The Crazy Mixed-Up, Mashed-Up Pandemic Television Time Machine

Why Reruns – Even Old Sporting Events – are Better Than New

© 2020 by Joe Dobrow – see the graphic version of this as run on Medium:

It appears as if live sports will soon be back on television; new dramatic programming, too. And that’s really a shame – because bopping around in the pandemic TV time machine has been so much fun. How else could we have witnessed a knock-‘em-down, drag-‘em-out fight between The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s Murray Slaughter and The Six Million Dollar Man’s Colonel Steve Austin?

Joe Dobrow, pandemic, time machine, sports reruns, Six Million Dollar Man, Murray Slaughter, The Big Valley, Lee Majors, Gavin MacLeod, Eve Plumb

Those of us who have dutifully spent the lockdown months motionless on our couches have often rued the loss of live sports, the metronomes of our lives as they slowly tick from season to season. We have missed the competition, the uncertain outcomes, the slow build of momentum and statistics and tension.

But to the attentive pandemic time traveler, substitute programming has had more gains than losses.

Take ESPN’s recent re-airing of the 1998 NBA All-Star Game – in which modern-day viewers were treated to something that those who watched the live event never were: a massive dose of bittersweet perspective about how short and precious life really is.

In the game, an impossibly fresh-faced 19-year-old rookie named Kobe Bryant scored a team-leading 18 points, and the cameras repeatedly flashed to him on the bench, talking to teammates with a broad, wondrous, “is this really happening?” kind of look that is more or less the exclusive provenance of 19-year-olds. Color commentators Bill Walton, Isiah Thomas and Magic Johnson mused about whether anyone this young and dynamic had ever appeared on the NBA scene. But pandemic viewers knew what they did not: that this season will end with Michael Jordan winning the 6th and final championship of his career, at which point he will figuratively hand off the “greatest player baton” to Bryant, who will go on to a storied career with 17 more All-Star appearances and five NBA championships before he will hand the same baton to another 19-year-old named LeBron James.  And we also know that in January of 2020 Bryant’s tragic death in a helicopter accident will leave all of us with a different kind of “is this really happening?” look. 

And so we watched this performance, this moment in time, and we marveled at the graceful swoops, the athletic acceleration, the quick elevation, the electric smile – caring not a whit about the outcome of the game, but knowing all the while about the Outcome of the life.

Climb back aboard, spin the chronometer, and (courtesy of MLB Network) we land in 1971, Game 6 of the World Series in Baltimore, with the Pirates leading the Orioles, three games to two. There is little suspense for the modern-day viewer: we know it will end up going to the seventh game and that Pittsburgh will prevail. But we watch with probing insight, also knowing that two Orioles stars – Dave Johnson and Frank Robinson – will go onto long managerial careers, and that two Pirates players – Roberto Clemente and Bob Moose – will be killed in separate transportation accidents within the next five years. But for now, this is their time in the limelight: Johnson knocks in one run and Robinson scores the game winner, while Clemente hits a homerun and emergency starter Moose delivers an outstanding five innings.

Astute modern viewers might also be overcome with quaintness as we gaze once again at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, then 21 years old but with, as it turns out, 21 years remaining before the Orioles will leave it forever. When the broadcast uses the “high home” camera shot, the startlingly nearby houses of the Ednor Gardens-Lakeside neighborhood are clearly visible just beyond the center field wall, and perhaps we remember the good old days when one could park there on a game day for free (as long as one was willing to pay neighborhood kids a few dollars to make sure nothing happened to the car). And the post-game interviews by Tony Kubek are also a remarkable anachronism, both for their length (more than four minutes with four different players) and their articulate candor.

No matter the sports rerun – a long-haired Roger Federer effortlessly floating around the US Open court to win his third major of the year in 2007 (before mononucleosis would slow him months later and mark the start of a long, steady transformation to that of mere mortal); a disconsolate Red Sox bench in the wee hours of October 17, 2003, watching Aaron Boone round the bases after his ALCS-ending homerun (a year to the day before Boston would begin its curse-reversing comeback from a 3-0 deficit against the same New York team) – there is something pleasingly surreal about watching old contests today, as our minds ping pong across the years. Live sports can never do this for us.

Still, it is not old sporting events but TV series reruns that offer the most jarring and sometimes amusing experiences for the pandemic time traveler. We watch Archie Bunker make one insensitive racial remark after another from the relative comfort of 1971’s All in the Family, and then switch to the news and see thousands of masked protesters demanding justice after the killing of George Floyd. We cheer the dawning moral consciousness of ex-Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon on repeats of AMC’s Hell On Wheels (2011-16), and then see another news report about the statue of a Civil War southerner being yanked from its pedestal.

But perhaps the most entertaining of all anachronistic activities is to watch an old TV show with the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) close at hand – for this allows us to make improbable connections and whipsaw ourselves across time.

The grand prize for this activity might have to go to a 1967 episode of The Big Valley entitled “Brother Love,” which recently re-aired on the INSP network. The Old West series depicts the Barkley family of California, which includes, among others, matriarch Victoria (portrayed by Barbara Stanwyck), and siblings Heath (Lee Majors) and Audra (Linda Evans).

Stanwyck, a longtime leading lady, had been appearing in films since the 1930s. Majors would go onto greater fame as Steve Austin, the bionically rebuilt astronaut in ABC’s The Six Million Dollar Man (1974-78), and Evans would achieve notoriety as Krystle Carrington, the glamorous star of ABC’s Dynasty (1981-89).

In the “Brother Love” episode, a traveling faith healer played by Robert Goulet comes to town. This is prime-of-his-career-troubadour Goulet, not Johnny-Carson’s-second-guest-of-the-night Goulet, and his perfect hair and cerulean eyes make us understand how his visage would later get written into the lyrics of a libidinous 12-year-old in A Chorus Line (“Robert Goulet, Robert Goulet, my God, Robert Goulet!”).  Goulet’s faith healer pulls two drifters into his con – depicted by the actors Strother Martin and Gavin McLeod. And here IMDB helps us to unweave the tangled web of time.

The whiny/gravelly-voiced Martin had already played bit roles in virtually every major western TV series of the decade, including Daniel Boone, The Virginian, Death Valley Days, Rawhide, Have Gun Will Travel, Bonanza and Gunsmoke. But later in 1967 he would display his versatility by acting in the goofball comedy Gilligan’s Island (as a character named, coincidentally, Barkley); and he would achieve Hollywood immortality with his depiction of the impassive rifle-toting “Captain” in the movie Cool Hand Luke (“What we have he-uh is a failure to communicate”).

McLeod – nearly unrecognizable in his Big Valley role, with both hair and heft – would of course enjoy a long career in sitcoms as the wry, sensible, balding news writer Murray Slaughter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77) and as the gracious Captain Merrill Stubing on The Love Boat (1977-87). Yet he, too, was already a well-traveled actor by 1967, having appeared in 20 years of TV series including, among others, McHale’s Navy (good training for Stubing) and My Favorite Martian, in which Linda Evans also appeared.

Evans, for her part, would later guest star opposite McLeod again, on six episodes of The Love Boat, and opposite Stanwyck during one season of Dynasty.

Of course, none of this would have mattered to the viewer who cozied up to the Magnavox on February 20, 1967 to watch the initial airing of the “Brother Love” episode. But after more than 50 years, the mobius strip of time makes viewing this show far more interesting – especially when Martin, McLeod and Majors get into a rollicking brawl (a failure to commune). In 1967, who cared, but today to see Murray Slaughter and The Six Million Dollar Man going at it – why, we couldn’t be more tickled.

There was one other unexpected actor in that episode, an 8-year-old California girl making her third appearance on television: Eve Plumb, who of course would go on to become the epitome of 1970s middle-child angst as Jan on The Brady Bunch.  And after the socially distanced, time-travel whiplashed viewer of 2020 recognized her golden hair or voice on The Big Valley we were left to think about the arc of her career, and to wonder whether perhaps Gunsmoke’s badge-wearing hero Matt Dillon was somehow nearby, lurking behind the faux western Big Valley set playfully tossing a football while he awaited his turn before the camera.  Marshal, Marshal, Marshal!