Sunday, October 30, 2016

Dusty's Trail (1973-74)

Dusty's Trail
Stars: Bob Denver, Forrest Tucker
26 episodes

It's not my intention to turn this site into the Sherwood Schwartz Appreciation Society so I'll lay off after this entry. It just so happens that a few of his lesser known TV shows caught my eye. They also provide a somewhat instructive look at the fickle nature of success in the TV game.

Schwartz had a hand in creating a few very successful TV shows, starting with Gilligan's Island (1964-67) and then a few years later with The Brady Bunch (1969-74). But everything he touched didn't turn to gold. As the first run of Gilligan's Island was winding down, Schwartz tried It's About Time (1966-67), in which a pair of astronauts/castaways are catapulted back in time to the era of "cavemen". Near the end of that show's short run the premise was flipped and a pair of cavemen found themselves stranded in the modern era.

In the early Eighties Schwartz spun the sitcom wheel again and came up with Dusty's Trail. The premise for this one was a band of westward travelers/castways who become separated from their wagon train. They are a party of seven, headed by the wagon driver and his sidekick. The passengers include a wealthy couple, a smarty-pants kind of guy and a pair of young, attractive women. If it all sounds naggingly familiar, that's no accident.

The Gilligan of this bunch is...well...Gilligan, as in Bob Denver. Alan Hale Jr. is nowhere to be found so Forrest Tucker takes on the Skipper role. He probably did a bunch of other things that I'm not familiar with but I'll always remember him for his role in F Troop (1965-67), another Western comedy that aired about a decade and a half earlier. As for the Ginger and Mary Ann roles, they were filled by Lori Saunders and Jeannine Riley, who played sisters in Petticoat Junction (1963-70) once upon a time. The more notable guest stars who stopped by during the one-season run, at least the names I recognized, were Jay Silverheels - we all know him best as Tonto - and Billy Barty.

The contrast between the two Western comedies mentioned already - Dusty's Trail and F Troop - couldn't be more striking. I'd place the latter in my top five favorite sitcoms of all time. Thanks mostly to the manic silliness of Larry Storch and the dopiness and pratfalling of Ken Berry. Tucker was the straight man of this trio and the other two served as his subordinate/sidekick and commander. Yes, much of the humor in F Troop felt like it was straight out of the Borscht Belt school of comedy but the timing and execution took it to another level.

As for Dusty's Trail, well, not so much. I watched the first episode of the series - or at least I tried to. In the end I only managed to plod through about half of the first episode of the series. As much as I tried to forge bravely on through, it was so uninteresting and unfunny that I didn't see the point in going further. As usual, this raises the possibility that the second half of the episode was absolutely phenomenal or that the series took off somewhere later in its run. Given that it only ran for season, I'm thinking that's probably not the case. If you'd like to see the Dusty's Trail concept converted into a movie - of sorts - then check out The Wackiest Wagon Train in the West (1976), which took four episodes of the TV show and made them into a movie.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

It's About Time (1966-67)

It's About Time
Stars: Imogene Coca, Joe E. Ross
26 episodes

Let's see. There's a catchy theme song, castaways, a tropical setting (of sorts) and it's produced by Sherwood Schwartz. That's got to be Gilligan's Island (1964-67). Right? Not so fast, coconut breath.

A few years after coming up with the aforementioned show, Schwartz proceeded to loose It's About Time upon the world. It's a show that shared a few similarities with its much more successful predecessor. In addition to the above mentioned items, there's a sort of Skipper/Gilligan relationship between the two main characters, one of whom is a decidedly Gilliganesque sort of doofus.

The two protagonists are a pair of astronauts who exceed the speed of light (oops!) and find themselves cast back in time. Don't rush to your Einstein or Hawking volumes to try to make sense of this curious phenomenon of TV physics, one that I believe has also been noticed in various incarnations of Star Trek, and probably elsewhere.

Our heroes find themselves in the time of what were once referred to as cavemen - perhaps they still are. This not long after The Flintstones (1960-66) ended its run. Three decades later the caveman stereotype was still going strong (sort of) when a short-lived sitcom starring the cavemen from the GEICO commercials took to the airwaves and proceeded to go belly up in nearly record time (watch those pages for an entry on that priceless sitcom gem).

The cavemen (caveperson? cavepeople?) family includes the two highest profile thespians of the bunch - Imogene Coca (Your Show of Shows) and Joe E. Ross (The Phil Silvers Show, Car 54, Where Are You?). Although thespian seems like a misnomer for a show that, based on the episode I watched, made Gilligan's Island seem positively highbrow. Among the better known guest stars that turned up during the one-season run, Karen Valentine (Love, American Style) and Jack Albertson (Chico and the Man).

In that episode, the thirteenth of the series (The Broken Idol), our heroes do indeed break an idol and their fate depends on whether the spirit contained in a volcano will speak or not, thus sealing their fate. They set out with a gourd of nitroglycerin to disable the volcano - I don't recall if they whipped up some nitroglycerin or happened to have some lying around. But in any event there's a mix-up with the gourd of nitroglycerin and a gourd of soup and hijinks ensue. I'd like to relate how this all turned out but it was so grating and unfunny that I wasn't able to get to the end of it.

After a bunch of episodes it became apparent that the show was not going over so well and so the curious solution to the problem was to change the premise and have the cavepeople stranded in modern times. Which sounds like a better premise but I didn't screen any of the episodes and the changes weren't sufficient to save the show.

On the plus side, there's the theme song, which is a very catchy little ditty. Thanks to Schwartz, also had a hand in creating the theme songs for some of his other shows, including Gilligan's Island and The Brady Bunch (1969-74), and who might have had a shot at a career as a pop songwriter, had it not been for his success in the TV industry.

For those who couldn’t get enough of the show - and I suspect their numbers were few - there was also an It's About Time coloring book and a comic book, which lasted for exactly one issue.

Me and the Chimp (1972)

Me and the Chimp
Stars: Ted Bessell, Anita Gillette
13 episodes

It is a simian Gilligan’s Island. (NY Daily News)

Stop me if you've heard this one before. Furry critter unexpectedly ends up living with a nice suburban family. Hilarity and hijinks ensue. Well, that's gotta be ALF (1986-90). Right?

Well, no. Rewind to about a decade before ALF. The furry critter, in this case, is not an alien life form from the planet Melmac but rather one of those most comedic of all creatures - a chimp.

Well, that's gotta be Me and the Chimp, a short-lived sitcom from 1972. Short-lived, meaning 13 episodes worth. The premise here is that Buttons the chimp, who turns out to be a refugee from some Air Force program, tags along home with the young daughter of the Reynolds family. They are a fairly typically middle class (perhaps leaning toward upper middle class) family, at least as far as the TV landscape of 1972 was concerned.

Based on the unnamed episode I watched, mother, daughter and son are pretty much unfazed by the presence of Buttons and his assorted and sundry antics. Not so for Mike, the patriarch of the Reynolds family, who is quite frequently fazed by it all. According to the episode synopses I read, it seems this was the case throughout the series' short run.

Many of those involved with this televisual gem moved on to bigger and better things, though it seems that Ted Bessell's (Mike) biggest role, as the boyfriend of Marlo Thomas in That Girl, (1966-71) was already behind him. Son Scott Kolder went on to star in the even more bizarre Sigmund and the Sea Monsters (1973-75), while Kami Cotler moved on to more sedate environs as the youngest daughter of the Walton clan.

As for Garry Marshall and Thomas L. Miller, who had a hand in bringing this all to fruition, they would go on to much bigger and better things with the likes of Happy Days (1974-1984) and Laverne and Shirley (1976-83), to name a few. Happy Days dad Tom Bosley takes a guest starring turn in this series, as does Love Boat (1977-87) doctor, Bernie Koppell.

Much has been made of the godwaful awfulness of this particular show. Apparently there were those who dubbed it the worst TV show ever, but I have to admit that I don't really get it. It's certainly no masterpiece of the sitcom form and maybe the rest of the episodes gaveth off an even more odious stench, but the episode I saw doesn't really seem to merit such venom. Save your venom for the likes of this ever so "cute" publicity piece, supposedly written by none other than Buttons himself.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Gilligan's Planet (1982-83)

Gilligan's Planet
Stars: Bob Denver, Alan Hale Jr.
13 episodes

I never liked Gilligan's Island much and yet I probably saw most of the episodes more times than I can count. I was too young to catch the show in its original run (1964-1967) but when the show aired in the following decade in syndication I had plenty of time on my hands and wasn't very discerning about what I watched.

The renewed popularity of the show that resulted from that (eternal?) run in syndication spawned an animated series, The New Adventures of Gilligan, that also ran for three years (1974-1977) and three TV movies that aired between 1979 and 1981. The last of these, of course, is a TV movie that will live in infamy (I guess) - The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island (1981).

A year later the castaways were back on the air again, after a fashion, in Gilligan's Planet. If you know anything about the original show then the title alone should be sufficient to give you an idea of the premise. If I understand it right, the Professor has come up with a way to turn the S.S. Minnow into a spaceship, thus finally solving the problem of how to get off that miserable island. Seems a bit like overkill but what do I know?

One wonders why the old egghead hadn't taken this step a long time ago and let's not even get into the obvious engineering difficulties presented by retrofitting a ship like the Minnow, using the tools and materials at hand on a desert island. But here I am questioning the logic of a short-lived animated spinoff of a TV show whose internal logic was frequently dubious at best and that is of course is the path that leads to madness. So we'll leave it at that. Except to say that the spacefaring version of the Minnow had a very eye-catching wood paneled interior and to note that this time around the shipwreck apparently had something to do with Gilligan and a banana peel. So careless.

Gilligan's Island scholars know that this drift toward the science fictional was not all that surprising. On the original series several spaceships ended up crashing on the island (how's about them odds), including a Mars lander and one bearing a crew of Russian cosmonauts. A robot also turned up in one of the original episodes and in the aforementioned Harlem Globetrotters movie the team ended up facing off against a robot basketball team.

The Gilligan's Planet episode I screened just so happened to be the first of the 13 episode run - I Dream of Genie (1965-70). It opens with a theme song that's actually more recitation than song and pales next to the one we all know so well. One of the first things one can't help but noticing as things get underway is the planet itself. Which is a colorful affair composed primarily of green skies, pink/purplish terrain and blue vegetation. Much of latter seems to consist of unnaturally large mushrooms. Make of that what you will.

Even casual animation fans like myself will surely know of Filmation (or at least be familiar with some of their shows), the studio that graced us with both animated Gilligan spin-offs. They turned out numerous animated shows and some live TV over the course of several decades, many of which dealt with science fictional themes. These included Star Trek: The Animated Series and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. And lest we forget, such off the wall obscurities as Will the Real Jerry Lewis Please Sit Down.

The plot, such as it was, is rather basic stuff, as befits a Gilligan's Island spinoff. Gilligan and his cutesy little dinosaur buddy Bumper come across a robot buried beneath a pile of rocks. The robot pledges eternal gratitude and grants Gilligan anything he wants. Never the brightest bulb in the lamp store, Gilligan comes up with gems like being able to hit a baseball farther than anyone ever has and whatnot.

Eventually the other castaways get wind of Gilligan's good fortune and it occurs to them that they should try get in on it. Conniving and scheming ensues and soon Mr. Howell has wrested away "control" of the robot from Gilligan. As one might expect he makes use of the robot's wish granting capabilities to indulge his inner greedy child.

But alas, it cannot last. Gilligan regains control of the robot and then someone makes the rather sensible suggestion that he wish for them to get off the planet. Far be it from me to spoil things, but given the legacy of Gilligan one can probably make a pretty good guess as to how it turns out.

Holmes & Yo-Yo (1976-77)

Holmes & Yo-Yo
Stars: Richard Shull, John Shuck
13 episodes

No, it's not that Robocop (1987). But it does feature what could be referred to as a robocop, probably one of the first such entities to appear on TV - or at least the first to have its own series. It all took place in Holmes & Yo-Yo, a short-lived (and apparently much maligned) series that aired in the mid-Seventies and which starred John Shuck as a 427-pound android cop.

The buddy cop concept has been around on TV since at least the early Fifties, when Dragnet first rolled out, and Holmes & Yo-Yo continued in this time-honored tradition. Shuck starred as Gregory "Yoyo" Yoyonivich and was paired up with Richard B. Shull. He portrayed Detective Alexander Holmes, a shlubby Columbo-ish type with a penchant for accidentally injuring or bumping off his partners.

Shuck is best known to viewers of a certain age as Sgt. Charles Enright, Rock Hudson's amiable and slightly doofy sidekick on the Seventies cop/detective show McMillan and Wife. In the waning years of that show Shuck jumped ship and headed for what must have seemed the greener pastures of Holmes & Yo-Yo. However, SF fans probably know Shuck best for his role as a Klingon in the fourth and sixth installments of the Star Trek movies, as well as a smattering of appearances on various Star Trek TV shows.

I haven't been able to divine why Yo-Yo was named Yoyonovich. Perhaps the 12 episodes I didn't screen would provide the answers. I suspect that the name was snatched from the air so that the character's nickname could be Yo-Yo - but that's just a guess. The robotics (such as they are) that make up Yo-Yo are accessed by pulling his tie, which opens a panel on his chest that contains what looks like a calculator, a primitive looking panel of lights and perhaps a tape drive of some sort.

Yo-Yo is described as "a completely mobile computer specially programmed for police work." What this boils down to is a bunch of silly gags, such as popping a Polaroid photo from his shirt pocket when his nose is pressed and repeating the words "the bunco squad" when his programming goes haywire, to name a few.

While robotic cops were a relatively new innovation on TV, they made a notable appearance earlier in THX 1138 (1971), the first feature film turned out by a then little-known director named George Lucas. On TV, of course, a sort-of android named Steve Austin was all the rage at the time, with The Six Million Dollar Man (1973-1978) approaching the end of its run. One suspects it was the success of the latter that inspired the creation of yet another short-lived robocop TV show. Future Cop (1977) starred Ernest Borgnine and John Amos, though it took a more serious approach than the whimsical Holmes & Yo-Yo.

That the show should take a comic approach was not surprising, given that executive producer Leonard Stern did time as a staff writer for the spy spoof TV show Get Smart. A show that had its own android (Hymie), that started life as an evil robot created by the baddies at KAOS but which later jumped ship and went to work for the good guys at CONTROL.

Several other showbiz luminaries had a hand in the creation of Holmes & Yo-Yo, though one can't help wondering if they later came to regret it. The pilot was directed by former child star Jackie Cooper, with several episodes directed by John Astin, probably best-known as the patriarch of The Addams Family TV show. Also on hand, as a co-writer for one of the episodes, John Landis, who would later make a name for himself as a director.

As for the notion that Holmes & Yo-Yo was a comedy, well, that was the objective, but in practice it didn't seem to work so well. Comedy can be a somewhat delicate art and there's often a fine line between boom and bomb. As I realized when I managed to track down the one solitary episode I could locate of the 13 that were made. It bears the somewhat peculiar name, The Dental Dynamiter, though I guess this is appropriate, given that our heroes are trying to "solve" a case where someone is bombing dentist's offices. I must confess that this was all so riveting that I signed off about two-thirds of the way through.

All of the foregoing could theoretically have been the basis for a funny show. After all, truly funny comedy TV has been accomplished with equally - or more - ludicrous building blocks. I'd nominate F Troop and Green Acres as two great examples of televisual comic absurdity built on a goofy premise, but your results may vary. Unfortunately, Holmes & Yo-Yo fails on two fronts - as a cop show (which probably wasn't so much the point) and as a comedy. I've considered the possibility that the episode I screened was an anomaly and that the rest of them were gut-wrenchingly funny. While that might actually be the case the historical record suggests otherwise.

TV Guide honored Holmes & Yo-Yo by ranking it 33rd on their 2002 list of the 50 worst TV shows ever. Which is not nearly as bad as it could have been. After all, there were 32 other shows that this august publication deemed to be worse. Such as the unjustly maligned Hee Haw Honeys (10) or Homeboys in Outer Space (31), on which John Astin appeared as a guest star (small world indeed), but I digress.

There were doubtless a number of reasons why the show didn't succeed but they could mostly boiled down to just one - it wasn't funny. Shuck himself, interviewed several decades later, said that in his opinion "the main problem with it was that the writing just wasn't up to snuff." I wouldn't argue with that.