Thursday, December 7, 2023

Classic TV Flashback: Cliffhangers (1979)

Debut: February 27, 1979
Created by Kenneth Johnson
Starring: Susan Anton, Ray Ralston, Michael Swan, Geoffrey Scott, Carlene Watkins, Tiger Willaims, Michael Nouri, Carol Baxter, Stephen Johnson
Synopsis: Three serialized tales of adventure are presented each week: the mystery/adventure of Stop Susan Williams, the Weird Western of The Secret Empire, and the horror of The Curse of Dracula.

Trey: Cliffhangers is an unusual NBC series that aired from February to September 1979. In each installment, you got a chapter of 3 serialized stories, resembling the matinee serials of the past. One of them, The Secret Empire, was based on the old Gene Autry serial, The Phantom Empire, in fact.

On paper, this idea had a lot going for it. You were essentially running three 3 series in one hour, so if one failed to find an audience, it could be switched out for something else. However, running 3 productions meant the cost of 3 productions. It was an expensive show. It also aired opposite the powerhouses of Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley. Plus, at the end of the day, it really just isn't that good.

Jason: Well, it was an experience! Nostalgia for the entertainments of yesteryear, in this case the action-oriented serials of the 30's and 40's (and televised for Baby Boomer audiences in the 50's and 60's, was in the air in the 1970's. The Star Wars phenomena that preceded this show and Indiana Jones following a year or so after Cliffhangers bit the dust are both obvious examples of successfully updating serial tropes. 

Conceptually more interesting than entertaining, Cliffhangers was a challenging watch, at least in part due to the dreadful scan available on YouTube, which would have looked much better on a smaller screen that I used. I managed to suppress the urge to change the channel (which, if this show was on in my childhood home, likely occurred), and dutifully stayed the course, buoyed by the hope that the next segment would be better.

Trey: You're right about than YouTube upload. It was like watching through gauze, but perhaps that made the experience more authentic given the vagaries of TV and reception back in the day? Are there positives here we could accentuate?

Jason: Mercifully, it actually did seem to get better from segment to segment. 

The Perils of Pauline-inspired Stop Susan Williams ticked off the genre boxes but felt dreary to me. The only real updating I detected was in Susan Anton's wardrobe. 

The Secret Empire gave us an elevator from the Old West to an alien underground city, which is always welcome. The city itself appeared to have been shot in an abandoned shopping mall. It was difficult to tell if anything interesting would follow in subsequent episodes that Gene Autry hadn't already dealt with in the 30's incarnation. 

Trey: There is precedent for Modern public buildings as futuristic cities. See Logan's Run. In any case, the few episodes I saw of this as a kid (I don't recall how many or if I sat through an hour. I didn't remember Susan Williams at all.) it was The Secret Empire I was most interested in. I had seen some of Phantom Empire on PBS as a kid. Like with Phantom Empire, I was not of an age where it's parsimony with the sci-fi allowed it to hold my interest.

Jason: Of the three stories we watched partially unfold in this episode, my favorite was the disco-age adventures of professional academic Dracula. If only we could have been treated to Dracula's lecture in its entirety instead of pesky Van Helsing intrigue already-in-progress! I'll sign up for Dracula's TED talk any day. 

Trey: Yeah, while not great, that segment works the best here. It eventually got edited into a TV movie. Circling back to the Secret Empire, one more thing I noticed there: the hero breaks out a bullwhip for one scene. You would swear it was a ripoff of Indiana Jones except of course this show predates Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Jason: It's perhaps a shame it wasn't riding those coattails. It might have given them pointers on updating the material for the modern audience.

1 comment:

'gina said...

I love you guys for doing this. Thank you.


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