The Greatest TV Show Ever?
January 29, 2012
"Do you think I'm crying because I have to die? I'm crying because I haven't lived!"
"Kill Me When I'm Young So I Can Die Happy"
1962 episode of Naked City
Nearly all the people that I associate with daily are fairly intelligent. It took me many years to find employment in a place where not one of my fellow employees is a total moron, or even a partial moron. That's why I'm dismayed when my well-educated coworkers and friends get so wrapped up in trash on TV, particularly the reality shows
in which the participants inflict cruelty on each other.
There always has been garbage on TV and viewers have been enthralled by certain programs, good and rubbishy, since 1948. However the ones who gathered at the watercooler to discuss I Love Lucy had an excuse. Television was a novelty and the Ricardos were an upwardly-mobile family, moving out to the suburbs, flying to Europe on airliners as many Americans in the 1950s were also doing, or aspiring to do.
Jackie Gleason's The Honeymooners also resonated with the same audiences because the Kramdens and Nortons were the people who weren't moving up. They were the colorful neighborhood characters that Americans were leaving behind for suburbs of middle-class decorum and uniformity.
Decades on, three generations have grown up in those suburbs in prosperous times. Most of the people that I know have always had the crucial needs filled. They find "love" (however they define that), they have kids, they enjoy leisure and recreation, they make more and more money as the years go by. Yes, there are challenges, but it is easier to deal with, say illness, if one has some dough in the bank and loved ones who care than it is if one has neither of those things.
None of my peers has a day on which he or she quits a job because he or she can't take it any more and then spends the family's last hundred bucks on a confirmation suit for a son.
Along with the smooth, straight path comes boredom. Boredom is, perhaps, the most unacknowledged condition of the time. For middle-class professionals who watch people getting kicked off the island or cooks being tongue-lashed by a chef, it is the late afternoon, the kind of late afternoon of the schoolboy that G.K. Chesterton wrote about, the hours of long shadows when the homework is done and the schoolboy turns to tormenting the cat.
It is not that viewers torment or even want to, but, like the Romans they watch torment. They wonder if the female detective who could use a camisole is going to make it with the hot stud who has just been assigned to the team.
Making the bored feel alive through escape and stimulation is largely the stuff of television. By the way, the need for escape and stimulation is why I believe, fantasy and, in cycles, horror are also popular. Life and death struggles have to take place in Middle Earth because they sure as Hell don't occur in Chevy Chase. Or do they?
All right. What I've just described is not the worst problem in the world. However it is not conducive to the great storytelling that the human race needs, whether the human race knows that it needs to hear great stories or not.
Escape art that stimulates and serves up cheese and beefcakes says nothing about the human condition. It does not interpret the daily life of people. It does not address or explore reality; I mean the full range of reality, the visible and invisible, the reality, for example, of Man the religious animal.
Eight Million Stories
Which brings me to the point of this, a TV show that you probably never heard of if you were born after the 1950s. First of all, The Naked City is a misnamed drama that inherited its title from a 1948 film-noire by which it was inspired.
A 2012 The Naked City would be about suburban cougars shedding their sundresses in front of cable guys. This one -- produced from 1958-1963, contemporaneously with The Twilight Zone and The Untouchables -- concerned a threesome of New York City detectives and characters whose lives play out in and around their 65th Precinct headquarters.
I suspect that The Naked City is obscure because unlike The Twilight Zone, I Love Lucy etc. it was too highbrow and grown-up oriented to be rerun through the national consciousness until it made axle-deep ruts. The original broadcast time on ABC was Wednesday, 10 pm, after the kiddies were in bed.
As far as I know, Herbert B. Leonard's ingenious production, created by Stirling Silliphant, was not aired for decades until it was recently added to the line-up of ThisTV, a broadcast version of TVLand (for those of you up-to-date people who get your television through a cable).
The next and first remarkable thing about The Naked City is that it was produced on location in New York City. Just about every scene, except those shot on the set of the 1905-era 65th Precinct HQ, was filmed in actual homes, restaurants, bars, stores, neighborhoods, even churches, the subway where green Lo-V cars from 1920 were still whirring through the IRT.
This on-site filming alone makes the show a gem. The viewer sees footage of places that are long gone such as the original Penn Station. I found one sequence shot in a huge Catholic religious goods store to be particularly interesting.
Because his drama was made in Manhattan and The Bronx, Leonard could draw on Broadway actors, real professional players, not punks who are put in front of cameras because they're cheese- and beefcakes. Naked City alumni who later made it big include Jack Klugman, Alan Alda and Dustin Hoffman, all of whom were laughably young when they were cast.
Another notable thing in the show is the scarcity of physical beauty. Its film-noire, black-and-white atmosphere is populated by the grotesque. Except for young, handsome detectives played by James Franciscus and later, Paul Burke, the characters are roly-poly, lumpy, horse-faced people dressed, of course, in horrible early 1960s clothes including those narrow-brimmed hats that have lately made a comeback.
But best of all about The Naked City are the stories, "the eight million stories" as narrator Lawrence Dobkin intones at episode-end. As in other shows of the time, including the Twilight Zone, the protagonists were men and women who weren't moving out to Levittown. They include parents who want better lives for their children, frustrated young folks, characters who struggle to escape the wakes of poor judgment, of their philosophies, of others' philosophies, men and women who face terrible crises, who pause in paralysis at enormous fork-in-the-road decisions.
The episode that I saw tonight was about a dying, loner woman whose father was an abusive, drunk nut, whose only boyfriend was murdered and who had never been in a bar or had a drink until she was forty-eight. Come to think of it, such a character would be ridiculed in a modern show.
Watch substantial drama with the gripping conflict that plays out in this masterpiece and you will be in peril of never again caring whether or not the blond lieutenant in Without a Trace of Law & Order has a date with the studmuffin forensic guy. You may even abandon all concern for Lady Mary in Downton Abbey.
Earlier I mentioned the Catholic religious-goods-store setting. Lieutenant Muldoon, a leading character who, in a landmark bit of scripting, is killed out of the show, is a member of The Holy Name Society. The Naked City is again remarkable in its matter-of-fact inclusion of religious faith. You seldom get the inkling from contemporary TV, but in real life, religious faith is indeed a matter of fact.
Stirling Silliphant and the others who wrote the show were tremendous storytellers. As the certainty and security of a couple generations evaporates with retirement funds and home values, The Naked City should be a blueprint for future storytellers who will help us to make sense of it all.