Norman Lear takes on the Washington establishment

March 01, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

This is Norman Lear, the producer of TV producers, talking about his new political satire, "The Powers That Be," which premieres Saturday night at 8:30 on NBC (WMAR-TV Channel 2 in Baltimore). He's talking the realpolitik of television now, and he's just about to lay down his statement of thesis.

"I think the show scores in its original intention, which is let's be funny," Lear says. "But in the end, everything is going to depend on ratings. I don't care how exciting the show is, . . . how many chords it strikes with viewers. . . . If it doesn't rate well, it's gone. That's the name of the game in network television today."

And just when you think Lear is through talking, and it sounds maybe as if making TV shows has finally become nothing but a numbers-crunching, churn-it-out, industrial process even for the Lears of this world, he adds, "But, I have to say, I've got a good feeling about this show." And the image of a few producers still playing hunches, still going with good feelings every now and then forces back the darkness.

There is basis for Lear's good feeling in connection with his new series about an empty-headed Washington politician (played by John Forsythe) and the politician's nut-case family. The first two episodes, which the network made available for preview, are some of the best work in over a decade to come out of Lear's shop. And that is some shop.

If Lear never produced another show, he would retire as one of the most important figures in the history of television. He took the sitcom from silly to serious almost overnight in 1971 with "All in the Family." He created the first truly post-modern episodic TV series in 1977 with "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman." Lear owned prime-time network television at its height in the 1970s with "All in the Family," "The Jeffersons," "Sanford and Son," "One Day at a Time" and a bunch of other hits.

But it's been a long time since Lear lit up the Nielsen scoreboard. Though "The Jeffersons" ran until 1985, the Reagan-Bush years have not been kind to Lear. It reached a low this past year when Lear's "Sunday Dinner," a CBS sitcom that dealt with spirituality, took a pasting from the critics and flopped in the ratings.

And, then, after looking at Lear's pilot for "The Powers That Be," CBS declined to make a commitment to the series. That's no way to treat a legend. But Lear says there were reasons for the rejection from the network he made so much money for over so many years -- like one of the stars quitting the show almost before it began.

"The series was made originally for CBS with Linda Hunt," Lear said. "It was called 'Love Child.' But we were in rehearsal only about four days, when Linda turned to me and said, 'Comedy is just not my metier. I don't think I'm going to like this. . . .

"So we finished the pilot with Linda Hunt, but we knew she was out. . . . And CBS, who had financed it, turned it down. . . . But then NBC bought it based on seeing the same pilot with Linda Hunt."

Sound confusing? Welcome to the world of network television, circa 1992, and the tortured route some series travel to find a place on the air. In NBC's case, what "buy" means is that the network paid for eight episodes, which will run the next eight weeks. The ratings for those shows will decide whether "The Powers That Be" makes next fall's lineup.

As for the "Love Child" business, "The Powers That Be" is in part about a love child, a now-grown woman who was fathered by U.S. Sen. William Powers (Forsythe) when he was a young officer the Korean war. The love child, Sophie Lipkin (now played by Robin Bartlett instead of Ms. Hunt), shows up out of the blue in the senator's office one day in the midst of what promises to be a very tough re-election campaign and introduces herself to her father.

Much of the first episode, which was directed by Lear, is about the collision between plain-talking, earthy Sophie and the senator's snooty, WASPY, crackpot family and staff.

The family is presided over by Powers' haughty, thin-as-a-pin-and-maybe-anorexic wife, Margaret (Holland Taylor). The interplay between Mrs. Powers and their maid, Charlotte (Elizabeth Berridge), includes some of the most wickedly right-on, social-class commentary this side of a seminar on Marxism at Berkeley. Their relationship is played with broad exaggeration -- Mrs. Powers slaps Charlotte on the face for overlooking a lint ball on one of the bathroom towels -- but the ideological insights between ruling class and labor are realistic and dead on target.

Director Lear and writers Marta Kauffman and David Crane waste no time tearing into the Powerses. After a clever opening vignette featuring the real Faith Daniels reading a news story about Senator Powers, the tone of satire is deadbolted into place with the opening credits.

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