Sitcoms That Have Survived the Test of Time

     Which is the best sitcom ever made? I suppose the answer depends on which generation you’re from. But what do you think? Will earthlings still be watching reruns of Seinfeld and Friends in fifty years? Perhaps not, and that is why I find it so remarkable that you can still find The Andy Griffith Show and Leave it to Beaver – two sitcoms from the sixties – on the rerun circuit. And why are they still around? Because they were both amazingly, wonderfully written, funny, real, and filled with great, enduring characters. Of such are great stories made. 
     A traveling salesman once told me of an experience he had stopping at a rough bar/restaurant in Montana. It was lunchtime and the place was packed and noisy. Above the din, Jerry Springer blared from a wall-mounted TV, but no one was paying attention. The salesman asked the bartender if he could change the channel and at first the bartender refused. Eventually though he relented and happened to turn to the Andy Griffith show with good old Andy, Opie (who grew up to be director Ron Howard), Aunt Bea, Gomer Pyle, and one of the most enduring characters in sitcom history – Don Knotts as Barney Fife. Within five minutes the restaurant was quiet as everyone focused on the TV and watched this G-rated comedy weave its story of characters interacting in a small town in North Carolina.
         Leave it to Beaver has had a similar universal appeal over the years. Back in 1979, I was working full-time and attending Foothill Junior College in Los Altos Hills, California about 35 miles south of San Francisco. I was taking a class in Radio and TV broadcasting towards a two-year degree in Social Science. The class was loaded with twenty to thirty year-olds, most of whom had ambitions of being disk jockeys on a rock-and-roll station. Usually classes were quiet affairs, the professor lecturing and most of the class seemingly bored, stoned, and staring out the window or fighting to stay awake. However, one day the professor made the mistake of making an off-hand slightly derogatory remark about Leave it to Beaver – some reference to it being an unrealistic show that could appeal only to straight-laced Americans. I’m sure to the professor, it seemed like a safe comment to make to the mostly long-haired, alternative students in his class. But to his and my surprise, suddenly the class came to life. Eyes opened. Students sat up. Chins lifted from palms.
     “Excuse me,” said one long-haired, red-eyed student. “I rush home from school every day at 4:30 to catch the reruns.”
     “C’mon,” said the teacher. “June Cleaver (the mother) wearing pearls while she vacuums. Ward, her husband, wearing a suit to dinner every night. How ridiculous!”
     “A half-stoned student roused himself and said aggressively, “Every show is like me and my little brother when we were growing up.”
      The class buzzed angrily. Voices of agreement peppered the room while the teacher looked bewildered and tried arguing back. A vigorous five minute discussion ensued at the end of which the teacher had to back-pedal on his comments to prevent a riot from breaking out (okay, slight exaggeration).
     Leave it to Beaver ran from 1957 to 1963 and was created by former Amos ‘n’ Andy writers Bob Mosher and Joe Connolly who also wrote all 234 episodes. The stories were simple and timeless. Beaver and his older brother Wally deliver newspapers to earn money for a bicycle. Aunt Martha buys Beaver short pants to wear to school. Ward loans Beaver a dollar. Wally’s smarmy friend Edie Haskell, another all-time great sitcom character, gives Beaver a lesson on girls. Simple, gentle stories that nevertheless touched something real and good and timeless in many people. And in its own way, it was much more realistic in its portrayal of children and adolescents than many of the shows I see on TV today. Today, children in sitcoms are given dialogue by the adult writers that all too often portray them as little adults, smarter and more worldly-wise than their parents, and more hip about sex. Now that is what I call unrealistic.
My next post will be something political or perhaps a commentary on the evolution of corporate culture. Or maybe not.
Best regards,
Jim
Zurich   
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A Lovely Day in Zurich and a Disappointing Movie

     It’s been a month since my last posting. I plead post-vacation email catch-up as an excuse. Like so many people these days, I tried to keep up on my work-email while on vacation but all I managed to do was stem the tide. I’ve decided that for every week you take off, it takes an additional week of working extra hard to catch up. In my case, I took a month off. So it goes…
     My wife was traveling on business on Valentine’s Day so we didn’t celebrate it until the following Saturday. We then went to our favorite Zurich restaurant Tres Kilos (Rulon’s second favorite after The Desperado),– a wonderful, yes, Mexican restaurant only a few blocks away from the American consulate in Zurich. Those of you who read Einstein’s Trunk will remember that Tres Kilos is where Rulon took Yohaba after the killing in the Honggerberg forest.
     Before dinner we did a walking/window shopping tour of Zurich, stopped at the Storchen hotel for the best hot chocolate in the world (and at $9.50 for a somewhat small by American standards cup, maybe one of the most expensive) and then had some glazed, chocolate covered orange slices from a nearby Springli chocolate store.
     After dinner, as an extra treat, we saw a movie we’d been chomping at the bit to see ever since we heard about it: The remake of Tinker, Tailor… starring Gary Oldham as George Smiley, the aged, bespeckled, overweight spy, based on the novel by John LeCarre.
            Alas, the movie was a disappointment. I’m sure the producers, actors, and directors did what they thought was best, but the 1979 BBC Alec Guinness mini-series, I’m afraid, has set a very, very high bar. It was so unbelievably good. There were so many scenes in the six-hour BBC version that were so well constructed, that maybe this new two-hour movie never stood a chance. In any case, there wasn’t a single scene in the new movie that was as powerful as the comparable scene in the original. Also, while it must have been a real challenge for the movie to condense the book to only two hours, I felt they had superfluous scenes, that if they had not been there, they could have had more time for LeCarre’s priceless dialogue. The book was not about men staring silently while they tracked down the mole in British Intelligence. The book was about Smiley’s relentless interrogations of his co-workers to finally arrive at the truth. Again, we see that making good movies is extremely difficult. There are so many mistakes that can be made. When a team gets it right, they should be applauded.    
 
     Next week: for my birthday, my wife bought me an Apple Macbook Air. I will talk about my experience and wax lyrical on changes in the IT industry.  
 
Best regards,
 
Jim
Zurich
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What "The Eagle" and "Battle: Los Angeles" taught me about telling stories

      I have to laugh. I just read Roger Ebert’s review of Battle: Los Angeles and, while I greatly respect Mr. Ebert’s opinions, I do believe he gave that movie the lowest rating I have ever seen. He not only hated the movie but said that anyone who liked it was an idiot. Oops. Well, I did like it, I’m almost embarrassed to say. The movie is about a squad of U.S. Marines who fight aliens in Los Angeles, and maybe the fact that I am an ex-Marine influenced my feelings.
    In any case, the movie was filled with clichés: the Marine sergeant with a troubled past, the green lieutenant, the Marines learning to trust each other, etc., etc. But here is what I liked: I thought it was honest and did not over-reach. And while it did have some clichés, it didn’t have all of them. For example, there was a kid in the movie but he had a small part and wasn’t captured by aliens and then needing to be rescued. And there was a woman, but the hero did not fall in love with her. But what I especially liked was that the movie did not try to be more than it was. Rather than having epic, special effects battles, virtually all of the fighting was via small team tactics between the Marines and the aliens. This allowed the characters to stay center-staged and reinforced the idea that even vs. aliens Marine Corps combat training and marksmanship are effective. Hoo-rah!!
     The Eagle is the story of a Roman officer in first century England trying to recapture a Roman Eagle that his father lost while commanding a Legion some years earlier. Ebert loved the movie, but, to my mind it had several major similarities to Battle: Los Angeles.  First it involved similar, simple themes and wasn’t shy about invoking clichés. Second, the battles were, by and large, a series of small group encounters that allowed the story to stay focused on the characters. As I watched the movie, I was struck by how the simple values of courage, loyalty, and trust can stir emotions in viewers, almost as if we as humans are hard-wired to respond to them.
    These two movies caused me to ponder what are the elements of a good thriller. These days some would say it is unexpected twists and brutal action that grab a reader’s attention. However, I am more likely to say, it is about the emotions the story conjures in its readers/viewers.
In my next posting I will discuss what makes a satisfying ending in a thriller.
Jim Haberkorn
Zurich
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The Genius of ‘Prison Break’

Recently, a friend recommended that I watch Prison Break – the popular Fox TV series that ran from 2005 – 2009. Living in Switzerland all that time, I had never heard of it. But I bought the first season’s episodes, watched all 22 of them, and liked them so much that I bought the second season.  
In Prison Break, there were a thousand places where the story could have unraveled – but didn’t thanks to the skill of the writers. Yes, the plot was intricate; yes, there were many characters, yes, every episode ended with a mystery that drew you back – no, grabbed you by the throat and dragged you back to watch the next show. Note: In my opinion, that ‘technique’ can sometimes provoke a negative reaction with viewers if it is perceived to be manipulative. For example, there is a very popular TV series and an extremely popular thriller/novel that use that technique and it wore then. However, with Prison Break it seemed to work. My sense is that if the mystery at the end of the chapter or episode is a reasonable culmination of what took place during the entire episode – then the technique works. But when the mystery is simply pulled out of a hat at the end of a chapter, it doesn’t.
In any case, here is what I felt was the real genius of Prison Break: It had characters doing extraordinary things that normally wouldn’t make sense, but, it set up those actions so skillfully that, in the end, you totally understood why the characters behaved the way they did. Things like the character Sucre escaping from Prison with only 18 months left in his sentence and risk having to do 10 more years. Why on earth would someone do such a stupid thing? Or Sara, the doctor, deciding to leave the door open so Michael and his fellow prisoners could escape, knowing she would most likely be arrested herself.
So often in thrillers, characters behave in illogical ways. Okay, almost by definition, both good and bad thrillers require people to do crazy things. But the difference is that the good thrillers sufficiently develop their characters so that all their actions are emotionally honest and logical given a certain unusual set of conditions. This isn’t as easy to do as it sounds. If, before seeing Prison Break, someone had told me that a female doctor working in the prison would fall in love with an inmate and help him escape, I would have said that that was contrived, illogical, and virtually impossible to make credible. But, Prison Break pulled it off. In the end, the doctor did the only reasonable thing possible based on a whole variety of disjointed factors – the innocence of Michael’s brother, her relationship with her father the governor, formative circumstances from her past life, and, of course, her love and trust of Michael. It was artfully done and I was very impressed.
Next posting will be on the ‘new thriller villains’ of the 21st century – the invisible super rich.
Jim
Zurich
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