An Unlikable Protagonist: A Look at BUFFALO BILL

Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! Today we’re looking at Buffalo Bill (1983-1984, NBC), a two-season single-camera sitcom that starred Dabney Coleman as the titular Buffalo Bill, the narcissistic and chauvinistic host of a local Buffalo talk show. Created by Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses (a pair responsible for some of the best episodes of The Bob Newhart Show), the show — truly unlike anything else on television at the time — has long been hailed as a groundbreaking cult classic, and surprisingly, the entire series was released on DVD over a decade ago (albeit with some excruciating music cuts). Before I share my thoughts on whether the show lives up to its reputation, let me tell you a little bit about the series.

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Dabney plays Bill Bittinger, a protagonist who clearly tests the audience’s ability to support and sympathize with a character that, despite being the focus of the narrative, treats everyone around him like garbage. There’s John Fiedler (another familiar face — and voice) as Woody, the diminutive stage manager who routinely takes Bill’s abuse, Max Wright as Karl, the beleaguered station manager who has his hands full trying to handle Bill, Geena Davis as Wendy, the eager young production assistant who always tries to give Bill the benefit of the doubt, Charles Robinson as Newdell, the straight-shooting makeup man who tries to call Bill out on his shenanigans, Meshach Taylor as Tony, the program’s bemused assistant director, and 1984 Golden Globe winner Joanna Cassidy as Jo Jo White, Bill’s tough director and casual sex partner, who struggles with her equal love and hate for the charmingly repugnant talk show host. 13 episodes were planned for the spring of 1983, but NBC decided that Buffalo Bill would fare better in the summer when there was less competition.

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Then there was the little matter of Bill’s unlikability, which turned test audiences off of the pilot completely, necessitating one of two strategies going forward: finding ways to make him more vulnerable, and thus, less repulsive, or playing up the persona and milking it unapologetically for all its comedic worth. In actuality, both of these tactics were employed. While Bill’s bad guy character helped imbue the show with its nasty and sardonic bite (again, unlike anything seen on a comedy series), the creative team’s desire to push the genre’s boundaries naturally desired moments of genuine character drama, essentially requiring that Coleman’s Bill have an emotional complexity in support of his despicableness. The key was to use the multi-dimensionality in a way that didn’t dilute the character, but instead, supported what was already there. So in the seventh episode, the series introduced Pippa Pearthree in the recurring role of Melanie, Bill’s estranged teenage daughter, whom he begrudgingly lets work on his show.

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The show premiered in June 1983 and was, for the most part, well received during its 12-episode run, with critics likening Bill to both Alan Brady (the vain star of the show for which Rob Petrie wrote in The Dick Van Dyke Show) and Archie Bunker, establishing for the series a sense of importance; this is a new type of show: fresh and revolutionary. The television academy really seemed to embrace this point-of-view, for based on the five episodes that aired in June, the series was nominated for five Emmy awards — Outstanding Comedy, Outstanding Actor, Outstanding Writing, and two for Outstanding Directing. Unfortunately, television audiences weren’t as enthusiastic, and the show didn’t maintain its initially respectable numbers.

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Nevertheless, the show was renewed for another 13-episode season, intended to be a replacement for NBC’s first fall causality, and although the show didn’t win any of its nominations, the critical acclaim was prized by the network. The second season debuted in December 1983 in the valuable post-Cheers spot at 9:30 on Thursdays. The show continued to get critical attention, but was unable to retain enough of its lead-in’s audience to justify a third season, and the series was cancelled after its 14-episode run (which included one installment held over from the previous season) in March. The show earned six more Emmy nominations. Brandon Tartikoff would later claim that Buffalo Bill was the best show he ever cancelled.

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Having seen all 26 episodes, I can concur that Buffalo Bill is a fascinating work, certainly ahead of its time, that deserved a bigger audience than it initially received. The characters are brilliantly defined and the casting is, like Cheers, outstanding — there’s not a weak member in the bunch. Unfortunately, the show’s comedy is inconsistent; for instance, the first few aired installments are hysterical (they obviously stacked the best offerings in the front) and it’s easy to see why the award community took notice. But the second half of the first season misses the mark, with two episodes dedicated to Bill’s relationship with Melanie (which, frankly, doesn’t do anything humorous for the show beyond the very idea of Bill being absolutely awful to her) and several scripts that attempt to handle larger issues, like mental health and toxic waste. Emotion is the death of sarcasm, and the show only sometimes manages to balance the two effectively, working best when it avoids having to do so.

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The second season begins with even more verve than the first, giving us some of the series’ best episodes. Of course, the writers continue to go for drama, and there’s even an Emmy nominated two-parter in which Jo Jo aborts Bill’s baby. But once the strongest episodes from the front of the season are through, there’s another string of forgettable offerings that, while most have something worth mentioning, aren’t close to the comedic quality that’s required. Surprisingly, however, the show goes out on a high, with its last two offerings, again, reprising what the series could do on its best days.  It’s a shame that the writing only worked half of the time, for the lack of consistency is probably more of a turn-off than Bill’s potentially repulsive character. Additionally, I think it may have been a mistake to place the second season after Cheers, which in addition to being a multi-camera show and visually dissimilar to Buffalo Bill, has a strikingly different comedic sensibility. But, undoubtedly, this was a difficult show — by design — to make work.

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Now I’m ready to share my picks for the best episodes. They are listed in airing order.

 

SEASON ONE (Summer 1983)

01) Episode 2: “Buffalo Beat” (Aired: 06/08/83)

Bill is enraged when he gets a beautiful female co-host.

Written by Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses | Directed by Tom Patchett

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While the Emmy nominated pilot does a fantastic job of establishing Bill’s character and his various relationships, the second installment offers a more pointed, and even more comedic, example of what the series will look like from week to week. The glimpses of character — particularly Bill and Jo Jo — are stronger: there’s less effort and more play.

02) Episode 3: “Woody Quits” (Aired: 06/15/83)

Bill must face the consequences when Woody quits.

Written by Jay Tarses | Directed by Jim Drake

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No longer able to withstand Bill’s constant aggravation, Woody walks out on the show, and much of the comedy in this installment comes from Bill’s inability to swallow his pride and apologize to his former stage manager. Newdell’s attempt to replace Woody is delightfully bad, and the climactic chair gag with Bill is a unique beat. Very funny offering.

03) Episode 4: “Buffalo Bill And The Movies” (Aired: 06/22/83)

Bill desperately tries to get a part in a film shooting in Buffalo.

Written by Mitch Markowitz | Directed by Jim Drake

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While not a great script (due to the premise that stretches the bounds of Bill’s self-awareness), this amusing installment features several tour de force comedic centerpieces. The first is Bill’s disastrous audition with the plus-sized producer who has agreed to audition him (with a kissing scene, naturally) and his performance of said scene on air with a confused guest.

04) Episode 5: “Mrs. Buffalo Bill?” [a.k.a. “Bill Proposes”] (Aired: 06/29/83)

Bill regrets proposing marriage to Jo Jo the morning after.

Written by Merrill Markoe | Directed by Jim Drake

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This episode finds Bill falling back on his once-in-a-while gal, Jo Jo, when no one wants to spend the evening with him. In his fear of loneliness, Bill even proposes marriage. But in the light of day, neither one is prepared to make a commitment. The scene between them in the hall, where she delights in making him squirm, is one of the best written of the year.

05) Episode 6: “Wilkinson’s Sword” [a.k.a. “Buffalo Bill Gets M*A*S*H*ed”] (Aired: 07/13/83)

Bill becomes a car salesman when his show is cancelled.

Written and Directed by Tom Patchett

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Interestingly, this installment aired almost two weeks after the Emmy cut-off date for 1983, so it was included among the offerings for 1984 and earned Patchett a writing nomination. Wright’s conversation with the faceless executive is a highlight, but nothing tops Bill as a car salesman, with his bleached blonde hair and bad attitude. Hysterical.

 

SEASON TWO (1983 – 1984)

01) Episode 13: “Hit The Road, Newdell” [a.k.a. “Hit The Road, Jack”] (Aired: 12/22/83)

Bill fears litigation from Newdell, who has recently quit.

Written by Dennis Klein | Directed by Tom Patchett

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Frankly, this episode is no better than average — on the DVD. Unfortunately, they couldn’t get the rights to “Hit The Road, Jack,” which was used in the original broadcast for a very imaginative daydream in which Bill is hounded by black people because of his treatment of Newdell. It’s the series’ absolute funniest scene and makes the entire episode.

02) Episode 14: “Jerry Lewis Week” (Aired: 01/05/84)

Karl and Bill have a stand-off while Jerry Lewis impersonators overrun the station.

Written by Dennis Klein | Directed by Jim Drake

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Another strong contender for the best episode of the series (and an MVE, were I to choose one), this offering is delightfully wacky, as Karl’s desire to assert his power over Bill turns into a power play involving a stuffed bear that Karl refuses to allow Bill to put on air. Meanwhile, a bunch of Jerry Lewis impersonators are wreaking havoc throughout the station. (Look for a young Jim Carrey among them.) Fabulous script, perfect premise, and high comedy!

03) Episode 15: “The Interview” (Aired: 01/12/84)

A television reporter comes to the station to get the dirt on Bill.

Written by Dennis Klein | Directed by Ellen Gittelsohn

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We’ve seen stories like this plenty of times before, but the stakes are unquestionably higher when the subject of the story is Bill, who we know is infinitely more despicable in real life than when in front of the public. So when the crusading journalist goes snooping for dirt and twists everyone’s words around, the comedic release is bigger. Great laughs.

04) Episode 17: “Jo Jo’s Problem (I)” (Aired: 01/26/84)

Jo Jo’s in a bad mood when she learns that she’s pregnant.

Written by Jay Tarses | Directed by Jim Drake

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While the second half of this infamous two-parter got the Emmy nominations, Part II is simply not as funny (save a scene where the crew takes a vote on whether or not Jo Jo should have an abortion) as Part I. This installment, while certainly dramatic, packs the appropriate number of laughs, both between Bill and Jo Jo, and in the disastrous broadcast.

05) Episode 25: “Have Yourself A Very Degrading Christmas” (Aired: 03/22/84)

Bill takes a date on Christmas with a Brazillian actress who has a secret.

Written by Dennis Klein | Directed by Tom Patchett

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Coming after a string of middling offerings that aren’t bad but simply don’t feature a high enough volume of laugh-out-loud moments, this episode returns comedy to the forefront. The great surprise of this story, which I’m SPOILING now, is that the Brazilian actress for whom Bill is smitten used to be a man. It’s a delicious blow to Bill’s ego — and very funny.

06) Episode 26: “Church Of The Poisoned Mind” (Aired: 03/29/84)

The audience turns on Bill after he lashes out on air at a priest.

Written by Dennis Klein | Directed by Ellen Gittelsohn

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The final episode finally makes Melanie’s inclusion worthwhile as there’s an unbelievable scene in which Bill gets so aggravated at her for making him feel old that he grabs her by the ankles and dangles her out the window. Things get even funnier as Bill takes out his anger on the show at an undeserving priest. Again, there’s no other show like Buffalo Bill!

 

The only notable episode not included above is the aforementioned “Pilot,” which earned nominations for writing and directing and does a fine job of introducing audiences to the series and showing why Bill Bittinger is going to be a protagonist unlike they’ve ever seen before.

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Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in on Monday for another Jerome Kern musical!

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2 thoughts on “An Unlikable Protagonist: A Look at BUFFALO BILL

  1. BUFFALO BILL is a forgotten gem, and you are absolutely right that it was too far ahead of its time. It would have fit in much better with the dark comedy and unsympathetic characters in 1990s and 2000s series like SEINFELD, CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM and THE OFFICE.

    Not to mention THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW, which strikes me as a direct descendant in both premise and tone to BUFFALO BILL.

    • Hi, Guy! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Not coincidentally, THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW was co-created by Dennis Klein, who wrote five of the six episodes that made my favorites from BUFFALO BILL’s second season.

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