Monday, March 17, 2008

Video Kicks with Route 66
I realize I’m dating myself here, but one of my fondest memories from early childhood is the TV series Route 66. I was too young to understand the nuances of the series—in fact, all I really remember is how cool I thought it would be to drive a Corvette across the country, coming to the rescue of sundry damsels in distress as I made pitstops along the way in towns inhabited by seriously damaged people. I had it in my head that I could grow up to be a modern day Lone Ranger, with Tonto, in the guise of Martin Milner or George Maharis at my side, depending on my mood. I’d save people’s wretched lives, and then with a wink and a hearty “Hi-yo, little blue Corvette!” and be off to my next hip adventure.

Even now, lifetimes removed from 1961 and black and white console TVs, a large part of me still likes to think it’s doable. After all, ‘Vettes actually have a bit of storage space in them now. I wouldn’t have to pack a full wardrobe in a couple of travel bags lashed to a miniscule luggage rack. I could store my formal wear in vacuum bags, and steam them when needed. And even in these tough economic times, I’d be able to find a temporary job in any field, regardless of experience—just long enough to mend a life, break a heart or two, eat in the best restaurants the town has to offer and buy gas for the Vette. Everywhere I’d stop, the local citizenry would understand that I’m just looking for meaning in American life, despite the dichotomy of searching for meaning in a brand new Corvette.

The point is, whether we’re five or fifty, or even 100, we have an inherent need to embrace the improbable, and mold it into our peculiar versions of reality. The DVD release Route 66: Season One, Volume Two reminded me how my version of America’s reality was shaped by television. I only received a four episode sampler for review purposes, but it was enough to make me realize its iconic importance in television, and its role in making the Corvette an automotive legend.

The premise of Route 66 was simple. After his father dies, Tod Stiles (Milner) inherits a Corvete, and little less. An All-American, and apparently college educated, he logically decides to drive cross-country with his best friend, Buzz Murdock (Maharis), a Hell’s Kitchen transplant with Beat Generation tendencies. Taking odd jobs to support themselves as they travel across America, they encounter various people who represent the various faces of America. In the process, they become almost non-characters. The stories in Route 66 revolved around the people Tod and Buzz meet, making the show a hybrid anthology/ character series, with unlimited dramatic possibilities.

Stirling Silliphant, the show’s creator and writer of most of the episodes, used the basic set-up to create episodes that played out as mini-movies designed to make a statement about the changing face of America as the sixties collided with earlier decades. Like Rod Serling, he was not above using overwrought dialogue to make his points. In Silliphant’s case, the voice of the Beat Generation seemed the voice of the future. He wasn’t far off-mark, considering Route 66 began in 1960 and ended, ironically enough, in 1964, just as the Beatles prepped the country for the next wave of youth.

Route 66 was shot entirely on location, almost unheard of at the time. As a result, it gives us an accurate snapshot of what America looked like nearly fifty years ago. Whether it was inhabited by such overtly dramatic characters as are portrayed in Route 66 is a matter of conjecture, I suppose. But if my childhood memories serve me well, it was. And if it wasn’t—well, that just adds another layer to the freewheeling mythos of America.

With Route 66: Season One, Volume Two, you don’t get a lot of extras beyond filmographies. You don’t need them. The story speaks for itself. The only complaint I have is it’s cropped to a 16:9 ratio, rather than presented in its original 4:3 format. Hopefully, this blunder will be rectified in future editions. Beyond that, this is a DVD that’s a worthy addition to any TV series collection.

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