Thursday, December 31, 2015

Its Impossible to Talk About TV without beginning with Dallas!

It was the summer of 1980, and television executives were asking themselves one question: “How can we find our own version of ‘Who shot J.R.’?” Dallas had become a mega-hit, one of the biggest in television history, and it broke every single rule about how dramatic TV was supposed to work. Now it was at the pinnacle of its popularity, as the entire nation speculated on who shot the series’ biggest heel in the third-season finale. Dallas was huge, and other networks wanted a piece of its success. 
Yet the shows that were critical successes at the time, the ones that won Emmys and the plaudits of TV reviewers, were small, social issue-focused dramas from the Grant Tinker-led MTM, an influential production company that had built its name by helping to reinvent sitcoms in the previous decade and had now turned its eye toward revamping the TV drama. 
If the story of sitcoms in the ’70s is one of a longtime genre learning to take itself seriously, the story of dramas in the ’80s is that of a TV form utterly reinventing itself. Even the least-serialized dramas on the air today have some form of continuing character interaction. MTM and Dallas won, in the end. Without them, there likely never would have been Sopranos, The Wire, or Mad Men, even if it seems unusual to link the ridiculous excess of Dallas to any of those other shows.
And like the story of sitcoms in the ’80s, this is a story about networks realizing they didn’t have to cancel shows if they drew good ratings from certain desirable demographics, and a story about veteran TV producers realizing they’d been given free rein to go a little nuts.
But first, we have to go back to MTM and meet Steven Bochco and  Michael Kozoll.

80s dramas 101: Cops, doctors, and lawyersSince the ’60s, most drama series had focused on police officers/detectives, doctors, or lawyers. This still applies today; the professions’ built-in life-or-death stakes make them inherently compelling. They’re also the professions many ambitious TV writers wish to write about the least, simply because so many different versions of this kind of show have already been done. This may be why Steven Bochco always seemed to resent being asked to keep making cop dramas.

Bochco, like many of the people who changed the face of television, always acted like he wished he’d been making films all along. After graduating from college with a degree in playwriting, he landed at Universal, where he began writing material to fill out Bob Hope specials. Over time, he worked his way up to staff-writer positions on shows like Ironside and The Bold Ones, acclaimed, good-for-their-times series that nonetheless didn’t play around with Bochco’s pet fascinations with what becomes of professionals when they go home after a hard day’s work. He contributed to scripts for two movies (including the science-fiction cult classic Silent Running), and worked on the quickly canceled but influential cop show Delvecchio in the ’70s. But his career seemed to be stuck in neutral.
Bochco left his other jobs in 1978 to work at MTM, where he contributed a couple of White Shadow scripts before getting to create a series of his own. Debuting in 1979, Paris was something of a trial run for everything Bochco would do in the ’80s. Starring James Earl Jones, the series focused on an L.A. police captain who also worked as a professor of criminology on the side, a second career that allowed Bochco to follow Paris away from his job. Although well-received by critics, Paris was canceled after just 13 episodes.
Bochco then balked when he was asked in 1980 to create yet another cop show for MTM, which thought it could sell one to NBC, a network in dire ratings straits. Bochco’s reluctance faded once he paired with fellow writer Michael Kozoll, who shared his interest in getting to know police officers as characters and not as interchangeable crime-solving parts. MTM gave them carte blanche, and once Tinker got a look at the show they devised, he went to the wall with NBC, first getting the network to pick up the show, then convincing it to renew after a little-watched first season, making it the lowest-rated program ever to be renewed up until that time.
The show was Hill Street Blues, and the innovations it brought to TV drama reads like a laundry list of elements we now take for granted. Characters had interpersonal relationships that didn’t stop at the end of each episode and deepened over time. Although the cases in each episode were usually sewn up by the end, the show’s universe was affected by previous events, meaning that Bochco and Kozoll were able to build an entire world centered on one police precinct in a run-down, crime-ridden neighborhood. The two brought in the sort of soapy relationship material that worked for Dallas, getting viewers interested in who was sleeping with whom and the cops’ occasionally oddball home lives.
Furthermore, the ensemble was massive for its time, and while Bochco and Kozoll had a lead in Daniel J. Travanti’s Captain Frank Furillo, they lavished just as much attention on supporting characters. Multiple storylines took place within the same episode, and there was no guarantee that any given one would end with that particular episode. It was shot in a faux-verité style, the camera moving freely and characters often talking over each other as the show tackled the world of early-’80s inner cities, where poverty and rot had created a neighborhoods where just walking to your car at night could mean danger. Two characters were seemingly shot to death in the Hill Street pilot. Another two ended the episode in bed together. It was unlike any other television show up until that point.
With a handful of exceptions, TV dramas had been the same since the end of the live-drama anthology series of the early ’60s: The characters faced down some sort of life-or-death situation; almost always, the stories were closed off at the end of the hour; and if the network could help it, absolutely nothing in the way of real-world issues would intrude upon the show, even though dramas like Marcus Welby, M.D., trafficked heavily in real-world issues and were highly successful. Some shows had broken the rules over the years.
Peyton Place was an early type of primetime soap. Science-fiction shows like The Twilight Zone and Star Trek or Westerns like Gunsmoke and Wagon Train often tackled social issues through the prism of aliens or cowboys. There had been good dramas before the ’80s, but they were few and far between. 
But while Dallas challenged network assumptions that audiences wouldn’t tune in for heavily serialized TV, MTM and Tinker challenged the assumption that dramas should take place in an unrealistic world that didn’t have anything to do with the issues of the day. The sitcoms of the ’70s found success by trying to reflect the changing times; why shouldn’t dramas do the same? Tinker and the writers who worked for him were instrumental in bringing to the air both Lou Grant—an unusual dramatic spinoff of The Mary Tyler Moore Show that turned Ed Asner’s character into a newspaper editor who frequently confronted the big issues of the day—and The White Shadow, a moving ensemble drama about a high-school basketball coach.
Both series became major critical successes, and Lou Grant even became a modest ratings hit. As such, the ground was ripe for Tinker to take a chance on selling NBC on a series that blended the lessons of both Dallas and the Lou Grant/White Shadow duo, a drama that would have continuing stories and arcs but also attempt to reflect the world as it was out there on the streets.
NBC, naturally enough, asked the producers to change nearly everything about the program after audience testing suggested it would be received poorly. Bochco and Kozoll, with the backing of Tinker, stuck to their vision, and the show was rewarded, first with rapturous critical reviews, then with the most Emmys a series had ever won in one season. Though apprehensive, NBC renewed the program for a second season of 10 episodes (later increased to 19) and watched as the TV audience slowly caught on. By the third season, the show had risen into the Nielsen top 30. The series would run seven seasons and become one of the great proving grounds for new writers, directors, and actors, most notably David Milch, whose grungy, elliptical dialogue would become a hallmark of many great television series.
While Hill Street holds up today, it still looks like a relic of an earlier time, a field trip to the early ’80s and the concerns of the era. The show’s portrayals of various groups, especially homosexuals and gang members, can seem clumsy, while many of the elements that were so remarkable at the time are now commonplace. To drop in on an episode of Hill Street―with its formulaic episode-opening roll-call scene and episode-closing scene of gentle domesticity―can seem almost quaint.
But the writing and directing are strong, and the series’ sense of the neighborhood in which it takes place gradually grows so all-encompassing that it’s easy to see the seeds being planted for everything from NYPD Blue to The Wire. Full of fascinating characters and packed with memorable episodes, Hill Street Blues is the kernel that expanded into what we think of as the modern cop show. It also began an informal tradition of NBC airing one of the best dramas on TV at 10 p.m. on Thursdays, a tradition that existed until the end of E.R. in 2009.
With Hill Street firmly ensconced as a hit, MTM turned its attention to another of the three most popular TV drama types, latching onto an idea whose origins predated Hill Street. Bruce Paltrow, a producer on The White Shadow, had long wanted to do a medical drama. When Joshua Brand and John Falsey—story editors on Shadow who wanted to create a series based on the experience of one of Brand’s friends at a clinic in Cleveland—approached him, they formed the germ of the idea that would become St. Elsewhere in 1982.
Taking place in the crumbling St. Eligius hospital in Boston, St. Elsewhere, like Hill Street, had a huge ensemble cast, storytelling packed with social issues, and ongoing plotlines. Its biggest innovation over previous medical dramas: Patients died on St. Elsewhere. That made the show too grim for some viewers, but opened up space for hospital dramas to come. The show’s other innovations came from its often-experimental writing. Paltrow, Brand, and Falsey’s vision for the series had always involved gallows humor among the doctors, but there were weeks when St. Elsewhere could be as much a comedy as a drama. Where Hill Street could occasionally be too self-serious, St. Elsewhere had a great, gritty sense of when laughter could punctuate drama to deepen the pathos.
It was also wildly innovative with the different kinds of stories it told. The show’s writing staff would eventually include the great Tom Fontana, who, with the other producers, indulged in his love of both television history and playing with the form of an episode. Characters from other series crossed over. There were numerous references to earlier shows the writers loved and revered. There was rampant meta-commentary about the show’s consistently low ratings and the threat of cancellation. And the writers didn’t think episodes had to begin and end with the treatment of patients. A memorable fifth-season episode involved one character having a hallucination (or was it a vision?) of the afterlife. The series finale memorably closes with one of the most debated moments in TV history, and the fourth-season episode “Time Heals,” one of the great episodes of TV drama, told the story of St. Eligius throughout its entire history over two hours of spellbinding television in which tiny events in the past rippled outward into the present.
St. Elsewhere’s final innovation came from the fact that it kept getting renewed despite perilously low ratings. Admittedly, Tinker, who had been present at MTM in the earliest days of the show’s development, was now working as the head of NBC, and he and programming chief Brandon Tartikoff really liked the show, which also benefited from success with critics and the Emmys. But it was also helped by the new way advertisers were looking at ratings, the idea that younger viewers, who watched St. Elsewhere in greater numbers than older viewers, were more valuable. This idea kept St. Elsewhere on the air, and ABC, in particular, would use the idea of appealing to the “key demo” to develop a series of experimental dramas at the end of the decade.
Meanwhile, Hill Street suffered three key losses. Kozoll left the show at the end of season two, burned out on the pace of network television. Michael Conrad, who played Sgt. Phil Esterhaus, the closest thing the show had to a father figure, died in the middle of production of season four. And, finally, Bochco was fired in season five after a dispute with MTM (which was slowly falling apart after Tinker’s departure) over the show’s growing budgets. The show tried to hang on, and Milch was still a prolific voice, but it was never the same without Bochco’s hand at the helm.
Bochco, for his part, simply decided to create another series for NBC sans MTM, turning this time to that last drama type: the legal drama. With co-creator Terry Louise Fisher, he launched L.A. Law, a big, glossy workplace soap about a high-powered law firm and the many men and women who worked there. As might be expected with a legal drama, the social issues were even more prominent than they had been on Hill Street and Elsewhere, but the show’s other innovation was to mix in the sort of wild story twists that had become the province of prime-time soaps. Characters talked endlessly about a mysterious sexual maneuver known as the Venus Butterfly. One character was written off the show by being dropped down an elevator shaft. The show went to the courtroom in nearly every episode, sure, but the real fun was watching for the wild twists.
Those twists were largely the work of a young writer named David E. Kelley. Kelley had been trained as a lawyer before he decided to try his hand at writing TV scripts. He quickly rose through the ranks at L.A. Law and was soon running the show. Kelley got just as much mileage out of the clandestine business maneuverings of the various players in the firm as he did the legal cases, and he was fond of taking a left turn when he might be expected to go right. Kelley’s twists made the show the most popular drama of the three discussed here, and it can be wildly entertaining. But it fell apart quickly after abandoning reality too thoroughly, and once Kelley left, it became an utter mess.
INTERMEDIATE WORK: IN THE GENRE TRENCHESOver the course of TV history, many of the best dramas have been in genres that are often held in ill repute by critics who prefer highbrow workplace fare. Often, these genre shows will age better than the workplace shows, which can strain for profundity. Often, they’re the biggest hits, despite critics’ grumbling. And often, they’re very good. In the ’80s, most of this programming fell into the broad genres of prime-time soap operas, crime thrillers, and science-fiction programs. (We’ll examine the action-adventure hours that so dominated the early part of the decade a little later on.)

Prime-time soaps:Savaged at the time for their ludicrous plot twists and embrace of American overindulgence, the prime-time soaps of the ’80s don’t all hold up, but they do show the kind of escapism—often involving the very rich—audiences enjoyed during the recession-plagued early parts of the decade. The shows’ storytelling models, which were largely invented on the fly by TV writers who weren’t quite sure how to approach the idea of a show where the story never ended, were pillaged first by Hill Street Blues then nearly every TV drama of note over the next several decades.
It’s impossible to talk about these shows without beginning with Dallas, even though the show began in the ’70s. The apex of the show’s popularity came in the early ’80s, and of the four major soaps of the era, it’s the one that remains the most entertaining today. J.R. Ewing (the great Larry Hagman) is one of the all-time great TV heels, a guy who simultaneously made audiences root for his death and for his success at crushing his enemies. Yes, the show went on far too long, and yes, some of the cliffhangers strained to re-attain the instant pop-culture status of “Who shot J.R.?,” and yes, the dream season was a terrible idea.

But Dallas is still a lot of fun to watch. Even its later, flawed seasons have a sprawling cast filled with fun characters and the occasional gem of an episode. Producer Lee Rich shepherded the show, and though Dallas was far more over-the-top than his previous series, The Waltons, both reflected his interest in the ways that families hang together and fall apart.
The other most successful soap of the era was ABC’s Dynasty, brought to the screen by TV super-producer Aaron Spelling. Dynasty at first seemed like an attempt to copy Dallas, but in its later seasons—particularly after the arrival of Joan Collins’ Alexis—the show consciously decided to become as crazy as possible, reducing all of its wealthy characters to idiots who would wrestle in mud over a man or get gunned down by terrorists at a wedding.
 Where Dallas at least contained a slim tether to reality, Dynasty cut the cord and sailed off into outer space. For that reason, it’s often hard to watch nowadays, though the early seasons can be fun. (The show also spawned a completely bizarre spinoff named Dynasty II: The Colbys, which featured, among other events, an alien abduction.)
The other two popular prime-time soaps of the era were Knots Landing and Falcon Crest, both of them by way of Rich. (Knots, in fact, was a spinoff of Dallas, which led to problems when Knots’ continuity insisted it had to ignore the fact that one of the seasons of Dallas was all a dream.) Generally regarded as the best prime-time soap on the air at the time, Knots Landing is the better of the two. It reflected creator David Jacobs’ (who also created Dallas) interest in making a show about the small-scale minutiae of married life, focusing on a handful of couples living in a Los Angeles cul-de-sac. Though Jacobs and Rich’s success with Dallas gave them plenty of leeway, the show’s low ratings demanded it become soapier and soapier, and the quality suffered.
Falcon Crest, on the other hand, has its moments but little to recommend it. An attempt to find a balance between the borderline realism of Dallas and the insanity of Dynasty, it’s mostly notable for a strong Jane Wyman performance as the head of family of California wine producers and the fact that it was, strangely, created by Waltons creator Earl Hamner, Jr.
One final soap of interest: Fame, one of the first teen soaps. Set at a performing-arts high school, the series had a rudimentary sense of the teen soap clichés that would become dominant in the next decade but is mostly notable for its generally enjoyable performance numbers (spearheaded by Debbie Allen).
Crime thrillersThe detective drama has almost always been a staple of TV storytelling, but the shows took on a harder edge in the ’80s, becoming almost noir-like at times. So long as producer Stephen Cannell kept pumping out shows, networks kept buying them and audiences kept watching them. Yet the series got more violent and darker as the decade went on, reflecting national fears about the rising crime rate. Many of them boast some terrific filmmaking as well.
At the forefront of the “TV as visual medium” movement was Michael Mann, one of the first TV directors in years with an obvious visual style. Even though he didn’t create any of them, the ’80s series Miami Vice and Crime Story (discussed below) and the short-lived 2002 series Robbery Homicide Division all bear his visual stamp and thematic concerns. It’s no wonder they’re often referred to as “Michael Mann series.”
Anthony Yerkovich (a former Hill Street Blues writer) created Miami Vice off a two-word pitch from Tartikoff (“MTV cops”). Mann then took the basic idea and heaped tons of style on top of it. From the pilot, it was obvious that this was going to look like no crime drama before (and very few since). The justly acclaimed pilot sequence, set to Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight,” announces the show’s visual flair. Shadows mute the bright colors of Miami. Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) stops to make a phone call beneath a giant neon sign for no reason whatsoever. Tight shots focus on the wheel of the car or the two lead characters silently riding through the night, the lights of the city flashing by.
Miami Vice has seen its reputation diminish over the years, largely because it attracted so much attention and inspired so many imitators, both on television and in the fashion of the time. And though it shares some of the goofiness of other cop dramas of its era, the series’ best episodes, like season two’s “Out Where The Busses Don’t Run,” replaced that goofiness with cold, dark cynicism by episode’s end. The conclusion of “Busses” set a new standard for TV direction: The nearly wordless sequence is set to Dire Straits’ “Brothers In Arms” and takes place in an abandoned wasteland where Crockett and Rico Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas) discover a terrible secret.
Emboldened by the other acclaimed NBC dramas discussed above, Mann and the other producers took the show darker and darker as the seasons went on until it eventually became one of TV’s grimmest shows.
Mann would split his time between Vice and another series, Crime Story, set in the early ’60s and inspired by Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s German miniseries Berlin Alexanderplatz, of all things. Directing a season one episode himself, Mann upped the stylishness. The streets were slick with rain. The noir-ish shadows grew longer. The neon that was the sole source of light grew bolder. In many respects, Crime Story has aged better than Vice, particularly since it only ran for two seasons and never got the chance to diminish as drastically as Vice did in its final year. It boasts a riveting Dennis Farina performance and the sort of sophisticated serial storytelling that might mark it as an AMC or FX series nowadays.
Heading in the complete opposite direction was Donald P. Bellisario and Glen Larson’s Magnum P.I., produced for CBS. Magnum, while not great television, is endlessly watchable television and not nearly as formulaic as its reputation suggests. Though it was nowhere near as serialized as, say, Hill Street Blues, the characters grew and changed over time, and the mystery of the Masters, at whose behest Thomas Magnum lived so easily, grew over the course of the series.

The show was a testament to the strength of solid writing and likable actors on TV. Bellisario has always been a solid craftsman, and his scripts tend to emphasize fun, tough-guy action. Tom Selleck became one of the biggest TV stars of all time and the show also featured a fun John Hillerman performance as Higgins. 
That's All Folk's Its Impossible to Talk About TV without beginning with Dallas afterall Dallas is back with the new generations of the Ewings!

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