In January of this year itself, I devoted two essays to cover the wealth of classic television content that an exclusive channel on my cable operator had made available for discerning viewers. The pop culture aficionado that I was, I had instantly become a fan. Now almost two years since April, 2021 marked that betokened rendezvous, TATA PLAY HD has continued to gift me with heartwarming, funny, intense moments to fondly cherish.
In this new part before the end of 2022, I include few other standouts that made their way and charmed me.
Of course, I had always read and heard about these series but watching a title you had eagerly anticipated, in person, elicits an altogether different feeling of joy.
In no particular order, here they are.
Based mostly inside a Boston bar titled CHEERS, this comedic ensemble series is pure gold as it pitches the close-knit camaraderie among the employees and regular patrons against tensions from the outside world. In a nutshell, the snark, bite, topicality and earnestness of the everyday never goes out for a toss.
In the two seasons I’ve watched , it’s no wonder that along with the writing and timing of the comedy, the central ensemble is its heart and soul. Like all great cultural touchstones, the performers and characters become indistinguishable here. Be it the loveable, sweet to a fault and sometimes hopelessly naive Coach, the blow hot, blow cold nature of the accountant Norm who loves his pints of beer, the know-it-all mailman Cliff or the feisty and admirably independent waitress Carla, all score a place in our hearts. To me, Carla, played by Rhea Perlman, is a particular favourite.
Of course, CHEERS is anchored by Ted Danson’s charm and effortless screen presence as the titular bar’s young owner and former sportsman Sam. But its true trumpcard is in the form of Shelley Long’s Diane, an academic who begins to work here as a waitress and lets everyone learn a thing or two about themselves and the evolving zeitgeist with aplomb. She is supremely intelligent, grasping the nerves of a given situation and while she does give out an air of overconfidence, her brand of honesty usually triumphs. Long has exquisite timing, whether she’s learning an order by rote, delivering an empowering speech about the futility of beauty pageants, practically assessing a team’s chances of victory or calling out some of the patrons’ inherent homophobia. Her and Danson’s verbal fireworks stick the landing because he has much to undo in terms of his inherited biases while she has much to impart to him and his ilk. They are all well-meaning individuals at the end of the day. Together, they tide through the days.
Some fun is also to be had when Cliff’s knowledge rankles another visitor and comedic elements are mined from toxic masculinity tropes . Carla’s sudden pregnancy becomes another instance to balance the index between humour and emotions as this extended chosen family joins in the milestone and contributes to a welfare fund for her child. Supreme hilarity then ensues when her seemingly coy sister turns out to be a bolt out of the blue.
I loved watching CHEERS and the opening credits gives it an interesting historical perspective, of being a centuries-old establishment where a sense of community has always been nurtured. It helps that the men and the women are put on an equal footing in terms of opinions and on-screen content without condescending towards the latter or patronising the former.
ARE YOU BEING SERVED?
I remembered this British series, set within a departmental store, used to definitely air here on Indian cable when I was younger. That was just a random recollection. So it was delightful to watch ARE YOU BEING SERVED? as an adult.
Given the pithy nature of British formats, I was able to cover atleast three or four seasons and was bowled over by the wacky, genuinely laugh-out loud moments among the employees here comprising of people of all ages.
There’s the head manager who’s got a practical head to assess his staff and genuine concern for each member, the grand old man who owns the decades-old store and has lost none of his naughty charm, the former armyman Captain Peacock whose adherence to protocol is often at odds with the others, namely the flame-haired, middle-aged head of women’s section Mrs. Slocombe, her younger colleague, the veteran who’s been there since the store’s earliest days and the two fun-loving male buddies. John Inman and his iconic line, “are you free?” to rouse Mr. Grainger whenever he dozes off in the middle of a working day is unforgettable.
ARE YOU BEING SERVED? is the refrain used to interact with customers and everything from mannequins, new technologies, birthday celebrations, a dance rehearsal, staff reappraisals, fluctuating sales to the purchase of umbrellas and changing eras get expertly incorporated. All performers are spot-on and the maintenance of heirarchy within this miniature set-up is a telling commentary.
Go watch it. Tongue-in-cheek and sometimes wildly double-entendre but always effortlessly entertaining, it is a comedic minefield that joins the ranks of other Brit classics like MIND YOUR LANGUAGE, YES, MINISTER and FAWLTY TOWERS.
He’s not a dandyish presence on the lines of Poirot and Sherlock nor an unlikely mystery-solving wit like Jessica Fletcher. He’s COLUMBO, the closest to an everyman a detective can be. In Peter Falk’s wholly distinctive performance, the L.A. based man comes into his own. Like Mrs. Fletcher, he’s an entity created by an original team and not inspired by some literary source.
Oh, Mr. Falk. Looking back at the alchemy, mischief and irreverent styling of your act as a radio personality, in the underrated TUNE IN TOMORROW on the MGM channel years ago, I can proudly say you had made me a fan. That experience had very obviously then informed me of your class-act as Lieutenant Columbo.
So it’s a bonus to watch few episodes from the first two seasons.
The deal here is that Columbo can seem so ordinary, so unobtrusive amidst the ritzy people with manipulation on their minds, whom he is to investigate, that it’s easy to see why they would take him for granted or visualise him as less than stellar in his work ethic. But he’s his own person: congenial, never truly aggressive, nosey, yes, intent on reiterating details and being verbal yet a first-rate observer of human foibles.
That is the beauty of his methodology as the criminal is already known to us ; the intrigue is in tracing the whole case with Columbo, back to its minute points. Atmospheric and utilising outdoor locations to their advantage, the hour and a half episodes take their time to look into the innards of these twisted minds, allowing Falk to work to his great strengths in the process.
I also love it that such great talents as Ida Lupino( I also watched her wield directorial duties on an episode of BEWITCHED on the same channel), ALL ABOUT EVE and THE TEN COMMANDMENTS star Anne Baxter, Leonard Nimoy as well as Steven Spielberg, bringing his usual gravitas as director of the pilot episode, round out a wholesome package for every aficionado.
Above all, it’s Mr. Falk to the rescue. What a man. What a singular way to interpret this lieutenant, making his trenchcoat and great discerning skills a showcase.
FAREWELL, MRS. FLETCHER
Finally, this post is to bid the original Jessica Fletcher aka Ms. Angela Lansbury a heartfelt farewell. You are gone but just like your iconic oeuvre on MURDER SHE WROTE permeates this writer’s treasure trove, so will it define every discerning viewer’s cultural benchmark.
Thank you for showing us the way of grace, dignity and ageless artistry.
This is also to remember her beloved co-star Ron Masak who so memorably essayed Sheriff Mort Metzger on the series; he passed away merely days after Ms. Lansbury. As I watch and then go back to their joint scenes, I am reminded of how goodwill translates to good company. These two have definitely rejoined their seats as friends and allies of a lifetime in the high heavens above.