THE NEW SEASON
A recent poll of high-school students in five U.S. cities produced startling answers to the question: who would be your ideal parents?
Prominent among dream moms and dads were such current and fallen Angels as Cheryl Ladd, Jaclyn Smith, Kate Jackson and Farrah Fawcett, onetime Six Million Dollar Man Lee Majors and Lou Ferrigno, The Incredible Hulk, now, incredibly, in his third smash season. In a related story, if a blacker one, a young boy committed suicide reportedly because his favorite program, Battlestar Galáctica, had been cancelled.
As television audiences all across Canada and the
U.S. pop corn and chill beer in keen anticipation of the new season, it’s well to remember that, given the evidence, television has become something more than an entertainment console tucked into a corner of the living room.
A Star Wars Xerox with curious echoes of the Book of Genesis (the what?), Battlestar Galáctica was launched with a feature film that played in theatres across Canada last year. Apparently its $l-millionper-hour-episode budget didn’t pay off, so it was dropped. But the lad so disconsolate ought to have known that a monster hit such as Star Wars has barely begun to be exploited by the networks. So this season Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (CTV) inherits the robots, laser guns and gee-whiz special effects. There’s even a tie-in comic strip carried by, among other newspapers, the Toronto Globe and Mail.
Television, on the cusp of the 1980s, has become a closed ecological system.
Everything is reused, recycled, and the medium’s root system nourishes a vast entertainment-celebrity-gossip colony that includes movies, professional sports, the magazine industry and shampoo pushers. (It was not always thus: a quarter-century ago in the heyday of I Love Lucy, Lucille Ball did not peddle henna rinse, nor were the Mertzes shuttled off into a sitcom of their own.) It’s noteworthy that this season—a season like a five-network daisy chain, since the CBC and CTV purchase virtually all the U.S. prime-time offerings—has not been launched with a tucket of trumpets, as before, but has been creeping stealthily onto our screens for some weeks now. Not a bad strategy when all the new shows are cunningly camouflaged to pass as closely as possible for the old shows.
Don’t rock the Love Boat is the
watchword. Favorite characters—this season including Trapper John, M.D. from M*A*S*H*, Benson, the black butler from Soap, and The Ropers from Three's Company— continue to be spun off like cotton candy onto paper cones of their own. Situations that worked once are rejigged, crossfertilized, turned topsyturvy in the wild hope that they’ll work again. Alice, widowed mother (and herself a movie clone), will be joined by Shirley, with Shirley Jones in her second prime-time outing as, yes, a widowed mother. If one woman on her own is good, two are better; hence A New Kind of Family, about two single moms
who find themselves renting the same house. Láveme and Shirley, married, then bereaved. Given, on the other hand, transsexual surgery, Láveme and Shirley become blue-collar brothers in Working Stiffs, with Michael Keaton and Jim (John’s brother) Belushi. Farrah Fawcett proved that even the bearer of the most famous mane of hair since Samson couldn’t scuttle a ratings champ like Charlie's Angels when she left it, and this year the departure poor forbearing Edith (Jean Stapleton) from All in the Family leaves Archie Bunker to tend bar with Martin Balsam in Archie Bunker's Place. On the tube, there is no death.
The shade of Kojak animates the sibilant Eischied, starring Joe Don Baker as a hard-as-nails chief of detectives in New York and Paris, starring James Earl Jones as a black crime-fighter. Another black star, heir to Doctors Kildare, Casey and Welby, is Louis Gosset Jr., in The Lazarus Syndrome, another
hospital drama. As unto doctors, so unto lawyers: The Associates moves the struggling students of The Paper Chase a few years hence when they are struggling junior partners in a law firm.
When characters and situations begin to exhaust themselves, the personalities—the stars—are there to be recycled inexhaustibly. Whole shows such as Love Boat and Fantasy Island serve no other purpose than to show adored
personalities in new settings. Made-fortelevision movies are new showcases for the likes of Henry Winkler, alias the Fonz, who’ll turn up as an updated Scrooge in An American Christmas Carol, John Ritter, of Three's Company, plays a has-been baseball player in The New Season, while wee Gary Coleman, of DifTrent Strokes, plays an up-andcoming one in The Kid From Left Field.
Meanwhile, ex-Angel Kate Jackson teams up with her husband, Andrew Stevens, in a remake of Topper, while sister Angel, Cheryl Ladd, joins Vega$’
Robert Urich in a drama about child abuse called A New Start. Dimmer stars who haven’t yet landed a network movie or shampoo contract can content themselves with stunts on Network Battle of the Celebrities, guest-hostships on The People 's Choice awards, or a cubicle on Hollywood Squares.
The surprise amid all this feverish activity is that some of the shows so cynically conceived prove to be watchable, appealing, even halfway intelligent or witty. Even more surprising is that some “serious” programming man-
ages to get produced. What makes the CBC a noble North American resource— a network that frequently manages to outclass the high seriousness of the educational outfits—is not its week-toweek lineup of comedy, cops-and-robbers and variety shows, but its special programs. Often these constitute the class acts of television on the continent.
Following in the august footsteps of Sir Kenneth Clark, Jacob Bronowski, John Kenneth Galbraith and Dr. Jonathan Miller is fiddler Yehudi Menuhin, in an eight-hour series The Music of Man. Menuhin is the spry, sharp host of an examination of music (what it is, what it means, how people use it) which ranges from Gregorian chant to Judy Collins. An equally droll—not to say, often eccentric—course in civic history and geography is Cities, in which 13 celebrities (legitimate ones, including Glenn Gould on Toronto and Peter Ustinov on Leningrad) take viewers on Cook’s tours of beloved metropolises. The Medicine Show treats health care in an investigative-journalism format, and not a moment too soon.
Early in the new year, Patrick Watson will host a seven-hour look at what makes the country tick in The Canadian Establishment, drawn from the bestseller by Peter C. Newman. Among more limited specials are Dieppe 19J+2, coming in November, a wrenching documentary of what went wrong on one of the bloodiest days of the Second World War. Harry Rasky turns his lens on a playwright in Arthur Miller on Home Ground, a documentary which includes footage of many classic stage and film performances of Miller’s works.
On the next rung down are the dramatic specials, highlighted by Crossbar, starring Brent Carver in the story of an Olympic high jumper who loses a leg but is determined to jump again in 1980 at Moscow. Other entries include The
Wordsmith, a Mordecai Richler drama. Extended dramatic series (or mini-series, to use the abominable term) include Edward and Mrs. Simpson, more tony nostalgia for imperial days; Growing Up Jewish in Sault Ste. Marie; and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, from the John Le Carré book. CTV offers flashier, trashier stuff: Haywire stars Lee Remick and Jason Robards in a true drama about growing up absurd in Hollywood, based on Brooke Hayward’s reminiscence. And last year’s mini-series spawns a full-fledged one in From Here to Eternity: The War Years, using Pearl Harbor the way Hawaii Five-0 used the rest of the islands.
Canadian programming differs from that south of the border mainly in its wealth of music and variety shows, on which, down there, Mary Tyler Moore seems to have danced the coffin lid shut in her dismal, two-phase return to television last season. CBC’s wide-ranging Spectrum series gets a gala send-off with The Gala, a full-scale concert pres-
entation featuring Maureen Forrester, Yehudi Menuhin, Jean-Pierre Rampai, dancers, pianists and anybody else who makes music. There are more Superspecials than anyone would want to shake a stick at. CTV expands Circus to a full hour, and does promise some good singing in specials, chief among them one featuring the duo that has been signed for the film version of Bob (Cabaret) Fosse’s smash musical Chicago, Goldie Hawn and Liza Minnelli.
With special and variety programming out of the way, we come to the grim business of looking at what constitutes most evenings of television viewing. To wit, sitcoms, cops-and-robbers shows and a few in-betweeners that are neither meat nor fowl nor good red herring. The thinking that afflicts the bulk of such programming is so pervasive, so derivative, so close to larceny that individual comments need not be offered. Let’s take a look, instead, at Out of the Blue, a basket that has, judging by its premiere on CTV, very many eggs laid carefully in it.
Joining that growing gaggle of court jesters, the young, single princelings of the sitcom (Henry Winkler, Robin Williams, John Ritter, Ron Howard) is James Brogan. He plays Random, of all names; an angel—yes, an angel from heaven, not one of the braless sleuths— sent to Chicago to keep watch over a family of unruly orphans. Their financial situation is curious—prosperous enough to afford a black cook-housekeeper who sings gospel tunes, yet strained enough to force them to accept Random as a boarder. There’s a loopy aunt from the South, a sop to the audience in Carter country. There are lots of angelic stunts that bring all the wonders of the special-effects team to the fore. And, in another of those recurring cameos to which television relegates its senior actresses of some worth (Cloris Leachman, Nancy Walker), Eileen Heckart appears from time to time as Boss Angel, whose name seems to be a circumlocution for the deity.
But even the presence of Herself was apparently not a big enough drawing card, at least on the first night, when television goes for broke. So Random summoned, to prove his celestial provenance, none other than Robin Williams, as Mork from Ork. Mork appeared no less than three times in this already over-cluttered hour (as the other Angels in their season premiere boarded the Love Boat, as Láveme and Shirley made their annual pilgrimage to Happy Days). His schizzy, hyperkinetic presence, as usual, made one lunge for the Valium.
Perhaps it was thought that Brogan
was not exciting enough for the overactive viewers who get their video fix from Mork & Mindy. He’s a long, shambly drink of water who says stuff like “Hey, guys . . He’s clean-cut, wholesome, nice. These inadequacies are fully covered by every trick in the book, the gee-whiz special effects, the oddball characters, the five quirky kids racketing around the house like pinballs. Ray Charles once said, “Ain’t no son of a bitch livin’ who can say what’ll hit”; but duly covered, Out of the Blue will hit.
What else will? One hopes that CTV’s The Associates will, but its predecessor, The Paper Chase, died after one season. The John Houseman character has been softened into a dotty octogenarian senior partner of the law firm, played by Wilfred Hyde-White, who might inherit Mary Tyler Moore’s mantle as North America’s Sweetheart. The show is put together by the team responsible for last year’s Emmy Award-winning Taxi, one of the few shows on the air that pre-
serves the good-natured, well-acted ensemble comedy pioneered by Mary Tyler Moore and continued in Barney Miller. Achievements of that order are not to be scorned. Benson is the story of a black butler in a governor’s mansion who secretly runs the state, and its hope, too, is in the quality of its writing and acting. CTV’s other comedy entrants, Nobody's Perfect and BJ and the Bear, are the weak links in the chain. Flappers is the CBC’s flagship sitcom this season, from the King of Kensington team. Set in a nightclub in 1920s Montreal, the show beguiles by way of the smashing-looking girls in their cloches, beads and slinky costunes, the appealing music and the dynamics of the half English-, half French-Canadian cast. What it lacks is writing and plotting. The same deficiencies subvert Nellie, Daniel, Emma & Ben, which is about four senior citizens tired of nursing homes who band together and rent a house. The oldest cast member, Alicia Ammon, is 94, and one of her colleagues, Jack Ammon, is her son. One would have been content to watch this endearing foursome ad-lib for hours. Instead, they were buried in plots that show no respect for seniority.
The detective shows, once a bright spot on television, seem to have exhausted themselves utterly. The writing
is banal, the plots so rehashed they resemble a puree. Hart to Hart, with Robert Wagner and Stephanie Powers as McMillan and Wife, or Nick and Nora Charles, looks the pick of the litter. An adventure series starring a dog is The Littlest Hobo, making a comeback with a descendant of the original dog. So much for the season, except for firstrun movies, including Jaws, Annie Hall and Coming Home. May it gladden the hearts and enrich the lives of millions.
What television is moving toward on the cusp of the ’80s is an endless hotdog, a single program (even including commercials), now funny, now thrilling, occasionally sad or heartwarming, available on any channel. Since, despite the success of some Canadian-produced shows and the excellence of programming at its often-overlooked best, the dominant video influence in the country—the continent—is the programs produced around Hollywood and sold to the highest bidder. So the apex of the television season—carried recently by the CBC—is the Emmy Awards, an event tantamount to a state occasion, a wedding or coronation, in the extended royal family that ruled Europe at the turn of the century.
Royalty was out in force: Mary Tyler Moore, Walter Cronkite, even Milton Berle, granted the sobriquet “Mr.Television” in perpetuity. They were attended, in harder-working roles, by the princesses and princelings. It was a celebration of celebrity itself, its superstars that night including President Jimmy Carter (in a filmed statement), Benji the Wonder Dog, Miss Piggy, an Angel and the Fonz and, during commercial breaks, even the Kraft pair of hands, tirelessly plying spatulas in mixing bowls, wrapping crescent rolls around unexpected stuffings, drawing triumphant casseroles out of brisk ovens. On television, even anonymity can be transmuted into celebrity.
With files from Rita Christopher