As evidence of the title of this post, I offer the following three exhibits.
Last Wednesday, Robert Culp died.
Robert Culp first became a TV star in the late 1950s as the lead in a Western series entitled Trackdown. Culp played a Texas Ranger whose job involved — as the more mentally nimble among you will already have surmised — tracking down criminals and bringing them to justice. Trackdown, which ran for two seasons, is probably less well remembered than the other Western series that spun off from it: Wanted: Dead or Alive, the show that launched Steve McQueen on his road to superstardom.
Forgettable though Trackdown was, Culp’s next series would be the stuff of TV legend. I Spy featured Culp as espionage agent Kelly Robinson, who masked his real occupation under the guise of a professional tennis player. Robinson’s fellow spy, Alexander “Scotty” Scott, played by Bill Cosby, masqueraded as Kelly’s personal trainer and coach. I Spy became the first network series to share top billing between Caucasian and African-American actors, and to portray a true partnership of peers between men of different races (even though the “I” of the show’s title was presumed to be Robinson — then again, We Spy wouldn’t have made as catchy a title).
Nearly two decades later, Culp returned to weekly TV on The Greatest American Hero, as the tough-as-nails FBI man who becomes the “handler” of a hapless superhero played by William Katt. More recently, Culp had a recurring role on the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, playing the father-in-law of Ray Romano’s put-upon sportswriter. In around all of the above acting roles, Culp also built a respectable career as a director and screenwriter.
Last Thursday, At the Movies — the long-running syndicated film review program — died. (Or was canceled, which is how shows die on TV.)
It’s fair to say that At the Movies had already died three deaths before Disney pulled the plug. It died first in 1999, when Gene Siskel, the Chicago Tribune critic who originally occupied the aisle seat opposite Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, passed away from cancer. Richard Roeper — who, quite frankly, I never much cared for — replaced Siskel the following year.
The show died a second time in 2006, when Ebert’s health difficulties (originating with surgery to remove a cancerous salivary gland) escalated to the point that he could no longer appear on camera. An endless stream of guest hosts — some fine, several wretched — filled in the empty chair next to Roeper over the next couple of years.
(I will presume that most of my readers — savvy bunch that you are — already know that Ebert subsequently lost both the ability to speak and the ability to intake food and drink orally due to further complications from this surgery. Uncle Roger would want you to know, however, that he is alive and alert and continuing to write prolifically — as lead critic for the Sun-Times, on his own website, and on Twitter, where he posts with prodigious frequency.)
At the Movies suffered its third death in 2008, when Ben Mankiewicz, the Vanna White of the Turner Classic Movies cable channel, and Ben Lyons, an entertainment reporter for the E! channel whose primary qualification as a film reviewer was genetic (his father, Jeffrey Lyons — along with film historian Neal Gabler — replaced Siskel and Ebert on Sneak Previews, the PBS show S&E left in 1981 to start what evolved into At the Movies), took over for the medically unavailable Ebert and the dismissed Roeper. With the two Bens occupying the storied seats, At the Movies crashed and burned like nothing had since the Hindenburg. Disney realized its error after one grotesque season, ditching the Bens in favor of the perfectly acceptable A.O. Scott (from the New York Times) and Michael Phillips (from the Chicago Tribune), but the fatal damage had been done.
At the Movies will limp on for the remainder of this final season with Scott and Phillips at the helm. By rights, the show should have been laid mercifully to rest with poor Gene Siskel.
Finally, last Friday, 24 died.
When it exploded onto American TV in 2001, 24 was unlike anything viewers had seen before: A fictional 24-hour day that unfolded in real time, over the span of 24 hour-long episodes. (Well, “real time” in TV terms. Part of the fun was noting the many events that transpired with impossible swiftness; i.e., cross-Los Angeles car trips accomplished in 10 minutes.)
The show centered around the perfect hero for the New Millennium: Jack Bauer (played to teeth-gritting perfection by Kiefer Sutherland), a rule-bending intelligence agent employed by a super-secret federal antiterrorist unit. Bauer confronted national security crises and enemies of the state and beat, shot, tortured, and shouted them to death in the space of a single revolution of the planet. In that groundbreaking first season, Bauer saved the life of Senator David Palmer, who by Season Two had become the nation’s first African-American President — foreshadowing (and in the mind of more than one social scientist, helping to facilitate) the real-life election of Barack Obama to the White House by the end of the decade.
Jack Bauer has had seven more “really bad days” since Season One, the last of which is playing out Monday nights on FOX at this writing. It was difficult for many viewers — yours truly among them — to see how the show’s novel premise would survive repetition, but for the most part, 24 has worked. If you buy into the premise, are sufficiently forgiving to overlook continuity errors the size of Martian craters, and most importantly, get into Jack Bauer and his ever-changing supporting cast (the show’s cast turns over almost completely from one season to the next, with Bauer and tech wizard Chloe O’Brian –played by Mary Lynn Rajskub, who signed on in Season Three — the only consistent mainstays), then 24‘s seat-of-the-pants thrill-ride can prove addictive.
Now, as Jack has bellowed repeatedly (and to much-lampooned effect) over the years… “We’re running out of time!”
And so, indeed, it must be. Because on TV, everything dies eventually.
Except maybe The Simpsons.