I am not a person who reflexively believes the way things used to be is better than the way things are today. For one thing, history, good or bad, does not go backwards.
I am, for better or worse, a child of the TV generation. When our oldest son, Michael, started watching TV, it amused us greatly that he was watching the same PBS shows, “Sesame Street” and “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” that we watched growing up. (It wouldn’t surprise me, though I don’t remember it, if I watched episode number one of “Sesame Street,” portions of which, of course, can be viewed on YouTube.) I’m sure pediatricians or psychologists would be horrified to learn that, when I was seven years old, I was a religious watcher of “Hawaii Five-O,” on CBS Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m. and then, once the “Family Hour” was instituted, 8 p.m. (More on Five-O later.)
Cable TV has been a bonanza (not to be confused with “Bonanza”) of old TV over the years, having taken on what broadcast stations used to do during off-network hours. (Old reruns on broadcast TV have largely been replaced by original-run syndicated programming.) One highlight of going to my in-laws was the ability to watch weekend reruns of “Emergency!” and “The Green Hornet,” which at the time were on channels we didn’t get where we lived.
On a different weekend in southwest Wisconsin, another channel was showing a marathon of the old cartoon show “The Banana Splits,” with four people costumed as lifesize stuffed animals. (I apologize in advance for inserting the theme music, “Tra-la-la La-la-la-laaa tra-la-la la-la-la-laaaaaa,” into your brain for the next several days.)
One of the voice talents on the show was the great ventriloquist Paul Winchell, who gained anonymous notice later as the voice of Tigger and Dow Bathroom Cleaner’s “scrubbing bubbles.” TNT used to have a morning segment called “Lunchbox TV,” featuring reruns of “Starsky and Hutch,” “CHiPs” and “Kung Fu.”
While my early watching was usually cartoon-related, most of my TV watching has been in some variation of the action/adventure genre. Early on, I developed a two-pronged formula as to whether the series was worth my watching: (1) cool wheels, well before I could drive (including, in the case of “Star Trek,” space vehicles), and (2) cool theme music, before I’d developed appreciation for music. That might be the only explanation for why I watched “The A-Team,” although George Peppard did appear to be having the time of his life as the head of said A-Team.
For us old TV buffs, WBAY-TV RTN was a godsend, until it went away. Then came WGBA-TV’s Me TV, which on Sundays includes one of the great dramas, “The Fugitive” (the finale of which was the highest rated TV show in history until someone shot J.R. Ewing), “The Rockford Files” (a series I thought as a nine-year-old was edgy because the title character said “damn” and “hell” a lot), “Get Smart” (two words: Mel Brooks) and “Hawaii Five-O,” and “Mission: Impossible” weekdays, and “The Wild Wild West” (a science fiction Western, if that makes any sense) on weekends.
If I were programming “Steve TV,” using the aforementioned formula, the program schedule would include:
- “Hawaii Five-O” (9 p.m. weeknights), which has the best opening sequence, bar none, in the history of TV. It was “Miami Vice” 15 years before “Miami Vice,” crime in lush locales. The irony is that, if you ask any Hawaii tourism official of the 1970s, “Hawaii Five-O” did more than almost anything to attract tourism to Hawaii, even though the show depicted the state as riven with crime and even espionage. (One of the stars once pointed out that if the show had been realistic, Five-O would have solved every crime the state has ever had about halfway through the series.)
- “Magnum P.I.” (10 p.m. weeknights), which replaced “Hawaii Five-O” on the CBS schedule using the same Hawaii studios “Five-O” used. Star Tom Selleck was a star worth emulating in the 1980s, although no one at my part-time newspaper job was impressed when, one day, I drove to work in my mother’s red Chevy Camaro (the closest thing I could find to a Ferrari 308GTSi) wearing a Hawaiian shirt. Like “Hawaii Five-O,” the depiction of Hawaii, where everything grows all year and frost is the name of an old poet, makes those in the less-than-great white north pine for tropical climates.
- “Emergency!”, one of the many Jack Webb productions. This one was different from Webb’s “Dragnet” and “Adam-12” (which I religiously watched before “Hawaii Five-O”) in that it lasted an hour and wasn’t about Los Angeles police. It was about Los Angeles County firefighters and paramedics, complete with a cool rescue squad truck, and the paramedics got to do all kinds of dangerous things in the wonderful (though noticeably smoggy) southern California climate, supported by doctors at an L.A.-area hospital. (Why this series has not been remade in the post-9/11 era, where there is much more interest in emergency services as TV show themes, is beyond me.)
- “Starsky and Hutch,” a series about two hip plainclothes detectives who drove around in a vehicle guaranteed not to attract bad-guy attention, a red Ford Gran Torino with a huge white Nike-like swoosh on the side. (Similar to the “Magnum P.I.” Ferrari.) The first season, where the title characters were cops instead of social workers with badges as they became later in the series, featured theme music by Lalo Schifrin, who, though he didn’t compose many TV themes or movie scores, composed some great ones, including “Mission: Impossible,” “Mannix,” “Bullitt” and “Dirty Harry.”
I’m a fan of the more obscure series too. “It Takes a Thief” starred Robert Wagner as a rich jewel thief who steals things for the government. (And you thought stealing stuff for the government was limited to the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Revenue.) The classic theme music was from jazz composer Dave Grusin. I doubt anyone remembers another Jack Webb offering, “Chase,” which featured not just cool theme music but, in the same series, a fast car, a helicopter, a motorcycle and a police dog. (Nirvana for pre-teen boys.) A couple years later, NBC-TV replayed a one-season series, “Hawk,” about a half-American Indian New York City police detective, because of its star, who, 10 years after the series first aired on ABC, was the top-grossing box office star in the U.S. — Burt Reynolds. Even more obscure was a series I remember watching, though I remember almost nothing about it — “Bearcats,” about two guys “looking for adventure” around the turn-of-the-century West, traveling from place to place in an old Stutz Bearcat.
How do we know these and other TV series were superior to much of what’s on TV today? Because Hollywood keeps remaking TV of the ‘60s and ‘70s as movies, even series that were not perhaps crying out to be redone as movies, such as “The Incredible Hulk.” Since the 1980s, we have seen the movie returns of “The Untouchables,” “Mission: Impossible,” “The Saint” (think of the original British TV series as Roger Moore’s audition to replace Sean Connery as James Bond), “The Avengers” (perhaps the worst remake, because while Uma Thurman was a fine replacement for Diana Rigg, Ralph Fiennes is no Patrick Macnee), “The Wild Wild West” (again victimized by bad casting, because Will Smith reminds no one of original star Robert Conrad), “I Spy,” “The Mod Squad,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “S.W.A.T.,” “Starsky and Hutch,” and “Get Smart,” an unappreciated classic in its time. Dick Wolf, the creator of the “Law & Order” franchise, brought back “Dragnet” for two seasons as a one-hour drama, but although I enjoyed it (hearing the announcement “sentenced to death by lethal injection” at the end was a particular thrill), few other viewers apparently did.
Most of those remakes are not popular among the series’ original fans. In the case of “Starsky and Hutch,” the producers made fun of the original series, and if you do that, you’re making fun of the original series’ fans, whether or not the original premise strained credulity. The movie casting of Ben Stiller as Starsky and Owen Wilson as Hutch was just ridiculous. (Having Hutch sing “Don’t Give Up on Us,” the only successful single of original costar David Soul, was a nice touch, though.) If you watch any remake directed by Brian De Palma (who redid “The Untouchables” and the first “Mission: Impossible”), you know that any similarity between the original and De Palma’s remake is limited to the title.
Most of the remakes miss the spirit of the originals, which were created in the old Television Code days, when writers and directors couldn’t go nearly as far as TV goes today and thus had to be more inventive. The quality of most series usually drops the longer the series goes on (particularly “Star Trek,” most of the third season of which could qualify as the worst program in the history of entertainment) when, as a Star Trek chronicler once put it, format becomes formula. At some point, the powers that be in TV entertainment decided that what viewers wanted was more reality — flawed heroes, storylines unresolved after just one episode, social commentary, and more downer episode endings — when, not to be Pollyanniaish about it, most viewers want escapism out of their entertainment. (This is probably not an original theory, but the more grim the daily news is, I’d suggest, the more escapism people want.) Call me a philistine, but the longer the classic series “M*A*S*H” went, the less interested I was in it as the series became more socially profound and less funny. (The fact the series lasted approximately four times as long as the actual Korean War didn’t help either.) A series that was supposed to emulate “Emergency!”, “Third Watch,” was unwatchable because the creators (who formerly worked on “ER”) decided instead to foist enough angst on each character to make them, or the viewer, look for their stash of cyanide tablets.
A lot of fans of old series (many of whom expand on the original through writing fan fiction) want to bring back their favorite series, only to be disappointed by the failure of the comeback (proposals to bring back “Hawaii Five-O” have languished for more than a decade) or to be disappointed in the comeback, since obviously different people (namely actors, writers and producers) are involved. History, good or bad, does not go backwards, even on TV.