The TV season's boldest development in prime time has been the emergence of such series as "Frank's Place" on CBS and "The 'Slap' Maxwell Story" on ABC, gorgeously written and executed half-hours that blur the line between drama and comedy.
In every episode, there's at least a little bit of magic. And as a bonus, no laugh track.
Other shows have larger audiences. But these are "Hey-did-you-see" series: "Hey, did you see 'Frank's Place' last night?" "Hey, did you see 'The 'Slap' Maxwell Story' last night?"
You have the feeling that people don't have the same reaction to NBC's "Facts of Life."
That Brandon Tartikoff, president of NBC Entertainment, should publicly trash this exhilarating and innovative genre when there is so much else on TV worthy of ridicule is mystifying, if not downright sad. But that's exactly what he did last week in remarks to a gathering of the nation's TV critics in Century City.
"I don't think it's a great thing for him to say because it hamstrings people trying to be different," said Jay Tarses, creator of "The 'Slap' Maxwell Story" and "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd," a wonderful half-hour comedy-drama that got a trial run on NBC last summer.
"It isn't a fait accompli , this form," Tarses added. "Nothing is proved yet. I don't think the ratings have gone through the roof."
Without mentioning all the half-hour comedy-dramas by name, Tartikoff said that the creators of such programs may be admitting "we are not really funny comedy writers and we're not good drama writers."
Not so, says Tarses, whose pedigree includes "Buffalo Bill," "The Bob Newhart Show" and "The Tony Randall Show": "For him to say we aren't capable comedy writers is a little bit stupid."
Tartikoff likened praise of the new genre to praise of "The Emperor's New Clothes." You remember the story: The emperor not only wasn't wearing new clothes, he wasn't wearing any clothes. But his subjects were afraid to tell him.
It should be noted that come March, NBC will have on its schedule two of the very kinds of series that seem to irritate Tartikoff so much, the returning "Molly Dodd" and the newer "Beverly Hills Buntz." And NBC will be much the better for it.
Maybe he was ticked off by occasional grumblings that his Nielsen-leading network has played it safe in prime time with new series that mostly break old ground. Maybe he was just in a lousy mood. Or maybe, as Tarses said, it's that "Brandon is a child of television. If it gets good ratings, he thinks it's good."
Whatever the reason, Tartikoff did seem to go out of his way to lash out at "Frank's Place," whose modest ratings hardly threaten NBC.
The nearly all-black series, starring Tim Reid as the likable owner of a homey New Orleans restaurant/bar, has confirmed series originator Hugh Wilson as one of TV's creative elite--even though he may not meet Tartikoff's standards. Nowhere in prime time is the bittersweetness of life, the gentle sorrows and amusements, more charmingly and honestly expressed than in the atmospheric "Frank's Place."
Tartikoff said he saw no future in syndication for series such as Wilson's (apparently that includes "Molly Dodd," "Buntz," "Slap" and also ABC's "Hooperman").
Viewers will tune in an "I Love Lucy" rerun they recall, he said. "But I don't think people are going to . . . tune in an episode of 'Frank's Place' because it was poignant."
Wilson, former creator and executive producer of "WKRP in Cincinnati," said that he was surprised and baffled by Tartikoff's criticisms, especially because he and Tartikoff are friends.
"It's just his opinion, and I think it's profoundly wrong," he said. "I'm sorry he feels that way. I've got enough problems with the ratings without being attacked by one of the big boys."
Running a poor second in its Monday night time period, "Frank's Place" ended 1987 in the bottom half of the national Nielsen survey, ranking 45th with an average audience of perhaps 20 million. Significant by almost every other measure, 20 million prime-time viewers is rather paltry by network standards.
Wilson began thinking aloud.
"If the ratings haven't improved, maybe I should be going for more laughs," he said. "I've got a lot of people working here depending on this. Maybe we should change. We've talked about it."
"Frank's Place" is already very funny when it wants to be, which is only sometimes. Pouring on the one-liners may pump ratings, but it would also transform "Frank's Place" into something different.
"I know," Wilson said. "But we come in here on a Tuesday morning feeling real good about what we've done, and then you look at the numbers. We've really been blue about that. After awhile," he added, turning a sports metaphor, "you feel like you're four and 12 on the season."
CBS Entertainment President Kim LeMasters is a known fan of "Frank's Place." "We've had only kind words from the network," Wilson said.
But not that other network. "If Brandon doesn't like inconsequential shows, there's a long list," Wilson said.
And "Frank's Place" isn't on it.
Written by Wilson, last Monday's episode was especially intriguing, witty and, yes, poignant.
Frank was nearly driven out of his mind by a bum who decided to camp outside the restaurant every day, harassing passersby and loudly singing "Dayyyyyyy-ohhhhhhhh!" Nothing Frank tried--begging him, bribing him, feeding him, offering him a job, threatening him, sicking the cops on him--deterred the bum. Then one day, inexplicably, the bum didn't show up.
And Frank missed him.
Sometimes you don't know what you have until it's gone. That goes for TV series too.