Part III of “My Life as a Couch Potato: The Spuds Have Eyes”
by Dawn McElligott
On April 5th of this year, NBC renewed “GRIMM” for a 6th Season. The show has everything I like: shadows, surprises and romance but it has not done particularly well in ratings. Its April 15th broadcast only bought in 3.75 million viewers. With misgivings for my own future, I live vicariously through Grimm’s stars. Every year they’re surprised and grateful to see the series renewed and every year I vow to keep writing scripts that may become my own series.
My pursuit has been a long journey, beginning as soon as I could read the credits on “I Dream of Jeannie.” However, by the late 1970s, network TV was being criticized for poor quality and the death knell began to toll for the half-hour sitcom. Still a teenager, I began to wonder about my vocation. Yet, when I began college, two shows debuted, letting the world know that the sitcom was alive, well and— necessary.
I adored “CHEERS” from the beginning. It had Diane, the well-spoken lady, in an awful bind. Her education should have qualified her for a good job but the only work she could find was in the neighborhood bar. She didn’t fit in. Sam, the bar owner, was an athlete. Like most of the patrons, he lacked a college degree. For Diane to be accepted, she’d have to play down her education. Her family is revealed as cold, causing Diane to wrap herself up in education. In the new setting, Diane’s security blanket was causing her pain.
My parents earned a living without four-year degrees. From grade school on, my mother told my sister and me to avoid college and anything resembling feminism. My mother’s plan for me involved high school graduation, a couple of glamour years as a flight attendant and then marriage. Fabulous.
I felt Diane’s struggle. Her main problem was not financial because like so many other TV characters working minimum wage jobs, she was able to maintain a decent apartment without a roommate. Ridiculous, but that’s another story. Diane’s chief complaint was social. She kept trying to show her care for others but they rejected her, mostly as a pre-emptive strike against a more educated woman. I lived through her struggles but the character was older than me at the time.
Another show on NBC depicted two characters closer to my own age: Mallory and Alex Keaton on “FAMILY TIES.” Like my own situation, Mallory was often at odds with her mother, Elyse. Mrs. Keaton was an architect and Mallory was the kind of ditzy glamor girl we hadn’t seen since the 1950s. It was part of the show’s main conceit: adolescents of the 1980s were surprisingly more conservative than their liberal parents.
“This Year’s Model,” an episode in Season Two, highlighted the mother-daughter conflict. When Mallory persuades Elyse to participate in a modeling contest with her, she’s shocked to find her mother outperforming her throughout the competition. Adding insult to injury, Elyse is chosen to star in a “Proper Penguin” frozen food commercial, to be filmed in their home. The commercial will not at all involve Mallory. As the commercial’s being taped, heartbroken Mallory constantly interrupts the shoot. The teenager shamelessly concocts excuses to steal the camera from her mother. The commercial ends up being shot in 34 takes.
After production wraps, Elyse confronts Mallory. Their conversation opens up the first heart to heart discussion I ever recall seeing on TV, between a mother and daughter, outside of “ALL IN THE FAMILY.” It’s an honest conversation where Mallory says, “Sometimes I feel like such an outsider.” The scene is posted on YouTube and labeled “The Competition,” where a male viewer commented on that line saying, “I’m so glad that I discovered this show.”
While the occasional conflicts between mother and daughter on “ALL IN THE FAMILY” often centered on hot-button political issues, this one on “FAMILY TIES” involved common emotional friction between a mother and her unmarried youngster. Mallory cries during this scene, breaking ground for me as a writer. The successful series was giving me permission to let my characters cry during a sitcom. Thriving sitcom writers draw from moments of heartache. Comedy arises through the unexpected humiliations of the protagonist. Viewers release tension by laughing and learning, if nothing else, that they’re not alone in their disappointments.
Series Creator, Gary David Goldberg, had been one of my idols until I learned of his involvement in a class action suit against ageism in Hollywood. Fifteen years ago, Janet Shprintz chronicled accusations against Goldberg in a Variety magazine article. By that time, Goldberg was producing “Spin City.” The plaintiffs alleged that the producer said “… the program had no writers on the set over the age of 29—by design.” For the record, Goldberg was 56 years old when the story was published.
In 2013, Gary David Goldberg died of brain cancer. While imperfect, the TV legend is still admirable for achieving various distinctions, including two Emmy Awards and for naming his production company, “Ubu Productions” after his Labrador retriever, “Ubu Roi.” As a fellow dog lover, I continue to write, seeking unchartered territory in women’s lives, knowing the characters can and should be as human as possible, and hoping that now, in 2016, other producers will be more open to staffers of any age.