A sad farewell

Any year that sees both Gilligan and Maynard G. Krebs head to that vast television in the sky can’t be counted as very positive episode of boob tube karma.   Both of characters were embodied by the late, lachrymose Bob Denver, who died in September. Funny how fate works: Denver will forever be remembered for an absurdly silly series that barely lasted three seasons on CBS, and for which he wasn’t first choice as the lead. (Jerry Van Dyke, today best known as Luther on the ’90s comedy Coach, was initially recruited as the Skipper’s little buddy.) And now Gilligan’s Island is seen around the world in syndication. The moral here, boys and girls, is to scrutinize every career choice you make. You never know what’s going to top your obituary.

Me, I’d rather eulogize Denver as Maynard G., who burst onto TV screens in the ’60s as the first beatnik Middle America had ever seen, on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. Occasionally, you can still hear people of a slightly older vintage note a tender moment by remarking, “I’m gettin’ kinda misty, Dobe.” Denver’s legacy lives on.

But no man is an island, and most of 2005 felt like a year in which TV lost far more than it gained: the last great comedy in primetime, Everybody Loves Raymond; Monday Night Football, at least on ABC, after more than three decades of highlights and Howard; all three legendary network news anchors, Rather, Brokaw and Jennings, the latter to lung cancer; Ted Koppel’s singular version of Nightline. And, of course, therrrrrre’s Johnny.

The death of Johnny Carson in 2005’s first month set the tone for a year of somber reflections. If TV is a circus, Carson was its grinning ringmaster. Every late-night talk show host — Jay, Dave, Conan, Craig, Kimmel, even that meathead Carson Daly, all of them — owe their rich-and-famous lifestyles to Johnny’s pioneering brilliance. If you know there was a Tonight Show host before Leno, and were able to see him cast his magic spell live on NBC, count yourself lucky.

Carson’s passing led a sobering casualty list of actors known better for the roles they played than for their real names. Maxwell Smart and Inspector Gadget (Don Adams). Star Trek’s Scotty (James Doohan). Leo McGarry of The West Wing (John Spencer, as kind and genuine a Jersey guy as you’d ever want to meet, although I prefer to remember him as loose cannon attorney Tommy Mullaney on LA Law). The Riddler (Frank Gorshin). Green Acres’ Oliver Wendell Douglas (Eddie Albert). Arnold from Happy Days (Pat Morita). Jerry Seinfeld’s dad (Barney Martin).

What did TV bring us on the plus side of the ledger? Lost, Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy, igniting the resurrection of ABC with three series so overhyped and relentlessly dissected that they cannot possibly sustain their first-season excitement. My Name Is Earl — thanks for nuthin’, NBC. Oprah Winfrey’s 20th anniversary (does everyone who buys her DVD collection also get a new house?). And the most marketable American Idol ever, Carrie Underwood. Big whoop.

Lost’s surprise Emmy win for outstanding drama sparked a torrent of sci-fi copycats: ABC’s Night Stalker (already canceled) and Invasion, NBC’s Surface, CBS’s Threshold (also gone) and Ghost Whisperer, and the WB’s Supernatural.

CSI remained TV’s No. 1 show (and can CBS please stop crowing about being the No. 1 network for more than an hour?), joined by its crime-scene cousins in Miami and New York, and NBC’s trilogy of Law & Order whodunits. CBS’ Criminal Minds and Close to Home, and FOX’s Bones expanded the field.

It was a big year for lesbians, beginning when Elizabeth Rohm’s character on Law & Order asked if she was losing her job as assistant district attorney because of her sexual orientation (no, Liz, you lost your role because the Joe Louis fist has more emotion) and continuing with The L Word on Showtime and Ellen DeGeneres’ overwhelming popularity in daytime.

Finally, a heartfelt goodbye to four legends: Chris Schenkel, the voice of ABC Sports when ABC was the voice of sports; Ossie Davis, who can sneak into a TV column for his role in the ’90s sitcom Evening Shade, but his impact on acting and America was far more profound; Richard Pryor, the mouth that launched a thousand comedians, and whose jaw-dropping, short-lived ’70s Richard Pryor Show on NBC you simply have to rent; and for you daytime junkies, Ruth Warrick of All My Children, who also once played Citizen Kane’s wife.

Jim McFarlin writes about the boob tube for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]

About The Author

Jim McFarlin

Jim McFarlin, former media and entertainment critic for the Metro Times and The Detroit News, is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in People, USA Today, Black Enterprise, HOUR Detroit, and many other publications. His latest book, The Booster, about the decline and fall of U-M’s Fab Five, is...
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