Saturday, September 19, 2015

"Carter Country"

Two sad things happened a couple of months ago:  The loss of TV producer Bud Yorkin and the cancer diagnosis of former President Jimmy Carter.  There was an interesting connection between these two in the year after Carter became the leader of the free world.

Yorkin was best-known for his collaborations with uber-producer Norman Lear in the seventies.  Not only did the two work together in television starting in the late fifties, but they continued with films in the sixties--Yorkin directed Lear's "Divorce, American Style" for
Yorkin and Lear
instance.  But when the two devised the ill-fated pilots for a videotaped sitcom based on a British hit "Til Death Do Us Part," little did they know that their persistence would change the face of television.

There is no need to re-hash the phenomenon that was "All in the Family."  Before Lear and Yorkin (together as "Tandem" Productions) brought to CBS two spin-offs from that show--"Maude" begets "Good Times"--Yorkin took a heavier producing hand to Tandem's second mega-hit, this time on NBC, "Sanford and Son."  A second British remake, this was the first American TV series to portray the African American experience as something other than the glossy,  whitewashed, and  condescending safety of "Julia," "Room 222," or Bill Cosby's multiple sixties series.  Sadly, however, this new junkyard hit revealed a stark thrust backwards in its stereotypes and slapstick--avoiding the controversial topics save the irony of a racist who is himself a minority citizen.

In the meantime, "Good Times" struggled with cast issues due to the decreasing influence of its black story-runners and the ever-increasing prevalence of the mid-seventies fascination with catch-phrase characters (JJ's "Dyno-Mite!").  By the time Lear spun of "The Jeffersons"--also falling prey to the same dilemma while exhibiting bravery in its depiction of a bi-racial relationships--Tandem became TAT and Yorkin formed a new company, TOY, with Saul Turtletaub and Bernie Orenstein.

After Sanford's "Grady" spinoff and the failed Sanford continuation "Sanford Arms," TOY moved to ABC and piggybacked on the Sanford success with "What's Happening!!," a comic
version of the more grim feature film, "Cooley High."  With Duwayne, Rerun, Raj, Mama, Shirley and Dee, the socio-level was amped up to middle-class but the antics stayed true to the  insult-slinging hi-jinks that by this time--post Mary Tyler Moore/early MASH and plopped squarely in the new ascendancy of the T and A/Happy Days revolution--sitcoms were back in the Vietnam-era business of escapism and mindless franchises.

Now on the political front, Americans were completely disillusioned with post-Watergate Washington.  Even though the Nixon/Ford years gave birth to TV's golden age of comedy in teh early seventies, the surprising election of an unkown Georgia governor to President--representing the USA's populist and strangely spiritual left-turn--heralded inanity in boob tube comedy.

I can remember the early SNL jokes and skits about Carter the peanut farmer and the constant coverage of his Plains family as a punchline--brother Billy and his beer brand, mother Lillian, et. al.--and a brief absence of heated political rancor as Carter was branded "God's gift to the White
Billy and a peanut.
House."  Well, many will argue as to his effectiveness as a world leader to this day, but few will doubt his integrity and measured intelligence.  Arguably, he may have been the last president who relied more on moral instinct and less on polls and political gurus.

So it was in this environment that Yorkin and his colleagues introduced the sitcom "Carter Country" in the midst of super-programmer Fred Silverman's revamping of ABC into the masturbatory powerhouse that included "Charlie's Angels" and "Three's Company."  An odd choice, yet reflective of a "trending" topic, the sitcom placed itself squarely in the confines of Carter's own home territory.  Sometimes mistaken as a remake of the Acaemy Award winning film from a decade earlier "In the Heat of the Night," the program's resemblance was limited only to the setting and fish out of water scenario.  That being said, the basic plot was was southern police chief (Victor French) being forced to work with big-city educated black sergeant (Kene Holliday).  And as Chief Mobey, French played a lovable  redneck who's
prejudices were only unintentional and bred by environment (as opposed to Lear's Archie Bunker--less lovable and more dangerous).  Sergeant Baker's main conflicts resided with various residents of Clinton Corners (yes, that was the name of the town)  whose bigotry was a bit more, shall we say, realistic.  But lessons were learned and situations were resolved in true sitcom form as "Carter Country" did for the racist South what "Hogan's Heroes" did for Nazi Germany.   It was a dark version of Mayberry--with a live studio audience.

I remember watching this show upon it's premiere in the fall of 1977 at the height of the ABC "We're the One" resurgence.  Premiering the same month as "Soap,"  and slotted right before Redd Foxx's controversial new post-"Sanford" variety Show, the series didn't quite carry the taboo cache of those programs and somehow managed to slip into a second season unnoticed and unheralded.  ABC did manage to get a catch-phrase out of the show:  Cuddly yet corrupt Mayor Burnside would utter a terse "Handle-it, handle-it" to his backwoods inferiors.  The only thing of pop-culture interest that came of the series was a short recurring character played a young Melanie Griffith--cub reporter for the local paper.

Falling victim to the same level of progressive political-incorrectness as many other seventies sitcoms, we will probably never see this one on DVD.  Holliday went on to be a regular on "Matlock" and French continued to be a part of "Little House on the Prairie" and do character parts.  TOY produced a mild "Soap" ripoff called "13 Queens Blvd" with Eileen Brennan and Jerry Van Dyke, paired with "The Ropers" to no avail.  And in 1982, the company brought back Mickey Rooney to star with two kids (Dana Carvey and Nathan Lane) in "One of the Boys" about a geezer rooming with a couple of college boys.  Yorkin went back to features such as "Twice in a Lifetime" with Gene Hackman and the "Arthur" sequel.

Here's the proof:  Enjoy the snazzy theme-music while you are at it.