TELEVISION

Prime-time decline

U.S. networks turn to the past for the new

Brian D. Johnson October 31 1988
TELEVISION

Prime-time decline

U.S. networks turn to the past for the new

Brian D. Johnson October 31 1988

Prime-time decline

TELEVISION

U.S. networks turn to the past for the new

They used to be like three families living under one roof. There was much rivalry, but the trinity of American TV networks—CBS, NBC and ABC—once fuelled a common hearth in North American homes. A generation of baby boomers grew up loving Lucy and leaving it to Beaver. They received their rock ’n’ roll baptism as Ed Sullivan raised the curtain on Elvis Presley and The Beatles. And as social unrest rocked North America, All in the Family and M*A *S *//harnessed the aftershocks. On any night a decade ago, more than 90 per cent of the U.S. television audience would be tuned to one of the major networks. But now, with the proliferation of cable channels and video cassettes, on some nights the networks’ share of the audience drops to as low as 40 per cent. The Big Three have become the dinosaurs of prime time. And their advancing obsolescence is evident in the fall TV schedule.

A fast-forward glimpse at the new lineup is like the vision of a dying man whose life is flashing before him. Starting late because of the five-month-long strike by the Writer’s Guild of America, the fall TV season seems haunted by the ghosts of prime-time past. The faces have been changed, but the characters remain the same: precocious children, hapless parents, perky career women, gangs of cleangreased punks, a streetwise teacher, a dishevelled private eye and a playboy crime-fighter. Both Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke are pushing their luck by trying to revive their flagging careers with new situation comedies. Casting Van Dyke as a washed-up actor seems an especially maudlin touch. And pilots for their separate shows were so unsatisfactory that both of them have been reshot.

But even the season’s fresh programs seem to be derived from old ones. The most promising new series, Roseanne (ABC, CTV), is a timewarped, gender-switched version of the vintage blue-collar sitcom The Honeymooners. Stand-up comedienne Roseanne Barr makes her acting debut as an overweight housewife with the sardonic heft of a feminist Jackie Gleason. She plays a mother of three who works in a plastics plant and keeps order at home with such lines as “Shut up, honey.” John Goodman portrays her lumpish husband, a role that he has honed in such movies as Raising Arizona and Punchline. A working-class answer to the invasion of yuppie values, Roseanne uses witty repartee to tear down the lifestyle that most series promote. It celebrates fatness over fitness, slovenliness over self-improvement. When a teacher, rushing off to a squash

of parents. This season, Almost Grown offers a new concept: MTV relationships. It combines the themes of thirty something with the rockvideo style of Miami Vice.

With a sound track that spans the evolution of pop music, Almost Grown traces the life of a couple over three decades, from bobby-socks romance to mid-life divorce. Norman (Timothy Daly) makes his first move on Suzie (Eve Gordon) while listening to John F. Kennedy’s 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis speech on a car radio. It takes a song, The Sea of Love, to bring on their first kiss. Portrayed by the same two

game, asks Roseanne if she is spending enough time with her daughter, Roseanne replies in a deadpan drawl, “Quaaality time?”

By contrast, the most ambitious new drama series, Almost Grown (CBS, CTV), seems directly inspired by the yuppie sensibility of last season’s hit, thirtysomething. Occasionally, a smart new series emerges and sets a trend. In 1984, an NBC executive scribbled “MTV cops” on a memo, and that became the formula for Miami Vice, which changed TV drama by borrowing the sound and look of MTV, the U.S. rock-video channel. Last season’s most innovative series was thirtysomething, a sensitive drama that cleverly mirrored the anxieties of a new generation

actors, Norman and Suzie appear as teenagers, hippies and yuppies.

As they pass through the evolutionary stages of hair spray, wild tresses and the respectability of gel, their characters undergo some striking changes. And Norman’s career, taking him from record store to disc jockey, provides a pretext for the music. He turns the car radio up; she turns it down. In one farcical sequence, while he is working for a college radio station, he wins back her love—and stirs up a campus revolt—by playing the same song over and over for hours on end. The show’s sound track integrates rock music and TV drama with striking efficiency.

Rich in nostalgic refer-

enees, Almost Grown is heavily contrived. The drama lacks the depth, realism and intelligence of thirtysomething. In fact, beneath the highstyled veneer, it is just a soap opera. But its two-hour pilot—produced by Toronto-based Atlantis Films in association with MCA/Universal—is audacious enough to arouse curiosity. And, if nothing else, the show’s time-capsule formula epitomizes network television’s desperate need to serve as both mirror and memory bank for its first generation of viewers.

Other new shows aimed at the thirtysomething generation include Baby Boom (NBC,

CBC), a sitcom adapted from the 1987 movie starring Diane Keaton. Playing the Keaton role, Kate Jackson portrays a high-powered executive who inherits a twoyear-old girl. As a single career woman who wants to have it all, Jackson is not half as funny as Roseanne, who wants it all to go away. But there are diverting touches.

When her child phones the office, she tells her, “I'll be home in half a Sesame Street.”

Nuclear families are rare in the new sitcoms. A large number of them focus on men who suddenly find themselves without wives. In Dear John (NBC, Global), Judd Hirsch stars as a deserted husband who joins a club for the newly divorced. The club contains some wonderfully eccentric misfits, including its leader, who exhibits a fascination with the members’ sexual problems. Adapted from a BBC pilot, Dear John offers a brand of deadpan humor that comes as welcome relief from the braying tone of most American TV comedy.

The other lonely bachelor sitcoms are less successful.

Raising Miranda (CBS, Global) is a bittersweet comedy about a divorced husband Games Naughton) who is continually outsmarted by his teenage daughter. Massive injections of sentiment kill whatever traces of humor have survived his marriage. Empty Nest (NBC, CBC), a Golden Girls spin-off, features a widowed pediatrician (Richard Mulligan) who wonders if he is too old to remarry. The humor is dreary— his straight man is a dog who can make the laugh track roar by raising an eyelid. But the script offers the occasional gem: one morning, his policewoman daughter comes off the night shift and announces that she has a date. “How can you have a date?” her father asks. “You haven’t been to bed yet.” Her reply: “I’m combining the two.”

Sitcoms overshadow action series in the fall

schedule. The new lineup contains only four crime dramas, none of them conventional police shows. Midnight Caller (NBC), featuring an ex-cop who hosts a radio phone-in show, exploits the creepy intimacy of strange phone calls. And Knight Watch (ABC, Global) glamorizes vigilante squads combating gangs in the streets of New York City. At the other extreme, the harmlessly vapid Tattinger’s (NBC, CTV) stars Stephen Collins as a fast-track restaurateur (divorced, of course) who fights criminals in his spare time.

In the first episode, he returns from a European sojourn to his apartment in New York City’s Waldorf Hotel, then finds that a bad manager, who is under the influence of a mobster, has taken over his designer restaurant. A busy dilettante, Tattinger gets rid of the ugly new tablecloths, brings hot soup to an old newsstand vendor who has been beaten up by a thug, then dodges an attempt on his own life just in time to escort his daughter to a debutante ball. A Manhattan fairy tale venerating the lifestyles of the rich and vacuous, Tattinger’s seems devoid of irony. And that is surprising considering that it comes from the creators of St. Elsewhere.

Of all the crime shows, the most engaging is Murphy’s Law (ABC, CTV), a romantic comedy starring George Segal as Murphy, a reformed alcoholic private investigator who talks like Sam Spade but hates asking questions and hitting people. He is more interested in seducing Kimiko (Maggie Han), his Eurasian roommate and girl Friday, who is both the brains and the beauty of the duo. Murphy is appalled to see her pose as a pinup girl for a power-tools calendar. Speaking in vintage slang, he calls her “doll” and promises to “pony up enough dinero to keep you from losing the lease on your digs.” A low-rent version of Moonlighting, Murphy’s Law has wit and charm.

Not to be confused with Murphy’s Law, Murphy Brown (CBS, CTV) brings Candice Bergen to the small screen as a network news star. Returning to work after an alcohol-free holiday at the Betty Ford Clinic, her character finds that her boss has been replaced by a brash young executive producer. After the success of last year’s movie Broadcast News, which satirized the image-conscious world of TV anchors, a sitcom in a similar vein sounds appealing. But the pilot episode of Murphy Brown contains more lame farce than pungent satire.

Concepts that are effective in movies often lose something in the transition to television. In a sanitized version of the hit movie Dirty Dancing (CBS, CTV), Patrick Cassidy (Shaun’s brother) tries to fill the dancing shoes of Patrick Swayze, who starred in the movie. Cassidy may lack what it takes to move young libidos: the pilot was so disappointing that the producers reshot it.

While the networks cater to the thirty something crowd, they are also trying to attract a younger audience that is growing up with a vast new range of TV options. TV 101 (CBS, Global) offers television itself as a form of salvation for wayward youth. An earnest teacher (Sam Robards) replaces the school newspaper with a video newscast. “Together, I hope we can make it cool to be informed,” he tells his students. On the surface, the show is indeed as cool as the music of the Irish band U2 that graces the sound track. But it is also a vehicle for moralizing about everything from toxic waste to drug abuse. In what could be a comment on the entire season, U2 wails, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”

BRIAN D. JOHNSON