In 1978, NBC scored a surprise hit with Diff’rent Strokes, a family sitcom about a wealthy white man who adopts his black maid’s sons after she dies. The show mixed corny punchlines with issue-driven stories, and featured a breakout star in Gary Coleman, a cute little kid with a medical condition that stunted his growth. Five years later, ABC debuted Webster, a sitcom with two white parents and the even cuter, littler Emmanuel Lewis. The show was originally developed as Another Ballgame, with ex-NFL star Alex Karras and his real-life wife Susan Clark playing odd-couple newlyweds: he a salt-of-the-earth jock; she a wealthy, cultured crusader. But during the development process, ABC discovered Lewis, and the network convinced Karras and Clark to add him to their show—giving it the new title Then Came You—while promising the couple that they’d still be the leads, and that the show wouldn’t be a Diff’rent Strokes clone. Then ABC announced its fall schedule, and the final name for the project was Webster. Karras and Clark weren’t happy.
To find out the rest of the story—or even that first part of the story—TV fans will have to dig up the old E! True Hollywood Story episode that documents the Webster tumult. The Webster: Season One box set eschews contextual material, offering only the 22-episode first season—which ends on a cliffhanger—and no explanations. Not that what’s actually onscreen is that complex. Webster is a slick, stingless ABC ’80s family sitcom, drawing laughs from scenes of its adorable star behaving precociously, then routinely shifting to sappy sentiment in its final minutes. The show was never as socially relevant as Diff’rent Strokes often tried to be, though these first-season episodes do tackle the sizzling topics of lying, running away from home, cheating at school, how babies are made, being kind to the disabled, and bedwetting. And though neither Karras nor Lewis were that great as actors, all Webster really required was for the former to tower adorably over the latter. They got the job done.
And oddly, what makes Webster: Season One so watchable is that lack of ambition. This wasn’t some high-concept monstrosity like the girl-robot kidcom Small Wonder, or a show that trafficked in broad comic characters like the Urkel-dominated Family Matters. Most Webster episodes take place in Karras and Clark’s fabulous Chicago apartment, with minimal plots that involve only the three principals (plus Clark’s fussy gay assistant, Henry Polic II), and nothing too outrageous. Ultimately, Webster works because Lewis is cute—and not in an obnoxious way, like Coleman—and because the bones of the show that Karras and Clark originally wanted to make remains. Clark is a gifted comic actress who looks striking in her angular ’80s frocks, and her ballet-loving, housework-averse consumer advocate plays well against Karras’ pizza-beer-and-football regular-guy-ness. Even without an unexpected adoptee to bind them, it’s easy to see why they’d fall for each other—line, sinker, and hook.
Key features: None, unless an interactive Webster trivia game counts as “key.”