Step away from the computer! Slowly, keeping your hands in plain sight, reach for the television...That's it. Now, switch over to TCM, where they're airing a 10-movie Clint Eastwood marathon. It started at 6 a.m., but that doesn't matter -- you didn't want to see Clint singing and dancing with Ginger Rogers and Carol Channing anyway. (Honest to God: The First Traveling Saleslady, 1956.) You've still got time to catch the heart of the lineup: the three spaghetti-Western man in black movies. A Fistful Of Dollars airs at 8 a.m., For A Few Dollars More at 9 45 a.m. and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly at noon. Hang 'Em High, which follows at 3 p.m., isn't really a part of the man-in-black series, but it's close enough that you won't notice. Plus it's got that gorgeous Inger Stevens, who used to play The Farmer's Daughteron TV. Which all you 800-year-olds remember, right?
They call Korea the Forgotten War, and the U.S. Marines who fought at the Chosin Reservoir probably would like to forget it. Frozen and exhausted, surrounded by a Chinese army that American commanders refused to admit even existed, they fought off two weeks' worth of human wave attacks that left icy corpses stacked up like piles of gory snowmen. The combat was so vicious and continual that when the Marines were withdrawing, their officers refused to use the word retreat.
``Retreat, hell!'' snapped one. ``We're just attacking in a different direction.''
Someday someone will make a great documentary about that 1950 battle. Until then, we'll have to settle for Uncommon Courage: Breakout at Chosin, which airs on Memorial Day on the Smithsonian Channel. Despite the expansive title, it's really an account of just one small though crucial operation during the Chosin campaign: a mission to reinforce shaky Marine control over the only possible escape route for American troops. Read my full review in Sunday's Miami Herald.
Are We There Yet? (9 p.m. Wednesday, TBS) -- The 2005 comic movie about a marriage between a playboy bachelor and a mother of two teens gets the TV treatment. Instead of Ice Cube and Nia Long as the not-always-happy couple, we get Terry Crews (Everybody Hates Chris) and Essence Atkins (Half And Half). Actually, Ice Cube's there. You just can't see him: He's the executive producer.
Uncommon Courage: Breakout at Chosin (8 p.m. Monday, Smithsonian Channel) -- A brisk documentary about a crucial mission that saved thousands of lives during the most savage battle of the Korean War. Check back later today for a full review.
Carole King-James Taylor: Live at the Troubador (9 p.m. Friday, WPBT-PBS 2) -- Wouldn't it be cool if it were 1971? Richard Nixon is president, Taiwan is in the United Nations, Adam 12 is the cutting edge of cop shows, and Carole King and James Taylor are touring together. Well, one out of four ain't bad. (If you live in South Florida, think of the program as a preview of their live show on Saturday at the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise).
Note: Days and times for PBS shows are for the Miami area, and may differ elsewhere.
Let me program your TiVo! Just click on my best bets for the week at www.tivo.com/guruguide.
It's been three years since Sue Thomas F.B. Eye was canceled, an eternity in the TV business. (Really: so long that Pax, the network that aired it, no longer exists.) But a lot of fans of this series about a deaf FBI technician still lurk out there -- enough so that first Animal Planet and now the Gospel Music Channel have rerun the show. Better yet for Sue Thomas fans, a DVD set containing all 57 episode of the show has just gone on sale. If only China Beach fans would be so lucky.
A few years ago, I was sitting at a press conference at which television executives were discussing a new drama about a family of Cuban-American sugar growers. A producer casually mentioned that one of the characters would be ``a Pedro Pan kid.'' Around me, the faces of other TV critics went blank with incomprehension. And as the producer explained what a Pedro Pan kid was, the expressions twisted into near disbelief.
Like so much about Cuba, Operation Pedro Pan -- the covert airlift of some 14,000 of the island's children to the United States during the early days of Fidel Castro's rule -- is an intimately familiar story in Miami that's virtually unknown to other Americans. Escape From Havana: An American Story, a CNBC documentary airing Thursday, is a worthy if flawed attempt to break the silence. Read my full review in Thursday's Miami Herald.
Better enjoy those General Hospital reruns while you can. ABC and Disney announced Wednesday that they're shutting down their Soapnet channel and replacing it with something called Disney Junior, aimed at kids aged 2 to 7. Apparently in this economy, they're the only ones who have any money left. Disney Junior will air new series as well as familiar stuff like Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Handy Manny and Imagination Movers. And of course there will be Disney movies, including 101 Dalmatians, Aladdin, The Little Mermaid and the rest of the usual suspects. Best of all, insomniac pre-schoolers will have something to watch while chain-smoking at 4 a.m.: Disney Junior will be a 24-hour channel.
As for Soapnet, launched in 2000 and available in 75 million homes, let the wake begin. It'll be a long one: ABC won't pull the plug until 2012.
Art Linkletter, the king of daytime television during the 1950s and 1960s, died Wednesday. One of the first radio hosts to successfully translate his shows to TV, Linkletter jumped into the new medium in 1952 when he moved Art Linkletter's House Party to CBS television. For most of the next 17 years, it was the most on of the most popular shows on the daytime air. Audience members were invited up on stage to chat or engage in contests.
The most memorable segment, Kids Say The Darndest Things, featured live interviews with children. They volunteered family gossip ("Our pussycat has got some kittens and I didn’t even know she was married!"), mused about their power fantasies ("I’d like to be king of the United States and have two special maids: The Easter Bunny and Santa Claus") and answered Linkletter's gentle questions with addled non-sequiturs.
Linkletter, asking a child how his parents met: What was your father doing?
Kid: "He was a bartender."
And your mother?
"She was attending a PTA meeting."
Another Linkletter radio show, People Are Funny, moved to NBC's primetime schedule in 1954 and stayed there until 1961. It not only let audience members participate in the studio (typical challenge: recite your Social Security number in five seconds or get hit in the face with a pie) but sent them outside to pull pranks on the unsuspecting -- trying to cash a check written on a 40-pound watermelon, or even just give money away, which usually provoked a paranoid response response from the victim.
Linkletter is remembered rather waspishly today by many Baby Boomers for a gag-me-with-an-axe record he released in 1969, a spoken-word plea to a fictional runaway daughter called We Love You -- Call Collect. The flip side featured a reply from his real-life daughter, Diane. The recording languished, unreleased, until Diane -- a troubled LSD user -- herself jumped to her death from her sixth-floor Hollywood apartment. Capitol Records rushed the record out and it reached No. 42 on the Billboard charts, which Time magazine cited as proof that "delight in other people's anguish has reached new levels of callousness -- and depressing commercial success."
Accurate though that may have been, Linkletter had a light, lively touch that's notably missing from today's daytime television. And his People Are Funny stunts were clearly the inspiration for both Dave Lettermen's Stupid Human Tricks and Jay Leno's Jaywalking. Linkletter may have influenced TV in more subtle ways, too. Original Saturday Night Live cast member Laraine Newman still has a recording of her appearance at age 4 in a Kids Say The Darndest Thingssegment. When Linkletter asked why her twin brother hadn't come to the show with her, Newman helpfully explained: "Oh, he’s sick. His eyes were about to fall out from watching television."
With Arizona's new law bringing the issue back into the headlines, NBC is taking a close look at immigration on Wednesday -- a lonnnng close look. NBC News, its cable-news partners CNBC and MSNBC, and its Spanish-language corporate cousin Telemundo will air a day-long series of investigative reports on immigration.
"We've been talking for six months about focusing all our resources on immigration," says Alex Wallace, senior vice president of NBC News. "The story has been like a bubbling pot for a long time, and about two months ago, even before the Arizona law passed, we decided to do this."
The coverage, titled A Nation Divided, will extend across all the network's broadcast, cable and Internet outlets:
** NBC's Today show will feature reports on how immigration affects families, while NBC Nightly News will take a closer look at the Arizona law, as well as at other states considering similar measures.
** Telemundo will air stories from Arizona on three of its news shows,Levantate, Al Rojo Vivo con Maria Celesteand Jose Diaz-Balart's Noticiero Telemundo.
** Diaz-Balart will pop over to MSNBC to guest-host an hour-long show on immigration. Segments throughout the day will examine the politics of immigration reform, the details of pending legislation at both the state and federal levels and the prospects for Arizona's law surviving a court challenge. It will also take a look at a Virginia town that's launching its own crackdown on illegal immigrants.
** CNBC will focus on the economics of immigration and the tax implications of legalizing the current undocumented immigrants, estimated to be about 12 million people.
"We'll also have results of a new poll that deals with a lot of different facets," says Wallace. "This is a very fraught issue: What do Americans think we should do with people who are already here without documentation? What do they think of the Arizona law? What do they think about the way President Obama has handled it so far?"
The coverage will be far-ranging and full of surprises, Wallace says. "We've got a piece on a man whose two children and their mother have been deported," she says. "We've got another one that profiles Jackson Heights in New York, where there are immigrants from 17 different countries. We won't just covering the Latino side, either. We'll have stories on Haitians and other immigrants. The New York Times had a story the other day on Haitian immigrants going to Vermont by way of Canada -- this issue goes in directions you would never expect."
Focusing four networks on immigration for an entire day naturally raises the question of whether NBC will burn itself out on the issue and let it disappear. Wallace insists that won't be the case. "It's not like we haven't been covering this constantly anyway," she says. "But focusing on it like this enables us to reach more people. And if you tune it Wednesday and see something you like, and then two days later you don't , then we've failed. We have to ensure continuity of coverage. We're not going to drop the subject."
And, she promises, NBC won't burn out viewers, either. "It's not like you're going to get up, turn on the Today show, and see nothing but immigration stories the rest of the day," she says. "I promise."
A friend of mine in Los Angeles -- I'm withholding her name to spare her hate mail from Lost geeks, whose capacity for bile surpasses their actual numbers by a factor of about a million -- just sent me a note:
I never followed Lost. But last night, some friends had a finale viewing party, and I thought I'd go so I could watch both the finale and the retrospective to at least get an overview of characters, plot points, catchphrases, etc.
Well! Apparently I missed "the greatest show in the history of television," "the best known television show in the world," "the show that forever changed how television drama is written!"
What I saw was a mishmash of cliched characters, everything but the kitchen sink plotting, see it coming from a mile away "poignant" deaths, "ethnic diversity" in which nearly all the significant characters are white and the hero is a classically handsome white man and the black father and son have completely disappeared, "spirituality" that would sound superficial coming from a 14-year-old, a surprise ending you could figure out 30 minutes in, and oh yes, lots of people bloody and screaming.
Yet watching that for six years left a 22 year old guy at the viewing party sobbing at the ending. And me getting chewed out by the 38-year-old host for not understanding how profoundly important all this dreck was in the HISTORY OF TELEVISION.
Wow, OMG, what did I miss? 'Cause, frankly, on a good week, I think Gossip Girl has a better insight into human nature. I kept feeling that everybody at the party was confusing complexity with profundity -- sure, you could bring all your liberal arts education to bear on Lost and try to find philosophy in it, but to me it felt more like, "We'll just throw whatever shit we can brainstorm onto the screen and let the viewers have at it."
I wonder how much this has to do with age? There was, shall we say, something of a gap between me and most of the guests. Is Lost something that seems profound, original, moving, etc., etc., if you haven't watched the last 30 years of television, 'cause you weren't, you know, like born? Am I, as I was accused of being by the host, "arrogant, jaded and cynical"? Yes, for sure to the last two, but I was stung by the first. Your thoughts?
Here's my reply.
The insanely inflated hype for Lost the past few weeks has been a part of why I couldn't stand the show anymore, but only a part.
When Lost started out, it was a terrific show. The premise (a bunch of people stranded on a desert island with mysterious and somewhat threatening properties) and the stories (as flashbacks filled you in on the characters, each one turned out to be carrying sinister secrets) -- were utterly intriguing. The execution was excellent; even with all the flashbacks, Lost maintained a clear narrative line. The first season was excellent, the second and third, very good.
But the show began running downhill abruptly during the fifth season and was downright unwatchable by the sixth. It increasingly relied on gimmicks (time travel and alternate universes) that left the narrative hopelessly confused and the characterizations meaningless, since it was impossible to remember what world or year you were watching, and which characters might have been possessed by evil spirits. The show became self-consciously portentous, every action and word and even name imbued with multiple layers of symbolism and metaphor. Plot lines shot off in multiple directions, most of them ending in useless cul-de-sacs. Worse of all was the self-importance of the fangeeks, who bragged that they influenced the show's direction. If they did, it was certainly not to their intellectual credit, or that of the writers, either. Imagine Van Gogh painting in front of a studio audience, adding elements and colors in response to shout suggestions from drunken morons in the bleachers.
As for remaking television, horsebleep. Shows were using elliptical storytelling years before Lost came along. (Ever hear of Twin Peaks?) Heavily serialized storytelling goes back even further, to the prime-time soaps of the late 1970s. And I almost choked this morning when I saw a critic on a news show claiming that the relationship between social media and Lost was a technological first. There's way more Internet traffic about American Idol and Dancing With The Stars than about Lost.
The Lost finale drew 13.5 million viewers, a miserable flop for a show so heavily promoted. Compare that to M*A*S*H''s 105 million. Yes, that was a different era, the three-channel universe, but that's the point: As a media phenomenon, Lost was a lesser example from a lesser age. (The Friends finale, competing in its same zillion-channel era, drew more than twice as many viewers.) The bottom line is that the show outlasted both the creative juices of its creators and the interest of its viewers. You didn't miss a thing.