CBS is once again mining the country's collective electronic unconsciousness in search of ratings gold.
Last season, the network struck a rich vein over a long weekend that featured retrospectives on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "All in the Family" and a compendium of clips from Ed Sullivan's Sunday night variety hour.
This extended weekend, it's Bob Newhart, "M*A*S*H" and more from the Sullivan archives.
If these shows are going to remain more than reunion movies in fancy duds, the network has to be careful about the shows it chooses for this treatment. It bills these presentations as "Classic TV Weekends," but it must realize that there is a difference between classic television and popular television.
Classic television shows do more than just stimulate nostalgic memories and tickle long-dormant funny bones, they also reveal to us something about ourselves, some insight about the time in which they were produced as well as a timelessness in their commentary on the human condition.
Some do this self-consciously -- "All in the Family" was such a show -- others without realizing it -- probably "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," certainly "I Love Lucy." In either case, when you see them again after years away, it's like looking at a forgotten family portrait that lets you know where you were and how far you have come.
Unfortunately, the first offering of this weekend, "The Bob Newhart Show," does not meet this criterion. Don't take that judgment in the wrong way. This was a great show. Newhart is a very funny man. But bottom line is that it didn't do much other than make you laugh.
"The Bob Newhart Anniversary Show," which will be on Channel 11 (WBAL) Saturday at 8 o'clock, is shot somewhat as a reunion program. Members of the original cast gather in his old office -- complete with that now outdated, too-bright, flat sitcom writing -- to help Bob with his latest crisis -- a disturbing dream he had.
You remember that from the last time we saw Newhart, at the end of his subsequent series, when he woke up with original TV wife Suzanne Pleshette and told her that he had imagined he was an innkeeper in Vermont, surrounded by all sorts of odd characters and goings-on.
So, these cast members reminisce as they give Bob advice, leading into various compendiums of clips from the show. Some are quite funny, but none transcends the comedy.
Monday night at 9:30, CBS is featuring 90 minutes of one those shows that wore its larger consciousness on its sleeve -- "M*A*S*H." Shelley Long, for some reason, hosts this program that gives you a chance to see how the cast members look today, hear from some of the behind-the-scenes powers, and see a well-chosen lot of clips that follows the evolution of this clearly classic comedy.
Near its end, "M*A*S*H" did have a tendency to become almost a parody of itself as it seemed to think it was on a mission from God to steer the nation down the politically correct path, but the clips remind you what a well-written, excellently acted, nicely crafted program this was.
Few, if any, shows of that era tried to make you laugh and cry, and "M*A*S*H," coming along with the Vietnam War still raging and a nation still rent apart because of it, realized that was the appropriate reaction to our common predicament. Seeing it again reminds you of the pain of those years that made life so difficult, and yet so exhilarating.
In between these two offerings is two hours from Sullivan's show that will run Sunday night at 9 o'clock with Burt Reynolds, for some reason, as host.
As you might expect, this is dynamite entertainment -- from the Rolling Stones to a 14-year-old Hank Williams Jr.; from Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev to two guys who hold a tightrope in their teeth while their female partner walks across it; from the Beatles' debut to Elvis' first Sullivan appearance (introduced -- trivia freaks be alert -- by Charles Laughton, subbing for Sullivan recuperating from a car crash). A dip into the Sullivan library should become a yearly treat.
But, undoubtedly unbeknownst to Sullivan, as he rushed to pack his weekly live show with the latest, hottest acts in town, he was creating a portrait of our society. The way he constructed his shows -- Topo Gigo for the kids, a rock act for the teen-agers, an opera singer for Mom, a crooner for Dad, a novelty act for everyone -- reveals that it was a different America out there in those days.
The whole family was gathered around the TV, sharing in each other's joy as each waited for the special moment meant for him or her. Today, the house might have four TVs, with the kid watching Nickelodeon, the teen tuned to MTV, Dad fixated on ESPN and Mom in front of Lifetime.