Saturday, November 26, 2016

The 100 Lives of Black Jack Savage (1991)

The 100 Lives of Black Jack Savage
Stars: Daniel Hugh Kelly, Steven Williams
7 episodes

Then I became the hottest pilot writer at Universal. I was writing two or three pilots a season. I was making $400,000 a year in pilot fees. (Stephen J. Cannell)

In Short: Pirates and Wall Street dirtballs of the Caribbean.

Sometimes you just have to wonder. I wondered the entire time I was subjecting myself to the rigors of watching an episode of The 100 Lives of Black Jack Savage - all 51 minutes of it (and 21 excruciating seconds) - and I continued to wonder until I ran across the quote that opens this review, allegedly from Cannell, the late TV impresario. Whose series successes included The Rockford Files, The A-Team, and Baretta, just to name a few. If this statement is to be believed, then for Cannell, the failure of a pilot was hardly a tragedy. Which is not to say that the pilot for The 100 Lives of Black Jack Savage completely failed, mind you, at least not in the strictest sense of the word, since the series was inflicted on the world at large for an entire seven episodes.

This time around Cannell paired up with Walt Disney Television, with the show airing on NBC. The full title of the show was Disney Presents The 100 Lives of Black Jack Savage, which is quite a mouthful and it seems that it was just as often referred to as The 100 Lives of Black Jack Savage. Disney, of course, had had some notable successes with the pirate theme, with their popular Pirates of the Caribbean ride that opened at Disneyland, in 1967. But they wouldn't see any significant success with pirate themed media for another 12 years after Savage, when the first of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies rolled out.

The stars here were carried over from two of Cannell's other series. Steven Williams had starred in 21 Jump Street, along with future pirate, Johnny Depp. Here he stars as the ghost of a 17th-century Caribbean pirate who killed about a hundred people over the course of his career, a career that ended at the end of a rope. He is paired up with Daniel Hugh Kelly (formerly of Hardcastle & McCormick), as Barry Tarberry, in what might be one of the most offbeat buddy movie/TV pairings of all time. Tarberry is a slimy Wall Street trader who has transgressed so thoroughly that he had to leave the United States for the relative safety of the Caribbean.

The gimmick here is that the pair have to work to save their eternal souls from damnation by saving 100 lives, this by way of compensating for the 100 people that Savage bumped off during his pirating years. Alas, due to the fickle nature of network TV (and the fact that the show was crappy) there were 93 lives that never got to be saved.

Of Note:
Also stars Roma Downey (Touched By an Angel), the "nice" and comparatively morally upright character of the main three and Tarberry's reluctant love interest. Starring as the wacky, brainy gadget guy, Logan "FX" Murphy, is Steve Hytner, who decided to make his character a thoroughly annoying composite of Jerry Lewis and Urkel, from Family Matters. Rather rough stuff (car batteries being used as instruments of persuasion and the like) for a show that included Disney Presents in the title.

Observed: Look for the Union Label (1/7)
Scurrilous rancher types are making a land grab and clear cutting the forests, including the rubber trees that provide a livelihood for many good and noble native people. The ranchers and their flunkies are none too nice about it, mind you (although when they strap a bomb to the geeky gadget guy, they're kind enough to equip it with a timer). Looks like a job for Savage and Tarberry, who is not so enthusiastic about getting involved but reluctantly agrees when he realizes he might be able to get his mitts on the oh so fine lady (Downey) he's been coveting.

It's pretty clunky stuff throughout, with black hats against white hats and nothing on display that even remotely resembles subtlety. Savage looks like a slimmed down version of Barry White and his speech and mannerisms are thoroughly up to the minute, betraying no trace of the fact that he is several hundred years old. Kelly does well at making Tarberry a convincing version of a Wall Street dirtbag, outfitted in the finest Miami Vice-inspired fashions.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Hardy Boys (1969)

The Hardy Boys
Stars: Byron Kane, Dallas McKennon
17 episodes

In Short: Animated versions of the world's best known teen detectives (?) solve cases and play bubblegum pop.

I read my fair share of Hardy Boys books back in the day. Actually, I read all of the Hardy Boys books back in the day. Mr. Wiki suggests that there were about 60 back then and I read them all multiple times, going back to my very favorite ones over and again. I gather that the Hardy Boys books have survived to the present day, but I'm not sure how much of a force they are now that there's a YA volume or two around every corner and under every rock.

The history of the Hardy Boys books has been well documented so I'll say no more about it. What I didn't realize was that the books spawned a total of five TV adaptations over the years. There's the one that most people know, the one that starred Parker Stevenson and Shaun Cassidy and aired from 1977 to 1979. But I wasn’t aware until just recently that there were four other versions. The Fifties brought two serial incarnations and a short-lived TV series aired briefly, in 1995. It went nowhere fast. In 1967, NBC aired a pilot that adapted The Mystery of the Chinese Junk and starred Tim Matheson, Teri Garr and Jan-Michael Vincent. It also went nowhere. Two years after that came the subject of today's dissertation, another short-lived series, this time an animated one and one that found the brothers playing in a decidedly Sixties type pop band.

Each episode of the 17 that were made is split into two segments and each one of these is based (very, very loosely) on an actual Hardy Boys book. My memories of the books are a bit hazy all these years later but I don't recall the brothers breaking into song at any point. But here in the animated version they do just that. The music is of a style that would be very familiar to anyone who recalls the bubblegum pop of the late Sixties and early Seventies and it's actually not so bad - if you like that sort of thing. As for the show itself, about the best you could say about it was that maybe it could have been worse - maybe.

Of Note:
In addition to voicing the brothers Hardy, Kane and McKennon also contributed the voices of their dad and pals, Chubby and Pete. Dallas McKennon is better known for providing voices for Gumby and Archie, of The Archie Show. The Hardy Boys, the band, were an actual group that was composed of humans of the not cartoon variety. They toured and released two albums - Here Come the Hardy Boys and Wheels. I've listened to the former and I could probably stand to listen to it again. For an interview with one of the band members, look here.

Observed: Undetermined
I'm not sure which episodes I watched. Some segment titles didn't seem to match up with the segments themselves and since I didn't want to devote too much time to cracking this particular case I'll just stick to the facts. There were two 20-minute episodes, each composed of two 10-minute segments.

In a word - awful. To elaborate a bit, let's start with the concept of 10-minute segments. I doubt that you can take a Hardy Boys book and distill it down to 20 minutes and end up with something worthwhile, not even for a kid's cartoon. But you'd have a better shot at doing something coherent with the 20-minute length than you do with 10 minutes.

Then there's the animation. It's not so great but maybe that could be overlooked if all of the other elements were serviceable. They're really not. Last of all, are the voices. Some of which were tolerable and some of which were nearly unbearable (I'm looking at you, Chubby). On the plus side (there's not much), the music. Your results might vary but I found it to be quite catchy, in a frothy lightweight sort of way.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Sealab 2020 (1972)

Sealab 2020
Stars: John Stephenson, Ross Martin
16 episodes

In short: Scientists and some kids living under the sea (not in a pineapple).

History has caught up with Sealab 2020 and it's a safe bet that we won't have underwater research labs that can house hundreds of people within the next four years. Perhaps Sealab 2120 would have been a better choice for a name for the show. But it's unlikely that the prolific animation factory that was Hanna-Barbera Productions were thinking of posterity when they put this one together.

I watched my share of animation when I was a kid - it's what one did - but animation and comic books have never been a strong interest of mine. I don't recall watching Sealab 2020 all those years ago at an age when I might have been in the target audience but it looked interesting and so I thought I'd give it a look.

Sealab is an underwater research station that's home to about 250 people. This being a Saturday morning cartoon, there are also a number of kids on hand. Underwater research isn't exactly a gripping topic and so much like Miss Marple finds herself in the midst of a maelstrom of murder in her small English village so do the Sealab crew find themselves involved in various exciting events, with plenty of good uplifting messages - often on matters of environmental import - thrown in for good measure.

One episode finds the gang dealing with a space probe that lands in the ocean nearby and in another they're squabbling with a team of oil drillers. There's a giant squid, Aztec treasures and a sub that crashes into the base and damages its nuclear reactor. And there's a hunter who seems to driven by his hunt for a whale. Sound familiar?

Of Note:
Perhaps not as forgotten as I thought it was, the show spawned a Cartoon Network spoof - Sealab 2021 (2001-05) - which ended up running for more than three times as long as Sealab 2020. Featured Ann Jillian, who had already been starring as a child actor for more than a decade.

"Deep Threat" (1/1)

I started at the beginning with this one - although I don't expect to continue. The first episode of the show finds the base in peril from leaking barrels of radioactive waste. One of the characters speculates that they might have been a carryover from the Seventies, when they apparently did such unthinkable stuff as polluting the ocean - those clods. A sub-plot finds a couple of the kids getting lost. I should have taken notes, I guess, since I watched this one a week or two before sitting down to write about it. I remember that it all turns out okay but the details have mostly faded from memory. I still like this as a concept for a show but the execution left quite a bit to be desired.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Ark II (1976)

Ark II
Stars: Terry Lester, Jean Marie Hon
15 episodes

In short: Post-apocalyptic teen stuff before it was cool.

Nowadays, you can't swing a cat (which you really shouldn't be doing, by the way) without hitting a bit of post-apocalyptic film or fiction focusing on the trials and tribulations of well-scrubbed young protagonists. I wouldn't swear to it but I seem to recall that this sort of thing was not so common in 1976, when Ark II debuted (and when it soon met with its demise).

By way of summarizing I'll regurgitate the voiceover intro the to the show: For millions of years, Earth was fertile and rich. Then pollution and waste began to take their toll. Civilization fell into ruin. This is the world of the 25th century. Only a handful of scientists remain, men who have vowed to rebuild what has been destroyed. This is their achievement: Ark II, a mobile storehouse of scientific knowledge, manned by a highly trained crew of young people. Their mission: to bring the hope of a new future to mankind.

Pollution somehow being different from waste, I suppose, but I quibble. The "highly trained crew of young people" are Joshua, Ruth and Samuel. The fourth member of the crew - inexplicably - is a chimp named Adam. An ark and a bunch of characters with names taken from the Bible - are you getting all of this?

The Ark II is a curious looking vehicle that's sort of like an offbeat cross between a Hummer and an RV. In this "mobile storehouse of scientific knowledge" the foursome experience adventures that are many and sort of varied...and sort of preachy, it must be said. Because kid's entertainment can't just be entertaining, after all.

Of Note:
Guests included Jonathan Harris, Jim Backus, Helen Hunt, and the hardest working robot in show business, Robby.
Terry Lester, who played the Ark II's commander, Jonah, went on to play Jack Abbott, a popular character on the soap opera, The Young and the Restless.
A Filmation production.
Post-apocalyptic or not, our protagonists sure manage to keep their white jumpsuits spotless, while everyone else onscreen looks distinctly unwashed.

Observed: "The Launch of Ark II" & "The Cryogenic Man"
"The Launch of Ark II" is a 30-minute documentary put together for the DVD release of the series. It features production staff and one of the actors (Hon) reminiscing about the show. Apparently the chimp was no picnic to work with and the tight bodysuits didn't breathe, which could be trying when filming in summer in southern California.

"The Cryogenic Man" 1/7
Jim Backus takes a guest spot here as a character who might rightly be described as Thurston Howell III Lite. He plays a slightly less blustering and buffoonish version of the Gilligan's Island millionaire, a businessman who has been cryogenically frozen - along with his assistant - and is roused from his slumbers by the Ark II gang. I'm not sure how the cryogenic thing might work but after about five centuries (the show takes place in 2476), the duo spring up from suspended animation with no more ill effects than if they'd just wakened from a catnap. Backus's character, in classic TH3 fashion, is clutching a briefcase full of cash.

Not long after waking Backus begins stirring up the natives and demonstrates a miracle fertilizer he devised five centuries earlier. It makes plants grow improbably (no, absurdly) fast. Turns out it that it's highly toxic and you remember that bit about the pollution and waste? There's a bit of conflict and some of the Ark II kids are tossed in the cryo tubes but in the end - and I don’t think this is much in the way of a spoiler - things work out for the best.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

ALF's Hit Talk Show (2004)

ALF's Hit Talk Show
Stars: ALF, Ed McMahon
7 episodes

In Short: Gordon Shumway gets his own short-lived talk show.

I like ALF. So sue me. I guess I should clarify and say that I like ALF, the sitcom that aired from 1986 to 1990 and spawned a few spinoffs. They were ALF: The Animated Series (1987-1989), ALF Tales (1988-89) and the subject of today's dissertation, ALF's Hit Talk Show. Which is a bit of false advertising, that "hit" part, but more about that in a moment. Oh, and let's not forget Project: ALF(1996), a movie that rolled out six years after the end of the series.

I came to ALF late, catching it on cable about a decade or so after it first aired. To this day I can't quite put my finger on what appealed to me about the whole affair but appeal it did. The premise is a simple one and arguably not a particularly good one - a wisecracking alien crash lands into the home of an average American family (as the TV industry of the day defined it) and hijinks ensue. Something that was done before, albeit with less fur and perhaps less wisecracking, in My Favorite Martian (1963-66). It shouldn't have been a contender and it often wasn't (the Risky Business parody and ALF's appalling music video, to name a few of the low points) and yet it had a certain something.

Whatever that nebulous something was I'd hazard a guess that it didn't carry over to the movie or the first two TV spinoffs, though I haven't seen them and so I can't say for sure. It didn't quite carry over to ALF's Hit Talk Show and the exceptionally brief run pretty much attests to that, although by some accounts the show was not necessarily intended to be an ongoing series.

Faux talk shows were hardly a new thing, even in 2004. They go back at least as far as Fernwood Tonight (1977) and there are probably other predecessors to that show that have slipped my mind. The Larry Sanders Show (1992–1998) was a more high-profile and successful take on this theme and my own personal favorite, Primetime Glick (2001–2003), which starred Martin Short as the be all and end all of obnoxious talk show hosts, signed off just before ALF took to the airwaves again.

ALF, the sitcom, took a crack at this very same type of thing in the third season, with a two-part episode in which the star sat in for Johnny Carson on what was either the actual Tonight Show set or a very convincing recreation. Also on hand for the proceedings, which featured numerous clips from previous shows, were second banana, Ed McMahon, and Tonight Show producer, Fred de Cordova.

McMahon, that talk show sidekick extraordinaire, is back in the same seat again for ALF's Hit Talk Show, which aired on TV Land. The format is pretty much standard late night talk show - with a puppet thrown in for good measure. Just as ALF was a fairly standard sitcom format...with a puppet thrown in for good measure.

Of Note:
Celebs putting in an appearance included Joan Rivers, Henry Winkler, talk show guy Merv Griffin, and Bryan Cranston (a few years before Breaking Bad broke big). Most off the wall celebrities who turned up during the seven episode run - Leon Redbone and Linda Blair.

Observed: Season 1, Episode 5
Doris Roberts seems to have a thousand yard stare at times but she acquits herself admirably well, given that she's being interviewed by a puppet. Presumably most of the other guests did the same. Which is not so surprising, given that they are actors and that's what they do. When you come right down to it, is the chatty artifice of a real talk show that far removed from one hosted by a clump of cloth and fur? Ed McMahon gives a valiant effort as well, given that this is a considerable step down from being sidekick to Johnny Carson. I can't claim to have made it through this episode but it was innocuous enough. If you're a really big ALF fan or you're really into talk shows maybe it will work for you.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Hey, Landlord (1966-67)

Hey, Landlord
Stars: Will Hutchins, Sandy Baron
31 episodes

In Short: Zaniness for rent.

Many are called. Few are chosen. It's a bit of Biblical wisdom that could kind of sort of be applied to the TV industry. Which seems to have a philosophy of throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks, when it comes to devising new shows. In my research for this project I've tentatively determined that the number of forgotten TV shows (forgotten being a somewhat subjective criteria, I'll concede) is somewhere between a helluva lot and several boatloads.

But success is fickle and even those who won the great TV series sweepstakes didn't actually manage to win every time. Sherwood Schwartz scored with Gilligan's Island (1964-67) and then again with The Brady Bunch(1969-74), but turned out duds with the time travel comedy, It's About Time (1966-67), and Dusty's Trail (1973-74), a comedy series that tried to recreate Gilligan's Island in the American West, even going so far as to cast Bob Denver in the Gilligan role.

Garry Marshall also spun the TV series wheel and won, most notably with mega-hits like Happy Days (1974-84) and Laverne and Shirley (1976-83). He's not quite so well known for such efforts as Blansky's Beauties (1977), a spin off from Happy Days, or Who's Watching the Kids (1978), a show which sort of morphed from Blansky's Beauties into something much like it.

One of Marshall's first ventures into the sitcom creation is just as obscure as the aforementioned pair of spin offs. I hadn't even heard of Hey, Landlord until recently, even though it aired for a full season in the mid-Sixties. The gimmick here is a pretty simple one. Aspiring writer Woody Banner's uncle has died and left him a Manhattan apartment building. He moves from Ohio to take over, bringing along a friend - Chuck - to share an apartment and help out. Wacky residents are contained therein and others are coming and going and thus the stage is set for all manner of hijinks.

Of Note:
The working title of the show - Woody. Brilliant.
Sally Field made a few appearances as Woody's little sister, Bonnie.
Music and theme by Quincy Jones. You know him.
Appearances by Rob Reiner, Henry Gibson, Richard Dreyfuss, Paul Lynde, Sid Melton, Peter Bonerz, John Astin, Jack Albertson, and Fred Willard.

Observed: "Aunt Harriet Wants You" (1:31)
Rose Marie drops in for a visit to her nephew. She is Woody or Chuck's aunt - memory fails me - and she is a no-nonsense and rather brassy military woman. She and Jack - a mousy photographer who lives in the building - go out on a date and though much is made of this commingling of the opposites it doesn't work out. So Jack tries to be more of a manly man and Aunt Harriet tries to be more demure. That also doesn’t work out so well but in the end they learn to like each other for what they are.

Maybe the 30 episodes that preceded this one, the final episode of the series, were uproariously funny but I didn't find this one to be. Comedy is a subjective thing but the comedy that was attempted here was mostly of a very old school type. That's not always a bad thing but in this case it just didn't work.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Space Academy (1977)

Space Academy
Stars: Jonathan Harris, Pamelyn Ferdin
15 episodes

It might be interesting to compile a list of all of the TV shows and movies of the late Seventies and early Eighties that featured cutesy robot characters - and someone's probably done it already, now that you mention it. I can think of two right off the top of my head. There's Twiki, from Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-81) and there's Peepo, from Space Academy. I'm sure it was totally coincidental that Space Academy rolled out nearly four months after Star Wars and featured a robot named Peepo, a name that absolutely does not remind one of the name C-3PO.

In any event, as the name suggests, the show focuses on the adventures of a bunch of young cadets at a space academy, all of whom are quite well-scrubbed and photogenic. The academy is located on an asteroid and the show is set in the year 3732, which seems like a rather arbitrary date but not much more so than in any other work of science fiction. The big-name star here, such as he is, is Jonathan Harris, whose space TV credentials are pretty solid. We know him best as the kind of slimy, weaselly Dr. Zachary Smith on Lost in Space (1965-68). Here he plays the more upstanding Commander Isaac Gampu, head of the academy. Who is said to be 300 years old (but doesn't look a day over 63) and who sports a very Seventies mustache and a hairstyle that is curiously poofy.

The five cadets are a reasonably diverse group and several of them possess special powers, such as telekinesis, superhuman strength and psychic powers. There are also some soap opera-ish attractions between the young’uns. In the premiere episode, "The Survivors of Zalon", the gang find themselves on a planet - Zalon - that's due to explode in a mere 48 hours. Either I wasn’t playing close enough attention or it wasn't explain how they arrived at such a precise estimate of total planetary destruction. But the suspense here, what little there is of it, comes from the fact that the group have to round up a young orphan - Loki - who also has some powers, such as being able to teleport at will, before the planet blows up. Here's a spoiler, they do it and Loki becomes a member of the cast and if you're a Space Academy merchandise completisst, you probably already have the Loki action figure. Yes, there really were action figures, though it doesn't appear that all the primary cast members was immortalized.

Future episodes found the cadets battling against assorted and sundry hostile aliens, as well as dealing with black holes and runaway comets. Last, but not least, an appearance of robot icon, Robbie the Robot, in a slightly modified version and portraying a "bad" robot.

For more on Space Academy, here's a fan site that's as good a place as any to start.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

The Lost Saucer (1975-76)

The Lost Saucer
Stars: Jim Nabors, Ruth Buzzi
16 episodes

The brothers Krofft - Sid and Marty - turned out a lot of TV shows way back when, most of them geared toward kids and most of them decidedly far out, if I may resort to the parlance of the day. Their better known shows included Banana Splits (1968-70), H.R. Pufnstuf (1969-70) and Land of the Lost (1974-77). But the sibling team also came up with lesser known fare such as The Bugaloos (1970-71), Far Out Space Nuts (1975-76) and Pryor's Place (1984). The last of these being a kid's show starring none other than Richard Pryor (yes, really). Also on the list of lesser known Krofft shows, The Lost Saucer.

The big name here was Jim Nabors, who, of course, was best known as the title character in Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C (1964-69). Also on hand was Ruth Buzzi, who made a name for herself on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-in (1968-73) and was a television mainstay for decades after that.

Here, Nabors and Buzzi portray a pair of androids - Fum and Fi - from the year 2369. They come to present day Earth to have a look see around the place. And make no mistake about it, they are androids, not robots. In the episode I watched one of the other characters made this mistake and was set straight, in due course. In any event, their essential androidness is conveyed quite convincingly by having them dressed in uniforms made of exhaust hoses from a clothes dryer that have been spritzed up with metallic paint.

Unfortunately, Fum and Fi have invited young Jerry and his babysitter, Alice, on to their ship to look around. Then when a crowd gathers, they get nervous and abruptly take off. Thrilling adventures follow as the group flits through time and space, trying to get the two passengers back home. Also, on hand - and here's some more of that Krofft weirdness - a floppy sort of creature named Dorse, who is a cross between a dog and a horse (Dorse...get it?).

The episode I watched - "894X2RY713, I Love You" - happened to be the very first of the bunch. Given that it was a Seventies kid's TV show that went into the tank in less than a season I wasn't expecting much - and that's about what I got. Nabors and Buzzi are capable enough but they aren't given much to work with and the set and costuming budget was presumably in the neighborhood of a couple hundred bucks.

The show often bought into the notion that kid's entertainment can't simply be entertainment and so many of the episodes strive to examine some issue and/or impart a message. In the series opener, which I managed to screen about half of, the gang turn up on an alien planet - or was it Earth in the future - I lost track. They are shocked to find that the inhabitants there wear some kind of bodysuit that covers their entire body and face and is stenciled with an ID number. Just as the body suited ones are shocked to encounter beings who recklessly display their faces and who aren't numbered.

My intention in writing about these obscure TV shows is to watch at least one episode of the series in question. I'd like to say that I always achieve this objective and I'd like to relate how "894X2RY713, I Love You" turns out but my resolve to forge on through it eventually wavered. If I had been a kid back in this era I might have found it more entertaining but that was then and this is now and I'm moving on.