Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, I’ve got another Q&A entry, where I answer questions submitted by readers. Thanks to everyone who sent in something — if you don’t see your “Q” here, I just may “A” it next time. (And keep them coming — any related topic on which you want my opinion and/or a little research? Just let me know!)
Also, thanks to everyone who participated in last week’s survey! I will share results and takeaways in a future post…
Don K. has two questions… Will you ever do more Pre-Code movie reviews? Also who do you think is the best actress from the Pre-Code era.
Truthfully, I still love Pre-Code films, and even though there are many classics left from 1930-’34 that I could discuss, I feel like I sort of said everything I wanted to say about that era and why its efforts were so special. So, as I feared becoming redundant, I sort of phased them out… That said, you never know when another might pop up; if I come across a film that’s especially interesting for some reason, I may put up a review. Thanks for asking… As to your second question, there are so many great actresses from the 1930s, and I have many favorites who did a lot of their best work during the Pre-Code period, such as Norma Shearer, Mae West, Kay Francis, Joan Blondell, Jean Harlow, and many others. I couldn’t pick just one.
Michael has a request and question… I would love to see how Variety first reviewed “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in 1970. Did they like it?
Yes, the reviews in both the Daily and Weekly editions of “Variety” were favorable.
Jimmy Mac Corn says… Growing up in the 1980’s I have a fondness for the decade but I know you don’t like it as much as the 70’s and 90’s for sitcoms and I was hoping you could elaborate on that for a future post.
Certainly. I think the end of Norman Lear’s sitcom dominance in the late 1970s ushered in an era of lighter-hearted domestic fare — in accordance with a new baby boom (the Millennial Generation) — and this was a counter-reaction to the harsher, more political stuff that came prior. However, the genre never completely shook Lear’s professed belief that the sitcom was at its best when able to offer some kind of social value, if not through overt moralizing, than from gripping drama (intending to emphasize our shared humanity, but, in practice, often failing to truly be believable because of no clear, motivated link between character and story). And with these bland, generic family structures of the ’80s, with equally bland, generic characters, this Lear-like perspective became especially jarring, revealing itself though recurring forays that we now colloquially call “Very Special Episodes” — periodic attempts to inject uber-serious subject matter into a typically unserious format, and with little help from the premise or the characters involved, thereby rendering most of these endeavors false, in addition to pretentious and uncomedic. There were way too many shows infested with this line of thinking in the 1980s — Family Ties and Kate & Allie among them — and it’s sort of the worst of Norman Lear without his strengths; they’ve got his idea-driven attitudes without the strong characters and premised relational support to assist, for so many of these ’80s shows just don’t have well-defined leads, falling back on family clichés that were more prevalent in the ’50s and ’60s.
Accordingly, like the lesser efforts from those earlier decades, these ’80s sitcoms tend to not be great with character or comedy — the two most important things in the sitcom, which, as a genre, is termed as such because it’s supposed to be deploying elements of a situation (primarily, its characters) within episodic narratives for prioritized comedy. And even when comedy is prioritized in these types of series, the characters tend to not be the cause of it… Meanwhile, with all that brewing in the early part of the decade, the latter half gave rise to a caustic, dark, and unsentimental counter-counter-reaction — a trend I appreciate when it’s meant to increase laughs, but don’t enjoy when it remains saddled to heavy dramatic ambitions that cloud these shows’ tonal commitment to comedy, for going serious just to counteract the unseriousness of the shallow works in the first part of the 1980s is ultimately meaningless if the characterizations aren’t richer and/or being more explicitly maneuvered for yuks. In contrast, the 1990s, as a whole, would restore humor to more of a central focus in the genre, and with a sensibility that inched closer than ever before to literal realism, there was a rise in low-concept hits (family shows included) that inherently pushed forth characters and relationships, making it more possible for these sitcoms to be more satisfying as situation comedies, based on how we’ve defined the form. So, sandwiched in between two decades that made strides with the use of character for comedy, elevating both in the process, the 1980s stands out to me as a time when, en masse, these concerns were too often sidelined. Thus, I just don’t like the ’80s as much as other eras, and the samples we’ve examined here have only sustained that impression.
JJ789 writes in with… I saw you say that the two best sitcoms of the 1980’s were “Cheers” and “The Golden Girls.” If you had to pick a third, what would it be?
I think the third best sitcom of the ’80s is the family subgenre’s most iconic: The Cosby Show. But I can only make that choice if I’m allowed to asterisk it by noting that I’m referring exclusively to its first two seasons (1984-’85 and 1985-’86), for after its stellar debut year and great second, the show was never truly competitive again, and certainly not on par with Cheers or The Golden Girls, which, because of their well-built foundations for character, were able to remain strong — relative to the rest of the era — throughout the duration of their long runs.
Charles H. asks… Do you think Paul should have been made a regular in the last few seasons of CHEERS?
If his promotion would have accompanied an increase in definition, so that he could actually push episodic story as opposed to being (essentially) a personified running gag, then sure — Paul Willson was fun, and more support from the ensemble would have been welcome. Otherwise — based solely on how he’s depicted on the show as we know it — I’d say no, for he’s not close to being as dimensional as Norm and Cliff, even during their early years.
Have a question for me? Submit it at the “Ask Jackson (Q&A)” link.
Come back next week for more sitcom fun and another new Wildcard Wednesday!