Monday, September 20, 2004

Nanoo, Nanoo

The complete first season of Mork and Mindy is now available on DVD, and, like several other reviewers, I'm finding it kind of hard to decide whether or not it's a good show. I once corresponded with a Mork writer who said that, in his opinion, the show didn't have any good characters besides Mork: all the characters, even Mindy, were one-dimensional and not all that funny. I think Pam Dawber was a decent straight woman, but I have to agree with him on the whole; I don't think this show ever had a good supporting character. The main supporting characters in the first season are Mindy's dad (Conrad Janis) and grandmother (Elizabeth Kerr): a fussy bald guy who was so under-written that the writers couldn't even decide whether he liked or hated Mork, and the first of many wisecracking-grandma characters in the Garry Marshall oeuvre. Over the years they kept on adding new characters; in the second season, to revamp it -- one of the few times a big hit show has been completely overhauled -- they added new, younger characters and a new set (a "hip" delicatessen). The new characters were so boring that I can't even remember who they were; eventually they brought back the father and grandmother, on the principle that it's better to have dull characters played by experienced actors than dull characters played by young 'uns. (The first season does offer one funny character who appears in several episodes -- Mindy's vain ex-school-chum, played by all-purpose TV blonde Morgan Fairchild; too bad they didn't make her a regular instead of searching around for new characters.) Mork and Mindy just never had the stable of good characters that a good sitcom is supposed to have; it was a one-man show.

But at least in the first season, that one man is pretty darn good. There's no question that, on the basis of his talk-show mugging, his many horrible movies and his self-indulgent standup routines, Robin Williams has elevated himself to the status of Satan. One look at him doing his silly voices and sitting on the host's lap, and I'm changing the channel to something more entertaining, like Antiques Roadshow: Extreme Edition. But this is 1978-79 Williams, when this schtick was still fresh, and he hadn't yet begun pretending that these routines were "improvised" (during the run of Mork there was, I read, some controversy because Williams was trying to claim that he improvised everything, whereas of course most of what he did was in the scripts, and the showrunners, Dale McRaven and Bruce Johnson, weren't happy about his credit-hogging). The writer I talked to, I recall, said that despite the weakness of the supporting characters, Williams was so funny that he made up for all the other problems.

The show is at its best when the stories provide an excuse for Williams to do what he does best; so the most popular episode from the first season, "Mork's Mixed Emotions," creates a plot point -- Mork loses control of his emotions and starts bouncing from one personality to the next -- that takes Williams' talent for bouncing between personalities and integrates it into the story. To see Williams doing his stuff in that episode, or the episode where he disguises himself as an old man, or the satire of feel-good cults ("Mork Goes ERK," guest-starring David Letterman, who has constantly made fun of himself for his performance in this episode -- though really, he's not that bad), is to be reminded of the basics of what makes a good sitcom: find a funny person, give him a decent story, and turn him loose. The show also had a good writing staff; Dale McRaven, the showrunner and uncredited creator of the show -- he wrote the pilot and created the format of the show, but he didn't get credit for creating it because the character of Mork had already appeared on Happy Days -- had written many episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show, and other writers included David Misch (later a writer on Police Squad and showrunner of Duckman) and April Kelly (creator of Boy Meets World, which is high on the list of "shows that shouldn't be well-written, but are").

Mork isn't exactly a good show; a good sitcom needs more than one good character. But if you can forgive Robin Williams for Patch Adams, the first season of Mork is pretty darn entertaining. No extras on the four-disc set, but the episodes look a lot better than they did when the Comedy Network showed them here in Canada a couple of years ago; Paramount's sitcoms were probably the best-looking of the era, and the remastering generally conveys that.

No comments: