Thursday, September 25, 2008

Battle of the Network Stars - May 1978

If one were to believe Battle of the Network Stars ever jumped the shark (and I want to make it painfully clear that I don't believe that in any way; sure I might be disappointed with some of the directions they chose to go during the years, but I understand a format for a show like this can't be set in stone) one could argue that it happened when some idiot decided not to do everything possible to get Telly Savalas back.

The repercussions of this decision are twofold. The viewer missed out on subtle, biting commentary, and also got stuck with his replacement, Suzanne Somers. Nothing against Somers; she's easy on the eyes and does a serviceable, if vanilla job. Had she been cast as a color commentator at the beginning of the BotNS run, there obviously would not have been a high water mark to compare her to. But because Savalas left his mark both competing and providing color commentary, we are left only with "what ifs."

And those what ifs hurt this battle.

Unfortunately, there's nothing we can do. We must live with the banality that is Suzanne Somers, and devote more of our our attention toward the competition. As always, it enthralls and infuriates; makes us laugh and makes us question many actors' athleticism. It's the Battle of the Network Stars May 1978, and the formula hasn't changed a bit...

Let's meet the competitors:

Team ABC

Gabe Kaplan (captain)
Debbie Boone
Daryl Dragon (better known as "The Captain")
Kene Holliday
Parker Stevenson ("The Ivy League Hustler" as Cosell refers to him)
Toni Tenille
Cheryl Tiegs
Steve Landesberg

Team CBS

Tony Randall (captain)
Kevin Dobson (like a pimply-faced college frosh being passed a bowl packed with Acapulco Gold for the first time in his life, this is a new Kevin Dobson stepping onto the field of competition for CBS)
Denise Nicholas
MacKenzie Phillips
Victoria Principal
Bo Svenson
Jimmie Walker

Team NBC

Richard Benjamin (captain)
Rhonda Bates
Jane Curtin (playing the role of Loretta Swit)
Dennis Dugan
Melissa Gilbert
Arte Johnson
Lance Kerwin
James MacArthur
Larry Wilcox

At first glance it looks like an underwhelming bunch. Repeated glances don't help. I mean I had to look up Richard Benjamin, and I still don't know who he is (ok, yes I recognized him from Saturday the 14th, but I'm not sure who else would). And he's a captain? Anyone think NBC might be phoning this one in? Aside from Kaplan, Stevenson (probably there to score Hollywood ass), Randall and Jimmie Walker, the personalities stayed away from the Pepperdine campus this year. Somewhere Robert Conrad punches a wall not knowing why he's so angry (well, angrier than usual).

And the addition of Randall is a subtle slap in the face of all Savalas fans. I apologize for continuing to harp on this, but it's obvious Randall's involvement is the producers' way of trying to replace the Savalas wit everyone has come to enjoy. I like Randall as much as the next guy, and appreciate his tireless work in the role of Felix Unger, but he doesn't carry the same panache as Savalas.

Part of me hopes he gave the producers a list of demands to appear on the show, and that there was a crazy argument about him needing to be captain or he wouldn't do it. Could you imagine that conversation? Or the conversation between the producers and Jimmie Walker, stripping him of the C? Ok, I might be reading a little too much into this right now.

Enough - let's get on to the competition...

Event #1 - Swimming

Right off the bat, it's easy to see the fix is in. Bo Svenson clearly false starts, hitting the water before the other teams are introduced. The Captain does pull a cagey move in the pool though(strange he went with the nickname Captain, when the grand slam choice is sitting right there. "The Dragon and Tenille?" That's not a 70s soft rock act - that's a decade defining supergroup that sells out arenas) after losing his hat in the water. Somehow he knew he would most likely lose his hat during the race, so he had Tenille at the other end of the pool ready with a replacement as soon as he got out of the water. There couldn't have been more than 2 seconds of hatless Captain. I can't tell if it was for schtick or vanity.

CBS wins in a snoozer.

Results after swimming:

CBS - 100
ABC - 75
NBC - 50

Event #2 - Rowing

It's simple...if you have a former Ivy League crewman on your team, you're going to have a stranglehold on this event. ABC wins the race before it begins. CBS doesn't help itself by putting Jane Curtin in a boat for this race. I would be willing to bet the only reason she's there is she needed some extra coin that month.

At the end of the race Randall makes some half-assed protest (poorly echoing some of Savalas' earlier, shrewder tactics) and uses a bunch of big words posturing a bit for the cameras, enough for the commissioner of the competition, Mickey King an Olympic diver - allegedly) comes out and assesses no penalties. Of course not.

So after the rowing...

ABC - 100
NBC - 75
CBS - 50

Event #3 - Frisbee

A new event to BotNS, the game is played with teams of two facing each other and throwing the frisbee back and forth. 2 points are rewarded per catch; 1 point is rewarded to the opposing team for a miss. And reading that description was more exciting than watching it. Because of that, we get a slow motion montage as a Cosell voiceover gives us the results. Included in the montage is a nice slow motion shot of Bo Svenson trying - and failing - to catch a frisbee with his teeth.

Frisbee results:

CBS - 100
ABC - 75
NBC - 50

Event #4 - Obstacle Course

Making up for the poor frisbee event, the producers give us an early heat of Cheryl Tiegs vs. Victoria Principal, and I'm going to call it the most attractive matchup in BotNS history (at least so far). It's almost enough of a distraction to make me miss hearing Cosell mention that Bo Svenson hurt his shoulder in the frisbee event. Almost. Strangely we get no slow motion of that, which leads me to believe, "hurting himself in the frisbee event," is code for "hitting on Pepperdine coeds on the other side of campus."

It didn't however, distract me from hearing Cosell use the phrase "Oh Good lord, how terrible" to describe Rhonda Bates effort going through the course. Bates, a tall, lanky woman who apparently was on a television show in the 70s loses to Melissa Gilbert.

But nothing beats the Larry Wilcox/Kevin Dobson race, where Wilcox, forgetting that Dobson has the determination of a pitbull on crystal meth, eases up right before the end to give the Kojak star a chance to fully layout at the tape in an attempt to steal victory. Looking at the photo finish , I'm still not sure it showed conclusive evidence of Wilcox winning the race, but I'm sure Micky King was right on top of things.

But don't let him be the judge. Take a look for yourself...

Women's final heat gave us Melissa Gilbert vs. Victoria Principal. Gilbert wins easily. The mens' heat has Lance Kerwin vs. Kevin Dobson, which doesn't make sense to me, since Wilcox beat him...unless Micky King made a mistake and tried to correct it. It's never made clear. I don't care though because I'm fully enjoying the Kevin Dobson era.

Unfortunately, his terminatoresque drive betrays him at the wall, where he awkwardly slams into the wall at full force, tangling himself up in the ropes, giving Kerwin an easy win. Something tells me that lapse will not sit well with Dobson, and he'll come back strong...

Obstacle Course results:

NBC - 100
CBS - 75
ABC - 50

After 4 events, CBS holds a 25 point lead over ABC, with the Conradless NBC somehow stumbling into 275 points.

Event #5 - Running

Much like the rowing, ABC dominates the running. Except where a ringer gives ABC the edge in the water, Kaplan's guile and craftiness lead the charge on the oval.

This race is no different.

Kaplan sets his runners up perfectly, matching his strengths up against the other teams' weaknesses. Even when Jimmie Walker gives CBS a large early lead, ABC chips away. The competition's biggest moment is when Parker Stevenson, in the middle of his lap, turns his ankle yet still holds his lead.

It also doesn't hurt that Kenne Holliday, running anchor for ABC looks as though he would be comfortable chasing down Usain Bolt. I'd also like to openly question CBS' decision to have Arte Johnson participate, who, up to this point had been doing nothing but cutting "humorous" segments in the pool. He must have seen Billy Crystal's reel from battles' past and wanted to copy his success.

Running results:

ABC - 100
CBS - 75
NBC - 50

Simon Sez

I realize that many people loved the Simon Sez competitions, fondly remembering the hijinks "master Simon Sez guy" Len Goldstein from some resort in the Catskills would get the celebrities into. If only the memories were as good as the actual event. Labeled "non-competitive," the only thing the Simon Sez game was good for was to see how creeped out Cheryl Tiegs was when Arte Johnson (definitely not creeped out) fell onto her.

Event #6 - Football

Again, I question the strategies of the teams, namely CBS' decision to use Tony Randall in the football event. That seems like an idea Dobson would squash immediately. In fact, I would have loved to have been there when Randall told Dobson he wanted to play football. Even the new Dobson had to have a moment of murderous rage pass through his head before collecting himself and giving the thumbs up, and heading back to the players' lounge to hastily come up with a new gameplan. Serious as a heart attack, we later see Dobson giving teammates some last minute pointers; his teammates too afraid to do anything else but nod along. This is the Kevin Dobson I'm used to!

During one of the matches, Cosell utters the phrase "Good defensive play by Toni Tenille!" and promptly sets himself on fire. Or at least wishes he could light himself on fire. CBS is given a lot of camera time in this event, which leads me to believe they will win the whole shebang. First, we're given highlights of Dobson throwing strikes to his receivers; later on we see him hauling in hail marys from James MacArthur. While not quite a Jordan-like performance, it is impressive. Let's say it's Dana Barrosesque - when Dana Barros played for the Sixers in the late 90s with a bunch of guys that also cleaned the arena after the dozens of fans left. It's at this point that I fully believe Dobson has continued acting primarily to compete in these Battles.

Total scores after Football:

CBS - 500
ABC - 475
NBC - 375

Event #7 - Tug o' War?

It's possible my bootleg DVD copy skipped over some events (what - no dunk tank?) but I don't think so. The Tug o' War certainly snuck up on everyone in this broadcast. I thought the Cheryl Tiegs profile midway through the show seemed like longer-than-normal filler, but I didn't fully put it all together until this point. Regardless, CBS and ABC are facing off in the tug o' war. Kevin "Karl Malone" Dobson is licking his chops looking over at the scrawny ABC lineup for this event, realizing he can finally get his ring. Here are the teams:


Landesberg (the guy from Barney Miller; not this guy; this guy)
The Captain
Kaplan (the anchor)



Alright, so maybe Randall and Walker aren't helping much here, but Svenson is a big boy and Dobson is closer to victory than ever before. He's not letting his team lose. Those two alone beat any lineup ABC throws at them.

Somers shows her bias by siding with the scrawny ABC team, while all the smart money squarely resides on CBS. It doesn't hurt that apparently everyone on CBS is wearing football cleats for the event. For whatever reason, Lynn Swann, the referee (Mickey King had a diving meet?) allows it.

I think it takes CBS 90 seconds to get their flag across the water, and that even seemed a little long. Kaplan, humble as always walks over to Svenson (hey he knows who tipped the scales) and tells him the deserving team won. If I were Carter (Jimmy not Linda - lord knows what she offered Kaplan back when she was on the team), I would have immediately offered the Secretary of State position to him after watching that. Oh well, there's a reason he was only a one-termer.

And so ends the 4th Battle of the Network Stars. Dobson got zen on us (or at least just grew a beard), got the monkey off his back, and carried CBS to victory. Randall might have been the captain on paper, but Dobson was the captain in all their hearts. I feel good for him, and feel good for his Kojak cast...I can only assume the set became a little looser after May of 1978. Congratulations Kevin Dobson and the CBS team!

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