Saturday, July 13, 2013

SEVENTIES SITCOMS: 1977-1978. THE RAUNCH REVOLUTION AND THE FIRST SHARK JUMP




The 1977 fall season could be considered "the beginning of the end" in regards to the quality sitcom programming of the era.  But it depends on how one defines "quality."  If you define it by a respect for the viewing public, you will bemoan the previous loss of the Mary Richards,  the impending demise of "Bob Newhart Show," relish in the ratings resurgence of "Barney Miller," or feel redeemed by the resurrection of James L. Brooks into the three camera sitcom world the next season ("Taxi"), you may be lacking with a glimpse of hope for the future.  If you define "quality" by prurient content, sappy resolutions, pandering catchphrases and audience-pleasing contrivances then you will be satiated by the immediate popularity of "Three's Company," the comfortable safety of Gary Marshall's 50's world, and the fading repetitive topicality in the Norman Lear universe and thusly witness the pinnacle of prime-time network comedy achievement.  And then there's "Soap."

THE SILVERMAN SPOON
A history of seventies sitcoms is a history of Fred Silverman.  As a programmer for daytime TV for CBS in the late sixties, Silverman championed the "superhero/mystery solver/breakfast cereal" tropes of Saturday morning kid's TV.  After being promoted to programming chief in 1970, he proceeded to "cut down the trees," cancelling many old rural favorites and replacing them with sophisticated and daring urban fare.  As we saw at the beginning of this blog series, that resulted in the MTM and Lear blockbusters.  He also pioneered the concept of "spin-offs," creating even more ratings gold for CBS.  For example, "Good Times" was a twice removed spin off of "All in the Family" and it knocked Marshall's sweet, nostalgic homage "Happy Days" off the ratings map in it's second season.  So when he moved to ABC in 1975 (a move covered mightily by the press), not only did he bring "Scooby Doo" with  him, he changed the dynamic (again) to focus on sensationalism, reliability and star power.  It is unfair to focus on the "T and A" aspect of Silverman's strategy:  he was responsible for the mini-series format--namely "Roots"--and for trying to launch a new vehicle for critical darling Nancy Walker.  But when he made the bra-less Farrah Fawcett a worldwide poster child for, well, posters, he found his new strength:  youth, excitement, and sex.  And with a safely-neutered (figuratively speaking of course) street punk being highlighted along with a manic studio audience, "Happy Days" retook the Tuesday night crown from the pseudo-reality of ghetto life in "Good Times."

SHAKE AND AWE:  THE NEW TWIN PEAKS OF ABC COMEDY.
By 1977, Silverman had cemented the Fonz, Laverne and Shirley and Vinnie Barbarino in pop culture iconography.  In doing so, he wrapped up the family/youth market leaving only JJ and the Cooper girls for CBS's teen fandom.  But in 1976, producer Aaron Spelling brought Fawcett and "Charlie's Angels" to ABC,  altering the tastes of discerning viewers and  pre-teen males (like myself).   It wasn't good enough to be on the cover of TV Guide.  The stars of the new programs must also grace the front of "Time," "Teen Beat," and "Playboy."  

My first official jiggle 
Don Nicholl, Bernie West and Michael Ross Americanized the saucy British sitcom "Man About the House" much as Norman Lear had done with "Til Death Do Us Part":  "All in the Family" which the three writers had worked on previously to conceiving "Three's Company."

Unlike Lear's offerings, one will never find a dramatic moment or pregnant pause in the antics of Jack, Crissy and Janet.  The "nervous breakdown" of the decade was taking hold:  Vietnam and Watergate were fading from the headlines; civil rights studies were moving off the book shelves to make way for in-depth studies of the "me" generation and the resulting disco craze.  And five years earlier, "Deep Throat" broke box-office records and ushered in the middle-class fascination for pornography.  This new lifestyle phenomenon, part of the swinger culture, ushered in "porno chic."  "Normal" citizens were now experimenting with mind-opening drugs, pot being the least controversial.  Soon in 1978 "Debbie Does Dallas" would create more buzz for this new liberated art form.  "Three's Company," with no nudity, no overt sex and no pulsing techno soundtrack gave audiences a safe outlet for their
Thinking inside the box.
opening libidos and pharmaceutical experimentation through innuendo and Suzanne Somer's bouncing assets and tight shorts.  Has anyone examined the subtle hints through the characters names?  John Ritter as Jack "Tripper."  Somers as Chrissy "Snow" (a missed opportunity for an excellent porn star name).  Joyce Dewitt as Janet "Wood."  And to make the show more relatable to the poor schlubs at home--after all, who gets to live in a swinging Santa Monica apartment complex during the era of free love?--the landlords, Mr. and Mrs. Roper (Norman Fell and
Audra Lindlay) are a sexually frustrated wife with her "non-interested" husband.  And in order for the extremely heterosexual Jack to co-habitate with sensible Janet and ditzy but hot Crissy, he has to convince the Ropers that he is gay.  A modern parlour comedy.  Allowing audiences to feel as they are watching "adult" material even though the sophistication and intellectual stimulation was, well, lacking.

I can remember the controversy this season when the "surging" ratings (sorry) allowed "Three's Company" to be paired with a new show that was being condemned by pretty much every special interest group, especially the Moral Majority.  When a sitcom is criticized by both gays and Catholics you know you've reached the mother lode of satire.  Writer Susan Harris ("All in the Family") teamed up with Tony Thomas and Paul Junger-Witt (her husband) to create "Soap."  Although their previous collaboration, "Fay," was controversial in it's own right, it failed to capture any attention in 1975.  But that wasn't the case with "Soap."  The take-off on soap operas, what with the multiple story lines dealing with mostly sex and murder, outdid Lear's "Mary Hartman" in terms of public outrage and private outrageousness.  And it was a hell of lot funnier.  Actually, it was pretty much the funniest show on TV at the time.  And that was it's saving grace.  So after the "adult content" warnings (one of the few since "All in the Family" did it six years earlier) and the local ABC affiliate's relocation to the 9:30 (C) time-slot right before the nightly news (if not outright refusal to air) and the protests about inaccurate portrayals of homosexuality and offensive portraits of Catholic priests, the show settled into it's audience to become an extremely well-acted, well-written comedy appointment.  All four seasons saw a continuing serial format with the announcer reviewing the previous week's events and commenting on next week: "What will happen to...?"  "Well, find out on next week's episode of ..."Soap!"

A comedy goldmine:  Two sisters--Jessica Tate (Katherine Hellmond) and Mary Campbell (Cathryn Damon).  The Tates:  philandering husband Chester (soap vet Robert Mandan), daughters Corinne (Diana Canova--offspring of Judy) and Eunice (Jennifer Salt--offspring of Waldo), son Billy (Jimmy Baio) and sardonic butler Benson (Robert Guillame).  The Campbells:  insane husband Bert (Richard Mulligan), mobbed-up son (Ted Wass), ventriloquist step-son with extremely sarcastic dummy  (Jay Johnson) and, in his first major television role, Billy Crystal as gay son Jody.
Best. Cast. Ever.
 Not shabby at all.  Although the critics defined their opinions of the show by the level of shocks, it is only now that those who appreciate good comedy can see the high level of quality in the no-holds-barred writing and performances.  Most of the time the laughs come from the characterizations and isolated situations rather than the topicality itself (unlike a lot of Lear's output).  The show seems almost quaint now, but still funny.  And allowing the drama--there was some--to blend with the laughs rather than  jolt the audience into a moral position, "Soap" never took itself too seriously.  And there was nary a bra-less jiggle in sight.

Speaking of Lear, this was the final "real" season of "All in the Family."  Mike and Gloria would leave Archie and Edith at the end of the year in a powerful finale.  The series would continue it's exploration of controversial themes (including the notorious episode where
So long, kids.
Edith fends off a rapist on her fiftieth birthday) while showing signs of it's age with self-conscious directing (mostly by Paul Bogart) and less-crispy dialogue.   Archie and Edith would continue a few more years and the series--with less direction from Lear and more from star Carroll O'Connor--would ramp up the pathos and sentimentality and ham-fisted acting  and (gulp) even add a cute kid.

Oh, and brace yourself--somebody jumps a shark this year.

RATINGS WINNERS 1977-1978

#1.  Laverne and Shirley (ABC).  At the pinnacle of it's popularity, this series offered no more than slapstick antics.  For example, the girls get attacked by a giant robot at a toy store. There were parodies of "Airport" and TV wrestling.  There was a cruise ship adventure.  There was a talent show (courtesy of Schatz Brewery).  And another retrospective.  Lenny found out he was in line for the Polish throne.  Laverne trains as a cop.  Frank and Edna's relationship heats up.  Fabian makes an appearance just to remind us we are still in the fifties.  Lonely Laverne dreams that she and Shirley end up with Lenny and Squiggy.  The most topical the show got was when Laverne tries to save Buttercup the horse from being shipped to a glue factory.  And there was some sweet drama to cut the craziness:  Lenny dates Edna's mentally challenged daughter.  There would be more bit part appearances by Harry Shearer and Christopher Guest.  Along with Michael McKean ("Lenny"), it is amazing that so many elements of the future Guest film company ("Best in Show," "Waiting for Guffman") would gestate from this high-rated inanity.  Even Rob Reiner, who would start the trend with "This is Spinal Tap" was married to star Penny Marshall, a future director herself, at the time.

History is Made!

#2.  Happy Days (ABC).  Fonzie jumps a shark in the opening multi-part episode.  That's right:  This is where the "shark jump" comes from.  And it accurately represented the trend:  a show having hit it's peak and  going downhill fast.  Like it's spin off above, "Happy Days" was a huge ratings hit but offered no more than sitcom silliness and cheap thrills.  In this story arc, Fonzie (a superhero by this time) goes to Hollywood for a James Dean-style screen test.  He fails but Richie ends up with a contract (sort of apropos considering Ron Howard's future reign as Hollywood royalty).  And through some convoluted plot device, Fonzie ends up jumping over sharks--a tribute to the "Jaws" phenomenon no doubt--on water skis.  Sadly, he makes it.  That gives him a chance to be more  human:  when Richie falls into a coma from a motorcycle accident, Fonzie prays and cries.  It was a request from educator groups that Fonzie show more emotion.  And, as opposed to Norman Lear using extreme close-ups and uncomfortable coughing from studio audiences, Garry Marshall loved to ramp up the saccharine by adding sentimental music to sappy scenes.  But it must have been effective--ratings never nosedived even though the sharks were unfed.  He even dated a ballerina to show how sensitive he could be.  And as a sign of the contrivances involved in maintaining a hit series, Fonzie actually ended up on a jury with Howard "Mr C." Cunningham in a "Twelve Angry Men" take-off.  Milwaukee's not that small of a city.

Richie, Potsie and Ralph actually got a lot of attention this season.  Starting college, they would pledge a fraternity, date college girls, and live in a dorm but end up sharing an apartment together.  Richie moved back home and that provided a segue to a Potsie and Ralph Malph spin off that never materialized.   (Another spin off would come next season, though....see below).  Richie became enamored of investigative journalism.  And Erin Moran's little sister Joannie started coming of age.  She shows her rebellious side when she wants to join Leather Tuscadero's all-girl rock band.  Oh, did I mention Suzi Quatro as Pinky Tuscadero's reform-school little sister?  The tough gal would share the leather jacket mystique with Fonz.  She even sang a ballad while Richie recovered  from the aforementioned tragedy, backing up Fonzie's soul-searching chat with God.  This ain't your daddy's "Lords of Flatbush".   Other guest stars popping up would be Danny Thomas as Howard's retired cop dad (a nod to the era) and Dr. Joyce Brothers as herself (definitely a nod to 1977).  Even Morgan Fairchild made an appearance as a snob.  And an unknown nightclub comic named Robin Williams would be introduced to mass audiences as an alien from another planet in a dream that Richie had.  The alien's name was Mork.  And the episode would be re-edited to take the "dream" ending out for obvious reasons.  Mork would need to reappear in 1978 in Colorado so he could anchor Thursday nights on ABC.    So it's obvious that "Happy Days" was barely hanging on to it's authentic charm in reflecting the depicted time frame of the late fifties and delving into audience pleasing stunts and stretches of credulity.

Also this season audiences meet Chachi Arcola played by Scott Baio.  A slightly less threatening version of Spike from previous seasons, Baio would join the ranks of teen heartthrobs for playing a shaggy seventies-era post-pubescent confused youth in a sitcom set in the clean-cut fifties.  And Lynda Goodfriend would join the cast as Richie's main squeeze ("sweet knees") Lori-Beth.  Both Baio and Goodfriend would jump over from Miller-Milkis's previous flop "Blansky's Beauties" and end up going back to Vegas next season on NBC on the Garry Marshall Vegas showgirl-themed merry-go-round.  The pilot for that show, called "Legs" had an hour long pilot premiere this season as NBC tried to complete on the "scantily-clad" sweepstakes.  The airing had good enough ratings to return with a slightly more family-friendly format and a different title in the fall of 1978.

#3.  Three's Company (ABC).  The soft-core antics would abound as this series returns from it's successful tryout run last season.  In keeping with the general themes of the new lifestyle:  Crissy is mistaken for a prostitute; Mr. Roper ends up in bed with Jack after a wild party; neighbor Larry borrows a 16 mm projector to screen a porn film (it turns out to be something else); Mrs. Roper inadvertently grows a marijuana plant from some seeds that the kids give her; Jack may have gotten his girlfriend pregnant; Crissy dates a married man.  But in a break from the mindless sex humor, we had mindless situational humor as when the roommates babysit a parakeet or get stuck with an actual baby.  Although Gidget is long gone from the beachfront property, her TV dad Don Porter makes an appearance as Jack's scheming uncle and Loni Anderson appears as Jack's ex-girlfriend.  In another nose-thumb to propriety, audiences meet Crissy's dad--the Reverend Snow.

#6.  All in the Family (CBS).   This was the final season with Mike and Gloria.  The show would never be the same without them.  After seven years the Meathead--Archie's motivation for his small-minded stubbornness--would leave the premises with "Little Goil" and grandson Joey when a teaching job becomes available in California.  The last few episodes, chronicling the misunderstandings and misplaced priorities inherent in such a huge familial upheaval, awkwardly revealed the camouflaged father-son dynamic between Archie and Mike.  Just as sentimental--earlier in the season when the two get locked in a cellar and get drunk together--Carroll O'Connor and Rob Reiner provide a heart-tugging two-act play about Archie's father and how that dynamic informed the closed-minded Bunker mindset.  This episode, somewhat jarring by it's emotional immediacy, was another example of the soon-to-be departing hilarity of the long-lasting series. See video nuggets below.  On a lighter note, one episode re-enacted the circumstances surrounding Mike and Gloria's first meeting bringing the show full circle.

The Bunkers certainly didn't hold back this season.  Unemployed Archie buys Kelso's Bar but forges Edith's signature in order to get the loan.  Archie gets hooked on pills to ward off depression.  Mike and Gloria have severe marital problems.  A local branch of the Klu Klux Klan threatens to burn a cross in Archie's front lawn.    Edith finds out that her Cousin Liz was a lesbian.  Archie's bar gets robbed during the Superbowl.  When transvestite Beverly laSalle is brutally murdered by thugs, Edith loses her faith in God.  In one of the most harrowing episodes, Edith fends off an attempted rapist on her fiftieth birthday.  With all the drama, reviewers were comparing "All in the Family" to the live television anthologies of the fifties.  The laughs were there but the tragedies were never ending.

Audiences felt the pain with the Bunker's as they willingly rode the roller coaster of life with them over the past seven years.  So they were forgiving when the producers offered up
melodrama in the service of character development and thematic resolution.  "All in the Family" swept every category of comedy Emmy's this year, except supporting actress.  Jean Stapleton, who we sadly lost during the writing of this blog,  rightly won another award for the "50th birthday" episode which also won the directing honor for Paul Bogart (a frequent director this season).  The episode dealing with Cousin Liz won for Best Writing.  And Carroll O'Connor and Rob Reiner both received followup acting trophies, most likely for the touching bonding incidents spread throughout this emotionally revealing year.

Now nested in his new Sunday night time slot, Archie would once again anchor a successful night of comedy.  The formats would change and the show would become less daring.  By the end of this season for all intents and purposes, the groundbreaking  sitcom was beginning it's slow wind-down to mediocrity.

#8.  Alice (CBS).Nesting with "All in the Family" on Sunday, "Alice" was granted better ratings allowing it to build an audience despite it's rather spineless comedy.  Along with it's rural setting (suburban Phoenix), the show was becoming a throwback to the silly comedies of yesteryear (at least on CBS) what with Madelyn Davis and Bob Carroll Jr. of "I Love Lucy" brought on as show-runners and William Asher ("Bewitched") providing some creative duties.    Davis and Caroll would continue through most of the long run, making "Alice," like "Laverne and Shirley" a step backward from the thought-provoking and challenging material that defined the seventies sitcom.  Guest shots by Morey Amsterdam, Desi Arnaz and even George Burns (as God, of course) couldn't help but celebrate those days of yore this year.  Still staying true to it's setting, Native Americans played a large part in the plots this season as Mel's Diner was said to be sitting on sacred burial ground and when a local tribesman predicts an earthquake in the neighborhood.  Plus Jerry Reed and Burton Gilliam would pop in to add some bucolic flavor.   There was an episode dealing with gangsters and Flo dates an Arab sheik in another. Dangerous food additives were a topic for one show adding a little bit of topicality.  The relationship between Alice and her son Tommy was already taking a back seat to the wacky goings-on at the Diner with the customers, Flo, Vera and Mel.  Speaking of customers, it is this season that comedy veteran Marvin Kaplan plays Henry--one of many diners that provide a borscht belt Greek chorus to the shenanigans rather than an appropriate interstate trucker contingent--reflective of the bi-coastal comedy roots of the veteran writers on board now.

#9.  M*A*S*H (CBS).  Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds were no longer involved in the show by now.  Larry Linville was replaced as the foil by the aristocratic Charles Emerson Winchester played by David Ogden Stiers.  Alan Alda took creative control of the show.  And "M*A*S*H" is no longer a funny satire with bursts of tragedy but a weekly commentary on war that is long on melodrama and leaving comedy to the cute cookie-cutter quips and observations.  Hot Lips Houlihan (Loretta Swit) becomes "Margaret" reflecting her new found humanity and feminism as she deals with the problems in her new absentee marriage.  Hawkeye is less prankster and more of an existential Chekhovian figure as he falls in love with a Korean villager and actually has a tryst with Hot Lips (excuse me, Margaret) as they are trapped behind enemy lines.  And the series begins it's standard "three-story" format, usually allowing one for comedy and two for hard-hitting medical or psychological dramas.  For example, this season the 4077th deals with a disfigured soldier contemplating suicide, a patient getting hooked on morphine, a hostage taker in the surgery tent demanding to be sent home, and a stolen batch of much-needed penicillin.  Sort of like "Medical Center" or maybe even "ER."  Winchester jumped into drama right off the bat when he became addicted to pep pills in his new environment.  But to be fair, "M*A*S*H" didn't forget it was a sitcom thanks to Klinger's antics (wearing a dress less now), Radar getting a tattoo, Hawkeye and BJ refusing to shower until Charles gives up the French horn, a mouse race, and the M*A*S*H Olympics.  Even old sitcom hands such as George Lindsay ("Goober") and Bernard Fox ("Bewitched") paid visits to add laugh track levity.  Keye Luke and James Cromwell also made appearances this season.  Father Mulcahey (William Christopher) would become a major regular player and Johnny Haymer would begin appearing as the scheming Sgt. Zale.  Midway through this season, M*A*S*H would move to Monday nights where it will dominate the ratings for the next five or so years.

#10.  One Day at a Time (CBS). The season starts with multi-parters of  Julie having a serious relationship with an older man (Jim Hutton) and ends with Julie moving out of the apartment to go into the fashion world.  In between, she allowed little sister Barbara (Valerie Bertinelli) to experience "the facts of life."  Barbara came into her own this season as she is constantly torn between sweet guy Bob and not-so-sweet guy Cliff.  She even runs off with Bob to a hotel room to prove her independence.  Barbara gets into multi-part territory as well with story involving a clingy girl friend who threatens suicide.  She also has a lot of activity at her high school (Alice Ghostly provides support as a counselor) as she witnesses vandalism and commits forgery on a poetry assignment.  And Ann, celebrating her 35th birthday this year, gets some action with a race car driver.  Her workplace, Connors and Davenport ad agency, provides a setting for many episodes as she competes with new nemesis Francine (Shelly Fabares) in many feminist-related story lines.

#12.  Eight is Enough (ABC).

#13.  Soap (ABC).  So what happens the first season?  Jessica is having an affair with Mary's step-son Peter Campbell (Robert Urich).  So is daughter Corinne...and many others.  At the end of the season, Jessica is found guilty of his murder.  But she didn't do it.  Corinne does hook up with a priest (Sal Viscuso).  Jody's rocky relationship with a closeted professional athlete leads to an attempt  at a sex change, an attempt at suicide and an attempt to fall in love with  a straight woman (Rebecca Balding).  Eunice is secretly dating a married congressman (Edward Winter).  Danny tries to leave the mob but must kill his step-father Burt to do so.  He fails but must date the mob boss's daughter, Elaine (Dinah Manoff).  Burt is institutionalized and he experiences impotence with Mary.  Chester is playing around on Jessica.  Inga Swenson plays a woman intent on blackmailing Jessica. And Benson won't answer the door.   Confused?  You won't be......on the next season of "Soap."  Guests throughout the courtroom proceedings include Gordon Jump and Howard Hesseman (soon to be on "WKRP"), Eugene Roche, Charles Lane, Harold Gould, Sorrell Booke and William Daniels.

Norman Lear's soap satire, "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" continued it's nightly syndicated run a third and final year this time without the title character played by Louise Lasser.  Most of the rest of the cast returned for "Forever Fernwood" including Dabney Coleman and a red-hot Mary Kay Place.  Shelly Fabares, Shelly Berman and Orson Bean were among the new cast members.  Martin Mull and Fred Willard returned in the summer with their hilarious talk show parody, this time renamed "America 2-Nite" taking place in a boring Los Angeles suburb so bigger name guest stars could be featured.  Mull and Willard interviewed themselves in the final episode.

New Plot Device
#14.  The Love Boat  (ABC)  This hour-long series set on a vacation cruise ship to Mexico, created by Aaron Spelling, was basically a sitcom wrapped around various light romantic comedies with huge weekly guest stars--from current TV hits to past movie matinee idols.  The hour long show usually involved three stories:  a regular crew member in a comedic situation; a regular crew member involved with a guest passenger in a comedic or light romantic situation; and two guest passengers in a melodramatic situation, usually romantic or maybe dangerous.  I won't classify this as a sitcom due to it's anthology-like format and it's episode length-it's been compared to "Love, American Style" with recurring characters.  It did have a chuckle track interspersed in the appropriate locations.  The crew?  Fresh off "Mary Tyler Moore Show" was Gavin Macleod as the Captain.  Sitcom stalwarts Bernie Kopell and Ted Lange were the ship doctor and bartender respectively.  Fred Grandy was the chief purser and newcomer Lauren Tewes was Julie the cruise director.  This show would go on to become a cultural experience adding to the escapism and mindless fantasizing inherent in the eighties.  Plus lots of shots of two-piece bikinis to placate the "new" new audience demographic.
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#18.  Barney Miller (ABC).  At some time, maybe this season, Danny Arnold's marathon taping sessions involving major rewrites up to the last minute led to the show no longer being taped before a studio audience but shot and screened for an audience for live responses.  You could tell in later years how the series had a twice-removed feel to the background laughter.  As a result, the pacing was a bit off but just as funny nonetheless.  Also, like "M*A*S*H" the series would rotate between three co-existent story lines.

Arthur Deitrich (Steve Landesberg) becomes a regular this season.  Fish appears in a few episodes before officially "retiring" into the second season of his own sitcom.  Lt. Scanlon (Jack Murdoch) of internal affairs would start making appearances this year.  The stationhouse would be bugged  and at one point the precinct would have a hostage situation.  Another show had the crew trapped in the 12th precinct during a blizzard with a rotting corpse inside.   Among the "guests": a man charging a sperm bank with murder after losing his specimen; a woman who wants her husband arrested for rape; a ventriloquist with an out of control dummy (a big thing this year); owners of a mom and pop porno shop; a stubborn numerologist; a survivalist who has liquidated all of his assets into gold; a TV copycat criminal; and a militant environmentalist.    Wojo would experience a UFO sighting and share is sexual problems with Barney.  As for Barney, he would get shot much to the dismay of wife Liz (Barbara Barrie makes a return appearance for this arc).  Barney also ventures off-set to quell the tenants of a condemned hotel who will not move out.  And in another metaphysical incident (like the werewolf last year), a prisoner is sure he is seeing ghosts in the squad room.

#25.  Rhoda (CBS).  Moving to Sunday with the other established sitcom hits helped "Rhoda" get back on the grid this season.  The show was all over the map again though, still falling victim to too many characters and settings.  Of course, Ida and Martin have returned from their trip as Nancy Walker's two sitcoms on ABC failed the previous season.  Brenda was dating two men, Gary and Benny, and still working her bank job.  So with Ida providing plenty of neurosis and shy Brenda blossoming into a social butterfly, Rhoda--now officially divorced and spending this season on many blind dates such as nightclub singer Johnny Venture--  was left as a third wheel and a good listener in the comedy department.

Educating Brenda
Now that Brenda was becoming "Rhoda" to Rhoda's "Mary," the producers decided to saddle Rhoda with a new job and a crusty middle aged boss.  Character actor Kenneth McMillan as the owner of the Doyle Costume Company provided plenty of grumpiness but he was definitely not leading man material.  Pairing him with Valerie Harper, even in platonic circumstances, just reeked of desperation and audiences just didn't care at this point about him or Rhoda's  wacky co-workers at the shop.

Julie Kavner, known to a new generation of TV viewers as the voice of "Marge Simpson" would even come into her own as an Emmy winner, taking home the Supporting Actress Award this season for her embodiment of the less-frumpy Brenda Morgenstern.

#28.  Welcome Back, Kotter (ABC).  With John Travolta's big screen breakthrough in "Saturday Night Fever," his character--Vinnie Barbarino--was featured more prominently  as when he instigates a tirade from a gym teacher who, as a result, suffers a fatal heart attack.
Flopsweathog
And the producers took advantage of his dancing prowess by having him compete in a talent show against a...girl!  But Vinnie's occasional absence allowed the other Sweathogs(now entering the eleventh grade--right) to experience some large-scale melodrama: Horschack joins a religious cult and Freddie gets on painkillers.  Gabe also experienced some drama as the twins are born and he contemplates leaving the teaching profession to go into stand-up comedy.  Oddball student Carvelli (Charles Fleischer) makes a few appearances this year ,and in a nod to the future, the Sweathogs get a tutoring session from a computer.  Of course, with ABC in the throes of a sexual revolution, even "Kotter" had it's share of lasciviousness:  Epstein paints a nude picture of Julie on a school wall; Hotsy Totsy (Debralee Scott) who left school turns up dancing in a strip club; and an attempt is made to introduce a sexy new Sweathog, Angie (future Playboy Playmate Melonie Haller) but someone shot the idea down before it took hold.  I suppose that she was too tough for audiences, who were perhaps expecting a "sweet-hog."  Sorry.

#29.  On Our Own (CBS).  This new series from David Susskind, taped and set in New York City for Time-Life, held it's own on the newly successful Sunday night lineup.  But despite the decent ratings, it was only on this one season.  Two secretaries, played by future film star Bess Armstrong and future writer/director Lynnie Green, would get promoted at the Manhattan Ad agency where they work to copy righter and art director respectively.  Despite a cast of Broadway actors--future Designing Woman Dixie Carter was a regular--the concept of two inexperienced "girls" making it on their own in the big city was rather cliche by this point as audiences were expecting more "Laverne and Shirley" and less "Mary Richards" in their comedy these days.  It is interesting to note that another future film star,  Danny Aiello, would make an appearance in one episode.

RETURNING SERIES (in alphabetical order)

Bob Newhart Show (CBS).  Sadly, the Hartleys reach their final year.  The season starts with Bob and Emily moving into a new condo in the same building and ends with Bob finishing his book and accepting a teaching job in Oregon.  They managed to pull off having no cute kids in six whole years.  Bob and Emily do experience a dream sequence detailing what their lives would be like with other more successful partners.  The producers find a rather politically incorrect way to add some ethnicity to the lily-white cast by having Bob regularly counsel a group of ex-cons.  Patients Carlin (Jack Riley) and Peterson (John Fiedler) would get more attention this season.  Guest stars would range from the experienced (Ralph Bellamy, Mildred Natwick) to the up-and-coming (Loni Anderson, Morgan Fairchild).  The show would never fail to provide gentle, honest laughs up to the end, much like it's predecessor, "Mary Tyler Moore Show."  The next time we see Bob and Emily together it will be twelve years later when Bob wakes up from a bad Vermont-based dream.  Come to think of it, they are not in Oregon when that occurs.  Hmmm.  But still no kids... that we know of.

Busting Loose (CBS).   There is not much information on the second season of this show.  Adam Arkin is still living away from his overbearing parents, still working in a shoe store and still hanging around with his childhood chums.  He also still lives next door to a  voluptuous escort.  This year though he has a steady girlfriend and her name is "Jackie Gleason" (that joke has worn thin by this time in sitcom-land).  The show barely made it through December in it's sophomore season but continued on with a sequel of sorts:
Ted Knight Show (CBS).  Lowell Ganz and Mark Rothman kept the premise of the escort service from "Busting Loose" and had Ted Knight (fresh from seven years as Ted Baxter) play Roger Dennis, the mothers-boy/ladies man owner of the business.  Knight may or may not have played the role in the previous series (it's hard to dig up information on this) but there were no spillover characters from "Busting Loose."  And in true late seventies fashion, there was a mix of personalities and backgrounds representing the girls doing the "servicing."

Chico and the Man (NBC).  Sadly, this series should have ended after the tragic demise of it's star, Freddie Prinze.  But NBC decided to keep the franchise going by having Ed Brown returning from a trip to Tijuana with Louie (Scatman Crothers) and finding an eleven year old Mexican orphan, Raul, in his travel trunk.  Conveniently, he adopts the boy and calls him Chico:  "You're all Chicos to me," he says.  The show takes a dark turn when Raul is caught going through the original Chico's belongings and Ed goes haywire, breaking up the guitar belonging to his long gone friend.  It's sad that this moment of honesty even had to take place as the series just hung on with silly plots with the "family hour" cute kid and guest appearances by the usual sitcom suspects:  Al Lewis, Alice Ghostly, Ted Cassidy.  Della Reese continues her role (Ed even proposes to her drunk in one episode) and Charo becomes a semi-regular as Raul's aunt, ramping up the quality quotient.  And producer James Komack couldn't forget that 1977 marked a time of nubile fascination so at the last minute he added the character of Monica, Ed's niece coming to LA to pursue an acting career (naturally) and move into Chico's old room. She gets story lines involving a sleazy bar job, a scantily-clad car wash, and a female biker gang.  So much for Chico--either one for that matter.

CPO Sharkey (NBC).  Don Rickles returns as Sharkey in October to replace the failed
"Sanford and Son" reboot.  (See below).  He now has a loud and angry male commanding officer replacing the kinder female one from last season.  She is replaced as the only female character in the show by Sharky's new girlfriend, Natalie.  Audiences see more of Sharky's soft side this year as he hides a pregnant Mexican woman from the INS in the barracks.   And NBC continued to rip off ABC's sexual revolution when females were allowed in the barracks creating a co-ed situation on the naval base.....and the resultant leering and misunderstandings.  It is interesting to note that when Sharky goes off base to find his charges in a bar brawl, the band playing is The Dixies--marking the first appearance of an actual punk rock band in a prime-time network TV show.

Fish (ABC).  In the sophomore season of the "Barney Miller" spin-off, now-retired detective Phil Fish experiences many personal problems, adding to the travails inherent in raising a group of wards.  For instance he gets arrested, gets in financial trouble and gets a widower (Erika Jong) lusting after him leading to marital discord.  In keeping with the ABC themes of promiscuity, the teen Jilly (Denise Miller--gathering a male teen following of her own) posed nude in one episode and requested birth control in another.  But the greatest irony involved an episode where Fish found his name in the obits:  star Abe Vigoda is still alive to this day and has been rumored demised on and off for the past thirty years!  He would appear on "Barney Miller" sporadically over the next couple of years, but the cancellation of "Fish" would pretty well end the era of the droll "Fish."

Good Times (CBS).  Although the ratings dropped this year, this season is infamous in pop culture trivia.  Audiences are introduced to Penny played by future pop star and "wardrobe malfunctioner" Janet Jackson.  Here's the story:  Esther Rolle decided to leave the series due to the stereotyped portrayal (and celebration) of the "JJ" character.  So Florida Evans has left for a year-long "health" excursion with her new atheist husband Carl (who has an incurable medical condition).  So basically, neighbor Winona (Ja'net Dubois) becomes
Pre-Super Bowl
the de facto mom to the Evans clan.  In a multi-part story arc (with plenty of drama), Winona befriends the young neighbor, discovers that the little girl is physically abused by her mother, confronts the mother (who leaves) and proceeds to adopt Penny.  All in the course of a few episodes!  But as long as Alice Ghostly plays the social worker, there will be a few laughs along the way.  Winona will play a central role in many episodes with her department store job, her many romances and balancing both with a new, unexpected daughter who even has issues with kleptomania.

And what about the Evans?  Well, Thelma becomes a playwright and dates a young parolee in her college life.  Ralph gets involved with CB radios where he discovers one of his new friends behind the "handle" is disabled.  JJ, sillier than ever, dates a married woman and has a dream where he is white.  Plus in a Rashomon-like flashback episode, the family argue
What'you talkin about, Florida?
over who burned the sofa.  And, of course, the "let's put on a show" episode involved saving a local day care facility.  Just as well that Esther Rolle was gone.  Guest stars included future sitcom stars Robert Guillame and a very young Gary Coleman.

The Jeffersons (CBS).  Gary Coleman also made an early appearance here this season before his stint as Arnold Drummond on "Diff'rent Strokes."  With the exception of the heartwarming episode dealing with George secretly sending money to the family in Harlem for Christmas or the political satire when George and Louise are arrested as looters during a blackout, "The Jeffersons" started it's decline into farce:  George gets a bust made of himself; an ant farm breaks on the expensive living room carpet; and George's old navy pal has a sex change operation.  Louise, who started her volunteer
What'you talkin' about, Jefferson?
work at the help center this year, had a rough ride:  the season opened with a multi-parter where Louise is supposedly kidnapped and held for ransom and later she and George get tied up by burglars.  The burglar idea could have been more insightful but instead it was just a frame for a "clip" episode as the couple reminisced on their past life together.

Maude (CBS).  In it's unintentional final season, "Maude" still didn't hold back on the controversial themes.  With Lear's "All's Fair" only being a one-season wonder, the political humor had to be dished out in this series:  Maude is annoyed by an overzealous ecologist; one of her real-estate clients is involved with the mob; Arthur fights the opening of a gay bar in the neighborhood; and her Ethiopian foster child is the son of a former dictator.  Also, Maude sees a UFO and experiences an obscene phone caller.  Maude's housekeeper du jour this season is Victoria Butterfield (Marlene Warfield) from Jamaica and a few
Baby Sally can walk!
episodes dealt with her cultural battles with her conservative father (Roscoe Lee Browne).  Even grandson Phillip had a few highlights as he found himself with an older girlfriend and fending off his hypocritical grandma when he leaves on a camping trip with another girl.  Arthur and Vivan have doubts about their marriage and Walter finds himself competing with Maude in the business world.  Plus the dark  humor reared it's ugly head, especially in two episodes:  In one Maude is the beneficiary of her Aunt Tilly's life insurance policy, whom she despises until an untimely airplane crash has Maude making vacation plans.  In another,
Maude organizes a telethon for wheelchair-bound Shirley Temple-like Baby Sally only to find out the entire cause is a sham when she ends up tap dancing.  And the sentimentality was not lacking:  Maude finds a swaddling baby on her doorstep on Christmas Eve.

The three-part episode ending the season was designed to allow Maude to continue with a whole new cast.  She finds out Arthur, Vivian, Carol and Phillip are all moving away.  She throws a party for a Congresswoman friend returning from a junket in China.  The representative drops dead at the party and through a series of unlikely events, Maude ends up taking her place. So the Findlays move to Washington DC and Maude meets (and dislikes) the motley crew in the Capitol office.  And that was to be the new incarnation of "Maude" for the fall of 1978.  The only hitch was that Bea Arthur decided to call it quits.  (The series would be attempted without her in many attempts--see the next installment.)

And then there's no more Maude.  Bea Arthur (Maude) and Rue McLanahan (Vivian) would reunite seven years (with Betty White)  later as the "Golden Girls" and become the sitcom legends they are remembered as today.

Sanford Arms (NBC).  Redd Foxx left "Sanford and Son" for a new variety show on ABC and Demond Wilson's salary demands prevented his return at the last minute.  So Bud Yorkin and the producers decided to attempt a continuation of the show with all the beloved characters--Grady, Aunt Esther, Woody and Bubba--as they assist the new property owner, Earl Wheeler (Teddy Wilson) as he runs the old Sanford property completely as a hotel.  Fred and Lamont, having moved to Arizona, had started leasing rooms to tenants and now it was full-blown.  Wheeler, a widower with two kids--natch--was a normal guy having to deal with all these crazies. Even Bubba became a bellboy(!).  But he didn't have to for long.  This new version ended after only a few episodes.  But Fred would be back in three years without all the rest of his cronies and relations.  It took a while to put the Sanford franchise out of it's misery.

Sugar Time (ABC).  This titillating summer series returned mid season for another brief run.  Speaking of running briefs, Barbi Benton was back as Maxx--the sexiest member of the aspiring girl pop group Sugar.  Terry Kiser joins the cast as the girl's new scheister manager trying to get the girls to go punk.  And another character actor Charles Fleischer, plays a "new breed" comedian Lightning Jack Rappaport.  Although, "Sugar Time!" fit in quite well with the new ABC "T & A" zeitgiest, Benton's negligees didn't agree with Neilson audiences as much as they did with Hugh Hefner.

Szysznyk (CBS).  Also returning from a short hit summer run for a short uneventful midseason return was this series starring Ned Beatty as the former Marine commander turned DC playground supervisor.  Notable this season mostly for an appearance by Reggie Jackson and a very young Debra Winger (as a runaway), this social comedy "burned off" it's remaining episodes in the summer.

Tony Randall Show (CBS).  With Randall feuding with creator's Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses and with ABC tiring of dealing with the feud, this MTM-produced show, having had decent ratings and critical praise,  continued it's second season on CBS with different show-runners.  Ken Levine and David Isaacs came on board as did Hugh Wilson (soon to be helming "WKRP").  Perfectly slotted on the now-fading Saturday night schedule, the sophisticated comedy never got a good recharge.  Adding comedy veteran Hans Conreid ("Uncle Tonoose") as Judge Franklin's irascible dad didn't help bolster the already expert cast.  Walter still has many romances after ending his relationship with Eleanor and many difficulties dealing with said teenage daughter Bobby--now recast with a cuter, less-masculine young actress.  He even teaches night school this year, allowing many more interesting character interactions.  Guest stars included Ken Mars, Robert Alda, Brian Dennehy, and, as an escaped convict holding Miss Reubner hostage, Cleavon Little.

What's Happening!! (ABC).  Whereas "Good Times" was becoming rather uneven mixing it's social content with slapstick humor in it's examination of a struggling African-American family in the 70's, "What's Happening" managed to do it, keeping a sense of fun while not going off the rails into heightened drama.  Roger, Dwayne and Rerun continue their moneymaking and romantic shenanigans while Mama achieves her high school diploma through night school.  There were many car wrecks this season.  Shirley experiences discrimination in a new job when she is hired because she is black.  Roger starts an underground newspaper.  Rerun joins a cult.  Mama's ex gets remarried.  Greg Morris makes some appearances as Dwayne's city councilman dad. Singer Irene Cara plays an illegal alien who talks Rerun into marrying her for citizenship.  Bud Yorkin brought in many "company" players from "Sanford and Son" to continue in more sensible roles here.  For instance, Fred's constant foil ("Well I NEVER!" ".and you never WILL") played by sour-faced Fritzi Burr, plays Roger's favorite teacher in many episodes this season.  And of course, in true late seventies fashion, the boys visit the set of "The Gong Show."

But, in one of the most truly bizarre plots in a sitcom, the trio can't get tickets to a Doobie Brothers Concert so they innocently agree to tape the show for a bootlegger.  And, as one of the Doobies finds out he went to school with Rerun (?), the band teams up with our heroes to frame the dirty rascal who wanted to violate copyright laws.  Ah, 1978.

NOTABLE PREMIERES

Betty White Show.  Betty White and Georgia Engel return from their well-regarded roles in "Mary Tyler Moore" in this highly anticipated fall series.  White plays a fading middle-age actress, Joyce Whitman, who's career is revived when she plays the role of a policewoman in the action show "Undercover Woman."  Unfortunately, the director (John Hillerman) is her ex-husband, allowing White to throw out a bevy of insulting innuendo and sarcastic barbs.  With Hillerman's dry wit, it was a two-way exchange.  Engel balances the vitriol with her portrayal of Joyce's sweet roommate Mitzi whom she met in the unemployment line in Hollywood.  CBS even put itself up for parody as the cop show's network, allowing plenty of show biz in-jokes from the harried network executive to the bitchy and sexy co-star (Caren Kaye) and Joyce's burly male stunt double.  Probably in order to look like the standard sitcom (and save a little bit of money), this was part of a new trend with MTM produced sitcoms to shoot in the  videotaped format instead of film.    Although the look was cheaper, having Stan Daniels and Ed. Weinberger as head writers didn't help and the series fell victim to being part of the faltering Monday night opposite-NFL football line-up.    See video nuggets for opening theme.
                                                                                                     
We've Got Each Other(CBS). Patchett and Tarses created this other new MTM-produced sitcom, also videotaped.  Using many players from their previous hit "Bob Newhart Show"--which aired prior to this show on the fading Saturday night schedule--this show just couldn't find the comic spark of it's lead-in.  Oliver Clark and Beverly Archer played a married couple whose roles were reversed.  Clark was a stay at home husband working as a catalog copy righter and Archer played a career-woman commuting to downtown LA to assist a successful commercial photographer.  Even with Tom Poston as the scattered shutterbug and Joan Van Ark as a vacuous fashion model, the "work" part of the comedy just didn't gel and the "home" part of the show, what with the husband doing the "women's work"  just didn't have comic leads capable of squeezing enough laughs out of the now-dated high concept scenario.

Another Day (CBS)  Faring even worse was this couple, played by David Groh and Joan Hackett.  The situation was basically the same, except the wife HAD to work as hubby wasn't bringing enough dough to support the kids and critical mother-in-law.  The return of Groh to sitcom-land was not quite as celebrated/reviled as his oft-criticized turn as Rhoda's (ex)husband Joe and this James Komack series lasted only one month in it's mid season tryout.
The Roller Girls (NBC)  Komack did, however, stay true to his "all-girls in shorts" formula in this videotaped summer series--which was the first, and I believe the last to headline a diverse female rollerdirby team in Pittsburgh.  Twenty years later the craze would take hold again but in 1977 it played on the success of "Kansas City Bomber" and allowed female-on-female action.  In a nice comic touch, the color commentator, who previously worked for an opera company  had to adjust to the new "rougher" landscape.  Terry Kiser did double duty for Komack (see "Sugar Time") as the team owner here and future star Joanna Cassidy would have an early roll as "Books" Cassidy.  Tall Arkansas-bred Amazonian actress Rhonda Bates was typecast here after she tried her hand as a Vegas showgirl in "Blansky's Beauties" last season.

Operation Petticoat. (ABC).  Where else can we cram a large group of leggy women together?  Producer Leonard Stern ("Get Smart") looked back to 1959 to do so.  Blake Edward's hit comedy film starring Cary Grant and Tony Curtis was the perfect vehicle for the sexual heat driving the new hot ABC fall lineup.  It's WWII and the crew of a submarine, accidently painted pink, end up picking up a large contingent of georgous WAC's.  The  sailor's libidos being held in check by these not-so-unwelcome intruders provided most of the comedy in this single camera sitcom.  John Astin played the Grant part of the Commander and Curtis's daughter, Jamie Lee had an early role as one of the sexier lieutenants on the sub.

Free Country (ABC). Going back even further in time, Rob Reiner--fresh off his seven year tenure as Mike "Meathead" Stivik on "All in the Family"--starred in and created (along with comedy partner Phil Mishkin) this gentle sitcom about about a Lithuanian immigrant starting a new life with his wife (Judith Kahan) during the turn of the century.  Reiner would also don makeup and play the 86-year old as a recalling "wraparound" on each episode.  He would use a similar device in his hit film "When Harry Met Sally" twelve years later.  The short run during the summer was videotaped in front of a studio audience, giving it less a period piece flavor and more of a stage play feel.

Baby, I'm Back (CBS).  Another Norman Lear veteran, Demond Wilson--Lamont on "Sanford and Son"--would star in this mid-season replacement series as a man who, after abandoning his family and left for dead, shows up seven years later to reclaim his wife and kids.  The schemer has to prove he's still alive and a good man to his older kids, his newly engaged wife Olivia (Denise Nicholas of "Room 222"), her military fiancee, and his disapproving mother-in-law.  Set in Washington DC, this taped show garnered decent ratings and was commended for being a show that just happened to have a black cast rather than being about a black cast.  But Wilson demanded more control of the series so the network and producer (Charles Fries) and co-creator (Mort Lachman) decided to end the show with Olivia moving to Guam and not taking either man.  One of the two children was played by Kim Fields--soon to be Tootie on "Facts of Life."

Carter Country (ABC).  This fall series did not shy away from racial politics though.  Created by Lear's old partner Bud Yorkin ("What's Happening" and "Sanford and Son"), this taped sitcom took place in President Carter's home state in a little town called "Clinton Corner"--I'm not kidding.  If this show took place fifteen years later in a small town in Arkansas, "Carter Corners" I suppose it would be called "Clinton Country."  Anyway, I digress.  Sheriff Roy Mobley (Victor French) was a good ol'-boy sheriff who hired an African-American New York City police officer Curtis Baker (Kene Holliday) as his deputy.  Sitcom fireworks erupted not only in terms of law enforcement methods but with Baker being a black cop in southern
In the Heat of the Slight
redneck territory.  This show dealt with racial themes that were quite uncomfortable:  right off the bat, Baker is threatened by the KKK; he has to deal with racist neighbors; he refuses to raise money for a sick segregationist ex-chief of police; and he experiences his share of tokenism by the city council.  Although these plots could be quite inflammatory, the characters never ventured out of harmless videotaped comedy territory (basically it was a racially charged Mayberry RFD).  And in true seventies fashion, other controversial topics were examined--just in a rural setting:  Roy reacts to an old buddy's homosexuality; he deals with a wife beater; and in true southern fashion, there is a missing ballot box.

Speaking of elections, the "pass-the-buck" Mayor Burnside (Richard Paul) had a catch phrase "Handle It, Handle It" which caught on for about a month leading to a lot of political humor as well.  The regular characters included the mayor's black secretary (who Baker courted) and the "lovable country folk" who inhabited the sheriff's office: man-hungry officer Cloris and old-fashioned Jasper.  While not a huge hit, the ratings were decent enough to garner a second season in 1978.

Joe and Valerie (NBC).   The late seventies were known for celebrating the bucolic populism of Jimmy Carter what with the peanuts and "Billy Beer."  But the other more urban side of the pop culture coin was the disco explosion.  With the success of "Saturday Night Fever," NBC decided to try out this mini-series in April/May.  Joe hung out with his buddies and worked for his dad's plumbing business during the day.  Valerie, living with her divorced mom, was a cosmetics clerk.  When the sun went down, they were together boogie-ing down on the dance floor at the coolest New York discotheque.  The videotaped series followed their courtship amidst the dance interludes and would return for a few episodes a year later to wrap up.

AES Hudson Street (ABC).  On the more grown-up side of New York, Danny Arnold ("Barney Miller") applied his critically winning formula to a lower east-side Manhattan hospital emergency room in this 5 episode mid-season replacement series. Gregory Sierra (Chano from "BM") starred as Dr. Menzies, the "normal" chief resident along with a group of loonies much like it's police counterpart.  Bob Dishy, Stefan Gierasch and Allan Miller led a fine ensemble also featuring many Latino characters.  Much as the 12th precinct, the ER dealt with crises such as blackouts.  Some interesting plots had a mental patient parading as a doctor--not uncommon after "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"--and a black doctor having to treat a bigoted South African native.  Ray Stewart, who played one of the first recurring gay characters on "BM" played the "male nurse" on this series.  Future Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham played Dr. Menzies in the pilot the previous season.

Harvey Korman Show (ABC).  I have difficulty finding much information on this series as it aired as a series of comedy specials during the spring.  Basically, Korman--following up his successful run on Carol Burnett's variety hour-- starred as a master thespian running a boarding  house.  Barry Van Dyke, Dick's son, played his protege.  Odd as the elder Van Dyke replaced Korman on Burnett's show in a poorly conceived move.  Future acclaimed actress Christine Lahti would also be featured in the series whose segments aired  as part of the "ABC Saturday Comedy Special."

Most of the sitcoms now followed the videotaped or filmed three camera setup with characters dealing with real-life issues however outlandish they may be. This season saw two exceptions--throwbacks to earlier times, the sixties, with single camera laugh track formats--and a little seventies pop culture thrown in for good measure:

Tabitha (ABC).  Postponed from a fall premiere, this "Bewitched" spin-off saw Samantha Stevens daughter, Tabitha--also a witch--grow up very quickly. And in just five years Tabitha (Lisa Hartman) is a career woman, working at an LA TV station.   In many ways, the series could be compared to Mary Tyler Moore's landmark sitcom:  Young and single, Tabitha worked as an assistant producer of a talk show with a pompous and clueless host Paul Thurston (Robert Urich).  Her brother Adam returned but as a mortal, not a warlock and her aunt Minerva (Karen Morrow) provided the "Endora" role with her experienced and meddling powers.  The show was able to deal more bluntly with the saucy and sexy scenarios that
Who can turn the world on with a twitch?
arise with being a witch.  Plus some issues of the day were dealt with such as the episode where Paul refused to book an environmentalist as a guest, so Tabitha arranges his electricity to go out at the twitch of her nose.   Although William Asher, creator of "Bewitched," was a consultant on the show, his creative input was limited to a few directing chores.  Appearances by Bernard Fox (Dr. Bombay) and Sandra Gould and George Tobias (Mr. and Mrs. Kravitz) were allowed to keep the magic going, but, alas the series never amounted to anything more than a pop culture footnote.

Retro footnote:  The Addams Family returned for the first time with the original cast (sans Blossoms Rock, replaced by Jane Rose) in a videotaped NBC special "Halloween with the New Addams Family."  Gomez has a brother that is out to woo Morticia and there are lots of crazy goings-on with a mob as well.  This was a prospective pilot for a return of the characters whose popularity had risen due to reruns of it's two season sixties run on ABC.

Quark (NBC).  On the other hand, this short-run midseason spoof has been lionized by geeks to this day.  Along with the disco craze, American audiences were bitten by the science fiction bug what with the resurgence of "Star Trek" and the new "Star Wars" phenomenon--the George Lucas mega-hit premiered a year earlier.  So Buck Henry, co-creator of "Get Smart" with Mel Brooks, hot Hollywood screenwriter ("The Graduate," "Heaven Can Wait") and frequent Saturday Night Live host brought his depraved yet winning sense of humor to network prime-time.  Much as Brooks would much later revisit his Robin Hood TV spoof on the big screen, he would revisit Henry's satire on the new space craze in "Spaceballs."  Basically, Richard Benjamin starred as Quark, the commander of a futuristic garbage scow scouring space for trash but ending up on bizarre missions it had no control over as ordered by the disembodied "Head."

The series, produced by David Gerber, for Columbia TV, was a single camera sitcom like it's high-concept forbears in the sixties.  Yet, in keeping with the times, the comedy was timely and smart, mixing it up with the slapstick and sight gags.  The supporting characters managed to spoof current trends while keeping true to the sci-fi parody.  For instance:  Gene/Jean was a transmute with  with both male and female traits; Ficus (the Spock character) was basically a human vegetable--literally; Betty I and Betty II were sexy android twins available for raunchy humor and slight outfits; and there was a robot:  Andy the junk pile.  Joan Van Allen made guest appearances as Quark's romantic nemesis, Libido.  As the first tribute to the blossoming fan boy genre, "Quark" truly went where no man had gone before.  See Video Nuggets for more.

NEXT, ON SIXTY MINUTES

With "Love Boat" and "Eight is Enough" already getting Neilsen numbers, networks were not afraid to experiment with long-form (hour long) sitcoms.  In the fall Aaron Spelling also produced San Pedro Beach Bums (ABC) about a bunch of, you guessed it, beach bums living in a houseboat.  In retrospect, I have no idea what they did to fill out an hour of TV time on this single camera series with laugh track intact, but the premise allowed for guest stars and lots of sexy bikini-clad extras in keeping with the network's new "t & a" requirements.  
Husbands, Wives and Lovers (CBS) was actually the only hour long sitcom this decade to follow the live audience three camera setup.  Joan Rivers created this mid-season serialized comedy more in the spirit of sophisticated sex laughs (see "Soap") as she chronicled the exploits, sexual and otherwise of five couples living in the San Fernando Valley.  

With MTM alumni Betty White, Georgia Engel and Ted Knight flopping in their respective follow-up sitcoms and Gavin MacLeod helming the new hit "Love Boat,"  where does that leave Ed Asner?  During the course of the MTM run, Asner became an Emmy favorite, waxing dramatic in everything from "Roots," "Rich Man-Poor Man," and "The Gathering" (all for ABC).  So it made sense, based on these highly-regarded credentials to stick with drama in the WJM afterlife.  In a bold pioneering move, MTM co-creator Allan Burns decided to keep the irascible newsman Lou Grant alive by teaming with Gene Reynolds (of M*A*S*H) and putting him in an hour long newspaper drama with tinges of comedy.  Grant leaves Minneapolis for LA and runs the editorial for the Tribune.  Although, he has some quirky co-stars, the series stuck with drama as it's main thrust and became a critical success lasting for five more seasons until Asner's political views alienated the powers that be at CBS.  MTM Enterprises would continue to churn out dramatic series such as "The White Shadow," "Paris" and in the eighties "Hill Street Blues."  


VIDEO NUGGETS:

Archie and Mike confessional:



Mike and Gloria leave:


Robin Williams first appearance as Mork:


More space age hijinks:


Betty White as Police Woman:


So Long, 1977:

















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