Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, I’m looking at the premiere episode of a short-lived sitcom entitled Suzanne Pleshette Is Maggie Briggs, which ran on CBS from March to April 1984 — ending 35 years ago this month. Pleshette, of course, was best known to TV audiences as The Bob Newhart Show‘s grounded leading lady, and as her fictional ex hubby was starting out on his own comeback (MTM’s Newhart, which premiered in the fall of 1982), the former Emily Hartley also found herself itching to return to the fold. Her chosen vehicle, also from MTM, was a classically designed ensemble workplace comedy created and executive produced by Charlie Hauck, who’d written for Maude and co-created The Associates, and would go on to launch Valerie and write for Home Improvement (and Frasier).
As per the title, Hauck — who is credited with all six scripts except for one by Bob Ellison and Tom Whedon — developed a concept in which co-creator Suzanne Pleshette was Maggie Briggs, a hard-hitting New York reporter who reluctantly decides to transfer into her paper’s “Modern Living” department after the new boss (John Getz) successfully recruits her long-time partner (Kenneth McMillan). The series was to follow Maggie and her co-workers as she — a tough, embittered, newshound — tries to adjust to more lighthearted and recreational fare… under a boss to whom she’s subconsciously attracted. The MTM influences were obvious. In addition to the workplace construct, the core relationship was familiar; McMillan, who played Rhoda’s boss on the last two seasons of Rhoda, was once again “Lou Grant lite” to a Mary, er Maggie, who’d evolved since the early ’70s — now much stronger, more of an equal.
This evolution from the ’70s to the ’80s also came through in the aforementioned attraction between Pleshette and her new boss, Getz — a likely response to Cheers, another ensemble workplace comedy and unofficial MTM descendant that many smart writers of the time were emulating, principally because of its electric Sam/Diane relationship. With the rom-com notion hot, it’s not hard to guess, even from just having seen the premiere, that a longer run for Maggie Briggs would have explored some kind of romance between these two… Meanwhile, the ’70s’ ensemble structure remained; the show was filled out with co-workers, including Stephen Lee and Alison La Placa, who were reportedly joined after the pilot by Roger Bowen, Edward Edwards, and Michelle Nicastro. Also, Shera Danese played a model and Maggie’s non-newspaper best friend (the Rhoda to her Mary — although perhaps with inverted personalities).
How does it play? Well, having seen the premiere, I think Pleshette is as captivating as ever. But in the years since The Bob Newhart Show, her voice has already dropped another half-octave and the naturalness with which many of us associate her talents is somewhat obscured by the gruff persona that naturally accompanies such a harsh vocalization. Perhaps out of necessity, the show embraces Pleshette’s rougher aspects in building the character — but regrettably, this broadens her, undermining the simple authenticity that made her work on The Bob Newhart Show so commendable. Thus, to answer the rhetorical question in this post’s cheeky title, Emily Hartley is nowhere to be found, and in this case, that’s more unfortunate than fortunate, for now as the star of her own show, Pleshette pushes harder, making more of an effort to sell the premise, and more importantly, hit “the jokes”… But this now speaks to a larger concern — the writing, which seems serviceable, but certainly doesn’t compare favorably against the other shows mentioned above, like Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, and Cheers.
You see, Maggie is allowed to be such a dominating presence that no one else in the cast looks worthy of sharing the stage with her, and in a teleplay that labors to be funny, two things become clear: the characterizations, particularly within the ensemble, aren’t rich enough to sustain the series beyond the star power of its top-billed lead, and as a result, the material is neither emotionally full or comedically sharp. Accordingly, I’m afraid I agree with Variety, which thought the show needed help with its humor (this generally speaks to a flaw with how characters are designed) — despite a templated ensemble workplace construction that could enable the series for future success… However, six episodes is seldom enough to give any series a fair shake, and having only seen the pilot, my thoughts are further qualified… CBS, on the other hand, felt like it had seen enough when Maggie Briggs lost too much of its lead-in from 60 Minutes and never showed signs of improvement. Its unsurprising boot was likely no loss to the genre, but with several talents involved, you never know what might have been…
Yet there’s some good news here — especially for you subscribers who comment below to alert me of your interest — because I’m offering access to the premiere (for your private, scholarly, and non-commercial viewing pleasure). It’s called “Maggie Meets Geoff,” and was broadcast by CBS on March 04, 1984. It was written by executive producer and series creator Charlie Hauck and directed by Pleshette’s former Bob Newhart co-star, Peter Bonerz, who helmed all six episodes… In the meantime, and for the rest of you, here’s a clip.
Come back next week for another Wildcard post! And stay tuned Tuesday for more sitcom fun!