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 a few MTM-related sitcoms that premiered during the 1989-’90 season. (This one is shorter than our usual potpourri entries, but that’s because I cut out 1987’s The Tortellis and The Popcorn Kid, for I didn’t want to waste space on such rotten efforts — the former is saddled with an unlikably dimensionless lead who dooms it from the start, and the latter is a decently designed ensemble workplace comedy with unbearably clichéd scripting. That’s all I need to say.)
THE FAMOUS TEDDY Z (Sept 1989 – May 1990, CBS)
Premise: A mailroom boy becomes a talent agent overnight, much to the surprise of his Greek American family.
Cast: Jon Cryer, Alex Rocco, Josh Blake, Tom LaGrua, Milton Selzer, Jane Sibbett, Erica Yohn, Dennis Lipscomb, Liz Torres
Creator/Writers: Hugh Wilson, Bob Wilcox, Richard Dubin, Craig Nelson, Wayne Lemon, Sid O. Smith, Richard Sanders & Marilynn Marko-Sanders
Thoughts: An ensemble workplace comedy with a bit of home life too, Teddy Z hails from Hugh Wilson, the MTM vet best known for creating WKRP In Cincinnati, a late ’70s sitcom that maintained MTM’s character-centric design but evolved it to a more idea-led place, with gaudier episodic notions and a penchant for dramatic topicality. Wilson’s sense of the seriousness persisted in the ’80s on his short-lived (and previously discussed) Frank’s Place, but that tonal ambiguity gets dropped here, with a return to an aesthetic that’s more exclusively committed to comedy, yet still quite narratively idea-led, courtesy of the high-concept “young talent agent” premise, and the guaranteed opportunities it provides to spoof the industry. Indeed, much of the fun in this show comes from its caricatures of show biz — the talent (like a Marlon Brando proxy) and their agents, the latter being most vigorously embodied by Alex Rocco, who won an Emmy for his work, giving a performance that brings a lot of laughs but is perhaps over-relied on at times — as he’s the part of the “situation” that’s most easily assured to supply yuks. Teddy’s family life, meanwhile, remains weaker than the workplace, as there are some ethnic stereotypes that beg for more nuance and humanity… However, if this isn’t a perfect series, and the storytelling is sometimes gratingly idea-reliant, the characters in the office are all well-crafted, and the show’s writing is consistently funny, with humor coming both from the lampoon of Hollywood culture as well as the leads that have been created. I can’t say that I wish the series ran longer — as I’m not convinced it ever would have become more genuinely character-based in its storytelling (like, say, the similar The Larry Sanders Show) — but it’s a memorable short-lived comedy, with several likable entries that are propelled by their funny ideas. Although it’ll never be a personal favorite, I can appreciate what it does offer. (Also, of note: Alex Rocco crossed over, as this character, on a second season episode of Murphy Brown.)
Episode Count: 20 produced; only 15 broadcast.
Episodes Seen: All 20.
Key Episodes (of Seen): #1: “Pilot” (09/18/89)
#6: “Teddy Gets Fired” (10/30/89)
#9: “A Case Of Murder” (11/27/89)
#10: “Teddy Gets A House Guest” (12/04/89)
#15: “Agent Of The Year” (05/12/90)
#17: “How To Make A Television Show” (Syndication Only)
#19: “Teddy’s Big Date” (Syndication Only)
#20: “Teddy Gets A Guru” (Syndication Only)
Why: The Emmy-nominated pilot establishes the central characters well, #6 has a premise-rooted conflict (based on a true story) that takes advantage of the relationships in the workplace, #9 boasts a silly idea inspired by the collaboration of two previously introduced clients, #10 does a fine job of bridging Teddy’s personal and professional worlds (and it’s one of two entries featuring the Emmy-nominated Liz Torres), #15 is a big showcase for Rocco, #17 is a terrific sendup of the TV business, #19 features Janet Carroll as the leading lady’s drunk mother, and #20 memorably guest stars the great Bebe Neuwirth and lets Rocco clown.
CITY (Jan 1990 – June 1990, CBS)
Premise: A widowed city manager raises her barely adult daughter while working with a group of eccentrics for a corrupt Deputy Mayor.
Cast: Valerie Harper, Todd Susman, Tyra Ferrell, Stephen Lee, Sam Lloyd, Liz Torres, Mary Jo Keenan, James Lorinz, LuAnne Ponce, Shay Duffin
Creator/Writers: Paul Haggis, Stephen Nathan & Paul B. Price, Gordon Mitchell & Aubrey Tadman, Josh Goldstein, Jonathan Prince, Tom Spezialy & Alan Cross, Kathy Slevin, Glen Merzer, Jennifer Heath & Amy Sherman
Thoughts: A few years after getting kicked off her bland family sitcom, Valerie Harper entered the 1990s by going back to an MTM series with a typical work/home structure — this time leaning more heavily on the workplace, where she’s a city manager, leading a group of eccentrics for a corrupt deputy mayor. Created by a scribe with credits on Norman Lear shows and therefore more of an affiliation with that idea-driven style of sitcommery, City also represents — like The Golden Girls — a certain liminality, with well-defined characters inside a classically designed ensemble, but a simultaneous interest in social issues with some didactic dramatic sincerity, courtesy of the premise’s more high-concept political trappings. Fortunately, there’s no sermonizing or sense of self-aggrandizement — just idea-led stories involving some political scandal that isn’t really driven by the characters, and only gives them things off of which to react, as their personalities and relationships continue to get developed. This is common on new shows — particularly where the job is interesting and story-generating — so I think if City was able to run longer, it could have reached a better balance between character and ideas, especially since most of its leads are well-defined. In fact, my only small critique would be the broadness of the corrupt Deputy Mayor, whose exaggerated qualities chafe against the bounds of this otherwise more literally realistic world. Oh, I think there’s supposed to be something of a Mary/Lou relationship between Valerie’s Liz and her boss, which means that she’ll eventually evolve him over time, but, again, in only 13 episodes, that never gets off the ground — just like her hinted-at flirtation with Todd Susman’s character. So, in terms of its 13-week run, City is a well-designed show with some great characters that don’t really get to indicate their value in story. And yet, looking ahead, it suggests a lot of promise, and I think it could have reached a place where it was genuinely more character-rooted, perhaps becoming one of the best ensemble workplace comedies of the ’90s (even better than the similarly political Spin City). Lastly, I’ll note a point of trivia — this series’ premiere was used for over 15-20 years after its original airing as a “control sample” when testing audience reaction to new network pilots.
Episode Count: 13 episodes produced and broadcast.
Episodes Seen: All 13.
Key Episode (of Seen): #6: “The Big Leak” (03/12/90)
Why: Although I’m tempted to highlight some of the later entries, which are propped up by gimmicky (but enjoyable) guest appearances from great performers like Zsa Zsa Gabor, Estelle Getty (during her Golden Girls run), and Alan Young, I think the series’ best offering is “The Big Leak,” which utilizes one of the show’s central relationships — between Liz and her boss — for its narrative. And, okay, his broadness is definitely on display, but the well-written climactic scene indicates how their dynamic could be made to evolve his persona over time (à la Lou Grant), and simply by virtue of the fact that it’s probably the best entry for exploring established ensemble bonds through plot — a.k.a. comedically using the fixed elements of the situation (“characters”) in episodic story — it’s the one I find most laudable.
BAGDAD CAFE (Mar 1990 – July 1991, CBS)
Premise: An unlikely friendship forms between the recently separated owner of a desert motel/café and an older guest who’s also left her husband.
Cast: Whoopi Goldberg, Jean Stapleton, James Gammon, Monica Calhoun, Scott Lawrence, Cleavon Little, Sam Whipple, William Shockley
Creator/Writers: Mort Lachman & Sy Rosen, Anne Flett & Chuck Ranberg, Patt Shea & Harriet Weiss, David Pollock & Elias Davis, Lynne Farr, Gina Goldman, Hollis Rich, Bob Schiller & Bob Weiskopf, Rebecca Parr, Tom Patchett, Thad Mumford, Victor Fresco, Don Rhymer, Vicki S. Horwits
Thoughts: Based on the 1987 film of the same name, this two-season flop boasts a central duo of brilliant performers who have great chemistry — the incredibly sincere Jean Stapleton and the uniquely funny Whoopi Goldberg. The setup of the premise in the pilot — getting these two near-divorcees together in an MTM-like hangout/workplace structure at a desert motel/diner — is a little forced, but given the show’s affiliation with the film, I think most viewers come in having already made the logistical leaps, due to their awareness of the concept. And right from the jump, we want to buy it, for this is a show that belongs to its two leading ladies — material-elevators of the first order, who never get the kind of scripts they deserve. To that point, they’re both let down as this show is just not well-built. While both of their roles are fairly well-defined, no one else in the ensemble is as worthwhile. Yes, there’s affable folks like James Gammon and Cleavon Little, but it’s not enough — there are barely any relationships with genuine interpersonal stakes, meaning story is quickly a struggle. Part of the problem, I think, is that Bagdad the town is drawn a little too small — it doesn’t feel like there’s a real community of people who can recur, giving the leading ladies stimuli beyond each other. Additionally, after setting up the core pair as unlikely friends, it looks like the show never really knows how to build on that central relationship believably, often seeking distractions that it just doesn’t have. So, it’s no surprise that in the middle of the second season — which got a staff overhaul, a few new recurring players (like a new love interest for Goldberg), and a set that’s brighter lit (to match a lighter tone) — Goldberg, who was carrying the comedic burden, became frustrated and quit… Of course, it is too bad that a show with Goldberg and Stapleton was not able to click, but shoehorning them into a known property probably ended up being the biggest mistake, for it was bound and constricted by a setup that worked for a 90-minute movie — NOT a series looking to have a successful run. They needed more imagination.
Episode Count: 15 episodes were produced and broadcast over two seasons.
Episodes Seen: Ten — all but five of the nine aired in Season Two: “This Bird Has Flown,” “Not Enough Cooks,” “City On A Hill,” “I Got A Crush On You,” and “Hell Hath No Fury”
Key Episode (of Seen): #1: “Bagdad Café” (03/30/90)
Why: Despite the leaps in logic needed to set up the new status quo, this pilot is the most engaging episode I’ve seen, largely thanks to the surprising but strong chemistry between its two stars, both of whom have their characterizations pretty well-defined. And this indicates some worthwhile promise — at least, before we start to realize that the characters and world around them aren’t enough to help make this the rich sitcom their mutual brilliance deserves.
Ultimately, I say… STUDY BAGDAD CAFE; and ENJOY what you can of THE FAMOUS TEDDY Z and, most especially, the promising CITY.
Come back next week for a new Wildcard! And stay tuned Tuesday for more Empty Nest!