLLARS, or maybe a bit more, to film an entire episode).  And it took more than a dollar’s worth of time, effort, and material to make each individual picture.  There had to be a cheaper way.

Still bodies, with the heads and moving mouths animated separately

William Hanna and Joseph Barbera had opened their own animation studio for television after working for M-G-M for many years.  They were behind the prime-time success of The Flintstones during the previous season, and had developed “limited animation” as a way to save money.  Characters had limited movement, especially of arms and legs, and backgrounds (of a street, for example) were designed to be repeated after so much distance.  Therefore, a sequence of a person running would utilize the same body movements over and over, filmed in front of another repeated picture of a set.  Characters could stand still in a conversation scene, and only their heads and mouths would have to be drawn, as those were the only moving parts in the frame.  Less pictures meant less money spent for filming, and seven minutes of “limited animation” could save as much as 10,000 drawn images (and their associated man-hours) as opposed to using “full animation” methods.

“These guys were used to drawing cartoon type characters, and they’d come in and they were at a loss.  They couldn’t handle adventure stuff.”
–Doug Wildey

The Flintstones got away with this by being more “cartoony”, using caricatures that bore superficial resemblance to real people, and treating the entire enterprise as an “artistic style”.  The style for Jonny Quest was MUCH more realistic, as befitting the more dramatic tone of the show.  Hanna-Barbera coined the term “creative adventure” for their new series, and never referred to Jonny Quest as a “cartoon”.  This realistic, colorful style was much more difficult to do in “limited animation”, and therefore the series ended up being much more expensive than it was originally budgeted.

In fact, according to some sources, EVERY single episode of Jonny Quest came in over budget.  While the show was a ratings and critical hit on Friday nights, a show simply doesn’t stay on the air if it can’t make money, and Jonny Quest was apparently losing it instead.  So, the series was canceled after 26 episodes.

A few years later, CBS was looking for a series to bolster their Saturday morning lineup.  After both The Flintstones and The Jetsons had moved from prime-time to Saturday morning on rival networks, CBS purchased the rights to Jonny Quest reruns to add to their adventure-themed kids programming.  Again a ratings winner, this time the series ran for three seasons, continuing to repeat the original prime-time episodes to an all new audience.

Violence? What violence?

This time, though, Jonny Quest wasn’t taken off the air due to money reasons.  It was time for another set of “crusaders” known as Action for Children’s Television (ACT) to tell America that their children’s television was too violent, and Jonny Quest and its emphasis on “realism” was now an example of their target series.  It didn’t matter that the series was aired in most markets at noon or later, or that the series had originally been designed for adults as well as children.  ACT lumped Jonny Quest in with other, less quality shows, aimed at a much younger audience, and deemed it “unsuitable”.  Therefore, under pressure, the series was replaced with mindless comedy and insipid “message” television.

Fortunately, these too ran their course, and when the furor was sufficiently quieted, Jonny Quest made yet another appearance.  ABC returned it to the Saturday morning airwaves in the spring of 1972, although the “violence” had been edited in many places.  Even as late at 1979 NBC took a shot at the reruns, making Jonny Quest one of the few shows to air at one time or another on all three major networks.  The series was a perennial favorite, known by those who had grown up on it as a kid and remembered fondly by adults who were now in charge of programming television.

New Adventures of Jonny Quest (and Race's daughter!)

Thirteen new episodes were produced in 1986, and joined with the original series run to syndicate to local markets.  A new animated TV-movie aired in 1993 on the USA cable network, and the series was “rebooted” in 1996 as The New Adventures of Jonny Quest on TBS and TNT.  Attempts were made at updating the series, but these new storylines were largely unsuccessful, and while a second 26-episode season of New Adventures was made, some of the more futuristic plotlines of the revamp were abandoned in favor of stories more faithful to the original series.

A show like Jonny Quest really is the essence of “Animation Domination”, as it conquered all three major networks in the ’60’s and ’70’s, and became a cable presence in the ’80’s and ’90’s.  It has developed new followings in every generation since its premiere in 1964, and survived the changing of society throughout.  The adventures of Jonny, Dr. Quest, Race, Hadji, and Bandit are fond memories for numerous fans who grew up on their adventures, and while The Simpsons may be going on 25 years, Jonny Quest has now spent almost half a century as part of our communal consciousness.  And that, my friends, is Animation Domination.

TIM MATHESON (Jonny Quest) was 16 when he voiced Jonny Quest, and co-workers had a hard time believing he was even that old, but the “kid” turned into a respected Hollywood actor.  His lengthy career has included starring in the smash hit National Lampoon’s Animal House and Fletch.  He’s starred on television in The Quest (NBC’s western, not the one on this site by the same name), Tucker’s Witch, and Wolf Lake, plus has played recurring characters in The West Wing and Burn Notice.  He also directs numerous shows, including episodes of Cold Case, Psych, and the pilot for Covert Affairs.

JOHN STEPHENSON (Dr. Benton Quest) was an actor seen often in the very early days of television, but became a constant voice for various Hanna-Barbera productions starting in the 1960’s.  Best known as the voice of Mr. Slate in The Flintstones, he’s been heard portraying various characters in almost every series Hanna-Barbera ever produced.  Still working, he’s been an incredibly good mimic, able to deliver characters “influenced by” many of Hollywood’s greatest actors.

DON MESSICK (Dr. Benton Quest, Bandit) has been featured here before, for his rare live-acting role in The Duck Factory (where, typecast, he played a voice actor!)  He originated the voices of Boo-Boo and Ranger Smith for Yogi Bear, Scooby-Doo in the various incarnations of that franchise, and Papa Smurf and Azrael in the animated adventures of The Smurfs.

DANNY BRAVO (Hadji) only voiced one other animated show, a guest spot on The New Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but he has a short career on television and film in the 1960’s.  He appeared in the original movie version of The Magnificent Seven, and was seen in The Travels of Jamie McPheeters and Run for Your Life.  His character doesn’t appear in the first episode, and he is only introduced in the second, even though “Hadji” is featured in the opening credits for the series.

MIKE ROAD (Roger “Race” Bannon) was another early television fixture, seen in Buckskin, The Roaring Twenties, Maverick (as fellow poker player Pearly Gates), and 77 Sunset Strip.  As a voice actor, he created the voices for Zandor in The Herculoids and Reed Richards in The New Fantastic Four.  He retired in 1981.

The original 1964 episodes of Jonny Quest were released on DVD in 2004, and while they are slightly edited versions with certain scenes and lines missing, the transfer is excellent and the stories are well worth having, even in this form.  There is a superb documentary chunked on YouTube showing the history of the series, with lots of behind-the-scenes information about the making of the show.  Fan dedication to Jonny Quest is readily evident, with the great ClassicJQ.com site for picture and text, and a stop-motion animation recreation of the iconic title sequence by a dedicated fan on vimeo.com, a still of which is presented below.  (Also check out his Making-of website, showing just how labor-intensive this project of devotion was).

Most people don’t realize that television, especially in the early ’60’s, was a very experimental medium.  It was trying to differentiate itself from movies and radio, where much of its initial creative minds and impetus came from.  Animation was one way to do that, especially combining it with the adventure serials that couldn’t be filmed for budgetary reasons.  Even though animation was expensive, it was still cheaper to draw exotic places and creatures than it was to film them.  In doing so, television was able to create something radio and movies never did, and we all remember it well.

“My biggest kick comes from the individual fans I run into.  Middle-aged men ask me when we’re going to do more Jonny Quest cartoons.”
–Joseph Barbera

Jonny Quest lives on in the hearts of so many, because it was their initial introduction to adventure, whether on Friday nights in 1964 or later on Saturday mornings.  But it touched a nerve, created memories, and gave all of us who were children in those days a hero we could actually pretend to become.  Jonny was just an eleven year old boy, but he was also heroic, and lived a life most of us could only dream about.  He was much closer to being one of us than any superhero could be, and he also needed rescuing sometimes, when he made mistakes.  Jonny Quest was, by far, a dominant role model for more than one generation.  May all our adventures be just as exciting, and his type of “animation domination” live on for a very long time.

Vital Stats

26 aired episodes — none unaired — all available on DVD
ABC Network
First aired episode:  September 18, 1964
Final aired episode:  March 11, 1965
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  Oh, so close.  In the 1960’s, networks started their nightly programming at 7:30/6:30 Central, half an hour earlier than they do currently.  Jonny Quest aired on Fridays at 7:30/6:30 Central, leading off the night.  If it had aired a decade later, it would have started at 8/7.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

This week, a show most people don’t even realize aired in prime-time.  Although the initial run only lasted one season, it aired in reruns so much it’s one of the few shows that was shown on all three networks (back when there were ONLY three).  Five quotes:

…their adventures took them all over the world…

Ratings hadn’t been refined enough to measure specific demographics…

“…they’d come in and they were at a loss.  They couldn’t handle adventure stuff.”

It has developed new followings in every generation since its premiere…

“My biggest kick comes from the individual fans I run into.  Middle-aged men ask me when we’re going to do more…”

I’d like more, even though an added helping got made a while back.  But hey, even that was years ago.  Read about a one-season adventure which has lasted almost half a century, this week on Friday @ 8/7 Central.

–Tim R.

“…she basically put a scalpel in the hands of Indiana Jones.”
–Shonda Rimes, on Creator/Producer Jenna Bans of Off the Map

I’ll be honest… I don’t like to take my medicine.  In this case, though, I’m talking about medical shows.  They aren’t really the kind of shows for me, as this is the first real “medical drama” I’ve covered, and I’ve been writing these articles for a year and a half.  Even if they’re a staple of television (thanks to a new story walking into the hospital every week, and a procedural-type mystery waiting to be solved), there’s never been much difference to me from Medical Center in the ’70’s to ER in the ’90s, all the way through to House and Grey’s Anatomy currently on the air.  But there is one recent show I really liked in this vein (so, of course, it only lasted one season).  Ironically, it was called Off the Map.

Off the Map: a patient room with a jungle view

Airing on ABC in the spring of 2011, Off the Map was different from the ordinary medical drama in many ways, but most of those differences sprung out of its setting:  the South American jungle.  Three young doctors, each running away from something in their past, end up becoming the newest staff at a remote overseas clinic, far away from all the gleaming hallways and fancy equipment they are used to.  Without access to so-called “modern” medicine, there are new dangers, and new solutions, which are discovered every day.

“Practicing tropical medicine in a third-world country is a different game… You don’t have high tech, you don’t have big pharma – you have your brain, you have your instincts.”
–Dr. Ben Keeton, founder and head of the clinic

Mina, Lily, and Tommy

The new recruits are Dr. Lily Brenner (Caroline Dhavernas), who’s looking for a new start after the death of a loved one back home and, although she’s extremely bright as a medical professional, she’s had a crisis of confidence after those previous events.  Dr. Tommy Fuller (Zach Gilford) has no lack of confidence, but what he does lack is ambition.  He skated through medical school and plans to become a plastic surgeon rather than deal with disease, and sees this time as a tropical vacation.  He’s forced to deal with the reality of medical practice and the humanity of suffering, both of which he’d preferred to ignore… until he can’t any longer.  The last of our trio is Dr. Mina Minard (Mamie Gunner), a relative “loner” who also doubts herself, as her lack of personal skills had caused her to misdiagnose a young patient, resulting in a death that could have been prevented.  Although she comes from a family rooted in the medical profession, it’s exactly the “profession” part she needs to escape, and instead come to terms with what “healing” is about, both for herself and her patients.

Drs. Zee and Cole, together (?)

The clinic’s current staff includes their leader, Dr. Ben Keeton (Martin Henderson).  Described by Lily as “one of the world’s greatest humanitarians”, his passion is medicine… but his demons do exist, and his choices often cause moral dilemmas in both keeping the clinic open and deciding who gets treated, and how.  Dr. Otis Cole (Jason George) seems to be a laid-back, easy-going soul, but has a past as a drug user and an uncertain future due to his indecision over a serious relationship.  The romance in question is with Dr. “Zee”, Zita Alareina Toledo Alvarez (Valerie Cruz), his co-worker and peer.  An expert in local botanical medicine, she watches over the others with a fierce protectiveness.  She expects maturity in both the newbies and her current staff, and when Cole doesn’t seem serious about their personal relationship, she has choices to make.

Ryan and Ben

“Zee” isn’t the only one with choices.  Dr. Ryan Clark (Rachelle Lefevre) has been in an intermittent relationship with her boss, Ben Keeton, and we first meet her when she’s choosing to leave the clinic… only to come back, and then decide to leave again.  Her mercurial nature is challenged when a threat to her own health is discovered, forcing her and Ben to confront their feelings for each other, and the secrets Ben hides.

A young local teen, Charlie (Jonathan Castellanos), serves as translator for these doctors and their patients.  While he’s very interested in becoming a doctor someday, he’s only 14, much too young for any actual structured medical education… but that doesn’t stop him from trying.  Of course, developing a crush on one of the new doctors doesn’t help matters any, but he is a vital window into the local culture and a guide to more than just the aches and pains of the citizens.  And his background has a few surprises for the new doctors, especially Tommy….

There’s a lot of soap opera here, but all of it is told around the very different medical dramas found in the uncharted wilderness of the jungle.  When the first day’s rounds are spent high on a zip line, trying to save an unconscious man whose arm has become mangled in his rope/pulley system, Lily realizes all too well that life at the Clinic is nothing like any medicine she’s ever practiced.  Facing issues like dealing with the corrupt local government, where payoffs are the norm for needed drugs (and even local drug lords are necessary “friends”), it’s a different world from anything she, or the viewers, expect.

“They don’t have the technology and resources at their disposal that they have on Grey’s (Anatomy) or Private (Practice) or ER or really any other medical show that’s been on TV in the last few years.  (That) really allows us to sort of delve into stories that no one else can really do, and I think that’s what makes the show so exciting.”
–Creator/Producer Jenna Bans

Mina’s struggle with the locals and the language barrier, and Tommy’s dealings with the long-held superstitions and methods of the populace, created a new and rich world for a medical drama, even without the soap characteristics.  Cases included a man who was literally enveloped by a giant snake… which had to remain wrapped around his body while the doctors transported him back to the clinic, as the pressure of the snake squeezing the life out of the victim was also the only thing holding his vital organs together until they reached treatment.

Distrust of “new” medicine in favor of old wives’ tales and tradition also led to the discovery by our characters of what nature provided instead, and these remedies were used repeatedly when the modern-day miracles weren’t available. Native methodology wasn’t seen to be “old,” just different.

And did you really know that coconut water was a great temporary substitute for saline solution when someone is dehydrated?  The new doctors didn’t.  So imagining a coconut hanging in place of an IV bottle is strange enough.  And climbing up a tree in an emergency to cut down young coconuts and save someone’s life doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched when you realize why.  This is medicine the hard way.  Amputating a leg is difficult enough… having to do it underwater offshore is just crazy.  Yet that’s what they did.

In Off the Map, nature was found to often be a substitute for technology, as far as the medicine was concerned  But making an hour-long medical drama is still difficult for television, no matter how much easier it is for storylines.  As noted above, even though new plots are available with every guest character shown, the problem becomes one of both time and clarity.  Medical shows are hard to film, especially on location.

“You have to understand the mechanics of shooting a scene.  The O.R. is just a hole because you have to shoot what they call the master, which is the big, wide shot which has everybody.  Then you come in close for everybody’s original coverage: my close-up, Martin [Henderson’s] close up, Caroline [Dhavernas’s] close-up, Rachelle [Lefevre’s] close-up.  The close-up of the people, the close-up of the prosthetic.  There’s so many different shots… Friday becomes what we call Fraturday because we’re there until really early Saturday.”
–Jason George

Adding to all that the matter of very specific medical terminology, plus the need to present it to an audience in a way that seems natural but also doesn’t fly over their understanding, means medical dramas are far more complex than most realize.

Not your ordinary house call... or filming experience

As if this wasn’t enough, Off the Map also added the burden (or advantage, depending on your point of view) of filming almost entirely in remote locations.  Utilizing the crew and sites for the recently ended series Lost, the clinic was built in its entirety in Hawaii (which doubled for the unnamed South American country), complete with examination rooms, offices, and operating theatre used for filming.  A soundstage was seldom used.  Much of each week’s story was told in the wilderness, and the 100 or more cast and crew on site obviously had to do their work in the “pristine” jungle, with little access to usual amenities.  Even the bathrooms were glorified Port-a-potties (which also had to be hauled in).  Now try to film the O.R. scene Jason George talks about above, plus outdoor night shooting on occasion and other distractions.  Medical shows are hard enough, but with all these extras it is amazing any of the actors even survived.

Off the Map didn’t survive as a series, of course.  ABC was initially excited about the show, increasing their original order of episodes from 7 to 13 for its summer run.  Part of its pedigree was Shonda Rimes, who’d brought the network success with medical dramas Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice.  But audiences didn’t respond to the combination of exotic locales and soap opera characters, and the series wasn’t long for this world, especially with the costs involved.  Despite the terrific cast and the unique setting, by the end of summer the show really was off the (television) map for good.

CAROLINE DHAVERNAS (Lily Brenner) is a welcome sight and a favorite here.  Her performance as the lead in Wonderfalls is remembered very fondly.  A native of Montreal, she is fluent in both French and English, and has provided her own voice when her performances have been dubbed for foreign release.  She is active in French, English, and Canadian productions, and in demand all over the world.

ZACH GILFORD (Tommy Fuller) starred as quarterback Matt Saracen in the critically acclaimed TV series Friday Night Lights.  He was a perfect fit for Off the Map, as he leads adventure trips for youth in locations like Alaska, Hawaii, British Columbia, and the South Pacific.

MAMIE GUMMER (Mina Minard) comes from an acting heritage, the daughter of famed actress Meryl Streep.  In addition to a recurring role on The Good Wife, she’s made headway in the theatre world, winning awards in Los Angeles, and performing earlier this year Off-Broadway in The School for Lies.

MARTIN HENDERSON (Ben Keeton) was born in New Zealand, and began his career in Australia.  A well-known actor down under, he starred on TV in Shortland Street, Home and Away, Sweat, and Big Sky, constantly working for over a decade.  After coming to America, he landed a leading role in the box-office success The Ring and the movie Smokin’ Aces before traveling to Hawaii for Off the Map.

JASON GEORGE (Otis Cole) Is a veteran of numerous TV series, his first being the soap Sunset Beach.  (He was only a few credits shy of his Masters of Fine Arts degree at the time, and his college counted the gig as “Independent Study” and awarded him the diploma anyway!)  Since then, he’s been a regular on Titans, Off Centre, Eve, What About Brian?, Eli Stone, and Eastwick before joining Off the Map.  He’s also well-versed in stage fighting and combat choreography.

VALERIE CRUZ (Zita Alareina “Zee” Toledo Alvarez) has also been featured on this site before, as police detective Connie Murphy on The Dresden Files.  She’s been seen on Nip/Tuck, Hidden Palms, Dexter, and True Blood.  Currently a regular on the SyFy series Alphas, she will be back for its recently announced second season.

RACHELLE LEFEVRE (Ryan Clark) is also bi-lingual, and she and cast mate Caroline Dhavernas would sometimes fall into French language conversations on the set together.  She was part of the successful Twilight movie series, but had to drop out of the recent third movie due to scheduling conflicts.  Currently, she’s again playing a doctor, this time on the new CBS series A Gifted Man.

JONATHAN CASTELLANOS (Charlie) was only 15 when filming Off the Map, but he’s already had a recurring role in the police drama Southland.  Other guest star appearances included Rules of Engagement, Side Order of Life, and Boston Legal.  An avid musician, he plays both guitar and drums when not involved in acting.

Off the Map was released on DVD in August of 2011, containing a few behind-the-scenes featurettes and some outtakes as well.  Individual episodes are also available in HD for purchase through Amazon Instant Video (or for free, if you’re a member).  Although full episodes aren’t available for general streaming anymore (thanks to the DVD release), there is the usual selection of clips promoting the series at TVGuide.com.  Marketing has gotten to the point where even network promotional posters are sold, and the very recent Off the Map was no exception.

“Ask, and the jungle provides.  It has everything you need.”
–Lily

The jungle does provide everything, except perhaps for more than 13 episodes.  Off the Map really was a different way to present a medical drama, and yet it probably tried too hard to be much like its forebears, Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice.  There were times when Off the Map lacked a solid direction, veering between the drama of the regular characters and the complexities of medicine in a new and different frontier.  Fans of one may have been turned off by the other, and the result, like the medicine, was just too different for most to take.

But I loved it, and followed the show faithfully.  I believed the new and unusual miieu was intriguing, and the actors were terrific.  Even the soap plotlines were varied enough, thanks to the setting, for me to feel like I was watching something interesting and different.  Something you wouldn’t find on a normal television series.  Something Off the Map.

Vital Stats

13 episodes aired — none unaired (All available on DVD)
ABC Network
First aired episode:  January 12, 2011
Final aired episode:  April 6, 2011
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  No, but it might have stood a better chance of survival there.  ABC aired it on Wednesday nights at 10/9 Central, against Top 20 CBS show Blue Bloods and with the soon-to-be-also-cancelled Mr. Sunshine as a lead-in.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

%d bloggers like this: