Last week Shout! Factory distributed the DVD release of the one-season cult show Tales of the Gold Monkey. It’s a very good package, presenting the episodes uncut, with commentaries on several episodes (by Tom Greene, a writer-producer who has a lot of interesting things to say) and a making-of featurette.
There are only two flaws in the set: one, creator Don Bellisario didn’t participate — it seems like he can’t be found anywhere since he was booted off NCIS. And two (this one is a bit more important), because this set was originally mastered for a Region 2 release, the episodes are taken from PAL masters, meaning that they are a little sped-up from the original versions. (They run about 47 and a half minutes; an un-sped version would probably be a bit over 48 minutes.) However, the speed difference isn’t very noticeable apart from the theme song, which does sound a bit too high-pitched.
The show itself is one I’ve talked about before, but the DVD has made me more favourably disposed toward it. From a distance, and even from watching isolated episodes, it can seem like a Raiders of the Lost Ark ripoff, and that’s certainly what ABC wanted when they picked it up. However, Bellisario had pitched the idea several years earlier, and what he was actually borrowing from was the films of Howard Hawks, particularly two movies about tough men and women leading dangerous lives in hot climates: Only Angels Have Wings, about fliers in South America, and To Have and Have Not, where Humphrey Bogart fought Nazis in Martinique. (The two movies share a lot of similarities and even some of the same dialogue, since Hawks constantly borrowed from himself.) You can read more about the background of the show at Cult TV Flashback.
When ABC finally picked it up, it was because it was a premise and time period that could incorporate a lot of Raiders-style material, and the show that got produced did indeed have a lot of Indiana Jones borrowing in it, but it was always at its weakest when it tried to be like Raiders.
That’s probably partly because Bellisario’s heart wasn’t in the Indiana Jones stuff, and what he really wanted to do was the Hawks tribute stuff: Corky, the hero’s amiable drunk of a best friend, is based on the Walter Brennan character from To Have and Have Not, while the heroine (Caitlin O’Heaney) is kind of a mashup of the two types of women who populate both movies (both Angels and To Have feature a sexy musical performer with a past and another young woman who’s prim and uptight). Then you’ve got Stephen Collins, who’s just been signed up as a regular on the upcoming No Ordinary Family; his character is supposed to be the stoic, good-humoured hero who takes chances for a good cause without getting all mushy about it, like Cary Grant in Angels and Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not. The more the show feels like an old movie, or borrows the tropes and story ideas of old movies, the more it seems like the writers are really engaged with the material.
But the other reason why the show doesn’t work as an Indiana Jones-type thing is that it simply can’t afford to. One thing Tom Greene talks about on the DVD is that there was a struggle between the network, ABC, and the studio, Universal. (These conflicting demands always exist in TV; they don’t even go away when the network and the studio are part of the same company.) ABC wanted more production values, more action, more stunts — in other words, something like Raiders. Universal was always after them to keep costs down.
They couldn’t deliver the kind of show ABC wanted on the money they had. But what they could do for that money was deliver Only Angels Have Wings/To Have and Have Not type of stories, because those movies took place mostly indoors, in cramped settings, focusing more on what people do when they’re not in a plane or on a boat. (It works, too; those movies never feel cheap or claustrophobic, and the dullest scenes in To Have and Have Not are the ones where they get out on the boat.) So Bellisario was pitching an idea that could easily be done on a TV budget, and ABC was demanding that they compete with multi-million dollar movies. But it’s much easier for a show to make an impact with characters interacting in a smoky, specific atmosphere — that is, the island where the show takes place and particularly the bar where they all hang out — than to be a globe-trotting adventure story. But ABC wanted a globe-trotting adventure story, and canceled the show because it wasn’t going to go farther in that direction.
I wonder if that’s true of other shows — that they try (either on network orders or misplaced ambition) to do more than they can do effectively with the money they have, rather than the things that they can do well. I guess it’s a bit different now because shows have more money to throw around, but it still seems like many of the biggest hit series are the ones that fully exploit their home setting (hospitals, backlot neighbourhoods) before they start wandering off to new and more expensive places.