Michael Macrone
Articles & Essays

How J.R. Got Out of the Air Force and What the Derricks Mean

By Michael Macrone & The Mad Peck
Presented in 1983 at the Conference on New Directions in Television Research, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. © 1983 Michael Macrone and The Mad Peck

The television critic must take his cues from Whitman. He must go among the people and lend his training and sensibility to the new experiences of life with the machine. What is this machine after all if not merely the latest evolutionary product of the bio-pool? … The critic born after World War II is born with TV, yet he is in blinders. To confront television has merely become the refusal to deny nature.

—David Marc, “TV Critics’ Code” [1]


Television has become, in effect, a natural element in our lives, as or more organic than “Nature” itself. Ninety-eight percent of American households are equipped with at least one TV set, each of them like another member of the family. Far too little, and far too little of that sympathetic, has been written on the socio-cultural implications of our dominant everyday entertainment. And again, far too little, after the discrediting of McLuhan, written on the effective functioning of the medium.

The bare facts are that television is watched, even if not as voraciously as a decade ago, and that TV producers continue to tap the perceived formulae of success, even if often ineptly. The fashioning of TV product proceeds within an assembly-line-like framework; its writers are expected to produce within the constraints passed down as higher wisdom. The current lackluster quality of scripting is perhaps the product of more acute strictures (bred of the “science” of demographics, flourishing as the Capitalist Mechanism becomes more anxious) and an unhealthy contempt of the writers for their own work.

The television producer undertakes an intense feat of juggling. He works from a basic premise, either his own or as proposed in a treatment, and determines budget, setting, set-design and -construction, who are to be the creative team, basic character imperatives, and most other magni and minutiae that will comprise his product. Budgeting is a key factor, implicated in the network’s revenues, implicated in sponsorship by elements of free enterprise. Faced with the scale of modern TV production and the dictates of the marketplace, the producer turns to science: formulae and demographics.

With the rise of syndication in the early 1950s, television the infant medium began to reflect the free marketplace, its fare becoming another form of literature. Syndication of repeat programs enabled the networks and independent production firms to sell their work on its own merits; success in syndication not only generated revenue with low overhead cost, but also established a tradition, or body of established “hit” programs, to which new product was forced to refer.

Syndication effectively highlighted the continuity of the medium by which television history became part of the present. That the power of TV lies in the attraction of its images, ultimately conflated with the product-images it sells, and in the power of the personalities who entered the home with a new intimacy (unlike “larger than life” film stars) and with new frequency, has not been lost on producers.

It is the intent of this paper to explore the largely neglected sociology of TV personality and the mechanisms of continuity, or what the industry might call the connotations of casting. We will examine (against a loose historical context, with pertinent data, quotations, and examples) the process by which the medium has evolved. The focus is upon television drama (for example situation comedy and action programs as opposed to sports, specials, and variety shows) which is at once standard fare and yet intriguingly phenomenal in its mechanisms of enticement.

The most obvious predecessor in form to television is, of course, film. At its birth, TV plumbed the ranks of the movie industry, as well as the radio and the stage, for personnel and personalities. In this unselfconscious phase, producers had yet to fathom the psychologic netting from image to audience that defines their medium. The real differences between television and film as experiences were practically unrealized, and therefore the erosion of the latter’s audience proved all the more debilitating. The film industry didn’t know how to fight back.

Consider the experience of a film. Screenings are held in darkened theaters, in artificially induced isolation/sensory deprivation. The projected images are literally larger than life; the on-screen locale is often unfamiliar, exotic, or sensational; the roles are generally romantic and/or fantastic. Going to the movies is consciously deciding to commit money and effort in admission to an imaginatively (and perhaps intellectually) challenging “adventure.”

Consider then the experience of television. Viewing is conducted in one’s home or at a friend’s, in the ambience and posture of one’s choice. The screen images are at largest life-size; the locale is, at least in popular drama, often very familiar, often domestic; the roles are in general socially approachable, even mundane. Watching television is deciding to let the box talk, to turn on or shut up or rudely interrupt as one pleases. Television shares in the intimacy of one’s home; in some cases, it is that intimacy. Television is clearly woven into the real time and real lives of its audience; not only does it function as a reinforcement of, or substitute for, the clock, it also presents itself as a diurnal, or hour-to-hour, companion. Radio had and has assumed a comparable intimacy, pioneered by Arthur Godfrey, who seemed to speak directly to each individual alone. Les Bogart, in The Age of Television, [2] comments:

Because the audience projects itself and its wishes into what it hears and sees, the broadcast media can create the illusion that their performers or announcers communicate directly to the people on the receiving end. The illusion is achieved because radio and television have a quality of immediacy. The listener or viewer feels that the person he hears is a real individual talking to him “right here and now.”

Because television, like film, draws on elements of spectacle and narrative, the visual arts and literature, it has dimensions beyond radio. Empirically, on a phenomenal level, TV is vastly more absorbing, more seductive. Television time, unlike time spent pursuing certain products of “fine art” (e.g., the novel and paintings) is beyond manipulation by the audience. And, unlike fine art events which occur in their own temples (e.g. opera and theatre), television is naturalistic, we have said organic.

TV, by insinuating itself in real time, into the rhythms of modern life, in a large sense regulates and patterns that time. We live in half-hour segments with commercial breaks. As the sands slip through the hourglass, so go the days of our lives. The fact that TV, thanks to syndication, is cumulative, the fact that the sands never fill the bottom of the glass, the fact that the TV audience observes the metabolics of a machine—these facts define the tension of the medium’s “eternal present” with the mythic/fantasy time in which the programs unfold. By presenting “here and now” images couched in alternate time, TV opens up an alternate reality which, by the properties of the medium, overlaps with our own.

The constant interplay between real and fantasy worlds demands a rapid shifting of frame if the viewer is to recognize the kind of world the screen image is working with—and most frequently, I imagine, he fails to make the shift. It is very likely that the world of fantasy and reality overlap in the eye of the viewer.

—Curt McCray, in “Kaptain Kronkite: The Myth of the Eternal Frame” [3]

The medium outstrips the psyche. Affixed by its images, we are webbed into a continuum of the real and its simulation. Continuity is enforced socially; conversation with peers frequently regards the previous day’s programs and/or speculates on the off-screen activities of personalities. Personality-oriented periodicals like People and Us sell astronomically; omnipresent TV talk shows present personalities in a relaxed, chatty, out-of-role-but-not-out-of-character setting, showing them off as “real people.”

Acting ability is key to the success of a player in films, as an audience is initially self-conscious about watching “make-believe” action. The actor’s image (built on past roles and other media exposure) and his charisma are brought to bear when he is cast in a part: these qualities determine his effectiveness as icon. However, the success of the character he plays is often a matter of transcending image and charisma, a matter of credible acting. Only by imparting something genuine, unique, and sympathetic to his role does the film actor seduce the audience and gain power over its fantasies.

The player in television drama enjoys a much different interaction with his audience, because of the structures of the medium and the quality of its technology. As opposed to the film actor, he appears intimately and frequently (usually weekly or, if in a syndicated drama, daily). Because of the intense exposure of some personalities, those who have appeared in merited programs subsequently rebroadcast in syndication, and of their pervasiveness within real time, it is imperative that TV’s images and icons avoid the intensity of film’s.

In a survey conducted by economists at LSE and Open University concerning audience attitudes in Britain and the US, the question was posed whether the viewer thought that “people in TV series usually seem like actors playing a part” or rather that “people in TV series often seem like real people to me”; 22% of the respondents found the former “close to my view,” while 56% the latter with 22% “undecided.”

To another question, 61% of the respondents preferred “heroes who are down to earth,” with only 14% preferring “heroes who are larger than life.” [4] For most people, movies are larger than life; TV is something else altogether.

Movie stars were a new phenomenon in world culture, human symbols who had erased all boundaries of class, nation, religion, and race. Something about their larger-than-life screen image touched a universal core in the human psyche. As the motion-picture scene unfolded, audiences in darkened theaters enveloped the shadow figures with their private and shared fantasies—and naturally assumed that off-screen lives were woven of the same romance and drama. Once admitted to the intimacies of [screen] life, movie patrons wanted their fantasies continued unbroken into real life. The lives of movie stars became as important symbols to manipulate as their motion picture images.

—Robert Sklar [5]

Because of what we have called its “intimacy,” and because it is a naturalistic background to modern life, television evolves a continuity of image in a down-to-earth narrativity, satisfying the desire for continuation of fantasy into one’s day-to-day grind. Horace Newcomb, an academic in American Studies, illuminates this phenomenon:

[The] sense of direct involvement [of audience] can be enhanced by another factor in the television aesthetic, the idea of continuity. The sort of intimacy described here creates the possibility for a much stronger sense of audience involvement, a sense of becoming a part of the lives and actions of the characters they see. [6]

Rapid transitions and discontinuity are simply disastrous within this medium. Personalities are insinuated in the everyday; the audience perceives a continuity of player and role. In effect then, acting ability is largely irrelevant, and charisma, when miscast, detrimental. Successful television drama exploits a proper marriage of a personality’s image with his role, enforcing the medium’s naturalism; in the eternal present conjured by syndication, continuity in a player’s casting from program to program is the essence of his success.

In his novel on television, Zoomar, popular early TV personality Ernie Kovacs strikes upon the functional dominance of image and the interdependence of character image with the product images proffered by peddlers of consumer culture:

“Tom, let me tell you something. This business is like no business ever was or ever will be. The very thing that is keeping this show on the air hasn’t helped some other shows a damn. Remember ‘The International’?”

“The guy who used to stick the champagne glass at the camera with the two cigarettes?”

“Yes. A helluva nice guy, by the way. Anyway, you remember, I’m sure, the tremendous following he built up. Everyone was doing take-offs on him. Well, a curious thing developed and he was cancelled.”

“I remember that, Lyn, but I could never figure out why.”

“Well, he was selling a woman’s product. A panty girdle. They didn’t call it that on the air, but basically that’s what it was.”

“You should know.”

“Knock it off. So this is what happened. All the women were nuts about the guy but were embarrassed to ask for the panty girdle because it looked like maybe they had ‘hot-what-evers’ for him. The program died.” [7]

The performer’s image is the point of identification for audience with program. The sponsor’s product image is most effectively implicated in that identification. The growth of demographic science has proceeded from this fact.

The psycho-social meditations we have entertained thus far resonate in an environmental empiricism; we have blown a glass jug which must be shown to hold water. Of course, no jug can contain an ocean; the phenomenon of “image continuity” has broad application in the study and practice of role-casting in television, but also permits the tension of exception. Our intent is to provide examples which will enable the reader to more fully grasp what presently operates within the infrastructures of television production. But TV is show-business art, and as much as it plumbs formula, it occasionally, willingly or unwillingly, defies formula, occasionally, to the benefit of innovation and growth, succeeds by accident.

We have discussed these fundamentals: (1) the function of producer in television and his tendency to science; (2) the quality of the medium’s images and the imperatives of their continuity with the everyday; (3) the effective development of an eternally present TV literature heavily reinforced in syndication; (4) the social and psychological matrix defined by audience situation vis-a-vis the medium. What has until now been left implicit is that, as an art, television satisfies by referring to intrinsic formulaic and psychological structures which are concealed in the final product. As with all arts, television satisfies deep-set desires and the demands of fantasy on a subconscious level. Only producers and critics feel compelled to chart the terrain of structure, while it is the privilege of the audience to submit unselfconsciously to the experience.

The achievements of our canonical exhibit, our exemplar, Lucille Ball are familiar to everyone in the TV audience. From I Love Lucy (1951–1961) to The Lucy Show (1962–1968) to Here’s Lucy (1968–1974), she is in all her roles high-pitched and prone to trouble, fragile but resilient, ambitious and willful but good at heart: this is Lucille Ball, “Lucy,” as we know her. She has been intimate with America for so long and with such remarkable consistency that in a deep sense she is “real” in our lives. All her series have run successfully in syndication; in some regions there are still multiple episodes of her series airing daily. Ms. Ball has periodically canvassed the talk-show circuit and has never roamed far from the eyes of the personality-oriented “gossip rags.” She is presented to the public in and out of guise in such a way as to blur or confuse the distinction between her roles and her real-life persona. Ball is “Lucy” in character in all her programs. Her husband “Ricky” on I Love Lucy was portrayed by her real-life husband Desi Arnaz; with their divorce (real-life), she is “widowed” between her first and second series: on-screen as in real life, raising her children by Arnaz (Ricky), she gains financial and sexual independence. Of course, she is compelled to contend anew with the World of Men, in the figure of Gale Gordon, her on-screen boss/brother-in-law/surrogate husband. As his secretary, Lucy regains a legitimacy which reinforces her real-life status.

These striking continuities from reality to fantasy are reinforced in the continuities from series to series; although Lucy carries different surnames in each of the three, she is implied to be the same character. It is easy to imagine Lucy Carmichael (of The Lucy Show) to be a widowed Lucy Ricardo, a continuity enforced by Vivian Vance’s parallel roles in the first two series. Carmichael moves to San Francisco (after Vivian Bagley/Vance’s death), befriending Mary Jane Lewis (played by Mary Jane Croft); thus, in the third series, Here’s Lucy, Lucille Carter is domiciled in Los Angeles (an imaginary stone’s throw from San Francisco) with Harrison Carter (Gale Gordon, who played T. J. Mooney in the second series) and is still close to Lewis/Croft.

The high level of continuity from series to series creates an overlapping among the three Lucys, in effect simulating actual life changes. The concomitant overlapping of Lucy-Real and Lucy-Fantasy, blurring the distinction between the two, encourages the illusion that all lives on-screen and off are, if not interchangeable, at least contiguous. We do not mean to imply that the audience ever completely forgets they are (or are not) watching an actress play a scripted part in a work of fantasy. However, insofar as entertainment demands the suspension of disbelief (and gossip media the suspension of belief), the audience is carefully if not subtly prompted by the continuities we are studying. They perceive “Lucy” as a coherent, lifelike individual, almost as a friend.

Usually, the mechanisms of continuity are further sublimated than in the case of Lucille Ball. Often, series which share a common star will be set disparately in time and the recurring actor “explained away” (and thus continuity established) by inheritance or perhaps reincarnation. We suggest the example of June Lockheart. Her roles, unlike Ms. Ball’s, could never concur with her real life; the locales span the better part of a century, and the actress does not age accordingly. What is achieved naturalistically in the Lucy shows, continuity of role, is brought about in June Lockheart’s programs by clever scripting and casting.

Ms. Lockheart’s first role was Timmy Martin’s stepmother Ruth, as a replacement for Cloris Leachman in the second version of Lassie (1957–1964). The setting is rural and embodies the simplicity we associate with Time Past. Lockheart plays the protective matron and is perceived to be genuinely such; subsequent casting exploits the identification of Lockheart with Ruth Martin by perpetuating the matronly image. Her second role was Maureen Robinson in Lost in Space (1965–1968). Her good genes have earned her the job of mothering homo sapiens in the species’ conquest of the heavens. We might say that there is a “family resemblance” between Robinson and Martin, that the former could be the granddaughter of the latter, or the latter reincarnated. Lockheart’s third role seals her image: Dr. Janet Craig in Petticoat Junction, in which “Bea Benederet’s untimely death in 1969 ended the characterization of Kate Bradley. The need for an understanding and comforting mother figure evolved the character of Janet Craig.” [8]

Petticoat Junction takes place in a past that never really was, that is a fabricated past or “self-conscious past.” This is evident from numerous contradictions of time that mottle the mise-en-scene: It is clear from the crossovers with the program Green Acres that Petticoat Junction is set within our generation, yet as an oasis from which technology (e.g. modern forms of transportation and access) and social change have been barred. Within this discontinuous schema, the physical details of Ms. Lockheart’s previous incarnations are irrelevant. The continuation of her matronly image is sufficient.

The transference of image from ancestor to descendant need not necessarily be a consequence of successive roles played by a single actor. Alan Hale Sr. appeared as the knowledgeable enlisted man in countless films, including The Santa Fe Trail, set amidst The Civil War (1940, with Errol Flynn and Ronald Reagan), The Fighting 69th, World War I, (1940, with James Cagney, Pat O’Brien, and George Brent), and Destination Tokyo, WWII (1943, with Cary Grant and John Garfield), all periodically televised. Alan Hale Jr., who closely resembles his real-life father, debuted in the film The Pride of West Point, carrying on the family tradition, screen-life, of conscientious military service. Junior went on to play “The Skipper” in the widely syndicated and utterly fantastic Gilligan’s Island. Granted that The Skipper is often addle-brained in role, but he commands the self-assurance of a retired serviceman, an image very literally inherited from his father.

The generational passing on of image exemplified in the Hales is often suggested by the casting of a single performer in character roles at widely separated points of “mythic time.” Television drama courts the powers of past (when things were simpler) and future (when the most present problems have been solved) even when not overtly. For example, All in the Family (which has forever fixed Carroll O’Connor’s image), although set in the present, leans hard on the tensions of simpler days gone with the breakdown of paternalism and tradition we know as modern times; Archie Bunker is ultimately a sympathetic character because the audience feels for his loss of context, feels that he is decent but with a decency that is frustrated by the culture shock which immobilizes him. On the other hand, the spinoff program The Jeffersons, also ostensibly contemporaneous, is suggestively futuristic: the “colored” family, once Archie’s neighbors/nemeses, have become well-to-do—and only in unrealized time could well-to-do blacks achieve intimacy with the bulk of the present-day TV audience. The Jeffersons’ East-Side Manhattan apartment is replete with the most “modern” conveniences, coveted by but as yet out of reach for most of the (upwardly mobile) middle-class consumers who are the sponsors’ targets. What we call the tension of real time with mythic time is tightly bound within a medium that affirms continuity with the everyday while transporting its audience to a more satisfying world.

A spinoff series like The Jeffersons represents the ultimate in character continuity, by which friends of friends become our friends in their own right. The spinoff moves known characters through time and/or space, satisfying the audience’s desire to spend time with identifiable, familiar personae in their own context. All in the Family (The Jeffersons, Maude, Archie Bunker’s Place), The Mary Tyler Moore Show (Rhoda, Phyllis, The Lou Grant Show), and Happy Days (Laverne and Shirley, Joanie Loves Chachi) have spawned successful spinoffs and validate the spinoff formula. In the case of The Lou Grant Show, continuity of fantasy with reality is epitomized: the real-life politics of star Ed Asner prompted the program’s cancellation following the 1981–1982 season.

Historically, the first series to spin off via a supporting character from an established program was Pete and Gladys (1960–1962) from December Bride (1954–1959); the common character is Peter Porter, played by Harry Morgan. (“Gladys” never appeared in the flesh on December Bride, but was referred to frequently.) Pete and Gladys was an attempt to cash in on not only its legitimate predecessor, but I Love Lucy as well—parodically.

But we digress. To the point, Horace Newcomb offers this observation:

The television formula requires that we use our contemporary historical concerns as subject matter. In part we deal with them in historical fashion, citing current facts and figures. But we also return these issues to an older time, or we create a character from an older time, so that they can be dealt with firmly, quickly, and within a system of sound and observable values. That vaguely defined “older time” becomes the mythical realm of television. … As if our time somehow mythically coexisted with that of an easier age (past or future), we create forms that speak in opposition to their contemporary settings. … We have, in effect, created a new mythic pattern. [9]

Our next case, Lee Majors, struck gold twice, first in The Big Valley (1965-1969) as Heath, illegitimate son of deceased cattleman Tom Barkley, struggling to attain birthright and love; Majors scored next with The Six Million Dollar Man (1973-1978) as the cybernetic wonder struggling to legitimize his birthright (humanity) and pay back his debt to the government (which provided the technology that almost killed and then saved him). The trials and dissolution of Majors’ off-screen marriage to that paragon of sculpt and sheen Farrah Fawcett, after the cancellation of the latter program, was heartlessly scrutinized by the personality-oriented gossip media; the painful flash of impotence, the tale of a fighting man who made it, married a “beauty” queen, and then blew it, has shot holes in Majors’ image. In his latest role as stuntman in The Fall Guy, he again portrays the fighter bidding for heroic legitimacy, but this time not set in the past (as The Big Valley) nor future (The Six Million Dollar Man), but in the “present self-conscious.” Majors parodies the mechanisms of production and comments on their cliches. It will be interesting to see if he will be able to find a successful vehicle after The Fall Guy runs its course. To date nobody has ever returned from the “self-conscious” mode.

An actor’s screen image may in itself, without the intervention of real-life miscues, impede his success on the small screen. Take the example of Phil Silvers, originally a highly successful burlesque act who jumped aboard the good ship NBC when television helped kill his former medium. A mild success in the natural role of variety-show host (Welcome Aboard, 1948 and The Phil Silvers Arrow Show, 1949), Silvers hit pay dirt with You’ll Never Get Rich (1955–1959) cast as Sgt. Ernie Bilko. Bilko uses his power (in their own context, sergeants reign supreme) and ready resources (his equally rapacious charges) to “bamboozle the system and manipulate the U.S. Army for his own personal benefit.” [10] The program went early the way of syndication, with production halted by unnegotiable actors’ demands. Silvers had nowhere to go; Bilko would have been crazy to give up his government subsidized empire. His last role, as factory foreman/scheming con-artist in The Phil Silvers Show, was only convincing enough to keep the program running for a single season (1963–1964). However, supporting actor Billy Sands (Bilko’s Pvt. Dino Paparelli) found himself making out with similar types in another branch of the service, as Seaman Harrison “Tinker” Bell in McHale’s Navy (1962–1966 and still in syndication).

If Silvers never lived down blowing a perfect setup, David Janssen made a career of fighting his failures to remain, in the eyes of the success-happy syndication market, only a qualified success. Janssen starred thrice in ill-fated crime dramas; first as Richard Diamond in Richard Diamond, Private Detective (1957–1959, Call Mr. D in syndication, featuring Mary Tyler Moore’s legs as phone-operator “Sam”); next as Richard Kimble, The Fugitive (1963–1967); finally as Harry Orwell, private detective (theoretically retired) in Harry O (1974–1976). Objectively, these programs have performed unspectacularly in syndication, although Harry O has been praised for its marriage of intelligent writing/acting/direction with the tough-crime/hard-as-nails genre as it has evolved on TV. In his new book TV Detectives, Richard Meyers ranks Harry O with The Rockford Files at the zenith of crime drama, in part for the “flesh-and-blood nature of the lead characters.” These are “good” shows fulfilling all the right formulae, but in Janssen’s case, years of bad karma held his program back. The Fugitive violated one of TV’s unwritten laws (just the type of law that underwrites a producer’s science) by climaxing once and for all with the harried hero’s vindication. Later, Janssen damaged his rough-and-tough image by peddling Bufferin in prime time. With all elements in place, bad image will still kill a superior program. But the late Janssen was so charismatic that people rooted for him despite his mistakes. In Richard Diamond and The Fugitive, he is an outsider; their noble failures actually reinforce the anti-hero image, which Harry O pulled together in Janssen’s last stand. People are ready for such an antihero, and Harry O has not done badly in late-nite, network reruns.

It should be noted that failed programs and ineffectual character images can be salvaged by superior casting, if they are not too deeply entrenched. The original Life of Riley (1949–1950) flopped with Jackie Gleason and Rosemary De Camp cast as Chester and Peggy Riley. Both players and program were quickly forgiven. Gleason scored enormously with the semi-autobiographical Honeymooners, which played on reality fantasy continuity and which cast him in a role flip-side to Riley: Ralph Cramden, the working guy always looking to impose his will but invariably ending up feeling stupid. (In The Life of Riley it was Peggy who caught most of the frustration.) Gleason spent the rest of his career capitalizing on his “Ralph” image, recycling the Honeymooners on his later variety programs. De Camp also surmounted Riley’s failure, euphemistically widowed from Gleason, as Margaret MacDonald, sister of Bob Collins (played by Bob Cummings) in Love that Bob (1954–1961) (on which Anne B. Davis, later the maid on The Brady Bunch, played a funny, latently lesbian darkroom assistant). De Camp later served as “commercial spokeswoman” for Death Valley Days, a syndicated program set in mythic time, hosted for three years of its run by Ronald Reagan. As for The Life of Riley, the program also bounced back to run 1953–1958, starring William Bendix and Marjorie Reynolds. Bendix carried an outstanding image-background to the role of Chester. He played second leads in many WWII films, often as a terminal casualty, and more than one lost soul in post-war, film noir efforts, always evoking a measure of sympathy. As Riley he not only survived “The Big One,” but got his slice of the pie. That the instantly recognizable, wacky, expatriate from Brooklyn could symbolize the fruits of our national pride had enhanced his popularity with Americans seeking post-war normalcy.

Writing on television, we would be hard-pressed to ignore that most popular drama of the day, Dallas, starring Larry Hagman as oil baron “J.R.” Hagman makes a fine concluding case, being legate of the genre we shall call the “sublimated sex farce,” bringing us to a study of continuity which functions on the most implicit level. We propose that television writers and producers refer (often unconsciously) to a psychologically sound infrastructure that is, in the case of sex necessarily, obscured in the end product. The satisfaction provided by many a program stems from the coherence of its implications and its provocation then engagement of our fantasies. The adult viewer is most likely to be self-conscious about the nature of his satisfaction, while the adolescent is most susceptible to suggestion whether or not he reflects on what churns beneath the surface of his entertainment. In this case, we are referring to the traditional identification of magical powers with sexual prowess.

In context, the notable sublimated sex farces are Bewitched (1964–1972, loosely drawn from the films I Married a Witch, 1942 and Bell, Book and Candle, 1958), I Dream of Jeannie (1965–1970), The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1968–1970, spun off from the film of the same title, 1943), and Nanny and the Professor (1970–1971). One might liken The Ghost and Mrs. Muir to an extended masturbation fantasy in which the male comes as visitation, only in the ethereal state. Bewitched is much richer: Samantha, the witch, casts spells with a twitch of her nose (very rabbit-like); tiring of one Darin (Dick York), she sends him nether and whips up another (Dick Sargent); her mother (Agnes Moorehead) is almost explicitly lesbian, a man-hater whose escorts are castrati and who identifies with the “sisterhood” of the broomstick as a preference. Nanny and the Professor is inscrutably perverse.

I Dream of Jeannie is case in hand. The program is an oblique spinoff of the film The Brass Bottle (1964, starring Tony Randall, Burl Ives, and Jeannie herself, Barbara Eden), which, although stiff, is perennially rebroadcast on TV, perhaps because of its homosexual appeal (Ives, the genie, is of far better service to Randall, whose image is ambiguously sexed, than is Eden). In her own series, Eden/Jeannie is more than willing to provide for Captain Tony Nelson’s (Hagman’s) every desire; she conjures spells by jiggling, arms on breasts, and blinking. But the infinities of heterosexual sex fall short; Nelson is uptight and restrictive, and seems to easily tire of Jeannie’s “magic,” which intensifies the attentions of one Dr. Alfred Bellows, who piques Hagman’s sadistic/sodomistic tendencies. Bill Daily, a quintessential character actor, as Captain Roger Healy, is cognizant of Jeannie’s powers, but never quite able to catch any of the action; frustrated, he moves to Chicago, as airline navigator Howard Borden on The Bob Newhart Show, where he is similarly frustrated, still the affable loser, but is treated with compassion by psychologist Dr. Hartley (Newhart). Hagman/Nelson finally rids himself of the tiresome Jeannie, but not without asking for one last wish to be granted, and attains immense mortal power symbolized by his phallus-like oil derricks. Thus, Hagman/J.R. finally has the means to symbolically “screw” his male antagonists in an expression of socially sanctioned potency. (Presumably, Jeannie, after transforming Nelson into J.R., wanders traumatized through the ether for nearly a decade before wising up and hooking in to self-help. She gets hip to the culture, conjures up a kid, and moves to Harper Valley.)

If these concatenations stretch the limits of fantasy, it is only because they can be stretched with such little strain. Subliminal sexual fantasy intersects with magic, intersects with a larger context of subliminal continuities. In some sense, doors must be left open to the collective psyche so that the audience might find the corridors linking an actor’s incarnations. Else, there is no satisfaction of the fantasy-reality continuum fundamental to success in the medium. By providing examples of how the processes of production are fulfilled, we do not pretend to be definitive or objective. We only hope to enlighten, by demonstration, an important aspect of television’s performance, continuity of image, which is essential, and to illustrate the process by which an audience “fills in the holes.”

What’s on TV?


[1] Cultural Correspondence, no. 12–14 (Summer 1981), p. 53.

[2] New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1956, p. 29.

[3] Presented at the Popular Culture Association Convention, 1971; reprinted in Television: The Critical View, ed. Horace Newcomb (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 160.

[4] Cited in “The Audience as Critic: A Conceptual Analysis of Television Entertainment,” by Marianne E. Jagger, Hilde T. Himmelweit, and Betty Swift, The Entertainment Functions of Television, ed. Percy H. Tannenbaum (Hillsdale N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 1980), pp. 103–104.

[5] Movie Made America (New York; Random House, 1975), p. 230.

[6] “Toward a Television Aesthetic,” Television: The Critical View, p. 281.

[7] Ernie Kovacs, Zoomar (1957; New York: Bantam Books, 1959), pp. 105–106.

[8] From the program outline/synopsis in Vincent Terrace, The Complete Encyclopedia of Television Programs 1947-1976 (New York: A.S. Barnes and Company, 1976), vol. 2, p. 206.

[9] Newcomb, op. cit., pp. 284–286.

[10] Terrace, op. cit., vol. 2, p.452.


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