Okay, Maybe It’s Not A Gem: A Look at PEARL

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, we’re looking at Pearl, which was created by The John Larroquette Show‘s own Don Reo and ran on CBS during the 1996-’97 season. Starring Rhea Perlman as a plain-talking widowed store manager who decides to enroll in college, Pearl marked the Emmy-winning Cheers alum’s return to series television. With a premise reminiscent of the play/film Educating Rita (not to mention the ’60s flop Mrs. G. Goes To College), the series centered its conflict around the clash between Pearl and Stephen Pynchon (Malcolm McDowell), the stuffy, elitist, egotistical Humanities professor from whom she is determined to learn. Others in the ensemble included Pearl’s two classmates, the overachieving Amy (Lucy Liu), and the goofy Frankie (Kevin Corrigan), along with her grown son, Joey (Dash Mihok) — a single-father who moves, with his daughter, into Pearl’s home — and her best friend/co-worker, the airy aspiring singer Annie, played by former Taxi cohort, Carol Kane. Besides Reo (Blossom, John Larroquette, My Wife And Kids), Pearl‘s regular full-time writing staff consisted of his wife, Judith D. Allison (Private Benjamin, Blossom, John Larroquette), Teresa O’Neill (Night Court, My Two Dads, John Larroquette), and Janis Hirsch (It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, Murphy Brown, Frasier).

Initially scheduled on Wednesday nights opposite the series from which Reo had just departed — The John Larroquette Show, which had been sent off to die — Pearl was part of CBS’ high-profile comedic offensive of 1996, which included new series for Perlman, Bill Cosby, a young comic named Ray Romano, and another Cheers veteran, Ted Danson, whose single-season sitcom Ink was discussed here exactly one year ago this week. (If you’ll remember from that entry, Ink got off to a very rocky start, and when it wasn’t ready for its scheduled Monday premiere — in the network’s A+ comedy line-up — the brass decided that Pearl would keep that spot warm until late October. As a result, Reo’s two series only actually went up against each other two times: once in the first week of the season, when CBS scheduled Pearl twice, and then on the last night that John Larroquette was seen on NBC.) However, unlike Ink, which had a terrible beginning and took a while to deliver some worthwhile laughs, Pearl appears to have gone in an opposite trajectory; it starts with a bang and indicates several areas of possible growth, only to decline in value as the run continues and, sadly, no anticipated improvements commence. I think some of this could have been a counterintuitive result of the network’s panicked interference when the highly touted Pearl wasn’t bringing in the numbers necessary to cover its costs (unlike the cheaper Everybody Loves Raymond, which did worse in the ratings — thanks, in part, to a poor time slot — but nevertheless illustrated fulfilled potential).

This quest to increase the numbers led to, just as we saw with Ink, several terrible gimmicks — like guest appearances from Perlman’s friends (Mara Wilson, Danny DeVito, and Ted Danson) — that did nothing to make the show qualitatively any better, or as it turned out, more popular with viewers. In fact, the series was pulled off the schedule following the dreadful Danson offering at the end of February — leaving four from the 22-episode order to be burned off in June… Of those 22, I have seen 15 in full. I’ve seen a grainy excerpt of another, and have a script for yet another. But because there’s still a good portion of the run I’m missing — including three of the four June burn-offs — I’m not able to list any favorites. Additionally, I also feel a little uncomfortable sharing detailed commentary on what I think worked and/or didn’t work with the series. After all, I could be missing the five installments that prove Pearl to be an underrated classic that was cut off too soon… However, as indicated above, in the episodes I have seen, the series never expands and delivers the excitement promised right at the beginning — when this strong cast and its unique setting (for network sitcoms of the era, that is) indicated the opportunity for fresh comedy from an eclectic ensemble. Okay, sure, the Pearl/Pynchon antagonism is inherently clichéd, especially when the show’s intentions for their dynamic expectedly encroach upon the romantic, but putting characters of this type in conflict is always good for comedy. (Plus, these actors play their parts so well.) And because their bond is clearly the richest, we’d look forward to indulging it on a weekly basis — no matter what. In this regard, there’s a lot of optimism that this construct inspires… and then forsakes.

Also, the home/work stuff with Pearl’s son and the hilarious — but sequestered, ill-defined, and hardly well-used — Carol Kane doesn’t come off like it should. This is likely because most of the comedic meat is reserved for the classroom (and, by extension, the students’ local hang-out) with Pearl, Pynchon, and her fellow peers. (Corrigan and Liu are charming additions to the ensemble, by the way; I wish they were both better used.) This is the crux of my concern after screening these episodes: the best stuff occurs in the classroom… and there’s only so much that can be done there. By giving this show a premise that’s so specific and high-concept (in comparison to the “singles in the city” fare dominating the ratings), Pearl is limited in what it can narratively do. Early episodes are able to satisfy because the series still has license to repeat the arc of the pilot — Pearl overcomes Pynchon’s challenge and proves that she’s intellectual in her own folksy way  — but when that novelty fades, the scripts have to be expanding the characters and their relationships; they can’t simply rest upon the premise, the luminosity of its stars, or the episodic gimmicks designed to increase the numbers. (Check out this cringeworthy Rosie stunt.) So, while those missing installments may prove me wrong, I’m not sure Pearl ever indicated its durability — either before or after it got truly desperate to build an audience.

Yet, although Pearl may not be the gem I initially hoped it would be, and actually thought it could be (based on the pilot and the few early offerings I’d seen prior to this survey), it’s still a unique contribution from an era where formulaic network comedies tended to obscure some of the more rebellious, different efforts being tried… And, for those interested in seeing a full-length episode for a critical and non-commerical purpose, you’re in luck! Now, the strongest entry I’ve seen is probably Episode #7, “Ticket To Ride,” which boasts a hilarious teleplay and heavily foreshadows what likely would have become of the Pearl/Pynchon relationship if the series had any legs. But… a copy of that outing has been online for several years (on Dailymotion). Instead, I’ll share something else — the “Pilot,” which was written by Don Reo, directed by the iconic James Burrows, and broadcast in Ink‘s intended slot on September 16, 1996.

 

 

Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in Monday for our monthly Musical Theatre entry!

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