September 19, 2008
Middlin'by Arthur Smith
The football-centric sitcom Coach aired on ABC from 1989 to 1997, an impressive and highly profitable run for any series, but, for me, an even more striking aspect of the program is this: I have never heard another living soul ever mention having watched it, or, indeed, refer to it in any context. Hundreds of thousands of airings across the country in syndication, and its impact on popular culture, for all intents and purposes, has been nil.
A whole body of these shows exists in this strange twilight zone of reasonable quality, apparent commercial success, and phantom viewerships. Any Becker fans out there? Can anyone name their top three favorite Cybil episodes? Can anyone name three Cybil episodes? I’ve come to think of these shows as “middlin’”; they’re okay, forgettable, sort of the programming equivalent of end tables. They look fine in the room, but if they disappeared, you might not notice for a while.
I’ve always considered Wings, a sort of Cheers-lite ensemble piece set in a small Alaskan airport, the Ur-middlin’ sitcom. A pleasant time-filler, mechanically producing the familiar set-up/punchline rhythms generations of TV babies have grown up on and respond to with Pavlovian unconscious chuckles. Wings ran for seven years on NBC, and, as with Coach, no one I knew watched it or talked about it; it was just sort of there, inoffensive and unremarkable, like an off-brand of corn flakes sitting neglected on the supermarket shelf next to the dynamically branded likes of Tony the Tiger and Snap!, Crackle!, and Pop!
Then I met Chris.
Chris is a pop culture enthusiast (or “nerd”) like me, and the early days of our friendship were spent sharing passions for television comedies like SCTV, NewsRadio, Alan Partridge, and ... Wings? Chris loved Wings. Chris had the complete series—seven years’ worth—on VHS, taped from a syndicated run during his college years. I was utterly flummoxed. No one loved Wings. You watched Wings by accident, when you were home sick and too out of it to change the channel. You did not obsessively tape two airings every day, then spend countless hours transferring these tapes to DVD on your computer. I began to wonder if Chris had body parts in hidden in his freezer. This was just creepy. I mean…Wings?!
I had to ask him about it. I really liked the guy, and didn’t want Crystal Bernard to come between us. He explained that the central relationship on the show—the fractious rivalry between brother pilots played by Steven Weber and Timothy Daly—so reminded him of his relationship with his own brother that he was drawn into the world of the show and became increasingly charmed by it, gradually becoming equally involved in each of the other characters’ quirks and ambitions. Wings became a little oasis of family feeling for him, far from home in an unfamiliar place, and so he loved it.
Television is sometimes called the electronic hearth, and maybe that’s as noble a function for the machine as being a disseminator of news or an organ for spectacular entertainment or occasional art. It warms us. It’s a comfort. As a child, I loved a middlin’ show. It was called Angie, and it starred Donna Pescow and Robert Hayes as an odd couple struggling with a new marriage. It wasn’t great. I watched it because Angie’s younger sister, played by Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman vet Debralee Scott was sort of a goofball, and reminded me of my favorite aunt, who lived across the country and who I missed very much. I also liked a bit of business in the opening credits involving some balloons. It doesn’t take much, I guess.
Any middlin’ show lovers out there? Let us know!
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Arthur Smith worked in a film archive and failed to earn a living as a professional musician before joining the Paley Center in 1997. He’s not bitter, but has unhealthy fixations on tweedy clothing and Marvel comics.Interests:
60s Pop Music, Comedy, Comic Books, Great and/or Terrible Movies, and Exotic Brunettes
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