Friday, 18 April 2014
The Failure of the 1968 TV Series Blondie
It was in December 1967 that CBS ordered a pilot for Blondie. The prospective new show was a joint venture of King Features Syndicate (owners of the comic strip), Universal Television, and Kayro Productions (the company of writers and producers Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, now probably best known for Leave It to Beaver and The Munsters). Cast as Blondie was Patricia Harty, who had last appeared in the single season sitcom Occasional Wife. Cast as Dagwood was Will Hutchins, perhaps best known for the Western Sugarfoot. Jim Backus was cast as Dagwood's boss Mr. Dithers.
It was on 19 February 1968 that CBS announced its schedule for that fall. Among the shows that were added was the new version of Blondie. Sadly, among the shows that were cancelled was He & She, the ground breaking sitcom starring Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin. According to Harlan Ellision in his column in the Los Angeles Free Press (included in his compilation The Glass Teat) CBS president Mike Dann had to choose between renewing He & She and picking up Blondie. He chose the latter. Given what unfolded early in the 1968-1969 season, one has to wonder that he did not come to regret his decision.
Indeed, Blondie debuted on CBS on Thursday night, 26 September 1968. Its ratings for that night were mediocre at best. In many respects this should come as no surprise. While its competition on ABC was very weak (The Ugliest Girl in Town, which would be cancelled nearly as quickly as Blondie), its competition on NBC was Daniel Boone, a show that would rank #21 for the season. Worse yet, Daniel Boone was a popular show with children (especially boys), part of the audience who may well have watched Blondie had it been on in a different time.
While the ratings for Blondie's premiere were mediocre, the reviews it received were overwhelmingly negative. Wade H. Mosby of The Milwaukee Journal described the show as "A horrendously contrived piece of fluff that should have never been snatched from the comic pages..." Don Page of The Los Angeles Times referred to Blondie as “an unmitigated disaster." Cynthia Lowry of the Associated Press wrote of the show, "the whole thing is pretty dismal." In his 5 December 1968 column in The Los Angeles Free Press Harlan Ellison referred to it as "an abomination of stupidity." George Gent of The New York Times was a little easier on the show than other critics, although he pointed out "the humour is so very basic that it would appear to be a children’s show exclusively."
It seems possible that viewers agreed with the critics, as ratings for Blondie dropped catastrophically in the weeks following its premiere. As early as mid-November there were rumours that CBS would cancel the show. In the 25 Nov. 1968 issue of Broadcasting it was even stated that the cancellation of Blondie was a virtual certainty. The rumours swirling around the survival of Blondie turned out to be true. It was the week of 16 December 1968 that CBS announced that they had axed the series. Its last episode aired on 9 January 1969.
Today it is difficult to adequately assess why the 1968-1969 version of Blondie failed. It is true that it aired opposite the high rated Daniel Boone on NBC, but its competition on ABC was The Ugliest Girl in Town, a show that did also poorly in the ratings and may have been loathed by critics even more than Blondie was. Blondie did receive overwhelmingly negative reviews, but there have been times when critics have been wrong. Both The Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan's Island were trashed by the critics, yet they not only did very well in the ratings (The Beverly Hillbillies did phenomenally well), but their reruns are still aired to this day. Bad reviews can sometimes be a bad gauge as to the actual quality of a show.
It would seem the best way to determine why Blondie failed would be to actually watch episodes of the show. Unfortunately, with only thirteen episodes Blondie never received a syndication run, nor has it even been released on DVD. What is more, no episodes are available online or seemingly anywhere. The only clips from Blondie online are from a CBS 1968 television special to promote that network's new fall shows. The clips run around 5 minutes and half (including the theme song) and roughly summarise the plot of the first episode. They do offer some clues as to why the show may have failed.
Watching the clips it is perhaps safe to say that Blondie did not fail because of Will Hutchins. Mr. Hutchins actually did a very good job of playing Dagwood, emulating Arthur Lake while endowing the role with some of his own personal style. While Patricia Harty is sufficiently blonde and leggy as one would expect Blondie to be, she does not do nearly as well as Mr. Hutchins does as Dagwood, although in her defence the script seems to have hindered her (more on that later). We only get a brief glimpse of Jim Backus as Mr. Dithers and he does a good job in his few seconds. That having been said, Mr.Backus' Dithers seems a bit too much like Mr. Magoo. As much as I love Jim Backus, I cannot help but wonder if John Dehner or Douglas Fowley wouldn't have been better in the role. As to the kids, Peter Robbins (the voice of Charlie Brown in A Charlie Brown Christmas and It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown) and Pamelyn Ferdin (who would go onto play Felix's daughter on The Odd Couple) are adequate in the roles of Alexander and Cookie, although from the clips it would appear their roles could have been better written.
Of course, the casting of Alexander and Cookie point to something odd about the 1968-1969 version of Blondie. Quite simply, it seems rather anachronistic for the late Sixties with regards to the comic strip. By 1968 both Alexander and Cookie were teenagers, yet on the TV show they are both only around 12 and 9 years old respectively. The show also seems a bit anachronistic with regards to how Blondie dresses. While Blondie remains a constant thirtysomething in the comic strip, her wardrobe has always changed with the times. In 1968 Blondie was wearing dresses that would have been fashionable for any thirtysomething woman to wear that year. In the television show, however, Blondie wears a dress that, except for a somewhat higher hemline, looks strangely old fashioned, as if it was something she would have worn in the Fifties. Dagwood's hairstyle and clothes also seem to be out of date, but then Dagwood never was known for his fashion sense.
While the show appears to have had a deliberately anachronistic look, it seems unlikely that is what hurt it in the ratings. That having been said, there is another clue in the clips in CBS' 1968 fall preview special to something that might have. In various reviews from the time the show was criticised for its emphasis on slapstick. To a small degree this is to be expected. After all, one of the running gags from the comic strip is Dagwood constantly running over Mr. Beasley the Postman as he leaves for work. Such slapstick was to be found in the movie series of the Forties as well. From the clips, however, it seems possible that the TV show may have had too much slapstick. Not only does Dagwood run into the postman, but Blondie pours hot tea in Dagwood's lap, and Dagwood bursts through the paper walls of a Japanese tea room. Now it's possible that the clips in the fall preview special included more slapstick than would appear in the average episode, but given the critics' reviews of the show it seems likely that the series did indeed have an emphasis on physical comedy, more so than most shows of the time.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with physical comedy. Such classic comedies from I Love Lucy to The Dick Van Dyke Show had more than their fair share of pratfalls. The biggest problem with the clips from the 1968 CBS fall preview special is that none of the scenes are particularly well written. In the movie series Alexander and Cookie often knew much more about what was actually going on than their parents, but in the clips they appear as little more than typical sitcom children. While Patrica Harty did the best with what she was given, the way Blondie is written she seems more like the stereotypical jealous wife than Blondie. It is true that in the movie series Blondie did tend towards jealousy, but it took some time before she did anything rash (often the better part of a movie). From the clips it would appear that in the first episode Blondie automatically and immediately concludes Dagwood is romancing Honey Hilton (played by Melinda O. Fee, Honey is the daughter of an important client) and pours hot tea on him. Sadly from the clips in the fall preview special and descriptions in newspapers of the episode ("Sayonara Dagwood"), the entire plot seemed to centre on Blondie mistakenly assuming Dagwood is having an affair, but done with none of the panache of the film Blondie on a Budget (in which Blondie is jealous of one of Dagwood's former flames, played by Rita Hayworth).
Sadly, from the clips in CBS' 1968 fall preview special, it seems possible that the bad reviews Blondie received were more than warranted. If the clips are an accurate presentation of the show that was to come, then it would seem possible that it concentrated a bit too heavily on slapstick and its plots may have been a bit hackneyed and not particularly well written. While the movie series of the Forties was hardly sophisticated comedy, its humour derived more from the characters themselves than sight gags and slapstick and even the plots had some originality to them. What is more, the characters in the films were much more than mere caricatures. As mentioned earlier, Blondie was jealous, but she was not so swift to overreact as she appears to have been in the 1968-1969 TV show.
Indeed, from the clips the CBS' 1968 fall preview special it is difficult to determine what goal producers Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher wanted to achieve with Blondie. In some ways it seems hard to believe the show is from the 1968-1969 season, as it would seem to be something that would have aired earlier in the Sixties. That is, it seems possible that Messrs Connelly and Mosher were trying to achieve a comic strip on film, not unlike the hit show Batman from the 1965-1966 season. In the wake of the success of Batman there were a number of pilots made that sought to emulate its success in bringing a camp sensibility to older properties, including Dick Tracy, The Perils of Pauline, I Love a Mystery, and so on. It seems possible that they wanted to do the same thing with Blondie, although it does not explain why the show (at least from the clips) seems to depart from the comic strip as it was in 1968.
It also seems possible that Messrs. Connelly and Moshe were attempting to fit Blondie into their own particular brand of comedy. It is notable that in some ways the clips of Blondie from the fall preview special seem like an odd cross between Leave It to Beaver and The Munsters. Like Leave It to Beaver, Blondie centres on a typical suburban family with children in their tweens, although in Blondie's case they seem to live in some odd time warp that combines the Fifties with the Sixties. Like The Munsters the show featured a none too bright husband with a smarter but very jealous wife. From the clips in the 1968 CBS fall preview special it seems possible that the producers were less concerned with a loyal adaptation of the comic strip Blondie than they were a sitcom more like those they produced in earlier years. Unfortunately, it appears that it may have been a poor fit.
Of course, most of this is speculation. All we can say with any certainty is that Blondie received poor reviews and poor ratings. I can say that in my humble opinion the clips from Blondie in the 1968 CBS fall preview special were not particularly well done. It seems possible that Blondie simply was not a very good show and this is why it failed so badly in the ratings. Indeed, in his December 1968 column in The Los Angeles Free Press Harlan Ellison described it as, "... a ratings disaster surpassed only by the all-time debacle, The Tammy Grimes Show (to which Blondie bears a marked resemblance)." It is perhaps because of this that the 1968-1969 version of Blondie has not been seen since. For better or worse this is unfortunate, as the 1968-1969 series is an interesting part of the history of one of the longest running comic strips of all time.