Sunday, 2 July 2006

Road Shows Part One

Most characters on television series have some place that they can call home. It may be a literal home, as in the Ponderosa on which the Cartwrights lived on Bonanza, or it may be a figurative home, as in the starship Enterprise of Star Trek. At any rate, on most television shows the characters have some place where they spend most of their time and, regardless of where they may go, to which they return. This is not true of all TV shows, however, as there have been several series throughout television history on which the characters wandered from place to place, never settling (at least not until the end of the show).

These shows can in some respects be considered the television equivalent of road movies (such as the classic It Happened One Night or Easy Rider), in which the characters embark on some journey. Of course, the major difference between road movies and, for lack of a better term, road shows is that in road movies the characters usually reach their destination by the end of the movie. On road shows it might take several seasons for the characters to wind up where they belong, and in many cases they may never reach their destination. The quintessential examples of road shows are Route 66 and The Fugitive.

Although road movies have had a long history in the cinema, it took some time for the genre of road shows to evolve on television. In fact, during the Fifties there was no show set in modern times whose format consisted of its heroes wandering from place to place. That is not to say, however, that the road show was totally unknown in the Fifties. I Love Lucy could be consisered a forerunner of road shows in that it featured two story arcs in which its characters travelled from place to place. In the fourth season Ricky was offered a role in a movie. Rather than flying to Hollywood, Lucy, Ricky, Ethel, and Fred drove cross country, having adventures all the way. During the fifth season the Ricardos and the Mertzes went to Europe, where they visited England, Scotland, Paris, Switzerland, and Italy. Of course, unlike many of the later wanderers in road shows, the Ricardos and Mertzes were able to return home.

Of course, Lucy was not the only character on the road in 1950s television. While no shows set in current times featured characters wandering from place to place, there were plenty of Westerns that did so. In fact, one of the first three "adult Westerns (Westerns made for adults rather than children--Gunsmoke is an adult western, The Lone Ranger supposedly isn't), Cheyenne featured a drifter as its hero. Its hero, Cheyenne Bodie (Clint Walker), wandered the West, working a variety of odd jobs (from cowboy to deputy). Cheyenne proved to be a success, so that a number of Westerns featured heroes who wandered from place to place. Perhaps the most notable was Maverick which featured James Garner as gambler Bret Maverick (and occasionally brother Bart), who wandered from place to place in search of a good game (and getting into plenty of trouble doing it).

While drifters were common on Westerns in the Fifties, they were not the only ones making journeys in Westerns of the era. Some characters had a reason for making their journeys. In the case of Rawhide, it was a cattle drive. Led by trail boss Gil Favor (Eric Fleming) and ramrod Rowdy Yates (Clint Eastwood when he was young), the cattle drive crossed the West from San Antonio to Sedalia. On Wagon Train Major Seth Adams (Ward Bond) would lead a wagon train out West from St. Joseph each season.

Of course, when most people think of road movies they think of something set in modern times and usually travelling by car, by foot, or a variety of means of transportation. Strictly speaking, then, even though many of the Westerns of the Fifties featured people travelling, they probably cannot be considered "road shows." The first true road show would not debut on American television until 1960. That show was Route 66, taking its name from the famous highway of the same name and using the classic 1946 song of the same name for its theme. It featured Martin Milner and George Maharis as Tod Stiles and Buz Murdock, two young men who decided to drive across America on Route 66 in a Corvette. Each week Stiles and Murdock would visit a new place where they would become embroiled in some new situation. Route 66 could be very dark in tone, sometimes dealing with such serious subjects as the Holocaust, drug addiction, and gang violence. It could also be very light hearted, as in the famous Halloween episode in which, Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff, and Peter Lorre guest starred.

Route 66 proved very successful. The series performed very well in the ratings and was nominated for two Emmys. During its run George Maharis had to step out of the series due to illness, whereupon he was replaced by Glenn Corbett, who played Linc Case. Route 66 ran a total of four seasons and would eventually have a sequel made in the Nineties (more on that later). The series was unique in that it was perhaps the first TV series to ever have a definite ending. In the final episode, "Where There's a Will There's a Way," Tod Stiles married and Linc Case ceased his wandering.

Route 66 proved very influential and for the remainder of the Sixties there would be many more road shows. The most famous such series is perhaps The Fugitive. The series was created by Roy Huggins, who also created Maverick, and featured David Janssen as the unfortunate Dr. Richard Kimble. Kimble found in himself in the position of being falsely convicted of his wife's murder. Fortunately for Kimble, he escaped execution when the train carrying him wrecked. Thereafter Kimble remained on the move, pursued by Lt. Gerhard (played by Barry Morse) and searching for a one armed man, whom Kimble believes is the man who really killed his wife. The Fugitive owes a good deal to the classic novel Les Miserables, in which the detective Javert hunts Jean Valjean on a cross country chase. It perhaps owed a good deal more to the Sam Shepphard case. Dr. Sheppard was an osteopath whose wife was found murdered in their Cleveland home in 1954. Sheppard maintained his innocence, but was convicted none the less. Eventually his original trial was overturned and he was acquitted.

Like Route 66, The Fugitive saw its hero travel to a new place each week, getting involved with the people there. Unlike Route 66, its hero had no choice in moving from place to place; with the law on his tail, Dr. Kimble simply could not settle down. Regardless, like Route 66 The Fugitive is one of the few series to have a definite ending. In the final episode (for a time the highest rated episode of any American TV series) Dr. Kimble and Lt. Gerhard finally catch up to the one armed man and Kimble's name is cleared on the murder of his wife

The Fugitive did very well in the ratings and ran a total of four seasons. The series was nominated three Emmys and won three Golden Globes. It was memorable enough that a major motion picture roughly based on the series with Harrison Ford as Kimble was released in 1993. A new version of the series would air in 2000 (more on that later). Like Route 66, The Fugitive would also prove very influential. Arguably, every road show that has aired since the Sixties owes their existence to the success of this series and The Fugitive inspired several imitators.

In my next entry I'll take a look at some more of the road shows that followed in the wake of Route 66 and The Fugitive.

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