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A Couch Potato Shares His Twice-Baked Dreams

June 15, 2002|NOEL HOLSTON | NEWSDAY

Back around the time that "I want my MTV" was a trendy marketing slogan, I got it into my head that cable was going to be the answer to every couch potato's prayers--each of us individually, I mean. With more new channels every year, most of them desperate for cheap programming, every niche would be scratched, every series, special, movie and play ever telecast would be recycled somewhere, sometime.

Man, was I wrong. The economics of cable may allow for a channel devoted to golf or cooking but not one devoted to TV's own oddities and obscurities. Even TV Land, bless its backward-looking heart, has grown less adventurous with age and prosperity. It has inevitably become something like the classic rock stations that play "Stairway to Heaven" two or three times a day.

What I really long for is a cable channel where any oddball old show could pop up, where economic pressures are nil, where wild dreams come true. I want a TV Heaven.

Here, just to stimulate your nostalgia muscles and demonstrate the amazing array of largely untapped possibilities in the last 50 years of TV, is a list of series or genres that would reside in this sofa-spud's own private Idaho: premature-cancellation victims, lost classics, certified bizarros. Starting way, way back and working forward, the list:

1950s TV Noir: With FX's "The Shield" and HBO's "The Wire," the push toward more ambiguous and brutal crime series has never been stronger. But the darkening mood is nothing new. Detective series that aspired to the nihilistic tone and ominous lighting of 1940s film noir were all the rage on TV in the late 1950s and early '60s. Wouldn't it be cool to see some groupings of episodes of hard-boiled series such as "Peter Gunn," Lee Marvin's "M Squad," John Cassavetes' "Johnny Staccato" and the first, best "Mike Hammer," with Darren McGavin?

"Klondike"/"Acapulco" (1961-62): One episode of each of these two shows, which still represent the strangest make-over in TV history, would be nice. Starring James Coburn and Ralph Taeger, it began as an adventure show set during the Alaskan gold rush of 1898. When "Klondike" didn't click, NBC at midseason moved the time ahead 60 years, shifted the setting to Mexico and made Coburn and Taeger beach bums in the Mexican coastal resort. "Acapulco" didn't catch on, either, but wouldn't it be fun to see the "pilots" back to back?

"The Richard Boone Show" (1963-64): Does "24" have the most daring premise in series TV history? Nah. At best, it ties Boone's bold dramatic anthology. After consecutive hits with "Medic" and "Have Gun, Will Travel," he was such a hot property that NBC was willing to let him do anything to get him back. Boone's great, doomed notion was a standing repertory company: the same actors performing different parts and a different scenario each week. Some superb character actors, among them Robert Blake, Jeanette Nolan, Bethel Leslie and Harry Morgan, signed on. Their single season's worth of shows surely includes some gems.

"The Pruitts of Southampton" (1966-67): No classic is this one-season wonder, but mightn't it be a hoot to contrast its portrait of Long Island's East End with that of ABC's recent "reality" miniseries, "The Hamptons"? And what a cast! Besides Phyllis Diller playing the matriarch of an old-money family trying to hide its failing fortunes, regulars and semi-regulars included John Astin, Paul Lynde and Gypsy Rose Lee.

"Joe and Sons" (1975-76): An early casualty of CBS' 1975 lineup, this underappreciated comedy starred Richard Castellano as a single-dad factory worker. Bonus: Jerry Stiller, as Joe's pal, demonstrating the engaging irascibility that later would serve him so well in "Seinfeld" and "King of Queens."

"Rags to Riches" (1987-88) and "Cop Rock" (1990): Different as "Family Affair" and "NYPD Blue" but united by the risk they took: They were weekly musicals.

"Civil Wars" (1991-93): We shouldn't need a TV Heaven to see this terrific comedy-drama about divorce lawyers again. It would greatly enliven Court TV's schedule.

"Bakersfield P.D." (1993-94): Funny cops in sunny California, almost as satirically loony as "Police Squad!"

"The Job" (2001-02): Funnier cops in grimy New York. Yes, it's been less than two months since ABC canceled Denis Leary's prickly comedy, but it feels like longer.

*

Noel Holston writes about television for Newsday, a Tribune company.

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