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Commentary

Gayle King, Broderick Crawford and other stars of quarantine TV

Jeff Simon

It has always seemed to me that wherever there is learning, there is life. So let me confess a couple lessons that make me smile during this wretched pandemic and quarantine.

1. Something wonderful has hit television: Those of us who were, literally, first generation TV babies watching the medium in the early '50s are seeing some of that same "what the hell" spirit again in quarantine TV.

With everyone stuck at home, big-budget hoo-ha from the networks has had to be reconceived and domesticated. Confining everyone to their homes has made everything loose and improvisational, the way it looked at the beginning of television, when no one really knew what they were doing and they were making it up as they went along.

Some of it back then resembled radio, where single voices talked to audiences of people who were often alone. Arthur Godfrey – a famously dreadful but intuitive and clever man – always said he learned how to be a huge, unexpected radio and TV star by being injured and confined to a hospital bed, where he was forced to listen to the radio to pass the day. His revelation was how personal broadcast media could be. So he talked quietly to his audience, as if they were in the same hospital room with them.

Some of early TV, of course, resembled movies, chopped up into hourlong and half-hour bits.

A good argument could be made that country music award shows are a dime a dozen. What are, by no means, a dime a dozen are intimate looks into the actual daily lives of country's grandest figures, all confined to their homes as we all are (which we can see glimpses of in their often un-spectacular banal domesticity).

So that's what CBS did for a couple of precious Sunday night TV hours called "Our Country," where the contracted performers were stuck at home performing things originally scheduled for the usual over-produced splendor amid awards and such.

Covid-19 squashed that. So the time slot turned into a series of home performances by huge country stars. Gayle King hosted – also from home – introducing it all as if she were a block-club chairman hosting the annual spring frolic.

It was, I think, what America has been hungry for. It led off, for instance, with Keith Urban singing his music acoustically amid references to his wife dealing with the domestic comings, goings and doings of the kids just a few feet and some walls and doors away.

His wife, of course, is Nicole Kidman, one of the best English language film actresses we have.

The whole show had that kind of offhand vitality. It was a huge tonic, I think, for those who are so used to big-budget, spectacular, clockwork sameness that they're starved for intimacy, realistic proportion and domestic truth.

That's what the coronavirus is doing – it is forcing people to remember the improvisational skills and truths and intimacy that comes from having kids as your first audience just a few feet away.

Stephen Colbert's kidding-on-the-square joke as he broadcasts from his own backyard is that his daughter has been doing his makeup.

In its haphazard way, this has all been invigorating to watch. We're so used to network TV as a massive clockwork machine run by algorithms that it's refreshing to see it human-scaled and, as MTV might have it, "unplugged."

2. It's called MeTV, which is the oddly narcissistic and misleadingly limited abbreviation for Memorable Entertainment Television. You'll find it in Buffalo on WBBZ.

For those of you who don't know, this is the fiesta of 24-hour first generation TV from networks and syndicators before cable and the internet got into the act. It's from the earliest '50s to the early '70s. We're talking about everything here from the aristocrats of '50s TV – "The Twilight Zone" and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" – to some of the most praised shows of the '70s – "M-A-S-H" and "In the Heat of the Night."

Prime-time pride of place in the schedule goes to the sitcoms that, for all their ratings success, were always my least favorite kind of television, although I'll confess how much fun it is, say, to watch the performances of Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton on "All in the Family" and Jackie Gleason, Audrey Meadows and Art Carney in "The Honeymooners."

What I'm currently swooning over in confinement TV, though, is MeTV programming banished to the Siberia of the daily TV schedule from 3 to 6 a.m., which I've been mostly DVR-ing and enjoying the daylights out of later.

I'm talking, for instance, about Mike Connors in "Mannix," whose virtues have been promoted by some people I know as if they were the undeniable talents and charisma of James Garner and David Janssen. Or "Cannon," a Quinn Martin production I never really liked until I watched it again in the 21st century and found, in the scripts, all kinds of fervent, tough-minded labor commentary.

I'm still not crazy about William Conrad, a great radio voice perversely turned into a TV star and the only prime-time private eye ever to boast the physique of a pumpkin. But the people in charge were, I now see, a lot trickier than I once thought.

My greatest pleasures from DVR-ing MeTV have been both predictable and unexpected.

The predictable one was "Peter Gunn," Blake Edwards' sophisticated, sexy, jazz-filled private eye series that could always be counted on for off-the-wall braininess with Craig Stevens and Lola Albright.

My favorite MeTV stuff by far is my rediscovery of the riotously unexpected thespian bravura and brawn of star Broderick Crawford, playing fedora-wearing Dan Matthews, the czar of his own little duchy in "Highway Patrol." The series was a kind of "Dragnet" off-shoot of fast talk dedicated to cop doings.

Crawford was leading California road cops in pursuit of high-speed miscreants, usually those who have to be captured in a hurry before the half-hour show is up. There, I swear, is the madcap, surrealistic glory of "Highway Patrol." The whole show takes place at a molto allegro tempo, while Crawford is always at presto or prestissimo.

You've never heard dialogue so gratuitously sped up the way Crawford delivers it in "Highway Patrol." Almost everything he says is loud and lightning fast, as if he were giving instructions to underlings climbing an oak tree to rescue an 8-year old danging precariously from a top branch.

Some of his loud urgency is dramatically apt, but most isn't, which makes his dynamic clout and top speed a wild and crazy personal style of Crawford's own for his own reasons.

I think we can say he didn't exactly rejoice at the way his career had gone. He was renowned for showing up late or not at all to the set. His alcohol consumption was the stuff of legend. It's as if his guiding principal in every scene was, "Let's get this scene over with already. Hurry up, will you? It's happy hour."

His syndicator Ziv TV was also in the "Sea Hunt" business, whose star Lloyd Bridges was so delighted in the syndicated scuba series that he routinely brought his young kids Beau and Jeff to watch Daddy work long before his sons became stars on their own (and Jeff, in fact, one of the busiest actors in movies).

I've been thinking about Crawford and "Highway Patrol" ever since it stunned me on reacquaintance 50 years later. I've come to the conclusion that for little or no reason, Crawford became the all-time champ of dialogue velocity. You watch him bark out the words at AK-47 tempo and volume and they're faster and louder even than James Cagney in Billy Wilder's legendary "One Two Three." They surpass any movie by Preston Sturges and, for that matter, most screwball comedies, including Howard Hawks' "His Girl Friday," starring Cary Grant (whose bludgeoning, domineering speed was the closest to Crawford, but who, of course, never quite had Crawford's brutality).

Let me then, for your special quarantine viewing, recommend DVR-ing the singular TV performance of the late, great Broderick Crawford on "Highway Patrol." For sheer unexpected allegro nuttiness, it can't be beat.

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