A test of the strength of a television series is how well it survives the loss of a major character. Think of "M*A*S*H" and the departures of McLean Stevenson and Wayne Rogers, or "Cheers" with Shelley Long leaving. Both came back stronger than ever.
The same should be true of "Midnight Caller," an admirable NBC series that is currently lost on Friday nights at 10 o'clock. In the continuation of a two-part episode, Devon King, owner of the radio station where the series' main character, Jack Killian, has a late-night talk show, will sell her business and leave town in the episode that runs tonight on Channel 2 (WMAR).
Wendy Kilbourne, who plays King, is pregnant and leaving the show, so King's pregnancy provides the pretext for her selling the station. She was going to have the baby alone, so last week Jack, played by Gary Cole, up and proposed, but, lo and behold, the father of the child flew in from Tahiti and proposed himself.
Devon chose to go with the father, selling out and leaving town, but Jack is still the one who went to the Lamaze classes in preparation for the big event which takes place tonight.
The main act of business tonight, though, is the selling of the station to an over-the-top character played by Don Meredith as if he were selling Lipton Tea. The hour is an examination of the various ripples, personal and professional, that spread out from the splash of that large rock after it's tossed into the pond of this station. It's a thoughtful episode that combines light comedy and touching poignancy with satisfactory results.
The hour does expose one of "Midnight Caller's" inherent weaknesses: the lack of depth and complexity in the portrayal of its setting. You would think that the radio station had no employees other than Jack and his producer from viewing this.
But the good news is that the series' other main weakness, the one-dimensional acting of Kilbourne, is about to be replaced by the much more interesting work of Lisa Eilbacher, who becomes a regular as the new station manager.
"Midnight Caller" is not great television, but it is well above average. It has an interesting arena in late night talk radio, it tackles some tough issues thoughtfully with a dollop of sophistication, and it has one of the best actors in series television in Cole. Now, with Eilbacher aboard, it should be stronger than ever.