In the pilot episode of "Suddenly Susan" -- a new NBC sitcom starring Brooke Shields as a young woman suddenly on her own after leaving her fiance -- the lead character finds herself in bed with only the remote control for company.
She starts channel-surfing with the device, and one of the first things she hits upon is the opening of a rerun of the old "Mary Tyler Moore Show." As the chorus of voices on Susan's television assures Mary, "You're going to make it after all," our point of view is shifted from looking at Susan on the bed to showing us Mary on the screen and back again. The connection that the producers want us to make of Susan as Mary is hard to miss.
It might not quite qualify as what Abraham Lincoln called "mystic chords of memory," but the networks are working much of the same cognitive territory with many of their 39 new series this season. New characters have been created in the image and likeness of characters from television's past in hopes that they will trigger shared memories, warm feelings and big ratings.
The conventional story line for the new season is that viewers tuned out the networks last year because they had so many young, unknown actors in so many clones of NBC's "Friends" that you couldn't tell one from the other. Only six of the last season's 43 new shows survived, and combined audience share for NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox dropped to an all-time low. So, this year, the pendulum swings back with older stars, like Bill Cosby and Ted Danson on CBS, and familiar faces, like Michael J. Fox on ABC and Shields on NBC. End of story and case closed.
The story line is accurate as far as it goes. But the superficial, kneejerk assessment that often accompanies it is misleading. To critics, who generally like new and edgy, old and familiar often means bad and boring.
It is true that the networks are offering no groundbreaking series -- like "The Simpsons," "The X-Files," "Roseanne" or even "Murder One" -- but there are cultural patterns among the new shows that are genuinely provocative in terms of what commercial television will be saying this year about gender, race and generation.
In terms of gender, a story line that might be called "The Mary Narrative" -- taking its name from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," which debuted 26 years ago -- continues to dominate sitcoms about young women. The question is whether it has become a kind of mono-myth, rich in meaning and psychic energy for some young women making the passage into adulthood, or merely a tired, sitcom cliche from an industry sadly out of touch with where women are today.
On race, there are more black sitcoms than ever, but some
analysts fear they have been ghetto-ized to less-widely-viewed networks like UPN, while old-line broadcast networks become increasingly less diverse, like NBC on Thursday nights. Meanwhile, a generation of younger viewers is offered a wave of paranoid dramas based on Oliver-Stone-like conspiracy theories, which say the growing darkness is caused by the sins of their parents.
Ultimately, the most critical assessment of the new season is not the pseudo-aesthetic one that judges the shows somehow worse than last year. Instead, it is the culturally-based critique that finds new series speaking mainly to the differences among us -- making for network television that separates rather than unites its audience members.
Familiar faces are magnets
Since such cultural patterns are usually the by-product of decisions made for business reasons, any analysis of the new network season needs to start with the business of bringing back old stars and familiar faces.
"Viewers seek magnets for navigation -- finding their way and deciding what they are going to watch among all the program choices," said George Schweitzer, CBS executive vice president for marketing. "Viewers are looking for something to grab onto in those magnets, and this year, star power is that for us."
CBS is the network most committed to the familiar-faces strategy, since it was the biggest loser last year in its pursuit of youth. In losing some of its traditional baby-boomer and 50-plus audience, CBS fell to an all-time audience low.
"Star-power is a philosophy that fits with our demographic strength," said Les Moonves, president of CBS Entertainment. "Our research has showed us that, with older viewers, familiarity is a good thing."
So, six of the 10 new CBS series feature older, familiar faces who once starred in hit television series: Cosby and Phylicia Rashad in "Cosby," Danson along with Mary Steenburgen in "Ink," Rhea Perlman in "Pearl," Gerald McRaney on "Promised Land," Ken Olin and Jason Gedrick in "EZ Streets" and Peter Strauss in "Maloney."
"Ink" -- a sitcom starring Danson as a reporter at a New York City tabloid whose new boss is his ex-wife (Steenburgen, Danson's real-life wife) -- tries to tap into shared television memory in its pilot when Danson's character turns on the television set for company in the middle of night only to surf upon a rerun of "Cheers." (For those readers who might have been held captive in a Turkish prison throughout the 1980s, Danson starred as Sam Malone in "Cheers" -- one of the most successful sitcoms ever.)
As for "Cosby," this time his character is a former airline company employee downsized into early retirement rather than an upscale medical doctor, but it is impossible to watch him and Rashad tease each other without thinking of Cliff and Clair Huxtable of "The Cosby Show," an '80s sitcom that was even more successful than "Cheers."
For his part, Cosby acknowledges the connection, saying, "Yes, there are similarities. Yes, they're in bed together, and many of the moods and ideas are the same. But the situations he (Cosby's character) will get into are quite different."
Viewers will see that same continuity of character between Michael J. Fox's Michael Flaherty character on ABC's "Spin City" and the Alex P. Keaton character he played on "Family Ties," another '80s sitcom that was almost as successful as "Cheers" and "The Cosby Show."
Ted Harbert, the chairman of ABC Entertainment, says going with familiar faces has its pluses and minuses, but the key is in continuity of character.
"Pluses: In this world of so many choices and so many promotion messages thrown at viewers, having someone who is pre-sold, someone the audience is familiar with, helps you break through the clutter and improve initial sampling," Harbert says.
On the minus side, he said, the risks are much greater in that established stars can "be incredibly expensive," as well as difficult to work with.
Harbert understates the case.
"Cosby," "Ink" and "Suddenly Susan" have all gone through major rewrites, as well as huge changes in producers, writers and supporting casts. Cosby replaced co-star Telma Hopkins with Rashad on the eve of the filming of the pilot episode. "Suddenly Susan" scrapped most of the pilot and everybody in it -- including such established supporting players as Elizabeth Ashley -- keeping only Shields.
As for "Ink," CBS fired the producers last month, hired Diane English (of "Murphy Brown" fame), and trashed the first four episodes, which had already been filmed -- such a major overhaul that the premiere, which had been scheduled for tomorrow night, has been postponed until Oct. 21. CBS is in danger of losing a minimum $10 million if English can't salvage the troubled sitcom.
"The biggest intangible in the minus category is that the audience develops expectations and a certain relationship with the star over the years," Harbert says.
"If the star comes back and does something that doesn't meet those expectations, viewers can sort of just pass on you. That's why I think our risk at ABC with Michael J. Fox is minimal by comparison, because this guy is clearly playing what everyone loves to see him play."
Just in case any viewers aren't making the connection between Fox's Flaherty and Keaton characters, there's a nifty bit of postmodern playfulness and memory jogging near the end of the pilot as Flaherty passes a janitor pushing a broom down a darkened office corridor late at night.
"Goodnight, Mr. Flaherty," the janitor says.
"'Night, Skippy," Flaherty mumbles, offering an answer to those viewers who might be wondering what ever happened to Irwin "Skippy" Handelman (Marc Price), the Keatons' goofy next-door neighbor in "Family Ties."
(While we are on the "Family Ties" track of memory lane, those fans wondering about Mallory Keaton, will be happy to note the return of Justine Bateman -- yet another familiar face -- to weekly television on a new NBC comedy, "Men Behaving Badly.")
'Mary Story' continues
"The Mary Narrative" also works on the principle of familiarity, but can save networks the cost of hiring performers who have already achieved great success on television. The idea here is that you try to link your new star to an icon from television's past -- as NBC is trying to do with Shields and Moore's Mary Richards character.
The pattern involves a young woman leaving home or ending a romantic relationship (often on her wedding day), coming to the city, trying to make it in the workplace and ultimately finding support, if not love, among new friends who are mostly female. Most often, her new job is in the media, she has a female sidekick as foil and the humor is supposed to come from the collision between her refined sensibilities and the workaday world.
Last season's most successful Mary clone was NBC's "Caroline in the City," with Lea Thompson as a young cartoonist in New York. It was the top-rated new series and the fourth highest-rated of all series in its "must-see" Thursday night spot on NBC.
Fred Barron, the executive producer of "Caroline," is very clear about the connection: "In terms of what we're trying to draw on, it sounds retro, but we all love the old "Mary Tyler Moore Show." We're looking at a kind of 'Mary for '90s' here."
As "Caroline" moves to Tuesdays, this year's Mary clone, "Suddenly Susan," assumes its cozy 9: 30 Thursday-night slot between "Seinfeld" and "ER" -- assuring it big ratings at least for the first few weeks of the season if the producers can iron out the more serious problems.
"I think the link is a strong one," says Warren Littlefield, NBC Entertainment president, explaining that his confidence in the series is based in part on its connection to the Mary television archetype.
That link will also be seen in "Lush Life" on Fox, "Relativity" on ABC and "Naked Truth," which moves from ABC to NBC and finds star Tea Leoni remade more in the image of Mary this season.
The big question, though, is whether the formula is still relevant to women. When it first appeared in "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" in 1970, it met with forces in society -- various aspects of "The Women's Movement" making their way into mainstream consciousness -- so that it connected with the real lives of many Baby Boomer women starting careers in jobs that had been closed to their mothers and grandmothers.
Furthermore, while men had the "hero quest" as a road map for their passage into adulthood with such works as, say, Saul Bellow's "The Adventures of Augie March," there was no similar, mass model for women in American life until "The Mary Narrative" came to television.
But, even by 1990 -- when "Murphy Brown" moved into the Nielsen Top 10 with its updated version of "Mary with an attitude entering middle-age" -- you had to wonder if it wasn't getting to be a television cliche.
"I think it's now a matter of the standard Hollywood wisdom, 'If it worked last time, let's try it again,' said Dr. Shirley Peroutka, who teaches courses on television and gender at Goucher College. "But it really seems particularly behind the times today with its outmoded attitude toward women."
Peroutka said the current crop of series like "Caroline" are especially problematic in that they regularly exploit rather than explore the notion of women in the workplace.
"Yes, you have the single woman in the working world, but the major emphasis is on her dating life. The workplace is just a backdrop for these desperate, neurotic women looking for the next date.
"It's a very worn-out formula and very incomplete way of viewing female experience. It's really kind of the 'Cosmopolitan' attitude, isn't it?" Peroutka said.
Nowhere is that attitude more apparent than in "Party Girl," a sitcom that the Fox network describes as "girl coming of age." From the pilot, it looks more like "girl into dates, clothes, parties." Based on the feature film of the same title, it stars Christine Taylor -- Marcia in "The Brady Bunch" movies -- as Mary, the party girl. Instead of having a girl-buddy, like virtually every leading female sitcom character from the original Mary's Rhoda to Cybill's Mary Ann, this Mary has a gay guy as sidekick. That is what qualifies as originality this year.
There's more coming of age in ABC's "Clueless" and "Sabrina, The Teenage Witch." The former is based on the feature film about teen life in Beverly Hills. The latter is based on the Archie Comics' heroine, with Melissa Joan Hart, from "Clarissa Explains It All," as the 16-year-old who discovers she has magical powers. It is, of course, really about discovering sexuality in adolescence, and how you wish it were less exploitative and just a bit more thoughtful.
But, perhaps the most maddening female series of the season is ABC's "Townies" sitcom, with Molly Ringwald, Jenna Elfman and Lauren Graham as three friends working in a New England restaurant. A show with the potential to say something worth hearing about female and working-class solidarity, it looks from the pilot to be nothing more than a blue-collar-lite version of "Friends" with three young women desperate about having dates and sexual relationships. Viewers who saw "Mystic Pizza," the feature film with Julia Roberts, ought to really hate this tinny knockoff.
In the end, the most promising pilot for a women's show is ABC's "Relativity," from the producers of "thirtysomething" and "My So-Called Life." It's a drama about a young woman on the verge of matrimony who dumps her fiance for an American she meets on holiday in Italy. While there's a lot of Mary in 24-year-old Isabel Lukens (Kimberly Williams), the operative archetype may be a slightly older one named Juliet -- as in "Romeo and " from one of the top producers of popular drama in Elizabethan England.
One last thought on gender concerns NBC's "Men Behaving Badly," a sitcom that proudly bills itself as being politically incorrect on matters of gender. It is about two knuckleheaded guys who drink lots of beer and leer at women. The leering -- think about it in terms of the culturally loaded category of men gazing at women -- makes this a show that deserves to be singled out for its depressingly dumb sensibility.
Questions arise about race
But, if gender is problematic this fall, race is downright troubling to some analysts.
Even though there are more new series featuring African-American characters than ever, only one of them, "Cosby," is on ABC, NBC or CBS -- the Big Three. Furthermore, Fox, which had been a home for black sitcoms since its debut in 1980, has no new ones this year.
"Everybody knows that the networks have abandoned black shows this year, for whatever reason," said Ed. Weinberger, the executive producer of UPN's "Sparks," a new sitcom about an inner-city law firm, starring James Avery, Robin Givens, Miguel A. Nunez and Terrence Howard.
"Sparks" is one of four black sitcoms that make up the Monday night lineup on the UPN network. Of the nine regular UPN series, six feature black casts. In addition to "Sparks," they are: "Homeboys in Outer Space," 'Moesha," "Goode Behavior," "Malcolm and Eddie" and "In the House." On WB, the other part-time network, the pattern holds with five of its 11 series being black: "The Steve Harvey Show," "Sister, Sister," "The Wayan Bros.," "The Jamie Foxx Show" and "The Parent 'Hood."
Meanwhile, on NBC, the No. 1 network network with viewers, there are no shows with all or predominantly black casts. The series with the highest percentage of black cast members on NBC is "Homicide."
In fact, the question has been raised whether NBC is consciously avoiding black shows since it canceled "In The House," a sitcom that it also produces, from its Monday night schedule in May, and then sold it to UPN, where it will air this season. (Two of UPN's series came from ABC and one from Fox.)
NBC's Littlefield said "In The House" was canceled because network officials thought it would not attract a large enough audience without the lead-in of "Fresh Prince," a sitcom starring Will Smith that went off the air in May when Smith decided to leave the show. Littlefield said NBC had planned to try and retool "In the House" this year, but UPN came to NBC in May and said it would like to air the show as is. Thus, it was more cost-effective for NBC to produce the show for WB than to try to retool it as a crossover for its own network, according to Littlefield.
"The diversity issue is a terribly important one for us," Littlefield said. "I think as we go forward -- just as our goal was to get some strong female voices at the center of our comedies, which led to "Caroline" and "Suddenly Susan" -- our goal is to get more minorities on some of our must-see shows."
As for this season, though, the must-see Thursday night block of comedy shows set in New York is all-white. In fact, every night is mostly white on NBC from 8 to 10 p.m. While television executives tap-dance around the edge of the race issue when asked about the new segregation of black shows to part-time networks, the fact is that the big networks don't want black sitcoms and dramas, because the black television audience is not large enough to make a network show a ratings success by mainstream standards. WB and UPN are much smaller -- WB doesn't even have an outlet in Baltimore -- so they can afford to narrowcast to blacks.
"Obviously, it's a program strategy that they [WB and UPN] are going for," Littlefield said. "They're going for very young, very urban. I don't know that all those choices are real broad-based shows. I don't know if "Homeboys in Outer Space" is going to be a mass-audience hit."
Fox has used the black strategy for years -- most recently counterprogramming the all-white Thursday night sitcoms on NBC with "Martin" and "Living Single."
When asked why he had no new black sitcoms this year, John Matoian, the president of Fox Entertainment, said, "We're not running away from them. But, would we pursue them to spread it further across our schedule? Probably not."
As for whether he thinks WB and UPN are "ghetto-izing" ethnic shows, Matoian said, "That's a hard one to answer, because I think they are simply looking at what they think is a need to be filled. I do think, though, that ultimately it turns out to separate rather than to embrace and integrate."
Lucy Salhany, the president of UPN, responded angrily to that suggestion, saying, "Comedy is comedy, and people want to laugh. And I'm very concerned about the term 'ghetto-izing.' I, too, am worried about the country. I'm worried about the polarity that's being fed. But I have not heard anyone refer to 8 to 10 p.m. on NBC as 'two hours of white programming.' "
As for UPN's black shows, Salhany said, "They're comedies. Our stars are very funny. Our producers are very good. Some are going to fail. But are they going to fail because they're not funny or because we have African-Americans starring in them? I'm a little frustrated by that question [about 'ghetto-izing' and its potential for dividing viewers]."
Weinberger -- a winner of 13 Emmy awards whose sitcom pedigree stretches back to writing and producing for "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," as well as co-creating and producing such hits as "Taxi" and "The Cosby Show" -- said he, too, is frustrated by the question and what he calls the "context" that white newspaper and magazine critics are creating for "Sparks."
"We have a black cast, we tape before black audiences, and everybody is happy with the show," said Weinberger, who is white.
"Then, I read white newspaper critics -- some of whom I bet have no contact with the black community -- saying we have black stereotypes in the show and shouldn't be on the air. How would they know? Who appointed them the race police? But they can lead people who might never see the show to believe what they are saying is true.
"What we need is a forum of some kind to have a full-scale, wide-open, honest discussion about race, television, ethnic humor and what's going on this year with the networks abandoning black shows."
The only new sitcom with black stars on the Big Three this year is CBS' "Cosby," with Cosby and Rashad, but some viewers are going to be surprised by what a large role Madeline Kahn has as third wheel.
"Cosby is in a category by himself, with his wide appeal," Weinberger said. "That's a crossover show. We hope we will have some crossover with a show like 'Sparks,' but we set out to make a black show for an urban audience. There's a difference."
The young and paranoid
The biggest division of all this fall, though, could turn out to be a matter of age or generation. There are a number of shows distinctive for their dark, almost paranoid, worldview -- and all of them are targeted at young viewers.
If you are one of the millions of fans of Fox Television's "The X-Files," you have already encountered this sensibility with its weird camera angles, long shadows, and scenes set in deep forests, basements, sewer systems and underground garages. It a universe of conspiracies, whispers, secret tape recordings and a government that lies to its own employees and "terminates" those citizens who discover its dirty secrets. The biggest lies are about what "really happened" in 1963 on that grassy knoll in Dallas and in 1947 in the desert near Roswell, N.M.
The tone and worldview will be most apparent in NBC's "Dark Skies," a Saturday-night drama that reimagines post-World War II American history as the result of a war between alien invaders and a secret government agency, and "Millennium," another Fox show from Chris Carter, the creator of "The X-Files" and easily the hottest producer in television this year. "Millennium," which takes over the Fox Friday night time slot previously held by "The X-Files," is about a former FBI agent who joins forces with a secret law-enforcement group fighting the forces of darkness as the millennium approaches.
The shows might sound strange, but the pilots for "Dark Skies" and "Millennium" are compelling. They are two of best pilots of the season. In fact, most of the best new drama this year will be found in this category with such shows as CBS' "EZ Streets," starring Ken Olin and Jason Gedrick working opposite sides of the law on a bleak urban frontier, and NBC's "Profiler," about another former FBI agent who can see into the minds of serial killers just like Carter's hero on "Millennium."
As was discussed at greater length in these pages last month, the tremendous success of "The X-Files" -- especially with younger viewers -- is a major part of the explanation for the appearance of all the dark drama this year. And a major part of the appeal of the "The X-Files" for young viewers is its message that all the conspiracies, pollution, cover-ups, assassinations and confusion gripping the world today is the result of the sins of the fathers of the generation that includes agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson). Translation: If you are over 45 or so, you are just as guilty as Richard Nixon, "the ghost animating the machinery of "The X-Files,' "' in the words of Dr. Allison Graham, of the University of Memphis.
"Mulder and Scully move through an underworld of their fathers' creation," Graham writes in "Trust No One: Reading The X-Files," a book of essays on the series that will be published next month by Syracuse University Press. "Mulder's father is guilty of covert crimes and the possible disappearance of his own daughter; Scully's father is a military officer who speaks after his death through the medium of a mass murderer."
The young agents must redeem the world from the parental sins to keep the darkness from spreading.
There is so much of the darkness this fall that one could describe a large part of the new season as a battle between the growing night and those forces of light who fight it. From the scientists in UPN's "The Burning Zone" fighting killer viruses, to Gerald McRaney beating back his own despair at being jobless and trying to keep his family together in a down-sized America on CBS' "Promised Land," there are traditional heroes trying to hold back the night.
But, in the end, the darkness itself -- at least the darkness as imagined by Carter and his imitators -- is the larger and more interesting presence on the prime-time landscape. At least, that is how it will probably look to younger viewers.
Younger vs. older, men vs. women, whites vs. blacks. On Monday nights this fall, ABC has football for men, while CBS has "Murphy Brown" and 'Cybill" for baby boomer women. Fox has "Melrose Place" for twentysomethings, while UPN has sitcoms for blacks and NBC has "Jeff Foxworthy" for rural whites.
Yes, we will all be watching television this season; more and more of us spend more and more time watching each year. But it is not television as some mythic electronic campfire, with all of us happily gathered 'round in a communal experience sharing vTC the same tales -- the image that the networks like to present of themselves as this great unifying force in American life.
It is instead each of us -- divided by age, gender, race, education, geography and income -- surfing across the galaxy of flickering video images in the remote-controlled, cable-wired and satellite-fed isolation of our homes.
UPN's Salhany is right to worry "about the country the polarity that is being fed."
Pub Date: 9/15/96