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“Maybe it was just as well (the show was cancelled) because, retrospectively, we had a halo…”
–Creator Leonard Stern

On Christmas Eve 1961, builders were in a hurry with their remodeling of a house.  Eager to leave and go enjoy the holiday with their families, the workers quickly ended their various projects for the day.  One of those projects was the finishing of a new fireplace, complete with built-in brick chimney.  But in their haste, the construction crew neglected to remove the eight-foot ladder they’d used to help build the fixture from the inside of the fireplace.  They just bricked up the hearth and left.

They’d likely forgotten all about the ladder.  A generous person would say that, perhaps, the crew wanted to make it easier for Santa to make it down from the roof.  Either way, television producer Leonard Stern got a gift.

I'm Dickens, He's Fenster

You see, it was Stern’s house, and after he got over his amazement at the discovery of the apparent builder ineptness, he immediately decided the misadventures of a pair of construction workers would make a terrific television comedy.  The result was seen the next fall on ABC, in the form of I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster.

Starring John Astin and Marty Ingels, the series followed the wild and wacky co-workers (and best friends), both on the job and at home.  Harry Dickens (Astin) was the more level-headed of the pair, but would sometimes get a bit distracted by his problems and concerns.  The freewheeling Arch Fenster (Ingels) was always dating a new young lady, but was just enough of a bumbler for his efforts (both at work and in his love life) to be unsuccessful.

Of course, since this is television, “unsuccessful” isn’t sad.  It’s funny.

The comedy was light, practically slapstick at times, with the setting of a home in the midst of reconstruction resulting in a gold mine of physical comedy.  And with the nervous Harry Dickens, playing the straight man to the oddities of his buddy Arch Fenster, pratfalls ensued.

Watching all this was Harry’s wife, Kate (Emmaline Henry).  Loving and supportive, she was usually the voice of reason for her husband and his best friend, encouraging the best in both of them.  Kate was wise enough to know their faults, and yet strong enough to weather whatever disaster might loom while “the guys” tried their best to make things work, especially around the Dickens’ home.  Between faucets gushing and cabinets with magnets strong enough to make pots fly across the kitchen, Kate’s patience was tested continually.  But if she wasn’t patient, we wouldn’t have had so much fun watching things go hilariously wrong.

“The married man would always like to live the life of the single man, and the single man was envious of the existence of the married.”
–Leonard Stern

The above quote makes it seem like I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster is more about the “grass is always greener” relationship shared by Harry and Arch, with the long-suffering Kate always there to help remind our characters of how good they really do have it in the lives they’ve already chosen to lead.  While that kind of character subtext is great, it wasn’t the focus of the show by any means.  I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster existed during a simpler time, back in the early 1960’s, when shows didn’t have to be socially relevant or feature important character storylines.  They just wanted to be funny.

Fun with a tray of food and a convenient door

Harkening back to the days of early movies, and the great comedy teams of Laurel and Hardy or Lewis and Martin, the team of Dickens and Fenster were one of the first to bring the true “buddy comedy” to the early days of television.  Pratfalls and physical humor were common in almost every episode.  Between Ingel’s facial contortions as an established funnyman, and Astin’s insecurity-riddled characterizations as the straight man who bore the brunt of Ingel’s “mistakes”, sight gags and stunts were both plentiful and worthy of guffaws.

While Lucy Ricardo back on I Love Lucy occasionally may have had her best friend Ethel as a reluctant cohort, Dickens and Fenster (and their construction work setting) made that type of comedy the central part of their show.  Not surprisingly, both I Love Lucy and the subsequent I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster were from Lucille Ball’s Desilu studios (which later became part of Paramount Pictures).  Utilizing the expertise of the previous show and its crew, Dickens and Fenster was better able to show off the early “3-camera” system of filming a situation comedy than many shows of the day, and better build the physical elements as well.

Laverne & Shirley: The female Dickens and Fenster?

Elements of the show later informed the throwback comedies of both Laverne and Shirley and Perfect Strangers, each of which used “buddy” elements and physical comedy to build their stories.  While traditionally one member of the duo supposedly was the “straight man” (or woman) of the team, having both individuals be adept at the physicality of comedy meant the stories could layer bits upon bits, with a “can you top this?” mentality developing in the stream of gags.  I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster was a tremendous example of this in numerous episodes.

Although not a part of the “buddy team”, Dickens’ wife Kate got to do some small part of the physical work as well, being the unfortunate recipient of some of the results of their remodeling.  The Dickens’ household was in a constant state of minor repair, as the home of a construction worker also means jobs that aren’t quite finished (since paying work takes a priority).  Emmaline Lilly had her own moments at the steady center of the wildly orbiting title duo, as she not only put up with their own foibles and adventures, but also made do as best she could with their “help” in her own home.  The woman had the patience of a saint… and sometimes, the wisdom of one, too.

Why didn’t I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster last?  Remember, it’s 1962.  There’s no such thing as demographics, or detailed research noting the particulars of whom exactly is watching what.  A 12-year old counts just as much as a 25-year old or a 60-year old as far as the Nielsen ratings are concerned, and just getting a larger head count is the goal.  And it was difficult to get that kind of significant number when the show was scheduled against some of the largest “hits” of the time.  Route 66 was on rival CBS, while the extremely popular Sing Along with Mitch topped the charts on NBC.  ABC was a young, upstart network trying to make a mark, and while they had high hopes for their new “buddy comedy”, it didn’t look good.

Shows also made more episodes for a season than they do now, and while ABC had lost faith in the series and officially cancelled it, they still had a number of episodes to run off.  They did so, and ratings started to climb.  The show was also noticed by the critics and, thanks to their promotion of the series, people continued to find its unique flavor.  By the time ABC realized they had something of a hit of their own, they’d already let the cast and crew go on to other projects.  Astin, in particular, had just signed to be the lead in a new situation comedy called The Addams Family, and his portrayal of Gomez Addams was a life-changing part for the actor.

But I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster was left in the past, forgotten.  There were only 32 half-hour episodes filmed, and therefore not enough for wide syndication where so many old shows became familiar to newer, younger fans.  Generations got to know Gomez Addams, simply through years of reruns on local stations.  But that fate didn’t await I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster.  It faded away, lost to memory of almost all… just like Santa’s ladder.  But like the best Christmas presents, there’s more than meets the eye.  It turns out that someone remembered… and still believed in both Santa and I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster….

JOHN ASTIN (Harry Dickens) is the only person (so far) to be featured THREE times on this site, but this is the first time he’s had the lead role in the series profiled.  He’s had supporting roles in both The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. and Eerie, Indiana, and a lengthy career which includes memorable roles on The Addams Family and Night Court.  His one-man play Once Upon a Midnight tells the life story of author Edgar Allan Poe, and is a fantastic night of theatre.

MARTY INGELS (Arch Fenster) first came to creator Leonard Stern’s attention as a recurring character on The Dick Van Dyke Show, playing Dick’s old army buddy.  The rubber-faced comedian was seen on numerous variety shows of the early television era.  Later, he became a force behind the scenes, both as a voice actor (he spoke the words for the animated character of gaming hero Pac-Man) and as an agent for a number of Hollywood stars.  He’s been married to actress Shirley Jones (of The Partridge Family fame) since 1977.

EMMALINE HENRY (Kate Dickens) is likely best known to comedy audiences as Mrs. Bellows, a recurring (yet memorable) part on I Dream of Jeannie.  Her own original dream was to become known as a singer, and she had been cast as part of the chorus in a number of movie musicals.  Her talent as a comedienne won out over her singing career, and she was later cast as Mickey Rooney’s wife in the self-titled comedy Mickey.  She passed away of cancer in 1979.

Producer Leonard Stern had wondered about what might have happened to the comedy series he’d made almost half a century ago.  The original master tapes, originally thought lost, had been stored for all this time, and thanks to the hard work of a company called TV Time Machine, Santa had something else to offer this past holiday season.  The initial set of DVDs, released just recently, contains the first half of the episodes, and features interviews with creator Stern, stars Astin and Ingels, and original commercial spots featuring the duo in character that served as “bumpers” into more traditional ads.  The second set will be coming out later this year, and I urge any fan of early television to go order these immediately.

TV Time Machine has also established a terrific website for the show, featuring a number of stories and clips from various episodes.  It also delves a bit into the history of the series, and how it was one of the few beloved by classic comedy and movie actor Stan Laurel.  Also, just to be complete, it should also be noted that Stern was not only a TV producer (with shows like Get Smart and McMillan & Wife to his credit), he also created the perennial children’s game of Mad Libs.  Many a lengthy car ride has been saved by his inventive pastime.

“Some of the critics said it’s the kind of humor that makes you laugh out loud in the living room, and that’s an accomplishment.  How often do we really laugh out loud in the living room when we’re watching a television show?  We’re lucky if we smile.”
–John Astin

Physical pratfalls have been the basis of humor for many years.  The slapstick of the Keystone Cops and the escapades of Laurel and Hardy were mainstays of the early movies, and seltzer bottles were standard issue for many comics on the vaudeville circuit.  With the advent of television, I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster helped move the concept into our homes.  Although the humor wasn’t the most cultured by any means, it was universal enough to be shared by both old and young, in a much more innocent time.

These days, the culture has turned a bit more direct, and the unfortunate offspring of such humor has become the much more crass Jackass and Wipeout shows.  But on I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster, we still loved both Harry and Arch, just as Kate loved her boys, and although we laughed at their pratfalls, their successes still meant something.  They were good people, although they were occasionally far too easily distracted and didn’t watch exactly where they were going… until they’d fallen, humorously, and without injury (except maybe to a bit of their pride).

And distraction can be easily forgiven… because, after all, if it wasn’t for a few distracted workmen, Santa wouldn’t have had a ladder to get down a certain chimney.  And we wouldn’t have had I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster all these years later to enjoy.

Vital Stats

32 half-hour episodes — none unaired — half currently available on DVD, the rest to follow
ABC Network
First aired episode:  September 28, 1962
Final aired episode:  May 10, 1963
Aired on Friday @ 8/7 Central?  Oh, so close.  An hour later, at 9/8 Central on Friday nights.  Its lead-in was, of all things, The Flintstones, so a physical comedy wasn’t so far away from a cartoon after all….

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

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“…there are a lot of good people in the world.  And a lot of good fantasies.”
–Studio promotional flyer for Good Heavens

Things have been going rather well for me lately.  Although life is never perfect, I’ve been blessed with opportunities I would never have had previously, and found situations (and new friends) where I would never have even looked as recently as a year or so ago.  What amazes me most about some of the new situations I find myself in is how they came about, and how perhaps one simple change I wasn’t even aware of at the time led me to where I am now.

So, of course, I get to relate that to a television series from the past… one that also rewarded big dreams and little choices, and told stories about characters who’d also been searching for an improvement in their lives.  Sometimes, all it takes is a good deed, and a wish.

In the 1976 comedy Good Heavens, television veteran Carl Reiner starred as Mr. Angel, a kindly and somewhat mysterious man who helped change people’s lives.  He rewarded those who did simple, good deeds (such as a husband who went out in the middle of the night in pouring rain to get food for his pregnant wife to satisfy her strange cravings).  Suddenly, Mr. Angel would show up in their life and offer them the slightest of rewards for their small good effort.  He’d give them one wish.

Fame, love, success, privacy, you name it, he would give them an opportunity to find it.  The only rule about the wish was that no one could simply wish to be rich; he wouldn’t give anyone just money (and there’s a reason why there’s a saying about “money doesn’t buy happiness”).  The chosen person would make their fondest wish, and the rest of the gentle half-hour would be filled with their exploits as their wish came true… and what they would do about the result.

The best wishes are simply possibilities, you see.  They might involve a goal, perhaps (such as playing professional baseball, or meeting a person who has all the qualities you’ve always desired in a potential mate), but the real happiness comes once those goals are met.  One aspiring actress character on the show wished for “her big break”, but that simply led to her breaking a limb.  Of course, when she ends up in the hospital, she ends up meeting someone else there who can help her in her career, so her “break” finally comes… but not nearly in the way she believed it would.

The wishes provided by Mr. Angel were just starting points for the process, and whatever real happiness could be found by the individuals involved came more from themselves than any wish granted.  As the quote above said, there are a lot of good people out there.  Sometimes, they just needed an opportunity, and that’s what Mr. Angel was all about.

“I hope it inspires people to walk around doing good deeds for others, hoping they’ll be visited by a Mr. Angel.”
–Carl Reiner

Good Heavens itself likely received a push of its own, or at the very least found an opportunity it may have lacked earlier.  The idea was originally pitched a few years earlier to ABC by executive producer Reiner (a job he also held on the series when it finally made the air).  Called Everything Money Can’t Buy (which is where the name of this article came from), it starred Oscar winner José Ferrer as the mysterious lead, and featured the character of Mr. Angel more prominently in each story.

In the development process, Everything Money Can’t Buy became Heaven Help Us, before ABC finally bought Good Heavens (with Reiner as the star).  Reiner’s Mr. Angel was only seen in a few minutes at the beginning and ends of episodes, and the focus was really on the anthology aspect of different characters and settings each week, with just the “wish” as the starting point for each story.  Besides, Reiner was busy with the producing aspects of the show, and reckoned that since he was working on the show on a regular basis anyway, he may as well work a day in front of the camera as well as his normal job behind it.

ABC was happy, as they got a star who worried as much about the bottom line as any other producer, and yet came with some notoriety of his own which they could promote.  Carl Reiner had been a producer/writer/actor on The Dick Van Dyke Show in the early days of television, and had a hand in making numerous shows in the years following.  His partnership with friend and movie producer/director Mel Brooks had led to comedy projects including the movie Oh, God and various recorded installments featuring The 2000-Year Old Man (including records, TV specials, and public appearances performing their characters).

“Playing an angel is gratifying, because I’m able to do things for people and it’s like being a father who helps his children.”
–Carl Reiner

Reiner also had rather famous off-spring, as his son is well-known director Rob Reiner, who’s directed the iconic movie version of The Princess Bride, and is best known to television audiences as Mike “Meathead” Stivic in the landmark series All in the Family.  He truly did keep the idea of Good Heavens “all in the family”, because Rob appeared in the pilot episode of Good Heavens and helped to finally sell the series.  Rob grew up in the business, and perhaps having Carl’s name would have opened a door or two, but it was the successful work Rob established for himself when given the chance that made his own career shine.

Reiner guesting on Hot in Cleveland

Carl himself is no stranger to television audiences, having reprised his Dick Van Dyke Show role of Alan Brady in an episode of Mad About You decades later.  He also currently has a recurring role on the TVLand series Hot in Cleveland (which has just been renewed for a fourth season premiering later this year), and was featured in the Ocean’s Eleven series of movies.  Reiner’s life has been a good one, and even he has said that it was the meeting of opportunity and preparation that made the difference… a concept that informed the basis of Good Heavens.

Realize that Mr. Angel only provided an opportunity for the characters on Good Heavens.  Whatever happened afterwards was a result of the characters’ own desires, actions, and dreams.  So very many people have chances to make their lives and their world a better place, moment by moment, yet those very people let those moments pass them by, thinking their dreams will never amount to anything, or that the effort will be too great, or the people around them will be unhappy with their new choices.

Guess what?  They’re wrong.

Just as Rob Reiner had to prove himself with his work, each one of us must prove ourselves in our own endeavors.  Having that open door, or that opportunity, or that wish come true is all part of the battle.  And it doesn’t really take a Mr. Angel to provide it for us, but it does take an awareness of the possibilities available.  So when that door opens, or that opportunity arrives, the wishes and dreams of the past become the realities of the future.

It's amazing what can happen

And they don’t have to always be exactly as we pictured them, either.  Sometimes, they’re even better.  In my own life, I had what I believed was a good, although not spectacular, existence.  Then an accident and subsequent health issues shortly thereafter caused me to truly become depressed about the possibilities of my life.  But out of those ashes, this blog was born, as a way to be creative when other avenues I’d previously walked were unavailable to me, and slowly (and with the encouragement of others), I discovered much, much more.

I found a new occupation, one I’d never previously even imagined, and it’s led me to deal with things and places I’d not even dreamed of.  I utilized some of what I’d attained in the past, but it also now challenges me daily, making me realize what I really can do instead of focusing upon what I’d lost before.  The planning of an upcoming vacation to see friends both old and new also happened during this time, and suddenly a few things about both work and play seem to have “fallen into my lap”, as if I’d wished for them and Mr. Angel made them come true.

But some around me reminded me that I’d already done the “dirty work” to make these dreams come true.  I realized the upcoming wonders of my life are all based upon the small things I’d done previously, just magnified by time and chance into something much more.  My wishes were always there, ready to be granted.  I just needed to grant them for myself….

CARL REINER (Mr. Angel) has had a prolific career in both television and movies.  As an actor, he’s been featured in everything from Your Show of Shows in the 1950’s to his occasional role on the currently filming Hot in Cleveland.  In between, he’s best known as Alan Brady on the original Dick Van Dyke Show, as well as making appearances on Mad About You, Ally McBeal, House, M.D., and Boston Legal.  His film career includes parts in the Ocean’s Eleven series of movies, as well as the classic It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Steve Martin’s The Jerk.  He directed a number of movies with Martin, including The Man with Two Brains and All of Me, as well as the original Oh, God (which occurred roughly the same time as Good Heavens, and may have had something to do with the choice of subject matter for the series).  He’s won eight Emmy Awards, has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (since 1960!), and was given the prestigious Mark Twain award for Comedy from the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

“Television keeps you working.”
–Carl Reiner

The series did rather well in the ratings, finishing in the top twenty for the 1976 spring season for ABC.  But at the time, ABC was swamped with popular programming, and as the #1 network they almost had an embarrassment of riches.  Although it was a popular gentle comedy that skewed slightly older in demographics, ABC was after a younger audience (for their advertisers) and Good Heavens didn’t quite fit that bill.  Besides, room had to be made for their upcoming fall slate of shows, which included new things like the original Charlie’s Angels… shows that didn’t pair well with Good Heavens.  So Reiner’s anthology show was never put on the schedule for the fall, and kind of just disappeared into the memories of viewers… much like Mr. Angel would disappear at the end of each episode.

Good Heavens has never been released on DVD, and I really haven’t found any clips anywhere.  I can find a few mentions on various websites (the usual suspects like IMDB and such), but except for a few pictures here and there, the series pretty much still exists in the minds of those who saw it back in 1976.  And you know something?  That’s somehow appropriate, simply because the subject matter of Good Heavens is really about individuals finding their own way towards their dreams, and that’s not always something to be shared with the world at large.  The important part isn’t the sharing… it’s the doing.

Good Heavens

Everyone would like a little nudge once in a while, even if we don’t actually ask for it.  Sometimes, the presence of a Mr. Angel would be welcome, if only so we didn’t have to do everything ourselves, and the opportunity to become more than what we already are would be handed to us.  But that’s not the way the world works, and honestly, that’s not how television works either.  And while some see the medium as a time-waster and a place to forget about all those dreams and wishes, I’d prefer to see it as just a window that opens when other doors might be closed, and a place to gather ideas and plans for new wishes to be made.

And then, I turn off the set and find a way to make those dreams come true.  And if a certain Mr. Angel happens to think that my efforts are worthwhile, then I might get that gentle nudge.  But even if I don’t, I now know in my heart that my hard work and discipline will reap rewards sometime in the future, although I may not always know now what those rewards will be.  And with good friends teaching me perseverance, compassion, and joy, there’s no stopping me.  The sky’s the limit… up to and including Good Heavens.

Vital Stats

13 half-hour episodes — none unaired
ABC Network
First aired episode:  February 29, 1976 (yes, leap day)
Final aired episode:  June 26, 1976
Aired on Friday @ 8/7 Central?  Nope, it was on Thursday evenings, oddly paired with On the Rocks, a comedy set in a prison.  Think about that.  Not the best opportunity ABC could have presented audiences with.

Comments and suggestions are appreciated, as always.

–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.

“…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.

“I’m about to take you on the greatest adventure of your life.  You’ll probably never even thank me for it.”
–Austin James to Michelle Castle, in the pilot of Probe

The mysteries of the universe... in a grain of sand

By any estimation, many of the investigators on television have flashes of brilliance.  Whether it’s street smarts, understanding people better than most, or just plain book knowledge, heroes on television use their brains to figure out the most impossible mysteries.  But when it comes to putting together the clues, their level of intelligence pales in comparison to Austin James, the lead character of a 1988 ABC television series called Probe.  And Austin James was either the smartest man in the world… or he was justifiably crazy.  And no one could really tell  which description was true… except maybe Austin himself.

Parker Stevenson starred as Austin James, a scientist and inventor with an intellect that would make most geniuses jealous.  He set about each week to discover the answers to offbeat mysteries, aided by his assistant/secretary Michelle Castle (Ashley Crow).  Known as “Mickey”, she was the duo’s heart paired with Austin’s intellect.  They were drawn into the strangest of stories, detailing unusual, scientific crimes and odd situations that only Austin’s brainpower might be able to understand… and only Mickey might be able to lead him to, through the unpredictable maze of human behavior.

Austin had started a company, Serindip, designed to be a home for the most cutting-edge scientific developments of the era… and then he walked away from it.  He lives in a combination workshop/lab, sleeping in a cabinet (which he refers to as an “isolation chamber”).  Mickey, of course, doesn’t understand any of this, but she’s never met anyone quite like Austin.  Rather than return to her previously humdrum life, she takes on the role of assistant to either the most brilliant person she’s ever met… or a certifiable crazy man.  She’s just not sure which yet.

“What do you use for a heart?  A pocket calculator?”
–Mickey, to Austin

Back at Serendip, Austin has left Howard Millhouse (Jon Cypher) in charge.  Howard is trying to hold the place together, but would like the attention of Austin at the think-tank, given Austin’s formidable intelligence and what he could offer.  (Besides, it IS Austin’s company in the first place!).  But the more pressure Howard puts on Austin to be part of the organization he created, the more Austin tries to find other uses for his time… like solving practically impossible murders.  Austin’s fellow scientist Graham McKinley (Clive Revill) also is employed by Serendip, but is much less able to think “out-of-the-box” like Austin.  The friction between the two also serves to force Austin into directions that wouldn’t always be considered “normal” by most.  But then, “normal” wasn’t what Probe was all about.

Probe was a co-creation of mystery writer William Link (of Colombo and Ellery Queen fame) and prolific science fiction/fact author Isaac Asimov.  Both men wanted to show that the modern mysteries of our scientific and technological world could be just as entertaining as a traditional parlour mystery, just moved forward into the new millennium.  Their result was a show featuring the most intelligent person in the world, solving some of the most amazing puzzles ever created.

“If they want something, I can tell them. I’m certified.”

“Certifiable….”

“I mean, I’m certified by the federal government.  They had some people test me, and found my memory system to be five times better than the best computerized data directory and retrieval system.  So, listen to me.  I’m certified.”

–Austin claiming his genius, while Mickey admits her disbelief

Austin is, to most observers, kind of peculiar.  He was a man who had no use for money, or fame, or any of a myriad of things that many hunger for.  He had few of the motivations of most men.  To him, knowledge was all… and anytime there was a mystery, it was then Austin was finally moved to action.  For a man to whom the intricacies of the world could be reduced to equations buzzing around in his head, a true puzzle was that which seemed not to have a rational answer.  Like Sherlock Holmes, he may have not been understood very well, but that was no knock on his adeptness at figuring out impossible situations.

Mickey:  “Admit it.  There could be things out there completely beyond anyone’s understanding.”

Austin:  “I can name you one.  Murder.  I’ve never understood it for a second.”

When people were murdered on this show, you couldn’t just round up the suspects like a traditional Agatha Christie mystery.  Especially when the suspect in the pilot turns out to be a computer program run amok.  Or, as in a later episode, when an advanced ape is being framed for killing one of its handlers.  These were unusual stories, with an unusual hero at the forefront.

Probe could very easily have resulted in a television series that was dry and far over-the-head of most people, but the creators realized that problem early on, and set out to fix it with humor.

“We had to go back and reshoot about a third of the pilot for a number of reasons.  It was too strong, it was too intense… the fun of it went out of it, and the fun of it couldn’t go out of it because it wasn’t a serious show, it was a fun show.
–Alan Levi

Austin was played by the familiar and likeable Parker Stevenson, but the character of Austin James, as developed, was SO “out there” that he wasn’t the most relatable lead on television.  The character’s attitudes came from advanced science and knowledge of facts (Austin had attended college at age 10), but the very intelligence that made him sought-after as the creator of the Serendip consulting organization was also the very same thing that kept him from being part of it.  His skills at interacting with people were almost non-existent.  That’s why he needed Mickey, even if she didn’t always understand his behavior.  He came off to those around him as arrogant, or aberrant, or sometimes just plain crazy, although he was none of these things.  But extreme intelligence in a world of “average” looks that way to the average.

“Why do you enjoy tormenting people so much?”

“Because when I torment them, I get what I need.  Answers.  It’s nothing personal.”

–Mickey and Austin, talking about his brisk approach to other people

The problem with this approach to a television series is the “average” person — exactly the person television executives hope will tune into their shows.  While Link and Asimov hoped to improve the usual ordinary fare with more enlightened mysteries, and to show there was still some fun to be had in their solving, many took one look and said “I have to think?  No thanks.” Probe only lasted a month and a half, despite its strong pedigree.  As an early spring show, it tried to appeal to an audience that liked to be challenged… and it found, instead, an audience merely wanting to be placated.  (And some thought Austin James was crazy….)

“Part of the challenge to us as writers was, we had to have a mystery that the smartest man in the world would look at it and wouldn’t immediately know the answer to it… and it also had to be a mystery that, once we figured out the answer, people in the audience could also understand without having to be lectured for about half an hour.”
–Writer James Novack

Perhaps the creators aimed a bit too high… as the modern-day success of the cable series Monk has shown, audiences will respond to a character who seems a bit far afield, if they can recognize parts of themselves in the portrayal.  But on Probe, the lead was, almost by definition, light-years ahead of the normal person, while Adrian Monk is portrayed as someone both gifted and cursed with his condition.  Monk was once “normal”, while Austin never had been, and perhaps that led to a bit of distance for that “average” viewer.  Monk presented a more acceptable “crazy”.

Austin James NEVER turned his mind “off”.  He even commented once about someone interrupting his few hours of sleep every day, because even then, he was using his mind to puzzle out some conundrum.  Many thought he was nuts (or at the very least abnormal).  As presented on Probe, he was the hero we were meant to identify with, albeit flawed somewhat emotionally.  But the important thing is, without the knowledge, he wasn’t even “average”, and if I’m going to have a champion to cheer for on a show, it’s one with brains and a little help in the heart department rather than one with much lesser intelligence.  Because, those with brains are always seeking more — and those with less are satisfied with enough.  I’d rather have more….

“But it was complex stuff. . . it wasn’t the kind of show in which a viewer could get up during the middle of it, get a sandwich and think, “I’ll catch up when I come back.”  Viewers had to work at watching the show, and perhaps that was a bit too much to ask.  Maybe that’s why they tuned into Cosby instead.”
–Parker Stevenson

The Cosby Show was the number one series on television at the time, so ABC had to take some risks in trying to challenge it.  But ABC did Probe no favors in its promotion.  They touted the involvement of Asimov significantly to the press, believing it to be a significant selling point for the series.  (Asimov had written over 200 books, both fiction and non-fiction, and this was his first significant journey into the realm of television.)  Unfortunately, a great many people took this as meaning the show was simply too highbrow, too focused on the intelligence the viewer brought to the table, and didn’t tune in.  The advertising made the show out to be either “silly” science fiction (in the vein of much earlier television) or “too intelligent” and something that would be better found on Public Television.  Truthfully, Probe presented a much more accessible adventure, if only more of the public would have sampled it.  But they didn’t, and unfortunately that led to the demise of Probe after seven episodes.  The series was many good things, but it almost certainly was not what most people thought it to be originally.  Like Austin James, Probe was sorely misunderstood. 

PARKER STEVENSON (Austin James) first came to fame (and teen idol status) as Frank Hardy, one of the sleuthing brothers on The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries.  Other regular/recurring television roles included North and South Book II, the original cast of Baywatch, and Melrose Place.  His birth name is Richard Parker, but he was forced to change it when another actor by that name was already registered with the Screen Actors Guild.

ASHLEY CROW (Michelle “Mickey” Castle) was a regular on both short-lived series Champs and Turks.  She’s best known by genre fans as Sandra Bennet, the wife of the man known as HRG (for “Horn-Rimmed Glasses”) on Heroes.  She’s set to play the grandmother of the lead character Cassie on the new CW series The Secret Circle this fall.

JON CYPHER (Howard Millhouse) was a fixture on television in many series, including Knots Landing, Dynasty, and the soap opera Santa Barbara.  He played Police Chief Daniels for the entire run of Hill Street Blues, and appeared as the General to Major Dad.  He was also active on Broadway, especially in musical like 1776, Man of La Mancha, and Big:  the musical.

CLIVE REVILL (Graham McKinley) is originally from New Zealand, although he’s played everything from British to Chinese to Russian in his lengthy career.  A Shakespearean actor of some note, he’s also been in numerous comedy films. earning a Golden Globe nomination for his role in the movie Avanti!  He will be seen on this site again for his role as the wizard Vector in the series Wizards and Warriors.

Mickey and Austin

Probe has never been released on DVD, although episodes are available, in chunks, on YouTube.  (I’d recommend using the link provided, rather than looking for them yourself, because the majority are listed under the specific episode titles and NOT found when doing a search for the Probe TV series.) Those who posted the episodes run a site called Probe Resurrected, home to lots of information about the series, including quotes from various episodes and links to further information, as well as fan fiction and more.

There’s a very fine line between genius and crazy, a line that’s very hard to see by many.  Those who live on the edge of that line often are asked to justify their behavior to others.  In the pilot episode, there’s a running bit about Mickey having to prove her intelligence by coming up with a limerick about Austin, and her final result at the end of the episode reveals volumes about this odd, highly intelligent, and perhaps crazy man named Austin James.  It goes like this:

“There once was a wizard named James
Whose genius exceeded all claims.
He could solve out of hand
All the problems of man
And tell you it’s all just a game…”

If that’s not a great description of Probe, then you’ll never understand any other.  It’s just crazy smart fun.

Vital Stats

7 aired episodes (a 2-hour pilot and six hour-long episodes) — none unaired
ABC Network
First aired episode:  March 7, 1988
Final aired episode:  April 14, 1988
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  Up against The Cosby Show, it aired on Thursday nights at 8/7 Central.  The only mystery Austin James couldn’t solve was how to beat Cosby in the ratings.

Comments and suggestions welcome, as always

–Tim R.

This past week marked one of the darkest days in the history of America.  And while this site is full of fun remembrances of old shows, they really don’t mean all that much compared to the sacrifices of those innocents in the events of 9/11.  While I would never want to lessen the impact of that day, this is a blog about television shows, specifically those which didn’t last all that long… and for one particular show, that length was directly affected by what happened on that fateful day, and what came thereafter.

“Loud, stupid, and overeating will suffice as long as we also have the funny, the fierce, and the intellectual.”
–Denis Leary

The Job

Just months prior to that day, in the spring of 2001, ABC premiered a gritty comedy called The Job.  It profiled the events of New York’s 21st precinct, a rowdy collection of cops led by Mike McNeil (Denis Leary).  Abusive, abrasive, and just plain angry at times, he was still a great detective despite his constant popping of painkillers and flouting of authority.  His partner, Terrance “Pip” Phillips (Bill Nunn) was a world-weary husband and father who just wanted to get through each day without being shot at, yelled at, or even really noticed all that much… of course, as a cop, that wasn’t going to happen.

Their trials and tribulations facing the crooks (and sometimes the not-so-crooked) led to the oddball interactions of the series.  Others on the force faced similar obstructions to getting through a day.  Partners Frank Harrigan (Lenny Clarke) and Tommy Manetti (Adam Ferrara) dealt with such strangeness as a dead body dumped repeatedly in their jurisdiction (and their efforts to “throw it back”, so to speak); and helping Mike coerce a probable law-breaker into a confession by faking an attack… against his grandmother.

Younger cops Ruben Somamba (John Ortiz) and Al Rodriguez (Julian Acosta) are just trying to figure out how things work in this bizarro-world, as two rookies trying to follow rules in a precinct full of rule-breakers.  While their ethnicity gives them an advantage in some neighborhoods of New York, their presence as unseasoned detectives brings them some derision from their comrades.

Pip, Jan, and Mike

The only female of this group is Jan Fendrich (Diane Farr), who rides herd on many of these out-of-control children-as-adults, and develops a true caring relationship with Mike… if only Mike wasn’t far too self-absorbed to see it.  Somebody cares about him, even if he doesn’t.  She knows all about his wife, his girlfriend, and his destructive habits… but sees something else good, something well beyond all those things, as do we. She knows him better than he knows himself.

The one supposedly in charge, Lt. Tom Williams (Keith David), is far too busy keeping the heat off all his people from above to be really concerned about the details… as long as they keep being good cops.  But during a foot chase, Mike is unable to keep up with a suspect.  Although he fakes “pulling a hamstring”, the real reason is the way he’s treating himself… and others are noticing.

It’s catching up with you, man.  You can’t be smoking, drinking, and self-medicating everyday…  You’re living with two women, Mike!  This stuff is biblical!”
–Lt. Tom Williams to Mike, about his behavior

Normal? It doesn't work for me....

Mike is almost prototypical in his self-destructiveness.  He’s successful in his work on the force, but he certainly doesn’t act like the other cops, either real or on television.  And even though he professes a semblance of normalcy, his life is anything but.  While he’s not the most focused person in the world, as you can tell by the title of the show it’s The Job as police detective that keeps him going.  And that’s why we root for him, despite his being compared to Satan at one point… by his own police captain.

Some try to get him to confront these issues, but Mike wouldn’t be Mike without his aberrant behaviors… and yet, that doesn’t stop us, or them, from hoping he might find a way to become as great as some might believe him to be… despite his mistakes along the way.

“And let me tell you something:  at the rate you’re going, 52 (years old) is going to be a lucky roll of the dice… and I don’t need to be sitting at your funeral!   Now, you got problems, you blame it on the booze, you blame it on the pills, or you’re guilty Irish conscience… because it’s not the job.  Michael, I watched you tonight, I think the ONLY thing you love is being a cop.”
–Jan Ferderich, as Mike is trying to defend his negative choices

The world is about to change

The Job was a summer substitute for ABC’s N.Y.P.D. Blue, filmed on location in New York City.  It was given a 6-episode tryout in the spring of 2001, and a renewal for the fall.  It was supposed to premiere that season in September, but then the events of 9/11 occurred, and the absurdist tone of the series, and its setting and filming in New York, made the network more than worried.  The series was delayed until January and then returned to the airwaves, but in the new environment encompassing America, it really didn’t work, and The Job was cancelled after its initial renewal order was fully run.

However, the events of 9/11 affected the cast and crew tremendously.  They were filming on location nearby when the Towers were hit and, like so many others in the city (and across the country), the emotional impact was profound.

“We were shooting The Job (…) at Chelsea Piers, and got stuck there.  Once all the fire trucks started racing down, both sides of the highway… we saw everything with the naked eye.  It’s harder to believe what you just saw when there’s no sound–there’s no sound except the real, live sound of what’s going on.”
–Denis Leary

In the months after 9/11, it was simply too soon for a nation shocked by those events to be watching a New York police comedy, especially one with such a gritty and realistic (although absurd) tone as The Job.  ABC ended the show, preferring to recast itself as a more “family-friendly” (and safer) network.  But both the events of that September day, and Leary’s personal tragedy of losing a fire-fighting cousin and his co-workers in Worcester a few years earlier, led to the creation of Rescue Me.  A successful drama with comedy elements, Leary played firefighter Tommy Gavin for seven seasons on the FX cable network, a character just as self-destructive as Mike McNeil.  But this time, surrounded by many of the actors and crew he’d worked with on The Job, the accent was on the drama of those affected by the tragedy, and the way they’d been changed by the events of that one fateful day.

The concept found a focus bigger than just a person’s own existence.  A concentration on filling up the bottomless pit of emotions brought on by the destruction of the World Trade Center, and the loss of friends and family, gave Rescue Me an anchor The Job never had.  The show’s concentration on drama with leavening comedy moments was more respectful to those losses than The Job ever could be after those real-life events.  Given the looser restrictions of a cable home for the show and an hour-long format (as opposed to the half-hour comedy of The Job), Rescue Me found an audience ready for its drama and its humor, since by then we all were trying to deal with moving on after such a tragedy.  Tommy and Rescue Me were just as self-destructive as Mike and The Job, but there was at least a reason we could all understand for those actions, for we had all lived through that day.

“It doesn’t really get better.  Time just moves on.  And the FDNY (Fire Department of New York), if you talk to any of those guys… because of the massive loss, I don’t think the department will ever be the same.  The same thing in Worcester, losing those six guys.  What happens to those guys and how they feel about each other, you know, you can never understand from the outside, and you’ll never be able to replace those guys.  You can feel better about trying to make things better and safer, so that it maybe doesn’t happen again.  I think maybe that makes people feel better about the situation.  But, you know, the truth is it’s really a hole that never goes away.”
–Denis Leary

Rescue Me used some of the same storylines as The Job, just played for a bit more reality and a bit less comedy.  It also used many of the same actors and crew.  So why does one show succeed and another fail?  Placement is one thing (on cable, with more realistic freedom instead of a much more cautious network), and focus is another.  But after 9/11, it wasn’t just the show that changed, but the audience did, too.  And while immediately during and after that day a decade ago our wounds were too fresh, too raw, too immediate to joke about, we all still need some kind of healing, some kind of method to deal with destruction.  Whether it was typified by Mike/Tommy and battling personal demons, or facing the reality of dealing with a world changed in very important ways, the framework was laid down, unknowingly, in The Job, and then more accurately revealed in Rescue Me.  Not just for the characters… but for us all.

Tragedy in real life cannot be underestimated.  As the nation remembered what happened 10 years ago this past week, I am reminded that television did what television does best, ever since then.  It brought us the events, as they happened, in all their grief and despair, and then, sometime thereafter, brought us a way to deal with that grief through Tommy Gavin and Rescue Me.  Volumes have been written about that series, and its recent farewell.  But the germ of the idea, the character that started it all, was Mike McNeil of The Job.  From his demise, a way out of the tunnel for the rest of us was created.  And although we may never completely heal from what happened, we can find a way through, at least to a place where the world isn’t quite so dark and hopeless.  And with a little help, perhaps we can all live again.

Rescue Me -- what ultimately became of The Job

DENIS LEARY (Mike McNeil) is a 4-time Emmy nominee for both writing and directing.  His aggressive style of comedy has resulted in multiple books and comedy tours across the country, plus he’s become a spokesperson for the MLB Network, the Ford F-150 pickup truck line, and Hulu’s and DirectTV’s broadcasts.  A lifelong hockey fan, he even sang at his hometown Boston’s appearance when the Bruins played outdoors at Fenway Park, in front of thousands at the game and millions watching on television.

BILL NUNN (Terrance “Pip” Phillips) got his movie start in the films of Spike Lee, having appeared in Do the Right Thing, School Daze, and others by the acclaimed director.  He’s since become known for a variety of roles, including in movies like Regarding Henry and Sister Act, and performed in the movie adaptations of stage hits A Raisin in the Sun and Fences.

LENNY CLARKE (Frank Harrigan) is an old comedy friend of Leary’s, who starred in his own series (Lenny) back in 1990.  He was a featured player in The John Larroquette Show and appeared on Rescue Me in the role of Uncle Teddy.  As outspoken as Leary, he’s gotten into trouble for his political comments, but still remains a staunch supporter of causes and politicians important to him.

ADAM FERRARA (Tommy Manetti) is another comedian/actor, with a regular role in Rescue Me in addition to his stand-up routines.  He’s currently one of the hosts of the American version of British favorite Top Gear on the History Channel, where his penchant for destroying cars has earned him the nickname of “The Wrecker”.

JOHN ORTIZ (Ruben Somamba) had regular roles on television in Lush Life and Clubhouse, but his main emphasis has been on stage work.  Based in New York City, he co-founded the LAByrinth Theatre Company, a network of over 100 artists.  He will shortly be seen in the HBO series Luck, based on the worlds of horse-racing and gambling.

JULIAN ACOSTA (Al Rodriguez) not only partnered with Ortiz above, but also joined Ortiz’s LAByrinth Theatre Company as well.  He’s been a recurring character on both Dirt and The Defenders, and done guest shots on Castle, Franklin & Bash, and The Mentalist.

DIANE FARR (Jan Fendrich) was a co-host for MTV’s early relationship series Loveline.  After The Job, she appeared on Rescue Me for two seasons before becoming a regular on the CBS series Numb3rs.  She currently writes a syndicated newspaper column, as well as having written a humorous book on inter-racial marriages called “Kissing Outside the Lines”.

KEITH DAVID (Tom Williams) is a favorite of this site, having appeared on The Cape.  He’s also been a well-recognized voice actor, as Goliath in Gargoyles, various characters in the video-game franchises Halo and Call of Duty, and as one of the preferred narrators for Ken Burns and his hugely successful documentaries on PBS.

The 21st Precinct, just doing what they do: The Job

The Job was released by Shout Factory as a DVD set in 2005, complete with multiple commentaries and behind-the-scenes features.  While there aren’t many websites available, there are numerous mentions made of the series in the context as a precursor to Rescue Me on sites about that show.  Leary and the rest of the cast and crew have been very involved in the lives of those who were affected by 9/11, especially the firefighters and other emergency personnel who have given everything and more to protect each and every one of us, both then and now.  He (and the rest of the cast) has been involved in the Leary Firefighters Foundation, an organization instrumental in fundraising and improving public awareness of those selfless individuals who do things every day most of us would never find the courage and strength to even attempt.  And those firefighters, and other emergency workers, do it for complete strangers, people they’ve never even met, just because it’s their job.  And The Job is where all this started.

You can’t completely describe what America has gone through, either on that fateful day or in the years since.  Words are merely words, and emotions are far to complex to describe accurately.  Some people were lost, others were personally devastated, and still others far away have tried to live their lives as if nothing ever really happened.  But it did happen, and it affects us still, in ways large and small.  We can’t get away from it, we can’t ignore it… all we can do is try to heal.  Thanks to the efforts of Denis Leary and others, television has helped in the best way it knows, by dramatizing those struggles for all of us to see, share, and try to understand.  Thank you to all those whose creative contributions on The Job, Rescue Me, and in reality, every day, continue to make our lives more livable, despite any pain and suffering experienced in the past.  As long as we learn, and learn together… we’ll make it through.

Vital Stats

19 aired episodes — none unaired
ABC Network
First aired episode:  March 14, 2001
Last aired episode:  April 24, 2002
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  The Job was initially scheduled in the adult timeslot of Tuesdays 10/9 Central, an odd time for a comedy but appropriate for its adult tone.  The second season aired on Wednesday nights in a more traditional comedy timeslot, but its demise was already likely.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

“The United States of America would like to invite you… to come spy with me.”
–Mr. Lavender, in the opening of Masquerade

Rod Taylor as Mr. Lavender

Don’t go on a cruise to the Caribbean this season.  Join World American Tours instead, the bus company that travels all over the world to provide our guests the best vacation they’ve ever had.  Join our uniquely trained tour guides and see sights ordinary tourists never get to visit.  Not only will this vacation be special, but (thanks to a deal we’ve worked out with the US Government) we’ll pay YOU an entire year’s salary to join us on this once-in-a-lifetime whirlwind adventure!  A free trip, a glorious time, and wonders to explore beyond your wildest dreams….

… with only one little catch.  You see, there’s this job we need you to do while you’re here….

Sounds like a scam?  Some thought so.  The trips were real, and so was the money.  But World American Tours was a front for the CIA, and the job (even if it’s something you do every day) is the most risky thing you’ll ever do.  Because you’re engaging in espionage during the Cold War, and there’s only so much our team can do to protect you.  Appropriately, what’s going on is an elaborate Masquerade.

Premiering at the end of 1983, Masquerade presented the somewhat tongue-in-cheek adventures of a beleaguered CIA chief, known only as Mr. Lavender (Rod Taylor).  His entire operation had been compromised, leading him to a radical idea:  instead of spending the time and money to train new spies (which he figured would take over a year to do), he’d simply spend the money to gather hard-working, patriotic Americans to do his spy work now.

Paying each citizen a free trip abroad and a year’s salary, Mr. Lavender brought people of all walks of life and all special skills together for a unique brand of espionage.  As they were total unknowns to the spy community, they could easily infiltrate without tipping off enemies.  Of course, what you gain in anonymity you lose in experience…  but it’s only one mission for each, right?  What could possibly go wrong?

Greg Evigan as Danny Doyle

“The other members of our team, sir… aren’t they going to be a little put off by having to work with two rookies?”

“Won’t bother them.  They’ve never been on a mission either.”

–Lavender, responding to Danny and Casey about their new assignment

Kirstie Alley as Casey Collins

Well, now that you mention it… plenty.  These people weren’t trained spies at all, so they had handlers to help them out with all the cloak-and-dagger stuff.  Lavender chose two relatively new CIA training graduates as assistants (remember, the entire previous staff had been compromised), and charged them with wrangling the untested newcomers (much to their chagrin).  Danny Doyle (Greg Evigan) and Casey Collins (Kirstie Alley) were there more to be conversational foils for the characters and providing a reason for dumping plot information, but they also provided some contrast to the covert proceedings.

So, with real (but still green) agents undercover as “tour guides” if our ordinary Americans got stuck (or did something really foolish, like get caught), the episode guest stars got on with the normal things their characters knew.  Like the plumber from Minneapolis, sent to Paris to cause hotel drains to plug up at a precise moment.  Or a thief from Chicago brought  in for the use of his pickpocket skills.  Or an out-of-work actor chosen because he could become a dead ringer for a Russian diplomat.  Whatever skill or ability was needed, that person soon “won” a free trip overseas and a year’s salary, just to do what they already did everyday.

“Welcome to Operation:  Masquerade.”
–Lavender, to the gathered “operatives”, in every episode

Each episode starting with a briefing aboard a private airplane on the way to some foreign locale, where Lavender would lay out the plan to those he had chosen for the mission.  They were free to back out anytime before the plane landed, but after that, they were “in”.  The presentation was like the opening tape recording of the late ’60’s series Mission:  Impossible, where the bad guy was shown and the group was informed of what they had to do… but whether they could do it without complications was the interesting part for the audience at home.

The “ordinary Americans” are where The Love Boat angle comes in, as they were guest stars each week.   Portrayed by various actors who weren’t necessarily on the A-List, but still were recognizable enough to bring an audience to the show, they ranged from movie actors, to television favorites, to celebrities who were only known for being, well, celebrities.  Classic television names like Cybill Shepard, Ernest Borgnine, and Lynda Day George worked alongside baseball great Steve Garvey, supposedly in Italy or Germany or even Brazil, just to present a feel-good caper show that was comfortable and easy on the brain.

And, perhaps, that’s why Masquerade didn’t do so well in the ratings competition as it did in the Cold War.  Storylines on The Love Boat, as a romantic comedy, lent themselves to more silliness and less consequence, whereas on Masquerade, mistakes made by our guests didn’t lead to comical misunderstandings, but to apprehension and imprisonment by a deadly enemy.  It’s hard to make escapist ’80’s television when the threat is so worrisome.  The stakes for the characters (and therefore the viewers who identify with them) are not comfortable ones by any means.

One would hope that Masquerade would be a more serious show as a result, but producer Glen A. Larson wasn’t known for that kind of depth on his series in general.  Plots used some really odd ideas, like beauty contestants (supposedly with martial arts skills) going up against ninjas and the Yakuza.  Yeah, that sounds rather silly (and unfortunate), but this was the height of the ’80’s, and some shows weren’t asked to go for the cerebral, by any means.  Using The Love Boat meets Mission:  Impossible as a template caused many (including the network) to focus on the vacuous first part, to the detriment of the dramatic second, ruining the series as a whole.  Having to play the “outrageous” as completely straight overwhelmed any credibility Masquerade may have hoped for.

sheet music for Crystal Gayle's opening theme

A decent idea descended quickly into a combination of silly spy thriller and unintentional (?) comedy, but maybe there was a reason for some of that.  Masquerade was the fourth try for the concept, as pilot movies had been done for the same concept (titled Call to Danger) in the ’60’s and ’70’s.  Containing varying degrees of seriousness, they never got off the ground as series, but at least Masquerade showed enough style to get episodes ordered beyond the pilot.  The opening title sequence shows much of the ’80’s James Bond influence, with over-the-top spy flair and terrific music by Crystal Gayle.  (In fact, one of the best remnants of the series was that theme song, which even got a release as sheet music during the run of the show.)

The show never really had a chance anyway, as it aired on Friday nights in 1984, in the path of the buzzsaws that were Dallas and Falcon Crest.  As mentioned previously in my article on The Quest, this was a spot for networks to gamble, as any ratings they could gather against those two series were something of a gain.  Dallas and Falcon Crest were simply unbeatable for years on Friday nights, and Masquerade failed as spectacularly as anything else put up against them.  It replaced an even more forgettable show, Lottery!, about the winners of a Publisher’s Clearing House type sweepstakes, and the dramas that ensued.

Another problem with the scheduling was premiering Masquerade in the middle of December, and running it during the holidays, traditionally low-rated times for any television programming.  The show ran through January, then was pre-empted for eight straight weeks (to run off remaining Lottery! episodes), before returning in April, where it resumed with another five episodes before being removed from the airwaves permanently. (Apparently, World American didn’t have any tours running during February and March that year….)

All told, Masquerade was a good idea that went bad very quickly.  Even the best ideas become shallow imitations of themselves when decent writing, production values, and acting aren’t part of their presentation.  Add in a woeful time slot with killer competition, and an airing schedule that almost no show could survive intact, and perhaps the show was appropriately named.  Whatever was left after all those problems was little more than a shell of what could have been, a pretend copy of a TV series, with a neat idea and not much more.  Truly a Masquerade….

ROD TAYLOR (Mr. Lavender) played many iconic Hollywood roles in his career, including leads in the original The Time Machine and Hitchcock’s classic The Birds.  Regular series roles included appearances on Outlaws, Bearcats!, The Oregon Trail, Falcon Crest, and Walker, Texas Ranger.  Most recently, he played Winston Churchill in the hit film Inglourious Basterds.  Taylor was also the voice of Pongo, the lead dalmatian in the original Disney animated film 101 Dalmatians.

GREG EVIGAN (Danny Doyle) has starred in numerous different series, from A Year at the Top (with David Letterman bandleader Paul Schaffer) and BJ and the Bear (with a chimp for a sidekick) through his biggest success, My Two Dads.  The syndicated TekWar (with William Shatner) followed, plus short-lived stints on Melrose Place, Pacific Palisades, and Family Rules.  He’s a consistent guest actor in many series, and most recently appeared in Desperate Housewives and Cold Case, as well as a number of TV-movies.

KIRSTIE ALLEY (Casey Collins) made a splash as Lt. Saavik in the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan before becoming a mainstay on television.  Her role as Rebecca in Cheers won her an Emmy, and a starring role in the successful sitcom Veronica’s Closet followed.  While her ups-and-downs with weight loss have made tabloid fodder (and been featured in a reality series, Fat Actress), she was recently the runner-up in season 13 of Dancing with the Stars.

Masquerade isn’t available on DVD, but the episodes are up on YouTube thanks to the generous links of a certain user named imstillstuckinthe80s, where you will also find some other show episodes if you happen to be searching for another lost series.  There’s also an Italian site (in English) for Greg Evigan with stills taken from the show, but unfortunately not much else.  One would hope for a DVD release, considering the name value of the regulars, but such a thing hasn’t happened at this time (and it’s unknown what kind of shape any remaining copies might be in anyway, as there wasn’t a market for home video in those days, and a failed series often stayed forgotten as far as preservation was concerned).

Sometimes, you don’t ask for Shakespeare.  Sometimes, just escapist fare with a bit of fun, a bit of deception, and a bit of style fills the bill.  For those things, Masquerade did pretty well, but for any who asked more of the series, then perhaps it fell short of the mark.  To be a great series, it has to be all those things.  With better execution (and a little less over-the-top scripting), there’s still a quality show here somewhere.  We were just left with something pretending to be otherwise.

Vital Stats

1 90-minute pilot and 11 other aired episodes — 1 unaired
ABC Network
First aired episode:  December 15, 1983
Final aired episode:  April 27, 1984 (with a large 2-month gap in the middle)
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  An hour later, Friday @ 9/8 Central.  I don’t care how it was disguised, it was still fodder for Dallas at the time.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

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