Sunday, August 25, 2013


The theme of my final installment is one that is not new:  Everything old is new again.  But it only took nine or so years. 
To recap:  CBS “cut the trees down” and de-ruralized sitcoms at the very beginning of the 70’s with Mary Tyler Moore’s series and the Norman Lear tsunami headlined by “All in the Family.”  No more Hooterville and Mayberry.  African-Americans, post “Julia” were represented with more frequency and in more racially-aware scripts, even if still mired in fifties-era stereotypes.  The urban workplace became the “home” for many and diversity in ethnicity and sexuality became the norm in ensemble casts.  Story lines dealt with real-world issues and courted controversy.  When they didn’t explore outside the provincial sitcom boundaries (a la the Garry Marshall 50’s universe), they still provided an outlet for a more ribald and ironic sense of humor.

By the end of the decade, thanks to the resurgence of the rural landscape in Hollywood big screen farces (led by future sitcom star Burt Reynolds) and innumerable Roger Corman low budget drive-in fare, network chiefs saw fit to abandon the sophistication and introspection that had been nurtured and return to the simple-minded  corn-pone of yesteryear.  Just more tight and low-cut.  CB Radio was a “craze” that carried this revival, far outlasting the failed televised attempts to homogenize the disco revolution (“Saturday Night Fever”), frat house slob humor (“Animal House”) and the gritty urban landscape of “The Godfather,” “Rocky,” and “Taxi Driver.”  Instead, “Smokey and the Bandit” won out.

“Alice” began in 1976 as a story about a widow and her son readjusting to a new environment amidst emotional transition.  With the sassy Texas waitress at Mel’s Diner Florence Jean Castleberry becoming the breakout character, network brass saw the crack forming for an audience tiring of Norman Lear’s weekly social navel-gazing and growing weary from trying too hard to understand the subtle character humor inherent in the MTM oeuvre.   Polly Holliday’s Flo would spin-off this season to huge ratings as she moved back to Texas.

And a couple of things premiered on CBS--the network that cancelled “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Green Acres,” and “Mayberry RFD” (not to mention “Hee Haw”--which went on to be highly successful in syndication):  “Dallas” premiering as a night-time serial (starring Larry Hagman as JR, after trying hard to re-enter sitcoms this decade and not succeeding)  and “Dukes of Hazzard.”  “Dukes” was basically a sitcom couched in an hour-long “adventure” format about two good ol’ boys running from an imbecile sheriff and his “boss Hogg.”  There were lots of car chases, skimpy outfits (courtesy of Daisy Duke), and broad slapstick humor.  As a matter of fact, the doltish repartee of these hicks was more juvenile and dumbed-down than anything viewed in the sixties.  But without a laugh track and with lots of action, the hour long series was never actually categorized as a sitcom.  When “Dukes’ premiered in early 1979, NBC countered with “BJ and the Bear” about a trucker and his chimpanzee, also running from the law.  This series was more derivative of Clint Eastwood’s “Any Which Way you Can” films than anything Reynolds dreamed up with Hal Needham.  And both series returned this season.  “BJ” already graced the network with a spin-off in the fall:  “The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo” also an hour-long car-chase with overly broad characterizations.  So basically, Mayberry was back and Barney Fife now came across as Gary Cooper in comparison.  In the fall of 1980, “Dukes” would even have a spin off featuring a law enforcement stooge: “Enos.”  And where Claude Akin’s Lobo was more like Andy Griffith: down-home yet shrewd, Enos was basically Gomer Pyle--he even ended up in a fish-out of water situation with the LAPD!  So basically, we are back to 1970.

But before audiences in the eighties discovered new classics with Cosby, the “Cheers” gang, the Keatons and Golden Girls, they could seek quality with the new critical darlings of the Sunshine Cab Company and the returning exploits of the 12th Precinct and WKRP.  The 4077th would continue to garner acclaim and ratings but at the expense of, ahem, comedy.

But before moving forward:

Return to Form--ula

Crissy does Mayberry.
#2.  Three's Company (ABC).  Obviously, the middle-aged Ropers had nothing to do with the astronomical ratings of this series.  As they left for their own doomed sitcom (see below), the oversexed “kids” maintained imperial status as the highest rated sitcom.  TV comedy legend Don Knotts, after winning Emmy’s as Barney Fife, becoming a comedy film star and then headlining Disney fare goes “blue” and joins a swinging sex comedy.  This may not be Mayberry, but Knotts expert buffoonery and cartoony persona was another nail in the coffin of the sophisticated fare that the seventies wrought.      As the over-confident ladies man Ralph Furley, Knotts gained a new generation of fans--just minus the critical accolades.  Furley’s outlandish outfits at the time seemed appropriate for the misguided “swinger,” but now it’s difficult to discern the strangeness amidst the seventies retro hype.  Jack’s “gay ruse” plot device continued under Furley…less homophobic and more ridiculing, although in one episode Furley catches Jack in a heterosexual situation.  “Three’s Company” did become “serious”…as serious as it could get, as Furley becomes suicidal and Crissy is mistaken as dying of an illness….all played for cheap laughs of course.  But basically, stuff happens:  Jack and Crissy get handcuffed together; neighbor Larry falls hard for Janet;Jack must dress in drag to avoid the FBI; Crissy gets caught up in Furley’s strip poker game.  Speaking of Crissy, this would be the final season for Suzanne Somers as contract negotiations break down.  She would make a few "phone" appearances next season and her Texas (of course) cousin Cindy would replace her before Teri moves in for three years.

Another short-lived regular character would be introduced to compensate for the lack of Ropers: new neighbor Lana.  Played by Ann Wedgeworth as a man-hungry southerner, she had the hots for Jack--who didn’t respond in kind….but Furley had the hots for her.  This provided a lot of comic steam until the producers figured out that she didn’t really fit in very well with the show.  But sadly,
The ol' Roper--dope.
The Ropers (ABC) didn’t fit in with their own show.  After being slotted on the powerhouse Tuesday night schedule in their successful tryout last season, Stanley and Helen were booted to the now-weak Saturday night family hour for their second and final season, limping along for the season until cancellation.  The TV tabloid mill has it that the network basically engineered the move to dump Norman Fell and Audra Lindlay and their expensive contracts.  (By the time “The Ropers” was cancelled they could not return to the flagship series--where Knotts had already taken off.)  Nonetheless, ABC tried:  the season premiere had Jack, Crissy and Janet visit for a disco party.  During the season, the Ropers experienced more class conflicts with their snobby neighbor (Jeffrey Tambor) and attempted to adopt a child (they were deemed too old).  Helen got a dog and battled with her snobby sister (Dena Deitrich).  And in a contrived attempt to help the ratings with the now-treasured youth demographic, they discovered a young woman living in their storeroom…she ended up moving in!  I can’t make that up.  But in keeping in touch with the racy roots of the show, there were still sniggering story lines such as when Stanley’s men’s magazines accidentally get donated to a church rummage sale.  Oh, the humanity!

#4.  Alice (CBS).  Leading the pack on the now strong CBS Sunday night schedule (which would continue throughout the early eighties), this series would provide another signal of the decline of the sitcom via high ratings and nothing else.  Not much happens here, except traditional sitcom tripe.  With the “I Love Lucy” show runners still in charge there were plenty of celebrity cameos--Telly Savales and Dinah Shore as themselves, and as more of a nod to sitcoms past, Eve Arden and Art Carney.  The most controversial episode involved Flo driving a truck through Mel’s Diner.  Speaking of Flo, her popular character is spun off into her own series this season in the spring.  In one of the strangest casting moves, she is replaced by acclaimed film actress Diane Ladd (as Belle), who actually played Flo in the dramatic film this series was based on.  She would continue on through 1980 as the “sassy country” component until she had enough of the inane scripts and would be replaced by another corn-pone waitress.

#5.  M*A*S*H (CBS).  Already outlasting the Korean War by four years, the 4077th provided a welcome relief from the juvenile humor found at the top of the Neilsons.  Although with Alan Alda in charge, the scripts were more heavy handed and Emmy voters responded extremely well to the pathos and experimentation, this season saw a brief excursion into the playfulness and satire of the first three years of the extended war.  Such as:  Hawkeye decides to bill the government for his medical services; stuffy Charles gets drunk and married in Tokyo; a crusty colonel makes a visit on April Fool’s Day; the gang take over Rosie’s bar while she recovers from surgery; and Hot Lips (or Margaret as she is called now) is labeled a Communist sympathizer by a visiting Congressional aide.  Character actor GW Bailey as the scheming head of the motor pool added some comic relief as well.  Klinger’s cross-dressing antics were toned down as he replaced Radar as the company clerk, thus becoming to Potter what Radar was to Henry Blake, with far fewer laughs.

Yes, Gary Burghoff, as Radar O’Reilly, would leave the series this season after a few episodes adding another blow to the original format.  His character gets a hardship discharge and when a generator goes out on the base he feels it his duty to stay--but in the end he must go.  Dinner theater awaits.  (There would be an attempt to spin off the character in 1984 but that would never get off the ground.) 

As the popularity of the show would increase (thanks in part to the successful reruns of the first seasons), the cast would take it upon themselves to garnish the legacy on their own:  cast members Alan Alda, Mike Farrell, and Harry Morgan would all direct episodes (a sure sign of a show degenerating by feeding on it’s own renown) and Alda (with Burt Metcalf) would pretty much run the creative control of the show.  Which meant more “special” episodes:
First do no arm.
Dream Cleaver
"We lost the laughs in there!"
the infamous episode where an onscreen clock depicts the surgeons battle to save the life of a soldier; the “dream” episode where the character’snightmares are visually re-enacted to express the brutality of war; Mako plays a Korean soldier who accuses a female counterpart of being an enemy guerrilla; one of the wounded solders, a pianist, must deal with his crippled hand;  another patient (played by Sidney Lassick of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) is suicidal. Hawkeye and BJ get lost in enemy territory with crucial anti-biotics.  Local Koreans play a larger part in episodes as when a group of refugee orphans arrive at the camp.  And the dramatics are not limited to war as the two new “moral standouts” have marital issues: BJ is tempted to cheat on his wife and Potter’s long-term wedded bliss is in danger. 

With the show’s critical cache came quality guest stars:  Edward Herrman, Ed Begly Jr., Susan St. James as a war correspondent, and future sitcom diva Shelly Long.  Even Alda featured his brothers Robert and Antony in an episode--another clue as to the inclusiveness of the new “regime.” 

Although “M*A*S*H” picked up an incredibly high volume of Emmy nominations this year, Loretta Swit and Harry Morgan took home the only statues for supporting performances in a comedy  this year--probably more for the dramatic arcs than the comic bits.

#7.  Flo (CBS).  Back to inanity:  As mentioned above, sassy man-hungry Texan Flo (Polly Holliday) as the breakout character on “Alice” must naturally break out into her own series.  So her mid season solo show has her moving back to Houston but stopping off in Fort Worth along the way to visit her family.  Her journey ends there as she buys a roadhouse and turns it into a honkytonk restaurant, deeming it “Flo’s Yellow Rose.”  Even though there were some interesting guest stars--James Cromwell, Robert Englund (“Freddie”) and Arlen Dean Snyder as her ex-boyfriend--the show was basically designed to appeal to the “trucker” culture now prevalent with the Dukes and BJ.  Future Scientologist Geoffrey Lewis (fresh from his Clint Eastwood orangutan films) played the bartender--who would provide the romantic sparks with Flo during the show’s brief run.  The initial six episodes would take off, but just as "The Ropers" on ABC, the series would be relegated to time-slot hell on it’s return in the fall leading to an early demise.

Carrot top-icality.
#8.  The Jeffersons (CBS).  After two seasons of being bounced around the prime-time schedule, the network put Norman Lear’s upwardly mobile African American family in a Sunday night lineup where it would flourish through the first half of the next decade.  Although  Lear created the series the team behind “Three’s Company” basically ran the show, so there was not as much serious social content as in “the old days.”  Mike Evans did return as son Lionel (after being replaced by a different “Evans”) and he and wife Jenny (Berlinda Tolbert) played prominent roles this season: Baby Jessica is born leading George to angrily ruminate on the possibility of a “white” grandson and Mike experiences serious work-a-holic tendencies with  his new job and potential relocations.  Some cinematic derivative highlights for George: he accepts a “small” businessman award not realizing it was in reference to his height; he is mistaken as a patient when visiting a mental hospital (a la “Cuckoo’s Nest”); he coaches Tom Willis on how to “act black” (a la “Silver Streak”).  In the really silly department:  Louise spots a murder by a giant “killer rabbit” through a telescope leading to a sad tribute to two Jimmy Stewart films; and George tells baby Jessica the story of “fighting inflation” with the cast inhabiting royal garb and Arthurian tropes led by King George.  Charlie the bartender and Marcus the helper at the dry cleaners play more prominent supporting roles and Florence the maid--the breakout here--has many featured story lines--leading to her failed spin off in the 1980 season. 

Jeffersonian politics.
To be fair, there were a few thoughtful serious episodes.  Louise, while being feted in a documentary about her work at the help center, is actually overlooking the needs of a client who attempts suicide.  In a flashback episode, the series chronicles the opening of George’s first store--on the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

#9.  Dukes of Hazzard (CBS).

#10.  One Day at a Time (CBS).  Another of Lear’s holdouts that found it’s strength on the Sunday night lineup was the continuing saga of divorcee Ann Romano in this, the show’s fifth season.  Actress Mackenzie Phillips had been having serious troubles due to her addictions and her appearances were limited this season.  The “plot device” was to have her marry airline attendant Max (Michael Lembeck) and move to Houston.  The couple did show up quite a few times this season, with story lines involving continued unemployment, credit card debt, and--in the opening episode--a question of rather the “right” man was at the altar.  Mostly however,the show dealt with the romantic life of Ann and daughter Barbara.  Valerie Bertinelli had a rising star among young male viewers and her exploits with dates and college life--Ann even joins Barb in classes--were of paramount importance.  Ann herself dates a comedian, deals with many workplace issues at Connors and Davenport (John Hillerman as Connors was featured prominently, pre-Magnum) and even has a heart attack due to work-related stress.  Even maintenance man Schneider (Pat Harrington, Jr.) is featured with many mid-life crisis issues such as when his male modeling job is not what he thinks, or when a lover having a fatal heart attack during sex causes the self-proclaimed Lothario to experience impotence.  So much for Schneider being the comic relief.

Balsam and Vinegar
#11.  Archie Bunker's Place (CBS).  And the Bunkers-- who started it all--now are a staple on the Sunday night lineup.  With Jean Stapleton limiting her appearances as Edith, the series focused on Archie (Carroll O’Connor) running his new bar and the title was changed to “Archie Bunker’s Place.”  Film actor Martin Balsam was added as Murray Klein, Archie’s liberal Jewish partner in his attempts to turn the bar into a restaurant.  This allowed Murray to provide the ammo for Archie’s continued (yet more cuddly)trademark intolerance.  Archie’s domestic life would take a back seat as new characters were introduced.  Edith would make a few appearances before being “killed off” in the 1980 season next year.  Of course, little niece Stephanie would continue to be featured to provide the younger audiences with someone to relate to.  Along with the rogues gallery of overacting bar hounds and cronies familiar to viewers (Jason Wingreen as Harry the bartender, Danny Dayton as Hank and of course Allan Melvin as Barney), viewers were introduced to the blind patron Mr. Ranseleer (Bill Quinn) and occasionally, Dottie the hooker played by Sheree North.  Ann Meara was added as as the alcoholic cook, Veronica Roony.  Meara’s real-life husband Jerry Stiller played her ex-husband in one show and the character’s gay nephew became a waiter--Archie even tried to “convert” him in one episode.  With the loss of a live audience, O’Connor’s continued editorial input, and tired direction the landmark series lost it’s bite in episodes such as that above.  It didn’t help when other controversial topics came up:  Murray’s anti-napalm protests during Vietnam come back to haunt him as do previous mob ties.  The energy crisis, city hall corruption and construction bureaucracy popped up a lot as a nemesis when the restaurant reopened. 

Although Jack Carter guested as a loan shark, the biggest cameo event was Sammy Davis Jr. returning as himself (seven years later) to help promote the bar.  Sadly, this was proof positive of “All in the Family” turning into a sort of gritty Lucy show in it’s remaining years.
 Here's Archie!
#12.  Eight is Enough (ABC)

#13. Taxi.   The denizens of the Sunshine Cab Company became the new media and critical darlings thanks to major Emmy consideration and great audience numbers. 
Rightfully so as--along with “Barney Miller” and “WKRP"--this was one of the few sitcoms left with expert comic writing and characterization. (The word “comic” takes “M*A*S*H” out of the equation.) It got even better his second season.  Along with the other ex-MTM maestros, future “Moonlighting” creator Glenn Gordon Caron even got his start as a TV scribe here this season.  And sixties burnout Reverend Jim became a regular as he took his driver's test in one of the funniest moments on TV.   One of the most celebrated episodes had Elaine (Marilu Henner) as the new shop steward forced to go on a date with the lecherous Louie (Danny Devito).  The two-part episode, ending with of the funniest kisses in TV history, was proof that comedy could persevere through ugliness and still end with a big laugh and wistful pondering.  Elaine got competition this season as the only female cast member.  Film actress Carol Kane was introduced mid-season as a fellow resident of Latka’s unnamed country of origin.  Although of a lower caste, Kane’s Simka captured the heart of Andy Kaufman’s Latka and the result was comic magic in an unknown language. 
Rhea Perlman would play Louie’s new girlfriend Zena the candy machine girl--a shy and introverted counterpart to Louie’s demonic demeanor.  (Perlman would eventually become Devito’s long-time wife and would herself play an award-winning nasty character on “Cheers.”)
Romance did loom large this season among the cabbies.  Alex is revisited by Angela, the frumpy woman from the previous season, this time looking much different.  He also dates a soap star played by Dee Wallace.  Bobby dates his new agent played by Susan Sullivan.  Tony continues to have heartbreak in the ring.  Actors were clamoring to be on the show as if it were a Woody Allen film:  Tom Ewell played Elaine’s therapist; Jack Gilford played Alex’s dad; Joan Hackett played his sister; Dick Butkus, Erik Sevaried and Lassie rounded out the eclectic guest list. 

The latter can’t be helped when the season finale involves a visit by Herve Villachaize (“Tatoo” in “Fantasy Island”) prompting the cast to imagine their fantasies.  This highly entertaining episode that culminated in a spectacular musical number with the cast performing “Lullaby of Broadway.”  This was the most appropriate way to show off the casts musical abilities rather than the “let’s put on a show for the retirement home” tripe.

“Taxi” rightfully picks up it’s second Emmy for best comedy and adds a directing Emmy for Jim Burrows for the season premiere where Louie asks out Zena.

#14.  House Calls (CBS).  Although it seemed odd to base a sitcom on a hit film about two adult characters in a sophisticated romance in these youth-oriented days, it actually worked due to scheduling magic and one other thing: a nostalgia for the original “M*A*S*H.”  Here’s how:  Wayne Rogers, who--as Trapper John-- was a much funnier cohort to Hawkeye than Mike Farrell’s BJ could ever be , reminded audiences of how funny that series could be if it stopped proselytizing.  So CBS decided to let Rogers take over the Walter Matthau role of a middle-aged divorced Los Angeles-based surgeon in an on-again, off-again sparring relationship with a British hospital administrator--played by Glenda Jackson in the film and Lynn Redgrave here.  Ray Buktenika (from “Rhoda”) played Richard
Benjamin’s part as the fellow surgeon and David Wayne played Art Carney’s befuddled chief of surgery role with less vindictiveness and fewer signs of  oncoming Alzheimer’s.  With Jerry Paris (“Odd Couple”)--having successfully transferred another Matthau vehicle to the small screen--in charge for Universal and ex-“M*A*S*H”-er Hy Averback helping out, “House Calls” captured the wackiness of medical life mixed in with a bit of human drama and some saucy sexy humor with an adult sensibility.  The filmed series also was single camera, letting a subtle laughtrack color the proceedings rather than a videotaped studio audience--now almost passé.  And to schedule the midseason show right after “M*A*S*H” on Monday nights was a stroke of genius.  Look for teen heartthrob Lief Garrett, aging heartthrob Fernando Llamas and future neurotic heartthrob Richard Lewis in guest roles.

Earlier in the fall though, CBS--without the blessings of the new “M*A*S*H” co-conspirators but with the help of Richard Hooker, author of the original book--created an hour-long medical drama (with comic overtones) based on the Trapper John character.  “Trapper John MD” had Pernell Roberts play the title character some thirty years after the Korean War fighting with hospital beauracracy as a surgeon in San Fransisco.  His supporting cast included a sexier young version of his old self, appropriately called “Gonzo.” 

So audiences yearning for the old 4077th had TWO versions of Trapper John to satiate their nostalgic yearnings.

It's come to this.
17.  Happy Days.  This sixth season would be the final season with Richie as a regular. In his swansong he continues his investigative journalism and, in one final fling, suffers the results of spiked punch at a frat party.  Once again, though, the show belongs to Fonz:  Cue the violins--Fonzie falls for a deaf girl; Fonzie hires a disabled assistant at the garage; Fonzie takes a pledge of nonviolence; Fonzie even steps in for a theater performance.  Joannie and Chachi’s relationship starts heating up--Joannie even poses nude for a modeling gig (a little behind the curve on this one, so to speak).
The crossovers continued.  Laverne and Shirley showed up to save Richie and Fonzie in the opening episodes as they get engaged to the “farmer’s daughters” in a ridiculous take on the joke when the gang visit the countryside.  There is also a dream sequence where Chachi sells his soul to the devil’s nephew and an angel shows up to save the day--Jimmy Brogan plays the angel in an attempt to "Mork" the series--see "Out of the Blue" below.   Other interesting guest shots:  Ron’s brother, Clint--the B Movie favorite; a young Julie Brown; Bob and Ray; and Hank Aaron.  There was a Roaring 20’s flashback featuring Pat O’Brien and the cast donning the appropriate period attire and a “let’s put on a show” episode.  This season also featured a girl gang led by Kat Mandu.

The most surprising incident this season was a fire (accidentally started by Chachi) that burns down Arnold’s.  So Fonzie partners up with Al to reopen a new hangout, called Arnolds.  (Fonzie and Archie Bunker are both now proprieters of eating establishments.  That must be where fading sitcom characters go to burn out!)  The producers felt that the audience needed a change in look heading into the sixties and the new set looked more like a Steak n Ale to attract the Beatnik crowd I guess.  

#20.  Barney Miller (ABC).  The season opened with a witchhunt over a homosexual cop in the precinct--that was Dino Natali as Zatelli, the first portrayal of a gay police officer on television.  Well-dressed Harris, whose book is coming along, disappears after going
"The Detective School ain't workin ' Barn."
undercover as a vagrant and also refuses to wear a new standardized uniform.  Deitrich goes undercover in drag in one episode and in another gets arrested during a nuclear protest leading to one of many visits by internal affairs. Lugar refuses to retire and ponders killing himself.  The stationhouse falls victim to possible sniper targeting cops and the release of a viral strain.  Wojo gets hypnotized.  And Barney gets passed up for a promotion again.
A very special guest.
As for the crazy visitors this year:  an inventor who steals his own plans; an architect threatening to blow up his own building because he doesn’t like it; a nuclear engineer who splashes people with toxic liquids; a man claiming to be Jesus Christ; another man predicting he will spontaneously combust; a suicidal suicide hot line worker; a man who shoots up a Muzak machine; a monk who hires a prostitute; an eccentric gun collector; a violent census taker; a woman who is convinced her husband is a clone; another woman who thinks soap operas are reality; an Amish victim who won’t use the phone; and a “time traveler”--who convinces Harris to adjust his stock portfolios.  Guest stars this season included James Cromwell, Stuart Pankin, Joanna Miles, David Paymer, and “Soap”’s Diana Canova.

“Barney Miller” won it’s second Emmy, this time for writing:  Bob Colleary for the episode “Photographer.”

#22.  WKRP In Cincinnati (CBS).    With the station hounds settled down in a secure pre M*A*S*H time slot, this supreme series was able to actually garner some decent ratings before being bounced around into oblivion the following two years.   Although, WKRP successfully mixed pathos and humor, much like “Taxi,” sometimes the show would linger on drama or sentimentality without a joke making it a tad more uneven than it’s filmed counterparts.  But the writing was always topnotch.  Johnny Fever was featured prominently:  he’s threatened with palimony and another time he hears the voice of God.  Newsman Les gets a groupie.  Miss America announcer Bert Parks makes an interesting cameo as
Herb’s flamboyant father who escapes from a nursing home.  Sports are not left out as Sparky Anderson makes an appearance. Activism roots it’s ugly head as the dj’s encourage garbage to be dumped on the steps of city hall.  And like Fonzie, the gang finds out that Jennifer, the gorgeous super-receptionist, spends her Christmas alone.  Russian defectors engulf the station office.

Controversy was not alien to WKRP: Jennifer is photographed in the buff inadvertently in a changing room and the crew go after the perpetrator to get the photos.   Station manager Carlson finds out his wife is pregnant at middle age and his stern mother wants the baby aborted. Venus Flytrap experiences many race-related tribulations (affirmative action is a theme in one episode)  and underlying racism is explored when Andy’s sister dates him.   And in an extremely timely and serious episode drawing on real life, months after a stampede at a concert at Riverside Stadium results in eleven deaths, the station experiences a sense of loss and responsibility.

From Tate house to Statehouse
#23.  Benson (ABC).  Robert Guillame, fresh off of his Emmy win for playing the sardonic straight man butler in “Soap,” is given his own series this season.  He works for the governor (James Noble)  as the head of household affairs in a northeastern state.  In true cross-over fashion, the head of state happens to be former employer Jessica Tate's cousin and Katherine Hellmond makes a couple of appearances in this premiere season just to remind audiences of his pedigree.  Although Soap's Susan Harris, Paul Junger Witt and Tony Thomas continued their involvement with “Benson," the show lacked the biting humor of it’s predecessor.  Although politics took center stage--there were scandals, bugging incidences, Soviet chess defectors--the series was more family-oriented as Benson would take charge of  Governor Gatling’s young daughter (Missy Gold)--except when he accidentally lets her sneak away to a Kiss concert.  And the zany regulars were  populated by ex-“Soap” players:  Inga Swenson as his nemesis, the cook Kraus and Caroline McWilliams as Marcy the receptionist.  Lewis Stadlen would only be featured one season as the governor’s scheming chief of staff.

Benson’s droll delivery gave the comedy a sophisticated bent, even in outlandish situations such as his impersonating a visiting African dignitary, getting stuck in the basement with Gatling--the relationship between the daffy and naive governor and the cynical and levelheaded Benson would be a hallmark of the long-running series--and his investigation of a possible haunting in the mansion.  Plus he gets involved with a woman (Beverly Todd) who happened to be a state senator!  Guests include Denise Nicholas,Roscoe Lee Browne (his replacement on “Soap”), and David Huddleston as senior Gatling.  In comparison to “Soap” the highest level of intrigue this series experienced was when Benson’s past in the Korean War became a security issue.  Although never much of an award winner, the series would end up being a Friday night fixture on ABC throughout  the first half of the eighties.

#24.  Love Boat

#25.  Soap (ABC).  The serialized hi-jinks of “Soap” were still as outrageous in this third season as they were at the beginning of the run.  What happens this season?  Lots of infidelity, that’s for sure. 
Jessica chooses Chester over Donohue and Chester rewards her by fooling around on her again--even with the daughter of the minister (John Hillerman) who counsels them.  Billy is rescued from the cult only to get into a romantic relationship with his teacher, leading to threats of suicide and homicide from her when he breaks it off.
Oh no you din't.
(Another example of something you would never see in a sitcom today, no matter how off-the-wall.)  The aliens that captured Burt have sent a duplicate to earth and he is a sexual dynamo with Mary who becomes pregnant with a child who could possibly be an alien.  When Burt returns to earth, he runs for sheriff (with Danny’s help) and fights a corrupt incumbent (Hamilton Camp).  Danny escapes from the mob thanks to the leader’s girlfriend (Candy Azzarra) who gets involved with Danny.  When she gets enough of the family, Danny falls in love with a black woman (Lynn Moody) leading to  family adjustments and racist threats from the neighborhood.  Jody (Billy Crystal)  sees his son when Carol’s mother brings him to her doorstep.  However she insists he dump his lesbian friend and then he has to go to court to defend himself against Carol’s horrendous lies to keep the baby.  Prisoner Dutch moves in with the Tate’s and becomes the family cook but when Eunice cheats on him, he cheats with Corinne, who has decided to leave ex-priest Tim after the fiasco with the demon baby.  Burt finds out he is going to die so he tries to set world records and then finds out it was a mistake.  And finally, at season’s end, Jessica contacts a mysterious illness and falls into a coma but not before being courted by Malou, Chester, the marriage counselor (Allan Miller) and her new doctor.  The season ends with Jessica dying and Mary going into labor.

Eugene Roche returns as lawyer Malou and Jack Gilford has an
Soap Trek
extended cameo as the alien Saul who helps Burt get back to earth and travels through time sharing famous moments in history with  him.  No kidding.  At times the UFO sequences looked like a bad Saturday morning Krofft show with the costumed creatures.  And after helping Billy escape the Sunnies, Benson leaves for his own show to be replaced by Roscoe Lee Browne as Saunders.  “Soap” would go on with crazy plots for one more season to be unexpectedly cancelled leaving many threads unraveled.

“Soap” picked up it’s only two Emmy awards this year.  Cathryn Damon and Richard Mulligan both received lead performance awards as Burt and Mary Campbell.  Could it be for convincing
acting in a story thread dealing with becoming impregnated by an alien doppelganger or dealing with Burt’s impending death?  Both expert comic actors, Damon would pass away much too soon and Mulligan would go on to win another Emmy for “Empty Nest” in the eighties after starring as Blake Edward’s alter ego in the brilliant Hollywood satire “S.O.B.” 

#26.  Diff'rent Strokes (NBC).  NBC’s only hit sitcom starts it’s second season with Arnold running away with the young girl sharing his hospital room after experiencing the racism of her father (Dabney Coleman).  Race plays heavily in the story lines this season, some serious and some for laughs:  Kimberly’s boyfriend shuns her due to her new brothers; Drummond is mistaken for being African American by a dating service and receives a welfare application; and Whitman Mayo (“Grady”) plays the boy’s Uncle Jethro who tries to thwart the adoption proceedings and return them to their original home.  Guest stars include Mary Ann Mobley as Arnold’s teacher who dates Drummond, James Cromwell as a priest, a young Melora Hardin (“The Office”) as Kimberly’s schoolmate and sports heroes Muhammed Ali and Reggie Jackson as themselves.

Of course, crossover was the name of the game with network chief Fred Silverman and he valiantly attempted to start a successfully spawning franchise here.  The successful:  Mrs. Garrett would leave by mid season to start her new guiding role in “The Facts of Life” which would last longer than the parent series.  Nedra Volz would be the short-time replacement as the Drummond’s housekeeper.  The not-so-successful:  McLean’s Stevenson’s Larry Alder would make two trips to Manhattan with his teenage daughters to do business with Drummond--once even sharing Thanksgiving dinner--but it didn’t help “Hello, Larry” in it’s second embarrassing season.  See below for more information on both of these series in the 1979 season.

 Audience shrinkage.
#27.  Mork and Mindy (ABC).  After a hugely successful premiere season, ABC decides to move the series from it’s new Thursday night flagship to the dead zone of Sunday family hour.  Ironically, they also tried to make the show hipper and younger by changing the cast members around.  The show suffered the “Rhoda” syndrome:  too many characters.  And that was so unnecessary when you had Robin Williams carrying a show.  So Mindy’s dad and grandmother were out as was young Eugene (Conrad Janis would return as the father later in the season--as if there weren’t enough characters).  Jay Thomas and Gina Hecht were the brother and sister owners of a deli--a new hangout.  Garry Marshall couldn’t seem to keep his Italian heritage out of his sitcoms--not that there’s anything wrong with that!  Jim Stahl was Mindy’s waspish city councilman leading to Mork’s takeoffs on politics.  And grumpy neighbor Bickley and crazy man Exidor would feature prominently as well this season.  Exidor would have a girlfriend played by Georgia Engel of MTM.  Even Ronnie Schell of “Gomer Pyle” would show up here and there as Bob Faith. That’s a lot of characters when you consider that Williams would change personalities frequently during the course of one episode.

But the show lost half of it’s new audience by trying to be more
Special guest stars.
topical and edgy, focusing on the two main character's relationship more than Mork’s adjustment to earth.  The trippy season opener had Mork shrinking into nothingness (by taking cold medicine) examining the essence of good and evil.  The show tried to trend topical as well:  Mork deals with white supremacists; Mork may have gotten a girl pregnant; Mork becomes a priest; Mork discovers a radiation spill when he joins the air force; and Mork becomes addicted to television advertising.  But there was science fiction parody as well: Raquel Welch has a character arc as the voluptuous leader of a race of sexy aliens who kidnap Mindy.  And Roddy McDowall voices the reboot of Robby the Robot from “Lost in Space.”

But regardless of the circus, it was still the Robin William's show and the network would learn it’s lesson by cutting most of the characters and returning the show to Thursday nights where it would remain for two more less than successful seasons.  The flame burned hot and bright at first only to fizzle into mediocrity.

RETURNING SERIES (in alphabetical order)

Angie (ABC).   Much like “Mork” and “Rhoda” before it, this romantic comedy gained too many characters, burdening the relationship between Brad and Angie, turning off audiences in this second and final season.  Now that the newlyweds are settled in, they move out of the brownstone into a lower-income neighborhood where Brad actually practices medicine out of the house.  With her new found wealth (and confidence), Angie buys the coffee shop and later opens up a beauty salon with her mom.  The new characters, over the course of the year, include some nuns (childhood friends of Angie's) who were played by Valri Bromfield and Nancy Lane and Gianni, a flamboyant gigolo-like hairdresser played by Tim Thomerson.  Of course, Angie’s mother and sister would have generous camera time.  The  guest star roster was a who’s who of Paramount’s stock players for Garry Marshall:  Ellen Travolta, Lorna Patterson, Peter Scolari, Adrian Zmed, and Leo Rossi.  Even Danny Devito and Rhea Perlman would show up in different episodes.  As well as child actor Corey Feldman.  The most memorable event was Brad’s upper crust family (led by John Randolph) squaring off with Angie’s brood in “Family Feud” hosted by Richard Dawson.

Bad News Bears (CBS).    The movie spin off returned in the fall before being dropped after only a few episodes.  The remainder of the series was burned off during the summer.  Not much happens other than coach Buttermaker having to explain the facts of life to Amanda and proposing to her mother.

Detective School (ABC).  It is obvious that networks were in the mode of dropping shows immediately if they didn’t perform well in the ratings.  This was a bad omen in some instances.  In others it may have been a godsend.  This one barely lasted into the fall after it’s strong summer premiere.  Just as “Bad News Bears” this one was dumped for a quick death in the now-desolate Saturday night prime time schedule. Bruno Kirby would make an early guest appearance.  At least James Gregory could return to "Barney Miller."

Bratty Pack Ringwald
Facts of Life (NBC).  As the summer tryout returned mid-fall, the series looked nothing like the long-running “Facts” most audiences would be familiar with.  Before tomboy Jo would appear, Blair, Tootie, and Natalie were joined by a large gaggle of waspish  classmates as series regulars including a very young Molly Ringwald (right off of "Annie")
The Debs of Life
John Lawlor played the bumbling school headmaster for this season only.  As Edna Garrett left Manhattan and “Diff’rent Strokes” to become a nutritionist at the upstate private girl’s school, she would end up as the “den mother” when dealing with issues inherent in growing up as a young woman.  This first season alone she had to comically tread minefields such as sex education, plagiarism, weight and body image issues, the dangers of marijuana, and divorce. Blair would ponder the loss of her virginity and Natalie would find out she was adopted.  The girls would even band together to help rescue the school horses from a flood.

Even though Norman Lear was not actively involved in this show produced by his company T.A.T., it had the trademark dramatic
Jo-less show
moments jarringly interrupting the stagy comedy that represented his now routine and more family-friendly formula.  By next season, the producers would get rid of the excess characters--Blair, Natalie and Tootie had pretty solid comic personas whereas the other girls all kind of blended together as bunch of privileged young debs.   Well, future Brat-Packer Ringwald would do OK for awhile.

Crossover Hell.
Hello, Larry (NBC).  As mentioned above, the “Diff’rent Strokes” cross-overs did not help this series find an audience in it’s sophomore season as Arnold and company would visit Portland.  The producers decided to focus more on Larry’s home life raising his two daughters and less on his radio job.  That meant re-casting one of his girls into a better-looking model (Krista Erikkson) and adding Meadowlark Lemmon playing himself as a neighbor.  That only cemented the show’s position as one of the worst sitcoms in network history.    And if that wasn’t bad enough, itwas decided that adding Larry’s father as roommate would help the ratings towards the end.  It just added to the embarrassment.  Shelly Fabares appeared a few times as Larry’s ex-wife (adding to the similarities to “One Day at a Time”).  He experiences a mid-life crisis and gets fired at one point, leading to the New York trip to the Drummonds.  The girls have their typical problems including the standard “drinking” episode.  There was some comedy:  One of the girls has a blind date that is actually blind; a neighbor dies in the apartment; and Larry has to strip down to emcee a nude beauty contest.  Well, one out of three ain’t bad.  Guest stars included film legend Gloria Dehaven in a small role  and Joey Travolta as a rock star.  Enough said.  Norman Lear wisely kept his name off of this one as well.  Fred Silveran sadly had to take the credit.
No Ade from Lemmon.

Laverne and Shirley (ABC).  his was the season that wasn’t.  ABC decided to move the girls to Thursday night and away from it’s post-“Happy Days” slot.  I’m not sure what it says about the show when the ratings drop out of the top 30 and it isn’t even airing on the weekend!  Well, they tried.  The opener was the second part of a “Happy Days” crossover regarding the farmer’s daughters and the faux marriage to Ritchie and Fonzie.  Audiences were catching on and tuning out.

The overarching storyline this season involved Laverne and Shirley
Ratings Fatigues
joining the army.  This would be a prescient thrust into  a prevalent theme in sitcoms over the next couple of seasons what with the release of Goldie Hawn’s hit comedy “Private Benjamin” a year later--women in uniform.  Vicki Lawrence, of Carol Burnett’s troupe, would play the commanding officer as the girls provided slapstick situations in the barracks such as acting in a training film that was about venereal disease and enduring a survival test.

As with “Happy Days” the time frame was now the early sixties.  Therefore, Shirley became a beatnik in one episode.  But basically the era had nothing to do with the silliness:  Squiggy believes he is the Duke of Squigmond as he sleepwalks; the girls waitress for Lenny when he opens a cafe; Laverne and Shirley date a couple of dwarfs; and the girls can’t escape when they chain themselves to a power plant protesting high rates and a bomb has to be defused.  And there is a takeoff on “Silver Streak” as the gang solve a murder aboard a passenger train (Scatman Crothers, Wilfred Hyde-White, and Charlene Tilton are suspects).  Laverne’s dad, Frank, finally proposes to Edna.   Art Garfunkle makes an appearance as well this season.  Ed Marinaro, who would play a completely different character next season (when L&S move to Hollywood) plays Laverne’s cousin.  And Pat Morita…well..doesn’t play Arnold.  Don’t ask.

A very special episode.
Oh, there was some melodrama:  Ed Begley Jr. returns as Shirley’s alcoholic brother.  Carmine is involved with loan sharks.  And in one of the strangest sitcom moments ever, Ted Danson plays a firefighter who is dating Laverne until he is killed in the line of duty.  Laverne mourns.  But they will be back on Tuesday the next season and they can run out the next three years with much more favorable Neilson numbers.

The Ropers (ABC).  See “Three’s Company” above.

Stockard Channing Show (CBS).  Channing returns mid-season with a re-tooled starring vehicle as CBS tries to anoint her the new “Mary."  Only her status as a newly divorced woman looking to start life anew in West LA remained the same.  But, like Mary Tyler Moore, she worked for a TV show this time: a consumer affairs segment on the local news.  And like Doris Day, this allowed her to go undercover in many disguises.  But also like Mary, she had a love/hate relationship with her crusty but lovable advocate journalist boss played by Ron Silver (“Rhoda”) and she had a Rhoda in her apartment building played by the same actress that played her best friend in the previous Channing incarnation.  Broadway showman Max Showalter played the flamboyant station owner. Channing’s attempt last season  had decent ratings but now,with the changes, the show had no ratings at all and left the airwaves much quicker.  The single woman making it on her own was now a relic of the past in sitcoms.  The nuclear family would be back in vogue in the eighties.  Until “Murphy Brown” of course.


At this point in time, series had to make it big in a hurry or risk being unceremoniously dumped after a few airings.  First, the quality:

The Associates (ABC).  James L. Brooks and the crew behind “Taxi” had high hopes for this white collar version of urban wit on the fall schedule.  With the pedigrees and publicity and even Emmy nominations, it is surprising that ABC did not give this show a chance outside of it’s doomed Sunday night time slot.  And what a
cast:  Martin Short (before SNL and SCTV) had his first American sitcom role as the one of the law students starting up the ladder at the prestigious NY law firm headed by the affable and addled senior partner played by Wilfred Hyde-White.  Short’s character was of the Midwestern “outsider” status and he dated the other newcomer, a blue blood with a bleeding heart for the unfortunate and an activist bent, slightly misplaced at this practice.  She was played by Alley Mills (before “Wonder Years”).  Shelly Smith completed the newbies as the sexy yet smart one.  Joe Regalbuto (before “Murphy Brown”) played the junior partner, Streeter, with his comic avarice and ambition driving a lot of the comedy (such as when he kills a fellow lawyer in a squash game).  Tim Thomerson rounded out the ensemble as the horny mail boy, Johnny Danko.

The nine episodes that aired (most were burned off during the summer) had such guest stars as Danny Devito, Jack Gilford, Cloris Leachman, Georgia Engel, John Ritter, Stuart Margolin and Jonathan Frakes.  But the most creative casting was having John Houseman play his signature role of Professor Kingsfield from “The Paper Chase” in an episode that has him dealing with ex-student Streeter and his stuttering problem. Sadly, with Paramount’s best writers and directors courtesy of the John Charles Walters Company, this filmed three-camera show was set up to be another unrequited sophisticated classic.

United States (NBC).  Another Silverman attempt at novelty was this domestic “dramedy.”  Comedy writing legend Larry Gelbart, distanced from “M*A*S*H” and working on feature films (including the upcoming “Tootsie”) was the main scribe behind this seriocomic exploration of marriage.  Beau Bridges and Helen Shaver played the suburban LA couple and the show dealt with some very touchy issues that sitcoms  usually didn’t fare well with.  The mid season videotaped series did NOT have a studio audience (or laugh track) or bumper music so the effect was similar to watching a one-act play.  The camera work was inventive though and would focus on the character’s hands during a dialogue scene for instance.  And
there was a lot of dialogue, mostly without closure:  infidelity, financial troubles, their kid’s learning disability.  One storyline involved how to deal with the fact that your child has hooked up with a gang that likes to kill cats.  And Bridges’ husband character even cries in one episode.  Lots of heady, sensitive stuff here.  But audiences didn’t care amidst the new Daisy Duke set.  So the show that promised to “do for marriages what M*A*S*H did for war” became an interesting footnote in TV history.

Six O’Clock Follies (NBC).  Speaking of "M*A*S*H,"  Silverman had another highly nuanced quality tryout series in the spring--this time it took place during the Vietnam War., This series revolved around the exploits of the reporters and staff of the Armed Forces Vietnam Network  (News and Sports) in 1967 Saigon.  As with their Korean counterparts--“M*A*S*H” was really about Vietnam anyway--the wacky hi jinks were melded with drama and insight about the wages of military conflict.  It didn’t hurt that the director of the news show also owned a bar.  But with only three episodes airing and guests such as future stars Laurence Fishburne, Bill Paxton and Phil Hartman, this three-camera series from Warner Brothers which starred Phillip Charles Mackenzie as the Hawkeye surrogate, didn’t have a chance to do much pontificating or practical joking.

Good Time Harry (NBC).  This summer tryout series was created by Steve Gordon, soon to bring “Arthur” to the big screen and die very young.  Go-to guy Ted Bessell returned to sitcoms as a philandering sportswriter for a San Fransisco newspaper.  The series would generate a lot of critical buzz what with Charles H. Joffe (Woody Allen’s producer) producing for Universal.  Much like “Six O’Clock Follies” the filmed series was framed like a three-camera series but it was questionable whether a live audience was providing the subdued (almost muffled) laughter.  At best it recalls the “feel” of “Buffalo Bill” in the eighties in that respect.  Also starring were Eugene Roche as the editor, Marcia Strassman (fresh from Kotter), and former child star Barry Gordon.

“The Love Boat” would continue on through the eighties and “Eight is Enough” would end by next season at the top of the ratings.  The rural comedy-adventure shows mentioned at the top of this segment would play a large part for a few years.  But as for any laugh track-laden hour-long comedy-dramas, this season only saw two entries:
Shirley (NBC) had Shirley Jones (“The Partridge Family”) return to TV as a widow moving to the big city with her three kids and one stepson.  Rosanna Arquette played one of the teens in this typical family show from Universal. 
When the Whistle Blows (ABC) was a seriocomic examination of the blue collar lifestyle featuring a group of construction workers and their wild and crazy exploits.   Dolph Sweet (future star of “Gimme a Break”) led the pack.

Jack's back.
Struck By Lightning (CBS).  Paramount was probably inspired by “Young Frankenstein” to a degree here.  Science teacher Ted Stein inherits a Massachusetts inn and decides to sell it.  But the caretaker, Frank, just happened to be the 231-year old Frankenstein’s monster and Ted just happened to be related to the good doctor himself.  Cock-eyed character actor Jack Elam found the perfect role playing the “monster.”  This fall series lasted only a few episodes but showed promise as an inspired spoof of the horror genre.  In one show, the mansion is actually used to film a monster movie.  Plus zany comic/contortionist Bill Irwin had an early role as a real estate agent.  Joel Zwick was the producer of the filmed series.

Working Stiffs (CBS).  Paramount teamed with a lot of Garry Marshall’s alumni to come up with this three camera filmed series that was heralded as the male “Laverne and Shirley.”  None other than Michael Keaton and Jim Belushi played the brothers who toiled as janitors and planned to work their way up as their uncle owned
"It don't get better than this!"
the building where they toiled.  Slapstick was the order of the day here and both actors had expert comic timing to insure genuine laughs.  Lorna Patterson and Allan Arbus played the couple who owned the restaurant above the boy's cellar apartment. (That's right, another cellar apartment.)   Laverne herself, Penny Marshall, even directed the first episode.  But this one actually nearly set the record for early fall cancellation with only a four week run.  Keaton and Belushi wouldn’t be hurt one bit by this as both would go on to decent film and television careers into the new millennium.

Support our Tropes.
Goodtime Girls (ABC).  Patterson came back mid season in another Paramount comedy, this time in a lead role for Garry Marshall’s production company.  Marshall once again mined the past with this sitcom about a group of working women during WWII who live in a boarding house together.  Annie Potts played the defacto leader of the group, Patterson was the daffy one who wanted to be a singer, and Georgia Engel played the war bride.  Of course, this being Marshall, Francine Tacker was added as the “snobby” one.  With Potts at the helm, the moralizing made the show seem like a forties version of “Designing Women” and the sentimentality--one episode revolves around a veteran who needs to rallied after dealing with the loss of both his legs--was right out of the Marshall canon.  Speaking of Marshall, the regulars were a who’s who of his recurring players--right off of his fall flops:  Along with Patterson and Engel there was Adrian Zmed and Peter Scolari--hoofer Zmed's presence allowed plenty of “boogie” dance sequences.  Guests were also well represented by Marshall’s other series:  Scott Baio as young enlistee and Michael McKean (Lenny) as the above mentioned wounded veteran.  Even with the serious themes and war backdrop, the writers had some fun as when one of the girls keeps marrying soldiers overseas to boost their morale and one of the returns stateside unexpectedly.  But much as “Happy Days” started to look like the early sixties by way of the seventies, this three camera series with a studio audience was influenced too much by the current sensibilities to be a true period piece.  Steven Spielberg's comedy flop "1941" had just hit theaters and Marshall may have been banking on a WWII fad.

Angels and Orkans, O My!
Out of the Blue (ABC).  And the final Paramount sitcom covered this year was the fall premiere of this Miller-Milkis cross-over.  Trying to capitalize on the success of “Mork and Mindy,” Henderson Productions enlisted another stand up comedian, Jimmy Brogan, to play an angel-in-training living with a group of orphans.  With the typical “group home” themes (runaways, thievery), the three camera filmed series was “Fish” with magical special effects.  Speaking of “Designing Women,” Dixie Carter would play the house mother and Eileen Heckert played the “boss angel.”  In the deepest portals of the geek interwebs, there is a controversy surrounding the status of the “Happy Days” episode where the angel character helps Chachi in a dream:  crossover or spin off?  Yes, this is deemed highly anxiety-inducing amongst some.  (Your guide here is nowhere near that obsessive).  However, when Mork made an appearance on the pilot episode to kick off the series--an angel teaming up with an alien, think of the metaphysical consequences--that was clearly a crossover.  But competing with Disney and “60 Minutes” during the Sunday night family time with the tame Brogan (compared to William’s manic energy) was not a fair fight.

A New Kind of Family (ABC).  This videotaped family series was paired with “Out of the Blue” on the Sunday family hour.  Eileen Brennan again attempted to capture the sitcom zeitgeist as a widow with three kids who ended up sharing an LA house with a divorced mother of one thanks to an unscrupulous real estate agent. Rather than fight over the lease, the two women (with different ways of handling motherhood, natch) decided to save money and just share the domicile.  It was a relatively dour contrivance to set up the scenario, telling of the times.  Future Brat Packer Rob Lowe got his start playing one of the kids.  The series was shut down after a few episodes and retooled for a return later in the fall.  This time, the  white divorcee was replaced by a black divorcee and her daughter (Telma Hopkins of Tony Orlando and Dawn and, again, Janet Jackson).  It didn’t help.  Dick Clair and Jenna McMahon provided some creative input to the series.  Future film star Eric Stoltz would also make an early guest  appearance on the show.

Me and Maxx (NBC).  This family comedy was produced by James Komack and was slightly based on his relationship with his daughter.  Basically, it was a videotaped “Family Affair” with Manhattanite Joe Santos (“Rockford Files”) playing the cynical  swinging dad that unexpectedly ends up with his precocious daughter after her mother decides to go off and “find herself.”  Silverman, still trying to remake NBC,  reportedly cast the show by watching the actor’s clips side by side.  Melissa Michaelson was being hailed as the next big child star with her worldly delivery.  But the sentimental parts of the show rang false and the comedy was forced leading to an early demise of the spring tryout series.

Nobody’s Perfect (ABC).  This series was also hotly hyped as a fall premiere.  It didn’t show up though until the summer for some reason.  But critics liked this one.  “Get Smart”’s Arne Sultan and Chris Heyward, failing with “Holmes and Yoyo,” tried another single camera buddy cop comedy for Universal.  This time Ron Moody, the artful dodger from “Oliver” was cast as an anachronistic Scotland Yard detective Roger Hart assigned to the San Fransisco Police Dept.  Of course, there was plenty of slapstick as the accented clueless accident-prone crime-solver (in the vein of Inspector Clouseau) cavalierly maneuvered his way through the big American city with his female partner (Cassie Yates).  The tone of the series seemed like a throwback to the sixties style of sitcom yet sometimes the humor would be quite contemporary in a farcical way--as when Hart inadvertently startled a man attempting suicide and he actually jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge.  I think the show would have done better with it’s original title:  “Hart of the City.”

Semi Tough (ABC).  Actor Bruce McGill, who played D-Day in the film and TV version of “Animal House” tried again in a feature film adaptation.  This time he played the Burt Reynold's part in “Semi-Tough.”  The series was based on a 1977  film about  modern professional football players.  Michael Ritchie's film was a couple of years old by this time and an odd choice for a three camera videotaped sitcom.   But it didn’t really matter much how audiences reacted with only four episodes airing during the spring.   David Hasselhoff played the Kris Kristofferson role as the other player for the New York Bulls as he and McGill shack up with the owner’s cute but savvy daughter (played by Jill Clayburgh in the film).  Whereas the source book by Dan Jenkins focused on the new permissive culture powering the sports business, the film focused a bit more on sexual politics and the new age movement.  The sitcom didn’t have a chance to touch on any of these issues with any depth.

Last Resort (CBS).  With MTM Enterprises focusing mostly on dramatic series now, it’s only new entry in the fall seemed like a late tag along to the parade of “slob” comedies that had failed so horribly the previous season.  Basically, this three camera filmed ensemble piece dealt with a group of students and ne’er do wells working in the restaurant of a high class resort in the Catskills.  It was appropriate that Judd Hirsch made a guest appearance as the show seemed like a cross between “Delta House” with it’s subversive and juvenile characters (including an overweight irreverent Walter Olkeiwitz) and “Taxi” with the themes of characters lost in a lowly job watching their dreams fade away while they serve the elite.  Larry Breeding led the cast as an aging med student slowly paying for tuition and Stephanie Faracy played a wealthy woman who runs away from her husband to become a pastry chef to add to the class confusion.  And the chef was a stereotypical Japansese character who only pretended not to speak English.  Ronny Cox guested as Breeding’s estranged dad.  This was Gary David Goldberg’s last creation for MTM before he would strike gold with Michael J. Fox and “Family Ties” three years later.

Norman Lear had a relatively lower profile by this time.  As with MTM, he was working on dramatic series.  In March, he collaborated with Alex Haley, Jr. (“Roots”) in “Palmerstown USA.”  The CBS series examined the issues of race in 1930’s small-town America, similar in setting to network’s hit   “The Waltons.”  It generated enough of an audience to return a second season but the series, dealing with bigotry in a much less abrasive manner than Lear’s  Bunker dynasty, was known more for being the first series featuring Canadian Michael J. Fox in an early serious role.

So Lear had little else to say at the cusp of the eighties as far as sitcoms were concerned.  “Archie Bunker’s Place,” “The Jeffersons,” and “One Day at a Time” were far removed from their original topicality, bite and electricity.  Lear’s production company was heavily focused on NBC’s new family of sitcoms derived from “Diff’rent Strokes.”  The following five series this season represented the final remnants of Lear’s empire:

Joe’s World (NBC).  Lear’s TAT produced this new variation on “All in the Family” with Larry Rhine and Mel Tolkin of that series being the head writers here in this taped mid season tryout.  Ramon Bieri played a working class house painter with a long-suffering wife (K Callan) and five kids (including an older post-Brady Christopher Knight).  The issues the series examined were less explosive than it’s earlier counterpart although Misty Rowe played one of Joe’s work partners who breastfed her new baby on the work site--that may be one issue not touched on yet on TV..  Financial difficulties were more the order of the day than social prejudices. Joe was an old-fashioned disciplinarian and had difficulty dealing with the raising a family in the new decade. A young Megan Fellows makes an appearance.

Sanford (NBC).  With Joe hearkening back to the Bunkers, Silverman decided go back to the network’s roots (after many failed experiments) and bring back Redd Foxx as Fred Sanford in a mid season run.  Once again, Lear wisely stayed away.   The Arms were gone and so was Lamont (working on an oil pipeline in Alaska).  So he had a new partner in the junkyard represented by Dennis Burkley (recently passed on) as a somewhat obese white redneck character so popular on TV these days.  He provided a decent foil for Fred
Petticoat Sanford
with his naive country ways.  Nathanial Taylor returned as Rollo as did the local cops Hoppy and Smitty (Howard Platt and Hal Williams).  Donna wasn’t around but Fred was romancing a wealthy Beverly Hills widow (Margarite Ray) and his dealings with her snobby class-conscious family provided lots of Sanford-style comic fodder.  Larry Rhine and Mel Tolkin from “All in the Family” took the reigns here and even having Sammy Davis Jr. not only guest star but direct a couple of episodes couldn’t bring back the magic.

Although the series was still relying on stereotypes and silly humor, it now seemed even more trite and tired.  Dealing with Cal’s weight issues wasn’t the same as the father-son conflicts with Lamont.  Silverman couldn’t even make the old formula work.  “Sanford” returned later in the fall the next season with Grady, Aunt Esther and her grown son as new regulars--getting rid of the Beverly Hills snobs--but that didn’t help. 

One in a Million (ABC).  Speaking of “Sanford and Son,” Lear’s co-creator on that hit, Bud Yorkin had no sitcoms of his own by the fall of ’79 through his own TOY productions.  But in January, he brought back Shirley Hemphill from his “What’s Happening!!” in this tale of the African-American cab driver in New York that ends up inheriting controlling interest in a major Wall Street corporation.  Like “The Jeffersons” this taped series could lampoon racial and class issues in one fell swoop.  But with Hemphill’s one-note delivery and the unrealistic scenario, the show never became anything but a one-note novelty.  Richard Paul (from Yorkin’s “Carter Country”), Keene Curtis (as the token elitist nemesis) and veteran Carl Ballentine provided ample support on both sides of the divide.

Phyll and Mikkhy (CBS).  Lear’s production company had nothing to do with this one, but Rod Parker and Hal Cooper, who developed Lear’s “Maude” were the creators of this odd taped sitcom.  In anticipation of the 1980 Olympics, CBS conceived of this Cold War comedy:  a Russian track star defects and marries a US track star.  They move in with her crusty dad and he is hounded by a comical KGB officer (Michael Pataki).  When Russia invaded Afghanistan and President Carter pulled the US out of the Olympics, “Phyll and Mikkhy” got shelved and then burned off during the summer of 1980.  Populated by soap opera stars, the guest stars provided more notoriety: cult film star Mary Woronov as as Mikkhy’s ex-girlfriend trying to lure  him back to the Soviet Union; and F-Trooper Larry Storch as a rogue Russian agent

The Baxters (Syndicated).  Norman Lear actually took an active hand in developing this unusual series.  Basically, the first half of the series was a typical taped domestic sitcom with a studio audience exploring all the hot button problems of the day.  The father of the St. Louis clan was an insurance agent.  Anita Gillette played the stay at home mom.  The second half would revert to a different studio audience from the local affiliate with a moderator allowing said audience to chime in with questions and comments on the actual issues that the family explored  even discussing possible endings for the episode.

The series was conceived by a Boston TV station and Lear liked the idea enough to bring it to Hollywood.  A harbinger of issue-related audience-driven discussion shows that would flourish in the decades to come--Phil Donohue was the only personality at the time doing it on a large scale--the experiment failed and Lear dropped out, leaving the series to move to Canada and then drop out of sight.

So it is appropriate that the man who ushered in the seventies sitcom revolution by generating discussions at home regarding the most taboo and unexplored themes would, by the end of the decade, actually instigate the concept of replacing thoughtful home-based discussion and introspection with the banal and self-conscious opinions of a group of televised strangers.  The discussion shows of the eighties would eventually give birth to the dreaded reality television in the nineties which is far removed from the sophisticated and subtle programming that made up the seventies and what makes those like me celebrate and rhapsodize the innovation and quality of that decade in comedy.  In the meantime:

Video Nuggets:
Reverend Jim's driving test:

Taxi's Lullaby of Broadway:

And the seventies ended with this:

And you didn't believe me!

1 comment:

  1. I believe the blind barfly's name was Mr. VAN Renseleer.