Saturday, June 22, 2013

Rhoda season 3

When word broke this past winter that Valerie Harper was battling brain cancer, I was prompted to pick up my DVD of Rhoda Season 3, which I'd purchased just a month or two earlier. I don't know: I guess I wanted to see Valerie Harper at a time when she was healthy and vibrant; I wanted to be reminded of how much pleasure her performances had given me over the years. The first episode I watched was Michael Leeson's "Rhoda Questions Her Life and Flies to Paris," and it was a honey. Rhoda Season 3 is the season where Rhoda and Joe separated: aka, the season where the ratings tanked. Creators Burns and Brooks did a lot of interviews at the time to justify the break-up. Life was so perfect for Rhoda Gerard -- the writers had trouble coming up with stories; they wanted back that firecracker we'd all fallen in love with on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the one whose insecurities always put her on the offensive. But the truth is, by splitting up Rhoda and Joe, they didn't get that Rhoda back -- at least not right away. For much of Season 3, she's just an unhappy mess. "Brenda, was I ever any fun?" she asks her younger sister at one point, and Brenda replies, nostalgically, "Yeah, you used to be great fun, Rhoda." It takes at least a year for Rhoda to regain her self-respect and her sass; what we're left with in Season 3 is one very sad lady.

But that said, time has done wonderful things for Rhoda Season 3. At the time, TV Guide complained that the show couldn't decide if it was a sitcom or a soap. Nowadays shows don't need to decide. Friends neatly walked the line between sitcom and soap for ten years; How I Met Your Mother has been doing it for nine. The sense of loss and pain that runs through much of Rhoda Season 3 -- and inspires some of Valerie Harper's most moving performances -- doesn't seem jarring anymore; it certainly don't seem out of place within a sitcom format.

Now that we're 35 years past the show's original airing, none of us are over-romanticizing Rhoda's marriage anymore. Back in 1976, there was a real sense of betrayal that the writers had robbed us of our fairy-tale ending; we'd watched Rhoda blossom on The Mary Tyler Moore Show: drop the weight, lose the attitude, and reveal herself as a woman capable of loving, and being loved in return. Didn't she deserve a happy ending? I don't think anyone in 2013 still thinks David Groh was the happy ending. Now it's easier to see that the lasting relationship on the show is between Valerie Harper and Julie Kavner. You want a happy ending? How about having a sibling you're that close to? (I didn't have one.) Rhoda and Brenda: there's your love story.

The cast shake-ups in Season 3 look better with age as well. Thirty-five years later, we no longer lament the missing-in-action Nancy Walker. In the fall of 1976, you turned to ABC and watched her on The Nancy Walker Show (and then, after midseason, on Blansky's Beauties), and there was the constant, puzzling reminder that Rhoda's mother -- that perpetual thorn in her side -- was off doing something else. Now she's out of sight, out of mind; if anything, we take comfort in the fact that while Rhoda was going through the worst year of her life, Nancy Walker was off crashing and burning in two series. As bad as Rhoda Gerard's life got that season -- well, Nancy Walker's was probably worse.

In 1976, Ron Silver was at the start of his career; when he turned up on Rhoda as wimpy wannabe lady-killer Gary Levi, he didn't make much of an impression -- for all we knew, the actor might have been playing himself. Now that he's appeared in a wealth of impressive, audacious roles (and in the thorniest one-man show I've ever seen), Gary the lovable loser is clearly a performance, and a rather endearing one at that. (He's also on the receiving end of some of Rhoda's best jabs that season, and for that reason alone he's indispensable. "I'm gonna go take a shower," he announces to Rhoda and Brenda in one of his first appearances. "Does anybody want to join me?" -- to which Rhoda deadpans, "Sorry, Gare, I never rub-a-dub-dub with a schlub.") And if Anne Meara seemed a little strident during her (brief) run during Rhoda Season 3, we're unlikely to complain anymore. Now we've seen her on everything from Archie Bunker's Place to ALF, from Murphy Brown to Sex and the City to The King of Queens -- and for me, she'll always be the woman who co-wrote and starred (opposite Hal Linden) in the 1983 CBS film The Other Woman, still one of the best made-for-television movies I've ever seen (certainly the best romantic comedy). Now I watch her on Rhoda, and go "That's Anne Meara, a national treasure." There are people who've earned the right to be beyond criticism: Anne Meara, Dr. Joyce Brothers, Michele Lee -- maybe four others.

Mostly, I watch Rhoda Season 3 now and I'm reminded how much I enjoyed Charlotte Brown's writing. If the whole season is a warm-up for her best script, the Season 4 opener (22 minutes of mother vs. daughter banter: all the things you wish you could say to your parents, and all the things you're terrified they'd say back), what a warm-up it is! Let's put the season in perspective for a second. CBS, the land of smart sitcoms, was just losing its dominance in the Nielsens: ABC's Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley had risen to the top of the ratings heap; two days after Rhoda Season 3 ended, ABC's Three's Company premiered, and jiggle TV soon ruled the airwaves. That Rhoda Season 3 is so adult and uncompromising is particularly impressive given that it aired in an 8 PM timeslot; it's CBS's assault on the dreaded Family Viewing Hour, and Charlotte Brown is there leading the charge.

In the season opener, Brown's "The Separation," Rhoda and Joe get into it; she knows he's drifting away, and it terrifies her. He says he needs to cool off, and heads for the door. She responds, instinctively, "Joe, you walk out that door now, don't --" and he interrupts, raising his voice, "Don't come back? Is that what you were going to say?" And she backpedals instantly: "Who was going to say such a thing? There are many ways to end that sentence," and improvising and stammering like mad, continues, "Don't, uh, forget to pick up some milk. Don't, uh, c-cross against the light. Don't talk to strangers. Don't do this to me..." But Joe isn't just taking off to get some air; he's taking off, period: moving out -- and the best he can manage before he goes is a perfunctory "you gonna be OK?" And Rhoda's response is, well, pure Rhoda: "Of course not." She's not going to be noble and brave, like one of those self-sacrificing Thirties heroines; she's going to tell it like it is. Valerie Harper gives a lot of heartbreaking performances during Season 3, but the scene in which Rhoda watches Joe walk out is in a class of its own.

That's not to imply that the season is all turmoil and tears. Geoffrey Neigher and Coleman Mitchell pen a couple episodes featuring lounge lizard Johnny Venture (Michael Delano, a great addition to the cast) that are among the series' funniest -- and they give Rhoda (and Harper) a welcome relief from all the separation anxiety. And several episodes spotlighting Julie Kavner (in particular, Leeson's "An Elephant Never Forgets") are warm and well-played. But when it comes time for the somber stuff, that's Charlotte Brown's domain. About two-thirds of the way through the season, in Brown's "The Ultimatum" (sounds like a Waltons episode, doesn't it?), we see the last of Joe. Rhoda knows it (we in the audience don't know yet that it's David Groh's final appearance), and she's struggling. Where does she turn? To her best friend Mary, of course. She reaches her on the phone, in her Minneapolis apartment, and lets her know she's counting on her: "I really need some clear thinking. You always know what to say. You always see a problem and cut right through to the nub. So whaddaya think, Mare? Tell me my life isn't over. Tell me I can get along without Joe." On The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary would have said something wise and winning, the kind of thing you need your friend to say in a crisis. But on Rhoda, she says the kind of useless pap that friends really do say. First she stalls for time -- "Rhoda, Rhoda" -- then the best she can do is parrot, in an overly emphatic way, Rhoda's own words: "Your life...isn't...over. You can get along...without...Joe." That's it. There's a pause, a perfect pause, then Rhoda sighs, "Still got the touch," with a ruefulness that pretty much epitomizes the brilliant Rhoda Season 3. It's perhaps the saddest moment in a wonderfully sad season, and another great turn by Harper, who plays Rhoda with a combination of toughness and terror that's quite unlike anything I've seen on the small screen. No quick fixes for Rhoda Morgenstern: nothing to soothe the pain; nothing to ease the loneliness. Forget those Minneapolis winters; New York is the coldest town of all.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Old Christine: invasion of the Raymond writers

It's startling to revisit the first few episodes of Old Christine: she seems so competent. If you watch the whole series, and watch the lead character shed brain cells with every passing season, you forget how the show was conceived: as a single, working mother trying to cope in a high-pressure world. Leaving herself voice messages in the middle of the night, of things she had to accomplish the next day (most memorably: "shave things"), she was instantly relatable: there's too much to do in the modern world, and creator Kari Lizer got that. Christine Campbell was the calm center in the storm. When she got set up with blind dates, they were the crazies. Her ex-husband was a horny adolescent; her employee at the gym she owned was a ditz. Christine was the responsible one. It's a drag being the responsible one, but Lizer also made it deeply funny, because there amidst all the crazies was Christine, trying to do it all: to be a good mother, run a successful business, enjoy an active social life. She even had political causes: in one episode, she's determined to bring a little diversity to her son's whitebred private school. But there aren't enough hours in the day, as Christine learns, and however hard you try, the world is stacked against you. When she tries to instill some tolerance in Richie's school and sponsor a black family for admission, she discovers the family hate gays. That's classic Christine, a point echoed in the Season 4 episode "He Ain't Heavy," when her friend Barb describes the trajectory of Christine's life: she's a modern-day Sisyphus, the one who keeps pushing the boulder up the hill, only to have it roll back down and crush her. But Christine keeps pushing that boulder, and that's why we like her.

By the series' end, Christine has been so dumbed-down that she gets trapped in a subway station, and loses her passport on a flight to the Bahamas, and, oh yes, gets her foot stuck in the john. It's a fate that befalls lots of sitcom characters over the course of a long-running series: it's easier to write for people who are lazy and inept rather than driven and well-meaning. Certainly it's easier to mine laughs. Let me mention that I think The New Adventures of Old Christine is a smashing TV series. I knew it was good when it first aired; in syndication, I've realized it's a classic. But it's a very uneven classic, at its worst when Christine strays furthest from her original conception -- and when she strays, starting in Season 2, it's mostly due to the invasion of the Raymond writers.

Jennifer Crittenden, Lew Schneider, Aaron Shure: they all came to Christine from Everybody Loves Raymond, and what did they do?  They turned her into Ray Barone.

Old Christine starts strong. It's a splendid pilot, and a solid (short) first season. And, as so many sitcoms do, it catches fire at the start of Season 2: the resolution of the Season 1 cliffhanger, the introduction of Blair Underwood as Mr. Harris, the priceless two-parter where Old Christine dates New Christine's father. Then Jennifer Crittenden pens her first script -- it's the fourth episode of the second season -- and it's the first time the series feels "off." Richard and New Christine have taken Richie to church, and Christine objects; her objections are voiced, but they're never convincing. They seem random and hypocritical. (Footnote: Ray Barone, in season 4, didn't want to go to church either.)  And here's the kicker: as obsessed as Christine is with keeping her son out of church, she's more obsessed with locating a sandwich shop she visited once and now can't find -- that's how skewed and self-centered her priorities become under Crittenden. And in the requisite scene near the end when Christine attends church, she makes a fool of herself. She can't sit still, or accomplish the simplest task, and winds up disrupting the service -- it's Ray stuffing food down his pants at the PTA meeting. Where is the valiant working mother?  Where is the crusader?  When Crittenden takes the reins, she's gone. Season 2 is a very good one: Lizer and her writing team -- Jeff Astrof, Adam Barr, Jonathan Goldstein and Katie Palmer -- rarely miss a beat. The only missteps: every time Crittenden pens an episode, whether it's the forgettable "Playdate With Destiny" (in which Christine, crushing on Richie's African-American teacher, stumbles over the word "black" for what feels like an eternity -- you keep waiting for Robert Barone to show and up and say, as he would to his brother Raymond, "Why do you even open your mouth?") or the misguided "Strange Bedfellows," where Christine, who less than a year ago had campaigned for ethnic diversity, suddenly doesn't support causes -- or understand them -- or vote -- or even know where to vote. 

The best early Christine scripts develop the rich relationships set up so neatly in Lizer's pilot, and often they do so not just with humor but with heart. You couldn't claim that Goldstein and Palmer were the strongest Christine writers, but every time they pen a script, it seems grounded. Goldstein's "Mission: Impossible" (in which Christine and Richard assert their influence over Richie) and "Let Him Eat Cake" (in which Christine and New Christine assert their influence over Richard) aren't even among my top 10 episodes, but bless them, the characters feel convincing, their concerns are taken seriously. And they're true to the irony at the heart of the series: you'll do your best, and you'll probably fail. That's the revolutionary message that early Christine turns into memorable comedy. And indeed, a lot of Palmer's scripts are genuinely memorable, in particular "Endless Shrimp, Endless Night" (the first episode to really delve into Christine's one-sided relationship with her brother Matthew), full of quotable lines, and when Goldstein and Palmer collaborate on a script, "My Big Fat Sober Wedding" (in which Christine resolves to be the designated driver at a friend's wedding), it's the highlight of late Season 2. (If Julia Louis-Dreyfuss had submitted that episode -- or "Come to Papa Jeff" -- for Emmy consideration, instead of Crittenden's "Playdate With Destiny," she might have had a shot at her second consecutive Emmy.) Warmth, credulity, and a refusal to stoop to crude or easy laughs: features of the first two seasons that nearly vanish when the Raymond writers descend en masse in Season 3.

Season 3 of Christine was a truncated season, just 10 episodes airing during and after the 2008 writer's strike, and it's a disaster. (I'm still not sure how the show got renewed for Season 4, or how the mediocre quality of the scripts led CBS to consider it strong enough to lead off a new sitcom block on Wednesday night.) Schneider and Shure come aboard, joining Crittenden, and the show inches ever closer to a late-Raymond mentality. There had always been a incestuous undercurrent to Christine, but it was blithe. (In Season 2's peerless two-parter, "The Answer is Maybe" and "Come to Papa Jeff," Christine and Matthew have a half-dozen moments that play up their codependence, but they're innocent, and all the funnier for that.) There's nothing's blithe about Season 3; all the sexual innuendo is written out instead of leaving us to guess at it. We get Matthew and Christine dry-humping on a rock-climbing wall (writer: Shure), and Christine dreaming about making out with her brother (writer: Crittenden), who's slept with her best friend Barb (writer: Shure). It's one very uncomfortable season; it's like watching Raymond Season 7, when the writers -- among them, Schneider and Shure -- drain the warmth out of the series, and what was once subtext now passes for plot, as in the execrable "Counseling," when Ray reveals that he'd like a mother for a wife, and Robert rewards him with a lifesize cutout of Marie in a wedding dress. 

It's not just the sexual component that overwhelms Season 3; it's the full transformation of Christine into Ray Barone. In the most objectionable episode of the bunch, Christine meets a single father at Richie's school, a new arrival, and explains to him how to get out of doing volunteer work. In two seasons, she's become the very character the show was satirizing with its "meanie moms" -- the proud do-nothing (the new father even calls her a "meanie mom"). And the writer of that episode?  Crittenden, of course; once again she's writing Christine as Raymond. The Woman Who Tried to Do It All has morphed into The Woman Who Tries to Do Nothing. (By Season 5, Christine's shrink diagnoses her as having a fear of "anything requiring work"; the hard-working mother of Season 1 has been long forgotten.)

Schneider sticks around for Christine Season 4, but Crittenden and Shure, mercifully, depart, and for a while, you think the show might be righting itself. Season 4 kicks off with the show's funniest set of scripts, as newly-arrived writers Sherry Bilsing-Graham and Ellen Kreamer bring back the sense of warmth and believability that vanished during Season 3. (Their "What Happens in Vegas Is Disgusting in Vegas" is another one of those episodes, like the season opener "A Decent Proposal," where every line seems quotable; it's also one where Christine tries to do something nice -- and succeeds -- and where her self-awareness trumps her self-absorption.) The top of Season 4 holds promise that things are getting back on track, and the highlights come often: "Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down" and "Self-Esteem Tempura" and "Rage Against the Christine," to name just a few. But "Vegas," midway through the season, marks the end of that string of memorable episodes: most of the rest of Season 4 is a train-wreck. We start with Christine getting her foot caught in the toilet, and the show never recovers. Bad scripts by free-lancers, some clinkers by the regular staff, and a remarkably strained two-part season closer -- Richard and New Christine's wedding: so singularly unconvincing that it's like writers Lizer and Astrof have lost their way.

And Season 5 is pretty much a disaster. The Raymond writers are gone, but -- as the Season 4 finale suggested -- their spirit lives on in the suddenly subpar scripting of Lizer and Astrof. Season 5 starts with Christine flying to the Bahamas to rescue Barb, but there's no rescuing -- it's all about Christine fidgeting on the plane, insulting the flight attendant and losing her passport. (It's like Lizer and Astrof have embraced the image of Christine the dimwit, as pioneered by Crittenden.) She manages nothing, not even a good laugh, and yet Lizer and Astrof wrap it up with her final self-congratulatory line, "Well, Matthew, we did it." And that's what Christine has become: the apotheosis of the clueless. Two episodes later, in perhaps the series' nadir, she spends twenty-two minutes melodramatizing what she thinks is a mole on her breast, but what in fact turns out to be a piece of a brownie; making your lead character suddenly dumb as dirt certainly opens up new storylines, but at what cost? By series' end, Christine's become such an indecisive, obtuse annoyance that even salespeople go out of their way to avoid her.

In the Season 1 finale, after enduring yet another humiliation, Christine cries, "Why do these things keep happening to me? I'm a good mother. I'm a decent person" -- and it's written and delivered without irony. Christine in Season 1 is a good mother; she is a decent person. By Season 5, had she uttered those same lines, the supporting cast would have been cued to roar with laughter at her self-delusion. (By the final season, there's a running gag where Christine has no idea where her son is -- and doesn't really care.) Season 5 does have a few sharp episodes -- "Dr. Little Man" and "It's Beginning to Stink a Lot Like Christmas" and "Truth or Dare" and "Get Smarter" -- and one great thing going for it: Eric McCormack, a marvelous comic match for Julia Louis-Dreyfus. (His reactions are almost as fast as hers; it's a fully believable relationship, in a way that Christine's affair with Blair Underwood's character never was. It takes the writers three seasons to realize that we don't want Christine with someone merely handsome; we want her with someone funny.) But the show remains a relic of its former self, done in by the invasion of the Raymond writers.