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Remembering The Remarkably Unremarkable Short-Lived 'Tenafly' TV Series

Shadow and Act By Sergio | Shadow and Act July 18, 2014 at 11:11AM

Long forgotten and overlooked, the short lived NBC series "Tenafly" was important and groundbreaking in its own quiet subtle way.
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Tenafly

After last week's repost of the TV show "The Outcasts" (HERE), what better time then to repost another article I wrote a few years ago about another long forgotten black TV show.

True, it wasn’t as obviously groundbreaking as "The Outcasts." It only lasted four episodes, but in its subtle and understated way, it was, in many ways, just as important and groundbreaking. I’m referring the 1973 NBC detective series "Tenafly" with James McEachin.

Nowadays, it seems what passes for Black TV is either executive produced by Tyler Perry, or is designed, for the most part, to make black people look like complete fools (Which I personally believe is a sinister conspiracy to dull the minds of the masses). But, in going back to old TV shows, it's refreshing to see what was, or what could have been at one time.

The NBC/Universal series was part of an unusual programming experiment in 1973, when the network rotated four 90-minute mystery shows, a different one every week, for the NBC Mystery Movie on Wednesday nights.

At the time, the network thought this was a brilliant and innovative programming scheme, but in fact, it was a disaster..

What this meant is that you had to wait a month before a show you saw and liked came back around. Not surprisingly, none of the rotating shows found an audience and the NBC Mystery Movie was a ratings flop. All the shows were cancelled, including "Tenafly," which lasted, as I said, only four episodes, from the fall of 1973 to January 1974.

In fact the show was, not surprisingly, originally conceived with a white man in the lead, but at the insistence of the head of Universal TV at the time, the character was changed to a black man, with McEachin in the lead, who, at the time was doing a lot of work on movies and TV shows for Universal.

Of course there were those who naturally weren’t too thrilled about seeing a black man in the role of authority. In a 2011 interview in Shock Cinema Magazine, McEachin still recalled the hate mail that he and the network got. One letter he remembers in particular said, "Why would you waste your money putting a black monkey on television, when you know he’s got no right to arrest a white man."

McEachin himself had an interesting personal background. As an actor, he appeared in over 100 film and TV roles, but he was also a Korean War veteran who sustained multiple wounds in combat, and was awarded both the Silver Star and Purple Heart for bravery and valor (A true man’s man). How many actors can you name who can boast that?  

In the show, he played the main character - an ex-cop now working as a private detective. The show itself was nothing special, and was pretty much typical of other similar detective crime shows of the time. But what made "Tenafly" so unique was that it wasn't. It was totally unremarkable in any way, which was part of its charm and made it rather remarkable for its period.

"Tenafly" wasn’t slick, hip or cool. He wasn’t some angry back man raging against the injustices of the world or the racism that he faced every day. He was just a regular guy. As you can see from the clip below, from the first episode, he was just an ordinary working stiff, trying to make a living, to take care of his family, and keep a roof over their heads.

And his rather ordinary family life was one of central elements of the show. In the first episode, there was a subplot involving Tenafly’s aunt who suspected that her husband was sneaking out at night to see another women. However Tenafly, after trailing him, finds out that the husband was sneaking out to play jazz with some friends in a club.

The fact that he was black, as well as the issue of race, was not a major issue on the show and, in fact, some white TV and black cultural critics criticized the show at the time, because they felt the character wasn't "black" or "angry" enough for them. But the show, for its brief  run, had a major impact.

In a Shock Cinema Magazine interview, McEachin said that, perhaps the biggest regret in his acting career was not realizing the importance of the show at the time. He said that he "grossly underestimated the power of television. I plead guilty to that. I didn't know how important it was to black people. I totally overlooked  that. Maybe it was the shock of being the lead in a television series. It’s very difficult for anyone to understand what it is to be the lead in a television series. it is amazing.”

Perhaps, looking at it now, Tenafly may seem slow, old fashioned and not much to talk about. But when you consider that a lot what’s on the air as Black TV today seems to be "yaki weave-wearing wives or girlfriends fighting each other," "Tenafly," in its own little way, becomes more valuable to us in our current age.

This article is related to: TV Features


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