Saturday, December 20, 2008

Television Review: QUINCY M.E. (THE HILARIOUS YEARS) Number One in a Series!

QUINCY: THE HILARIOUS YEARS (a.k.a. Seasons 5 through 8, 1979-1983; Universal/NBC-TV. Starring Jack Klugman, Robert Ito, Anita Gillette, John S. Ragin, Garry Walberg and Val Bisoglio.

Number One -- "Scream to the Skies", Season 6 (1981)

When QUINCY, M.E. finally received a DVD release in 2006 (of the first and second seasons together) it was promoted as "the original C.S.I.". Almost every episode brought an intriguing mystery, quite a few of them filled with baffling twists and turns, and intense dramatics from Jack Klugman.

The 1976-1979 version of QUINCY was really a good, if formulaic show, one of the few bright spots for an ever-fading NBC. But for yours truly, the show really became must-see TV when, in my opinion (and I say this as a Klugman fan) Jack Klugman acquired too much power. When the story came out just last year that Klugman was suing NBC for his share of the series' profits, he was quoted by the AP as saying: "I worked my tail off. I got up at four in the morning and stayed at the studio. I did rewrites, I edited."

He's DA MAN!!

Re-writes? Boy, did he do re-writes.......and Dr. R. Quincy subsequently became the hour-long dramatic answer to the post-shark jump Fonz. Formerly a socially active widower in a realistic way, Dr. Quincy became almost irresistible to women, no matter the age. Formerly a hardworking coroner urging the police to take another look at a seemingly open and shut case, Quincy morphed into a crusading superhero, able to overcome not merely a hardheaded Lt. Monahan, but beaurocrats, corporations, even domestic and foreign governments! And just as Arthur Fonzarelli would preach about eating your vegetables and tell Shortcake that "Smokin' Ain't Cool" (aaay!) Quincy would pontificate for several minutes at a time before TV cameras, judges and legislative committees about the injustice of the week.

Often there wasn't a mystery at all in the final 4 seasons of the show, just a death in the opening scene to set up an issue of the week for The Big Q to A) become an expert on in about 15 minutes, and B) shout about the injustices for the next 30. A good mystery show turned into sort of a hybrid of BATMAN (with Sam as his Robin, I suppose) and the late 1960's DRAGNET with Quincy's preaching much louder and more emotional than Jack Webb's ever could be. In short, it became one of the funniest shows of its era, and a worthy rival to POLICE SQUAD! and SLEDGE HAMMER! for the title of "Greatest Laughtrack-less Comedy of All Time". At the very least, it was the funniest non-laugh track show lacking an exclamation point on its title.

It's hard to pinpoint an exact turning point, and I'll concede that many consider Season 6 to be the real start of Klugman's Comedy Classics, but for me it was a very early Season 5 episode, "Never a Child", that told me Quincy had become a superhero. After virtually single-handedly breaking up a child porn ring, The Big Q joined the cops on their raid on the filming location. While Monahan just stood there, Quince marched into the bathroom, turned on the shower while the perp screamed pathetically (guess he had a cat-like aversion to water). grabbed him by the back of the neck and pushed his face within inches of the mirror. Yup, police, F.B.I., doesn't matter...The Big Q does everyone's job! So for me, the takeoff point for QUINCY: THE HILARIOUS YEARS starts with Season 5. Without further ado I'll be periodically taking a fond look back at selected episodes from this great run of classic unintentional comedy.

We start with the following classic from Season 6, "Scream to the Skies". This one is typical in some ways: The Big Q heroically saves more people from the water than a dozen Coast Guarders, makes a corporate baddie look foolish at a congressional hearing, spends at least a week and a half away from his real job and makes a superhero's arrival at a disaster site. But----there are some interesting wrinkles this time out: he actually finds a corporate entity he can't defeat, he suffers acute depressive reaction delaying his outward rage for half the episode, and he fails to nail any tail half his age.

This episode starts with establishing shots of an airport at night. After briefly seeing some of the passengers and flight attendants, we get some opening dialogue, learning that one co-pilot had three burritos (glad I'm not in that cockpit) and getting a foreshadowing bad weather report. Next up, our pre-flight instructions on safety, including the knowledge that "this aircraft is equipped with floatable seat cushions and inflatable life vests" just in case of "the unlikely event of a water landing". The passengers pay little attention. Hmm....something tells me this isn't going to turn out well.

Then we're back to more familiar territory for a QUINCY, M.E.....Astin interrupts Sam and Quincy and calls them in for an important meeting. This turns out to be a suprise party for The Big Q, intercut with footage of the passenger plane hitting turbulence and, yes, landing in the water. Q should have been tipped off that something was up, seeing how he was whisked away to Danny's Restaurant for this meeting. Immediately after the yell of "Surprise!" Quincy gets a kiss from a twentysomething hottie in a Skipper hat, and there's at least 3 other nubile lovelies among the 40-plus people at the party for the Big Q to hit on. Paul Kersey, eat your heart out!

How old is The Big Q? IMO they're a few candles short.

All those cigarettes haven't diminished Klugman's lung power, as he blows out about 45 candles with relative ease, but the festivities are interrupted by an unsettling call notifying The Big Q of the plane crash. The plane, which went down in the Santa Monica Bay, was carrying 147 passengers.

A Coast Guard cutter awaits, with at least 20 guardsmen, and as The Big Q rushes to the boat, we hear, "He's here! Let's shove off!" Now, I was curious as to why they would be, you know, waiting around for Quincy to arrive instead of just starting the search for the site immediately to start trying to rescue people. We are told that every available Coast Guard vessel is "on the way" and although we just shoved off, Quincy already has a reason to get angry: there aren't any emergency locater transmitters, because commercial airliners "aren't required to have them". "How do we find the survivors?" Quincy shouts, and we have our first official Outrage! at 9:41 in. To be fair to the Big Q, it is his birthday, so he's entitled, right?

The survivors are located, floating above water and barely hanging on after 40 minutes in the water. (There's also probably a lot of bubbles around "three burrito man".) The cutter is the only Coast Guard boat on the scene, so manpower is sorely lacking. The Big Q is seen pulling the first rescue into the boat and he asks why these people weren't in the raft. "The FAA doesn't require the plane to carry one!" The Big Q doesn't have time for an official Outrage! this time, though, he's too busy directing the boat over to some more survivors "before they go into hypothermia!". Quincy slags off a little with this second group, as he pulls only one of the three into the boat himself this time, but unfortunately the young girl Quincy pulls into the boat is already hypothermic.

"40 minutes in the water was all he could take", is Astin's explanation for one victim. He turns out to be a Chicagoan on his way home. Now, I'm no air travel expert, but I'm wondering just how much time a flight from Los Angeles to Chicago would spend over the ocean, if any. Perhaps someone can help me out with this in the comments. For now I'll just go with it....

"They all survived the crash" itself. I guess my question from earlier regarding the Coast Guard waiting for Quincy has been sufficiently explained, as The Big Q did pull as many of the folks out of the water himself as the rest of the Coast Guarders combined, so he really was too crucial not to wait for. 87 autopsies in all to do....."some birthday", as Quincy remarks.

Our hero is next seen trying to talk the young girl, Katy, out of her hypothermia-induced coma. Even Quincy's magic has its limits in this particular entry, though. Despite a full one minute monologue imploring the girl to fight, she remains comatose, and later dies. The complete impotence of SuperQuincy throws us for a loop, but his reaction this time is a further curveball. No outrage---he merely withdraws, to the point of not showing up for work the next day!

Quincy is finally found sitting in darkness on his boat. Danny brings him lunch, after he hasn't touched breakfast, all to no avail. Danny finally barges in on Dr. Aston out of concern for The Big Q, who is "like a zombie!".

Brief interruption here--oh Lord, what a great show that would be! Zombie Quincy! Hey, that's a feature film I'd pay to see!

Ok, enough hypotheticals, back to the program.....

While the Big Q is staring out at the ocean, a thirtysomething hottie sits next to him and tries to snap him out of his funk. No, not the way you'd expect. She berates him for feeling sorry for himself. She asks, "since when did you become the hero of this piece?"....obviously QUINCY, M.E. isn't appointment TV for her, huh?

"I thought a man like you would be chewing up the FAA!" Yeah, so did I, lady! I'm surprised at the unexpected turn this script took. But the lady who lost 3 friends in this crash spells it out: "There won't be any rafts as long as people like you don't get off their duffs and DO something!". She exits, stating they'll just have to fight the powers that be without him. 28 minutes in, but the Big Q still isn't ready to fight yet. In the next scene he's back on the boat moping.

Astin shows up, to give Q a talking to about the rage he's repressing. Dr. A also makes sure to remind us that Quincy "pulled people out of that water everywhere". Actually, we only saw two, and Astin wasn't there, but hey, he's appealing to The Big Q's sense of pride. Surely he's expecting The Big Q to get to work right away...after all, the coroner's office has already been keeping things going for at least 3 days without him. But instead our hero goes to visit the thirtysomething hottie, pizza in hand! He's back! But, no hanky-panky. We're just going to be informed of the FAA's inadequate requirements. So finally, after a loooong delay, Outrage! number two--"the FAA's gonna have to MAKE them put the rafts on!".

Certainly the lack of rafts is a worthy issue, but the lack of emergency locaters, which to me seems equally important, is forgotten. Hey, the people died because they were in the water for 40 minutes, right? The cutter had to search blindly for them instead of having an exact location, which certainly added to the time frame. I'm thinking this regulation change is every bit as important as the lack of rafts.

Then again, waiting around for The Big Q added who knows how much time as well.....certainly the Coast Guarders could have started pulling people out of the water without him, right? (Well, then again, based on what Astin told us, maybe not.) And there was only the one cutter, so wouldn't more Coast Guard manpower make a difference too? Ah, well, screw it, I guess you have to focus on one reform at a time. probably isn't the effect Astin intended with his pep talk, but it looks like he'll have to do without Quincy at work for several more days as The Big Q we all know and love is officially back, and ready to crusade all the way to the top! He's now after the "heartless beaurocrat" who gives us a stock QUINCY corporate answer: "My hands are tied!". Quincy points out that he's protecting the airline's profits, but not its passengers! Outrage! Number 3. After getting nowhere with this airline beaurocrat, we're off to a Senate subcommittee in Washington D.C., where The Big Q will not only testify, but will cross-examine the FAA rep!

Quincy's about to give a speech!  RUN!!

Klugman makes up for the lack of earlier fireworks with lots of Outrages! in the episode's final quarter. At a Senate Subcommittee, the Big Q implores Congress to change the regulations. He berates the FAA representative with his lower teeth fully bared, about the "statistically insignificant" deaths. The best part of the episode follows the FAA rebuttal, as The Big Q conducts an experiment challenging the members of the committee to find and inflate the devices within the one minute given. Only one succeeds.

Quincy is encouraged by this start, as he vows to visit "talk shows, newspapers, magazines, street corners" and campaign for the rafts, again completely forgetting the other factors. Probably a good thing, because he's served with a "gag order" at the end of the episode, learning he's being sued by the airline for defamation. This is one fight that The Big Q won't be finishing, apparently. And I suppose he'd better get back to his real job, since it now looks like he'll be needing plenty of cash for his legal defense.

EVERYBODY loves this guy!  Everybody!!

Despite a questionable focus on only one crash factor, and a moping Quincy for half the episode, "Scream to the Skies" gives us several twists on the latter-day QUINCY formula, and a worthy topic to explore, if fewer laughs than we will have in subsequent episodes. Nevertheless, making The Big Q more vulnerable than usual doesn't make him less heroic, and we get enough decibels from Klugman in the final quarter to make this more than worthwhile. *** out of ****.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Film Review: THE LANDLORD (1970)

"Why the Hell Isn't this on DVD yet?" -- Number 29

THE LANDLORD (1970 United Artists) Starring Beau Bridges, Lee Grant, Diana Sands, Pearl Bailey, Lou Gossett Jr., Marki Bey, Robert Klein, Walter Brooke, Melvin Stewart. Directed by Hal Ashby.

Beau Bridges is a poor little rich boy who decides it is finally time to leave the nest at age 29. He leaves his bluenose family behind to purchase a dilapidated Park Slope apartment house with the idea of evicting the mostly African-American tenants and turning the place into a giant bachelor pad. Beau doesn't get off to the best start: he is chased down the street while unpacking, extorted by a chain smoking 8 year old boy, and then finds himself staring down the barrel of Pearl Bailey's shotgun. But he eventually grows fond of his tenants and begins fixing the place up, to the consternation of his racist parents. He grows especially fond of activist Gossett's wife Diana Sands, formerly Miss Sepia of 1957 and now a hairstylist. While Gossett is in jail, Bridges and Sands share a one night stand in the aftermath of a rent party. Later, after Gossett is released, Sands discovers she is pregnant.

Hal Ashby was one of the major directors of the 1970's (his other credits include BEING THERE, THE LAST DETAIL, HAROLD AND MAUDE and SHAMPOO) and THE LANDLORD fits right in with his other quirky projects from the get-go. Scriptwriter Bill Gunn helps create two surrealistic worlds seen through Bridges' eyes: his apartment building, and his family's home, which is loopier and even cartoonish. Aside from one rent party sequence with rapid-fire editing (a scene that may have influenced Spike Lee) in which Bridges hears from various directions what it's like to be black, there's little that could pass for lecturing.

Instead, Ashby and Gunn explore race relations at the dawn of the 1970's through unconventional interactions: Bailey and Grant (as Bridges' blue blood mother) bond over pot liquor; Bridges brings his biracial girlfriend Bey (SUGAR HILL) to a family fundraiser, to muted reaction at best; Sands and Bridges struggle with a mutual attraction, in early scenes with Bridges clearly intimidated, then later with Bridges exhibiting more alcohol-fueled confidence.

Performances are uniformly outstanding. Bridges exudes boyish charm despite the occasionally frustrating ignorance of his character; scenes with Grant and Brooke convince us he comes by it honestly. Bailey (ST. LOUIS BLUES) who sadly had few feature film roles, is wonderfully eccentric, and Gossett covers the range from menacing to hilariously deadpan to heartbreaking.

Best of all is Broadway star Diana Sands, who starred in several interracial romances on stage (THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT, WE BOMBED IN NEW HAVEN) and screen (DOCTORS' WIVES, GEORGIA GEORGIA). In an often surrealistic film, Sands gives a remarkably layered performance. She's alternately sexy, subtly strong (in scenes with both Bridges and Gossett), and finally bitingly sad, when she realizes the level of Bridges' irresponsibility and ignorance. Grant received an Oscar nomination, but that nomination really should have gone to Diana Sands--it's her best screen performance IMO.

Ashby's camerawork is a little too flashy at times in his debut (uncomfortably aping THE GRADUATE in the final reel), and Gunn's script gets a little over the top in scenes with Bridges' family, but these are minor gripes, maybe even nitpicking. Overall THE LANDLORD remains a lost classic of the early 1970's, one of the very best films of its year. It is a perceptive and unpretentious study of racial and class differences and perhaps even the most puzzling exclusion from DVD of its decade.

So....why isn't this on DVD?

This is one time when I can't think of one damned reason. Seriously, this is a classic.

Why it should be on DVD:

Imagine an early Scorcese or Coppola film not being on DVD. Can't, can you? It's the only Hal Ashby film of the decade that hasn't been released yet.

Not to put down any of the great flicks of the 'Soul Cinema' series, but THE LANDLORD is a better drama than any of them. Yes, even COOLEY HIGH.

Diana Sands is one of the most underappreciated actresses of all time, and Hal Ashby one of the most underappreciated directors. This is an opportunity to see some phenomenal work from both. Don't miss it.