Wednesday, February 28, 2018

A Nose for News

One of the things I enjoy doing when I watch episodes of the Twilight Zone is to look for people who were famous at the time or became famous later on.

Robert Redford, for example, appeared on the Twilight Zone early in his career. So did Dennis Hopper and Robert Duvall.

But not all the guest stars were up–and–comers. Some were already famous, like Burgess Meredith, who didn't appear in the most episodes, but the ones he was in have a tendency to be lumped among the series' best.

With the exception of the one that first aired on this day in 1963, "Printer's Devil."

Meredith appeared in four episodes in all, and "Printer's Devil" was the only one made in the one–hour format of the fourth season. Is that why fans routinely rate it fourth of the four episodes Meredith made? And is that why it seldom comes close to making the top 10 episodes on anyone's list? Was it too long?

I don't know, but I do know that I have always liked "Printer's Devil." It was a rare example of a Twilight Zone episode that benefited from the one–hour format. The episodes that were made in that season frequently seemed to have filler in them that added little to the story but helped to fill the time. There wasn't much filler in "Printer's Devil." That isn't a surprise, given that Charles Beaumont wrote it.

Maybe I like it because it is about journalism, and it had nice little touches that few people outside the Fourth Estate would recognize. Like, for example, the source of the title of the episode.

Do you know what a printer's devil is (or was)? A printer's devil was a printer's apprentice, sort of a go–fer. Some pretty noteworthy fellows got their starts as printer's devils when they were young — Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain.

I don't know the exact origin of the name. No one knows for certain. There are several theories about that, none of which has ever been established. But that really isn't important. You already know enough to appreciate the play on words.

Meredith played Mr. Smith, a linotype operator/reporter who came along at just the moment when the editor of a struggling newspaper was about to commit suicide — and saved the day with his scoops. All he had to do was start setting the type and whatever he wrote came to pass. That's a pretty neat talent, one that could come in handy at a newspaper, especially in 1963 when technology was not as advanced as it is today.

"Some people have a green thumb. I have a green nose," Smith said. "Wherever there is news, this old nose smells it."

The editor told him there wasn't much news to sniff out, and Smith replied, "There will be."

No one in the story had figured out the truth yet, but you may have — Smith was the devil. (OK, the title of the episode sort of gave that one away, huh?) And he engineered a series of scoops that tripled the newspaper's circulation in a couple of weeks.

The competitor was hurting and made an offer for the resurgent paper, but it was rejected.

Then the competitor's building burned down. It was the biggest scoop yet.

And the editor's girlfriend was suspicious.

The editor had figured out Mr. Smith's true identity and had signed a document that turned over his soul in exchange for Smith's continued services.

After he fired three shots at Smith from point–blank range and did no damage whatsoever.

Now, I have never been in a situation like that, even after many years in newsrooms, but I would guess that the editor figured if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Not an injudicious conclusion.

But it wasn't very good for his love life.

I don't want to spoil the finish if you haven't seen it. I will say that I thought it could have been a lot better — but that took nothing away from the quality of the rest of the episode.

And Robert Sterling deserved praise for his performance as the editor.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Bombing Out

Frank (Larry Linville): There's an unexploded shell out there.

Hawkeye (Alan Alda): We know, Frank, we know.

Frank: We've got to evacuate immediately!

Hawkeye: I think I did.

If there is anything a sports fan truly loves, it is a rivalry. Nothing can get a sports fan's blood racing quite like a rivalry.

It can be an individual rivalry, like the Ali–Frazier fights. Or it can be a team rivalry, like Oklahoma and Texas or North Carolina and Duke.

And there is no rivalry that can compare to the Army–Navy rivalry.

The first game was played long before my time, of course, but I have always known that the Army–Navy football game is one of sports' most enduring rivalries. American presidents have attended the game. Instant replay was first used during an Army–Navy broadcast.

There was a time when the Army–Navy game drew national attention — and it still takes the spotlight at the tail end of the regular season although it rarely has national implications anymore (but that isn't for lack of trying. A website tries to ramp up interest by telling you exactly how much time remains until the next Army–Navy game!)

Army–Navy had national implications during World War II, and I guess it still did during the Korean War because the episode of MASH that first aired on this night in 1973, "The Army–Navy Game," used the rivalry as the backdrop of the story.

Everyone at the 4077th was following the game, even Father Mulcahy (William Christopher), although he lost interest when he realized Notre Dame wasn't playing. Henry (McLean Stevenson) located the broadcast on the radio, which reported that it was the 53rd meeting between the schools. In the timeline of the series, that would be the game that was played in 1952, which Navy won 7–0.

That wasn't the outcome in this episode, though. Well, it was the same winner, but it was a different score. Much different. The score that was reported in this episode was Navy 42, Army 36. I have looked through the scores in the series, and no Army–Navy game has ever ended with that score.

Also, since the Korean War ended in 1953, the 53rd clash between the schools would have been played less than a year before the MASH folks went home. Yet the series went on for another 10 years and underwent several cast changes.

Oh, well. Details, details.

Henry, as I say, managed to locate the game on the radio, and the teams were getting things started when the 4077th found itself under attack. After the initial explosion rocked the compound, Hawkeye (Alan Alda) remarked, "That guy can really kick the ball!"

And in the middle of everything a big bomb landed in the middle of the compound — and didn't go off.

This bomb became Priority #1 for the 4077th, which tried to contact folks in the Army and Navy who could help them defuse it.

But they were all obsessed with the game. One agreed to look into the markings that had been observed on the bomb, but he told the people at the 4077th not to call him back until halftime.

So then it became a waiting game.

While they were waiting, Henry told Radar (Gary Burghoff) a story from his college days at Illinois — when, as team manager, Henry had run out on the field to tape the injured ankle of a star player before the pivotal play in the final seconds of the football game. It turned out that Henry had taped the wrong ankle. The player fell to the ground, screaming in pain, long before he could get near the end zone.

And Illinois lost the game.

The best part of the story, though, is often cut for syndication; if you want to see it (and you should), it may be necessary to watch the episode on DVD. Radar thought the player had been tackled short of the goal line, but that, of course, was not correct. Henry confided that the star player still came to Henry's house once a year to shoot out the front porch light. Apparently he had not forgotten Henry's error, and he wanted to be sure Henry didn't forget, either.

"And he's a judge now," Henry lamented.

Eventually, it was determined that the CIA probably was behind the bomb — but the CIA wouldn't tell anyone its business so that couldn't be confirmed. So Hawkeye and Trapper (Wayne Rogers) were dispatched to defuse it. Henry would give them the best instructions they had available via megaphone — but Henry messed up the directions, and Hawkeye and Trapper tried to get away from the bomb before it went off.

They only got a few feet.

The explosion, though, was not the expected kind. It turned out to be a propaganda bomb that showered sheets of paper with "Give up. You can't win. — Douglas MacArthur" written on them.

In the best tradition of the times, MASH ridiculed both war and government in the same episode. That would be the norm in the years to come, but it was still new in 1973.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Lust in a Winter Wonderland

Niles (David Hyde Pierce): I grant you she's comely, but don't you find her a tad — what would the polite euphemism be? — stupid?

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer): Niles, she is just unschooled, like Liza Doolittle. Find her the right Henry Higgins, she'll be ready for a ball in no time!

Niles: Leave it to you to put the "pig" back in "Pygmalion."

In the episode of Frasier that made its debut on this night in 1998, "The Ski Lodge," Roz (Peri Gilpin) won a weekend in a mountain ski lodge in a church raffle and traded it to Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) for a big–screen TV because Roz was pregnant and couldn't do much at a ski lodge except sit in front of a fire and stare out the window.

Niles (David Hyde Pierce), whose divorce was meandering through the system, wanted to go to the lodge if Daphne (Jane Leeves) was going to be there. But Daphne had agreed to spend the weekend with her friend Annie (Cynthia Lamontagne) because it was her birthday, and Annie had been lonely and depressed.

Daphne wanted to bring Annie along to the ski lodge. Frasier wasn't too keen on the idea — until he learned that Annie was a swimsuit model. After that he couldn't wait to get her up to that lodge.

What followed was a comedy of mistaken identity worthy of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" — except it was set in winter and it was no dream. Well, if it was a dream, it was more like a nightmare for all concerned.

Including the Olympic ski instructor (played by James Patrick Stuart) whose services were included in the prize.

Daphne had the hots for the ski instructor — who, it turned out, was gay and fancied Niles. Niles, of course, was infatuated with Daphne, and Annie was steamed up over Niles.

Lonely Frasier wanted Annie, and no one wanted Frasier — which he acknowledged at the end of the episode.

In short, everyone wanted someone he/she couldn't have, and the drama played out from bedroom to bedroom.

The writing, as usual, was top notch.

Most of the confusion in the story stemmed from Martin's (John Mahoney) hearing problem. He'd been suffering from a cold that had stopped up his ears. Because of that, he misunderstood questions and said things that led to confusion about who was attracted to who.

In one particularly delightful dialogue exchange, Frasier stumbled onto the ski instructor, naked in one of the beds. He had misunderstood something Martin had said, taking it to mean that Niles was gay, too.

"You're not the Crane I want," the ski instructor protested.

"You're not even the sex I want," Frasier retorted.

As one might expect, there were numerous double entendres

When Frasier first brought up the topic of the ski weekend, Daphne mused about "skiing all weekend, then warming up with a nice hot rum drink curled up under a blanket in front of a roaring fire."

"I can feel the steam rising off my toddy already," Niles said.

What was less clear was who would be warming up together.

It was no clearer when the episode ended.

The Never-Ending War With Evil

"No more talk. You can't talk to bullets."

Paul (Gregory Sierra)

It is probably difficult for modern audiences to appreciate, but All in the Family really was a groundbreaking TV series. Probably more than any other — certainly more than any series that preceded it and almost as certainly more than any series since.

The program made viewers uncomfortable by forcing them to think about things many probably preferred to ignore. But after targeting subjects — like racial inequality and women's rights — that can seem obvious from the perspective of four decades after the fact, the series' writers turned their attention to other, lesser–known battles being waged with evil — and, in the process, opened many eyes.

Such was the case with the episode that first aired 45 years ago tonight, "Archie Is Branded."

Early one Sunday morning, Archie (Carroll O'Connor) found a swastika painted on the front door. His first instinct was to blame it on juvenile pranksters in the neighborhood — but then the family found a note on the front porch that suggested that whoever had painted the swastika was not a juvenile from the neighborhood and intended to return.

Swastikas certainly aren't unknown today, and they were recognized even more widely 45 years ago when the World War II generation probably outnumbered any other. Swastikas were symbols of hatred and death, and Archie's generation knew it. Archie had participated in the war with the Nazis. Mike (Rob Reiner) and Gloria (Sally Struthers) had studied the war and the Nazis in school. The Bunkers knew swastikas meant nothing good, and their imaginations began to run wild.

A special–delivery package came, and the Bunkers believed they heard a ticking sound coming from it so they put it in the kitchen sink, started the water and then ran from the house. When they returned, they still heard the ticking sound. Turned out it was coming from a pocket of the apron Edith (Jean Stapleton) wore. She had been timing a cake she was baking.

Archie then looked at the package, which was submerged in water in the sink. The package was from Edith's Cousin Amelia. Her husband was giving up smoking, and he was sending his cigars to Archie.

Archie looked forlornly at the soggy package.

About that time a fellow named Paul (Gregory Sierra) came knocking at the door.

Paul was a member of an organization called the Hebrew Defense Association (inspired by the Jewish Defense League), which was dedicated to fighting anti–Semitism. It turned out that the Bunkers had been targeted by a neo–Nazi group that believed Archie was a Jewish activist who lived nearby.

But while Archie and Paul knew that the swastika had been intended for someone else, the neo–Nazis still believed Archie was the target so Paul stayed with the Bunkers to protect them from what might come, and as they waited they talked about the war that was being waged around the world — openly in most places but seemingly with little attention being paid to it in the United States.

The episode was uncharacteristically dramatic for the series, and the ending pulled no punches as Paul died when his car exploded in the street in front of the Bunkers' house. Viewers didn't see it, but they heard it.

It was a jarring moment for TV viewers. In the years ahead, they would grow accustomed to sitcom episodes that turned serious — MASH, for one, was good at that — but it was new to viewers in 1973.

Even though the story was fictional, it was a real eye–opener for Americans who thought Nazism had been dispensed with when World War II ended. One such American clearly was Archie, who tried to cover the swastika until the police could get there by hanging an American flag over it.

If that had worked, Archie could have put the matter completely out of his mind until the police arrived. "This put the kibosh on the Nazis once before," Archie said as he unfurled the flag. "It's gonna do it again."

But Archie hung the flag incorrectly, and a Boy Scout — played by Stapleton's 11–year–old son — offered to hang it correctly. In the process of doing so, the swastika was revealed.

It is not that easy to deal with evil.

To be sure, some Americans kept an eye on developments beyond America's borders, and they knew there was religious persecution everywhere. American Jews, many of whom had escaped the concentration camps, knew Nazis weren't gone, just in hiding.

But those Americans were the exceptions in the early 1970s. Most Americans lived in blissful ignorance in 1973, aware of little beyond the country's borders except the war in Vietnam that consumed so much blood and treasure.

What they saw on their TV screens on this night in 1973 shocked them.

Some viewers no doubt sided with Archie. He liked the charismatic Paul and his extreme methods, but Mike the pacifist was alarmed, and many viewers certainly sided with him.

This episode was sure to ignite many debates at the time, forcing viewers to acknowledge beliefs — and fears — they may not have known they held.

But that was what All in the Family did best.

When It Rains, It Pours

Mary (Mary Tyler Moore): Rhoda, did you ever have one of those days?

Rhoda (Valerie Harper): Yeah, mostly!

Everyone has a bad day now and then.

It's the most predictable fact of human existence. High hopes and expectations may be rare and will take a beating and go unfulfilled, but bad days are universal for nearly all of us — and occur with a depressing regularity.

There is a small portion of the population that never seems to endure a bad day, but appearances can be deceptive. When those folks do have a bad day, the rest of us take a kind of perverse pleasure in the assurance that no one is immune.

Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore) was having three of those days (in her own words) in a single day when the episode of the Mary Tyler Moore Show that first aired on this night in 1973, "Put On a Happy Face," began.

Actually, it all started with something small. When the episode began, Mary was drinking coffee and some of it dribbled onto her new sweater. Her date for an upcoming broadcasting awards banquet encountered some difficulties — and ultimately fell through. Then Mr. Grant (Ed Asner) informed her that, instead of disposing of the obsolete file as requested, she had thrown out the file of obituaries that news outlets keep so they will be ready in case someone famous dies.

Make that when someone famous dies.

Because, as Mr. Grant explained to Mary, "There is no 'if.' They're gonna die. We're not gonna have one thing to say except maybe 'So long.'"

(Personal note here: I have never worked in broadcasting, but I have worked for newspapers and a trade magazine, and we had certain files that we kept for future events, like obituaries and such. It was good to have them handy. You never knew when someone prominent was going to die, but, as Mr. Grant observed, you knew they would die one day.

(We didn't have to keep advance obituaries for presidents or anyone else who was nationally prominent. We knew that kind of obituary would be readily available from the wire services. A good example of that is the death a few days ago of Billy Graham. The wire services undoubtedly had his obituary ready for many years — he was, after all, 99 when he died.

(But we needed to be ready when folks who were known locally — like mayors or community activists — passed away.

(I don't remember any files that were specifically designated as "obsolete" in the newsrooms where I have worked — but I suppose there could be such a file that serves as a temporary placeholder for such files. That would be a decision for the management of an individual news outlet to make.

(And, apparently, the folks at WJM had made that decision. Perhaps the responsibility for disposing of obsolete files fell to a different person periodically — that wasn't mentioned — but, in this episode, which is the only time I can recall an obsolete file being mentioned, it was Mary's responsibility.)

Then when she got home that night, her phone was ringing as she came through the door. She made a mad dash for the phone only to find that the person on the other end had hung up. In the dash for the phone, her bag spilled and her groceries were scattered on the floor.

Rhoda (Valerie Harper) came in, took one look and said, "It looks like somebody mugged Betty Crocker."

But the really big misfortune came when Mary slipped at work and sprained her ankle. To help her ankle when she was back in her apartment, Mary soaked it — which gave her a cold. That made it hard for her to talk on the phone when she was trying to find a date for the banquet.

(That wasn't her only obstacle, though. She had been out of touch with the men she contacted — long enough for one of them to have gotten married in the interim.)

Frustrated, Mary finally gave in and agreed to go out with a guy that Ted (Ted Knight) had been recommending — only to find out that Ted had been speaking of himself.

That was bad enough, but then the dry cleaner ruined the dress she had planned to wear, and she had to turn to Rhoda to get something to wear. Rhoda urged her not to go to the banquet, but Mary insisted that she was nominated for an award and had to go. She didn't expect to win, but it would be bad form not to attend.

So she and Ted went to the banquet. Bad luck continued to follow her. It was raining, which couldn't do much to her hair since her hair dryer gave out on her earlier, but she did step in a puddle, which made her squish when she walked. Then at the banquet one of her false eyelashes came off, and she tried to put it back on while the awards were being handed out.

It was at that very minute that she was announced as the winner of the award for which she had been nominated.

The first words out of her mouth in her acceptance speech — after a rather loud sneeze — were "I usually look so much better than this."

I guess we all know people who seem to be perfect all the time — and it can be a source of, as I said before, perverse pleasure when such people have to go through the trials and tribulations the rest of us must face.

But Mary was such a pleasant person that it was hard to take any satisfaction from her misfortune.

It was still funny, though, and it remains funny today. Call it a guilty pleasure.

Oh, and by the way, there was a neat little twist at the end that Mary Tyler Moore fans will appreciate.

The usual ending for a Mary Tyler Moore Show episode showed a kitten in the same pose as the old MGM lion.

But 45 years ago tonight, Mary's face appeared in place of the kitten — and, instead of meowing, Mary stammered "That's all, folks!" like Porky Pig.

The Old Double Cross

Diane (Shelley Long): I find older men stimulating.

Sam (Ted Danson): I hope you're not talking about me.

Diane: Oh, certainly not. You're not the least bit stimulating.

Harry Anderson is probably best known for his work as Judge Harry T. Stone on Night Court.

But before, during and after Night Court, Anderson was Harry the Hat, a recurring character on Cheers! In fact, he made six appearances as Harry the Hat, and his best may well have been in the episode that first aired on this night in 1983, "Pick a Con ... Any Con."

Harry the Hat was a hustler, and his services were needed in this episode because Coach (Nicholas Colasanto) had been losing a lot of money to a conman, and Harry was just the guy to get it back.

Harry's idea was to set up the conman with a poker game. That was his weakness. So arrangements were made for what would appear to be a friendly game of poker at the bar. The other participants were going to be the guys from the bar.

The guys would have to provide their own money to make everything seem on the up and up. And Sam (Ted Danson) had to provide some $5,000 with which Harry could gamble. But the guys all thought they were going to get their money back so it didn't take much convincing to get them to invest their money in the plan.

But Harry double–crossed them. He merely let them think they were setting up the conman. In reality, Harry and the conman were setting up the guys in the bar, and it appeared they were going to get away with it.

But the guys caught on to what was happening, which led to a one–on–one round of five–card draw between Harry and the other conman.

Sam thought Harry was going to win back the money for the guys in the bar, which was what the original plan had been — and it turned out that he did — but he made a beeline for the door, and it looked like he had conned everyone.

Then, in one of the niftiest switcheroos since "The Sting," it turned out that Harry and the Coach (of all people) had actually cooked up the whole thing in advance. They had conned the conman and the guys at the bar.

Sleight of hand. It'll get ya every time.

If you've never seen it, try to catch it somehow — on DVD or Netflix or whatever.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

It's a Small World

It's probably hard for 21st–century viewers to imagine Robert Duvall playing a timid character, but that is exactly what he did in the episode of Twilight Zone that premiered on this night in 1963, "Miniature."

It was still early in Duvall's career. He had made his movie debut the year before in "To Kill a Mockingbird," and he had made guest appearances on TV series for a few years. Duvall hadn't really been typecast yet, I suppose, unless it was as odd characters, and his character in "Miniature" certainly was odd.

He lived with a domineering mother, and he had just lost his job. I'm sure you know the type — thoroughly bewildered by the world around him, a misfit. You've probably seen such a person in movies and on TV shows hundreds of times and encountered them in your daily life on countless occasions. Perhaps you are such a person.

I would call Duvall's character zombielike, but he didn't fit the zombie image that we have today. Zombies weren't really new in 1963 — they had existed in literature for a long time — but they were sort of new to the screen, both large and small. At least, they were still evolving, but they probably didn't achieve the form we know today until "Night of the Living Dead" was released a few years later.

Duvall's character didn't stagger around in a kind of daze, but he might as well have. He was totally lacking in emotion no matter what happened. He lost his job; his boss told him that he didn't fit in. No response, which proved his boss' point. He was never unpleasant; he was always polite, but he showed no signs of being an ordinary guy. He never smiled or interacted with his co–workers. He was a square peg in a round hole.

He came home to his mother and her smothering ways. Again no response. He was never unpleasant to her, either. In fact, he showed no emotion of any kind.

Such a person usually has someone who tries to help in some way. In Duvall's case it was his sister (Barbara Barrie). She wanted to help him find a nice girl and get married — and move out of his mother's house. But he stayed where he was.

That didn't mean he didn't crave an escape — and he found a suitably unlikely one in the Twilight Zone.

Actually, it was in a museum he frequented, not in search of permanent escape so much as temporary solitude. There he found a dollhouse with the tiny figure of a woman (Claire Griswold) seated behind a piano. The figure seemed to be moving, and music could be heard.

But a guard assured him that the figure couldn't possibly have moved. It was carved out of wood.

He returned to the museum the next day and made a beeline for the dollhouse. But everything was changed. The woman was no longer seated behind the piano. She was upstairs, preparing for an evening out with a male figure. Duvall watched the scene play out as the two went out the door and disappeared from view.

Duvall kept returning to the museum and even began talking to the figure. She never responded to him, but he kept talking. And he observed.

His family became suspicious, and his sister followed him one day to see what he was doing. She found him at the dollhouse. When she got him away from the museum, she persuaded him to go on a blind date, but it didn't work out.

The museum guard was willing to overlook Duvall's idiosyncratic behavior, but then one day Duvall saw the male figure being abusive to the female figure, and he shattered the glass that separated him from the dollhouse. That was too much, and Duvall was taken in for medical treatment. His psychiatrist (William Windom, who also made his movie debut in "To Kill a Mockingbird"), tried to convince him that he had been having hallucinations, but Duvall insisted that wasn't true.

Eventually, though, Duvall's character concluded that the way to be released would be to give the psychiatrist what he wanted so he did what he had to do to convince the doctor that he was cured.

But what Duvall wanted was to go back to the museum, which he did at his first opportunity.

He hid in the museum until it closed, then he came out from hiding and went straight to the dollhouse.

By that time, his family had figured out what was going on, and they went to the museum with the psychiatrist in search of Duvall. But they never found him.

The guard did, but he didn't say anything — because he saw Duvall in the dollhouse with the female he had tried to defend, and he knew no one would believe him.

It was perhaps the most moving episode in Twilight Zone's five–season run — and a great example of Duvall's remarkable acting range.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Taking the Longjohn Way Home

Trapper (Wayne Rogers): Full house. Ha ha!

Radar (Gary Burghoff): I guess that beats two pair, right?

Trapper: It sure does! What were they?

Radar: Tens.

Trapper: Yeah? Tens and what?

Radar: That's it. Two pairs of tens.

As the viewers of the 2018 Winter Olympics have been reminded, the winters in Korea are notorious for their severity, and the folks at Quartermaster Corps were forever sending the wrong things to the 4077th.

By "wrong," of course, I mean inappropriate.

In the latest round of harsh winter weather, the 4077th received a shipment of mosquito netting and summer underwear — items that would be useful in about six months when the rugged Korean summer set in. What everyone needed — and only one person had in the episode of MASH that aired on this night in 1973, "The Longjohn Flap" — was long underwear.

Hawkeye (Alan Alda) was that solitary individual. He had received some longjohns from home.

But he was an old softie at heart, and he gave his long underwear to Trapper (Wayne Rogers) when Trapper started sneezing.

That was only the beginning. Before the episode was over the longjohns had made their way around the camp and had, seemingly, been in everyone's possession — however briefly — at one time or another.

Trapper, in an attempt to make back what he had lost in poker, bet the long underwear against Radar (Gary Burghoff) — and lost. Radar, in turn, used the longjohns to score some points with a pretty nurse but changed his mind and swapped the longjohns to the cook for a leg of lamb and mint jelly.

That was when Frank (Larry Linville) entered the picture. Frank was giving the cook a hard time about the cleanliness of his kitchen and threatened to bust him a rank. That was when the cook decided to bribe Frank with the longjohns.

Frank ended up giving the longjohns to Hot Lips (Loretta Swit) to prove his love for her (after he declined, once again, to divorce his wife), but Klinger (Jamie Farr) stole the longjohns from Hot Lips when she wasn't looking.

Overcome with guilt, Klinger confessed his sin to Father Mulcahy (William Christopher) and left the longjohns with him. The priest took them to Henry (McLean Stevenson), who promised to stay close to them until he had spoken to everyone in camp in an effort to find the rightful owner.

"Look, I'm planning on conducting a very thorough investigation," Henry said. "It might take a couple of months."

Henry never got a chance to conduct a tent–to–tent search, though. Hawkeye and Trapper had to rush him onto the operating table before his appendix burst. They were successful, which was reported to the camp by way of the P.A. system. The announcement drew mild applause. Then it was announced that the longjohns had been saved. By the raucous celebration, one would assume peace had just been declared.

In gratitude, Henry returned the longjohns to Hawkeye.

It was a format that would be revisited about a year later when Hawkeye, in need of a new pair of boots, struck deals with everyone in the compound. The house of cards ultimately collapsed, and Hawkeye wound up on the losing end in that episode.

But in the episode that aired tonight, he was the winner — even though Trapper started sneezing again.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

There She Is, Miss Boston Barmaid

Cliff (John Ratzenberger): None of the girls have what I'm looking for, Normy.

Norm (George Wendt): What's that?

Cliff: Low standards.

The Sam and Diane Show was the primary attraction on Cheers! by this point in the series' first season.

And in the episode that first aired on this night in 1983, "No Contest," Sam (Ted Danson) had entered Diane (Shelley Long) in the annual Miss Boston Barmaid contest — without her knowledge — and she had been named a finalist.

It wasn't exactly a beauty pageant like Miss America, but the winner possessed decidedly more than barmaid skills, if you know what I mean, and the finalists tended to do a little flirting with the emcee, the judges and the audience.

Of course, a restaurant's staff does plenty of schmoozing anyway so I guess that could be considered a barmaid skill.

Diane loathed such contests and was prepared to withdraw until she learned that there would be reporters from major news outlets at the contest. She changed her mind, believing she could use the contest as a platform to air her grievances.

And she made plans to disrupt things.

At first she appeared to be sincerely trying to win the contest. It was being held at Cheers! and Sam clearly wanted someone from the bar to win. It was, after all, the 45th annual contest, and no one from Cheers! had ever won.

Sam had no idea what Diane planned to do if she won so he gave her pointers on how she should look during the competition.

But he found Diane's index cards on which she had written certain things she wanted to say in her victory speech. Things like how degrading she thought such contests were. That wasn't what Sam wanted to hear in his bar on such a noteworthy night.

Better to lose the contest than to allow that to happen.

So Sam set about sabotaging Diane — or at least he tried to — with a little psychological warfare. He casually mentioned Diane's tendency to get a facial tic when she was nervous.

Reminded of that, Diane began to twitch, but she managed to turn that to her advantage by making some remarks about overcoming obstacles — and she won the contest.

She was about to deliver her speech when the emcee began giving her the prizes that came with her victory. None really wowed her until the final one — a week in Bermuda for her and a friend.

She gave up on her plan.

Later, after everyone had left the bar, Diane lamented that she had "sold out womankind for a trip to Bermuda."

"Most people would have done it for the dry cleaning," Sam replied in a reference to one of the other prizes.

The really funny thing is, there was probably a lot of truth in that.

As a side note, this episode was one of many Cheers! episodes to feature famous people in cameo appearances. On this night, Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill was featured in the show's opening segment.

A Hot Timepiece

Archie (Carroll O'Connor): This here tells me that it's morning in China. So right at this moment, 800 million Chinks are sitting down to breakfast.

Mike (Rob Reiner): Archie, in the first place they are called Chinese.

Archie: That's what I said, Chinks.

Everyone likes a bargain, and Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor) was no exception.

And he rarely asked questions, especially if he was getting a really good bargain, such as the one he thought he was getting in the episode of All in the Family that first aired on this night in 1973, "The Hot Watch."

In that episode, Archie bought a watch from an acquaintance. The watch supposedly was worth $300, but Archie's acquaintance sold it to him for $25.

If Archie ever got a top–of–the–line commodity for a fraction of its price, Mike (Rob Reiner) became suspicious, and he was suspicious this time. He wouldn't accept Archie's suggestion that he had been at the right place at the right time — particularly when he learned that the person with whom Archie had made the transaction was a fellow from the docks, New York's "notorious grab bag" where valuable items disappeared only to reappear on the black market.

His suspicion grew deeper when Archie told him that the fellow who sold him the watch had been in jail once (and claimed to have been framed).

What Archie had, Mike told him, was a stolen watch.

To say Archie was skeptical would be an understatement, but seeds of doubt took root, especially when his watch started making a funny noise and then stopped working altogether when Archie did nothing more than hit the bottom of a ketchup bottle.

Archie decided to take the watch to a jeweler to be repaired, but he was dissuaded from doing that when Mike pointed out that the jeweler would compare the serial number on the watch to the list of serial numbers from stolen watches. If the number was on the list, Archie could be facing prison time.

So Archie needed to find someone who would fix watches "with no questions asked."

While he was trying to find such a person, Edith (Jean Stapleton) went ahead and took it to a neighborhood jeweler. Archie wasn't convinced that this jeweler would be as cooperative as Archie needed him to be, but he was reassured when the jeweler came by and told him the watch could be fixed for $21. He said nothing about it being stolen.

That was because no one would want to steal it. It was a fake. Archie thought it was an expensive Omega watch, but it was actually an Onega — with an N. The jeweler said it was only worth $8.

In one of the most entertaining exchanges of the series, Archie complained that being the victim of a racket cost him the equivalent of two weeks' take–home pay.

Mike pointed out that he was only out $17. He had spent $25 on an $8 watch.

But Archie was adamant that he had lost the equivalent of $300. He insisted that he was right.

"You want to be right?" Mike asked. "I'll show you how you can be right. You spend the $21 and get the watch fixed. You've already spent $25 so for a $46 investment, you've got your $300 watch back."

And that made sense to mathematically challenged Archie — at first. But then Edith reminded Archie that the watch was only worth $8.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

The Best Laid Party Plans ...

Early in the 2002–2003 season of the Frasier series, Niles (David Hyde Pierce) and Daphne (Jane Leeves) finally tied the knot, and subsequent episodes examined their trials and tribulations as newlyweds.

But the episode that first aired on this night in 2003, "Daphne Does Dinner," was a real milestone in their relationship.

They decided to throw a dinner party.

Now, that is the kind of thing that couples, both married and unmarried, do all the time. Sometimes the parties are small, intimate, informal gatherings, and sometimes they are lavish productions. The Crane brothers, of course, leaned heavily toward the latter, and they had extensive experience, having successfully co–hosted numerous parties over the years.

But they seemed to have lost their touch. As the episode opened, guests were storming out of Frasier's apartment, and Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) and Niles were wondering why their parties were disasters.

Niles owned a painting by a reclusive Seattle artist that he was going to donate to a museum. Frasier suggested throwing a farewell dinner party for it, assuming that he and Niles would be co–hosting the event as always.

But Daphne thought it was time for her to co–host such parties with Niles.

So that is what she suggested to Niles, who acquiesced.

This represented an unusual twist for the series. Ordinarily, Niles or Frasier would be the one who was overwhelmed. In this case, it was Daphne who found herself being buried in problems.

She arranged for the party to be catered, but the Cornish game hens caught fire when Daphne was heating them, and Roz's daughter scrawled her name in crayon on the painting.

Daphne tiptoed deftly through that minefield. She sent Roz (Peri Gilpin) to an art restorer who could fix the painting, and she called Frasier for help with the food, and he agreed — even though, as she told Roz, Frasier's nose was still out of joint over being displaced as "lord mayor of Party Town."

Everything seemed to be under control when the guests began to arrive — and one of the guests was the artist himself. He had not been inclined to go until his gallery insisted that he attend.

He took a shine to Daphne's mother, and the two of them went upstairs to watch a boxing match on pay–per–view while the rest of the guests mingled downstairs.

But then, on top of everything else, Niles' father (the recently deceased John Mahoney) was mistaken for the artist — so Niles had to shuffle him out quickly. Poor Martin was only there to bring some ramekins to Frasier, but the description of the artist (white hair, plaid shirt, sweater and cane) was spot on for Martin. It was an honest mistake.

Things went from bad to worse until, finally, Daphne's mother and the artist came crashing down into the living room. They had been engaging in some apparently spirited interactivity on the bed where all the guests' coats were piled — presumably between rounds.

The party was over.

At that point, Frasier walked over to Daphne and put his arm around her. "Congratulations," he said. "You're now officially a Crane." Daphne burst into tears.

It wasn't the best Frasier episode, but it was far from the worst.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

A Double Blind Date to Remember

Coach (Nicholas Colasanto): Beer, Norm?

Norm (George Wendt): That's that sudsy amber stuff, right? Been hearing good things about it.

I don't know when it became apparent to the creators and writers for Cheers! that the TV show was not really, as advertised, the story of the characters in a bar. Sure, that was the emphasis in the first half–season, but, in the end, it became the Sam and Diane Show — and remained that way until Diane left.

I guess it was just too tempting, a kind of Hepburn and Tracy dynamic brought to the small screen on a weekly basis. Television programs are like that, though. The audience responds to something — in this case, the sexual tension between the blue–collar bartender Sam (Ted Danson) and the refined college–educated waitress Diane (Shelley Long) — and the writers give the viewers what they want.

It's what they did with Happy Days. Fonzie was intended to be a minor player at best, but audiences responded to him, and he became one of the show's stars — arguably its biggest.

Likewise, the West Wing was originally intended to be about the people who toil in the West Wing of the White House. The president was not intended to be an integral part of the show, merely an occasional character. That changed in the first season as well.

I've always kind of felt that the episode of Cheers! that first aired on this night in 1983 — "Diane's Perfect Date" — was the writers' first real acknowledgement of that fact.

They were sneaky about it, though.

When the episode began, Diane was returning to the bar after a weekend with a date whose special skill was to state, in a very Rain Manesque way, the number of letters in the last sentence that was spoken. For example:

Diane: "He's able to tell you instantly how many letters there are in any sentence you say."

Walter: "Sixty–six."

Sam: "That's quite a gift."

Walter: "Fifteen. We've been at it all weekend."

Sam: "How many days did it seem like?"

Walter: "Twenty–four."

And then there was my favorite. It was when Walter was leaving, and Sam stopped him.

Sam: "How was Diane on a scale of a hundred?"

Walter: "Twenty–nine."

Later, when Sam and Diane were criticizing each other's dating choices, Sam ridiculed Walter's ability to count the letters in sentences.

Diane countered that the "coterie of Betty Boops you squander your time, money and hormones on" could not form sentences.

They agreed to set each other up with the perfect date for the next evening after Sam boasted that he could arrange for the best date Diane ever had.

Diane said she had someone in mind for Sam, too, and she took their wager seriously, but Sam didn't really have anyone for her. When he realized that she was really going to respond to the challenge, he sought advice from Carla (Rhea Perlman) and Coach (Nicholas Colasanto). Carla wasn't much help; she recommended an old ballplayer friend of Sam's who, Sam recalled, was dead. "So she has to drive," Carla replied.

But it was Coach, of all people, who planted the idea of pursuing Diane in Sam's mind. Well, it may have been percolating in his mind all along, but it was the first time I can remember Sam acknowledging (thanks to the writers) what, as I say, just about everyone else already knew.

Coach said he thought Sam would be the perfect date for Diane, and Sam rationalized that that must be Diane's intention — to present herself as Sam's perfect date. He decided to return the favor.

But Diane really did have someone in mind — Gretchen (Gretchen Corbett), a "woman of substance" who was a grad student in kinesiology. When Diane asked about her date, Sam had to come up with one and made a frantic dash for the backroom, where he found a guy named Andy (Derek McGrath) and paid him to be Diane's escort for the evening.

It turned out that Andy had just been released from prison after serving time for manslaughter. Upon learning that, Sam suggested that they double date.

After dinner — and an apparently harrowing ride on Andy's motorcycle — the date came to an end, and Sam and Diane confronted what everyone already knew — that they were attracted to each other.

That conversation was only beginning.

Truly in the Eyes of the Beholder

Forty–five years ago All in the Family was in the midst of its second straight season as the top–ranked TV series in the United States. It would remain on top of the ratings for three more years.

The episode that aired on this night 45 years ago, "Class Reunion," was the first in a string of episodes that may well have played significant roles in cementing the show's standing.

After initially declining, Edith (Jean Stapleton) was making plans to attend her 30th high school reunion. Her cousin Amelia (Rae Allen) persuaded her with the news that the class heartthrob, Buck Evans (Bernie Kuby), was going to be there. Archie (Carroll O'Connor) had no interest in the reunion — until he heard Edith and Amelia reminiscing about Buck. He had been a track star, and all the girls had been wild about his physique and his golden hair waving in the breeze.

I guess there is at least one of those in every class — there certainly was one in mine — and the viewers learned that Edith had been one of Buck's admirers in school.

Curiosity — and a touch of jealousy — got the better of Archie, who was suddenly concerned about letting his wife go out alone after dark, and he gallantly offered to escort her to the reunion.

Buck hadn't arrived yet when the Bunkers made their appearance, leaving Archie to mingle with the other attendees. Obviously no one knew who Archie was — but everyone knew who Buck Evans was.

Funny thing was, though, that no one recognized Buck when he got there, probably because he no longer had a svelte figure, and he was bald.

Archie couldn't believe his eyes when he met Buck. He bore no resemblance to the stories Archie had heard, and Archie demanded to know the reason for the radical change.

Now, anyone who has ever attended a 30–year high school reunion can tell you that people change. The only reunion I have ever attended was my fifth–year reunion, and there were already changes in my classmates at that time.

But change is not always radical. In Buck's case, it was. He was not athletic. It was hard to picture him running on a track.

Buck confessed to Archie that he had married a gourmet cook. "Looks like she's in there with you," Archie replied.

Archie went to get Edith, who had been leading her classmates in some old cheers, and told her there was someone she would be happy to see — but he mentioned no names. He was anticipating her disappointment when she saw Buck again.

But it was Archie who was disappointed. Edith knew precisely who it was and broke into a big Edith grin.

Buck asked the question that was surely on Archie's mind as well. "How'd you recognize me?"

Edith said it was his eyes. "I'd know them anywhere."

There was never a more sincere soul on television than Edith Bunker.

Friday, February 09, 2018

Context Matters

I have enjoyed reading as long as I can remember.

My mother encouraged it, first by reading stories to my brother and me, then by urging us to read on our own as we developed that skill. As I say, it has been a lifelong passion for me, and two of my favorite books are Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird." I have read them both several times.

I can't remember now, but I believe I read both books for the first time in school. I know they were required reading when I was in high school, but I can't remember if that was the first time I ever read them. It may not have been, but I know it was the first time for many of my classmates.

Unfortunately, those books — and others — are no longer required reading in Duluth, Minn., schools because they contain the N–word. This is not new. It has happened before.

What is new, I suppose, is that Duluth won't be taking these books off the shelves entirely. The schools just won't require the students to read them.

Thus I assume there will be no book burnings in Duluth.

I understand the reasoning behind this move — but I believe it is faulty and dangerous.

School districts feel they are showing sensitivity by not requiring students to read words they may find offensive.

But I think they are doing more harm than good.

You can't protect people from things that are offensive. The world is a messy place. And if kids are anything like they were when I was in high school, it's too late to protect them. They've been exposed to far worse than the N–word already.

Besides, you have to keep in mind the context in which the offensive word was used.

Twain wrote about 19th–century America. My grandparents were born in 19th–century America, and they used that word as an adjective, no different for them than describing the color of someone's hair. When I read "Huckleberry Finn" — and I have read it several times and plan to do so again soon — I can see and hear my grandparents.

Twenty–first–century readers see a racial slur, a noun, when they see the word nigger, and that is consistent with their times and conditioning. But people of the 19th century frequently used it as an adjective, a modifier — which was consistent with their times and conditioning.

And I'm certain they would have been appalled if anyone had suggested that they were racists. The N–word was simply a word that was in common use in the world in which they grew up.

I grew up in a different world. And in hindsight, by modern standards, perhaps my grandparents were racists.

But if they were, they were products of the world in which they were raised. I believe it is wrong to hold people from a different time to modern standards — and isn't that what school districts are doing when they take this kind of step?

As for Harper Lee's book — she wrote about the American South in the '30s. She told an important story that couldn't be told without that word. The people who used it in the book were, without a doubt, racists, but the book taught a valuable lesson and is regarded as perhaps the finest example of 20th–century American literature. If you scrub it clean of the N–word, you rob it of its impact.

I believe writers use words for specific purposes. In this case, the N–word provided insight into the reality of times and places the reader would never see. But I think it also was used by these writers — and others — to make readers feel a little uncomfortable. Before any significant change of any kind can come, people must feel uncomfortable.

I have heard of at least one publisher that has published an alternative version of "Huckleberry Finn" in which the N–word was replaced by the word slave. But if the issue is racism, that substitution is meaningless. Anyone can be a slave. Historically, it is not a condition that has been defined by race.

So let's stop tap dancing around the real issue. Let's have a long overdue conversation about race in this country. Let's be blunt and talk about the things that we have avoided talking about. Let's face facts, however unpleasant those facts may be. I'm not an advocate of rewriting history — and I am certainly not in favor of rewriting Twain (as if anyone could).

I love history for many reasons, but one of the most important is summed up in the words of philosopher George Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Twain and Lee and similar writers help us remember our messy past so we don't have to make the same mistakes.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

An American in Paris

Bernardo Bertolucci's "Last Tango in Paris," a French–Italian movie that premiered across the United States on this day in 1973, caused quite a stir — such a stir that Premiere Magazine included it in its "100 Movies That Shook the World" list.

It received an X rating, which has come to be associated with pornography but was initially given to legitimate feature films (1969's "Midnight Cowboy," for example) that had content deemed too extreme for children. That applied not only to sexual content but to violent content as well.

Film critic Roger Ebert gushed about "Last Tango in Paris" after its New York premiere in late 1972: It was "one of the great emotional experiences of our time," he wrote. "It's a movie that exists so resolutely on the level of emotion, indeed, that possibly only Marlon Brando, of all living actors, could have played its lead. Who else can act so brutally and imply such vulnerability and need?"

And need, Ebert wrote, was what the movie was really about. It had some explicit nudity and not–quite–as–explicit sex, which got all the headlines — and that was used as the promotional hook to lure audiences to theaters — but I think Ebert was on to something when he said the movie was about need.

"There is a lot of sex in this film," Ebert wrote, "more, probably, than in any other legitimate feature film ever made — but the sex isn't the point, it's only the medium of exchange."

Brando's character, a middle–aged American widower living in Paris, certainly had needs. And Ebert was right about his vulnerability. When the movie began, Brando's wife was already dead, a suicide victim, so the viewers never saw anything of the marriage other than what was said about it on the screen, and the reason for the suicide was never revealed so the viewers never really knew why she did it. Still there were some ominous clues scattered about the story.

That isn't the best way to judge a marriage, obviously, but the union clearly left a lot to be desired — and the vulnerability of Brando's character had deep roots in that. That was clear when Brando ranted while standing at his wife's coffin at her wake.

Brando's character had been abused, and it had been a lifelong story of abuse. It started with his alcoholic parents, and it continued from there into a marriage that was abusive, if not physically then certainly emotionally.

The role had its flaws, but I thought the character suffered from arrested development from his youth that carried into his adult years. That was why Ebert observed that Brando's character was "a man whose whole existence has been reduced to a cry for help — and who has been so damaged by life that he can only express that cry in acts of crude sexuality."

The nudity and the sexuality amounted to no more than stage props for the story. "Last Tango in Paris" wasn't about those things.

Well, let me amend that.

It was about sex in the sense that some people use sex as a haven and a weapon, not as an expression of love for another person, and the lovers in "Last Tango in Paris" were like that.

The relationship between Brando and a young French woman (Maria Schneider), though, was mostly physical. At Brando's character's insistence, they knew nothing of each other, not even each other's names. But that didn't mean they didn't use sex as a haven and a weapon as well, even as a physical release — but never as an expression of genuine affection.

I have heard people call it Brando's greatest performance, and I have my issues with that. It was a nuanced performance, I will concede that, but I am far more likely to align myself with Ebert, who wrote that he didn't know if it was Brando's greatest performance, but the movie "certainly contains his most emotionally overwhelming scene" — his rant next to his wife's coffin. Ebert wrote that Brando delivered "one of the most moving speeches of love I can imagine."

In that scene, Ebert wrote, Brando "makes it absolutely clear why he is the best film actor of all time. He may be a bore, he may be a creep, he may act childish about the Academy Awards — but there is no one else who could have played that scene flat–out, no holds barred, the way he did, and make it work triumphantly."

Brando was rewarded with an Oscar nomination for Best Actor (which he lost to Jack Lemmon). Bertolucci was nominated for Best Director (and lost to George Roy Hill).

Schneider, who later said she felt raped by the experience, received no Oscar consideration.

A Flying Dutchman of the Space Age

In 1993, "Groundhog Day" was a truly clever premise for a movie.

But it wasn't truly original.

With apologies to Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling, I would submit for your approval the suggestion that Twilight Zone explored the concept of re–living something repeatedly less than a week after Groundhog Day in 1963 — 55 years ago today, in fact — in the episode "Death Ship."

It wasn't as clear in "Death Ship" as it was in "Groundhog Day." But that is how Twilight Zone operated. Viewers frequently had to wait until the very end to understand what had been going on.

A three–man crew (Jack Klugman, Ross Martin and Fred Beir) was on a mission to explore space in search of planets to analyze and determine if they could be colonized. In the course of carrying out this mission, the astronauts spotted a shining light from a planet. The possibility existed that the planet might be more than merely capable of supporting life; it might actually be doing so, and the astronauts decided to land on the planet and investigate.

On the surface of the planet, they discovered a crashed spaceship had been responsible for the sparkle they had seen from space. The spaceship looked remarkably like their own. Upon closer inspection, they determined that it was a ship from Earth — and they decided to enter it and assess the damage.

When they did so, they had a revelation — the ship was theirs, and their lifeless bodies were inside.

It goes without saying that this was an unnerving experience, and the crewmen were understandably shaken by it. But the commander (Klugman) kept his head and insisted that there had to be a logical explanation for what they had seen.

The commander concluded that they had bent time in such a way as to peek into the future. He reasoned that they could escape their fate by remaining on the planet and not going back into space, thus averting the entire crash. The crewmen grudgingly accepted the commander's version of events.

At that point, Beir's character was transported to a country lane on Earth where he met up with people from his past who were known to be dead. He ran to the home in which he and his wife had lived, but he found no one there. All he found was a telegram reporting his death.

Klugman brought him back and told him he had been having an hallucination.

Martin was having an hallucination of his own. In his hallucination, he was reunited with his wife and daughter, who had been dead for some time. Klugman intervened in that one as well.

But his theory of what had happened had changed. He believed the planet was inhabited by creatures with telepathic power but little else they could use against intruders. To avoid being colonized, they were using this power to plant terrifying visions in the minds of the astronauts to discourage them from recommending the planet for colonization.

He also believed that they should return to space. That would break the spell. So that is what they did — except when they returned to the planet, they still found the wreckage of the spaceship there. The crew members were convinced that they were dead, but Klugman wasn't, and he insisted that they would repeat the procedure as many times as it took for him to figure out the truth.

Thus the similarity between "Death Ship" and "Groundhog Day." in "Groundhog Day," the audience actually saw Bill Murray re–living the same day, and the humor (and, at times, poignance) was in the variations. In "Death Ship," the repetition was not seen, only anticipated — and there was nothing funny about it.

The first time I saw this episode, I had high hopes for it when I saw in the credits that the story was written by Richard Matheson, and he didn't let me down.

Not only was Matheson the writer responsible for "Death Ship," but he also wrote more than a dozen of the Twilight Zone's top episodes. Most were from the original series although Matheson did write an episode in the mid–'80s series reboot as well as some work for the 1983 Twilight Zone movie.

Whenever I see Matheson's name in the credits — for Twilight Zone or anything else — I am always assured of the quality of what I am about to see. His stories never had wasteful filler, which was frequently a problem for the one–hour episodes of the Twilight Zone in its fourth season.

If you are a fan of the Twilight Zone, you are sure to recognize some of Matheson's episodes. Probably the most famous was "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," in which a young William Shatner played a man recovering from a nervous breakdown who believed he saw a monster tampering with the wing of the airplane in which he was traveling.

My favorite Matheson–penned episode was "A World of His Own," the finale of the first season.

Playin' Those Mind Games

"The key to this game is being able to read people."

Ben (Matthew McConaughey)

When I was a boy, I had a big crush on Goldie Hawn. She was still young and beautiful in those days, had moved on from television work and had already won an Oscar in a still–nascent acting career.

Her daughter, Kate Hudson, co–starred with Matthew McConaughey in "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days," which premiered on this day in 2003. I would have regarded that title as an oxymoron if Goldie Hawn had starred in such a movie when I was a boy. I couldn't possibly understand why anyone wouldn't want to be with Goldie Hawn. I just thought she was so dang cute.

And, before I saw the movie, I found it pretty hard to comprehend about Goldie's daughter, too. Hudson looks a lot like her mother. She probably looked more like her mother a few years earlier when she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress (for "Almost Famous"). Unlike her mother, though, she did not win the Oscar — and she hasn't been nominated for one since.

It was hardly surprising that neither she nor McConaughey was nominated for "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days," considering that it had all the elements of a screwball comedy, which are audience pleasers but seldom regarded as Oscar material.

Except it couldn't pull it off.

Hudson was a how–to writer for a women's magazine. McConaughey worked for an ad agency. They were thrown together by work–related wagers. Hudson was doing research for a how–to in reverse — all about the things that women do to drive men away. McConaughey's wager, to make a woman fall in love with him in 10 days, was tied to his pitch for a multimillion–dollar account.

Egged on by their respective bosses (Bebe Neuwirth and Robert Klein) Hudson and McConaughey pursued their hidden agendas, feeding off each other with reckless abandon — until that inevitable moment when they learned the truth — you know, the just desserts payoff that defines the screwball or romantic comedy and essentially justifies all that has come before.

From this premise, I will admit, the writers came up with some clever angles, and I do know a few young women who consider "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days" the greatest romantic comedy of all time — but that's really a stretch when you consider the truly great romantic comedies of the past.

Perhaps in the realm of the modern romantic comedy (roughly, the last two decades), it might be considered the best, but that is because romantic comedies themselves have changed in that time — and not for the better, in the eyes of some. Modern romantic comedies tilt rather heavily toward stereotypes that, by their definition, exclude chunks of the audience. Classic screwball/romantic comedies relied on truly bizarre circumstances that were not exclusive.

Weird things happen. Really weird things happen in rom–coms and screwball comedies.

For instance, more people could relate to Cary Grant's conundrum in "My Favorite Wife," in which his wife, who had been missing for seven years and was presumed dead, showed up just as he was about to remarry, than to Hudson and McConaughey, two upper–class, well–paid and well–educated young people playing mind games with each other.

And when they weren't playing with each other, they were watching the NBA Finals from practically courtside seats. Sometimes they killed two birds with one stone. Pretty unrealistic.

Of course, rom–coms have always been unrealistic. It is their exaggerated circumstances that usually make them work. But there are those who believe they have taken a darker turn of late.

I have read of the unhealthy effects of modern rom–coms on real–life relationships and how they interfere with people's ability to communicate with each other. That makes sense to me.

Frankly, though, "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days" wasn't good enough, by those standards, to have that kind of influence on people.

I thought it was mostly silly — and, seen in that light, it may have been a worthy successor to the Rock Hudson–Doris Day flicks. Rom–coms are nothing if not silly.

But I really didn't feel that Hudson and McConaughey had that kind of chemistry.

Consequently, when their moments of comeuppance came, I found it hard to care. Their behavior may have justified those moments but not the two hours I invested in watching the movie.

(By the way award–winning composer Marvin Hamlisch made a cameo appearance during the comeuppance. I liked Hamlisch, and I suppose someone had to play such a role, but I lost a little of my regard for him when I saw him in this movie.)

Sometimes I wonder if that isn't expecting too much from a rom–com. The romantic/screwball comedy genre is and always has been escapism, and "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days" delivered in that regard.


It had that light–hearted wink wink nudge nudge kind of humor that is so characteristic of such a movie, but, in this case, it struck me as almost sad the way these characters reeked of insincerity.

I guess the joke was that neither was sincere to begin with.