Say, there's a bright, snappy, punchy and gutsy new sitcom on NBC and -- oops, you missed it. It's already been canceled. It was canceled before it even got on the air.
The star of the show, Ted Bessell, and the creator of the show, Steve Gordon, have been calling up TV critics to alert them to this gem-that-got-away, "Good Time Harry," and tell them it's something beyond the ordinary. And the two episodes aired haphazardly by NBC last week prove them right; this wonderful show is a pizza with everything, and it has THE DRAMATIC AND COMIC POTENTIAL TO BECOME A TV hit in the "Mary Tyler Moore" class.
Except that NBC, which ordered up five episodes of the program, has ordered up no more, dumped the show in an obscure summertime slot without even a whisper of publicity. There are only three more episodes left to be seen, one tonight at 10:30 on Channel 4, another Saturday, Aug. 16, and the last Saturday, Aug. 30. As Bessell notes, "You need a road map with arrows just to find it on the schedule."
What happened to Bessell and Gordon in another example of how our rotten, clunky, unresponsive, network-dominated TV system repeatedly fails to bring America the best possible television.
"Good Time Harry" is about an almost anti-heroic hero in the Pal Joey vein -- something of a cad, something of an operator, very much of a shameless, addicted womanizer. "Bilko with sex," Gordon calls him. mAs played by Bessell, though the character's insinuating redemptive charm shines through an abrasive, conniving exterior. You like the S.O.B. As with Archie Bunker, one can see that the person he most often victimizes, unwittingly but compulsively, is himself.
Harry is a sportswriter at a daily newspaper and is perpetually locked in combat with a tough, rumpled editor played by Eugene Roche. It isn't just another gruff-but-lovable sitcom boss and his cute upstart foil. Gordon put more complexity into these characters than one usually finds in sitcoms; Bessell and Roche are as much fun to watch in their sparring sessions as were Walter Burns and Hildy Johnson in "The Front Page." These guys click to beat the band.
The scripts have been filled with acerbic, sharp-edged dialogue that usually stays well above the gag level. Better still, the situations propelling the comedy are fresh and unsentimentalized. In an episode about a pro football hero who turns out to be an uncompromised creep, one of Harry's co-workers askes the cad if he believes in God. When he answers "no," she snaps back, "You better be right."
Even better was an episode in which Harry dumps a longtime girlfriend for a quick new fling and then is himself dumped when the girl's old boyfriend shows up to reclaim her. "harry, you're a moment, and he's a lifetime," she tells the humiliated lover boy. When Harry skulks back to his hangout saloon, one pal's attempt at consolation is, "I don't know if this is going to help any, Harry, but -- I hate my wife."
There isn't any glib sitcom preaching in the comedy, and it hasn't degenerated into just a series of comeuppances for Harry the Heel.The irreverent portrait of newspaper people is also refreshing improvement on all those ceaselessly bleating hearts of "Lou Grant" -- John Andersons of journalism every one of them. Anyone who has worked for a newspaper has known at least one Harry. Or maybe a Harriet. The crucial fact is that NBC hasn't given Harry any chance at all.
All we need for television to stay lousy is for good shows to get shot dead at the starting line. NBC commissioned "Harry and stayed with it until the blankety-blank research came in. Turns out the public would hate "Harry" if given the opportunity, the figures said.
"We finished the shows in January," writer-director Gordon recalls, "and they told us, 'You're on March 19.' And we have never heard from them since. For all we know, we're still on March 19. They don't tell you you're not on. They just never talk to you about it again."
Folks at NBC loved the show but the computers disagreed. "we were told the show did not 'test well'" with sample audiences wired up to response-measuring gadgets, says Gordon, 40. "And then, suddenly, all the champions of the show at the network just stopped talking to us."
Gordon began to think, say, maybe this show stinks, although he did remember that after filming the episode about Harry's backfiring affair, the studio audience stayed on for another half hour to talk about it with the cast and crew, something virtually unheard of in TV. When Harry finally got on the air late last month as part of the fill-in for the lost Olympics, Gordon watched it again with friends, "and then we all knew we weren't crazy, that it was good," he says.
"One woman came up to me afterwards and said, 'It's too good for television,' and that made me so mad, because what we should be doing on television is stuff that's 'too good.' Don't we have other than the crap they're putting on now?"
Gordon claims to see "an enormous amount of flaws" in the program, but feels sure they would have been worked out if "Harry had been given more time. Buried in the NBC schedule and aired almost in secret, two back-to-back episodes of the show came in 63rd and 64th in last week's Nielsens, out of 69 rated shows.
Bessell, who calls the show "the cream of television," has experience at lost causes. Nearly 20 years ago, he was in the cast of another obscure television treasure, NBC's "It's A Man's World," which was a gentle, maverick comedy that lasted barely a season but, like "Harry," had its own distinctive, appealing temperament. For his efforts to save that show, Bessell recalls, he was for a time banned from both NBC and Universal studios.
Television is about the only medium where critical success counts for nothing and artistic integrity is almost always the last consideration. In TV, if the ratings don't get you, it may be because the audience-testing statistics already did. Gordon and Bessell don't honestly expect they can save "Harry"; they just hate to see him kick off without even a decent funeral. "We're only doing this," Gordon says of the phone calls to critics, "because we don't know how to do nothing."
Let's all go get drunk and cry in our beer.