Monday, February 27, 2017

The Cerebral Nature of the West Wing



Sam (Rob Lowe): I don't know how you do it.

President (Martin Sheen): You have a lot of help. You listen to everybody and then you call the play. Sam, you're going to run for president one day. Don't be scared. You can do it. I believe in you. [moves chess piece] That's checkmate.

I was a fan of West Wing when it was on the air, seldom missed an episode. I liked them all, but the episode that was first shown on this night in 2002, "Hartsfield's Landing," has always been a special favorite of mine, probably because it was so cerebral.

After 15 years, I would say it has aged well.

West Wing was always a cerebral show, but the episode "Hartsfield's Landing" was especially so. It was also a great illustration of how effective presidents gather information to make decisions.

Presidents don't do that in the same way, of course. Each president has been an individual and thus has had his own way of doing things. America being the diverse country it is, no president's approach is going to be favored by everyone — nor will one president's approach necessarily work for another president — and, of course, times change, circumstances change, people change. Still there are always lessons to be learned from presidencies that are judged to have been successes — as well as presidencies that are judged to have been failures.

Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) was a complex president, and he used a variety of methods to make decisions, but they always boiled down to what he told Sam (Rob Lowe) in this episode: "You listen to everybody and then you call the play."

He picked Sam's brain and Toby's (Richard Schiff) over a couple of games of chess in this episode. He had just returned from a trip to India, where he had been given some chess boards. He had decided to give them to the staffers as gifts and proposed to play them simultaneously, Sam in his office and Toby in the Oval Office.

As I say, the president picked their brains but on different matters. It kept him aware of things he may have forgotten. It was his way of "seeing the whole board" — a good chess analogy. With Sam, he discussed a standoff between China and Taiwan. With Toby, he discussed their recent conversation about whether the president was still trying to live up to his deceased father's expectations.

Seen from the perspective of the 2016 election and its aftermath, this episode that was written more than a decade earlier offered some bad advice to future Democrats, particularly those who may have heeded it last year.

As they discussed the president's likely opponents in the upcoming general election, Toby told Bartlet, "Make this election about smart and not. Make it about engaged and not, qualified and not."

In general, that is good advice, but, with the benefit of recent hindsight, I would add to that, "Don't think for a second that excuses you from having to put forth an agenda for the future."

The West Wing was a busy place, as I have no doubt the real one is, and there were always minor stories going on. "Hartsfield's Landing" was no exception.

While the president was having these power chess games with Sam and Toby, Josh (Bradley Whitford) was aware of the fact that New Hampshire was holding its first–in–the–nation primary that day, and a tiny town called Hartsfield's Landing (clearly inspired by Dixville Notch) would be announcing its vote total shortly after midnight. The handful of votes cast in that tiny hamlet would dominate the national news for more than 20 hours — until the votes in the rest of New Hampshire were counted.

With New Hampshire being the president's home state, Josh wanted the president to score a comfortable victory in Hartsfield's Landing so he instructed his assistant Donna (Janel Moloney) to call a couple she knew who had been supporters of the president the first time but were against him this time. He wanted them to change their votes to improve the president's showing in Hartsfield's Landing.

Donna couldn't call from the West Wing since it was federal property so she took a cell phone out into the freezing February night and called New Hampshire from the park across the street, lobbying for the president right up until the time the couple left to cast their midnight votes.

In the end, Josh gave in. "Let 'em vote," he came outside to tell Donna, and they went back to the White House to await the returns from Hartsfield's Landing.

There was also a feud between C.J. (Allison Janney) and Charlie (Dule Hill) over a missing copy of the presidential schedule that is better watched than described. If you haven't seen it, do so. Trust me.

Speaking of C.J. ...

One of the things I really liked about the West Wing was its devotion to detail. Oh, it was always possible to nitpick, but it was usually on tiny points that wouldn't be obvious to most people. For example, in this episode, which featured chess so prominently, only chess experts would have been able to tell if Bartlet referred to chess moves that were real or fictional or if he used terminology that was real or fictional. To a non–aficionado, if it sounds legitimate, that is enough.

My father loves to play chess, but he wouldn't know if the "Evans Gambit" is real (it is) or if there is such a thing as the "Fibonacci opening" (there isn't). For that matter, I didn't either until I did some research — and Dad was the one who taught me to play.

Sometimes when I was watching West Wing I couldn't tell if I was watching a dramatization or a documentary. None of the events on the West Wing were real, of course, but the show's depictions of events and TV broadcasts were always perfect.

"Hartsfield's Landing" provided an ideal example at the very end, one that was foretold by C.J. earlier in the episode when she spoke of how she liked the tradition of the people of that little town gathering together to cast their votes at midnight.

"They all gather at once ... it's nice. There's a registrar of voters. The names are called in alphabetical order. They put a folded piece of paper into a box. ... Those 42 people are teaching us something about ourselves, that freedom is the glory of God, that democracy is its birthright and that our vote matters."

As the activity continued to swirl and percolate in the West Wing, even at midnight, the television monitors showed the proceedings in Hartsfield's Landing.

On the screen the name of an obviously young woman was called by the registrar. As she brought forth her ballot, the onlookers were told that she was 18 and was voting for the first time. The room burst into applause.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Doing What Is Right



Even after a lifetime of observing human activity, it still surprises me at times to see how superficial our judgments really are.

Last year's elections provide the perfect example. This is not a new thing, but it seems that more people than usual are willing to believe the worst about those who voted differently than they did. The flip side is that they are just as willing to overlook the shortcomings in those who voted the same as they did.

This doesn't apply only to politics. It applies to everything else. People in general are more comfortable believing the best about those with whom they share certain characteristics — age, race, gender, faith, education — and the worst about those with whom they have less in common. But those kinds of characteristics are superficial, and it is a mistake to trust — or distrust — anyone solely on those factors.

I think that must have been the lesson of the episode of the Mary Tyler Moore Show, "Some of My Best Friends Are Rhoda," that premiered on this night in 1972.

In the episode, Mary had been in a minor collision with a woman with whom she then struck up a friendship. They had been members of the same sorority — on different campuses but probably around the same time. They seemed to be about the same age.

When they came back to Mary's apartment, Rhoda (Valerie Harper) suggested that she and Mary play tennis. Mary's new friend picked up on that and suggested that Mary play with her. They agreed to do so.

Mary's relationship with this new friend really seemed to blossom, and Rhoda was getting jealous. She didn't try too hard to conceal it, either, although it's been my observation that people are more transparent than they think they are.

When Mary's friend wanted to find a fourth player for a doubles match at the tennis club, it was obvious fairly quickly that she did not want to invite Rhoda. She kept making excuses for not asking Rhoda to join them. Mary wanted to know why.

It turned out that the problem was that Rhoda was Jewish, and the tennis club didn't want Jews. Well, that was how Joanne presented it to Mary initially. But Joanne's true colors became clear.

Mary, a gentile, pretended to be Jewish. The instantaneous change in Joanne's facial expression spoke volumes.

So did the expression change on Joanne's face when, a minute later, Mary confessed that she was not Jewish after all.

"I knew that," an obviously relieved Joanne said. "Don't you think I knew that?"

"No," Mary replied. "I don't think you knew that. I think for a minute there you weren't sure — and it made a difference."

That was the end of their friendship, but Mary had stood for what she knew was right.

I seldom hear the episode mentioned, but it was a strong statement for its time — and one of the best Mary Tyler Moore Show episodes.

The Flim-Flam Man



"He's Lilith's half–brother, the curse of the family. What does it say when Lilith is the good one?"

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer)

I usually enjoy Michael Keaton movies. I can't say I have liked them all, but I have liked many of them.

I also enjoy his guest appearances on TV, and the best of those may have been the one that aired 15 years ago tonight on Frasier. Keaton played the half–brother of Frasier's ex–wife, a con man who had scammed Frasier on many occasions, in "Wheels of Fortune."

When the episode began, Roz (Peri Gilpin) gave Frasier a telephone message from Blaine at the end of Frasier's radio show one day. Frasier observed that the telephone number was local. "The beast walks among us," he said.

It turned out Frasier was nursing a couple of grudges. Apparently Blaine had taken Frasier's valuable antique salt server, and he had sold Frasier some kelp futures. Frasier was determined not to be taken in again.

But when Blaine came to visit he was in a wheelchair, claiming to be paralyzed from the waist down and professing to be a changed man.

Just prior to his visit, a package from Blaine had arrived. In it was Frasier's salt server. He and Niles (David Hyde Pierce) were overcome by the sight.

"I've heard you speak of it," Niles said, "but I had no idea it was so magnificent."

A note that came with the salt server explained that Blaine wanted to make amends and hoped for Frasier's forgiveness. But Frasier was resolute in his belief that Blaine was up to no good.

When Blaine arrived, Frasier wanted to know how much it would cost to get him out of there. Blaine admitted that he was there because he wanted something from Frasier, but what he wanted was for Frasier to pray with him.

He had been in a terrible automobile accident, Blaine said, and he had had a religious experience. Now he was on a ministry "to save souls the way the Lord saved mine."

Frasier remained skeptical.

"What genius!" he said. "The Lord — a credible partner who doesn't take a cut."

Daphne (Jane Leeves) protested that Blaine's was an inspirational story.

Blaine invited the Cranes to come hear him preach the following Sunday in a facility he had rented for the occasion. Everyone but Frasier liked the idea. Then Blaine mentioned that the advertising had been more expensive than he had expected, and he was about $1,000 short of what he needed.

Frasier pounced. "Aha! The other shoe comes cascading from the sky!" But Blaine insisted that what he was going to say was "the Lord will provide."

In the end, though, it was Daphne who provided, which made Frasier even more determined to expose Blaine so he began trying to contact the doctor who had treated him after his accident to confirm whether Blaine really was paralyzed. But multiple attempts to reach him failed.

When the family attended Blaine's service, Frasier was fuming. He didn't believe the doctor existed, and he was frustrated by what he saw as the sheep mentality of the audience.

Frasier threw Blaine from the wheelchair, told the onlookers not to help him up, then told Blaine to get up on his own. At that point, Frasier's phone rang. It was the doctor, and he confirmed Blaine's story.

The humbled Frasier urged the onlookers to help Blaine into his chair and pledged to match all contributions that were made that day dollar for dollar.

Frasier couldn't stop doing things for Blaine. He even gave him the antique salt server — right after he gave him the promised contribution in cash.

"Well," Frasier said after Blaine left the apartment and, when last seen, was rolling to the elevators, "that's a lesson learned."

"Yeah," Martin (John Mahoney) replied. "Don't throw a guy out of a wheelchair. Who knew?"

Then, as Martin and Frasier talked, Frasier heard things he had said to Blaine coming from Martin's mouth, and he realized that Blaine had, indeed, been up to his old tricks. Dashing to the door, Frasier found Blaine's empty wheelchair.

As Frasier so presciently observed earlier in the episode when he spoke of the Blaine Sternin long con: "He sets you up, sucks you in and then bam! Kelp futures!"

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Birdman of The Montana



Frasier (Kelsey Grammer): [about Martin's chair] Dad, when are you going to stop blighting the environment with this monstrosity? My God, can't you see that it wants to die? Let it go.

Martin (John Mahoney): You know, I keep having this dream where you're saying the same thing only I'm in the hospital and you're slipping the nurse a 20.

Frasier: Dad, that will never happen.

Martin: Thank you.

Frasier: I have medical power of attorney. It won't cost me a thing.

In the episode of Frasier that first aired on this night in 1997 Niles (David Hyde Pierce) had just signed a lease for a new apartment in a snooty building called The Montana. He was anxious to make a good impression on his new neighbors so he arranged to throw a dinner party.

It's important at this point to mention something.

Longtime viewers of Frasier will recall that, prior to this, Niles had acquired a dog, a rather high–strung whippet that, apparently, bore a striking resemblance to Niles' never–seen but frequently described spouse, Maris. But the Montana would not permit dogs or cats. Other pets were allowed, but Niles would not be able to keep his dog.

So Niles gave away his dog and purchased a cockatoo named Baby that had been taught a few words. It said "I love you" a few times, at one point calling Niles Grandma, but mostly it repeated things it heard in Niles' kitchen. For example it picked up the assessment from Martin (John Mahoney) that domestic birds were "cute but stupid."

Baby's problem, though, was not her brains. It was her nerves.

She had a tendency to startle easily, and she would attach her claws firmly to whatever — or whoever — happened to be in the vicinity. Niles learned that the hard way when the doorbell rang. Baby was perched on his shoulder and sank her claws into him hard enough that he could feel it through his shirt and jacket.

(This, by the way, is a real condition that can affect humans as well as animals. My mother was a perfect example. She loved movies, but she had a tendency to grip the arm of whoever was sitting next to her whenever a particularly suspenseful scene occurred. I learned that the hard way when I watched "The Shining" with her.)

Before the evening was over, Niles would have reason to look back on that episode with fondness.

Baby was startled when Frasier began building a fire. She was on Niles' hand, but the sound so scared her that she flew to his head, and she sank her claws into his scalp.

She tightened her grip when the doorbell rang again.

Niles retreated to the kitchen as the guests began to arrive, and Frasier was put in the position of keeping them entertained while Niles tried to free himself of the bird.

Frasier had shown an interest in one of the guests, a neighbor named Stephanie (Patricia Wettig, who is probably best remembered as a star of TV's thirtysomething in the late '80s), but he did a pretty good job of entertaining all six guests, which included Maris' oldest friend. Niles was petrified of what she might tell Maris about his dinner party — and the cockatoo attached to his head — so he remained in the kitchen, trying to find a way to get the bird to relax enough to loosen its grip.

In the end, the bird did break up the dinner party — but not because she was on Niles' head. It was because of phrases she had picked up from Niles and Frasier in other contexts.

For example, Niles told Frasier how rampant gossip was in a building like The Montana. In the short time he had lived there he had heard that one of the guests, Carol (played by Rosemary Murphy, who appeared in "To Kill a Mockingbird," from which the title of the episode was inspired), "is a lush," and another, a Dutch investment banker, "is a lech." He had also cautioned Frasier against counting too much on Stephanie being "as horny as you are."

Baby was prompted to repeat those phrases whenever she heard the names; offended, the guests stormed out. Stephanie, however, stopped long enough on her way out to ring the doorbell.

I'm not sure there was a moral to the story. It was just good funny slapstick.

Monday, February 20, 2017

A Capsule Full of Castaways



On this night in 1967, the world was a little over two years from man's first walk on the surface of the moon.

Space travel was a hot subject on television in those days and a fertile topic for episodes of TV series, especially sitcoms like Gilligan's Island, which aired an intriguing space travel–related episode on this night 50 years ago.

The episode was called "Splashdown," and it was really two stories in one — featuring two space capsules, one carrying a two–man crew and the other unmanned. The mission called for the two to rendezvous in space. Pretty inventive, considering the kinds of space–related episodes that tended to be shown on TV in those days.

It was a grim time for America's space program; idled by the recent deaths of the Apollo 1 crew, it would not resume manned space flights for more than a year.

Incidentally, though, while the name of the episode may be an obscure term to modern viewers, anyone who was alive at the time would instantly recognize a splashdown as the final phase of any space mission.

The emphasis in the first half of the episode was on the manned space flight. The Professor (Russell Johnson) had concluded that the capsule would be directly over the island a few times as it orbited the planet, and he was determined to establish some kind of contact.

Gilligan (Bob Denver), in his usual knee–jerk way, ran off to inform the other castaways that they were going to be rescued — but they all got the idea that the astronauts had splashed down in the lagoon.

The Professor had to explain to them that he had an idea for contacting the capsule. He would use the radio to send a signal when the capsule would be closest to the island. Since he could only transmit a weak signal, he wanted to build a directional cone to improve the strength. To operate it, Gilligan, the Skipper (Alan Hale Jr.), Mary Ann (Dawn Wells) and Ginger (Tina Louise) would ride bicycle–like contraptions to generate energy. That attempt failed.

Then the castaways recalled that, in an earlier mission, one of the U.S. astronauts had reported seeing the lights of Houston as his capsule passed over. That gave the Professor the idea of cutting down some logs and fashioning a large SOS that would be set on fire when the astronauts were almost directly above them during their next orbit. That was a plan that might have worked — if not for Gilligan, who backed into a torch while he and the Skipper were lighting the logs and knocked some of the logs out of place as he made a beeline for a tub of water.

The astronauts saw the message — but now it read SOL, not SOS, and the astronauts thought it was a greeting. You see, one of the astronauts was named Sol.

Thus the manned capsule exited the story, but the unmanned capsule was about to enter, and it actually did splash down in the lagoon.

The castaways heard on the radio that the capsule had been on the radar of naval ships in the area which would be looking for it because it contained sensitive space data it had gathered. It was decided that the capsule would be set adrift with two people on board who would direct the ships to the island to rescue the other castaways. The Professor insisted that Gilligan and the Skipper should be on the capsule — but the other castaways also wanted to be on board, and they plotted to stow away. Before daylight the next morning, first the Howells (Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer) and then Mary Ann and Ginger crept to the lagoon to be in the capsule before Gilligan and the Skipper came to board it at the crack of dawn.

Not realizing that four other people were hidden in the capsule, the Skipper and Gilligan found the capsule too heavy to launch and started throwing overboard anything that wasn't nailed down.

That was when the four stowaways were discovered, and everyone got off the capsule. Gilligan kept an eye on it while the Professor lectured the four, warning them of the consequences of pulling such a stunt, then said there was still time to get the capsule out to sea where it could be spotted by the search vessels. Gilligan had been trying to get their attention, but he was ignored until the Professor was finished.

Then he was given the chance to speak, and he reported that the capsule had broken loose and drifted over to the other side of the lagoon. It appeared to be one more instance of Gilligan's incompetence. After all, the assumption was that he had permitted the capsule to do what it did — and because of that one more chance to be rescued had been fouled up.

What the castaways didn't know — and the viewers did know — was that the folks back at mission control had decided to call off the search and were going to detonate the capsule by remote control rather than take the chance of allowing sensitive information to fall into the wrong hands.

As the castaways looked forlornly at the capsule — which, to them, might as well have been on the moon — it blew up, scattering debris everywhere. The castaways, too, scattered.

For one of the few times they were on the island, Gilligan's incompetence did not cost the castaways their long–desired rescue. It saved their lives.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Barney's Sour Notes



"Aunt Bee, Barney's been singin' again. I don't know how he does it, but he's got a knack of hittin' a note just enough off to make your skin crawl."

Andy (Andy Griffith)

The Andy Griffith Show is one of those shows from which I find it hard to select my absolute favorite episode. I can usually narrow it down from a set of similar episodes, such as episodes that focus on Andy's father–son relationship with Opie (Ron Howard), but picking my very favorite episode is pretty darn tough. In fact, it is virtually impossible.

However, the episode that first aired on this night in 1962, "Barney and the Choir," is a strong contender. In the interest of full disclosure, I have to acknowledge that just about any episode that focuses on Barney (Don Knotts) is a contender for my favorite Andy Griffith episode.

But the episodes that dealt with his performances with the Mayberry choir are special favorites.

There was one time when Barney was slated to solo for the choir, but he wasn't very good, and the choir director was quick to replace him with Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors). That was kind of bewildering. I mean, that episode came along after "Barney and the Choir" aired. I've never really been sure how Barney was in a position to do a solo for the choir in that episode when, in "Barney and the Choir," Barney's very status in the choir was in doubt.

Perhaps he got in the choir director's good graces and remained in the choir — but the choir director knew by then that Barney couldn't sing so why would he make Barney a soloist for a second time? By this time in the Andy Griffith Show timeline Barney's inability to sing may have been the worst kept secret in Mayberry — and considering how quickly gossip spread in that town, that was saying something.

In fact, I can assure you of something. Having grown up in a small town, I can tell you that almost nothing remains a secret for very long in a small town.

Well, anyway ...

I suppose prior knowledge of Barney's lack of talent was regarded as a mere technicality — if it was considered at all — when the second episode was written. I mean, every TV show has its inconsistencies, right?

Anyway, back to "Barney and the Choir."

The choir director actually did choose Barney to be the soloist in this episode — but he was misled by Barney, who spoke about his voice teacher and the fact that he was a tenor, which was what the choir director needed, but he never actually auditioned for the director.

At the first choir practice, though, the choir director found out that Barney couldn't sing. He tried to work around it, but it just couldn't be done. So Andy (Andy Griffith) agreed to tell Barney that he was out of the choir. Thelma Lou (Betty Lynn) brought Barney over to Andy's house for dinner, and Andy was going to tell him when Barney suggested they get a little practice in.

Reluctantly, Andy, Thelma Lou and Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier) trudged over to the piano. Opie was with them — and may have been the only one in town besides Barney who didn't know that Barney couldn't sing. As they began to sing, Barney hit a sour note, and Opie remarked, "Somebody sounds terrible."

The singing continued, and Opie exclaimed, "It's Barney!" In one of my all–time favorite moments on the show, Andy gently put his hand over Opie's mouth.

One of the things I always admired about Andy was the fact that he sincerely cared about the people of Mayberry, particularly those in his inner circle, and he always tried to spare them embarrassment or pain if he could. He wasn't above telling a white lie or two if he thought doing so would permit him to achieve that goal.

In this case, as the group was trying to sing, he got an idea he thought might get him off the hook with Barney. A way for both to save face, you might say.

He suggested that Barney's throat was swollen and inflamed. Barney protested that he didn't feel sick, but Aunt Bee and Thelma Lou picked up on what Andy was trying to do and went along with what he was saying — that Barney needed to take to bed to nip whatever ailment he had in the bud.

Obviously, this would mean that he couldn't perform in the upcoming concert, but he wouldn't want to expose everyone to his germs, would he?

Well ...

They talked Barney into leaving and going straight to bed, but he double crossed them, demanding that Thelma Lou take him to see the doctor — who confirmed that Barney wasn't sick. So that plan failed.

But Andy had another brainstorm. He told Barney the choir was going to try something different. Barney would still be the soloist, but he would recite his parts instead of sing them. That didn't work, either.

But Andy had one more trick up his sleeve.

He told Barney he would be singing into a special soloist's microphone. Extremely sensitive. Consequently, he would have to sing very low. If he sang at a normal tone of voice, he would "bust every eardrum in the auditorium."

Andy convinced Barney, even though he thought he was barely making a sound, but Andy assured him it would reverberate in the auditorium the following night.

Barney's microphone, though, was dead. Another singer would be singing into a live microphone backstage.

It worked just as Andy hoped it would. Barney believed his solo had been superb, and the concert was saved from Barney's hilarious off–key singing.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Crane Boys' Family Tradition



Frasier (Kelsey Grammer): We could share a table. There are a couple of seats over there.

Niles (David Hyde Pierce): We can't sit with strange women.

Frasier: Why not? We married strange women.

The writers for Frasier always seemed to strike a solid balance between types of episodes. They never never leaned too heavily in one direction. One episode might deal with Frasier's (Kelsey Grammer) long–distance relationship with his son; the next week's episode might deal with Frasier's sibling rivalry with Niles (David Hyde Pierce); the next episode might deal with Frasier's snobby demeanor.

I guess it was easy with Frasier. He was so flawed that there was always a wealth of material to exploit. The writers didn't have to write the same kind of story every week. They could write many kinds of stories that gave the viewers real insight into Frasier's personality. That is the mark of a truly good sitcom.

The episode that first aired 20 years ago tonight, "Four for the Seesaw," was the latest installation in the story of Frasier's tortured love life. Niles (David Hyde Pierce), recently separated from the frequently mentioned but never seen Maris, was dragged in for good measure.

Actually, Niles was at the center of the episode. Frasier's obsessive behavior was reflected in his younger brother. Like a hormone–crazed teenager, Niles wanted sex, but he also drove himself to lunacy with his obsessiveness. Both would be — in the words of Hank Williams Jr. — a "family tradition."

Niles and Frasier were in the cafe on a particularly busy day. There were no tables to be had. They decided to ask if they could share a table with two unattached women (Lisa Darr, Megan Mullally), who were receptive to the idea.

So the four of them had coffee together. Things worked out so well that they went out to dinner and then to the repertory theater. The audience only heard about those developments when Niles and Frasier brought the girls back to Frasier's apartment, but it was clear they had been hitting it off.

While they were there Martin (John Mahoney) told Frasier that he and his girlfriend had a mountain cabin paid for but they couldn't use so he offered it to Frasier. After a little discussion, the four decided to go away for the weekend.

But once they arrived at the cabin, the Crane boys were driven to madness by the ambiguity of the girls' remarks. Niles and Frasier were eager to bed the girls, but they didn't wish to appear too eager — so they tried to maneuver things so the girls would commit themselves one way or another.

But each thing they said was more ambiguous than the last.

Finally, it seemed that Niles' and Frasier's lustful wishes would come true, but Niles was overcome with guilt. He had to call Maris and find out the ground rules for their separation.

"It occurred to me," Niles said into the phone, "we never laid out the rules about our dating other people. ... I know that we're allowed to see other people. My question is, how much of them are we allowed to see?"

Maris apparently gave Niles permission to fool around.

But Niles' brain was still in ambiguity mode because he began imagining other meanings for what she had said. Then she called him back and told him not to go out with other women.

And he kept interrupting Frasier to discuss it all with him. A person in Niles' shoes most likely won't notice that he is annoying those around him, and Niles failed to pick up on Frasier's increasing irritation.

Finally Frasier had had enough, and he scolded Niles, told him he was overthinking things. While he was having his rant, the girls came to the bedroom doors and were listening when he told Niles, "For tonight they are two live breathing available females who want us!"

"Think again," one of them said, and both returned to the bedrooms — alone.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Hidden Faces



"I've always believed that we have two faces, one that we wear and the other that we keep hidden. The problem has always been to find some method to make people reveal their hidden faces."

Fitzgerald Fortune (Barry Morse)

Have you ever wished that merely by being near a commonplace item a person could be compelled to reveal what was really lurking in his/her heart and mind?

Wouldn't it be nice to know what makes the people around you tick?

Well, I guess it would be nice — sometimes. But sometimes I could see where it wouldn't be so nice.

In the episode of Twilight Zone that first aired on this night in 1962, "A Piano in the House," Barry Morse played a cruel, bullying theater critic who came across a player piano while searching for a birthday gift for his much younger wife (played by Joan Hackett). His wife had been showing an interest in learning to play the piano, and Morse's character had concluded — for his own reasons — that the ideal gift would be a piano that played itself.

He thought she had no musical talent and later explained to her how thoughtful he had been, saving her the time and effort of taking lessons only to learn that she had no talent for that — or any other — instrument.

(A short lesson in the history of player pianos is in order at this point. Player pianos were quite popular in the early 20th century, but production waned in the 1920s with the advent of the radio and the development of recorded music. The stock market crash nearly wiped out the industry, but the interest of collectors during the 1950s sparked a revival and production resumed in the 1960s — so player pianos made a rather timely topic for Twilight Zone in 1962.

(Personally my experience with player pianos is limited to one that was a fixture of a popular pizza joint in Little Rock when I was a boy. I loved to go there — but I must confess it had little if anything to do with the player piano and just about everything to do with the thin crust pizza that was served there. On the other hand, I can't hear a player piano today without thinking of that pizza joint.)

The proprietor of the store was a rather grumpy old man — until he and Morse tried to operate the player piano, and it began playing a sentimental piece. Immediately, the store owner's demeanor changed. He became a sentimental softie, even giving Morse a discount on the price of the piano because it was a gift.

But when the music stopped, he became his old grouchy self. When Morse asked him if he got sentimental about anything other than birthdays, he sniffed, "Birthdays? They're a stupid waste of time and money."

Morse began to suspect that there was something unusual about this player piano, but he had to be sure. After the piano was delivered to the house, he began playing another roll of music — and it transformed his rather glum butler (Cyril Delevanti, who appeared in two other Twilight Zone episodes) into a cheery, laughing sort who claimed he wasn't bothered by his employer's abusive behavior. To the contrary, he said, he could hardly keep from laughing out loud when Morse flew into a rage — "one of your tantrums," he called it (an appropriate word, given how the rest of the episode played out).

Again, when the music stopped, he abruptly returned to normal.

Morse's final test was on his wife. For her, he chose a frantic sounding piece that elicited her confession that she hated him. "I was a stupid child when I married you," she said. "I thought you were a great man. But you aren't. You're just a sadistic fiend."

Morse was ready to use the player piano on the unsuspecting guests who were coming over for his wife's birthday party.

The first guest to arrive was an actor (Don Durant) who had been having an affair with Morse's wife. Morse got him to confess to that thanks to the music roll he selected. When the music stopped, the actor apologized if he had been indiscreet, but Esther insisted that it was all right, that she had never been comfortable with deceiving her husband, who in turn insisted that she was incapable of deceiving him, that he had known she was having an affair but didn't know the details until that moment.

When the guests were assembled, Morse turned the player piano on them, starting with Marge, a character played by Muriel Landers who was only 5–foot–2 and weighed 200 pounds. She made a career for herself in comedy, largely poking fun at her size. In her 40s at the time this episode was made, she died of a stroke almost exactly 15 years after it first aired.

For Marge, Morse played a music roll of Claude Debussy's "Clair de lune," and she told him that her name was not Marge but Tina and that she was a little girl who loved to dance. After persuading her to demonstrate her dancing abilities, Morse coerced her into revealing her innermost desire — to be a tiny snowflake melting in the hand of a man who loved her. The song ended with the guests laughing, and Marge sat down, humiliated.

Things turned on Morse then.

His wife put in a roll that played a tune that evoked thoughts of childhood, of childish (not childlike, which is a different thing) behavior. And Morse confessed to behaving badly to everyone in the room. He was jealous of their talent because he had none. They all made their way out of the house as Morse yelled that he didn't want them to leave.

In the end the final insult came when the butler returned to the room and a chastened Morse told him, "Don't laugh at me."

"I'm not laughing," the butler replied. "You're not funny anymore."

I thought it was a good, albeit flawed, episode. The party guests, including Esther and her secret lover, came off as worse than the villain of the episode — at least as far as I was concerned — when they abandoned him upon learning of the inner child he had tried to restrain but ultimately was powerless against.

Until that was revealed, Morse could be seen as cruel and selfish, an abuser, and it is generally seen as defensible to punish a character like that because such a character is responsible for his/her actions. Such a character chose to behave as he/she did.

But by revealing his powerlessness to restrain his inner child, Morse became human again in the eyes of the viewer, and the ones who abandoned him became judgmental and hateful — not the sympathetic victims they had been.

It seems to me there was a comment to be made about human nature. If Twilight Zone tried to make that case 55 years ago tonight, though, it failed.

Oh, well, I suppose there really is only so much that can be said in 30 minutes.

The Search for Self-Improvement



In the episode of Bewitched that first aired 50 years ago tonight, "I Remember You ... Sometimes," Darrin (Dick York) came home upset because he hadn't remembered an important client's name. Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery) told him that was natural, that it happened to everyone once in awhile, and Darrin replied that it had been happening too frequently of late.

Frankly, it was a bit odd for Darrin to forget that client's surname — it was Pennybaker. Not exactly a common surname. I suppose that was the point.

Anyway, the experience had persuaded Darrin that an improved memory would help him in everything, especially his work — and, given that he worked for an advertising agency, that was probably true. He had purchased a book on that subject and was determined to improve his memory.

While Samantha prepared dinner, Darrin stretched out on the sofa to read his book. Endora (Agnes Moorehead) popped in at just that moment, saw that Darrin was reading a book on improving his memory and found that very amusing.

"The ability to forget is very important to you mortals," Endora told Darrin. "You do so many stupid things a perfect memory would be impossible to live with."

And, as she so often did, Endora cast a spell on Darrin to prove her point. Or, rather, she cast a spell on his wristwatch. If a person held it or wore it, that person suddenly had total recall. But if that person put the watch down or it slipped from his/her wrist, that person became a normal, forgetful mortal.

No one, not even the audience, knew that at first. Viewers only knew that something happened to the wristwatch when Endora made her first appearance of the evening.

The problem with perfect memory is that it tends to make the one who has it look like a know–it–all. I can't say that I have known many people who possessed a perfect memory, but none of the people I have known who had at least better–than–average memories were restrained in their use of it.

The client was in the office the next day, and he was something of a know–it–all, too. At first, he appeared gratified that Darrin remembered him — and details about his family — but it soon began to wear on him.

Darrin kept correcting him or topping him.

As you may have noticed, know–it–alls relish the spotlight and are loath to yield even a sliver of the attention.

When everyone gathered at Samantha and Darrin's home for dinner that night, Darrin kept one–upping the client to the point of frustration for the client, Larry (David White) and Samantha. Samantha had figured out that witchcraft was somehow involved in Darrin's astonishing new memory — and she was savvy enough to know that her mother was probably behind it — but she didn't know the exact nature of the spell.

After interrogating her mother, she determined that some object had been the target of the spell, but Endora wouldn't say what it was. Samantha acted on a hunch and concluded that the object was the watchband.

So Samantha made Darrin's watchband snap, and the watch fell from his wrist. At that point, he was the same old ordinary Darrin with the imperfect memory. The client's wife picked up the watch and suddenly became the know–it–all, finishing her husband's stories. After all, she said, she had heard them thousands of times.

By her own example she showed both Darrin and her husband how they had been monopolizing conversations. It is safe to say they were not pleased with themselves.

And when dinner was served, neither was as talkative as he had been before.

It takes more wisdom — and more discipline — to remain silent than to speak.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Don't Let It Bring You Down



"I've always liked the notion of meeting the great figures of history. But then I think, what if it's like high school and all the really cool dead people don't want to hang out with me? Mozart will tell me he's busy, but then later I'll see him out with Shakespeare and Lincoln."

Niles (David Hyde Pierce)

If someone mentions "the blues," that can be interpreted many different ways.

My goddaughter lives in the St. Louis area. She's a big hockey fan, just like her parents, and to her, "the blues" means the St. Louis Blues. It probably means other things to her as well, but that is most likely the first thing that crosses her mind when she hears those words.

I have a friend who is a music lover. She likes all kinds of music, really, but her favorite genre is the blues. If you say those words around her, her first thoughts are likely to be of her favorite blues musicians.

To my parents and those of their generation — and, to an extent, my generation as well — the blues was a slang reference to a psychological state. Someone who had the blues was depressed, despondent, morose, somber, "down" (to use another slang term).

In the episode of Frasier that aired on this night in 1997, "Death and the Dog," Eddie the dog was depressed. Martin (John Mahoney) had taken him to the vet to see if he could pinpoint what the problem was, but the vet was baffled. So it was decided to turn Eddie over to an animal psychiatrist.

The psychiatrist insisted that everyone in the household be present for the first session, during which he went through a questionnaire he had devised. He asked the humans things about what they thought Eddie would do in certain situations if he, too, were human — such as what would he serve at a dinner party, what cologne would he wear, what would his first words be.

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) and Niles (David Hyde Pierce), being psychologists themselves, found the whole thing absurd and went to no special pains to conceal that fact.

After a one–on–one session with Eddie, the psychiatrist concluded that Eddie was, indeed, depressed. If, as Martin had said, there had been no change in his routine, the psychiatrist said he must be reacting to the depression of someone in the family circle.

But no one would admit to being depressed.

The psychiatrist recommended that they all be particularly aware of their own behavior when they were around Eddie until he could get a better handle on the cause. "Try to speak in pleasant, happy tones," he counseled them.

And they did. But then they began examining themselves to see if perhaps they were Eddie's problem.

The more they examined their lives, though, the more they uncovered flaws. As they did they made themselves more and more depressed.

Then they discovered Eddie's doll wedged beneath a sofa cushion and threw it on the floor. Eddie was immediately animated, playing with his favorite toy. They all looked on with astonishment as Eddie was his old self again.

But they were all depressed. When Frasier observed, "We know for whom the bell tolls," a little bell sounded. It was the oven timer. Daphne (Jane Leeves) had some cookies in the oven.

The thought of hot cookies — with some milk and ice cream in the refrigerator — perked them up considerably.

Frasier had been relating all of this to a caller on a slow day for his radio show, and he wrapped things up with the moral of the story.

"Even the happiest of us can find reasons to be unhappy if only we look for them," he said, "so don't look for them. Take a tip from our dog friends and treat yourself to your favorite toy, whatever that might be."

That's good advice — unfortunately, it is advice I too seldom heed. But today being the 20th anniversary of that episode is a good time to remember it.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

A Way of Looking at Things



"All kids play those games, and the minute they stop they begin to grow old. It's almost as though playing Kick the Can keeps them young."

Charles (Ernest Truex)

I suppose everyone — at some point and for some length of time, however brief — wishes it was possible to turn back the hands of time.

The writers for the Twilight Zone seemed to spend much of their creative energy focusing on this very concept. One of the most interesting twists on that theme aired on this night in 1962. Called "Kick the Can," the story was about the residents of a senior citizens' home. One of those residents (Ernest Truex) was convinced that the fountain of youth could be found in children's games like Kick the Can, and he persuaded most of the residents of the home that he was right.

The idea was inspired by watching the neighborhood children playing Kick the Can on summer evenings.

"Maybe there are people who stay young," Truex's character mused. "Maybe they know a secret that they keep from the rest of us. Maybe the fountain of youth isn't a fountain at all. Maybe it's a way of looking at things, a way of thinking."

One night he set out to find out. He assembled most of the residents in the home for a nocturnal game of Kick the Can. He insisted that he knew there was magic in the world, and most of them went along with him, perhaps more out of curiosity than conviction that he was right.

They had to get past the night nurse at the front desk so they lit some firecrackers and tossed them outside. The sound drew the nurse away, and she helpfully called out for the superintendent, leaving an unobstructed path to the outdoors.

Once outside the old folks began playing Kick the Can. And, lo and behold, Charles' "magic" really did exist. They were all transformed into the children they had once been. Older adults can't be magically transformed into children. Can they?

Obviously it was mere musing on the part of Twilight Zone's writer, George Clayton Johnson, who went on to co–write "Logan's Run," the novel upon which the movie of the same name was based.

Johnson also penned a few other episodes of the Twilight Zone — one of which, "Nothing in the Dark," I wrote about recently.

Darrin's Unknown Wish List



Everyone has heard the story about the genie who appears when a lamp is rubbed and grants the possessor of the lamp three wishes. That was probably the inspiration for "Three Wishes," the episode of Bewitched that first aired on this night in 1967, but viewers never saw a genie — or a lamp, for that matter — and the recipient of the wishes didn't know about them.

Darrin (Dick York) was told that he was being sent to Hawaii with some clients on a business trip. The clients weren't taking their wives so Darrin couldn't bring his. Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery) believed him — but Endora (Agnes Moorehead) did not. To prove her point, Endora cast a spell on Darrin. She gave him three wishes to prove whether he really did want Samantha to be with him in Hawaii — or wanted to maneuver things so he was alone with another woman. Being alone in Hawaii would be an ideal opportunity.

"Now you'll know how three–faced mortals are," she told Samantha.

It didn't take long for the first wish to be made known, though. At least, Samantha and Endora believed it was his first wish. The clients decided "just like that" that they wanted the agency boss, Larry Tate (David White), to accompany them. Darrin didn't have to go after all; as usual, though, he had to fill in for Larry when Larry was out of the office.

Endora believed Darrin's second wish was a desire to escort a beautiful bathing suit model who was being handled by the advertising agency to Boston, where he was to deliver a speech at a banquet. But Darrin insisted he wasn't going to eat the banquet food. He said he wanted to come home and have dinner with Samantha.

When Samantha told Endora that was the plan, she replied, "Maybe he will and maybe he won't. It all depends on Wish Number 3."

And it seemed that the third wish was the clincher. Darrin called to report that Boston had been hit by a freak snowstorm and all the flights had been canceled. Endora was sure he had wished to be stranded there with the beautiful model. Samantha didn't think so, but her assurance of Darrin's honesty was eroding.

In the meantime, the model showed up at the door of Darrin's hotel room and told him her flight had been canceled. She had no room so he offered his room to her, adding that he would go on to the airport and wait for a flight out.

Unfortunately for Darrin, a telegram arrived from Hawaii, and Endora convinced Samantha to call Darrin in Boston and perhaps read the telegram to him over the phone. It might be important, she told Samantha. When Samantha called, the model answered the phone.

That, apparently, was all Samantha needed to conclude that her mother had been right.

Darrin, meanwhile, was trying — without much success — to get some sleep in the airport.

When he returned home the next day, Samantha gave him the cold shoulder — and finally explained to Darrin about the three wishes as she was about to "go home to Mother" (to which Darrin replied that she couldn't go home to her mother because her mother was always in their house).

Darrin then proved that he hadn't used any wishes by first, summoning Endora, then ordering her out of their lives for a week. Samantha was convinced and did not ask him to make a third wish.

The moral of the story? Thinking something is true is good, but knowing something is true is best.

Or, as they used to tell me when I was a boy, Never assume. When you assume, you make an ASS out of U and ME.

Monday, February 06, 2017

Who Says Lightning Doesn't Strike Twice in the Same Place?



It must have been routinely challenging for the castaways to fill the time on Gilligan's Island.

Sometimes there were visitors to the island, and that usually gave everyone something to do, but other times, like the episode that first aired on this night in 1967, "Gilligan's Personal Magnetism," it was just the seven castaways on the island.

And as the episode began, the two shipmates, Gilligan (Bob Denver) and the Skipper (Alan Hale Jr.), were bowling with a homemade ball and homemade pins. A storm was rapidly brewing, though, and the Skipper thought they should stop, but Gilligan went through the motions and was about to release the ball when a lightning bolt struck and sent him flying through the air.

Gilligan seemed to be all right, but his bowling ball was stuck to his hand. The Professor (Russell Johnson) theorized that the lightning affected the iron in Gilligan's blood and made him electrically charged and acted as a kind of magnet. In fact, to avoid receiving an electrical shock, any person who tried to touch Gilligan in any way had to wear rubber gloves.

The Professor figured he could use the generator from the Minnow to create a counter–charge that would crumble the ball from Gilligan's hand. In trial runs it worked, and the Professor told Mary Ann (Dawn Wells) to fetch Gilligan, which she did.

But when the Professor used it on the ball, nothing happened.

Meanwhile, another storm was brewing — and Gilligan was struck again. This time the ball was knocked from his hand — but Gilligan had been rendered invisible.

Everyone sympathized with Gilligan's predicament at first, but but he became a bit annoying. People were always stumbling over him, and he could overhear conversations he wasn't supposed to hear. The Professor thought he had found a solution for this problem as well, and he wrapped Gilligan in strips of cloth that had been dipped in lead ore to absorb the charge.

When wrapped in that cloth, Gilligan looked like a mummy and was understandably eager to have the strips removed, but he was told they would have to stay on him for awhile. When left unattended, he went walking over to the girls' hut and frightened Ginger (Tina Louise) who went running into the jungle and snagged Gilligan's strips in her brush as she did. By the time she realized what had happened, all the cloth had been pulled from Gilligan and he had disappeared.

When I say Gilligan had disappeared, I mean he had disappeared completely. It wasn't merely that he was no longer wrapped in cloth so you could see where he was; he had gone away, leaving a note explaining that he didn't want people stumbling over him.

The castaways lamented his apparent departure — Mr. Howell (Jim Backus) offered a reward for information on Gilligan's whereabouts; when told he didn't need to pay them money for information that would bring Gilligan back, Howell replied that his hope had been that Gilligan would overhear the offer and turn himself in — and the Professor speculated that the strips may have been applied long enough to have some effect. It turned out he was right. Gilligan, still invisible, had been sitting there listening to the nice things that were being said about him, then gradually became visible again.

Well, it helped kill some time on Gilligan's island.

Sleepless in the White House



"I don't remember having to explain to Italians that our problem wasn't with them but with Mussolini. Why does the U.S. have to take every Arab country out for an ice cream cone? They'll like us when we win."

Toby (Richard Schiff)

Regular viewers of the West Wing must have recognized Adam Arkin's character when he appeared in the opening scene of the episode that first aired on this night in 2002, "Night Five." He was the psychiatrist who treated Josh (Bradley Whitford) for his post–traumatic stress disorder brought about by the assassination attempt that was the cliffhanger conclusion of Season 1.

Arkin (and the audience) assumed he had been summoned to the White House to help Josh through a personal crisis. But, as he was led around the White House, it dawned on him that there was more to it than that. A lot more.

He wasn't there to see Josh. He was there to see the president (Martin Sheen).

The president was having trouble sleeping. He hadn't slept in four nights. Arkin's character wasn't a specialist in sleep disorders, but the president knew he had helped Josh, and the president was dealing with some ticklish matters at the time — the recent disclosure of his multiple sclerosis and his re–election campaign were foremost among them — so he had decided to consult the psychiatrist. He believed Arkin's character could be counted upon to be discreet.

They went through potential factors — physical, environment, lifestyle — and eliminated everything but psychological factors.

While they were zeroing in on the source of the problem, there were other issues going on. C.J. (Allison Janney) was trying to find a reporter who had gone missing and was feared dead in the Congo. Toby the speech writer (Richard Schiff) was facing brushback over a speech he had written that the president was to deliver at the U.N. One of Toby's harshest critics was his ex–wife, a liberal congresswoman, over the phrase "Islamic fanaticism."

In other words, an average chaos–filled week at the West Wing.

In their conversation, the president and Arkin got closer to identifying the root of the president's sleeping issues. Turned out that he had unresolved issues with his father. It had been a tumultuous relationship and some issues had been stirred up by the president's conversation with Toby on the night of the Iowa caucuses.

Toby had told him that he was still seeking the approval of his father, who was long dead and had been abusive to his son in life.

Arkin wrapped up the session and assured the president that he was ready to help in any way he could — but it was clear that more sessions would be needed.

In the seasons ahead, there would be other occasions to explore the president's relationship with his father — which I always felt produced some of the series' most impressive and insightful exchanges — but that was due to existing conditions with which viewers were aware. There were some times, though, when the West Wing seemed to be prescient, exploring issues that weren't issues when the episodes were filmed. The West Wing has been off the air for more than a decade, and some of those issues have emerged.

It is time to give credit where credit is due.

This episode, for example, mentioned Islamic fanaticism, which is a red–flag phrase for some folks today, but 15 years ago, with the 9–11 attacks still fresh in everyone's minds, I don't think it received nearly the same response.

Perhaps the story of Sam (Rob Lowe), White House counsel Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter) and a temp in the West Wing would have. When Ainsley came in one night in a gown she had worn to a Washington party, Sam remarked that she could "make a good dog break his leash." The temp took offense and told Sam so. Sam spent the rest of the episode trying to prove that he was not a sexist; I don't recall a reaction to the dialogue, but it was designed to make people think. I know it made me think.

Sexism, though, has been an issue in this country for decades while Islamic fanaticism is something of a newcomer to the debate.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Enjoying the Ride on Super Monday



The late great George Carlin observed that a good joke needs at least one element that is way out of proportion. That is what makes it funny — even if the topic itself is not necessarily funny.

Let me back up just a bit.

The premise of the episode of How I Met Your Mother that first aired on this night 10 years ago was pretty basic.

The biggest sports event of the year — the Super Bowl — was about to be played (coincidentally, this year's Super Bowl is being played on the same date — in 2007, when this episode was first shown, this was the day after the Super Bowl). It was Ted's favorite day of the year, and he had everything planned for a memorable Super Bowl party for the gang. But fate intervened. A worker at the bar where the show's regulars frequently gathered had died. No one could remember who the now deceased worker was, but they were more or less coerced into attending his funeral.

The funeral happened to take place at precisely the time when the Super Bowl was to begin. This is where I ran into a conflict.

I am a lifelong football fan and a veteran of newspaper sports copy desks so I know a few things about the history of the Super Bowl.

There was a time when the Super Bowl was played during the afternoon, as most regular–season games are, but for more than 30 years it has been played in prime time with a kickoff around 5:30 p.m. (Central — that is the time zone in which I live).

And, while some NFL playoff games are held on Saturdays, the Super Bowl is always played on a Sunday. There have been 50 other Super Bowls, and they have all been played on Sundays.

There are no other football games being played; in fact, there is rarely much of anything else going on that day. The game has the stage all to itself.

So, putting those facts together, we can deduce that the funeral was taking place at 6:30 p.m. (Eastern — that is the time zone in which How I Met Your Mother was set) on a Sunday.

When I first saw this episode, that was the part that was the wild exaggeration — for me (even though I knew — and should have remembered that I knew — better).

I grew up in the South, as I have observed here before, and I cannot remember a single time when a funeral in my small hometown was scheduled to take place on a Sunday. I guess I always assumed that Sunday was reserved for regular church services — and special services for religious days like Christmas and Easter — and funeral organizers, being aware of this, work around it.

But when you grow up in the American South, you tend to see things from more of a Christian–centric perspective than folks do in any other region of the country. I knew when I was growing up that there are other faiths beside my own or, at least, the one that guides my life.

My father was a religion professor, and he made it a point to expose my brother and me to other faiths, other denominations, other ways of worship — most, if not all, were in the state's capitol city about 30 miles from us, and my father knew all the congregational leaders through his work. And I learned early on — when I had to put on my suit to attend a service while my friends were playing pickup football or baseball games — that Sunday is not the day of rest and worship for everyone.

But I suppose I just always thought that, even if a faith observed a different sabbath day than mine did, it would acquiesce when it came to scheduling events like funerals.

I have also learned that there are some places where funerals of all kinds do take place on Sundays. Even Christian funeral services. Funerals in those churches are held on Sunday afternoons or evenings. Mornings are still reserved for worship services but when necessary those church staffs can convert a sanctuary from the joy of the morning worship service to the usually somber atmosphere of a funeral.

For that matter, Catholic parishes often hold wakes for the deceased on Sundays, but they usually do not, as I understand it, hold funeral masses on Sundays.

Anyway, I can kind of imagine how the conversation went when the writers for How I Met Your Mother were working out the details on this one. Take a big event, one that you would typically share with the people to whom you are closest and throw a wrench into your plans. The wrench that was chosen was a funeral.

As a child, I would have found the idea of a Sunday funeral totally implausible. (I would have been more likely to believe a plot based on the story of the Pied Piper. Speaking of which, I had heard "Music has charms to soothe the savage beast" all my life, and I had seen film clips of Indian snake charmers, but Sunday funerals were new to me.) But as an adult I learned that some funerals are held on Sundays in some places and in some faiths.

So that element of the plot wasn't as off the wall as I certainly would have thought if I had seen it as a teenager. Even so, I felt a certain resistance to the concept of funerals on Sundays when I did see the episode, and I had to remind myself then — and have had to do every time I have seen it since — that funerals sometimes are held on Sundays.

Things at the funeral seemed to be moving right along, and the gang estimated that they could be home in time to catch the end of the game, but the post–funeral gathering went on for hours. Ted (Josh Radnor) insisted that they make a pact that they would avoid hearing the score all day Monday, then gather to watch a recording of the game together 24 hours after the fact.

He acknowledged that it wouldn't be easy to avoid hearing who won, but it was a sacrifice they had to make. They all reluctantly agreed.

It turned out to be extremely challenging to live up to Ted's "media blackout." For his part, Ted tried to work from home to avoid any unwanted input.

"The media blackout was particularly hard on Robin (Cobie Smulders)," the older Ted reminisced, "because, well, she was the media." She kept trying to keep the sports anchor from doing his report on the air.

Marshall (Jason Segel) was at Lily's kindergarten class for show and tell. Marshall had promised Lily (Alyson Hannigan) he would do it several weeks earlier; now he was hanging out at the school in his attempt to avoid finding out who won — but one of the students blackmailed him, threatening to spill the beans unless paid off.

Meanwhile, Ted had to go out to pick up some hot wings at a sports bar. The wings were a tradition for the gang's Super Bowl parties, but Ted had to construct a device that would enable him to avoid seeing any coverage of the Super Bowl on the TVs that were everywhere in the sports bar. He called his device the Sensory Deprivator 5000.

Ted had handcuffed gambling addict Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) to the radiator while he went to get the wings, but Barney escaped — and went looking for someone who could tell him who won the game so he would know if he won his bet. But Barney couldn't find anyone who had watched the game or kept up with sports. Then he bumped into Emmitt Smith (yes, that Emmitt Smith). Surely he would learn who won the game from Emmitt.

But Emmitt didn't know. He claimed he had forgotten the game was being played.

"You know, when you've won two or three of those things, it's kind of like, 'eh,'" he said.

When they all gathered that evening, it turned out that they had all learned the outcome earlier in the day. At first Ted didn't want to watch the recording. But they had beer and wings, and they decided to go ahead and have their Super Bowl party a day late anyway.

"As unforgettable as that Super Bowl was," the older Ted said, "here it is 23 years later, and I don't remember who won. Hell, I don't even remember who played. What I do remember is that we drank beer, we ate wings, and we watched the Super Bowl together.

"Because sometimes, even if you know how something's gonna end, that doesn't mean you can't enjoy the ride."

Will You Marry Me?



In the episode of Frasier that first aired on this night in 2002, Niles (David Hyde Pierce) was planning to pop the question to Daphne (Jane Leeves). As I have mentioned before, I thought at the time that they made perhaps the most implausible TV couple ever. I have changed my opinion since then.

But that wasn't the obstacle facing the couple. The greatest obstacle was Daphne's mother (Millicent Martin) was in town, and Daphne had been trying to keep her mother from learning that she was no longer a virgin. To support the deception, Daphne, who had been living with Niles, moved back in with Martin (John Mahoney) and Frasier (Kelsey Grammer); meanwhile, Niles had been acting as the host for Daphne's mother — an arrangement that was causing considerable stress.

Well, eventually, Mrs. Moon learned that Daphne and Niles were living together, and the three of them settled in to live in Niles' spacious condo. But when Niles decide to propose to Daphne, he wanted his future mother–in–law to be elsewhere — so he recruited his reluctant father to take her out for the evening.

Getting Martin to do it, though, required some trickery. Niles and Frasier started by pretending that Martin was helping them select the right wine for the wedding. In reality, they were trying to get him drunk enough to agree to take Gertrude Moon out for the evening.

Ultimately Martin agreed to do it for Niles, but it was no treat for him. All the Moons were manipulators, and Martin had to spend the evening warding off Gertrude's advances, finally resorting to some manipulation of his own. A recent love interest of Martin's overheard his conversation with Gertrude, though, and the future of that relationship seemed to be in considerable doubt.

In his trademark fastidious fashion, Niles had made all kinds of special arrangements for the big night. He bought a ring. He hired celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck to prepare a special dinner. He hired a choir, a string quartet and a trumpet player to perform.

Frasier had contributed the idea of having doves on hand for the occasion.

There were a few things to overcome. Niles had composed a proposal speech that made him so emotional he couldn't get through it when he tried to rehearse it in front of Roz (Peri Gilpin) — who, in turn, got choked up when she told Niles that all a woman really wants is for a man to get on one knee and say, "Will you marry me?"

But sometimes you can't be prepared for everything. Daphne came home with the flu, and Niles decided to postpone his proposal. He took Daphne to the guest room to get her out of the way while Frasier ushered out the musicians and singers, all of whom had been hiding until Niles summoned them.

Their performances apparently would be postponed until Daphne felt better. Frasier assured them they would still be paid for their time that evening.

But in the end, Niles and Daphne returned to the living area and sat in front of the fireplace — and Niles, in a spontaneous moment of passion, proposed anyway without the musicians and the choir and the gourmet meal.

I guess the moral of the story was that you don't need a gourmet chef or a string quartet — or doves — to make an evening special or memorable.

You know, that wasn't a bad reminder a week and a half before Valentine's Day.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Bela Lugosi in Living Color



When I was a child, my mental image of Bela Lugosi was in black and white.

He was Dracula even though others had portrayed Dracula on the big screen. Lugosi was the embodiment of Dracula with his thick Hungarian accent. The others who played Dracula all imitated Lugosi to one extent or another, and few could come close to his natural style.

When I got older, my image of Lugosi became more defined, thanks to the biopic "Ed Wood" about the filmmaker whose mediocre efforts gave Lugosi's career a final chance. That, too, was in black and white — but that was by choice.

Most of Lugosi's movies were in black and white, but that was a choice that was driven by economics. Color was simply too expensive for many filmmakers in the '30s, '40s and '50s when Lugosi was in demand.

That was about the only thing that made "Scared to Death," which premiered on this day in 1947, noteworthy. It is the only feature–length movie on Lugosi's resume that was filmed in color. The credits proudly proclaimed that the movie had been filmed in "natural color," but it didn't look terribly natural to me. It was a cheap process called Cinecolor.

The premise, such as it was, was that a young woman had been literally frightened to death, and the movie (which ran slightly more than an hour) was devoted to the investigation into how this could have happened.

Aside from the fact that it was in color, "Scared to Death" could have been an Ed Wood movie. It had the same wooden acting and the same bad dialogue, presented as if it were a bad junior high film production of an already bad play. The only thing it lacked was one of Wood's cheesy titles — although the title that was used came pretty close.

Even the color was suitable for an Ed Wood movie. It was cheap and unnatural.

"Scared to Death" further resembled an Ed Wood movie in the sense that it used every outlandish plot device imaginable — including having Lugosi's colleague played by Angelo Rossitto, a three–foot actor whose character had other challenges besides his stature.

"My little friend Indigo is deaf and dumb; he cannot hear and he cannot speak but reads the lips," Lugosi's character explained. "And I will advise you to say nothing to annoy him for his temper is as short as he is."

Most of the plot developments were contrived and only loosely served their purposes — such as they were.

My advice? Do yourself a favor and watch one of Lugosi's black–and–white movies. Just about any of them would be better than "Scared to Death."

Even one of Ed Wood's movies.

Well, that's a tough call ...