Tuesday, July 4, 2006

Road Shows Part 3

Following the cycle of road shows (shows featuring characters who wander from place to place) in the Sixties, the Seventies saw almost no shows of that genre. When a road show did debut in 1974, it was in some respects a throwback to such Westerns as Rawhide and Wagon Train in that its travellers did so because it was their job. Movin' On followed the adventures of two long haul truckers (played by Claude Akins and Frank Converse of Coronet Blue fame). The series only lasted two seasons (which was actually a long run for the Seventies). In some respects it was ahead of its time. If it had debuted just three years later, it could have taken advantage of the trucking craze created by Smokey and the Bandit. To wit, a show which openly ripped off Smokey and the Bandit debuted in 1978: BJ and the Bear....

While road shows were largely absent from prime time, two live action road shows made for children debuted on Saturday morning in 1974. Shazam! was basead on legendary comic book character Captain Marvel. It departed from the comic books in having Billy Batson (who transformed in the Captain by uttering the magic word, "Shazam!") travel in an RV with a character named Mentor (who never appeared in the comic book). The other Saturday morning road show was Run, Joe, Run, a series with the rather ridiculous concept of a Army German shepherd forced to run after he attacked his trainer....

The best known road show of the Seventies may have been The Incredible Hulk, based on the Marvel Comics character of the same name. The Incredible Hulk featured Bill Bixby as David Banner, who tranformed into the Hulk any time he was angered. The show departed from the comic book in that the Hulk could not talk and he never faced any supervillains. Every episode was nearly the same. Banner would encounter people who were oppressed by some villains and in the end the Hulk would give them a good thrashing. Despite the relative sameness of every episode, the show managed to last four seasons. Even several reunion movies were made in the late Eighties.

The Seventies were clearly not a good decade for road shows. The Eighties were not much of an improvement. Only a few road shows aired throughout the decade. Among those series was The Phoenix, which debuted in 1982. The Phoenix featured Judson Earney Scott as Bennu, an alien discovered in a Peruvian sarcophagus. With partial amnesia and only a vague idea that he had some mission to perform on Earth, Bennu escaped and found himself running from Peruvian and American agents who wanted to capture him for scientific study. As an alien, Bennu possessed various mental powers, which were often displayed in his travels. The Phoenix only lasted five episodes.

Nineteen eighty four may have been the best year for road shows in the Eighties, as it saw two such shows air, both on NBC. One was Hot Pursuit, another take on the idea of The Fugitive. On Hot Pursuit Kerrie Keane and Eric Pierpoint played Kate and Jim Wyler, a couple who must take to the open road when Kate is framed for murder. Hot Pursuit failed in the ratings. It lasted only twelve episodes.

The other road show of 1984 proved somewhat more successful. Highway to Heaven featured Michael Landon (Little Joe from Bonanza as angel Jonathan Smith, who is sent to Earth to help people. His sidekick was an ex-cop, MArk Gordon (played by Victor French--Agent 44 from Get Smart). Together the two travelled from place to place doing God's work. The show proved fairly successful, lasting five years. Many probably realise that the format of Highway to Heaven is very similar to the better known Touched by an Angel. Of course, it must be pointed out that Highway to Heaven was somewhat comedic in tone, while Touched by an Angel is not a road show (shows about angels not being my cup of tea, I only saw a few episodes of it, but I seem to recall that they had other means of travel than the open road....).

The last road show of the Eighties was also one of the first shows on the then fledgeling Fox network. Debuting in 1987, Werewolf featured John J. York as Eric Cord, a graduate student who unfortunately gets bitten by a werewolf (his roommate, in fact). Cord can only be cured if he kills the original werewolf who started the bloodline. Cord then sets out to find this original werewolf, all the while fleeing werewolf hunter "Alamo Joe" Rogan (Lance LeGault). Werewolf ran for a little over one season, only 28 episodes. The series was perhaps doomed from the start, being only a half hour in length (as many of Fox's early dramas were) and bearing more than a slight resemblance to The Incredible Hulk in format.

The Nineties would prove to be somewhat better than the Eighties when it came to road shows. In fact, the summer of 1993 could have been the beginning of a trend if the two road shows which debuted then had been successful. One of the two shows was a revival of Route 66. In this new version Dan Cortese as Arthur Clark and James Wilder as Nick Murdock. Nick was the son of Buzz Murdock (one of the characters from the original series), who inherited the legendary Corvette. Together the two young men take the classic Corvette on a journey across the remains of Route 66. This sequel of sorts did not see the success that the original Route 66 had. IT only lasted four episodes and was not picked up for the fall.

The other road show which debuted as a summer replacement in 1993 was Johnny Bago. The show centred on small time hood, John Francis Tenuti (Peter Dobson), who finds himself framed for murder by his cousin Vincent. Taking the alias "Johnny Bago," he then flees in Winnebago, running not only from the law, but from the mob as well. Johnny Bago was essentially an hour long comedy, parodying The Fugitive and similar series. While this certainly separated it from other road shows, it did not guarantee it ratings. Johnny Bago only ran eight episodes and was not picked up for the fall.

Perhaps the best known road show of the Nineties was also one of the first series to air on UPN. Nowhere Man centred on Thomas Veil (Bruce Greenwood), a documentary photographer who suddenly finds his entire life erased. His friends and family refuse to acknowledge him. His ATM cards and credit cards no longer work. Even the keys to his home and his studio work no more. Veil has little idea why this happened, but he suspects that it might have to do with photographs of an execution from a Third World country which went missing from his studio. Regardless of the reasons, some vast Conspiracy with a Hidden Agenda has erased all record of his existence. Worse yet, they are pursuing him, forcing Veil on a cross country journey to both escape them and uncover the truth about them. Nowhere Man essentially played as a cross between The Fugitive and The Prisoner and, like both of those shows, could be cerebral at times. Unfortunately, a change in the regime at UPN pretty much spelled its doom. After one season--25 episodes--Nowhere Man itself was erased.

Perhaps fittingly, the last road show that I can remember airing was a remake of The Fugitive, which debuted in 2000. The format of this new version was exactly the same as the original--Dr. Richard Kimble (played by Timothy Daly, best known from Wings)is falsely convicted of killing his wife and finds himself on the lam. Although this new version of The Fugitive was well received by critics and was even nominated for a few awards, it failed miserably in the ratings. It only ran for one season, with only 23 episodes made.

Since the new version of The Fugitive went off the air, I do not believe another road show has aired on network television. This is not unusual, as road shows have been rare since the Sixties. I think the reasons for this could well be simple. The first true road show, Route 66, debuted in the Sixties, at the height of American car culture. This was a period when Americans very nearly lived in their cars. Drive in restaurants and drive in theatres were still plentiful. Cruising was still an activity many teenagers enjoyed on Friday and Saturday nights. Families still took Sunday drives. People even drove to their vacation destinations in their cars. Gasoline was cheap and it cost very little to drive even long distances. Given America's love affair with the car at the time, it was quite natural then that shows should arrive on the scene which focused on the open road.

The cycle towards road shows in the Sixties probably ended it when it did simply because the airwaves had been nearly glutted with the genre. Eight different road shows aired during the decade, not counting shows from other genres that sometimes involved travel (the spy shows of the era, various Westerns, and so on). The Seventies would see events that would severely hurt the credibility of road shows from that point on. The energy crisis of the Seventies saw gas prices rise so that it was no longer quite so economical to travel by car any longer. The country went into a recession, so that it was no longer realistic to expect someone like Richard Kimble or Jim Bronson to be able to pick odd jobs to pay for their journeys. Indeed, the fact that individuals during the bad economic times of the Eighties and the Naughts have difficulty finding work make the idea of someone going from town to town picking up odd jobs seem highly unlikely. Quite simply, the concept of travelling the open road probably has not seemed plausible to most people since the end of the Sixties.

I must admit that I find this sad myself. Like road movies, road shows were in some respects a reflection of America. By portraying inviduals travelling across the country, road shows could display a large cross section of the Unite States. Each week the shows' heroes would arrive in a different place, each with its own terrain, its own peculiar customs, its own dialects, and so on. Through the format of the road show, viewers could be introduced to different ways of life which may be unknown where they live (for instance, someone in Missouri could see how Maine fishermen live...). Road shows could also satisfy what is probably still the desire of many Americans. I have little doubt that there are many who would like to simply quit their job, take to the open road, and get away from it all the way that Buzz Murdock or Jim Bronson did.

The road shows also had a format that was very flexible, enabling them to do a large variety of sorts of episodes. One week's episode could be a screwball comedy. The next week's episode could be high adventure. A road show could explore the important issues of the day, but the next week feature a simple character study. The road shows of television's past have much to offer that today's doctor and lawyers simply do not. Sadly, I don't think we wil see too many road shows airing in the near future, especially not with today's price of gas....

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