NBC seems to be trying to improve its demographic targeting on Saturday night, but in doing so has damaged the quality of its lineup.
The network has removed the quirky, charming new show "The Torklesons" from the 8:30 slot and replaced it with a bland newcomer called "Walter and Emily," which will premiere Saturday night on Channel 2 (WMAR).
This makes sense only if you realize that the show in that time slot is the running mate of "The Golden Girls," now at 8 o'clock. "The Torklesons" focused on the world as viewed through the eyes of a 14-year-old girl stuck in a weird family. "Walter and Emily" is about an aging couple often stuck with raising their 11-year-old grandson.
So that makes the title characters of "Walter and Emily" of the same generation as that loveable trio -- quartet if you count Sophia -- on "The Golden Girls." We're talking smooth audience flow here.
"Walter and Emily" takes another page from "The Golden Girls" how-to-succeed handbook -- cast talented older actors so that even if they are saddled with a mediocre script, they can wring every possible laugh out of it.
In this case, it's Brian Keith and Cloris Leachman as our bickering, battling, but loveable, duo. They've been married 38 years and their divorced son has moved back in with them so they can care for his son since his job as a sportswriter is always taking him on the road.
There was only one problem with NBC's carefully laid plans to fit this into their geriatric Saturday night -- it's a lousy show. Oh, Keith can play a curmudgeon with the best of them and he has a nice moment or two, but Leachman has always been a better dramatic actress. The only way she knows how to play comedy is to overplay it. That works in a Mel Brooks movie, but not in a family sitcom.
In Saturday's pilot episode, Dad is off to cover a boxing match and his little tyke is reluctant to go to school. Turns out the local bully has been pushing him around. The advice he gets at home, and the results, are strictly out of the cliche handbook.
Tough guy Grandpa tells him to fight back, while overprotective Grandma tells him to be kind and gentle. The kid follows the old man's line and gets suspended. Yikes! Stop me if you've heard this before.
This script could have been recycled from an Our Gang one-reeler. It's almost as if the producers wanted to show the network exactly how talented their actors are because look what they can do with hackneyed, horrible material like this.
Actually, they can't do that much.
And speaking of producers, this is yet another show from the Witt-Thomas team that gives NBC the rest of its Saturday night sitcoms. Unlike those shows, this one was not created by Susan Harris. However, its writers have taken a cue from that prolific writer -- emphasize the scatological.
In "Walter and Emily" that means giving Emily a fixation about bowel movements. It's part of her cliched approach to life -- she's overly concerned about everybody's health. But she insists on talking about the state of everyone's large intestine and its relationship to their well-being. Funny stuff.
The best moments of "Walter and Emily" come at a diner where Walter hangs out with a couple of old cronies played by Sandy Baron and Shelley Berman, more fodder for "The Golden Girls" generation. But these are purely comic asides in a show that needs more substance in the center.
That's the bad news. The good news is that "The Torklesons" is not dead and buried but has been resurrected and will join NBC's Sunday night schedule next month, teamed in the 7 o'clock hour with another of the new season's bright spots, "Eerie, Indiana."