Harris Before THE GOLDEN GIRLS: A Taste of HAIL TO THE CHIEF

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! With coverage of The Golden Girls just beginning on Sitcom Tuesdays, today’s post is centered around the show that producers Paul Junger Witt, Tony Thomas, and creator Susan Harris were working on right before The Golden Girls; in fact, the pilot for the latter was being taped as Hail To The Chief was airing. Lasting for a mere seven episodes in April-May 1985, the series was broadcast Tuesday nights on ABC, which was hoping to recapture some of the success of Soap with a heavily serialized comedy about the first woman president for the United States, played by Patty Duke (who, for the record, had just dropped the Astin). I have seen all seven episodes, and given the series’ short-run and non-excellence, this post is going to echo our “Lamentable ’80s” series from earlier this year, in that my commentary will be brief, and instead of picking favorites, I’ll share a whole episode. (In the case of flops that deserve to be flops, it’s best that I allow readers to see ’em to believe ’em.)

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Hail To The Chief stars Duke as President Julia Mansfield, with Ted Bessell as her philandering First Man, General Oliver Mansfield. Oliver is having trouble being intimate with his wife, the President, and instead opts to get his jollies from a sexy Russian spy (Alexa Hamilton), a fact that leaves him prone to blackmail. The Mansfields also have to deal with their three children — two promiscuous teens and one sweet little boy — and Julia’s mother (Maxine Stuart), a man-loving alcoholic who also lives in the White House with them. Additional conflict comes from a variety of sources, including an unstable Russian premier played by Dick Shawn, a religious zealot trying to impeach Julia (Richard Paul), and the President’s kooky cabinet, which includes Herschel Bernardi, Murray Hamilton, Glynn Turman, and John Vernon. The President’s only true confidant is her chief-of-staff (Joel Brooks), who, incidentally, is gay. The episodes were structured exactly like Soap‘s, with recaps at the opening and comedic questions before the end credits. The plots were heavily serialized, and every episode featured several narrative threads (many of which, you may already be able to tell, were very similar to some of Soap‘s).

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But Hail To The Chief‘s structure is actually one of the chief reasons that it doesn’t work. For while Soap could handle its serialization (in the beginning anyway), its success was contingent on its low-concept. There really was no premise; the scripts were simply centered around the families of two sisters, one with wealth and one with less. Hail To The Chief, on the other hand, has an ambitious premise and therefore has a lot of story with which to contend immediately. (One of the reasons I wanted to cover it here, as opposed to Duke’s prior Witt-Thomas-Harris effort, It Takes Two, which is also in my collection and could eventually be trotted out in the future, is that this show’s concept is timely for 2016.) As a result, the characters get pushed to the background in favor of the many narrative needs — which is never a good thing for the comedy. Furthermore, with so many regular cast members, the audience is left overstimulated, making it difficult to focus on anything, even the relationship between Duke and Bessell, which naturally feels like it should earn the bulk of our attention. Essentially, Hail To The Chief has too much story with too many characters, leaving little room for needed air and earned laughs.

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However, the highly talented cast is one of the show’s several strengths, even though the characters themselves are hit-and-mostly-miss. For instance, Madame President has no personality, as she’s the “straight man” who actually can’t be too zany — lest the concept of a female president be lampooned — while the First Man, used to overcompensate for laughs, is depicted too one-dimensionally to be likable and relatable. Similarly, characters like Shawn’s and Bernardi’s are overly broad, matched at the extreme end of the figurative spectrum by non-entities like Turman and the boring kids (who aren’t supposed to be boring), creating a schism in which perfectly calibrated characters are scarce. Meanwhile, Maxine Stuart is one of the show’s bright spots, but with so many cast members, she gets lost in the shuffle with the rest. In fact, the only character who manages to get substantial material on a regular basis is Joel Brooks, playing a gay man that’s far less stereotypical than both Soap‘s Jodie Dallas and The Golden Girls‘ short-lived Coco. Surprisingly, Brooks brings a grounded quality to the proceedings that proves quite necessary given this bloated ensemble and convoluted story structure.

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As you can see, there are serious character problems and inherent structural problems (really, the same kind of stuff we saw during the end of Soap‘s run, only this show starts with less stability and tries harder), and yet the scripts are written by the Benson quartet who will go on to make The Golden Girls incredibly funny: Speer, Grossman, Fanaro, and Nathan. So there are laughs here, but only when the show manages to get out of its own way. For while the first few and last few episodes are so overrun with narrative beats that humor is scant, the middle episodes (four and five) take a bit more time to explore characters, thus displaying a series with some potential. Ultimately, however, all the good elements here (including guest appearances by Rose Marie and Morey Amsterdam) wouldn’t have been enough, even with better ratings, to convince a good majority that the series deserved a second chance; it’s easy to see why it was quickly axed. Hail To The Chief was poorly conceived — it wanted to be Soap, but didn’t seem to understand why Soap worked in the first place: focus and simplicity.

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At any rate, the installment I’m sharing with you today is one of the best, Episode Four, which aired on April 30, 1985was directed by J.D. Lobue and written by Kathy Speer, Terry Grossman, Barry Fanaro and Mort Nathan (teleplay), with Tony Thomas and Paul Junger Witt (story). There are regular laughs in this outing, the first not written by Harris (who scripted the first two episodes herself and co-wrote the third’s teleplay), and you may be momentarily fooled into thinking Hail To The Chief is a better show than it actually is. Pay attention to the storytelling and the way characters are used: I think you’ll see a lot of conceptual errors that significantly obfuscate the show’s chances for comedic viability and commercial longevity. The elevated nature of the humor, however, suggests great(er) things to come…

 

 

Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in on Monday for another Jerome Kern musical!

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