Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the start of another two-week rerun series! Once again, I’m excited to resurrect a few currently relevant posts from this blog’s nearly eight-year run. As before, I’ll provide a link to the original piece and then offer a bit of updated commentary. But please be gentle. This early article is from my first year blogging, and standards have changed as I’ve changed — I’ve improved as a thinker, a communicator, and a television-watcher.
This week, let’s revisit… The Ten Best THAT GIRL Episodes of Season Two: https://jacksonupperco.com/2014/04/08/the-ten-best-that-girl-episodes-of-season-two/
Before we move on into the 1970s, there’s one more show from our initial ’60s run that deserves renewed attention: That Girl (1966-1971, ABC). So, I’m using this post — under the pretenses of rerunning the second season — to offer a summation of how I would discuss the series today. For starters, I want to look back at That Girl now because of the DNA it shares with some of the best and most important sitcoms from this era, for the overarching goal of my analysis would be contextualizing it with other shows that could help us better understand it. There’s a lot to study here, because this vehicle for Marlo Thomas, the daughter of Danny, whose own sitcom spawned a stable of similar properties, like the most character-driven sitcom of the ’60s (Dick Van Dyke), had writers from that gem create a basically low-concept premise about a working, non-married woman with an “independence” presaging what would follow on the most character-driven sitcom of the ’70s (Mary Tyler Moore), thus giving credence to the belief that That Girl might be a link between these two classics, in the same way we called her father’s show a link between Dick Van Dyke and the most character-driven sitcom of the ’50s, I Love Lucy. Now, if you’ll recall, we actually explored this notion with He & She (1967-1968, CBS), which premiered the year after That Girl, and was also called both a successor to Dick Van Dyke and a forerunner to Mary Tyler Moore. Yet as our coverage revealed, despite a low-concept premise featuring an attractive young couple in a multi-cam that also had a self-proclaimed desire for approximated realism, He & She‘s two major comic interests — providing the exciting liminality that I said made it “of” its time — otherwise had nothing to do with Dick Van Dyke. One interest, yes, belonged to the kind of realistic and character-led writing of future Mary Tyler Moore creator Allan Burns, who won an Emmy for his work, but the other was the huge imprint felt by its chief creative force, Leonard Stern, whose sensibilities typically existed in a low-concept prism, yet were rooted in a more sketch-like idea-first understanding that had peaked with his biggest success for Talent Associates, Get Smart, which was high-concept and ridiculous. Therefore, we realized that He & She might look forward to Mary Tyler Moore, but its ’60s counterpoint was much sillier than Dick Van Dyke… and obviously so.
Frankly, the closest thing to Dick Van Dyke during 1967-’68 was the single-season multi-cam Good Morning World, which was created by former Dick Van Dyke scribes Bill Persky and Sam Denoff. But with less believable leads who also weren’t as precisely defined, it wasn’t ever on par with its spiritual predecessor and got denied the creative value that could make it relevant to Mary Tyler Moore. Nevertheless, they both arose, along with That Girl, out of the same trend of programming consciously about and for young urbanites, with a Neil Simon quality that we’ve pinpointed in several shows from 1966-’67, like Hey, Landlord!, Occasional Wife, and Love On A Rooftop. (And Marlo Thomas’ first pilot for ABC was one of those unsubtle Barefoot In The Park knockoffs.) Yet That Girl was the most successful of all these entries, due to ABC’s decision to stick with the series year after year in spite of subpar ratings. There were a number of reasons for keeping this show — the most important of which was the network’s financial stake in it, which would pay off the longer it ran. Additionally, it was a critically liked option that, again, reflected the kind of modern, demo-targeted fare that the lowest-rated network wanted to project as its identity, and it came packaged to talents whom ABC held in high esteem, like Danny Thomas, who was vital in shaping this project for his daughter, roping in as its creators the aforementioned Persky and Denoff, then coming off what was obviously the most critically well-regarded sitcom of the decade. (He was smart — any new show going for a youthful, contemporary vibe was wise to bring in writers with experience on a piece of Dick Van Dyke‘s caliber.) Naturally, then, when discussing That Girl today, I’d hinge a lot of my coverage around examining how the show’s creators built it in comparison to Dick Van Dyke. Certainly, there are similarities — like for instance, a semi-autobiographical premise, with Marlo Thomas playing a struggling actress from a small town trying to make it on her own in the big city without support from her father. Emphasis here being on semi, for That Girl‘s real actress wasn’t so struggling… wasn’t from a small town… and did have some support from her father. I point all this out not to be snarky, but as a way to lead into a fundamental discrepancy between That Girl and Dick Van Dyke: believability, and specifically the former’s lack of it.
You see, while Dick Van Dyke presented a somewhat idealized depiction of life in suburbia with a flashy show biz bent (in the trend of trying to rebrand the domestic subgenre as sexy), it was nevertheless committed to a greater degree of realism compared to the era’s baseline, with a strict threshold for truth that was exhibited not only in less extreme characterizations, but also in stories that had to be plausible (“would my wife do this?”) and were typically well-connected to the regulars’ actions, behaviors, and choices — for the most part, they caused, or at least shaped, the weekly dramas. That is, creator Carl Reiner’s show was an early advocate for a more textually low-concept style, where the leads didn’t have any premise-making goals or obvious flaws, thereby rendering their conflicts accordingly small and garden variety, but with dramatic support from the emotional stakes of palpably human leads in relatable relationships and down-to-earth situations that they motivated, and with which we could identify, like the Danny Thomas-esque work vs. home tension (established in the pilot and reiterated often thereafter). So, Rob Petrie’s character may not have had the major imperfection of, say, Gracie Allen’s unintelligence, and he was never paired with a defining objective like, say, Lucy Ricardo’s desire to break out of the home, but Reiner proved it didn’t matter: smaller wants and less exaggerated shortcomings could also drive weekly plots and bring laughs when backed in a sustaining, believable framework by the continuity of sincere and reliable personalities. This didn’t make for a lack of definition, but something more nuanced, based on congruous and compounding details that created more realistic leads and allowed Reiner to channel the relatability of his sketch comedy origins — where humor was the engine of Reiner’s entire being, ingrained in him since his Sid Caesar days (think: “The Commuters”) — through more multi-dimensional regulars who were capable of encouraging actual story, thus progressing the character-driven school of sitcommery out of the character-immersed, but less totally honest, I Love Lucy. And from this, we can see how Reiner’s Dick Van Dyke represents an evolution in the sitcom genre that would continue in the ‘70s and beyond, mostly because of the efforts produced by the even more truthful MTM.
As for Persky and Denoff’s That Girl, it indeed comes from Dick Van Dyke‘s ethos and embodies some of these qualities. In addition to a basically low-concept “girl in the city” premise, the show is anchored by consistent figures who aren’t extreme — Ann can be exceedingly daffy, sure, but she doesn’t often exceed her own boundaries — and there are a couple of key relationships at the fore, with relatable emotional stakes that indicate a version of Dick Van Dyke‘s, and Mary Tyler Moore‘s, palpable humanity. So, compared to most shows from this period, That Girl is character-driven. However, it doesn’t have the same strict standards with regard to truthful storytelling. As suggested above, That Girl is less of a faithful take on Thomas’ real experience than Dick Van Dyke was on Reiner’s, so the guiding “would this person really do this?” question isn’t a barrier for entry, allowing for heightened comic ideas less tethered to the leads and/or general common sense. Additionally, the show also has a ready-made excuse to indulge more high-concept narratives, largely because its leading lady is without a regular job, meaning she moves from gig to gig — some of which aren’t even connected to her career. This gives the series license to be more idea-driven, with the strength of each episode dependent on the strength of its idea: how well it explores the theme of Ann’s independence via her desire to make it on her own in the big city as an actress, and/or to a lesser extent, how it examines the core relationships she has with either her boyfriend or her father. To the first point, That Girl‘s title character has more of a singular objective than Rob Petrie — she’s pursuing a specific career, most of the time, in story — so count that as another shift away from Dick Van Dyke’s more total low-concept fixation (back to the Lucy mold), and to the second point, this series’ character work outside of Ann is far below Dick Van Dyke‘s, for her father (Lew Parker) is very caricatured (with her mother merely a structural buffer between them), while her boyfriend Don (Ted Bessell) never gets the personality quirks that make it possible for him to push or shape plot in the unique way that leads on Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore do, and for this reason, along with the different standards for truth and the shift towards more high-concept ideas, That Girl‘s characters don’t motivate story as much or as well.
Now, there are ideas related to Don’s job as a journalist, meaning there are fixed aspects of his depiction that are used in plot, even if his personality, his character, is malleable to the demands of it. Also, the emphasis on their relationship — which is more important week-to-week than Ann’s with her dad — means their dynamic is often narrative fodder, making him essential, if not individually so. But there’s trouble here, for going back to the issue of believability, the show insists on reinforcing the pair’s chastity, which is an egregious stretch to credulity that not only rejects realism and pushes away the younger demo to whom it’s now being disingenuous, it also limits story and our understanding of the leads, removing the possibility for conflict as a result of this more complicated bond. More to the point, it contributes to That Girl‘s general air of falseness, which is exacerbated by so many of the concerns raised above, all of them joining together to suggest a romanticized fantasy (much more pronounced than Dick Van Dyke‘s pro-suburban slant), with a naive comprehension of big city life, the chances for an actress with little experience, and, heck, basic human nature. Of course, most shows in 1966’s “young, urban” push were similarly romantic, or even silly, and as we’ve seen, many of the era’s high-concept outings were explicit fantasies, so That Girl is not alone, and in this context, it’s still a more realistic and character-led endeavor by comparison. It’s just claiming to be more truthful and contemporary than it is — neither this show, nor its lead, is really that modern (and the same can be said of early He & She). I should also point out that — per producer Marlo Thomas — this is a single-camera series, deviating from Persky and Denoff’s previous hit by removing the audience and the tangible laugh requirement. This lets the show occasionally eschew humor, thereby rendering it less funny and more prone to indulging excessive sentiment that sometimes is tied to the relationships, but isn’t always earned. However, while this may go against Reiner’s belief in comedy’s supremacy, it is a ’60s temperament, and That Girl, which vacillates between sticky and shticky but lacks a stellar base of character to smooth it all out, is a great example of this era’s primary tonal conceits — and that’s another point of contrast to Van Dyke’s and Moore’s series, which better motivate their tones internally, and through character comedy.
As for being a connector, Persky and Denoff’s presence makes a legitimate link in the text between That Girl and Dick Van Dyke (mostly from the low-concept premise and the characters’ lack of extremes), but there really isn’t one on the opposite end between That Girl and Mary Tyler Moore. They have similar ideas in their premise, but no shared writers of significance — the closest is Jim Brooks, who only contributes three early scripts and isn’t an important creative force, like Allan Burns to He & She. To wit, there’s a parallel between He & She and That Girl, for while the latter has stylistic ties to Dick Van Dyke and only a similar premise to Mary Tyler Moore, the former has stylistic ties to Mary Tyler Moore and only a similar premise to Dick Van Dyke. In this regard, neither is the perfect missing link, yet they reinforce elements of both that indicate a gestational space in which I wish more series resided. And although That Girl isn’t nearly as character-driven or funny as these two tent-poles, and He & She‘s more realistic character work near the end of its run is more breathtakingly laudable, I have to credit this show for having more of the era’s funniest samples, particularly during its second and third seasons, which were produced by Danny Arnold, who was a huge influence on the first year of Bewitched and deserves a lot of credit for making sure that series — the best single-camera comedy of the ’60s — enjoyed a sturdy character-based apparatus for comic story. In fact, when he takes over from producer Jerry Davis (who coincidentally had replaced him on Bewitched), there’s an almost immediate uptick in That Girl’s ability to blend its comic ideas with elements of the premise — either the leading lady’s career pursuit, her generalized independence, or even the relationships giving the series its emotional weight. To be fair, the first year (with more involvement from Persky and Denoff) has an excellent understanding of the premise and succeeds because of it, but it’s not as able to balance the show’s humorous interests with its narrative necessities and the innate support of its characters. In other words, Arnold makes That Girl more cohesive, and allows it to more regularly hit comedic heights — and with stunt casting yet! — while affirming its identity. (Also of note, Arnold’s tenure benefits from script consultant duties by Ruth Brooks Flippen, with whom he was nominated for an Emmy.)
However, even though That Girl was built to be lower concept and character-rooted, it behaves like a high-concept or idea-driven series — we touched on why above — and when it has trouble sticking to the “wannabe actress” or “girl on her own” premise as the run progresses (when novelty wears), the only viable alternative is doing more with the relationships. And yet, by Arnold’s second and final season — the third — the show is already struggling to find the same cohesion it had the year prior, as an even greater disparity than before develops between the shows with big comic centerpieces and those with smaller character ideas. Then, when Arnold departs That Girl for Sheldon Leonard’s My World And Welcome To It and is succeeded by Saul Turteltaub and Bernie Orenstein (Carol Burnett, The New Dick Van Dyke Show, Sanford And Son), there’s a huge drop in quality, as the series transitions into an almost totally idea-led enterprise, sustained by big comic narratives that can’t be relied on to hit the premise’s structural needs or even its interpersonal dynamics. Fortunately, Season Five manages to turn this around a bit, courtesy of producer Marlo Thomas’ acquiescence to a new development: Ann and Don’s engagement, which is a stunt that actually provides focused story about their relationship, addressing a huge element of the series’ identity, and indeed its premise, as now “That Girl” will have her so-called independence challenged. This also coincides with the season’s conscious adoption of a more outspoken feminist message, largely at the insistence of the politically minded Thomas, who was finally able to steer the storytelling into slightly more modern territory. Thus, Ann and Donald clash more directly in Five about some of the era’s changing mores, with the last episode, in particular, dealing with women’s lib (as opposed to a wedding, which ABC wanted). Now, truthfully, the 1970-’71 season of That Girl — which Thomas decided to end, before its Nielsen returns would have done it for her — is still a wide-eyed innocent product of the ’60s, not truly close to the pulse of contemporary attitudes (that were better embodied by The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which premiered that same year and was genuinely different), but these changes represent an attempt to mitigate part of this series’ believability problem and generate plots more concerned with the central relationship.
So, the final year is aware of its limitations and actually tries to shed them, taking strides on behalf of both truth and character — intertwining notions that make it easier to connect Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore by stopping, if only for a brief moment, at That Girl… Well, that’s how I’d cover the series if discussing it for the first time today. (Oh, and I’d also talk about its fun and helpful supporting cast: Rosemary DeCamp, Bernie Kopell, Bonnie Scott, Dabney Coleman, Mabel Albertson, etc. They add to its ’60s charm!) Now, as we’ve done lately, here’s a list of the episodes I’d likely highlight in support of my new analysis. My criteria would involve finding the entries that reinforce the premise, and/or utilize Ann’s objective, and/or explore the relationships, and/or simply are hilariously memorable. The great ones hit all of these beats, but three out of four is better than two out of four is better than… you get the idea.
Come back next week for another rerun! And stay tuned tomorrow for my thoughts on The Governor And J.J.!