As the ’80s passed its midpoint, there was an increasing sense that the multi-camera sitcom had done all it could. It’s not hard to see why this was the case. Writers who had come up on the socially conscious, workplace sitcoms of the ’70s were increasingly slotted into family comedies with cute kids, because that’s what was working (or not working, if you were a critical fan of the form). Yes, there were still shows as diverse as Cheers, Designing Women, and The Cosby Show marking out new territory in the old form, but the sense of discovery that had come with the arrival of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and All In The Family in the 1970-71 TV season had long since dissipated. The TV sitcom had hit its apex, and it was struggling to find what came next.
The answer a lot of producers arrived at independently of each other was to return to the single-camera production methods that had marked most of the hit comedies of the ’60s (and at least one ’70s holdout in M*A*S*H). A single-camera production could go anywhere and do anything—within budgetary reason—and by being produced more like a miniature film instead of being filmed like a stage play in front of a studio audience, it could feel more realistic, truer to viewers’ lives, instead of broad and stagey. But the beef against single-camera comedies had been the same since the inception of the medium: They were too soft, and they weren’t as funny as multi-cams, where actors feeding off of the audience could make for transcendently funny material. Single-cams at their worst tended to rely on gimmicks for laughs, and even at their best, their humor was quieter, more observational. (Somehow, the two formats have almost completely swapped positions in the modern TV landscape.) The most famous example of this conventional wisdom at work comes with Happy Days, a quiet, nostalgic show in its first two seasons (filmed single-camera style) but a loud, broad, sometimes schlocky sitcom after it switched to the multi-camera format in season three.
At the same time all of this was going on, television producers were actively questioning some of the hierarchical rigidity that had existed since the invention of scripted television. Did half-hour shows necessarily have to be laugh riots? Did hour-long shows have to be devoid of comedy? Now, those divisions had never been completely accurate. There were always poignant half hours and funny hour-longs. But the mid-’80s saw a rise in the number of both and the invention of the term “dramedy” to encompass everything from The Wonder Years to Hooperman to Moonlighting, all shows that were more traditionally dramatic than a comedy but much funnier than a typical drama. This is also to say nothing of shows like Cheers and St. Elsewhere, which usually played on one side of the line but could easily drop onto the other without a moment’s notice. The great story of ’80s television might be written in the slow building acceptance of network executives to indulge producers’ willingness to explore the powers of extreme tonal variation.
At ground zero in both of these movements was a CBS series called Frank’s Place, which saw two stars of the network’s earlier cult hit WKRP In Cincinnati attempting to break down traditional notions not just of television comedy but of television storytelling. There are “situations” in every episode, but the plot is usually subservient to the characters and, especially, to the overall mood and tone of the series. Set in New Orleans, Frank’s Place aimed to bring the feel of that location to viewers, and even if it wasn’t 100 percent capable of doing that, it was still a vast success in terms of getting television to gain some level of geographical specificity. Cosby might have been set (and filmed!) in New York City, and Cheers might have been set in Boston, but both series could have been set somewhere else fairly easily. Frank’s Place could only be set in New Orleans, if only because the inciting incident for its story is the protagonist becoming stuck in the Big Easy thanks to a voodoo curse.
It’s particularly fascinating to watch Frank’s Place in the wake of what a single-camera sitcom has become to modern eyes. For the most part, modern single-camera shows are joke-a-second affairs, inspired by the structural audacity of Malcolm In The Middle and Arrested Development (the latter of which was explicitly created by Mitchell Hurwitz to bring the level of jokes a multi-camera traditionally had to a single-camera). They really do feel like tiny versions of a big-budget Hollywood comedy. But Frank’s Place is nothing of the sort. It’s incredibly slow, paced less like a film and more like a one-act play. It takes its time and gives its characters monologues and soliloquies that explain their inner states. Its pilot—which actually ends, quite boldly, in a moment of irresolution, rather than a traditional ending—isn’t about the kooky characters the protagonist meets when he inherits his father’s restaurant. It’s about the fact that he never knew said father and all of the emotional pain he carries around from that.
Some of this may stem from the show’s setting—not just New Orleans, but a New Orleans restaurant for people who want a nice evening out. When it was time for Frank’s Place to compete at the Emmys (where it received several nominations and won the writing award), the show submitted itself in comedy categories. That was probably due to the still-powerful notion that half-hour shows are comedies and hour-longs are dramas (a categorization that has had more success being broken down for longer shows than for shorter ones), but Frank’s Place also succeeds as a comedy because, serious and dramatic as it might be, its setting grants it a kind of constant levity and pleasantness. The show can deal with incredibly important issues, like race or crime or mental illness, but so long as the restaurant at the center stands, everyone in the show’s world will have somewhere to go to sit and have a nice meal and some pleasant conversation. Frank’s Place works because it understands this is one of the chief treasures in life and is not to be sneered at.
It was the restaurant that would prove to be at the center of the show’s inception, too. As recounted in Dave Walker’s excellent history of the show for the New Orleans Times Picayune, the original inspiration for the Chez Louisiane, the eatery at the show’s center, usually referred to by its characters as “the Chez” with a hard Z, was a place called Dan Montgomery’s in Buffalo, New York, where a CBS vice president named Gregg Maday had spent many an hour while in college. During a meeting with Frank’s Place’s eventual creators and stars, Hugh Wilson and Tim Reid, Maday brought the place up, in conjunction with the then significant surge in interest in all things New Orleans. Maybe, he thought, there would be something in a series set in a New Orleans hangout, its employees, and its patrons. Wilson and Reid were excited by the idea, and, as Reid recounted to Walker, CBS gave them some money and put them on a plane to research the city and world of the show.
New Orleans holds such sway over the American popular imagination that it’s easy enough for any bit of pop culture set there to become almost needlessly reverential, interested less in storytelling than in authenticity. Frank’s Place doesn’t always escape this trap, but the use of the voodoo curse at the end of the pilot should suggest the series’ cheeky relationship with its setting. Wilson and Reid’s trip to the city informed much of what appeared in the series—the Chez is based on an actual restaurant the two sat in for hours on end, simply observing the employees and patrons—but the show was almost as informed by the idea of New Orleans, by the thought of a place at the end of the river, just before the ocean begins, where people could come together and mix in unexpected ways. Anything can be happening in your life. A hurricane could be raging outside. But so long as you can find your way to this place, you will be okay.
Wilson was an almost ideal person to bring this idea to the small screen. CBS essentially owed him after the network jerked WKRP all over the schedule and shaved at least a couple of seasons off of its run. (Despite that, the show made it to syndication and proved to be a massive hit there.) The writer’s work was best known for its anything-for-a-laugh spirit, but there was also a rich streak of gentle humanism running through his work. (Yes, even in Police Academy.) Wilson had an old school liberal’s belief in the ability of people to come together and overcome just about anything, and he turned Frank’s Place not just into an oasis from the rest of society but from the rest of television.
This was particularly evident in the series’ visual appearance, which leaned into the fact that single-camera comedies were perceived as “soft.” There’s a warm, instantly nostalgic look to Frank’s Place that suggests nothing less than the old photos of long-past parties lining the walls of many a local watering hole. (In early episodes, it sometimes feels like the show has simply expanded its own opening credits—filled with historical photos of New Orleans—or the Cheers opening into a television show.) Wilson actually directed more episodes of the show than he wrote, including taking credit for both on three of the first four, and he greeted the loss of the fixed cameras inherent in the multi-camera setup with obvious excitement.
Though the series’ cinematic auspices will be less impressive to modern viewers (who will likely be thrown by the heavy synth sound on a musical score that is very of its period), they were stunning to ’80s viewers who might go from this show to its time slot companion, Kate & Allie. Along with rough dramedy contemporaries Hooperman, The Wonder Years, and The Days And Nights Of Molly Dodd, Frank’s Place expanded the idea of what a TV comedy could look and act like, particularly in Wilson’s episodes. The camera swooped and panned. Location shooting was used extensively, as were pop, rock, jazz, blues, and gospel. And in the show’s best moments, it all came together.
None of this would have worked without a cast up to the challenge, and Wilson and Reid populated their fictional restaurant with interesting people and exciting actors. Reid was Emmy-nominated for his work, and he proved himself worthy of holding the center of a show like this. At first, the series seems to set up a fish-out-of-water scenario for Frank Parrish to navigate, as he goes from his cultured Northern life in Boston to an earthier, more slowly paced life at the Chez. But after the first few episodes—where he learns how to navigate New Orleans society—Frank accepts his new lot in life and becomes the kind of strong, steady center a low-concept show like this needs to work. Frank wasn’t just a restaurant owner pining over a woman who was engaged to another man here, nor was he someone trying to get to know his father via the life that father left behind. No, he was a man left here to get to know himself and understand how he, too, could be father figure and friend to so many others.
The cast surrounding Reid was filled with entertaining characters the show could cut to if it needed to turn on a dime to something more comedic or dramatic. Characters who might seem like jokey one-offs in certain contexts could reveal untold riches in others. Take, for instance, Lincoln Kilpatrick as the Reverend Deal, a man desperate for a church, without one to take him as its leader. Depending on the episode—or even the scene—this is played for humor or pathos, but the show always fundamentally grasps that his dreams and desires are as worthwhile as anybody else’s, no matter his other failings as a human being. The same goes for every other figure in the ensemble, from Charles Lampkin as bartender Tiger to Robert Harper as Bubba, a lawyer who seems to make the Chez his permanent base of operations.
The show cast Reid’s real wife, Daphne Maxwell Reid, as Frank’s love interest, Hanna, then turned her into a character as nuanced and interesting as Frank, someone who couldn’t just be reduced to a potential girlfriend or wife. (The scenes in which she discusses the range of options available to her with an older aunt, played by Virginia Capers, are among the most moving expressions of feminism in ’80s sitcoms.) And, finally, there’s Don Yesso as Shorty. Wilson found Yesso on a plane into New Orleans, and he hired him not because he was a great actor but because he figured it would be easier to teach Yesso how to act than it would be to teach an actor how to do his accent. Yesso proved up to the task, turning Shorty into one of the show’s most fun-filled figure, even in episodes where he’s given subtitles, which were obviously network-mandated.
One of the unifying themes across many of these figures is that they’re black people, played by black actors who would have much less success than their nuanced, skillful work on this show would have suggested. The simple fact of the matter was that Frank’s Place was something exceedingly rare in television up until that point—even in the wake of the success of The Cosby Show. It was interested in its black characters not as easily labeled stereotypes or object lessons for the viewers at home to use to “understand” black America. Instead, it was interested in them as people, as individuals full of hopes and fears as surely as anyone else would be. Frank’s Place also considered racial conflicts that had rarely—if ever—been depicted on television up until that point, as in an entire early episode devoted to Frank’s admission, as a dark-skinned black man, to an organization historically devoted to blacks with lighter skin. It’s a nuanced portrayal of something television had never even considered before. After the pilot aired, so moved was Bill Cosby by an episode of TV that dealt with the black experience and an absentee father figure that he wired the set just one word: “Bravo.”
He was not alone. Frank’s Place was an almost immediate hit with critics, and it actually did fairly well with the audience, too, debuting to win its Mondays at 8 p.m. time slot. But the ratings quickly began to sag, perhaps because the series was wandering off into uncharted territory and hadn’t provided the audience a map. The fourth episode to air—a Wilson-written and -directed affair named “The Bridge”—won the show Emmys for Wilson’s script and the guest performance of Beah Richards, but it was also a deeply serious look at a man who may or may not have committed suicide. (If he had, the Chez would not be held negligible in his death—since he had been drinking there beforehand.) Richards’ final monologue is powerful and eloquent, but it’s also almost entirely the opposite of what America was looking for from its comedy in 1987.
The eighth and ninth episodes were a two-parter about one of the characters falling into a life of crime and addiction, played almost completely straight. And the show would follow those with episodes about homelessness and inherited debts, as well as a holiday episode largely about Hanukkah. The season finale attacked junk-bond trading, of all topics (and may or may not have led to the show’s eventual cancellation). The series struggled along in the ratings—not helped by a network that kept moving it all over the schedule (though mostly on Monday nights)—and yet CBS reluctantly renewed it for a 13-episode second season, hoping critical acclaim and eventual awards attention would drive viewer curiosity. Instead, interest in the show waned throughout summer rerun season, and the network finally pulled the plug just three days before production was to begin on season two, even after the scripts had been written and Sammy Davis Jr. had agreed to guest star. So the show joined the small but august company of series that were renewed for second seasons, then canceled before they went into production on those seasons.
Yet Frank’s Place lives on in the imagination of those who loved it—and even those who were never able to see it. A new wave of interest crystallized around the show when HBO’s Treme—another New Orleans-set show concerned with authenticity that viewers ultimately ignored—debuted, and many episodes of the show can be seen on YouTube. (A DVD release has long been promised, but music rights issues could keep it from ever happening.) The show’s legacy might ultimately be a bit of an evolutionary dead end. The dramedies of the mid-to-late ’80s were never as influential as they might have been, and have mostly led to a bunch of cable shows that prompt head scratching about how funny a show has to be to be called a “comedy.” But it’s still warmly remembered for avowing, above all else, that to have a place to break bread, a place to meet friends, and a place to simply be human was maybe the most important thing in life. Frank’s Place might have acknowledged the terror and randomness of the real world, but it sold the brotherhood and bonhomie of a better one. For that, it was cherished.
Wonder, weirdo, or wannabe: Wonder
Next time: Zack Handlen heads out West for The Adventures Of Brisco County, Jr.