The 1991 Fall TV Preview: Tuesday
I’ll Fly Away
The season’s classiest drama features Sam Waterston (The Killing Fields) as the district attorney in a small Southern town at the dawn of the civil rights era. He has three kids and, in the season’s most unusual background detail, a wife who has recently suffered a nervous breakdown and is recuperating in a hospital. As you’d expect from the people who brought you Northern Exposure and St. Elsewhere, the depiction of race relations is full of edginess and ambivalence — it’s not even clear that our hero isn’t something of a racist himself. The debut also offers a vivid sketch of the show’s other major character, the family’s black housekeeper, played by Regina Taylor. The best thing NBC can do is move this show to a later time period (so its ambivalence can deepen) and make a commitment to its ratings survival.
Behind the scenes
Taylor struggled to keep her own sensibilities out of her portrayal of Lilly, a quiet woman of the late ’50s who can’t risk speaking up, much less speaking out, in the face of brutal racism. ”It was very painful,” says the actress. ”I got angry when I got home. I yelled. I screamed. I kicked things. I would call my mom, who grew up in the South, and ask her, ‘How did you go through this?”’ But if I’ll Fly Away‘s frank portrayal of prejudice is hard on the actress, it represents a different sort of challenge for NBC, which is selling the show as ”a Waltons for the ’90s.” One reason for that approach — though nobody will say so on the record — is that NBC’s own research shows the network may have a hard time drawing viewers to a series in which racial issues play a role.
Chance of survival
Stuck in a brutal time slot, I’ll Fly Away needs the full quality-drama treatment: patience from NBC, raves from critics, and strong word-of-mouth from viewers.
No sooner does stand-up wise guy Tim Allen achieve cult stardom on cable comedy specials as the macho pig you’ve gotta love than ABC builds a show around this novel persona. Surprise: Allen proves he’s more than ready for mass stardom. He plays Tim Taylor, the host of a home-improvement show. On the so-called Tool Time, Taylor is confident and savvy, but at home with his wife (Patricia Richardson) and three kids, he’s a macho blusterer who’s always being proven wrong. Working with a character that’s clearly an update of Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden, Allen invests it with his own sharp, aggressive, yet sensitive style.
Behind the scenes
”I wanted to call the show Hammer Time,” says Allen, ”but M.C. Hammer already uses that.” So why not The Tim Allen Show? ”We’re an ensemble.” Shepherding that ensemble will be the job of executive producer Matt Williams, who guided another stand-up comic to TV with ABC’s Roseanne, then left after a storied first-season clash with its star. And yes, there are hard feelings. ”Matt was very up-front,” Allen says. ”He said, ‘I’d rather never work again than go through that type of relationship with anybody. So if you’re going to be like that, let’s not do this.’ Because of that, I’m real sensitive to his feelings.” (For her part, Roseanne Arnold says of Williams, ”I would encourage everyone on earth not to work with him. Especially women.”)
Chance of survival
It has the cushiest time slot of any new show and a winning star. Looks like a hit — but isn’t that what they said about Chicken Soup?
With the departure of Dallas last season, it looked like the evening soap opera was a dying genre, but along comes this one — a gratifyingly quirky, complicated soap at that. Set in 1945, just after World War II, Homefront follows one group of buddy soldiers who return to their small town to date, marry, and settle down. But small-town life can be tough on a GI — sometimes your girlfriend falls in love with your brother while you’re overseas; and if you’re black, being a vet doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be welcomed home with a job, as it does for most of your white buddies. Homefront‘s biggest challenge will be to make viewers familiar with its large cast of mostly unknown actors without turning that task into homework.
Behind the scenes
ABC’s desire to court thirtysomething‘s now-disenfranchised upscale audience may be why nobody involved with Homefront is eager to call it a soap opera. What won’t be downplayed is the show’s take on social issues, which may be too pointed for the current conservative TV climate. ”If (viewers) have a problem,” says producer David Jacobs (Knots Landing), ”I have one thing to say to them” — and it’s not printable in a family magazine. A criticism Jacobs has addressed was that the hour-long pilot was overcrowded. So before it airs, Jacobs will add some clarifying scenes and expand it to 90 minutes.
Chance of survival
Serial dramas can take months to build audiences; in an era of shorter attention spans, this may be a tough sell.
Changes in Old Shows
Fans of Roseanne, take note: The Conners are not about to become just another happy family. As the ABC show enters its fourth season, Darlene (Sara Gilbert) will cause the most grief as her tomboyishness abates but her troublemaking side blossoms. Viewers may also see more of Roseanne’s gay boss, Leon (Martin Mull), and his boyfriend, Jerry (Michael Des Barres).
A few other series will also do some fine tuning. NBC’s Law & Order will introduce Paul Sorvino as Det. Sgt. Phil Cerreta (he replaces George Dzundza). ABC’s Full House will try to raise its cute-kid population as Jesse (John Stamos) and his wife, Rebecca (Lori Loughlin) await the arrival of twins just in time for the November sweeps, and ABC’s Coach is scratching son-in-law Stuart (Kris Kamm) from its starting lineup as Hayden’s daughter heads for divorce court, while Hayden and Christine (Shelley Fabares) inch toward marriage. But the night’s biggest alteration is the scuttling of NBC’s Matlock, temporarily off the air after five seasons. The show’s audience, says NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield, was ”older and older. It was time to get new blood on.” That infuriated the show’s producer, Fred Silverman, who has bitterly prognosticated a third-place finish for NBC. But Littlefield will keep the show in production and says Andy Griffith will return to court later this season in individual Matlock episodes and two-hour Matlock movies.
As Darlene on ABC’s Roseanne, Sara Gilbert has redefined the sitcom teenager: Roseanne’s pug-nosed, pugnacious middle child, Darlene is smart-alecky without being obnoxious, funny without being cute, rebellious without being a drag. As an actress, Gilbert is also modest without being coy about it: ”I don’t think I’m very good,” the 16-year-old says with a shrug. ”I just read the lines. I don’t work at it. I just do it.”
Where the modesty comes from is anyone’s guess. But the acting talent may come from her genes. Gilbert’s maternal grandfather, Harry Crane, created and wrote for The Honeymooners, and her sister Melissa and brother Jonathan both starred on Little House on the Prairie. Ten years ago, Gilbert asked her mom, Barbara, a talent manager, if she could get into the business as well. After a string of small TV roles, she landed the Roseanne job and has gone on to dramatic parts, such as costarring with Oscar-winner Lou Gossett Jr. in the Lifetime cable movie Sudie and Simpson. ”He was great. But I hate watching myself. I was soooo horrible. Predictable. Sugarcoated. No subtext.”
Gilbert is particularly happy going into this season on Roseanne; the show will explore the isolation teens feel and make Darlene something of a beatnik. This is a plot development the actress finds ”real cool.”
Embodying a ’90s hipster would be a challenge for a seasoned pro, let alone a young actress who’s never had time to squeeze in acting lessons. ”I figure I’ll just keep on doing what I’m doing,” she says, ”and when everyone else figures out I’m not very good, I’ll be unemployed, and then maybe I’ll go take some.”
Written by: Alan Carter