Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Pillars of the Earth-The Miniseries

Ever since childhood I have been fascinated by English history. Among my favourite eras is that known as The Anarchy or The Nineteen Year Winter. This was the time from 1135 to 1154 when Empress Mathilda (more often called Maude) fought with the usurper Stephen de Blois for the throne of England. It was during this period that Ken Follett's novel The Pillars of the Earth took place and hence the miniseries based upon the novel.

I have never read the novel so I have no idea how the miniseries might have departed from it, but I must say that I am impressed by the miniseries The Pillars of the Earth regardless. The movie was backed by Tandem Communications of Germany and produced by Scott Free Productions and Muse Entertainment. Among the executive producers were the directors Ridley and Tony Scott. Its teleplay was co-written by Ken Follett and John Peilmeier.

As miniseries go, The Pillars of the Earth is an impressive achievement. Produced for $40 million, it presents a fairly accurate recreation of 12th Century England in its sets, props, and costumes. More remarkable is that it is for the most part it is historically accurate. Like the novel, it is true that there are portions which are pure fiction. While there is a town named Kingsbridge in Devon, it is definitely not the Kingsbridge of the novel or the miniseries, which is in Wilshire. For that matter, there was never an Earldom of Shiring. Regardless, the portrayals of Empress Maude and the pretender to the throne Stephen de Blois is fairly accurate (forgive me my political views of 12th Century England--I am admittedly a supporter of Maude), as is the milieu of The Anarchy. Like the book, the miniseries centres on the building of a cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge.

Of course, historical accuracy would be nothing if the miniseries was not well done, and The Pillars of the Earth is a very well crafted miniseries. Much of this is due to the cast, one of the best I've seen in a medieval epic. Like the book, the protagonists are Prior Philip and Jack Jackson. Prior Philip is the earnest, virtuous prior of the priory of Kingbridge, seeking to rebuild the priory's cathedral. He is played convincingly by Matthew Macfayden. Jack Jackson is the son of a mysterious Frenchmen who was aboard the White Ship when the rightful heir to the throne (Maude's brother William) perished aboard it and a Continental Saxon woman who practises witchcraft. Jack is played by Eddie Redmayne, who gives a remarkably good performance as the gifted lad with a secret that could bring Stephen's pretensions to the throne crumbling down. Also among the heroes is the Tom Builder, played by Rufus Sewell, the architect hired by Philip to build the cathedral.

The villains of The Pillars of the Earth are truly villainous, which should not be surprising given the fact that one of them is played by Ian McShane. Mr. McShane played the corrupt clerrc Waleran, a man who has warped the tenets of Christianity to fit his own ambitions. Allied to Waleran is Regan Hamleigh, played by Sarah Parish, a woman who could be described as a baser version of Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth. Of course, beyond the primary villains and heroes, there are a number of important characters on the periphery of the series. I have to give kudos to Alison Pill, who does a remarkable job playing Empress Maude (and, yes, Maude was really that young when The Anarchy began). Perhaps the biggest name in the miniseries is Donald Sutherland, who plays Earl Batholomew, the father of Aliena and her brother.

Beyond the cast, The Pillars of the Earth also benefits from a great script. Messrs. Follett and Peilmeier have created a teleplay that deftly blends fiction with history, creating realistic, but fictional characters who interact with historical figures. The dialogue has the sound of 12th Century England, without resorting to Middle English (the English of Chaucer) or even Early Modern English (the English of Shakespeare). As is to be expected of a medieval epic, The Pillars of the Earth is filled with political plots and counterplots, battles, murder, and mayhem.

Although The Pillars of the Earth is relatively free of anachronisms, there are a few. In England heretics and witches were hanged rather than burned at the stake. While on the subject of witches, I must point out that there is very little evidence that witchcraft was a religion, as some lines in the miniseries would seem to indicate. It is more likely that it was simply folk magic--a mishmash of charms surviving from Anglo-Saxon paganism, some old Latin charms, various rituals of Christianity, and so on. I must also point out that kites did not exist in 12th century England. They were invented centuries ago in China, but did not come to Europe until the Renaissance. There is one other major anachronism, but I cannot reveal it without spoiling the plot.

In the end The Pillars of the Earth is a well, written miniseries that can be appreciated even by those who do not have an interest in medieval history. Of course, I would particularly recommend it to anyone who loves movies such as The Lion in the Winter (1968), Becket  (1964), or A Man for All Seasons (1966). Its run has ended on Starz, but it available for instant viewing on Netflix and should soon be available on DVD.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Famous 1500th Post


This is it. This is the 1500th post of A Shroud of Thoughts. Even after having maintained this blog for approximately six years and four months, it is still hard for me to believe that I have written 1500 blog posts.While I must warn you I am extremely bad at maths, I calculate that for the past six years and four months I must have posted an average of 4 1/2 blog entries each week. Even having done it, I find this mind boggling.

Indeed, I find it strange to think I have posted so often and so regularly in this blog given the average lifespan of blogs. Several years ago the Perseus Development Corporation conducted a study of blogs. They found that 66% of all blogs at that time had not been updated in two months and many appeared to have been abandoned. About a quarter of them boasted only one post, made the day the blog was started. Given that it has been rare that I have even gone two days without posting to A Shroud of Thoughts, let alone two months, I guess I am must be an exception to the rule when it comes to bloggers.

Given that this is the 1500th post of this blog, I thought it might be a good idea to look back at the history of blogs and how A Shroud of Thoughts originated (okay, I realise I am sounding a bit narcissistic in this post, but it's not every day one writes his 1500th blog post...).

A Very Brief History of Blogs

Although many people think of blogs as a phenomenon of the Naughts, they actually originated in the Nineties. The earliest blogs were essentially online diaries, what we would today call "personal blogs." As to who started the first blog, that is open to debate. It could possibly have been Justin Hall, who was a student at Swarthmore College in 1994 when he began Justin's Links from the Underground. Another early candidate for the first blogger was Claudio Pinhanez,, who started publishing his Open Diary on November 14, 1994. It was published at the MIT Media Lab web site. Several personal blogs began in the wake of these two blogs, so much so that the 1996 online project and book 24 Hours in Cyberspace profiled many of the early online diarists.

It was in 1997 that early blogger Jorn Barger began his blog Robot Wisdom Weblog, coining the term "weblog" in the process. In either April or May 1999, on his blog Peterme. Com, Peter Merholz shortened the term "weblog" to the now familiar "blog." In 1998, before "weblog" would be shortened to "blog," one of the first blog publishing services would emerge. It would be Open Diary, which still exists to this day. The year 1999, the year the word "blog" was coined, would see even more blog publishing services emerge: Blogger (which hosts A Shroud of Thoughts and the majority of blogs of which I know), LiveJournal, and Diaryland.

By 2002 the mainstream media had begun to take notice of blogs. That year U.S. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott was driven from office after bloggers found his remarks at Sen. Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party to be racist. In 2005 CNN's Eason Jordan was forced to resign after he made comments that suggested the United States military was targeting journalists. It was not the mainstream media that caught his remarks--it was bloggers. With blogs suddenly hot news in the early to mid Naughts, blogging soon became a bit of a fad in the years 2004 and 2005. Blogs were regularly mentioned in the news and were often the focus of news stories. It was during this time period that A Shroud of Thoughts was first published.

The Origins of A Shroud of Thoughts

I had been aware of blogs well before 2004, but it had never occurred to me to start my own, even as they became a growing fad. Ultimately, A Shroud of Thoughts was started because of a girl. One of my female friends had her own blog. Reading her blog, it occurred to me that a blog of my own would be a good way to express myself, to be able to publish anything and everything I wanted to. As to how A Shroud of Thoughts was named, at the time it seemed that the popular fashion in blog titles at the time were things like "Various Thoughts," "My Thoughts, and so on." I remembered a line from Lord Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage canto iii stanza 113 in which the phrase "...a shroud of thoughts" occurs. I then borrowed it for the title of my blog. Childe Harold's Pilgrimage canto iii stanza 113 is quoted below:

I have not loved the world, nor the world me;
I have not flattered its rank breath, nor bow'd
To its idolatries a patient knee,
Nor coin'd my cheek to smiles, nor cried aloud
In worship of an echo; in the crowd
They could not deem me one of such; I stood
Among them, but not of them; in a shroud
Of thoughts which were not their thoughts, and still could,
Had I not filed my mind, which thus itself subdued.

Of course, even though at the time I wanted to write a blog, I was also wary of doing anything that might cost me my privacy. I then settled on using a pen name. Having always felt close to the god called Wóden by the Anglo-Saxons and Óðinn by the Old Norse speakers, I thought I would take inspiration from the interpretatio romana, whereby Wóden was identified with Mercury. I wanted my pen name to be Mercurius, but that was taken on Blogger, as was every other variation of "Mercury," except for the Middle English version--"Mercurie." The big irony is that while I worried so over having a nom de guerre in 2004, it seems to me now that I might as well not have bothered. Most of my fellow bloggers know me by my given name!

Here I should point out that I was not the only person who jumped on the blogging bandwagon in 2004. I know a lot of bloggers who did so: J. Maquis of Major Conflict, Jeremy of Popped Culture, Snave of Various Ecstacies, and Toby of Inner Toob.

I must admit that originally I had no real plan in mind for A Shroud of Thoughts. I knew I wanted to write about those things I liked, such as movies, TV shows, pulp magazines, comic books, and so on. Eventually it occurred to me that whether I had planned for it to be or not, A Shroud of Thoughts was a blog about pop culture. While I occasionally wrote about my personal life in the early days, I eventually ceased to do so, as I decided that the blog's focus would be that of pop culture. Too, I must admit that no one but myself was probably interested in my personal life anyhow....

Since then I cannot say that A Shroud of Thoughts has changed much. It was fairly early on that I started doing in depth articles on various aspects of pop culture and fairly early on that I even started doing series of in depth articles on pop culture. The blog has always been a bit of a pot pourri where I might review a movie one day, discuss music the next, and comic books on the day after that. The one major regret I have given A Shroud of Thoughts is that I do not write about literature nearly enough. I have written a good deal about pulp magazines and comic books, and even written about various works by Charles Dickens, but I think I should write more often on such subjects. Indeed, it's not as if this blog didn't take its title from a line in a poem by Byron....

Guest Bloggers

Anyhow, in celebration of the 1500th post of A Shroud of Thoughts, I thought I would invite anyone who wants to do so to write a guest post. Given this blog is about pop culture, it can be on any pop culture subject. Do you have a particular book you love? You can write about it here. A certain genre of movies you love? That could be used here too. Do you want to write about fashion? That also falls under the heading of pop culture. I only have two real ground rules. First, try to keep it clean. I consider this blog to be rated PG-13, so I won't use anything that graphically describes the sex scenes from Deep Throat. Second, please be civil. I won't post anything which attacks or defames individuals. You can feel free to offer creative criticism of various authors, directors, actors, et. al., but please don't insult anyone simply because you don't like them! In keeping with this, I won't publish anything that advocates hatred against various ethnicities, religious groups, subcultures, et. al.

Well, with that I will bring this 1500th post to a close. I must apologise if this blog post seemed a bit self absorbed, narcissistic, and egomaniacal. That having been said, it is not every day one writes his 1500th post!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Defining Reality Television

Earlier this week among the big news reported about the Emmy Awards was that Top Chef won   in what many claimed was an upset. Two thoughts went through my mind upon seeing such headlines. First, that this was not really news given what I saw as upsets in other, more prominent categories. Second, I thought, as I always do, that the whole category "Reality-Competition Programme" is rather nonsensical. To Top Chef is not a reality show. It is a talent show where the talent is cooking. Similarly, other shows nominated in this so called category are not reality shows either--they are either game shows (The Amazing Race) or talent shows (American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, Project Runway).

Quite simply, I think in the past ten years the terms "reality show," "reality series," "reality programme," and "reality television" have been misused to the point that they no longer have meaning. Indeed, they have been misused to the point that almost any unscripted programme is now called a "reality show." Such loose usage of the term "reality show" and related words is hardly borne out by the long history of the genre. While the term "reality show" would not be coined until the late Seventies, when it was used of such shows as Real People and That's Incredible, the genre had actually existed for decades by that point. Indeed, it is difficult to ascertain what the first reality show actually was, although it is certain the genre originated on radio. Indeed, among the earliest reality shows was Candid Microphone, which would make its way to television as Candid Camera. Candid Microphone debuted on June 28, 1947. Candid Camera debuted on August 10, 1948. The concept behind the show was simple. Concealed microphones (on the radio version) or cameras (on the television version) would capture ordinary people faced with bizarre situations. It was the direct ancestor of a subgenre of reality shows which can only be described as prank shows--shows such as Punk'd.

Another forerunner of modern reality shows was Art Linklettter's House Party. In many respects House Party was a talk show, but it also featured segments with elements of game shows and even reality shows. In particular, the segment called "Kids say the Darnedest Things (which would eventually be spun off into a show all its own in the Nineties)," in which Art Linkletter interviewed children. This segment was also a forerunner of the modern day reality show. The radio show Nightwatch, which ran from 1954 to 1955, was another early reality show. The series recorded one day in the job of various police officers, making it a direct ancestor of Cops. The direct ancestor of such shows as The Real World, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, and Jersey Shore would be a PBS mini-series called An American Family. An American Family followed an seven member, nuclear family through 300 hours of footage. Unlike many latter day reality shows, such as The Real World and The Jersey Shore, An American Family was filmed in documentary style and tended to be more educational than exploitative.

It was in 1979 that Real People debuted on NBC . The show basically featured reports on people with unusual hobbies, strange professions, unique abilities, and so on. The show would prove to be extremely popular, resulting in similar shows such as That's Incredible on ABC. It was at this time that the term "reality show" was coined. The term was not only used of Real People and That's Incredible, but of the old timer Candid Camera. It was not used of game shows, dating shows, or talent shows.

Looking to the use of term "reality show" prior to the Naughts, I believe that a reality show could be defined as "any show which seeks to portray realistic situations, events which are actually happening, and which centres on ordinary people or, at least, actors in situations where they are not acting." This would exclude game shows, as it is safe to say that the average person does not have to answer trivia questions to win a new car or perform ludicrous stunts to win $100,000 on a regular basis. Dating shows, which are essentially a subgenre of the game show, would be excluded because, while human beings do compete in the world of dating, they generally do not do so by answering silly questions asked by the object of their desire. Talent shows would be excluded under this definition as singing, dancing, cooking, or what have you on a stage is something the average person does not do on a regular basis unless they are a professional singer. I might add that if somehow we could include talent shows under the heading of reality shows, then variety shows would have to be included as well. I very seriously doubt anyone is ready to include The Ed Sullivan Show or The Smother Brothers Comedy Hour under the heading of "reality shows," even given the loose usage of the term these days.

Of course, the sad fact is that since 2000 the term "reality show" has been used of shows that are essentially game shows, dating shows, or talent shows. Prior to the current usage of the term "reality show" in the Naughts, no one would have dreamed of calling The Price is Right a "reality show." Despite this shows that are obviously game shows have been consistently labelled "reality shows" for the past ten years. Let's face it, the central focus of Survivor and The Amazing Race is not showing people in realistic situations, but on the competition in the shows. At best Survivor and The Amazing Race are game shows with elements of reality shows. Despite consistently being called "reality shows," they are better called "game shows." They are no more reality shows than The Price is Right, Let's Make a Deal, or the positively ancient Truth or Consequences (which debuted on radio in 1940 and on television in 1941, as part of an experimental broadcast).

Just as there have been game shows labelled "reality shows," so too have dating shows, which are really just a subset of game shows.The Bachelor and The Bachelorette have all been labelled "reality shows." On each of these shows, however, the focus of the series is not portraying people in realistic situations, but in the competition between several suitors to win the hand of a single man or woman. They are basically variations on the same idea as The Dating Game, that old show from the Sixties which coined the term "bachelorette." When The Dating Game debuted the term "reality show" did not even exist. After it was coined in the late Seventies, no one ever thought to call The Dating Game a "reality show." In reality, The Bachelor and The Bachelorette are no more reality shows than The Dating Game. They are dating shows with some characteristics of reality shows.

Finally, talent shows in the past ten years have regularly been called "reality shows." Indeed, American Idol was nominated in the Emmy category "Outstanding Reality-Competition Programme." Now talent shows have a particularly long history Major Bowes Amatuer Hour  debuted on radio in 1934. Following Major Bowes' death, Ted Mack would continue the series under the name The Original Amateur Hour. It made the move to television in 1948, debuting on the DuMont Network. It ran for sixteen years. All talent shows which have aired since Major Bowes Amateur Hour owe something to that series. Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts (which debuted on radio in 1946 and on television in 1948), The Gong Show (which aired in the Seventies), and Star Search (which ran from 1983 to 1995) all owe their existence to Major Bowes' original idea. None of these shows, not even Star Search (which debuted after the term "reality show" was coined) were ever described as "reality shows." That being the case, there is no reason to describe American Idol, America's Got Talent, or Dancing with the Stars as "reality shows" either. These are talent shows. Here I must point out that the talent of any particular talent show need not be the traditional dancing, singing, acting, prestidigitation,  or comedy routines. The Apprentice is a talent competition where the talent is running a business. And as stated above, Top Chef is a talent show where the talent is cooking.

To the misuse of the term reality show classes shows which are not related in any way, shape, or form in the same class, a class in which they do not belong. Even before the term "reality show" began to lose its original meaning circa 2000, the term embraced a wide variety of sorts of shows. It embraced shows which purported to show the reality of people living together (The Real World), the documentation of various specific events (Cops), shows with reports done for entertainment rather than news (Real People) and prank shows (Candid Camera). These shows at least have in common the fact that their primary purpose is to show ordinary people in real or purportedly real situations. American Idol does not show people in real situations, neither does Survivor, The Bachelor, or Top Chef. It's time to call a spade "a spade" and to stop using the term of diamonds, hearts, or clubs. If it's a game show, it's a game show. If it's a dating show, it's a dating show. If it's a talent show, it's a talent show. None of them are reality shows.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Billy Liar (1963)

Billy Liar (1963) is a hard film to classify. It has the look of the British "kitchen sink" films that came before it, but it eschews much of the realism of those films. It has the feel and style of the Swinging London films which it influenced, but it is not set in London. The characters are true to life and could come from any Northern English village, but the film indulges so much in fantasy it can quite aptly be described as escapist. Inmany respects, Billy Liar is a film in a class all its own.

Billy Liar was based on the 1959 novel of the same name by Keith Waterhouse. The novel was previously adapted as a three act play in 1960 by Mr. Waterhouse and Willis Hall. The movie draws upon both of these sources and expands upon them, creating possibly the only comedy to emerge from the British New Wave. Like the novel, the movie is set in the small, fiction Yorkshire town of Stradhoughton. It centres on William Terrence Fisher, known to one and all as "Billy," a young man with an active imagination who spends much of his time daydreaming. Indeed, Billy often tries passing off his fantasies as reality, resulting in the insult uttered in the film (and hence the title of the novel, play, and movie) "Billy Liar." Billy's fantasies and his tendency to weave tales based on them has an impact on his life, in his relationships with his family, his employers, his co-workers, and his three girlfriends (two of whom he is engaged to).

For 1963 Billy Liar was in many ways a revolutionary, even a subversive film. It utilised the same cinema vérité look of the kitchen sink dramas as well as the realistic settings of those film. In the end, however, it is about as far from a kitchen sink drama as The Beatles' movie Help! Not only is Billy Liar a very funny comedy, where the humour often comes fast and furious, but it has several fantasy sequences in which Billy's daydreams are brought to life on the screen. While Billy Liar looks like the kitchen sink dramas, then, it feels much more like the later Swinging London films, such as A Hard Day's Night, Help, Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment, and Smashing Time. Billy Liar was then a very new and very different film from anything before or during 1963. It is surprising in some ways that it was a box office success in Britain.

Of course, the reason Billy Liar was a hit is that it is a very well done movie. Much of  this is due to the script, adapted by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall.  In many respects Messrs. Waterhouse and Hall expanded on their previous work, insuring that the movie would have a life all its own apart from the novel and the play. It is a very intelligent screenplay, and in many ways a very daring one too. It is one of the first movies in the English language in which a swear word is uttered. At one point Billy's mother actually uses the words "pissed," a word unknown even in the dramas of the time!

Messrs Waterhouse and Hall's script is brought to life by one of the best casts in the history of British film. Sir Tom Courtenay played Billy in one of his earliest films. A Northerner himself, Sir Tom brought Billy so much to life that it hardly feels as if he was playing a role--he is Billy Fisher. The actors playing Billy's parents also came from the North. Indeed, Wilfred Pickles, who played Billy's father, came from Yorkshire himself. Generally a man known for being laid back and easy going, Mr. Pickles is surprising harsh as Mr.Fisher, constantly railing against Billy and his fantasies. Mona Waterhouse is equally great as Mrs. Fisher, a woman constantly working around the house and finding her wits tested by her son. Perhaps the most impressive performance is given by Julie Christie in her film debut. Julie Christie played Liz, the woman of Billy's dreams, and the only person who seems to understand Billy. Like Billy, she too wishes to escape the dullness of Northern England for the bright lights of London.

It is John Schlesinger's direction which deftly blends this combination of kitchen sink realism and Swinging London fantasy into a whole. Even though the movie features several sequences dramatising Billy's often wild flights of fantasy, the film still seems grounded in reality. Even more so than the more serious kitchen sink dramas, Billy Fisher and his friends, family, and neighbours, seem like real people. This feeling of realism is heightened by the fact that Billy Liar was filmed on actual locations in Northern England. The movie was filmed in the Yorkshire towns of Baildon (where Billy's house is located) and Bradford (where the street scenes and scenes in other areas were filmed). The only scenes filmed in London were the interiors (filmed on sound stages) and one in Marleybone Station in London (which stood in for the Central Station in Bradford).

Billy Liar would prove to be an extremely influential movie. Its wry humour, flights of fantasy, and touches of surrealism would have a direct impact on A Hard Day's Night and hence the Swinging London films. It would firmly establish the careers of both Sir Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie. It would also set the tone of British comedy in films for several years to come. Revolutionary in its time and influential long afterwards, Billy Liar is essential viewing for anyone who loves the British films of the Sixties.

Monday, August 30, 2010

62nd Annual Emmy Awards

I have to admit that I did not watch the Emmy Awards last night. After all, they aired against both Leverage and Mad Men. From what I read in the news today, however, it seems to me there were a few upsets last night (and not I am not talking about Top Chef, whatever that it is...).

No, what I am talking about is the Emmy Award for Best Comedy Series. For the past three years 30 Rock has deservedly had a lock on the category. To me it seemed a sure thing that 30 Rock would win the Emmy for Best Comedy Award again this year. It turns out, however, that Modern Family won the award instead. Now that is a real upset. As to whether it bothers me that 30 Rock, my favourite comedy currently on the air, lost, it really does not. Okay, I do not believe that Modern Family is as well written or as well acted or as funny as 30 Rock. But then I must confess I do not watch Modern Family. From the clips I have seen, it does seem like it is a very funny, well written, and well acted show. It is not as if 30 Rock had lost to Three and a Half  Men instead....

I was also surprised that Alec Baldwin did not win Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for his role in 30 Rock again this year. He lost to Jim Parsons, who plays Sheldon Cooper on Big Bang Theory. I must confess I like Big Bang Theory and Sheldon is easily my favourite character on the show. That having been said, I must question if he should be in this category. After all, in my mind the main character is Leonard, hence the show's lead actor is Johnny Galecki. I suppose that may be nitpicking and I must confess, it is good to see Mr. Parsons get recognised for his work.

Another upset in my mind was The Daily Show with Jon Stewart taking the Outstanding Music, Variety, or Comedy Series category. This might seem odd to some, given it has won the past six years in a row. That having been said, I thought this year The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien was a sure thing. After all, Conan O'Brien did a fantastic job on The Tonight Show, bring the show to a level of quality it had not been in, well, seventeen years. And it seemed to me that Academy of Television Arts and Sciences members would vote for Conan just as a means of sending a message to both NBC and Jay Leno. It turns out I was wrong. Of course, here I must again bring up the fact that The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson was snubbed. Not only should it have been nominated in this category. It should have won.

In my mind, the only set of categories in which there were no real surprises and no real upsets this year were the drama categories. Mad Men won Outstanding Drama Series, as expected. Bryan Cranston won the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for Breaking Bad, as expected. Erin Levy and Matt Weiner won Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series, as expected. To me there were only a few categories in which one could quibble about the winners. Personally, I cannot understand how Archie Panjabi of The Good Wife best Elizabeth Moss, Peggy Olson of Mad Men, in the Outstanding Supporting Actress category. To me, Miss Moss is one of the best actors in a cast full of great actors. There's no other supporting actress quite as impressive in her talent as she is.

In the end I think last night's Emmy Awards was no different than most. In fact, it seems to me that every Emmy Awards is nearly a microcosm of the whole history of the awards. There are a few surprises, where starkly original series win. There are times when the awards are predictable. And there are times when those who do not deserve to win somehow do win. This was true of last night and it has been true of the whole history of the awards.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

TV Writer Jackson Gillis Passes On

Jackson Gillis, a television writer who wrote for shows ranging from The Adventures of Superman to The Man From U.N.C.L.E. to Columbo to Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman in a career that spanned four decades, passed on August 19, 2010 at the age of 93.

Jackson Gillis on August 21, 1916 in Kalama, Washington. When he was a teenager, Mr. Gillis's family moved to California. He attended Fresno University and Stanford University, from which he graduated. Following graduation he went into acting. He worked in Britain as well as the Barter Theatre in Virginia. During World War II he served as a U.S. Army Intelligence officer in the Pacific Theatre. After he was demobilised, he and his wife moved to Los Angeles where he took up writing for radio shows. He wrote on such programmes as The Whistler, Let George Do It, Jeff Regan Investigator, and others.

It was in 1952 that he began his long career in television, writing an episode of Racket Squad. He would write several episodes of I'm the Law and The Adventures of Superman. He also wrote several episodes of  The Mickey Mouse Club serials "Spin and Marty" and "The Hardy  Boys" From 1954 to 1960 he also wrote many episodes of Lassie. During the Fifties Mr. Gillis also wrote episodes of Passport to Danger, The Millionaire, Zorro, Sugarfoot, and Bronco.

In 1959 Jackson Gillis would begin writing for Perry Mason. He served as the show's script consultant from 1959 to 1960 and as a producer from 1961 to 1965. In all Mr. Gillis would write twenty four episodes of the show, making him one of its most significant contributors. In the Sixties he would write for such shows as The Fugitive, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Wild Wild West, Tarzan, I Spy, Lost in Space, Mannix, Bonanza, Ironside, and Land of the Giants.

In 1971 Mr. Gillis began writing for Columbo. Beginning in 1972 he served as the show's executive story consultant. In all he would write eleven episodes of the show. He also served as a story consultant on the show Petrocelli, although curiously he wrote no episodes. He was executive consultant on the show The Chisholms in 1980, for which he also wrote no episodes. Throughout the Seventies he wrote for such shows as Hawaii Five-O, Cade's County, O'Hara Treasury, Mission: Impossible. Longstreet, The F. B. I., Barnaby Jones, The Snoop Sisters, Cannon, Wonder Woman, and Paris.

In the Eighties and Nineties Jackson Gillis wrote on such series as Code Red, Knight Rider, Murder She Wrote, Columbo, and Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.

Jackson Gillis's career reads like a history of the first four decades of television. Indeed, one of the first shows he for which he wrote was The Adventures of Superman and the last was Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. He was there at the beginning when many action-adventure series and dramas were only a half hour in length. He was there in the early days when juvenile shows such as Lassie and The Adventures of Superman aired in prime time. He worked in the Sixties when spy shows were the craze, and in the Seventies when detectives reigned supreme. He wrote in nearly every dramatic genre that existed in television, from detective shows to spy shows to science fiction shows. Much of the reason Mr. Gillis had such a long career was that he was extremely versatile and adaptable. While his most common plots fit episodic television perfectly--plots which began with danger that only grows as the episodes progressed, resolved in the end when the hero finally took out the villain--he was able to adapt those plots to the times. For the juvenile shows of the Fifties, from Lassie to the serials on The Mickey Mouse Club, he wrote dialogue that was not so different from that he wrote for radio, somewhat cliche but never simplistic. For the spy shows of the Sixties he wrote the sophisticated patter typical of the genre.

Unlike many television writers, Jackson Gillis never created his own show. He was a producer on only one and a story consultant on a few others. This was perhaps natural, as he was not part of the television establishment, but a freelance writer selling his wares. Yet he had an enormous impact in shaping the last few seasons of Perry Mason, as well in shaping the character of Columbo from the earliest days of Columbo. He only won one Emmy and was nominated for only one other, both for episodes of Columbo. Still, there can be no doubt he was a very good writer. He wrote some of the best episodes of Perry Mason, Columbo, The Wild Wild West, and several other shows. Indeed, Jackson Gillis was both prolific and a man who did quality work. That explains how he had a career which lasted much longer than the average television writer.