Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Days of Fuzz and Static

I love the scene in the Coen Brothers' A Simple Man when the father has to climb to the rooftop and adjust the aerial TV antenna. They used this image for the movie poster, and with good reason: it shows us the unsung work of a dad, and his pride in a job well done is reflected by his stoic pose as he towers above the other families' houses in quiet, 60s suburbia.

As a child of the 70s, I was reminded of something else: that once upon a time, we had these long metal rods perched atop our little houses, and that was how we watched TV! While watching these DVD sets of 70s TV shows, I just couldn't remember them ever looking so clear - No one could! With cable still at least 10 years away (and even that wasn't always so crystalline) and digital TV another 20, shows of the 50s through early 80s were never fully appreciated by most of their viewing audiences because they were fuzzy, and coated with a thick coat of haze that could only be remedied by fidgeting with the fine-tuning dial (encircling the channel dial, remember?) for a few hours. We were part of the Philly market, so some channels came in clearer than others, depending on location of station. And of course, weather was always a variable; on clear days it was actually a halfway watchable picture, cloudy days, fuhgetaboutit!

I can vividly remember trying to watch reruns of The Incredible Hulk on channel 48 back in the fall of '81, just after the series was released to syndication. This was a UHF station (the smaller, non network stations on channels 13 to 70), and the reception was really bad on this one, but I just had to see the show because I missed the original run on account of an art class I was shanghaied into taking on Friday nights. Luckily the audio was ok, but otherwise I only knew when the Hulk was onscreen by faint patches of green here and there. My parents thought I was nuts, watching a screen that had no discernable images to speak of - but I didn't care. For months that was the best hour of my day.

Now, of course, everything is clear - uberclear. Thanks to all those 1s and 0s, you could squint and see every wrinkle, crease, crevice, fleck, dot and dash on any given wafer-thin LCD screen. But in a weird way, now I understand my elders telling me how much better radio was than TV because radio relied more on the imagination. That we didn't know this because TV showed everything... and made you lazy.

Grandpa, I know what you meant.

Waltons 1.4: The Hunt

John Boy is ambivalent about participating in his first turkey hunt, wavering between wanting to be a family provider and not wanting to take another creature’s life. When he sets his rifle sights on a turkey, he finds himself unable to pull the trigger, and embarrassingly walks back home. Ultimately he redeems himself when he shoots a bear that attacks his father, demonstrating heroism and courage in the face of danger.

Well-done effort dramatizing a fundamental moral dilemma. This also somewhat foreshadows Richard Thomas’ portrayal of Henry in the 1979 TV-movie The Red Badge of Courage, also about a man given a second chance for heroic redemption. This is the first episode (aside from “The Foundling”) to feature a subplot: Mary Ellen, trying to outgrow her tomboy britches, wants to win the affection of a boy who sees her as just a playmate. When she purchases a dress instead of a catcher’s mitt for this purpose, she regrets it and winds up getting the mitt after all.

Waltons 1.3: The Calf

The Walton’s cow gives birth to a calf, but it is a bull, and John decides to sell it for money that can be used on a car repair. This is easier said than done, especially when the grieving mother cow moos all night, and the kids don’t act much differently. After selling it to a rather unsympathetic farmer, John proposes to buy it back, but the farmer raises the price. Elizabeth and Jim Bob (the youngest boy) go off on their own to steal the calf back after learning that it is scheduled to be slaughtered.

A simple plot with a heavy “aw” factor, this episode still feels firmly rooted in the reality of the times. Despite the farmer’s unwillingness to buy back his calf, he is not demonized, and still comes off as a hardworking man trying to make ends meet. The episode is resolved with involvement by the sheriff, but also through fair-minded negotiation conducted by John and Grandpa.

Pop Culture Reference Alert: Searching for Jim Bob and Elizabeth in the woods at night echoes (no pun intended) the search for Cindy and Bobby in the Grand Canyon on The Brady Bunch!

Little things: Veteran actor Will Geer is lovably affable in his role as grandpa Walton (John’s father). I’ve even noticed little character quirks he’s picked up, like drinking coffee from his saucer before the cap. Ellen Corby superbly plays his wife, grandma Walton; she is so good, it really does seem like she’s a real grandma (she even won an Emmy the first season).

Monday, August 30, 2010

Waltons 1.2: "The Carnival"

The Walton children can’t go to the local carnival since their money would be better used to fix grandma’s glasses, but after the carnival manager absconds with all the money, four members of the carnival troupe are left behind and take refuge in a nearby barn. When the Waltons invite them over for dinner, they dazzle John Boy with tales of the city and their travels. The dwarf (played by Billy Barty) even bequeaths to John Boy a copy of Moby Dick, stirring his imagination even more. The family helps them get on a train back to town, but not before they reciprocate the Waltons’ generous hospitality by giving them a private show.

A very effective story, beginning, in essence, the recurring motif of John Boy’s wanderlust and writing ambition. It also continues the idea of the outside (wayfaring strangers) coming into contact with the inside (Waltons abode) and how both parties are somehow edified in the process. The Waltons, of course, do what is right in sacrificing their carnival money for grandma’s glasses, but in so doing they get a better show than any paying customers could have dreamed: a “reap what you sow” idea that is part of the enduring message for the entire series.
Actor Billy Barty guest starred in episode 2.1 of The Waltons

Waltons 1.1: "The Foundling"

A mute girl is left on the Waltons’ doorstep, and in teaching her sign language they realize that she is quite capable of learning. The guilt-stricken mother of the girl attempts to convince her husband that she is not a “throwback” and should not be given up, but it takes a near tragedy (Elizabeth getting locked in a trunk in an abandoned shack and the girl using sign language to communicate her peril to the others) to change his mind. 

Warm, surprisingly intense opening to the series sets its tone right away. Olivia is now played by “Miss” Michael Learned (to distinguish her gender) with a great balance of firmness and compassion. The (mostly outdoor) photography is lush, with a classy cinematic quality to it (like so many filmed series of the time). The Waltons children (all played by the same actors as in The Homecoming) are all woven effectively into the plot, especially the youngest girl, Elizabeth, who is pivotal to the climax. 

Lots of resonance here, particularly with what we know about the treatment of children with developmental disabilities then and now. Okay, it is awfully quick for the Walton kids to teach the girl a complete sign-language vocabulary, but hey, they do have a lot of free time there on Walton’s Mountain!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Waltons: An Introduction

The Season One Cast
I’ve always been a fan of The Waltons, ever since I was a little boy. You see, my earliest memories were of a latter-day Waltons, particularly when Mary Ellen was a nurse in the war and Ben was playing at the Dew Drop Inn. But recently I’ve felt that that the show deserved a closer look. And, of course, with the modern miracle of DVD, I’ve been able to grant such a second chance.

I’ve started watching the entire series, beginning with the first season and, hopefully, ending with the last. Okay, I was pretty skeptical of how the show would hold up to contemporary muster (despite its abundant earnings of Emmy awards).  But, so far, I’ve been considerably impressed. Many of the stories have truly affected me, contrary to my own better, twenty-first century, postmodern, pop-cultural sensibilities. The decision, for example, for John Walton to keep a male calf as a pet (despite his financial requirement to sell it for a car repair), has kept me far more rapt than any daytime judge show ever could. And wondering how the Walton clan could deal with a cynical, scrappy, ragamuffin from 30’s Depression-Era NYC has far more earned my interest than whatever reality show based on singing, surviving, cooking, philately, etc. you choose to throw at me.

The show was the brainchild of former Twilight Zone scribe Earl Hamner, whose fertile and extensive memories of growing up in the Blue Ridge mountains of rural Virginia during the 1930’s provided the material for a memoir, Spencer’s Mountain; a somewhat soapy Henry Fonda film of the same name (although taking place in Wyoming’s Grand Teton mountain range); and later a hugely successful TV movie CBS aired during Christmas of 1971, The Homecoming

In this powerful drama, Patricia Neal played Olivia Walton, matriarch of a clan of seven boys and girls (no, this was not the Von Trapp family) waiting for the return of her husband John from his job on Christmas Eve. Admittedly, the plot here is somewhat thin, but it’s the ample subplots and character vistas that fill out the story with drama, and real, honest heartwarming drama, no less. The eldest son, John Boy (as played by Richard Thomas), was Hamner himself, and so the story revolved around his thoughts and emotions, and, more specifically, the balancing of his ambition to be a writer with the loyalty and love he had for his family. Enough people tuned in for this to convince CBS that there was series possibility here, and the following fall season, The Waltons premiered, on Thursday nights at 8:00.

It was on these Thursday nights, before Mork and Mindy became must-see-tv for a boy bitten by the late-seventies sci-fi bug, that you could find me plopped down in front of the family’s ton-heavy Sylvania set, waiting eagerly to consume that week’s installment of the family drama. I know, “family drama” today means all things mawkish an moralistic (which best describes the show’s long-running competitor, Little House on the Prairie), but 40 years ago, it truly meant a show that the whole family could enjoy: adults on one level, the kids on another. It was the cornerstone of what was then known as the Family Hour (an idea long since blown to smithereens), in which, simply, the time from 8 to 9 PM was an untouchable window of wholesome programming. In other words, you could trust that your child would not be scarred, jarred or traumatized in any way from the tv he or she watched during that time period. What a concept!

The Waltons quickly became a Neilson’s hit, cracking the top 20 in its first season and rising to #2 by its second. In many ways, it was the antidote to the more topical, controversial fare that CBS had recently been famous for (All in the Family, Maude, etc), and, more broadly, reality itself, in which it provided an escapist alternative to the post Vietnam/Watergate malaise plaguing the country. In journeying back to the Great Depression of the 30s, we were somehow better able to handle the far less pastoral recession of the 70s. And of course, nostalgia is always popular, but rather than going back the standard 20 years, The Waltons looked back 40; it reflected a different kind of innocence – the sort of your grandparents’ youth, when everything seemed hand-wrought and crafted, all food was farm grown or raised, and family came above all else. The show, perhaps, echoed a conservative sentiment, given the family’s Christian, traditionalist inclinations, but the show never seemed political. Historically, it was probably just what we needed to counter all the strum und drang of what we’d been through. And watching it now, I think we still need it.

The Rocket will give you daily updates of the show, season by season, episode by episode. Feel free to watch along if you like, and comment on the blog as well. Good night, John Boy!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Here We Go!

Welcome, friends, to the start of a great odyssey. No, it won't involve apes, bones or monoliths; this one traverses time - time gone by, that is. And the best way I know to go back in time is to see the movies, watch the tv, read the books, and listen to the music of yesteryear. In short, immerse yourself in vintage pop culture!

I won't bore you with an "about the site" song and dance - it's pretty self explanatory. You'll find my opinions, musings, occassional gripes, frequent praises and general reflections on everything media-related. And though the focus will be decidedly retro-fitted, I'll discuss some contemporary things as well. But there won't be much in that regard. I mean, look around: an unending oil spill; lionized, disgruntled flight attendants; war; terrorism; recession... I mean, can you blame me?

An Exciting New Project

It's been said (by whom, I don't know) that when you buy a book, you're not simply buying the book, but the time it takes to read it. If I could update this truism, I'd say that the same applies to a TV series on DVD. Oh, fine, it all looks good at the Best Buy - The entire first season of Wonder Woman, or The entire SERIES of Full House (all packaged in that San Francisco house that the show took place in).

But dammit, you've got to watch it all. Now you think to yourself, it's no problem - I love the show. Or if you've always wanted to see the show and never had the time, you think to yourself, I can watch the show on my own terms - no more setting the VCR, or, excuse me, DVR, to do it. But those shows add up, especially the one-hour dramas, and before you know it, you're looking at days, weeks, and even months to complete the viewing of a show that looked oh so easy at that Best Buy.

So, in a nutshell, this is what I'm doing: couch potatoing through entire runs of the greatest shows on earth. And with the miracle of modern technology, I'll be blogging my episode by episode reports to you, as daily as I can, so that you too can go on this crazy journey along with me. If you feel like posting your own comments in response, be my absolute guest - maybe I'll throw my two cents back at you.

I will start tomorrow with a show I've always enjoyed: The Waltons. (Couldn't we all use a show about the Depression during a recession?) All 9 seasons are on DVD, and obviously I'll be starting with the first. My review of episode 1.1 (season.episode) will be posted tomorrow, along with a little more about why I chose the series. You'll also get some pictures, links, and maybe some videos.

Hope you're up for it. I know I am. See you tomorrow!
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