TV Draft Round 9 – Pick 1 – Dave Selects – Jeopardy

Welcome to the Hanspostcard TV Draft. I hope you will enjoy it! Today’s post was written by Dave at https://soundday.wordpress.com/

Today I’ll take “Great TV Shows” for $400. As you might have guessed the answer, and my next show to cover for this event, is Jeopardy!

Jeopardy! is a show so familiar it seems to hardly need any description. After all, it’s been around longer than many of its contestants, and longer than I (or many of the other columnists taking part here) have been. It’s been parodied on Saturday Night Live, sung about jokingly by Weird Al Yankovic and plays a part in the plot of Groundhog Day. Few and far between are those of us who’ve not at least seen part of an episode in passing somewhere along the line. Such an iconic part of the culture it’s become that even the opening theme with booming introduction – “this is JEOPARDY!” – is instantly identifiable by most. But that aside, let’s look at the show a little anyway.

Jeopardy! Is a long-running game show, in which three contestants play against each other trying to answer questions correctly to win. Or actually, answer “answers”…we’ll get to that. How long-running? It premiered in 1964, and has been running most of the time since, although in slightly different formats and shown on different providers. The current version has been running daily since 1984. Merv Griffin created it and also created the similarly-popular Wheel of Fortune which not coincidentally often runs right before or after Jeopardy! in many markets. Although he’s credited with creating it, and his name appears on the credits day after day, he credits his wife with being the one who had the basic idea.

Back around the end of 1963, he and his wife were sitting around, talking about his desire to create a game show for TV. She commented that quiz shows were popular and quite good, but there hadn’t been any since the 1958 “Game Show Scandal”, in which it was found certain contestants on the shows Dotto and Twenty-one had been given the answers so the producers could control who would win and come back, based on who they felt would be most popular with their viewers rather than their skill or even luck. The game idea was still good, but the concept had been tarnished. They wagered almost six years was enough time passed to give it another go. She then suggested the twist – why not give answers and have contestants guess the question. Merv recalled “she fired a couple of answers at me – ‘5280’ – and the question of course would be ‘how many feet in one mile?’” He liked it and quickly took the idea to NBC, who bought it sight unseen.

jeopardy early board

NBC ran it, filming in New York, weekdays from 1964 through ’75, and added a nighttime weekly version which they syndicated in 1974. All the time, Art Fleming was the host who introduced the contestants and asked the, err “answers.” It had finally run its course by summer ’75, but they resurrected it again for the ’78-79 season, again with Fleming at the helm in the Big Apple. That lasted just one season, but it didn’t stay gone too long. In 1984, a new version began, running daily (five days a week), still produced by Griffin’s company, but this time shot in L.A. and sold for syndication. It wasn’t exclusive to one network, but most local stations in the U.S. had an hour of free time to program what they wanted between the evening news and “primetime shows”, so in the vast majority of cities, (as well as in Canada), one station or another ran Jeopardy!  The basic show was still the same, but this time there was a new host – big-haired, moustached Alex Trebek, a Canadian with limited experience as a game show host but a personality that fit.

In case you’ve not seen it, the game is broken into three parts, “Jeopardy”, “Double Jeopardy” and “Final Jeopardy.” The first two take up most of the show, and consist of contestants picking mystery questions (or “answers”) from a board, which is made up of a grid of 30 boxes. There are six categories, and five question/answers in each. Each one is worth a certain value, in the first round being $200, 400, 600, 800 and 1000 and in “double Jeopardy” , you guessed it, double that amount. (If you didn’t guess it, you might not quite be Jeopardy! material.) Players who buzzed in first and gave the correct response for each won that amount of money…but if they were wrong, the amount was subtracted from their score. So it paid to be quick on the buzzer…and sure of your knowledge of the category. “Final Jeopardy” consisted of one answer all three would be given and had to answer (with the question) in 30 seconds. They could wager any or all of the amount of money they’d accrued so far in the game, and like the earlier bits, they’d win it if they were right, but lose it if wrong. Put together a run of correct answers and a bit of moxie in “Final Jeopardy” and you can do very well – James Holzhauer won a record $131127 in a 2019 episode. The game winner went home with that money, and got invited back to play the next day, whereas the second and third place finishers got a small consolation prize – typically $1000 and $2000 , which some bitterly noted didn’t pay their costs to actually go to L.A. and pay for a hotel … the show doesn’t pay expenses.

The game demands quick reflexes and a good, wide-ranging knowledge of…well, the more the better. While Art Fleming has criticized the “new” version (new as in the past 38 years), for being “dumbed down” by Hollywood, and it is true there are often some questions about pop culture, there are also still more about things like ancient history or American geography. Esquire tabulated many years of shows and found the most frequently-used categories were “Before and After”, “Literature”, “Science” , “Word Origins” and “American History” while the most-used ones for Final Jeopardy are “American Presidents” and “Word Origins.”  Readers Digest compiled the ten that seemed to be hardest for contestants, and they included “Classical Music”,and “Canadian Cities” (sample : “Residents of this Saskatchewan city are called ‘Moose Javians’” , for question “What is Moose Jaw?”) . But it wasn’t only Canadian geography the mostly-American contestants had trouble with; so too did their own American because “States that Flow Together” also made the difficult list. That one had two states, with the last letter of one being the first of the next. Somehow no one could figure out “MissourI and Illinois” for the clue “one has St. Louis, the other has East St. Louis!”  Of course, sometimes they like to have a little fun too, and at times the categories seem a little loopy – “Superb Owl” (all about owls on , yes Super Bowl week); “Songs for Your Cat,” “Hertz so Good” (about electricity)…

The show seems to hit the sweet spot between being so esoteric it requires a phD and so simple or celebrity-based anyone who watches Entertainment Tonight could run the board. Similarly, Alex Trebek hit the perfect spot as the host (for over 8000 episodes from ’84 until his death late in 2020; the final one he made aired in January ’21; until the final days of his illness he missed just one show…an April 1 edition where he traded places with Wheel of Fortune‘s Pat Sajak as an April Fool’s joke); warm and fatherly enough, with just enough self-deprecating humor to balance his occasional raised eyebrow and seeming hint of condescension when dealing with less-than-swift contestants. He won seven Emmys for it and became a household name and beloved celebrity; so much so that just who was going to replace him became headline news for months.  So far, the answer appears to be Ken Jennings, who along with Big Bang Theory-alum Mayim Bialik have hosted the vast majority of post-Trebek shows. Jennings is an obvious choice, himself being the most famous, and by some accouts, most successful contestant ever on Jeopardy! Jennings won 74-straight shows in 2004, winning over $2.5 million and later won $1 million more on a “Greatest of All Time” tournament between past big winners. (From time to time, they have special tournaments, like ones for college students and “Celebrity Jeopardy!” where stars – mainly actors, but some athletes, writers, even politicians – try to win money for charity. Takeaway from those – no wonder Stephen King can cram so many details into his novels. The man seems to know everything!)  Jennings turned his run on Jeopardy! Into several books, online and magazine columns and a rare level of celebrity based on…just being pretty darn smart!

The hype, for lack of a better word, surrounding Trebek’s unfortunate demise (losing a long battle to cancer) and picking his replacement has only helped Jeopardy! Its ratings have risen of late, with some of Trebek’s final episodes being watched by over 14 million at time or airing and many more later on streaming services; Entertainment Weekly reported this year that it currently is the most-watched “regular” TV show based on viewers watching it live…an amazing feat for a game show which through syndication doesn’t even necessarily play in every market. Maybe it’s Trebek and Ken Jennings, or maybe I hold out hope, it’s something different. At a time when everything seems to be being dumbed down from our news to our movies to our elected officials, maybe some of us are appreciating a show where it actually pays to be smart… to know a little about the Nile River or European history or great American literature.

Jeopardy! is a show I’ve enjoyed now and then since I was a kid and Trebek was young and had a huge Afro. As I got older and Trebek’s facial hair shrank, I actually found myself watching more, playing along. It was also one of the few shows my parents were both fond of too; my Mom sometimes would phone me up and ask in exasperation “did you see Final Jeopardy? How did they not know Dickens was the answer!!” or the like; when I spent about half a year living with my Dad as he got on in years, it became nearly a nightly routine for us to go down to the basement after dinner and watch Jeopardy!, trying to shout out the answers fastest. He never did well if it was about Lady Gaga or baseball, but he could rock the history and current events categories. Needless to say, I miss both my parents, and also Alex Trebek but I’m pretty glad I can still try to fit  a bit of Jeopardy! in to the routine still and learn a little something with it. Memorable contestants, every topic under the sun, learning while playing… what is “great game show” Merv?

TV Draft Round 8 – Pick 2 – Dave Selects – SCTV

Welcome to the Hanspostcard TV Draft. I hope you will enjoy it! Today’s post was written by Dave at https://soundday.wordpress.com/

SCTV

For my next pick in this TV event, I go to a show that always made me laugh hysterically…and make me feel a bit proud. SCTV was not only one of the funniest and most creative shows of its era, it was Canadian to boot.

SCTV stands for “Second City Television”, because it sprung forth from Second City. That was (and remains to this day) a ground-breaking comedy troupe and theater from Chicage (America’s “Second City”). It opened its doors in 1959, and by 1961 was making stars out of people like Joan Rivers and Alan Arkin with their creative comedy sketches. But instead of just playing their home city, the organization had big dreams – ones they’ve fulfilled as they describe themselves as “the most influential and prolific comedy empire in the world.”  They began touring with their show and found an enthusiastic response in Toronto when they played there in 1963. Second City took note, and ten years later opened a second club there, in its early months “no air conditioning, no liquor license and almost no audience.” That quickly changed though as they moved to a bigger venue and found homegrown wits like Catherine O’Hara, Dave Thomas and John Candy.

Only a couple of years in, there was interest in making it into a TV show. Once the idea was hatched to do a show about “the world’s smallest TV station”, the cast was on board. They saw endless possibilities of skits involving actual TV shows they could satirize, goofy commercials and behind-the-scenes follies involving the fictional station’s management. Global TV (a Canadian network) was interested and put them on air in 1976, with a half-hour show. After a couple of years, they canceled it but soon an independent company in Edmonton bought the idea, moved the players to the Prairies and resurrected it, soon selling the show to Canada’s premier network, CBC. A few stations in the U.S. began running re-runs, and soon NBC came knocking, wanting a replacement for the Midnight Special. They ran it for a couple of years as a 90-minute late night show (rather akin to Saturday Night Live)  but were said to be rather lacking in commitment to it, and after two seasons axed it when the crew refused to re-jig the show to run on Sunday evenings against 60 Minutes. (NBC also wanted it made much more G-rated, family-oriented humor rather than the edgy satire they SCTV was making.) At that time Cinemax cable in the U.S. and a Canadian subsidiary revived it for one final season of 45 minute shows. By 1984 when it wrapped up, they’d made 135 episodes of varying length and production quality…and created both some big-name stars and some entirely memorable characters.

SCTV‘s original cast was largely kept in tact through the years and was a goldmine of comic talent. They were essentiallly unknown then but wouldn’t stay that for long.  Andrea Martin, Catherine O’Hara, John Candy, Eugene Levy, Rick Moranis, Joe Flaherty, Harold Ramis… funny each one in their own right but brilliant together in an ensemble. Of them, only Ramis was brought in from American Second City; Moranis came in directly from a background of being a radio DJ in Toronto! We see their ongoing work in so many great comedy films like Home Alone, Ghostbusters, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Splash and TV shows like Schitt’s Creek.  In terms of launching great careers in comedy, it’s probably second only to Saturday Night Live…and that one has had an advantage of  40 more years of talent to be culled from.

That alone made the show noteworthy, but it was great because of the strength of the shows themselves and the sketches they created. The station which was set in the imaginary town of Melonville was run by Guy Caballero, a boss played by Joe Flaherty, whose character was as shady as his suit was blinding white. Guy was confined to a wheelchair… but quick to jump up and run away when threatened. His station was inhabited by regulars like boozy, washed up playboy-type Johnny LaRue (Candy), and the owner, leopard-print clad cougar Edith Prickley (Martin), and the hapless local news team of dim-witted Earl Camembert (Levy) and hard-nosed Floyd Robertson (Flaherty). Between the workplace bits we got to see the fine programming of SCTV…things like Bill Needle’s ascerbic talk show, Count Floyd’s “Monster Horror Chiller Theater” (which sometimes boasted titles like the “3D House of Cats”… you simply had to see it to appreciate the “3D” effect!) , kids show “Mrs Falbo’s Tiny town” and various movies, usually parodies of real hit ones. And in between we’d get commercials for local businesses like Harry, the Guy with the Snake on His Face and his adult video store.  Like the Simpsons later, the shows were funny enough at face value but took on an added level of hilarity when one was wise to exactly what they were spoofing.

About 40 years has passed since it went off the air, but even the thought of things like the opening scene of “Mrs. Falbo’s Tiny Town” (remember her trying to drive?), Flaherty as Count Floyd (the frustrated late night movie host dressed as a vampire who often had to admit, “well that wasn’t very scary, kids…”) John Candy as Paul Fistinyourface, the angry high school teen on the TV dance show or as Gil Fisher “The Fishin’ Musician” crack me up. Speaking of the last, “The Fishin’ Musician” with Candy as Gil, the fisherman with his guide Ol’ Willie (who looked a lot like Willie Nelson and took the fishing boat ‘out into the weeds’ every time, natch) was their way of allowing for musical numbers. Through the years bands like Rough Trade, The Tubes and Boomtown Rats went fishin’ with Gil…and playing a little number or two. In retrospect, years later it became even funnier seeing Bob Geldof as a disgruntled punker with the Boomtown Rats and acting as a high school tough in their parody of To Sir with Love , “Teacher’s Pet” (with Eugene Levy as Ricardo Montalban, an ongoing spoof on the show, being the Corinthian lether-loving teacher).

It was a different kind of humor, probably ahead of its time and perhaps to Americans, a wee bit odd. I’m frequently told, living in the U.S., that I have a different sense of humor than many Americans; I think Canada is a cultural “bridge” between the States and Britain, and that applies to our comic sensibilites too. SCTV found the happy medium to be edgy for the mainstream but not so much so as to be confounding or alienating.  All that said, ironically, the ongoing skit on SCTV I found the most tiresome was the one that was probably it’s most popular and the one which reveled in its Canadianism – Bob and Doug McKenzie and the “Great White North.” But no one hits it out of the park every time…SCTV is remembered because it did more often than not. When a show of largely social satire from four decades back can still make me fall on the floor laughing, they must have been something special. And they were.

TV Draft Round 7 – Pick 3 – Dave Selects – Downton Abbey

Welcome to the Hanspostcard TV Draft. I hope you will enjoy it! Today’s post was written by Dave at https://soundday.wordpress.com/

The Brits seem to have a knack for making high-quality TV shows that stand the test of time. Max already looked at one of the funniest comedies of all-time, Fawlty Towers, and for my next pick I look at a British drama that I, like most of North America, fell in love with unexpectedly – Downton Abbey. Like Fawlty Towers, part of their secret of success was for it to not overstay its welcome, nor rush out vast quantities of inferior episodes.

When Downton Abbey first appeared (2011 in North America, a few months after its debut in the UK), there was quite a buzz about it. At the time, my sweetie and I were still a long-distance relationship and she talked about it enthusiastically every week; it had become her first “must-see” show since Friends ended, I think. But despite her great reviews and descriptions of it being believable and full of surprises, I was a bit skeptical. After all, it was basically a story about British nobility set a hundred years ago. That didn’t grab my fancy right away. Anyhow, when we ended up together, the series was midway through its run, and she wanted to keep watching, obviously. After a couple of episodes, I was not only hooked, but needed to go back to the start to find out how they arrived at their present “point B” – see what the “point A” was in effect. I’m very glad I did. It’s become one of my all-time favorite shows, and right now, she and I are trying to watch the series together again before it disappears off Netflix next week (I won’t mind buying a season or two on DVD since we likely won’t run through all six years of it before June.)

For those who somehow aren’t at least vaguely aware of the show (which might be difficult in this day and age given the media hype about the subsequent movies of it which have been made), Downton Abbey looks at one big British noble family in the early-20th Century, the Crawleys (who through the eccentricities of British protocol are also referred to as “Granthams”). I’m no expert on nobility, but to simplify, it would be fair to suggest they are like a lower-end royal family, living in a huge, stately erstwhile castle (the namesake of the show) on a huge estate, with a small village being part of their holdings. However, they’re also responsible for the upkeep of the land and village, so it’s not all a champagne and caviar carefree life for the Crawleys. The show involves the lives of their family, as well as the servants who work for them in the Abbey – a cast of cooks, maids, butlers, footmen and so on who are every bit as interesting as the landowners. And yes, it’s better than that sounds!

The Crawleys are headed by Robert, played by veteran actor Hugh Bonneville who seemed to be born for the part, a middle-aged, traditional man who is dubbed “Lord Grantham.”  He’s married to an American though, Cora, who brought a good deal of cash…and an air of comparative casualness… to the estate. They had three daughters, eldest Mary, middle Edith and youngest Sybil, who were all in their late teens or early-20s when the show began and each quite a handful for their parents in their own way. And the scene-stealer, and probably the real power in the family, Robert’s mother, termed the “Dowager”, played with some of the best lines in the entire series by superstar of the British screen, Maggie Smith.

Meanwhile, “downstairs”, the household staff is run with a stern frown and hand from Carson, the aging and ever-so traditional butler; and Mrs. Hughes, the softer and slightly more progressive head of the female staff. Under them are a host of various positions – head cook Mrs. Patmore, her assistant cooks, scullery maids, the conniving Mrs. O’Brien, the head maid and her bedroom maids, ladies’ maids, footmen and valets. Among the most interesting of them are Mr. Bates and Anna; Lord Grantham’s personal valet and the daughters maid and attendant. Bates comes in with a limp and a dignity second only to Carson…and the combination of impeccable discretion and devotion to the job paired with a murky background and a vaguely sinister air around him. Bates seems loyal to a fault but also a man you don’t want to get on the wrong side of. Robert once notes to Carson when they hear a rumor Bates had stolen silverware on another job, “I could more imagine Bates an assasin than a thief.”  He and Anna, sweet but sharing his devotion to the job, fall in love…with complications.

The show was created by Julian Fellowes, who’d won an Academy Award before for Best Screenplay for the loosely-similar themed Gosford Park. A stickler for detail, he hired a member of the Royal Family’s household staff (a historian in himself) as an advisor. As one actor, a minor character in the show pointed out “there were definitely a few times when I was told to sit differently or take my hands out of my pockets. And every meal, we’re reminded ‘You shouldn’t hold a fork this way’.” If an earl’s daughter had to know which fork and spoon to use for every course, and how to hold them precisely, so too did the Downton actors portraying them. One of the few complaints thrown at the show is that most of the staunchly Church Of England family seem somewhat anti-Catholic and the very few Black people who appear are tolerated, barely, only in a role as entertainers. As the Washington Post put it, Lord Grantham is “xenophobic…but at least historically accurate.”  There were coaches for accents, and historians deciding on accurate costumes for all, staff and nobility alike.

Fellowes’ attention to detail, as well as glorious cinematography, elegant sets and English countryside scenery, helped make the show popular. How popular? Well, in Britain, where it ran on ITV, during its third and fourth seasons, it averaged nearly 12 million viewers a week, or one in five adults in the land. Over here, despite being on PBS, it drew over five milllion a week, their biggest success since Ken Burns’ Civil War series. Since then it’s been seen in over 200 countries, sold in the millions on DVD and been a big draw for Netflix, besides launching the spinoff movies.

But the authenticity was only one of the minor selling points that make it a must-see. (The following few paragraphs do contain a few spoilers, beware if you haven’t seen the whole series.)  There were many others, many having to do with the universal themes it depicts. Fashions, slang, music, even common values change, but things like workplace backstabbing, marital discord and problematic children will always be with ut.  They might have been British, and living a century ago in either privilege (the Crawley’s and their friends) or servitude (the staff), but there was lots in their lot we can still relate to. Like the problematic kids.

Early on in the series, Lady Mary, all of 22 or 23 at the time, is seduced by a handsome Turkish ambassador visiting the estate…who happens to have the misfortune of dying whilst “with” her in her bed. A scandal like that could bring shame on the entire family and render her “un-marriageable”…so of course her jealous younger sister Edith sends off a letter spilling the beans to the dead man’s embassy. Sybil, the youngest is arguably the prettiest and definitely the kindest of the girls, but also a rebel who wants to work, vote and eventually falls for the family’s driver, a servant and worse, a common Irishman. The family has to reconcile whether their love for doing things properly – bluebloods marrying bluebloods – is more important than their love for their daughter and her spirit.

Robert and Cora have to deal with ups and downs in their marriage, and things like downsizing. So much an unwelcome catch phrase of the past couple of decades, even then it became a necessity in their household as revenue dwindles while staff numbers kept rising on the estate. The at times toxic workplace environment is all too familiar. Footmen scheme against each other, the kitchen maids waste time trying to attract the footmen who inevitably seem interested in someone else, some sneak out to smoke and gossip on the clock…change the décor and background music and it could believably be a modern hotel or office. Carson at times has to hold his nose and be pragmatic and advance less-qualified people just to quell in-house staff battles and keep the peace.

And of course, the world is changing. It was changing in 1922 just as it is in 2022. During Season 2, World War I is raging and Lord Grantham’s son-in-law and heir to the estate is in the trenches with a previously disliked footman from his estate. Then the Spanish flu wipes out people on the estate as well as in the town. Sadly, when the show first came out around 2013, many assumed pandemics were as much ancient history as the hand-cranked phonographs they listened to music in Downton with. Robert and Carson hate change and have trouble dealing with the reality of the new world, brought to their doors by newcomers like Matthew (the middle-class lawyer who ends up marrying Mary) and worse, Branson, the Irish chauffeur reluctantly brought into the family fold. Most of the female staff seem a little more pragmatic and reluctantly open to the inevitable. Even telephones are viewed with suspicion – “is this an instrument of communication or torture?” the Dowager scowls while looking at the household’s first one, noticing the young people’s fascination with it.

Speaking of which, the old Dowager had some of the most memorable lines of this or any other series of late; the master of the subtle insult and way of putting things in proportion despite her displeasure – when the man dies in Mary’s bed, she notes “it could only happen to a foreigner. No Enlgishman would dream of dying in someone else’s house.”  When Cora smiles at her after one of her other comments and says “I’ll take that as a compliment,” the dowager sniffs “then I must have said it wrong.”  Little wonder she won three Emmys on her own for the Best Supporting Actress role in it.

But most importantly, it was well-written and the characters realistic. Rather like All in the Family that Paula covered this week, it was fairly written and the characters, rich and poor alike had both redeeming and negative traits…although some had more of one than the other!  And they’re full of surprises. Bates can’t stand Thomas, the footman who has tried to force him out (to make room for his own promotion) by trying to implicate him in some household thefts. The valet threatens to punch Thomas’ pearly teeth out the back of his head when he toys with a kitchen maid he has no interest in. But when another footman tries to blackmail the household and force Thomas out without any reference for the “crime” of being gay and not concealing it well enough, it’s Bates who rallies to his defence. Few saw that coming. He’d just spent time in prison for a crime he’d not committed but was set up for and feels for others who are being punished for things for which they’re not guilty, and that overrides his personal dislike for Thomas. As the years go by, we see the characters grow (except for the unfortunate ones killed off along the way – another factor in its unique success,Fellowes wasn’t afraid of rocking the boat and eliminating even popular characters…did we mention Sybil was the most popular of the daughters?) – and weather storms they face, dealing with a new world they’re not quite prepared for. Which might make them very much like us and those we know, work with and love.

A history lesson, well-written, well-acted, well-shot, and with enough cliffhangers and unexpected twists to make it a roller-coaster. No wonder the show, through its six seasons and 52 episodes, won at least 15 Emmys, was named by Elle the “best TV show” around and has resulted in two popular big screen movies so far (by the way, I saw the first, and while a perfectly nice-looking and interesting film, it was a bit pedestrian and lacked much of the intrigue of the TV series.)

A great show, and a great reminder to me that sometimes great things come in unexpected places.

TV Draft Round 6 – Pick 4 – Dave Selects – Ed

Welcome to the Hanspostcard TV Draft. I hope you will enjoy it! Today’s post was written by Dave at https://soundday.wordpress.com/

Illusionist David Copperfield once made the Statue of Liberty seem to disappear in front of a live audience.  Perhaps I should give him a call and see if he could make a terrific TV show reappear.

In this day and age of bargain-priced DVD sets of just about everything ever to grace or disgrace the boob tube screen, cable networks galore and a new streaming service every week offering up even old chestnuts like Green Acres and Dad’s Army for insomniac subscribers, you’d think a hit show from this century would be easy to find. Hard to avoid even, perhaps. Particularly if it starred one of the leads in one of this decade’s most popular shows,  was created by TV “royalty” and kicked off the careers of a couple of movie stars plus the star of the most popular sitcom going these days. Sadly you’d be wrong.

Despite having Modern Family‘s “Claire’ (Julie Bowen) as the female lead, being the first place anyone saw Jim Parsons (now Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory) or Justin Long on the screen, despite being a product of David Letterman’s Worldwide Pants,  and having the Foo Fighters do the theme song, Ed has become a ghost. TV’s equivalent of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker – well-loved but known these days only through rumors, memories of old-timers and grainy photos. That bugged me back in 2005 after it ended; it bugs me more now. It was one of the few shows of that era that I made a point of watching every week …ironically until the finale, on a night in which I was working and …yes, my VCR malfunctioned!!

 Ed (not to be confused with the similarly-titled movie, Ed TV)  was a rather brilliant but hard to define show that ran for 83 episodes from 2000 through early 2004 on NBC. It was a dramedy before that term – or genre- was well-known. A drama with a sense of humor; a comedy that at times could be heart-wrenching at times. Lovable, Relatable. Quirky as Seinfeld but a version where the characters weren’t obnoxiously self-absorbed and were dropped into a small town.  It was also could be seen as something of a male bookkend to The Gilmore Girls which debuted the same autumn. Just like Ed, Lorelei and Rory, those Gilmore Girls had oddball small-towners to contend with, lots of music and main characters looking for love. Unlike Ed, however, The Gilmore Girls live on in Walmart discount video bins, Sunday afternoon reruns and most notably, in a limited four-episode resurrection from Netflix. All accomplished while averaging only a little over half the number of viewers as  Ed scored in its first run. The TV gods aren’t always fair.

Ed was several shows in one really, a somewhat risky proposition for TV of the day.  Romance, workplace dramas, lightweight legal eagles. Sounds messy, yet it worked. Wonderfully.

The central story was based on Ed Stevens (played by the affable Canadian actor Tom Cavanagh, little known outside of his homeland at the time. In Canada he starred in a series of popular Labatt beer ads in the ’90s) and his search for love.  Ed was a big money, big city lawyer, we’re told, who had one bad day. A missed comma in a business contract cost his firm millions and led to him being fired. When he returned home early after being sacked, he found his pretty wife in bed with a stranger.  Ed decides he’s had enough of that life, and – cue the TV show’s beginning – returns to his hometown, Stuckeyville, a smallish town in Ohio stuck in a Frank Capra movie.

Having tasted a good deal of failure in his life, but also some success after his school days, he decides to look up his high school crush, Carol (played by Bowen.) He falls back in love with her and spends four seasons wooing her with up-and-down results and the sexual chemistry of David and Maddie from Moonlighting…another show someone should cover here, by the way!

Of course, just as in real life, there was more to both their lives than their oft-thwarted attraction to each other. Ed needs to do something to keep busy and as he’s a lawyer, he goes into practise in Stuckeyville. But instead of working on behalf of big business, as in his past life, he looks after the town’s good people … the gal being sued by her lecherous used car dealer boss for back wages after she turns down his advances; the beloved Stuckeyville Stan, magician whose tricks are being explained to the town by a malicious rival… even Carol’s boyfriend (played by a pre-Mad Men John Slattery) when the rival was falsely accused of causing a car crash. In short, the good guy everyone loves.  Oh, and since he liked bowling, he decided to buy the town bowling alley and work from there!

Stuckeybowl offered up its own storylines and weird but pleasant characters and stories, most notably the good-hearted Phil, (Michael Ian Black), the highly ambitious but quite so clever manager. Kind of like a slightly less obnoxious and better coiffed Kramer, Phil always seemed to have plans which were big on dreaming but not quite so much on practicality. He of course tested Ed’s patience but the lawyer grinned and bore it, being far too nice to fire people.

Carol had become a school teacher since Ed left town, and the other half of the story  involved her work and the high schoolers she taught, as well as her co-workers, including her best friend Molly and in the first couple of years, Slattery as the principal and her beau. Two of the high schoolers are Warren and Diane, high school nerds played by Justin Long (before the Apple ads) and Ginnifer Goodwin, some nine years before they sizzled together in He’s Just Not That Into You.  Warren has a thing for Carol, which frustrates Ed, but doesn’t stop him from trying to help the youth find his way … and see that his soulmate is his classmate, Diane.

And of course, Ed has a school buddy too – Mike. Mike is now married and a young doctor struggling to win respect from the townspeople and the crusty old doctor, Dr. Jerome whom we always expect to prescribe leeches or bloodletting. Of course the old goat gets Mike’s goat… while quietly admiring and pushing the young one to be the best he can be.

Mike and Ed hang out together and relive their youth, often with a running series of “ten dollar bets” in which one bets the other ten bucks to do something crazy. Mike bets Ed he can’t meow loud enough in a park to make a stranger turn around, bets Ed he won’t play “It’s Raining Men” on his bowling alley jukebox on a busy night and so on. Ed inevitably is not one to turn down a challenge.  At the end of the day, they all tend to hang out in the neighborhood pub, The Smiling Goat, rather like the characters in How I Met Your Mother socialized at their bar, albeit with a lot less intoxication in Stuckeyville. Oh, and yep, …Mother‘s Neil Patrick Harris showed up on Ed too, as a competing bowling alley lawyer. Jim Parsons, Rena Sofer and Kelly Ripa all made appearances before becoming household names.

 For all the laughs and romance, from time to time the show broached serious material. Perhaps a decade before it became trendy or even polite, it dealt with obesity with sensitivity, with Carol’s friend Molly (Jana Marie Hupp) being a little curvier than most and at times fighting prejudices because of it. Then there was Mark, a school kid who was largely unpopular and always self-conscious because of his own  more-than-ample weight, leading him to consider gastric bypass surgery (which the actor, Michael Genadry had in real life.)  Fast forward to today when This Is Us is called “brave” and ground-breaking for having plus-sized Chrissy Metz as one of its stars.

Critics adored Ed. I did too. I’d happily buy a box set of it on DVD… were such a thing available.

The rest of the public liked it, but not as much as the critics and I. It typically ranked in the middle of the ratings, with an average of between 10 million (in its first season, when it was in an unfavorable Sunday night slot against The Simpsons and Touched by an Angel) and 8 million in its last few months. It bears mentioning that if a show had those numbers these days, it would be a blockbuster hit. The aforementioned This Is Us averaged 5.4 million viewers at its peak, according to Nielsen, about the same as the apparent breakout hit of the decade, Black-ish. Even stalwards like Grey’s Anatomy dip below 10 million some weeks.

All of which might make its cancelation  marginally understandable …after all, how many quirky characters can one small town offer up, and sooner or later we knew Ed and Carol had to figure out what we all knew –  that they belonged together.  What makes no sense is that the show has disappeared into the ether in a time when almost every program ever made is available in any number of formats.

Fans and creators Rob Burnett (formerly the head writer at Letterman) and Jon Beckerman have constantly been reported as disappointed to quite pissed off the show hasn’t made it onto the DVD shelves or Netflix playlist yet.  We’re told problems with doing so abound, owing to the show’s unusual production (David Letterman’s company, NBC and Viacom were all part-owners and distributors creating some problems on figuring out the copyright, costs and revenue-sharing)  and with another one of the show’s appealing features – the music.  It seemed there was always music playing on the show. In the bowling alley, in the cars, in the bar… even background music to serious walks in the snow to think!  A number of great tunes, largely ’90’s alt rock ones but including at time everything from classic rock to old fashioned torch songs, appeared in the show. I used to try and track the songs episode by episode. It was a chore! From K’s Choice to Weezer to the theme by the Foo Fighters…even a big set with a song by Toronto’s Blue Rodeo (there were a few nods to Cavanaugh’s real-life Canadian background, including him drinking the Labatt’s beer he once pitched at his bar) . It made the show as good-sounding as it was looking. But…, all that music, as the creators of WKRP In Cincinnati likewise found out, makes the legal work more difficult. Every musician or publisher needs to be individually negotiated with in terms of future royalties, which is why a lot of non-descript elevator music appears in WKRP videos instead of the old Foreigner, Earth Wind and Fire and Stones stuff you might have remembered hearing Johnny and Venus spin. So far, no one’s seemed to find it worth trying to do the paperwork and make all those calls to have it happen and from what I understand, the music in the bar and the bowling alley wasn’t an overdub…it was actually being played on the set while they filmed, making covering it up much more difficult.

Whatever the reason, I wish they could put the differences aside and sign some papers and bring back Ed for those of us who remember it fondly. The sweet, gentle comedy was especially refreshing by the second season when the world was thrown into disarray (the season premiere was scheduled for Sep. 12, 2001 and was pushed back by three weeks by… well, you remember) . Its light-heartedness and big-hearted message seems needed and once more.  Paging David Copperfield… or maybe Viacom and NBC should go bowl a few frames and get a certain small town lawyer to draw up the papers.

Although Ed is still unavailable streaming or on DVD , I do see that a number of episodes of it have appeared on You Tube recently. I haven’t yet checked them out, so I can’t attest to how high the quality of picture or sound is, but it gives me some encouragement that the show may not be lost entirely now.

TV Draft Round 3 – Pick 7 – King Of The Hill

Welcome to the Hanspostcard TV Draft. The remaining 8 rounds will be posted here. We will have 64 different TV Shows by 8 different writers. I hope you will enjoy it! Today’s post was written by Dave from https://soundday.wordpress.com/

First I’d like to thank Max for keeping this project running, and for inviting me to take part. There are so many good TV shows to choose from, it’s hard to know where to begin, but I’ll opt for one that seems to hit close to home for me (LOL – literally)… King of the Hill.

King of the Hill was a long-running animated prime-time cartoon that somehow had characters a lot more “real” than most of its contemporaries made with real actors. It ran on Fox Network for 259 episodes from 1997- 2010, and has been seen in re-runs in syndication and on some of the streaming services. I’m not a gigantic fan of Fox overall, but one thing they do well is cartoons!

It typically ran on Sunday nights after The Simpsons, – itself a hilarious and ground-breaking show – at 8:30 Eastern time. Fox seemed to clue in on how much of a good thing they had going with Sunday night cartoons aimed at adults and forever were searching for ones to lineup with their corporate flagship show and its yellow-skinned Springfielders. Some of them caught on (e.g. Family Guy or, though I can’t fathom why, Bob’s Burgers), others were come and gone faster than you could say “Eat my shorts” …anyone remember Border Town? Although a few of the post-Bart and Homer series might have now topped King of the Hill in episodes, I don’t think any have topped it for humor and creating characters we felt we could relate to. No wonder Time magazine once called it “the most acutely-observed and realistic sitcom about American life, bar none.” Perhaps all the more surprising since its main creator was Mike Judge, whose previous claim to fame was Beavis and Butthead.

King of the Hill revolved around Hank Hill and his family – wife Peggy, tween son Bobby and their dog, a lazy hound called Ladybird. And the niece who lived with them, to Hank’s mild disapproval, Luanne. They were a typical, middle-class Texan family living somewhere in the suburbs, in the city of “Arlen.” Hank sold propane, and propane products and was proud of it. Peggy was a substitute teacher, specializing in Spanish classes (although her knowledge of the language was barely functional) who loved Boggle and making green bean casseroles; a woman described as “confidant, sometimes to the point of lacking self-awareness.”  Like most Texans, they loved things like rodeos, pickup trucks and Dallas Cowboys football – in one memorable episode Hank tries to get together a movement to move the Cowboys training camp to Arlen, but they pick Wichita Falls. To which Hank replies that city which claims to be “north Texas! More like south Oklahoma if you ask me!” a pretty stinging insult in the Lone Star State! Bobby, to his dad’s chagrin, is chubby, has little interest in sports and wants to be a stand-up comedian or worse yet, a clown.

Joining Hank is a supporting cast of neighbors we all seem to know in real life. There’s Bill, balding, overweight veteran who’s lonely and cuts hair on the nearby military base for income and amusement. Boomhauer, the suave, thin ladies man with the weird hillbilly accent who always seems to have female companionship and little to do outside of that but drink beer with the other guys and watch the world go by. (In the final episode’s surprise twist, we see his wallet lying open and find he’s a Texas Ranger – the elite branch of the state police.)  And there’s Dale, a man ahead of his time. Chain-smoker, exterminator by day, full-time conspiracy theorist and paranoid political commentator at night. Somehow he’s married to the lovely Nancy, the local TV weather girl and they have a son, Joseph… who looks nothing at all like him nor the blonde Nancy…but suspiciously like John Redcorn, the Native “healer” who has been giving her lengthy massages for her migraines for years. Dale has trouble figuring out why Joseph looks like that…but thinks maybe his wife was abducted and impregnated by aliens.  And we can’t forget Cotton, Hank’s cranky old father, lacking the bottom of his legs due to a war injury, nor the Khans. The Khans are from Laos, and while their daughter, Kahn Jr. (Connie to her friends) has assimilated well and is Bobby’s erstwhile girlfriend, and mother Mihn tries, Kahn Sr. fancies himself a successful businessman and can’t believe his bad luck landing up on a street full of hillbillies and rednecks. Somehow, the men all seem to get along and bond over things like appreciation of a good garbage can or love of (in Khan’s case, grudging acceptance of) Alamo Beer.

For the most part, the stories were fully relatable. They never starred in freaky Halloween episodes nor a big Broadway show (although ZZ Top did guest star once and put Hank unwillingly into a reality show following him around) or get abducted by aliens, perhaps to Dale’s surprise. Instead there were events like Hank trying to get the city to rescind it’s bylaw necessitating water-conserving toilets, or camping out in the local Megalomart with Dale (which bears a lot of resemblance to another American big box department store)  trying to catch a rat. In one episode, Bobby gets picked on by bullies leading Hank to try to get the boy into a boxing class. Instead of that, Bobby ends up in a women’s self-defence course and learns to kick anyone he’s mad at in the testicles…Hank included. And one of the final episodes really amused me … I was born and raised near Toronto, if you didn’t know that already. In it, Boomhauer decides to take a vacation in Canada and temporarily trades houses with a Canadian family. Hank and the Canadian dad take an instant disliking to each other, with them competing over who brews the best beer and whose brand of lawn mower rules. End result? Both get arrested for DWI while mowing their lawns; Hank and his buddies eventually sell a “keginator” beer-pump to bail the Canuck out of jail, because that’s what neighbors do. “We’re Americans,” Hank declares “we’re the world’s welcome mat. It doesn’t matter if they’re from Canada, Laos, or God forbid, even California!”

The show had Greg Daniels co-writing early on, a good pedigree since he’d worked on Saturday Night Live, the Simpsons and co-wrote the Seinfeld episode “The Parking Space”… Music City Mike probably remembers that one.  When it first came on, I liked it and often watched it, but it took years for it to really grow on me and come to appreciate how fully nuanced the characters were and how much attention to detail of human nature it showed…all the while being hilarious. There was a great sense of humanity in it all. People like Hank were trying their best, having a hard time keeping up with the changing times (he was the holdout on the office’s love of Facebook, for example) but doing his best to understand and be better. Nancy had her ongoing affair, but called it off eventually when she realized it was wrong to do to her husband, wacky as he was. And Luanne, sweet as pie and about as dumb as one too, with her little Christian puppets trying to teach kids right from wrong, boyfriend Lucky in tow. Lucky got his nickname when he slipped on pee at a Walmart and sued them for hundreds of thousands! (That makes watching it a tiny bit sad as both of the voice actors are gone – Brittany Murphy who did Luanne, and the one and only Tom Petty who was ‘Lucky’). They were all good people and the shows funny. But once I came to Texas…boy howdy, it took to another level for me.

Judge spent time in the Dallas Metroplex when young and said he based it on the suburbs like Arlington and Garland, Texas. Once I saw Waco, it seemed like Waco was Arlen…or vice versa. There are so many details that ring true like the Bush’s beans at dinner or love of Whataburger. When Peggy wants to have a serious talk with Bobby, she’ll treat him to one of those burgers…leading him to suspiciously note last time she took him there, she told him about Doggie Heaven!

I started this thinking I wouldn’t have enough to say about King of the Hill. Turns out I have too much to say for one column really. So one more thing – I just reminded myself how funny the show was. I think I’m going to go watch a few now!