TV Westerns


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


THE SLOWEST GUN IN THE WEST. Made for TV, CBS, 7 May 1960. Phil Silvers, Jack Benny, Bruce Cabot, Jean Willes, Marion Ross and Jack Albertson. Written & produced by Nat Hiken. Directed by Herschel Daugherty.

   In 1950s, films like THE GUNFIGHTER, SHANE, and THE FASTEST GUN ALIVE codified the myth of the Gunfighter and etched it in stone for other films to trace. And in 1960, Phil Silvers smashed it to bits.

   I saw THE SLOWEST GUN IN THE WEST as a boy of 10, more than 20 years ago now, and I don’t think it ever aired again since that initial release. I thought it was pretty funny then, and seeing it recently it seems to have stood the test of time and changing tastes. But it has acquired a B-Movie luster over the years – or perhaps it always did have, and no one ever mentioned it.

   SLOWEST runs a brisk 55 minutes: about the length of a typical “B” Western from Monogram or Republic. The story is the familiar tale of a wandering stranger who rides into town and stays to clean out the outlaws, in this case led by Bruce Cabot in the same part he owned in DODGE CITY (1939). We get the Saloon Gal, the Prim-and-Proper leading lady, concerned citizens, and iconic character actors like Ed Brophy, Byron Foulger and George Chandler as Bartender, Hotel Clerk and Old-Timer, respectively.

   And riding into this classic milieu, we get Phil Silvers. Phil Silvers at his comic best, as Fletcher Bissell III, aka The Silver Dollar Kid, the most cowardly non-combatant ever to ride the range. So cowardly is he that the worst outlaws of the west won’t stoop to crossing pistols with him, lest they become laughingstocks of the prairie—and hence Fletcher is the only man who can run them out of town.

   Seeing this so soon after THE FASTEST GUN ALIVE, I had to admire how deftly it plays on, with, and against the familiar themes of prowess, personal code of honor, and most of all, Reputation. It’s also a hoot, as one owlhoot after another shies away from Silvers’ manifest incompetence until Dress-Heavy Cabot finds the one man whose renown is worse than Fletch’s: Chicken Finsterwald, played to pulp-novel perfection by Jack Benny.

   Comic talents like these could have gotten by with anything, but writer-producer Hiken handed them a good script and they make the most of it, delivering a steady stream of chuckles and belly-laughs.

   For lovers of the old-time Bs however, there’s something more here. An affectionate parody of those formulaic, cheap-ass oaters we love so much. SLOWEST GUN IN THE WEST gives us the hackneyed plot, cheap sets, and a once-in-a-cinematic-lifetime array of Western Bad Guys: Bruce Cabot, Ted de Corsia, Jack Elam, Robert Wilke, John Dierkes, and Lee Van Cleef, all at their nasty worst. With a cast like that and two fine comedians, this is a shiny little gem to treasure.

FOUR MORE FAILED TV PILOTS
by Michael Shonk


   As the fate of next season’s pilots are currently being decided, lets take a look at four more failed pilots of the past: PISTOL PETE, ZERO EFFECT, MR. & MRS. SMITH, and ROADBLOCK.

PISTOL PETE. Fox / Castle Rock, 1996, never aired. Writed and Executive Producer: John Swartzwelder. Directed by John Rich. Cast: Steve Kearney as Pistol Pete, Brian Doyle-Murray as the Mayor, Mark Derwin as Deputy Langley.

   The Old West town Abilene is tired of the bad guys killing their sheriffs so the Mayor writes back East and offers the job to Dime Novel hero Pistol Pete. Pistol Pete may be a true crackshot and a fast draw with the gun, but he also is no real Western hero. He is working as the star of a second-rate Wild West Show in New York. Blaming a faulty memory for not remembering his adventures, Pete believes the books stories about him are true. Pete accepts the job as the latest Sheriff in Abilene. The citizens of his new home share Pistol Pete’s belief that his adventures are all true, only the Mayor and Deputy know Pete is a clueless fraud.

   The pilot is funny if you enjoy absurdist comedy. It has never aired and was desperately sought out by comedy writers and fans until the Internet and YouTube rode to the rescue. The reason for PISTOL PETE’s status as cult comedy classic is the creator and executive producer John Swartzwelder.

   Swartzwelder is considered by many comedy writers and fans to be a comedic genius. Among his strongest fans are the writers and producers of THE SIMPSONS. Swartzwelder began writing for THE SIMPSONS in the first season (1990) and would continue until the fifteenth (2003). He would write more SIMPSONS episodes than any other writer (59 plus returning in 2007 to help write the SIMPSON MOVIE). Adding to his legendary status, Swartzwelder is an eccentric who shuns all publicity giving his fellow writers plenty of material to share with the rest of us.

   Here is a great article about the pilot and Swartzwelder. (Antenna Free TV, June 27, 2013, written by Will Harris).

   One of the reported stranger demands by Swartzwelder for the 1996 pilot (for the fall 96-97 season) was that the film crew be from the TV series GUNSMOKE (CBS, 1955-75). There was a serious attempt to honor that request. The director John Rich is remembered today as one of the greatest TV comedy directors of the 60s-70s era (DICK VAN DYKE and ALL IN THE FAMILY), but he also directed several episodes of GUNSMOKE and BONANZA. Producer Kent McCray worked on BONANZA.

   Swartzwelder wanted the feel of old TV and movie Westerns. The plan was for him and his writing friends from THE SIMPSONS to parody Westerns each week.

   Currently Swartzwelder is writing a series of absurdist comedy PI novels and short stories featuring time traveling PI Frank Burly. The self-published books began in 2004 with THE TIME MACHINE DID IT. The tenth in the series and most recent is BURLY GO HOME (2017).


ZERO EFFECT. NBC / Castle Rock / Warner Brothers, 2002, never aired. Writers and Executive Producers: Jake Kasdan and Walon Green. Directed by Jake Kasdan. Cast: Alan Cumming as Daryl Zero, David Julian Hirsh as Jeff Winslow

   The 1998 film is a cult favorite, but I preferred the TV pilot. The movie’s writer and director Jake Kasdan (FREAKS AND GEEKS) also directed and co-wrote the TV pilot. Walon Green (WILD BUNCH) helped Kasdan write and produce the TV pilot.

   The two versions are much alike in style and tone. Both make good use of Daryl Zero writing his memoirs to narrate the action. Zero calls the case in the pilot “The Case of the Billionaire Pervert With a Parking Problem.”

   My central problem with the film was the pace was too slow and at almost two hours the film was too long leaving me often bored. The pilot, seen in this YouTube thirty-eight minute version, forced Kasdan to speed things up.

   A good example is the opening scene where the genius and character of the unseen Daryl Zero is introduced. Both versions reveal exposition by telling the story of one of Zero’s most awe-inspiring cases. The movie had Zero’s assistant and anti-Watson Steve Alto (Ben Stiller) tell the story to a possible client. The scene was long, static and boring. The TV version had people of various types and locations tell excited crowds about the now World famous as well as Greatest Detective Daryl Zero. The camera rarely stopped as the story jumped from one storyteller to the next. This gave the TV version a faster pace from almost the beginning.

   Both versions focused less on the mystery of the crime and more on the mysteries of the characters. In the TV pilot the case revolves around a billionaire’s missing mistress, but the key to the mystery is not where she is but who she and the other characters are.

   Zero is basically the same in the film and TV pilot. Meant as a satire of Sherlock Holmes, Daryl Zero is a brilliant, self-centered, social inept, recluse with a fondness for disguises and music.

   Bill Pullman’s performance in the film as Zero is generally praised, but I prefer Alan Cumming’s Zero. The many faces and behavior of Zero as done by Pullman was too random. He failed to connect it all to Zero. Cumming was hyper sometimes on the edge of hysteria behavior showed Zero inability to deal with people personally. The music producer character Zero plays as he searches for the missing mistress illustrates his understanding of people but the method and over the top producer character is more an extension of Zero than a music producer.

   Zero realizing he needs an assistant, a “face man,” some one to deal with people (there is no Steve Alto in the pilot). He finds a candidate in Chicago. Jeff Winslow is an unhappy defense attorney with a strong sense of justice.

   Jeff’s girlfriend dumps him on the phone while he is in the middle of a frustrating argument with his boss. Jeff gets a phone call from a mysterious voice (Zero) convincing him to quit and go to Los Angeles for a new job.

   Jeff arrives in Los Angeles without even knowing who is hiring him. Zero then puts him through a bizarre series of job interview tests such as the lost luggage test where Zero steals Jeff’s luggage to see how Jeff would respond.

   Jeff is an idealist, with a conscience and a belief in justice. Zero is none of these and tries to teach Jeff the Zero Method, the “obs” – objectivity and observation. Zero solves the case, but it is Jeff that makes sure justice is served.


MR. AND MRS SMITH. ABC / Regency Television Dutch Oven Production, 2007, never aired. Creator and Executive Producer: Simon Kinberg. Executive Producer: David Bartis. Directer and Executive Producer: Doug Liman. Cast: Jordana Brewster as Mrs. Jane Smith, Martin Henderson as Mr. John Smith, Bridgette Wilson-Sampras as Ann, and Rebecca Mader as Jordan * There were no credits on film. The above credits are from thefutoncritic.com http://www.thefutoncritic.com/devwatch/mr-and-mrs-smith/.

   This TV pilot was based on the movie MR. & MRS. SMITH (2005) that starred Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie as a married couple who work as assassins for different spy agencies. Both the film director (Doug Liman) and writer (Simon Kinberg) returned to do this TV pilot.

   Jane and John are married and living in the suburbs of Washington D.C. while they continue their careers as spies/ assassins. Both characters are one dimensional modern day clichés. She is smart, sexy, able to handle herself in a fight, and successful career woman – you know, perfect. He is an idiot, self-centered, uses excessive force and has been fired, you know, clueless.

   Now that he is unemployed John wants Jane to join him as partners in their own spy/killer agency. She is highly respected and employed at the all-woman spy agency Executive Cleaners and resists the idea of a Mr. & Mrs. Smith Spy agency.

   He is worried about their marriage and wants to have a date night. She agrees to the date night to humor him but then has to cancel twice due to work. Her assignment is to stop a terrorist who has a nuclear device. After listening to too much Dr. Phil and the neighborhood ladies gossip, John begins to suspect Jane is cheating on him. This bad sitcom plot causes problems with Jane’s plan to save the world.

   The idea of exploring the challenges of marriage through a marriage of two spies is not bad if it was not done so heavy-handedly. Women are brilliant and men are idiots belong in another type of comedy, not one about marriage that needs both characters to be admirable and both to have flaws.

   The script has its moments and some nice dialog but little action. The direction offers no help to make this pilot exciting or visually interesting. The cast was nice to look at but failed to bring their characters to life.

   The pilot hinted at a future where Mr. and Mrs. Smith are partners as spies and in marriage as they try to keep their secrets and live the normal life among their suburban neighbors. While that sounds like a bad sitcom, it would be better than to suffer through these cardboard characters with trust issues every week.


ROADBLOCK. March 29, 1958. An episode of STUDIO 57 (Dumont 1954-55; syndicate, 1955-58.

   Syndicated pilot for proposed series MOTORCYCLE COP. Teleplay by Frederic Brady. Story by John D. MacDonald. Directed by Earl Bellamy. Cast: Mike Connors as Patrolman Jeff Saunders, John McIntire as Sheriff Sternweister, and Wallace Ford as Sheriff Thomas

   Mike Connors played a special enforcement agent for the California Highway Patrol who was sent on a variety of assignments. This story finds him helping out local sheriffs investigating a deadly bank robbery where one of the robbers’ cars turns out to be the cop’s best witness.

   Based on a short story by John D. MacDonald (“The Homesick Buick” (ELLERY QUEEN MYSTERY magazine, September 1950) ROADBLOCK was turned into just another typical TV crime drama of the 50s. Everything is in black and white, including the characters. The story is slow moving with no surprises. The cast walked through their roles in the simple slow-moving story unburdened by too many twists or much action until a dull car chase at the end.

   IMDb claims the episode (titled “Getaway Car”) originally aired as episode 19 during the fourth season of STUDIO 57 (aka HEINZ STUDIO 57) on March 29, 1958. According to Vincent Terrace “Encyclopedia of Television Pilots” (McFarland), it was meant to be a pilot for a proposed syndicated TV series to be called MOTORCYCLE COP.

   STUDIO 57 was a low budget anthology series that aired on the DuMont network from 1954 through 1955 when the series turned to syndication and lasted until 1958.


   Why pilots sell or fail has always been a mystery. Jake Kasdan (ZERO EFFECT) even did a movie called THE TV SET (2006) about the process.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


HAVE GUN – WILL TRAVEL. CBS, 1957-1963. 225 30 minute episodes. Richard Boone (Paladin), Kam Tong (Hey Boy). Created by Herb Meadow and Sam Rolfe.

   I picked up several episodes of Have Gun – Will Travel a while back and found them, within their limitations, quite enjoyable. The Half-Hour Dramatic Series is nowadays a Lost Art, and it was interesting to see it in practice again.

   Quick cuts, elliptical storytelling and tight focus might lead one to expect these would be fast-paced affairs, but they aren’t at all. You see, it’s much cheaper to advance the plot by photographing two actors talking in a room, so there’s a lot of that going on here. Long journeys and even grueling Desert Treks are suggested by about ten seconds of footage, and Fight Scenes, for the most part, are short and to the point. I’ve never seen so many guys knocked out by one punch in all my life, and I wonder if this simplistic approach to Conflict Resolution might have had some effect on my bidding mind in those days.

   Anyway, the high point of the series is and always was Boone’s tough, intelligent acting, back in the days when he was Lean and Hungry, and when scriptwriters could let him actually get violent from time to time. Those familiar with Boone’s later acting — particularly the patently phoney, self-indulgent portrayal of The Drawling Cowpoke from Hec Ramsey, who always talked tough but never actually did very much — should get to see him in these.

FRONTIER DOCTOR “Strange Cargo.” Syndicated; Hollywood Television Service. 23 May 1959 (Season 1, Episode 35). Rex Allen as Dr. Bill Baxter. Director: William Witney.

   For a small town western doctor and a relatively short career, Dr. Baxter certainly seems to have gotten himself involved in a good many dramatic medical crises. The single season of 39 episodes had one each and every week, and I don’t know, but the one in “Strange Cargo” may have topped them all: Bubonic plague. The Black Death.

   It begins with the death of a sailor on a ship heading from the seaport town of Vista, Texas, to New Orleans, then the trail leads to a pair of unscrupulous trappers back in Dr. Bill’s home town of Rising Springs. Along the way there were three deaths caused by the plague, one brutal shooting, a furious fist fight in the back of a runaway wagon, and a huge fire in a warehouse full of infected furs.

   Bill travels in a two horse buggy to get around, but don’t let that fool you. He’s pretty handy with his fists as well. Either they hired a lot of extras for a few scenes or they used stock footage from other films to a very nice advantage. All in all, a good way to spend 25 minutes of western adventure time, William Witney style. (He directed all but two episodes of the entire series.)

FRONTIER CIRCUS. “Depths of Fear.” CBS-TV; 5 October 1961. (Season 1, Episode 1.) Chill Wills, John Derek, Richard Jaeckel. Guest Cast: Aldo Ray, James Gregory, Bethel Leslie. Creator: Samuel A. Peeples. Director: William Witney.

   The concept of this series is both twofold and obvious from the title. It’s a western series with the setting and trappings of circus-related stories. Either that, or it’s a circus series taking place in the Old West. On the basis of watching only this one episode, I’m inclined to go with the latter. Just as in Wagon Train, to use the example that comes to mind almost immediately, it’s the people and their stories that make for the conflicts and the drama, not so much the setting.

   Chill Wills (as Colonel Casey Thompson) is a partner in the T and T Circus with John Derek (Ben Travis), with Richard Jaeckel as their traveling scout and assistant. And every week for 26 weeks, a whole flock of middle- to high-level guest stars came on to have their fictional stories told. Among them: Sammy Davis Jr., Elizabeth Montgomery, Gilbert Roland, Irene Dunne, Don “Red” Barry, Dan Duryea, Vera Miles, Stella Stevens, Rip Torn, Claude Akins and many more.

   The conflict in this first episode is a three-way one, between James Gregory, a martinet of a lion tamer as well as a wife-abuser; his wife, Bethel Leslie, who would leave him if she dared; and Aldo Ray, a drunken bum picked up the circus who was once also a lion tamer, but one who has lost his nerve because of a past incident in his life.

   The story is fairly predictable one, but between the script and Wiliam Witney’s direction, the 50 minutes or so of running time go by very quickly, and the continuing members of the cast are sharp on their toes to jump right in whenever needed in support.

   It’s an unusual combination of genres, and but with a good cast and guest stars, it’s no wonder that the series lasted a full year. In a way, though, it’s also no surprise that it wasn’t picked up for a second season. The confines of a circus just wouldn’t seem to allow for such a wide range of stories as was possible on the much longer-running (and aforementioned) Wagon Train series.

COMING SOON – THE TV EDITION
by Michael Shonk


   Most TV junkies claim Fall premiere week as their favorite time of the year, but mine has always been the May upfronts. Upfronts are parties the networks throw for major advertisers, ad agencies and the media in attempt to get them drunk enough to believe next Fall’s TV series will be the best ever and hope they forget the lies the networks told about the quality of last season’s shows.

   In the past, May was the most dramatic month for the TV fanatic. TV viewers embraced hope of the new, relief when their favorites survived, and the devastation when they didn’t. But it is just not the same anymore.

   The broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, and CW) have joined cable networks in the effort to supply original programming all year round. New television series never stop coming. The Big Four and-a-Half networks just announced their fall lineup with huge fan fare ignoring that September is no longer the best month of TV.

   Pushing the limits of space here, let’s check out the highlights of what is coming this week, this Summer, this Fall, and in 2017.

   Just because the main season is over, it doesn’t mean the broadcast networks abandon original programming. WAYWARD PINES is back on FOX. CW has the final season of BEAUTY & THE BEAST. CBS has the return of ZOO and two new series starting in June that sound better than any of CBS new fall shows. AMERICAN GOTHIC tells the story of a family that has discovered one of them is a serial killer. From the creators of THE GOOD WIFE, BRAINDEAD is a comedy thriller about a young woman who discovers aliens are eating the brains of politicians and government workers. NBC has the Olympics this summer but also airs AQUARIUS.

      NBC medical drama NIGHT SHIFT returns for its third season:

   Cable networks offer original scripted programs in May and June including AMC’s new crime drama set in a restaurant, FEED THE BEAST, and the last season of HELL ON WHEELS, HBO’s GAME OF THRONES, TNT’s LAST SHIP, MAJOR CRIMES, MURDER IN THE FIRST, and RIZZOLI & ISLES (final season), TBS’s ANGIE TRIBECA, Cinemax’s OUTCAST, Netflix’s ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, ADULT SWIM’s DECKER: UNCLASSIFIED, and SYFY’s 12 MONKEYS.

   The heck with Marvel and DC, give me an IDW comic book like the fun horror/western WYNONNA EARP.

   Cable original scripted programs continue through the summer with returning series such as SYFY’s KILLJOYS and DARK MATTER, FX’s TYRANT and THE STRAIN, STARZ’s POWER, USA’s SUITS and last year’s hit MR. ROBOT.

   New series include Netflix’s STRANGER THINGS set in the 1980s, a supernatural series centered on a missing boy, SYFY’s post-apocalyptic drama AFTERMATH, and TNT’s GOOD BEHAVIOR based on the Letty Dobesh books by Blake Crouch.

      Based on Stephen Hunter’s book POINT OF IMPACT, USA network new series SHOOTER premieres in July.

   This fall live television, especially sports such as the NFL and World Series, will distract the viewing public. Cable lead by one of the most watched TV series in all television, AMC’s WALKING DEAD will hold its own. TNT reboots TALES FROM THE CRYPT, this time from M. Night Shyamalan.

         Netflix starts another series featuring a Marvel comic character – LUKE CAGE.

   Midseason 2017 promises to offer some entertaining new series on cable networks. USA’s FALLING WATER is a supernatural thriller about three strangers who find they can share dreams. SYFY’s horror anthology CHANNEL ZERO,

      Syfy’s THE EXPANSE, the best TV series I watched in 2015-16, will return for its second season in January 2017.

   Top network CBS will add three new dramas this Fall. BULL starring NCIS Michael Weatherly as Dr Phil back when he was a consultant specializing in manipulating… uh, I mean analyzing juries. Medicine meets technology in the new drama PURE GENUIS.

      The pilot of MACGYVER had many behind the scenes problems. Let’s hope Macgyver can find the right knick knack to save the show.

   Two new CBS series wait for their turn and midseason. DOUBT a lawyer show starring Katherine Heigl, and TRAINING DAY, based on the film. But more important are two series that CBS hopes to premiere in 2017 on CBS ALL ACCESS, its streaming service. First original new series will be the sequel to THE GOOD WIFE. The second is perhaps TV most famous franchise in history. It began on NBC, cancelled and resurfaces as a successful film series. It was used to establish Paramount in the syndicated market. It began UPN (now CW) and tried to save the network before the merger with WB. As Paramount continues to pump out theatrical films, CBS will use STAR TREK to jumpstart its streaming service.

         Without a title or any idea what it is about, the new STAR TREK series is the most anticiated television series of next season.

   Among the CBS series returning in the fall are BLUE BLOODS, CODE BLACK, CRIMINAL MINDS, ELEMENTARY, HAWAII FIVE-O, MADAM SECRETARY, NCIS, NCIS: LOS ANGELES, NCIS: NEW ORLEANS, and SCORPION. While CRIMINAL MINDS – BEYOND BORDERS will be back in 2017.

   SUPERGIRL reminded CBS what its TV audience likes, so the new shows look like the old shows and SUPERGIRL flew off to CBS little sister CW. The comic book superhero will feel comfortable with the rest of DC comic superheroes, ARROW, LEGENDS OF TOMORROW, and CW’s top show FLASH. CW continues to specialize in comic books, horror and the weird.

      New this fall to the mini-me of broadcast networks is FREQUENCY based on the film.

   Returning during midseason will be THE 100, iZOMBIE, THE ORIGINALS, SUPERNATURAL, and THE VAMPIRE DIARIES.

   Midseason, CW will add FOX reject RIVERDALE, based on the characters from Archie comics focused on a murder mystery. But this is not Scooby Doo or your old Archie (even the comic books are not your old Archie), this Archie deals with “adult issues” such as him sleeping with his teacher.

   While CBS remains the top network, NBC is close behind. Its two biggest hits are SUNDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL and THE VOICE, each hogging up much of NBC’s fall schedule. This fall NBC adds five games of Thursday night football (CBS shows the first five, NBC has the last five). Without any major holes in its fall schedule, NBC saved its most promising new series for midseason, adding only three to the fall lineup.

      NBC’s only new drama this fall is TIMELESS, the most promising series of the many this season featuring time travel.

   Some of the series returning this fall are BLACKLIST, BLINDSPOT, CHICAGO FIRE, CHICAGO MED, CHICAGO PD, GRIMM, LAW AND ORDER SVU. SHADES OF BLUE will have to wait for SUNDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL to end.

   Other new shows waiting for their turn include comedies POWERLESS (insurance office comedy set in the world of superheroes), TRAIL & ERROR (court comedy). New dramas are BLACKLIST – REDEMPTION (spinoff), EMERALD CITY (based on Baum’s Land of Oz books), MIDNIGHT, TEXAS (based on a series of books by Charlaine Harris (TRUE BLOOD)), TAKEN (prequel to film series) and what would any NBC list be without another Dick Wolf CHICAGO series, in this case CHICAGO JUSTICE.

   There is hope at FOX. This year they have the Super Bowl guaranteeing better numbers at the end of the season. Ratings are changing, and FOX is pushing the hardest to find a way to count those of us who no longer watch TV live or on a TV set.

   TV is about to enter an era of MONEYBALL. For those not familiar with baseball or the movie or the book, sabermetrics uses an endless amount of numbers to measure performance. Networks like FOX are all ready there, someday the media will catch up.

   Speaking of baseball, FOX will have the World Series this fall as well as new series PITCH (story of first woman to play in Major League Baseball). Other new series of interest coming this fall are THE EXORIST (based on William Blatty’s novel), and LETHAL WEAPON (based on the film).

      My pick for first fall show cancelled is FOX’s SON OF ZORN, an animated barbarian tries to cope in live action modern world.

   Shows returning in fall include BROOKLYN NINE-NINE, insane GOTHAM, LUCIFER, ROSEWOOD, SCREAM QUEENS, and QUINTCO. Series returning in midseason include SLEEPY HOLLOW and the final season of BONES.

   Among the new series waiting for 2017 are APB (rich man buys a police precinct), MAKING HISTORY (time travel comedy), SHOTS FIRED (racially charged shooting involving a cop), and PRISON BREAK (sequel to 2005 TV series).

      FOX is hoping 24 – LEGACY will be as successful as the original 24.

   ABC did not have a good year. Its president of programming was sacrificed to the Nielsen Ratings Gods in prayers for better numbers in the demo.There was not enough time to change the fall offerings, but it is expected ABC will copy CBS and NBC with less soap operas and more procedurals.

   ABC’s new fall dramas of interest to us begins with DESIGNATED SURVIVOR starring Kiefer Sutherland as Tom Kirkman, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development ends up President after a terrorist attack takes out most of the leaders of the American government. CONVICTION with Hayley Atwell (AGENT CARTER) as a spoiled former first daughter who is forced under threat of jail to lead a small group investigating cases where the convicted might be innocent.

      NOTORIOUS is about the seduction between law and the media.

   Returning this fall are HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER, MARVEL’S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D., and ONCE UPON A TIME. While these returning series have to wait until midseason their turn – AMERICAN CRIME, THE CATCH, SCANDAL and SECRETS & LIES.

      Among the new ABC shows waiting for midseason is TIME AFTER TIME, based on the movie and stars Freddie Stroma as H.G. Wells.

   Over one hundred TV series in the 2015-16 season were cancelled or ended. RIP.

THE DAKOTAS “A Man Called Ragan.” ABC-TV, Pilot Episode, 23 April 1962. Larry Ward, Chad Everett, Jack Elam, Mike Green. Guest Cast: Arch Johnson, Jeanne Cooper, Lee Van Cleef. Based on a novel by Harry Whittington. Director: Richard C. Sarafian.

   Although The Dakotas is sometimes said to be a spinoff of ABC’s western series Cheyenne, starring Clint Walker, that doesn’t really seem to be the case. Although (as I understand it) this pilot episode ran in Cheyenne’s time slot, so did another ABC western, Bronco, in a “wheel” format, nor did Clint Walker appear in this first Dakotas episode.

   The confusion seems to have been compounded when The Dakotas again took over the same time slot as Cheyenne when the latter was cancelled halfway through the 1962 season. The first episode of The Dakotas’ first season was aired on January 7, 1963. (I was not watching. I was out celebrating my birthday.)

   The leading character of both the pilot is Frank Ragan, an ex-marshal in the Dakotas territory played by little known Frank Ward, although he was on dozens of TV shows over his career as an actor. With a patch over one eye, when he rides into the small town of Stark City, he has already had enough of his former job and has resigned. One last thing he must do, however, is to learn what happened to a good friend who lived there before his death, his homestead burned to the ground.

   We the viewer are way ahead of him as soon as Ben Stark (Arch Johnson) the area’s most powerful rancher — and the man who owns the town — and his men make an appearance. A showdown is inevitable, and Frank Ragan is just the man for the job.

   But the showdown must come at the end of this episode, and along the way the men who will become Ragan’s deputies in the rest of the series must be introduced:

   Jack Elam plays J. D. Smith, a gunman for hire who changes sides when he sees how the cards are being played; Chad Everett is Ben Stark’s adopted son Del, who is beginning to learn that his father has serious feet of clay; while Mike Green is the town’s sheriff, Vance Porter, a cowardly man totally under Ben Stark’s thumb.

   It isn’t a gang of men totally dedicated to law and order, in other words, but the series lasted for nineteen episodes before being cancelled with the reputation of being the most violent TV series on the air. I’d go along with that. When Ragan and his men ride out of town at the show’s conclusion, the only person left behind in the town is saloon owner Marti Stevens (Jeanne Cooper). Everyone else is dead. (It was a very small town, but it has been made even smaller.)

   Critically, I think the dialogue was a little too stagey, as if this were a tryout for Playhouse 90, say, and of the regular cast, the only one worth watching is Jack Elam. He steals every scene he’s in.

“BIRTH OF A LEGEND.” First episode of the first and only season of the TV series Legion, United Paramount Network (UPN), two hrs., 18 April 1995. Richard Dean Anderson (Ernest Pratt), John de Lancie (Janos Bartok), Mark Adair-Rios (Huitzilopochtli Ramos), Jarrad Paul (Skeeter). Guest cast: Bob Balaban, Stephanie Beacham, Katherine Moffat, Jon Pennell. Creators: Michael Piller & Bill Dial. Director: Charles Correll.

   Teaming up Richard Dean Anderson, who had just finished a long gig as MacGyver, with John de Lancie, not nearly as well known except to Star Trek fans as the omnipotent and very charismatic alien being Q, was a felicitous idea that should have worked. But success or not in the annals of network TV is a chancy thing, especially when it comes to small fledgling networks, and as fate would have it, the series lasted only twelve episodes before fading away forever.

   The basic concept is hardly a new one. Sometime in the 1860s, Anderson plays a dime novelist named Ernest Pratt who gets mistaken by the townspeople of Sheridan, Colorado, for the fictional and very popular hero of his long series of books, Nicholas Legend. Far from being a hero himself, Pratt spends his days gambling and drinking in the saloons of San Francisco, but he has only himself to blame for the mixup: his stories are written in the first person and images of his face are prominently featured on all the covers.

   Learning from a good-looking female attorney (Katherine Moffat) that a warrant has been issued for his arrest in Colorado, it takes some effort, but he is finally convinced to take a trip there in order to clear his name. Causing the local townsfolk to believe that he was their savior by means of one of his many inventions is eccentric scientist Janos Bartok (de Lancie), but the deed has also severely disrupted the plans of wealthy landowner Vera Slaughter (Stephanie Beacham), who caused the charges against Legend to be drawn up.

   I doubt that I am the first to call this show a combination of Wild Wild West and Maverick, but I think the connection fits. The show is played for laughs as much as anything else, but since we’re in on the gag from scene one, I don’t believe that that was one of the primary causes of the series’ early demise. I do think, though, that Anderson may have portrayed his role a little too broadly. (He isn’t that funny.)

   This is the only episode I’ve watched so far from the set of DVDs just recently released, so I can’t tell you what kind of adventures that Legend and Bartok will have from here. This may also be one of those concepts that just has no place to go. This is a series that depended on both charisma and wacky 19th century inventions. There may not have been enough wacky inventions to go around.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS


THE WILD WILD WEST. “Night of the Inferno.” CBS, 17 September 1965. (Season 1, Episode 1.) Robert Conrad (James T. West), Ross Martin (Artemus Gordon). Guest Cast: Suzanne Pleshette, Victor Buono, Nehemiah Persoff, James Gregory (as President Ulysses S. Grant). Written by Gilbert Ralston and Michael Garrison (creator). Director: Richard C. Sarafian.

   Directed by Richard C. Sarafian, “Night of the Inferno” was the pilot episode for The Wild Wild West, the genre bending spy-Western series that aired on CBS from 1965-1969. The series starred Robert Conrad and Ross Martin as Secret Service agents tasked with foiling plots against the U.S. government after the Civil War. Conrad portrayed the series’ hero, Jim West, while Martin portrayed his memorably named partner/sidekick, Artemus Gordon.

   In “Night of the Inferno,” the audience meets Jim West and Artemus for the first time. The two Secret Service agents set out from Washington to the New Mexico Territory in order to hunt down a warlord by the name of Juan Manolo. Along the way, West encounters a seductive woman from his past and also has to face off against a Mexican general, Gen. Andreas Cassinello (portrayed by the prolific character actor, Nehemiah Persoff, who appeared in numerous television series during his long career and was the voice actor for the animated character Papa Mousekewitz in the An American Tail film franchise).

   Altogether, this pilot episode works quite well in both introducing the two main characters as well as the gadgetry that Jim West would make extensive use of while fighting to save the Union from various super villains and their devious plots. An interesting tidbit: when the series was in the works, the title was going to be The Wild West. Perhaps it sounded just a little too basic, hence the additional of the second “Wild” when the episodes began to air.




      PHOTO GALLERY:









Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          


“The Gladiators.” An episode of Have Gun – Will Travel, 19 March 1960. (Season 3, Episode 27.) Richard Boone. Guest Stars: Paul Cavanaugh, Dolores Donlon and James Coburn as Bill Sledge. Teleplay: Robert C. Dennis. Series created by Herb Maddow and Sam Rolfe. Directed by Alvin Ganzer.

   Have Gun – Will Travel was seldom just an ordinary western, and on occasion barely a western at all, as in this episode which opens in San Francisco at our hero Paladin’s (Richard Boone) rooms in the Carleton Hotel where he is receiving an attractive young lady, Miss Alison Windrom (Dolores Donlon) of New Orleans, with seduction on his mind, as evidenced by the champagne that accompanies her to the room and his lounging jacket.

   Alas for our tarnished knight, Miss Windrom is concerned for poor Daddy back home (veteran actor Paul Cavanaugh), who has accepted a challenge to a duel:

      “He’s a very proud man, Mr. Paladin, he’d rather die than yield.”

      “Is that a family trait?”

   It is the nineteen-fifties, and we know the seduction is not going to succeed, but the teleplay and Boone’s delivery of the lines makes no bones about what Paladin has in mind. It isn’t surprising audiences were ready for the much more successful James Bond a few years later. All this unfulfilled seduction and innuendo had to end at some point in a bedroom somewhere.

   Of course once he is hired, Paladin is all business. In that he, and most of the gunslingers in Westerns, very much resemble the work ethic of the private eye of pulp fiction, all business, no matter how attractive the distractions. In many ways Paladin is a private eye as much as a hired gun, though he is seldom cast in the role of detective.

   Over the course of the series we learn little of him other than he is an ex-soldier, fast with a gun, would rather talk than fight when possible, has exquisite tastes acquired if not born to, is possessed of a mordant and quick wit, and is cynical but still a romantic despite his jaundiced eye.

   He would like to be wrong about people and is gratified when he finds one of the few who defy is dark assessment of humanity. He is a man out of his time and place who probably would only really fit in San Francisco of that era or as an Elizabethan privateer. He is very much Chandler’s errant knight ‘good enough for any world,’ but his mean streets are most often dusty trails ending in a showdown.

   Miss Windrom is convinced the other party in the duel, the younger Mr. Beckley (George Neise) will step out if Paladin shows up as a proxy for her father. So Paladin gets dragged into it, protesting all the way, and steps into the looking glass with the Southern aristocrats who would rather die than yield, even if it means over the bodies of innocents.

   Or not so innocents, when Beckley hires his own proxy in the person of gunfighter Bill Sledge (James Coburn) from Texas, a man with a reputation with a gun equal to Paladin. The two men know of each other, and they meet on neutral ground with mutual respect for the other’s skill and professionalism. That paean to professionalism is also a throwback to the classic private eye of Hammett who is redeemed more by that trait than his humanity, the Code of the West is ironically largely the Puritan work ethic.

   Paladin considers the duel nonsense, and so does the dark but charming Sledge. Neither particularly wants to kill anyone, certainly not for two arrogant fools battling over some obscure point of honor, and it seems for a moment like the meeting on the field of honor and blood can be avoided if Paladin and Sledge refuse to fight, but Sledge can’t help but wonder which of them would win, and …

      Sledge: I never done much of this kind of fighting in Texas. Hear tell there’s rules.

      Paladin: You pay much attention to rules?

      Sledge: Never done yet.

   This episode is a tight little psychological game, as Paladin finds himself Alice surrounded by White Rabbits and Mad Hatters obsessed by ‘honor’ and inured to death. He finds the price of honor in this case too high, but no one else does, and as the tight little half hour goes on he inevitably will find himself on that field of honor and blood at dawn.

·       Paladin: “How much blood will you settle for?”

   The episode may surprise some who have a certain view of series drama from the Fifties. It is bitter, cynical, downbeat, dark, and unforgiving. That the conclusion is predetermined and unavoidable from the first makes it all the worse. It has the sharp taste of bitters without the gin, a nasty dose of quinine made palatable by watching two outstanding actors, both gifted at playing villain and complex hero, both with charm and cool to spare (had this episode also included those two other masters of small screen cool, Steve McQueen and Robert Culp, it could have frozen and shattered television tubes) in acutely observed and written roles clearly enjoying themselves.

   Coburn displays the vicious charm that worked equally well as dark hero or psychotic villain and would soon lead him to stardom, and Boone, who has the same qualities on screen, seems to enjoy his scenes with him, recognizing an equal. That, and the sharp observation of a world where honor encompasses wagering on death and wasting lives over obscure points make this episode a standout as Paladin learns the savagery of the “savage land” of the series theme song is nothing compared to that of the civilized world.

   Have Gun – Will Travel was always a well-written series, and thanks to Boone, always well-acted, but this one is a standout, a cynical little gem about the cost of violence and cultures that embrace it.

   It is also rare in that Paladin, the man who holds himself above the rest, is as compelled by his own code of honor as the men he condemns to see it out to the end, and in the final scene he is as disgusted with himself as them. This episode comes close to tragedy since no one in it escapes their hubris or pride whether they live or die.

   In the end, Paladin is a victim of his own honor as much as they are and bloodied by it as surely. His slight rebuff of all that has gone before in the final scene, when he throws a glass of champagne to the ground with a bitter comment and stalks off as the screen fades to black, isn’t satisfying for the character or for the viewer, and perhaps all the darker because we as voyeurs wanted to know which man would prevail as well.

   For a half-hour episode of series television from that time period “The Gladiators” bears a great deal of existential despair, especially for a Western. Even for a series as quirky and adult as Have Gun – Will Travel, this episode is savage and dark.

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