Screen Couples

We all know them: the Stoneses, the Andersons or the Stephenses. For some, they may be a guilty pleasure, for others a mere necessity to get a story told. For me, they are the cherry on top of any tale: fictional couples and their personal stories. On the fringes of drama, comedy and mayhem, romantic innuendo has always been my favorite treat. From Date with the Angels and Family Ties to Murder She Wrote or Babylon 5, I have a weakness for double entendre paired with a healthy sense of humor, smarts and mutual respect.

Della and Perry1) Perry Mason and Della Street, for example, have been my favorite couple for more years than I care to admit. On paper, radio and screen, the lawyer and his secretary know how to put a smile on my face. Committed to their work as much as to each other, the true nature of their relationship has always remained a mystery. For some fans, they are the best of friends while others suspect some hanky-panky behind closed doors. For me, they have long been married, the epitomized working couple who combines independence with traditional values. And that’s the beauty of those characters and their story. They ignite your imagination and tease you to the point of sizzling frustration with a simple look, remark or smitten smile. It is a tradition Erle Stanley Gardner himself started in The Velvet Claws in 1933 and lasted until 1994 when the last Perry Mason TV movie aired on NBC. Perfected by its signature cast, Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale, Perry and Della have since lived on in the hearts of many fans, the flame of their romance burning more and more brightly towards the series’ end.

Jennifer&Jonathan2) The second couple I have loved for as long as I can remember are Jennifer and Jonathan Hart. Sophisticated, rich and charming, the Harts had everything including a mutually executed interest in solving mysteries. Following in the footsteps of TV’s Mr. and Mrs. North, they dug up trouble where it’s usually hard to find but their love for each other made their cases stand out from others. Together, they were invincible and (much like Della and Perry) have stood the test of time. A mere decade after Hart to Hart was canceled on ABC, the couple returned to television in 1993, matured, refined, and every bit as committed to each other as they had always been. Today, the Harts are still a dream couple for their fans, a twosome who showed their audience the ingredients of true love and how it beautiful life can be even if you are denied to have your desired offspring.

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America in Primetime

In 2011, PBS presented America in Primetime, a documentary in four parts about the history of television. Focusing on the evolution of the Independent Woman, the Man of the House, the Misfit and Crusader, each episodes offered a look back at the beginning of mainstream television in the 1950s until today. Blessed with a great variety of popular interviewees, America in Primetime was an ambitious project with names such as Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Ron Howard, David Lynch and Shonda Rhimes attached to it. Unfortunately however, the series did not live up to its potential and rarely offered controversy about contemporary perception. For years, it’s been in vogue to bash the 50s and idealize the 1960 and 70s, for example, but from the announcement of this PBS production I had expected otherwise.

It’s always easy to look at a bygone era with modern eyes without looking underneath the surface. But no matter how much I am personally tickled by Lucille Ball, the 1950s had more to offer than just I Love Lucy, The Donna Reed Show and Leave it to Beaver. I was surprised, to say the least, when I didn’t hear a mention of Betty White and her already flourishing career and bewildered, like so often, when Mary Richards was called the first single working girl on television. Whatever happened to Connie Brooks and Della Street? After all, not every female character (despite their feminine appeal) was “just” a housewife, a job many (post-)feminists still seem to wrestle with.

Male characters of that era weren’t appraised more adequately either. I mean, Ralph Kramden may have been a prototype for characters like Fred Flintstone or Homer Simpson, but he was already a caricature back in his time and not just a regular guy. Jim Anderson from Father Knows Best, as another popular example, was also more flawed than critics often depict him today. His wholesome attitude and simple answers may have fostered the image of the omnipotent father, but only on the surface – he was wrong too often with his fatherly assessments to call him a picture perfect patriarch.

But America in Primetime doesn’t like to dig deeper and rather creates an odd summary of female liberation (and correlated emasculation of male role models) on TV. Murphy Brown, Sex and the City and Grey’s Anatomy serve as notable examples along with The Good Wife‘s Kalinda Sharma. Positive role models such as The Cosby Show‘s Clair Huxtable, Maggie Seaver from Growing Pains, Designing Women or The Golden Girls don’t even get a mention and I wonder if it’s their grace and domesticity or their love for men that interferes with the desired image of women who favor their careers over everything else.

All in all, America in Primetime – like other documentaries before – celebrates the evolution of television from the simple, archaic days of the 1950s to a supposed golden age of the 2000s (predominantly on pay TV). By celebrating the creation of broken and disturbed characters whose complexity supports the audience’s alleged desire for drama and realism, the program may appeal to anyone who enjoys shows like Nurse Jackie, The Sopranos, Mad Men or Breaking Bad. For anyone who prefers dignity, subtlety and moderation in storytelling, the documentary may draw the wrong conclusions about a bygone era and leave a taste of bias in your mouth. Personally, I was dissatisfied with the fragmented glimpse into TV history and the overwhelming number of present-day TV makers as a primary interview source. But with my fondness for vintage that may not come as a surprise.

Marcus Welby M.D.

TV classics: Marcus Welby M.D.

USA 1969-76, 7 seasons, 169 episodes, 48 minutes each, ABC. Cast: Robert Young, James Broslin, Elena Verdugo, Recurring cast: Anne Baxter, Christine Belford, Anne Schedeen, Sharon Gless, Gavin Brendan, Pamela Hensley

Plot summary: After living through a heart attack, Marcus Welby shares his practice a young doctor called Steven Kiley. As a general practitioner, Dr. Welby has a lot to teach to his young associate whose medical skills are as formidable as his methods are modern.

Review: Marcus Welby M.D. premiered on ABC with a two hour movie of the week in September 1969. It introduced the lead character Dr. Welby and his young associate Dr. Steven Kiley, as well as some supporting regulars such as Elena Verdugo as Consuelo Lopez, the doctors faithful nurse and secretary. Serving as a pilot episode to the following TV show, the plot focused on the characters’ background, as well as on the essentials of medical drama: emergency patients and the duality of professional opinions.

Throughout its seven years on the air, Marcus Welby M.D. stuck to its successful ingredients of featuring two generations of doctors who did their best to cure their patients. Robert Young played Dr. Welby, a general practitioner who cared for his patients as more than just customers who paid their bills. James Brolin was Dr. Kiley, his young and ambitious associate who brought a whole set of modern ideas to the Welby practice as well as an eagerness to learn his mentor’s well-tried techniques. They were supported by a hands-on secretary and a variety of regular guest stars such as Anne Baxter, Christine Belford, Sharon Gless or Anne Schedeen.

Introducing new cases every week, Marcus Welby M.D. touched a lot of medical issues otherwise not commonly addressed on television. The show also reunited Robert Young with his longtime Father Knows Best co-star Jane Wyatt, and his two time RKO co-star Barbara Hale who guest starred for an episode each.

After hitting a respectable high in ratings in its second season and a nod at the Emmys, the show declined in the mid 70s and was ultimately taken off the air in 1976 after a total run of 169 episodes. Today, the show is slowly being released on DVD to be savored by its many fans who loved the show back in the days or grew up with it in reruns. What was entertaining then is blissfully diverting now – Marcus Welby M.D. with its high quality scripts and top notch actors is a true gem.

Seasons one and two available on DVD.

Marcus Welby M.D. pilot episode, “A Matter of Humanities”

Vintage Christmas

So this is it, only one day left till Christmas Eve.  Let’s doll up and spend the holidays with some of those joyful classics. Have yourself a charming vintage Christmas. And bless y’all!

Christmas songs:

Christmas TV episodes:

Christmas radio:

Father Knows Best

TV classics: Father Knows Best

USA 1954-60, 6 seasons,  203 episodes, approximately 25 minutes each, CBS and NBC, black & white, Created by: Ed James. Cast: Robert Young, Jane Wyatt, Elinor Donahue, Billy Gray, Lauren Chapin

Plot summary: Jim is the head of the Anderson family, including his wife Margaret and their three children Betty, Bud and Kathy. Together they master their everyday life with a good sense of humor and lots of love.

Review: In 1949, Father Knows Best had its radio debut before it moved on to continue its success on television five years later. Circling around the everyday joys and troubles of the Anderson family, the show was targeting an audience of all ages. Jim Anderson, his wife Margaret and their three children epitomized the American family: Jim as the working father who advises his brood in times of trouble, Margaret, housewife and mother, the voice of reason in the family, and their three well-bred children.

What is sometimes perceived as a cliche today was a magnet for entire families then, a program to watch every week with entertaining storylines of educational value. It would be wrong to assume that every family worked as perfectly back in the 50s as the program suggests – after all, how much do contemporary programs reflect our lives today? But like in the 2000s, there was a grain of truth behind the concept. Father Knows Best reflected the aspirations of an entire generation of Americans and influenced their children as they grew up.

Regrettably, both Jim and Margaret Anderson seem outdated with their commitment to family and harmony these days, compared to most shows that now dominate TV. They are gaining momentum again however, online and on DVD. Like so many of their contemporaries, the show is well perceived, once more, by an audience of all ages – some of them old enough to remember the 1950s with great fondness while others wish to have experienced those times for real. There seems to be a craving for authentic programs and storylines far away from sex, drugs and mayhem. For shows that present reliable values and happy faces. Father Knows Best sure is one of those desired products, led by a charming cast of actors including the unforgettable Robert Young and the equally memorable Jane Wyatt as Mr. and Mrs. Anderson.

Available on DVD. Father Knows Best sample episodes

Father Knows Best website