Let's stay home tonight and watch something about people: "United States," Larry Gelbart's fascinating and exquisite new television comedy about the resourcefulness humans show in finding ways to help and hurt, to rescue and fail, one another. For once a great subject gets a forum on television that is worthy of it.
Not since "All in the Family" unfurled a decade ago has a domestic comedy been so artful and satisfying in mixing statement and amusement. Premiering tonight at 10:30 on Channel 4, "United States" could set a new highwater mark for series television in the '80s, just as "All in the Family" did in the '70s.
If it succeeds with audiences, it won't purge all drivel from the airwaves, but it will mean a breakthrough for writers and producers who still consider prime-time entertainment tenable territory for actual ideas.
It will be difficult to adequately overpraise "United States," but one peep of warning is in order. Viewers should not expect of Gelbart -- creator of "M*A*S*H," author of the stage hit "Sly Fox," co-author of "Movie Movie" -- a hooty and hollery laugh riot. There isn't even a laugh track. "United States" is the most serious comedy now on television.
But on the premiere, which Gilbert wrote himself, it's apparent that the show will also be mordantly and stingingly funny, that it is capable of provoking thoughtful or astonished laughter, and that it is to some extent a combative, verbal ballet for two players. They are Richard and Libby Chapin, the married couple Gelbart invented for the series -- they're so very, very well off an so excessively screwed up.
Richard and Libby fight a lot. The program opens with them sparring in bed. Like the best of fights, this one is really over nothing, but it achieves a life of its own and merrily feeds on itself. Soon there are a million excuses for it, none of them particularly unfamiliar to anyone who ever tried to make a go of it with somebody else.
Making goes of it has never been easy, but Gelbart uses the Chapins, and their two little boys, to show how it may never have been more difficult. He bombards them and their marriage with rays of caustic wit and introspection and with all the new indignities, traumas, doubts and confusion that came clattering along with the sexual revolution.
Life is never easy at the barricades.
"United States" recognizes television as the most intimate and personal mass medium we have ever had, and Gelbard decided to take advantage of those qualities instead of going the route of most TV comedy -- which is to distance everything safely beyond the realm of recognizable experience. Gelbart's program clearly and inescapably is about a marriage that is happening right now, not in a cloud cuckoo past.
Beau Bridges and Helen Shaver play the Chapins. She is a bit too theatrical, but he is agreeably scruffy and earnest. True, they live in an overly dreamy California house -- designed to a point of immaculate, almost insidious good taste by the gifted Tom H. John -- but the writer, and director Nick Havings, bring the characters into such bracing proximity that whether or not they're typical never really becomes an issue.
In 30 years of snickering sitcomedy, we've probably had enough cross-eyed conceptions of what a typical couple is anyhow. The Chapin marriage has superficially privileged, cushy trappings, but Gelbart shows how univerisal certain forms of alienation, desperation, elation and suspicion really are.
"When you've been run over by a truck," the husband tells the wife during a bout of holy acrimony, "it doesn't quite matter how the driver feels." The Chapins talk in a banter that is somehow both stylish and realistic. Sometimes the ring of recognition is nearly deafening. "We've had this fight so many times I think it goes on even when we're not here," the wife tells the husband.
Later he tells her, "Melodramatic, aren't you?" She replies "No -- boring."
It's not as if he's trying to teach at little lessons about how to get along, or to provide the audience with vicarious moral victories. In fact, "United States" takes blithe new liberties with traditional TV narrative formats. The show is less "this week's story" than a succession of scenes linked by a sensibility; the program is so skillfully written and conceived that even the pauses for commercials seem to serve a dramatic function.
Each segment of each episode gets a subtitle -- "The Late Show," "Cold Meat Loaf" and "The Late Late show" tonight -- and the effect is somewhat like labeling them "Round 1," "Round 2," "Round 3." But though the dialogue is more abrasive and brunt than we may be used to in television, it is alos richer, more precise and more inventive. There is no such thing on this program as an extraneous gag.
The show plays a bit-scriptier than most TV comedies; you actually get the feeling that a "United States" script might be worth reading later on, or bound into a collection to be studied by those who want to write for television but don't wish to have their brains hydrogelated first. But Gelbert and Havinga use the visual to supplement the guilt-edged dialogue with nuance and clarification.
There is in "United States" that rarest bird in television, the bluejay of discovery, the chance to find shadings and meanings that aren't underlined in red, cluttered with yocks or smothered in spotlight.
One detail about the Chaplin place that distinguishes it from almost all of TV's other fabricated households is that television itself is a continuing character. In the premiere, Libby watches an old movie from bed while she argues with Richard (the film, unrealistically, is in French -- what TV station is that?) and later in the program she silences her husband in order to hear what the set is saying.
They don't make remote control for that, so she just has to shush him.
On a later episode the Chapins awaken and get dresed to the marshmallow rhythm of "The Today Show," and at one point Bridges turns to Jane Pauley's face on the screen and asks, "What the hell are you laughing at?"
"United States" admits that television is a large and not always enriching part of American life. At the same time, the program is a credit to television because it treats the avaricious tot like an adult. Certainly fault could be found with the show -- though the time is hardly ripe for that -- but as an effort it is something of which Gelbart and associates and NBC president Fred Silverman can be terribly proud -- hysterically proud if it's a smash hit as well as a succes d'estime.
Either way, it's as bright and honorable as a very enjoyable piece of popular entertainment cab be. Seldom in the dizzy history of television has something of such importance been so eminently engaging. Let's stay home tonight and watch TV.