Suddenly, here is Ted Danson, back in our sitcom lives. Only this time he came in through the back door--on "Becker," a midseason replacement on CBS.
Keeping "Becker" off the new fall lineup in favor of the since-canceled "Brian Benben Show" has turned out to be a canny piece of Monday night strategy by CBS. For not only does "Becker" deservedly draw better ratings than its dead-on-arrival predecessor, but the midseason launch gave Danson's image a few more months of distance from the gaudy failure of "Ink."
"Ink," you may remember, was the 1996-97 sitcom starring Danson and wife Mary Steenburgen, which drew attention for all the wrong reasons--principally because CBS made a costly, 22-episode commitment to the stars before there was even a script and then watched as the show limped through a season of expensive creative changes and critical flogging.
"After 'Ink,' I thought, all right, that's it, no more half-hours," Danson says. "All I can do is Sam Malone, and I don't want to be Sam Malone, [but] that's all people want me to do or be, and I sure as hell am not going back to CBS, so I'm outta here."
It's Wednesday, a day of lazy rehearsal on the set, the cast and crew still aglow over last night's taping, in which Dick Van Dyke did a guest-starring role as Becker's estranged father. Danson, in blazer, jeans and sneakers, is sitting in the office of the title character he plays, a cranky doctor with more pet peeves than Andy Rooney on a therapist's couch. Twice-divorced, middle-aged, Becker has given up a high-paying research job at Harvard to open a general practice for low-income patients in the Bronx. But his heart of gold is constantly canceled out by his rants about everyday life.
There's a discernible bit of Becker in Dave Hackel, the 49-year-old show creator and executive producer. After decades spent on sitcoms such as "Wings," "Dear John" and "Frasier," Hackel wanted to do a show in which the lead character could be, well, not nice.
"If you've been doing this for a while you realize how long you've been censoring yourself," Hackel says. With this show, Hackel wanted to experiment with "letting a guy say what's on his mind."
True to the don't-make-this-look-like-a-Ted-Danson-vehicle approach, press releases for the show pitched not the star but the character. (Becker on tattoos: "Give me a break. You want to let some ex-biker with a rusty dentist's drill use your body for a doodle pad, go ahead.")
With patients, Becker is gruff, at times reactionary, but at bottom he always cares. In an earlier episode this season, he tells a single mother of four who is thinking about having a fifth to put a piece of Velcro on each knee, so when she hears that tearing sound she'll know to stop what she's doing.
"Too rough?" he later asks the woman, chastened by his own cruelty.
The Risk He Took May Be Paying Off
Becker is hardly a revolutionary sitcom character, but he's at least a breath of hot air in a field crowded with either smug urban yuppies or endearing blue-collar losers. Indeed, even the slightly seedy diner/newsstand where Becker hangs out feels like a throwback to a previous sitcom era. "I used to think he was this angry guy," Danson says of a character who, very much like Sam Malone, hides his pain with a false front--this time as a cynic. "Now I think what he is is this intensely lonely guy. . . . What I love is how lonely he is, how awkward he is, how he doesn't want to be touched."
For Danson, "Becker" was a calculated risk. Now that risk appears to be paying off. Last week "Becker" held onto the entire "Everybody Loves Raymond" 18-to-49-year-old lead-in audience, scoring very well among women 25-54.
Danson, meanwhile, speaks like a convert to the script-first process.
"This came into being the right way," he says. "Dave Hackel had a passion for this script. He didn't write it for anybody. Then CBS said, 'We like this script.' I came along and asked, 'Can I be in this?' And then we went and made deals. I think that's how shows stand a chance. If you create something around Ted Danson, you've watered down the process already."
"In 'Ink,' we were trying to reproduce Sam Malone," says a somewhat less contrite Leslie Moonves, CBS Television president. "The same sort of bigger-than-life character. John Becker is very far away from Sam Malone."
Trying to Put the Emphasis on Ensemble
Though CBS has faced criticism of late for the multimillion-dollar star deals they've handed out (deals that resulted in failed shows like "Ink" and Tom Selleck's "The Closer"), Moonves says he didn't hesitate signing Danson to another 13-episode commitment. This despite the conventional wisdom that sitcom lead characters need to be closer in age to Will and Grace than Becker.
"At heart, Ted Danson is a television star," Moonves says. "He loves the medium. I truly believe if the right piece of material had not come along for two more years, he would have waited two more years."
For his part, Danson is trying to resist career analysis.