Sunday, June 17, 2007

Be Good To Buffalo

BUFFALO BILL may well be the greatest television sitcom you never heard of. Although only 26 episodes were ever produced, the series was nominated for eleven Emmys, including two for Outstanding Comedy Series and three for its writing. The late NBC president Brandon Tartikoff claimed that canceling BUFFALO BILL during its second season was his biggest professional regret. The show was daring, unusual, bold and extremely funny. Except for a brief run on the A&E cable network during the late 1980s, BUFFALO BILL has never been regularly repeated, which is what makes Lionsgate’s three-disc collection of the entire series such a treat.

Best of all, BUFFALO BILL gave actor Dabney Coleman one of the juiciest roles of his career. Coleman had been drifting through Hollywood since the early 1960s, appearing in television guest roles, commercials, soap operas and the occasional bit part in a feature. His big break came in 1980, when he landed the part of Franklin Hart, the smarmy, sexist boss of Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin in the box-office hit 9 TO 5. Although he had played heavies in television, 9 TO 5 was the origin of what we now readily identify as Coleman’s persona: egotistical, paranoid, selfish, vapid, crude. Playing obnoxious soap-opera director Ron Carlisle in an even bigger hit, 1982’s TOOTSIE, allowed him to expand on that persona, which also served him well as sinister NORAD official McKittrick in another hit, WARGAMES. Appearances in other high-profile films like ON GOLDEN POND and MODERN PROBLEMS helped put Coleman, now 51 years old, at the apex of his career.

I presume that when comedy writers Jay Tarses and Tom Patchett created the role of “Buffalo” Bill Bittinger, the narcissistic host of a local Buffalo, New York TV talk show, they had Coleman in mind, as it’s unlikely anybody else in Hollywood at that time could have played it. Bittinger is Ron Carlisle times ten: a heel with nary a redeeming virtue. Although critics sometimes compared BUFFALO BILL to ALL IN THE FAMILY, it really wasn’t very accurate. Whereas Archie Bunker was a lovable bigot whom America embraced, despite his personality flaws, there was nothing to love about Bill Bittinger: a coward, a racist, a male chauvinist, a hustler, a manipulator and a lout who never treated anyone in his life—even his own daughter, whose looks he frequently chastised—with a modicum of respect. Unless he needed something from them, then he would clumsily pretend to butter them up. No television series had ever put such a cad front and center before, and the critics, if not necessarily the audiences, ate it up.

Tarses and Patchett backed up Coleman with one of the most outstanding supporting casts I’ve ever seen in a sitcom: Joanna Cassidy (BLADE RUNNER) as Jo Jo White, the show’s director and Bill’s on-again/off-again love interest; Max Wright (ALF), the secret weapon as far as I’m concerned, as station manager Karl Shub; John Fiedler (THE BOB NEWHART SHOW) as agreeable stage manager Woody, Bill’s usual whipping boy; young Geena Davis (memorable in TOOTSIE too) as Wendy, Bill’s sexy but na├»ve (but, importantly, not stupid) research assistant; Meshach Taylor (DESIGNING WOMEN) as Tony, the assistant director; and Charles Robinson (NIGHT COURT) as Newdell, the makeup man who was just about the only one at the station who refused to take Bill’s guff. Everyone in the cast had enormous success in television or in films, and it’s likely that the prestige of being on such a remarkable show, which producers and casting directors knew about, even if the general public didn’t, helped land them future jobs.

NBC did BUFFALO BILL hardly any favors, giving it an initial order of thirteen episodes, but burning them off during the summer, when fewer people are watching television (actually, NBC aired only twelve of them, holding one back for the second season). Who knows what kind of promotional push NBC gave it, but enough of the show’s peers were watching to nominate the show for five Emmy awards, even though only four or five episodes had even aired up to then.

It’s likely the Emmy attention is all that brought BUFFALO BILL back for a second year. You can imagine what trouble the network had in marketing the show, as common wisdom said you could never revolve a sitcom around such an unrepentant character like Bill Bittinger, who in the first season schemed to replace a recently dead colleague on 60 MINUTES, proposed to Jo Jo and then schemed to get out of it, and became a used car salesman (in a large blond wig) when his show was temporarily canceled.

In Season Two, which debuted three days before Christmas 1984 (so you know the network was still not behind the show), BUFFALO BILL got even more outrageous, kicking off with “Hit the Road, Newdell,” which featured Bill’s wildly racist nightmare of being chased by African natives and black drug dealers, and including “Jerry Lewis Week” (the show’s best episode, in which Bill and Karl fight over a stuffed bear while the station is overrun with Jerry Lewis impersonators, including one played by an uncredited Jim Carrey), “The Interview” (in which Bill learns how little his friends love him), “The Girl on the Jetty” (a showcase for the underrated Max Wright, who always brought more dimension to his jittery authority figure than most shows would allow), and the two-part “Jo Jo’s Problem,” in which Jo Jo chooses to have an abortion, knowing she could never raise a child with Bill, the father.

NBC, behind Tartikoff, was finally beginning to move out of last place in the ratings, mostly because of its extremely slate of comedies, which at this time included THE COSBY SHOW, CHEERS, NIGHT COURT, FAMILY TIES, THE FACTS OF LIFE and DIFF’RENT STROKES. For whatever reason and even though Tartikoff had wisely given the equally ratings-challenged CHEERS time to develop, there was less patience with BUFFALO BILL, which was canceled 14 episodes into its second season. Of course, it was much different from anything else on NBC. Besides the repellent leading man (played so brilliantly and without ego by Coleman), BUFFALO BILL was filmed using a single camera without a live audience, which is almost the norm today, but very rare then. Against Tarses’ and Patchett’s wishes, I’m sure, a laugh track was awkwardly inserted into the soundtrack, where it sounded quite out of place with no gaps in the dialogue to accommodate it. One can also imagine the arguments NBC presented to warm up the Buffalo Bill character, but Coleman never did. Even though you expect Bittinger to break down at the end of each episode and show that he’s really not a bad guy after all, Coleman never breaks character, which may have killed the show, but who wants to see a show about a sweet Bill Bittinger anyway?

Lionsgate’s DVD set offers no extras, but, thankfully, allows us to enjoy BUFFALO BILL for the great series it is. I wish more had been done to place the show in its perspective. Considering its rocky production history and its unique place among sitcoms, a documentary or audio commentary seems essential. But the important thing is the show, of course, and all 26 episodes are here. One caveat: although the episodes appear to be complete, “Hit the Road, Newdell” is missing the classic nightmare mentioned above, because it was scored with Ray Charles’ “Hit the Road, Jack”, and the rights holders refused to license the song to Lionsgate at any price. While it’s sad that such a seminal scene may be lost forever, it may be a small price to pay just to have BUFFALO BILL available on DVD.

For more on BUFFALO BILL, see this interesting piece in TIME, dated July 11, 1983.


Hal said...

A truly great show. I completely missed it during its original NBC run (came during the height of my out of the house high school years) but caught every episode multiple times on A&E when they picked it up around 1987-88 when Coleman got his second shot at headlining a network series, THE SLAP MAXWELL STORY.

My favorite episode was the one with Martin Landau as yet another person Bill had screwed over in the past. Landau ended up buying the station, and, well, guess whose show was the first to get cancelled?

Rich D said...

I didn't know Jay Tarses was co-creator of this.

I've only recently discovered him in the BBC radio Revolutionary War comedy series "Revolting People" created by Andy Hamilton. Funny stuff.

Off to NetFlix to add...

Anonymous said...

On the dream scene of Bill Bittinger's scene of being punished for being a bigot in the dream sequence of the "Hit the road, Newdell" on "Buffalo Bill," reminds me of many cartoons like "Butterscotch and Soda," "Bout with the Trout," "Pluto's Judgment Day," "Heavenly Puss," and "Mutt in a Rut," due to the characters, respectively, Little Audrey, Little Lulu, Pluto, Tom, and Dog Face are very similar to Buffalo Bill's for being punished for misconduct.