I don’t watch a lot of TV shows. The time commitment involved is usually too much for me. Cultural touchstones like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and now Game of Thrones have all passed me by. (Part of it is I don’t want to pay for extra channels, and part of it is I don’t usually go for stories about gangsters or medieval fantasy, unless Chris Avellone is writing them.)

But there are a few television shows that I’ve seen every episode of, and one is the 1970s series Wonder Woman, starring Lynda Carter. It’s not because I made a particular effort to see it, but simply because the reruns happened to be on when I eat dinner. And so, quite by accident, I became an avid Wonder Woman viewer over the years.

Actually, let me clarify about the title: the first season is called Wonder Woman. Seasons 2 and 3 are The New Adventures of Wonder Woman. Season 1 is set during World War II when Wonder Woman, often disguised as her alter-ego, Yeoman Diana Prince, battles against various Nazi plots. The subsequent seasons all follow Wonder Woman into the 1970s America, where, disguised as Agent Diana Prince, of the fictional IADC (Inter-Agency Defense Command) she does battle with a host of villains, whose goals range from stealing nuclear weapons to rigging football games.

In both eras, Diana takes her orders* from a man named Steve Trevor, a Major in the WWII-era, and subsequently his son (who I think is sometimes referred to as “Colonel”) in the 1970s. Both Steve Trevors are portrayed by Lyle Waggoner.

Most of the episodes are, to be honest, incredibly silly. The special effects are laughable—lasers appear as straight single-color lines drawn on the picture, while Wonder Woman’s travels in the invisible plane are, well:

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15717439

The plots are hardly better. I’ve often said one sure sign—maybe even surer than shark-jumping itself—that a show’s writers are out of ideas is the introduction of plots involving gorillas, chimps, monkeys, and other non-human primates. Wonder Woman resorted to that in episode six of season one.

The shows have a certain so-bad-it’s-good charm, but not in the way, say, Adam West’s Batman did. That show seemed like everyone involved was aware of how ridiculous the thing was, and everything was done with a wink and a nod to the audience that yes, they knew this was simply comic-book absurdity.

Wonder Woman is different. Everybody in it seems so earnest. Steve has genuine concern in his voice when he tells Dr. Jaffe to bring Diana safely back from the town where aliens are mysteriously taking people’s bodies over by means of large silver pyramids in order to catch a shape-shifting space criminal. None of the actors play things for laughs, even when they probably should. 

The other thing I enjoy is the relationship between Diana and Steve. Carter and Waggoner have good chemistry, and the characters seem to genuinely respect one another’s abilities. (Granted, the idea that Steve somehow fails to notice that Diana Prince is Wonder Woman is even more laughable than the comparable setup with Superman—Diana doesn’t even wear glasses all the time!)

It doesn’t hurt that Carter and Waggoner are both attractive—Carter was “Miss World USA” and Waggoner posed for Playgirl. The entertainment industry learned long ago that you can put on silly productions with bad writing if you give the audience some eye candy. 

And this brings me to perhaps the most notable aspect of the show: the costumes. In particular, the hats.

I am fascinated by hats, and Diana wears tons of them. I’m not sure if women actually dressed like this in the 1970s, but look at these:

wonderwoman0318_diana01
(All images re-used under Fair Use for the purpose of criticism)

If that doesn’t say super-spy, I don’t know what does. Here are a few more:

Sadly, the other characters’ costumes are not this strong. Here for example is some villainous alien, that I think was designed as a cheap Darth Vader knock-off:

All right, all right; I’ll get back to matters of substance. Like I said, the plots are generally hilariously bad—you get the impression that most of the villains were people who applied for jobs as villains in Roger Moore-era James Bond flicks, but were turned away for being too stupid. And even so, it takes Diana and Steve (and sometimes their comical 1970s conception of what a supercomputer is) to piece together the ludicrous plot.

But there are a few episodes that aren’t completely idiotic. “The Man Who Made Volcanoes” is interesting, because of the battling among three rival groups of agents: Diana representing the USA, some Soviet spies, and two Chinese commandoes, all of whom are assuming the others are responsible for the outbreak of man-made volcano attacks. And in the end, it turns out it’s none of the above, but a rogue scientist. (Played by Roddy McDowall, who was such a good guest villain they brought him back again as a different character) I like the idea of a bunch of competing interest groups, rather than just one “bad guy.”

“The Murderous Missile” is also kind of cool. It has almost a horror vibe to it at the beginning, when Diana stumbles across a town full of people acting like friendly-yet-oddly-sinister yokels, who keep feigning incompetence to keep her from leaving. The denouement is incredibly stupid, and the special effects are bogus as hell, but I liked the premise.

But the best episode, and indeed the only one that I would go so far as to call actually good, has to be “The Richest Man in the World.” I love the whole concept here—the eponymous rich man is kidnapped and robbed to allow criminals to take over his weapons company. A recluse, he’s unable to prove to anyone that he is really the wealthy CEO he claims to be. He meets a poor orphan boy, and together, they work with Wonder Woman to piece together who betrayed him.

Jeremy Slate, the actor playing the rich guy, is really good–he’s arrogant, yet charming, and bewildered at having to do everyday things like driving. And the story is actually pretty coherent—my only complaint is that Wonder Woman herself is about as irrelevant to the plot as Indiana Jones is to Raiders of the Lost Ark. But just as Indy is so cool with his fedora and whip, so Diana is cool in her grey hat and driving glasses.

If you’re keeping score at home, that’s 56 stupid episodes to three decent-to-pretty-good ones. Not an awesome record, I admit. And if your only on-screen experience of Wonder Woman is the recent film, you’d probably watch this show and be disappointed. The movie approached things with a more serious, realistic sensibility, to say nothing of the advances in special effects made over the decades. 

But unlike a lot of people these days, I generally don’t take superheroes that seriously. Some mostly-harmless, stupid fun is all I expect from them. “Gritty, dark, superhero film,” still sounds like an oxymoron to me. Which is not to say that I don’t think superhero stories can have emotional depth, but just that it works better if that emotional depth is of the uplifting sort. 

And hats. Hats are always a plus.

beret
I can’t resist a woman in uniform.

*I think it tells you something about the gender politics of television in the 1970s, that yes, we could have a woman be an immortal superhuman, but only if she had a male boss. 

“This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and even it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box.”–Edward R. Murrow. 1958

[Note: it might be useful to read this post before you proceed.  It addresses some of the same points.]

Barb Knowles of the saneteachers blog suggested that I do a post on print media political campaigns vs. televised/video ones.

The famous line of demarcation in how media changed campaigning is the 1960 Kennedy/Nixon debates. They were the first-ever televised debates. Kennedy, the charismatic candidate, won over the supremely un-charismatic Nixon.

It made such an impression on Nixon that he did not debate in his later winning campaigns. He believed, and he was probably right, that an extended televised appearance that wasn’t carefully stage-managed would hurt his image with the voters.

Indeed, in every campaign in which there have been televised debates, the more charismatic candidate has won.

Television, as I once wrote, is a force multiplier for charisma.

Back in the days of print-only campaign coverage, it was much harder for a charismatic candidate to win.  In the 1896 Presidential election, the famously charismatic populist speaker William Jennings Bryan lost to the un-charismatic William McKinley.

Both Bryan and McKinley played to their strengths during the campaign.  Bryan traveled the country at an incredible pace, giving more than 500 speeches. McKinley used his massive financial advantage to send other speakers on his behalf, and to control the coverage that appeared in print.

There can be no doubt that if television had existed in 1896, Bryan would have won. For one thing–and this is something political strategists still don’t understand–even negative television coverage of charismatic candidates is a win for them.  Even if some pundit comes on afterward to denounce the candidate, as long as video of him delivering his message is getting out, he is winning.

There was of course no television, or even radio, in 1896.  However, Bryan was so popular that decades later, he would record parts of his legendary “Cross of Gold” speech for posterity.  No doubt he was less brilliant an orator in his old age, but it is still powerful:

Print media is inherently less emotional than television and video.  It’s a more intellectual, less visceral activity, to read an article in the paper than to watch someone on television.

If you just read transcripts of Trump’s speeches or debate answers, you will see they are incoherent nonsense.  He rarely speaks in complete sentences, he repeats himself, he interrupts himself. It only works if you can see him delivering it. That visceral reaction is the nature of charismatic authority.

This, more than anything else, is the key difference between televised and print campaigning. Print is intellectual, television is emotional.

He explains his earlier comments:

The point about ‘Game of Thrones’… is that conscience and fear of judgement are entirely absent from the lives of all, and that this is most evident in the deeds of the most successful characters. Compare Hamlet’s self-torture over whether he can kill Claudius , when Claudius is at his prayers. Or the genuine horror of the English people at the alleged murder of the Princes in the Tower by Richard III.

Two things:

  • One, Hamlet was a fictional character written in the Renaissance, not the Middle Ages.  Thus, his behavior is at best an indication of what Shakespeare thought a Prince would behave like, not what they actually did.
  • Two: okay, so the English were properly horrified. But I want to point out that Hitchens is undercutting his own point by bringing up the idea that Richard III would do that. Game of Thrones is about the medieval elite and their ruthless power grabs–just exactly like the real-life power grabs of people like Richard III, Henry II, Henry VIII and so on! He complains “conscience and fear of judgement are entirely absent… in the deeds of the most successful characters”, and yet, by his own showing, the most successful people in the actual Middle Ages were the same way! Nice guys, by most accounts, finished last in the Middle Ages.

Remember, I have no wish to defend Game of Thrones.  I’ve never seen it, and for all I know it may be the worst and most loathsome thing ever to darken a television screen.  I just have issues with Hitchens claiming that “the society it describes is far worse than the Middle Ages”.

A few months ago, for the first time, I got cable television.  Seeing the college football bowl games was nice, but apart from that, I have not found a lot worth watching. The only things I watch much that aren’t over the air are C-SPAN and the History Channel.

It was on the latter that I saw a program called “Ancient Aliens”.  (On the former, one may only see modern imbeciles.)  It is about the “ancient astronauts” hypothesis, which supposes that aliens visited humanity some time in the past.  The episode I saw was about the idea that the Norse Gods were in fact alien beings who visited the vikings.

It’s both an amusing and an annoying show. Annoying because it couches everything in the following way (Not a quote, just a paraphrase):

Could it possibly be that Thor was actually real, and the stories of his fantastical hammer are true?

I kept waiting for someone to say, “well, you can’t actually disprove it, but it’s extremely unlikely.”  But no one ever did.  All they did was keep saying non sequiturs, like “well, we modern humans certainly can build things as powerful as the legends say Thor’s  Hammer was.”  They seem to be implying that this suggests Thor’s Hammer was a thing, when Occam’s Razor suggests it means that modern humans can make stuff the vikings could only imagine.

(Interestingly, I saw another program on the History channel about the Nazis and their interest in the occult and mythology. It claimed that SS leader Heinrich Himmler believed in similar ideas of the reality of such artifacts from Norse mythology. That program  treated this as evidence of just how completely insane Himmler was.)

As I said, the show was kind of amusing, and it’s a cool idea for science fiction writers to play with, even if it’s a bit of a cliche at this point.  But it was presented as a very plausible idea, not as a wild theory based on largely on “wouldn’t it be cool if…?”

It reminded me of the radio show Coast-to-Coast AM, and lo and behold, I see from Wikipedia that George Noory, host of that program, was in a few episodes. Both programs are rather entertaining in their way, and yet there is always the lingering fear that some people, somewhere may take them as established fact.

I did something new yesterday.  I watched almost all of an episode of a “reality TV” show.  I’ve really never watched any in the past–save for a few minutes of a “Wipeout” course that looked kind of neat–because “reality TV” shows strike me as stupid, which is a little unfair to think given that I’ve never seen one, but I have seen commercials for them during football games and they don’t look very interesting.

But it transpired I had some time to waste, and there was nothing on PBS that I hadn’t seen, and so I flipped over to the show “Stars Earn Stripes” on NBC.  If you haven’t seen it, it’s a show in which various celebrities run missions “based on” military training exercises.  The only celebrity on it who I had heard of before was Sarah Palin’s husband, so I’m not sure they’re actually “stars”.

I think the words “based on” are highly significant here.  I have never served in the military, but I am highly skeptical of whether they would have a training exercise like the one on last night’s episode, where the contestants had to shoot (with a pistol) at stationary, dinner-plate sized targets on the ground from a parked humvee. Seems pointless, unless they are expecting to fight a ground war against an army of dinner plates. If any veterans read this and have seen the show, I’d love to hear from them about it.

Their was also some sort of “elimination round” between two of the contestants.  It seemed more realistic, in that it was some kind of competition to clear a confined area of targets.  It looked like shows I’ve seen on S.W.A.T. training where they practice fighting through a building that has been taken over by criminals.

A lot of people, including Nobel Peace Prize Winners, say the show glorifies war.  I guess it does, but it mostly glorifies training for war, which may or may not be the same thing.  It’s not as egregious about it as, for example, the super-popular Call of Duty games or many popular action movies,  but at the same time it definitely plays like a military recruiting commercial, especially with the awkward presence of General Wesley Clark as co-host.

Is that bad?  I don’t know; the military has been trying to figure out ways of recruiting more people through P.R. stunts ever since the draft ended.  Maybe it was because of my expectations, but it struck me as no different than those ads you see during football games for the various branches of the service.  And those, I feel, are about as likely to succeed as other commercials.

It’s the Act of Valor issue all over again: sure, it’s recruiting film, but that still doesn’t answer whether it’s a bad thing or a good thing.  Personally, I think it’s kind of weird to show the celebrities doing stuff “based on” military training.  Seeing them try to get through an exact re-creation of Army Ranger training would probably be more exciting viewing, but then, I don’t think many celebrities would sign on for that.  And I doubt many viewers would say “looks like fun.”

Like I said, I haven’t seen much reality TV, but I get the impression the big draw is seeing the emotional disputes and inter-personal drama between the contestants.  There was none of that here.  I’m guessing that NBC wanted an emotionally stable cast, since they are giving them access to real weapons and live ammunition.  (Shades of “You can’t fight in here, this is the war room!”)  It makes practical and ethical sense, but probably makes for worse TV.

Lastly, I did feel a little weird watching the show.  Maybe I am cynical but it–along with most reality shows and sporting events–remind me a little too much of the Ancient Roman Gladiator Games.  While it’s obviously much safer for the contestants, there’s still something a bit unsettling about it as a viewer.

“Pollice Verso” by Jean-Léon Gérôme. 1872 artist’s conception of gladiatorial games.

In general, I have never been a huge fan of the “average guy who is secretly a super crime-fighter” trope.   As a general rule, stories where characters have to lead secret double-lives a la Batman and Superman strike me as illogical.  But there was one such character who I always thought was pretty awesome: Doctor Syn, or more properly, his alter-ego, the Scarecrow.

There are lots of stories about him, beginning with the series of pulpy novels by Russell Thorndike.  I’ve never read those; they look to be on the along the lines of the Zorro stories.  I’ve only watched the Disney movie version of the story with Patrick McGoohan, one of my favorite actors, playing the lead.  That was enough for me to decide he was a pretty cool character.

By day, he is Doctor Christopher Syn, a humble vicar in a small, 18th-Century English village.  But at night, Doctor Syn dons this awesome mask–more on that later–and becomes “the Scarecrow”.  He’s tough to describe–what he does is basically the standard Robin Hood, steal-from-rich, give-to-poor act, but the character himself is more of a Batman-like figure.  He has no supernatural powers; he is just a very skilled fighter and horseback rider.  He is also quite sinister looking, even though he is the hero.  His costume puts every other super-hero outfit I’ve seen to shame.  And McGoohan does a great job with the role.

What really makes the series so eerie is the setting.  The evocative cinematography is surprisingly good.  The splendid England coast atmosphere is wonderfully spooky.  It is especially fun to watch around Halloween. I think what I like most about the series is the historical setting.

I should mention that the Scarecrow is, for a Disney movie anyway, a pretty edgy hero.  He’s not an anti-hero, but he does some pretty devious stuff nonetheless.  (I get the impression that he’s an even darker, more outright anti-hero kind of character in the books.)

Back to the Scarecrow’s mask: the thing is brilliantly designed, part of it is mask and part of it is painted, and it really looks convincing.  It has to be one of the coolest props made in that era. On the 2008 edition DVD release, there’s a little feature on how they made it.  Even to fairly critical eyes, it holds up pretty well against the best C.G.I. tricks of modern film-making.  I’d post a picture, but stills don’t do it justice.  You have to see it in motion.

P.M. Prescott’s comment on this post reminded me of an issue I’ve wanted to write about on here for a while: TV commercials.  Are they worth it?

I almost always mute commercials when they come on, unless they’re for something I am already interested in.  I can’t think of any time in my life when I’ve decided to buy something just because I saw a commercial for it.  I generally research any major purchases first.

And then there are the commercials for small things, like soft drinks.  Maybe other people are different, but I don’t see those commercials and go “well, I’ve just got to go buy a [X soft drink] right now.”  My soft drink purchase decisions are made purely on the basis of what’s most convenient; I don’t care about brands enough to spend extra time hunting down a particular drink.

Some say that commercials work subliminally.  Well, maybe.  But how effective can the ads be when they produce no noticeable change in my behavior?  Even if it’s subliminal, I would notice that I suddenly had a desire to go out and buy particular things.

Especially interesting to me are political ads. (With which we are about to be deluged, incidentally)  Is anybody really going to vote based on what a TV ad said?  I just assume that all political ads are telling half-truths at best, and so I tune them out automatically.

Given all that, I have to think that companies are overpaying for ads.  The return on it can’t be that much, can it?   I think a company gets more benefit from announcing at the beginning of a program that they are sponsoring the whole thing without commercial interruption than they do from advertising during it.  Because, in general, commercials annoy the viewer who is just trying to watch something.

I was watching The Dick Van Dyke Show on TV last night.  The episode I saw was called “The Bad Old Days“.  In a nutshell, it went like this: one of Rob’s colleagues tells him about an article on “the decline of the American male”, and how men are becoming more subservient to their wives.  This worries Rob, who starts to fear that Laura too often tells him what to do.  The episode culminates in a hilarious dream sequence, in which Rob imagines himself as an overbearing, bullying 19th-century-style husband, who makes his wife do all the housework and forces his son to work in a factory.  Of course, Rob wakes up and realizes that this wasn’t such a great way to live, after all.

It’s kind of funny to me, because you often hear this complaint of “feminized” men being subordinated to their wives these days, especially in conservative and “alt-right” circles.  Often, the 1950s and early ’60s are considered the archetype of a more restrictive and socially conservative era, and to some extent the setup of The Dick Van Dyke Show is emblematic of that.  I remember my blogger-friend Thingy contrasting Mary Tyler Moore’s accommodating housewife character on Dick Van Dyke with her independent, single, career-woman character on The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the ’70s.

But then, here we have an episode of Dick Van Dyke from 1962 that addresses this same “men are too subservient to their wives” idea.  So, it seems like that idea must have been in the air even back then.  Which, in turn, suggests the possibility that perhaps there is an ever-recurring nostalgia among authoritarian men of every era, that they had it better in, as Rob says, “the bad old days”.

Well, that’s enough sociological musing!  The point is, it was a very funny show.  It does amaze me that the best thing on TV some nights is a show from 50 years ago, but there you have it.

I watched the season finale of Sherlock 2 last night. I watched the adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles the week before that, and I watched the first installment of the first season when it aired, but I haven’t seen the rest of the series.

My thoughts on what I’ve seen: the acting is all very good, but the characters are often unpredictable. In the finale, for instance, it seems absurd that Lestrade, after trusting Sherlock all that time, would so easily be willing to believe that he committed the crimes. Also, Sherlock shows too much emotion too often.

Moreover, the attempt to update the stories works pretty well for the most part, but every now and again, there are some rough patches. The solution to the “Baskerville” one felt especially bad. In terms of satisfying the audience, it was barely any better than one of the solutions found in Stephen Leacock‘s humorous survey of the mystery genre:  “the murder had been committed by somebody else altogether different.”

They do a pretty good job of updating it to the real world without being too obnoxious with the “Sherlock Holmes has a cell phone” aspect, but it still feels pretty much pointless to me.

As for what Sherlock did at the conclusion of the finale, I assume that his words to Watson “keep your eyes on me” are of significance, but I don’t know all the details. The trouble is, after the “Baskerville” episode, pretty much anything is on the table, so there’s really not much point in speculating. For all we know, Watson is dreaming the whole thing.

All in all, I can’t help bu think they would have been better off writing a new series with new characters–still the same actors, of course–than trying to re-do something that’s been done too many times already. The only “Sherlock Holmes in the modern day” riff that I’ve ever thought was really good was the one with John Cleese, The Strange Case of the End of Civilization as We Know It.