Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Show With a Spin On It

Those who read this blog know I'm a fan of Hugh Wilson, who is sort of a more humanistic version of the man who brought him into MTM, Jay Tarses -- a very personal style, a tendency to make shows that don't go quite the way networks or audiences expect them to, and an unusual, off-center take on the classic MTM comedy style. Some of his stuff is outright great, like WKRP and Frank's Place, and some of it doesn't really work but is a wonderful experience if you're in sync with his style, like Rustler's Rhapsody. (That movie is so arch and self-conscious that it violates every rule for making a good comedy, yet there's something about it that I find fascinating -- maybe because the script is so clearly the voice of one writer working out his feelings about Westerns, movies, and drama in general.) From the '90s onward, except for his brief success with The First Wives' Club, he's mostly done movie projects that didn't get made and pilots that didn't get picked up -- none of which I've seen, though I heard at least one of them (The Contender, a boxing drama set in Baltimore) was good. And of course an additional bit of bad luck is that his two best pieces of work, WKRP and Frank's Place, are impossible to re-release in their original form because of all the music issues.

All this is leading up to the fact that Wilson was apparently the big hit of a recent New Orleans Frank's Place event. It was put together by Tim Reid, who was there filming a guest role on Treme, and the producers of Treme, who know that Frank's has a reputation as the most authentic Hollywood show about the city. Reid, who bought the master tapes to keep them from being destroyed, screened three episodes -- "Frank Returns," the first show after the pilot (good move: the pilot is good, but it's very exposition-heavy and a little slow; the second episode is a better introduction), "The Bridge," and "Dueling Voodoo." The event was sold-out even though the auditorium seated 600, and as the comments to that article show -- and backed up by other comments I've heard on Twitter and elsewhere from people who were there -- Wilson did a lot of the talking about the show, and impressed almost everyone by how funny he still is.

I hope the renewed attention given to Frank's Place will lead to some kind of home video release; it's marginally easier than WKRP because, a, there's only one season and b, the original master tapes at least exist. (WKRP not only has the problem of paying for the music, but the problem that no one even seems to know where the uncut masters are.) I could see it happening if Treme goes on a few more years -- and I like Treme a lot, so I hope it does.

Good as Frank's Place was, the most disappointing thing about its early cancellation is that it actually had a lot of room for improvement. (Even Wilson's The Famous Teddy Z, which was not in a class with his other two shows, seemed to be finding itself when it was canceled, in comparison to its disappointing early episodes, and probably would have gotten good if it had had a second year.) There were a number of things that I think kept it from taking off, and it wasn't just the lack of a laugh track or the fact that audiences didn't know if it was a comedy or a drama. A number of the characters were a bit vaguely sketched (not Tiger or Bubba, but some of the others), so that after 22 episodes you still didn't know exactly who they were beyond a few basic quirks. (Daphne Maxwell-Reid's character was particularly ill-defined; even though she got billed pretty high, she didn't appear in all that many episodes, presumably because it was hard to find excuses to get her over to the restaurant.) And Frank spent maybe too much of his time doing bug-eyed reactions to whatever was going on; it was clearly a star show rather than an ensemble show, yet the star didn't always seem to be in control the way he was on Bob Newhart's shows.

That would have been ironed out in a second season, presumably. Which means that like most comedies that lasted only one season, Frank's Place is as much about its potential as its achievement; the episodes that exist are great enough, like "The Bridge," but another 22 episodes would have been even better.


Bill Peschel said...

I remember Frank's Place with fondness, and regretted its early cancellation. With so much nonsense out on DVD, surely there could be room for this one, too?

(In fact, this reminds me of "Hot L Baltimore," another oddball series from the '70s. I wonder how that would hold up today?)

Anonymous said...

I loved, loved, loved Frank's Place. I actually cried when it was cancelled.