Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Classic TV Flashback: Peter Gunn (1958)

Peter Gunn
Debut: September 22, 1958
Created by Blake Edwards
Starring: Craig Stevens, Lola Albright, Herschel Bernardi, Hope Emerson, Byron Kane
Synopsis: Peter Gunn is a suave, well-dressed private investigator with a love of cool jazz and a knack for finding trouble.

Trey: Peter Gunn is a 1958-1961 series that aired first on NBC and then ABC. It has some similarities to Mr. Lucky, another Blake Edwards series we watched.  Cary Grant was an inspiration for the style of the main character and it has a score by Henry Mancini. In fact, it's theme is probably one of the most recognizable pieces of music of the later half of the 20th Century.

Jason: After this recent re-exposure, that theme song is hounding my mind on a constant involuntary mental replay. Not only is it endlessly catchy, but it has spawned a multitude of derivative offspring in a variety of genres. I love the B-52s take on "Planet Claire," to name one example. 

Trey: Indeed! We watched the second episode, "Streetcar Jones" where a jazz club band leader wants to prove one of his musician friends is innocent of a murder, but the musician's lawyer high-priced lawyer suspiciously doesn't want his assistance. The whole series is available on Freevee.

Peter Gunn has a sort of sophisticated style and hints wry humor of Mr. Lucky. It doesn't quite charm me the way the episodes of that series did. The lack of the sidekick is part of it, but I don't think the character of Gunn (or possibly the portrayal) has quite the charm of the titular Mr. Lucky. Of course, watching only one episode of a series always presents the risk that you don't really have a good sample to judge it by.

Jason: It seemed to me to have an incrementally more "serious" tone than Mr. Lucky, and I agree about the diminished charm. In this episode at least, Craig Stevens' portrayal of Gunn feels icy cold, an utterly unflappable fellow who only turns on the charm at pressing need. He takes a heck of ass-whooping without a single complaint, though his natural beauty remains (stylishly) marred by (dashing) bruises for the rest of the episode. 

I must also agree on Gunn's sidekick-less condition. His Crockett could use a Tubbs.

Trey: Back to Mancini for the moment, his musical cues here are perhaps even better than the ones in Mr. Lucky

Jason: I wonder if the music was tailor-made for this especially Jazz-centric episode?

Trey: Jazz-centric, it was. Hearing the hep jazz cat patter here, I wonder if TV of the late 50s represented the jazz subculture any more accurately that 80s TV would do with rock of its era? I did like Carlo Fiore's almost Zen master portrayal of Streetcar Jones. A decade later, such a loopy character would be portrayed as being on drugs, but here, there's no indication he's high on anything but jazz.

Jason: Great Neal Cassady's ghost! The jailhouse discussion of the distinction between "getting it" and "digging it" was almost hilarious in its earnest examination of the ineffable. I have to think you are correct in your suspicions, and I too imagined fully qualified hepcats of the era cringing at the portrayal of their patois.

I really felt the director's hand in this episode, and he's swinging for the fences. The opening sequence features a transition from the Big Eye club's sign (a big eye) to the business end of a saxophone jamming away inside, letting us know right out of the box that someone cares about making this show look as cool as possible. Again, I am reminded of Miami Vice.

Trey: It's a stylized world in some ways. Half-hour episodes don't leave time to worry about gritty realism.

Jason: My verdict: It didn't knock me out the way Mr. Lucky did, but Blake Edwards is doing fine TV work if this episode is any indication. 

Trey: Just the thing for viewing after dinner at the supper club with a martini in your hand.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Classic TV Flashback: Blake's 7 (1978)

Blake's 7
Debut: January 2, 1978
Created by Terry Nation
Starring: Gareth Thomas, Sally Knyvette, Michael Keating, Steven Pacey, Paul Darrow, David Jackson, Peter Tuddenham, Jan Chappell, Jacqueline Pearce, Stephen Greif, Brian Croucher, Josette Simon, Glynis Barber
Synopsis: A rebel leads a group of convicts and outcasts in a struggle against the totalitarian Terran Federation.

Trey: Blake's 7 ran for four 13 episode "series" on BBC1. It was created by Terry Nation, known for his work on Doctor Who (he was the creator of the Daleks), who also wrote the entire 1st series. We watched the first episode "The Way Back" on YouTube. We're introduced to former resistance leader Roj Blake who had been mindwiped, but after an attempt by old comrades to bring him back to the cause, witnesses a massacre and is subsequently framed for a series of fictional crimes by the totalitarian Federation and sent to a prison colony.

I'd seen this episode before, but it was decades ago on a public TV funding drive. I think it's ripe for a re-imagining a la Battlestar Galactica. It already had the grit so there would be no need to add it! With the re-ascendance of Star Wars and the arrival of Guardians of the Galaxy style bombastic space fantasy, maybe it's time is actually past?

Jason: As I understand, the series makes a pronounced tonal shift into the fantastic following this dark, serious opener. 

Trey: Well, from what I've seen, it definitely goes more space opera, but I think it stays roughly Deep Space Nine level of darkness. Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself. We should talk about the actual episode! 

Jason: We owe Roj Blake that much.

Trey: Its visuals (both in terms of design and casting) and its music give strong Dr. Who vibes, of course. Its story, though, reminds me more of dystopian science fiction films of the 70s, things like Soylent Green, THX-1138, or Logan's Run. It also made me think a lot about the recent Andor.

Jason: As regards the visuals, one must go in with an understanding of the BBC's standards of the day. The budget is as austere as the world depicted and TV technology is limited. The subject matter of this premiere episode is well-suited to these limitations. 

I agree that this episode was very much in this pre-Star Wars mold, with a dash of Nineteen Eighty-Four and a pinch of Phillip K. Dick. We are not really given much of a clue as to what's to follow in the narrative, but this grim bummer of a tale works well. The heaps of bodies piling up throughout its narrative arc make the stakes seem real. 

Trey: Gareth Thomas doesn't seem to have to look for an American lead (maybe the closest American equivalent would be Elliott Gould who did get leading roles in the 70s, though) but he seems believable in this position.

Jason: He's no Don Johnson or Phillip Michael Thomas (see last week's post)! And the drab concrete-and-steel world he inhabits under the influence of stultifying mind-control drugs is about as far from dreamy, cocaine-fueled 80s Miami as one can get. I've only seen him in this, so far as I recall, but his performance is very good. The rest of the cast deliver solid performances and do well with the material. I'd say this is the most intentionally mature work I've seen from screenwriter Nation, lacking any and all of the whimsy and slight goofiness of his Dr. Who work. 
Trey: I like the very 70s, post-Watergate subplot of the idealistic public defender and his partner whose idealism leads them to be crushed by the system. It's not the sort of thing most space opera-ish shows give you!

Jason: The public defender subplot was one of the few outright surprises of the episode, and perhaps worth not spoiling* for any readers who have not seen this episode! 

My verdict: a well-done and appropriately grim take on the dystopian hell-world of tomorrow that remains watchable and tense throughout its run.

Trey: I agree. I wish this was a series available on physical media. I would pick it up.

*SPOILER ALERT! Seeing the crumpled bodies of the public defender and his associate came as a bit of a shock! Against any reasonable hope, I expected them to be ongoing characters!

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Classic TV Flashback: Miami Vice (1984)

Miami Vice

Debut: September 16, 1984
Created by Anthony Yerkovich
Starring: Don Johnson, Philip Michael Thomas, Saundra Santiago, Michael Talbott, John Diehl, Olivia Brown, Gregory Sierra
Synopsis: Two undercover detectives and their team fight crime on the mean yet colorful streets of Miami.

Trey: Miami Vice aired on NBC from September 1984, to January 1990. We watched the pilot episode, "Brother's Keeper" on Freevee. It gives the origin story of the partnership between Floridan, good ol' boy detective Sonny Crockett and New York City street cop Rico Tubbs when both of them want to bring down a Colombian drug dealer who killed someone close to them (Tubbs' brother and Crockett's old partner).

Jason: I'll come clean right now: In my early teen years, I had made up my mind that cop shows were boring as Hell, ubiquitous, repetitive, and I had zero interest in seeing them. Hill Street Blues, a staple in my home, was the exception. As a result, I came to "Brother's Keeper" and Miami Vice a clean slate. I was always suspicious that Vice would present a particularly dumb approach to cop drama, given its reputation for visual splendor, bikinis, and beautiful people, and I was having none of it. Now, decades later I must publicly admit (yet again!) how spectacularly wrong I was!

The opening sequence set in New York, where we receive important set up information and a good chunk of Tubbs' origin story, put me in mind of The Wizard of Oz, the familiar, perhaps overused cop show setting seemed almost black and white like Dorothy's Kansas, and about to make a stark, pastel-and-neon tonal shift as the story sweeps Tubbs off to Miami.

This pilot episode does its job, setting up the series' characters, situations, and style for its run while successfully standing on its own. The story itself is suitably adult and entertaining, but we're not here for complexity or literary quality. 

Trey: I saw the pilot when it aired in 1984. Today, after years of TV shows and even films that borrowed from its style, it's the 80s TV cop show chassis that is most apparent to me. I mostly see how it is like all the Equalizers, Matt Houstons, and Hunters rather than its differences. But my memories of certain scenes in it are vivid from my childhood, and I still recall how much more dramatic and cinematic they seemed at the time than anything else. I have to think about it in pre-prestige TV terms.

The elevator pitch was "MTV cops," and I certainly think we get that, but it's interesting how much that feel is used to create moments of moody, neon noir, rather than the hyperkinetic, quick cuts we associate with the style today.  The story and the characters aren't really completely there yet to support it, but the idea was a solid one. Wikipedia says that TV critics Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz ranked Miami Vice the 51st greatest American television series of all time. While such rankings are always iffy, I think that feels about right in terms of importance.

Johnson and Thomas do a good job with the material. Honestly, Johnson seems to have pretty much one character in slightly different moods across his roles, but it's an entertaining one. 

Jason: They are both conspicuously and extravagantly handsome dudes for vice duty, but in a world where a young Jimmy Smits is expendable, it works.

Trey: I had forgotten Gregory Sierra was in this. I only remembered his replacement, Edward James Olmos. It amuses me to think Sierra is really playing the same guy he played on Barney Miller, just transferred to Miami.

Jason: He never imagined the strange fate in store for him when he put in for the transfer!

I thought the cast delivered admirably, while the most effective and affecting scenes were primarily visual and driven by their musical accompaniments. The iconic scene featuring "In the Air Tonight" is iconic for a damn good reason, as it happens. I'd rather watch dreamy Miami zoom by, reflected in the paint job of a speeding hot rod while listening to Jan Hammer's highly effective theme music (it helped that i hadn't heard it in decades) than be enriched by character development. 

Trey: Weirdly, Hammer's theme is missing the iconic solo in this episode. This is the version I remember: 


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