Review by Michael Spadoni
A social drama of the Kennedy era, East Side/West Side starred future Oscar-winning actor George C. Scott as Neil Brock, a social worker for a private organisation based in the slums of New York City. His secretary and assistant was Jane Foster, played by Cicely Tyson, who became one of the few African-American women to have a regular series role up to that time. Elizabeth Wilson was Frieda Hechlinger, the head of Community Welfare Service.
Each week, the series explored controversial social issues in the poorer and
neglected areas of New York. Its best-known episode, "Who Do You
Kill," featured James Earl Jones and Diana Sands as a black couple
whose baby was bitten by a rat in their tenement apartment; the child died,
sending the couple spiralling into despair. Another episode, "No Hiding
Place," dealt with a black couple moving into an all-white suburb;
realtors tried to get "panicked" white residents to sell their homes
at a loss. The practice, known as "block busting," was common before
federal housing laws took effect in the USA.
East Side/West Side had fine writing and strong performances from Scott, the core cast and the show's guest stars. But the stories proved to be limited because Brock-as a private social worker-could help victims only so much. Also, the issues presented on the show-abortion, prejudice, and drug abuse-did not lend themselves to a neat, tidy resolution as television drama of the era demanded.
The situation wasn't helped by meddling from CBS network president James Aubrey, a champion of light, fluffy programmes. At one point, he told East Side/West Side producer David Susskind he wanted the cast "out of Harlem and I want them on Park Avenue." Susskind thought the demand was silly-who would need social justice in one of New York's more affluent areas?
But under Aubrey's orders, changes were made. In the middle of the season, Brock went to work for Congressman Charles Hanson (Linden Chiles) as an advisor on social issues, but fought with public relations adviser Mike Miller (John McMartin), who worried about the congressman's image with voters. Wilson and Tyson disappeared from the cast; and a pre-Get Smart Barbara Feldon became Brock's girlfriend. Susskind later admitted, "A gloomy atmosphere for commercial messages, an integrated cast, and a smaller Southern station lineup, all of these things coming together spelled doom for the show. I'm sorry television wasn't mature enough to absorb it and like it and live with it." Not even in John Kennedy's New Frontier.
Published on April 7th, 2020. Written by Michael Spadoni for Television Heaven.