Living in the Land of the Lost

I see that 22 Jump Street is doing reasonably well, and getting moderately positive reviews. It’s the sequel to 21 Jump Street, which was, in turn, “based on” the late-80s television series. That series is most notable as being the first real success for the FOX network (preceeding The Simpsons by two years), and for introducing the world to Johnny Depp, who would, of course, go on to bigger and better things. I’d like to say that the minute I saw him, I said, “This kid is going to become one of the great actors of our time.” Yes, I’d like to have said that, but I didn’t. Oh well.

I wasn’t especially a fan of the series, it being yet another triumph of style over substance that typified 80s action shows. But that’s not the reason I have no interest in seeing either movie. As I said, they’re “based on” the series, but in the same way that some horror movies are marketed as “based on a true story,” meaning, “Yeah, there was a family, and, yeah, they did move into an old farmhouse in Connecticut. Beyond that… we may have taken a few liberties.”

These movies are just part of a recent trend of taking an existing TV property and turning it into a broad comedy spoof. This bothers me. Now, it’s not exactly a new phenomenon to make a movie based on a TV series, although before that it was more common to go the other way, and make a series based on the movie. But in those cases it was capitalizing on a popular property, and often made use of existing sets, writers, and sometimes even cast members. There are many examples, but usually they are a poor shadow of the source (anybody remember Delta House?). Indeed, only four series stand as not only matching, but indeed surpassing, the movie in terms of quality: The Odd Couple, M*A*S*H, The Paper Chase and Alien Nation.

But now it goes the other way, further proving just how much the film industry is devoid of ideas. They used to make movies based on Broadway shows, with varying levels of success, whereas now they make Broadway musicals based on old (non-musical) movies: Little Shop of Horrors, The Producers, Hairspray. Then, even more bizarrely, the shows get made into new movies, thus giving us, in effect, a movie based on a movie. No wonder the film industry has decimated the publishing industry. When they reach the point that they make movies out of comic books, and then claim these are serious films instead of the popcorn b-movies they actually are, just dressed up with cookie-cutter CGI, there’s little hope left.

So it’s no surprise that the movies are mining old TV shows for ideas. We can see this at least as far back as the Star Trek franchise. But those movies were a direct continuation of the original series. More often we see what amounts to a “reboot.” The problem there is that, once the property is in the hands of a different set of people who had no connection to the original, they all-too-often reveal a total lack of understanding of what made the series what it was.

We can illustrate it with Star Trek itself, which has been given two movies of a reboot that is pretty far removed from the series (although I give them credit for a clever way of discarding continuity while maintaining it at the same time). The actors are generally well cast, but the writers clearly have no idea what made the original characters tick. Chris Pine’s Kirk always seems to be heroic by accident and is at no time the deliberate man of action portrayed by William Shatner, and Zachary Quinto’s Spock isn’t a man wrestling to control his human side through logic so much as just a guy with Asperger’s Syndrome (and don’t get me started on his affair with Uhura!). Karl Urban’s McCoy is spot-on, but we have yet to see him have the sort of heartfelt philosophical conversation that revealed his real role in the series: the embodiment of Kirk’s conscience. To the filmmakers, I pose Guy “Crewman #6” Fleegman’s great question from Galaxy Quest: Didn’t you guys ever watch the show?

The problem with reboots is even more clear with Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible movies, which are so oblivious to the whole nature of what made the series great that they begin by completely undermining the entire premise, and then eschewed most of the series’ key characteristics, except in the most shallow ways (“Wasn’t there a part where a guy would peel off a mask? Let’s make sure we have that.”) I was initially impressed by the first movie, until they pulled out the rug. I have to say that I would have rather seen a whole movie with Kristin Scott Thomas and Emilio Estevez, the only ones who seemed to understand how Mission: Impossible worked.

That’s the thing. I loved the show, because it demanded that viewers pay attention and think, and I was hoping for a serious treatment by people who got it. It makes me very sad when that doesn’t happen. But it’s far, far more painful when an old property is used as a basis for broad, farcical comedy. I’ll give a pass to the Brady Bunch movies. The original was itself a comedy that even those involved considered inane, and playing up the anachronistic qualities was inspired. But it’s a different thing when something intended to be serious is run through the fart-joke machine. I will grant that, in retrospect, we can look back at these shows and say, “I can’t believe this was considered good.” But they were. They were limited by the conventions of the day. Starsky and Hutch was an over the top action show, but it was played straight, not as a vehicle for Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson to play further iterations of the exact same characters they play in every movie. The Green Hornet may have been campy, but its venerable premise was a good one that went back to the days of radio drama: a wealthy man who masquerades as an underworld kingpin to bring down real criminals. It deserved a serious treatment using all the resources available today. Its fans would have loved to see that, rather than Seth Rogan playing yet another clueless idiot.

Which brings me to the most egregious example of all: Land of the Lost. For those unaware, this was an early 70s Saturday kids’ show produced by Sid and Marty Kroft, already famous for their incredibly surrealistic, puppet-driven shows about kids trapped in a bizarre world best appreciated under the influence of hallucinogenics (seriously, that’s the only way H.R. Pufnstuf or Lidsville make any sense at all). But Land of the Lost was different, an attempt to do serious science fiction, an ambitious goal on a 70s kids’ show budget.

People may not realize that the show was actually conceived and developed, not by the Krofts, but rather by Star Trek writer David Gerrold. He laid out an astonishingly sophisticated, mind-bending premise of a pocket universe with its own laws of physics, then invited his friends to come and play. By which I mean established, serious science fiction writers like Larry Niven, Norman Spinrad, Samuel Peeples, Theodore Sturgeon and the inestimable D.C. Fontana, who contributed the powerful “Elsewhen,” essentially inverting the premise of her animated Star Trek story “Yesteryear.” The result was one of the most intelligent, sophisticated “children’s shows” in the history of American television, equaled only by the contemporaneous animated Star Trek, which similarly refused to dumb things down, believing children were sophisticated enough to handle serious ideas.

Yeah, the special effects were famously cheesy, and the acting uneven, but the heart was there. The rules were consistent, so that the idea of riding a river that went in a circle, or standing on a mountaintop and seeing yourself in the distance, would be profound and believable. We were fascinated by the mysterious pylons that dotted the landscape; bigger on the inside than the outside (sound familiar?), they controlled every part of the Land, including weather, earthquakes, and possibly even time itself. The backstory was rich and ripe for discovery, giving us a lost civilization and the bestial Sleestak, who were their descendants, rather than ancestors. The writers even invented an actual language for the missing-link Pakuni.

The characterizations were also strong and complex. Here we had a quiet, dependable father doing his best to take care of his kids while repressing his own profound loneliness, and a teen hero who screwed up as often as not, but whose heart was in the right place. And then there was Holly. A feisty, resourceful young girl decades before that was in fashion, she was treated as an equal by her father and brother and was the first crush for a whole generation of boys. I suspect my own fondness for strong girls started with Holly, and I guarantee she would have no patience with Katniss Everdeen’s angry bullshit.

After the first year, the original writing team left. They weren’t even sure the series would continue, ending the season with “Circle,” a mind-blowing finale that had the Marshall family escape the Land by stranding themselves in it (you have to see it, and even then you’ll still be confused). The show was renewed, and a new writing staff took over, but quickly proved that they completely understood the concepts, building on the Land’s strange mysteries (leaving some of them exhilaratingly unanswered), and producing some of the best episodes of the series, notably “The Zarn,” “The Pylon Express,” “The Longest Day,” and “The Musician.”

The third season was another matter. Yet another writing team came in, and relied on dumb formula, where some improbable fantasy character would inexplicably arrive, interact with the main characters, and then leave. They saddled the show with truly ludicrous things like a two-headed swamp monster and a fire-breathing dinosaur, and had the characters meet the Abominable Snowman, the Flying Dutchman and Medusa. Sheesh. Only “Timestop” was even close to what the show had been, not surprising as it was a holdover from the previous year.

A remake/continuation appeared in the 1980s, but it was rather goofy, although it still tried to stay true to the sophisticated concepts. This cannot be said of the Will Ferrell movie that came out a few years back, and tanked. It was clear that, despite Ferrell’s proclaimed fondness for the series, all he really seemed to know about was the dinosaurs and the generally embarrassing production values. No doubt he would sit around with his friends laughing about how ridiculous it was. My heart sank when I learned he was behind the movie. Because I wanted what those of us old enough to actually have watched the show wanted: a serious treatment that would finally do justice to the show’s brilliant ideas. I wanted realistically rendered dinosaurs. I wanted the Sleestak to be truly scary, rather than just basketball players shuffling around in rubber suits. I wanted the bizarre, unreal landscape of the Land to be brought to vivid life (distant mountains that are close up, and so forth). I wanted a rich, provocative story.

But that didn’t happen. Nor will it at any point in the foreseeable future. Not so long as the film industry is devoid of creative people capable of deep, complex ideas, making Hollywood the real Land of the Lost. As long as they continue to mine anything they can for an easy buck, the downward spiral that has allowed us to see nearly a dozen “Marvel Movies” that are all basically the same thin “plot” over and over, and has taken interesting old concepts and literally taken a dump on them, and their fans, we won’t see improvement. I’ve been accused of insulting young fans of today’s lame entertainments, but what about the insult to us older fans of the original source material?

What about you?  What old series would you like to see given a serious, respectful treatment?  Or do you like the comedy spoof approach? Do I need to get out of the way and stop complaining? Tell me if I’m wrong about all this.  Wouldn’t be the first time, won’t be the last.  Please, join the discussion.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Lessons from Lucy

Ask anybody to give you their short list of “greatest television shows of all time” and every one of them, without exception, will include I Love Lucy at or near the top of the list. This includes people who may never have actually seen more than clips of the show. This continued accolade over half a century after the series aired is not unjustified. It was groundbreaking in every sense of the word. At the center of the show was the immensely talented Lucille Ball, who started in movies as an ingénue (people tend to forget that she was a strikingly beautiful woman), but developed a flair for physical comedy, matched by a total willingness to do anything for the laugh. She was as fearless as she was brilliant.

But her brilliance was matched, even exceeded, by her then-husband and costar, Desi Arnaz. Between them, they basically invented the modern sitcom, pioneering such elements as the three-camera setup and the presence of a studio audience, things that became so standard that now shows that use single-camera and eschew an audience are considered iconoclastic.

Lucy and Desi were equally adept in business; even after they divorced they maintained a cordial relationship that lasted the rest of Desi’s life, and Lucy learned a great deal from him. Their modest little Desilu studios quickly grew into a major player, giving the greenlight to a number of well-regarded series, including Mission: Impossible, about which Lucy famously insisted that she didn’t understand it, but she could tell it was good, and a little thing called Star Trek. It was Lucy who believed in the show so much that she pressured the network into commissioning an unprecedented second pilot after the first one was rejected. The rest is, as they say, history. And when she finally sold her studio in the late sixties, she made a substantial profit upon which she could have retired comfortably. She didn’t.

After the end of I Love Lucy, she kept working, producing sitcoms that anchored the Monday night slot she had previously occupied, running well into the mid 1970s. The Lucy Show ran through most of the 60s, maintaining the same comfortable formula of light, character-driven comedy and physical hijinks, despite seeming to reconfigure the format every year. It was innocuous, comfortable fare that didn’t strain anybody’s sensibilities, the kind your grandparents would sit and watch happily after dinner.

Here’s Lucy kept the same tone, taking improbable contrivance to heights that were almost surreal. But all was not well. While still winning its time slot, by the end of its run, it had fallen in the ratings, its harmless fun no match for the growing trend of realistic shows like Mary Tyler Moore and M*A*SH, and topical, edgy comedy, exemplified by shows such as All in the Family and Maude. Lucy had no great esteem for shows like that, and wanted no part of it. So finally, already well into her sixties, she brought her show to an end, and suddenly there was no more Lucy on TV. And by the end of the decade, the sitcom format itself had been given up for dead in favor of gritty, stylish dramas.

But the story doesn’t end there. There was one more show to come. You’ve almost certainly never heard of it. Called Life With Lucy, it aired in the mid 1980s, running a whole nine episodes before being cancelled. The sitcom wasn’t dead after all. It had been single-handedly resurrected by a former TV star named Bill Cosby. His show became one of the most well-received series in history, rivaling I Love Lucy. So it seemed natural that the great Lucy herself could do the same thing. The network was so sure Lucy couldn’t fail, they commissioned an entire season without requesting a pilot or test screenings, and guaranteed to pay Lucy for the whole season, regardless of whether it ever hit the air. The result: one of the biggest bombs of all time, Lucy’s only failure in an illustrious career.

What went wrong? Everything. The landscape had changed, as had the world. Lucy hadn’t. The show drew on the same cornball formula that had served her so well in previous decades, but was hopelessly out of fashion by this point. Even worse, Lucy proved tone-deaf to the way television production had changed. She had total control over every aspect of the show (who could have said no to Lucy?). She brought in the head writers from I Love Lucy, who were still using the same old gags. She coaxed long-time costar Gale Gordon out of retirement at age 80 by giving him the same pay guarantee she had been given. For the production, she used the people she had worked with in the past, although most of them hadn’t worked in years, and were completely out of touch with contemporary television production techniques. She even hired her long-time soundman, despite the fact that he had become hard of hearing (she allegedly found the idea amusing).

Her missteps extended to herself. She wore a bright red, curly wig often compared to a fright wig, and had makeup so garish that more than one person said (not to her face) that she looked like a kabuki dancer. To hide signs of her age, she insisted on having the entire show filmed through soft focus lenses of the sort that hadn’t been used since the 60s, and even then only for glamor sequences. And watching a very frail-looking woman in her seventies doing elaborate stunts was cringe-inducing.

Audiences tuned in to see the great lady’s triumphant return, but then tuned out. The ratings took a nosedive and the network pulled the plug with half a dozen completed episodes yet to air. They have never been shown. Lucy was so devastated by the fiasco that she retired from public performance entirely, convinced that America no longer loved Lucy. She died within a few years, a sad end to a great career.

What lesson can be learned from Lucy? Times change, never moreso than in the world of entertainment. What worked before may no longer work now. You have to pay attention to what’s happening today, work within those parameters, or you won’t make it. Whether in television, film or publishing, you have to embrace the way it is now, and not cling to outmoded ways, no matter how much better you think they were. Maybe you’re right, but that’s irrelevant. Keep up, or get out of the way.

Sure, you can try to be an instrument of change. You can see what’s wrong with the current model and push for something better. You’ll meet resistance, but innovators always do. But innovation must always look forward. Improving things by trying to take them back to the way they once were is a fool’s errand. There is no more certain way to fail. If it can happen to Lucy, it will happen to the rest of us.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Rite Thing to Do

My sister eloped. Okay, not exactly, and it’s old news, really, since this was brought to mind by my recently receiving an invitation to the celebration of her twentieth anniversary. Which is interesting, because I wasn’t invited to her wedding.

See, she and her boyfriend were vacationing in Hawai’i, when they decided, on the spur of the moment, that this romantic tropical setting would be the ideal place to get married. They are far from the only ones who reach that conclusion, of course. Having made their decision, and arrangements, they then informed the families. Well, by families, I mean my parents. I wasn’t informed except by my father, who was, as is understandable, grousing long and loud about having to fly to Hawai’i at the last minute and at enormous expense.

He didn’t have to, of course. My older sister didn’t go, and was fine with that, despite having a very close relationship with my younger sister. “What’s the big deal?” she said. But my father understood, which is why, in fact, he did have to go. His daughter was getting married. For some reason, he felt that was an important thing to attend.

I didn’t go. There was no way I could afford it. And that hurt. She was my sister, and I had looked forward to being at her wedding, even standing up in her wedding party as she stood up in mine. It was important to me that she be there, and I would have thought it might be important to her that I be there for her. It wasn’t. But I think what hurt me even more than that was realizing that it wasn’t important to her that it was important to me.

That’s the thing about weddings. Despite all the “Bridezilla” stories, it’s not really about the bride, nor the couple, or anything like that. It’s about the people in attendance. It’s for the father who has dreamed about walking his little girl down the aisle since she was… well… a little girl. It’s about the family. It’s about the community, bearing witness to a couple passing through one of the last surviving rites of passage our society affords.

I use that term intentionally. A wedding is a moment of transition, one most people experience. It is a common experience. And there are rituals involved, the exchange of rings, the vows, the “march,” all that. That’s why a lot of people get very nervous at any attempt to change that. The pastor who officiated my wedding said he was very reluctant to allow a couple to mess with the ceremony too much, especially when it came to writing their own vows. We didn’t do that, although we did personalize a bit by opening the ceremony with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. Oh yeah, and I sang at my own wedding. I’d sung Leonard Bernstein’s “Simple Song” at all of my friends’ weddings, and I wanted it sung at mine, but by the same person who sang at everyone else’s. So yeah, I sang it at the beginning, and watched my wife come down the aisle toward me during the flute solo.

But we didn’t mess with things too much, and the pastor was right about that. He explained it. He pointed out that the familiarity of the vows binds us all together. Not just the couple, but the whole community. They are sharing something with everyone who has gone before. He pointed out that, when the bride and groom are up there reciting their vows, all the married people watching are silently remembering, and re-reciting, their own vows. Why do you think so many babies are born nine months after a major wedding?

This shared experience is why some conservatives are extremely uncomfortable at anything that would change the “definition” of marriage. And it’s why advocates of gay marriage fight so hard to be able to share the common experience as well. “It’s just a piece of paper,” people might say (my sister likely among them), but it’s so much more. It’s a step further into the adult world. And we have very few left.

Rites of passage tie us together, going through an experience knowing those around you went through it themselves. In earlier times it might involve a test or an ordeal, sometimes dangerous, and it’s okay with me that we have removed most of the danger. But we maintain the vestigial ritual in initiations into social organizations, fraternal orders such as the Freemasons or the Elks or whathaveyou. Those are dying out, but such traditions do live on, somewhat, with fraternity initiations, although the significance is increasingly lost in the face of ever more dangerous hazing. But perhaps that’s an attempt to cling to our true roots. Because part of the purpose of the ordeal is to come out of it stronger, more confident. Ready for the challenges that face you. Ready, in many cases, to truly be an adult.

We no longer have a clear delineation between child and adult. We lost the ritual where you officially cross the threshold between the two worlds. Certainly it still exists in some cultures. The Hispanic Quinceanera is one case, although it could be said that’s a remnant of Patriarchy, where a girl is announced as a now-available commodity. But it’s a very important moment in the girl’s life, where she really gets to feel like she’s a woman.

A better example is the Jewish Bar Mitzvah. This is the moment when a boy literally stands before the community and says, “Today I am a man.” He has studied and prepared, and his parents watch with pride, while everyone else nods and smiles, remembering their own passage. It is a welcoming into the adult world. And what’s important is that it was preceded by serious lessons on what it means to be a man. We used to teach our children how to be adults. Boys learned to take off their hats indoors, or when the flag is passing. They learned how to shake someone’s hand. They learned how to behave like a responsible adult. And, yes, this was true for girls as well, but the fact that this has largely disappeared is a more serious problem for boys.

The very recent concept of adolescence is actually causing difficulty for young people. It takes nearly a decade to transition from child to adult now. I’m not advocating we return to a time when children were put to work as soon as they could pick up a tool. But we take a long period where teens aren’t really sure if they are children or adults, nor which they want to be. It’s a troubled time, full of raging hormones. We treat them like children and they chafe because they are ready to be adults. Then we treat them like adults and they cower because they actually aren’t ready. And at no time do we show them a point of passage, one where yesterday they were children, and today they are adults.

Consider: you can work at age 15; drive at 16; go to an R-rated movie at 17 (not that that means anything anymore); vote, sign contracts and join the military at 18; and drink and gamble at 21. Which is adulthood? We could say 18, but that’s arbitrary, and mostly just corresponds to the end of universal education, another recent invention our society once thought essential for a robust democracy, but which, sadly, conservatives are now trying vigorously to tear down. Education is also, by the way, why legal age of consent laws tend to pin on age 18, a biologically ludicrous delay. We don’t want sexuality to distract “children” from their schooling. Of course, it does, far more than it would if we were tolerant of the reality that teens are sexual beings.

So what happens? Teens, whose bodies are screaming their readiness for adulthood, are cast adrift by a society who sees no value in rituals and transitions, with no one telling them who they are, or what they should do. They take their lessons from any place they can: books and movies and music and games and other media that isn’t there to strengthen society, but to make money by pandering to adults’ darkest instincts. And that’s how boys learn how they are “supposed” to treat girls, and girls learn how they are “expected” to respond. They learn to solve problems with violence. They learn it’s all about “me,” rather than about “us.”

And the teens eat it up. That is, I think, a symptom of a deeper hunger. More than just sex drives and bloodlust. Teen books are full of stories full of tests and ordeals; it’s a central theme, the “child” proving him or herself by overcoming a great challenge. We yearn for these rites of passage, especially children, who, unable to experience it for themselves, seek it out in their fiction. In that respect, I suppose it could be said that teen fiction is serving an important purpose, but maybe it shouldn’t have to carry the entire burden. Rather, we could be mindful that we are a community, a common people.

Social rituals and traditions connect us, and I think it’s no coincidence that, the more we abandon them, the more fragmented and fractious societies become. Rituals are the embodiment of order, and the absence of order is chaos. The authors of teen books offer many anarchic, dystopian societies, where the dignity of life and the spirit of community have lost their meaning. But rarely do they really explore how these societies came to be. That’s a shame, because I suspect that it would look much more familiar than we might like.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized