Spring Break Research RECAP: 2015 (II)

Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! Today we’re continuing with the second half of my coverage on the rare sitcom episodes I viewed at the UCLA Archives last month over spring break!

 

06) The Super: “Pilot” [a.k.a. “The Super’s Apprentice” ] (Aired: 06/21/72)

When Anthony is expelled, Joe decides to teach him how to be a super. Starring Richard S. Castellano, Ardell Sheridan, Margaret Castellano, Bruno Kirby, Jr., and Phil Mishkin.

Written by Rob Reiner & Philip Mishkin | Directed by Alan Rafkin | Telecaster: ABC

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With CBS striking surprise gold with All In The Family in 1971, all of the other networks tried to replicate the success. As we have seen on this blog before, NBC got Sanford And Son (a hit) in early ’72 and, later, Lotsa Luck (a flop) in 1973. ABC, the last holdover, dipped their toe in the pool of gritty non-wide-eyed storytelling with The Corner Bar (which we discussed in a 2014 post on my UCLA/Paley research) and The Super. This series, based on the personal experiences of writer/comedian Philip Mishkin was co-created by Rob Reiner, whose heritage and job made him a great partner, and starred Richard S. Castellano, best known today from The Godfather (1972), as the super of a crummy New York apartment building. Castellano’s real life wife and daughter also starred in the show, while Bruno Kirby played the dimwitted son, and Mishkin himself played Castellano’s big-shot lawyer brother. 12 episodes were produced, but only 10 of them aired.

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The pilot involves Joe’s attempts, at the behest of his wife, to bond with “Antony” by training him as a super after the kid is expelled from school. It’s a real dirty, un-glossy show — not vulgar — but much lower class than anything else on TV (with the exception of Sanford And Son).  The hefty Castellano is a real likable character and doesn’t push hard on any of the comedy, while Kirby, who also gets a lot to do in the pilot, is perfectly cast as the dumb, but seemingly good intentioned “Antony.” There wasn’t enough of Mishkin or the daughter to comment on their characterizations, but I can say without hesitation that Ardell Sheridan, Castellano’s wife, is miserable in her role: unfunny, difficult to believe, and totally cardboard. (I felt like I was watching Vicki Lawrence in an intentionally bad parody!) Meanwhile, the show, which isn’t without its humor and moments of genuine understanding (there’s a great scene between father and son at the end of the pilot), isn’t inviting. These characters are sad and the laughs aren’t big enough to justify wanting to watch them. I couldn’t imagine this series reaching a wide audience. But Castellano is an interesting TV star, and I’d like to see his other sitcom attempt Joe And Sons (1975-1976, CBS) as well.

 

07) The Paul Lynde Show: “No Nudes Is Good Nudes” (Aired: 10/04/72)

Paul tries to close a local nude musical — especially when Howie gets a job in the company. Starring Paul Lynde, Elizabeth Allen, John Calvin, Jane Actman, and Pamelyn Ferdin.

Written by Bob Fisher & Arthur Marx | Directed by William Asher | Telecaster: ABC

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I covered the series in its own Wildcard Wednesday post last month, where, out of the 23 episodes in my possession, I chose my favorites. (See cast and show information, along with my picks for the best episodes, here.) This episode, obviously, is one of the three that I don’t have.

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The premise of this episode is perfectly in keeping with the show’s penchant for scripts that allow the conservative Paul to reel at some liberal, hippie force that morally shocks him and his understanding of common decency. In this episode, he’s fighting against the opening of a nudie show, Oh, Bombay! (a parody of Oh, Calcutta!). The mayor refuses to join his crusade because his brother-in-law is producing the play, and Paul is pressured into coming to terms with the play’s opening. But this becomes more of a challenge when son-in-law Howie announces that he’s been cast in the show as a bartender. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Paul decides to be supportive; he’ll attend the show and cheer for his son-in-law — naked. The episode climaxes in a scene in which Paul goes out onto his lawn and throws all of his clothes off, just as the mayor comes out with a news crew. It’s a funny scene in a rather typical episode of The Paul Lynde Show. It’s consistently amusing, so I would say it is of the same quality as the episodes that made my list of the best. Hopefully I can see the last two one day!

 

08) A Touch Of Grace: “Pilot” (Aired: 01/20/73)

Grace begins a relationship with Herbert to the chagrin of her daughter. Starring Shirley Booth, J. Pat O’Malley, Marian Mercer, and Warren Berlinger.

Written by Saul Turteltaub & Bernie Orenstein | Directed by Carl Reiner | Telecaster: ABC

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Shirley Booth returned to TV with this critically well regarded adaptation of a successful British series about a young-at-heart widow who lives with her daughter and son-in-law and begins dating again. Booth played the titular Grace and the always likable J. Pat O’Malley (whom you see all the time on sitcoms of the era, most notably as Bert on Maude, which we just finished covering on Sitcom Tuesdays) as Herbert, a widowed grave digger with a sweet disposition. With a strong creative team (Turteltaub, Orenstein, and Reiner), the series premiered in January of 1973 and was noted for its comedically high quality scripts and gentler, more realistic acting. Unfortunately, it aired on Saturday nights — opposite CBS’s stellar line-up of All In The Family, Bridget Loves Bernie (its direct competition), The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and The Bob Newhart Show (all of which we’ve covered on this blog). The show was canceled after its 13 episode first season, although the network reran the show throughout the summer in the hope of finding an audience.

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It’s a shame the series was so short-lived and has remained nearly unobtainable, for the pilot was one of the strongest shows I screened at UCLA (including my first visit last year). Booth and O’Malley share wonderful chemistry, and although I feared the show may be saccharine or overly sentimental after an opening scene of artsy music and few laughs, things quickly picked up momentum. The show is funniest when it allows Booth’s character to say shocking things — that is, things she couldn’t say on Hazel. In the first scene between Booth and Mercer, who plays the former’s rather uptight daughter, Grace fears she doesn’t have grand children because of the electric blanket. “In my day, it was sex or shiver,” she says. Grace then flat out asks her daughter if she’s taking the pill, (she is), and then discovers that she accidentally took two of them that morning for a headache. (There’s a nice callback to this later when the “kids” try to get intimate.) Meanwhile, while the show maintains its humor and there are a lot of great moments between Booth and O’Malley, the pilot’s story is predictable, and it’s fairly routine plodding until we get to the anticipated end when the daughter gives her mom the blessing to date Herbert. But at least now the series is set up, and with a pilot that packs big laughs and some quiet moments of real humanity, A Touch Of Grace is a show that I’d love to see in full. It shows a lot of potential.

 

09) Hot L Baltimore: “Suzy’s New Job” (Aired: 02/07/75)

When Suzy’s dance studio closes, she decides to call the President. Starring Richard Masur, Conchata Ferrell, James Cromwell, Al Freeman, Jr., Jeannie Linero, Gloria LeRoy, Robin Wilson, Stan Gottlieb, Lee Bergere, Henry Calvert, and Charlotte Rae.

Written by David Swift & Woody Kling | Directed by Bob LaHendro | Telecaster: ABC

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Having read the Lanford Wilson play upon which this 13-episode Norman Lear series was based, I was really looking forward to seeing this series. In addition to a great ensemble cast that includes many fantastic character actors from Lear’s pool of talent and original cast member Conchatta Ferrell, the series has been noted for covering, like other Lear shows, formerly taboo topics. And this should be no surprise, as the regular cast includes a pair of hookers, a woman with a mentally ill son, and TV’s first regular gay couple. However, the TV Hot L Baltimore, Norman Lear’s first flop, has remained comparatively esoteric and obscure. (It hardly gets any coverage in his autobiography.) If the episode that I screened is any indication, I think I know why. It’s not very good.

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The episode I chose to screen aired third and features a story that has the hotel going crazy when Suzy, Jeannie Linero, discovers that her dance studio has closed just before payday, leaving her without a job and without money to send to her father. This isn’t what America is supposed to be — so she decides to call President Ford. She actually gets through to the White House, and a member of the staff promises to send someone over to meet with her. As Masur’s character tries to keep Charlotte Rae from letting her insane son, Moose, come downstairs, every member of the ensemble prepares for a grand visit. What does the Colonel bring when he arrives? A case full of WIN buttons. (WIN = Whip Inflation Now) It’s exactly the kind of ending you’d expect in a Lear show, especially one that so obviously wants to be political. Meanwhile, with an ensemble cast of kooks, the show also tries to balance its relevance with silliness. Unfortunately, while Wilson’s play maintained a perfect blend of light and dark, Hot L Baltimore just seems unsure of itself. Where a moment of earnest drama usually arises organically in an episode of All In The Family or Maude, it comes out of nowhere here and ends up feeling unnecessarily gratuitous — like Ferrell’s monologue about being a hooker that suddenly pops out of nowhere as she’s helping Linero (the weakest member of the ensemble, who unfortunately is central to the entire show) dress. Of course, with so many characters, it’s difficult to get a grasp of anybody — and these falsely crafted insights don’t help. And that’s ultimately what this show feels like: too much of everything, except honesty. I’m hoping there are better episodes; this one was pretty dire.

 

10) All’s Fair: “Love And Marriage (II)” (Aired: 01/17/77)

Dick and Charley are caught in the middle when both Ginger and Senator Joplin want to end their romance. Starring Richard Crenna, Bernadette Peters, Lee Chamberlin, J.A. Preston, Judith Kahan, and Jack Dodson.

Written by Bud Wiser | Directed by J.D. Lobue | Telecaster: CBS

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Because I love both of the stars, this is another single season show that has long fascinated me. Richard Crenna, known for two iconic ’50s series, Our Miss Brooks and The Real McCoys, played a conservative columnist in Washington D.C. who falls for a young liberal photographer, played by Bernadette Peters, who came into Lear’s arena — and yes, this is another Norman Lear show — in 1975 with guest appearances on both All In The Family and Maude. With Lear’s other shows moving away from heavily political fare and into more character-driven hijinks, All’s Fair, produced and written by a stable of Lear regulars, brings things right back to the source. Early reviews noted that it was another very loud entry from CBS’ oeuvre of topical TV, but appreciated the chemistry between these two dynamic leads. I was practically foaming at the mouth to see an episode for myself. Unfortunately, this installment, the second of a two-parter, was the only one transferred and available for screening. (It wouldn’t have been my choice to watch either half of a two-part story.)

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The premise has Charley’s (a.k.a. Bernadette’s) roommate Ginger (Judy Kahan) wanting to break up with her new beau, Senator Joplin, after her ex-boyfriend (a mysterious politician nicknamed “Blue Eyes”) wants to get back with her. As Ginger begs Charley to ask her boyfriend, Dick (Crenna, of course) to break the news to Joplin, the senator decides he wants to return to his wife and asks Dick to smooth things over for him by talking to Charley. Cue a scene where Dick and Bernadette mutually engineer their best friends’ break up and get into a fight of their own, while the actual couple splitting up parts ways amiably and cheerfully. And naturally, everything all works out in the end. Unfortunately, the episode builds to a comedic climax that never comes, and the quarreling between Dick and Charley is so predictable and forced that it’s difficult to appreciate the obvious chemistry that Peters and Crenna share. For they do balance each other out — he holds back, she doesn’t. It’s a combination Lear loves and has used before, so their interaction works. But here, with inferior scripting, it’s really difficult to make a case for its quality. I need to see more; judging from this, I am almost sure there are better episodes — I just don’t know how many.

 

 

Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in tomorrow for more Xena!

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6 thoughts on “Spring Break Research RECAP: 2015 (II)

  1. My father recalls (accurately, it turns out, because I checked newspaper files) that our local ABC affiliate refused to carry HOT L BALTIMORE. Never having seen the show, I always wondered what there was in the content that so offended the station management, so I found your coverage of that one episode interesting.

    • Hi, James! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      This particular episode (the most disappointing show I screened at UCLA this year) wasn’t especially shocking, but the premise of the series alone — notably its assortment of regular characters — was purposely progressive and trailblazing. But ultimately, the writing didn’t seem strong enough to support the series’ lofty ambitions.

  2. I still remember seeing Hot’l Baltimore when I was young. It was the first show where I remember seeing James Cromwell, Richard Masur, Conchata Ferrell, and Charlotte Rae, and I particularly liked Rae’s character. I read about the show later and found it was on Friday nights, so that may be why I was allowed to stay up late enough to watch it.

  3. Just wondered if you came across the sitcom “We’ll Get By”. I remember I thought it was really funny but unfortunately short lived,

    • Hi, Smitty! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I have not seen WE’LL GET BY as yet, but UCLA has the entire series, at least one of which is available for viewing.

      I will be in Los Angeles this fall, and I hope to spend more time at the archives watching shows like these. I’ll let you know what I think about WE’LL GET BY! Stay tuned…

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