Influential cranks, improvised nukes, and multiple Doctors: The unsung TV of 1983

Influential cranks, improvised nukes, and multiple Doctors: The unsung TV of 1983

In the fall of 1983, NBC—still in the midst of a turnaround centered on young-gun executive Brandon Tartikoff and his patience with critical-cum-commercial successes like Hill Street Blues, Cheers, and St. Elsewhere—debuted nine new shows, programs like the supernatural sitcom Jennifer Slept Here and the high-concept adventure series Manimal. None would survive to see a second-season renewal. The collapse of that fall slate is sadly indicative of 1983’s contributions to the TV canon, a year in which the cream rose to the top and the rest was justly dumped down the drain of history. It was the year when M*A*S*H’s series finaleset an unbreakable viewership record and Sesame Street paid tribute to the late Will Lee, while simultaneously teaching its young audience about mortality—but it was also the year of the “super-intelligent orangutan becomes a political advisor” comedy Mr. Smith. Still, the year wasn’t entirely an either/or prospect, because even that disastrous NBC lineup contained one show that continued the revolutionary work being carried out on Hill Street and at St. Eligius. Here are 13 TV artifacts from 1983 worth digging up on home video (or, more likely, YouTube).

Unsung swing and a miss: Bay City Blues
Steven Bochco’s follow-up to Hill Street Blues is by no stretch of the imagination an all-time classic TV show. But it’s an interesting test case nonetheless, an example of the U.S. TV drama taking its newfound sophistication from the squad room and the hospital and into other arenas. Granted, what Bochco and co-creator Jeffrey Lewis chose—a baseball diamond—wasn’t exactly a natural fit for a top-flight drama, but their tale of the struggles inherent in a minor league team—stuffed with promising newcomers and faded stars—made for a unique show all the same, and the cast, featuring actors like Ken Olin and Dennis Franz, was second to none. The show only completed eight episodes, so it never had a chance to really find its groove, but those eight air on ESPN Classic from time to time, for the curious. [TV]

Unsung curmudgeonly influence: Buffalo Bill
The American sitcom had contained plenty of antiheroes—Archie Bunker, for instance—but they were usually undercut with a leavening dose of heart or humility. Archie, for instance, just loved his little girl, Gloria, and that made him more palatable to the audience, especially over time. Buffalo Bill, then, was a bracing corrective to that tradition, as it was about an unrepentant asshole. As the titular character, a small-potatoes talk-show host in Buffalo, New York, Dabney Coleman was electric, playing up Bill’s egomania to the hilt. While NBC programmed a bunch of great new sitcoms in the early ’80s—and especially in the 1982-83 season (during which Buffalo Bill was developed)—Buffalo Bill never caught on, simply because viewers didn’t yet know what to make of a show where the lead was almost always the butt of the joke. But it would prove hugely influential. Fortunately, the whole series is available on DVD. [TV]

Unsung broadcast interruption: Special Bulletin
Eight months before ABC vaporized a large chunk of the Midwest in The Day After, NBC took a smaller-scale approach to Cold War anxiety, 1980s style, with the Emmy-winning Special Bulletin. Framed as around-the-clock coverage of the nuclear standoff between the U.S. and a band of radical disarmament activists, the TV movie derives its power not from the fear of mutually assured destruction, but rather prescient concerns about the simultaneously trivializing and sensationalizing effects of the news media. With that framing device, the script—from Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, who’d later put their stamp on series drama by co-creating thirtysomething—is free to baldly issue those criticisms, which resonate through the 24-hour news cycle created during the ensuing decades. As the movie unfolds, the anchors fronting the broadcast (Kathryn Walker and St. Elsewhere’s Ed Flanders) form a unique spin on the unreliable narrator, with professionalism threatening to break down, editorializing and careerism seeping in, and questions of priorities—the story versus human lives—taking on greater weight as the threat of detonation grows ever more likely. [EA]

Unsung finale: Walt Disney
In 1983, TV said farewell to Archie Bunker, the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, and the Sunshine Cab Company—television institutions all, but none that had been around since the medium’s infancy. That distinction goes to the anthology series that aired on all three then-existing networks under a variety of titles (including Disneyland, Walt Disney Presents, and The Wonderful World Of Disney) before ending its 29-year run as Walt Disney on CBS. TV’s first major effort by a film studio had weathered the transition from black-and-white to color, but lost some of its luster as its programming moved away from anthologized miniseries, nature documentaries, and original movies, increasingly relying on repackaged animation and theatrical features. By the time The Mouse House’s flagship television venture folded in the fall of ’83, there was less of a reason for the studio to be in the broadcast business: It had launched The Disney Channel the previous April, which became the cable home to a revived The Magical World Of Disney in 1990. [EA]

Unsung gumshoe: Philip Marlowe, Private Eye
Movie fans still argue about which actor was the best screen incarnation of Raymond Chandler’s detective hero Philip Marlowe, but one name that’s usually sorely missing from the discussion is Powers Boothe, who starred in Philip Marlowe, Private Eye, HBO’s first original dramatic series. Adapted from short stories by Chandler and set in Los Angeles in the 1930s, this British co-production can’t compete with the movies in terms of production values or supporting actors—on Philip Marlowe, Private Eye, both are a little chintzy. But Powers’ swaggering, heavy-lidded star turn has all the sexy toughness and glamorous disreputability of classic Hollywood noir. It’s one of the great forgotten television performances of the 1980s. [PDN]



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Unsung guest shot: Dennis Franz on Hill Street Blues
Hill Street Blues was one of the most critically acclaimed dramatic series of the ’80s, and it hit a wild, crazy peak in early 1983, with the story arc built around Sal Benedetto, a high-living crooked cop who invaded the Hill and shook everything up. Even after the game he was running got away from him and his temporary partner was shot, Benedetto remained thrillingly unrepentant, taking a hostage and telling Captain Furillo what he could do with his moral code, before blowing his own brains out to escape arrest. The role made Franz an instant star, but a star of a very special kind: He basically spent the rest of his career playing variations on Sal Benedetto. In fact, his sudden departure from Hill Street Blues left such a hole in the show that, after a decent interval, he was invited back to play a new, regular character: Norman Buntz, a fearless risk-taker and lovable vulgarian who was basically an honest Benedetto, with worse taste in clothes. [PDN]

Unsung reason for staying up after Letterman: NBC News Overnight
NBC News Overnight, a very-late-night news hour anchored by Linda Ellerbee and (originally) Lloyd Dobyns—and, later, Bill Schechner—debuted in the summer of 1982 and finally died of network indifference in December 1983. The broadcast, which was so heavily dependent on features done by local affiliates and other far-flung sources that it sometimes resembled the TV equivalent of an online news aggregator, was held together by the dry wit and world-weary charm of the hosts, who, working in the pre-DVR days when a show that went on at 1:30 or 2:30 in the morning was mostly seen by people actually watching TV at 1:30 or or 2:30 in the morning, found the perfect tone for an information program enjoyed by smart insomniacs. Its cancellation signaled the end for any pretense that network TV was interested in putting on news shows for smart people. [PDN]

Unsung literary adaptation: Jane Eyre
While The Thorn Birds was titillating American audiences with the sort of soap-scope priestly sex scandal that now seems positively quaint, 1983 also saw the much quieter BBC première of Jane Eyre, starring Zelah Clarke and costume-drama perennial Timothy Dalton. With a leisurely and thorough 11-episode run, the miniseries was allowed ample time to explore the minutiae of the book that usually gets cut of adaptations (and in which the audiences could wander for two or three weeks before things get really juicy). Clarke made the best of the space, delivering a measured but determined incarnation of the title character, with glimpses of humor other Jane Eyres overlook. And even though it has all the stage-bound creak of many 1980s BBC period pieces—and Timothy “T minus four years to Bond” Dalton never quite managed to sell the “not dashing” angle in Rochester—the series gathered acclaim as its distribution spread. It is now considered one of the definitive adaptations of Charlotte Brontë’s novel, and is well worth a weekend for the Eyre enthusiast. [GV]

Unsung almost one-and-done: The Black Adder
1983 saw several attempts at satire or parody hit American TV, almost all of which crashed and burned; At Ease limped through one season, while Zorro And Son and Ace Crawford, Private Eye imploded as soon as they were exposed to light. But across the pond, there was The Black Adder. Written by seasoned sneer factory Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis (who’s written every British thing Andrew Davies and Julian Fellowes haven’t), The Black Adder presented a unique Middle Ages that blended alternate history, cynical commentary, and requisite pratfalls. It was also shot on location, an expense that nearly scuttled the series after its first season, until its international Emmy tipped the scales in favor of an eventual green light for more. And though Atkinson’s now known for contorting his face into fiendish glee for a thousand seasons running as Mr. Bean, Blackadder’s particular recipe of the sublime and the absurd battling cog-in-the-machine-of-history ennui still stands out in the landscape of British comedy it inspired. [GV]

Unsung birth of an alternative nation: I.R.S. Records Presents The Cutting Edge 
In the dark days before MTV introduced 120 Minutes to its Sunday night lineup, the best place on the network for college radio darlings to earn some time in the spotlight was a monthly program of interviews and performances done in collaboration with Miles Copeland’s so-called International Record Syndicate. I.R.S. Records Presents The Cutting Edge tried a few different hosts during its initial episodes—among them Wazmo Nariz (of “Checking Out The Checkout Girl” fame) and a pre-Later… Jools Holland—before settling on Fleshtones frontman Peter Zaremba. Done in a DIY style, which was likely as much to do with budgetary restrictions as any sort of attempt at artiness, the musicians appearing on The Cutting Edge handily lived up to the program’s name, with R.E.M., The Smiths, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Hüsker Dü, and The Bangles among the bands given airtime early in their careers. The Best Of The Cutting Edge was released on DVD in late 2012, recycling the two best-of VHS collections, which emerged in the early ’90s, but numerous additional excerpts from the series, as well as some complete episodes, can be found on YouTube. [WH]

Unsung electronic renaissance: Automan and Whiz Kids
With home computers taking the world by storm, it was only a matter of time before the broadcast networks decided to hop on what seemed to be a passing fad, but the ways in which ABC and CBS approached the concept were decidedly different. Created by Glen A. Larson, ABC’s Automan borrowed a bit of its concept and a lot of its visuals from Tron, not to mention one of its producers, Donald Kushner. The series starred Desi Arnaz Jr. as Walter Nebicher, a police officer/computer programmer who had developed a holographic artificial intelligence called Automan that could—with the help of faithful sidekick, Cursor—create various objects out of thin air, anything from a guitar to a helicopter. 

CBS’s Whiz Kids, on the other hand, eschewed the “technology can literally do anything” mindset, with series creator Philip DeGuere at least making an effort to mirror reality by having the series revolve around teenagers, the demographic most obsessed with home computers. With a distinct, but coincidental resemblance to WarGames, Whiz Kids starred Matthew Laborteaux as computer genius Richie Adler, who, along with three of his friends (and, on occasion, his little sister), regularly solved mysteries with the help of Richie’s self-constructed computer system, nicknamed Ralf. Although neither Automan nor Whiz Kids lasted beyond a single season, both are worth revisiting as artifacts of an era when computers were still seen as little more than a novelty. [WH]

Unsung adventure in space, time, and fan service: The Doctor Who 20th-anniversary special 
By 1983, Doctor Who was already a venerable British TV institution entering its nearly unprecedented 20th year, a milestone deemed worthy of a feature-length anniversary special simply and impressively entitled “The Five Doctors.” While a more accurate title would probably be “The Three And A Bit Doctors”—fourth Doctor Tom Baker refused to participate and was represented by stock footage from an unfinished story, while deceased first Doctor William Hartnell was replaced by moderately convincing stand-in Richard Hurndall—the story does reunite as many Doctors, companions, and classic monsters as humanly possible. Indeed, the demands of such a gargantuan cast do rather defeat writer Terrance Dicks’ attempt to tell a coherent story, as the various Doctors are split off into their own little quests of varying entertainment value. Still, while it most assuredly isn’t great television, “The Five Doctors” is pure, concentrated nostalgia, and it’s hard for Doctor Who fans to completely dismiss its admittedly silly pleasures. The show’s ultimate expression of well-meaning, fan-pleasing excess, “The Five Doctors” is a good lesson on what the current show should—and, more importantly, should not—be doing as it gears up for its even more unprecedented 50th-anniversary special. [AW]

Filed Under: TV, 1983 Week

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