Rerun Junkie–All of Your Favorites Are Problematic

One of my favorite episodes of The Monkees is called “Monkees Chow Mein”. The four guys inadvertently intercept a fortune cookie filled with top secret information at a Chinese restaurant. The CIA get involved. BJ Hunnicutt is there. Hijinks ensue.

And Joey Forman plays the head Chinese guy, Dragonman.

If you’re not familiar with Joey Forman let me assure you that he is a very funny man who is definitely not Chinese. His portrayal of Dragonman involved scotch-taped eyes and a stereotyped accent. It’s a somewhat less obnoxious version of yellow face, but there’s no doubt that it’s yellow face.

It’s problematic, to say the very least.

So, how can it be one of my favorite episodes? Two reasons. One, it’s funny and most of the humor in it could have been achieved just as successfully by Joey Forman (and his right hand man, Gene Dynarski) not doing yellow face. The lines and the antics would have been just as funny because it had nothing to do with the stereotype they were portraying.

Yes, I realize there’s a lot of privilege involved that it allows me to approach this episode from that angle.

And two, being a rerun junkie means that I’ve learned to accept that my favorites are going to be problematic.

It’s a simple matter of history, really. These shows are a product of their time, whatever their time is. That’s why you see a lot of racist casting (e.g. white people playing minorities) in the ’50s, ’60s, and even into the ’70s. The stereotypes continued all through the ’80s and beyond.  Misogyny and sexism has run rampant for decades, so it’s always available in reruns. To be fair, the shows can’t help it. And it’s far too late for them to change.

That’s not to say any of it is right, of course. These things might have been common then, but even at the time, folks had problems with it. Pernell Roberts reportedly objected to the racist stereotypes of the minorities on Bonanza. And Van Williams repeatedly tried to get Bruce Lee a bigger role on The Green Hornet, which the producers reportedly refused because they didn’t want to give too much focus to a non-white actor instead of the star.

So, when it comes to reruns, it’s a matter of acknowledging that at the time this was the practice. They’re time capsules of cringe-worthiness, syndicated reminders of our sketchy, shady, seedy TV past.

Even shows that did their best to be socially conscious (for their time) still stumbled. For example, Barney Miller often tackled topical 1970’s issues, some of which are still relevant today. And it largely succeeded in addressing those issues, at least in an illuminating sort of way. But there are some episodes that missed the mark and as a result have aged terribly. The episode “Rape” attempted to address the laws (or lack of laws) pertaining to marital rape. However, done in the confines of a 30-minute comedy…yeah. The tone-deafness only rings clearer as the years go by.

These are the landmines you risk as a rerun junkie. It can make for uncomfortable viewing and in some cases all of the logical rationale can’t save you from the oogy feelings. There are now episodes of my favorite shows that I avoid because I just can’t.

Retaining perspective is the key. It’s a good thing that these issues are noticed and that they cause discomfort. It’s a sign that things have progressed (somewhat) and that the old status quo has long spoiled.

Ideally, I’d like to do in-depth posts about the different issues that crop while rerun-watching.

But for now, I continue to come to terms with my problematic favorites.

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2013 Blog Stats

Stats of SD in jawp

I’m sharing this not to brag, but because I think it’s funny. I’ve talked about certain blog stats of mine before and it’s always because it entertains me to see how and why people are attracted to my blog.

 

So here are some highlights.

 

Once again my most popular blog post was written in 2011. For the second straight year, my Rerun Junkie post on Starsky and Hutch has been number one.

 

In that same vein, of my top five posts of 2013, four were Rerun Junkie posts: Starsky and Hutch; Little House on the Prairie; Emergency!; and Barney Miller (please note that only one of them…Emergency!…was written and posted IN 2013).

 

The odd post out was my Megalomania–A Boobies Birthday Story. I imagine a whole lot of people were disappointed when they clicked on that link from their Google search.

 

Speaking of which, my top five search terms: Kiki Writes (whoohoo! I’m famous!); Starsky and Hutch; Adam and Mary Little House on the Prairie; Kim DeJesus; and Barney Miller cast. I’m pretty sure that everyone that searched Kim DeJesus was disappointed, too.

 

I think that’s what I like best about looking at these year-end stats. There’s actual data of how many people came to this blog with high hopes and left crushed.

 

It warms my black heart.

 

I look forward to continuing that trend in 2014.

 

Rerun Junkie–Characters: Stefan Kopeckne

Mr. KopeckneA good character makes a lasting impression.  Like Big Chicken on Hawaii Five-0, Stefan Kopeckne (the other character that lead so many people to my blog) was only on two episodes of Barney Miller, but that was enough to make him memorable.

Kenneth Tigar was actually in five episodes of the show from 1976 to 1981, but it was his first and last appearances that he played the unfortunate Mr. Kopeckne.

His first appearance in the episode “Werewolf” was the more memorable of the two. Mr. Kopeckne, brought into the station after causing a commotion in a park (and ruining Detective Harris’s [Ron Glass] suit in the process).  Upon questioning, it’s revealed that Mr. Kopeckne believes he’s a werewolf, cursed from birth.  He’s put in the cage to fret about his impending transformation which will come at midnight while the police officers just wait for Bellevue to pick him up, not really taking his claims that seriously.

It’s the transformation scene that really makes the whole episode and makes Mr. Kopeckne someone to remember.  He claims he can feel the hair on his legs rustling and he starts panting because his tongue is sweating, all the while Nick (Jack Soo) is trying to talk him out of it. Mr. Kopeckne climbs the bars and starts to howl when Barney (Hal Linden) comes in and yells at him, saying this is a police station, not a horror movie.

Kopeckne the werewolfIn the end, Mr. Kopeckne goes off to Bellevue with some hope as Barney has pointed out that the lack of lycanthropy must mean they’ve made some progress with it.

Mr. Kopeckne returns in “Possession”. This time his arrested for disorderly conduct and claims that it’s because he’s possessed.  Sure enough, questionable things start happening in the precinct and Mr. Kopeckne demands that the police chaplain give him an exorcism. Not quite as good as “Werewolf”, but Mr. Tigar goes the distance with it, for sure.

Really, all of the credit in the world goes to Mr. Tigar. He’s one of those actors that you’ve seen before, probably multiple times, but probably don’t know his name. The kind of guy who is so good at his craft that you remember the character over the actor behind it. He took a character that could have been absolutely ridiculous and unbelievable and gave it enough realistic gravity to make it believable and let the comedy play.  It was easy to believe that this guy had a screw loose enough to think he was a werewolf, but could still function for the most part. He created a character that could have easily recurred once or twice a season without getting overdone or boring.

It’s kind of a shame they didn’t.

I’d have loved to see what else Mr. Kopeckne, and Mr. Tigar, could have come up with.

Rerun Junkie– My Top Five Theme Songs

Music

I like a good TV show theme song. It sets the tone, you know. There are some fabulous theme songs out there. There are some clear cut classics and everyone has their own preferences. And being a rerun junkie such that I am, you had to know that I would have my own list of the best.

This is a very subjective top 5 and it’s one that’s not in any particular order because I’m wobbly like that. But odds are if you ask me what my favorite theme song is on any given day, it will be one of these.

It’s the harmonica that really makes it.

Come on, who doesn’t love that killer opening?

That opening bass line…and then it just wails.

The military drum beat backing those horns. Perfection.

It tells you everything you need to know about the show. You can sing along AND dance to it. It’s gold.

Rerun Junkie–Barney Miller

That opening baseline. That opening shot of the New York skyline. That eclectic bunch filling a rundown squad room. Do you know what I’m talking about? Even if you don’t, you’ll be humming it soon enough.

Barney Miller is a 70’s classic, running from 1974 to 1982, that took place in the detective’s squad room of the 12th precinct in New York City. Cops cite the show as one of the most realistic cop shows to be on TV. It showed the funny, ridiculous side of crime. While other cop shows dealt with the more serious crime like murders and drug rings, Barney Miller and company dealt with blind shoplifters, philosophical bums, and purse snatching stockbrokers. And they did it all while dealing with staff shortages, budget cuts, and a poorly working toilet.

Though they occasionally tackled heavier subjects (racism, homicide, rape), the show mostly centered on the detectives getting by and dealing with a host of criminals and victims just as varied and interesting as they were.

The original cast consisted of Barney Miller (Hal Linden), Stan “Wojo” Wojciehowicz (Max Gail), Phil Fish (Abe Vigoda), and Chano Amaguale (Gregory Sierra). Ron Harris (Ron Glass) and Nick Yemana (Jack Soo) were officially added as regulars by the second season. In the beginning, Barney’s wife Liz (Barbara Barrie) played a bigger role, but by the second season had diminished.

In the beginning…

The cast changed over the seasons. Gregory Sierra and Abe Vigoda both left for other series, which led to Steve Landesburg as Arthur Dietrich and Ron Carey as the long suffering Officer Carl Levitt joining the show. James Gregory also joined as Inspector Frank Luger. Jack Soo passed away in 1979 and was never replaced.

…at the end.

The integration of the new characters was pretty smooth. It felt like what would happen at a real precinct. People get transferred or retire and new people move in. Personalities didn’t have to be replaced. This kind of show called for individuality. And it allowed for growth.

Barney was the wise leader, gifted with compassion and a desire to do the right thing. Wojo started off as kind of a thick-skulled muscle head, but over the seasons revealed a big heart and actually showed some growth. Harris was a styled intellectual with a gift for writing and a love for the stock market. Dietrich was also an intellectual, but he was more of a walking encyclopedia with a wit so dry it could be used for kindling. Chano was a street smart guy that never failed to go out on a limb to get his job done. Nick hated filing, made terrible coffee, and had a love for gambling. Fish may have acted like life was the pits, but he dreaded enforced retirement and even kidney stones couldn’t keep him off the job. Inspector Luger was always going on about the good ol’ days, but he always had his detectives’ backs. Officer Levitt longed to be a detective and was enthusiastic about his job, but was often overlooked (he felt because he was short).

The great part about the show was that the guest stars were as much fun as the detectives and many of the actors were on several times as different characters. Peggy Pope, Oliver Clark, Don Calfa, Florence Halop, Sal Viscuso, Doris Roberts, Michael Tucci, A. Martinez, Phil Leeds, and Christopher Lloyd were all on multiple times.

They also had some great recurring characters. Jack DeLeon and Ray Stewart as Marty and Mr. Driscoll are two of my favorites (and two of the few gay characters on at the time). They also had Florence Stanley as Fish’s wife Bernice, Stanley Brock as Bruno Bender, George Murdock as Lt. Ben Scanlon, and Jack Somack as the often robbed Mr. Cotterman.

So many of the episodes are fan favorites, such as “Hash” in which Wojo brings in brownies made by his girlfriend and the detectives eat them not knowing that they’re laced with pot, and “Werewolf” in which Kenneth Tigar brilliantly plays Stefan Kopeckne who believes he’s, well, a werewolf (he comes back in an episode in a later season as the same character, this time believing he’s possessed by a demon). All of the episodes are quotable. My personal favorites (that I watch over and over again online) are “Smog Alert”, “Rain”, “Hair”, “Group Home”, and “Bus Stop”. And of course, “Jack Soo, a Retrospective” is a touching, out of character episode reflecting on Jack Soo and the character of Nick Yemana after Jack Soo passed away from cancer. When they raise their coffee mugs to him in the end, it’s a guaranteed tear jerker.

Also, the last scene of the series is probably one of the best done in television. No gimmicks, no tricks, just turning off the light and closing the door.

The female cops were few and far between (Linda Lavin, June Gable, and Mari Gorman all did time at the 12th), but that never bothered me much. I’d rather have an all male cast than a woman shoehorned in just because they think they have to have a woman in there. Those cases never end well. (For the record, I didn’t care much for Linda Lavin’s Detective Janice Wentworth, but I did like June Gable’s Detective Maria Battista and Mari Gorman’s Officer Rosslyn Licori.) And not all of the serious material was handled well (“Rape” is an incredibly awkward and uncomfortable episode, even more so now because of just how differently things are handled and viewed now as opposed to how they were then).

But the shortcomings are easily overlooked (particularly if you just skip “Rape” all together, which hurts me to say it since Joyce Jameson is in it and I love her). Despite the 70’s suits and references, there’s a timeless quality to the stories and the jokes. Granted, you probably couldn’t take a bomb into a New York police department so easily today (it happened at least four times during the show that I can remember off of the top of my head), but we can relate to the budget cuts and the layoffs and trying to do right even if it is against the rules.

Not to mention the desire for a cup of coffee and a decent toilet.

 

Where I Watch It

Rerun Junkie

I am a rerun junkie. I always have been and I feel like I always will be. If a show has been off the air for ten years or more, there’s a good chance I will find it and watch the hell out of it.

The 70’s are my favorite era, I think, particularly 70’s cop shows. Oh! Starsky and Hutch, CHiPs, Hawaii 5-0, Barney Miller, Banacek, Barretta, Charlie’s Angels, Rockford Files, I watched them all. I didn’t miss out on out on other hits, either. I enjoyed many episodes of Sanford and Son, All in the Family, and, of course, M*A*S*H. I can quote so many of those episodes word for word.

The old Nick-at-Nite was a great supply of reruns. Without it, I never would have been able to watch Laugh-In, Lancelot Linc Secret Chimp, Get Smart, or The Monkees. In FX’s infancy, I got to watch a lot of The Incredible Hulk, Batman, Green Hornet, and The Greatest American Hero. WGN was my go to place for The Addam’s Family and The Munsters, while on TBS I started many school mornings with Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, Happy Days, and Laverne and Shirley.

I get to continue my rerun junkie ways today as shows I watched first run when I was younger are now old reruns. Murder, She Wrote, In the Heat of the Night, Matlock, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Golden Girls, and Unsolved Mysteries. In the past I’ve got to relive the A-Team, MacGyver, Knight Rider, and Air Wolf.

The biggest bummer about this new day job is that I’m forced to give up three of my current favorite reruns: Perry Mason, Hawaii 5-0, and Unsolved Mysteries. I’ll also be missing some Golden Girls reruns because I won’t be able to stay up as late to watch them.

The best part about reruns is that the older I get, the better they get. I don’t know how it happens, but it does.

I think it has something to do with my sense of humor.