Grub Street Strikes Out: A Look at THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! During Frasier‘s third season (1995-’96), the twice Emmy-winning comedy was scheduled to anchor NBC’s Tuesday line-up at 9:00, in front of a new sitcom from Grub Street Productions (Angell, Casey, and Lee’s company — they did Wings and Frasier) called The Pursuit Of Happiness. Created by former Wings showrunner Dave Hackel, this new series — not to be confused with the 1987 sitcom of the same name — was a 13-episode multi-cam that NBC ended up pulling from its schedule after six weeks because the show lost too much of its predecessor’s audience, leaving seven entries unbroadcast. In this week’s post, I — having seen two of the six — am sharing the pilot and offering a few brief remarks. (Brief because I don’t like to discuss any series with such little evidence.)

The Pursuit Of Happiness starred Tom Amandes (Everwood) as Steve Rutledge, a put-upon lawyer who must deal with an amiable-but-out-of-work wife (Melinda McGraw, The Commish), take in his irresponsible brother (Larry Miller, 10 Things I Hate About You), and process the fact that his business partner (Brad Garrett, Everybody Loves Raymond) has just come out of the closet. Also in the regular cast were Meredith Scott Lynn (Days Of Our Lives) as his biting secretary, who’s of little comfort, and the brothers’ grandmother, Maxine Stuart (Room For One More), in whom Steve does find a little comfort. As mentioned above, the series was created by Wings alum Dave Hackel and produced (in conjunction with Paramount) by Grub Street. Writers included Bob Tischler (Saturday Night Live, Empty Nest, Boy Meets World), Barry Gurstein & David Pitlik (Amen, The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air), Stephen Godchaux (The Single Guy, Spin City, Dead Like Me), David Israel (Midnight Caller, 3rd Rock From The Sun, Grounded For Life), April Kelly (Mork & Mindy, Boys Meets World, Girl Meets World), Jim O’Doherty (3rd Rock From The Sun, Grounded For Life, Kickin’ It), Suzanne Martin (Ellen, Frasier, Hot In Cleveland, The Soul Man, Will & Grace), and Sy Rosen (The Bob Newhart Show, The Jeffersons, Gimme A Break!, The Wonder Years, Working). 

Now, I’m always loathe to judge a series on two episodes — even though NBC did so after only six — and yet, I can’t shake the feeling that this simply wasn’t fresh enough. That is, there’s not a lot about it that seems original, different, or uniquely charactery. From what I’ve seen, The Pursuit Of Happiness seems to prove that being technically comedic — funny on paper, jokey, able to keep its audience amused — doesn’t always yield a satisfying experience. I know that makes no sense and is an obnoxious, terribly unfair point to make, for all those things I’ve listed above are vital goals that many shows don’t meet. But just “hear” me out… You see, the series (like Frasier) split its time between Steve’s work and his home, and while the law office, in particular, appears to have possibilities (because the regular performers there are collectively strong), a gander at an online episode guide — focusing on the log lines — reveals a rote familiarity that isn’t conducive to uproarious comedy (which needs some element of the unexpected). Why? Well, the stories don’t seem well-tailored to (that is, motivated by) the crafted characters. (Okay, maybe I’m wrong! I’ve seen so little of this series. If you remember otherwise, I’d love to read your thoughts below!) This disappointing disconnect feels glaring because the pilot actually is direct and uncomplicated in establishing who these people are — for better and for worse. Worse: Miller’s character, a permanent nuisance whose thin existence is built entirely (and too obviously) around this fact. Better: Garrett’s character, who’s gay, but mostly avoids stereotypes and, even better, isn’t constrained by a favorable depiction; he’s flawed, too.

Unfortunately, though, the main problem persists: what I’ve seen doesn’t make terrific use of him or anyone else — instead the action is led by the weekly story, or in the case of the pilot, the exaggerated misfortunes that the protagonist is forced to endure. This doesn’t take great advantage of the regulars, which thus keeps the show from being unique… Of course, every sitcom needs time to develop, especially if it intends to be character-driven (as we have to know the players in order for them to motivate comedy), so my observations may be a lot of bunk. As a result, it’s easier to excuse the unrefined storytelling than the hacky construction, which, from appearances, is another dime-a-dozen “(mostly) singles in the city” tripe with which the airwaves were inundated following the success of both Seinfeld and Friends — the latter of which was entering its second season in the fall of ’95. In fact, speaking of ’95-’96, that was a very competitive year with a lot of new sitcoms, and many of them, sadly, were tapping into this already tiring trend: Can’t Hurry Love (CBS), Partners (FOX), Ned & Stacey (FOX), The Single Guy (NBC), Caroline In The City (NBC), etc. Although we can’t fault Pursuit for reinforcing a televisual template that was made especially popular by its own network, it’s nevertheless easy to see why success — the ability to stand out amongst this crowd and grab the viewers’ attention — would have been a challenge. During this time, originality was a must, and six weeks into its run (perhaps even 13 weeks into its run; we’ll never know), The Pursuit Of Happiness was still in hot pursuit of finding a good reason for its audience to watch.

That’s why, after six episodes, NBC pulled the series and returned The John Larroquette Show, a flawed comedy that nevertheless held onto its originality for as long as possible (stay tuned), to the slot it had inhabited the year prior… And yet, ultimately, all of my criticism here is supported by the fact that this isn’t a dreadful misfire, like so many six-week flops. Heck, see for yourself; here’s the pilot — for your critical and non-commercially-inclined viewing pleasure. This entry, entitled “Celebrations In Hell,” was written by Creator and Executive Producer Dave Hackel, directed by Grub Street’s David Lee, and broadcast by NBC after Frasier’s third season premiere on September 19, 1995. Enjoy!

 

 

Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! Tune in Tuesday for more Frasier!

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