Wednesday, August 06, 2014

My TV Book Addiction

(Editor’s note: Perhaps not surprisingly, author-screenwriter Lee Goldberg -- who’s concocted scripts for such TV series as Diagnosis: Murder, Spenser: For Hire and Monk, and penned more than a dozen Monk TV tie-in novels -- is a big fan of television history books. In the piece below, he assesses the strengths [and often multiple weaknesses] of several entries in that specialized genre. He wants it known that he purchased all of these books. They were not provided to him for review.)

I have an addiction -- I love books about television, even if they are about shows I don’t like or have never watched. I buy them on the off-chance I will learn something about the business, or about production, or about writing that I didn’t know before. I especially like books about old TV shows, because then I also learn something about television history. I’m telling you all of this so you’ll understand what possessed me to buy Jonathan Etter’s 640-page book devoted to Here Come the Brides, a boring, utterly forgettable Western series that lasted a mere two seasons in the late 1960s and is known, if at all, for a catchy theme song (“Seattle”) and for featuring Bobby Sherman and David Soul among its cast.

I don’t care about the show -- the few episodes I’ve seen were lousy -- but I really liked Etter’s Gangway, Lord: The Here Come the Brides Book: A Behind-the-Scenes History of the 1968-70 ABC-TV Series from those crazy folks at BearManor Media (they’ve got to be crazy to publish books like this … but I love them for it). So why did I like the book if I could care less about the show? Because it’s packed with fascinating information about other shows. For instance, William Blinn, the creator of Here Come the Brides, spends a lot of time here talking about writing the TV series Bonanza and Shane, and that’s great stuff. And Brides star Robert Brown talks about almost starring in Hawaii Five-O, and his work on the unsold pilots The Yellow Bird, with Carroll O’Connor, and Colossus, with William Shatner, among others. So it’s for those golden nuggets that I was willing to slog through seemingly endless, pointless chapters about actress Bridget Hanley (who?) and her marriage to director E.W. Swackhamer, or the tragic details of Mark Lenard’s multiple melanoma that took his life long after the series was over. This book desperately needed a good editor, but I’m glad it didn’t have one, because it’s the stuff that had nothing to do with the show -- the stuff that should have been cut -- that I liked best. If you are one of the dozen living fans of Here Come the Brides, you will absolutely love this book. Every episode is examined in-depth and every regular and guest cast member, and almost every crew member, with the possible exception of the caterer, is interviewed about his or her life and career.

Here’s the irony, though, of my liking a book so much about a show that I could care less about: I bought David R. Greenland’s The Gunsmoke Chronicles: A New History of Television’s Greatest Western, also from BearManor Media, because I love Gunsmoke (1955-1975), and yet I got nothing out of it at all. It’s a pointless book, a bland rehash of material presented better, and in more depth, by other books about the show. Oddly enough, Greenland acknowledges that fact in his preface: “By 2006, three books about the show had reached the marketplace, and even I conceded that the world did not need another.” Yet, he wrote one anyway, and shouldn’t have bothered, because he adds nothing new or particularly interesting to our understanding of the series. It’s filler masquerading as content. Unlike the Here Come the Brides book, there’s no gold here about other shows to make it a worthwhile purchase. Skip it.

Martin Grams Jr.’s The Time Tunnel: A History of the Television Series (BearManor) is much like the book on Here Come the Brides. It’s a massive work (nearly 600 pages in length) about a TV failure (The Time Tunnel lasted a single season, from 1966 to 1967) that’s packed with lots of interesting information … about director-producer Irwin Allen and his other shows and about the TV landscape of the late 1960s. Everything you could possibly want to know about Time Tunnel is here, from the original pitch to information on all of Allen’s attempts to do another time-travel series after it was cancelled; from the number of pages shot on a particular day to the cost of individual props; from the notes written by ABC-TV censors on each script to lists of the stock music cues in each episode; from exhaustively detailed synopses of each broadcast episode to detailed descriptions of the episodes that weren’t shot. There’s almost too much stuff. It’s as if Grams decided he had to put every single fact that came across his desk into this book just because he had them. The upside is that there’s something for everybody here, whether your interest is in TV production accounting or screenwriting. The downside is that it makes for tedious reading, even if you are really into the show or into TV history.

As I said, I love BearManor Media; it, and to a lesser degree, McFarland & Co., are my pimps. BearMedia publishes TV books that no right-minded publisher would ever touch. Who else would release books about the Western Temple Houston or the sitcom Good Morning, World, two shows that barely survived for a single season each back in the 1960s (and that I’ve never even seen)? You could probably fit all the potential readers of these last two books comfortably in a motor home for a dinner party.

Jeffrey Hunter and Temple Houston: A Story of Network Television, by Glenn A. Mosley, is a mess of a book (though it’s much better than his volume about the TV series The Deputy). As the title suggests, this work isn’t quite sure what it’s about. Is it about actor Jeffrey Hunter? Is it about Temple Houston (1963-1964)? Or is it about network television? Basically, it’s three lengthy magazine articles -- one on the very short-lived Temple Houston, one on the aborted Robert Taylor Show and one on Jeffrey Hunter’s disappointing career, all of them stitched together into a thin, and yet very padded, book. Still, the stories of Temple Houston and the never-aired Robert Taylor Show are fascinating, and with a cover price of just $14.95, this book is well worth the time for any student of TV history to read.

The more apt title for this book might have been A Perfect Storm of Bad Decisions. It recounts how Warner Bros. chose to replace the president of its TV division with actor-director Jack Webb, how NBC decided to cancel the drama The Robert Taylor Show four episodes into production without ever airing an episode, and how the network’s determination to rush Warner Bros./Four Star’s Temple Houston into production to fill the void, doomed them all. Mosley sums it up in his introduction.
In making the decision in the manner that it did, NBC effectively sealed the fate of two television franchises. The Robert Taylor Show would never see the light of day and, in the end, Temple Houston hardly stood a chance. NBC, Warner Brothers, and even Four Star would all end up in weaker positions as a result … Temple Houston has most often been dismissed as simply a failed, one-season Western on television. Fair enough -- so it was. But the story of Temple Houston is more than that; it is also the story of the intersection points between careers, Hollywood Studios, and network television.
And it’s a great untold story, one full of mistakes that neither NBC nor Warner Bros., or any other network or studios for that matter, learned from … and so were doomed to repeat many times over. There’s a lot of filler in this 154-page work, but on the strength of the Temple Houston and Robert Taylor Show stories alone, I recommend it for your TV reference book library.

Sadly, I can’t be as complimentary of Good Morning, World (BearMedia), by Tim Colliver, who wrote this very thin, heavily padded book because the short-lived, 1967-1968 CBS sitcom about a radio station inspired him to become a DJ. The problem is, that show just wasn’t very good and there wasn’t anything remotely interesting about it on any other level. As both Joby Baker, the long-forgotten star of the series, and the author of the book put it:
[Baker] also thought the scripts could have been better … a lot better.

“The reason I had trouble memorizing the lines is that they were horrible fucking lines.” … Throughout the course of the series, Baker thought the scripts were “corny” and the show “not really funny at times.” In all fairness, in looking back on the episodes now that they are on DVD, he was on to something.
Which begs the question, why write a book about a lousy show? Or better yet, why read one? My answer to both questions is: don’t. ◊

(This review has been edited from a two-part post that appeared originally in Lee Goldberg’s blog -- part I here, part II here.)

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Blogger Sue Bursztynski said...

I have a friend who positively revels in obscure TV shows! He's an expert on them and does panels about them at SF conventions.

I never saw Here Come The Brides, but at least one well-known writer enjoyed it; Barbara Hambly's Trek novel Ishmael is centred around it, mainly because Mark Lenard was lso Sarek in Star Trek. But she must have liked it enough to do a novel on it.

I, too, enjoy books about TV shows. Thanks for the post!

Saturday, August 9, 2014 at 9:17:00 AM PDT  

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