Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Wild, Wild Turkey

I have a wonderful son with a great engineering mind who seems to live in ignorance of the last 300 years of technological advancement.

For instance, the other day he said he wants to build a car. This is all well and good; for him to say he wants to build a car is a great leap forward in logic, and will also save me the expense of buying him a car later, even if this car winds up in a pile behind the fence, along with the other points on his particular learning curve.

However, then he said he wants to make the pistons out of wood, and machine them on his lathe. This is the point where we had The Talk. This is not The Talk you may be used to; this version of The Talk begins with me saying, “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it,” and concludes with him going ahead and doing it anyway, because he’s a 14-year-old boy, and you know, what the hell.

One of the big problems with the trading-card business during the Handful O’Landfill era was that there were always figurative parents having The Talk and figurative 14-year-olds going ahead and doing it anyway, because, you know, what the hell. And you could do autographed chase cards.

We were the parents in this particular scenario, which tells you how messed-up this business was. It got so that companies wouldn’t tell us they were going to carve a particular piston out of wood; they would just hand us a half-chunked-out piston-thing and say, “Here; see what you can do with this.” And we would throw in some autographed chase cards and call it a day.

TV shows and movies were the worst for The Talk. Just because a TV show or movie was popular or looked like it was going to be popular did not mean that it needed, wanted, or deserved a trading-card set, or that anyone would want to buy said trading-card set simply because the series or movie was popular or was projected to be popular.

There has never been a time when hot TV show = great hot card set. Even in the Golden Age of Trading Cards, which for the purposes of this column we will say was the early 1960s, manufacturers did not rush willy-nilly after the hottest TV shows. Here are the top ten TV shows from October 1964-April 1965: 
  1. Bonanza
  2. Bewitched
  3. Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C.
  4. The Andy Griffith Show
  5. The Fugitive
  6. The Red Skelton Hour
  7. The Dick Van Dyke Show
  8. The Lucy Show
  9. Peyton Place II
  10. Combat!

While many of these shows have had trading-card sets subsequently, only three – Gomer Pyle, Combat!, and Bewitched – had trading-card sets at the peak of their popularity (and bear in mind: this was three-network popularity in a society where people stayed home at night and watched TV, so this popularity was pretty darn popular). None of the sets were well-liked by collectors then or now. They were dogs of a certain breed, and object lessons in not chasing the latest hot TV show or movie.

Could Topps or Fleer (or Donruss, which made an early splash with its Combat! cards) have made a pretty good set out of Bonanza? Sure. Should they have? Based on the lack of success of the other TV-series sets that year, probably not. Fleer was smart to stick with its steady diet of Beatles, Beatles, and more Beatles, and Topps was very smart to stick with its homegrown solutions, and that whole sports thing.

All of which is just a rambling preamble to this week’s featured performers – and I use that term loosely, since “performers” in this context usually means something or something that performed well. That is definitely not the case here.

First up chronologically is the Wild Wild West movie set. Wild Wild West was a great TV show, though to modern eyes it sometimes seems as wheezy as the steam locomotive that chugs through the opening credits. Still, it had panache, and Robert Conrad and Ross Martin were a hell of a team. Conrad would careen through scenes like the love child of Steve McQueen and a Superball, Martin would underplay like mad and smirk like crazy, and the whole enterprise rolled along merrily but implausibly, like some loony perpetual-motion machine.

Wild Wild West the TV show would have made a great trading-card set, but you can’t fault Topps and Fleer for not pulling the proverbial trigger. There was no consistent track record for TV-show sets, and Topps and Fleer in those days were not 14-year-old boys fond of going ahead and doing it anyway.

Wild Wild West the movie was a different story altogether. It upped the implausibility factor by about 630 by putting Will Smith in the title role, and it blew the scriptwriting budget on extra gelignite. There was less chemistry than there is in a buttermilk pancake between Smith and Kevin Kline (his Artemus Gordon), and the entire enterprise was a colossal, laughless, lifeless, money-hemorrhaging flop. And Will Smith raps over the closing credits.

The clues to this property’s impeding stinkiness were legion, but let’s start here: Remakes of this sort have never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever worked. Sure, let’s nod and wink and blow stuff up and get a name actor to play the lead. It didn’t work for The Dukes of Hazzard, it didn’t work for The Addams Family, it didn’t work for Bewitched, it didn’t work for Charlie’s Angels, it didn’t work for Dragnet, it didn’t work for The Beverly Hillbillies, it barely works for the Marvel movies, and it doesn’t work here.[1]

So, supposing you’re SkyBox and you have the license for this turkey – and because you’re relatively shrewd (meaning shrewder than a table lamp) you can hear this one gobble a mile off – what do you do? Your basic choices are:
  1. Jump off the caboose while you can, eat the licensing fee, but live to print a different gold-foil card another day; or
  2. Ride this train all the way to its certain demise, which looks like the train scene in Bridge On The River Kwai only with none of the drama but a whole lot more C4 because, you know, what the hell.

Obviously the answer is No. 1, and just as obviously, SkyBox did No. 2.

Sure, SkyBox should have known better. But those days were all about not knowing better, and/or doing things in spite of knowing better.

So, let’s move ahead six calendar years, to the twilight of the Handful O’Landfill era. Presumably age brings wisdom, but here we have a card from Inkworks' Sopranos set.

We won’t even mess around with the normal cheap cracks. Here’s what’s wrong with a Sopranos set:
  1. The show’s not even on frigging network TV. More people saw the single episode of Ball Four than saw a whole season of The Sopranos. Based on comparable viewership, the Candlepin Bowling From New Hampshire set ought to be a go.
  2. It’s a kids’ collectible, not a document of societal progress sold five to a pack. The same medium that spawned Garbage Pail Kids, Wacky Packs, Odd Rods, or Baseball Weird-Ohs cannot also accommodate cards of scenes from an R-rated mobster psychodrama.
  3. There wasn’t a trading-card set for the Godfather movies, and how can you make cards for a modern-day Godfather if you don’t make a set for the original?
  4. The demographic is way off. It’s not like anyone was expecting eight-year-old boys to snap up these things. But the 45-year-old guys who were ostensibly the target of this set are the wrong 45-year-old guys. The target audience was downstairs watching the Astros and Mariners while the other 45-year-old guys were upstairs, decanting their shiraz, making their own buffalo mozzarella, and watching The Sopranos. And never the twain shall meet.
  5. For all its nonconformist aspects it's a totally conventional, straight-ticket-voting trading-card set. There was an opportunity to do something off-the-map with a Sopranos set, like include a horse's head in every pack, give away an affair with Edie Falco or offer show-used-pastrami cards instead of some stupid holographic gewgaw. But no, it's just gold foil and die-cuts and autographs, like every other contemporary non-sport set ever.
  6. Who wants to collect a picture of some old guy in a stupid cap?

Scratch that.

[1] They get it all wrong. If these modern remakers got their hands on Gone With The Wind, they’d spend all their money making the burning of Atlanta even bigger, and not try to fix all the stuff that breaks in the original after they burn Atlanta.

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