Thursday, June 19, 2008

(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66

Just as television in the 1960s helped popularize science fiction, by means of shows such as The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and Star Trek, so too did television help popularize the road story. Last time I wrote about the world’s first acid road trip that took place in 1964, undertaken by Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, and how Tom Wolfe’s first, New Journalistic accounts of that journey, eventually published in 1968 as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, subsequently influenced the Beatles’ film, Magical Mystery Tour, which aired on British television in December of 1967.

But before the Merry Pranksters began their road trip, there appeared on TV a show titled Route 66, a weekly series about two itinerant non-conformists traveling around the country—this almost a decade before Easy Rider (1969), also a road story featuring two itinerant non-conformists journeying across America. Starring Martin Milner as Tod Stiles and George Maharis as Buz Murdock, Route 66 ran from 7 October 1960 to 20 March 1964, ending its run just about three months to the day before the Merry Pranksters set out in a 1939 school bus on their cross-country acid road trip on 14 June 1964. Celebrating both liberal values and the value Americans call the open road, Route 66 was the first television show that was filmed on location in an entirely different geographical place each week. Writes Katie Mills:

The visual excitement of Route 66’s innovative car cinematography, combined with its narrative attention to progressive politics and marginalized communities, helped position Route 66 as a thematic and aesthetic link between the Beats and the “New Frontier” envisioned by presidential candidate Kennedy.... When Route 66 went off the air in 1964, the format of the road story was squarely part of popular culture, already generating yet another phase of remapping in the hot rod and biker films shown at the drive-in theaters. (pp. 69 & 84)

While the Pranksters’ road journey foregrounded drug consumption in the form of LSD—their exploits contributing to the popularization of the pun on the word “trip” to suggest both sorts of activities, travel and the ingestion of acid—Route 66 was not without occasional allusions to drugs. In the second season episode, “Birdcage on My Foot” (13 October 1961), Buz (George Maharis) admits to having been once a drug addict, and later on in the second season, in the episode titled “A Thin White Line” (8 December 1961), Tod (Martin Milner) is given LSD (or something like it) at a party. Although inspired by the huge success of Jack Kerouac’s Beat road trip, On the Road (1957) (although a show which Kerouac purportedly hated), no television show set on the road since has been so successful or enjoyed such longevity, perhaps due in part to the huge historic interest in Route 66 itself.

In October of 2007, Infinity/Roxbury Entertainment released Volume One of Route 66's first season, a box set consisting of 15 episodes spread over four DVDs. This initial release was followed in February 2008 by Volume Two, likewise consisting of 15 episodes on four DVDs. The splitting of a single TV season into two volumes is an awkward, unhappy arrangement in the first place, but Infinity/Roxbury's releases had additional problems in the form of poor source materials in some cases and, in the instance of episode 11, "A Fury Slinging Flame" (first airing on 30 December 1960), included on disc 3 of Volume One, a severely truncated print source. However, according to a report published by David Lambert just last week, due to the harsh feedback of disgruntled fans, Infinity/Roxbury has announced plans to re-issue the first season in one volume with all of the episodes remastered, presumably derived from better source materials as well. A complete series of reports on the fiasco surrounding Season One can be found here, while an examination of the problem with the transfers, with frame grabs, can be found here. In preparing this blog I came across an interesting interview with George Maharis that can be found here, which dispels many of the (false) rumors surrounding his and Martin Milner's working relationship and also the real reason behind why he left the show.

Despite the mediocre transfers found on the two volumes of Season One of Route 66, recently I thoroughly enjoyed renewing my relationship with the show and watched the entire first season in sequence. A fine show, it is indeed an illustration of "classic TV."

1 comment:

Stephen Bowie said...

I'm glad people are still commenting on ROUTE 66's history and future on DVD. It was a pleasure to see my blog linked in a post that quotes Katie Mills on the show. Katie was my freshman comp lit instructor back in college and turned me onto ROUTE 66 for the first time, when she was working on the dissertation that became her road movies book. Hi, Katie, if you're Googling yourself.