Cinema/TV, Film Notes

TV review – The Name of the Game LA 2017 (1971)

My notes on The Name of the Game LA 2017

Magazine publisher Glenn Howard (Gene Barry), driving back from a conference on the threat of pollution, is overcome by smog in the hills outside Los Angeles, and drives off the road.  He blacks out in 1971 but is woken up in 2017 – by Geoffrey Lewis in a gas-mask – and hauled into the underground complex which has replaced the city after a global eco-doom that began when pollution killed off all the algae in the sea, creating a shroud of toxic gas that reduced the Earth’s population to about three million souls living in dystopian bunkers with child-rearing (and post-natal abortion) out of Brave New World, eternal surveillance out of Nineteen Eighty-Four and a bunch of satirical-nightmarish new licks from veteran s-f writer Philip Wylie (who scripted this ‘very special episode’ of the ninety-minute contemporary drama series, The Name of the Game).  This was Steven Spielberg’s first feature-length TV work, and it’s either a testimony to his golden boy rep that he was given a plum show over more experienced hands or a fluke decision to dump the weird script on the kid in the corner in the hope that he might understand it.  Barry, Spielberg’s first leading man, later had a significant bit-role in his War of the Worlds.

Made about the same time George Lucas was working on the feature-length version of THX 1138, with which it shares some themes, LA 2019 also has parallels with the dystopian look of Richard Fleischer’s Soylent Green.  It must have been a disorienting watch for viewers at the time, though the despairing fall of the plot – the hero is doomed to be crushed by the world of the future – is a strong indicator that a reset button will be pressed in the finale, which finds Howard waking up from his detailed dream and a Wizard of Oz bit with Lewis as a contemporary cop.  It’s hard to see how else something like this could have been fit into a drama strand in 1971 (or even now), but Wylie takes care to give the prophetic warning some bite that makes it more than a surreal dream.  Just as the out-of-time hero is expressing his disgust with the appalling world, the Vice-President in charge of Los Angeles (Barry Sullivan) lays into him and points out reasonably that this future is the fault of his generation who drove gas-guzzlers and held conferences on pollution without actually doing anything about the problem that has driven the few survivors underground.

On a limited budget, the show manages a consistent vision of the future, which now looks like a mix of clunkily ridiculous wrong guesses (a primitive question-answering computer), on-the-money predictions (a senior citizen hippie rock band in a nostalgia bar full of old folks in 1970s hipster gear), horribly credible jokes (‘the police service’ consists of psychiatrists in dark suits), strange disconnects (a social evening is spoiled when the host is bereft by the death of one of the last goldfish in the world) and the always-effective tactic of making you extrapolate a picture of this society from hints dropped in signage, graffiti, offhand remarks (parenting is ‘left to the professionals’) and MASH-style intercom announcements (‘consider an exciting, colourful career as a police informant’).  Note the tipsy hostess (Louise Latham) who expects a guest to have sex with her and dials for ‘companion services’ when rebuffed; the luxury drink of the elite being milk from ‘a privately-owned’ cow; a war with England fought by fifteen-year-old pilots; the as-relevant-now-as-in-1971 circular logic that a running man shot dead by cops must have been a criminal because why else would he be in that situation; a corporate government whose Chairman (Regis Cordic) insists on chummy first-name terms and beams in as a wobbly hologram from the seat of government in Detroit to cities run by Vice-Presidents.  The climax returns Howard to the dusty, abandoned ruin of his office (a redressed set with a red sky diorama outside) and gets on the road for a car chase/shoot-out which is Spielberg’s first big action scene.

The Name of the Game – a last gasp for the ‘rotating leading man’ format, with Barry alternating with Anthony Franciosa and Robert Stack – was a prestige show, and this episode hauls in a strong guest cast: Severn Darden sardonic and dry as the genial secret policeman (prefiguring his role in the Planet of the Apes series), Paul Stewart as the head of ‘the Underground’, Edmond O’Brien (in the Soylent Green Edward G. Robinson role) as a ranting holdover from the old days, and Sharon Farrell as the V-P’s assistant/companion who falls for the old-timer she’s supposed to spy on (and is punished by being blown up in a state-arranged terrorist outrage blamed on the internal enemy).  It even has odd, wistful touches – a nursery rhyme about ‘chromatic triangles’ – and if it’s preachy at the end, the message is still pertinent.


2 thoughts on “TV review – The Name of the Game LA 2017 (1971)

  1. Terry Frost
    I saw this as a child and the geratric hippie band was genuinely shocking to me. More so than the pollution.

    Russell Schechter
    I remember watching this as a kid, but don’t think I’ve seen it since. Had no idea that Wylie wrote it. THAT makes me want to see it again.

    Michael O’Brien
    Saw this when I was at school. Remarkable SF offering by a non-SF series. Does that ever happen these days, parodies aside?

    Kim Newman
    Name of the Game also did a Western flashback episode, which was a slightly more common format-stretching gambit. The clunky dream explanation is a necessity to allow the series to continue in the present next week, and I can’t think of other series which did a futuristic one-off s-f episode – though Miami Vice did a Tom Disch-scripted show about alien abductions, Starsky & Hutch fought a real vampire (John Saxon) one week. These days, if you get looks into the future – the last episode of Six Feet Under spans a hundred years and shows the deaths of all the main characters – it’s all about the regular characters rather than the society: LA 2019 is about its dystopia, not the Gene Barry character’s private life. I don’t see why, say, CSI couldn’t do a one-off CSI 2056 episode … though I understand there’d be resistance to, say, doing a month of EastEnders or Coronation Street set fifty years in the future – even if it would be interesting.

    Michael O’Brien
    Or the Archers fifty years in the future… though I suspect little would have changed in Ambridge so probably no one would notice.

    Kevin Jackson
    Back in the dawn of time, I co-wrote a (comic, or tried to be) Sci-Fi version of The Archers for a R4 programme called On Your Farm. The other writer went on to edit the Archers for a few years. I didnt,

    Stephen Bissette
    Revisited this just last year (via bootleg), and it rekindled fond memories of seeing it the first time it was broadcast on TV, and being startled at what an effective bit of sf it was for the time and venue. It holds up nicely today, and is long overdue a proper legal release!

    Bill Warren
    This was nominated for a Hugo; Spielberg came to the Worldcon and I showed him around. At that time, a regular person could just talk to him, instead of the many layers of Handlers who surround him now.

    2022 update – sad but sweet to see comments from the late, much-missed Kevin Jackson and Bill Warren on the original post.

    Posted by kimnewman | January 16, 2022, 10:29 am
    • Been on my ‘must-see’ list for ages, this early Spielberg – John Baxter’s biog implies Spielberg drew influence from THX? From a time when Sci Fi carried the weight of dire warning, nightmare to come – apart from the infrequent spasm, it’s a rehabilitated genre now (again?), comforting escapism. ‘Threads’ was originaly planned to feature the Coronation Street cast. Gene ‘Burke’s Law’ Barry was, as we all know, star of the George Pal War Of The Worlds as well. A mere 3 million pop distributed worldwide makes me wonder how the dystopia/war machine would hold up. Maybe, given enough creature comforts, they would be an elite who wouldn’t miss the rest of us and tolerate the environmental degradation – gasp, choke, are things so far rmeoved now. Also I see now and then a conjunction of Orwell and Warhol – Orwellahol, if yu will (Warhol Is Peace) – everybody is ‘famous’ in that they have a media profile known to everybody else. We do the spying on each other, and form ad hoc mobs with virtual flaming torches to police perceived infractions and threats to social stability. Big Brother Is Sleeping, as per David Beckham after John Giorno. If what is not private is performance, the voyeuring of the sleeping subject represents a glimpse of the authentic, albeit mediated by a frame

      Posted by wmsagittarius | January 16, 2022, 5:42 pm

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