Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday and the next entry in our Lamentable ’80s series! In several other places on this site, I’ve indicated my disappointment with many of the single season (or two-season) ’80s shows that have faded into obscurity. While the ’70s TV curiosities that we covered were generally fascinating, with ideas or talent that made them worthwhile for discussion, the flops of the ’80s seem to be mostly dire shlock — unfunny, conformist, and comedically deplete. So finding sitcoms that deserve a whole post of chosen favorite offerings has been a challenge, because while all five of the shows that will comprise this bi-weekly series were initially intended to get that full treatment, they were so severely flawed that I couldn’t justify featuring them here alongside the wonderful stuff that’s getting covered on Sitcom Tuesdays.
However, I also can’t afford to waste my time on material that ultimately ends up not making this site. So I’m turning lemons into semi-sweet lemonade, and ensuring that all that work I put in while laboring through these flops isn’t for naught. In these five posts, I am highlighting the shows that I initially chose and then rejected for full coverage, with a bit of my thoughts on why they don’t work, and as a special bonus, a full episode that I think illustrates both the best and worst of what each series has to offer (sort of like what we did with the rotten Hey, Landlord!). So far we’ve covered Filthy Rich (1982-1983, CBS), Off The Rack (1984-1985, ABC), and Sara (1985, NBC). Today…
04. All Is Forgiven (1986, NBC)
Featuring the work of several folks from the Cheers team (Burrows and the Charles Brothers serve as Executive Producers), not to mention the Taxi team (Ian Praiser and Howard Gerwitz were the creators), the nine-episode All Is Forgiven was scheduled to get a whole Wildcard post of favorites all to itself. But upon watching the complete series, I found a direly unfunny disaster that was far beneath the talents of all those involved. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, for the premise, about a newlywed woman (Bess Armstrong) who stumbles into the job of Executive Producer of a failing soap opera, is one of those concepts that sounds really great to TV writers, but isn’t all that appealing to audiences who don’t care about TV writers, just the material they deliver. Let us all remember: concept is not more important than character, and for this premise to work, as in 30 Rock (2o06-2013, NBC) and of course, The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966, CBS), the latter of which is clearly serving as All Is Forgiven‘s structural basis, the characters are key.
Like Van Dyke’s show, this series divides its time between Armstrong’s home life, where she’s just been married to a donut executive (Terence Knox) with a rebellious teenage daughter (Shawnee Smith), and Armstrong’s chaotic work life, where she’s surrounded by a dramatic southern diva head writer (Carol Kane), said diva’s underling (David Alan Grier), a quirky receptionist (Valerie Landsburg), and several difficult stars, including Judith-Marie Bergan and Bill Wiley. Yet as with all series that aim to include two disparate environments (with two sets of supporting players), one setting ends up working much better than the other. In this case, it’s the workplace. Here’s why: the domestic set-up is boring; bonding with your step-daughter, while very in keeping with the conformist sect of ’80s TV, which prizes warmth over anything more clever, does not make for great comedy — especially when this premise involves a leading couple who aren’t unique or defined enough to engender their own stories. In contrast, the workplace is littered with over-the-top personalities, all of whom shrivel under the scenery-chewing of the polarizing Carol Kane, who’s always walked the very specific line of bringing heightened performance into worlds that are otherwise realistic. (It’s a niche role — one that requires great writing, like Taxi‘s, to work.) Unfortunately, there are so many peripheral characters, all of whom are defined in exaggerated broad strokes, that it’s difficult for the audience to catch its bearings in this environment too, so while these scenes earn points for being substantially more stimulating than the domestic ones, this part of the format still demands tweaking, for it’s simply too much.
The primary problem however is the charming Bess Armstrong, who’s designed to be an amiable Mary Richards type. But there’s a big difference between the two; Moore’s character was flawed (she was a people pleaser, and someone who encouraged others to take advantage of her), and Armstrong seems to have no flaws. Instead, the conflict in All Is Forgiven is designed to come from the external stresses thrust upon our heroine as a result of her having to juggle a new job with a new marriage. This doesn’t work; comedy comes from the characters, not the situations. Now, sure, sitcoms need situations, but these situations also need to come from character (and not to character, as they often do in mediocre shows of this ilk); you’d think creative individuals of this calibre would know that… Anyway, the episode I’m showing today is one of the better offerings, for it highlights Kane and Grier, two talented performers, and leave little to the others (particularly the folks at home). But it still illustrates how flawed the series was from conception, and why Bess Armstrong’s character contributed to the show’s doom. This is the sixth aired installment, “And Justice For Oliver” (a.k.a. “And Justice For Ollie”), written by Bob Rosenfarb, directed by Barnet Kellman, and aired on 04/19/86.
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post (and the week following for the last in this Lamentable ’80s series)! And tune in on Monday for another forgotten musical!