Having just written about two shows with untapped potential, which is always a rather disheartening topic, it’s somewhat refreshing to tackle a series that, by any stretch of the imagination, could never have been deemed remotely good.
Enter Blansky’s Beauties, a late addition to ABC’s lineup in 1977, co-conceived by Garry Marshall and quite possibly the worst offering to emerge from his comedy factory.
(Though, admittedly, I haven’t laid eyes on Me and the Chimp, which could potentially outdo it in terribleness.)
In its own uniquely dreadful manner, it stands as an emblematic representation of ABC’s golden era spanning from 1975 to 1979 when the once third-place network catapulted to the top, thanks to a blend of adept promotion, savvy casting choices, and, of course, the era’s hallmark “jiggle TV.”
Now, the term “jiggle TV” is one that inevitably crops up when discussing television from the 1970s, although its precise definition has often remained somewhat elusive.
It was employed to suggest that networks like ABC were pandering to the lowest and most base tastes of the audience by featuring a plethora of women in revealing attire. However, wouldn’t that description also apply just as fittingly to any episode of Star Trek or The Dean Martin Show from the 1960s?
What set the Charlie’s Angels era apart was that the women who might have once served as special guest stars or one-off characters now took on leading roles.
Additionally, the promotional departments, reinvigorated and tasked with promoting their shows more vigorously than ever before, began incorporating bikini-clad shots into as many advertisements as possible.
(Essentially, bikinis and car crashes became the foundation of ’70s promotions.) The objective of the jiggle era wasn’t necessarily to create explicitly sexy shows—indeed, as numerous critics noted, Three’s Company and Charlie’s Angels weren’t particularly steamy.
Instead, the aim was to include scenes, or even just individual shots, that could convey an impression of sensuality to the casual viewer who stumbled upon a 30-second promotional clip.
Certain producers found themselves disconcerted by the newfound prominence of ABC’s promotional department and their insistence that each episode contain something promotable.
Garry Marshall, at times, also felt constrained by this requirement, but he recognized its significance and effectiveness.
He understood that a pivotal element in turning Happy Days into a phenomenon was the episode where Fonzie jumped over garbage cans on his motorcycle, accompanied by the straightforward and easily marketable image of Fonzie in his out-of-place Evel Knievel attire.
Similarly, he grasped that Laverne and Shirley was tailor-made for this emerging promotional culture, given its slapstick comedic sequences that could be tantalizingly teased during other shows.
In the case of Blansky’s Beauties, starring Nancy Walker as a motherly figure to a group of Las Vegas showgirls, it felt like a sitcom composed entirely of elements designed to capture attention out of context.
Motorcycle stunts, choreographed dances, catchy tunes, recurring catchphrases, whimsical animals, cheeky youngsters, and, naturally, scenes featuring bikinis—all thrown together, whether they made logical sense or not, all for the sake of a viewership that, at the time, seemed less interested in intricate plots and more drawn to visually arresting components.
The notion of the viewer who merely sought “the least objectionable programming” was gradually being supplanted by a somewhat disdainful idea of the viewer as someone who would latch onto whatever appeared most sensational, regardless of whether the actual episode delivered on that promise.
It was akin to the programming equivalent of the Silver Age comic book cover theory.
The sole promotional clip I managed to locate, featuring the esteemed Ernie Anderson, renowned for his ABC voice-overs, can be found at the 6:30 mark in this video.
It offers a fairly accurate glimpse: a woman in shorts, shirtless guys, a cameo appearance by Doris Roberts, and a rather lackluster joke—all condensed into a brief 10-second snippet.
However, just as the elements within “Blansky’s Beauties” seemed haphazardly assembled, the entire show followed a similarly arbitrary trajectory. In essence, it appears to have originated primarily due to ABC’s contractual obligations to Nancy Walker.
This brings us to a significant facet of ABC’s programming strategy. During Fred Silverman’s tenure at CBS, he greatly admired the network’s ability to foster enduring relationships with iconic stars like Lucille Ball, Mary Tyler Moore, and Jack Benny—true television luminaries, individuals who might not have excelled in the realm of cinema but remained beloved fixtures in people’s homes.
In contrast, ABC lacked signature stars, prompting Silverman to embark on a quest to identify individuals with the potential for stardom and sign them to long-term contracts. Many of these talents were actors who had previously played supporting roles on CBS.
One such talent was Nancy Walker, a remarkable performer who, despite her Broadway prowess, never quite ascended to top-tier stardom. She was best recognized as Rhoda’s mother, even though Walker herself wasn’t of Jewish heritage.
ABC entered into a substantial contract with Walker, leading her to depart from her role on Rhoda after its second season to star in a show for Norman Lear on ABC titled The Nancy Walker Show, which debuted in 1976, faltered quickly, and was swiftly canceled.
However, ABC remained committed to its contract with Walker and still desired to collaborate on a project with her. Consequently, they entrusted her to their esteemed comedy producer, Garry Marshall, and requested that he craft something new.
Consequently, you had a show hastily assembled to make use of an actor who had recently faced a setback in another series and who had never truly been a marquee name in the first place.
This was arguably one of the drawbacks of Silverman’s strategy—it directed substantial financial resources and development efforts toward performers who didn’t consistently possess that undeniable star quality.
However, it did offer the network the advantage of keeping these performers out of the hands of their competitors. In this case, it impacted Rhoda negatively by sidelining Nancy Walker for a year.
For some of these actors, disappointment set in when their projects fizzled out, leading to them receiving substantial compensation for not appearing on television. For a television performer, a year off the air represented a significant setback in their career.
Rob Reiner and Ron Howard are notable examples of performers who were enlisted by Silverman and subsequently regretted the experience to the extent that they transitioned away from acting, taking charge of their own destinies by pivoting towards directing.
But back to Nancy Walker. The speed with which Blansky’s Beauties was put together—as a stop-gap substitute for her other show—may have been reflected in the way it was cast: there was a lot of “spare-parts” casting, consisting of leftovers from other shows.
Eddie Mekka, an inexplicable favorite of Marshall’s (it was his idea to use him on Laverne and Shirley, believing that this short dancer was going to be the next Fonz), played the identical cousin of his Laverne and Shirley character, living and working with his Aunt Nancy.
After a couple of episodes, Marshall’s deserved favorite Pat Morita joined, playing Arnold from Happy Days. You see, Morita had left Happy Days to star in his own show, Mr. T and Tina, only that show bombed, and he couldn’t go back to Happy Days because Al Molinaro had replaced him.
So Arnold became part of this show instead. Oh, and Mr. T and Tina had nothing to do with Mr. T. All very confusing.
An intriguing casting twist that was initially in the works but didn’t come to fruition involved Roz Kelly, set to portray Pinky Tuscadero from Happy Days.
Also Read: Team Up Review: Felicity, “Finally”
As aficionados of television history may already know, the tale goes that Kelly was a favored figure at ABC, initially intended to become a regular on Happy Days.
However, her stint on the show was cut short after just a three-episode arc, as the rest of the cast reportedly found her intolerable.
The plan was for her character to be transitioned to this new show, but Pinky Tuscadero only made a brief appearance in the pilot episode and subsequently vanished.
(As an aside, it’s worth noting that the pilot, directed by Marshall himself, was shot in the single-camera format; a studio audience was introduced for the remainder of the series.
This accomplishment solidified Marshall’s status as the undisputed record holder for shows that made the transition from single-camera to multi-camera production, a record that seems unlikely to be surpassed by anyone in the future.)
The full details of what transpired will presumably be unveiled when we finally have the opportunity to peruse Confessions of a Pinkette: The True Story of Pinky Tuscadero, a long-anticipated account of the events.
The connection to Happy Days raises one of the reasons why this show lingers in memory. Prior to its launch, Nancy Blansky made an appearance on a Happy Days episode—specifically, on a clip show, ensuring that no valuable episode time was squandered.
This was a prime example of the shameless cross-promotion that television was renowned for during this era.
Another instance of this occurred a few weeks into the show’s run when we were treated to an entire episode revolving around Nancy’s encounter with Laverne from Laverne & Shirley (Shirley was notably absent, likely because a member of the Marshall clan didn’t portray her and thus didn’t owe any favors that Garry could call upon).
When it comes to Blansky’s Beauties, people typically raise two questions: 1) Does it qualify as a Happy Days spin-off, even though it wasn’t originally conceived as such? 2) When does it take place?
This show exists within the Happy Days universe but doesn’t seem to align with the 1950s, 1970s, or any discernible time period, for that matter.
The writing and acting on this show are poor, even from good actors like Caren Kaye, because the scripts are so bad.
The only way to get through an episode is to keep track of how many times the writers try to create catchphrases and run gags.
Marshall’s writing for this show is heavily influenced by his work on The Lucy Show, where the female lead is often in wacky situations that require her to come up with zany schemes to fix them. Nancy is essentially a wiser, more sensible version of Lucy Ricardo.
Like Lucy, Nancy is often put in uncomfortable physical positions, such as running in and out of doors or wearing silly costumes.
And then, naturally, in an attempt to inject some warmth into Walker’s character (who wasn’t known for exuding a lot of warmth), there were those “heartfelt” moments where the characters formed connections, often accompanied by sentimental string music.
But, truth be told, none of it managed to hit the mark. The only element that somewhat clicked was a recurring joke featuring Garry Marshall himself portraying the casino’s enforcer, aptly named “Mr. Smith.”
He remained silent but effectively intimidated the other characters, with a subtle implication that he had ties to the mafia and a potentially murderous background. It was dark enough to elicit a chuckle once or twice.
However, this being a Garry Marshall production that didn’t quite take off, he proceeded to overuse the gag within the mere span of 13 episodes.
Oh, and let’s not forget the obligatory theme song, courtesy of Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel, the maestros of ’70s television’s all-encompassing, multi-generational pop sound.
Speaking of running ideas into the ground—another noteworthy aspect of Blansky’s Beauties was the unwavering commitment of both Garry Marshall and Fred Silverman to the series.
They believed there was potential in the concept, albeit not with Nancy Walker, who returned to her role on Rhoda where she rightfully belonged.
However, they saw promise in the two showgirls who shared the screen with Walker, Kaye and Lynda Goodfriend, as well as in Scott Baio, the wisecracking kid, whom they liked enough to reassign to Happy Days as a slightly different wisecracking character.
When Silverman assumed leadership at NBC, one of his initial moves was to greenlight a new iteration of this show. It featured Kaye and Goodfriend as alluring showgirls sharing a living space while striving to make it in the bustling city, with Baio thrown into the mix with some role or another.
This revamped version was titled Legs. However, when NBC decided to pick it up as a series, they requested that Marshall dial down the risqué elements and incorporate more male characters, including a young Jim Belushi.
Consequently, they ended up with a family-oriented show called Who’s Watching the Kids?
This particular incarnation of the show is now primarily remembered for its dreadful theme song and remains a piece of television history cherished by those with an affinity for the Hello Larry/Supertrain era of NBC.
The transition from a provocative farce centered around showgirls to a show bearing the word “kids” in its title signaled the waning of the jiggle era and the onset of a more wholesome period in broadcast TV.
The 1980s would emerge as a comparatively genteel and decorous era for the three major networks, thwarting the efforts of various executives, including Silverman and Brandon Tartikoff, to resurrect jiggle-oriented shows.
Jiggle TV became somewhat obsolete due to the rise of cable networks, which operated outside the confines of FCC regulations. Consequently, promotional tactics were subtly dialed down, favoring a softer, less overt approach.
Shows like Blansky’s Beauties now serve primarily as reminders of a bygone era when ABC shows would go to great lengths for the sake of compelling promos.
It’s one of those instances where it appears the creators invested most of their energy into crafting materials for promotion and somewhat neglected the actual content of the show.
In its own peculiar way, nothing quite epitomizes the extravagances of 1970s television quite like that.