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A CLOSER GLANCE AT EMMYS OUTING : Traumedies: New Wrinkle in TV

September 22, 1987|HOWARD ROSENBERG | Times Television Critic

Emmythoughts II. . . .

Sunday's Emmycast on Fox Broadcasting honored something interesting in modern TV--the overlapping of comedy and drama. No wonder the Emmy-giving Television Academy of Arts & Sciences was confronted by a truth-in-labeling problem.

Michael J. Fox received an Emmy as best actor in a comedy series for NBC's "Family Ties," for example, largely for an episode about his reflections on the death of a friend. It was a tender, wonderful swatch of TV, but, according to plan, hardly an amusing one.

Meanwhile, the Emmy for best actor in a drama series went to Bruce Willis of ABC's "Moonlighting," an exceptionally resourceful and enterprising series that is wittier than 90% of TV's comedies. "Moonlighting" is a mercurial hour of eclectic shapes and tones, but beyond everything else, it's flat-out-funny.

The traditional line separating some TV comedy and drama has been gradually fading for years. "All in the Family," "Taxi" and especially "MASH" were notable comedy series rooted in the 1970s that included broad streaks of pathos. There were times, in fact, when a laugh track was all that separated Korean War-based "MASH" from being labled a tragedy, for beneath its serrated wisecracks was a grim message about war.

So much for success stories. Far more prominent in recent years are traumadies--broad, dilettantish comedies that become temporarily smitten with a social conscience, suffering delusions of importance, usually with bad results.

It's a pathetic spectacle, like donkeys trying to walk a high wire: comedies with histories of belly-flops suddenly and inexplicably feeling the need to be "relevant," at least for one episode. Most of them already failing at comedy, they now try their feeble hands at tackling such big issues of the day as nuclear holocaust or AIDS.

There's another, more interesting vein of non-comedy comedy that's creeping into TV, though. We got a taste of it with NBC's fleeting "Buffalo Bill" series, which centered on the self-serving antics of an unheroic, insecure, generally unlikable and even sad talk-show host played by Dabney Coleman. There was as much dark melancholy as blow-out comedy in this extraordinary series from Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses.

Later, Patchett went on to make NBC's cuddly "ALF" and Tarses went on to create another comedy-that-is-not-really-a comedy, "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd," which had a successful spring-summer trial on NBC and is expected to return at mid-season.

It remains to be seen if the irresistibly intriguing and literate "Molly Dodd" can repeat its ratings success, which was rather astounding for a series that breaks so many rules of the game and is almost undefinable.

Here is a half-hour that at times broods, its laugh-track-less comedy bubbling at the edges, not at the center. Moreover, its heroine, a 35-year-old divorcee played by the Emmy-nominated Blair Brown, is ambivalent, enigmatic and subject to moods not necessarily comedic. She is a work in progress--unfinished, unresolved and erratic, facing uncertainty with uncertainty. She is, in other words, distinctly human, unsure and unsettled, someone who could exist in real life, exactly the kind of character rarely found in TV comedies.

But is "Molly Dodd" a comedy? And are "Hooperman" and "The 'Slap' Maxwell Story"--premiering Wednesday on ABC--comedies? Not in the traditional sense, happily.

"Hooperman," from the originators of "L.A. Law," stars John Ritter as a police detective. "The 'Slap' Maxwell Story" is another Tarses product, starring Coleman as a sports writer.

More about them Wednesday. Suffice to say that each is swell viewing, life-size and funny but not knee-slapping, part of a refreshing mini-drift that artfully merges the classic smile and frown faces into one.

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