How Television Has Changed (Or, My Favorite Programs Over the Years)

Television has an incredible ability to have an effect on our lives, for better and worse. For every chance that mankind has had the ability to see history making events (the moon landing, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the first Iraq War, etc.), we also have the opportunity to bleed brain cells through watching something completely idiotic (the Kardashians, “Honey Boo Boo,” etc.). In my life, however, there’s been a few shows that had an impact on me and, in some way, kind of show how television has changed over the years.

In the 1970s, the first show that I identified with and was a big fan of was WKRP in Cincinnati. Featuring an ensemble cast, the show was about a radio station in that namesake city and the situations that the staff found itself in, sometimes of their own creation. The comedy was a constant on the show, but it was also known for making some serious statements, including the treatment of soldiers after the Vietnam War. It also featured a cast that would go on to do other great work, including Howard Hesseman, Loni Anderson and Tim Reid (all outstanding in their portrayals of Dr. Johnny Fever, station receptionist Jennifer Marlowe and DJ Venus Flytrap).

When it first premiered in 1978, it automatically became something that I made sure I had my homework finished for so I could see the latest episode. What made it funny was, as I learned later in life, somewhat realistic. The writers of the show based the characters off of people they had met while working in radio and some of the situations that occurred on the show were actual life events for these people. And who can’t laugh when they see something like this (something that actually happened to the writers when they were in radio that they used on the show):

When it went off the air after four years, I was tremendously disappointed. But the show had done something to my mindset in that it encouraged me to want to be a radio DJ. Growing up, I always envisioned myself as Dr. Johnny Fever, working with a bunch of strange people such as he did on the show. That led me to a 16-year career in radio, where I built up my own weird bunch of people and outrageous situations that would have challenged anything that WKRP had presented. It was also a hell of a lot of fun!

I didn’t get into another television series hard core until the late 1990s and there were two that took the stage.

First was Millennium, which was considered a very strange show by most everyone else that I knew. The show was about a former FBI agent who used a paranormal “gift” (the character, Frank Black, called it a “curse”) to be able to see through a criminal’s eyes and solve the usually chilling crimes that they had committed. This special “sense” brought him to the attention of several mysterious groups that wanted to use him for their purposes as mankind approached the end of the millennia.

I have always had a soft spot for heroes that are flawed and Frank Black fit that description to a T. From 1996-99, it was appointment viewing for me if not for anyone else. The show wasn’t even given a decent sendoff; a knot-tying episode of The X-Files called “Millennium” that featured Frank Black (outstandingly played by Lance Henriksen) served as a finale for the program.

To further irritate me as to the realities of television (we’ll get to that in a moment), my next favorite show was one called Brimstone. If you’ve never heard of it, I wouldn’t be surprised; it only lasted for 13 episodes in 1998-99.

Brimstone was the story of Detective Ezekiel Stone (Peter Horton, most notable for his time on thirtysomething), an officer for the New York Police Department. A highly decorated detective, Stone’s wife is the victim of a rape and, as Stone investigates the case, he finds the rapist and takes great pleasure in killing him instead of arresting him. A couple of month later, Stone himself is killed by a criminal and finds himself in Hell for taking joy in killing his wife’s rapist. He languishes there for 15 years until an event in Hades calls for his special skills.

The Devil (another outstanding performance by the late John Glover) comes to Stone with a deal: 113 souls, led by a Canaanite priestess who is 4000 years old, have broken out of Hell and returned to Earth. If Stone can send every one of the escapees back to Hell (by perforating their eyes because they are the “windows to the soul,” as the Devil tells him), then he will be given the opportunity to enter Heaven. Stone takes the deal and, tattooed with 113 marks that disappear each time he returns a soul to Hell, heads back to Earth and the potential of crossing paths with his wife.

The reason I liked this show was it was a bit of a twist on the normal “crime procedural” that is normally presented. There were twists as well in that Stone and the escapees had supernatural powers (dependent on how long you were in Hell, sometimes Stone had to contend with a soul that had stronger supernatural abilities than he did) and the Devil, while pointing him in the direction of someone to “apprehend,” more often than not would forget to give Stone important details on the demon he was chasing. There was also a bit of “good versus evil” in this as Glover would also sometimes play God, helping Stone with his work.

Alas, it didn’t last that long. Whether it was because it was a taboo subject that no one wanted to watch or it was too complex for some to wrap their minds around, it disappeared after that one season. To make matters worse, it has never appeared on DVD for fans of the show to own. If they can do DVDs of other shows that were niche (Heroes comes to mind), then there should be one for Brimstone; hell, I’d even write episodes if they wanted to bring it back to television!

These two shows were darker, indicating to me that, as I got older, I took a bit more pessimistic view of the world. It also showed me that sometimes great material gets cut off (canceled) before you’re done with it. That reality would be further demonstrated by my fourth favorite program.

The television series Leverage came out right after the financial collapse of 2008 and its timing couldn’t have been better. The show was based on a former insurance investigator, haunted by the death of his son and now a raging alcoholic, who puts together and all-star team of criminals. Using grift, computer hacking, straight up theft and strong arm tactics (the four members of the team were all considered the best in their fields in each individual subject), the team would assist their “clients” in reversing wrongs that had been perpetrated on them by the “rich and powerful.”

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For five seasons, the team pulled off cons and thefts against the scourges of society, always setting right what wrongs had been committed. In watching the program, you cheered for these criminals (and they were criminals) as they made sure that those who perpetrated even bigger scams (and got away with it because of influence or money) received their comeuppance. What is the saying I’ve seen…”Rob a bank, go to jail, own a bank, rob the world”? These guys made sure that didn’t happen.

Besides that the ensemble cast (Academy Award winner Timothy Hutton, British actress Gina Bellman, Christian Kane, Beth Riesgraf and Aldis Hodge) was excellently put together, the group actually brought development to their characters that seemed true to life. The shows themselves could have been pulled from the headlines and the series’ finale – oddly enough a Christmas gift from the producers and directors on Christmas 2012 – gave the impression that there may still be some life in the Leverage team yet. Hopefully that happens but, as the years go on, it becomes less likely.

All these television programs have had a huge effect on my life. I actually own three of them – WKRP, Millennium and Leverage – on DVD, and if Brimstone were available I’d have that. Sometimes television can have a good effect on people as, without these shows, I don’t think I’d be who I am today.

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