High-Concept Swingin’ ’60s Demo-Targeting: A Look at OCCASIONAL WIFE

Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! In this week’s entry, I’m sharing an episode of the single-season NBC sitcom Occasional Wife, which was first broadcast from 1966 to 1967. Concerning a pair of young acquaintances who pretend to be married — despite maintaining separate quarters and individual love lives — this high-concept ’60s comedy seemed ideal for paired coverage alongside Ned & Stacey (1995-1997, FOX), the similarly premised series for which Thomas Haden Church left Wings. (We’ll discuss some key differences in a brief post next week; stay tuned…) As with more and more of the single-season works we’ve featured here on Wednesdays, the nature of Occasional Wife is such that I can’t choose a list of favorite episodes, which is always my goal. But, as the series is unreleased on DVD and the rights-holders have never expressed any desire to rectify this situation, I’m happy to share an excursion now for interested scholars and TV lovers. (The series was run on Ha! in the early ’90s.)

Occasional Wife starred future real-life marrieds Michael Callan and Patricia Harty as Peter Christopher and Greta Patterson, respectively. He was a wannabe executive at a baby-food company where the boss, Mr. Brahms (Jack Collins — you’ve seen him all over ’60s TV), only provided professional advancement to men who were settled down with a wife. In the pilot, ambitious Peter, who refuses to forsake his bachelor ways (despite his mother, played by Sara Seeger, wondering if he may be “eccentric”), enters into an arrangement with a hat check girl who’s been wearing a fake wedding ring to ward off unwanted mashers. He agrees to set her up with an apartment in his building, and give her an allowance, as long as she plays the role of doting wife for all his business functions. She can date and carry on with her own life — as can he — but her job as his wife, “occasionally,” would take precedence. Other regular and recurring players in the cast were Bryan O’Byrne as the 8th floor’s “Man-in-the-Middle,” who lived in between Peter on the 7th floor and Greta on the 9th floor, and constantly saw the pair running back and forth on the fire escape right outside his window, Jack Riley (you remember him best from The Bob Newhart Show) as Wally Frick, Peter’s rival at the office, Susan Silo as Wally’s scheming wife, Stuart Margolin as one of Greta’s intermittent love interests, and Joan Tompkins as Mr. Brahams’ more considerate better half. Vin Scully was the show’s uncredited narrator.

The series was created by Lawrence J. Cohen and Fred Freeman, whose past credits included Gilligan’s Island and The Andy Griffith Show, while Harry Ackerman (Bewitched, Love On A Rooftop, Hazel, The Farmer’s Daughter, and many others) was the Executive Producer, Bob Claver (The Partridge Family, Ensign O’Toole) was the Producer, and Paul Junger Witt (later of Witt-Thomas-Harris) was the Associate Producer. Regular writers included Stan Cutler & Martin Donovan (The Farmer’s Daughter, That Girl, The Courtship Of Eddie’s Father), Peggy Chantler Dick (Hazel, The Farmer’s Daughter, The Courtship Of Eddie’s Father), Richard Baer (Bewitched, The Munsters, That Girl), and Gene Thompson (Cannon, Baretta). Episodic contributions came from well-traveled folks like Robert Riley Crutcher, Bill Davenport, Lila Garrett, Bernie Kahn, and Martin Ragaway. NBC scheduled the program on Tuesday nights at 8:30, opposite CBS’ The Red Skelton Show, which finished the 1966-’67 season as the year’s second most-watched program. Of course, Occasional Wife, which Variety reviewed favorably (while recognizing its plot similarities to the 1964 film Good Neighbor Sam), was not nearly as popular, finishing the season at #64. It was cancelled — after its sole first season of 30 episodes — to no one’s surprise.

I was eager to feature Occasional Wife here not only because of the appropriate Ned & Stacey connection (ideal to run alongside Sitcom Tuesday’s Wings coverage), but also because I mentioned the series several months ago in our He & She anniversary post. That discussion contained talk of both NBC’s and ABC’s attempts throughout the ’60s to counter-program against top-rated CBS by cultivating shows with a different demographic appeal — specifically one that was younger and more city-based. This was the same audience that CBS first claimed to want the following season when it cancelled its low-rated game shows and added new “mod” comedies like He & She and Good Morning World (neither of which outlasted that year because, as always, total ratings were still the only serious determinant) — and again, the same audience that CBS once more forcefully claimed to court during Robert Wood’s falsely-premised “Rural Purge,” which we’ve examined in greater depth during another past Wildcard entry… So, I consider Occasional Wife, along with other new 1966 comedies like NBC’s Hey, Landlord! (an Odd Couple prototype and rare multi-cam created by Garry Marshall), the aforementioned Love On A Rooftop (on which Harry Ackerman also had his name) and That Girl, the only sustaining well-regarded series from this season’s youthful output — the latter two both coming from ABC, perennially in third-place — to be precisely in this same calculated “young, urban” vein.

Obviously, this strategy wasn’t yet successful — even That Girl didn’t make the Top 50 — and failed to spark a trend. But it’s especially worth noting given the course of events that would unfold for the sitcom in the years ahead, when CBS used its rivals’ former tactics to its advantage (even though, ultimately, the decision-making process really didn’t change that much — it just became more competitive). So, for a nerd like myself, a big part of Occasional Wife‘s appeal resides in what it represents with regard to the networks’ ongoing battle for domination, as they subtly tried to shift “mainstream” tastes throughout the more homogeneously wacky 1960s. For its part, Occasional Wife is no doubt a ’60s show. It may be about young sexy people in a big city, but it’s high-concept, plot-driven, and interminably optimistic. It’s very of it’s time… Though, sadly, unlike a That Girl or a more commercially successful gem like, say Green Acres or BewitchedOccasional Wife seldom cuts the figurative mustard with regard to its comedy. Simply put: genuine laughs are hard to find. Instead of motivating guffaws through well-defined characters, the series falls back upon its premise, expecting the audience to be satisfied by the inherent amusement within its story-driven farce, which is maintained in all 30 installments.

It’d be appropriate to congratulate the show on its consistent premise-fullfiment, for ordinarily, this is something we’d seek. But when it comes at the expense — no, more accurately, in place — of character, there’s nothing really to celebrate. Story alone is not connectable, especially when it’s a silly trifle that can only be motivated by big comedy of the most humanly character-driven order. To wit, I’ve watched the entire series and still feel like Peter and Greta never develop personalities; they exist merely to run up and down the fire escape and support the premise, which itself is propped up by the increasingly familiar, and always neatly episodic, stories… Now, one shouldn’t approach Occasional Wife expecting a great character-driven gem — this was an era where a comedy’s appeal resided in either its star or its concept — but all the decade’s best sitcoms offered memorable personalities with definable traitsOccasional Wife has a memorable premise with a definable story pattern. And it’s not enough… (Perhaps the premise itself is part of the problem. Stay tuned for next week’s Ned & Stacey discussion…)

Yet, it’s a window into the ’60s, and while reinforcing some of the qualities that mark many of the decade’s hits and curios, Occasional Wife reflects a different part of the country — those advertiser-sought youthful urbanites — and therefore offers us TV geeks a unique, more specific, cultural value. Also exciting for fans of this era: the series is loaded with guest appearances from some of the decade’s most familiar faces, including Ned Glass, Chris Noel, Paul Sand, Jack Burns, E.J. Peaker, Jeannine Riley, Vic Tayback, Sally Field, Lloyd Bochner, Herb Edelman, Elinor Donahue, Alan Hewitt, Ann Elder, John Astin, Paul Hartman, Parley Baer, Richard Dreyfuss, Sylvia Field, Rose Marie, Marlyn Mason, Frank De Vol, Pert Kelton, Shelley Morrison, and Dick Wilson. So, I can certainly understand the impulse to check this one out… Nevertheless, there’s really no episode that delights as being the show’s finest. Instead, here’s a rather typical installment, the series’ 21st, “The New Secretary” — written by Peggy Chantler Dick, directed by Jerrold Bernstein, and first broadcast by NBC on February 14, 1967



Come back next week for another Wildcard post! And tune in Tuesday for more Wings!