Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Book Review! The Case of the Alliterative Attorney: A Guide to the Perry Mason TV Series and TV Movies


I admit that I have a mostly casual relationship with the long running Perry Mason TV series. This association was so informal, in fact, that the only guest star I could rattle off the top of my head was Bert Convy, which is a surprise to no one, I’m sure. However, when MeTV began re-airing the Mason movies in 2013, I fell hard for the telefilms (and a handsome bearded Burr), even though I think they may be a bit like the 90s Columbo reboot in terms of being considered a step down in quality. But, there was drama, mystery and intrigue, William Katt and William Moses, and a whole lot of Raymond Burr commanding the screen. In short, I couldn’t get enough!





















There’s been a few books on the Perry Mason television series, but to the best of my knowledge, there is little writing about the run of telefilms that graced our small screens from 1985-1995. C’mon, that’s ten years of courtroom shenanigans, and oodles of amazing guest stars. I’m still working through those TVMs, but was thrilled when I saw that someone had included them in their Mason book. And spoiler free, no less, so I could sit down and read about a TVM without worrying about it taking away from what I had not seen yet. This awesome tome is titled The Case of the Alliterative Attorney: A Guide to the Perry Mason TV Series and TV Movies. When I recently acquired my copy, I couldn’t wait to dive in. But then, like any good Perry Mason mystery, there was a twist – I could barely turn myself away from the section about the original series, even though it was originally of secondary interest to me.

OK, not the most suspenseful twist, but work with me. 

Perry Mason and Hamilton Burger working with me.
That’s just a long way of saying The Case of the Alliterative Attorney is an immensely enjoyable, page-turning read. The amount of research that co-authors Bill Sullivan and Ed Robertson put into this book is head spinning! There is not only lots and lots of fantastic trivia, but there’s quotes from those who were there to help make the series and films a success, including the incomparable Barbara Hale, and actress turned producer Gail Patrick (an intriguing woman who deserves her own book!), as well as a fairly in-depth look at how the show was put together, while also working as a tribute to the profound friendship Hale and Burr enjoyed until his passing in 1993.

These are my people.
And, for the record, this book is huge! At well over 600 pages, the authors incorporate as much as they can into each episode synopsis, spotlighting guest stars, important dialog quotes, and pieces of interviews with some of the people who worked on that episode. And, as mentioned earlier, all spoiler free.

Monte Markham > Not a terribly great idea for a series
Also, working like a good commercial break, there are sections titled Exhibits located throughout the book, highlighting interesting aspects or themes from the show. For instance, there is a list of episodes featuring jury trials, as well as a compilation of episodes where the court meets in a non-traditional location. In short, you are bound to be a Mason expert by the time you finish the book. Despite the fact that it’s throwing loads of info in the reader’s direction, Sullivan and Robertson's style is casual, energetic and breezy. The authors really go the extra mile too, and Mason gets his full small screen due, so expect a section on The New Perry Mason Mysteries too! Go Monte!

Hal Holbrook, the badass.
As a newbie to the main content of the book, I can say that it has a little something for everyone, and may well bring in new fans (i.e. me). My one minor nitpick is that the four Perry Mason Mysteries, filmed after Burr’s passing in 1993, deserve more attention. They can be looked at as a simple novelty to keep a brand going, but they are also entertaining in their own right and wonderfully preserve Mason and Burr while attempting to develop their own cozy mystery niche. Also, seeing a pushing-70 Hal Holbrook riding a Harley is just the best. True story.

The verdict is in: The Case of the Alliterative Attorney wins!
But as I said, that’s just a TV movie freak being a bit fussy, and perhaps that just comes from wanting the book (and the Mason telefilms) to go on forever. I highly recommend The Case of the Alliterative Attorney to anyone with even a passing interest in the show who is also drawn to getting a deeper behind the scenes perspective on a golden age of television.

Available through Amazon.

PS: Raymond Burr is everything.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

About the podcast...


Just a quick update to let you know that we're gearing up to record our next episode this Thursday (September 15th), and we'll be discussing our favorite made for TV movie actresses. You have time to let us know who your faves are, by commenting here, on our facebook page, or our twitter feed, or by emailing us at TVMayhemPodcast@gmail.com!

Our last episode was a bit of a test run for what types of TVM games we can play. The whole thing turned out to be a grand success and we've even gotten some of the most amazing artwork inspired by some of the answers. You can check out our show here to listen to what the following images correlate to, but really, just enjoy these mockup ads brought to the Made for TV Mayhem Show via our listener and great friend Shannon, who did an incredible job of translating our off the cuff made up telefilm synopses! And we'll be playing again soon (we might do a truncated version on the next episode).



Also, I've got a book review and a couple of blog posts coming shortly. I thought I'd get a break when I graduated, but life just seems to keep rolling along. So lame. Thank you all for sticking it out with me!

And yeah, I'll say it again... Stay Tuned!

Friday, September 2, 2016

Family Sins (1987)


Network: CBS
Original Airdate: October 25, 1987


Admit it, whenever someone throws the word "sin" into their TV movie title, you're expecting a sexy TV-PG drama with a soapy edge and a tinge of glamour. I mean, just look at Sins with Joan Collins as an example of how to take one word and make it the best thing ever. So, whenever one of those delightful titles drops into my lap, the excitement and joy overwhelms me. Maybe I even faint, who knows? But I do know that I probably should have looked up Family Sins before I gave it a spin, because it couldn't be farther from melodramatic debauchery, and dammit, there wasn't a shoulder pad in sight. That's not to say that Family Sins isn't fantastic, because it is, but it's also one of the darkest and saddest telefilms I've seen in a while.


Bryan (Thomas Wilson Brown) and Keith (Andrew Bednarski) are two young brothers living under the subtlety strong arm of their father (James Farentino in the most controlled performance of his I have seen so far). Keith is the twinkle in dear old Dad's eyes. He'll do anything to win his pop's approval, excelling at sports, and sometimes rubbing his elevated status in his older brother's face. Bryan is withdrawn and complicated. He hates sports, but his father doesn't care and often ostracizes him for daring to be a computer nerd instead of a jock. The mediator in this family is their somewhat sheepish mother (Jill Eikenberry), who thinks Bryan should do what he wants instead of what his father demands.


Signs of trouble start early. Bryan is a bruiser, dark and a loner. It's not that he doesn't have friends or do well in school, but while other kids are camping and playing catch, Bryan often sits in his room staring at the walls. He has a teacher (Brent Spiner) who sees the potential in Bryan, and to cheer him up, he gives him the class rabbit to take home as a pet. Knowing he can't have a pet, Bryan sneaks him into the house but his new BFF is soon uncovered. Dad tells him to get rid of the rabbit and Brian... kills it!


What do the parents do about Brian's evil deed? Absolutely nothing. Mother wants Dad to lay off, and Dad wants to sweep it under the rug anyway. So, the family goes on a summer outing, renting a cabin by the lake (if you've seen Cabin by the Lake, you can guess this can in no way end well). After a strange game of control, Bryan accidentally lets Keith drown. And that's just the beginning of the end of this family.


Met with mixed reviews, I'll admit that Family Sins is looking to pound its audience over the head with emotion. The real issues is that viewers may wonder to what end? There are no answers or happy endings to be had. Not that it needs anything like that, but Family Sins is a bit of endurance test in terms of depressing content, with little in the way of relief. But it's also so damn engrossing and well made, I found that I truly cared about Bryan, despite his obvious troubles, and I wanted to see something good come out of all of the darkness.


One critic likened Family Sins to Ordinary People, and they were quite right, even all the way up to the boating accident. And while I'm not sure this is Oscar level filmmaking (but it's quite confident), James Farentino has never been better or more effective. Gone are his signature wide eyed OTT deliveries (not that I don't adore that), and this is by far Farentino at his most human and relatable. He's not necessarily likable, but it's easy to see how he honestly felt he was doing right by his family. It's a complicated performance, and expertly handled.


Now that I'm traveling into the more dramatic 80s and 90s domestic-centered TVM output, Jill Eikenberry has been popping up on my radar. She is an excellent actress, always drawing me in immediately by exuding a likable presence. She's fantastic in this film, and is really the everyman, speaking for the audience, demanding answers where there are none. The child actors are also great in their roles, and Spiner shows off some early adorable in a part that I wish was more integral to the film. I recommend Family Sins to those who enjoy these kinds of family dramas. It's quiet and methodical, but it's also a downer so bring your kleenex, and maybe a nice glass of wine. Worth seeing just for Farantino.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

What I've been up to...

Celebrate good times... c'mon!
aka Just another update post making excuses for why I'm not blogging as much as I'd like... 

I just finished my Masters program! Getting an advanced degree ended up being a longer road than I had anticipated, but here I am, ready to archive your old documents or create a fancy bibliographic record. I am also currently ending an internship that lasted almost a year longer than originally scheduled (I love it there and am sad to see it end), and gearing up for a new job starting on the 1st of September. Please keep your fingers crossed!

The geek I want to be!
In the middle of all this, I also attended my first professional conference and have been spreading myself thin working on a couple of volunteer projects. Blogging just kind of fell by the wayside. So did podcasting. So did sleeping. So did inner peace. But when that light at the end of the tunnel appeared, all I could think about was writing and talking about films and watching things.

Keeping the dream alive!
Somehow, during these last few stressful months, I did actually do some non-TVM writing, so I thought I'd post the links:

If you love Dallas, and you know you do, check out the surreal, oddball and beautiful documentary Hotel Dallas, which is about Romania's love affair with J.R. Ewing. I wrote a review of this film for Spectacular Optical.

I also wrote a review of the great late entry slasher Hack-o-lantern for the awesome Hysteria Continues.  

Finally, there are a few projects I've been working on that are very close to coming to fruition. I will keep you in the know as things are finished and (finally) tangible!

 
And one more finally: There's a new Made for TV Mayhem Show online right now. We're also on iTunes! Check it out. It's a TV movie game show themed minisode that will take an hour of your life, and hopefully return the gesture with a few laughs.

And, for whatever reason, I haven't really promoted another podcast I do called Podcastmania. It's a horror roundtable type event, with lots of people talking passionately (sometimes over each other, so be patient... we're just excited), and also features my MFTVMS partner Dan Budnik! And  yeah, we're on iTunes!

Everything!
And, I've been guesting on Dan's other podcast, Eventually Supertrain, which is dedicated to the world of the short lived TV series. I partner up with Dan to swoon over the romantic love tale of Joanie Loves Chachi. Oh yeah, he's on iTunes.

Looking at all of this, it seems like I have been doing a lot, but it took me months to get some of these things done. Now the focus is finally back on blogging and telling the world how awesome Valerie Harper is. Although we all knew that already, didn't we?

Anyway, in short... please keep tuning in.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

TV Spot Tuesday: Invasion of Privacy (1983)


Network: CBS
Original Airdate: January 12, 1983

Valerie Harper had worked consistently since the cancellation of Rhoda in 1978, but 1982 would prove to be a banner year for the amazing actress. Harper had three TV movies in production, each one airing on one of the Big Three networks in the 1982/83 season. Most TV movie fans probably remember the undeniably scary and ageless classic Don’t Go To Sleep (12/10/1982, ABC), but her other two TVMs, the pilot movie Farrell for the People (10/18/1982, NBC) and the telefilm An Invasion of Privacy are also both solid films. What stands out about Ferrell and Invasion is that in one film (Ferrell), Harper plays a compassionate district attorney tangling with a complex rape case, and in an ironic turn of TV movie events, Harper then plays a rape victim working through the same unsympathetic system in Invasion. The films aired approximately 3 months apart.


In Invasion, Harper is Kate Bianchi, a recently divorced mother who is attempting to reconnect with her freelance artist roots. She has relocated to a small town in Maine during the dead of winter to work on a textbook project. The locals run both hot and cold with Kate, but one man named Wilbur (J.C. Quinn) crosses the creepy vibe line a few times. On the hot side is Police Chief Carl Slater (Cliff DeYoung sporting an impressive moustache), a friendly but sometimes aggressive suitor who moves into Kate’s good graces quickly, sleeping with her on their first date. Kate is still struggling with the breakup of her marriage and puts her love affair on hold, but less than 24 hours after her first post-divorce romantic rendezvous, Wilbur rapes Kate in her own home (with her small daughter in the same house!). Kate seeks justice but is met with some apprehension as many of the townsfolk rally against Kate in support of lifelong resident Wilbur. Her previous tryst with Carl becomes a heated point of debate and Kate has to let go of personal discretion in order to find some form of punishment for Wilbur.


Invasion is undeniably good, anchored by a solid performance by Harper, and some beautiful photography by John Lindley (Demon Murder Case and Killer Party!). The first half of the film is played like a thriller with a strange sense of doom lurking around every frame. After the attack (which is mostly, and thankfully, left to the imagination of the audience), the film becomes a more straightforward procedural and falters a bit. However, it remains a compelling watch because of the way it examines how society puts the weight of the blame on the victim, and because Harper is just too damn good. Has she ever not been amazing in something?


Based on a novel titled Asking for It by noted classic cinema actress turned screenwriter and novelist, Joan Taylor, there were many changes made to the adaptation, which was penned by Elaine Muller (her only IMDb credit), including dropping a subplot involving Kate’s politician father who uses the assault as a way to garner votes in an upcoming election, while also playing down the town’s resentment towards Kate. This was probably a bit of misstep, since the antipathy is made mostly in reference, while the “educated” transplants get most of the screen time, playing down Kate’s immense struggles to bring a local to justice in a town that seeks to protect its own. In this way, the xenophobia feels almost reversed, which hampers some of the film’s impact.


And yes, while Harper is terrific as Kate, the other hiccup in Invasion is how the character reacts in the aftermath. Certainly written this way, it is a bit too detached. Indeed that plays a bit off the clinical nature of what happens to most rape victims who report their crime and then have to face exams and questioning, but there’s no journey towards Kate’s ability to pull it together. At the same time, her impassive delivery is almost inspiring. She confronts the attack with no sense of guilt or blame, and remains focused on justice.


Invasion features lots of great small screen faces, including Richard Masur as a popular transplant desperate for acceptance, Carol Kane as his wife, Jeff Daniels in a very early role as a district attorney, and a very, very young Sarah Michelle Gellar as Harper’s daughter. She’s so cute, it’s almost ridiculous. Oh, let’s face it, she's still adorable! Both Jerry Orbach and Tammy Grimes (Tammy Grimes, y'all!), took a hiatus from a Broadway production of 42nd Street to put in cameos. Everyone is great in their roles, and do their best to help pad out some of the sections of the book that were excised in this adaptation.


Shot on Shelter Island in New York, director Mel Damski creates a quiet, sensitive and intriguing drama-bordering-on-thriller that was met with mostly positive reviews when it was originally released. The sad part is that the act of victim blaming is still all too relevant, even now, thirty years after the release of this worthwhile TV movie.


(Note: apologies for the blurry stills, it was the best I could get!)

Here is the TV promo spot for Invasion of Privacy:


Sunday, June 19, 2016

Nature's Fury Blogathon: Ants (aka It Happened at Lakewood Manor, 1977)


Network: ABC 
Original Airdate: December 2nd, 1977 

Before I start any review, I always conduct cursory research on my chosen film and hope for the best. Some of the most famous TV movies have little to no information, and sometimes the most obscure movies pull up all kinds of stuff (Dude, I can read all about Sorority Kill even if I can’t watch it). Associated Press was a fickle beast is all I will say about it. And then, I’m just Googling-along all innocent-like for info on Ants, and one of the first returns is SUZANNE SOMERS BREASTS ANTS! Well, that just about sums up what is arguably the most iconic scene in Ants (aka It Happened at Lakewood Manor). But let’s be honest, Ants ain’t exactly rife with “iconic” images; however, it is certainly well regarded, and well remembered by those who caught it when they were young enough to accept some of the more ludicrous moments. Upon a recent rewatch of Ants for this review, I found that the film is even more delightful than I remembered. Crazy and inconceivable for sure, but also a bit darker in tone than I was expecting and a little icky too.


The plot is as straightforward as they come: When a construction site accidentally unearths a swarm of poisonous ants during a dig, nearby Lakewood Manor is overrun by the little guys. Chaos ensues.

Well, OK, so there’s a lot of melodrama in there too. This is what we call character development, and some of it is clunky and awkward, especially anything with Ethel, played by the great Myrna Loy. Now, I’ve seen Myrna in a few TV movies and she’s generally a treat (Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate and The Elevator are two great examples), but it’s obvious that she was not into the material. However, the main stars Lynda Day George and Robert Foxworth make the most of what’s been given to them, and I actually felt invested in watching them crawl out of that hotel shaped anthill with all their lovely bits intact.


Most of the subplots are romance driven, which is always a plus for my starry-eyed inclinations. For example, Valerie (George) and Mike (Foxworth... or Foxy-worth as I have been known to call him), who make one of the most gorgeous made up couples ever, are interested in getting Valerie’s mom, Ethel to sell Lakewood Manor so they can move to San Francisco and live happily ever after... and send her mom packing to Florida. There’s also a pretty and hippie-ish drifter named Linda (Karen Lamm) who is tired of life on the road and hooks up with OMG gorgeous Richard (Barry Van Dyke), and love instantly blossoms. Heck, even the construction inspector (Anita Gillette) seems to have a bit of chemistry with the ant expert (Bruce French)!


And, if it isn’t about falling in love, it’s about the end of love, such as the story with Marjorie (Barbara Brownell) who is staying at the Manor with her son, Tommy (the forever adorable Moosie Drier) as she recovers from a divorce. And, of course no epic TV movie about insect invasions is complete without a little sinful love, and we get that with Miss Antsonbreasts herself, Gloria (Somers) and the evil Tony (Gerald Gordon) who is obviously lecherous and easily tagged as the guy who’s going to mess everything up. He does it in a spectacular fashion though, so all is forgiven. See, TV movies have never been about subtlety, which works in the favor of this compact, and economical little disaster/insect amok flick.


But, despite all of the romantic shenanigans, audiences really showed for the creepy-crawly treachery, and it is done very well. While I miss the Empire of the Ants ant-cam, there’s plenty of up close vermin shots, and lots of brave actors let those buggers crawl all over them (the above referenced Somers to name but one). And no one is safe from potential victimization. There’s a great scene with Tommy frantically jumping into a pool even though he can’t swim because he’s covered in coffee grounds… er, I mean... ants. Yikes.



There is also a fantastic firetruck ladder stunt, which leads to an OK helicopter stunt that ends with a horde obnoxious stunt onlookers finding themselves in the line of fire. At this point, I was definitely rooting for the ants.


The ant expert gives us the lowdown on why the ants are out for blood: buried for years, these insects have sucked up all of the toxins we humans have tried to entomb and hide away within the earth. Yes, humans are pretty much to blame for everything, so I’ll buy it. But, then we are told these ants, which have already killed at least two people and injured a few more, aren’t aggressive if you are just real still. So, then we get a shot of three actors sitting motionless with little tubes (made out of 1970s wallpaper!) in their mouths so they can breathe. I remember when I first saw this as an adult and I wondered if it was really so hard to step on them and just leave? But, ludicrous is part and parcel for our little insect amok flicks, and I’ve learned to take my ant havoc with a grain of salt. Wait, doesn’t salt kill ants? Hmmm, maybe they could have done that?


In the confident hands of journeyman TV director Robert Scheerer (Changing Scene, Poor Devil and tons of episodic fare), and with a script by TV movie veteran Guerdon Trueblood (The Love War, Sole Survivor, and Ants' companion Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo), and thanks to the actors who wanted to be there (and also to Myrna for just showing up cuz I still love her so), Ants is a good reminder that even if a telefilm doesn’t get under your skin (ha!) television factory filmmaking was often much better than it should have been.



This review is part of Cinematic Catharsis's excellent Nature's Fury Blogathon! Check out more of the reviews here and here

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Hell Hath No Fury (1991)



Network: NBC
Original Airdate: March 4th, 1991


like Loretta Swit scorned! 

OK, OK, so, like, two of my favorite TV ladies teamed up for a domestic version of Single White Female and no one called me? I mean, I had call waiting, guys. You could have gotten through to me. Yes, I am late to the party, but so happy I made it here.


Lifetime did not invent television for women. In fact, many of the later entry small screen network films found success with women-centric programming. Yes, a lot of it walked into the damsel in distress territory, and it wasn’t always great, but it was, more often than not, good. And when you’re hanging out on a rainy Sunday afternoon, good can be really, really good.


Such is the case with the slick but flawed Hell Hath Not Fury, which brilliantly pits two of my favorite actress, Barbara Eden and Loretta Swit in a battle to the (almost) death. These two ladies bring something interesting to any project they are involved in, and the film is raised a notch just by giving them the majority of the celluloid.


Eden is Terri Ferguson. You know the type, Little Miss Upper Middle Class Perfect. She’s married to a well-known and respected businessman named Stanley (David Ackroyd), and is living the dream as a very well-dressed housewife. But Terri isn’t completely enthralled with her white picket fence life. She has a bit of an estranged relationship with her college aged daughter (Amanda Peterson), and she’s still feeling the empty nest syndrome big time. When Terri suggests that she could go to work for a good friend, her husband shuts her down almost instantly. Although they are quite in love, Stanley prefers a smoke and mirrors kind of life, and the way a devoted non-working wife looks to his friends and associates. So, life continues in a bit of a humdrum fabulous for the couple.


On the other side of the tracks is Connie (Swit). Already two bricks short of a full load, and in an abusive marriage, she becomes fixated on Stanley whenever she sees his local ads on television. He must seem like salvation to Connie because she shoots her husband dead and heads for Stanley’s house. As it turns out, Stanley and Connie had a very brief love affair in college, but he went off to find money and local fame, and she didn’t. Surprisingly, it also turns out that Stanley is not the man of her dreams either, because she shoots him dead too! Although it’s never fully made clear why the resentment runs so deep, Connie plots a kind of hazy, psychotic revenge against Terri, and cleverly makes her look like the guilty party behind Stanley’s untimely demise.


While Terri struggles to prove her innocence, the thinly veiled deceit that Stanley left behind begins to expose itself. He was up to his neck in hock, and Terri suddenly finds herself pushed out of her beautiful home, and desperate for money. Going to work for above referenced friend (who, by the way, is played by Kim Zimmer, y'all! And her husband is played by Richard Kline!!! OMG!), Terri clings to that silver lining. Until Connie slithers into Terri’s life, acting as a friend, but in truth, slowly begins picking off Terri’s very short list of buddies (when I say slowly, I mean only one person, but still… she’s devious and stuff).


Based on the novel Smithereens by B.W. Battin, Hell Hath No Fury is well paced, and certainly well acted. Both actresses are great and dedicated to making the most of the material. Not that the screenplay is bad, but it’s hard to understand the motivations that push Connie to that very edge at that moment. It’s perhaps a bit too haphazard in its desire to get the ball rolling, and the TVM could have used a little more backstory.


Overall, it’s a treat to see Eden and Swit in their respective roles. Swit is especially sinister as the remorseless Connie. Still, this movie is about Terri working her way back from what seems like a hopeless situation, and I can’t think of a better person to take on that task then Eden. Hell Hath No Fury ran against Earth Angel, which featured a little more star power and is also more fondly remembered. That’s too bad because while domestic terror TVMs seem like a dime a dozen, there is a reason we keep coming back to them.