Monday, January 23, 2023

TV: Programming as comfort food

After 9/11 TV as comfort food was a big thing.  NBC's long running sitcom FRIENDS, for example ,pulled in more viewers than it had the two seasons prior to 9/11 and ended up the number one TV program.  There's nothing wrong with TV providing comfort -- especially when you consider how, too often, it seems to work hard to run viewers off. 

As television continues to experiment with ways to bring back former viewers, various efforts are attempted.  Last week, the effort was focused on rebooting sitcoms.  NETFLIX served up THAT 90S SHOW while NBC went with NIGHT COURT.

The original NIGHT COURT began airing on NBC in 1984 and ran for nine seasons.   Harry Stone (portrayed by Harry Anderson) presided over the court.  In the years since, Harry Anderson has passed away joining other late cast members including Paula Kelly (Liz), Markie Post (Christine), Selma Diamond (Selma), Florence Halop (Flo), Charles Robinson (Mac), Martin Game (Bernie), Jason Bernard (Judge Willard), John Astin (Harry's step-dad Buddy), Eugene Roche (Christine's father Jack), Gilbert Gottfired (prosecutor Oscar) and Florence Stanley (Judge Margaret Wilbur).  And you thought FRASIER was sad, right?

Actually, FRASIER is sad.  While John Mahoney has passed away, David Hyde Pierce and Jane Leeves are alive, well and apparently unwilling to work with Kelsey Grammer again.

Back to NIGHT COURT.  The reboot centers around Melissa Raunch who plays a judge -- in fact Judge Harry Stone's daughter Abby. She uses that relationship to get Dan (John Larroquette) to return as the night court prosecutor Larroquette won for Emmys for his portrayal of Dan on the original show.  Rounding out the cast are India de Beaufort (as ADA Olivia), Kapil Talwalkar (as the judge's clerk Neil) and Lacretta (bailiff Gurgs).  NBC served up two episodes last Tuesday.  And then they were surprised by the ratings.  NBC isn't used to having hits -- just a bunch of meandering shows with Chicago in the title.  

If they don't screw it up ("they" being the network), they have a hit on their hands.  The cast works well as ensemble and they have a lot of individual chemistry.  Break out star?  Probably Kapil with his character Neil.  

THAT 70S SHOW started airing on FOX in 1998 and aired for eight seasons.  It ended the same season as WILL & GRACE.  As we noted in real time, THAT 70S SHOW was the one that offered a satisfying ending.  (Thankfully, when WILL & GRACE returned for its reboot, it disowned the last episodes.)  So how do you come back from that?

Wisely, with a largely new cast.  The sitcom kicks the timeline 20 years later and we've got a new group of teenagers to please Kitty (Debra Jo Rupp) and incur the wrath of Red (Kurtwood Smith).  Debra Jo and Kurtwood are so perfect in their roles that it's tempting to think that adding anyone else to the cast would have made this a hit.  But think about shows like GOLDEN PALACE or THE ROPERS and you'll quickly grasp that a talented cast around the existing characters was still going to be needed.

Fortunately, they've got one.  Most of whom are under 18 in real life which means we don't comment -- good or bad.  We can note that Gwen and Nate live next door to Kitty and Red (in Donna's old house), that their mother has a touch of Midge in her and is played by Andrea Anders (who was so great in a small recurring role as Amber on MODERN FAMILY  -- she was also very good on THE CLASS -- a sitcom CBS should have stood with and given a second season). 

At the MOTOWN 25 reunion, Diana Ross declared, "It's not about who left.  It's about who came back.  And tonight everyone came back." That's pretty much the case for THAT 90S SHOW.  Doing guest sports are Laura Prepon (Donna from the original), Wilmer Valderrama (Fez), Tommy Chong (Leo), Topher Grace (Eric), Ashton Kutcher (Kelso), Don Stark (Donna's dad Bob) and Mila Kunis (Jackie).  They interact very well with the others in the cast and hit the ground running.  That's especially the case for Topher and Laura whose timing and chemistry is so perfect that it's hard to believe that it's been 15 years since they last acted together.  Both have gone on to other things.  Laura was great in the one season ARE YOU THERE, CHELSEA? as well as in 82 episodes of ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK while Topher's found his footing in HOME ECONOMICS (which appears to get better with each episode).  But if you ever followed THAT 70S SHOW, you'll be hard pressed to want to see them be anyone other than Donna and Eric.  They're just too perfect together.  It'll probably take one of them writing a trashy tell-all about how the other had bad breath and did who knows what to ever destroy the magic of Donna and Eric.

Before we watched either show, we were worried.  Friends at NBC were convinced that NIGHT COURT was going to bomb.  When we watched, we wondered if they understood it was a comedy?  Then we were worried about THAT 90S SHOW.  But somehow, two new shows debut in the same week and not only do they not suck, they're actually quite wonderful.

Comfort food that you want to come back for.

And that's what CNN is looking for.  

People seem surprised by the notion of a talk show on CNN.  First off, that's all CNN has when not doing live coverage of a tragedy or disaster: Talk shows.  

Second, the idea's not the new.  Elaine has floated it -- not just at her site but also to CNN suits.  She's right.  LARRY KING LIVE anchored the night for years.  That was a talk show.  And CNN really needs another talk show like that.  Being mentioned -- now that the media's caught on to what CNN is planning -- are two people: Jon Stewart and Bill Maher.

LARRY KING LIVE was a little more serious than THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JOHNNY CARSON but just a little.  What we mean by that is it was comfort food with some dashes of news.  

Bill Maher can't serve comfort food.  He's too acerbic.  Nor should he be on a live broadcast on CNN.  Breaking news might happen and Bill was run off ABC for a reason.  Whether you supported him being fired for declaring that the terrorists who attacked on 9/11 were "brave" or not, you surely grasped that this isn't someone you put on a live microphone.  He has no tact and he has no class.  

That's before you factor in all the baggage he brings with him -- baggage that includes anti-Muslim, anti-Arab, anti-woman.

Jon would be the safe choice.  (We know and we like Jon, disclosure.)  Jon appeals to the center.  His work with veterans and first responders goes to the fact that he can reach across the aisle.  He's actually funny.  (People laugh at Jon's jokes, indicators applaud at Bill's attempt at humor.)

Jon is not the only one who could carry an entertaining talk show on CNN but if it really is down to him or Bill Maher, clearly he would get our vote.

What doesn't get our vote?  

NBC's football staff.  You're dealing with two (Mike Tirico and Matthew Berry) who couldn't pass a work place investigation and one who is a raging homophobe (Tony Dungy).  Last week, the rager went after trans persons and we were not just appalled, we were confused.  This is how the network that brought you WILL & GRACE behaves?  This is the network that launched "The More You Know" (shooting star, as Jack McFarland would note)?  There aren't going to be any consequences for ?

There's nothing comforting in that.

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