The Powers That Be marked a sitcom missing link
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Some TV series act as missing links, short-lived stopgaps in the medium’s evolutionary record that provide bridges between what was and what was to come. They usually arise between big hits, when producers are casting about for a new way of doing business. Most of them go forgotten, tossed aside by low ratings and audience indifference, no matter the critical response.
Such a show is Norman Lear’s The Powers That Be, one of the sitcom impresario’s final attempts to return to the top of the primetime heap in the early ’90s, as well as the first series created by David Crane and Marta Kauffman, who launched Friends a few years later. If the series is remembered at all these days, it’s for having one of the greatest casts in sitcom history, a lineup that included such soon-to-be heavy-hitters as David Hyde Pierce, Peter MacNicol, Holland Taylor, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in addition to the series’ star, the already popular John Forsythe, making a bid for sitcom stardom after the end of Dynasty. Yet the way the series blends the influences of Lear and the writing of Crane and Kauffman illustrates how the sitcom struggled to redefine itself as Cheers and The Cosby Show drew to their respective ends.
Powers is built around the Powers political dynasty, headed up by Senator William Powers (Forsythe), a liberal Democrat from somewhere in New England. Powers plays to all the worst stereotypes of politicians—he’s a blowhard who’s cheating on his wife with a much younger woman—but also remains interested in the issues, has glimmers of higher political ambitions, and hopes to do the right thing both by the people in his life and by his country, at least until he turns yet again to craven opportunism. His wife, Margaret, is the kind of cutting ice queen TV doesn’t feature nearly enough of anymore, played to perfection by Taylor, who wrings laughs out of even the most minimal of lines. Powers possesses a loyal, if dysfunctional staff: a daughter who’s married to a House member; a grandson; and a mostly silent maid who conveys much of her laughs via broad pantomime, like Snoopy in the Peanuts specials. And in the show’s pilot, he learns he has an illegitimate daughter he never knew about, a daughter who grew up in New Jersey and who embodies the broadest stereotypes of the state. And he learns about that before he learns about the lunk-headed but popular football star who’s going to challenge him in the primary.
Powers only made it to the air thanks to its arrival at the last time when the airwaves were safe for sitcoms that came complete with copious amounts of social commentary. Murphy Brown was both a critical and Emmy darling and was about to become the center of controversy when Vice President Dan Quayle attacked the show’s decision to have its main character become a single mom. Roseanne was one of the top programs on television, and its blistering commentary on an America sinking deeper into recession made for TV that felt immediate and purposeful. Seeing these sorts of shows (along with other popular series from A Different World to Designing Women), the networks looked around for other series that could tackle the issues of the day.
Naturally, they turned to Lear. In the ’70s, Lear had essentially invented the socially conscious sitcom, turning series like All In The Family, The Jeffersons, and Maude (among others) into an excuse to dissect the issues of the day. Lear’s mission statement was to reflect the political arguments that happened around dinner tables on his shows, and at their best, Lear comedies captured the feeling of being at once deeply affectionate for someone and also completely disgusted by the person’s point-of-view on some political issue. (At their worst, those shows were just strident.) Lear had hit a fallow period in the ’80s, as his shows slowly went off the air and his former empire was sold for spare parts. But he returned in the early ’90s with three shows—Sunday Dinner, Powers, and the All In The Family spinoff 704 Hauser—designed to capitalize on the American public’s apparent hunger for social commentary spiked with laughs.
Powers was the only series that lasted more than six episodes, and it only made it to 21. It’s also unquestionably a Crane and Kauffman production. Many of the innovations the two quietly spearheaded on Friends were taken for trial runs here. The show is more sexually frank than many comedies of the period, and the two aren’t afraid to let the laughs drop out for scenes that are essentially dramatic, highlighting the growing rifts between people who often don’t know how to talk to each other. (Lear mostly produced and directed, but in the episodes where he was behind the camera, he plays these dramatic moments as well as any of the regular Friends directors did.)
Most notably, the two played up the series’ serialized aspects, albeit in a less sophisticated way than on Friends. Characters embarked upon affairs that would recede into the background, then come back to the foreground in later episodes. The story of Powers’ campaign against the football star anchored the first season. Son-in-law Theodore’s suicidal tendencies came back again and again, providing ample material for the physical comedy talents of Pierce. (Though Friends is the most obvious beneficiary of what Powers was trying, Frasier also benefitted, especially when it came to the performance of Pierce, cast on that show thanks to his work here, and in its blend of sophisticated references with goofy farce.)
Powers also pointed toward American sitcoms’ increased flirtation with breaking apart the form entirely and trying something new. The series was more overtly farcical than many sitcoms to that point, and it wasn’t afraid to take a left turn into outright sex farce. And though it wasn’t as pitch black as many of the British series that obviously inspired it, it was much darker than other American sitcoms of the time, as Theodore’s suicide attempts—played entirely for laughs!—alone would indicate. (Also played for constant comedy: Margaret’s borderline abuse of the maid.) It was a show that most recalled the great ’70s satire Soap in its attempts to tell many different kinds of jokes, and it also pointed the way forward to the great single-camera sitcoms of the following decade.
Powers is far from a perfect show. No one involved with it ever figured out a consistent tone, and network notes hobbled a second season that was still funny but less thrilling in its sheer willingness to do anything for a laugh than the first. (Much of the show is on YouTube for the curious.) It’s not as good as Lear’s best shows, nor can it match up to Friends. But as a missing link, an attempt to draw a line between the shows Lear made in the ’70s and the shows that arrived just a few years later, it’s as good as any show on the air at that time. It’s the work of people who understand the form trying to break the American multi-camera sitcom wide open and see what they can do. If not everything works, well, the attempt is still enjoyable to watch.