Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! In honor of Independence Day — and to complement Musical Theatre Monday’s entry featuring a TV production that starred Broadway’s Bernadette Peters — this patriotic post offers readers the chance to enjoy a rare first draft script from the single-season Norman Lear sitcom All’s Fair, which ran for 24 episodes from 1976-’77 on CBS and featured Peters alongside Richard Crenna (Our Miss Brooks, The Real McCoys) as a pair of political opposites in a May-December romance. Pitched with the pithy hook of “what happens when William F. Buckley falls for Jane Fonda,” All’s Fair cast Crenna as Richard Barrington, a middle-aged conservative columnist who goes gaga over liberal photographer Charley Drake, a woman nearly 30 years his junior. Set in Washington D.C., the show’s other regulars included the secondary romantic couple, J.A. Preston (Hill Street Blues) as Richard’s assistant, Al, and Lee Chamberlin (The Electric Company) as Lucy, an on-screen reporter, along with Richard’s goofy Democrat friend, Senator Wayne Joplin, played by Jack Dodson (The Andy Griffith Show, Mayberry R.F.D.), and Judith Kahan (Doc, Valerie) as Ginger, Charley’s free-spirited roommate, who had a habit for married congressmen. During the run, Richard took a job as advisor to incoming President Jimmy Carter — elected during the season — and met a new recurring character in Michael Keaton’s Lanny Wolf, the president’s joke writer.
Scheduled after Maude on Monday nights, All’s Fair shared many of the same scribes, like creators Rod Parker (The Jackie Gleason Show, Maude, Gimme A Break!, Empty Nest, Dear John), and Bob Schiller & Bob Weiskopf (I Love Lucy, Maude, All In The Family), the latter two of whom served as showrunners throughout the season. Other writers included Michael Elias (Head Of The Class, The Bill Cosby Show, The New Dick Van Dyke Show), Albert E. Lewin (My Favorite Martian, The Ghost & Mrs. Muir, The Odd Couple), Michael Loman (All In The Family, The Cosby Show, Newhart, The Hogan Family), Tom Whedon (Alice, Benson, It’s A Living, The Golden Girls), Bud Wiser (One Day At A Time, Who’s The Boss?), Don Hinkley (I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster, The Carol Burnett Show, The Flip Wilson Show, The Muppet Show), and Robert Van Scoyk (Murder, She Wrote), with Ben Stein serving as a political consultant. Unfortunately, the post-Maude time slot proved unfavorable; opposite football on ABC and movies on NBC in the fall, the initially well-reviewed All’s Fair (an early favorite of industry insiders) quickly tanked in the ratings. Some opined that the May-December relationship was off-putting to female viewers, in particular, who tuned out at 9:30 when Maude ended. Even in the spring after football was over, the series remained in third place, finishing the season at #50 — far from where it needed to be to earn a renewal. (Maude, up against the same competition, came in at #30.)
Some of you may remember that I screened an episode several years ago at UCLA. (Read about it here.) At the time, I found that specific outing middling, but thought there could be greater potential in the rest of the series — I just needed to see more. As of this writing, I haven’t found a way to watch any other installments of All’s Fair, but I have been able to acquire rare first (and second) draft scripts of about six episodes — including the one I viewed at UCLA (“Love And Marriage (II)”). Based on such material — limited and raw and not quite enough to tell me everything I’d need in order to offer well-rounded commentary — I now have a slightly better picture of the show: it’s one of those concepts that works a lot better in theory than practice, for both the May-December and political constructs seem like great conflict-generators. And coming during an election year, when the goings-on in D.C. were on the public’s collective brain, it’s easy to see why All’s Fair — with its team of pros loading their scripts with snappy one-liners and its pair of stars inherently elevating said scripts — looked like a winner; heck, All’s Fair had all the makings for success…
But it’s too easy in shows like this to let the concept supplant actual character work, and as both Richard and Charley are defined by their differences, with little nuance in support, I’m afraid that they’re not quite as human as we’d like. (The actors shouldn’t have to supply this on their own.) In fact, the show almost feels like early Maude, when that series was essentially a rambling collection of political musings peppered by punchy jokes and a superb star… without the well-defined peripheral characterizations that helped bolster the comedy and make the show more worthy of emotional investment. Oh, sure, All’s Fair starts off being more relationship-based than early Maude (thanks to its premise), but part of Maude‘s self-preservation involved the concerted cultivation of a viable ensemble. The supporting characters here, particularly Al and Lucy, don’t get a fraction of that definition, and the ones who do are drawn broader, like Senator Joplin and Ginger, who have perspectives conducive to comedy (and biting comebacks from others), but not a lot of grounded truth to drive story. Instead, much of what the show narratively explores is either sitcom clichés about relationships — “Charley is jealous when Richard…,” etc. — or half-hearted political plots that are exciting now from a historical perspective, but must have appeared surface and trite at the time.
That noted, I haven’t seen (or read) enough to call my commentary conclusive. (I’d love to get ahold of the pilot, which inspired many to label All’s Fair the best new comedy of the season.) Instead, I’ll again praise the performers and the show’s sense of humor, and reiterate that it’s one I really wish would have worked. Until I see more and can offer an addendum, I’ll leave it there… and now present the main attraction: a first draft copy of the funniest installment I’ve read, “Happy Anniversary (I),” in which — shades of “Maude’s Dilemma” — Charley thinks she may be pregnant with Richard’s child. Written by Michael Loman with Schiller & Weiskopf, the teleplay is teeming with terrific laugh-out-loud jokes, even though the bloated narrative (the top of Act II drags) does invoke memories of that classic Maude (especially when talk inevitably comes around to abortion), and one can almost be positive that whatever happens in Part II, All’s Fair is neither marrying off its characters this soon (what do we think this is, Rhoda?) or saddling them with a baby… So, once again, this is an early draft and I’m sure it was tightened before the final version was directed by Bob Claver, taped on October 19, 1976, and broadcast by CBS as the eighth installment of the series on November 15, 1976. Enjoy!
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And stay tuned Tuesday for Friends!