Joel Goldenberg: Jump the Shark? How about Repeat the Plot?

Larry Hagman as J.R. Ewing on Dallas.

We take a break for this week's Retro Roundup from retro music, and instead concentrate on retro TV.

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According to legend, Don Adams, the star of the spy spoof Get Smart, blew his top and refused to participate (beyond the pre-credits opening sequence) in an episode produced during the show's final (1969-70) season, when it switched from NBC to CBS due to low ratings.

The episode, for which Adams' comedian friend Bill Dana (of José Jimenez fame) substituted, involved arch-villain Siegfried creating winter weather as far south as Florida via a giant fan he built in the North Pole. Adams' complaint was that the plot was repeated from one earlier in the show's existence.

According to interviews with other cast members, there was no such past episode. They attributed Adams' bailout to his building frustration over the final season's lower quality of scripts (true) and the continued low ratings that would eventually lead to the show's 1970 cancellation.

But while Get Smart, to my knowledge, did not repeat plots, other shows did. While the term "jump the shark" usually refers to a general decline in a show's quality, one sure sign of trouble is repeated stories.

The most notorious source of repeated plots was not a TV show, but a well-loved series of comedy short subjects that ran from 1934 to 1959, and became a TV staple — the Three Stooges. When they comprised Moe and Curly Howard, and Larry Fine, the quality was high and the plots were fresh. But a few years after Shemp Howard replaced the ailing Curly, the plot repeats began.

And this does not just refer to a new short with the same plot. Some shorts actually reutilized footage from the original source!

There were two especially notorious instances:

a) When Shemp suddenly died in 1955, Columbia Pictures convinced Moe to continue in a series of shorts still starring Shemp. How did they do this? By recycling footage from old shorts, and adding new footage with a fake Shemp who tried valiantly to keep his back to the camera. In some scenes, they just used the real Shemp's voice. In other instances, "fake Shemp" imitated the real Shemp's gruff voice.

b) The 1947 short Half-Wits Holiday is most notable for being Curly Howard's last full Stooges short. He suffered a stroke during filming, and a final pie-throwing scene had to be performed by just Moe and Larry. Some 10 years later, the short was remade with new Stooge Joe Besser, to much weaker effect. And of course, they used the 1947 pie-throwing footage, with Besser inserted in a few spots.

All of this is why, while I own the complete collection of Stooges Columbia shorts, I rarely watch the 1950s episodes.

Another rather notorious source of repeated plots was the fantasy comedy Bewitched, another product of Columbia Pictures (via its TV arm Screen Gems). When the show starred Dick York as Darrin, the episodes were fresh and lively. But by the time Dick Sargent took over because of York's severe back issues, fatigue set in. Elizabeth Montgomery looked as if she didn't want to be there, she dressed down, and the plot repeats began. In fact, the last episode of the series was a direct remake of an episode featuring York.

And now we turn to my current favourite show of all time, Dallas.

While the oil company rivalry and sexual shenanigans plots were over the top, the acting was mostly outstanding, especially Larry Hagman as J.R. Ewing; Barbara Bel Geddes as Miss Ellie (she should have won an Emmy for every scene she was in), Linda Gray as Sue Ellen Ewing and Patrick Duffy as Bobby Ewing. Also outstanding were the writing and the dramatic music score.

But Dallas was also afflicted with plot repeats. Almost every member of the family was kidnapped at one point. Original patriarch Jock Ewing experienced a mid-life crisis following a heart attack and hung out with a younger woman platonically. Years later, Miss Ellie's second husband, Clayton Farlow, had a heart attack, experienced a mid-life crisis and hung out with a younger woman platonically. And J.R. had sexual relations with both younger women.

And because the "who shot J.R.?" plotline was such a huge success, they repeated it with a "who shot Bobby?" cliffhanger and another in which the beleaguered Sue Ellen actually shot J.R. (Turns out she was a lousy shot and barely wounded him.). Even the most recent Dallas reboot had, in this case, a "who killed J.R.?" plot.

But the show was so well written and acted with such panache that, in this case, the plot repeats really didn't hurt that much.

 

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