Wednesday, June 12, 2013


Jefferson Redux
1976.  This was a year of hype for the nation's Bicentennial.  What with Watergate, Vietnam and most of the violent turmoil in the recent past, the country was focused on the elections--Jimmy Carter was elected this fall, disposing of any (visible) remnants of Nixon's soiled administration extended under Ford.  And as race riots and anti-war protests were giving way to a post-trauma malaise, the sitcoms settled down into a maturity of their own this season.  Mary Tyler Moore ended her seven-year reign as leader of the comedy revolution while audiences saw the first brief appearances of Jack Tripper and Crissy Snow--ushering in the  focus on sexuality and titillation in the network TV comedy world.  While Norman Lear would continue to challenge viewer's perceptions and priorities--especially regarding political hypocrisy in this election year--Garry Marshall would hold ratings court with his pop culture offerings reflecting the age of Ike.

As we said goodbye to the WJM news crew, bade farewell to Lamont and Fred Sanford (for now), and had our last moments with Freddie "Chico" Prinze,there were a few premieres of note this year.  Along with the short mid season blast of "Three's Company" (which we will discuss next segment), audiences enjoyed one of the last attempts at quality ensemble sitcoms via "The Tony Randall Show," the perfect vehicle for insult comic Don Rickles in "CPO Sharkey," and two--count 'em, two-- attempts to capitalize on the vinegar of Nancy Walker.  Along with the premiere of the "Barney Miller" spin off "Fish" starring Abe Vigoda (who IS still alive), it is interesting to note how "middle-aged and older" was not necessarily a deduction in the lead comedy role sweepstakes.  It is also interesting to note that none of these series lasted more than two seasons--"The Golden Girls" was still eight years away!


There were two videotaped sitcoms premiering this season based upon seriocomic feature films.
"What's Happening" returned in November after a successful four episode tryout last season.   "Good Times" co-creator Eric Monte wrote the feature film "Cooley High"-- a nostalgic look back to the Chicago projects in 1964 featuring a couple of high school students and their misadventures.  The film, which ends in tragedy,was a hit for American International Pictures and was considered a relatively realistic look at growing up black at that time.  The film was deemed a black version of "American Graffiti" and the similarities didn't end with the films.  Much like the Graffiti/Happy Days scenario, "Cooley High" was retooled for television in a sanitized version with the characters and settings completely different.  "What's Happening" was the first solo effort for Norman Lear's ex-partner Bud Yorkin (outside of the Sanford
Not So Cooley
world) and originally the show intended to be a direct take-off of the film--a comedy drama filmed with one camera.  Fred Silverman, now remaking ABC for the youth market after making CBS an adult paradise, felt the material was too dark and thus was  born the series we got.  Switching to videotape with a studio audience, the show revolved around three friends in Watts: Raj, Dwayne, and the obese "Rerun" (Ernest Thompson Jr, Heywood Nelson and Fred Berry).   They hung around a malt shop with obese waitress Shirley (Shirley Hemphill).  Raj lived with his obese mother (Mabel King) and his extremely sarcastic and droll little sister (Danielle King).  The only real similarities to the film:  Raj was a bookish type, aspiring to a writing career and the boys hung out in a restaurant.  Even though at times the series seemed dated--like an African-American version of "Happy Days"-- it actually was contemporary in setting.  But like Yorkin's "Sanford and Son" the series played on stereotypes and never reached too far in dealing with race-related issues as Monte's "Good Times" was doing on CBS.  It relied more on insults and dating  hi-jinks than anything else.

While Monte had this problem transitioning his thought-provoking material to TV, it worked to Robert Getchell's advantage.  Getchell wrote a bubbly romantic comedy about a widow and her young son leaving New Jersey to go West and find the Hollywood singing career that she suppressed during her unhappy marriage.   Ellen Burstyn, who would win an Oscar for her performance as Alice Hyatt,  gave the script to up and coming director  Martin Scorsese--fresh off the hyper-violent 'Mean Streets."  Thus was born the feature "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore":  a sometimes funny, sometimes uncomfortably dark study in human emotions.  The film was shot almost like a documentary with it's realism and natural acting.
On her journey, Alice's car breaks down en route to LA and she gets a job at Mel's Diner in Tucson Arizona and there she meets a wacky crew of waitstaff.  But when the sitcom "Alice" premiered this season the crew at the diner were the main characters along with Alice (Linda Lavin) and her smart aleck son Tommy.  Even Vic Tayback reprised his role as Mel for the three camera series with a studio audience and a setting in Phoenix.
 Polly Holliday and Beth Howland played the saucy Texan Flo and the scattered Vera respectively.   Why was Getchell happy?  Because the frothiness of the sitcom (which would  become more and more prominent during the over-long eight season run) was more in line with his original concept.  So audiences had reason to be confused with this show after experiencing the classic seventies film helmed by one of the most important directors of the era.

As the United States is currently in the midst of it's mightiest advances in gay rights, it was way back in 1976 that  television saw it's first openly gay characters in recurring roles.  The extremely short-lived "Corner Bar" in 1972 was actually the first with Vincent Schiavelli's Peter Panama but it wasn't until this season when gay characters were written into series with much more mainstream visibility.  "Barney Miller," "All in the Family," and "Hot L Baltimore" led the way in previous seasons.  This season, as you shall see below, was landmark in exploring gender roles in society.  Unfortunately, as with the myopic racial characterizations , the now-quaint seventies sitcoms could veer toward offensive stereotypes in this social arena as well--especially when one of the main plot points in "Three's Company" is swinger Jack Tripper's ruse of being gay to fool the the landlord, Mr. Roper into letting him shack up with the girls.
Didn't get the memo.
But as American audiences are introduced to characters "that just happen to be gay," the first depiction of a gay professional athlete (as they are now coming out in 2013!), and TV's first transgender character, the seventies once again are a proving ground for opening up audience's minds to previously forbidden topics--even if it's in a somewhat naive and/or unrealistic fashion.  Mixed messages were sent though as a promising new comedy on NBC was cancelled before it even aired as the network feared audience reaction to a powerful gay regular character.

The transgener character mentioned above was portrayed by Linda Gray ("Dallas"'s Sue Ellen) in Norman Lear's second nightly soap-opera parody "All That Glitters."  Due to the success of "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman"--extended through this season until it's format change in fall of 1977--Lear came up with the idea of this series in the midst of a sexual revolution.  What if God had created Eve first?  And women pretty much ran the world?  Based on this premise, the series took place in an alternate universe where women "ruled the roost" and men were subservient to their needs.  The setting was the global corporation Globatron and Lois Nettleton was the head honcho and the male characters, future WKRP-er Gary Sandy among them, were sexually harrassed and humiliated.  Lear made sure to stay true to form by hiring mostly women as producers and writers.  But even with the topicality and a crack ensemble cast (Eileen Brennan, Barbara Baxley, Anita Gillette and Gray), the five-nights-a-week serial may have shared the studio-audience-less timing and warped sense of humor of "Mary Hartman" but--with audiences now tiring of Lear's revolutionary tropes--not the ratings.

Speaking of "Mary Hartman," Mary Kay Place, a frequent writer on many sitcoms this season, would win an Emmy this season as Supporting Actress for her convincing portrayal of Loretta Haggard, the good hearted country western singer as she makes her way to the top until she utters an anti-Semitic remark on Dinah Shore's talk show.  Place actually did cut a few albums (as "Loretta") featuring many famous country singers.


Pinky saga.
#1.  Happy Days (ABC).   Fonzie and Uncle Sam were competing for America's heart this Bicentennial year.  Another 50's staple, the roller derby, was featured prominently as the season opened with Pinky Tuscadero and the rivalry between the Fonz and Count Malachi.   With Pat Morita ("Arnold") on other shows this season (see below), local hangout Arnold's was taken over by Al Delvechio (Marshall stalwart Al Molinaro from "Odd Couple") who would come packaged with his own set of catch-phrases and lovable character quirks.  The boys vied heavily with Fonzie for story arcs but most of the time it was the Four Musketeers such as when the boys attend their military recruitment physicals with the Fonz in tow.  The characters interacted with each other with the Fonz being the center of gravity.  Richie keeps tabs on the pregnant wife of the Fonz's buddy.  Fonzie enters a dance marathon with Joannie.  Fonzie tries to help Richie get girls.  Potsie, Ralph and Richie are pretty much trying to match Fonz in the romantic hook-up department the entire season.   Plus:  Mrs. C works at Arnold's in one episode.  Ralph Malph runs a failed bookie operation.  John Travolta's older girlfriend Diana Hyland plays an older woman Fonzie dates before her stint on "Eight is Enough." And although the shark jump occurs next season, "Happy Days" was getting pretty close to the water this year with the near-iconic Fonzie secretly graduating from high school and getting baptised by Al's twin brother, a priest--I kid you not.  The dysfunctional Bunkers were kicked from the top of the pile by a sanctimonious hoodlum.  Go figure.

#2.  Laverne and Shirley (ABC).  This "Happy Days' progeny shared the top-rated Tuesday
Class Wars
night Prime Time hour.  Just to keep the connection (as if the time slot wasn't enough) the girls babysat Fonzie's godson and had Richie and Fonzie guest star for good measure.  There was much activity in the social register wars as Carole Ita White was featured as fellow classmate Rosie Greenbaum--marrying into money she became the nemesis to our low-class heroes.  Crazy neighbors Lenny and Squiggy played larger roles as they joined the circus and even dated the girls in one episode.  Most of the shows were of the wacky contrived situation of the week variety--the girls find themselves as candy stripers in a  hospital, a singing duet, students in a fashion model school, taxi dancers, guinea pigs in a laboratory, and taking driving lessons.  Just to remind us that we are in the seventies (watching a show about the fifties), the series had Laverne coming home in boxer shorts after a night out and fearing she is pregnant; the girls mistakenly getting arrested for prostitution in the park; Shirley dealing with her alcoholic father; and Laverne being accused of shoplifting.  But for the most part the show followed along with the standard Marshall sitcom tropes:  a clip show after only a year on the air; the obligatory "let's put on a Christmas show" episode (in a mental hospital, no less)--Betty Garrett (previously on "All in the Family") joined the cast as landlady Edna Babbitt allowing her to show her dancing chops and banjo playing occasionally; and a haunted house show.  Guests this season included old-timer Louis Nye and up and comer Harry Shearer.

The final Burns.
#4.  M*A*S*H (CBS).  This was the last season where the comedy and drama were somewhat seamless, despite head writer Larry Gelbart having left the series by now.  This was due to the continued presence of Gene Reynolds as producer and Larry Linville's comic foil Frank Burns.  Comedy fodder was provided as Burns fumed over Hot Lips' wedding to Major Penobscott and Klinger upped the incidences of his Section Eight attempts.  But the wackiness was getting diluted as straight-laced BJ cheats on his wife; Hawkeye gets temporarily blinded; a hepatitis outbreak occurs at the 4077th; and Dr. Friedman composes a letter to Sigmund Freud.

The Freud episode was the first Emmy win for Alan Alda as director giving him permission  to change the tone of the  show for good after this season. "M*A*S*H" also  took home an award for Supporting Actor, with Gary Burghoff winning his first as the Teddy Bear-carrying, ESP-gifted  Radar O'Reilly.

#10. One Day at a Time (CBS).  The sophomore season starts with a multi-part storyline that has Julie running away with her boyfriend Chuck.  After that's settled, David Kane returns to propose marriage to Ann.  When she turns him down, Richard Masur's character is replaced by neighbor Ginny Wroblicki (played by Mary Louise Wilson).  She is a saucy woman who Schneider gets the hots for.  Her tenure doesn't last long as Wilson's Broadway persona tended to overshadow Bonnie Franklin's over- acting.  The gig allowed Wroblicki to take Ann to a single's bar and participate in the obligatory "musical" show taking place New Years Eve in a retirement home.  (This is where Valerie Bertinelli does her famous Elton John impression.)   Julie gets involved with a church and develops overt religious zeal in a few episodes.  Ann deals with various gender-related work issues at the ad agency, mostly with her boss played by John Hillerman.  Schneider's nephew turns out to be a thief. Barbara actually gets some airtime this season as she tries to change her image from tomboy to sexpot.  This introduces us to a couple of her high school friends who will vie for her affections over the course of the next couple of years--slick Cliff (Scott Colomby) and naive Bob (John Putch).

#11.  Three's Company (ABC).  Only six episodes in March.  That was how it all started.
The NRW team ("The Jeffersons") brought Jack, Crissy Janet and The Ropers from a BBC\ series "Man About the House" for this series tryout.  Full of sexual innuendo and wacky misunderstandings, this landmark series put the nail in the coffin of the "important" sitcom revolution of the seventies leading to the new "T and A" brand of comedy.  Jack Tripper (John Ritter) is found passed out in the bathtub of scantily clad ditzy blond Crissy (Suzanne Somers) and cute but sensible Janet (Joyce Dewitt) and the leering and sexual innuendo proceed nonstop.   Ironically, the NRW team  had a hand in creating "All in the Family"-- also based on a British TV sitcom.  More on this show next installment.

#12.  All in the Family (CBS).  This season opens with a number of multi-parters.  Archie cheats on Edith with a waitress (Janis Paige).  Archie gets laid off from his dock job and must get on unemployment.  Archie has surgery and must get a blood transfusion from his black doctor.  Edith is doing more work at the Sunshine Home and even saves an elderly life.  Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers (Mike and Gloria) were not in many episodes this season, possibly due to contract issues and Carroll O'Connor's escalating control of the show's direction and content.  But they did have an impact:  Mike gets a vasectomy and he evens questions his pacifist nature when he deliberately knocks a man out in a violent attacker on a subway.

As the sitcom trend was veering toward pop idols and nostalgia and juvenile sex jokes, Lear made sure the Bunkers didn't lose their bite, especially this season:  In one of the finest moments of American television Mike invites his draft dodger friend for Christmas dinner with the Bunkers.  Archie invites his war veteran buddy Pinky.  When Archie finds out the truth about Mike's buddy, he is confused as Pinky reaches out to shake the young man's hand.  Pinky had lost his son Vietnam.  Carroll O'Conner gives a tour de force performance, flawlessly blending pathos and drama with bursts of comedy as he processes all of this. This is one of the most important episodes in the series (if not the decade in general):  O'Connor actually uttered a forbidden epithet during his outburst and it was uncut in original viewing, allowed for it's authenticity and honesty more than for ratings or "buzz."  Conservatives were aghast, claiming that this episode "aided and abetted" the enemy during the cold war.  President Jimmy Carter actually pardoned a draft evader (the first time) months after this aired.

And the show had some memorable frivolous moments playing on Archie's racism this season.  Archie may be getting soft on his bigotry this season, albeit in a sideways way.
A Stretch for Archie.
When Archie delivers the eulogy at  his old buddy Stretch Cunningham's funeral, he doesn't realize that Stretch was Jewish.  So Archie dons a yarmulke and attempts to reign in his closed-mindedness.  He even becomes and advocate for integrating his all-white lodge--for pr reasons--by recruiting a member who is black and Jewish!  What a softie.   Archie gets to make plenty of Puerto-Rican slurs as the Bunkers rent out Mike and Gloria's room to Teresa Betancourt (Liz Torres) who also helps out around the house.   And he even gets chummier with transvestite Beverly LaSalle, even if it is in the service of using her for a practical joke on an old army buddy.  We start seeing more of Archie's crony Barney (played by sitcom veteran Allan Melvin) such as when Archie runs over Barney's dog.  Plus guest stars this season include future Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham as a civil servant and previous Oscar winner Estelle Parsons as an old fling of Archies.

Having maintained a successful tentpole on Monday nights last season, CBS tried it on Wednesdays this fall.  Paired with the new "Alice," it didn't go over well.  ABC and Fred Silverman had Farrah Fawcett and "Charlies' Angels." (More pop culture power).  So by mid-fall, the Bunkers were moved to Sunday night where it would remain throughout it's entire multi-formatted run.

Although nominated for many Emmys this season, the only win was for Carroll O'Connor--only his second.  This was no doubt due to his masterful performance in the Christmas episode.  The fact that this episode did not win the directing category is a travesty.

#13.  Welcome Back, Kotter (ABC).  The sweathogs enter their second season as cultural
Secret to Great Marriage
touchstones among the young television viewing audience--a close second to the Fonz.  The urban drama was pretty rare, being unevenly mixed with the vaudeville antics of teacher Gabe Kotter and his wacky entourage.  Horschack disappears after losing his fifth dad.  Barbarino gets slapped by a coach.  Gabe and wife Julie have marital issues.  But there is good news:  Gabe and Julie end up pregnant by season's end.   Epstein's cousin (Lisa Mordente) briefly becomes the first female Sweathog in a failed attempt at diversity.  (This is where the gender revolution was failing:  Sweathog-land).  Speaking of Epstein--in an episode that really showed how far this series was from the reality of an inner-city high school--Gabe and the Sweathogs convince him to quit smoking....cigarettes!  And the boys had their moments at parody:  they were investigative journalists in one episode, courtroom lawyers in a mock trial in another.  And there was a take-off on the Scared Straight phenomenon.  Garry Shandling wrote an episode and comic legend George Carlin even appeared as a radio DJ.

#17.  Barney Miller (ABC).  This series reached a high point as the ratings finally matched the critical acclaim thanks mostly to ABC's powerhouse comedy lineups.  Until "Taxi" arrives, "Barney Miller" would be the rare hit adult comedy for the  network amidst the teen beat comedy set.  This season would see some of the funniest episodes.  Firstly, the famous "hash" incident where the detectives accidentally get stoned off some brownies.  Also the two part quarantine episode was highly regarded and Emmy-nominated.  The 12th precinct was visited this season by a fencing priest, a blind shoplifter, a perpetrator with a split personality and a man claiming to be a werewolf (in a brilliant departure from reality, he is not necessarily debunked by the end of the episode).  Barney and his fellow cops dealt with many things this year:  a police strike, a cult rescue, a brothel fronting as a sex clinic, a power failure, a smog alert, and many incidents related to the 1976 presidential election.  As for individual characters, Harris finally gets published--in a "gentleman's" magazine! .Steve Landesberg  becomes a regular (as the hilariously droll Deitrich) with the loss of Gregory Sierra's Chano who doesn't return this season.  We start seeing more of Ron Carey's eager officer Leavitt and James Gregory's expert portrayal of Inspector Luger.  June Battista provides efficient (if not short-lived)  double duty as  representation on the series:  as the Cuban detective Battista, she replaces Linda Lavin's Wentworth as well as the Latino Chano.  And Fish goes undercover as Santa Claus.

Speaking of Fish, Abe Vigoda was wanting his own series.  His laconic Fish character was a hit with audiences.  Creator Danny Arnold didn't want him out of the station house.  Therefore, a compromise was made.  He would semi-retire.  As he still appeared on "Barney" throughout the season, he got his own series in January.
Fish (ABC).  Detective Phil Fish and his adoring, long-suffering wife Bernice (Florence
You Go, Fish.
Stanley) end up opening up their large house as wards of a group of young PINS (Persons In Need of Supervision).  Of course, this allowed the crusty character to interact with (you guessed it) an ethnic blend of precocious kids and tough teens.  These kids were not quite as cute as ABC was used to.  They were involved in gambling, gang violence and promiscuity--they made the Sweathogs look like the Seven Dwarfs.  Even the youngest, played by future "Diff'rent Strokes" star Todd Bridges, turns racist after watching an episode of "Roots."  There's cross-promotion for you.  But even though the producers came from "Barney Miller" and the series did well enough to renew, "Fish" couldn't find it's place as it was stuck between the "Teen Trials" formula and the slow burn stylings of Vigoda and his crack writing team.

#23.  Eight is Enough (ABC).  Although this series had the perfect "sitcom" formula and even a subdued laugh track, the hour long comedy-drama doesn't really classify as a sitcom for my purposes.  I have tried to limit discussion to half-hour programs as much as possible.  But for the record, this story of Sacramento news columnist Tom Bradford and his eight kids (of all ages and types) was based on the actual man and his memoirs.  Dick Van Patten (who had appeared on just about every sitcom since 1970)  played Bradford and Diana Hyland was his wife.  Hyland's untimely death this year would lead to Bradford finding a new wife in Abbie (Betty Buckley) for the remainder of the run (until 1981).  The show would remain a hit staple of the ABC teen/family/jiggle (there was some sexual content here) genre sweep.  Lee Rich of Lorimar produced this one as it's successful followup to the previous hit "The Waltons" on CBS.

#24.  The Jeffersons (CBS).  Probably the best Bicentennial tie-in was provided by this series now in it's third season.  George Jefferson claims to be a descendant of Thomas Jefferson, by way of his relationship with slave Sally Hemmings.  Actually, George's integrity played a large part in the story lines this season as he schemed his way up the social ladder--including taking flying lessons!  The show dealt less with the racial elements of the adjustment to the elitist world this season as it did with the basic elements of identity and ego.  George did show a different side as he decided not to sell the cleaners in order to prevent the firing of a long-time employee.  Florence moves in this season and there are many episodes dealing with the relationship between Lionel and Jenny who finally got married in December.

#25.  What's Happening (ABC).  As Bud Yorkin's series returned from it's summer tryout in November, ABC's teen audience turned out in droves for the antics of the Raj, Rerun and Dwayne as they try to meet girls and participate in money-making schemes.  Whereas the source material was referred to as a "black" version of "American Grafitti," the exploits of these three guys were reminescent of Richie, Potsie and Ralph Malph on "Happy Days."  Just without a "Fonzie" character.  

#26.  Good Times (CBS).  Whereas "The Jeffersons," "What's Happening!!," and the soon-to-end "Sanford and Son" would continue to reflect the African-American experience as a series of insult-throwing shenanigans, "Good Times" still attempted to buck the trend in it's fourth year.  Although  the JJ character was written and portrayed broadly (leading to John Amos's frustrated departure this season to "Roots" and Esther Rolle's next season), the story lines represented realistic situations inherent in being a minority living in the projects in modern America.  Right off the bat,  Amos's exit from the series is written as tragedy:  father James is killed in a car accident after he is hired on a job in Mississippi and the family gets ready to move.  More examples:  Michael joins a gang and tries to back out after his friend is beaten by the same group; JJ's close friend attempts suicide; the family wins a lottery but loses the winnings to a holdup.  The family is constantly dealing with eviction threats and financial difficulties.  JJ loses his job and resorts to involvements with shady characters involved in gambling, prostitution, drugs and loan sharking.  He ends up repping a comic and starting a greeting card business.  JJ dates an "older" woman.  Thelma examines her own "roots" as she dates an African exchange student only to find out she will be part of a harem.  Local urban politics plays a large role this season with JJ running for alderman and dealing with corruption and cronyism.  Alice Ghostly appears as a loan officer as the family attempt to get funds to live.  On a lighter note, Michael forms a band with his friends and when grandpa visits, he actually shares the room with a girlfriend!

That doesn't sit too well with Florida, whose Christian piety is no secret.  So it comes as a surprise to audiences when, by mid-season, she has already met a new man Carl (Moses Gunn) and he is an atheist to boot!  She is clearly not happy though when he influences Michael to look into atheism.  But by the end of the season, in keeping with the realistic and tragic themes, Carl is diagnosed with lung cancer before proposing to Florida.  And she accepts.

#27.  Sanford and Son (NBC).  As  Redd Foxx and Demond Wilson ended their six year stint as the Sanfords this season, the plots would get even more fantastical and unrealistic.   Fred and Lamont still run the "Arms" as well as the Junkyard.   The season opened with a multi-part "adventure" having Fred and Lamont vacationing in Hawaii and getting involved in a jewel heist.  The episodes spoofed "Mission Impossible" and "Hawaii 5-0" to the extent of using the theme music and borrowing Greg Morris and Sheldon Leonard as the thieves and James Gregory as the cop.
Aloha, Fred Sanford-for now.
 They even ventured outdoors for action sequences which seemed strange with the videotaped format.  This was the closest any Norman Lear episode came to the inanity of sixties sitcom plots.  Other instances of a  lack of ideas and/or a reliance on old Hollywood schtick-meisters at the helm:  Oil is discovered in the junkyard and an Arab Sheik (Ross Martin) pays a visit; Fred tries to break the record for staying awake; Aunt Esther and Fred end up  handcuffed to one another; Fred gets amnesia; the Sanford Arms are used for a stakeout; Fred hooks up with a shyster religious cult to form the Chapel of Junkpile for the Church of Seventh Day Junkists (I'm not kidding) for a tax break; and the penultimate example of Lucy-like desperation:  Fred meets Redd Foxx at a Redd Foxx look-a-like contest.  Oh, did I mention Fred and Lamont compete on the Gong Show?

Out Foxxed.
Sitting slightly outside the silliness:  Esther and husband Woody adopt a son.  Lamont examines his heritage (also influenced by "Roots") leading bigoted Fred to find out he has an Ethiopian Jewish ancestry.  Fred forms the Gray Panthers to fight age discrimination.  BB King appears in a musical episode related to "Lucille".  Fred plays his own father in flashback related to pool hustling in the thirties.  Strangely, this season deals with twists in Lamont's relationship with fiance Janet and Fred's extra-long courtship of long-suffering Donna but by season's end there is no resolution in either romance.  Actually, there were no resolutions at all.  The show just ended.

#29.  Tony Randall Show (ABC).   Tom Patchett and Jay
Tarses, creators of "The Bob Newhart Show" brought Randall back to ABC with another MTM-produced class-act.  Randall portrays Philadelphia judge Walter Franklin.  He is a widower raising a teenage daughter and a pre-teen son.  In true MTM fashion, the audience gets equal taste of his work life and home life, both populated by zany well-written characters.  The cast has an impressive pedigree with film actors "slumming" for TV (as it was called in those days).  Allyn Ann McLerie ("Jeremiah Johnson","All the President's Men") played Franklin's uptight assistant.  Rachel Roberts ("A Flea in Her Ear," "O Lucky Man!") played his daft British housekeeper.  Barney Martin (later to be Seinfeld's dad) played the low-key court reporter.  And, in a gag to be seen a lot in sitcoms this season, an overzealous court employee despised by the judge, is named "Mario Lanza."   A lot of the episodes dealt with Franklin trying to revive his love life amidst the chaos of his job and his family responsibilities.  This quest for companionship involved a young Annette O'Toole in one episode and, in a story arc throughout the season, Diana Muldaur as a fellow judge.  There was even room for topicality:  a bag of marijuana is found in the judge's office leading to speculation; Franklin screens a pornographic film, allowing it be shown for First Amendment reasons yet forbidding his daughter from seeing it.  Although the ratings and reviews were favorable, ABC chief Silverman cancelled the series due to the constant infighting between star Randall and the Patchett-Tarses team.  Co-Producer Gary David Goldberg (soon to be Michael J. Fox's svengali with "Family Ties" and "Spin City") would take over as the series will move to CBS the next season.

#30.  Alice (CBS).  This premiere season would be the only one run by veteran sitcom writers Harvey Bullock, William D'Angelo, and Ray Allen ("The Flintstones," "Love American Style" etc).  That would be evident, strangely, as this is the only season that dealt with Norman Lear-like themes and venture into controversial territory, even if it does so with a lighter touch.  Although Mel's Diner was the primary setting, a good deal of time was spent dealing with newly widowed Alice from New Jersey raising her precocious teenage son in the alien environs of Phoenix's Desert Sun Apartments. As previously discussed, this sitcom was much more of a comedy than the dark source film and it never veered into a "fish out of water" scenario of East meets West.  But this first season Phoenix was represented in a more bucolic fashion, with the diner's decor featuring cacti and the counter populated by redneck truckers rather than generic sitcom types later featured.  The season started out with some serious story lines--hard to imagine after seeing how ridiculous the show's tone would become.  Alice deals with her husband's will.  Tommy has naked pictures in his wallet.  Vera gets hooked on sleeping pills.  Alice gets obscene phone calls.  Flo sleeps around a lot (well that doesn't change).  And a food critic (Victor Buono) dies at the diner during a review!  There were interesting guest stars as well:  Tom Poston playing Vera's mortician boyfriend; Kaye Ballard as a vengeful Gypsy; Eileen Heckert and Murray Hamilton as Alice's splitting in-laws; and Kenneth Mars.  But by the end of the season, the show is already veering into wackiness with the diner crew:  Mel does a TV commercial featuring the girls; they find a bag of lost money; a car gets comically wrecked; Mel's bowling trophy ends up in a rummage sale; Flo bunks with Alice; Alice plays matchmaker to lonely Vera; and there is a robbery at the diner.  Plus, even CBS's "Alice" would invade the pop culture catchphrase world led by ABC with sassy Texan Flo's "Kiss My Grits" and Mel's "Stow It!".  

RETURNING SERIES (in alphabetical order):

Bob Newhart Show (CBS).  Dr. Hartley, wife Emily and the patients continue to provide
The Group.
solid laughs during this fifth season without any cast changes or major plot upheavals, despite the lower ratings due to ABC's dominance with dumber fare.  This year, audiences see more of Tom Poston as Bob's old college pal The Peeper.  A few key episodes:  Bob, Jerry and Howard go camping with a group of orphans; Bob's parents split up; Bob and Emily are locked in the condo's storage locker; Bob is held hostage in a bank robbery; and Jerry tries to find his birth parents.  And when Emily claims to be pregnant, in true Newhart fashion, the incident turns out to be nightmare.--a real nightmare, sparing this adult series the doom of the cute baby/family syndrome.

Chico and the Man (NBC).  The third season showed ratings decline as Friday night lead-in "Sanford and Son" was on it's last legs.  For the most part, there was some sentimentality mixed in with the crazy scenarios as Ed treated Chico more like a son he never had.  The sappy: Ed may be the father to an unborn child; Chico yearns to be a boxer and deals with an old flame amongst his many girlfriends.  The wacky:  Ed has a rooster involved in a cockfight; Chico convinces Ed to pay his taxes; Ed sells his dead wife's outfit to a cross dresser.  Della Reese becomes a regular this season as Ed's new landlord.  Also, there are plenty of pop culture guest appearances from past and present:  Caesar Romero appears as Chico's dad; Rose Marie plays a CB Radio obsessed trucker; George Gobel; Rosie Grier; Pat Buttram.

Freddie Prinz was in the midst of serious drug problems and depression by now.  A couple of episodes before the end of the season, one show had Ed talking to God about his love for Chico.  That would be the final episode for Prinz as he would commit suicide right after that taping.  Remaining episodes would feature Ed, Louie and Della with"Chico" having returned to Mexico.  The show would return next season with a poorly thought-out desperate resolution.

Doc (CBS).  With "All in the Family" moving off the Saturday night lineup (replaced by "The Jeffersons") "Doc"'s snugly time slot before soon-to-be gone "Mary Tyler Moore" was quite precarious.  In order to get better ratings, the network had MTM Productions retool the show to look and feel more like the Lear sitcoms that were remaining popular while the MTM stable was losing ratings to the Garry Marshall typhoon on ABC.  So for the first time, an MTM sitcom would be videotaped.  Also, Doc becomes a widower, we don't see his family or home life any more and he becomes the sole doctor at an inner-city clinic.  This new setting allowed the show to bring in more of the urban grit, ethnic mix of characters, and topical situations inherent in most of the comedies at the time.  But even with a crack cast including David Ogden Stiers (soon to be Major Winchester) and Audra Lindlay (soon to be Helen Roper) this version only lasted a few episodes putting a sudden end to Dr. Joe Bogert.

Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS).  Although the ratings had dropped off the map, Mary still had a lot of critical clout.  Much like the "Dick Van Dyke Show," Mary decided to quit while still on top--at least on top with the critics. In seven years, the show never wavered from it's quality writing, acting and directing.  If anything it got better.  Lost amidst the anticipation of the finale were some memorable episodes, allowing all the beloved characters to contribute. Ted and Georgette have a baby (in Mary's apartment!--Everything happens in Mary's apartment with these two).  Sue Anne gets fiercely jealous and depressive when her sister (Pat Preist) arrives and upstages her "charm offensive."  Lou proposes to Mary's returning Aunt Flo.  Murray's dad (Lew Ayres) dates Mary.  Ted has a heart attack and re-evaluates his life (to no avail).  And keeping the laughs consistent with a very serious theme, Mary gets hooked on sleeping pills and her friends intervene.

Other guest appearances include a young  Helen Hunt as Murray's daughter and David Ogden Stiers in a recurring role as a WJM senior staffer.  The biggest surprise of the season, however, was the voice of Johnny Carson when Mary invites him to one of her dreaded parties and the power goes out and no one sees him!

Speculation was rampant as to Mary's romantic resolution.    With Joe gone from the previous season, rumors had it that she would end up with her boss, Lou Grant.  It's obvious how he feels in an episode where he, Murray (always in love with her from afar), and Ted imagine what life would be like if each had ended up with her in a clever fantasy episode--the only one ever of this series, thankfully.  And in the second to last episode, Mary asks Lou on a date.  But the date ends with a hearty laugh in the midst of an awkward kiss and the realization that they are better off as friends than lovers.

But the final episode, while sentimental is still hilarious:  everyone except Ted gets fired from WJM--a typical switch ending perfected by these writers.  Rhoda and Phyllis return to console Mary.  And before Mary shuts out the lights, the core cast members embrace in a crying hug and, in need of tissue, move en masse to the Kleenex box.  With that final gag, sitcoms would never again rise  to the level of sophistication, character development, thoughtfulness, finesse, and quiet honesty again.  So long, WJM!

Of course, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" would win another Emmy for best Comedy Series in this final year.  Plus, the final episode,penned by most of the show's creators--including James L. Brooks and Alan Burns--would garner the writing award

Maude (CBS).  On the opposite end of the subtlety scale, Maude was flagging in her fifth
British Invasion.
season.  The Monday night line-up (along with "Rhoda" and "Phyllis") was failing exponentially this season due to the Bunker loss and  competition from "Little House on the Prairie" and "Monday Night Football."   Much like it's parent show ("All in the Family") and it's spin-off ("Good Times"), Maude found plenty of controversy to mine even after years of shocking audiences.  Over the course of many episodes, Walter's appliance business goes under, he gets into financial turmoil, falls into depression and gets hooked on sleeping pills.  As always that's not all:  Over the course of this season, Maude deals with wife-swappers, threatening phone calls, getting tied to a chair while burglars completely empty her house, daughter Carol dating a much younger man, and feuding with Mrs. Naugatack until she quits.  (The final episode this year will have Maude hire her new maid, Victoria.)  Walter questions his manhood when he dreams of kissing Arthur.  Arthur, a doctor, loses a patient.  Among the lighter moments,  Mrs. Maugatuck finally marries Burt and Maude and Vivian compete in a television game show (it had to happen eventually).  And with the presidential elections this year, Maude, politically active herself, is heavily involved in voter turnout and other campaign related events.  There are plenty of key guest appearances this season as well.  Martin Balsam plays one of Maude's ex-husbands as they get locked in an attorney's office together.  James Coco plays half of the aforementioned wife-swapping couple.  Nanette Fabray plays one of Maude's high school classmates at a reunion--her character having suffered a debilitating stroke.  Eve Arden, Miss Brooks herself, plays Maude's domineering aunt.

Bea Arthur will finally win her Emmy for Best Actress this year after multiple nominations.  No doubt that's what got the show renewed for a final season.  Not sure which performance she received it for.  She may have won just for putting up with Walter's problems.

Phyllis (CBS).  MTM decided to change the setting of Phyllis's work environment to shake things up.  It didn't help as "Phyllis" would muddle through it's sophomore season with no hope for the future.  This year, she worked as the assistant to the San Francisco city supervisor.  This allowed her to have more of an MTM working relationship as she had a serious crusty boss, a narcissistic inept fellow city councilman, and a sardonic female co-worker.  But the chemistry just didn't work and Phyllis was too overpowering for the other characters to develop. Plus zoning issues and local politics were not as exciting as a TV newsroom.  The writers even had Phyllis date a lot and Mary herself appeared a couple of times.  Phyllis's daughter Bess ended up getting pregnant and married by the end of the short run.   At  home, the Dexters were still around.  The matriarch of the family, Mother Dexter, in her eighties, became engaged to and got married (extremely veteran character actor Burt Mustin pulled double duty having performed this senior wedding gag with the Bunkers last year).  A lot of the humor this season came from the elderly set which was actually refreshing as ABC was gearing everything towards teenagers.  But, sadly, after the violent death of a regular the previous season and the death of Judith Lowry( the actress playing Mother Dexter) and the illness of Jane Rose (who played Dexter's daughter in law), the show seemed to have a pall cast over it.  Besides Mary, there were many notable guest stars including Jerry Stiller, John Ritter, and Jack Elam and Larry Storch as a couple of bums that Phyllis tries to help.  But "Phyllis" is the one that needed help notwithstanding Cloris Leachman's masterful comic performance.

The Practice (NBC).  NBC renewed the "other" old doctor sitcom but didn't tamper with the setting like CBS did with "Doc."  Danny Thomas returned with the addition of Mike "Lionel" Evans as an intern to add some ethnicity to the mix.  And story lines became more intense such as the one involving a mother who refuses to be separated from her mentally disabled child so she can undergo her own tests.  Much like it's CBS counterpart, this series was not strong in the ratings to begin with and,upon it's return, the scheduling was spotty and frequently interrupted.  Thus this Danny Thomas vehicle was gone by mid season despite frequent guest stars (in true NBC fashion) such as Lucille Ball (as a psychic), Bill Dana, Edie Adams, Jan Murray and daughter Marlo Thomas.

Ron Silver as Gary Levey
Rhoda (CBS).  Although competition had a lot to do with the Monday night ratings slide, some of the carnage was due to the fact that Rhoda started this season by separating from Joe.  And she was the lead-in.  Network brass at CBS thought (rightfully so, for once) that there was little comic chemistry between Valerie Harper and David Groh.  And they assumed that audiences would prefer the old single Rhoda to the more sensible married Rhoda.  Well, the gamble didn't pay off.  As Rhoda and Joe fought, split up, tried to reconcile and finally divorced, audiences were irate and left the show in droves.  There was even hate mail sent to the network.  And with Nancy Walker moving to ABC to try her hand at two different series, mother Ida was not around for her comic guilt trips.  (The writers had the elder Morgensterns take an RV trip around the country.)  And Brenda was losing even more weight and dating a number of guys.  That didn't leave much room for Harper to re-blossom as a charming funny leading lady.  With her jaunts into the swinging singles life (with new friend, stewardess Sally played by Anne Meara) and more reunions with her old school friends and travels around the world, she resembled Ann Marie ("That Girl") more than her old friend Mary.  Julie Kavner, as the still highly insecure Brenda, was having a comic field day in her interactions with various male friends such as accordianist Nick Lobo (Richard Masur) and new steady in a roller skater/toll booth operator Benny Goodwin--there's that joke again--played by Ray Buktenika.  Rhoda would date Vegas crooner Johnny Venture (Michael Ventura).  Both girls would have an oddly platonic relationship with new neighbor Gary Levey, the owner of a jeans store,  played by master thespian Ron Silver.  Once again the series, although well-acted, was plagued by too many characters and not enough of them really funny.  Except Carlton.


All's Fair (CBS)  This is possibly one of Norman Lear's best-timed series:  set in the poltical world of Washington DC during an election year post-Watergate.  Another reason this show is amazing in retrospect was that it foreshadowed the red vs. blue divide that is permeating our political media these days--even more so than the bickering between Archie Bunker and Mike the Meathead.  Predating the partisan marriage of pundits James Carville and Mary Matalin by almost twenty years, it is surprising that policy wonks never reflect on "All's Fair"-- Lear's bicentennial gift to "Hollywood for ugly people."

Here's the premise:  Richard Crenna is a 49 year old conservative political columnist Richard Barrington.  Bernadette Peters is his 23 year old extremely liberal girlfriend "Charly" Drake, an activist still photographer.  So you had the political beliefs and the age difference  separating these two  volatile lovers.  Another couple on the series was Allen, Richard's African American assistant (JA Preston) and his girlfriend Lucy (Lee Chamberlain), a CBS news correspondent.  Charly's roommate Ginger (Judith Kahan) was having an affair with a married congressman.  Jack Dodson, Howard on "Mayberry RFD," played a liberal
Crossfire 1976
midwestern Senator friend of Richard's, adding fuel to the already out of control fire.  You can see how Lear was far ahead of his time in today's age of 24  hour news saturation and screaming political pundits and a capitol press corps being in love with themselves and their way of life--regardless of sleaze level. It's almost as if all of the DC players, inside and outside of the Beltway, watched this program when they were kids (as I did) and modeled themselves after the stereotypes portrayed.   And once again, Lear was able to step outside his own progressive politics to satirize all levels of political discourse.

"All's Fair" was fairly well-received by critics, despite the level of yelling typical of a Lear product.  Being on the downward spiral of the Monday night comedy lineup didn't help the ratings.  (Rod Parker, one of the main producers behind "Maude"--the lead in--was a major player in this series as well.)   But the show stuck out the full year to allow a decent set of character arcs:  Richard proposes to Charly when she thinks she may be pregnant.  She eventually moves in with him.  Richard ironically then gets a job as a speechwriter for President Carter and hires Ginger as his assistant.  Michael Keaton has one of his first regular TV roles as Lanny Fox, jokewriter to the President.  But political material was king here, playing hand in hand with the relationship story lines.  The immediacy of the scripts regarding current events certainly didn't hurt the critical acclaim.  Only "30 Rock" would come as close in referencing it's own network as part of the thematic landscape.  There were episodes dealing with FBI investigations, Communist accusations, international espionage, and political corruption and cronyism.  And an intelligent examination of hypocrisy cannot be left out when dealing with DC:  Richard writes a column on morality after Charly moves in with him; he gives a speech to a women's rights group right after the news leaks of his relationship with young and beautiful Charly; and when President Carter dislikes a line in a speech Richard writes for  him, Richard changes the line despite his convictions.  Actually, the proliferation of mixed political marriages is a very authentic element of this series as anyone who follows the news knows:  convictions and positions are on sale to the highest bidder.

A Year at the Top (CBS).  During the summer of 1977, Lear even tackled the pop music industry.  TAT Productions teamed up with music producer Don Kirschner to create Lear's first "fantasy" sitcom.  Greg Evigan and Paul Schaffer (at the time, band leader on Saturday Night Live and soon to be David Letterman's musical director for over thirty years) play a couple of struggling rock musicians who decide sell their souls to the devil (actually, the son of devil, played by ex-Bowery Boy Gabe Dell) for one year of success.  Not much happened here with only a few episodes,  exceptt these two guys dealing with newfound fame and the literal spawn of Satan.  What's even stranger is Mickey Rooney guest starring on the premiere.  What's even more strange is this series was co-created by Dobie Gillis himself (Dwayne Hickman).

Nancy Walker had the privilege of being the only actor to have a regular or starring role in sitcoms produced by all of the big three seventies sitcom factories.  Previous to this season, besides appearing regularly on the light hearted crime series "McMillan and Wife" and memorializing paper towels as Rosie the Quicker Picker Upper, she also played Rhoda's overbearing mother Ida on "Mary Tyler Moore Show" and, of course, "Rhoda" for James L. Brooks and MTM Productions.  Her brand of sardonic humor was so well-received by critics and audiences that Fred Silverman snatched her up to add some class to the ABC comedy juggernaut.

The Nancy Walker Show (ABC).  This was Lear's other over-hyped show in the fall besides "All's Fair".  But this one didn't quite last through the fall as the other had.  Whereas Lear tackled the East Coast and mid-west in his series--New York, Chicago, Indianapolis and now DC--he never really got to lampoon the town where all his shows are taped:  Hollywood.  And as Walker played the owner of a talent agency, the in-jokes were rampant.  Nancy Kitteridge had been running her business from her large home as her husband Kenneth (William Daniels) has been in the Navy for 29 years, only returning home for his annual shore leave resulting in a really good time in a short period.  But when Kenneth comes home for good, he is sort of in the way with his rigid, military-based control issues.  After all, Nancy has been doing things her own way for almost thirty years.  The party's over, in other words.  On top of that she had to deal with her hypochondriac daughter (Beverly Archer) and son-in-law (James Cromwell).  Her assistant Terry (Ken Wolfson), an unemployed actor, was one of the first regular gay characters on TV.  And lots of industry jokes came at the expense of network executive Teddy Futterman (William Schallert of "Patty Duke Show") and his bratty, egotistical alter-ego son, Michael (Sparky Marcus).  Rod Parker had a hand in this show as well, throwing in some topicality to go with the show-biz jokes such as when Nancy and Kenneth decide to share a joint and "get high" or when Nancy thinks Terry is suicidal.
Not for long...twice.

Walker had a contract with ABC that allowed her to dive right into a second series if the first one failed.  Despite all the hype, audiences didn't care for the Lear version of Nancy. So she makes a guest appearance as Howard Cunningham's cousin Nancy Blansky on "Happy Days" and starts working for Garry Marshall at Paramount.
Blansky's Beauties (ABC) rode Fonzie's coattails to a series  much as Laverne and Shirley had done.  Due to the slight connection to the "Happy Days" family, the producers had to set the series in the fifties.  This actually limited the potential of the main themes of "bad influences" for her nephew Anthony (they would attempt to resolve this on NBC in 1978).  The bad influences were based on the premise: Nancy Blansky ran a glamorous stage show at the Oasis Hotel in Las Vegas.  Her "girls" ran the gamut from sour to sweet (Caren Kaye and Lynda Goodfriend), sophisticated to hillbilly--the typical seventies motley crew.  (This was another area where the fifties setting harmed the potential for diversity).   Her young nephew Anthony (Scott Baio) was always hanging around the girls as they were in various stages of undress, leering and veering into manhood.  Thus his access to a corrupting "environment" was  a running plot concern.  This show really didn't know what it was:  titillation, family comedy, fifties spin off, musical, ensemble piece--was Walker really necessary.  And to revisit the strange way Marshall's characters morph in and out of identities with little thought given to time and space, are you ready?  In order to  kick off the show in a big way, playing up the "Happy Days" connection, the first episode features Pinky Tuscadero (Fonzie's girlfriend) performing in a motorcyle jump for Nancy's Vegas spectacular.  At some point, Fonzie himself pays a visit as does Laverne and her dad Frank.  And Arnold runs the hotel concession after relocating from Milwaukee--remember Al took over "Arnolds."  (Pat Morita also was recuperating from a failed ABC fall series).  So far so good.  But Eddie Mekka plays the dance coach Joey and isn't he Shirley's squeeze Carmine back in Wisconsin?  And wasn't Goodfriend, playing "Sunshine" just featured on "Happy Days" as one of the girls and will be Richie's main squeeze Lori Beth next season?  And won't  Baio, as Anthony, will end up as Fonzie's cousin Chachi, creating his own harem of screaming teenage girls?  Confused?  Well, it didn't matter.  Walker would be back on "Rhoda" by next fall.  Oh, and Ross Martin guests as an Arab sheik a second time in a sitcom this season (see "Sanford and Son").

CPO Sharkey (NBC).  Aaron Ruben, having been a creative force on "Andy Griffith Show" and  "Gomer Pyle" in the sixties and more recently "Sanford and Son" decided to mix the two together and create a videotaped racially diverse slander-fest set in the military, only this time Sgt. Carter is the main character and the rube is a supporting player.  Actually, this late fall replacement series  was the perfect vehicle for star Don Rickles.  He played the veteran Navy officer making sailors out of raw recruits at a San Deigo naval base.  As the recruits were cookie-cutter ethnic stereotypes so common in  sitcoms of the day, this allowed Rickles, as Sharkey, to lay on the slurs as he did so well in his nightclub act as "Mr. Warmth."  Sharkey was not mean-spirited, prejudiced or ignorant in an Archie Bunker way.  He was a cuddly version of a politically-incorrect Borscht-Belt emcee frustrated because he wasn't starring in the review.  So along with his country-fied bo-hunk assistant, Pruitt, Sharkey had to suffer the consequences of "raising" a group of green newbies: black, Polish, Italian, Jewish, Latino, and the token midwestern farm boy.  Harrison Page played his officer friend and Elizabeth Allen was the commander, allowing Rickles to show his sexist humor as well.  We've come a long way baby.

These military men were a little rowdier than the Pyle variety.  After all, they often went off base to the disco, had experiences with inflatable women, travelled to Tijuana and mistook Sharky's toupee salesman as his gay partner.  Oh, and Larry Storch guests as a wino for the second time in a sitcom this season (see "Phyllis").

McLean Stevenson Show (NBC).  Also making a solo comeback was Stevenson, over a year after he was killed off as Henry Blake on M*A*S*H.  This was the first of many attempts to give the like able Stevenson a starring vehicle.  And it was quite unremarkable. The taped series basically revolved around "Mac," a hardware store owner in Evanston, Illinois.  He and his wife (Barbara Stuart from "Gomer Pyle") are surprised when their recently separated daughter, her two children, and their grown slacker son all move back in with them.  This mid season series, without a prominent producing or writing team behind it, didn't quite take off despite the lead's Midwestern likeability.  Guest stars included future sitcom stars Loni Anderson and Richard Mulligan.

Sirota's Court (NBC).  This was NBC's third mid season tryout during the Christmas season along with the two mentioned above.  When "Night Court" premiered in 1984, I remembered thinking how similar it was to this well-written ensemble show, sort of a "Barney Miller" for the courtroom.  (Actually Reinhold Weige of "Barney Miller" created "Night Court.")  Case in point: Night Court Judge Matthew Sirota (Michael Constantine) had  a great sense of humor and empathy for the inner city freakshow that would appear before him (like Harry Stone).  He had a sort-of romance with the court clerk and dealt with the sexy ultra-liberal public defender (the combination gives you Christine Sullivan).  The courtroom was populated by an odd bailiff (like Bull), a vain and inept district attorney (Fred Willard) and an opportunistic public defender (Ted Ross)--.the combination gives you Dan Fielding.   Even with the similarities this short-lived series, videotaped for Universal Studios, tended to be a bit grittier and realistic than it's eighties twin.

Szysznyk (CBS). This was another ensemble show taking place in the inner, inner city.  Acclaimed film actor Ned Beatty, fresh off heralded stints on "Deliverance" "Nashville" and "Network" played Nick Szysznyk, a retired Marine working as a playground supervisor at a Washington DC community center.  The comedy came from Nick's frustration with the bureaucracy of city government  especially when dealing with the multi-ethnic group of street kids and the  public counselor played by Olivia Cole.  The taped series, with support from Rich Eustis, Jerry Weintraub and Jim Burrows,  did very well on a five-episode summer run and returned later the next season.

Ball Four (CBS).  This series was based on the book of the same title where baseball player Jim Bouton blows the whistle on the womanizing, drug abuse and overall misbehavior inherent in minor league ball clubs.  Bouton played himself, a team member of the Washington Americans, dealing with the public relations fallout of a scandalous article he published regarding his team.  This fall premiere, highly touted for it's topicality, was slotted during the Family Hour.  Even though the subject matter didn't hold back from the book's sordid revelations too much, it was necessary to mute the bad language with nonsensical epitaphs such as "horse crock" and "bullhorse" leading to a very inauthentic presentation.  In just five episodes, the series tackled controversy such as religious intolerance and, in a plotline right out of today's headlines, a rookie ballplayer coming out as gay.  NFL star Ben Davidson played one of the rowdy players.  Another thing that led to an incredibly short run were the limitations inherent in the three-camera videotaped format with a studio audience.  The series, from Warner Brothers/Time-Life  was the first sitcom in the seventies to be taped in New York.

Busting Loose (CBS). Fresh from their success with "Laverne and Shirley," writers Lowell
Ganz and Babaloo Mandel kept their relationship with Paramount but moved to CBS to escape Garry Marshall and his inability to deal with the present day.  In this mid season replacement series, Adam Arkin (son of huge seventies film star Alan Arkin) starred as Lenny Markowitz, a recent graduate of engineering school who decides to move out of his kvetching parent's (Pat Carroll and Jack Kruschen) house to a run down apartment in the inner city.  He ends up working in a shoe store.  He is always trying to pick up women and it is difficult as his apartment is wallpapered with cartoon ducks which he cannot afford to paper over.  This is a huge source of humor in the series.  It doesn't help that his neighbor is a voluptuous paid escort (Barbara Rhoads).  The ribald yet sanitized three camera filmed series was an antecedent to the bad boy humor of "Animal House," the Italian bonding elements of "Saturday Night Fever," and the Jewish family humor of "Next Stop, Greenwich Village" as Lenny and his childhood buddies spend a lot of time ribbing about girls  and visiting the Catskills.

Loves Me, Loves Me Not (CBS).  This was the first sitcom "mini-series."  A self-contained story told in the course of a few half-hour episodes in the spring of 1977.  The story was very simple:  it involved the courtship of a newspaper reporter (Kenneth Gilman) and a teacher (Susan Dey--her first role after being Laurie Partridge).  The sweet and glossy metropolitan romance was filmed with a gentle laugh track.  Oddly, it's creator, Susan Harris, hailed from the noisy world of the Bunkers and would soon create the wild and wooly "Soap."

Not only would the short-lived quality sitcom revolution be sideswiped by the pop culture tsunami of teen idols, catchphases and jiggles, but audiences would start to see a return to the sixties in terms of high concept and fantasy:

Holmes and Yoyo (ABC).  Leonard Stern and Arne Sultan of "Get Smart" created this single camera sitcom farce for Universal TV about an accident-prone cop (Richard B. Schull) and his futuristic android partner(John Schuck).  The hype for this fall show was so pronounced, ABC was crowning Schull and Schuck as the next Laurel and Hardy.  Well, Hardly.  Stern was re imagining Smart's Hymie the Robot as more of a blue collar crime-fighter.  His nose shot Polaroids, garage door openers would cause his head to spin, his magnetized body could cause all sorts of difficulties, and he even could make the morning coffee without using a coffee pot.  Audiences weren't quite ready to bring the slapstick back.--at least not when it didn't involve ditzy blonds in tight shirts.

The Kallikaks (NBC).  This summer tryout series was basically an updated "Beverly Hillbillies" as a coal miner from the Appalachia inherits a gas station in California and moves the family there to get rich however they can.  A bit more scheming and less naive than the Clampetts, star David Huddleston also produced this taped sitcom with an eye toward simpler times.  That was evident as Buddy Ebsen's daughter Bonnie played the daughter.

Mr. T and Tina (ABC).  Producer James Komack pulled a "Blansky" and introduced the main character in this new taped fall sitcom in a contrived appearance on his hit "Welcome Back, Kotter."  Pat Mortita made history as the first Asian-American to star in a sitcom.  He played the Japanese inventor Taro Tthakahashi who gets transferred from Tokyo to Chicago by his employer.  Susan Blanchard played Tina, the wide-eyed  girl from Nebraska that is somehow hired to be his housekeeper and nanny to his two kids.  The comedy arises from the cultural differences experienced by Mr. T's  traditional family and the all-American Tina.  Having veteran comedy producers Bob Carroll Jr. and Madelyn Davis from "I Love Lucy" couldn't have helped raise the material out of blatant stereotypes.  Guest appearances by Mako and The Sweathogs as well as Ted Lange ("Isaac the Bartender") as a regular character couldn't save this show from a very abbreviated fall run.  Pat Morita, having been a semi-regular on "Sanford and Son" and "Happy Days" (as Arnold) ended up with fellow fall season reject Nancy Walker on "Blansky's Beauties" (playing Arnold again) before eventually returning to "Happy Days" in the eighties and then becoming the mentor to "The Karate Kid."

Sugar Time! (ABC).  Komack had a little more success in this taped summer series by
T and T and Aaaa.
capitalizing on the juvenile titillation phenomena going on at ABC.  Playboy Playmate Barbi Benton lent her" talents" as one of three girls who formed a singing trio called Sugar.  The ever-present Paul Williams wrote the music for the show as they performed mostly in  a California amateur showcase run by Al Marks.  Of course, each girl had her distinct personality:  one was gorgeous and dippy and from the beach; one was sarcastic and from the Bronx; and one was level-headed and from the Midwest.  There you have it.  The short summer run garnered enough prurient interest for a return later the next fall.

Komack also produced for the fall season's NBC lineup one of the most talked about sitcoms that never aired:
With Snip (NBC), Komack once again headlined a stand up comedian.  David Brenner played a swinging hairdresser working in a Massachusetts hair salon with his ex-wife (Lesly Ann-Warren) who still lived with him along with other family members.  Clearly influenced by the hit film satire "Shampoo," "Snip" never got a chance to shock audiences with it's candid depiction of the sexually liberated lifestyles in the mid-seventies.  Many sitcoms taped or filmed before a studio audience would "sweeten" the live reactions with canned laughter.  Brenner insisted that this not be done here, giving the show a more honest feel.  But audiences never got to see it in America as NBC cancelled it before it even aired.  Supposedly it was due to having a gay recurring character, the owner of the salon.  But as ABC was not deterred with same on "Nancy Walker Show," what must have scared the network was the fact that rather than being a "swishy" neurotic stereotype, the gay character in "Snip" was a confident business owner.  But this is all conjecture as I haven't seen the show.

This was the second season that featured many sixties-style sitcoms on the children's Saturday Morning schedule.  NBC featured a heavy line-up of these shows.  Firstly, The Kids from CAPER dealt with a group of teens that would break into rock music as they were solving goofy mysteries for pretty young girls.  The brains behind this one were Don Kirschner and Stanley Cherry of "The Monkees."  This was no surprise as the wacky timing and blackouts amidst the music was highly derivative of the sixties icons.   The following three shows were produced by the veteran team of D'Angelo-Bullock-Allen (currently producing "Alice" and previously writers on "The Flintstones" and "Love, American  Style"). McDuff, the Talking Dog followed the misadventures of a family that owned a sheepdog that, well, talked like a grumpy old man.  The Monster Squad (created by Stanley Ralph Ross) had more of a Sid and Marty Krofft feel and borrowed heavily from the previous season's "Ghost Busters" as Fred Grandy as a criminologist who, through a sarcophagus museum experiment, brings back to life the Frankenstein monster, Dracula and the Wolfman to fight crime and attone for past sins.  D'Angelo-Bullock-Allen teamed with sitcom legend Sherwood Schwartz ("Gilligan's Island") in this highly formulaic series about a middle-age man (Herb Edelman) who, at inopportune times, would turn into a teenage boy (Robbie Rist) due to a drink out of a magical fountain. Big John-Little John could have been a prime-time sitcom in a previous age as it didn't rely on costumed characters or magical animals.  This was a reunion of sorts as Rist played the "extra" Brady, Oliver,  on the final season of Schwartz's "The Brady Bunch."

Speaking of "The Brady Bunch" and the Krofft brothers, the successful puppet show producers decided to bring the Bunch back to prime-time--without the permission of Sherwood Schwartz-- in "The Brady Bunch Hour.".  This time it was a mid season variety
show on ABC.  Evidently, the Bradys were able to shuck their previous life and become a family musical group.  Although short-lived this show is well-known in pop culture circles for being the first reincarnation of the family and doing it with a different Jan (Eve Plumb bowed out of this one).  So, obviously, retro was already starting before the decade was even over.  And the vapid comedy skits (with Alice) and horribly embarrassing musical numbers (not to mention many guest appearances by Paul Lynde) helped make this one of the most notorious failures on network TV. 
Schwartz would be involved in 1981 when the Bradys return in a TV film where Jan and Marcia get married resulting in the three-camera sitcom "The Brady Brides" with Eve Plumb back in tow.

The nostalgia craze would go even further with NBC airing a "Father Knows Best" reunion movie with the entire cast from the fifties classic.  Plus a pilot "Whatever Happened to Dobie Gillis" would air this season reuniting Dobie (Dwayne Hickman) and Maynard G. Krebs (Bob Denver) from the early sixties cult hit.  Needless to say, Warren Beatty and Tuesday Weld did not appear.

So as this important decade in sitcom content is in it's declining half (in an important political year to boot) audiences preferred the nostalgia and hip teen pop culture and catchphrases and wet t-shirts of the ABC hits rather than the topicality and realism of the CBS Lear shows.  ("Barney Miller" was caught in the middle).  And as Mary Tyler Moore said farewell to the newsroom, the networks were already bringing back irrelevant, dumbed-down sitcom characters and premises  from a few years earlier to celebrate the long-lost days of mindlessness in TV.  1976 indeed.

The Beginning of the End





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