The comedies were the problem, and the problem with TV comedies is that even the best of them are virtually 100% dependent on writers—and that doesn’t mean plots, but gags. The directors are faceless; the actors, even wonderful performers like Maureen Stapleton, are frozen. A persona for the lead actor/actress (and for each minor character) is established, and it’s never tampered with. Switching writers doesn’t help; even a plot that involves a character “changing,” or self-consciously stepping out of his/her stereotype for a show (a comedy stand-by) always ends with the character discovering that he/she must remain the same. All that’s up for grabs is whether a writer can make, say, Ted Baxter (the stuffed-shirt anchor man of the TV newsroom The Mary Tyler Moore Show spins its plots off of) even more Baxterish than he was in the previous episode. If a writer can squeeze a bit more of the persona out of a character, you get off; if not, you’ve seen the show before. And once you’ve figured out who does what and who gets what kind of lines—which takes from one to three shows—there’s nothing left. The plots themselves are usually so contrived most shows die about twenty minutes in because they only have two minutes of “ideas” to work with; any ordinary TV fan can psyche a sitcom plot before the first commercial. If the best network comedy show is M*A*S*H, it’s only because M*A*S*H has the perfect combination of a) persona and actor, in the laconic Hawkeye as played by the brilliant, wasted Alan Alda, and b) good writers. But it’s rare that a show offers something you remember halfway into the next one.
This night, however, The Mary Tyler Moore Show came up with a classic moment. The set-up had to do with the newsroom looking for a new face to present “the woman’s point of view” on the air. Auditions are held; Mary tries out. You see her presentation; that of her main adversary, who manages to mix recipes, fashion news, and cleaning hints into a lovely account of mudslide disasters in Alaska; and a quick flash of a black woman named Enid. You know she’ll get the job and does. Plot nailed to the floor, cut and dried. Then, all wrapped up, just as the show is ending, Enid spots Ted Baxter preening his way out the door. “Oh, Mr. Baxter,” Enid cries, “we’re going to be working together! Remember me from the auditions?” Baxter turns on his heel and looks her in the eye. “Of course I remember you,” he snaps, as Enid begins to glow. “You’re the black one.”
Oh, it cut. Compared to the rest of the show, this display of pure nerve—you could feel the malice and the delight the writers must have felt when they got that one through—was like being ambushed by a tidal wave in the middle of Modesto.
It was media shock: one of those times when, having been so exposed to the rules of a given form that you have completely accepted them, you find the rules blasted apart—blasted apart by what, later on, seems like the most marginal alteration. I remember the first time I bought a rock ‘n’ roll album with a four-minute cut on it (3.57, actually), back in 1964; I didn’t believe it. I suppose I’d just come to think it was technologically impossible. I knew how The Mary Tyler Moore Show worked, hoped for some wit, expected banality—but it never occurred to me that the show could get tough, even nasty.Shocks like this are probably the only realm of freedom in network series shows—the result, I imagine, of writers getting together to try to put one over, not to “express themselves” but to make some gesture at busting up the joint. I like to think of the guy who wrote the last line of The Mary Tyler Moore Show inviting all his friends over to savor the moment with him when it came on—and I’ll bet whoever it was that snuck the fifteen-year-old Ronald Reagan Boraxo commercial into the first fifteen minutes of “Creature Features” did the same. I like to think of him cackling as I stared bug-eyed at the set, thinking, “I’m not really seeing this, am I? This isn’t real?”
Such are the joys of Saturday night.
Special Announcement: Now showing Monday through Friday, at 11 PM on Channel 2, are re-runs of the best comedy series in television history: Sgt. Bilko with Phil Silvers (originally titled, and wonderfully, You’ll Never Get Rich). Watch this space for a detailed report; in the meantime, just watch.
Sunday, Dec. 29
—5 PM, Ch. 5: Perry Mason cracks “The Case of the Witless Child,” and is immediately answered at 6 PM, same channel, by The Case for the Limited Child (a documentary on mental retardation, and a new breakthrough for the Society for the Advancement of the Euphemism). Now that’s programming!
Monday, Dec. 30
—9 PM, Ch. 4: Frankenstein, The True Story. Another remake, this time with Sir John Gielgud, Agnes Moorehead, and James Mason. Continued Tuesday, Dec. 31, at 9 PM. Old monsters never die, they just…
—10 PM, Ch. 9: The Way It Was. Tonight the blast from the past of sports shows brings back the 1956 World Series between the Dodgers and the Yanks, starring Don Larsen’s perfect game, perhaps the greatest fluke in baseball. Old films with current interviews interspersed—a dumb format, but the footage is timeless.
Tuesday, Dec. 31
8 PM, Ch. 9: America—Money on the Land. “An intimate look at America’s first business tycoons.” Or, what Jay Gould and Andrew Carnegie did when no one was looking. Or, even monsters have a human side. Or, even humans have a monstrous side. Promising.
—10 PM, Ch. 9: Soundstage—Dr. John. Dr. John has gotten dull of late, but this show also features legendary New Orleans pianoman Professor Longhair (his first time on TV, I think), and rockmaster Allen Toussaint, producer of all those great early ’60s rock ‘n’ roll singles by Ernie K-Doe, Irma Thomas, and Lee Dorsey, and currently helpmate to countless white singers in the Warner-Reprise stable. A rare chance to see some of rock’s most underrated greats in action. (Repeated Sat., Jan 4, 10:30 PM)
Sunday, Dec. 29
—4 PM, Ch. 44: Believe it or not, Channel 44 has a Ronald Reagan festival going all this week (perhaps to celebrate his imminent loss of suzerainty, perhaps to remind us that THIS PERSON WAS OUR GOVERNOR!). At any rate, the series kicks off with Knute Rockne, All American (1940), with Ronnie croaking as the Gipper.
Monday, Dec. 30
—11:30 PM, Ch. 5: Head (1968). This was the Monkees movie. Some reports indicate it wasn’t so bad. On the other hand, some current rock critics searching for something to base a reputation on are now claiming that the Monkees were as good as the Beatles, which is as depressing a version of the Death of Rock as any other.
Thursday, Jan. 2
—9 PM, Ch. 5: The Wild Bunch (1969, Dir. Sam Peckinpah). The film that established Peckinpah as the Man Who Dripped Blood. Confused, sometimes messy, and very powerful, with Robert Ryan in one of his best roles. Sure to be butchered, so to speak, for TV.
—11:30 PM, Ch. 44: The Winning Team (1952). More of the Reagan festival, this time with Ron as drunken Hall-of-Famer Grover Cleveland Alexander, one of baseball’s greatest pitchers. Definitely OK.
Saturday, Jan. 4
—11:45 PM, Ch. 7: Deadfall (1968). Formula flick with Michael Caine as a jewel thief. Still, one of Caine’s better movies since Funeral In Berlin, and worth it for those of his fans that are still left.