22 June 2003 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
I thawed Dad was a good idea.
'The Second Hundred Years' was an above-average sitcom, with a highly original premise that was far more plausible than anything involving a talking horse, a sentient car or a levitating nun. In the year 1900, 34-year-old Luke Carpenter left his wife and infant son Edwin and joined the Klondike gold rush (two years late), only to get himself quick-frozen in a glacier. Sixty-seven years on, the now elderly Edwin (splendid character actor Arthur O'Connell) has long since produced a son of his own: Ken, likewise now 34. That's the backstory.
In the pilot episode, Edwin is contacted by an Air Force officer who informs him that the government have thawed out his dad Luke, alive and well. (Perhaps he Luke-warmed.) Luke Carpenter is now 101 years old, but physically only 34 ... and an exact lookalike for his grandson Ken. The rascally Luke and the buttoned-down Ken were both played by the underrated actor Monte Markham, who managed to play the lookalike roles so that they were clearly two different people ... with different accents, body language and personalities.
When Luke and Ken were in the same scene (requiring actor Markham to be in two places at the same go), the photographic mattes for this effect were handled much more impressively than comparable sequences in other sitcoms from this same period, with two Patty Dukes or two Elizabeth Montgomerys trying to interact.
After the initial set-up, most of the episodes of this short-lived series dealt with rootin'-tootin' Luke acclimating himself to this amazing new age. He leers at Karen Black in a miniskirt, and gazes in astonishment at a cowboy movie on television. ('By golly, there's a midget in that box!') When the cowboy actor draws a gun, Luke draws his own sidearm and shoots the TV. (Must be a great revolver, to survive 67 years in a glacier and still work perfectly ... and very considerate of the U.S. government to let him keep it.) More poignantly, Edwin had to deal with the arrival of a father he'd never known, whom he'd always resented for having abandoned him.
The science-fictional premise of the pilot episode was maintained sporadically through the sitcom's brief run. In one episode, a cabal of evil scientists conspired to learn the secret of cryogenics by abducting Luke and freezing him again. By error, they snatched his identical grandson Ken instead ... and they were freezing *him* when rescue arrived.
This series had a nice easy-going theme tune, in keeping with its main character's 19th-century origin. But it lacked scripts and direction on a level with the acting and the distinctive premise. There was a limp attempt to give Luke a clever catchphrase: "Not bad for a hunnerd an' one," Luke would boast each time he did something noteworthy.
If only the writing had been better, this could have been one of the classic 1960s sitcoms. (With commercials for Birdseye Frozen Dinners.) Arthur O'Connell had a long and distinguished career as a character actor. A few years after this series was cancelled, O'Connell starred in a series of commercials for Crest toothpaste. He gleefully announced that he was paid so much money for these commercials that he saw no need to take any other roles, ever again.
'The Second Hundred Years' is also the title of a Laurel & Hardy movie. That film and this TV series are not related, although they probably both took their title from the joke about the extremely old man. When asked to divulge the secret of his longevity, he replied: 'The first hundred years are the hardest.'