WHEN NBC wanted to promote the return of "Shannon's Deal," a refreshingly adult (not to be confused with prurient or profane) series about a Philadelphia unlawyer, who did it send to appear on "The Tonight Show"?
His secretary, of course. But this was hardly another case of a secretary being sent out to pick up the boss' dry cleaning.
Elizabeth Pena, the mercurial, full-lipped Latin beauty who plays Jack Shannon's secretary Lucy, has emerged as a near co-equal star with Jamey Sheridan, who plays the rumpled, ambivalent attorney.
Lucy (Pena) does just about everything for the divorced Shannon, including serving as a surrogate mother to his teen-age daughter during his frequent unexcused absences. About the only thing she doesn't do is pick up his dry cleaning, maybe because Shannon never has any dry cleaning, which is part of his charm.
Lucy's indispensability to "Shannon's Deal" is a reminder of many other TV shows over the years that wouldn't have been the same without the secretary. Can you imagine "Perry Mason" without Della Street? "Twin Peaks" minus Lucy?
Secretaries have achieved on TV the sort of prominence too often denied them in the real world -- because they deserve it and because they're a wonderful convenience for script writers looking for ways to naturally fit characters into the picture. Secretaries are always around.
We happen to be going through an unusually rich period for TV secretaries just now, with at least six shows featuring secretary characters. We have seen the arrival of male ("Anything but Love") and native American ("Northern Exposure") secretaries, as well as the first anti-secretaries ("Murphy Brown").
The best of the bunch
HERE'S MY list of the Top 20 TV secretaries, past and present:
1. Miss Hathaway ("The Beverly Hillbillies"). The late Nancy Kulp's turn as the prim, punctilious right hand of buffoonish banker Milburn Drysdale is still my favorite.
2. Jennifer ("WKRP in Cincinnati"). Jennifer (Loni Anderson) was the first TV secretary obviously smarter than every man in the office.
3. Carol ("The Bob Newhart Show"). Jennifer without the looks.
4. Della Street ("Perry Mason"). The mother of all TV secretaries.
5. Mrs. Nottingham ("The Paper Chase"). A real pill, almost as prickly and formidable as her boss, Professor Kingsfield (John Houseman).
6. Secretary Du Jour ("Murphy Brown"). Who will it be this week -- a kleptomaniac? A paroled ax murderer? A mime?
7. Lucy ("Twin Peaks"). Earth to Lucy, Earth to Lucy . . . oh, forget it.
8. Jules ("Anything but Love"). One of TV's first male secretaries -- a masochistic fussbudget and bootlicker who gets down on all fours and gives boss Catherine horsey rides.
9. Toby ("Dream On"). This rotund, likably peevish outer-office tyrant lords it over the poor schlemiel, a yuppie book editor, who pays her.
10. Gunny ("Major Dad"). Miss Hathaway, without the looks.
11. Peggy ("Mannix"). Dull but dutiful and super-efficient.
12. Judy ("The Slap Maxwell Story"). Did Megan Gallagher do any work as secretary/temptress to Slap? Did anybody care?
13. Lucy ("Shannon's Deal"). Numero uno among the newcomers.
14. Lemur ("Parker Lewis Can't Lose"). Part henchman, part secretary, all flunky to the whip-cracking Ms. Musso.
15. Roxanne ("L.A. Law"). I couldn't warm up to her until she stopped being a punching bag for Arnie.
16. Homer's secretary ("The Simpsons"). For one inspired episode, Homer had a male secretary with the gravelly bass of Broadway playwright/actor Harvey Fierstein.
17. Marilyn ("Northern Exposure"). Elaine Miles, a member of the Umatilla tribe, plays the mysteriously serene secretary to young Dr. Fleischman.
18. Elizabeth ("Against the Law"). You probably haven't caught this low-rated Fox show, but Elizabeth is another of the new breed of secretaries who can talk trash to the boss.
19. Jane Foster ("East Side-West Side"). Cicely Tyson played the secretary to George C. Scott in this ahead-of-its-time series in 1963-64.
20. Velda ("Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer"). Velda, as in va-va-va-voom.