Before MURPHY BROWN: A Look at FOLEY SQUARE

Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! With coverage of Murphy Brown beginning on Sitcom Tuesdays, this week’s companion piece looks at the first sitcom created by Diane English, Foley Square (1985-1986, CBS), which was executive produced by her mentors Saul Turteltaub and Bernie Orenstein (That Girl, The New Dick Van Dyke Show, Sanford And Son, What’s Happening!!, Kate & Allie). Paired with Mary Tyler Moore’s comeback vehicle Mary (1985-1986, CBS), which we discussed here back in 2014, Foley Square didn’t do well in the ratings — it was on against Highway To Heaven (NBC) and later, Moonlighting (ABC) — airing only 14 episodes before fading off into television obscurity and leaving its creator with only lessons learned for her next efforts, My Sister Sam (1986-1988, CBS), and eventually Murphy Brown (1988-1998, CBS), which is essentially an MTM-infused redux of Foley Square. I’ve seen 13 of the 14 episodes (missing only “Kid Stuff” — let me know if you have access to this installment!) and my intention was to share my selections for the best offerings. But, alas, such a list would have been impossible to make (there aren’t any recommendable standouts), so instead I’m going to give some brief thoughts on the series (because, let’s face it, I can’t afford to waste too much time and energy on the unspectacular) before offering up an excursion for your critical and viewing pleasure. However, although this post will be structured like last year’s popular “Lamentable ’80s” series, keep in mind that I actually don’t view this series as lamentable. On the contrary, I was partly surprised at how decent I found the show — throughout its short run.

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So if I don’t consider it worth lambasting, you may be wondering why I alluded to it being “unspectacular”? Well, the answer won’t surprise my regular readers: mediocrity. Yes, ever the scourge of series television: it’s not bad, it’s not good — it’s just okay. Foley Square is watchable and likable, but forgettable and uncompelling. It’s basically blah… yet, nevertheless, it makes for a worthwhile watch in tracking the evolution of Diane English’s style, for several of her hallmarks are already in place. As with Murphy Brown, this series features a Motown-loving professional woman with a unisex name, a less successful personal life, and a group of friends consisting of her coworkers, the owner of their local hangout, and a pal at home. The comparisons to Murphy Brown are, structurally, crystal clear. The particulars of this series involve Alex Harrigan (Margaret Colin), a 30-year-old Assistant DA in Manhattan, who was based on a real New York attorney. Alex’s co-workers include ambitious Carter Devries (Sanford Jensen) and newbie Molly Dobbs (Cathy Silvers), while others in the office are their boss, the wise Jesse Steinberg (Hector Elizondo), Alex’s secretary, Denise Willums (Verne Watson-Johnson), and the messenger, ex-convict Angel Gomez (Israel Juarbe). Filling out the regular cast are Alex’s neighbor and best friend, Peter Newman (Michael Lembeck), the owner of the coffee shop at which the team frequents, Spiro Papadopolis (Richard C. Sarafian), and for a few episodes, Mole, the investigator, played by a pre-Saturday Night Live Jon Lovitz.

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In addition to parallels to English’s best known series, we also see in Foley Square structural similarities to both the forebear of its companion piece, The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977, CBS), which I posited as being a conscious template for Murphy Brown, and also, a series that premiered the season before, Sara (1985, NBC), which starred Geena Davis as a young lawyer and had the distinction of earning a spot in the aforementioned Lamentable ’80s series. Comparing Foley Square to Sara shows why the former isn’t actually rueful, for while the latter suffered from characterizations that were either ill-defined or overly caricatured, all the regulars in Foley Square feel like relatable human beings. In fact, I’d go so far as to argue that never in any other English series that I’ve seen — even Murphy Brown — have the characters been as believable from the first episode as they are in Foley Square. Yes, there are easy jokes and players who tend to go a little broader than their castmates (like Watson-Johnson), but the very fiber of the show invites more realism and believability than in most of the other ’80s sitcoms we’ve explored. I think a lot of this is directly a result of English, whose later work would also prove to be more thematically retro — specifically, more of the ’70s than the ’80s — and that’s ultimately where I find the prime delineation between Sara and Foley Square, for I (pejoratively) accused the party of the first part as being emblematic of this new decade’s sensibilities, while the party of the second part is both structurally and tonally more in keeping with the character-rich ’70s. However, it’s interesting to note that despite the presence of Turteltaub and Orenstein, whose work from the ’60s onward was generally easy and unsubtle, the sensibilities this series evokes are more along the lines of MTM’s (an inevitability given the truthful female-driven perspective) and even the dramatically inclined Barney Miller (1975-1982, ABC).

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To this last point, it’s the association with Barney Miller that I’ll use to define why I think Foley Square is “unspectacular.” My attempts to appreciate Barney Miller and cultivate an ability to cover it here have been well-documented on this blog, but I’ll note again that in spite of the show’s authentic grit and its regular ability to deliver strong, laudable character moments, I’ve never found it to be a real comedic competitor. And, with all of this seeming true for Foley Square (although with far less mastery than in Barney Miller — English, who’d never written a sitcom before, is no Arnold, and, of course, there’s plenty of greenness), I’m afraid it isn’t a comedic competitor either, which is a basic sitcom problem. For while I recognize that every show should be allowed to set its own comedic identity, and it’s clear that Foley Square wants to be more honest and unaffected than a lot of other mid-’80s shows, laughs are still an essential component — and though this series isn’t totally dire (it does go for laughs), they’re certainly not in great supply. (This is the significant improvement made between Foley Square and Murphy Brown — English made more of an effort to create a translatable sense of humor, albeit with debatable success.) This depreciated comedic quality exists both in the writing, but also in the playing — starting at the top with Colin, who is likable, honest, and has a great dynamic, in particular with Elizondo, but isn’t funny. (English seemed to have a habit of casting talented actresses who didn’t know humor — Bergen wasn’t a comedic performer by trade, although she’s certainly the best of the creator’s lot — and Foley Square‘s leading lady is no exception.)

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But, again, none of this yields a show that’s rotten. In fact, if it doesn’t deliver what is needed by way of laughs, at least the characters are more dimensional than those in most of the other flops we’ve examined; yes, it’s tenderfooted and uneven (not all characters are created humorously equal, particularly since the show’s comedic compass is off-balance), but the dramatic integrity is appreciated. So… because I can’t share favorites, I’ll just make available the first aired episode. For study purposes, I suggest you compare it to the pilot of Murphy Brown, for you’ll see exactly why the latter was better poised for triumph. It’s all there from Day One: Murphy Brown had more laughs. This episode, which was broadcast first despite being the third produced, is entitled “Personals.” It was written by Turteltaub and Orenstein (who wrote six of the 14 episodes — basically the series’ funniest), directed by Peter Bonerz (a regular English director), and was aired on CBS on December 11, 1985.

 

 

Come back next week for another Wildcard Wednesday! Tune in on Monday for our monthly Musical Theatre entry!

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2 thoughts on “Before MURPHY BROWN: A Look at FOLEY SQUARE

  1. Wow, you’ve shamed me; I thought I knew TV through the mid 80’s but I’ve never heard of this. And with Margaret Colin yet (whom I adore)! I watched the ep above–and yes, there aren’t a lotta laughs but I did let out one at the 2nd bell bottom reference (Colin set it up so great–in fact she was great in that whole final scene). Was Matthew Laurence on again?

    • Hi, bobster427! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Although he shared fine chemistry with Colin, I believe this was Laurence’s only appearance on the series. Were you a DUET fan?

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