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“Let’s do it.”
“Amen.”
“Slow and easy.”
“All the way.”
“To the hilt.”
–the five heroes of Outlaws, each ready to go into battle together

Some people live in the past.  There are large numbers who spend their spare time recreating different eras, whether it’s medieval times, the Revolutionary War, or the Victorian Era.  That’s all well and good, but what would happen if you brought someone from the past forward to a more modern era?  What mores and behaviors might we discover?  And what attitudes would they bring with them, transported forward a century?

The romanticism of the Old West was a staple of early television, but westerns as a significant portion of the programming landscape died out after the ’60’s.  Occasional revival efforts were made, but one show turned the idea on its head.  In the 1986 CBS series Outlaws, viewers got to see how western attitudes coped in a modern society.  Could their Code of the West, as exemplified by their quotes above, survive today?

Back in 1899, veteran lawman (and reformed outlaw) Sheriff Jonathan Grail (Rod Taylor) had finally cornered his former criminal group, now known as the Pike Gang.  Lead by Harland Pike (William Lucking) and his hot-headed younger brother Billy (Patrick Houser), the four-man group had just robbed a bank, and they’d been trapped by a local posse in an Indian burial ground.  Along with fellow members Wolfson Lucas (Charles Napier) and former slave Isaiah “Ice” McAdams (Richard Roundtree), the Pike Gang was ready to make a final stand against their ex-leader.  As thunder rolled and the bullets were about to fly, a freak bolt of lightning engulfed the five of them.

“What in the name of all that’s holy was that?”
–Wolfson Lucas

They awaken to find their weapons all useless from the electrical bolt, but weapons are the least of their worries.  The storm gone, they all hear a low rumbling… which turns out to be a jet airplane taking off over their heads.  Frightened by this unknown machine ( as even cars were a new invention back in 1899), they put their differences aside to discover what might have happened to them.

Arriving at the crest of a hill, they look down into the valley and discover Houston, Texas… but it’s the Houston of 1986, and they’ve been somehow transported into the “present day”.  After the usual “fish-out-of-water” misunderstandings, they discover their loot, a saddlebag full of double eagle solid gold dollars, is now worth a fortune… and it lets the group set themselves up with a new place to live, and no worries about income.  But what will they do in the modern day?

“If we hadn’t rode that lightning bolt from 1899 to now, we would have shot each other to death.  Or you would have hung.  And there would have been no future at all.  And no wonderment like that.  It don’t happen without a good reason.”
–Frank Grail

The group may have been Outlaws at one time, but Grail and the Pike Gang’s legacy as bank robbers is long forgotten in the past.  They decide to create new lives for themselves, with something other the word “Thief” written on their tombstones.  It turns out their frontier skills are actually useful, and their Code of the West still has a place in modern day.  Between a lawman, a bunch of former crooks with an old west sense of justice, and an occasional excuse for a bar fight, Houston has their very own new set of Outlaws.  The group forms the Double Eagle Ranch Detection Agency, using their old-school ways to hunt down lawbreakers in a new century.

After they move into their new ranch, they meet their neighbor, Maggie Randall (Christina Belford).  She happens to be a Texas Deputy, and is initially suspicious of the new people next door.  But she develops a fond relationship with them, despite their evasions about their past.

Grail is once again, ostensibly, their leader.  The Pike brothers are both trying to figure out how they fit into this century, the elder with reason and the younger with emotion.  Wolfson is a religious type, trying to determine how his belief system can adapt to all the changes in a society he doesn’t recognize in the least.  And former slave Isaiah has suddenly entered a world of wonder, where racial equality is much more of a reality and man has traveled to the moon.  But all five of these men soon realize that their future is bound up with each other, taken out of time.  Outlaws by history, they are heroes by nature.

As I said, televised westerns were a staple of the early days of the medium.  In the 1950’s and ’60’s, there were often at least one western broadcast on network television every evening, and many nights featured more.  Production on a back lot was relatively inexpensive, and extensive use was made of the previous inventory of studios, where costumes and standing sets had been built for numerous feature films and 2-reeler shorts throughout the black-and-white movie era.  It was a familiar path from those productions to television, and it’s no coincidence that the longest running live-action drama in history was the western Gunsmoke, which ran for 21 consecutive seasons. In the prime-time landscape of 1959, there were more than THIRTY westerns on the network schedule.

In an era of social change like the 1960’s, westerns still represented a more traditional way of looking at people, by romanticizing and reinforcing the “hero-and-villain” mentality many were still trying to hold on to in those turbulent days.  When most homes still only had one breadwinner and one television set (and only three networks to choose from), shows like Rawhide, Bonanza, and The Rifleman were popular fare, but change was coming.

Stanwyck in The Big Valley

The Big Valley aired in the late 1960’s, featuring Barbara Stanwyck as the feisty widow and leader of a ranching family.  It began to break the mold of previous westerns by having a female lead, the equal of any man and better than many.  In the real-world struggle for women’s equality, The Big Valley was a way to meld the two ideas of tradition and societal evolution on-screen, just as popular western High Chaparral used storylines featuring minority characters of Native American and Latino heritage as more than just the ciphers they’d been in previous series.  Society was changing, and television was changing with it.

But there were still many for whom the future, in its romanticized way, was the past.  And, if chosen well, there are lessons to be learned and behaviors to be modeled by those heroes of the Old West, which is what Outlaws was hoping to do.  Although other shows may ultimately have found a way to showcase those ideas more popularly (the series Walker: Texas Ranger comes to mind), Outlaws was the only one which found a way to truly dramatize the transformation from Old West to New West, from the rough-and-tumble days of cowboys to the concrete canyons of a modern metropolis.  They kept the Code of the West, and it didn’t matter if it was the Old West or the New.

Rod Taylor

Outlaws Creator Nicholas Corea was a former Marine, decorated with the Purple Heart in Vietnam.  He developed an extensive a television career, having produced and written for a wide variety of programs.  As a writer and consultant for Walker: Texas Ranger, he wrote what is considered to be one of the best episodes of that series, Brothers in Arms.  (He also created The Oregon Trail for television, and clips from that series were used in a flashback for the characters of Grail and Pike in Outlaws, as it had featured actors Rod Taylor and Charles Napier.)  No matter what era or arena, his characters often had the heroic sensibilities of a traditional western hero, whether presented in the futuristic context of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, flying in a fighter squadron on WWII drama Baa Baa Black Sheep, or as seen in the loner of Dr. David Banner on The Incredible Hulk.  In Outlaws, he combined all of these heroes into characters no longer in their own time, but still in possession of their own morality, their own sense of justice, and their ability to create their own future, no matter how long ago their past actually was.

To Nicholas Corea, these are the true lessons of drama and humanity:  that we each have, at our core, the ability to transcend place and time by treating ourselves and each other with honor, respect, and dignity, to protect the innocent, and to find justice for all.  While westerns may have had their place in telling that tale, his career proved the setting really doesn’t matter.  Whether it’s 1899 or 1986, in the Old West or the New, it’s all about the character of the people.  It’s about living according to the Code of the West.

ROD TAYLOR (Jonathan Grail) is known by SF fans for his starring role in George Pal’s legendary version of H.G. Wells The Time Machine.  He also had a major role in Alfred Hitchcock’s movie The Birds.  His television presence has been featured on this site before, for his lead role in Masquerade, plus the series Bearcats!, The Oregon Trail, and Falcon Crest.  He recently played Winston Churchill in the 2009 Quentin Tarantino movie Inglourious Basterds.

WILLIAM LUCKING (Harland Pike) has had a long and illustrious career in acting, starting in the late ’60’s.  His adventures in western include appearing on Bonanza, The Virginian, Lancer, and Gunsmoke, and he was also on numerous other shows.  Just prior to Outlaws, he was one of the lead military men to be seen chasing The A-Team during their first season, and most recently he’s returned to his “outlaw” ways as a regular in the biker gang featured on Sons of Anarchy.

PATRICK HOUSER (Billy Pike, Jr.) had a short film career, mostly noted by roles in silly movie comedies aimed at teen audiences.  His movie roles included Weekend Pass, Hot Dog… the Movie, and Spiker, each of which allowed him to display his athletic talents as well as his acting ability.

CHARLES NAPIER (Wolfson Lucas) is known for his craggy face and gravely voice, which served him well in The Oregon Trail and as a recurring character on B.J. and the Bear.  That voice also led him to a career in animation, speaking for characters in shows like The Critic, Men in Black:  The Series, and God, the Devil, and Bob.  In movies, he’s known for playing Sylvester Stallone’s nemesis in Rambo:  First Blood Part II, and although it was never publicized widely, he provided the growls and roars for The Incredible Hulk in the ’70’s TV series.

RICHARD ROUNDTREE (Isaiah “Ice” McAdams) essayed the title character in the 1971 movie Shaft, probably the best known “blaxploitation” movie ever made (and certainly the most popular).  He appeared again in multiple sequels, plus starred in a tv series of the same name.  A recurring character on numerous series like Beauty and the Beast and Roc, he returned to lead roles in 413 Hope St. and Soul Food.  Most recently, he’s appeared on episodes of Heroes and Diary of a Single Mom.

CRISTINA BELFORD (Maggie Randall) is also credited as “Christine” Belford, and has made a career out of “recurring” characters.  Most notably, she was featured as the on-again off-again love interest on Banacek, as well as acting on multiple episodes of Marcus Welby, M.D., Silver Spoons, Wonder Woman, Dynasty, and the original Beverly Hills 90210.  She grew up in Amityville N.Y., and actually lived in the famous Amityville Horror house prior to the events that led to it supposedly being “haunted”.

Despite its unique premise, Outlaws doesn’t really have that much of a presence online, and as an 80’s show made before the advent of widespread DVD releases (and the accompanying contracts allowing such for music and other performance rights), the show isn’t commercially available anywhere.  Thankfully, it was new enough (and different enough) to get the taping treatment done by fans during its original run, especially those of Rod Taylor and his genre work, and so bootlegs are reasonably found.  Surprisingly, more of the older era of westerns are available, probably due to their existence on film rather than the video tape medium thought of as “cutting edge” in the 80’s.  Just one more instance where older tech was better than “modern”, a theme Outlaws knew well.

Maggie:  “Who are you?”

Grail:  “Outlaws.  Outlaws who’ve seen the light….”

There is a reason why westerns as a genre died out on television.  The changes of society, such as the evolving roles of women and minorities, were reflected in the popular television of the day.  The idea of the western gunslinger hero and his lonely prairie was not one a vast majority of viewers could identify with and reconcile those social changes.  Even the series that do occasionally try to revive the western genre have to provide a different spin for a more modern time, like Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman or Little House on the Prairie.  The western hero, as well as the western villain, may be archetypes, but more recent audiences typically demand a bit more gray area than the “white hat” and “black hat” the cowboy period expresses so well.  Those days are gone, as are the westerns that portrayed them.

But some things really never change, and those parts of the western are still what attracts some to their adventures.  There’s a reason the idea of a Code of the West lives on.  The idea that justice is part of what makes a person good, and that there are still right ways and wrong ways to treat other people, aren’t just western ideals, but human ones.  It’s sometimes too easy to forget these ideals in a complicated and frantic world, and perhaps we just need a good reminder once in a while.  I’d like to believe that’s where shows like Outlaws come in.  They’re not presenting a way of life that used to be better… they’re presenting a way of life that should be eternal.  Good people, with good hearts, are always heroes… even when they’re Outlaws.

Vital Stats

2-hour pilot and 11 hour-long episodes — none unaired
CBS Network
First aired episode:  December 28, 1986
Final aired episode:  May 2, 1987
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  The pilot aired as a CBS Sunday Movie, before the series settled into its regular slot on Saturday @ 8/7 Central.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

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

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

What path to take?

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

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

Lucas and Christina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who's influencing whom?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vital Stats

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

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

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.

“We came to this planet a group of strangers. And now we head out, still strangers, but united toward a single purpose, braving this new land. Four days ago, aliens landed on a distant planet, and we are them. Now, we struggle across an unknown planet, an uncharted world, looking all the while for that moment when we must fulfill our promise, and wondering what will stand in our way.”
–Devon Adair

We’ve all heard the old adage “History repeats itself,” but have we really ever thought about it?  My grandmother used to say that she believed humans were destined to live history over and over again until we got it right, but so far we hadn’t.  Perhaps she was on to something…

The 1994 series Earth 2 started with a world that definitely hadn’t gotten it right quite yet.  In the year 2192, much of mankind was living in giant space habitats, orbiting humanity’s birthplace.  Previous generations had pretty much used up their homeworld in terms of natural resources and livable space.  Although great stations had been built to house most of the people, the youngest generation, born in the sterile controlled environment, was soon discovered to be suffering from “The Syndrome”.  Physically weak and unable to even breathe without extensive technical support, these children typically didn’t live past the age of nine.

The mother of one of these children is Devon Adair (Debrah Farentino).  She is a wealthy builder of the very stations which may have contributed to this new malady, and dreams of a better life for her son, eight-year-old Ulysses (Joey Zimmerman).  Distraught by guilt over her possible role in the advent of “The Syndrome”, she decides that the disease was caused by “an absence of what nature can provide — an absence of Earth”.  Against the wishes of the planetary government, she organizes The Eden Project, colonization of a world 22 light years away.  In all, 250 Syndrome families and crew enter “cold sleep” (suspended animation) for the journey to planet G889, braving the unknown to build the colony they hope will become “New Pacifica”, and creating what they hope will be their brand new world.

Unfortunately, the mission goes awry, and the colonists are forced to leave the space station early (due to sabotage by the tyrannical Earth government).  Then they must hazard a crash landing on G889, with many of the people in the advance party arriving on the opposite side of the planet.  Devon, and those others stranded nearby, decide to make the journey back to the intended site of New Pacifica, in the hopes of finding their lost comrades.  Having few of their original supplies, their harrowing trip through unknown territory begins.

Danziger and daughter True

Others on the trek include John Danziger (Clancy Brown) and his daughter True (J. Madison Wright).  John is a former worker (read: slave) on one of the space stations, and becomes a protector of the group, while True ultimately develops a bond with Ulysses (“Uly”, for short).  Yale (Sullivan Walker) is a cybernetically-altered former prisoner, now a tutor to Uly whose memories have been erased.  He’s beginning a different life on the new planet (although not with the approval of all the colonists).  Unwillingly along for the ride are Morgan and Bess Martin (John Gegenhuber and Rebecca Gayheart, respectively).  Morgan is a lower-level functionary for the government who had no knowledge of the sabotage, but is now the only apparent representative on-site.  His relationship with his wife Bess is rocky, to say the least, but with a fresh start (but no preparation) she’s ready for a new adventure with the colonists (much to Morgan’s chagrin).

Antonio Sabato Jr. as Alonzo

Dr. Julia Heller (Jessica Steen) is a genetically engineered human, youthful in medical experience and yet the only doctor around for the stranded colonists.  She starts to develop a relationship with  Alonzo Solace (Antonio Sabato, Jr.), the “cold sleep” pilot who helped the colony ship get to G889.  Alonzo’s “dreams” become important windows into the native populace of the planet, uncovering some of the mysteries the colonists have to face in their adventures.

“This time, WE are the aliens….”
–Promotional tagline for the series

A Terrian, one of the natives

The indigenous population and their relationships with the newcomers are complicated at best.  Contact is made with the Grendlers, traders who scavenge for anything of value.  We learn of the mysterious Terrians, who communicate their essential connection with the environment through Alonzo’s dreams.  Kobas seem like friendly leather teddy bears, but react violently to protect themselves.  Although they may seem strange to the humans,  it is no wonder the natives feel threatened.  It is we who are the invaders

And humans are definitely a threat… especially when it’s discovered that the Earth government (known as the “Council”) has been using G889 as a penal colony, much like Australia was used in the old world.  To cover up their hidden prison, the Council was willing to sabotage the colony ship… and perhaps one of the colonists is an agent for the Council, so the threats aren’t just from the unknown planet.  Our people have brought the enemy with them….

“On this planet, we are a new generation of pioneers, moving westward as fast as we can, trying to outrun our own dangers – I’d like to think danger is less likely to hit a moving target.  And while I push us forward, I can’t help thinking of the one danger we can’t outrun – the danger within.”
–Devon Adair

Yale

The reference to Australia and the old world isn’t the only parallel to our history.  In some ways, Earth 2 is reminiscent of the colonization of North America.  History saw various peoples from Western Europe sail across the Atlantic to settle in this new land of what became North America.  Many of those colonists were just as desperate to find a new life as Yale (with his criminal past) and John Danziger (who sought freedom far away from a life of indentured service).  What those long-ago pilgrims found here after their journey from Europe was a land already inhabited by an indigenous race, the Native Americans.  They found new customs, unfamiliar ways of living, and a raw and untamed world, just as the New Pacifica colonists did on G889.  And, as both old and new groups discovered, their past lives were something they couldn’t completely get away from, no matter how different their “new world” was.

Braving a New World

You could easily make the case that both the colonization of America and the later westward movement of the early settlers both have parallels in the travels of Devon Adair and the future New Pacifica residents.  While many wanted a new, fresh start, old ways warred with both new ideas and newly encountered cultures.  When one of the colonists is found to have been an informant for the Council, the rest of the group has to decide what to do.  Killing them is abhorrent to most, but stranding them along the route is hardly merciful… and yet, the resources are scarce and there is no infrastructure for dealing with major transgressions against their new society.  Leaving one type of social order, good or bad, means having to set up another… which could also be good or bad, depending on the specifics.  Earth 2 dealt with these issues, plus ones of racism, fear of the unknown, and even mystical belief.

“In the last 200 years, we’ve formed some pretty good theories about the origins of emotions. Now, halfway across the universe, we stumble around on this new planet finding that we know so little about what makes us human – what makes our hearts shiver with grief, our chests pound with fear, and why is it that a species so different from us can possess these same feelings we hold so essential to humankind.”
–John Danziger

While literary science fiction has long handled major social issues, science fiction on television has lagged behind.  Unlike Star Trek:  Voyager (which premiered at approximately the same time), Devon Adair was the leader of this errant colony because, quite frankly, she had the necessary skills to be a leader.  Her gender was never an issue, whereas much was made in the press about the first female starship captain to lead a Star Trek series.  While many female leads on television up to that time had existed, their characters always had an element of sexual attraction as part of their makeup.  Debrah Farentino certainly was not unattractive by any means, but her character of Devon was there because she was the leader, no more, no less.

So, Earth 2 was a great series, and its premiere garnered great ratings.  But airing on Sunday nights, often delayed for odd times due to NFL Football, meant even dedicated viewers had trouble accurately finding the show.  The continuing plotlines meant audiences had to follow along, because situations and characters would change over the course of a couple of episodes.  And the mysteries of the indigenous races on planet G889 were, at times, almost as inscrutable to the audience as they were initially to the colonists.  NBC didn’t help matters by airing episodes out of order.  Although Earth 2 was nominated for 3 Emmys (winning one), ratings went down, until the final episode aired late the next spring to only 9% of the Sunday television audience.  Despite hope for a second season (and ending the show on a cliffhanger), television viewers never learned if the colonists ever made it to New Pacifica to start their new lives.

DEBRAH FARENTINO (Devon Adair) has been featured in more one-season series that you can count on one hand.  She had regular roles in Hooperman, Equal Justice, EZ Streets, Total Security, and Wildfire, before becoming a recurring player in longer running shows like Eureka and Wildfire.  She’s also an accomplished stunt driver, trained in performing precision auto maneuvers.

JOEY ZIMMERMAN (Uly Adair) has grown up in the acting business, having been nominated for Young Actor awards five different times.  He starred in the Halloweentown series of Disney movies, and has become an avid swordsman, challenging Earth 2 co-star Clancy Brown to a match at a convention.

CLANCY BROWN (John Danziger) is best known to genre fans as The Kurgan, villain in the original Highlander movie.  He was also seen in the HBO series Carnivale, and in a pivotal role as a brutal prison guard in The Shawshank Redemption.  He’s much more often heard in numerous animated shows, the voice of Mr. Krabs in SpongeBob SquarePants, Lex Luthor in various Superman-related series, and Raiden in Mortal Kombat.

J. MADISON WRIGHT (True Danziger) had a brief but stellar acting career, having been specifically cast by producer/director Steven Spielberg in Earth 2.  While she had other guest roles, she gave up acting a few years later and moved back to Kentucky with her parents.  At the age of 15, she was diagnosed with restrictive cardiomyopathy, which required a heart transplant.  Although healthy for a few more years, she passed away of a heart attack at the age of 22.

SULLIVAN WALKER (Yale) portrayed Dr. Huxtable’s colleague as a recurring character on The Cosby Show prior to his adventures on Earth 2.  His career has turned to theatre, where he was featured on Broadway in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running.  He’s currently active in efforts to assist fellow Caribbean actors in their professions in America.

JOHN GEGENHUBER (Morgan Martin) guested on Star Trek: Voyager, Seven Days, Murphy Brown, and Mad About You.  He’s currently working with the Open Fist Theatre Company in Los Angeles, coordinating their educational outreach program, in addition to acting and directing in various productions there.

REBECCA GAYHEART (Bess Martin) jumped from Earth 2 into a recurring role on the original Beverly Hills 90210.  She was later a regular on Wasteland, Dead Like Me, and Vanished.  Gayheart should have been featured in the Firefly article on this site, as she was originally cast in the role of Inara.  But creative differences led to her being replaced after only one day of filming, and her scenes were reshot with new actress Morena Baccarin.

JESSICA STEEN (Dr. Julia Heller) actually has been featured here previously, for her role as Pilot on Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future.  She was also a regular in the short-lived series Homefront, and was featured in the movie Armageddon.  She’s currently appearing in the successful Canadian series Heartland.

ANTONIO SABATO, JR. (Alonzo Solace) is a soap opera heartthrob, originally appearing in General Hospital for three seasons before making the jump to prime time.  A regular on Melrose Place, he later returned to his soap roots in both The Bold and the Beautiful and General Hospital:  Night Shift.  He was also the winner of the short-lived competition series Celebrity Circus, likely due to his grandfather and mother both having performed under a Big Top.

Earth 2: Building a better world for our children

Earth 2 was released on DVD in 2005.  Sadly, there are no extras, but at least the series can be enjoyed in its entirety, complete with the never-resolved cliffhanger ending.  (Of course, it would have helped tremendously if NBC had aired the episodes in order, instead of the cliffhanger ending airing before two other episodes that had no mention of it!!)  Interestingly, a few college thesis papers have been written using the show as a significant reference point, talking about Earth 2 and “The Gaia Hypothesis” (illustrated by the relationship between the Terrians and the environment); and also the nature of fans to want closure, and their desire to write their own “fan fiction” conclusions to unfinished sagas (specifically, Earth 2).  A great FAQ on the series can be found here.

“I’m the queen of critically acclaimed failed television series.  After all these years in television, I never have known a series to go more than one year.  I’ve got friends who have been on shows for five years and I go, ‘What’s that like?”
–Debrah Farentino

There are no guarantees, in television or in life.  Earth 2 ended after 22 hours of episodes, with uncertainty about what would happen to the brave souls who set out towards an uncharted world and a fresh start.  Much like their ancestors who set out for the New World, or made the trek across unknown territory in the hope of better lives, their story had no ending already planned.  While the characters could hope for the best, it was the journey which made them stronger, exposed their weaknesses, and melded each of them into the mothers, sons, fathers, and daughters of the future.

While parts of humanity may never change, it is in the challenge of discovery and the desire for a better life that we find the better parts of ourselves.  Earth 2 helped us, by showing the historical process that made our lives great and our world greater, sometimes despite our own foibles.  It reminded us once again that, no matter how dangerous the journey, exploration is not just into the unknown world around us… but into the world we create for ourselves and those we love.

Vital Stats

21 episodes aired (one 2-hour pilot and 20 hour-long episodes) — none unaired
NBC Network
First aired episode:  November 6, 1994
Final aired episode:  June 4, 1995
Aired on Friday @ 8/7 Central?  Sunday nights for Earth 2, which as noted caused problems with sports delays.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, 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.

“Do so, for it is worth the listening to….”
–Falstaff, in William Shakespeare’s Henry IV (Part I), Act II, Scene iv

Shakespeare gives these words to Falstaff, one of the biggest and best braggarts ever created.  Falstaff is boasting as usual, making certain all gathered know of the greatness of his supposed deeds.  A few of us have had the outrageous fortune to see another greatness, a recent television series which is, some critics claim, one of the best ever made.  That’s quite a tribute, appropriately worthy of Falstaff.  But I happen to agree with the critics (at least in this instance), as few shows have captured so perfectly their sense of place and purpose as Slings & Arrows. 

Never heard of it?  I’m not surprised.  Slings & Arrows was a Canadian production, sweeping awards north of the border when it aired from 2003 through 2006.  That might sound like it ran far too long to be found on this site… but in reality, only 18 total episodes of the series were made.  And every single hour is, by turns, a hilarious and poignant love letter to the theatre.

Martha Burns and Paul Gross in Slings & Arrows

“The germ of the idea was the contrast between the perfection on stage and the chaos backstage; the difference between the actor backstage trying to remember his lines and then stepping out looking incredibly confident.”
–actor/writer Susan Coyne

Slings & Arrows revolved around the world of the New Burbage Theatre, and the creative (and not-so-creative) personnel involved in putting on their stage shows.  The New Burbage and its Shakespearean Festival have passed their heyday, reduced by marketers into offering the same traditional favorites to draw in the crowds (and the money) instead of producing shows worthy of taking chances and daring to be brilliant.  Heavy lies the head that happens to wear this particular crown, artistic director Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette), who regrets his choices to “play it safe” and yet cannot bring himself to be the risk-taker he used to be.  Distracted by these thoughts (and a fair share of drink), he ends up dying (at the end of the first episode, no real spoilers here), and New Burbage needs a new creative leader.

“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.”
–Malvolio, in Twelfth Night, Act II, Scene v

Enter, stage left, a rather reluctant Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross).  Oliver’s protégé, he was an up-and-coming star actor when, during his performance of Hamlet directed by Oliver, Geoffrey suffered a nervous breakdown onstage.  He’s been scratching out a living ever since, until his name is put forth for Oliver’s previous position.  With reluctance he takes the job, if only to keep it from falling to his old rival, flashy no-talent director Darren Nichols (Don McKellar).  Geoffrey must now shepherd another production of Hamlet and face his own ghosts… but while he expected the ghost of Hamlet’s father in the play, no one told him another spectre would be Oliver himself.  Geoffrey’s old mentor again appears, but only to Geoffrey, commenting throughout.  But is it really Oliver, or just the elements of the nervous breakdown returning once more?

“If this were play’d upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.”
–Fabian, from Twelfth Night, Act III, Scene iv

Ellen and Kate onstage

In the midst of questioning his own sanity, Geoffrey tries to wrest control of the theatre back to the artists and away from the marketing people.  The artists include New Burbage’s diva Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns), who was involved in that fateful performance of Hamlet seven years prior, and also “involved” with Geoffrey romantically; and young ingénue Kate McNab (Rachel McAdams) who dreams of becoming a star but is relegated to being an extra, starting at the bottom as Ellen did so many years ago.

Darren and Richard: Everything that's wrong about theatre

The marketing department is headed by manager Richard Smith-Jones (Mark McKinney), who falls prey to the wiles of corporate rep Holly Day (Jennifer Irwin).  She wishes to take New Burbage and make it into a commercialized horror, complete with multiple trinket shops and a theme park atmosphere, ignoring the art in favor of profit.  Anna Conroy (Susan Coyne), as Geoffrey’s assistant, tries to run interference between these two and the attempts at art onstage, but is most often left wondering if they’ll be anything still remaining once the dust settles.

“Geoffrey, we’re hanging by a thread…”
“And the very best things happen just before the thread snaps….”
–from the opening episode of Slings & Arrows

"Do you want to play Juliet? Or live it?"

We also see others in and around the theatre, including Jack Crew (Luke Kirby), a Hollywood actor brought to the New Burbage by Smith-Jones and Day to push ticket sales.  Crew has never done live theatre before, let alone Hamlet, putting the rest of the company on edge.  A relationship with Kate blossoms, and despite his insecurities about both love and Shakespeare, he must find a way to give the performance of a lifetime… not only for his own sake, but for Kate, Geoffrey, and all who walk the boards at New Burbage.

Ignore the fact that Slings & Arrows is a television series.  It’s actually theatre, both at its best and its worst.  Doubts about choices in life, belief in talent that isn’t really there, the push-and-pull of the heart for all the right (and wrong) reasons, and a love of living in the moment are all parts of what Slings & Arrows is about.  Sounds great, doesn’t it?  The best part?  This is just the first six episodes!!!

“Fear of Shakespeare is a function of seeing bad productions.  The language just becomes an impenetrable mush.  But these plays survived 400 years for a reason.  They’re good.  And even though Slings & Arrows is funny, it’s also a balls-out torch song to theatre.”
–Paul Gross

Slings & Arrows was designed like a great play, with a traditional three-act structure.  The first season of episodes is all about discovery, growth, and (like the title character in Hamlet, the play being performed) finding out who you are meant to be.

In the second season, Geoffrey and the New Burbage is maneuvered into presenting Macbeth, probably the most challenging of Shakespeare’s plays, and they must face new and different battles.  Legend says that productions of Macbeth are cursed, and the denizens of New Burbage likely believe that to be true, thanks to their arrogant guest star Henry Breedlove (Geraint Wyn Davies).  Financial woes force everyone to worry about their jobs, and how to secure their place in both theatre and life when the winds of change are blowing.  Much like Act II of a traditional presentation, complications ensue for the heroes and their essence is threatened.

Ellen, Geoffrey, and Charles

Act III, the third season, brings forth a production of King Lear, and the casting of Charles Kingman (William Hutt), an aging tyrant of an actor to play the title character.  Some question his ability at the late stage of his career, and others question his stamina (to the point of worrying about his living through the play!)  The theatre itself must face its future too, and decisions must be made about the directions it will take going forward.  It now becomes a fight for survival, both for an old actor wanting to relive his glory, and the New Burbage going forth as either a success or the scene of tragedy.

“Who is it that can tell me who I am?”
–King Lear, in King Lear, Act I,  Scene iv

If Slings & Arrows had been made for American television, it would never have worked, let alone been the phenomenal series it became.  Simply the design of making the show would have caused its failure here in the US, because it would never have been allowed “endings”.  Each season would have to be designed “open-ended” to lead to the next, instead of telling a story (and telling it fully).  The idea of only six episodes per season allowed each hour to be a part of the whole, rather than just another installment along the way.  The end of an episode wasn’t the end of a story, just an intermission until next week, and the end of a season was a place to contemplate what had happened so far and to decide where to take the characters next.  Character change and growth was a continual part of the process, and Slings & Arrows was a play disguised as a television series.

When writing plays (or movies, although “franchises” and sequels these days go against this idea), the story told is supposed to be the most important event in the character’s life.  That’s why we spend two hours in a theater (or with the DVD) to become involved in their tale.  But television is designed to come into our living rooms every week with a familiar cast of characters, telling stories about the people THEY interact with.  The guests are the ones with the “most important event” happening, the regulars are just part of the events.

Canadian and British television usually don’t do lengthy seasons, and sometimes only create six to ten episodes for a year.  This defined and shortened length makes these presentations more like extended plays than American television series.  In Slings & Arrows, the worlds of theatre and television come together, but in a way that can preserve the best of both, with each season being a self-contained story vital to certain characters, and yet allowing viewers their familiar friends along the way.

Ratings were never a concern for this show.  It had a set of stories to tell, framed over three short seasons, and it told them, with wit, drama, tears, and laughter.  For once, I don’t have to describe what when wrong with a show to cause its demise… Slings & Arrows is practically perfect, just the way it is.

“This above all:  to thine own self be true.  And it must follow, as the night the day… Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
–Polonius, in Hamlet, Act I, Scene iii

STEPHEN OUIMETTE (Oliver Wells) was better known as a voice actor for many, having been heard on Beetlejuice (as the title character), and various voices on ALF-The Animated Tales, X-Men, Care Bears, and Babar.  His role as Oliver on Slings & Arrows won him a Gemini Award, the Canadian equivalent of the Emmy.

PAUL GROSS (Geoffrey Tennant) performed Hamlet at the Stratford Festival of Canada, supposedly one of the influences for Slings & Arrows.  He’s best known to American audiences as Constable Benton Frasier, the Canadian Mountie in the series Due South.  Most recently, he was a regular in the short-lived series Eastwick, playing the devilish Darryl Van Horne.

DON McKELLAR (Darren Nichols) is, like many of the cast of Slings & Arrows, a writer as well as an actor.  He won a Tony award for co-writing The Drowsy Chaperone, along with Bob Martin (who, conveniently enough, is one of the co-writers of Slings & Arrows!)  Prolific in his output, his name was once on six different films showing during the same Toronto Film Festival.

MARTHA BURNS (Ellen Fanshaw) played the love scenes with Paul Gross very honestly, as they are husband & wife in real life.  In the theatre world, Burns was a founding member of Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company, and has appeared in numerous productions on the stage.  She was nominated for a Gemini for all three seasons of Slings & Arrows, winning twice.

RACHEL McADAMS (Kate McNab) was relatively unknown during this series, but has become a blossoming star in Hollywood.  Featured roles in The Time-Traveler’s Wife, Sherlock Holmes, and the upcoming film The Vow have made her what some critics called “the next Julia Roberts”.  And yes, she also won a Gemini for her first season performance too.  (I told you this show was great!)

MARK McKINNEY (Richard Smith-Jones) is a veteran of the sketch comedy group/series The Kids in the Hall, and is a co-writer of Slings & Arrows.  He’s also been seen on Saturday Night Live and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (as a writer, naturally), and is one of the minds behind the new Canadian sitcom Michael, Tuesdays and Thursdays, featuring many of the creative staff from Slings & Arrows gathered again.

JENNIFER IRWIN (Holly Day) was a regular on Still Standing and a featured player on Eastbound and Down.  She was also nominated for a Gemini (although she didn’t win), and will be seen on Michael, Tuesdays and Thursdays (which may as well be the new gathering place for Slings & Arrows fans and actors alike….)

SUSAN COYNE (Anna Conroy) is the final co-writer of the series,  and her writing comes from extensive experience with many theatre groups in Canada, including the Stratford Festival and the Soulpepper Theatre Company.  She was recently the playwright-in-residence at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto.

LUKE KIRBY (Jack Crew) is a graduate of the National Theatre School of Canada, and after a rather lengthy theatre career for one so young, he became a regular on the HBO series Tell Me You Love Me.  Along with guest spots on Flashpoint, Law & Order, and Law & Order: Criminal Intent, he’s recently starred in the Canadian series Cra$h and Burn.

GERAINT WYN DAVIES (Henry Breedlove) starred in the cult hit Forever Knight as police detective/vampire Nick Knight.  He had regular roles on 24, To Serve and Protect, and on the final season of Airwolf.  A musician as well, he’s recorded an album (“Bar Talk”) and performed in numerous stage musicals.

WILLIAM HUTT (Charles Kingman) had a fifty-plus year career in live theatre, including noted performances in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  Ironically, his appearance in Slings & Arrows in 2006 occurred after his retirement from the stage.  Although he was later slated to return to the Stratford festival in 2007, he ultimately had to cancel due to poor health.  He died of leukemia shortly thereafter, in his sleep.

“All the world’s a stage, and the men and women merely players….”
–Jaques, in As You Like It, Act II, Scene vii

In America, this gem of a series originally aired on the Sundance Channel a few years after its Canadian run, when stateside critics finally found its wonder.  It can now be found occasionally on the Ovation cable channel in repeats, and those with Netflix can order the discs, as usual.  The episodes are up (in chunks, of course) at YouTube for those with less patience and more immediate desire to see the show.  The Canadian Shakespeare Project has a wonderful website full of clips and behind-the-scenes interviews for the series, plus (since it’s an educational site) study guides and reading materials available (it even has “phony” programs, produced as if the New Burbage itself had made them for the series!)

For once, I get to write about a successful series on this site, and yet, like the subject matter of the series, it is one of those things that is best as a shared experience, like a live theatre performance.  Whether Slings & Arrows is being dramatic, absurd, poignant, or sweetly heartfelt, it is, at all times, a moving experience for those who wish to be swept away by the possibilities of theatre in all its glory and despair.  As a veteran of many on-stage productions myself, I can easily attest to the types of experiences portrayed here, both great and mundane.  While most never observe the chaos “behind the curtain”, these people are real, no matter how outrageous they may seem to any who merely come to see a performance.

“To be, or not to be:  that is the question:  whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune…”
–Hamlet, of course, in Hamlet, Act III, Scene I

“…and by the way, you sulky brat, the answer is ‘To be’!”
–sung in the first season opening of Slings & Arrows

Those who are merely viewers, for television or theatre, usually don’t realize the sheer amount of work that goes into creating those few moments on-screen or on-stage.  Time, sweat, and frustration are all part of the process, and Slings & Arrows portrays that very well.  But ultimately, as the characters show, there comes a moment when the presentation transcends this ordinary mortal coil, and for that one brief experience, there is nothing but the reality of the performance, sharing the emotion with those watching in a way that is impossible anywhere else.  That’s why those of us who put in that time, who sweat those details, who go through that frustration, all make the extreme effort.  That’s why we do it… that’s the meaning of “To be”….

I will always suffer Slings & Arrows, nobly, and most gladly.

Vital Signs

18 aired episodes — none unaired
The Movie Channel (Canada); Sundance Channel (USA)
First aired episode:  November 3, 2003
Final aired episode:  August 28, 2006
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  For once, I can’t honestly find an original time slot for this show.  As The Movie Channel and Sundance both repeated shows quite often, I just don’t have an answer for this.  Any help or info is welcome.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

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