Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, I’ve got another Sitcom Potpourri, where I briefly discuss several of the short-lived comedies I won’t have a chance to highlight in full — offering drive-by commentary that culminates in the selection of an episode that I think best represents each series at large, based on what I’ve seen. For this post, I’m looking at some notable early ’80s sitcoms that exist peripherally to the staples we’ve covered…
REPORT TO MURPHY (April 1982 – May 1982, CBS)
Premise: A kindhearted parole officer has unorthodox methods.
Cast: Michael Keaton, Donnelly Rhodes, Olivia Cole, Donna Ponterotto, Margot Rose, Ken Foree
Creator/Writers: Patricia Jones & Donald Reiker, Dennis Klein, Joanne Pagliaro, Rick Orloff, Mitch Markowitz
Thoughts: Created by a pair of MTM vets (who’d worked on The Tony Randall Show, The Last Resort, and Mary Tyler Moore’s two misbegotten variety series) as a vehicle for the up-and-coming Michael Keaton, this ensemble workplace multi-cam with a Barney Miller-like sense of increased literal realism (inside the same kind of harsher, seedier, darker world) reconciles the latter’s tonal sensibility with Moore’s brand of character-driven comedic storytelling, thanks mostly to a terrific characterization for its star — an optimistic, idealistic, young parole officer in an environment where everyone else isn’t. In its brief six-week run, stories are largely dependent on the main character reacting to plot developments related to the procedural aspects of his job, but with the other leads defined in contrast (particularly Soap’s Donnelly Rhodes), one can see relationship-based comedy being maximized, and given both the smart, funny writing, along with the way narratives are already designed specifically to uncover more about the regulars, I believe that if Report To Murphy had more time to develop, it would have grown, like an MTM series, into a solid character-driven ensemble comedy with a strong cast anchored by a strong star. I’m not sure it would have ever achieved the greatness of Cheers — MTM’s aesthetic successor in the ’80s — but as a show that reconciles a Barney Miller procedural bent with the more desirable character-led understanding of MTM, it would have been a fun, easy-to-watch off-shoot, akin to a less silly Night Court. And it’s fascinating to discuss in that regard.
Episode Count: Six episodes produced and broadcast.
Episodes Seen: The first four broadcast episodes.
Key Episode (of Seen): Episode #1: “Pilot” (04/05/82)
Why: Having only seen the first four from this brief six-episode run, I can say that every segment I’ve watched is a showcase for the leading man and his well-defined character, but no offering is as simple or as funny as the pilot, revealing all the qualities discussed above. (I hope one day to find the last two installments — they seem similarly predicated.)
IT TAKES TWO (October 1982 – April 1983, ABC)
Premise: A top surgeon adjusts to his wife having a new career as a big-time lawyer.
Cast: Richard Crenna, Patty Duke, Billie Bird, Helen Hunt, Anthony Edwards, Richard McKenzie, Della Reese, Randy Dreyfuss, Joel Brooks
Creator/Writers: Susan Harris, Nat Mauldin, Jordan Moffet, Stephen Neigher, Diane Wilk, Greg Antonacci
Thoughts: This relationship multi-cam from Witt-Thomas-Harris, created by Susan Harris (of Soap, Benson, and a few years after this, The Golden Girls), boasts a great cast with jokey scripts and a sense of prestige emanating from serious, dramatic stories. However, it never congeals into a good sitcom, and the basic problem begins with the slightly higher concept “wrinkle” added to the low-concept premise: the idea that this couple must adjust to the fact that now they both have big-time white-collar careers — and, actually, a job where he saves people’s lives and one where she sometimes condemns them to death. It’s an interesting conflict, but quite limiting, for part of it’s based on the external particulars of their professions, and how many times can the series really do a story where he’s mad at her for arguing for the death penalty? The other part is based on the idea that he’s an old-fashioned guy who wishes his wife was at home taking care of the kids instead of working, and while we’ve seen quite a few relationship sitcoms from previous decades grapple with this notion in some form, by the social climate of 1982, it feels dramatically clichéd and threatens to make his character unlikable. What’s more, unlike Lucy Ricardo, who is itching to break out of the home, Patty Duke’s Molly is already there, meaning there’s nothing for her (or Richard Crenna’s Sam) to pursue in plot, rendering this a point of conflict that can barely manifest itself in story. Accordingly, all drama between these two leads has a difficult time showing up narratively, given the nature of the premise, and as a result, this show can only satisfy its situation — especially in this otherwise low-concept package — by using the two leads’ individual definitions to put them in comic opposition.
That is, it should be using their personality traits to mine humor and conflict… and, sadly, It Takes Two never does that, for it’s instead preoccupied with the external narrative stimuli presented by their jobs — the patients he sees, the cases she argues — and family stories, if they’re not dealing with the limited premise of two working people, fall back on traditional ideas for the kids, including a young Helen Hunt, who has a strong, believable presence, but isn’t exactly a riot, particularly here, in a structure that’s supposed to be about the relationship between her parents. As such, It Takes Two never satisfies as the kind of situation comedy its design wants it to be — it’s never meaningfully character-driven — and though there’s some funny, yuk-yuk stuff for members of the ensemble (Billie Bird as Molly’s live-in mother, along with Sam’s colleague Richard McKenzie and Molly’s colleague Della Reese), they are incidental and removed from the core bond that should be forming the series’ identity, creating its laughs and the narrative happenings. Because they don’t, the swings in tone also don’t feel truly earned — like when the series goes dramatic (as in a famous entry where Kim Stanley plays the mother of a man about to receive the death penalty) — arising from procedural circumstances instead of the characters and their relationship. As such, this is a largely pretentious, unsatisfying affair, with a lot of fine elements that never blend into a good sitcom. It’s shocking to see a Susan Harris series — at this point in her career — veer so far off the mark, but without helpful characters (usually her forte), there’s no other recourse. A disappointment.
Episode Count: 22 episodes and broadcast.
Episodes Seen: All 22.
Key Episode (of Seen): Episode #4: “Promises In The Dark” (11/04/82)
Why: There are no great episodes of this series because of its shortcomings, but this early installment offers a relationship-based plot that affords funny moments to all the key members of the ensemble, including Bird, McKenzie, and Reese, who I singled out above for their comic contributions, along with Joel Brooks and guest Beverly Sanders. (Also, I’ll take this space to confirm that, yes, It Takes Two’s kitchen set was remodeled and later used on The Golden Girls.)
OH MADELINE (September 1983 – March 1984, ABC)
Premise: The bored wife of a romance novelist seeks excitement.
Cast: Madeline Kahn, James Sloyan, Louis Giambalvo, Jesse Welles, Francine Tacker, Randee Heller
Creator/Writers: Richard Rosenstock, Roy Teicher, Irma Kalish, Barton Dean, Neal Marlens, Robert Sternin & Prudence Frasier, Cindy Begel & Lesa Kite (Based on a British series by Terence Brady & Charlotte Bingham)
Thoughts: Carsey-Werner’s first sitcom was built to showcase the hilarious Madeline Kahn, a dynamic funny lady who should have had more success in this medium than both this show and Bill Cosby’s ‘90s series supplied her. Ostensibly based on a British effort called Pig In The Middle, about a man caught between his wife and another woman, Oh Madeline‘s intended triangle setup was nearly erased by the time it got into production, as its focus pivoted from the husband to its star leading lady — playing up her insecurities about infidelity (particularly with his flirty assistant) instead of any true romantic dilemmas. Then, after a few weeks, all vestiges of the U.K. series’ guiding drama were dropped entirely, and Oh Madeline was left alone to develop into a fairly generic husband-and-wife show with a stoic guy and his more erratic gal — not scatterbrained, just prone to silly situations. Indeed, that speaks to one of the big problems with this show, for while it’s often been compared to I Love Lucy — especially early on, when this multi-cam is contriving slapstick centerpieces for Kahn (she does them well, but it’s not her strong suit, and they’re soon phased out) — a better point of reference is I Married Joan, which took Lucy-esque shtick but failed to motivate it through a central characterization, lacking a precise objective that could drive plot and fill in a lot of details about Joan’s character, so that she could earn a majority of the weekly stories (and the big broad comedy offered). Like Joan, Oh Madeline never gives its leading lady something concrete to pursue regularly in narrative, and although The Dick Van Dyke Show later proved that a clear goal is not a necessity for character-driven material, this series also doesn’t have Carl Reiner’s compensating high threshold for emotional realism and suggested continuity from attention to detail. That is, it’s less realistic en masse, with leading players and turns in story that are broader than other lower concept shows.
So, it really does resemble a lame 1950s sitcom — sex jokes aside — and even once the slapstick fades away, there’s a certain obviousness about the plotting that isn’t a fair substitute for believably motivated character choices (and it’s a regression from the more developed sense of realism seen in the early ’80s on shows like Kate & Allie). Now, as always, a sitcom should be able to decide its own standards of truth (I call that aesthetic realism, as opposed to literal realism), but this is dependent on well-defined characters, revealed clearly and consistently within story. And because, as on I Married Joan, these leads are thrown into clichéd comic scenarios — for the purpose of finding big, broad centerpieces — as opposed to having to help inspire specific plots based on their own personas, they never develop strong, consistent characterizations, so the comedy therefore never feels earned, and everything remains unrealistic… It’s a shame too, because there are some amusing ideas here from smart scribes (who craft some memorable individual bits — there’s a dynamite moment in Episode 13 where both Madeline and her husband’s divorced friend are engaged in a game of chicken as they’re waiting to see who will cave on their mutual bluff of running off and living together), and with Kahn at her peak, Oh Madeline only proves just what a waste it was to trap her in a show that essentially doesn’t give her something tangible to play. She’s not a physical artist like Lucille Ball, but she’s a broad comedienne with a wickedly imaginative delivery (she can handle big jokes, little jokes, lines you didn’t think were jokes), and a capacity for all different types of humanity. She just needs a little more substance in the foundation: a better “wrinkle” (the triangle, though relationship-led, is a high-concept hook that, even if exploited, would have gotten old fast), much better defined characters, and probably, a slightly more literal view of aesthetic realism, just to help make all the above easier. Without any of that, this is a quintessentially bad sitcom (unmotivated, unbelievable, unfunny) that we only want to like because of one remarkable lady.
Episode Count: 18 episodes produced and broadcast (not counting the unaired pilot).
Episodes Seen: All 18.
Key Episode (of Seen): Episode #13: “The Lady And The Lamp” (01/17/84)
Why: For a definite flop, there are several installments that have stuck with fans — the overly broad pilot, which tasks Kahn with anchoring some heavier physical comedy; the show where Johnny Mathis guests as himself for an unoriginal plot that’s most familiar from Ethel Merman’s 1964 appearance on The Lucy Show; a more dramatically inclined entry with Geraldine Fitzgerald as Madeline’s mom (and Bill Macy as the mom’s ex-lover); and a winkingly burlesque installment featuring drag performer Charles Ludlam as a male romance novelist pretending to be a woman — it’s often highlighted because of its sociopolitical charms, but it’s too much an example of the series’ strained logic for me to single it out as genuinely laudable. Frankly, the only outing for which I’m able to muster up any praise is the aforementioned 13th episode, which is a fair representation of the series in that it deals with sexual infidelity following a fight between the central couple, after which Madeline goes to a singles party, gets drunk, and winds up in the bed of her husband’s divorced friend. So, it engages some of the series’ originally intended themes — in fact, it’s one of the few stories credited to the British creators — and then dresses it all up with a lot of American silliness, particularly in the many physical moments afforded to Kahn during her drunk routine. And, again, it ends with a terrifically funny scene where Madeline, after fearing she’s slept with another man, realizes he’s lying to her and decides to bluff him into a relationship — a proposition they both pretend to follow, waiting for the other to call chicken. It’s a well-written blend of pre-Reiner broadness with post-Lear adultness and showcases Kahn well, thanks in part to a script by some of the series’ best scribes, including Richard Rosenstock, Barton Dean, and Neal Marlens. As always, the behaviors here aren’t totally tinged in human truth — how can they be, with leads so relatively unshaped? — but it’s better than the series’ baseline, and in encapsulating its tone (in a relatively low-concept and relationship-led story) while offering some of its best comedy, it’s the most seminal sample of Oh Madeline.
IT’S YOUR MOVE (September 1984 – February 1985, NBC)
Premise: A teenage schemer tries to undermine his mother’s boyfriend.
Cast: Jason Bateman, David Garrison, Caren Kaye, Tricia Cast, Ernie Sabella, Adam Sadowsky
Creator/Writers: Michael G. Moye & Ron Leavitt, Katherine Green, Fred Fox Jr., Al Aidekman, Sandy Sprung & Marcy Vosburgh, Pamela Norris
Thoughts: One of the most overrated short-lived sitcoms of the ‘80s, this multi-cam effort by the future creators of Married… With Children indeed previews that FOX classic’s biting, cynical, unsentimental tone, with an anti-family sensibility that was in stark contrast to the popular hits of 1984-’85. Of course, removing this show’s trademark sting became the network’s sole objective — so much so that the last few episodes of its single-season run barely resembled what its premise was initially designed to offer: the ongoing clash between a scheming teen and his single mother’s boyfriend. But let’s start at the beginning… This premise naturally allowed for the creators’ already gestating causticity (honed on The Jeffersons), with an emphasis on confrontational humor that desires bigger laughs than the majority of the mid-’80s’ efforts. However, even with this comic drive, I’m still not as high on the series as a lot of critics today seem to be, and that’s largely because I don’t think it’s ever as funny as the decade’s best (let alone Married… With Children), for while I appreciate the good work done by a pre-Valerie Jason Bateman and a pre-Married… With Children David Garrison — both of whom are obviously capable of anchoring a series — the rest of the ensemble is fairly generic and bland: the oblivious mom, the dweebish friend, the eye-rolling sister (who nevertheless is something of a prototype for Kelly Bundy). Accordingly, this isn’t a very rich sitcom by way of well-defined characters. And that’s even before the network’s heavy dilution.
What’s more, it’s only dubiously character-driven within story, for although I know many viewers thrill for the tit-for-tat one-upping that often propels the plotting in the first half of It’s Your Move’s run, I’m not innately impressed by scheming “prank war” idea-led stories (or the gaudy big notions they invite — like the infamous “Dregs of Humanity” two-parter), which tend to be amusing in and of themselves, independent of the leads or the “situation” at hand. So, I seldom find this kind of storytelling commendable in the context of the genre, and, except for the times when plots are directly and obviously motivated by the fun, well-shaped, contentious relationship between this show’s only two worthwhile regulars (and, specifically, Jason Bateman’s Matt, who is the series’ only truly well-defined figure, capable of inspiring its tone and all its narrative concerns), it’s not choice sitcommery. To that point, the only real value in this show is the central relationship and its star characterization… and they’re not prioritized in story as often as they should be. Also, all of this is true even before the network’s dilution, so, ultimately, I find this to be a mostly idea-driven sitcom with a conventional set of leads in a formulaic teen structure, enlivened only by the precocious kid’s caustic ethos (and even that is far tamer than what will develop on the superior Married… With Children). And as far as these short-lived sitcoms go, it’s not meritless, but it’s no lost gem nor “ahead of its time” offering either. It’s just a flop prelude to a funnier, simple, more character-based work from these smart creators.
Episode Count: 18 episodes produced and broadcast.
Episodes Seen: All 18.
Key Episode (of Seen): #1: “Pilot” (09/26/84)
Why: There’s no script funnier than the pilot, which sets up the central relationship beautifully and portends bigger laughs and better stories than the series ever actually delivers, both because of the network and its own intrinsic shortcomings with character and plot.
THE LUCIE ARNAZ SHOW (April 1985 – June 1985, CBS)
Premise: A shrink who doles out advice is not as assured in her personal life.
Cast: Lucie Arnaz, Tony Roberts, Karen Jablons-Alexander, Lee Bryant, Todd Waring
Creator/Writers: Sam Denoff, Susan Seeger, Kathy Speer & Terry Grossman, Bob Colleary, Laura Levine (Based on a British series by Len Richmond and Anna Raeburn)
Thoughts: While Bill Persky was working on Kate & Allie, his former partner Sam Denoff tried his own sitcom for CBS — a vehicle for the affable Lucie Arnaz that was also shot in New York and similarly concerned with independent femininity. Only, unlike Kate & Allie, this wouldn’t be a multi-camera family comedy, but a half workplace/half home show with an ensemble of adults (in the Mary Tyler Moore Show vein) and a rare, for this era, single-camera setup (in the That Girl vein… well, not really, for, like Kate & Allie, there’s no big comic crusade here, and certainly not for the broad humor of the ‘60s). That said, it’s definitely a post-MTM show — based on a British series that apparently had a harder edge than desired by CBS, which watered it down so much that all the U.S. version had left was the original’s fairly generic hook: a lady who’s got it all together professionally (gives advice), but not so much personally (needs advice). This basically low-concept idea would ensure that everything depends — as usual — on the characterizations and their relationships: how the leads are defined and how they, specifically, interact with each other. And this is where the series fails to delight, for although Denoff and his crew (which includes future Golden Girls scribes) are clearly capable of writing comedically, the congregation of the ensemble members is pretty predictable and clichéd, with not a lot of dramatic nuance (none of Kate & Allie’s literal realism), or the kind of comic contrast that makes for big laughs and reveals itself in episodic conflict — you know, the engine of the MTM style. Accordingly, this is a show, like Kate & Allie, that’s already struggling to create good story for its leads (the pilot is a redux of Mary Tyler Moore’s; other plots are driven by guests), and while it’s not sacrificing hahas for truth, it’s also not designed its regulars in a way that naturally maximizes their abilities to propel comedy either. As a result, it’s forgettable — never truly rotten, but worse: never bold enough to leave a lasting impression. A disappointment.
Episode Count: Six episodes produced and broadcast.
Episodes Seen: All six.
Key Episode (of Seen): Episode #2: “Sisters” (04/09/85)
Why: Only two episodes of the six have stories contending with relationships between ensemble members; this one is about Arnaz’s character and her sister, and it’s got a script by the show’s core staffers: Susan Seeger (future creator of FOX’s Duet) and Kathy Speer & Terry Grossman (eventually of The Golden Girls), all funny scribes whose work I enjoy highlighting.
Ultimately, I say… FORGET IT TAKES TWO & THE LUCIE ARNAZ SHOW; STUDY OH MADELINE & IT’S YOUR MOVE; and ENJOY the brief REPORT TO MURPHY.
Come back next week for a new Wildcard! And stay tuned Tuesday for more Kate & Allie!