The new CBS series "Frank's Place" is such a terrific hoot, such pure, smoky, filmy joy that it's hard to know where to begin.
It's television's big ebony, located in America's Big Easy, a smashing half hour of mostly comedy--at 8 p.m. Mondays on Channels 2 and 8--set in a New Orleans restaurant/bar with a predominantly black staff and clientele and funky zydeco music in the background.
The boss is newly arrived Ivy League Prof. Frank Parrish, who inherited Chez Louisiane from his father and doesn't know a thing about running it. Frank is the core of the series, but endearing satellite characters and the Chez itself provide much of the charm and fascination.
"Frank's Place" oozes atmosphere, the characters ooze character and the stories--all unsupported by a laugh track--are rich, vibrant and saucy. Often hilarious, "Frank's Place" is also deep-dish television, soulful, thoughtful and unconventional, a show of many faces, moods, rhythms and textures, a comedy that's not always a comedy.
In one scintillating, purposely uncomedic episode, an elderly Chez patron dying of cancer pretended to be drunk, then left and committed suicide by running his truck off a bridge. He hoped that his penniless wife would be able to sue the Chez after his death on grounds that it irresponsibly served him too much booze. How beautiful, mysterious and touching the story was, and acutely perceptive in its subtle truths about racial cultures.
In another episode, Frank rejected a chance to become the token dark-complexioned member of a snooty black social club where light skin color was a prerequisite.
"All my life I been . . . the only black," he told his would-be sponsor. "I was the only black in this class. I was the only black in that organization. I was the only black on this team. Look, man, I'm not about to become the only black in a black club."
Whatever propels "Frank's Place" should be bottled by CBS and spread around.
"There's something about this show," said "Frank's Place" star Tim Reid, a friendly, enthusiastic 43-year-old who first got famous as jive-talking deejay Venus Flytrap on "WKRP in Cincinnati."
But this was no jive. "The energy of this show," Reid said. "It's like walking on water. For the first time in my life, I'm proud to be an actor."
Reid is also co-executive producer with his friend, Hugh Wilson, the creator of "WKRP in Cincinnati" and now the creative backbone of "Frank's Place." In Reid's trailer at Culver Studios, where "Frank's Place" is shot, he explained how he and Wilson divide responsibility.
"Hugh is the wizard, and I'm the guy who keeps the people away from Oz. I say, 'The wizard ain't in.' "
The wiz was in one day last week. Southerner Hugh Wilson sat in his unfashionable office at a desk in front of an enormous blow-up photo of an unidentified black man that was used in the club episode of "Frank's Place."
There may be no one in TV less wizardly looking than the 44-year-old Wilson, who was born in Florida, lived in Georgia and still retains a soft drawl.
"The bridge episode is the best work I've ever done," he said. About half the "Frank's Place" production and writing staff, including playwright Samm-Art Williams, is black, but Wilson is writing and directing much of the series himself.
Can he write black ? "I've always been around blacks," Wilson said. "When I get gun shy with certain stuff, I'll go down and ask Tim. I was afraid the club story was too much like 'Amos 'n' Andy.' But he said it was funny. I'm more frightened of things than he is."
At various times, blacks were TV's invisible or stereotyped minority. Then came the extended post-"Amos 'n' Andy" era of blacks in comedy, capped by the explosive success of "The Cosby Show," an intelligent NBC series about an upper-middle-class black family.
"Frank's Place" elevates the genre still further. Without fanfare, in fact, it has become TV's only black series whose central characters are not always engaged in comedy.
"I never thought a show like this could get on the air," Reid said. "It is clearly an opportunity to show black people in a way you don't ever see on TV."
As it turns out, "Frank's Place" wasn't even Wilson's or Reid's idea. Credit CBS executives Kim LeMasters, vice president for programming, and Greg Maday, vice president for comedy development, with the seed and for not commanding a laugh track. And credit the William Morris Agency with getting its clients Wilson, Reid and Viacom Productions (which would be the producing company) to discuss it with CBS.
"Maday felt Cajun stuff was hot--maybe because there were all these Cajun restaurants opening in Santa Monica," Wilson said. But CBS did not initially envision "Frank's Place" as predominantly black, he said.