Kauffman, Crane, and Lear (and Brown and Parker): A Look at THE POWERS THAT BE

Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! In this week’s entry, I’m discussing and sharing my picks for the best episodes from The Powers That Be (1992-1993, NBC; USA), a two-season cult sitcom with a cast and crew of unbeatable star power. I could have justified pairing coverage of this series with several Sitcom Tuesday offerings, but I’ve decided to do so now with Dream On (1990-1996, HBO) for the simple reason that The Powers That Be was pitched and created by Marta Kauffman and David Crane, the duo who also created Dream On (and, of course, would go on to helm the much beloved Friends). Some backstory: shortly after venturing from New York to Los Angeles, Kauffman and Crane signed a development deal for Norman Lear that was put on hold when Dream On was sold at HBO and they were allowed to be its showrunners. However, while on hiatus following that first season, the pair resumed their yet-to-be-fruitful work for Lear, who’d previously called some of their stuff “shallow and superficial.” Believing that their styles were incompatible with his and confident in the emerging success of Dream On, the pair decided to pitch Lear (then in the throes of Sunday Dinner) the concept of a show they didn’t think would ever sell. This idea became The Powers That Be.

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The premise, about a philandering senator and his bizarre family, was inherently political — something that most executives, within sight of the upcoming 1992 Presidential Election, claimed was unsellable territory. But Lear, who wasn’t happy unless his work had socio-political interests, found Kauffman and Crane’s pitch intriguing. His strategy for getting a network pick-up involved assembling a top-notch cast and crew that would guarantee, if not success, then at least a commendable effort. Kauffman and Crane got credit as the creators and wrote the one-hour pilot (expanded from their original half-hour draft), and although they stayed on as “Creative Consultants” throughout the first year, their involvement was thereafter limited. Running the show for Lear would be Charlotte Brown (former Rhoda headwriter), who led a disparate staff that included Anne Convy Anderson (One Day A Time, True Colors), Ron Burla (Brothers, Alf), and Graham Yost (Hey Dude, Justified). The show’s unique tone — which, incidentally, shifted somewhat in between its eight-episode first season and its 13-episode second (more below) — was one of The Powers That Be‘s selling points, and it’s not necessarily easy to pinpoint whose voice is the guiding comedic force. (I suspect Brown at first, and then Rod Parker.) It is clearer, however, that substantial energy is coming from the writing’s emphasis on both the engaging premise developed in the pilot and the divine ensemble cast.

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Kauffman and Crane’s double-sized opening episode introduces John Forsythe (Bachelor Father and Dynasty) as Bill Powers, a Democratic senator living in D.C. with his cold and image-conscious wife Margaret (Holland Taylor of Bosom Buddies, The Naked Truth, and Two And A Half Men), their shallow and sheltered daughter Caitlyn (Valerie Mahaffey, of Northern Exposure and Desperate Housewives), her suicidal congressman husband Theodore Van Horne (David Hyde Pierce, of Frasier), their precocious son Pierce (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, of 3rd Rock From The Sun), and the beleaguered family maid Charlotte (Elizabeth Berridge, of The John Larroquette Show). Others in the ensemble included Bill’s chief of staff Jordan (Eve Gordon, of Felicity and Don’t Trust The B In Apartment 23), with whom he’s having a not-so-secret affair, and his sycophant of a press secretary, Bradley (Peter MacNicol, of Chicago Hope and Ally McBeal). The precipitating action in the pilot is two-fold, featuring the arrival of Bill’s illegitimate daughter, Sophie Lipkin (Robin Bartlett, of Mad About You), a New Jersey Jew — with a Korean mother — whose very presence upsets the rest of the household, and the announcement by recurring character Joe Bowman (Craig Bierko, of Madman Of The People and Boston Legal), a crippled former pro-baller, that he will be challenging Bill’s upcoming re-election bid.

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With a funny pilot that established all the leading characters and their relationships, The Powers That Be was ordered as a midseason replacement to premiere in the spring of ’92, in the spot behind the soon-to-depart The Golden Girls (1985-1992, NBC) on Saturday evenings. Six installments aired following the double-length pilot, and critics, if not audiences, quickly took notice. The show’s larger-than-life, but wonderfully defined characters ensured big laughs in a tonally dark (much has been made about the fact that one episode, highlighted below, opens with Theodore attempting to hang himself) and narratively taboo — politics, boo! — construction. The storytelling’s serialization, à la Susan Harris’ Soap (a more appropriate association than Lear’s Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, which didn’t push for these big laughs), was an eye-catcher in an era filled with the likes of Blossom and Full House. This notion of atypicality is, I think, fundamental to both The Powers That Be‘s quality and its lack of success, as Kauffman and Crane’s initial impulse regarding its tenuous viability is valid. Yet, this is not due to the show’s treatment of politics (heck, 1992 found Murphy Brown at its most preachingly partisan), but rather because of its unorthodox concept and attitude.

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As the ’90s prepared for its wave of “singles in the city” fare that would help NBC retain its prominence, while also influencing the material bought by the other networks (all of which were searching for their very own Friends), The Powers That Be represented a direction into which the sitcom genre, at least as far as these mainstream avenues were concerned, was clearly not moving: brooding, biting, and in spite of some topical content, a sense of grandness (very close to camp) that distinguished the big laughs within the harsh mood. So, The Powers That Be, even before Friends came around, was fighting certain unstoppable trends — already being signaled by shows like Seinfeld, and the upcoming Mad About You, both of which would become hits in NBC’s Thursday line-up. Based on the culture, success for this series was going to be a challenge, even though the air of experiment was (and remains) intoxicating. However, the decade was still young enough to imagine NBC, and all of its competition, moving in a different direction — perhaps one that reflected some of the genre-muddying that had been explored during the late ’80s… and then came to find more of a home on pay cable, which appreciated a sitcom’s lack of optimism as a unique source of marketable “realism.” Thus, though The Powers That Be never had a bright future on NBC, it certainly seemed to fit within this ambitious era.

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But now let’s talk about the quality of the show itself, for I’ve already alluded to it being fairly strong — with the aforementioned “atypicality” not merely a roadblock to success, but a unique virtue: a fresh, offbeat, and most importantly, wildly funny sensibility that one couldn’t find on network television at the time. (Even Susan Harris’ Good & Evil, which flopped on ABC earlier that season, wasn’t as thematically unique.) The tone — theatrically inclined, political in sentiment, and substantially tragic — is part of its allure. However, to a viewer who prides himself on the belief that nothing — no gimmick, no stylistic timbre, no narrative hook — should be the paramount source of a situation comedy’s enjoyment, I am not sold on this series, or any series, based solely on the cleverness of its atmosphere and voice. Those are important, but unless they’re reflected through well-designed and well-utilized characters, such elements are not beneficial, for too often they can consume a series’ focus and further distract from the players. Fortunately for The Powers That Be, its primary textual asset is the depiction of its characters as clear, consistent, and comedic… (for the most part). While Kauffman and Crane deserve praise for crafting them all so well in their pilot, it’s to the rest of the series’ credit that everyone remains viable purveyors of both story and comedy throughout this brief run.

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That’s not to say there aren’t growing pains. In fact, one of the problems with which the series wrestles in its first year comes in trying to determine just how broad it wants to paint the regulars. For while the pilot’s huge, not-an-ordinary-day events help justify a certain aggrandized theatricality (in this case, the word is used to mean a highly performative quality) going forward, a show must always be careful about how this affects the audience’s ability to connect with the characters — either as explicitly relatable (in a more realistic series, like Seinfeld) or emotionally identifiable (think: Soap). Extreme characterizations, although helpful in procuring quick laughs, are usually alienating to an audience that needs to accept the rules and realities of a certain universe — something that the characters, more than the tone, define. If too many of the leads are regarded as ridiculous, then never again can a series wrest earnest laughs or tears, for then it must either admit to a lack of awareness (which is heresy in this know-it-all climate) or intentionally deride its own characters: its very existence. This may be okay in a proclaimed satire where camp is celebrated, but because The Powers That Be, like Soap, doesn’t quite want to admit as much, it’s important to keep the audience on the characters’ side with a generous amount of dramatic integrity — especially when employing darker motifs both in the show’s general aesthetic and its storytelling, all of which requires faith in these characters.

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This characterization concern is embedded in the tenor established by Kauffman and Crane, who once again use realism as a device off of which other more theatrical and emotionally manipulative (I don’t mean that strictly pejoratively) motifs can play. So, earning the audience’s emotional investment is a challenge — one that’s exacerbated by the high-concept premise (this isn’t four people sitting around a table) and exaggerated plotting. Frankly, despite the assuredness with which the characters are initially and humorously defined, one starts to have dangerous flashbacks to Linda Bloodworth-Thomason’s Filthy Rich (1982-1983, CBS), another comedic family soap (sparked by a surprise illegitimate child) that was both steeped in its auteur’s particular tone and stripped of its integrity by broad, disastrous characterizations. However, one quickly sees that The Powers That Be holds a much firmer grasp on its players, and has the intelligence to address perceived problems by shifting relationships and modulating a few personalities — most of which, interestingly, are dictated by Season One’s heavy use of serialization. You see, as a result of both the premise and the ever-moving narrative, the initially well-defined characters start to feel squeezed and contorted by the scenarios into which they’re placed, and because the heightened tone gives the show a harder climb (than say, Soap) when earning the audience’s respect, the serialization becomes a handicap. Not only is this narrative tool dependent on the audience’s commitment to the regulars’ journey from week to week, but the maneuverings also distract from fostering the necessary attachments through character.

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But there’s good news; while the above is a problem in Season One, it’s rectified in Season Two when the show abandons this type of storytelling to embrace a more episodic, character-driven, and comedically-geared approach. And although Season One showed enough potential to catch most critics’ eyes (and thus earn a 13-episode renewal), it would have been foolish to not tinker with the series in the hopes of actually building an audience. Happily, and in a perhaps rare occurrence, all of the shifts seem to be for the better. Behind-the-scenes, Brown and Convy were replaced by Rod Parker (MaudeGimme A Break, Empty Nest, Dear John) and Rod Burton (Dear John), with Nancylee Myatt (Night Court) joining them in the writers’ room, while seasoned Hal Cooper, who helmed many a Maude, assumed the role of resident director. In front of the camera, we see renewed confidence in all the actors, a lighter and brighter approach to the visual design, and a mitigation of both the heavy story-based plotting (and its grossly tragic undercurrent) in favor of a more straightforward, laugh-motivated modus vivendi. Now, you may read this as the show jettisoning its originality in favor of a more commercial appeal, and to a certain extent, the writing indeed loses some of its stylistic bent. But rest assured that the high-concept nature of the premise, which decides to use its politics more advantageously (the season premiered in early November, with its first episode taking place on the day after Clinton was elected), never allows the series to become predictable or formulaic.

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Furthermore, the removal of narrative impediments to emotional connectability sets free the second season to become routinely character-driven, and with the crew’s desire to deliver bigger laughs, The Powers That Be really emerges as a comedic contender. Of course, this was all but guaranteed by the strong ensemble cast — in which there’s not a single weak link. As always though, some shine brighter than others; David Hyde Pierce, who wouldn’t have gotten Frasier if not for his work here, is the biggest revelation, while grand diva Holland Taylor manages to steal every scene in which she appears, earning laughs in moments where they probably weren’t anticipated (and in the face of subtle character evolutions — her coldness becomes more burlesqued). But, again, everyone has moments to shine, including future Ally McBeal star Peter MacNicol (getting thrown some of the series’ broadest centerpieces) and Elizabeth Berridge, who was soon cast on The John Larroquette Show (1993-1996, NBC). The only characterization that struggles throughout the run is Forsythe’s Bill, the series’ anchor, who starts a bit like Blake Carrington — the show’s shady power-holder — but is soon rendered a more grounded, likable figure (infidelity notwithstanding) until the second season attempts to turn him into a bumbling goofball. Forsythe does the latter well, despite its inconsistent narrative success.

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Sadly, audiences never tuned back in to NBC’s dead Saturday night line-up. Only eight second season episodes were shown on NBC in late ’92 and early ’93 before the series was “temporarily” pulled from the airwaves. Five more entries were produced, and in advance of Clinton’s inauguration, the USA Network struck a deal to screen all of the remaining installments the night before. (One outing was set on the day of the inauguration.) In June, NBC showed three of those previously unbroadcast five, but by then, the series was already a memory. It’s a shame The Powers That Be never got the full recognition it deserved at the time, for although not every installment in the second season is a winner, there are several episodes that I would cite as among the funniest sitcom material produced in the early ’90s (see below), and all signs were pointing to the show’s continued improvement. So, with a terrific cast, a unique voice, and comedically ripe characters, I am gloriously able to pick a list of favorites for this forgotten series. Based on the episode total, I should — and indeed could — pick eight offerings to highlight. But because there are four entries that I find truly stellar, I want to single them out as exceptional. The rest will be Honorable Mentions. Here they are, in AIRING ORDER.

 

01) Episode 3: “Bill Gets Shot” (Aired: 03/14/92)

Theodore accidentally shoots Bill during an attempted suicide.

Written by Graham Yost | Directed by Art Wolff

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As the first outing following the hour-long pilot, this excellent offering is the best, most comedic representation of the darker, more tonally complex aesthetic of the initial eight-episode season. (Although, the heavy serialization doesn’t really take effect until the following week.) It boasts terrific usage of the ensemble, a continuation of the illegitimate daughter drama (for laughs), and gains distinction for including several botched (and memorable) suicide attempts by Pierce’s character, one of which leads to Bill getting shot. What follows is some delicious dark humor in which all the cast members get to partake. My favorite moment here is when Margaret decides that Bill must be shot again, but there are many wonderful little bits.

02) Episode 9: “A Chicken In Every Pot” (Aired: 11/07/92)

Margaret fears she’s poisoned the newly elected First Lady.

Written by Mady Julian | Directed by Hal Cooper

The series got some of its best press surrounding this episode, which was shot on Election Day and broadcast later that week. It was a gamble, because the script was written and produced with the presumption that Bill Clinton would be elected President; as it turned out, the show was right, and this topical, ambitious outing got to be victorious. The hysterical premise had Margaret serving bad chicken salad at a luncheon with Hillary Clinton, who went to the hospital following the event. Despite the use of contemporary politics within the premise, however, the episode — produced late in the second season — reveals a lighter, more laugh-driven objective than seen before, and both the characters and the gleeful premise shine bright.

03) Episode 10: “Bill’s Dead… Not” (Aired: 11/07/92)

Margaret has senatorial dreams when her husband is presumed dead.

Written by Nancylee Myatt | Directed by Hal Cooper

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This was the intended season premiere (before the series was pushed back until November and decided to utilize the above gimmick to launch its new year), but aired second in a single hour-long block that together constituted the show’s promoted premiere. While the premise isn’t as novel or intentionally ostentatious as its predecessor, the episode itself is just as funny, as Bill is presumed dead while going to visit his elderly mother (Cloris Leachman, in nonagenarian drag), thus allowing the show to employ the dark humor for which it had already become known to critics (albeit, in a more farcical and again, lighter, way). However, the real meat of the outing concerns Margaret’s dashed dreams of taking her husband’s senate seat… Hilarious!

04) Episode 21: “Grandma’s Big Decision” (Aired: 01/19/93)

Bill’s aged mother asks Margaret to kill her.

Written by Graham Yost | Directed by Hal Cooper

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Episode guides often cite this as the final episode because it was the last of the five heretofore unbroadcast episodes to be aired on USA on the day before the Clinton inauguration. The outing was actually produced in the middle of the year and intended to air on NBC the first week that the series was indefinitely pulled. However, based purely on scheduling, this episode gets labeled the finale — as it was the last to officially premiere. (Incidentally, many sources state that this installment was indeed seen again on NBC in June — although there are debates over which three of the outliers were shown.) It’s another brilliantly funny entry based on a dark idea: Bill’s mom (played superbly by Leachman) asking her daughter-in-law for an assisted suicide.

 

Other strong episodes worth noting are Kauffman and Crane’s two-part pilot, “The Love Child,” along with “How Sharper Than A Servant’s Tooth,” “Sophie’s Big Decision,” “Having A Ball,” and “Bradley Gets Fired” — all second season episodes that aren’t as good as the above, but are nevertheless better than average.

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Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! Tune in on Tuesday for more Dream On!

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