The Literary Club: Read an Episode of Norman Lear’s HOT L BALTIMORE

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, I’m sharing a copy of a script from HOT L BALTIMORE (1975, ABC), Norman Lear’s first flop, a short-lived sitcom adaptation of the Lanford Wilson play called The Hot l Baltimore. When I screened an entry at UCLA several years ago for this blog, I wasn’t impressed, bumping against the unearned tonal swings and the lack of believability in the characterizations. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to acquire and read drafts of all 13 episodes. My core thoughts are unchanged, but I want to share some brief updated commentary on the series as it pertains to our current analysis of Lear’s ’70s work.

For starters, although it’s Lear’s first sitcom endeavor away from the confines of top-rated CBS and without partner Bud Yorkin, it’s another realistic low-concept ensemble comedy that’s dramatically idea-led but has its characters at the fore — much like the award-winning off-Broadway play on which it’s based, not to mention the previous Lear shows we’ve discussed these past few weeks. Only this time, he’s dealing with a sociopolitical premise that’s less situational, and has to be more aligned with the characters themselves. That is, like Wilson’s play, Lear’s HOT L BALTIMORE shares the basic objective of humanizing types of people who are often “othered” by mainstream society — in the same way that both Good Times and The Jeffersons is conscious about personalizing Black families to a mostly white audience. But while the play had the dramatic scenario of the hotel’s pending demolition to propel its finite two hours, the TV adaptation naturally drops that unsustainable threat and doesn’t replace it with an overarching narrative notion — no “life in the ghetto” drama, no “movin’ on up” situation to guide story. Thus, thesis-fulfillment is more directly predicated on the characters than it is in the aforementioned series, which all have more tangible aims — evidenced structurally in their premises — that they’re designed to satisfy, ensuring that their regulars are directed for plot, instead of plot being directed for their regulars. Unfortunately, though, if HOT L BALTIMORE is prepared to be the most character-driven of all Lear’s efforts up to this point (and in January 1975, it was premiering at the same time as The Jeffersons), it nevertheless still operates like an idea-driven endeavor — a fact most revealed by its inferior characterizations.

Refer to the cast list above. As you can see, the majority of the ensemble consists, as in the play, of people who are social “others” (especially for TV in 1975): hookers, immigrants, runaways, Blacks, gays, the elderly, the mentally ill. This is great — the possibilities for humanity-reinforcing conflict and comedy, driven by diverse experiences, seem limitless… However, the show treats these markers of identity as the totality of their personas — using their single “other” descriptors as the sole source of their comedy, drama, and functionalities in story. This is counterintuitive, for while the attributes making them different should be highlighted, the goal is personalizing them — dimensionalizing them; focusing their existences around how society labels these people only invites clichés, enabling elemental stereotypes that are not believable. There’s also a spectrum here, and if you’ve been following our Good Times coverage, it might look familiar. On one end, there’s Charlotte Rae’s Mrs. Bellotti — introduced after the debut — who’s used purely for big, broad laughs without any nuance or sincerity regarding her offscreen son with a mental disorder. Like J.J., she hurts realism. On the other end, there’s the gay couple (the first regular gay couple on TV), who are depicted, aside from a performance style described as “prissy,” just like a “typical” straight pair… but a generic one that has no individual definition and therefore can’t be employed comedically or narratively outside of this idea-led construct. Like Florida and James, they’re vague. And neither side of this spectrum can inspire relatable story because they’re not believable enough to be relatable. Once again, the show is too fixated on its ideas — the social categorizations that make these characters undeserved outcasts, ripe for topicality — to create the rich characterizations that could actually fulfill these overarching didactic aims. Also, because so much story — at least in these 13 episodes (perhaps it would have improved; I see no sign of it, but you never know) — relies on how these folks clash against society due to being perceived as controversial outsiders, the show doesn’t give as much attention to internal conflict via defined relationships.

This is shocking — every ensemble comedy needs forces who are opposed. And without clear emotional constructs to prop up drama — even ones that involve their categorizable identities — both the plots and the characterizations feel forced, rendering all story ham-fistedly pedagogical and with less of an ability to modulate the kind of tonal swings that are endemic to all socially relevant Lear sitcoms, but only successful when they feel earned by the leads and the situations they help justify. (This is why the entry I screened at UCLA bothered me so — the characters weren’t defined well enough to reconcile the boisterously outrageous one-liners alongside the text’s sociopolitical moralizing, for they themselves weren’t supported by connectable dynamics that could provide a foundation for any narrative interests, comedic or dramatic.) Now, I’m amenable to the idea that simply by being social outcasts these figures are sympathetic and have a fundamental base of humanity, and I’ve seen some contemporary criticism charge the genre’s need for laughs as the reason for the series’ caricaturization of characters who, in the play, seem more palpably real. Yet while I do think this format is harder, needing consistent believability alongside pat and precise understandings of each lead — categorizations, if you will, but personal ones — for the sake not only of hahas but also because series TV is a machine that demands weekly story, nobody said HOT L BALTIMORE had to take the easy way out and categorize people solely based on their impersonal societal labels. You see, on a show more attuned to character, these regulars would be defined by their unique flaws, objectives, perspectives, relationships, backgrounds, etc., not just the sociopolitical boxes they check. And since the series’ thesis is that these people are more than the sociopolitical boxes they check, this looks like an unintended failure. Of course, stereotyping is a common critique leveled against Lear’s work. I see why — he’s idea-focused — but I would argue that the supportive relationships and strong, individual characterizations on All In The Family and The Jeffersons (and for Maude) deliver a lot more humanity than this genre had been known for, prior to the early ’70s. HOT L BALTIMORE pales in comparison because Lear set a higher standard.

But I don’t want to be all negative. There are a few things I can credit, from having read every script. No, I’m not talking about bland characters like the maybe ditsy Millie or the apparent “straight man” Bill (Judd Hirsch’s role in the original play), portrayed by veterans from Lear’s stable, Gloria LeRoy and James Cromwell, respectively, but on someone created for the series: Richard Masur’s Clifford Ainsley, an immature doofus whose unseen mother owns the hotel. He shows potential — with an internally designed position and perspective, he’s able to be used for both comedy and drama more authentically. Similarly strong is April, played by Conchata Ferrell, the only holdover from the stage. She’s the clichéd hooker with a heart of gold, but Ferrell is a great actress and, even on the page, there’s a symbiosis between player and part that grounds her with more nuance than any other social representative. And as the show’s structural nucleus, she’s allowed to develop bonds with most of the leads — opening her up for more story. Case in point: she’s given a somewhat unrequited crush on Bill, and they have a banter that doesn’t provide him much color, but nevertheless serves as a more tangible personal dynamic in a world of conceptually broad stereotypes. Accordingly, one of the better episodes to read — and the one I’m sharing, with subscribers who comment below to alert me of their interest — is the sixth aired offering, “The Date,” which was written by the prolific Ron Clark (he produced HOT L BALTIMORE with Maude’s Woody Kling and executive producer Rod Parker, also of Maude), directed by Bob LaHendro (All In The Family), and first aired on February 28, 1975. In predicating itself more on a relationship, it’s not the best sample of what we’ve been discussing, for it does more to humanize the characters than any other segment of the series, which is always funny, but otherwise has a far lower, more idea-led baseline — concerned with social relevance over personal dimension, and too enamored of courting controversial topicality to make anything narratively sustainable — but I think you’ll enjoy it most. So, here’s an excerpt.

 

 

Come back next week for another Wildcard! And stay tuned Tuesday for more Good Times!