News from the Archive

Tears, Dreams, and Blank Screens: A Brief History of the Series Finale

April 28th, 2016
Leave It To Beaver

Lucy accidently destroys a newly sculpted Revolutionary War statue in the town square. A grenade temporarily blinds Eliot Ness. Perry Mason successfully defends an eccentric actress in a murder case. These describe three episodes of the most successful shows of the ‘50s and ‘60s. What do they all have in common? They’re all the final episodes of their respective series. I Love Lucy, The Untouchables, and Perry Mason. Unremarkable, run-of-the-mill, and even subpar entries.

Why didn’t Lucy finally get to perform in Ricky’s show and become a huge star? Why didn’t Eliot Ness finally capture Frank Nitti? Why wasn’t Perry Mason in the fight of his life against Hamilton Burger? Because, at the time these episodes aired, the notion of a “series finale” hadn’t been conceived. In those days, shows just ended with no fanfare. It would be announced in the trades like Variety, but mostly viewers would look for their favorite show in the fall and find it had been replaced.

One of the reasons for this was the perceived value of the show in syndication. A show like Gilligan’s Island could run in perpetuity in syndication if the castaways never got off the island. This idea that any kind of finality might hurt syndication sales even carried over into the ‘90s, when it was rumored to be a chief reason that Tony Micelli didn’t marry Angela Bower in the series finale of Who’s the Boss? It was a financial decision rather than a creative one.

The very first primetime series finale came in 1963. In the Leave it to Beaver episode “Family Scrapbook,” the Cleavers reminisce over old times while we see flashbacks from previous classic episodes, thereby simultaneously creating the clip show. Beaver creators Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher returned to write the episode themselves, which revealed for the first time how Beaver got his nickname. Not much of an event, but the audience got a sense of closure, which hadn’t happened with other series.

The dawn of the big time, extravaganza series finale came on August 29, 1967 when “The Judgment: Part II,” the final episode of The Fugitive aired. Producer Leonard Goldberg can be credited with creating the “finale event.”

The finale of The Fugitive was the most-watched television series episode up to that time, with a remarkable 78 million people tuned in to see Richard Kimble finally confront the “one-armed-man.”

That viewership was topped in 1983 by the final episode of M*A*S*H, which aired as a two-and-a-half hour movie titled “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen.” In these days of 200 cable channels, the Internet, and fractured viewership, it would be hard for people who weren’t around then to fathom how that single event permeated the culture for weeks before it aired. It was talked about in school, in church, and at work. It was written about in newspapers and magazines, and it was a lead story on each of the three major network nightly newscasts. I remember vividly a New Yorker cartoon that showed a suburban street with rows of trashcans out. In each one, a television had been placed. The caption? “The morning after the final M*A*S*H.” That was how people felt. It was the end of quality television. 105.9 million viewers saw the episode. No other series finale has ever or will ever come close. Cheers’ finale “One For the Road” was seen by 80.4 million, Seinfeld’s “The Finale” by 76.3 million.

My personal favorite experience of a series finale came on May 21, 1990. I’d stopped watching Newhart a couple of years before, but I saw the New York Post review of the final episode that morning. It gave nothing away, but the review practically urged the reader to tune in that night. Same thing in the New York Daily News. Something was clearly up, and I was convinced. I was going to be out that night so I set my VCR to record “The Last Newhart.” I watched it on tape, well after midnight, and what I saw delighted me like nothing else I’d ever seen on television. I’ll let the great Bob Newhart take it from there.

Not all finales are as well received as “The Last Newhart.” The Seinfeld finale was criticized by fans and critics as being overlong and mean-spirited. As Bob Newhart pointed out, some fans of St. Elsewhere were upset that characters they’d followed for so long were revealed to be imaginary in “The Last One.” The reputation of that particular episode has grown since it first aired. For a fun afternoon, watch “The Tommy Westphall Universe” to see how St. Elsewhere basically places ALL of your favorite shows and characters in one universe. 

The most controversial remains The Sopranos’ “Made in America.” I recall watching it with friends on June 10, 2007. In the minutes after the screen blacked out, they expressed anger and disappointment that the show was cut off. Just stopped. I didn’t feel that way. I felt confused, but I also wanted to know more. The following days, months, and years have clarified in my mind exactly what was going on in that scene. To me, “Made in America” is the greatest series finale of all time because it was challenging, and the more you re-watched and related it back to earlier events in the series, the more was revealed to you. Sopranos writer Matthew Weiner gave us his take.

Sadly, I think the day of the entire-country-watching series finale is over. 10.3 million people tuned into the Breaking Bad finale “Felina.” Compare that with some of the earlier numbers discussed. It will be interesting to see what kind of buzz the Game of Thrones finale creates when it airs in a few years.

I would be remiss not to mention one more finale. In 1960, even before that Leave it to Beaver episode, the daytime children’s show Howdy Doody had one. For the first time, Clarabell the Clown spoke. In his Archive interview the creator of Clarabell, Bob “Captain Kangaroo” Keeshan, tells us how much he hated it! Here’s Bob’s page if you want to hear that and other bitter memories from the Captain himself.

For much more on dozens of series finales of all kinds, search the Archive!

- by John Dalton

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Remembering Doris Roberts

April 19th, 2016
Doris Roberts

We’re sad to hear that actress Doris Roberts passed away in her sleep during the night of Sunday, April 17, 2016. Comedian Lily Tomlin discovered Roberts in a Broadway play and brought her to Los Angeles to perform on The Lily Tomlin Comedy Hour. Roberts was a regular on two hit television series in the 1980s: Angie and Remington Steele. She won an Emmy for her guest appearance on St. Elsewhere, and is perhaps best known for playing "Marie Barone" on the hit sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, a role for which she won an additional four Emmy awards.

Below is a clip reel from her 2005 Archive interview:

Visit Doris Roberts' interview page and read her obituary in BBC News.

 

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A Darren Starry Night

April 14th, 2016
Darren Star

Brenda: I like your butt. I mean bike.

Dylan: Thanks. Hop on. My bike, that is.

It doesn't get any better than that. When I was in junior high, a Brenda Walsh and Dylan McKay exchange like that made my night, my week, my year. As a young girl dreaming of the day when I would have my first boyfriend, I got to live vicariously through the beautiful banter of Beverly Hills, 90210's star couple. (I was livid when Kelly and Dylan started getting together. It was wrong. Just plain wrong.)

I was aware that Darren Star appeared in the opening credits as creator of this show that became THE show of my adolescence, but at the time I didn't stop to think much about him. Then Melrose Place came along, a spinoff of Beverly Hills, 90210, and I loyally watched this second Darren Star creation. Years later in 1998, a show called Sex and the City began, and that became a can't miss program. The creator of that show? Yep, Darren Star. As I aged, Darren Star seemed to be making the exact shows that I was dying to watch. The man made television that I could not take my eyes off of, and I recently got the chance to chat with him about all of these programs that largely defined appointment viewing for decades of my life.

In essence, I had been preparing for this conversation since my tween years. It's impossible to choose favorite moments from Darren's interview, but here are a couple of highlights:

Darren Star on the social issues on Beverly Hills, 90210:

Darren Star on Carrie and Big of Sex and the City:

Darren also talked about Grosse Pointe, Younger, working with producer Aaron Spelling, and a whole lot more. His interview is just shy of three hours of how he got into TV writing, how he came up with all of the programs mentioned above, and what he thinks of television today. And he was absolutely lovely to speak with.

When the interview was over, I walked Darren out and thanked him for sitting down with us. And then I thanked him on a personal level for doing what he does because his shows have brought me so much joy over the years. He gave me a big hug, we parted ways, and I was apparently just standing there grinning, because a gentleman walking by stopped in front of me and said, "You look like something amazing just happened to you." I widened my smile. "It did."

I am privileged in my job to get to speak with many talented contributors to television, but this interview hit particularly close to home. I was granted the opportunity to talk with the creator of the very first television show that I ever truly loved. (Think of who that would be for you. Got it? Then imagine talking in depth with that person about that show you loved. That would be something, right?) I realize what a rare and treasured opportunity that is, and I will be forever grateful to the Archive for that Fall evening in New York, and forever grateful to Darren Star - for Brenda and Dylan, for Carrie and Big, and for storylines that made me ponder relationships, breakups, and the true value of best friends. 

And FYI - the twelve-year-old in me just had to know, so in between segments I asked Darren if he was Team Brenda and Dylan or Kelly and Dylan. Darren and I see eye to eye on this one, which made my night, my week, my year.

Watch Darren Star's full Archive interview here. #BrendaAndDylanForever

- by Adrienne Faillace

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Nina Tassler’s Interview Is A Master Class In The TV Business

April 5th, 2016
Nina Tassler

We were excited, and yes, maybe even a little bit nervous, for the chance to sit with network executive Nina Tassler for a few hours for the Archive of American Television. After all, this was one of the most powerful people in television. But what unfolded felt less like an interview and more like a master class in the TV business. Here was a woman who had gone from an aspiring actress to Chairman of CBS Entertainment. We were fascinated to learn her keys to successfully navigating the Hollywood system through the twists and turns of her career.

Lesson 1: Do What You Love

Clearly Tassler's journey started with a passion for entertainment. She grew up watching a handcrafted color TV that her father had made. With a strange sense of foreshadowing for her ultimate occupation, the channel was almost always set to CBS because her dad worked for the network as an audio/visual technician at the time. So, Tassler became an ardent fan of programs like The Ed Sullivan Show and The Wild, Wild West.

By the age of eight she was writing, producing, directing and starring in her own neighborhood plays. Although her dreams of becoming an actress never panned out, she boldly changed course, taking a job as a receptionist and agent’s assistant before signing her own clients just seven months later.

Lesson 2: Eyes on the Prize

While observing the inner workings of packaging TV deals, Tassler realized that she wanted to see projects through to fruition and not just walk away when the ink dried on the actors' contracts. Tassler decided to move into development and set her sights on a job opening for the Director of Movies and Mini-Series at Lorimar (which would later become Warner Bros. Television).

Here Tassler taught us a valuable lesson in tenacity. With a laser focus, she begged pretty much everyone she knew to ask Lorimar President Les Moonves to give her an interview. Her determination ultimately paid off. Tassler got the job and she forged a key relationship that would span decades.

Lesson 3: Back Up the Talk with Talent

Of course, once she got her foot in the door, Tassler had to deliver the goods, which she did in spades. She quickly moved into the drama department and counted ER among her great accomplishments in series development.

When Moonves moved to CBS, she ultimately followed and became head of Drama for CBS Productions. In that position, Tassler demonstrated her innate ability to find and cultivate groundbreaking content. The ultimate example came in the form of the long-running series CSI. While other execs had passed on the show, Tassler took the request for a last-minute pitch from Anthony Zuiker for CSI: Crime Scene Investigation that launched a 15-year run, three spin-offs and one of television's most successful franchises.

Lesson 4: Have Confidence in Your Choices

Tassler passed on another valuable lesson — you can't have success without confidence. After seeing Chuck Lorre’s original pilot for The Big Bang Theory, she had the self-assurance to approach the prolific producer and ask him to re-shoot the flawed first attempt. Rather than walk away from a less than perfect production, Tassler knew that there was strong underlying material and a few tweaks might just garner a hit. Plus, she trusted Lorre to see those adjustments to fruition and turn the series into one of the highest-rated shows on the network.

Lesson 5: Maintain Crystal Clear Vision

The final Chapter in the Tassler master class is perhaps the most difficult to teach — a true sense of vision. The recent changes she made to the late night line-up truly exemplify her ability to look to the future. When David Letterman was finally ready to retire from Late Show, Tassler and her team were tasked with reshaping the time slot. She tackled the challenges in the evolving TV business head-on by bringing in Stephen Colbert and James Corden and a viral video-fueled late night revolution was under way.

Shortly before we conducted our interview with Tassler, news broke that she’d be leaving her post to pursue other interests. While it’s difficult to imagine this powerhouse not helming the ship at CBS anymore, it will be exciting to see what tidbits we can learn from her in her next venture. Luckily her new book, What I Told My Daughter: Lessons from Leaders on Raising the Next Generation of Empowered Women is full of advice from equally successful women like Madeleine Albright, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Whoopi Goldberg. This should tide us over until we see what Tassler does next.

Watch Nina Tassler's full Archive interview.

- by Amy and Nancy Harrington, Pop Culture Passionistas

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The Late Garry Shandling

March 31st, 2016
Garry Shandling

June Gloom hung in the sky as I frantically paced back and forth at the foot of a driveway of a beautiful home in Brentwood. I was supposed to be interviewing Garry Shandling for the Archive of American Television, and he was late. Very late. And I was starting to get nervous.

Yes, I’d been a fan of Shandling since I was a kid. I always looked forward to his guest-hosting of The Tonight Show, and his appearing on the show as a guest with either Johnny Carson or Joan Rivers. My great regard for him, and how much he meant to me back then was perfectly summed up in a scene from Freaks and Geeks, where Martin Starr’s character comes home after a tough day at school to forget his troubles watching Garry on Dinah! Judd Apatow totally got it.

But my long-time fandom isn’t why I was nervous. The then-director of The Archive of American Television Karen Herman was waiting there with me, along with two crew guys - a cameraman and sound guy. In the course of making chit-chat, I was warned by them that Shandling could be “prickly.” They’d worked with him before, and told me he might randomly be in a bad mood and challenge me. I’d seen Garry’s interview with Ricky Gervais, and knew what they were telling me was true. And here I was, back at the very scene of that BBC debacle, waiting to get my crack at it.

Standing there I thought back over his remarkable career. What fascinated me about him was that he’d always had one foot in old time show biz comedy and one foot always ahead of his time. He’d had a very traditional but hysterical stand-up routine, and his ability to adapt an odd comedic persona while interviewing guests on The Tonight Show rivaled Jack Paar’s. At the same time, he created It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, a clear forerunner to Seinfeld, and created The Larry Sanders Show, without which there never would have been The Office, or 30 Rock, or any modern “cringe comedy.” Not to mention, he ushered in an era of quality, original programming on HBO, which continues to this day. 

Garry could have easily been the host of The Tonight Show, but removed himself when he asked not to be the “revolving guest host” along with Jay Leno in 1986, in order to do It’s Garry Shandling’s Show for Showtime. He could have taken any 12:35 slot in 1993, when Letterman went to CBS, but chose instead to do The Larry Sanders Show on HBO. He didn’t find the talk show format to be creatively satisfying, so he turned his back on greater fame and fortune in order to do something interesting.

Garry Shandling showed up two hours late on that June morning. He was apologetic, but as I walked into his home, flashbacks of the Gervais interview starting entering my head. We made small talk. He told Karen and I how much he loved the then-current cast of Saturday Night Live (“the best it’s ever been,” he said) and that actor Michael Cera was, “the future of comedy.”

Just as the interview was about to start, Garry said to me, “Relax, breathe, ask your questions, it will be fine.” (I relaxed a little.)

The cameras roll, we begin. "Garry, the first thing - "

“THAT’S how you’re gonna start?” he interjected.

I panicked for a split second. I’d blown it. It was going to be awful. I’d Gervais’d it!! But I looked up to see Garry’s broad smile and realized he’d set me up for a joke that would ultimately break the ice. It was smooth sailing from then on out, and the best version of the interview that I could have hoped for slowly emerged. 

He wasn’t prickly in the least. He was open, forthcoming, engaging, and kind. It was a great day, and the following morning at 3am he sent me a tweet saying that I’d done a good job and thanked me for being prepared. I will always be grateful for the opportunity, through my questions, to let him know how much his work meant to so many. 

What I loved best about Garry Shandling is summed up in this clip. “What’s it about?” was always the question he was asking in his life and in his art, and he never stopped searching. 

I urge everyone to watch Garry’s full interview. In addition to it being a two-hour history lesson about late 20th Century television comedy, it is very entertaining and funny.

Rest in Peace.

- by John Dalton

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