Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Much Better This Time

Category: Television Review

In March, I reviewed America the Wright Way from the Travel Channel. I was none too pleased with Ian Wright's ridiculous travel across America. In fact, I could not make it past the first commercial break.
Apparently the Travel Channel saw the error of its way: even as frequently as they repeat shows (I have most of the RV Crazy! narration memorized simply from having seen it so frequently), America the Wright Way has disappeared from the station's line-up faster than the "no smoking" signs around Anthony Bourdain.

The Travel Channel has kept the "Brit exploring the States" scenario and revamped it, this time as Lawrence of America. Lawrence of America is hosted by Lawrence Beldon-Smythe, a British reporter and "truth-seeker." Each 30-minute episode has Beldon-Smythe at different American spots in the name of "journalism" (Beldon-Smythe might be the first graduate of the University of Borat): a NASCAR race, Las Vegas, NASA's Cape Kennedy, Nashville's country music scene.

Unlike the earlier attempt at showing us our own country through British eyes, Lawrence of America is funny. Beldon-Smythe is far more endearing to the audience than the obnoxious Ian Wright had been. While not side-splitting (unless you're a major fan of British humor -- or is that humour?), Lawrence could definitely teach some other Travel Channel hosts a thing or two about comedy.

Beldon-Smythe will probably never replace Bourdain, Andrew Zimmern, or Samantha Brown on the list of "top Travel Channel hosts," but his brilliantly-portrayed buffoonery deserves to be kept on the channel. It also deserves a couple of those aforementioned repeats, because currently episodes (two back-to-back shows) only air once a week (Tuesday nights at 11 and 11:30, eastern).

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Death of a Legendary TV Icon

Category: Obituary

No, not Tim Russert.

With all the nonstop coverage of Russert's sudden death on June 13, lost in the shuffle was the announcement of the passing of legendary sportscaster Charlie Jones.

Much like Jim McKay, who died last week, Jones was an icon of the "three channel days" (as comedian Tim Wilson named them). Jones worked on ABC's Wide World of Sports with McKay. He also covered the American Football League football games before the merger, and even after the merger was a commentator on NBC Sports. He was also a noted regional sportscaster, having covered during his career the Dallas Texans (now the Cowboys) during their inaugural season and the Cincinnati Reds for two seasons in 1973-74.

Jones won an Emmy for his documentary Is Winning the Name of the Game? in 1973.

Charlie Jones was 77 and suffered a heart attack at his home in La Jolla, California.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Let Your Old Captain Handle This

Category: Review

If you think modern television shows have hokey plots, try this one on for size: A millionaire police homicide captain who shows up at the crime scene in a chauffeured car to begin his investigation.

That "hokey plot" is the scenario for Burke's Law, which I discovered in reruns as a teenager. It has since become either my favorite show or in the top three (depending on the mood). The great news is that part of the first season of Burke's Law is now available on DVD in the U.S.

Burke's Law was the first hit for the late Aaron Spelling as a producer, and it was a series that the "A" list celebrities of the day begged to be on. (Examples: Frank Sinatra's cameo in "Who Killed Wade Walker?" Sammy Davis Jr.'s brief dancing appearance in "Who Killed Alex Debbs?") Each episode began with a murder, followed by a phone call to Captain Amos Burke (who was usually entertaining a beautiful woman) and a dash to the scene of the crime in his Rolls Royce. Each episode was titled "Who Killed (the name of the murder victim)?"

So why was this so good? First, the acting. Gene Barry (Captain Burke) was superb in delivering one-liners with the straightest face. Gary Conway (who went on to star in Land of the Giants) played the hotshot young detective Tim Tilson, always trying to show off how much he'd learned in college. Then there was Leon Lontoc, who played Burke's chauffeur/butler, Henry. While sometimes restricted to the typical early 60s Oriental servant stereotype (think of the minimal use of Bruce Lee in The Green Hornet, which star Van Williams objected to and pressured the producers to rectify, resulting in the cancellation of the series after one year), Henry could also rip off some zingers. One of the most classic had Henry mumbling in his native language. When Burke asked for a translation, Henry huffed, "I said I never had this much trouble when I worked for the Green Hornet!"

Secondly was the writing. Ostensibly a crime drama, Burke's Law was dang funny. The plot should make that fact obvious; however, there were other elements that made the show as comical as any sitcom (and funnier than some). For one thing, Amos had a list of sayings about situations, which he would spout off: "Never let your brain interfere with your heart, your stomach, or your wallet. It's Burke's law." (A collection of the "Burke's laws" is one of the extras in the DVD set.) Any time the investigation involved a beautiful female, Burke would tell his associates, "Let your old captain handle this one."

However, it was a crime show, and there was a murder (or sometimes several murders) to solve. The shows were very well written to leave the identity of the murderer hanging. Sometimes the guilty party was obvious; other times it was a total shock.

And, yes, the celebrities (many of whom appear in pre-superstar roles, such as Elizabeth Montgomery in "Who Killed Mr. X?") make the show fun to watch now in retrospect. While most of us remember Paul Lynde as the wisecracking Uncle Arthur on Bewitched or the joking "center square" on Hollywood Squares, he appeared in two episodes and turned in fine performances.

The only drawback is that the series is being issued a little at a time. Only 16 of the first season's 32 episodes are on DVD at the moment, which means (a) more money to spend or, sadly (b) they can stop putting out the DVDs if they don't sell well. I hope the latter isn't the case, though. Burke's Law is a joy, even 45 years after it first appeared on television.

Burke's Law season one, part one

Saturday, June 7, 2008

The Thrill of Victory....

Category: Tribute

Once in a while, while murmuring about the rapidly-approaching minimum age to join AARP, something appears in the news that makes me thankful I grew up when I did. Seeing ESPN's tribute to Jim McKay this morning is one of those moments.

Comedian Tim Wilson refers to them as "the three channel days," when there weren't boatloads of choices for sports channels. No NFL Network or NBA Network, just a couple of baseball games every week (Saturday afternoon and, later, Monday night), and football games that were considered an afterthought as evidenced by the infamous "Heidi game" of 1968 (where NBC stopped covering a game with a minute left in order to air a movie in its entirety). It is that era in which I was raised, the era of Jim McKay.

McKay was a welcome friend every week thanks to ABC's Wide World of Sports. His opening catch phrase, "the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat," has become part of American popular culture. He told us the thrill of victory over 12 Olympics, and the horror of the '72 terrorist attacks on the Israeli Olympic athletes.

That is the sad thing about McKay's passing. I'm sure a lot of people who saw the tributes to him shrugged off the notion of pre-cable days, something that is as foreign to them as someone hosting The Tonight Show before Jay Leno. The fact is that we couldn't have an ESPN or Fox Sports Network or the other multitude of sports announcers without people like Jim McKay paving the way, making the profession respectable and classy.

And that he did, as his 13 Emmy Awards prove. In fact, McKay was the first sportscaster to ever take home an Emmy. Throughout his career he brought numerous sporting events with a rare and difficult combination of fan-like enthusiasm and professional reporter. And, although he has not been active in broadcasting recently, he will be missed. His influence, however, will remain as long as sports are aired on television.

Jim McKay was 86 and died June 7 of natural causes.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Rock's Mount Rushmore Loses A Member

Category: Obituary

Here's a story that I really wanna tell
It's about Bo Diddley at the O.K. Corral
Now Bo Diddley didn't start no mess
He had a gun on his hip and a rose on his vest
'Cause Bo Diddley's a gunslinger

("Bo Diddley's a Gunslinger")

The fourth face on a mythical rock and roll Mount Rushmore would probably be open for debate. Buddy Holly or Bill Haley? Jackie Brenston (Ike Turner's sax player under whose name the "first rock and roll song," "Rocket 88," was released) or Little Richard? However, there would most likely be no argument for the other three faces: Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley.

Ellas Bates, or Ellas McDaniel, better known as Bo Diddley, died Monday of heart failure. "Unique and influential" is how Joel Whitburn's entry identifies Diddley. "Understatement" is what most people would say to that description. However, to be fair to Whitburn, he is limited by space in his Billboard books.

Forget what those popular (and very humorous) Nike commercials said, Bo knew Diddley. He knew the blues, too, having grown up in Mississippi. He listened to everything from Louis Jordan to Nat "King" Cole and put it all into his music, which was powered by what he called "drum licks on the guitar" played on that trademark box-shaped guitar of his. He was one of the earliest performers inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, being enshrined in its second "class" in 1987, and for good reason: Rock and roll would be completely different music without Bo's influence.

Farewell to the legendary Bo Diddley, dead at age 79.