'Happy Days Reunion': We've seen it before

March 03, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

It's all there: Henry Winkler and Marion Ross necking on the set of "Happy Days"; Winkler explaining how ABC wouldn't let his character, Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli, wear a leather jacket at first because network executives thought the jacket made him look "too much like a hood"; Robin Williams' first network TV appearance as an alien named Mork visiting the Cunninghams of Milwaukee.

Yes, it's all there in the "Happy Days Reunion," at 9:30 tonight on WJZ (Channel 13). But, as promising as those three moments might sound, that's as good as it gets. And when you stretch it out over 90 minutes, it gets a little thin.

Maybe I'm just nostalgia-ed out. "Happy Days Reunion" is nostalgia about a series that was wall-to-wall nostalgia to begin with. And such reunion shows are becoming a programming genre unto themselves these days. The formula that was such a success for recent CBS nostalgia-ramas on "M*A*S*H," "The Bob Newhart Show," "All in the Family," "Mary Tyler Moore Show" and others is followed to the letter tonight:

Get a celebrity, preferably a member of the original cast, to be host.

Tonight, it's Winkler, whose Fonz was the biggest star of this sitcom about teen life in Milwaukee during the 1950s.

Get other celebrities who had major roles in the show to come back, sit down with the host and get all weepy about what a "big, happy family" they were.

Ron Howard, Marion Ross and Tom Bosley -- Richie, Marion and Howard Cunningham -- return with a bunch of other folks and seem very touched by the reunion.

And then get video clips of all the big moments in the history of the show, plus some bloopers and outtakes never seen before, and have the host string them all together with sentiment and goop.

There are lots of clips from the series, which ran from 1974 to 1984 and was TV's highest rated show in the 1977-'78 season. There's the introduction of two new characters, Laverne (Penny Marshall) and Shirley (Cindy Williams). And there's the farewell scene between Richie Cunningham and the Fonz from the final show for Ron Howard in 1980, when his Richie left Milwaukee to go off to Hollywood to be a screenwriter, just as Howard himself was leaving the show to start a directing career in feature films. Winkler introduces the clips with a wash of schmaltz.

And that's what's wrong with the show. It follows this formula for reunion-show-as-entertainment too perfectly. It seems too calculated. There are no moments of real insight, melancholy, joy or reflection on the experience of what "Happy Days" was. Some viewers may feel their attachments to the show are being exploited more than they are explained or celebrated.

"Happy Days" itself was not great television. But it was television doing great at one of the things prime-time TV does best: celebrating home, family, consensus, a rose-colored notion of the past and an optimistic view of the future.

The Fonz is a good example of how that worked. The character was a TV version of the energy of youth and impulse of rebellion that Marlon Brando and James Dean played in feature films, like "Rebel Without a Cause" and "The Wild One." But in "Happy Days," all the danger, excitement, sense of outsider and oppositional values were made tame, safe and subservient to the all-American, middle-class family and what it stands for.

But maybe I'm rationalizing or ir-rationalizing my problems with the reunion. Maybe my real problem with the producers is that they had 90 minutes to fill and didn't see fit to use any video featuring Pinky Tuscadero. No Pinky Tuscadero. Go figure.

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