Like Christopher Columbus’ historical role and Wayne Newton’s net worth, old TV shows are currently under reassessment — there were some awfully low points, but the better moments are finally getting their due. Partly, it’s aging-boomer nostalgia. Partly, there’s a lot of cable space to fill. And partly, it’s home video: Shows once expected to air and then disappear can now live as long as Antigone — and be similarly revisited and overscrutinized. A torrent of new old-TV shows on video skews more to cult favorites than to acknowledged classics, but the most interesting releases are as well worth saving as your mom’s old meatloaf recipe.
Take The Fugitive. Essentially a dramatic anthology, this series mimicked the literary aspirations of the previous generation’s live-TV dramas. David Janssen, as an angst-ridden Everyman running from an unjust murder conviction, assumes a new job and identity in most episodes; he’s less the point of each than the catalyst for tales of flawed but noble people in pain. Yet though sincere and well done, the stories, seen sequentially on tape, end up feeling photocopied.
So do the stories from The Twilight Zone, though as delightfully as fairy tales — or in many cases, Aesop’s Fables. A social-realist anthology cloaked in fantasy and science fiction, Rod Serling’s gutsy creation played out parables of the human heart, set anywhere from prison asteroids (”The Lonely”) to metaphoric attics (”The Encounter”). ”The Encounter” is part of the two-cassette Treasures of the Twilight Zone, which also includes five other episodes, a 10-minute promo spot, and a 1959 interview with Serling.
But by the following generation of television drama, we and TV had developed a mutual shorthand — less literary, more purely ”television.” Using quick visual cues and sound bites, most shows now sketched out efficient caricatures, not characters. In the youthful undercover-cop actioner The Mod Squad, all it takes is a couple minutes of ghetto basketball and some predigested rhetoric for Sammy Davis Jr. to be archetyped as The Militant Black Priest (in ”Keep the Faith, Baby”). Essentially, Squad isn’t much more than than an agreeable time killer.
So is The Man From U.N.C.L.E., a lighthearted spy show played with a wink. In a typical episode, ”The Project Strigas Affair,” stars Robert Vaughn and David McCallum persuade average-Joe William Shatner to take part in an anti-Commie caper against — Trekker alert — Leonard Nimoy. Like other U.N.C.L.E. shows, this one has a timeless seriocomic edge. It’s an acquired taste, though — a sure sign of a cult classic.
With episodes of such other treasures as I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, The Outer Limits, and Monty Python’s Flying Circus already available on tape, it looks as if TV has finally taken its revenge on the VCR.
The Fugitive: B
The Twilight Zone: A
Treasures of the Twilight Zone: A+
The Mod Squad: C-
The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: B