Friday, April 23, 2021

Remembering the Most Brilliant Stupid Show Ever to Air on TV

Thirty-nine years ago today, April 23, 1982, the CBS smash-hit WKRP in Cincinnati aired its series finale after four short years. And no, this isn't a post about movies. But it is a subject that hits near and dear to my heart so do please bear with me. 

When I was twelve years old, I knew exactly one thing about that silly tale of silly people working for a silly and so often star-crossed radio station in the anonymous midwest: I knew that it was the only thing on TV that was anything *like* this kind of funny. At age twelve, that was more than enough. 

Somewhere along the line I even convinced myself that my first paying job in life would be as a commercial, on-air radio disc jockey and, four short years after that last episode, so it came to be. As upside-down as that logic sounds, in hindsight it seems the least I could have done in tribute to one of my very favourite segments of television entertainment, ever, across my entire life. Hilarity wasn't the watchword for this show; it was the fail-safe minimum from week to week.

If you say "WKRP in Cincinnati" to  anyone in my demographic the odds are better than not that the reply to come back will be some variation on, "...As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly." As well it should be. Many, many of us will literally never forget where we were, and what we were doing, when we saw that episode. It was the funniest thing that had happened on television for years. 

But here's the thing, the sneak, the plot twist, the subtle brilliance of this devilishly subversive show: While you were too busy choke-laughing your way to apoplexy to notice, this scrappy, silly little program was also challenging everything you might have thought you could rely on about television and popular culture. From the very first episode, creator and head writer Hugh Wilson led an island of misfit-toy guerrilla writers (who, it was widely rumoured, closely mirrored the cast of characters at the station), on a ground-up demolition of cultural and broadcast norms, challenging everyone who watched while still keeping the show's wit sharp enough to con us into only vaguely even noticing that our morals and mores were being pulled apart right in front of us.  

The pilot threw this gauntlet down as effectively as any pilot of a television program ever would, even if most of us could barely pull ourselves together off the carpet long enough to notice. "Bailey, I'm calling a meeting this afternoon with Les and Herb," says the newly hired "Andy Travis" (Gary Sandy), Program Director and semi-willing XO of the clown patrol that is this station. "I want you to be there too."

And Bailey Quarters (Jan Smithers) blushes, adjusts her glasses, and says, "I've never been invited to a meeting before."

"Well," says Travis, simply -- and truthfully -- "that's been a mistake."
This was in 1978. The program we were all already scream-laughing at from over the tops of our Swanson TV-dinners had just casually and matter-of-factly challenged every last one of us on gender equity in the workplace, and it was 1978. A topic that you could reasonably expect to see addressed in a first-run program this very evening. 

From there, the Wilson writing team would only go on to just-as-effortlessly feint us into seriously reconsidering our retrogressive dogmas about racial justice, sexual harassment, Vietnam draft evasion, gay rights, substance abuse, poverty and crime, autumn-spring romance, impaired driving, animal welfare, unscrupulous concert promotion practices, bullying, Cold War self-determination, and inter-generational white privilege. Among rather a lot else. 

In one particularly poignant moment (from a typically hilarious episode, otherwise), staff receptionist Jennifer Marlowe (Loni Anderson) finds herself acerbically faking her way through a call-in advice program, when she discovers that one of her glib, off-the-cuff responses has just gotten a young woman badly beaten by her abusive husband and eventually hospitalized. Thence, over the span of about four minutes, a nondescript episode buried in the middle of their third season, wrote itself into confronting spousal abuse, sham-credentialing, employee crisis counseling, and the systemic -- one might rightfully say horrifying -- failures of the American mental health care infrastructure.

"You can't just shut yourself off, Jennifer," says station manager Arthur Calrson (Gordon Jump), in one of four emmy-nominated moments for him. Jennifer, fighting back tears, asks him why not. "Because I need you," says Carlson. 

"...I don't want people to need me," says Jennifer.

"Yes you do," says Carlson. "Yes you do."

A poignant moment, a dramatic confrontation of just one of the scary, basement dwelling foibles that our flawed and limping society throws up at us when we're least equipped to deal with them. Written so close to the bone that you can feel it underneath your skin. So clean, so distilled of flourish and bravado, so tight that you can reach up toward your screen and just about ping it with a finger. 

I would have said, "television doesn't get made like that anymore." It's a great writing device and I've pulled it from my bag of tricks a thousand times. But it doesn't apply. It's not that TV doesn't get made like that anymore, exactly; it's that, somewhere along the line, we forgot both the credit deserving of such pioneering bravery -- and the old fashioned need to couch our social comment, to consciously de-tune our "very special episodes," to ... gosh, I dunno, maybe entertain the audience with a welcomed laugh or two along the way. 
That's what doesn't get done anymore. Socially important television can be seen on any channel any time, day or night -- but rarely with the elan, and dash, and above all the wit, of shows like WKRP. It wasn't just hilarious; it was a riot in both senses.

We could sure use a show or two like that around here now. 
Dave O'Gorman
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
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