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Korean War, Old Amusement Parks, and Norah Jones on PBS

Three summer programs on the government’s Public Broadcasting System (PBS) look interesting.

In Unforgettable: The Korean War, Korean War (1950-1953) veterans recount their memories of America in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when young Americans were drafted by the government and shipped off to defend South Korea as United Nations forces against the invading Red Army in the north. For three long years, Americans fought North Korea and Communist China to save South Korea. The men recall the “un-won” war that never ended, which the Truman administration did not even want to call a war (it was “the Korean conflict” or a “police action.”) Finally, it was called the Forgotten War (for more on the Korean War, read my book review of Breakout: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea 1950 and my interview with its author, Martin Russ). PBS airs the program in the High-Definition (HD) format from 10 pm to 11 pm ET, Monday, June 21 (repeats 6/24/10, 10 pm to 11 pm ET).

PBS will re-broadcast a 1999 program, Great Old Amusement Parks, about the pre-Disney days before theme parks, when amusement parks were the places where families gathered for a cool escape on a hot summer day. Among the featured parks: Playland in Rye, New York, Holiday World in Santa Claus, Indiana, and Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in northern California, where people can still ride the merry-go-round. The special also checks out some classic wooden rollercoasters and other rides (airs 8 pm to 9 pm ET on Wednesday, June 30). Later this summer, Soundstage features singer and pianist Norah Jones, whose debut album sold 18 million copies worldwide. This episode was filmed earlier this year at St. Ann’s Warehouse in New York City, with Ms. Jones performing a blend of covers, hits such as “Don’t Know Why” and “Come Away With Me,” and tracks from her newest album, The Fall (airs 10 pm to 11 pm ET, Thursday, July 1).

From Brooke to Brown

Yesterday’s historic election in Massachusetts is a repudiation of the entire first year of the Obama administration; its bailouts, its bank tax, its so-called ‘stimulus’ package and, above all, its plan for a total government takeover of the health insurance and medical professions. State Senator Scott Brown soundly defeated Attorney General Martha Coakley in what liberal, pro-Obama TV pundit Chris Matthews described as “the biggest political upset of our time.” Matthews added that voters went with the 50-year-old Brown to, in his words, “kill health care reform.”

He’s right and he’s not the only one to notice. Responding to rumors that the Democratic Party plans to delay seating the senator-elect in order to manipulate the legislative process and pass the President’s highly unpopular socialized medicine, Sen. Jim Webb, (D, VA) promptly issued a statement urging the Senate to cease consideration of the controversial bill until the nation’s newest U.S. senator takes his place in Congress. Sen. Webb was joined by liberal House Democrats Barney Frank and Anthony Weiner among others who warned Democrats and the increasingly Manchurian Barack Obama to either postpone such obstructionism or halt ‘health care reform.’

In Massachusetts, according to the Associated Press (AP), more voters showed up at polls than in any non-presidential Massachusetts general election in 20 years. Citing his opposition to Obama’s ‘health care reform’, one 38-year-old registered independent Brown voter told the AP: “I voted for Obama [in 2008] because I wanted change. … I thought he’d bring it to us, but I just don’t like the direction that he’s heading.” The Senate seat had been held by John Quincy Adams, who was also an American president, Henry Cabot Lodge, who ran for vice-president on the Republican ticket with presidential contender Richard M. Nixon in 1960, and the late longtime advocate of socialized medicine and 1980 presidential candidate Edward Moore “Ted” Kennedy. To her credit, defeated Democrat Coakley, whom Obamautons like Rachel Maddow are already eagerly throwing under the bus, delivered a classy concession speech.

Brown, supported by independents, unhappy Democrats, and Tea Party activists, ran on one central idea and campaign promise: to kill Obama’s “health care reform”. The crowd during his victory speech roared with the cry: “Forty-one! Forty-one! Forty-one!” It means he had better deliver on his promise and lead the charge to stop socialized medicine. But there he stood with former Massachusetts Governor and 2008 presidental candidate Mitt Romney, a moralizing Mormon who forced his conservative Heritage Foundation plan, a carbon copy of Obama’s plan, on the state (Brown supported RomneyCare). Brown also supports Obama’s plan to send more troops to be sacrificed in Afghanistan, seeks a ban on late term abortions, and is thoroughly mixed on favoring individual rights and capitalism. During his victory speech, he did not once mention fighting for man’s rights, free market capitalism, or liberty, and his opposition to ObamaCare is entirely based on practical objections, i.e., that it costs too much, not that it is a violation of rights. Sen.-elect Brown also joked at his daughters’ expense and showed that he has the capacity to be terribly unserious.

In today’s Republican Party, filled with religious conservative presidential wannabes who have all favored government intervention in the economy, FoxNews opportunist Palin, FoxNews Face in the Crowd type Huckabee, Pawlenty, Jindal, Santorum, Romney, and the worst of them, former Speaker Newt Gingrich who single-handedly squandered the 1994 GOP landslide, Brown should fit right in. As long as he votes No on ObamaCare, his election buys the equivalent of a few minutes on the clock before we leap toward dictatorship … and there’s plenty one can do to stop that from happening, as I wrote here. Moreover, Brown’s victory is an undeniably positive sign that President Obama’s agenda is rejected by America’s most liberal voters.

In the meantime, congratulations to the people of Massachusetts, and to their duly elected proxy against the administration’s fascist “health care reform”, Senator-elect Scott Brown. He happens to be the first Republican senator from Massachusetts since the nation’s only black senator not from the corrupt, bankrupt state of Illinois in a hundred years: Edward Brooke. Welcome to Washington, Scott Brown. Stick to opposing government-controlled medicine, stay away from the Heritage Foundation, and get the job done to Kill Obama’s “health care reform” dead.

Make it fast.

New on DVD: ‘The Barbara Stanwyck Show’

The Barbara Stanwyck Show

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From her early screen performances in Night Nurse (1931) and Baby Face (1933) to her career-topping turn as Australian business tycoon Mary Carson in ABC’s 1983 adaptation of Colleen McCullough’s epic, The Thorn Birds, Barbara Stanwyck (1907-1990) sizzled. I have continued to discover and enjoy her work over the years and I’m amazed at her remarkable range, powerfully vulnerable presence, and the depth of her talent. In fact, at the end of my run at Box Ofice Mojo, I had planned to run a series of reviews and interviews to mark her centenary. For now, I’m delighted to have made a new discovery which I hope you will enjoy, too: The Barbara Stanwyck Show. The 1960-1961 television anthology series, which aired before her colorful Western series, The Big Valley,  features Miss Stanwyck in silhouetted gowns and white gloves introducing each weekly 30-minute dramatic episode. The plots depict her in various roles and different stories.

This DVD edition of the recently recovered black and white program does not present the full season (the top-rated series was inexplicably cancelled, though she won a Best Actress Emmy), nevertheless, she is magnificent. The episodes are the equivalent of short stories, with the star of Double Indemnity at her peak as escaped murderer Vic Morrow’s hostage, a philanthropist wife and mother, and, in two excellent pieces, as Jo Little, a Chinese-born trader who tries to rescue a child refugee from Communism while trying to survive the U.S. government’s restrictions on business in Hong Kong. The best episode so far is “Size 10”, a dramatic cousin to her brilliantly pro-capitalist Executive Suite with the petite actress as a high-maintenance fashion designer in a tightly plotted business mystery with the independent woman as its central theme. The 3-disc DVD is handsomely packaged with a reference booklet which includes an episode guide and thoughtful comments from Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), who recounts seeing Miss Stanwyck in costume as a nun on the Desilu lot. Though the show’s glamorous introductions may or may not work, there’s much to appreciate here on this rare television classic, including unaired bonus material in a durable, well-designed box. And, of course, the best part is seeing Barbara Stanwyck in 16 episodes on a product the manufacturer tantalizingly labels Volume I. When it comes to Stanwyck, who personally helped launch the careers of William Holden and Ayn Rand, more is more.

Norman Lear DVD Collection

Norman Lear, creator and developer of several popular 1970s comedies for television, recently appeared at a press conference to promote his new deluxe DVD set, released by Sony today. The 19-disc set is a rehash of previously released first seasons of TV’s All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Maude, Good Times, One Day at a Time, Sanford and Son and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Their creator and developer, who was somewhat subdued at the presser, looks great and he’s still sharp. His work ages nicely, too.

Maude (1972–1978) is an exception. The CBS comedy starring the late Bea Arthur as strident Maude Findlay was more of a character than a show. The topically feminist-themed program was a spinoff (Mr. Lear’s first) of his vaunted All in the Family (1971–1979), which is based on a British series. While Mr. Lear is liberal and the comedy has that reputation, All in the Family depicted a likable white bigot—imagine such a character being introduced today—who often scored a point. Back then, a character could progress beyond idiocy and Archie Bunker became enlightened (he opened a bar in a later incarnation of the show). So, Mr. Lear reminds us that Archie was not an irredeemable bigot.

Another CBS All in the Family spinoff, The Jeffersons (1975–1985), is among the most successful shows in television. Why? I think it’s partly because the character George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley) held the show together as one of America’s most persecuted minority: the businessman. Always fresh, lively and interesting, the middle class American family was supported by the dry cleaning business that Mr. Jefferson worked to make profitable and its cast of characters defied stereotypes: sassy maid Florence (Marla Gibbs), quietly rebellious Lionel (Mike Evans), and, in early seasons, mean, old Mother Jefferson (Zara Cully), besides the more widely known characters Louise Jefferson (Isabel Sanford), British Mr. Bentley (Paul Benedict) and the show’s interracial couple, Helen and Tom Willis (Roxie Roker and Franklin Cover). The Jeffersons was a microcosm of America, with foreigners, mixed race kids, college-bound sons, independent women and one strong-minded, self-made businessman who was happiest making money and guiltlessly enjoying the rewards. George Jefferson would not have liked Barack Obama’s economic policies.

Mr. Lear explained that hugely popular The Jeffersons was created to blunt criticism that his other CBS spinoff series, Good Times (1974–1979), portrayed the American black family as poor and unglamorous. Good Times, contrary to its title, layered on layoff after layoff for the Evans family, who lived in a government housing project on Chicago’s South Side, and they could never seem to get out of poverty. That might have been the show’s point—that housing subsidies trap the working poor in a viciously downward economic cycle—but the writers evaded deeper causes and went for laughs, saddling Jimmie Walker as J.J. with the comic relief. In hindsight, the J.J. character is the show’s saving grace. Good Times was created when its matriarch, Florida Evans (Esther Rolle), left her job as a maid for Maude.

That particular connection speaks to Norman Lear’s success. His shows were not merely a platform for the knee-jerk liberal. Black working woman Florida told white liberal housewife Maude off in an episode in which racially obsessed Maude patronized Florida unceasingly and Florida finally begged Maude to leave her alone to do her job. In another episode, one of TV’s best depictions of white liberal guilt, Florida’s replacement, who is also black, quits rather than submit to Maude’s constant racial harassment. Norman Lear created dimensional characters.

Also included on this exclusively first season collection with a disc of features: the satirical Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1975–1977), which was syndicated, One Day at a Time (1975–1984), and Sanford and Son (1972–1977), Mr. Lear’s only show from this collection not to air on CBS (it ran on NBC). The Los Angeles-based Sanford and Son is built around raunchy comedian Redd Foxx, though not enough credit goes to his onscreen son, played by Demond Wilson, who had the task of playing straight to his conniving old junkyard pop. With no relation to the phrase made popular in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), One Day at a Time followed the lives of a woman (Bonnie Franklin) who divorced her husband after 17 years and moved with her two daughters back to her hometown of Indianapolis, Indiana. One Day at a Time was an example of powerfully topical television programming, with episodes about youth suicide, drugs, job loss, and prejudice against women.

All of these shows, whatever their flaws, combine realistic characterizations with topical plots and humor and any of them are more realistic than the entire slate of today’s overproduced so-called reality shows. The extras—some run longer than others, with some stars in interviews, other stars glaringly absent—are admittedly a disappointment. This highly priced, handsomely packaged collection ($ 159.95) is strictly for those who haven’t bought the original first season products…and miss seeing the intelligent and thoughtful comedy of Norman Lear.

New ‘Star Trek’ Movie is Bland, Not Bold

As a reset for Paramount’s popular series, the new Star Trek movie, opening this weekend and directed by J.J. Abrams, is disappointing. The original NBC television series was an intelligently written program which put highly individualized characters into often philosophically driven plots and this effort doesn’t come close to measuring up. That said, at least Star Trek has a coherent plot, which is rare. There are no major missteps.

The plot is formulaic, characters are too broad, and the conflict is the stuff of cable reruns. Playing in IMAX theaters (where I saw it), Star Trek contains the requisite action and plot progression but it doesn’t have what it takes for a franchise reboot.

Previous movies are mixed, but the TV series kept things simple, with the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise as the focal point, her international crew poised for action in a clear hierarchy and conflict resolution as the primary plot purpose. Here, we get twin tracks of expository set-up—Kirk and Spock—and it takes too long, wanders too wide, and emphasizes personalities instead of developing dramatic tension. The Enterprise is an egalitarian gathering place where the crew stands around trying to rule by consensus.

Kirk is a playboy, Spock is tortured and everyone sounds like they’re reading from a script. The character Uhura is expanded at the expense of Bones. Sulu, Chekov and Scott are all there (Sulu fares best) and Bruce Greenwood is added as Kirk’s mentor. Some scenes, such as an elevator scene with Spock, are well done, but soon it’s back to the banal. Overbearing music, jerky camera shots, and a Jurassic Park rip-off burden the heavy load and it is hard to get excited about an evil Romulan—who, it is implied, has a point—on the warpath. Finally, Star Trek urges us to abandon reason and act on faith, a bad message you can get from any TV preacher or member of Congress (and, with both advocating religious statism, it’s hard to tell them apart). Many readers are going to see it anyway, but the new Star Trek, while not a bust, is, as I suspected, as blurry as its poster.