Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! In today’s post, I’m sharing some of my thoughts on Frank’s Place (1987-1988, CBS), one of the most fondly regarded single-season sitcoms of the past thirty years — and the most recent single-season show to be nominated for an Emmy as the year’s Outstanding Comedy. (The series actually was nominated for four Emmys, winning two.) Due to music licensing issues, Frank’s Place has not yet been released on DVD, however all 22 episodes are readily available from VHS transfers taken during the show’s original broadcast and its subsequent run on BET. I own and have screened the entire series, so I’ll also be sharing some of my selections for the show’s finest offerings. (For subscribed readers interested in screening an episode or two, as always, please comment below.)
Frank’s Place was an idea that came from the brass at CBS, who wanted to replicate the cozy bar/restaurant vibe that NBC was having enormous success with over at Cheers while also combining the unique atmosphere of New Orleans’ French Quarter. Attached to the project were Hugh Wilson and Tim Reid, who had worked together several years before on WKRP In Cincinnati (which we covered here last fall) — Wilson as creator and Reid as a star. After conducting research of their own in New Orleans and finding a restaurant on which they wanted to base their series, the pair decided against producing a sitcom in the conventional style; instead of filming with multiple cameras in front of a studio audience, as most shows in the ’80s were (although the rise of cable gave the single-cam a tiny renaissance that would grow over the next few decades), Frank’s Place would be shot like a film, with one camera set-ups, no audience, and — even more boldly — no canned laughter. Furthermore, the scripts would focus on the sultry charm of New Orleans and all of its local favor, eschewing traditional comedic beats for a seemingly more honest depiction of life — humor, pathos, and everything in between.
Reid would play Frank Parrish, a New England professor who inherits his estranged father’s restaurant, Chez Louisiane. Initially determined to settle the business without much fuss, Frank is the subject of a voodoo curse that leaves him with no choice other than moving to New Orleans and assuming his late father’s responsibilities. The Museum of Broadcast Communications has a thorough yet succinct description of the other members of the ensemble, which I gratefully reprint here: “The ensemble cast included Hanna Griffin (played by Daphne Maxwell Reid) [Tim’s wife], a mortician who became a romantic interest for Frank, and Bubba Weisberger (Robert Harper), a white Jewish lawyer from an old southern family. The restaurant staff included Miss Marie (Frances E. Williams), the matriarch of the group; Anna-May (Francesca P. Roberts), the head waitress; Big Arthur (Tony Burton), the accomplished chef who rules the kitchen; Shorty La Roux (Don Yesso), the white assistant chef; Tiger Shepin (Charles Lampkin), the fatherly bartender; Cool Charles (William Thomas Jr.), his helper. Reverend Deal (Lincoln Kilpatrick), a smooth-talking preacher in constant search of a church or a con-man’s opportunity, was another regular.”
Initially scheduled on Saturday nights, the first two “preview” episodes aired on Mondays, receiving much praise and attention. As a result, the network anticipated a hit and reshuffled its lineup, deciding to keep the series on Monday. But although a critical success (the reasons for which we’ll discuss below), the show bled viewers (again, we’ll discuss below), and despite earning a full season order in October 1987, the series was moved around to three different Monday slots over the course of the season, finally relocating to Tuesdays for the final two episodes in March 1988. Nevertheless, CBS appreciated the exceptional praise the show was getting from the press (some of which was due to the positive and realistic depiction of African American characters living in the south) and during awards seasons (four Emmy nominations, two wins), so after much deliberation, the network decided to renew Frank’s Place for a 13-episode second season that would begin as a 1988-1989 midseason replacement. But the series, with its large cast and its impressive visuals, was comparably expensive to produce. So to help justify this decision, CBS aired reruns of the show in the summer (and into the fall, which was plagued by a Writer’s Strike) in the hope of building a broader audience. But when the series failed to catch on during thsee reruns, as so many critically acclaimed but not-highly-rated shows often do, CBS officially pulled the plug in October — right before production was to resume.
Okay. Why was the show such a critical success and why was it simultaneously avoided by the viewing audience? The answers to both are probably the same. Frank’s Place rejected the notion that a half-hour series had to be confined to certain ideas about story and genre. Critics loved that the writing didn’t go for easy jokes, sometimes providing several scenes without so much as a laugh, instead offering character-driven material and a miraculously cinematic aesthetic style that often functioned as a part of the storytelling. However, audiences hated that the writing wasn’t very funny, sometimes providing several scenes without so much as a laugh, instead offering dull dialogue and a pretentious style that attempted to overcompensate for its deficiencies. After the cancellation, Wilson attempted to acknowledge both points of view, praising the series for its smart and special facets while noting that perhaps it needed to fulfill more of an obligation to the masses, saying, “We just didn’t produce an audience. Maybe the show wasn’t fast enough or it was too smart for its own business. I think maybe TV needs to move faster, be more obvious, more physical, and not rely so much on tone or a patina.”
My personal sentiment is somewhere between the 1987 critics and the 1987 audiences. As a lover of comedy, I’m naturally disappointed when a series fails to deliver a respectable number of laughs. And I can certainly understand how viewers who tune into a half-hour series (promoted as a comedy) would reject a piece of entertainment that is clearly not a situation comedy. But, as a writer, how could I not love a series that aims to do what feels right for its characters — even if that means altering the definitions of comedy and drama as we know them? That’s inherently exciting, and because Frank’s Place does such a commendable job of adopting the aura of New Orleans, a marvelously rich place for history, culture, and human study, we aim to reject our own expectations. Furthermore, the picture the series paints of the people in the city, specifically the black community, renders it something special — definitely not the kind of material you’d see a lot of in ’87-’88. (Let’s also note that Tim Reid actually won an NAACP award for his work on the show.)
Additionally, the series remains a great example of the non-conformity that was quietly seeping into the otherwise generic and routinized fare that had come to define ’80s TV. As hour-long shows like Moonlighting, which we’ve been covering on other Wildcard Wednesday posts, were featuring laughs that were just as good (if not better) than other shows actually labeled comedies, the decade essentially saw the birth of the “dramedy” — a hybrid genre that remains in practice to this day (Desperate Housewives, Glee, Orange Is The New Black, etc.) But most of these shows are an hour long; it’s less common for this genre-bending to be done within the half-hour format. Sure, there have been notable examples (like The Days And Nights of Molly Dodd), but many of the best in this category, among them Frank’s Place, came out of this time in television history. Therefore, knowing that Frank’s Place is one of only a special few helps to mitigate any potential reservations about the occasional lack of laughs. Its uniqueness is its charm.
So although the four favorite episodes that I’m sharing today perhaps lean more to the comedic side (because that’s my unavoidable preference), they each contain many of the darker elements that defined the series and inevitably contributed to its undoing. And, as a place to start, I think it’s best that uninitiated viewers go into the lighter episodes before taking on some of the heavier ones — which often include themes like race, drugs, suicide, homelessness, religion and other social issues away from which many shows of the decade were either shying (or addressing in uncharacteristically rendered Very Special Episodes). However, for those who embrace the series because of its thematic weight — and most of the people who consider themselves Frank’s Place fans would probably define themselves as preferring the more dramatic offerings (heck, Wilson won an Emmy for one of the most un-welcomingly dramatic offerings of the season) — I think it’s also important to address, in a point to which Wilson would likely agree, that true drama can only be effective when contrasted against strong comedy. In fact, I truly believe that if Frank’s Place had done a better job of balancing its disparate modes of operation, it wouldn’t have died such a quick death. (My other creative nitpick would have been to give us more of Frank himself — really let us delve into who he is and what he’s feeling.) So, these four examples represent the times when I think the series is doing what it does best.
01) Episode 3: “Frank Takes Charge” (Aired: 09/28/87)
Frank struggles to get the hang of managing a restaurant and meets Hanna’s boyfriend.
Written by David Chambers | Stan Lathan
As with most series, the first few episodes aren’t viable indications of how the show will operate on a weekly basis, for they have to grapple with a lot of storytelling beats, thus eliminating enough time for breathable character moments. This offering is strong because it’s the first normal episode, centered completely around Frank as the “fish out of water” and throwing many great moments to the other players in support. The best moment has Frank meeting Hanna’s boyfriend, who has a really high-pitched voice.
02) Episode 10: “The Reverend Gets A Flock” (Aired: 11/23/87)
Frank hears about Reverend Deal’s misadventures at the Glorious Kingdom Church.
Written by David Chambers | Directed by Neema Barnette
A series-long joke about Reverend Deal is that he’s a preacher man who doesn’t ever have a permanent congregation. This really funny episode, told largely in flashback, has Tiger and Bubba telling Frank about Deal’s most recent experience with a flock. The sequence in which he attempts to baptize a woman is a real scream, and one of the most indelible moments of the entire series — big slapstick fun. For those seeking laughs, this is a particularly strong outing, with great material for Lincoln Fitzpatrick as Deal.
03) Episode 13: “Season’s Greetings” (Aired: 12/14/87)
Frank attends a Hanukkah gathering with Bubba’s family, where Bubba pretends they’re lovers.
Story by Don Yesso | Teleplay by Hugh Wilson | Directed by Helaine Head
The friendship between Frank and Bubba is probably the show’s most centralized, and that’s certainly evident in this offering, the story of which comes from series regular Don Yesso. Frank accompanies Bubba to a Hanukkah family dinner where, after being hassled by his overbearing mother, Bubba gets fed up and decides to tell everyone that Frank is his boyfriend. It’s sort of a traditionally sitcom moment, but the show doesn’t go gaggy or exploitative with the beat. It’s really a different kind of comedy. Worth seeing.
04) Episode 16: “Where’s Ed?” (Aired: 01/18/88)
The corpse of an old friend winds up in the Chez Louisiane’s freezer.
Written and Directed by Hugh Wilson
As evidenced by the premise, this is among then more farcical offerings of the series, but it only works because of the gravity that exists alongside the broadness. Death is such an important and prevalent element in farce because, again, the juxtaposition works to the genre’s benefit. This episode, written and directed by creator Hugh Wilson, is perhaps the best actualization of why balance is essential in a show of this nature, although, storywise, this one clearly hews more to laughs than tears. Of course, the New Orleans flare is also prevalent throughout.
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in on Monday for another forgotten musical!