Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! Complementing our coverage on the best episodes of Three’s Company, today’s post looks at the series’ first ill-fated spin-off, The Ropers (1979-1980, ABC), which ran for two seasons and was adapted from the British series George And Mildred (1976-1979, ITV).
The idea of spinning off the Ropers actually began as early as 1977, during Three’s Company‘s second season, but discussions were shelved until the show had completed its first full year. When the idea was proposed again in 1978, Lindley was reportedly intrigued, while Fell was hesitant to potentially wreck a good situation. He was finally persuaded when it was agreed that the characters could return to Three’s Company if their spin-off show lasted less than a calendar year. So, as mentioned in yesterday’s post, the March 13, 1979 episode, “An Anniversary Surprise” saw Roper selling the building and planning to move away. The Ropers pilot premiered immediately after, and set up the new series: the Ropers buy an apartment in a ritzy community, much to the chagrin of their snobby new neighbor, Jeffrey P. Brookes III (Jeffrey Tambor). Tempering Brookes was his wife, played by Patricia McCormack, and their young son, David (Evan Cohen), who quickly develops a bond with Stanley. Six episodes aired that spring on ABC Tuesday nights, garnering high ratings (#8 for the year) and earning the show a definite second season. But The Ropers was moved to Saturdays at the start of the ’79-’80 season, now up against CHiPs (1977-1983, NBC), and the ratings tanked. The show lasted 22 weeks that season before being canceled in May 1980, reportedly a month after the actors’ deal to come back to Three’s Company, which had since rebounded with Don Knotts, had lapsed.
Given the popularity of Three’s Company, The Ropers has enjoyed some syndication, particularly in the last decade, which has seen the show air on stations like DejaView and Antenna TV. The first season finale, which guest stars Richard Kline as Larry Dallas, and the season two premiere, in which the trio (Ritter, DeWitt, and Somers) appear, are both popular entries. Unfortunately, The Ropers is a far inferior series and, although some Three’s Company fans will defend the show out of loyalty, I must be truthful and say: the show would not have lasted a full second season if Fell and Lindley didn’t have the deal to return to their parent series. Episodes alternate between bad and blah. In addition to weak scripts and a laughably bad opening credit sequence, the show has a faulty design. The very funny Tambor is relegated to playing the series’ villain — being mean to pretty much everyone, even his boring wife, who never develops a personality beyond agreeableness — and given our already established fondness for the Ropers, it’s extremely difficult to like a character who antagonizes them. (Roper, though an occasional antagonist to the trio, was more of an obstacle: something that could be worked around, and worked over, in Helen’s case. Thus, he remained likable.) Furthermore, Stanley and Helen’s bickering, once sharp and fresh, now is tired and nasty (not to mention poorly written). There’s no variation on their dynamic. And it gets old fast. In early 1980, the series adds a young woman to the cast, Jenny (Louise Vallance), an annoying and unfunny runaway who’s designed to humanize the Ropers. It doesn’t work.
The Ropers really is one of the most dire series we’ve ever covered here, but I would be remiss for not mentioning its few good qualities. Although I’m not usually fond of children, the relationship between Stanley and seven-year-old David is usually good for a few laughs. Also, the show gets a goldmine with Dena Dietrich as Helen’s snooty sister, Ethel. She appears in six episodes, and brightens each one. And, while the creative team deserves little praise, it must be said that all of the complaints I leveled above were recognized before the series came to a conclusion, as Brookes becomes less nasty and more goofy (which is good for Tambor), and the Ropers are given a few moments of genuine happiness. But, it’s too little too late — and even if the series began with this quality, it still wouldn’t be worthy of That’s Entertainment! However, seeing as I sat through all 28 episodes, I’d hate to see those 14 difficult hours be for naught. So I’ve managed to come up with three episodes that weren’t as bad as the rest. It’s the best I could do.
01) Episode 8: “Days Of Beer And Rosie” (Aired: 09/22/79)
A man claims to be Stanley’s son.
Written by Martin Rips & Joseph Staretski | Based on a script by Johnnie Mortimer & Brian Cooke | Directed by Jack Shea
This episode works because the question of Stanley having a son makes for some serious drama, grounding the comedy in a way that this series rarely gets to do. Also, the humanity of the story alleviates the script from the show’s usual cringeworthy comedy.
02) Episode 9: “Power Play” (Aired: 09/29/79)
The power is cut off just before Ethel comes to visit.
Written by Martin Rips & Joseph Staretski | Based on a script by Johnnie Mortimer & Brian Cooke | Directed by Jack Shea
After failing to pay the electric bill, Roper runs back and forth trying to use the Brookes’ power to trick Ethel and her husband in this episode that plays a lot like a Jack scheme on Three’s Company. Fell gives his most physical performance of the series.
03) Episode 28: “Mother’s Wake” (Aired: 05/15/80)
Helen’s mother decides to hold a wake while she’s alive.
Written by George Burditt | Directed by Jack Shea
The final episode is blessed with appearances by Dietrich and Lucille Benson as Helen’s mom. Meanwhile, Tambor is likable in this episode (of course, he’s high) and there is a sweet Helen/Stanley moment at the conclusion. Undoubtedly one of the series’ best.
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in tomorrow for more Hercules!
By the way, there is an answer to the rhetorical question posed in the title of this entry: a combination of misplaced obligation and morbid curiosity.
I may be alone here, but I enjoyed the silliness of the opening credits for The Ropers, and I thought the theme was cute too. Unfortunately the show was downhill from there for me. I do remember a few hottub scenes, as hottubs were all the rage in the late ’70s, at least in California.
What did you think of the pilot for this series, as well as the 2nd season premiere that featured Jack, Janet & Chrissy? These are probably the 2 episodes that have been seen the most over the years, since they’re often syndicated with the Three’s Company episodes. I also notice that 2 of your favorites were based on George & Mildred episodes, which may (or may not) say something about the writing staff for The Ropers.
Thanks for covering this show, and I’m looking forward to what you have to say about Three’s a Crowd.
Hi, Jon! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I think the pilot is awful, frankly — a perfect representation of the show and emblematic of all its faults. As for “The Party,” I think it’s notable only for the crossover appearances; it’s neither very funny nor unique.
Looking forward to covering THREE’S A CROWD, which I do like better than THE ROPERS, in late July!
I largely agree with you on this one. My favorite episode of The Ropers is “The Party,” but like you say, I only like that episode because of the crossover. I wouldn’t call the series “dire,” but it is rather boring, which is the cardinal sin of anything in entertainment.
The idea of a Ropers sitcom seems full of unfulfilled potential, and that’s why it’s so disappointing that the real thing is, well, disappointing. I did not like the Brookes’ family at all—they were all bland, snobbish, or pandering (in the case of the kid). I spend my time waiting for the Ropers to be onscreen again, but when they reappear, nothing much happens. I chalk it up to poor writing and lack of imagination. Good review.
Hi, aah! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Interestingly, I don’t think the established format gave the series any potential to even fulfill — particularly because the supporting cast, as you noted, was so misguided. But more importantly, THE ROPERS, much like PHYLLIS, which we covered on Sitcom Tuesdays earlier this month, is a series that was not ever going to work, because the protagonists had to change in order to anchor a show. And if they changed, they’d have lost their comedy. It was a no-win situation, and unlike PHYLLIS (which tried incredibly hard to make that character and show work), THE ROPERS was always made of inferior stock. I don’t think its fate could have been avoided — just prolonged (maybe).
I agree with your comments about the show’s faulty structure, so this leads me to a question. How did “George & Mildred” succeed in the UK? It ran longer than its parent series, “Man about the House”. I read somewhere that it was funnier because Mildred put on airs in a way that Helen Roper didn’t, but I’ve never seen this show to make that judgment call. I don’t know if you’ve seen it either, so maybe you also can’t say. I’ve also read that many UK series, especially “Faulty Towers”, fail when translated to US adaptations because US characters are forced to be milder than their UK counterparts, so that could be another explanation.
I’ve seen most episodes of MAN ABOUT THE HOUSE, but nothing of GEORGE & MILDRED, so my comments are based on the differences between American adaptations of British shows in general.
I think the contrast in the two countries’ senses of humor is a major factor, for all three of these NRW shows are designed with something that we’ve discussed here in the past — the use of regular antagonists. And I think, as you noted, we are more familiar with seeking likability among our leads. So, harried and caustic characters, although usually good for some laughs, may not be warm enough to earn our weekly investment. (The shortened seasons in the UK also help keep them from grating on the audience.)
Regarding GEORGE & MILDRED, I think class differences may have been enough to drive much of the comedy in the British series in a way that couldn’t be done in the American adaptation. Instead, THE ROPERS, like THREE’S COMPANY, sought to find humor from farcical situations and moments of broad physicality, which would enable them to reach a wider audience. But the American characters simply weren’t suited to be protagonists, no matter how much we enjoyed them.
As for FAWLTY TOWERS, expect to see the series, along with several of its American incarnations, featured here sometime before we leave the ’70s…
There’s quite a bit of GEORGE AND MILDRED available on YouTube. It’s worth watching for the sake of comparison.
Hi, James! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I confess to not having much of a desire to see the series, but I may get around to it eventually. What were your impressions of its quality?
I think the pilot is pretty funny, but the show goes down the tubes almost immediately after it (and I haven’t seen them all). Bad slapstick, bad writing, lead characters who don’t really like each other, terrible opening sequence and no real premise or theme except sitting around the house.
Norman and Audra certainly had the acting chops and chemistry to carry a well-written show with actual characters to play and age-appropriate stories, but that would be a totally different show, as you pointed out. Mostly it was a poor man’s “Three’s Company” with someone mishearing something and running around in circles until everything untangles in the last 2 minutes, and Norman Fell trying to be John Ritter. They were both too old for that and deserved a better show.
Question: did you ever see the 70’s Pat Morita bomb “Mr T and Tina”? I’d be interested to see your thoughts on that career-killing trainwreck. One episode is online elsewhere.
Hi, Jake! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I have not seen MR. T AND TINA, nor have I sought it out. (I’m not really a fan of the Komack shows — nor HAPPY DAYS, for that matter.) What did you think of the series?
In that case, you’re better off not watching – it’s pretty awful. Justly regarded as one of the all-time worst sitcoms. Insulting to Asians, whites, blacks and comedy lovers, and the applause track and the laugh track are equally deafening. At least Pat’s career eventually recovered.