Gene Steinberg's Mac Radio Newsletter — Issue #1004

Gene Steinberg

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Gene Steinberg's Mac Radio Newsletter
Issue #1004
September 6, 2020

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FREE TV IS NOT DEAD — AT LEAST NOT YET!

It makes sense to want to save money on entertainment even in the best of times. The concept of “cutting the cord” resulted from all those regular increases in the price of cable and satellite TV. Of course, having 300 channels and nothing to watch was no incentive to continue to pay.

In 2007, when Netflix first offered the option to steam movies and TV shows, things began to change. Even though the early offerings consisted of older product, it wasn’t long before Netflix began to invest in original programming, such as “House of Cards,” and demonstrate it could beat traditional entertainment companies at their own game.

Netflix helped pave the way towards other streaming services, and it wasn’t long before you had Hulu, and even Amazon’s Prime Video, which was offered as a perk for Prime members. There were even streaming versions of HBO and Showtime, and nowadays entrants include Disney+, Apple TV+ and many others.

In the early days of Netflix, one way to watch TV on a tight budget was to get an antenna for your set — assuming you were close enough to the transmitters — and rely on streaming to fill out content. If you didn’t live in an area where reception was satisfactory, even when roof-mounted, there was always basic cable, consisting of a small number of popular channels plus, in most cases, the locals.

As comic book blockbusters have dominated the box office, some of the best programming is on TV, and major producers, directors and actors opted to embrace the streaming medium. It is not uncommon to see Academy Award winners starring in new shows.

But to get all or most of those goodies, you have to subscribe to a number of services. So it’s $5.99 here, $14.95 there and, soon enough, it begins to add up. I have suggested that you can pay more for a selection of streaming channels than for regular cable. It’s very easy since there’s so much “can’t miss” programming out there.

At a time when the world economy is busting, it would sure be nice to be able to stick with free as much as possible, and I’ve tried in recent months.

I presently live at the borderline when it comes to receiving live programming from Phoenix-area stations, but it’s possible with some judicious fiddling with a digital antenna. Typical of apartment complexes, property managers won’t let you put anything outside, except for the patio. But I’ve managed.

But most of my favorite shows are on summer hiatus, and fall premieres may extend to winter for some shows due to pandemic-based production delays. Although production is slowly resuming, it may be months before there are enough episodes in the can to get many of them back on the air. So my favorite super hero shows from The CW won’t premiere until January 2021.

So I’ve made it a habit of surfing through YouTube in search of free stuff. You usually have to put up with ads awkwardly positioned during a long video, but it’s worth the sacrifice to get free content. You may even find a few gems along the way even beyond music videos and concerts.

The other day, I discovered the 1994 sci-fi blockbuster, “Stargate,” which I hadn’t seen in years. The plot line centers on the discovery an ancient artifact, the stargate, which allows someone to travel across the galaxy in seconds via wormholes. The movie did well enough to spawn three TV series one of which, “Stargate SG-1,” lasted for 10 seasons.

“Stargate” features a standout performance from the young James Spader, who since made his mark co-starring with William Shatner on TV’s “Boston Legal.” Spader these days plays a criminal mastermind on “The Blacklist,” where he chews the scenery with the best of them.

And what about those Stargate-based TV shows? Well, they featured a different cast and were featured on Showtime and then on the SyFy Channel. You can still find episodes on Hulu, and there’s a cable TV network, Comet TV from Sinclair Broadcast Group, which features all three series. It’s available on cable TV, the major streaming platforms, such as Roku and Apple TV, and it appears you can also stream it live from some locales.

Indeed, other channels also offer live streaming if you don’t have them available on a set-top box, and even if you do. For some, you have to login via your cable or satellite provider, but others, such as The CW, allow for direct access to the site without logins, or via apps for iOS and Android.

Now I’m offering these options from a perspective of a resident of the U.S. living in the southwest. If you’re not in this country, your choices will be very different, so I can suggest you just take a look.

Returning to YouTube, this ages me, but as a child, my dad would take me to an “oldies” movie theater in New York’s Times Square, where I got to see some of the classic horror films and movie series, such as thosefrom Republic Pictures, which made dozens of them from the 1930s through the 1950s, when TV finally killed off the medium. These films spanned several genres, from westerns, to detective series and even sci-fi and super heroes.

Usually running from 12 to 15 chapters, a movie serial was mostly intended for children and their families. They featured classic cliffhangers to end episodes, to get the audiences to return the following week to see if the heroes would escape the marinations of the villains.

Watching black and white movies may seem primitive in the 21st century, and the acting and special effects are really subpar compared to most anything you see nowadays on TV and at the multiplex. Plot lines are quite politically incorrect compared to current sensibilities, so the cowboys are good and the Indians are usually bad, well except for the Lone Ranger’s faithful sidekick, Tonto. Heroes wear white hats, villains wear black hats; well, except for Hopalong Cassidy.

One of the earliest super hero serials was the “Adventures of Captain Marvel,” from 1941, which featured western star Tom Tyler as a character once regarded as the most serious competition to Superman.

Now the original Captain Marvel is a totally different character from the female Marvel comics super hero. It involved the young Billy Batson, who, during an archaeological excavation, encounters the wizard Shazam, who shows him the way to become the world’s mightiest mortal by saying his name.

Due to a complicated series of copyright disputes and such, the original Captain Marvel vanished. Marvel created a new hero under that name, and DC Comics resurrected the original as Shazam, the name of the wizard. In its current incarnation, Billy Batson is a teen, and, when he becomes Shazam, he remains the same person in an adult body, similar in concept to the Tom Hanks movie, “Big.”

The 2019 film version had many light comedic elements in addition to putting Shazam against a dastardly comic book villain, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana. Comic actor Zachary Levi had the perfect look for the character, with lots of heavy exercise and a muscle-clad suit, and it did well enough to merit a sequel, which is due in 2022.

As to that movie serial, which I have been watching on YouTube, Captain Marvel goes against a villain sourced form the original comic, Scorpion, and it depicts the usual hero/villain byplay. Whenever there’s danger, Billy has to somehow get away long enough to say the magic words to become his heroic counterpart.

Note: I am long partial to this character because I once knew a sci-fi/comic book writer, Otto Binder, who wrote many of the scripts for the Captain Marvel comic book, including ones featuring Scorpion, on which that movie serial was based. He also co-created Supergirl.

Considering the low budget, the action scenes are decent enough, with plenty of car chases, fires and even an exploding bridge at the end of Chapter One. The flying scenes won’t cut it compared to current special effects, but they are in every way better than the cartoonish effects in the movie serial versions of Superman and even the ones attempted in TV’s “Adventures of Superman,” the one starring George Reeves. When they advertised that you’d believe a man can fly after watching 1978’s “Superman: The Movie,” you might find that they really aren’t much better than the special effects created by Republic in “Adventures of Captain Marvel.”

Despite the formulaic plots and poor acting, I enjoyed, once again, seeing Captain Marvel’s exploits. Tom Tyler wasn’t a terribly good actor, but he did embody the looks and robust physique of his character. He wasn’t quite as puffed up as, say, Henry Cavill as Superman, but he seemed believable enough. His costume fit well enough to convey the illusion, something that wasn’t always the case in TV super hero fare in those days.

And, as I said, it’s free, as are other Republic serials. The roster also includes other classics, such as the original “Flash Gordon” serial from 1936, featuring Larry “Buster” Crabbe as the titular hero, and Charles Middleton as Ming the Merciless. When you watch this flick, you’ll see how it influenced “Star Wars,” including adapting Ming’s music theme to the one John Williams created for Darth Vader.

Again, if you can forgive the cheesy acting and special effects, you’ll have lots of fun. And don’t forget one of the last movie serials from Republic, “Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe,” from 1955. It features flying scenes very reminiscent of those used for Captain Marvel.

Oh, and if you’re a follower of Hollywood lore about the fate of actors who portray super heroes or similar characters, most of you know about George Reeves, who allegedly committed suicide in 1959 at age 45. Some blame it on his inability to get any movie or TV roles after being typecast as Superman; others suggest a conspiracy.

Well, the star of “Adventures of Captain Marvel,” Tom Tyler, died of various illnesses at age 50. Judd Holdren, the actor who played Commando Cody (and also Captain Video in another Republic serial), committed suicide by a gunshot wound to his head at age 58, years after his film career fizzled out.

THE FINAL WORD

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