Thursday, September 20, 2007

Phyllis, Phyllis

I recently found a rare VHS tape with the first two episodes of Phyllis -- the second spinoff from Mary Tyler Moore. Since this show hasn't been on in a while, I thought I'd upload the pilot to DailyMotion for those who are curious to see what the show was like.

Unfortunately neither the pilot nor the second episode feature the show's most popular character, Mother Dexter (Judith Lowry). The pilot does have Barbara Colby as Phyllis's boss and the ex-lover of her late husband Lars. (If you take into account everything we've heard about the unseen Lars, including the fact that he had an affair with Sue Ann and his sticking Phyllis with no insurance, you kind of have to conclude that he was the worst husband ever.) After three episodes, Colby was murdered; her part was re-cast, but all the same, the emphasis had to shift away from Phyllis's job and toward her life with her husband's family; finally she just changed jobs altogether.

The show collapsed in the second season when Lowry died; with the most popular supporting character gone and with Phyllis looking increasingly cursed (Jane Rose, who played Audrey, died only two years after the show went off the air), it couldn't sustain its initial success. But it also had the problem of putting Phyllis at the center of a show. Usually on an MTM sitcom, the lead character is more normal than everybody else. But Phyllis was one of the weirdest people on Mary Tyler Moore; Mary and Rhoda both stood around and gaped at her endless self-delusion. If you look at the pilot of Phyllis, it's clear that the writer/creators Ed. Weinberger and the late Stan Daniels are trying to keep the qualities that made Phyllis interesting, but that means in practice that for much of the episode, other characters are playing straight man to her, instead of the lead character playing the straight man to the other eccentrics. That was why the introduction of Mother Dexter helped the show, because she was the only character who could make Phyllis look normal by comparison. But even so, as the series went on, Phyllis's character had to be softened to make her a more plausible sitcom lead, and when the show was canceled, some insiders expressed the opinion that it had softened Phyllis to the point of losing what made her popular in the first place.

Still, Cloris Leachman is great, and you can see why MTM and the network would have wanted to give her a spinoff: she was only available for a few episodes a year on Mary Tyler Moore (she was always credited as a "special guest star" when she appeared), and by giving her a show they could have her for a full 22 episodes. Perhaps it would have worked out better to create a new character for her, but that's hindsight, and anyway the audience probably wouldn't have accepted her as a non-Phyllis character at that point. The show also gets points for retaining Lisa Gerritsen as Phyllis's daughter Bess (who had a fairly prominent role in the very earliest Mary Tyler Moore episodes, but didn't appear very often in subsequent seasons) and for casting Henry Jones, who was so great in Frank Tashlin's The Girl Can't Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? Oh, and I've frequently offered praise for Stan Daniels' theme song.

Here's the prologue (with the guy who played the minister in "Chuckles Bites the Dust"), title sequence and Act 1:

And here's Act 2 and the closing credits:


Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I recall a funny episode where Phyllis invites a men's club to use her in-laws' home for a meeting after she is told by one of their members that they have trouble finding a place to meet because society does not understand them and makes fun of them.

Phyllis, and the audience, are led to believe that this men's club is an organization for gay men. Phyllis feels sympathetic and wants to help, and invites them to her home.

Turns out, they are a group of Neo-Nazis. The look on Cloris Leachman's face is priceless. Just as on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, there is nothing so funny as a socially awkward moment.

Rob Bates said...

I really fell in love with "Phyllis" the show when it aired on Nick at Nite a while back; at its best, it's damn funny (mostly due, as you mentioned, to Judith Lowry.)

I have some episodes on VHS (including "Mother Dexter's Wedding," a classic), and would welcome suggestions on how to upload them on to one of the video hosting sites.