Television networks willing participants in their own destruction | Street Jazz

Monday, May 4, 2009

Television networks willing participants in their own destruction

Posted By on Mon, May 4, 2009 at 9:38 AM

This is the time of year when TV fans bite their nails, wondering if their favorite TV show will cut the mustard, so to speak, and return with new episodes in the fall (or at mid-season) or will buy the farm.

Television networks use the dreaded ratings system to determine if a show makes the grade. In what we often like to refer to as “The Olden Days,” programs were often given a chance to reach an audience, and to change, if their original format wasn’t working so well.

Does anyone remember those wretched early episodes of Bonanza? Well, they still run them on TV Land. But Bonanza was hardly the only offender. Many shows had to tinker with their cast and writing staff until they hit upon the winning formula.

Today, of course, television network executives have much sorter attention spans, and are less willing to give a show the chance to grow, even with the confines of a single season.

Indeed, Sci Fi, the magazine companion to the Sci Fi Channel, recenly revealed that, like so many other networks, they judge their audience numbers minute by minute.

Minute by minute? Is that a joke? Sadly, no.

I suppose if were truly creative, and had a project I truly cared about, I’d try to sell it to one of the smaller cable outlets, where it might actually be assured of a full season - even if the seasons are only a few episodes long.

Audiences just aren’t willing to invest their time and energy in the offerings the networks seem to offer, and they honestly can’t figure out why. 

Which, of course, reminds us of the old joke on Hee Haw:

“Doctor it hurts when I do this.” Patient moves body in certain way.

“Well, stop doing that!”

******

Gene Kelly - Going My Way?

Does anyone else remember that the great Gene Kelly played the Bing Crosby role in the TV version of Going My Way? I guess that will never show up on DVD.

Before you try to accurately guess my age, I was a little kid when I watched it.

*****

Quote of the Day

Whenever you receive a letter from a creditor write fifty lines upon some extra-terrestrial subject, and you will be saved. - Charles Baudelaire

****

The Incredible Hulk: Still better than the movies

In the late 1970s, several series and TV movies were based on Marvel comics characters. For the most part, they ranged from truly wretched (Doctor Strange, Captain America) to stupefyinly bad (Amazing Spider-Man). But with The Incredible Hulk, they were able to capture lightning in bottle, and entertain audiences for five seasons - well, four and a half.

When producer Kenneth Johnson (The Six Million Dollar Man, Alien Nation) brought the green behemoth to CBS in 1977, he wisely jettisoned most of what made the Hulk work so well in comic book form. Gone were the large supporting cast, and the rogue's gallery of villains. Instead,
Johnson and star Bill Bixby (My Favorite Martian, The Magician, The Courtship of Eddie's Father)  opted to go for smaller, more "human" stories that fit well within the confines of a television series.

It was The Fugitive, only with more attitude.

One of the changes made was to change the name of the scientist who turns into the Hulk from "Bruce Banner" into "David Banner," since - according to original Marvel comics honcho Stan Lee - the studio felt that "Bruce Banner" sounded too "gay."

Can't have that, can we? Later, of course, we are given to understand that Bruce is the character's middle name.

The Incredible Hulk could have been just as bad as the other attempts at bringing Marvel characters to the screen at the time, but within the format of an adventure series (even one in which the hero turns into a green giant and goes on rampages) Johnson managed to produce stories that hold up well, even today.

First off, they had to introduce the character to the general public, by way of the pilot movie.

In the pilot film, instead of being exposed to gamma radiation during a military test, David Banner - now a medical researcher - is exposed during a foolhardy experiment while trying to tap into the hidden reserves of strength that he suspects that all humans possess. Those same reserves which he was unable to call upon when a tragic car accident took the life of his wife some years before.

Though the experiment seems to be a failure, later that night, David turns into the Hulk in a frustrated state while trying to change his flat tire in a terrible storm.

When he awakens, he has no memory of what has happened.

The Hulk itself was played by the impressive Lou Ferrigno, who is actually a lot more fun to watch than any CGI effect. Though he never speaks, his face is very expressive. The wig is kinda hard to take, though.

David enlists the aid of fellow scientist Susan Sullivan - Falcon Crest) to understand the creature, and hopefully prevent the metamorphosis from happening again. Along the way, both doctors are harassed by Jack McGee, a reporter for a National Enquirer-sort of rag, who becomes a regular on the series.

Sadly, tragedy occurs, and Banner must fake his own death, with McGee hot on the trail on the creature blamed for his and his fellow researcher's deaths.

The casting of Bill Bixby was inspired casting. Bixby, reluctant to accept the role at first, became enthusiastic after reading the script for the pilot movie. Bixby brought gravitas to the role of the classic "man on the run" that few others could have mastered, especially in a show that could have so easily veered off into camp, or super-villain of the week crap.

But for the most part, Johnson managed to keep the writing standard fairly high, as David dealt with child abusers, gangsters, and the hundred and one challenges a man on the road might face. On more than one occasion, he is forced to use his medical skills, ala Richard Kimble in The Fugitive.

Included with the DVD is the two-part (now edited into movie length form) episode,"Married,  in which David Banner seeks help from Dr. Carolyn Fields (Mariette Hartley) a practitioner of a new form of hypnotic therapy, of teaching the body to fight the diseased cells. He discovers that she originated the therapy because she is terminally ill with an illness similar to ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease).

With a death sentence hanging over her head, David agrees to help her, if she will help him. They fall in love, get married, and she dies in his arms - or rather, the Hulk's arms, in the middle of a hurricane.

The episode offers some fascinating look at the theory, which others have expounded on over the years. The theory wasn't new when it appeared on the program, but I haven't read much about recently.

Mariette Hartley won an Emmy award for her performance in this episode.

When you look at the pilot movie and this movie-length episode, it really is no surprise that the series lasted as long as it did. It wasn't so much about David Banner Hulking-out, as it was about simple humanity.

This doesn't satisfy comic book purists, who would prefer that the series have been a slug-fest from start to finish. But the show had heart, and integrity. Something sadly lacking in the big-screen extravaganzas, which are mainly just two hours of special effects, and little else.

It may not be the comic-book Hulk, but the movies on this DVD are pretty good solid entertainment. If the film-makers had studied these, they might have improved the theater offerings a little.

Oh, yeah, and it's nice to see the Hulk throw bad guys through walls. Who hasn't wanted to do that?

rsdrake@nwark.com

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