Zachary Klein

zachIt’s slipping into November and even with the complexity of television’s indecipherable series/season release schedule, it’s time to smile and write about one of my favorite mediums.

While it’s true that my affinity for the box is due to long-standing childhood traumas (what else would an ex-psychoanalytic analysand believe?), I’m not bashful about my affection. I’ve used this space enough times for readers to know many of my television likes and dislikes. Still, there’s always new ground to cover and that’s especially true this time of year for sports fans. Baseball is rapidly moving into the World Series (the play-offs have been top shelf), football is concussing its way toward its midway point, and basketball and hockey are lighting up their arenas. We’re talking the last vestiges of live television here and that’s something to be treasured. Trust me, Ernie Kovacs is not walking through the door any time soon.

But there is another genre that while not done live, does purport to be real.

Okay, I’m gonna come out. Yes, I am a closet “reality show” freak. No doubt this admission will draw disapproving, baleful looks from Kelly, my writing partner, given her rants about House Hunters. But a guy’s gotta to watch what he’s gotta watch and, when it hits post-midnight, that usually means Law & Order reruns, Sportscenter, or SOMETHING ELSE. I usually scour for the ELSE.

I’ve been told the late night talk shows are dramatically better than ever. While I admire Colbert, Kimmel, Fallon, et al, I’ve never been a big fan of the format. At least not since Steve Allen so, more often than not (unless I’m really deep into insomnia and turn to C-Span for warm milk), I bang the clicker until I stumble upon “real.”

Just to be clear, I’m not talking about good reality shows like Anthony Bourdain’s. I save him for prime time. In fact, while I’ve always enjoyed all Bourdain’s different programs, I am truly digging Parts Unknown above and beyond. It’s allowed him to spread his wings and cover much more than dinner and drinks. Who’da thunk I’d really, really want to visit Vietnam?

I’m not a carpet sniffing junkie. I do have my bad show standards—albeit, set at a low bar. I don’t watch Duck Dynasty or The Kardashians (though again, in obedience to my personal 12-step, I did spend an entire flight from Fort Lauderdale to Boston watching back-to-back episodes on JetBlue).

Pawnstars may never get me to Vegas, I’ll never have the money to bring a classic to Counting Cars, and the thought of actually being in a semi barreling across the frozen tundra with Ice Road Truckers is beyond all belief. Still, when we’re talking deep in the night, awake but too tired to read…sure I’ll ride shotgun! Especially from under the covers.

But none of these shows are actually real, you say? Duh. Does anyone believe that Rick Harrison is a historical expert? Or that Chumlee knows anything about anything at all? In fact, there’s a whole industry out there debunking these shows. According to one skeptic Russel Scott, as of 2012, his myth busting articles have been read by hundreds of thousands of viewers. (Near as I can tell he’s shredded the reality of Pawnstars, American Pickers, Storage Wars, and Auction Hunters). What surprises me, though, is the possibility that there might be people who actually need these exposés.

Do you know anyone who makes a living bidding on vacated storage lockers?

Look, truth is not television’s strongest suit. Just watch the news.

In fact, although staged, today’s reality shows have a long and storied history. This Is Your Life ran on radio, then TV, from 1948-1961. Sometimes it was real, sometimes not so much. Didn’t matter. The show was a hit.

This is your life







And of course, there was the king of them all: Queen for a Day, which ran on the Mutual Radio Network from 1945 until 1957, on NBC Television from 1956 to 1960, then on ABC Television from 1960 to 1964. Queen for a Day became so successful that NBC lengthened its running time from 30 to 45 minutes in order to sell more commercials.








You all know the premise: Four women tell heart-wrenching tales about their tragedies and the one who ranked highest on the applause-o-meter won a ton of free shit. It was often difficult to understand how a washing machine would help with a child’s disease, but what the hell. “Sure ‘Queen’ was vulgar and sleazy and filled with bathos and bad taste,” wrote producer Howard Blake in an article for Fact magazine. “That was why it was so successful. It was exactly what the general public wanted….We got what we were after. Five thousand Queens got what they were after. And the TV audience cried their eyes out, morbidly delighted to find there were people worse off than they were.”

So what exactly is it that I’m after during those sleepless hours? First, the ability to turn the fucking set off without a second thought when I’m finally ready to sleep. But almost as important, I enjoy looking at unusual “stuff” (How many years has Antiques Roadshow been on, highbrows?), or watching even a fake depiction of a lifestyle to which I’ve never been exposed. Yep. I binged on Amish Mafia. Sue me.

As far as I’m concerned television has nothing to do with truth (or consequences). Like I said, watch the news.

Note to Susan. You didn’t go far enough with House Hunters. It’s rigged.

Any fool can be happy. It takes a man with real heart to make beauty out of the stuff that makes us weep. ~ Clive Barker

There’s No Business Like Show Business

by Susan Kelly

In 1995, my non-fiction book about the Boston Strangler case was published and, as a result, I got invited onto a lot of television shows to discuss the premise of the book. The premise was that Albert DeSalvo, who confessed to the series of murders that took place in eastern Massachusetts between June 1962 and January 1964, didn’t actually commit any of them.

One of the first things I learned about television was that you can run from it, but you can’t hide from it. If a producer wants to find you, the producer will find you. It doesn’t matter if you’re ice-fishing in Baffin Bay without a cell phone. Somebody will dispatch a carrier pigeon from a rooftop on West 57th Street.

In the early summer of 1999, Good Morning America tracked me down at a seafood restaurant in Salem, New Hampshire, where I’d gone with my parents and my brother and his daughter. The waiter had just deposited a plateful of fried oysters before me when the hostess hustled up to the table and said, “Is there a Susan Kelly here?”

I acknowledged that there was.

“You have a phone call.” She pointed at the front desk. “You can take it there.”

I took the call. When I returned to the table, everyone looked at me with raised eyebrows, except for my ten-year-old niece Marie, who had embarked on the demolition of a fried clam platter bigger then she was. I sat down and blinked at them.

“That was Good Morning America,” I said. “They want me to be on their show tomorrow morning.”

My mother looked bemused. “How are you going to get to New York?”

“Well, they’re sending a car to your house and picking me up there tonight. The car will take me to Logan, and there will be a ticket waiting for me at the airline desk.”

“Suppose you told them you didn’t want to do it,” my brother said.

“I don’t think they take no for an answer,” I said.

“No business like show business,” my father said. “Shall I sing it?”

“No,” my brother, mother, and I screamed.

“May I please have some more tartar sauce?” Marie asked.

Later that evening, a uniformed guy driving a dark-blue Lincoln solid as a tank picked me up in Andover and drove me to Logan Airport. I flew to New York, got a cab at La Guardia, and took a ride into Manhattan that lasted longer than the flight because of some unspecified but dire mess on Queens Boulevard. The hotel where I was booked was apparently where GMA lodged all its guests, or at least those who didn’t demand and get the Plaza or the St. Regis. I was given a suite and a key to the V.I.P lounge, which I was too tired to use.

The next morning a guy in casual clothes driving a nondescript Chevy picked me up and drove me to West 57th Street. I entered the studio through a side door that looked like the emergency exit to a paint factory. Someone swooped down on me and grabbed my handbag and suitcase and strolled off with them. Another person appeared and hauled me off to hair and make-up.

The coiffing got done first. A gum-snapping brunette plopped me in a chair, surveyed me narrowly, and said, “This the way ya always weah ya haih, hon?”

I admitted that it was.

She pushed at my hair and nodded judiciously. “Great bounce, hon.” Bristling with combs and brushes, she set to work. It took her about two minutes to give me side wings, flips, curls, and bangs that defied gravity. Then she sprayed the whole sculpture into rigidity.

I moved to another chair so the make-up woman could weave her magic spell. The first thing she did was trowel pancake onto my face and throat. I wondered if I’d be able to move my facial muscles. Barely. Having created the background on the canvas, the woman set about painting the foreground. I stared at the mirror, fascinated by the change my face was undergoing. Suddenly I had the cheekbones of Katharine Hepburn. A moment later, I had the cut-glass jawbone of Vanessa Redgrave. My eyes and lips enlarged. I still looked like me…but a really good me.

“Can I hire you to do this to me every morning for the rest of my life?” I said.

The make-up woman laughed and dismissed me to take on her next customer.

Someone appeared and led me to the green room. On the way in, I passed civil rights icon James Farmer being escorted to do his segment on the show. (Sadly, he would die on July 9 of that year.) The green room was about the size of my bedroom in my house in Cambridge: not large. Against the far wall was a table set up with a coffee urn, jugs of fruit juice, and platters of pastries. No one went near it, including me. The other walls had chairs lined up against them. I found an empty chair and took it. Two very casually dressed young guys, apparently too fidgety to sit, hovered by my chair. We exchanged pleasantries. Afterward I found out they were the writer/directors of The Blair Witch Project. A moment later a short dark-haired man appeared in the doorway. He glanced around at the occupants. As he entered the room, he gave me a brilliant smile. (Perhaps he mistook me for someone cool.) It was George Stephanopoulos, one-time press secretary to Bill Clinton and now an ABC commentator. He sat on the arm of my chair, back to me, and chatted with the person sitting next to me. His left buttock nudged my left breast. I was tempted to pinch him but resisted the urge. I stared at his behind till someone (there were endless someones) came to fetch me for the show.

When I was a young teenager my father had worked in the financial end of a company that produced and distributed theatrical movies and television programs, so I was well aware at an early age how literally shabby showbiz was behind all the glitz. And of how the tawdry and commonplace could be made magical by the right lighting and the proper camerawork. (And make-up: Witness my transfigured face.) Still, it was interesting to see first-hand how jury-rigged the infrastructure of a top-rated morning news show could be. We walked through a maze of shaky partitions, on scuffed and worn floors, over piles of cable duct-taped in place, past a set that was supposed to look like a living room and furnished totally in simulated wood, and onto the GMA set. There was a commercial break. Diane Sawyer looked up from her desk and gave me a vague, harried smile. She was lovely, but a bit less dewy and radiant than she appeared through a camera lens. A make-up person darted from the wings and applied a brush to Sawyer’s face. I got put into a chair facing Charles Gibson.

I did my five-minute segment, most of which entailed arguing with F. Lee Bailey, who was being satellited in from Rhode Island. Bailey had always maintained that DeSalvo, whom he represented, was guilty of the Strangler murders. The high moment of the debate occurred when Bailey insisted that DeSalvo knew that one of the victims had been wearing a tampon, and this knowledge proved DeSalvo’s guilt. I pointed out that the murdered woman had in fact been wearing a sanitary napkin, and stolidly recited the dimensions of the stain on it as given in the autopsy protocol. Afterward I found it difficult to believe that I’d gotten involved in a dispute about feminine hygiene and menstrual discharge on national television. Oy.

My segment ended. Gibson shook my hand and thanked me. Someone led me from the set, returned to me my handbag and suitcase, and put me in a car to the airport. When I landed in Boston, I got a car back to my parents’ place.

When the hired car pulled into the driveway, Marie was waiting.

“Hi, sweetie,” I said, emerging from the car and tipping the driver.

“ I didn’t see you on tv,” she said. “I was sleeping. But Daddy taped it on Grandpa’s VCR.”

“Oh, good. I guess.”

She inspected me. “Your face looks different.”

I drew the index finger of my right hand down the side of my face. Beneath the nail collected a gob of make-up the size of a wad of well-chewed gum. I flicked it into the juniper hedge bordering the driveway.

Marie followed the movement with her eyes. “Eeeuuu,” she said.

“You do have a way with words.”




I’ve written about the Showtime program Homeland a number of times with my last comment (I think) a couple of years ago. A new season has begun and, as most of the show’s other seasons, it’s high quality and anxiety producing. Although I’ve only seen the first three episodes, the series is once again a plot driven spy versus spy versus double agents drama. And once again it has raised questions for me. In our present era when every Muslim is often seen as a potential enemy and threat, it’s complicated to look forward every week to a terrific TV series that is built around a world view I detest.

Well, I just doubled down on that conundrum. Prisoners of War (original Hebrew title being Hatufim, (which translates to “Abductees”) is the threadbare low budget Israeli show upon which Homeland is based. In fact, after Hatufim won Israel’s Academy Award For A Television Series was sold to 20th Century Fox, some of the program’s creators and cast have been directly involved with the US show. We brought the dvds home from the library and have barreled through most of Season One. Gotta say, so far it’s a much better series, focusing intently upon the two ex-prisoners of war and the effects their release after seventeen years has upon themselves, their families, and everyone in close contact. Especially the Israeli intelligence community.

No surprise I’d find Prisoners the better show. People who have read any of my Matt Jacob novels or even my Just sayin’ series Interviews With The Dead (King Richard lll, Truman Capote, Martin Luther King, Norman Mailer and more to come) know my writing is character driven. Although I’m sure there will be more spy versus spy as Prisoners progresses, fact is, the characters are already more fleshed out and complicated than those in Homeland. The truthfulness of the relationships between each of the characters and the situations in which they find themselves feels true to the bone. And more. This is a particularly smart show where the unexpected occurs at exactly the right moment with writing and acting I just love.

But here’s the rub. Prisoners of War has raised even more misgivings inside than Homeland. Anyone who knows me knows my feelings about the overwhelming abuse and injustice the Israeli government exacts upon the Palestinian people. And while Prisoners has yet to identify the kidnappers, it doesn’t take a weatherman to imagine who they were.

So here I am, once again, praising a show whose politics sicken me.

Pablo Picasso was a misogynist his entire life—using women then kicking them to the side once he was done with them. Yet it’s impossible to ignore that he was arguably the greatest artist of the twentieth century who created Guernica, the most important anti-war painting many of us have ever seen. Even Diego Rivera, whose murals closely reflect my own political point of view, was often questionable when it came to his personal life. And, of course, there’s always the Ezra Pound dilemma.

Music, theater, and literature are also overloaded with artists who created great work but I wouldn’t invite to dinner. (Actually, there are some on my list who disgust me as people, but I’d love to engage in conversation.)

Firesign Theater’s album title, How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You’re Not Anywhere At All, only half describes my plight. I am somewhere. Stuck between my values about humanity and art I enjoy or even love, at the same time made by people who make my skin crawl. Hell, it’s hard enough to bridge the contradiction about individual artists, but when two television shows I consider art (ok TV haters, take your shots) present attitudes and behavior I abhor, that interior contradiction becomes even more difficult to transcend.

But in for a dime bag, in for a pound. Throughout my own artistic life I’ve maintained that it’s essential to separate people’s creations from the individuals themselves. I’ve always believed to not do so would lose too many important, thought-provoking, often beautiful experiences.

For all the agita these two series raise, that’s my belief and I’m sticking to it. If a creation merits consideration as art, then I’m going to view it as such—despite its content or creator. To be otherwise would undercut my convictions about freedom of speech. And just as I won’t judge a person simply by their politics or beliefs, neither will I judge creative expression only by the person who created it or the content it presents.

So how to recommend a television series that triggers serious internal conflicts? For those who don’t share my ideas about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, it’s easy. Rent or borrow Prisoners of War and enjoy great television.

For those that do share my Middle East politics, I’d say grit your teeth and, for this series, allow art to trump.

“What is life without incompatible realities?” ~ Ursula K. Le Guin


by Kent Ballard

Author’s note: Every word of this is true.

One of the drawbacks to rural life is the lack of big name entertainment. When I was seven years old, in 1960, I realized it was pretty unlikely that Soupy Sales or Steve Allen would ever make a public appearance in a corn field near me. Live entertainment usually consisted of playing baseball with my dog or riding Old Mary, our Holstein, around in the barn lot.

One day while watching the afternoon cartoons on our ancient Philco, I was astonished when the host announced that he was going to make a public appearance at a new furniture store opening in the little town near our farm. There would be sing-alongs, magic tricks, and a free treat for every boy and girl in attendance.

The host was a nice man named Happy Harry, and he was immensely popular with all of the local children. He reported for duty every afternoon in a crisp white sailor’s suit and cap, played passable guitar, and best of all, ran lots of cartoons. He opened his show with a warm smile and a cheerful song, and he closed it with the admonition for all of us “good little sailors” to mind our moms and dads and say our prayers at night.

Being a farm kid, I had never seen a real celebrity before, and this would be my first. I knew Happy Harry was a star because I had seen him on TV. That was what I kept telling my mother as she loaded me into our ’58 Ford on the big day. I was going to see my hero. And get a prize!

He was to appear at noon. We got there twenty minutes early and found about a hundred other kids and their mothers packed tightly around a rickety-looking platform. My Mom wanted to make sure I had a good view so she started trying to cram me forward. She succeeded only in wedging me in between other mothers who were trying to cram their kids ahead. It was a hot day and they smelled funny.

Noon came. Noon went. No Happy Harry.

By 12:30, the crowd was making its displeasure pretty vocal. The store manager made a few lame excuses, reassured everybody that there would be prizes and fun galore, then hastily departed the stage.

A little after 1:00, the crowd was soaked in sweat and openly hostile when Happy Harry lurched onto the platform. He had about three days’ growth of beard. His sailor suit—so spotless and creased on TV—was rumpled and stained. His hair was sticking out at odd angles from under a greasy swabbie’s cap planted far back on his head, and he was drunker than any human being I would see for the next fifteen years.

He mumbled something about being late, swayed to and fro silently for a moment, then launched into a rambling and largely unintelligible story about Popeye, who he referred to as his “ol’ drinkin’ buddy.” He paused in mid-sentence a couple of times to leer wickedly at some of the younger mothers and mutter under his breath.

Bear in mind that this was a very conservative rural community, and that this took place in 1960. Some of the mothers, shocked, dragged their protesting children away and swore to write Harry’s sponsors. Others marched into the store for a confrontation with the manager. But most of us, parents and children alike, stood in open-mouthed amazement as Happy Harry picked up his guitar and invented a new set of lyrics to his theme song, which he howled loudly while twisting and gyrating like Elvis.

Happy Harry then picked up a box of magic tricks, stared at it curiously for a moment, and sat it back down without a word. He was looking pretty bad by then; pale, sweating profusely, and unable to focus his eyes.

As kids often do when they find someone in a predicament, we turned utterly vicious and began taunting him and booing. My strongest memory of the day is of an older kid yelling, “Hey, Harry! What’s your REAL name? Tell us your REAL name, Harry!”

Happy Harry’s face turned purple with fury and his bloodshot eyes actually frightened me. “Happy Harry IS my real name!” He bellowed maniacally, “My first name’s ‘Happy’ and my last name’s ‘Harry’!” This was received with catcalls and squeals of derisive laughter. I have no idea why this is so vivid in my memory after fifty-four years. I guess it never occurred to me that Happy Harry may have, in fact, had another name. I was to learn much that day.

He attempted to regain control by slurring, “Hey kids, who wants a prize?” This quieted us for a moment until he held up a small bag of balloons. Obviously, he had balloons enough for only a fraction of the children present. There was a rush for the stage and the little kids in front were being mashed in the process. Happy Harry panicked and threw the balloons towards the rear of the crowd, a grave tactical error. The crush of children tried to reverse direction instantly and there was a stampede. Many children—including yours truly—were knocked down and trampled. While kids were crying and mothers were screaming, Happy Harry, wild-eyed and literally drooling, picked up a thick stack of publicity photos and threw them at everybody, cursing humanity in general and children in particular as he did so. The hapless store manager and a couple of burly employees rushed up onto the stage and grappled with Harry, giving him the bum’s rush down the steps and into the back door of the new store.

To the best of my knowledge, there were no lawsuits filed. (This was 1960, remember.) Happy Harry’s show remarkably continued for another year or so, then he was replaced by another, less memorable host. The local gossips in our community kept the telephone lines busy with lurid details about the grand opening, and the new store eventually went bankrupt.

For some time afterward, I was a major celebrity among my friends in the second grade who didn’t go to the store opening. They listened with rapt attention over and over as I described the “riot,” and within two weeks the story contained squad cars full of state troopers who, in desperation, turned police dogs and fire hoses onto the mob in order to quell the disturbance while Happy Harry fired a pistol wildly into the air…

Television has changed since those days, and not all for the better. Live TV is almost unheard of, and children’s shows rarely acknowledge the delight a child enjoys when watching an adult caught making outrageous mistakes. Kids do that all the time. Seeing grownups in a less than perfect light often has a reassuring effect. Perhaps, the kid will think, maybe I’m not so bad after all…

And that might be the best lesson we could teach them.

Looking back, that was one of the happiest afternoons of my life, even if I didn’t get a balloon. If I could meet Happy Harry now, I’d shake his hand and thank him.

But I damn sure wouldn’t by him a drink.


I never jumped on the Breaking Bad bandwagon when it first turned up on television. After the first season was released on DVD, however, Sue borrowed it from a friend but said it made her too tense to watch. Since I still hadn’t gotten into it, I was fine about her returning the set.

Then the series began coming to its conclusion and it seemed as if the only interviews on radio and TV were of the cast, director, and creator. Even Charlie Rose did his annoying gushing about the program, but what caught my attention was the focus creator/writer/producer Vince Gilligan received. Sure, there was an avalanche of accolades heaped on Bryan Cranston, who played Walter White the main character, Anna Gunn, Water’s wife Skyler, and Aaron Paul as his youthful sidekick Jessie Pinkman, but the amount of consideration given to Gilligan surprised me. Few people in his position garner the raves he received as the show’s end drew near. He was the creative force and wrote many of the scripts (and oversaw the others) like David Chase of The Sopranos.

About the same time my son Jake gave me Apple TV as a present and I decided to spring for  Netflix Streaming and give Breaking Bad another shot. Well, I’m very glad I did. It is a damn good series with exceptional acting and writing, though I don’t believe it in any way, shape, or form surpasses The Sopranos or even the best years of The Wire. Still, it’s certainly a “contendah.” In an age where you have 180 channels and still find nothing to watch, that’s an impressive do.

But I’m not writing this column to compare television series, or even to analyze Breaking Bad as a whole. I’m writing about Season 3, Episode 10 called Fly. I don’t know if Fly more closely resembles a short story or a one act play, but I do know it was 47 minutes that could easily stand alone outside the series.

The plot revolved around catching or killing a fly that threatened to contaminate Walter’s meth lab. As a play (which is how I think of the episode) the actual plot had very little importance. It was just a vehicle to shine a light on the mostly contentious relationship between Walter, the older mentor, and Jessie his much younger, often sleazy, partner and mentee.

In an act of desperation, but mostly kindness, Jessie slipped some drugs into Walter’s coffee hoping to make him sleep after Walt’s continuous 24 hour obsessive hunt for that fly. But what the drugs actually did was allow Walter to talk about who he’d been, what he had become, and why. He talked about the importance “family” in his life and how it dictated many of his choices, despite a bushel full of regrets. And within the course of his confessions and conversation, his underlying affection for his mentee became increasingly clear.

Although Jessie didn’t verbalize his emotional reactions to Walter’s intimacy, his behavior (risking his neck to kill the fly, despite believing the entire effort completely idiotic) indicated his real concern for Walt, despite their relentless arguments and on and off again partnership. As the frantic fly hunt continues, layers of top skin are stripped from both participants. Although Walt and Jessie’s relationship has a much more complicated history, in many ways this episode reminded me of Mamet’s Duck Variations. In that play, two strangers sit on a bench and these old men start making assumptions about the ducks swimming nearby. Even though they know nothing about ducks or each other, their comments reveal more and more about who each of them are and an intimate connection develops before they go their separate ways.

And, of course, by the conclusion of Season 3, Episode 10, the fly has been killed, Walter has slept off the pills and, as they get into their cars, their tenderness has receded into the typical antagonisms.

Just a great 47 minutes and well worth trying to find whether you’re interested in the show as a whole or not. It’s not often an ongoing series produces a one act play as in depth as this episode.

Flipping through other channels:

Homeland, which I’ve written about before, has regained its footing this season. The acting has been strong (Claire Danes isn’t always crying or about to) but what has really been fun are the plot twists. Back in the day, I read a lot of spy novels, mostly favoring the intricate betrayals John Le Carrie wove through his early books. (I still believe both the novel and the movie of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold are classics.) This season’s plotting of Homeland is very reminiscent of those early works. Folks who have cable television and On Demand might want to consider watching this season from the start.

And, of course, it was baseball’s play-offs, which meant hours upon hours glued to the set. Given the outcome, all those late nights and tired days were more than worth it. The Red Sox won! The Red Sox won!

The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed. C.G. Jung