We won’t hype you. This fall, if you’re looking for innovation, pick up a copy of Finnegans Wake and start reading. The 1991-92 TV season arrives after the cancellation of groundbreakers like thirtysomething and China Beach, and you can be sure that the notoriously cautious television industry has decided that familiarity, not originality, is the way to go. This fall’s new series trade on well-worn favorites — funny families, sexy detectives, grumpy grandpas — and showcase actors who have logged hundreds of hours on TV: Patrick Duffy, Connie Sellecca, Robert Guillaume, Suzanne Somers, Mark Harmon. It’s no accident that the list sounds like New Faces of 1976, or that many of this year’s newcomers — ABC’s Homefront, CBS’ Brooklyn Bridge, NBC’s I’ll Fly Away — are period pieces. But familiarity gets a bad rap. Sure, it can mean trite, seen-it-all- before programming, but this season it also means the revitalization of reliable formats, such as the way Tim Allen freshens the family sitcom in Home Improvement. And look closer: I’ll Fly Away isn’t just a family drama but a story of the roiling civil rights movement. Homefront infuses its ’40s milieu with contemporary social conscience. And although the terrain of NBC’s fantasy Eerie, Indiana is Anytown, U.S.A., its heart lies closer to Twin Peaks. At its best this season, familiarity will breed not contempt but curiosity.
Operating on the if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-put-a-David-Lynch-show-on-it theory of television programming, Monday night’s prime-time schedule is exactly the same as it was at the end of last season. Of course, this makes Monday something new and different on television: You mean there’s a night when I can actually remember what’s on? A night when I’m not going to sit down at 9 p.m. and find that I just missed Murphy Brown in its all-new 8:30 time period? And NBC isn’t going to preempt the next four weeks of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to try out a new Stephen King miniseries about a Swiss army knife with the transplanted brain of Axl Rose? What a relief.
One big reason the Monday-night schedule is such a secure ratings success is that the programming strategies of the three networks complement each other so neatly. If you’re an action kinda person, you watch ABC’s MacGyver and then Monday Night Football. If you like to mix things up a bit, NBC offers two sitcoms (Fresh Prince and Blossom) and a new, frequently ripped-from-today’s-headlines TV movie.
And if you like comedy, CBS owns the night of all current nights: Evening Shade, Major Dad (which might actually try to be funny this season now that the gulf war is over), the aforementioned Murphy, the post-Delta Designing Women, and the cult hit everybody loves, Northern Exposure.
There is, it would seem, very little overlap between the audiences the networks are aiming for on Monday, which makes for a strong, confident evening. If only the rest of the week were as stable. What night is Seinfeld on now…?
Changes in Old Shows
When viewers last saw CBS’ Murphy Brown, its perennially crabby heroine was apparently pregnant and wondering whether the father-to-be was ex-husband Jake Lowenstein (Robin Thomas) or abrasive lover Jerry Gold (Jay Thomas). Good question, but now comes the cliff-hangover: How do you make good on a clever plot twist without either altering a show irrevocably or taking the easy way out? Murphy‘s writers promise that the show’s one-hour season premiere (Sept. 16) will tie up last season’s loose ends, but if that home pregnancy test turns out to be just a silly mistake, we’re suing.
On the same night, CBS will also unveil a drastically altered Designing Women, in which Saturday Night Live‘s Jan Hooks and Newhart‘s Julia Duffy will make their debuts as, respectively, Charlene’s sweet sister and Suzanne’s extremely sour cousin. ”I wouldn’t call her an out-and-out bitch,” says Duffy, who insists that her snobby character’s malice is more covert. Meanwhile, Jean Smart is going (her character, Charlene, will leave after the season premiere to join her husband in England), and Delta Burke is already gone (viewers will be told that Suzanne has left her seemingly unbudgeable position on the Sugarbaker couch to visit her mother in Japan).
Rumors persist that Burke will turn up alongside her real-life husband, Gerald McRaney, in CBS’ Major Dad, which will offer a season-long story about efforts to save Camp Hollister after the Marine Corps decides to close it. The cast of NBC’s Blossom will grow with the arrival of Tony winner Barnard Hughes (Da) as Blossom’s grandfather, and CBS’ Evening Shade will also expand its ensemble with the arrival of Wood and Ava’s baby daughter, Emily. Series creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason pledges a more sophisticated approach to that show’s rural humor. CBS’ Northern Exposure will feature a return by ”Adam” (Adam Arkin), the resident Bigfoot of Cicely, Alaska, and the arrival of his companion, ”Eve.” The biggest change on NBC’s The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is behind the scenes, where executive producers Andy and Susan Borowitz quit, reportedly under pressure. Their replacement, The Golden Girls veteran Winifred Hervey-Stallworth, will try to turn the Banks family from caricatures into characters.
Finally, it’s not often that a show decides to become less topical, but the producers of ABC’s MacGyver, entering what’s likely to be the final season, plan a return to basics. That means more intriguing gadgetry and hair’s-breadth escapes, and an overdue muting of the show’s tendency toward preachiness.
Three seasons into his role as Jim Dial, the anchorman who yearns for journalistic sonnets in a world of sound bites, Charles Kimbrough can now admit he was ”a little tight-lipped and morose” in his first year on Murphy Brown. He was a fine Broadway actor — a Tony nominee for Stephen Sondheim’s Company. But he was new to L.A., new to TV, and nervous. ”I was jealous of Joe (Regalbuto) — and of Faith (Ford), who was instantly adored,” he recalls. ”I counted every line I had.”
These days, Kimbrough, 55, has stopped counting. He knows — and we know — that whatever Jim utters will be utterly Jim-like. Jim is Murphy’s knight in three-piece armor. He’s a gent of another generation, one who stands for principles like Valor, Integrity, Friendship with Irving R. Levine. (The NBC veteran once appeared at a Dial roast.) He’s the ballast that lets his FYI colleagues let loose. He’s funny because he’s serious. And he gives great Anchorman Voice.
There’s a confidence in Kimbrough’s portrayal that keeps Jim from ever going stereotypical on us. But being a gent has its drawbacks. One day Kimbrough realized he was the last person to hear gossip on the set — just like Jim. ”And,” he says, ”you know, Grant (Shaud) and Candice (Bergen) are very physical — they’re always wrestling and tickling each other like adolescents. While I find myself wanting to get on with rehearsal. I think in their eyes I’m becoming…Dial-esque!”
Written by: Lisa Schwarzbaum
As the love-starved wife of the Evening Shade doctor played by Charles Durning, Ann Wedgeworth’s Merleen Elldridge sashays around in capri pants and wedgies and manages to steal scenes from cast members as skilled and imposing as Durning, Burt Reynolds, and Hal Holbrook. How does she do it? By batting her eyes, talking in a comically breathy voice, and letting Merleen’s sexy nuttiness seem like the most natural thing in the world. When Kenny Rogers dropped by in one episode, Merleen stopped the show by sidling up to the silver-haired singer and serenading him with a number she called ”In the Disneyland of Love, I’m Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.”
”When you do a sitcom long enough,” says Wedgeworth, who has appeared in movies like Handle With Care (a.k.a. Citizens Band) and TV’s Three’s Company, ”you find the person you play starts to become fairly close to you. We’re both very naive. Merleen is a lot sweeter than me, but I am even crazier.” Consequently, Wedgeworth not only defends Merleen’s oddness but identifies with it intensely. ”In her own way she is absolutely saner than anybody else around.”
One way Wedgeworth does not resemble Merleen is that the 56-year-old actress is happily married — to Ernie Martin, a New York acting teacher. Still, when Merleen gets to do things like spend an evening with a spouse-swapping couple, it pleases Wedgeworth. ”It was sort of a racy show,” she says. ”I don’t think CBS liked that particular episode. But I loved it. I wish they would put us on at 9 or 9:30, because I think they end up cutting some of our best stuff.” And that best stuff invariably involves Merleen.
Written by: Alan Carter