Monday, January 19, 2015

Must See Streaming TV Movie of the Week: Mrs. R - Death Among Friends (1975)

Network: NBC 
Original Airdate: May 20th, 1975 

Without knowing much of the history behind the pilot telefilm Death Among Friends (the Mrs. R was added later), it would seem that NBC was hoping that putting a gender twist on their trusty ratings lion Columbo would lead to viewing gold... and maybe they were right. Kate Reid is Mrs. R., a dowdy but undeniably kind and smart female police detective, who along with her uniformed partner, Manny (A. Martinez looking all of 20 years old) investigate the murders surrounding a Hugh Hefner type magnate.

With exteriors filmed on a posh four acre estate in Bel Air, and featuring wonderfully indulgent built interiors, the setting is absolutely marvelous and one can get lost in its lushness. But no worries of staring at the wallpaper too much, because the cast is simply delish. Everyone from Martin Balsam to Lynda Day George to Pamela Hensley to William Smith to Jack Cassidy play potential suspects (or, in Balsam’s case, potential victim), and each one is given a little time to look guilty before Mrs. R. moves on to bigger prey. Clearly, the seasoned actors understand the drill, but even better, they seem to really enjoy going through the motions of this likeable, if not particularly brilliant, mystery.

Random trivia: The house used in Death was on the market at the time of filming. Who was the real estate agent? None other than Donna Douglas aka Ellie May Clampett of the Beverly Hillbillies!

Mrs. R, which I am assuming was the potential name of the series, definitely follows the Columbo blueprint: Unassuming middle class detective interlopes on the rich, famous and powerful, using under-the-radar-charm in an effort to get the bad guys to let their guard down. Reid’s role as the indefatigable single mother is a nice fit for seventies television though, so comparisons are noted but not a detriment.

She wasn’t the only unpicked up female detective series of this era either. Stella Stevens gave it a go in 1976’s Kiss Me, Kill Me. Barbara Eden also lent her star power to Stonestreet: Who Killed the Centerfold Model (1977), and Donna Mills teamed up with Quinn Martin for the unsold pilot The Hunted Lady (1977). That’s a lot of blondes with concealed weapons!

And, I’m sure that is just a few of the attempts the networks made in their search to perfect the recipe that made Police Woman, and later, Charlie’s Angels such powerhouses. What I really liked about Mrs. R though is that while the settings ooze decadence, the lead character distinctly lacks that glamour (again... Columbo). There is absolutely nothing wrong with Reid (well, despite the frumpy wardrobe), and she’s perfectly attractive. But she also looks like a single mother working long hours as a cop. And I love that the handsome John Anderson plays her affable co-worker/love interest. Even A. Martinez can’t resist this older woman’s charm, and that’s because Reid is the type of appealing that shines through at any age.

A precursor to Angela Lansbury’s similarly matured charisma as Jessica Fletcher, A Death Among Friends is an absolute delight worth discovering or revisiting. It is available on DVD through Warner Archives, and is currently streaming on Warner Archives Instant.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Baxters (1979-1981)

When I think about the 1970s (which, as you might guess, is a lot), sometimes the words “Let’s rap” ring softly through my head. While that phrase may seem mawkishly silly by today’s standards, 70s rapping could be intense, polarizing or even enlightening  (for a modern reference, it is basically like facebook but with actual faces, and maybe a book). But, before you get all “Can you ironically dig it” on me, let’s discuss The Baxters.

The Baxters was a syndicated program brought to national attention by Norman Lear. The Baxters were a traditional family unit who were dealing with many of the same heated issues that the show’s audience members were also struggling with. Women’s rights, teenage sex, alcoholism, and even labor strikes brought up various He Said/She Said conversations that would end without resolution about halfway into the 30 minute running length. At this point, each local station that aired the show hosted an audience who discussed the family's situation. Groovy rapping commenced.

Conceived by Boston Broadcasters, Inc., The Baxters was first locally produced in 1977 before Lear came into the picture in 1979. He loved the idea of the show and picked it up because he felt it was “the comedy and the tears in the reality of our lives.” And, as you know, he also believed that using comedy to explore topical issues brought out the themes in more overt ways, so the audience never had to suss out the meanings, which served to enrich the on-point conversations. 

The first national season of The Baxters consisted of a husband and wife (played by Larry Keith and Anita Gillette who would go on to drive me insane on Quincy M.E.) and three children, an older teenage daughter, who was adopted (Derin Altay), a younger teenaged son (Christ Petersen) and a ten year old daughter (Terri Lynn Wood). One of the series’ biggest selling points was that the time each episode spent discussing an issue (approximately using 51% of the allotted airtime) fulfilled the local station's agreements that they would air a certain amount of public affairs programming per week. That’s a pretty brilliant sales pitch.

However, due to poor ratings, The Baxters was cancelled after one season. Then, a Canadian company picked it up and produced it in Ontario. This season introduced another Baxter clan led by Sean McCann as the patriarch and Terry Tweed, as the mother who was returning to work. They also had three kids of the same ages as the first family's children, played by Marianne McIsaac, Sammy Snyders (of The Pit! Oh. Em. Gee.) and Megan Follows. Again, the show could not gather up enough interest and was cancelled for the final time in 1981.

Despite disappointing ratings, many look back on The Baxters fondly. Mostly viewers remember the experimental sitcom/discussion show hybrid as groundbreaking and fascinating because it engaged real people in very contemporary debates. The Museum of Classic Chicago Television has unearthed the episode Women’s Roles in Marriage! This particular episode aired in Chicago on March 16th, 1980, and I’m thrilled it's available in its entirety. You can watch part one here, and then you can move over to the discussion portion here

Some of the topics discussed on The Baxters that I would like to review are spousal abuse, marital affairs, and alcoholism. Even by syndicated standards, the show seemed a little clunky, even then. But, and for many of the same reasons that I enjoy watching retro game shows, I absolutely love seeing the real people of this era. We were a gorgeous bunch! In the episode posted by the Museum of Classic Chicago Television, the banter between audience members is fairly light, but it’s interesting to note the guy who creates a bit of a stir when he accuses working women of spending both their own salaries and their spouse's (even suggesting that career women tend to keep their own money in a private bank account for themselves). He also states if it's the man who is working, it’s the man who gets to spend the money, and Mrs. Baxter should probably ask for his permission before she touches any of it (even if it's on something both parties had agreed to purchase!). While I disagreed with a lot of what he said, I have to admit, he brought out the then-growing cynicism towards marriage by pointing out the contractual nature behind matrimony. Also, in the days before Jerry Springer, it was nice to see people mostly grumble and politely respond instead of breaking chairs and throwing punches. The seventies were certainly not perfect, but I will always embrace a good rap session, and it looks like The Baxters had plenty of it!