Most great TV shows that fail commercially are victims of timing. There’s a whole host of single-camera sitcoms from the ’80s and ’90s that might have flourished had they only debuted in the 2000s, which were friendlier to the format. Later on even shows like 30 Rock ran for seven seasons where Arrested Development ran for only three, because the former had the good fortune of debuting a few years later, on a network that had fewer options. Then, shows like the much-lamented Terriers fall into the category of one FX can keep going, because it can justify the expense via future streaming revenue.
Yet all of that ignores the question of influence. Arrested Development might have been watched by a handful of people when it aired, but enough of them were in the industry that its influence has been felt far and wide. Similarly, the single-camera comedy movement of the 2000s would have been nowhere without the early experimenters in the form who tried to bring something more cinematic to the half-hour network timeslot, which was mostly met with complete audience indifference. TV, like all artistic mediums, is often built off of imitation, off of rebuilding things that didn’t quite work until the audience was accustomed enough to their basic building blocks to embrace them.
Such was the case with He & She, a show so good and so mourned that one of its writers took many of its basic elements and re-appropriated them a few years later for a show that spanned nearly a decade and became one of the most beloved comedies of its time: The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Co-created by Allen Burns, who won a writing Emmy for his work on He & She, the major difference between the two programs was simply timing. Mary Tyler Moore debuted in 1970 on a CBS that was eager to shed its image as a purveyor of lowest common denominator shows with offerings suited to the interests of rural rubes. (Some of those shows, such as Green Acres and The Andy Griffith Show, were terrific, not that it changed opinions within CBS any.) As such, the network was willing to suffer lower ratings for a while to get viewers interested in a creatively promising story of a young, single woman making her way alone in the city, particularly if it starred someone like Mary Tyler Moore.
But He & She debuted in 1967, on a television landscape where CBS was still very much invested in rural-themed sitcoms. Indeed, He & She’s lead-in for the one season it ran was Green Acres itself, and in the years to come, He & She’s major players and creative personnel would frequently blame the show’s failure on the bad timeslot. Yet, it wasn’t as if CBS had a huge number of open timeslots conducive to a witty, urban drama about two young married people who were very obviously having copious amounts of sex (and having a great time with it to boot). It was the number one network on television, but that position was earned by seeing how much the viewing public sparked to The Beverly Hillbillies, then draining every last bit of blood from that particular stone. In fact, with its gently surreal streak, He & She’s only compatible lead-in might have been the show where a pig was a major character.
The major difference between He & She and Mary Tyler Moore on the level of premise was that the former series was about a young married couple, rather than a young single woman. But in most other senses, the shows were quite similar. Time was divided between work and home. The main characters were young, witty, and urbane, and if they were going to have kids, it was a long way down the road. (There’s an off-handed, joking reference to the pill in one episode, one of TV’s very first.) Their careers were going to come first, because, yes, both he and she worked and had good lives in their offices. Jay Sandrich, who directed most of He & She, would later go on to direct two-thirds of Mary Tyler Moore. And when it came to the show’s major supporting character, pompous, self-involved actor Oscar North (Jack Cassidy), Burns would later acknowledge that he took the broad strokes of the character to form the figure who would become Mary Tyler Moore’s Ted Baxter. (To watch Cassidy’s performance today is to assume he’s simply doing a riff on Ted Knight’s work, until you remember that Knight’s series actually came later.) Hell, as blogger Klara Tavakoli Goesche points out, the main living room sets for both He & She and Mary Tyler Moore are basically the same.
Yet, the more viewers watch He & She, the more they see how the things that would later succeed on Mary Tyler Moore weren’t completely in place on the earlier series. At the center of He & She is married couple Dick and Paula Hollister, played by Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss. Benjamin and Prentiss were married in real life as well, thus providing the show with the hook it would use to try to snag viewers. The problem with projects where real-life couples play fictional couples is often that what’s present in reality doesn’t translate onscreen, and there’s no heat between the actors. He & She had the exact opposite problem: Benjamin and Prentiss had such great, funny, sexy chemistry that it became immediately believable that they would only want to hang out with each other. A couple of episodes in the show’s run try to playfully drive wedges between the characters, but even the writers give up somewhere in the middle of act two in these episodes. Sure, that other girl is cute, the show seems to say, but she’s not Paula. When the two are trying to avoid a friend seeing them go out for the night, the playfulness inherent in their relationship is abundantly evident.
This was both the show’s greatest asset and its greatest weakness. Hanging out with Dick and Paula was endlessly fun, and the two bounced off of each other effortlessly. But it was also impossible to introduce real conflict between them. (One of the few times it works is in an episode where Dick grows a beard, Paula doesn’t like it, and then they almost stop having sex. It turned out withholding it from the audience could work almost as well, but that was likely a path CBS didn’t want to head down.) Therefore, the show leaned extra heavily on the “situation” half of “situation comedy.” Take, for instance, the series’ first episode, in which the couple tries to figure out how to help a Greek immigrant before he’s deported. Mary Tyler Moore could wring real pathos out of its stories, because all of its regular characters were unfulfilled in some way. With Dick and Paula so happy in both their public and private lives, the series had to find its pathos in guest players, and this only occasionally worked and often tipped over into mawkish territory.
But other than its occasional trips to the land of smarm, He & She was a surprisingly well-oiled sitcom machine in its first season. Creator Leonard Stern assembled a writing staff that was frustrated by ’60s sitcoms’ turn away from realistic situations and toward the gimmicky and farcical. Foremost among them were Burns and his writing partner Chris Hayward, co-creators of The Munsters and the famous flop My Mother The Car. Burns nursed ambitions of a Hollywood movie career and moving past television for good. He’d broken in working for Jay Ward Productions on Rocky & Bullwinkle and George Of The Jungle, yet his writing for live-action television had been for shows that were somehow less sophisticated. After He & She and his resultant Emmy win, Burns’ reputation would be bolstered so much that he worked on the sorts of “quality sitcoms” that dominated the ’70s and were kicked off by his own Mary Tyler Moore. He’d also get that movie career, including an Oscar nomination for the A Little Romance script.
Burns and Hayward’s Emmy-winning script for “The Coming-Out Party” is an almost perfect example of what made He & She work so well. In it, Paula fixes one of her single friends from work up with the couple’s dentist friend. At the same time, said dentist points out that Dick needs a tonsillectomy, and the two of them schedule the appointment. The dentist and Paula’s friend hit it off, and all seems to be well—until a late-night argument sends them over to Paula and Dick’s apartment in the wee hours of the morning. (People on He & She are always staying up until all hours of the night, much to the consternation of Dick and Paula’s never-seen neighbor, who’s always shouting at them to shut the hell up already. It’s one of the little touches that makes the series feel more hip and sophisticated just for its presence.) Dick, worried his dentist will fuck up the procedure, just wants to get him to bed. Paula wants to resolve their argument. It’s a great example of how the show could create stories without necessarily introducing conflict between Dick and Paula, and an early scene is He & She at its finest, balancing great dialogue with a silly running joke about curing the hiccups.
Stern and the writers also gave the series that healthy dose of the surreal, though they never pushed as far as their timeslot companion, Green Acres. Where Green Acres is some kind of weird, Dadaist masterpiece in its finest episodes, He & She is much more gentle in its weirdness, much more likely to keep things on the side of just believable enough. Dick and Paula’s best friend is likely their neighbor, a fireman named Harry (Kenneth Mars), who crosses over to their building using a plank he stretches between the two to create a bridge. Folk singer Hamilton Camp turns up as handyman Andrew, the kind of daffy local oddball who wouldn’t have felt out of place on Green Acres, but was somehow living in a New York apartment building. And Cassidy was perfection as Oscar, whose presence in Dick’s life stemmed from playing the superhero Dick had created for a comic strip, Jetman. Oscar frequently strode around in full Jetman garb, expecting people to be impressed.
Why, then, with all of these great elements and major Emmy nominations (two for writing, then acting nominations for Benjamin, Prentiss, and Cassidy) was He & She abandoned? The answer, again, is timing. If it had debuted in 1971, He & She would have slotted so comfortably in between All In The Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show that it could have run for 200 episodes. Yet without it, it’s entirely possible the sitcom revolution of the ’70s would have looked distinctly different, driven much more by Norman Lear’s politically motivated storytelling, without the gentle pathos and envelope-pushing of MTM Productions. It’s all but impossible to see He & She nowadays (though a number of episodes are on YouTube), but in another way, it’s a show that succeeded by failing. Its children are all around.
Wonder, weirdo, or wannabe?: Wonder.
Next time: Genevieve Valentine heads to an alternate universe for a look at Kings.