Tuesday, March 15, 2011

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 130: The Name of the Game: "L.A. 2017"

Thanks to the generosity and kindness of a good friend and reader of this blog, I have now been able to screen and enjoy "L.A. 2017," a uniquely dystopian episode of the wheel TV series The Name of the Game (1968-1971). 

To top it off, "L.A. 2017" is directed by none other than movie legend Steven Spielberg.

Networks don't generally present so-called wheel series these days, but The Name of the Game filled a ninety-minute slot each week of its 76-episode run on NBC, with three rotating lead actors (Gene Barry, Tony Franciosa and Robert Stack) vetting story lines. 

In this case, all the adventures portrayed on The Name of the Game centered around Howard Publishing.  Franciosa played an investigative reporter, Stack a crime magazine editor, and Gene Barry was Glenn Howard, the publisher-and-chief.

Created near the end of The Name of the Game's three year run, on the then-considerable budget of $375,000 dollars, "L.A. 2017" features Gene Barry's character, and sends him off in an unexpected and frightening science fiction adventure.

As "L.A. 2017" (written by Philip Wylie) commences, Glenn Howard is on his way back to Los Angeles from the Sierra Pines Conference on Ecology. 

As he drives on a windy mountain road, Glenn dictates a private memo to the President of the United States about what he has seen and heard at the conference.  He suggests that "the destruction of the environment" is imminent unless someone begins to demonstrate real leadership on the issue.

While steering and dictating the memo, Glenn suddenly falls unconscious and drives his car off the road.  When he awakes, he is being tended to by two emergency workers in red jumpsuits and protective gas masks. 

These men escort him through the "Los Angeles Portal" to the city.  But it's not the same city it once was, as Glenn quickly learns.  The year is now 2017, and the surface of the planet Earth is uninhabitable.  Mankind has moved underground to a series of overcrowded subterranean complexes.

While Glenn tries to figure out how he traveled into his own future, the authorities of L.A.in 2017 interrogate him.  Cameron (Severn Darden) is a psychiatrist and chief-of-police, and is suspicious of the stranger.  Cameron fears Glenn might be part of a violent underground movement seeking to destroy the cities.  "I can get anything I want out of you, electronically," he confides in his ward.   Soon, Cameron diagnoses Glenn as either "schizoid" or telling the truth about his time travels.

In short order, Glenn is introduced to the amiable Vice-President of Los Angeles, Dane Bigelow (Barry Sullivan).  Dane further explains the nature of this terrifying future.  He describes how mankind has been underground since 1989, when the atmosphere grew "toxic" after the growth of poisonous algae in the Indian Ocean.   Because "science and government stood by while everything died," the business community of the United States took over control of the country, drafting a "Corporate Constitution" that gave all surviving citizens shares in America, Inc.  Supposedly, this is a more "efficient" system of government, than before.  At least according to Bigelow and the Chairman of America Inc.

A beautiful young woman, Sandrette (Sharon Farrell) gives Glenn a tour of the underground city, home to 11,000 survivors.  She introduces herself by informing Glenn is she is "thirty, sterile and a sex education major."  Sandrette then takes Glenn to church where computers have taken the place of priests.  You can type your spiritual question on a keyboard, and the computer will answer it.  Example: Q: "How do I find the truth?"  A: "It will find you." 

The more Glenn learns of life in LA in 2017, the less he likes it.  America is at war with England over a jurisdictional matter, and many of the poor citizens are assigned to public housing, five or six people to a single room.  Worse, these homes often show seepage from the surface, and the air is becoming unbreathable.  Other people are exploited as workers on the poisonous surface, an occupation with a 20 percent death rate. 

Milk is the drink of the rich, because there's only one cow, and it is "privately owned."

The state also constantly monitors all citizens, making privacy a thing of the past. 

"If there's no privacy, there can't be any invasion of privacy," Sandrette cheerily informs the visitor from the 20th century.  When Glenn asks her if there is any freedom in the city at all, Sandrette's response is similarly vacant: "Freedom is always relative to the needs of the community."

In the final moments of "L.A. 2017," Glenn escapes the city, where the Vice-President has plans to install him as the head of a state-sponsored press/propaganda outfit, and tries to make it back to his car, and hopefully, back to his time...

Although "L.A. 2017" features the dreaded "it was all a dream," dramatic cheat at the end, it nonetheless makes for a remarkably powerful program in 2011, forecasting ably the growing power and influence of corporations in America.  The movie boasts many great, almost throwaway moments involving the city's official announcements over loudspeakers, for instance.  One such advertisement encourages citizens to "borrow against their shares at an interest rate of just 35 percent,"  a concept that is not at all foreign to our contemporary country, post Great Recession. 

This episode of The Name of the Game is veritably filled with brilliant little asides like that, such as the surprise announcement in a control room that "there are unconfirmed reports of a Negro(!) in Cleveland," meaning, apparently that most African-Americans did not live to survive the new Corporate America.  Another interesting touch: parenthood is "no longer for amateurs."  On the contrary, the State has "professionals" do it now; professionals who have removed the words "mother" and "father" from society all together.

I also enjoyed the way the episode blends two psychiatrists with law-enforcers; these fearsome men are -- quite literally -- thought police (and armed with weapon cylinders which fire injections of "counter-productive" drugs.)

But the episode's finest and most telling moment arises in the last act.  Glenn visits Vice-President Bigelow and upbraids him for maintaining and nourishing a "totalitarian state." 

At first, Bigelow responds that "survival justifies anything" in 2017, but then he changes his tact. 

He turns Glenn's self-righteousness around on the man from the 20th century.  If Glenn hates this "future" so much, why didn't he do something about the environment when he had money, fame and power, back in 1971?  Who is he to judge the future if he didn't take responsibility for building it in the first place? 

This is a really clever narrative angle, because it asks the audience, rather bluntly, to take just such responsibility for our shared tomorrows.   Why aren't we complaining more loudly that some people -- in the thrall of big business -- want to gut rules and regulations that keep our water clean, our food safe, and our air breathable? 

Director Steven Spielberg does a solid, highly-effective job creating and charting this dystopian future of the year 2017.  He sometimes sets his camera high--up (pointed down) to catch an angled-perspective of the various rooms; presenting the appearance of being a surveillance camera view.   On other occasions, he uses extreme low angles looking up to present us multiple levels of surveillance, a visual cue that the upper class is always looking down on the rest of the populace.

Otherwise, Spielberg gets the absolute most out of the tunnels and corridors of the city, fostering memorable visions of a claustrophobic world.  In the episode's final road chase -- an ambulance versus a police car with a hood-mounted machine gun -- he deploys many of the same expressive angles he used in Duel (1971). 

Finally, Spielberg's last shot -- a shift in focus from a "rescued" Glenn in 1971 to a dead bird on a bare tree branch in the foreground -- proves a nice way of undercutting the facile "it was all a dream" ending.  Instead, Spielberg puts the valedictory focus of this piece on the environment, leaving us no choice but to consider its importance.

As you know, I've been fascinated of late with the idea of dystopias in popular entertainment, and "L.A. 2017" certainly presents a real nightmare world of the future.   What surprised me a great deal about this production was -- to take a page from Glenn's dialogue -- "how it's all remarkably consistent." 

The episode is filled with odd touches (like a rock-and-roll club for senior citizen), affecting touches (a painted skyline is all that's left of surface life...), and moments of authentic pathos (the death of one of the four last fish in the world...).   There's not one moment of empty air in this TV show from forty years ago; not one wasted breath.  Instead, Spielberg and writer Wylie fill in every inch of the movie with terrifying and memorable detail.

We're only a few years away from 2017 right now, and no, we don't live in a subterranean totalitarian state.  But that fact doesn't change the relevance of this forty year old movie.  After all, we're all watching with our breaths held as Japan deals with an environmental and technological catastrophe of enormous magnitude. 

Unfortunately, none of us has the luxury of believing this is "all a dream."


  1. Time for me to put on the nerd hat: Los Angeles 2017 is also the time and place of Blade Runner. Co-inky-dink? Probably--but I'd love to think Ridley was ribbing Stevie.
    I really dig your dystopian focus--those are the SF movies I grew up with!

  2. This show was a little before my time but I'd love to check out this episode sometime. I find watching old (and it's hard to believe 1971 is old, but it sadly is) TV shows/films set in the "future" endlessly fascinating. The way in which writers/directors foresee the future, given their current circumstance, is such a great way to view both the past and what may lay ahead...if that makes any sense. It seems that Spielberg was somewhat prescient here (power of corporations)...hopefully not too much so overall.

  3. Hi JKM;

    It's really surprising that no one's put together an "early Spielberg" DVD (to my knowledge, anyway) with some of his TV work. This and the TV movie "Something Evil" are things both fans and casual viewers should be able to see (as well as the more readily available Night Gallery work and, of course, "Duel") both as indicative of the evolution of the director and on their own terms as good TV.

    Thanks for your insights on this oddly forgotten gem. I saw it when I was 8 or so and haven't forgotten it. I clearly remember saying to my parents, "This is a nightmarish vision of tomorrow by a director who, I predict, will go on to win Acadamy awards and direct many of the most popular movies the world has ever seen. I hope he makes one about a shark!" I clearly remember that.

  4. Hello Ivan, Indianhoop and DLR:

    Thank you for the thoughtful comments on "LA 2017."

    Ivan: You bring up a really interesting point, comparing this future to Ridley Scott's in Blade Runner. Both (accurately) project the rise of corporations, intriguingly. And both present future worlds of ecological uncertainty, at the very least. I wonder if Ridley Scott and Steven Spielberg ever met to compare "Futurist" notes?

    Indianhoop: Boy, I am right with you, about being fascinated by these older "future visions." It's just amazing to watch programs like LA 2017 and see what the filmmakers got right, and what they got wrong. Here, again...the filmmaker (Spielberg/Wylie) accurately predicted the rise of corporations and obsession with privatization in government. And this was well before Reagan...

    DLR: I can't imagine how freaked out I would have been if I had seen this at age 8. One thing that really impresses me about the production is how grim it is; and how brimming with ideas (bubbling over with ideas...) the presentation is.

    I also agree with you that this is a good early showcase for Spielberg's talents. I would love to see "Something Evil." Someone seriously needs to release an Early Spielberg DVD set!

    Thanks for all the great comments,