Perhaps the most telling sign of what’s happening—or not happening—to television this season is that the CBC, by bureaucratic fiat, has abridged prime time to three hours. With the NABET strike, a writers’ strike in the U.S. and a general tepidness of creativity among programmers, it is plausible that pushing The National an hour forward was a move of desperation. Very simply, there may have been nothing else to fill a choice adult hour.
Since the great renaissance of the sitcoms in the early ’70s and the debut of Dallas in 1978, producers have been unable to dream up a show to catch the popular imagination. The time-honored genres—sitcoms, detective thrillers, song-and-dance pageants—seem to have been mined out, and the most innovative video geneticists of the industry are breeding hybrids. Hill Street Blues (NBC and independent Canadian stations) is the closest thing this season has to a hit. The critically acclaimed police series failed to draw an audience
last winter and was under the guillotine blade when it won a record eight Emmys. Slightly shamed, the network headsmen gave it a stay of execution, and now it’s drawing respectable audiences. Like many of the new hybrids, Blues (referring, punningly, to the uniformed cops in a tough urban precinct) is a jarring mixture of slapstick and mayhem, social comment and soapy melodrama. Viewers needed time to catch on; this was no blithe and understated Barney Miller.
But even though they pull the rug out from under the expectations of a passive audience, the hybrids are enjoying a slowly growing loyalty. Launched midway through the 1980-’81 season, The Greatest American Hero is now a fixture on the ABC and CTV schedules. It teams the winning charm of Redford look-alike William Katt with the grumpy manipulability of Robert Culp in an unlikely vehicle about a high school teacher who inherits a flying suit from a UFO. Drawing wickedly on the success of Supermen I and II, Hero works because it takes itself even less
seriously than the blockbuster movies. A similar mix enlivens Simon & Simon (CBS/CTV), about a pair of brother gumshoes, one a smooth preppie (Jameson Parker), the other a rough-and-tumble cowpoke (Gerald McRaney), who are constantly short of cash and do nothing right. They come up aces nonetheless,
thanks to a feisty mother and a stable of toothsome secretaries who bail them out. Fame (NBC/CTV), a hybrid of a different sort, cloned from the hit musical, lures the teenaged audience with the maudlin ups and downs of students in a New York high school for the performing arts and manages to sneak in some musical numbers of the sort once seen on old variety shows.
Of course, shaking up cocktails recklessly with whatever bottles come to hand doesn’t always pay off. Although Flangin' In (CBC) boasts an estimable cast led by Lally Cadeau, a promising premise set in a social-services agency catering to children and teenagers, and some better than average scripting, it lacks that final gram of creative pectin to make it jell. The comedy is not situational; its meagre laughs are lithographed on the surface.
For those shows that linger within conventional genres, the results are disappointing. Not since the days of The Trouble with Tracy and My Mother the Car has the sitcom been so down-at-theheels. Best of the West ( A BC and independent Canadian stations) displays the comic timing and instinct of a sullen drunk in a frontier saloon. In spite of the success of Blazing Saddles, maybe the burly mythology of the wild West doesn’t jibe well with farce.
Most of the sitcoms seem to revolve
around chaotic households filled with bevies of post-pubescent daughters, and tasteless intergenerational innuendo is the order of the day. Gimme a Break (NBC) at least offers the poise and pizzazz of Broadway star Nell Carter. But the others, such as Too Close for Comfort (ABC/CBC), rely on such recycled second bananas as Ted Knight to shake
some energy into them. Knight does so more authentically than Tony Randall in Love, Sidney (NBC). Although the Moral Majority objected to the title character’s homosexuality, you must need a hotline to the deity to figure this cautiously wholesome series out. And Michael Learned, late of The Waltons, does a modernist update on Sue Barton, Student Nurse in, what else, Nurse (CBS and independent Canadian stations).
Semiretired, or just plain tired, actresses and actors are having a television heyday. Most1 slcome among them is Jonathan Winters on Mork and Mindy (ABC/CBC), whose anarchic frenzy keeps the upstart Robin Williams relatively humble. Even Lana Turner has reportedly been lured to television by a crass sum of cash to guest-star on one of the most feverishly ambitious series ever witnessed, Falcon Crest (CBS/CTV). The latest of several sumptuously produced challengers to Dallas' glitzy soap throne, it presents as its queen bee, hovering over the vine blossoms in California’s monied wine country, the original Reaganwoman, Jane Wyman. The part is so determined and prosaic that the incumbent, Nancy, could pinch-hit without a ripple were Wyman ever indisposed.
There are queen bees and there are Queens for a Day. Wish fulfilment is the mainstay of a clutch of inordinately
popular “real life” programs. CTV’s Thrill of a Lifetime shamelessly realizes fantasies as tawdry as becoming a Playboy centrefold and as nostalgic as shooting pool with Minnesota Fats; after four episodes, the program doubled its audience. Following the lead of such populist diversions as You Asked for It and That ’s Incredible,it employs the conceit of inviting live, on-camera audiences to watch films along with the stay-at-homes.
What remains hardest to ignore this season, and is more extreme than even the last few hand-to-mouth years, is
that programming is increasingly tentative. Sacred niches for “new” shows are extinct. Instead, they are shuttled around the schedule by nervous executives, turning possible fans into bloodhounds as they sniff out their quarry until they drop from exhaustion. Old shows are given new names (Archie Bunker’s Place), new characters (Mork) and new “days and times,” the most frequent words heard over television speakers. Competition from cable and pay TV, and even from electronic video games, is eroding the hegemony of the networks. Possibly the creative lights of television have so many more options and so many more channels to serve that the drive to create a long-term hit has dissipated. As well, with a plethora of specials, dramas, documentaries and short-term series available, audiences no longer need to lock themselves into lacklustre series. It is no accident that the only surefire nightly success is the news: at least the material is guaranteed to be fresh.
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