Category Archives: On Pop Culture

Diamonds in the idiot box: Top 20 TV themes

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 10, 2017)

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After screening (and reviewing) 25 films over the last several weeks for my SIFF coverage, I’m taking a breather from sticky floors and the smell of stale popcorn tonight to share my favorite TV show themes. It began as a “top 10” list, but I quickly gleaned that I had assigned myself a fool’s errand with that limitation. So I upped the ante to 15. Then it had to be 20 (damn my OCD). Even with that generous margin, I still had to rob Peter to pay Paul on a few choices, which almost guarantees dissension in the ranks. So if I have “overlooked” your favorite(s), feel free to share in the comments section (be nice).

The Adventures of Pete and Pete – Nickelodeon’s best-kept secret, and a guilty pleasure. Gentle anarchy in the Bill Forsyth vein. I discovered, watched, and continue to re-watch it, as an (alleged) adult. So sue me. Besides…you can’t resist the hooks in Polaris’ theme.

Cheers – “Norm!” Gary Portnoy performed (and co-wrote) this upbeat show opener.

Coronet Blue – When I was 11, I became obsessed with this noir-ish, single-season precursor to the Bourne films. This theme has been stuck in my head since, oh…1967?

Due South – Paul Haggis’ unique “fish out of water” crime dramedy about a Canadian Mountie assigned to work with the Chicago P.D. was one of my favorite shows of the 90s (confession: I own all 4 seasons on DVD). It also had a great theme song, by Jay Semko.

Hawaii Five-O – The Ventures were the original surf punks (and they’re from Tacoma!).

M*A*S*H – Johnny Mandel’s lovely chart (ported from Robert Altman’s 1970 film, sans Mike Altman’s lyrics) is quite melancholic for a sitcom-but it spoke to the show’s pathos.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show – This ever-hopeful tune plays a bit wistfully now that Ms. Moore has shuffled off, but hey-as long as we have syndication, we’ll always have Mary.

Mission Impossible – Argentine jazz man Lalo Schifrin hit the jackpot with this memorable theme (he composed some great movie soundtracks too, like Cool Hand Luke). Legendary “Wrecking Crew” bassist Carol Kaye really lays it down on this one!

The Monkees – Here’s the cosmic conundrum that keeps me up nights: Mike Nesmith was my favorite Monkee…yet the Monkees remain Mike Nesmith’s least favorite band.

The Office (BBC original series) – For my money, nobody tops future Atomic Rooster lead singer Chris Farlowe’s soulful 1967 take on this oft-covered Mike d’Abo composition, but this nice rendition by Big George obviously won Ricky Gervais’ lottery.

Peter Gunn – Henry Mancini was a genius, plain and simple. Wrote hooks in his sleep.

Portlandia – Somehow, stars Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein (along with series co-creator/director Johnathan Krisel) have mined 7 seasons of material by satirizing hipster culture. Like any sketch-comedy show, it’s hit-and-miss, but when it hits a bullseye, it’s really funny. It’s easy to fall in love with Washed Out’s atmospheric dream pop theme.

Rawhide – “Move ‘em on! Head ‘em up!” This performance explains why Mel Brooks enlisted Frankie Laine to sing the Blazing Saddles theme. I’m afraid this squeezed Bonanza off my list (I’m sure I will be verbally bull-whipped by some of you cowpokes).

Secret Agent Man – This Johnny Rivers classic opened U.S. airings of the U.K. series Danger Man (which had a pretty cool harpsichord-driven instrumental theme of its own).

The Sopranos – For 7 years, Sunday night was Family night in my house. Fuhgettaboutit.

Square Pegs – This short-lived 1982 comedy series (created by SNL writer Anne Beatts) was, in hindsight, a bellwether for the imminent John Hughes-ification of Hollywood. Initially a goofy cash-in on New Wave/Valley Girl couture, it has become a cult favorite.

The Twilight Zone – It’s the Twilight Zone “theme”, but it’s not so much conventional composition as it is avant-garde sound collage (ahead of its time, like the program itself).

Weeds – I suspect that many of the writers, directors, actors, and producers of this outstanding Showtime dramedy weren’t even born yet when folksinger Malvina Reynolds recorded this song; yet it works in perfect simpatico with the program’s ethos.

The Wire – This lauded HBO series is a compelling portmanteau of an American city in sociopolitical turmoil. The Blind Boys of Alabama’s urban blues hits just the right notes.

WKRP – I’ve worked in broadcasting since Marconi, so trust me when I say that this sitcom remains the most accurate depiction of life in the biz. Tom Wells composed the breezy theme, show creator Hugh Wilson wrote the lyrics, and Steve Carlisle performs it.

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and one more thing…

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R.I.P. Adam West. He was a class act; especially apparent if you watch the excellent 2013 documentary, Starring Adam West. He weathered his “one role” cult status with grace, wit, and a considerable amount of god-given charm. My favorite role of his was a wonderfully droll performance as an aging Lothario in Michael Tolkin’s criminally underappreciated 1994 social satire The New Age…which  hints at what “might have been.” Weirdly enough, the Batman theme was one of the “finalists” I discarded in the process of whittling down my list. Well, no excuses now. So…in memoriam:

We are all Freddy

By Dennis Hartley

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It is often pointed out that the presidency provides a “bully pulpit” for whomever holds  office at the time. But generally, that is a figure of speech; not every POTUS necessarily abuses that “privilege”.  And yes, “they’ve all done it” at one time or another, regardless of party affiliation. However, I think I can safely say that (in my lifetime, at least) we’ve never seen a bigger bully in the White House than Donald J. Trump. And as we all remember from grade school, bullies are empowered by submission. Which is why this was so cathartic:

Of course, due to certain restrictions imposed upon a network TV host, Stephen couldn’t say what we are all really thinking. Freddy?

What Freddy said.

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UPDATE 5/6/17– Are you fucking kidding me? From Rolling Stone:

The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission revealed Friday that the agency is considering whether to fine Stephen Colbert over the Late Show host’s controversial joke about Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

On Monday’s Late Show, Colbert quipped that “the only thing [Trump’s] mouth is good for is being Vladimir Putin’s cock holster.” The joke drew accusations of homophobia, a viral #FireColbert campaign and FCC complaints against Colbert.

In an interview Friday, FCC chairman Ajit Pai told a Philadelphia radio station, “I have had a chance to see the clip now and so, as we get complaints — and we’ve gotten a number of them — we are going to take the facts that we find and we are going to apply the law as it’s been set out by the Supreme Court and other courts and we’ll take the appropriate action.”

Pai added, “Traditionally, the agency has to decide, if it does find a violation, what the appropriate remedy should be. A fine, of some sort, is typically what we do,” Variety reports.

On Wednesday, Colbert commented on the controversial joke. “At the end of that monologue, I had a few choice insults for the president,” Colbert said. “I don’t regret that.”

However, Colbert admitted that, in retrospect, he wishes he chose his words more carefully. “While I would do it again, I would change a few words that were cruder than they needed to be,” he added.

As for whether the joke was homophobic, Colbert added, “I’m not going to repeat the phrase, but I just want to say for the record, life is short, and anyone who expresses their love for another person, in their own way, is to me, an American hero. I think we can all agree on that. I hope even the president and I can agree on that. Nothing else. But, that.”

Stay tuned for state-controlled media…

Spicer in the dicer

By Dennis Hartley

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I think I may have witnessed the re-birth of Saturday Night Live last night. This could be the dawning of a new golden era for the show, if the writers can build on the momentum of Melissa McCarthy’s inspired turn in a Sean Spicer sketch. With all due respect to Alec Baldwin’s Trump spoof, this should be the new weekly show opener:

I needed that laugh therapy, and I know you did too.

She had spunk

By Dennis Hartley

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1936-2017

Well, we almost made it all the way through the first month of 2017…but alas, another pop icon of my youth is gone. I was too young to fall in love with Mary Tyler Moore as Laura Petrie on the innovative Dick Van Dyke Show in the early 60s, but her endearing characterization of the warm, smart, and fiercely independent Mary Richards on the equally groundbreaking sitcom, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, completely captured my heart and made me a lifetime fan.

She was an admirable person off the set as well, with her dedication  to animal rights activism and as a spokesperson for juvenile diabetes.

She was a gifted comedic actor, but had more range than many people seemed willing to give her credit for. Consider this subtly played scene of underlying tension from Robert Redford’s Ordinary People:

Moore received an Oscar nom for Best Actress in 1980 for her work in that film; if you’ve never seen it I highly recommend it. That said, I’ll always be most grateful for all the laughs over the years;  her comedy chops are on full display in this classic Mary Tyler Moore Show bit:

It’s OK to laugh. Mary would consider it an insult if you didn’t. R.I.P.

 

Bands still wanted! Sad!

By Dennis Hartley

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With SNL on hiatus, I’ve really been getting a kick out of the venerable weekly Canadian sketch comedy series This Hour Has 22 Minutes (on the CBC, which we get as part of our cable package here in Seattle). While I admit I don’t “get” all the jokes regarding Canadian politics (which, like most Americans, I don’t really follow that closely), they have been pretty relentless (and consistently hilarious) in their take downs of Donald Trump. God knows, there’s years of comedy gold to mine coming down the pike (or at least until he Tweets North America into nuclear oblivion). This recent bit had me in stitches:

I love Canada…

The act of empathy

By Dennis Hartley

As if I didn’t already have enough reasons to admire Meryl Streep:

Wow. Truth to power, baby. In case you missed the gist:

“Thank you, Hollywood foreign press. Just to pick up on what Hugh Laurie said. You and all of us in this room, really, belong to the most vilified segments in American society right now. Think about it. Hollywood, foreigners, and the press. But who are we? And, you know, what is Hollywood anyway? It’s just a bunch of people from other places. […]

Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners. If you kick ’em all out, you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts. They gave me three seconds to say this. An actor’s only job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us and let you feel what that feels like. And there were many, many, many powerful performances this year that did exactly that, breathtaking, passionate work.

There was one performance this year that stunned me. It sank its hooks in my heart. Not because it was good. There was nothing good about it. But it was effective and it did its job. It made its intended audience laugh and show their teeth. It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter, someone he outranked in privilege, power, and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart when I saw it. I still can’t get it out of my head because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life.

And this instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose. […]

This brings me to the press. We need the principled press to hold power to account, to call them on the carpet for every outrage.That’s why our founders enshrined the press and its freedoms in our constitution. So I only ask the famously well-heeled Hollywood Foreign Press and all of us in our community to join me in supporting the committee to protect journalists. Because we’re going to need them going forward. And they’ll need us to safeguard the truth.

[…] And we have to remind each other of the privilege and the responsibility of the act of empathy. We should all be very proud of the work Hollywood honors here tonight.

As my friend, the dear departed Princess Leia, said to me once, take your broken heart, make it into art. Thank you.”

Stay tuned for Orange Julius Caesar’s 3am Tweet storm…

*    *   *   UPDATE 1/9/17   *   *   *

Right on cue:

Your new POTUS in just 11 days, America! Sad!

Godspeed, Princess

By Dennis Hartley

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1956-2016

Can we just say that 2017 officially begins today?  Seriously, I’ve had it with you, 2016. You have more than worn out your welcome. Over.

I’ve  always felt Carrie Fisher missed her calling. Of course, she  will be forever cemented in our collective unconscious as Princess Leia; the smart, fearless, beautiful, and wisecracking heroine of the original Star Wars saga. But Carrie Fisher herself happened to be smart, fearless, beautiful, wisecracking ; a gifted comedic writer and raconteur. As we say in the business of show: she had “funny bones”.

Even if Star Wars had never been part of the equation, she would have taken her place alongside Fran Lebowitz  or Spalding Gray. If you’ve seen her autobiographical one-woman show, Wishful Drinking, you know what I’m talking about.  If not, when you’re done with your Star Wars marathon, do yourself a favor and catch it (I believe it’s still available  in HBO’s On Demand). You’ll see a Carrie Fisher who is brutally honest, self-effacing…and an absolute riot.

I bet she already has Ziggy Stardust and John Glenn in stitches. R.I.P.

The most wonderful time of the year

By Dennis Hartley

While it may not happen as frequently as it used to (thank god for DVRs and FF buttons), Saturday Night Live still has its moments. Last night’s guest host Casey Affleck hit the sweet spot between hilarity and pathos in this brilliant mashup of ad parody and character study:

And I almost skipped over this gem, buried near the end of the show:

(*sigh*) The countdown to Armageddon continues…1 month to go.