Saturday, 12 March 2016

East Side/West Side

In 1963, CBS has several problems.

The big one is George C. Scott, a Broadway actor turned electrifying film sensation. For some baffling reason, somebody at CBS decides to try and get Scott to commit to doing a TV show. Under normal circumstances, getting a solid character actor to make a show for you isn’t a bad idea, but Scott has been very vocal about his derision for TV. And he is what is euphemistically known as “difficult.”

They send him a series overview about a war correspondent having dramatic adventures.

He hates it.

Meanwhile, there’s James T. Aubrey, a man nicknamed The Smiling Cobra, and president of CBS from 1959 to 1965. Aubrey is the man who thinks busty country girls falling in streams is the best thing ever. His shows include Petticoat Junction, Gomer Pyle USMC, and The Beverly Hillbillies. His motto is: “broads, bosoms, and fun.” And that is an actual quote.

Unfortunately for Aubrey, it can’t all be talking horses and exploding toilets. CBS is still holding on to a reputation for high quality, intelligent programming. A reputation that goes all the way back to its radio days, and one that’s guarded by network chairman William Paley. (Picture the old knight at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade faced with the undeniable ratings crush of Gilligan’s Island.) Paley’s tenure has brought us Perry Mason, The Defenders and Route 66.

It usually goes something like this: William Paley happily greenlights The Twilight Zone. Jim Aubrey, noticing the lack of jiggling mountain girls, takes away all of its money and gives it to Andy Griffith, who doesn’t need it because nobody ever leaves Mayberry and all the sets are already built. Everybody thinks Andy is happy as a clam, but they don’t know that he’s started going to all of the production meetings to make sure his show isn’t hijacked by Ellie May 2.0 moving into town and holding a beauty contest to raise funds for a water tower. Rod Serling is bitter, Andy Griffith is working seventeen hour days, and nobody is doing what they really want.

And now, into the mix, comes the potential for a serious legal case with George C. Scott, if they don’t figure out something – anything – to fulfill the terms of this contract.

A show is put together. It’s like Naked City, but with social workers instead of cops. Social workers in Harlem. Scott’s character answers to a female boss and shares and office with a black co-worker, played by none other than Cicely Tyson. (This was the first time a black actress was co-starring in an hour long drama. She’s magnificent, of course, but she’s Cicely Tyson, so obvs.)

Scott wants realism. He wants it so badly, he’s being as obnoxious as possible at all turns. Aubrey wants a harem of beautiful women and Park Avenue mysteries. The pilot script is written in five minutes flat, and looks like a pretty conventional social drama, with a courtroom scene and a tidy finish. It’s called East Side/West Side. It gets the go-ahead, despite not really having a plan for a full season, or a functional production team.

Other scripts don’t come in. The people assigned to write them are, uh, I don’t want to say flake-tastic beatniks, but history implies that that’s what they were. The only solution CBS has time for is to just film whatever script they get, with almost no revisions.

This was the collision of reckless mistakes, strange clashes of personality, and desperate scrambling that allowed this show to twice make episodes that were masterpieces. And, almost impossibly given the realities of the era, both stories are about black lives.

“Who Do You Kill?” is upsetting and raw. It stars James Earl Jones, then unknown outside of theatrical circles, and Diana Sands. Sands had played Cicely Tyson’s role in the pilot episode of the series, but had quickly dropped out because of all the backstage drama. They play Joe and Ruth Goodwin, a couple doing their best to get by with limited job opportunities for Joe. Their struggle is intensified when a rat bites their sleeping infant. They can’t get her to the hospital, and the bulk of the story concerns the aftermath of their loss.

The cut of the episode available on YouTube is missing the section that actually contains the rat, but it’s the best anybody can do. MGM has yet to release the series on DVD.

In “No Hiding Place”, Ruby Dee and Earle Hyman play a couple who have made it out of the slums, only to face a different set of problems. They move in to Maple Gardens – “A Friendly Community” – to find mistrust and cruelty from their white neighbours. Not only that, they become the center of a blockbusting scheme. (I feel like it would be responsible to warn you that this one has a more depressing ending than the above episode about a dead baby, so you are now warned.)

These high points couldn’t last, of course. In an era of limited channel selection and fervent letter writers, the worst of humanity alerted Jim Aubrey to his biggest fear. He had accidentally created edgy, controversial television that unflinchingly tackled social issues. This had to be stopped.

The hounds were released in the form of directors from the rural comedies taking out all of the serious content, finally moving George C. Scott’s character to Park Avenue, and having giggling debutants turn up for no reason. Some people weren’t comfortable with Cicely Tyson’s character being so prominent, so Aubrey’s people demanded she be turned into a hat stand. No longer a professional equal, no longer the kind of character who places autistic children in specialized education programs, she was now a token. Ten episodes in, there was talk of renewal only if Tyson was replaced with a white actress.

By episode nineteen, they were all out of Harlem.

In a twist that sounds like it came from a Simpson’s episode about cynical television executives, George C. Scott’s character gets a job with a congressman. The show becomes about how a hotheaded cynic has to conform to bureaucracy and learn to appreciate Kennedy era political optimism.

It should come as little surprise that there was no second season.

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