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Thursday, August 23, 2012

'The Lieutenant:' Roddenberry's 'Before They Were Stars' Series

Warner Archives' recent release of the "Must Buy" two volume DVD set of "Star Trek" creator and god Gene Roddenberry's first television series the 1963-1964 drama/quasi-anthology series "The Lieutenant" is another example of how Archives is slowly catching up with the awesome Shout Factory as the provider of wonderful (and sometimes obscure) TV shows.

The WB Shop's description of "The Lieutenant" as a "A young Marine Corp lieutenant struggles to carry out his duties while under the guidance of a by-the-book captain during cold war peacetime" summarizes the show very well. 

It is worth mentioning that this overall serious series has a hilarious moment in which a general who is leading the titular lieutenant around the Pentagon comments that they are entering the only place in Washington where every man knows what he is doing. The next shot shows that the officers entered a restroom.

Fans of classic TV can also consider "The Lieutenant" a mash-up of "Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C." and "Star Trek." 

Like Enterprise Captain James Tiberius Kirk, Marine Lieutenant William Tiberius (no joke) Rice, who is played by "2001: A Space Odyssey's" Gary Lockwood, is a human mullet in that he is all business in front and all party in the back. Both  intelligent and dedicated military officers enjoy the ladies and latent homoerotic bonding with fellow officers. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

Kirk and Rice were also Starfleet's and the Marine's "go guy" when the Klingons or other hostile aliens or an earth-bound challenge required a tough officer with a cool head and dedication to his federation or country. The similarity continued with Kirk being from Iowa and only working in outer space and Rice being from Indiana and only working at the California Marine base Camp Pendleton.

While Kirk commanded Starfleet's flagship, Rice commanded a platoon of infantry soldiers. Many episodes required that both men step out of that role to serve as a diplomat/goodwill ambassador or investigate an internal or external threat to good order.

Additionally, both Kirk's William Shatner and Rice's Lockwood were well-known for egos that greatly exceeded their looks and abilities. Apparently Larry Hagman had already committed to playing Air Force Captain (later Major) on "I Dream of Jeannie."

Rice and Kirk additionally also often faced the same dilemma when doing the right thing conflicted with the Prime Directive, which prohibited interfering with a planet's domestic policies, or other regulations. The fact that the bad guy on both series often was not really evil complicated things and was another reason that Gene Roddenberry is still so revered nearly 50 years after "The Lieutenant" premiered. He is at the top of my list of celebrities with whom I would have enjoyed sharing a Romulan ale.

An early episode of "The Lieutenant" titled "The Proud and the Angry" illustrates the above concepts well and also channels many elements of "Pyle" and the novel/film "The Great Santini." The plot has Rice going undercover as a recruit to investigate claims that a drill sergeant is brutalizing the marines that he is training. 

The drill sergeant setting high standards on the obstacle course, repeatedly shouting "I can't hear you," and yelling at recruits to stop smiling is Pyle's Sergeant Carter on the worst day of his life.

As a side note, an unrecognizable Rip Torn plays "The Lieutenant's" sergeant. This character is light years in appearance and demeanor from Artie on "The Larry Sanders Show" and Agent Zed on "Men in Black."

"Angry" requires Rice, and "The Lieutenant's" audience, to decide how tough is too tough. A directly referenced element of this is the fact that the newly minted marines will likely need to survive in Vietnam. Further, the sergeant lacks ill intent and has trouble not bringing his work home with him.

Roddenberry also addresses racism in "The Lieutenant" before presenting the highly controversial interracial kiss in "Star Trek." "The Lieutenant's" episode "To Set it Right," which the DVD sets includes but Wikipedia reported never aired during the series' network run, depicts the racism that a black marine faced. Nichelle Nichols, whose Uhara locked lips with Kirk in the aforementioned kiss, played the marine's fiancee.  

"The Lieutenant" also has some of the range in tone that distinguished "Star Trek." It did not go from an invasion of small furry creatures to godlike aliens threatening utter destruction. However, the first episode has the typically charming Bill Bixby as a new marine conning his way out of unpleasant assignments and the final episode has Rice battling an enemy army in a Southeast Asia jungle after his helicopter is shot down. 

The DVD set includes the extended version of the final episode that was released in movie theaters as a film. See a topless sexually aggressive woman and Rice using the term "bitch" in that 1964 movie based on a television series is surprising.

These episodes (and many others) illustrate many elements that made the series, and "Star Trek," so good but also contributed to "The Lieutenant" not lasting beyond one season. It's portrayal of all elements of military life is very consistent with my limited knowledge of that element of American society, the issues described above and many others that include false accusations of sexual assault and a subordinate taking advantage of a decades-long friendship are relevant today, and the Vietnam War was on everyone's mind.

One problem was that the American public did not want the Vietnam War invading their entertainment television, particularly during "The Lieutenant's" Saturday night time slot. They may not also have been quite ready to see accurate depictions of racism or be reminded that school teachers have some similarities to marines in being overworked and underpaid while being held to very high moral standards.

"The Lieutenant" probably would have done better in the '70s, particularly if it had followed Roddenberry's initial limited success with "Star Trek." 

Anyone with thoughts regarding "The Lieutenant," or "Star Trek" jokes that do not involve Uranus, is welcome to email me. Live long and prosper.

Monday, August 13, 2012

'The Forsyte Saga:' The Carringtons of 'Downton Abbey'

American fans of good period British dramas arguably would have been deprived of current PBS "Masterpiece Theater" megahit "Downton Abbey" if the 2003-2004  "Masterpiece Theater" powerhouse "The Forsyte Saga" had not been such a hit. A poll showed that "Forsyte" was the number two favorite of PBS viewers at the time.

Acorn Media, which is to high-quality classic British television what Shout Factory is to comparable classic American programs, will release both series, my people call them seasons, of the mid-Victorian to early Modern Era "Forsyte" in one DVD collection on August 14, 2012. As a bonus, the collection includes the original UK versions of this 2002-2003 production.

This "Forsyte" was a remake of the classic 1960s version of that epic, which was also a huge "Masterpiece Theater" hit. Fresh memories of the not-so-amazing "The Amazing Spider-Man" and less recent memories of bombs such as the "Bewitched" movie had me in a cynical frame of mind regarding "Forsyte."

I confess as well that the frantic melodramatic pace and bombardment of numerous characters in the opening scenes of the first episode of "Forsyte" added to my skepticism. However, the series won me over within 15 minutes and never lost me.

The action quickly slowed to an appropriate pace for a costume drama, and there were several moments of wonderful humor. My favorite had an elder Forsyte ranting on and on about the ruthlessness of debt collectors who had descended on his daughter's household only to quickly remark that his firm used the same collectors.

The first series revolved around the fortunes and (mostly lost) loves of the 30-something Forsyte generation who could be considered the equivalents of JFK and his siblings minus the political activity and touch football.

The many inter-class romances of the Forsytes, who often recycled significant others among themselves, added a touch of 80s primetime soap "Dynasty," which had its own Forsythe, to the "Downton Abbey" manor house vibe of "Forsyte."

However, the comparison with "Dynasty" ends there. The quality of the acting, writing, and directing of "Forsyte" is much more comparable to "Downton Abbey" than "Dynasty."

Seeing Damian Lewis, who currently plays "Homeland's" earnest but tortured Marine Nicholas Brody, playing arrogant and largely inadequate Soames Forsyte is great fun. The show also has personal favorite Rupert Graves doing a great job as Soames' cousin (and governess romancer) Jolyon Forsyte.

The second series of Forstye, which the Acorn DVD set includes, has the offspring of Soames' and Jolyon's generation contending with their heritage and seeking their own happiness in the era of manor houses giving way to a more egalitarian and urban-based society.

Anyone with questions or comments regarding "Forsyte" is encouraged to email me.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

'Are You Being Served' Celebrates 40th Anniversary

A trifecta of anniversaries makes 2012 the year of the Brit. The Olympics returned to London after 64 years, Queen Elizabeth II celebrated 60 years of ruling the British Empire, and the classic Britcom  (and public television mainstay) “Are You Being Served” premiered 40 years ago this September.
The vital statistics are that “Served” aired 69 episodes over 10 series (my people call them seasons), spawned a movie and a spin-off series, and likely will continue airing on public television for the next 40 years.
“Served” had the same perfect recipe that transformed the similar ‘70s workplace comedy “The Mary Tyler Show” into a classic that is still hilarious several decades later. Both shows had excellent writing, a talented ensemble that clearly enjoyed performing together, and actors who deeply understood their characters.
John Inman and Molly Sugden owned the parts of the effervescent and flamboyant Mr. Humphries and the blustery Mrs. Slocombe as much as Ted Knight and Ed Asner owned the roles of buffoonish anchorman Ted Baxter and gruff news producer Lou Grant. Also, thinking of Harold Bennett’s dirty old man Young Mr. Grace evokes as much of a smile as thinking of Moore’s spunky Mary Richards.
“Served” substituted “Moore’s” WJM newsroom for the sales floor of London’s Grace Brothers department store. “Served” also created slightly more of an edge by working amusing and gentle conflict directly into the program’s underlying concepts.
The gentlemen’s and ladies’ department battled for space in their shared environment, the clerks in both departments competed for commissioned sales, and employees on every tier conflicted with their immediate supervisors.
Much of the humor revolved around how each distinct character responded to the conflict. One could expect Mrs. Slocombe to utter the phrase “I am unanimous in that” in response to virtually every harsh decision from above or other “mistreatment” around which an episode revolved. Mr. Humphries would keep his toothy grin intact. Floor overseer Captain Peacock would defend his dignity and try to maintain discipline, and junior men’s clerk Mr. Lucas would play the role of the bratty little brother.
The aforementioned writing and acting were what kept that formula entertaining for an entire decade and has had me and my friends asking each other “are you free” for much longer.

Friday, August 3, 2012

2012 Summer Olympics Show Value of International DVD Players

The 2012 Summer Olympics, and a dearth of new TV on DVD releases, prompted thoughts on the numerous virtues of multi-region DVDs players. Buying one a few years ago is one of my best ever investments.

My most recent purchase of a DVD series from across the pond is the first series, my people call them seasons, of the Britcom "Twenty Twelve" about the challenges of organizing said 2012 Summer Olympics. This one stars "Downton Abbey's" Hugh Bonneville as the UK's answer to Mitt Romney sans enchanted undergarments.

Readers who followed me from my stints at other sites know that I believe that British programs kick the arse of what America offers. This is largely due to each British series, my people call them seasons, having six episodes compare to 20-22 episodes of most American offerings.

A genuinely multi-region DVD player allows watching Region 1 DVDs from the US and Region 2 DVDs from the United Kingdom, as well as DVDS from any other place in the world, in the comfort of your own living room.

I more than made up the $70 for my Pioneer DV-120K with my first purchase from Amazon.Co.UK.

I am a HUGE fan of the modern Doctor Who series but balked at paying the $45 or more per series. I paid roughly $60 US, including shipping, for a truly great Region 2 box set of the first four series of this era of "Doctor Who." That order included a $45 set of the first three series of the "Who" companion series "Torchwood."

I subsequently have bought numerous other TV on DVD sets of British shows for at least one-half, again including shipping, of what they cost in the US. A recent example is buying series two of "Sherlock" for roughly $8 US. This set of three episodes costs around $20 in the US.

I additionally have bought many UK series that I do not believe have been shown in the US and have not been released on DVD here. One of the best examples is a hilarious hour-long dramedy "Monday Monday" about the administrative staff of a grocery store chain that relocate to a new area. This workplace comedy has the same stereotypes as the US version of "The Office" but is a much better and quirkier show.

Another of the many great UK programs that  have not aired in the US is "FM." This one, which is similar to "WKRP in Cincinnati" and the lesser-known Carl Reiner  '60s sitcom "Good Morning World," depicts the world of a group of "wild and crazy" British DJs. 

"FM" stars "IT Crowd's" highly talented and wonderfully odd Chris O'Dowd. The program also introduced me to the adorable and hilarious British comedian Kevin Bishop.

Other examples of great shows to which I have been exposed are the Jennifer "Absolutely Fabulous" Saunders and Dawn "Vicar of Dibley" French small-town sitcom "Wild West," and the "It's Garry Shandling's Show" clone "Sean's Show."

The virtues of being able to watch  Region 2 DVDs extends beyond being good access to great British shows. Some DVD sets of US shows are less expensive there, and I have discovered great bargains on DVD releases of US shows that have never come out here.

My finds have included well-priced Region 2 sets of the '90s sitcoms "Caroline in the City" and "Cybill."  It seems that only the first two seasons of "Caroline" were released in the US and only a 13-episode "best of" set of "Cybill" was released.

The rest of this post is intended for readers who I convinced to buy a multi-region DVD player. This portion will discuss the homework that I did in avoiding pitfalls experienced by others who made the same purchase.

I read numerous reports of folks who experienced frustration regarding programming their multi-region DVD players to play the desired discs and separately finding an adapter for that player.

I cannot stress enough that I bought my Pioneer DV-120K a few years ago and cannot comment regarding whether anything has changed in the interim. My player immediately played my Region 1 and Region 2 discs (I have not tried DVDs from any other region.) just fine. 

My player also included an adapter that perfectly fit in my outlet. The only minor annoyance regarding that is that the player's plug falls out of the adapter somewhat easily if the cord is jostled. That  has only happened a few times and not for several months.

The other problem about which I read online was that manufacturers would not honor any warranty for multi-region DVD players. I understand that that was because DVD players became multi-region by having resellers open them up and make adjustments to allow that benefit.

I bought my Pioneer player from because they offer a warranty, have a customer-service line, and have a brick-and-mortar location. My DVD player has never required service, so I cannot remark on the quality of any necessary repair. 

Every dealing that I have had with suggests that they would honor the warranty and do a good job.

I am eager to hear from anyone else with a multi-region DVD player or who buys one after reading this posting. Please also feel free to email any questions or concerns regarding this.