Post Mortem September 2006

The Maestro of Jiggle TV

Aaron Spelling (1923–2006)

In his essay “The Myth of ‘Classic’ TV,” Terry Teachout argues just that—that, while The New York Times may regard The Sopranos as “the greatest work of American popular culture of the last quarter-century,” and The Nation may truly believe that the show’s “underlying themes evoke George Eliot,” in the end it will end and go away. As Teachout points out, before The Sopranos there were Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure and Hill Street Blues—and when was the last time you heard anyone say a word about them?

Indeed, the more “classic” your show, the more ephemeral it is. Getting into Ovid or Gregorian chant is a piece of cake next to getting into thirtysomething fifteen years on. Conceivably, one might find oneself in a motel room unable to sleep at four in the morning and surfing the channels come across St. Elsewhere. But they made 137 episodes of multiple complex interrelated plotlines all looping back to Episode 1: if you’ve never seen it before and you stumble on Episode 43, who the hell are all these people and what are they on about? By comparison, if you happen to catch, say, an episode of Naked City from the late ’50s, you might not know who the detectives are or recognize Billy May’s wailing theme tune, and the whole monochrome thing might be a bit of a downer, but you can still pass a pleasant hour with a self-contained one-hour cop drama. The “better” television got at its art, the more transient it became. I doubt The Sopranos will be an exception to this rule. Ninety percent of all the people who’ll ever be into it are already into it. That’s not true of Lucia di Lammermoor or “My Funny Valentine.”

But in between all the classics comes the stuff Aaron Spelling cranked out, year after year, decade after decade—The Mod Squad, The Love Boat, Dynasty, Beverly Hills 90210, 7th Heaven, the stuff nobody ever compares to Dickens or George Eliot. In a town where not so long ago Jerry Lewis demanded of some executive supremo, “What do you know? You’re twelve,” Aaron Spelling was 112, give or take, and still a power. He was like Afghanistan’s King Zahir at the post- Taliban loya jirga: the only old man in a land where male life expectancy is forty-three. His career stretched back to the dawn of television: he appeared in an episode of I Love Lucy, playing the pump jockey at the gas station in Bent Fork, Tennessee, to which Lucy, Ricky, Fred, and Ethel repair in order to visit Lucy’s country cousin, Tennessee Ernie Ford.

Spelling was given his entrée into writing and production by Dick Powell—the Dick Powell who introduced “Pettin’ in the Park” in Gold Diggers of 1933. A quarter century on, Powell was hosting Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theater on CBS, and young Aaron overheard him on the lot telling the head of the William Morris Agency that he was sick of the yawneroo intros he had to read for each episode: “In tonight’s story, Tom meets Jane, Jane turns out to be already married, and you’ll find out how they resolve their problems …” So Spelling went home and wrote six little intros that sidled up to tonight’s theme in a more whimsical way: Powell would be in a western graveyard reading tombstones heartfelt and less so (“Stole a cow that wasn’t his’n / was hung before he got to prison”). The star went for it, and for 125 bucks a pop Spelling wrote all the intros that season, and then graduated to writing episodes. If he liked a script, Powell would sing “I Only Have Eyes for You,” which he’d introduced in Dames (1934). Spelling heard a lot of “I Only Have Eyes for You” in those early years, and in the four decades afterward a lot of Americans mostly had eyes for him: one night in the ’70s, more than half the television sets in the country were tuned to Charlie’s Angels.

What is it that makes real classic TV? Flippy hair (Charlie’s Angels)? Shoulder pads (Dynasty)? A 1974 red Ford Torino (Starsky & Hutch)? A hokey sub-lounge theme song (The Love Boat)? An Anglo-French midget excitedly yelling “De plane! De plane!” (Fantasy Island)? Or some subtle combination of these elements that that schmuck who wrote Middlemarch could never have cooked up in a hundred years? Who knows? The networks didn’t. “Get rid of the little guy,” advised an NBC exec after the Fantasy Island pilot. Eventually Spelling did, but only after Hervé Villechaize demanded as much per episode as Ricardo Montalbán and hung on his trailer door a sign saying The Doctor of Sex. From The Mod Squad on, he gradually figured it out: new young talent but with a presiding father-figure type to hook the older crowd and plenty of room for starry guest shots. Charlie’s Angels was the ne plus ultra of the formula: three hot chicks at work, but you never saw their boss—i.e., that could be you, Mister Average Couch Potato, those gals are running around for.

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Mark Steyn is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and other publications.

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