It's Friday morning. Producer/writer/director/creator Jay Tarses is in his North Hollywood office, speaking on the phone to executive producer Bernie Brillstein about partial Nielsen ratings for the previous night's premiere of their NBC series "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd."
"A 28 share. Is that good? Were we in the top 10? What was the drop-off from 'Cheers?' "
So goes TV's familiar ballad, with art and ratings continuing their awkward coexistence on the small screen. And "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd" is surely art, a very special series about a 35-year-old divorcee fetchingly played by Blair Brown. Like the real world, Molly is part funny, part sad, part ambivalent--a woman seeking self-definition.
The pressure is on, for the real world of TV dictates that drawing an audience even as large as 15 million in prime time would still stamp "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd" an absolute, abysmal, see-you-later flop.
"If you count the audiences for every performance of 'Macbeth' that's ever been given, you still won't reach as many people as you get for a TV program that's considered a failure," said Tarses, whose "Slap Maxwell," a new comedy starring Dabney Coleman, will also face the numbers challenge when it premieres on ABC this fall.
Tarses' first love, though, is "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd" (9:30 p.m. Thursdays on Channels 4, 36 and 39), an addictive half-hour that charms and captivates without slapping knees or howling.
This series is another example of Tarses' specialty: TV that isn't ordinary. In an industry that plays it safe, he takes chances. Who else would make comedies that tend to brood and sing in minor keys? Or maybe they're not comedies at all, but expressions of life's complexities and overlapping tones and emotions.
Though hardly a revolutionary, Tarses speaks TV heresy:
"I think there's room on TV for people who don't know what they are doing, who don't know all the answers, who don't solve everything in 23 minutes. I want people to look stupid, like people look. That's what I want to do. Father does not know best. Father has a notion, but father could be wrong. Life's not always fun, and sometimes you don't have to feel afraid of looking bad."
In other words, no pat stories or characters, and stow the laugh track.
Given his unorthodox outlook, it's no shock that Tarses is without glittering commercial success in recent seasons, despite being one of TV's most gifted species.
For years, he was half of Patchett and Tarses, with a pedigree that included collaborations with Tom Patchett on "The Bob Newhart Show," "The Tony Randall Show," the quickly closed "Open All Night" and, in 1983, on the smashing but brief "Buffalo Bill."
"Buffalo Bill" was the last joint project for Patchett and Tarses. "We were together 17 years, and we probably shouldn't have been together the last seven," Tarses said.
They've traveled different creative routes since separating, with Patchett going on to originate NBC's cuddly "ALF," and Tarses continuing to strive for decidedly uncuddly TV that isn't easily categorized.
"I wanted to make her a woman at a crossroads, a woman whose life hadn't worked the way it was supposed to," Tarses said. "There have been some derailments in her life. I want the show to be like 'Nicholas Nickleby,' not having the same people every week. And I wanted Molly to have different jobs. I wanted people to tune in and find her in a state of flux."
Tarses was the one in flux after ABC failed to pick up his 1985 pilot for "The Faculty," a dark, unusual comedy set at a high school.
"When it died, it upset me very much," he said. "I thought this was a show that could say something about one of the most important problems in the country, about how we entrust our children to schoolteachers who are underpaid and overworked."
About then, he had a chat with Brandon Tartikoff, the president of NBC Entertainment. "I have a relationship with Tartikoff. He likes my shows and wants me to do well. So he asked me how I'd like to do a show about a 35-year-old woman. I said I would do it with Blair Brown. And he said, 'You've got a sale.' "
Tarses had cast Brown, an intriguing actress of substance and nuance, in "The Faculty." "We were in perfect sync," he said. "She's understated. She can be real funny. She can say the words. She talks like I talk."
It seemed that "Molly Dodd" did not talk like NBC talked, however. It was a stranger in town, a series that was radically subtle and unpredictable, an unconventional half-hour that chose interesting side streets over noisy thoroughfares.
Production on the series began a year ago (the 13-episode commitment was completed in November), and Tarses could have had it on the air last fall. Yet NBC delayed the premiere until last Thursday, a curious, late-ratings-sweeps opening date that gave rise to speculation that the network was kissing off Molly.