Route 66: Season 1, Vol. 1

In the history of American TV, the four-season run of Route 66 was as personal a writer’s creation as Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, perhaps more so. The writer was Stirling Silliphant, who co-created the show with executive producer Herbert B. Leonard and wrote about two-thirds of the episodes. (Their previous achievement was the groundbreaking cop show Naked City.) The first 15 episodes are in this box, which shares a tendency with several recent TV-on-DVD packages that don’t provide an entire season at once.

The show marries Shane to Jack Kerouac. Several westerns, an overworked staple in ’50s TV bleeding into the ’60s, were about peripatetic yokels wandering on their horses from one town to the next, passing through a weekly anthology series of new plots and characters before moving on, ever responding to the call of the unknown, never entangling themselves with any one woman or putting down roots. In other words, never growing up or getting a job — the better to serve out a romantic notion of knight errantry on the frontier.

Some of these shows were quite panoramic and philosophical, such as Wagon Train or Have Gun Will Travel with its Paladin (who technically did have a home in a San Francisco hotel). Silliphant revised and updated this form via Kerouac’s beatnik image as a semi-intellectual wanderer down America’s open roads, an image created through his travels with Neal Cassady. This updating would in turn lead to the wave of fugitive dramas exemplified by The Fugitive, where the protagonist isn’t simply restless and disaffected with civilization but driven and persecuted by it.

Here’s how Marc Alvey puts it in the Museum of Broadcast Communications website: “The search that drove Route 66 was both a narrative process and a symbolic one. Like every search, it entailed optimism as well as discontent. . . . The show’s rejection of domesticity in favor of rootlessness formed a rather startling counterpoint to the dominant prime-time landscape of home and family in the sixties, as did the majority of the characters encountered on the road. The more hopeful dimension of Route 66 coincided with the optimism of the New Frontier circa 1960, with these wandering samaritans symbolic of the era’s new spirit of activism. Premiering at the dawn of a new decade, Route 66 captured in a singular way the nation’s passage from the disquiet of the Fifties to the turbulence of the Sixties, expressing a simultaneously troubled and hopeful vision of America.”

In this series, Jack and Neal become Tod Stiles (Martin Milner) and Buz Murdock (George Maharis). Tod is a rich college boy who cruises America in a blue Corvette left him by his late father. His pal Buz, a hard-nosed orphan who grew up in Hell’s Kitchen, comes along for the ride, or something.

They have a curious dynamic, more or less Buz the fighter and Tod the thinker, though that isn’t quite fair. Still, these early episodes are top-heavy with unnecessary and tiresome bouts of fisticuffs, mostly to prove Buz’s street cred. At least once per show, somebody gets clobbered in rituals that range from senseless meanness to elaborate codes of sizing people up and making friends. These scenes function partly as gratuitous “action” in a show that would otherwise be all dialogue, and partly — let’s say it — as a spectacle of male intimacy, which is simultaneously provided and denied.

Today, any character who got into so many brawls would be sentenced to counseling; in 1960, it was part of the he-man’s landscape. This insistent demonstration of virility may also have been de rigeur for homosexual actors, like Maharis, who wanted to avoid the “neurotic” typecasting of Tony Perkins or Sal Mineo. But most importantly, these bruising bouts, and the concomitant damsels often being defended or claimed, were important signifiers in any show about two guys living together in close friendship.

Thus the mild ambiguities around the travellers, no more submerged than in Kerouac and surely visible not only to modern eyes. What to make of that episode in El Paso where Buz insists they stay in a luxury suite at the Hilton, which has only one kingsize bed that they’re seen trying out? What to make of Silliphant’s own college-boy Freudian self-consciousness, which actually has Buz spell out the notion that such activities are substitutes for love-making? In “Layout at Glen Canyon”, when the boys are assigned to protect a gaggle of fashion models from lonely construction workers, he points out to the rabid guys that a little one-on-one donnybrooking would “let off steam”.

Not that they steer clear of dames. Tod usually gets stuck with the sweet virginal types but Buz has a real sex life. In New Orleans, he picks up a stripper and doesn’t get back to their digs until five in the morning. In White City, he meets a brazen tramp for a lunch date and never returns to his afternoon shift, finally showing up at midnight. We never know what he’s been doing, as these vanishments go discreetly unquestioned. This seems a sophisticated point for TV in 1960, although there were certain characters, like Peter Gunn, who were clearly getting action after the fade-out.

The dialogue lapses from smart-aleck banter to weighty metaphors from one sentence to the next, for the defining characteristic of this era in TV drama was this kind of self-consciously literate dialogue; see also Rod Serling and Paddy Chayefsky. Characters are apt to explain themselves by spinning a monologic aria. The Bible is a favorite source of reference and quotation, but everything finds it way in.

By the way, the show really has nothing to do with Route 66. That legendary road from Chicago to Los Angeles is, like Chinatown in the Roman Polanski film: a state of mind. Tod and Buz virtually never mention it or come anywhere near it in these episodes, which begin down in Mississippi and Louisiana and then make it over to the deserts of New Mexico, with stops as out of the way as El Paso and Wyoming before hitting California.

Most of these early hours are sporadically violent variations on Touched by an Angel. Wherever Tod and Buz go, they are greeted by people who live in a self-created misery that’s finally dispelled by the hopeful intervention of our traveling angels. Episodes end with the air cleared and new resolutions made, the resolution often as convenient as the problem was contrived — until the ninth episode, which ends with a broken marriage remaining unfixed and the ex-spouses still lonely and rueful.

Three episodes address the lingering legacy of World War II, still only 15 years in the past. The debut, “Black November”, is set an anguished, ornery, no-horse town owned by the embittered and all-powerful Everett Sloan and his weakling son, Keir Dullea. Their hamlet (Dullea is explicitly linked to Hamlet, come to think of it) has withered into stagnation over a secret involving a German POW. Patty McCormack (The Bad Seed) is the town virgin and Whit Bissell her cowering dad. Buz and Tod are almost lynched.

In “The Man on the Monkey Board”, a weary Nazi-hunter (Lew Ayres) is assigned to track down his quarry on an oil rig. As he trudges to his duty, he can’t resist leaving his cohorts (Bruce Dern and Edward Asner!) with a quote by Marcus Aurelius to the effect that the most complete revenge is not to resemble the enemy.

In “Legacy for Lucia”, set among forest-workers in Wyoming, a young Italian woman (Arlene Martel) carries unpleasant memories for one old hermit about the adopted son he lost in Italy.

At the beginning of the seventh episode, Tod is reckoning all the violence they’ve encountered so far and this extraordinary summation takes place:

Buz: “How many guys do you know who have knocked around like we have and still make it pay?”

Tod: “Oh, we sure make it pay. Almost lynched in Garth, drowned in Grand Isle, beat up in New Orleans, blown away by a dust storm in Kanab, arrested in Sparrow Falls. Our trouble is we have no status.”

Buz: “Who wants status? You’ve got status, you’ve got strings. You’ve got strings, you’re a puppet. Who wants to be a puppet? Besides, it’s the times that’s bugging you, Tod, that’s what it is, just the times.”

Tod: “No, that’s no excuse, Buz. It’s always the times. We just don’t belong anywhere.”

Buz: “Okay, we’ll join a country club. Look, what do you expect, Tod? I mean everywhere we go, we’re just passing through. We’re strangers.”

Tod: “Hey you know, somewhere I read only ants and savages put strangers to death”

The first near-brilliant episode is also the first one that’s fist-free. Episode 11, “A Fury Slinging Flame”, is also five minutes shorter than usual, with suspicious fade-outs that might imply missing material. (Though the box claims episodes are 54 minutes, they’re a steady 51.) Here, Leslie Nielsen plays a modern Noah (duly referenced) who leads a group of believers into Carlsbad Caverns, where they hole up in preparation for the coming nuclear apocalypse. If you must ask, the title is carefully annotated as a quote from Tennyson. There’s also banter about Dickens in a parallel plot about the ambitious female reporter who exploits the case. It’s a bit like Ace in the Hole meets I Live in Fear.

This is followed by the El Paso episode, “Sheba”, with Lee Marvin as a very slimy menace. Here’s a whole episode in the shadow of fisticuffs and we don’t mind when they finally burst out. Interestingly, the most dramatic sequence between Marvin and his persecuted love interest, which involves a stabbing, occurs off stage. Perhaps it was too extreme to depict, but we hear about it and it’s an effective narrative choice.

Fistfights are avoided again as the series hits stride in the next two episodes. “The Quick and the Dead” opens with a premonitory dream by a race-car driver’s wife (Betsy Jones-Moreland, The Last Woman on Earth). Although Silliphant scripted, the fantastic touch can be explained by the story credit for Charles Beaumont and Jerry Sohl. The plot involves a jealous little Electra complex with Susan Kohner (the “black” daughter in Imitation of Life), which is resolved conveniently. She’s the first woman that Tod falls for hard, but he gets over it. Set in Riverside, this is also the first episode with significant comedy relief, mostly courtesy of Harvey Korman.

“Play It Glissando” is the brilliant highlight of this set. Told mainly in flashback after Tod is rushed to the hospital with a gunshot wound, this is the first episode to center on music. (A harbinger of things to come, mainly a notable second-season episode starring an Emmy-nominated Ethel Waters.) Jack Lord plays a jazz trumpeter who seems to be modeled on Chet Baker, who is name-checked along with Miles Davis and Maynard Ferguson. That such names are dropped tells you where this show’s head is at, man.

Tod, who is apparently intended to represent the average middle-class viewer, stares vacantly at the mention of their names and shakes his square head at this sound he doesn’t dig. So much for college boys. Anyway, they literally run into Lord’s apparently crazy wife, Anne Francis. The show keeps you guessing about who’s telling the truth and who shoots whom why, and even after you know, it reveals more unguessable mysteries of the heart. In both music and dialogue, there are wonderful arias. By the way, this Malibu episode is the first one even to mention Route 66. It’s directed by Lewis Allen, who cut his teeth on tense little films like The Uninvited and Suddenly.

In general, the direction serves the scripts in a no-frills manner. The directors are prolific TV vets such as Alvin Ganzer and James Sheldon. Philip Leacock began in features (Let No Man Write My Epitaph), and Elliot Silverstein had a couple of hits with Cat Ballou and A Man Called Horse. The one who really broke out and who directed most of the episodes here is Arthur Hiller, later of Love Story, Silver Streak, and Making Love.

A primary attraction is the filming in actual locations, which gives the show a documentary quality. Jack A. Marta deserves props as the main DP. Another attraction is the show’s overview of American work, since our heroes are always picking up manual labor here and there — oil rig roustabouts, working a shrimpboat, harvesting hops, ranch hands, date farmers, etc.

A third attraction, imbued by the passing of time, is the parade of guests. Among those not yet mentioned are George Kennedy, Suzanne Pleshette, Thomas Gomez, Janice Rule, Inger Stevens, Henry Hull, Joey Heatherton, E.G. Marshall, Zohra Lampert, Jack Warden and DeForest Kelley. The show’s also famous for Nelson Riddle’s driving theme music (unrelated to the famous song “Route 66” as performed by Nat King Cole and others, which isn’t heard on the show).

The package naturally promises “digitally remastered for the highest quality picture and audio possible,” a phrase that must be understood in terms of what sources were available. “Digitally remastered” seems to be modern code for “it’s on DVD.” The picture and audio are variable, acceptably clear at best. We assume the producers didn’t have access to the negatives and nothing like restoration is happening here.

The extras are absurd “cast bios” cribbed at random from IMDB; a sampling of original commercials for Bayer, Phillips’ Milk of Magnesia and the primary sponsor of any show about a Corvette, Chevrolet (William Frawley stars in one ad); and a slide show for car buffs about early Corvettes.

1960 model Corvette

RATING 5 / 10