Using Authenticity for Imitation: Baa Baa Black Sheep (TV Showcase #38)

After falling in love with “The Wild Wild West”, how could I not come back to Robert Conrad at some point? When looking for shows that I wanted to watch, I found that after WWW, Conrad had gone on to make this show, and I immediately wrote it down so I’d remember to watch it. Well, I finally got back around to it, 29 shows after “The Wild Wild West”. This show had more claims to fame than Robert Conrad however, and in this Showcase, I’d like to talk about a technique that I noticed that stood out, so let’s take a trip to the South Pacific in this look at “Baa Baa Black Sheep”.

“Baa Baa Black Sheep” (BBBS for short), later renamed “Black Sheep Squadron”, was created in 1976 and ran for 36 hour-long episodes (with the exception of a pilot movie) over two seasons, ending in 1978. The show focused on Greg “Pappy” Boyington, a fighter pilot in his thirties who by beating the odds formed his own flight squadron during World War II to fight the Japanese in the Pacific. The squadron, called the Black Sheep Squadron, consisted of rule-breakers and trouble makers from throughout the air corps, but under Pappy’s stern hand and willingness to connect on a personal level, the squadron became one of the most feared and respected in the South Pacific. The show was based on a true story, and the real Pappy Boyington cameo’d several times.

First of all, let me point out that most of the acting on BBBS was brilliant. The squadron was quite large for a cast of characters, and the show wasn’t formulated in a way that each episode highlighted a different character. Once in a while a certain character would be featured, but for the most part, the show consisted of all the characters working together. And somehow, I was able to catch on to the characters’ first and last names, their rank, and their personality type within the first few episodes. This is because while everyone’s acting was good, no one acted any “better” than anyone else; that is to say, while there may have been some more talented actors on the show than others, it did not show; all actors played on the same level of supporting roles, and this created a camaraderie that allowed the audience to jump right in. But this wasn’t the main thing the show did well.

Being that BBBS was about fighter pilots, it seemed to make sense that episodes would contain an aerial dogfight, and they did. But that was hard to pull off in 1976: not only was it difficult to shoot and execute the choreography, but it would also prove extremely expensive to find genuine World War II fighter planes for the Americans and the Japanese alike and fly them for hours and hours a day while shooting. But the Black Sheep were strong-willed; they wouldn’t stay on the ground, and the audience would want authentic-looking dogfights. So what was the solution?

In order to solve this problem, the showrunners of BBBS used real World War II fighter pilot footage from the Pacific. They would have prop planes that they would use to fly around, but when the fighting actually started, all of the footage was straight out of real-life WWII planes. Did it look like it? Yes. And the audience probably knew it was real footage too, because it looked completely different from the show. But that added to the effect, not took away: it made the scene seem like the character’s fighting was how the real fight scene came to exist;  like these were the kind of men that shaped World War II. I would hold to the opinion that using the real footage was a risky move and had a lot of potential to lose interest from the audience, but when the show aired, it was a big success. And the real Black Sheep Squadron enjoyed watching it too, by the way.

“Baa Baa Black Sheep” was a well-done show that highlighted the brotherhood shared by a squadron during a tough time of war. And the aerial footage that was used only added to the realistic aspect that no amount of reenactments ever could. What do you think?

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