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Remembering The Remarkably Unremarkable Short-Lived ‘Tenafly’ TV Series

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

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.

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Comments

drhatcher

Audiodramatist, complaining that James McEachin didn’t play a badass superhero like James Avery played a decade later as ‘Hawk’ misses the point completely…"Tenafly" was the first show on American television that featured an African-American lead actor who was a happily married suburbanite with two kids. The fact that he was a brilliant detective was almost secondary to the fact that he was a middle-class guy who just happened to be a brilliant investigator.

Some critics complained that he was too much of a milquetoast. I have the pilot for this show, and he does (reluctantly) beat up the bad guy in the show’s climax.

Mike

What are you talking about AUDIODRAMATIST? This is groundbreaking for a Black Man to be the lead in a dramatic series. Who is part of law enforcement. This is a three dimensional character who has flaws and he is human. He is not some one dimensional buffoon! If this show was on today, I would be it's biggest FAN.

Himone

What a ridiculous and hyperbolic statement. C'mon really? "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)."

Audiodramatist

It was not as groundbreaking as one would think. It was Colombo with a wife seen on screen. Groundbreaking would be Hawk. Set in Washington, DC when it was truly Chocolate City. If you listen carefully, the series had music throughout the entire episodes. I remember it even have Valerie Simpson in acting mode. And of course, Avery Brooks was as brilliant and intelligent as he always is… The original truly (Black) superhero for all time

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