Monday, September 15, 2008

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 58: The New People (1969)

In the autumn of 1969, the ABC Network premiered a unique youth-centric prime time TV program called The New People. Developed for television by Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling and producers Aaron Spelling and Larry Gordon, this singular genre series -- aimed straight at the under-thirty demographic - was a direct response to the dramatic social turbulence and strife of 1968.

Consider for example, a few events from that watershed year. In early 1968, the tide turned in Vietnam, and America seemed to be losing the war. Specifically, the Tet Offensive, the attack on the U.S. Embassy, and the Battle of Saigon all occurred in '68.

In the same year, a new generation of peace and equality seeking leaders - Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy - were assassinated, essentially killing hope for reform. Civil Rights issues were also boiling over, and there were protests held in South Carolina (over a whites-only bowling alley...), and all across the country. College students demonstrated for peace at Columbia University, and at the Democratic National Convention that summer.

1968 was also the year France test detonated its first H-Bomb, and the year of the My Lai Massacre.

As tumult swirled across the globe, a disenchanted, young generation was finding its voice over many of these hot-button issues (racial equality, an unjust war, etc.). Yet the radicalism of that "flower power" generation also frightened Nixon's so-called "silent majority" (meaning the older folks...) It was undeniably a season of change, and the Generation Gap grew wider and wider.

Capitalizing on this gulf was Serling and Spelling's The New People, which concerned several dozen young adults who, after a harrowing plane crash in the Pacific, were stranded on a tropical island one thousand miles from the nearest airline or steam ship route.

With no hope of rescue -- "we just got dropped out of the world," acknowledges one character -- it was up to these forty American youngsters to build an entirely new civilization on that mysterious island. For the marooned, it was now essentially "Year One," and thus an opportunity to make a clean break with the failed policies, bigotries and inequalities of the past and previous generations of mankind.

As one young woman (Susan) stated, "In fifty years, they couldn't do it, but we could have instant peace...." At least that was the hope...

But it wasn't that simple, as the idealistic youngsters soon learned. And one of the great facets of The New People was that the series didn't take the easy way out. It did not just mindlessly advocate for the youth position (or any position, for that matter). Rather, The New People forced these youngsters to reckon with many, many difficult questions, including ones of law and order; crime and punishment.

How they solved these problems was always "true" to who they were as a group, but it wasn't exactly a love-in either. Primary among the barriers to peace was the socially encoded heritage of "the old world" that these youngsters carried with them to the island; their preconceived notions, biases and hurts.

You could see all this trouble brewing in the primary characters who populated the island (and the series). There was idealistic and issue-oriented Susan (Tiffany Bolling), daughter of a U.S. Senator. There was Robert E. Lee (Zooey Hall), an angry Southerner. As the script described him: "Bobby -- he's from the South, he's got his own Civil War going on."

Another character was the dynamic Eugene "Bones" Washington (David Moses), "the house Afro-American" as he called himself with a sense of self-deprecation. Bones -- like Bobby Lee -- was angry too, "the end result of 5,000 lynchings" as the screenplay points out.

And then there was arrogant, entitled Bull (Lee J. Lambert) -- the George W. Bush of the island -- an "All-American" jock (in a letterman sweater no less...) who believed simply that "the enemy always wears different colored jerseys.")

Another resident on the island was more noble, more contemplative: taciturn George Potter (Peter Ratray), a Vietnam veteran and ex-marine; one who had spent the previous Christmas Eve in Vietnam and had been forced to deal (aggressively...) with a sixteen year old, female bomber.


These characters, according to the pilot episode "are a collection of everything you guys [meaning the Establishment] made us....Down the line, you find all the imperfect images of the Mamas and the Papas."

In other words, even the flower power generation -- so hopeful and "new" in so many ways - carried on the hates and hurts of the past. "It's a hell of a legacy," admitted the only adult trapped on the island, Mr. Hannachek (Richard Kiley).

The pilot episode of The New People commences in South East Asia, as Mr. Hannachek (Kiley), a low level bureaucrat for the American Consulate in Manila, is assigned to retrieve and take home the forty American youngsters. The kids have made something of a stir with their public displays. Yep, they were supposed to be good publicity for America (clean, healthy and happy youngsters!), but they went to foreign countries and instead decried American imperialism, and petitioned for international human rights.

Hannachek and the kids board a Manila Inter-Island Charter plane during a pounding rain storm and once in flight, the plane is promptly lost, remaining in the air an hour over the estimated time of arrival. Eventually, the violent storm forces the plane to lose altitude, and it crashes on a remote Pacific island.

In a scene that eerily forecasts J.J. Abrams' Lost, we see a high-angle shot of the plane wreckage on a desolate beach, as the survivors of the wreck mill around, shell-shocked and confused. Nine people died in the crash, and Hannachek himself is badly injured. He suggests that the youngsters should immediately set about the business of survival, exploring the island.

What the youngsters discover on the mysterious, isolated island is immensely creepy. On a nearby hillside, abandoned (but fully-clothed) mannequins stand watch like juggernauts; like warning sentries. We approach these unmoving statues with a shaky, hand-held camera, and the moment generates shivers and a feeling of "you are there" authenticity. Something...strange occurred here, and the mannequins (and an abandoned playground) are macabre, unsettling images.

Beyond the mannequins, in a valley, stands an abandoned, town; one overgrown with vegetation but replete with a saloon, shops, buildings and even supplies (including the apple in this garden of Eden: guns).

Hannachek suddenly realizes where they are: the remote island of Bonamo. It was here that the American A.E.C. (Atomic Energy Commission) planned to test detonate a new H-Bomb. Fortunately, the plan was dropped and the island was left abandoned permanently. The good news is that the town offers shelter and food. The bad news is that there is virtually no hope of rescue. Bonamo is far from the beaten path...

But then - a miracle! - a plane flies overhead, a rescue team, perhaps. At Hannachek and George Potter's urging, the youth have set up a signal bonfire on the beach. But before the rescue plane can spot the signal, racist jock "Bull" -- who has had a falling out with Bones over issues of race -- squelches it. The plane goes on, forever unaware of the marooned people. They will report back that the island is "clean."

Furious at Bull, the remaining youngsters take-up torches, and form a mob. We see this disturbing sight through a fish-eye lens, as though the world itself has become distorted. We see it also from Bull's perspective (P.O.V. subjective shot), so that we -- as viewers -- also "feel" surrounded, and can fully understand the horror of what is happening.

The youngsters -- now a murderous, unthinking pack -- chases Bull across the island...with the intent to kill. The wronged Bones leads the way, until finally stopped by Hannachek - the adult. "You're the ones who are going to inherit the Earth?," Hannachek asks at one point. Ultimately, Hannachek convinces Bones that killing Bull ("an All-American yo-yo") is morally wrong, the equivalent of a racial lynching. Understanding -- and sick to death of violence and anger -- Bones relents. Bull escapes punishment.

Hannachek soon dies from the injuries he sustained in the plane crash, but not before wondering, finally "what kind of world" these youngsters will make on the island. Our last memorable view of Hannachek finds the old Man seated next to two old, cob-webbed mannequins. Again, a telling, resonant image. Together, the mannequins and the Old Man represent relics of a distant, now-meaningless social order and civilization.

For these New People, "time has just begun," according to a narrator, and the pilot episode then culminates with sneak previews of upcoming episodes. Ultimately, the show aired from just September 22, 1969 to January 12, 1970. But the seventeen episodes of The New People examined many aspects of a new -- and young -- civilization.

The pilot episode, by Serling, Gordon and Spelling, is sharply written and certainly incendiary in theme, vocabulary and characterization. The pilot leaves no issue untouched. The diversity of the youngsters makes for plenty of fraternal disagreements, and the episode focuses not only on the Vietnam conflict (through the character of Potter), but especially matters of race. Race hatred was always a grave concern for Serling (see: The Twilight Zone), and Eugene "Bones" Washington is one of the most-developed characters in this pilot. He describes his journey as a "hell of a freedom march: from no place to no place." He also describes Bull as "the kind [of person] II had to stand up and give my seat to." Frankly, I can't imagine this kind of blunt talk about race on a major television network in 2008.

Still, I'd hate to give the impression that The New People is only some dry polemic. There's adventure and action here too, and even a bit of humor. One funny moment early on has Hannachek referring to Moses and a female singer as "Sonny and Cher over there." Kiley does well with that caustic moment, and is a standout amongst the cast.

So today, let's remember that while major TV networks were trying to gloss over the injustices and concerns of a turbulent time with empty-headed programming like Green Acres or I Dream of Jeannie, The New People -- in the noble tradition of Serling's Twilight Zone -- dedicated itself to facing these issues head on.

And, as I indicated above, it proved pretty even-handed in approach. For example, The New People's pilot characterizes the marooned youngsters as relatively callow and superficial. In the first episode, they party in a saloon (drinking booze and playing the blues...) rather than burying the dead. They also form a mob and nearly kill a man. Here, the Old Guard (represented by Hannachek) reminds the youngsters of what it means to be human; what it means to have civilization and be civilized. The episode ends with Hannachek's death (so that there is no one on the island over thirty...), but at the very least, he has been able to make the so-called "peace" generation feel shame for its mob-mentality.

Visually, The New People is quite dynamic and inventive. As the so-called "new people" build a new world, they are surrounded by the structures and empty symbols (the mannequins) of the world they have left behind. In other words, their efforts to craft a new culture are balanced constantly with visual reminders and objects of the world that failed.

In fact, their very "paradise," their would-be utopia, is built upon on the worst and most destructive impulses of the society they left (a bomb testing site). One can detect, watching this pilot episode, how Serling and his fellow writers had created an ideal set-up for a multi-layered adventure: one that could concern both survival and the social issues of the day. The island itself was a microcosm for 1969 America. The inhabitants were racially, politically and geographically diverse. Would the denizens of the island be united and succeed? Or fall, divided?

The New People theme song is written by Earle Hagen and sung by The First Edition, and it sounds just like a people-powered anthem of 1969 ought to. I wish you could all listen to that song, and watch this episode for yourselves -- it's an incredible time capsule, But as of yet, there is no official DVD release planned for The New People. The series is...for the moment...beyond obscure.

Yet to steal (and wildly paraphrase) a line from Star Trek's "Space Seed," it would indeed prove fascinating to return to that island of "the New People" in the year 2008...and see what kind of world our best and brightest and most optimistic and idealistic had created. For those New People, today would almost be Year 40.

Do you think they repeated the pitfalls of recent human history? Or overcame them?

4 comments:

  1. Nice post, love to hear about classics.
    Star Trek was great - in case they bear some semblance, the other film must be awesome.

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  2. You mentioned two things I love:

    1. Tiffany Bolling

    2. Classic Television

    I have heard about this series but for some reason, never really looked into. It sounds absolutely fantastic. Thanks for the nice write up! I'm going to have to find this!

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  3. Thanks for the comments mina jade and amanda by night.

    Amanda by night: I've only been able to see the pilot. I'd love to see the entire series. I understand the episodes exist at the Library of Congress.

    I wish someone would release a full DVD set...

    best,
    JKM

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  4. I'd rather see this than see crap like Lost, which to me seems to have no real plot to it.

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