Wednesday, March 29, 2017


THE MORNING AFTER (originally aired February 13, 1974; d: Richard T. Heffron)

In one of the tidier alcoves of an idyllic, all-but-lost suburban landscape, circa 1973, the Lester family prepares to ring in another joyous holiday season, decorating the Christmas tree and toasting the evening with wine, dad resplendent with jubilation for the ceremony.   

Charlie Lester is celebrating, and why not?  It's Christmastime, and the rising PR man just finished watching his boss give a speech he wrote—a speech that went over exceptionally well (and garnered him a substantial new raise in salary).  So maybe the tinge of doubt and remorse when he bought that bagful of wine on the way home were just old ghosts trying to spoil the fun.  It had been awhile since he'd allowed himself a few drinks; awhile since he'd gotten it all under control again.


"Not to fear, old girl, we're just gonna have a little celebration is all.  And we have got something to celebrate..."

And then several hours later, when she finds him still drinking by the Christmas tree...

"Can't sleep?"

"Fran, it's only wine.  24 proof, that's only 12% alcohol by volume.  The French drink it with their meals.  Their kids drink it instead of milk."

"Charlie, have you already forgotten the last time..."

And that's how it begins.  A family man with a history of alcohol troubles enjoys some professional success and allows himself a little slip-up over the holiday season, a slip-up that gradually gains traction.  

"Charlie, alcohol is alcohol and you just can't handle it!"

"Okay, you're right.  Alcohol is alcohol.  But I'm not an alcoholic, Fran.  I'm not."

THE MORNING AFTER was an ABC TV movie based on the best-selling novel by Jack B. Weiner and adapted for television by acclaimed fantasy writer, Richard Matheson (THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, I AM LEGEND).  Though TV movies were produced en masse in the seventies, this one has become the stuff of legend and is still remembered today for its harrowing, unflinching take on alcoholismone which caught so many viewers off guard when it originally aired.

The next day we find Charlie back at the office, calling Fran to tell her he'll be missing dinner because of the company Christmas party. When she admonishes him for neglecting to mention he'd be out so late, he all but promises he'll be home by ten and won't be drinking.

But after ordering a ginger ale for himself, one of the office carousers tests Charlie's resolve.

"Oh, whoa,'re a bad influence.  Just a little smidge."

Cut to Charlie sitting in on drums with the band, letting it all hang out in his newly designated role as life of the party; and then, later, on the couch with his fellow revelers... As the band clears out and but a few late-night holdouts remain, it's clear Charlie will be in hot water whenever he does decide to go home.

And the next morning...

"Well, I guess you don't look too bad for a 43 year old drunk...Charlie, couldn't you have telephoned me?  Couldn't you have made one lousy call and said, 'It's okay, Fran, I'm still alive, you can go to sleep now'?"

"I'm sorry."

But when she takes the kids to the dentist awhile later and Charlie's left to his own devices, he figures what his awful hangover could really use is a stiff drink or two.


"More?  You've had more!"

Lynn Carlin, superb in the role of Fran Lester

(slurring, clearly smashed) "Hey, take it easy, I just had a couple."

"A couple?!  How many is a couple, Charlie5, 10?  You're drunk all over again!"

And this scene, which spills out in front of his children, is one of the first indications that Charlie's in deep this time.

In accordance with the de facto laws of the family man, Charlie makes amends the next morning, cooking a pancake breakfast for the gang and putting up his son's basketball net.  Later, over an ebullient board game session, it's clear that he doesn't need to work too hard for their love.  It's an endearing scene providing a glimmer of hope that all might be right in the world again, if only dad and God's willing.

Unfortunately, Charlie’s condition steadily worsens, threatening to derail both his career and marriage.  After showing up to an important meeting stinking of booze, his boss gives him an ultimatum to clean up his act or else, a stunning turnabout from his earlier success.

"I can't tell you how awful I feel to have to talk to you this way..."

At home, the situation becomes increasingly dire as, from one episode to the next, things devolve into hopelessness and violence. A tipsy dinner party with friends ends in bitter embarrassment, and worse yetthe first instance of physical abuseafter Charlie manhandles his wife, shoving her to the floor (while wrestling for the car keys) in front of his screaming children.  The next day, after sobbing uncontrollably, he promises to seek psychological helpa short-lived endeavor he ultimately spurns.

 As doomed family man, Charlie Lester, Dick Van Dyke gives the gut-wrenching performance of a lifetime.

Later, Fran finds him deep in drink and chatting with a young woman in a local bar, a scene which spins out of control when she once again tries to wrestle the car keys away.  

When it spills out into the dark parking lot, Charlie finds himself at a new low, decking his long-suffering wife with a brutal surprise left hook. As she lay motionless on the cool evening pavement, beaten of her wits, Charlie hits the gas and peels out in pursuit of his next drink.  

And after a particularly bad day at work, just as it seems his career is verging on disaster, his wife and children surprise him with packed bags and looks of total despair (Fran now sporting a black eye as well). It's too far gone now, Charlie.  

If he gets his act together, maybe they'll come back... 

And it seems every time he hits rock bottom, every time you ask yourself how it could possibly get any worse, it does indeed get worse. 

Much of the sheer force and effectiveness of THE MORNING AFTER is directly attributable to the performances of its leads, Dick Van Dyke and Lynn Carlin.  Van Dyke, who to this point had been known primarily for his comedic roles, had himself recently battled alcoholism, and as Charlie Lester really went out on a limb (earning an Emmy nomination), committing fully to a role that required everything and more. Known for her emotional range, Lynn Carlin (FACES) gave a likewise stirring, agonizing portrayal of a woman desperately trying to hold her family together.

Over the years, THE MORNING AFTER has become an enduring and revered part of TV movie mythology, often remembered but seldom actually seen.  Though shown in treatment programs for decades, it wasn't often rerun on television, and to this day is only available in the form of a rather choppy bootleg.  

It was rare for network television in that it tackled alcoholism head-on and offered no happy ending to viewers hoping Dick Van Dyke would eventually overcome his affliction.  On the contrary, Richard Matheson’s vivid, uncompromising script follows a family man's irretrievable descent into the abyss.  The catharsis many hoped for never arrives as we witness his (and his family's) absolute devastation to alcohol.

And so we next find Charlie grinning wildly, seemingly lost as he wanders his home crying out for his estranged wife.  Stumbling through the vacant, sullied halls that somehow feel haunted by the family that abandoned them, he seems little more than a ghost himself, a foul, stricken apparition stirring up old torments and creating new disturbances that no one will ever witness or wonder about.  

And yet his grim slide into oblivion isn't quite over.  

No, Charlie Lester cannot stop drinking.  

“We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell.”~Oscar Wilde

Thursday, March 16, 2017

lay of the land

A Gentleman's Guide to Unruly Cowhands and Proper Gunplay in Dodge City

Not all western fans are made alike, and some of us are, I suppose, less likely. Yes, city boys (and bleeding hearts) love cowboys, too—we just don’t vote for them.  The point I'm so clumsily trying to make here is that I'd venture to guess I'm not your typical western fan, if there is such a thing.  I've never wanted or owned a gun, but I love a good old fashioned shoot-'em-up, and that would of course include television's longest-running horse opera, GUNSMOKE (1955-1975).  So here's my guide, an outsider's guide (if you will), to the rootin' tootin', rough and tumble landscape on the other side of your cranky grandpa's TV screen, GUNSMOKE.

A few things to remember while visiting Dodge City, Kansas, and the good folks down at the Long Branch Saloon:

*If you’re new in Dodge, stop by and acquaint yourself with Doc Adams on your way to the saloon.  If it’s an ordinary night at the Long Branch, you might well be in need of a doctor before it’s over.  Also, if you can't find Doc in his office, he's likely wetting his whiskers down at the saloon.

 *If you must get involved in gunplay, be sure it isn’t against Marshal Dillon.  A good many men have died suddenly in the streets of Dodge City, but Matt Dillon’s got a singular knack for avoiding flying lead.  Well, at least the particularly dangerous kind. Sure, Matt's been shot down like a dog more times than we can count, but he's of a rare, ornery breed of men death wants little to do withprotagonists.

The late James Arness, forever Marshal Matt Dillon

*If gunplay is absolutely necessary (for instance, the obliging party calls you “lily-livered”), make sure your opponent draws first.  Otherwise, Marshal Dillon could have you strung up on murder charges.  On that note, you’re going to want to buy your rival a drink or two before the ol’ do-si-do, as well.  Get the strongest stuff in the house if you’ve the mind and bankroll to.  Smile and wish him luck as you mark a clean, neat spot over his heart.

       *If you’ve got bad manners and a predilection for plucky redheads, avoid the Long Branch Saloon altogether.  Just keep on walkin', friend.
Amanda Blake as Miss Kitty, America's other favorite redhead

Dennis Weaver in the role that made him famous, Chester Goode.
    *If you go by the name of Chester, Festus, Newly, Thad, or Quinn, and it happens to be sunny outside, there’s a better than average chance Doc Adams will be extracting a bullet or two from your grubby hide before supper.  Don’t worry, though, they’ll probably just wing you some.  Such are the travails of donning a deputy’s badge in this dusty, perilous corner of TV Land.
"Matthew, that Pack Landers is the type of feller you gotta walk upwind of even if there ain't no breeze a blowin'." -Festus Haggen 
*Now remembertrouble travels in packs.  If you see a rowdy band of drunken vaqueros, with perhaps an intemperate Jack Elam or seething Cameron Mitchell stirring the pot, it would be best to give them a wide berth. Cowboys in groups tend to show off more, and not in an especially amusing or friendly way.


*Speaking of Jack Elam, always heed the eye's warning!  If a cowhand or desperado looks a little loco, like he may blow a gasket or set a barn cat on fire, break eye contact immediatelylest you find yourself forever lost in his buggy visage.

*And the number one unspoken rule of killing in Dodge City, seemingly unbeknownst to just about everyone who winds up on the winning end of a dust-upknow your enemy. Does he have a half-dozen kill-crazy younger brothers who look up to him?  A boozy, despondent girlfriend tucked away someplace unseen near the end of the bar? A pa even meaner than he is?  Don't you know that 90% of all western plots ultimately boil down to revenge?!  


*Now, there is a long-running debate as to whether or not the Long Branch Saloon was also a brothel.  The notion that no respectable woman (except proprietor, Miss Kitty) would be employed there is a long-recurring theme on the show.  But it was early television, and so prostitution as a topic was avoided altogether. These women were dance partnershostesses, if you willhired to keep the booze flowing and the cowboys happy.  Despite history and the idea that what they're depicting with these gals is open to interpretation, no money is ever exchanged for sex on GUNSMOKE. On the contrary, Miss Kitty is a fine, upstanding woman (and not a walking contradiction); so much so, in fact, that if one were to accuse her of running a cathouse, the shock just might kill her.

    *Speaking of Miss Kitty, she's not really on the market, fellas, though every now and then they toss her a bone to get Matt jealous. You see, theirs is a strange, tragic dance of inexplicable two-way friend-zoning, though with a deep mutual love (well, I tried...), one of television's greatest unrequited romancesand why they're doomed to remain single throughout the show's 20 year duration.  
     To quote trail-worn deputy and squinty-eyed raconteur, Festus Haggen (the great Ken Curtis), their love, though seemingly preordained, had "no more chance than a grasshopper in a hen house".  


       And, well, I suppose that about covers it.  Now, if you do carry a firearm down Front Street, be prepared to use it.  Oh, and get your horse stabled and rested while the getting's good.  After all, time's a tricky matter in moody old Dodge City.