Monday, July 7, 2008

Hulking Out On TV

The last few weeks have provided an abundance of classic TV shows releases on DVD. Some, such as The Invaders and Mannix, are making their debut on the format, while others, like Hawaii Five-O and Mission: Impossible, already have several seasons under their digital belt. After a large delivery from Amazon, a friend remarked “You couldn’t possibly have time to watch them all!”, and she’s probably right. My counter argument was based on the idea that actually watching them wasn’t the point – it was having them with the option of watching. This didn’t fly, and I was left in the familiar position of looking like a maniac.

I grew up in the 70s as an unapologetic TV junkie. I would watch shows like Banacek and Rockford Files when I was way too young to follow plot, but the theme songs and credits hooked me, and for the next 55min I felt like I had tagged along with an older brother and was hanging out with his friends; I didn’t have the slightest idea what anyone was talking about, but I was confident that I was in the company of cool. By the time of Quincy M.E. and the dawn of the 80s, I was following plots (note to Jim Rockford – never trust an old army buddy), looking forward to the reappearance of familiar performers (“great, it’s that guy with the moustache that looks like an angry Tom Selleck!”) and beginning to realize that the heyday of the mystery series was almost over. In the 80s I witnessed the last gasp of the charm quotient in the detective show; Remington Steele and Simon & Simon played heavily off the considerable comedic acumen of its stars, emphasizing character interplay over plot. The wind began to change with Law & Order and its cinema verite style and strict adherence to plot at the expense of character and back-story. It took mass audiences a few years to catch on – it would be the near round-the-clock reruns on A&E in the late 90s that turned it into a massive hit – but within a few years it became its own acronym-happy franchise, with SVU and CI satellite shows dominating NBCs prime time schedule. Soon, CBS took the detective to the edge of Sci-Fi with CSI, which dragged the science of forensic pathology from Quincy (where a body was never shown on an autopsy table) into a near-futuristic world where millions of dollars worth of lab equipment and time is spent on each and every homicide in Las Vegas (and, later, Miami and New York). Want to see a bullet pass through a pancreas in high definition? Pull up a chair! To this day, CBS’s Pathoporn lineup have proved a ratings bonanza – and become the standard template for police shows.
The purpose of that lengthy diatribe was to partially justify the acquisition of dozens of seasons of television shows that are older than I am. Besides the abysmal quality of what passes for television drama today, I can’t get over the obscene convenience of being able to hold an entire season of a favorite show in just a handful of DVDs. Some postscript cheers and jeers – some shows, like Hawaii Five-O and Mission: Impossible have been given sterling digital brush-ups and look positively luminous (oddly, the same studio – Paramount/CBS – that seemingly takes such great care of its television legacy, arbitrarily decides to release only frustrating ½ season editions of The Fugitive and Streets of San Francisco).

On the subject of The Fugitive, I think that I may have stumbled across a bit of a personal touchstone. I grew up watching The Fugitive in syndication; not actually following it, mind you, just watching it. Something about the injustice of Dr. Richard Kimble’s persecution filtered down to me through the weary gaze of David Jansen (and was there ever a more perfect marriage of actor and role? No matter who Jansen played, he looked like the Devil was 5 steps behind him). While I’m not sure that I realized he was a doctor, I definitely knew that he didn’t like working as a stock boy or a ranch hand. I also knew that he could help people who were sick, and that if he ever displayed too much medical knowledge, his cover might be blown. It’s always been one of my favorite shows, but it wasn’t until this past year that I realized that The Fugitive had a sister show.

Produced nearly a full decade later, The Incredible Hulk was a true television rarity; a successful adaptation of a comic character to the screen. Note please that prior to Superman: The Movie in 1978, the only popular comic character to make the leap was the ultra-camp Batman with Adam West and Burt Ward in the 60s, so it must have seemed like a huge gamble to take on such a potentially silly title. But producer Kenneth Johnson knew exactly what he was doing when he approached Bill Bixby, a fiercely intelligent actor with several series under his belt (and the beginnings of a long career behind the camera, as well). Bixby was impressed with the scripts that dealt with the loneliness and isolation of David (formally Bruce) Banner, forced to roam the country incognito until he can stop his inner-demon from being an outer. I’m not saying that Johnson had made a study of The Fugitive, but there are some glaring similarities. Both are doctors who are wanted for murder (in Banner’s case, he’s both the suspect and victim) forced to travel under assumed names, and mostly through hitchhiking. Both are pursued by a determined professional (for Kimble, Lt. Gerard – for Banner, reporter Jack McGee) who’ll stop at nothing to find them. Both have to “play dumb” so no one suspects their true intelligence (“You’re too smart to be picking peas, Mr…. Baxter, is it?”). But perhaps the most important similarity is in the show structure; once the series relative premises have been set via narration during the opening credits, there is very little story arc that new viewers have to concern themselves with. Each individual show could play as its own isolated playlet – a blessing for syndication – even though The Fugitive has one of the most celebrated series-length story lines ever on television.

Through 4 seasons and 120 episodes, The Fugitive never lost steam, and carried the same level of high-caliber writing and acting throughout its run. It was also allowed a television rarity – the chance to finish up its run in grand style with a feature-length final episode (“Tuesday, August 29: The day the running stopped”) but The Incredible Hulk wouldn’t be allowed the same courtesy. By its 5th season, the show – which was far more expensive to produce than it appeared – was dipping in the ratings, and no longer believed to be worth the price tag. It simply disappeared off the airwaves into the eternal sea of syndication. There were a few TV movies produced in the late 80s, but were produced in a cheap-jack fashion, and seemed to be more occupied with clumsy stage-setting for other Marvel heroes like Thor and Daredevil, than continuing the Hulk/Banner storyline. Sadly, both David Janssen and Bill Bixby passed on long before their time; Bixby from cancer at age 59, and Janssen from a heart attack at an impossibly young 48.