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The Senator courted controversy in an age of escapism

Some TV shows never even make it past the first season. Maybe a series lacked the ratings to match its artistic accomplishments, or maybe it floundered its way into the network crosshairs, but it’s time to look at one-season series outside the immediate context of ratings and renewals. One-Season Wonders, Weirdos, And Wannabesconsiders the merits of these short-lived shows. In this installment: The Senator.

On May 4, 1970, National Guard soldiers fired their rifles into a crowd on the campus of Ohio’s Kent State University during a student protest against President Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia. Nine people were wounded and four were killed. Americans reacted to the violence with shock and dismay, but the public debate over the incident developed along an entrenched political and generational divide. Were the students dirty hippies who deserved what they got for disrespecting the establishment? Were the soldiers brutal thugs who exceeded their authority and trampled civil liberties? There seemed to be no middle ground. Everyone was shouting and no one was listening.

Six months later, on two Sunday nights bookending the Thanksgiving holiday, a television series called The Senator (recently released on DVD) waded into the fray and presented a barely fictionalized dramatization of the tragedy. It not only re-created the horrifying violence, but also turned an unflinching gaze toward the tender issue of who was to blame.

“A Continual Roar Of Musketry,” as The Senator’s Kent State two-parter was called, was a standout moment in the history of quality television, amid a period when escapism ruled. Although “relevance,” a buzzword that was used interchangeably with “quality” in those days, rarely won the ratings, prime time had always made room for a few socially engaged dramas like The Defenders and Naked City. But by the late ’60s, as race riots, political assassinations, and Vietnam pervaded the news, relevance was a headache that advertisers and network executives were eager to avoid. Of the top 25 shows in the 1970-71 Nielsen ratings, only Laugh-In addressed topical issues on a regular basis. The Emmy nominations for best drama during the late ’60s were dominated by genre shows—some inspired (Mission: Impossible), some insipid (Ironside), but all apolitical. In 1969, the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series went to an obscure public television anthology, and during the subsequent decade three of the winners would be British imports that aired on PBS.

A small pocket of resistance formed at Universal Studios, which during the ’60s had become television’s biggest single supplier of programming by a wide margin. Much of its output was bland and safe—Here’s Lucy and Marcus Welby were made there—but as a consequence of its size the studio had many of television’s most talented producers and writers under contract. In part to give them something to do, Universal television head Jennings Lang and his successor, Sid Sheinberg, began to experiment with storytelling formats that varied the standard weekly series formula. Lang created NBC’s World Premiere, the first dedicated time slot for original TV movies. It was a hit, and during the ’70s many “movies of the week” would earn critical acclaim. Another Universal notion was the “umbrella” series. 1968’s The Name Of The Game, for instance, had a uniform premise, but it rotated among three stars, each playing a different investigative reporter for the same magazine. 1970’s Four-In-One was a collection of limited-run series, each of which aired six back-to-back episodes in succession. 1969’s The Bold Ones was a “wheel,” which alternated among three completely different shows, each focused on professionals at the top of their fields: high-powered lawyers, high-tech doctors, police, and prosecutors.

In hindsight, as a programming strategy The Bold Ones seems a bit dubious—wouldn’t most viewers settle on a favorite entry, and end up disappointed every two weeks out of three? On the other hand, the limited number of episodes meant that The Bold Ones could hire stars (E. G. Marshall and John Saxon in The New Doctors, Burl Ives and James Farentino in The Lawyers) who would be reluctant to commit to the grind of an ordinary series. In essence, Universal had invented a significant precursor to the modern 10- to 13-episode cable season.

For the second season of The Bold Ones, the law enforcement segments (called The Protectors) were dropped and a political drama took its place. Like most television dramas in the ’70s, The Senator originated as a stand-alone TV movie that doubled as a series pilot. Entitled A Clear And Present Danger, the two-hour film starred Hal Holbrook as Hays Stowe, a high-ranking Justice Department official whose political fortunes take a sudden turn when his father, a senator (E. G. Marshall), announces his retirement. Stowe becomes the presumptive nominee for his father’s Senate seat, but he becomes sidetracked by an unpopular issue: air pollution. After watching his former law professor die of lung disease, Stowe decides he has to take on the problem publicly, even as his panicky advisors insist it will kill his chances of being elected. In a succession of unapologetically didactic scenes, Stowe polls stakeholders who outline the difficulties of the problem: doctors and scientists who are too craven or ineffectual to take a stand on the health risks of pollution, industrialists and corrupt officials ready to fight any threat to profit. By the climax—based on a 1948 incident in which a buildup of smog from a Donora, Pennsylvania, steel plant killed 20 people—A Clear And Present Danger has the feel of an apocalyptic horror movie.

“It was a very honest script. It did not solve anything,” Holbrook said in an interview included in Shout! Factory’s DVD set. “The argument against stopping air pollution was so powerful. What are you going to do? Are you going to stop cars from traveling? Are you going to stop airplanes? Are you going to stop fertilizer going to the farm?”

At the time, Holbrook was a prominent stage actor, best known for his one-man show Mark Twain Tonight. He had largely avoided television, and agreed to make The Senator only because its political content meant something to him. Raised by a staunch Republican grandfather, Holbrook had an 18-year-old daughter who was a hippie, and who saw him as an establishment figure. Gradually, he had come to sympathize with her point of view. “This was a very personal thing for me,” the actor recalled. “I did the series because it was about something. I wasn’t interested in politics, I was interested in America and what was happening to democracy.”

A Clear And Present Danger was produced by William Sackheim and written by committee. Howard Rodman (Naked City) did a crucial rewrite under the pseudonym “Henri Simoun,” but the writers of earlier drafts, A.J. Russell and S.S. Schweitzer, would receive the “created by” credit on the series. Sackheim, an influential developer of TV movies and pilots—he mentored both Steven Bochco and Steven Spielberg at the start of their careers—would sometimes be referred to informally as the creator of The Senator. “Bill was a guy who would create shows, but he didn’t want to run them,” Senator writer-director Jerrold Freedman told The A.V. Club. Freedman produced The Protectors under Sackheim; although he acted as an advisor on The Senator (without credit), Sackheim hired one of his protégés, David Levinson, to produce the series.

As pre-production began, the first question was whether the senator of the title would be a senator. Levinson suggested that the first season be a sort of origin story following Stowe’s campaign, ending with his election to the office. Perhaps anticipating controversy, Sheinberg floated the idea that Stowe should remain in the Justice Department. He argued that less political power would translate into more pitched conflicts for the character. But by that time Holbrook had been to Washington and met with some senators whose stars were on the rise, including Birch Bayh (a Democrat) and Charles Mathias (a Republican). Holbrook insisted that if the show wanted to tell stories with real gravitas, his character would have to hold a high office. Sheinberg relented. (Both Bayh and Mathias, as well as the Kennedy brothers, were often cited in the press as the “inspiration” for Hays Stowe, but Holbrook steadfastly refused to say who, if anyone, he modeled his performance upon. Hays Stowe’s political affiliation was never identified, even though he was obviously too liberal to be a Republican. His home state, never named, was the Springfield of the’70s.)

With that question settled, Levinson and the writers came up with a few topical issues they wanted to cover—welfare, assassinations, the Senate seniority system. But while the muckraking pilot had worn its advocacy proudly, the series would focus more on character and, especially, the political process. In A Clear And Present Danger, Hays Stowe was something of an idealistic novice, pushed and pulled by a pair of cynical staff members and a domineering dad. The Stowe of The Senator was shrewder and more assertive, his staff reduced to a single loyal advisor (Jordan Boyle, played by Michael Tolan). The conflicts in most episodes played out as a kind of gamesmanship, albeit with serious stakes: How would Stowe manipulate the arcane rules of lawmaking and outwit his political opponents in order to achieve policy victories?

Across The Senator’s short run, Holbrook crafted Stowe as tough and confident, but also humble and decent—a figure that the episodes invariably positioned as the calm at the center of a storm. Like his fierier contemporary George C. Scott, Holbrook was a rare actor who not only radiated intelligence, but also always appeared to be genuinely listening to the other characters in a scene. “Hal had a sort of Gregory Peck quality, like in To Kill A Mockingbird. That kind of real integrity that comes out on screen,” said Freedman. If The Senator, on the whole, took a clear-eyed view the realities of politics and the flaws of professional politicians, the character of Hays Stowe was an idealized, or at least an optimistic, creation—a best-case version of the kind of leader that voters of any ideological bent would want.

“Kent State happened, and David Rintels came running into the office and said, ‘I want to do a show about Kent State,’” said David Levinson of the day that “A Continual Roar Of Musketry” was created. “We were all lathered up about the shootings, so we went ahead.” The script was written in two weeks, “in a white heat,” as Holbrook put it, although Rintels recalled that the speed was born of necessity—a possible writers’ strike was looming—as much as righteousness. “A Continual Roar of Musketry” as filmed is not without flaws: Some of the performances are uneven and some of the subjective, Rashomon-styled flashback sequences are staged too broadly. But particularly in the second hour, as Rintels allows the student radicals to vent their frustration and anger, the dialogue hums with a rare passion and empathy. In a cathartic five-minute speech, Stowe condemns a roomful of authority figures for abdicating their basic responsibilities as leaders. Calling out old white men for their failures was rare on television, then as now.

Various attempts to stifle or soften “A Continual Roar Of Musketry” came forth from the studio and the network, but Sheinberg threw his weight behind the episode and got it onto the air almost unscathed. The most persistent objection came from “a lawyer at Universal who was in charge of the insurance that the studio carried against lawsuits,” according to Levinson. “This guy was a right-winger who told us he was damned if he was going to allow this kind of liberal trash to get on the air.” The compromise that Sheinberg brokered required the insertion of some legalese into Stowe’s climactic speech—a solution that secretly delighted Levinson and Rintels, who realized that the disclaimers functioned as a kind of cadence that would only underline the senator’s more inflammatory remarks.

“A Continual Roar Of Musketry” ends with a freeze frame on the face of a young activist, who looks troubled and uncertain about a verdict that has mostly gone her way. The riot scene, shown from several points of view, is highly fragmented, a disorienting assemblage of skewed angles, freeze frames, and rapid cuts. Form in The Senator was even more radical than content. Levinson, Freedman, and associate producer John Badham were all under 35, and part of an ambitious group of cinephiles who turned the Universal lot into their own private film school. At a time when Universal was known for a stodgy house style (“Even the moodiest drama would be bright, flatly lit, and sunny,” said Badham), The Senator had a distinctive visual approach that was explicitly inspired by the contemporary cinema. Between them, Levinson, Freedman, and Badham cited Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night, Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool, and Robert Altman’s early work as influences on the show’s look. Cinema verité was even more important: Badham called Frederick Wiseman personally and arranged for a screening of all the legendary documentarian’s films to date. High-contrast lighting, handheld camera work, and ceilinged sets (a rarity in television) were key components of The Senator’s naturalistic imagery, which also extended to buying off-the-rack wardrobe and eschewing makeup for the male actors.

The innovative visual style, much like the famous “walk and talk” aesthetic of The West Wing, became the key to enlivening material that was unavoidably talky. “Our idea of an action scene was two people yelling at each other,” said Levinson. Indeed, the early episodes had so much dialogue that when Levinson showed them to composer Billy Goldenberg, who had scored the pilot, they agreed that there was simply wasn’t enough room in the sound mix for music. Levinson opted to eschew scoring entirely, a bold decision that really does give The Senator the subliminal feel of a verité film. Meanwhile, the directors, especially Freedman and Badham, took the documentary influence to extremes unheard of in scripted television. One episode, “Power Play” shows a TV news crew filming Stowe, then cuts to the footage being assembled on an editor’s Moviola. In one scene, Freedman staged a confrontation between Stowe and a group of angry activists by asking the actors to improvise and instructing the camera operator to follow the action as best he could.

When the final episode, “A Single Blow Of A Sword,” ran a few minutes short, Levinson and Badham filmed some faked, semi-improvised man-on-the-street interviews and cut them into the action. (“You guys are crazy,” Sackheim told them.) In the last scene, Stowe, too, is interviewed. “The important thing, it seems to me, is for everybody to keep talking to each other,” he said, and as he continues a cacophony of other unseen voices drown out his. It’s a moving ending for the series—even though Levinson and Badham didn’t know they’d been canceled when they devised it.

So why did The Senator end after only one season? Hal Holbrook spoke darkly of opposition from politicians who thought Hays Stowe was too outspoken. Sid Sheinberg told Holbrook that a scene in the final episode—in which an African-American activist tells off the senator—had offended the wrong people. David Levinson believed that the reasons were more prosaic: first, The Senator’s ratings fell slightly below those of the other two Bold Ones series; and second, NBC, above and beyond the content of any individual episode, remained worried that The Senator might run afoul of the Fairness Doctrine, an FCC rule that could, in theory, have forced the network to devote airtime to an opposing point of view.

The Senator’s status as a martyr to the cause of quality television was affirmed when it won five Emmys, including awards for Holbrook and for Outstanding Drama, after its cancellation had already been announced. (Holbrook was nominated twice, in different categories, for playing the same character in both the TV movie and the series.) The recognition spurred Holbrook to try to revive the series as a one-off TV movie. David Rintels wrote a script based on the ouster of Charles Goodell, a Republican senator who lost reelection in 1970 after his own party sabotaged his campaign. “The [Nixon] administration turned on him and they beat him, because he got interested in fighting the issue of government surveillance,” said Rintels. But in the end neither NBC nor Universal would bring back The Senator.

“There was a lack of balls somewhere,” Holbrook said in the DVD interview. “Whoever’s balls it was, it was a lack of balls.”

One-season wonder, weirdo, or wannabe? Wonder.

Next time: In 2011, Platinum Hit was a miss for Bravo. Joshua Alston revisits the competition show that couldn’t be the Top Chef or Project Runway (or even Work Of Art) for songwriting.