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The 10 Most Memorable Reasons to Mourn Stephen J. Cannell

I had thought about suggesting that TV fans turn their sets off for an hour tonight as a tribute to the legacy of Stephen J. Cannell, who passed away yesterday as a result of complications associated with melanoma, but since I don’t think it’s possible for an hour to go by without one of his shows airing somewhere on your dial, I’m sure he’d much rather you watch his work than mourn his loss. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I sat back and took stock of just how much Cannell had contributed both to my childhood and my teenage years. I mean, my God, you hate to overuse the word “ubiquitous,” but if you look at how many times his name turns up in the credits of series which are considered to be staples of the 1970s and 1980s, you realize that you couldn’t turn around without hitting a series that he had either created or co-created.

Here are the 10 series from Stephen J. Cannell’s body of work that I’ll continue to enjoy ’til…well, ’til I join Stephen J. Cannell. If I’ve left out one of your favorites, be sure to cite it in the comments section.

10. Baa Baa Black Sheep (1976 – 1978): Based on the experiences of USMC flyboy Pappy Boyington and his “Black Sheep Squadron” during World War II, I couldn’t have cared less about this series when it was originally on the air, but it was required viewing for my father. Later, I realized that the man who played Pappy was the same guy who’d been kicking ass as James T. West on “The Wild Wild West” – Robert Conrad – and decided to give the show a chance. I don’t know if it was as historically accurate as it was probably supposed to be, but it proved that Conrad could even make WWII cool.

9. Baretta (1975 – 1978): Obviously, Robert Blake’s subsequent shenanigans in his personal life has tarnished his reputation as an actor, especially since there’s now an entire generation who only knows him for his work on Court TV, but in his day, Baretta was a full-fledged bad-ass…and so, for that matter, was his theme song.

8. Hardcastle and McCormick (1983 – 1986): The only thing that screams “the ’80s” more than McCormick’s car is the theme song, but Brian Keith and Daniel Hugh Kelly had good chemistry, and Keith helped set the decade’s industry standard for curmudgeonly characters.

7. Tenspeed and Brownshoe (1980): So, wait, which one’s Brownshoe again? You won’t believe how young Jeff Goldblum looks in this show, but if you’ve ever wondered where he honed the neurotic characteristics that have come to define his performances, look no further. Again, Cannell had an eye for chemistry. Who else would’ve imagined that Goldblum and Ben Vereen would work so well together?

6. Riptide (1983 – 1986): It’s the robot, right? Chicks dig the robot. Cody and Nick were cool, sure, but looking back on the show now, Tom Bray’s performance as Boz helped to define the concept of “geek chic.”

5. 21 Jump Street (1987 – 1991): A lot of people only think of “Jump Street” in terms of having been the show that really gave Johnny Depp his start, but let us not forget that, thanks to Richard Grieco, we were also blessed with the awesomeness that is “Booker.” Okay, actually, maybe we should just focus on Johnny Depp.

4. Wiseguy (1987 – 1990): The first season is nearly untouchable. Too bad we’ll probably never get the opportunity enjoy a non-bootleg version of Season 2′s “Dead Dog Records” storyline, which featured Tim Curry, Debbie Harry, and Glenn Frey. Damned music rights…

3. The Greatest American Hero (1981 – 1983): God bless William Katt, but the real heroes of this show were Robert Culp – Bill Maxwell is the FBI agent that actual FBI agents wish they could act like – and Joey Scarbury, who crooned the most insidiously catchy theme song of the decade.

2. The A-Team (1983 – 1987): Personally, I kinda liked the movie. But you can’t go wrong with the unbridled cheesy action of the original series.

1. The Rockford Files (1974 – 1980): Half-credit, of course, goes to co-creator Roy Huggins, whose success with James Garner on “Maverick” no doubt helped convince him to do the series in the first place, but there are virtually no one-man detective series on television today that don’t owe some degree of their success to the road paved by Jim Rockford. It might not be the single best show of the 1970s, but there are precious few from the decade that hold up as well.

And, of course, there’s no other way we could possibly close this piece:

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TCA Tour: NBC Executive Session

I think it’s fair to say that there wasn’t a single member of the Television Critics Associate who wasn’t chomping at the bit to see how this session was going to go down. With all of the controversy breaking about the reported cancellation of “The Jay Leno Show” and rumors of its host moving to a half-hour slot at 11:35 PM, thereby moving the other members of the late-night line-up – “The Tonight Show starring Conan O’Brien” and “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” back by an hour, everybody wanted to know how NBC was going to handle damage control.

“I see we have a full house,” said NBC Universal TV chairman Jeff Gaspin, as he walked onto the stage and stood before a ballroom filled with TV critics, many of whom were poised to pounce. “I heard there were some scalpers outside.”

The levity quickly went by the wayside, however, as Gaspin went into the recitation of what one can only presume was a well-tweaked statement, confirming that, starting February 12th, “The Jay Leno Show” will no longer air at 10 PM. He admitted that, although the series performed at acceptable levels for the network, it did not meet the needs of the network’s affiliates, hence the change in programming strategy. He also stated that NBC’s goal was to keep all three of its hosts as part of the late-night landscape – “The Jay Leno Show” at 11:35 PM, “The Tonight Show starring Conan O’Brien” at 12:05 AM, and “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” at 1:05 AM – while acknowledging that this plan was in no way a done deal and that talks are still ongoing.

“It’s a fluid situation,” said Gaspin. “Everybody has the weekend to think about it, and we’ll see what happens when we start the new week tomorrow.”

While he would not confirm the hosts’ specific reactions to the new plan, Gaspin said that all three gentlemen were “incredibly gracious and professional” and that they acknowledged that they knew it was a difficult situation. As for anything else that went down during the discussions, he merely described it as a “private conversation,” adding, “When it’s all settled, you can go and ask them what their feelings were.”

Gaspin expects that the new late-night line-up will be in place by the time NBC’s coverage of the Olympics begins in February.

Unsurprisingly, the critics’ claws were soon out, with one wanting to know exactly what happened with the network’s assurances during the summer TCA tour that the success or failure of “The Jay Leno Show” would not be determined fully until the series had run for a full 52-week cycle. Gaspin maintained that the 52-week plan still would’ve been his preference but again cited the affiliates’ concerns as being the driving force behind the comparatively-quick removal of the series from its prime-time berth.

“Starting in November, the affiliates started calling, saying that local news was being affected more than expected,” said Gaspin. By the end of the month, the stations which utilized people meters for their ratings continued their complaints, now citing statistics where, in some cases, #1 local news broadcasts had dropped to #3. Gaspin continued his constant dialogue with the affiliates, requesting that they wait and see how the show would do against repeats…and, indeed, “The Jay Leno Show” did do better, but only by about a tenth of a rating point, still coming in second to either CBS or ABC on a regular basis. When the smaller affiliates without people meters got their November book numbers, “the drum beat started getting louder,” Gaspin said, and as it became progressively more clear that they were only going to be getting more vocal about their displeasure, throwing around comments about possible preemption, “we realized things were not going to go well if it was kept in place.”

Gaspin continued to clarify, however, that despite the feelings of the affiliates, NBC did not feel that “The Jay Leno Show” was a disappointment on a network level. “It was working at acceptable levels financially, making money at 10 PM,” he said. “For the network, it was not a wrong decision.”

He also underlined that, insofar as he was concerned, the reason behind the limited viewership had nothing to do with the show or its level of quality. “There’s a lot of choice at 10 PM,” he said. “We thought it could be everybody’s second choice, but there were just so many other choices that people thought were better.” In the end, Gaspin conceded that “The Jay Leno Show,” while being easy entertainment, simply wasn’t the first or even second choice of enough viewers.

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This Tuesday in TV-DVD – Nov. 3, 2009

* The Rockford Files: Movie Collection, Vol. 1: It’s like I said in my review: if these movies aren’t necessarily up to the standards of the original series – and let’s face it: they often aren’t – it’s so good to see James Garner, Stuart Margolin, and Joe Santos back in their familiar roles that it hardly matters.

* The Shield: The Complete Series Collection: Similarly, I’ll let Jason’s review speak for this set. “From its great ensemble cast and the memorable group of characters they portrayed, to the writing team’s ability to consistently hammer out quality and controversial storylines, ‘The Shield’ is by far one of the best cop dramas ever produced. Nay, one of the best dramas, period. It may not have gotten the attention it deserved during its seven years on the air, but its release on DVD will ensure that the legacy lives on for many years to come. If nothing else, you can expect it to be heavily referenced when the next great cop drama arrives on television, because while ‘The Shield’ may not have invented the wheel, it definitely burned the rubber off the tires enough times for people to take notice.” I have no doubt that he’s right. And one of these days, maybe I’ll even get a chance to sit down and watch it myself.

* Will Ferrell: You’re Welcome, America – A Final Night with George W. Bush: Adam McKay described Ferrell’s one-man Broadway show as “one of those great projects where you really walk in not at all caring about what the critics are going to say.” That’s probably a good thing, given what Jeff Giles, has to say about it. (To be fair, though, even McKay admitted that, although “the director of our special, Marty Callner, did an amazing job, nothing ever matches the live experience. The people who saw it live had a totally different reaction to it.”)

* Mission: Impossible – The Final TV Season: By the time this, the show’s seventh season, rolled around, you needed a formal checklist to cite all of the people whose departure left fans saying that it “hasn’t been the same since.” There’s no Martin Landau, no Barbara Bain…even Leonard Nimoy was gone by this point. But, hey, the big three – Peter Graves, Greg Morris, and Peter Lupus – are still around, with Lynda Day George serving as the season’s predominant femme fatale. Now that the whole series is available, when are we going to get the 1988 revival released on DVD?

* Spin City: Season Three: Shout Factory must’ve blown its whole bonus-material budget for the show on the Season 1 set, because we haven’t seen a single special feature since, but at least the comedy keeps on coming.

* Star Wars: The Clone Wars – The Complete Season One: Your mileage on this show varies by how much you can stand of George Lucas’s prequels, but at the very least, it looks and sounds good.

* Walt Disney Treasures: Zorro – The Complete First Season / Walt Disney Treasures: Zorro – The Complete Second Season: Once upon a time, when Antonio Banderas was merely a twinkle in his father’s eye, Guy Williams was dressed in black and bringing a whole new meaning to the phrase “cutting Z’s.” As usual, you can count on Disney to hook you up with a plethora of classic bonus material.

* Doctor Who: The War Games / Doctor Who: The Black Guardian Trilogy: What the…? Our man Ross has written full-length reviews for both sets? I am shocked. Shocked. Sounds like “The Black Guardian Trilogy” might be pretty good if you just skipped over the middle part of the trilogy. As for “The War Games,” while Ross says it’s “difficult to recommend…to people unfamiliar with it,” it’s a fantastic set for fans, and “the transfer and restoration work are just freaking gorgeous.”

* Fraggle Rock: The Complete Series Collection: Dance your cares away, worries for another day, and let the music play down in Fraggle Rock for as long as you can stand to watch. But given that it’s a Jim Henson production, you can probably stand to watch for a very long time, indeed. Actually, this isn’t the first time we’ve been offered a complete-series set for this show, but as someone who owns the notebook-styled version that came out last year, where the DVDs fall out way too easily, I can assure you that you’ll be a lot better off if you pick up this one instead.

* G.I. Joe: Resolute: I haven’t seen this Cartoon Network series, nor have I seen the new movie, but I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to suggest that this might be better than the movie. Or, at least, that’s the buzz, anyway.

Other releases this week:

* Ruby-Spears Superman:
* Here’s Lucy: Season 2:
* The Donna Reed Show: Season 3
* Art 21: Season 5
* Edge of Darkness: The Complete BBC Series

And – ho, ho, ho! – a trio of holiday releases for the kiddies:

* Dora the Explorer: Dora’s Christmas Carol Adventure
* Thomas & Friends: Holiday Express
* Merry Sitcom! Christmas Classics from TV’s Golden Age

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