Photo: ABC

In 100 Episodes, The A.V. Club examines the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced and reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity and/or longevity. This entry covers Three’s Company, which ran for eight seasons and 172 episodes between 1977 and 1984.

For hormonally hyperactive teens in the days before premium cable, there were two reliable ways to see smut on television. One was to tune into ABC during the height of what the critics derisively called “jiggle TV”—when the likes of Charlie’s Angels, The Love Boat, and Battle Of The Network Stars put curvy actresses in skimpy, form-fitting, frequently dampened clothing. The other, somewhat counterintuitive way to be a voyeur was to switch on PBS, and then wait patiently. The standard-bearer for “class” in American broadcasting imported a lot of British TV in the ’70s and ’80s, and much of it was franker with sex talk and actual nudity than anything that the major U.S. networks would air at the time.

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Three’s Company offered the best of both worlds. Very much a product of ABC president Fred Silverman’s movement toward escapist, titillating fare, the sitcom was also based on a risqué British series, Man About The House, which was controversial even in its relatively innuendo-tolerant homeland. Both shows are about a young, cash-strapped chef-in-training who pretends to be gay in order to convince a prudish landlord named Mr. Roper that it’s okay for him to be the roommate of two young ladies. Both shows also make the most of the saucy possibilities of that scenario—although, in a rare twist, the American version is in some ways more leering than the one from overseas.

Compare the first episodes of each: Man About The House’s “Three’s A Crowd!” versus Three’s Company’s “A Man About The House.” The plot is the same for both. The morning after a farewell party for their roommate, two female friends find a man—Robin Tripp in the U.K., Jack Tripper in the U.S.—passed out in their bathtub. After tasting his cooking, they decide to let him move in. Some of the dialogue is identical too, including a bit where the chef-to-be describes his specialty with a string of fancy foreign words, and when one of the women ask him what that is, he deadpans, “French.” Even the opening credits are similar, with bouncy music and a lecher ogling sexy ladies, though in what would turn out to be a telling variation, the creep is just some anonymous dude in Man About The House, while in Three’s Company, it’s Jack.

This is the most obvious difference between the two pilots: Jack’s a lot hornier than Robin. As played by John Ritter, Jack’s at once slapstick clumsy and sharp-witted, and always in the mood to go to bed. He’s like all the Marx Brothers smushed together and then smoothed out into a wholesome-looking California boy. In what would become the dynamic for Three’s Company’s early seasons, Jack mostly goes all homina-homina over the innocently sexy Chrissy Snow (Suzanne Somers), while ignoring the ample charms of his more level-headed roomie Janet Wood (Joyce DeWitt). In the first episode of Man About The House, on the other hand, the two women, Chrissy (Paula Wilcox) and Jo (Sally Thomsett) are lively but not framed as bombshells, per se; as played by Richard O’Sullivan, Robin is decidedly low-key. In the parts of the two scripts that overlap, Ritter hits the punchlines hard, and even mugs a little, while O’Sullivan practically mutters his jokes under his breath.

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Three’s Company took a long, winding path to ABC’s 1977 midseason lineup. After Norman Lear’s company had phenomenal success adapting British TV series into All In The Family and Sanford And Son, American producer/importer Donald L. Taffner went looking for a Britcom of his own to remake. He failed with his first two efforts, before striking a deal in 1975 to license the premise of Man About The House, which had debuted overseas two years earlier. Even in the sexy ’70s, the one-guy-with-two-gals concept was a tough sell, until the risk-taking Silverman approved it. Even then, the project went through multiple scripts and pilots before ABC found the version they liked best. Different writer/producer combos (including one led by M*A*S*H master Larry Gelbart) tried shaking up the Man About The House material by making it more urban, or more sophisticated.

Finally, the team of Don Nicholl, Michael Ross, and Bernie West—shortened to “NRW” by the cast and crew—got their green light by hewing as closely as possible to the basics of the original, while making everything significantly broader. The characters weren’t presented as especially smart or talented. Chrissy was “the airhead,” but Jack and Janet and the Ropers weren’t exactly geniuses. All the show’s leads were essentially simple folk, living in a dinky apartment, in proximity to an L.A. glamor that they coveted but couldn’t attain. That made them highly relatable to tens of millions of Americans, and turned Three’s Company into a significant hit when it debuted with an abbreviated six-episode season in March 1977, and then a sensation when the 25-episode season two launched the following September.

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Throughout the development process, the producers tried different combinations of female roommates, and didn’t settle on Suzanne Somers until very late in the process. But Ritter was part of the plan from the earliest stages. The son of country star Tex Ritter, the actor had been on TV since his early 20s and had developed a reputation as a masterful physical comedian (trained by improv legends Harvey Lembeck and Robin Williams), with a core of nebbishy sweetness that television audiences loved. According to Chris Mann’s 1998 book Come And Knock On Our Door: A Hers And His Guide To Three’s Company, casting agents were gaga over Ritter, convinced he was his generation’s Jack Lemmon.

Ritter himself intended to become an all-purpose thespian, capable of a dramatic range that wasn’t really explored until late in his career, before he died in 2003 at age 54. But he was also a fully committed comic, willing to sacrifice his body for a laugh. He set the tone for Three’s Company, both behind the scenes—where his graciousness to guest stars and willingness to go above and beyond during a shoot made it hard for his fellow cast and crew members to act like jerks—and in front of the camera, where his knack for funny faces and pratfalls helped Three’s Company become a much wackier show than its U.K. counterpart.

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Over the course of its eight seasons, the series relied on Ritter’s natural gifts to go full farce. A typical episode would have one character overhearing something inadvertently dirty between two other characters, and then letting that misunderstanding provoke all manner of madcap behavior, frequently involving stumbling and smacking—and all shot in as close to real time as the production could manage in front of a live studio audience, set changes permitting. Ritter’s gameness for that kind of comedy and that level of energy became the Three’s Company way.

The winkingly “accidental” smuttiness didn’t sit well with critics though, whether they were assessing Three’s Company from a cultural/aesthetic standpoint, or whether they were prudes who hated the very idea of a show about sex-obsessed youngsters of different genders living under one roof. As Mann points out in Come And Knock On Our Door, the series was ironically able to get away with a fairly progressive attitude toward homosexuality, because religious conservatives were too busy making sure that Jack didn’t wake up in an inappropriate bed. The more serious critics considered it a sad sign of the times that the taboo-busting of All In The Family and its ilk was now being taken advantage of by a show with such a stubbornly adolescent approach to human sexuality. To them, too often Three’s Company resembled Albert Brooks’ prescient parody of prurient TV in his Saturday Night Live short film about the fake sitcom, The Three Of Us.

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What critics could agree on was that Three’s Company had one of TV’s best comedy casts. DeWitt rarely got the credit she deserved for feeding straight lines to her co-stars, but even the cognoscenti loved Ritter, and the mainstream media couldn’t get enough of Somers as a model for magazine cover cheesecake photos. Meanwhile, Norman Fell and Audra Lindley were so indelible as the bickering, sexless landlords Stanley and Helen Roper that they got their own short-lived spin-off in 1979. After they left, veteran comic Don Knotts stepped in as the awkward swinger Ralph Furley, who became more of a cog in the show’s slapstick machine.

On the screen, Three’s Company clicked. Arriving at the end of a sobering decade, the fast-paced frivolity turned out to be much needed, helping the show handily win its time slot and land in the upper reaches of the Nielsen Top 10 for most of its run. The writers struggled to come up with original plots for all 172 episodes. In Come And Knock On Our Door, Mann lists more than 20 premises that were used more than once, including the roommates thinking that one of them is going to have a baby, the trio trying to hide a new pet from their landlords, and Jack being accused of sleeping with one of his friends’ relatives. But even with the most rote scripts, the core trio worked magic. Somers gave the “dumb blond” stereotype her own dippy, life-affirming spin; DeWitt came across like everyone’s sage, good-hearted older sister; Ritter turned any room and its contents into an Indiana Jones-esque chamber of booby traps.

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The cast and crew were responsible for just as much entertainment behind the scenes, thanks to clashes with Somers that spilled into the tabloids. Ritter, DeWitt, and Somers would all later say that they got along well through the first four seasons, with the media-shy DeWitt even agreeing to sit for interviews and photo shoots to boost her castmates’ careers. Heading into season five, Somers tried to leverage the popularity of her nightclub act and a standing offer from CBS for her own sitcom into a huge raise. Insisting that Three’s Company needed her more than vice versa, she asked for a boost from $30,000 per episode to $150,000 (plus profit participation). This would have kicked in clauses in DeWitt’s and Ritter’s contracts that guaranteed pay parity (plus a little more for Ritter) and thus would’ve made the show unprofitable in the short term.

The contract dispute itself didn’t bother Ritter and DeWitt as much as the way Somers tried to press the issue: by claiming she’d suffered a physical injury that made it impossible for her to work, and forcing the writers to retool on short notice, while the cast sat around fuming at the delays. After weeks of uncertainty as to whether one of their major characters should be written out of any given script, the producers decided to honor the letter if not the spirit of Somers’ contract—and placate her co-stars—by reducing Chrissy’s role in each episode to a one-minute phone conversation with Janet or Jack, shot when neither DeWitt nor Ritter were on the set.

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To pick up Somers’ slack, Jenilee Harrison briefly joined the production as Chrissy’s virginal bumpkin cousin Cindy. In season six, the too-sweet Cindy was phased out, and Priscilla Barnes moved in as Terri Alden, a more mature character who changed the atmosphere in the apartment and gave the show some new life. Three’s Company remained a monster hit through seasons six and seven. It finally ran out of gas in season eight, done in by formidable time-slot competition (in the form of NBC’s left-field sensation The A-Team) and by one of those periodic “out with the old, in with the new” sea changes in television. In a span of roughly two years, between 1982 and 1984, M*A*S*H and Archie Bunker’s Place and most of the other remaining sitcoms that had defined the ’70s were either canceled or ended their runs. During that same stretch, the best-known ’80s comedies—Cheers, The Cosby Show, etc.—debuted.

Ritter tried to keep Jack Tripper alive via the spin-off Three’s A Crowd (based on Man About The House’s own spin-off, Robin’s Nest). But the secret negotiations and machinations that the project demanded ended up driving a wedge—at least temporarily—between Ritter and DeWitt, who was hurt that she was kept in the dark and humiliated that the Three’s Company series finale was essentially a backdoor pilot for a show she hadn’t been asked to be a part of. In Come And Knock On Our Door, DeWitt says, “Treating people in insensitive, disrespectful ways in the name of moving forward is something Hollywood has a reputation for turning a blind eye to. Personally, I think it’s a habit that warrants serious review.”

Critics meanwhile, were no more impressed with Three’s A Crowd than they’d been with its predecessor. The intellectuals thought the new series stank of creative exhaustion; the moral guardians were outraged anew that Jack Tripper would now be living in actual sin with his new girlfriend.

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That half-hearted protest against unmarried lovers cohabitating on television points to another reason why Three’s Company’s time had passed: The ’80s decade, for all of its Reagan-inspired Moral Majority tongue-clucking, was filthy as hell. Between racy MTV videos, nudity-filled R-rated movies in multiplexes (and on cable), and actual porn at the corner video store, it was easier than ever for people who lived outside the immoral slime of the cities to see actual sex in their entertainment, and not just coy ribaldry.

After Three’s Company went off the air, a wave of revisionist criticism rolled in, saying that the show was actually family-friendly, especially in comparison to what followed. There’s a case to be made for that. Three’s Company was widely watched by children, who responded to the bumbling physical comedy more than the double entendres. And as the sitcom’s defenders were always quick to point out, for all their talk about sex, the characters usually slept alone. More often than not, the nutty confusions were sparked by the gang or their landlords policing each other’s potentially scandalous behavior. There was no Cheers-like “Will they or won’t they?” on Three’s Company. They just… wouldn’t.

Mann in Come And Knock On Our Door describes the series as “sexless sexiness,” and thinks it’s funny that “misunderstandings led many of the show’s critics to misunderstand the show itself.” He also quotes a 1979 Robert MacKenzie TV Guide review of The Ropers:

Small kids who watch these shows may be getting their first impression of sex: as something that makes adults nervous and giggly, that involves underwear in some way, is seldom done and never talked about seriously, but that figures somehow in the reproduction of jokes.

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But don’t be misled: The implied raunch of Three’s Company was its main selling point in 1977, and always remained a central part of what the show did every week. The dominant motif of Three’s Company is of a person on one side of a door, listening in on a conversation and imagining something XXX-rated is going on. The conversations were always chaste. The imagination? Never.