Reviews

24 (1996)

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Show ImageOne of the most ambitious dramas to appear on American television, each season of this serialized political thriller centred on a day in the life of Jack Bauer and his work as an agent for the fictional Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU). Each season consisted of 24 episodes, one for every hour in the day. And the formula worked: 24 managed to capture a sizeable fan base-along with controversy over Bauer's actions, including torture and other punishments for those who crossed both America and Jack's own moral compass. But it made for riveting viewing-and it was probably the one American television series that clearly defined real events in the post-9/11 world. The series made its debut in the USA in November 2001 - nearly two months after the deadly attack on New York City's World Trade Center. 24's Los Angeles-based CTU was created to fight terrorism against America. (This was before the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, along with expanded and controversial counter-terrorism efforts during the Bush Administration.) The first season began on the day of California's presidential primary: Bauer was assigned to protect candidate and Senator David Palmer, the first African-American president (years before Barack Obama won the office in real life) from an assassination plot, while trying to save his own family that was held by those wanting to do harm to Palmer. Each episode featured a real-time clock, ticking down the hour minute by minute before and after commercial breaks. 24 also made liberal use of split-screen technology, showing different clips of various situations on the one television screen. (It was especially effective with the advent of high definition TV, with the wide screen helping to keep viewers in suspense).

Joel Surnow (a conservative Republican in real life) came up with the concept and approached fellow producer Robert Cochran, who initially dismissed Surnow's vision; the pair began work the following day. Fox executives liked the unique programme and signed on for a full season. Critics immediately took to 24, but initial US ratings were low. Still, Fox ordered a second series; thanks to a stronger lead-in (American Idol), and 24 doubled its audience. The series became a target of critics at a time the Bush administration began fighting the war in Iraq and tortured suspected terrorists. (Bauer's "interrogation" of suspects seemed to portray torture as an ends to justify the means-not to mention effective and showy.) That forced members of the U.S. military to meet with show's creators; they were urged to downplay the torture, fearing real-life soldiers would imitate the show's techniques. Indeed, the torture was reduced in later seasons, but the debate over 24 continued. Former president Bill Clinton felt torture should not be part of American policy, but noted "If you're the Jack Bauer person, you'll do whatever you do and you should be prepared to take the consequences."

Ultimately, the growing opposition to the Iraq war probably spelled doom for 24, as ratings fell for the final seasons. 24 was not unnoticed by the Academy of Television of Arts and Sciences; it was nominated for 68 Emmys and ultimately won 20, including best drama and best actor for Kiefer Sutherland (both in 2006), along with outstanding writing for the show's pilot episode. It was also included in the American Film Institute's best television series of 2005. The AFI probably summed up the 24 experience as well as anyone could: "This is a masterpiece of episodic storytelling and continues to deal with the bright colour issues in America's war on terror with a degree of difficulty that is off today's television charts. Powerful and involving, with characters who are more fully realized with each season, the show still has viewers on the edge of their seats, both riveted to the action and begging, pleading for a modicum of relief." (Review: Mike Spadoni)

3RD ROCK FROM THE SUN (1996)

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Show ImageOriginally pitched to the ABC Network in the USA, 3rd Rock From The Sun was the creation of Bonnie and Terry Turner, co-writers of the movies Wayne's World and Coneheads, who would later write another hit US series, That 70's Show. However the network turned '3rd Rock' down before it was snapped up by NBC as a midseason replacement in early 1996. ABC executives were stunned when the show quickly became a top-20 hit for its competition. In the spirit of Mork & Mindy and My Favourite Martian, '3rd Rock' was a space age "fish out of water" sitcom. A group of four aliens were ordered to visit Earth and observe how we live. To blend in, the four turned into human life forms and lived together in a cramped attic apartment located in the fictional town of Rutherford, Ohio. Leader of this motley pack was Commander Dick Solomon, who became a university physics professor with eyes for earthling and fellow teacher Dr. Mary Albright. Living with Dick was first assistant Sally, a tall woman who tries to explore the female species, but doesn't quite fit the mould of a typical woman, having originally been Dick's non-female first lieutenant, retaining all that being's aggressive traits. Other members of the Solomon's extra terrestrial family included teenage scientist Tommy, really an old man trapped in an adolescent's body; and the oddball Harry, the wackiest of a wacky quartet.

At its best, 3rd Rock From The Sun was an off-centre look at our lives from the aliens' innocent point of view as they learn everything about Earth - including illness, sex, TV, smoking, death and so many other issues, important or otherwise. Unfortunately, NBC treated the series as a battering ram against popular shows on other networks, and it was moved from timeslot to timeslot, with disastrous results. In its six-year run, '3rd Rock' was aired in 18 different timeslots, more than any other US television series ever. Despite low ratings, the show managed to get renewed year after year. But in early 2001, its luck ran out. The final episode (which aired May 22nd, 2001) wrapped up the aliens' mission as they were ordered back home. Singer Elvis Costello closed out the series by crooning (what else) "Fly Me To The Moon." Although its quality was somewhat uneven in its later years, '3rd Rock' was a generally well-acted and funny show-John Lithgow was a revelation in his first comedic role and the series as a whole was a refreshing change from the "single people in the city" sitcoms that proliferated during the late 1990's. (Review: Mike Spadoni)

T.H.E. CAT (1966)

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Show ImageT.H.E. Cat, or Thomas Hewitt Edward Cat, to give him his full name, is a professional bodyguard who offers protection to those who need it-generally those who are marked for death. The reformed cat burglar didn't start out his professional career in a life of crime but as a circus performer, which stood him in good stead when he decided to work on the right side of the law. For as a bodyguard he needed to be silent, stealthy and ruthless as he moved through the night dressed in black with only a knife for protection. He lives in San Francisco where he maintains an office at the Casa del Gato nightclub, owned by his friend Pepe, a Spanish gypsy whose life Thomas once saved. From here he undertakes cases that fall outside the normal province of the police, but the police are more than happy to employ his services. His closest ally at the SFPD is a one-armed police officer; Captain MacAllister. T.H.E. Cat, which aired on NBC from September 1966 to 1967 and was seen in the UK on the Rediffusion network, made a star of good-looking, rugged Robert Loggia. By the time Loggia came to the role he had already appeared in hundreds of television roles, as well as stage and screen parts. But interviewed at the time he said that T.H.E. Cat was by far the most strenuous part he'd ever played. Loggia turned down the offer of a stunt double to undertake some of the more tricky or dangerous sequences himself.

"I don't think audiences are as easily fooled today as they were years ago," he said. "They know when they're being cheated. By doing these stunts myself we are able to give the show far more realism, and surely that's what every producer wants, and every actor, too." The show demanded that he kept himself in tiptop condition. "I have to be fit for those things the script calls for," he said. "But I've always believed in keeping fit. I've been keen on athletics and sport all my life."

TAKE THREE GIRLS (1969)

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Show Image Drama series devised by Gerald Savory about three single girls sharing a London flat between the end of the 'swinging' sixties and the start of the 'glam' seventies. They were: posh cello-playing deb Victoria Edgecombe (Liza Goddard), failed actress Kate (Susan Jameson) and Cockney art student Avril (Angela Down). Each week the story concentrated on the ups and downs of one girl in particular (episode titles would sometimes reflect this-the first one was titled 'Kate, Stop Acting', episode three was 'Requiem For Cello In SW3') giving the series something of an anthology feel. Successful enough to return for a second series although when it did only Victoria remained (Kate had got married and Avril had taken a job in Paris) and she was now joined by new flatmates Jenny (Carolyn Seymour), a young journalist, and American psychology graduate Lulie (Barra Grant). A host of guest stars appeared in the series, among them Stephanie Cole, Peter Bowles, Sally Thomsett, Anthony Valentine and Maurice Denham were all on their way to television immortality. Eleven years later the original girls (and actresses) were reunited for Take Three Women - four episodes shown on BBC2. Victoria was a widow with a young daughter, single Kate had a 13-year old son and Avril owned an art gallery. Gerald Savoury produced the later series and the reunion was completed when the group Pentangle, who performed the original theme music ('Light Flight') reformed to provide the music once more.

TAKE YOUR PICK (1955)

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Classic British quiz show with genial host Michael Miles. "Take the money or open the box...?" Click Here for review

THE TALES OF EDGAR WALLACE (1960)

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Show Image Richard Horatio Edgar Wallace was a prolific British crime writer, journalist and playwright, who wrote 175 novels between 1898 and 1932. In 1959, Nat Cohen and Stuart Levy, managing directors of distributor Anglo Amalgamated (UK), acquired the film rights for the entire Wallace library. Over the next four years (1960 - 64) 40 Tales of Edgar Wallace stories were filmed. Because they have been shown as The Edgar Wallace Mystery Hour (or Theatre) on US TV and also been used in the UK as late night fillers, many viewers believe the Edgar Wallace series to be have been made for television. But they were originally produced for the cinema screen.

Produced at Merton Park Studios in South West London, the Edgar Wallace films were of the low-budget variety, often filmed in the space of a week in the studios and the neighbouring streets and starring mainly British actors who were paid on a daily basis. They were B-Movies which often accompanied the main feature in the days when you got two films for the price of one. Responsible for producing the films was Jack Greenwood who had churned out similar productions such as the Scotland Yard series (1953-61) introduced by criminologist Edgar Lustgarten. The Edgar Wallace films are also remembered for their distinctive opening guitar theme, Man Of Mystery*, over a revolving bust of Wallace, although less than half of the films originally opened like this.

The first film to go before the cameras was 1960s The Clue of the Twisted Candle starring Bernard Lee, and this, like all subsequent Wallace tales had to be updated to bring it into the 1960s. (Twisted Candle for example was originally written in 1916). It should also be noted that not all of the filmed Edgar Wallace Tales were written by Edgar Wallace. When shown on US television the films were edited down to fit into a sixty-minute time slot. Due to the way the TV series was packaged there is some confusion as to how many Edgar Wallace Tales were told. On US TV (and later in the UK) some British B-Movies not made for this particular series simply had the Edgar Wallace titles and theme added to them (this may be true of some films originally released under the Scales of Justice series - 1962 to 1967). The last film to be shot under the Tales of Edgar Wallace banner was Face of a Stranger in 1964. Many British stars appeared throughout the series including Harry H. Corbett, Paul Daneman, Jack Hedley, Patrick Allen, Michael Gough, Alfred Burke, John Le Mesurier, Jack Watling, Rosemary Leach, Dawn Addams and others, many appearing in more than one film.

The Nat Cohen and Stuart Levy contract was not exclusive and the Danish/German company Rialto also obtained film rights from the Edgar Wallace estate although these met with little commercial success. So although not strictly a TV series, the US TV syndication and the films often repeated appearance on British television, adequately qualifies The Tales of Edgar Wallace a place in Television Heaven. (Review: Marc Saul)

* It is unclear if the version of the theme tune "Man of Mystery" played over the credits was recorded by The Shadows. It is certainly a different version from the one that appeared on the 'b' side of their 1960 hit single 'Apache.' The theme was written by Michael Carr (1905 - 1968), real name Maurice Alfred Cohen, best remembered for the song 'South of the Border (Down Mexico Way)', written with Jimmy Kennedy.

Among Carr's other compositions was the Shadows' hit 'Kon-Tiki' and he co-wrote the theme song to the TV series The White Horses.

TALES OF THE RIVER BANK (1960)

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Show ImageCanadian series that was shown in Britain from 1963 as part of the Watch With Mother strand, and repeated until 1971 when a new series of episodes were filmed. 'Riverbank' told the tales of Hammy The Hamster, Roderick The Rat, GP (a guinea pig) and their assorted animal friends. What made this series different was that there was no animation or puppets involved and the production team of Dave Ellison and Ray Billings used real rodents filmed at high speed, which was then played back slower to make their movements seem more deliberate and natural. The creatures homes were furnished as human homes and they transported themselves around in cars, planes or boats. The stories were dubbed by children's favourite Johnny Morris (Animal Magic). In the 1970's the series was aired by ITV which was then repeated on Channel 4 in 1993 as Further Tales of the Riverbank.

TARGET LUNA (1960)

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Show Image Early science fiction series for ATV produced by Sydney Newman, the man who would eventually deliver the longest running TV science fiction series of all time; Doctor Who. Made for Sunday afternoon family viewing, Target Luna placed a small group of youngsters in the central roles among a group of adults and made them the heroes of the piece. It was a well established format that would remain a staple of all Children's television drama series for years to come. Written by Malcolm Hulke and Eric Paice, the scene was set on a rocket isle off Scotland (though the open-air sequences were filmed off the Essex coast). Professor Wedgwood (David Markham) is ready to send the first man to the moon. This being 1960s children's fiction, the Prof is joined (of course) for the Easter holiday's by his three offspring; Valerie (17-year old Sylvia Davies), Geoff (future Doctor Who traveling companion Michael Craze, also 17) and Jimmy (Michael Hammond, 13). Jimmy's pet hamster, Hamlet, also has a big share in the adventures. The children arrive just as the planned project goes horribly wrong and the sole astronaut falls ill. With the island cut off by heavy seas the professor's children cannot go home to London and instead are given a guided tour of the entire secret establishment! A computer operator shows them round the rocket station and the controls are explained to them. Then Jimmy gets lost in the control room in a maze of dials and flashing light panels, and accidently sets off the alarm which launches him into space. That is the start of the drama in outer space that has the world holding its breath.

The drama concerned itself from the point of view that getting a man into space is easy; the big problem is bringing him safely back into Earth's atmosphere. "We soon see," said Malcolm Hulke (unkowingly prophesying a scenario that would be played out for real exactly a decade later), "how the plight of one human being in an Earth-bound rocket catches the imagination of the whole world. Radar stations-Russian, American, British and others-are linked in a global effort to bring the rocket home." The series was broadcast over six successive weekends finishing at the end of May; but it didn't end there. It proved successful enough to return (with a number of cast changes) in September as Pathfinders In Space and subsequent series under different titles (Pathfinders To Mars, Pathfinders To Venus, Plateau Of Fear, City Beneath The Sea and Secret Beneath The Sea) kept it going until 1963, by which time Sydney Newman had left ITV and was making plans to launch Doctor Who (which followed in November 1963). During the series run a number of now-familiar TV faces got early exposure to the viewing public, among them Frank Finlay, John Barron and Gerald Flood. (Adapted from the original TV Times review by Guy Cheviot)

TAXI (1978)

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Show Image In the late 1970's, ABC signed four of MTM Productions' best producers to develop new series. (James Brooks, Ed Weinberger, Stan Daniels and David Davis each worked on or helped create such classic sitcoms as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show and Rhoda. The quartet created the "John Charles Walters" production company (Walters was fictional) and bought the rights to a newspaper article about cab drivers. From there, the four developed a workplace "gang comedy" about a group of off-centre employees at New York City's Sunshine Cab Company. The father figure and only "career" cab driver of the bunch was Alex Rieger, the one everyone looked to for advice. His co-workers included divorced mother and art gallery assistant Elaine Nardo; boxer Tony Banta; aspiring actor Bobby Wheeler; student John Burns and immigrant mechanic Latka Gravas (Andy Kaufman), who came from an undetermined country. Best of the best was the short, manipulative dispatcher Louie DePalma (Danny De Vito) and ex-1960's hippie "Reverend" Jim Ignatowski (Christopher Lloyd). The De Palma character served as a springboard for the vertically-challenged De Vito, who went on to a successful acting and directing career after Taxi. The show also helped Kaufman earn a reputation as a controversial comic; that legend continued even after his death in 1984.

Like MTM and the other comedies from the four creators, Taxi featured well-written situations and actors who brought dimension to what could have been one-note, cardboard characters. Unlike MTM and the others, the show was aimed to a mostly male audience. Following ABC's strong comedy lineup of Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley and Three's Company, Taxi drove straight into television's top ten soon after its September debut. But critical acclaim and a loyal fan base couldn't keep the show on the air indefinitely. In 1980, ABC in America moved the series from its comfortable Tuesday slot to Thursday nights, where it fell out of the top 20 to 53rd place. In 1982, ABC cancelled it, the same year show producers Glen and Les Charles and director James Burrows left to create their own "gang comedy" on NBC-a little show called Cheers. Pay cable network HBO made a bid to revive Taxi, but it was NBC that brought the show back. The network, which was mired in third place, promoted Taxi as part of what ads called "the best night of television on television". It was no idle boast. The NBC Thursday schedule for the fall of 1982 featured the well-done series version of the film Fame, newcomer Cheers, the transplanted Taxi and the groundbreaking police drama Hill Street Blues.

With ads declaring "Same time, better network," NBC launched the new lineup and hoped for the best. Only Hill Street Blues made it into the top-20 that season; Cheers was at the bottom of the ratings but showed enough critical promise for NBC to nurture the show-a decision that would eventually pay off big. Fame left the NBC schedule for first-run syndication at the end of the season. As for Taxi, it finished its one and only NBC season in 73rd place, the worst showing in its five-year history. Not surprisingly, the series was cancelled-this time for good-and its 111 episodes immediately went into syndication. (Review: Mike Spadoni)