Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! Perfectly timed to coincide with our Sitcom Tuesdays coverage of Taxi, today’s entry looks at John Charles Walters’ second series, The Associates (1979-1980, ABC), a sitcom that has earned itself a reputation of deserving more than its early demise. I have a set of 12 of the 13 produced episodes (only nine of which made it to broadcast on ABC, the remaining four were only seen in syndication, alongside the broadcast offerings), taken from their reruns on USA. The show was also seen on A&E, Comedy Central, and TVLand. The episode that I’m missing is the final unaired one, “The Out-Of-Town Trip.” (If anyone has it, please contact me!) But having screened the other 12, I’m eager to share my thoughts on this fondly recalled rarity.
Produced in association with Paramount by the men who created Taxi (save David Davis, who was replaced with Charlie Hauck, whose work we highlighted as being some of Maude‘s later years’ best — three of his episode made my weekly MVE selections) and developed by Michael Leeson (best known to this blog as one of creative forces behind the first year of Phyllis), The Associates is based on John Jay Osborn, Jr.’s follow up to his hit novel The Paper Chase, which had in turn been adapted into a television series for CBS in the ’78-’79 season. Martin Short plays Tucker Kerwin, a Harvard Law graduate who is hired as an associate at a swanky Wall Street law firm. He works alongside Alley Mills as the down-to-earth Leslie Dunn, who holds a barely concealed attraction to Tucker, and Shelley Smith as the beautiful (but ice cold) Sara James, the object of Tucker’s equally unconcealed affection. The inimitable Wilfred Hyde-White is senior law partner Emerson Marshall, while Joe Regalbuto plays the kooky junior partner (who is promoted in the pilot), Eliot Streeter. Tim Thomerson (best remembered by my Xena fans as Meleager the Mighty) plays the horny, but none too bright, office gofer, Johnny Danko. In addition to the mild love triangle that exists among the newbies, much of the humor and conflict was to come from Tucker’s displeasure with the firm’s ethics and the cases they are called upon to represent.
Comparisons to Taxi are inevitable given the creative team and the show’s ensemble structure. Naturally, The Associates doesn’t compare favorably to the JCW’s hit series, but because viewers, critics, and the network were making associations (pun intended) between the two, looking at them together can help us figure out why it didn’t work. First, some history: from the beginning, ABC was eager to put on the series and scheduled it behind the previous season’s other breakout hit, Mork And Mindy, which was, unbeknownst to them at the time, just about to enter its now legendary second season slump. Viewers quickly started tuning out to the lead-in, putting the whole Sunday evening line-up in a definite second place behind CBS. When The Associates failed to get a big enough response by the end of October, the show was pulled from the air, only to return in late March (in Soap‘s timeslot) for a four episode reprieve that also didn’t come. The show was cancelled with four episodes left unaired. Since then, The Associates has been considered a lost gem: an uptown Taxi with great characters and funny, unique scripts.
Well, yes, it is an uptown Taxi. But the characters and scripts are not yet of the quality that Taxi, even during its first 13 episodes, had reached. I think part of the problem is the subject matter. While Taxi is a show filled with working class characters, the introspective and psychologically real storytelling gives the characters a heretofore unseen depth for those belonging to a hit ABC show. The Associates, with its uptown stiffs, seems to make a conscious effort to illustrate how zany and silly these over-educated professionals really appear to be, therefore bringing them down to a relatable level. Unfortunately, this comes at the expense of the quiet character-driven moments that helped make each member of the Taxi ensemble so unique and identifiable. I watched 92% of this produced series, and I still feel like I didn’t really get to know half of the six main characters. The two women, in particular, are so lacking in definition that the forced triangle angle is an insult to both the audience and the characters’ intelligences. Who is Sara James? After 13 episodes, your guess is as good as mine. Maybe these characters would have become more endearing with age; I don’t doubt it, because that’s usually the case
And sure, the series was nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Comedy, but given what was actually produced, I can’t say that The Associates is a lost gem. Rather, it’s a series with modest potential that would have needed more time to work out its kinks — among them, the inconsistency of Martin Short’s Tucker, who’s clearly supposed to be the show’s Alex Reiger, the smart, loyal, moral guy who anchors the stories and acts as a conduit for all the other characters. But because he’s so much younger than Judd Hirsch, the series doesn’t seem able to commit to losing the actor’s boyish charm in favor of his needed everyman persona. Thus, we get a character who is supposedly designed to be the audience’s window into the series, but is actually only relegated to driving character-less stories, and carrying off the requisite stupid jokes. An example of this can be found in the series’ worst episode — “Is Romance Dead?” — the second aired (a mistake, I believe), in which Tucker makes a fool of himself mooning over Sara. Not only does the character’s buffoonish antics counteract his proposed function in the pilot, but the writing presents Tucker as completely lacking in the self-awareness that existed amongst all the Taxi characters (even the less intelligent ones). As you can see, the trouble of reconciling humor with truth was a big problem here, and the characters, in this (perhaps) difficult to navigate premise, suffered.
Of course, these scripts are by some of the genre’s finest. Not only were there contributions by producers Weinberger, Daniels, Hauck, and Leeson, but MTM veterans David Lloyd and Earl Pomerantz contributed seven and two scripts, respectively. And these pros really knew comedy, so it’s no surprise that they were able to create wonderful, memorable bits from tiny little throwaway moments. (In fact, two of the nine aired scripts were nominated for Emmys!) Thus, there are times when the show comes close to aligning itself along those marvelous early MTM comedies — but one with newer sensibilities and poised to enter the ’80s. These brief flashes of freshness leave me hungering for more (and there is one absolutely brilliant episode that aired in the spring), so although The Associates didn’t produce enough to be called an unjustly treated masterpiece, there really are some funny moments here, especially from partners White (a Golden Globe nominee) and Regalbuto, two distinct performers who have the chops to elevate average material and simultaneously help give their characters definition that otherwise didn’t exist on the page. So the fact that The Associates only got 13 episodes (and nine airings) is a shame. With a full year of scripts, a better case could have been made for (or against) the series and its quality.
Now, for my favorites. As usual, they are listed in airing order. (If interested in obtaining any episode in particular — even one not listed — subscribe and comment below!)
01) Episode 3: “Tucker’s Courtroom Coup” (Aired: 10/07/79)
Tucker gets his first chance in court since law school.
Written by David Lloyd | Directed by Tony Mordente
After Lloyd’s painful script for the second aired episode (discussed above), the very same writer turns around and gives us the show’s first truly satisfying installment. Because this is a sitcom about a bunch of lawyers, one would anticipate that most episodes would spend plenty of time in the courtroom, but this marks the first time that we see the firm in action, thus giving the story a chance to find humor in a unique case, which finds a woman suing her former live-in lover after he leaves her. There are a couple of comedic twists and turns, especially when Tucker takes over in an attempt to win the case (that looks like it may be in vain).
02) Episode 4: “Mr. Marshall’s Love Affair” (Aired: 10/14/79)
Marshall’s new girlfriend makes a play for Eliot.
Written by David Lloyd | Directed by Tony Mordente
Cloris Leachman dons a gray wig and old age makeup to play a Palm Beach widow with whom Wilfred Hyde-White’s Marshall is smitten. She flips the script on everyone when she makes a play for Eliot, putting the junior law partner in an uncomfortable situation. While much of the comedic heavy-lifting goes to Regalbuto, nobody can steal a show like Cloris Leachman, and although she’s really unsuited for this role, she never fails to elicit the necessary number of laughs. The final scene, in which she wins back the favor of Marshall with a rendition of the WWII ditty, “We’re Going To Hang Out The Washing On The Siegfried Line” is very funny!
03) Episode 6: “Eliot’s Revenge” (Aired: 03/27/80)
Eliot faces off with his former professor in a case.
Story by Rich Reinhart | Teleplay by David Lloyd | Directed by James Burrows
John Houseman guest stars as Professor Kingsfield, the character he played in both the film and television adaptations of Osborn’s The Paper Chase. As it happens, Eliot had the professor when he was at Harvard, and regards his time spent in that class with a mixture of embarrassment and terror, as the stern teacher delighted in mocking the uncomfortable Eliot, who was prone to uncontrollable stuttering. Now Eliot gets to try a case with his former professor as opposing counsel, but will he be able to pull it off? The best stuff occurs in the final scene, where the two gentlemen speak plainly about the case and their relationship. Strong writing.
04) Episode 8: “The Censors” (Aired: 04/10/80)
Tucker helps a network censor from a producer’s lawsuit.
Written by Stan Daniels & Ed. Weinberger | Directed by Tony Mordente
Without a doubt, this is the funniest episode of the entire series, and indeed, it was nominated for an Emmy. The premise has Tucker going in to mediate talks between a network censor who’s been threatened with a lawsuit by an angry producer (Stuart Margolin). It’s a brilliant commentary on the idiocy of the network bureaucracy and the ways in which their interference hampers the quality of the programming. John Ritter makes a cameo as the star of the sitcom in question, performing both the original and censored versions of what is initially a brilliantly hysterical scene in which a son walks in on his widower father having sex with a hooker. It’s true hilarity, and although the script contends with little of the other character besides Tucker, this is the only episode of the series that I genuinely love. More than that — it’s one of the finest situation comedy episodes I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing.
05) Episode 9: “The Party” (Aired: 04/17/80)
Leslie falls for a liberal teacher who despises lawyers.
Written by Earl Pomerantz | Directed by James Burrows
The last aired episode of the entire series is apparently one of the first produced. Interestingly, one of the reasons it works is because the characters (with the exception of Sara) feel like unique, definable individuals, and a lot of the humor comes from our expectations of their established characteristics as they gather together at Eliot’s place for a party. (This is why most shows get better once they have time to develop.) Alley Mills’ character gets to play a little drama, and she has some fine scenes with Short, who steals the episode with his surprisingly good impression of Judy Garland, which he whips out in the middle of the disastrous party.
Two other episodes worth mentioning include the pilot, “The First Day,” which earned Leeson and Hauck an Emmy nod, and “A Date With Johnny,” an un-broadcast episode (that was pre-empted on 10/21/79) that features Georgia Engel as a married receptionist whom Johnny Dank reluctantly dates.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode of The Associates goes to…..
***December 09, 2015 UPDATE: Thanks to a friend, I have now seen and am in possession of the one episode I was missing when this post was initially published, “The Out-Of-Town Trip.” My collection is complete!***
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in tomorrow for more Xena!