Chilton Williamson confesses to watching old Perry Mason episodes out of nostalgia for the Old Pre-1960s America all we Boomer intellectuals used to despise while we were growing up.
Today, I, too, would trade the gray-flannel-suited, anti-intellectual, Organization Man Establishment of the 1950s for today’s Woke spineless snivelling Establishment in a New York minute.
Over the past year and a half, I have been re-watching episodes of the original show starring Raymond Burr as Mason, Barbara Hale as Della Street, William Hopper as Paul Drake, Ray Collins as Lieutenant Tragg and William Talman as Hamilton Burger. As with so many good things, I found that they had improved with age — not only theirs but my own as well. Several months ago, the discovery that Evelyn Waugh had been a great admirer of Erle Stanley Gardner’s novels, from which the series was adapted, further increased my appreciation and respect for the films. So did learning that Raymond Chandler — a good friend of the author’s — also appreciated the books for their tight structure and for ingenuity of their plots. Having since read three of the Mason books, I understand what Waugh saw in them; also why Chandler privately described Gardner as someone who could be called a writer ‘only by courtesy’.
Gardner, unlike Chandler, was not a descriptive author, nor had he the ability to create mood and atmosphere. Indeed, he was hardly more than a writer of screenplays, which explains in part why the translation of his novels from paper to celluloid was such a brilliant success. Gardner invented the principal characters (Chandler considered Perry Mason a just-about-perfect creation) and the story lines, while the artistes of the Hollywood movie lots supplied the actors, the settings, the backgrounds and interiors, the décor, the clothes and the cars. The result was a precise image of America in the 1950s that seems almost as distant from America in the 21st century as the antebellum era.
My parents considered the United States of the period hopelessly and unspeakably vulgar, shallow, trivial, ugly and uncivilized. Viewed from the perspective of 2021, it appears more like Athens in her Golden Age. Watching Perry Mason is a comforting experience today precisely because America in the Fifties was a comfortable place, and Americans were comfortable with themselves. Gardner’s Mason was perfect for his time: tall, broad-shouldered, and masculine; confident, competent, generous, chivalrous, and — above all — reassuring. He is solid rather than stolid, always in perfect self-control, even-tempered and imperturbable: the personification of the country that had recently won its second world war and was enjoying the ensuing and well-deserved prosperity, and the superior type of American who is wholly representative of his country without standing above it.
Along the same lines, I’ve become aware myself of an ever-increasing fondness for 1940s and 1950s B movies, resulting simply from the comfort of revisiting a so-much more adult and masculine America full of optimism and self-confidence, and generally completely lacking any insolent, whining, power-hungry Identity Groups, and one in which adults talk, act, and dress like adults.
There is a small category of films which failed in theatrical release, but which, when played and replayed on television, found their audience and proved themselves to be authentic heart-warming and important films striking a chord with a very wide audience and proving watchable again and again and again.
In a just world, O.J. Simpson would currently be serving the 24th year of a double life sentence; Ronald Reagan would have been president during America’s bicentennial instead of Gerald Ford â€” and Galaxy Quest would’ve earned half-a-billion bucks at the box office when it came out in 1999.
But inept and indifferent studio marketing (plus competition from another “sci-fi” comedy, Ghostbusters) relegated Galaxy Quest to semi-cult status. Which is ironically appropriate, given its plot:
At a science fiction convention, fans await an appearance by the cast of Galaxy Quest, a hokey interstellar TV adventure series unceremoniously cancelled in the early 1980s. The show’s fatally typecast has-been “stars” (played by Tim Allen, Alan Rickman, Sigourney Weaver, Tony Shalhoub and Daryl Mitchell) are reduced to reluctantly signing autographs at tacky gatherings like this one, when they’re not cutting ribbons (in full costume) at supermarket openings.
That is, until genuine aliens â€” who, in cargo cult fashion, have based their civilization on Galaxy Quest re-runs transmitted through space â€” touch down and beg “the crew of the NSEA-Protector” to help them defeat the villain bent on destroying their planet. The adorable Thermians innocently believe the program’s “crew” are fearless, intrepid space warriors and technological geniuses, not just washed-up actors in laughable uniforms. Their language has no word for “pretend”…
Lazily calling this movie “a Star Trek spoof” unfairly slots it alongside broad, coarse parodies like Blazing Saddles or the soulless Mars Attacks! In truth, Galaxy Quest is a tender, big hearted valentine â€” more My Favorite Year than Airplane.
That the film’s jokes and, more incredibly, its special effects, hold up so well twenty years later is a testament to the loving care with which Galaxy Quest was crafted. Obeying the first (yet often ignored) commandment of movie comedy, all the actors “play it straight.”
Genre veteran Sigourney Weaver of Alien fame never winks “Get it?”; neither does Alan Rickman, a classically-trained Shakespearean actor stuck wearing a rubber prosthetic forehead, portraying… a classically-trained Shakespearean actor stuck wearing a rubber prosthetic forehead:
While I’d have preferred the director’s original choice for the leading role â€” Kevin Kline â€” Tim Allen acquits himself surprisingly well as the pompous, Shatner-esque Jason Nesmith, a.k.a., Commander Taggart.
Cast as Thermian leader Mathesar, Yale Drama alumnus Enrico Colantoni conceived of his species’ quirky gait, rictus grin and off-key speech patterns during his winning audition, then led hour-long “alien school” on set each morning to ensure uniformity and, therefore, believability; of all the Thermians, Missi Pyle’s Laliari is so indelibly delightful that John Updike gave her a shout-out in his novella Rabbit Remembered.
Speaking of famous writers, David Mamet has called Galaxy Quest “a perfect film,” ranking it with The Godfather (and another of my other favorites, Dodsworth.)
Todd Vanderwerff, at Vox, explains that Breaking Bad succeeded by applying the Shakespearian five-act structure.
[T]he five-act structure gives both the buildup to and fall from the climax whole acts to breathe. Instead of getting stuck in a never-ending second act, much of the story is pushed to the fourth act, or the fallout from the big moment. And on TV, time is everything:
The five acts consist of the following, which I have paired with how each act perfectly corresponds to each of Breaking Badâ€™s five seasons:
Act 1: Something happens to spark the story into motion, and the characters begin making choices that will set everything else spinning along. (In Breaking Bad season one, Walter begins cooking meth and realizes he kind of likes it.)
Act 2: The characters still have a chance to escape their fates, but something in their psyches keeps driving them forward. (In Breaking Bad season two, Walter delves deeper and deeper into the Albuquerque underworld, meeting figures like Saul Goodman and Gus Fring for the first time. The season ends with a â€œwarning from God,â€ in the form of a plane crash.)
Act 3: Featuring the â€œclimax,â€ this is where everything shifts. Something happens to flip everything on its ear, and the story reaches a point where the characters cannot escape whatâ€™s coming. (In Breaking Bad season three, Walter leaves the drug business behind for a while, but ultimately decides to join Gusâ€™s empire. I would pinpoint the showâ€™s â€œclimaxâ€ as the controversial episode â€œFly,â€ in which Walter has the chance to come clean to his closest colleague and decides not to.)
Act 4: The characters, trapped by fate but not yet cognizant of it, are sucked toward the endgame. In a tragedy, this is often when the body count begins to mount (or the audience can see this coming). (In Breaking Bad season four, the war between Gus and Walter dominates everything that happens.)
Act 5: Everything ends, often in blood and horror. There is some quiet musing on what it all means. A few characters escape with their lives, but even they will likely have long years of therapy ahead of them. (In Breaking Bad season five, Walter takes over the Albuquerque drug world but finds himself pairing up with even more unsavory characters. Eventually, just about everybody dies or has their life utterly ruined.)
How did we get to this point? Where are we going in the future? Jonathan Rauch, in the Atlantic, argues that we democratized and reformed our way to chaos, disorder, and allowing the momentary whims of the least common denominator to make the key decisions, and he thinks it is only going to get worse.
Itâ€™s 2020, four years from now. The campaign is under way to succeed the president, who is retiring after a single wretched term. Voters are angrier than everâ€”at politicians, at compromisers, at the establishment. Congress and the White House seem incapable of working together on anything, even when their interests align. With lawmaking at a standstill, the presidentâ€™s use of executive orders and regulatory discretion has reached a level that Congress views as dictatorialâ€”not that Congress can do anything about it, except file lawsuits that the divided Supreme Court, its three vacancies unfilled, has been unable to resolve.
On Capitol Hill, Speaker Paul Ryan resigned after proving unable to pass a budget, or much else. The House burned through two more speakers and one â€œactingâ€ speaker, a job invented following four speakerless months. The Senate, meanwhile, is tied in knots by wannabe presidents and aspiring talk-show hosts, who use the chamber as a social-media platform to build their brands by obstructingâ€”well, everything. The Defense Department is among hundreds of agencies that have not been reauthorized, the government has shut down three times, and, yes, it finally happened: The United States briefly defaulted on the national debt, precipitating a market collapse and an economic downturn. No one wanted that outcome, but no one was able to prevent it.
As the presidential primaries unfold, Kanye West is leading a fractured field of Democrats. The Republican front-runner is Phil Robertson, of Duck Dynasty fame. Elected governor of Louisiana only a few months ago, he is promising to defy the Washington establishment by never trimming his beard. Party elders have given up all pretense of being more than spectators, and most of the candidates have given up all pretense of party loyalty. On the debate stages, and everywhere else, anything goes. …
Trump, however, didnâ€™t cause the chaos. The chaos caused Trump. What we are seeing is not a temporary spasm of chaos but a chaos syndrome.
Chaos syndrome is a chronic decline in the political systemâ€™s capacity for self-organization. It begins with the weakening of the institutions and brokersâ€”political parties, career politicians, and congressional leaders and committeesâ€”that have historically held politicians accountable to one another and prevented everyone in the system from pursuing naked self-interest all the time. As these intermediariesâ€™ influence fades, politicians, activists, and voters all become more individualistic and unaccountable. The system atomizes. Chaos becomes the new normalâ€”both in campaigns and in the government itself.
Our intricate, informal system of political intermediation, which took many decades to build, did not commit suicide or die of old age; we reformed it to death. For decades, well-meaning political reformers have attacked intermediaries as corrupt, undemocratic, unnecessary, or (usually) all of the above. Americans have been busy demonizing and disempowering political professionals and parties, which is like spending decades abusing and attacking your own immune system. Eventually, you will get sick.
The disorder has other causes, too: developments such as ideological polarization, the rise of social media, and the radicalization of the Republican base. But chaos syndrome compounds the effects of those developments, by impeding the task of organizing to counteract them. Insurgencies in presidential races and on Capitol Hill are nothing new, and they are not necessarily bad, as long as the governing process can accommodate them. Years before the Senate had to cope with Ted Cruz, it had to cope with Jesse Helms. The difference is that Cruz shut down the government, which Helms could not have done had he even imagined trying.
Like many disorders, chaos syndrome is self-reinforcing. It causes governmental dysfunction, which fuels public anger, which incites political disruption, which causes yet more governmental dysfunction. Reversing the spiral will require understanding it.
Michael Rosemblum, at HuffPo, thinks it’s simpler than that. Ignore the polls, Trump will win because he’s the biggest celebrity and America has evolved into a television-based celebrity culture. Get ready for Kanye West vs. Phil Robertson next time!
Donald Trump is going to be elected president.
The American people voted for him a long time ago.
They voted for him when The History Channel went from showing documentaries about the Second World War to Pawn Stars and Swamp People.
They voted for him when The Discovery Channel went from showing Lost Treasures of the Yangtze Valley to Naked and Afraid.
They voted for him when The Learning Channel moved from something you could learn from to My 600 Pound Life.
They voted for him when CBS went from airing Harvest of Shame to airing Big Brother.
These networks didnâ€™t make these programming changes by accident. They were responding to what the American people actually wanted. And what they wanted was Naked and Afraid and Duck Dynasty.
The polls may show that Donald Trump is losing to Hillary Clinton, but donâ€™t you believe those polls. When the AC Nielsen Company selects a new Nielsen family, they disregard the new familyâ€™s results for the first three months. The reason: when they feel they are being monitored, people lie about what they are watching. In the first three months, knowing they are being watched, they will tune into PBS. But over time they get tired of pretending. Then it is back to The Kardashians.
The same goes for people who are being asked by pollsters for whom they are voting. They will not say Donald Trump. It is too embarrassing. But the truth is, they like Trump. He is just like their favorite shows on TV.
Trumpâ€™s replacement of Paul Manafort with Breitbartâ€™s Steve Bannon shows that Trump understands how Americans actually think. They think TV. They think ratings. They think entertainment.
Progressive comedy is above all else lazy and Letterman was the laziest man in comedy. He had more staffers than Eisenhower all to deploy the thousandth [iteration] of the same joke. He used his power to fill the time slots after him with hosts who couldnâ€™t possibly compete with him to avoid being Conaned.
He was not a liberal by conviction, but out of laziness. When challenged by guests like Bill Oâ€™Reilly, he quickly folded. His politics were not thought out, they were unthinking. For all his pretense of eccentricity, he was a conformist who understood that if he played the game, he would get paid. His comic personality, the folksy skepticism and detached disdain served up in measured doses to viewers, was calculated to cover up this essential attribute that defined his enormously lucrative career.
Letterman is a professional sycophant who limos off into the sunset to the strains of the sycophantic braying of a dying industry. As audiences dwindle, the media has become its own audience, mourning the passing of its glorious past by taking hits of nostalgia from its heady days of power and privilege.
The mournful tributes piling up in his wake arenâ€™t about him. Network television is dying. Letterman was one of its last national figures. If you think mainstream media outlets are carrying on over his exit, wait until network television dies its inevitable demographic death.
Then the media will really have something to cry about.
John Nolte explains how David Letterman responded to losing to Jay Leno by becoming a toady to the urban establishment.
I didnâ€™t leave David Letterman, David Letterman left me.
It was sometime around 2003 when I began to realize Letterman didnâ€™t like me anymore. His anger was no longer subversive and clever, it was bitter and mean-spirited and palpably real. He was a jerk playing to his loyal audience â€” urban, cynical, elite, Blue State jerks. The humble, self-deprecating Dave had become the nasty, arrogant Letterman, an unrecognizable bully who reveled in pulling the wings off those he saw as something less.
Chris Christieâ€™s weight; Rush Limbaughâ€™s personal life; everything Bill Oâ€™Reilly; Bush, Cheney, Palin, and the last straw, a statutory rape joke about Palinâ€™s 15 year-old daughter. Suddenly you were a dangerous idiot for protecting the most Indiana of things â€” your gun.
The man who could make you laugh at yourself now wanted to hurt and humiliate.
Lettermanâ€™s politics were never the issue. You canâ€™t share my passion for show business and movies and let politics get in the way. Carlin was probably to the left of Letterman, but Carlin was funny and thoughtful and smart. Watching Letterman berate and hector and attempt to humiliate conservative guests over guns and the climate and the brilliance of Obama was boorish. Describing Mitt Romney as a â€œfelonâ€ was just sad.
The American Heartland had disappointed its own Indiana son, and for more than a decade the son was out for payback.
Or maybe Letterman was just so scared and insecure about losing what little audience he had, that he sold out his genius and Midwestern decency to bitterly cling to them? He certainly never again displayed the courage to challenge them, or to make them feel in any way uncomfortable.
Night after night the man who became my hero for biting the hand was now licking the boot â€” and convinced while doing so that heâ€™s superior to the rest of us.
We geezers who were little kids watching television in the 1950s remember Jack Webb playing LAPD Sergeant Jim Friday in Dragnet, but you have to be older yet to know that Webb previously played a hard-boiled detective on the radio.
Before Dragnet, before everyone knew him, Jack Webb did several other radio shows. The best of them was called Pat Novak for Hire [1946-1947], about a boat owner and general odd jobs guy who kept getting involved in various pulpy adventures.
What set this show apart was the writing, which was noire hard boiled writing at its absolute best. The primary writer Richard L. Breen who went on to write such films as State Fair, Niagra, and PT 109. And his work was poetry. The interaction between Novak and his nemesis on the police force Lieutanant Hellman is classic and usually hilarious, and the philosophical monologues and musings of drunken ex-doctor Jocko Madigan is unique to the show. …
Every show starts with a grim and often bitter intro by Pat Novak about how hardcore his life and the world he moves through is. This is San Francisco back before the hippies, the toughest place in America and one of the roughest places in the world.
‘Around here a set of morals won’t cause any more stir than Mother’s Day in an orphanage. Maybe that’s not good, but that’s the way it is. And it wouldn’t do any good to build a church down here, because some guy would muscle in and start cutting the wine with wood alcohol. All you can do is try to make the books balance, and the easiest way to do that is to keep one hand on your billfold and the other hand on somebody else’s.’
‘Down in the waterfront, in San Francisco, you always bite off more than you can chew. It’s tough on your windpipe, but you don’t go hungry.’
‘Pat Novak, for hire. It’s about the only way you can say it. Oh, you can dress it up and tell how many shopping days there are ’til Christmas, but if you got yourself on the market, you can’t waste time talking. You got to be as brief as a pauper’s will, because down in the waterfront, in San Francisco, everybody wants a piece of the cake, and the only easy buck is the one you just spent. Oh, it’s a good life. If you work real hard and study a little on the side, you got a trade by the time you get to prison.’
Almost all of these are worth listening to and as hardboiled as a fifteen year egg.