An MTM Girl Strikes Out: A Look at THE BETTY WHITE SHOW (1977-78)

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! Following our coverage of The Tony Randall Show (1976-1977, ABC; 1977-1978, CBS), we turn our attention today to another forgotten MTM sitcom, The Betty White Show (1977-1978, CBS), which opposite ABC’s Monday Night Football and NBC’s Monday Movie and was quickly canceled after 14 episodes. Although Cloris Leachman’s spin-off had just been yanked, Rhoda was still trucking along, and CBS thought it only natural to give Mary Tyler Moore‘s other two girls their own vehicle.

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Betty White stars as Joyce Whitman, a middle aged actress who lands the lead role in a take-off of Police Woman (1974-1978, NBC) called “Undercover Woman.” Her excitement is soon quelled by her discovery that the director of the pilot (and later the series) is her ex-husband, John Elliot (John Hillerman). Witness to their combative sparring and lingering attraction are Joyce’s burly stunt double (Charles Cyphers), her young starlet sidekick (Caren Kaye), her “police chief” (Barney Phillips), and the network liaison (Alex Henteloff). Meanwhile, Georgia Engel co-stars as Joyce’s bubbly roommate and best friend, Mitzi. The show was created by three longtime MTM writers: Ed. Weinberger, Stan Daniels, and David Lloyd.

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Not to be confused with the ’54 daytime and ’58 primetime series with the same title, the ’77 Betty White Show was syndicated on Nick at Nite and TVLand back in the early ’90s and all 14 episodes are readily available on sites like iOffer. (As of this writing, 13 of the 14 installments have been uploaded on YouTube.) Having seen the entire series, it’s clear that this is a lesser MTM effort. Not only does the premise pigeonhole the writers into stories that lack the relatability of the company’s other shows, the ensemble, while composed of individually talented players, are both narrative and performative lightweights compared to White, Engel, and Hillerman. Lacking the collective strength of the ensembles of both The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977, CBS) and The Bob Newhart Show (1972-1978) — heck, even Rhoda (1974-1978, CBS) — the show never manages to operate and gel the way that it should. Of course, a major part of the problem are the aforementioned heavyweights. While Engel plays a variation of her Georgette Franklin persona, White and Hillerman engage in alternating moments of loathing and pining, all of them absent of the gravitas necessary for quality comedy. And poor Ms. White is given a character with no real definition, making for a rather uninteresting lead.

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In short, it’s a great big bust. (The only thing that manages any sort of comedy is when the show revels in its Police Woman parodies. But that alone does not a great series make.)  And really, none of the 14 episodes are worth touting here as the best of the series. However, four of them could possibly make a list of what, to any other series, could be considered honorable mentions. I will share them with you here — in airing order.

 

01) Episode 5: “We’re Not Divorced (I)” (Aired: 10/10/77) 

John learns that he and Joyce are still married.

Written by David Lloyd | Directed by Harvey Medlinsky

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Routine plot, livened up by a funny script and a great subplot involving sidekick Caren Kaye’s script.

02) Episode 6: “We’re Not Divorced (II)” (Aired: 10/17/77)

Joyce is furious to learn that their divorce didn’t take.

Written by David Lloyd | Directed by Harvey Medlinsky

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See above. Almost as strong as the first part, but even more story-driven.

03) Episode 9: “John’s Mother” (Aired: 11/07/77)

Joyce and John pretend to be married when his mom visits.

Written by Dale McRaven | Directed by James Burrows

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Another routine story, but it has a lot of fine moments between White and Hillerman, and more laughs than most.

04) Episode 14: “The Stunt Woman” (Aired: 01/09/78)

Cancellation rumors prompt desperate measures.

Written by David Lloyd | Directed by Noam Pitlik

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The final episode of the series; fitting subject matter in this more solid-that-most script.

 

 

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

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2 thoughts on “An MTM Girl Strikes Out: A Look at THE BETTY WHITE SHOW (1977-78)

    • Hi, Sarah! Thanks for reading and commenting!

      These are the top episodes — but only by proxy. In the absence of true quality, we are forced to lower our standards, but I shall never praise a piece that doesn’t command the favor. By labeling these episodes honorable mentions, I’m putting them in the context of the superior stuff that we discuss on Sitcom Tuesdays, and forming a hierarchy that helps to illustrate just why this show was unsuccessful!

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