The inexplicable fascination of the boob tube’s most fatuous hour

Douglas Marshall June 1 1968

The inexplicable fascination of the boob tube’s most fatuous hour

Douglas Marshall June 1 1968

The inexplicable fascination of the boob tube’s most fatuous hour


Douglas Marshall

NEVER AGAIN. Every spring I make the same private vow about the Oscar and Emmy awards on television. Never again will I sit for two and a half hours at a stretch watching Hollywood heap unctuous honors on itself.

The awards are all rigged, I tell myself, and the presentation ceremonies are farragoes of tasteless glamour and excruciating vanity. Who really cares who got the vote for “outstanding continued performance by an actress

in a supporting role in a comedy”? And yet every year, like millions of other viewers, I somehow find myself yoked to the set by these oxymoronic spectacles. When the final envelope is ripped open and the orchestra is playing No Business Like Show Business for the one hundred and last tearful time, I’m still there. Yawning and cursing, maybe, but there.

This year’s Oscar ceremonies, conducted in the shade of Martin Luther King’s assassination, seemed even more fatuous and pretentious than usual. The Academy was dispensing Oscars like conscience money to everybody and everything remotely connected with civil rights. Bob Hope wound up the proceedings with a tortured attempt to find common themes in the dreams “of the men who make motion pictures and the man from Atlanta.” Stepin Fetchit must have been giggling all the way to the soup kitchen.

Note, incidentally, that term “motion picture.” Movies apparently are for the masses; film is for the artist; cinema is for the connoisseur. But when Hollywood stands on its dignity every year it is always to honor the quaint and stately medium known as motion pictures. Edison lives.

The Emmy awards show is still two weeks away as I write this (CTV, May 19), but there’s no advance indication the ceremonies will be anything other than the charming fiasco presented in previous years. It won’t be who wins that counts but whom we’ll see. And since the awards shows are among the few remaining TV shows broadcast live, there’s a chance we’ll see some starlet trip over her maxi-skirt or Frank Sinatra take a swing at somebody.

The Emmy show tends to mark the end of the incredible shrinking TV season (now down to 26 weeks instead of the 39 of five years ago) and the beginning of the long excursion into reruns. Glancing back at the American and British shows carried in Canada during the last season — and without for a minute attempting to pit my judgment against the collective wisdom of the Emmy panel — it seems to me there were only five in the popular entertainment category that stood out above the general run of sludge.

The first and funniest was He and She on the CBC, a domestic-comedy series so hilariously in tune with the times that, naturally, the American network that produced it (CBS) is currently debating whether to risk giving it a second season. That figures. The beauty of He and She (be sure to watch the reruns if you missed the first showings) lies in the witty scripts and the perfect underplaying of the five regular characters. One of them, a diminutive Mr. Break-it janitor called Andrew, sometimes reaches the heights of comedy last scaled by Charlie Chaplin.

He and She’s chief protagonists are a with-it young couple played by lovely, willowy Paula Prentiss and her

real-life husband Richard Benjamin. Their humor derives from mutual understanding laced with sarcasm, and Benjamin has a dead-pan, throwaway technique that is perfect television.

The other four top shows in my list were I Spy, The Avengers, Star Trek, and, in a class by itself, The Prisoner — all carried by CTV. / Spy won’t be on the air next season; so addicts who dote ön the easy dialogue between dilettante agents Robert Culp and Bill Cosby should catch their final appearance on the summer reruns.

Meanwhile The Avengers continues its own fascinating experiments with scientific absurdity. Steed’s newest helpmate, Canada’s Linda Thorson, is still too much of the ingenue for my taste but no doubt she will soon learn to roll with the kinks like Diana Rigg. Star Trek remains the most imaginative science-fiction drama ever produced on TV. True, the gimmick of discovering a Nazi or a Roman society on some far-distant world crops up a little too often. But the only continuing fault I can find with the series is a solecism in the introduction. Every week a voice tells us that the Star Ship Enterprise has been commissioned “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” On second thought, perhaps that split infinitive is a deliberate symbol.

The Prisoner, created by and starring the cool Patrick McGoohan of Danger Man fame, was the season’s only major creative breakthrough. The plot concerned a retired British secret agent incarcerated on a mysterious island. At first glance the series seemed to be a confusing exercise in surrealistic fantasy. But later it proved to have a beautiful internal logic all its own and it managed to generate a tension that most realistic TV dramas lack.

McGoohan made 17 episodes of The Prisoner but because of production delays CTV showed only 13 of them last fall. However, the CBS network in the United States is showing the full series this summer. Canadians who can pick up U.S. stations will finally be able to learn how McGoohan came to terms with his island prison and his captors.

CTV’s courage in even scheduling something as experimental as The Prisoner deserves full credit. The private network has sometimes been treated harshly in this column. It will continue to be so treated if the Canadian-made fare it dishes out remains on The Pig and Whistle level of entertainment. On the other hand there is no doubt that CTV regularly purchases better shows from Britain and the U.S. than the CBC does. Last season, on my reckoning, CTV outranked the CBC on imports by four to one. The catch is that other countries’ shows, while they may please advertisers, do nothing at all for TV in Canada. In terms of original productions outside of public affairs, CTV is still very much No. 2 — and it doesn’t even try harder.