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Pioneers of Television - DVD review

by Bob Sassone, posted Jan 29th 2008 8:06AM
Pioneers of TelevisionPioneers of Television (in stores today) is a pretty big title for a documentary series, especially one that lasts only four episodes. You wonder, what are they going to mention and what are they going to leave out? This PBS show isn't the most comprehensive look I've seen on each of its subjects, but for one miniseries in one package, it's actually well put together, and you're going to see some TV footage, photos, and interviews I bet you've never seen before.

Late Night

This is one of the better episodes, because it has a ton of rare footage from early talk shows such as Broadway Open House (which later became Tonight), Steve Allen's Tonight Show years, Jack Paar, and even some early footage of Johnny Carson's first episode of The Tonight Show, which I thought had been lost (some footage still remains). If you're a fan of the history of television (or you were raised on Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien and have no idea who came first), this is fascinating stuff. Besides interviews with Leno, Allen, Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett, Regis Philbin, and Ed McMahon (among others), you get a real feel for what television was like back in the 1950s and 60s.

The one thing that stands out as missing from this segment is this: no interview with David Letterman. Leno talks at length about Allen, Paar, and Carson, but Letterman isn't interviewed at all (he doesn't do many interviews). And it's odd because they actually spend more time talking about Arsenio Hall than they do Letterman (I mean, really, if you're not going to spend a few minutes talking about Letterman, then you should really stop at Allen, Paar, and Carson and not mention the modern era at all). And there's nothing at all about the late night feuds of the 1990s and Letterman and Leno both wanting to take over for Carson and all that. But the main focus of this episode is Allen, Paar, and Carson. Carson gets the most screen time (he hosted the show for 30 years), but it's really interesting to see that we really owe the world of late night to what Allen (he was doing stunts and out of the studio segments and even "Headlines" before Dave and Jay) and Paar (he was a talk show host that actually - gasp! - talked to his guests at length) did. Really, they should have spent more time on those two guys, but what they have here is quite intriguing.

Sitcom

This segment gets a big thumbs up from me for two reasons. One, a chunk of the hour is devoted to The Dick Van Dyke Show, including interviews with Van Dyke (I didn't realize he did a stint on CBS News with Walter Cronkite!) and Mary Tyler Moore. And two, a long opening look at Jackie Gleason and The Honeymooners. Gleason is sometimes overlooked as a TV pioneer (though the show is often cited as one of the great comedies), so it's good to see him get recognition for what he did for TV sitcoms. There's a rather neat, surreal recreation of the Honeymooners set used throughout this segment too.

There's also lots of time spent on Lucille Ball (of course) and husband Desi Arnaz and I Love Lucy. I'm especially glad they talked about Arnaz's contributions to studio filming and camera setups. The Andy Griffith Show gets a lot of attention too (maybe even more than the other shows). Interesting to see why Griffith didn't want to do the show in front of a studio audience.

Still not sure why Tony Orlando is interviewed in this segment, but whatever. Other interviewees include Andy Griffith, Betty White, Rose Marie, Joyce Randolph, Marlo Thomas, Florence Henderson, Tim Conway, and Barbara Eden, who talks a bit about hiding on the I Love Lucy set because, well, let's just say Arnaz had "appetites." (A lot of these celebrities are interviewed for other segments too.)

Variety

A very solid episode, but not my favorite. Not because what's here isn't interesting (none of the episodes on this disc are dull or not worth watching), it's just that there's lots of talk about the big shows that we've all heard about before: The Ed Sullivan Show, The Carol Burnett Show, The Smothers Brothers, Laugh-In, and Your Show of Shows.

Game Shows

I'm a game show geek, so I knew I'd love this one. There's a ton of great footage of early game shows, including an odd low-budget late 40s show hosted by Dennis James called Okay, Mother, as well as Bob Barker's Truth or Consequences (Barker is interviewed extensively on The Price is Right set). A big segment focuses on the quiz show scandals of the 50s on shows like The $64,000 Challenge, Twenty-One, and Dotto. Oddly, it's not the most interesting part of the episode, maybe because there's not much here that hasn't been said before (though I had no idea that Monty Hall was one of the temp hosts of Twenty-One during those dark quiz show days). The most fun parts are about Password, Let's Make A Deal, and Hollywood Squares, and the look at various game show hosts: Barker, Peter Marshall, Chuck Woolery, Wink Martindale, and many others. Great to see Bill Cullen singled out as one of the best.

And yes, I'm as surprised as you are that Jack Narz is still alive.

Overall, this is a great set to have if you're a TV fan. I wish some segments had more meat than others, and it's not the "ultimate" view of late night shows, sitcoms, variety shows, or game shows (if you know some of this stuff you might even say "hey, they didn't mention..."), but they actually do pack a lot of information into each one hour episode.

I wonder if in 20 years this set will be updated with a "Reality Show" episode. God, let's hope not.

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Will

I've enjoyed this series,too. As a kid, I used to love game shows ( can't stand most of them now). We'd watch Hollywood Squares, Let's Make a Deal,etc. One thing that amazed me, that I didn't remember, about Deal was how much the big deal was often worth. $20,000 + and that was in the '70's ! A crazy amount for the time.

January 30 2008 at 5:20 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jon88

I watched all three of these episodes on PBS and tried so hard to like them. They came so close, but kept stumbling. Sloppy editing (some of the talking heads' soundbites were used repeatedly, and some anecdotes were cut off before they got to a point) and cost cutting (using, say, a clip of the Count Basie band from a short film while mentioning his [unseen] appearance on Steve Allen's show) were major, and that unbelievably pretentious narration was hard to ignore. Recommended, I suppose, for you youngsters for whom the material is not familiar.

January 29 2008 at 12:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
a reader writes

Tony Orlando--probably interviewed because they could get clips of his show at a price they could afford. Sunny & Cher was probably too expensive.

There were some interesting visualization techniques in the Game Shows episode that were probably done for cost-savings. Notice how they never showed an actual clip of "Wheel" or "Jeopardy" even through Merv (creator and former rightsholder) sat for an interview. They used miniature models and reenactments. Sony (current rightsholder) probably wanted a literal fortune for clips of "Wheel."

January 29 2008 at 11:22 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
noodleman

Re: Letterman.

The reason why Arsenio was interviewed and not Letterman was because Letterman's original late-late show (on NBC) had the blessing of Carson (and was, IIRC, a Carson production).

Arsenio was on Foxm and was the first Tonight Show competition EVER to actually put a dent into Carson's ratings. Arsenio went to some length to explain that because his show was targeting a far younger audience, he wasn't considered an enemy of Carson (like Joan Rivers was, or Joey Bishop, etc.).

Leno was interviewed instead of Letterman because Leno inherited the Tonight Show from Carson.

January 29 2008 at 10:20 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Karen

I'm not sure why you're surprised that they didn't talk about Letterman. The show is about PIONEERS. You said yourself that Letterman doesn't really do interviews. Yes, they interviewed Leno, but not about his show--about the PIONEERS. They both interviewed AND talked about Arsenio Hall because they looked at his show, appealing to (as they put it) a "younger, urban audience," as breaking new ground. But Letterman, essentially, did nothing that Steve Allen hadn't done before. Were you watching the human banana split? How is what Letterman did (in his early days; now he's just boring) any different? And why would they talk about Leno/Letterman competition? What does that have to do with pioneering the talk show?

January 29 2008 at 9:32 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Scott

Nice review, thanks! The only one I've seen so far (TiVo backlog) is Comedies. I also liked the re-creation of the "Honeymooners" set, just as a piece of history, and I thought they spent way too long on Griffith as a pioneer compared to the others. And Mary Tyler Moore's appearance shocked me--I had no idea she was the female Michael Jackson.

January 29 2008 at 9:29 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Toby OB

Wow - the comment on Jack Narz perfectly captured the same reaction I had with a co-worker about this segment!

And I found myself with a bit of a lump in my throat when they honored Bill Cullen like that - truly a classy fellow and a gentleman.

And it was great to see that look on Stempel's face when he lost to Van Doren - with hindsight you just know he was pissed!

January 29 2008 at 8:49 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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