"Hooperman" and "The 'Slap' Maxwell Story," two weirdly wonderful ABC comedies premiering tonight, are so good you may not only want to watch them, you may want to buy each of them a drink. At the very least, a toast should be raised: to the good health of shows like this.
John Ritter stars as an unorthodox San Francisco cop, Harry Hooperman, in "Hooperman," at 9 on Channel 7, and Dabney Coleman plays downright uncouth sportswriter Slap Maxwell in his "Story," at 9:30 on Channel 7.
Together these shows make a great hour of misfit comedy that also serves as a barricade against that proverbial rising tide of mediocrity we're always hearing so much about.
"Hooperman" was created, and the premiere written, by Steven Bochco and Terry Louise Fisher of "L.A. Law," and produced and directed by Gregory Hoblit. They all won Emmys the other night, for what that's worth. "Hooperman" is worth a lot. It's about a caring guy who is not a cliche' and who is willing to admit, every now and then, that life has gotten him down.
Life can get you down. The only people life never gets down, usually, are characters in situation comedies.
"You know your trouble, Hooperman?" growls a porky, Borky cop named Pritzger in the precinct house. "You're a liberal, snot-nosed, civil service lifer."
"That was just a lucky guess, Pritzger," Hooperman responds. In the role, John Ritter banishes memories of the tumbling goof he played for years on "Three's Company" -- now he's more crestfallen than pratfallen -- and creates an instantly likable rumpled hero.
To call "Hooperman" a sitcom demeans it. Some out in Hollywood are floating the term "dramedy" to describe the relatively new breed of show that "Hooperman" personifies -- comic in outlook yet 99 percent gag-free. Bochco and Fisher fall back now and then on their old trick of alternating pathos with farce, but "Hooperman" somehow stays grounded in a solid reality of its own.
Ritter is an unexpendable reason why.
In the first episode, Harry starts out on a typical day, waking in his plebe-chic San Francisco apartment house, exchanging morning chatter with his friend the landlady and trying to avoid her mean-spirited little dog. Later in the day, Harry learns that the landlady has been killed in a stupid, bungled robbery. Then he learns how close they really were; she has left him her apartment building.
Thus has the premise been set up with inventive finesse. When Harry is not beleaguered as a cop, he will be besieged as a landlord. Ritter pinpoints the sense of decency and the seasoned resignation that will help see Harry through.
The producers and writers did make a few mistakes. Bochco cast his wife, Barbara Bosson, as the standard-issue nasty nemesis police captain (the fact that it's a woman instead of a man hardly shatters the cliche'), and Bosson is annoying.
A running gag about a gorgeous woman cop (Sydney Walsh) who tirelessly pursues a firmly resistant gay cop (Joseph Gian), while having a certain bittersweet charm, seems anachronistic and naive considering the AIDS scare and the fact that the show is set in San Francisco.
But so many things have been done right. And righter than Ritter you couldn't get; he captures and ennobles Harry's battle-scarred optimism and makes him a true citizen of the '80s. He's especially adept at coaxing a potential leaper off a ledge with a dramatic demonstration that owes a little something to "Late Night With David Letterman" (as do we all).
Also adding considerably more than two cents' worth at the precinct are Felton Perry as Clarence McNeil and Clarence Felder as the supremely cynical Pritzger and, arriving on a wildly hopeful note at the apartment house, Deborah Mullowney as a living salvation named Susan Smith.
"Hooperman's" finest moment occurs near the fade-out. Harry succumbs to grief over the loss of a loved one, and that is something one rarely sees on prime-time television. Usually when characters die they disappear like blips from a video game. Harry quietly remembers.
At that moment, "Hooperman" goes from simply wow to oh-my-God.
If Harry Hooperman is rumpled, what is Slap Maxwell? Crumpled, actually, and just about at the end of his rope, except you get the feeling he was born there, too. With his portrayal of Slap, Dabney Coleman does more than add to his list of memorable characterizations. He achieves a metamorphosis of virtually scientific elegance.
Seldom in the history of popular entertainment has a broken-down old schlub had such towering stature. Slap Maxwell is a small-town sports columnist who's eyeball to eyeball with 50. And 50 is not blinking. Slap doesn't get respect, doesn't get understanding, can't even quite worm his way into qualifying for pity, yet the man has a heroism about him that borders on the mythic.
The Slapper, as he sometimes calls himself, is the creation of writer-producer Jay Tarses, and like Tarses' recent NBC experiment, "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd," the Maxwell saga is less a situation comedy than an unfolding, serialized novel. Tarses and Coleman teamed earlier on "Buffalo Bill," a show that never quite got its rhythms right.
It was easy to admire "Molly Dodd" and "Buffalo Bill," but hard to like them. That comes easier with " 'Slap' Maxwell," because although Tarses and Coleman have pushed their hero to the outermost limits of irredeemability, you can still see a spark there of something that merits attention and even, dare we say, devotion.
"Slap's" story is structured unlike any other comedy on the air. Scenes are long, speeches ramble on, sets are alarmingly drab and dreary. No one has even installed computer terminals at Slap's ragtag newspaper, The Ledger, from which he is noisily fired in Episode 1, but by which he is reluctantly rehired, thank heaven, in Episode 3.
One beneficial effect of "Moonlighting" is that it has made banter marketable on television again, and " 'Slap' Maxwell" is banter-intensive. Some of it is priceless. Slap has a relationship, of sorts, with Judy, the staff secretary, played as the Annie Oakley of zinger-flingers by Megan Gallagher. In an early scene, Slap fumbles another pass and gets what would seem the latest in a long line of rejections.
Judy: "You're ugly, and you smoke cigars."
Slap: "I'd quit cigars."
Judy: "Then you're halfway there."
Every scene is a potentially ego-crushing encounter for Slap, but the ego is the one part of him that hangs in there, and you honestly do root for it. Retiring to a bar and the solace grumblingly profered by the bartender, Dutchman (Bill Cobbs, clearly one who has heard it all), Slap philosophizes about getting sacked.
Slap: "You know, actually, this might be the best thing that could happen to me. New lease on life. It's a big world out there. Sky's the limit. There's a bus called Destiny waiting for me, and I'm going to ride it down the highway to tomorrow."
Dutchman: "Six cliche's in 10 seconds!"
Slap: "Was it six?"
Dutchman: "Takes your breath away."
Some of the best, choicest exchanges, though, are between Slap and his editor, Nelson Kruger (Brian Smiar), from whom malaprops drip like water off a duck's hat. In the third episode, Slap, his sports column having been taken from him, has written a feature story on hats, and Kruger eats it up.
Kruger: "I like it. It speaks of bygone days when life was simpler, before the world got all jammed up. You know what era it calls to mind?"
Slap: "The era of hats?"
Kruger: "Yeah. Snap-brims and derbies and skimmers; you remember them?"
Slap: "I do. Let's name all the different hats."
For the first couple of shows, Slap goes around telling everyone Kruger has a glass eye. Then he changes it to a peg leg. One of the salubrious side effects of " 'Slap' Maxwell" is that it dramatically reasserts the moral superiority writers, however lowly, have always enjoyed over editors, however lofty. " 'Slap' Maxwell" is a show about the joy of writing in more ways than one.
At every turn, Tarses steers away from the comfy sitcom staples. For instance, an extremely cute little Japanese girl, Slap's neighbor, shows up looking for her lost dog in Episode 2. Slap slams the door in her face.
Susan Anspach will be appearing, to great advantage, starting next week, as Slap's wife, who moved out on him 15 years ago but whom he still expects back. He comes muling around about his midlife crisis and does a whither-I-goest soliloquy at the window. "Your life is always in a crisis," she reminds him. "It's mother's milk to you. You thrive on it."
As Slap thrives on crisis, so there will be a certain kind of viewer who will thrive on "Slap." Even those who find it a bit mannered (each episode opens with someone punching Slap -- a nun does the honors in No. 2), surely will see the crazed power and the shaggy glory in Coleman's performance.
It's the stuff that dreams are made of, in the sense that so is a banana split before bed. I meant it about raising a toast: To Harry! To Slap! And even ... to television! Takes your breath away.