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 (or a handful of episodes) I think best represents each series at large, based on what I’ve seen. For this post, I’m looking at some MTM or Lear-related sitcoms from the late ’70s/early ’80s…
GRADY (December 1975 – March 1976, NBC)
Premise: Grady Wilson moves from Watts into his married daughter’s home in Westwood.
Cast: Whitman Mayo, Carol Cole, Joe Morton, Rosanne Katon, Haywood Nelson, Jack Fletcher, Alix Elias
Creator/Writers: Saul Turteltaub & Bernie Orenstein, (Redd Foxx), Jerry Ross, Howard Leeds
Thoughts: Transplanting Whitman Mayo’s Grady into the middle of a bland family sitcom ends up yielding little more than… a bland family sitcom. The main trouble is the ensemble, as none of the leads are well-defined or comedically on par with the great cast where Grady was formed. And because of these weak new characterizations, episodic stories struggle, churning out a handful of so-so “Grady vs. the system” plots, but little that’s personal or warranted by the premise, which expects to find conflict from Grady’s intrusion into his family’s life, or even more generally, his move from the ghetto to suburbia. Yes, fans of Sanford And Son may find a little bit to enjoy in cameos from that series’ star players (and I admit there are some laughs to be had from the dotty neighbor, played by Alix Elias — the “Grady” of this new cast), but otherwise, this is Sanford And Son without the unique junkyard locale, the strong father-son dynamic, and a star who’s as extraordinarily rare as Redd Foxx. (Incidentally, this is also not dissimilar to Sanford Arms, which would try to replace Fred/Lamont with a more banal family dynamic not nearly as compelling or funny… and on the same sets of the original. I discussed that show back in 2015, and my thoughts remained the same when I revisited it in 2021.)
Episode Count: 10 produced and broadcast.
Episodes Seen: All 10.
Key Episode (of Seen): Episode #2: “The Driving Force” (12/11/75)
Why: The series’ second aired episode – scripted by Sanford And Son showrunners and Grady creators Saul Turteltaub and Bernie Orenstein – is essentially a “Grady vs. the system” plot that nevertheless capitalizes on its leading man’s bumbling persona, along with a conflict that better involves his family and the added difficulties to their life as a result of his presence. It’s nowhere near as funny as Sanford And Son, but this is probably the best example of what the series could be on a regular basis, simply based on its construction, its premise.
SANFORD (March 1980 – July 1981, NBC)
Premise: Fred Sanford gets a new white business partner and a wealthy new girlfriend.
Cast: Redd Foxx, Dennis Burkley, Marguerite Ray, Clinton Derricks-Carroll, Nathaniel Taylor, Suzanne Stone, Cathy Cooper, Percy Rodrigues, LaWanda Page, Howard Platt, Hal Williams
Creator/Writers: Mort Lachman, Sy Rosen, Larry Rhine, Mel Tolkin, Ted Bergman, Phil Doran, Douglas Arango, Chip Keyes & Doug Keyes, Michael Morris, Bob Schiller & Bob Weiskopf, Michael G. Moye
Thoughts: Although I cited this series briefly here many years ago, unlike Sanford Arms (on which my perspective has not changed), I wanted to give Sanford more space, since I lazily didn’t watch it all when I first shared an episode. Now that I’ve seen everything, I have a better understanding of the show and its trajectory. For starters, it was part of Fred Silverman’s effort to raise NBC’s Nielsens by doing what he had done for CBS and ABC — building out its sitcom roster, in part by resurrecting the Peacock Network’s biggest hit of the ‘70s: Sanford And Son. And unlike the misbegotten Sanford Arms, the seminal ingredient was back in play: Redd Foxx. However, having this great comic would not prove to be enough for Sanford, not if it didn’t also have his first series’ smart, simple construction, for the key issue here is, once again, this Sanford And Son spin-off misses the strong emotional connection between Fred and his son Lamont. Knowing this will be lacking, the first season legitimately tries to disassociate itself from the original series — at first anyway — as it makes Fred a ghetto fish in ritzy water, when he quickly falls for a wealthy widow, and stories initially follow his integration into this foreign world, with pushback mostly from her mouthy maid and uppity brother. This is an intriguing notion — an entirely different show — but, sadly, we have no commensurate investment in the central relationship, which develops too rapidly over the course of three initial half hours. What’s more, the girlfriend, Eve, has no personality – she is never made to clash with Fred based on who she is; it’s always him versus the environment or the peripheral characters. And this lack of direct conflict, which he often had with Lamont, is limiting. Speaking of Lamont, Sanford also gives Fred a new business partner in Cal, a white Southerner who, on paper, is Fred’s opposite. But, again, the series shies away from ever leaning into this for direct conflict, and this not only mutes his comic potential, it also never expands their personal bond. So, like Eve, we don’t ever come to care about Fred’s relationship with Cal… even as the latter half of the first season begins to pivot away from the “rich girl, poor man” angle and back to the junkyard buddy comedy, evidenced also by the introduction of Aunt Esther’s son, Cliff.
Both Cliff and Cal are meant to assume the place of Lamont, with the former allowing Fred to take on something of a paternal role, while Cal is Fred’s coconspirator. That especially seems to be the agenda in the second season, which drops everyone from the first year’s main cast except Fred, these two fellas, and Eve, who’s bumped down to a recurring capacity after her relationship with Fred is deescalated (she essentially becomes Donna), and Sanford attempts to fall back into the rhythms of Sanford And Son, as both Aunt Esther and Grady recur. Again, though, the central relationships are relatively weak in comparison to the initial series’, and they can’t carry much story. And while the familiar faces bring laughs (along with some of the show’s best moments), they’re not a reliable gimmick in this self-contained capacity. Unfortunately, the show then has to resort to clichéd stories with predictable structures and/or some super-serious “Very Special Episode” installments that don’t acquit anyone well, even Redd Foxx, who is as capable as ever of elevating material… but finds himself in an uphill battle due to the less sturdy situation and the core issues with the new characters in it. So, Sanford falls well short of Sanford And Son, but now that I’ve seen all of it, there are episodes that stand out as watchable against this series’ own baseline. And for fans of the first show or Foxx, I recommend them.
Episode Count: 26 produced and broadcast over two seasons.
Episodes Seen: All 26.
Key Episodes (of Seen): Episode #3: “The Meeting (III)” (03/22/80)
Episode #4: “The Still Of The Night” (03/29/80)
Episode #6: “Younger Than Springtime Am I” (04/08/80)
Episode #13: “Cal’s Diet (II)” (05/24/80)
Episode #15: “Here Comes The Bride (I)” (01/09/81)
Episode #16: “Here Comes The Bride (II)” (01/09/81)
Episode #17: “Fred Has The Big One” (01/16/81)
Episode #18: “Cal The Coward” (01/23/81)
Episode #20: “Cal’s Mom” (05/29/81)
Episode #22: “Freeway” (06/12/81)
Episode #25: “Private Lives” (07/03/81)
Why: Episode #3 is the funniest of the opening situation-setting trio, with an amusing bit where Fred tries to get out of a relationship with Eve by claiming he’s had a sex change operation; #4 tries to build out Cal’s personality and has a comic premise about moonshine; #6 gives Redd Foxx the year’s best chance to clown; and #13 is the funnier half of a two-parter that seeks to expand Cal’s role and relationship with Fred. From Season Two, Episodes #15 and #16 are the series’ best — a two-parter in which Fred and Esther (the amazing LaWanda Page) discover that they’re accidentally married; #17 benefits by using a part of the show’s history — Fred’s penchant for faking heart attacks; #18 feels the most like a Sanford And Son; #20 is the best of the “Very Special Episodes” (VSEs) because it’s more rooted in character; and both #22 and #25 boast Whitman Mayo’s Grady, who’s always a joy (even on his disappointing spin-off.)
GLORIA (September 1982 – April 1983, CBS)
Premise: Gloria Bunker Stivic, now a separated single mother, moves to a new city and embarks on a new career as a veterinary assistant.
Cast: Sally Struthers, Burgess Meredith, Jo de Winter, Christian Jacobs, Lou Richards
Creator/Writers: Patt Shea & Harriett Weiss, Joe Gannon, Dan Guntzelman & Steve Marshall, Rich Reinhart, Lissa Levin, Tim O’Donnell
Thoughts: This spin-off of Archie Bunker’s Place, itself a spin-off/continuation of All In The Family, is not as bad as I thought it would be. I mean, okay, it naturally suffers from a lot of the anticipated concerns. For one, it’s forever in the shadow of the famous Norman Lear classic, whose descendants all pale in comparison, and from the fact that this association comes with specific baggage: (a) a leading lady who was so defined in relation to everyone else in All In The Family’s tight ensemble, especially Archie Bunker, that she doesn’t really have much comic color without them or the heavily sociopolitical clashes they were each positioned to channel, and (b) the dramatic splitting up of said character and her long-time premised husband — a move necessary to jumpstart the series’ new concept, but something that hangs over the star and the series like a dark cloud. Indeed, Gloria is a gloomy affair – palpably quiet and sad, in accordance with the history of its lead, a history that does the heavy-lifting for her actual characterization, as the premise’s need to have her starting over, or rather, doing things for the first time, supplants a true personality in episodic plot. And while this maybe enables stories that suggest some sociopolitical connective tissue, the subject is no longer novel and is generally the opposite of funny — it’s timid and sulky. What’s more, the choice (of the Archie Bunker’s Place scribes, replaced after the backdoor pilot, which was slightly retooled) to set the show in a veterinary clinic is a bad one, as animals on the sitcom are a fundamental gimmick — creatures who cannot convey a decision-making process are not characters and therefore can’t propel plot. Like kids — and, yes, there’s one of those here, too — stories about animals are contrived distractions, regardless of whether they’re jokey or serious. They’re tacky.
And yet, if those are all the expected criticisms, I must say that Gloria is blessed with a strong ensemble – outside the leading lady, all three of the other adults are well-defined, and played exceptionally well. In fact, Sally Struthers, along with Burgess Meredith and Jo de Winter, are especially great performers — adept not only at fleshing out moments with comedy, but also believable heart. Additionally, if the structure portends trouble, the writing itself is terrific, courtesy of several scribes who came over from WKRP In Cincinnati. They, along with a few others, are skilled at offering jokes that maintain the text’s desired humanity. So, although they’re not able to circumvent the debris cluttering the series, or the fundamental problem with the Gloria character – both issues that stem from All In The Family and this show’s connection to it (not to mention the veterinary setup from Archie Bunker’s Place) – there are moments within this otherwise forgettable, too cautious series that work incredibly well, much better than most of the generally inferior sitcoms we highlight in these potpourri posts. In this regard, Gloria, though chronically flawed, is much better than I expected. Faint praise? Maybe. But praise nonetheless!
Episode Count: 21 + a backdoor pilot on Archie Bunker’s Place
Episodes Seen: All 21 episodes + the backdoor pilot
Key Episodes (of Seen): Episode #2: “First Date” (10/03/82)
Episode #13: “Gloria On The Couch” (01/09/83)
Episode #21: “An Uncredited Woman” (04/10/83)
Why: “First Date” and “An Uncredited Woman” both take advantage of the leading lady’s premised situation of being single and having to figure things out for herself, with both dramatic sincerity and a strong sense of humor imparted by the teleplay, while “Gloria On The Couch” is saddled with a terrible story but is a great showcase for Sally Struthers, who does believable impressions of Gloria’s parents — the iconic Archie and Edith Bunker – and that’s enough to make a memorable segment of a mostly unmemorable series.
STOCKARD CHANNING IN JUST FRIENDS (March 1979 – June 1979, CBS)
Premise: A separated woman moves across the country and starts over with a new life.
Cast: Stockard Channing, Gerrit Graham, Mimi Kennedy, Lou Criscuolo, Sydney Goldsmith, Joan Tolentino
Creator/Writers: Eric Cohen & Nick Arnold, George Arthur Bloom, Earl Barret, Beverly Bloomberg
Thoughts: As the groundbreaking ‘70s began, Mary Richards was not allowed to open her series as a thirtysomething divorcee. But thanks to the work of MTM, Norman Lear, and all the shows they inspired, by the end of the decade, this first of two sitcom vehicles for Stockard Channing (recently of Grease) was able to finish what Mary Tyler Moore started, in theory anyway, offering another half home/half workplace ensemble comedy about a thirtysomething (ish?) woman separated from her husband, now making it on her own. Unfortunately, CBS did Just Friends no favors by encouraging the comparison, for this series does not possess the same character work, because while all its leads have basic definition and are distinctly identifiable against each other, this show’s sense of literal realism is far more strained, accommodating silly plots that aren’t driven by the regulars and can even be threatening to aesthetic realism, especially when the scripts veer broad, asking Channing and company to play moments of physical comedy – which isn’t her forte – that make everyone seem malleable to these goofy textual demands as opposed to actually guiding them. And because of this larger inability to attach character to story, stemming from these Welcome Back, Kotter scribes’ idea-driven attitudes (which don’t fare well in such a relatively low-concept structure), Just Friends ends up caught in the liminal space of the late ‘70s, where so many shows were trying to marry the decade’s structural realism that pushes forward character with the post-Garry Marshall mid-’70s broadness. Some did it successfully, this series did not. Channing deserved better, CBS agreed…
Episode Count: 13 episodes produced and broadcast.
Episodes Seen: All but “Room At The Top,” “Funny Thing Happened,” and “A Fine Romance”
Key Episode (of Seen): #4: “The Boy In The Band” (03/25/79)
Why: This episode is a good indication of the show’s lack of direction, as its first half indulges the gimmicky idea-led notion of Susan expecting her neighbor to be gay because she sees him at a gay club, before pivoting into a more earnest “woman on her own” story when the two go out on a date. It’s never hilarious, but Channing is sharp, and it’s clear that the show wishes it could figure out what it wants to be, so it can better showcase her.
THE STOCKARD CHANNING SHOW (March 1980 – July 1980, CBS)
Premise: A Los Angeles divorcee gets a job as a TV consumer reporter.
Cast: Stockard Channing, Ron Silver, Sydney Goldsmith, Max Showalter, Jack Somack, Bruce Baum, Marty Cohen
Creator/Writers: (Eric Cohen & Nick Arnold), Aaron Ruben, George Yanok, Anne Anderson, Mitzi McCall
Thoughts: After the failure of Just Friends, star Stockard Channing came back the next season in a vehicle that owes its shape to the previous, keeping one of the side players (Sydney Goldsmith) and even the same home set. But now she’s got a new last name, a new job — moving from a health spa to a TV station where she now works as a consumer reporter — and a new divorce behind her. There’s also a new head writer — Aaron Ruben, the veteran sitcom author whose best-known work in the ‘70s was the early (superior) years of Sanford And Son. Ruben and his influence give Channing’s second sitcom a more familiar, polished feeling than its predecessor, with a more straightforward comic rhythm, and an understanding of characters and relationships that is no less broad, but a little less harmed by the equally goofy, unideally idea-led narratives. I think that’s because the central relationship of this series is made clearer, courtesy of the strong chemistry between Channing and Ron Silver as her new boss, and indeed, this show is slightly more focused in general, prioritizing the display of its star more overtly. However, the basic problem remains, as The Stockard Channing Show is literally caught between MTM, which its structure still suggests, and the broadness of not just Garry Marshall, but even something more regressive like Lucy, as the new job setting is designed precisely to provide weekly idea-led excuses for the leading lady to don some outrageous disguise and pretend to be someone else in a plot to uncover information. It’s sketch-like, as a lot of sitcoms could be back in the 1950s (when Ruben was on The Phil Silvers Show). It’s not necessarily slapstick, but it’s just as broad as Just Friends, and while I maintain it’s also not Channing’s forte, at least the premise-ordained explanation for why she’s acting so bizarre helps provide a little more grounding logic that seems to help its star play these beats better… That said, only half of the 13 episodes climax in this shtick; the other half are more dramatically simple, with quieter stories that resolve through dialogue, not a big crescendo. Sadly, the show’s sensibility is not literally realistic enough, nor the plots driven by the characters enough, to exist favorably in that category alongside the rest of this era’s finest. But it’s interesting to see this series, like the previous, torn in two directions — sincere vs. silly — never figuring out how to manage them both.
Episode Count: 13 episodes produced and broadcast.
Episodes Seen: All 13.
Key Episode (of Seen): Episode #6: “Life Begins At 30” (04/27/80)
Why: Right in the center of the run, this episode reflects the middle ground of sincere vs. silly, as the story isn’t about Susan going undercover for her job, but about her anxiety upon turning 30 — a more relatable, believable, potentially more character-driven notion than the norm. And yet, the second act also has a broad centerpiece where the leading lady dons a ridiculous costume – something that feels forced, especially because it’s not backed by the premised demands of her career, asking instead that we buy her own personal motivation, which strains emotional logic. But… that tension exemplifies the issue underscoring the ENTIRE series, so it’s a very fitting representation of the show and its struggles. Also, James Burrows directs, and his touch is felt in the comedy, which elevates the whole idea.
OPEN ALL NIGHT (November 1981 – March 1982, ABC)
Premise: A man runs a 24/7 convenience store with the help of both his incompetent stepson and new night manager.
Cast: George Dzundza, Susan Tyrrell, Sam Whipple, Jay Tarses, Bever-Leigh Banfield, Bubba Smith, Joe Mantegna, Clyde Phillip Taylor
Creator/Writers: Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses, Merrill Markoe, Carol Gary, Ken Levine & David Isaacs, Thad Mumford & Dan Wilcox, Sy Rosen
Thoughts: Open All Night is the first non-MTM sitcom created by former head writers of The Bob Newhart Show, Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses — it’s a half workplace/half domestic comedy that reiterates their typically excellent awareness of how to craft comedically well-defined characters, yet with an increasing tongue-in-cheek sarcasm that was evident in Bob Newhart but tempered there by the overall sincerity of the MTM brand and other forces in that room. That is, there’s a heightened wink here about the characters, who are depicted more cartoonishly broad – per the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, which as we know, saw a heightening post-Garry Marshall that even came to affect the MTM and MTM-affiliated shows, like Taxi. In fact, Taxi is a helpful point of comparison, for a good many of Taxi’s characters feel just as large and burlesque as those on Open All Night, and yet the Taxi team does a better job of matching their aggrandizement (and their accordingly aggrandized stories) with a sense of emotional realism that delivers necessary heart, infusing a humanity reminiscent of the MTM brand (and then even more accentuated on Cheers). Open All Night, in contrast, is more tonally sardonic, undermining its leads’ earnestness and making character-driven story difficult, since the show isn’t also going to fully commit to being broadly satirical… Curiously, this heightened annoyance with pathos is a foretaste of where Patchett & Tarses would go next: the misanthropic Buffalo Bill — a great short-lived comedy whose mien, in a key difference, emanated mostly from the lead character himself, so much so that Buffalo Bill is Buffalo Bill, earning its style through him, while Open All Night struggles to even allow its leads to coexist under a less motivated, but still overarching tone. Now, I haven’t watched every episode, and a couple I’m missing sound comedically promising (“First Love” and “Terry Runs Away”), but based on what I have seen, this is a show whose setting and sensibility make it difficult for Patchett and Tarses’ natural expertise with character to shine. And there’s no indication that things would have synchronized — certainly not to match the quality of Taxi or Cheers, or even Buffalo Bill.
Episode Count: 13 episodes produced; 11 broadcast.
Episodes Seen: All 11 of the broadcast, except “First Love,” “Terry Runs Away,” and “Sitting Ducks”
Key Episode (of Seen): Episode #10: “A Visit From The Folks” (02/26/82)
Why: The inclusion of the leading man’s parents not only adds more emotional dimension to our understanding of his character — which is vital for his existence in this structure — they’re also incredibly funny, smoking their cigarettes and setting up their lawn chairs outside his convenience store. And if I didn’t make it clear above, this is a series with funny characters and funny ideas, suffering from an inability to link them believably within story, given the tone’s chronic sarcasm. It just never seems to fully congeal. This entry at least tries.
Ultimately, I say… FORGET GRADY and both of Stockard Channing’s series; STUDY GLORIA and OPEN ALL NIGHT; and ENJOY what you can of SANFORD. Also, stay tuned next week for another “enjoyable” series that I’m popping out into its own post!
Come back next week for a new Wildcard! And stay tuned Monday for another musical rarity!