Friday, October 3, 2008

jay tarseses throughout the decades, pt. 1: the 1980s

Most of the time, I enjoy "critically acclaimed" television shows. Hill Street Blues is still my all-time favorite show, and it pretty much defined "critically acclaimed," particularly during its early years when it struggled mightily in the ratings but took home a boatload of Emmys. And I have loved oodles of other programs that swept critics off their feet: The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Office (British and US versions), Twin Peaks, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica (the current-day one, not the original) are just a few examples where I think the hosannas are well deserved.

But there are shows that never click with me, no matter how much good press they get. One of the first "critically acclaimed" shows I remember not liking at all was Buffalo Bill, which starred Dabney Coleman as a crass, mean-spirited local talk show host. Its low ratings were often blamed on the deliberate unlikability of the main character.

For me personally, liking or relating to the characters isn't a prerequisite for enjoying a movie or TV show, so that wasn't a problem. I think Dabney Coleman is a fine comic actor, and his presence made me want to keep giving the show a chance. Heck, it even had Geena Davis in a supporting role, and I was harboring a major crush on her at the time (a crush that came to an end when she went into Streep/Close "I'm a serious wonderful actress so worship me, peons" mode sometime after Thelma and Louise). I should have liked this show!

But I didn't. The sticking point for me was that it just wasn't funny or smart enough. Yeah, it was smarter than your average sitcom, but not as smart as it thought it was being. As far as comedies about unlikable characters go, the equally short-lived Cheers spinoff, The Tortellis, made me laugh hysterically (Dan Hedaya has to be one of the greatest unsung character actors ever), and had all the smarts and moxie that Buffalo Bill never mustered.

Jay Tarses was the creator and executive producer of Buffalo Bill. Despite his pedigree as a writer for The Bob Newhart Show, a show that I love, I just didn't like the shows he came up with on his own. Tarses went on to create The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, which was part of the great "dramedy" boom of the mid-'8os (Doogie Howser, Hooperman, my beloved Frank's Place, etc.). Molly Dodd was another show that critics ate up with a spoon, but, like Tarses' previous venture, it left me both unamused and bored.

Since then, it seems to me that to every generation of television, a Jay Tarses is born. Every decade has its signature creator of multiple shows that find favor with critics, yet whose creations aren't as funny or smart as their perpetrators think they are being, nor are they as funny or smart as they are made out to be in the press.

For your reading pleasure, I have selected a Jay Tarses for each of the last three decades. This weekend, I will discuss each of them in their own individual blog post. Today, it's the Jay Tarses of the 1980s, and the winner, please (cue drum roll)...

The Jay Tarses of the 1980s
Jay Tarses. (See above.)

Stay tuned tomorrow, when I reveal the identity of the Jay Tarses of the 1990s!

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