Monday, 26 May 2008

A Very Funny Red-Haired Woman Named Tate

On the weird and wacky cable service I have at home because The Man won’t let me put a dish up, there’s a rum little on-demand mini-channel thing called Screen Gems. The name will be familiar to those of you who ever mainlined stuff like The Monkees or I Dream of Jeannie on summer holiday mornings. This channel offers up a handful of those, selected seemingly at random. Why it’s doing this is anyone’s guess, but the multichannel age thumbs its nose at such lily-livered commonsensical talk, and so, there it is.

Anyway, after a brief dalliance with the one Monkees episode I must have seen every three months throughout my childhood and so could recite the dialogue as it happened (the one where they go into a toy-testing department, Tork fans) I assumed that was Screen Gems spent for me. Then a while ago Benson turned up, and through nothing more than a vivid recollection of the smell of roast beef that I’ll always associate with the theme tune, I had a look. It wasn’t half bad. Not many laughs, but still possibly the most watchable of the whole ‘sarcastic black butler versus frigid German cook’ genre. Then, the other week, along came the programme from which Benson span off, Soap.

Soap is one of those sitcoms that’s considered a landmark in America, but is hardly mentioned here. Channel 4 used to show some of the later series at odd times late at night as I recall, but the disparity in fame on either side of the Atlantic makes Seinfeld look like Dallas. It is, as the oleaginous voice of one Rod Roddy puts it at the top of every show, the story of two sisters. Mary Campbell’s the lower middle-class one, married to a loon who killed her previous husband, with one son on the run from the mob after failing to kill said loon, and another mulling over a sex change operation so he can marry his quarterback boyfriend. Jessica Tate is the other, who married a wealthy businessman who cheats on her with his secretary, and on his secretary with anyone else who’s going, is herself boffing the same tennis coach as her daughter, who’s also got the hots for a Catholic priest. And then there’s the other daughter who’s bedding congressmen, the requisite ‘wise beyond his years’ smartass kid, a Hawaiian ventriloquist with inseparable wisecracking doll, and of course Benson.

Confused? Well, you have to watch the thing closely, that’s for sure, so it’s suited to the whole on-demand format, where missing an episode is not an option. The sort of daytime soap it’s supposed to be parodying never happened over here, but that doesn’t matter. The script, created and, unusually for American comedy, mostly written by Susan Harris (later of Golden Girls fame) may suffer from the old ‘everyone talks the same way’ syndrome that’s hard to avoid with wisecracking comedy, but the performances carry it off superbly. Everyone knows about Billy Crystal’s star-making turn as Gay Jodie, but in a close contest acting honours go to Robert Guillaume’s Benson, Katherine Helmond’s brilliantly sustained airhead whitebread matriarch turn as Jessica Tate, and Richard Mulligan, whose Bert Campbell was clearly closely studied by the young Michael ‘Kramer’ Richards:

In retrospect, after we’ve been spoilt by the likes of Frasier, it inevitably seems a tad slow, and it certainly does seem a bit pleased with its mould-breaking outrageousness at times, but so does Not the Nine O’Clock News and Brass Eye. And then, this being an American sitcom, there’s The Mawkishness. Oddly, the first half dozen episodes roll by in a manic haze of plot-reversals and scene-setting with no time for a touching moment, so the first big ‘the laughter dies, leaving a tear forming in the corner of the studio audience’s collective eye’ scene comes as something of a shock. I’m told by those who know that this escalates to unbearable levels a couple of series in, and indeed the whole thing went on into the 1980s way after it should have been put out to grass, but that’s the US networks for you.

Still, even if it turns to total dross after this first series, that’s 19 episodes of class more than most can manage. Oh, and !!!!SPOILER ALERT!!!! Here’s the final ever scene. They don’t end sitcoms like that any more.