The Father (and Mother) of Today’s Teevee

Having spent the week writing about the U.S. TV premieres, something has become clear to me that is probably equally clear to you: this is, even by recent standards, a really underwhelming fall season. There’s no Good Wife or Glee or  Modern Family to be anointed as an instant must-watch. Things are so very so-so that there’s a campaign to save the mega-flop Lone Star based solely on the pilot episode; not that it wasn’t a good pilot, but people seem to be rallying around it because there’s not much else, as yet, that creates any excitement. (So the energy that would normally go into supporting shows that have a chance is instead going into a symbolic crusade to save the last hope for cable-on-broadcast TV.) This may change as the season goes on and one or more shows grow on the promise of their pilots.

Luckily, when new TV is underwhelming there’s always lots of old TV to discuss — and luckily, old TV often explains why new TV is the way it is, so it’s still topical. With that in mind, I’d like to post a clip I found the other day, sort of a DVD making-of-documentary before DVDs existed. It was made when the show The Days And Nights of Molly Dodd was about to begin its fourth season, its second on the Lifetime cable network (after it was canceled by NBC). It features a behind-the-scenes look at the show, the pregnancy storyline that would dominate the fourth season, star Blair Brown, and creator Jay Tarses.

There are many people who can claim to be the parents of today’s TV — Steven Bochco most obviously — but Tarses may be the biggest influence on modern TV of anyone who never actually created a hit show. He and his then-partner Tom Patchett ran The Bob Newhart Show for MTM, where they created some worthy sitcoms that didn’t go. When they left MTM, they hooked up with super-agent Bernie Brillstein, one of the first agents to put his name as a producer on all his clients’ shows. With him, they did the cult flop Open All Night, and then they did another cult flop, Buffalo Bill, where they came almost literally to blows and were all but officially broken up as a team by the time it ended.

Tarses was the experimenter, while Patchett was a much more mainstream guy who created Alf after they split up. Buffalo Bill was the first project where Tarses got to do much of what he wanted: creating a show about an unredeemed bastard, casually mixing in subjects like abortion without going into easily-resolved Very Special Episode territory, and going single-camera (Tarses said he’d become completely burned out on the limitations of the studio-audience format: “How often,” he said, “can you get Bob over to the same couch every week?”). All these things are recognizable as part of the last 20 years of edgy sitcom-making, and indeed Buffalo Bill has been a big influence on virtually every show you can name — Larry Sanders, obviously, owed a lot to it.

Then on his own, without Patchett, Tarses tried to push things further. Buffalo Bill had made one concession to TV convention, a laugh track. Tarses was one of several producers in the 1986-7 period who convinced network executives to do without even that.

Of the two single-camera comedies Tarses unveiled in 1987, one — The Slap Maxwell Story — was a slightly less abrasive Buffalo Bill with Dabney Coleman again. Before that, he’d done a failed pilot called The Faculty, shot as a mock documentary with talking-head interviews, and ahead of its time in trying to make a series out of a technique that was once reserved for gimmick episodes. But the big one was The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd. It was created, like many, many shows of the era, based on a very vague suggestion from NBC’s Brandon Tartikoff: he told Tarses and Blair Brown that he wanted a half-hour show about the modern urban single woman, and while Brown points out that he was clearly thinking of Mary Tyler Moore, that’s not what he said; he just gave them the feel of what he wanted. (One of the reasons Tartikoff was a good executive is that he’d give creators the feel of what he wanted, not the story — Miami Vice famously started with Tartikoff’s two-word pitch for “MTV Cops.”)

Tarses came up with a show that was single-camera, no laugh track; focused on a woman who was neurotic and sometimes off-putting rather than near-perfect like Mary Richards; incorporated fantasy and surrealism into an otherwise realistic style; allowed for at least some improv by the actors (including himself); shot the whole thing on location in New York for greater realism and specificity; had ongoing storylines; tried to avoid neat wrap-ups; and made its heroine into a single mother partway through the series. It’s often referred to as Ally McBeal before there was an Ally McBeal, and it is that — but it’s also 30 Rock (its producer/director, Don Scardino, directs that show a lot), and it’s Sex and The City and many other cable half-hours of uncertain genre. In its frequent plotlessness and refusal to resolve problems in a traditional way, it was an influence on future experiments with TV storytelling. It beat shows like Thirtysomething to the air in finding drama in the ordinary lives of, well, thirtysomethings. And finally, by making the leap from broadcast to cable, it helped to demonstrate that cable was the place to go if you wanted to do more sophisticated storytelling than on broadcast.

I don’t know if I would call it a great show, though — none of Tarses’s shows except Buffalo Bill are completely satisfying to me. I think I have to agree with the assessment of Tarses’ old employee Gary David Goldberg (quoted in the New York Times article linked above) that Blair Brown didn’t have the kind of superstar quality that is needed for such a huge TV part. But that’s the thing about Tarses: he didn’t create all-time classic shows, he created shows that other shows, big hits, would learn from.

Also, he hired a young Lewis Black sometimes. That’s something.

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