"Thanks" arrives with its fate accompli, all but dead on delivery. CBS did order up six episodes of the new sitcom, but by airing them in the barren wastes of August--wastes more barren than usual, alas--the network is essentially saying, "Not good enough for the new fall season, nor even as a potential midseason replacement."
Of course, since we always complain about the failure of broadcast networks to air new programming in the summer, we perhaps shouldn't castigate them when they do. But then "Thanks," premiering at 8:30 tonight on Channel 9, is only nominally new anyway, and hardly something to give thanks for.
Imagine if you will a sitcom set among pilgrims, newly arrived on the North American continent, in the Plymouth, Mass., of 1621. Did you imagine it? Good. It's probable that whatever you imagined is better than what's been imagined by producer-writers Phoef Sutton and Mark Logan and the CBS executives who contributed their two cents' worth. Two cents literally, that is.
All they've done, really, is use standard sitcommon cliches and formulas and put them in a period setting. It's sort of like "The Flintstones," set in prehistoric times, but that was a cartoon and, compared to "Thanks," mildly clever. Mel Brooks once created a series for ABC called "When Things Were Rotten," set during the age of Robin Hood, but it was more satire and slapstick than sitcom, and ABC executives naturally hated it.
This was during a previous ABC regime when things there were considerably rottener.
"Thanks" stars Tim Dutton and Kirsten Nelson as James and Polly Winthrop, Pilgrim parents of three children, one of them a boy-hungry 14-year-old girl. The most likable child is Elizabeth (charmingly played by Amy Centner), so level-headed and ahead-of-her time that she casually invents the stove and warns ignorant colonists about the spread of germs in cooking utensils.
For these insights she is branded a witch and accused of black magic. They don't burn or hang her, thank heaven, but she does spend part of the episode in the stocks for her brazen heresies.
Dutton is an actor who is bound to remind you of somebody else whom you can't quite place. He's a second-rate somebody, but who? Perhaps just a second-rate second-rater--or, to be more generous, a first-rate second-rater. It doesn't help that James Winthrop is portrayed as a sappy Pollyanna who runs around trying to shrug off hardships and raise community spirits. Nelson has slyly assertive charm, though, as Polly and should have been the head of the household and the series.
One of the great comic character actors of our time, Cloris Leachman, has a few bright rascally moments as Grammy, James's mother and a randy old crank who keeps launching into lurid reminiscence about pillaging pirates of days gone by. Like most of the colonists, Grammy wants to give up and return to England, religious persecution or no. Leachman gives Grammy a special pixilated charm, outclassing the material by about a thousand miles.
Is it possible to do a sitcom which includes such unpleasantnesses as The Plague, starvation, and a 50 percent mortality rate among villagers? Puritanical religion is lampooned via a gloom-doom preacher who terrorizes his flock with images of "the flames of hell lapping at your buttocks." Funny? Almost--though one may wonder amid the spiritual squalor of the 1990s if the occasional dose of old-fashioned fire-and-brimstone might not be such a bad thing. Guilt and shame no longer seem to work as moral sanctions.
That's one reason, logically or not, some of us were so upset that ABC didn't give "The Ten Commandments" it's annual airing this year. There's no God like that Old Testament God.
Things get tastelessly out of hand when one daughter, in the waiting room at the dentist's office, hears a patient crying out, "Let me die and end this agony!" A nurse offers a "complimentary leech" and slaps one on her own forehead. Little children should not see this scene lest they become unduly frightened of dentists and nurses. But then, big adults probably shouldn't see it either, just on general principles.
CBS tried to sound magnanimous in publicity announcing the show: "This summer, CBS is giving 'Thanks' to its viewers with an original comedy series." Oh brother. As the old saying goes, "Thanks a lot, but no 'Thanks.'"